This is a time of year I dread! 3 months of purgatory ahead. Why, I hear you ask? ‘Tis because the football season in Europe comes to a close this Saturday night following the Champions League final. But before we get to that, I must eat humble pie. After my evisceration of Arsenal’s chances in the FA Cup final, lo and behold! They stomped all over Chelsea in one of the most one-sided 2–1 results you’ll see in a long time. A team that far too often doesn’t show up on the big day did, against a team that steamrollered all and sundry before them on their way to the Premier League title. Thirty league wins is no mean feat. But at Wembley, it looked like Arsenal were bidding for the ‘Double’.
A seventh FA Cup triumph for under fire manager Arsene Wenger is, in itself, a record that’ll be hard to emulate. However, it’ll prove to be another false dawn when it comes to the Premier League next season. And given that Wenger has just signed a new two-year deal to stay at the Emirates Stadium, the rumblings of discontent may well continue amongst the faithful.
Additional helpings of humble pie are necessary because astonishingly, Big F**king German (also known as Per Mertesacker) played a blinder – reminding us along the way why he was the lynchpin of Die Mannschaft’s defence for a decade. And that other German Gunner, Mesut Ozil, actually decided to play, rather than look like he’d just lost in the first round of a game of musical chairs. A great game. A magnificent result. And the glory that is the FA Cup shines bright. The God of 13 came through for me. See? Prayer does work. And humble pie has never tasted better!
In the meantime, the silver-haired ‘Sour One’ had another one over the silver-haired ‘Le Professeur’. Manchester United, who finished the season in sixth place in the Premier League, qualified for next season’s Champions League by dint of their victory over Ajax in the Europa Cup final. When it comes to such matches, there are none better than Jose. He knew more than anyone else that the real prize wasn’t in lifting the Europa Cup, but in qualifying for the Champions League. So he set out to ensure he fulfilled his objective. Fair play to him, even though Manchester United’s play throughout the season has been about as exciting as watching paint dry! Wherefore art thou, Sir Alex? Wherefore art thy ‘get-up-and-get-at-them’ style that made Manchester United serial winners in England?
United can now lay the foundation for a real tilt at the EPL title next season. Not only is Jose a second season specialist, but qualification for the Champions League also means he can probably get most of the players on the shopping list he’s handed to Ed Woodward.
This fact must really stick in Wenger’s gullet. Having to make travel plans for the more obscure reaches of Europe via the Europa Cup. The Arsenal are in for a bit of a shock, having to play Thursdays and Sundays, a schedule that has previously left even the most ambitious screaming for mercy.
However, the end of the football season is hotly anticipated for one reason, and one reason only. The Champions League final. A repeat of the 1997-98 final is what awaits us. Juventus, modern-day masters of catenaccio and defenders of the faith i.e. the dark arts of tactical defence, against the marauders from Madrid.
The two best teams in this year’s Champions League meet in Cardiff. Real Madrid going for their 12th title, while Juventus are looking to win the trophy for only the third time. They have lost a further six finals, a record in itself, and one which Juve manager, Massimiliano Allegri hopes his current team – who have won Serie A title for an astonishing sixth consecutive time – does not emulate.
I have to say that I am a little surprised as to how successful Zinedine Zidane has been as manager. Now one could argue that managing a team with the resources and squad as big as Real’s, it should be as easy as pie. Being a legend helps, but having to deal with Florentino Perez makes the job about as easy as being a fisherman on the Bering Sea.
Appointed midway through last season after then coach Rafa Benitez was sacked six months into his tenure, Zidane has pretty much emulated Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona early record. Not all great players make great managers. Football is littered with the remains of a once glittering playing career that fell by the wayside when it came to management. Zidane has proved to be an exception, not the rule.
So, Zidane faces his old team, one he won the Serie A title with in consecutive years during the late 1990s. And while there is romance in football, there is no place for it when it comes to head-to-head competition. Will Italy’s greatest footballing export – catennacio – outmanoeuvre Madrid’s marauders? Somehow this time round, I think not.
Juve will not just rely on a strong defence, their offence is a danger to any team. Just ask Barcelona. Allegri’s tactics will nullify the threat posed by CR7. Benzema is an easier threat to handle; not so the Juve frontline of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic. So the Old Lady of Turin will be champions of Europe again! Saturday night cannot come around soon enough for me.