Monday, February 27, 2012

Weekly round-up: 24-26 February 2012



Every week, Vishal Savalani will provide us with a weekly round-up of all of Europe's top leagues and the action that's taken place - so you guys can stop complaining about the focus on the Premier League now! (Ha!) He'll give us an overall view of things and some pointers. 

France:

- Best game of the weekend was no doubt the Lyon vs PSG game which ended in a 4-4 draw. PSG scored first, Lyon equalised and then scored another two goals to lead 3-1. Gomis scored a great goal and Bastos did as well, whose goal in my opinion was one of the best goals of the weekend. Nene then grabbed one back for PSG with a penalty to make it 3-2 at HT. Briand scored to make it 4-2 to Lyon. PSG bounced back with Ceara coming off the bench to score, and incredibly in the 94th minute, Hoarau scored with his head to make it 4-4. It's interesting to see which strikers Blanc is gonna take to the Euros. Remy and Benzema are definitely going. The next 2 will be between Gomis, Hoarau, Giroud, Saha and maybe Cisse. Lyon's coach Remi Garde (ex Arsenal player) and president Aulas complained about the ref. The coach said there shouldn't have been more than 2:30 mins of stoppage time (4 mins were allotted) and Aulas claimed that the ref was not objective.

- Montpellier beat Bordeaux with Utaka scoring. They're now top of the table, leading PSG by one point.

- The battle for third place is tight with 6-7 teams fighting for it: Lille, Lyon, Marseille, St-Etienne, Toulouse, Rennes, Bordeaux. Apart from Toulouse, none of these teams won. Marseille lost 1-0 at Brest. They were unbeaten in 16 games. Lille conceded a late goal at Rennes to draw 1-1. It's been a good week for them as they played 3 games away from home and ended up with 2 wins and a draw.


Spain:

- Ronaldo scored a wonderful back heel goal (29th in la liga) against Rayo Valecano. Ramos should have been sent off for a stupid foul. Overall Real were lucky to win. Rayo had 3 great chances and should have at least got a point from it. Even Mourinho admitted that Rayo were unlucky. When asked by the journalists if it was his first back heel goal, Ronaldo reminded them that he had scored one in Manchester (2008 vs Villa).


- Barcelona won 2-1 at Atletico Madrid. Falcao leveled the score but Messi took a quick free kick that surprised Atletico's defense as well as their keeper Courtois (on loan from Chelsea). The gap is still 10 points, and Guardiola has still not signed a contract extension.

- Third place Valencia lost at home to Sevilla. WTF is happening to Soldado?

- Levante won 2-1 at Espanyol to claim back their 4th spot.

- My boy Llorente scored for Bilbao but they ended up sharing the points with Villareal.

- Fernando Torres and Pedro have not been called by Del Bosque.


Italy:

- The game we were all looking forward to ended in a 1-1 draw at the San Siro between Juventus and AC Milan. Matri scored after Nocerino gave Milan the lead. However this game was full of incidents. First, Muntari had a goal wrongly disallowed. He headed the ball which crossed the line, but the referee didn't give it. Matri scored a clear goal for Juve which was wrongly disallowed for an offside that didn't exist. Mexes hit Boriello too which wasn't seen by the ref. He now risks a 3 match suspension. Milan lead by one point but Juve have a game in hand. They remain unbeaten this season in the Serie A. Apparently, Antonio Conte (Juve's coach) was assaulted by some Milan people too.


- Udinese won. Di Natale scored and provided an assist too. They're sitting in third place.

- Roma lost 4-1 to Atlanta while Lazio won. Next week is the Eternal City derby between Lazio and Roma.


- Things are bad for Ranieri's side. They have lost their last 6 or 7 games and have failed to score in 5 games. This time, Lavezzi and Napoli beat Inter. Napoli are fighting for a CL spot, while Inter now sit in 7th place. Ranieiri refused to resign and hinted that Sneijder should be on the bench for a while.

- Miroslav Klose scored his 12th goal of the season for Lazio.

Germany:

- Bayern were criticised by Rumminiege after their CL loss in Switzerland. Players like Ribery appeared to be in conflict with their coach. However, he responded in style by scoring 2 goals as Bayern beat Schalke at their top of the table clash.

- Gladbach drew 1-1, while Dortmund won their 6th or 7th game in a row. They lead the table by 4 points or so. Gladbach are doing extremely well this season and are in third place.

- Bayern play Leverkusen next week.

England:

- You guys follow it so not much to say in terms of games. Good results for United, City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, WBA...

- QPR keep getting red cards.

- Odemwingie scored 2. He's now scored 5 goals in his last 2 games for WBA.

 -Gutierez scored a cracker for Newcastle but they drew at home to Wolves.

- Balotelli scored a goal for Raffaella.

- Pool won the Carling Cup. Oh yeah, John Henry is a lucky man (google Linda Pizzuti)

- Great performance by Arsenal on Sunday. Being 2-0 down at home to Spurs and coming back to score 5 goals showed loads of determination from the Gunners. RVP is the player of the season in my opinion, what a goal! Set up a goal too. Good performance by Sagna too to score and provide an assist too. Arsenal are now 7 points away from Spurs.


- Also well done to Scholes and Giggs. It's the first time, two players of that age score in the same game. 2 points behind city and next Sunday's clash at Spurs will be interesting. A draw wouldn't be bad, but considering City have an easy game (vs Bolton) on Saturday, a win is mandatory for United.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

U.A.E vs Lebanon: a preview, a guide and what it means




In November 2011 when Lebanon beat South Korea 2-1, strangely, a lot of people believed that Lebanon had qualified for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. How can a team qualify for a competition 3 years before it takes place wasn't a question asked by many around the country. It was a massive 3 points and a great achievement, but the victory was somehow wrongly mistaken for direct qualification to the World Cup and that’s why next Wednesday’s clash with the United Arab Emirates at their home ground is even more important than that game against South Korea.

So here are a few things that you should know regarding the importance of the game and what its consequences could be:

  • Lebanon have not yet qualified for the World Cup. Far from it. 
  • The game versus the United Arab Emirates is the last game of Round 3 of the Group Stages. 
  • Lebanon MUST either Win or Draw the match to qualify from Round 3. This is the game that counts.  
  • If they win or draw the match, they move on to Round 4
  • In Round 4, they’ll become part of the final 10 teams from Asia's qualifiers for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Here’s what it will look like (this is just an example to make it look easy for you):

GROUP A
GROUP B
Team 1
Team 6
Team 2
Team 7
Team 3
LEBANON
Team 4
Team 8
Team 5
Team 9

  • Lebanon will still have to play against all the teams in their group, twice (home & away). So there’s still another 8 games to play for. These games are expected to be played over the course of a year between June 2012 and June 2013. 

  • The Top 2 teams of each group will automatically qualify for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Those teams will be the 4 automatic teams that will represent Asia in the tournament. 

  • Now, this is where it might be a bit tricky for those who don't watch Football regularly (because I'm sure there will be some reading this) – but it’s not. The 2 teams that finish in 3rd place in Group A and Group B will face each other in Round 5

  • Round 5 is a play-off game. 3rd of Group A vs 3rd of Group B. The winner of this game will qualify for what’s called the “Continental Play-Off”.

  • What’s that you might wonder? Well, it’s pretty simple. The "Continental Play-Off" is a match between the winner of Round 5 in Asia’s qualifications versus the winner of the equivalent of Round 5 in South America (actually just the 5th placed team in a 10-team mini-league in South America). 

  • The winner of the "Continental Play-Off" will qualify for the World Cup in Brazil and become the 5th member from Asia or South America that will qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

Easy stuff, right?

Lebanon are in with a chance to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, but there's still a long way to go. Like with most things in our lives, a chance  might be all it takes - and in Football even more so! Add to that chance a tiny bit of luck and a good amount of support and you're talking about turning a situation that was once laughed at into a distinct possibility. When we think about that game versus South Korea, on paper, the odds were stacked against Lebanon winning. But all those who were at the game will testify that the crowd had a bigger impact on the players' performances than anything else.

We've always been considered a non-nation when it comes to Football, but why? We've seen smaller nations thrive and do better than we have at Football. Is it because of talent? I doubt it. Is it because of the lack of money invested in the game? To some extent. Is it because Lebanese people don't love the game? Definitely not. Then what is it really about? What's Lebanon's biggest failure in Football?

The lack of infrastructures and investments in the game all comes from the lack of belief. Lebanese people with power and money don't believe in the game and the influence it could have on our society and on our people as a whole. The power of Football is underestimated. Yet despite that, we might pull off a coup. There has got to be an acceptance that a sport is strong enough to unite a nation and allow it to disperse itself from the toxic religious and political divides that we've become accustomed to. Throw that all out. No politics, no religion, just Football. That should be the message. That should be our language.

The journey to Brazil could all start with a victory, or a draw, on Wednesday. Whether you're at the stadium or in front of your TV screens, or even streaming the game from afar, just show your support. It doesn't take much. Put your plans aside for a little while (plus there's nothing better to do on a Wednesday, admit it). This is a simple matter of belief and support. Nothing more. Believe in the fact that Lebanese footballers are doing something for once. They're performing well and they're being spoken about in their own country! This is a reminder that Lebanon could, especially with our support, be on the brink of becoming one of the 10 Asian nations in that might qualify for the World Cup...and bloody hell, imagine if that happened.

Lebanon, this is our chance. Nobody believes in us and we are the underdogs. It all depends on Wednesday! Win or draw and the journey begins! Let's make it happen! COME ON LEBANON!




Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The story behind "You'll never walk alone"




(The following article was written by Antoine Choueri, a die-hard Liverpool fan that knows the club's history inside out. I couldn't write an article about Liverpool even if I tried, so in the order of fairness, mixing supporters and usual bias, which is what this blog is about, I'll leave it up to him. You can follow him on Twitter @lfckop.)

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high...

It's 1940 and it has barely been a year since World War II has started, and most of mainland Europe is already on its feet, having surrendered to the Third Reich. All eyes are on the last resistant, England, and what has remained of its British Empire. What is arguably the biggest empire in history is on the brink of defeat. In the North-West of England, between the River Mersey and the Irish Sea, Liverpool is witnessing the heaviest destruction it has ever seen, being the most bombed city in the Nazi Blitz after London. Fast-forward a couple of decades later, and Liverpool has barely recovered from the Blitz and post-war crises. The birth of the Manchester Ship Canal means the ships coming from America and the rest of the world would bypass the destructed Liverpool Docks to go straight to Manchester. What was once the Empire's second-city and the biggest seaport in the world is on the verge of extinction, half of the city's inhabitants having fled to London or the US.

...At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky...

But as the old saying states, there are things that are just meant to be. In 1960, a 47-year-old Scot called William Shankly had just settled down on the Mersey to manage a mediocre Division Two Liverpool FC side. On July that same year, four teenagers change their band name from "Silver Beatles" to "The Beatles". Liverpool was meant to change history forever.

By 1963, Bill Shankly's Liverpool were back in the top flight, already challenging for the title. The Beatles, with a handful of #1 hits, were leading the Merseybeat movement, vastly dominating the charts. Just like The Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers were a Merseybeat band from Liverpool, managed by Brian Epstein and recorded by George Martin. After the dark, unsuccessful 50's, Liverpool Football Club was back on top. Its home-ground, Anfield, was all packed again week-in week-out. Among the stands at Anfield, the terrace where the core of the home fans stood was The Spion Kop, named after the South African hill where a large number of Liverpudlians lost their lives in the Boer War in 1900. The Kop, a standing terrace, could host up to 30,000 Liverpool fans, making it one of the biggest single-tier stands in the world.

Back then, tickets were not bought on the internet 6 months prior to the game (they weren't 50-odd  quid either), fans had to get early to the ground and wait in the never-ending queues to watch their local team play, cue The Kop being already packed up a good half-hour before every game. To keep them young lads entertained and soak up the atmosphere, the stadium DJ would often play the Charts' hits, mainly from Liverpudlian bands at the time. Renowned for their natural bond with music, the Scousers on the Kop would often sing along with the voices they've heard so often in the local clubs, before seeing their beloved Liverpool beat yet another opposition and make their way up the table. Then on one cold November afternoon, while eagerly waiting for the men in red to get on the pitch and put in a blinder, The Kop suddenly erupts into singing a tune one would have thought they'd known for ages. They were singing along to Gerry Mardsen, one of their own, performing his third #1 hit in a row. A tune he took from a 1945 American musical he grew up loving, and sang in Merseybeat fashion.


A song called "You'll Never Walk Alone".

Following the tremendous reception it got from the Kop, the song was played before and after every game at Anfield that season. It remains so to this day. By the end of the season, in mid-1964, Liverpool FC were champions of England, and Beatlemania had reached America, and the rest of the planet. Liverpool was sitting on top of the world. As the years went by and silverware ridiculously piled up in the Anfield Trophy Room, the song vigorously accompanied the men in red, win or defeat, home or away, locally or abroad. The Kop's unusual singing (the only noise crowds generated at the time was roars and clapping), noise volume, humour, generosity, banners, flags, scarves, originality, creativity, and most importantly, its unity made it the most famous football terrace in the world. Many terraces across Europe were named after the Kop, and a handful of other clubs' fans adopted "You'll Never Walk Alone" as their anthem: Dutch teams Feyenoord, FC Twente and SC Cambuur, Germany's Borussia Dortmund, Mainz 05, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, Borussia Mönchengladbach, FC St Pauli, SV Darmstadt 98, Japan's F.C. Tokyo, and more famously, Scotland's Celtic Glasgow.

Other clubs may see it as a brilliant song (it is one of the finest tunes ever recorded), but it holds a special, unique, and emotional place in Liverpool fans' hearts and Liverpool FC folklore. Its words are an anthem for Liverpool's two most important events in its 120 years of history. Its best and its worst. The highest and the lowest. 2005 and 1989. Hillsborough and Istanbul.

On the 15th of April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans went to watch their beloved side go through to yet another Cup final, but never made it home. While the rest of the country were making up stories about how Liverpool fans were responsible for the disaster (Taylor's Report clearly say it was police errors), the city was united, mourning and standing by its own, those 96 brothers who lost their lives at a football match. The first football game Liverpool played after the disaster was a friendly at Celtic, set up as a tribute to the 96, and both sets of fans went on to sing their anthem in unison in the most emotional way. 
Similar scenes at Wembley, just before the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Everton, where 90,000 Scousers sang YNWA, reminding the world that there are things that are just bigger than football, and their rivalry was only on the pitch (Liverpool went on to win the Cup, again). Another interesting, and overlooked, story happened just days after the disaster. There was a European Cup tie between Milan and Real Madrid. Halfway through the minute of silence, Milan fans start singing YNWA, also showing respect to the 96 in the most beautiful way.

On the 25th of May 2005, despite being in a European Cup final, Liverpool FC had been nearly invisible for 15 years. That wasn't to change after 45 minutes, having gone 3 goals down; the European Cup, the ol' big ears, was already heading to Milan. However, ss soon as the players were about to come on again on the pitch to alleviate the humiliation, they overheard half the stadium bursting into the most passionate YNWA ever.

...Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone...

3-0.
3-3.
Liverpool win on penalties.

Just like the movies.

It was on that cold afternoon in 1963 that the greatest anthem ever was born, when the story between a song and a city all began. If you think that "You'll Never Walk Alone" is just another 1960's pop song Liverpool fans happen to sing before each game, then you thought wrong. This pre-match ritual is the story of a city, of joy and sorrow, pride and humility. It's a war cry, an hymn of triumph, and occasional pain.

"You'll Never Walk Alone" is what Liverpool Football club is all about.





Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goalkeepers aren't given a chance



Europe’s top leagues have got a lot of things in common. It seems there’s a platform they’ve all followed regarding matters off the field which contrast the glaring differences on the field. One of the most unspoken parallels in Europe’s big 5 leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy & Spain) is regarding the managers of football clubs. A common denominator between all the managers at most of the clubs around Europe, especially in the “big 5” is the fact that the large majority (with the obvious exceptions of some, such as Mourinho and Villas-Boas) have almost all, at some point in their lives, been professional footballers. Rarely have we seen managers with a good pedigree that don’t have some sort of playing experience on a professional level to back up their status – so to all the dreamers out there like myself, we’re going to need much more than luck if we really aspire to become managers.

There have already been some discussions about the lack of black managers in Europe’s top leagues (there are very, very, few if not any at all, unless I’m mistaken – which speaks for itself about the selection process of hiring managers) but there is something that has been lacking almost as much as black managers and probably less evidently; it is the lack of managers that used to be goalkeepers during their playing careers. Are they given a fair shot at managerial openings?

I’ve gone through all the backgrounds of every single manager of all of Europe’s big 5 leagues and I’ve found that out of the 98 clubs in the top tiers, there are only 3 managers who used to play between the sticks (please correct me if I'm wrong): Philippe Montanier at Real Sociedad, Abel Resino at Granada and Alain Casanova at Toulouse. 3 out of 98! That number is about the same as the number of managers at those 98 clubs who were never professional footballers at any point! What does that say about ex-goalkeepers as managers? Is their background as important as someone who never even played the game when it comes to managerial know-how?

There must be some reasons behind this. One of them might probably be the longevity of a goalkeeper’s career. Given that most of them play on well into their thirties and close to their forties, this probably means that while most of their outfield retired team-mates will be working on their coaching badges to become licensed managers, goalkeepers will probably still be playing the game, hence giving them a back foot when clubs are hiring new managers. Another reason might also be that simply by numbers, there are a lot more outfield players than goalkeepers. Perhaps it could be the lack of confidence given to a man who was never shouldered the responsibility of running things on the pitch? Or maybe the egotistical footballers of today wouldn’t pay the same respect to an ex-goalkeeper as they would to a former striker for example? Whatever the reasons, it’s a strange fact which has been incredibly ignored – there aren’t enough ex-goalkeepers that go on to become managers.

Managers are the most important individuals within a club. They must possess certain characteristics that involve numerous mental qualities to ensure that they have control and a vision of the game that their players don’t. Being a leader with an outlook from afar, having the power and influence on how to organize the outfield players, taking responsibility for the errors of the players are only but a few aspects found in managers – but many of those traits can also be found in goalkeepers. Much more than in outfield players I believe.

These unsung heroes are isolated from the field of play for large chunks of the game and get involved on very few occasions, especially at top clubs that concede very few shots. However, I’m convinced that goalkeepers have got a higher level of concentration in comparison to their peers in other positions. Whereas defenders, midfielders and strikers are always on the run during the entire 90 minutes and sometimes become rather reactionary in terms of their actions on the pitch during a game, a goalkeeper's lack of activity and timely participation requires a concentration level that's extremely high – like an outside observer…like a manager. Few great goalkeepers have gone on to become great managers (Raymond Goethals with Marseille and Dino Zoff with Italy are good examples), so it begs the question once more: why aren’t there more ex-goalkeepers as managers?

Monday, February 13, 2012

The enigma that is Theo Walcott


(Today's post is written by a guest blogger. Justin Salhani, author and creator of the blog "Just in Beirut", which you can visit by clicking here, is an avid Arsenal fan who usually writes about things which vary from Football to Politics. He's a bit confused though about a certain player that plays for his beloved Gooners. You can follow Justin on Twitter - @JustinSalhani)


Theo Walcott is a player who divides opinions amongst Arsenal fans as well as professional commentators and ex-pros. Some claim that Walcott is a valuable resource due to his speed and decent finishing ability. Others argue that he lacks a football brain. Arsene Wenger signed Walcott based on his potential. He was thought to be the next Thierry Henry due to his build, his position as a winger, his finishing ability and, of course, his speed. 

However, Walcott’s development hasn’t gone according to plan. After featuring in the 2006 World Cup squad under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Walcott missed out on Fabio Capello’s 2010 squad. The uproar was minimal, as Walcott had been the subject of public media bashing from a number of ex-professionals who claimed his decision making (his main weakness) hadn’t improved since he joined Arsenal.

Fast forward two years and Walcott still faces similar criticism. While many avid Arsenal fans still back the pacey Brit, his decision making remains frustrating to say the least. However, fans hang on because every so often he will come up with an impressive performance, beating defenders down the line and setting up Robin Van Persie with a number of goals (like in the 7-1 victory against Blackburn last week). It seems that the reason fans put their support behind Walcott is that every time they feel ready to throw in the towel and sell him off, he comes up with an inspiring match.

While Arsene Wenger does have a reputation for being patient in letting players develop, Walcott’s opportunities may be scarcer in the coming future. Gervinho’s play as a direct and effective attacking player has seen him become almost undroppable on one of the flanks while Robin Van Persie’s form in Walcott’s preferred striking position is cemented in stone. That leaves just one more wide attacking midfield position. Walcott has vacated this role regularly, beating the declining Andrei Arshavin to a starting birth there.

Though, with the recent emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott’s days may be numbered.

Bringing Walcott off the bench is always a gamble as you never know which player will turn up. It could be beneficial for Arsenal to have such an impact player to come on to add some pace to their side when in need of a goal. But will Walcott accept a place on the bench? For this reason, Walcott must turn potential into ability, occasional flashes of effectiveness into consistent playing style, for if he doesn’t his time at Arsenal may be up.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The View - Manchester United vs Liverpool



Obviously when writing this, my bias will show up. I can’t hide it – some of you already know who I support and I’ll tell it as I saw it, as I usually do when I write a segment of “the view”, but maybe this time it'll be a bit longer. I've gone around many cities looking to watch live football, simply because I love the game so much, but when it’s a game involving the team I love – it's always a better occasion. Wearing the kit, the scarf (or scarves in this case given how freezing it was), screaming to the top of my lungs and settling into the atmosphere I call “home” - all these things just don't happen when I'm at any other stadium. Arriving in Manchester to go to a game is always a memorable experience for me. Swamping into the tram like a sardine going through the quays to get to Old Trafford is priceless. But what always, no matter how many times I’ve done it now in my life, still amazes me and gets my heart pounding is walking towards the stadium and looking at Old Trafford from a distance. Nothing in this world can replace that feeling.  

                                  

I’d made the journey on my own and was attending the game alone (because I would rather walk alone) and just as I found myself strolling outside the stadium and catching up with some familiar faces, as well as some new ones, little drops of snow appeared; but something was missing – there were no Liverpool fans in sight. Normally the away supporters are easy to spot and noisy around the stadium. But on this occasion, given the fact that it is Manchester United vs Liverpool, for security reasons, they arrive only an hour before kick-off. When I took my seat in the stadium, I got that familiar buzz when I see Old Trafford’s grass. I was sat on Tier 2 of the recently named “Sir Alex Ferguson Stand", a stand not recognized for its atmosphere, but whenever it's this particular fixture, it doesn't matter where one is seated, there’ll always be a good atmosphere.

The talk before the game, and everything that surrounded it, was whether Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra would shake hands. During the build-up to the game, both clubs and managers had confirmed that both players would shake hands and act responsibly as professional footballers. Nobody around me thought it would become an issue…but we were all proven very wrong. When the players lined-up for the traditional handshake (a pointless tradition in my opinion which came about just around the same time as that Premier League “song” did in 2004), Evra extended his hand to shake Suarez’s hand and the Uruguayan pulled away. Evra tried pulling it back before Pepe Reina interfered and this angered Ferdinand to not shake Suarez's hand. One big mess which could have been easily avoided. We have all made our thoughts about the whole issue pretty clear and keeping our partiality aside, whether you’re a Liverpool or Manchester United fan, I think we were all wishing the talk would be about the Football and nothing else simply because it was expected that Suarez would have just shook Evra’s hand and gotten over with it. Suarez's actions only spiced things up more. From where I was sat, I obviously didn’t have a clear view of what followed – but when I saw the replay of the incident, I can’t understand how anyone can say Suarez’s reactions were justifiable.

Anyways, back to matters on the pitch, and United’s line-up was a predictable one as was Liverpool’s (except for the ridiculous exclusion of Bellamy who would've have caused chaos on either flank if he'd started - thankfully he didn't). The game kicked-off and Old Trafford was rocking. Noise levels were extremely high and this was one of the better atmospheres I’ve experienced at the ground. The first half was a dreary affair. Chances were few and far between, and there was a sense of anxiety on the pitch. Liverpool dominated the first few minutes and this was evident when Glen Johnson had a glorious opportunity which I thought it had gone in.

But as the first half went on, United began dominating gradually. Slowly gaining the ascendancy by keeping possession sensibly with Paul Scholes orchestrating affairs. The banter between both sets of supporters was funny, to say the least, as the Luis Suarez chants began ringing all over the place for long periods of time (to be fair – there weren’t any chants that were derogatory to his race, in case anyone was wondering – Dalglish's comments after the game proving that). Despite both keepers never being really tested during the first half, United had the upper hand and created several openings without a proper end product. Welbeck, Rooney and Evra all missed half chances, but there was one particular opportunity which, had it gone in, would have been a brilliant goal. It was when Paul Scholes’ header was saved by Reina. That entire passage of play demonstrated once more why I believe that Paul Scholes is a footballing genius. His movement and vision during any interplay between himself and his team-mates is a joy to watch and it’s a shame that such a good move didn’t end up with the ball in the back of the net.

The big moment of discussion was when Ferdinand tackled Suarez at the end of the first half which, had he not gotten the ball, would have resulted in a red card. Dangerous defending from United on that one, but from where I was sat, the angle looked pretty clear that the direction of the ball had changed thanks to Ferdinand’s touch (replays showed it was the correct decision). However, Suarez gave the impression that the atmosphere got to him and this was demonstrated just as the half-time whistle blew when he blasted the ball straight towards the South Stand near the Liverpool dugout in anger - this created a melee when the players were walking in towards the tunnel - inappropriate actions by the Uruguayan in my opinion.



The second half was a completely different story to the first one with more Football and less controversy taking over. United upped the tempo. Within a minute of the restart, United won a corner and Giggs’ delivery was met with a nod on by Carrick only for Rooney to volley it passed Reina. 1-0 and Old Trafford erupted! A couple of minutes later, Jay Spearing was dispossessed by the ever-pressing Valencia who won the ball back and fed Rooney who was one-on-one with Reina and there was only ever one outcome as he slotted the ball between Reina’s legs. 2-0 within 4 minutes of the restart and Liverpool now had a mountain to climb as the stadium was now in full voice to give United the confidence to go on for more.

A third to kill the game off was almost there when Valencia delivered a pass which Scholes let run through his legs only for Rooney to squander it. A few half-chances and a lot of fantastic chanting meant that we all thought the game was over and living up the atmosphere was a joy personally. Daglish had other ideas though and his triple substitutions of Bellamy, Carroll and Adam piled the pressure on United and with 10 minutes left Adam’s in-swinging free-kick was horribly defended by Rio Ferdinand whose poor deflection fell into the path of none other than Luis Suarez to score. 2-1 with 10 minutes to go and Liverpool fans felt they could get something. I felt I could die during those last few minutes of the game as they gained the momentum towards the end, especially when in injury-time Glen Johnson’s shot from outside the box was fantastically saved by David De Gea. We thought that was the last chance until a minute later Suarez was presented with an even bigger chance to even the score when he had a free header which he somehow miraculously missed (even though he was flagged for offside). Heart in our mouths sort of moment.

The referee blew the whistle and Old Trafford roared as now, at least for the next 24 hours, United would be top of the league. What followed though was a rather amusing celebration by Patrice Evra. It infuriated Liverpool players, even though he was celebrating in front of United’s fans, but it was when he celebrated in front of Suarez that he crossed the line. Perhaps the celebrations were over the top but for Evra it might have been some sort of vindication for the events that occurred at kick-off. Either way, as Sir Alex said after the game, he shouldn’t have done it. Especially as I don’t think that Suarez even noticed that Evra was anywhere near him until the other Liverpool players and Phil Dowd interfered. The security then handled the situation admirably to avoid it boiling over into something out of nothing. Because that's what I really think it was...nothing.

All in all, my first ever United vs Liverpool game is one I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. A great atmosphere and some particularly stand-out performers. Wayne Rooney may have been awarded with the "man of the match award", but there were many out there could have easily collected it. It’s a rare sight that Ferguson doesn’t make any substitutions during the entire 90 minutes, maybe it was a sign of just how much trust he had in the 11 players he had started with. Scholes, Evans and Valencia were those who performed best in my opinion, but obviously the ginger prince was my key man. Leaving Old Trafford, it was another feeling of “see you soon” to a place which has given me so many great memories and which I’ve gone to great lengths to visit a few times a year. Beating Liverpool is always a great satisfaction - as it remains my favorite fixture - but being there for it made it much more sweeter.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The right man for the England job should be...



Fabio Capello stepped down as England’s manager following a meeting with the F.A to discuss John Terry’s demotion as England captain – a decision that was taken by the F.A. Most people in the press, and elsewhere, have expressed an unusual amount of joy at his departure by saying it’s time for someone new to come in and bring some fresh ideas. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a familiar sentiment every time England’s manager steps down. New ideas, fresh face, etc. But this time the cry is loud and the cry is clear, the English now want an Englishman in charge. This widespread call for a home-grown manager to take over the England job has been making the rounds all over the place. There’s been a lot of talk about how much money the English F.A have spent on Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello’s salaries whilst both failed to live up to the ridiculous expectations that the English, and in particular their press, have for the national side prior to any international tournament. However, there are two particular points that seem to be completely ignored.

The first one is regarding a certain man called Steve McLaren. For some inexplicable reason, his name is just being mentioned as part of a short anecdote when Capello and Eriksson’s reigns are being discussed. People seem to forget that between Sven’s “golden generation” (please pay attention to the quotation marks) and Capello’s prima-donnas, an Englishman took over the helm and failed even more miserably than both of the foreign managers that sandwiched his arrival and his departure. Under McLaren, England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. But that’s not important, is it? That’s without mentioning some of the disastrous results that led to the failure of qualification amongst many other mockery handlings of affairs (ex: captaincy issue with Beckham). An Englishman causing a mess? Surely not. Actually, as it’s been very well publicized, since 1966 England have failed pretty horribly at every international tournament they’ve participated in with the exceptions of relative “successes” at Italia 90 and Euro 96 - both ending in semi-final exits on penalty shoot-outs vs the Germans. Don’t get me wrong, McLaren was not a bad manager. The fact that he was able to take over lowly FC Twente in the Dutch league following his dismissal and turned them into Dutch Champions is often ignored by too many people in his homeland. That achievement is not an easy feat.  But again, the point being made is that a qualified Englishman (not for the first time) failed as the country’s manager. So they’ve got to hold their horses on the high praise that English managers are receiving. 46 years of English managers and only two foreign managers speaks for itself.

The second, and more important point, is the fact that right now in English football there has been a lot of talk about racism still being ever-present. The fact that a person’s nationality, race, color of skin and such is still taking a massive importance in the way certain individuals are being viewed, treated and insulted as professional footballers. How ironic is it that the whole of England is calling for their manager to be English and not foreign? Isn’t there an outcry in the nation right now about equal opportunities and treatment for everyone regardless of their race, and particularly in Football? The assumption that an Englishman, ahead of a foreign person, will bring success to the national team is laughable and incredibly paradoxical. The history records prove it. Being successful is a simple equation. The best man, regardless of his race or nationality, should be considered for the job. It doesn’t matter if he’s English, Indian, Japanese or Italian – if he’s qualified enough, he should be good enough. Some are saying that an Englishman will understand the banter and traditions that are required to manage the England team and it might breed success. Nearly half a century without a trophy and there’s an actual assumption that understanding banter and tradition will bring success? I’m pretty sure a few managers will be laughing that off. Actually, I’m pretty sure every manager since Alf Ramsey will testify that managing England is not an easy job – English or not; banter or none. To add insult to injury, it’s no coincidence that since the English Premier League (self-proclaimed best league in the world) was created in 1992, 20 years ago, no English manager has ever won the league. Not one. Zilch, Zero, Nada! Two Scotsmen, one Frenchman, one Portuguese and one Italian have all triumphed. No Englishman in that list anywhere to pride themselves upon. So if an Englishman can’t even win the league title, why are they so convinced that an Englishman will definitely be the answer to lead the national team to international glory? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Football is a simple game and it certainly doesn’t require an astronaut to understand how things work. The England manager should be a man of power, authority and with a track record of success and tactical nous to be able to win Football matches. Fabio Capello ticked all of these boxes. His records and titles speak for themselves. His no-nonsense approach to things makes his achievements prior to the England job all the more admirable. But his authority was questioned and consequently taken away when the F.A made a decision regarding an issue that Capello, under normal circumstances, should have made himself. He lost his authority, he quit the job. Makes sense. The manager should always be the most important person in a team (national or club) and the moment his authority, power and influence are taken away, you can be sure that failures and conflicts will follow. It’s something the F.A should take note of, because as long as they keep sticking their fingers into first-team affairs, England will not be successful, whether it’s an Englishman, an Italian or even a well-trained elephant at the helm.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The View - PSG vs Evian




Two years ago to this very month, in February 2010, I went to the Parc-des-Princes for the first time ever to watch what could only be described as the worst Football game I’d ever seen. On that day, PSG triumphed 1-0 over Toulouse in a match that included Claude Makelele and Ludovic Guily, but was the most dire, boring, negative-minded matched Football game I’d ever been to. Not to mention the freezing temperatures that day!

Fast forward two years, the weather has gotten colder (-6 degrees), but the atmosphere around the place is very different. Ever since the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) purchased the club, PSG have been on the rise both on and off the pitch. I asked the two people who joined me at the game about their thoughts on the new ownership, since they’re both PSG fanatics and I’m nowhere near being a PSG fan, and one of them, a good friend of mine, made the best analogy I’ve ever heard regarding a club’s takeover (I can mention his name if you ever feeling like quoting him or killing him - if you're a lady): “Imagine being married for 10-15 years to your wife and being used to her. Not the greatest looking woman in the world, but you’re still in love with her nonetheless. Then suddenly she's offered to get plastic surgery to enhance her chest, her backside and a bunch of other stuff. Initially you might not like it and it’ll take time to get used to it, but at the end you’ll like it”. Words of wisdom...almost.

PSG faced mid-table Evian Thonon Gaillard. Not the most threatening opponents, but another vital 3 points to play for. Arriving to the stadium at the last minute without tickets wasn’t the best idea, but buying tickets within 3 seconds of coming out of the metro wasn’t a bad shout. Sat at the lower tier of the mythical “Boulogne” section in the stadium, the Parisian supporters’ noise levels were extremely high. As opposed to two years ago, when controversy surrounding their fans scarred their reputation, this time the fans were positively cheering their troops on.

The first half was a dull affair, but one that demonstrated how Ancelotti has been marking his authority on the side since his arrival a month ago. Playing a formation that he accustomed to his former Chelsea and Milan sides, PSG needed time to gel in a 4-2-3-1 formation that the Italian has previously made Champions out of. The back four were solid and not making any forceful errors. Maxwell showed all his Barcelona-esque touches, Sakho was the man mountain organizing the defence, Lugano made some clumsy mistakes and Jallet pulled the strings at right back – a complimentary force. But the real star of the show in both halves in my opinion was Thiago Motta. The new recruit from Inter Milan was a calming presence in the midfield, keeping a mature head on things when others would panic.

Very few chances were created by both sides during the first half as Gameiro looked isolated up front. The defence and midfield looked composed, but there was no urgency about PSG’s play. The final third was always lacking inspiration. Nene and Menez, for all their talents, must be two of the most frustrating players to watch given that they try to pull off too many tricks, too many times, and end up losing possession. Everything they do is almost perfect, except that final ball; a bit like Nani at Manchester United, but to a lesser extent and with less of an end product. They did create one brilliant opportunity in the first half as they combined very well only for Menez, despite dribbling past the keeper, to blast the ball onto the post. Half-time loomed and against the run of play, Evian took the lead through Cambon, who latched onto a fumbled shot from outside the box. PSG 0 – 1 Evian. PSG fans were disappointed, but my friend rightly pointed out during the interval that whereas in previous seasons this scenario would mean that PSG would be unable to come back from going a goal behind, this current PSG side always have a goal in them and a capability to bounce back - something these fans could get used to.

The second half began and PSG were a different monster. Two minutes after the break, Nene broke free of the Evian defence and found himself one-on-one with the keeper, he seemed to take one touch too many and then unleashed a low shot which, from our view, never crossed the line. But the goal was given and looking at the replays it shows that the ball did slightly bumble over the line. How the referee saw that, I’ll never know, but I can only guess the voluptuous noise made by the “Boulogne” fans is what got that decision. The scores were now leveled at 1-1, and even though PSG kept pushing to create something, Evian were gradually taking the upper hand. Up until the point that Ancelotti finally changed his tactics and took off Bodmer (who was playing as the attacking midfielder behind the lonely Gameiro) and brought on another striker in Hoarau to add some support up front. PSG suddenly looked dangerous again and before we knew it, Menez was tripped in the box and the home side were awarded a penalty which Nene converted with ease (click here for fans reaction). 2-1 and there was no way back for Evian as PSG were in the ascendency. They wrapped it all up when a fine interception by substitute Matuidi was converted by Gameiro. Game over. 3-1. PSG are now sitting comfortably at the top of the league and are looking hot favorites for the title.

This time around, the Parc-des-Princes was different. The aura has changed. There is a strange positivity surrounding the Parc. The fans know they’re on the brink of something big - albeit with the massive help of QIA - and I don’t think it bothers them one bit. Because as this Parisian revolution begins to make its mark, it’s only a matter of time before they become the dominant force in French Football.




Friday, February 3, 2012

John Terry losses the captain's armband



Some thoughts about the whole John Terry saga. He’s lost the captaincy for the second time in 2 years for something that is, once again, unrelated to his Football. Here are some points:

1 - Innocent until proven guilty. That’s a very important aspect in this entire fiasco. John Terry, to date, has not been charged as guilty in this mess. Keep that in mind.

2 - Correct me if I’m wrong, but it took the FA about 2 months to punish Luis Suarez over his racism issue with Patrice Evra (rightly or wrongly, that’s a topic which has been debated over and over again, and will continue to go on until the end of time). The point I’m trying to make is why is the John Terry case given until after the Euros to be resolved whereas Suarez’s situation was dealt with in 2 months? As opposed to the much more complex Suarez situation, there is actual footage of Terry’s slur at Anton Ferdinand (click here). Different set of rules for English players I suppose?

3 - John Terry has got to stop getting himself into these situations. You just need to look at his past record to know that he has a record for causing trouble: cheating on his wife (with his friend’s wife, without mentioning the whole super-injunction aspect of it), being accused of racism, being fined for mocking the  September 11th attacks…etc. The man has always been surrounded by controversy on and off the pitch. So you’ve got to admit the man puts himself into these situations most of the time.

4 - On the field, only Chelsea fans seem to be oblivious to this, but Terry’s performances have been mediocre to say the least. It’s fair to say that Rio Ferdinand is not the same player he was a couple of years ago, but I think Terry’s decline has not been any better. The only difference in Rio’s case is that injuries have dampened his performances. What is Terry’s excuse? He is undeniably getting old (31) and his heroic-like performances are becoming few and far between. When once he had the ability to encourage an entire team, it seems like now he’s lost that power and influence - particularly with England. I always believed that Terry was made to look good in the past thanks to Carvalho or whoever was next to him (and I still do believe that at times), but Terry has been very poor of late and Chelsea’s defensive record this season is another justification of that (remember this?). Terry’s absence to the England line-up, if indeed he's not included, would not be as big a blow as people imagine because he is a shadow of his former-self.

5 - The captaincy is a big deal in England. In other top Footballing nations, the importance of the captain’s role isn’t as publicized as it is England. The England captain is viewed as a role model. Perhaps because England don’t have much to celebrate, so taking pride in the captain's armband is important to the nation, but whatever the reason, that’s how it has always been. I think that’s wrong. No footballer should be a role model for anybody out there in my eyes. If I had a child, I’d rather he looked up to Football managers instead of players. They're the real brains out there. John Terry and all footballers should not, at any point, be considered as a role models.

6 - The FA seem intent on having "role models" as captains. Or rather, they seem to promote captains as "role models". If the FA want to keep any sort of respect to the armband that they cherish so much, they've got to select a man who has got the spirit, guts and determination on the pitch, as well as the right publicity off it. Scott Parker is that man. An absolute warrior on the pitch and surprisingly enough for an English player, he doesn’t cause any trouble off it. He can lead the team and grab games by the scruff of the neck. A typical old-school English footballer despite his age. If anything, giving the captaincy to a player like Parker would only enhance his ability and determination. It could happen, especially as he’s an invaluable member of a team that have become a “top-4” side these days. Giving it to any other media-darling will only create another mess at some point in the future.

7 - What does this mean for John Terry's future as an England player? Can he actually partner Rio Ferdinand (if Rio is selected) in the centre of that defence knowing that Rio’s brother is the player accusing him of racism? I’ve read stories about England players over the past 15 years or more dividing themselves within the camp whenever controversy has stirred up. This will be no different. There’ll be plenty of them in the squad who’ll form a Pro-Terry brigade and there’ll be others who’ll form a Pro-Ferdinand (Anton/Rio) brigade. It’s bound to cause conflicts. His position has become untenable. I would not be surprised at all if John Terry announced his retirement from international Football sooner than expected.

8 - Where the hell is Capello? He’s the England manager, he should speak out at times like these. This just goes to show how much power the England manager has. Not much, in case you were wondering.

9 - Instead of allowing himself to be stripped of the captaincy, why didn’t John Terry (knowing that there was an entire case about to potentially blow in his face) stand down from the captaincy himself? He could have stepped down and easily issued a statement to defend his position, whilst at the same time relieve himself, the FA, his team-mates from the media circus that we’re seeing today.

10 - You've got to be a bit of an idiot to lose the England captaincy twice in 2 years.

(I imagine the only people who'll disagree with this are those who support, or sympathize, with Chelsea)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why taking your shirt off to celebrate shouldn't be an offence




Whether it’s front of thousands, millions or even no one, scoring a goal, for any team at any moment, is one of the best feelings in the world. It’s a feeling that should be easy to explain, but isn’t. Nothing beats the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net. Anyone who plays the game will tell you, even those playing five-a-side, when a goal is scored a certain emotion is shown. It could be a smile, a clinched-fish, the lack of a celebration or perhaps a wild celebration – it’s a display of feelings. Emotions. It’s a moment that comes naturally to any human being that loves the game. You score, you show an emotion. It’s the human factor that's present in the game and has been ever since Football was created, so why on earth do referees decide that some players should be booked or punished for celebrating?

There is one particular celebration that comes to mind that referees deem as a bookable offence, but I will never truly understand why - when a player scores a goal, and takes off his shirt, whether it’s fully or whether it’s with a message underneath the kit - he gets a yellow card. Sometimes, a second yellow card if he’s already been booked! Please, can someone explain to me how a player taking off his shirt is an offence? I’ve found this article (click here - September 2003) which supposedly explains the reasons why FIFA instated this rule that players get booked for taking off their shirts.

Let’s look at the potential reasons why a referee could book a player for this joke of an offence.

1 - For time-wasting: wait, doesn’t the referee control the time when a goal is scored? Isn’t he the one who decides how much time is added at the end of every half? So, the time factor shouldn’t even be a question. The ref controls the time, he can add as much as he feels is necessary if a player has wasted time celebrating. End of.

2 - For displaying advertisements underneath: Seriously? In a sport where advertising is present at every corner of our views, on a screen or on a pitch, what difference is one more advert going to make in our lives? Maybe it’s about the money-related issues that could follow. But even then, since when have sponsorship issues warranted a booking? Advertisement-related problems have got absolutely nothing to do with celebrating a goal. You want to punish a player for displaying an advert, deal with it off the pitch, not on it. If FIFA considers this as an offence, they've got to get their priorities straightened out.

3 - For displaying a political, religious or other messages: So bloody what? Who cares if Kaka “belongs to God”? If that’s his way of expressing joy when he’s scored a goal, so let it be. Football is played by people of all religions and backgrounds, and if they decide to show their beliefs publicly, it shouldn't be a problem. I bet until now not many people understand some of the messages that some players have put underneath their kits. They’re mainly private messages and inside jokes at times. I recall Thierry Henry scoring once and having the message “for the West Indies” on his shirt. What difference does that message make to anyone’s life? He’s sending out a message to his friends and origins. Big deal. I’ve even heard some saying that there is a fear that the messages the players display could potentially cause a riot or offend some fans – believe me, if a message underneath a footballer's shirt was what caused a riot, it’s not the shirt underneath that needs to be checked. I won’t even get into the double standards of this rule. A couple of weeks ago when Robin van Persie scored vs Manchester United in Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium, Van Persie partially took off his top to display a message in Dutch (something about a birthday I think?). He wasn’t booked for this incident, apparently because the shirt wasn’t fully taken off (not to mention he got a booking a few minutes later so could have been sent off). Ha! Give me a break. I didn’t know there were degrees to how much a shirt could be taken off or not to be considered a punishable offence. It’s not like we’re showing live boob action on television.

4 - For public viewing discretion: If taking off a shirt is considered offensive for viewing, then why on earth don’t all the players get punished when they take off their tops after the final whistle has gone with the cameras fully focused on their six-packs? Apparently, some consider the topless actions to be offensive to some cultures. Yes, I’m sure whenever Cristiano Ronaldo is walking around without a top after a game there are some people in far corners of the world raging and wanting to file a formal complaint to FIFA. What a joke.

Booking a player, and sometimes even sending him off, for taking his shirt off is a ridiculous rule. It’s in the FIFA guidelines, we all know that, but it shouldn’t be. Why should a celebration dictate the outcome of a game by potentially getting a man sent off? Football is about emotions, passion, celebrations and displaying all the feelings that we have little or no control over. Taking your shirt off on a pitch is a display of joy. It doesn’t cause offence anywhere and if it did, then there are loads of other times when players are topless during a game and aren’t punished for it. So it makes no sense. It’s not like the player is taking his pants off. It’s his top! His jersey! Plus, who wouldn’t want to see more of this sort of thing happening in Football? You just know it makes it more fun! (click here)

Another topic of discussion to end this post. Celebrating with the crowds. To compliment what I just said above, it’s also a ridiculous rule. These guys here say it better than I can. Worth a watch: