Dignified Benitez growing in stature as a result of his Chelsea trials

Amidst the recurring malcontent that has peppered Chelsea’s season, there has been one man who has stood firm to enhance his interpersonal and managerial skills under the sternest tests, and that is Rafael Benitez. No manager facing the overwhelming pressure that stalks big clubs can also claim to have had to deal with a hand of cards as difficult as Benitez’s – including those held by his much-vaunted nemesis at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, whose deific stature in the eyes of Chelsea fans trips the Spaniard’s every forward step even now. Benitez has been buffeted at every treacherous twist and turn by slights and insults as varyingly vilifying as being jeered by Chelsea’s fans at every opportune moment in a match, greeted by silence whenever his tactical switches induce a positive turn in events, being forced to bear the emasculating title of “interim manager” despite carrying the CV of a Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner with one of Spain’s “other” clubs, enduring his own fans teaming up with those of the opposition to abuse him in songs, and having a fellow colleague in charge of a great rival completely ignore his offer of a handshake at the beginning of a game.

Throughout this steadily growing flood of insults and invective aimed at him from every angle, that would have tormented and broken the spirit of a lesser man, he has displayed an admirable resolve not to let his personal hurt get in the way of his professional job. As provoking as it must be to have his weight and entire personality dissected by wanton abuse on a weekly basis for six months – and we need only recall Emmanuel Adebayor’s knee-jerk reaction to Arsenal fans who had been abusing him for 90 minutes against Man City to acknowledge the tolerance threshold of lesser men– his steady resolve to resist the invitation to lash out at his abusers in interviews has given him an aura of quiet dignity and increasing authority. Goaded repeatedly and insolently by Geoff Shreeves to react to the catcalls that greeted his first match in charge and express his disappointment (view it here), Benitez diplomatically chose to explain that he had not heard them and his only disappointment stemmed from the draw that hurt Chelsea’s cause. This was of course necessitated by a realisation that fanning the flames of the fans’ anger could result in an even shorter stay than originally intended, but as the weeks went on and the abuse became more virulent, his ability to stay on message displays both the greatest professional steel and reserves of character, patience and equanimity that not enough people have given him credit for.

“I am professional”, he said in a recent attempt to gain more crowd support for Chelsea’s cause, and “will do my best until the last minute.” Even following Sir Alex Ferguson’s puerile decision to snub his offer of a handshake, Benitez largely contained his understandable affront by tactfully asking journalists to redirect the question of why the handshake failed to take place to the Manchester United manager instead.

Benitez has always been credited with tactical acumen that is in keeping with the mind of an avid chess player, and his decision to introduce John Obi Mikel to free up Ramires to make his rampaging forays towards the United penalty area in their FA Cup clash flummoxed the home team and nearly claimed a glorious comeback. Yet in being forced to summon up hitherto unnoticed qualities of diplomatic tact and personal restraint to deal with the bear pit at Chelsea, he has finally added stature to his tactical skills to emerge as a firm and fair leader of men who puts to shame those who characterised him as a “fat Spanish waiter” for so long. Only Benitez knows how much he has learnt about himself by coming through his siege at Chelsea with flying colours, but this stiffest character examination may have just invaluably enriched his skills as a manager and provided him the means to unlock far greater success in the future. Would this reborn Benitez, in possession of a fine tactical mind along with the ability to inspire his players through his new statesmanlike example off the pitch, have succeeded where the old one failed at Inter Milan? Are Chelsea not in fact missing a trick by opting against helping a highly able manager who has demonstrated an admirable – and hitherto unnoticed – capacity to endure the worst dirt people can throw at him and emerge stronger for it weather the storm and work with a talented squad that has many Spanish speakers at its core for longer?

Observant clubs across Europe would have done well not to miss the way Benitez bravely plunged himself into the fire at Chelsea and is emerging stronger and better than before as a result. If he does end up at Real Madrid, his stoic, remarkable ability to conjure up positive results and build personal authority in the face of an avalanche of political intrigue, boardroom machinations, and reckless populist barracking may stand him in good stead to add the proudest chapter to his CV yet. Wherever he goes, and whatever he does next, this dignified man may find that his sincerest efforts at a difficult posting will end up enhancing his career from this point on and ironically, he may have Chelsea’s fans to thank for that.

Barcelona’s human brilliance against Milan rouses the soul

Barcelona’s heroic 4-0 dismantling of AC Milan will go down in their annals and indeed, the annals of the great matches of European football, as a moment when a great team reaffirmed why it deserves its place at the head of football’s pantheon. The sumptuous football has rightly been acclaimed before, and will be acclaimed again, but what was so uplifting about this particular victory was the way it stemmed from the other, human qualities of a magnificent set of individuals. From the outset, they made a mockery of their many admirers’ pessimism by tearing into Milan with a hunger and passion that cast them and their magical play in a glowing halo in those first thirty minutes. Lionel Messi’s ethereal chip-shot within the first five minutes of the match, recalling a similar goal by Ronaldinho for Barca against Chelsea in the same tournament, was summoned up by his rare genius yet also by his magnificent determination to seize his moment and not see his glittering team cast into darkness; Xavi ran through injury and pain for ninety minutes because he possesses that same innate drive that lifts men to greatness and nothing typified his spirit more than the sliding tackle, followed by the kick of the ball he made from his prone position on the floor in the second half – when the pressure was at its height – to disarm Milan’s attack.

Indeed it was the hovering threat of an away goal that severely tested the nerves of Barcelona and their 90,000 magnificent fans – resplendently heralding their intentions to back up a great team with great support through their banner “Som Un Equipo” (“we are a team) – but which also cast them in the sort of heroic light we rarely get to appreciate. Dominating teams so easily, almost in a somnambulant fashion, has led some neutrals to the erroneous conclusion that their play is either monotonous or less worthy of praise. Last night Barcelona walked a tightrope from first minute to the last, and the fact that they chose to answer the daunting challenge of overturning a 0-2 lead with a style of play as beautiful as it was vulnerable, and perhaps even ill-suited to the task, brilliantly illuminated the heroic aspect of their endeavour. It is under extreme stress that the true face of a man’s character is revealed, and Barcelona demonstrated a rousing faith in their beautifully fragile style of play at a time when it was questioned most, in the face of an increasingly nerve-wracked ninety minutes, that will burnish their legend for decades to come.

All the wishes that a neutral harbours in following one of the great sports teams in history, all the inspiration they might wish to gain from watching them summon up their boundless strength and character to produce their magical best to overturn a formidable lead in historic and unreal fashion – in short, many of the dreams one hopes to find fulfilled by watching sport and then to carry the spirit of into life were realised by this fantastic Barcelona team on Tuesday’s magical night at the Camp Nou. Even if they do not go on to win the tournament, they have rendered football and the watching world another invaluable service whilst creating a night that will live long in the memories of all lucky enough to see it.

Woods’s startling win over the rest at Doral points to a rebirth

Tiger Woods issued a significant statement of intent with his 19-under par, two shot victory at the World Golf Championship in Doral last week, and there was enough about this one to suggest it could prove the start of something greater than the false dawns he has encountered since his return to the game in 2010.

Of all the formidable statistics accompanying his most dominant win since his slide from greatness began (100 putts, beating his personal best for fewest putts in a PGA tournament, or the 27 birdies that were one shy of his most ever in one week, to name but a few), the most startling was this: that for the bulk of the 36 holes played over the weekend, Woods led a star-studded field filled with competitors who have supposedly narrowed the gap to him by either three or four shots. Indeed, were it not for a conservative, pragmatic approach that resulted in a bogey on his final hole, he would have ended the tournament three shots ahead of next best-placed Steve Stricker. Add that to the fact that the Blue Monster Course played nice and true over the four days, offering the finest shot-makers in golf every opportunity to attack the pins, go for birdies and locate their best golf, and the size of Woods’s gap to the rest becomes even more frightening.

During last year’s Wimbledon final Roger Federer struggled with the windy conditions that disrupted his rhythm and timing in the early part of the match, but once the roof had been closed due to rain and external factors had been blotted out, the match became a much purer test of shot-making where each competitor’s innate skill with racket and ball made all the difference. It was then, in those equalising conditions that took away the influence of the elements on the ball’s flight and negated much of the effect the surface had on the ball’s speed, that the gap between Federer and Andy Murray (representing the rest of tennis) in creative shot-making became clear. He destroyed Murray over the remainder of that match in as artistic and breath-taking a way as is possible to imagine, and went on to add another Wimbledon title to his collection.

In many ways the Blue Monster Course was golf’s equivalent of the closed Wimbledon Centre Court that day, offering as fair a test of true ability as possible on a layout un-tampered by overweening weather or the recent trend to stifle golfers by leaving hyperbolically deep rough and deepening and widening bunkers to cavernous levels. It instead sought to recognise the greatest talents in the game by offering a layout that balanced difficulty against the need to allow them room to realise their stunning ability to sink monster putts and put the ball to within an inch of the hole from their approach shots. This encouraged the cream to rise to the top and slug it out with each other, and all the names regarded as the purest talents in golf duly appeared on the leaderboard: Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott finished at 14- under par while McIlroy made a recovery once his confidence had stabilised to finish 10- under par.

In light of these conditions, Woods’s statistical domination of the field entails an altogether more awe-inspiring message: that, on a course as likely as any to offer a true and reliable comparison of where the best golfers in the world stand relative to each other in terms of ability and form, he is three shots better than anyone else. In a game that has supposedly risen in quality since his fall from the top, this was a stunning re-affirmation of the limitless extent of his abilities and consummation of mental and technical excellence into perhaps the most fearsome competitor of our times. Whether he can sustain this run of form throughout the season or, more importantly, replicate it in the Major tournaments in which he has fallen short in recent years, must still be regarded as an unknown. However, the overwhelmingly convincing nature of this victory will have done nothing to dampen the rising belief that he is re-discovering his sporting essence once more, and emerging stronger and greater from his Phoenix-like reconstruction with Sean Foley – as well as lending an ominous degree of weight to his words that he “doesn’t want it to be as good as it was before – I want it to be better.”

Ferguson and his lionhearted team suffer tragic travesty of justice

If ever there was a moment when the so-called guardians of football, in the form of UEFA and their angelic referees, shamed a great game and drained the joy out of it for its millions of adoring acolytes, it was in the fifty-sixth minute of the second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid yesterday. For in choosing to utterly reject his duty to uphold the spirit and occasion of one of football’s most sacrosanct events – the meeting of two torch-carriers of the game in Manchester United and Real Madrid -, in favour of enforcing a crassly pedantic interpretation of the rules, referee Cuneyt Cakir committed blasphemy against the sport. What other phrase is there to bestow on such a capricious, careless act undertaken by a match official on as big a night as this which at a stroke neutered one team, pre-determined the outcome and destroyed one of the greatest spectacles football has offered for years?

If Cakir so reprehensibly failed to grasp the significance of the occasion, and importance not to let unnecessary refereeing interventions cripple it, others did not. Sir Alex Ferguson as good as admitted in his programme notes that the biggest source of kindling that keeps his hunger burning bright for the game at 71 was the prospect of grand European duels on nights such as this, with “a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.” For fifty-six minutes, the game between these two great clubs lived up to every one of those hopes and dreams evoked by Ferguson above, and it would have delighted him that his players were largely responsible for that. From first to fifty-sixth minute, they put in a performance of such warrior-like commitment and panache that it adorned football in a magnificent light before one of its largest watching audiences since the last World Cup. These were players who were deservedly etching their names in history with giant-sized performances to match the greatness of the occasion, and who were doing a sterling job in conveying Manchester United’s name as a vehicle for all that is good and inspiring in the game.

How galling, when such stirring footballing lore was in the midst of being created, that a pint-sized insurance agent with an inflated sense of his own power should step in and decide at the injudicious stroke of a card what would happen instead. How galling that one man should wipe out the greatness of United’s performance from the history books, with no consultation of his linesmen in making his decision, nor admittance of the need not to despoil the occasion unless it was absolutely necessary. Ferguson did not prolong his career to have the night which was promising to bring the sum of his labours together in thrilling apotheosis on the pitch, and rank alongside his finest achievements, ruined in such an unnatural way. United had forced Real into a corner through a stunning array of the most fundamental sporting values – competitiveness, tactical ingenuity, physical stamina, lionheartedness – only for that to be rendered null and void by a decision that corrupted the occasion.

If UEFA think there is no need to offer so much as a platitudinous apology for what was allowed to pass as footballing justice yesterday, they are grossly mistaken. Their democratic policy of choosing referees from a variety of countries with different interpretations of the rules has belittled a competition that is supposed to represent the apex of the game in every sense. Juventus were allowed to grapple and manhandle Celtic’s players at every opportunity at set-pieces in their first leg, in full view of the much-vaunted extra referees; but in last year’s competition, AC Milan were reduced to ten men against Barcelona for doing the same thing. In 2011, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and his marching orders against Barcelona for an offence as trivial as kicking the ball following the referee’s whistle at a point when Arsenal were ahead in the tie, which meant the referee effectively guaranteed a Barcelona comeback; Chelsea suffered much the same against them last year when John Terry was sent off for an offence that an official more in sync with the occasion could easily have issued him a yellow for. Chelsea were also denied a place in the Champions League final of 2009 by a referee who seemed determined not to award them a single penalty despite the evidence piling up to the contrary in their semi-final. Greater consistency in decisions, more merit-based election of officials and, above all, an appreciation that they are there to protect the spirit of the occasion rather than dictate its outcome with heavy-handed decisions is sorely required if fans are not to begin growing disillusioned with the tournament. For there is no doubt that plenty of neutrals would have woken up this morning feeling that Manchester United had been denied their rightful place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the cruellest manner possible, and that the lack of any correction of these grievances will lead to some adopting a resigned, apathetic attitude to this tournament in the future.

Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Arsenal missing out on plenty if they let Sagna fly away

Arsenal can seemingly never free themselves from the merry-go-round of mediating with players who are approaching the final year of their contracts, and Bacary Sagna’s name is next up on that wearisome list. Whether through some form of fatigue with this issue, or failing to fully appreciate the contribution that an experienced Sagna could make to this regenerating Arsenal side over the next five years, the fans have remained conspicuously silent up to now over Arsenal’s reluctance to tie him down to a new, long-term contract.

That is a mistake. If there is one player who can offer a convincing deconstruction of Arsenal’s blanket policy of viewing all players over the age of thirty in the same diminishing light through offers of one-year contracts at most, it is Sagna. Arsenal fans have spent so long lamenting the loss of a succession of key players that they have blinded themselves to the richly satisfying fact that one player worthy of comparison to those that jumped ship chose to remain behind and dedicate his career to the club. Before his leg breaks, there was a compelling case for Sagna to be compared to the best right-backs in Europe, but he has never once shown a hint of the disaffection that players giving the impression they had outgrown the club regularly displayed. Until injury and uncertainty over his contract status began afflicting him this season, there had never been so much as a waver in the consistency of his on-pitch excellence. Arsenal have been crying out for legends, for players of stature and wholehearted devotion to grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them closer to glory once more, and Sagna has grown into those shoes.

It was in the fraught 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few weeks ago, where Arsenal stood firm against waves and waves of pressure after Carl Jenkinson had been dismissed on 56 minutes, that Sagna both confirmed his status as a sportsman of the finest competitive breed and offered a glimpse of the benefits Arsenal could gain from trading their veterans’ policy for a more meritorious, case-by-case approach. Shifted to centre-back right before kick-off following Laurent Koscielny’s injury in the pre-match warm-ups, Sagna came to Arsenal’s rescue time and again through an outstanding display of last-ditch tackling, towering headers and perfect positional sense. As Sunderland sent yet another threatening cross into the box in those nerve-wracked final few minutes, and Sagna rose yet again to thump the ball clear with a towering header, there was the sense of a player whose excellence was the product of commitment to his club’s cause and regret at time lost to two broken legs as much as through innate ability. It is these kind of qualities, alchemised to such perfection on the football pitch, that have the ability to win the hearts of fans, raise the young nucleus of Arsenal’s squad to greater heights, and forge the intangible spirit around the club that has been so sorely lacking in recent times.

Other clubs have recognised the important role that older players of the finest professional instincts play in creating a spirit around the club that breeds excellence. Barcelona have Carlos Puyol to embody Herculean drive and devotion; Chelsea have long thrived behind the siege mentality so defiantly heralded by John Terry; and Manchester United have Ryan Giggs to put any one below his age at the club to shame for so much as taking a breather during such sacrosanct rituals as training, recovery and on-pitch commitment. Rather than force Sagna to reassess his loyalties by failing to offer him anything more than a one-year contract, Arsenal could seal a warrior for life by giving him a five-year contract to play at both right-back and, increasingly centre-back, and demonstrating that their loyalty to him is bound by something more than concern that the player may be slightly more susceptible to injuries following two broken legs. Their reward for such a faith-based gamble would be the potentially crucial role that Sagna would play on the pitch in forging the type of spirit around the club that makes champions out of their growing stable of young starlets. As Arsene Wenger seeks to build yet another Arsenal team brimming with youth and talent out of the ashes of the last one, he would do well to consider these benefits before ushering Sagna out of the door when he still has much to offer.