Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
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.