Our European guru educates and enlightens
The longer I study mathematics, number crunching, statistics and their application to the game of football, the more deeply convinced I become that their use simply introduces a higher level of nonsense into punditry.
Yesterday, applying the formula developed by one rich gambler – the team that creates the most chances usually wins – I suggested Manchester United and Real Madrid would conquer all.
At first glance, I was half right.
The Professor on It's a knockout Pt.1: Milan, Man U, Real & Lyon
United, with a much greater track record at creating goalscoring opportunities in this tournament, just edged it – even though, on the night, they created one fewer chance than Milan!
Real lost 1-0 to Lyon. Los blancos have, game-by-game, created significantly more chances than Claude Puel’s team.
But on the night, in one of the best 1-0s of the season, Lyon created 18 chances, twice as many as Real.
If we evaluate tonight’s games purely in terms of goalscoring opportunities, what do we conclude?
Bayern vs Fiorentina is too close to call: the Germans made 86 opportunities in their group games, compared to 91 for Fiorentina, while Porto (who created 124 chances) might surprise Arsenal (101).
Zealotry and pragmatism
Porto vs Arsenal
When Arsene Wenger called this tie “difficult, but feasible”, the British press assumed he was playing mind games.
After all, United and Chelsea have beaten the Dragons on their own turf in the last year.
Yet William Hill agrees with Wenger rating a Porto victory this week as slightly more likely (7/5) than a win for Arsenal (8/5).
The absence of Andrei Arshavin and Eduardo, with Robin van Persie sidelined, is significant.
But 11 Gunners have already scored in the UEFA Champions League this season and Cesc Fabregas, their top scorer in this competition (and this season as a whole) will play.
The bigger concern may be the absence of Alexandre Song. Many Arsenal fans rave about him, as does David Walsh in The Sunday Times.
I haven’t seen him enough in person this season to make any sweeping judgement.
But from what I’ve seen on TV, I wonder whether people are seeing Song as he is today or projecting an idealised version of the player he might become in a few years.
Certainly a minority of Gooners post such furious questions on message boards as: “Why in God’s name is Song never in front of the centre-backs when he is supposed to be?”
Porto are not, as Gabriel Marcotti notes, the side that pushed United so hard in the quarter-finals last season.
Their annual summer sale has begun finally to take its toll and, despite some good recent form, they are nine points behind Benfica in Portugal.
It hasn’t helped, as The Sunday Times’ Ian Hawkey notes, that “The Incredible Hulk has become the Ineligible Hulk” after a fracas in the tunnel against Benfica just before Christmas.
Though his ban does not apply to UEFA competitions, Porto’s marauding Brazilian genius will lack match fitness.
Hawkey and Marcotti identify the major threat to Arsenal as Radamel ‘Falcao’ Garcia, a 24-year-old Colombian who has quickly filled Lisandro’s goalscoring boots.
He can finish with both feet, has a devastating change of pace, is pretty nifty in the air for a player who isn’t quite 5ft 10in, and he has scored seven in his last 10 games.
Porto paid £4.8 million for him and could double that if they sold him this summer.
Porto are adept on the counter and Arsenal have become exceptionally adept at conceding on the counter so it will be intriguing to see if Wenger has his team playing a little deeper in Portugal, reducing the space for Porto to attack into.
Above all, this fixture offers a fascinating contrast in managerial styles.
Porto are schooled by Jesualdo Ferreira, a wily pragmatist who may never match the glory that was Jose Mourinho but won’t rock the boat either.
Ferreira’s perpetual challenge is to build a team flexible and resilient enough to lose star players upfront, in central defence and midfield and still compete in the Champions League.
And Ferreira knows that, no many how of his stars are sold, he will pay if the Dragons don’t deliver.
Facing Ferreira is Wenger, a coach with the conviction, zeal and mystic aura of a biblical prophet who, for all his cosmopolitan, analytical intelligence, really does seem to believe that his way of playing football is morally superior.
Wenger may be dismayed, if not surprised, to hear that Ferreira says his main goal tonight is “shutting out” Arsenal – although the Porto coach could be playing mind games too.
With Arsenal’s injury problems, he might wonder if a more aggressive approach could clinch the tie in the first leg.
Violins and washing machines
Bayern vs Fiorentina
If football matches were decided purely by which teams had the most stars, Bayern would be a shoo-in for the last eight.
They can call on the slippery Arjen Robben, the superb Ivica Olic, the reliable Miroslav Klose, and the rejuvenated Franck Ribery.
The only Fiorentina star of equivalent proven class is Alberto Gilardino, who will be hoping to perform his famous celebration – playing the air violin – in Munich.
If matches were decided by form, Bayern are still overwhelming favourites.
They have won 12 games in a row while Fiorentina (beaten 2-0 by Sampdoria at the weekend) have shown the kind of inconsistency normally reserved for candidates for public office.
Coach Cesare Prandelli admits the Viola are in crisis.
The Guardian’s Paolo Bandini explores the club’s malaise entertainingly, pointing out that Fiorentina have one eye on the last eight of the Champions League and another on a relegation battle in Serie A.
No wonder the bookies offer 6/1 on a Fiorentina triumph in Munich.
Still, as Bayern club captain Mark van Bommel said earlier this week: “You never know what will happen – warranties and guarantees are for washing machines.”
Prandelli’s best hope may be to keep the tie competitive – ideally level with an away goal – and regroup for the return at the Artemi Franchi.
Despite their impressive form, Louis van Gaal has scolded Bayern for “being arrogant and lacking in concentration” and Fiorentina will hope to punish any such lapses.
In the last 16 for the first time, Fiorentina have shown that this tournament inspires them.
They have won five in a row, including both their last two away games.
They have the wit and technique – in such players as Stevan Jovetic and Juan Manuel Vargas – to trouble Bayern and keeper Sebastian Frey has been in the form of his life in Europe.
The key to the tie, in Mutu’s absence, will be whether Gilardino is confident and on form after a lacklustre month.
Sometimes, when you are struggling, playing away from home – especially in an inspiring stadium like Bayern’s – can be easier than performing in front of your own fans who, when the chips are down, can lurch from passionate loyalty to loud, vitriolic, enervating disgust after one bad mistake.
The longer Fiorentina can keep this at 0-0, the more frustrated Bayern – and their highly critical fans – might become.
Even if Bayern ease past Fiorentina, one man believes they probably won’t win the Champions League.
That man is, of course, Franck Ribery, who may just be perfecting his alibi for a summer move to somewhere more glamorous.
His insistence that Bayern need to buy more big names – as if a football team could ever really adopt the model of the Harlem Globetrotters – is a tad depressing.
Multi-millionaires are notoriously prone to delusions of professional immortality but even big names like Ribery age and, if every club adopted his Harlem Globetrotters strategy, there’d be no big names emerging to replace them.
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