Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Schalke humble pie and the Dynasty Final

Raul celebrates another goal
For some reason humble pie doesn’t have the same taste as other pies. Certainly it doesn’t have the zing of a warm, juicy steak and kidney pie.
It’s a dry taste, discomforting in its delivery and slow in its aftertaste.
This past week this pie has been mercilessly shoved down my throat with violence similar to a Bruce Lee Kung-fu assault. But rather than trying to throw this pie up or even taking those trusted laxatives from the bathroom cupboard I saw the light… somewhere in this experience was a lesson to be learned, the lesson that football is never predictable and always prepared to bite you in the rear if you fail to respect it.
Two Tuesday’s ago when Inter Milan’s Dejan Stankovic scored an almost impossible volley from the halfway line just one minute into the defending champions’ first leg tie against Schalke changing the channel was perhaps the only natural thing to do. Seeing as Stankovic, a mere midfielder, had scored from halfway across the field then surely the African panther Samuel Eto’o would have little trouble plundering from more familiar territory.
But 89 minutes later it was 5-2 to Schalke, and now two weeks later the German side is in the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League preparing to face Manchester United.
Considering my comments ahead of the quarterfinals, something along the lines of “Schalke will never see a Champions League semi-final – in my lifetime” humble pie has been well and truly served.
So to all boys and girls – and all Italians inclined to wear black and blue – nothing should ever be taken for granted in football.
Schalke’s eventual 7-3 aggregate win over the Italian champions was a demonstration of good teamwork sprinkled with shining individual performances – the perfect storm for winning football matches. In the first leg Schalke striker Edu was outstanding upfront, dominating a lightweight central defence containing a declining Cristian Chivu and a nervous Andrea Ranocchia. Edu frequently rag-dolled Inter’s defence, not only providing a platform for attacking moves, but an out-ball whenever Inter threatened to dominate. A good centre-forward is always able to move his team’s overall focal point further up the field, similar perhaps to what a tank does on the battlefield. That’s what Edu did.
Right-winger Jefferson Farfan, who was always an exciting prospect at PSV without ever really setting the world alight, is now showing himself to be one of Europe’s real attacking threats. He is fast, he is strong, he is direct and he’s fearless.
Jurado, discarded by Atletico Madrid, brings the benefits a quality playmaker always does to a team, namely a link between all the team’s compartments, creativity and a touch of sexy football. Manuel Neuer made several crucial saves to boost his reputation further still and of course there is Raul, Europe’s top all-time top scorer and a natural born winner.

But throughout the Schalke side there were outstanding displays as the German side played with a controlled swagger throughout the two-legged tie.

Schalke’s display is perhaps part of a general renaissance of German football that started with the national side’s exciting 2006 Fifa World Cup campaign under Jurgen Klinsmann. The football you could say is almost anti-German – free-flowing and exciting, however that innate German winning quality remains. It is potentially a devastating blend – potentially because Germany is yet to reproduce players of the Klinsmann, Beckenbauer or Sammer ilk.
Still, last year Bayern Munich reached the Champions League final while the Germany team reached the semis of the Fifa World Cup, both with a controlled but refreshing swagger. Against Inter Schalke’s new-found German exuberance was again the difference, they were aggressive on and off the ball and attacked at any given opportunity.
Long may it continue.
Inter just seem like a side that has lost all their confidence. The Italian champions had one moment early in the first leg’s second half when, with the score tied at 2-2, Diego Milito skewed wide one-on-one with Neuer. Maybe things could have changed, but Milito missed, they didn’t and Inter lost. Overall as a team Inter were bitterly poor. Maicon is just not the attacking outlet he was just 12 months ago, and whereas he would almost bulldoze his way down the flank now seemingly afraid to even take on his man. The midfield lacks bite and the defence looks lost
For Italy it is the general lack of happiness that has been there since Calciopoli scandal in 2006. Italy football has lost it mystique, its fantasia, glamour and cunning. Back to the drawing board is the only way to go.
The Dynasty Final
Manchester United’s win against Chelsea was a pleasure to watch and it revealed another change in Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach to the game. After years of perhaps being overly cagey in European ties, United were bold against Chelsea. In the first leg Ferguson introduced winger Antonio Valencia when rightback Rafael got injured while in the second United immediately went for the kill after Didier Drogba had briefly threatened to claw Chelsea through.
Man United aren’t flashy but they have built an aura about them, it’s almost as if the players know they are going to win. Their treble is on, so too is Barcelona’s.
It potentially sets up a Champions League final at Wembley on May 28 that could define two dynasties, Manchester United and Barcelona.
These are two sides that have set the benchmark in European football over the past five seasons. United have won three league titles, two Carling Cups, a Champions League and a Fifa World Club Cup in this period. Amongst their numerous accolades Barcelona have two Champions League titles, a Fifa World Club Cup and have become the undisputed standard bearers in football.
United and Barca have the two best records in Europe over the past five seasons and via different styles and routes have ascended to the pinnacle of world football. Both face banana skins against their mortal foes over the course of the next few days.
But if it all goes according to script May’s Champions League final could be a repeat of the 2009 final in Rome, and it will be match will decide which of United and Barcelona claims an unprecedented second treble in club history. But having tasted that no-so-sweet humble pie, I will refrain from making any predictions. I’d rather sit back and enjoy the ride.
Editor’s note: Dejan Stankovic is one of the finest strikers of a ball in world football. And this article was written before Man City beat United in the FA Cup semi-final two Saturdays ago.

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