Barcelona versus Chelsea, the ghost of Ørevbø, and unrestrained revisionism

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With Barcelona back at Stamford Bridge for the first time in four years, it’s natural to take some time to remember the 93rd minute goal that sent Barcelona to Rome in 2009. With hindsight, the 20-yard blast from Andrés Iniesta serves as the symbolic beginning to Barça’s three years of world soccer dominance. It’s understandable that we’d use the Blaugrana’s return to West London as an opportunity to reflect on such a seminal event.

Only that’s not what has happened. Instead, you’ve been more likely to read the name Tom Henning Ørevbø than commentaries contextualizing Iniesta’s injury time rocket, which is pathetic. The Finnish referee who officiated Barcelona’s last venture to Stamford Brdige, Tom Henning Ørevbø should never take precedence over Andrés Iniesta.

What would have happened if Ørevbø’s made the right calls, the coverage wistfully implies, not bothering to question whether the premise is correct. Was Chelsea so wronged by the officials’ perceived mistakes that now, three years later, we should be treating this match as some kind of breaking point? What happened to all the other matches we’ve complained about over the years? Why aren’t we dusting off that indignation every time there’s a rematch?

Perhaps those matches stay in the closet because they didn’t happen in Champions League. They didn’t happen between Barcelona and Chelsea, and they didn’t happen in the capital of the English language-speaking soccer world.

It’s too easy to remember Michael Ballack assailing Ørevbø. It’s too easy to remember Didier Drogba’s post match tantrum. Did Eric Abival maybe get a harsh red card in that match? I don’t know. I forget. I haven’t seen that video in a while. I only know what I’ve seen over and over again, and after three years, I’m matching the story to those behaviors.

Surely, nobody would react like this unless they were truly wronged:

Never mind all the other times Chelsea has mustered disproportionately strong reactions to on-field setbacks. Particularly when Ballack was a regular at Stamford Bridge, no official was safe. It’s an attitude that not only can be traced back to José Mourinho’s days at Chelsea but has been endemic to all of Mourinho’s sides. The 2009 outbursts were the problem, not the symptom.

And so we’re left with a confluence of factors that have shaped history. You’ve got a high stakes event, clash of styles that fuels the fire, referee that seems to miss some calls, and team infamous for their on-field conniptions. Three years later, when the edges of our pictures are worn round like corners of old baseball cards, we’re left with an image painted by the most invested: Chelsea was cheated.

And they say history’s written by the victors. In this case, it was written by those who just kept talking.

What would have happened if Chelsea had held on? For the first time ever, there would have been a Champions League final rematch. Chelsea would have met Manchester United in Rome and either fulfilled the destiny Roman Abramovich bought or made United, winners of back-to-back Champions League titles, the blueprint for world soccer. As Graham Hunter recently noted to the BBC, Barcelona likely changes course, concluding they can’t compete with England’s strength in Europe. With their hybrid of Barcelona style and English strength, they end up trying to beat Real Madrid at their own game, a fight they’re not likely to win.

And we, the fans, lose out on three years of the best soccer we’ve ever seen. And rather than clubs all over the world trying to emulate Barcelona’s approach, we’re left with every team defaulting to double pivots, likely filled with converted central defenders. Does that sound exciting to you?

Of course, none of that has anything to do with Chelsea – and no Blues supporter wants to hear that their club’s loss was good for the game – but there’s no need for all the revisionism we’ve been subjected to over the last three days. Better to just focus on Wednesday, when two very different, very changed sides will take the pitch at Stamford Bridge.

Though many of Barça’s lead actors remain the same (Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol, most prominently), they’ve gone from soccer hipsters devoted to early-70s style to an anachronism. Whereas the last hundred years of soccer have seen teams devote more and more personnel to defense, Barcelona’s recently turned the clock back 60 years. They’ve started playing four forwards (in a 3-3-4) just years after people were asking if one forward (4-5-1) was taking over the world. While many have suggested they’ll revert to four defenders (and a 4-3-3) against Chelsea, the motivation for deploying more attackers remains the same. The Blues are likely to sit back and make this into an affair where one or two counters can decide it, just like every other team that’s motivated Pep Guardiola to put his team in a time machine.

With Barcelona’s lack of strength in midfield, it would be ill-advised for Chelsea to do otherwise. While it’s tempting to say “if Barcelona’s going to be so attack-minded, we can be aggressive and try to catch them,” Chelsea has nobody in the middle of the park who can actually execute that vision. They don’t have a deep-lying distributor in the Andrea Pirlo mold. They don’t have a creator like Luka Modric. They have workhorses: Ramires, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard.

If Chelsea approaches their semifinal as they did 2009’s, it wouldn’t be the worst approach. Teams like Rubin Kazan and Inter Milan have had success relying on execution in transition. Teams that have tried to play with Barcelona? They’ve been less successful, with only Real Madrid feigning a challenge.

We might rue Chelsea sitting back, waiting for their chances, but it’s probably the best approach. The odds are long, but at least there are odds there.

But whatever happens, would it be too much to ask that we get though Wednesday’s broadcast without a mention of Tom Henning Ørevbø?

Chelsea vs. Barcelona kicks off at 2:45 p.m. ET on FX (not FOX Soccer). Just like yesterday, PST will be with you for live coverage through today’s game.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands…

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that didn’t “want to influence the next manager.”

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still had one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season. The growing notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

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AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

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While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are