The Champions League of 2008/9 has proved as unpredictable in its predictability as ever. As expected, the European giants strode through the group stages only for some “minor” upsets to have the Alan Hansen in us all think again. “After the Madrid game I Thought Liverpool, but Essien did such a good job on Gerrard it must be Chelsea’s year”, “No, Barca all the way” – we all have opinions. There is a time for them and one for facts: – Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal. Three English sides in the semi final again – yes, again.
The Kings of Europe remain on course to defend their title, the one that Sir Alex “would give up for all the others”. But it has been no easy ride – the highly technical and physical Porto team were no push overs – a forty yard screamer from the Balon D’or helped.
The Kings of Catalonia have until this point proved themselves to be the most outstanding however and not to the statistical eye alone. Technically superior; tactically superior, footballers who can dis-equilibrate, players who have been there before and a coach who seems to know how to get it all just right. And lets not forgot – it could have been 7-0 at half time in the Camp Nou against Bayern.
Chelsea came out victors from one of the most exciting quarter finals to date. Not as tight or compact as under Mourinho, but with goals goals. A point man who would lay out Hercules, not to mention his supporting henchmen: Ballack, Lamps and Essien…… A team who were able to demonstrate that muscle can dictate tempo also; both at Anfield and eventually at the bridge. No small feet against a good Liverpool team – and from one goal down no less.
And what of Arsenal – oh Wenger, we do salute you. Of Barca’s genre; each and every footballer wants to play and more importantly knows how. Perhaps the easiest of routes, but the team is gradually improving and with the return of Cesc, one which can keep the ball and produce the goods with it. Pace to burn in every position; balls over the last line of defence, or between lines. One feels that only youth and a slightly fragile back line could see their challenge cave in – but United have to get the ball from them first.
A year to remember, yet in many ways a repeat. In an exclusive interview, the Boar searched out a man who has seen it all before. Eugenio Leal Vargas; former Atletico De Madrid midfielder and one of the stars of Spain’s 1978 World Cup team talked exclusively about why English teams have managed to do it again, why the Spanish haven’t, and why Iniesta is the brightest star of them all:
_So why do we have we three English teams in the Semi’s again? _
Like life, football moves in cycles. Italy and Spain experienced similar levels of domination over the last decade. That said, the outlook and approach of the top English clubs seems to be more prudent, better financed and organised than the rest at present. Between then, Sir Alex and Wenger have nearly 40 years at the top. What’s more, the board supported these men on more than a purely footballing level. They helped to construct truly professional clubs, not just teams: most notable in the youth academies they have produced, the style of play and mentality, nutrition, treatment of the media and the construction of top stadiums.
_So what’s so different about the Spanish teams?_
The Madrilenos just won’t accept this. The idea of Madrid waiting four years to establish a winning team is absolutely unthinkable. You can see the same at Valencia, though of course to a less notable degree. A former power house in Europe under Hector Cuper; they won two UEFA’s with Rafa and under Quique Sanchez Flores they were a decent side capable of at least competing. Since then they have had six coaches in three years. Everything must be now now now. Valencia also have tremendous financial difficulties at the moment. All this effects the players. Remember, they have four players from Spain’s European Championship team and another eight ex-internationals which shows that “other” issues really do effect performances on the pitch.
_But surely Madrid have the financial muscle to compete? _
Indeed, that is just an indication of the problems there at the moment. In a club that functions effectively, the players should have to respond to the coach. He is the one who takes control of footballing matters and should be surrounded by those who are like minded. He trains, sets the tactics and makes suggestions for purchases on the basis of what the team needs. In sum – he has a project. But in Madrid its the President that wields the power and the cheque book. Furthermore, unlike Arsenal, they can’t acquire young players of a high level and wait for their progression. They need cracks. That’s just the culture. From what I heard, Schuster wanted Villa, Silva and Ronaldo in the summer and ended up with Van de Vart and Huntellar. No mean feat – but not cracks. That’s just the Madrid way
_And what about the other Spanish teams? _
Barcelona have been the best so far this year at home and in Europe, and even those hardened Madrid fans would have had to applaud them (quietly perhaps). In part this is to do with the exceptional job of Pep (Guadiola) who was there as a player, which without doubt allows him to understand and apply the philosophy of the club effectively. With only a few additions, he has managed to turn an almost identical team around in one season. I remember my time under Luis (Aragones) – he said football was never about footballers, but people. Pep has shown he understands people. There is not a murmur of discontent from the dressing room.
You see, everyone has a place in the club; those playing and those not. What’s more, he shows a courteous face to everyone – he is probably anti Madrid (naturally, laughs) but speaks only in the most respectful terms. When the players realise that the manger knows exactly what he’s doing, they listen and do exactly what he says – on and off the field. Plus, they have the highest calibre of footballers out there at the moment (even better than United).
_Okay, what about your beloved Atletico and Villareal? _
Curiously, Atletico is one of the clubs which could perhaps follow the English model. The President has invested his own money and could be more patient and prudent. From my point of view, the game against Porto was lost at home. Atleti is a very decent team from the midfield up – Maxi and Simao and true extremos (wingers) and the two front men compliment each other very well. From the midfield back they are poor. The club needs a Makalele type who pressures every player and his father and two accomplished defenders. If the club maintains its Champions league position for the next few seasons there is no reason why this cant be achieved.
Poor Villareal, they just didn’t have enough against Arsenal. Not physically strong enough and without the European Champions Senna and Cazola. Taking nothing from Arsenal – they have a fantastic change of tempo and in Cesc they have a man who conducts and knows how to pick the right ball again and again. That at the end of the day is what attractive effective football is all about. That aside, Villareal is incredibly well run. I think they were in the 2b seven years ago and have got to both a Champions league Quarter & Semi final in the last four years. The technical secretary has done an outstanding job, bringing footballers of the correct category for the club, not any better or worse, nor beyond what they can afford. – However, these financial restrictions mean that many of the top players touch down a few years past their peak – Pires.
_Your highlight of the year? _
Being Ateltico at heart, many of my friends said the 4-0 mauling of Madrid at Anfield was the highlight, but Madrid are in a terrible state and the result revealed more of Madrid’s negatives then Liverpool’s pluses. The same with Barca and Bayern. Bayern never looked as if they had the creative power to cause any damage. If Toni doesn’t get the service, what? Ribery managed to reveal one of Barca’s weak points, but for me, it has to be Iniesta. Messi, by all measures is a genuine Phenomenon – but Iniesta is not a problem to his wife, coach, or hairdresser; playing or not. He does what is expected of him and does so exceptionally. He wouldn’t lose a ball in a maze; he has a deceivingly quick change of velocity and every ball is already gone before it has been controlled. He can play left or right, attacking midfield or wide. He understands the importance of tempo, coerces it and gets important goals.