Pepe – A Real Disgrace

Pepe

Pepe: passing the ball or controlling it? Photo by DSanchez17 http://www.flickr.com

I have to be honest, I wasn’t that excited about the Champions League final last weekend. The match kicked off at 2:45am in Malaysia and I was unsure about getting up to watch it (the middle of the night matches seem to exact a harsher toll than they once did; the price of ageing).

I went to bed without setting my alarm and decided that if I happened to wake up during the night while the game was on then I would get up. I woke up at 3:30am.

Thus I caught the second half, extra time, and penalties before returning to bed, exhausted, around 5:30am. What I saw in this nocturnal interlude was a very spirited and composed performance from Atletico (the job that Simeone has done is truly immense) a rather insipid showing from Real, and, from Pepe, one of the most outrageous displays of cheating I’ve ever seen.

It’s unlikely that Pepe is a reader of this blog but just in case you are reading this Mr. Ferreira, you are a complete and utter disgrace. Your pantomime performance was pitiful and clearly the concept of shame is entirely unfamiliar to you.

Once upon a time, football was a man’s game played by men who would never, ever have dreamed of feigning injury in the way you did repeatedly in Milan. It’s called cheating and you are both a charlatan and a cheat.

It’s incredible that you weren’t sent off, for which we can blame referee Clattenburg who shook his head at you in disgust but inexplicably failed to wave his red card in your direction. Football will not rid itself of the sort of antics that you exemplify until referees and the sport’s authorities start punishing them much more severely.

If it were up to me you would be banned from the group stages of next year’s tournament as an absolute minimum (and possibly made to walk the streets of Madrid wearing a sandwich board with the words ‘I am a charlatan and a cheat’).

‘Bringing the game into disrepute’ has become an increasingly catch-all charge issued by the authorities and yet your performance in one of the game’s most high profile occasions has gone completely unpunished. I have rarely seen football more in disrepute than it was last Saturday as you clutched your face in mock agony.

Football is the beautiful game but it has some depressingly ugly sides and you represent one of the ugliest of them all. Stop diving, stop cheating, and stop acting (an activity at which you display precious little skill) like a spoilt brat.

Acting is not the only activity for which Pepe shows little aptitude, football is another. His clumsy concession of the penalty in the second half summed up his shortcomings as a defender: rash, reckless, and lacking in composure.

How Pepe gets a game for Real Madrid is surely one of the wonders of the modern world.

But he does and Real must accept responsibility for him. Clubs are very concerned about their image these days and Pepe is an employee who brought shame upon his employers last Saturday.

Did they discipline him? I very much doubt it; not with all the celebrating to be done and selfies to be taken. So, the referee failed to punish him on the pitch, the authorities failed to punish him retrospectively, and it’s unlikely that he’s been called to account by his club.

Perhaps Pepe’s conscience has been pricked by the backlash that’s followed his actions but more likely he’s still grinning inanely, looking up at his selfie stick. Take a look in the mirror instead Pepe and see what the rest of us see in you: a real disgrace.

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Carragher is wrong; Bale should stay at Real Madrid

Gareth Bale Picture by DSanchez17 www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale
Picture by DSanchez17
http://www.flickr.com

I’m a great admirer of Jamie Carragher. He was an excellent footballer, an inspirational Liverpool captain, and by all accounts he’s turning out to be a very fine pundit. I haven’t seen much of his punditry but I did read an article he wrote recently under the headline: ‘Gareth Bale should come home to the Premier League’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3083586/JAMIE-CARRAGHER-Gareth-Bale-come-home-Premier-League-s-fight-t-win-Real-Madrid.html). Carragher is wrong and he’s mistaken in just about every line of argument he makes.

Here I consider each of the arguments that Carragher makes (I counted 15 in all) as to why Bale should bail out of Madrid and return to the welcoming arms of one of the Premier League’s premier teams.

  1. Bale would be assured legendary status elsewhere.

Possibly, but hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s not even obvious that he would be the most important player at the club if he signed for Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. Besides, for the moment, Bale does not appear to want to be a legend elsewhere; he wants to be a legend at Real Madrid.

It is only twelve months since he scored in the Champions League final against Real’s city rivals to help his team land their coveted 10th European Cup win. It capped a magnificent first season for the Welshman in Madrid. He seemed well on the way to legendary status at the time. His star has undoubtedly dimmed in the Madrid galaxy since then but the notoriously fickle fans at the Bernabeu who have turned on Bale can swing back just as quickly to revering him.

  1. The Madrid fans love a scapegoat and Bale is now it.

It’s true that they do and Bale has been suffering at the hands of the white hanky brigade but he’s far from alone. The Madrid fans prefer a whole herd of scapegoats and Casillas and Ancelotti both currently find themselves in that pen as well. The goalkeeper and the manager are also both more likely to leave Madrid this summer than Bale in my opinion.

  1. Bale currently appears timid, lacking in confidence and has lost his spark.

This description would be apt for several Real Madrid performances of late. Since the turn of the year the team has not been functioning well and Bale’s confidence has understandably dropped along with many of his teammates (although I don’t think Ronaldo has ever had any problems in the confidence department). But are we really now suggesting that when a player loses confidence and a bit of spark the only thing to do is change clubs?

Confidence comes and goes even for the very best players in the world. It can come again for Bale as a Real Madrid player.

  1. This is about Bale’s career; no one benefits from him being unhappy.

One indifferent season does not define a career. This is not a career-defining summer for Gareth Bale. He’s 25 years old, playing for the club of his dreams, and challenging for trophies (he’s also a multimillionaire). If that’s unhappiness, I’ll take a bit of that thank you very much.

Bale may well decide to return to the Premier League at some point in the future and he has many years at the top of the game still ahead of him. It’s not an option he needs to take up right now.

  1. Bale can never compete with Ronaldo setting the agenda at Real Madrid.

True, he can’t, but I don’t believe he’s trying to. I’ve never met Gareth Bale but for the most expensive footballer in the world he seems like a remarkably humble guy. He knows who is king in Madrid and that he is merely a prince. Ronaldo could do more to help Bale (and the rest of the team) if he was a little less preening and self-absorbed. The Portuguese is a remarkable talent but not a natural leader.

  1. Bale will be measured against other world record signings at Madrid such as Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo.

Carragher’s implication is that Bale cannot hope to compare. He’s not as good as any of the three mentioned above and quite possibly never will be. The point though is that Bale has enough confidence that he wants to be measured against that sort of talent. He wants to be better and he’s pushed himself out of his comfort zone in a bid to improve. In my view there’s no doubt that he’s become a more complete player since he moved to Spain.

  1. Madrid is a culture shock for a shy boy like Bale, especially with the expectation to win the league and the Champions League every year.

It would be a major surprise if moving to a new country did not prove to be a bit of a culture shock. As an expat, I have some experience of this. Indeed, my wife and I had a bit of a culture shock when we visited Madrid. We decided to go out and see what Madrid nightlife had to offer. We turned up at a bar around midnight (thinking that things start a little later in Spain) only to discover that we were the only ones there. Apparently the locals don’t make an appearance until around 2am, after they’ve finished their dinner.

If Bale signed for one of the big English clubs he would face a similar level of expectation. They will all be eyeing the title next season and see themselves as at least contenders (with the possible exception of Manchester City) in the Champions League. Bale has nowhere to run or hide from expectation.

  1. Bale’s personality is not coming to the fore at Madrid.

I’m not entirely sure what Gareth Bale’s personality is and I’d be surprised if Carragher has a much better idea. Bale has never been the most demonstrative of players; he’s not one for shouting or screaming and being overly dramatic about things. He tends to let his football do the talking. Sadly, admittedly, some of that talk has been gibberish of late.

The only concern about Bale’s personality is if it’s leading him to become isolated at the Bernabeu. It’s widely reported that his Spanish remains about as good as my Croatian (that is to say not very – and I don’t even know how to say “not very” in Croatian) and that’s probably the most important thing for him to work on. This summer he should take a holiday, in Spain, and spend much of it taking Spanish lessons.

  1. One of the big English clubs would have been a step-up from Spurs but not such a huge one as Real Madrid.

This seems like more of an argument for not going to Madrid in the first place. Carragher is right of course, Real are bigger and better than any club in England right now and the culture shock wouldn’t have arisen if Bale had joined another English club.

But why reign in his ambition? He thought he was good enough to play for Real Madrid and he’s proved that he is. Even with his less impressive form this season, Bale has remained a regular starter at Real. Ancelotti trusts him and Bale trusted himself to play at that level.

  1. The Premier League has lost too many players to La Liga recently – Ronaldo, Alonso, Suarez – and Bale coming back would balance things a little.

This one’s easy, why should Gareth Bale care about that?

  1. Bale would have more influence in the Premier League than he has in La Liga.

Influence is a tough thing to measure. It may be the case that the style of play in England would suit Bale better (I think that’s true of attacking players more generally) but the influence he’s had in Spain should not be underestimated. Bale is one of those players who force the opposition to think about how they’ll cope with him just by his presence on the team sheet.

  1. Bale would automatically improve any English side he joined.

That’s true and there would be no shortage of suitors if he was put up for sale but let’s not forget that Bale improved the Real Madrid team when he joined. He’s kept his place in the team on merit. It is arguable that one of the big English clubs would build their team around him if he joined them in a way that Madrid won’t but I don’t think Bale sees that as necessary.

  1. He’s not been a failure at Madrid – he’s won 4 medals – so could return to England with his head held high.

He certainly could but those four medals tell a very important story. He wouldn’t have collected four medals at any of the top English clubs in the last two seasons and he almost certainly wouldn’t (yet) be a Champions League winner if he’d opted to stay in the Premier League rather than join Real.

Bale wants to be challenging for the biggest prizes in the game and there’s not many better places to do that from. In fact, there’s only one and it’s not in England. I don’t think Bale will be joining Barcelona any time soon though.

  1. Real Madrid does not suit everyone – think of Kaka, Robben and Sneijder.

That’s true of any club. Look at what happened to Torres after he left Liverpool. Bale has chosen to do it ‘his way’ at the Bernabeu and if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere. It’s a tough test for any player and probably the most demanding stage for a footballer to perform on. Bale hasn’t gone there to be an understudy and he can consider himself a headline act in his own right.

  1. It would be good to see Bale playing with happiness again.

On this point, Carragher and I agree. I just happen to believe that he can find happiness again at Real Madrid.

A year ago Bale was preparing for a Madrid derby Champions League final. He scored a crucial goal in that game. The Real Madrid fans waved white flags rather than white hankies and chanted his name. Platini put a Champions League winner’s medal around his neck.

This year he wears the burden of his record transfer fee around his neck. There will be no all-Spanish Champions League final this season, no medal to add to Bale’s collection. I’m sure he’ll watch the game on TV and wish he was there.

But if he wants to be back in the Champions League final next year he’d be better off staying in Madrid than heading back to England.

A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

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.