Our European guru educates and enlightens
Michael Ballack has been talking a lot about pain recently.
Not about the agony of injury but the pain of defeat, in a UEFA Champions League final, with Bayer Leverkusen in 2001. There’s a lot of pain about at Chelsea at the moment: emotional for Frank Lampard and physical, elbow-popping related torment for John Terry.
And then there’s Petr Cech, a goalkeeper with a silent comedian’s propensity for physical disaster. Moscow will be a chance, as the whispering voice very nearly said in Field Of Dreams, to ease their pain.
There are two things I’ll be looking out for early on. How involved is Michael Ballack? And what’s Man United’s movement of the ball like?
In the second half of this season, Ballack has been quietly spectacular. It’s not just the goals. When he is quiet, as he was for long stretches of the semi-final against Liverpool, Chelsea tend to stutter, Drogba looks isolated and the team seems disjointed.
But when he’s on his game – as he was screaming for the ball late on an at Anfield, as Chelsea’s late rally got the better of John Arne Riise’s nerves – his team perform.
Ballack: Strong end to season makes him Chelsea's key man
His role for Chelsea is less showy than the one he plays for Germany – he doesn’t get to show off his disguised passing as often – and even Chelsea fans struggle a bit to explain just why he’s so essential. But they insist he is. So if Man United are to win their third European Cup, neutralising or marginalising Ballack would ease that task.
The other litmus test for Chelsea will be Joe Cole’s form. England’s most creative midfielder has looked off his game, possibly just knackered, of late. He has been so good for so long – for club and country – some kind of dip was inevitable, it’s just a shame it’s happened now. That stuff he said about the final being “war” sounds unlike him – either he was mis-reported or he’s trying too hard to psyche himself up.
Joe Cole: Off form... or just knackered?
Man United have proved they can be as canny as any Italian team. But it’s not their natural game. And they won’t want to get trapped as they did in Camp Nou. Possession is a mysterious, often misunderstood factor in a game.
Once teams start to lose control of the ball, it often gets worse before it gets better.
Players, desperate to make something happen, try stuff that is never going to come off instead of playing the sensible ball. They change the timing of their runs. And, in a schoolboy error which even great teams make, they retreat towards their goal.
A psychologist could probably write a thesis about the inner meaning of this universal tendency to fall back like a wounded army. Teams can snap out of it but while playing like this they often concede goals as anyone who has watched England over the last six years can testify.
An interesting early sign of Man United’s ambition will be how often Patrice Evra bombs forward. At Old Trafford against Barcelona, he was almost an extra attacker. He won’t be that aggressive against Chelsea – unless circumstances dictate – but he could help pin down Ashley Cole or exploit Cole’s occasional lack of focus.
After an inconsistent season, Cole was utterly reliable against Liverpool, though still lacking the attacking menace which made him so valuable at Arsenal.
Man United’s goalscoring riches mean that opponents never know quite where the threat will come from – Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Nani, Anderson, Scholes? Even Park or Evra? Ferguson will want his side to attack down the flanks, testing and preoccupying Essien at right-back, or running in from wide to test Makelele’s legs.
Spoilt for choice: Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez
The only downside of Man United’s strength upfront is that they can attack too quickly. Sounds a daft thing to say when 30% of goals from open play are scored by counter-attacks but sometimes, in big games it’s the methodical, continuous application of pressure that creates the breakthrough.
So Man United will want – and need – to keep the ball, which means winning, or at least drawing, the battle in midfield.
The running of Tevez and Rooney should test bionic skipper John Terry’s sense of position – that, and a certain lack of pace, are, for me, his only weaknesses as a central defender.
Carvalho’s reading of the game could prove invaluable there. At the other end, Drogba vs Vidic and Ferdinand could be an epic, hopefully not too theatrical, contest. Drogba is probably the best lone striker in the world, can create a chance from a Cech clearance and, when motivated, defends tirelessly from the front.
Didier Drogba: The best lone striker in the world?
Two things strike me about this final that haven’t been dissected elsewhere. The first is the many and varied paths the individual players have taken to reach this final.
Lining up on Wednesday night will be a young basketball fan from Calgary, a former goat herder from the Ivory Coast, a midfielder from the former Communist state of East Germany who made his name at a club that was originally called Karl Marx Stadt FC and a tireless Korean from a city of a million people (Suwon) that most of the world has never heard of.
The second is how close eight out of the last 10 finals have been. Apart from two 3-0 victories – for Real Madrid in 2000 and Porto in 2004 – the other eight finals have been decided by a single goal or, on three occasions, a penalty shoot-out. I don’t expect it to be very different tomorrow.
Both teams will have their spells in control and, as was the case in the FA Cup final, victory may just be decided by which side makes their period of supremacy count.
Off on Aeroflot now. Back online on Thursday.
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