Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"I know [you think] you are a great person and a great coach but in truth you are just a shit."

Your required reading material in advance of the titanic Champions League clash between Premier League leaders Chelsea and Primera leaders Barcelona can be found here and here. The back story of the bad blood between the clubs, which makes this encounter even more exciting than a normal pairing between the leaders in two of the three premier leagues in Europe, is set out (with a decided English bias) here. And here is the story of Barca's rise over the past few years, along with a tasty contrast between the clubs that is extremely flattering to Barca fans:

It is the most tantalizing of European grudge matches, coming so soon after last season's raging, impassioned tango. The people's club against the oligarch's, and Barcelona's general distaste for Chelsea's ideology is undiminished. Would [Barca VP Ferran] Soriano's club accept winning mechanically à la Mourinho? "Absolutely not," he says, wincing. "If a results-orientated coach came to Barcelona and said he would sacrifice Ronaldinho or Messi to have a more robust team, he would not be hired. Our fans want to watch good football. And remember who owns the club - 135,000 members. Chelsea are the exact opposite."

Leave it to the liberal Guardian to spin a match as the people versus the oligarch. G-d, I love that.

As for the match itself, there are a number of new players involved. For Chelsea, Arjen Robben, their best attacking winger, is healthy this year, whereas he missed both ties last year (but was well replaced by Damien Duff and Joe Cole.) Chelsea also has Michael Essien, giving them a second rough tackler in the midfield to go with Claude Makelele. Barca will counter with Edmilson, who was also injured last year, as their defensive midfielder, probably along with Rafa Marquez. Defensive midfield is where the games will be won or lost, as both teams' attacking midfielders and forwards need service to succeed. Barca lost last year because their midfield provided absolutely no cover for the defense on counter-attacks in the 15-minute period in which they allowed three goals at Stamford Bridge. Another aspect to watch will be Barca's ability to defend set-pieces. Chelsea, like most English teams, scores a lot of their goals from corners and free kicks that find the heads of their big players. Barca struggled with set-pieces in the second leg last year and will need to do a better job of marking. Finally, the tactics deployed by the two coaches will be interesting. Last year, Jose Mourinho deployed a stultifying defensive approach in the road leg and then ripped Barca apart in the home leg with counters that caught Barca outnumbered at the back. Does he do the same thing this year, or will he be more conservative at home, knowing that a 1-0 win would put his team in good position going to the second leg? And how does Frank Rijkaard, a significantly less-experienced manager, match up to what Mourinho is doing?

This match triggers all of my inherent pessimism about good triumphing over evil in soccer. The teams I root for - Holland and Barcelona - are noted for playing attacking football and for never winning the big one. (Barca has won the Champions League only once; Holland has never won the World Cup and has only one European Championship to its credit.) They are usually undone by cynical, defensive teams that absorb all of their pressure and then score against the run of play after my team commits too many people forward in the attempt to play soccer by attempting to score goals. My formative experience in seeing this style of play work was the 1990 World Cup, when a mediocre Argentine team made the World Cup Final by defending ruthlessly (because Maradona was not 100%) and then winning games in penalties. (To be clear, they didn't knock Holland out. My archtype for Holland losing to an excessively defensive side is their loss at home in the 2000 European Cup semis to Fortress Italia.) They scored two goals in four knock-out games, but they ended up finishing second while teams that actually tried to play fell by the wayside. This Barca-Chelsea match, between a team that plays three forwards and a team that grinds out 1-0 results, triggers all of my 1990 phobias. The lesson, as always, is that I'm paranoid.

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