Our European guru educates and enlightens
Can anyone slay Barcelona?
The best result for English clubs in the UEFA Champions League this week wouldn’t be a 2-0 win for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it would be a miraculous victory for Stuttgart in Camp Nou.
Barcelona are the only non-English team left in the competition with the class, form and quality to intimidate a Premier League club.
If you are a Stuttgart fan you might want, as they say on BBC News on Saturday night, to look away now. Barcelona have drawn the first leg away from home in 21 European ties – and won 15 of them.
The last Bundesliga side to win at Camp Nou were Bayern in November 1998 when, oddly enough, Louis van Gaal coached the Catalans.
Stuttgart have never made it past the last 16 in this competition and… oh you get the picture. This could be the most one-sided fixture since Richard Dunn was daft enough to get into a ring with Muhammad Ali or an unknown non-league side called Hereford took on the mighty Newcastle in the FA Cup.
Carlo and calcio at the crossroads
The Chelsea fan who lives around the corner is worried. Has been for months. If you offered him Guus Hiddink as coach now, his gratitude would be almost pitiful.
A lifelong season ticket holder, he believes Chelsea aren’t playing like champions – of England or Europe. And, despite the flattering 4-1 over West Ham, he has a point.
They lack the aura of invincibility Mourinho wrapped them in and have not always shown the gung ho spirit that roused fans under Hiddink. With the Premier League no longer in the bag, this is a difficult time for Carlo Ancelotti who will need all his sangfroid – that’s French for stiff upper lip – as the season progresses.
Chelsea have reached the semi-finals in five out of their last six campaigns. Their only failure – in 2005/06 – was, ironically enough, on Jose Mourinho’s watch.
That most Italian of scorelines (1-0) will suffice for the Blues but with Petr Cech injured, the odds tilt slightly in Inter’s favour.
Yet Inter, like Real, have been serially slayed at this stage in the tournament, going out in the last 16 three times in a row.
The stats may encourage the visitors. Inter have won 37 out of 41 ties where they led after the first leg. But the Nerazzurri faithful know that the last time they won a Champions League home leg 2-1 – in the 2005/06 quarter-finals – they were beaten 1-0 by Villarreal in Spain.
The coach’s press conferences yielded one entertaining snippet. Mourinho, attempting to suggest that a lot of water had flown under Stamford Bridge since his departure, said: “They moved on, I have moved on. I keep winning important things. They keep winning something. They won an FA Cup.” Touché.
If Chelsea do the business, Serie A would miss out on the last eight for the second year running. Cue much wailing, lamentation, gnashing of teeth and, quite possibly, the loss of a Champions League spot to Germany.
Bring on the dark horses
Whether Laurent Blanc leads the French champions to victory or defeat against Olympiakos, there is one certainty: headline writers will deliver a vintage crop of wine-related puns.
You can probably make up your own already. Call it serendipity or synchronicity, but a wine connoisseur – oh alright then the bloke at Oddbins – tells me the 2009 Bordeaux was the best in ages. Just like the team then.
If Barcelona are the goliaths no one wants to draw in the last eight, Bordeaux are the troublesome Davids. Like Blanc in his prime as a defender, they are quietly stylish, economical, easy to underestimate and tough to beat.Sevilla vs CSKA Moscow is the tie where anything can happen.
CSKA boss Leonid Slutsky is talking about playing both his creative playmakers – Alan Dzagoev and Keisuke Honda – on the grounds that “we’re going out to try and play attacking football as a goalless draw is of no use to us.”
The game will showcase two stars looking to move on in the summer. Luis Fabiano has revealed he has already very nearly come to England twice – with Chelsea under Scolari and Manchester City when they bought Robinho – and will be keen, at 29, to impress.
Time’s winged chariot doesn’t scurry quite as fast for 25-year-old CSKA midfield star Milan Krasic, but the Serbian footballer of the year could cap an outstanding season with a summer move West.
Because CSKA need to score – and Sevilla, despite the excellence of Andres Palop in goal, don’t have the strength in depth to sit back and defend – I am half-convinced this could be one of those truly mad games, like Monaco 8 Deportivo 3. With my current strike rate, that’s probably guaranteed a 0-0 bore draw.
Haven’t done the chanceometer in a while, but if anybody’s interested in this predictive method (used by one London gambler to make himself very rich), it suggests that Barcelona (137 chances) will prevail over Stuttgart (131), Chelsea (130) will beat Inter (94), Bordeaux (124) will knock out Olympiakos (111) and CSKA (105) will lose to Sevilla (112).
In the wrong hands – i.e. mine – such stats can be dangerous.
But I did wonder why a student of the game like Mourinho hasn’t clocked the fact that one reason for Inter’s struggles in Europe is that they don’t earn enough corners: just 3.14 per game in this tournament this season compared to 7.5 for Bayern and 5.12 for Bordeaux.
I don’t want to encourage any Rory Delap-style playing for set-pieces but with 20-25% of goals coming from dead ball situations, this could be a handicap.
Mind you, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were woeful at corners last season and look what happened to them.
Big Sam, Rafa and St George
At the National Sports Book Awards last week, I was astonished to hear sportswriters rallying around ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce in his latest fusillade against Rafa Benitez.
At last, or so the consensus around the bar after too many Asahi beers had it, this valiant, stalwart Englishman was giving it to that Johnny Foreigner come lately! Allardyce couldn’t have generated more patriotic fervour if he’d dressed as St George and slayed the dragon.
In these exchanges – to call them mind games inaccurately implies some thought is involved – the charges often say as much about the accuser as the accused.
Here we have Benitez sarcastically likening Blackburn’s style to Barcelona in a season when his team have played some stupefying football. Meanwhile, Allardyce accuses the Liverpool boss of using the row as a “cover up” to mask “how bad his side were.”
Am I being unduly cynical but could Sam be using the row to generate enough good PR to obscure the fact that Blackburn are a bit rubbish?
You would expect a club with Rovers in their name to win more than one game away from home in an entire season.
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