Still on course for a ‘Classico’ Champions League final

Barcelona v Bayern Munich Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Barcelona v Bayern Munich
Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in my humble opinion, Messi is the greatest footballer of all time. Yes, better even than Maradona, certainly better than Pele, and better than Ronaldo in the current era.

Lots of people have been getting rather excited about Messi’s performance in Barcelona’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League semi final. Messi was sensational but then he’s almost always sensational. The truly exceptional thing about what he did to Bayern is that by Messi’s standards it wasn’t particularly exceptional.

The late swing to Barcelona in the match produced a margin of victory which was as unexpected as that achieved by the Conservatives in the UK general election. Apparently Luis Enrique’s future at the Nou Camp is uncertain despite his side being on course for a treble this season. Perhaps if the role becomes vacant, Ed Miliband can apply and test out his ideas of ‘pre-distribution’ in La Liga.

Distributive justice is a big issue in Spain right now with the Spanish football federation announcing this week that the league will be suspended from the 16th May owing to a dispute with the government, primarily over TV rights. Let’s hope that it’s resolved and we’re not denied the chance to watch some more of Messi.

Ahead of the game, Pep Guardiola suggested that “there is no defence that can stop Messi” and his defence literally fell over themselves in proving their coach right. Guardiola is not the sort of coach that would build his tactical plan around stopping Messi; Bayern attacked throughout and sought to put Barca on the back foot. Eventually however, Messi had the opportunity to put defenders on the back foot and once he’s done that the defensive task is a near impossible one.

Recovering the tie now looks like a near impossible task for Bayern. I can see them winning in Munich, I wouldn’t even be that surprised to see them score three goals, but I would be very surprised if they manage to keep a clean sheet.

Bayern have already won the Bundesliga and are on course for their third consecutive domestic double. They currently sit 14 points ahead of second placed Wolfsburg in the league. They are in danger of becoming so dominant domestically that the step-up in competition at this stage of the Champions League will come as an increasingly significant shock to the system.

I’m a great admirer of German football and it has long been held up as an exemplar of equality but Bayern are one of the global super clubs and they are leaving domestic rivals (most notably Borussia Dortmund this season) far behind. Consider that in Scotland, Celtic have clinched the title and are currently 11 points ahead of second-placed Aberdeen. The gap at the top of the Bundesliga is larger than the one in the SPFL without Rangers.

My prediction for the second leg is that Bayern will win but not by enough to go through. I’ll go for 2-1. Messi will probably score for Barcelona.

In the other semi final Juventus achieved an impressive 2-1 victory over Real Madrid. Italian football remains in a relatively poor state but getting a side to a Champions League final for the first time since Inter in 2009/10 would be a sure step in the right direction. With Napoli and Fiorentina contesting Europa League semi finals this week, we may be witnessing a gradual renaissance for Italian football. Juve’s performance had plenty of impressive aspects to it: they were comfortable in possession, quick and dangerous on the break, and full of confidence in their game plan.

There are still many people (especially in the UK) who retain a view that Italian football is boring, largely because they consider it unduly focused on the defensive arts. It’s a bit like those who were full of scorn for Mayweather’s ‘defensive’ victory over Pacquiao (I was supporting the Pac Man too) while not appreciating that it was Floyd who both threw and landed more punches.

Real certainly lost the fight on points but they are far from knocked out. Much has been made of Gareth Bale’s lacklustre performance and the Welshman is in danger of becoming something of a scapegoat in the Spanish capital. He’s just returned from injury and while he had a poor game it was part of a poor overall team performance.

Ancelotti retains great faith in Bale and he’s right to do so. A drop in form and confidence can happen to any player (even, occasionally, to Messi – remember the latter rounds of the World Cup last summer?) and Bale is both experienced and mature enough to handle it. He has become more technically accomplished in Madrid, adding greater finesse to his immense pace and power. He is a player you would still rather have on your team than lining up against you.

With an away goal and only a single goal deficit to overturn, Bale and his teammates will approach the second leg with enough belief that they can reach a ‘Classico’ final against Barcelona. There’s nobody better at defending a lead than the Italians but the Bernabeu is no easy place to do it.

I’m a little torn on this one; I’d love to see a Classico final but my love for Italian football, even though I’m a Roma rather than a Juventus fan, means I would be far from disappointed if the Old Lady remains standing after the second leg. I suspect she’s headed for a fall though and I predict that Real will win the return 2-0.

The Champions League final will be played in Berlin on the 6th of June. Whichever teams make it, I think we can look forward to a classic. Especially if Messi is playing.

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Out of their league

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner www.flickr.com

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner
http://www.flickr.com

Last week was a bad one for English clubs in Europe. Manchester City were given another lesson by Barcelona while Arsenal showed how many lessons they still need to learn as they went down to an abject defeat to Monaco. Arsene Wenger is known as ‘The Professor’ but his players appear to have been skipping European studies class. After almost 20 years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger appears to be a tenured professor but the defeat to Monaco may be the one that changes the board’s thinking.

The Europa League is often regarded as a bit of a consolation prize for teams dropping out of the Champions League but it did not provide much consolation for Liverpool as they proved not up to the task in Besiktas. Tottenham fell to Fiorentina to leave Everton as the only remaining English (indeed British) representatives in the Europa League.

Rodgers opted to rest Coutinho in Turkey and Pochettino left Harry Kane on the bench in Italy. Like Liverpool’s Brazilian playmaker, priorities remained on British soil. Liverpool in particular though should still have had enough quality to progress.

The Premier League is much hyped (and I include myself in that having written a previous post proclaiming the Premier League as the best in the world) but the quality doesn’t always justify it. Teams such as Liverpool and Spurs, competing for a top four finish in the Premier League, should be winning in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Brendan Rodgers was asked after the game if he felt that losing might be a bit of blessing in disguise. He replied: “Yeah. At the time, you don’t like to say that, because we want to win. And Europe this season has been an experience for us, both in the Champions League and the Europa League. But we’re at a different stage to a lot of other teams. A lot of our young players have gained invaluable experience in Europe this year, and they’re going to be better for it.”

It might have been even better for them to gain an additional round or two of experience. Liverpool’s team is full of experienced internationals so it’s a bit rich to claim that they’re at a ‘different stage’ to many others. Well, it is true I suppose that 16 teams are at a different, that is to say later, stage in the tournament than Liverpool.

There’s no question that Rodgers treated the tournament as an exercise in experience and it’s turned out to be a far from fruitful one. Overall, Liverpool’s performances in Europe this season, in both the Champions League and the Europa League, have been very poor. An excellent win against Manchester City yesterday still doesn’t justify the attitude displayed to European failure.

Liverpool will not win the Premier League this season, although they do still have the chance to claim silverware in the FA Cup. Re-qualifying for the Champions League is the priority, but what then? Will the recent ‘invaluable experience’ that the players have collected alongside stamps in their passports make Liverpool Champions League contenders next season? I suspect not.

After a very slow start to the season, Liverpool have scrambled back into contention for a top four finish – I think the battle is between them and Arsenal and expect the current top three will occupy the same positions at the end of the season. But even if Liverpool manage to finish fourth they would have to play a qualifying round to get into the Champions League group phase just as Arsenal did this season. Who did the Gunners beat to qualify? Besiktas. 1-0 over two legs.

It’s one thing for Rodgers to treat a trip to the Bernabeu in Madrid as an exercise in experience building, as he did in November, but it’s quite another to travel to Istanbul with the same mentality. The Liverpool boss should look instead to another side in the Spanish capital – Atletico Madrid.

Atletico won the Europa League in 2011/12 and finished fifth in La Liga. Two years later, they were Champions League finalists and La Liga champions. Lessons learned. A winning habit was formed in the side and the players believed that they could compete with Europe’s best.

Brendan Rodger’s wants the same for his side but to achieve it he should start taking tournaments such as the Europa League more seriously. Liverpool went back to league business yesterday and won, but in Europe this season they’ve looked decidedly out of their league.

Champions League intrigue

Photo by: El Ronzo www.flickr.com

Photo by: El Ronzo
http://www.flickr.com

As usual, the group stage of the Champions League has been little more than a procession for most of the contenders for the trophy. The tournament is a cash cow and a very well milked one. Nonetheless, as the group stage approaches its conclusion with one round of fixtures remaining, there is much to ponder in the performances of the English sides.

Chelsea have shown themselves to be the best side in the English Premier League by some distance so far this season and they are replicating their domestic form on the European stage. A 5-0 away win in Germany sends out quite a statement. Mourinho described the performance as “perfect” and spoke of his team’s “big self-belief.”

Self-belief doesn’t come any bigger than Mourinho’s own but he’s almost never failed to walk the strutting walk to accompany his generally self-congratulatory talk. I think he’s the best manager in the world and has been for some time.

I expect Chelsea to end the season as league champions but winning the Champions League will be much tougher. Real Madrid are the best team in Europe – for me the recent El Classico proved that beyond doubt – but Barcelona and Bayern Munich both have enough quality, experience and fire power to be very confident themselves. Madrid, Barca and Bayern are the big three in Europe right now in my assessment with Chelsea probably leading the chasing pack.

Two other English sides also had an excellent week in the tournament. Arsenal recorded a comfortable win over Dortmund (admittedly a side that looks a shadow of its recent self) while Manchester City produced a remarkable late comeback to claim a 3-2 win over Bayern. Aguero scored a hat-trick and vividly demonstrated the sort of quality that sides need to succeed at that level.

Sadly such quality is not much in evidence at Liverpool at the moment. The team at least avoided defeat for the first time in November with a 2-2 draw at Ludogorets. Remarkably, Rodgers referred to the result as “a real confidence boost” which only serves to highlight the depths to which confidence has sunk at Anfield.

The confidence boosting performance included another howler from goalkeeper Mignolet and the concession of a late equaliser at the cost of two points. If that’s his side playing with confidence then we Liverpool fans have a lot to be nervous about.

Liverpool can still qualify with victory over Basel next month but on current form I don’t feel too confident about that. As he goes about the task of repairing his team’s dented morale, I hope that Rodgers gets some advice from his old mentor Mourinho. After all, the Portuguese always looks as though he has a little confidence to spare.

Benched at the Bernabeu

 

bernabeu-dugout

Bernabeu bench. Photo by Hugo, http://www.flickr.com

Brendan Rodgers caused uproar with his team selection against Real Madrid last night. Seven of the starting 11 from Saturday’s defeat were rested (or dropped depending on the interpretation) including Gerrard and Sterling. Gary Linker accused Rodgers of having ‘thrown in a white towel’ and called the move ‘unbefitting of a club of Liverpool’s stature.’

Rodgers hit back in post-match interviews saying: “I didn’t see this as a big showcase game where I had to play the so-called names.” If Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League is not ‘a big showcase game’ then I’ve no idea what is.

The manager went on to say: “I picked a team that I thought could get a result. The players that came in were excellent and we were unfortunate not to get a result.” I didn’t see the game so I can’t comment on the performance but from all the reports I’ve read it seems as though Liverpool were dogged and determined while being thoroughly outclassed.

Of course the actual result was better than the one achieved at Anfield with the big names in the side and Rodgers also said that some players were dropped because of how poorly they played at Newcastle. He would have been justified in changing the entire team after that performance but I can’t help feeling he got exactly the result he expected in Madrid.

His judgment appears to have been that Liverpool had little or no chance of getting anything from the game irrespective of the line-up he chose and so he opted to drop some players as punishment for their recent form and rest others for the game against Chelsea at the weekend.

Rodgers believes that Real Madrid are the best side in the world. I agree with him. I think he also believes that Real will win all of their matches in this Champions League group and thus Liverpool are effectively competing in a mini group with Basel and Ludogorets. He may well be right about that as well. So what to make of his team selection?

Managers are paid to make decisions and they will succeed or fail by those decisions. I’ve written previously that much as I admire a lot of the work Rodgers has done at Anfield, I think he has made some very questionable decisions, mostly in the transfer market.

Some have suggested that Rodgers disrespected the competition. I don’t have too much sympathy for that view. UEFA have done that all by themselves with their remorseless and money driven expansion of the tournament.

Also, their rule that clubs are required to “field their strongest team throughout the competition” is a ridiculous one. Who is going to determine that an insufficiently strong team has been fielded? How will that decision be reached exactly? If is a team is already eliminated, is not a good idea to give some fringe and younger players a taste of the Champions League?

Another accusation is that the team selection was disrespectful to the club, ‘unbefitting’ as Lineker put it. Here it gets a little trickier. Rodgers is absolutely entitled to field any team he likes. It should be his decision and his alone. If, as a Liverpool fan, I had spent a lot of money travelling to Spain for the game then I think I would be quite upset at the team that was picked. The fans surely travelled in hope more than expectation but that hope must have been all but extinguished when the team was announced.

Pragmatists argue that the decision can only be judged after the Chelsea game and then the remaining two fixtures in the group. There is some truth in this. If Liverpool win all three games then Rodgers will surely feel that he made the right call.

I think the decision was wrong though even if we do triumph in all three of those games. It was wrong because of the tone it sets. Rodgers just indicated to his players, ‘you are not good enough to compete at this level; we can’t really expect to get a result here.’

Liverpool are returning to the Champions League after quite a long absence. Everything the manager says and does should convey the message: “this is where we belong.” His selection against Real did not do that. The side already looks like it will struggle to qualify for next year’s Champions League and Rodgers’ decision last night is only likely to have undermined confidence.

The way that managers conduct themselves and the way their decisions are perceived matters a lot. Just ask David Moyes. Although Manchester United’s Champions League performances under him weren’t too bad he didn’t look like he felt he really belonged there. I’m sure he actually felt he did but it didn’t always look that way.

Compare that to Louis van Gaal. His side are not even in the Champions League but he has the strut of a man who believes his team could probably win it. I expect Manchester United to be back on the Champions League stage next year and I don’t think he’ll take a weakened side anywhere.

Rodgers is apparently learning Spanish and hopes to manage in Spain one day but it remains to be seen when he or Liverpool will next get a chance to test themselves against Real at the Bernabeu.

Blogvember

fountain-pen

Fountain Pen. Picture by: Ali from Riyadh, http://www.flickr.com

It is 14 weeks since this blog was launched. Apparently, on average, this is around the time that many bloggers give up. It proves to be a bit harder than imagined, a bit more time consuming, and the number of people viewing on a typical day would fit comfortably into a Cinquecento.

The goal at launch was to post at least once a week. This is post 11 so we’re a little behind schedule and that’s partly why I’m going to attempt to post every day in November. The aim is to quickly generate quite a lot of content for the site and also experiment with a few different formats and types of post.

The average length of post on this blog is between 1,200 and 1,500 words. Brevity has never been my strong suit (my PhD thesis eventually crawled to a conclusion at 95,000 words – it now works well as a bedtime story for the kids, they go straight to sleep) but some posts over the next month are likely to be considerably shorter given the self-imposed time pressure. I’ll even tweet about it (@ciwilkie) in a bid to discipline myself with 140 characters or fewer.

So to kick off this month long post-a-day challenge, some brief thoughts on a couple of things that have caught my eye in the last few days:

Steven Gerrard – football’s honest man

Gerrard is an honest footballer. You’ll never catch him giving less than 100%. You’ll never catch him hiding. You’ll never hear him give a less than honest assessment of his own or his team’s performance. Yesterday I read an interesting and typically honest interview he gave to the Daily Mail.

He revealed that Liverpool haven’t offered him a new contract yet. His current one expires next summer and Gerrard insists he has no plans to retire. I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role) and if not, he’s hardly likely to be short of suitors elsewhere.

Gerrard must be one of the best players never to have won a league championship medal. His slip-up against Chelsea during last season’s title run in was a huge blow to player and club but his response has been typical of the man. Asked if he hears the many chants that now reference the incident, he said: “Of course. There are thousands of them singing it. Does it affect me? No, it drives me to perform better.”

The banana skin nature of his Chelsea slip ensured it would be subject to future ridicule but it’s quite ridiculous to suggest that it cost Liverpool the title. The last few games of the campaign showed that Liverpool were a little too lacking in guile and experience to be champions and that would still have been the case if Gerrard had not slipped.

If Liverpool don’t retain his services then there seems a good chance he would choose to go abroad. It’s something I think he could and should have done a while ago. I could imagine him being a success in the same way that Paul Ince, a very similar player to Gerrard, was at Inter Milan.

As a good captain, Gerrard also defended Balotelli in the interview, saying that the striker is “working hard, doing extra shooting sessions.” Those sessions should at least serve to improve the fitness of the goalkeepers if they have to go chasing after the various wayward efforts that Mario has specialised in of late. Still, as Gerrard says: “I am not gonna judge him after 10 games.”

Which brings me to the second thing that caught my eye recently:

Manchester City – crisis, what crisis?

Robbie Savage, a pundit who lives up to his name, has used his BBC column to stick the boot in to City after a disappointing week for the club. Sticking the boot in came naturally to Robbie throughout his playing career and he’s taken the same studs up approach to his analysis.

He claims that those who say City are ‘on the brink of a crisis are not far wrong.’ Savage’s thesis is that City aren’t going to win the Champions League (almost certainly true), that they might not even qualify from their group (it’s far from certain that they will) and that if they fail to beat Man U in the derby then they’ll fall dangerously far behind Chelsea (who Savage thinks won’t lose three times all season) in the title race.

If City are in crisis, or even on the brink of it, then it’s a condition that most clubs would settle for. Of course the huge sums that have been invested at the Etihad bring correspondingly large expectations. The team has disappointed in Europe but they have yet to experience any luck in the Champions League draw.

Chelsea do look like the team to beat this season but I’d still be amazed if City are not their nearest challengers, and genuine challengers at that. Impressive though Chelsea’s start has been they would quickly become quite vulnerable with a few injuries to some key players and just as with Balotelli, it all feels a little early to be reaching firm conclusions.

Pellegrini is shrewd and calm. He won’t panic and he’s been around the block enough times to know that a few poor results don’t make a crisis. I expect City to win the derby tomorrow and if they follow that up with a result in the Champions League then all of a sudden the supposed crisis will evaporate.

Savage’s studs will then have to seek a new target.

Well, as this post heads towards 1,000 words I’ll stop with day 1 of blogvember successfully ticked off. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this blog (posts you’ve particularly enjoyed, things you’d like to see) then please leave a comment below. Be as honest as Gerrard but slightly less savage than Savage.