April Borefests

Striker Rooney vs centre-back Zouma, battling it in the midfield. Too bad it was boring!

Football can be tedious as hell. Especially in April, when some clubs are seeking to keep their multiple-point leads for the least amount of effort, while other try hard to keep all remaining players fit because many of them have already fallen due to the injuries. This weekend promised many big games, some critical results and footballing of the highest caliber possible – and it all ended up with a bitter disappointment. Boring games; some of them more boring than the F1 competition this season. I was literally fighting the urge to fall asleep during most of those highly anticipated, top-class matches, realizing that even the best physio staffs, the most expensive meds and genuinely great coaching cannot stop the fatigue and once it’s on the table, previously outstanding teams won’t provide good games anymore. How could they? Few players on the pitches out there already have more than 40 first-team appearances since August. Add international travels, training sessions, knocks taken or an overwhelming pressure to deliver the results – you’ll quickly get the whole picture of an imminent, mid-April disappointment. Facts cannot be escaped from: star footballers play too much, up to the point where the most in-form man on the planet right now is the man, who missed four months worth of fixtures due to a ban recieved from FIFA.

Thus, exhausted Chelsea faced exhausted Manchester United in a home game to decide the Premier League title. To be fair, the competition was pretty much over few days ago, when Cesc Fàbregas scored a late winner over Queen’s Park Rangers. All José Mourinho needed to do on Saturday was getting a draw – which in itself, isn’t that big of a challenge, considering how rarely any team coming to Stamford Bridge, ever leaves it with anything. In view of his most current goals, The Special One served us with a titanium-solid line-up, bringing Kurt Zouma to help out Nemanja Matić in the middle of the park and starting the game without right winger, as Oscar and Fàbregas were both set to create the attacking play from the centre. It was a clear draw offer right addressed from the start towards Louis van Gaal – an offer the Dutchman could not accept, though, as he was eyeing 2nd place spot already. Unfortunately for MU, they had their own problems, lacking Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind, so van Gaal eventually settled for Radamel Falcao uprfront, Marouane Fellaini in a familiar role of a midfield battering ram and Wayne Rooney running his socks off in the middle. At the same time, Chelsea was missing both Diego Costa and Loïc Rémy. It didn’t take a genius to predict what’s going to happen in wake of all these absences…

…boring, boring Chelsea. Four minutes into the game, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young created a great chance for Wayne Rooney to capitalize on. The play down the left wing left Ivanović in the dust, Terry wasn’t aware of a back-pass to Wazza, who had a clear shot off his left foot. He aimed at the top corner and missed so narrowly that David De Gea thought it was in. And that was it – the play stopped there. From that point on, teams passed around between their defensive lines, forcing opponents’ strikers to run and press around in vain. Even upon making some promising interceptions, neither side would try to launch the counterattacks. Didier Drogba, once a legend in this type of clashes, clearly had problems adapting to this rebuilt Chelsea squad. It wasn’t a game against Schalke anymore: he remained very quiet under Smalling’s scrutiny. At the other end, Falcao experienced similar concerns, as he was facing nightmarish rival in form of John Terry. Chelsea captain physically destroyed the Colombian, who wasn’t best-suited for receiving crosses and had little hope to receive any other kind of service from midfielders. Most of the time, The Blues were doubling or even tripling the marking on a one man in the penalty box. It pretty much ruined MU’s only attacking idea. They couldn’t come up with much else to open the floodgates.

At the same time, Chelsea didn’t even try to get a goal for themselves. There were only two, two little through balls from Fàbregas to Hazard down the left wing that ended with nothing because they weren’t close to be half-chances in the first place. Other than that, Mourinho’s eleven had one useless corner and one free kick shot from Drogba that hit the wall. And then, the inexplicable happened. Chelsea scored. Terry followed Falcao as far as to the middle of the pitch and dispossessed him. The ball went to Fàbregas, who found Oscar with his back against the goal. The Brazilian, who’s been underwhelming this season and might be expected to leave London this summer, didn’t fail to deliver this time. His backheel into space was perfect and Hazard, popping out of nowhere, ran past Herrera, shrugged off Smalling to nearly crash with De Gea right in front of the goal. Belgian’s only option was to try and nutmeg the goalie from a difficult angle. Faced with a difficult task, he did it with confidence, giving his team one more good excuse to sit behind the ball and defend for the rest of the game. Soon Falcao, frustrated completely by this development, had another close clash with Terry. He had all the rights in the world to be angry: apart from being fouled persistently by JT, he was also the loneliest man in that game, period.

 

The second half did change the overall picture to a degree. Chelsea gave up the ball totally. They played it as if this was a pre-season fitness training: chasing the opponents around, always locked up waiting on their own half, clearing the crosses with ease. Zouma and Matić would hardly leave the space in front of their goal, keeping an air-tight grip on Fellaini’s ventures. For every minute of CFC using the ball, there were four minutes van Gaal’s side had it. And what Red Devils managed to create out of this much possession? The answer is: one powerful shot by Falcao that hit the crossbar. One. Apart from this good chance, the game revolved around Thibaut Courtois catching floating balls effortlessly. It was the most ineffective, clumsy, toothless, disappointing, ugly display of keeping the ball without creating chances since Barcelona’s 2012 Champions League tie against… Chelsea. Statistics may be telling you the visitors had 15 shots on goal, but believe me: those were all insignificant attempts – especially considering Courtois’ class. This almost backfired ten minutes after the restart, when Drogba broke away on a counterattack, chipped the ball over De Gea and watched Hazard hitting the woodwork from a point-blank range. In the end, Chelsea survived. They’ve won the league. With 30% possession. Ugh.

“I’m playing my 150% and our strikers are all fucking it up…” – Vidić’s thought sample.

After a tedious Saturday, Sunday prospects looked a bit better, as Inter were set to face Milan in Derby della Madonnina. Obviously, here, neither team was anywhere near the class of Chelsea or Manchester United, but there was one good reason to think this game will have goals. Before this weekend, Milan was six points away from the fifth place – the last one that guarantees the European qualification for the next season. However, Inter’s gap from the same goal consisted of seven points. In other words: whoever would emerge winning from their prestigious clash at San Siro, would also retain a chance for some extra income and continental experience in the nearest future. With Jérémy Ménez and Mauro Icardi (16 Serie A goals each this season) both fit to play, erratic Andrea Ranocchia and Philippe Mexes “bossing” the backlines and possible good games from up-and-coming Giacomo Bonaventura and Xherdan Shaqiri, this game was just begging to be drastically different from the London fixture. If not for the striker’s skills, I expected the goals to sneak in because of defensive incompetence: after all, in 2015, Milan could not defend set-pieces to save their lives, while Inter kept mindlessly switching between three and four people at the back. My fingers were crossed for a good show.

Technically, I wasn’t mistaken about the rich scoreline. Inter players scored once, Milan players scored twice and the game should’ve ended 2-1 for Inter – but it ended 0-0 instead. Obviously, nothing in the sentence above makes sense – unless there are three disallowed goals on the cards and one of them went in into the goalscorers’ own net. And that’s exactly what happened. Each team managed to make their fans happy for a split second by beating the keeper from offside positions and later, when nero-azzurri put a massive pressure on their tired rivals near the end, Philippe Mexes, so far faultless Man of the Match candidate, slipped in his own box and cleared the incoming cross into his own goal. Initially, there was a gigantic feeling of consternation surrounding this one, as nobody – including Milan fans – understood why Philou’s mistake was chalked off. However, the replay cleared it all up. Luca Banti, who had an excellent evening as the main official, quickly demonstrated that Palacio pushed Luca Antonelli while arriving into the box. After the game, Roberto Mancini complained that the ref should’ve given Inter a penalty earlier on. Yes, he should’ve – but, compared to some utterly terrible Serie A officials we’ve seen this season, Banti looked almost like a genius in this tough fixture.

The same level of excellence could not be attributed to the players, though. Ménez, the man shattered Milan side counts on the most, remained invisible, getting his first shot as late as in 58th minute. His pace was rather useless this time and his cooperation with Suso and Bonaventura on the wings left a lot to be desired. Filippo Inzaghi brought Mattia Destro and Alessio Cerci later, in an attempt to give the team some fresh outlet upfront and maybe easy up the pressure a bit, but it clearly didn’t work. At the same time, Palacio, Icardi and Hernanes, who were Inter’s key attacking players this season, had everything going well for them. Everything – except the finishing, because all off their shots were either blocked or held by Diego Lopez. Yes, the ex-Real Madrid goalie did it again – he saved the game for Inzaghi’s side. Incidentally, him, Mexes, Juan Jesus and Nemanja Vidić were the only actual heroes of yesterday’s game. Especially Vidić. Yet another outcast from a top-tier club, the defender who would’ve faced Chelsea this weekend if not for his 2014 transfer to Italy, proved that he still can keep the opposition quiet by making countless decent clearances. When will Serie A stop being a place where other leagues’ rejects are the only ones who stand out? And why Italian teams keep defending in a must-win game?

To be fair to Inter, it’s not like they didn’t try. After about an hour of play, Milan’s legs started to get tired. Palacio warmed up, Hernanes’ moves became hard to control and Inter grabbed the initiative for good. Inzaghi must’ve been counting on the counterattacks but he might’ve as well counted on a miracle: his team’s midfield was being overrun there and had no time nor the ability to strike back. Perhaps it was a mistake to let Assane Gnoukouri in the first eleven? Apart from chasing the ball mindlessly, the inexperienced teenager from Ivory Coast did not contribute much to the game and nero-azzurri drastically improved their play once he was subbed off. Either way, one thing is clear: when it came to choose between Xherdan Shaqiri and Mateo Kovačić, Mancini picked the wrong guy – and his Croatian playmaker had yet another poor game that did not confirm the wonderkid status at all. Just like in Chelsea vs MU, this game lacked creativity near the end and eventually, strikers and attacking midfielders turned out to be more tired than the defensive lines they were trying to conquer. “Do not expect too much from #9 and #10 team in the table playing against each other” – said Adriano Galliani after this goalless draw. Noted. The Mighty Milano teams have fallen very far these days…

Inter vs Milan: goalless highlights

But god dammit, where’s the eye-candy football, then?

Well, at least Champions League comes back next week…

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