English commentator Peter Drury is never a million miles from a state of frenzy.
“What is football if not for dreaming,” he roared, during Stoke’s 1-0 win at Watford in November.
A man who can dream big when Darren Fletcher scuffs in a corner at Vicarage Road is needed for nights such as Tuesday in Rome.
“Barcelona fall, Messi falls… history, even in this city and its bottomless well of myth and legend… Manolas, the Greek god among gods… has come to the Seven Hills of Rome and pulled off a miracle…”
Drury is the only man for these nights now. The man who always has another gear to go to. A little throaty hysteria up his sleeve.
Because Champions League knockout ties are now played at fever pitch. Nervous breakdowns in association with Gazprom and Mastercard.
The first leg is the showcase. A gathering of the elite. The game’s gilded gaffers unfurl high-spec gameplans, the planet’s finest athletes give us superhero moments.
And in the return, the meltdowns and heroics and mythology and history.
This week Liverpool wobbled but kept a steadying hand on destiny. Barca fell. Madrid stood at the brink. Juve went deep in their emotional well until it spilled over.
The state of delirium these matches are played in was typified by an explosive Seville tantrum late on in Munich because Bayern were awarded a dubious throw-in.
In this new hyper-normal, laying siege to a team bus is part and parcel. A sensible move, like switching to three at the back.
Somehow, amid the mania, referee Michael Oliver remembered that rules is still rules, even if Gigi Buffon disputed his authority, insisting “he cannot destroy dreams like that”.
On these epic nights, the great football men have come to believe there is a greater power shaping the narrative, and it is not necessarily the referee.
And the great football men are gradually beginning to realise what hurling men have always known. That whether it is La Liga or Serie A or the Bundesliga or even The Greatest League in the World, it is still, at the end of the day, only the league.
In league games, even the ‘big big’ ones, your gameplan might get it done. Dominating possession or even parking the bus might do. But it is on these nights of myth and legend that you need to make your case to the higher power.
It is on these Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when it is do or die, that reputations are made and philosophies are exposed. And even the gilded gaffers are not pretending to be fully in control any more.
“We are much better in every aspect now, although I can’t explain why,” admitted Zinedine Zidane of Real’s first leg show of strength.
While Pep Guardiola was willing to concede even his meticulous plans may be no match for whatever the powers-that-be have in mind.
“I dropped a lot of Champions League games in 10 or 15 minutes and I think about that. Maybe it is my fault.”
Presumably Zizou can’t explain either what caused Real’s regression until they were saved by Oliver and Ronaldo.
And by the end against Liverpool, Pep was fuming in the stands, ostensibly at the referee, but perhaps also at whatever greater power left him as helpless as Andrea Pirlo in Istanbul.
“I’ll never fully shake that sense of absolute impotence when destiny is at work. The feeling will cling to my feet forever, trying to pull me down,” said Pirlo of the most famous of all Champions League meltdowns.
The feeling will cling to Liverpool forever too and Jurgen Klopp — already a higher power among many believers — looks a good bet to harness it.
But what is needed to survive these crucibles? Buffon had Oliver in his sights but his was a warning shot to all hopeful myth-makers.
“If you don’t have personality, you better watch the game from the stands with your wife and your kids while eating crisps and drinking Coca-Cola or Sprite.”
The hurling men might tell them it is The Savage Hunger that’s needed most. “It was as if they were possessed,” Keith Andrews said, of Roma.
Whatever it is, it is fragile. It is, as Pep described to Martí Perarnau in Pep Confidential
, “a glass bottle hanging from a thread”.
How much do you trust to personality and passion? And how much to the Gods?
He hasn’t yet gone the distance but, like Drury, Klopp’s certainty is made for these nights. Pep has done it twice, but may be starting to second-guess himself. Just like four years ago when Madrid in Munich arrived for the second leg.
“Then he makes a big mistake,” writes Perarnau. “He asks his men how they are feeling and they talk to him about the German talent for glorious comebacks, as well as the passion they have all felt on similarly epic nights in the Allianz Arena. All they want is to be allowed to play with their hearts and souls. Pep changes his mind again. The 3-4-3 had become a 4-2-3-1, but now he opts for a 4-2-4 formation.”
Bayern were three down in half an hour.
At half-time on Tuesday, Pep pulled the reins on heart and soul and the higher power mocked him again.
Real Madrid’s Marcelo went for a little mockery of his own when he tried to explain what his manager can’t. “Obviously what happened to Barcelona wasn’t going to happen to us, because we’re Real Madrid.”
What saved them? The Gods? Ronaldo, their god among gods?
The banned Sergio Ramos often saves them and when the need was greatest he left the Coca-Cola and Sprite around him in the stand to lend his personality to the crisis effort.
There was talk he’d miss the first leg against Bayern, for his insubordination. But it is in the second leg he will be needed most. To destroy more dreams.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved