Premier League clubs continue to discover just how punishing Brexit can be.
The cull of five contenders to just two after the Champions League Round of 16 was brutal enough, before the luck of the draw got in on the act in Nyon yesterday and decreed that only the one would be permitted entry to the last four.
From Jamie Carragher, a man behaving atrociously, to Gareth Southgate finding himself obliged to play political football, it’s been a case of ‘events, dear boy’ conspiring to blow the English game off course this week.
And redemption on the field of play was there none, with Chelsea hot on heels of Manchester United in leaving Europe, after Spurs had previously engineered their own painful departure from a seeming position of strength, Giorgio Chiellini’s mastery of Harry Kane — and the wild-eyed celebration of the defensive art the Italian shared with the ageless Gigi Buffon — as critical to Juve’s comeback win at Wembley as was the three-minute double-whammy of those Higuain and Dybala goals.
And, now, deliciously, the quarter-final draw ensures that the old man of Turin gets to lock horns with Ronaldo next time out.
At least Spurs had given it a right go out in the Juventus stadium and begun in similar fashion at their home from home in London before it all went horribly wrong. Similarly, Chelsea showed plenty of adventure at the Camp Nou before and even after, Lionel Messi took charge.
By contrast, United’s exit was ignominious, all whimper and — Lukaku aside — no bang, with the general mood of anger and dismay around Old Trafford after a rudderless performance against Seville hardly eased by Jose Mourinho’s extraordinary post-match comments in which, at one point, he appeared to seek to ease the pain — or least attempt to put it in perspective — by reminding his audience of the crushing blows he had himself previously inflicted on big European football nights at Old Trafford with Porto and Real Madrid.
Mourinho has blotted his copybook on more than one occasion in the past but if ever there was — how shall we put this? — a poke in the eye to the supporters of the club he
manages, this was surely it.
It’s a pity Frasier Crane wasn’t on hand to tell Jose, as he famously told Niles, that other special one: “Copernicus called and you are not the centre of the universe.”
And while he was at it, the good doctor might have used his professional expertise to have a stab at diagnosing what ails Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba, the former having apparently mislaid his mojo since his move to Old Trafford and the latter yet to find his.
Seville were largely damned with faint praise in Blighty after their stunning victory but, just because they are unlikely to trouble the trophy engravers come May in Kiev — they now have Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, for a start and probably a finish — doesn’t mean enormous credit should not be given to manage Vincenzo Montella for his game-management in the second leg, not least in choosing the perfect moment to spring his goal-scoring sub Wissam Ben Yedder from the bench.
And I also have to doff my hat to any gaffer under whose guidance former Blackburn and Stoke midfielder Steven N’Zonzi could run the midfield and look, as Ray Wilkins put it, like Franz Beckenbauer.
Of course, the exasperated Wilkins was really blaming United for the time N’Zonzi was allowed on the ball but, as we’re always being reminded by ex-players, you can only play what’s in front of you, Darragh, know what I mean?
While Mourinho still probably has a better chance than Antonio Conte of remaining in his job next season, Chelsea were a much better advertisement for the Premier League even as they too said goodbye to Europe. Over the two legs you could hardly say they were outclassed.
Ultimately, the difference was made, as it so often has been in the past, by one man.
Messi was simply devastatingly clinical with the three big chances he got over the two legs while, if there was such a thing as an Assist Of The Season gong, he’d get that for Barca’s second goal at the Nou Camp, first robbing Cesc Fabregas before scorching past two blue shirts and then, when everyone thought he’d slip it forward to Luis Suarez, instead using the latter’s run as a decoy and, deploying his quickness of mind and peripheral vision, choosing to play a perfectly weighted ball across the box for the incoming Ousmane Dembele to blast to the roof of the net.
Good luck to Roma in trying to keep that lad under wraps in the quarters.
For reasons of history as much as anything else, Juve v Real might be the classic European heavyweight match-up of the last eight but you don’t even need to draw on those endless reserves of Premier League hype to ordain Liverpool v Man City the tie of the round.
The most exciting counter-attacking team in the English top flight against the most complete team in the English top flight. Salah, Firmino and Mane up against De Bruyne, Silva and Aguero. Klopp versus Guardiola. With this coming together in a hot-house English derby atmosphere of two sides who are like-minded in regarding attack as the best form of defence, thrills, spills and goals are guaranteed, surely. Really, what’s not to like? Unless, of course, you are a Man United fan who now won’t even have the consolation of getting to cheer lustily for the side playing against your most hated rivals.
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