Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The most fanatical club supporters of some of their main rivals aside, Barça is today universally held to be the best club team in the world. The sextuple title season in 2009 was the standout but perhaps more remarkably the consistency of results since then (if viewed from a short term perspective) and, from a long-term perspective, the achievements over the last 8 years (2 Champions League titles, 4 Ligas, 1 Cup and 4 Super Cups) all significantly exceed previous records from an all-European perspective.
There are several reasons for that, including the oft-discussed technical and physical quality of Barça’s players, but most important of all is the stability. Unlike Real Madrid, which has been plagued by endemic instability at all levels (president & senior management, technical staff, coach and players), Barça has consolidated a robust framework that has provided the platform for the current success, consisting in my view of three main factors:
1. Talent development: the youth training academy, where the current generation of players like Iniesta, Valdés and Messi were able to flourish and develop their individual skills as well as collective bond, is perhaps amongst the world’s best. But let’s not also forget astute recruitment: Messi himself was somewhat luckily (by his own admission) snapped up the early age of 13 by Carles Rexach; Villa’s recruitment from Valencia this year helped to cancel out the Ibrahimovic exception to the rule, while other past acquisitions of proven players such as Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Adriano (all from Sevilla incidentally), have added depth and class to the squad.
2. Management stability: only two coaches in the last 8 years, first Frank Rijkaard (from 2003-2008) and since then Pep Guardiola, against the backdrop of a stable presidency of Joan Laporta, certainly help to steer the ship in one direction. Not as stable as some, but by Madrid’s standards, that is nothing short of extraterrestrial stability.
3. Guiding principles: Perhaps most importantly, Barça’s strong club culture, built upon its specific Catalan identity), has its expression of a certain vision of play and general philosophy, perhaps best embodied by that Khadafi-like non-elect demi-deity that is Johan Cruyff. Apparently it was he who suggested to Laporta to appoint Guardiola instead of a big-name coach. By virtue of his personal player credentials as well as managerial successes with the club (11 titles: 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 Leagues, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Super Cup and 3 Spanish Super Cups) Cruyff bestows upon Barça that air of timeless aristocratic confidence and entitlement to greatness that many other clubs wish they had – and he makes sure that others don’t forget it.
For all of the above reasons, it is a significant achievement and an especially delightful one (for myself and many others) that José Mourinho has already been able to deny this Barça team an important title, whose symbolic value has been rendered even greater by the continuing rivalry that exists between the Portuguese coach and the Catalan outfit. And it is indeed delightful due to the mistiming of Barça’s most titled coach deriding the current Real Madrid coach for being “merely” a “coach of titles and not a coach of football (following the 1-1 tie in the Bernabeu last Saturday on April 16). As many times in the past, the result (“the finger” was sufficient to defeat Barça, no “manita” needed) and José’s perfectly simple retort (watch video) will have El Flaco wishing he had kept his big mouth shut.
Another legend that probably now wishes he had done the same is none other than Madrid’s own Alfredo di Stefano, who was openly critical of Mourinho’s game plan in the Liga game at the Bernabeu preceeding the cup final. As Phil Ball from ESPN points out quite well, what di Stefano, Barça and pretty much everyone failed to see is that the formation and strategy deployed by Madrid in the 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu was a deliberate choice by Mourinho. Its success in containing the blaugranas gave him enough supporting evidence to extend it into a more attack-minded version the second time around in the cup. Barcelona failed to cope with either version. No surprise that not much has been heard from the 85-year old since then, and that only muted embarrassed approval was forthcoming from Valdano, another nemesis lurking in the backstage and scheming against the Portuguese but whose time at the club is probably soon coming to an end.
The shallowness of these two outbursts, the embarrassing tirade by di Stefano and Cruyff’s half-hearted snipe, is reinforced by a fact that any football specialist should be able to recognize, and that is that skilled football is not defined by any particular set of skills, but a balance of many. As the first incarnation of the galacticos at the turn of the century quickly learnt through defeat, Barcelona is only as successful as it is because it has an excellent defense (best of the main European championships this season <1>: only 17 goals taken in) and surreal-like pressing and ball recovery capabilities, which are key to allowing it to enjoy as much ball possession. At the other end of the spectrum, Real Madrid beat Valencia 6-3, away at the Mestalla, by playing some rather attractive football punctuated by numerous and spectacular goals, including this beauty by Kaka. The simplistic juxtaposition of “an all-attacking Barça” versus “a defensively pragmatic Real Madrid” is clearly only appealing to those who choose to disregard the facts.
Irrespective of what happens on Wednesday in the Champions League and thereafter, hopefully Madrid fans and management have now really understood (although it is not necessarily this writer’s wish), that which their own bizarre mindset and identity prevent them from grasping fully, which is that José can and will deliver more, but that he needs more time in order to reinforce the structure and mentality of his team in order to restore a modicum of stability comparable to that enjoyed by Barcelona. As was the case at Inter, with a little more influence on the composition of the squad and by building on the achievements accomplished this year, it is probably next season that could prove to be a decisive turning point in the club’s fortunes.
<1> Interestingly, Borussia Dortmund are a close second with only 19 goals in the Bundesliga so far, followed by Milan AC in 3rd place with 23.
In a classic case of media-applied Murphy’s Law, ever since I visited Sevilla in October 2010 and wrote a report on the team proclaiming it to be the only outfit that could challenge Madrid and Barcelona for the title (which I plan to re-post here shortly), the Sevillistas have struggled to reproduce the kind of form that made them two consecutive UEFA Europea League Cup winners and Barcelona’s executioners in Monaco for the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 2006. This season they are performing even less consistently than last year despite the recruitment of experienced coach formerly with Mallorca, Gregorio Manzano.
But tonight all that has been forgotten and at least momentarily put to right with an outstanding performance against Barça at home in the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. Of course, it wasn’t without the customary dose of extreme suffering that all teams who face the modern football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters must bear, which was mostly felt in the 1st half in the form of suffocating pressure by Barça and almost total lack of ball possession by Sevilla. Fortune was involved for sure as the night could certainly have ended in a humiliating defeat too, as both Iniesta and Messi once hit the crossbar each, and another timely clearance by feisty Chilean midfielder Gary Medel prevented Barça taking the lead.
But putting it only to luck would be completely incorrect as Sevilla did stand up to the bookies’ favorite and put on a formidable fight back in the 2nd half, powered forward by none other than veteran Frederic Kanouté who came on for an uninspired Zokora. The former Spurs man (standard Brit journos’ EPL-centered reference) was clearly feeling very confident as his deft single touches frequently made the difference and outclassed the now predictable one-twos by the blaugranas. Most importantly, he provided much needed maturity, intelligence and skill that was lacking in the first half and especially in midfield, by his ability to win, hold and distribute the ball. Combining deftly on the left with another 2nd half substitute, the Argentian Perotti, Kanouté and his teammates created numerous chances in the 2nd half following the quick equalizer by Jésus Navas on the 48th minute, and will surely rue the missed opportunities to put the game away, notably a Jésus Navas shot that had seen the Barça defense in tatters.
Guardiola will know that his team got away relatively lucky. Sure, they showed their usual brilliance and notably that midfield magic pair of Xavi and Iniesta shined in both delivering caviar crosses begging to be put away by strikers. But the powerful resistance mounted by the home team shook them in their confidence and thus they experienced a significantly long wobbly patch between the start of the 2nd half and 80 minutes that led their coach to take El Guaje for midfielder Seydou Keita, a sure sign of acquiescence to a draw.
A much needed inspiration for an otherwise sad week that has seen the departure of Sevilla’s providential striker Luis Fabiano back to his homeland. We will miss you but you shall not be forgotten, Faboloso.