Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Despite appearances to the contrary, having a family and a social agenda means that important milestones will sometimes be missed, so hopefully all 3 of my blog readers will forgive me for not posting anything on the last 4 games. I promise to catch it up over the next two game days. However, AJB is back tonight for a riveting Ukraine-Sweden game that is promising to be a firecracker!!! Sorry, forgot to turn off the Sky Sports / BBC hype pump, that wasn’t me talking.
It is interesting to observe how far the co-opting, and at the same time, the sanitisation and the numbing of fans’ passion has gone, and that corporations now feel quite unabashed in offering up their definition of what being a fan is about in full public view. Gone are the classic images of footballers fooling around with the ball in airports or just kicking it around in the stadium. The central theme running through one of the tournament’s main sponsors campaign (a company known for its various electronic products) is that what constitutes “the most dedicated fan” seems mainly linked to ability to dress silly and heavily going in for face painting. Never mind keeping up a positive attitude when things are not going well, or attending far away games in Eastern Europe surrounded by unfriendly cops. But commitments of that type do not make for media-friendly images that can be used to create that diffuse but sufficiently bland warm feeling that gives sponsors the sense of purpose in funding such nonsense.
Ukraine-Sweden, 11 June 2012, 20h45 kick-off: 2:1
Hollywood factor: Andriy Voronin’s signature pony tail offers a number of options: ideally that of a Eastern European baddie in straight-to-DVD spy thrillers, but failing that there might just be space in porn. What? He’s cut it off (the pony tail)? That’s what happens when you join Liverpool, all your self-confidence goes down the drain (exhibit B: Fernando Torres).
Old/mean man kudos: At 35, Andriy Shevchenko is Ukraine’s most senior and undoubtedly most illustrious player, having starred at AC Milan and then, erm, Chelsea. Notwithstanding that, despite looking as if he has just managed to grow his first beard, Bayern’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is another credible contender at 33. Otherwise, all of Ukraine’s players are really nice guys in touch with their sensitive side.
French connection: This is another stretch: former Lyon defender Pape Diakhaté, currently with Spanish club Grenada FC, officially spent 4 seasons at Dynamo Kiev from 2007 to 2011 (although he was loaned out for 2 of them). That should be amply sufficient to get him invited to the late evening piss-up on M6 that passes for a football discussion show, to offer his views on “what it’s like over there”. There might be a last dash attempt for pre-retirement heroics for Sheva, especially after that lovely flying header and if the new owners at PSG fail to land a current big name like Ibrahimovic or Tevez.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: 22-year old Andrei Yarmolenko is not exactly a household name just yet (as such transfer targets quickly become), but has managed to get himself noticed during Kiev’s recent Champions League outings. With a total of 12 goals (to 28 appearances) for club last season, and another 4 (out of 7) for country, he could be the new big thing for the right club. With Bili the Kid at Everton, blue would perhaps be a good destination for him, unless Arsène decides he can’t afford Dzagoev but wants to add to list of his alternative signings from Eastern Europea. Otherwise, on the left wing, Yevhen Konoplyanka was equally if not more impressive throughout the evening, showing lots of technical skills and courage to take on opponents directly.
Hollywood factor: Am I the only one to have noticed the striking resemblance between Sunderland’s Sebastien Larsson and comedy stand up “executive drag” star Eddie Izzard? I wonder who’s better at the other one’s skills – Larsson with the jokes, or Izzard with the ball?
Old/mean man kudos: In addition to Sweden, 34-year old Olof Mellberg has played in Spain, England, Italy and now Greece, for the last 3 years (at Olympiakos)! If that isn’t proof of a big heart, I don’t know what is.
French connection: Unlike for the Ukranians and many other nations covered so far, the Swedes seem to quite like playing in France. Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson spent two years at Rennes from 2004 to 2006, Kim Källström has been at Lyon forever, while Johan Elmander got Europe to take notice while at Toulouse, from 2006 to 2008; a bit sadly for him, only Bolton was watching.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: at lot has been said of midfielder Rasmus Elm, currently serving at AZ Alkmaar and with 10 goals to his name this season. At 24, he might be a ripe for a new challenge.
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Historic moment of the match: The dramatic and emotionally loaded hug between Andriy Shevchenko and the grumpy old Oleg Blokhin following the former’s 2nd goal – they indulged in another one at the end of the game.
Hero of the game: Shevchenko, for that beautiful 1st headed goal, created from nearly nothing, and for confounding his critics (including this scribe) by deciding the game with the 2nd (and getting one over Ibrahimovic in the process).
The front pages of the Italian press will tonight be all black and white, but for the nerazzurri, it is like a re-birth. One almost wishes that the season was already over, as one could hardly pen a more fitting & emotionally uplifting scenario to wrap an otherwise difficult season that has tested the frontiers of complexity. This evening’s Milan derby has done a lot to restore pride and happiness, as well as remind the nerazzurri of the kind of passion that has been missing for most of the season. Even the ridiculously incompetent (or purposefully malignant?) refereeing trio could not dent the force of the hosts tonight, despite denying them a goal and then gifting a non-existent penalty to the visiting Milan AC.
Il Principe started things off brilliantly with a true poacher’s goal, but the fans then had to endure the now predictable officials’ “helping hand”. Unsurprisingly, the squad suffered after the gifted penalty was converted, and was further tested after the second goal by Ibrahimovic. But the ageing “senators”, led by the tireless and as usual exemplary captain Zanetti, have again confounded the critics by digging deep for that agonistic spirit that has characterised the side that won the historic triple in 2010. Let them now come forward and argue that the squad is old and depleted – they would be hard pressed to find evidence of fatigue and resignation in tonight’s performance. This was partly helped by the compact 4-5-1 formation (with Wesley occasionally venturing forward in support of the otherwise lonely Milito), but fundamentally this game was all about heart, guts and motivation in standing up for self and fighting injustice. Because it would clearly have been a case of daylight robbery had the visitors managed to get away with 3 points.
Instead of suffering what most observers mights have already banked on, the blue & black soldiers rose to the occasion, similarly in many ways to the return leg in 2010 in its dramatic intensity and sense of overwhelming favoritism for the opponent. And with what aplomb! Douglas Sisenado gifted us one of those goals that had forever endeared him to the nerazzurri fans in the past and notably in 2010, reminding all of his attacking flair and capacity to take responsibility.
The joy of this victory is doubly delicious as it presented the final blow to the cousins’ aspirations, condemning them to a title-less season and putting Allegri’s last season’s success into a more humble context.
It was certainly a most appropriate way to pay homage to one of the longer serving faithful, for whom it was the last game at home, Iván Ramiro Córdoba Sepúlveda.
The dream continues!
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.
How is it possible for the Italian football authorities to reduce Ibra’s initial 3 game suspension for the punch on Bari’s Rossi to only 2 games? 20/20 is a mutha, really. Apparently, he was trying to get the ball, according to reports. Yes, Fergie would probably agree, Rooney was trying to do the same the other day. Galliani and him should start a club. Unbelievable. Here’s how I feel about that.