Sport Soccer

Monday 16 September 2019

The Couch: Distaste for corner boy Marcelo blinds some to this dazzling diamond


Real Madrid’s Marcelo. Photo: Reuters
Real Madrid’s Marcelo. Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

When the richest continental clubs meet these days on a pitch, it has the sensation less of a football match than an exhibition of the crown jewels of Europe, on loan for the night from the vaults of their omnipotent owner-plutocrats.

Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday evening was convened by UEFA but could have been curated by Sotheby's of London, New York and Hong Kong.

Here were Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani, courtesy of Qatar Sports Investments on behalf of PSG; there were Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, courtesy of Florentino Pérez Rodríguez on behalf of Real. These were merely the biggest and brightest diamonds on show at the Bernabeu; elsewhere the field gleamed with high-grade ice too.

Between them all they served up a game that glittered from every angle when held up to the light. The ball was pinged in sequins of passing moves and treated with lapidary care, as if the footballers were wearing white gloves on their feet. Mistakes inevitably were commonplace too; but the standard at other times was dazzling.

The play in general was frighteningly fast. It flowed in waves from end to end, sometimes with intricate embroidery in tight corners to keep possession alive, other times with a few sweeping passes to raiding outriders. The team caught on these counters had players flooding back at sprint speed to plug the spaces.

Out of possession, these purveyors of the most delicate ball skills become running machines, pure athletes with enormous aerobic capacity, capable of covering the ground coast to coast for 90 full-on minutes. This was the foundation that sustained this rivetingly well-balanced contest for so long.

The arms race in elite soccer isn't just financial therefore; the players are getting faster and fitter. And the faster they can close down the space, the less time opponents have to tame the ball, make their decision and move it on again. They were constantly doing this in the blink of an eye on Wednesday night: the touch, decision and pass more or less being executed simultaneously.

The game seems to be in a constant neck-and-neck race between physical speed and mental quickness, between disappearing space and technical finesse. The escalating pressure of one is driving up standards in the other.

The Brazilian lad Marcelo epitomised it all on the night, with his irrepressible engine and freewheeling élan. His full name is Marcelo Vieira da Silva Junior but in common with a lot of South American players he likes to be known by his Christian name, a sort of pet name, as if the Anglo-European preference for the surname only is a tad cold and formal.

Kenny Cunningham, formerly of Wimbledon FC, wasn't happy on eir Sport the other night with the left back's defending, at least not in his pre-match analysis. "That's schoolboy stuff," he sniffed as the video package revealed a few, eh, lacunae in Marcelo's approach to the sacred stopper's vocation.

The British game has been looking down its nose at Marcelo and Roberto Carlos and their ilk for a lifetime, seemingly because they're not more like Stuart Pearce or Nigel Winterburn or, indeed, Julian Dicks.

Anyway, for some reason, Real Madrid have been happy enough to keep Marcelo on their books for nigh on 11 seasons, 400-plus games, three European Cups, four league titles and so on.

He was the heartbeat of Madrid's performance against PSG. He is a fantastic player. Unfortunately he is a diving, fouling, play-acting corner boy too. Watching him reliably lose his rag as Barcelona have repeatedly tormented Real during the Messi/Andres Iniesta era has been a delicious source of schadenfreude.

As recently as last Christmas he was on the receiving end of a 0-3 tanking from Barca at the Bernabeu. If the Brazilian redeemed himself at all that time, it was only because he afterwards pointed out a few home truths to the ballistic Madrid press and fans. "La Liga is the best league in the world," he reminded them, "and it's hard to win. We have spoiled you and you think that we must always win."

Needless to say, it didn't go down well. Undeterred, he remained impressively candid a few weeks later when they were held to a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo. They were now 16 points behind Barca. "We're sad and we're fucking sunk," was his fairly definitive verdict on their prospects in the league.

One therefore didn't need the benefit of hindsight to know that they were going to throw the kitchen sink at PSG. They were at home; they have a history-making shot at a Champions League three-in-a-row; and all their eggs are now in this basket.

Marcelo's own moody form had been contributing to their domestic malaise. On Wednesday night he went from 0 to 90 at the kick-off and was rampant thereafter.

On the half hour a Madrid breakout culminated with Marcelo tight to the left sideline and sweeping a sumptuous ball across midfield. He hit it early, without looking up; he knew there was an acre of space waiting; and he probably knew that his old mucker Cristiano would be arriving at any moment to fill it. Ronaldo equally knew it was coming too, if he knew Marcelo at all. It was speed, technique and telepathy on a plate.

Facing him at right back on the night was his old Barca nemesis and Brazilian friend Dani Alves. At one stage he thoroughly kippered Alves with what the Spanish newspaper Marca described as "a majestic roulette" - the old soft shoe spin-and-ball drag routine.

And then of course he popped up to score Real's third late on, having been central to the weave of one-touch passes that had created the chance. Amidst all the jewels, Marcelo was the diamond geezer on the night.

"He has no discipline whatsoever," said Kenny afterwards.

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