Thursday 18 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Elite trio of Bayern, Barca and Real in a different league

Bayern's Jerome Boateng celebrates after scoring his side's 2nd goal against FC Porto
Bayern's Jerome Boateng celebrates after scoring his side's 2nd goal against FC Porto

Eamonn Sweeney

As what could turn out to be the best Champions League ever reaches the semi-final stage, we can look forward to the footballing equivalent of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Except instead of one contest for the ages, we might have three. And, instead of taking place five years too late, these bouts will be between contestants at the height of their powers .

Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have won three of the last four Champions Leagues (and the total would be four out of four if Bayern had taken better penalties against Chelsea in 2012). But what makes this season's competition so intriguing is that all three of them are arguably better now than they were then.

The array of talent available to the big three is extraordinary. There are the two best players in the world (Messi and Ronaldo), their two heirs apparent (Neymar and Rodriguez), the two best wide men in the world, injury permitting (Robben and Ribery), the best central defender (Varane), the best goalkeeper (Neuer), the best full-back (Lahm), the best midfielder in the last World Cup (Kroos), the most consistently excellent midfielder of the last decade (Iniesta) and three of the world's best out-and-out strikers (Suarez, Lewandowski and Benzema). And that's without even mentioning Sergio Ramos, Bastien Schweinsteiger, Gareth Bale, Mario Goetze, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.

The top nine players in the voting for the 2014 Ballon d'Or will be lining out for Bayern, Real and Barca. And also eight of the FIFA World XI, a number which should be higher given that the voters apparently think David Luiz is a better defender than Raphael Varane.

Hype may be ever-present in the Champions League but this time it's justified. Each of these teams are stronger than most of the sides which have won the competition since its inception. They contain the true elite players of the game.

And to add a bit of spice to things there is unfinished business between them. The running rivalry between Real and Barcelona is eternal of course but Bayern will feel they owe Real one after their humiliating trouncing in last year's semi-final, while Barca should have a bone to pick with the Germans after suffering a similar humiliation at the same stage in 2013.

Yes, yes, I know I'm leaving out Juventus but while it's always a pleasure to see Andrea Pirlo do his thing and while the Italian champions will no doubt fight a stern rearguard action, nothing in this year's competition has suggested that Massimiliano Allegri's team can cause an upset.

The other three, on the other hand, produced quarter-final displays which were very different but all compelling. The ease with which Barcelona glided past Paris Saint-Germain echoed that with which they disposed of Manchester City. The champions of the, statistically speaking, second and fifth strongest leagues in Europe are no dummies but Barcelona were operating a couple of levels ahead of both of them. Looking at that front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, it strikes you that City have got very little for their money in comparison.

Messi has never been better, he seems to be creating more for others this season yet his personal tally is 46 goals from 47 games. Neymar looks like becoming the first much-heralded Brazilian since Kaka to live up to his reputation in Europe while Suarez, after a slow start, seems a crucial addition, a player whose directness prevents the tiki-taka style from lapsing into sterility against top-class opposition. Meanwhile Iniesta, who made his first team debut back in 2002, seems immune to the wear and tear of the years.

Barcelona have been superb all season in La Liga yet the fact that they only lead Real by two points shows how well their rivals are playing. The holders had the trickiest passage into the last four as for 180 minutes Atletico Madrid showed just how they'd managed to win last year's league title and come within a minute of adding the Champions League. They are the fourth best side in Europe and in Diego Simeone have a manager of genius. One can only imagine that it's the gaucho trappings which have prevented the big Premier League sides from snapping up the Argentinian. Imagine how he'd shake up Arsenal or Manchester City or Liverpool and the life he'd put into the staid and complacent Premier League with its ready acceptance of the second rate.

Atletico might even have prevailed had Arda Turan not been sent off but Real, to their credit, never abandoned their best footballing instincts and their winner was above all a tribute to the ceaseless hunger of Cristiano Ronaldo. Now at his peak, the Portuguese international is on course for an incredible fourth season in a row of averaging at least a goal per game. Finally removing the Atletico monkey from their backs will be an enormous morale boost for Real. They also have Varane who showcased the enormous range of his talents in the quarter-final. In the first leg it was an incredible gallop up field which displayed his athleticism, in the second leg a vital intercepting header when running back towards his own goal under pressure showed the soundness of his basic defending. Not since the heyday of Fabio Cannavaro has a centre-back made his job seem so exciting and the Frenchman combines the pace and nous of the Italian with the physical presence of Cannavaro's old team-mate Alessandro Nesta.

Bayern also looked like they'd be in for a tough struggle in the second leg but their first-half blitzkrieg against Porto was reminiscent of not just their 7-1 away win against Roma earlier in the group stages and 7-0 home win against Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16 but also the five goals in 18 minutes Germany scored against Brazil in the World Cup semi-final. Thomas Mueller and Philipp Lahm were centrally involved in the Belo Horizonte massacre and their superb first-touch passes to set up Robert Lewandowski for the third goal on Tuesday seemed to epitomise Munich's swashbuckling approach. That Bayern reached such heights without Robben, Ribery and Schweinsteiger shows their remarkable resilience.

It was remarkable to hear Mark Lawrenson suggest before the game that Pep Guardiola was facing his first big test and should be under pressure. Lawrenson's reasoning was that Guardiola had been lucky to have such good players at Barcelona and Bayern win stuff in Germany anyway. Hearing two Champions Leagues, three La Ligas and one Bundesliga written off in such a cavalier fashion made you wonder what planet Lawrenson, recently heard praising the 'shrewdness' of Brendan Rodgers, is currently orbiting.

On this planet Guardiola is the manager who, above all others, has plumped for the adventurous approach which has seen the game enter something of an attacking golden age. This year's group stages saw 279 goals scored, just five behind the record-breaking total of two seasons ago. As recently as 2009-2010, only 228 were scored. There has been a major change in the way the game is played which is why Ronaldo and Messi are scoring at a rate not witnessed in Europe in decades and why the goal average at last year's World Cup hadn't been bettered since 1994.

And there is every chance that this era may well be about to reach a glorious culmination when two of the big three meet in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin on June 6. Meanwhile, we can take amusement from the flailings of Premier League-loving pundits like Dietmar Hamann who spluttered on about the lack of sportsmanship in the Real-Atletico game as if that was the big story.

The match might not exactly have been brimming with the Corinthian ideal but, as Eamon Dunphy pointed out, the same kind of stuff goes on in the Premier. Yet you get the same kind of reaction after every El Clasico as the partisans of the league next door try to somehow compensate for the fact that its best teams lag miles behind Bayern, Real, Barca and even Atletico.

It may be unlovely to look at but the Premier League's friends keep insisting it has a wonderful personality.


All doping is wrong - even when it's Irish

It's become a staple good news story of the Irish sports pages in recent times. A foreign athlete is caught for doping and there is speculation that their ban will be backdated so that Rob or Derval or Róisín or Olive will finally get the medal they were initially denied by this dastardly act of cheating.

The consensus is that justice has been done and there is much tut-tutting at the perfidy of the Russian or Turk involved, along with the implication that the Irish have clean hands on this issue. Foreigners, wha? You couldn't be up to the hoors.

But the thing is that Irish athletics is not immune to the scourge of the drug cheat. In the past Geraldine Hendricken and Cathal Lombard have served bans. In fairness to both Hendricken and Lombard, both quit shortly after serving their bans and didn't represent their country again.

Martin Fagan, however, is made of sterner stuff. The Westmeath athlete was caught using EPO in 2012 and served a two-year ban. But he's returned to the sport and this day last week in Zurich ran an Olympic qualifying time, 2:16.09, for the marathon.

Fagan's run drew a quick response from former world 1,500m finalist Ciarán ó Lionáird who tweeted '#cleansport'. It's fair to say that ó Lionáird is pretty pissed off. And he's right to be. The Cork runner has been consistently vociferous about his hatred for the damage done to his sport. ó Lionáird thinks all doping in athletics is wrong, not just the doping which costs an Irish athlete a medal.

That's the only position to take on this issue. Otherwise all this Irish execration of the dopers who finished ahead of Heffernan and Loughnane, O'Rourke and McGettigan comes across as motivated not by a desire to see justice done but by jingoism. Make excuses for the PED use by our own and we're guilty of rank hypocrisy.

You could argue that Fagan has served his sentence and should be allowed return to the sport without an eyelid being batted. But how happy will we be should Mark English or Fionnuala Britton be denied a medal at a major championships by an athlete coming back from a drugs ban?

Will we just shrug our shoulders and say, 'They've done their time. Nice to see them back.' And how will the spirit of athletics be served should Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt to the world 100m title this year? You know the answers to those questions as well I do.

What is particularly distasteful about Fagan's return is that when he was caught, instead of taking his punishment like a man, he tried to weasel out of the blame by claiming, somewhat incoherently and to my mind unconvincingly, to have been taking EPO because he was depressed and wanted to be caught so he could take a break from the sport. I don't know whether Fagan was depressed or not. But even if he was, depression is a serious illness which is poorly served by being used as a kind of 'dog ate my homework' excuse by sportsmen.

At the time there were those who argued that no-one would ever falsely claim to be depressed. Shortly afterwards, the England cricket team claimed Jonathan Trott was leaving their tour to Australia because he was depressed. Trott was praised for his 'bravery' and one paper even claimed he'd just become the Man of the Series. Soon afterwards, Trott revealed he hadn't been depressed at all, that was for "nutcases," apparently, just tired and keen to get home. But it had been a handy explanation at the time.

But in the event that you're still disposed to regard Martin Fagan's return to athletics as a triumph of the human spirit, there's one thing I'd like to say to you.

I've recently come into possession of the key to the bank vault of the late dictator of Upper Volta, sadly killed in a plane crash, God rest him. It contains £30m and I'll split it with you 50-50 if you just send me just €200,000 for flights, hotels and bribes.

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