Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
It is very ambitious to hope to achieve the treble or even the double over consecutive years. For sure, this was not the greatest year for Inter Milan. The 2009-2010 season was it, and it has put the bar very high in terms of titles, incredible feats, valor, spirit and emotional ups and downs. How could one compete with that?
And yet they have done it. Like the Bride did to Budd, the nerazzurri’s cup win at the Stadio Olimpico last night (against Palermo) once again demonstrated to those who had hoped to bury this squad and be done with it (and notably certain people with a heavy spanish accent with a silly goatee to match) that they had another coming. One would have thought that the comeback against Bayern would have imprinted that clearly in most minds, but where there is a numbness of the will, there will be a way for bad faith. It does not matter to the fans though. That was a unique night for the fans, emotionally uplifting and up there with the greatest moments of 2009-2010. Even just for that, we are grateful.
Sunday night was also special and beautiful not only for the win, punctuated by yet another imperious performance by Eto’o and a glorious return to scoring ways for Diego! Alberto! Miiliitooo!, but also for a great game of two teams who both wanted the title and where the outcome hung in the balance until the dying minutes when El Principe sealed the win for the nerazzurris with a delicious tap-in from a well worked Pandev cross. Unlike the slaughter on Saturday night, which may have appeared deceptively balanced to some due to the Man U’s goal in 1st half, this was a true contest, with a bold and entrepreneurial Palermo side that refused to back down and who fought for it until the very end, thereby still giving their fans pride and joy even in defeat.
That performance was not missed on any who had observed it including Inter’s players, who quickly opened their arms to their opponents on the night for moral support and recognition, which was reciprocated in an emotional show of passion and respect that was glaring in omission on Saturday. This was a men’s moment, one which is not accessible to a bunch of emotionally undeveloped brats for whom winning is now an obvious entitlement, and for whom fair play and exchanging respect are perfunctory elements of protocol learned in school, performed with a cold heart of ones who have yet to experience major disillusionment. But it will come, don’t worry.
So now it is hopefully clear to all that Inter is not a squad that will give up the ghost easy. While most if not all of the talk in offices today was of Barça’s smothering of Manchester United, yet Inter again claimed center stage in Italy with this powerful and emotional win, undeterred by the chorus of the soft consensus around Europe’s new champions. And why should they be intimidated? With the lion king Samueeel Eto’ooo (grazie Recalcati) at the helm, the blue and black are still champions of the world, at least until November. And with the kind of performances that his teammates Milito, Pandev, Julio Cesar, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder, Chivu, Nagatomo and last but not least il capitano Javier Zanetti also put in, sprinting down the right wing at the end of the game like a fresh kid just subbed on from the bench, I think they have every right to want to claim it back very soon.
As Leonardo has himself framed it so well (watch here), the end of period accounts don’t look so bad after all: 1 Super Cup (won against Roma), 1 Clubs’ World Champion Cup, and to top it off, another Italian Cup. It is a mini tris of sorts, indeed. Joking apart, it demonstrates the extent to which this squad was committed to building on the successes of last year, not content to kick back and rest on its laurels. If you add to that a solid 2nd spot in the calcio as well as an exit in quarter finals of the Champions League, there isn’t many clubs who wouldn’t sign for such a season. Ask Arsène Wenger to start with, or Carlo Ancelotti for that matter, not to mention the Juve.
And if you didn’t quite get that point, think about the striking comparison with Palermo. Of course, the southerners had never won any title, so for them to be even present in the final in Rome was an achievement in of itself. Maybe the English press can convince itself that the same applies of Manchester’s showing in the final. That’s OK if low horizons is your cup of tea, my chummy chums. But the black and blue dreamed to achieve more: and the dream goes on.
More predictable than a rant by a bunch of old ladies’ waiting for a late bus, the wave of moral outrage at José Mourinho’s declarations (at the press conference after the Bernabeu leg of the Real Madrid-Barcelona Champions League semi-final fixture) just keeps on swelling. You thought you had seen it all after Rooney’s cussing at the camera (at the away game against West Ham United) led to hordes of eager liberal journalists being dispatched up and down the UK on a hunt for children whose tender and vulnerable psyches’ had been forever maimed by such an unbridled display of vulgarity. That was just a green salad appetizer for the big bloody meat dish that is on display now.
Indeed, following José’s expression of frustration at losing the game after going down to ten men for the fourth time in his career against the club where his career began, certain sections of the press have rushed in to voice their profound indignation at the Portuguese coach’s statements. One such poignant example is that offered by Simon Barnes, Chief Sports Writer at The Times, who dedicated a whole article to the matter in his column on Friday April 29th. In grandiloquent prose normally reserved for Sunday sermons or the prosecution’s closing statement at a Hague war crimes tribunal hearing, Barnes proceeds to paint the world in black & white with José in the role of the leading baddie. The Portuguese has not just gone one step too far: he is, according to Barnes, both Saddam-level crazy as well as truly evil and should be excommunicated from the civilized world.
What is amazing about this article (1) is that it is actually only scantly related to football. It barely mentions anything connected with football other than the obligatory reference to UEFA, the two clubs, granddaddy Ferguson and of course that famed predecessor and supposed spiritual father figure Brian Clough. Its main bone of contention and source of outrage is that “Mourinho blamed the defeat on the United Nations children charity, an organization that is more concerned with getting supplies to Libya and Ivory Coast than the question of who a bladder into a net more times on a balmy evening in Spain“. The writer then proceeds to develop a truly bizarre diatribe from this conclusion and reading on, one would be forgiven for thinking that the article is about the discovery of concentration camps in one of Africa’s current battlefields and/or another supposed genocide that the West should rapidly intervene in by deploying ground troops and missile strikes.
Three interesting things can be deduced from this article and in particular from this one key phrase above. First of all, that in order to have so completely misconstrued José’s cheeky and rhetoric questions, Simon Barnes either relies on extraordinarily poor translation services or is himself completely barmy. Secondly, that he is clearly using this situation as a platform for making his case for a bit of a promotion: it is clear from his offering that he would indeed be far happier in the role of chief political columnist or foreign affairs editor, or something of the sort, that would allow him to grandstand and showcase his excellent moral fibre and moving verse to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the article is proof that José’s comments are more pertinent than ever, precisely because they have touched upon the raw nerve of an elaborate and wide-reaching yet fragile general consensus that has formed around Barcelona football club in recent years.
By questioning the current near-universal legitimacy of Barça as the perennial “nice guys” and brand owners of “beautiful football” who can do no wrong, José has stirred up a much bigger hornets’ nest than merely that of protocol in European club football competitions. He has dared to question the symbolic status of Barça as the current universal darlings of football, a view that is interestingly today probably held to more passionately by those who are by and large outsiders to or only casual observers of the world of football like Simon Barnes (2).
This is because Barça have indeed come to represent something special in the modern game through their particular brand of identity that combines the following unique strands:
1. Exceptional individual and collective skill (there is no doubt about that), but this is actually the least important of the three – though it is certainly a necessary basis to be added to the next two key differentiators.
2. The (apparent) role of the victim, extracted from the association with the Catalans’ frustrated aspirations for independence, is perfectly fitted to the spirit of our age where being a victim commands the highest level of moral legitimacy. This is cleverly disguised too, since the sums Barça spend on their transfer signings are by no means small and an only slightly more careful analysis would clearly replace them in their real role as the other (with Real Madrid) pariah of Spanish football. Albeit actually used only opportunistically by the club, the peculiar parochial identity kit serving as the victim costume has been made palatable to a wider audience by a cosmopolitan veneer provided by the city’s and club’s European dimension, and notably – linked to the latter – the Dutch connection, that other beacon of enlightenment. This is a key feature that sets Barça apart from other similar clubs such as the Basque club of Atletico Bilbao, that goes much further with its identity-based approach to recruitment and as a result would clearly never fit the bill for the same kind of pan-bourgeois respectability.
3. The image of general nice guys (like Iniesta and Xavi), diametrically opposed to that of typical football heroes such as Maradona (general all-round druggie bandit with communist leanings to top it off) or Rooney (working class ogre); the latter are typically highly unacceptable to the middle classes and right thinking elites for their lowly origins, overall arrogance (of skill in their trade or sheer bravado) and excessive material wealth acquired too quickly and, as far as the elites are concerned, too easily. This is where the UNICEF logo comes in as an all-important proof of concept of the club’s moral high ground, as if eschewing base earthly material concerns.
The defenders of this image of Barça are all the more rabid and excited these days because, in the style of self-elected elites, they actually have difficulty dealing with others questioning their worldview and would generally prefer to resort to censorship based on the claim of moral outrage. But deep down they cannot completely disregard a growing awareness of the excessive exaggeration and dramatization (by their chosen symbols) on the pitch, which has been highlighted in previous important games in the current and previous recent seasons. The British football press themselves had their own little anti-Barça shout first with Chelsea’s elimination in 2009 and then once more earlier this year over Van Persie’s red card, but again this was mainly expressed within the football world: the “outsiders” were on balance still busy at work justifying Barça’s victories for their general greater uprightness, especially versus those nouveaux riches Chelsea (3).
What especially worries the defenders of the Barça myth is the possibility of their newly found shining symbol being sullied like its predecessors. In England, this recently came to fore with Thierry Henry’s “dirty hand” that not only decided in favour of France’s qualification to South Africa at the expense of the Irish, but also proved to be the undoing of many years of construction of a similar angelic myth formed around Wenger’s ideals and establishment favourites Arsenal, and which the French player was a key ambassador for. Delicious proof that these people are prepared to sink to extraordinary depths of contradiction was provided by none other than Wenger himself who, having railed at UEFA following Arsenal’s frustrating elimination from the competition and been officially charged for that rant, still proceeded to give Mournho a lecture on being a good loser without a hint of any self-awareness.
Hence it is clearly completely unacceptable that a representative of the garlic belt should have the temerity to suggest that anything improper has taken place, titled as he may be. Mourinho might even consider himself fortunate that no children were present to hear his statements and that the latest episode of the Osama Bin Laden show aired only after Simon Barnes published his article, short of which the latter might have invited the CIA to prioritise a new target.
(1) If you want a copy, let me know – send me your e-mail and I can forward.
(2) He apparently prefers bird watching and is “not an avid sports fan” – see link as well as his wiki post.
(3) It was a telling sign of the connection between these two clubs in the construction of the “new football ideal” that, despite Arsenal being resoundingly humiliated in play as well as through the unfair unfavourable refereeing decision, English journalists continued to try to emphasize the proximity in style of play – and therefore stature – between the two clubs.
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…
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.
Is it a dream? Is it possible? My heart’s pace has not yet slowed down (and that’s not only because I was doing fitness biking during the game). Such comebacks are the stuff of legends. But could it be that a so called moribund catenaccio-only Italian team (and worse of all, that of José Mourinho), that pertaining to the supposedly declining Italian football as it is so common to hear nowdays (be it from the ever provocative Kaiser before the game, a nameless journalist in Le Temps or even from friends on Facebook), is capable of producing such drama and character?
It may be the Brescians who are of the Leonessa but even they won’t tonight deny that the lion’s heart was all black and blue tonight. The team that José built and that Leonardo is carefully tending to has demonstrated once again its incredible character and heart in fighting back from what possibly the worst nightmare scenario at halftime, achieving on foreign soil what only one other team had managed to do in European competitions past.
And each one played his part. Including Julio Cesar, whose second blunder (over the two legs) put a heavy dent into the nerazzurris aspirations after the game had gotten off to a seemingly great start with Eto’s first goal on the night, a typically swift pounce on a through ball at the limit of offside. The Brazilian goalkeeper and his team – along with the fans – had to suffer further humiliation when the 2nd Bavarian goal went in, a deft touch by Muller following an unintended deflection by Thiago Motta.
But it wasn’t enough to kill the hope and the spirit. This team’s lettres de noblesses in suffering have already been written in countless games that have helped to forged a unique fighting spirit: from Ukraine to home against Sienna, this team does not give up easy. Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate at halftime, not only did they pick themselves up and continue to fight, but did so with the composure of a winning team, not one looking at an early exit. Not once did they abandon the identity and discipline of play that had brought them results in the past. The same patterns that seemed so vain in the first half were repeated in the second, but ever more resolutely, starting with the back pass to Andrea Ranocchia following ball recovery, slightly forward on to Thiago, sideways to Maicon to create breathing space, again in to the center to Cambiasso, then wide again onto the other side for Chivu, then Sneider, then Eto’o, and so on.
Is there any one of them that stands out more than the other? Of course Eto’s ball possession, athletic stamina and technical skill will have journalists from Catalonia to Tokyo drooling in admiration; of course Sneijder’s determination and aggression will enter into textbooks; indeed yes, Ranocchia is phenomenally mature for a young player his age; and Julio Cesar was decisive in preventing Bayern from equalizing more than once; and the list goes on. But no: this game is the victory of a team that stood as a unit. And importantly, that includes the work and support of a patient young coach for whom this was certainly the most important test of his budding career, that stood by them and supported them through thick and thin, and especially Goran Pandev, whom it would have been easy to replace earlier on the basis of his misses this weekend as well as some glaring errors during the game. I can’t help but be reminded of a similar night in the spring of 2004 when a young Portuguese coach similarly stunned the old aristocracy of Europe with a surprise steal at Old Trafford.
Atone and grovel now for forgiveness at the feet of your only survivor and potential savior, Italy. You, as well as all the Barça brown nosers, have been given a demonstration in what football is all about: not a one sided execution draped in smug sense of aristocratic entitlement, but drama, grit, fighting spirit, discipline, flair, goals, attack and defense.
P.S. Manchester United returned to this season’s form with a sufficient but somewhat fragile win over Olympique de Marseille seeing them through to the quarter finals.
So, the “natural” order of things among the European aristocracy has been upset once again. The rossonerris are out of the competition, ousted by none other than the perennial underachievers and losers from London: Spurs. The proverbial “champions DNA” is apparently rather diluted, which should be no surprise given the recruitment of such regular European absentees as Robinho and Ibra. The Swede’s lackluster performance has only reinforced the sense of consistency of his underwhelming contribution to big European events. He was possibly confused or inadequately incentivised by his club’s vice-president’s objectives: you see, he thought that the triple (tris) was Italian Cup, European Cup Winner’s Cup, and the World Champion Club. Maybe if Galliani is more coherent next time, or – better yet, shuts up completely – they might actually get a little bit further.
Spurs in the meantime have achieved way more than they hoped for, in particular by progressing further than their arch nemesis Arse rivals. Uncle ‘Arry will be especially pleased with the defensive robustness of his team who thus managed to keep two consecutive clean sheets. Mind you, having had to struggle through a supremely drab Juve-Milan last week-end, I am not so surprised by the outcome: while the rossonerris are very compact in the middle (3 leg breakers: Van Bommel, Gattouze & Highly Flamini) and tight at the back (Nesta & Thiago Silva), up front – and despite the presence of so called bigguns – they are lacking in something, possibly killer instict and/or creativity to find the spaces that make the diff.
In the other game, aspiring sides Schalke 04 & Valencia battled it out, the German club going through comfortably on a 4-2 aggregate scoreline. Raul is now possibly simultaneously relishing & dreading the prospect of a return to his beloved Bernabeu.
A lot of fuss will be probably be made in the UK about Swiss ref Massimo Bussacca’s poor refereeing last night – and rightly so! While Van Persie is not known for his temper control and fully deserved his 1st yellow, the 2nd one on the other hand is a screamer of bureaucratic pigheadedness by the referees, and a good reminder of the stupidity of such a rule. Of course proceedings have now been opened against Wenger and Nasri apparently, but I have a lot of sympathy with Van Persie’s reaction last night, and not just for the second yellow, but also as regards the penalty call that gives Barça the 3rd and decisive qualifying goal advantage.
It is true that Barcelona dominated through and through and Arsenal was lucky to make more than 3 passes (Guardiola joke) let alone get the equaliser. Messi’s 1st is a pure delight of futsal-like juggling skill and balance, punctuated in poignant fashion by that decisive volley. But nevertheless a gift is a gift and with 11 men and fuelled by the comeback to a 1-1 scoreline, things might have ended differently for the Gunners. It seems to be standard accepted fare now that Barça should play the return leg of their CL direct qualifiers against 10-men sides. Hopefully this will come to haunt them in later stages – what goes around, comes around.
LVP (least valuable player): Busacca
IP (invisible player): Fabregas (except for the friendly back heel just outside the goal area that sets in motion the movement for the 1st Barça goal)
Highlights (while available) (Note: no stupid background music so quite a good highlight summary)
In the other game of the night, Shakhtar Donetsk, guided by the Romanian veteran Mircea Lucescu, ousted the runners-up from the 2009-2010 Italian calcio season, and thus consolidate their reputation as a rising side in European football, following last year’s UEFA Cup win. Two goals from Brazilian Willian – and notably a sumptuous curler for the 2nd – and Eduardo’s goal (for the third) sealed Roma’s fate. The irony of Eduardo’s success in this side will not be lost on M. Wenger hopefully when he ponders why he held on to Bendtner instead of the Croatian-born Brazilian, who by the way has a delightful mixed accent combining his two cultural influences (watch). Veteran sides take heed of this crew.