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
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!