Chelsea, take a bow!

Last night, I witnessed a sporting spectacle. Chelsea football club, consistent in Europe over the last decade but perennial underachievers, finally fulfilled their dream of winning the UEFA Champions League, and by doing so reached the pinnacle of European club football. Legends were made, ghosts of past failures exorcised, fading stars of the old guard went out in one spectacular bang. And one man’s ruthless ambition was finally realized. It was a glorious European night, and for most part, Bayern Munich, playing at home at the Allianz Arena, did most of the talking on the pitch.

Chelsea team picture Champions League final 2012, Munich

Proud Chelsea players and staff!

I feel for Bayern Munich, they were the overwhelming favourite in the build-up to this Champions League final. Playing at home was dubbed as the biggest advantage in their favour, and they almost made it count. They had the lion’s share of possession, controlled the pace of the game, and ran Chelsea ragged all over the pitch. Ribery, Gomez, Mueller, and Robben, especially, were a constant threat for the Chelsea defence. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable first goal, such was the Germans’ dominance of the game.

To their credit, Chelsea defended beautifully, Ashley Cole putting in a stellar performance on the wing, David Luiz and Gary Cahill coped brilliantly in Terry’s absence, and between the posts Cech was looming large, difficult to get past, denying Bayern single-handedly on several occasions. Cech was instrumental in ensuring Chelsea won their first ever Champions League crown.

But there was no stopping Bayern Munich, firing on all cylinders, throwing everything they had at Cech’s goal. And when it looked like one goal would be enough to seal the game’s fate, Thomas Mueller’s header finally broke through Cech’s defenses. Pandemonium erupted in the red half of Allianz Arena, as the partisan crowd sensed their team’s victory. Chelsea’s shoulders slumped, left to reflect in their darkest hour four years ago in Moscow, their only previous Champions League final fixture which ended in defeat.

This is where it gets really exciting (for a neutral like me). Against the run of play, Didier Drogba hammered home a header past Manuel Neuer’s giant hands in the opposite goal to throw Chelsea a lifeline in the dying moments of the game. Against all odds, undeserved, but with dogged determination, Chelsea equalized. Bayern Munich players were shell-shocked, their supporters struck dumb by what Drogba had just conjured. They had every right to feel that way because Chelsea were absolutely horrible till that point.

On to extra time, Drogba quickly turned from hero to villain for stupidly tripping Ribery inside the penalty box, a mindless tackle from behind. Bayern earned an unlikely penalty, with that a chance to win the game. But Arjen Robben, a former Chelsea player, had his penalty saved by the safe hands of Petr Cech. The effect inside the stadium was astounding. Suddenly, Bayern Munich started feeling nervous for the first time, for try as much they did Chelsea refused to give in. On the other hand, Chelsea’s players seemed uplifted by Bayern’s misery, buyoed by Cech’s heroics they found reserve energy to continue their battle where Bayern were clearly struggling to keep pace with the game. There was a definite shift in momentum.

As fate would have it, the game dragged on to the penalties. It seemed Chelsea had to exorcise their demons of Moscow if they were to be crowned European champions. Mata missed the only penalty from Chelsea’s lineup, whereas Olic and Schweinsteiger choked for Bayern, both brilliantly saved by Petr Cech. And as John Terry’s ill-fated slip that guided his penalty onto the right post against Manchester United in Moscow back in 2008, so would Schweinsteiger — the final kick taker in Bayern’s lineup, just like John Terry four years ago — stop on his way and eventually find the post blocking his way to glory (it got the faintest of touch from Cech before it hit the post). Hero against Real Madrid in the semi-final, Schweinsteiger was inconsolable from the moment of his mishap. Football can be so cruel sometimes.

Chelsea’s tryst with destiny was finally fulfilled when Didier Drogba — the man who kept them in the game with his equalizer — stepped up and coolly slotted his penalty into the bottom corner of the goal, sending Neuer the wrong way. From villain four years ago for getting sent off for slapping United’s Vidic in the final of 2008, Drogba instantly wrote his name in the legends of the game, and Chelsea football club, for striking the winning shot that sent West London into uncontrolled ecstasy. It may well have been his last kick as a Chelsea player, we will have to wait and see — if it turns out so, what a way to leave a football club! On top of the world! A fascinating final, one that finally brought Chelsea redemption. Money can’t buy the sights, the scenes, the memories of that memorable night.

Chelsea’s season has been epitomized by two things: Roberto Di Matteo’s appointment as interim manager (after Andres Villas-Boas was sacked in February) and Chelsea’s old guard — Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Cole, and everyone in the squad assembled by Jose Mourinho — and their desire, determination and belief to go out on a high. As it turns out, this Champions League final success may well be the last hurrah for a lot of ageing stars in Chelsea’s team.

Oh, and yes, I still feel this Di Matteo fella has done some sort of deal with the Devil. How else would you describe Chelsea’s roller-coaster season?

Roberto Di Matteo

You ain't seen nothing yet!

I miss the EPL

I’m suffering from serious withdrawal. It isn’t something that a visit to the roadside dealer or checking into rehab will fix. You see, I’m a football fan in India, hooked on to the most intoxicating drug of all — my weekly dose of “football”. And no, I’m not referring to some new designer joint doing the rounds of late, I’m referring to the actual sport. Twenty two blokes running like hounds behind a piece of inflated rubber, that pretty much sums up the world’s most keenly followed game. Yeah, that football. I miss it like crazy.

English Premier League logo

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Ancelotti & Mancini: Squeaky Bum Time!

It’s a tale of two famous English clubs led by two modern Italian stalwarts of the game. There is no question about Chelsea and Manchester City’s ambition. But in their desperate quest for silverware this season stands a team that keeps defying critics time after time. In the coming week, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United can seriously wreck Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini’s season, ensuring it ends in disarray and self-doubt for the two Italian men who promised so much at the beginning. An Italian job gone horribly wrong.

Carlo Ancelotti

Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti / Image Courtesy: The Guardian

Carlo Ancelotti’s illustrious managerial career requires no mention here. He led Chelsea to a historic Premier League and FA Cup double in his debut season of 2009-10. However, he arrived at Stamford Bridge with one objective: to capture the crown jewel of European club competition, a trophy steeped in Chelsea’s recent history, the UEFA Champions League. Ancelotti knows his work and legacy at Chelsea is incomplete if the European Cup fails to grace the West London club.

Roberto Mancini made a name for himself with Inter Milan, earning three successive Scudetto for the Italian giant before moving to England. He took over the reigns from Mark Hughes in late 2009, knowing fully well what Manchester City’s wealthy owners expected of him. To drop City’s “noisy neighbors” tag and elevate the club to new heights, with domestic and European success. While Ancelotti has delivered some modicum of success to Chelsea fans and Abramovich, Mancini has yet to earn any silverware for Manchester City, despite a side filled with superstars. More than anyone else Mancini knows he has to deliver something this season, least of all a Champions League spot.

Roberto Mancini of Manchester City

Roberto Mancini at Manchester City / Image Courtesy: The Guardian

Arise the common nemesis! Manchester United holds the key that could unlock the fortunes of both these teams. They play Chelsea in Tuesday’s Champions League quarter final and Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final on Saturday. This five-day span is the most noteworthy this season in English football; United can keep their treble dream alive, Chelsea and Manchester City can give their fans something to cheer about. Or face the aftermath of agonizing defeats that could quickly spiral down to a season gone horribly wrong.

If United get past Chelsea in the Champions League quarter final on Tuesday, Carlo Ancelotti will have to come to terms with a barren Chelsea season without any silverware during his short stint as manager. How that will go down with Abramovich, only time will tell. Chelsea’s hunger and appetite for success will be questioned, and doubts over an aging squad will receive fresh attention. Ancelotti and Chelsea will have their work cut out.

Mancini’s cause is more desperate compared to Ancelotti’s, in my opinion. Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners aren’t big fans of cultivating success over time, relying on fat cheque books to buy it for them instead. But success has eluded them so far and it isn’t going to be easy on Saturday. If Manchester City’s outwitted by United–not for the first time this season, who knows how short a leash Mancini will be on? Will the owners be patient with him–if so, for how long? So much rides on Saturday’s FA Cup semi final result for Manchester City’s manager. For all his big name signings, Mancini’s City remains a far cry from upsetting Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal’s stranglehold over English football.

Of course, there’s every chance that Chelsea and Manchester City will trounce over United in the coming week. But so awful have United been this season that the scribes will only feel vindicated in their prediction of doom for the club from Old Trafford. Nothing more.

The repercussions of defeat for Chelsea and Manchester City will not just stop at acrimonious press coverage. It may have deeper ramifications for Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini than any oracle or football pundit could’ve predicted at the beginning of the season.

Once upon a time in Goa

I will never forget. The beach cloaked in starlight, white waves glistening and breaking on the shore; the constant, sleepless churning black mass of the sea, its rhythmic roars loud and sonorous. The horizon lost to mortal eyes, no end in sight. There I stood, with waves crashing at my feet, not a thought in my mind, watching, listening, waiting. Time ceased to be. It was humbling and peaceful.

No, I wasn’t sloshed — far from it. But the sea at night is an intoxicating experience. In fact, as I waited for an epiphany at the edge of the sea, at one moment I felt like Tuor seeking Ulmo at the coast of Nevrast*. That night remains an everlasting memory of my first visit to Goa last weekend.

However, that wasn’t the first beach I saw en route to Goa. It was cold at dawn as our car raced along NH-17, me and my mates low on sleep, waiting for the journey to end. As morning broke and the first rays hit the eastern horizon, I caught a whiff of the sea. I knew it was near, the long wait about to end.

A Karwar beach

On the brink of Karwar, breaking through the thickets, the road bent in a wide arc for a stretch of 50-60 meters. From above, I gazed down a line of palm trees with sand at their feet, the sea outstretched not too far ahead. Two hills flanked the beach, rock pinnacles dotted the water few hundred meters inside. The sky was a riot of pink, orange, and blue. I tried remembering when I had last glimpsed upon the sea but failed. It was a majestic view!

Past Panjim, we reached Mapusa by 10 a.m., and onwards to Siolim, our base camp for the Goa trip. From here we covered Arambol, Velha Goa, Mangeshi Temple, Fort Aguada — its picturesque lighthouse, Dona Paula, the beaches at Miramar, Baga and Calangute, and a ferry ride to Fort Tiracol (Terekhol) within two days. In that time, I realized the sheer scale of foreign tourists all over the place. Strangely, I felt like an outsider in my own country.

Of course, food was a big highlight of the trip. I fell in love with Goan cuisine, especially sea food. So much so that apart from breakfast, every other meal featured something from the sea. I remember two meals very clearly; one was on Arambol’s coast inside a small restaurant overlooking the sea at the stroke of sunset, the other atop Fort Tiracol on a hill between two beaches with an unforgettable view. Best thing I had? Fish curry and rice, Goan style. Simply delicious.

Basilica Bom Jesus - Se Cathedral

Apart from the sandy coastline, I fondly remember my time inside the Basilica of Bom Jesus and Se Cathedral, two iconic churches in Old Goa. The Basilica’s architecture is alluring, especially its flying buttresses. Inside it holds an elaborate altar that takes the breath away at first sight. The Basilica is renowned all over Christendom for holding the relics and mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier. Do not miss it on your next Goa trip.
Across the road from the Basilica of Bom Jesus sits the Se Cathedral of Santa Catarina, next to the Archaeological Survey of India building. It has a clean white facade and only one of its two tall bell towers. The cathedral is proportionally larger and grander compared to the Basilica, with a high-vaulted ceiling and multitude of side chapels. With less tourists and low voices, I had no problem sitting there for a long time, studying the altar, feeling right at home.

Arambol beach sunset

What did I bring back from Goa? A bottle of port wine, several packets of prawn pickle and cashew nuts — the Mapusa market didn’t disappoint. And quite a few fond memories. They’re better than the best photographs. Of course, two days is way too short a time to even scratch the surface of what Goa has to offer. As I hastened back to the real world, I felt torn apart, and finally understood people’s fascination with Goa. Sun, sand, relaxation — who wouldn’t wanna go back?

* Tolkien illiterates, click here.

IndiBlogger’s Akshaya Patra Gathering

Acknowledging my blog being dead for a year in front of 200 odd blogging enthusiasts wasn’t easy, even if I meant it as a wisecrack. It seemingly did the trick, however, going by the scattered laughter in response to my candid announcement. “Don’t worry, Jayesh, you’re not alone,” someone chimed from a far corner. The room full of strangers, hanging on my every word as I completed a rather uninspired introduction, suddenly felt a lot more inviting. IndiBlogger‘s session ahead could only get better, I reckoned.

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Sachin & Fergie: Two Sporting Greats

Sachin Tendulkar and Sir Alex Ferguson have achieved pretty much everything there is to achieve in their respective sport. Success, fame, adulation, and respect. Both remain relentless in their effort to further greatness, showing no signs of stopping any time soon.

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As mentioned earlier, I’m a self-confessed church lurker. I visit them for their peace and quiet (especially on Saturday afternoons) and because I just can’t go through fifty pages of a book without dozing off on my mattress at home (I know I’m hopeless). Aided by the fact that the pews are just so darn comfortable to sit on, and the last instance I fell asleep while I sat was in an overcrowded ‘Virar fast’ train (the rhythmic rocking of the bogies is an overpowering, unsung lullaby!), I get a lot of reading done inside churches. There are three that I frequently visit on weekends—the nearest takes about five minutes from where I live while the farthest is a good 40 minutes away on foot, which I don’t mind given Bangalore’s fantastic weather.

Yet I don’t view churches as an excuse for public libraries—minus the public, of course. Right from the moment my puny-but-cute self stepped inside St Thomas Cathedral—Mumbai’s first Anglican church—all those long years ago, I’ve been smitten by their architecture. Tall bell towers, grand doors, long naves, high vaulted ceilings, wooden pews, arched pillars, arcades, clerestory windows (with stained glass work), prominent altars, chapels, choirs—there’s so much to take in and marvel at for unsuspecting eyes. Every visit to Horniman Circle ever after hasn’t been without a quick pitstop at St Thomas. It attracted me, this structure of stone and mortar, and I couldn’t resist stepping over its threshold time and again. I was curious to know more.

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C’ est moi

Not long ago, amidst spoonful of gajar halwa on a pleasant Bangalore afternoon, a friend made an interesting observation about me. To be a Hindu by birth, go through close to ten eventful years of schooling in a Muslim institute, and have a knack of reading books (and listening to Metallica) in empty churches, I must be as close to a secularist poster boy as one would hope to find in the religious quagmire of our nation (is that a little self-centered? Maybe. Who cares!).

As long as I’m entitled to my share of shirkhurma and biryani on Eid ul-Fitr, and tender turkey meat on Christmas day—who gives a hoot for Diwali crackers?—I say hell yeah!

Great Indian Rock

My rock education continues. For the past couple of months the only songs I’ve listened on the iPod—whether I tune out the daily commute to and from work or wind down at night—have been from Metallica. From Death Magnetic to Kill ‘Em All, every single day has been an ear-busting cacophony of musical mayhem. One heck of a ride. Although I may not know the lyrics of their songs by heart, nor identify most of the tracks from their first riff, but I still count myself a Metallica fan.

It was only natural, what with my newfound affinity towards rock music (heavy metal, in particular), that I had to attend the Bangalore leg of Great Indian Rock 2009—the largest platform for the country’s leading rock bands to showcase their talent. But the event clashed with one of my passions: weekend football, and Manchester United’s irresistible Premiership encounter with Liverpool at Anfield. Choosing to attend the rock show over watching the football game wasn’t easy, but it turns out I made the right choice.

Palace Grounds was the venerable venue. I went with fellow metalheads, first to congregate outside the gates, arriving well over two hours before they opened. Apart from baking under the uncharacteristically hot Bangalore sun, and contemplating unlikely conditions invoking “force majeure” (as printed on the back of our entry tickets), we saw a bunch of security guards being taught how to frisk people (no kidding!). Slowly, as the minutes trickled past excruciatingly, the crowd started swelling. Black t-shirts proclaiming several band allegiances were everywhere.

We entered the ground at 5 o’clock and saw a mini-hangar of a stage in front of us. I am told it wasn’t even one-fifth the size of the stage Iron Maiden had for their gig in February. I had no idea what to expect, but from the lukewarm reception to Parachute XVI‘s curtain raising performance, I had mixed feelings over the rest of the evening. I’m no authority on music but this three man band just didn’t cut it for me: their music was so-so, vocals were imperceptible, and the bespectacled lead singer-cum-lead guitarist looked out of place and lacked any semblance of stage presence.

Next in line were Inner Sanctum. In sharp contrast to the near-lethargic Parachute XVI, these guys just exploded on stage and resuscitated GIR 2009 back to life through their death metal. Inner Sanctum’s frenetic, no-nonsense music finally brought the crowd to their feet, inspired no doubt by their lead singer, a figure bursting with energy (one Red Bull too many, perhaps) and nothing short of a rampaging bull. He acted and sang like a man possessed. Although I didn’t comprehend much but I liked the guttural vocals, and how their 40-odd minute performance never dipped in mind-numbing, bone-crushing intensity. Inner Sanctum snapped me out of my daydream, took me by the scruff of the neck and compelled me to initiate the evening’s headbanging. I’ll never forget that performance.

I was slightly sad when they left the stage, unsure how the next band would fare. Up next were Kryptos, the flagbearers of Indian heavy metal, and I soon knew why. Smoke engulfed the stage, silhouetting the band members in a dim red glow. It resembled a ghost light amidst evil incarnates. And their music unleashed hell upon the captivated crowd, mosh pits erupted without warning, and everyone loved every moment of it. Any niggling doubt I had over the Indian heavy metal scene was laid to rest by Kryptos. Where Inner Sanctum bubbled over with raw energy, Kryptos had an accomplished veteran’s musical style and grace. I liked their structured song-play—every song had a beginning, middle and end. Their guitar play, solos, and drumming was best amongst the three Indian bands. And these guys knew they were good. One of their songs, Mask of Anubis, was strikingly similar to Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Memorable performance from a celebrated band.

Easily the best band of the night, Solstate (based in New Zealand) had a potent mixture of powerful vocals, engaging lyrics, and the ability to deliver a professional performance. Their genre was more of alternative rock, definitely more mainstream than the other bands. Lead singer and songwriter Troy McKrube did a nice job of belting the lyrics, while the puny bassist’s darting around on stage was also good to see.

The final act came from Benea Reach, a Norwegian heavy metal band. Their music was of the thrash-throb kind but distinctively different. The lead singer’s onstage appearance reminded me of Adam Gontier, and his lung-busting vocals were impressive. They were the only band at GIR 2009 who had some props on stage by erecting three towering mannequins—white masks, black cloaks, they reminded me of that monster from Hellraiser. Benea Reach gave a powerful performance to say the least, and also interacted quite a bit with the crowd.

By the time curtains fell on GIR 2009, and as we exited the premises, I was aware of the acute pain in my neck (one headbang too many), my calves and feet (over four hours of standing). But it didn’t take away anything from a great night out having witnessed my very first rock show.

Derby day drama

Manchester United 4-3 Manchester City (Old Trafford)

Didn’t blog about United’s 2-1 win over Arsenal or their 3-1 triumph over Tottenham Hotspurs, but I’ve been forced out of hibernation by the sheer class of this game. Easily the best game I’ve seen for a long time, with terrific passing, great attacking play from both teams and snatches of individual brilliance.

I have a million things to say about this game, but some other time. Suffice to say that I never in my wildest dreams imagined Michael Owen would play any part in a Manchester derby, let alone win one–courtesy of his last-gasp shot six minutes into extra time. The guy’s a genius!