European Football

2016-17: More fantasy needed, please

Photo: Sarflondondunc CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

AFTER an engaging FA Cup final, Game of the People reviews the 2016-17 season and bemoans the lack of the unexpected across European football.

Chelsea fans should not begrudge Arsenal their FA Cup. On the balance of play, they deserved to win and the Premier League champions didn’t turn up for the big occasion. There was something fitting about Arsenal denying their London rivals the double, a comfortable bookend for Arsene Wenger and an aide memoire to Antonio Conte that his team will need to be improved if it is to make an impact in the UEFA Champions League next season.

It was, nevertheless, an afternoon that reassured us that the FA Cup can still be a memorable occasion. It didn’t need the pyrotechnics, the vain attempts at making the final “super bowl lite” or the X Factor-esque staging of the national anthem, but it does need competitive friction and a little twist here and there.

It is doubtful if the soundtrack has ever been noisier at the new Wembley for a final. Chelsea reminded their rivals that they are, after all, “champions”, while Arsenal put aside their protracted civil war to unite against the common enemy. Whether or not Wenger stays was a sidelined issue, the aim was to prevent further Chelsea triumph and to salvage something from a troubled campaign. Whatever happened at Wembley, however, there was always going to be Thursday night football at the Emirates next autumn. But Jose Mourinho has showed that if you focus on the Europa League, you can end the season with a smile on your face.

Arsenal never allowed Chelsea to play their usual game, and they had a sense of purpose that may have been lacking at times these past few months. Chelsea’s key men, Kante and Hazard, had poor games and there was an absence of conviction at the back that was seized upon by Arsenal’s keen forwards. Chelsea were sloppy from the off and although they will claim that the first goal, from Sanchez should never have happened, they were second best for most of the first half. And they also demonstrated sub-optimal concentration when they allowed Ramsey to score the winning goal just after hauling themselves back into the game through Costa.

Chelsea may have been champions, but they could have been a little bit too confident that they could beat Arsenal comfortably. Now everyone will return to the rather tired discussion of “what will Arsene do?”, but victory at Wembley should not disguise the shortcomings of his regime and his team – a team that may be shorn of its two best players in the summer. Football being football, with fickleness firmly ingrained in its culture, many of the “Wenger out” brigade may have changed their tune because of the FA Cup.

With Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United winning the domestic honours, predictability still reigns in the English game. But for all the money and the hubris, English clubs still have a lot to prove in Europe. You could not imagine any of the Premier’s top dogs producing the sort of football and drama that we saw in the Champions League’s latter stages, although Leicester City deserve credit for getting as far as the last eight.

Talk of Leicester allows us to recall how such an uncelebrated club became champions and then sacked the man who led them to unprecedented heights. While everyone loved seeing Leicester take the crown in 2016, nobody could have felt too good about the way the club treated Claudio Ranieri.

While Chelsea succeeded Leicester, Tottenham look to be champions in waiting. Arguably the most entertaining team in the Premier, they just need a trophy to cap one of the most consistent periods in their recent history. Tottenham’s time may come soon, as long as they hang onto their young talent. They certainly gave better value for money than a Manchester City team that just seems to be missing something. It’s not money, it is not a shortage of managerial expertise, but the club’s owners will surely be expecting a better return in 2017-18. United, won two trophies but somehow Mourinho and Old Trafford doesn’t seem a tidy fit. However, in 2017-18, the Portuguese will be reaching for the title, because if he doesn’t the Manchester chattering classes will be preparing an aircraft. Over in Liverpool, Klopp is making progress and fourth place gets the club closer to former glories. Again, next season is vital for the popular German and his inconsistent team.

Overall, has the 2016-17 campaign been a good one? Chelsea, with 30 wins from 38, were worthy champions, but the overall quality has not been especially good. It did seem a little too easy for Antonio Conte’s side.

Champions and Winners across Europe 2016-17

  Champions Cup winners
Albania Kukesi (3 points) Skenderbeu v Tirana (31/5)
Austria Red Bull Salzburg (18 points) Red Bull Salzburg v Rapid Vienna (1/6)
Belgium Anderlecht (7 points) Zulte Waregem 3 Oostende 3 (4-2 pens)
Bosnia Zrinjski Mostar (1 point) Siroki Brijeg 1 Sarajevo 1 (4-2 pens)
Bulgaria Ludogorets Razgrad (16 points) Botev Plovdiv 2 Ludogorets 1
Croatia Rijeka (2 points) Dinamo Zagreb v Rijeka (31/5)
Czech Republic Slavia Prague (2 points) Fastav Zlin 1 Opava 0
Denmark FC Copenhagen (22 points) FC Copenhagen 3 Brøndby 1
England Chelsea (7 points) Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
France Monaco (9 points) Paris St Germain 1 Angers 0
Germany Bayern Munich (15 points) Dortmund 2 Frankfurt 1
Greece Olympiacos (6 points) PAOK 2 AEK 1
Hungary Honved (3 points) Vasas v Ferencvaros (31/5)
Italy Juventus (4 points) Juventus 2 Lazio 0
Macedonia Vardar (15 points) Pelister 0 Shkendija 0 (4-3 pens)
Malta Hibernians (7 points) Floriana 2 Sliema 0
Moldova Sheriff Tiraspol v Dacia Chisinau play-off (30/5) Sheriff Tiraspol 5 Zaria Balti 0
Montenegro FK Budućnost (0 points) Sutjeska v Grbalj (30/5)
Netherlands Feyenoord (1 point) Vitesse 2 AZ 0
Northern Ireland Linfield (2 points) Linfield 3 Coleraine 0
Poland Legia Warsaw (2 points) Arka Gdynia 2 Lech Poznan 1
Portugal Benfica (6 points) Benfica 2 Vitoria de Guimaraes 1
Romania Viitorul (0 points) Voluntari 1 Astra Giurgui 1 (5-3 pens)
Russia Spartak Moscow (7 points) Lokomotiv Moscow 2 Ural Yekaterinburg 0
Scotland Celtic (30 points) Celtic 2 Aberdeen 1
Serbia Partizan (3 points) Partizan 1 Red Star Belgrade 0
Slovakia Zilina (16 points) Slovan Bratislava 3 MFK Skalica 0
Slovenia Maribor (13 points) Domzale v Olimpija (31/5)
Spain Real Madrid (3 points) Barcelona 3 Alaves 1
Switzerland Basel (17 points) Basel 3 Sion 0
Turkey Besiktas (4 points) Atiker Konyaspor v Medipol Basaksehir (31/5)
Ukraine Shakhtar Donetsk (15 points) Shakhtar Donetsk 2 Dynamo Kyiv 1
Wales The New Saints (27 points) Bala Town 2 The New Saints 1

If England continues to be predictable, there were few signs across Europea that the status quo is being challenged. In France, an exciting Monaco team provided a break from PSG’s monopoly, although you can be sure that Les Parisiens will do everything in their power to change that. PSG ended the season with the Coupe de France and the Coupe de la Ligue, but two trophies will not be enough. Unay Emery’s fate may have been decided by the Barcelona debacle. Whoever is in charge, money will be made available, while it is likely that Monaco’s talented players will be snapped-up by eager rivals across Europe.

In Germany, Bayern Munich looked as though they would be tested by RB Leipzig, but the controversial RB didn’t have the staying power to challenge for the Bundesliga. Leipzig finished second while Bayern completed a fifth consecutive title.

It was a similar story in Italy, where Juventus made it six in a row. Juve are now considered to be among the elite in Europe and their second Champions League final in three years confirms that. As with PSG and Bayern, Juve need more competition on the home front.

In Spain, at least Real Madrid have Barcelona to keep themselves motivated, although we may be on the cusp of significant change at the Nou Camp, indeed La Liga. Ronaldo and Messi will not go on forever and new heroes are certainly needed. Real Madrid are not an exceptional team, but they are very rich and this has clearly given them a huge advantage at home and abroad.

Elsewhere, Feyenoord’s first title in almost two decades represented a refreshing change in the Netherlands but it was business as usual in Portugal, where Benfica fended off the challenge of Porto. In Belgium, Anderlecht clinched their 34th title. No real surprises anywhere.

It just leaves the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff to bring the curtain down. Real Madrid v Juventus has all the ingredients of a classic, but all too often, the showpiece disappoints. If the game has the same amount of passion and commitment of the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea, it won’t be such a bad finale. The 2016-17 season has, generally, lacked the element of surprise – wouldn’t it be nice to see a Champions League winner from outside Spain?

The Game of the People European all-star XI: Buffon (Juventus), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Bonucci (Juventus), Hummels (Bayern), Alli (Tottenham), Forsberg (Leipzig), Silva (Monaco), Hazard (Chelsea), Mbappe (Monaco), Cavani (PSG).

 

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