Monday, April 21, 2008

Something in the air - Byebyebadman

Barcelona versus Manchester United is a fixture with the capacity to leave behind a memory that evokes everything that is great about the game of football.

They do not have a rivalry as such; familiarity or proximity are the governing factors there and neither applies in this case, with the teams having met only seven times in a quarter of a century and separated by hundreds of miles of land and sea. Also absent is the whiff of vengeance on either side, the need for a wrong to be righted, for justice to be served. No handled goal, no dodgy referee, no harsh sending off, nothing. Yet the sense of expectation surrounding this fixture is huge.

There is some history – when they first met back in 1984 Manchester United managed to overturn a two goal deficit from the first leg when, amidst a cacophonous atmosphere that many Old Trafford veterans consider to be the greatest the old stadium has ever heard, Bryan Robson inspired a three-goal comeback to put United in the Cup Winners cup semi-finals.

In the same competition seven years later the Red Devils emerged victorious again, this time in the final in Rotterdam, and with a delicious irony it was Mark Hughes, returned to United after a poor spell at the Camp Nou in the mid-eighties, who scored the decisive goals.

Which brings us to the modern arena of combat, the Champions League.

United took their baby steps in the league format in 1994 and escaped from their initial encounter with Barcelona at Old Trafford with a two-all draw thanks to a late goal that proved to be the highlight of Lee Sharpe's time at United. In the return in Catalonia there would be no such fortune. Those in Manchester have always claimed their team hamstrung by the three-foreigner restrictions but any team would have been powerless to stop Stoichkov and Romario in such a devastating mood as they inflicted a seminal four-goal masterclass that must rank among the most one-sided defeats in United’s history.

If that was an indicator on how much ground they had to make up on the elite of the continent then United learnt quickly in time to face Barcelona in the group stages again in 1998.

A breathtaking three-all draw in Manchester was followed, implausibly, by the teams sharing six goals at the Camp Nou in what was then and remains now the greatest game of club football I have ever seen.

A description or a YouTube montage barely tells the story and it seemed an irrelevance after a match where the wider context disappeared and all that mattered was the immediate moment that both teams earned a solitary point and Barcelona were eliminated. Fittingly, United would return to that glorious cathedral of stadium to lift the trophy six months later.

Follow that as they say, as we wait for the next instalment of a tie that has fired the imaginations of both sets of fans, managers and players.

A healthy and mutual respect characterises the relationship between the clubs, who share many similarities – a belief in a certain style of play, an air of romance and on a wider scale a strong regional identity and civic pride in the cultural contribution of their respective cities. Although United have also contested epic battles with Real Madrid through the decades there could never be a similar communal love-in, perhaps due in part to Madrid’s recent penchant for year-long media campaigns to unsettle and sign the best players at Old Trafford, a situation with which Barcelona would readily sympathise.

They are also cursed by the nagging sense, given their stature, of underachievement on club football’s biggest stage.

United, as their neighbours down the M62 never tire of telling them, lag behind Liverpool in the European Cup count by a score of five to two. Over in Spain the disparity is even greater, with Barcelona’s two European Cups dwarfed by the incredible nine titles picked up by their detested domestic rivals at the Bernabeu.

Both clubs find themselves on the same rung of the European ladder as Inter Milan, Porto and Juventus amongst others so an added frisson to this semi-final is the chance in Moscow to enhance their standing amongst Europe’s elite.

First, to battle. The first leg is at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night and the tie will culminate at Old Trafford six days later. We have no right to expect a classic but I hope somewhere in their consciousness the modern cast of star players hold some awareness of just how special this fixture is and approach the game accordingly.

22 comments:

andrewm said...

Yes, it could be a very good contest - although on what I've seen of both so far this season I think Man U will be fairly comfortable over two legs.

I'm with those that feel that the best in England are the best in Europe, but that the Spanish league as a whole is of far greater quality than the PL.

The early '90s, when Europe meant humiliation for English (and usually Scottish) sides - I remember it well. Strangely, a lot of British fans have been so traumatised by those times that they continue to predict humiliation every time the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal draw Italian or Spanish teams, when the truth is both are comfortably superior over two legs to any side outside England, as are Man U and Chelsea.

Ebren said...

I hate these England vs arguments. Mainly because mopst of the people posting are so ill informed (on all sides and with no reference to bloggers of long standing repute).

It's basically about style. In Spain they tend to play a more open passing game, in Italy a more tactical one.

England focuses (in Luigi Di Canio's words) far more in straight lines.

But in terms of quality - the teams in the bottom half of Italy of Spain would be slaughtered in the EPL.

Look at the bald figures - there are nine clubs in La Liga with stadiums smaller than Fulham's and five in Italy (with Atalanta only 38 seats bigger).

On top of this ticket prices and TV money for these clubs is far, far below that in the Premier League.

This means, while we bemoan the quality in the PL, there is a bucket-load more money in the bottom half. This means the players are more expensive and better paid.

If the players in the bottom half clubs in Italy and Spain were better - we could buy them easily.

So we are talking about judgement and playing style, rather than quality. (it should also be noted that the PL tends to send the highest number of players to the World Cup, indicating some level of quality).

Oddly, the top clubs in Italy and Spain have way more TV money than our top clubs - and it is attendance and ticket prices that hold them back financially.

Margin said...

Should be a stunning game, and I'm really optimistic it might live up to the billing.

That said - ManU are so good to watch so much of the time now that their opponents have to be very good and very dull to make me think a game won't be very good. Sadly Liverpool or Chelsea await in the final.

guitougoal said...

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the same pitch this is as good as it can get.
It is also crazy to think that those two great clubs won the cup only twice.

andrewm said...

Ebren, can't agree with that at all. You're talking about better-paid individuals, not the quality of teams. Transplanting the individuals from Spain or Italy is surely not the issue.

Teams like Newcastle and Spurs would not finish higher there than they do here.

greengrass said...

Ta, Badman!
Some nice background there - I've seen it all (well, most of it) but I tend to forget most of what I see; I'm sure I'll never be awarded an anorak.
I have a nasty dose of the butterflies:
Barcelona-Chelsea-Barcelona in a week.
This is what loving footy is all about - longing for the double, with us stuffing Chelsea at the Bridge and O'Shea scuffing in the winner against the Scousers in the last minute of extra time in Moscow.
Bring it on!

mimi said...

It's just all about what happens tomorrow.

greengrass said...

Yes, Mimi, tomorrow - Barca v. United.

bluedaddy said...

Almost everything is going Utd's way at the moment. Chelsea seem determined to trip themselves up in the league, even as Utd stumble along themselves. The FA Cup defeat has turned out to be a blessing, banishing the distraction of a potential treble, and all the media fuss that would have attracted. And Barca appear to be a combination of Chelsea in the dressing room combined with Liverpool in the board room.

Yes, it's all going very well isn't it?

Hmmmm.

Margin said...

andrewm

surely though, wage isn't entirely unrelated to ability. After all, Newcastle couldn't have signed Owen for £17k per year.

So you have to think that a side like Newcastle, with their players, are probably better than most teams in Serie A because their finances attract better players.

Not that wages are the be all and end all - otherwise Newcastle would be fifth in the league right now.

andrewm said...

margin, I take the point, and the players are higher quality in England. However, from what I've seen the teams in Italy and Spain are generally better.

One example: West Ham have some fine individual players (when fit), but I think they'd be fighting relegation in Italy or Spain playing as they do now.

Having said that, I don't really know enough about it and to be honest I regret bringing it up in the first place.

mimi said...

I spent last night in hospital. Got home for work and somehow missed tonight, entirely. Who won?

offsideintahiti said...

Once upon a time, there were three clubs from England in the CL last four. Three out of four, surely... Liverpool were locking horns with Chelsea, much like rams in the mating season, and Man Utd were facing a classy, if slightly ageing, continental side. Three out of four, surely...

Feels like déjà vu, non? It wasn't that long ago.

guitougoal said...

Do you think three clubs of England in the final could be possible?

guitougoal said...

Do you think three clubs of England in the final could be possible?

offsideintahiti said...

Possible, but they might still lose.

Margin said...

obviously there are additional factors like how the players gel and how they are managed and train and so on.

Hence why Newcastle sit below portsmouth in the table right now.

I should have acknowledged that previously.

bluedaddy said...

I demand the return of our stick!

offsideintahiti said...

Relax, daddy-o, it's obvious everyone is saving it for the second leg (which happens to clash with my rowing training times, damn, I was soooo looking forward to the entertainment).

greengrass said...

Lord Wrigley really worries me: he seems intent on prolonging this season's entertainment factor as far as possible.
Is this merely yet another example of his famed benevolence, or has he had a bung from the TV moguls in order to maximise viewing figures?
Offy,
your sport is getting more popular by the day: they were even rowing at Stamford Bridge after Saturday's match, I see.

mimi said...

Wrigley's just been bought by Mars.
What does that signify?

offsideintahiti said...

gg, looks like you'll be rowing all the way to Moscow. Well done.


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