Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Football Museum in São Paulo

50 years after Brazil were crowned Champions of the World for the first time, Museo de Futebol has been inaugurated in São Paulo by Pele. Located in the Corinthian stadium stalls the first theme exhibition is dedicated to...who else but Pele! This link also has some pictures of the Museum.

This of course is not the first football museum on the planet. The Telegraph article points to the existence of the National Football Museum in Preston, England since 2001. Scotland has its own Scottish Football Museum at Hampden park in Glasgow which has amongst its exhibits, what is claimed to be the oldest football related letter ever written.

Then there is the Japan Football Museum in Tokyo dedicated to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The Nou Camp Football Museum inaugurated in 1984 at FC Barcelona's home and dedicated to the club is a concept that I would not be surprised to find repeated across other clubs with history.

Guess where else I found a football museum....Oslo! Fotballmuseet displays the belongings of Norwegian greats and is located at the Ullevaal Stadium. If you ever happen to travel there, don't forget to have a pizza meal at a place called Dolly Dimple's next door :-) In case you are interested, Norwegian football's premier league is known as Tippeligaen and Lyn, Rosenborg and Lillestrom are some of the better known clubs. There are also the more interestingly named clubs like Ham-Kam. Tore Andre Flo, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and more lately John Carew are some of the well known players. But they do have history. The most capped (104) Norwegian international is Thorbjorn Svensson who played for the country between 1947 and '62 and the leading international goal scorer is Jorgen Juve (1928-37) who scored 33 times in 45 appearances. Deserving of a museum indeed!

Karen Brady: The first woman of football

Karen Brady is the managing director of Birmingham City football club. This is a position she has held since 1993. She was 23 then. And no, just in case you were wondering, she wasn't related to anyone who owned the club.

For someone who didn't go to University, so that she could start earning young and learn the ways of professional life, she defintely has achieved enough to show that her 'education' taught her what her 'studies' may not have. She was into advertising when she managed to sell ads worth over 2 million pounds to a single client. The client, John Sullivan hired her and made her a director at his firm. Karen was 20 then.

Then Birmingham FC went for sale and Karen persuaded Sullivan to buy the club and let her run it. From a club in administration, Birmingham was turned to a profit making enterprise in no time and has enjoyed some years in the Premiership in Ms. Brady's 15 year spell in charge. She has faced some controversies as well, being arrested for suspected financial irregularities not so long ago, but no charges were pressed and no further questioning has happened. She has faced the ire of fans, and in her interviews shows an appreciation of the special relationships (and hence say in policy) that fans of a club have.

Now faced with a market where clubs need billions and not millions to compete, she is ready to move on once the future of the club is secured in the hands of a magnate looking to play "My Club is Bigger". All the best to her!

Stories abound about her toughness in a male dominated world and how she has dealt with the challenges. A player once commented that he could see her tits and she replied by telling him that he would not be able to see it from Crewe and got him transferred. Don't think too many players would be getting cute with her anymore.

It's difficult not to admire her. For breaking into a male bastion. For doing a bloody good job of it. For doing it at an age at which B-School tagged 'bright young people' like me are management trainees. For not eating out of a silver spoon.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Aiyo League!

The second I-League kicks off today. A word like 'professionalism' has been associated with Indian football in recent times, more in hope than conviction and the I-League is supposed to be the vehicle for change.

As things stand today, the I-League needs more change than it can think of bringing about. Most of the 12 teams do not fulfil the AFC requirements (for what??? I'm not sure...but some requirements) of having age-group teams, their own stadia etc. The AIFF have also been unable to appoint in time a CEO for the league and the recruitment process is still on. Needless to say one can expect a lack of any professionals, leave alone professionals with professional beahvior, in more executional roles as well.

Its frustrating that everytime our sportspersons take a few forward steps, the establishment just slips further behind. In the year that we have qualified for the Asia Cup and our club team has made it to the semi-final of the AFC cup, our national league refuses to mature and we stage international matches on swamps.

By the way, the winning club will receive a whopping 5 million Indian rupees for their efforts. That's 125,000 USD. That's for the I-League Champions. How much did the IPL winning team make: 1.2 million USD.

Continental Giants in our backyard?

Dempo becomes the first Indian team to make it to the semi-final of the AFC Cup by beating Home United of Singapore (spectacular 4-3 away win to clinch the tie). After India's qualification for the 2011 Asia Cup, this now becomes a second cause for cheer for Indian football in a couple of months. That's more footballing success than we are used to experiencing in years and yet, the celebrations must be on hold as we are still light years away from where we should be.

The AFC Cup can be partially described as the UEFA Cup equivalent of Asia though there are some clear differences. Keeping in mind the possibilities of lop-sided encounters and the likely prospect of clubs from weaker footballing nations almost never experiencing international club football competitions (like Faroe Islands clubbs in Europe maybe), the AFC have divided the affiliates into three categories: Mature, Developing and Emerging. The top 14 Asian countries participate in the AFC Champions League and the 'Emerging nations' particpate in the AFC President's Cup. India falls in the middle-rung of fourteen (or fifteen) teams and hence our champion club competes for the AFC Cup.

While the structure ensures that Dempo are not pitted against Asian giants like Urawa Reds or the like, it is in all fairness a tough competition and Dempo's achievement should hence not be taken lightly. Clubs from Bahrain, Qatar (easily the moneyed league amongst the lot), Iraq, Singapore, Thailand etc. may not be world beaters, but most will have more claims to fame than their Indian counterparts in recent years.

This is the fifth edition of the competiton and prior to Dempo's win over Home United, no Indian club had made it past the quarter-finals. East Bengal lost to eventual champions Al-Jaish of Damascus in 2004 and last year Mahindra United lost to Lebanese club Al-Nemjeh.

The Goan outfits next opponents are another Lebanese club called Safa, who defeated Malaysian giants Perak 7-0 over two legs. If Dempo can emerge winners from this 'toughie' then they will play the winner of 2006 runners-up Al-Muharraq (Bahrain) versus Al-Nahda (Oman). The tournament has been dominated by teams from Lebanon (champions 2005-2007) and whatever happens, a club from a country that has never won the tournament before will be crowned champions this year (Al-Jaish of Damascus won it in 2004).

Dempo coach Armando Colaco has made his priorities clear by openly limiting his I-League ambitions to survival for this season with complete focus on the continental prize. It won't be easy but with players like Climax Lawrence, Clifford Miranda, Samir Naik, Chidi Edeh (5 goals so far) and eight-goal hero Ranty Martins (3rd highest scorer), it is definitely possible. We'll see. At least there's been progress and that is good.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sporting Dijon v Barcelona, September 21, La Liga

If Real have failed to look beautiful even when good, Barcelona have retained a sense of flair even through their toughest times. The Barcelona of Rijkaard and after that is. The difference (with Real) has largely been in the mid-field and forwards looking to take control of the game rather than waiting for the balls to be fed into them. When they have struggled, it has been through being fragile at the back or wasteful in the front and not because of being choked by opposition tactics.

But on days when they get everything right, it is entertainment guaranteed, as seen in the 1-6 thrashing of newly promoted Dijon. The score line may not tell the whole tale as Dijon did give a decent account of themselves and played with ten men for most of the second half, but Barcelona were great with their finishing and unstoppable in their creativity.

The very fluid front three of Iniesta, Eto and Messi backed by a very forward-minded midfield of Xavi, Keita and the youngster Busquets understood each other brilliantly and executed to perfection. They tried outrageous stuff and ever so often pulled it off. Messi the catalyst, Eto the trouble maker, Xavi the controller, Iniesta the threat, Keita the power house and Busquet the punchbag. It was like a play.

Got a first good look of Keita and he may not be in the same mould as Xavi when it comes to floating around the field but his presence looked good and he was the macine that the team needs. The young Busquets, picked ahead of Bojan and obviously Pep’s pick-of-the-bunch from his youth team squad, has potential but will have to mature. He is good with the ball butalways guilty of keeping it longer than needed. I play with a few such guys in our five/six a sides and they drive you mad. At this level it must be making Puyol and co want to tear their hair away but they showed a lot of patience and he didn’t look out of place.

It will be interesting to see the starting eleven when Henri is back and I think it would depend more on Henri than anyone else to make it work as well as it did yesterday. I would expect Iniesta to move into mid-field and Henri to play wide left up front, but he will have to bed himself well into a truly flexible front three. He ended last season well and it would be great to see King Henri fit and doing crazy stuff on the field.

A word on Sporting Dijon, a team that spent 100,000 EUR on summer transfers. If I’m ever called to vote on the greatest home support ever, I will have to mention this one. As their team kept letting goals in, not a single fan moved. Not a single fan stopped singing and the chants grew louder and more celebrative as the game slipped further away from them. They deserved a better chance at retaining their Liga status next year than the miserly investment into new players suggests they are going to have.

Racing Santander v Real Madrid, September 21, La Liga

This one I saw for the last forty minutes. In the fifty-fifth minute Real scored to take a lead. Then around the seventieth (or so I remember) they scored another. And that’s how it ended: two-nil.

Real sneaked to the Liga in Capello’s season and then won a lot more comfortably under Schuster. And while it hasn’t been the perfect start for them this season, one can safely assume that they will be close to the top (if not at the top) by the end of October or earlier and should be favourites to retain the title.

And yet when you look at this team, it is difficult to say they are the Champions. Schuster replaced Capello for what was to be a transformation to free flowing football but the one thing that Real distinctly fail to do, is look attractive. They do enough to win on most occasions and did enough against Racing on Sunday, but if you missed the goals, yu would be forgiven to think that you were watching a group of slow paced strugglers who had assembled for a game for the first time.

They have enough players of brilliance combined with flair but the onus of exhibiting on the pitch seems to lie on individuals and not the group. The last time I saw Real really being magical was under Carlos Queiroz before they suddenly collapsed after the Champions League defeat to Monaco. Since then under a host of managers and with different results, they have looked a set of individuals rather than a team.

There are still the moments of brilliance though that make Real compelling viewing. Both the goals against racing came from counter attacks. For the first, Higuain started the counter by easily outrunning two Racing defenders to get deep into the attacking third and floating the ball in to the centre of the box. Raul who had run in the line of the ball brilliantly dragged the only chasing defender to the far edge of the goal allowing de la Red to meet the ball in space and finish with ease. A frustrating glimpse of fluidity in an otherwise uninspired display.

The other goal again scored on a counter attack was a genius of a different nature. I think it was Diarra who played a perfect ball from the deep to Ruud on the edge of the box. With the Racing players high up in the Madrid half, there were a couple of defenders left to stop Ruud from doing damage. The Dutch striker looked around for arriving help and was well placed to lay the ball up to an oncoming teammate. Suddenly he dragged the ball wide as if ready to shoot in the far corner of the goal but a second later the ball was in the near post through the defender’s legs and beating the goalkeeper comfortably. Super strike from Super Ruud! Barring these flashes all you saw Real do was try and kick the ball out of their box desperately and at times with great difficulty. There was a comment in the post-match analysis that we should expect Real to be largely a counter attacking team this season without the influence of Robinho and with no major creativity added. Their approach indicated the same but one wonders if it can’t easily be very different. With more of a focus on the collective it is not too difficult to imagine a team that plays through the middle, passes, flicks, steps over and enjoys the game a lot more than the current lot seems to be doing. Maybe it is too early to judge them for this season. In which case I’ll not flinch if I have to change my opinion. In fact, will look forward to it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Manchester City v Potsmouth, September 21, Premier League

Only saw the second half of this one with the first half overlapping with Chelsea v Man U and by then City were already two-nil up. In the second half, Pompey folded to conceded four more and City ended with a massive 6-0 win.

For City, Jo seems to have done the job in the first half and on today’s evidence their line-up seems irresistible. Elano and Ireland in midfield and SWP and Robinho on the flanks with Jo as striker. When things go well, they Samba. There was a lot of class on display in the second half and Mark Hughes has a team which already has a very impressive line-up. Assuming the Arabs turn out to be smart owners, expect them to cause a lot of problems for the big four next season. For this season they should look at achieving consistency and getting results every week. How well they do on that front might determine how many of the current crop remain when the churn starts.

What stunned me was the Portsmouth performance. True their opponents were on fire, but it cannot explain why Pompey gave up all the fight. Even when you are down five-nil, the manager would expect the players to be trying hard enough to save further humiliation which Portsmouth clearly were not. The shoulders had dropped to the ankles and they let City do whatever they wanted. Harry Redknapp will have learnt a few things about his players today and it will be interesting to see how Portsmouth bounce back from this.

Chelsea v Manchester United, September 21, Premier League

The pressure in my view was largely on Manchester United for this one with game coming a bit too early in the season to cause much impact making momentum swing. A defeat to Liverpool followed by a draw against Villareal and Alex Ferguson could have done with a softer fixture than this to ease their way back into form. However their status as Champions of England and Europe demands that they take what is thrown for them and they had to be ready.

For Chelsea, there were the points, and the unbeaten streaks to lose. Over 4 years and 84 games without defeat at home and almost ten months without any league defeat. But a manager like Scolari would not get flustered by the loss of streaks if indeed Chelsea did lose. It’s a record that you can feel proud of as long as it carries on but when it does it get over, you just say “had to happen” and move on.

The world expected Ronaldo to start but he didn’t. Neither did Tevez and instead of the fearsome foursome you had Rooney and Berbatov up front supported by Scholes, Fletcher, Hargreaves and Park ji Sung in midfield. Not quite so ‘fearsome’ but more pragmatic and dare I say, the smarter decision.

For Chelsea, the major selection headaches have been avoided till now thanks to injuries and the line-up could have been predictable. But Deco injured himself in the warm-up and that meant that Ballack, himself recovering from fitness and slated to be on the bench, now had a starting role. Drogba was on the bench too and it couldn’t have been too soon for Chelsea for good as Anelka is, Drogba in the team is a different level of impact altogether.

I didn’t expect the game to be of the highest standard and it was not. But it was more engrossing than most other games because so many players of such quality can bring an added dimension to scrapping which other teams can’t. And it was a scrap. Almost from kick-off till the final whistle and at the end of it you could not decide if a draw was a fair result or if Man U were lucky to get a point. Had they held on to a win, some might have even felt that was justified and it would be an opinion you could easily argue for.

The commentators insisted that Man U had been the ‘dominant’ team leading upto their goal around the 20th minute but I disagree. I think Chelsea had had the better position and Bosingwa and Joe Cole looked to be the most threatening combination on the park. Not that Chelsea were dominating either. It was just a little yo-yo game made interesting by the willingness of all players to go for every loose ball. Anelka nodded the ball for J Cole for the first clear cut chance of the game which Cole uncharacteristically shot over. Today though, barring a few good moments, this was more typical of how he played.

If Manchester United did dominate, it was for a brief period just after Cole’s miss. Maybe it had more to do with Carvalho having to go off with an injury (replaced by Alex, one of the best bench options for central defence in the Premier League). The goal was scored by Park after Cech failed to hold on to an ordinary Berbatov shot and the defence had completely lost its shape. But I felt Chelsea’s frailty at the time was their central midfield which was failing to assert. For a few minutes they were completely shackled by Fletcher and Scholes and could not push the play beyond the half line allowing Rooney and Berbatov to get involved and play the ball on to oncoming midfielders.

Manchester United were doing their job and for some time seemed to have remembered Sir Alex’s displeasure at being out-hassled by Liverpool. They were definitely out-hassling Chelsea for a spell in between and even before the goal Chelsea were finding it difficult to clear the ball properly. Added to that they were failing to spot Man U movements and that allowed Rio Ferdinand a simple shot on goal which Cech did well to save. But when moments later Evra got the ball from an attempted corner clearance, Man U were presented with a second chance and they didn’t fail. Evra was allowed to bring the ball to the box (Bosingwa found wanting) and play it to Berbatov. And Cech, not the great keeper he once was spilled it and Park had to tap in. Noticably their was no Chelsea player tracking Park.

After the goal it was Chelsea who woke up and Man U while not quite going to sleep, seemed to lose the desire to get creative. The big difference was made by Mikel, Lampard and Ballack who started winning a lot more balls and finding the gaps to get it to the feet of J Cole and Malouda.
Chelsea ended the first half on the up and continued the pressure in the second. Drogba came on for the again-ineffective Malouda. In some ways it was like watching Pool v Stoke, only this had a lot more edge and flashes of skill. While Man U did do a fairly decent job of holding Chelsea and not giving them too many chances, they were far from assuring. Van der Saar tried to play through injury but withdrew before he made a serious blunder. Kuszack’s reliability looked suspect and with no Vidic available, Rio Ferdinand had to put in a commanding performance to protect the lead for as long as possible.

And yet Chelsea will have no one but themselves to blame for not taking three points out of this. Joe Cole missed another but then set Anleka up for the easiest of tap-ins which he missed with an empty goal and barely any distance between him and the line. There were other wasted chances too. Man United were threatening to break occasionally but there was nothing truly worring for Chelsea. The equalizer came eventually through sub Kalou from a set-piece which Man U should really have defended better.

It is difficult to describe precisely the nature of the game if you didn’t see it. Till the very end it was a ‘fight for the ball’ contest with some good touches, passes and blocks. It also had some of the worst touches by premier league footballers that you will see, culminating in a series of four different players failing to kick the ball properly. It was competitive but not violent, though ref Mike Riley went bonkers and booked seven, yes seven, Manchester United players. It was competitive but not great. Neither was it boring...

Ronaldo got a run in the second half, and an attempted bicycle kick and an embarrassing dive apart, he did not make much of an impact. But he is bound to be rusty and it will be a good few minutes under his belt. Ballack and Drogba were the Chelsea players making their comebacks and while Ballack was decent after the first few minutes till he got substituted, Deco’s presence was missed by Chelsea. Drogba like Ronaldo did not set the stage on fire and will need some time to be back to his best.

For Man U, the worries continue. They failed to get their strikers involved often enough and they will need to start showing more authority. Maybe they will need time to bed Berbatov into the equation and figure out a stable first choice central mid-field player. The quality is evident but it hasn’t started flowing for them yet.

For Chelsea, Malouda is clearly below par. Game after game he shows that he is missing that last 5% which could place him at par with the rest of the team. Ashley Cole’s resurgence a great left back continues and Bosingwa can make a lot of impact but needs to get better with his crossing. Not too many problems to worry about, except maybe cutting down their defensive errors.
Both managers should be happy enough with a draw though Alex Ferguson will be anxious to get some wins and bags of goals soon. This draw leaves Arsenal one point clear at the top and to my mind if I had to pick the best team on form, the table seems to be pointing its fingers right. Exciting days ahead!

West Brom v Aston Villa, September 21, Premier League

Villa have the team this season to expect to win home and away against a whole bunch of opposition and then some more against more direct competition. This is a team that has progressed over the years and are close to reaching their reasonable peak given the football eco system of England. Martin O Neil backed by Randy Lerner have formed one of the best owner-manager pairs to achieve the more traditional step by step improvement which is more an exception than the norm today.

It took two sleepy minutes from West Brom to allow first John Carew and then Agbenlahor to score. Villa’s efficiency in making full use of their chances illustrated the confidence that the team has and even though it was the home team that dictated play for the rest of the game, Villa were deserving winners.

It was a display of good old “English football” with two teams using pace and power to create chances and regularly look for the finishing touch. West Brom don’t wear the look of a team that has just been promoted (unlike Stoke) and they played positive and at times good looking football. It was ninety minutes of a competitive battle and thoroughly enjoyable. There were however few moments of genuine class and a lack of ideas to finish. Yet again most of the thinking revolved around putting the ball in the box and hoping for magic or blunder to happen.

John Carew stood out in attack and his physical presence caused persistent headaches to the West Brom defence. In fact Carew making a nuisance of himself without even touching the ball is what resulted in the error which then led to the second Villa goal (within 45 seconds of the first).
West Brom themselves pulled one back pretty quickly but were not able to repeat the act with Villa keeping excellent shape till the very end. Martin Laursen was fantastic and totally in charge of all situations.

Ashley Young is a player who gets talked about a lot and though he’s been around for a bit, I must confess this was my first good look at him. He does take a lot of responsibility and has the creative urge, but was a little off on execution today. The first goal though came from his free kick and he definitely is an exciting looking left sided player.

This was Villa’s third away win in 6 days and they will need to continue this efficiency to stay in touch with the leaders so that come the end of the season they can feel comfortable enough of a UEFA Cup spot to aim for something much higher. West Brom will not roll over easily but they need some creativity to add to their grit to push for a top ten. They look positive enough to stay clear of the relegation zone when the time comes.

Bolton v Arsenal, September 20, Premier League

Arsenal’s Bolton jinx is definitely a matter of the past. It left well and truly when Big Sam did and today was just confirming the trend. An emphatic three goals to one victory for the visitors and they are top of the table at least till Chelsea have played United tomorrow. And it’s a position I am not yet willing to bet is one they can’t hold on to. For all that the unbelievers will say about last year’s ‘lack of depth’ problem catching up with them again this year at some stage, I think that barring a few positions, they are reasonably well covered. That they might have it in them to challenge on all fronts (the great Big Four cliché) this year. That Arsene knew all along.

Today he started without Van Persie and Walcott and of course somewhere in the horizon are Eduardo and Roscisky. But the players he did use did their job fabulously. Bendtner partnered Adebayor up front and it was a midfield of Denilson and Song to partner Eboue and Fabregas and what a fine job they did.

Bolton did take the lead through a set piece and Kevin Davies and Arsenal’s fragility to lobbed balls was exposed many times through the game, but in the first half they were thrashed by the Gunners. In the few minutes before they scored the equalizer, Arsenal ripped the Bolton defence apart their usual slick pass and move play, as well as more direct feeds to Adebayor. Ade had a brilliant chance to score but he hit the post with the goalkeeper to beat and Song found the other post from a corner soon after. Bendtner could have scored but eventually it was Eboue who did. And even though the goal should have been disallowed for offside, it was clearly coming with all the mayhem that was created in the Bolton area.

The second came soon after with a Bendtner finding the striker’s instinct on a low cross from the left from Denilson. The Arsenal performance of course went beyond the goals. There seems to be a little bit of Cesc Fabregas in all of them. Each man can make measured passes, get involved, move, create, anticipate and the Arsene Wenger Project 3 is up there with some of the best football projects in terms of quality. The Oscars are what remain to be picked by this one. Of course, Cesc Fabregas has more of himself in him than the others and it shows. He was as usual everywhere: making plays, collecting passes, keeping possession, defending and controlling play.

Adebayor is maturing in the role of a target man and he is the closest to Drogba in terms of sheer box-presence. Arsenal have added the ‘ball to Ada’ as a new dimension to their game and are served well by having it. And they keep it well mixed to not get predictable or lose their essence. There are a lot of things about their play that you just have to love.

Bolton came back well in the second half and used their own lon ball expertise to good effect. Looked dangerous from set pieces and cosses but they also played the ball around well around Arsenal’s box. With better finishing abilities they would have found the equalizer. Sub Vaz Te had a great chance to draw them level but he scoffed it when he had enough time to set himself upo and shoot from six yards.

And Arsenal went a little off the boil as well. Clichy was lost through a bad Davies tackle just before half-time. That created a little more hesitancy at the back and Sagna also lost consistency to allow Bolton some dangerous possession. Song, Denilson and Eboue all became just a bit subdued before Wenger made the change that sparked some life back into them.

Walcott has been the talk of everyone connected with English football and his dozen and a half minute presence on the pitch justified the billing. The third goal came through his burst of speed and a well set up pass to Adebayor on the right who curled in a brilliant ball for Denilson to finish. Walcott played in the centre today and his utility in the hole-role is no less to his impact on the right and with so many versatile players at disposal, there is a lot of options for Wenger to move players around with few specialists.

Eboue is one of the most versatile having played centre, right and left (today) midfield having started in Arsenal as a full back. I think he will e the preferred central midfield partner for Fabregas in the long term. What he needs to add to his game is ninety minutes of drive like Fabregas for he definitely calmed down in the second half after an inspired first fifty minutes or so.

Other notes for Arsenal: Clichy got injured and one hopes its not for long. Defence is the one area where Arsenal truly seem to lack adequate cover, though their saving grace may be their ability to win with a less than clean sheet on most occasions. The other question mark will be their ability to cope without Fabregas at some stages this season and I would like to see Wenger try out a Cesc-less midfield one of these days.

For Bolton, there’s hope and it was a good second half performance. They’ll need to continue doing that at the Reebok and away. Their big problem will be finding the next Anelka because someone apart from Davies has to chip in with goals. The January window could decide which league they play next season.

Liverpool v Stokes, September 20, Premier League

The pick was between West ham v Newcastle and this one (great being back home...the joys!) and I must say I gave the first a long thought before picking this. Zola’s debut as Hammers boss and Newcastle in their continuing state of chaos: very tempting indeed. And more promise of entertainment. But I picked the Liverpool game to get more of a look at Riera and with the obvious curiosity of seeing the follow-up to the impressive win over Man U last week.

When Gerrard scored from a free kick in the second minute I felt vindicated and expected a few more in the game but the linesman raised the flag for offside and it was disallowed. Ungoal!

The Kop will argue forever that this was two points snatched away and the linesman should be hanged. It was a ridiculous decision alright. Not only was no player actually offside as the ball was kicked, there would have been a strong case of no interference even if someone had been. But the decision stood and it was the last time the ball went into the net in this one.

Even though they were robbed, Rafa’s team were also given 88 minutes to do it again and set things right. Against a team that played a 10-1 formation with no midfield. Much like they themselves had done to Marseille just a few days ago. Okay the last one was an exaggeration but Liverpool know a thing or two about holding on to a score and also about being held. And with all the seasons of having dropped points against teams they had no right to, you would expect them to have one season of getting it right. For the sake of a multi-horse race to the finish I hope they will be in the hunt till the end, but with performances like this, that will only happen if other contenders have enough equally shitty nights to match the Reds.

When faced with a team defending in the box, the deadlock can be broken in many different ways:
1. A wonder strike through a maze of players beating the goalkeeper (set pieces included)
2. A wicked deflection (mostly off a defender) from an attempted wonder shot
3. An inspired individual beating a number of defenders and causing confusion leading to creation of space and opportunity for a close range effort
4. Lots of movement from attackers again leading to above mentioned outcome
5. Defensive errors ( many different forms and personnel)

The only real approaches that Pool had were looking for a wonder strike and hope for defensive errors. There was maybe half an attempt from sub Benayoun to create something in the box but it was largely up to Gerrard or Torres to make it happen. There were of course a smattering of attempts from Alonso and Kuyt and even Carraghar but there were too little ideas to my liking. And Riera made no more impact than any other team mate till his substitution.

Stoke did the job they set out to do (and which I believe is what they have been doing game in and out through the last season as well resulting in a ground out promotion) and are a team that like Liverpool, may depend on other teams being poor rather than see their own performance carry them through to achieving their season objective. The one statistic to look at for Stokes will be the number and percentage of their goals that will be created (or scored) through Rory Delap long throws (play of the day material).

Two comments before winding up on this one. First Rafa started the game witout a defensive midfielder (Xavi and Steven in midfield) showing a surprising change from last season when he was accused of being too defensive against weak opposition at home. Look how that turned out! Second, it got so boring that I fell asleep for twenty minutes in the first half. By what I saw in the half-time report I didn’t miss much. By what I saw in the second half, I wished I had snoozed some more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Marseille v Liverpool, CL '08-'09, Sep 16

Goals! Set yourself goals and achieve them. That's how you progress, that's what makes you successful, that's what is most important. Heard it often from teachers, bosses, corporate trainers and anyone who cares to impart the wisdom of life. Wish things were different...wish football was just a bit different.

It was a Steven Gerrard wonder strike that gave Liverpool the equalizer almost immediately after the French club had taken the lead. And not too much later a Steven Gerrard penalty that put Liverpool ahead for what would be enough for a 2-1 win.

Apart from that from Liverpool we had some fine runs and dangerous play from Ryan Babel and some great work by Pepe Reina. But it was Marseille who played most of the football.

What was amazing about Marseille's effort was their refusal to play the long ball even when they had pushed men forward and were getting desparate. They always chose to play it through the field, were not afraid of taking on Liverpool defenders and showed some amazing ball control, passing and dribbling abilities. But they did not score. Lot of method but no Goal.

And when it was all over you felt for them because against one of the better teams in Europe they chose to play. Yes it was at home and the onus was on them once they fell behind, but many a richer team (Liverpool included I dare say) would not necessarily have approached the problem similarly.

Kone, Niang, Taiwo and others may have ended up on the losing side but there were moments worth remembering. In the end, it was good defending, missed chances and great goalkeeping which won it for Liverpool. There was a moment where a lovely pass was played almost to the byline just beating the Liverpool defender (not sure who...French commentary...really small TV screen...seen from a distance) and Kone back heeled it to set up a super shot on goal which the Marseille player (Karim Ziani i think) shot over. Then there was another moment when 3 Pool players converged on a Marseille attacker on the edge of the box and a twist and a turn later all three were beaten only to be followed by a tame effort on goal.
It went on till the very end, with a glanced header just about being clasped by Reina before it would have found an opponent's boot and be guided home. Of course, Liverpool could have scored twice more with both chances falling to Babel...one saved brilliantly and one just missing. But for all of the second half Liverpool lobbed the ball into the opponent third when they had the chance.

Yes they did enough, yes it was efficient in a hostile place and yes Gerrard's super strike deserved what it got them. But this is not about denying Liverpool. This is about crediting Marseille. But that doesn't help them. Zero points is what they get and there are no consolation prizes. Missed your goals - failed. Simple. After all they all said so....

Down, down, down....

And I read about some Spurs' fans complaining that they can't stand following the team anymore after they lost to Villa on Monday. Think of the fans of Santa Cruz - the club that gave Rivaldo to the world.

Three straight relegations...1st to 4th division before a teenage kid got time to outgrow his football cleats....To the fans of Santa Cruz...May God give you the strength.

Read this to find out more.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Of Heartbreak on Business Travels

Watching football can sometimes be like brushing your teeth – Not just a necessity but a matter of habit as well. You follow the same motions, need a toothbrush you are comfortable with and if you are picky enough, want the same toothpaste everyday. And if you don’t have these, while you do not give up brushing your teeth, you definitely are not satisfied (taking your morning dump on your favourite pot with the newspaper is another analogy and maybe a better one but...)

It’s the same with watching football for me – while I will watch a game when I can and where I can, nothing compares to watching it in Bangalore at home (or the other place which felt like home – the no more available NGV apartment where for generations the bachelors in our group stayed but have now all moved away). So much so that I find it easier watching European football in faraway India than sitting here in Europe (as keeps happening with me ever so often... what with mundane stuff like a job disturbing the spiritual pursuit of all things football).

For one, the timings of European games are better suited for an Indian audience, especially an audience which has an aversion to hitting the pubs on Saturday evenings. Secondly, TV channels and their programming staff (God bless ESPN Star) have made me a dedicated follower of some leagues (England and Spain) with occasional glimpses of others (Only 2 sports channels...hence the occasional Serie A when the cable guy decides its time for Ten Sports). And while it does limit one’s breadth of perspective, it is great to develop vertical expertise. And having followed the two leagues for years on an end now, it feels strange when a weekend passes and you don’t say hello to the same clubs, the same players and the same presenters (btw John Dykes and co have to be close to the best in the business....the ones in this region who speak in English are caught between having to do a job and having to meet people they might criticize the next day).

And while weekends come and weekends go and the existence is blissful there comes a sudden turn of events that shakes things up and unsettles you. Like travelling on work. I’ve found myself first in France and then in Spain and then in France these last few days and guess what, with a combination of the TV available in the hotels, my lack of awareness on what channel will broadcast what program at which time and just an inconvenient (read not the same as Indian) schedule, I’ve seen less of the teams that I love to follow than I would have bargained for.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of football all over and I do watch whatever I can find – lots of highlights from the Dutch league, a very poor broadcast of some Ligue 1 games, many many internationals (with German commentary by Ollie Kahn) and some games between teams I still don’t know of (ARE vs JUV..not Juvenetus... last night on a channel whose name I can’t recollect). And while they are fun and sometimes better than mid-table clashes from the Premier League, the heart still pines. I guess for all its charms, Paris will never be home like Bangalore...huh?

My travels have given me the chance to watch games in-stadia (Parc du Princes, Olimpico in Barcelona and Emirates till now...) but the fates contrive to ensure that most weekends when I am in these parts, the local teams play away. I know it is quite a privilege to get to see the world on company expense no less, and I should not complain so much, but let not my travels get in the way of my football life is what I ask for. Amen!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sep 10 qualifiers, WC 2010

Caught glimpses of stuff happening here and there. Some thoughts on what I saw:

France v Serbia: Two splendid goals from Henry and Anelka helped France to a 2-1. However, having seen Henry in recent internationals I still think France will be better served with a newcomer who wants to get involved more and stand by my stance that Henry should retire from internationals and return only if France are in serious trouble. Of course, he is Henry and he can (and hopefully will) prove me wrong. The flip side is that the win gives Raymond Domenech more breathing space. And while I’m all for managers having longevity (and definitely one who has taken the team to the final of the last World Cup), Domenech’s decisions and lack of ideas makes one feel that France would definitely have better alternatives around.

Portugal v Denmark: This match for me summarized Carlos Queiroz’s last spell as manager – of Real Madrid. The Galacticos had an excellent first six months playing some of the most beautiful football I have ever seen, and then suddenly (after the Champions’ League loss to Monaco) collapsed just as the season finished. Portugal were much the same. Dominant and beautiful till they allowed the Danes to equalize. After that they struggled. And while a penalty let them go into the final 5 minutes with a one goal lead, there was a feeling that the game was far from over. When Denmark equalized in injury time, you did think that the night was done, only for a second Danish injury time goal to leave the hosts beaten 2-3. If Queiroz has self-doubts, he didn’t let it show after the game, even affording a smile for the press. But lack of finishing and catastrophic defending against the long ball and crosses (a trait shared by almost all teams on the day) cost them heavily.

Croatia v England: As I struggled to watch an unauthorized internet video stream of the game on a really poor internet connection in my hotel room, Theo Walcott and England had another one of those nights which will give them goose bumps many years hence (like 5 goals against Germany in Munich). And while I’m in no position to put in my two cents on the performance, I do have the pleasure of enjoying the wild swing in reaction from the media and fans alike. Hats off to Fabio Capello though, his genius never in doubt...but this was an occasion to deliver. A defeat would have forever had him compared to Steve Mclaren (an insult given what the man has achieved in life) but victory and the manner of it has suddenly made a nation sceptical after the cagey but ‘job done’ win over Andorra believe in ‘their’ man. Bilic has now faced some music but that again is a testament to the times rather than the man’s abilities and it would be as interesting to observe how the Croats bounce back as it would be to see if England sustain the momentum.

Finland v Germany, WC 2010 Qualifiers, Sep 10

This ended 3-3 with Klose thrice having to get the Germans level after the Finns had gone ahead. It could have been different had he not missed the chance for the fourth, which came when the score was nil-nil as he stunningly shot a simple header wide.

It was the most unusual of games. A game of defending any cross or lobbed ball poorly, a game of crossing well and heading the ball home brilliantly. It also had a goal that came from a bicycle kick but which really was a goal because of bad goalkeeping.

Credit to the Finns for scoring thrice and really taking the game to the Germans. In fact they had a few chances to score a fourth and a fifth themselves. And it was great to see the fans celebrate even after it ended in a draw in spite of thinking what could have been. Hope to see more of them and learn more of them.

But what's become of the Germans? Yes, they have that fighting spirit intact and it is too ealry to press the panic button for a team that just ended a major as the Runner-up. And yes with or without Ballack they have goals in them...if it is not Podolski, then its Klose. Schweinsteiger, Hitzspelsberger and of course Ballack have a few in them as well. But their defence is a nightmare, especially for a team that will be expecting a near championship run in South Africa 2010 (it will be 20 years since their last WC trophy and they would think it's about time).

I thought at Euro that the Metzelder Mertesacker combination was the weakest link in the German team. Guess what...they got worse. Two guys called Tasci and Westermann had the central defensive roles and they were bad. At least Metzelder tried to push forward like a libero, these guys were doing...well nothing. But none where as bad as Lahm. There has to be a strong case for Lahm to be playing in midfield in stead of the back four. He gets caught out of position and while he is fast, often sees attackers go past him. And let's not even begin mentioning his performance against the crosses. A disaster. Fritz as right back was surely an improvement over Friedrich. He gets forward more often and that encourgaed Shweinsteiger to attack from the flanks becuase he knew he had support.

Enke in goal after the Lehmann era's end, was not great either. And letting that bicycle kick get into goal is not something that Ollie Kahn (commenting in German on whatever channel I was watching on) would have allowed. Not Jens Lehman either. I was surprised that Lehman had been first choice for Euro and after looking at Enke am still left surprised that there are no better German goal keepers in the Bundesliga or elsewhere. Maybe, he had an off day. We'll see.

It will be great to see the Germans play the Russians (if I get the chance to see it of course). This is the Euro semi-final that should have been (had not Russia already played Spain in the group stages?). I expect goals in that one. mmmmm....

Russia v Wales, WC 2010 qualifiers, Sep 10

I checked in to my hotel in Paris having returned from a three day trip to Spain and switched on the Tv to find that the stars of Euro '08 were fifteen minutes into hosting the Welsh for this one. Before I could get over the excitement of having the chance to once again witness the free flowing Hiddink boys in action, Semak fouled Gareth Bale quite stupidly in the area to concede a penalty (BBC in its live text updates described the foul as 'clattered' I discovered later...not true).

Bale tried to slot it into the corner but kept the hight confortable enough for the keeper who dived to his right and saved. Akinfeyeev has to be amongst the best keepers in the wrold and based on what I have seen of goalkeepers in the last few months, at present I rate him second only to the great Iker Casillas. Given that he is young and has a long career ahead, I completely expect him to be seen at a big spending club in the more prominent leagues of Europe in the next few seasons.

With the commentary in German, it was difficult to identify all the players at all the times and without internet access till after the final whistle, I was left with no knowledge of the Welsh team. Not that it mattered...till half time at least.

Russia were soon back on track and the Welsh conceded a penatly immediately afterwards replicating almost precisely the Russian effort. And up stepped Pavulychenko...he of Spurs and did the job. It wasn't the greatest penalty ever and a more fortunate goalkeeper would have stopped it. But he didn't and Russia were in the lead.

For the next twenty minutes or so, till the half ended, one struggled to spot the ball at Welsh feet. The Russian magic was back and the familiar faces of the Euro semi-finalists were doing the thing. But while they dominated completely, they did not score for two reasons - Wales kept their shape and defended well and for large periods the Russians seemed happy to dominate feeling almost secure about the fact that they would get a second whenever they needed it.

At half-time I started freshening myself up after a tiring day of travel and almost assured of a Russian win myself, turned three fourths of the eye away from the telly. The game seemed to have gone off the boil as well and though Wales seemed more determined and the Russians less so, there seemed to be no danger of a upset.

Until we got to see an absolutely atrocius piece of defending. I'm not quite sure who the three Russians were on the left corner of the box...maybe Anyukov, Semak and one more but they did nothing as Bale took the ball went through them almost to the by-line. They stood and watched. And then as Bale crossed, I am not sure who the two or three Russians were who stood and watched Joe Ledley prod the equalizer.

And while this did wake the Russians up, they struggled to find the rythm of the first half. Their winner came late through a brilliant lobbed cross from the left from Arshavin which should have been headed home by Zyrianov. He found the keeper but Russia were fortunate enough that it fell to Pogrebnyak, brought in as a sub for the off color Semak and he scored. 2-1 at full time and heavy weather in wet weather made of the exercise by the Russians.

Some thoughts...Pavulychenko showed that his Euro display was clearly true to his real self. He's a guy who will get into great positions and miss many. And then he will once in a while create space and produce astonishing shots on goal (and still miss). I think he could be great with Spurs and create a lot of trouble to the opposition though he may depend on form for goals. Modric to create, Pav to be there to exploit the situation and force the save and if Bent can be ready to pounce, Berba may be a happy but not necessarily missed memory at WHL.

Arshavin, priced out of the transfer market thanks to his own success, perhaps now is convinced that he is a star. Make no mistake, he indeed is one. So much of what is dangerous in Russian attacks comes from this guy. Before he crossed for the goal, there was another exquisite lob for Pavulychenko who had he been in the Germany Finland game, would have scored. The problem it seemed was that he was either trusting his team mates too little or over estimating his own ball skills, contriving to give away the ball while trying to take on defenders when not needed.

And Guus...the brilliant Guus. Like Wenger a champion of flowing attractive football. True, twice in the Euro and in the second half here, his team went off the boil, but he can get them to entertain is without a question. And while Wenger is happy moulding players into the style he wants, Guus does it with players already moulded into different styles and gets them to play his way. Saw it with Holland in '98, saw it with PSV when they made the semis of the CL a few years back and seeing it now with Russia. Billionaire owners take note of Guus, he is the guy who can make your superstars play the beautiful game. Guus take note of billionaire owners, they may turn you from the semi final man into the Gold winner.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Arsenal v Newcastle, August 30, Premier League

I know I am very late with this but a couple of points from the game have been at the back of my head from long and so am finally getting down to posting them here.

So without beating about the bush here are the two main takeways from that comfortable Gunners victory over the Toon:
  • Passing, Movement and identifying the "Moments of Truth" (like all great Dutch teams) is what makes this Arsenal team so special
  • Emanuel Eboue showed that he could be the midfielder that Wenger did not buy this season

As the season goes on I am looking forward to having many more chances to discuss both these points.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Chelsea v Spurs, Aug 31, Premier League

It’s amazing how at times Chelsea’s bench can look ordinary, especially when they fail to deliver. Players like Kalou and Malouda who can admittedly be match winners, are inconsistent enough to seem unfit for the team with the classic short-termisim glasses on, just after they have had a bad day. For Malouda it is clearly is the last chance to prove himself before the next transfer window. Kalou may have more longevity because he does come up with the occasional late winner and is a player who can be afforded to ‘sat’ on the bench in the company of stars. Today both failed to come and have the impact and in the absence of Ballack and Drogba and even SWP, Chelsea may have been left thinking about who wasn’t, instead of who was.

Most of the game went as per plan for both managers. The pattern of the game remained possession from Chelsea and resistance from Spurs much as you would have anticipated. Yes Belletti as holding midfielder was an anomaly but irrespective of the circumstances in which it happened, it shows Scolari’s trust in Essien’s attacking prowess, an aspect that both Mourinho and Grant had largely suppressed.

As the Scolari era unfolds, it is a pleasure to watch fullbacks in blue advance forward. Another big change again from the days past. Unfortunately, Ashley got conquered as the game progressed and Bosingwa thought well but executed poorly throughout, else there would have been more spectator joy.

The first half was action packed but largely Chelsea. The one good move Spurs had, saw Belletti beaten for speed by dos Santos and Bent managing a shot, but apart from that Spurs were happy to keep Chelsea out. Modric saw little of the ball, Zokora was involved but erratic with his passes and Jenas and dos Santos were without much impact. What was good from Spurs was the shape that the defence kept and the drive that Bentley showed.

There were moments of brilliance in the first half – Frank Lampard chips on goal, Deco passes, a beauty from Balletti that landed at the feet of Anelka who trapped beautifully and missed shockingly. And then Essien’s brilliance from deep within his own half, the ball taken to the edge of the Spurs box through brute force and exquisite skill and a glorious shot on goal which hit the bar. Fittingly Chelsea’s goal came through the corner that followed through Darren Bent missing the ball completely and Balletti putting the ball into a mysteriously empty near post. Spurs had been momentarily positive before the goal and were completely bogged down after it, till they scored a freak goal as the first half ended. A 50-50 ball which Lampard won over Modric got deflected to the feet of Bent who did his job by putting it past the goalkeeper in the only one-on-one Spurs had during the game. Chelsea could have won it if they had been equally efficient. Kalou missed another in the second half to add to Anelka’s folly from the first.

With Chelsea it was apparent today why they will find it very hard to play the Arsenal game. With each player willing and indeed able to take charge of the ball every time, their eventual success is driven quite often by moments of individual brilliance, which surprisingly enough are not hard to find. I’m not implying that Chelsea don’t play as a team. Their passing and understanding is brilliant. It is great to see them attempt the most outrageous of long passes and make them successfully. The first touches and the trapping are exquisite and so is their shooting prowess. Today we also got to see a number of dummys and back-heels. There are a number of distinct strengths they have over a team like Arsenal, not least being their ‘strength’ itself, but what they lack is the movement.

And as the game progressed in the second it became more and more apparent that the individual moments of brilliance had drained from the starting eleven and they needed either to move and pass their way around the Tottenham defence a la Arsenal or get a new miracle maker. And this is where Malouda and Kalou fail(ed) to inspire confidence. Ramos on the other hand got on Huddlestone in the centre who had a positive impact and the shuffle that brought around saw Spurs create a little more in the second. But by and large it was largely up to Chelsea to get a second which they failed to do.

The Spurs equalizer was down to a piece of luck but the Chelsea reaction was unimpressive. Apart from injury time in the second half they didn’t look like they wanted it too bad which could be a change that the team does not want to see. As for Spurs, they’ll be happy with the first point of the season, but they’ll know that there wasn’t much more than that they gained. Away from home, against big name opposition, they’ll not always be able to not stay behind. Now that they have a point on the board, maybe they will look to win when such a fixture comes up next.