We haven’t seen anything like this for quite a while. In fact it was beginning to look as though soccer had lost its identity, had shrunk from being the world’s most exciting sport, and withered away to tedious 90-minute installments of scoreless running around.
Then, out of the blue, as though finally fed up with its captivity in the morbid web of defensive tactics, soccer burst spectacularly free during the last week, and as the goals poured in, the sport became the joyous entertainment that is its true self.
What caused this amazing burst of dazzling, almost abandoned, attacking soccer? I don’t know. I doubt if you know -- and I’m utterly certain that the TV pundits -- those guys who present their repetitive drivel to us day after day as though it is of some significance (it isn’t) -- I’m quite sure they don’t know.
The thing about the pundits, you will have noticed should you watch them, is that they spend most of their time and their analysis (I refer to it as banalysis) explaining why goals shouldn’t be scored, detailing the errors made by defenders.
You have to wonder sometimes -- do these guys even like goals? To their credit, they got caught up in the goalscoring mania last week, and were evidently quite willing to admit that a lot of the defending we’d been watching was pretty bad ... but they were actually willing to overlook that, and wallow in the excitement produced by the goalfest.
I doubt whether that attitude will last very long, but I’ll take it while it does, Welcome guys, to the real sport of soccer -- to its attacking skills, to its goalscoring thrills, to its sudden changes in fortune, its yo-yo scorelines, its breathless excitement and how it can keep that excitement at a high level for a whole game.
In the space of eight days we got these scorelines: Paris Saint-Germain 4 Barcelona 0; Bayern Munich 5 Arsenal 1; Real Madrid 3 Napoli 1; Bayern Leverkusen 2 Atletico Madrid 4; Manchester City 5 Monaco 3.
Twenty eight goals -- 28 -- in five games, a rate of 5.6 goals per game. Which is about three times as many as we’d be getting in the arid Scrooge-like version of soccer that we are usually offered.
The version that brings all that gush of pseudo technical guff from the pundits, the one where -- as one of them recently remarked -- we can actually be guilty of “enjoying the game too much” to notice what is really going on. Things like all those defensive errors and a host of other fatuous vapidities that spring so readily to the pundits’ lips. Heavens help us.
What a relief to get them to -- more or less -- shut up for once and call a halt to the fake-serious prattle about defense and give us their much more light-hearted and therefore much more acceptable views on the goal-rush.
Even so, while the pundits -- both on TV and in the media -- were bathing in the excitement of the goals, the old habits could not be entirely squelched. It was necessary, we were told, to give credit to the coaches involved -- especially to Man City’s Pep Guardiola and Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim for their eight-goal riot.
I’m not so sure about that. Maybe to Jardim -- he was the away-team coach, his team should have been thinking about defending. The same reasoning would apply to Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone -- what was Atletico, normally a tough defensively oriented team, thinking, that they dared to score four times at Bayer Leverkusen?
But Guardiola -- why should he be praised? For doing something that he ought to be doing anyway? I don’t see it -- especially as it was Guardiola who kept goalscorer Sergio Aguero on the bench while Man City labored to win low-scoring games in the EPL.
Aguero was back on the field not because Guardiola was suddenly smitten with him, but because of a bad injury to the young Gabriel Jesus. Aguero responded with two goals and an assist. He might have had more -- he should have had a penalty called when the Monaco goalkeeper brought him down. Instead Aguero got a yellow card -- an appalling call for a diving offense that didn’t exist (we’ve not seen so many of those lately, I’m happy to report).
The referee -- the Spaniard Mateu Lahoz -- poses a problem. Everyone I listened to and have read, was bubbling with enthusiasm for this game -- from the media --- “I'm honestly not sure I've seen a more exciting game ... ever” -- that was from the Guardian’s coverage, and even from the Monaco coach Jardim: “Maybe this was one of the most incredible matches in the Champions League this season. It’s great for the fans as I’m sure they were happy to watch such quality attacks and eight goals.”
How odd then, that criticism was leveled at the referee -- “He should never do another game” said Fox’s Warren Barton. But however bad he had been, he had certainly not “ruined” the game -- may even have helped make it one of the great games. A contradiction that needs the tangled punditry of the TV panels to explain to us.
I’ll say this for the coaches, though. I doubt whether either Guardiola or Jardim was fully in charge of his team during this rambunctious game. At least not in the sense that a control freak like Guardiola appears to find necessary. So, yes, maybe we can praise coaches for something (the only thing?) that referees get praised for: for letting the game flow. For not interfering.
Sadly, I don’t expect another such outburst of goalscoring. The coaches will tighten things up to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I mean, 5-3? Whatever kind of a scoreline is that? Come on guys, get real. And I suppose they will, real enough to get us back to the low-scoring world in which they feel more comfortable.
But for one short, shining week, soccer rebelled and cast off the organized drabness that coaches have imposed on it and let us see what we’ve been missing for the last couple of decades or so. No, not every game can be 5-3 classic. But there are far, far too many games that end with the 1-0 or the 0-0 Scrooge scorelines, and they are anything but classic.