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Football | Old rules, new learnings

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-05-2014 Mario Rodrigues

It was billed as a season of unpredictability, given that several top football clubs had new managers at the helm. And except for the three major domestic leagues, so it has turned out to be.

Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain won the German, Italian and French leagues, respectively, with a degree of comfort. In contrast, the Premier League and La Liga went down to the wire.

Bayern Munich, the Bavarian powerhouse, romped to an emphatic win in the Bundesliga in late March with a record seven games left to play while Juventus, the Turin giants, clinched their third successive Scudetto shield on the trot and topped 100 points in the process even as Associazione Sportiva Roma fell away. The big-spending Frenchmen (Paris Saint-Germain) earned back-to-back Ligue 1 titles with a new points record (89) after a rejuvenated Association Sportive de Monaco (AS Monaco) faltered on the home stretch.

The Premier League and La Liga were very different. Liverpool, which had finished a distant seventh the previous year, made a heroic bid for glory in England but stumbled to a 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace in their penultimate fixture on 6 May (a reversal of their 2005 “miracle of Istanbul” moment) and let Manchester City escape to their second Premiership victory in three seasons. No doubt, City possessed a larger war chest but they dished out flamboyant football for which Manuel Pellegrini, their manager, deserves credit.

Both City and Liverpool scaled the 100-goal peak in the Premiership, a feat also achieved by Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. Bayern Munich (94) could have done it too had the Bundesliga been a 38-game affair. In contrast, Atlético Madrid’s reign in Spain for the first time since 1996 was mainly due to good defending—they conceded 26 goals compared to Barcelona’s 33 and Real Madrid’s 38.

Atlético were the pick of Europe’s crop—Diego Simeone’s largely unheralded wards showing that the good old-fashioned virtues of hard work, commitment and self-belief could trump sheer money power and star-studded squads. Los Colchoneros (“the mattress makers”) are chasing a historic double as they contest the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) Champions League final against city rivals Real in Lisbon on 24 May. So are tired and injury-plagued Real, Los Blancos having won the Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) last month.

The Blaugrana’s failure to beat Atlético in the La Liga title decider at Camp Nou stadium on 17 May meant that Barcelona were unable to get the better of Atlético in six meetings this season. What a fade-out for a club that was the toast of the footballing world till recently. Critics are wondering whether the signing of Brazilian striker Neymar has anything to do with it—they believe the club was keener to improve its marketability than address the problems in the defence.

The meltdown of mighty Manchester United under David Moyes was another carthartic experience for millions of club fans the world over—the Red Devils failed to qualify for Europe for the first time since the 1989-90 season. How much Wayne Rooney’s flop show contributed to the debacle is a matter of conjecture.

Arsenal should have taken full advantage of the charge of guard at United, Chelsea and City, but once again they flattered only to deceive after doing the early running in the Premiership. However, the embattled Arsène Wenger clinched his first silverware since 2005 by winning the FA (Football Association) Cup final on 17 May. That feat, plus qualification for the Champions League, ensures that the urbane Frenchman continues to be in the manager’s hot seat at the Emirates for the near future.

An important factor that contributed to the domestic successes of Juventus and Atlético, and the good showing of Liverpool, was continuity—Antonio Conte, Simeone and Brendan Rodgers have been in charge of their respective clubs for at least two seasons or more.

If Atlético’s presence in the Champions League final came as a complete surprise, so did the failure of defending champions Bayern Munich to make the title round and Barcelona’s exit in the quarter-finals. Pep Guardiola’s first year at Bayern Munich has not been an unqualified success. There were great expectations that the celebrated manager would create a new dynamic at the Allianz Arena by fusing tiki-taka (the possession-based passing style) with the muscularity and reactive capability that the Bavarians also possess. But despite bringing home the Uefa Super Cup, Fifa Club World Cup, Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal (German Cup), the Spaniard flopped where it mattered most—the Champions League.

A 2-3 loss at home to Manchester City in the group stage, and patchy displays against Arsenal and Manchester United in the knockout stages before Bayern’s eventual elimination by a counter-attacking Real (aggregate score 0-5) in the semis, were indication that Guardiola’s team is still a work in progress.

Barcelona’s premature exit and Bayern Munich’s humiliation sparked off a flurry of articles on whether the tika-taka style was a thing of the past, while reactive football was the new mantra of success. Barcelona’s 0-7 aggregate rout at the hands of Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern in the Champions League semis last year, and Spain’s 0-3 loss to Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup final, had triggered a similar debate earlier.

Barca boss Gerardo Martino, who has since resigned, came out in support of Guardiola, “He defined a new era. To praise Real and Atlético, it is not necessary to discredit another style or another way of thinking,” he told the news agency Reuters on 2 May.

Martino has a point; possession still has its virtues, but more clubs have learnt how to tackle it better. José Mourinho, a great proponent of reactive football, had gunned down Barca 3-2 on the aggregate way back in 2010 in the Champions League semis, en route to the title with Inter Milan. The Portuguese manager, who is often hailed for his tactical acumen, however got a lot of flak for “parking the bus” in his 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Stamford Bridge late last month, one troller even hailing him as the highest paid bus driver in the world!

In the glut of goals logged by some of the big clubs this season, the phenomenon of two strikers operating in tandem (as against the existing norm of having only one forward or even none at all, as Spain did in 2012, when it won the European championship) has gained currency again, going by the phenomenal success of the Luis Suárez-Daniel Sturridge combo at Liverpool or two from three (Diego Costa-Adrián López Álvarez-David Villa at Atlético, Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Edinson Cavani-Ezequiel Lavezzi at Paris Saint-Germain, and Sergio Agüero-Edin Džeko-Álvaro Negredo at City). If these attacking tendencies are now exhibited in the national teams, football fans worldwide can look forward to thrilling fare at the Fifa World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.

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