Saturday, May 11, 2019

Champagne with a bitter aftertaste

MIRACLES ABOUND FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN EUROPE BUT FINALS FANS WILL HAVE IT TOUGH 

What a mind-blowingly magnificent week for the Premier League - an unprecedented clean sweep of the Champions League and Europa League finals. Four out of four.

As many have pointed out it is the financial clout of the EPL more than English footballers who triumphed. The final four lined up in their second legs with no English managers and the following tally of English players:

Arsenal: 1 (Ainsley Maitland-Niles)
Chelsea: 1 (Ruben Loftus-Cheek)
Liverpool: 3 (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and James Milner)
Tottenham: 3 (Dele Alli, Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier)

Eight out of 44, 18% of the total or as Britain's tabloids called it, "Full English".

The Prime Minister made a cack-handed analogy to beating European opposition with regard to her beleaguered Brexit efforts, swifly swatted down by anyone in the know about football's international realities and the benefits English clubs have derived from European freedom of movement.

Never mind the player provenances, we live in a globalised world now and ask any of the respective clubs' followers this week if they cared where their idols were born.

England was stuffed with success on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and there really was too much to take in so quickly.

MIRACLES ABOUND FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN EUROPE BUT FINALS FANS WILL HAVE IT TOUGH
Champions League Trophy


We had barely 24 hours to process Liverpool's barnstorming 4-0 demolition of Barcelona before Spurs went one better by overturning a three goal deficit away from home. Both did the impossible without their star strikers as well - Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane were sat injured on the sidelines.

Spurs did it without an Anfield roar to sweep them to victory and were also up against a young, zestful Ajax brimming with confidence at home on the brink of a historic ascension, not a complacent and lazy Barcelona apparently jaded by repeated success.

The Champions League second legs were a reminder of one of football's aces - the instant and unforeseen ecstasy, anguish and catharsis of last-gasp goals. Conversion of sadness into happiness in the blink of an eye - it is no wonder we speak of miracles. There can be magic in the mundane.

Whither the school of Cruyff in Ajax and Barcelona's capitulations? The credo of pass, pass, pass is back to square one, muscled aside by the power-play of Liverpool, inspired by Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing and Tottenham not being afraid to use route one to the big man up front.

Both flunked their tests when three goals to the good. The English tortoises beat the continental rabbits.

Despite the lack of Englishmen in uniform, the EPL teams used old English footballing virtues of brawn, grit, implacable determination and never-say-die pluck to get over the line first.

One could accuse Ajax of naive inexperience at this level in letting slip their lead, a harsh lesson in the need to win the mental game as well as the physical one. At the end of the day no side should lose when 3-0 up at home. No excuses required.

But Barcelona's surrender is harder to explain, especially as they performed an almost identical collapse last season away at Roma, where they let a 4-1 first leg lead evaporate. Catalan fans must be livid.

Barca were so insipid and lethargic at time they looked like 1980's Anfield cannon-fodder. It should be remembered Liverpool had played very well at the Camp Nou and had only really been undone by moments of magic from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who both had off-nights in England.

Spanish champions they might be, chuckling at eternal rivals Real Madrid's woeful season, but Blaugrana fans are frustrated not only by their side's surrender on Merseyside but also by the gnawing knowledge that they are ageing and in need of a large-scale overhaul.

Real, in acknowledging their need to rebuild before Barca, might therefore have the advantage for the next few years. Hard as it is to accept in the Camp Nou, there has to be life after Messi.

For fans from Mokum (Amsterdam), the dream of a first Champions League final since 1995 was cruelly and impossibly stolen in the 96th minute by Lucas Moura. Crestfallen, devastated, you name it. The tableau of despair at the end said it all - Ajax players were collapsed face down on the turf.

The pain for the fans was compounded by the knowledge this team will be broken up in the summer and this was a golden, if effervescent grasp at glory which slipped out of their hands

It was not cruel fate however. The statistics showed Tottenham aced their Dutch masters for shots on and off target, corners and two skills at the heart of the famous Ajax philosophy - passing and possession. The better team won.

Once again the euphoria generated by an Ajax European cup run evaporates. A fetishistic following has developed overseas for the red and white shirts and their philosophy, a creed passed down via Barcelona and disciple Pep Guardiola which in some eyes has become more puritan than purist.

Inflexibility is the Achilles Heel of any devotion and Ajax's lack of plan B cost them again, as it did when their rigid possession-obsessed game was undone in the 2017 Europa League final by Jose Mourinho's destructive yet effective tactics for Manchester United.

Will Ajax fans have to wait another 20+ years? At this rate they will lucky to get beyond the first round again. English clubs' financial power, as Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag rightly reminded us, is far, far stronger than anything the Dutch league can muster.

There are also no teams in the Eredivisie who play like Tottenham so Ajax were in unknown territory.

Being a big fish in a small pond has its limitations for Barca as well. Watching them succumb to the Anfield hurricane was a reminder there are no clubs who play like Liverpool in La Primera either.

Arsenal had little trouble navigating Valencia in the end to reach the Europa League final, but Chelsea made heavy weather of a determined Eintracht Frankfurt before finally winning on penalties.

After the champagne was drained, the hangover of UEFA's criminally unjust ticket allocation for both games, the ratcheted-up cost of flights and hotels has hit home.

The first sour taste in the mouth came when it was learnt that Liverpool and Spurs had been handed only 16,000 tickets per club for a stadium that holds 68,000.

Spurs fans particularly will be eager to be in Madrid for their first ever Champions Cup final but having seen the inflated prices might hitch-hike to the Spanish capital and spend the night in the Parque Retiro.

The club has happily promised to open up their new London stadium to show the game on big screens but there is nothing to beat the atmosphere of a foreign away trip and you can be sure thousands of North Londoners will be in Spain for that special occasion.

Liverpool are favourites of course but just the chance of being in the same city where your club first wore its continental crown is surely irresistible to many. Planes to Madrid look unaffordable but at least there are other airports in Spain and driving from England is not impossible as long as you can take most of the week off from work.

For Arsenal and Chelsea fans however, TV seems the best option. Yet even that could be problematic. Despite four English clubs in the final berths, neither the Champions League nor Europa League will be transmitted on terrestrial English television, either as highlights or live, a victim of the incessant greed choking our national game.

Everything about the finals seems designed to inconvenience English supporters.

There are no regular direct flights from London to Baku, the venue for the Europa League final 2,500 miles way, charter flights are priced at around £1,000, ten hour return trips with one change cost £1,500 and the clubs were only allocated a paltry 6,000 tickets each anyway.

Oh and to cap it all, British citizens need a visa to enter Azerbaijan.

UEFA's desire to rebrand the old midweek European Cup final into a Superbowl weekend is largely responsible for this fiasco, but the host nations' governments could also step in to stop the jacking up of flights and hotel rooms around the final.

If possible, decisions on the final venue should be made after the semi-finals to stop repeats of this absurd trek across the continent by two London clubs. It has happened before (Chelsea and Man United in Moscow, Real and Atletico in Lisbon and Milan and Juventus and Milan in Manchester) but never so painfully as this time.

Given the finalists, Wembley or Twickenham would have been perfect Champions League final venues and the Europa League could have been held at Tottenham or West Ham.

That would mean of course cancelling these jumbo events the finals have metamorphosed into and getting back to a pure final tie.

Football might mostly be watched on screens from afar these days, but the truest supporters still make the effort to be there in person and are the last people who should be abused and exploited like this.

In a week where Mother Earth was reported to be increasingly frail and at risk of demise, jetting thousands of people at huge expense to a gas-guzzling oil extractor on the farthest edge of Europe when they could be playing in their home city looked particularly grotesque.

EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, BAKU - Weds 29th May 8 pm GMT -
ARSENAL V CHELSEA

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL, MADRID - Sat 1st June 8 pm GMT
LIVERPOOL V TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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