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A game of two halves
Near comeback - Koscielny
The knockout phases of the Champions League – and indeed the Europa League - this year have provided some incredibly exciting and nail biting finishes out of the unlikeliest of ties. And by the unlikeliest of ties, I am mainly talking about those where one team has demonstrated a vast superiority over their opponents in the first leg, apparently rendering the tie almost a foregone conclusion. However, the return leg, between those same two teams, with the same sets of players, has often been the complete antithesis of the initial game, balancing the tie out nicely for a grandstand finish.
In the Champions League round of 16, there was one particular result that stood out amongst the first leg clashes and that was AC Milan’s 2-0 win over Barcelona at the San Siro. This was quite a shock, since Barcelona were most peoples’ favourites to win the tournament. Milan’s convincing win, including goals scored by former Portsmouth players Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, had really left the Spanish giants with a tall order for the second leg.
Of course, if anyone could come back from a resounding away day defeat, it was Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Realistically though, for them to overturn the deficit and qualify from this tie looked a fairly unlikely prospect. Plus, when you think about it, the Catalonians cannot win the tournament every year. Occasionally something unusual has to happen to stop them in their tracks, so perhaps this was it.
There were a couple of other factors going against Barcelona as well at the time. Firstly, their coach, Tito Vilanova, had been taken ill since Christmas time so would not be available to take charge. And secondly, Barcelona had suffered two painful defeats at the hands of bitter rivals Real Madrid in the aftermath of the Milan game, one in the Copa del Rey semi-finals and the other in the league. They were not, therefore, going into the second leg in the best of form.
So could this Barcelona side of 2013 be fallible? Could they, in fact, be showing signs of genuine weakness at this crucial stage in the season? Could they be knocked out of the Champions League by this Milan side? Could they heck! The Catalan giants ran out 4-0 winners at the Nou Camp, systematically dismantling their opponents in the way we’ve come to expect and admire from a Barcelona side.
This tie really did highlight the fact that these two legged contests in the knockout phases of European competition represent a game of two halves. You can win convincingly in the first leg, yet the return leg can turn out to be an entirely different prospect.
Another example of this was Arsenal’s clash with German giants Bayern Munich. This was a tough draw for the Gunners, who had just been knocked out of both domestic cup competitions at the hands of lower league opposition and were in somewhat shaky form.
Sure enough, the deficit in class between the two teams was clear for all to see in the first leg, with Bayern running out 3-1 winners at the Emirates, seemingly putting the tie beyond all doubt. Having conceded three away goals, they would now need a 3-0 win at the Allianz Arena to progress to the next stage. This looked an impossible task, but again, the second leg proved to be a stark contrast.
When Olivier Giroud turned in Theo Walcott’s cross in the third minute of play, the tie took a slightly different complexion. Perhaps the Gunners would make a game of it after all. It was a gripping encounter indeed, and Bayern struggled to impose the same prowess on the game as they did in the first leg. In the 86th minute, defender Laurent Koscielny rose to head home Arsenal’s second goal, giving them a 2-0 lead and levelling the tie up on aggregate, but leaving Arsenal needing one more goal to go through.
It was a nail biting climax, but unfortunately they were unable to achieve the impossible and went out on away goals. But again, it underlined how different two games of football can be between two of the same teams and also, how the approach to the game has such a pivotal role in the outcome.
You could almost go to the extent of saying that wining the first leg comfortably in the knockout stages of European competition is actually a dangerous outcome. The reason for this is, of course, entirely psychological. It changes the whole approach to the second leg. If a team goes into the return tie with a comfortable advantage, they are essentially forced into a position where they have to go out and defend. In a way, they’d be stupid not to, since all they have to do is not concede a number of goals and they are through. There’s no point in throwing men forward when in that situation.
But from the other team’s perspective, they now have nothing to lose. They’ve been beaten in the first leg, so all they have in their minds is to go for the jugular. They may as well throw the kitchen sink at their adversaries. This often means that the second leg takes on a very different dimension. Who can forget last year, when Arsenal were battered 4-0 by AC Milan at the San Siro? Then in the second leg, they came back to win 3-0, very nearly levelling the tie in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Tottenham faced a similar situation in this year’s Europa League, but it was the other way round. They won the first leg with a convincing 3-0 win over Internazionale. The tie looked dead and buried, but Spurs somehow contrived to be 3-0 down in the second leg, forcing the game into extra time. Inter eventually won the match 4-1, but fortunately for Tottenham, they got an away goal which saw them through. But once again, it was an amazing contrast from the way the first leg played out.
Even in the quarter-final stages of the Champions League there were traces of this happening. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side, who were fast becoming the favourites to win the competition, had a comfortable 3-0 lead against Galatasaray to take into the second leg. This was another one that looked a forgone conclusion, especially after Ronaldo’s opening goal made it 4-0 on aggregate. But the Turkish side had other ideas and, later in the game, amazingly scored three goals in the space of 15 minutes to make it 3-1. Unfortunately, because of the away goal, Galatasaray would have required a 5-1 win to take them through and, in the end, they conceded a second goal. But again, to make a game of it and give themselves even a glimmer of hope was still quite an achievement.
It just goes to show how psychological football can be. It is all about how you approach the game. If a team goes in with the right attitude, they can win a match, even against a side who they have just recently lost comfortably to. That’s one of the main reasons European football is so exciting.
Winning the first leg convincingly forces a team into a defensive frame of mind, regardless of how superior they appear to be. This then becomes a dangerous situation as it can only mean an onslaught from the opposition in the second leg. As the famous cliché states, football is a game of two halves, and in Europe, the tie is never over until the final whistle of the second leg blows.
By richbrawn1 on April 13th, 2013 in Blow the whistle
A game of two halves
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