Various childhood memories pushed themselves to the front of my mind on Wednesday night. One was of a wonderful work of football fiction, probably out of print now, called Shoot on Sight, written by Michael Hardcastle. An imaginary club called Scorton Rovers are promoted to the top tier of English football. They struggle in the league but find respite in the FA Cup, going all the way to Wembley. In the third round, they are drawn away to a non-league side. They score in the first minute, are 2-0 up after three minutes and are eight goals clear as the game draws to a close. Then, in injury time, their opponents score a consolation goal. No-one, it seems, is happier than the Rovers captain, an exemplary character called Andy Blair. Waiting with a team-mate to kick-off again, he remarks that the home side’s goal will ‘at least send (the crowd) home happy’.
Another memory was of some of my own playing experiences. I never played football of any great standard but was part of youth teams that occasionally found themselves winning or, more often, losing by large margins. When that happened, when one Under 13 team was, say, 10-0 up against another, no’one felt comfortable ; not the players, not the coaches, not the referee. Often, something would be done to ensure that things didn’t get completely out of hand. The winning coach might take his strongest players off or he might switch his formation so that, for example, the scorer of a double hat-trick would be asked to play in defence and the right-back ordered to play as a striker. The referee might start favouring the losing team with one or two decisions, or even end the game early if the embarrassment looked like continuing.
The connection between the above and MŠK Žilina’s Champions League game with Marseille probably doesn’t need to be explained. I believe I’ve never before seen an adult game, certainly not at full-time level and almost certainly not at semi-pro either, that induced the feeling that something needed to be done to alleviate one team’s humiliation. You wished the rules would allow for Didier Deschamps to send on his Under 18s or that Mr Johanesson could blow the full-time whistle early. You liked to believe that Marseille players were secretly sorry when Tomáš Majtán’s late shot hit the bar rather than the net. More than anything, you wished you could be somewhere else entirely.
Credit to Marseille. I had the feeling they’d taken offence at suggestions from the Žilina camp that they were the most ‚beatable‘ team in the group and wanted to teach the home club a lesson in humility they’d never forget. More practically, they probably understood too that goal difference could be important in deciding second place in the group and that here was an ideal opportunity to improve their for-against balance. Whatever the explanation, they started the game full of purpose and never let up. In reality, unlike those Under 13 coaches, Didier Deschamps probably wasn’t too concerned about his opponents‘ embarassment. And, unlike the fictional Andy Blair, the Marseille players were no doubt happy that Majtán’s effort didn’t spoil their immaculate performance. They were well-organised and ruthless and all their players showed commitment, skill and intelligence.
As for Žilina, well, listing all the things they did wrong would take forever. For me, blame rests primarily with Pavel Hapal, if only for one disastrous selection. Personally, I would not have played Šourek in place of Piaček or Ceesay in place of Majtán but there was a case for both those choices and Šourek and Ceesay do have some experience now at European level and might reasonably have been expected to rise to the occasion. The selection that made no sense whatsoever was that of Vittor to partner Bello in midfield. I like what I’ve seen of Vittor in his occasional league appearances but he’s a player for the future, not one who’s going to come in and transform a team’s European fortunes. Playing him alongside a player coming back from injury in the most important area of the field was simply asking for trouble. After 30 minutes or so of pure embarassment, Vittor was pulled off. In terms of the game, with Marseille already 3-0 up, the damage was done. Hopefully, there won‘t be serious long-term damage to Vittor’s career.
Perhaps more worryingly, it’s becoming harder to understand just what Žilina’s approach to this whole campaign is. On Monday, both Hapal and Robert Jež were describing the Marseille game as one the team had to win. Obviously, their words just seem laughable now (though no more so than my pre-match prediction). At other times, we hear that these games are mainly about gaining experience. It’s hard, frankly, to see what was ‘gained’ on Wednesday night. If the players genuinely do learn something and produce improved performances in the last two games, it will say a lot for their characters. I believe, however, that learning experiences need to be primarily positive. Given that there was absolutely nothing positive about Wednesday night’s game from the home point of view, the fear is that both the club, and the careers of certain individuals (Vittor and others), have been severely damaged.
Not only Žilina but Slovak football as a whole will now have to reflect. The SFZ and other Corgoň Liga clubs have been very accommodating in allowing Žilina’s domestic games to be played on Friday nights ahead of Champions League ties. In that respect, Žilina are getting all the assistance they need in terms of preparation time. But Slovak clubs, along with the association, should be looking in the mirror too. What does it say about the quality of the domestic league when the team that leads it by four points gets so utterly destroyed in Europe? It is also likely that there will be further debate about the whole concept and set-up of the Champions League but it doesn’t seem wise, the morning after a 0-7 defeat, to attempt to go too deeply into that.
As a fan, I feel I owe it to myself to end on a self-interested note. Lenka (my partner) and I paid 25 Euros each to watch Wednesday night’s game from the main stand. When the ticket prices were originally announced, we found them reasonable ; I even wrote an article saying so. If we’d seen a proper football match, I’d be defending that stance but what we actually saw was a particularly easy-going training exercise for Marseille ; attack against (very poor) defence. As with those Under 13 games that ended 10-0, 13-2 or whatever, I’m left asking one question. What was the point? Answers below please….
Article by James Baxter from BritskiBelasi