Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Champion's League 11/21 Match Report

Seeing as how I did not much else yesterday other than sit on the couch and watch Champions League matches, I would be remiss in not passing along my impressions, predictions and tangents regarding the 4 matches that were televised for non-PPV in the US:

CSKA Moscow v. FC Porto
Arsenal v. Hamburger SV
Celtic FC v. Manchester United
Real Madrid v. Olympique Lyonnais

Three out of the four games started with an early goal with the interesting result of all three games turning out differently. In the early game, Porto scored a well-worked goal almost immediately after kick-off and immediately generated a hatful of other chances in a first half where they missed at least 4 excellent chances. The main reason why they were so dominant, even on the road against a team that hadn't given up a goal in the CL this year (although this is a bit of a red herring, since Arsenal really should have put at least 3 past them on the previous matchday) was down to their formation. The formation in question is a nominal 4-3-3 where the wingers are expected to track back, to the point where it often plays as a 4-5-1. This should seem familar to fans of the English game because it's pretty much how Chelsea have played under Jose Mourinho, which shouldn't be surprising because he did after move from Porto to take the West London position.

Rather than sitting back and attempting to absorb pressure, this formation has essentially two defensive fronts, the regular one and a secondary one running across the base of midfield. Both Chelsea and Porto play it extremely well, allowing the other team to advance the ball to the halfway line and then trying to snap it away, hitting hard and fast on the counter. And like Chelsea, Porto squeezed the life out of their opponents, taking CSKA and their fans completely out of the game, which quickly became an exercise in cold and drizzly frustration. Although CSKA had flashes of skill and long moments of possession, Porto always looked like the better team and were able to seal the victory in the second half, putting the pressure on

Arsenal, who were playing against the snake-bitten Hamburger SV at home; which should really be a recipe for a shellacking except that Arsenal have been somewhat snake-bitten themselves, especially at home, where they had recorded two consecutive ties in which they managed to miss some of the easiest chances to score that you'll see outside of a NYU-area bar on dollar beer night. In particular, their CL game against CK was almost unbearable to watch, with Fabregas and Rosicky somehow managing to fire wide and fire sideways into the keeper respectively when faced with completely open goals from 1 yard out. Because of that tie and the fact that Porto had won earlier in the day, Arsenal were in the sphincter-tightening position of needing to win when they were already experiencing performance anxiety.

Anxiety that was not lessened when Rafael Van Der Vaart juked two defenders at the top of the box and rocketed a shot off the underside of the crossbar with his weaker right foot just 4 minutes into the game. Hleb smacked a volley straight off the crossbar and you could feel the miasma of despair settling over the field and the stands, fans and players alike looking not quite shell-shocked, eyes wide and mouths flabby and gaping.

Even when Van Persie finally finished off a Fabregas through-ball in the 52nd minute, there was an air of desperation. Another draw at home for such a profoundly skilled team is really not much better than a loss when it puts the team in the difficult psychological position of needing a result in their final group stage game in Porto. Wenger defiantly put on both Walcott and Julio Baptista, throwing everyone forward in the now-traditionally end-of-game passion play at the Emirates.

Only this time Eboue somehow managed to slam a near-post shot through the Hamburg keeper, causing the Arsenal fans to celebrate more in amazement than in actual joy, joy that was forthcoming later when Walcott played a perfect far-post cross for Baptista to head up at the death of normal time. You get the sense that the enigmatic Walcott and The Beast (Baptista was even referred to as such when the goal was announced over the PA) will have to pay a greater role this season if Arsenal are to live up to the potential of their game.

The third game to involve an early goal was a rematch between two CL rivals, with Lyon having had the better of Real Madrid over the last two seasons. Lyon took the early lead, with John Carew providing a good finish in a game where he probably deserved more. For the entire game Carew was Lyon's pocket-battleship, operating at will in the Madrid defense and basically looking like they couldn't handle him with a stun gun and a board with a nail in it. If Juninho had lived up to his reputation as a dead-ball specialist for even a third of the free-kicks that Carew won Lyon, Madrid would have been smashed on the rocks.

As it was, they fought back after awful defending allowed Malouda to score a second to tie the game after excellent clean-ups by Diarra (head) and Van Nistlerooy (foot) and could have won the game had Van Nistlerooy's penalty been saved at the very end of the match. Since the game was mostly meaningless (both teams going through), the main thing to take away was that the result was somewhat flattering to Madrid, who have the possibility of being a very good team next year instead of the infuriating side they are now. Their problems are positional ones. Nobody knows where Raul should play. Nobody knows where Sergio Ramos will play. Nobody knows where Robinho or Reyes should play. They have exceptional players and a team-sheet that looks like a jigsaw puzzle put together with a hammer.

And finally to the only game that didn't start with a bang, Manchester United at Celtic, with a draw being acceptable to both teams even if they would prefer a win. The game certainly started out that way, with both teams content to sit back and try and figure out what the other team was doing. Once Manchester United figured out that Celtic's main strategy consisted of lumping the ball upfield in the hopes that their two plank-ish forward could bump it off their heads to someplace useful, they started to come forward and as they like to say, it was like they were playing downhill, at which point Celtic's midfield lineup of 3 central mid hard men and one slow guy became a self-fulfilling prophecy of nasty challenges and balls played to nobody.

Only they couldn't score. As much as Celtic played scared, blasting balls upfield straight to United players, the Red Devils couldn't find the final ball, instead preferring to take easily-blocked long-range shots or dribbling the ball to the end-line and then looking confused (ahem, Mr. C. Ronaldo). The most entertaining portion of the first-half was when Ronaldo went over the touch-line to take a throw-in and was mercilessly and repeatedly flicked the double-Vs by one of the wheelchair-bound folks just behind the advertising boards.

Full points to Gordon Strachan for figuring out what was going on and doing something about it in the form of taking off one of the hard men (Sno, who was the recipient of Tommy Smyth's (oh, purple horseshoes) required Horrible Pun of the Day) and one of the useless forwards (the Polish one) for another midfield hardman (albeit somewhat more attacking) and a speedy attacking mid. Although Man U still enjoyed the bulk of the possession, Celtic could actually hang onto the ball for more than 10 seconds and had a handful of decent attacks. It looked like the game was going to play out to a draw that would leave everybody satisfied and nobody happy until Man U gave up a kick about 30 yards out and the slow guy (Nakamura, who has what we like to call a sweet left foot) stroked an unbelievable shot into the exact corner of the goal, which was the cue for the Celtic fans to go nuts and the Celtic players to fight to see who could stand in front of their goal.

Cue Louis Saha botching a botched offside trap by not playing to the whistle and a late penalty for United for handball inside the area that was well-blocked by Artur Boruc (taken by Saha, because for some reason Ronaldo's well-proved track record for taking penalties isn't good enough for United) followed by a rousing rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the Celtic fans, flush with the joy of a classic footballing victory*.

Overall, it was a good day, much better than today, which was dominated by mostly-meaningless games and results that you could have safely predicted beforehand (Barcelona beating the Bulgarians, Chelsea letting Bremen win to put pressure on Barcelona).

* - Note for all you Man United fans: if you don't understand how getting played off the pitch and still winning on a stunning free-kick won from a dive isn't "a classic footballing victory", uh well, you probably live a comparatively happier life than many of us, you naive bastards.

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