Giles Smith: Head-down headlines
column Thu 1 Oct 2015
From portrayals of Portuguese results to a turned-on Tyneside, columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith mulls over matters that don’t quite make sense…
‘Arsenal and Chelsea humbled in Europe,’ said the headline in The Guardian.
Really? Is it possible to be ‘humbled’ in the Champions League – Europe’s top-tier competition, for Europe’s top-tier clubs?
OK, maybe if you’re at home to Olympiacos, conceding three goals, picking the wrong goalkeeper, dropping a clanger into your own net, etc. Maybe that kind of outcome has its humbling aspects.
But is it possible to be ‘humbled’ in the Champions League by losing 2-1, away from home? Is it possible to be ‘humbled’, specifically, by losing 2-1 away to Porto?
This, lest there be any confusion, is the Porto who are former European Champions, who currently sit at the top of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, who are undefeated in 2015/16, and who haven’t conceded a goal at home in their domestic league since, incredibly, December 2014 (though they conceded one to us on Tuesday night, nearly conceded another when Diego Costa hit the bar and would quite likely have conceded yet another if even one of the three supposedly qualified officials in the close vicinity had had the wherewithal to spot a blatant handball in the penalty area as the game came to its conclusion).
How could losing 2-1 in the Estadio do Dragao represent a humbling – for ours or for any other English club side at the time of writing? A defeat, yes, and a minor setback, definitely. But a humbling? How patronising would your vision of the merit and standing of Porto have to be for you to imply that a victory for them on their own ground in a Champions League group-stage game represented some magnitude of order-reversal or giant-killing? How deeply buried in the sand would your head have to have been to developments in European football these past 40 or so years?
I suppose we could choose to be flattered by it - but really, The Guardian should be ashamed of its woeful parochialism and its embarrassingly outdated sense of English superiority.
One hates to harp on about an ungiven penalty because, obviously, in an ideal world, your team builds in a margin for such errors and isn’t left looking back mournfully at them, with a sense of grievance.
But this isn’t an ideal world: it’s the Champions League, where the competition is intense and the margins are infinitesimally narrow. Which is why you hope that when an obvious handball takes place directly in front of a goalline official, that goalline official is going, firstly, to notice it, and secondly, with any luck - and if it’s not too much to ask - to perk up and say something about it, preferably to the referee.
So what was that goalline official doing in Portugal on Tuesday night? Following the match on the radio? Texting a friend? Yoga?
Only in Europe are teams offered the additional protection of a fifth and sixth official at each end of the pitch. And only in Europe does that additional protection seem to amount to no additional protection whatsoever.
And what, really, distinguished Tuesday night’s handball from the penalty that was given to a struggling Manchester United last night and which helped ease them back into their match against the desperately unlucky Wolfsburg? Except that the handball leading to the United penalty was, if anything, less blatant and more of a judgement call.
All very frustrating. And completely unnecessary.
As one of the best songs ever to emerge from the Matthew Harding Lower once put it: ‘Song for Ramires, we need a song for Ramires.’ Because what a performance that was by him last Saturday. Came on as a sub, scored a screamer and an instant contender for goal of the month for September, effectively created the equaliser by charging across the path of Willian’s exquisitely measured free-kick, and then nearly scored a winner by somehow contriving to fling himself onto a speeding cross directly in front of Tim Krul. Had that gone in, it would surely have been tempting to give him the matchball - and it wouldn’t have seemed entirely inappropriate to do so even though it didn’t.
Of course, despite those elastic efforts, the match didn’t work out quite as one wished overall. But then, in recent years, that’s so often been the way at Newcastle. In the weeks immediately preceding our visit there, the place seems to fall into crisis, becoming an ever-darkening den of catastrophe with the club in an apparently terminal slide. Then we turn up and all the lights go on, resolve is kindled from nowhere, elves go around the home dressing room overnight, dropping off a pair of Billy’s Boots for each Newcastle player, and whoever happens to be managing them at the time suddenly turns into a hitherto unseen hybrid of Jock Stein and Pep Guardiola. And we end up having to settle for a point. (Or, at least, this time we do - which is one more than we got on that ground last year.)
We’d be crazy to take it personally, of course, tempting though it may be to do so. On the contrary, a bit like that Guardian headline, you have to read it as a compliment. Although, as compliments go, it’s kind of annoying. And not very well timed.
Oh, well. Southampton on Saturday and everything still to play for.