Thursday, December 10, 2009
Euro heavyweights survive "Group of Death"
So the 2010 World Cup's Group G is the "Group of Death"? Barcelona president Joan Laporta was happy to correct the assembled media on arrival in Kiev this week for his side's Champions League tie with Dynamo Kiev. "The fact that all four teams can still qualify going into the final day shows why they call this a Group of Death," the head honcho said. Anything Brazil can do, Barca can do better.
Laporta had a point. For those who insist the Champions League group stage is dull, Group F has been just the remedy. Those who assumed an un-bloody carve-up between Barca and Inter failed to note a few key facts - that the group was that rarest of Champions League specimens, made up of four current domestic champions, with Rubin Kazan and Dynamo completing it. Also overlooked was the rise of Rubin and their relative mystery, then there was Shevchenko coming face-to-face with Mourinho again and, of course, the Eto'o/Ibrahimovic story.
Barca would have needed to come a major cropper in the Ukraine to not have progressed. A win would guarantee winning the group while a point would make sure of qualification. Even a narrow defeat would have seen them through, with Dynamo needing to win 2-0 or by three clear goals to leapfrog the Catalans and put them in serious danger. In this situation, Barca would have been out unless the other match finished level. Given that they've never lost by more than one goal during the reign of Pep Guardiola it all seemed highly improbable, but the atmosphere in the camp stressed caution.
This is because Barcelona lost on their previous two visits to Kiev. On their last trip in 1997 they were beaten 3-0, with Sergei Rebrov among the scorers. This may be ancient history - after all, Sergio Busquets' dad, Sergio Sr, replaced the injured Ruud Hesp in goal during the second half of that encounter - but Kiev is well remembered as a tough destination.
The passing connoisseurs were also worried what sort of surface they might face in Ukrainian winter, perhaps mindful of the pudding on which they struggled to beat Xerez recently. Director of football Txiki Begiristain said that Barca could put up with the cold, but were concerned about the pitch. El Mundo Deportivo summed it up with its celebratory Wednesday headline - "Two degrees and no snow."
Worst of all was the prospect of making unwanted history, six months after becoming the first Spanish club to manage the treble, in becoming the first defending Champions League holders to be knocked out in the group stage. The double-header against Champions League virgins Rubin planted the seeds of doubt - from Alexandr Ryazantzev's stunning second minute goal at the Camp Nou onwards, the Russians had the holders rocked. Barcelona were unlucky in that first encounter with Kurban Burdyev's side, but when Rubin took their fourth point from Barca, it was clear they had become more than just an inconvenience. Hence Xavi's pre-match quote: "We are playing for our lives."
Kiev was the scene of a stylish comeback by Inter last month, showcasing an exciting new approach. But they were back to their grim European worst in Barcelona, overwhelmed by their Zlatan-less hosts. If the pressure was on Barcelona going into the final day, it was on Inter - and Mourinho - even more. His press conference before facing Rubin was his Italian career in microcosm, a war of attrition with journalists who fail to bend to his brilliance too often for his liking. "It's been fun," Mourinho remarked sarcastically on the way out, the tension betraying how much was riding on this one for him.
Barca could have been reassured knowing they were yet to concede on their travels in this season's Champions League, until Artem Milevskiy headed in Shevchenko's free-kick to end that record inside two minutes. In the early stages, Gerard Piqué looked closer to his callow Manchester United persona than the man nicknamed Piquenbauer by his team-mates, clumsily conceding the crucial free-kick. This put Dynamo second in the group at this point, level on points with Barca.
Guardiola's not one to get the calculator out, and Barca recovered in the only way they know how - possession football. The stats show that Barca had 77% of the ball in this match, a crucial away tie with the onus on the capable home side to force the pace. As the swell of noise in the Valeriy Lobanovskiy became a nervous murmur, events around the half hour began to define the group.
Samuel Eto'o's strike briefly made Inter leaders, before Xavi swept home Eric Abidal's cross to put Barca top again - highly significant as it meant Dynamo would need to score three times to go above their vistors, made Barca safer and the hosts more dependent on news from Italy.
While Mario Balotelli's goal just after the hour allowed Inter breathing space, it did nothing to change the shape of the group. Dynamo strived to attack, but could barely get the ball, a significant handicap even for a counter-attacking side such as themselves. Xavi had predicted in the build-up that the need to win would make Dynamo attack - what he didn't mention is that they may not have the opportunity to do so.
Valeri Gazzaev's side are much improved this year and last (with fellow Russian Yuri Semin at the helm) in the Champions League. Veterans Shevchenko and goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy supplement a team of homegrown players in their early 20s, but their inexperience showed during their late collapse against Inter on Matchday Four.
Against Barca, they were again undone late on - Lionel Messi's deserved late winner serving a cruel knockout blow to send Dynamo out of the Europa League spot. The group could have been so different if Dynamo had held their leads, but who could deny Rubin after creating much of the group's drama with their performances against Barca?
There was a rare spectacle on the way out of the Lobanovskiy. Dynamo fans applauded the small band of travelling Barca supporters and the Catalans chanted "Dynamo" in response. The mutual respect spoke volumes of the quality of the contest throughout the group - vindication of the current format or a suggestion that only genuine champions should be involved?