Eamon Dunphy was right. And then he was wrong. And then he was right again. It can be hard to keep up with the Dunph, sometimes, writes Liam Mackey.
But, whatever about his endlessly flexible views on Messi, Ronaldo and Higuain, the RTÉ panel’s senior ex-pro was bang on the money when he described the number Juventus did on Monaco in the Champions League on Wednesday night as “beautiful”.
And so, in a strange way, it was. Strange, because romantics everywhere would most probably have approached the first-leg of the semi-final with hope brimming in their hearts that Monaco’s bright young things — so fast, so fluent, so fearless — would rise to their biggest occasion yet and, by putting on another scintillating show at home, confirm the widespread claims being made for them to be regarded as the most exciting new force in European football.
But on the night it was Juve’s old dogs for the hard road who prevailed, those ministers for defence — Chiellini, Bonucci, Barzagli and Buffon — putting such heavy manners on the young pretenders that, as Jim Beglin had it in commentary, the game pretty much ended up as one of those “men against boys” affairs.
Watching how the Juve defenders went about fashioning yet another clean sheet — with a near flawless if not always sinless demonstration of clearing their lines through headers, tackles, interceptions, blocks and, when all such individual efforts failed, by the swarming application of sheer weight of numbers — you could only imagine how frustrating and ultimately suffocating the whole experience must have been for Kylian Mbappe and company.
Monaco did have their moments in the final third, it’s true, but not enough of them and never to game-changing effect.
Instead, it was the opposition who showed them how it should be done in this area too, especially with that crucial breakthrough on the half-hour mark when they swept the length of the pitch before a whiplash-inducing Dani Alves back-heel allowed Gonzalo Higuain to drill home the first of his and Juve’s two goals.
But it was on that impregnable rock of a defence that the victory was built, and so enamoured was Dunphy of the unfussy show of determination, concentration and pride with which the Old Lady’s backline went about its business, that he was moved to imagine that young Italian boys and girls, all down the years, must have dreamed of growing up one day to be a Chiellini, Cannavaro, Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta, Sciera, Bergomi, Gentile or Facchetti. But methinks that might be pushing it a bit, especially when you consider some of the icons calcio has given the world at the other end of the pitch, from the soon to retire (at the ripe old age of 40) Francesco Totti all the way back through Del Piero, Baggio, Zola and Rossi, to the first of the Azzurri attackers to impinge on your correspondent’s consciousness, the great Luigi Riva, he of the so-called ‘thunderclap’ goals and dying swan celebrations which illuminated world football in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the end, it all comes back to goals, and the more spectacular the better, which is why Liverpool’s Emre Can has cemented his place in football lovers’ affections for his brilliantly improvised volley against Watford.
Since I used this space last week to bemoan the depressingly underwhelming nature of the Premier League this season, it’s only fair to acknowledge that it has also served up a handful of memorable goals to go splendidly against the grain of prevailing mediocrity. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much what Can’s bit of magic also achieved in the course of an otherwise largely undistinguished 90 minutes at Vicarage Road.
There was a moment on St Stephen’s Day when everyone seemed set to hail Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion-kick as the goal of the season until, barely a week later, Olivier Giroud pulled off the same trick, with the additional selling point that his effort wasn’t, in fact, offside.
Flying the Irish flag for a goal of the year contender in the English top flight, Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick plucked a ball delicately out of the air on his toe at full stretch and then teed himself up for a 20-yard volley to beat Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc, a thing of beauty which prompted his manager Sean Dyche to observe: “It’s just a shame we’re not Arsenal because then it would be shown a thousand times instead of maybe four.”
In the ‘all my own work’ category, Eden Hazard’s electrifying solo run and composed finish against Arsenal will also have its supporters but, when push comes to shove — and usually you tend to associate Andy Carroll more with that sort of thing — no goal this season had my mouth framing a speechless ‘o’ more completely than the sight of the West Ham striker’s overhead kick crashing into the roof of the Crystal Palace net back in January.
Emre Can’s effort might have involved less anticipation and more improvisation but, for me, its very element of surprise worked, paradoxically perhaps, against its aesthetic perfection.
With Carroll’s effort, by contrast, you could see him shaping up to do the impossible almost from the moment the cross was leaving Michail Antonio’s foot.
And quite unlike Heurelho Gomes in the Watford goal when Can struck, Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey, like the rest of us, saw well in advance what was coming but still could do nothing to alter the outcome, such was the perfect precision of Carroll’s contact and the ferocious power of the shot. (That’s another reason I love Carroll’s effort: unless it’s an exquisitely judged lob or chip, I’ve always had a preference for goals which rip rather than loop into the net).
For that one moment, like something out of Flann O’Brien’s imagination, Andy Carroll was half man, half bicycle kick, his goal of the season such a thing of wonder that you imagine it could be nearly enough to make even a Juve stopper, like all the rest of us mere mortals, dream of being a striker.
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