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Sunday, 13 March 2011

European Champions League Recap March 8th-9th

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal (4-3 aggregate)
It was an interesting game at the Nou Camp where Barcelona dominated possession and Arsenal failed to muster a shot on goal (even though they did manage to get on the scoresheet). The fallout from the game was all about the crazy sending off of Robin Van Persie for kicking the ball away 1 second after the referee had whistled the play dead from over 40 yards away.

Obviously Arsene Wenger, Van Persie himself, and many of the Arsenal team were upset at the referee's decison following the game, with Wenger and Samir Nasri being asked to contest a UEFA charge. The ending of the game was very similar to Didier Drogba's response to the Chelsea defeat in the Semi Final to the Catalan club 2 seasons ago, and I just wonder what kind of action will be taken on the Arsenal personnel involved.

In real terms, the sending off did change the game- I have heard people showing off the statistics and domination of Barcelona in the game, but the bottom line is the game was poised at 1-1 when the decision was made and Arsenal were leading on aggregate. Would Arsenal have definitely gone through as Arsene Wenger suggested after the game? I dont think I would go even close to that far, but who can definitely say now.

Most disappointing was the reaction of Graeme Souness in his role as pundit- now I believe he is one of the better pundit's in the game, but he has been slightly strange in reactions recently, most obviously with his disparaging remarks about Gennaro Gattuso in the Milan-Spurs game at the San Siro.

Souness went as far as to suggest the sending off did NOT change the game in any way, shape or form, and then almost accepted the decision because the better team went through!! Wow, that is some analysis.

I bet Souness was spewing with anger when Barcelona, a team he describes as the best he has ever seen, just failed to beat Inter Milan in last season's Semi Final. Souness must have been extremely happy with Sergei Busquets reaction in getting Thiago Motta sent off, feigning injury and peeping through his hands to make sure the referee was sending off the Brazilian, and must have hoped they could have got a couple more players in trouble with that kind of play.

Now I am not suggesting that the Van Persie incident was the same as the cheating to get Motta sent off last season, BUT at what stage do the ends justify the means? If Souness thinks the sending off didnt matter this time because the best team ultimately got through, he cant surely have any issues with Barcelona 'fooling' referees into giving them an advantage if it ultimately leads to the Catalans winning?

I just expected better from a man who has been involved in this game for a lot longer than I have!!

Ironic Moment of the Week: Now I love finding these little moments of irony in a week of football. I cant promise one every week, but I did find the comments Barcelona made about Arsenal particularly ironic as the quotes could have been picked up from any number of Arsenal games when they play lesser British clubs.

Pep Guardiola implied there was a lot of bitterness in the Arsenal reaction to the loss claiming the Gunners could not string 3 passes together.

Xavi was disappointed with the tactics Arsenal employed, claiming they should play 'the beautiful game' and not defensive way they set up to play- I am sure Arsenal have used this many times when English teams defend well and prevent Arsenal playing.

It is always funny seeing a bully get their noses tweaked by the bigger kids in the yard, and this was one of those moments!! I wonder how many Arsenal fans enjoyed being patronised about their style of football, something they do many times when it comes to the likes of Stoke and Blackburn.

Are Barcelona the best of all time? Listening to the pundits reach levels of giddy-ness normally reserved for the best of Brazilian National teams, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a slam dunk answer- YES...

I dont agree- I truly feel the blueprint for beating this team has been set out in the last few seasons by the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Inter Milan, all teams that have had success in knocking Barcelona out in 2 legged ties in the Champions League since 2007. Even Chelsea in 2009 had Barcelona all but out, sufficing to a 90th minute goal from Andres Iniesta amongst controversial refereeing.

The teams I have mentioned all have 1 thing in common- they defend very well and with discipline. All make sure the middle of the park is clogged up enough to force Barcelona to use their full backs in wide positions. None of these teams fear Barcelona crossing balls into the box, all with size advantage over one of the smallest teams in Europe.

All teams can also attack on the counter with vigour to test a Barcelona team with some vulnerabilities at the back. The final thing all these teams have in common is the belief that they can survive without the ball for much of the game, and prove their effectiveness in the limited moments they do have it.

This leads me to my simple conclusion- I dont think this Barcelona team would have been able to match up with the dominating Milan team in the late 80s and early 90s... That Milan team was one of the best defensive teams of all time, yet they had the flair and creativity to score goals at will. Just take a video of what they did to the Barcelona 'Dream Team' of 1994 in the final of the Champions League, a game where Milan were the underdogs.

I truly believe those Milan teams would have beaten this Barcelona team in 7 out of 10 games, because they have the tactics that would cause the Catalans fits... Barcelona may play some of the prettiest football seen in a long time, but best team ever? Not until they prove on a consistent basis that the tactics employed by United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Inter are tactics they can find the solutions to.

Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 AS Roma (6-2 aggregate)
I actually tipped Shakhtar to come through this tie as the underdogs because I dont believe the Italians are the same team they have been over the last few seasons, while Shakhtar have been improving.

Shakhtar have now won every home game this season, and I dont think anyone will want to draw them simply because of the travel time involved for the game in Ukraine. They have a great blend of steel and Brazilian flair and are a dangerous team, although that 5-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium to Arsenal will be a concern.

This could be a potentially tough tie for anyone.

Tottenham 0-0 AC Milan (1-0 aggregate)
Harry Redknapp becomes the first English Manager to reach the last 8 of the European Champions League in any of its forms since Terry Venables at his time with Barcelona. Spurs had to ride their luck a little in this game to come through with Milan playing with a different intensity and class from the first leg.

Tottenham are another side that are potentially dangerous on their day, although I think they will need a really nice draw if they are to reach the Final this season. Coupling this competition with the pressure of trying to reach the top 4 in England may also be too much, although they have returning Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart to boost their attacking potential.

However, their defence still concerns me, even with 2 clean sheets against Milan, and I just feel this will let them down at some point.

Schalke 3-1 Valencia (4-2 aggregate)
Schalke completed the sweep for the Group winners in this last 16 tie as they fought from a 0-1 deficit to go through with a bit to spare. The Germans are very inconsistent in their play, but have to be respected after topping a group containing Lyon, Benfica and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, and this win over Valencia boosts their credibility further.

They have a keen goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer, and with players like Raul and Jefferson Farfan, they are sure to be dangerous going the other way.

However, I do think they are one of the teams that the 'bigger', more established European names will be looking at as a potential Quarter Final draw and I would be surprised if they were to reach much further after an impressive campaign so far.

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