Archive for April, 2012

Loose Thoughts

Posted: April 23, 2012 in Loose Thoughts

I wish I was ignorant enough to realize the simplicity of complex things, or else sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the full complexity of simple stuff.

Tiago Braz

After the Benfica-Chelsea Champions League tie, a recurrent and disturbing impression assaulted my thoughts. I sensed the veracity of this stunning game violated one more time.

What caught my eye was the rush of the referee to turn a barely open clash into a match without any interest – the booking spree in the beginning was inspirational – by condemning a side to impotence due to the implications, but some heroic display from a shorthanded team kept it alive ’til the very end. I actually fantasize with the sweat dripping in some foreheads.

The truth is Javi García and Maxi were reckless, as John Terry was a week ago with his wings wide open like Vitória the eagle on Benfica’s badge. Surprisingly or not, at that time there were no consequences.

The theory now shared with you wasn’t founded on a single match where I felt the club I support being discriminated. Actually, in the previous round I sensed Mr. Howard Webb being discreetly complacent with Benfica and somehow harsh on Zenit. This sensation emerged a long time ago, first in FIFA tournaments and for some years now in UEFA.

And it is what it is, a theory weakly substantiated, based on assumptions and at high risk of sin for lack of objectivity. Not really my style as I like numbers and facts, however, I felt the need to share these concerns with someone.

UEFA may have considered that one English club should be in the semi-finals. After all, it’s the most profitable country in football finances’ world, so the noble organization couldn’t afford to lose that prominent market for the remainder of the competition. In Portugal there’s no money neither to ring the bells and if you think about the subject, what kind of interest could a Bercelona-Benfica semi-final spark in the UK? It could also signify a stain in the good name of the competition in Her Majesty’s lands. Therefore Chelsea would have to win no matter what.

I suspect that before every important Champions League match, particularly in knock-out stages, the officials are ‘instructed’ to, if necessary, ‘facilitate’ the victory of the side that will generate more income for UEFA. In recent years lots of us noticed match officials with different sets of standards, in favor of the stronger team.

On the other hand we have APOEL’s success, the early elimination of Manchester United or even the 2004 Monaco-Porto final as counter argument to this theory.

Well when Monaco-Porto final happened, the reigning bigwig wasn’t bossing around with his innovative philosophies. Man Utd was eliminated in group stage, not a big problem since other English clubs should go through. In these early stages it’s not transcendental if a big club goes down since there are others from the same country to keep that specific market. The APOEL case is easy to explain: the success of teams like APOEL and Basileia proves that Platini’s model to open Champions League to minor leagues winners was right. Besides, Lyon advanced through group stage surrounded by odd happenings, so something similar against APOEL would be yet a greater scandal.

So I can keep on with the conspiracy. If you remind the latter years’ editions, most of the controversy arrived in semi-finals matches, where the clubs which served UEFA best interests in that particular moment should reach the final. The Chelsea-Barcelona was the greatest example, but in the following years strange stuff happened too.

In the current edition unexpected events occurred earlier and the picture was complicating even more: after losing Italy on Tuesday, if Chelsea was eliminated, they would lose England too. This hypothetic scenario would create a big hole in the accounts and could affect the impeccable status of the competition, so someone must have been a bit scared and treated to avoid more surprises as quickly as possible. This is an industry after all, and many millions are at stake, so like in any other business, valued are the renown and benefits as the sporting merits play a secondary role.

Barcelona-UEFA link

The Barcelona case is actually funny since everybody is talking about a polemical connection, but that’s not quite it. I don’t believe in UEFA benefiting one or another club deliberately, this surges at some point as direct consequence of the protection of prestige, reputation and commercial interests of this exclusive and extremely hard to win tournament.

In fact, since the competition has adopted the designation of Champions League, no team was able to win it twice in a row. Something that must be easy to achieve for Barcelona as they’re one of the best sides ever, nevertheless after the 2009 Stanford Bridge scandal, in 2010 semis against Inter the impaired were them. Finally, last season was their time of glory again as they deservedly beat – even so with the typical arbitral help – the only team who could stand a chance to defeat them, Real Madrid.

So if I had to predict this year’s champion, Barcelona wouldn’t be my first guess, unless UEFA is ready to permit 2 consecutive victories, demystifying a little the character of the competition. After all, this may well be the greatest team in the rich history of this sport.

I honestly hope that all of this is bulls*** as we’re talking about the supreme competition of clubs in the whole world, one that year after year offers us – the lovers of this beautiful game – intense roundabouts of emotions, but what I observe when the competition reach these final stages are referees with double standards and the worrying suspicion that invades my brain makes me fear for the truthfulness of everything involving The Union of European Football Associations.

The year was 2009, another season was over and Jorge Jesus was then the coach of an emerging SC Braga. The attractive football played by his team together with interesting UEFA and league campaigns made him bounce deservedly into the spotlight. He was the chosen one to fill the challenging role of Benfica’s Boss. Benfiquistas were embittered and sad, the team wasn’t practicing good football for ages and their big rivals were dominating the Portuguese football panorama at pleasure. From 1990 onwards, Benfica had won only 3 Championships against the 14 titles of FC Porto. In the eyes of Benfica’s fans only a Prophet – Jesus – would be able to reverse this scenario.

The impact was immediate, in his presentation unabashedly proclaimed – “With me, this team will play twice better” – and few games were enough to realize that he would be able to transform a dull and monotonous team into a machine of attacking football.

2009/2010

The season was near perfect and the Prophet’s harbinger was fulfilled. A clear evolution was evident in comparison with the latest campaigns, since the competition is composed by 16 teams.

2010/2011

This year wouldn’t run so well, the team lost some key players – Di Maria, Ramires and later David Luiz – and the André Villas Boas’ Porto was literally unbeatable. Despite establishing a historical record of 16 straight victories and the extension of his contract until 2013, Jesus began to be contested by the demanding Encarnados fans, who were unhappy with the early elimination in Champions League, with the defeat in the semi-finals of UEFA League against Braga and with the 2nd place in Portuguese league, 21 points behind a FC Porto team which lost only six points throughout the competition.

2011/2012

The early phase of the current season was light work for Benfica, the team was playing brilliantly and seemed to be the strongest of Jesus’ era, arriving into middle of February undefeated both in Champions and National league.

The team was leading the league with a comfortable advantage of 5 points, had been first in the group where the United fell and was in the semi-finals of league cup. The black mark on this path was the elimination of Portuguese Cup against Marítimo.

But here would begin the critical phase of the season. On this date, the first leg of the Champions League knock-out stage was disputed in Russia, under extremely adverse conditions, with temperatures around -15 °C, against a vigorous, organized and aggressive team. Besides, was about to enter in the last third of the league, where would face the main opponents in the race for the title. In the midst of all this, there was a difficult match against FC Porto for the semis of league cup. The real test to the coach’s ability to manage physically and mentally his squad had come and the results would demonstrate the true strength and depth of the team.

In sum, the team broke down. Lost the league lead and was eliminated from the continental competition. Above all, the weaknesses of this squad were exposed, the same side which looked unstoppable at certain point of season. There are already some protesters calling into question the work of Jesus once again.

But which is the real reason for this drop of quality?

I could enumerate several that make sense – the fixtures congestion, injuries, poor management, questionable options, strong opponents – but in my opinion the greatest sin of Jesus was the season planning.

He built a theoretically good squad to play in 4-4-2, but in most of the campaign, especially in highly competitive matches, has played in 4-2-3-1. This causes excess of players in certain positions and lack in others. Right now, Benfica has 4 midfielders to 3 positions. Let’s see:

This strategic adaptation arises in the need to make Witsel and Aimar compatible in the same 11 due to the huge quality of both. Yet, Jesus never felt the need to rebalance the squad. To make the situation worse, in January allowed the loan of Ruben Amorim to Braga, a versatile player who would be crucial in the rotations at this point, like in past seasons. Relinquish a guy able to make several positions was a blunder that denotes lack of vision. Another error was the loan of Carlos Martins to Granada at the beginning of the season. He would fit like a glove in this system, alternating with Aimar and Witsel. Jesus, more than anyone, must be regretting those choices nowadays.

The result of all this stands out, Maxi Pereira, Witsel and Javi Garcia are fundamental, don’t get rest and cannot be injured or suspended, Matic doesn’t satisfy the requirements to balance defensively the team alone, Saviola doesn’t play, Aimar rotates with Rodrigo or Nelson Oliveira, who should be near the opposite area instead of receiving ball in midfield, trying to connect sectors. I believe these facts are enough to justify the fall.

X-Ray of Jesus

In my opinion, this is the top of the mountain for Jesus, took 20 years to get here. Rose slowly but reached the top of the climb. He trains one of the biggest clubs of his country, a historical of Europe. I believe this is all that he aspired in his life, this is his peak and few can say that were in the position where he stands now. With this, I intend to say, with all due respect, that he wouldn’t fit in the top clubs of the European scenario. I can’t imagine him reinventing himself, adapting to a competition with different characteristics at this point in his career. The truth is that his strengths are many and are well in sight, but the defects are there too, precisely in sight of all who want to see and he doesn’t care much to hide them, probably it’s his enormous ego what complicates the task.

Strengths:

• Has the whole school of football, played in big and small, coached small and big, the man knows much about the game;

• A born leader, authoritarian one, the players accept his decisions without questions.

• Emanates determination, dedication and aggressiveness and makes the team play in his image;

• Offensive-minded coach with a catching football style.

Weaknesses:

• Hardly modest, incurs too many times in excesses of confidence and doesn’t realize it. The players absorb the message and become careless in some situations;

• His system exposes the team too much, it’s especially permeable by flanks;

• His speech is not gifted, definitely;

• He’s too stubborn. When he’s mistaken, this trait doesn’t allow him to recognize and rectify:

  1. At the beginning of the season he decided that Emerson would be his left back, leaving Capdevila out. The Brazilian is a nullity on the ball, he’s slow and when involved in the game creation process, the attacking move dies there. The Spaniard only plays when Emerson is unavailable and in the few games he was involved always has performed well. I honestly cannot understand the option.
  2. He has a huge propensity to break the team in 2 blocks at the attacking moment, see yourself, he wants the wingers wide open to give width, he wants Maxi making interior penetrations to unbalance the opposing defensive structure and wants Aimar and Witsel appearing near the opposing box, looking for combinations and increase the firepower. This works when the team is inspired and physically fit, several goals arose with this inner move from Maxi. But when things go wrong, the team has little criteria in the definition of the attacking plays and often disrupts. All losses of possession close to the opposing goal, especially in the right side of the pitch, cause enormous problems, as Javi García, the responsible for stopping the opponent counter-attacks, has to double Maxi and occupy the right back and a huge hole is created between the 6 ‘forwards’ and the 4 ‘defenders’. If the intelligent occupation of space is one of the fundamentals in football, this approach is at least very risky.

Overall, Benfica’s trajectory is being positive, reached the quarter-finals of Champions League, it’s a point behind the top spot of the league and will dispute the league cup final, however, only in the end we’ll be able to evaluate the performance of the coach. What remains in history are the titles, everything else is forgotten, so the achievement of the primordial objective will be essential for the continuation of Jorge Jesus at the command of this club, he needs to conquer the Portuguese league title.

With only five rounds to play, there are three teams separated by 2 points at the top of the table. The day 26 promises to be absolutely explosive, with the leader FC Porto visiting the difficult ground of Braga, meanwhile Benfica will play the Derby Lisboeta at Sporting’s home, a team which, despite being off the race, may have a transcendent influence in the definition of the champion, since after the match against Benfica, still has to face Portistas and Guerreiros do Minho.

If Benfica is finally proclaimed champion, Jorge Jesus will fill up his pigeon chest again and become the first coach since the British Jimmy Hagan (1970-1974) to start four consecutive seasons in this role, thereby leaving another personal stamp on the history of the club.

I conclude then, that in this very moment, Jesus is as close to achieve glory as of the end of his line in the leadership of Benfica. Only time will tell.