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Bale is a little fish in a big pond: thoughts on the Champions League final

Good morning everyone, quick post today, nothing well written or interesting. So, you know, like the old days.

I’m excited for the Champions League finals for the first time in a while and it’s because of Juventus. For me Juve embodies the perfect combination of attacking and defensive football. They kinda park the bus, but they do it with style.

Someone will read that I just said that Juve park the bus and get all angsty but what I mean is that they are a well organized defensive team. I like that. I think it’s a thing of beauty to watch a well organized defensive team. Not just in the way that they move as a unit but with Juventus there is also a certain attitude which hearkens back to the old days.

I’m not calling Juventus’ defense the C¹ word. They are just a good team who play a well organized brand of defense.

They are also an exciting attacking team and Pogba, Pirlo, and Vidal are three of my favorite midfielders in the world right now. Pirlo plays passes that make me wish I’d started paying football when I was a kid. Pogba is probably the best in the world right now at turning defense into attack. A lot of players get labeled as “the new Patrick Vieira” but he’s the real deal. And Vidal is very similar to Pogba. Those three compliment each other very well.

It’s a misnomer that watching a team like Juventus put on a defense-first performance isn’t fun, exciting, or entertaining. Once you realize what they are doing, the excitement is in every moment of build-up play, every tackle, every block. It’s like NASCAR, the excitement is in the idea that there might be a crash.

And when the defense-first team does break away with the ball, everyone is on their toes. No one breathes for that 30 seconds as the attacking team is suddenly countered.

I should say, it’s exciting for the neutral. For the attacking team’s fans it’s a combination of frustration and heartbreak. For the defensive team’s fans it’s a combination of panic and bliss.

And so, this Champions League final, pitting Italy’s Juventus versus the Spanish Barcelona, with the Spanish side’s star attack of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, is going to be 90 minutes of fun. That’s what I hope anyway.

In my heart I suspect that Barcelona’s attack is going to be too strong and that Juve won’t have an answer.

I suspect that because let’s face it, Real Madrid probably should have scored at least another goal. But for Bale there went Real.

Bale had 7 chances in that game, more than any other player, and only got one on target — a long range, speculative effort. He also had two “big chances”, shots right in front of goal, which he failed to get on target. And where the Bale of last year finished those chances, the Bale of this year looked a bit like a headless chicken.

I haven’t watched him enough this season but his dip in stats, plus reading the reports and hearing the Real Madrid fans voice their utter disdain for him, makes me wonder if he isn’t quite at the level of a club like Real Madrid. You know, a little fish in a big pond. You put him at a small club like West Brom, West Ham, or Tottenham (all the hams), and he looks remarkably good. You put him next to Ronaldo and Benzema and he looks remarkably ordinary.

My guess is that when he moves back to a smaller club he’ll look like a world beater again.

That’s it for today. Les will have a column out tomorrow and I will make some comments about Walcott/Bale in the comments section at lunch.

See you then.

Qq

¹Catenaccio

Stadion_von_Monaco_Seitenansicht

Monaco v. Arsenal: No We Can

By Bunburyist — Senior Three Handed Analogist for 7amkickoff

In the first leg of this tie, the weight of expectation was on Arsenal, and tonight we will see how Monaco deal with the same burden. Because, let’s face it, Monaco are clear favorites to win this tie, and that puts them in an unfamiliar situation. Throughout the group stage, they were the plucky underdogs, but the expectation now is that they should and will progress to the quarterfinals. We must hope the pressure gets to them as, apparently, it did to us.

So, that’s it really. The handbrake is off. We’ve got nothing to lose. They do. I’m expecting an all-out assault, a 0-0-10 formation pitted against their 10-0-0.

Can we do it? On the one hand, and although this tie looks like a foregone conclusion, there’s nothing impossible or implausible about us winning the game 3-1 and forcing extra time, at which point anything can happen. Since when was a 3-1 result an impossibility? Monaco can score tonight (on the counterattack, which they will), and nothing would change. We’d still need three goals. And we’ll get them. I’m predicting a 4-2 win, followed by wins in the quarter and semi-finals, followed by a final against Real Madrid, a game that will see Ronaldo petulantly intercepting a goal-bound effort by Gareth Bale, followed by us winning the trophy, forever banishing the memory of Almunia at the near post in Paris.

On the other hand, if I were a betting man, I’d put money on a 2-0 or 2-1 win for Arsenal. You know, the kind of result we’re used to seeing at this stage of the competition. A rousing, gutsy response to a first-leg loss, just so that we can congratulate ourselves on losing the tie in a spirited fashion (see Bayern Munich last year…and, umm, the year before¹).

But on still another hand (this is a three-handed analogy), I’m not a betting man, and this is not last year or the year before. Unlike years past, we go into this R16 game with Ozil and Alexis, a decent goalkeeper, a Coquelin, a beefier Giroud, and crackin’ form. We really are in crackin’ form. And I don’t mean crackin’ like the stop motion monster in Clash of the Titans, the 1981 film that featured a tin owl and Vida Taylor’s naked bum. No, instead I mean crackin’ like Vida Taylor’s bum. We’ve won something like 40 of the last 15 games. It’s incredible. If we take that kind of form into the game, we can lose! Or not lose!

Whatever your persuasion, this will be an exciting game. We’ll no doubt give it the old college try, and Monaco will be relying on a (now-meaningless) sense of the underdog, and a few key players returning from injury. Can Ricardo Carvalho replicate his dickful years at Chelsea? Can Berbatov channel the hubristic stench of United and Tottenham? Can Kondogbia remind some Arsenal fans to bleat about how we should have signed him? Is Toulalan a bird? These and other questions will be answered tonight.

And then there’s the question of what a win would mean anyway. If we’re honest, the Champions League has felt like a luxury we can’t afford, squad-wise. Yes, it brings in some revenue, but only the most optimistic (some would say delusional) of us would suggest we’ve been capable of winning this competition in the last eight or nine years. Particularly this year, the focus seems to be on salvaging what is reasonably attainable after a disastrous start to the season, and that just about includes our ambitions for an FA Cup and a spot in the top four. A Champions League trophy sounds ridiculous, frankly. So what’s the point? Aren’t we better off bowing out now rather than dragging out the inevitable?

Maybe, and I’d love to read comments on this issue below, but for me part of the joy of watching the game against Monaco will be the feeling of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we win, I can imagine the magic of a cup run; if we lose, I can imagine a distraction avoided, and a subsequent focus on an FA Cup final, and strong finish in the league. That’s a good place to be. Enjoy the game, whatever the result.

¹And Inter the year before. I was at all three of those matches — 7am

King Haraldinho slain at Stamford Bridge

Tim Todd — British Football Correspondent for 7amkickoff

It’s unusual that English fans will root against an English team in the Champions League. No matter how much they may hate the club in Premier League play, the English will usually still back another English team on the continent. But whatever Nationalistic goodwill Chelsea engendered going into the match evaporated under the hot stage lights of Stamford Bridge as their players dived, rolled, playacted, and fashioned themselves an ass’ head to become the Bottom of this Midwinter Night’s Mare.

Courtesy of the away goal in the first encounter, The Blues only needed a 0-0 draw to go through and they started the match as if that was the game plan. Neither team fashioned many chances as the first 30 minutes saw Chelsea thwarting PSG by sitting deep and PSG struggling to break them down.

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s players seemed to have adopted “Stop, Drop, and Roll” as their mantra. Whenever an opposition player got near enough to a Chelsea player to commit a foul the Chelsea player stopped dead, dropped to the ground, and rolled around like a man on fire.

These theatrics had been foreshadowed by Chelsea’s manager. Prior to the match, Mourinho highlighted what he called PSG’s “aggression” and particularly their serial fouling of Eden Hazard. It was a moment of irony seemingly lost on the press as Mourinho’s teams have long been known for employing all of the dark arts including rotational fouling on the opposition’s best player.

Worse than just rotational fouling, Chelsea’s forward, Diego Costa, plays the role of part-time panto villain and full time actual villain. Costa is a hulking forward who enjoys a guffaw whenever the opposition go to ground easily and is simultaneously one of the quickest players to fall to the ground under any opposition pressure. He is also the kind of player known for spitting on, butting, stamping, and shoving players when he thinks he can get away with it. The referee perhaps missed a penalty for the big Brazilian but also allowed him to get away with butting David Luiz and shoving over Marquinhos. This all comes just a few weeks after video evidence showed Costa clearly stamping on two players in a match against Liverpool. How much longer Costa will get away with this bull in a china shop shtick is unclear.

Perhaps Mourinho’s pre-match speech planted a seed of doubt in the mind of referee Bjorn Kuipers because in the 31st minute he was forced into a decision and went immediately for the harshest punishment. PSG’s best player and star striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovich went in on a 50-50 challenge with Chelsea’s aptly named Oscar. The PSG man did dive in hard but so too did the Chelsea man and when Zlatan saw that he wasn’t going to win the ball with a scything challenge, he tried to pull out. Oscar won the ball and Zlatan got a good chunk of Oscar’s ankle. But the Chelsea man went to the ground, writhing in agony as if his leg had been broken.

The only Chelsea player not pictured here is Diego Costa. He was literally 1 yard off to the right.

Immediately, Chelsea’s captain screamed at the referee and within seconds 9 of Chelsea’s 10 outfield players surrounded the referee and demanded a red card. It was like a scene from the Bible, with Chelsea Captain John Terry pointing to the injured party and then demanding a stoning. Sadly there was no Jesus to impugn those who wished to cast the first stone. Whether the referee really felt that the tackle was worthy of a red card or if he felt the pressure of 9 men and 20,000 Chelsea fans screaming at him is unknown. But for whatever reason, he gave the red card.

Reduced to 10 men, however, PSG played one of their best matches of the season. Despite Chelsea’s theatrics at every touch, PSG were difficult to break down and Chelsea were easily dispossessed time and again. The effervescent Veratti in midfield for PSG impressed with his terrier-like tenacity. If Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere is to emulate any player in world football it has to be Veratti: his efforts to win the ball back and his seemingly magical ability to dribble or pass through a crowd of defenders is the model for a modern center mid.

Veratti was able to find midfield teammate Javier Pastore time and again and the Argentine was on fine form, slicing through Chelsea’s much vaunted defense like a knife through curd. Pastore played in a perfect ball to teammate Cavani and the big forward dribbled around Chelsea’s keeper but with goal gaping he only managed to hit the post. It was the miss of the century, easily beating any that Fernando Torres once conjured while at Chelsea.

In typical fashion, Chelsea scored an ugly goal when PSG failed to deal with a corner. One of the only two English players for Chelsea managed to slash home the ball after PSG failed to clear and Chelsea’s Diego Costa sliced his shot wildly into the air. Chelsea fans rejoiced and all of the rest of England groaned. This was exactly what Chelsea needed: with the away goal in hand and now another goal to back it up, they could sit deep and defend.

But PSG showed real guts and just five minutes after Cahill’s goal, PSG equalized with a bullet header from former Chelsea man David Luiz. If Mourinho had tried to write the script as Chelsea — the Heroes of the British Isles — triumphant over the cheating filthy continental Frenchies, Luiz came in with a quick re-write.

After the Luiz goal, Chelsea looked like a team which lacked ideas and fitness. Yet, the referee once again threw them a life-line awarding a penalty for a Thiago Silva handball in the box. Replays show that it was the correct decision but it still felt harsh – probably because by now everyone who had ever watched a football match were sick of Chelsea’s theatrics and  Hazard scored the penalty and every Chelsea player celebrated with a fist pump, including Cesc Fabregas who must have joined the team from the bench. Either that or he had taken off the invisibility cloak he had worn all match.

But PSG were not to be denied and Thiago Silva would have to be the one to make amends. Just moments after being thwarted by Chelsea’s keeper, Silva smashed home a second header off a corner and PSG levels the tie at 3-3 on aggregate but were ahead by dint of the two away goals. Chelsea were shattered and PSG easily saw out the remainder of the game.

After the match, Mourinho resumed his comedy routine, playing the role of “Saviour of English Football and Culture”. He complained that PSG played “continental” football and called them “clever” two things he claims don’t exist in England.

This character that Mourinho portrays himself and his team as, the last bastions of true Englishness in a sea of continental football is a transparent attempt by the Portuguese manager to curry favor with the British. If there is a style of football that epitomizes “the continent” it is that exact kind of petulant, diving, prissy, cynical, and clever football that has become the hallmark of Mourinho football teams. This Mourinho style is even known by some fans by the synonym “pragmatic” football, often in contrast to the “idealistic” football of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.

This is a manager who once stuck a thumb in another man’s eye. And as far as “clever” play, this is the man who won the Champions League with an Inter side so cynical it was widely hailed as one of the worst Champions League finals ever — well, it was until Chelsea won the trophy a few years later with the ugliest run of matches in the history of the sport.

Most fans in England have grown tired of Mourinho’s pandering to English sensibilities. English fans aren’t stupid. They can see that this is a Portuguese man who manages a team owned by a Russian billionaire. And this is a Chelsea team with barely any English players in it (just two last night) and no English players given a chance out of whatever paltry academy they have.

The English also don’t like foreign pretenders to the crown. Stamford Bridge, the stadium, is named after the famed battle of Stamford Bridge in which the English King Harold defeated the Viking King Harald. In much the same fashion it seems the English public have turned against King Mourinho’s attempt to claim the throne after his team’s shameful display against the French at Stamford Bridge.

Qq