Tales from Bucharest

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Bucharest’s National Arena before kick-off

As a lifelong City fan, who had yet to travel away in Europe and with a long overdue holiday needed, I’d planned to take a trip to see the Champions League play-off game should it be a place worth visiting. I had my fingers crossed for Rome or Monaco. Bucharest was far from my mind.

As Giorgio Marchetti unfolded the UEFA branded paper with Steaua Bucharest the pragmatist in me realised that it would be draw worth taking, even if I couldn’t attend. Alas, City were next out of the bowl. With the draw and the date set in stone I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t quite the glamour tie I wished for. If there could be such a thing as a glamorous qualification game!

Within a few minutes I received a text which simply said “Bucharest?” – it was a call to arms. I did a little research and booked the flights and hotel knowing that a ticket for the game wouldn’t be too difficult to source given the time of year, venue and ten days turnaround time. This was a game for hardcore away fans.

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FC Barcelona: End of Season Review

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Credit: Feelgrafix.com

League position

Champions (W29 D4 L5 – 76% win rate)

Cups

Champions League – semi-finals (lost to Atlético Madrid)

Copa del Rey – WINNERS – beat Sevilla 2-0 on 22/5.

The good

*Retaining the title, with the fight against Madrid going down to the final day. Closer than Luis Enrique probably would have liked but they beat Madrid home and away so ultimately a deserved championship win.

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Sergio Busquets: A Reassessment

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Credit: Itv.com

It is an image that is forever burnt into my mind: Sergio Busquets peeking through this fingers to see if his theatrical response to Thiago Motta’s challenge had succeeded in getting his opponent sent off. In the maelstrom that was that 2010 Champion’s League semi-final between Inter and Barcelona, it was the defining image of the soft ‘cheating’ side of Barcelona. That image – akin to the Rivaldo feint in 2002 or Cristiano Ronaldo winking – also served as the icing on the cake that acted as my overall opinion of Busquets. It is an opinion I have only just managed to let go of, to my own personal failing.

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Champions League: Top Observations

Chelsea leave the quarter final door open

It may be a cliche, but Chelsea would have accepted returning from Paris with only a one-goal deficit, knowing that they clinched a crucial away goal and have captain John Terry to come back into the side for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Another John, Obi Mikel, was the hero and the villain for Chelsea. For the hosts’ first goal he gave away a free kick and then turned his back in the wall. The resulting set piece, struck by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, deflected off Mikel and past the despairing Courtois. Then, from a corner, Mikel found himself in acres of space in the penalty box to lash home the equaliser, only his sixth goal . Paris Saint Germain’s winner was a piece of pure football brilliance. Angel Di Maria, considered surplus to Manchester United’s philosophical process, beautifully clipped the ball over the top of Chelsea’s back line, spotting the run of Uruguayan forward Edison Cavani, who showed great movement to stay onside. The Chelsea goalkeeper perhaps could have done better but the pass and the finish were a joy to watch. This tie is still wide open going into the second leg.

Ronaldo’s Real rule in Rome

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Europa League: The cup that nobody wants

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Credit: Goal.com

When Manchester United were defeated by Wolfsburg and dumped out of the Champions League, the philosophical wheels on Louis Van Gaal’s bus began to come off in earnest. The inevitable sacking has still yet to materialise but popular consensus is that it is when, rather than if, he will be leaving the club. The money men at Old Trafford may have forgiven this transgression in the short term but they certainly won’t forget. Like Moyes before him, Van Gaal may pay the ultimate price once qualification for next season’s Champions League is a mathematical impossibility. For most observers, elimination from the Champions League didn’t signal the end to European competition for the season, it was much worse. Third place in the group meant a date with the Champions League’s ugly sister, the perennially derided Europa League.

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SPAIN: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble by Graham Hunter (Back Page Press, 2013)

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The beauty of any great book is when the author allows the reader to feel as they are part of it. If it is a crime thriller, you turn each heart-thumping page hoping the heroic protagonist escapes the clutches of the evil killer. In Spain by Graham Hunter, it is easy to visualise yourself as the 24th man in the all-conquering Spanish squads that created history in winning three consecutive major international tournaments. You’re made to feel part of the dressing room, the journeys to and from the stadiums and training complexes, part of the jokes and the camaraderie that made the side so successful. This is done through excellent first hand accounts from the author, as well as direct quotes from the key actors involved, including management, players and support staff. Hunter was given access to the training facilities, players and even invited into the winning dressing rooms following the latter two triumphs.

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From Frank Rijkaard to Pep Guardiola: Passing the Barca Baton

Paris’ Stade de France. May 17th 2006. Arsenal vs FC Barcelona for the UEFA Champions League. Barca trail ten man Arsenal by one goal to nil when Swedish legend Henrik Larsson replaces Mark Van Bommel in the sixty first minute. It was to be Larsson’s last game for the Blaugrana, before he returned to his native Sweden, and he made sure he went out with a bang. Setting up first Samuel Eto’o for the equaliser, and then Julian Belletti for the winner, Larsson’s cameo in the Parisian rain would prove pivotal in the history of FC Barcelona. Despite winning only their second European Cup, and first for fourteen years, this night would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Pep Guardiola was just wrapping up his playing career having appeared ten times for Dorados de Sinaloa.

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Champions League: Top Observations

Pressure Continues to Mount on Van Gaal

David Moyes was fired by Manchester United after a poor season in which the club uncharacteristically failed to qualify for the Champions League after finishing outside of the fabled “top 4”. His replacement, experienced Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, was charged with returning the club to its rightful place at Europe’s top table. He achieved that at the first time of asking to complete the first phase of his infamous “process”. However, Manchester United were eliminated after a limp performance in Group B. Ironically this was possibly United’s most entertaining match of the group phase from a neutrals point-of-view, with, yet the defending was naive as both United goals were countered by equalisers within minutes. Some of the selection choices were baffling. Poor Guillermo Varela was thrown to the wolves, whilst experienced players such as Young and Carrick were benched. Fellaini fumbled in midfield and Mata was replaced by forgotten-man Nick Powell late in the game. Overall it was a disastrous campaign by a side lacking confidence and a manager seemingly running out of ideas. United made an absolute meal of a perceived “weak group” and now Thursday nights in the Europa League beckon.

 

Mourinho Gives Himself A Reprieve

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The Tactical Arrogance of Manchester City and Real Madrid

By Christopher Worrall

Twitter: @ChrisDWorrall

This weekend saw two big European sides handed humiliating defeats in their own back yards. Playing almost simultaneously on a Saturday night, both Manchester City and Real Madrid were battered by flexible, impressive opponents. In the aftermath of both games, both Liverpool and Barcelona have received great praise for their respective destructions of powerful opposition, and quite rightly. However, this praise should not be the only, or indeed the primary, lesson to take from this weekend. These defeats came largely from failings of the losers, specifically in remarkably similar tactical disasters that spoke of a shared arrogance both teams have shown more than once in recent history.

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