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.

Real Madrid’s DNA makes them so lethal in Europe

ON paper, Manchester City should be slight favourites to beat Real Madrid in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League. At least, that’s the narrative – City are supposedly a better team, more prolific in front of goal and they have a coach who desperately wants to win the competition he last won in 2011.

Guardiola is heavily linked to the Champions League, but he’s confronting a manager whose relationship with the cup is every bit as intimate, Carlo Ancelotti, who has won it as a coach three times to Pep’s two. Ancelotti, who himself was considered past his best, is one of only three managers to have completed three Champions League victories (Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane are the others). Ancelotti is seen as part of the preceding football generation to Guardiola, the coach everyone covets. While Pep is a cross between messianic techbro and Bohemian hipster, slack-jawed Carlo gives off the air of a slightly tranquilised favourite uncle. They couldn’t be more different.

The two teams have a similar win rate in 2021-22 – City’s is 72.9% and Real’s 71.7%, Guardiola and Ancelotti have the best win rates in Europe at the moment. Real have lost seven games, City one less in the league, Champions League and FA Cup. Both have lost three games in their respective leagues. The difference between the two teams is minimal. City score more goals, 120 to 96, but the assumption that Real Madrid are nothing special is a little misleading. Certainly, the current Real side seems to have plenty of stamina, thanks to the methods of fitness coach Antonio Pintus.

It has been said before, but the Champions League is not always won by the best team in Europe – Real Madrid have proved that before. Similarly, the World Cup is not always secured by the public’s favourite side. The popular belief is that City and Liverpool are the best teams in Europe and most likely they are, but there is a stubborn resistance about Real Madrid that has repeatedly sent them all the way in the Champions League. Real’s all-star squads, their European pedigree and self-belief have served some very fortunate coaches down the years. Some football experts might claim there is no such thing as footballing DNA, and the current situation at Manchester United would probably support that view, but Real Madrid do not have to be the best around to win the Champions League. It’s in their blood.

However, when Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018, there was a school of thought suggesting the club had lost the very man who was capable of getting them out of tight situations. Ronaldo, in Real’s four winning campaigns, had scored 60 Champions League goals, a remarkable feat. He left after Real beat Liverpool in the 2018 final and departed Juventus three years later having failed to win the Champions League with the Italian side. It is probable that his special relationship with the competition is over, especially as his current employer is floundering and lacking direction. At Juventus, he never got beyond the quarter-final and in his second and third seasons, exited in the round of 16. Real, meanwhile, struggled at first, but have reached the last two semi-finals.

Real’s fans expect Champions League success – every knockout blow is forensically examined

Real’s fans expect success in Europe and every knockout defeat is forensically examined by the public. Managers, players and presidents have received blows to their position due to early elimination. Perhaps this air of tension has been used to Real’s advantage over the years, constantly pushing them to over-achieve. Look at how they performed against Chelsea: Karim Benzema’s four goals over two legs were right out of Ronaldo’s tie-changing portfolio. Benzema sat in the shadows to a certain extend when CR7 was at the Bernabéu and although he’s supposed to be at the veteran stage of his career, his display at Stamford Bridge was the stuff of Balon d’Or candidates.

Age is one area where City apparently have an advantage, yet according to Transfermarkt, Manchester City’s squad has an average age of 27.5 years versus Real’s 27 years 4 months. What is important in this figure is the age of some of Real’s key men – Benzema is 34, Luka Modrić 36 and Toni Kroos 32. By comparison, Kevin De Bruyne is now 30 and Riyad Mahrez is 31. Everyone has been urging Real to rebuild and there will need to be an influx of new signings or the introduction of youngsters. Transfer rumours abound constantly with Real, but it does look as though Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Chelsea’s Rüdiger could be heading to Madrid.

Real Madrid’s culture and their European heritage is very much about being the best on the continent, if not the world, so it would appear the club’s number one target has always been the European Cup/Champions League. The situation in Spain is such they know they can win La Liga at almost any time, so if a trophy has to be sacrificed, it is not going to be the Champions League. Real’s success in Europe, six wins since 2000, is only one less than the number of La Liga titles. Returning to Cristiano Ronaldo, he won just two championships with Real while Barcelona and Lionel Messi dominated the Spanish landscape. Perhaps it was also something to do with the composition of Real Madrid’s team, a star-packed unit that may be more equipped for the big occasion rather than the 38-game slog of the league. The ultimate cup team, maybe?

Manchester City will be aware of the task ahead of them, Guardiola has battled against Real Madrid as a player and manager throughout his entire career. As a Barcelona man, a Catalan and a rival, he knows all about Real and their place in the story of pan-European competitions.  He will also understand he’s not up against 11 players on the pitch, he’s taking on an idea, the Real Madrid concept of European domination. The hurdle may be every bit as formidable as the quality of the men wearing those famous white shirts.

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.