Colchoneros v. Merengues

When Fernando Torres broke clear and had a chance to be the one to bury the hatchet against Liverpool last Sunday, he seemed to recognize the awkwardness of being the former idol to shatter the dreams of the fans who once adored him.  So he passed.

He lacked the time to weigh the momentous occasion when, again, he found himself with the ball and a chance to score a potentially damning goal against a former club.  This time it was the team he grew up in and led early in his career, and this time instinctively, he one-timed a shot on a ping-ponging play in Atletico Madrid’s box.  No time to think, he pushed the ball in to the corner, and almost immediately seemed to be burdened by the pain that he had caused all those long-suffering Colchonero fans.  As it turns out, the pain was only momentary, and Atletico managed a superbly satisfying dismantling of Chelsea thereafter.

I was glad to see Torres show the instinctive goal-scoring aplomb of several years ago when he featured for the Reds, but I was even happier to see Mourinho fall in a tactical battle to Diego Simeone.  That Jose eventually seemed to shut off and lose interest exemplifies all that I dislike about his approach to the game.  Compare that with Simeone’s seemingly boundless energy on the touchline.  Good riddance, Mourinho.

So, as a neutral toward the final four of the Champions League this year, I am thrilled that the two Madrid teams will face off in the final.  Of course, as I will not support Real, I’m hoping for an Atleti win.  either way, it seems sure to be a cracker of a match.  These two teams, with Barcelona (who I hope manage to pull off a surprise turn-around win), will be fighting it out for the Liga championship right up to the week before the final.  Hopefully neither will suffer the same dull fate as long-ago crowned Munich and we’ll get the barn-burning final that every fan can enjoy.

Munichelona

What a difference a year makes.
A mere twelve months ago, Bayern Munich looked like a dynasty in the making. Consecutive Champions League finals, a complete and humiliating liquidation of Barcelona in the semis, and a European title for their outgoing manager.  Throw in the arrival of Pep Guardiola, master of the sharp triangular passing play that has characterized the most attractive football of recent years, and a shockingly early league title, and the team seemed sure to be the first to win the trophy with big ears twice on the trot.
So what happened? Surely the early league title can’t have helped. With nothing to play for on a weekly basis, it must be difficult to keep such a team primed for the less frequent but far tougher mid-week matches.
But I think there was another factor at play in the two matches lost to Real Madrid: the often brutish Pepe, who (excepting the 45 minutes or so missed due to injury) put on a phenomenal display in central defense. Though I personally cannot root for Real, I suspect I might have disliked Pepe much less had he played like this for the past several seasons, rather than as a seemingly bloodthirsty villain. At his best, Pepe is a field marshal, keeping the back line focused and disciplined, and he can be sold without being cynical in his fouls.  Here, he was the shining example of how much better prepared Madrid were than Munich.
One side note on a Madrid player I do like a lot: Iker Casillas again kept a blank sheet. What a remarkable achievement for a keeper who has been horribly mistreated by his club for the post two years.  I congratulate Iker, but I hope it’s Atletico who find a way to break through. Of course, the Colchoneros have quite a difficult task to deal with first at Stamford Bridge. I hope Diego Simeone watched Chelsea’s Liverpool set up in preparation for the second leg.

Liverpool v. Chelsea

With six fixtures left in the 2008-2009 season, Liverpool were fired up.  It seemed like they could handle almost any onslaught with one of their own.  They were like a heavyweight prize fighter.  Few games demonstrated that as plainly as the April 21, 2009 match against Arsenal.  A thrilling, and ultimately deflating, match.

Arsenal fielded a squad that included Fabregas, Nasri, Bendtner and Arshavin.  Putting aside that only the first two of that list continue to play with the ability (not always demonstrated) to lead a blistering attack, that was a pretty hot group at the time.

Liverpool were no slouches either.  Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun were firing on all cylinders.  Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano combined to create one of the finest defensive/offensive pivots in a time when global soccer has been graced with several stellar examples of that component of free-flowing play.

Liverpool sat first in the table before and after the game (though Man United had games in hand), but after that 4-4 result, a slug-fest in which Arshavin managed to score four (including one wonderstrike from outside the box and another unbelievable finish after a nearly full-field sprint), it was pretty clear that the luck had run out, and sure enough, a second-place finish awaited.

And so we come to last Sunday’s match at Anfield against Chelsea.  Predictably, Mourinho started the head-games early with talk of fielding a weakened team in order to focus his resources on the Champions League return league against Atletico.  Ultimately, it’s hard to say the team he fielded was “weak,” even if it featured several players who won’t see time on the pitch Wednesday.  And, also predictably, the game plan was to play back, play slow, waste time, break up the fluidity of Liverpool’s attack, and close down spaces in the box tightly to avoid the very pacey line-splitting incisive passes that have characterized the Suarez/Sturridge/Sterling juggernaut.  And unfortunately for those of us who thought this year might actually be the one Liverpool again lifted the trophy, Chelsea executed its plan to perfection.

Liverpool controlled the play for long stretches, hovering around the box, winning a dozen corners, losing and regaining the ball rapidly, but ultimately failing to create the kind of threat necessary to crack the Chelsea nut.

In some ways Steven Gerrard’s horribly unfortunate slip — coming as it did late in injury time that was only added on because of Chelsea’s absurd time-wasting antics — could not have been worse.  True, Liverpool maintained its composure in the second half, dominated play, and seemed likely to put one in the net if only because of all the pressure they were putting on the Kop end.

But, to this very interested observer, it seemed that Gerrard became the focal point in the attack.  He roamed the attacking third, foregoing the more defensive pivot/anchor role he has executed with such aplomb all year, seeming to take shot after shot.  His teammates seemed determined to get the ball to him, perhaps hoping that by feeding him the ball he would vindicate his first half error.  The result was an attack that was camped in the attacking third, narrowly focused in the middle of the pitch with ten Blues behind the ball.  There was no space for the speed and passing play Liverpool has fed on this season, and when they did try to spread play to the wings, already in the final third, there was no space to run, spread the defense and cross to an awaiting Red.

Gerrard has led this team with such passion, consistency, skill and calm that perhaps it was inevitable that he would not be able to pull off yet another 4-star performance on what should go down as one of the overall best seasons of his career.  But what a shame that it came in this game, this late in the season.  Time will tell, but it seems that slip by Stevie G. could be the equivalent of the four-goal Arshavin performance five years ago.

Regardless of what happens in run-in, Liverpool deserve tremendous credit for a truly spectacular season, one that far-surpassed the hopes of most fans that the Reds would finally get themselves back to Champions League football.  That goal has been met, but so has the rebirth of belief that this team deserves to be ranked among the best.

And this season isn’t over yet: call me crazy, but I fully expect this season to come down to the last goal.  And wouldn’t it be something if it’s no. 8 who scores it!

YNWA!

Champions League

Not the results or excitement I was hoping for in this week’s first leg Champions League semifinals.

Munich looked strong for about 15 minutes at either end of the game, but their lack of through-balls was disappointing. Real, on the other hand, was characteristically quick on the break, and Benzema’s only meaningful contribution was a good one. Pepe seemed particularly solid, but I think Alonso and Modric were exceptionally effective in pivoting the play from the defense to the attack when it mattered, and Madrid seemed the more threatening team, even if they lacked possession. Credit to Neuer for keeping it to 0-1. Muller probably should have come in 10 minutes earlier.

In the other match-up, Atletico missed a huge opportunity. The crowd sounded less boisterous than in the second leg quarter against Barcelona, and should have forced their way in to the net early. Unfortunately, they seemed to lack a creative way to pry the Mourinho bus from the front of the net, and tried far too few incisive passes into the area. Those that they did try were generally mistimed or misdirected. Such is life. A 0-0 is a better result than the 0-1 that Chelsea threatened to eek out toward the end, but going back to Stamford Bridge having to score is a tall order. And I expect Chelsea to play for a quick goal and then sit back.

Here’s hoping next week’s return legs offer a bit more excitement.