Milk, Spurs and a prospect named Messi

There was a time – and I don’t think I’m indulging in false, misty-eyed nostalgia here – when football used to happen on the pitch. And we all talked about goals, saves and mazy runs with the ball not contracts, agents and injunctions in the famous jurisdiction of Dallas.

This week the UEFA Champions League did the immense public service of reminding us that football can still be about stuff that happens on the pitch even if, mysteriously, discussion of that stuff leads us to Rafa Benitez’s milkman who told us that, in Liverpool, the coach the Italian media have snidely dubbed Big Ben was a three semi-skimmed pints a day man. Given that Rafa once went to war with Valencia players because he ordered them to use skimmed milk in their ice cream, that seems a lot to me.

But at the San Siro it was Spurs, not Inter, Rafa or John the milkman, who showed a lot of bottle. True, the expanses of unmarked space on Inter’s flanks in the second half were so vast you could have driven a milk float down them, but you can only play whoever you’re up against. And Gareth Bale took superb advantage of the kind of slack defending seldom seen since England’s World Cup exit.

Clearly Inter’s internal debate over who should track back on each flank remains unresolved. Such indecision may prove fatal in the knockout rounds.

Dwight Yorke sticks his neck out

Still, those stern judges in the famous jurisdiction of the Italian football press didn’t mind. Gazzetta dello Sport hailed the “fantastic, unstoppable Eto’o” and celebrated the performance of Philippe Coutinho, the Brazilian attacking midfielder who looks almost as prodigiously gifted as Jack Wilshere. They barely acknowledged that skipper Javier Zanetti’s goal made him, at 37, the oldest player to score in the history of the Champions League.

But this was a tough week for opinion formers. Perched uneasily on a high chair in the Sky Sports studio, Dwight Yorke, perhaps unnerved by the unaccustomed proximity of his old sparring partner Graeme Souness, bizarrely described Lionel Messi as “one for the future” when debating whether Barca’s No10 was as good as, or better than, Maradona.

As much as Souness drooled over Messi he was even more amazed by the act of footballing alchemy that Harry Redknapp had wrought at Spurs. Souness made one substitute appearance in the UEFA Cup for the Cockney Tap Dancers between 1968 and 1972 and was simply astounded by the sight of a Spurs team fighting back. This wasn’t, he implied, the Spurs he knew and sneered at, the old Spurs that loved to be the best team on the pitch and still lose.

The stereotype of Spurs as congenital flatterers to deceive was set in stone in September 2001 when they managed to lose 5-3 to Manchester United after being 3-0 up at half-time. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team talk at the interval didn’t involve any crockery flinging. He calmly told his players: “Obviously, you know this is Spurs we’re playing. In their minds, they’ve already won. Get one back and they’ll panic. That’s the thing about Spurs. They’ve always played that way and they always will.” United proved him right then but nine years later Redknapp is finally proving him wrong.

Inter’s defending wasn’t the only echo of the World Cup to resonate this week. In South Africa, many pundits used the term “broken team” to describe national sides that didn’t really have a tactical plan but relied on the individual brilliance of their stars. On matchday three, Massimiliano Allegri’s Milan played like a “broken team”. It is probably too early for the rather lopsided array of talents Allegri has at his disposal to grow organically into a unit but against Real Madrid, they looked like the most un-Sacchi-like team the Rossoneri have fielded since the former shoe salesman left the dugout in 1991.

But back to Camp Nou. For me, the revelation of the night wasn’t Messi but Copenhagen’s Senegalese striker Damien N’Doye who twisted past a panting Carles Puyol to rattle the woodwork with a fierce half-volley in the second half. The Danish champions have scored three goals so far and N’Doye has grabbed two of them. No wonder Sampdoria have been linked with him.

Walternaccio and Rooneygate

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the week wasn’t Bale’s valiant hat-trick but the inventive football with which Rangers really should have beaten Valencia. True, los Che started out below strength but Walter Smith’s men created enough good chances to make the old gags about ‘Walternaccio’ as stale as the unsold bread in Covent Garden on this week’s edition of The Apprentice.

If Rangers can maintain this vein of form, Smith may yet fulfil his lifelong wish to (as he reveals in the next issue of that really surprisingly good magazine known as Champions) lead his men out at the Bernabeu.

This is already the most surreal football season since 1994/95, made so mirablis by Cantona’s kung fu kick. And for this I blame the media. (Not just the media, I think Rafa Benitez’s milkman, a gullible Texan judge and whoever asked Colin Murray to host MOTD2 should take their share of responsibility. I don’t know what the qualifications for hosting MOTD2 are, or indeed if there are any at all, but Murray’s competence is so immense he reminds me of LBJ’s famous remark about a rival who was so useless he “couldn’t pour water out of a wellington boot if the instructions were printed on the sole”.)

But to return to the point – I do have one honest – why was one tabloid billing Wayne Rooney’s desire to leave Manchester United as “Rooneygate”?

I haven’t read every column inch devoted to this controversy – who has the time or, indeed, the willpower? – but surely no one has credibly accused Wayne of secretly trying to subvert the democratic process by employing a team of disaffected Cuban exiles who were probably once in the employ of the CIA to break into a hotel room to find secret documents that were probably never there in the first place? Thought not.

The Rooney saga has many facets (most of them, I suspect, invisible to the supporters and the media) but none scandalous enough to warrant the use of the ‘gate’ suffix.

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