Here’s installment number eight of the “Things” column. Musings this week are brought to you as ever by Nik, Doron, Rob and focus on the midweek European action that has just taken place.
Kroos in bloom (by Rob)
A lot of the pre-match hype in the Bayern-Real tie focused on Ronaldo, Robben and a tasty midfield battle between Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger. But one less heralded young player managed to outshine all the superstars, as he has done many times in this Champions League campaign. His name? Toni Kroos. The 22-year old German has established himself as a top midfielder for Bayern this season, which is lucky for them considering the massive injury problems Schweinsteiger has suffered from. An extremely versatile player, he’s managed two impressive positional feats this season: first, he displaced the talented Thomas Muller from the central attacking midfield berth (with Muller often finding himself on the right of the Bayern attack); he’s also filled in for Schweinsteiger in the deep role that Schweini has made his own since 2009/10 for club and country.
On Tuesday he showed every side to his game, in an excellent all-round display. Starting in the playmaker’s role, he distributed the ball neatly at times and with penetration at others. In an uncharacteristically poor passing game for both sides, he managed to emerge with 58 passes at a very good 88% completion rate, with 5/5 long balls made. When Schweinsteiger came off looking exhausted on 61 minutes, Kroos moved to the base of the midfield alongside Luis Gustavo, and Bayern dominated thereafter. He finished with 4 tackles and 2 interceptions, a reputation further enhanced, and potentially an even better shot of starting in Germany’s midfield at Euro 2012.
Made for Mikel (by Doron)
I’ve done my fair share of Mikel-mocking ever since he joined Chelsea. Few can make a case for his time there being a success – indeed much of the promise that a 14 year old training with United’s first team once showed, has never quite been fulfilled. And yet, as Chelsea had one of their best and most famous results in recent years, he, for a change, was the unsung hero of the tie.
Under RDM, Mikel has been something of a mainstay in the side – starting four of the last five games. His role in shielding the defence has a use now as Chelsea are reverting back to what once made them briefly successful – a powerful defensive unit who’ll break with speed to find their target-man up the top. Given that the emphasis has been on defending and keeping goals out, it is a little surprising that the Barca clean sheet was their first in six.
Understandably the credit for the clean sheet was primarily given to Cahill and Terry – both of whom, despite the latter going shirtless with a readjusted armband again, were outstanding. Nearly 12 months on from the Wembley final, they’d performed considerably better than Ferdinand and Vidic. But, Terry and Cahill would surely be the first to point out the role that Mikel played. Ever present in front of them picking up the drifting Barca man or simply ‘getting in the way’ – he played an invaluable role.
It’s not most weeks that Chelsea will play a team who have so much possession so high up the pitch but that played perfectly into Mikel’s hands. It’s exactly the kind of game for him, for he’s better off the ball than on it. With Arsenal and Barca to come in the next 5 days for them, you can bet anything that Mikel will start both games.
Xabi Alonso: Wilting in the Big Cup (by Rob)
Xabi Alonso is a player I’ve admired since the early 2000s at Real Sociedad – even through the time when the evil red spaceship kidnapped him from 2004 to 2009. The long passes, the exquisite ball control, the halfway-line goals, the gentlemanly Twitter account, the hair… anyways. Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to Toni Kroos, Alonso had a rotten game on Tuesday at the Allianz, with many commentators pointing out how exhausted he looked against the Bavarians.
The Basque routinely gave the ball away, a cardinal sin for a possession master such as himself, and he generally seemed lost – not for the first time in a big game, it has to be said. Routinely anonymous against Barcelona, the man who makes the Merengues tick more than anyone else seems to elude responsibility against their biggest rivals, with Ronaldo usually bearing the brunt of frustration from fans and media alike. While it’s no shame to be dominated by Bayern and Barcelona – it’s happened to Michael Carrick, and he got way more stick because of it – for a player of his immense quality Alonso hasn’t really stamped his mark on recent games against top teams. With the clasico coming up on Saturday, he has another opportunity for him to impose himself at the highest level, and it’s one he really needs to take.
Euro 2012: The fatigue factor (by Rob)
I’ve often argued that the word “fatigue” doesn’t show up enough in most football analyses, especially at this stage of the season. In years where international tournaments come up, fitness becomes even more important. Looking forward to the European Championships, I’d contend that Spanish domination of the European tournaments at club level is going to severely affect the country’s chances at this summer’s big tournament.
With 5 of the 8 semifinalists in the Champions League and Europa League combined, it’s possible that both finals will be all-Spanish affairs. It’s no secret that Barcelona players form the core of the Spanish national team – Xavi’s fitness isn’t guaranteed these days, Puyol and Piqué have struggled at times, and David Villa has missed most of the season with a broken leg. Key players for la Furia Roja also come from Real Madrid (Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Casillas); Athletic Bilbao (Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez, Iker Muniain) and Valencia (Jordi Alba), teams which are all in European contention and all have something left to play for in La Liga. Add this to the fact that David Silva has looked worn out for months, while Juan Mata’s fitness has been up and down as he’s adjusted to the physical environment of the Premier League.
It’s a uniquely exhausting situation for Spain’s best players to be in right before the Euros. To add a bit more context, let’s contrast this with two relevant situations. First, the Spanish clubs pre-Euro 2008. As Sid Lowe pointed out at the time, Real Madrid coasted to the Liga championship in 2007-08 and fared poorly in the Champions League. Players at out-of-sorts Barcelona and Valencia couldn’t wait to end their seasons, get rid of their Dutch managers and have fresh starts. In summer 2008, Spain’s top players were in great condition, many had a point to prove, and the nation had a ‘bottlers’ tag to get rid of. The second study in contrast involves the current German national team. As in the 2008 Liga, the 2011-12 Bundesliga is just about a foregone conclusion – Dortmund are 8 points ahead with 3 games to play. Bayern are the only German side left in European competition, and only one of three who even made it to the quarterfinals of the UEFA club tournaments. Götze and Schweinsteiger’s likely return to fitness will be a big boost to their hopes, and many of their top players are in good form. At this point, I’d say the Germans are marginal favourites to lift the trophy in Kyiv on July 1.
Considering the sheer number of extra games the top Spanish clubs will play – plus the gruelling, relentless title race involving its two giant clubs – it’s hard to see the team’s stars being fresh and in top form for a tournament as condensed and travel-intense as the Euros. Make no mistake, the Spanish have the most talented and cohesive national side around. I’d love to see them win the Euros again. But this time, I think the fatigue factor will be too much even for this great team to overcome.
Only 6 games left in Europe – Who will referee them? (by Nik)
So with only three games left in this year’s Champion’s and Europa League competitions respectively, each of Europe’s top officials will be eagerly awaiting the post this coming week to see if they have been luckily enough to be awarded a prestigious game. Howard Webb and Felix Brych did a splendid job of the first legs of the Champions League semi finals this week, as did Craig Thomson and Jonas Eriksson in the Europa semi’s. Three of the four ties are finely balanced, and the wrong appointment at this stage could prove pivotal; UEFA have somewhat perfected the technique when appointing to these types of games, so whilst excellent form in the season is essential, how the referee has handled the European stage and strength of character all come to the fore. In terms of selecting the referee for a European final, the Nationality and whether he has refereed a final before will be important factors. So who is likely to get the upcoming appointments, with all the semi final 2nd leg games remarkably to be held in Spain? And who is in the running for the biggest appointment of their career – the final?
It is likely that Kassai will be appointed to either the Barcelona or Real games given his handling of last year’s final and Rizzoli too (who has been given a rather soft domestic appointment this weekend) should be a shoe-in for either a semi or the final itself. Portugal’s Pedro Proenca has bided his time well, and has hit a rich vain of form this season, and again should feature. This leaves a number of referees who have taken charge of high profile games this season and handled them very well, and must therefore be in with a shout. Dutch referee Kuipers has performed well at the Nou Camp, and the relatively young Skomina has performed superbly in each of his Champions League appointments, including of course games involving Man City, Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea (does this play for or against him I wonder?). Turkey’s strict Cakir is also in the running, and may well have ousted our very own Atkinson and Clattenburg from the equation given the relative domestic form each candidate. Norway’s Moen and the wily German, Stark, would feel harshly treated if overlooked – Mr Stark especially given that he is at peak age, and handled Real-Barca with aplomb last season. Fellow countryman Brych, performed so well at Stamford Bridge this week, that despite his age, he could well be given the Europa League final. Which is all very harsh on Velasco Carballo, Spain’s top official and one of my favourite referees, as both finals will contain at least one Spanish team.
Here are my predictions:
Valencia CF – Atlético Madrid (26 April): Damir Skomina (SVN)
Athletic Bilbao – Sporting Lisbon (26 April): Cuneyt Cakir (TUR)
Final: Felix Brych (GER)
FC Barcelona – Chelsea (24 April): Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)
Real Madrid – FC Bayern (25 April): Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Final: Pedro Proenca (POR)
I wish it was us (by Doron)
I’d come to terms quite quickly with the fact that we wouldn’t be in Europe’s elite competition beyond Christmas. Quietly I wasn’t too disappointed as I never believed we had the squad, given the injuries, to cope with both Europe and the league this season. Not to mention that the way we played and our approach to Europe was naive beyond anything, it was the league I wanted. Europe could go screw itself until September 2012.
That was until this week. Coming home from work on the tube, passing all the Chelsea fans going in the opposite way, I missed the buzz and excitement that only the Champions League can bring. I doubt that Fergie would have got his tactics right against Barca and I doubt we’d have beaten them like Chelsea but just to be there and be in with a chance… I wish it had been us!