Manchester United v Chelsea: match report

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Jose Mourinho produced a tactical masterclass. His side were smarter, sharper and more ruthless than their opponents in every department and showed fans and critics alike what he can do when the big matches roll round. The game in question here, though, was Chelsea’s 3-1 destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United almost 12 years ago. On that day Mourinho enhanced his reputation further as Chelsea marched towards a record-breaking triumph in the Premier League.

 

12 years is a lifetime in football and this time, Mourinho seems like he is rebuilding his once unquestionable reputation. The Portuguese managed his best Man United game yet as he got the better of rival Antonio Conte in a feisty encounter. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera got the goals in what turned out to be a convincing 2-0 victory at Old Trafford and perhaps gives new life to their top four ambitions as well as the title race.

 

The Special One sprung surprises on Easter Sunday choosing to leave star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench and lining up in a 4-2-2 set-up with Rashford and Jese Lingard up front. Ander Herrera was tasked with marrying himself to Eden Hazard – flashbacks of the F.A. Cup tie where the Spaniard was given his marching orders after a late challenge on the Belgian may have had Man United fans worried. Not so this time as the tenacious midfielder stuck to his task diligently and frustrated the Chelsea talisman in an all-action man of the match performance.

 

Mourinho’s men flew out of the traps at Old Trafford with the pace and understanding between Rashford and Lingard causing problems for the Chelsea back three. The game was not even ten minutes old when Herrera stole possession – questionably as big shouts for handball appeared to be justified – before sliding an excellent ball in behind for Rashford to chance and calmly finish. A goal move unable to materialise, perhaps, if Ibrahimovic was spearheading the attack.

 

Diego Costa, often the subject of many subplots throughout Mourinho’s time at Chelsea, yet has seemed more measured under Conte, showed his unsavoury side yet again. The brutish Spanish striker found himself embroiled in battles with United’s defensive duo Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. His frustrations earned him a yellow card after a late challenge on Pogba.

 

Chelsea looked unusually unfocused, drawn into Manchester United’s clever mind games and acts of street-smarts. The focus was so much lacking that Gary Cahill was more attentive in hauling Lingard up from the ground during the build up to Herrera doubling United’s advantage.

 

It took Chelsea 45 minutes to muster their first effort on goal albeit a frustrated lash from Costa.

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Whatever Conte’s half time message was to his flat Chelsea side at the forefront of it must have been not to concede another goal early in the second half. However, some three minutes into the second period they found themselves further behind. Chelsea failed to clear their lines once more and Ashley Young, who was given the captain’s armband for the occasion, drove into the Chelsea penalty area before another failed clearance fell to Herrera. The Spaniard, the beneficiary of two slices of good fortune after his alleged handball in the first half for his assist for Rashford’s goal, arrowed his shot through a crowd of players which ricocheted off player’s in blue shirts on its way past Asmir Begovic in the Chelsea goal.

 

Before the hour mark Conte attempted to turn the tide in this giant game of chess. Cesc Fabregas came on to offer much needed creativity in place of Victor Moses, asked to operate out of the other full-back position after a pre-game injury to Marcos Alonso.

 

Mourinho countered with a tactical change of his own, sacrificing pace for control, as he brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard. The switch left Rashford isolated but that did not stop the young England centre forward from hustling and bustling his was up front and making life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defenders.

 

N’golo Kante failed to get his usual grip in midfield, partly due to the excellence of Mauroane Fellaini and Herrera in midfield scurrying around refusing to give the Chelsea key players a moments rest. Matteo Darmian found himself handcuffed to Pedro on the other side of the field refusing to let the former Barcelona wide man find space to operate in.

 

Mourinho’s side could have filled their boots in truth, Rashford smashed an effort into the side netting and Young spurned two excellent chances from the edge of the area to inflict more misery onto Conte’s men. England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands and will have been impressed with what he saw from the Manchester United English trio – especially in a new tactical set-up.

 

Rashford was brought off with just two minutes of time remaining to a standing ovation and allowed Ibrahimovic to get on in a cameo appearance.

 

Conte pleaded with his side to push forward in the closing stages but by that point United had become water tight, refusing to give an inch.

 

The final whistle brought with it a rapturous ovation, it was perhaps the most complete United performance since the days of Ferguson, and certainly the best day so far in Mourinho’s time as Man United manager. The former Chelsea boss could not have asked for much more in a week where his side have a vital away goal in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht capped off by a monumental league victory over what many believe to be the champions elect. Mourinho was at his meticulous best – substituting captain Young fully knowing it would take the winger-turned-full-back more time to exit the field due to him passing on the armband.

 

United fans chanted Mourinho’s name in unison clearly buoyed the masterful display. The same fans which were often sickened by Mourinho bringing his Chelsea teams to Old Trafford and furthering his reputation as The Special One now get to experience perhaps what is come down long road ahead.

West Brom V Liverpool: match report

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A particularly stale encounter in the Black Country on Easter Sunday saw Liverpool take another step towards Champions League qualification while West Brom’s stagnation after reaching the 40-point mark continued. Before the fireworks at Old Trafford Jurgen Klopp’s men took their chance to establish themselves even more in the hunt for the top four and heap further pressure on those behind – including Mourinho’s men in Manchester. Roberto Firmino got the solitary goal – and managed to keep his shirt on – in a hard-fought 1-0 victory at The Hawthrones.

 

West Brom by comparison look to be on their holidays – mentally if nothing else. Now past the magical 40-point mark and with their Premier League status promised for at least another campaign the hard work for the Baggies has been done. Perhaps this speaks to a wider problem about the ambition at West Brom, but most of their players looked to have downed tools and lacked motivation – so much so that Pulis was screaming encouragement throughout the whole 90 minutes instructing each player when to close down, take on their full-back and so on.

 

The game started with Liverpool half asleep in the opening two minutes being sloppy from two throw-ins to the annoyance of Klopp on the touchline. West Brom failed to capitalise on their visitor’s slow start however with little creativity from their midfield. A huge area of need this summer if West Brom are to build on their impressive season.

 

The first big chance of the tussle fell to Firmino after a quarter of an hour. Claudio Jacob lost possession to Philippe Coutinho inside the West Brom final third. Coutinho then slid in his fellow Brazilian with a deft ball in. Firmino’s effort was scuffed but had Ben Foster beat, instead trickling past his far post.

 

West Brom endeavoured to get down the flanks with Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli the likely benefactors from deep balls by Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt. Perhaps just the lack of a high-quality playmaker all that was missing to really carved Liverpool open down the sides.

 

On the other side, Liverpool’s high end architects were struggling. Coutinho and Firmino were smothered under the organisation that came with a Tony Pulis side.

 

West Brom’s success from set pieces caused them to spring into life and maraud forward when anything as little as a throw in in Liverpool’s final third presented itself. Phillips’ throw ins were no match for those of Rory Delap and the Stoke side of nearly a decade ago which built theirs, and Pulis’ reputation, as a rugged, no-nonsense outfit.

 

Right on the stroke of half time it was Liverpool taking a page out of their opposition’s book. James Milner’s free-kick was flicked on by Lucas and found Firmino all alone in the six-yard area to nod past Foster. The goal was uncharacteristic from both sides. It is not often that Liverpool make the most of set pieces, and it was even less likely that West Brom surrender back-to-back headers to two Brazilians whom both measure under six feet tall. Firmino’s 12th goal of the season undoing all of the effort West Brom had put in with Pulis’ constant instructions from the side line counting for naught at the interval.

 

The home side conducted a small meeting before the second half got underway with captain Darren Fletcher offering encouragement amongst other things to try and spark some life into West Brom.

 

Hal Robson-Kanu, surprisingly making just his first home start for West Brom since joining in the summer, Offered the Baggies the best route to goal but too many times found himself compromised by the linesman’s chequered flag.

 

Liverpool offered more creativity and incision after the break with Divock Origi and Firmino exploiting the extra half a yard of space left behind by the West Brom midfield as they attempted to restore parity.

 

Milner was offered the chance to seal the game early in the second half after a delightful chipped ball from Firmino found the midfielder turned left-back in acres of space only for the England international to blaze his effort straight over the crossbar. A finish befitting of a full-back. Firmino could only offer up a knee slide in despair and not, as he probably anticipated, in celebration.

 

Liverpool briefly had a second which was quickly chalked off after Firmino had just leaned into an offside position before cushioning a header back into the path of Origi who calmly headed the ball into Ben Foster’s goal. The diminutive Brazilian was starting to find more leaks in the West Brom damn with Jurgen Klopp looking for his side to make it burst. An extra worry for Pulis surely had to be that his usually robust defensive outfit were losing headers to a slight midfield playmaker.

 

After just over an hour the Baggies boss had seen enough and threw on Salomon Rondon and James McClean, although Rondon himself has not been in great goal-scoring form with no goals in 17 club games since his hattrick against Swansea.

 

The home side’s biggest chance fell to Phillips after a powerful run from Rondon had Liverpool’s defence, often questioned but comfortable on the day, scrambling to stop the burly Venezuelan. His pass found Phillips on the inside left of the penalty area and the winger could only take aim and fire his effort into the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

 

A mad scrap ensued in the final moments of the game with the West Bromwich faithful roaring mightily with every set piece earned. The proceedings even saw Foster come up from his goal for an injury time corner – and nearly resulting in disaster. Substitute Alberto Moreno won the ball from the corner and tried his luck from all of 45-yards but completely missed the target, much to the disgust of Daniel Sturridge, when Foster a full 60-yards back from his own net. Amazingly, Foster stayed rooted in the heart of the Liverpool half in a desperate bid to snatch a leveller but to no avail. A smile of relief greeted Klopp upon hearing the ringing of the full-time whistle.

 

Klopp will care little that his side failed to provide their usual swashbuckling best, as at this stage of the season it is all about the three points which propel the Merseysiders into third – nine points ahead of fifth placed Everton and heaping even more pressure on Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

Crystal Palace v Arsenal: match report

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Arsene Wenger endured another humiliating night as his side were soundly thumped 3-0 by Crystal Palace. Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye and a first Crystal Palace goal for Luka  Milivojević saw The Eagles add to Arsenal’s woes.

 

For Sam Allardyce he collects his second scalp in nine days as his Palace side started April by beating Chelsea 2-1.

 

Wenger will now face a fresh inquest surrounding his future. In contrast, the Allardyce-effect is in full flight and the future of Crystal Palace looks to be edging closer to playing in the Premier League next campaign.

 

On a night when Arsenal looked half-asleep throughout, Palace were the sharper side from the first whistle with Wilfried Zaha and Townsend tormenting the Gunners’ back four with their lightening pace down the flanks.

 

The game was only 17 minutes old when Zaha burst into the penalty area and, even though he slipped, his cross met Townsend sneaking in between an oblivious Hector Bellerin and Shkodran Mustafi to bundle the ball into the back of the net from close range.

 

Arsenal retainined much of the possession but made it count for little. Mohamed Elneny saw a long-range effort tipped wide by Wayne Hennessey in the Palace goal and Alexis Sanchez saw his effort trickle wide but Arsenal muster no clear-cut chances throughout the 90 minutes.

 

Granit Xhaka was perhaps the worst player in yellow on Monday night. The Swiss international was sluggish across the ground allowing Cabaye and company to exploit the spaces in midfield and his usually sound passing range was well out of sync.

 

In a bid to claw his side back into the contest Wenger sent on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud in place of Elneny and an isolated Danny Welbeck. Yet, three minutes later, Arsenal found their deficit doubled thanks to a superb finish from Cabaye. The Frenchman collected a pass from Zaha before unleashing a delicious curling shot into the far side of Emiliano Martinez’s goal to send the home support into ecstasy.

 

Zaha continued his rich vein of form, ending the night with two assists and a standing ovation as he was withdrawn from proceedings on 88 minutes. The Ivory Coast winger is now beginning to fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him when he paid £15m to bring him to Manchester United.

 

The Gunners had no plan B. Persisting to dominate possession of the ball and hit hopeful crosses into the box. The dismal performance continued, Martinez committed himself to a 50-50 ball with Townsend and sent the England winger tumbling – while little contact was made it was enough to convince referee Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Milivojević did the rest to put the home side three to the good.

 

Palace hounded the visitors into mistakes and the bouncing Selhurst Park played its part, too, creating a hostile atmosphere which saw players in yellow wilt.

 

Palace and their supporters enjoyed the game thereon in. ‘Ole’ chants greeted every completed Palace pass while Arsenal fans commenced their ongoing witch hunt for Arsene Wenger’s head, chanting “Arsene Wenger, we want you to go.” Perhaps this may be the straw which finally breaks the camel’s back, only time will tell.

 

Down the years, Wenger has often been the architect of the tactical masterclass. On this night, he found himself on the receiving end of one from long-time nemesis Big Sam.

 

Palace could have extended their advantage further with Christian Benteke having half chances to add a fourth goal, and, but from a credible performance from Martinez between the sticks for Arsenal, they may well have got it.

 

The autopsy of Arsenal has now reached new heights. The futures of key members of the squad still way up in the air, their once masterful manager, increasingly looking a caricature of his former self, yet to decide his fate and now Arsenal’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread. Currently seven points off the pace for fourth spot perhaps their lacklustre season looks ever more like marking the end of two decades of Champions League football, and perhaps Arsene Wenger.

A historic night for Barcelona but PSG’s mental frailties rear their ugly head again

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Sergi Roberto struck with virtually the last kick of the game sending Barcelona through to the last eight of the Champions League. Facing an impossible task of being 4-0 down to Paris Saint-Germain after the first leg and then facing a 5-3 deficit with just 28 minutes remaining Barca needed more than a miracle.

 

However, while the world will marvel at Barcelona’s three goals in the final seven minutes of the match, what should not be ignored is PSG’s mental frailties. It was on a plate for the French powerhouse and it seemed for all the world they would shatter their mental block with manager Unai Emery on the touchline. The former Sevilla manager was seen as the secret weapon to guiding PSG through the tie after going toe-to-toe with Barcelona many times when in charge in Seville.

 

However, it was not to be. Yet another cross examination will be carried out by PSG’s hierarchy on how this collection of extraordinary talented individuals cannot band together and dig in when they are required to.

 

The collapse against Luis Enrique’s side evoked memories of their 2014 capitulation against Chelsea in the quarter-finals. After winning the first leg commandingly 3-1, with Javier Pastore scoring in injury time to ‘all but put the tie beyond Chelsea’, the Parisians collapsed in London as Demba Ba netted an 87th minute strike to send Jose Mourinho’s side through on away goals.

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In 2013 Paris faced Barcelona in what would soon become a European rivalry. After Blaise Matuidi struck deep in injury time in the Parc des Princes to give PSG a fighting chance when heading back to the Nou Camp the French outfit then shrunk in the spotlight again. After taking the lead through Pastore the Catalans struck back through Pedro. The scoreline will forever read 1-1 and that Barca advance via the away goals rule but the reality paints a different picture, PSG were in control of the game – on a night when Lionel Messi was relegated to the bench, still recovering from a thigh injury. But when the chances came PSG could not take them and inevitably succumbed to Barcelona’s will.

 

This time the autopsy will take on a different manner. No team had ever come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit to emerge victorious in a Champions League tie. Trailing 3-0 it seemed Barca would at least take the game into extra time, and then the Nou Camp fell silent as Edinson Cavani expertly lashed his shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegan putting Paris Saint-Germain firmly back in control and only needing to resist for 28 more minutes with Barca requiring a trio of strikes to get through – even the most die-hard Catalan must have thought it was over. To go from 4-0 to 4-3 with an hour still to play is a collapse in its own right, but to then leave Messi and company needing another 3 goals after Cavani made it 3-1 on the night – and still lose- is a catastrophe like no other.

 

Emery’s stay in Paris may be a short one after domestic dominance is now being challenged with PSG chasing the pack, rather than setting the insurmountable pace, in Ligue 1 and being dumped out of Europe’s elite club competition in the most extraordinary fashion.

 

Perhaps such a failure felt inevitable, Barcelona have rarely felt like the team of five or six years ago, yet all week the players and their manager maintained unwavering faith: “If they can score four we can score six” remarked Enrique with Neymar adding “It is practically impossible. But we cannot give up.” Barca did not give up – in the week Luis Enrique told the press and his players he would be stepping down at the end of the season the miraculous turnaround felt like the players did it for their departing manager.

 

PSG by comparison felt like a 3-1 defeat would be job done, even 4-1 or 5-1. After all they had the all-important away goal and all that mattered was getting through the tie. After realising they were in a game after Messi’s penalty made it 3-0 on the night and had social media exploding with ‘they couldn’t, could they?’ PSG fell complacent – even conceited – after their star striker netted what should have been the final nail in Barcelona’s Champions League coffin.

 

The difference between the great and the very good were encapsulated in 185 pulsating minutes. Barcelona’s stars banned together as a true team refusing to give in – for PSG the questions once again musts be asked of leadership, selflessness and gut. It truly was a night of history for both teams, and for polarising reasons, one they shall both never forget.

 

What We Learned: 5 things from the Champions League final

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during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.

Real Madrid lifted the Champions League trophy in the San Siro after dramatically beating Atletico Madrid on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes. Juanfran missed the decisive penalty which gave Cristiano Ronaldo the chance to win it and he blasted home the dramatic winner to see Zinedine Zidane lift the trophy for the first time as a manager and become only the seventh person to win the competition as a player and a manager.

 

For Real they win the big eared trophy twice in the last three years. Sergio Ramos opening the scoring inside 15 minutes as he scrambled home a Gareth Bale flick on from a Toni Kroos free kick before winger Yannick Carrasco equalised with a thumping finish from close range in the second half. French forward Antoine Griezmann saw his penalty smack off the bar in between the goals in what was another intense Madrid derby.

 

The city of Milan rocked with both sets of supporters singing loud and proud but it is the fans of Real that will sing long into the night while Atletico are left to fix broken hearts for the second time in just three years. It seems that fate does not want Atletico to win the biggest prize in club competition with them just seconds from victory in Portugal in 2014 and a post width away from going to sudden death this time around. Without further ado, here are the five things we learned from the Champions League final.

 

  1. Simeone set up wrong

In the opening 45 minutes Atletico looked overrun in midfield as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos controlled the middle of the pitch and gave their opponents nothing when they had the ball. While Madrid had the better chances in was Atleti who had more of the ball but found themselves playing square passes in midfield leaving Antoine Griezmann and in particular Fernando Torres isolated. Zinedine Zidane set up his side to frustrate the opposition in the first half and they did exactly that plugging up any holes Atletico wanted to exploit. Atletico had no creativity in midfield and Koke was often pushed wide to try and get involved. Nothing went to plan for Atletico in the first half and the entire team from the stands to the side line to the pitch looked flat.

 

  1. Penalty misses will haunt Atletico

When Yannick Carrasco scored Atletico’s equaliser there won’t have been a man in the world more relived than Griezmann. His penalty miss will now be magnified even more by the miss from Juanfran from the spot during the shoot-out. A post width stopped Atletico from putting pressure on Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty which he would have needed to score to keep his side in it had the Atletico full back been able to find the net.

 

Griezmann showed great nerve to step up in the shoot out and bury his penalty with great coolness only for him to look on in disgust as if to say “Why couldn’t I have done that earlier?”. When every other player finds the back of the net it makes the one miss even greater and one that no doubt Juanfran will never forget.

 

  1. Passions did not boil over

Two years ago the final was soured with passions boiling over prompting Simeone to gesticulate wildly on the pitch and several high intensity clashes on the pitch made the final probably the edgiest in history. Not so much this time around, sure the passion was there but it was tempered and referee Mark Clattenburg handled it expertly – something for England to be pleased about. Maybe clutching at straws with that one. It was evident that Atletico learned a lot from their loss two years ago and kept their cool even when things were going against them. It seemed we could be in store for more of the same after 47 seconds when Koke committed a foul and every jersey on the field flocked towards the fluorescent yellow stature of Clattenburg but by enlarge the final was kept in check when talking about a Madrid derby in the biggest club game of them all. After Giezmann’s penalty miss you would not have been surprised to see Atelti implode but they simply kept going. Madrid by contrast were as professional as could be – they upped their antics after Atletico equalised with Ramos committing a dangerous foul when Yannick Carrasco looked to be breaking through the Real defence.

 

  1. Zindane’s tactical flexibility

We’ve discussed how Simeone got it wrong in the first half now let’s flip the coin and half a look at how Zidane got it so right. With the Frenchman’s future at the Santiago Bernabeu a lot of pressure was on Zidane to deliver a solid 90 minutes – which turned into 120 minutes – of management. He showed that he could mix it up with Madrid daring Atletico to come on to them in the first half. Atleti looked confused and did not know how to deal with having the lion share of possession and having such an attacking outfit defend so deep.

 

The game plan worked perfectly with Real Madrid making the most of set pieces and defending with 10 behind the ball every time Griezmann and company had the ball. Honestly this is not a typo – it was Real Madrid who did most of the running and defending. It was quite a shock to the system to watch such a disciplined 45 minutes. As the game wore on naturally it got more chaotic but Zidane showed he has more strings to his management bow on the biggest club stage of them all.

 

  1. Simeone learned his lesson

Two years ago the heart ruled the head and after eight minutes Diego Costa limped off with a hamstring injury forcing Simeone to use an early substitute. By the time Sergio Ramos scored that dramatic 93rd minute equaliser Atleti were out on their feet having gave their all. Simeone had no fresh legs to bring on and help his side close out the game.

 

Not the same story this time around. While his managerial counterpart had showed his hand by the end of regular time – which will have no doubt worried him when Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo required attention heading into the second half of extra time and soldiered on with Bale hardly able to run by the time penalties came round – the astute Argentine still had two substitutes to use heading into the final 15 minutes of extra time. In fact in this final Atletico seemed to get stronger as the game went on especially Carrasco who will haunt the nightmares of Brazilian full back Danlio for years to come.

 

It was a more mature display from Simeone and his team who looked composed throughout the 120 minutes. The last time these two sides met on such a stage it was more like organised chaos from the team in red and white but as the cliché goes you learn more about yourself in defeat than you do in victory.

 

Perhaps their lesson will be even more harsh this time around with the cruelty of the defeat. There was to be no redemption story for Simeone but in terms of the 120 minutes before penalties Atletico learned their lesson from the 2014.

The Inside Story Of Arsenal Under Wenger: A book review

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It has taken a while for me to finally finish the Arsene Wenger biography written by Daily Mirror Chief Football Writer John Cross. It has not been for the lack of great tales or nostalgia bait but simply due to a hectic schedule. However After powering through the second half of the book in a night and a half here we are, a review of the book at last.

 

While I have read several books centred around Arsenal in the past (see my review of Thierry Henry’s biography Lonely At The Top) This is the first one I’ve read that gave me almost an all access look into press conferences with Wenger, away day journeys to all kinds of places with all manner of interesting tales and tensions behind the scenes. As an aspiring sports journalist myself it was genuinely mind-blowing.

 

I think my biggest take-away from the book was Wenger’s emotion. Having worked in a few sporting environments by now I am well aware that what is said in front of pressing BBC or Sky Sports cameras is not always the prevailing feeling away from the prying eyes. However, throughout the book there are constant tales of Wenger’s emotions playing a part in his press conferences, interviews with the newspapers, his players – past and present, board members and rival managers. Wenger is very much a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His outbursts on the touchline and in the immediate post match interviews have mellowed in recent years and long gone are the days of explosive scenes and quotes like the ones given in 2005 in response to an interview Sir Alex Ferguson gave with the Independent. Wenger lashed out saying:

I have no diplomatic relations with him. What I don’t understand is that he does what he wants and you [the press] are all at his feet. The managers have a responsibility to protect the game before the game. But in England you are only punished for what you say after the game.

 

There are of course examples of Wenger’s emotion being seen in a joyous occasion and you don’t have to dig far into his Arsenal career archives to find it. When referee Lee Probert sounded off his whistle for the final time at Wembley on Saturday May 17th what washed over Wenger was relief as well as champagne. As Cross put it: “Wenger celebrated like never before. The players tried to soak him in champagne and then almost the entire squad lifted him up and threw him in the air.” His emotions make up a large part of Wenger’s DNA as manager of Arsenal and Cross details the Frenchman’s feelings expertly throughout the biography. When Wenger receives abuse from the stands while he looks oblivious to it all Cross makes it clear that he can hear it and it does hurt him to hear fans react so viciously when things are not going well on the pitch. One emotion that rarely crops up, and is therefore much more noticeable when it does, is anger. The two instances that stick out in the book are when his years at Monaco are explored and in 1993 they were consistently finishing second best to Marseille only for southern France team to be embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. The book details how Wenger felt betrayed by the Marseille hierarchy as well as officials and opposing players too. The other instance, which is chilling to the bone when reading the pages, is that Wenger faced a media storm when rumours about his private life started to circulate. Cross, via an interview with then press officer Clare Tomlinson, recalls how angry Wenger was:

All I remember is his reaction. I remember him going very still, very white. He was furious. It wasn’t like a Fergie red mist – he went white cold, just disgust, and I often wonder how close he was to just going outside, getting in a taxi and going back to Heathrow and giving up.

 

While many managers loath the press the book depicts Wenger as a man who enjoys their company, will crack a joke, offer sharp-tongued quips in response to questions and is even sharp when responding to text messages from more trusted members of the media. Throughout the chapters we see his relationship with the media get increasingly frosty especially when Arsenal and Wenger where under the cosh for: their lack of silverware, his future and big players leaving for rivals. However in his early days as the boss at Arsenal Wenger was often jovial with the media – even after disappointing results. After a 1-1 draw to Middlesbrough in 1998 Cross inserts a Wenger quip: ‘If you eat caviar every day, it’s difficult to return to sausages.’ Such a result today has often prompted the Frenchman to give longwinded answers about togetherness, to keep fighting and so on. Yet in this instance Cross paints the picture of a man who was under no pressure from the fans or media after the wonders he worked with the Gunners in such a short space of time. His caviar vs. sausages comparison is the type of one-liner that became synonymous with Wenger amongst the press however such humour in public dwindled as the years went by, swapped out for answers drawn out of tension or annoyance – especially when being pressed to respond to comments made by one Jose Mourinho. It’s a fantastic look into the mindset of one of the Premier League’s most respected managers.

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Throughout the book Cross writes about Wenger’s interests away from football. Politics, culture and business are all hot topics Wenger enjoys discussing at length and in terms of culture Wenger enjoys engrossing himself in the culture of whichever country he is in. This has been evident since he started managing in England but it was something he learned in his early days the slender, well spoken manager embraced the culture of Japan and what Japanese football brought with it as Cross explains:

Japan seemed to reinvigorated Wenger and, in a rather understated way, seemed to help shape the way he is today. His experience there, the adulation of the fans, helped him realise the importance of embracing the culture of the country you are in, thus preparing him for his transformation into an adopted Englishman.

 

Details of the move to the Emirates has always been well documented in the public eye. Yet what Cross writes so poignantly about is how the move to their new home in 2006 took the best years of Wenger’s managerial career. The book mentions clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich trying to charm Wenger away from the Gunners during their baron spell. How would Wenger’s CV look had he taken one of the no doubt lucrative offers? When reading about the sums of money available, the measures taken to help pay off the £390m stadium and how the stress and boardroom unrest you get a real sense of overachievement on Wenger’s part and in hindsight – while the lack of trophies was an obvious frustration – a top four finish was often a remarkable feat considering the revolving door nature of the squad from 2006. The penny pinching did see Wenger lose out on key targets such as Gary Cahill as Cross explains that in the summer of 2011 when Arsenal refused to pay over six million for the England defender only for Cahill to join arch-rivals Chelsea six months later for just one millions more. Nobody knows what Arsenal’s squad could have looked like and achieved had Wenger been prepared to pay the extra million here and there but finishing fourth under such restrictions has to be seen as a success, to a degree at least, especially as Arsenal’s purse strings were forced to tighten around the same time Chelsea were becoming free spending. According to Cross, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and a close personal friend of Wenger said: “He had arrived, parked his tanks on his lawn and was firing £50 notes.” The expert detail in which Cross delves into Arsenal’s move to the Emirates and their finances paints a real picture of constantly fighting an uphill battle in every transfer window when it came to keeping hold of their star players as well as recruiting.

 

Wenger has always spoken about bringing players through the Arsenal academy. Nurturing young talent and giving them a platform to develop has always been one of Wenger’s top priorities and not just on the pitch but in life. The book articulates Wenger as a father figure who cares about the future of young players away from the football pitch. Cross writes about a Q&A seminar in 2013 while in Japan in which the Arsenal manager answered willingly and insightfully about all things football. When quizzed about nurturing young talent this was his response: “I believe one of the best things about managing people is that we can influence lives in a positive way. That’s basically what a manager is about. When I can do that, I am very happy.” It’s a common thread through the book that Wenger is always striving to win but wants the club to produce players that are not afraid to express themselves and will give any young player the chance if he thinks they are ready.

 

While so many clubs are obsessed by instant success and buying ready made superstars Wenger has moulded Arsenal into a club that will develop not just football players but young men. Throughout the book Cross writes about how Wenger is a very well liked man and how no players ever leave the club on bad terms with him. Such is the nature of Wenger that for many of the young, fragile players – many of them experiencing an entirely new culture for the first time – he doubles up as a father figure to them. Through listening, wisdom and protection from the media Wenger builds strong bonds with budding players who get the ultimate backing from a manger who has the upmost faith in their ability. Perhaps the most written phrase in the entire book is: “He is a very nice man.” Out of the wide range of ex players Cross interviewed about the Arsenal manager it is a common occurrence. This explains why it hurts Wenger even more when he has to sell players such as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry as he developed almost a father-son relationship with them watching them blossom from a rough-round-the-edges, enthusiastic starlet turn into a match winning superstar. 

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There are 389 excellent pages about one of the most complex men ever to grace the Premier League. Themes such as his discomfort when dealing with confrontation thus creating a feeling of disillusionment towards his players are often countered with honest interviews with respected members of Arsenal’s past saying he always made them feel involved and appreciated. While managers will often dictate the nature of half time team talks Wenger is a man who would rarely be heavily involved, often leaving the players to discuss it amongst themselves before delivering a concise message about how they play for the rest of the game. There is much more I could write about the book discussing how Wenger enjoys attending international tournaments and soaking up the culture or how he truly believes in his squad using a sports phycologist but the best tale I can tell is the one I endured of nostalgia, intrigue and remarkable discoveries. Over his 20 years of management we have all seen and got accustomed to Wenger the football manager but Wenger the man is a subject so brilliantly dissected that a much rounder image of the man as a whole is formed. Emotions are a large part of Wenger’s make-up while an unshakeable belief in his player’s and his own ability is what keeps him firmly at the helm of the north London club.

What We Learned: 5 things from Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

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Atletico Madrid reached their second Champions League final in three years after defeating Bayern Munich on away goals after the tie ended 2-2 on aggregate. Losing 2-1 in the Allianz Arena on Tuesday night Diego Simeone’s men played their part in an animated clash in Germany which saw two missed penalties, one controversial penalty call and much more drama. Here are five things we learned:

 

5. Bayern wanted to up the tempo

Last week in Madrid Bayern did not have the same quick, incisive attacking to their game. That all changed in Munich as Pep Guardiola’s side attacked in waves and had 12 shots in the opening 27 minutes. Even the balls boys had to be at their fastest as the home side looked to keep Atletico under pressure with their speed and intensity. The return of Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller helped push Munich up the pitch quicker and at times the Atletico defending resembled Bambi on ice as they could not get anywhere near their opponents. Every chance Atletico had to slow the game down they tried: delaying the restart of the game at set pieces, arguing with officials and Bayern players, whatever they could do to try and catch their breath.

 

4. Atletico were better when they had to attack

Simeone is possibly the best manager in the world over two legs. Steal a goal then defend diligently and attack on the break trying to add to the lead. It’s a recipe that works most of the time but they were actually far more effective when they had to go forward and score. In the second half they committed more players forward and although Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann had less support than Kanye West’s plea to Mark Zuckerberg the one slick attack they had resulted in a goal – a counter attack too. After that they threatened much more and looked much more composed in possession and had a number of their own chances they wasted, Torres having a late penalty saved which would have killed off any Munich hope.

 

3. Missed chances cost Bayern

Possibly the biggest thing that cost Bayern a spot in the final was Bayern themselves. While their build up play was first rate their finishing certainly was not. Muller missed the biggest chance in the first half when he saw his penalty saved by Jan Oblak just moments after Xabi Alonso had put Munich back into the tie with a deflected free-kick. Robert Lewendowski spurned two big chances in the first half and while the visitors had a penalty miss of their own which could have swung the pendulum late on in the game it was Bayern who created the lion share of the chances – especially in the first half. The home side had Madrid on the ropes looking punch drunk after fending off relentless attacks. However a combination of poor finishing and Oblak doing his best impression of an octopus between the sticks saw Atletico survive.

 

2. Guardiola could be seen as a failure at Bayern

Regardless of how many records Guardiola’s Bayern have set and broken during his reign the big hole in his CV will be failing to win the Champions League with them. Not only did he fail to win the competition with them but he failed to even navigate them to a final. While domestic trophies are all well and good Guardiola was brought in to help usher in a new era of Continental dominance for Munich and it simply has not happened. Failure may be too strong of a word to use but that is how many die hard Bayern fans may perceive his tenure at the club.

 

1. Atletico want Real Madrid

Make no mistake, Atletico want Real in the final. While Simeone and his players will claim to not care they will want to avenge their heartbreaking 4-1 AET defeat of 2014. Atletico were literal seconds away from winning their first Champions League title before Sergio Ramos scored to take game into extra time and by the end it seemed a one sided result. Simeone and his squad are passionate men and will want to right the wrongs of 2014 as well as last year being dumped out of the competition at the quarter-finals stage by the same opponent. Winning the trophy against one of their fiercest rivals and avenging previous defeats in the process is the kind of motive that drives Simeone.