There are certain variables in a football match that you can't prepare for. The attitude of the referee is one of them. Is he lenient or strict on the day? This is a variable that players have to adapt to only once the game has started and the ref has had to make a few decisions. You can tell within five minutes how the ref is going to control the game, and so you have to adapt how you play the game to accommodate his attitude.
The weather on match day is another variable that comes into play. A lot of wind means that control is that much harder, and so players who have better technical ability, a better first touch, better control and better passing skills, stand out that little bit more because players with less technical ability have things that much harder in those conditions.
Another variable is pressure. Players handle pressure situations in different ways. There are 'ice cool' customers (Paolo Maldini) who don't seem to ever get ruffled by the occasion. There are also 'hot heads' who can explode at any moment (Wayne Rooney) no matter what the occasion and there are those in-between who have a little bit of both in them (Zinedine Zidane). Who could have predicted Zidane head-butting Materazzi in the Soccer World Cup final and getting sent off? There are obviously two sides to Zidane - the 'left foot volley in the Champions League final' Zidane, and the 'What did you call my mother' Zidane. And there is no way to prepare for this variable.
Pressure has a way of sneaking up on you too. Normally unflappable players get agitated and start kicking the opposition. Players start making mistakes. They start getting on each other's backs. Fingers start getting pointed and the gameplan goes out the window. And pressure is contagious too. It rubs off onto players. They see their teammates panicking, and they start thinking too much about the situation themselves, and put themselves under more pressure.
One prime example was former French World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabian Barthez. He would be playing well in a match and suddenly mis-kick a backpass and his composure would go out the window. He would then be all over the place and you could see the defenders around him starting to fall apart. There were times when he was playing for Manchester United (especially against Arsenal) when you could literally see him fall apart.
This week there have been some shocking mistakes in the Champions League semi-finals. And at this stage of the tournament, these mistakes are punished and become costly.
In the Liverpool v Chelsea match at Anfield, the atmosphere was electric and you could feel the pressure. The normally unflappable Frank Lampard made a cardinal error just before half-time. John Terry's clearing header landed at Lampard's feet on the edge of his own goal area. Normally Frank would have taken a touch and either laid it off to a facing teammate to clear, or he would have played safe and kicked it out, but instead he chose to try and turn with the ball on the edge of the area with two Liverpool players closing him down. He lost the ball, and Liverpool went on to score from the situation. One mistake. one goal.
In the dying seconds of the match, Solomon Kalou of Chelsea was stuck in the corner with his back to the rest of the field. Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa didn't want to give a corner away, so he defended on the 'outside' and let Kalou turn inside and cross the ball - first mistake. John Arne Riise waiting in the small goal area was first to the ball, but because he favours his left foot and the cross was coming onto his right foot, he panicked into trying to head a difficult ball clear - and into his own goal. Two mistakes - one goal.
At this level there are no secrets. All four semi-finalists are great teams with great players. Tactically they have each other worked out. Player for player they are all very even. But how each individual player handles the pressure is the one variable we can't predict. Will Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty miss against Barcelona come back to haunt United? I'm not sure I can handle the pressure of watching the second leg match!
George is Media24's Group Soccer Manager and represented South Africa during the 1994 Soccer World Cup qualifiers.
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