Cruising for a bruising?

History isn’t just written by winners, it’s usually written to flatter winners.

That thought struck me when I read the Daily Telegraph headline: “Premier League heavyweights cruise into Champions League knockout stages.”

Some group stage, some cruise.

True, Arsenal progressed regally but two of their opponents changed coaches mid-campaign and, with a less cautious opposing coach, they would have never have come back from 2-0 down to snatch three points at Standard Liege.

And yep, the Gunners did field an England U17 defender called Tom Cruise in Athens.

I can understand Arsene Wenger’s pride in fielding the youngest ever Champions League team – with an average age of 21 years and 215 days – but only up to a point.

They looked comfortable against Olympiakos. But they did – though it seems churlish to mention this – lose 1-0.

In a game crippled by short-termism, Wenger’s focus on youth is admirable.

But is it blinkering the manager to the kind of deficiencies which made that 3-0 defeat by Chelsea so painful for Gunners fans?

Chelsea did seem to cruise – they had qualified by matchday four – but their performances against APOEL (home and away), Porto (home), and Atletico (away) suggested they have, under Carlo Ancelotti, adopted the Italian philosophy that it doesn’t matter how you reach the knockout stages as long as you do.

The standout performance was the 4-0 demolition of Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United’s campaign was hardly a cruise of the kind advertised by the people who do cruises for people who don’t normally like cruises.

United did top their group with 13 points and clobbered Wolfsburg away with 15 first-teamers missing.

But they came within minutes of losing two group games at Old Trafford, kept only two clean sheets and the end of that 23-game unbeaten home record will have stung Sir Alex Ferguson.

The truth is that the margin between success and failure in most groups was so narrow that no team can be complacent.

As Amy Lawrence, a one time assistant editor of FourFourTwo, points out, the British press’s glee at Barcelona’s struggles is a tad overdone.

Barca took 11 points from a hard Group F, compared to 13 from a much easier group last season.

Barcelona top the list of teams to avoid in the draw this Friday.

But so, I would suggest, do Bordeaux and Inter who, as Amy suggests, are in their current mood wounded, unpredictable and capable of heroic feats or abject surrender.

Rafa’s Nixon doctrine

As an admirer of Rafa Benitez I was disappointed to see him using the threadbare “What have you won?” defence to rebut criticism by Graeme Souness and Jurgen Klinsmann this week.

Attacking the critic, rather than the criticism, was a desperate ruse deployed by Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s venal press chief, as the Watergate scandal exploded. 

The tactic was characterised by Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor, as a “non-denial denial: they question our ancestry but don’t challenge our facts."

It didn’t work for Nixon then, it didn’t help Gerard Houllier when he was under the cosh at Anfield and it won’t help Benitez now.

The supreme irony is that Benitez’s entire career as a manager is a damning refutation of the “what have you won?” philosophy.

If the boards of Real Valladolid, Osasuna, and Extremadura always appointed their coaches on the basis of “what have you won?” Rafa, whose career as a midfielder peaked with a penalty in a 10-0 win over Cuba in the World Student Games, would never have got the job.

Obviously Klinsmann’s remarks sounded particularly pointed because he is a potential successor.

But the criticisms he made – Liverpool lack creativity, consistency and a world class striker apart from Torres – have been aired by many Liverpool supporters, even those who back Benitez ardently.

And the coach, a brilliant and methodical deconstructor of football games and teams, may privately have come to some similar conclusions.

Festive blunders

As those popular philosophers The Goodies once observed, Christmas comes but one a year and when it does it’s absolutely shocking.

One reason for this is many companies's idea to put a little cheer in our Christmas stockings is to bombard us with DVDs of football’s greatest gaffes, goofs and blunders, usually narrated by a past-his-best footballer whose monotonous delivery and frowning concentration bespeak of a mighty struggle with the autocue or any available football luvvie with the right street cred (which, nine times out of ten, is Ray Winstone).

I presume this annual festive avalanche of air shots, banana skin slips and Keystone Cops keepers exists primarily so we can all have fun at the expense of a detested brother-in-law.

For Christmas 2010, I would encourage the makers to push the envelope.

I’d certainly be intrigued by a compilation of “hilarious c*ck-ups and moments of madness” presented by maverick German moviemaker Werner Herzog (he recently described Wayne Rooney as “half bison, half viper.”)

And the term ‘football blunders’ gives the makers a fairly wide remit.

The term would, for example, include most of Graham Taylor’s team-sheets as England manager, the career of Robert Rosario and Giovanni Trapattoni’s notorious “The coach is not an idiot” speech. More to read...

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