Estudiantes: The team of Bullies

Estudiantes: The team of Bullies

Football as we know in its contemporary form is a game of tactical trends and impressionable attitudes that affect a contagious state as spun by television – managers and pundits chiefly – and fan media alike. Styles of play can be widely heralded or publicly maligned.

But what tends to be regarded as negative or “dirty” tactics is now synonymous with typically defensive styles as adopted by high profile managers such as Jose Mourinho or Diego Simeone. Unique terms such as “parking the bus” or “hoofball” are given pejorative meanings to degrade a team’s definable style.

A key period in football’s global evolution was the very different context “dirty” carried in the pre-modern era of the 1960’s. The term would describe opposition intimidation, crunching tackles, flying kicks and on-pitch brawls that became so prevalent of South American football in this period. No team would manifest this style more so than the successful Argentinian side Estudiantes.

Formed in 1905 by a group of university students, Estudiantes are a modest-sized club based in the beach resort of La Plata, located in the province of Buenos Aries.

Comparatively small and traditionally in the shadow of capital giants Boca Juniors and River Plate, they came to the fore in the late 1960’s with an uncompromising brand of over-zealous football that on numerous occasions boiled over to the point of plain physical warfare.

Having won the 1967 Metropolitano – the Argentine first division – they subsequently went on to claim the Copa Libertadores trophy for three consecutive seasons. Despite their success, they became identifiable for overt cynicism, and in a country that was experiencing a fast-changing national identity, they came to epitomise the tag of “anti-futbol”.

The label had already gained significant national notoriety following Argentina’s ignominious 1966 World Cup quarter-final exit at Wembley against England.

The 1-0 defeat though was not what the encountered would be remembered for – instead captain Antonio Rattin’s dismissal for persistent protests in a bad-tempered display was to leave its mark indelibly on the course of Argentine football.

England’s manager Alf Ramsey would have been forgiven for showing public elation at guiding his country to their first ever World Cup Semi Final. Instead, his comments were unmistakably scathing of the opposition post-match: “Our best football will come against the right type of opposition – a team who come to play football, and not act as animals”.

Further international exhibitions involving Argentine sides were further proof of the increasingly ultra-aggressive and brutal approach that was becoming endemic back home.

In the 1967 Intercontinental Club Cup Final between Racing Club of Buenos Aries and Glasgow Celtic two bruising encounters were played out in both cities to record equally narrow home wins.

The deciding occasion, played in Montevideo, was only played once Celtic received security guarantees and, after suffering a host of unpleasant episodes from the second leg – that included the Celtic goalkeeper being struck by a stone in the crowd, conceding a clearly offside goal that the Uruguayan referee showed no interest in disallowing and having their dressing-room water turned off at half-time – an assurance of new officials for the third game.

What followed was another example of unsavoury chaos as, yet again the referee having lost all control, Celtic lost their heads in the face of incessant provocation and were defeated 1-0 after having three players sent off.

The very same year, the team with the sharpest rise were Estudiantes, the small club who won the 1967 championship with an effective pragmatic style that served as the most potent example of the primitive and muscular mentality.

They were a team without stars who, under coach Osvaldo Zubeldia, were lauded by sports publication El Gráfico as being “young, strong, disciplined and vigorous”.

But nowhere was the darker, belligerent approach now common in Argentina starker than in this unrelenting team of aggressors.

An emphasis on set-pieces – from where they scored over half of their goals from – were rehearsed obsessively through secret signs and their disciplined man-marking approach when holding on to a lead was entirely overshadowed by the lesser tactical ploys.

Midfielder Juan Ramón Verón – father of former Lazio and Man Utd midfielderdescribed their method: “We tried to find out everything possible about our rivals individually, their habits, their characters, their weaknesses, and even about their private lives, so that we could goad them on the field, get them to react and risk being sent off”.

When the balance of the game was shifting in the favour of the opposition, Estudiantes were the masters of nullification. They knew how to play a subtle foul at the right time but prevent a dismissal, they could take the sting out of a match by slowing it down, or even simply time-wasting.

They won their first Copa Liberatores in 1968 following a plainly violent Semi-Final encounter with Racing to then overcome Brazilian side Palmeiras in the final, but it was the two-legged Intercontinental Cup Final against Manchester United that would serve as the biggest shock to the world.

Initial tensions were apparent before a ball was even kicked when a pre-arranged official welcome ceremony for the Manchester United squad that had the intention of reaffirming friendly relations following the international occasion of 1966 was scuppered when Estudiantes pulled out of the meeting at the last moment.

The Argentinian’s intent to unsettle their visitors had the desired effect as Estudiantes edged out the English side in an encounter that at times resembled a street fight and featured midfielder Nobby Stiles – a former member of the victorious 1966 side – being dismissed for dissent.

Further frustration was to follow for United in the return leg at Old Trafford. Estudiantes were evidently content to play to protect their lead and following a 1-1 draw that saw both George Best and Jose Medina sent off for fighting, the provincial Argentine side were declared world champions.

The reaction to the following year’s narrow victory in the 1970 Libertadores Final over Peñarol suggested the tolerance to Estudiantes’ cruel cynicism was waning – what would follow in the impending Intercontinental Club Cup would go on to showcase the nadir of the anti-futbol-violence coalescence.

Facing AC Milan, the Italian giants – masters of the “Catenaccio” style – they met their nemesis in the first leg, losing the tie 3-0 to a Gianni Rivera-inspired Milan.

Any notions the Italians might have had of going through the motions in the return leg in Argentina were dashed even before kick-off, in a truly febrile atmosphere.

Before Milan players decided to abandon their on-pitch warm-up due to the levels of abuse they were receiving, their entire team had been greeted by the fanatical home support by having hot coffee poured onto them from above as they made their way to the ground.

Once the game began, Milan’s riposte to a series of nasty early tackles was to increase their aggregate lead through their captain Rivera.

But the on-pitch encounter was becoming totally engulfed by a tirade of wilful and abhorrent violence by Estudiantes.

Milan forward Pierino Prati was knocked unconscious by two Estudiantes players. Nestor Combin left the pitch in the second-half covered in blood from an elbow from Aguirre Suarez. Goalkeeper Alberto Poletti had earlier taken out frustration on Combin with a kick to the face. Rivera also took a punch from Poletti.

The Argentine’s pulled back two goals before half-time through Marcos Conigliaro and Suarez to further inflame the Bombonera atmosphere.

The Italians though, held their nerve to win their first world title in the face of deplorably brutal opposition.

The collective reaction to Estudiantes’ conduct was one of widespread denunciation.

Punishments were subsequently handed out to multiple parties: Suarez, Eduardo Manera and Poletti were arrested by the police – the latter even receiving a life ban.

Post-1970, Estudiantes’ fortunes began to decline, and by the time Carlos Bilardo stepped out of playing retirement to move into the managerial hotseat, it was clear that the squad had peaked. They lost the following year’s Copa Libertadores Final to Nacional and did not come close to another domestic title for another five years.

But their mark had been left on football – the definitive episode in the “anti-futbol” chapter of Argentine footballing history, offering real embodiment to the idea of unsophisticated, “negative” and “dirty” football.

My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

Watching a football game free of emotional attachment can be a rewarding experience. It unburdens you to study a game’s unique tactical nuances, sub-plots and refereeing decisions without any hint of conscious bias.

For someone who watches a high volume of football throughout the year, the World Cup is the pinnacle of global sporting stakes; national pride is on the line, virtually the entirety of your home country is counting on not only your talent but your collective strength of character and will to deliver.

4 July 2006, the venue: Borussia Dortmund’s feared Westfalenstadion, where host nation Germany boasted an impeccable record of thirteen wins and a solitary draw from their 14 appearances at the home of one of Europe’s most revered clubs.

In contrast, while Italy had been quietly negotiating the earlier tournament stages, a sizeable portion of the squad were being dogged by controversy surrounding the “Calciopoli” scandal, not least Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and captain Fabio Cannavaro whose heavily implicated Juventus side were facing demotion to the third tier.

Normal time proved elusive as far as goalscoring, or even clear-cut chances, went. The game was being played on an absolute knife-edge, both teams seemingly prioritising nullifying the opposition’s attack over utilising their own weaponry, but the encounter was growing to be no less absorbing nonetheless – there was a tangible feeling that one goal for either side would earn a World Cup Final spot.

Extra-time came by, and soon enough a cathartic sense of liberation was manifesting, as both sides began to take more risks. Italy were gradually gaining a foothold in midfield and appeared to be intent on scoring before a shootout, conscious of the Germans’ favourable record at penalties.

Substitute Alberto Gilardino and full-back Gianluca Zambrotta both saw efforts strike the woodwork, while Buffon was also called into action at the other end, making a brilliant one-handed save from the standout German attacker Lukas Podolski.

The moment then came, two minutes shy of the shootout, when the genius flickered.

An Italian corner was cleared to the edge of the area when Andrea Pirlo slipped a deceiving forward pass, oozing with exquisite precision, through for Fabio Grosso, who made no mistake in curling past Jens Lehmann.

Grosso wheeled away in celebration, shaking his head in sheer disbelief at the enormity of the moment, before being bundled by his jubilant teammates.

Simultaneously, the deafening silence that enveloped Signul Iduna Park, at that numbing moment in time, could not have been more representative of the entire expectant German nation.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s side poured forward in predictable desperation, but the colossal captain Fabio Cannavaro stole the ball and set Gilardino away who, in acres of space, fed the overlapping Del Piero to finish beyond the advancing Lehmann to confirm Italy’s first World Cup Final in twelve years – a chance to avenge the haunting Roberto Baggio penalty miss and seal a fourth star onto their badge – cueing scenes of Italian ecstasy in the process.

The Azzurri would indeed go onto become World Champions in Berlin courtesy of a shootout victory over France, in a game largely remembered for a notorious Zinedine Zidane headbutt, but it was this resplendent, tactical display that was so pivotal on their path to glory.

A Love Letter to Bubbles

A Love Letter to Bubbles

Football club songs can be a strange concept.

Frequently they are overlooked, particularly in their significance to their respective clubs’ identity. As fans witness the recurring cycle of managers – and owners too – come and go, over time they tend to develop opinions and preconceptions over their fellow clubs, often based on recent media activity, style of football, or managerial appointments that embody regime.

It can change in a short space of time too. The Manchester United we all knew – loved, feared, detested or respected, whatever it may be – from nearly a decade ago, is simply not the same model now. It is quite a while since we have heard “Glory Glory Man Utd” reverberated around Old Trafford with the same gusto since their last title win, in 2013, as they resoundingly bid farewell to their own – and the Premier League’s greatest manager – Sir Alex Ferguson.

For a club’s football anthem, it is the underlying emblem, from a fan’s perspective, to verbatim assert their undying support to their team.

In respect to some clubs, however, a song not only reflects their ethos and values, but shapes and somewhat bizarrely, fates it. To no English club does this fittingly apply to than of West Ham United.

Anyone who is accustomed to the viewing delights of the claret and blue, self-professed 1966 World Cup-winning, long-afflicted outfit from East London will be well-versed to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” ringing out at the London Stadium – or the much beloved Upton Park previously – routinely three minutes before every kick off, but it is easy to overlook the lyrical significance of this grand old melody.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air

Originating back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley era, Bubbles was first debuted in the Broadway revue production “The Passing Show of 1918” and subsequently became popular in British music halls of the 1920’s.

West Ham United’s official account of how the tune became adopted by the Upton Park crowd is just as endearing as the anthem itself.

The story goes that a 1920s schoolboy footballer Will Murray was nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ due to his resemblance to a character in a well-known painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap. Accordingly, during a schools match at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground, Murray’s headmaster serenaded his pupil with I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, prompting other spectators joined in.

Thereafter, The Upton Park faithful adopted it as their own, and although the first recorded instance of West Ham fans singing Bubbles isn’t until the 1940 Football League War League Cup Final at Wembley, it soon became a renowned melody defining the East London spirit. Indeed, the song was often sung in air raid and underground shelters during the Blitz, cementing itself as a proclamation of positivity in times of adversity.

Various recordings were made of the tune throughout the second half of the 20th century; from notable names too, including Doris Day, Vera Lynn, The Kaye Sisters, and not forgetting that distinct punk-sounding version by East London’s very own Cockney Rejects – whose timing of release fittingly coincided in May 1980 with their last FA Cup triumph.

To merely listen to Bubbles semi-consciously renders the anthem somewhat inane and simple, albeit admirably optimistic.

But to the understand the deeper significance Bubbles, not least given the context of the club’s prolonged starvation of honours – West Ham’s last major trophy was that 1980 FA Cup win over Arsenal, which was followed by promotion from the second division a year later, in which time since the club have been relegated and promoted on four different occasions – and you cannot help but feel a palpable tinge of sadness and regret from the lyrics given the unrelenting suffering and lack of glory.

While other football anthems like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” have that emotionally uplifting, romanticised and collective narrative that looks to the future, Bubbles is virtually the antithesis. “Then like my dreams they fade and die. Fortunes Always Hiding, I’ve looked everywhere”. It oozes melancholia and transmits a kind of wistful feeling that almost celebrates the notion that, in life, you don’t always win, and you will have those days when it feels that you just aren’t nearing your goal at the end of the road.

Curiously, one angle that illustrates the implied essence of Bubbles is how the song is described in affectionate terms by figures outside the football world. In a 2014 Late Night with Seth Meyers interview, British film star Keira Knightley was quizzed about her unlikely allegiance to the club: “I just have to say about West Ham- they are not a team that win very oftenyou have this song that all the fans sing but the problem with it is that the song is actually really sad. The song is about not winning. The song is in fact about your dreams fading and dying the whole time, so it’s sort of not really a surprise that we lose all the time when we have this song”.

The female Hollywood star is plainly suggesting that maybe this has been West Ham United’s problem all along. Beyond all the historical narratives about them being a selling club before the Sullivan-Gold-Brady triumvirate walked in the door – or even irrelevant to their turbulent, self-parodying reign that, since their move from the Boleyn Ground to the former Olympic Stadium, has manifested the club into a toxic, polarised entity. Is it at all possible to contemplate that underneath all the complex, plot-thickening soap operas over time they have essentially been cursed by their own song?

It is certainly worth considering. Nevertheless, they are a proud club, and with good reason. Many West Ham supporters will tell you it was not the footballing prestige that enticed them into being a fan of the club. It was rather the heritage, passion and soul- something Upton Park was, and Bubbles still is, a huge part of – and entails the tormenting beauty of supporting West Ham United football club.

Andy Carroll’s West Ham departure – a sad indictment of a wasted career

Andy Carroll’s West Ham departure – a sad indictment of a wasted career

The Offside Rule

By @HalWalker

It is 5.00pm on Saturday May 4 at the London Stadium.

The West Ham United players are completing their annual end-of-season lap of appreciation following their final home game of the season, a comfortable 3-0 victory over Southampton to ensure a rather serene summer send-off from the fans.

Familiar faces from the first team with their wives and children are present, but any attentive observer will have noticed the sad and final sight of a forgotten figure – Andy Carroll – crutches in tow, feebly walking incapacitated around the perimeter accompanied by children and girlfriend.

In many ways it was an apt final image of the player in club colours given the materialisation of a move, and career, that promised so much, to begin with, and sporadically at best since.

On May 29 West Ham announced the departure of now 30-year-old Carroll upon the season end, ending a…

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Alternate PFA Team of the year

Alternate PFA Team of the year

In a season where the points record for second place is on course to be comfortably beaten, it is almost predictable that the annual Professional Footballers Association Team of the Year be largely dominated by the two supreme forces likely to be duelling for the league title until the final day, Liverpool and Manchester City.

The line-up, which was voted for by fellow professionals, did not overly defer from most expectation, but it did throw a surprise inclusion for Paul Pogba. The 2018 World Cup winner has suffered see-sawing form throughout the campaign, and his presence in the PFA’s official announcement has met with collective doubt.

A certain lack of representation from clubs outside of the top 6 has also prevailed in fans’ feedback of the team award compilation, necessitating in an alternate eleven to reflect a fairer celebration of talent across the league.

Goalkeeper

Lukasz Fabianksi:

Signed from relegated Swansea City for £7m last summer, it is fair to say that the 34-year-old’s arrival at the London Stadium was rather more understated than the likes of record-breaking £35m signing Felipe Anderson.

However, the former Arsenal stopper has been one of the few outstanding individuals for West Ham – who have suffered a wildly inconsistent season but at no point due to any indifferent form from their new no. 1 – displaying his highly impressive shot-stopping ability and positional awareness throughout, despite being frequently let down by an unstable back four. Outside of the top six teams, you would be hard pushed to identify a more safe and reliable goalkeeper this season.

Right-Back

Aaron Wan-Bissaka:

The 21-year-old has hugely impressed for Crystal Palace in his first full maiden season, delivering a host of standout displays for Roy Hodgson’s side, and establishing himself as an established first team full-back as a result.

The Croydon-born youngster has missed just three league games so far this season, making such an impact that many pundits have bemoaned the inclusion of established stars like Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva in the PFA Young Player of the Year nominations at Bissaka’s expense.

Maintaining such form next season will inevitably pose questions about an international call-up to the England senior side and will undoubtedly trigger interest from top 6 outfits.

 

Centre-Back

Conor Coady:

The Wolves captain has been a key figure in the three-man defence that Nuno Espírito Santo has deployed since the start of their 2017/18 promotion campaign, showing excellent leadership qualities alongside teammates Ryan Bennett and Willy Boly that ensure Wolves boast the fifth best defensive record in the league.

Coady’s wide-ranging passing range, combined with his physical robustness in the tackle and aerial prowess has not only contributed so much to Wolves’ season, but has made him one of the most intimidating and awkward defenders for attackers to face in the league.

Centre-Back

Toby Alderweireld:

One of the Premier League’s most underrated defenders. The Belgian suffered last season in a campaign blighted by injuries and contract issues but following an excellent World Cup showing, he has rediscovered his solidity and dependableness this season, delivering match-winning performances on numerous occasions for Mauricio Pochettino’s men – not least in their recent heroic Quarter-Final beating of Manchester City in the Champions League.

 

Possessing a proficient reading of the game, adept at dealing with aerial threats as well as being more than competent at building play from the back and, the 29-year-old can count himself unfortunate to have not been included in the season’s PFA TOTY.

 

Left-Back

Jose Holebas:

The 34-year-old made an early impact in Watford’s early pace-setting form this season, scoring once and contributing four assists from the same number of opening games and has not let his form dip since, proving one of the Hornet’s key players in their run to the FA Cup Final and quest for 7th.

What the Greek full-back lacks in pace is compensated in the quality of his crossing from the left wing. Now boasting three goals and 6 six assists to his name, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the only defenders to have set up more goals in the entire League this season.

 

 

 

 

 

Right-wing

Ryan Fraser:

The 25-year-old Scotsman is enjoying the finest season of his career to date and has admitted that recent talk of strong interest in his services from Arsenal – with Fraser entering the final year of his contract on the South Coast – is only testament to the form he has been showing for Bournemouth.

The diminutive and robust winger, who can operate on either flank, has notched more league goals than either Mesut Ozil or Dele Alli this season, and more impressively boasts the most league assists bar Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.

Fraser’s unyielding and relentless style has played a huge part in Bournemouth’s success story since their promotion to the top tier in 2015, and only underlines why he would be such a colossal lose to a club with such limited financial means.

Centre-midfield

Ruben Neves:

The 21-year-old Portuguese prodigy became one of Nuno Espírito Santo’s first key men when he was signed for a record £15.8m from Porto last season when Wolves were not even a Premier League team, quickly establishing himself as one of figureheads behind their promotion to the top tier last season, displaying a vision and passing ability that appeared so marked in the Championship.

Neves has benefitted from being entrusted with consistent first team football by his manager, and has only matured by playing better quality of opposition this season, contributing two goals and 4 assists; the pick of which being the exquisite dipping free-kick converted in the 3-1 home victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night.

Centre-midfield

Declan Rice:

West Ham’s recently converted England midfielder has enjoyed a superb season under Manuel Pellegrini, who has utilised him to his full potential in a deep-lying role for the Hammers.

The 20-year-old has looked by far the most composed player throughout the campaign in a Claret and Blue shirt, making 35 appearances in his first full season that has seen him score his first professional goal and receive an England senior call-up.

Having primarily been a centre-back before his conversion under Pellegrini in the early part of the season, he possesses a level of technical assuredness on the ball that is sure to blossom in the future as he gains more top-level experience.

 

 

 

 

Left-wing

Eden Hazard:

The Belgian superstar is arguably enjoying his finest season in a Chelsea shirt, in what could well be his last for the Blues and in the Premier League.

For goals and assists combined, he is enjoying his finest campaign since his arrival on English shores in 2012. He is currently one goal short – with three games remaining  – of surpassing his previous best tally  of 16 goals scored in the league in 2016/17, whilst his 13 assists is already two greater than his previous Premier League best, achieved in 2012/13.

Hazard’s omission from the PFA TOTY makes for all the more remarkable reasoning considering only days earlier to the announcement, the 28-year-old had been shortlisted as a nominee for the PFA Player of the year.

Such an honour would be deserved recognition for some stirring performances for the Blues this season, including vital goals against Cardiff, Liverpool and Tottenham (League Cup), as well crucial domestic strikes to keep Chelsea in touching distance of the Champions League places; namely against Waford, Brighton and an utterly mesmerising goal and man-of-the-match performance in April at home to West Ham.

A widely speculated move to Real Madrid may be on the horizon, but Chelsea’s dependency on Hazard only underlines further why they should do everything in their power to resist selling their most prized asset.

Striker

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang:

The Gabonese striker is currently the joint-highest Premier League goal-scorer this season – tied with Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah – and in his first full season at the Gunners he is beginning to prove vindication why Arsenal lavished £56m on the now-29-year-old in January of 2018.

Aubameyang’s goals have been directly responsible for winning the Gunners 16 more points than they would have done without him in the side, underling his value to Unai Emery’s side.

His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette has also been a growing influence on Aubameyang’s form, with the dynamic duo contributing to 31 goals in the league this season between the two.

Striker

Son Heung-Min:

When Son Heung-Min fired Tottenham’s first ever goal at their new stadium in their earlier this month, it not only confirmed his 21st goal of the season but, with the arena festooned with not only Tottenham but flags of his own country, embodied the meteoric rise to new heights as a global South Korean superstar.

For a player who has admitted he was closing to leaving North London in 2016 due to lack of first team opportunities, Son has used his cameo appearances to become one of Tottenham’s most potent attacking weapons.

Following on from leading his team out to a gold medal at the Asia Games in August, his goals, positional awareness and outstanding work-rate have played a pivotal role in Tottenham’s annual chase for the top four domestic spot and reward for their first European Semi-Final since 1962.

La Liga: Aspas return sparks Celta’s survival hopes

La Liga: Aspas return sparks Celta’s survival hopes

The Offside Rule

With Celta Vigo in the relegation zone in La Liga, Hal Walker looks at the impact of Iago Aspas’ return to the team.

There was a tangible sense of déjà vu by the end of the helter-skelter relegation encounter between Celta Vigo and visitors Villarreal at Balaídos last Saturday evening.

Nearly 10 years ago, a 21-year-old Iago Aspas scored two goals – including a dramatic 94th-minute winner – in the final 10 minutes at home to Alaves to prevent his beloved Celta dropping to the Segunda División B. It was the moment that the Balaídos crowd found a new local hero – a welcome inspiration who could not only provide goals but a character who they would identify with: gutsy, raw and committed; as if he had been plucked straight from the stands and thrown a Celta shirt.

Saturday’s climax evoked such memories in the sense that not only it…

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Disciplined Bayern performance tilts Liverpool tie in their favour, but long-term concerns linger

Disciplined Bayern performance tilts Liverpool tie in their favour, but long-term concerns linger

After Tuesday’s final whistle blew on Merseyside to curtail a 0-0 draw from the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Bayern Munich head coach Niko Kovac could reflect on a job well done, for the moment.

His side had delivered a dogged and resolute defensive performance in riposte to an anticipated Anfield onslaught, and despite the failure to claw an away goal to cherish, the 47-year-old was proud of the disciplined and stout nature his team carried out his game-plan and held their own in a widely adorned – arguably to mythical levels – arena.

The second leg – scheduled to be played at the Allianz Arena on 13 March – will be an encounter of higher stakes and will be unrecognisable from Tuesday on a tactical level, but it will require far more creative nous and offensive impetus from this Bayern side, and this is where doubts begin.

The fact that Bayern are seeking their seventh consecutive league title tells you everything you need to know about the Bundesliga power struggle, but this is a squad whose clock is visibly ticking and on a domestic front has been paying the price for the club’s reluctance to freshen ranks in the summer.

Irrespective of what happens on the pitch from now until May, this season will be final hurrah for a number of key players in their post-2012 hegemony. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribèry are set to depart and fans have been long calling for the replacements of their esteemed over 30’s; namely Robert Lewandowski, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.

Change was called for across all sectors of Bayern’s support last summer and the club’s hierarchical triumvirate – Uli Hoeness, Club President, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Chief Executive and the sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic – succumbed to inertia, resulting in the Bavarians’ sluggish start that saw them drop as low as 6th at one point pre-Christmas.

Their form has picked up since the Christmas break, though, and following a run of 9 victories from their last ten league fixtures, the nine-point gap that appeared seismic following their topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf on 24 November has now been cut to just three.

One theory behind Tuesday’s unyielding display of spirit and togetherness was that this was arguably Bayern’s first encounter where they have been seen as genuine underdogs – against a Liverpool side challenging for the Premier League title and who delivered a number of scintillating performances in reaching the Champions League Final last year – since Niko Kovac’s arrival.

The Croatian’s values, whose former Eintracht Frankfurt side were renowned in Germany for their fighting qualities against wealthier opposition, were for the first time evident in the faultless and workmanlike performances from the likes of Javi Martinez, James Rodriguez, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.

Such traits will be a prerequisite back at the Allianz for Liverpool’s return visit, as well as matching the composure and control shown on Merseyside, but with the onus on the Germans to attack, one would expect that they will need to summon the incisive spark and a glimmer of the offensive flamboyancy that has seen them at least reach the Semi-Final stages in the Champions League in all but two seasons this decade.

 

Sarabia and Ben Yedder spearheading Sevilla’s revival

Sarabia and Ben Yedder spearheading Sevilla’s revival

There has been an understated renaissance at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and, at this midway point in the La Liga campaign, Sevilla currently looms five points behind league leaders and title holders Barcelona, offering the merest hint of a genuine title “race”.

Most notable is that Sevilla’s excellent form this term under new manager Pablo Machin has been fronted by two players who were unfancied and expected to move on before the end of the summer transfer window.

Wissam Ben Yedder, more recently known on British shores for scoring the brace at Old Trafford that eliminated Manchester United from the Champions League last season, was deemed unfit and unsuitable for Machin’s system in the early weeks of August and did not make his first appearance until the fifth game of the season in Sevilla’s 2-0 home defeat to Getafe.

After a gradual return to favour, the 28-year-old French forward has played a starring role in Los Rojiblancos’ rise, scoring 13 times in 17 starts.

Paolo Sarabia, the immensely talented former Real Madrid trainee, was also expected to depart in the summer with a move to Real Sociedad in the offing. After the player decided against making the move, few reckoned on the attacking midfielder to enjoy such a fruitful season under the new manager.

Think again. Repositioned from the left flank to play the free role as a No 10 behind the strikers – typically Ben Yedder, who is the top assist maker for Sarabia this season, and the rejuvenated Andre Silva, with Mudo Vazquez and Ever Banega sat behind – the 26-year-old is in the form of his life, with 13 goals in 21 starts.

Ignored by Luis Enrique in the Spanish national setup – admittedly due to the plethora of Spanish attacking talent from midfield – Sarabia’s all-action style of play and his propensity to summon game-changing moments will surely deem international consideration before long.

A player who clearly has a genuine love for the ball at his feet, providing chances and goals with either foot and bewitching opposing teams with such dynamic movement – be it simply showing for the ball, making darting runs into the penalty box or cutting in off the wing.

Sevilla’s impressive form seems somewhat incongruous with the organisational turmoil that has engulfed the club in recent years, worsened by the 2017 departure of their long-serving director of football, “Monchi”, to Roma.

Remarkably, since Unai Emery swapped his Seville surroundings for Paris Saint-Germain, then Arsenal – after Sevilla’s last Europa League conquest in 2016 – five head coaches have been and gone at the club.

Unbeaten since a 4-2 loss at the Camp Nou on 20 October, there is clearly a calm and rational feeling of hope, in this part of Southern Spain, that this purple patch will continue into the New Year.

Whether Pablo Machin’s side have anything like the defence, depth or willpower to do so in a La Liga season that is repeatedly throwing up the most bizarre and unexpected results remains to be seen. For the moment, Ben Yedder, Sarabia and co are certainly doing their bit to make put an Andalusian twist on the race and, from a neutral standpoint, long may it continue.