Friday, 9 November 2012

Bhoy oh Bhoy! Celtic's Barca Heroics Gives Scotland a Rare Reason to Smile

When Celtic packed their sporrans and set sail for sunny Catalonia two weeks ago, nobody in their right mind gave them a prayer against the all-conquering blaugrana beast that is FC Barcelona in their Champions League group match. Boasting a squad so talented it almost borders on cheating, this Barca team is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest club side of all time. It was supposed to be a case of ‘how many’ against a side playing in a league that is about as weak as an anaemic schoolchild and about as relevant today as a Wet, Wet, Wet cassette tape.

However, instead of a brutal, bloody massacre, we were treated to as heroic an away performance as you are likely to see from a side visiting the Camp Nou. The Hoops had the audacity to take a surprise lead through former Manchester City figure of ridicule Georgios Samaras and although they were begged back by Andres Iniesta after a typically irresistible Barcelona move, they looked on course to secure an unexpected and unlikely draw. Unfortunately, they were to have their wee hearts broken by a close range Jordi Alba finish in the dying embers of the game. All the post match talk was about the Celts’ glorious failure. Brave and gallant but ultimately disappointing for them to miss out on both a vital point towards qualification for the last sixteen and a chance to leave an imprint on a rare appearance at this stage of the competition. The manner of the defeat also dealt a devastating blow to a side not expected to repeat such heroics in the return game – even with home advantage.

How little did we know.

And so to a sold out Parkhead for what was again expected to be a stroll for the four time European Champions. If they were somewhat flat in the first game, then surely normal service would resume this time around? Barcelona, with their embarrassment of riches in terms on the pitch started the game in typically flowing, fluid fashion taking the game to their opponents pushing them further and further back. It seemed like only a matter of time before the first goal would arrive. But a peculiar thing occurred. Barca couldn’t create any clear cut chances. I want to make a 'Braveheart' joke here but I'd like to think I'm better than that. Not by much, mind. The green and white wall may have been camped on the edge of their own box but they weren’t about to allow their opponents through. Even though they were up against the admittedly frightening prospect of Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and a certain Leo Messi in the Barca attack – complimented of course by Xavi, Iniesta and marauding full backs Alba and Dani Alves. Compare that all-star cast to the likes of Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew. Players who you’d struggle to recognise if they came and sat next to you on a bus... in full Celtic kit.

Having weathered the early storm, 20 minutes in the home side found themselves in a rare and unfamiliar attacking scenario. A corner kick was sent into the box by the abovementioned Mulgrew and 21 year old Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama found himself rising above his marker to power home a header that sent the green and white half of Glasgow into frenzy. Undaunted, Barcelona immediately retook control of possession and came close to equalising as Messi hit the crossbar and a Sanchez header came back off the post. Celtic were able to hold on til half time. Barca started make something of a breakthrough in the second half. Unfortunately for them, they found England goalkeeping hopeful Fraser Forster in the Bhoys' goal in inspired form.

Not content with merely preventing the La Liga leaders from scoring, Forster decided to claim himself an assist. A huge kick launched upfield was totally misjudged by Xavi of all people and 18 year old substitute Tony Watt found himself with a clear run to goal to slot past Victor Valdes and make it 2-0 with just 5 minutes left on the clock. Cue pandemonium. Leo Messi pulled one back at the death but the damage was done. Celtic had beaten Barcelona and sent shockwaves throughout Europe. What a way to celebrate their 125th anniversary.

A word on the fantastic atmosphere in the ground. I don't want to get bogged down in 'twelfth man' clichés - I'm sure you can read about all that elsewhere - but even watching on TV you could sense that the vociferous support of the partisan crowd played it's part. The 55,000-odd home fans were duly rewarded for the relentless encouragement of their team. The sight of Rod Stewart overcome with emotion and blubbing like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert almost spoilt the moment but I guess we can let him off. Just. Without naming names, fans of some of the other British sides competition would do well to take note of how important it is to back your team even when the odds are so greatly stacked against you.

Celtic Park has hosted some famous nights in the past. Beating AC Milan and Manchester United in recent years will clearly rank highly but both will struggle to compare to this. It’s not unfair to say that the gap between the hosts and their opponents on this occassion is almost cosmic. To deny that Barcelona are by far the superior football team will most likely see you sectioned but Celtic sent out a timely reminder that in football, you can take absolutely nothing for granted. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it happen, you will likely have been left speechless when you heard the result. An upset of truly monumental proportions.

Part of what makes this result so astonishing is the perilous state that Scottish football currently finds itself in. For a number of years the domestic league has been in steady decline and become something of a laughing stock given that there were only two teams with the resources to compete for the title. Especially given that every half decent player in the country eventually found themselves playing for one of the Glasgow giants as soon as they showed any sign of promise. Naturally, this led to growing indifference from fans of other clubs. Attendances have dropped dramatically meaning no broadcaster is particularly prepared to pay any significant money to televise matches. Consequently, all the talent, if not heading to Glasgow, is leaving the country. The fact that the best Scottish managers currently ply their trade south of the border is a damning indictment.

The exodus is not just restricted to personnel. The league lost further credibility with the continued desperate clamour of Rangers and Celtic to join the English Premier League. As people rightly laughed off such a suggestion, there then came whispers of the big two trying to get involved in some sort of pan-European League which again served to highlight the need to escape the continuing drudgery of the lack of competition they faced at home.

Naturally, with very little coming in, clubs have taken quite the financial hit. None moreso than Rangers themselves who, after years of financial mismanagement, found themselves in crippling debt, administration and finally, liquidation this past summer. Much wrangling saw a 'new club' formed under the same identity but as a result of sanctions imposed, this season kicked off with the ludicrous scenario where the team who lifted the Scottish title for the 54th time just one year earlier were playing in the THIRD division against the likes of East Stirlingshire, Annan Athletic and Elgin. How they would have looked upon their neighbours' feat with great envy this week, remembering that it has barely been two years since they were the ones rubbing shoulders with Europe's elite.

Money troubles haven't been restricted to the blue half of Glasgow. Over in the capital, they're also feeling the pinch. Hearts, under the rule of controversial owner Lithuanian-based banker Vladimir Romanov, have spent recent years harbouring not entirely unrealistic aspirations of breaking up the Old Firm duopoly. Alas, no league titles have been forthcoming. The Jambos have instead found themselves emulating Rangers in a rather unwanted way. Just hours before Celtic's heroics this week, the Edinburgh club, facing the threat of administration, issued a statement pleading with supporters to stick their hands in their pockets to help save the club having been issued with a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill:

"Without the support of fans there is, as we issue this note, a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17 November against St Mirren.

This isn't a bluff, this isn't scaremongering, this is reality.

...we could be entering the final days of the club's existence."

Dramatic, desperate and ominous to say the very least. To bastardise the words of Oscar Wilde, for the Scottish Premier League to lose one club may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

The problems are not just exclusive to clubs. The news of Hearts' impending demise came just two days after the announcement from the SFA that Craig Levein had been sacked as manager of the Scottish national team. Recent years have seen the fortunes of the game at International level almost mirror the domestic plight. Levein's tenure left the Tarten Army with precious little to get excited about. The current qualifying campaign sees The Scots propping up their group with just two points from their opening four matches. Even putting results to one side, the performances and approach to matches painted a rather grim picture. Levein's legacy will forever be the now infamous ultra-defensive 4-6-0 formation deployed in Prague two years ago. One of the ironies of Celtic beating a Barcelona side that is universally lauded for their vibrant, attacking, fluid collective passing game is that the early origins of this style of play was said to have been introduced in Glasgow by Queen's Park back when football was in it's infancy. Times certainly have changed rather dramatically.

Levein's replacement, whoever he may be, has an unenviable task on his hands.

Curiously, there are no shortage of decent Scottish managers around. Least of all a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. Beyond the impossibly unlikly chance of him taking the job, Paul Lambert worked wonders at Norwich for three years before defecting to Aston Villa this summer while Steve Clarke is currently flying high at West Brom. Either of these would be excellent choices but again, the likelihood of them wanting the job right now would be extremely slim. Gordon Strachan is currently the bookies favourite.

For the most part, Scottish football currently finds itself in the doldrums. Celtic's victory this week is very rare positive passage what is currently otherwise a very miserable chapter in the history of the game north of the border. If you tell younger or more casual football fans that Celtic were the first British team to famously win the competition they'd be forgiven for thinking you were hallucinating after too much Irn Bru. When Jock Stein's 'Lisbon Lions' triumphed over Helenio Herrera's great Inter side in 1967 it was undoubtedly considered the greatest day in the history of the club. People are speaking of this Barcelona win as the second best and it has since has become something the whole country can theoretically latch on to. This speaks volumes of how much Scottish football as whole is in need of a lift.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Clattered! Blues see red as ref leaves his Mark - Weekend Observations: 27th-28th October 2012

Match of the weekend
After an epic 3-3 draw last season, Manchester United and Chelsea renewed pleasantries at Stamford Bridge in a match that will, for better or for worse, leave a permanent imprint – or perhaps stain – on this, or perhaps any season of the Premier League. The two sides, supporters and officials did their damnedest to squeeze as much incident as was humanly possible into the time allocated between kick off and full time.

The visitors closed the gap on their hosts at the top of the table to just one point with a dramatic 3-2 win - a scoreline Sir Alex's men seems to have trademarked this season. Having previously netted five times in his only two previous appearances at Chelsea while playing for Arsenal, Robin van Persie again proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of the West Londoners as his 3rd minute shot cannoned off the post and into David Luiz who was helpless as the ball bounced off him and into net. The Dutch striker doubled the lead not long after and the reds, arguably for the first time this season, looked in total control.

The much talked about Chelsea midfield Ménage à trois of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar was left frustrated as United were fairly comfortable with anything that was thrown in their direction. Anything that did sneak through was dealt with by David De Gea.

That was until just a few minutes before half time. Frustrated having ceded possession to the abovementioned Hazard, Wayne Rooney showed all the intelligence of a brain-damaged polar bear on a mushroom trip as he stupidly hacked down the tricky Belgian on the edge of the penalty area. This provided an invitation for the superb Mata to curl a wonderful free kick round the United wall and past De Gea to halve the deficit.

United’s defence has been under incredible scrutiny so far this term due to their basic inability to... well, defend. Just two clean sheets in the preceeding 8 league games tells its own story and while initially things seemed to be going to plan, the concession of the first Chelsea goal on Sunday seemed to be a signal to abandon any sense of discipline. An equaliser seemed inevitable and less than 10 minutes into the second half, Ramieres provided it with close range header from an Oscar cross.

The stage was set for a grand stand finale. Would United respond or implode? Could Chelsea push on for the win? The answers we sought to these questions were indeed provided. Unfortunately, they came less through the influence of either team on the pitch than they did from the officials. With half an hour remaining, Branislav Ivanovic was rightly sent off for clipping Ashley Young and denying him a clear goal scoring opportunity. The home side’s task instantly became more difficult but was made damn near impossible just five minutes later following Mark Clattenburg’s inexplicable decision to issue Fernando Torres with a second yellow card for a perceived dive when the Spaniard had clearly been fouled by Johnny Evans.

Having already been reduced to 10 men, it’s difficult to say whether the European Champions would have got anything from the game. However, they would certainly have at least had something of a fighting chance with Torres on the pitch. The second red card didn't so much hand United the initiative insofar as it was presented to them on a silver platter.

Over the past two decades, be it rightly or wrongly, football fans have always believed Manchester United to regularly be on the receiving end of favourable decisions from referees. 'Fergie time' has become an accepted part of the football lexicon and the general reaction from away fans upon the Reds being rewarded a penalty at Old Trafford, deserved or not, is simply an eyeroll, a tut and a mutter of the word 'typical'.

There’s obviously no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any sort of influence/pressure on officials exists but the frequency with which we find ourselves discussing these incidents undoubtedly allows paranoia to grow and people to fuel their suspicions.

Although on this particular on this occasion, many would simply draw the conclusion that the man in the middle, despite supposedly being among the best in the world, is, to put it as kindly as possible, prone to the odd glaring error rather then being biased. You'd be hard pressed to find a fan of any club who couldn't provide an example of a Clattenburg clanger that has hurt their team. United supporters themselves have been quick to point out that Torres might have walked earlier when his clumsy high kick on Tom Cleverly only received a yellow. Was Clattenberg merely 'correcting' his earlier faux pas? It's more likely the case he just made two equally bad decisions.

So is he corrupt or just incompetent? Neither description paints a particularly pretty picture of the Durham official.

To make matters worse, the reds sealed a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to a goal from Javier Hernandez that was so blatantly offside, the Mexican may as well have been in another time zone (Mexico's, for example). The assistant’s failure to spot this just punctuated what turned out to be a rather dismal weekend for top flight officials. A similar goal was wrongly allowed to stand at the Emirates as Arsenal beat QPR 1-0 while in the Merseyside derby, the odious Luis Suarez was wrongly adjudged to be in an offside position as he scored Liverpool’s last gasp would-be winner against their city rivals. Two points were cruelly snatched away from Brendan Rodgers’ side as the game finished 2-2.

The tragedy of all these talking points is that a brilliant game of football has gone largely unnoticed. One of reasons the title slipped from United's grasp last season was their reluctance to "go for it" in away games against rivals. The meek surrender at Eastlands being the prime and ultimately most costly example. Lessons seemed to have been learned as they dominated the opening exchanges here and were duly rewarded. However, while defensive problems remain, the cavalier approach is always going to be a risk hence the reason this turned out to be the fifth 3-2 result (as well as a 4-2 against Stoke) they've been involved in this season with less than a quarter of the campaign gone.

Despite the loss, many people will still have Chelsea down as favourites for the title this year. Like United, problems are evident in defence but the collective firepower in attack will be enough to overwhelm most teams. Having fought back from 2-0 down, I don't think there are many that would argue that if it remained 11 v 11, they would more than likely have won the game. Still sitting pretty at the top of the league, the loss is unlikely to have any lasting effects.

Racist allegation of the Weekend
Curiously, the erroneously awarded red card and winning goal were not even the most controversial incidents at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Classy, cuddly bunch that they are, the Chelsea faithful, from first minute to last, insisted on jeering and abusing Rio Ferdinand for having the gall to be related to someone who was racially abused by their captain. These fans continued to cover themselves in glory as they decided to shower the United players with coins as they celebrated Hernandez' goal. You can't even afford them the excuse of the goal being offside to fuel their indignation given that very few of them would have been aware at that particular moment that the goal shouldn't have been allowed to stand. In the same incident, some supporters felt it necessary to take out their frustrations on a steward, causing him an injury that required hospital treatment. Any sympathy for them having seen their side robbed by the referee took very little time to disappear.

Somehow even this was pushed into the shade when, in the aftermath, the club filed an official complaint to the FA about the controversial Clattenburg, citing the use of "inappropriate language" directed at two of their players during the game. While the irony of Chelsea Football Club having the audacity to accuse anyone else of this offence is lost on absolutely no-one, the seriousness of the claim should not be ignored. Especially given that fevered speculation has suggested the official racially abused Jon Obi Mikel as well as insulting another Blue.

The allegation casts yet another dark cloud over the game. As we finally shut the door on one race saga, another swiftly decides to show up on your front porch uninvited (presumably wearing a white sheet and burning a cross on your lawn as well).

It would be remiss to speculate while investigation is ongoing but Chelsea would have to be pretty certain about what supposedly took place in order to pursue this complaint. Then again, surely Clattenburg cannot be THAT stupid to make such comments, particularly in the current climate when football's problems with race are such a hot topic. On one hand, you could potentially have one of the FA's top referees potentially guilty of racism which would prove nothing short of a disaster for the already battered integrity of the sport. While on the flipside, Clattenburg clearing his name would quite simply confirm that Chelsea football club, from the very top down, are untrustworthy liars making an extremely misguided attempt to deflect their recent troubles onto someone else. This is literally the last thing their reputation needs on top of everything else.

While we all hope this is resolved sooner rather than later, it can be probably be agreed that there will be no outcome in this case would be 'good' news.

Player of the weekend
Few (none?) particularly outstanding performances so I'm just going to give it to Frank Lampard... or Scott Parker.

Save of the weekend
It would be easy to wheel out the 'silenced his critics' line that often accompanies David De Gea's now regularly impressive performances but it would ultimately prove pointless given that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't now recognise his obvious talent. If any doubters remain, an incredible reflex clawed stop from a Fernando Torres in the first half of Sunday's match should make them sit up and take note.

Goal of the weekend
But for the events at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, the 3-3 ding dong played out at the Madjeski between Reading and Fulham would have been the standout game of the weekend. An end to end slugfest that couldn't produce a winner but had no trouble producing a number of great goals. Mikele Leigertwood's fantastic opener for the Royals and Dimitar Berbatov's late strike stood out in themselves but both were bettered by Bryan Ruiz' wonderful rifled drive which swerved its way between two defenders and managed to dip just under the crossbar leaving Alex McCarthy in the Reading goal stunned.

Dive of the weekend
The merseyside derby, and all the attention prematch was predictably on Luis Suarez and his frequent forays to get better acquainted with the turf despite never actually being fouled. David Moyes had made some damning comments beforehand but he hadn't reckoned on his own captain being the culprit on the day. Anticipating a non-existent challenge from Daniel Agger, Phil Neville went down faster than a drunken reveller falling out of Alma De Cuba on a typical night out in the Liverpool city centre. The most amusing thing was the fact that the former United man was quite clearly not experienced enough in the dark arts to execute even a remotely convincing dive and just ended up looking daft.

In fairness, he fronted up to the cameras afterwards and admitted his act of folly. Such was the embarrassing way he failed to pull off the manoeuvre, it's probably safe to say he won't be attempting any Suarez impressions again any time soon.

Ballsiest moment of the weekend
Speaking of whom, the dislikable Uruguayan put in a typically eventful headline-grabbing display scoring Liverpool's second, escaping a red card for a disgusting stamp on Sylvain Distin and as mentioned above, scoring a legitimate goal that was wrongly disallowed. Before all that however, having set up his side's opener (which went in via Leighton Baines) Suarez took it upon himself to celebrate by sprinting up to the Everton bench and, yep, DIVED at the feet of David Moyes. The Everton manager took it in good spirits but most people would generally know better than to attempt to wind up the firey Glaswegian who could only be technically described as 'Fucking nails'. In a Premier League battle royale, few would look further than Moyes as a potential victor so in that sense, credit must go to Suarez. He might act like a complete pussy at times but he clearly has balls made of solid steel.

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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Spured On - Weekend Observations : 28th September - 1st October

Game of the weekend
Manchester United 2-3 Tottenham

It's almost become something of an accepted fact in English football that a trip to Old Trafford for Tottenham is something of a wasted journey. Without a win up there in over 2 decades, the only reason the Tottenham faithful have had any good reason to head up the M6 is seemingly to indulge in masochism as their side are only ever likely to endure some sort of humiliating defeat or witness repeated refereeing injustices that are often as laughable as they are infuriating. Ryan Giggs' sister-in law doesn't get screwed as regularly in Manchester as Spurs do.

However, recent years have seen the North Londoners go through something of a revolution and have found themselves flying up the table. At best an inconsistent and at worst a mediocre team, for a good while Tottenham were marooned in mid table obscurity with a penchant for the odd act of self harm - particularly against United. Now, they find themselves in the Premier League's upper echelon harboring not unrealistic expectations of competing in the Champions League regularly. This status firmly enshrined with a unexpected and historic 3-2 victory over Manchester United on Saturday.

This victory was far from fortunate either. Jan Vertonghen wasted no time setting the tone for what was a brilliant first half performance with his deflected first minute strike before Gareth Bale provided the perfect 'football reason' for Roy Hodgson to justify Rio Ferdinand's continued exclusion from the England set up. Not for the first time this season, United were being outplayed and struggled to get anywhere near an inspired Tottenham team who certainly didn't play like a team with a 23 year hoodoo hanging over their collective heads.

After Spurs controlled the first 45 minutes, the expected fightback from United inevitably came after the break but three goals in as many manic minutes when both sides simply said 'fuck tactics' saw the away side take a 3-2 lead. Despite numerous chances for the home side and a couple of penalty appeals, that was how it stayed and as the final whistle echoed around Salford, both Spurs and new manager Andre Villas-Boas were able to party like it was 1989.

Speaking of whom, the win was an emphatic way for the Portuguese manager to go some way towards answering back to his many critics. One of the recently adopted and accepted maxims, although one that seems solely to exist within the tabloid press, is that the club's decision to replace 'Arry Redknapp with Villas Boas was the wrong one. And that's being polite. Reading many of the papers over the last few months and you'd be forgiven for getting the impression that Redknapp was some kind of managerial sage with wisdom of Socrates while AVB was/is no better than... well, David Brent.

The fact Villas Boas has both won a domestic title in his native land as well as a European trophy (neither of which Redknapp has even came close to achieving) apparently went unnoticed in some quarters and attempts to undermine him have been frequent and persistent ever since he set foot in this country. A fleeting, albeit disastrous spell at Chelsea at the start of last season has created the false image that he is somehow some sort of clueless oaf who has no business managing in the Premier League. However, despite 'Arry's high finishes with Spurs over the last three seasons, it wouldn't be unfair to argue that the last six months of his tenure, when he somehow guided his team from touching distance of the top of the table to complete failure to qualify for the Champions League after spunking away a huge lead, was far, far worse than the failings of AVB at Stamford Bridge. Yet rather than being subject to scrutiny within the sports media for this catastrophe, Redknapp was protected has been able to emerge completely blameless for his failings. Meanwhile AVB continues to be crufified. Consequently, the conclusion is that he doesn't 'deserve' to manage Tottenham. Maybe victory at Old Trafford might allow people time to reassess him.

Of course, this result by no means suggests Villas-Boas will prove to be the second coming of Bill Nicholson but talks of crisis beforehand and the absurd notion that was touted just two weeks ago was that he was three games from being sacked just looks ever more daft in light of the win. Instead, the three successive league wins that have followed might want to make the agenda driven cynics wait a little while before penning absurdly premature obituaries.

As for United, they were once again nowhere near best this season and this match showed that continued decay their midfield seems to be accelerating at a rapid rate. Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey - the latter scoring what proved to be the winner - were both instrumental for Tottenham and you have to wonder why Sir Alex Ferguson failed to even look at either player over the summer. Each would certainly be an improvement on what is there already.

Player of the weekend
Luis Suarez.

Norfolk must be sick of the sight of the Uruguayan after he scored he second hat trick in successive seasons at Carrow Road as Liverpool put Norwich to the sword with a devastating 5-2 demolition job on Saturday.

Persistent diving, racial abuse, harassing referees. Like him or loathe him (and I make no secret of the fact it's the latter...) you'd be an imbecile to attempt to deny his ability as a player. That said, for all the fleet-footed dribbling, dazzling movement and the unrivaled way he is able create chances for himself out of absolutely nothing, questions still remain over his finishing. 11 league goals from 128 shots last season is hardly a reflection of a forward who is exactly clinical in front of goal. What people say if those were Emile Heskey's numbers?

But alas, throw enough darts and you'll eventually win the lottery (or something. I'm no good with metaphors...). Some very generous Norwich defending provided Suarez with the freedom of East Anglia and he duly obliged with a trio of well taken goals that has gone some way to lifting the doom and gloom that was making itself somewhat comfortable at the club like some unwanted house guest in recent weeks. If Suarez can continue in this vein, Brendan Rodgers might actually crack a smile sometime this side of new year.

Goal of the weekend
Adel Taarabt

I already had this section written up about Demba Ba's excellent volley at Reading until QPR's Moroccan midfielder had to go and spoil everything in Monday evening's London derby against West Ham with a stunning strike that had no place in an otherwise in a strangely watchable game devoid of any real quality. Having been reduced to something of a bit part player this year, Taarabt wasted little time after coming on as a substitute, using his quick feet to create space on the left hand corner of the penalty area before unleashing a vicious but precise strike into the top right hand corner leaving Jussi Jaaskelainen in the West Ham goal rooted to the spot.

Sadly it proved to be nothing more than a consolation - merely halving teh two goal deficit the Hammers had already established. The 2-1 defeat has The Hoops floundering at the foot of the table and with Mark Hughes' team selections continuing to baffle there seems to be little reason to suggest that will change in the coming weeks.

Dive(s) of the weekend
David Luiz/Carl Jenkinson

In direct contrast to QPR, West London rivals Chelsea made themselves comfortable at the top of the table thanks to 2-1 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates. The blues were good value for their victory but their Brazilian defender single-handedly attempted to blot their copybook with a dive so bad it was hilarious. Rather than ride a perfectly fair tackle by Arsenal's own clown in chief Gervinho, Luiz instead proceeded to throw himself to the ground in both dramatic and comical fashion in a manner befitting of his hapless animated doppelganger Sideshow Bob. Thankfully the referee saw fit to yellow card Luiz for his troubles.

Not be outdone, Arsenal full back Carl Jenkinson later decided he wanted to get up close and personal with the beautiful Emirates turf he somehow managed to win a foul after losing a 50-50 challenge with thin air and going over his own feet.

Miss of the weekend
Oliver Giroud

The same game saw Arsenal superflop Olivier Giroud find his way onto this list after fluffing a fantastic chance in the dying moments of the game to salvage a draw for his side. Having latched onto a fine pass from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Frenchman found himself with the ball at his feet, took it past Petr Cech and fashioned the opportunity to slide home a golden chance that would preserved the Gunners' unbeaten start to the league campaign. Sadly, when the vital moment came, Giroud showed all the composure of newborn foal and all the technique of a Parkinson's sufferer trying to play Jenga as he inexplicably lashed his shot into the side netting when hitting the target would have been easier.

I hope you can forgive the damn near radical thinking on my part, but I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that a striker should really be able to put the ball into that rather large white stationary netted box thing at the end of the pitch. Given that others strikers Nikica Jelavic, Steven Fletcher, Mladen Petric, Sergio Agureo, Edin Dzeko, the abovementioned Luis Suarez, Steve Morison, Grant Holt, Demba Ba, Noel Hunt, Shane Long, Darren Bent and, hell, even Fernando Torres managed to find the target this weekend suggests I'm not crazy for having that view. Although on the evidence of this miss, it might be stretching it to actually believe that Giroud can strictly be called a striker.

His own manager, seemingly as baffled as anyone watching, couldn't actually find a reason as to how his misfit frontman failed to hit the back of the net.

Giroud has yet score for Arsenal in the league and is perhaps coming to terms with the change of environment. For some players it takes time and maybe he'll come good one day but there is little room for extended periods of patience in the modern game. When you join a club to replace the best striker in Europe the previous season, you need to hit the ground running. Right now, he's just looking like a bit of an expensive mistake.

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Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Six (1st July 2012)

Spain dine at top table as Italians are roasted in Kiev

So Euro 2012 is done and dusted. As many predicted beforehand, Spain have emerged victorious and after the brutal 4-0 decimation of Italy in final, reinforced their position as one of the greatest international sides the game has ever seen. At the same time sticking two fingers up to all those who were less than impressed with their somewhat subdued performances in this tournament leading up to the final. Accusations of their possession based game being boring, negative and, most absurdly, 'anti football' were unduly harsh and at times laughable. In the end, such claims were left to look truly idiotic as Vincente Del Bosque's team put in one of the all time great performances that will no doubt leave a permanent imprint on the minds of anyone fortunate enough to see it. More often than not, cup finals tend to disappoint as teams enter with a sense of caution resulting in cagey affairs that rarely live up to the occasion. Spain blew that idea out of the water in some style.

It didn't take long for the Spanish Juggernaut to get into gear. Much has been made of Del Bosque's decision to play without a striker for a lot of the competition. The prevailing view is that he sacrificed an outlet in order to accommodate an extra attacking midfielder to aid in their retention of the ball. While this is true on a basic level, it doesn't, as the cynics would like to believe, reduce their attacking options. Playing with a more withdrawn forward or 'false 9', actually gives the team more fluidity which in turn, enhances their creativity. Tasked with this role as the advanced attacking midfield player is Cesc Fabregas who demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy by waltzing into the box & delivering a pinpoint cross for David Silva to head home. Contrary to the lazy belief that Spain are one dimensional, a cross and header in fact demonstrates that they are capable of scoring different types of goal rather than simply trying to 'walk the ball into the net'. Not for the first time either. This was Spain's second headed goal of the competition following Xabi Alonso's opener against France. Providing the cross that day was the continuously impressive Jordi Alba and it was the marauding left back who doubled Spain's lead in the final. An ambitious initial run, a fantastic one-two with Xavi and the most composed of finishes essentially ended the game as a contest before half time.

That's not say Italy were bad. For a lot of the game they performed admirably and even created a fair few decent chances themselves. At 1-0 they were very much in the game and may have even found themselves level but for the Spanish centre back pairing of Gerrard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Behind them, the impenetrable Iker Casillas was not to be beaten by any Italian chances that found their way through. On another day, against another team, the efforts of Cassano et al would have yeilded greater rewards. It was difficult not have sympathy at the end but they simply had no answer to a rampant Spanish team whose display was as close to perfection as one would imagine possible in football terms.

As if things weren't difficult enough, they were also forced to play with 10 men for much of the second half when their third and final substitute Thiago Motta was forced off with a hamstring injury just minutes after coming on. This simply meant the Spanish could grind them down and duly scored their third and fourth goals in the closing stages of the game to add some gloss to what was already a pristine performance. Fernando Torres, who has otherwise been one of the few disappointing players in the squad, came off the bench to latch onto another incisive Xavi through ball and become the first player to score in successive Euro Championship finals. Just minutes later, Torres laid on a pass for Chelsea teammate Juan Mata, himself making his first appearance in the competition as a late sub, to finish a typically majestic Spanish move.

The once again flawless and inspirational Andres Iniesta was rewarded with the Player of the Tournament gong by UEFA and you'd be hard pressed to find many dissenting voices. The Barcelona man is the beating heart of a team that contains an almost obscene number of star players. The fact he can still stand out in such a brilliant side is testament to his ability which doesn't even appear to be relenting as he gets older. If anything, as he matures, he seems to flourish even more.

'Boring' Spain, have made history by becoming the first team to successfully defend the title & in doing so, have now won three tournaments in a row after their triumph at the World Cup in South Africa two years ago. Debates will now naturally rage over whether this is the greatest international team ever. It's often a futile exercise attempting to compare things from different eras because quite simply, circumstances change over time. What was beneficial to teams of the past may be detrimental to modern sides and vice versa. There is no doubt about it though, the Spanish team of the last five years can unquestionably sit alongside the famous Brazil, France, Uruguay, German and Italy teams that have achieved similar greatness in years gone by and it's not unfair to suggest that anybody who loves football will feel a sense of privilege that they were around to witness their ascension to the top of the footballing tree.

Viva Espana!

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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Five (27th-28th June 2012)

Spain are spot on as Ronaldo is forced to pay the Penalty

The penalty shoot out. Often criticised as being cruel and an unfair way of deciding the outcome of a football match. A paradox of controlled random occurrences that more often than not prevents the better football team from success. Recently, Sepp Blatter suggested that there ought to be some better alternative to deciding games but aside from actually continuing extra time indefinitely, what could actually be more decisive than penalties? Stripping football to its most basic element - kicking a ball towards goal - is surely the best way of determining who the best team is. And of course, let's not forget the drama involved. The game is better for it.

Spain made it to their third successive tournament final by virtue of a shoot out as they defeated Portugal. It's safe to say that the penalties provided far more points of interest than the match itself which ended goalless after 120 minutes. The psychology of penalties is a curious thing. The act in itself is completely removed from the collaborative the 'team' and is one of the very rare examples in the game when it's outcome is solely down to 'the player' who is now out of his familiar comfort zone within the confines of his team. In contrast to the speed of thought and spontaneity required in a match situation, a penalty becomes more calculated as it allows the taker, and to an extent, the keeper, more time weigh up their options and to consider their move. Left or right? High or low? Power or placement? However, sometimes there might even be too much thinking involved.

And of course, one of the most beautiful things about penalties is that they require, with one rare exception, no real skill other than the ability to kick a ball.

The main talking point to emerge from this shoot out was the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't allowed/chose not to take one of Portugal's first four penalties. The reason for this is unknown but has caused no end of speculation. A lot of it based on the perhaps incorrect assumption that Ronaldo was somehow guaranteed to score. Given that Spain's first choice taker, the reliable Xabi Alonso saw his kick saved, absolutely nothing could be taken for granted.

Did he bottle it or was he gambling on the fifth penalty being the winner so he could hog the limelight? The latter view is one that many hold simply due to the fact Ronaldo's general aura would suggest he was confident of scoring whenever he would need to step up. It's safe to say that confidence is an absolute necessity when approaching the spot and ties into another theory was wasn't among the early takers. Perhaps Bento wanted to protect and alleviate the pressure on the supposedly less assured and less reliable players by making them take one earlier, saving his 'sure thing' til the end. Either way, it didn't pay off as misses by Joao Moutinho & Bruno Alves meant things didn't get that far. The former seeing his kick saved by Iker Casillas while the latter crashed his otherwise well hit shot off the underside of the cross bar. Only fractions stop us from lauding it as the superb, 'unsaveable' strike it was aspiring to be. It's the very fine margins like this that are all to often the difference between 'good' and 'bad' penalties.

Alves' kick provided another sub plot to this shoot out as he initially appeared to be set to take kick number 3 until he was stopped & replaced by Nani. You have to wonder if this had an effect on his eventual miss. The delay perhaps causing him to lose focus.

One player who remained focused was Sergio Ramos who delighted us with the aesthetically pleasing chipped penalty or 'Panenka' named after its first proponent. As a variation on the primal act of simply shooting, this is that 'rare exception' mentioned above and the closest a penalty can come to requiring any skill as it is designed merely designed to deceive the goalkeeper.

The win was ultimately sealed by Cesc Fabregas who sent his penalty beyond the despairing outstretched arm of Rui Patricio hitting the post before crossing the line to put Spain into the final. Mere centimetres to the left & it strikes the post & comes away, a few to the left & the keeper saves it. Those ever so fine margins once again come into play.

Despite failing to sparkle during the game and, in the view of many, throughout the tournament as a whole, Spain could now find themselves winning a third successive international competition and, if they haven't done so already, establish themselves as one of football's all time great sides. All they have to do is get the better of the only other team in these Championships they've played so far and failed to beat.

Super Mario's star power too much for Germany

To the shock of many, the Spain will go into Sunday's final, not to face Germany but, square off against Italy and the mercurial Mario Balotelli. The controversial striker made a late play for a staring role as one one the players of the tournament with an inspired performance that yeilded two ultimately decisive goals to oust the much fancied Germans and leave his country just one game from glory. His first goal came as a result of a fine header following some wonderful footwork from his strike partner Antonio Cassano who also provided the cross. 10 minutes before half time a wonderful ball from Riccardo Motolivo found Balotelli poised 25 yards from goal before unleashing a spectacular shot into the top corner that left Manuel Nauer rooted.

'Super' Mario has had something of an interesting 12 months. Last Summer on tour in the States with Manchester City he made the headlines for a very public falling out with his manager following a hilariously failed attempt to pirouette/back-heel a goal during a friendly. Just a few months later he scored a brace in City's now famous 6-1 win over crosstown rivals United in their own backyard. In January came the game against Spurs when he appeared to stamp on the head of Scott Parker, escaped immediate punishment and went on to score the winning goal from the penalty spot in the last minute. Then came more rumours of fallings out with his teammates before what can only be described as a counter-productive and reckless contribution to the crucial match against Arsenal that saw him see red. After it was suggested that Roberto Mancini had reached the end of his tether and was prepared to sell his fellow countryman, Mario somehow re-emerged to make telling contribution to City's dramatic final day league win by laying on the key pass for Sergio Aguero to score the all important winning goal against QPR that May afternoon.


Then came the Euros. A lacklustre first two games resulted in Balo being dropped for the final group game against Ireland. It was in this game that he managed to come on and score one of the goals of the tournament with an an innovated scissor kick that Irish defender John O'Shea STILL cant comprehend. However, rather than simply enjoying the moment, 'Mad' Mario instead provided us with one of the images of the competition as teammate Leonardo Bonucci had to physically prevent him from verbally abusing manger Cesare Prandelli for daring to leave him out of the starting line up. Balotelli showed more glimpses of brilliance against England and while he was unfortunate not to convert in the match, he did score in the subsequent penalty shootout to help set up the showdown with Germany.

Balotelli's life and career are both subject to considerable attention. He is one of football's few 'characters' and even before moving to England, made almost as many headlines off the pitch as he had on it. Although as you can see, even without the stories of fireworks in his bathroom or driving into women's prisons, his football is still enough to keep you interested. Capable of both genius and misadventure, the man Jose Mourinho once described as 'unmanageable' invokes a fascination not seen on these shores since a previous Manchester based striker in Eric Cantona – another player whose detrimental 'mad' moments could be quite quickly forgiven as moments of inspiration were often not far away.

The next chapter of Balotelli story, one way or another, will be written on Sunday as Spain and Italy renew acquaintances.

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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Four (21st-24th June 2012)

Parts one, two and three

Cristiano sends away blank Czechs

Cristiano Ronaldo
took centre stage once again as Portgual took their place in the semi finals with a 1-0 win over a feeble Czech Republic side. After an opening day pasting at the hands of Russia, Czech manager Michal Bilek understandably decided to err of the side of caution and in subsequent games, his team have been content to sit back and attempt to hit the opposition on the counter. Up until this point, it has largely been successful. However, they took the extreme against Portugal and didn't make any great attempt to utilise the abovementioned counter attacking strategy that has seen them make it this far. The previously adventurous wide men Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar were virtually spectators. They seemed determined to try and simply contain for the duration and hopefully take their chance with a penalty shoot out. It is easy to knock this game plan but history is littered with examples of its success. But alas, while it may have worked for sides in the past, you don't need me to tell you how risky it is a gameplan. Particularly when you are up against one of the two current best players in the world.

Despite the Czechs approach, Portugal still managed to carve them open with somewhat embarrassing ease. Ronaldo was in irresistible form despite his personal duel with the frame of the goal. The speed of his feet and intelligent movement meant that the Czech defence were unable to get near him despite attempts to double or sometimes triple mark him. Yet given all the attention on what he does with the ball, his goal actually came from a superb diving header which only served to both emphasise and justify the plaudits he receives when people identify him as the most complete player in world football. It was heartening to see his celebrated by the watching Eusabio and Luis Figo. The two Portuguese greats of years past shared an embrace as the heir to their throne put Portugal into the semi final. While they will eternally remain legends in their own right, Ronaldo will be looking to do what both men were unable to in their otherwise illustrious respective careers by actually delivering a senior international trophy for his country.

While Ronaldo was once again the star, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they are a one man team. Without the supporting cast around him to play in a way that allows him to flourish, there's no way they would still be in the competition. Joao Moutinho has been magnificent in his midfield role. Disciplined when he needs to be, but also a creative outlet as he roams in behind the forward line. It was his cross from the right that led to the decisive goal. One area of concern would be the defence. Pepe and Bruno Alves have rarely looked assured as a centre back pairing and the fact that this was their first clean sheet of the competition is more to with the Czechs lack of ambition than any kind of solid defence display.

They face now face Spain for a place in the final and while they go in as underdogs, it's certainly worth repeating that Ronaldo's form and the confidence generated throughout the rest of the team could certainly prove to be a catalyst for a potential upset.

Greece still in Euro woe after being unable to accept Germany's change

Greece v Germany turned out to be the mismatch every preview promised it would be. The Germans ruthless dumped the Greece out of the Euros much like... [nope. Not going there. Sticking to football.] The 4-2 scoreline flattered a Greek team that were overwhelmed from the first whistle. Joachim Loew elected to rest his entire first choice forward line of Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Luckas Podolski, replacing them with the young and hungry Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle who supported the evergreen Miroslav Klose. Loew may well have presented himself with the most welcome of selection headaches as the understudies came in and performed as admirably as those were selected in favour of. Schurrle had a goal disallowed within three minutes, Klose powered in a header to put Germany 3-1 ahead and Reus hammered in an empathic volley to make it 4-1. Selections vindicated.

Equally as good as the front three was the midfield trio of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Ozil and Schweinsteiger were as good as could be expected facing a far inferior side – weaving in and out, creating openings and rarely looking troubled by a Greek midfield that was so out of it's depth they almost drowned. Special praise is reserved for Khedira who capped off a fine performance with arguably the goal of the game; a vicious volley into the roof of the net from a Jerome Boateng cross. I say 'arguably' as the game was full of great goals. There are few strikers who could have scored the kind of goal left back Philip Lahm did to open the scoring while if most teams had produced the wonderful sweeping move that led to Georgious Samaras' equaliser for Greece, we'd be lauding it as one of the great team goals of the competition. Then, of course, there was Rues' rocket.

While the result and arguably the scoreline were no surprise, the evident strength in depth throughout the German squad was something that would have probably surprised many. The seamless way in which the newer players were able to integrate so easily is both impressive and somewhat scary. Weaknesses, if any exist, a few and far between and it is for this reason many people now view Loew's team as favourites for the competition rather than Spain.

Spain reign once again in Ukraine despite accusations of being mundane.

Speaking of whom, in a continuing theme from the last blog post, it now seems to have become fashionable or the 'in thing' to criticise and label them as boring. This is in part due to one of the most dire games in the competition to date as they did away with an unambitious France team without really breaking a sweat. For those that managed to stay awake, what you would have seen was a simple procession of Spain doing what they do best in retaining possession. Aside from the fantastic run and cross by Jordi Alba for Xabi Alonso headed opening goal and the quick feet of Pedro to draw a last minute foul and penalty (which Alonso duly dispatched) there was literally nothing of note to report from the match.

The onus was on France to try and deny them the time and space to pass the ball among themselves at will – something their ultra-defensive approach combined with a disgraceful lack of effort didn't seem to allow them to do. Laurent Blanc decided to field not just one, but two right backs – Debuchy and Reveilleire. Yet Spain's marauding Jordi Alba was able to get away from both before hanging a ball over to Alonso, a supposed holding midfielder, who was unmarked in the box, to open the scoring.

On very few occasions was there a French player even willing to try and press the Spanish pass masters. This often meant that the likes of Karim Benzema and Frank Ribery – both of whom have had a poor tournament after so much hope and expectation – found themselves dropping so deep they were unable to create anything the few times they actually managed to find themselves in possession of the ball. France barely played like a team that had come into the tournament on a 21 game unbeaten run and with more talk of arguments and bickering among the squad, it's little surprise they'll heading home with their tails between their legs once more. Lessons of the last World Cup still go unlearned.

As I say, it is now fashionable to criticise the Spanish. The ability to retain possession seemingly now does not win over fans. I wonder if these same fans simply expect Spain to just needlessly give the ball away to the opposition for the sake of 'entertainment'. While it admittedly didn't provide for any sort of spectacle, there was little wrong with what they did. I know that the current World and European Champions don't need me to defend them but if France didn't come to play, then why should Spain? In tournament football, three games in a week, it makes perfect for Spain to stay in second gear, maintain a slower tempo and get the required result. We'd all like to see them take the handbrake off but from a purely strategic and tactical point of view, Vincente Del Bosque will be rightly satisfied to see his side not overly exert themselves unnecessarily. As a result, they will probably be the freshest of all four teams going into the semi finals.

Andrea Pirl's on the misery for England

And so the first 0-0 of the competition, came, almost unsurprisingly, between Italy and England. In a game lacking goals, possession was once again the talking point. Italy had it, England couldn't seem to keep it. The same old English failings reared their head once more, primarily the belief that grit, determination, resilience and at times, desperate defending make up for a complete lack of skill, creativity and basic technical ability. Scott Parker and James Milner running themselves into the ground is not really a sound approach for trying to win football matches let alone major international tournaments. It is worth considering however that recently appointed Roy Hodgson has only really been able to play the hand he's been dealt. It's understandable that with such little pre tournament preparation he would simply take a more disciplined, organised, risk free approach especially given the players, and their limitations, at his disposal. That said, there's no excusing the players for their inability to either keep, or do something worthwhile when fleetingly actually being in possession.

Italy on the other hand seemed some way more accomplished on the ball. While everyone is rightly praising yet another Andrea Pirlo masterclass, Riccardo Montolivo playing in a more advanced role also put in an eye-catching display using the ball well and always looking to make something happen in the final third.

Stats are not always an honest reflection of what happens in a game but the fact that the top eight players who attempted the most passes in the game were all Italian gives an impression of how dominant the Azzuri were with the ball. The gulf in class was all too obvious even if the scoreboard didn't reflect it. It was only due to some truly abominable finishing by the Italians that England weren't on the receiving end of a truly humiliating scoreline. But then again, might that have been preferable to yet more penalty heartache?

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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Three (16th-19th June 2012)


Greece Lightening ruins Russia's Summer Nights

Once again Greece have gone and left us all scratching our heads and simply asking 'how?' as they somehow managed to pull off an unlikely win and navigate their way into the last eight following a smash and grab win over a much fancied Russian outfit. After two impressive performances leading into the final group game, it was very much expected that the Russians wouldn't face much of a challenge from the Greeks and see themselves safely through. Even after the match had begun there was little indication to expect anything else. Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev seemed to have picked up where they left off previously and with an inspired Yuri Zhirkov bombing on, they forced their opponents further and further into retreat. A goal seemed inevitable and eventually it came - only not from Russia. A lapse in concentration at the end of the first half from the abovementioned Zhirkov allowed one of football's most unlikely legends to pounce on an extremely rare Greek chance and score the decisive goal to seal the fate of Dick Advocat's side.

They may have given the world Maths, Philosophy and some kick-ass cuisine but let's be honest, history is hardly awash with any particularly brilliant Greek footballers down the years. Despite being a key part of the success of 2004, the name Nikos Dabizas still prompts a snigger among fans over here who saw him ply his trade for firstly Newcastle then Leicester. Newly crowned champions of England Manchester City still consider Georgios Samaras to be the punchline of an awful joke reminding them of the years before Sheik Mansour's millions. Step forward Captain Giorgous Karagounis. Not exactly among the all-time football greats but if you are looking for a true Greek hero, he's your man. After famously scoring the first goal of the 2004 run to the final in Portugal, now, in what could well be his last ever match, he not only equalled the record number of appearances by a Greek international but also scored a goal that momentarily lifted an entire nation in a time of crisis. Of course, football isn't going to solve any of the country's problems but as the man himself said post match, the win will have put a rare smile on the faces of his countrymen and women.

Nothing encapsulated his passion more than when he was wrongly booked for diving in the second half. Choosing not to hide his indignation, Karagounis stormed around the pitch enraged, fired up and snarling until manager Fernando Santos saw fit to substitute him. The yellow card unfortunately means he misses the Quarter final against Germany when many expect a Greek defeat. At 35, it's highly unlikely we'll ever see the Panathinaikos legend represent his country again, sadly.

Bouncing Czechs prevents Pole dancing into Quarters

Joining them in the last eight will be the Czechs who beat and eliminated Poland thanks to Petr Jiracek's second goal in as many games. Unimpressive thus far and with a squad not nearly as good as those that reached the final and semis in 1996 and 2004 respectively, progression beyond the first round is something of surprise. There's nothing to take from the group games to suggest they will do much against better sides and while stranger things have happened, I very much doubt there will be any partying in Prague beyond this Thursday's encounter with Portugal. Far from an awful side – Tomas Hubschman in midfield and the exciting, direct Vaclav Pilar cutting in from wide areas have looked the most impressive – the counter attack seems to be their only strategy but one that you would expect the Portuguese, as well as others, to be able to combat.

It was disappointing to see the hosts exit the tournament at such an early stage but once again, it was their finishing that ultimately let them down. A bright start saw the Poles create a number of chances but found more joy hitting the side netting (three times) than troubling the previously erratic Petr Cech. I wonder if there's a Polish translation for the football cliché “goals win games” because whoever replaces outgoing manager Franciszek Smuda would do well to relay that to Robert Lewandowski et al ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.


Bratwusrt > Bacon

Germany ended the first round as the only team with maximum points from their group games after beating a resolute Denmark side thanks to goals from Lukas Podolski and substitute Lars Bender. After the new Arsenal signing had given the Germans the lead, an equaliser came after a clever corner routine saw Niklas Bendtner pulling away from the danger area, drift away from the goal and win a header that set up Martin Krone-Dehli who nodded home from close range. Seemingly content with the draw they believed would be enough to progress, Denmark seemed content to contain Germany when the scores were level. However, as it became evident they required a victory, they were forced to open up and like a great white shark, the Germans took full advantage to send the Danes home. An unfortunate outcome given that their two better performances, in this match and previously against Portugal, have resulted in defeats following their somewhat fortunate win over a wasteful Dutch side.

Portugal Ron their way after Dutch vans break down

Speaking of whom, Bert van Marwijik's misfits went home with their tails between their legs following a 2-1 defeat to Portugal – their third successive defeat and grand total of nil points in the group. To say their early exit was unexpected would be an understatement. I know I'm not alone in wondering how a team packed full of talent went out without putting up any kind of fight. Reports of divisions in the squad were unsurprising in the sense that we've seen it all before from this team down the years yet also surprising as one would think they would have learned some sort of lesson by now. Evidently not.

Despite taking the lead through a fantastic Rafael van Der Vaart effort after Arjen Robben finally decide to reap the benefits of acknowledging that he had teammates, the Dutch failed to capitalise. Going a goal down actually galvanised Portugal and the story of the match was as much about their resurgence than Holland's failings.

Van Marwijk elected to leave out Mark van Bommell for the abovementioned van Der Vaart. While his decision was vindicated as the Spurs man scored, the more attack minded approach left Nigel de Jong horribly exposed in the middle of the park. This allowed the Portugal midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles to have a field day, distributing the ball far too often to the wide men Nani and the star of the show Cristiano Ronaldo who finally decided to show up on the big stage for his country. The Real Madrid man scored the two key goals and put in the kind of performance the Madridistas at the Santiago Bernabeu are used to seeing on a regular basis.

After justified criticisms of his two previous matches, Ronaldo set out to prove a point by tormenting Holland right back Gregory van der Weil with embarrassing regularity. After another outrageous season in Spain – 60 goals in 55 games – many will be suggesting that this kind of display is long overdue. Not many people fancied Portugal before the competition begun but if their talisman can continue in the same vain, there aren't many, if any, defences left that will be able to stop him. Dark horses? Maybe.


Jesus saves as Spain avoid paying the Bil

Spain predictably negotiated their way into the last eight following a narrow victory over a hard working Croatia side who might count themselves somewhat unlucky to be going home from the competition early. While the Ibreians, as expected, controlled possession, dictated the play and never found themselves on the backfoot for any prolonged period of time, the Croats certainly battled hard to keep them at bay with a committed and disciplined defensive display that restricted the current World and European champions from creating many clear cut openings. Slavan Bilic reverted to 4-2-3-1 with Ivan Rakitic and Ognjen Vukojevic tasked with, and succeeding in denying the narrow Spanish creative hub of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva any space to weave their creative patterns for an ultimately lonesome Fernando Torres up front. The extra defensive midfielder for Croatia freed up their own creative influence in Luka Modric who, for the fleeting touches he was allowed, had an excellent game.

In fact, the best chance of the match came as result of a rare foray by Modric who found himself in space on the right side of the penalty area and played an exquisite outside foot cross to Rakitic who could only head straight at Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal - A chance they would come to rue as Jesus Navas proved to be the Spanish Messiah after coming off the bench to score the all important winner. Croatia were crucified with just 5 minutes left on the clock. 

Given the initial resilience of the opposition, Spain needed to remain patient before finding their breakthrough. After withdrawing the ineffectual Torres and reverting to the now famous 'false 9' formation, it was his replacement Cesc Fabregas who saw fit to outdo Modric's sublime earlier pass with an even more outrageous dink to Iniesta who squared for Navas to smash home. A truly special team goal worthy of winning any game, albeit with a slight hint of offside.

In some quarters I've seen Spain inexplicably criticised for not doing more with their possession and even been described as boring! But I guess this is what happens when stupid people are given nice things. Presented with a team who have earned the right to ranked up alongside the great Brazil and Dutch sides of a generation ago, people still have cause to complain. Yes, for their dominance they could probably create more and maybe score more goals but not beating every team by four or five is hardly a reason to slate a team that, in terms of pure aesthetically pleasing football, cannot be touched.

I guess all the critics of Spain derive more joy from watching Ireland.

Ireland Given a lesson as Super Mario makes A-zure of Italian qualification

To be fair, they weren't as bad in their 2-0 defeat against Italy as they were in their opening two matches and despite the Italians still being the better side, the Irish gave a better account of themselves than we had seen previously. In fact, the most disappointing player on the team was the usually reliable Shay Given. Having suffered something of a nightmare against Croatia, Given could not be faulted for any of the goals against a rampant Spain after getting no help from his defence. However, the long serving keeper was guilty of not one, not two but three errors that led to Italy's first goal. Firstly, Charging out hastily to allow Antonio Di Natalie to go round him and get a shot on goal. Secondly, spilling a routine catch from Claudio Marchiso in the follow up to concede a corner and finally, from said corner, flailing at Antonio Cassano's header that eventually gave the Azzuri the lead.

These mistakes were totally uncharacteristic of a goalkeeper of Given's usual quality. There have been suggestions in some quarters that he wasn't 100% fit coming into the tournament which may well explain his hapless displays or this could just be a convenient excuse for the fact it would appear that time is finally catching up on him. Aston Villa and Paul Lambert will be hoping it's the former ahead of the new campaign.

If Given was at fault for the first, it would be harsh to attribute any blame to him for the second as Mario Balotelli, relegated to the bench for the game, set out to prove a point after being introduced by scoring an incredible, powerful scissor kick volley late on. What followed were comical scenes as Mad Mario then attempted to direct a second volley – this time one of abuse – at his manager Cesare Prandelli for having temerity to leave him on the bench. Only Leonardo Bonucci's intervention prevented any confrontation as he has to literally physically gag his countryman. Only Balotelli, eh?

At the time, it was probably goal of the tournament. However, it was to be bettered 24 hours later...


Ibracadabra! Zlatan magic gives France Les Bleus

What is it with controversial strikers and stunning volleys? Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked at his old pal Mario's strike against Ireland and decided he would join the party with a stunner against France to set Sweden on their way to a surprise 2-0 win. Sebastian Larsson dinked a cross to the edge of the 18 yard box where Ibrahimovic was poised like a coiled spring before exploding with one of the most technically brilliant scissor kicks you are ever likely to see. The ball whistled it's way beyond a despairing Hugo Lloris to give Sweden a second half lead. The spectacular nature of the goal served as a massive middle finger to the critics who seem to draw their conclusions about him without ever really seeing him play. Having just completed his most prolific season at Milan with 34 goals in 43 appearances, and having scored 2 in 3 for a poor Sweden side in this competition, feel free tell anybody who thinks he's “shit” that maybe they out to start watching him a bit more closely.

Ordinarily, Man of the Match Larsson's own volley to make it 2-0 would have won more plaudits but for Zlatan's majestic strike. The result meant Sweden do not go home empty handed but more crucially, a toothless France team now finish second in the group and face Spain in the quarter finals where they cannot afford another limp performance or else it will be au revoir for Laurent Blanc's team.

Fortunate England avoid pain in Ukraine as they tech their chance

France's defeat means that England somehow win Group D following a rather unconvincing 1-0 victory over hosts Ukraine. The returning Wayne Rooney scored from all of 3cm from a Steven Gerrard cross (again) at the start of the second half in a match where the result certainly masks a lot of what was, at times, incredibly tedious and unenjoyable to watch. The overriding belief is that England defended well but if the 16 shots on goal Ukraine when allowed is an example of 'good' defending, I’m sure I wont be the only one concerned when England add 'bad' defending to their inability to retain any meaningful possession.

The defeat saw the home side eliminated in a game where they looked far more competent on the ball and more technically superior on the ball than their supposedly more illustrious opponents. Andriy Yarmolenko proved something a thorn in England's side and with a bit more experience might have actually punished Roy Hodgson's men. The hosts may well have actually taken something from the game when Marko Devic's deflected was hooked away from goal by a retreating John Terry – the only problem was that the ball had already crossed the line but this minor incident happened to be missed by the referee, the linesman and the extra official standing on the goal line tasked with actually making sure mistakes like this don't get missed.

In this country, we have convinced ourselves that because of the great injustice against Germany two years ago, this incident is some kind of...erm.... payback? And of course, the controversy has led to the reopening of the tiresome debate regarding goalline technology. Sepp Blatter has now called it a “necessity” ignoring the fact that any mooted technology that would have rightly given the goal wouldn't have picked up on the fact that Artem Milevskiy was actually in an offside position during the build up to the chance.

What next? 'Offside technology'? If that's the case then you could easily present a case for 'shirt-pulling' technology, 'incorrectly awarded goal-kick technology' and 'corner kick not taken exactly on the curve of the quadrant technology'. Of all the football matches that take place all over the world every single waking hour of the day, how often do these contentious goal line incidents actually occur? I would guess at less than 0.001% if that so why waste time with the addition of machines, censors and cameras messing around with the very essence of the game? Where will it end?

Referees of the future?

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Two (12th-15th June 2012)


Czech-ing In!

The second round of games kicked off in Group A with the Czech Republic going some way to right the wrongs of their opening day hammering at the hands of Russia. Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar's early strikes allowed them to relax and see out a victory without needing to get out of second gear. The only scare came when a horrific Petr Cech error allowed Fanis Gekas to give the Greeks something of a lifeline at the start of the second half. Again, it is baffling to see one of the best goalkeepers of a generation perform so badly when representing his country. His butter-fingery here was reminiscent of the cross he mishandled four years ago against Turkey which ultimately led to the Czechs being eliminated at the group stages. On the face of it, this faux pas does not look as costly but when goal difference could prove so decisive in these tight groups, the spill may not look too clever come Sunday morning.

On a similar note, it was curious to see the Czezhs happy to settle for the narrow win rather than push on for more goals. The ease with which they carved open the Greek defence at the start of the game suggested they could have easily racked up a far more handsome scoreline. The two quick-fire goals they scored in the opening six minutes should have been something of a catalyst or springboard to cancel out the deficit suffered in that Russia game. Instead,Tomas Hubschman's through ball for the opener and the adventurous overlap by Theodor Gebre Selassie to set up the killer second proved only to be fleeting examples of a quick, direct style that surely would have been more fruitful had they been brave enough to continue it throughout the match.

Greece's defending for the opening two goals was atrocious. One could almost suspect that they were fed up of all the unfair criticism they received for the rigid, solid, defensive approach that made them a success four years ago and decided to abandon any sense of discipline in an attempt to shed themselves of that perceived negative tag. In fairness, they could well have found their way back into the game after a strong second half display. A striker younger than Giorgos Karagounis or one better than Georgios Samaras might have yeilded greater rewards in advanced positions.

The bum's Russ

Russia and Poland renewed pleasantries both on and off the pitch in the later game on Tuesday. The violent scenes of both sets off fans kicking seven bells of shit all over the streets of Warsaw pre and post match will turn out to be some of the lasting images of the tournament. It would be easy to write off the ruckus purely as hooliganism but given the long, complex political history between these two nations, the strength of feeling on both sides is almost understandable. Whether that condones what we saw is obviously open to debate. On the pitch, Poland once again played with the kind of attacking endeavour that should have seen them do better against Greece last week.

Once again, however, a lack of cutting edge in the final third meant they had to be content with a 1-1 draw. The Russians were once again looking to exploit the openness of their opponents with some slick Andrei Arshavin inspired counter attacking. However, with an out of sorts Aleksandr Kerzhakov leading the line and Poland showing far more resistance than the Czechs, they were always far less likely to repeat the emphatic scoreline from the opening day. In fact, it needed an Arshavin set piece to be glanced in by Alan Dzagoev to give them the lead. The CSKA Moscow hotshot has three goals in two games so far and with his current contract reportedly expiring at the end of the calender year, seems to be using the competition to showcase his talents to any potential suitors. Already, Arsenal are rumoured to be interested.

Poland's equaliser came through a fantastic left footed strike by the unpronounceable Jakub Blaszczykowski. A true 'captain's goal' which lifted an entire nation and is undoubtedly one of the goals of the tournament so far. If, for whatever reason, you haven't seen it yet, it's certainly worth a look.


Bendt Double

If Blaszczykowski's rocket was goal of the tournament so far, then match of the tournament has to be the five-goal thriller between Denmark and Portugal in group B. After many a less than enthusiastic appraisal of their conservative gameplan to stifle the Germans last weekend, Portugal set out to remind the world that they still very much adhere to their attack-minded philosophy of years gone by. After a Pepe header from a corner gave them a deserved lead, Helder Postiga, a striker who struggled to find his feet during a miserable spell for Tottenham, swept in a superb second from a continuously frustrating, but sometimes incisive, Nani cross.

Another striker who has failed to set North London alight is Arsenal's wantaway striker Niklas Bendtner who pulled one back before half time before scoring what many thought to be the goal that salvaged a draw and crucial fourth group point for the Danes with 10 minutes to go. Bendtner's perception as something of a misfit in Arsenal colours is arguably down to Arsene Wenger's insistence down the years to try and play him as some sort of fleet-footed silky skilled playmaker type forward when it in fact obvious that his best position is as a centre forward target man – a position in which he thrives for his country for whom he has now scored 20 goals. Astonishingly, six of these have now been scored against Portugal. For years we have been bored to tears by everyone bemoaning Arsenal's lack of 'Plan B'. In theory, Plan B could be 'Plan Bendtner' if Wenger could be flexible enough to make him the focal point of their attack in certain situations and actually instruct his players to cross that ball properly.

It might be worth mentioning that Bendtner landed himself in hot water with UEFA by celebrating one of his goals by revealing his 'Paddy Power' sponsored underpants. A stunt well worth doing given the fact you expect the gambling firm to pay him more than enough to cover whatever meaningless fine the authorities hand down.

But I digress, Bendtner's heroics ultimately proved to be futile as Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela slammed home a brilliant goal three minutes from time to put Portugal in a fantastic position for qualification. Cue: delirium.

However, one Portuguese who may have been more relieved than ecstatic at the dramatic late win is golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo who once again somehow flattered to deceive on the international stage. During another typically unremarkable performance, Ronaldo was almost guilty of costing his team the points when at 2-1 up and presented with the kind of one-on-one chance he would ordinarily be able to score in his sleep, he put embarrassingly wide of the post. Moments later, the Danes scored their would-be equaliser.

Instead of wasting his time sniping, unprovoked, at Lionel Messi, Ronaldo will do well to start raising his performance levels for his country lest he wants to be compared to a certain Mr. Arjen Robben.

Dutch down to last life in Super Mario's World

Speaking of whom, another lacklustre showing in the orange of his native Netherlands in their 2-1 defeat against Germany means he will be facing Ronaldo in a must-win showdown on Sunday. The two men who lit up this year's Champions League semi final with their respective clubs and will now do battle for the unwanted crown of the most selfish under-performer in the tournament.

Robben's Dutch team failed to put up anything resembling a fight in their match against the old enemy and came away with exactly what they deserved; nothing. Whereas they were creating but missing chances against Denmark, the toothless nature of the Holland attack this time around meant that Germany were content to contain and keep then at arms length for much of the game. The Germans were predictably organised and used their possession both intelligently and patiently to create openings – two of which fell to much maligned Mario Gomez who didn't require much of an invitation to do what he does with curious regularity; score. Twice.

Holland improved massively after the restart but a disciplined German side prevented them creating many clear cut openings. It was only a fine long range effort by Robin van Persie that was able to finally penetrate their rivals' back line in the end but it wasn't enough and the Dutch are now on the brink of elimination.


Moderate  performance enough for Croatia

Italy versus Croatia was your archetypal 'game of two halves' where one side controlled the first half an the other the second resulting in a 1-1 draw that neither could really argue with. 

The Italians were the better side in the opening 45 playing with an attacking intent not usually associated with Azzuri teams of the past. The bold deployment of both Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli for the second game running caused the Croatian defence a number of problems with the Man City striker in particular looking very much in the mood.  Unfortunately, neither man seemed capable of breaking the deadlock for the Italians and it was left to the evergreen Andrea Pirlo to break the deadlock with a trademark free kick which outfoxed a flailing Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal.

The main narrative from the game was the clash of the creative midfielders and provided an opportunity to compare and contrast the above mentioned Pirlo with the Croat's own pivot Luka Modric. It's safe to say that Pirlo won this duel with an impressive first half shift where he seemed to be at the heart of everything good this expansive Italy side were creating. It was only in the second half when Italy sat back that Modric was allowed to come into the game. However, the diminutive playmaker's underwhelming performance was a continuation of his last six months in a Spurs shirt where his loss of form coincided with the team's slump. Of course, other factors came into play but you had to think if Modric had been playing to his usual high standards, Tottenham may well have hung on to third place, qualified for the Champions League and Harry Redknapp may still be in gainful employment today. Who knows? 

Mario Mandzukic's equaliser came from a defensive lapse by Georgio Chiellini but it was no less than Croatia deserved after finally finding thier feet in the match. As predicted right here, Croatia could well find themselves progressing to the quarter finals. All they have to do to make absolutely certain is beat Spain on Monday. Simple really...

Spanish fly and leave Irish to stew

And of course, one has to ask, who are Spain, really? I mean all they managed to do against Ireland was exercise their overwhelming dominance and play the kind of sublime passing football that makes one wonder if the two teams out there were even playing the same sport.  

In a way, the 4-0 victory actually taught us very little about the defending champions. A slight formation tweak saw Vincente Del Bosque do away with the strikerless formation used against Italy and give Fernando Torres the opportunity to redeem himself following his hapless cameo in that game. Torres didn't disappoint - scoring twice in the rout before making way for Cesc Fabregas who himself scored his second of the tournament after coming on. False 9 or real nine, it really made no difference as Ireland wouldn't have had a chance if Spain had only played with 9. 

Again, I'm baffled to the point of dismay that, realising thier limitations, there seemed to be no obvious game plan from Trappatoni's team. Whereas the Spanish seemed to know what pass to make three passes in advance, Ireland found them in a state of panic on the very few occasions they were able to retain possession for more than half a second. There also seemed to be no defensive cohesion or strategy to speak of. Evidenced by the frequency with which the like of Richard Dunne and co found themselves on the turf having been continuously turned inside out by scorer of the second David Silva among others. When you lack the personnel as Ireland so obviously do, there needs to at least be an attempt to prevent embarrassment.  

It's a testament to how awful Ireland were that the only positive about the match was the unrelenting noise generated by their supporters. But as Roy Keane so aptly pointed out in the ITV studios post match, there's no point in only being out there for a sing-song. 


France toast after getting better of UkRAIN

France showed their class as they coasted to victory over hosts Ukraine in an otherwise unremarkable game that was only really notable for the extreme weather conditions that interrupted and delayed the the game. Thunderstorms and lightening proved very, very frightening as players were withdrawn just minutes into the game before returning an hour later. France were dominant in the first half but were unable to find the breakthrough. Ukraine's defence were given such a run around they were merely seeing a silhouette’s of the men the they were supposed to be marking. The poor boys needing sparing from the monstrosity that was the France sustained attack.

It was only a matter of time before they finally scored through Jeremy Menez and the feeling amongst the partisan home supporters was that Menez just killed a man. The French fans found somebody to love and after Johan Cabaye added a second, they were probably doing to the Fandango. Another one bit the dust in Les Bleurs 23 game unbeaten run. At this point they were having such a good time, Laurent Blanc was asking his team to don't stop (me now) but they weren't able to add to the tally. The result leaves Ukraine under pressure to win their final game while the France will be thinking that similar performances and fighting to the end will also get them to say 'we are the champions' come July 1st.

England have Swede dreams despite nightmare performance

Football can be a strange game. Sometimes the worst matches can somehow be the best. The absence of quality can lead to great excitement. Such was the case when England took on Sweden. Poor passing, dodgy defending and questionable goalkeeping lent considerable weight to the view that 'bad' football can actually be more fun to watch than good football. I think it was the Italian (obviously) Gianni Brera who said that the perfect game would end 0-0. This was the polar opposite of that mantra. A match that was the blueprint of bad football has lit up the tournament. England secured a 3-2 victory by virtue of managing to be only the second worst team on the pitch.

'Star' performers on the day were the likes of Glen Johnson, Jonas Olsen, Johan Elmander and James Milner who showed that competency is actually not a requirement for a top level footballer. Andy Carroll put England ahead with a fine header from a Steven Gerrard cross before woeful defending allowed 107 year old[citation needed] defender Olaf Melberg to TWICE score to put the Swedes 2-1 up. Roy Hodgson then showed the managerial nous that his critics would do well to acknowledge by introducing a fresh, hungry Theo Walcott to the proceedings and was rewarded as the Arsenal man first scored and then provided the assist for Danny Welbeck's improvised finish. Although, Walcott's admission that he wrongly thought his long range effort to level the scores had taken a deflection is, to me, an admission that his shot was merely hit and hope and further confirms the lack of anything resembling finesse in this game.

Sweden now exit the tournament which is probably for the best given how poorly they've played in both games while somehow England are on the brink of the quarter finals. Last Monday England drew against France thanks to a rigid, resolute defensive display. It wasn't pretty but the major positive was that the team were difficult to break down. All of that went out of the window against Sweden and while it is easy to praise the resilience to come back from a losing position, performing that badly against a better team will simply add more numbers onto those years of hurt Ian Brodie so famously sang about back in 1996.

But but least no-one can accuse England of being boring now, right?

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