So here we are, the FA Cup final is done and dusted for another season and just before we head into the strange limbo-land ahead of the start of the four week football extravaganza that is the World Cup, there is only the small matter of the Champions League Final for us self-avowed football obsessives to focus our attention on.
Looking back to last Saturday’s FA Cup Final, it is probably fair to say that it was a difficult match to watch, it seems that for the most part the majority of neutrals sided with Chelsea simply to avoid seeing José Mourinho win another trophy. In what seems almost certain to be Antonio Conte’s last match in charge of the Blues, he opted to pair a classic big-man/ little-man combination up front encouraging Eden Hazard to play off Olivier Giroud. After the match Mourinho called the tactic “predictable”, which may well have been true but it was also highly effective.
The Manchester United manager on the other hand was reportedly denied the chance to use his own big-man in the form of Romelu Lukaku who was injured and fit enough only for a place on the bench. Lukaku’s replacement, Marcus Rashford, was a pale imitation of the exciting young player that burst onto the scene just two seasons ago and looked to have been worn down by the mistrust of his manager who commented after the young striker’s recent performance at Brighton: “Why always Lukaku? Now you see why.”
In the end it was probably fitting that a game that played out as very much a war of attrition was settled by a penalty midway through the first half. While each year the realisation hits us that the FA Cup has lost some, if not most, of its lustre, winning it adds a certain level of gloss to a season for a Chelsea team that has failed to live up to its title winning performances of twelve months ago.
For Mourinho, left ruing only the fourth season in his career that he has failed to deliver a trophy, and for Manchester United it prompts the question of what was the point? In the five years since Sir Alex called it a day, the Old Trafford coffers have been emptied to a reported total of £650 million, just under half of which has been spent by the current incumbent of the hot seat; yet they remain some distance behind their cross city rivals, Manchester City, and it must be wondered whether they will get any closer next season? While there has undoubtedly been tangible progress under Mourinho they are not where he, or indeed any of us, would perhaps have expected them to be after two seasons in charge. One wonders how long the self-declared ‘Special One’ will stick around if next season is another one of being also-rans.
If the FA Cup Final was far from a classic, we live in hope that tomorrow’s Champions League Final will deliver on the expectation that has been growing around it ever since the finalists were confirmed. For all of Liverpool’s European history, they go into this final against a team with an even greater tradition and an indisputably better recent pedigree; Real Madrid having won three of the last four finals and looking to become the first team since the great Bayern Munich team of mid-seventies to win three consecutive titles. Jurgen Klopp’s team are relative novices in comparison, yet we all remember the Anfield club’s achievement in similar circumstances thirteen years ago in the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.
Real Madrid have for the most part been a shadow of their recent selves this season, having relinquished their league title finishing seventeen points behind bitter rivals Barcelona, and there is a feeling that they may be on the wane, a team and a squad that is past its best and in need of rejuvenation if it is to reclaim what it regards as its rightful place back at the very top of the European game.
Smart opinion seems to suggest that Real are there for the taking and that Klopp’s effervescent, energetic and exciting side may well be the team to knock them off their Champions League perch. Yet that opinion ignores the unshakeable belief, the arrogance almost, of the Madrid super-club that this is their trophy and that somehow they will find a way. We need only think back to the second leg of the quarter-final where Real had seemingly blown a three away goal lead against Juventus, but yet still progressed thanks to a controversial added time penalty from uber-talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.
Los Blancos have appeared in a total of fifteen European Cup/ Champions League Finals in their history and have lost just three, the last time being thirty seven years ago, their conquerors in Paris in 1981…none other than Bob Paisley’s Liverpool. Whoever prevails in Kiev on Saturday night will feel it is a date with destiny, for the rest of us it is hopefully going to be well worth watching.
For Arsenal fans this week brought the unveiling of Unai Emery as our new Head Coach, despite almost certainty in the media that it was going to be former skipper Mikel Arteta. Rumours abound of a late U-turn by the management team after gauging fan reaction to the inexperienced Arteta, yet if Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis is to be believed the Basque was always the leading candidate.
Certainly in the cold hard light of analysis Emery’s appointment seems to make consummate sense given Arsenal’s decline since the stadium move in 2006. Constrained by the club’s self-financing model and about to enter our second season out of the Champions League elite we are rightly seen as being at a level below the next destination of the truly big names including: Allegri, Enrique and Ancelotti, the time to make that level of appointment was when the purse strings were loosened back in 2013. The continuation with Arsène Wenger whether out of blind loyalty or because the management structure wasn’t ready made us less and less of an attractive proposition for the very top names.
The considered opinion of the Arsenal support is that while we have not been competing at the very top level for a while now, the current squad isn’t as bad as it might appear. That a new manager with a more meticulous approach to tactical preparation and organisation ought to be able to get more out of the current personnel, to at least make the whole in some way equate to the sum of the individual parts. An initial glance at Emery’s track record and all that has been written about him over the past few days suggests that the man coming in fits the bill almost perfectly.
Emery will be coming into a new, continental-style management structure that has been crafted by Ivan Gazidis with the recruitment of Sven Mislintat as Head of Scouting and Raul Sanllehi as Director of Football in all but title; it is a structure similar to which he is used to working in and seems to be exactly what is needed in terms of brining the club into the modern football age.
Most Arsenal fans wanted change and to give credit to our much maligned Chief Executive we have certainly got change. For the first time in a long time things feel different at Arsenal, and as daunting as that might be, I also think it is a cause for optimism and excitement.
There is no question that things had gone stale under Arsène and a whole new approach was needed throughout the club, but the fresh new management structure and new coach with new ideas harks back to the way things used to be, the days when Arsène first walked through the marble halls of Highbury (http://youaremyarsenal.com/remembering-arsene-the-way-one-man-revolutionised-our-club-in-two-short-years/).
There is no guarantee whatsoever that everything will go right and we will see our team progress back towards the top of the game in this country or even make a stronger challenge in Europe, but surely the finding out is what matters and what being a football fan is all about?