Real look Predictable under Lopetegui so far and, Despite long-term Preaching, Patience Hardly Lasts in the Capital: UEFA Champions League; Matchday Two

It’s important to keep things in perspective and not go overboard. Real knew what they were getting into when they appointed Julen Lopetegui, and there have been more than a couple of signs that when his system is well ingrained into Los Blancos, they may well look a cut above the rest. But so far, they’re still facing teething problems under their new boss, and following defeat to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, have failed to score in three successive games- the first time that happened in over a decade-, an aberration by their standards.

Lopetegui, though, is keen to dispel talk of under-performance, preaching calm. ‘Ten days ago we beat Roma and weren’t so invincible’, he said post-CSKA. ‘Now, we are not so bad’. The manager’s words do possess some form of truth, but here’s some more actuality: at a club like Real Madrid, tags like ‘weren’t so invincible’ and ‘not so bad’ are almost unacceptable. Perhaps the biggest problem with Real so far isn’t that they are unconvincing or haven’t scored in three straight games, but that Real look predictable.

Real have been many things in the past; a slapdash side with very little long-term view; a well-oiled counter-attacking machine; a street-wise side with an iron will to win, among others. But never have the European champions looked predictable. Perhaps it’s due to fatigue suffered by a few players (read: Luka Modric), the arrival of a new manager that requires acclimatisation, or complacency, but there’s been very little urgency in Real’s games. The passing game will take some getting used to, and is showing signs of progress, but Real haven’t quite displayed those passing methods in really breaking down a side, they’ve never really applied any kind of earnestness in the final third with their passing game.

Then there’s the personnel being set up so far. It’s been a pattern of Los Blancos this term, when chasing a game or needing a goal, the option is to bring on Lucas Vazquez and Mariano Diaz- if they’re not already on the pitch. There’s little dynamism in the substitutions, little potential of game-changing alterations. Perhaps this is where Real missed a trick by not quite acquiring a marquee-like player after Cristiano Ronaldo, for a side that was always going to need time to fully blossom this season, having a game-changer or proven match-winner to get you past those inevitable games where you’ll lack conviction is quite an enviable feat.

In the defeat in Moscow, Real’s numbers read: 26 shots, four on target, 72% possession, 712 passes, with a 91% completion. Possession, not penetration. And the ratio of shots on target to shots show that Real are neither creating many chances, nor are they taking the little ones created. They dominated CSKA, but lacked penetration. They were just about the better team against Atletico Madrid in the derby last weekend, but it was all a bit dreary. They had possession in Seville, three days before the Atletico game, yet looked incompetent of creating anything in a 3-0 defeat.

Lopetegui said post-match that he has no doubt the goals will come, as will the wins, and he’s not wrong. But perhaps what the manager should worry about is the air of predictability when Real take to the pitch these days. If that continues, then the fear-factor dissipates, and, for all the prospects of this new Real project, that would be unacceptable.

This is still the third month of the season, so once more, it’s key to note the importance of not going overboard. There have been more than a few promising signs, and even the most infallible sides go through blips. But the problem is, Real Madrid are never like most sides.

Messi Masterpiece at Wembley

Only a minute had gone at Wembley when Lionel Messi got a pass, turned, looked up, saw Jordi Alba, and proceeded to find him with an elegant. How long did it take you to read that previous sentence? Yet Messi did all that almost at once. Two goals, many dribbles, passes, side-stepping, and the fact that he hit the same base of the post twice in three minutes with virtually the same run, almost like he took back us in time with the second effort. He’s still better at playing football than we’ll ever be at describing him play football.

Partenopei Get Going at Last

Napoli did everything right at Red Star Belgrade, except score, as the game in Serbia ended goalless. A similar theme was showing on Matchday Two, as they outplayed Liverpool, making the reds look remarkably prosaic, but couldn’t score. But salvation came in the final minute of normal time, when Lorenzo Insigne slid in Jose Callejon’s cross, to give Carlo Ancelotti’s side a win that takes them top. There’s still much time for twists and turns in Group C, but the team considered by many to be the third-best placed to qualify from this group lead the way with a third of its games played.

Elsewhere

  • At some point, Red Star goalkeeper Milan Borjan had to raise a smile, and that facial expression that asked the question ‘what else could I do’. The goalie had just been beaten by a Neymar free-kick for the second time, as the Serbians conceded six at Paris St. Germain. At least they can take solace in the fact Marko Marin got them a goal of their own, and that but for Borjan, PSG would have surely hit double figures.
  • In other circumstances, it would have been a case of Lyon’s stark inconsistency, beating Manchester City yet trailing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. But two goals in two minutes erased a two-goal deficit, and suddenly a case of how Les Gones showed resolve to come back from the dead. Most importantly, they’re still top of Group F.
  • In this week’s Anti-Mourinho development, aren’t we glad to report that Manchester United looked tepid in a goalless draw at home to Valencia.
  • Another game, another defeat for Monaco. Leonardo Jardim has so far this season tried a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, as well as a 3-4-3, all yielding little joy. Worrying times for Les Monegasques.

Results

PSV 1-2 Inter

Bayern Munich 1-1 Ajax

Lokomotiv Moscow 0-1 Schalke

Roma 5-0 Plzen

Hoffenheim 1-2 Manchester City

Juventus 3-0 Young Boys

CSKA 1-0 Real Madrid

Tottenham 2-4 Barcelona

Galatasaray 0-1 Porto

Napoli 1-0 Liverpool

Manchester United 0-0 Valencia

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Club Brugge

Lyon 2-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

PSG 6-1 Red Star Belgrade

AEK Athens 2-3 Benfica

Published in International Watch

It was something of a statement. Spurs turning up at Wembley and making light work of Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League group stage, with an unfit Harry Kane and little need to be at 100%, just two weeks after getting a draw at the Bernabeu. Mauricio Pochettino’s side took four points from Real, and six from Borussia Dortmund in a group which they were tipped by many to fail to get out of. Spurs had peaked.

Then a harsh European lesson in the last 16, as after taking a 2-2 draw from Turin, and dominating just about the entirety of the second leg, the North Londoners still crashed out of the competition at the hands of Juventus. That tie was lost thanks to a five-minute window when Spurs looked like they didn’t know what hit them, and the same seemed to happen in Matchday One of this season’s Champions League, again against Italian opposition. Spurs weren’t quite as dominant as they were against Juventus away at Inter, but when they took the lead at the San Siro, their looked to be only one winner. Inter looked unable to conjure up any form of escapology, and it almost seemed like Spurs were toying with the Nerazzurri, ahead and in control with five minutes left. Yet, in the second minute of stoppage time, Pochettino’s side were behind, and ended up with nothing.

That result was the last of their three successive defeats, which posed the question as to whether they were in crisis. They’ve managed to recover since then, three straight wins- one requiring a penalty shootout in the League Cup- looked to have put to bed talk of the team falling apart, but as they prepare for their second Champions League game of the season, at Wembley, against Barcelona, there’s the sense that this game has the look of a must-win already. A defeat here, and they could end Matchday Two six points off the top two in Group B, a mountain to climb, and the fact that the opponents are Barcelona makes defeat more plausible than victory.

But Spurs won’t be fazed by the Spanish giants, having gone toe-to-toe with one last season. ‘Last season was Real Madrid and now it’s Barcelona’, Pochettino told Marca. ‘It is the essence of the Champions League to play these type of matches against the best teams in the world. They are exciting and motivate us a lot’. Pochettino is no stranger to facing Barcelona, his first game as manager of Espanyol back in 2009 was a goalless draw at the Nou Camp. The Argentine hasn’t had much joy against the Catalan club, but is still stoked about the idea of getting one over the four-time European champions. ‘I’m a periquito and of course it motivates me to win against Barcelona’.

Spurs will also take motivation from the fact that Barcelona are in no untouchable form. Ernesto Valverde’s side followed up a defeat against Leganes, where they conceded two goals in the space of 68 seconds at Butarque, with a draw at home to his former side Athletic Bilbao, where they needed the introduction of Lionel Messi, and a late goal from Munir El Haddadi to salvage a point. The Blaugrana have already conceded as many league goals after seven games this season as they did after 17 last term, an apparent flaw Spurs would hope to cash in on.

Victory over Barca is far from a long shot for Spurs, who’ve shown that they can rise to the challenge. However, victory over Barca is vital for Spurs, who haven’t quite shown that they are the best when under pressure.

Elsewhere:

  • A 4-0 win over Frosinone as well as a derby victory against Lazio means Roma might just have gotten their season together after all. Defeat to Real Madrid on Matchday One was not unexpected, but the home game against Czech side Plzen on Matchday Two is one in which victory is more than estimated.
  • An opportunity missed for Napoli, in Matchday One, who could only play out a goalless draw at Red Star Belgrade. Carlo Ancelotti’s side host Liverpool on Wednesday, in what looks like the game of Matchday Two.
  • Since that uncharacteristic defeat at home to Lyon on Matchday One, Manchester City have gone on a run of three wins, ten goals scored and none conceded in three games. They visit Hoffenheim next, and will be expected to get their European campaign back on track.
  • Speaking of getting European campaigns back on track, Paris St. Germain welcome Red Star to the Parc des Princes. Le Parisiens were defeated a fortnight ago in rather unimpressive fashion at Liverpool, anything short of victory here and there would surely be more inquests.
  • Monaco have had little joy so far this season, both on the domestic front or in Europe. The principality club lie in 18th place in the French Ligue 1, and began their Champions League season with a defeat at home to Atletico Madrid. They travel to the Signal Iduna Park to face Dortmund, the last team they beat in the Champions League (back in April 2017), on Wednesday.
  • And what tactic would Manchester United put forward at home to Valencia? Yes, this is where the Anti-Jose convention is taking place this week.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Valencia

CSKA v Real Madrid

Juventus v Young Boys

Hoffenheim v Manchester City

AEK v Benfica

Roma v Plzen

Bayern Munich v Ajax

Lyon v Shakhtar Donetsk

Tottenham v Barcelona

Atletico Madrid v Club Brugge

Lokomotiv Moscow v Schalke

PSV v Inter

Porto v Galatasaray

Napoli v Liverpool

Dortmund v Monaco

PSG v Red Star Belgrade

Published in International Watch

‘It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted’. Adrien Rabiot didn’t mince his words, or hide, in any way, his discontent. After Paris St. Germain had lost, despite taking the lead through the midfielder, 3-1 at Real Madrid in the first leg of last 16’s Champions League tie, BEIN Sports wanted a word. He gave them a few that would ring loud in the continent. Simply put, for all their dominance on the domestic front, PSG’s measure of success, the yardstick to define their achievement, for the umpteenth, was the Champions League.

But, barely a month after Le Parisiens put eight past Dijon in Ligue 1, they would suffer a late collapse at the Bernabeu. Two weeks, one Neymar injury, one misty night in Paris and another listless display later, the side from the French capital were tumbling out of Europe in a 5-2 aggregate loss, a defeat that made The Guardian’s Barney Ronay label them as ‘plastic Galacticos, while newspaper L’Equipe’s reaction the following morning read, to English, ‘All that, for that?’.

And that question has been posed again, after PSG looked so remarkably second-best at Liverpool, in their opening Group C game of competition, they didn’t deserve the sense of what might have been that comes with conceding a late decider, as they did. Except the sense of what might have been is not about the result, but rather how different things would seem if they looked a team, performed like a unit, not a mash-up of names. Again, ‘all that, for that?’ For all the money spent, the players assembled, the promise of a Parisian project, is that really what they could come up with? PSG have constantly tried and failed to break the glass ceiling in Europe, since their return to the Champions League in 2012, they’ve never gone beyond the quarter-finals.

Whether by looking tactically out of place (against Manchester City in 2016), simply getting dusted off (Barcelona, 2015), failing to withstand pressure when push turned to shove (Chelsea, 2014), or simply collapsing (Barcelona, 2017), PSG have contrived to fall pre-maturely in the continent, all while being dominant in France (only once since 2012 have they failed to win the league, only once have they failed to win the French League Cup, and only twice have they failed to win the Coupe de France in that time). So, it’s not ludicrous to suggest that PSG’s increasing dominance on the domestic front is playing a part in their continent travails. As UEFA Champions League co-commentator Stewart Robson put it at Anfield, with the intensity of the French first division much lower than in Europe, PSG are always likely to come up shocked should opponents up the ante in the Champions League.

Perhaps that explains why the football was so un-Tuchel like, no pressing game, especially not from the front, from a side coached by a manager who once sounded out his appreciation for the opposition gaffer’s style in a game where his own side lost 5-1. At Anfield on Tuesday, a style was non-existent, the collective performance next-to-nothing, even Rabiot himself failed to stand up and be counted here, almost like the side were waiting for an individual moment or something out of thin air to pull them out of the mire. And the fact that it almost did, that one run at the Liverpool defence from Neymar resulted in an equaliser by Kylian Mbappe, should just about increase their ire, about how much they are capable of, but how little of it they show.

Perhaps this is nothing other than early days under Thomas Tuchel, an awakening that the gaffer would adapt them to sooner than later, and not many sides will get much joy at this seemingly cacophonously impenetrable fortress that is Anfield. But PSG’s growing stature means bouts of criticism are likely to fall in after every setback, particularly if the setback is so recurrent. Tuchel, post-match, described the result as illogical. Perhaps his mind was taken back to the time when his Borussia Dortmund side conceded late goals to lose at Anfield in the Europa League in 2016, which the sucker punch was almost impossible to swallow. Here, though, if there was any sense of injustice over the late goal, is that PSG hardly deserved to have had a shout up until then.

Elsewhere:

  • PSG may have begun Group C on the back foot, but it doesn’t look too damaging early on. Particularly after, in the other group game, Napoli did everything other than score in Belgrade, Carlo Ancelotti’s side getting held to a goalless draw by Crven… Red Star Belgrade!
  • For 84 minutes, Mauro Icardi was a passenger at the San Siro. The Inter skipper had cut a frustratingly isolated figure, and had taken 14 of the most unnoticed touches a player can. But his 15th, his first shot of the game, was an unadulterated volley that found its way to Spurs’ bottom corner. Inter had averted defeat, and via the bonce of Matias Vecino in stoppage time, completed a turnaround against a Spurs side still far from all right, and yet were in control for virtually the entirety of the second period.
  • Schalke looked to have eased their woes, a Ralf Fahrmann save from an Alex Telles penalty early in the first half, and a goal from Breel Embolo midway through the second, seemed on course to get Domenico Tedesco’s side back on track after a troubling start to the Bundesliga. But thanks to Moussa Marega’s theatrics, Porto were awarded another penalty, an opportunity they wouldn’t pass up. Plenty of positives for Die Konigsblauen, yet the most important- excuse this- ‘P’ has just one next to it in all competitions this season.
  • It’s easy to say this afterwards, of course, but there was an air of inevitability when Lionel Messi stepped up to take his free-kick in the first half against PSV. The first of three goals on the night for the Barcelona skipper, who has eight hatricks in Champions League.
  • Real Madrid began their CR7-less assault on Europe with a win over Roma, where they racked up 30 shots, double figures of corner-kicks, scored three times, yet should have gotten at least three more.
  • Speaking of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese skipper was also in Spain when Real were tussling with Roma. But 400 kilometres away, at the Mestalla, Ronaldo was sent off in the first half for having the audacity to get a coming together with Jeison Murillo, an inexplicable decision that reduced the best player in the world to tears of frustration. Juventus shook off that setback to come away with a 2-0 win, via a pair of Miralem Pjanic penalties, but we’re unlikely to have heard the last of this game.
  • Two goals and an assist from Paul Pogba, who spearheaded Manchester United’s comfortable victory at Young Boys, the Swiss side simultaneously impressing and showing why they are likely to do little more than finish bottom of Group H.

Results

Valencia 0-2 Juventus; Young Boys 0-3 Manchester United; Real Madrid 3-0 Roma; Viktoria Plzen 2-2 CSKA; Manchester City 1-2 Lyon; Shakhtar 2-2 Hoffenheim; Ajax 3-0 AEK Athens; Benfica 0-2 Bayern Munich; Galatasaray 3-0 Lokomotiv Moscow; Schalke 1-1 Porto; Liverpool 3-2 PSG; Red Star Belgrade 0-0 Napoli; Inter 2-1 Spurs; Barcelona 4-0 PSV; Club Brugge 0-1 Dortmund; Monaco 1-2 Atletico Madrid.

Published in International Watch

Die Mester. Die Besten. Les Grandes Equipes. The Chammmmmpppiiiiooooonnssssss!!!

Unless you know your onions in Moddingway, that anthem will be nowhere to be found in Pro Evolution Soccer for a while, as the Konami-powered video game’s rights over Europe’s top club competition expired. That means, and this is no longer news, EA Sports FIFA is the new home of the UEFA Champions League for gamers, with its power duo of Derek Rae and Lee Dixon.

That acquisition has been one for which FIFA fans have thirsted, and finally their cravings are about to be satisfied. For the real-life Ol’ big ears, though, perhaps no other fans, and club, have hankered more than Juventus’ in recent years. It’s been 22 years since the Bianconeri were crowned European champions, a period that has spanned six Doctor Who’s, seven James Bond films, six Nigerian presidents/heads of state, and for the Old Lady themselves, five European final heartaches.

The past four seasons have seen different Champions League stories for Max Allegri’s side; brave defeat to Barcelona in the final in 2015, throwing away a two-goal lead before losing in extra-time to Bayern Munich in the last 16 in 2016, that hapless defeat in the final in Cardiff to Real Madrid in 2017, and that brave, yet ultimately futile, comeback against Real again in the quarter-finals last April. Juve have developed of coming close to glory, but seeing it all end in tears, five times they’ve gotten to within one game of the crown triumphing in 1996, five times they’ve ultimately failed, watching as Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid again walk off into the sunset with their desired trophy.

This season, they intend to go again, the feeling of what might have been and the burning of injustice- justified or not- from last season, is just about more than enough motivation. Juve have a few things others don’t possess, experience, a manager with tactical nous, a reputable defence and squad depth; but perhaps their biggest weapon is that which no one else possesses: Cristiano Ronaldo.

For all their defensive nous, their experience and power of organisation, Juve never quite had an answer when it came to facing Ronaldo. The Portuguese skipper scored 10 times for Real Madrid in seven games against the Italian champions, even in the semi-final in 2015 when Juve saw off Real, they couldn’t keep Ronaldo quiet. Ronaldo has arguably been the most key factor in Real’s four Champions League triumphs in the past five years, and his move to Turin may well place the two-time European champions in pole position in their quest for a third crown.

But it would be perilous to overlook Real Madrid themselves. Real may have lost Zinedine Zidane as well as Ronaldo, but still have everyone else of their European-conquering side. The brand of football is changing under Julen Lopetegui, and positives are showing from it, yet Los Blancos’ street-wise ability is also likely to be a key factor in the latter stages, as it’s been in the previous seasons.

Real’s Liga rivals Atletico Madrid and Barcelona also have sights set on the trophy as well. Barcelona have suffered three successive quarter-final exits, almost a cause for alarm by their standards, so there’s at least a minimum target for them, making the last four, but Lionel Messi and co. will have their sights well set on a fifth Champions League title. Atletico, meanwhile, won’t want for motivation, with the final taking place on their turf, and, despite last season’s early exit, are always a tough nut to crack.

Last season’s finalists Liverpool will also feel they can go one better this term. Jurgen Klopp’s side re-ignited their lust for European nights last term, with a raucous Anfield crowd almost willing them past opponents, and with a deeper squad, a sturdier defence and a more assured goalkeeper, will fear no one. The Reds saw off Manchester City in the quarter-finals last term, who themselves were tipped by many to be European champions last campaign. It’s hardly any different this season, with the odds putting Pep Guardiola’s team as favourites in 2018/19, but in competitions like this, where progress and elimination could boil down to one moment or one bad day at the office, the Premier League champions’ fluid football may not be enough.

City’s neighbours, Manchester United, are just about the least fancied of the teams here, but Jose Mourinho has a habit of putting his teams as underdogs and triumphing in adversity, so they just might well be in the perfect position, while Tottenham look formidable on their day, but last season’s loss in the second round to Juventus is probably proof of how much they still have to learn in Europe.

Speaking of learning in Europe, French champions Paris St. Germain have always seemed to fall short in this competition, never going past the quarter-finals, with successive last 16 exits just about confirming Unai Emery’s exit. Thomas Tuchel is the new manager at the helm, who might not have much experience in Europe, but is likely to foster much of a team than a mash up of stars, coupled with the fact a few players have scores to settle in Europe.

The league seems a given for PSG, and Europe is where scrutiny of their season lies, and the same applies for German champions Bayern Munich. Die Roten have a new gaffer in charge in Niko Kovac, following the re-retirement of Jupp Heynckes, and are overwhelming favourites for a seventh successive Bundesliga title, which means their success is likely to be measured by what they do in the Champions League. Bayern have fallen at the semi-final stage in four of the last five seasons, all against Spanish opposition, so how much will play on their minds remains to be seen.

This time last season, Real Madrid looked to be a cut above everyone else, as the Los Blancos were heavily to retain their European crown. They didn’t look as imperious as many predicted but ended up with another Champions League title anyway, confirming their continental doggedness and will to win, which marks them out from many others. ‘The Champions League releases special powers’ Toni Kroos said, but not many are quite as special as Ronaldo, and it remains to be seen how significant his departure will be.

Real are starting to look a better team, but no longer have that born match-winner that can get them over the line, especially when things are not quite going well. Messi has said the European champions are weaker without Ronaldo, and he’s likely to be right. In the absence of a standout big dog, this campaign has the look of being anybody’s year.

**It’ll probably be Real Madrid’s year.

Fixtures

Barcelona v PSV; Inter v Tottenham; Club Brugge v Dortmund; Monaco v Atletico Madrid; Red Star Belgrade v Napoli; Schalke v Porto; Galatasaray v Lokomotiv Moscow; Liverpool v PSG; Ajax v AEK Athens; Benfica v Bayern Munich; Shakhtar Donetsk v Hoffenheim; BSC Young Boys v Manchester United; Real Madrid v Roma; Viktoria Plzen v CSKA Moscow; Valencia v Juventus; Manchester City v Lyon

Published in International Watch

 

And there it is. After some grown men fiddled with some sets of balls- or how did the Telegraph put it?- we not only know the state of the 32 teams in the UEFA Champions League proper, but also who plays who in the group stage of Ol’Gazprom Cup. Europe’s most prestigious club competition is never not known for its nostalgia and ability to throw up romance, and this year sees the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford. Having joined Juventus from Real Madrid this summer, Portugal’s captain will see his new club face his other old side Manchester United, as a pairing in Group H alongside Valencia and Swiss champions BSC Young Boys means the prospect of Ronaldo not celebrating against United when he scores at the Theatre of Dreams is more than plausible. That Group H draw also means Paul Pogba will face his former side in the Bianconeri, having left the Turin club in 2016.

In keeping with returns, Group C sees new Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti face former club Paris St. Germain, although that’s likely to be overshadowed by the fact that Liverpool being in the same group means it’s going to bear the overused ‘Group of Death’ tag. There’s also a return prospect in Group A, as Thomas Lemar will face his old club Monaco with his new side Atletico Madrid, although that’s likely to be overlooked.

Elsewhere, Barcelona and Spurs are paired in Group B, as well as Inter Milan, the three-time champions who haven’t been on this stage since losing to Marseille in 2012. Real Madrid face Roma, as they have done in 2005, 2008, and recently 2016, in Group G; Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk are dejavu’d into last season in Group F, joined by Lyon and debutants Hoffenheim; while Bayern Munich, Benfica, Ajax and AEK Athens make up Group E.

Full Draw

Group A: Atletico Madrid; Dortmund; Monaco; Club Brugge

Group B: Barcelona; Tottenham; PSV; Inter Milan

Group C: PSG; Napoli; Liverpool; Red Star Belgrade

Group D: Lokomotiv Moscow; Porto; Schalke; Galatasaray

Group E: Bayern Munich; Benfica; Ajax; AEK Athens

Group F: Manchester City; Shakhtar Donetsk; Lyon; Hoffenheim

Group G: Real Madrid; Roma; CSKA Moscow; Viktoria Plzen

Group H: Juventus; Manchester United; Valencia; Young Boys

Published in International Watch

Real Madrid have begun celebrations for the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League. Los Blancos clinched a third successive Champions League title, a fourth in five years, with a 3-1 win over Liverpool in Kiev, and have already declared themselves as champions next season as well.

‘We know we are the best team in the Champions League, so it’s fair we announce to the rest that we’ve already won next season’s competition’ said midfielder Casemiro. ‘We’re putting this announcement out there to give one of the others the honour of losing to us in the final. Maybe it’ll be Atletico Madrid, whose stadium is hosting the final, and can complete an honourable treble of final defeats to us’.

‘We plan to begin the season is inconsistent form…’ added captain Sergio Ramos, ‘…to make things interesting. We’ll lose to Monaco in the group stage in October, even suffer a defeat in one of our knockout second legs, to make seem it like we have vulnerabilities, while our opponents- presumably Manchester City this time- gain plaudits for working their socks and coming up with 57 shots on target’.

Manager Zinedine Zidane was asked about such claims from his players, but declined to comment, all while hiding next season’s kit with the message ‘A Por La 14’ on it.

***Note: This particularly news item is in no way real.

 

 

Published in International Watch

'Madrid play well, they beat you. They play average, they beat you. They play badly, they beat you'. Those were the words of ESPN's Sid Lowe when asked to give a prediction on the Champions League final, between Real Madrid and Liverpool, highlighting Real Madrid’s ability to win in Europe even when little is going well.

The Champions League releases special powers, midfielder Toni Kroos had said, and it had looked it, these powers drove them past Juventus in the last eight, and Bayern Munich in the semis, both by the skin of their teeth. Since 2013, Los Blancos have only been knocked out from the Champions League once, against Juve in 2015 (which was even at the hands of their own boy Alvaro Morata).

Liverpool were no slouches themselves, were no strangers to upsetting the ones with more European pedigree (yes, Istanbul), and, thanks in huge part to Mohammed Salah, were the top scorers in this season's competition.

Real weren't far behind, so the expectation ahead of the game was chaos, anarchy, borderline bedlam of a football match.

But when has football ever followed the script? The first half was lacking in real attacking verve, Liverpool had most of the ball early on but didn't quite test Keylor Navas- bar a shot from Trent Alexander-Arnold- while Real seemed a bit too sloppy in possession.

So the talking point from the opening half was Salah leaving the pitch in tears, having hurt his shoulder following a challenge from Sergio Ramos, while Dani Carvajal followed suit with a knee problem, just like he exited in 2016. In terms of playing, Karim Benzema had the ball in the net, but the flag denied him; goalless at the break. 

Six minutes into the second half, and three after Isco hit the bar for Real, the opening goal arrived. From Lars Ricken, Dejan Savicevic, Real manager Zinedine Zidane himself, Mario Mandzukic last year, the showpiece game of Europe's most prestigious club competition has seen some grand finishes; here it would see its most fortuitous.

Kroos' overhit pass was too much for Benzema, easy catch for Loris Karius, but Karius decided on rolling the ball out immediately, Benzema stuck out a leg, the ball rolled into the net, and just like the semi-final second leg, the Frenchman's opportunism had given Real an advantage.

But that would last just six minutes. From a James Milner corner, Virgil van Dijk went up, and Sadio Mane went in, stabbing home from close range. Parity restored, and Jurgen Klopp went berserk.

The German had lost five successive finals prior to this game, so imagine his relief and joy at his side's leveller. Then imagine his disappointment in the 64th minute, yet you'd have forgiven him if he had applauded.

Two minutes earlier Gareth Bale, had replaced Isco, and then, from Marcelo's cross, etched himself alongside Mandzukic and his manager in the hall of jaw-dropping Champions League final overhead kicks.

Zidane touched his head in astonishment, like the last eight, when something similar was done by Cristiano Ronaldo, who smiled as he looked up, while Bale and Marcelo went berserk.

Liverpool had to score again to avoid defeat; Mane hit the post, but that was all they could muster.  And when Bale's rather speculative effort from way out was fumbled in by Karius, Real’s treble was sealed. Bale has been under constant speculation over his future at the club, here only a tackle from Alexander-Arnold prevented him from scoring a hatrick. Ronaldo himself couldn't quite find the net on this occasion, he came close late on, denied by a fan running onto the pitch.

Little matter. Milorad Maziç blew his whistle, Liverpool sunk to their knees in despair, Real knelt in jubilation again. Their insatiable Champions League appetite just can't be beaten.

 

Published in International Watch

It was quite the spectacle at Anfield on Tuesday night, as Liverpool broke into a five-goal lead in the semi-final first leg, but had to make do with a 5-2 win after conceding two late goals against Roma. But the Italian side's defending was less than impressive and Roy Keane, in typical Roy Keane fashion, hasn't held back his thoughts. 

'They gave up after about an hour and downed tools', said the former Manchester United captain. If I played like some of their defenders did I would consider retiring from football. We can slag Roma off but Liverpool had to take advantage of that'.

Speaking to ITV, Keane believes Roma will improve in the return leg at home, but says Liverpool 'could have scored ten'.

Roma host the Reds in the return leg in Rome, needing three goals to win, the same margin before that miraculous comeback against Barcelona, but Keano doesn't see a way back for the Giallorossi.

Not like you could blame him, no one did against Barca either.

Published in International Watch

Stoppage time. Loris Karius holds on to the ball. Ragnar Klavan waits to come on for Roberto Firmino, as an edgy Anfield crowd now tries to roar the team over the finish line. The clock is ticking, and the home side are nervously looking at it, willing it to move. But… hang on. Liverpool are 5-2 up! In stoppage time!!

That seems like the new in these days, when among the things that occupy a brown box with a sticker labelled ‘fragile’, a three-goal lead is now one of them. Roma overturned that sort of deficit against Barcelona in the previous round, where Liverpool faced a second-leg scare against Manchester City with such position of advantage, and Juventus recovered from such a dead and buried position at Real Madrid only to eventually go out. Even in the Europa League, CSKA Moscow gave Arsenal something to worry about before succumbing, while Red Bull Salzburg were 5-2 down on aggregate in the second half of the second leg of their triumph over Lazio. Yes, three-goal advantages are no longer safe, just ask Liverpool themselves.

It was a shaky start to proceedings at Anfield on Tuesday night, and in more ways than one. Assistant referee Stefan Lupp’s flag was haywire, preventing him from properly flagging Firmino for offside, and had to be amended twice; on the pitch Liverpool were a tad uncomfortable, Roma were suffocating the spaces, and unfazed by the famous Anfield atmosphere, Kevin Strootman firing a shot that was easy for Karius, who then had to look in relief as his uncertain touch pushed Aleksandar Kolarov’s effort onto the bar.

But the Reds would always find their stride, they didn’t have the best 10 minutes here in the previous round against Man City, and yet blew them away, and it started to look similar after the first 20 minutes against the Italians, Sadio Mane spurning two chances as the home crowd got on song. One man who doesn’t spurn chances these days, though, is Mohammed Salah, the mercurial Egyptian Liverpool signed from Rome. There were expectations that he wouldn’t celebrate his goal on the night, that’s how certain everyone was that he would find the net, and 10 minutes before the break he did find it, via the crossbar, from his left foot, in the most brilliant of ways. He held his hands up in a mooted celebration, and that gesture would repeat itself on the cusp of halftime, as the PFA Player of the Year got in behind the Roma defence, and cheekily lobbed one over Alisson for his 43rd goal of an extraordinary season.

At 2-0, Roma were still very much in with a shout, but on the pitch they could barely whisper. They might have suffered a 4-1 loss at Barcelona, but that performance still had positives in it. Here, following that opening 20 minutes, they were abject, could barely string passes today, and kept up their ineffectual high line; so when Mane added a third for Liverpool in the 56th minute, they could hardly complain. Five minutes after that Firmino added a fourth, seven minutes after that Firmino added a fifth, from a corner which Roma could have handed to them gift-wrapped and with a Christmas card. That summed up the Giallorossi’s night, and that was the tie.

Or so we thought. With nine minutes left, Edin Dzeko chested down Radja Nainggolan’s pass, and became the first opposition player to score at Anfield in the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League.  5-1; academic? Not if the reaction of the away fans, the away players, and their manager was anything to go by. Suddenly they believed; even at being so far behind, they believed. And that belief doubled when James Milner handled in the Liverpool box, and Diego Perotti slotted home the resulting penalty. 5-2.

Then Anfield got edgy. Then Jurgen Klopp sent on Klavan, with the look of tense discomfort palpable in his face. Roma pushed and pushed. A third goal might even seem like a winner. But it never came. Liverpool held on for a 5-2 win, which is just about the most bewildering place to use the term ‘held on’. Now Roma need exactly what they needed against Barcelona. There’s no guarantee that they would get it this time, no guarantee that Liverpool would look so attackingly forlorn in Rome as Barca did. But it’s remarkable that even after such a dominant day for Liverpool, in the performance and the score-line, somehow, this argument is far from settled.

Elsewhere

  • Toni Kroos said the Champions League releases ‘special powers’ for Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane said he’s like a guiding for this team in Europe, and on evidence of this, who would argue. Even after they spent so much time on the back foot, even after they came under such pressure at the Allianz Arena, you could tell that they wouldn’t budge, that they would always have their way. This time, there was even no need for Cristiano Ronaldo to be on the scoresheet. Just like last season, Bayern Munich find themselves in the same position of bother after the first leg against Los Blancos.
  • In a competition graced over time by the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Clarence Seedorf, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Ryan Giggs, Lionel Messi, even Ronaldo and Zidane, who’d have thought the record for most assists in a single season would be held by James Milner?

Results

Liverpool 5-2 Roma

Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid

Published in International Watch

 

Manchester City vs Manchester United, April the 7th 2018. City one win away from the title, as their neighbours come to the Etihad. A dominant first half sees City go into the break with a two-goal lead, which would have been more had Raheem Sterling finished off the three chances he had. United rally in the second half, score three times in 16 minutes, leave with the points and reign on City’s parade.

Then a raging Facebook post from a raging (football, not quite City) fan over Sterling and his profligacy costing City, cursing him and his ‘waddling gait’. As always, cue response from the social media crowd, especially with those who know he’s not a City fan, and the question is whether or not Sterling’s wastefulness and City’s defeat were a betting coupon-buster, or, for danger of not sounding too hip, ‘did he spoil your ticket?’ In response, astonished fan with Facebook post wonders if it always has to be about betting, wonders what happened to pure emotion in the game.

Which poses the question, is betting in the game starting to overshadow pure emotion? Is it now a case worrying about the effect of what a game does to your financial gamble, rather than feeling the game itself. So much has been said about the need to clamp down betting in football (and other sports), one of the reasons is that it clads the game too much these days, and which one of the ripple effects is this, there’s little room and/or consideration for raw emotion. I once saw a FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2013, where Iraq and South Korea traded late goals in an epic 3-3 quarter-final, and I remember going crazy after the Koreans bagged the sixth goal of the game in stoppage time in extra-time, the pure loss of head that football can bring. Do that now, especially where people are, and it’s just about a case of ‘wow, you must have really placed a huge quid on this one’.

In truth, it’s not just the betting that’s doing its bit. There’s no arguing the brilliance of how the world is in the 21st century, but its provision of virtual management and social media is perhaps another stick in the game’s crawl. Now, many don’t really take too much account the impact of a watching their side lose a game does, but rather the social media ridicule that’s bound to follow. Every impending is almost now about hiding from the banter that will follow. And there is, of course, the virtual worlds. The fantasy leagues, which at times, makes you root for an opposition player against your own side. You don’t place too much meaning on what happens on the pitch, not much thought goes into, say, Watford suffering 6-2 defeat at home to Newcastle, as long as your fantasy darling Troy Deeney gets both goals for the Hornets.

Sure, this could well be over the top. Fantasy leagues et al do bring people closer to the game (sometimes, at least), the world is a fast-paced moving trend of getting involved, football being no different; and the ultimate goal of football is to win. So be it on the pitch, on a financial risk basis, the virtual world or the social media wars, victory tastes good. But no one really fell in love with the game because of the rewards/chastening on social media, or the virtual triumphs, or the betting benefits (probably).

Love for the beautiful game came about through moments of pure emotion. Through moments like watching Sergio Aguero snatch the league title for City in 2012, and subconsciously going nuts, before realising what you’re doing. Through moments like seeing Kostas Manolas find the bottom corner to cap off Roma’s incredible comeback against Barcelona, and staring in complete disbelief. Through moments like seeing Leicester City win the Premier League, and believing in the impossible once again. Like watching a young Cristiano Ronaldo in tears because his side have just been beaten by the Greeks in a home final in 2004, and feeling a gush of sympathy. In a world of stats, algorithms, numbers, and figures, among others, you can’t measure those feelings. Of unadulterated passion, unbridled euphoria, or inconsolable agony.

So the question is; when you look back at the Barcelona v PSG moment of March 2017 some 50 years on, do you remember your Champions League Fantasy side, the social media pleasure you had that night, the financial plus you got, or the indescribable feeling that’s bound to last an eternity?

Published in International Watch

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