Goalless, Guileless and Gutless

By Paul Gardner

I'm sorry guys -- I'm talking to whoever it is who writes the stories that go up on the UEFA website -- but you're just not paying attention.

How on earth can anyone who knows anything about the modern game write a headline like "Goals Expected for Europe's Elite"? And then go on, previewing the first leg of the Barcelona vs. Chelsea matchup, to say "The scene is set for a spectacular and unpredictable affair between the two."

Reading that before Tuesday's game, I stared in disbelief. Because the previous round had featured some very high-scoring indeed (the 4-4 tie between Chelsea and Liverpool, Barca's 4-0 win over Bayern) and if there's one thing that everyone ought to be aware of by now, it is that high-scoring games scare coaches.

The automatic response of a modern coach to a high-scoring game -- even when his team wins it -- is to strengthen his defense. So there was nothing particularly clever in my assumption that Guus Hiddink, having seen his Chelsea leak four goals, and having seen Bayern demolished by Barca in the Camp Nou, would go there with only one thing on his mind: defense.

Nor did I pay much attention to what Hiddink was saying --"We should not go there and sit back and wait until the storm hits" was a quote on the UEFA website. Of course. I've yet to see a coach saying "We're going to play 100 percent defense, maybe take a few yellow cards, not make any real attempt to score, stop the opposition from playing, and bore everyone to distraction. And the hell with the beautiful game."

No, Hiddink did not say that, or anything like that. But that's what he did. Chelsea went to the Camp Nou scared out of its wits by Barcelona. They went without any intention of playing soccer. They went merely to defend, to launch a few long balls up to Didier Drogba and maybe steal a goal from a Barcelona mistake. And that pathetic plan -- I can't bring myself to call it a tactic -- very nearly worked.

Of course, when you are content to allow the opposition most of the ball possession, you have to do a fair amount of tackling, so inevitably you commit quite a few fouls. Which raises the only real risk you are taking in the game -- that the referee might get tough with his cards, and even issue a red.

Chelsea got lucky there, too, aided and abetted by a feeble performance from Germany's Wolfgang Stark. He managed to keep 22 players on the field -- that is sometimes considered the acme of good refereeing, heaven knows why -- despite the 20 fouls that Chelsea racked up (Barcelona had only 7). He also managed to keep his compatriot Michael Ballack on the field by neglecting to give him a second yellow for an eminently cautionable foul on Andres Iniesta.

Chelsea's play -- hailed by captain John Terry as "fantastic" -- is better described as dreadful. A cowardly performance that exposed, yet again, the alarming weakness of the sport itself, a sport that finds a game like Barcelona vs. Chelsea acceptable.

It should not be. Basically there was no game -- because Chelsea refused to play. And how difficult was that? Not difficult at all. We have seen many instances of poor teams surviving against far superior teams simply by packing their defenses and hanging grimly on.

And if a poor team can accomplish that, it will obviously not be too difficult for a good team like Chelsea, which has international class players at virtually every position. Those positions -- I identified them on Tuesday -- consisted of four central defenders, two lateral defenders, four defensive midfielders, and one defensive striker. Plus the usual dreary-defensive goalkeeper.

Yes, I'm aware that the home-and-home structure of the competitions encourages a team to play defensively when on the road. Defense is one thing -- but craven surrender is quite another. Chelsea, obviously, had chickened out of this game before it even got off the plane.

That is where our game is at the moment. It allows teams to triumph (Terry's "fantastic" result, must be a triumph, no?) while making a travesty out of the sport.

We are told that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is in favor of stylish soccer -- indeed, that he fired coach Jose Mourinho because his team was unexciting. One wonders what Abramovich thought of Tuesday's fiasco. If he's having trouble coming up with words to describe Chelsea's play, I can help him with a trio that sums it up nicely: goalless, guileless and gutless.


4 comments about "Goalless, Guileless and Gutless".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, April 30, 2009 at 8:13 a.m.

    Paul, you should be delighted - Hiddink clearly reads your columns! A couple of weeks back you described how Barcelona passed their way to goal, and that teams crossing from the flanks were largely wasting their time. Hiddink blocked the central avenues and forced Barcelona wide, allowing the Chelsea defense to gobble up the high balls. True, it was a poor game (in fact I fell asleep in the end), but what else is a canny coach like Hiddink going to do? If Chelsea win the CL, this game will barely get a mention except to cite his tactical knowhow.

  2. David Friedman, April 30, 2009 at 9:13 a.m.

    Unless FIFA comes up with a rule to prevent negative play, similar to backpass, there's really nothing wrong with it. I quite enjoyed the game actually, a chance to study strong defensive maneuvering. Chelsea's intention was not to entertain anyone, it's not their responsibility to play attacking football; it's their responsibility to make it to the final and win.. by whatever means possible. I'm a Manchester United fan, hell, we gave Guus the playbook on that one. Just look at last year at the same stage, United v Barca. Sure no one wants negative football but teams are free to do whatever to survive and if Chelsea make it to the final and win it you can bet Roman Abramovich will be quite fine with it that they played it very very safe atleast once.

  3. Trudy Wells, April 30, 2009 at 9:18 a.m.

    A German referee, when I saw Wolfgang I knew we are in trouble! It was like taking air out of a tire!
    A complete injustice - we all remeber Barcelona "trashing" Bayern Munich with Goals.
    The wrong country was calling the game . . . should be a law against that!!!
    A bad call changes eveything! You can't tell me he didn't have it in for Barcelona when he didn't call a sure penalty. . . .
    Soccer rules!
    Trudy Wells [Swiss born}

  4. Kevin Leahy, April 30, 2009 at 9:22 p.m.

    As usual Mr. Gardner hits the nail on the head. I am amazed at the difference in skill level between the two teams. Physical as well as mental! Barcelona at their best, is the best soccer team that I have seen in a long time. The creativity alone is worth watching!! It doesn't mean that they will win. Our game can be cruel at times.

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