By Paul Gardner
Let me dismiss the coaches, for a start. I do not believe that any of the eight coaches involved in the first-leg Champions League games this week played
a particularly significant role. The games -- and what superb games they have been -- were largely controlled by the players.
I squirmed indignantly when I read how Alex Ferguson had made
a "master" substitution for Manchester United, sending on Carlos Tevez late in the game to very quickly score what looked like the winning goal. What nonsense. It is just as logical to argue that
Ferguson screwed up -- Tevez should have been on the field earlier, maybe he would have got a hat trick. Why not? Rafa Benitez gets blamed for going with zonal marking, but the blame belongs with his
Liverpool defenders. As for Bayern Munich -- who ever said that Juergen Klinsmann was a master tactician? The sideline shots showed him looking utterly bewildered. As well he might -- not by Pep
Guardiola's tactics, but by the sheer brilliance of his players. To say nothing of the embarrassing ineptitude of the Bayern players.
That was the thing about these games -- they so
firmly placed the players at the center of things. Some of the goals, individual efforts, were wonderful to behold: Emmanuel Adebayor's extraordinary gymnastic volley for Arsenal; Lionel Messi's first
for Barcelona, so beautifully and neatly rolled into the net; Fernando Torres' sweet strike for Liverpool; Cristian Rodriguez's perfectly hit shot for Porto. And of course, Marcos Senna's rocket for
What all of this suggests -- correctly -- is that these were teams looking to score. Only one of the eight teams didn't put the ball in the net -- Bayern. But even if Bayern
had been thinking of playing an attacking game, it barely had a chance! From the opening whistle, Barcelona was all over them and was two goals up within 12 minutes. Anyone who might want to start
analyzing Bayern's tactics at that point, trying to decide whether the team was playing defensively, is wasting his time. Bayern was forced on to the defensive for virtually the whole of the first
half by a rampantly offensive Barcelona. In the second half, OK, maybe Bayern was more interested in damage control. Certainly, it did manage to survive without giving up any more goals - but it was
What we'll remember about the game will be Barcelona's beautifully woven passing movements and, inevitably, the sheer brilliance of Messi.
Messi's control and
his passing -- mostly cunning short
passes -- are exceptional -- as is his dribbling, where he seems to have the same knack that Pele had, of bouncing the ball off opponents' legs and getting
it back, under control. Luck? I think not. It's quickness and anticipation and instinct and experience, and it's exhilarating to watch.
Which brings me to the one real downer of these
four Champions League games. If a player has a woeful first half, you can pretty safely predict that he'll be on the bench for the second half. I think the powers that be might want to consider a
similar arrangement for referees. At this level, it should be unthinkable that a referee should make such a mess of things as Howard Webb did of the first 45 minutes of the Barcelona vs. Bayern game.
At the 17th minute he made two awful errors -- firstly, by not awarding Barca a penalty kick when Messi was blatantly tripped by Christian Lell, then adding an even worse gaffe by giving
Messi a yellow for diving. This was simply incredible. It so incensed Guardiola that Webb ejected him (no, I don't have a problem with that -- I sympathize with Guardiola's outrage, but he should know
better than to repeatedly assail the fourth official).
A little later Webb managed to award a free kick to Barcelona when Thierry Henry tripped over himself in midfield. He then brought
his woeful first half to a spectacular climax when, during the buildup to Barcelona's fourth goal, he ignored a brutal elbow to Messi's face by Mark van Bommel -- a red card, if ever there was one.
Alas, Webb did appear for the second half -- but maybe someone had a word with him, for he performed somewhat better. Of course, Messi's yellow card should be canceled. If UEFA can just
show some plain common sense it will be, for the injustice screams out for correction. But don't hold your breath. Probably the best we can hope for is that Webb be removed from the Champions League
officiating list after that first-half display, which was nothing short of scandalous.