Julio Baptista: I miss London and Arsenal but not the savage tackling

Baptista keen to leave the mark of The Beast on Chelsea.
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Sometimes a single performance can earn lifelong affection from a club's supporters, however ordinary all the others were. Mention of Diego Forlan still brings a smile to the face of Manchester United followers, not for the 27 matches he played without scoring after moving to Old Trafford but for the two goals at Anfield that once brought victory over Liverpool, commemorated for ever more in song: "He comes from Uruguay/He made the Scousers cry."

Consider too Julio Baptista, "The Beast", whose day of glory for Arsenal came on the same ground. Swapped for a season with Jose Antonio Reyes while at Real Madrid, the burly striker hardly seemed an Arsène Wenger player at all and had started only three Premier League games before he was selected for a Carling Cup quarter-final at Anfield as the senior citizen in the usual boys' brigade team that Wenger fields in that competition.

On an extraordinary night he scored four times in 44 minutes and missed a penalty too as Arsenal won 6-3, inflicting Liverpool's heaviest home defeat in 77 years.

Coincidence upon coincidence; while Forlan, now with Atletico Madrid, meets up with Liverpool again on Wednesday, carrying the very best wishes of all United followers against the old enemy, Baptista will have Arsenal fans behind him on his return to London on the same night as Roma visit Chelsea. Speaking from Brazil, where he was on duty with the national team, he made clear his affection for the capital, for Arsenal and their manager: "I loved being in London, it was one of the big experiences of my life to live there. A big metropolis, like the centre of the world, I really enjoyed it and I am eager to come back.

"I think I played a lot of minutes considering it was a team that was runners-up in the Champions' League the year before. I wasn't fed up and don't regret it at all. I learnt a lot of things from Wenger, one of the top-class coaches in Europe today, and I wantedto stay. But in the end Real Madrid didn't want to do business with Reyes, so it could not be. My best memory was to score four goals at Liverpool."

Less happy, though still a day to treasure, was the final of the competition against Wednesday's opponents, in Cardiff: "Arsenal had a really young team again and Chelsea played a first team with Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack, Claude Makelele, Michael Essien... but we still scored first from Theo Walcott and Chelsea had trouble to recover and win 2-1. It was a great experience."

His likes – and one dislike – of English football mirrors those of many foreign recruits. "I liked the intensity of the games, the speed that made you think twice as fast as you were used to. What I didn't like was too much allowance from the referees. Some ugly fouls, like the one [at Birmingham last season] on Eduardo da Silva that was typical. It happens too often, this savage type of tackling. But the Premier League is ahead of all the other leagues, not so much in quality but in this intensity. Because of the way the game is played, they get from the players everything we can give."

Having played as well for Seville, Real Madrid and now Roma, Baptista, who turned 27 this month, speaks from experience. His experience of Roma, who paid Madrid €9 million (£7m) for him in August, is of a team struggling with injuries that have hampered their start to the season after finishing runners-up in Italy last time.

The Romanians Cluj, regarded as outsiders in Group A, caused a shock that reverberated around Europe by winning 2-1 in the Olympic Stadium – where the final will be held this season – but Baptista then contributed to Roma's best result to date by scoring twice in a 3-1 win in Bordeaux.

"We played a very bad game against Cluj," he said, "and in Bordeaux we were losing 1-0, so the comeback was really crucial. Before the competition began everyone thought Chelsea would be first in the group and Roma second. Now we need a point or three in London, so we have to go for it. Chelsea are one of the strongest teams in Europe. Drogba is injured but [Nicolas] Anelka is as good, a very dangerous player. So for us it's trying to play well in these two tough games away and at home, then we can qualify."

Drogba, as he says, will be missing, and has been confined to talking about a competition that has always meant a lot to him, while plugging an English edition of his autobiography (Aurum Press, £18.99). Last season's Champions' League final came too late to be included in the book, and in discussing the events of that wild Moscow night on Thursday, Drogba was forced to examine his role in being sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic and consequently being unavailable for the penalty shoot-out that followed.

"It's easy for some people to blame me for this loss," he said. "I gave my best, as I always do since I've been here. I want to be the No 1 and sometimes I'm successful and sometimes I do too much, like what I did to get this red card. I know it and apologised to my fans. People make mistakes in life. It was a difficult period for the team but also for me, because I wanted to win it after all we did in this competition."

Twelve minutes from the end of normal time he smashed a shot against a post, which he now describes as a worse moment than his sending-off: "I wasn't feeling good and normally this chance, when you feel good, it goes in. Then the second worst thing was the red card, because if I'd really punched him I would have understood the red card but..."

As a young professional at Le Mans, Drogba dreamed of playing in the competition, "watching every Tuesday or Wednesday with friends, eating pizza and seeing Raul and all these players scoring goals". The dream became reality in spectacular fashion, as he made his Champions' League debut for Marseille away to Raul's Real Madrid and then scored a hat-trick in his second game, against Partizan Belgrade. The magic, he says, remains: "It's still like a dream. Coming out of the tunnel, going on the pitch and listening to this music gives me the motivation."

In that Cup final in Cardiff he ruinedBaptista's dream by scoring twice. A return to the team is planned in a fortnight; in time to haunt the Brazilian again, in Roma's Olympic Stadium.



Chelsea v Roma is live on Sky Sports Xtra, Sky Sports HD3 and Sky Broadband with highlights via 24-7 mobile

This week's champions' league

TUESDAY

FENERBAHCE (1pt) v ARSENAL (4pts)

Trips to Istanbul are always lively and Arsenal will encounter a number of Turkish players who impressed at Euro 2008, including the Londoner Colin Kazim-Richards, as well as the winning coach, Spain's Luis Aragones. But Fenerbahce have not started well domestically or in Europe.

MANCHESTER UTD (4pts) v CELTIC (1pt)

The relevant figures stack up even more dauntingly for Celtic than when they were edged out 3-2 at Old Trafford two years ago. Now it's 18 away games in the Champions' League without a win for Gordon Strachan's team, and 16 unbeaten at home for Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

WEDNESDAY

ATLETICO MADRID (6pts) v LIVERPOOL (6pts)

Liverpool, having finally been told where the game is being played, can concentrate on the outcome of the forthcoming double-header, which ought to determine who wins Group D. Atletico used the £23m they received for Fernando Torres well and the Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero (above) has blossomed without him.

CHELSEA (4pts) v ROMA (3pts)

Injuries on both sides mean that Chelsea should still have the edge, as they have in the group, thanks to Roma's unexpected home defeat by the Romanians Cluj. The Italian side, who host the final, were runners-up to Internazionale in Serie A last season but have not yet gelled in this campaign.

Steve Tongue

Comments