Channeling circumstance into victory

Liverpool are on the verge of a Champions League final against Real Madrid, who survived a Bayern Munich draw in their own home stadium to eventually triumph via their 2-1 victory in Munich a fortnight ago. While Real’s progression was never really in doubt, if you believe those who think that they will always find a way to grind it out, Liverpool – despite their 5-2 advantage have still got things to do and are not safe.

Things would have been easier if the Merseyside team had ground a 5-0 win last week but the defence, it seems, had too muchc of an eye on a next game and coasted in the last ten minutes, giving a chance to Roma to snatch two precious away goals. Surely 5-2 must be enough? Don’t forget that this is the Roma team that defeated Barcelona 3-0 away – AWAY! – to progress via away goals, despite losing 4-1 at home. They are a dangerous team, capable of scoring.

And Liverpool are capable of conceding.

It is no surprise that Liverpool’s attacking players have been let down by the defence, and while Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has calmed the ship in its storm, the whole backline is still not rock solid. Lloris Karius has improved but is not consistent, and Simon Mignolet’s fine form that saw Liverpool sign him seems to have evaporated.

Liverpool’s quest is not helped by the fact that many of their fans have chosen to stay away from Roma. A BBC report saw that the “flash stabbing”, a drive by or quick attack, is one famously perpetuated by the ultras that support Roma, and even factions within the fan base almost see that as a badge of courage. Last week a Liverpool fan was stabbed prior to the match in Roma. This week, many fans have decided against visiting the stadium. Some are doing so with security. The team have issued advice that under no conditions should anyone walk to the Stadio Olimpico. And forget about wearing the Red t-shirt; it is a target board.

Will the conditions be a factor? Few home fans, attacking team, hostile atmosphere? Liverpool fans only need to look back at the conditions they created for a Manchester City team when they threw missiles at the visiting team bus. The Premier League Champions suffered a 3-0 defeat after a run of victories. Whether or not it was because they were jaded, or whether or not they suffered because of the conditions at the visiting ground depends on your point of view.

Perhaps Liverpool will use the circumstances to inspire themselves to grind out a draw or victory to allow them to progress to the final without a show of fear. Channelled correctly, hostile cirumstances can inspire artistry. Look at a different field such as music at the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. While he is famous for the Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy, he famously had to overcome a difficult childhood involving abuse, bullying, health deterioration and rose in spite of it (read more about it here).

Liverpool stand ¬†on the edge of Champions League history. Can they overcome and channel the spirit into victory? They should do, but don’t count against them to concede and make it difficult for themselves!

 

 

French Connection

Ah, Arsene Wenger. Heading into the first leg of the Europa League, having announced his retirement, the Frenchman was living in the praise of the pundits, lauded for revolutionising the English game when he first took over Arsenal having managed in Japan. “Arsene Who?” was Gary Lineker’s reaction at the time. But the pundits, in the run up to the game, as well as the media personnel, just couldn’t get enough of Arsene Wenger. Perhaps it was because it was a quiet day for sports news. So it was Arsene here, Arsene there, Arsene out of every nook and cranny and inch of the woodwork.

I speculated in the last post that the timing of the resignation was perhaps linked to the Europa League and the end of the season, that perhaps it was almost designed to give them an emotional boost heading into the final part of the campaign. So while the journalists were still reproducing the “In Praise of Arsene” articles they had long written, and trying to get the full benefit of them, it was no surprise to me to see a few days later the “Win It for Arsene” cries from individuals such as Per Mertersacker.

The game began rather auspiciously for the home team. Cheered on by a large crowd in Highbury, there were no sign of divisions, as fans of both banners cheered their team on. And when I refer to both sets of fans, I don’t mean the Arsenal and Atletico fans, I mean the Wenger Out and the In Arsene We Trust fans. The manager had at least achieved his aim of eliminating some of the mental distractions for his players. They did not have to play an important game while their own fans fought among themselves.

Further luck was in store when French referee Clement Turpin sent off an Atletico defender with two yellow cards in the space of twelve minutes. Really? In a game of this magnitude? Now, experience tells you that referees try to set the tone of the game at the start, so you try to lay off a hard challenge at the start, no matter how you want to set the tone of the game. Give it ten minutes, let the referee and the emotions of the game settle, then make such challenges. Vrsaljko had obviously not had much experience and naively laid two hard challenges within a short span, believing he was helping his team set a tough tone. Unfortunately he did. He made it tough for his team, alright. Ninety minutes with ten men, away from home.

The visiting team held their ground defensively but withered and it was left to Arsenal’s record signing for a few months, Alexandre Lacazette, another Frenchman, to play his hand and assume his role in the plot. Latching on to a cross from the right, he powered home past Jan Oblak. Both sets of Arsenal fans cheered. Finally the Gunners could score a goal against a team with ten men in their own home ground!

The Europa Cup final in Lyon, Lacazette’s home town. French manager Arsene Wenger’s last campaign. Clement Turpin, French referee, helping to engineer a cup final with Marseille, another French team, in the French suburb of Lyon.

The introduction of former Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Was it because it was Torres’ last season at Atletico, as well, and he would be fired up to give his best? Was it because during his time in the Premier League, he had known how to work his magic at Highbury?

No, silly. It’s because in a game riddled with French connections, Torres is Spanish.

It was left to French centre back Laurent Koscielny, for so many years under the wing of veteran Metersacker and now leader of the defence, to put his hat in the game. Letting an innocuous pass get by him, it was picked up by Antoine Griezmann who with one of Atletico’s few chances managed to get the advantage for the second leg. Griezmann, in case you have not noticed, is also French.

So. One Frenchman’s bid to make it to a final in France in his last managerial season, aided by a French referee and French striker, foiled by a French defender and opposing French striker.

Laurent Koscielny revealed that during a team meeting he had broken down when his children asked why the Arsenal team were so bad.

Wonder what he has to say now?

David and Goliath

Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Little David, with his little slingshot and stone, seemingly pit against the mighty Goliath, who could ______ (fill in the blanks with superlatives here) and ______ and crush ten men with a sneeze. Yes, that story. The mighty Goliath, up to the point where he had to be confronted by David, was seemingly unbeatable, invincible. And then little David toppled him with the humblest of weapons, that story was big news and made him a worldwide sensation.

I repeat this story because it was perhaps not so much David’s prowess more than the unfailability of Goliath that kept people talking. Had David taken out any other opponent with the same amount of pizazz he would have probably received less publicity. It was not so much David, but more Goliath. Even if it had been bad news for the latter, it was what sustained conversations for weeks to come.

So when you read about how Liverpool destroyed Manchester City in the Champions League match at Anfield last night, this fact is underpinned by the supposed Premier League giant being toppled by a lesser neighbour that fuels the news. The Mancunian Blues got toppled by an opponent sixteen points below them in a league which they are expected to win. Can you name what Liverpool did right? True, they had a great attacking first half, and then sat back in the second. And if you read the morning papers, while some of them go on about little David’s conquest of Goliath, some write about how Goliath was dismantled. It is still all about Goliath.

City did miss the experience and guile of talisman Sergio Aguero. In him they have a proven champion and winner who is not fazed by big events. Remember who won City their first Premier League title with what was essentially the last kick of the game? The Cup was almost being flown across town to rivals Manchester United before being called back at the last minute. At least that year the engraver could have made a head start with engraving Manchester on it.

City miss Aguero for various reasons. When they were behind, they would have tried to contain. It has been said of Aguero that had he been playing, he would have known not to make those runs in deep behind the centre back, but would have dropped back to help his midfield. Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sana lack the experience to monitor the game like that.

It was also unfortunate that the City bus came under attack on its journey to Liverpool. Now, say what you like about it, but you cannot disagree that the City players were shaken on their journey in, and would have been shaken on the pitch too. But Pep Guardiola has a point. The attack had been mooted on social media days before and the police did nothing about it. Or at least, they did not take it seriously enough. What would have happened if the City players merely had a typical journey into the grounds? They would undoubtedly have played a better game and would have been more focussed.

The unfortunate thing is, after all that has been written about how the Liverpool fans suffered at Hillsborough, incidents like these, and the ones at Heysel Stadium during the UEFA league clash with Juventus, paint a darker picture.

You can almost be certain that on the return leg, the Manchester City fans will not let it go and there will be crowd trouble.

So close, yet so far

Chelsea missed another opportunity to progress furtherin the Champions League when they ere beaten 3-0 at the Nou Camp yesterday.

The competition has traditionally been dominated by Spanish and German giants, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly making it into the top four. While you may see it as them having strong teams, one cannot help but wonder if the weaknesses of their leagues help in some way or not. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, which other team in the Spanish league do you know of that can regularly pose a threat to other teams?

Chelsea’s loss in the Champions League means the FA Cup and a top four finish suddenly look like they have taken more importance. For many teams, the FA cup is the only chance of silverware now – particularly the big spending ones of Man United and Chelsea. Chelsea are almost guaranteed at least fifth place but need to overhaul a deficit of four points to overtake Liverpool or Tottenham and Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Do you thinking Arsene Wenger is quietly smiling before this evening’s match with AC Milan? Only Manchester City and Liverpool have chances for European glory, and Arsenal are also in the fold thanks to the Europa Cup. Never mind that the latter is actually Champions League Division Two; teams are so desperate for success that if you took a rusty metal plate and called it the Universal Champions trophy, which would be contested among a professional football team and three other under-11s teams, the teams would still take it, and the hollow success. The shame!

Barca in top spot

You would not have wanted to be Andreas Christensen last Wednesday morning.

The Chelsea centre-back, so solid for much of this term that last season’s star, David Luiz, is now relegated to be a substitute, misplaced a pass in the match against Barcelona, allowing the Catalan visitors to score with one of their few chances in the match.

In a game where the visitors stifled possession, controlling over three quarters of the game, Chelsea scored from one of their few attempts at goal. The energetic Willian, secondary to the big names of Hazard and Morata, had two attempts hit the post before scoring. It would have been a game that would have had the London club in the spotlight had the scoreline remained. You could have seen headlines such as “Catalan Crumbling” and read about how the dominance of Messi and Suarez, the MS of MSN (minus Neymar) were reduced to a postscript.

Then came the misplaced pass and how the world turned.

The Catalan club take away an important away goal. With the score tied 1-1, Chelsea must now be on the offensive as away goals count for double in the event of a tie. And you know what Barcelona do to teams who try to play open football on their turf.

Barcelona will be content to sit back and try to get Chelsea on the counter. When they don’t have the ball, then they would employ their stifling brand of football to win possession, and then keep it.

A 1-0 lead would be better one to bring to the Nou Camp, but perhaps Antonio Conte will be playing videos of the previous Chelsea win at Barcelona, where they won 2-0.

In another group match, Bayern Munich hammered Besiktas 5-0 on their own turf, and will take that aggregate lead back to the Allianz Arena. Should Besiktas field a weak team? Or should they play their strongest and try to get a 0-0 draw? The best thing to do is perhaps the latter. One should only look back at the 10-2 aggregate humiliation inflicted on Arsenal to realise that Bayern never offer any mercy. And at home, they definitely won’t.

And neither will Barca.