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.