Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fenerbahce v Arsenal, October 23, Champions League

This one in Istanbul contributed seven out of the 34 goals scored across eight games this Champion's League night (Villareal v Aalborg saw nine goals and Steaua v Lyon had eight). As the stats suggest this was not a day for defenders, but even so the 2-5 scoreline shows them in better light than their performance deserved.

Had Fenerbahce (specifically Danny Guiza...pronounced Geetha I he a babe from South India?) punished Arsenal for all their defensive errors like the Gunners did to them, maybe this one would have ended 5-5. But it didn't and Arsenal deserve all the praise for making this one look like a thumping.

This was an entertaining Champions League game. Open, attacking and of course with lots of goals. This was also like our weekend 5-a-side game. Flowing this way and that with only the scoreline at the end being the difference. And so many goals scored that it even that being difficult to keep track of!

I'm not trying to imply that Arsenal were not the better side. They were miles ahead and deserved the win. It was also evident that if the two sides played ten games between themselves, the Gunners would end up winning eight of them as their personnel are so obviously more talented.

But as a team Fener did not look inferior. They passed the ball around equally well and exploited the Arsenal Achilles heel as many times as they suffered the same. The difference was in the finishing. The difference was in the number of players who could make an impact. The difference was in the ability to turn position and possession to goals.

With Song and Silvestre responsible for protecting the goalkeeper and Eboue at right back, the Gunners defence was a question mark and within the first five minutes Almunia had to make a critical save. This will be a toughie I thought...but not for long.

Ninth minute, Fabregas plays that pass from the middle of ht epitch splitting the central defenders, perfect for a striker to run on to. The pass I love to watch. Adebayor gets to it and is easily stronger and faster than the men expected to stop and scores. As soon as the replays get over and we are back to live action, Fabregas does it again. Only this time it's Theo Walcott who receives it, lets a touch take it wide of the diving goalkeeper and with the next touch the ball finds the back of the net. Then a Silvestre own goal gives Fener some hope but in the twenty second minute a long ball is played and Diaby manages to hold off a number of defenders and score!

That to me was Arsenal's strength. It wasn't as if they always had to look out for Adebayor and depend on him to do the job. They had so many guys involved and willing to exploit the situation. By contrast, the Turks seemed to have only Guiza to turn to. Sentruk was trying hard to do some hero support work, but was not in a difference making position often enough when it mattered. And Guiza? Well he was like Luca Toni at Euro 2008. Making life difficult for defenders but not goalkeepers. Yes, Almunia was great. Not just with the blocks and stops but his reading of the situations as well. But it is also true that everytime Guiza got the ball with the defence beaten, his first touch let him down. Never did he manage to get wide like Theo did. When he did score it was off a bouncing ball which was gifted to him by Song. On the grass, his form wasn't smoking!

For the Gunners, it was yet another shuffled line up that delivered. Diaby's performance was outstanding and if the defence was a concern, the attacking potential of the defenders was not. It seems sad that even in the Champions League you have teams with such a mismatch in quality. Player-on-player all Arsenal players were better than their Fener counterparts thought the defenders ran each other close on that one.

A final thought on this one. Arsenal may have won comfortably and will top the group and make it to the next rounds of the Champions League for sure. They also have some very good players. Yet some of them are not finished products. Walcott has some amazing skills but needs to get smarter. Nasri can be more threatening. An interesting situation. If they are so good now, how will they be as they get better? Also if they don't get better soon enough, will Arsenal yet again end up falling just short in the league. For Arsenal, the learning curve cannot be fast enough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Espanyol V Villareal, La Liga, October 18

As I reached home numbed from a ten hour flight and switched on the TV, La Liga was the tonic I needed to take me through till the early morning hours when sleep would eventually come thanks to jet lag. The first image I saw was of Drenthe fouled in the area deep into injury time and then Higuain step up to convert the penalty to give Real Madrid a 2-1 derby win over Atletico.

Worried that I might have missed all the football action for the night, I was pleasantly surprised to see Espanyol and Villareal kick-off within moments of the final whistle sounding in Madrid. This was a game that ended nil-nil and yes I did fall asleep just as injury time ended in the second half, but it was definitely not the football that put me to sleep.

This was one of those scoreless games that can be a treat to watch and though a few days on, a lot of the details have been erased from my memory, I remember going oooh and aah many times over the course of the game. The great thing about this game was the way it changed its course and style every few minutes. From languid passing to scrappy to counter attacking to through balls to moments of dullness.

What I distinctly remember are two great passes from two great midfielders. In the first half de la Pena, the heart of Espanyol played a lovely through ball between the defenders which Luis Garcia failed to spot on time and did not make a run for. The second a similar, though even better pass from Marcos Senna which was latched on to by the Villareal right winger Javi Vente (I think) who in turn was brilliantly blocked out by a home defender. I remember thinking that Senna’s pass was like an invitation to a party you would never want to miss! Just beautiful.

Of course, it was great to see Robert Pires in action after a long time and he had a good though not great outing, playing behind the striker instead of out wide. It was also great to see the Estadi Olimpic, one of only three European venues where I have been at the venue not just in spirit but in the flesh as well. Espanyol will be moving to a new stadium next season and rightly so, as this one is too large for the 25K fans o so who turn up to cheer the second team from Barcelona. A number of stands are kept empty and the home crowd though loud and supportive, find it hard to create the home atmosphere that their team would love.

The thing about watching Espanyol is that you can’t fail to notice how much of their play is down to one man – de la Pena. Almost everyone looks to get the ball to him and then let him decide how he wants the move to develop. And by God he is good. Amazing awareness, delightful passing but what stands out is his ability to keep hold of the ball under immense pressure. He’s a joy to watch.

Which was partly the reason that Espanyol’s deployment of a lone striker drove me crazy. Tamudo is fast and all records suggest that he is a very decent finisher. But, he is not Didier Drogba. When Riera was around a lot of the balls were played to him and the left wing was a source of creativity for the team. I had a feeling that Pena does not have the same level of trust in Nene, the Brazilain playing wide left in the 4-3-3/4-5-1. Very often the only option the midfield maestro had was to look for Tamudo amongst a host of defenders and the ball went to the Yellow Submarine who then built an attack of their own. My point is, if you are really relying on one player in midfield then why not take someone else out and provide more passing options up front? There must be good reasons for Tintin Marquez (yes that’s the manager – Tintin) to adopt the strategy that he does, but then I failed to see it.

On Villareal and their play, my memory has been wiped out. I swear I made mental notes but can’t remember a thing now. Apart from the pass and Pires and that Vente had a great game. And once in between I do remember thinking that the reason the game was end-to-end was that both teams were receding quickly to their boxes when they lost possession – so that includes Villareal as well. There..pearls for you.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Italy v Montenegro, October 15, World Cup Qualifier

This was my first look at Italy post the Euro '08 shambles and this game saw Italy under Lippi reach a run of 30 unbeaten games which puts him at par with the legendary Vittorio Pozzo and though Lippi has one World Cup lesser to his credit, the achievement is still remarkable. The Italian performance though, was anything but remarkable.

This Italian team is not the same one as Doandoni's European misfits. Amelia in goal, Dossena at left back, Pepe at right mid-field, de Natale on the left, Aquilani as number 10 and Gillardino as the striker were all either not in the squad or were starting from the bench just a few months ago. Add to that the return of captain Cannavaro to the back four and this was a new team all right.

I haven't bothered to do any research on this but three players from the Euro team who impressed me most were all missing and if it was not because of injury, then I cannot understand why. Grosso and Camoranesi had provided the team with some spark and Pirlo had showed glimpses of why he is a great player but all three were gone.

Anyway, the game kicked off and in no time it was apparent that Montenegro would struggle to get anything out of this. Three or four times in the first seven minutes, Italy threatened to score but were just about kept out. Not so in the eighth minute. One of Aquilani, de Rossi or Gattuso (not sure which one at all) played the ball wide right to Pepe from the centre of the field and the Montenegrin left back panicked and dived on to the ball rolling it towards Pepe and removing himself out of the equation. Pepe crossed to Gillardino who thought he could finish it. The goalkeeper parried the shot and it fell nicely for the oncoming Aquilani who finished it with ease. Another day, another goalkeeper, it may have not been so, but Italy had looked good for the lead up until then.

Following that opener, the Italians were strangely subdued. They defended deep and allowed the opposition to come to the box which was quite unnecessary as on the evidence of what had been seen so far, they could easily have won all the battles in midfield and hardly allowed the visitors a sight on goal if they so wished. Instead they sat back and invited trouble.

Montenegro were playing something like a 4-3-3 and had clearly identified Dossena as the weakest link. They played the ball wide right when they got the chance and one such move led to a cross that should have ended in goal but was blocked off the line by Zambrotta.

When Montenegro did score it was on the counter, which was strange because it was one of the rare occasions when Italy did have so many men forward. And the goal itself must have made Lippi tear out his grey hair.

Vucinic had the ball and carried it to the edge of the Italian box with a couple of team mates in support. Doing defensive duty were Chiellini, Cannavaro and one more with Chiellini the player on Vucinic. Then when he reached the edge of the box, the Montenegro skipper seemed for a moment to have run out of ideas and could not find a pass to his team mates and you thought that the counter was over, till he suddenly played the ball a little wide on the left, made space around Chiellini and shot into goal. No way should Chiellini have allowed him to create that space and get that shot, especially as he seemed to have his man well covered.

Italy again went on the offensive and regained their lead soon after, with Aquilani's shot (from de Natale's cross) getting deflected into goal. And there were no more goals after that so, Italy won 2-1 on the night.

The Italian's preference for defending deep is something I have already mentioned, but their approach to attack was something that baffled me as well. Player-on-player they seemed far superior and I expected them to play the ball through mid field, have full backs forward and generally keep the ball in the attacking third all the time, but that was far from what happened. Every time the Italians started a move, you saw Gattusso or de Rossi approach the centre line (the other stayed back) and then try and pick out one of the four players in the opposing half with a longish pass. With the wide men really wide and with Aquilani placed somewhere near the edge of the box, there was no flow in the play and whether the possession turned into attack was dependent upon the quality of the pass and the opposition's defence.

The fullbacks and the second midfielder did eventually get forward but it would only be if their teammates had managed to collect the ball and keep it there for some time. Then when the ball was lost, they would all go and collect again around Amelia and wait for the opponents to arrive with the ball.

I expected the second half to be different. I expected the Italians to fight for every ball in mid-field and defend up front rather than at the back but it did not happen. By the time, I returned from my grilled fish and risotto dinner (consumed in the hotel restaurant at breathtaking speed at half-time), Dossena had been substituted (for Bonera) but that was about the only thing that changed for the Italians.

And while they were never, for the remainder of the game under any serious threat, I just could not understand why they left the possibility of the threat open. Montenegro managed to spend much more time in attack than the quality of their players and play deserved and I hoped a free-kick or a defensive error would lead to an equalizer to change the Italian approach. Vucinic was their main man and if something was to happen, it would have to be him but on some occasions he fell just short. When he was substituted in injury time he received a very well deserved applause from the visiting fans and he acknowledged them with some dejection at not having completed the job, but by then he must have been tired enough to drop dead.

And so Pozzo's record was equalled. Lippi is undoubtedly a great manager and their approach reflected exactly what we have always heard and expect from an Italian team. I'm not convinced though, that he has the team to pull it off against tougher opponents though. The defence is not looking good enough to withstand a continuous onslaught from a more accomplished team and the target man and the wide men may also lack the ability to create much without additional support. If the strategy remains the same, he needs a stronger man up front, more creative players on the wide and defenders who can play every minute of all games like Zambrotta. Or, he could keep more or less the same players, be willing to expose his defence just by letting the fullbacks go up in support, look at shorter passes and maybe a more creative approach. But either ways, he needs a new striker!

Monday, October 13, 2008

England v Kazakhstan, October 11, WC Qualifier

In front of a packed Wembley crowd, spurred by the 4-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb, England were faced with Kazakhstan, ranked lowly but with lofty ambitions. For the first two minutes the visitors passed the ball around in the English half but after that the game settled into the expected pattern. Which was the Kazakhs defending deep and in numbers and the English looking to find a path for the ball into goal.

England had lined up in a 4-3-3 with Barry in the holding role and the Lampard - Gerrard pair entrusted with the task of dictating the play from mid-field. Heskey played as the lone striker with his back to the goal for most of the game. Walcott was on the right and to my surprise, Rooney lined up on the left. Even with the same set of players I would have expected Rooney to play just behind Heskey, especially as it is fairly obvious that the strong man Wigan striker is definitely not a big goal threat.

To me this formation suggested that England were to build their attacks through the centre. Gerrard and Lampard would play the ball wide and Walcott and Rooney would either
· Beat the defence and play the ball into the box for the oncoming Lampard/Gerrard, or
· Cross the ball to Heskey who would then nod it into the path of the oncoming Lampard/Gerrard

Wes Brown at right back and Ashley Cole at right back were of course to get forward as well to create extra pressure from the flanks all of which should have culminated with deft passes on the ground or crosses in the air into the box.

As the first half was played, England showed little evidence of managing either of the two routes to goal. The Kazakh backline was organized and deep and never let the ball and the man get pass them. This resulted in Rooney and Walcott seeing a lot of the ball but not really being able to create a play with it. Walcott was especially involved but without impact and Rooney seemed wasted on the left. All that England could manage in terms of attempts were some speculative shots from Lampard and though Gerrard was not getting forward like he would have been expected to, it is a fact that there wasn’t much space provided for him to run into balls. Heskey did the job he was supposed to, but so limited is his role in scope that it has little meaning if the forward men around him can’t create chances.

As for Kazakhstan, they did their job at the back and sowed some good movement, but it was clear that they were slower, weaker and less technically gifted than England. Anytime they tried something which required some level of skill (a through pass, a long ball) they would get outrun and outpowered and lose the ball.

Which led to some very interesting discussions at half time. I was convinced the game was England’s for the taking. Firstly, you could expect the Kazakhs to tire as the game progressed and secondly and more importantly, England would definitely be testing them with a weapon they had left untouched throughout the first half – the cross. I expected Beckham to come on for Walcott as the first change, though the other question was the need to have Barry against this opposition. There was hardly any shielding that the back four had needed and even though Barry’s absence would leave spaces for the Kazakhs to attack, even two centre backs looked well and truly sufficient to handle anything that their opponents could try and create.

Capello did take off Barry to put in Wright Philips on the left. The idea was to move Rooney to the centre but Rooney seemed to move to the right until the breakthrough finally came. While Wright Philips was lovely, it wasn’t really the change that led to the first goal. It was a good proper cross from Frank Lampard into the box which found Rio Ferdinand who was left unmarked to head into a near empty goal with no defenders covering the posts. That it came from a corner which was won from a SWP effort was a coincidence. The fact that it was England’s first good cross of the game and it got them a goal was not a coincidence.

They got three more goals from crosses. One more from a Lampard free kick which resulted in an own goal. Then one from Brown (this cross from the right, the other two had been from the left) which found Rooney. Then one more when Rooney finished after a Beckham (on for Walcott) cross late in the game could not be defended by the visitors. The last goal was Defoe latching on to a Heskey pass and beating the defence to score, but by then Kazakhstan were just too tired and seemed to have no legs.

The moment of the match though was a blooper. Ashley Cole played the strangest of defensive passes right into the feet of the Kazakh striker who showed calm and composure to score the visitors’ only goal from the resulting one-on-one. It made the score 2-1 then, but that was all to change and it finished 5-1 for England.

While England did score all five goals in the second half, I don’t think it was the change in formation that mattered so much. I think had they tried the option of crossing in the first half, maybe they would have seen some result. Yes having Rooney in the centre did help to convert them but then the first two came from set-pieces and it was strange that the English width had not tried that route before.

Mathew Upson’s performance was going to be a matter of interest for England and as it turned out we did not find out much about his potential at this level. Neither did we get any convincing answer about the Lampard-Gerrard pairing. Two thoughts on this. First that if Heskey is the target man, a second striker needs to play because he is not going to be a goal threat. That means Rooney can’t be sticking on the left and that means Joe Cole or in his absence Ashley Young or Downing or whoever. Second, the holding midfielder can be dispensed with against the minnows like Andorra and Kazakhstan. It is only then that Lampard-Gerrard can play as the central midfield pair. If the manager is going to take it as a challenge to always play Gerard and Lampard together then against a good team (say Croatia etc.), one of them will have to take the Joe Cole role with Hargreaves or Barry partnering the other. But then Joe Cole is the best player in that position for England and Walcott, SWP and Beckham or Bentley all are good for the right (with different types of impact).

So what’s the summary? When the opposition is playing with 10 men in defence, play Lampard and Gerrard together, else not. Another thought – against the minnows play Crouch instead of Heskey as he can win the balls AND be a goal threat.

Good win for the English though. Looking good to qualify and Capello delivering just like you would expect him to. Clearly a very wise and free thinking manager willing to do his thing and play a game over two halves. McLaren would never have done the things he has – not the least keeping Heskey in the playing eleven and leaving Owen at home.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ring Rust

For the first time in a month I played yesterday. Six a side. It was a miracle I turned up after finally going to bed at four in the morning.

I reached late (0185 hrs) and the game was in flow. Luckily I didn't have to wait on the sidelines for long as one of the boys left and I subbed in. Just like that. One month layoff, no warm up, no stretching, straight in. Add to that my boots are a size too small for me and have hardly anything left inside them leaving me very uncomfortable throughout.

I played a central box-to-box role and was by my poor and fluctuating standards, a failry decent outing. I managed to win posession many times and started some attacks. Our team had one player in a red jersey who seemed capable of carrying the ball and posing a threat and I tried to play as his feeder. Unfortunately we never got any great understanding going and he seemed to lack a bit of trust in me. We could have done better, but as it was it wasn't too bad.

My regular teammates were all on the opposing side and were off colour themselves. Easy to take the ball off and not passing like they can. In the end it finished around level on scores (we didn't keep count) with no one team really playing better than the other.

Speaking of myself, I thought my trapping and tackling were okay but I was really slow on the turn and the passing was a bit of a disaster. I did manage to score once from a goalmouth scrap, but apart from that got into very few scoring positions and messed up one good chance. The fitness of course is far from its best and I hope I don't have many more long periods of absence.

Tomorrow we play again :-). The problem now is going to be with weekday games. Tullu's apartment at NGV next to the ground used to be our regular changing room after the mid-week game. Will have to figure out how to shower before getting into work after a weekday morning game pretty soon. But before cleats!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

News Links

I will try and keep updating this as frequently as possible. Here I will try and rovide links for articles and news on football that I come across that is beyond the headlines and the match or quote reports.

October 1: Polish Football Federation in Crisis
Polish football faced its latest crisis Monday after the national federation was suspended by its court-appointed chief for allegedly failing to tackle corruption in the domestic league. Click Here

October 13: Cuban Footballers defect
Cuba got drubbed by the USA in a World Cup qualifier recently. But that wasn't the worst of their problems. Two Cuban players, including the team captain saw their chance and ran away, i.e. defected. Click here.

Aalborg v Manchester United, September 30, CL

There may not be many whipping boys around in this Champions' League, what with the impressive performances seen from Cluj and BATE, but Aalborg played this one as if they thought they would get whipped.

They would have been too had the Red Devils shown the desire for a demolition rather than use this as a practice session to build up confidence and get match fitness. In any case, when the final whistle blew, the defending champions were ahead by three goals without reply and it was a very well deserved win.

It was not as if Aalborg did not try to play. They did try and get some moves going buy they had no clue what to do with the ball once they reached the final third. Their defence, led by a very spirited first half goalkeeping performance by Zaza, was not in shambles, but was stretched and error prone. In all it was a performance that betrayed a complete lack of belief and for it to come in front of the home crowd, does not bode well for the Danish club.

For Manchester United, it's three points in the bag and three players in the infirmary. Scholes, Rooney and the delightful Brazilian right back Rafael all had to be substituted before the 70th minute and the loss of the first two will be a blow for them as they look to climb up the Premiership table. Other points of interest were the performance of Rafael and the first goals in red for Dimitar Berbatov.

The Manchester United think tank had obviously not over estimated the threat posed by Aalborg and started with Tevez on the bench as well as Wes Brown, allowing match time to Rafael and the not-too-in-form Berbatov or still-recovering Ronaldo. They eased into the passing and attacking routine quickly and should have gone ahead soon enough, only for Berbatov to shoot over when he should have scored with eyes closed.

It was the injury to Scholes, that brought in Ryan Giggs in central midfield and he played a superb pass to Rooney in the box which was finished well by the England striker. Rio Ferdinand's role in the build up to the first goal should be mentioned, for it was he who shrugged aside an opponent, carried the ball into the Aalborg half before handing the ball to Nani who played it to Giggs in the hole behind the strikerr.

The second goal was a howler from an Aalborg defender, who literally set it up for Berbatov to shoot into the net with the goalkeeper out of position, and the third was good work from Ronaldo from the right to set up Berbatov at six yards and Berba finished spectacularly a chance that was tougher than some of the others he had in the game.

Rafael the young right back entertained with his skills and showed great attacking drive. He was very involved in the game and showed great positional sense though his defensive skills did get expose once. May not yet be ready for starts in the premiership but not far away from it either.

Berbatov's two goals would give the impression that he is back to where he should be, but I feel he is still far from it. Against better defending both those chances may have been unlikely and the other elements of his game like the first touch and passing are no where near his Spurs days. He could of course, look to play as a poacher with the support cast that he has, but we all know that there are other aspects to his game as well and it would be great if he can show more of his old form.

The Ronaldo rehabilitation continues and he did seem to improve even as the minutes passed, but he too is a few steps away from his peak. Expect this Manchester United team to look more dangerous sometime soon. Even with players injured, they still have Hargreaves, Anderson, Tevez, Park and others to call on, so it is only a matter of time for them. What did rankle about their performance was the lack of intensity and an appearance that bordered close on disinterest. Even at one nil up they seemed to be focusing on experimentation and allowing their off form players to excel rather than going for the kill. The goal celebrations were definitely muted, almost like something seemed to be at the back of their minds.

But then they have Sir Alex. If it needs fixing, think he will do it.