Our European guru educates and enlightens
I am not the first person in football to be duped by the genius of Guus Hiddink. Nor will I be the last. But I am undoubtedly the poorest.
Hiddink told Pedro Pinto, CNN’s roving football correspondent, Chelsea are a team that wants to attack and “cannot sit back”.
The trick in the UEFA Champions League, Hiddink confided, was to make sure you did some damage in the away leg. And then, in the pre-match press conference, he told the media this semi-final was a game between two teams who loved to attack.
What he really meant was: “This is a game between two teams who love to attack, one of whom has been ordered not to.”
The 4-2-3-1 – which at times felt more like 8-1-1 – did its job. Kind of.
The “uber-catenaccio” left Barcelona unsettled, depleted by injury and feeling cheated, with Xavi complaining that one team wanted to play football and one didn’t.
"Ye shall not pass..."
Certainly, a few Italian journalists I spoke to were ironically amused by the British press’ praise for Chelsea’s heroism. Such acclaim, they said, would never be lavished on any Serie A side that came to England and shut up shop.
Jean Tigana might say the odds slightly favour Barca. His Monaco side knocked Manchester United out after just such a result at home, drawing 1-1 at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals back in 1997/98.
Without an away goal, Hiddink cannot be as defensive in the second leg. And he will remember the wise words of Juande Ramos: “Barcelona are at their most dangerous when you’re attacking them.”
If Chelsea complete the job at Stamford Bridge, the closing stages of the 2009/10 Champions League will resemble one long advert for the versatility of Guus Hiddink.
Till now, under Roman Abramovich, the dilemma has been: you can win with Mourinhoesque efficiency or you can entertain, like Scolari at the start of the season, but you can’t have both.
But Hiddink has synthesized these contrasting strategies, giving us a new genetic blend of football you might call 'Moulari'.
One week it’s an eight goal thriller, the other it’s an exhibition of the lost black art of catenaccio. If you have the nous and the players to pull this off, this could be the best of all possible worlds.
And, after his misdirection ahead of the first leg. I can’t wait to see if Hiddink turns up for the next pre-match press conference carrying a giant red herring.
Arsene Wenger played a 4-2-3-1 to completely contrasting effect at Old Trafford. The final possession stats – 55 percent to United and 45 percent for Arsenal – don’t really reflect how badly the Gunners were overrun and how lucky they were not to leave Manchester 4-0 down and out.
Almunia keeps Gunners hopes in tact
This was the only semi-final I have ever seen played with the pace, rhythm and demented energy of a classic Tom And Jerry cartoon (one of those with Fred Quimby as producer).
Gazzetta Dello Sport felt, I think rightly, that Wenger’s tactical wheeze ceded control of midfield to United’s 4-3-3. As the Spanish daily Marca put it, Arsenal looked “tormented and flabbergasted by the fury of the Red Devils,” as tormented, in fact, as Tom whenever Jerry turned the tables on him.
In attack, the Gunners passed without penetration, never managing the kind of combination play that would open up United. Emmanuel Adebayor, Gazzetta noted, “resembled a Ferrari racing at Cinquecento speed”.
L’Equipe drolly described Arsenal’s marking as “rather lax, almost symbolic.”
That’s certainly how it looked for the ricochet that let in John O’Shea. Every set-piece can become a melodrama for Arsenal this season and, struggling to regroup after the corner, they gave United the freedom of the back post.
Still, both coaches will wonder if United will regret not killing the tie in the first leg.
The good, but irrelevant, news for United is that the whole of Belgium will be cheering them on, because an Arsenal triumph in Rome would deprive the Belgian champions (either Standard Liege or Anderlecht) of an automatic spot in the 2009/10 group stage.
The known unknown, as Andy Roxburgh, UEFA technical director, put it is that “Both away sides look capable of scoring.” And if United score first, will Arsenal manage to score three?
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