End of an era

Unlike their Spanish rivals Real Madrid the night before, Barcelona departed this season’s Champions League not with a bang, but with a whimper, capitulating 3-0 at home to a hugely impressive Bayern Munich side.

The 3-0 defeat combined with a 4-0 defeat in Munich last week, meant that Barcelona suffered the heaviest semi-final defeat in this competition since Eintracht Frankfurt annihilated Rangers 12-4 on aggregate in 1960. This, then, was no ordinary defeat.

But was it though, as many have suggested, the end of an era not only for Barcelona but also for Spanish football in general? The obituarist’s pen may be hovering over the page but for some in Spain, the roots of the current golden age run deep and talk of epoch-defining results are premature.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova said there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the team, who just needed their injured players, such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano, to recover from injury, while president Sandro Rosell sought to deflect attention.

“I don’t think you can say we are doing things badly in Spain,” he told Canal Plus.

“Two of the four best teams in Europe were from Spain. Maybe you should ask that question in England, France or Italy.”

The sentiment was echoed by midfield talisman, Xavi, who cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction to Wednesday’s defeat.

“This Barca has a future,” the 33-year-old told Canal Plus. “We do not need to be drastic.

“On Sunday, we have another competition. We competed as far as we could. I am always optimistic, and this team is always motivated for more. We were not able to compete in the Copa del Rey and Champions League semis. But I think there is a team here to continue.”

“Physically, we arrived in bad form because of the absences. Busquets, Abidal, Puyol, Mascherano… these are important players. But Bayern were better – mentally strong, physically extraordinary.”

The sense that fatigue played a significant part in Barcelona’s lacklustre display was picked up by Vilanova, who highlighted the sheer volume of match his players have had to play in recent years.

“Xavi has been dealing with injuries, and we have an important game this Sunday,” he said. “These players have played over 300 games in the past five years. The first half of the season through December was very good. But now it is getting more difficult.

“All squads must be reinforced. But we need to get our players back. We came into this tie with a lot of people out. This is a very good squad. You cannot always win.”

There is talk of Barcelona signing Neymar in the summer, but is the signing of another Galactico-style forward really what they need at the moment? On the evidence of the 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich, a more pressing problem is surely the absence of defenders who can fulfil the basic functions expected of them.

Final thought on the end of an era theme: the last team to beat Barcelona home and away in a European tie? Dundee United in 1987. They managed to bounce back from that setback all right.

Political football

Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the landslide victor in the Asian Football Confederation’s presidential election on Thursday, had little time to enjoy his succes before he was deflecting accusations over his human rights record in Bahrain.

Responding to claims that he stood by as pro-democracy players were persecuted for protesting against the ruling regime in Bahrain, Sheik Salman went on the offensive at his first news conference after his election success.

“I have no problem, I will answer that,” he said when an AFC official attempted to block a question.

“I just have one question – you talk about allegations, but the question is, do you have the proof?

“Somebody talks about the government, I don’t think this our business in football, we are football people. If anybody has the proof that the Bahrain Football Association has violated the statutes of FIFA or AFC then present it, otherwise we move on.”

The Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) sent a letter to AFC delegates last week urging them not to vote for Sheikh Salman, but the plea was ignored.

ADHRB director Husain Abdulla told Reuters he had expected Sheikh Salman to win as he held little faith in the integrity of the AFC or FIFA.

A fair point.

“I am not surprised that he won both positions given the fact that corruption is rooted into these two bodies,” Abdulla said.

“However, as a human rights organisation we were able to highlight the atrocities that took place against the football players in Bahrain and we used this election venue to do that.”

Maryam Al Khawaja, acting head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, took to Twitter to voice her displeasure at the outcome of Thursday’s election win.

“Salman Alkhalifa, despite human rights violations, wins presidency. When ur from the gulf human rights dont matter,” she said.

In many organisations, the prospect of electing to a senior position a man accused of serious wrongdoing would be unthinkable, but this being FIFA, it’s pretty much the norm. He’ll probably be running the place in a couple of years.

Press pack

“Barca, humiliated and out of Europe “, was the headline in today’s Sport as the Spanish media digested the 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich.

“Barcelona said goodbye to the Champions League in the cruellest and most painful way possible: suffering another heavy defeat against Bayern who, on aggregate, have unloaded on them 7-0.”

El Mundo Deportivo described the Catalan side as “impotent” against the German outfit and lacking belief they could overturn the 4-0 first-leg deficit without Lionel Messi.

And, purely on the evidence of their two-leg tie with Bayern Munich, one has to say, they have a point.

The two Madrid -based sports papers, Marca and AS, could barely contain their glee  while describing Barca as: “impotent”, “humiliated by a cyclone”, “grey, without bite, inane and soulless”.

In Germany, the mood was understandably joyful, but happily not triumphant, as the country looked ahead to the first ever all-Bundesliga final.

“The king is dead, long live the king” was how Die Welt described Bayern Munich’s thrashing of Barcelona.

Bayern will now face fellow German side Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley on May 25.

Die Welt’s editorial said the semi-final results had given Germany a “reason to be proud”, with a German winner for the first time in 12 years now guaranteed.

It added: “Bayern humiliated their opponents for the second time in the space of a week, doing the things which had set Barcelona apart, only better.”

Bild wrote: “For the first time in the history of the Champions League, there will be an all-German final. It was a demonstration of power against what once was the best team in the world.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailed a “dream final”, perpetuating the general mood that Bayern and Dortmund have “humiliated” Spanish football.

Arjen Robben’s goal to make it 1-0 put the victory beyond any doubt, so much so that, according to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, “anybody who still believed Bayern would be eliminated would also believe that they would start driving on the right in England “.

Which goes to show that while Germany’s football clubs have gone from strength to strength, their sense of humour still leaves a lot to be desired.

Spanish practices

The Spanish football league (LFP) is to investigate Deportivo La Coruna’s 4-0 La Liga victory at Levante on April 13, radio station Cadena Ser is reporting.

At half-time in the game, Levante midfielder Javier Barkero was reported by local media to have accused some of his team mates of not trying, sparking a confrontation in the dressing room.

“I have asked for forgiveness from everyone and especially my four colleagues whom I have wrongly accused,” Barkero told a news conference on Wednesday.

“I was wrong. I accused them of something that hadn’t happened and I want to make that point.”

When contacted by Reuters, the LFP declined to comment on the reports saying it could be detrimental to any on-going investigations.

“Any game where there is suspicion will be investigated with all the tools available to the LFP,” an LFP spokesman said.

New LFP president Javier Tebas, who was elected to the post last month, said in a recent interview Spain needed to abandon a culture of “anything goes” that meant some clubs under pressure to avoid relegation were bribing their opponents to take it easy.

“We have to take a step further in denouncing something that is happening, in isolation, but it is taking place,” he told Marca last month.

“This must be ended and the clubs are in agreement with me.”

Bale out fund?

Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas says he has received assurances that Gareth Bale’s future is not dependent on a top-four finish.

A week ago, news that the Welsh international would stay at Spurs provided they qualified for next season’s Champions League, was revealed to the press by of all people, Villas-Boas. Now, though, the Portuguese says he was misinformed and that Bale is not going anywhere.

“The information I have from the club that was mistakenly written about last week is that the player will remain here irrespective of Champions League qualification being achieved or not,” Villas-Boas told reporters at Tottenham’s training ground on Thursday.

“This is the information I shared with you all of the season. The more rewards, the more recognition the player has, the more media attention, but this club can only move forward by keeping hold of its players and next season for Tottenham, Gareth can be even more assertive.

“I would be extremely surprised (if he left this summer), but in football anything can happen. It is impossible to predict. This is the assurance I have from the club.”

“Whatever the price tag the player has doesn’t matter to us because he is our player,” added Villas-Boas.

“He’s a player we have to keep hold of for the remaining seasons to make sure we are to achieve our objectives.”

Bale’s value was highlighted on Thursday when he was named England’s Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association. The 23-year-old Wales international adds the writers’ prize to the Professional Footballers’ Association award and Young Players award he collected last week.

Bale, who took 53% of the votes, said: “It is a huge honour to receive the Footballer of the Year award from the Football Writers’ Association.

“It means a lot to win this award when you consider the number of players that have been outstanding for their clubs in the Barclays Premier League this season.”

One such player, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, whose chances of winning were looking good until he went off piste by biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. The Uruguayan collected a solitary vote, presumably from the person who edits the official Liverpool match day programme.

Team spirit

Pirin Gotse Delchev’s goalkeeper Abdi Abdikov has apologised after being handed a four-match ban by the Bulgarian FA for hitting a team-mate during a league match.

The 29-year-old was sent off for striking defender Atanas Fidanin midway through the first half of a 5-1 defeat at Cherno More Varna on Sunday, the incident apparently caused by a row over who was to blame for conceding a goal.

“I accept the punishment,” said Abdikov, who was also fined 1,000 levs (£430) by a disciplinary commission.

“I fully realise my mistake and I want to apologise to our fans and people that witnessed this ugly scene.

“I demanded an explanation from Nasko (Atanas), he replied loudly and I just could not resist…”

Fidanin said he had accepted his team-mate’s apology.

“There was a tension between me and Abdi after the first Cherno More goal as he thought it was my fault,” said Fidanin.

“There were some sparks and he hit me, that was it. He apologised, we shook hands and now we’re going forward.”

Goal of the day

Edward Wilson scores an incredible solo goal goal for Semen during their AFC Cup match against Churchill Brothers.

Quote of the day

“If City want to [sign Fernandinho], the clause is €50 million [£42.3m]. If our players receive offers from teams higher than Shakhtar, we do everything possible to help them. Currently, I think Manchester City are not at our level.”

Shakhtar Donetsk coach Mircea Lucescu plays down speculation about Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho joining Manchester City, by suggesting that last season’s Premier League champions are not at the same level as their Ukrainian counterpart.

Life is cheap

According to reports from Colombia, the aunt of Milan defender Cristian Zapata has been kidnapped by armed men in the country.

Local authorities indicate that Limbania Zapata was kidnapped in Padilla, which is located in the Cauca region.

There are no leads as to why the 36-year-old was taken, but given his profession one possible motive would be to secure a ransom payout from the Rossoneri player.

There is a history of cases where relatives of famous footballers have been kidnapped in South America, as the mother of Milan forward Robinho was taken at gunpoint and held captive for a month in Brazil in 2004.

Four years ago, Stoke’s Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios’ brother was taken and later found murdered.

Edwin Palacios was just 15 when he was abducted in Honduras and elder brother Wilson paid the ransom demanded, but his body was found by police two years after he was originally taken..

In Colombia there is even a radio show called Heartbreak Hours, where families of kidnap victims record messages for their relatives – such is the extent of the problem in the nation.

Finally…

Players and officials at Swedish soccer club AIK were in shock following the unexpected death of goalkeeper Ivan Turina at the age of 32.

“It is with great sorrow and shock that we can confirm that goalkeeper Ivan Turina passed away on the night between Wednesday and Thursday,” the club said in a statement.

“Ivan died suddenly in his sleep and at the moment no crime is suspected.”

Turina was known to have a congenital heart problem which he told the club about when he signed for them in 2010.

“We knew that he had a congenital heart problem but he was completely healthy,” AIK chairman Johan Segui told Expressen.

Striker Henok Goitom, who lived next door to Turina, said he had been summoned by the family. “His wife’s mother rang hysterically on my doorbell,” he told reporters.

“Yesterday was an ordinary day. Today, Ivan is dead,” he said. “It’s a shock. The AIK supporters loved him. It’s a slap in the face for everyone but we are united as a group and we’re trying to help everyone in AIK and his family.”

Turina’s wife is expecting the couple’s third child.

Fans travelled to Karlberg to lay scarves and flowers in recognition of the keeper, who had recently extended his contract with the club to 2016.

Turina played 89 competitive matches for the club, keeping 35 clean sheets, and he won a single cap for Croatia when he played against Hong Kong in 2006.

 

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