Pep, Where Do You Go From a Treble?

Yesterday, Pep Guardiola was somewhere in the world scouring his contract with Bayern Munich for the release clause if they won everything. Expectations were high for the Spanish manager months ago when he agreed to become Bayern’s next gaffer but in the extremely likely possibility that Jupp Heynckes and his side come out victorious against Stuttgart in the DFB-Pokal final, repeating a treble or at the very least a double is going to be the measuring stick for Pep.

After I got past Gus Johnson’s annoying, over-the-top, canned enthusiasm, I was able to sit down and watch a good game of football that showed all the finer points of the game and all the reasons that Bayern Munich is on the precipice of being the continent’s powerhouse. Wave after wave of yellow-clad attack crashed against Bayern’s goal in the early parts of the game and Manuel Neuer pulled off a few saves that would deem him a worthy man of the match choice.

If it weren’t for his opposite number, Roman Weidenfeller, making just as many spectacular saves including one with his face and Arjen Robben’s refusal to use his right foot, Bayern could have easily run away with this game.

Pep Guardiola may have thought about extending his sabbatical to avoid taking a side that is one win away from a treble.

Pep Guardiola will have the highest expectations of any manager in Europe when he takes over Bayern Munich, who are one win away from completing the treble on the season.

Fortunately, Robben was able to use his right foot to cross it to Mario Manzudkic for the opening score (I actually think he was trying to shoot) and got the ball in a place that he could shift it onto his left foot to score the game-winning goal.

It must be said that normally when I watch a game as a neutral fan of the game, I tend to lean towards the team that isn’t the media’s darling. Deep down, it is difficult for me to get behind a side that is being trumpeted for how they built their team rather than how good that team is. There’s been more than a few times when I’ve wanted to smash my TV during a Barcelona game because the commentators kept saying they “built their club the right way.”

It must also be said that I respect Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp for what they have done in the past handful of years but even they had to go out and buy a few key players to mix into their youth system stars.

The second half was a showcase of what happens when you take a club willing to splash the cash on the players they need and mix it with a world-class manager who knows how to use those players. Heynckes’ men spent the better part of the forty-five minutes putting their rivals to the sword. Dante’s moment of insanity in the penalty area was one of the few blotches on an otherwise spectacular performance by the Champions of Europe.

All that’s left now is to applaud the efforts of Borussia Dortmund. We know we all got up off our seats when Neven Subotic slid in to clear the ball off the line (and we all cursed at Robben a little for not sliding in himself to push it into the net). They performed valiantly but when the chips are done nothing beats experience. Three Champions League finals in four years is pretty experienced.

Winning the German Cup will cement this season’s Bayern Munich team as one of the best teams in recent memory, if not ever, and that’s the club that Guardiola will be taking over in due time. The man who showed a penchant for winning trophies at the club that he himself played at will have a much more difficult time keeping the Bayern board on his side after this season.

His first game in charge, the UEFA SuperCup, will give him his first opportunity to win silverware with the Bavarians and you can be assured that even if it is against Jose Mourinho and a hungry Chelsea side, Bayern is expecting to add that trophy to their cabinet as well as a few other from the next campaign.

Regardless of how many pieces of silverware Pep wins in Munich, we will all remember the night when Bayern climbed to the top of the European football mountain and planted their flag atop it. We can all be assured that their tie with Liverpool as the only two five-time winners of Europe’s most prestigious competition will not last too much longer and I hate to say that the English club won’t be winning its sixth anytime soon.

Sure, We Believe You Sepp

Sunday’s Serie A night game at the San Siro between AC Milan and AS Roma was momentarily halted because of racist chants aimed at Mario Balotelli and Kevin-Prince Boateng from the Roma Ultras. Under Serie A protocol, an announcement was made over the public address system and the game continued under the threat of being abandoned if the chants continued.

Mario Balotelli tries to quiet racist chants from the Roma Ultras Sunday.

Mario Balotelli tries to quiet racist chants from the Roma Ultras Sunday.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was “appalled” that a game was suspended for racial abuse and Lega Calcio fined Roma €50,000 ($64,900). Again, a paltry amount for a club that’s paying its players much more than that everyday.

Blatter pledged to fight this problem what seems like years ago but the fines that have been handed down are little more than slaps on the wrists and a bit of a timeout in the corner before it happens with the same club a few months later. Lazio’s Ultras, Roma’s Stadio Olimpico co-tenant, was involved in numerous racial chants incidents in the span of two or three months but they weren’t fined much more than their Rome neighbors.

At the end of the day, you can only chalk this up to political rhetoric. Soothing the nerves of the masses who are too busy, too ignorant or too blind to the depth of the situation that they accept what is being said. Fortunately for the football community, I’d imagine that the vast majority of its inhabitants think racism severe enough to warrant players walking off the pitch and games being abandoned needs to be blotted from the game.

As of now, it seems like the fines are always too little. Fining top tier club and entire football associations, €50-100,000 isn’t going to do anything in the grand scheme of things. Forcing them to play a few games behind closed doors only goes so far.

We all remember the scrum between Serbia’s and England’s U-21 National Teams where Serbia’s fans ran on the field and fights broke out. That all began because of racist chants directed at England’s Danny Rose. UEFA ordered Serbia, a country which has a long history of racial abuse at their football matches, to play a game behind closed doors and fined them £65,000.

For comparison’s sake, Nicklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for showing a sponsor’s logo on his boxers which wasn’t a partner of UEFA during Euro 2012.

One man fined more than an entire FA? For showing a logo on his underwear? Bendtner didn’t spark a near-riot by showing that logo. Danny Rose’s reaction, which we can argue whether he was right or wrong until we are blue in the face, to racial abuse did.

It’s time that the punishments are ramped up. Clubs and FAs need to be banned from competitions for repeated racial abuse. Sides need to be docked points immediately for repeated racial abuse.These paltry fines handed out to clubs that can easily pay them need to be doubled, tripled even quadrupled.

Here’s a good model for FIFA and all the governing bodies of the continents. Here in the United States, the NCAA oversees college and university athletics. In the ’80s, Southern Methodist University was sanctioned for paying their athletes (these players are considered amateurs and can’t be paid) multiple times in a few years’ time.

In 1986, their American football program received the so-called “Death Penalty” banning them from playing for a year. They didn’t play the next season either. They are only just recovering as a team and no program dares do enough to invoke the wrath of the NCAA almost 30 years later.

Don’t threaten it. Do it.

When is a Club Successful?

It’s a topic that has been run through the ringers too many times over the past few years as more nouveau rich clubs pop up on Europe’s football landscape. Of course some have last longer than others, the funding being pulled away just as quickly as it arrived but for the ones that remain — or even for the clubs that aren’t backed by petrol-dollars but lack the tradition of the more prestigious sides around the world — when is it okay for supporters to dub their team successful?

Swansea City is one of England's upstarts, but how successful can we call them now?

Swansea City is one of England’s upstarts, but how successful can we call them now?

Many point to silverware as the defining factor of success, arguing that a club is only as successful as its trophy case is vast. We’re talking the Barcelonas, Real Madrids, Juventus(es?) and Manchester Uniteds of the footballing world. The clubs that expect to finish every campaign with at least one cup being added to the cabinet. However, I’m willing to argue that this is a far too simple way of looking at this.

In my opinion, as long as a club is making forward progress, they can be deemed successful. It doesn’t matter how it is achieved, if a club goes from wallowing in relegation battles of lower leagues to fighting for European spots in the country’s top flight, they should get the respect they are due.

Let’s take Swansea City for example. They aren’t that far removed from being a mid-to-bottom of the table side in League 2 or the old Third Division. A few well thought out managerial hires here and a couple cheap player buys there and they are going to be playing European football next season after winning the League Cup.

The Swans’ trophy case isn’t filled to the top but are we really not going to call them successful for such a reason? Most teams get relegated in their second season in the Premier League. With continued improvement, Swansea may be pushing Everton for Europa League spots every season.

For a look at a club with much higher ambitions, Manchester City is moving in the right direction. You can argue that finishing 2nd this season is a step backwards, but it isn’t often that teams other than United repeat in the Premier League. Regardless of the point gap or whatever qualifier you want to attach to it, the league was a two-horse battle from the onset and a few sub-par performances saw City fall behind their crosstown rivals.

And for Borussia Dortmund, coming out of a period when they were struggling to stay in the Bundesliga after their Golden Era of the 1990s, one could argue that they are possibly as successful as any club in Europe right now. They may not have the trophies of Bayern Munich, but their battle from the bottom of the table to the final of the Champions League is sign enough.

Barcelona’s Messi-Dependency

In the two-legged semi-final against Bayern Munich, it has been downright painful watching Barcelona. That gilt edge that they’ve been known for playing with was dulled and the Bavarians dominated them for 180 minutes to the tune of an astounding 7-0. While I did predict something like this would happen to Barca, I didn’t think they would roll over as easily as they did when they decided to not play the world’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, showing their dependency on the Argentine.

It’s not often that you see the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta being hauled off, not because they are hurt or being rested but because they aren’t involved in the game. It seemed as if the entire machine failed to work properly without Messi in the fold. Of course, it also failed to work when Messi was on the field in the first-leg albeit with a bit of a knock.

Lionel Messi watched from the bench as Bayern Munich completed the dismantling of Barcelona.

Lionel Messi watched from the bench as Bayern Munich completed the dismantling of Barcelona.

As strange as it sounds, a club with the world class talent that Barcelona has has developed a frightening dependency on one player. It’s the same knock against Tottenham and Gareth Bale, however, one would believe that Barca has the talent to overcome any dependency on any one player.

Tito Vilanova has a problem on his hands. He needs to find a way to break the dangerously strong link between Messi’s play and the success of the team. His side is good enough to beat anyone with or without Lionel Messi, but they should still be able to put the ball into the back of the net even with him sitting on the bench.

And that’s why I think it’s time for the Blaugrana to start filtering in the next crop of players and re-tooling their side. Don’t misunderstand me here, I don’t think they should get away from what has gotten them to where they are, but I think they need to get players in who haven’t developed the tendency to look to Messi to bail them out of the difficult situations they find themselves in.

It’s time for Barcelona to see if players like Gerard Deulofeu, Cristian Tello and Jonathan Dos Santos have what it takes to continue to move this club in the right direction or if they need to bring in the likes of Neymar to get the club’s ambition and drive back to where it was under Pep Guardiola.

By no means is this a knock against the team’s talent. We all know that Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world on their day but that’s not the team that we’ve saw in the two legs against Bayern Munich.

We saw a club that was overmatched, outcoached, outplayed, out-everything and it has a lot to do with Barcelona’s dependence on Lionel Messi.

A Special Failure in Madrid

Again, Real Madrid was ousted in the Champions League semi-finals despite their valiant effort to fight back from their 4-1 deficit against Borussia Dortmund. This makes the third straight year that the Merengues have been knocked out of the race for the cup for the big ears, all under Jose Mourinho. With the money backing them and the amount of talent at the Bernabeu, it could be considered a massive failure that Mourinho has only won three trophies while in Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is known as the Special One, but his special-ness hasn't extended fully to Real Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is known as the Special One, but his special-ness hasn’t extended fully to Real Madrid.

Mind you, they do still have the final of the Copa del Rey to play against Atletico Madrid and if last week’s game against them is any sign then they will probably bring that cup home this season. However, when you look at Mourinho’s track record, you can easily believe that Real Madrid expect more than a couple Copa del Reys, a La Liga title and a Suppacoppa.

His list of accolades demand more. Just take a look.

  • Porto: Primeira Liga (2), Taça de Portugal, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup (Europa League)
  • Chelsea: Premier League (2), FA Cup, League Cup (2)
  • Internazionale: Serie A (2), Coppa Italia, UEFA Champions League

With that in mind, you have to believe that the Special One has failed at Real Madrid. He’s been quoted as being a master at managing his players and a student of the game, but when he got his shot to cement himself as one of, if not the, greatest manager of all time he fell well short of the mark.

Even in a season where Barcelona has looked less than impressive at times in continental play, Real Madrid wasn’t able to keep pace with them in the league and have been pegged into second place well before the mid-way point of the season.

It could be the reason that Mourinho is dropping hints that he is ready to leave Spain’s capital to return to Chelsea where he will have both the transfer kitty of Real Madrid with half the expectations. Roman Abramovich is known to be quick in sacking his managers but surely he won’t do that to the only manager who has brought him success for more than a couple months.

Jose Mourinho will go down as one of the greatest managers of all-time when his career is over but everyone will remember the time he went to Real Madrid and couldn’t produce a Champions League with a massive amount of money and a hugely talented squad that featured one of the top two players in the world.

That Moment You Realize Barca Has No Chance Against Bayern

Tuesday, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will play the first leg of their semi-final Champions League tie and many are expecting it to be the better of the two semi-final matchups with Borussia Dortmund facing Barca’s rival, Real Madrid, the next day but I’m inclined to believe that the highly anticipated battle between Barca and the Bavarians will be a rout for the German champions.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is looking to repent for missing a penalty in last season's Champions League final.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is looking to repent for missing a penalty in last season’s Champions League final.

Bayern Munich have been on a tear since losing to Arsenal in the return leg of their Round of 16 matchup with the Gunners, scoring a staggering 32 goals in the eight games since — all wins. You know a team is playing on an entirely different level when they reel off nine goals against a mid-table top flight side. Imagine if Manchester United put nine past Michel Vorm and Swansea. People would be calling for Michael Landrup’s head.

However, the reason I believe Bayern outclasses Barcelona has nothing to do with FC Hollywood. No, I think Bayern Munich is better than Barcelona because Barcelona is getting too big for their britches. Their golden era which started under Guardiola and was supposed to continue under Vilanova is going to come to an end. Though, I’m sure they’ll continue to hold court over La Liga unless Real Madrid gets a quality manager to replace the Special One.

But I digress, watching Barca play used to be a thing of beauty as they knocked the ball around the pitch with effortless grace. It was so successful that managers in other countries blow up their own teams to attempt to play in the same vein as the Blaugrana. That being said, you have to remember that Pep himself said the only reason Barcelona used the tiki-taka play style under his guidance was because he won using it.

Now, you can see the cockiness in the way Barca’s players pass. How many times have you seen two players pass between each other multiple times without moving the ball forward, without gaining any advantage? It happens often at the Nou Camp.

It’s becoming ingrained in the fibers of the club all the way down to La Masia — players passing the ball because they feel they have or because they feel their are on a different level than their opponents. Instead of taking the most direct route to the goal, they attempt to walk it in with a myriad of passes that teams are slowly, but surely, learning to combat by simply putting eleven men behind the ball.

Those extra passes, that extra time on the ball is going to be their undoing against a team as clinical and as in form as Bayern Munich.

Besides, Bayern is on a mission. They know they should have won the Champions League last season in their home stadium against the underdog in Chelsea. Now, they are trying to pull of a likely treble as they have already locked up the Bundesliga, will likely win the DFB Pokal and should be the favorite to win the cup with the big ears should they get past Barca.

I understand, it’s hard to choke out the word overrated in the same sentence as Barcelona FC but I think it would do them justice right now. The odds makers have them as favorites, the pundits have them as favorites, but that scary good team from Munich doesn’t have them as favorites.

Pep’s trophy-winning magic might already be rubbing off on Die Roten.

The Beauty of the Away Goal Rule

In the past few days there has been a lot of talk about whether or not the away goal rule should be done away with, but I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more. It’s easy to say you want it gone when it works against your club, but it wouldn’t be so easy to say that if your club benefits from it.

This week, we saw two big games decided by the away goal rule. Arsenal fell to Bayern Munich in the Champions League after beating the Bavarians 2-0 in the Allianz thanks to Bayern’s 3-1 win at the Emirates. Tottenham defeated Inter 4-4 in extra time when Emmanuel Adebayor scored the only away goal of the tie to move on to the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is probably ready to launch a campaign to get rid of the away goal rule after his side crashed out of the Champions League against Bayern Munich due to it.

Arsenal supporters hate the rule right now. Spurs supporters love it.

Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, you have to realize that the away goal rule is essentially necessary to two-legged knockout tournament ties. Without it, the away team would put their entire team within 25 yards of their goal and just play for a nil-nil draw in hopes of getting a goal in the return leg at their stadium.

It encourages the away team to be more aggressive and rewards them if they manage to score while on the road and punishes the home team if they concede.

Certainly, the away team is in the driving seat if they do happen to score and it puts the home team at a disadvantage but all they have to do is go and get a goal in the return fixture and the momentum is right back in their favor.

Naturally, we want to get rid of the rule because Arsenal and Inter (along with many other teams throughout the years) were adversely affected by it but that have no one to blame but themselves. If Arsenal didn’t allow 3 goals against Bayern, they wouldn’t have needed to play they way they did Wednesday. If Inter would have scored at White Hart Lane, they wouldn’t have needed to score 4 goals only to get the boot because they conceded in extra time at home.

Doing away with the away goal rule would just do away with entertaining two-legged ties in competitions.