You all know my position on the hype that surrounds the Champions League. The fact that such a kerfuffle continues to surround a competition that is so lopsided amuses and befuddles me in roughly equal measures. The advantage of not supporting a team that a team to whom it matters is that I can kick back, relax, and watch what it going on with none of the stomach knotting tension that I can only presume others feel while these games are being played. Considering the acres of space that this week’s semi-finals took up in the press, one might have been forgiven for expecting something very, very special indeed this weekend. Indeed, considering the extent to which we have it rammed down our throats, I think that we have the right to expect it to be brilliant. Between us, through our TV subscriptions, ticket and merchandise purchases, we’re paying through the nose for this. There can be no room for mediocrity any more. The truth, however, is somewhat less comfortable than this, because it doesn’t fit into something that PR men, advertising gurus or management accountants can control. Football as entertainment relies principally on the drama of the live experience, but sometimes it simply fails to deliver in this respect. If you go to a football match expecting to entertained in the conventional sense, you are likely to come away from it disappointed.
So, to this week’s Champions League matches. Liverpool and Chelsea were never going to play out a seven goal thriller, no matter how ITV tried to package. Anyone with an ounce of nous about them already knew this, and the two teams involved certainly lived down to expectations. The highlight of the evening was, of course, John Arne Riise’s hilarious last minute own goal (though surely I can’t have been the only person that briefly pondered the recently bankrupted Riise’s inexplicable attempt to head the ball clear right in front of his own goal when it was surely more natural to clear it with his right foot), but otherwise it was business as usual – two big, muscular teams, playing a testosterone-drenched, style-free version of football that largely resembled a cross between table football and pinball. The second leg is impossible to predict and utterly predictable at the same time – we know that it will be more of the same, but we don’t know which of the two of them will waggle their flippers at the right time and deliver the killer blow. Barcelona’s match against Manchester United was a nominally more considered affair, yet it was little more entertaining (excepting, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo’s face after he hit the crossbar with this third minute penalty). Barcelona looked the better of the two teams, but never seriously looked like breaking down Manchester United’s defence. The tactical systems employed by the two teams demonstrated the gulf between the realpolitik of football and the aspirations towards entertainment that the game now holds. United were playing for a draw, fully aware of the importance of not conceding a goal which might make the clock start ticking that bit faster in the second leg at Old Trafford. Barcelona were fully aware of United’s potentially punishing ability to break at the speed of lightning, and were quite happy to not take too many risks themselves. It made for a match that was, if we’re feeling generous, “interesting” in the sense that a game of chess can be interesting, but it wasn’t terribly entertaining.
Next week, they’ll go through the whole thing again, and it does at least to be a little more dramatic than the last couple of matches have been. Liverpool, who haven’t so much as scored at Stamford Bridge since the Bronze Age, have to score to stand any chance of getting through to the final. Can Chelsea risk trying to kill the game off if it will leave big gaps at the back for the likes of Fernando Torres to exploit? Manchester United need a goal to see off Barcelona, but the visitors’ attacking options again mean that United surely can’t afford to push too many people forward, especially when an away goal might prove to completely be their undoing. As often seems to be the case, the first leg of this round has raised more questions than it answered, but while there’s no doubt that it was all very intriguing, to call it “entertainment” would be stretching the definition of the word into realms of which I was previously unaware.