By Andy Cole
10 December 2009
Without consulting any tables, can you name the team that had the best record in the group stage of the Champions League? The answer is Bordeaux, who won five of their six matches and drew the other in a tough section (Group A) that also included Bayern Munich and Juventus. If you knew that, well done – I’m not sure many would get that right.
Laurent Blanc’s team finished ahead of Bayern to move into the last 16 while Juventus missed out, and no manager in their right mind should be relishing the prospect of facing Bordeaux next, however “unfancied” some say they are.
I am not claiming they will win the tournament – my pick at the outset had to be Barcelona – but Bordeaux play the game the right way. They’re stylish and dangerous in equal measure, and if I had to pick one side that could fill the be surprise finalists, as Monaco were in 2004, then it would be Blanc’s.
I played with Laurent at Manchester United, albeit only for half a season after he arrived in the summer of 2001 and before I went to Blackburn at the end of that year. He is a lovely guy, mild-mannered, a gentleman at all times, and of course a wonderful footballer.
His critics said that by the time he came to United he had lost his pace and could not maintain his level of play. But, to be brutally honest, I don’t think he ever had exceptional speed in the first place. His truly exceptional ability was his reading of the game and his positional sense, and that’s what made him so important, to Marseilles, Internazionale, United and his other clubs, and to France, whom he helped to win the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000.
He has now been in management a couple of years and he’s built a team who earlier this year ended the astonishing seven-year reign of Lyons as French champions.
Bordeaux’s major players include their top striker, Marouane Chamakh, 25, a French-born Morocco international who has been with the club his whole senior career, and Yoann Gourcuff, who Blanc brought back to France from Milan.
It is interesting to see former Premier League players in his team too in the shape of David Bellion and Alou Diarra. You’ll remember that Bellion was at Sunderland in his teens, then at United for a couple of years, but never truly found his feet in England.
Diarra was technically a Liverpool player for around three years from 2002 to 2005, signed by Gérard Houllier and inherited by Rafa Benitez, but he was never fielded by either of them in a single game. He is now Bordeaux’s captain, has been capped by France more than 20 times and is a huge figure, typically seen at his best in a holding midfield role.
There is not space here to examine in depth the subject of why some players just don’t work out in England but thrive at the top level after leaving. In the case of Bellion and Diarra, maybe it’s as simple as being back where they feel comfortable, playing a style of football suited to them.
So all in all, Bordeaux’s performance was not a shock to me in a group phase where actually we did not witness too much carnage among the big sides.
Liverpool’s exit did not surprise me, given the way they’re struggling this season. Juventus’s failure was a bigger shock. And the progress of the other English clubs was as expected.
United might have had injuries but I would still have been surprised if they had not made it through comfortably, and Michael Owen’s hat-trick on Tuesday was the icing on the cake. One thing I’m noticing is the infrequency of his trademark runs in behind defenders; he’s going much deeper for the ball now. Still, he’s also managing to arrive in the right places for his share of tap-ins, so you won’t find any United fans complaining.
Why Giggs deserves to be singled out
It’s one down and one to go for Ryan Giggs: the Welsh Sports Personality of the Year is already in the bag, announced just a few days ago, so now for the big one, the main SPOTY award. Jenson Button is favourite, with Jessica Ennis, David Haye and Andrew Strauss among worthy contenders.
I know Giggsy well, and for his professionalism, longevity, achievements and continuing contribution, he’d be a deserving winner. He’ll be wanting to win it, too. Sports people can often be heard saying that individual honours aren’t of interest, it’s all about the team, and that’s true to an extent. But the SPOTY award is a major gong, one to be proud of picking up. It says something not just about your achievement but about the way you’re regarded.
The fee for Andy Cole’s column is donated to Alder Hey hospital and sickle cell anaemia research. He works on charitable projects with the sport and media team at law firm Thomas Eggar
This column first appeared in The Independent.