AFTER the poetry comes the pragmatism. The joy, the movement, the mesmerising skill in Madrid was followed, 24 hours later, by a tourniquet applied to the UEFA Champions League in Milan and in Turin. That raises the question: Is there one game for Real Madrid, and just a parody for all the rest?
Caution is not a deadly sin in soccer, yet there is something lacking in the soul of Italian soccer that resorts to mean-spirited defence the moment its teams go a goal ahead. In the San Siro, Inter Milan eked out a 1-0 victory on Wednesday in an encounter with Valencia that ultimately turned sour. In Turin, Juventus took an early lead, attempted to do nothing more than hold on to it, and finished a wet, cold night, 1-1, against Barcelona.
The Spanish clubs were as culpable as their Italian hosts. Both Valencia and Barcelona said that in front of their own partisans, in stadiums that will not be the apathetic, half-empty arenas of northern Italy, they will convert negativity into Spanish flair.
We will see. The second games are two weeks away. All the clubs involved have demanding domestic league work to do between now and then.
Whatever the excuses, it is a fact that the game at the Bernabeu, during which Real Madrid outclassed Manchester United, 3-1, surpassed the sum of the three other quarter-finals in goals, entertainment, class and spirit.
Of course, Real has the buying power to lure Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and the rest to its nest.
Of course Raul is the finest finisher. Of course there is a history of greatness and style in the famous white. But are the other clubs, the giants of Italy and England in particular, such cowards, such dullards that they cannot at least recruit from the whole of the rest of the world players capable of attacking play on home soil?
“I am not completely satisfied with the display,” said Hector Cuper, the Inter coach, after the hollow victory over Valencia.
“But we won, and that is what counts.”
Is the result all? Is that why the San Siro stadium echoed with groans from an audience 30,000 below capacity?
Cuper was in a way responsible for the attitude of both sides. Valencia was his previous creation, the team he had taken to two, losing, finals of the Champions League in 2000 and 2001. He abandoned that club for the extra cash, the extra grandeur at Inter.
After 14 minutes, Cuper’s new charges led his old by a goal headed in by Christian Vieri. At times, this Italian-born, Australian-raised centre forward is a lion of a goalscorer – hungry, athletic, powerful and belligerent.
His goal was opportunistic. The young Turk, Emre Belozoglu, sprinted down the left. His cross was flicked on by the head of Hernan Crespo, and Vieri, lurking in more space than defenders should allow, instantly converted that into a goal. Instantly Inter retreated to hold what it had.
“The victory was crucial, especially as we didn’t create much,” Vieri said.
“In the second half we sat back when we should have been creating more. It’s right to be cautious, but we have to find a happy medium.”
Unhappily, and entirely predictably, two foes attempting to make sure there were no more goals obliged even so moderate a referee as Markus Merk to send off two players – Emre and David Albelda – for schoolyard skirmishing. Albelda kicked Emre. The Turk jumped up and bounced the Spaniard chest-to-chest. And virtually the entire cast of players of both sides encircled them like mildly demented warriors.
Even when that was quelled, and the German referee’s authority was established, Pablo Aimar, a marvelously gifted imp for Valencia, thought he could deceive Merk into awarding a penalty for the most appalling dive. He rightly got a yellow card for “simulation.”
It will be a different game in the Mastella, the febrile home of Valencia, the Spanish insist.
Similarly, Radomir Antic, the acting coach to Barcelona, believes that 100,000 Catalans will transform his side into a rampant force when Juventus visit the Nou Camp on April 22.
“We didn’t play at our best,” Antic conceded after the 1-1 draw in Turin.
“But the result we got was optimal.”
It came because Marcello Lippi, the Juventus coach, started with a solitary forward and was of opposite mind to the banner in the stands urging: “Avanti Signora,” forward the Old Lady of Torino.
True, Alessandro Del Piero is the most exquisite of her sons. He can move, sometimes, with a balance and a grace, that puts him close to the gods of Real. But alone, without the injured David Trezeguet, he became discouraged.
Four times Del Piero glided, four times Carles Puyol fouled him. From the free kick after 14 minutes Juventus scored through its own bruiser, Poalo Montero, taking advantage of goalkeeper Roberto Bonano’s inability to hold the ball.
Montero’s left-foot finish was sweet, but once more a goal to the good by an Italian side led to entrenchment.
Gradually Barca, which has won only once in Italy in 38 years, realised Juve did not have the instinct to finish the job.
So, Barcelona counterattacked. In the 78th minute, Patrick Kluivert awoke to send a fine return pass down the left for Michael Reiziger, who crossed low into the penalty area.
Javier Saviola darted to the ball, flicked it toward goal, and off the leg of Montero it took a decisive deflection to enter the net. Montero had breached defences at either end.
His coach feels cheated, but the scoreline reflected the lack of ambition of his team’s attempt at organised sterility. – IHT