A comeback worth the biggest cheer

With Abidal back on the pitch,Barcelona romp to 5-0 win over Mallorca; Bayern seal Bundesliga title

Written by New York Times | London | Published:April 8, 2013 1:21 am

By ROB HUGHES

Sometimes,the emotions of man transcend his game. In Germany,the Bayern Munich players celebrated winning the Bundesliga by grabbing their coach and tossing him into the air. Maybe they forgot that Jupp Heynckes is so old that the club announced over the winter break that he will be pensioned off once this season is done.

Heynckes will turn 68 in May,but he survived the playful manhandling after his club’s 1-0 victory Saturday at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Later that night,99,786 Catalans rose to their feet at the Camp Nou stadium. They had already applauded the return to the dugout of their team coach,Tito Vilanova,after his battle with cancer.

They were soon in celebratory mood because Barça’s players,many of them second-stringers,had wrapped up a 5-0 victory over Mallorca shortly after halftime. But the most memorable moments were reserved for Éric Abidal.

The French defender,who received a liver transplant April 10 a year ago,began to limber up about an hour into the game. The roar was louder and even more spontaneous than the reaction to Fàbregas’s hat trick or Alexis Sánchez’s two goals.

The crowd kept it up for a full 15 minutes as the big Frenchman jogged and stretched and prepared to join the play.

Here was a man whose absence had made him even fonder to the Barça family. Here was an athlete struck down by cancer,of a different form than the one suffered by Vilanova. And here,as his undershirt showed,was a human being who owes his life to another: the donor of his new liver. The shirt carried the inscription: “Merci mon cousin.” And Abidal,not a man of many words,then gave an impromptu TV interview before he left the field after the final whistle. “Without my cousin,” he simply said,“I would not be here.”

Timely return

His return could not be more timely. Abidal can play center back or fullback,and Barça’s defense has gaping holes because Carles Puyol,Javier Mascherano and Adriano are all injured and out of the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

In attack,it is a different question for Barcelona. Lionel Messi is nursing a strained hamstring,and whether the world’s greatest player is fit enough,or needs to be,for that game is debatable.

“When you are without a player like Messi,” said Jordi Roura,the man who has filled in for Vilanova during his absence,“it’s unquestionable that you have a problem. But the players have shown their enormous talent.” Indeed,they have. Fàbregas played the role that Messi normally plays,what the Spanish call a “false No.9.” It is effectively no No.9,with the team leaving a space where the central striker normally goes — but still using that space by making runs from midfield or from the flanks to surprise the opposing defenders.

Fàbregas on Saturday at times looked as cute,almost as quick and as deadly in the finish as Messi. By the time Fàbregas was substituted after 65 minutes,he had scored three goals. Messi could do that almost by routine,but Fàbregas is the first Spanish-born player to do it for Barça in a dozen years.

But he didn’t have all the fun. Sánchez has had trouble scoring this season,but on Saturday he not only finished off two goals,he did the other part of Messi’s repertoire: He created two as well.

So when the Argentine is there,Barcelona relies on Messi and plays through him. When he is absent,which is seldom,the others adapt and multiply their goal potential.

And one final aspect to Saturday’s walkover victory against an admittedly somewhat poor Mallorca was that very few of the usual accomplices — the Xavis,the David Villas,the Pedros or for much of the time the Iniestas — were on the field to make and create for the strikers.

That was where Barcelona’s famed academy comes in. The B-team players,some of them apprentices,simply stepped up and blew Mallorca away.

You could say that the Spanish league is not competitive enough. You might conclude the same of the Bundesliga,where Bayern Munich has won the trophy while there is still frost in the air.

Weak input,healthy output

Once again,because of the Champions League,Bayern fielded a substantially weakened team Saturday. It won,1-0,through Bastian Schweinsteiger’s cunning flick of his heel to a low cross from Phillip Lahm,on the home turf of a Frankfurt side that occupies sixth place in the standings.

Frankfurt has 42 points this season. That is 33 points behind the Muncheners,which is the equivalent to 11 victories in a season where each team has played just 28 games thus far.

The margin makes a myth of Germany’s claim that its Bundesliga is harder to win than others. The second-best team this season,Borussia Dortmund,has made its top priority the Champions League,and it could even win that.

Yet in domestic soccer,Dortmund lags 20 points behind Munich.

Bayern,and its veteran coach,are performing as if they had points to prove every time they set foot on the field.

When the players put Heynckes down,he said: “In my team talk,I told my players the first league title is always the most emotional.”

“Nine of these players have won the league for the first time,” he continued. “You could see what it means to them.” He paused,and concluded: “I’ve won the championship again after 23 years. It was rather warmer then.” Warmer,and more heartfelt.

Heynckes will hand the reins over to Pep Guardiola,who was named as his successor in January. But Heynckes had been collecting shields since he was the leading scorer of Borussia Mönchengladbach in the early 1970s. He won four Bundesliga titles as a player,and now three as coach.

But this one was won too soon for the prize-giving. “All I’ve had in my hands so far,” said Bayern’s goalie Manuel Neuer,“is a cardboard cutout shield. We’re looking forward to the real thing; meantime,we’ll turn up the music and dance and sing anyway.”

Juve go 12 points clear

Rome: Juventus took another step towards a second straight Serie A title when Mirko Vucinic’s late double secured a 2-1 home win over Pescara on Saturday that took them 12 points clear at the top as the visitors finished with 10 men. Vucinic’s 72nd minute penalty broke the resistance of Pescara,who had Giuseppe Rizzo sent off for the foul on Arturo Vidal that led to the spot kick,before the Montenegrin doubled their lead five minutes later with a smart curling strike.

Bottom side Pescara pulled a goal back through Emmanuel Cascione seven minutes from time. Antonio Conte’s side,who are 2-0 down heading into Wednesday’s Champions league quarter-final,second leg with Bayern Munich in Turin,have 71 points from 31 games ahead of Napoli,who host struggling Genoa on Sunday (1845 GMT). Pescara,who have only 21 points and look certain to be relegated,had keeper Ivan Pelizzoli to thank for keeping the score down after he pulled off a series of magnificent saves.

Milan held

Fiorentina,two goals down and reduced to 10 men,converted two penalties in seven minutes to draw 2-2 with AC Milan on Sunday in a match between two direct rivals for a Champions League place. Riccardo Montolivo,returning for the first time to the club where he spent seven seasons,put Milan ahead after 14 minutes and Fiorentina were in more trouble when Nenad Tomovic was sent off before halftime.

Matthieu Flamini extended Milan’s lead in the 62nd minute before Adem Ljajic and David Pizarro both converted penalties to level the score. Third-placed Milan (58 points) stayed six points ahead of fourth-placed Fiorentina (52) with Inter Milan and Lazio two points further behind. Inter host Atalanta (1845) and Lazio face neighbours AS Roma on Monday. The top two in Serie A qualify for the Champions League group stage and third place earns a place in the playoff round.

Montolivo ignored the jeers from the crowd as he dispossessed Pizarro 30 metres from goal and rolled the ball into the corner from the edge of the area. Fiorentina were in more trouble when Tomovic was given a straight red in the 40th minute after being judged to have elbowed Stephan El Shaaraway as the two tussled for the ball.

Milan appeared home and dry when Flamini scored in the 62nd minute from a chance created by Montolivo but instead Fiorentina hit back. A mazy Ljajic run in the area ended with his legs crumpling after the slightest of touches from Antonio Nocerino and the Serb converted the penalty himself in the 66th minute.

Seven minutes later,Fiorentina were awarded another penalty when Juan Cuadrado was tripped and Pizarro stepped up to fire home and atone for his earlier mistake.

(Reuters)

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