TORONTO - This week bore witness to an undeniable truth in professional football: The Champions League, whether of the UEFA or CONCACAF variety, is both a blessing and a curse. Look no further than Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur to hammer the point home.
On Wednesday, Spurs hammered dirty-minded headline writers the world over’s favorite team, Young Boys, 4-0 to advance to the group stages of Champions League for the first time in the North London club’s history. That victory alone meant an extra, at minimum, £11 million into Spurs’ coffers for the year. Fresh off of the high of that win, Spurs laid a complete egg yesterday, slumping to a 1-0 defeat to a Wigan side who had conceded ten goals in its first two matches. Spurs were spent.
Simply put, Champions League football takes its toll mentally, physically, and emotionally on a club and the ravages of it were on display last night at BMO Field when a dead tired Toronto FC played an equally worn-out Real Salt Lake to a 0-0 draw. Both teams played their third match in eight days and both were only 72 hours removed from lengthy flights into town: RSL coming in from Mexico and TFC coming in from Panama. The Group A CONCACAF Champions League rivals, level on three points from two matches, began to labor as the match went on, but nobody can be faulted, as the prestigious tournament means a congested fixture schedule. Possible glory comes with possible consequences.
All things considered, though, Toronto FC manager, Preki, was pleased with his troops’ performance.
“I thought we gave it a really good effort tonight”, said the gaffer. “It could have gone either way. Both teams had a few chances, but I thought the commitment from the group was pretty good. Everybody worked hard, but, at times, I’d like to see us work a little bit smarter”.
While Preki was willing to give his side a pass, these were two more dropped home points for TFC and the club faces the stark reality of a fourth straight campaign without post-season football unless picking up points on the road starts to materialize. With only four points collected away from BMO thus far, and no indication of improvement on an abysmal road form, the fact that six of TFC’s nine remaining matches are away from home is enough for the club to hold dear any points earned at all.
When asked if he was happy that the club allowed Real Salt Lake to leave Toronto with a draw, defender Dan Gargan took the match for what it was and, much like his manager, stressed the positives.
“It’s still a point. We definitely wanted the three, but a point is a point. We kept a clean sheet. We can thank the right post for that, but I think we had some opportunities to win the game, so I think it was a pretty fair match. It’s a point and now we’re going to have to pick up some points on the road”.
With 66.6% of their remaining matches away from home, if the Reds are superstitious about that ominous number and their chances on the road, they certainly aren’t letting on.
“We’re not afraid to [win on the road]”, explained Gargan. “I feel like we’re playing a little bit better of a brand of soccer [away] and I think that we believe in ourselves, and each other, so I think we definitely have the capability to do that”.
Even with the optimistic outlook on the situation, the players haven’t lost touch with reality and know that the odds for success are not in their favor. Although this certainly might temper the expectations of the fans, the team is prepared to do everything they can to secure a playoff berth.
“We’ve definitely got a tough road ahead of us. We have to pull out some big wins on the road, so I hope every guy is ready and focused for doing that, because we’ve got a tough time ahead of us”, said Dwayne De Rosario, who remains bullish on the team’s chances. “I think we can definitely find it in ourselves [to win], it’s just that we’ve got to dig down deep enough to get that out. That’s going to be up to each and every individual. Hopefully, we can do that”.
Maybe it’s a case of people trying make a story out of nothing, but the ongoing saga of Mista took another turn on Saturday. The striker was taken out at the half last Saturday versus New York due to “health issues”, but Preki seemed visibly perturbed when talking about the Spaniard at the post-game press conference. Mista flew with the team to Panama midweek, and even dressed, but did not play in a match that could have used the kind of industry of which he’s capable.
Yesterday, the striker played a full 90 minutes, ostensibly assuaging any talk of a rift between manager and player, but once again, the post-game conference told a bit of a different story.
When asked about his striker’s effort for the day, Preki said, “When he has the ball, Mista is talented”, before waiting a few seconds to qualify that with, “...but he’s still lacking 90-minute fitness”.
Preki’s words can be taken at face value, here, if you want. When Mista signed with Toronto earlier in the summer, he was not close to being in game shape and this was something that everybody from management down would acknowledge. It has understandably been a bit of a struggle for him to get into the form that he would like and adjust to the North American game, but for all of the whispers about the striker these days, it’s pretty easy to read the coach’s comments as a thinly-veiled shot at his player’s commitment to fitness.
This could be nothing at all, but more often than not, where there’s smoke, there’s fire
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