Thursday, March 18, 2010
Five Thoughts on the Champions League
1. Barca figured something out at halftime of the match against Valencia on Sunday: Thierry Henry can still be a useful player. It's hard to say that a team that has lost one game out of 26 in La Liga (and that with a youth team player at right back) and qualified at the top of its group in the Champions League is struggling, but if there has been a cause for concern for the Blaugrana this year, it's been their struggles in replacing Samuel Eto'o. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started reasonably well, but he's ground to a halt over the past several months and the team looks less fluid when he plays. (There's a parallel to be made between Ibra and Allen Iverson. Both are tremendous individual players who are capable of incredible acts of skill. However, both also need the ball all the time, so they struggle to play a team game where the ball is supposed to circulate.) Thierry Henry has been mostly bad. Sunday, Barca went to the locker room at halftime somewhat fortunate to be 0-0 against Valencia. Pep Guardiola threw Henry onto the pitch at center forward and the team played one of its best halves of the season, thrashing Los Che 3-0. Henry didn't score, but he created space for Leo Messi to hit a second half hat trick. Henry's movement, passing, and presence made the space for Messi to run riot. The game illustrated Tim Vickery's point that players are a function of their surroundings and that Messi has the perfect surroundings at Barca, but he has no help for Argentina.
That dynamic continued yesterday. Messi was absolutely sublime. He scored two, he could have scored several more, and he set up a goal with a great pass to Yaya Toure. Again, Henry didn't score, but his understanding of how to play the center forward position was critical. It will be interesting to see how Guardiola plays his hand going forward. Is Ibra now out of the first choice XI? And given that Henry is getting up there in years, how much does he need to be rested now that there will be a temptation to play him every week?
2. Am I going to have to revise my negative view of Jose Mourinho? I started to dislike him in 2005 when he brought an expensively assembled Chelsea side to the Nou Camp and promptly parked the bus, then had the nerve to allege that Frank Rijkaard had gone into the referee's locker room at halftime to alter the result. Mourinho then followed that performance by taking part in the "shit on a stick" ties with Liverpool in 2005 and 2007. So you might imagine my surprise when Mourinho's Inter arrived at Stamford Bridge defending a 2-1 first leg lead and then deployed three strikers and an attacking midfielder. (Technically, Goran Pandev might be more of an attacking midfielder than a forward, but the point remains.) Rather than committing resources to defense, Inter took control of the game and were dominant by the second half, with their winning goal coming from a mile away. I at least need to change my view of Mourinho as a dogmatic conservative. In reality, he's an extremely detailed preparer of teams who analyzes the opponent and comes up with a specific approach. In this case, he saw the weakness of the slumping Chelsea back line and went for the throat.
Also, Mourinho deserves credit for remodeling the team. It would have been tempting to make few changes to a side that won four straight Scudettos (albeit two aided by Calciopoly). Instead, he bought five players in the summer - Eto'o, Lucio, Thiago Motta, Wesley Sneijder, and Diego Milito - and then added Pandev in the winter. All six started on Tuesday. Jose has turned the team over in the space of a year and they look like a more effective force. Specifically, they finally have the player (Sneijder) who can link defense and attack. (As a Dutch fan, I have to say that watching Sneijder and Robben drag their teams forward in Europe is an encouraging sight.)
3. On a related note, is it possible that Manchester United is better without Cristiano Ronaldo in the same way that Inter are better without Ibra? United lost the former World Player of the Year, but the side that they have now fits together a little better. Everyone has their role, namely Rooney scoring goals and everyone else on the team supplying him. They're like a Christmas tree with Rooney as the star on the top. On the other hand, United's back line isn't nearly what it's been for the past two years. Rio Ferdinand's health is questionable and Nemanja Vidic has had a noticeable drop in form. I'd be very interested to see them play Inter again to measure how United would defend the suddenly potent Nerazzurri.
4. I was definitely underwhelmed by the supposedly new and improved Bayern. Bayern have been torrid in the Bundesliga for months, but in their two matches against Serie A also-ran Fiorentina, they were outplayed for long stretches (and saved by some really shaky refereeing in the first leg by B&B favorite Tom Henning Ovrebo). I could just hear Der Kaiser grumbling away (in a language I don't speak), especially about the defense that could not handle Stevan Jovetic in either game. Daniel van Buyten was especially weak. Going forward, Louis van Gaal's strategy will have to be to put opponents under so much pressure with Robben, Ribery, and Gomez that the defenders have little to do.
5. My ranking of the remaining eight contenders headed into the quarterfinals:
I feel bad putting a quality Bordeaux team outside of the top four. If they draw one of the top four, they are going to have their chance for a coming out party. You know, the sort of coming out party that it took Lyon about seven years to have.