Sunday’s game against Wolves was, without question, a difficult watch. Wolves had reversed a number of buses onto the pitch and we struggled to find a way to get the ball in between those buses, all the way through to injury time and a magnificent piece of improvised bus-avoidance courtesy of Eden Hazard.
And even though any kind of equaliser in injury-time – even a scuff-in, let alone a surgically precise strike between the buses and into the bottom corner from just outside the penalty area – will have its redemptive qualities, there was still a sense of frustration, walking away; a strong, and irritating sense that the buses had, in effect, won by depriving us of those two potentially vital points.
Incidentally, I’m not taking anything away from Wolves for parking their buses. Why shouldn’t they? This, too, is football. And I’m certainly not belittling the tactic. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to park a bus, but there’s a considerable amount of technique involved. Those things are large. You’ve got to know what you’re doing with your mirrors and you’ve got to have the confidence to trust your judgment in the blind spots. All credit to people who can successfully park buses.
It was also somehow inevitable, after a certain amount of unsuccessfully battering away at the parked buses on our part, that Wolves would eventually use one of those buses to drive up the other end in a hurry and score a goal with pretty much their only journey into our half for the entire game. And, again, all credit to them for that: they made, and took, the one chance they were looking for.
Ah well. Thanks to Hazard, something, at least, was saved. And because Manchester United lost and Spurs’ top-four challenge continued to leak air like a punctured bike tyre, it still leaves us strongly positioned for fourth place, courtesy of our game in hand.
In the meantime, it’s back to the Europa League and this evening’s early second-leg against Dynamo Kiev, which takes place in one area of the continent where the 5.55pm kick-off makes some kind of sense, because it will be virtually a standard 8.00pm start time there. The rest of us, of course, will just have to hurry home as best we can.
It should be worth it, though. For one thing, we hold a fairly convincing 3-0 lead after that well-judged performance in the first leg at the Bridge. This will make it unwise, to say the least, for Dynamo to content themselves with parking a fleet of buses, Wolves-style. On the contrary, they need to find four goals from somewhere, while not conceding, which should, at the very least, stretch the game into some interesting and very un-bus-like shapes along the way. And consequently, we will, without undue complacency (and even though football can be a surprising game sometimes, such as last Sunday) be expecting to go through to the quarter-finals.
Another reason it will be worth it is that there’s no doubting where the quality European football is being played this season, and where the real action is being witnessed, and it’s not in the Champions League, where some of the strongest sides (Real Madrid, PSG) have suffered ignominious and startlingly early exits.
Really the low-tide mark was reached this week with Manchester City’s 7-0 hammering of Schalke, making 10-2 on aggregate, the kind of lopsided encounter that can only bring Europe’s supposedly top-tier contest into contempt. Clearly there is no disgrace in losing 6-0 to City over the course of 90 minutes. It’s the kind of mishap that can happen to the best of teams on the wrong day. Losing 7-0 to them, though… well, that’s just plain embarrassing. Schalke should hang their heads in shame – or rather, the organisers should hang their heads in shame for presiding over a competition so patently misjudged that it could throw up such a non-competitive mismatch at this stage in the proceedings. The Europa League, by contrast, continues to demonstrate a firm commitment to quality football, to the utmost of its ability to do so.
On a related matter, it was excellent to see the players being met at the airport yesterday by a reception party in Ukrainian national dress, offering the traditional Slavic welcome of a loaf of bread and some salt. One remembers Gareth Southgate receiving the bread and salt in this way last summer when England arrived at their World Cup base in Repino, so, in many ways, this might have been the least we expected.
Even so, that was a thoughtful touch. And while we’re on the subject: do we put on anything equivalent when teams arrive in this country for their Europa League away legs? Did we do anything for Dynamo Kiev this time last week? Does someone hit the tarmac at Heathrow wearing Union Jack boxer shorts and holding a plate of cheese and pickle sandwiches? If we don’t, then the Slavic countries are once again very much pointing the way here, hospitality-wise, and we should explore options for the future.
Let’s get this tie out of the way first, though.