Saturday, March 30, 2013

The view - PSG vs Montpellier

Been a while since I last wrote one of these, because it's been a while since I traveled. The last game I went to (strangely) was PSG vs Evian last season and here's what I wrote about that one.

Well, this time I was actually looking forward to going to the game. The opponents were Montpellier (Champions of France 2012) and unlike in the past 2 occasions that I visited the Parc des Princes, this time there was a big buzz around the stadium (and the city) as Barcelona are coming to town in a few days.

On a personal note, I was looking forward to seeing David Beckham (for the first time) and Zlatan Ibrahimovich (first time too) as I'd never gotten the chance to watch them live. Once again, I was sat in the "Boulogne" section of the stadium, but this time on the upper tier (a.k.a the freezing zone) and along with 2 friends (one Real Madrid supporter and one PSG supporter).  
Prior to kick-off, the sub-zero temperatures (and it's the end of March!) began kicking in and there were a few things I began to notice that weren't at the ground previously. Firstly, there were loads, and I mean LOADS, of plastic flags (you know the ones Rafa Benitez loves) on the chairs for the fans to pick up and "create an atmosphere". Secondly, on the screens at the stadium, they put up a lot of video compilations building up PSG and its players as the greatest thing in the world. So when the video "montage" of PSG vs Barcelona came up, the fans were actually celebrating as if it were the actual game (more on PSG v Barca later). Finally, the security levels have stepped up and the fans have become "calmer" - that's mainly thanks to tickets being more expensive allowing only a certain "class" of people to attend and basically slowly (very slowly) changing the crowd at the stadium.

As for the game itself, the first half PSG seemed to have one eye on the Barcelona game and weren't really giving it their all. Gregory Van Der Wiel and Clement Chantome were often exposed on the right hand side, even though Chantome could've given PSG the lead within a minute (thanks to a brilliant ball from the otherwise ineffective Javier Pastore).


There were few chances from both sides (with Montpellier seemingly happy to allow PSG to keep possession). However, whenever Zlatan had the ball you could feel something special was about to happen. His first touch is exquisite, his vision brilliant and his ruthlessness breathtaking. This was evident when he shot a 20-yard volley just wide. With Thiago Silva and Alex untroubled and leading from the back, it was Marco Verrati and Blaise Mathuidi who were making sure Montpellier's midfield were ineffective (might I just add that I think Mathuidi is probably the best upcoming defensive midfielder in world football).

There were two penalty shouts that seemed pretty obvious from where we were sat, but somehow the referee missed them. 
As half-time arrived, the subdued PSG performance had to be upped and when the second half began, the tempo had changed. 

Zlatan led the line. He dropped deep to build the play. For those who consider him as just another goalscorer, when you see him live you'll know he does so much more than that. His work rate is impressive as well. Chasing down lost balls and pressuring the keeper whenever he has the chance, he does more than we think. His powerful knock-down created a great chance for Menez who struck wide. Montpellier settled well and barely troubled Sirigu's net as a draw seemed likely. Ancelotti's changes were made on the 71st minute with Beckham coming on for Verratti and Gameiro coming on for Chantome.

Now, make of this what you will, but I was genuinely surprised at Beckham's performance. The initials cries from the fans behind me were cynical comments about Beckham such as "hope you don't mess your hair". But his first 3 touches were sublime. All one touches that spread the play so well that it was reminiscent of his younger years. Don't know about you, but I think he's still got it. Those 20 minute cameos could come in handy for PSG at some point. His experience and vision are evident.

As PSG pounded the Montpellier defence, it was only a matter of time before they scored and on the 80th minute, some good link up play between Menez and Zlatan, ended in the Swede giving an unselfish pass to Gameiro who tapped in from close range as all the players ran to their man man Zlatan to celebrate. The Parc Des Princes had come to life and the home side nearly grabbed a second goal when Beckham's smart low freekick found Ibrahimovich which went inches wide.

All in all, a decent performance, but with Barca coming up they're going to have to raise their game if they want to get anything out of it. PSG's right hand side is weak and way too exposed way too often. With Jordi Alba bombing down the left quite regularly, it wouldn't surprise me to see Barcelona score from that side of the pitch. As for the rest of the team, if Zlatan plays well and leads the troops, we might see an upset on the cards. But whatever happens, be sure that if PSG get a positive result against the Catalans, it'll be thanks to their noisy fans, more than their players, who'll make sure to intimidate Messi and co. The countdown is on.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Arsenal & injuries meet again

So Abou Diaby has been ruled out for 9 months (that's enough time to deliver a baby) due to tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. I think we all feel bad for him and wish him a speedy recovery. It's quite a shame that a 26-year midfielder with such a towering physique has only been able to play 177 times for Arsenal since joining the club in January 2006. He was often likened to Patrick Vieira because of his ability on the ball in addition to his tough presence - but now those comparisons seem like a distant memory.

Speaking of memories, another Arsenal injury brings up one. I wrote an article (click here to read it. It's about groundhog day and Arsenal's seasons) on April 26th 2011. Well, correct me if I'm wrong but absolutely nothing has changed since then. You can compare everything that was written on that post and you'll notice that Arsenal's plight might actually have gotten worse.

Of Arsenal's current squad, here are the injuries (again): Gibbs (illness), Walcott (pelvic injury), Wilshere (who was already out for a huge chunk of the past year - ankle injury) and now Diaby. When these common injuries happen one or two seasons in a row, you can blame it on luck. When it happens for over 6-7 seasons, then you've got to start questioning the physical strength of Arsenal's players. I strongly believe (like I did back in April 2011) that Arsenal's regular injuries are down to 3 things:

1 - Their training regime. I have no idea how they train or what exercises they do, but by the looks of it, they aren't doing enough to make their players resistant to injuries. The simple fact that most of their players who had been injured often at their club (Fabregas, RVP...etc) went on to leave and found themselves fit for long periods of time, just goes to show that those players, with new and better training regimes, just got better stronger physically. Arsenal are doing it wrong.

2 - The overuse of the same players. Arsenal's squad is so thin that they keep depending on the same players over and over again. Whereas other clubs rest their key men in competitions like the FA Cup or League Cup and play second string individuals, Arsenal still put out their best squad (which is a respectable thing to do) all the time, but to be a top club they should have enough players to rest the main men too and depend on other players. By the mid-point of the season, the majority of their players struggle with fatigue.

3 - Keeping the ball on the ground. They don't play in Spain, Italy or France, where teams have more time on the ball. The Premier League is so fast (and sometimes incapable of understanding the use of tactics) that keeping the ball on the ground incites one thing - tackles. Looking back at all those players who broke their legs at Arsenal over the past few seasons (Eduardo, Diaby, Ramsey), all of them were victims of dangerous play and it's not a coincidence. You keep the ball on the ground (especially with your back to goal), you're basically inviting teams in England to tackle and hurt you.

Arsenal fans are obviously going to disagree with this, but the results and outcomes speak for themselves. There's no justification for so many injuries every season. It's not luck. It's not unfortunate. They've got to stop playing the blame game and find the source of the problems. As for Diaby, I do think that the list below of his injuries (that's a crazy list) could lead to a possible early retirement. Let's hope not. No player deserves that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Beat Barcelona and win the Champions League

I've always been quite vocal about the pleasure I take in seeing Barcelona fail. Mainly because they've been winning everything in their path in recent times and particularly because this current bunch of Barcelona fans (who only started watching football a couple of years ago it would seem) have created a widespread belief that theirs is the greatest team of all-time. I don't need to mention again how impossible is it to compare different eras (click here if you're bothered to read about that), but I will give this Barcelona team credit for one thing that isn't mentioned anywhere.

It hasn't been pointed out in the media much, but last night it occurred to me that over the past few years, the team that knocks out Barcelona always goes on to win the trophy with big ears. PSG, you know what to do.

Barcelona won the Champions League in 2006 under Frank Rijkaard with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal (feels like a century ago, doesn't it Gooners?) and in 2007 they were eliminated by Liverpool (remember that?), who themselves went all the way to the final and lost 2-1 to AC Milan. At that time Barcelona were setting the tempo in Europe with Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o pulling the strings, but since 2007/08, the message has become clear: if you knock out Barcelona, you will win the Champions League.

Here's how it's happened:

2007/08: knocked out by Manchester United in the semi-finals (with a Paul Scholes beauty I might add, yes, yes click), and United won it.

2008/09: Barca won the whole thing by beating Manchester United 2-0 in the final

2009/10: Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan side beat Pep's men in the semi-final and went on to win the trophy and a historic treble.

2010/11: Barca won it again by beating Manchester United (again) 3-1 in the final at Wembley.

2011/12: Chelsea miraculously got the better of Barcelona in the semi-finals in what can only be considered as one of the most unexpected results in recent Champions League history and went on to beat Bayern Munich on penalties in the final.

2012/13: ?

PSG should be aware of this and though it's unlikely they beat the Catalans, this could be just the sort of thing they'll want to hear. As for the rest of the teams left in the competition, Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich would all fancy their chances against Messi & co if given the chance. Will Barcelona find success at Wembley again? Time will tell. First stop, Paris.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thoughts on Manchester United 1 - 2 Real Madrid

If I had written anything last night about the game, it would have been with fury, anger and probably made no sense. I've woken up this morning with the same feeling I figured Barcelona fans had after the AC Milan game - it's like a bad hangover, waking up and realizing what the f*ck just happened (want to share a drink Barca fans to drown our sorrows together?). I'll put some points that you might not agree with, so feel free to discuss (in no particular order):

  • To begin with, United's line-up at the start was the correct one. Up until the red card, that was probably the most disciplined United performance I have seen in a longtime. Compact, composed, making no room for errors, closing down players quickly, but we'll never know if United could have held on for a win at 11 vs 11. That wasn't parking the bus. That was disciplined football at its best. Typical counter-attacking United whenever the chance came about with Welbeck being the closing down the dangerous Xabi Alonso. Every player on the pitch knew what he had to do. It was flawless stuff for 60 minutes.

  • The decision not to include Rooney was a highly risky one. It's not that any of the other players had a bad game, but in the biggest game of the season with the whole world watching, you want your best players playing and Wayne Rooney would have been an additional headache for Madrid if he had started. But Fergie knows better than all of us and until the red card, the decision was being justified.

  • When a team is capable of beating Barcelona twice in one week (at home & away) and then they go on to beat Manchester United (away), you've got to give them credit for that. Real Madrid's season is finally looking alive again.

  • Ryan Giggs was phenomenal. Before and after the red, it is incredible to believe that this guy was playing his 1,000th professional game. It is absolutely unbelievable and he was inspirational throughout. I hope that the non-United fans also appreciate that. Both going forward and defending, he was a beast. Legend.

  • Sergio Ramos' own goal was as much unfortunate defending as it was down to Nani creating something out of what looked like a lost cause. The timing couldn't have been better and United were in the clear ascendancy at that stage.

  • During the entire first half, United made sure that Ronaldo was nowhere to be seen. He had done nothing of note in that first half and it seemed like emotions were discreetly getting the better of him. But in the second half that all changed. His goal and celebration typified the man. His awareness, sharpness and speed of thought to get into such a position where most players would consider it a lost ball is just another example of why he's a level above the rest. He scored in the first leg and the second leg, yet both times he refused to celebrate. It was a burning spear for United fans to see that the monster the club created was now coming back to haunt them. He showed respect to United's fans, players and the club as a whole over the 2 legs. Some United fans still hate him, I certainly don't. He barely put on a smile throughout the game despite the win and the goal. You can hate him all you want, but you've got to respect him.

  • Luka Modric's was top class. His goal was top class. He made the difference for Madrid after coming on as a sub. However, from a United point of view, I think some homework wasn't done. When Luka Modric got the ball before his shot, he took one touch, a second touch and then fired the rocket. But following the first touch, Michael Carrick committed himself way too easily and if he had done his homework he (and anyone who's watched Modric for a few years) would know that Modric doesn't take a shot from outside the box unless his has a good run-up before it. What I'm trying to say is that following the first touch, if Carrick held his ground and closed Modric down sensibly, rather than committing himself, then he wouldn't have gotten the space that the second touch allowed him to have for the shot. Nevertheless, it was an absolutely brilliant goal that will live long in the memory of Madrid fans.

  • The passing and movement for Real Madrid's second goal was the stuff of high quality football. Particularly that Ozil touch.

  • The Red Card. I cannot, for one second, understand how it happened. In normal circumstances, a high foot means a red card no matter what happens. But that's not what's bothering me. First of all, the ball was in the air and Nani's eyes were fully on it. He didn't even look back for one second to see if a challenger was coming (that's a mistake on his behalf by the way) and he went up fairly to bring the ball down. Arbeloa comes flying in fairly to intercept the ball. That is a 50-50 challenge. Nothing in this world can convince me otherwise (De Jong's kung fu kick in the World Cup final only got him a yellow). Second of all, and this is what really irks me, if that's a real red card, then it should be given immediately. But that wasn't the case. There were very, very, minor complaints from anyone when the foul happened. And the referee actually took his time, waiting for the medics to come on and then gave the red card! If it's a red card offence, then the decision should be instantly! Hard tackle, bam, red card. High foot, bam, red card. Hard challenge, wait for the players to get back up and chill, then red card? It doesn't make sense. It was a yellow card offence at most and the referee made a mess of it. For anyone saying it is a red card after seeing the replay, just remember the referee doesn't have the benefits of a replay and has to make an instant decision. In this case, he took his time (he should've been offered Turkish coffee while waiting) and then made his decision. We've seen thousands of angles, the referee only had one.

  • The immediate reaction by Mourinho for the red card was what changed the game. Taking off Arbeloa and bringing on another midfielder to cram United up is what created the two goals. Mourinho saw the dead space and knew it was there for the taking. He did it. The midfield was packed, Madrid were bombarding United, who were now on the back foot. The game had an element of what United felt in that 6-1 loss to City in the sense that following a red card, the players seemed to be overcrowded and the away side had more creative numbers that could damage United. Real Madrid were ruthless at this stage. So having scored two, what does Mourinho do next to completely destroy United...

  • In a quite remarkable move, Mourinho took off Ozil and brought on Pepe to revert back to their initial formation. It was a very strange move. If they had continued at the pace they were at, Madrid would have scored more. Once Ozil went off, United gained momentum again and look threatening despite being down to 10 men. The switch of formation after the second goal invited United to attack more and if it weren't for the great performance by Diego Lopez, United would probably have scored a goal or two in the last 20 minutes.

  • A friend of mine who supports Real Madrid sent me a message at half-time asking what I thought about the game at that point. My response was "if United are playing that good as they are at the moment and haven't scored yet, it's a bad sign". United should have taken advantage of the first half dominance and seen off a few chances.

  • The United fans, players and managers were frustrated. But seeing Rio Ferdinand go and clap to the referee's face is not something any footballer should do. The referee made a proper mess of the entire thing and tempers were rising. Voicing your anger is one thing, clapping in his face is another. I wouldn't be surprised if UEFA charged Rio for that. It was an immature reaction from one of United's best performers on the night.

  • The conclusion of the game is that United were hard done by. The referee ruined what was turning out to be one of the most intriguing clashes this season. It was an injustice. Absolutely nobody can disagree with that. Even Real Madrid fans know that the red card changed the game. That decision tilted the entire game which seemed to be going United's way. But that's football and United fans should take a lot of pride from the performance, as it's always better to go down fighting rather than to give up. United were resilient despite the situation. As for Madrid, it'll be interesting to see who they play next, but the limited celebrations spoke volumes about what happened. They know. I do think Mourinho's men are going to go all the way to the final now.

  • The post-match interviews added to the drama of the whole thing. Mourinho claiming "the best team lost" can be considered as a touch of class on his behalf or part of his job interview for the Old Trafford hotseat (i.e. kissing the behind of everything that is red until he gets there...which won't happen). Whereas Ferguson refusing to come out for the press conference was, well, a bit expected. Though I think I'm not alone in saying we were all waiting to hear what he had to say and the next few days will be interesting.

  • English football's hopes in the Champions League lie with Arsenal scoring 3 in Munich. Yes, and there is now free treatment for balding men in the world (sense the tone, neither are going to happen). No English clubs left in the Champions League in the Quarter-Finals tells its own story.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Weekend summary from the top leagues in Europe (1 - 3 March 2013)

Here we go amigos and amigas:

  • Anyone who says the French league isn't competitive, needs to get their heads checked. PSG lost 1-0 to struggling Reims, but remain top 2 points ahead of Lyon, who could only draw against Brest. Marseille's 2-1 win over Troyes means that they've gotten a step closer to Lyon and are now 3 points behind them in 3rd.
  • It's going to be an interesting week for PSG as they'll be Zlatan-less against Valencia in a must win game in the Champions League. Have they got enough quality to see them through? I think they do...
  • Bayern Munich won 1-0 against Hoffenheim thanks to a Mario Gomez goal and have now re-established a 17 point lead at the top, even though Borussia Dortmund won 3-1 against Hannover. That's right, 17 points at the top. What exactly is Pep Guardiola going to improve at the club next season, I have no idea.
  • The top of the table clash in Italy between Juventus and Napoli ended in a 1-1 draw. Once again the only way Buffon was beaten was by a thunder-strike, this time by Gokhan Inler. The game was marred by a childish clash between Edison Cavani and Giorgio Chiellini which resulted in a yellow card for the pair, though Cavani should be counting his lucky stars as he deserved a red (he's never been sent off in his career if i'm not mistaken). But Chiellini's hair pulling can't be defended either.
  • I said it back when they were in 14th position that AC Milan would finish 3rd this season. They've now maintained that position thanks to their 3-0 battering of Lazio. Though with a man advantage for 70 minutes, you could only expect such a result.
  • Inter Milan pulled off a great comeback against Catania. They were 2-0 up with 19 minutes played, but in the second half they made amends with 3 goals, including a 92nd minute winner, to make sure they remained within touching distance of the top 3. Between Inter Milan and Catania there were 19 Argentinian players in both squads. Not sure why that's important to note, but just felt like mentioning it.
  • Atletico Madrid drew 0-0 away to Malaga, leaving them 11 points behind Barcelona.
  • There was another Clasico in Spain this weekend (yawn), but surprisingly enough Real Madrid beat Barcelona again. So that's twice in one week. A 2-1 win still keeps Madrid in 3rd, despite the fact that they rested some key men with one eye on the Champions League return leg against Manchester United. Ronaldo, Khedira, Ozil and Arbeloa didn't start, whereas Barcelona were without Xavi, Puyol and Fabregas. Not sure what to make of the result as Madrid are still a whooping 13 points behind their rivals from Catalunya.
  • Please, to some Barcelona fans (I said SOME), stop panicking and pretending like it's the end of the world. You're winning the league. If you deem what's happening now as a failure, you really need some perspective (i.e. compare your situation with other less fortunate clubs). Reading some of the comments of Barcelona fans insulting their own players and coaches is disgusting and sums up why there are many of them I personally can't respect as football fans. It's a loss, deal with it.
  • Chelsea beat West Brom thanks to Demba Ba's goal and Chelsea's very supportive fans (check the picture on the Facebook page). Manchester United can thank Shinji Kagawa for his hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Norwich to keep them 15 points clear (I thought people said the Premier League was the best?) at least until Monday when City play Aston Villa. A Luis Suarez hat-trick made is an easy 4-0 rout for Liverpool away to Wigan.
  • The North London derby was won by Tottenham 2-1, more on that later in my latest post on STC Sports which I'll put up later on today (for the bored ones who read what I write).