This time of year there is so much great sport, especially as the football and rugby seasons head towards a climax. Nerves are shredding, the results are getting wackier. Take the football. Arsenal losing at home to Wigan last Monday, Man Utd drawing 4-4 at home to Everton after being 4-2 up. Barcelona losing to Chelsea! (Maybe not so surprising). Tottenham imploding after looking like a shoo-in to the Champions League. Newcastle transformed under Pardew from joke team to slick passing Champions League contenders. Liverpool losing at home to West Brom – revenge for Roy Hodgson, sacked by Liverpool last year. Must be sweet.
But I want to focus on two games I saw on Saturday. Both of the highest quality. Engrossing examples of the best in sport. Punch and counterpunch. Technique and passion. Faltering and coming through. But not over yet.
First the rugby. I was at The Stoop on Saturday afternoon to see Quins take on the Leicester Tigers. Quins top of the Premiership, but Leicester gathering force as the season comes to a conclusion. With all their players back after injuries and international calls. Quins hanging on in there, but battered and bruised after some tough, tough games. Saracens (won – just), Toulon (thrashed).
It was the best game of the season. The atmosphere was electric, helped by the huge number of Leicester fans. Real passion on both sides. The Tigers started the game assuming they would win it in the forwards, but Quins took the first scrum. Punching the air! But Leicester won a lineout and grimly forced their way over the try line. It felt like their superior force was going to win the day. Toby Flood looked like he had his kicking boots on. 10-3 Tigers.
Then Ugo Monye intercepted a Flood pass and hurtled down the pitch for a Quins try. The biggest roar of the season. Ugo-Ugo! Quins into the ascendancy. Suddenly Leicester couldn’t cope with the pace and variety, the ferociousness at the breakdown. Nick Easter bustled over for another try and it was 23-10 to Quins! Leicester flanker Tom Croft was injured badly in the process and the game stopped for about ten minutes. Think he is OK and I’m glad about that. On the day though, it took away Quins’ momentum and Leicester clawed ten points back, against three from Quins. First a penalty, made easier by Joe Marler – superhero thug prop – giving the ref some lip. Stupid. Ten metres forward – you don’t argue with the ref in rugby. 23-13. Then they scored a try and Flood converted. 26-23 at the break. Feeling nervous!
In the second half Leicester got another penalty – both fly halves were kicking beautifully – but the Quins broke through and scored. George Lowe, latching on to a lovely dinked kick by Nick Evans. 33-26. Looking good! Or was it? All the time we felt, this is Leicester, they always come back. And they did. The game slowed a little as Quins tired and Leicester took control. When you can bring on the hairy Italian monster Martin Castrogiovanni as a replacement you have squad depth!
After ten more minutes or so I was thinking, why is the entire game is now being played in our half? It stayed that way. Leicester were pounding the Quins defence. It held for a while, then cracked. Two tries for Leicester and they won 43-33.
What a game! Exhausting just writing about it. Quins played really well. It’s just that Leicester played even better. They are an awesome team, coming to a peak just at the right time. They are probably favourites to win the play offs now, but we can hold out hope. Quins have had some fantastic results against the odds this season. Toulouse away, Saracens at Wembley. But it is going to be really tough. Probably Saracens or Northampton in the semis. Both great sides. This is what the business end of the season is all about.
After that, I managed to persuade the family that I could watch Barcelona vs Real Madrid on the telly at peak time Saturday evening. It was El Clasico after all! A fascinating game, not with the passion that I witnessed in the two pre-season Supercopa matches in the open air on the Costa Brava, but a turning point. Barca looked tired, their focus perhaps on Chelsea this Tuesday. They had 70% of the possession as usual, but Real looked sharper, more incisive. What I couldn’t understand was why Barca came into the game with no striker – apart from 60 goal Messi of course! But he drifts behind the main man usually. The “false nine” as they like to call it in Spain. Helps if you have a real nine too. There was no-one for the first 60-70 minutes, Messi was triple-marked and even Xavi and Iniesta seemed out of sorts. The best chances fell to the youngster on the left wing, Tello, who snatched and blasted off target. Madrid took a first half lead and sat back. Barca finally brought on Alexis and then Fabregas, to sharpen up the front line. They equalised. But it was short-lived relief. Ronaldo scored with a superbly clinical jink and pass into the net. 2-1. Final result.
A hugely symbolic victory for Real. Since Mourinho has been in charge they have lost every game to Barca. Now they have their victory – in the Camp Nou – and are guaranteed to win La Liga. Has the baton passed to Madrid, or is it just a blip for Barca? Has Mourinho climbed to the top, as he always does? Will he stay there or leave for England again? But hey, let’s focus! We have Champions league semis this week. Real are 2-1 down to Bayern Munich, Barca 1-0 down to Chelsea. We could have the ultimate fantasy El Clasico – a Champions League final – or an England v Germany tussle. Or something in between.
I’m torn between wanting the classic confrontation and some patriotic support for Chelsea, especially as they have rather done it against the odds. I think I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the football!