Friday, May 25, 2007

When “Rafalution” became “Rafa-illusion”!

UEFA Champions’ League Final: AC Milan vs Liverpool, 2007: Athens, May 23

Tactical, it was. And it was brilliant, observes Kashinath Bhattacharjee

Kaka – 2, Gerrard -0!
Milan went ahead on the verge of the break in Athens because Kaka was fouled on the edge of the box. Andrea Pirlo’s free kick found Pippo Inzaghi’s shoulder to deflect into the nets. Xabi Alonso had to foul Kaka to deny him the shooting opportunity.
Then the moment of the unspectacular final arrived when Kaka passed the ball for Inzaghi to help him take his permanent place in the history of AC Milan. Pure, sublime skill that touches your imagination and forces you to ponder over what makes them so special!
On the contrary, Steven Gerrard had set the grass on fire, as the British would have liked it. But, he could not beat Dida this time since he had to place it from close quarters and the British, eternally, can never place it right! If it was a chance from 30-yards, Gerrard would have unleashed a rocket that would challenge the stitch of the nets, undoubtedly. Or, for that matter, a header would have been ideal for him. But placing is “Hebrew” to even Steven Gerrard!
Those who love to see British football, love this work-man like effort. They run and run and run, earn their bread by the disciplined work-rate, as it was a rule in their life following the industrial revolution. They are as blunt as you can think of, absolutely ignorant about on the ball activities, know only to run and then, sending a cross to the box – simple!
For a section of experts, this is what modern football is. The discipline, the work-rate. Alas, they fail to understand the basic requirement of a football match – a goal. To score a goal, you need to break the barrier of the opponent defenders. All your skills are needed on the attacking third of the field to outwit the defenders. You can reach there by any means but once you are there, you have to find ways to surprise them. And in British football, surprise-elements are rarely found!
Not only in British football, North Europe suffer from the same lack of imagination on the attacking third of the field. Because they do not believe in build-ups, because they want to reach the opponent box by the minimum touches - if possible, by a shot alone, if a long shot can do so, why should we break the rhythm by unnecessary touches! They know how to shot, how to head, but, not how to pass.
Michael Hidalgo was in the France Bench when Michael Platini was his captain. Hidalgo learnt his lessons from Alber Batreaux, his coach in Stade de Reems. Real and Reems played the first European final and even today, people can not forget the flair they had seen on that first European final between two South European giants.
But what had made the Frenchman, Batreaux, so special?
He was the unsupported founder of pattern-playing in football. He taught his footballers simple things. In a soccer field, you do not find it problem to reach the opponent box. There are so many ways to reach there. But when you are there, you have to be at the best of your creativity to out-think the defenders. So, stock your energy to burst in the attacking third.
His favourite student, Hidalgo, in possession of a great midfield under the able leadership of Platini and a tireless worker in Jean Tigana, decided to go one up than his predecessor. He was the first man to use five midfielders, even he wanted to use six! But he preached not to make the middle third over-crowded. That would jam the game in the mid-way, he opined. If the opponent players were not allowed to come to you, you cannot have open space in their half, either. So, he used three midfielders as “tactically loose elements” who would not have any specific duty to shoulder. Platini was instrumental in that role. He did what he felt he should. If it was destruction, he did so. Playmaking? Was there a footballer in Europe with a better vision then? And he scored important goals, too.
English football will never have this luxury. They know they are in the field to do some specific duties. And they would abide by their boss, always!
Since a coach can never define what exactly you need to do to break the opponent defense, English footballers cannot carry out their coaches’ orders and are a total failure if they are not to head the skiers there!
Liverpool, being as mediocre as it can get, lost the final plot right there. They were allowed to come to the Milan box, Nesta being at the vertex of the funnel, took out the ball and Liverpool could not open the face of the goal except once when Gerrard did so and failed to place the ball past Dida. They were relentless at their attack, without venom on the final third and failed miserably there, as expected.
Milan knew that Liverpool would not be able to keep the tempo. In the second half, they played possessional football, denying Liverpool the space and pace and controlled the game as they would have liked it. Even after Dirk Quyt had headed (yes, headed in, not placed in!) in on the 89th minute, they were not panicked. Kaka held the ball to eternity, taking out the initiative from the Red Bulls, closed the match coolly to complete a revenge of 2005.
The British love to utter “Rafalution” for what Rafa Benitez did for Liverpool. But under Carlo Ancelotti, Milan had reached three Champions’ League finals in the last five seasons, winning two of them. He had the upper-hand as far as the tactical battle was concerned.
“Rafalutions”, thus, became “Rafa-illusions”!

PS: Peter Crouch is no Philippo Inzaghi. If he was there in the starting line up, too, it would not have made any difference, no matter how the British newspapers found an excuse under that mistake from Benitez. Rafa was right. Crouch, against Maldini and Nesta, would have been purely a watcher!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Express yourself, Kaka!

Another dull, boring, tactical summit-clash? Or, free-flowing soccer at its rhythmic best?
What to expect on Wednesday night in Athens when six times champion AC Milan meets five times’ title-holders, Liverpool, in the Champions’ Legue final this season?
Find out with Kashinath Bhattacharjee

Milan, oh!
The ease with which they had confirmed their berth in the champions’ league final, annihilating Manchester United 5-3 in the two-leg semifinal (2-3 in Old Trafford, 3-0 in San Siro), it cannot be any other team, leave alone Liverpool.
For the sake of football, we need AC Milan to win the title of the best club in Europe. Otherwise, the dark dull days of the 1960s are looming large over the football world where the Northern European “Pro Success Motif” would rule and send negative waves to the billions of followers of this beautiful game, asking them to go away from the field. It just cannot be.
Rewind your thoughts to the two very recent final clashes. The first one was obviously the world cup final where a certain Marco Materazzi had forced the best footballer of the tournament to do something unwise and leave the scenario humiliated, red-carded in his last international outing for his beloved nation – a picture we want to forget at any cost.
Alas, we cannot!
The tactical brilliance of two South European coaches cancelling each other and their warriors performing their entrusted duties near to perfection, made it horrible to watch. The only moment you remember beside the head-butt is the header from Zinedine Zidane that had asked for the best of the abilities of Gianluigi Buffon to keep the slates clean. Certainly not a world cup final worth remembering!
And there was another just a few days back. The much-publicised FA Cup final between the best and the second best team of the English Premier League – Manchester United and Chelsea. The return of the FA Cup final to the historic Wembley stadium after six years in exile in Cardiff was marked with the ultra-cautious approach of the two coaches. None of them wanted to lose the match. The priority was on “not losing”, instead of ‘winning’ it. The live report of the match in the Guardian, scripted after 90 minutes – boooooooooooooz!
Jose Mourinho, the younger one compared to the old Sir Alex Ferguson, had the last laugh simply because Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba had played a one-two on the opponent box that went beyond the periphery of every coaching manual, thus touching your imagination.
Both the British clubs – Liverpool and Chelsea - were so pathetic in the Champions’ League semifinal that people watching it preferred to miss probably everything of the 210 (90+120 in two legs) minutes of the playing time. The worst advertisement of English soccer in display before the expecting eyes of millions at a time when no fewer than three English clubs featured in the Champions’ League semi finals!
At this crucial juncture, the Champions’ League final is going to take place on the historic turfs of the Olympic stadium in Athens on Wednesday night. And that is why it is important for Milan to win it to continue the tradition upheld by Barcelona, the title-holders last year, to campaign for free-flowing soccer that would enthrall the beholder, too, besides winning trophies.
Liverpool, historically, were never a supporter of football par excellence. For them, as it was for the English supporters, ‘work rate’ is what matters the most.
Bill Shankly, their legendary coach between 1959 and 1973, emphasized on the fitness of the footballers, instilled a rare determination of win at any cost and nothing else in the mindset of the footballers as well as Liverpool supporters. The same was followed religiously by his heirs in Bob Paisly, Joe Fagun, Kenny Dalglish. In more recent times, Gerrard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, too, did not try anything different from what Shankly preached Liverpool.
“Rafalution” saya the British press, about Liverpool’s success under the Spanish coach in the last three years. True, Liverpool had reached two champions’ League finals in three seasons, winning once. Theoretically, it can be two, too. Miraculous, it might sound. Hardly there is any resemblance with the word intended by the British media – revolution.
In fact, nothing “Rafalutionery” about it!
It is the same old direct approach of long ball executed close to perfection by some superbly athletic mediocre footballers, led by a formula-one engine called Steven Gerrard. No-nonsense defending by James Carragher that tells you to kick the ball out of the danger zone of your own box whenever you get the possession back there, piston-like movements from two side backs while sending unending number of crosses into the opponent box in the hope that the six feet seven inch striker would get the better of the opposing defenders and head it in. Sometimes, a thundering shot from 30-35 yards would create havoc, or the speed at which the Gerrards or the Riises operate could force some Genaro Gattusos to push them from behind, winning a penalty. Pure and simple British football with a capital B!
Football-lovers of the world are well aware about this obsolete brand of typically-British soccer. Once you cross the barrier of the English Channel, seldom you encounter this brand of soccer. But for the British who had inherited this brand of working class soccer from their working class predecessors, refused to change themselves with the demand of the day.
They say, change is the only constant thing in life and in British football they just refuse to do so! Stale, pale, obsessed with speed and sacrificing ball-skill, the most important quality of the game, for the sake of pace, in the process producing a dull brand of soccer. Sans imagination, you can never attain the height you want to scale. Yet, British soccer fans follow their work-rate football with such a raw passion – they are so possessive about this brand like men usually behave about their beautiful wives! - one cannot help questioning their wisdom.
And that is where the mystery of Liverpool’s success in Europe lies although they had failed to produce the same magic in England. Southern Europe had discarded it long before. In fact, they had never compromised with ball-skills. Italy, France, Portugal and Spain play the game on the ground. They had never tried to build castles in air, neither their football had traversed the aerial route so often!
So, British teams had been successful in applying this typically British brand of soccer as a surprise element. Jose Mourinho had no hesitation to go for it in Stamford Bridge against Barcelona two summers before. Speedy Lamapard, Goodjohnsen, Duff and Jo Cole saw them through in that quarter final although it needed the extra-curricular skills of Ricardo Carvalho to hold Valdes while allowing his skipper John Terry to head the ultimate winner after Ronaldinho, in his bid to excel as a footballer when the situation demanded, had threatened to take the game away from them scoring a spectacular goal and making another.
On comparison, just have another look at Milan and their annihilation of Manchester United in San Siro a fortnight before. Creative football at its best in possession of Kaka and Andrea Pirlo. Gattuso found the rhythm that helped him cancelling Zidane in the world cup final while Clarence Seedorf looked after Paul Scholes and the older Milan defense successfully denied Christiano Ronaldo any space for his audacious dribbling skills.
Carlo Ancelotti is the least publicised coach among the current lot. Neither he has the theatrics of a Mourinho or a Benitez, nor does he satisfy the quote-hungry media like a Sir Alex or an Arsene Wenger. But, under him, Milan had reached three Champions’ League finals in the last five seasons, winning once, losing once and another to be decided yet. Sylvio Berlusconi has no intention to fire this ex-Milan footballer who had done “a Beckenbauer” in terms of Champions League – winning it both as a player and coach. But he is never considered among the ‘great thinkers’ of the game, much like his Milan-mate of the late eighties and nineties, Frank Rijkaard. It is a pity that those who thrive on defense-orientation are hailed by the media while coaches like Rijkaard or Ancelotti, professing attacking brand of soccer through their methods, go unheralded, unsung, unnoticed.
However, having seen Rijkaard using Ronaldinho in the left flank, Perreira did try to use him in the same position without pivoting the team around the smiling Goucho that had caused havoc for Brazil in the 2006 world cup. Kaka is so intelligently used in the ‘hole’ by Ancelotti. Behind the lone striker, hidden from the defensive midfielders, Kaka is free to create both space and goals for the striker up there, even scoring spectacular goals on his own. We have had ten of such goals in the ongoing Champions’ League. But Ancelotti is not even pronounced in the same breath with either Rafa or Mourinho!
The difference is there to observe. Rafa had been dreaming of being pro-active while all his life was spent on being reactive on the pitch. It is his team, the stamp is there. Even Steven Gerrard has to look at him to know where he would play, his boundaries would be clearly defined by the man sitting on the bench.
On the contrary, Ancelotti allows his footballers the necessary freedom to roam around the pitch. He believes footballers deserve this independence to do it on their own.
A free man can put his thoughts into a piece of paper to express himself. For those bounded by discipline, it is expressing his owner’s thoughts. He has no control over it, no passion either. And sport is an art of expressing your inner self. Football needs this freedom of expression, breaking the burden of discipline, exploring new heights.
On Wednesday night in Athens, express yourself, Kaka, to free football from the cages of the defense-oriented negativity, to add new dimensions to this wonderful game of soccer!