Thursday, April 30, 2009

Manchester United v Arsenal, Champions League, 29 April

Manchester United failed to turn their massive superiority over the first thirty minutes (and sustained superiority over the next sixty) into a bagful of goals and will travel to Ashburton Grove with a single goal advantage. It is an advantage but ‘what could have been’ may just come and haunt United when the proceedings are completed next Tuesday.

A Rooney lob could have earned United the opener as early as the second minute but a Gordon-esque save by Almunia kept it at nil-nil. Before the half hour was up, Almunia had made yet more superb saves to prevent Tevez (twice) and Ronaldo.

In between though, he could not prevent a John O Shea poke from going into goal though the blame for that would lie with all the defenders who left O Shea alone in space and not the goalkeeper. Thus, in a matter of thirty minutes, United could have on a different day been up by five, but had to be contended with one.

For those thirty minutes, Arsenal were overwhelmed by United’s ability to keep possession at all areas of the field and their spectacular movement and passing. O Shea, Fletcher and Carrick were especially impressive, even as the attacking trio of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney threatened to make something of every opportunity. Five up after thirty would have been maybe too flattering for United, but definitely a 3-0 score line would not have seemed unjustified, such was their command.

It was after the save off Ronaldo that Arsenal finally got into the game. Song and Nasri finally started finding the ball and keeping it, while Fabregas connected well with the pair (and Diaby) to eventually start getting the ball into difficult areas for Man U. The fifteen minute spell after the Ronaldo save till half-time, consisted of pleasant, attacking football from both the sides with some very fluent passing and movement.
The second half had moments of equal intensity but they were interspersed with passages of play where both teams struggled for ideas. The excitement was provided by a superb Ronaldo kick from outside the box which rattled the bar and was reminiscent of that great goal against Porto and the other was a goal from substitute Ryan Giggs which was correctly disallowed for offside (it was Giggs’ 800th game for United and a goal would have been one mushy story).

There was not too much new to learn from the performances except acknowledging that Arsenal’s young left back Kieron Gibbs has a future at this level. There was also the opportunity to see Nasri has a deep lying midfielder and while he gave a decent account of himself, I think he adds too much value to that attacking line to be withdrawn from it, especially when Arshavin is missing.

So as this goes into Tie-2, there is little room for the claiming of moral victories or making of bold predictions. All outcomes are possible and I suspect, it is going to be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Barcelona v Chelsea, Champions League, 28 April

The Game

There was pre-match talk of a goalfest or something similar, but in the end Chelsea replayed Manchester United’s game at the Nou Camp at the same stage last year. Just replaced the kits, changed player names and then set the tactics to “same as last year Barca V MU semi-final”. Wish they got that feature in FIFA Manager.

Essien on the right side of midfield signaled lack of width for Chelsea even before the game kicked off. Their occupation of the pitch confirmed that they would lack width, breadth, length and any dimension needed to really get a game of football going. Goalkeeper plus nine were to be found on a patch of the field no broader than thirty yards and it was less of a game and more of a complicated training drill in which Barca failed to meet the objective.

If Chelsea were ever going to score it would have had to be from a long ball, a set piece or a defensive error and Marquez presented them with one when he handed the ball over to Drogba, who should have scored but was prevented well (twice) by Valdes. Then there was a second half corner which found an unmarked Ballack who used to put them all in, once upon a time. This time he headed over. That was about it from Chelsea.

Barcelona were as good as they needed to be as a team but were let down by some key individuals – Messi and Eto to be precise. Bosingwa was Messi’s marker on the left and there was a whole battalion of Chelsea players on him whenever he went central, but it wasn’t simply the tight marking that was behind Lionel’s poor show. He seemed to lack focus and made too many bad decisions and lost possession far too easily. Maybe he was ill. It’s hard to think of an explanation and while I have seen games where his involvement has been low, I can’t recollect another where it has been poor.

Eto failed to convert the one big chance he had (a combination of Alex and Terry errors presented him with a clear run on goal) and was otherwise completely out-bullied by Chelsea’s defense. Henry was better than the pair of them, but even he was hardly having his best night. A couple of shots on target and a dangerous moment when he should (or could) have won a penalty for being hauled down in the box.

The rest of the lot was almost as good as they are on any other day. Xavi, Abidal and Alves looked completely at ease while Iniesta had a delightful first half. Toure, Marquez and Piquet not only never allowed Drogba to win a Cech long goal kick, they also consistently rid the Chelsea midfield of the ball on the few occasions that the Blues did try and string a move together.

For Chelsea, it was hardly a case of rating one player over the other as they came with a specific purpose as a unit and achieved it as a unit. Still, amidst all the discipline and efficiency, it was difficult not to note the struggle that Essien is having with his passing game. On a positive note, Petr Cech pulled off some great saves and after that penalty save against West Ham, he is looking as assured as a shot stopper as he was at his peak. There’s still some way to go before we can say that about his command of the area, but one hopes that this performance will provide an overall confidence boost to one of those rare goalkeepers who makes his job look very exciting indeed.

A not to forget moment – Frank Lampard getting substituted. That’s a rare one.

To dismiss the game as a non-spectacle would be harsh though it definitely was more interesting than it was exciting. Yet, there were plenty of critical moments which could have changed the score board and turned this into a well-loved 2-2 instead of a boring 0-0. Drogba, Ballack and Eto have been mentioned before but there were also Hleb (who should have done better) and Bojan (who should have scored… period). Defensive mistakes, which have been consistently followed by some superb finishing in the last few weeks, were forgiven time and again and the set-piece boots were all forgotten at home. Piquet found some good passes into the box and on another day Alves would have trapped one and secured a Bergkamp‘esk’ finish. Some days however, are not just for goals.

Chelsea came in with a plan and as far as the result goes, it seems to have worked, if not completely then quite significantly. But I’m sure they’ll realize that their own endeavors had as much to do with the result as the inexplicable loss of form to two of the world’s most dangerous players.

The After Game

As I expected to when I switched off the television set last night, I have woken up to a day where Chelsea have been praised and ridiculed for their approach and where inevitably the talents of Messi on the big stage have been questioned. Also on expected lines, there’s not a word about the penalty kick that Henry may have earned and the fact that for all their talk of superiority, even the best English teams have a single game plan for containing Barca (but they succeed everytime dammit).

As it stands, it is of course a double edged sword for Chelsea. They could hope to face a team of fragile minds next week (especially if Real manage to cause more torment on the weekend) and yet a single Barca goal could do so much more damage at the Bridge than it would have had at Nou Camp. That is why I had expected Chelsea to attack a little more in the second half but it did not happen.

For Barca, apart from the headache of filling in the central defensive gap (created by the injury to Marquez and the suspension of Puyol) will be the challenge of keeping themselves fresh and fit and getting their most important players in the correct state of mind when they reach London. That done, they will always be a team capable of beating anyone anywhere.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Club Cricket in Bangalore: Lessons Learnt over a Working Lunch

Jupiter Cricket Club

My colleague GT is making a comeback from a nasty ankle injury suffered over a year ago and is back practicing with his club whom he intends to represent again this season. GT the cricketer plays for a club called Jupiter, which fields teams in multiple divisions of the Bangalore club cricket league organized by the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA).

Jupiter has been around for twenty or more years and raises funds by charging its members (the players) a sum of rupees two hundred a month. Assuming a membership of around fifty people that would generate annual revenues of a lakh and twenty thousand rupees. In addition to this, they may receive a cash award from KSCA, if they finish high enough in the divisions that their teams are represented.

The money that the club raises is spent on equipment, logistics and participation fees. Like many other local clubs, Jupiter has minimized the cost for the ground by renting space owned by the local corporation and hence is able to manage sufficiently well within the funds raised. Since a number of players like GT, represent Jupiter more with the objective of staying active in the game rather than graduating to the higher echelons of district/state/national cricket, the objective is well served. Of course, none of the players get paid for their efforts and I suspect all of them would hold some sort of a day job or another.

The Cricketer Career Path

Clubs like Jupiter form one part of the rather intense and broad based local cricket scene. KSCA also organizes school and university level tournaments and has yet another competitive set up for Companies, with many public sector enterprises keeping players on pay rolls to represent them in these tournaments.

There is a degree of inter-play within each of these leagues, with clubs being free to pick players either from the school and university pool or from the pool that represents Companies. For both sets of players, playing for the clubs would probably provide them more exposure as well as competitiveness, though in very rare cases would that be translating into direct financial rewards.

So that establishes a structure where provided you have enough talent and are not horribly unlucky, you could get ample opportunities to get noticed for the bigger stage, while being able to make a living doing what you love best (if that happens to be playing cricket).

Imagine the scenario, a promising school kid gets noticed by a club and is picked up by them to start playing in a division where most of the players are better and more experienced. The youngster’s game improves and when he passes out of school, he lands a job with a prestigious enough public sector company and plays cricket for them. Thus, the young man’s livelihood is ensured while he uses the club league performances to get noticed by state and zonal selectors and then attempts to chart his way into the Ranji, Duleep, IPL or even the Indian team.

I know it does not always work out so simply for all talented cricketers and there are enough holes in the system which sees many players having to drop out of the competitive scene even before they hit their prime. Point is that the basic structure to make the scenario possible exists and maybe that is why this city (and the country) has abundance in numbers and talent with regards to cricket.

Lessons for Others

To explain my point in another way, here’s a question – What percentage of kids representing their school in football, continue to play competitive football at any level at the age of twenty-five? What is the same statistic for cricket?

I don’t have the answers, but my gut feeling is that cricket will outscore football by a fair margin. Therein lies the challenge for football, hockey and any other sport you care to think of. Get enough kids to play the game in school, keep enough of them playing when they are adults and you will get enough raw matter to turn into champions. All other talk of better infrastructure, better coaching, and increased sponsorship is secondary. For me, the problem of Indian sport is the problem of keeping the kid on the field when the kid grows old and that is where cricket has succeeded.

Liverpool v Arsenal, Premier League, April 21

When Liverpool played out that 4-4 draw against Chelsea in the memorable semi-final second leg, many who saw the game hailed it as the best game they had seen in their lives. A few days later, this match presented the same score line and received the same accolades. Personally I found both of the games terribly exciting though I would stop well short of calling either of them classics.

Some memories from the game:

  • Once again Arsenal took the lead against a clearly superior team (and once again failed to defend it till the end).
  • At least six out of eight goals were scored because defensive mistakes were made. This should not take anything away from the strikers as in most cases a lot of work had to be done even after the mistakes were made. Arshavin’s second was special!
  • Apart from scoring the four goals and maybe one more threatening moment, Arsenal were completely outplayed.
  • Benayoun is a much improved player this latter half of the season.
  • Liverpool created many great chances but were either cut off by the Arsenal defense or wasted the chance. They could have won this 7-4.
  • Kuyt was the man of the match for me even though Arshavin scored four goals.
  • I was not at all surprised to see Arshavin’s class. However, before he scored his first, he had been invisible.

Manchester United v Everton, FA Cup Semi-Final, April 19

  • Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson had probably more justification than Arsenal for fielding a weakened team, but even under those circumstances they could have done better than start with Foster, Rafael, Fabio, Welbeck, Macheda and Gibson all at the same time. Surely Nani, Scholes and possibly Berbatov could have been in the mix even with the packed schedule. It’s a Cup semi-final for God’s sake!
  • Everton refused to take the opportunity to dominate and played with fear. In the end they were lucky to get away with a penalty win.

Chelsea v Arsenal, FA Cup Semi-Final, April 18

It’s been sometime since the game and a lot has been written about it, so the plan is to keep this short and bulleted:

  • Wenger didn’t really want to win this. On the bench were Arshavin, Nasri and Song. He does have an abundance of attacking talent but any selection of Diaby over Arshavin or Nasri has to be questioned. In a cup semi-final against Chelsea, one is tempted to start looking for ulterior motives. Not questioning integrity or stuff like that, but WHY???
  • Malouda has started looking a better player under Hiddink. Not spectacular yet but better.
  • Arsenal are the one team that I most expect to be leading a game even when they are getting completely outplayed. That they were better than Chelsea when they scored the first goal is not the point. Soon Chelsea were dominant and Arsenal were completely inferior. That Arsenal are often unable to hold on to the lead till the end is also not the point. Not this point at least.
  • Obi Mikel is quite unlucky not to be starting every game for Chelsea. He was quite good at the job he did. There is a case for putting Mikel in for Ballack and letting Lampard and Essien look after matters up front.
  • After a bright comeback from injury, Essien looked out-of-form for two straight games. It’s quite a first!
  • Why is Fabianski taking all the blame for Drogba’s winner? He may not have made the best decisions but Drogba would have been one-on-one with him anyway and would be 95% favorite to score. How about some more focus on Silvestre’s surrender?

Manchester United v Porto, Two Legged Quarter Final, April

Football is fickle – one day form is your bitch and the next day she is gone. Football is merciless – it guillotines you for the first mistake. Football is a siege – you can prevent your opponent from living a free life. Football is a gentle stream – fluid and adding beauty to the surroundings. Football is a photo album – moments of genius is what you take away with you. Football is happiness – not always… but it was so when the holders met the pretenders from Portugal…not for all of it…but enough to carry the euphoria for some time.

First Leg

There was enough drama, quality, fortune and mistakes on display at Old Trafford but the high point of the game for me was a stretch of play in the second half that may have lasted five minutes or maybe ten or who knows no longer than two. For that period the ball moved gracefully from foot to foot, feet to feet, yard to yard, half to half, right to left, this way and that, one team to the other and just kept moving without being halted. No fouls, no desperately kicking out of play and no thought of deception. Glorious attack after glorious attack was built without a hint of brutality and each attack was rebuffed not by force but through precision and each time was quickly turned into the next attack.

The fact the Porto were the driving force behind this piece of play as well as most of the other great moments that this game provided, served as a reminder that talent is concentrated in the EPL but not limited to it. Till the last whistle was blown Porto dominated the fearsome side that Sir Alex has built and while they did not lead the scoreboard for all of it, they did manage to leave Manchester with enough returns to suggest that their work for the evening was not wasted.

Porto took the lead through Christian Rodriguez but then threw it away when Rooney was sent clear on goal by a perfect pass from one of Porto’s own. Much later in the second half, Tevez came on as a sub and managed to turn a low cross from the right in to give the Red Devils an undeserved lead. But Porto kept hitting back and found a late equalizer to score two huge away goals which meant that Man U would have quite a job to do in Portugal.

Manchester United did have their moments. Even apart from the goals. Helton, the Porto keeper was tested more than once by the likes of Rooney and Vidic and Ronaldo but stood up to the challenge every time. Ferdinand-less Man U struggled to defend properly and apart from Rooney, the forward line did not quite turn up. Ronaldo chose to be lazy and he lost the ball that led to the first Porto goal. Man U played like they expected to win at 80%. Porto were clearly at 100% and you felt that the gap in quality between the leagues of Europe is maybe not quite as large as the results suggest they are.

The final whistle was blown and there was to be a week to prepare for chapter two. However this was one tie where I was not necessarily looking for closure. In one evening I had discovered the flamboyant and almost virginal left back - Cissokho, the unbelievably dominating holding midfielder - Fernando, the fearless and skilful striker - Hulk and the winger with the magnet in his head – Christian Rodriguez. I did not necessarily want a poor second leg performance to ruin my new stars for me, yet the temptation of watching two sets of entertainers would turn out to be too strong to resist.

Second Leg

After a lot of speculation over whether Manchester United would be able to beat history and Porto to become the first English team to win in Portugal, the match that was served to us, turned out to be an anti-climax. While vested interests craved for a preferred result, the world at large would have been happy with a spectacle that matched the first leg.

In the end, the result went the way it always does. Or at least has been doing for the last two to three years with the English team getting the single goal that saw them through to a semi-final against Arsenal. The game itself, secure in inertia for United within the first twenty minutes or so, offered a couple of moments of hope, but largely declared itself a non-dramatic entity once United had scored their goal.

What will be worth remembering from the game is that single goal that eventually separated the victors from the vanquished. Ronaldo found the ball barely into the opposition half and maybe from a corner of his eye noticed a straight line to the corner of the net. He is not my favorite player, but those skills can never be contested and he unleashed a moment that will be a youtube favorite for seasons to come. From forty or maybe more yards out, he swung that right foot and achieved the speed and trajectory that you would expect out of a Tiger Woods drive. Helton was beaten and the net barely survived the impact. One nil to United and just like every other time he has faced intense criticism, Ronaldo responded with a moment that silenced dissenters with a deafening cheer.

After that United just played out the rest of the game without striving for too much glory or allowing Porto to achieve any. The return of Ferdinand at the heart of the defense was a factor, but the truth was the Porto’s stars from the first leg, failed to be shadows of the form they had shown.

There was a moment where Lisandro Lopez twisted and turned and stole the ball from three United players but such moments were rare and never led to significant outcomes. The frontline of Hulk, Lopez and Rodriguez had lost their mojo and even the consistent Raul Meireles neither shot well or passed with efficiency. The only two players to come out with their reputation intact were Cisokho at left back and Fernando as the battling midfielder. Both youngsters will attract attention and there is hope that a lot more will be seen of them in time.

Meanwhile, Manchester United will continue their defense of the European crown against Arsenal and it would be presumptuous to pick one as the more likely winner. Any of the outcomes seems equally likely, but a United win could set them on a path to glory that is unchartered – a successful defense of the Champions League.

Chelsea v Liverpool, Two Legged Quarter Final, April

First Leg

When Liverpool took the lead within the first few minutes of the kick-off at Anfield, there was little inkling that eleven more would be scored between the two teams over the nearly three hours still left to be played. In years past, that opener from Torres may have been enough for Liverpool to get their ticket for the semi-final, but this season has not been one of known scripts and fittingly there were many many twists in the tale.

Liverpool came off the blocks strong and seemed fluent as their home support warmed up, though they had hardly created so much early pressure to warrant the feeling that a goal was a matter of time. As it was, before the minutes display went into double digits, Arbeloa and Kuyt combined to slip one in for Torres who was dangerously unmarked in the box and once the ball reached his feet, the goal was sealed.

Only after they went behind till Chelsea wake up to the occasion. But wake up they did. Essien as the spoiler, Ballack as the simple passer and Lampard as the creative inspiration began to make the difference visible to the packed Kop and the millions of eyes glued to TV sets. Starting with cutting the supplies out for Gerrard (Essien), to moving the ball into free areas (Ballack) to engineering dangerous attacks (Lampard), Chelsea’s midfield started scripting a comeback.

It would not have taken long for the equalizer to come had Drogba taken his chances but he did not and it was left to backup right back Ivanovic to nod in the crucial away goal (or so we thought) from a corner. The second came in a similar manner and before the night was done, Drogba finally atoned for his previous misses by meeting a cross from the left with immense speed and power and rifling the ball into the net.

It ended 3-1 on the night and it could have been worse for Liverpool. Once Chelsea got into the groove, the Reds looked definitely inferior, thanks in a big way to a missing Mascherano and an off color Xavi Alonso. Gerrard’s imprisonment at the hands of Essien added to many Pool players struggling for inspirational passes choked the fun out of Torres’ game and though he missed one which he should have scored and created another opportunity out of nothing, the marvelous Spaniard failed to have a telling impact on the game.

For Chelsea, Ivanovic was unearthed as a game changer and while his set-piece threat was obvious to note, his pace and strength in defense were also appreciable. Lampard made a couple of stupid defensive decisions but ignore them and he was easily the player who dictated play. Essien nipped Liverpool’s attacking ambitions in the bud, drove forward with fierce power, passed accurately and never gave the ball away. Malouda finally showed himself worthy of an Abramovich shirt but the only disappointment for the Blues was the lackadaisical (yet goal scoring) display by Didier Drogba. He missed chances, made the poorest decisions when he could have created goal scoring chances and showed alarming lack of awareness when off the ball.

Second Leg

With three away goals and the familiar surrounds of London to see off ninety minutes, a suspended John Terry would have been in the mood to hang his boots from the railing and wait for the seemingly inevitable passage to the semi-final at the stroke of the final whistle. At the end of the first half, he would have been desperate to get on the pitch and play his part in a battle to the end.

As it turned out, Liverpool scored four on the night thereby finishing with one away goal more than Chelsea. Chelsea for their part scored four on the night themselves and thus finished with a two goal superiority on aggregate which saw them through to the semi-final. In the ninety minutes where these eight goals were scored, momentum shifted from one camp to another like the swaying of those giant boat shaped joy rides and what the game lacked in defensive quality was more than adequately made up for in terms of entertainment.

Liverpool began strongly just as they had done in the first leg and again before too long they had the first goal. Torres could have had the opener in the first ten minutes but he shot over and it was left to an Aurelio free kick to finally provide the visitors with a life line. This time the pressure had been intense enough and sustained enough for the air of expectation to be heightened and from a long way out, Aurelio embarrassed Cech much in the same way that Ronaldinho had announced himself to the world against David Seaman in the World Cup in Korea and Japan.

Cech had left the near post vacant, prepared to punch out an inviting cross. Aurelio, rated as a brilliant free kick taker on FIFA Manager, chose instead to drive a low ball straight into the unprotected near post on his right and the ball evaded a grasping Petr Cech for the inspirational tonic that Liverpool needed.

A second came a few minutes later through an Alonso penalty and suddenly the Reds were a mere goal away from qualification with almost an hour to go.

It was confounding to see Chelsea’s approach to the game as they discarded the very desire to dominate that had seen them sail through the first leg. They sat too deep and that allowed Mascherano and Alonso all the time in the world to supply their attackers. The injured Gerrard had been replaced by Lucas and though he wasn’t wrecking mayhem, the play was parked in Chelsea’s third for long enough to lead to errors and free kicks in dangerous areas and confusion in the defensive ranks. They did show signs of improvement as the half ended, but one was tempted to think that the Blues’ performance had only one way to go – up.

And up it did go. In fact it went up, up and away with edgy mortals seemingly transformed into super heroes from Krypton in a matter of a half-time dressing down. Anelka, on for Kalou on the right, crossed one from the by line after determinedly holding off the defense and Drogba’s faint touch was enough to cause the ball to deviate off Reina into the goal.

Chelsea then started believing more and began mixing the long balls with strong approach play. Free kick after free kick was won by the Chelsea forwards as their strength and ability to hold on to balls irritated Liverpool and one such free kick after Drogba was fouled, saw Alex score from a bullet that pierced the net from 30 yards out. Then Ballack found space on the edge of the box and as soon as one expected him to shoot, he cleverly played a pass to an unmarked Drogba on the left who cut the ball in for Frank Lampard to easily slot home from a few yards out. It was 3-2 now to Chelsea and could have been worse for Pool, had Ballack not wasted an absolute sitter.

At this stage Chelsea were back to their form from a week ago but the chief protagonist of the night was Drogba, he who had cut such a conflicting figure in Chelsea’s triumph at Anfield. He won every ball played to him, worked hard for the team and was involved in everything that was frightening to Liverpool.

Stung by this reversal, Rafa seemed to throw in the towel with some time to go as Ngog stepped in and Torres stepped out and we will always wonder if Rafa regretted this decision as the final few minutes unfolded. First a wicked deflection saw a Lucas shot land in the back of the net and then a cross was defended poorly to allow Kuyt to head home the goal that put Liverpool one goal away from qualification yet again. With eight minutes to go, the pressure was clearly back again on Chelsea.

There was indeed time for another goal, but the final act of this great entertainer went to the Blue corner as a cross from the right found Lampard through Drogba and Anelka and Chelsea’s most influential player did the job he does so well.

It was madness, it was thrilling, it was unexpected and it was over. For Liverpool, it also ended this year’s European run leaving them with the single prize of the league to aim for. For Chelsea, it ended the period of relative obscurity and they have come roaring back as one of the strongest teams in Europe having left their difficult last days under Scolari way behind. For the rest of us, it begins a long wait for episode six of Chelsea V Liverpool in the Champions League.