Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
So, the Russian finally has his coveted European trophy… and I am sure he was amongst those least likely to think he would earn it with this assistant coach, following the worst season (from an EPL standpoint) since his arrival. Hop Di Matteo!
But is it so unexpected? 9 years after the start of the Chelski project, but more importantly, 8 years after the arrival of another previous assistant and the club’s first successes in this modern era, these are the ripe – and yes, somewhat unlikely – fruits to be reaped from the seeds that the Special One sowed back then. In their joy, the current team may not be bothered to thank him now (and will be forgiven if so), but this footprint was not missed on those that know the club’s history of play, and notably during the two legs against Barça. It was during those two ties that Chelsea laid the foundations of their defensive solidity and concentration, with grit and determination borne from the teachings of their first mentor who turned them from perennial underachievers (à la Spurs) to champion material.
For days the papers will be full of praise for the two main heroes of the evening, Peter Cech & Didier Drogba, and rightly so. Even in victory, Didier has shown that he is a great and humble athlete. What they may forget to mention alongside their (and their teammates’ various exploits along the way) is who put them up there, along with the relatively uncelebrated (at that point in time) Frank Lampard and John Terry. But it is not this scribe who will forget that the signing of the Ivory Coast striker, fresh from a great (but single) season with Marseille, was one of José’s first signings for the Blues, and yet one of the most heavily criticised. If you do not believe me, see the following links 1, 2 and 3 for some good examples of the kind of shock and incredulity back then, which went on for a while as the Drogba scored “only” 16 goals that 1st season. £24m may have been a lot to pay back then, especially for someone who had previously not fetched more than £4m (£3.3m according to some reports). But who will dare to come out and claim now that it was too much? Probably not one of France’s golden generation, Mr. Frank Beef, who was strongly suggesting an exit for the striker during the “disappointing” 2010-2011 season that saw the Blues get only to second place in the EPL.
We all love a good comeback story, and last night’s victory is all the more endearing for this generation of players because so many – in the style of the afore mentioned french defender – had written them off and already consigned them to the dustbin of football has-beens. It is a silly mistake to have made, especially since José’s Inter had shown similar verve in accomplishing their historic treble only two years ago.
Which is all very reassuring – there is balance in the universe after all. It’s not just about joga bonito, but also about determination, spirit, abnegation, collective solidity, self-confidence – in other words, normal football. At the very least, the Blues should be acknowledged and thanked for restoring that balance once again.
It’s very quiet today in terms of football watching opportunities… there is the German cup final tonight… maybe I’ll watch to see if Kloppo can take one further title away from the loud Bavarians. It would be good if they end up complete losers across all competitions, in the same style as Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. But they are still favorites for next Saturday, no diggedy.
In the meantime, management of second tier EPL clubs is invited to take notice of the old guard sale at Milan AC. The departures of Gattuso, Nesta, Van Bummel (that’s purposeful – lame & cheap – but purposeful) and Inzaghi (the only man that José ever said he is afraid of) have been confirmed, and Seedorf as well as Zambrotta are also expected to move on. Good buying opportunities (in terms of increasing media profile and WAG coefficient) for QPR (if they stay up), and perhaps especially Reading, whose new boss’s wife has set the bogey.
But there is fortunately some major action taking place tomorrow. The EPL final round has turned out to be more of a hyping up opportunity than the media could have ever dreamed of, and Fergie has not disappointed by upping the stakes with a fine volley of his expertly crafted mind games. Mark Hughes must be wetting himself at the opportunity to ingratiate himself in the eyes of his former mentor, and who knows, maybe also the Glazers. Will certainly take a special place in the red’s hearts if he manages to frustrate Mancini’s boys.
In Spain, it will be fascinating to see if Real Madrid can reach the 100 point mark by winning their last game at home against Mallorca, and perhaps even reach the +90 mark on goal difference – which makes for a nearly +3 average per game. Not bad for a defensively minded team masterminded by the enemy of football. Sevilla will be happy to turn the page on this season, but sad to lose one of its final greats from the phenomal epoch of the UEFA Cup double, Frédéric Kanouté, whose contribution and partnership with Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves, Jésus Navas and the others was a key factor in the success of the club. A great but yet very underrated player (check out his wiki if you don’t know his career, a couple of interesting points about his personal life and engagement on political issues), Kanouté also confirms in this little clip how much humility, integrity and sense of loyalty he has – estarás en nuestros corazones para siempre, Freddy!
Regarding Italy, it’s a big day tomorrow for the four clubs competing for the final C1-qualifying 3rd spot, namely (in current pecking order) Udinese, Lazio, Napoli & Inter, as well as Lecce & Genoa who will battle for survival in Serie A. Big thanks to my man Nick for passing on this superb post in honour of super capitano Javier Zanetti – like Clark Kent (copyright: Prince O), he never ages (and yet never has to resort to any kryptonite).
Finally, a mention of this documentary sent to me by my good friend P, otherwise known as Blu (of Downtown Boogie fame). Interesting but somewhat annoying documentary on corruption – while starting out promisingly on a cross-sports theme, it quickly becomes boring as it transpires that – despite it’s title (Sport, mafia & corruption) – it is going to all about vilifying football and presenting financial crime operating through online betting sites as an inevitable corollary of the former. Against a doomsday keyboard background that would have been great for a follow-up to the tedious Angels & Demons, and accompanied by a narrator whose voice sounds as if he is recounting the story of a genocide, the documentary descends into “modern football” bashing and low common denominator / soft leftie consensus on the general (and highly original) theme that “money is bad/corrupts”. They roll out a few statistics on the amounts involved – all of which pale in comparison to the sum of monthly irregularities in the financial industry. I am not saying there is no problem, but the general doom-mongering tone, as well as the gimmicky typewriter sound accompanied filming location sites legends, are supremely unhelpful. Still, I suppose it should be highly recommended viewing for all Juve fans – it seems this kind of stuff is still news to them.
A few words on the CL semi-finals… (now that the black armband has come off from Wednesday’s disappointment…)
Yes, it was very disappointing to accept that José will not be in the final, as well as to see him displaying some uncharacteristic signs of emotional weakness. Don’t really care so much for Madrid, but the mouth watering prospect of a potential double for JM was so compelling that it was hard to accept disappointment, hence the radio silence of a few days. In addition, the actual penalty shout-out, itself another emotional roller-coaster (my favorite concept at the moment), was about as impressive (from a technical standpoint) as Switzerland-Ukraine a few years ago – they are still picking up the birds that Ramos brought down from the Bernabeu side roof.
But in a way it is good for football that the two noisy and steadily more annoying favorites from Spain, generally held (except in the UK) to be the European country with the highest standard of football at the moment, did not make it through. It is a case of two mini giant-slaying feats, in the context of the Champions League. Though Chelsea and Bayern are far from being the Davids (of Goliath association, not Edgar) of the story, it is nevertheless good proof to the doom mongers and nostalgia bashers (of the football of yore) that modern football results can not be “bought” or predicted, and that at the end of the day it comes down to what happens on the pitch, the impact of micro-cosmic decisions made in split seconds, nerves, grit and concentration. In my view (and I said it at the time), the decider is the last minute goal conceded by Madrid in Munich – José’s face at the time said it all. Madrid still has some maturing to do, and perhaps it is reassuring (and calming to the nemici) to realise that the so called enemy of football is actually human after all, and sometimes vulnerable like the rest of us. But José please work a bit on the penalties for next year – it is most definitely your weak spot.
As for the “best team of the universe”, though it was delightful to see them lose their cool (and especially Busquets collapsing as Nando’s ball rolled into the net), they remain as formidable as ever. Though many pundits will now undoubtedly start turning their vests and adjusting their forecasts for next season, the whole thing was down to a few key misses that only a few months ago (and certainly last year) would have found the back of the net. In that sense, Chelsea may have been a fortunate beneficiary of the fatigue and lack of confidence that Barça have found themselves in due to the pressure piled on them by José’s Madrid. But this should not diminish the fact that the Blues’ old guard put in a formidable performance, largely inspired by the initial feat accomplished by their still present mentor and his Inter in 2010. And that IS football – as so well put by this contemporary in the ever reliable WSC (minus points for not being brave enough to own the “anti”).
Highlight of the two nights: the Ramires chip – a true golasso, and far from an isolated feat – he scored some beauties this season, including a very similar goal against Spurs at Wembley a few weeks ago in the FA Cup semi-final.
It’s all over in Italy as Milan have sealed their title win thanks to yet another clean sheet in Rome. Despite a rather insipid 0-0, the additional point was sufficient for Silvio’s crew to finally reconnect with some domestic success after many years of frustration. Congratulations might have been on the cards but after hearing about Gattuso’s rather lowly comments towards Leonardo the mood here just isn’t very sporty. Inter on the other hand dispatched relatively easily with Fiorentina despite breaking some cold sweat in the second half after Fiorentina pulled one back but youngster Coutinho’s first goal in nerazzurro (a fine curling yet sharp free kick à la Wesley) restored the 2 goal lead that Inter had confidently acquired in the 1st half. Lucio thought he would add spice and freak the fans out with a careless ball loss that brought the best out of Julio Cesar towards the end but the game (view highlights) finished on 3-1, thereby helping to reduce Milan’s lead to 6 points. The win and the renewed confidence (so good to see El Muro back on the bench), combined with that declaration, now means that we will be sharpening the knives in the hope to meet the red & black once again in the Cup final for a revenge opportunity, but in the meantime tomorrow’s official colour is pink: forza Palermo, we’re counting on you Pastore.
Napoli in the meantime lost away to resilient Lecce (see great 2nd collective goal punctuated by a superb strike by ex-Sevillano Chevanton here) and thus their gap with Inter has now widened to 4 points. On paper this would probably mean that the fight in San Paolo next Saturday against Inter would be quite bitter, but as things seem to be souring by the minute between the coach Mazzarri and his president Dino de Laurentis, perhaps the motivation won’t be as strong since in addition the azzurris are fairly strongly positioned in 3rd place and will furthermore missing their talismanic goalscorer Cavani, red-carded during this game. A fierce battle for fourth place is now on between Lazio, Udinese and Juventus (who again managed to draw tonight at home to Chievo).
In England in the meantime, Man U’s 2-1 win against Chelsea (view highlights) has given Fergie’s team the decisive 6-point lead that pretty much seals the title race. Mathematically the Red Devils can still drop the ball if they lose both of their last 2 games and Chelsea somehow cruise through both of theirs and end up with a better goal average (they would have to achieve a 3 goal improvement on Man U in these 2 games), thereby stealing the title on the basis of the latter. However the probability of that happening is fairly low at this point considering as well the two games that the teams have to play and the moral advantage that Man U have through this win over the current champions, as evidenced by the celebrations at the end. Arsenal in the meantime have failed to capitalise on the Blues’ defeat in losing 3-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia, as the “rugby team” (as they were affectionately dubbed by the Gunners’ faithful) coached by Tony Pulis put themselves in an excellent mindset for next Saturday’s FA Cup final against fourth placed Manchester City. The light blues lost away to Everton despite starting strongly as late goals from Distin and Osman keep them pegged in fourth position with an apparently very strong resurgent Liverpool challenging for theirs and Spurs’ European passes. The relegation battle also promises to go down to the wire as things remain very tight at the bottom.
Elsewhere, anti-José fans should note yet another defensive outing by the blancos as they humiliated Sevilla by a mere 6-2 away at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. That’s only 12 goals in the last3 games but it’s probably still too defensive for most. Barça in the meantime drubbed local rivals Espanyol with a defensively reckless 0-2 win.
In France, Lille’s bid for the title regained credibility through a tough but determined win away at Nancy on Saturday, and was further reinforced by Lyon’s emphatic win at the Gerland against 2nd placed Marseille (see video highlights here). Good to see Cris being decisive again and regaining some authority in the club. PSG will be delighted of course, although the Lyon win puts them back in fourth place as they only managed a point against a Monaco side that has finally begun to find some form. Rennes, who were previously competing for 1st place, have fallen off the rails and will be fortunate to finish 5th considering the strong performances from France’s most attractive side (by joga bonito standards, but actually they very creative) Sochaux, who again confirmed their potential with powerful win against Bordeaux (see highlights here) that has finished off Tigana’s mandate.
In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund missed the chance to seal the title through defeat at Werder Breme but it’s now probably just a matter of 1 or 2 games. In the meantime, Bayern comforted themselves (for their miserable season, by the club’s lofty standards) with a 8-1 win over relegation bound St. Pauli.
P.S. thanks to Prince O for highlighting both Chevanton’s goal and Gattuso’s outburst.
It’s been a GREAT week in football – it is indeed very rare that things go so well in terms of combined successes of favorite teams:
Man U grabbed a point from Bolton in the dying moments of the game through an unexpected rebound ball provoked by Berbatov, while both Chelsea and Liverpool dispatched their opponents Manchester City and Sunderland (respectively) with two goals apiece and a clean sheet. Spurs couldn’t put one past a resurgent West Ham. Fellow bottom tablers Wigan and Wolves both grabbed full 3 points, confirming that the final games will ensure more drama for bottom 8 teams who are within 3 points of each other.
In addition, there were some super goals this weekend that are definitely worth a mention – see if you can catch them on youtube or wherever else it is you go for your replays:
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.