Our European guru educates and enlightens
For years, coaches, players and supporters have tried to define what it takes to win the UEFA Champions League.
The failure to resolve this conundrum has blighted the careers of some of football’s best and brightest. But football’s cognoscenti need wonder no more. Rafa Benitez, mastermind of Liverpool’s unlikely victory in Istanbul in 2005, has revealed that he owed his success to his lucky red underpants.
The revelation, in the Spaniard’s forthcoming memoirs, will certainly have prompted some coaches to scrutinise their selection of boxer shorts in a valiant attempt to detect the secret aura of good fortune. But most will resort to the old tried and trusted methods, putting faith in their players, their tactics and the obsessive detail with which they compile dossiers on their opposition.
Benitez and Liverpool overcame the odds to beat Milan in 2005
As this UEFA Champions League season kicks off, the magazine I edit has been reinvented as Champions Matchday. It will now come out, as the name suggests, a week before every matchday and will, for the first time, be able to give readers the full, remarkable story of a season of UEFA Champions League football.
While poring over the club-by-club previews for the new issue, it struck me that, for the first time since September 2009, there is no overwhelming favourite to win the competition. The dominant power in European football, Barcelona, are in transition – and it may not be clear for some months whatever that process will make them more vulnerable or even more stupendous.
Stepping into the dugout previously occupied by Josep Guardiola is the toughest job in European football. For all the clichés about No.2s struggling to become No.1s, there are enough precedents of apprentices who became masters – Bob Paisley and Fabio Capello to name but two – to give Barça hope.
And sometimes, a change in this kind of leadership can inspire players. Ajax’s squad were going stir crazy under their inspirational coach Rinus ‘The General’ Michels. When Piet Keizer heard that the architect of Total Football was leaving for Barcelona, he danced with joy on the tables in his father-in-law’s bar. Keizer, Cruyff and his gifted team-mates revelled in the freedom afforded them by Stefan Kovacs, the Romanian coach who succeeded Michels, and won two more European Cups.
Kovacs enjoyed great success at Ajax after taking over from Rinus Michels
With Barcelona in transition, this is the perfect opportunity for Real Madrid to win la decima. The club has the players – and the coach – to conquer Europe, but after 11 years of waiting and two successive semi-finals, the expectations are so great that it takes a man blessed with José Mourinho’s unique level of self-confidence to handle them.
Outside the Spanish giants, the usual contenders – Bayern, Chelsea and Manchester United – will look to make their mark. But they face an intriguing challenge from a resurgent Juventus, a lavishly rejuvenated PSG and the two free-spending clubs tipped by Carlo Ancelotti as outside candidates to win: Manchester City and Zenit.
It would be a major surprise if Benfica won the competition. Coach Jorge Jesus might need a wardrobe full of lucky red boxer shorts to ward off the effects of the Béla Guttmann curse. The great Hungarian coach, who won the European Cup twice with the Eagles, walked out of the club after a row of bonuses and is said to have put a curse on the club. This sounds like one of those great urban myths until you realise that Benfica have reached six European finals since and not won any of them.
Anyway, none of that has anything to do with why I mentioned Benfica. The real reason is that the new Champions Matchday includes an interview with their Brazilian goalkeeper Artur which sheds more light on the goalkeeping profession than any other Q&A I’ve ever read.
I’ve always wondered how keepers get their minds back on the job after conceding a goal. The Benfica No.1’s advice to his fellow members of the Goalkeepers Union is simple: "Take a deep breath and put the ball back into midfield as fast as you can. The faster the match restarts the less time you have to suffer."
Obvious really when you think about it, but it’s nice to have it in a keeper’s own words.
If you want to give us your thoughts on the UEFA Champions League season, you can now follow us on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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