Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The decade's greatest footballing moments (7) - The Ronaldinho Clasico

Football is, indelibly, a team sport. There are twenty-two players on the pitch, so, even if one side has a couple of players playing like donkeys, they can still pull off a result (unless the goalkeeper is having a mare, of course).

But, every so often, we witness a match which is entirely, totally dominated by a single player. One man stands head and shoulders above the rest, and decides the outcome of a game purely by the force of his own will. And not just by scoring the critical goal, but by producing a performance of sheer brilliance. In the last decade, think of David Beckham dragging England to a draw against Greece to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Think of Andrey Arshavin inspiring Russia to beat Holland in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals. But the greatest individual performance of the decade came in the first El Clasico of the 2005-06 season. That is why it is known as “the Ronaldinho Clasico”.

Real Madrid’s galacticos were dying a death by this point. The team was still based around the big names (and big egos) that won the Champions League in 2002 – Zidane, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Raul. With a rejuvenated Ronaldo added to the squad, they won La Liga in 2002-03, but the next two campaigns saw the Madridistas win sweet FA. The managers came and went after Vicente Del Bosque was inexplicably sacked after the last La Liga triumph, and the current lucky chap in charge was the Brazilian Wanderley Luxemburgo. But results were not happening, even with David Beckham in the team too, and by the time of the big derby match his jacket, as we say, was hanging on a shoogly peg.

Barca, in contrast, were on the up. Ronaldinho was in irresistible form as it was, while Samuel Eto’o was still to sustain the knee injuries that reduced his work rate over the coming years. The Cameroonian would score 34 goals that season. Manager Frank Rijkaard had quality oozing through the midfield, with Deco playing the best football of his career, Xavi beginning to emerge as a world class player, and the continuing development of Iniesta. Rijkaard had finally tinkered with his front three in the weeks leading up to the Clasico, finally losing faith in Frenchman Ludovic Giuly (who never really seemed good enough to justify being a Barca player) and bringing through a certain young Argentinian named Lionel Messi. There was a fair bit of surprise when the team sheets were released at the Bernabeu – Messi was in from the start. Surely he didn’t have enough experience? And however good Barcelona were, they were guaranteed to have a tough game at the home of Real Madrid.

Weren’t they?

While the most recent derby, last month, has been lauded as involving the two strongest, and most expensive, club sides ever, I would argue that this match, on the evening of 19 November 2005, comes pretty close. Real went with Casillas, Salgado, Helguera, Sergio Ramos, Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Pablo Garcia, Robinho, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo. Barca lined up as Valdes, Oleguer, Marquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmilson, Deco, Xavi, Messi, Eto’o, Ronaldinho. Madrid’s gameplan was the same as usual: give the ball to the galacticos, and they’ll sort it out. Rijkaard had put a little thought into things – if Zidane, Beckham et al didn’t have the ball, how could they do anything? And how comfortable would Real’s attacking full-backs be if they had to spend their time defending?

The weakness of Real Madrid’s teams this decade, after the departure of Claude Makelele, has simply been the failure of the midfield to cover the defence effectively. And so it proved. Frankly, Real’s players might as well have been in the dressing room as the Blaugrana came flying out of the blocks. Messi and Ronaldinho stayed wide as they could, leaving Eto’o the freedom of the central area. Three times he drove at the Real back line; the first two drew top drawer saves from Casillas, who for the umpteenth time covered up for his teammates’ inferiorities. But the third time saw the striker finally squeeze the ball into the bottom corner with a fierce right foot shot, with the goalkeeper able only to get fingertips in the way.

The first half followed a constant theme: Barcelona in possession and on the attack, Real’s midfield anonymous, their forwards lackadaisical, their defence hopelessly exposed and ripped apart. By the half time whistle most of the galacticos had not even broken sweat. The exception was Beckham, who at least tore around chasing the shadows, rather than watching them pass him by playing extraordinary football. Ronaldinho had spent the first half tormenting Michel Salgado, forcing Real to move Ramos wide to cover his teammate and leaving even more space in the centre. Despite causing 45 minutes of havoc, it turned out that the buck-toothed Brazilian hadn’t even got started.

Madrid, not unexpectedly, attempted to come out and have a go second half to try and get back in the game. It was, ultimately, suicidal. On 55 minutes, Ronaldinho picked up the ball on the left touchline at halfway. Two step-overs later, Sergio Ramos was sprawled on his back side and the maestro was away at full sprint with the ball at his feet. A sublime drop of the shoulder left Ivan Helguera dazed and confused, and Casillas didn’t even bother moving as a right foot strike flew into his bottom corner. Everyone in the pub I was watching the game in (the Butchers Arms in Aberdeen) went absolutely flipping mental. Goals as good as this are rare enough, one in a match as big as this was exceptional indeed.

So, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Ronaldinho only went and did it again 20 minutes later. This time Sergio Ramos refused to dive in, so the Brazilian simply outpaced him and drilled it across the keeper into the far corner, this time with his weaker left foot. Yet again, he had originally got the ball fifty yards from goal. No cheers in the pub this time – simply stunned, awed silence. Nobody had words to describe what they were watching. In the Bernabeu itself, the Real fans momentarily forgot their loyalties and partisanships and, unbelievably, stood to applaud the ringleader of their greatest enemy. That’s how good he was.

Barcelona won 3-0; if there had been any justice (and no Casillas) it would have been a rugby score. Barca won league, cup and Champions League that year, though Ronaldinho flattered to deceive at the World Cup and never hit the same heights again as he was gradually usurped by Leo Messi. Ultimately, that Clasico was his zenith. Real’s galactico project was over…at least until Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo arrived. Odds are that they might yet end up going the same way as their illustrious predecessors who were, on a night in November 2005, shown to be obsolete dinosaurs.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The decade's greatest footballing moments (6) - The Miracle of Istanbul

How on earth did Liverpool even get to Istanbul in the first place? 2004-05 had, otherwise, been a pretty miserable year for the red side of Scouserland. So much for the arrival of Spanish coach Rafa Benitez; the club expected Gerard Houllier’s successor to lead them into a title race, but instead Liverpool finished fifth in the table, missing out on a place in the following year’s Champions League. To add to the ignominy, they were pipped to the critical fourth spot by none other than their local rivals Everton. The new arrivals brought to Merseyside by Benitez never came close to becoming Anfield legends (with the notable exception of Xabi Alonso). The marquee signing, £14million French forward Djibril Cisse showcased a range of ridiculous haircuts, but precious few goals – even before he broke his leg mid-season. The motley crew of Spanish signings included such mediocre players as Josemi, Luis Garcia, Antonio Nunez and Fernando Morientes. And out the door had gone Emile Heskey and Danny Murphy, who were a damn sight better than their Iberian replacements, and the talismanic Michael Owen had gone too. It had all gone a bit Pete Tong.

Except for the Champions League. Benitez’s safety first tactics, heavily criticized domestically (even five years on, and with some justification), were remarkably successful in two-legged European matches. And while domestically the Reds lost to the likes of Bolton, Birmingham (twice), Middlesbrough, Southampton and Crystal Palace, in Europe they saw off Olympiakos (with two late goals), Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus (then champs of Serie A) and Chelsea (Premier League champions-elect) through Luis Garcia’s so-called “ghost goal” – of course, if it hadn’t been given as a goal the referee would have given a penalty and sent Petr Cech off. In Istanbul they met another side with a wonderful European heritage, Milan. The Italians could boast a defence including the evergreen Paolo Maldini, chasing a winner’s medak at 37, plus Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam and Cafu; all top players at their peak, but all a few years past that point. Midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso would form the backbone of Italy’s World Cup triumph a year later, whilst the strike force of Andriy Shevchenko (before he became crap) and Hernan Crespo (before he also became crap!) played in front of Kaka, already Serie A’s outstanding player. Milan, unsurprisingly, were favourites.

Only about 70 seconds into the game, Milan seemed destined for victory, for Maldini himself scored the opening goal, as Liverpool failed to defend a long throw. Goals from the veteran were rare; one on an occasion such as this was like a fairytale. In contrast, the first half resembled a hammer horror show for the English side; a gamble on the hamstring of Harry Kewell lasted 23 minutes before he had to be subbed. Milan’s savvy coach, Carlo Ancelotti (now of Chelsea), recognised the lack of pace in Liverpool’s back line and exploited it to the fall. In the last few minutes of the Liverpool defence was split open by incisive midfield passing not once, but twice. Both times Crespo found himself clean through. Both times he beat Jerzy Dudek in the goal. At half-time the score was 3-0. It was embarrassing.

Perhaps Milan thought the game was already won. Benitez probably thought the same, but pride required Liverpool did not give up. On came Didi Hamann into midfield, to finally stifle Kaka’s space. Liverpool went 3-5-2. They needed an early goal to stand a chance of a comeback, and step forward Steven Gerrard to lead by captain’s example, bulleting in a header. Were Milan shaken? Before we could work it out, they had conceded again, only two minutes later. Vladimir Smicer, a Czech forward much maligned during his career at Anfield, had a speculative go from twenty yards. Every other time he had worn the red shirt, those shots seemed to end up in the stands. But on that fateful night in Istanbul, he kept his head down, and his shot low, and it rifled into the bottom corner. 3-2. Of course Milan were shaken now, no doubt about it.

All in all, less than six minutes passed between Gerrard’s strike and the equalizer from Xabi Alonso, a rebound from a penalty which had been given away by a panicked Gattuso tackle. At quarter to nine UK time, Liverpool had been done for. At the hour, they were level and on top. All credit to Milan, who found some backbone and recovered to push for a winner; the stunning reflex save from Dudek to deny Shevchenko at the death was simply wondrous. But to go from being 3-0 up to facing a penalty shootout would surely feel like a defeat to anyone, and Milan were no exception.

Dudek, Liverpool’s Polish goalkeeper, had never lived up to expectations at Anfield, and would be displaced by the arrival of Jose Reina in the coming summer. But on this night he would be the ultimate hero. Whether he had much knowledge of a previous incumbent of his shirt, Bruce Grobbelaar, is not known, but his technique of bizarre movements and waving of arms and legs on the goalline, to put the taker off, was reminiscent of the Zimbabwean. Serginho bottled it, and skied his spotkick; so to did Pirlo, who was denied by a save. Last up was Shevchenko, needing to score to keep Milan in it at 3-2 down. Inexplicably, his penalty was hopeless; soft and down the middle, and an easy save. Truly, it was a miracle – or, from Milan’s point of view, a catastrophe.

Would it be unfair to say that Rafa Benitez has lived off Istanbul? Only once in the succeeding seasons have Liverpool challenged for the title, while they got back to a Champions League final once more in 2007, where Milan got revenge with a 2-0 triumph. But Liverpool have not really moved on from then, always seeming a step behind Man Utd and Chelsea, and forever playing the same old conservative Benitez tactics. Istanbul was a glorious battle to win, but, had it been a defeat, Benitez might have been forced out soon after, and just perhaps, a better replacement might have gone on to win the Premier League war which Liverpool constantly lose.