Thursday, 5 May 2011

All Eyes on Wembley

I make few apologies for the lack of input in recent weeks. What has ultimately boiled down to yet another tedious two horse race between Chelsea and Manchester United has killed my Premier League mojo. Even as I tried to get my juices flowing about the relegation battle, it soon became abundantly clear that it wouldn't matter which three of the bottom seven went down as no side has made a convincing enough case for exactly why they deserve the privilege of going through the exact same struggle for survival next season.

Further afield, most of the European Leagues have all but been decided. I mused about the possibility of Napoli putting up some kind of fight in Italy but of course since singing their praises they have collapsed like house of cards in Japanese earthquake and allowed AC Milan to stroll towards their 18th Scudetti crown.

The last major honour to be decided this season before a long, welcome summer break filled with repetitive, improbable and often inconceivable transfer rumour rubbish is of course the European Cup (Am I still obliged to refer to it as the Champions League despite the fact the 'league' format of the competition was completed before Christmas??).

This year's final takes place on my doorstep here in London. Well, not literally of course. Among other things, I live on a hill. Totally impractical for playing football. UEFA's showpiece event will be at national embarrassment Wembley Stadium and will be contested by Manchester United and Barcelona. The latter looking to win the thing for the third time in six years while the reds have now reached three of the last 4 finals (winning one and losing one of the previous two). This match is also a repeat the 2009 final in Rome. Who says football is boring and repetitive???

United's road to Wembley has hardly been the most challenging. Looking at their group, it would have actually been more difficult NOT to qualify given they were up against Rangers and Bursaspor. Valencia were supposed to provide some competition for top spot but failed to do so. In the first knockout round, Sir Alex Ferguson's side made short work of Marseille and dispatched of Chelsea in the quarters. While not strictly an 'easy' run, United would have expected to beat everyone they faced and it's clear that they steered clear of far more testing ties against genuine European heavyweights (Sit down Chelsea).

In the semis United turned over a Schalke side who I genuinely believe would struggle to beat a lot of Championship teams. The Germans' presence in the final four of this competition was like the time you snuck into the VIP section of a club before being told that minimum spend on drinks was £100 but all you had was a scrunched up twenty in the back pocket of your cheap jeans. Comfortably the poorest semi finalist in the competition probably ever.

That said, you can only beat what is put in front of you and beat them they did. Salford's finests entire campaign saw just two draws, an impressive zero goals conceded on the road and remarkably, from their 6 games away from Old Trafford, 5 wins - as many as they've managed in 17 Premier League games so far this season.

Barca also helped provide a strong argument in favour of ditching the group stages altogether as they were faced with the all too minor inconveniences that were FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos. After naturally cruising through unbeaten, the Catalans made it past Arsenal despite a first leg loss before ruthlessly sending Shaktar Donestk on their way.

Then came their controversial semi final first leg that will ultimately be remembered for whinging, petulance and the worst acts of cheating you would find this side of a Premier League footballer's Super-injunction. And that was just from the Mourinho's post match presser. The game itself, affectionately referred to as the 'Battle of the Bernabeu' turned out to be the worst thing Spain has given to the world since Gazpacho (seriously, cold soup?).

Rather than marveling at a wonderful football match against two of the best teams in the game right now, we're instead left scratching our heads wondering what is so wrong with Sergio Busquets' face that he needs to hold it every time an opposition player so much as farts within 20 yards of him. Barca were not the only culprits however, the cynical nature in which Real Madrid went out to stop them from playing must not be ignored. Dani Alves was universally condemned for his reaction that resulted in Pepe's red card but as far as I am concerned, if the Portuguese international goes flying into a challenge with his studs raised so high then it is completely understandable that he receives his marching orders no matter how minimal the contact.

In the midst of all the diving and play-acting, people seemed to forget that this Barca team is the best club side in the last few decades bar none. People have forgotten how much joy they can bring with their football and decided to solely focus on the nasty side of their game. Thankfully, Lionel Messi was able to rise above the nonsense and net a brace including yet another jaw-dropingly outstanding goal to remind us just why he is considered the world's best player.

Barca's 2-0 win in the capital rendered the 2nd leg almost redundant but the 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou did suggest that things may have been oh so different had Madrid not been so negative with their tactics at home. Something for United to consider on May 28th. Although, it will take more than simply adopting a 'positive' approach to beat Pep Guardiola's team....

(Yes, this video is like porn to me...)

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