Marcel Desailly, June 2016

(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)

 

After the semi-finals of France’s last major football tournament, as the country’s whole population belatedly got behind their ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup team, Marcel Desailly felt relief and even elation – but not for the reasons that might be expected.
“I remember when the Dutch got eliminated by Brazil in the semi-final, we were happy,” the 47-year-old explains, his voice rising in excitement at the memory. “Everyone had been watching in their rooms and suddenly we were all in the corridor, discussing it. We were happy. Brazil were one of the three top teams… but the Dutch. They had a tactical set-up that could cause us problems.”
In other words, the French were far more fearful of the Netherlands than they were “the phenomenon” of the Brazilian Ronaldo. The story of how the 21-year-old sensation suffered a seizure but still played in the 1998 final has come to dominate all memories of that greatly resonant World Cup, but he never dominated the minds of that French team in the same way. Once the Dutch were out, Desailly and his team fully believed they could claim a World Cup win many thought would be a transformative moment for the country’s uncomfortable relationship with race.
The little anecdote is far from the only time over the course of a 45-minute interview that Desailly punctures perceptions, or puts a more complex and nuanced perspective on things – and not just football or Euro 2016. The former world and European champion is an easy man to talk to, so often laughing and joking, but he does not settle for easy answers. Take when the conversation naturally moves towards the context of this summer’s tournament, and whether France actually needs victory amid so many recurring racial politics and the awful terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Many footballers would take the easy option and offer a platitude to get out of the discussion. Not Desailly. As a migrant born in Ghana, he feels such issues are important to properly engage with, and a lengthy answer on French racial integration ends with a statement of real impact.
“It will bring a positive environment at that moment,” he says of a potential Euro 2016 victory, “but it will not last.”
Desailly knows this too well. France’s 1998 win didn’t change the country. Eighteen years on, the political issues that clouded that World Cup have grown even more complex. Euro 2016 comes at an even more challenging time.
There is obvious excitement and hope for a joyous international party in a perfect setting for a tournament, but every aspect of it – right down to whether the hosts can actually succeed the 1998-2000 team and end up champions – is under-layered with significant debate. Having led the team from centre-half through that golden era, Desailly is the perfect man to speak on the build-up, and notices many parallels with 1998: a highly talented team expected to end over a decade of acrimony, a difficult climate around it, and a country getting to grips with both. It makes it even odder France is not a ‘football nation’ in the way somewhere like Brazil was for 2014. That is something else that hasn’t changed. Ireland will be going to a big party where only part of the nation are interested.
“In France, we say the football is [open itals] populaire [close]: the working class and middle like it, but the wealthy class? It’s not like in Spain, Germany or Italy, where every single one loves the games. It’s changing a little bit because the wealthy class discover football through business… but it’s not that high, so we need time in France to build up the hope and the craziness around our team.”
That was precisely what happened in 1998 but, in a strange way, the relative apathy from some areas deepens the tension around the team.
“We don’t know how the French players will handle the pressure,” Desailly says of his 2016 successors. “In 1998, the training session before the first game was terrible – terrible. Everyone was under pressure. It locked us up, and was the same for the game. Luckily, we were much better than South Africa.”
France won that 3-0, with a soft group stage then allowing them to harden, and cohere. It became the classic story of how a team grows with a tournament, as Desailly explains.
“It was similar to what is happening now. The team was not fully ready, the tactical set-up strange. Everyone would have loved to have seen the French team from the beginning believing they could win but it took very long, probably from the quarter-final. The key element is getting luck. So we have South Africa first, then [Zinedine] Zidane got the red card [against Saudi Arabia], Thierry Henry takes over and it still works, Laurent Blanc scores the golden goal against Paraguay to make the difference, Italy on penalties, [Lilian] Thuram never scores and he suddenly comes from nowhere to score two against Croatia. The same for the final, Zidane – who did not appear – then bang, brings the extra. Every single player has been able to be at his best.”
It also brought out the best in the country. The team was fully embraced and individual players put forward as symbols of successful integration, with much talk of “a new France”. It didn’t take long to return to old debates.
Eric Cantona detonated one again last week when he suggested Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been left out of the French squad due to political pressure because “their origins are north African”, despite the Real Madrid striker being embroiled in a blackmail scandal. The many strands to the story illustrate the complexity. Desailly defends the decision of manager Didier Deschamps, who he says is still a good friend, insisting “it pains him to leave out Benzema”.
Even aside from the rights or wrongs of that case, does it disappoint Desailly that France 98 did not erode such discussions?
“No,” he says, pausing before offering a longer answer he has evidently pondered a lot. “We know that, for a long-term positive change, it’s just not possible for football to do this. For a moment, yes. When you see someone of African origin or a North African guy taking the French flag, it’s a real moment of communion… but after?”
“France is advanced in terms of social protection – health care, workers’ rights – but the [structure] makes it very hard for people coming from outside to succeed and build up that social respect. You cannot succeed by your motivation alone. There are more barriers.
“In England, we have difficult areas but you still have a little bit of respect throughout the immigrant community. Why? Because many have succeeded and, socially, they’ve brought some kind of respect [for immigrants] into the system. We don’t have this in France and, if we have it, the level is very small.
“It’s not easy for French people to be fully positive towards immigrants because of the lack of integration, by the type of administration we have.
“That’s why immigrants did not have the opportunity to show they have talent and through talent they gain respect so it has not really changed… football cannot resolve that.”
A Euro 2016 victory can help, though?
“It brings a positive attitude, hope, energy, motivation… but it will not last.”
He also feels it’s far too simplistic to place any attempt to win the competition in the context of the November attacks. In any case, putting that expectation on players can be counter-productive. It turns into an enlightening answer on the nature of sports psychology and concentration.
“Through the perception outside, through your friends and family, the crowd, you build up your responsibility. But, as a player, as soon as you put on that responsibility, you put on pressure. When your brain is starting to go into that responsibility, we wash away. We try every time to kill it, to be able to concentrate on ourselves and get into our bubble to perform.
“Sometimes the journalists asks you questions, ‘you must feel this’. It’s different for us. In France, we had a big polemic, asking why the footballers are not singing the Marseillaise. They took the example of the rugby man. The rugby man, they grab [each other], ready to die, there eyes are there… but we are not the same. The rugby man needs to build up energy and aggression to be able to perform. We don’t need that. We have to keep calm, think about what we have to do, we cannot build up that energy.
“I could have been like the rugby guy and at the beginning of the game I would have gone crazy, tackled everyone, so I have to reject that emotional part. I have to kill it to be able to deliver my performance.
“It’s very difficult to explain.”
That is like much with France and these Euros. Desailly has successfully done his best. Now, his successors in the team just need to follow suit. France could do with a similar festival as 1998 – even the effects are not as lasting as will be pronounced.

Wenger’s obsession

This originally appeared on ESPN FC on 15 February 2012

For all Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a continental football master, one of the anomalies of his career is that he’s never quite mastered continental football.
In fact, he’s never won any of its competitions but been bridesmaid in all of them.
In 1992, his Monaco team lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Werder Bremen. In 2000, his Arsenal lost the Uefa Cup final to Galatasaray and, most recently in 2006, he saw the Champions League slip away against Barcelona.
The strong likelihood this season, of course, is that the wait will go on. Possibly indefinitely.
Indeed, such has been the scale of Arsenal’s issues in this campaign that it almost seems preposterous to be talking about them as potential champions of Europe any time soon; particularly in the current context of the competition.
After a period in the mid-2000s when a series of teams who finished third, fourth and fifth in their domestic leagues illustrated how open and random cup football can be by lifting Europe’s most prestigious trophy, the Champions League appears to have reclaimed its status as the continent’s ultimate barometer of brilliance. In the last four years, all of its winners – Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter – have also claimed their domestic title in the same season. And, even more impressively, all of those victories were part of extended rallies of trophies.
That hardly gives hope to a team who haven’t lifted any silverware in seven years and are desperately fighting to even qualify for the Champions League.
Worse, Arsenal’s last two appearances illustrated just how far away they are from the competition’s elite end as they were eliminated twice by Barcelona in relatively emphatic fashion.
As such, you would imagine Wenger has a little bit too much on his mind to be looking so far ahead. However, that would also involve discounting just how much the Champions League dominates his thinking.
Over the last two decades, much has been made of Alex Ferguson’s “obsession” with the competition. But Wenger’s is arguably equal to it and has never received anywhere near the same attention or examination.
Sources close to him testify that he sees it as a “gaping hole in his CV” and an objective more pressing than reclaiming the league title. He publicly hinted this himself a few years ago.
“I want to win the Champions League but it’s step by step. And to win not once but two or three times, to go into the history of European football.”
Step by step is one thing though. One of the many idiosyncratic problems with Wenger’s Arsenal is that they’ve never walked any kind of steady line in Europe. They’ve never shown the progression or learning curve that, say, Ferguson’s Manchester United sides did between 1996-1999 or 2006-2008.
Indeed, perfectly illustrating Wenger’s peculiar relationship with the competition, Arsenal have got to the final one season only to exit at the last 16 the next; or dismantled a European giant in one round before being eliminated by a smaller fish in the following.
His very first campaign arguably set the tone: in 1988-89, Monaco absolutely annihilated a very competent Club Brugge only to immediately fall to a mediocre Galatasaray.
And, if you do go back that far, his entire record is revealing. In a total of 15 completed seasons in the European Cup/Champions League, Wenger has reached the final once, the semi-finals twice, the quarter-finals and last 16 five times each and gone out at the first hurdle twice.
With Arsenal, his average round of elimination has been the last 16: exactly where he finds himself now.
Hardly encouraging or edifying. And, for a style that seems so suited to European football, also hard to explain.
But then perhaps his Champions League record also reflects exactly why Wenger’s career trophy cabinet isn’t as glittering as it perhaps should be. Because, as his title-winning sides of 1998, 2002 and 2004 perfectly illustrated, Wenger’s style of management and football both work best when his teams are at full confidence; when the new-age football comes off so naturally that they don’t even have to think about it.
When that confidence is broken, however, it seems to take Wenger a long time to rebuild. And, not only might that explain why he’s never retained a league title but also the oscillating European seasons. In short, his teams seem to find it difficult to overcome a poor domestic run to deliver continental results. The eliminations to Bayern Munich in 2005 and PSV Eindhoven in 2007 would appear perfect cases in point.
What’s more, Wenger has never quite proven himself as tactically pragmatic in Europe as Ferguson or Rafa Benitez – England’s last two champions. Both, for example, evolved and adapted. Wenger hasn’t other than the run to the final in 2006; a run that was also built on Martin Keown’s defensive work.
As such, a lot will depend on his side’s confidence. But that’s also what now makes this tie with Milan so interesting.
Had Arsenal not won at Sunderland on Saturday then you could have been genuinely worried for them. Instead, they claimed the sort of late, electrifying victory against awkward opposition that can change mentalities and seasons. It may well prove their most significant result of the campaign.
But just as significant might be the exact make-up of this Champions League. In contrast to previous years, two of the best sides in Europe – Manchester City and Manchester United – are already out. Meanwhile, the continent’s very best – Barcelona – seem to be struggling with complacency and conditioning. Should they meet Real Madrid early on, too, a path could well be cleared.
All of a sudden, we may end up with one of the most open Champions League seasons since 2007.
It was around that period, of course, that Arsenal enjoyed their best ever performance in the competition.
And it seems it’s going to take something similar if Wenger is ever to master that obsession.

Champions League final 2014 report: Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid (aet)

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner

Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid

Miguel Delaney, Estadio Da Luz

Having finally put Real Madrid’s name back on the European Cup, a serene Carlo Ancelotti put it into the club’s true terms.

“On my first day, when I went to the Santiago Bernabeu trophy room, I said to the president [Florentino Perez] that there was one trophy missing.”

Ancelotti has completed that job, delivered La Decima, and it’s difficult to think of a more complete victory in terms of the dimensions of their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid.

This, in so many ways, was the perfect 10th. The wait made it all the more wonderful for Real, the circumstances all the more special.

For a start, right at the death, there was the relief and release of Sergio Ramos’s stoppage-time equaliser. It gave Real new life, and killed all of Atletico’s momentum. From there, there was only one winner, but also one player who needed to score that key goal most.

Gareth Bale went some way to justifying his world-record transfer fee, and overcoming so many earlier misses, by heading in the decisive effort that finally put Real ahead. Marcelo made it 3-1 before the man that Bale succeeded as the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, got his big goal in his home country.

Then, there was the significance of all that. The competition’s most successful ever club brought the trophy back to what they consider its rightful home, and against the side closest to home.

Perez looked on proudly. The Real Madrid president could finally say all that outlay was worth it, given how so many of his expensive stars had struck. It was testament to Ancelotti’s ability to handle top players. It also meant the Italian had his hands on a landmark third European Cup as a manager, finally becoming the figure to match Bob Paisley’s record.

On the pitch and off it, the emotions were clear. Iker Casillas said it was better than winning the World Cup. On 90 minutes, the goalkeeper had energetically grabbed Ramos and kissed him, fully aware of the importance and immortality of that equaliser. The two Real stalwarts were the last to leave the stadium mixed zone, but not until after Casillas had held up two hands to signify those 10 European Cups.

In the end, for all the emotion, it’s difficult not to distil it down to the numbers like that: a 12-year wait since Real’s ninth Champions League, over €1bn spent, three world transfer records… and one minute from the most painful failure.

That shows how close Atletico came, but also how far away Diego Simeone’s side really were.

The story of their season has been how they so admirably defied football’s economic realities. In winning the Spanish title, they spent so much energy, rather than money. It couldn’t continue indefinitely, despite Diego Godin’s opening goal. Real had that bit more.

In extreme circumstances like that, it’s difficult to put such a result down to any single factors. Had a bounce gone a different direction, or a ball gone another way, Atletico would be celebrating.

Instead, the only issue that Simeone was lamenting was the gamble on Diego Costa, who went off injured after nine minutes. The true consequence of that was that Atletico could really have done with that extra substitute as the extremities of the game sapped their energy.

“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did.”

Simeone, however, acknowledged that Real deserved it late on, but it takes nothing from Atletico’s campaign.

“You have to look at it overall – Madrid were better in the second half, they kept us in our half and we couldn’t get out. Football is wonderful because of that.

“The supporters should be proud of an excellent season, they shouldn’t waste a single second being sad.”

Bale, by contrast, had wasted many a chance.

“A few thoughts crept into my mind,” he admitted afterwards. “It happens and sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green but you have to keep persisting, keep going and you may get that chance that will may get that chance that will make the difference. Thankfully, I was able to get that chance and I was able to take it.”

Ancelotti, meanwhile, insisted it was down to much more than the “rub of the green”.

“You can say I’m a lucky man in the end, or you can say that we tried to do everything until the last second of the game.”

Real certainly did try to do everything, but not just on this night in Lisbon. It means, for now at least, they have achieved everything that has consumed the club for the past decade: la Decima.

***

A version of this originally appeared on The Score

Right at the death, this Real Madrid team ensured immortality. La Decima was delivered in Lisbon, Atletico Madrid suffered devastation.

And, having set it up, Sergio Ramos summed it up.

“It was incredible,” the centre-half said of his injury-time equaliser in Real’s 4-1 win. “That goal isn’t mine, it’s everybody’s.”

It also meant everything.

For all that Gareth Bale ultimately proved his worth with the second goal, and Cristiano Ronaldo crowned his night with the fourth, it was Ramos who provided La Decima’s decisive and defining moment.

His plundering header brought so much to a head.

This had so much wrapped up in it, even by the standards of late goals in this famous fixture, from Teddy Sheringham in 1999 to Arjen Robben in 2013.

Most immediately, it transformed a 1-0 defeat into a 4-1 procession. Real were suddenly soaring after such a struggle.

Yet, whatever about exaggerating their victory, the unexpected extent of the winning margin only emphasised and reflected the importance of that moment – and not just on the night.

Most obviously, of course, it changed the dynamic. Ramos’s goal ensured all of Atletico’s energy was finally eroded, while Real played with a new momentum. That meant, rather than talking about a modern football miracle, we were merely celebrating the club that were already the most successful in the competition’s history. Instead of Atletico continuing to defy the sport’s economic realities, Real confirmed the value of spending a billion. One side won their long-expected 10th trophy, another were denied what would have been a novel first.

The goal may have changed this match, but it also ensured the game in general remains the same.

None of this is to deny the fundamentally sporting qualities of the Real players’ victory. Carlo Ancelotti’s team displayed supreme character to keep going, and then accelerate.

Yet, when it comes to such proper knife-edge moments like Ramos’s equaliser, it can genuinely be difficult and even foolhardy to place too much importance in any individual reasons for success or failure.

Had one kick been slightly under-hit, or one pass further been over-played, it could have been completely different. Atletico would be celebrating.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to look at the multiple strands that ensured that single moment was so decisive.

Here, some blame must go to the otherwise brilliant Diego Simeone. For a start, quite literally, there was the gamble on Diego Costa’s fitness. While the decision to play the injured striker from the beginning was someway understandable, his bizarrely early withdrawal ensured Atletico were denied a substitute in those energy-sapping closing stages. Imagine, by contrast, the effect of bringing Costa on at that point?

Secondly, there was the way in which Simeone’s cynicism eventually proved a negative for his own team. All that defending, and all that systemic fouling, only increased the pressure. Atletico’s time-wasting, meanwhile, gave Ramos an even greater window to equalise.

Yet, from a wider perspective, it would be hugely unfair to overly fault Simeone and his side for any of that that. They themselves are not exactly playing in the fairest context.

The Argentine cannot spend multi-millions on transfers, or call on a series of the world’s most expensive players.

Simeone has to cut his cloth to measure, and that won’t always be pretty, especially after the exertions of the domestic league victory.

In that regard, there was a certain inevitability about Real’s recovery, even if it didn’t feel like it in the anxious moments leading up to it.

Ancelotti’s side won by sheer force of numbers. That’s in an almost literal sense, at least in terms of transfer fees

They were able to rely on record signings, who simply hadn’t expended the same energy in recent weeks. So much effort had been spent on Atletico’s title win. So much money had been spent in Real’s last decade.

It said much that the world’s most expensive player scored Real’s second goal and the next most expensive scored the fourth.

Of course, you can’t put any value on the kind of emotions authentically experienced by all at the club on finally ending that wait, but that in itself raises another issue.

This is now the third season in a row in which one of the super-wealthy modern super-clubs have ended a long Champions League drought. Chelsea at last won their first in 2012; Bayern Munich won a first in 12 years in 2013; Real did the same tonight.

The novelty value of ending these waits starts to wear off, even if that is obviously not the case for those at the clubs.

The feeling grows that the old elusiveness of the European Cup is now gone for such clubs. A cabal of them will just ending up passing the trophy around, even more so than the last decade. If you have the money, you’ll eventually get your turn.

That the last three finals all came down to the last minute actually emphasises the point. It doesn’t show how agonisingly close Borussia Dortmund and Atletico came, but prove how far away they are.

As the margins lessened, the true gaps were revealed.

That is why that Ramos minute was so momentous, and not just for La Decima.

The final rise of the super-clubs, May 2014

A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC

Miguel Delaney

Lisbon

Carlo Ancelotti was never going to pass up the opportunity. With the Puerto del Sol waiting for the victorious Real Madrid squad in the centre of the Spanish capital, the Italian coach took the microphone, and began to serenade the crowd. Elsewhere Dani Carvajal showed off a beard he had died blonde, while Iker Casillas’s young son cutely bit into his father’s newly-minted Champions League winner’s medal. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.

The exhausted relief of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid had given way to jubilant release. For all the traditional elitism of a club like Real, these were endearingly base human reactions. The squad were simply revelling in the reflection of that 10th European Cup.

A 12-year wait, and one big weight, had lifted.

It was impossible to begrudge the players or coaching staff.

It was also impossible not to think we’d seen similar scenes rather recently.

Of course we had: in the last two seasons.

The emotions on view around Madrid were similar to those in the Allianz Arena last season and London’s Kings Road the year before.

In 2012, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to joyously win the first Champions League in their history. The following campaign, the German side immediately bounced back to end their own 12-year wait.

The speed with which Bayern did that is pointed.

It’s difficult to imagine Atletico Madrid returning to such a position so quickly, just as 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund could only reach the quarter-finals this season. It’s also difficult to think many of the super clubs will ever go on such lengthy droughts again.

This is the wider point to those Champions League wins of the last few years, and the manner in which those three elite clubs claimed victory. While the emotions of people directly involved are obviously so deeply felt, the frequency of these ‘once-a-generation’ celebrations gradually renders them less wondrous for many others. We’ve seen the story before.

If a big club is ending a wait every other season, it only increases the sense they’re all just eventually going to get their turn. That’s possibly because that’s precisely what’s happening. It is the increasing trend in the Champions League, more so than ever before.

A cabal of about seven to 10 super-clubs now have so much power and so close to each other in terms of baseline level that, if they keep generally competitive to a competent level, the odds are the roulette wheel will eventually land in their favour; that the great trophy will come to them.

To illustrate the case, consider the situation in the late 90s, just before the Champions League fully and finally expanded to its current size.

Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning the trophy before 1998, Manchester United 31 before 1999. Bayern ended up going 25 years prior to 2001. Barcelona, meanwhile, were the great underachievers in the competition’s history. The Catalans only won it once in the first 40 years of the event.

Compare all that to now, and the length of time it is since this list of clubs last won the trophy:

Real Madrid – 0 years

Bayern Munich – 1 year

Chelsea – 2 years

Barcelona – 3 years

Manchester United – 6 years

The point becomes clear. Previously, there was a genuine elusiveness to the trophy, no matter who you were. Now, that true depth of elusiveness only exists for those outside the cabal. Once the big clubs properly adjusted to the extra demands of newly expanded Champions League from around 2007, and built squads of sufficient size, they set a certain bar. Beyond, the sense grows the trophy will merely pass around between them.

This is of course not to play down the achievement of any individual team, since they still have to do all their jobs right and show requisite character to actually go and win it in a given season. But, on a macro level, it is a reality that a core of clubs are no so broadly close to each other that they will just crash against each other to the point the path clears for one.

This is the problem when the economics of European football allow a small group to pull so far clear of the rest. And, if it is immensely difficult to catch up with these sides, it is easy to see who and what they are. It is nothing to do with history or structure, or old money against new money. It is simply those with enough power and potential to employ the world’s top band of players and coaches.

They are, primarily: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City. Five of them have won it in the last seven years, and City’s time is surely coming.

A secondary growing group, meanwhile, are Paris Saint-German, Arsenal and Juventus. They could eventually be joined by the likes of Monaco. Everyone else has to work so much harder to just keep, and thereby properly compete for the top trophies.

Many may point to the fact Dortmund and Atletico got to the final in consecutive years, but both sides virtually prove the argument.

They are not super-clubs, so needed rare super-coaches to come anywhere near victory. It was still not enough in the Champions League, and the elite are already chasing Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The fact both of their finals also went to the wire further emphasises the point.

So near, yet still so far.

Atletico were on the brink of something truly radical, to go with their sensational Spanish title win. Instead, continental football reverted to a default state. Real Madrid were talking about returning to their “rightful place”. That very description sums up the issue.

There are a core of clubs that feel the same way and, by law of averages, will soon get similar opportunities.

On this occasion, Ancelotti took his opportunity, and not just on the Puerto del Sol stage. Next season, we’ll likely hear the same old song.

Champions League 2012 report: Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea (Chelsea win 4-3 on penalties

Miguel Delaney

In Munich

Moments after Frank Lampard finally lifted the prize that Roman Abramovich has obsessed about above all others, the Chelseaowner strode away from the Allianz Arena podium like a man on another mission.

He hurried past the assembled media, refusing to even admit he was happy. He refused, in fact, to say a thing.

Finally, by the time he got to the Chelsea dressing-room – and by the time the jubilant players made their way back – he spoke.

What Abramovich said, however, was seemingly only for those who heard it. John Terry wouldn’t reveal. Frank Lampard wouldn’t reveal. And, from his boss’s words to whether he will even have a job next week, Roberto Di Matteo was giving nothing away.

But that was only in keeping with the 2012 Champions League final as a whole and his team’s run towards it.

Of course, the minimalist, defensive style of Chelsea’s victory was not exactly in the manner that Abramovich imagined when he fist decided to buy the club after being dazzled by a Real Madrid master-class at Old Trafford.

In many ways, however, this was a more appropriate win.

First, it was fired – and secured – by the player who arguably defines the Abramovich era more than any other. Unlike both Lampard and Terry, Didier Drogba was bought for huge money, was one of the first to come and – for the moment – is one of the last of those initial signings to remain. The striker refused to be drawn on whether his emphatic winning penalty was his last kick for the club but did, apparently, make an emotional speech in the dressing-room.

That it came to that kick was also because of the kind of drama and occasional chaos that has typified Chelsea’s history in this competition and created such an obsession. All of the club’s keynote moments – from missed penalties to dubious penalties to devastating last-minute equalisers – were repeated on Saturday in reverse. Ultimately, Drogba got to take the kick he never could in Moscow.

Finally, the entire victory was built on the element that has been almost as important to Chelsea’s last decade of success as Abramovich’s wealth: the durable defensive base that Jose Mourinho put in place.

Immediately after the final, there were already questions about the exact ‘morality’ of Chelsea’s win and whether the success of such a defensive system from such an elite club was good for the game.

“I think the supporters are happy,” Di Matteo argued. “You have to try and get the best out of what you have and that’s what we did.”

To a certain extent, he’s right. It may not have been the purest way to win. But, given the circumstances and given the time available, it was the only way Di Matteo was going to win the Champions League [open itals] this [close] season. After the chaos and aging team he inherited from Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo had little choice but to revert to the framework the side’s core knew best.

This was something Lampard also touched on as he defended the team’s approach,

“We weren’t playing good football three months ago. We weren’t at a good level. And, to become organised, Robbie’s got to take a lot of credit… he’s built confidence and spirit in the group.”

Lampard also praised the manager’s general demeanour in a statement in which the slightest criticism of Terry’s behaviour could be construed.

“There’s a humility about him, the way he even picked up the cup. He’s been really, really impressive to me.”

Such a description, of course, is difficult to apply to the game itself. It certainly wasn’t a vintage final. Indeed, in terms of general play if not drama, it went exactly as expected: Bayern’s proactive control against Chelsea’s attempts to contain and counter. Given that, many will point to the pity that the team that actually tried to win the game didn’t do so.

But, in truth, Bayern Munich wouldn’t have been vintage champions themselves.

For one, there was their attitude. All through the build-up and many stages of the game itself, there seemed an unsavoury assumption the home team would win. That culminated in the Basler 1999-style moment when Thomas Muller was brought off for Daniel Van Buyten to receive the acclaim of scoring the expected winning goal.

When things went against Bayern, however, their attitude was the exact opposite and just as extreme. As soon as Mario Gomez failed to score the first of many chances, there was an angst creeping into their play. By the time Muller volleyed wide shortly before half-time, their body language betrayed genuine anxiety. They were snatching at chances and trying to force things. The pressure had got to them. And it contributed to a situation where they only scored once from a massive 35 efforts on goal.

By contrast, Chelsea only won one corner. They scored from it.

That illustrated a wasteful front and a soft centre in a hugely inconsistent and incomplete Bayern.

It shouldn’t be forgotten either that, for long stretches, these teams looked exactly what they are: effective also-rans in their domestic league. Chelsea’s otherwise impressive defence still allowed too many chances; Bayern missed them. As a result, the sixth-placed English side are somewhere around Liverpool 2005 in the competition’s pantheon; nowhere near the level of the last few years.

That, however, is knock-out football. Its nuances create such situations; not to mention one where a club from a country famous for scoring penalties let a player from a country infamous for missing them hit the key kick.

Many Chelsea players cited Arjen Robben’s miss as the point they truly believed.

Ultimately, too, they found the formula to properly build on that belief.

It may not have been pure. It certainly does not mean they are the best on the continent. But, in the end, Di Matteo’s minimalism reaped maximum reward. Abramovich, meanwhile, enjoyed the ultimate return on his investment.

***

THE OBSESSION IS finally obliterated.
It may not have been done so in style. It may not have been a vintage final. Chelsea may not be vintage champions.
But they are, ultimately, champions.
The percentage-play tactics received the ultimate pay-off. Indeed, given the nature of Chelsea’s approach, it is arguably – for once – apt that the 2012 final boiled down to the simple logistics of a penalty shoot-out.
Indeed, the identity of the heroes was also entirely appropriate.
Petr Cech has recovered form magnificently over the past few months, and arguably returned to his world-class best. Although neither of Ivica Olic’s or Bastien Schweinsteiger’s penalties were particularly well-struck, they were decently placed and the Czech had to stretch to keep them out.
In front of him, Ashley Cole has been exceptional in Roberto Di Matteo’s reversion to a team more solidly based on Jose Mourinho’s defensive foundation. His battle with Arjen Robben was epic and it was a pity that the rest of the clashes on the pitch didn’t live up to its levels.
One man did though. He arguably surpassed them: Didier Drogba. The man whose energy up front actually makes Di Matteo’s tactics workable ultimately won this game in multiple ways: first with the force that Chelsea had been missing to bring what seemed an unlikely equaliser. Secondly, by facing down Manuel Neuer – and the Bayern stand – to thump home the winning penalty.
For Chelsea, the player that has almost defined the Roman Abramovich era more than any other (unlike both John Terry and Frank Lampard, he was bought in expensively) struck its most decisive kick. For Bayern, it ended an exuberant – and, in truth, expected – party.
All around this final, there was a huge sense of anticipation that Bayern would have a relatively easy ascension.
It didn’t translate to the players though. Although, as also expected, they largely controlled the game with their possession, their failure to quickly make it count gave rise to anxiety strikingly quickly. When Thomas Muller volled wide from an inviting position shortly before half-time, the body language said a lot.
Of course, once Muller finally scored, shortly before full-time, the body language then said even more.
Finally, the Bayern players allowed themselves to believe. They were to regret it.
With Muller taken off for a defender in Daniel Van Buyten, the shape and emphasis changed. Chelsea at last showed a bit of ambition and Drogba made it count.
From there, it was a completely different tie.
Suddenly, it was open. Suddenly, there were no guarantees… until Drogba foolishly fouled for the penalty.
Then, a team from a country famous for scoring penalties allowed a player from a country infamous for missing them to hit one. He did so poorly.
After that, it seemed the two teams were only playing the game out until the situation would be replicated.
It was. But, crucially, for more Bayern players than Chelsea ones.
Di Matteo’s minimalism had prevailed by the narrowest of margins: a tie-breaker.
Of course, Chelsea’s approach may not have been pure. But, to a degree, it was the only way they were ever going to win this trophy this season.
Plunged into a desperate situation, Di Matteo had to revert to what his players knew best: that defensive base, even if he did show some admirable alterations up front.
That may not be to people’s liking. But that’s what cup football is.
Chelsea may not be the best team in Europe. But thanks to the manager’s pragmatism, Abramovich’s riches and the players’ durability and attitude, they are its champions for the very first time.

Champions League final report 2013: Borussia Dortmund 1-2 Bayern Munich

Miguel Delaney, Wembley Stadium

A wait has ended, a weight is lifted and Bayern Munich thereby rise well above the rest of Europe.

Of that, there can be no argument. If the Champions League knock-out format only occasionally rewards the most rightful winner by accident rather than design, Bayern brutally eliminated any element of chance at Wembley. By the end of this groundshaking showdown with Borussia Dortmund, their utter dominance reflected their undisputed status as the continent’s best team. The 2-1 final score confirmed it.

Jupp Heynckes has now won two Champions League trophies as a manager, while Bayern have lifted five as a club.

The key question now is whether this is the first of many for this squad.

Because, as much as this victory proved the culmination of one period, it may prove the start of something else.

That is the potential effect of a cathartic moment like this. The relief was evident. The release, for everyone else, may be ominous.

Make no mistake. Had Bayern managed to lose this match, and to such a close rival, it could have created an even more neurotic complex about this competition for the club.

Consider the amount of anxieties and and troubling experiences that led up to Arjen Robben’s eventual winner.

At that exact point in the previous year’s final, Didier Drogba had scored the goal that sent Bayern’s match into a tailspin. That strike had been preceded by a series of misses which had been repeated in this game, not least from Robben himself.

As Neven Subotic desperately cleared Thomas Muller’s 71st-minute shot off the line just as the Dutch forward was ready to point, there seemed to be an element of destiny about it all; that Bayern would again be bound to punishing failure.

Instead, Robben made his own destiny by discarding so many difficult moments and memories and even having the poise to second-guess Roman Weidenfeller.

It illustrated remarkable mental fortitude, particularly after Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty had almost immediately cancelled out Mario Mandzukic’s scrambled opener.

“We didn’t resign ourselves to our fate,” Heynckes said afterwards. “We upped the ante and tried even harder. You’ve seen the result.”

We’ve also seen the numbers. The chastening experiences of previous campaigns were offset by the champion-making excess of this one. Bayern have broken virtually every record going in the Bundesliga to arrive at this point. In that, it marks a true completion. They were hardened by the harsh lessons of 2010 and 2012 but also lifted by the luscious excellence of 2012-13.

“I think in the whole history of the Bundesliga there has been no team that has played at such consistency, such a high level, 25 points clearing and winning the championship, breaking almost all the records in the Bundesliga. Today, we saw that my team was determined to win that match.”

That was the other impressive aspect. Bayern did not just overcome the endings of their last two Champions League finals, but also the beginning of this one. For the first half hour, it seemed like an excellently intense Dortmund were going to blow them away. Instead, Heynckes’s side held their nerve and gradually took hold of the game.

“To begin with, we didn’t quite find out feet and I have to pay a compliment to Dortmund,” Heynckes said. “They pressed forward, we didn’t find our rhythm and it was a difficult match for us but, before the breakthrough with Robben, we had two opportunities and after the break we took command of the game. I think it’s because of the second half we really deserved to win.”

It also defined the differences between the two sides. As Bayern increasingly came together, Dortmund started to come apart. The gaps in their make-up grew even larger, allowing the likes of Robben more and more space.

That also reflects the chasm that has developed between the two squads as a whole this season, and that is no accident. It has come about for two reasons.

One, it must be admitted, is Bayern’s immense workrate.

They did not just display drive but also application.

“From the outset of the season, we have been changing things, improving things, adapting things. We have a team spirit and ability to work together which I have never experienced in a championship.

“We’ve worked tremendously hard for it, especially in the training sessions, but also on psychology, on communication.”

There was also, however, the platform and power they enjoyed. Heynckes himself referenced the two key signings that effectively completed the team as a unit.

“[Javi] Martinez and Dante, players that have been bullseye successes.”

And, as respectful as the entire post-match atmosphere had been between both teams and the two managers, Heynckes couldn’t resist one big punch.

“We know [Mario] Goetze will be joining us and I don’t think [Robert] Lewandowski will be hanging about too much either.”

This, perhaps, is the real significance of this final. Had Dortmund won, it would have proven such a blow to Bayern that a true rivalry might have been fostered. Instead, they have only consolidated their singular dominance.

They don’t just have the resources; they don’t just have all the most important signings; they don’t just now have one of the best managers in Pep Guardiola.

They also have the belief and cathartic conquest that completes all of that.

Even Goetze will add another dimension to that attack.

It is frightening and may well see the Champions League retained for the first time since 1990. Now Bayern have finally banished their recent history, the rest of Europe suddenly has a lot of catching up to do – even Barcelona, who they so humbled en route to this final.

As a consequence, Robben’s goal represented the perfect ascension: an emotional last-minute winner to complete a commanding season that actually lifts the club above the Catalans in terms of European Cups won.

“I think of course FC Bayern next year will have to prove that can continue to do these things,” Heynckes said. “But I think it possible that a new era in Europe might have begin under the aegis of FC Bayern.”

It certainly felt like it on the night. Bayern themselves, meanwhile, finally felt like European champions.

***

The perfect season, the most perfect of endings.

Bayern Munich did not just confirm their undeniable status as Europe’s best team and bring an incredible campaign to crescendo. They also washed away away all the woe of the last few years. The relief and release were palpable.

Most notably, Arjen Robben overcome so much personal anguish. At almost the same point in the game that Didier Drogba scored last year to send the Munich final into such a tailspin and make the Dutch forward’s penalty miss so decisive, Robbencoolly slotted the winner. More impressively, it came after this final seemed to be following a similar course. You could have forgiven the number-11 for frantically fluffing that late chance given how poor his previous three one-on-ones his previous. Instead, he illustrated composure, character and outright craft to delicately put the ball the other side of the excellent Roman Weidenfeller.

It was cruel on the goalkeeper given how superbly he had performed throughout, barely slipping once. That in itself illustrated just how complete Bayern’s domination was by that point.

For Dortmund, this was no longer a fairytale. It was a grim test of endurance as their goal was increasingly pounded. Ultimately, it reflected the clear chasm that has grown between the sides.

As utterly exceptional as Dortmund can be when they are at their best, any drop-off will reveal the amount of gaps in that make-up. Too many times here, Robben was left in so much space in their half. In that sense, it perhaps made the winner as inevitable as it was innovative.

For that, though, Dortmund can perhaps also look to the opening half hour. While that saw so many of their finest attributes, it also created a franticness that ensured they overplayed too many attacks. It also left them without reward, as Bayern gradually rose to the challenge.

By the end of the half, Bayern were clearly in the ascendancy. They had survived the onslaught and were now surging forward. It perhaps illustrated that there is more to their game, more elements to their side. On the hour, Robben finally illustrated another element to his game as he squared for Mario Mandzukic instead of shooting. The Croatian gladly headed in the opener.

In fact, it was telling that Dortmund’s equaliser had to come from a reckless Dante challenge rather than a true moment of attacking quality. All their energy had seemed expended in the opening half. The irrepressible Ilkay Gundogan still had enough to slot home.

In truth, Dante should have been off the field by then for a second booking, while Franck Ribery also escaped appropriate punishment for an elbow. On Dortmund’s side, though, Lewandowski illustrated similar petulance on a disappointing night for him.

As Bayern struggled to finish, it seemed they needed a forward of the Pole’s calibre.

Instead, Robben showed the quality that has previously been missing on his biggest games.

Now, he’s provided one of the biggest goals in Bayern’;s history. They’ve won it five times. Jupp Heynckes has won it twice.

The question, for the squad as a whole, is whether this will be the first of many.

Robben: vindication and victory

A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC in May 2013

Soccer - UEFA Champions League Final - Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich

On the eve of the Champions League final, as Bayern Munich were getting accustomed to Wembley Stadium in their last training session, manager Jupp Heynckes decided to pull Arjen Robben to the side.

“Look Arjen,” the coach said. “You’re in really good form and tomorrow that is going to be one of the crucial factors.”

It’s the kind of exchange that is often instilled with greater importance only after the fact. Of course, Heynckes may have had a genuine feeling or tactical epiphany. On the other hand, it’s equally possible he was just trying to motivate one of his many players.

Then, there’s the reality that Robben reflects the history of this specific Bayern Munich team better than any other player; that, with sufficient ability and the right circumstances, your time will come sooner or later.

Up until that 88th-minute strike against Borussia Dortmund, after all, Robben had hit 24 shots in Champions League finals without reward. One of them was eventually going to count. Just as Bayern’s sheer resources were gradually going to condition conquest in this competition, Robben has too much quality to fail so completely.

Except, when you listen to his explanation of how the winning moment unfolded and what went through his mind, you realise how much those previous misses had honed the forward for a moment like this. This wasn’t fated, it was fashioned. Most impressively of all, it was clearly a goal borne of intellectual gymnastics rather than basic instinct. Robben reacted to Franck Ribery’s touch and had the presence of mind to register Roman Weidenfeller’s movement.

“When I got the ball, I was free,” Robben said in his post-match press conference. “I anticipated Franck’s movement. The only thought was ‘I hope he lets the ball there’ because I saw the space. I took it well. My first choice was actually to go past him [Weidenfeller] on the left side but then he made a move and I could put it on the other side. He was on the wrong leg.”

Finally, Robben had provided the right finish in a big game and Bayern had at last won that fifth Champions League. Although the Dutch forward later struggled to put the emotion into actual words, his jubilant face and uncontrollable reaction revealed enough.

“For a footballer, this is the greatest you can achieve. When the whistle of a referee blows and you know that you’re winners of a Champions League, for a lot of us it was the thing we really needed that we lacked in our lives.”

That is certainly true of this Bayern squad, not least the likes of Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm. For Robben personally, though, it wasn’t just about this specific trophy. It clearly meant more to him than most.

It redefined his career.

That feeling grew with every missed chance. It became increasingly apparent that either Robben was going to have to finally score himself or some other Bayern player was going to have to spare him in order to prevent this match becoming another high-profile failure.

That 88th-minute strike, after all, wasn’t just preceded by the three opportunities he had squandered at Wembley on Saturday. There were also the penalty and chances missed against Chelsea in the 2012 final as well as the two crucial one-on-ones wasted against Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.

For all the important goals Robben had scored against Manchester United in the 2009-10 quarter-finals or Barcelona in this year’s last four, he hadn’t yet defined or decided a victorious campaign at the most exacting level. The Dutch forward himself admitted this was on his mind.

“After all the disappointment of last year I personally had, and let’s the say the World Cup – that’s three finals and you don’t want the stamp of loser. You don’t want that tag. At last we did it today and we can’t forget the other things.”

If it seems unfairly stark for an entire career to swing on an individual moment that is still susceptible to unpredictable bounces of the ball – regardless of the stakes – it is ultimately what remains in the memory. Robben has now provided one of the great clubs with a moment they will cherish forever.

The actual reality, beyond the reminiscences, is obviously more complex.

As illustrated by those games against United and Barcelona, as well as countless important domestic fixtures, Robben did produce in decisive games that had their own individual demands. The absence of that keynote performance, though, did reflect the general trajectory of the forward’s career.

He never really became the dominant world star his talent suggested when Alex Ferguson was so desperately pursuing him in the 2003-04 season. That was emphasised by the manner he was discarded by both Chelsea and Real Madrid, a player only intermittently hinted at brilliance rather than regularly provide it.

Now, with Ferguson there to present the man-of-the-match award that confirmed a crowning moment, Robben had proved himself a crucial player for the best side in Europe.

“I am particularly pleased for Arjen,” Heynckes said, “because we were all tragic figures, not just Arjen. Today he was so crucial. Today, for me, he played a very good game.”

No, Robben may not have ultimately made himself one of the greats. But he now has a great goal to cap an excellent career.