The Cristiano Ronaldo complex and how his success became Madrid’s poisoned chalice

For a Real Madrid team that has had so much success, the over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo has left them in a tricky situation thus far in 2018/19.

In the build-up to the UEFA Champions League Final of 2017, many had already decided that Juventus, arguably the best all-round team at the time, were firm favourites to conquer the then-holders, Real Madrid.

The belief was that Massimiliano Allegri’s men were hardened Italian steel, devoid of any flaws, and ready to topple Europe’s greatest team. With the likes of Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon, this would have felt like their best chance.

In Cristiano Ronaldo’s world, this was never the case. From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals. What had become a genuine threat to their supremacy quickly became a mere afterthought.

This was Madrid under Ronaldo’s wing, unnerved by any challenge before them. They knew that with him on their side, victory was much more certain, the motivation being Ronaldo’s relentless winning attitude.

“From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals.”

At the moment, Madrid are not very good. Lying in third place, ten points behind Barcelona and struggling to find their spark, it is only a matter of time before the entire hierarchy is put into question. This version of Madrid is not an exciting one to be a part of.

The 4-2 win at Espanyol in their latest fixture reminded us that Karim Benzema has all the qualities that a top centre forward should have, scoring twice – the second goal was particularly pleasing – and that Gareth Bale still plays football.

Here, seven of the players that started in that final in 2017 were present from the beginning. Six of them started the Champions League final of 2016. Has familiarity bred an unwanted knack of complacency amongst this golden generation?

There seems to be a rock firmly wedged in those usually smooth Los Blancos grooves that is stopping them from moving forward.

The over-reliance on one man has been put into sharp focus in their matches so far. Julen Lopetegui had the first shot at a Ronaldo-less team, with a mixed bag of results from the worrying defeat to Sevilla, to the humbling – and ultimately fatal – embarrassment at the Nou Camp. Santiago Solari started with four wins, but was brought firmly back down to earth with a smack from Eibar’s 3-0 whipping.

The wider point here lies in Madrid’s inability to move on from Ronaldo’s brilliance, as if to admit that his success was their success.

Two La Liga and Copa del Rey triumphs, as well as the four Champions League successes in his nine years point to a seemingly successful period in Madrid’s long-standing history, but too much of it may have been down to one man.

Like a poisoned chalice, Ronaldo’s success has left an eerie, ghostly mark on Madrid’s usually commanding style.

He has been a key figure in Juventus’ stranglehold of Serie A this season, scoring 15 goals in 21 appearances so far as they raced to an 11-point lead after their win at Lazio.

You can sense that Juventus understand how important he could be to their season, but have incorporated him in a way that doesn’t seem over-reliant.

Madrid’s situation has become a complex web of mixed signals and uncertain times ahead, and good players made to look far from their best in an environment that has not helped their cause.

Those that had a keen eye for Madrid’s operation would know that in the grand scheme of things, Ronaldo was the central figure. Many times, Zinedine Zidane set up the team to support his qualities.

Benzema played as an apprentice to the Cristiano juggernaut, and now has the job of being the central figure for goals – a man who has scored 14 goals in his last 52 league matches. Bale’s injuries have hampered his progress to the next level, and is 30 years old in July.

Florentino Pérez’s fixation with his Galactico model has seen the club being linked with players such as Neymar Jr. and Eden Hazard, at a time when all is not right at the Santiago Bernabéu.

The atmosphere is one of bated breath and inquisitive minds, waiting for Zidane to come back and save their blushes – it must have been confusing to see him leave in the first place at the peak of his powers. This should have been one of the more worrying signs.

Where do Madrid go from here? The league title seems to have escaped their grasp yet again. The saving grace of winning the Champions League will not be as easy to lean on as before with the quality of the other teams in the Round of 16.

It is imperative that Madrid find their focus for the period to come. Ronaldo has found his feet at Juventus, Madrid’s starry but dimming lights firmly in the distance, and seems to have taken the the change of scenery quite well. When will Madrid also follow suit?

Determined Neymar and PSG leave us wanting more

The Brazilian superstar was in mesmerising form, showing the qualities that may embody what Paris Saint-Germain may be all about from now on.

For all of Neymar’s theatrics and ridiculed “rolling down the river” impressions, this was the sort of performance that made you realise something – this guy is actually really good.

Here, not only did Neymar create and take responsibility on the ball, he hustled and harried off it, tracking back and helping – yes, helping – in the elements of the game that he ideally doesn’t like to involve himself in, showing an opposite side to his flair that we didn’t think existed. He was kicked here and there, but that won’t matter to him – it’s all part of the Neymar Show, a world class mixture of the good and the bad that has him, no matter what people may think of his willy-nilly antics, close to the very top of the football pyramid. To suggest otherwise would be sinful.

Yes, he can be frustrating to watch sometimes when he becomes disconnected from the football, like a boy disobeying his father. Yet he also has a knack of leaving you wanting more and more – more nutmegs and faints; more bursts of pace and slaloming runs; just… more. 

The Jordan-donning Parisien fashionistas, strutting their stuff on the Parc des Princes green carpet in what was a statement of intent against last year’s finalists, began as they mean to go on, a refreshingly dominant performance that shied away from the “inept” or “typical” PSG we’ve come to be accustomed to. 

And there must’ve been something in the chilly Paris air that consumed the entirety of everyone associated with the Paris Saint-Germain brigade in their 2-1 win, because from the first whistle right down to the last, Neymar and PSG were up for this in ways that Liverpool simply couldn’t match.

Liverpool were red in the face, Virgil van Dijk wasn’t looking so world class anymore – that mantle fell to the hysterical Thiago Silva – and the midfield three were being taught a lesson by Marco Verratti – tenacious and driven, the sort of quality that sets the high tempo in games like this, all calm and controlled. He was the only recognisable central midfielder in the PSG team, yet he outclassed Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner for most of the game. 

His driving run led to PSG’s opener in the 13th minute, scored by left back Juan Bernat with a swing of his right foot, a well deserved lead in an opening half full of attitude and desire.

Then came that devilish front three break in the 36th minute, a swift give and go between Kylian Mbappe and Neymar leading a Nike-sponsored counter attack, featuring Mbappe’s lightning stride and Neymar’s perfect weight of pass. Edinson Cavani missed the initial chance, but Neymar was there to save the day, his 31st Champions League goal, the highest for a Brazilian. 

What may have also been impressive about this victory was that Cavani didn’t have to do much, if anything, before he was taken off in the 65th minute – such was the buccaneering attitude of Thomas Tuchel’s men, almost glued onto the idea that this was an opportunity to stand tall and be noticed. 

Not to say that Cavani wasn’t involved – he was much more effective in his link-up play with Neymar and Mbappe compared to Liverpool’s ghost front three – but it showed how good PSG were as an overall unit, the whole more effective than just the sum of their parts. It was all so fun to watch, you’d forgotten about the recent nonsense about super leagues and dubious Middle East investment. There was even time for rainbow flicks in the corner, just the way Neymar likes it. 

PS: although Neymar may hog the limelight, credit must fall onto Silva and Marquinhos’ shoulders for a defensive showing of great interest and motivation. They wanted to defend, their heart and soul encapsulated in every celebratory moment when Liverpool simply couldn’t get through. Magnifique.

Jurgen Klopp, however, wouldn’t have liked this one bit. It was a match that showed him where Henderson and Milner are when it comes to the best central midfielders in the world, and the ineffective abilities of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah should be a cause for concern for a team that isn’t in transition anymore, and were a side piece to the real show for much of the night.Gone are the days of lovely hugs and giddy relationships with the press: Klopp is under pressure to deliver. He would give away an arm and a leg and a Dejan Lovren for as fluid a trio as his German counterpart has. That home tie against Napoli was always going to be an important element of this group, but now the stakes are much higher.

And for all of Neymar’s frustrating roll-arounds and tumble downs from the World Cup et. al, this was a very good example of what PSG can do when the right notes are hit. Maybe Tuchel is the kick in the back side that he needed, the realisation that for him to bag those elusive individual accolades, Ballon d’or and all, he will have to give in to the team collective and make peace with his individuality.

Because with Tuchel, Neymar defends; Bernat scores; Silva and Marquinhos bump chests like Brazilian tag team wrestling champions. If Tuchel can produce this more often, then expect PSG to push their Champions League campaign further than they’ve ever done before.

PSG, Ligue 1 and their European conundrum

The Parisiens continue to dominate their league and may qualify for the Round of 16 in the Champions League, but will we ever fall in love with the idea of them being crowned European champions?

Another convincing win. Another Neymar-led performance. Another day where Patrick Vieira, like most before him, may start to wonder if Ligue 1 is either a stroll in the park or Paris Saint-Germain are just an extremely good team.

After their 3-0 victory against OGC Nice at the Allianz Riviera, Thomas Tuchel’s men now sit eight points clear of second-placed Lille, unblemished after eight matches, with a goal difference of +21.

PSG always seem to coast through their league. They can only play what is put in front of them, but even they must be starting to think that it has become a little embarrassing: show up, play, dominate, outscore, repeat. It all seems too easy, especially when their closest rivals in the past few seasons, AS Monaco, change the composition of their team so often, and are now closer to relegation than having any credible title challenge.

The “PSG Project” has been a domestic success so far. The first stage was to ensure the dominance of their domestic league, which can have a bright, luminous green tick next to it on the to-do list after winning five titles in the last six years, the anomaly coming in that rip-roaring of a season when Monaco dared to dream and toppled the Parisien monopoly. The next stage, naturally, would be to build a team that can challenge on the continental front, tussling with the bigwigs, nudging ever closer to having the famous shot of the team name being engraved into the trophy with the big ears.

Alas, PSG continue to falter when you start to believe that they may have turned the corner. Their underwhelming performances in the Champions League against the top tier sides have been well documented, the loss to Liverpool at Anfield the latest entry to the catalogue. Inept, disastrous, naive – these are some of the words that have been used to describe a team that, by now, should be eating on the same plate as the kings of Europe. Their failings have been attributed to the lack of high-level competition in their league as complacency sets in, the idea that they are a threat to the current European hierarchy being exactly that: just an idea.

The good news, Tuchel would like to tell himself, is that this particular hurdle in their first game came early on. In some way, the hope is that the naivety, the lack of a coherent dynamic, fluid transition from defense to attack and vice versa, will evaporate as they continue to find ways to make everything work in their favour.  There were times when Thiago Silva would look perplexed as to why Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were being given so much space to do what they pleased.

Such space was not afforded to Manchester City in their game with Lyon, once a dominant figure in France, and PSG could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to the application and discipline needed to challenge proper opposition, especially away from home. It is that lack of work ethic and attention to defensive detail that makes it hard to love this team.

The appointment of Tuchel was an interesting one. Never has he had to manage the calibre of egos that are found in this group of players, and with his all-energy, all-demanding managerial approach, how can he entice his more flamboyant players to do the dirty, gritty work? Could you imagine Tuchel instructing Neymar to track his runner and contribute to the defensive side of the team’s structure? “Where is this written in my contract?”, he would ask himself as Tuchel waves his arms in the air, emphasising a point that may have gone over one of Neymar’s signature haircuts.

PSG can be a very exciting team to watch when they are in the mood. When it all comes together, when all the parts are working in a symphony reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, or Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, it looks brilliantNeymar’s lazy runs and twinkling Nike feet from the left, Thomas Meunier’s overlapping adventures from right back, Kylian Mbappe’s drop of the shoulder, Cavani’s tireless work rate from the front. It can all be very overwhelming sometimes. Bayern Munich felt it last season, but the problem is that they struggle to replicate that rugged, sometimes ugly away performance often needed to topple more elite opponents.

The Champions League has long been dominated by a select few of Europe’s top clubs. To break the chain of command would be a welcome move away from the standard teams that grace the latter stages year in, year out. Think back to FC Porto in 2004, if you can. Or Inter Milan in 2010. Those were the rare occasions where a Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid, or Barcelona were not the talk of the town but, for once, we could celebrate an unfamiliar name on the trophy.

With PSG, it all seems a bit self-centred. Imagine the scenes if PSG were to win the Champions League, the trophy hoisted above Silva’s smiling face, Tuchel on the side quietly clapping while Nasser Al-Khelaifi beams with a sense of relief, Presnel Kimpembe posting update upon update on his Instagram story with the trophy being haphazardly held in one hand, the famous front three posing for the cameras in a “we may not really get along, but we made it work” sort of way, and the Parisien ultras deep in song and intoxicated beyond belief. They may revel in such successes, but the rest of the football fraternity may feel discontent, and to them, justifiably so: PSG come across as an expensively assembled group of individuals that are more concerned about their marketing endeavours than becoming actual Champions League contenders. It is hard to let your emotional guard down: “How can I trust that you will love me the same way?”

As we enter another Champions League week, PSG host Red Star Belgrade in a match that will most likely follow the same script as many of their encounters in Ligue 1. These will not be the tests that they will be judged on, but it will be important to set a tone for the ones that will matter. Under the microscope, under the scrutiny of the cynic that believes the project is more self-indulgent than anything else, PSG need to deliver a continental showing that will cast away the doubts that all the investing and big spending was not just for brand recognition.

Tit-for-tat mentality sees fans pick up the bill

The sudden increase in ticket prices across UEFA club competitions is football’s quiet scam, with away fans losing out more often than not.

With Valencia following the recent Spanish trend of upping ticket prices once drawn against English opponents, Manchester United officials reacted by announcing they’ll again be returning the favour.

3,800 Valencia fans who visit Manchester for the UEFA Champions League group tie will now be charged £77 instead of the original quote of £55. The added £22 will subsidise Manchester United fans due to visit the Mestalla in December – who were also quoted £77 – with any additional revenue being donated to the Manchester United Foundation.

If you’re a Manchester United fan due to visit the Mestalla, this may seem like karma being served. But read between the lines and you’ll soon realise this is yet another example of tit-for-tat behaviour which results in fans picking up the bill – only difference being they’ll be Valencia fans, not Manchester United.

True, Valencia are in the wrong for increasing the price to such an extortionate amount, but the issue surely lies deeper in the commercial opportunism which seems to be swallowing the game as a whole. This isn’t the first case of such nature. It’s quickly becoming football’s quiet scam.

1280px-San_Mames
The Old San Mamés Stadium. Image: Wikimedia

I was part of the travelling United contingent visiting Athletic Bilbao for the 2011/12 UEFA Europa League last-16 tie. Eye-wateringly, Athletic increased ticket prices and charged United fans €90.00 for the second-leg at the Old San Mamés. Whilst United fans never begrudged paying the fee demanded, it was a hard one to swallow due to it being a 350% increase on the €20 fee the visiting Lokomotiv Moscow fans were asked to pay in the previous round.

Then in 2016, the Spanish gave way to the Danish as FC Midtjylland charged Manchester United fans 710 kroner (£71.00) – three times what they asked Southampton fans to pay earlier in the tournament.

“I can understand that it’s expensive for a Manchester United fan to see FC Midtjylland and that they are angry, but that’s how it is,” explained Jacob Jørgensen, the club’s commercial director, at the time.

Then last season, Manchester United faced a UEFA Champions League last-16 tie away to Sevilla. The Andalusians triggered a series of complaints from United supporters after charging £89 for them to watch the first leg in Spain. Branding the prices “unfair” and “excessive”, United –  similar to the present day with Valencia – reacted by raising the cost of tickets for Sevilla supporters travelling to watch the return leg at Old Trafford to £89 and said they would use the extra proceeds to help refund their own fans.

Sevilla responded by then subsidising their own support, whilst Valencia may still decide to do the same. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop the issue from rising to the fore again in the future and Manchester United fans aren’t the only side to have suffered of late.

1280px-Wanda-Metropolitano
The Wanda Metropolitano built in 2017.

Atletico Madrid announced ticket prices of £79 for Arsenal fans in last season’s UEFA Europa League semi-final, in comparison to the £36.50 paid by Los Colchoneros for the first leg at the Emirates Stadium. However, Arsenal confirmed they would also make up the difference, ensuring their fans paid the same price as Atletico fans for their visit to north London. Only difference being they would be doing this out of their own pockets, not by transferring the cost to Atletico fans.

Still the scam recently caught up with leading Belgian side Anderlecht. They were ordered by UEFA to partially refund Bayern Munich fans for their 2017/18 Champions League group match. The Belgian club charged visiting supporters €100 per ticket for the game at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, which Bayern won 2-1, with the visiting fans throwing fake money on the pitch in protest. UEFA ruled the price was excessive and instructed Anderlecht to reimburse Bayern by €30 per ticket.

In a statement released at the time by their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body, UEFA said: “RSC Anderlecht is ordered to contact FC Bayern Munich within 15 days to compensate their supporters with an amount of €30 per ticket to those away fans located in the upper tier section (sections S14, S15, S16 and S17).”

This incident followed Anderlecht fans calling their very own hierarchy a “disgrace” in April 2017. They accused the club of “a lack of consideration” over high ticket prices for the Europa League quarter-final home tie with Manchester United. A banner stating “€40 for a standing place? Shame on ‘our’ directors” was attached to railings at the main entrance to the Belgian club’s Constant Vanden Stock stadium prior to the match.

All of the mentioned examples happened in UEFA licensed tournaments. The association’s recent ordering of Anderlecht to refund Bayern supporters shows the occasional right-minded individual remains part of the organisation after all. Nevertheless, the issue requires further attention, otherwise supporters will keep on picking up the bill in the future.

*Update*

Football Supporters Europe are asking UEFA to amend and clarify Article 19 – Paragraph 3 of its Safety and Security Regulations at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent clubs from using loopholes in the regulation, for example by charging regular season ticket holders or members much less than away fans. The most effective way to make the regulation as fan-friendly as possible would be to change the regulation to: “The price of tickets for supporters of the visiting team must be no higher than the cheapest tickets available for home fans in the respective categories.”

They are also calling on UEFA to continue to enforce its regulation by obliging clubs to compensate the affected fans in cases of a breach of the ticketing regulation. However, early arbitration rather than retrospective disciplinary proceedings would minimise these cases.

They further call on all clubs playing in European competition to adopt self-regulation mechanisms, taking the purchasing power of the respective country of the visiting team into account, therefore encouraging more supporters to travel from countries with significantly lower wages and salaries.

More at this link.

The Italian phoenix rises from the ashes

Roma swept Barcelona aside to complete one of the tournament’s great comebacks. It’s a result with the potential to reignite Italian football’s challenge to the European elite and leave the recent World Cup disappointment behind.

By Robbie Chalmers

What a night! Well, two nights actually. Roma and Juventus took on Spain’s El Clasico sides in this seasons Champions League quarter finals and after the first leg results, both seemed to be going only one way. Roma, 4-1 down, and Juventus, 3-0 down, faced herculean efforts to turn their ties around as very few, if any, gave them a chance. But they both very nearly made it. Nearly.

The drama at the Bernabeu was ignited by Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the second minute and exploded in the last as Michael Oliver awarded Madrid a penalty, with the very last kick. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off for dissent, Cristiano Ronaldo scored and Real scraped through by the skin of their teeth. The rumblings continued in the aftermath as the Italian press launched astounding criticism of Oliver’s dramatic, but completely correct, call to essentially seal the Old Lady’s fate.

In the midst of all this crazed reaction, outcry of bias and accusation of a Madrid agenda, there is a more important matter to focus on here. AS Roma.

The night before, 1,300km away, Rome’s Stadio Olympico was packed to the hilt with a red sea of noise, flares and belief that tonight could be Roma’s night. But how? The semi-final stages of the competition are often reserved for the elite that dine at the top-table. Bayern, Real, Barcelona and Juventus are the regular occupiers of this stage along with Atletico but they went out before Christmas. Barcelona are unbeaten in La Liga and were many people’s favourites to win the trophy. They had Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, a three goal cushion and fond memories of the hallowed ground they were playing on. After all, it was nine years ago in this very stadium that the Barcelona and Messi dynasty began by winning the trophy. Not since 2010 had another Italian side, other than Juventus, made it to the semi-final stage and not since 1984 had Roma made it that far either. Cue something remarkable.

A similar pattern transpired in the Italian capital as it did in Madrid the following night. Edin Dzeko scored early on, Daniele De Rossi followed up with a cool penalty midway through and Kostas Manolas scored late on to seal a record comeback for an Italian side in Champions League knockout football.

Barcelona were given no reprieve, no penalty and, in all honesty, no time to play. Roma were faster, stronger and more organised. Dzeko was a man possessed, dominating against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti while this was a game too far for Messi to save his team yet again. At the final whistle an ear-splitting roar of joy erupted from the home crowd as they knew they had witnessed something truly special.

Only on three other occasions has a team overcome a three goal first leg deficit to advance to the next round. The previous was last season’s epic where PSG were beaten 6-1 by, yes… Barcelona.

Praise was universally directed towards one man, Eusebio Di Francesco. Reputations are made on nights like this and he has elevated his ten-fold. Captain De Rossi lauded him for his setup and instructions for the side and after Dzeko’s first goal they never really looked back. Di Francesco was an overachiever at his previous club Sassuolo and he continues to do it at a higher level. He went for it against the Catalans with two up top and three at the back in order to impose themselves in midfield with De Rossi, Naingollan and Strootman. Rarely do we see an Italian side with such an attacking set up in the knockout round, let alone against Barcelona. He has managed to do this all season with a possession style utilised since he joined last summer.

It’s a style we may see Italian teams exercise more in the near future.

Viewers got a glimpse of Maurizio Sarri’s exciting Napoli team this season, Simone Inzaghi has made Lazio second top scorers in Serie A this term and Gennaro Gattuso has added fire into the belly of AC Milan’s limping season. The top six sides in Serie A are all managed by Italian coaches, old and new. And not one of them plays the tradional pragmatic approach as a first choice anymore. Even Juventus sought to bring in more firepower after looking blunt in last season’s final. Contrast that with the failed cautious approach that saw Italy fall at the hands of Sweden and a change of philosophical approach has arisen.

With four Champions league places up for grabs, Italy will have stronger representation next year. No qualifying round means all four will make it to the groups as before often only two would make it. This boost will surely encourage more opportunities for these new managers to test their metal against the very best.

Italy don’t have a financial hold over Europe anymore, but few countries can thrive as much when cast as the underdog. Juventus moving to their own stadium has given them an advantage over the rest but the fact is that Juventus are tenth on the Deliotte Rich list but made it to two finals without the aid of an oil coated billionaire. Roma themselves are well backed by owners but Monchi’s arrival as sporting director last summer shows they are trying to bridge the gap with astute player recruitment. Last night was glimpse at Italian football’s potential.

There is no doubt Juventus and Roma benefited somewhat from a nothing to lose scenario but it also showed how a more proactive approach can work too. A new generation of coaching talent and a stronger Italian presence in Europe mean that an absence of fear and pragmatism could see the Italian game return in a big way.

As Johan Cruyff famously put it: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”

PSG can beat Real Madrid without Neymar

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilian’s absence will no doubt be felt when Cristiano Ronaldo and co. come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Unai Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

By Robbie Chalmers

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilians absence will no doubt be felt when Ronaldo and co come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

The flood lights were gleaming, the rain was showering down from the heavens as if to add extra gloss to a victory that PSG were well on their way to in last months’ Le Classique against Marseille. The match was already at 3-0 to the Parisians and, as such is the gulf these days between them and the rest, they even dabbled in some exhibitionist football too. Flicks and tricks a plenty not only to show they’re the best but to hammer it home in ostentatious fashion. An experienced matador toying with a young bull that’s of no challenge him.

Then in a flash it happened: an injury. Neymar was clutching his leg after rolling over his ankle. He had been pushed and kicked throughout the match but how ironic is it that the cause of the injury was from his body forgetting to calculate its own movements for a split second instead of the wrath of a frustrated defender. As Neymar was taken off in tears the thought occurred to me that all the money in the world still provides no guarantees in football and that even the most innocuous of incidents can affect the trajectory of even PSG’s stratospheric project.

Despite all the negative headlines attacking Neymar’s attitude and vicarious lifestyle he has produced the goods for PSG on a regular basis this season with 19 goals and 13 assists in the league and 6 goals and 3 assists in Europe. However, he wasn’t bought for this, as Adrian Rabiot stated after the 3-1 first leg lost to Real. Neymar flitted in and out at the Bernabeu doing quite a lot without effecting that much. Sensational dribbles would lead to dead ends and superb individual skill was conducted in isolated areas. After all it demands a lot to guarantee performances at this level, just ask Ronaldo. Real’s star player touched the ball 30 times and scored twice. Ronaldo doesn’t produce Neymar’s star dust but he is an apex predator with an insatiable instinct for goals. So is Neymar’s absence that much of a loss in reality? Perhaps not.

Madrid2-Milan0_20101019_224210
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid. Image: @JanS0L0

PSG will likely line up in a 4-3-3. Thiago Silva my return to the defence in place of Presnel Kimbempe, 21, who started in Madrid. Silva was on the pitch in last season’s 6-1 humiliation at Barcelona and, as a result, his big game mentality was questioned. However, in a game where they need to chase the result perhaps his influence can drive them from the back.

Thiago Motta may return to replace young Lo Celso as the sitting midfielder. His experience will be key to maintaining a balance. If the Italian is not fit in time Lassana Diarra, signed on a free agent in January, would prove a tenacious option in the middle as well. The Verratti-Rabiot partnership could be the difference against a side that may not have Modric or Kroos for Tuesday night.

Emery has a few options for his front three. Cavani is up top either way. On the left Julian Draxler can stake a claim in Neymar’s place or Kylian Mbappe could do after playing there for Monaco at times last season. The young Frenchman has competed with Angel Di Maria for the right wing spot all season and both can excel there against an out of sorts Marcelo. Let’s not forget it was a front three of Draxler, Cavani and Di Maria that beat a superior Barcelona team 4-0 at this stage last year. Any combination of the three could do real damage to Zidane’s side.

Edinson Cavani has a reputation for missing big chances at vital moments but the reality is very different. He has scored 26 goals in 43 appearances in the Champions League with 8 already this season. He scored crucial goals against Chelsea in their last two knockout ties, two against Barcelona in last season’s last 16 and slotted one past Bayern in this year’s group. He will be key against a Varane-Ramos centre back pairing that has fallen short many times of late.

cavani-flickr
Much will depend on Edinson Cavani. Image: @BenSutherland

Julian Draxler scored in the 4-0 win over Barca last season and has caused havoc against Madrid before. He was man of the match when his Wolfsburg side beat Madrid 2-0 in the quarter final first leg in 2016. Driving in from the left he has similar attributes to Neymar. He dribbles with great speed, is fleet footed and is lethal from range with his passing and shooting. Dani Carvajal is out for the second leg so make shift centre back Nacho will fill the slot which will favour the German.

Kylian Mbappe can play both wings and is still the world’s most talented young player. His record in the last year has been superb. He scored in five of the six knock out matches last season against Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus on Monaco’s run to the semi-final. He managed to get the better of excellent full back David Alaba in both matches against Bayern and he can repeat that again against Marcelo.

Former Real Madrid player Di Maria scored two in last year’s Barca victory including a brilliant free kick. The Argentine has replaced Mbappe since the turn of the year and can inflict the same level of damage tonight. More inclined to cut in on his left foot, he can take advantage of Casemiro’s shaky form and, given he is prone to a booking, can put the Brazilian under pressure.

Real Madrid themselves have picked up form despite an underwhelming season by their own lofty standards. The defending champions have suffered in big games this season against Tottenham and Barcelona. Even with positive results against Dortmund, Atletico and PSG they displayed a real lack of structure without the ball and a lack of cohesion in the attacking third. Zidane’s big decision is whether to play Isco behind a front two or stick with the BBC now that Gareth Bale is back. Given the return to form of the later in recent weeks, a 4-3-3 with the BBC up top will be likely. Kroos and Modric may both miss out and that will go a long way to determining who advances.

With a two goal cushion Madrid are still favourites. However, the issues they have could help PSG upset the odds. Emery can still line up a side with players who have done it at this stage before. They can do it without Neymar.

This piece was first published over at Football Diet.

One night in Madrid

Many a football fan is found to be disillusioned with the modern day game. And is it any wonder, when they’re treated like this..

By Tommie Collins

Many football fans these days pick their games, whilst many have become disillusioned with the game due to outrageous ticket prices, astronomical player wages, live games schedule and even the boredom of facing the same old teams in the UEFA Champions League.

Thus, when Chelsea drew Atletico Madrid in the group stage of this seasons competition it was a match I wanted to attend mainly due to Atletico playing at their newly opened Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. The club played there previously from 1923 to 1966.

The flight was booked with Ryanair at a cheap price of £50, the match ticket cost more at £55, although the trip was in doubt at one stage due to Ryanair cancelling flights due to staff rostering – alas we were lucky our flight was going both ways.

My previous visit to Madrid was a 2-2 draw in 2009 at the Vicente Calderon- it was a cauldron of noise that night with an intimidating atmosphere, but what stood out was the sheer brutality of the Spanish police. Whilst leaving the metro near the ground before kick off Atletí fans were throwing missiles at us from the other side of the road, but it was the Chelsea fans that bore the brunt of the baton wielding police, cracking heads of innocent fans for it seemed with no reason except that they could. I had seen the Spanish police in action previously at the Real Zaragoza – Chelsea, European Cup Winners Cup tie in 1995 when again for no real reason they attacked us in the ground and took no prisoners.

This trip to Madrid saw no violence. The majority of fans these days are out for a good time whilst abroad, but the way Chelsea fans were treated after the match was something I thought was in the past. After the unforgettable few weeks at Euro 2016 in France with Wales, even with a real threat of terrorism, the French police – who I did have bad experiences with in the past whilst following Chelsea at Marseille and PSG – were excellent and kept their distance.

Chelsea had given us instructions to meet at an arranged point where we would be escorted to the ground in a 25 minute walk, with bars awaiting us at the meeting point. I don’t know of any fans who took up the club and police offer. The instructions read:

“The police strongly advise using the Metro’s Line 5, which runs from the city centre, and to get off at Metro Canillejas. They do not recommend using Line 7 which will be crowded with home fans.

The police have designated a meeting point outside Metro Canillejas, Plaza Del Cefiroline, which has a few bars close by. They recommend fans arrive there three to four hours before kick-off.

From the meeting point there is a 25-minute walk along Avenue Luis Aragones. It should be noted the stadium is located on the outskirts of the city and as such, adequate time should be allowed for the greater distances involved in travelling to the stadium compared with our previous visits to play Atletico. Police will accompany fans along the route to the stadium.”

Nevertheless, we made our own way to the ground without any issues, even arriving at the Metropoloitano metro station with the Atletico fans. After the match we were locked in for 45 minutes. This I can accept, during Wales’ recent visit to Serbia the lock in lasted an hour but you were free to find you own way back after. Instead of taking us to the metro station by the ground, by which time there were no Atletí fans in sight, the police proceeded to march us along a main road back to the pre match meeting point metro station. Despite repeated questioning by fans, there was no explanation why, there had been no trouble before, during or after the match. I finally managed to break away from the escort and found a bar which was supposedly near the pre match meeting point. 15 minutes later, lo and behold, the Chelsea escort turned up at the metro entrance. The bars were basically two small bars. Just imagine if the 2500 Chelsea fans had taken up the offer of the pre match meeting point.

I struggle to understand why football fans are still treated this way, it’s frustrating and needless, and it basically beggars the question why we bother. Could there have been Chelsea stewards with the police to convey information, perhaps?

Many supporters of clubs from abroad take it upon themselves to walk miles to their stadiums in a show of solidarity, that’s their choice. British fans like to stay in bars until as late as possible and make their own way to and from stadiums, it seems that the Spanish police have other ideas. When will this stop?

Fan organisations are in place these days with supporter liaison officers, Chelsea need to take the actions of the police up with the relevant authorities to prevent innocent supporters being denied their civil liberties as happened last week in Madrid.

Benfica’s Béla Guttmann Curse

Take a look at the Béla Guttmann curse that has been hanging over Benfica for 54 years, and counting..

By  Danny Wyn Griffith

Reigning Portuguese Primeira Liga champions Benfica prepare to welcome Germany’s Bayern Munich on Wednesday whilst hoping to overturn a one-nil deficit in their Champions League last-16 tie.

During last Tuesday’s first leg at the Allianz Arena, Juan Bernat’s cross picked out Arturo Vidal within the opening two minutes and the Chilean didn’t waste the chance as he perfectly timed his jump to score the header.

Many expected Bayern to go on and build on their early lead having been the stronger side on paper. Benfica grew into the game however, and despite allowing the home side to acquire the vast majority of ball-possession (65%-35%), the Águias continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack.

Bayern managed sixteen shots on goal whilst Benfica managed ten – despite only one subsequently hitting the target.

Benfica will attempt to overturn Bayern’s slender lead at the Estádio da Luz this Wednesday with the home side hoping they’ll raise their game to a new level as the 65,000 capacity Lisbon crowd cheer their team on.

However, any potential defeat is bound to have the Benfica faithful damning a curse laid upon them nearly fifty-four years ago.

Béla Guttmann, born in Budapest at the end of the 19th century, was a Hungarian footballer who went into management following retirement and managed over 20 football clubs throughout his career.

Having played for MTK Budapest in his homeland, he was then forced to leave Hungary when Miklos Hórthy’s regime took power. He moved onto spend time playing in Austria and the USA before taking up a number of coaching roles across Europe.

Having had success with Porto in 1959, he left and took charge of their rivals Benfica. Here, he went onto win consecutive Primeira Liga titles, the Taça de Portugal and two European Cups during his first three years at the club.

It was at this point that Guttmann thought it was the right time to go and ask the Benfica board for an improved contract. When he asked for a raise, the board didn’t just say no, they gave him the sack and told him he was no longer welcome at Benfica.

Béla Guttmann was so furious, he allegedly cursed the club, declaring that:

“Benfica will not win a single European trophy in the next one hundred years!”

Benfica have since participated and lost in five European Cup finals (1963, 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990), and in three UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League finals (1983, 2013 and 2014).

Béla Guttmann 2
Béla Guttmann in 1966.

On August 28th 1981, Béla Guttmann died at the age of 82 and is buried in Vienna.

Jose Ferreira Queimado, Benfica’s President at that time, is known to have visited Béla Guttmann’s grave begging for him to lift the curse. But even after begging for mercy, Benfica lost 4 major European finals and 3 major semi-finals [1981, 1994 and 2011].

The late-great Eusébio is also known to have begged at his great mentor’s grave to lift the curse – but to no avail.

The Béla Guttmann curse lives on.

 

Benfica’s timeline since Béla Guttmann’s curse
22nd May 1963

The Wembley Stadium was the location for this European Cup final as Benfica faced AC Milan. Benfica had a full Portuguese eleven with Fernando Riera as the manager and they took the lead when Eusebio scored in the 19th minute. The Italians turned the game around in the second-half as Jose Altafini scored 2 goals in eleven minutes to win AC Milan’s first ever European Cup.

 

 

 

 

 

27th May 1965

Two years later Benfica travelled to Milan, to play against Internazionale at the San Siro in front of 77,000 people.  With two minutes left on the clock before half-time, Jair da Costa scored, the goal proved to be the only one that night.

 

 

 

 

29th May 1968

Benfica returned to Wembley to face Manchester United with over 92,000 people at the stadium. The first goal of the game came in the 53rd minute, when Bobby Charlton scored a great header. Just over 20 minutes later Jamie Graca scored the equalizer, and since the two teams couldn’t be separated in regular time, extra-time was next.

Within nine minutes, George Best, Brian Kidd and another goal from Bobby Charlton made the score Manchester United 4-1 Benfica. Benfica wouldn’t participate in a European final for the next 20 years. This was the last time Benfica played with a full 11 of Portuguese

 

 

 

 

 

 

25th May 1988

64,000 spectators gathered in Stuttgart at the Neckarstadion to watch PSV Eindhoven face Benfica in yet another European Cup Final. Regular time couldn’t separate the two teams, nor could the extra-time, so the game went on to penalties. PSV Eindhoven won the penalty shoot-out 6-5 after Antonio Vesolo’s penalty was saved by Hans van Breukelen.

 

23rd May 1990

27 years had passed since these two clubs last faced each other in a European Cup final. Milan and Benfica travelled to Vienna, Austria to play at the Praterstadion. The first-half finished 0-0 but Frank Rijkaard scored the only goal in the second half which was enough to give AC Milan another European trophy.

 

 

 

14th May 2014

Benfica failed to win in a major European final for a record eighth time as Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro stepped up to score his side’s winning penalty and condemn Benfica to a 52nd year without European glory.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: