Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Johnny Come Lately

Champions League football returned to Switzerland last night as FC Zürich took on the mighty galacticos of Real Madrid and the Swiss Rambler just had to be there to see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Raul, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas strut their stuff.

In a move that some in the paranoid English media had perceived as another attack on Premier League teams, UEFA President Michel Platini had amended the Champions League qualifying process to favour teams who had won their national leagues, one result being that Switzerland had a representative in the group stages for the first time since Thun in 2005. Unfortunately for me, FCZ (pronounced Eff-Say-Zed) did not draw my beloved Arsenal, but they did end up in a highly attractive looking section with Real Madrid, AC Milan and Marseille.

FCZ’s home ground is the Letzigrund, better known to many as the venue for the Weltklasse, the famous athletics meeting where the fast track and golden prizes tempt the world’s best athletes. The ground was rebuilt for the Euro 2008 Championships, but still has a limited capacity of 24,500. This is more than sufficient for the average Swiss League match, but meant that tickets for the Champions League (sold as a three game package) were like gold dust.

Although priority was naturally given to the faithful season ticket holders, a handful of tickets were made available to the rest of the public. Somehow, I managed to get hold of one, or, more accurately, Mrs. Swiss Rambler used her well-known blend of ingenuity and persistence to secure one for me as an early birthday present. God bless her.

"A world-class winker"

The stadium is pretty much what you would expect from the Swiss, being functional, comfortable and obviously very well organised. Getting to the ground is a piece of cake, as it has its own tram stop and extra trams are laid on for any big event. You might have to make the journey with a fellow passenger’s backside uncomfortably close (and it’s hardly ever an attractive young woman standing next to you, more likely an overweight middle-aged bloke smelling of Eau de Bratwurst), but you can at least be confident of getting to the church on time.

Despite the running track separating the pitch from the spectators, the view is excellent and the atmosphere surprisingly good. My seat was quite close to the Südkurve, which is where the FCZ hardcore fans congregate. They made a lot of noise during the whole game, even finding time to encourage the rest of the stadium to join in with the singing and chanting.

The match itself had a predictable outcome with Real winning 5-2, but, as is so often the case, the scoreline does not tell the whole story. Given that the vast majority of Real’s transfer budget this summer was invested in forwards, it was probably not too surprising that they looked fabulous in attack and rather frail at the back, but they probably did not anticipate having to score two goals in the last two minutes to dismiss the rank outsiders from Zürich.

"What's the time? Five past Zürich"

FCZ actually started quite well, adopting a high energy pressing game in the first 20 minutes to overcome the obvious technical shortfalls against the Madrileños, but then Real stepped up a gear and goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul and Gonzalo Higuain in a devastating 18 minute spell before half-time appeared to have put Real in an unassailable position. FCZ looked totally outclassed and Real could ease towards the interval in cruise control.

Having been taunted by the FCZ fans a few minutes earlier when he ballooned a set-piece over the bar, Ronaldo opened the scoring with a trademark spectacular free-kick from an almost identical position in the 27th minute.

The world-class Portuguese turned creator seven minutes later when he headed a cross into Higuain’s path on the right side of the box (just in front of my seat), from where the ball was squared by the Argentine forward for the inrushing Raul to net his 65th Champions League goal.

The Real captain had been combining beautifully with Higuain and he returned the favour to his strike partner in first half injury time, when his clever reverse pass gave Higuain the opportunity to muscle his way past his marker before easing a low shot past the hapless FCZ keeper.

"On me head, son"

For all Real’s attacking threat, the importance of former Liverpool star Xabi Alonso to the team’s rhythm was impressively evident, as he pulled the strings in midfield in the “quarter-back” role that David Beckham briefly aspired to in the England team. This ensured that Real maintained the lion’s share of possession, playing the game at their own (composed) pace before launching rapid attacks, often making use of the adventurous runs up the left wing by (notional) full-back Royston Drenthe. Alonso’s withdrawal with an ankle injury early in the second half upset their balance to such an extent that it allowed FCZ to launch a stirring comeback.

Xavier Margairaz had already missed a glaring chance when he headed narrowly wide from a corner, before Casillas conceded a penalty after he was adjudged to have brought down Alphonse, though the contact appeared minimal and the fall was more than a touch Eduardo-esque.

No matter, Margairaz coolly slotted the spot-kick past Casillas in the 64th minute, even though the stuttering run-up did not look that of a man confident of scoring.Before the game, Raul had admitted that Margairaz was the only FCZ player he had heard of and the midfielder was now making his considerable presence felt with some delightful touches for a big man (© Peter Crouch), having been utterly anonymous in the first period.

"Here comes the punchline"

Within a minute, FCZ had reduced the deficit to just one, when Aegerter, by no means the tallest man on the park, headed home Vonlanthen’s inswinging corner without a marker in sight. Game on!

Real’s vulnerability in defence is a worrying sign for future matches when they will come up against tougher opposition and for a while they looked disjointed and shaky in this match. Kaka flattered to deceive with his tricky dribbles, while the over-lapping full-backs were restrained by the pace of Johan Vonlanthen on the wing.

After the match, Real coach, Manuel Pellegrini, claimed that his team “always had the game under control”, but there were a few nervous moments before FCZ ran out of ideas and the six yellow cards they collected highlighted Real’s frustration.

Real conclusively put the game to bed in the last minute when FCZ keeper, Johnny Leoni, inexplicably punched a soft Ronaldo free-kick into the roof of the net. Leoni should also have done better with Ronaldo’s first-half shot, which, although struck with great power, was pretty much hit straight at him, but this effort was comical in the extreme.

During the warm-up, I had watched as Leoni dropped a succession of straightforward crosses and had: (1) feared the worst for the loyal FCZ supporters; (2) wondered whether he had any Scottish ancestors. Leoni had been quoted before the game as saying that Ronaldo was only human and it is true that he did not have to do anything special to put two past this pathetic keeper.

On Sky Sports, the inimitable Gordon Strachan suggested that Leoni should have been booked for time wasting … as he was wasting everyone’s time. Deep into injury time, Guti put the icing on the cake with a sublime chip, though his task was made easier by the punch-drunk Leoni wandering into no man’s land.

"Back of the net"

FCZ trainer, Bernard Challandes, had worried before the match (in his highly amusing blend of German and French) that his players would be star-struck in the presence of the Spanish team’s superstars and it certainly felt as if FCZ gave Real far too much respect in the first period.

Challandes is a charismatic figure on the touchline, the cool image of his sharp suit, deep tan and silver hair slightly marred by the constant leaping around and frantic gestures towards his team and the unfortunate match officials. During the half-time break you could imagine Challandes applying the hairdryer, not only to his own locks, but also to his bewildered players, advising them to concentrate on the game plan rather than worry about whose jersey they wanted to swap afterwards.

Switzerland is not the largest country in the world (land mass, population, influence) and the Swiss sometimes have a small town mentality when dealing with international celebrities. The fawning adoration exhibited when the likes of Robbie Williams deign to honour us with their presence is truly embarrassing and it was no different when Real Madrid came to play: the airport arrival lounge was absolutely rammed, while the hotel was besieged with screaming teenagers and those old enough to know better.

On the pitch, the crowd certainly got their money’s worth. They had come to praise Cristiano Ronaldo (or at least serenade him with “hijo de puta” – impressive for the perfect Spanish parlance, depressing for the predictability of the abuse), but they ended up burying poor Johnny Leoni, whose Man of the Match performance gifted the tie to a Real Madrid team that really did not need the help of a clown.

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