Tag Archives: Barcelona

Greatest Sporting Moments of 2012: Longlist

Football: 

Chelsea vs. Barcelona in the Nou Camp; Man City winning the league in the last minute of the season; Spain perfecting football in the Euro 2012 final…

Tennis:

Murray vs. Djokovic (Australian Open s/f); Djokovic vs. Nadal (Australian Open final); Nadal vs. Rosol (Wimbledon 2nd Round); Murray vs. Tsonga (Wimbledon s/f); Federer vs. Del Potro (Olympic s/f); Murray vs. Djokovic (US Open final); Federer vs. Djokovic (WTF @ O2 final)…

Golf: 

Bubba Watson’s shot on the 1st playoff hole at the Masters; Tiger Woods’ chip-in on the 16th at the Memorial; Ernie Els coming from nowhere to win the Open; Europe’s remarkable finalday comeback at the Ryder Cup…

Athletics: 

Mo Farah winning the 10,000 metres; Jessica Ennis’ dominating the Olympic heptathlon; the US women and Jamaican men breaking the 4x100m world records; Farah winning the 5,000 metres; David Rudisha obliterating the 800m world record; Usain Bolt answering his doubters in the 100m final…

Cycling: 

Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France; Wiggins winning the Olympic Time Trial; Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes smash the world record in the Men’s Team Sprint final…

Swimming:

France hunting down the USA in the men’s 4x100m freestyle; Chad Le Clos beating Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly; Ye Shiwen destroying the world record in the 400m IM…

Cricket: 

Kevin Pietersen’s breathtaking 149 against South Africa at Headingley…

NFL: 

Tim Tebow beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on an 85 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas in OT; Giants shocking the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI…

Darts: 

Adrian Lewis coming from 5-1 down to beat James Wade 6-5 in the World Championship semi-final…

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Why Iniesta is the Greatest Attacking Midfielder of Our Time

Guardian football writer Jacob Steinberg posed a fascinating question on Twitter recently: “After Zinedine Zidane, has there been a better attacking midfielder than Andres Iniesta in recent times?” An intriguing debate and one to which I’d unequivocally state that Iniesta, at 27, has already eclipsed Zidane. I’d argue that no-one, certainly no-one that I’ve ever seen, has ever been quite so comfortable on the ball or in possession of such magnificent footballing vision as the diminutive Spaniard. Equally beautiful to watch; both players shared that gloriously intangible yet blindingly obvious quality of being completely in control of a game.

There is very little to differentiate the footballing achievements of Zidane and Iniesta. Both players have won every major trophy there is to win and both have scored the winning goal in a World Cup final. Zidane’s ludicrous volley to win the Champions league final in 2002 perhaps the only significant difference; even then, Iniesta’s laser against Chelsea helped rescue Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League campaign from oblivion and could be regarded as the catalyst that heralded an era of European domination.

The debate is not one of statistics; the inherent ability to dictate the tempo of a football match is an attacking midfielder’s most important characteristic in teams blessed with the offensive potency of Real Madrid and Barcelona; France and Spain. Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that Zidane “didn’t hurt teams enough”, but the innate ability of Iniesta and Zidane to swagger through games while continuously propelling their teams forward has choked the life from countless opponents.

Iniesta controls football matches with a simple economy of effort, letting the ball work for him and always in close attendance to aid his teammates. The Barcelona number 8 is an incredible hybrid of two of his more feted club colleagues; a player who can pass the ball as well as Xavi and dribble it as well as Messi. His ability to find space is remarkable and his knowledge of what to do with the space utterly exquisite. No-one has ever been more immaculate in their timing of a final ball; Iniesta always plays the right pass at the right time. His peripheral vision is surely unparalleled in the modern game, and maybe the whole history of the game.

The prime example of Iniesta’s shimmering quality his assist for Eto’o’s opening goal in the 2009 Champions League final. As Iniesta danced forward, United’s defence appeared transfixed by his balletic dribbling; the Stadio Olimpico held captive by his grace of movement. This, and this, do Iniesta far greater justice than words ever could.

Zidane was a more imposing, powerful presence; yet similarly blessed with feet of feathers.  His magisterial performance against Brazil in the 2006 World Cup a career-defining display from a player who simply played at a different speed to his opponents. Zidane’s unique ability to play as if in slow motion was never more evident than that evening in Frankfurt. His full repertoire of feints and pirouettes confused and confounded the Brazilians, while the strength of his footballing personality seized the night, and eventually the game. On extraordinary occasions like this, Zidane totally imposed the force of his will on football matches; a supernatural ability afforded to very few. The greatest individual performance I can ever remember, bar none.

Equally, Zidane proved his importance to the French team in absentia at the 2002 World Cup. France could, and probably should, have won a tournament of poor quality; yet without their stricken talisman they imploded hideously in the group stages. Zidane’s reputation grew immeasurably with each increasingly diabolical French performance.

Unfortunately, Iniesta will remain perennially underrated as long as he plays in the same team as Messi – maybe the greatest player of all time. Zidane did excel in both the Spanish and Italian leagues and while Iniesta need not prove himself any more, watching the little illusionist illuminate Serie A or the Premier League would be a delight.

The argument here may be slightly biased towards Iniesta as I’ve seen him play live four times, and on each occasion he was the outstanding performer despite sharing the stage with performers like Messi, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, David Villa and Wayne Rooney. Iniesta’s thorough understanding of his role in the framework of a team, in addition to his complete appreciation and trust of those around him was always a joy to witness in the flesh. The live stadium experience, much more so than on television, showed a player in occupation of a footballing brain unlike any other.

Elegant movement and dazzlingly quick feet, allied to a wonderful contempt for misplaced passes and wasted possession, total harmony with his teammates and capable of calling truly momentous, game changing moments to order; Zidane’s possession of these staggering qualities is inarguable. Yet Iniesta has combined the best of these attributes for a prolonged period of time and surpassed the great Frenchman; performing consistently with his wonderfully angelic quality that makes him, in this humble observer’s opinion, the greatest attacking midfield player of our time.

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Europe’s Last Great Footballing Sides: The Common Denominator

I’m unsure what exactly brought this thought to my attention – perhaps the turgid, ‘functional’ dross served up by Manchester United in the last two months – but I became intrigued by the change of footballing philosophy and the way that teams play in the Champions League generation. There have been great football teams in this era like the criminally underrated Milan side of 2003-2007 under Carlo Ancelotti and Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich at the turn of the century; but certainly a paucity of great footballing teams, of which there have only been three true immortals.

In slightly different ways, the youthful Ajax team of 1994/1995, Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998/1999 and the epochal, football-defining Barcelona of 2010-2011 all transcended the trophies they won by winning them with football as it was created to be.

Why were these sides able to break the monotonous predictability of the last fifteen years at the pinnacle of the game? Possibly because of each team’s reliance on a nucleus of home-grown talent who religiously followed a footballing ideology of passing, movement and high-tempo pressure.

Other teams occasionally came close to attaining this exalted status. Real Madrid’s Galacticos were probably able to reach even greater heights on their day, an utter evisceration of United in the first hour of the Champions League quarter-final in 2003 a particular highlight. That day; Figo, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo ran riot, but a combination of maddening inconsistency and gargantuan ego slowly killed that team from within.

For those who might suggest one of Arsene Wenger’s incarnations of Arsenal; The Invincibles were still a fundamentally functional side usually reliant on magic from Henry, Bergkamp or Pires to win matches. For a single season they delivered these moments consistently, before they were extinguished permanently as a force at Old Trafford in 2004.

Teams who have succeeded in the Champions League in the last fifteen years have regularly relied on a combination of pragmatism, solid defence and reliance on a special player to bend matches to the force of his will. Examples of this include: Juventus 1996 (Peruzzi, Ferrara & Del Piero), Borussia Dortmund 1997 (Kohler, Sammer & Moller), Milan 2003 (Nesta, Maldini & Shevchenko), Porto 2004 (Carvalho & Deco), Liverpool 2005 (Carragher, Hyypia & Gerrard), United 2008 (Ferdinand, Vidic & Ronaldo) and Internazionale 2010 (Lucio, Samuel & Sneijder). Ultimately, I suppose the formula doesn’t matter as all these teams actually lifted the trophy, a staggering achievement in itself; but in order to be truly timeless, there must be something more.

All Champions League winning teams are equal, but some are more equal than others. Occasionally the afore-mentioned sides rose above this monotonous template for winning the tournament, but they are certainly a level below these particular merchants of buckle and swash: Ajax, Man United and Barcelona.

Man United 1998/1999

Manchester United 98/99, controversially, might be the least of these three teams; with the most imports (Schmeichel, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin, Keane & Cole) and playing a slightly different style of football to the totalvoetballing Ajax and Barcelona. Their home-grown stars: Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville Brothers, may have bestridden the peak of the game for nearly a decade but this was undoubtedly their Everest. While they may have been inferior to the other two sides in some regards, United regularly had to go to the very limits of endurance and human desire – a place where Ajax and Barcelona never had to venture.

Always true to United’s attacking heritage, the 1999 team might be the greatest British style team of all time. Fast, strong, powerful, quick in possession, devastating on the counter attack and from set-pieces, blessed with the most indefatigable self-belief and determination any side has ever had, and with the best balanced midfield in history (crosser, destroyer, passer, dribbler – work it out) they defined a generation of English football with their careering, cavalier, score-one-more-than-the-opposition philosophy. A reincarnation of Brazil in 1982, but with better results.

Ajax 1994/1995

Ajax of 94/95 were slightly different again. Their team was made up of Dutch disciples (and Jari Litmanen) of the Church of Cruyff at differing stages of their footballing maturity, who combined to produce one of the greatest seasons in football history. The youthful exuberance of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars; the footballing intelligence of the De Boer brothers and Edgar Davids; was all supplemented by a totemic goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar, and the immense experience of Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.

Undefeated league champions and undefeated European champions in the same season; neither United nor Barcelona can match this. A late Kluivert goal helped beat an AC Milan who were probably improved on paper from the side who throttled the Dream Team 4-0 in the previous years’ final.

However, the piece-de-resistance for Ajax was an annihilation of Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. According to The Independent’s match report Ajax were an ‘inexorable tide’ who ‘recalled the pomp of their 1970’s prime’ with a rampant display of attacking potency. A double from Litmanen and goals from Finidi George, Ronald de Boer and Marc Overmars in a 5-2 victory laid the foundations for their eventual success in Vienna against Milan.

Barcelona 2010/2011

Barcelona under the management of Pep Guardiola have taken the ideal of pass and move to another level. Their patented tiki-taka is Johan Cruyff’s footballing vision on speed. While I have previously suggested that their 08/09 version may have actually been slightly more effective, the Barcelona of 2010/2011 is received wisdom’s greatest Guardiola side – and at its absolute strongest, filled with eight academy products. An astonishing statistic.

The club academy La Masia produced the utterly supreme midfield comprising Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets; a talismanic captain in Carles Puyol; the best footballing centre-half in the world – Gerard Pique; ‘keeper Victor Valdes, a stopper and starter of attacks; and the hugely underrated Pedro – one of the best exponents of off the ball running and finishing in the world.

However, Barcelona have also been graciously blessed with that truly special player that neither United nor Ajax actually possessed. As one of the all-time greats – possibly just behind Maradona and Pele; possibly beside them already – the majestic Lionel Messi transforms Barcelona from a great club side into the greatest club side.

Conclusion

The argument is not that these teams produced their transcendent football on the biggest stage – Ajax needed a late winner to beat Milan in 1995 and United floundered for 89 minutes against Bayern in the Camp Nou – but that they sustained this elevated level of performance for a sufficient period of time for it to become trademark.

So why the lack of spectacular footballing teams in this Champions League generation? Is it the inclination towards pragmatism and the birth of the Dunga/Deschamps/Makelele position? Or possibly the exorbitant sums of money that clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Internazionale, latter-day United – spend striving to achieve the ultimate goals instead of promoting from within; something that Ajax, Manchester United and Barcelona all did with the reward of sporting immortality.

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