Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Champions League Upsets

I could also call this entry "How the Mighty have Fallen."

AC Milan and Read Madrid are both at home against clubs one would normally expect them to beat.  But not this season.  AC Milan have been in decline for quite some time.  Italian football observers, myself included had been saying Milan were too old for a couple season's when they won the Champions League in 2007.  That triumph was a combination of smoke, mirrors, luck, guile, and the brilliance of Kaka.

Several of the players from that squad are still around, but they are well past their sell-by date.  The Italians have tried to prop themselves up by bringing in some younger players (young being relative), but none of them have really worked out, and financial considerations forced them to sell Kaka.  In a desperate attempt to appease their supporters (especially the ultras, who will throw their flaming Vespa at you if displeased), Milan have brought in some big name attackers, although none of them live up to their reputations very often.

Milan barely qualified for this competition last season in Serie A, and I think they are in danger of missing out once again this time around.  Their priority early in the season will be to advance past the group stages of the Champions League, and that will not be an easy feat in this group.

Tomorrow they host AJ Auxerre, a very defensive minded French side, and the match will not exactly be a spectacle.  Basically the two sides will kick the ball around the midfield and dare their opponents to shoot.  It has 0-0 written all over it, but that is probably a minor victory for Auxerre.  And the French side does have some pace on the break, pace which Milan lack in defense, so a nicked goal and embarrassing 0-1 home defeat could very well be on the cards for AC Milan.

That brings us to Real Madrid, under new management by the Special One, Jose Mourinho.  They have kept two clean sheets to start the season, but only scored one goal, and the faithful supporters are already whistling the players off the pitch at home after their unattractive displays.  I have thought all along that Mourinho's pragmatic football was a bad fit for Real, and I doubt he will last more than one season.

Murinho's philosophy involves an organized defensive set-up, with a couple gifted attackers providing the needed goal or goals, usually a midfield playmaker (Deco, Frank Lampard, Wesley Snejder) and prolific striker (Benni McCarthy, Didier Drogba, Diego Milito).  The first problem right now is that one of those positions will be filled by Cristiano Ronaldo, and he is currently injured.

The second problem, Ajax have a really good team.  Now, it is no secret that the Dutch clubs are selling clubs.  They are very good at finding and developing young talent, but as soon as that talent reveals itself on the international stage, a big club from a big league comes in and buys the players before a squad capable of challenging for the Champions League can be constructed.  But Ajax have bucked that trend this summer.  They held on to manager Martin Jol, despite a determined pursuit by Fulham, and they didn't cash in on their World Cup stars, which most thought they would.  They are poised to make a run deep into the knockout stages, if only they can get out of this group.  I think Real Madrid might be their first victim.

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