Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Monthly Archives: April 2011
I hope that all the whinging “beautiful football” people bothered to tune in to the Europa League to see a very entertaining game between Porto and Villareal (at the Estádio do Dragão) which ended in a six goal orgy. If not, it’s OK, they are forgiven for missing it, I do understand that the marketing of the “beautiful game” does not encompass such lowly sides from the South of Europe, so feel free to catch the highlights here.
Despite being down 1 goal just before half time, Porto staged a very convincing comeback with striker Falcao netting 4 goals on the night, 1 penalty, 1 short distance slot in, and 2 magnificent headers. This third highly impressive performance by the Colombian striker (he already scored 3 against Spartak Moscow earlier in April at home, and 3 against Rapid Wien away back in December) will surely see his name popping up on cash rich managers’ summer shopping lists, as will probably Hulk’s, who did not score tonight but provided one assist and has otherwise enjoyed a great season. Hopefully for them they (or their agents) will know better than to succumb to Steve Bruce’s or Alan Pardew’s swan songs.
Undoubtedly I also now expect the pro-Barça or joga bonito leaning hacks to opportunistically raise the stock of André Villa-Boas (the “little José”) to stratospheric levels in typically simplistic and infantile juxtaposition to his mentor. The man definitely does deserve props for what he has achieved as Porto have literally obliterated all local opposition this year and will probably emerge as the favorites for the final, so don’t get me wrong; but I’m certain it won’t even be another 48 hours before we’ll be subjected to more of the same kind of cheap and patronising trite drivel as uttered by the two stooges on Channel 5 (one of which was a most infuriating Scotsman that seems to be such an unavoidable staple of football on British TV) masquerading as football philosophy, to further castigate Mourinho and score brownie points with all other respectable aficionados. The best illustration of these people’s ignorance and baseness was the statement that André Villa-Boas “should be – no disrespect to Porto – looking for a job at one of Europe’s big clubs”. Maybe someone should inform them that in the last decade Porto won both a Champions League and a UEFA Cup, a feat that only one so called “English” club can match: Liverpool. But then that Porto side was coached by a guy called José Mourinho and you see, it’s not very fashionable to be supporting him… or at least not until he wins something else again.
Anyway, mega props to Portuguese football for fielding 3 clubs in the semis (and especially Braga for making it through so many rounds and persevering after a fairly grueling Champions League group stage), and for heading for what seems likely to be a spicy all-Portuguese final.
Prince O from Subfoot.com has brought to my attention something of a pattern that has emerged in recent years and that seems to occur in situations when Barça are in difficulty: they get a little helping hand from the ref. Typically this takes the form of a red card against their opponents, which in turn produces not only numerical advantage but also doubt and probably at least some disorganisation in the opponents’ initial game plan. This is the case generally and though I have not trawled through the Liga results, it was certainly true recently against Arsenal, as it was in the final in 2006. But it is especially true in the case of games played by the Catalans against José Mourinho’s teams. It was so in Camp Nou in the 2004-2005 season against a rising Chelsea side coached by the newly anointed Special One, as Drogba saw red on the 56th minute. It happened again last year in the semi-final return game against Inter at the Camp Nou. following some fine acting by Busquets. And it happened once again the Saturday before last at the Bernabeu when Albiol got expelled too.
And what do you know? Once again tonight, just as the blaugranas seemed in difficulty at the beginning of the 2nd half, fumbling their passes like their opponents usually do when intimidated by their aura, they got their usual helpful prop to see them on their way to victory as Stark took out the most important man for Real Madrid, Pepe. Interesting coincidence, that: so, I’m not paranoid, but…
Convincing results for a number of favorite teams, and notably:
Calcio: Inter win at home (watch video highlights here) – following a convincing display on Tuesday at the Olimpico against Roma (0-1 victory for the black & blue in the 1st leg of the cup semi-final), it was always going to be tough to follow-up with another strong performance. And indeed it was not easy nor particularly graceful, but the result is there again: thanks to its character and resourcefulness, and aided a bit by the terrible state of the pitch (for once, though it has potentially cost us many points and also again Dejan Stankovic for another injury), Inter took all three points from a decisive confrontation with direct rivals Lazio. Down 1 goal and reduced to 10 men after yet another one of Morganti’s special favours that he mainly reserves for Inter – namely the red card for Julio César resulting in a penalty converted by Zarate – Inter seemed in a bad shape. But thanks to Wesley Sneijder’s free kick before half time and despite being one man down, the nerazzuri sourced serenity and skill from their deep stock of character and took the lead again through some cool finishing by Samuel Eto’o. Thought there were some close shaves in the 2nd half (Zarate going wide and/or hitting the crossbar on a couple of occasions), Leonardo’s squad were finally able to claim another important victory that sees them go second following Napoli’s second defeat in a row at resurgent Palermo (watch video highlights). Milan, meanwhile, maintained a clean sheet and grabbed a goal for another 3 points from Brescia.
La Liga: Sevilla win at home against fourth placed Villareal – initially knocked out by two quick punches in the 1st half (Rakitic free kick and another sumptuous goal by Negredo – see approx. on 13 seconds on this video highlight), the yellow sub marines (cheap pun intended) looked the more dangerous of the two outfits in the 2nd half. Subs Rossi and Cani both added potentcy in construction and Villareal came close on several occasions as Sevilla’s defense looked increasingly like its usual shabby self as the game went on. However, one important mistake allowed Sevilla to stretch their lead to 3-1 (Romaric) and despite Villareal pulling one back through Marchena, they ultimately held on to that one goal lead to claim 3 important points for a possible European place. It was not a pretty sight by any stretch, and by comparison the Barça-Real game on Tuesday way poetry compared to what went on (notably the new “ball-throwers” scandal which will undoubtedly go on for a few days despite condemnations by the president Del Nido and the coach Manzano). As noted earlier, Real Madrid won at Mestalla 6-3 against Valencia while Barcelona also got their 3 points away against Osasuna, winning 2-0. Atletico Bilbao is also doing quite well in 5th place thanks to claiming victory against local rivals Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Notable results / news from other championships:
- EPL: it’s always a delight to see Arsenal lose, and while Liverpool returned to winning ways with an emphatic win over Birmingham City, Man U squeezed out another minimalist but actually deserved win (given the number of opportunities created) at the expense of Everton. Chelsea meanwhile (as reported in a previous article) managed 3 against West Ham (goals and points). As Wigan and Wolves also lost, the relegation battle is looking as bitter and tight as ever, and it seems that it will go down to the last game.
- Ligue 1: Lille dropped two more points away at Lorient. Nobody has benefited yet as PSG also dropped 2 and Rennes stumbled on a surprisingly resilient Monaco who are now out of relegation zone. Marseille can go top of the table if they win the southern derby at home against Nice, while Lyon will also be looking upwards with more hope as they receive a disappointed Montpellier looking for a rebound after defeat in the Ligue Cup final on Saturday (against Marseille). Props to Didier Deschamps for confirming with another title.
While visiting the Centre de la Vallée de la Jeunesse in Lausanne yesterday with the kids (by the way, excellent interactive exhibition on the brain, for all my readers with offspring to entertain), I couldn’t help but notice the following interesting accessory in the men’s (literally). Though this amusing addition to an otherwise perfunctory task could be seen as adding another dimension to the legendary self-professed exploits of Humpty Hump in BK’s facilities, please let there be no scandalous confusion when I say that I scored.
The most fanatical club supporters of some of their main rivals aside, Barça is today universally held to be the best club team in the world. The sextuple title season in 2009 was the standout but perhaps more remarkably the consistency of results since then (if viewed from a short term perspective) and, from a long-term perspective, the achievements over the last 8 years (2 Champions League titles, 4 Ligas, 1 Cup and 4 Super Cups) all significantly exceed previous records from an all-European perspective.
There are several reasons for that, including the oft-discussed technical and physical quality of Barça’s players, but most important of all is the stability. Unlike Real Madrid, which has been plagued by endemic instability at all levels (president & senior management, technical staff, coach and players), Barça has consolidated a robust framework that has provided the platform for the current success, consisting in my view of three main factors:
1. Talent development: the youth training academy, where the current generation of players like Iniesta, Valdés and Messi were able to flourish and develop their individual skills as well as collective bond, is perhaps amongst the world’s best. But let’s not also forget astute recruitment: Messi himself was somewhat luckily (by his own admission) snapped up the early age of 13 by Carles Rexach; Villa’s recruitment from Valencia this year helped to cancel out the Ibrahimovic exception to the rule, while other past acquisitions of proven players such as Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Adriano (all from Sevilla incidentally), have added depth and class to the squad.
2. Management stability: only two coaches in the last 8 years, first Frank Rijkaard (from 2003-2008) and since then Pep Guardiola, against the backdrop of a stable presidency of Joan Laporta, certainly help to steer the ship in one direction. Not as stable as some, but by Madrid’s standards, that is nothing short of extraterrestrial stability.
3. Guiding principles: Perhaps most importantly, Barça’s strong club culture, built upon its specific Catalan identity), has its expression of a certain vision of play and general philosophy, perhaps best embodied by that Khadafi-like non-elect demi-deity that is Johan Cruyff. Apparently it was he who suggested to Laporta to appoint Guardiola instead of a big-name coach. By virtue of his personal player credentials as well as managerial successes with the club (11 titles: 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 Leagues, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Super Cup and 3 Spanish Super Cups) Cruyff bestows upon Barça that air of timeless aristocratic confidence and entitlement to greatness that many other clubs wish they had – and he makes sure that others don’t forget it.
For all of the above reasons, it is a significant achievement and an especially delightful one (for myself and many others) that José Mourinho has already been able to deny this Barça team an important title, whose symbolic value has been rendered even greater by the continuing rivalry that exists between the Portuguese coach and the Catalan outfit. And it is indeed delightful due to the mistiming of Barça’s most titled coach deriding the current Real Madrid coach for being “merely” a “coach of titles and not a coach of football (following the 1-1 tie in the Bernabeu last Saturday on April 16). As many times in the past, the result (“the finger” was sufficient to defeat Barça, no “manita” needed) and José’s perfectly simple retort (watch video) will have El Flaco wishing he had kept his big mouth shut.
Another legend that probably now wishes he had done the same is none other than Madrid’s own Alfredo di Stefano, who was openly critical of Mourinho’s game plan in the Liga game at the Bernabeu preceeding the cup final. As Phil Ball from ESPN points out quite well, what di Stefano, Barça and pretty much everyone failed to see is that the formation and strategy deployed by Madrid in the 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu was a deliberate choice by Mourinho. Its success in containing the blaugranas gave him enough supporting evidence to extend it into a more attack-minded version the second time around in the cup. Barcelona failed to cope with either version. No surprise that not much has been heard from the 85-year old since then, and that only muted embarrassed approval was forthcoming from Valdano, another nemesis lurking in the backstage and scheming against the Portuguese but whose time at the club is probably soon coming to an end.
The shallowness of these two outbursts, the embarrassing tirade by di Stefano and Cruyff’s half-hearted snipe, is reinforced by a fact that any football specialist should be able to recognize, and that is that skilled football is not defined by any particular set of skills, but a balance of many. As the first incarnation of the galacticos at the turn of the century quickly learnt through defeat, Barcelona is only as successful as it is because it has an excellent defense (best of the main European championships this season <1>: only 17 goals taken in) and surreal-like pressing and ball recovery capabilities, which are key to allowing it to enjoy as much ball possession. At the other end of the spectrum, Real Madrid beat Valencia 6-3, away at the Mestalla, by playing some rather attractive football punctuated by numerous and spectacular goals, including this beauty by Kaka. The simplistic juxtaposition of “an all-attacking Barça” versus “a defensively pragmatic Real Madrid” is clearly only appealing to those who choose to disregard the facts.
Irrespective of what happens on Wednesday in the Champions League and thereafter, hopefully Madrid fans and management have now really understood (although it is not necessarily this writer’s wish), that which their own bizarre mindset and identity prevent them from grasping fully, which is that José can and will deliver more, but that he needs more time in order to reinforce the structure and mentality of his team in order to restore a modicum of stability comparable to that enjoyed by Barcelona. As was the case at Inter, with a little more influence on the composition of the squad and by building on the achievements accomplished this year, it is probably next season that could prove to be a decisive turning point in the club’s fortunes.
<1> Interestingly, Borussia Dortmund are a close second with only 19 goals in the Bundesliga so far, followed by Milan AC in 3rd place with 23.
As if responding to the barrage of criticism (including from the AJB) following their miserable ousting from the Champions League at the hands of Man U (see previous post), the Blues seem to be on the mend with a couple of strong performances in the EPL. To ice the cake, even Fernando has finally managed to break his cherry for the Blues in front of the ecstatic home faithful on Saturday. What could be the explanation for this apparently impossible turnaround, which now sees the Blues in 2nd place and still within reach of the reds? Carlo’s usual touchline expression of mild bemusement and bewilderment, will not provide any clues. A clue might be found in the following pieces of information:
Many (and notably WSC, who brought these to our attention), did not know what to make of these fruitylicious photos of Chelsea’s senior players. Though Chelsea’s official match programme begged to disagree, indeed both John Terry and Frank Lampard do look ridiculous; unforgiving sports critics might even also point out that it’s been a while that they’ve seen Lampard jump that high on the pitch. Apparently commissioned for an issue of GQ and organized with the club’s official taylor Dolce & Gabbana (aren’t you glad to know that they actually have an official club taylor), certainly these are highly suggestive of a dolce vita lifestyle, but then again this should be no surprise to anybody.
However, upon discovering LeShop’s new paper bag design, a potential new and unexpected explanation dawns. Love gives you wings, according to the popular saying or something along those lines. And as we realised (thanks to Google translate) that “Endlich mehr Zeit zum Herumtollen mit Terry” means “At last more time to fool around with Terry”, suddenly that pathetic CL elimination takes on a whole new light. Now all that is missing is a George Michael tribute to the Blues lovebirds.
No one should be particularly surprised about Chelsea’s nth elimination from the quarter finals of the Champions League. Even a cursory analysis of their performance at Stamford Bridge during the 1st leg of the fixture against Manchester United would be enough for most punters to conclude they did not have many chances of making it through.
However, unlike for some other clubs covered in these pages, Chelsea’s issues are actually profound and significant. Ever since the abrupt and unexplained dismissal of assistant coach Ray Wilkins last November (apparently due to his challenging the owner’s impromptu feedback session after a defeat), the collective quality and hunger of this supposedly effortlessly winning team has consistently and significantly dropped, only to be further exacerbated by the arrival of the undesirable arch-rival Torres. It was very obvious to any observer at Stamford Bridge last week that the Spaniard is a complete outsider to the squad. Despite a relatively industrious work ethic and the procurement of a few biting chance (like the header which forced a great save from Van der Saar in the 2nd half), the former most promising young Spanish talent seems a faint shadow of his former self. Importantly, all that shoulder shrugging, mistimed racing and generally perplexed facial expression indicate that he does not appear to be in sync with his teammates who generally seem to regard him with as much affection as a bride’s spy gatecrashing a bachelor party (spiteful tongues might hasten to specify that the bachelors in question are rather old). Has he already contracted Shevashentitis at such an early age? It was not yet suspected of being contagious.
Unfortunately, as was evidenced by the recurring agonizing cringe sequences experienced by the Blues’ faithful during the 1st half of the Stamford Bridge leg, the problems are more fundamental. With barely an opponent in sight, Chelsea’s players were frequently unable to effectively sequence simple one-two exchanges, let alone mount any kind of serious assault on Man U’s defenses. Other than getting very upset at the referee for supposedly unfair decisions, there was very little genuinely inspired and focused effort dispensed, so much so that throw-ins would often take several tens of seconds to execute, such was the lack of players seeking the ball.
One might be tempted to explain that by laying the blame on Ancelotti for picking a somewhat unusual squad, with the inclusion of the extremely underwhelming Bosingwa and totally disoriented Zhirkov who UEFA Cup heroics now seem a very distant memory. Chelsea’s 2nd leg performance, of a slightly better caliber and with a classic Drogba goal, lends some credibility to this theory. However, closer inspection of the lack of attacking spark and above all genuine commitment to the collective cause suggests a team at the end of a cycle. One had just to catch a glimpse of Salomon Kalou’s face as he was waiting for Anelka to crawl off the pitch: I would expect to find more enthusiastic marines for cleaning out the plastic toilet boxes in the Iraqi desert.
At this stage of the discussion, the standard analysis by the attendant TSR (1) consultant recruited from the nearest local bar will inevitably highlight the presence of too many stars within the Chelsea squad, the supposed problem of “big egos” and top of this amazing insight with the habitual singing of praises of old timers Giggs & Scholes on the other side (2). While the above analysis did evidence a group of players mechanically going through the motions, it is most certainly too early to write off some if not all of them, just as it was too easy for the French media to write off Patrice Evra who is possibly having one of his best club seasons ever. Aafter all let’s not forget that Chelsea won two titles last year, and the likes of Ramires, Essien or even John Terry, who plied his usual trade rather effectively across both legs, still have great potential.
And yet, it is perhaps time to move on. But not for the reasons supposed by most. And in fact therein lies the main challenge – how does one do that with a club whose management structure is inherently short-term oriented and dysfunctional? The fundamental problem, as illustrated by the club’s recent history, is that of a team’s (coach and players) collective coherence slowly and surely eroded by the constant and generally incompetent meddling by senior management (and not just the owner) in the sporting affairs of the team.
Roman should not be surprised that many fans are dreaming about the return of José to Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately – with this management in place – they can keep on dreaming.
(1) Television Suisse Romande
(2) If you’re in luck, you might even get a reminder of the French team’s “mutiny” against Domenech last summer at the World Cup in South Africa
To paraphrase that much revered sage that was Bill Shankly, why is football so much more important than life and death? Because in a totally irresponsible and careless way we commit our emotions to something which is totally out of our control, that is 11 lads (or usually less if it’s Inter) running after a ball aiming to take it and keep it away from another 11, both groups of which ultimately want to put it in the back of the other ones’ net. Sometimes that will yield incredibly exhilarating outcomes, putting the kind of wind in our sails that defies earthly laws; at other times, it will sink us to the bottom of our self confidence and morale.
For Inter fans (of which I am one), but also all the Inter haters (of which there are many, in Italy and beyond, most of which don’t have the courage to declare themselves openly as such), this week has seemingly stretched the depths of the latter. The double whammy of a scoreless defeat to Milan in the derby, followed by an even more humiliating drubbing by Champions League first timers Schalke 04, is threatening to put a serious stop to Inter’s confidence and ambitions.
But should we really doubt? Should this moment of doubt and contextual underperformance really rock the foundations of the renaissance of the dream that goes by the name of Leomuntada?
For sure, all is not well in the Inter camp: the last two games have highlighted again the importance of that key quality that the enemies of Inter often point to with feigned outrage as the “joga feio”: defensive robustness. The 7 goals leaked in the last 2 games have indeed exposed a recurring theme of this season, underscored by injuries, that of a certain (i.e. occasional) frailty in Inter’s defense. For these last two games, this should not really be so surprising to any informed observers of the game. Lucio, the current remaining (functioning) pillar of the nerazzurre defense from last season (the other one being Samuel), was absent from both games due to suspension, and a significant portion of the team was fatigued from its international duty commitments. Not as much could be said for either Milan’s or Schalke’s squads.
This is not to take any credit away from the performance of these opponents as indeed congratulations are in order, and especially for Schalke who exhibited the same kind of steel and composure at San Siro as Inter had done in the Allianz Arena two weeks before that. The aim is rather to highlight the specific current main challenging area for Leonardo’s team. The paradox illustrated by the two games that seems to escape most of the critics is that Inter – in terms of the features of its football system – has slipped not because of its supposed main and only quality (i.e. defensive and collective solidity) but rather due to its relative absence, at least in relation to its two winning opponents. If Milan is doing so well this season, it is not so much because of its attacking flair: true they have scored 54 goals so far, but both Inter and Udinese better that with 56 goals so far, and Napoli is not far off with 50. What is distinguishing Milan this season is their defensive strength, as exemplified by the lowest total of goals conceded at 22, 7 less than the next best Lazio who currently has taken in 29. The point is equally demonstrable on the flip side of the coin, namely the attacking front, as Milan failed to score against Tottenham Spurs over 180 minutes and has therefore found itself out of Europe once again. Inter, on the other hand, scored two brilliant goals on Tuesday, one of which may end up as one of the most spectacular goals of the season (Barça’s second goal against Shakhtar Donetsk, by Daniel Alves, being quite impressive too, by its audacity and elegance of execution).
So this opera is far from over. What the champions must now do is regain their composure at the back and recreate the collective spirit of Nou Camp last April in tandem with the one that enabled them to put 4 past Milan on August 29, 2009. This challenge starts tomorrow against Chievo. For more inspiration, the nerazzurre (and their fans) can help themselves by watching recordings of that inspirational performance, or that of Deportivo la Coruna in April 2004 who scored as many against Milan in the second leg of the Champions League quarter final to see them out of the competition. After all, isn’t Schalke actually called Schalke 04? If that isn’t destiny calling, I don’t know what is.
Initially I was planning to wax lyrical about how Leonardo has been a major contributor and certainly a guiding inspiration for team’s rebound from the profound collective and personal malaise instilled by the faceless and profoundly antihuman régime of the goateed fatso from Anfield. On second thoughts (and I have had time to reflect since Tuesday), I do not feel the need to do that. Just as in January when they had to pick themselves up, these are the defining moments of champions DNA – finding the conviction and the resilience in the face of adversity. And we relish at that. Bring it on.