Monday, May 31, 2010
The First Champions
To win any proper continental championship (pace Oceania) is a major achievement, but to triumph in a very strong confederation, in difficult conditions, without three key players, is just fantastic.
There were plenty of heart-in-mouth moments last night. Clare Polkinghorne's agonising miss, just after the Koreans had equalised; Sam Kerr's looping cross to no-one when a simple prod across to Kate Gill would surely have put Australia 2-0 up; and, last but not least, the three excellent chances that fell to the Koreans in extra time, when the exhaustion began to catch up with Tom Sermanni's charges.
Indeed, there were times during the second half (particularly the opening fifteen minutes) when North Korea looked likely to overrun the Matildas, who lost control of the midfield and were fortunate that many of the crosses from the team in red drifted harmlessly over the byline. On the whole, the Koreans looked technically the better side, and one could say that perhaps the Matildas were favoured by the appalling conditions, although Korean women's teams have made light of such heavy surfaces in the past.
But as against Japan in the semi-final, the fighting qualities of the Matildas counted for a great deal, as did the maturity and concentration of the younger brigade. Elise Kellond-Knight did particularly well patrolling the left side of defence, towards which the Koreans directed many of their midfield moves. Sam Kerr's calm finish for the Australian goal belied her age and relative lack of experience. And Kyah Simon...
Let us not understate the achievement. Australia entered the Asian confederation expecting to fill the trophy cabinet fairly quickly, but the men's teams have been less than convincing on the whole. By contrast, the Matildas have reached two senior continental finals since the move from Oceania, succeeding at the second attempt.
It is traditional to express some sympathy for the losing finalists, particularly after a penalty shootout. However, given the Koreans' despicable antics in their recent friendly against the same opponents, I can only offer them a message similar to that directed at certain Argentinian journalists by Diego Maradona a few months ago.
Friday, May 28, 2010
World Cup Quiz, Part 9
No-one seemed to get all that excited about the last quiz, but the answers are appended here for the record. Perhaps this one might be more to the taste of fellow World Cup hounds out there...
For each quote, name the speaker and the World Cup occasion.
1. "Right, who's going to be the first to score against these bastards?"
2. "We don't swap shirts with animals!"
3. "Without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup. That's how great he is."
4. "Other nations have their history. Uruguay has its football."
5. "I can't believe I'm in the quarter-final of the World Cup. I've never even been in the quarter-final of the League Cup before!"
6. "I care a great deal about Roberto Baggio."
7. "We have been eliminated brutally. I would say, scientifically."
8. "Don't show them any mercy. This is the World Cup!"
9. "We'll equalise before the other team has scored."
10. "You're not even Irish, you English c--t!"
Thursday, May 27, 2010
This is an achievement not to be understated. Yes, Australia qualified for the last World Cup in China in 2007, but on that occasion they had the advantage of contesting the Asian event, which doubles as a qualifying series, on home turf. This time it was the muggy altitude of Chengdu that played host to their matches, and they came through in fine style despite losing Lisa de Vanna, their quickest and most dangerous attacker, to injury in the first round against South Korea.
Although their victory this evening owed a little to good fortune - Kate Gill's deciding goal was a slightly messy affair - their determination and cool defence at set-pieces made them deserved finalists. In the second half, the Japanese were awarded a number of very soft free kicks, and although the delivery of the talented Aya Miyama was excellent, Japan's finishing was anything but.
Were they to achieve victory in the final against either North Korea or the hosts, the Matildas' achievement would take on even greater lustre. Asia is a powerhouse of the women's game, and the top nations are gaining ground on the likes of Germany, Brazil and the USA; at the Women's Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand in 2008, which I had the pleasure of attending, North Korea took out the title, while Japan were (by practically universal consent) the most impressive team of the opening round.
The Matildas have done their country proud, once again. The old stagers have proved their quality, and youngsters like Teigan Allen have shown impressive maturity. And I for one would suggest that Tom Sermanni is a far more flexible coach than his colleague at the helm of the men's team.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Rethinking the Blah
In a competitive game, the Socceroos would surely have been reduced to nine men before the half-hour mark; Vince Grella's horrific lunge on Leo Bertos certainly merited instant dismissal, and Tim Cahill's uncharacteristically clumsy challenge on the same player minutes later was probably worthy of a red card as well.
Both of these dreadful fouls were probably borne of the frustration that Verbeek's men felt at being completely outplayed early in the piece by a side practising fairly straightforward methods. Worryingly, the New Zealanders were utterly dominant in the air in the first period; the Australian defence never got to grips with Rory Fallon, and there was no excuse for Shane Smeltz to be left all alone in the midst of four gold shirts when he flicked a header on for Chris Killen's opener.
If the defence was a worry, it was in midfield that the Socceroos' painful mediocrity in the first half was most readily apparent. And yet again, it was the Grella-Culina axis of blah which set the tone.
It is becoming blindingly clear that this combination simply provides no drive, no ideas and no fluency in this vital area of the park. Against worthy opposition they can be simply overrun, as we saw in the friendly against South Korea. Against teams prepared to sit back and absorb possession, they are essentially filling up space.
Australia's revival in the second half can be put down to a number of factors, including the canny running of Brett Holman and the aerial presence of Mile Jedinak, but the key change was in the midfield engine-room. Culina was shifted to the right flank, where he has produced all his best performances for his country, and he reminded the fans that he is, after all, capable of doing more than pivoting three times on the ball before prodding a pass back to the defence. Carl Valeri proved far more effective than Grella on the night, and Jedinak, although he gave the ball away needlessly once or twice, did at least help to take the sting out of the aerial bombardment from the Kiwis.
What of the fringe dwellers, then, with a place in the final 23 up for grabs? Despite his well-taken goal, Dario Vidosic didn't do much to suggest that he is of international standard as yet. Neither Tommy Oar nor Nikita Rukavytsya were really given enough time to prove themselves. Scott McDonald suffered in the lone striker role again, but he just looks listless in the green and gold. He will be lucky to make the cut.
Michael Beauchamp, though not put under much pressure, enhanced his chances of a berth, putting a creaking Craig Moore's inadequate display in the first half into sharp relief. And no game time for Nick Carle - Verbeek has clearly not been having enough lattes in Darlinghurst lately.
A final word on Ricki Herbert's team. Although they looked sluggish and one-dimensional in the second half, their efforts in the first were enough to suggest that they won't be complete pushovers in South Africa. Simon Elliott was an efficient leader in midfield, and their tall timber up front could cause the likes of Slovakia and Paraguay the odd moment of concern.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
The Milito Show
Jose Mourinho's tactics worked a treat; with Thiago Motta suspended, he moved Javier Zanetti into midfield, slotting the more mobile Christian Chivu into the left-back position to deal with Arjen Robben. Although Robben, not surprisingly, got the better of Chivu at times, the Romanian proved enough of an impediment to prevent the game becoming another Robben Show.
Instead, it became the Milito Show, and there could hardly be a more deserving man-of-the-match than the veteran Argentinian.
The former Racing Club, Real Zaragoza and Genoa forward has taken a long time to scale the summit of European football, but what club wouldn't want him now? Strong, adept on the ball and an excellent finisher, he is perhaps the most in-form striker going into a World Cup which is a little short of star power in the forward lines. A shame, then, that Milito will be fighting with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain for a starting place. A pleasant dilemma for Diego Maradona, at any rate.
Not only did Milito score Inter's two goals, but he set up three good chances during the game, two for Goran Pandev and one for Wesley Sneijder, who once again proved himself a very fine No.10, a real Sandro Mazzola for the new millennium.
If Milito's finish for the first goal was classy, his second was an absolute jewel, the best goal in a European Cup final since Zinedine Zidane's stunning volley in 2002. The feint that fooled Daniel van Buyten was performed exquisitely; Milito looked up at the key moment, and appeared to be measuring up a pass to connect with Samuel Eto'o's clever run in the inside-right channel. Just at the moment when one expected the killer ball, instead there came a perfectly-timed flick to the left, and van Buyten was out of the picture. The finish, reminiscent of Alex del Piero's against Germany at the last World Cup, was just as impressive.
The fact that Inter took the field without a single Italian in their line-up will no doubt excite plenty of comment, but that shouldn't detract from the team's achievement. They have been resilient, superbly organised, and lethal in the front third throughout the campaign; there just seemed to be a sense of destiny about Inter this season once they entered the knockout phase. They wouldn't let anything get in their way.
And the sight of Javier Zanetti holding up the famous trophy will bring a smile to the face of many a football fan. No-one could possibly begrudge this outstanding footballer, one of the most consistent players of the last twenty years, such a triumph as his career comes to an honourable close.
Friday, May 21, 2010
World Cup Quiz, Part 8
1. Who was the first referee from outside Europe and South America to oversee a World Cup final?
2. Twice in World Cup history, two successive World Cup finals have been entrusted to referees from the same country. Which were the two countries, in which World Cups?
3. A referee once famously dismissed a player with whom he did not have a common language "for the look in his eye". Who was the referee and the player?
4. Linesmen tend not to attract the headlines that referees do, but the linesman who allowed Geoff Hurst's controversial second goal in the 1966 World Cup final was an exception. What was his name, and where was he from?
5. The infamous Byron Moreno of Ecuador was lambasted for his refereeing in the South Korea v. Italy game at the 2002 tournament, but the referee in the Koreans' next game against Spain, Gamal Ghandour of Egypt, also attracted criticism for something he did (not a decision as such) during the game. What was it?
6. Who was the first Australian to officiate at the World Cup?
7. Two of the referees on the panel for the 2010 World Cup will be taking part in their third successive World Cup. Who are they?
8. Which World Cup final referees had the following real-life professions: (a) butcher, (b) customs official, (c) bank manager?
9. Australia, oddly enough, has been involved in the two recorded games in which World Cup referees have forgotten to send off players who have collected two yellow cards. The second referee to do this was, of course, Graham Poll in 2006; who was the first, and in which game?
10. In 2002, a referee who took charge of the European Cup (Champions League) final officiated in a World Cup semi-final, and another referee got a European Cup semi but the World Cup final. Who were the two refs?
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
This is an unsporting and annoying habit, and certainly goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws of football. I should reiterate that goalkeepers are frequently guilty of skullduggery at penalties as well; the sly dash off the line before the ball is kicked remains a blight on the game. But the IFAB is right to institute sanctions against the penalty stutterers.
A good recent example of a penalty stutter achieving its object occurred in the recent Asian Champions League, when Al Gharafa's Brazilian Araujo scored an outrageous penalty to eliminate Uzbek side Pakhtakor from the competition. The incident can be viewed at the end of this wrap, where Scott McIntyre punningly refers to "a match dominated by the Cheetahs".
As so often with the IFAB, however, the left hand giveth and the right hand taketh away. Later in the above-linked article, there is a bizarrely vague edict giving the fourth official the power to "assist the referee to control the match". How exactly would that work, why is it necessary, and has the august body paused to consider the confusion (not to mention the delay) that tends to result when two officials with two sets of eyes try to reach a consensus?
And then there's the matter of the farcical experiment involving two extra goal-line officials, which was played out to general derision during this season's Europa League. Even the most sober and tight-lipped of pundits expressed qualified disapproval, and those less inclined to mince their words stated the bald truth that the innovation was confusing and utterly pointless. As a strategy to ward off the continuing pressure on FIFA to introduce video technology, as they should have done a generation ago, it was transparent and frivolous.
Yet the IFAB has seen fit to allow the silliness to spread.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
There's No Substitute - another update
Former Central Coast midfield general Andre Gumprecht, having completed his coaching qualifications recently, is now in charge at Olympic, following the sacking of the unfortunate Pat Marando. (Gumprecht thereby becomes Olympic's ninth coach in five years, which says a lot about the management of the club during that time. But I digress.)
Gumprecht may have completed his coaching course to the FFA's satisfaction, but to my mind he showed his inexperience in the dugout in instructive fashion during the game at Seymour Shaw. Olympic had looked the better side in the first half, deservedly going in front on the half-hour. Thirteen minutes into the second, the hosts equalised, a silly handball from the talented but unpredictable Dimitri Petratos handing Sutherland a cheap penalty, which was slotted away confidently by an under-the-weather Panny Nikas.
So, 1-1 with half an hour to go. Both sides were in dire need of three points. Soon, Sutherland coach Robbie Stanton made a change, replacing Nikas with a quick youngster. Olympic's midfield started to lose the thread of the game. On and on the game went: 70 minutes, 75 minutes, and Sutherland are getting on top...still no movement from Gumprecht.
On comes Sutherland's second sub Misha Hardwick on 80 minutes, and immediately the young winger sets up the winning goal for Ben Vidaic. Suddenly, all is panic on the Olympic bench. Gumprecht springs into action, readying young Aleks Jovovic for his entrance. Off comes defensive lynchpin Angelo Petratos (father of the aforementioned Dimitri), and Gumprecht signals for the new man to join the forward line.
And now we see just what happens when substitutions are made out of desperation rather than deliberation. Without the vastly experienced Petratos senior, Olympic's defence is made up of a converted midfielder in Tayfun Devrimol, the attack-minded Nick Tsattalios, and the inexperienced Jerry Kalouris.
Not surprisingly, the defence becomes a disaster area at a stroke, and in the brief interval between the substitution of Jovovic and the final whistle, Sutherland have no fewer than five excellent chances to finish Olympic off...all spurned by their teenage forward line. At the other end, Olympic offer next to nothing, since their young sub has not yet really had time to adapt himself to the game.
To quote those pertinent words of Gordon Jago again:
"For a tactical switch involving a substitute to have any chance of working, it should be made at least fifteen to twenty minutes before the end. That is really an absolute minimum time to allow the substitute to get into the game; for others on the field to adjust to his arrival, and for any change of tactics to become workable."
Saturday, May 15, 2010
A Bit of Griffo
For Griffiths to implicitly accuse Verbeek of having thin skin in the midst of his rant is hilariously ironic. His strictures about Verbeek's failure to communicate with him over his non-inclusion might have had some merit were they delivered with a little more dignity, but all national coaches have been accused of this at one time or another...particularly those, like Verbeek, who are dealing with a truly far-flung group of candidates.
Griffiths may have settled well in China, but the Chinese league has had its reputation sullied badly in recent years, and its status as one of Asia's elite competitions is open to dispute, given Chinese clubs' recent indifferent form in the Asian Champions League. Add that to the fact that Griffiths is already the wrong side of thirty, and one can understand Verbeek's reluctance to rank him ahead of the likes of Nikita Rukavytsya and Dario Vidosic.
But there is a further and far more important reason why Griffiths may have been consigned to Verbeek's bad books at an early stage. A-League fans hardly need reminding of Griffiths' notorious targeting of a linesman's private parts in his last season in Australia, or his tendency to go down suspiciously easily in the box, or his occasional stoushes with members of the opposition.
He is without doubt a talented finisher and a very intelligent player, perhaps the most shrewd off-the-ball runner in the A-League before he headed overseas, but his temperament is not always to be trusted. An interesting comparison can be made with Johnny Rep, the Dutch striker of the seventies (whom Griffiths actually resembles strikingly); a gifted forward, a maverick, a subtle and sly baiter of defenders, and an occasional hothead, who was mistrusted by some of his coaches.
As a final salvo, Griffiths (like countless others) makes some cheap mileage out of Verbeek's infamous comments about the standard of the A-League. Yes, we've heard it all before. Yes, it's true, the Dutchman has been tactless and self-serving in his denigration of the local competition. But the criticism is opportunistic and, in the current case, essentially irrelevant.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
World Cup Quiz, Part 7
1. Which two countries fought a real-life war following a tense World Cup playoff match?
2. Which World Cup playoff match notoriously featured only one side taking the field, interpassing among each other, putting the ball in the "opposition" net and then leaving the field?
3. Which team, qualifying for only its second World Cup in 2010, once won a World Cup qualifier 5-0 away against a side that subsequently qualified for the tournament four times?
4. A World Cup host once actually had to qualify for the tournament. When?
5. In terms of World Cup qualification, what do the following coaches all have in common: Joao Saldanha, Gabriel Calderon, Jo Bonfrere, Carlos Queiroz?
6. What was unusual (to use a polite term) about the North/Central American qualifying series from 1974 through to 1982?
7. In 1958, the intention was to have a representative from Africa or Asia at the tournament. It didn't happen, for a bizarre reason. Why?
8. Which was the last team to qualify for the World Cup without playing a single qualifying match? (Hosts and defending champions aside, of course.)
9. France needed the hand of Thierry Henry to qualify for South Africa 2010, and avoid becoming a losing finalist from one tournament that fails to qualify for the next one. Which was the last team to suffer this fate?
10. Australia have truly been world travellers in World Cup qualifying. Of the following, which is the only team they have never faced in a World Cup qualifier: Canada, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, China, Argentina, South Korea?
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Tommy Oar's selection could hardly be called a surprise, given the hints Verbeek has dropped about the Brisbane youngster in recent weeks. No prizes for guessing that James Holland would be among the candidates as well, despite the fact that he is still playing only reserve football in Europe.
It's good to see Nikita Rukavytsya there. He has emphatically found his feet in Belgium after the initial disappointments in Holland, and he deserves his place (I feel he deserves a spot in the final 23 as well, but that's another matter). In the fullness of time, a Kennedy-Rukavytsya pairing could be just what the doctor ordered for Australia, particularly against Asian opposition. The chances of such a forward partnership taking the field in South Africa, however, are close to nil.
The main talking points are at the back. Sasa Ognenovski? Never a Verbeek favourite, of course, but his form in Korea should probably have put him ahead of Jade North and Michael Beauchamp in the reckoning. Beauchamp's career has stalled badly following his stellar 2005/06 season with the Mariners, while North has been disappointingly inconsistent in the green and gold.
There have been sentimental calls for Nathan Burns, golden boy of a few years ago, to be called up as well, but I feel his omission is reasonable enough. Although he has had an excellent season in the Greek second division, playing and scoring regularly, it is hardly the apex of European football. He seems to have gotten his career back on track, though, and he should be in the reckoning for 2014.
Harry Kewell's fitness will probably remain the focus of media interest leading up to the tournament, but a more pertinent question is whether Australia's creaking defence, with its inexperienced understudies, will be able to withstand the challenges of tougher opposition than they have faced in competitive play for some years. If they can, Australia might yet scrap their way out of their very tough group.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
The Halfway Marc
For Marconi to be anywhere near the top of the pile, let alone out in front, at this point is a great tribute to Lee Sterrey and his men, given the blow they were dealt at the start of the season. Last season saw the club from Bossley Park invest in some foreign talent, and two young Ivorians in particular, Messrs. Ousmane Toure and Vamana Diarra, were impressive throughout the 2009 campaign. Marconi's other overseas star of 2009, Iraqi refugee Ali Abbas Al-Hilfi, went on to join the Newcastle Jets.
Toure and Diarra were set to adorn the NSWPL again this season, but Marconi found themselves caught up in red tape. The sorry tale has been related elsewhere, notably by Mike Cockerill in the SMH. Although the story is probably a little more complex than Cockerill makes out, the FFA were undoubtedly short-sighted not to supply a supporting letter; these two youngsters could have been crowd-pullers in the A-League.
Nevertheless, Marconi have picked themselves up and gotten on with the job this term. The team revolves around their thoughtful and vastly experienced captain, Nahuel Arrarte, who has been playing with typical acumen in central midfield. Two young wingers, Mitchell Mallia and the very quick Nathan Jagelman, have shown some impressive form, while former Newcastle Jet Jason Naidovski has been a good addition up front.
Although the absence of their foreign brigade has meant that they offer a tad less flair this season, they are still effective and hard to beat.
Last season's premiers also survived an off-season blow, with the departure of player-coach Ante Milicic to the new Melbourne Heart franchise. Another former Socceroo striker, David Zdrilic, stepped into the hot seat, and after an uncertain start his methods appear to be working well. Mirjan Pavlovic has been snapped up from the Newcastle Jets, and the burly frontman has slotted neatly into the lone striker role vacated by the out-of-form Luka Glavas.
On either side of Pavlovic in United's 4-2-3-1 system are Elsid Barkhousir, whose pace and finishing have netted United plenty of goals already this season, and an outstanding young prospect in the teenager Ante Tomic, who has quickly become Edensor Park's new golden boy. A fulminating goal against Sutherland, and an astonishing run along the byline to make a goal for Pavlovic against Bankstown, have been the highlights of his season so far, but there have been many such moments. A definite star of the future, although his decision-making is still a little hit-and-miss.
Elsewhere, the team has been typically solid, although a lack of pace at the back was discernible in their 3-2 loss at home to Blacktown, when Tolgay Ozbey ran riot at times; Joe Vrkic and Damon Collina will undoubtedly be targeted by other pacy forwards this season. Pete Markovic, such an important contributor to United's 2006 title success, has returned to the first team at right-back after a long spell on the sidelines.
With the return of Aytek Genc, as well as Tolgay Ozbey, Luke Roodenburg and other heroes of 2006 and 2007, all the stars aligned for a much improved Blacktown performance in 2010, and so it has proved. Ozbey has not been the only force to be reckoned with up front, however; Mitchell Long, recently of Penrith-Nepean United, is a clever little striker who has suitably complemented the searing pace and trickery of Ozbey.
Blacktown are grimly effective at the back, with Mirko Jurilj in far better form than last season (a common phenomenon for players leaving Sydney Olympic). It's hard to see Genc's men dropping out of the top four: they are the Blacktown hard men of the mid-noughties brought back to life, fiercely competitive and modestly creative.
Bonnyrigg White Eagles
The "Chelsea of the NSWPL", as Olympic's then-coach Pat Marando aptly dubbed them, have not quite gelled fully. A side featuring former Sutherland goal machine Brad Boardman and free kick specialist Daniel Severino was bound to rack up plenty of goals, especially with the likes of Jamie McMaster, Shane Webb and now Nathan Elasi in support.
They did indeed look like worldbeaters early in the piece, gaining a much-desired victory over eternal rivals United, but a loss to Blacktown in Round 7 took the wind out of their sails, and they have since conceded draws to Manly and, this afternoon, the West Sydney Berries. They were, in fact, very lucky to take a point away from Homebush, with the Berries missing several excellent chances to seal the points against a sluggish-looking Bonnyrigg.
The question remains: will it be Ranieri-era or Mourinho-era Chelsea?
Promoted Rockdale have had an excellent start to the season. Despite fielding a team with no real stars (in fact, with few players even considered NSWPL regulars), they have battled their way to several good results, including wins over Bankstown and Olympic and a very creditable draw away to Blacktown. They are a compact counter-attacking side fully aware of their limitations, and capable of making light of them.
The omens did not look good for Sutherland this season: Brad Boardman gone to Bonnyrigg, Panny Nikas to the Mariners, and Mike Katz out for the season with a knee reconstruction. But they have managed to reach the halfway mark in equal fifth place, and Nikas has returned to add his vision and drive to the midfield.
APIA have picked themselves up well after a horror start. Manly United have had a wretched time of it considering their successes of the last few seasons; local talent has not been quite enough this time around, with Robbie Cattanach still working his way up to full fitness. Bankstown have found this a season too far for their creaking defensive line, with the fans at Jensen keen for player-coach Peter Tsekenis to stick to the bench rather than directing traffic from the centre of defence. The South Coast Wolves (the re-named Wollongong FC) and the Berries presumably came into the season with limited expectations, and they have not exceeded them.
And Sydney Olympic? Two words...don't ask.
Friday, May 07, 2010
World Cup Quiz, Part 6
1. When was a group system (as opposed to a straight knockout) first used at the World Cup?
2. A team once topped its opening round World Cup group scoring a total of one goal in its opening three games. Which team, at which tournament?
3. A World Cup group once ended with all four teams level on points and level on goal difference. Which group, at which World Cup?
4. Another World Cup group featured six games in which no team scored more than one goal in a single game. Again, which group at which tournament?
5. Which World Cup featured an actual group that had only two teams in it?
6. Only once ever has there been a World Cup group in which all teams were either past or future winners of the tournament. When?
7. FIFA adopted a second group stage for the tournament in 1974, but the experiment was relatively short-lived. When did the World Cup return to having a single first-round group followed by knockouts?
8. What made the group stage unique at the 1954 World Cup?
9. How many times has the host nation failed to qualify from the group stage at a World Cup?
10. A group at the 1998 World Cup featured no fewer than three teams making their debut at the tournament. Who were the three, and which was the other team?
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Thirteen paragraphs in, we finally get to the nub of the matter: Thiago Motta was (wrongly) sent off, and Inter played most of the second leg with ten men. Away from home. In a cauldron of a stadium. Against a side that desperately needed goals.
Does Mourinho, whatever his undoubted tendency towards pragmatism, really deserve such an art-critic's bollocking in such circumstances?
One gets the feeling that Mourinho's real crime in all this is not adopting negative tactics, but simply beating Barcelona.
There are some football pundits (not all of them working for SBS, incidentally) who have recently invested Barca with an immaculate halo of sanctity, and treated any attempts to besmirch that halo with the derision of the self-proclaimed cognoscenti. Craig Foster gave Manchester United a similar verbal lashing when they held the blaugrana to a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the 2008 semi-final; Foster proclaimed Barca the philosophical victors, while relegating Sir Alex Ferguson and his men to the ranks of the uneducated.
Cloying Barca-love pieces have appeared even more often following their outstandingly successful 2008/09 season, to the extent that Champions League success in 2010 was presumably considered a mere formality. It did not happen, and the more honest critics have been quick to acknowledge that Inter deserved their victory.
There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola's team is a brilliant football side, who play as most of us believe the game should be played. It is admirable, too, that their first team features several players who have come through the cantera. But in this particular tie, they suffered from a relative lack of organisation in the first leg, and an inability to adapt to a truly desperate situation (in which they rarely find themselves, of course) in the second. The absence of Andres Iniesta was an important factor as well.
End of story. Life goes on. As Murray's colleague Phil Micallef, incidentally, has sensibly pointed out, pausing to mention something that Les didn't: that the Barca saints proved distressingly cynical on the occasion of Motta's sending-off.
As for the Helenio Herrera comparisons, Mourinho may be arrogant and pragmatic, but I can't quite see him involving himself in some of the underhand activities commonplace at the Inter of the mid-sixties - for an account of which, see Jonathan Wilson's section on catenaccio in his excellent recent book.
Monday, May 03, 2010
Bayern v. the Machine
Inter are the masters of the patient game, holding on to possession without ado, playing effectively without the ball, and gently probing for an opening. Bayern, like their coach's Ajax side of the mid-nineties, play in a more expansive style; the quick release to the wings is a common feature, and every single member of the back four has been known to get forward when the situation demands.
So tight-knit and smooth have Inter been in the latter stages of the Champions' League that they have resembled a ruthless machine. In the second leg against Barcelona, they survived the removal of a vital cog, Thiago Motta, by employing the tactics that other sides have used to blunt Barca at the Nou Camp in recent times: compressing the space between defence and midfield while sitting nice and deep, with the offside trap employed astutely. Manchester United in 2008, and Chelsea in 2009, were successful with such a strategy; Jose Mourinho had done his homework.
Lionel Messi found himself squeezed out of the game, and the absence of Andres Iniesta was felt very keenly. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, too, gave ammunition to those who claim that he is not to be relied upon when the chips are truly down. Barca found themselves unable to adapt to a real football scrap, and even Gerard Pique's eventual goal had a hint of offside.
The result of the tie was surely more than just, too, considering the cynical histrionics (not just from Sergio Busquets, incidentally) that got Motta sent off. My mind went back to the similar dismissal of Monaco's Andreas Zikos after some disgraceful play-acting from Claude Makelele of Chelsea in the 2004 semi-final; again, on that occasion, justice was done, with the French side advancing to the final.
Bayern's progression, of course, was even more convincing. Claude Puel seemed to approach the second leg with surprisingly little ambition, leaving both Bafetimbi Gomis and the talented youngster Miralem Pjanic on the bench. Bayern were thus invited to take the initiative, and they did. On the left flank, Hamit Altintop proved a very capable replacement for Franck Ribery. The dismissal of Cris - probably Lyon's best player in the knockout stage - was a killer blow, but the tie was effectively done and dusted well before the Brazilian made his exit.
I favour Inter slightly in the final. Although Bayern should be better rested after sealing the German title this weekend, Inter's fearsome determination in Europe this season simply seems to brook no failure. Despite keeping a clean sheet, Bayern's defence looked uncertain at times at the Stade Gerland, and Mourinho's men will be all too aware of any gaps that can be exploited after a turnover in the middle third. Nevertheless, another polished Robben show is not out of the question. An intriguing end to what has been one of the more interesting Champions' League seasons of the last ten years.