Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Porto, Mourinho and Serie A: Weekened Observations 2nd-3rd April 2011: Part Two

Part One here

The formality that is the remainder of the Premier League would usually allow one to cast their eye further afield towards our more exotic neighbours from across Europe but alas, it seems that many of the other top leagues are striding toward equally uneventful climaxes.

This past weekend, the Portuguese Primiera Liga was settled with 5 weeks to spare after Porto stretched their lead at the top to an unassailable 16 points. To make matters worse, they were crowned having beaten arch rivals and deposed champions Benfica 2-1 at their own ground, the Estadio da Luz, in what can only be described as the football equivalent of walking into someone's house, using their toilet without flushing, fornicating with their wife while they watch before rubbing salt in the wound by... um... throwing salt in their eyes.

Having seen the old enemy win the league on their own soil, Benfica showed all the grace of a three year old as they turned off the lights and turned ON the sprinklers as Porto celebrated their triumph. Yeah, that ought to show ‘em!

The man who led Porto to their 25th league title was the little known Andre Villas-Boas who may or may not be familiar to Chelsea fans due to fact he was a key member of Jose Mourinho’s coaching staff during his time in West London. Having had no playing career of his own to speak of and less than two full years in management on his lonesome (this being his first season in charge of the former European champions) it would something of an understatement to say that Boas has certainly learnt well.
Naturally, this solo success has led to people speaking favourably of the man and already comparing him to his mentor. Liverpool were even reportedly sniffing around him as a potential replacement for Roy Hodgson over the winter.

Whether he continues to live up to such high praise is something only the psychic amongst us can answer and, Ok, winning the Portuguese title with Porto is hardly the toughest challenge for a manager but if his career accelerates along this trajectory then the self-proclaimed Special One will soon have some competition for that title.

Remember the name... Andre Villas-Boas.

Speaking of whom, Jose Mourinho had held the unique record of having not lost a home league game he had taken charge of since 2002. A remarkable feat spanning time at four clubs that came to a surprising end as the only chaser in Spain’s two horse race fell giving the Champion Catalonian thoroughbred a clear run toward the finish line. Yes, Real Madrid were defeated 1-0 at home by Sporting Gijon halting Mourinho's incredible run.

To be fair, Madrid were missing a number of key players including Cronaldo, Xabi Alonso and the world’s most offside full back (allegedly), Marcello. You have to think that both Jose and Real hierarchy who currently don't really see eye to eye were almost certainly prioritising the Champions League and their first leg match against Tottenham on Tuesday. You have to say it worked out quite well for them.

The weekend was expected to take a vastly different turn as Barcelona faced a trip to Villarreal who were expected to be something of banana skin and not simply because of their all-yellow kit. Instead, Barca came away from El Madrigal with a vital 1-0 win to go 8 points clear at the top of La Liga with just 8 to play - including a trip to the Bernabeu that you might even say that can actually afford to lose.

The winning goal was scored by Gerrard Pique who is to Central defenders what the Bugatti Veyron is to showroom full of Vauxhall Corsas. Good in the air, strong in the tackle, positionally impeccable as well as being good on the ball and offers a goal threat when he gets forward. His beautiful little chest down and volley would have had many a striker looking on in envy. Can I coin the term ‘complete defender’ here? I think I will.

Oh, and if there was ever any doubt about how the universe favours certain people over others, the World Cup winner is currently also banging Shakira.

Both know the importance of being solid at the back...

In Germany, despite not winning the league for almost a decade, Borussia Dortmund's dominance in the Bundesliga this season has meant for something of a non-existent title race. Having led the table since well before Christmas, Die Schwarzgelben are currently 7 points clear with some 6 games to go.

Meanwhile, over in Italy, it has been difficult to deny that the once formidable Serie A is now a mere shadow of its former self, thanks mostly to the Calciopoli scandal and the unchallenged dominance of Internazionale in recent years.

This season however there seems to something resembling an actual title race going on and of all the leagues mentioned about, the only one that looks even remotely like it could go down to the wire.

Saturday night saw the most meaningful Milan derby for many years as Inter, two points behind their arch rivals at the start of play, took on table topping AC. Of the many sub-plots that often surround this game, the most significant on this occasion of course had to be the fact that the Nerazzurri are now managed by former Rossoneri hero Leonardo. Having worn the red and black for four years from 1997 to 2001, the Brazilian also managed AC as recently as last season before being cast aside by the club's owner and 'Bunga Bunga' patron Silvio Berlusconi despite a credible 3rd place finish.

Surprisingly, Leo then showed up at Inter last December and has since done a half decent job of repairing the damage that Rafa Benitez managed to do to the abovementioned Jose Mourinho's treble winning side of last season.

The was to be no dramatic homecoming for Leonardo as Milan ran out 3-0 winners with a brace from Alexandre Pato and an Antonio Cassano penalty to ice the cake. The win opened up a 5 point gap between the sides. However, their overall lead was cut down to three by the time the weekend was out after a swashbuckling Napoli side climbed up into second place following their epic 4-3 win over early season pacesetters Lazio in what was one of the games of the season in ANY league.

Uruguayan Striker Edison Cavani's hat-trick will have Neapolitans reminiscing about a previous South American import in the form of one Diego Armando Maradona.

Ok, he might not be the next drug-fueled lunatic with the gift of being one of the greatest players of all time but if they end up lifting their first Serie A title since those crazy days of the late 1980s then Cavani could well be held in similar high regard to El Diego given his contribution to their lofty position. His 25 league goals so far this campaign is already a record haul for any striker over a season in the history of the club.

With just eight games left, many will be hoping that Napoli can continue to push for top spot and that Inter can bounce back (although their Champions League humiliation would suggest that their powers of recovery are about as swift as a leprosy sufferer...) to make at least one championship race across Europe vaguely worth paying attention to in these closing weeks of the season...

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