A Spaniard in the works – Champions League frustrations

THE first legs of the Champions league semi-finals are over and there’s still every chance that Liverpool and Manchester City will meet headlong in the final in Paris.

Liverpool showed they are simply too good for Villareal, Manchester City demonstrated they are vulnerable at times, allowing Real Madrid to score three times at the Etihad. According to TalkSport’s Jason Cundy, who spent several minutes shouting at clouds after watching the game at Anfield, Villareal were a disgrace and shocking and might have been better served to field fans instead of some of their players. Cundy, by the way, was a player, appearing for a poor Chelsea side in the days before they rediscovered silverware. If he had played in a defence as one-dimensional and determined as the Villareal back-line, would he merely have said, “we done a professional job, didn’t we”?

But no, Cundy was going for the throat of Villareal, completely dismissing the approach of Unai Emery’s side, who had a game plan against a vastly superior team. Were they supposed to allow Liverpool to thrash them, to lay back and be ripped apart by Salah, Mané and co? So they made it hard for the home team for maybe 45 minutes and then they were prised open. Villareal are not a title-chasing Spanish unit, they are good at cups and can be difficult opponents, but they are not Real Madrid.

It was pretty obvious Villareal had little chance once Liverpool had scored, but Cundy’s narrative was fairly typical of some sections of the English media. This was all about Liverpool and their chase of the quadruple, never mind there’s also another team involved. The pundits now have this quest firmly between their teeth, praising Liverpool to an embarrassing level (or they really the best ever Liverpool?) and canonising Jürgen Klopp. We all appreciate Liverpool are very, very good, but we need a balanced view from the media, there’s absolutely no way a pundit would lambast an English club like that, reducing considered discussion to tap-room yelling. There are many ways to play a game, that’s what makes football so interesting and Villareal went to Anfield knowing their best bet was to stifle the life out of Liverpool. Can you really blame them for playing so unimaginatively in the circumstances?

Is there an anti-Spain thing going on at present? Or is it a little bit of xenophobia in the night? Many pundits don’t know a thing about the teams English clubs come up against, they simply play to the narrative, and that is: Liverpool and City are great, they deserve to meet in the Champions League final, and all other teams are either dirty, negative, past their best, lacking the team ethic or very good at rolling around after getting fouled. But let’s not forget how Phil Foden showed he too can roll with the best of them. Some of the comments remind you of an age when foreign players were treated as if they had two heads, tentacles and ray guns.

Real Madrid were dismissed as being “over the hill” when they arrived in London to face Chelsea. The assumption was they had too many old players, their coach was too laid-back and on his retirement gig and Chelsea should be too strong and vibrant for them. Last season, nobody fancied Villareal and they went out and disposed of Arsenal and Manchester United. The fact is, English clubs invariably get knocked out by Spanish clubs. In the past five seasons, it has happened eight times, including 2021-22 when Chelsea and Manchester United were ousted by Real and Atlético.

There seems to be a certain arrogance circulating the English game that’s becoming a little unpleasant. For once, it isn’t the fans, although you didn’t need to be an expert in sign language to understand some of the comments at the Etihad and Anfield. English clubs have an advantage because of the extraordinary wealth that has been created by broadcasters and owners. Success is almost always bought.

This is now starting to show through in the Champions League, hence we could be looking at a third all-English final in four seasons. There’s no disputing Liverpool and Manchester City are the best teams around at present, but that doesn’t mean other clubs do not have the right to challenge them. Villareal and Atlético Madrid have enraged people because they have dared to take the English on, but the anger doesn’t always reflect well on the Premier clubs – Atléti manager Diego Simeone was pelted by missiles as he left the Old Trafford pitch and United were fined, albeit a paltry, spare change penalty.

Ultimately, we should also be aware there is very little that is English about the current dominance of English clubs – only 20% of the Liverpool and City players used in their first legs were English, the coaches were Spanish and German, the club owners from America and Abu Dhabi. A victory for globalisation.

Atlético-Manchester City: The return of the partisan

THE OUTRAGE over Atlético Madrid’s behaviour in the last 10 minutes of their Champions League quarter-final has been amplified across social media. It has been, to a certain degree, a throwback to the days when football in England was highly suspicious of anything “in Europe” and sporting xenophobia ruled the airwaves.

Back in 1971, for example, following a street brawl involving Lazio and Arsenal (players not fans!), there were calls for English clubs to withdraw from European competition as “we don’t need it”. There was plenty of noise this time around the banning of Atlético, a ridiculous, knee-jerk reaction to an unsavoury finale.

There is a growing feeling nobody is allowed to touch or question Manchester City, or rather their coach Pep Guardiola, a footballing apostle with an air of mystique about his extremely successful methods. Yet there was nothing alchemic about City’s approach in the Wanda Metropolitano. Atléti were typically Atléti but City were no angels, indeed Phil Foden was every bit a “shithouse” as Atléti’s stormtroopers, notably when he demonstrated the art of cheese-rolling after being fouled by Felipe. Furthermore, Foden and Jack Grealish also did their best to provoke the Atléti players, the £ 100 million man smirking and calling Savić that most unwelcome of four-letter words and Foden grinning like a Cheshire cat in the face of Simeone as he contorted on the touchline.

Admittedly, this is the sort of behaviour one might expect from Atléti themselves, but let’s be fair, both teams were, at times, deliberately antagonistic. If Guardiola was playing psycho games, he definitely won the day for City got under the skin of Atléti and his comments about their style were very cleverly put, “there is only one Atlético Madrid.” Simeone saw through that quite easily. “We are not stupid”.

But if you heard the pre-match assessment from the BT squad, Atlético were a team of Orcs from Lord of the Rings (thank you, Barry Glendenning for that reference) and Simeone was football’s equivalent of Al Capone. It was as though Estudiantes circa 1968 were about to run-out (the shirts were similar) onto the field. Simeone is Argentinian, that provided a little more fuel to the anti-Atléti narrative, especially for those who were team-mates of David Beckham in 1998.

Interestingly, the foul count didn’t evidence a dirty game, it was 8-7 to Atlético. There was plenty of time-wasting, in fact, Spanish newspaper AS reported that the ball was in play for just 60 minutes across the entire game. Generally, the Spanish media highlighted City’s tendency to delay every throw-in and lengthen every fall to the ground. Rodri, City’s former Atléti player, perhaps a little uncomfortable with the way his current employer was playing against former team-mates, commented: “Everything is legal in football”.

The British press laid into the home side, claiming they were one of the dirtiest teams ever seen. Rio Ferdinand commented: “Disgusting behaviour from Atléti players, they should be ashamed of some of their antics.” Miguel Delaney of the Independent acknowledged Atléti’s tactics were pretty standard and noted that Simeone’s critics call his philosophy “right wing football”. Certainly, Atlético’s stadium is a cauldron of passion and energy and the fans can be very intimidating when they need to be.

The crowd played its part in the melee that took place at the end, it is doubtful such a tableaux would have been witnessed in an empty stadium. And although the headlines screamed this was unacceptable, it is all the media have spoken about since the final whistle. In fact, many journalists have said they were spellbound by what they were watching, that they were amused, excited, disgusted and intoxicated. The scenes everyone actually wants to see because it represents testosterone-fuelled combat. “Football has become sterile, so it was good to see such emotions,” said one reporter.

But we don’t want to see this type of controversy too often and it is a shame Atlético Madrid will find it hard to shift the mud that is now clinging to their red and white shirts. Social media keyboard warriors will call for capital punishment for Simeone and his robust team, but just cast your mind back to the 1970s and 1980s when crowd trouble sparked off – how often could you see the entire stadium looking in the direction of the fracas or how about schooldays, when a fight broke out and dozens of young boys ran in the direction of the action? The game between Atlético and City will soon be forgotten, but the events involving Foden, Savić and Felipe will live on. We’re simple folk, us football people.

UEFA Champions League: Another English tea party?

WITH the top three in the Premier League in the last eight, it was no surprise the draw for the closing stages of the UEFA Champions League came out looking very favourable for another all-English final in Paris on May 28 2022. Chelsea and Manchester City could face each other in the semi (indeed, so could the two Madrid sides) and Liverpool could force their way through to the final in the other half of the draw.

Manchester City v Atlético Madrid

City and Atléti have never met in European competition, but Spanish clubs are regular visitors to the Etihad Stadium. In the past decade, City have played 16 games against La Liga side, winning seven and losing seven. In the league this season, City have lost three times and they’ve all been against London clubs, so if Chelsea prove to be their opponents in the semi-final, it should be very interesting. Chelsea, of course, beat City 1-0 in the 2021 Champions League final and City have gone out to Premier clubs in three of the last four seasons. After a decade of trying, City need 2022 to be their year in the competition, but at times, their goalscoring capability seems to have trouble finding the back of the net. Raheem Sterling and Riyad are top scorers this season with 10 apiece. Atlético reminded everyone that they are canny operators in Europe when they overcome Manchester United and they will be a tough nut for Pep Guardiola’s team to crack. City will be Atléti’s third English club in the 2021-22 competition, but they are unlikely to allow themselves to be jostled out of the Champions League like United were.

Prediction: Manchester City, but the tie will go the distance.

Chelsea v Real Madrid

The two clubs met for the first time in the Champions League semi-finals last season, although they had faced each other in the final of the 1971 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Chelsea are likely to finish third in the Premier and are still in the FA Cup. They were also beaten on penalties by Liverpool in the EFL Cup. The club has a shadow hanging over it in the aftermath of Roman Abramovich being sanctioned by the UK government and Chelsea are expected to be sold in the coming days. Unless a new agreement is made, Chelsea may have to play behind closed doors at Stamford Bridge. They have done remarkably well to stay focused during the Ukraine war and their record in the Champions League this season has been very impressive, winning six out of eight games. The reigning European champions have a tough task against La Liga leaders Real Madrid, who came back well against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16. Karim Benzema is on fire at the moment and the team, which still has too much experience to have a long future, may see this season as its last chance to recapture the Champions League with the current squad. Real have been knocked out of the competition by English clubs in the past two campaigns.

Prediction: Chelsea, narrowly.

Benfica v Liverpool

It’s great to see Benfica, winners in 1961 and 1962, still in the competition, but it is hard to envisage them overcoming Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who are in fine form, despite losing their round of 16 second leg against Inter. Benfica are currently third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, but they are too far off the pace to overcome Porto and Sporting. They’ve had their problems this season and sacked manager Jorge Jesus in December. They’re out of the cup, lost the league cup and have struggled against their closest rivals. But they came through a tough group stage, finishing ahead of Barcelona and pulled off a surprise win at Ajax in the round of 16. Liverpool have been operating at full steam for weeks and have opened up the Premier title race when it looked as good as over. They’ve also started to reshape their team and their forward line has been given greater options with the signing of Luis Diaz. Mo Salah, as ever, has been prolific and has netted 28 times, eight in the Champions League. Liverpool have already won the EFL Cup and they are in the last eight of the FA Cup. People are talking of an unprecedented treble and they should come through against Benfica without too much trouble, but then Ajax didn’t expect to go out to the Eagles of Lisbon.

Prediction: Liverpool, comfortably.

Villareal v Bayern Munich

Bayern, on paper, have one of the easier draws, but they will be foolish to underestimate Unai Emery’s Villareal, who won the Europa League last season against Manchester United. Villareal also pulled off a shock win in the round of 16, beating Juventus in Turin 3-0 and finished second in a group that included United, Atalanta and Young Boys. It is worth noting that Villareal have drawn all four La Liga games with the two Madrid sides and only two clubs have conceded fewer goals than their 26. They are currently seventh in La Liga. Bayern Munich are on course for their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title, but their lead at the top is now just four points. They have been more careless than usual and were beaten by Bochum and Augsburg in the league and were demolished 5-0 in the DFB Pokal by old rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. Robert Lewandowski has scored 43 goals this season, 12 in the Champions League, including a hat-trick in Bayern’s 7-1 thrashing of Salzburg.

Prediction: Bayern Munich, but they will have to be careful.

If all goes to plan, the semi-finals will be Manchester City v Chelsea and Liverpool v Bayern Munich. That’s supposing everyone is firing on all cylinders, which cannot be guaranteed. What is fairly certain is the quarter-finals will be compelling affairs and certain to excite. However, there’s always a shock or two, so don’t be surprised if the semi-finals look far different, but we’re plumping for a Manchester City v Liverpool final in Paris.