Monday, November 6, 2017

How the mighty fall

How the mighty fall.
REAL REEL, CHELSEA CHOKE AND EVRA THE MARTYR

What are we to make of Real Madrid's 3-1 capitulation to Tottenham?

The definitive dethronement of the world club champions or merely a hiccup in the midst of a bad run of form and confidence?

Cast your minds back to Cardiff last May and Real looked unbeatable if not particularly thrilling or attractive to watch.

Yet the Champions Cup holders looked oddly unmotivated for their visit to London and for the first time, their spine of veterans - Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo, looked somewhat long in the tooth when being overrun by Spurs' younger guns.

It could have been worse for the holders as Dele Ali missed a great chance to bag a hat-trick and ace marksman Harry Kane was not fully fit and failed to impose as he has done so often.

Sooner or later Los Blancos were due to fall from their perch but the descent appears to have come much sooner than expected. Their defeat at Wembley followed an embarrassing loss in the league to Girona, a modest side in a stadium which holds 13,500.

Real are stuttering anyway this season. After 11 games they are third, a full eight points behind Barcelona, having to lost at home to Real Betis and drawn with Valencia and Levante. This constitutes an outrage to the Madrid fans and newspapers.

The Spanish press, particularly its bestselling dailies AS and Marca are always talking about a crisis at the Bernabeu, but for the first time in a while, their shrill squawing seems to have a point.

Only half a year after a commanding victory in the Champions League final in Wales, Zinedine Zidane’s hitherto Midas touch appears to have departed him.

Ronaldo has cited the departure of Alvaro Morata, compatriot Pepe and James Rodriguez as factors in his team's ropey form but none of these men were first-team regulars.

Real's traditional medicine for melancholy has been to reach for the cheque book and given Gareth Bale and Modric were plucked from White Hart Lane, it seems a given they will bid to snare one or more of Kane, Ali and Christian Eriksen next summer.

Add to that shopping list Mauricio Pochettino, whose reputation only goes from strength to strength.

Can Tottenham keep their talented team together or will their stellar eleven go the way of last season’s Monaco lineup, the best of which now ply their trade beyond the principality.

Another midweek fall of giants which passed under the radar somewhat was Chelsea’s 0-3 loss away at Roma.

The Blues were well beaten by a team unlikely to challenge for the trophy. Serie A is behind La Liga and the Premier League, a fact confirmed by leaders Napoli losing at home to a rampant Manchester City.

Chelsea might have bounced back with a 1-0 win over Manchester United at the weekend but still appear to have lost their mojo of last season - it is easy to forget the fourth-placed team in the Premier League are the reigning domestic champions.

Antonio Conte appears to have fallen out with the board room as opposed to the dressing room and his single-minded approach, as with Jose Mourinho, is now coming home to roost.

Conte failed to get his transfer targets in the summer and at one point allegedly was out of reach for a couple of weeks, which led the club to think he was about to quit. However big the egos or talents of the managers, when the board do not sanction his transfer requests he is left with a sense of immense frustration and feels boxed in.

"If you are great team, you must have stability and consistency," Conte explained. "Last season we won the league and did a miracle. This season has been up and down. We must find the hunger we showed last season."

While Chelsea’s attack still boasts gems like Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morarta, Pedro and Willian, the loss of Diego Costa, however inevitable that was given the player’s attitude and conflict with Conte, has made a difference.

The selling of midfield anchor Nemanja Matic has probably been more of a negative, as Chelsea have struggled to find the right balance in the centre this season.

Conte looks distant and morose this campaign, as if waiting for assassination from above, so to speak.

What might save his season is the fact he still has the players on board and they are still in contention for the Champions League, thanks in some part to Atletico Madrid’s draw with unfancied Qarabag.

But do not be surprised if Conte leaves Stamford Bridge next summer and lands at one of the Italian giants like Internazionale.

Everyone has rightly condemned his lack of professionalism but at the same time sit in sympathy with Patrice Evra, who lunged at the Marseille yobs who were verbally abusing him before their Europa League tie at Vitoria Guimaraes.

At 36 and facing a lengthy ban, the French international may be leaving the stage on a sour note, much like Zidane's playing days ended in a headbutt.

Let us not throw stones at the wrong man. No-one should have to experience repeated verbal abuse at their workplace, whether from colleagues or members of the general public. Can we really blame Evra with such outrage for reacting as he did?

Back in the 1990s, Eric Cantona was well within his moral rights to react to a man yelling obscene racial abuse at him, even if the Football Association had to be seen to be upholding their rules by banning him in response.

Who really brings the game more into disrepute - the neanderthal spectator who spouts the bile in the first place, or the human being who reacts to the outrageous provocation?

These 'ultras', and Marseille is clearly an Italian club in spirit if not in name, act with a level of cheek and impunity unheard of in English or German football.

Not content with gaining free entry to stadia, which they treat like personal fiefdoms, full of bellicose banners and vile chanting, these self-appointed superfans also think they have the right to confront players and owners alike and issue absurd demands.

They justify their actions by insisting they devote their lives to following the club, but make the elemental error of not having got a life in the first place. They cluelessly pass the invisible barrier that most people know never to cross.

As children we might worship footballers but there comes a point in most folks’ lives when they realise those players do not merit such selfless adoration and they stop their obsessed fandom.

Adult ultras, who refuse to admit their gods are human, are in essence still kids.

Former OM striker Tony Cascarino mentioned one such lunatic was once allowed onto the Marseille team bus to lecture a cowed squad and another got access to the training ground gym where he was working out and proceeded to abuse him up close.

The owners are culpable in allowing the kids to run the school in this way, and as a result, Italian football at least is plagued by unfilled and unfriendly stadia for the general spectator.

It has been clear for years that the ultras need to be put in their place but so it goes on.

Expect the authorities to come down on Evra like a ton of bricks but shrug their shoulders when it comes to enforcing life bans to the so-called fans involved, whose deadly malarkey will carry on with impunity.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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