Messi an antidote to Mourinho’s menace
Two down, four to go.
This evening the third and fourth semi-finals of the week will take place in the Europa League and will go some way to sorting out who will meet in the final at the Aviva Stadium on May 18th. Will it be Benfica or Braga to face Porto or Villarreal? Ireland awaits – with about as much anticipation it affords the prospect of an ECB interest rate hike. If the example set last night by the ‘standard bearers’ of world football is anything to go by, it may be worth unplugging the television altogether lest you put your foot through it and risk missing the Heineken Cup semi-finals at the weekend.
The fifth and sixth semis of the week will undoubtedly emerge as the highlights of what should have been a memorable helping of sport over seven days.
Manchester United cannot be faulted for their dismemberment of a callow Schalke side on Tuesday, nor can Uefa because the Germans followed a similar route as everyone else to that stage of the competition – won their group and ousted the defending champions – but it was hardly a game worthy of the occasion.
It’s always good to see the odd outsider spirited into the dying stages by a combination of moments of class (see Raul), desire and luck, but the risk they might freeze in the spotlight is constant and centre stage proved too debilitating for Ralf Rangnick’s hopelessly outclassed side.
Nevertheless, despite their vapid performance they, each to man, emerged with more credit than practically everyone involved in the last night’s game between two teams who feel it is their divine right to contest games at this stage of the year, every year.
Practically, because yet again Lionel Messi proved himself to be the antidote to modern football – a new hope to the dark side of the beautiful game that has become so overly populated it is barely recognisable from its previous incarnations.
Xavi, too, remains a joy to watch, but their team-mates should not escape criticism for the part they played in an embarrassing spectacle – whether or not provoked by the tactics of the cynical Jose Mourinho, whose victories are joyless for the neutral and whose graceless defeats lower his stock with each passing year.
One could cope with Mourinho’s pre-match hype and provocation of Pep Guardiola and Barca if, like a boxer, say, he admitted afterwards he was beaten by a worthy and, indeed, superior adversary. The pantomime in the prelude is not the problem with Mourinho, because sport is as much in the head as anywhere else, but his refusal to acknowledge the incontrovertible evidence after the game has been played is beyond pathetic and an insult to those of us who expect the talking to end and the best players in the world to play.
Instead, he actively stops them from them from doing their job. In his efforts to prevent a weakened Barcelona side from doing what they do best, he prevented his side from doing the same. He left talents like Kaka, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema on the bench. At home. If anyone has the armoury to take on Barca, it’s Real, yet he started without a striker. Granted, he is wary of a repeat of their 5-0 league drubbing at the hands of Barca, but there has to be a happy medium and one feels those Real stalwarts – like former Argentine international Jorge Valdano – disciples of the ‘whatever you score we’ll score more approach’, will be sharpening their knives for Mourinho again this morning.
Of course, none of it was entirely unexpected and Mourinho has history in this regard, but Barca are under his skin more than even Liverpool were while he was at Chelsea and his tactics, as a result, are both negative and cowardly.
The lucky ones – if that is the right term – who started the game last night, were seemingly instructed to abandon what it is that makes them the players they are. Xabi Alonso, for instance, turns destroyer, as opposed to the practically peerless playmaker he is known to be.
Pepe is instructed to go out and live on the edge, thereby either physically bullying and fouling Barca into submission or fulfilling Mourinho’s prophecy that one of his players will be sent off. There was nothing unjust about his dismissal, by the way, anyone who goes into a tackle in that manner, with studs up when his opponent is clear favourite to win the ball, must know what to expect. That Dani Alves made the most of it is a regrettable and points to the worrying decay of sportsmanship within the Camp Nou as well, but Pepe and Mourinho can have no complaints. Yes, a yellow might have sufficed but players get sent off for dangerous, reckless challenges all the time and this was just another example. Forget the slow motion replays and the post-match analysis, the referee gets one look at these things and players should know what looks good and what doesn’t.
Elsewhere, Alvara Arbeloa has turned into a snarling henchman, despite not needing such attributes when marking Messi out of a game against Liverpool in 2007. So too, Marcelo. Against any other team he is a potent attacking weapon from deep on the left. Against Barca, he kicks, pulls and stamps when he can – as Pedro, who was infuriatingly theatrical at times, found to his cost.
How must it feel, deep down, for players like Alonso, Benzema and Kaka to have been roped into what is essentially Mourinho’s angry deluded mob? Surely they ask themselves whether their manager has faith in them as players and whether this Real Madrid side is coaxing the best out of them in their short careers.
Even Ronaldo, who once seemed the perfect on-field foil for his arrogant countryman, must have doubts over where Mourinho is taking his game. At United, he and his manager feared nobody.
Surely they all hoped for better than this when they arrived at the Bernabeu, just like we all, perhaps misguidedly, hoped for something special when sitting down to watch another disappointing instalment of El Clasico last night.
Roll on Leinster and Toulouse.