Jugglers, copycats and Sepp's dodgy knee

The editor of Champions Magazine shares some random observations on the week ahead in European football...

Can anything stop Chelsea?

“The only thing that can stop Chelsea [in the UEFA Champions League] is their appalling bad luck in this competition”. I read that on the internet so it must be true.

True the Blues have had their hopes cruelly dashed by a ghost goal, indifferent refereeing, a missed penalty and a late equaliser, but that isn’t what’s troubling Chelsea fans. They fret about central defence. Without the sly, strategic wit of Ricardo Carvalho, the Blues must rely on John Terry, Alex, Jeffrey Bruma and Branislav Ivanovic.

Away this week to MSK Zilina, it will be intriguing to see what kind of test 21-year-old Gambian striker Momodou Ceesay (who scored three goals in qualifying) gives Terry. Ceesay spent two years in Chelsea’s youth academy so won’t lack motivation.

Send in the juggler

Ajax’s return to the Bernabeu for the first time in 15 years is sufficient reason for a gratuitous revel in the audacious genius of Gerrie Muhren. On 25 April 1973, the Golden Ajax beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu. The result was almost incidental because during the game Muhren started nonchalantly juggling the ball just inside the Real half. Around 110,000 Madrilenos had the grace to wave their white handkerchiefs in appreciation.

Muhren scored the only goal as Ajax progressed to their third successive European Cup final (in which they beat Juventus 1-0 in Belgrade.) Later as the midfielder walked back to the hotel, he was surrounded by Real fans who mistook him for a Dutch supporter and wanted to know all about Ajax’s demon juggler.

Muhren loves to ruminate about that moment’s symbolic significance and declared: “Before then it was always big Real Madrid and little Ajax. When they saw me doing that, the balance changed.”

The balance has shifted again since. A 1-0 win by Ajax in Group G would be the shock of matchday one. Not least because Jose Mourinho has now gone 137 home games without defeat as manager.

There’s only Arsenal. Err, wait a minute…

Braga used to wear green and white, like Sporting Lisbon who they were kind of named after. But their Hungarian coach Jozef Szabo was so impressed by Arsenal on a trip to Highbury in the 1920s he remodelled the club on his return to Portugal.

Braga adopted Arsenal’s red and white kit, named their youth team the Arsenal of Braga and unsurprisingly became known as the Arsenalistas.

Szabo isn’t the only football aficionado to be inspired by Arsenal. In a province of Buenos Aires in 1957, brothers Hector and Julio Grondona launched a club called Arsenal de Sarandi. And let’s not forget Arsenal Maseru (who, coincidentally won the Lesotho title in 1989 and 1991, the same years George Graham’s Gunners won the league), Arsenal Kharkiv and Arsenal Kyiv (in the Ukraine), Arsenal (Honduras), amateur club Arsenal-Tula (Russia), Berekum Arsenal (Ghana), Arsenal Wanderers (Mauritius), FK Arsenal (Montenegro) and Arsenal Kragujevac (Serbia).

Not sure why Arsenal inspire so many clones. Many clubs have one doppelganger – Everton in Chile, Manchester United in Gibraltar, even Liverpool in Montevideo – Arsenal have lots of them. It may be as simple as the fact that Arsenal have always felt like part of the football establishment and, even as far back as the 1920s, people from within the game who visited them came away with feeling that that was a proper football club ought to be like.

This week two Arsenals clash in Group H. Although Arsene Wenger’s team should top the group, Braga’s demolition of Sevilla away from home in the play-off round was far more emphatic than the 4-3 scoreline might suggest.

If Wenger is right – and his team are now equipped to win this tournament – they will want all three points. But Braga pose more of an attacking threat than Sporting Lisbon who have perennially flattered to deceive in the group stages.

Brazilian striker Lima’s hat-trick defeated Sevilla, but his countryman Matheus is as much of a threat. Fast, mobile, with a knack for scoring crucial goals, the 27-year-old will be encouraged by the DVD of Arsenal’s defensive lapses against Bolton. 

Who’s going to take off?

When he was manager, leader and the walking symbol of Auxerre, Guy Roux would use a particular gambit with players who wanted to move on. In his blunt, avuncular way he would compare them to a plane. If you want to leave, he’d say, that’s fine. But if you leave, do you have what it takes to really take off?

The speech served Roux’s interests. Often he would convince a player to stay on for a year or two. And for players moving clubs today, his question remains as relevant as ever. Too many move too early, are grounded at their new club and have to move on to soar again. (You’ll be delighted to hear that I have now exhausted my entire stock of aviation metaphors.)

So with Roux’s question in mind, the player I’ll be watching most this week is Yoann Gourcuff. His move to Milan epitomised Roux’s Law. Though he wasn’t particularly to blame, Gourcuff endured a turbulent, traumatic World Cup. But he has the chance to be the creative fulcrum of Lyon, the French club most likely to emulate Marseille and win this competition.

He has the talent and the vision, as he showed in this competition last season with Bordeaux. Does he have the character?

The strange case of Sepp Blatter’s knee

Famous leaders often become indelibly associated with a particular physical movement. Churchill had his V for victory, JFK was a great pointer and as for Sepp Blatter... the FIFA president has become legendary for his jerking knee.

His latest spasm is the proposal to abolish extra time at World Cups to encourage attacking play by going straight to penalties. His argument is curiously contradictory. If, as Blatter suggests, the thought that the penalty lottery is only 30 minutes away inspires teams to defend in depth, surely his proposal would reduce the amount of constructive play to 60 minutes?

Obviously, you try not to expect too much from the footballocracy but has Blatter forgotten such great, and utterly undefensive, extra times as England v West Germany in 1966, Italy v West Germany in 1970, West Germany v France in 1982, Soviet Union v Belgium in 1986, Germany v England in 1990 (no goals, but no shortage of excitement) and Italy v Germany in 2006?

Maybe Blatter’s other knee will come up with a better idea.

Houllier’s false memory syndrome

Gerard Houllier has celebrated his return to club management by declaring that: “My players won the Champions League for Liverpool”. His curious boast begs the obvious question: if really they were your players, Gerard, why couldn’t you get as much out of them as Rafa Benitez?

Expect more historical revisionism in this vein with such headlines as: “My players won the World Cup for France”.

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