Something Changed

Last week the Champions League semi final second legs threw up a couple of shocks that perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprising. Firstly, there was evidence last year that Barcelona didn’t have enough depth in a squad that showed signs of tiredness towards the end of the season, and sometimes struggled to break teams down that were intent on putting all their men behind the ball. An example of this was in their last 16 match against Arsenal, when despite dominating for the best part of 180 minutes, they were nearly knocked out by a team that didn’t have a shot on target in the second leg as Nicklas Bendtner found himself in a one-on-one in the dying minutes. Meanwhile, the second thing that took the football world aback was a £50m striker scoring a goal.

When he came on in the Camp Nou, Fernando Torres’s touch looked as poor as it has been for much of the last two years when he has been a shadow of his former self, form that led to him finally being omitted from the Spain squad as well as being the fall guy for everyone who justifiably wants to ridicule the way money is spent in the game. But his late goal at Barcelona sealed a triumph that was really put in motion by a fantastic finish by Ramries just before the break that turned the balance of a tie Barcelona would surely have won otherwise.

Torres followed his high on Tuesday night with a calmly taken hat-rick against QPR on Sunday, and arguably just as important for his confidence was the brace he got against Leicester City in the sixth round of the FA Cup, which was largely overshadowed due to the collapse of Fabrice Muamba at White Hart Lane the previous day. The two incidents led to the joke that when Muamba woke the following week and his team mates told him that latest football news, including Torres scoring two goals, he had to question how long he was actually unconscious for. Muamba is now on the road to recovery, and may even attend Bolton’s League fixture with Tottenham tomorrow, and Torres is suddenly competing for starting places in the FA Cup and European Cup Finals – a reminder how quickly things can change.

And things have changed again in the Premier League, with Manchester City completing their eight-point recovery on Manchester United last night in a six pointer that had the feel of a European cup-tie second leg, where a late United equalizer would have felt like an away goal counting double, so crucial for City was a win.

While Gary Neville, who is an excellent analyst for Sky when he expertly tailors lines and sound bites while sharing experience and wisdom, may have been faking it a little in his co-commentary duties in the Camp Nou last week, it doesn’t bear thinking about what Niall Quinn would have done had City got a second at the death to seal the game last night, so biased was his punditry.

But Quinn was right to say City had the best of the game. Though United started brightly, they tired as City’s possession improved in the first half, and though their shape was solid and they had the threat of breaking quickly when the score was level, once City took the lead, too often their final ball let them down when City were then occupying the space in front of their penalty area in numbers.

Perhaps with Park and Nani being out for so long before the game, and an ageing central midfield, tiredness was inevitable, but the key moment in the game was the set-piece goal just before half-time, which allowed City to defend deeper, frustrating a United side who unusually seemed to be lacking inventiveness in the final third last night.

The cup-tie nature of a League match will inevitably create more anticipation than games early in the season, but the result meant it wasn’t a winner takes all in the same way the Liverpool/Arsenal fixture in 1989 was or even Tottenham’s win at Eastlands was in 2010, and the League is not over yet, with City’s visit to Newcastle on Sunday looking to now be the key game. And despite the hype, the United/City game wasn’t even the biggest football story of the day, with the FAs announcement on Sunday night that Roy Hodgson is their preferred choice as England Manager a fascinating development.

It led to much bitter press from hacks yesterday who had probably already written copy for an outcome they assumed was certain, but have been proved wrong, largely because they believe in their own influence too much. The uncertainty has been problematic, but, perhaps uncharacteristically, the FA appear to have shown some backbone and made a valued decision based on criteria with a number of objectives. There will be plenty more written about Hodgson and the England football team in the coming weeks, not least on The Substantive, but whether it works or not, there is a logic to the decision making process and there is no reason for it to be criticised now.