There’s a running theme among my baseball colleagues here at the score involving Old Newspaper Media touting the importance of game-to-game narrative over the simple fact that, as the cartoon says, sports is just a slightly weighted random number generator, so let’s not get too horny over a small sample size.
In football, there is simply no hard line between statistical science and an utterly compelling single-match storyline involving a slumping, over-priced Madrid-born striker scoring a breakaway goal in the dying minutes of a second leg semifinal against a vastly superior Barcelona team with which they have an on-going heated CL rivalry and that’s spent the last four years with Europe in its death grip (with numerical superiority on the night after the captain, John Terry, who famously missed a Champions League-winning penalty in the final in 2008, was sent off for kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the back), for a London-based club that has never won the Champions League owned by a wealthy Russian oilman and managed by an interim replacement who failed with West Bromwich Albion and who replaced the previous manager, a thirty-four year-old Wunderkind from Porto whom many compared with Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s greatest ever manager who now manages the same Real Madrid team that has almost certainly won the La Liga title after beating that same Barcelona team 1-2 not four days ago.
In this case, the numbers fuel this incredible, obese narrative rather than put it in some sort of non-hyperventilated perspective. It was, on paper, an aberration. Barcelona conceded two away goals against Chelsea despite an 82% possession rate, and and 23 total shots to Chelsea’s 7 (although only 6 on target, which is where the tactics people will find their answer).
But the “aberrations” this season have piled up for Barcelona, and that goes beyond their El Clasico loss or the first leg 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday. The seeds of last night’s head-spinning match, surely one of the greatest and most important Champions League semifinals of all time (at least since the European Cup reformation in 1992), were sown back at the end of November when Barcelona lost 1-0 to Getafe.
The defeat came after the first part of a Barca season that included a pair of of 2-2 draws against Valencia and, more alarmingly, Real Sociedad. In many ways, the loss was similar to last night’s display, with shots off the post and a maybe-maybe-not offside goal that didn’t count. It was a case of Barcelona not catching a lucky break and being slightly below their intimidating best.
Does this mean therefore the end of Pep Guardiola’s impressive Barcelona pressing side? Does Jonathan Wilson’s three year best-before date for possession-based clubs apply? It’s too early to say how European football will digest this moment, but it does seem similar to Porto’s 2004 Champions League win, which also came on the eve of a European Championship. In 2004, Greece stunned Europe with a well-drilled, conservative side that adapted well in transition between offensive and defensive formations, which mirrored Mourinho’s Porto. The Champions League final and the course of the Euros this June could cement yet another transitional moment in Europe.
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Bits and bobs
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The Reddit soccer community is pretty clever sometimes.