All posts by Tim Simon

Paul Lambert – Dortmund’s secret weapon

In case you thought Borussia Dortmund are intruders to the Champions League crème de la crème, think again. The recently-dethroned Bundesliga champions were the winners of the 5th edition of the UEFA Champions League 16 years ago. And guess where they trounced Juventus 3-1?

You guessed it, Munich. It will tickle EPL fans, and those Aston Villa fans among them in particular, to note that none other than the bespectacled Paul Lambert supplied the cross for Dortmund’s opening goal. And the soft-spoken tactician is the one who effectively kept the artist Zinedine Zidane under lock and key throughout the 90 minutes, having been entrusted with the holding midfielder role by coach Ottmar Hitzfeld.

It is worth noting the abundance of talent that the Old Lady boasted at this time. Apart from the silky Frenchman pulling strings in midfield, his compatriot Didier Deschamps, alongside whom he would win the World Cup the following year was also part of this classy outfit. Furthermore, they had celebrated Italy strikers Christian Vieri and Alessandro del Piero to rely on for goals. Not that the Westphalians were lightweights themselves. No squad blessed with the pace, talent and endeavour of Swiss forward Stefan Chapuisat could have been called average. 

However, even amid these stars, Lambert showed his worth. And not only in the Champions League final did the then 28-year-old distinguish himself; his performance in Dortmund’s semi-final elimination of Manchester United was lauded by master midfield terrier Roy Keane. This was against a Man U that had the genius Eric Cantona in attack and a young David Beckham plying the right flank. There were standout performances all round over the two legs of Dortmund’s 2-0 triumph over the Mancunians; Mattias Sammer had Sir Alex Ferguson waxing lyrical at the end of the tie and keeper Stefan Klos ensured the Red Devils’ goal account remained Klos-ed. But the contributions of the Scot were undoubtedly a key factor in Dortmund’s 1997 success.

 

Is the French influence on the Champions League fading?

With all the talk about the shift of the European centre of gravity to Germany from Spain, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Primera Liga big guns have won nothing in Europe for decades.

But wasn’t it only two years ago that Carles Puyol lent Eric Abidal the captain’s armband in a benevolent gesture as Barcelona hoisted the UCL trophy into the sky over Wembley?  Wouldn’t it be more to the point to wonder how Les Francais seem to have been silently nudged out of Europe’s upper echelon? Think about it, when is the last time you heard of a Ligue 1 team in the UCL finals, let alone winning the ‘big ears’? It’s almost as if the football gods turned off the lights on France after the nation followed up their 1998 World Cup triumph with the Euro 2000 trophy.

Since the turn of the century a French team has appeared in the finals of the UEFA Champions League only once to date. That was almost a decade ago when a strong Monaco side captained by the diminutive Ludovic Giuly (with a green Emmanuel Adebayor looking on from the bench) succumbed to a Deco-inspired Porto 3-0. This was the Monaco that had such illustrious names as Fernando Morientes, who once formed a fearsome strike partnership with Raul for Spain and Real Madrid, and giant Croat Dado Prso. Patrice Evra had made the number 3 shirt his, and it would not be long before Sir Alex Ferguson would come in search of the full-back’s signature. But after this near miss by the principality team, France exited the European elite, stage left, leaving Italy, Spain, Germany and England to slug it out for European supremacy. 

Oh, Lyon did make it to the semi-finals of the 2009-2010 UCL, but any Frenchman with an ounce of pride would rather forget how they were hopelessly outclassed by Bayern Munich. They lost 4-0 on aggregate, suffering an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at the Stade Gerland as Ivica Olic thrice got the better of Hugo Lloris and a shambolic back four. Anyone with half an eye who watched the two legs of this tie concluded that Olympique Lyonnais had accepted their fate with the ‘meekness of lambs’. The following year no French team made it to the quarters but last year Olymqique Marseille managed to knock an Inter side still grieving the loss of Jose Mourinho out on the away goals rule en route to the quarter-finals. But then the Bavarians returned to dispense the Lyon treatment, keeping a clean sheet over the two legs while putting four past Steve Mandanda.

So where did the rain begin beating the French? When clubs from Europe’s upper crust began raiding their dressing rooms and hoovering away their top players (Pardew must be wrestling with French verb conjugations as I write this)? Or is it just a matter of the right prince (or sheikh) coming along to kiss the financially challenged clubs? Remember PSG just missed a place in the semis this year by a whisker, foiled by a hobbling Messi. Or is there a graver issue at play?     

If only Suarez would take after his predecessor

Even those who are not Liverpool fans will confess to nursing an admiration for the selfless, determined Dutchman who laboured on their right flank for six years donning the number 7 jersey that Luis Suarez seems intent on disgracing.

Dirk Kuyt, while not endowed with the sleek feet of his successor, was one of the Reds’ model professionals both on and off the field. He endeared himself to the Kop on arrival by walking up to the terraces and applauding the fans after each game. Few footie professionals are as deeply involved in charity work on a personal level as Kuyt is.

He may never have hit the prolific form that he enjoyed in Feyenoord where he scored more than 20 goals every season until he left, but his harrying of defenders and midfielders created space for attackers like Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker no doubt owed many of his 24 goals in the 2007-08 season to Dirk Kuyt’s endeavour. And that’s not to say he forgot how to score when he swapped Rotterdam for Liverpool. Though he wasn’t as prolific as during the heady Feyernoord days, Kuyt developed a habit of scoring important goals. He is the only Liverpool player who scored in the 2006-07 Champions League final though it ended in defeat for the Reds. Kuyt was a constant thorn in the flesh of the premiership’s big guns, scoring regularly against Manchester United, Chelsea and local rivals Everton.

Despite his obvious desire to stay, Liverpool decided to cash in on the 32-year-old while they still could with Turkish outfit Fenerbahce benefitting from the arguably paltry one million pound release clause in Kuyt’s contract. And as fate would have it, while Liverpool might just qualify for the Europa league next season, Kuyt has the chance to win it this year. Fener are odds on to complete the job against Benfica and make it to the Europa final where Kuyt could meet a familiar face. Chelsea, steered by Kuyt’s former manager Rafael Benitez, are similarly well-placed to make it to the final, holding a 2-1 advantage over FC Basel. While Blues fans pour scorn on the Spaniard at every opportunity, Kuyt credits him as a ‘..big influence on my career’ and ‘…one of the best managers I have ever worked with’. If things go as planned and the Turkish up-and-comers lift the Europa trophy, one hopes that Liverpool’s current number 7 will take note of how much more he can achieve if he loses the drama and gains focus. Hopefully the reported tongue-lashing Suarez’s wife gave him will work a treat.