The Last Word: For Europe's true glory, you must look to Athletic Bilbao
Largely owned by their fans, Athletic show verve on the field and due prudence off it
Never mind that Chelsea did not so much park the bus as haul aground the Exxon Valdez – causing, in many eyes, equivalent pollution to the football environment. And never mind, either, all this excitement over Monday's big game in Manchester, when everyone already knows that United will equalise with a 95th-minute penalty. Instead let football fans of every flag take a step back and absorb the reproof implicit in the way different teams this week entered the crucible of a European semi-final.
For on Thursday the two clubs that had ended Manchester's involvement in Europe proceeded to correct the self-regard not only of the Premier League, but also of the Champions League itself. After two nights over which it was hard to tell whether teams were trying to play football, or make some kind of transcending statement or stand, Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Lisbon achieved the best symbolism of all.
They showed how all that had gone before – the idealism of Barcelona, the courage of Chelsea, the glamour of Real Madrid, even the laudable way Bayern matched their sense of destiny – counted for nothing without fidelity to the unfettered glory of the game itself.
Saturated with cash, kudos and neurosis, the later stages of the Champions League seem to excoriate its protagonists until they are left raw and exposed – not so much to each other's strengths, as to their own weaknesses. Pep Guardiola concluded that someone else must lend his angels the bit of devil they need, now that nobody actually wants to play football against them.
If anything, however, the second match showed how Plan B can become as much of a blind alley as No Plan B. Real Madrid became petrified by the away goals rule. Bayern meanwhile saw their opponents becoming frayed, mentally and physically, and saw things out with a stylish pragmatism.
Bayern are plainly a better team than Chelsea, but a final stripped of so many key defenders may well be settled by the odd goal in half a dozen. As such, for a model of fearless endeavour, neither team need seek beyond Athletic.
At the end of Thursday's game, its outstanding player sprawled on his back and covered his face as his shoulders and ribs shook convulsively. Fernando Llorente had conjured his team's first two goals with assists of epic insouciance. With the tie on the brink of extra time, he then scored the decider with a cutlass slice across a vicious drive on to the near post. At the whistle his young Basque compatriots piled on top of their sobbing talisman, leaving an imprint in the turf that they must now hope does not become all they have to remember him by.
For an arrogant assumption has been obediently and widely shared that Llorente must now join one of the same Manchester teams whose inadequacies had been shown up by the teams who met on Thursday. Such is the self-regard of the Premier League, where the cheap disparagement of La Liga's two-horse race as "Scotland in the sun" has somehow resisted the logical inference from the 15-point gap now dividing second from third here – even as an Iberian monopoly developed in the Europa League.
In fairness, the two Manchester managers are themselves not deceived. Even if Chelsea win the final, Mancini and Ferguson know that the Premier League has become complacent; that it lacks the wit and adventure of men apparently targeted by both this summer: Hazard, Cavani, Llorente himself.
Yet others incorrigibly tell you how a player like Llorente, or a manager like Marcelo Bielsa, will finally fulfil themselves only by deserting the romantic miracle of a club that confines its recruitment to a population barely bigger than that of Greater Manchester.
Sure enough, as Guardiola's mentor, Bielsa was widely proposed as the most obvious trustee of his work at Barcelona. But Bielsa remains engaged on a project of his own, schooling young stars along the margin between ingenuousness and genius. They will surely become a force in the Champions League, sooner rather than later – as long as they are not seduced by greedy agents in satanic partnership with the sort of clubs that regard the Europa League as beneath them.
For that, aside from the inspiration and dynamism of the play itself, is surely the most practical lesson from Thursday. Premier League clubs are so vain that most candidly treat the Europa League as a bloody nuisance. Yes, the early phases of the competition are maddeningly cumbersome; but any who have followed the Athletic adventure will testify that it can redress all the asphyxiating preening of the elite.
Bayern and Athletic have arguably been the respective exemplars of the two tournaments. They have a common link in Jupp Heynckes, who qualified Athletic for the Uefa Cup in 1994. Both are also largely owned by their fans, manage their different levels of funding with due prudence, and show verve on the field.
One outclassed Manchester City; the other outclassed Manchester United, home and away. Whatever those teams offer us on Monday, and whatever Chelsea may still pull off, we must resist delusions of grandeur – and the players, equally, its associated tensions.
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