Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Of Russia and Bulgaria

This is one of the most amazing football stories I have read recently. There's corruption all over the globe in football, but something about this happening between clubs in Bulgaria and Russia and the mention of the Russian secret service, gives this a Hollywood feel:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ronaldo a ‘Pagalactico’

Reports have confirmed that Manchester United have accepted a bid worth £ 80 million for Christiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid, bringing to a premature end the transfer saga that was expected to draw out long into the summer.

There is very little in the news that surprises me. Yes, it does leave one awe-struck and almost jaw-broken by the sheer magnitude of the transfer fee and the fact that it has come within days of Kaka’s move to Madrid, but I was convinced since the day United sealed their third successive league title at home that Ronaldo was on his way out. I will go so far as to state that had Real not tabled the bid they did, Sir Alex would still have sold Ronaldo to the highest bidder even at a much lower price than his club is about to receive.

To Go or Not to Go

Ronaldo was never the most loved of footballers in England, but popularity really plummeted for the first time after “Winkgate” at the World Cup in Germany. Even Manchester United fans were expected to boo him out of Old Trafford but such theories were soon put to rest as the man proceeded to play some of the best football seen this side of the millennium. That stunning season placed him in the Pantheon of legendary Red Devils and when Ronaldo expressed his desire to leave for Madrid last summer, the fans and Sir Alex both found the idea unacceptable. And history has shown us that what millions of fans may not to be able to achieve as a collective, Alex Ferguson is capable of achieving as an individual. Persuasion powers worked and Ronaldo stayed put for another season.

The year that has passed since has seen further drama unfold as Spanish papers never ceased reporting about the various deals that had been struck ensuring that Ronaldo would leave for Madrid in the summer of 2009 while Sir Alex went on record stating that he wouldn’t sell a ‘virus’ to the world’s most successful football club. Ronaldo himself kept up an unconvincing pretence of having the desire to stay on with Manchester United.

Yet, for all the words that were spoken and printed, a separate drama unfolded on the football pitch that foretold the events of today without using the crutches of words. There were many defining moments that built up to the time when this writer for one was convinced that whatever the sound bites, Ronaldo was indeed going to leave.

Imminent Departure

Millions of us saw Ronaldo asking to be substituted and then jog straight into the tunnel and questioned his commitment and discipline. We saw him sulk on the bench when substituted in another game and then on a separate occasion almost to our shock and horror saw him turn back and argue with Sir Alex when the boss reacted angrily to a wild shot on goal. In another context and with other protagonists, there may or may not have been too much to interpret, but this was different. Nobody and that means nobody can continue in Manchester United when the red-nosed Knight finds them too big for their boots, and Ronaldo’s were looking big enough to be visible from the moon.

Paul Ince, David Beckham and Ruud V Nistelrooy have all in the past been ‘allowed to go’ when their egos failed to fit in the Manager’s plans even though their games still did and there was no reason to expect the trend to change. One man who is not getting any softer with age happens to be Roanldo’s boss (ex-boss?) and just like he was one of the few who could stand up to Real when he wanted to ‘keep’ his man, he also happens to be one of the fewer who would be willing to axe one of the top 3 players in the world.

Anyway, as the season came to an end and there did begin some murmurs about Sir Alex tolerating Ronaldo’s tantrums a bit more than is expected of him, the gaffer let out his intentions in a half second snub, that surprisingly was not discussed threadbare by an English media that is always on the look-out for stories with a ‘human’ (as against footballing) interest.

Moments after the title was secured, SAF was out on the pitch hugging and back slapping each of his players and looking as excited as any member of a trophy winning team. As player after player was met and held in the affectionate embrace of the patriarch, Ronaldo stood and gazed with a grin next in line and looking happy but unsure. And then without letting the smile wipe off his face and also without giving it a second thought, SAF looked straight through his star player and turned to the next bunch of boys while Ronaldo continued to grin and look on. Imagine the look on a schoolboy’s face who wants to be a teacher’s favorite even as said teacher showers attention all around while ignoring him. At that moment I knew that Ferguson’s mind was made up and Ronaldo was going, all that remained to be settled was the size of the cheque.

Team and Player

Manchester United will move on and while Ronaldo will be difficult to replace as a player who could change a game with a moment of magic, the attacking threat that United will pose over a season should not suffer too much, especially given the players who we may expect to come in.

Ronaldo himself may find the move to be a little bit of a lottery. Madrid have not quite been trophy less for many seasons, but they have never played flowing, pleasing football since the heady days of their last CL triumph with the Galacticos. Even if Barcelona collapse and are beaten to the La Liga title by Real, Ronaldo may find it difficult to display the same spark in a team for whom the only suitable adjective given their recent past is ‘dour’. The possibilities of a merry-go-around of managers combined with the presence of multiple mega-ego players in the squad will provide an atmosphere completely unlike that in which the youngster transformed himself from a show-boating teenager to the most dangerous player in the world. Yes, I am inclined to think that the move will do Ronaldo more harm than good though for the sake of the game and what that man brings to it, I hope it turns out well.


And what about Madrid, an absolute mockery of everything for which either sports or business stands for! There are ever increasing noises about football being corrupted and ceasing to be a sport and turning into a business, but one club now threatens to take a path unacceptable as either of the two. Two players worth more than £ 125 million and the money going out of nobody’s pocket? Unlike Leeds and other clubs which paid (or may pay) the price for their extravagance, a favorable government and friendly banks will ensure that the Real dream will carry on and the madness of one man will continue to amuse a planet. It will take a separate piece to discuss the incredulousness and impact of this deal, but it is astonishing to see Florentino Perez actually come back to lead the club he so spectacularly butchered at the last opportunity. In Hindi, ‘Pagal’ is the word for a madman, and the only word to describe this new rebuilding of Real is “Pagalactico”.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chelsea v Barcelona, May 6, Champions League

Chelsea paid the price for not taking their chances when they got them and a painfully late 94th minute equalizer from Andres Iniesta meant that Barcelona have sealed their date against Manchester United in Rome. There is talk of tactics and strategy, but in the end the only fact that separated the two teams was the away goal. For all Chelsea’s defensiveness they created enough to have won it over two legs. For all Barcelona’s lack of shots on target in the second –leg, they managed to score the goal that mattered and the rest are just split hairs.

The second leg mirrored the first in many aspects and yet had significant differences. The most significant being a 9th minute goal scored out of nothing from a Michael Essien left footed wonder strike. Chelsea may have not had too many attacking thoughts even at nil-nil, but the goal gave them an added incentive to defend in numbers. Before the goal and after it, Barcelona kept possession in much the same way as they had done in the first leg. They also made as little use of it at Stamford Bridge as they had done at the Nou Camp.

From there on till the end, the game was mildly more entertaining than last week’s encounter with more occasions for drama and controversy, though with rather little new in terms of spectacular play. Especially poor was Dani Alves, whose crosses throughout the evening would have been better collected in the neighboring field. Eto was no more visible than n the first leg and Messi just marginally better. Busquet, Keita and Xavi looked like a pale shadow of Xavi, Iniesta and Toure, though Chelsea were so far back that the midfield depletion didn’t really hurt Barca. Iniesta stood out as the only Barca player who looked capable of doing damage, but not really in the manner in which he eventually did.

Chelsea’s single solution for creating attacking positions was to seek out Drogba, and he did do a spectacular job in making life difficult for Barcelona many times through the evening. Yet, he failed to score from a chance not too dissimilar to the one he had at the Nou Camp and in that failure, condemned his team to defeat.

Barca should have conceded a penalty or two and were fortunate, but so had Chelsea been when Henry was denied a penalty and Ballack not dished out a red card. The ref stank the whole night through and yet somehow it is difficult to pin the result to him. Chelsea could have scored more and should have been composed enough till the end, not to concede against ten men. Barcelona kept going for it, even after they lost Abidal and were fortunate enough to get the rewards. Had Iniesta shot wide, Barca would have had only their inability to break down a very resolute and well organized defense to blame.

I would have loved if Barcelona had squared off against Arsenal while Manchester United had taken on Chelsea. It probably would have made for better viewing across all the four games and even though the finalists may have turned out to be the same, there would not have been so much unsettlable debate between beautiful and defensive football and the moral rights to a final.

As it is, Barcelona have got there and will have the right to play, moral or immoral. How well they can cope against Manchester United will be seen on the day, but they will know that their superiority in the Liga will mean nothing against the defending Champions. Especially fragile is the look of their defense and Manchester United can play the counter attacking game even better than Chelsea so Barcelona will struggle to keep a clean sheet. The destination of the trophy will be their ability to do significantly better against resolute defending and in that respect, the Chelsea game could prove to be a huge learning experience for them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Arsenal v Manchester United, May 5, Champions League

United should have had their place in the final sealed and settled even before we kicked off at the Emirates. Almunia and profligacy on United’s part had resulted in the Gunners chasing a mere one goal deficit and Arsenal are up there as one of the teams who should not be given a chance to recover. All three outcomes were distinctly possible and home advantage could potentially have had a strong influence in the result.

Arsenal sure started like they meant business. Some very slick passing resulted in a continued siege of the Red Devils’ goal, though Van der Saar was yet to be tested. Then came a moment where Arsenal’s vulnerability became suddenly evident. A long ball clearance found Ronaldo in the Arsenal box and he fended off three defenders before successfully controlling the ball and then setting up play for a half chance at goal. No damage was done but it was clear that whenever Man U did get into dangerous positions, they would have much more teeth. Just then, I remembered an Arsenal-Man U encounter from last season where Asenal kept playing pretty but Manchester United kept threatening on the break with some brilliant crosses into the box. Before too long one of them ended with a finish and for all their pretty play, Arsenal were behind. That game had ended 2-2 with some late drama, but my current thoughts were limited to expecting Arsenal to concede soon.

And soon enough they did. Once more Ronaldo found the ball, centered it for Park and while poor Gibbs slipped, making life easy for Park, Arsenal had invited enough trouble to not have the defense of poor luck. Now Arsenal had to score three and already you could sense a look of helplessness in the players’ faces. After Ronaldo scored from a free kick (which was a debatable free kick to get and which Almunia should have saved ), the Gunners just gave up. Within ten minutes of the second half, the match was beyond their reach and while they put up the charade of a fight, they never looked determined enough for a fight back.

There was a beautiful counter-attacking goal after a Vidic clearance was met by Ronaldo, carried by Park, taken wide and then played in by Rooney and finished by Ronaldo. There was also a consolation goal from a penalty for Arsenal after Fletcher was red carded. He got the ball but he also brought Fabregas down. Opinion has been divided over whether it was a red card or not. Most of the media (English) has been screaming it was so obviously not, while Graham Poll, retired referee and hence with the maximum credibility has apparently said it was. So there.

Wenger later described the 1-3 rout as the worst night of his career, but it was not a night that crept up suddenly. At the beginning of the season, Arsenal produced some good results against their direct rivals but dropped far too many points against the minnows. Now they have been on a great run against teams lower in the league than them, but in the last three weeks have been outplayed by Chelsea, Liverpool and United. Even though they sneaked in a draw against Pool, their fragility against teams that can match them in skill and outdo them in strength is evident. It may require the abandoning of the youth policy and ideology of Monsieur Wenger, but the arguments in favor of such a change are strong and many and oft repeated. And in the abandoning of the Galacticos policy by Madrid, Arsenal do have a precedence where a declared approach to success is abandoned when the targeted success is so obviously out of reach. Will Wenger heed?

Man U and Sir Alex – Just brilliant. It is difficult to pick a Man U player who did not have a great game. Ronaldo was at his best – smaller on the show boating doses and very large on impact, Rooney is just continuing to outdo Vidic’s bid as United’s player of the year, Anderson, Fletcher, Park…name them and they were all worthy of being finalists. Which they all are going to be now, with the unfortunate exception of Fletcher.

I hope it will be against Barcelona, but the outcome of tonight’s game is far from certain. I expect Chelsea to play exactly as they did last week and would not be surprised to see them nick it by a goal. Unless, Barca score early…then it will be fun.

Monday, May 4, 2009

El Classico at the Bernabeau, 2 May, La Liga

There will be a tendency to go into hyperbole about the class of Barcelona and the entertainment value of this game and a lot of it will be justified. But it is fair to say that throughout the season Barcelona have provided enough evidence to make the eventual outcome of this El Classico encounter, a thoroughly expected proposition. In other words, this result should not elicit any element of surprise. Let’s limit the elements to ‘Wows’.

The Santiago Bernabeau has not so long ago stood up to a man to cheer the genius of Ronaldinho, an act of appreciation so out of character, that even while seeing it live, I was tempted to interpret it as a fans’ way of showing their disgust towards their own team, rather than with the sole objective of praising a phenomenal adversary. On this occasion, they were provided ample opportunity to repeat their act, but they just looked on in amazement. For this time, there was little to berate their own team for and hence little motivation to rile them by praising the enemy. And yet, their appreciation of the beauty of Barcelona’s play would have not been in any measure lesser than that night when the grinning Brazilian had floored them all.

Madrid did not adopt the Chelsea approach to taming Barca. For one they were playing at home, as Chelsea will be this week. Second, they needed the three points to bring the gap down to a single point and give themselves a very real shot at retaining the League and pulling off a stunning comeback. Third, they had already tried the Chelsea approach at the Nou Camp and had failed to shout Barca out for more than eighty minutes or so. Last but not the least, they were on the back of seventeen or so unbeaten games, most of which were wins and had every reason to feel confident.

Barca on the other hand had seen a thirteen point advantage significantly reduced, had drawn two straight games and the world press was murmuring about the true extent of their greatness.
This is how it turned out. Higuain scored from a free header to give Real the lead. Barca responded with Messi finding Henry with the defense left behind and it was one all. Then a free kick was met with a Puyol free header into goal. Then it was Messi’s turn to score and it went into the break at 3-1. Barca came out strong again but it was Ramos who got the next goal and at 2-3, Real could have had a chance. But then Henry scored another and then Messi added another after being set up by Xavi and at 2-5 up, guess who it was that met Eto’s cross to score the sixth? Piquet from central defense, that’s who. That’s how crazy Barcelona are.

But to say so-and-so scored and this is how the game flowed is absurdly limiting. This was more cosmic. Like planetary motions or something pre-ordained by mysterious undiscovered scientific laws or the will of the Supreme, Barca moved in perfect harmony, they thought as a system, an entity and they executed with a beauty that can only be associated with things that are natural.
Real were poor or not, is something that was difficult to register. They did score twice and could have scored some more but it was difficult to notice. What is apparent is that in spite of all the money that they spend, Real has a first eleven that is distinctly inferior to teams that would be in its frame of competitor reference – Chelsea for example.

The same Chelsea who will be Barcelona’s next opponent for a different trophy which is not yet sealed and settled like the Liga is. Man-for-man Chelsea are a stronger team than Real (Casillas, Ramos and maybe Robben excluded) but will that be enough to tempt them to look to take the game to Barcelona at the Bridge? I doubt it. The first leg performance showed that Hiddink is not too bothered about footballing ideals and keeping the purists happy and I expect the script to be the same as the first leg. With a suspect central defensive pairing to be expected for Barcelona, Chelsea’s only ploy to score will be through route one flights to Drogba, and Barcelona will do well to conjure up the goal that they never did at the Nou Camp.

Chelsea v Fulham, 2 May, Premier League

The surprise that Guus Hiddink offered came in the form of the team sheet, which looked far too strong to be believable. With a second leg tie against Barcelona looming in the mid-week, it was widely accepted that many fringe players would be seen but the Dutchman chose to field almost the same leven that you would expect to see against Barcelona. Ballack did not start and Obi did and for me that represented the strongest midfield trio that Chelsea can play. After half-time Essien made way for Ballack, but that was the extent of rest and relaxation that Hiddink has provided the Blues with.

As a spectacle it helped matters significantly and the Chelsea that turned up were so different in character and attitude than the team that played Barcelona, that it was hard to believe that almost the same eleven had been repeated. For people who debate that strategy in football is overrated and it all depends on the players eventually, here’s proof that the world is grey.

Anyway, a brilliant move involving one touch play between many players was set for conclusion by Drogba with a simple finish for Anelka. This happened in the first minute. By the third minute Fulham had tested Cech for the first time. By the fifth, they equalized – through Nevland, who latched on to a long ball, found himself an angle to shoot under challenge from two defenders (and with no support) and beat Cech with the only shot he could have made.

Stung, Chelsea troubled Fulham again immediately after and Malouda reclaimed Chelsea’s league by finishing off a move that again involved the attacking trio.

The rest of the game did not quite carry the same momentum, but Chelsea did play some nice attacking football and Fulham provided enough of a fight to keep their fans hoping. The second half was topped off by a brilliant through ball played by Anelka to Drogba who made it 3-1, which is how the game ended.

Malouda continues to impress in his new life, Drogba keeps making a case for his continued greatness while Essien continues to show baffling loss of form. The other thing that hits you about Chelsea is there absolute inability to get any youngster to make the grade. Di Santo has made more appearances this season than season ticket holders but has never done anything that will catch the eye. Mancienne may be a possibility but Hiddink fails to show confidence in his ability to start or feature significantly for Chelsea. How come money has no role to play in the development of talent? Surely, the best talent pool, facilities and coaching can be assembled? What makes the economics of having an academy that consistently produces great players different from the economics of producing a winning team?

Fulham for their part will finish the season happy even if they have a bit of a stutter from now on. There are of course no obvious reasons to suspect a blip, but maybe the thought and talk of European action may cause the anxiety of anticipated overachievement. Hopefully not. Well done Fulham and hope Nevland recovers soon from his injury. He was on fire till he had to be substituted in the 35th minute.

Middlesbrough v Manchester United, 2 May, Premier League

Middlesbrough have consistently taken points off and even beaten top four opposition in the last few seasons so you could be forgiven for setting a degree of expectation from this game. The completely real threat of relegation demands heroic and desperate play and the stage was perfect for an underdog story to be scripted. Only the brutal bully was in no mood to oblige and Manchester United sealed a two goal victory with very little trouble and legs to spare.

The only thing worth remembering from the game is the mood of complete disinterest that it had propagated before the sixtieth minute was played. It was evident that Boro were not going to get anywhere near scoring a goal and the difference in league table positions was clearly reflected in the quality of play.

Giggs scored the opener for United and Park added a second in the second half. Macheda got his first premiership start. As expected United rested players. All this game means is that United are a game closer to winning it three in a row. If there is some late drama in the title-race, it certainly did not start on Saturday.