Reign of Spain underlines gulf

Although Louis van Gaal appears to be closing in on the Manchester United job, this week’s Champions League action offered clues to a possible alternative narrative had the hunt for David Moyes’ successor taken another route.

Reign of Spain underlines gulf

Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, both of whom had featured strongly in the early running, have now had their credentials as top managers freshly burnished by semi-final wins over, respectively, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, thoroughly convincing victories which have set up the first true derby finale in the entire history of the European Cup and Champions League.

By contrast, if the semi-finals had been 11th hour auditions for the Old Trafford gig, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho would have spectacularly blotted their copybooks at the worst possible time, appearing to critically undermine the previous consensus that these are the two gaffers who come closer than any others in world football to virtually guaranteeing success at a top club. Hence, the persistent noises in recent weeks from inside Manchester United indicating that, despite van Gaal now emerging as the putative chosen one, Guardiola and Mourinho were always regarded as the dream dates, the most special of the special ones, even if unobtainable.

Now, almost overnight, we are being invited to view the two men in a radically different light. Mourinho, the genius who delivered a tactical masterclass at Anfield just one week ago, is suddenly exposed as out of his depth at the highest level, while Guardiola, who helped make Barcelona one of the greatest sides in history, has seen his very philosophy of how the game should be played come under fierce critical scrutiny.

Results change opinions, it’s true, but to suggest two matches in one week in Munich and London have all but shredded managerial reputations and, in the process, redrawn the European football map, seems to me to be wildly excessive.

And it also neglects the role individual errors will always play in shaping the outcome of any game. Indeed, much as I relished the swashbuckling manner in which the two Madrid teams punished their opponents’ vulnerabilities, the nagging voice in my ear throughout both games was that of our old friend Giovanni Trapattoni and his relentless insistence on attention to “the leetle details”.

In Munich, it was Bayern’s woeful inability to deal with two routine set-pieces which allowed Sergio Ramos to put Madrid on the high ground from which they were subsequently able to pick off the deflated Bavarians almost at will. And in London, it was a combination of Eden Hazard’s failure to track Juanfran’s run, compounded by successive mistakes on the part of John Terry and Ashley Cole, which meant Adrian scored and Chelsea cheaply surrendered the initiative they had taken through Fernando Torres’ opening goal.

And the goal which put clear daylight between the teams was even worse from a Chelsea point of view, Samuel Eto’o’s clumsy intervention – a striker’s tackle inside his own box if ever there was one – pretty much the very definition of a self-inflicted wound.

None of which is to deny that, in both games, the best teams went on to win. In Munich, with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery suffocated, Bayern had no answer to the contrasting pace, power and penetration of the likes of Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, as the home side were forced into chasing the game. Not to be overlooked either, in the face of Munich’s dominance of the ball, was an uncharacteristically disciplined defensive performance by Real. Ramos and Pepe will invariably cough up one howler between them every couple of games but on Tuesday night they were impregnable, with Pepe, in particular, almost Baresi-like in his startlingly sure-footed performance.

In West London, Atletico were similarly solid at the back, with home from home goalkeeper Courtois a superb last line of defence when required, and then, once their tails were up, their clear creative superiority in midfield, allied to fluent one-touch passing, spoke volumes for the wonderfully productive balance of physical effort and technical ability which Diego Simeone has brought to this spirited team.

So, again, there can be no gainsaying the deserved presence of the two Madrid clubs in Lisbon, even if the idea of a European Cup final recast as a domestic game for the second year in succession can’t help but detract slightly from the sense of occasion for all those looking in from the outside.

Which, of course, is where the English clubs find themselves, yet again. Last year it was Germany calling, this time it’s Spain, La Liga’s supremacy evident in the Europa League where Seville eliminated Valencia to set up a Benfica final.

As with footballers, so with managers – form is temporary and class is permanent. Which is why it will be astonishing if Pep and Jose don’t lick their wounds and rebound to winning effect again soon.

The challenge facing the English clubs, you suspect, is much greater. And this is the real lesson, if hardly a new one, of the week’s European drama. Yes, the Premier League will grip and excite us all over the next nine days but, once the dust has settled on another breathless domestic climax, English football will still be faced with the conundrum of how to bridge the gap between being the most entertaining league in the world and being the best league in the world.

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