Sunday, 3 January 2010

Sporting Picks of 2009, Part 1 - May 27th

Barcelona 2 Manchester United 0

Manchester United's attempt to make history and become the first club to defend the Champions League ended in failure against Barcelona in Rome's Stadio Olimpico. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's hopes of repeating last year's triumph against Chelsea barely got off the ground as they ended well beaten by a Barcelona side inspired by the genius of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Once Samuel Eto'o scored at Edwin van der Sar's near post in the 10th minute after escaping Nemanja Vidic, the credits were rolling on their bid to add the Champions League to the Premier League for the second successive season.

Xavi hit the post with a free-kick and Thierry Henry was denied by Van der Sar before Messi crowned a glorious personal performance with a stunning header to clinch victory with 20 minutes remaining. He made a mockery of his tiny stature to rise and head home Xavi's cross - and in that magical moment any hopes United harboured of a recovery were snuffed out.

Barcelona’s victory coupled with Spain’s European Championship triumph in 2008 has been seen as a mini revival of Spanish Football. These two events however could be seen in a much wider context as part of a trend, the end of one era and perhaps the beginning of another.

Manchester United were overwhelming favourites to win, Barcelona were without 3 quarters of their back four and were facing a full strength Manchester United. The first 9 minutes were completely one sided as Manchester United battered Barcelona with attack after attack. Yet when Barcelona went ahead with their first attack, they launched their tactical master-plan. They kept the ball… and continued to keep the ball… and much to the annoyance of English commentators kept possession and launched attacks when the opportunities arose.

Barcelona’s performance was a throw-back to 15-20 years ago when overseas teams used to come and keep possession while home sides would not see the ball for 5-10 minutes at a time. It’s a forgotten art of keeping possession which killed Manchester United. As they grew more frustrated, they wasted more and more possession, and chances grew rarer and rarer. It was a fantastic performance which was in sharp contrast to the kick and rush of the English Premier League. Hopefully Barcelona’s performance will lead to the end of the homogenisation of Football, where everyone plays a variation of 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 (Barcelona played a formation of 4-3-3).

This brings us to Manchester United, or rather the English Premier League. I mentioned last year that I thought that years European Cup final would be the high point in this period of English dominance of the event (a finalist every year since 2005, 3 out of 4 semi finalists every year since 2007). That England has provided only 2 winners during this period when Television revenues have been flowing into club coffers somehow doesn’t feel that much like a great return. With the worst recession since the Second World War underway, and an expected de-crease in television revenues, English football might see an abrupt halt to the good times. At the top tier, English clubs have been mortgaged to the hilt to stay on the gravy train. Both Liverpool and Manchester United were bought with the new owners saddling the clubs with the debts accrued buying those clubs. Arsenal are on the brink of a bitter takeover battle. Chelsea on the other hand are secure behind the scenes, but have an aging squad which has developed the nasty habit of being able to get rid of managers they don’t like.

The relative lack of money would be bad enough for the English top four, but what happened next will have a serious bearing on English clubs chances of winning Europe’s top prize in the future. Real Madrid, having watched their big rivals become the first Spanish side to win the European Cup, League Championship, National Cup treble responded by going on a gargantuan spending spree. They smashed the transfer record by paying AC Milan £56 million for Kaka, and then smashed that by paying Manchester United £80 million for Ronaldo. Alonso (from Liverpool) and Benziema (from Lyon) followed as Perez went about building Galacticos II, forgetting both the financial constraints brought about by the original Galacticos project and the defensive deficiencies the original team had.

This cup final signified a shift in playing styles and marked perhaps a change in the balance of power from the English Premier League back to La Liga. Time will tell how long Spain retains it’s current position.

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