Our European guru educates and enlightens
Showboating. That’s how some would regard the 7-1, 4-0 and 5-2 we saw in the UEFA Champions League last week.
While it was joyous to watch Barcelona, Bayern and Liverpool playing
with boyish enthusiasm and scoring, as that dreadful old cliché has it,
for fun, I’m sure some of the more curmudgeonly members of the coaching
trade would have regarded such performances as a bit suspect. Even
Do the minimum necessary to win, they’d say. Sounds brutal, even cynical, but it works in many spheres of life.
I’d take a “nope” from Gary Cooper over a passage of fancy rhetoric
by Al “If I’m not overacting how can I be sure they’ll notice me?”
Pacino anytime. And in football, it’s hard not to grudgingly admire
such masterful economisers of effort as the Milan side that conquered
Europe in 2003.
OK, this particular Rossoneri vintage did briefly lose
their heads and beat Deportivo 4-0 away in Group G. But after
qualifying with four wins in four games, Milan lost to Lens and Depor.
This worked so well they did the same in the second group stage
although, in a remarkable feat of sporting minimalism, they managed to
win their first four by the same wonderfully functional scoreline: 1-0.
In the quarters, an efficient 0-0 at Ajax was followed by an
unusually nervy 3-2 victory at the San Siro, with Jon Dahl Tomasson’s
injury-time winner denying the Dutch the chance to go through on away
Tomasson breaks Ajax hearts
After that it was steady as she goes. They made the final courtesy
of an ‘away’ goal against Inter at the San Siro and beat Juventus on
penalties after another 0-0. Gary Cooper would have been proud.
It wasn’t entertainment, as Johan Cruyff famously complained. But
then, as Carlo Ancelotti replied: “When Cruyff wants to enjoy himself,
he can go to the cinema.”
Milan’s economical mastery left me thinking the diktat that a player
should cover every blade of grass, which seems inspired more by the
English football’s all-pervasive Protestant work ethic than any
realistic assessment of what a team needs to do to win.
I’ve often watched a Premier League game and wondered whether some players are running for the team or the cameras.
Considering successful teams who had done the absolute minimum, my
thoughts turned, naturally enough, to Guus Hiddink’s PSV side that won
the European Cup in 1988.
It wasn’t a bad team. Four players – Hans van Breukelen in goal,
Ronald Koeman, Soren Lerby in midfield, Gerald Vanenburg on the wing,
and Wim Kieft up front – would have been coveted by most managers in
Europe. But they won the European Cup in remarkably functional style.
Shootout hero Van Breukelen settles sterile final
In the old-school knockout format, it took PSV just nine games to
lift the trophy. They won just three of them, drew five and lost one.
What makes Hiddink’s European champions even more astonishing is
that they drew their last five games in the competition. A 1-1 away and
a 0-0 at home to Bordeaux in the quarters was enough to reach the
semis, where the same combination of results disposed of Real Madrid.
The final against Benfica was one of the most sterile games ever to
decide the destiny of a major trophy. A DVD of the first half, which
featured one shot on goal, has just entered phase-three clinical trials
as a cure for insomnia.
Benfica played for penalties from the start, putting 11 men behind
the ball because their playmaker, Diamantino, was injured. But PSV were
wary and the shoot-out, which the Dutch won 6-5, came as a blessed
Maybe Hiddink wasn’t attracted to Chelsea by Abramovich, the
opportunity to tear a strip off Ashley Cole, or the chance to win the
Champions League. Perhaps he just felt an instinctive sympathy with a
club that, in 1954/55, lost 10 games (out of 42) but still managed to
win the league.
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Just 2 years after Milan's 2003 Champions League win, they thought they'd "done enough" in the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul, going in 3-0 at half time.
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