On the long weekend when the political institutions and elites of Europe were blown a very large raspberry by voters across the EU, I shall stick to sport and reflect on two engrossing finals: Toulon v Saracens in rugby’s Heineken Cup and Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid in football’s Champions’ League.
It made for another bumper day of sport on Saturday. There was even a rumbustious aperitif, in the form of the Championship playoff – “the £130m game” – between Derby and QPR at Wembley. The Rs stole that one at the last with a goal from the rarely-seen Bobby Zamora, after being down to ten men for the last 30 minutes. Derby suffered that most agonising of fates: coming third in the league and then losing in the playoffs, the lucrative climes of the Premier League snatched from their grasp. I’m pleased to see QPR back in the top division though. I’ve always had a soft spot for them; in fact if I supported the team closest to where I was born, I’d be sporting blue and white hoops rather than claret and blue.
My fellow viewer, Jon, and I were spared a rugby vs football extra time dilemma when that Zamora goal went in, so it was over to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for the clash of the titans. Toulon, the holders, favourites, but Saracens mighty confident after their crushing victory over Clermont in the semis. From the off it was a series of brutal clashes, attritional, full of errors caused by the tension and the awesome speed of the defending. A game for the rugby fan rather than the passing viewer. But the half was lit up by a moment or two of genius from the Toulon 10 and 12 – Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau. The Brit and the Aussie, old rivals now working in tandem for the French club. Wilko switched the direction of play with one pass to Giteau, who put in a curling kick for Aussie winger, Drew Mitchell, to run on to. The ball bounced kindly for him and he raced forward before offloading to a pursuing Giteau, who ran in for the try. A brilliant effort and a moment of incisiveness in a clogged up game. Toulon went in at half time 10-3 up after a classic drop goal from Jonny and it was starting to look tricky for Sarries.
It was more than tricky for Sarries in the second half – they were blown away. Not immediately, but you could see them tiring as Toulon got stronger. The decisive moment was another brilliant Toulon try. The move started well inside their own half. Strettle let Jonny get the ball too easily and he threaded it out to human bulldozer, Mathieu Bastareaud. The Frenchman showed rather more speed than a bulldozer as he piled into the Saracens half. And then the two flankers took over. South African Juan Smith took Bastareaud’s wayward pass brilliantly from behind without losing momentum. He fed it to Argentinian Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who then fed it back to him, for the try. A superb sequence of high speed pass-and-move that cut Saracens’ defence apart and clinched the game. Jonny converted, scored another penalty and Toulon ran out 23-6 winners.
A sobering experience for the best team in England. Overpowered, outhought, outfought, outrun.
Toulon are clearly now the best team in Europe and with the money behind them, they could be there for some time to come. The club has assembled some of the best players from around the world and especially South Africa. Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana and Juan Smith were just three of them. Add in Giteau and Mitchell from Australia, Lobbe from Argentina and the three Englishmen – Delon and Steffon Armitage and Jonny – and you have a team which could probably win the World Cup if it could enter. That’s what it has been like in football for some time. Is rugby now going the same way? Well, maybe it is in France and Ireland, but the salary cap is holding English clubs back, just a little. That’s good for the competitiveness of the Premiership and for the financial stability of the clubs; less good for their competitiveness in Euope. Expect much hand wringing in the coming years.
Man of the Match was Toulon’s Steffon Armitage. A young Englishman who can’t get in the England squad because he plays in France and so cannot be guaranteed to turn up to all the in-season England training sessions. He has just been voted European player of the year too. Expect intense media pressure on the England management to change their policy, and a “Steffon for England” campaign. And if they succumb, expect an exodus of England’s best to the higher wages in France. Economics always wins in the end.
Jonny Wilkinson is at the opposite end of his career to Armitage. 35 and enjoying a renaissance in the Mediterranean sun after an amazing career of highs – the World Cup win with his drop goal in 2003 – and lows – all those excruciating injuries. The Heineken Cup final was his last game on British soil. Next weekend he finishes off with the French playoff final, Toulon vs Castres. Over the last 15 years he has been England greatest hope, its salvation, and sometimes its great disappointment. But mostly he has been the hero. The World Cup winner, the man who could always be relied on to turn penalties into points, the man who gave his all in every game. Can there ever have been another fly half who you would see so often emerging from the bottom of a ruck? That may have contributed to his injuries, but that was just the way he played. We loved him for it.
Off the field, he was dignified and modest – always seeking to deflect praise onto his colleagues. He was at it again this weekend, even though so much of the spotlight was him. A great sportsman – and a great man…
What a contrast with the second best footballer in the world who took part in the Champions’ League final on Saturday. Yes, second – Messi is still the best for me. I’m talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored the fourth and last goal against Atletico, when they were dead on their feet. A dubious penalty secured by one of his trademark dives. So he snuck onto the scoresheet at the last, with the result decided. Any reason then to haul off his shirt and show off his pecs to the world? None other than vanity, arrogance and maybe some repressed anger at having been well short of his best during the game. Give me Jonny Wilkinson and Lionel Messi any time.
A great game though: intensely dramatic, cruel and redemptive, ugly and beautiful. Real Madrid 4 Atletico Madrid 1.
The first time a final has been played between two teams from the same city. We’ve had the same country a few times: Italy (Juve v Milan), England (Chelsea v Man U), Germany last year (Bayern v Dortmund). Never a Real v Barca, either, more’s the pity. The media portrayed it as the aristocrats (Real), desperate for the Decima after a twelve year wait, versus the artisans (Atletico), the grafters, the arrivistes. Never mind that Atletico have just won La Liga, breaking the Real-Barca duopoly for the first time since 2003; and have played some classy football on their way to the final, notably the way they dismantled Chelsea in the semis at Stamford Bridge.
I was trying to think of whom Atletico most resembled in style in England at the moment. None of the top four really, although Chelsea at their best might be closest. So looked back and settled on the great Nottingham Forest team of the late seventies, under the maestro himself, Brian Clough. Built on a strong defence, but swift on the counterattack and capable of pressing. Direct when necessary, but always playing the ball on the floor. Not spectacular, no preening individuals, but good to watch.
In contrast to Real Madrid. Fantastic to watch at times, but preening individuals a speciality. What other team has ever had galacticos?
When it comes to Spanish teams I’m always with Barca, but I love to watch Real and found myself wanting them to win, despite their pretensions and the fact that Jon had them as the last leg of a QPR-Toulon-Atletico treble. (Doubt the odds were much good, so I don’t feel too guilty!).
The game, just like Toulon v Saracens, was tentative and error-strewn at first. The stakes are so high, it’s no surprise. Atletico took the risk of playing Diego Costa, their star striker, although he’d suffered a hamstring injury a week earlier in the winner-takes-all game against Barca. He was off before ten minutes was up and the loss of a sub would hurt Atletico later.
The first goal went to Atletico. A messy affair after a corner, with Atletico pinging a header back into the box after the ball had been cleared, the great Real keeper, Iker Casillas, having a moment of madness, rushing out into no-man’s land, so that Godin was able to head over him into the net. Atletico deserved, as much as Real, to take the lead, but in doing so, started to sit back and defend what they had. That was the pattern of much of the rest of the game.
The second half became a question of when (or if) Real would score. Gareth Bale had a couple of half-decent chances. For the first he might have done better to pass to Ronaldo; for the second he should have struck the ball with his right, rather than favoured left, foot. Ah, so easy to observe these things watching from the sofa! The game really started to swing when Marcelo and Isco came on as subs. Marcelo, the Brazilian, is ostensibly a left back, but, like Roberto Carlos before him, he played more as a left-side midfielder, tearing into Atletico’s weary defences.
So yes, we waited for Real to score – but as we moved into five minutes of added-on time, they still hadn’t. Could Atletico hang on, like Chelsea did against Bayern in 2012? In the 93rd minute a corner from the right. Outswinging, firmly struck. Centre back Sergio Ramos rises, makes space and directs the ball brilliantly into the net. 1-1! No fancy football, just a good old-fashioned set piece and header.
Extra time was clearly torture for Atletico. They had given everything, but the persistent skills of Di Maria (man of the match), Modric, Isco, Marcelo, Bale – and yes, OK, the threat of Ronaldo – had taken its toll. Ten minutes into the first half of extra time, Di Maria scuttled through the Atletico defence and shot. The keeper saved but the ball bounced high into the path of Bale. He did superbly to leap, leaning backwards, to head the ball into the net. 2-1 and the killer goal. In the second half, Marcelo stormed through Atletico’s midfield and lashed in a third – a fitting tribute to his influence when he came on. And then Ronaldo got his penalty and tried to steal the show.
4-1 felt harsh on Atletico and you wonder how they would have fared if their two injured stars, costa and Turan, had been fit. Then again, Real missed Xabi Alonso in midfield (cruelly suspended), and Benzema, Khedira, Bale and Ronaldo were all carrying injuries.
In the end this was a magnificent performance by Real and an admirable, feisty one from Atletico. A game which will go down as one of the great European finals.
We saw, in both the rugby and the football, sport being played at the highest level, under intense pressure. We saw mistakes, we saw brilliance and in the end we saw the supreme skills and power of one side overwhelming the other. In neither case was it inevitable, but in the history of both games it will probably be written as if it were so. Because in the end, in any battle, the winners get to dictate the definitive story.
Photos all from Google Images. All Toulon photos via Daily Telgraph: team shot from AFP; Juan Smith from PA; Jonny Wilkinson from PA. Real Madrid shots both via BBC: team shot Getty Images; Ramos header AP.