Our European guru educates and enlightens
The eight-point guide to this week's UEFA Champions League action...
1 Take it away Lionel!The goal of the week has to be Lionel Messi’s second against Panathinaikos. In any other week, Thomas Muller’s curving volley with the outside of his foot would have stood out. But Messi’s dribble and shot was so good you still couldn’t quite see how he’d done it on the replay.
Messi is the supreme exponent of an endangered art: dribbling. We’ve all grown up with wizards of the wing who fall under their own spell and flatter to deceive. But Messi darts towards the goal, knowing that even if he doesn’t score, he will probably wreak enough havoc to set up a teammate. With the ball at his feet and running at defences Messi is as good as Maradona and Best.
Watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona is, let’s face it, so much more fun than watching Vicente del Bosque’s Spain. I agree with Mike Ticher who said in When Saturday Comes: “I watched Spain’s World Cup with a mixture of admiration and frustration. Yes, it was tactically and technically brilliant and sometimes ‘beautiful’. But was it gripping? Were those four 1-0 wins in a row the best football can be? To me, there was something repressed and clinical about Spain that sucked the drama from the matches.”
For me, the difference between watching Barcelona and Spain is like the difference between hearing Elvis sing Suspicious Minds and Proud Mary. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, it is sufficient, it does the job, but it doesn’t have the same charismatic, joyous urgency as El crooning: “Honey, you know I’d never lie to you...”
2 The night of the living deadTransylvania’s finest pulled off the result of the week. With coach Andrea Mandorlini sacked 48 hours before kick-off, Cluj could have played like zombies against Basel. But they snuck a 2-1 victory thanks to ruthless finishing, the left foot of Juan Culio (who made both goals) and honest toil.
New coach Sorin Cartu, a stern disciplinarian, has had a chequered career. He was just 35 when he won the double as manager of Universtatea Craiova in 1990/91, but he has drifted around the league since like a Romanian Gary Megson.
Cartu should know that September is the cruellest month for Cluj managers. In September 2008, Ioan Andone was squeezed out despite having just won the first double in the club’s history.
Mandorlini paid the price for an indifferent start to the season and his startling decision to omit promising striker Cristian Bud, centre-back Nuno Diogo and experienced Argentine midfielder Sixto Peralta from the Champions League squad.
Cartu is Cluj’s eighth manager in five years, which suggests that owner Arpad Paszkany and chairman Luliu Muresan are taking the ‘Chelsea of Romania’ tag a bit too literally.
3 The perils of punditryThe “you never win anything with kids” award for heroically misguided punditry goes to, er, myself for bigging up Braga.
Professor Champions League, Tue 14 Sep: "Braga pose more of an attacking threat than Sporting Lisbon"
While marvelling at Arsenal’s quality, Michel Salgado wondered about their ability to read the ebbs and flows that are an intrinsic part of every match. If Arsenal were as good at making decisions as at passing the ball, he suggested, they might win the ultimate prize.
There’s something about Wenger’s Arsenal that makes seasoned pros like Salgado uncomfortable. It’s almost as if they are too pure, lacking the necessary understanding of realpolitik which most successful teams call on in times of need.
But their football can be magical, like Barcelona’s in 2009, Ajax’s in the early 1970s and Brazil in 1970. The cheap jibes about Arsenal’s recent dearth of silverware under Wenger slightly miss the point. Football isn’t just about trophies; it is, as Danny Blanchflower famously said, about glory and doing things with style. As Arsenal are doing.
4 Too many tweets...Maketh a tw*t, as David Cameron memorably observed. The prime minister’s wisdom is obviously lost on Russian president Dmitri Medvedev who sarcastically congratulated Marseille defender Cesar Azpiliceuta for scoring the own goal that gave Spartak Moscow three points.
“Spartak beat Marseille, Azpiliceuta played brilliantly” tweeted the exultant pres. He might have done better just to congratulate Spartak keeper Andrei Dykan who fully deserved his “11 out of ten” rating from coach Valeriy Karpin (who by the way is interviewed in the latest issue of Champions).
5 Anoraks cornerChelsea’s romp over Zilina was remarkable for stattos, anoraks and all-round saddoes like me. When 17-year-old Josh McEachran made his debut against the Slovakian champions, he became the first player born after the Champions League started to grace the competition. Chelsea’s promising young midfielder was born on 1 March 1993.
6 The bad news for SpursLosing their coach and some key players over the summer, Twente were cast as cannon fodder in Group A. But against Inter, the Eredivisie champions moved the ball around well, kept their shape for much of the time and exploited the spaces left by a Nerazzurri side that still seems caught betwixt and between.
Rafa Benitez’s attempt to make Inter play more expansively is leaving more space on the flanks for opponents to attack and, against Twente, led McDonald Mariga to stray too far forward leaving Lucio and Walter Samuel isolated. Although Theo Janssen’s stunning free kick stole the show, forwards Bryan Ruiz and Luuk De Jong were exceptional. Michel ***’homme’s team could trouble Werder Bremen and Spurs in the race for the last 16.
7 Milacticos 2 Auxerre 0Two moments of genius from Ibra – and Ronaldinho – were the difference between Milan and Auxerre. Jean Fernandez’s side were unlucky not to grab a point. Leonardo suggested his old club’s progress in this competition would depend not on the ‘Milacticos’ but on the fitness of central defensive intelligence Alessandro Nesta who will need to be at his most commanding if the Rossoneri’s lack of bite in midfield is not to cost them.
Kevin-Prince Boateng’s flick on for Ibra’s first goal is the latest memorable episode in a career worthy of a soap opera. Still only 23, Boateng has played for six clubs and two countries, missed a penalty in an FA Cup final, and registered an assist on his Champions League debut. As if that wasn’t enough, he has publicly admitted that, when depressed, he had a serious shopping addiction. He has looked good in midfield for Milan and could yet prove one of the bargains of the summer.
8 The wrong curseWayne Rooney’s troubles have been attributed to the curse of Nike. But the real curse may be much closer to home.
Since Bobby Charlton scored 49 goals for England, various misfortunes have befallen players who looked like smashing his record. Gary Lineker, who seemed destined to supersede Charlton, struck one of the oddest penalties of his career (against Brazil) when in sight of that record and hobbled into retirement with a dodgy toe, a goal short of Charlton’s total. Michael Owen racked up 40 goals at a fair rate but hasn’t played for the Three Lions in two and a half years.
Now 24, Rooney has scored 26 goals for England – Charlton had scored 23 by the time he celebrated his 24th birthday – and looks the best bet to break that record since Lineker. But will he?
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