World Cup Semi-Finals – Picking Sides

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

Messi strikes late against Iran to give Argentina the victory

The 2014 World Cup has been a fantastical spectacle of football so far, as the group stages had plenty of goals and excitement, while the knockout rounds have managed to continue delivering drama, even as the scoring ratio has dropped and the favorite in each tie has progressed.  With the semi-finals taking place today and tomorrow – and no natural allegiance left for me since the USA narrowly succumbed to Belgium in extra-time – here is my preference for which of the four remaining countries I would most like to see win it all at the Maracanã this Sunday:

1. Argentina

I have always had an affinity for Argentina thanks to Tottenham legends Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa*, but I became an even bigger fan of them in the 2006 World Cup.  In that tournament, their blend of football was enthralling and spectacular to watch, most notably in their 6-0 demolition of Serbia that included my favorite goal of all time – the 25 pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso. Although they have not been anywhere near as entertaining or convincing this time around, Lionel Messi has played very well and controlled games in the style of his predecessor in the number 10 shirt – not Maradona, but Juan Romàn Riquelme.  Everything has been going through Messi for Argentina – who can blame them when you have a player of his ability – and that will continue to be the case as Angel DiMaria is out for the rest of the World Cup, while Sergio Aguero is far from full-fitness, even if he is likely to be risked against the Netherlands.

*ESPN just released a fantastic 30 for 30 documentary about Ardiles and Villa’s time at Spurs, focusing on the effect that the Falklands War had on the two Argentinian footballers playing in England at the time. I highly recommend checking it out.

My bias is further increased by the fact that every single time I filled in a bracket prior to the World Cup, the only thing that I did not change my mind on was who I though would win this World Cup – Argentina.  I picked them when the draw for the tournament was made in December and again in the preview just before the World Cup kicked off last month, so it would be nice to be proven right about one thing, given that my other three semi-finalists in the latter post were Chile (not bad, only missed out on getting past Brazil on penalties), Spain (oops); and Switzerland (pushed Argentina in the Round of 16, but I thought they would top the group and have an easier route).  Beyond just wanting to be right though, I really want this Argentina team – in particular Lionel Messi – to end their drought in international tournaments and win this World Cup.

2. Germany

Another country that I started to really root for in 2006 and my enjoyment of Germany came through another former Tottenham player, Jürgen Klinsmann.  When he was manager of the German national side, Klinsmann completely overhauled their style of play into one that was attacking and exciting to watch, far different from the 2002 version of the team that was effective but dull as they made the World Cup final in spite of a paucity of talent (outside of Michael Ballack and Oliver Kahn, they did not have any top class players).  Now they have an abundance of great midfielders – my favorite being Thomas Müller, but also Mesut Özil (whom I liked a lot more before he went to Arsenal, but still rate as a fantastic passer of the ball), Toni Kroos, Andre Schürrle; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Götze and Sami Khedira – the best goalkeeper in the world, Manuel Neuer; and the joint top-scorer in World Cup history, Miroslav Klose, who needs one more goal to pass Ronaldo and have the record to himself.  They are a vibrant side to watch and their defeat of France means they are the first nation to appear in four consecutive World Cup semi-finals; while they have also reached this stage in their last five major tournaments.  However, it has been 24 years since they won the biggest prize of all and they have not done so as a unified nation, as all three of their triumphs have come under the moniker of West Germany.  Coincidentally, the only other two countries that have won the World Cup three times, lifted it for a fourth time 24 years after they had their third: Brazil (1970 – 1994) and Italy (1982-2006) – the Germans have a great chance to continue that trend in 2014. Read more of this post

World Cup 2014 Preview and Predictions

Brazil-2014-World-CupThe 2014 World Cup starts in São Paulo next Thursday as the host country, Brazil, take on Croatia. Although I made a gut-reaction to the draw when it was made, a lot has changed since then.  Most notably, Radamael Falcao – who I predicted would be the Golden Boot winner – is out of the tournament having injured his ACL in January, an absence that will severely hamper Colombia’s chances of making the latter stages.  Also, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo head to Brazil short of full fitness, so their ability to lift their respective countries to a new level is questionable.

Group A

The most obvious place to start is with Croatia the hosts, Brazil, who will be playing a World Cup on home soil for the first time since 1950, when they were beaten in the final match by Uruguay.  Neymar is the player most likely to inspire the Seleção to their sixth triumph, having been the cornerstone of their success last summer in the Confederations Cup.  However, over the last two club seasons with first Santos and then Barcelona, Neymar has not reached the high levels he set in the earliest part of his career, but is definitely the one Brazilian in 2014 who could put the team on his back and take them a long way in the World Cup.  With the pressure rising on the hosts, Neymar’s jovial personality, along with David Luiz, should help Brazil’s squad relax and ease the pressure on them.  Since they reappointed Luiz Felipe Scolari – who took them to World Cup glory in 2002 – as manager, the team unity has improved dramatically and it would shock nobody if they went all the way this summer.  If the tournament were merely a measure of midfield talent, then I would rate Brazil as joint favorites with Spain and Germany, since the collection of Neymar, enforcer Luis Gustavo, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Ramires and Willian are as good as any you would find at this year’s World Cup.  However, up front Hulk, Fred and Jo are hardly up to the standards of legends like Ronaldo or Romario, while in goal, Julio Cesar looks like his best years are behind him and he has spent the last few years playing for Queens Park Rangers and Toronto FC.  I do not think the gaps in their squad will cost them in the group stages, which I expect them to come through comfortably, but in the second round they will face either Spain, Netherlands or Chile (sorry Australia) and against that level of opponent, they could be found out.

Brazil face Croatia in their first match and the Europeans will be without their main striker, Mario Mandzukic, who was sent off in the second leg of their playoff against Iceland and is suspended for the contest.  In his place will come the Brazilian born Eduardo, while they will also have a Champions League winner in the form of Luka Modric in their starting lineup.  Modric is just one of four former Tottenham players in Croatia’s squad, joining Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who spent some time at White Hart Lane on loan, though never made an appearance for Spurs.  With a tough opener, it does not get any easier for Croatia who must play in the tropical Amazonian conditions of Manaus in their second game against Cameroon, though if they can play a possession game against the African champions, the heat might actually favor them.  The big question for Cameroon is whether or not they can keep Samuel Eto’o happy, since the veteran striker refused to play a match against Cabo Verde in 2012 because of what he described as an “amateurish” setup of the national side – move over Roy Keane.  The strength for the Indomitable Lions is in the centre of midfield, where they have Stephen Mbia and Alex Song, while the best option up front might not actually be Eto’o, but rather Vincent Aboubakar, who scored 16 for Lorient in Ligue 1 this season.

Finally in Group A comes Mexico, who would not have even made it to the playoffs had they not been rescued by the USA scoring late on against Panama to keep El Tri in fourth place in the Hexagonal qualifying group, despite their own loss to Costa Rica.  It is not just the struggles in qualifications that suggest Mexico may perform badly in Brazil, they will also be without their best player, Carlos Vela, who has made himself unavailable for selection due to his poor relationship with the country’s football association.  However, they have made it to the Second Round of the last five World Cups and new manager Miguel Herrera has fostered more of team spirit in the squad.  Up front, Oribe Peralta is a proven goalscorer, while Javier Hernandez, who did not have a great season for Manchester United, still provides a threat to opponents and could make a good impact off the bench in particular.

Predicted Group Standings: 1. Brazil 7 points; 2. Mexico 4 pts; 3. Croatia 3 pts; 4. Cameroon 1 pt. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – Germany 2006

Unknown-2In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94France 98, Japan/South Korea 2002

By the summer of 2006, my support of the English national team had worn very thin and I expected nothing other than a disappointing exit from the World Cup in Germany, most likely on penalties.  My negative expectations were colored by the end of Tottenham’s season, when they had missed out on finishing above Arsenal in fourth place – and thus qualifying for the following campaign’s Champions League – in their final Premiership match. Memorably, they lost to West Ham with many players feeling the ill effects of having some dodgy lasagna the night before.  While my love of club over country had always existed, it was growing stronger as I was, by that point, a Spurs season ticket holder and also traveled to several away games each year.  As well as Tottenham being my main footballing interest, my desire to move to the United States – which had been growing ever since my first trip to Brooklyn in 2000 –  made me feel even less connected to the patriotic fervor that always surrounds the English national team in the lead up to major championships. By the end of the tournament, I was officially done with the England football team and within 9 months, I finally made the move to New York.  Before all that though, came some football!

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Germany; 2. Ecuador; 3. Poland; 4. Costa Rica

Although they had made the final of the 2002 World Cup, Germany had been a team in decline since their 1996 European Championships success in England.  However, under the stewardship of Jürgen Klinsmann, a new wave of youth players were brought through for the World Cup in 2006, which was to be played in Germany.  Instead of the traditional manner that the country had previously played, which was controlled and measured, Klinsmann brought in a vibrant, pacy, attacking style of play that won over not just the German public but also many football fans from different nations.  Up front, two Polish born strikers led the line and Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had an immediate impact in the first game against Costa Rica, with the former claiming two goals in a 4-2 victory for the host nation.  More than just being a win to start the tournament, the exhilarating performance by Germany gave their supporters hope, while their first and fourth goals were fantastic strikes by Phillip Lahm (a mint finish…) and Torsten Frings, meaning that Paulo Wanchope’s brace was mere consolation for Costa Rica.

Neither of the Polish-born strikers scored in Germany’s second match against Poland, but the hosts still picked up another win thanks to an injury time goal by Oliver Neuville; then Klose got two and Podolski the other in their final group game with Ecuador to give Klinsmann’s team a 3-0 victory and a perfect 9 points in the first round.  Although they lost that final fixture in Group A, Ecuador still qualified for the knockout stages as they had already beaten Poland 2-0 and Costa Rica 3-0.

Group B: 1. England; 2. Sweden; 3. Paraguay; 4. Trinidad and Tobago

It only took three minutes for England to get their first goal at the 2006 World Cup, as a David Beckham free-kick was turned into his own net by Paraguay’s captain, Carlos Gamarra. That was as good as it got for Sven Goran Erikkson’s team for the next 170 minutes of playing time however, as they ended up beating the South Americans 1-0, then took 83 minutes to break through against the minnows, Trinidad and Tobago.  A second goal in injury time from Steven Gerrard – past Shaka Hislop, who he had also beaten in the last moments of the FA Cup final a month before – could not hide the fact that England were far below par, but they had picked up six points from their opening two matches and qualified for the knockout stages even before their 2-2 draw with Sweden.  The Swedes finished in second place despite their disappointing 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago to start their campaign, as they beat Paraguay 1-0 thanks to an 89th minute strike from Freddie Ljungberg.

Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro

Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro

Group C: 1. Argentina; 2. Netherlands; 3. Côte D’Ivoire; 4. Serbia & Montenegro

Watching Argentina in their first match against Côte D’Ivoire, I was mesmerized by the beautiful play of Juan Roman Riquelme, whose passing and control of the game was like seeing a metronome playing football.  Riquelme’s pass to Javier Saviola for Argentina’s second goal in that match was pure magic and their performance against Serbia in the second round of fixtures made me fall in love with the team.  Argentina won the match 6-0, but their second was absolutely beautiful – a 26 pass move that ended with Esteban Cambiasso playing a ball into Hernan Crespo, who back heeled it to Cambiasso once more and the midfielder provided the finish to the best goal I have ever seen live.  The final goal of the match was scored by a very young Lionel Messi – who also provided an assist for the fifth – which remains to this point the only time he has found the net in the World Cup.

What had been billed as a group of death before the tournament, Group C actually ended up being a saunter for Argentina and the Netherlands, as the Dutch also won both of their first two fixtures, meaning both had qualified prior to playing out a goalless draw.  Arjen Roben scored the only goal in the Netherlands’ contest with Serbia; then Robin Van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy were both on target against Côte D’Ivoire.  Although their involvement ended early in their first World Cup, Côte D’Ivoire still had one thing to cheer about as they came from 2-0 down to beat Serbia 3-2 in their final group match.

Group D: 1. Portugal; 2. Mexico; 3. Angola; 4. Iran

After they had reached the final of the European Championships in 2004, there were high expectations for Portugal in 2006 as they headed into the World Cup led by the manager who had won the trophy with Brazil four years earlier, Luiz Felipe Scholari.  The biggest asset for Portugal was that they had three of their best players of the last 15 years all available at once, as Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo all lined up for them.  They had no problems in the group stages, winning all three of their matches and finishing top of the group, while Mexico sneaked through by drawing against Angola and beating Iran 3-1.  And there’s not much more to say about Group D, so moving on…

Group E: 1. Italy; 2. Ghana; 3. Czech Republic; 4. United States

Italy came into the tournament with their domestic game in severe crisis, as the calcipoli scandal was unfolding, where Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were found to have been match-fixing through the selection of favorable referees for their fixtures.  However, the national side were seemingly gelled in the face of adversity and qualified top of their group thanks to a victory over Ghana in their first match; a draw with the United States in a game that saw three people sent off; then a 2-0 victory over Czech Republic.  The Czechs had started well in the tournament, beating the US 3-0 in an impressive performance, highlighted by two fantastic goals from Tomáš Rosicky, but they followed that up with a 2-0 defeat to Ghana before the defeat to Italy in their final match.  The Black Stars were the only African nation to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, as they confirmed their place with a 2-1 victory over the United States in their third group game, with Stephen Appiah scoring the winner from a penalty spot in stoppage time at the end of the first half.

Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks

Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks

Group F: 1. Brazil; 2. Australia; 3. Croatia; 4. Japan

As they will this summer, Brazil started their 2006 World Cup campaign with a game against Croatia and eight years ago, they earned a 1-0 victory thanks to a beautiful left foot shot from Kaka.  The reigning champions had Adriano partnering Ronaldo up front in Germany and the former got his first World Cup goal against Australia in Brazil’s second match, which they won 2-0 to clinch qualification with one fixture to spare.  Nevertheless, the seleção did not let up in their final group game against Japan, racking up a 4-1 victory that included two goals for Ronaldo, making the joint all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with Germany’s Gerd Müller.  Somewhat surprisingly, Australia joined the South Americans in the Second Round, as they came from behind to beat Japan 3-1 in their opener, with all three of their goals coming in the final six minutes – two of which were scored by Tim Cahill.  In their final match in Group F, Australia came from behind twice to draw with Croatia 2-2, but that contest was most memorable for a mistake made by English referee Graham Poll, who issued three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić before finally sending him off.  The next time Poll came to referee at Tottenham, we offered him sympathy by singing “World Cup, and you f*cked it up”.

Group G: 1. Switzerland; 2. France; 3. South Korea; 4. Togo

Following their goalless performance in Japan/Korea 2002, France were eager to make amends at the World Cup in Germany four years later, but they were once again kept off the scoresheet in their first match against Switzerland, which ended 0-0.  Thierry Henry did end their drought in the 9th minute of France’s second game against 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, but a late goal from Park Ji-Sung denied them a victory and put them on the brink of a second straight group stage elimination.  Switzerland and South Korea had both beaten Togo, so heading into the final fixtures, they were both on 4 points, while France sat on 2. There were no slip ups by the French this time around however, as they beat Togo 2-0 to qualify for the second round, while Switzerland beat South Korea by the same scoreline to claim top place in the group, without conceding a goal.

Group H: 1. Spain; 2. Ukraine; 3. Tunisia; 4. Saudi Arabia

Whatever the opposite is of the “Group of Death” (forgoing the obvious, “Group of Life”) that is what Spain faced in the first round of the 2006 World Cup.  They opened up by thrashing Ukraine 4-0, in which they were unnecessarily aided by a very soft red card for Vladyslav Vashchuk, who had at most given Fernando Torres a slight tug as they tussled for the ball in the area.  Spain then had to come from behind to beat Tunisia 3-1, before finishing off with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia to end the group stages with the maximum 9 points.  Ukraine recovered well from their opening match thrashing, as they then won 4-0 themselves against Saudi Arabia, before beating Tunisia 1-0 to claim second place in the group.

Second Round

I am going to do this in ascending order of excitement that the round of 16 matches produced:

Switzerland 0 – 0 Ukraine (Ukraine with 3-0 on penalties) – this match was like watching paint dry, in slow motion.  It was so dull that the Swiss players could not even make the penalty shootout exciting, missing all of their spot kicks to become the first nation ever eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal.

England 1 – 0 Ecuador – David Beckham scored directly from a free-kick to send England into the quarter-finals…not much else happened.

Italy 1 – 0 Australia – In the final minute of injury time at the end of 90 minutes, Italy were awarded a very cheap penalty that was converted by Francisco Totti to eliminate Australia from the competition.

Germany 2 – 0 Sweden – Germany still looked good, but two early goals from Lukas Podolski effectively ended the match as a contest before it had really begun.

Brazil 3 – 0 Ghana – Ronaldo claimed his 15th career World Cup goal in the 5th minute to move him one ahead of Müller for most all-time in a routine victory for the Brazilians.

Spain 1 -3 France – All the good work that Spain had done in the group stages unravelled in the first knockout round, as they took the lead against France, but then conceded three times, including late goals for Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane.

Argentina 2 – 1 Mexico Argentina fell behind early against Mexico, but Hernan Crespo got them back on level terms in the tenth minute and then the contest went all the way to extra time.  In the 98th minute, Maxi Rodriguez won it for the South Americans with an absolutely stupendous volley from the edge of the box.

Portugal vs Netherlands - the first World Cup game with a naughty step

Portugal vs Netherlands – the first World Cup game with a naughty step

Portugal 1 – 0 Netherlands – While the result may not make this contest sound like the most entertaining, it was one of the best games of football I have ever witnessed.  In what became referred to as the Battle of Nurmberg, 16 yellow cards were issued by referee Valentin Ivanov, as well as four reds in a game that saw numerous flash points.  So ridiculous was the officiating and state of the match by the end, three of those who had been dismissed – Khalid Boulahrouz, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Deco – were pictured all sitting together on a step behind one of the dugouts, with the latter two (who were teammates at Barcelona) chatting about the events that had occurred on the pitch.  Oftentimes commentators will state that nobody wants to see players squaring off or a game “ruined by sendings off”, I could not disagree more – I absolutely love watching those types of contests and I think many other people agree with me.

Quarter Finals

The most obvious place for me to start with the quarter-final ties is where my time as an England supporter ended, with their defeat on penalties to Portugal.  The match itself went pretty much as most England performances have gone in the last two decades when they have been getting knocked out of major tournaments: there was a red card to a crucial player, this time Wayne Rooney; ire from the fans towards an opponent instead of the idiocy of the Englishman who has gotten himself sent off (in 1998 it was Diego Simeone, in 2006 Cristiano Ronaldo for winking after Rooney’s dismissal); and then a spirited performance ending in a penalty defeat.  At least on this occasion, there were no delusions that the shootout would end in anything other than a loss, as Portugal’s keeper Ricardo was renown for his ability to save spot kicks, while of the four England players who took a penalty, only Owen Hargreaves – who had spent all of his professional career in Germany with Bayern Munich – found the net (with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missing).  Everything about the manner of the defeat had annoyed me, but what ended my tenure as an England supporter was my discovery the next morning, I went to my car and discovered that a rear panel had been kicked in and severely dented, most likely from drunken fans who had gone on something of a rampage following the elimination from the World Cup.  What my poor little Toyota Yaris had to do with England’s defeat on penalties to Portugal, I do not know – but it summed up a dissatisfaction I felt with the national team and I have not supported them since.  My animosity toward them was exacerbated when John Terry was named as the captain, around the same time he was sent off at White Hart Lane for saying…something…to Ledley King – for the next half-dozen years I actively rooted against England, now I am just completely indifferent to how they do.

In the other quarter-final match ups: Argentina were also eliminated via a shootout, as the hosts, Germany, progressed after coming from behind to tie the game at 1-1 with ten minutes remaining of the ninety; Italy had a relatively simple 3-0 victory over Ukraine, who had not conceded in their three fixtures since the 4-0 loss to Spain; and in a repeat of the 1998 World Cup Final, France knocked out Brazil 1-0, with Thierry Henry scoring the only goal.

Semi-Finals and Final

In the semi-final between Germany and Italy, it took 118 minutes for either side to break the deadlock and when the Italians did find the net, it was an absolutely beautiful goal, one that deflated the host nation.  Andrea Pirlo played an incisive pass into the area for Fabio Grosso, who hit the ball first time with his left foot, around Jens Lehmann and into the corner of the net, putting Italy within two minutes of keeping up their record of appearing in a World Cup Final every 12 years since 1970 (’70, ’82, 94 and 2006).  As Germany pushed for an equalizer, they left too much space at the back and it allowed a breakaway from Italy that Alessandro Del Piero finished wonderfully to ensure Italy went on to play in the final in Berlin.  There they faced France, who knocked out Portugal thanks to a penalty scored by Zidane, but that was won with a a blatant dive by Henry, who went over Ricardo Carvalho despite there only being minimal contact.

4081zidaneThe 2006 World Cup final came down to two players: Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi.  Before Zidane famously head butted Materazzi in the chest – apparently because of something that was said about his sister – the two had been involved in both of the goals that were scored.  The Italian defender was the offender in giving away a penalty to France in the 7th minute, which Zidane converted with a chip that hit the underside of the bar, went just over the line, before bouncing out again.  Some call it a cool, calm spot kick, others called it lucky – but it was a wondrous moment from the magician who was playing in his final match before hanging up his boots for good.  Eleven minutes later, Materazzi rose highest at a corner to head Italy level and that is where the scoring ended.  Ten minutes before the match went to a penalty shootout, Zidane turned around off the ball and did his infamous headbutt into Materazzi chest and his magnificent playing career was brought to an end when the referee eventually showed him the red card, but seemingly only after being advised to do so by the fourth official, who had watched the incident on a video replay.  Zidane should be remembered for that incident, but also as one of the greatest players of any generation and someone who could do wonders with the ball and performed at his best when the pressure was at its highest level (he scored the crucial goals in the 1998 World Cup final, plus the winner for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final – the best goal to ever win a trophy).  David Trezeguet was the only player on either side to miss a penalty in the shootout and that was enough to give Italy their fourth World Cup triumph, their first for 24 years.

Finally, the return of Larry – who you can follow on Twitter @uccoachlarry – with his memories from the 2006 World Cup which he attended in person (all of his pictures from the trip can be found here)

 

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USA fans before the match with Ghana in Nurmberg

Germany marked the first time I had the opportunity to travel to a World Cup, and I managed to score tickets to three matches, so I packed a dozen books, an iPod, and left for two weeks.  For the first match, Sweden against Paraguay in Berlin, I received my seat due to a last-minute allocation, getting a discount due to a partially obstructed view. I boarded an extremely crowded subway car for my ride out to the Olympic Stadium, the Swedes making their customary yellow-kitted wall of noise.  I grabbed a stadium schnitzel, and, believe me, I was giddy to learn my seat in Row 5 was so close, the Paraguay bench was the object in my line of sight.  Don’t remember much else significant about the match, except for Paraguay’s extremely capable defensive teamwork.

For the rest of the week in Berlin, I touristed and traveled in the mornings, and found a bar or two to watch matches in the late afternoon and evenings.  The WC2006 committee gave all ticket holders free train passes for the length of the tournament, so I even took a train to the Polish border to have a Zywiec in its native country.  On the return to Berlin, we just stopped for no reason, and I exited when I noticed everyone else doing so.  Through some intricate hand miming, I discovered the train couldn’t continue into the city, therefore I was instead to look for a bus marked, “Schienenersatzverkehr.”  Guess I also could have just followed the crowd.

After a week, I transferred my base of operations to Frankfurt and met my (now) wife for her week of vacation.  Naturally, she arrived jet-lagged, but on the day the Netherlands met Argentina there, so we had a very nice pork knuckle lunch near the main square as Dutch fans serenaded all within the town limits.

The next day, we headed to Nuremberg to see the United States and Ghana.  We had a great lunch of tiny sausages, I ran into a couple of people I knew, and we went off to the stadium.  Of course, I only had one ticket, so she found the official FIFA fan fest area to watch on her own.  The US crowd did our anthem proud, Dempsey got the red, white, and blue level, but the team couldn’t recover from the first-half stoppage time penalty conceded.

Aussie Aussie Aussies!

Aussie Aussie Aussies!

We continued our travels, visiting Heidelberg during its bridge festival, taking a Rhine cruise, and watching matches wherever we happened to be.  We watched Ukraine versus Tunisia at the fan fest in Frankfurt, with seats lining the Main River and the 30 foot screen placed squarely mid-stream.  That horror show of a match between Portugal and the Netherlands, featuring 16 cards and four expulsions also stands out.

Next stop in the list was Kaiserslautern for a Round of 16 match between Italy and Australia.  Typically, before the match, K-town (Ramstein AFB is not far away, and most service men and women seemed to use this moniker) crawled with Aussies having a great time.  As I again only had the one ticket, my wife scouted a place to watch and found the local branch of the Hofbrauhaus for viewing.  Again, the match proved mostly tactical, featuring careful play from the heavily favored Italians, and they advanced on a highly dubious penalty in the last minute of stoppage time.  Then the Italians finally made their presence felt in town with a long, flag-waving, whistle-blowing victory parade.

The next day we left our hotel, and I hopped a train to take me back to Berlin so I could fly home.  I arrived in Hanover for my train switch not long after the match between France and Spain had ended.  Judging merely from the singing and friendliness of both sets of fans, I had no idea which team had won.   As I walked toward my car for my Berlin leg, three more friends from college greeted me with bear hugs.  I had the chance to sit outside the Berlin train station reminiscing with friends before boarding that last flight home.

And then, who can forget that Zidane head butt.  I still have a hard time believing Italy won that cup given their display against Australia.

 

 

 

World Cup Memories – Japan/South Korea 2002

379In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94, France 98, Germany 2006

The World Cup in 2002 could not have arrived at a better time for me, as it started a few weeks after I had finished the exams for my final year of University, but I was still on campus for the first round with nothing to do but to get up early to watch the games in the bar.  Half way through the tournament, I headed to Northern California for a couple of weeks to visit some relatives, which meant that I was viewing the quarter-finals onwards at very strange hours, with the impression that I was the only person who cared about the World Cup for many miles around.  It also resulted in me being nonplussed when England did exit in the last 8, since staying up until 2am to watch the match on the edge of the Redwood Forests enabled me to be removed from the usual nationalistic euphoria that accompanies the national team, especially as they approach the latter stages of a major tournament.  Full disclosure: the final started at 4am on the west coast and, despite my best efforts to set enough alarms to wake up in time for the kick off, I only managed to join the game at half-time – though the second-half was when both of the goals were scored. That is jumping ahead however, so let’s start off with not the group stages, but a game nine months before the World Cup even began.

Germany 1 – 5 England – September 1st, 2001

“Five one, even Heskey scored” became the refrain from the England fans to taunt the Germans, who were thrashed on their own turf in a qualification game for the 2002 World Cup.  Sven Goran Eriksson – the country’s first non-English national team manager – was hailed as a genius who was going to lead the nation back to World Cup triumph once again; while Michael Owen – who had continued his progression from the boy wonder tag he had earned when he scored the fantastic goal against Argentina in 1998 – scored a hat-trick against Germany.  The fact that the opponents were nothing like the quality of their predecessors – who had knocked England out of the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships on penalties – did nothing to abate the enthusiasm in the nation, especially as it marked the second consecutive competitive victory over Germany, after they had failed to achieve any between 1966 and 2000.

-However, I was in a completely different place, both figuratively and literally, to enjoy that victory for the country in which I was born.  I had spent the summer of 2001 in western Massachusetts, working on a summer camp and had then spent a couple of weeks touring the north-east; based in Brooklyn using an Amtrak pass to visit Philadelphia, Washington D.C, and Boston. Towards the end of my trip, I decided to pay for a flight up to Buffalo so that I could see Niagara Falls, a decision that meant my funds for the summer ran out a couple of weeks earlier than I had originally planned for, so I changed my flight home from September 15th to the 1st.  Obviously there ended up being major benefits to my leaving New York when I did, but at the time the only relevance the alteration of departure date had to me was an early end to the best summer of my life.  I did not even realize that I was flying home during the England vs Germany match and I think I remember hearing people talking about the result on the airplane, but it is possible that I did not find out the score until I landed at Heathrow Airport and saw the jubilant headlines on all of the newspapers. Of course, that result did not actually gain qualification for England to the World Cup and they had to come from behind to earn a 2-2 draw against Greece to clinch the place, with David Beckham earning his own redemption for the red card from 1998 as he scored from a free-kick in the final minute of injury time.

In the build up to the finals, Beckham was injured while playing for Manchester United in a Champions League quarter-final on April 10th, a matter of weeks before the World Cup was to start on May 30th.  Not only were England’s hopes considered to be riding on how quickly the midfielder could recover, but everyone in England learned the word “metatarsal”, especially when Gary Neville suffered a similar injury that ruled him out of the squad for South Korea and Japan. My fervor for the England team had diminished as I could only stand the disappointment of being a Spurs supporter if I did not take the travails of the national side too much to heart, plus my enthusiasm had been decreased even further in 2001 when Sol Campbell – an important defender for both club and country – had defected to arch-rivals Arsenal.  That is probably enough background however, so onto the tournament itself – the first not only to be held in Asia, but also to have co-hosts as matches were played in Japan and South Korea, both of whom were given an automatic place in the competition. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – France 98

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90, USA 94; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Two years prior to the 1998 World Cup, England had made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships where they were once again knocked out on penalties by Germany, after they had come the width of a post and Paul Gascoigne’s toe length away from winning the match in extra-time.  The tournament had been held in England and the fervor and excitement around the team had reached fever pitch beforehand with the release of the anthem “Three Lions” by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds.  The unfortunate manner of their exit in those European Championships – although they once again were beaten on penalties, it was not until the first round of sudden death since both sides converted their first five spot-kicks – there was a growing belief that the generation of England players could actually achieve World Cup glory for the first time since 1966.

One of the most exciting things for me about France 98 was not just the increased expectations for England – which had grown even further thanks to a victory in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament held in the summer of 1997 and also featuring Italy, France and Brazil – but also during the competition, there were going to be special episodes of Fantasy Football League.   The show was based around the premise – unsurprisingly – of a fantasy football league, with various celebrities having teams as well as the two hosts, the aforementioned Baddiel and Skinner. In truth, it was just a vehicle for comedy about football and had started on Radio 5, before transferring to the BBC2 between 1994 and 1996, but the show had been off the air for two years, thus its return – on a different channel – was almost as exciting for me as the tournament itself.  Essentially, Baddiel and Skinner were just fans of the game so their comic take came from a place that was very relatable to the average supporter, just phrased in a much funnier way.

There were several highlights of Fantasy Football League that summer, but the one that stick in my head 16 years later is Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, an Arsenal fan, blaming the national team’s failings on the “Tottenham influence”.  France 98 was probably the height of my England fandom – the end of which I will cover in the 2006 Memories – in part because their manager at the time was the Spurs legend, Glenn Hoddle, but club tribalism was always more important than the international game.  Even then – and infinitely more times now – if I could choose, I would pick Spurs winning the league of even F.A. Cup over England being World Cup champions and finding out Rotten was an outspoken Arsenal fan also resulted in me never wanting to listen to the Sex Pistols’ music.  My loyalties to Tottenham also meant that I was actively rooting against France for the tournament, because two of their main players – Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieiria – had just helped the Gunners win their first Premiership title.  The unfortunate side to this was that I never fully appreciated the genius and talent of Zinedine Zidane in his prime.  In retrospect, I wish I had been rooting for Zidane during his career, because he was such a great player to watch.

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Morocco; 4. Scotland.

The holders of the World Cup starting off their defence of the trophy with a 2-1 victory over luckless Scotland, who had recovered from conceding an early goal to draw level before half-time through a John Collins penalty, but then Tom Boyd scored an own goal to give Brazil the win.  Compared to 1994, there was far more style and flair to the 1998 version of the South Americans, as they were led by Ronaldo up front and had the talented Rivaldo in the midfield.  Also, at left-back Brazil played Roberto Carlos, who had come to everyone’s notice with a ridiculously brilliant free-kick in Le Tournoi the previous summer, before he spent the rest of his career sending most of his set-pieces into the stands, the wall and anywhere but the net, as he attempted to emulate that one great goal.

There was plenty of attacking brilliance on display in Brazil’s second victory, as they won 3-0 against Morocco with goals by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto.  However, they were defeated in their final group match, 2-1 by Norway, who scored twice in the final seven minutes to secure qualification to the knockout stages.  That was harsh on Morocco, who had the stylish Mustapha Hadji in midfield, as well as  Yousseff Chippo, Salheddine Bassir and Abdejalil Hadda – all of whom had good tournaments – and they beat Scotland 3-0 in their third fixture, but were eliminated because of that Norwegian comeback and have not returned to the World Cup since. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – USA 94

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

It’s hard to remember exactly how my love affair with the United States started, but before I was 19 and visited the country for the first time, I had become fascinated by the thought of one day living in New York.  While several factors probably contributed to that: movies of course, but more than that, television, since the shows I was most fond of in my formative teenage years were The West Wing, E.R, Seinfeld and even Friends; plus my love of the NFL and baseball which turned into full-flung fandom by the time I was 16.  But while the genesis of this interest in America is unclear – and it proved to be a well founded desire, since when I moved to Brooklyn it became clear that it was home – the World Cup of 1994 must have been a huge contributing factor.  Just take into account the opening credits from the BBC’s coverage of the tournament (click here to see them) – it was full of Razzmatazz, an upbeat soundtrack and great images: the Status of Liberty; the U.S. Capitol; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Chrysler Building; three cars bouncing down a road…it all just looked so…American.Now, 20 years later, this will be the first World Cup I am watching as a citizen and fully-fledged fan of the US national team – part of the reason that has come about is due to USA ’94.

Because of the time difference between the UK and America, many of the games kicked off late at night – or in the case of the semi-finals and final, early hours of the morning – so much of my viewing was on a 10″ television in my bedroom, using the bedcovers to shield the light to avoid waking up the rest of the house.  Maybe staying up till all hours to watch football might seem crazy, but with the tournament occurring only every four years I would do it again now, even as a sleep-deprived parent, rather than just a teenager who often stayed up late anyway.

Onto the tournament itself: like Italia 90, there were 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup in the USA, so once again the first round consisted of six groups of four countries, with the top two guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds, alongside the four third-placed teams with the best records.  The tournament kicked off with a glitzy opening ceremony, complete with Diana Ross missing a penalty from just a few yards in front of a massive goal and the USA’s opening match against Switzerland at the Pontiac Superdome in Michigan was the first in World Cup history to be played indoors.  That moment of history was just one small part of the competition’s many storylines however, as there were several fascinating narratives that emerged during USA 94.  I will start with the most tragic.

Colombia and Andreas Escobar*

*I suggest everyone should watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” about this subject – it is available for streaming on Netflix in the US

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup, Colombia were being touted as one of the potential favorites, with Pele even predicting that they would win the tournament – at the time the Brazilian legend’s prognostications were taken seriously, now he is notorious for being wrong with his picks.  However, there was a good logic behind the thought that Colombia could go far in the competition: they had been in good form in the two years before the tournament – although they finished only third in the Copa America, they did secure their qualification for the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Argentina.  More than that, they had a group of players who were dynamic, exciting to watch and skillful – most notably the big-haired Carlos Valderrama in midfield, Rincon and Faustino Asprilla up front, plus the assured defensive presence of Andres Escobar.

One player who was missing from the squad was the talented but eccentric goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, who was deemed not fit enough to be included in the 23 heading to the United States due to an 8 month spell in prison for kidnapping.  It was a big loss for Colombia – even though he had made a notorious mistake against Cameroon in their Second Round defeat at Italia 90, Higuita was a dominant presence for his country in goal and in the 1989 Copa Libertadores final, he had saved all four penalties he faced in the shootout to help Atletico Nacional become the first Colombian side to win the trophy.  In that penalty contest, Andres Escobar had scored his spot kick to give Nacional the advantage before Higuita shut out Olimpia, and Nacional were owned by the renowned drug lord, Pablo Escobar.  During a period that was known as narco-soccer in the South American country, many leaders of cartels used football clubs not just to launder money, but also as their own personal play things as they competed with each other for domination, with Pablo Escobar even ordered the death of a referee after he felt he had cheated his side out of a victory.

For all his myriad faults and crimes, the one thing that could be said about Pablo was that he loved his football team and wanted them to come to visit and play with him first in his compound, then in the Cathedral Prison where he was incarcerated.  Some of the players were happy to do this and considered the drug lord a friend who had built football pitches in poor suburbs that could not previously afford them – in particular this was true of Higuita, who claimed that following his arrest, the only thing he was asked about was Escobar – but Andrés was more reluctant to cosy up to the notorious criminal, but had little choice in the matter.  However, in December 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police and after that, there was no protection for the national football team and that would prove to be fatal for Andres Escobar in particular.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper - the only own goal of his career.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper – the only own goal of his career.

In their opening match, Colombia dominated Romania but could not find the break through and were then caught on the break by their opponents, who took the lead through Florin Raducioiu, then doubled their advantage thanks to a brilliant goal from Gheorghe Hagi.  Just before half time, Adolfo Valencia got Colombia back in the game, but they could not find an equalizer and Raducioiu added a third for Romania in the last-minute to make the final score 3-1.  Following the loss, the Colombian players received death threats and it was made known to the manager, Francisco Maturana, that if he should select the midfielder Gabriel Gomez for the match against the USA, the entire squad would be killed.  Although he was reluctant to do this and wanted the veteran Gomez in his lineup, Maturana felt like his hand was forced and thus dropped the player who was known as “Barabbas”.  Once again, Colombia were all over their opponents in their second fixture, but they could not put the ball into the net and in the 35th minute, Andrés Escobar diverted a cross from Tab Ramos past his own goalkeeper.  The look on his face suggested that the defender knew the serious implications that could come from his mistake and although Colombia conceded another in the second-half before grabbing a late consolation, it was the own-goal from Andrés that stood out.

Despite a victory in their last match against Switzerland, the highly touted Colombian team were eliminated in the first round and on July 2nd in the car park of a nightclub in Medellin, Andrés Escobar was shot six times in his car and died.  According to reports, Andrés was berated by people for having scored the own goal and called a “faggot”, to which he replied that it was an honest mistake – and it seems that his decision to talk back was another error since it cost him his life. A vehicle that was used by the shooter(s) was connected to the Gallon brothers – who had previously worked with Pablo Escobar, but then later joined “Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar = People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) but they then paid off the prosecution to focus the investigation on their bodyguard, Humberto Castro Munoz as the sole shooter.  Munoz was convicted and served just 11 years of a 43 year sentence before being released in 2005, while the Gallon brothers faced no charges for the murder, even though their bodyguard would likely only have shot Escobar on their orders.  The Colombian defender was just 27 when he was killed and the death put the rest of the tournament in perspective, though not for BBC pundit Alan Hansen who – the day after Escobar was murdered – said that an Argentine player “warranted shooting” for some particularly poor defending in his team’s second round defeat to Romania. Read more of this post

World Cup Memories – Italia 90

In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: USA 94; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Italia_90_mascotBackground to Italia 90

Because I was only five when it was played, I do not have any memories of watching the 1986 World Cup that was hosted by Mexico, so my only knowledge of Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God“* goal and his brilliant second against England in the quarter-final are from watching videos at a later time.  Thus the first World Cup tournament I vividly remember viewing at the time is Italia 90, which in retrospect, was one of the poorer major tournaments of my lifetime (perhaps slightly ahead of Euro 2004 in terms of quality).  However, it was a formative experience for me since it was only the second time I had the chance to watch anything outside of English domestic football, following on from the 1988 European Championships.  Back then, there were only four channels to choose from in Britain – the Sky revolution was still a couple of years away – and with English teams banned from European competitions as a punishment for the Heysel disaster in 1985, seeing other countries playing football was something completely novel and exciting to my nine-year-old self. Even the official World Cup anthem – Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma – was fascinating and, for want of a better word, completely foreign to me and made me want to take in every single moment of the competition.

*One note about that handball goal – it is often said that the only people who did not see the handball were the referee and the linesman, but in the linked video, it is not until the second replay that commentator Barry Davies realizes that the appeal from the England players is not for offside, but for use of the hand.  It is clear looking back what happened, but in the instant it happened it was easy to miss that Maradona had hit the ball with his hand not his head.

Despite my young age, I had already become a fanatical football fan and was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, so the fact that two of their main players were on the England team (Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker) was particularly exciting, as well as Chris Waddle, who had been jinking around defenders at White Hart Lane for a couple of years prior to his move to Marseille in 1989.  From the 1988 European Championships, I knew something about the Dutch team, whose main three players were Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten and the Netherlands played with a style and panache that was completely exhilarating.  Ireland had also qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history and were led by former England player, Jack Charlton, so I found myself having two rooting interests for the tournament, which was only tough when they met in their first game.

Unlike now, when 32 teams compete at each World Cup, there were only 24 countries that took part in 1990 and thus they were split into six groups of four, with the top two in each – plus the four best third place teams – progressing to the Round of 16.  Another difference was that a win was only worth two points, compared to three now, so a victory and two draws was worth the same as two wins and a defeat (four points for either – now the former would get four points, the latter six).  Looking back at the list of nations that competed in Italia 90 also provides a snapshot of European history from that period:

Group AItaly, Austria, United States and Czechoslovakia – A year before the tournament, the Velvet Revolution had brought an end to Communism in the country and on January 1st, 1993, it peacefully dissolved into two nations: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Group B: Argentina, Romania, Cameroon and Soviet Union – Following on from Lithuania declaring itself an independent nation in March of 1990 – with other states following suit over the coming months – the Soviet Union was dissolved in December of 1991 and this would the final World Cup at which the unified team would play.

Group C Brazil, Costa Rica, Scotland, Sweden

Group D Colombia, United Arab Emirates, West Germany – The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and on 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified and henceforth played as a united team, including in the qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships, when West and East Germany had been drawn to face each other in the same group. Yugoslavia - This was also the final tournament at which Yugoslavia played as the Socialist Federal Republics of Yugoslavia: in 1992, they were banned from the European Championships due to the Yugoslav Wars, with UEFA making the decision just ten days before the first match was to be played and their place was given to Denmark, who ended up winning the trophy.  Serbia and Montenegro continued playing under the name of Yugoslavia until 2003, but now each compete under their own name alongside Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Group E Spain, Belgium, Uruguay, South Korea

Group F England, Netherlands, Egypt, Ireland Read more of this post

Premiership End of Season Grades

The noisy neighbors have a loud celebration

The noisy neighbors have a loud celebration

With their 2-0 defeat of West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Manchester City confirmed their second Premiership title in three seasons, as they finished two points above Liverpool, who came from behind to beat Newcastle 2-1 at Anfield on the league’s final day.  To round off the campaign, here is a look at how each team fared compared to what their expectations were back in August; plus my picks for player, manager and goal of the season.

1. Manchester City – Grade A

On the back of their league title, Manchester City also lifted the League Cup and qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time, although with the expenditure that the club has made on playing personnel that should be the minimum they achieve every season.  For the first part of the year, it was the goals of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo that fired Manuel Pelligrini’s side to the top part of the table – though they did have to overcome some shaky away form in the early part of the season – but in the latter part of the campaign, it was the magnificent YaYa Toure who carried them over the line as he fired 20 goals from midfield, including a hat-trick against Fulham, which he rounded off with a fantastic 30 yard curled effort into the top corner.  After he was dropped following a series of mistakes, Joe Hart did not make another error when he returned to the team and three clean sheets in the final four matches helped City ensure they suffered not more slip ups following their defeat at Liverpool and home draw with Sunderland.  Despite two defeats to Chelsea, the blue half of Manchester looked like the strongest team in the division over the course of the campaign and were worthy winners.  One big negative for the club is that they are now going to be sanctioned by UEFA for failing to meet the Financial Fair Play regulations and could have a limited squad in next year’s Champions League, as well as a hefty fine levied upon them (which will hardly help the balance sheet either, not that the Abu Dhabi investment group will be too concerned).

2. Liverpool – Grade A

For someone who grew up in the 1980s, it is a strange concept to think that Liverpool should be delighted by a season in which they won no trophies and were beaten into second place in the final week of the league season, but the progress they have made under Brendan Rodgers has been phenomenal.  It’s almost impossible to remember that back in August, Luis Suarez was angling for a move away from the club and was suspended for the first five fixtures of the campaign as, by the end of it, he was picking up accolades as Player of the Year and had tied the Premiership goals total for a 38 game season, despite having missed those opening handful of matches.  However, one note of warning for Liverpool fans comes from the summer signings that Rodgers brought in last year: Luis Alberto (£6.8m), Iago Aspas (£7m) and Tiago Ilori (£7m) all struggled to get in the team at all (though the latter is still only 21); Kolo Toure (Free) and Mamadou Sakho (£15m) played 18 and 20 times respectively in a defense that conceded more goals (50) than anyone in the top 8 other than Tottenham (51); while only Simon Mignolet – who had a good season despite the regularity he had to pick the ball out of his net – could be considered a definite success.  The recruitment this summer will need to be more prudent if Liverpool are not only going to maintain a title challenge once again, but they must also cope with the added demands that playing in Europe will bring.  This season, the Reds had only 43 competitive matches compared to: 57 – Manchester City & Chelsea; 56 – Arsenal; 54 – Tottenham & Manchester United. Liverpool will have at least six extra fixtures to contend with in 2014/15 as they enter the Champions League group stages, so strength in-depth across the squad will be vital for them to maintain the level they achieved this campaign.

3. Chelsea – Grade B+

The highlights for Chelsea this year were doing the double over the eventual champions, Manchester City; an impressive away victory at Anfield that put the title back into the balance; plus a Champions League run that saw them reach the semi-finals and get within 50 minutes of returning to a European final for the third season in succession.  However, a trophy-less campaign for Jose Mourinho is always going to be something of a disappointment and uncharacteristic defeats against Sunderland, Stoke and Aston Villa proved to be very costly in their title challenge.  While Chelsea had the best defensive record in the division – conceding just 27 goals – their sometimes negative style of play will become a frustration to even their own supporters if it does not result in silverware and their strikers, who were criticized by Mourinho throughout the campaign, were evidently not good enough.  Out of all the strikers who are on the books at Stamford Bridge, only one broke double figures in league goals scored and that was Romelu Lukaku, who notched 15 in the Premiership while on loan at Everton.  The problem with a trophy-less year for Mourinho (his second in a row as he failed to win anything in 2012/13 while in charge of Real Madrid) is that next season, the defensive tactics could be an ever-present feature of Chelsea and he could recreate their 2004-5 season, when they conceded just 15 goals in the league.

4. Arsenal – Grade B- or A

The variation on the grade comes down to whether or not they win their first trophy since 2005 this Saturday, when they take on Hull City in the FA Cup final at Wembley. In the league, there was much early season promise – well at least there was after the opening day loss to Aston Villa that saw supporters berating Arsene Wenger for his lack of activity in the transfer market.  However, on the last weekend of August the Gunners beat Tottenham and then spent £42.5m on one of the best midfielders in the world, Mesut Özil, who had a big positive impact, even if his form tailed off a little in the first part of 2014.  Had it not been for injuries to Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and, in particular, Aaron Ramsey, then Arsenal may have maintained their title challenge longer than March, when they eventually fell away from the leading three having been top of the table for longer than anyone else this season.  Finishing fourth maintains their streak of both qualifying for the Champions League (17) and finishing above Spurs (19); while winning the FA Cup would make this campaign an unqualified success for the Gunners and ensure that Wenger is given a lucrative new contract this summer. Read more of this post

Premier League Roundup – Liverpool do a Tottenham as City Close on Title

Kolo Toure reminds a crying Suarez that it was his mistakes that costs Liverpool the title

Kolo Toure reminds a crying Suarez that it was Gerrard’s mistake that cost Liverpool the title

Liverpool Falter

“Attack, attack; attack attack attack” – Liverpool fans at Selhurst Park after their side went 3-0 up, as they hoped to close the goal difference gap with Man City

“We should have just defended the lead” – prevailing opinion among Liverpool fans following the final whistle

The most enjoyable part for me of Monday’s match at Selhurst Park between Crystal Palace and Liverpool, was watching a side throw away a 3-0 lead and for once it was not Tottenham. I was in the stands for Spurs’ FA Cup replay against Manchester City in 2004, when a three goal and man advantage at half time was not enough to stop us losing 4-3 inside 90 minutes. And memories of the 2001 debacle against the red half of Manchester – which ended up 5-3 to United despite a similar 3-0 lead for Tottenham at the interval – will take some Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type therapy if they are ever to be erased. But on Monday, it was Brendan Rodgers’ side who suffered the ignominy of failing to win from such a dominating position, but this had a much bigger impact on Liverpool than those two Spurs capitulations did for them (even in the Cup defeat, the next round would have been a trip to Old Trafford, where we had not won for 15 years at the time) as the Reds saw their title chances slip (sorry Gerrard) away from them.

Things had started well for Liverpool against a Palace side who had nothing to play for – since they had secured their Premiership status for next season two games previous – as Joe Allen opened the scoring in the 17th minute with his head. Ten minutes into the second half, an assault on the goal difference advantage that Manchester City enjoyed seemed possible as Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez both scored to give the Reds a 3-0 lead. However, it was not as if Rodgers then went to an all-out attack: first Rahim Sterling made way for Phillipe Coutinho, when Lucas or Allen could have been withdrawn; then Sturridge was replaced by Victor Moses. Nevertheless, as soon as Palace got one back, thanks to a deflected shot from Damien Delaney, the Eagles looked like they believed they could get something from the match. They ended up gaining a point thanks to two strikes from Dwight Gale, the second of which he was played through for by a fantastic chest pass by Glenn Whelan.

Although Liverpool were understandably downbeat at the final whistle – Luis Suarez, who had earlier tied the 38 game Premiership record with his 31st goal of the campaign, went from an incredulous laugh when the equalizer went in, to uncontrollable, head-in-shirt crying at the final whistle – it was bizarre that Rodgers claimed afterwards that the “title was gone” for his side. Considering that when he said that, Liverpool were actually sitting in first place and it was an insult to both Aston Villa and West Ham (City’s last two opponents) that the Liverpool manager was writing off their chances of getting anything from those fixtures.

Manchester City A Point From The Title

“You can stick your Pelligrini up your arse” City supporters during last year’s FA Cup Final vs Wigan

“Pelligrini – This Charming Man” Banner at the Etihad during Wednesday’s match with Aston Villa

YaYa Toure scores his 20th - and best - goal of the campaign

YaYa Toure scores his 20th – and best – goal of the campaign

When Manchester City drew 2-2 with Sunderland on April 16th, it appeared as though the title was moving beyond their grasp as they sat six points behind Liverpool, albeit with an extra match still to play.  However, their 3-2 win at Everton on Saturday – where they came from 1-0 down following a stupendous strike from Ross Barkley that should secure him a place in England’s World Cup squad – and a 4-0 victory against Aston Villa, rounded off by a superb goal by YaYa Toure, on Wednesday have put City within a point of claiming the Premier League trophy for the second time in three seasons.  Nevertheless, it would be unlike the blue half of Manchester to do anything simply – just ask those who witnessed two late goals that saved them from almost certain failure: not just in 2012 when injury time strikes from Eden Dzeko and Sergio Aguero won them the title with a 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers on the campaign’s final day; but also in 1999 in the Second Division Playoff-final, when it was Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov who found the net after the 90th minute to force extra-time against Gillingham (then managed by current Palace savior, Tony Pulis).  Had City not managed to get out of the third tier of English football that year – they ultimately beat the Gills on penalties – then who knows what trajectory the club would have taken and if they even would have been candidates for the Abu Dhabi Group takeover in 2008.

Now, barring a 13-0 victory for Liverpool on Sunday (though they are playing Newcastle, so do not rule it out) a draw for City in their final match against West Ham secures for them the title, while Chelsea have been eliminated from contention and will end the season without a trophy following their 0-0 draw with Norwich at the weekend.  What Liverpool will have in their favor is that the West Ham captain, Kevin Nolan, was a boyhood fan of the Reds and would be motivated to help out the team he once supported by scoring a crucial goal that helps them win a championship; while Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll were both sent to East London from Anfield last summer and may be looking to prove their worth to their old employer. Read more of this post

Premiership Roundup – Chelsea Beat Liverpool But Knocked Out of Europe

Quick, get some help he's grabbing his heart…no wait, just his badge, Carry on

Quick, get some help he’s grabbing his heart…no wait, just his badge, Carry on

Chelsea and the Title Race

Last Sunday, Jose Mourinho was rightfully receiving acclamations from many sources for his tactics at Anfield that saw Chelsea end Liverpool’s winning run at eleven games as the Londoners triumphed 2-0, scoring their two goals at the end of each half.  While there was an element of fortune to the opener just before half-time – Steven Gerrard slipped in the middle of the field, allowing Demba Ba a free run at goal that he did not waste – the approach the Blues took to the game to cancel out the formidable attacking threat of Brendan Rodgers’ team was not lucky, rather further evidence of how well thought-out Mourinho’s game-plans are.  When Willian provided a simple finish from Fernando Torres’ pass in the final moments of the match, the Portuguese manager ran down the touchline thumping the badge on his chest to the Chelsea supporters and celebrated that they club were back in a title race that had been started to look all but over in the buildup to this fixture.

There was a less happy ending for Chelsea in Europe, as they bowed out of the Champions League on Wednesday following a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge by Atletico Madrid, this time the Blues were unable to protect a lead and were completely outplayed in the second half.  However, although people have been fast to jump on Mourinho – almost as quickly as they heaped praise on him three days earlier – the real story was just how good Atletico are this season, as Diego Simeone has led them to the brink of a La Liga and Champions League double.  In the final, they will play their cross-city rivals Real Madrid – ironically, the two teams from the Spanish capital will face off in Lisbon – as the pace of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Carlo Ancelotti’s men thump the reigning champions Bayern Munich, 4-0 in Germany.  While I still wish he had stayed at Spurs, I found myself rooting for and happy for Bale in making the final of Europe’s top club competition in his first season with Real, as he has proven that his astonishing form over the last couple of years at White Hart Lane.

Back in the Premiership, Liverpool’s defeat meant that, if Manchester City could win the rest of their fixtures, they would have the opportunity to claim the title once again on goal difference, should the Reds also take six points from their last two games but not overhaul an 8 goal deficit in the process.  In the first of those matches, City held their nerve to beat Crystal Palace 2-0 at Selhurst Park as they opened the scoring inside five minutes through Eden Dzeko, then doubled that advantage before the break with a fantastic goal from YaYa Toure, his 19th of the season.  Although they probably only need three wins to claim their second championship in three years, Manchester City still have a lot to do and their biggest test will come this weekend as they travel to Everton.  With three teams still having a realistic chance of topping the Premiership after 38 games, here is a run down of the remaining fixtures for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City:

Liverpool – 80 points +50 Goal Difference: May 5th – Crystal Palace (Away); May 11th – Newcastle (Home)

Chelsea – 78pts +43 GD: May 4th – Norwich (Home); May 11th – Cardiff (Away)

Manchester City – 77pts +58GD: May 3rd – Everton (Away); May 7th – Aston Villa (Home); May 11th – West Ham (Home)

So if everyone wins out, then City will almost certainly be champions but, if they and Liverpool each lose once, then Chelsea can take the title by taking the last six remaining points available to them.  All five of the three clubs’ home fixtures look like they will be relatively easy victories: Newcastle stopped playing competitive football in December; Norwich are useless and heading to the Championship; Aston Villa are not much better; and West Ham have nothing to play for other than Sam Allardyce’s job, which doubtlessly will be saved when he engineers a third victory over Tottenham this campaign on Saturday.  So the crucial matches will be:

Everton vs Manchester City – If they lose, Everton will be eliminated from the race for Champions League qualification, but even if they were to win then Arsenal will claim fourth the following day, should they beat West Brom, so the motivation for the Toffees could be decreased.

Crystal Palace vs Liverpool – All depends on which Eagles team turns up, the one that won five in a row to secure their place in the Premiership next term; or the one that did not put up much of a fight against Manchester City last Sunday.

Cardiff vs Chelsea – If Mourinho knows that a victory would secure the title (which would be the case if City and Liverpool lose the two games listed above) then I cannot see him allowing his team to mess up, but Cardiff are also fighting for survival and are not going to be an easy three points by any stretch of the imagination.

My prediction: Liverpool win both of their games and are Champions; Chelsea win both; Manchester City lose 1-0 to Everton this Saturday and finish third.  Read more of this post

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