Friday, April 27, 2012

The Final No One Expected

Well, I guess we aren't going to see the 8957th El Clasico of the year on May 19th in Munich. Or Barcelona beating Bayern Munich to solidify their claim as one of the greatest squads of all time, earning their third Champions League title in four years. Or Real Madrid firmly defeating Chelsea as viewers were pummeled with storylines like "Mourinho's Revenge" or "Mourinho Makes Case for Return" or any other over-hyped angles that run the risk of making those exposed physically ill. No, none of these outcomes transpired and now we are left with the least likely of all the championship matches: Chelsea vs Bayern Munich (I wonder how many people will mistakenly describe it as "Chelsea at Bayern Munich"). I managed to work 6am to 2pm both Tuesday and Wednesday in order to avoid the DVR enabled belated viewing, so I was sitting comfortably at home watching all of the madness unfold. Due to said levels of madness, I'd like to briefly recap these semifinal Champions League matches before returning you to your regularly scheduled Arsenal programming.

Pragmatism Beats Identity... For Now

Though I have probably hit my quota of discussions of the nature of soccer with my last entry on the chaotic elements and what it means for viewers, this needs to be discussed because to avoid talking about the way that Chelsea and Barcelona played the game is to avoid talking about the game at all. Though I have great amounts of respect for Michael Cox (@zonal_marking) of Zonal Marking tactics are usually not my thing. I can speak them well enough to hold a conversation with Harry Redknapp but stop short of Andre Villas-Boas territory. However, tactics, positioning and form were so apparent in Tuesday's game that it became part of the commentary naturally. Chelsea, owners of a 1-0 home win, obviously went into Camp Nou with the understanding that they would have to play a completely defensive game against Barcelona if they were to win. In an open game where both teams ran at each other, the Catalan's passing game would shred the Blues and leave them with no chance, so utilized instead was basically an updated version of the "park the bus" strategy that worked so well for Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan against Barcelona back in 2010. And though it looked for a while like Barcelona would break them down, especially the early second half culminating in Messi penalty kick attempt (more on this later), Chelsea's ten man defense held and pragmatism triumphed over the culture of Barcelona soccer.

But before we go overboard about how style was more important to Barcelona than winning the match, or how Chelsea proved that winning comes above all else, let's consider the circumstances surrounding this win. If this match is played ten times, Barcelona most likely wins seven, if not more. Let me be clear: this is not a dig at Chelsea. What Chelsea did defensively in this match was incredible, they deserved to win because they did what they needed to do, and this is not an apology for Barcelona. Just a statement of the talent levels on paper and the situation (Chelsea on short rest, home game for Barcelona, statement game after Real loss, etc.) involved. So if Barcelona is more likely to win and they did not, is that really a commentary on Barcelona's pride in culture? Is it perhaps more a statement of how much unique emotion matters during a match? Or clutch play by big players (it's coming!)? Or proof that Barcelona was lacking certain elements of their team rather than it be the style that was lacking? Let's also remember that in two out of the last four years, no one has been able to contend with Barcelona's culture and in the two other years, they went out in the semifinals of the best club tournament in the world, meaning they were no worse than fourth best on those occasions. So Chelsea should be praised for their adaptation, grit, and determination. No doubt and without question. But let's please hold on a bit before calling their victory the death knell for Barcelona and identity based soccer.

The Resurrection of Chelsea

If you had told a Chelsea fan two months ago, a month ago, two weeks ago, that they would be in the FA Cup final, in the Champions League final, and holding a chance to retain a Champions League spot due to their position on the Premiership table, I tend to think they would have laughed in your face. And yet, here we are. The point of departure is obviously the firing of Andre Villas-Boas but it is unfair to think that he was everything wrong with the club. Under Roberto Di Matteo they are once again relying on the veterans; Terry, Lampard, Drogba, etc. Villas-Boas was brought in to change the culture of soccer at Chelsea. He was allowed to do this for a while with Ramires, Mata, and Meireles, but then the wins dried up and he was fired. Was he really given a chance though? How would you like to be given a job constructing a brand new stadium based on your new, innovative building techniques, only half your staff are guys from the last attempt who have no interest in learning how to do things your way? Oh, and even though you made it clear you needed three years to finish, your timetable was moved up to less than a year in the middle of the project. Have fun.

All of this has very little to do with how Chelsea played against Barcelona though. Di Matteo has gone back to the old, adaptive Chelsea tactics, building his system around his players rather than making his players adapt to the system, and he is getting results. But the question is for how long? This year, certainly. Even if he loses in both finals and fails to make the top four in the EPL, he's done his job based on where he inherited the team versus where he finished. But even with the job he's done so far, he doesn't seem to be Roman Abramovich's first choice as Chelsea's next full-time manager. And even if he can stay, everyone is a year older, players like Mata don't seem to be allowed to play to the best of their abilities, and it's another year in this awkward transition from the old guard to some kind of new guard. Chelsea have absolute gobs of money so they can spend to get an all new team to suit whatever style. But it may be another year of another new program and more confusion about direction. But hey, if you can win two trophies while rudderless, you take that year in and year out.

Messi's Miss

I read plenty of commentary after the Barcelona vs Chelsea match asking what Messi's missed chance to put Barcelona up 3-1 meant for his image as the best player in the world. My response to all of these questions was: really? The miss may have meant everything for the game of course. A conversion puts Barcelona up 3-1, ten man Chelsea is forced to press forward, Barcelona rips them apart upon retaking possession, game over (in theory). The penalty kick would most likely have won Barcelona the game, so Messi can take some heat there, and deservedly so. But aside from that? Calm down, Pele. The Argentine missed an important shot, but he also is the primary attacker for a team that is increasingly relying on him to carry the goal-scoring load and despite his best efforts (assist on the Iniesta goal, struck the woodwork twice including the penalty) he couldn't secure his team the victory. Aside from the reasonable performance, it's important to remember this: he has been there and won this before. He has La Liga titles, he has two Champions League titles, he's been the best both in people's minds and on the score sheet. He is not LeBron James, waiting to breakthrough and win his first big one. He's been there before and he's only 24. He'll be just fine.

The Shootout. What Else?

If the penalty shootout in the Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich match had been a straight-forward or dull affair, I probably would have discussed the match in general first, or perhaps a particular player that had been impressive. But come on. That may be the greatest shootout (stakes notwithstanding) I have ever seen. It had everything you would want. The initial big lead thanks to two stops by Neuer including one on Ronaldo. Then the big comeback as Casillas shut down Kroos and Lahm while Alanso calmly buried his penalty. Then the abject ridiculousness of Ramos' penalty where he probably could have been disqualified for coming to a full stop before sending the ball 15 feet over the bar. And finally, the walk off (scamper excitedly off?) with stalwart Schweinsteiger putting home the winning penalty. So many ups and downs, so much drama, for once, perhaps, a fitting end provided by a shootout.

Second Half Letdown

The first half of the Real vs Bayern match was as good (or at least as wide open) a half as I've seen in quite some time. There were a plethora of chances, excellent end-to-end action, three goals including two penalties that more or less equaled out in terms of credibility, and just a very high level of play throughout. As the match went into the second half though, I remarked to my roommates (with whom I was watching the game) that I hoped that the rest of the game didn't slow down too much as the teams were tied on aggregate for the first time and no one was chasing the other. Tied, in my mind, in the second half of an elimination match was the perfect storm to see cautious soccer until the end, each team trying to sneak chances where they could without exposing themselves too much. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we were "treated" to. Sure there were chances, but it definitely wasn't the same as the pace and abandon each team displayed in turn in the first half. I won't go as far as to say it was a letdown overall because the match was still intense and the drama lasted all the way to the end, but it was a bit of a letdown compared solely to the first half. To see attacking soccer of that vigor throughout 90 minutes (and even 120) would have been the stuff of dreams.

Where Were the Substitutes?

I understand that a good amount of this has to do with the slowdown of attacking play and the conservative streak that each manager displayed in the second half, but where were the substitutes? Especially toward the end of regulation both teams were dragging, certain players were clearly out of gas, and no one seemed to want to do anything about it. Kaka on for Di Maria with 15 to play was a quality move, Mourinho gets credit there. But what about the rest? The match was clearly there for the taking (or at least an attempt at the taking) but nothing was done. Sitting on Real's bench were Higuain, Coentrao, and Callejon, any of which could have been used to exploit a tiring area of Bayern's team, or at the very least forced Bayern into making substitutions of their own. Bayern eventually put Muller in once the match was in overtime, but why not try to bring him in around the 75th (like Mourinho did with Kaka) in an attempt to influence the match? It seemed as if both managers were happy to play into the shootout, which seems like madness as that is one of the most unpredictable areas of an elimination match. Of course they were both confident in their keepers and their shooters, but you never know what might happen. When it came time, we saw four saves, one atrocious miss, and a victory for Bayern that could have come earlier or been taken away if either manager had the guts to do so.

Hope you enjoyed this wrap up of the Champions League semifinals. I'll be back sometime over the weekend to breakdown the result of the Stoke vs Arsenal match, or write a bunch of shit that is only tangentially related to the match I just watched. Hope to see you then.

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