Anti Joga Bonito (Love All Football)

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

Tag Archives: Chelsea

Culture of success: Wenger’s last days?

Champions League Round of last 16: Arsenal vs. Bayern – 1:3

It’s almost exactly 8 years ago that these two met in this competition at precisely the same stage of 1/8 finals (February 23rd, 2005), with Arsenal ultimately getting knocked out on goal difference due to Bayern’s home win by 3 goals to 1 (Arsenal won the return leg 1-0). The two had locked horns before that in the 2000/2001 tournament, with Bayern also going through on that occasion, on the strength of a home win in Munich (1-0) that the Gunners could not overturn at home (2-2 at Highbury). So the historic odds were not favorable to the Londoners tonight, and given the form of the visitors, there is no huge shame in the evening’s final outcome (and especially considering that 2 of the 3 goals for the visitors were highly scrappy).

Back then in 2005, the result was definitely not a given, as Arsenal was still considered one of the favorites within the English Premier League (EPL), and Wenger & Ferguson formed a formidably intimidating & untouchable duo of senior football aristocrats that would invite much ire from new contenders, and notably a newly competitive Chelsea (under José Mourinho’s direction) and its defenders. So it was that I rejoiced with much glee at Bayern’s win 8 years ago with the following article (in French: http://www.subfoot.com/artman2/publish/2004_2005_39/Le_probl_me_de_la_France_Bayern_Munich_-_Arsenal_3_267.shtml – but don’t bother reading it, it’s mainly rubbish really).

It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you...

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you…

Fast forward 8 years and, at the time of writing, Arsenal are 5th in the EPL and in their 13th consecutive season in the last 16 of Europe’s top clubs, a feat that very few can lay claim to (certainly not Manchester City, nor even great Fergie’s Manchester United, who – it should be reminded – were eliminated at the group stage by ‘lowly’ Basel last season). Yet, if you were to assess the situation only on the basis of UK tabloids’ reports (and around Europe generally, modern day lowest common denominator consensus obliging), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal are about to be relegated to oblivion to the netherworld i.e. the Championship and/or (shock horror) the Europa League. So it is that Wenger cuts an increasingly lonely and isolated figure each day, deemed to be out of touch with the faithful and generally assessed by the “experts” as being inept and responsible for the “ignominy” of Arsenal not collecting any titles for now eight consecutive seasons. Needless to say, you would not find many takers for a bet in Arsenal’s favour, and certainly not in the British media who were still busy digging their teeth into Wenger & his team for the home defeat in the FA Cup versus Blackburn Rovers on the weekend.

As a self-declared Mourinho die-hard supporter, it would be easy for me to rejoice at this witch-hunt against one of the most disingenuous managers in the history of the EPL (alongside Fergie). However, I’m not one to join with the chorus of the obvious. Not because of any sympathy with Wenger, but rather because the obnoxious sense of entitlement exuded by segments of Arsenal fans and especially a number of UK tabloid hacks (some of them disgruntled Arsenal fans) is simply so base & short-sighted that it is impossible to relate to with any degree of seriousness.

From the standpoint of criteria applying to any other profession, what Wenger has accomplished as general manager since taking over is simply outstanding. Not only is the club financially stable and debt-free, but Arsenal consistently competes at the top level on all four fronts (EPL, CL & the two cups) and furthermore offers a style of play that, while sometimes nerve-wrecking, is nevertheless broadly entertaining and technically laudable. Add to that an increasing propensity for supporting local British talent, and you have a near perfect recipe for an-all time darling for the cause of British football.

That it is not the case today is partly Wenger’s own fault, as his autocratic and generally defensive communication style has over the years alienated many. A lack of good fortune also played its part in near misses that might have allowed for more breathing space, such as the defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at the end of the 2011 season. Wenger probably has his share of blame in all this, at a technical level (coaching & recruitment skills in recognizing the importance of, and consolidating defensive capabilities) but potentially more so through the subtle but pernicious influence of his obstinate defense of the club’s impressively consistent but unglamorous results. By doggedly defending as a major achievement the club’s track record of finishing in the last 4 (of the EPL) and accomplishing decent runs in the Champions League, he has arguably contributed to lowering ambitions in the dressing room. It is impossible for outsiders such as journalists and fans to assess such things, one can at best speculate.

A pisstake but so close to the truth

A pisstake but so close to the truth

But fundamentally his low stock of late is less reflective of a real problem of competency than the paradox of modern football fans’ expectations, which were brilliantly illustrated by WSC in a recent issue (as below). At the end of the day, having tasted glory in the modern era, and despite the fact that they should know better than to envy the increasingly ridiculous shenanigans of Abramovitch and his poodles, or the outrageous financial dealings of the Glazers ilk, some segments of Arsenal fans (or is it really only journos, ultimately?) can’t help themselves but yearn for a piece of glory, and as time goes by, are increasingly prepared to throw caution to the wind just in order to have their 5 minutes of indulging greater fantasies of basking in the sunlight of a trophy. For victory is never guaranteed, it must be earned.

Funnily enough, it seems to me as if the real losers who need to prove themselves in all this were not the boys in red & white, but the ones in black. It has now been relegated to the archives, but few care to remember Bayern’s identity-tormenting 2006-2007 season that not only ended without trophies, but saw the club ‘demoted’ to a year in the Europa League, which at the time prompted scathing comments from that most sensuous of goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn. More recently, Bayern qualified for the Champions League final twice in the last 3 years, only to be outplayed both times, by Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, neither of which were seen as favorites on the day.

Like the German national team, Bayern Munich tend to impress in the early stage of competitions and the first few rounds of “when things get serious”, attracting plaudits from everyone including your mom to that annoying bloke at the office whose understanding of football stems solely from reading tabloid headlines. But they then proceed to fall flat at the critical moment like a deflated soufflé, and with remarkable regularity. Will it be so again this year, or will they finally show the mettle required of winners? If not, perhaps there is a bit of a challenge remaining for Pep Guardiola – the universal darling of all – to bring his managerial skills to bear. It would certainly help to counter what otherwise seems to be an illustration of a penchant for safety in his rather sedate choice to tie the knot with the Bavarian ogre that looks set to win the Bundesliga by a considerable margin. But then again, it will not be the first time that he inherits a well-developed structure & winning team to perform with – a fact that will be conveniently forgotten by all as soon as he wins any trophies. Because as we all know, success washes away all sins.

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Chelsea’s Special Footprint

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 not a straight line or an equation…

A few words on the CL semi-finals… (now that the black armband has come off from Wednesday’s disappointment…)

Cristiano's poor form in penalty shout-outs continues (he missed in Moscow 4 years ago)

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.

Ooops... there goes my final

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.

Back like Arnold Schwarzenegger…

Nice Jugs Arnie

Yes, bitches, the venom is back.

It is true, it’s been a while though… arguably he should have stopped at Terminator 2, and left it there at undisputed classic status.

But back to serious matters, it has indeed been a lame and unproductive football season… I’m talking about this blog of course. About as consistent as Wigan (but… capable of some heroics – at least I hope). The reason? It is difficult to separate the heart from the mind – that’s why I don’t believe in football journalism.

It’s not yet officially an “annus horribilis”, and with the prospect of José clinching the title from the so called “best football club in the universe”, and Inter again being able to entertain ambitions of Champions League football, things are looking up a bit. If City can manage to squeeze out Man U and Chelsea edges out the reds in the Cup final, I may even pop a bottle of the ole’ bubbly (even if I can’t stand the stuff, in my view it is one of those bourgeois “tick the box” exercises that you have to partake in, like having expensive V-necks and pretending to be interested in poncy expensive watches). The Champions League final is a major conundrum – the Mou KGB is still locked in debate over the party line to be adopted.

So why the slightly down feeling? Well, it has been a heck of an emotional roller coaster, and importantly, it’s not over yet! Everything could still go completely wrong, and a lot certainly has. All my preferred clubs have suffered this year:

1. Inter

Where do I begin? Apart from beating the cousins in January and appearing to be threatening for the title, it has been a miserable 9 months. Nearly every game (there are some exceptions, like the 5-0 thrashing of Parma, also back in January) has been an interminable sufferance, with near ridiculous defensive howlers and last minute disappointments, the worst of them being perhaps the double affront against Marseille, who has arguably exceeded itself in its inconsistency – but at least they have a Cup to their name this season. I’m not even going to talk about the embarrassing home defeats versus newly promoted

Young Strammacioni shows the old lady (i.e. Ranieri) what it means to have grinta

clubs that in past times would normally have been overcome with at least clean sheets. Hopefully the next few weeks, with the all-important return derby, will provide some cause for joy. The horrible twist is that if we beat them, those even more horrible black & whites will surely clinch it then – but sometimes one has to be egotist and accept imperfection as happiness. Clinching a Champions League spot would certainly be an achievement after so much instability (two coach changes, significant player departures, injuries, disappointing recruitment), though again, I fear the other side of the coin that may be the President’s penchant for going for another recency effect propelled “big name boss” (e.g. Bielsa). The young Strammacioni in the meantime is showing signs of promise – who needs a wooden villa? Not us. Perhaps the Prez should really stick to his financial fair play related low profile, bottom-up approach, get Coutinho back from Espanyol (where he has been making a name for himself), release a few senators, and give a new generation a proper shot at building confidence through experience and a real sense of responsibility and accountability to the fans.

2. Sevilla

The slide from consistent top half table performances that already started last year, foreboded by the departures of key players like Luis Fabiano, Adriano and Renato, and previously numerous other – now illustrious – former colleagues such as Dani Alves and Seydou Keita – has shown now signs of decelaration. Sevilla could still possibly clinch a Europa League spot, but I wonder if it will do them any good – it could actually make matters worse. The recruitment this year has not been too bad, and at least there are signs that the defense has stabilised – it is worth noting that at this point (after 34 games), Sevilla has the 3rd best defence in la Liga (not far behind Madrid), thanks to the additions of Emir Spahic from Montpellier, and a greater role for the chillean pit-bull and midfield marshal Medel, who has been consistently clawing at other team’s suave dribblers’ ankles. But though Trochowsky has shown skills and adapted well, he – as many others, notably the underwhelming Rakitic – are no replacement for the caliber of the aforementioned former luminaries. But again one has to look at the bright spots, and one of those (that I should truly have posted about) was the 0-0 against the “best team in the universe” at the latter’s home ground, with my hero Freddy K. standing up for himself and all of those other teams who are constantly and systematically at the receiving end of the favors that the Spanish football establishment continues to bestow on the darlings of football. Perhaps the President is happy with this state of affairs (two-three coach changes per season) but from observing how others fare with such practices, the fans’ worry is that Sevilla could soon find itself involved in relegation battles. Has Monchi lost his flair for new talent? I trust not, but the signs are not reassuring. Let’s hope at least that we hold on to Negredo and Jesus this year, but there will be big shoes to fill (literally) with the now likely departure (possibly retirement) of Kanouté.

3. Servette

It has been a rotten time for Swiss football, and particularly the Swiss-Romand sides. While the immediate future seems to have been secured to a degree (I’m not even fully up to speed – please comment if you are), the newly promoted Geneva club has enjoyed its share of despotic folly of a megalomaniac president who, though not as bad as his counterpart at Neuchâtel Xamax, has undermined all the enthusiasm and ambition acquired following last year’s promotion.

4. Chelsea (and it is purposefully in this positioning of emotional relevance)

André Villas-Boas

Needless to say that it has bit of a confusing season again, due mainly to the inconsistency of results, but the Terry-mania has not helped either. Predictably, the “team one” underperformed (in José we trust…) and subsequently got done by the team, though what the whole episode really helped to highlight is once again the short-sightedness and lack of sophistication of the owner and his current posse of henchmen, notwithstanding that there may have been serious issues in the Portuguese’s leadership. The Blues are still battling on 2 important fronts and, and should they clinch the ever elusive Champions League title, could suddenly find themselves the darlings of England (which will undoubtedly result in renewed self-delusion about England’s chances, though I am not sure about Terry’s inclusion in the squad). However at this point it feels to me like they’re more likely to repeat the loser feat of Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 (i.e. lose both Cups) than to surprise in Europe – and the 4th spot at this point appears like a bit of a challenge – key game next week against an ambitious and budding Newcastle side). Bright spot of the season? The steady and impressive growth of Ramires and his two beautiful chips against Spurs and Barça in the two cup semi-finals.

So, hopefully now you can at least sympathise (though I expect no mercy and no pardon) with the difficulties this emotional roller coaster has been providing yours truly in his self-appointed (and self-righteous) role of pseudo anti-football establishment bard. Despite some promising potential upsets (including the mancunian derby), I plan to keep my emotions in check over the next few weeks and invest sparsely. But hopefully the inspiration for writing will be all the better.

P.S. Hope Lille finishes 3rd (but would be nice if Inter could swoop for Hazard), and even more that plucky Montpellier pips PSG for the title.

P.P.S. note to self – consider choice of preferred Bundesliga club for next season – especially helpful for increasing hate focus against the noisy bavarians. And bravo Lulu (Favre).

Torres revival?

Fitness instructor Fernando

Unlike some of his other EPL contemporaries who are helping themselves to hat-tricks while on tour in far away “exotic” locations, Fernando’s draught is apparently not over. But I think we have identified the cause (probably linked to an obsession developed while under hypnosis in the Benitez boot camp): someone should put an end to his moonlighting on Wii Fit and get him to practice more on the ball.

That might also help Chelsea avoid turning into a bit of an Arsenal and signing on truckloads of untested promising youts who will have to be offloaded to teams like Stoke, Bolton and Newcastle the following season.

May 21-22 Weekend Wrap-up

So it’s now definitely over in the U.K., Italy and Spain and although there is still one more day left in France, Lille have definitely clinched the title (and thereby a double) with the key point squeezed from a tightly contested 2-2 against PSG. Excellent goals all around, see highlights here. I, like many, do feel that this was well and truly properly deserved, Lille showing both flair and consistency through out the season – as demonstrated by Eden Hazard’s graduation from “best hope” to “best player” at the French player awards show (UNFP). Marseille will finish second no matter what now, while Lyon and PSG will battle it out on the last day for the all important Champions League play-off spot. 7 sides are still hanging on to avoid the last remaining place for the drop: AJ Auxerre , Stade Brest, OGC Nice, Valenciennes FC, SM Caen, AS Nancy, AS Monaco will be wanting to get a win from that last game next Sunday to make sure they stay up. If I have to choose one, I’d put my money on Monaco as they are the worst off of all the above, and I trust Aulas will do everything possible to ensure that Lyon does not miss out on the CL spot.

Soon in black and blue?

In Italy, Inter finished off with a fairly convincing win at home against Catania, with 2 goals from Pazzini (a magnificent volley for the 1st) and a 3rd from Nakamoto – watch here. The nerazzurris thus comforted their position in 2nd spot with 6 points behind Milan AC but also 6 points in front of Naples, who drew with Juve in Turin. On the number of games in charge, Leonardo thus concludes his half-term with Inter as the best coach in Italy but more on that later. Udinese drew with Milan in the evening and thus secured the right for the Champions League play-off spot: let’s hope they do better than Sampdoria last year – the blucerchiati have been going downhill ever since that terrible night on August 24 last year when they went down in the return fixture against Bremen after they initially looked good to have qualified, and things really got tough after both Pazzini and Cassano departed. The two wolverine brothers Lazio and Roma will compete to regain some prestige in the Europa League next season, with the bianconerris looking enviously on with a lot of bitterness – “una stagione disgraziata, la peggiore degli ultimi 20 anni”. Even those words, albeit from La Gazzetta, are quite revealing of Juve’s profound malaise because what could be worse than the calciopoli and relegation? These words are also symptomatic of the lack of understanding of the causes of the stagnation of the club, which is primarily the responsibility of the club’s management that has been unable to create a sound basis for stability and the building of squad cohesion. Things are not likely to improve next season as the club looks on for another providential but probably inexperienced saviour from the past.

Alvaro pullng (or is it pushing?) his weight

In Spain, Sevilla have incredibly managed to hold on to 5th spot despite achieving the same number of points as the two Atleticos, thanks to arelatively good recent run of results and last night’s victory against Espanyol, and in particular two magnificent goals from Alvaro Negredo – watch here. For a fairly chaotic season including a messy change of manager and the departure of one of the two main goalscorers (Luis Fabiano), that’s quite an achievement. Real Madrid finished 4 points behind Barça, evil José’s defensive outfit managing to put a paltry 8 goals past bottom placed Almeria. Cristiano Ronaldo thus finishes as top goalscorer. Valencia and Villareal confirmed their spots as 3rd and 4th, respectively, which they have been holding on to for some time, so it was only logical. On a sad note, Deportivo la Coruna drop down to Liga B: incredible to think that not so long ago they were challenging Milan, Manchester United and other European greats for European trophies.

RM flying high on positivity

In England also, the season came to a climactic finish with a mega relegation scrap between Wolves, Birmingham, Blackpool, Blackburn and Wigan. After a pretty thrilling 90 minutes of switcheroo for the drop spots, destiny settled on Blackpool and Birmingham. There will be general sadness for Blackpool who put in a very entertaining though defensively naive campaign, conceding far too many goals including on this final very important day, but not as much for general meanies Birmingham, and especially none from the Emirates. Smiles all round here though for Wigan and their coach Roberto Martinez, who would have to be top candidate to win the prize for the most positive coach in football today, maintaining a serene and positive outlook on his team’s potential through the most difficult of times. And I’d like to believe that it had a part in them finishing well – remember: not many people win away at Britannia. Elsewhere, Mancini’s Mancity (or the other way around) finished off in convincing style by seeing off Bolton 2-0. Arsenal settle for fourth place and will have to go through the Champions League’s play-off round to see some European football next season – I’d love it to be against Villareal. Well done to West Brom’s own Big Chief Tchoyi for grabbing a treble to save the blushes from his coleagues’ atrocious defending. I certainly wish I’d seen these ones coming for my Fantasy Football team selection but like Blak Twang, I ain’t done too bad. Following the day’s games, Chelsea have finally put an end to the least thrilling gossip trail of the second half of the season by confirming the dismissal of Carlo Ancelotti. All bets are now on as to who will be Roman’s next big money move – it would be nice to see Pep Guardiola trying out his skills in a different environment so the world can assess his skills outside the warm nest of Daddy Cruyff.

P.S. Speaking of Everton, thought Id mention that – thanks to a perceptive WSC reader’s letter a few years ago – upon watching MOTD tonight I was delighted to anticipate Everton defender’s Seamus Coleman’s second yellow and thus red card and thus confirm that the BBC’s golden rule “if they show you a player getting a yellow card, that means he’s getting the second later on” is truly and well still operational.

European Weekend Review May 11, 2011

Javier Pastore (not to be confused for a big pussy i.e. the Sopranos-famous Vincent Pastore)

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.

Get Shorty (Touche pas à mon José)

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.

Look, he's clearly gone mad!

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.

Look at those eyes! He is evil!

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.

Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200

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.

I am not paranoid but (1)…

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.

Another Stark red for the Barça team.

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…

Blues Resurgence?

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:

Exhibit 1:

Iconic fashion with a strong look?

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.

Exhibit 2:

A priviledged moment with Terry

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.