Our European guru educates and enlightens
This blog is a literary experiment. Before you hit the back button, I'll explain. There is a silvery black hole on my laptop keyboard where the letter 'j' should be. I must therefore contemplate the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League without calling on the tenth letter of the alphabet. This does mean the usual lengthy, occasionally turgid analysis will be replaced with a few half-formed, probably derivative thoughts.
Chelsea's destiny may be decided on the flanks
Playing three at the back against Chelsea was a shrewd ploy by Kenny Dalglish, but it was no Einsteinian masterstroke. Even when they don't play the diamond, Chelsea's attack has often been far too narrow this season.
Instead of getting behind defences near the by-line, Chelsea have usually played it through the middle and, with so many of their talismanic players in inconsistent form, many promising attacks have petered out in front of the opposing penalty area.
Is Fernando Torres the answer? That depends on the question. One Chelsea season ticket holder gave Nando's arrival a muted welcome. "What I'd really like," he grumbled, "is someone who can pass the ball to him."
When Chelsea chase the game, as they did against Liverpool, they too often resort to hitting crosses from distance which drop near the edge of the area in the (usually vain) hope that a knockdown will create something out of not very much. These aren't crosses of Beckham quality, but a confession of desperation.
I couldn't help but contrast the Blues' unimaginative forward play – not simply against Liverpool but in many games this season – with the inventiveness shown by Inter and Roma in their 5-3 thriller. True, both defences were tarnished by gaping holes the size of Piers Morgan's ego, but their passing, movement and running was simply in a different class.
"Houses in London cost how much?!?"
Against a beautifully drilled Copenhagen defence, the Blues must exploit the full width of the pitch and free space for Ashley Cole, in particular, to unnerve the Lions' back four with his pace. On the other flank, expect Blues old boy Jesper Gronkjaer (hey, the character actually worked) to try and run rings around Branislav Ivanovic.
If they don't bring a lead back from Denmark, they will face an excruciating test of nerves at Stamford Bridge.
The second most miserable man in England after the transfer window shut (assuming Charlie Adams is the most gutted) is the head of Chelsea's academy. A laudable attempt to build a team of Chelsea's own – a successor to the Busby Babes, Drake's Ducklings and Fergie's Fledglings – has been shelved for reasons of expediency.
The pendulum has swung back in favour of big-name signings. Let's hope, as Gabriele Marcotti suggested, that this is merely Chelsea's attempt to spend big before UEFA's rules on financial fair play kick in.
Zombies and Hollywood: the final rematch
Since the draw, the odds in Bayern v Inter have shifted slightly in favour of the Italian champions.
Bayern's 3-2 loss to Cologne was the first time they had thrown away a 2-0 lead in 13 years. Mark van Bommel's switch to Milan looks oddly timed. Uli Hoeness, who – even more than Beckenbauer – is virtually the living incarnation of Bayern, has complained that Louis van Gaal is hard to work with. Sounds ominous, doesn't it?
And yet this is run-of-the-mill stuff for FC Hollywood. Van Gaal eats this kind of crisis for breakfast. Robben and Ribery have hardly played together this season and are returning to fitness. They were, let's not forget, in a far worse state in the group stages in 2009/10 and made the final.
"Crisis? Pah! Bring me a spoon and some milk...."
Inter's revived hopes have more to do with their new spirit under Leonardo. Pundits who specialise in tactical insight will bombard you with subtle explanations for this transformation, but to my untrained eye the explanation for Inter's revival is simple: they have stopped playing like zombies.
Every coach is a perfectionist but there might be something in Rafa Benitez's brand of perfectionism that reduces players to a trancelike state of anxiety. The Special One makes his perfectionism seem invigorating, fun. Benitez's seems, to the outsider, rather dour. And his last two teams – Liverpool 2009/10 and Inter 2010/11 – have both at times played in a semi-vegetative state that's even more bizarre when you compare it to the glory of Rafa's Valencia.
Rattlesnakes, constrictors and Barcelona
Arsene Wenger has a stark choice against Barcelona: stick or twist? Actually, as anyone who saw the Gunners blow a 4-0 lead against Newcastle, he doesn't have a choice. He cannot hope to close the opposition down and hold onto the nil he has at kick-off against an attack that has scored 2.94 goals per game in all competitions this season.
If Wenger was tempted to stick, Barca's 3-0 demolition of Atletico Madrid 10 days ago proved that a defensive strategy would be about as wise as asking what women know about the offside law.
Atleti coach Quique Sanchez Flores set his side up with one up front. Even though the 'one' was the sublime Sergio Aguero, the game was over as a contest after 28 minutes. Flores brought Forlan on at half-time and the mattress makers did disturb Barça's back four – even suggesting they might find a way back for a few moments – before Messi completed his hat-trick in the 79th minute.
Sadly for Barça, there's no Mikael Silvestre this year...
The best Brazilian teams pass back and forth until they have lulled the opposition into a false sense of security. Then, when a useful space opens up, they go in for the kill. UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh calls this approach the "rattlesnake".
As for Barcelona, well, to quote the bloke in the Mitchell and Webb sketches, they play like that but not like that. They keep the ball but their possession is more purposeful, constricting the space their opponents can defend in. Their success is often reductively ascribed to Messi or to their sheer wealth of intelligent, attacking talent. That all matters, but what takes them to the very highest level is the breadth and depth of their bombardment.
Against Atletico, Messi scored his first goals in the 17th and 28th minute. But from the 15th to the 30th minute, Barcelona could – and probably should – have scored from five or six other attacks. Atleti never cleared their lines long enough for their defenders to regroup. Ultimately, it came down to mental stamina. Atleti's defenders began to acquire the desperate, haunted look of wanted men on the run.
If Barcelona have a weakness, it is their defence. And if Wenger is to succeed against the kinds of odds Phil Collins used to croon about, he must place the Blaugranas' back four at the heart of the battle.
Having only used the letter 'j' thrice in 1100 or so words (and two of those were to spell a footballer's name), I now completely understand why the tenth letter of the alphabet is worth eight points in Scrabble.
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