Let's begin with yesterday, shall we? Yesterday, April 18th, Chelsea F.C. did something that many people considered to be completely unthinkable just hours before: they defeated Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League Semifinals, 1-0 thanks to an incredible run of play between Frank Lampard, Ramires, and Didier Drogba. I could probably spend about 2,000 word describing how great and intense this match was, but that'd be foolish when you can just check it out for yourself:
Now, with those incredible highlights fresh in your head, let's move on to the bigger issue at hand: as Newcastle fans, who on earth are we rooting for here? Some analysis and commentary on this debate after the jump.
We've discussed this issue before. OSotP ended his wonderful Champions League primer with the order: "You are now all Barcelona fans until further notice." While I'll begrudgingly admit that I was simply being stubborn, cantankerous, and uselessly contrarian in my analysis in the comments of that post (I like to think I was simply character acting the role of Skip Bayless), there is one issue that we discussed which is still rattling in my brain: who should fans of the Toon Army root for in the final stages of Champions League play?
When it comes to European qualifying purposes, the answer should be simple: "anyone but Chelsea." I think there some deeper issues at play though, some of them still mildy uncomfortable to talk about given the gradual globalization of soccer and the disgusting racial undertones that we've been experiencing in football the last few months. I'll get into that eventually, but first, I'd like to present a quick primer on the run of play in this incredible Champions League campaign. I'm going to come at this from a Premier League focus, as that is, obviously, the league in which NUFC plays.
Some History: "The End of English Football!" and Other Doomsday Scenarios
A quick note on why any of this is a big deal. Fans of the English Premier League, like ourselves, love to make bombastic claims about the fact that the EPL is easily the best soccer table in the world. I firmly believe this fact is true, but in order to back up such claims, a good showing in the Champions League is paramount. Usually, English fans could rest on the laurels of ManU, Liverpool, and Arsenal to show up and at least make the semis, which would constitute a "respectable" showing. During the 2009-10 Champions League, however, England failed to send a single team to the Semifinals, with Baryen Munich defeating Manchester United 4-4 on away goals, and Barcelona slamming Arsenal with a 6-3 aggregate in the Quarterfinals. The British press, and even ESPN, understandably lost their shit, as the evil empires of Germany, Italy, and Spain were now encroaching mightily on what was once sovereign British ground (if you're missing the 600 years of bitter historical undertones evident in all this, you should have paid better attention in World History).
Last year, thankfully, Manchester United took the English mantle all the way the final, but Sir Alex's side was absolutely crushed by a vastly superior Barcelona team. Again, the English and American media had a minor freak out, as Barcelona had built a team that looked so amazingly untouchable, any trace of English supremacy in the footballing world appeared to be rapidly falling away. The scene at Wembly was one of utter disappointment for many fans, even those who usually loathe and despise Manchester United (like myself). If you somehow missed the amazing match, check it out below. It serves as a wonderful metaphor for the way the Spanish side has taken over the game, and the lilt in the commentators's voices at the end, much as they try to hide it, seems to be indicative of deep and utter shame at Manchester United's performance (either that... or I'm projecting really hard).
Champions League Final 2011, 3-1 Barcelona vs Manchester United (via djmmair)
The 2011-12 UEFA Champions League: A Further Campaign in English Futility
Crashing Out: A term used to describe a team who expected to perform well disappointing fans by completely dropping the ball and embarrassing their entire country in the process.
The 2010-11 Premier League season sent four teams to the Champions League, as per England's current UEFA Coefficient: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal. By virtue of finishing 4th, Arsenal entered this year's Champions League in the Playoff Stage (the final knock-out round before the group stages), where they defeated Udinese 3-1 on aggregate, by virtue of a 1-0 win at Emirates and an impressive 2-1 victory Stadia Friuli. So, four English teams were represented in the 32 team group stage. Even more impressive for England, three English teams were seeded in Pot 1 of the draw (ManU, Arsenal, and Chelsea), and Manchester City made it into Pot 3.
In the group stages, the Manchurians completely and totally "crashed out." While the were dominating the league domestically, their Champions League performances lacked any of the luster and austere that they had come to command in England. City's exit was somewhat respectable, to usual powerhouses Bayern Munich of Germany and the incredibly talented and entertaining Napoli from Italy's Serie A. Man United's showing was much less explainable, having been pushed out of the Champions League by Benfica of Portugal and Basel of Switzerland... yes, the pride of English football got bested by the Swiss... nice. By virtue of finishing 3rd in their respective brackets, the Manchurians bumped down into the Europa League, where Fulham, Birmingham City, and Tottenham Hotspur had already been eliminated... great. While City and ManU were able to escape from the round of 32, they were knocked out of the round of 16 by Sporting and Athletic Bilabo respectively. No English teams remain in Europa.
Chelsea F.C.: The Last Hope
Arsenal and Chelsea fared much better in Champions League, with both winning their groups. Both the Blues and the Gunners found themselves up against Italian sides representing Serie A, almost as though the Italians were serving as the gate-keepers to the real opponents: the sleeked up powerhouses of Real Madrid and Barcelona from La Liga. The five major leagues were well represented in the Round of 16, with four providing two competitors, and the Italians sending three (Napoli, Milan, and Inter). It appeared to most to be a foregone conclusion that Real Madrid and Barcelona were the favorites, and the Spaniards definitely made short work of their opposition to the Semifinals, where they find themselves now.
For the English, Arsenal were not able to best a quick and hungry Milan side, though, and were knocked out in the first round. That left Chelsea as the sole representative of the English Premiership in the top flight of European competition. In the first round, Chelsea pulled off an absolute miracle win (seriously, the stuff of which legends are made) against Napoli, who had bested ManCity in the Group Stage. The Azzurri went up 3-1 at home, with Chelsea scoring an away goal, but being completely and totally defeated otherwise at Stadio San Palo on February 21st. By March 4th, Andre Villas-Boas had been sacked, Chelsea were struggling on the table, and everything looked like it was about to implode at Stamford Bridge. Then, on March 14th, under new manager Robert Di Matteo, this happened:
And the reaction by two lads who, dare I say, are quite famous. The undertones of this video ("the big two..." basically sum up everything I've been saying up to this point).
"And England is still alive in this competition"... 'nuff said.
In the next round, Chelsea made relatively short work of Benfica (who had bested ManU in the Group Stage), winning both games, and moving to the Semifinals with a 3-1 aggregate. They now find themselves 1-0 up on Barcelona before the away fixture at Camp Nou on Tuesday at 1:45 P.M. Central Time in the States. How Newcastle fans approach this fixture is an interesting debate indeed.
The Case Against Chelsea
As I've said, the case against rooting for Chelsea is incredibly simple. Currently, England will send the top four squads in it's table to the 2012-13 Champions League next year. Currently, Chelsea sit in sixth place, which would only warrant them a trip to the Europa League thanks to the FA Cup Final (in which, ohbytheway, Chelsea is also featuring). Newcastle sit in 5th Place, which is automatic qualification to Europa, but are tied on points (59) with 4th place Tottenham, who sit in the final Champions League spot. Should Chelsea win the Champions League, they earn an automatic berth back into the Group Stage, and England is only allowed four spots. Since Chelsea could very easily finish outside the top four, that will bump all the qualification places up a spot on the table. If that happens, Newcastle could feasibly finish 4th and still only make the Europa League, which would be insanely frustrating to an already tortured fan base.
One might couple this incredibly objective rationale for rooting against Chelsea with their own backgrounds when it comes to soccer and allegiances. As we've discussed here, our relatively tight-knit group at CHN comes from a VAST array of backgrounds and sporting preference. Many of the fans of NUFC here are American, so the appeal to a sense of archaic English nationalism falls pretty flat. Likewise, while most American fans seem to gravitate towards the English Premier League due to the limited language and culture gap, fandom in the other major leagues is certainly widespread, and the nationalistic ideals imbedded in many European fans is absent from the removed fanbase. All that said, I think all of us here at CHN are pretty damn committed members of the Toon Army, so where we fall on this issue is certainly an interesting divide.
The Case for Chelsea
I will be rooting for Chelsea to vanquish the evil that is Barcelona and defeat either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the finals. I'll admit that I'd get a particularly giddy satisfaction from watching an English Champion crush the double-headed Spanish Dragon on German soil (the final is in Munich). My reasons are simple:
- My favorite league in the world is the English Premiership. I think it is the best league in the world, and that the champions it sends to European competition have a duty to represent the league well. I think that when it comes to international club competition, one should be rooting for the clubs of their league above all others.
- Chelsea, as despicable as they may be domestically, have had one hell of a run, and they've done it all with the Premier League patch on their sleeves. I think that after all that happened with AVB and the failed "project," it'd be great to see them reach some success, even if their table performance has been less than stellar.
- Newcastle has the chance to finish above the winner of the Champions League on the table... that's pretty cool.
- Third Place, while wishful, is not out of the question. Even then, I still have my hesitations about Newcastle playing in the Champions League next year, as I think Europa is a competition better suited for our current situation.
- From a (very) practical standpoint, NUFC still has a vitally important game remaining against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on May 2nd. Chelsea will already be looking towards the FA Cup Final against Liverpool three days later on May 5th, and a looming Champions League Final a few weeks later on May 19th might serve as all the distractions they'll need for Newcastle to sweep in and net three road points during the #StretchofDoomII