Notes from the semi-finals of the Champions League

1. The two matches do not herald the end of the Guardiola-led dominance of Barcelona. Barcelona still had the most chances, hit the woodwork four times, missed a penalty and saw Torres suspending his profiglacy for a moment (albeit with one of the easiest chances he will ever get). One match (or two matches) is not enough to see any trend. It may be, as Sir Alex Ferguson proved in 2000, a catalyst for change, but it cannot be used for foreseeing anything, other than with the benefit of a later hindsight. Next year expect Barcelona to be hoarding the ball for over 65% of the time and still trouncing opponents.

2. Still, the effect of four years of unprecedent success, 60+ matches per season and ageing of some key players is starting to take its toll. Xavi is still the prime playmaker in the world and Pirlo and Scholes have been proving that age is not a big factor when your main function is to stroll around and hit passes. Still, at 32 and with chronic injury problems, his influence is likely to diminish in the future. Also, at 34, Puyol is on the wane and if his playing quality may be replaced with some easiness (by means of the checkbook), his leadership qualities may not. Guardiola may have postponed all these effects, but his fourth year is starting to look like Guttmann’s third years.

3. Chelsea did “an Inter” against Barcelona, but the hard way. The result of the first leg hadn’t been that important (a 2-0 win for Barcelona would have got them through in both cases), but there were different circumstances. For one, the player who was sent-off in 2010 was Thiago Motta. Hardly a nobody, but not the main player of the side nor the most influential element of the squad, a leader by charisma and example. On the other hand, Mourinho had drilled his team for months to be ready to play in that way at the Camp Nou. Di Matteo had to take a broken team, lift it up, and make it face the worst nightmare of European football. On top of that not only the captain was sent-off, the other centre-back got injured and the substitute right-back had to play at centre-back. Still Chelsea managed to score two goals, something considerably more impressive than the 1-0 defeat/win of Inter. The only point in favour of Mourinho’s squad was that, then, nobody thought it would be possible to do it. Now it is known Barcelona have a hard time against teams playing this way.

4. Real Madrid payed also the price of having played so many matches with essential the same 11 men. This is especially true for midfielders Khedira and, most of all, Xabi Alonso, who have to double as destroyers, creators (again mainly Alonso) and compensate the fact that Ronaldo and Özil do not defend much. Against a dynamic Bayern midfield they simply could not cope.

5. Bayer showed the best way to attack Real Madrid: place wide wingers who like to cut inside and support them with fast overlapping wingbacks. This is a dangerous tactic, but if supported by intelligent hard-working midfielders and centre-backs good in covering (Boateng had two fantastic matches), it can be done. Helps if you have players such as Ribéry, Robben and Gomez in attack, though.

6. The suspensions issue is moot. The game of football got the 2 cards at the 1970 World Cup. The punishments that went along with the cards changed with time, but everyone knows right now that two yellow cards in the Campions League will result in a one-match suspension. Whether this suspension comes in the final or not is beyond the point. A reprieve on suspensions for the final would be an open charter for all types of cheating during the semi-finals. Furthermore, it would be an enormous insult to the Chelsea players who, instead of kicking the Barcelona players, held fast and avoided for the most part hard fouls with which they could be cautioned. Removing this sacrifice element would give much less lustre to the heroics put in by players such as Ramires on Tuesday.

7. Following logic, Bayern Munich should win the final. Their players fit better in Chelsea’s overall tactics and personnel than the other way around. Furthermore, the players missing for Bayern are considerably less important than for Chelsea. Also Bayern’s passing style with controlled fast thrusts forward should cause problems to an ageing Chelsea. Besides, playing in their own stadium should give them an extra lift. The semi-finals have defied logic, it’s true, but as Michael Cox points out, this round tends to be more exciting. The final usually, because of the nature of a single match, is much more likely to be a cagey affair. And that may well play into the hands of logic. Still, who knows?…

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