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Champions League down to the wire





Real Madrid, the real deal

Football is a psychologically brutal game. It does not take any prisoners. It is cold and heartless. Otherwise, Bayern Munich would not have lost the way they did on Tuesday night, and the world would not have exploded in protest.

The classic between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich provided a good demonstration of what could decide the outcome of matches this close – one bad decision by officials or one moment of madness or of genius by a player. In short, the tiniest details can make the biggest difference.

That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night.

It was a great game and an even contest between Real and Bayern until the 13th player for Real turned up.

Although they may still have won in the end cleanly and fairly, up until Bayern were unjustly reduced to 10 men, the Germans looked and played like the team that wanted to win the most.

They played brilliantly, kept at bay Real Madrid’s deadly front line of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema, taking control of the midfield, scoring the two goals they needed to clear their goals deficit from Munich a week earlier (having lost by 2-1 on home soil), and hoping to take the match into extra-time where, considering how they were playing, they could have won even through a possible penalty shootout if it went to that.

They were poised to win right inside the dreaded Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.

Then it happened. Bayern’s most hardworking player that night, Vidal, was sent off for an infringement that existed only in the imagination of the referee. Television reviews showed that there was no offence committed - Vidal’s tackle was clean and fair.

If that was a ‘compensation’ for gifting Bayern a doubtful penalty kick earlier in the match, a second decision by the referee and his assistant to turn a blind eye and allow a goal scored from a clearly offside position that even a blind man could see, was unjust and cruel. Ronaldo had been in the offside position for so long ‘he built a room there’, Nigerians would say.

Those two bad decisions turned the match on its head and Real Madrid took advantage of the ‘gifts’, and with more space, time and men to play with, undid the well-organised defence of Bayern with the help of the deadliest striker on earth at the present time, demonstrating once again that, although he may have slowed down considerably due to age, his sharpness, efficiency, clinical finishing and consistency in front of goal is way ahead of any other player on the planet.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored two more goals to take his tally to three on the night and a record 100 in Champions League history. That sucked out the oxygen from Bayern and took the match steadily, thereafter, beyond their reach.

The manner of Bayern’s loss is painful. I am just wondering how the centre referee would not be haunted when he reviews the match and finds that his ‘errors’ (or gifts to Real Madrid) decided such a crucial match.

Now Real Madrid, even without playing the best football, look good enough to win Europe’s most coveted football trophy for the third time in four years.

Barcelona - Lightening doesn't strike twice

If Lionel Messi had played as hard and as passionately for Argentina in 2014 as he did for FC Barcelona last Wednesday night against Juventus, Argentina would have won the World Cup that year and there would be no dispute who the best player in the history of football is.

For the first time in a long while I saw the great Argentinian put up a spirited fight to score a goal. He gave his all. He was everywhere in front of the Juventus goal area, running and shooting even from well outside the box.

He wanted to create a second miracle at Nou Camp only a few weeks after spearheading the first one, the greatest come-back performance in European club football history, overturning a four-goal deficit against Paris Saint Germain.

Unfortunately, lightening does not strike on the same spot twice. Juventus are not PSG.

The great Italian giants are masters of the tradition and art of defensive football, and they showed it over the two legs against the deadliest attacking machine in modern football. They stopped the Magnificent Three, Messi, Neymar and Suarez, from scoring even one goal in over 180 minutes of football.

The Juventus defence was impregnable. Their attack was lethal. Not only did they not play the classic style of leaving only one player up-field, they counter-attacked in numbers.

In short, Juventus put up a stunning performance and revealed three things about the Barcelona of 2017.

1) FC Barcelona are surely not the best team in Europe this season. That distinction belongs to one of the other remaining four teams in the Champions league – Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Monaco.

2) FC Barcelona is an ageing team, playing a lot slower and definitely not with the same level of sharpness, intensity and creativity up front as we knew in the days of undiluted Tiki Taka.

3) Finally, FC Barcelona need to reinvent themselves and come up again with something different and new in their style of football. Teams are getting to decode them more easily these days.

Last Wednesday night, they bowed to a superior team. Although at no time during the match did they appear to be really threatened, they also never looked capable of breaking down the Juve defensive line.

They needed goals and threw everything forward to try and get them, with two chances that on a good day Messi and Neymar would have buried behind the goalkeeper, only for the elements to turn their backs.

Neymar ran and ran all over the frontline, attacking from both flanks. Suarez did not have a good game but struggled to barge his way through a rock solid defence that refused to budge.

The happiest man that night must have been Dani Alves, who left Barcelona last season, berthed in Juventus, found a new lease of life and may be part of a winning European club that is not FC Barcelona.

It was a great game and Barcelona met more than their match.

Juventus are looking good enough now for the Champions League trophy.

Monaco – the dark horse

I have watched FC Monaco this season. They are young and exciting to watch. They are playing attacking football of the highest order. They are a dangerous team, one to watch out for amongst the final four.

Something tells me there is still one last surprise left in this year’s Champions League and it has to do with the least experienced team amongst the last four left. Watch out for a possible miracle of Monaco!

Atletico Madrid – Nothing to say I do not really know what to make of this difficult-to-play-against team.

They have it, they don’t have it. I just feel they do not have the team all around to win the championship, and they won’t, period!


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