Champions League Nights: Part 1 – Five thoughts from the Emirates


I rarely pass up the chance to go to the Dripping Pan but last night I committed the cardinal sin.  I put the gravy train of the Champions League above grass-roots football, or to be even more precise, corporate hospitality at the Emirates over the Ryman Premier League at the Dripping Pan.  I hope I can find your forgiveness in some way and I promise not to do it again….unless someone else wants to invite me in the luxurious surroundings of an Executive box.

My decision tree was influenced by the grade of the opposition rather than a promise of fine food and fine wine.  Borussia Dortmund are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the world today.  It doesn’t seem to matter that every so often they offload a player for small change (Mario Götze’s €37 million deal to Bayern in the Summer for instance), there is always someone new in the wings waiting to come in.

10430196403_2033f61425_b (1)The Emirates is a very easy stadium to get to via public transport from Central London.  Not so easy to get away from but we will deal with that later.  Just 25 minutes after leaving the office I was at Drayton Park, just in time to see the 3,000 strong Dortmund fans marching down the road towards the stadium.  Whilst they were being minded by the Met Police, the only issues they faced was having to use earplugs to drown out the noise.

The pre-match hospitality was first class as you would expect from one of the best stadiums in Europe.  Our host was Sammy Nelson, the ex-Arsenal full back probably most famous for once dropping his shorts in front of the North Bank after scoring a rare goal (and being subsequently fined and banned) who spoke with real passion about the club and the current side.  Talk turned to “that” goal on Saturday although he didn’t agree that Nicky Wheeler’s goal for Lewes at the same time versus Leatherhead on Saturday was better.  We were surrounded on all sides by Dortmund fans, with the boxes either side hosting German football fans and below us were the massed ranks of yellow and black. Continue reading

Football finally came home – Top that Pep


“Football is a religion in Dortmund. Bayern may have won a lot of fans and a lot of trophies because of the incredible number of good decisions they have made, but now there is another story. Along has come another club that is pretty good as well.” It’s hard to disagree with the words of Jürgen Klopp, the miracle worker behind the spectacular rise from the ashes of bankruptcy of Borussia Dortmund. Despite enduring a disappointing domestic season where Bayern had simply been too good for them and the rest of German football, Dortmund arrived en masse in London knowing that all of the pain could be erased in one ninety minute game.

20130526-214507.jpgLondon awoke on Saturday morning awash with yellow and black. Whilst 478,567, to be precise, Dortmund fans had been unlucky in trying to secure one of the 24,000 official tickets for the Wembley showpiece, tens of thousands had headed to the centre of London to party like it was neunzehn neunzig neun. By mid-afternoon Trafalgar Square was a sea of Dortmund fans tucking into traditional English beer (Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg) and traditional English food (Walkers family packs of crisps) soaking up the rare English sunshine.  Lord Nelson was looking down with an approving wink, especially at the girls who made the effort to dress in the full Dortmund kit. Football for life was the motto of the day for the fans. One game, one goal, one glorious night at the venue of legends. There were fans of all shapes and sizes enjoying the sunshine, although if truth be told some looked better in their Dortmund outfits than others.

Dortmund Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke could barely raise his voice enough over the strains of Wonderwall to explain with immense pride how special this day was. “Ten years ago every member of our club would have had a chance for a ticket.” Today fans sat on the edge of the fountains with signs around their necks pleading for a ticket for the biggest game in German club football history.  Progress.

My mission was to try to document the day through the eyes of a fan with Allianz for their Football For Life campaign. Never an easy job with half a dozen Bitburger’s sloshing around your stomach, but even worse when every time I opened my mouth the German fans broke into a chorus of Football’s Coming Home. Both sets of found laughed at the irony that here they were in the home of “Your Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottingham Hotspurs”. Bayern fans were outnumbered 20 to 1 in Central London but they knew the score. Even a performance at 75% of what they have been capable of this season would see the trophy return to Bavaria. Dortmund needed all the skill of Reus, the fire power of Lewandoski and the sulkiness of Robben to snatch a victory. But if they could, it would be the most famous win in their history, one that would give them bragging rights over their rivals for years to come.  Despite their dominance of the domestic game, Bayern had been the bridesmaid in European football for so long, runners-up five times in the last twenty-five years with just a single trophy in that time against Valencia back in 2001. Continue reading

Die Klassiche comes to Wembley


The end of the football season. A time to reflect on all those moments of joy watching our beautiful game before the crashing realisation that there will be no more last minute winners, no more dodgy offside decisions and no more Robbie Savage – well, at least there is one positive. The biggest question on our minds is not where to go next Saturday but what excuses we could use to avoid the inevitable trips to DIY stores or fixing the leaking roof in the garage. These were the thoughts running through my head until I had an invite from those good people at Allianz to help them spread the good news – Football is for life not just for 37 weeks in the season. Their request was to help them celebrate all that is good about our beautiful game in one day. One glorious day. One day that I had to keep quiet from my nearest and dearest for fear of jealous retribution. A ticket to the Champions League Final. Of course I said….”YES!”.

8514941579_f28981bde5_bIf you are in any doubt about the anticipation for the Champions League final at Wembley then go an ask your average season ticket holder at the Allianz Arena or the Signal Iduna Park where they will be watching the game on Saturday night. Over 1 million people applied, but failed, to get tickets through the small allocations given to Bayern and Borussia for the most eagerly awaited European Cup final in decades. I cannot remember a final that has created such as buzz among the neutrals fans, none more so than the English who look on so enviously at the way German football is run. Make no mistake, this is THE best final the competition could have asked for. In some ways there is a poignant irony that the two teams competing at Wembley in the FA’s anniversary year are from our fiercest footballing rivals but in my opinion we are lucky enough to be watching two of the best teams in Europe at the moment compete for the coveted trophy. Continue reading

Ninety minutes from glory


Twenty four hours ago I was in a pub in the heart of Bavaria.  Munich to be precise, talking football with some die-hard Bayern fans from our German office who were telling me in graphic detail how this current Bayern Munich team were the best club side Europe has ever seen.  They could give me plenty reasons to back this up, including a statement around the fact that “Pep”, having broken all records at Barca would only consider joining a club more supreme – and hence why he is coming to Bavaria next season.  But my argument was despite romping to the Bundesliga, and being odds-on favourites to take the DFB-Pokal in a few weeks when they meet Stuttgart in Berlin, a failure to beat Borussia Dortmund in the most anticipated Champions League final for decades will mean this season counts for very little.

8514941579_f28981bde5_bAfter the crushing disappoint of losing out to domestic honours to Borussia Dortmund last season and then losing the Champions League final in their own front garden in Bavaria to Chelsea, this season was seen as a chance for redemption.  Their ruthlessness in winning the Bundesliga title has been breathtaking – currently 22 points clear with one game to go of Dortmund, scoring nearly an average of 3 goals a game, conceding less than half a goal a game, dropping just eleven points so far.  Two defeats in all competitions is certainly a record-breaker but could they really go on their sunbeds around the pool in the summer with a smug feeling of superiority if Klopp’s team win at Wembley.

It would have taken a brave man to bet against Bayern in any domestic game this season (and that brave man would now be significantly poorer) but in a one-off game on neutral soil I think the game could be a lot closer than people think.  An early look at the odds at Unibet shows Bayern are clear favourites to lift the trophy at 1.42 compared to Dortmund’s 2.8.  This season both league games ended 1-1 and their meeting in the Allianz Arena in the German Cup saw an Arjen Robben wonderstrike the only difference between the two sides.

The key for me is the form of Dortmund’s occasional false nine, Marco Reus.  We saw Reus destroy Eintract Frankfurt earlier in the season in the Westfalenstadion, scoring a fantastic hatrick.  When he is on his day he is unstoppable.  So unstoppable that the rumours of a move to Bayern have been circulating since he was voted German Player of the Year in 2012.  With Lewandowski potentially on his way to Real Madrid in the summer, he will also want to go out on a high.

Unsurprisingly, tickets for the game are like gold dust.  As the days tick down to the final we will preview the game more, including a visit to the Champions Park in East London.

Kampf der Titanen


Real Madrid v Barcelona? Old skool. PSG v OM? Past its best even with the added “pzzazz of Monsieur Beckham. Celtic v Rangers? Had its day. Lewes v Eastbourne Borough? Getting closer. But none of these currently tick all the boxes as the most anticipated games in recent years. The most talked about domestic game these days in Europe is in Germany. After years of dominance of the Bundesliga, in the past couple of seasons Bayern Munich have had to play second fiddle to Die Schwarzgelben, Borussia Dortmund. The domestic champions for the past two seasons have risen from the financial flames into a majestic young phoenix managed by one of the best young managers in the game, and of course, the biggest average club attendance in Europe.

8481854617_9188ce3131_bUnder Jürgen Klopp, Dortmund have become one of the most watchable teams of their generation, with an emphasis on counter-attacking play which saw them cruise to the title over the past two seasons. Last season in front of 75,000 in Berlin, and millions watching across the globe, Borussia Dortmund destroyed Bayern in the DFB Pokal final to take their first domestic double.

That final was a watershed in German football. In fact Ribéry’s goal in the 25th minute of the final was the first that Dortmund had conceded in the whole tournament, and it was a surprise that they only finished with five goals. The King was dead, long live the King. Or were they?

Bayern Munich were a wounded animal, and came out of the blocks firing with aggression. Just one defeat in the league conceding just 8 goals in 23 games (and scoring 60), cruising into the Champions League Quarter Finals and hardly breaking into a sweat in the DFB Pokal. Who could stop them? Well, how about Dortmund again? The draw for the DFB Pokal had paired the two titans in a duel to the death in Munich. Surely Dortmund couldn’t slay the Kraken in its own nest? And to add a little bit more spice to the occasion, it was Bayern’s 113th Birthday. Cake all round I hoped.

So how can the invincibles become even more immortal? How about snapping up the world’s most in demand coach? Pep Guardiola will hopefully be walking into the Allianz Arena dressing room in July to meet a record-breaking team if current form is anything to go by. Bundesliga champions? Almost certainly. European champions? I think only one or two teams may have a say in that. Perhaps they should already have that title. Once again the huge burden of expectation that goes with hosting the final played heavily on the side’s performance last May against Chelsea.

But for all their dominance this season Dortmund have come back at them again and again. Many saw their heavy home defeat to Hamburg earlier this month as a sign than Jürgen Klopp had not taken the opportunity in the January window to strengthen the side. But just seven days later and after an arduous Champions League game in Ukraine they emphatically bounced back with a win against 4th place Eintracht Frankfurt where the 3-0 score line hardly did justice to their attacking domination. Continue reading