Through to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, for the first time ever. Thursday’s 1-0 loss in St. Petersburg was a “happy” loss for Udinese, as Pasquale Marino’s boys achieved a club milestone by beating current champions FC Zenit 2-1 on aggregate, and qualifying for the last 8 of Europe’s “lesser” competition.
If one wanted to push a “schoolyard logic” here, we could say that Zenit beat Man Utd (Super Cup), Udinese beat Zenit, and that therefore Udinese > Man Utd. Ah to be 8 years old again… The Italian 2008-09 adventure in Europe is not looking so grim after all.
The Italian disaster-fest that was the UEFA Champions League this year will not be easily forgotten, but at least there is one team giving us consolation and keeping the peninsula’s pride elevated (to moderate heights at least) as they mantain their presence in Europe’s second-choice cup: the UEFA (soon-to-be Europa) Cup.
With this win, the Bianconeri have demonstrated that their darkest days are finally behind them and to sweeten the deal even further, Udinese’s opponents Thursday night were none other than 2007 Russian Premier League and 2008 UEFA Cup Winners Zenit St. Petersburg, the very same team which not even five months ago was battling it out against Real Madrid and Juventus in the UCL.
Claudio Ranieri had warned Zenit he wasn’t planning to fold today and that Champions League matches are never considered “friendly”, with or without the mathematical certainty of qualification. And that is why Juve’s manager sent his boys to play offensive football in Russia, keeping squad rotation to a minimum and concentration at its fullest.
If Wednesday’s match was to prove Juventus had “digested” (Ranieri’s words) their 1-0 loss to Inter this week-end, I’d say “mission accomplished”. Only partly however, because the Bianconeri were also determined to put the first place of Group H on ice, something which after their 0-0 draw today (and Real Madrid’s concurrent win vs. Bate Borisov) will unfortunately have to wait until matchday 6.
Ladies & gentlemen, it was destiny. Almost three years after their last Champions League appearance, Juventus’s return to the top European competition could only have born the captain’s signature. In a moment of free-kick magic, Alessandro Del Piero delivered the victory to the Stadio Olimpico crowd, a magistral (“magistral”? Look at me, I’m talking like Ray Hudson now) execution that fooled the Zenit keeper and rocketed the ball into the back of the net. Europa, siamo tornati!!!
(From Gazzetta): Juventus grabbed their first points of the 2008-09 UCL season Wednesday, and can thank captain Alessandro Del Piero for it. A well-earned result in a hard-fought match which, considering Real Madrid‘s presence inside the group, makes the win all the more important.
The difference tonight was made by a moment of brilliance, that of the Bianconeri’s most charismatic player: Il Capitano. A moment which, in the light of today’s performance, was just as precious as Gigi Buffon’s saves with the score still tied. Juve did not radiate brilliance in this match, far from it, but against a very tough opponent (which after their UEFA Cup triumph rose way up to the new UCL challenge) Ranieri’s men nonetheless confirmed their thirst for victory, even if they did not play exceptionally well. After all, winning through mediocrity (not that Juve deserve that appellation) is one of the main qualities great teams are made of.
Depending on whether you’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of guy, you might want to look at Juventus’ first half as either positively (intermittent bits of good play) or negatively (not a very convincing display overall). Zenit’s three-man attacking formation forced the Bianconeri wing-backs to limit their movements forward, thus disabling the wing support for Camoranesi and Nedved. Meanwhile Sissoko and Poulsen provided plenty of interdiction quality in the middle (equaled in that regard by Anatoliy Tymoschuk), but were struggling in terms of playmaking. That part was left to Del Piero, thus forcing the Juve captain to backtrack from his forward position as a result.
There was only so much ADP could do though: he couldn’t launch a pass, make the run, and then be there to receive it at the other end. Not with David Trezeguet constantly being harassed by the two Zenit center-backs, and unable to provide a wall pass. On the other end, Zenit certainly hadn’t come to Turin as mere spectators: well set-up by a Denisov-Arshavin (seemingly “pardoned” and returning from bench-exile) combination, €30m-man Danny Alves missed an almost certain goal in front of Buffon, who watched the ball slip inches wide of the post from 12 yards out.
Thus inevitably, the first half ended on a (fair) 0-0 scoreline, also because whatever little sparks of light Juve produced (such as Del Piero’s double cross for Trezeguet and Camoranesi, wide on both headed counts) were inevitably silenced by the Italo-Argentine’s injury (and forced replacement) at the half hour mark. Especially since Ranieri didn’t feel like playing the Iaquinta card this time, deciding to go for the more balanced (read: defensive) Hasan Salihamidzic.
In the second period however, the match finally started to pick up pace. Not right away, although Radek Šírl‘s 11th minute one-on-one with Buffon (with a big suspicion of offside) definitely provided some scares for the Juve faithful (Gigi was brilliant in his off-the-line rush anyways). 15 minutes later, the Bianconeri had their biggest chance yet when a Nedved set-piece was deflected toward the post by Christian Poulsen. Vyacheslav Malafeev showed off his reflexes between the posts and parried away.
Poulsen’s chance was however a prelude to the goal, a brilliant moment of set-piece magic by Alessandro Del Piero. 30 metres out and quite a few yards to the left, the Juve captain donned his magic free-kick boots and applied (with a little inspiration from Juninho/Pirlo/C.Ronaldo) a fantastic swerve-to-the-left-then-swerve-to-the-right trajectory to his shot. Malafeev was surprised, and the entire Stadio Olimpico erupted in joy at the ball hit the inside of the goal mesh, ending a two-year European goalscoring drought for Juventus. 1-0 in big effing style. The Old Lady is back Europe!
Zenit St. Petersburg is the first Russian team to lift the European Super Cup. At the Stade Louis II of Monaco, the winners of last year’s UEFA Cup beat the European Champions Manchester United by 2-1, and it was a result thoroughly deserved by Dick Advocaat’s team. Only at the very end did the Russians have to deal with a Red Devil come-back, but it was too little too late for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Nine years after their defeat by Lazio, the UEFA Super Cup experience is once again a bitter one for the Mancunian manager: at least for now, Sir Alex will not go down in history as the first manager to win this trophy three times.
AN EUROPEAN REALITY – Claudio Ranieri & Juventus certainly did not need Friday’s match to find out just how dangerous FC Zenit can be. Already last season the UEFA Cup route of Advocaat’s boys had been impressive, and one only needs to remember the timeline from the month of May: Bayern humiliated in the semifinals, Rangers outclassed in the final match. 4-0, 2-0, give me the trophy and thank you very much.
And don’t be deceived by their misleading position in the Russian championship table (after 19 rounds, Zenit is currently 6th, 11 points behind leaders Rubin Kazan): that’s due to a few mismanagement issues off the field (the Andrei Arshavin case ring a bell?) and to the fact the Russian league has at least a dozen of competitive teams. Euro 2008 serves as further evidence to a more and more obvious reality: Russian football is slowly but surely getting up there with the best.
BLEAK MAN UTD – Was it because they were missing Cristiano Ronaldo? Or because the Premier League only just started and form isn’t optimal? Or maybe because Advocaat wanted a fast and aggressive game? The fact of the matter is that Manchester United were something of a shambles in the first half. Wayne Rooney (just recovering from a virus) was slow, and wasted the only good chance constructed by Carlos Tevez (who in contrast seemed like a pixie on crack, running around everywhere trying to create something). Nani only caused confusion, while Fletcher, Anderson and Scholes struggled to keep up with the pace set by Denisov, Tymoschuk and Zyrianov in midfield.
Frankly, United had Ferdinand and Vidic to thank in the first half, becase the tearaways Danny, Dominguez and Pogrebnyak would have really fired up the party in the Mancunian box. The obvious strength of this Zenit side is their right flank, as Aleksandr Anyukov (remember his runs during Euro 2008?) constantly created overlaps, providing one cross after the other. Patrice Evra was lost at sea, while the returning Gary Neville was only slightly better on the other side.
PAVEL’S REVENGE – Just as United were looking forward to the 15-min. half-time break to sort themselves out, bang: corner kick from Dominguez, flicked on by Denisov at the near post for Pavel Pogrebnyak. Powerful header into the back of the net, and 1-0 Zenit. Also nice to see (unless you were an United fan of course) the goal had been scored by the very same player forced to miss, firstly the UEFA Cup final (after a silly yellow card in the already-won semifinal), and then Euro 2008 (this time through injury).
In the second period, it was time for Andrei Arshavin to make his appearance. Why did he not start, you ask? This seems to be the management-approved Advocaat technique to “punish” the player with bench-time (sometimes stands-time), given his desire to leave the club. Not that FC Zenit were doing badly without him: it was only a few minutes until the score doubled.
At the heart of the action, Arshavin started it up and Portuguese midfielder Danny (full name: Daniel Miguel Alves Gomes) took the stage. Just acquired from Dinamo Moskow for €30m (the most expensive transfer in Russian history), the new St. Petersburg recruit produce a lovely solo run and even better finish, making a fool out of Ferdinand in the process and helping to justify his transfer fee. 2-0 Zenit.
The match seemed over, but the heart of Champions League winners should never be underestimated. Tevez sounded the charge, and the introduction of Park and O’Shea changed the game, facilitating the first United goal just before the 75th: a cross from Rooney was re-directed by Tevez towards Nemanja Vidic, who found the right angle. 2-1.
There was time for a final Red Devil assault, who gave it everything they had. A bit too much in fact: Paul Scholes did manage to put the ball in the net, but did so in pure Maradonesque Hand-of-God style: second booking of the night and early shower. His teammates would join him soon after however, as the match came to an end and kick-started the Russian celebrations.