City's deserved success, Rodgers' achievements, more
Manchester City’s final day was about not screwing things up, which, inevitably, might have made it anticlimactic to some. But that’s not what matters. Nor do the statistical nuggets -- they were top for only 15 days! -- mean anything. What counts is that this was the best team in the Premier League in 2013-14. You can go back and cite points Liverpool threw away -- to a second-string Chelsea at Anfield and in the Crystal Palace debacle -- but if you start getting into that, then you’d need to bring up points City probably earned but left on the table -- at Aston Villa, Cardiff and Chelsea -- and the process would never end. The best team won, and the fact they are also the best resourced doesn’t diminish the achievement. The history of the European game is littered with wealthier teams buying better players and paying them more money than the opposition. Is there really that much more merit in outspending most because, often by an accident of geography and demographics, you’re a bigger club from a bigger city with more fans, than there is in outspending most because a wealthy Sheikh pours money into a team? Not really. Mansour’s millions might have made it easier for Manuel Pellegrini, but he still managed to win playing some of the best football in the Premier League (along with Liverpool and Everton), while scoring more than a hundred goals. He did it at the age of 60, having never played or worked in England, which -- history shows -- is almost unprecedented. He did it despite losing his starting centre-back, Matija Nastasic, for two-thirds of the campaign and replacing him with a 33-year-old whom many had written off and whose early performances suggested he deserved it in Martin Demichelis. He did it with one of his two best players, Sergio Aguero, making just 20 Premier League starts. He did it while navigating a difficult stint for his starting goalkeeper, Joe Hart, which ended in his benching for nearly two months. A foreigner ditching England’s No. 1 for seven games in a World Cup year? That's not an easy nor a straight-forward decision, and it's prone to controversy and crucifixion by the nation's press. And yet it went off without a hitch and Hart actually came back better than before. He did it without the “creative tension” experienced (some might say caused) by his predecessor, Roberto Mancini. It’s fashionable to blame Mancini for everything now that he’s gone and his successor won the title. It’s also wildly inaccurate. Mancini helped forge a winning mentality that wasn’t there before. But it’s equally true that City under Pellegrini were a far more harmonious bunch and if trouble arose, it was dealt with behind closed doors. And that’s down to the manager and the support he got from the club. Would Pellegrini’s feat have been more impressive if he had won the league with, say, Everton? Of course. But he was managing City. And he did a darn fine job. Liverpool's transformation Liverpool’s last few weeks may have been gut-wrenching for their fans but now that it’s over, it’s worth reflecting on just what happened this season ... and getting excited for what’s to come. Brendan Rodgers’ crew notched a year-on-year improvement of 30 goals, 23 points and five league places. And this after a summer in which their best player stopped just short of asking for a move. Of the 11 Liverpool players who played the most minutes this season, just one -- Simon Mignolet -- was a new addition. This, more than anything, suggests the jump in performance wasn’t fueled by transfer activity but rather simply Rodgers getting his players to improve and tweaking the system to get the best out of them. Rodgers has been criticised by some for being too attacking and neglecting the defensive aspect of the game. You can obviously always improve -- and his task will be to do just that -- but there also is such a thing as a philosophy. If you choose to try to outscore the opposition, if you elect to play a certain way, you will likely be more exposed at the back. It's as simple as that. Rodgers made his choice and it got the club to within two points of the Premier League title. The other obvious area of improvement is transfers. More than $20 million was spent on Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, who combined for five starts, 527 minutes and no goals. It’s not that these guys are necessarily bad players, it’s just that devoting such resources on players who don’t contribute and don’t look to figure in the manager's plan for the future is a poor use of funds. Whether that’s down to Rodgers or issues with the “transfer committee” not working the way it should is something the club needs to determine and address. But there’s a buzz on the red half of Merseyside not seen since the Rafa Benitez era. The resources are there to build and go to the next level. And, crucially, this side is less dependent on Luis Suarez than it appeared to be. Redemption in Spain La Liga could not be set up for a better cliffhanger next Saturday. Atletico Madrid play Barcelona, first vs. second, and it’s pretty simple. If Barca win, they’re champions. If they don’t, Diego Simeone makes history 18 years after the last Liga crown for Atletico. At this stage, nerves play a huge part. And you wonder who’s in better shape. Barcelona have endured a veritable annus horribilis. After the recent 2-2 home draw with Getafe, one Catalan newspaper stated, “This team is done. This manager is done.” It looked that way when you go through the litany of issues Tata Martino has had to contend with. From Sandro Rosell’s resignation to the FIFA transfer ban to Lionel Messi’s injury, plus all the hiccups on the pitch, it has been anything but smooth sailing. And yet the media could not have been more wrong. Barcelona control their own destiny and have been afforded a chance to avenge the Champions League quarterfinal defeat. They haven’t beaten Atletico in five attempts this season. Their last chance may end up being the most meaningful. I’m sort of reminded of that scene in "Pulp Fiction" where the drug dealer unloads his revolver at Samuel L. Jackson and miraculously, he’s unscathed. He treats it as some kind of sign from above and decides to live every day as a gift, a chance to repent and repair previous mistakes. Atletico will have a do-over of their own at the Camp Nou. They had the chance to seal La Liga at home against Malaga on Saturday but ran into one Willy Caballero. Part octopus, part rubber wall, the Argentine keeper saved everything in sight in what turned out to be the kind of game that leads you to conclude that the gods are conspiring against you. Simeone will have to exorcise that notion in double-quick time. And he’ll have to do it knowing that lurking in the back of his players’ minds is the big one: May 24 in Lisbon against Real Madrid in the Champions League final. You can trot out the line about “writing your own script,” about “taking it one day at a time” or any other coaching cliche you care to mention. The reality is that most of these players will have heard it all before. That’s where Simeone will be stretched: finding a way to settle the nerves, banish the doubts, cast out the demons and cement the focus. He’s done it all season. He’ll need to do it for another 90 minutes -- and then another 90 (and possible extra time and penalties) in Lisbon. Paying tribute to Il Capitano Nineteen seasons, 857 games. Those numbers would be freakish enough. Chuck in a few more wrinkles and they become surreal. Like the fact the streak began when Javier Zanetti was 22. Or that, until the eve of his 32nd birthday, he’d won very little: the 1998 UEFA Cup, the Pan American games (yes, really) and some runner-up medals (in the Copa America, Olympics and Confederations Cup) of the kind that are so heartbreaking, you’d rather not win them. Or that, between the ages of 30 and 39 -- that decade when the vast majority of footballers feel time’s winged chariot drawing near and pack it in -- he appeared in more than 91 percent of Inter’s league games. (For the purposes of comparison, the equally extraordinary Ryan Giggs managed to appear in 68 percent of Manchester United's fixtures over that period, with many more as a substitute.) Or that he popped up at right-back, left-back, holding midfield, wide midfield, box-to-box midfield ... wherever required and always with the same trademark consistency. Or that only 17 men have more than the number of international caps Zanetti's amassed, this despite the fact Jose Pekerman figured Lionel Scaloni (!) would be a better bet in 2006 and Diego Maradona decided Zanetti wasn’t worth picking for the 2010 World Cup, despite the treble he had won a few weeks earlier. Or that -- and this may be the most incredible part -- he achieved his mark, with all the consistency and stability it implies, at Inter, the club that for the past two decades has come to epitomise the term "basket case." Given the advances in sports science, it’s entirely possible that somebody will come and provide 19 years of sterling service to a club. And maybe they’ll play better than he did, maybe they’ll play more games and maybe they’ll have even better hair (though I doubt it). But there will never be another Javier Zanetti. Nobody will do all that while matching the package of his achievements on the pitch and his class, dignity and tireless work for myriad charitable foundations off it. Preparing for Lisbon Anybody who thought Carlo Ancelotti was lying when he announced last week that they were out of the running for La Liga must have been convinced when they saw Saturday’s lineup. No Gareth Bale, no Karim Benzema, no Angel Di Maria, no Pepe and no Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s what you call taking your lumps and living to fight another day. And that is what happened. Madrid weren’t horrible away to Celta Vigo -- both goals conceded came on individual errors by Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso -- but it was obvious the attention was on Lisbon. Get that one right and all will be forgiven -- even the fact Ancelotti is on the verge of leading the club to third place, their lowest Liga finish in a decade. French worry There was terror all around in Lille after seeing Marvin Martins’ horrifying tackle on Yohan Cabaye. It looked to most as if Cabaye’s summer plans were shot. The next day brought good news; despite bad swelling, PSG manager Laurent Blanc explained the injury was “not serious." It’s a huge relief to France boss Didier Deschamps. Cabaye may not be a top-drawer superstar but he’s set to play a key role in the French midfield, shepherding the precocious talents of Paul Pogba. Racism in Italy The parallels in the fan who threw a banana in the direction of Kevin Constant during Milan’s 2-1 defeat at Atalanta on Sunday with the Villarreal fan who threw one at Dani Alves two weeks ago are inescapable. “I’d like to throw fruit at the guy who did it,” said Atalanta coach Stefano Colantuono. “Except I’d crack a big coconut on his head.” Atalanta will likely face the usual punishment meted out in these circumstances: a fine and the closure of the stand where the abuse occurred (in this case, from where the banana was thrown). The problem is that these sanctions were designed to deal with sections populated by Ultras or hard-core supporters. They’ve been the likeliest to misbehave and it was thought that punishing the entire section would provide a deterrent (and, in many cases, it has worked). Except in this case, Atalanta’s Ultras are not involved. Which isn’t, in itself, surprising. They have a reputation for enjoying a fight, but have never been tarnished with any sort of accusation of racist abuse. No, the banana-thrower came from one of the main stands, where the rank-and-file “average” supporter sits. That means that he won’t be covered by the usual, insufferable “no snitching” code that sometimes exists among Ultras. That means there are plenty of people who ought to be able to identify him. And, beyond whatever punishment the authorities dish out, that must be the priority for Atalanta: finding the guy and banning him. Not coming out, as general manager Pierpaolo Marino did, and pointing out that “It was one idiot out of 20,000.” Yeah, we get it. It was one guy. The Ultras aren’t involved. But that doesn’t mean you don’t go after him and nail him to the wall (figuratively, of course) in the roughest way possible. Chaos at Zenit Andre Villas-Boas may wish he was back in North London. On Sunday, his Zenit side had a chance to leapfrog CSKA Moscow and open up a two-point lead at the top of the Russian league table going into the final day of the season. Instead, they fell at home 4-2 against Dynamo. And, to make matters worse, Zenit’s supporters thought it would be a good idea to invade the pitch and attack the opposition players. Expect a points deduction at this stage. Anything else -- anything that would leave Zenit, one point behind CSKA, with a chance of winning the title -- would be an absolute travesty.