Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spain v Turkey, World Cup Qualifiers, March 28

Two of the best teams (indeed one of them the Champions) from Euro 2008 competed in this World Cup qualifier and there was a lot that this game told us about how these teams have progressed (or regressed) since.

Fatih Terim rarely had the luxury of fielding the same squad twice in Euro ’08 and hence the team that played had a touch of familiarity with a face unknown to casual observers thrown into the mix. Mehmet Aurelio, Nihat, Tuncay, Senturk and friends had wowed us all throughout the European showpiece event and they put up a commendable performance against the continental champions in their backyard. In fact, so equal were they in ability and threat to their hosts, that they will be furious that one moment of defensive madness was what led to Spain’s 1-0 win and will be kicking themselves for it.

Both teams lined up in 4-4-2s but how they utilized their personnel had significant differences. Turkey played a more conventional game with Tuncay providing the width on the right and Arda Turan charging down the left. Emre and Aurelio manned the centre of the pitch while Nihat and Sneturk formed the attacking duo. Three of the four in midfield that Spain employed were central midfielders and that is exactly how they played. Xavi, Senna and X Alonso all had a range of passes and were commanding in their roles but were all responsible for relatively small parts of the pitch. Cazorla kept alternating between right and left as the only wide man and Torres and Villa were expected to provide a bundle of goals in front of this strong lineup. A big change for Spain was that their central defensive pairing consisted of Albiol and Piquet and while Marchena had never looked too spectacular for his national team, a personality like Puyol is always going to be missed.

Spain’s win last year was hardly a surprise because not only did they have the best eleven players, but they also had the best functioning team that played with a lot of fluidity and rarely let the opposition trouble them. That was achieved under Luis Aragones, a man imminently difficult to like as much for his personality as for his management skills up until that time. Now, the eminently more affable Del Bosque is in charge who comes across as much more of a winner than Aragones and yet seeing the Spanish team play under him, one was often found to be missing the free flowing Spain of Aragones’ days.

With three players all preferring to stay in deep midfield positions, the fullbacks spent a lot of time pushing forward trying to provide the width. The Turks stayed back in numbers and cut off the long cross field passes made by Alonso, Xavi and Senna and managed to isolate Villa and Torres effectively. In fact, so little threat was posed by the two great strikers that the game was dying for a change in tactics.

Turkey waited patiently to win the ball at the back and then tried to hit on the counter whenever they could. With the Spanish fullbacks spending most of their time upfield, both Arda Turan and Tuncay found enough space to charge forward and bring Nihat and Senturk in the play, often using Emre and Aurelio effectively as link up men. If they were not able to break down the Spanish defense, it was largely down to the fact the Senna and Alonso served as backup defenders for most of the game and the Turkish strikers while being dangerous enough, probably were not in the league to navigate through the obstacles in front of them.

The goal was conceded in the second half in a phase of two minutes of bad defending by the Turks. A long ball played to Torres was held up masterfully by the ace striker and though three defenders tried to take it away from him, he held it long enough to earn a free kick right on the right edge of the opposition box. This was the first lapse that allowed for a set-piece on a dangerous place, but it was pale in comparison to how poor they were in clearing Xavi’s free kick. Xavi floated an inviting ball to the far post and Sergio Ramos was found completely unmarked for a simple tap into goal. Only, Ramos scuffed it and played it right across goal which could potentially have provided two defenders the opportunity to clear the danger. Instead they were both found wanting and the ball reached Piquet who made no mistake with his tap-in (which was quite ferocious for a tap in I must add). Terim was furious and I am sure the players would all be equally disappointed with the effort as after this, though Spain improved with some change in tactics, they did not really come really close to scoring another.

If the championship winning Spanish side had looked good playing in a 4-4-2, they were irresistible when a Villa injury had forced them to go with five in midfield. When Villa was substituted for Mata, the change made Spain more effective. Ramos had been a constant threat on the right but Capdevilla though matching Ramos in energy and ambition had not caused the same amount of trouble to the Turks and hence Mata’s presence on the left added an extra dimension to the Spanish attack. Later David Silva came on for a tiring Cazorla and he provided a similar impetus on the right. Turkey continued to be organized and difficult to break down, but after Silva came on they were pressured enough at the back to find very few chances of going forward.

It ended one nil and Spain managed to sneak it past some very tough opposition. Individually, the players all put in good performances with Sergio Ramos being my man of the match. Though the strikers did not rattle the opposition enough, it is fair to say that a large part of it was down to the good work put in by the entire Turkish team. They will be rightly pleased with the three points and nothing about their results in the qualifiers indicates that they are anywhere lesser than the team that was all conquering last summer. Yet looking at them play last night, it was difficult not to think that something was missing from their armory.

To my mind, the biggest flaw yesterday seemed to be in having not two but three similar players in the middle of the park. Had Xavi been trying to play in the hole behind the strikers, it could have been a different game, but as it was, they seemed to all be playing for the same ball and looking for the same passes ever so often. With Iniesta and Fabregas both being available soon enough for selection, the problem of abundance in that area is only going to grow for Del Bosque. His challenge will be in making hard decisions in keeping some of them on the bench and identifying players who will take some of the load off the full backs as well as be able to get the strikers into play more often.

As for Turkey, they continue to be the team that consistently adds up to more than the some total of its parts. Their performance against Spain confirmed that they are quite capable of rubbing shoulders with the big boys and last year’s run to the semis was not a freak occurring. The goals that Nihat, Senturk and Tuncay score will be critical in ensuring their progress and for the sake of the World Cup, I hope they managed to find those magical strikes again and again and again. They didn’t last night, but maybe if the law of averages means that they miss out on a few games, they picked a good occasion to let it happen.

England v Slovakia, Friendly, March 28

A lot of the pre-game distractions consisted of debating the merits and demerits of including a rarely training, starting-one-game-a-week Ledley King in the England squad. When the dust settled and Ledley was well home for the friendly against Slovakia, Capello’s England still had a job to do, irrespective of who the individuals gracing the team sheet were. The night ended 4-0 for the hosts at Wembley and while the really serious matter for England has to wait till Wednesday, a number of valuable lessons were learnt that will hold them in good stead when the mood turns to competitive from friendly.

It’s a funny situation to be in, but Capello’s only major selection problems are for positions where he has an abundance of talent, namely the centre of midfield. For all other positions, he either has distinctly superior first choice players (centre backs, left back and one striker) or enough non-exceptional ones who may be switched one for the other depending on fitness, form and strategy (goal, right back, right and left midfield when Joe Cole is not available and the other striker).

The Missing Centre Back

Given Rio’s unavailability and King’s return, Upson came in to support Terry as the second centre back and while the English defense was rarely stretched, it was evident that the Hammer’s defender (or for that matter almost anyone else) will be a backup option only. The real toughie for Capello is to spot and identify at least two potential back-ups who would be able to fill in, in case one or both of his first choice pair are unavailable for competitive games and most importantly for the tournament itself, assuming England get there. Upson is gaining valuable experience but he seems a little slow and prone to being pressured into errors. King can be in the World Cup squad if Rio and John are both fit and available, but if calamity strikes and a player who can start every game has to be identified, then I suspect, Capello’s search is still on.

The Lampard-Gerrard Question

The Lampard-Gerrard question was for once effectively answered in the positive, though I am not sure it has been answered once and for all. Lampard had clear instructions to reign in his attacking instincts to a certain extent and Gerrard though chalked in for the left, was allowed the freedom to roam into the centre like he does for his club. The fact that Rooney does not mind going wide (and deep) allowed this approach to work and the two complemented each other like ballroom dancers for some of that first half. Carrick missed out from the starting eleven but from a team point of view, his and potentially Hargreaves’ availability for the midfield, portents very well for England and Capello. If Capello did achieve anything significant in that first half, it was proving that Lampard and Gerrard could be played together, though I suspect he could have replaced Lampard with Carrick and the game would not have known.

The real point of interest for me would be to see, if Lampard can play the role that Gerrard played effectively enough. Joe Cole is often injured and Downing has good positional sense, but with skills that could be clearly bettered. If Lamaprd can do the job that Gerrard did, then it allows Capello to have better players on the pitch in case Gerrard is unavailable for a game or two. However, that is a question that has not been answered yet and hence, I do not expect to see Capello take that option anytime soon even if an unwanted injury to Gerrard may cry for something more impactful than Downing on that left.

The Target Man and the Striker

Emil Heskey has the role of non-scoring striker in Capello’s plans and though he did score England’s opener, his later miss was enough indication that he can be the target man but rarely the finisher. Heskey is probably the best available option against teams when playing the ball on the ground will not always be the smartest thing to do and England are forced to hoof the ball up, but when the game is easily kept in the opposition third, I would prefer to see someone more clinical. Of course, Carlton Cole or Peter Crouch are not necessarily comparable to some of the greatest finishers in the game, but I would rate both higher than Heskey on that count and I also feel, that the team is begging for Michael Owen’s return to fitness and form. At his best, he will score many against light weight teams and though an opposition like Spain may dictate that Heskey starts ahead of him, against the likes of Slovakia (or even Ukraine) it is the Owen kind of player who is needed more than an ox like worker.

Beckham or the Little Three

The right side of midfield is one that is the most open to interpretation and strong feelings. The great Brian Glanville has been openly critical of Capello for handling Beckham cap after cap in substitute appearances, but for once I am compelled to differ from my favorite football writer’s opinions. Lennon showed pace and the ability to get behind the defense and that is a trait we can expect to see from SWP and Walcott as well. However, all three are miles behind the quality that Beckham brings to crosses and time and again it has been evident that if you need strikers to be set up from the right, then you need David Beckham to be playing there. For a moment assuming that the trio of Walcott, Lennon and SWP are interchangeable based on form and fitness, I would tend to prefer Beckham over the other three as with the current Milan loanee, you can be guaranteed of mayhem being caused in the opposition box through well taken set pieces and precise crosses. With the other three you are guaranteed fancy footwork and lots of speed, but the level of impact can vary significantly from game to game, and selecting them is more of a lottery than the dependable ex-captain.

Rooney at Work

Gerrard’s substitution at half time did allow the Liverpool captain some rest ahead of Wednesday, but personally I was disappointed to miss the opportunity of seeing the Rooney-Gerrard pairing operating from the left, supported by Beckham on the right. Rooney’s own approach to the game changed significantly once Gerrard was gone and he tended to play more down the centre, thereby taking away a very potent threat that England had posed for much of the first half from the left.

Rooney was justifiably the man of the match and apart from his two goals, he contributed significantly by dictating how England played in the opposition third. When Gerrard was around, he looked to link up with Gerrard and either created opportunities for the Liverpool man to get behind the fullbacks, or did so himself while letting Gerrard assume the role of creator. Then, in the second half, he chose to collect the ball in the centre and distribute it to Downing or Beckham, almost choosing which of his support men he wanted to come into play. If there is one complaint that I have with his performance yesterday, it is of his reluctance to pass the ball to Beckham when the right sided midfielder was free and wide and well placed to deliver a precise cross. Very often Rooney chose to go with Downing who was invariably better marked or lacked the tools to do much with those opportunities. On other occasions he looked to bring the play narrow by choosing the ask Beckham to run for the ball in the box, thereby exposing Beckham’s lack of speed.

On Defending

After refusing to be more than obstacles till the very early injury to Heskey, Slovakia got a little more into the game and worked hard to keep possession. When they got the ball they tried to come close to the man in possession and always provide passing options to team mates, but invariably when they reached the business end of the field, they found their passing options cut off. Lacking the pace in their legs, the physical presence of their opponents and the precision in their passing, they invariably handed over the ball to England sooner rather than later and England’s composure out of possession was commendable.

There was no desperation to get the ball back the moment it was lost and nothing stupid was done throughout the game. There was the odd error, but by and large they were always well covered. Against mightier opposition they would need to maybe ensure that even the odd slip here and there (one by Upson when he almost let the ball run free in the box and once after a corner when no one came to close the ball down after a variation was played) is cut out as it could prove costly. However, on the whole, England’s approach to defending and regaining the ball when out of position was admirable and I would not be surprised if they become a very hard team to beat even when playing against the best.


Gerrard and Rooney were the highlights of the evening and it was easy to single them out. Having said that, almost every England player was shown in a positive light in what was a great team performance. Lampard was amazing in the manner in which he curbed his game and did the job that was expected of him. Both he and Barry (and later on Carrick) kept distribution simple and made very few errors while using the odd opportunity to make a defense splitting pass perfectly. Lennon, who could have done better in offence, was great when it came to defense and his positioning as well as timing of closing down on the opposition were brilliant and won a number of balls back for England.

Ashley Cole was not devastating but played his part in supporting Gerrard and Rooney. Glen Johnson did not take every opportunity available to him to make forward runs, but he compensated for that with a composed defensive performance and some good balls to his attackers over the opposition. Terry and Upson were largely comfortable and David James was attentive on the few occasions he was required to be. Clearly the goalkeeping question will be preying on Capello’s mind, but till an alternative emerges who is fulfilling Capello’s requirements for selection (i.e. a Ben Foster playing every week?) I suspect he will disregard James’ age and the reputation for calamity and stick with him as first choice.

In spite of missing a sitter after scoring a first where he didn’t know too much about the finish, Heskey had an awesome first fifteen minutes and he was in scoring positions on more occasions in that time, than some others would have been over a full ninety. Cole was comparatively silent over his twenty minutes or so, but the Slovak defense had got a little more organized by the time he came in and though England were always dangerous, Cole really did not get enough of a chance to stamp his authority. Crouch did the job he does and had Terry not off-sided his goal bound effort, his match ratings would have been significantly higher, by the time he limped off with injury as well.

What Next

A lot will depend on the extent of injuries that his strikers suffered on the day, but if even one of them is fit enough to start, I expect exactly the same from Capello and England against Ukraine. I also expect that to be more than sufficient for a win, which may or may not be similar in terms of margin but could be exactly the same in terms of comfort. Of course, my pick would be to have Beckham start on the right but I don’t think that is going to happen.

If the strikers are all out with injuries, then Lampard could play behind lone striker Rooney, like they did for the last few minutes of this one. With Rooney’s natural game taking him to many parts of the field other than the opposition box, Lampard would then have to be on the top of his game in terms of his ability to run into the box as well as dominate in the air against a physically strong Ukrainian side. Also, in this case, maybe a Lennon would be a more definite pick ahead of a Beckham, as quick passing and keeping the ball at the feet in the box may prove more useful then looking for headers.

Another three points would put England very comfortably on the road to qualification and that is the least the Capello’s regime is being expected to deliver. From a longer term perspective, there is clearly room for a better keeper, a truly great striker apart from Rooney and maybe even a far more potent right back. Backup players for all positions apart from the centre of midfield could be an issue and if England do qualify, their fate could depend heavily on how many of their first choice players are able to stay fit.

But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, the only important game is to be played next week and for once, it is easier to predict an English win than a botch up. What has improved since the McClaren era is that England now play like a sum total of the quality of their players and you would expect them to win every game where they enter with superior personnel. That will not be the case against the likes of Brazil and Spain, but next week, it’s all about being better than Ukraine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Arsenal v Blackburn, March 14, Premier League

The Gunners took the lead in the second minute with almost the only piece of beautiful football they played in the entire first half. Bendtner kept possession and then played a great pass which was lacthed on by the speedy Walcott near the by-line and was played in for Arshavin who would have scored had it not been put in by a defender (at least that’s what I think happened and I haven’t bothered to check the facts).

After that it was a horribly boring first half and by half time I was having imaginary conversations in my head where I was arguing with Arsenal fans and telling them that this whole thing about Arsenal playing beautiful free flowing football has been a myth for most of the last season and a half. I still believe in that, though in the second half they did enough to shut me up even in imaginary conversations for the moment.

The big change that Wenger made at half time was to move Nasri to the centre behind the strikers and ask Arshavin to push to the left. With the Russian still very much a threat down the middle as well, Blackburn could not prevent a string of effective passes from the centre of the pitch and Nasri played the Central Advanced Midfielder role to perfection.

It is a joy to see Arshavin on a regular basis and the sight of him cutting in from the left brought a massive smile to my face. In the end it finished four nil to the Gunners and they truly played in the manner that they are reputed for, in that second half.

Causes for concern for them – the fact that Sagna and Clichy are both clearly not at their best. They have been overworked like a dial-up connection streaming porn and it shows in their performances. Also Walcott has failed to improve this season to the level that was expected off him and he is still a bit of a one trick pony. The injury must have made an impact but a large part of what is lacking in his game is in the head and how well he reads the game and I think over the next couple of seasons, it will be clear if he is eventually going to be world class or not.

One big plus for Arsenal that is not being spoken about much is the performance of Almunia in goal. I think he is now amongst the best in the EPL and his decision making is very impressive, especially when it involves anticipating when he needs to step out of the box. I think he is a better central defender away from receiving rave reviews every week.

Now to Blackburn. They didn’t play like a Sam Allardyce team at all and that was stunning. They seemed to have no steel and the most stunning aspect of their game was that they didn’t look to take charge of the midfield. Very often this season, one strong midfielder has been able to dominate Arsenal’s two, but Blackburn never tried to impose themselves in that area. Especially after Nasri moved to the centre they did not know how to react and failed to close down Nasri or Denilson after that.

They have had the reputation of being a dirty team and it was very evident why. Diouf, an Allardyce favorite made a flying tackle on Almunia which could have been very dangerous and deserved a red but got a yellow. It was very ugly and thoroughly unnecessary. Then Pederson, who I have a lot of respect for, took a dive in the Arsenal box which has to rank as one of the worst I have ever seen. Absolutley shocking!

I guess Big Sam will have noticed a number of things and will know that the relegation fight is on. Based on the weekend’s performance, Blackburn are no better than the other teams around them and a lot will depend on how much they are willing to fight to stay in the league because the difference in class is hardly too much when you compare the teams at the bottom.

Chelsea v Manchester City, March 15, Premier League

Mark Hughes was so good with Blackburn that he was often touted as the natural successor to Sir Alex at United. With Manchester City he’s looked so lost so consistently that I would be not be surprised if he is eased out at the end of the season. Unless he can do something in the UEFA Cup, but more on that later in this post.

This was Chelsea’s game from the beginning till the end. Some of the football they played matched the heights they had reached in the early days of the Scolari reign. Barring Deco, who limped out injured in the first half, every player looked sharp and the team gelled superbly. That they only scored one is from one point of view a mere statistic, but from another a major cause for concern. Which point of view is more justified will be evident in the coming weeks, depending on their ability to start converting more of their chances.

Which calls for a minor correction to the earlier statement where I claimed that all players looked sharp. The strikers did not and while there positional play was great and they were often at the right places at the right time, they didn’t look threatening enough. To be fair, both have them have seen some sort of a revival of form, but I still feel that Anelka needs to show some more leadership while Drogba is a long long way away from his best. For one, his ability to win every ball played to him has waned significantly and the speed with which he used to execute his finishes is at a fraction of what we have seen in the past. What this means is that defenders often find enough time to put themselves in place for a block or get a tackle in.

What I truly enjoyed was Essien’s goal. Nobody raves about Lampard now as they did three seasons ago but the fact is that he has been the heart beat of the Chelsea side this season. He usually tends to disappear a bit between the start of the second half till the sixtieth minute or so and invariably that is when other teams have their best spells against Chelsea. But when he is in the thick of action he is just great with linking up play and creating chances for the wingers as well as his strikers.

Man City’s defense went to sleep for a moment when they left Essien unmarked as Lampard was taking a free kick near the centre circle and Fat Frank saw the opportunity and played a perfect pass to Essien who swung cleverly at the ball to divert the ball into the corner of the net to leave Given stranded. What joy! First Eduardo has made a stunning comeback from injury and now Essien seems to have settled down on the pitch like he was never away. His impact and influence was awesome apart from the goal itself and while I felt sorry to see the very effective Mikel on the bench, he obviously cannot match Essien in terms of sheer ability to control a game.

Michael Ballack has settled down to playing a supporting role in this Chelsea squad and he keeps things simple and focuses on protecting his defense and linking up play. While his contribution is significant, it has taken a little bit of an edge off his game and he looks unlikely to produce moments of brilliance like we used to expect from him in the past. His heading abilities, though not completely vanished, seem a bit blunted but I guess it may be part of the package of his greatness that he goes about doing his job without too many complaints.

It seems futile to comment on City, though the only excuse you can make for them is that they lack quality strikers when Bellamy is missing. Yet they could easily have got one more if they had planned well in January and the fact is that they did indeed significantly bolster their squad. The biggest problem I see with them is that they play ever so often without any determination or motivation and Robinho sort of personifies this attitude. When he’s been brilliant, he’s looked by far the best footballer in this league but those instances have been far too few in recent months. They deserved a spanking but got away with a gentle pull of the ear. Whatever, Hughes must realize internally that the returns he is getting are far from what should be expected from the lineup of players at his disposal and the onus is on him to fix it.

Manchester United v Liverpool, March 14, Premier League

The final score was 1-4 and Liverpool thrashed Manchester United at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson claimed after the game that Man U were the better team but that has to be a part of some weird media and mind game that he keeps playing. The truth of the matter is that Liverpool were clearly superior on the day and deserved not just the win, but the scoreline as well.

After a Christiano Ronaldo penalty gave them the lead, Man U struggled to create any further chances and Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez struggled to trouble the Liverpool defense throughout. Even after Berba’s introduction late in the game, things didn’t really change for them while Liverpool did exactly what you expect them to. Rafa’s team defended well and took their chances as and when they got them.

Vidic had a horrible afternoon and it was his mistake in defending the long ball that allowed Torres to score Pool’s equalizer. Nine times out of ten, you would expect Vidic to deal with those balls but if there is a striker who would make complete use of any mistakes then it is Torres and he did just that. Gerrard and Torres combined brilliantly for the second goal. Gerrard flicked on a long ball to Torres and made a run into the box. Torres played an inch perfect pass to Gerrard which was just enough for him to reach and just enough to tempt Evra to go in for the tackle which resulted in a penalty that Gerrard duly scored. Then in the second half, when United already looked beaten at 2-1, Vidic made another mistake to lose the ball to Gerrard who would have had a free run on goal had not Vidic then grounded him. Hence a red to Vidic, a free kick to Pool and a great strike from Aurelio to make it 3-1. The 4th again came from a long ball which no Man U player wanted to defend and Dossena chipped it over a stranded Van der Saar to get his second goal in two games (the last being against Real Madrid).

So Man U dropped points, but to say that the title race is now back on again is a little premature. They will need to do so at least a couple more times before mid April while Chelsea and Pool pick up maximum, for there to be any real excitement as we near the finish.

Friday, March 13, 2009

High on Ambition, Low on Thought from AIFF?

I know it's still after-CL chit chat time, but could not resist this one.

In short, the proposal is to take the top 25 Indian players, pay their salaries till 2011 and keep them away from club football, to prepare them for the AFC cup.

Has something like this ever been heard of?

As far as I see, this is too crazy to contemplate.

What happens if after keeping the players isolated for all that time and preparing brilliantly, we have a poor showing and get knocked out with three defeats? Is it a risk worth taking?

Clubs will have moved on by then and if their performance does not attract interest, will there be enough takers to absorb the entire group back into club football?

What if in 2010 a new kid with mega talent emerges? Do you not include him in the group? Do you throw someone out to keep the group limited to 25? Or do you just keep adding to the group and end with 30 players, not all of whom will even make the trip for the Cup?

Personally, while I am excited to see that ambition exists, I cannot get myself to agree that this will work. For one, while the National Coach’s interests may be limited to the National Team only, the AIFF is responsible for the game at all levels in the country and cannot ignore the interests of the Leagues and the Clubs. Second, if the AIFF believes that such a sum of money can be raised, then why not use it for something lasting like good infrastructure development, training of coaches and grass roots level football programs, than for paying the salary of players, an expense that is already being borne by the clubs today.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sevilla v Almeria, La Liga, March 8

Way below the suddenly engrossing battle for top spot in Spain, sit Sevilla in third signaling they are again ready to aspire to match the glory days they attained under Juande Ramos’ reign. Surprisingly Manolo Jimenez finds himself under intense pressure to keep his job but that for me is more a reflection of the times than his own or his team’s performance on the pitch.

Sevilla dominated the first half completely and tenth placed Almeria never once threatened the home side’s goal. Sevilla had the lead in the fifth minute, after Kanoute trapped a cross from the left from Romaric and finished efficiently. Later on replays showed that Kanoue had handled the ball but it was too late to change the score by then.

Almeria had a better second half and they threatened a lot more. They fell two behind however, when Kanoute trapped a pass from Capel and set up Renato who managed to steer the ball into the net even though he completely misconnected. He had already missed a sitter before and was fortunate to score on a day when his performance was distinctly average. Fortune though was smiling gently on the entire Sevilla team as it turned out that Kanoute was well offside when the ball was played to him and the second goal should not have been either. Almeria kept pushing on and at least they got a consolation goal through a penalty which was the least they deserved for their second half showing as well as the crushing impact of bad decisions.

Now I come to the part, which had made me eager to write this post since I saw the game.

First, the performance of Romaric, the Ivory Coast strongman. Midfielder with a preference for the left foot who can be found everywhere on the pitch. Tough tacking, hard working and creative. It’s not funny the number of quality midfielders who are out there, and it is stunning to note that none of them is at Arsenal.

Second, Crusat the little known Spaniard playing attacking midfield for Almeria. Made major impact and has the ability to pull his team up. If he ever moves to a bigger club, he could make a name for himself.

Third, Diego Perotti. Twenty year old Argentine forward who switched from left wing to right with ease on debut and seemed very very gifted. Watch out for this guy!

Been a long time since I saw either Barca or Real play ninety minutes but any dose of La Liga is good for the mood and add to that the joy of discovering players you didn’t know about and the weekend seems to have been very productive indeed. One final word, Kanoute plays very much like Anelka and looks a little similar too.

Everton v Middlesbrough, FA Cup, March 8

If football was like tennis or something then maybe this one would have been a tie. Boro clearly won the first half and Everton the second and no one would have complained. Sadly, no one appointed any judges to score football games and Boro lost this one by the odd goal in three.
There’s not too much to add to that. It was a fun-filled cup game with lots of attacking play.

There were moments of goalkeeping madness at both ends though Boro paid a heavier price as Everton equalized through a goalkeeping blunder and completely took charge of the game after that. And to rub salt into Boro wounds, they scored twice in their period of domination where the visitors managed only one in their supremely commanding first half performace.

The usual suspects looked good for both the teams: Tuncay and Downing for Boro, Fellaini, Cahill, Pienaar for Everton. I think Pienaar is slightly underrated and could be very useful in a top four side, though there does seem to be an obvious lack of vacany in these positions at any of the really big clubs. Maybe that’s why Moyes has managed to keep him and that’s good for him and Everton.

Everton will take on Sir Alex and his boys in the semi-final and I will be rooting for them to win this one. Two non big four winners in two years will be a delightful occurrence in these times. It won’t be easy but you were never going to win this thing without defeating Man U anyway and if Everton do pull that off, they will have put some fear in their opponent hearts come Cup final day in 2009.

Arsenal v Burnely, FA Cup, March 8

I missed Eduardo’s wonder strike and only saw about the last forty minutes of the game but it was enough to be entertained. I know Eduardo has all the headlines (and deservingly so) but it was hardly the only high point of the game and while I’m disappointed to have missed the first fifty minutes, I was equally thankful for having caught the next forty.

I’ve sometimes gotten irritated listening to people who rave about the ‘beautiful’ game that Arsenal play because frankly over the last eighteen months, glimpses of that beauty have been as rare as a bouncer in the Gunners’ starting line-up. I’m no pundit, but while it is great to pass the ball around slickly between a few players up front, I feel the absence of a sturdy midfield has basically meant a lot lesser of the ball with Arsenal in areas from where you engineer beautiful play. Hence a rare good one two or a smart back heel over a game has been touted of as beautiful play while they have been bull dozed off the centre of the park. Especially after the Cesc injury they have not had anyone capable of consistently making the beautiful passes that really count by freeing up strikers and setting them on their way to goal.

Burnley probably did not pose a similar threat to Arsenal and they prospered. While the front men kept doing the usual things, it was the influence that Diaby and Song and Eboue (after he moved to the middle) had, that made even skeptic me acknowledge that this side was more about fun than frustration. I would love to say that with Walcott and Eduardo already back and Cesc on his way back soon as well, we will see more such performances by Wenger’s boys. However, I am not convinced of that. I think the absence of a muscle man in the centre will continue to hurt them this season, and unlike Burnley, the challenges they face from premier league and Champion’s League season, will not allow them to replicate this fluency week in and week out.

Burnley did their bit to make the game exciting as well. The really cool aspect of Burnley’s play was their confidence with the ball and it was just amazing to see players in England take on the opposition and dribble past obstructions rather than look to hoof a direct ball somewhere. Absolutely delightful! They lacked the final pass and the finish but till Arsenal scored a third through Eboue, they had kept threatening to bring the deficit down to one goal and push their illustrious hosts till the very end.

Fulham v Manchester United, FA Cup, March 7

Two goals from Tevez and one each from Rooney and Park ji Sung saw United reach the FA Cup semi-final yet again, but 4-0 just does not say it well enough.

Tevez and Rooney started up front and the midfield had Park and Fletcher as the wide players with Anderson supporting Carrick in the middle. Not standard personnel but definitely not unimpressive. However, the performance they put in would put many a great team to shame, including their very own first choice starting eleven (or whatever comes closest to that description).

I’ve been thinking of how to describe the way the Red Devils played and the only word I that comes close to describing it is ‘harmony’. It wasn’t just dominant, attractive and attacking but there was something more. It was as if each team member (in attack) read and understood what the other guy was looking to do and sometimes their passing and movement looked choreographed rather than instinctive and their play was truly a performance rather than a contest.

I have not often been convinced this season that United are anywhere near their peak, but if they keep reproducing this form, all opposition, leave alone Fulham will be swept aside.
Fulham for their part played almost as well as they could. Before the first United goal around the twentieth minute, they had in fact looked the better side. The United defense was often threatened and had multiple shaky moments which with some fortune did not cost them. And yet, it finished 4-0. I think all the Cottagers would have to say about this game is “Wow”.

Bangalore Super Division Again!

Karnataka Police faced Sports Authority of India as four of us from FC NGV made our way to the KSFA ground opposite the Garuda Mall in Bangalore on a sunny Friday afternoon. Four tickets for four of us was a change from the last time when we were offered two tickets for three people with the remaining twenty bucks going into the pocket of the man behind the counter. There was a slightly bigger crowd than last time and with a couple of female supporters thrown in, the place had a more vibrant feel to it.

The game was far superior to the first one we saw and it was a case of the organization of SAI against the flair of the cops. For most of the first half, SAI had ten men behind the ball and while they were prepared to face a lot of pressure, they never allowed the opposition any opportunity on goal. The policemen passed the ball well and varied their attacks from the centre and the flanks. They were clearly superior in terms of skill but there was enough evidence in the first few minutes that SAI would be difficult to break down.

The outstanding feature of SAI’s game was that whenever they did get possession, they knew how to keep it and while they seemed to lack pace and presence up front, they provided hints of the damage they could cause. The coppers kept the attacks up and in their number 10 they had an experienced attacking midfielder playing just behind the two strikers who was dictating play and trying to set his strikers free whenever he had the chance.

SAI scored the first goal against the run of play late in the first half when a couple of good passes allowed them to cross the ball from the right and a hard working SAI winger (who kept switching sides) was there to head the ball efficiently in. Incidentally the scorer happened to be someone who Anshu has played weekend football with, and it inevitably led to ‘loser’ jibes being directed at Anshu.

We expected the second half to be the same as the first and it started off pretty much in the same vein. The copper’s number ten was less involved and hence if anything, SAI seemed more comfortable in their defensive third. Then all of a sudden a Police player received a second horribly soft yellow card and had to leave the field. It seemed as if the world had turned against the police.

But just like we’ve seen Arsenal do at times recently, the side with the man down turned on the heat after their unjustly received punishment. Not for a moment did SAI’s numerical advantage become apparent over the half an hour or more that they had one. They had to defend wave after wave of attack and seemed vulnerable to crosses with yet another goalkeeper at this level found waving arms wildly every time a high ball came in the box. Yet this same goalkeeper also pulled off a stunning save to keep his side’s lead intact.

By the eightieth minute or so, it seemed unfair that the cops might have to go home without points. Their superiority did however pay off with an equalizer about five minutes from time. I can’t remember the goal at the moment but it had been coming. Not only was the attacking relentless, a number of SAI players had completely run out of steam and were hardly making any contribution on the pitch. Example, the SAI number ten who would not move five feet to receive a pass.

His counterpart on the other team was in a completely different mood all together. After a phase of disappearance from the game, he came into his own again and made a number of attempts to lob the ball behind defenders for his strikers to run into though none proved useful.
The assistant referee held up the sign for two minutes of injury time and as the ball rolled out for a SAI throw-in as the two minutes winded down, we prepared to leave. A foul throw meant that possession changed hands and it the throw reached Cop number ten around ten yards outside the SAI area. A quick look up, a lobbed shot that found the perfect spot in the net to sail into, a pumped fist and the match had been won with the last kick of the match. Simply stunning!
So ended another delightful outing. Hope to catch some more action and a few more teams. Hopefully HAL next.

Two games from the stands is very little experience to pass judgment on the state of football in Karnataka. Speed, stamina and skills all seem to be woefully below any level that the EPL fed spectator is used to. The mission should of course be to discover the story behind the performances and understand the factors that have led to the creation of existing standards. I won’t be surprised if many of the players hardly ever practice with the teams they represent. How these clubs exist, what is their role in player development and access to talent pool etc. are all mysteries which I hope to some day uncover. For the moment I’m looking forward to the next chance to support my local league.