Saturday, 30 May 2009

Rangers 1 Falkirk 0

Rangers won the 124th Scottish Cup final with a strike from Nacho Novo (below) just after Half time. His strike, a powerful, dipping shot at an angle from out side of the box, was one of the great Hampden goals and lit up a mostly tactical game. This cup win makes it an 18th League and Cup double, and Walter Smith’s 3rd double in his two terms as Rangers manager.

The score however masks the contribution Falkirk made to this game. Falkirk’s possession, and the extra man in midfield, caused serious problems for Rangers. So much so that Falkirk dominated the first half. They created 3 clear cut chances in the first half, however their failure to convert possession into goals cost them dear today.

Firstly Burton O’Brien had a shot from outside of the box go over. With 16 minutes gone Neil McCann, going for his 6th winners medal wriggled free of a challenge and hit the bar with a shot, his next chance was closer. 4 minutes later a cross from Barr probably came at McCann a bit too quickly, and he put the shot wide.

Rangers had to make changes, their central midfield pairing of Barry Ferguson and Lee McCulloch were being over-run. They did finish the half strongly by forcing a series of corners. For the second half, Rangers brought off Kris Boyd, and brought on Novo, and went to a 3-5-2. The difference was immediate as Rangers got their spectacular winner in the 28th second of the second half. Rangers then dominated the next 20 minutes as they then kept the ball. Lafferty was almost in for the second 5 minutes later, but Falkirk kept them out.

It was Falkirk’s time to make changes, and they brought on Higdon, Finnigan and Stewart. This pushed Rangers back into their box, as the chances started to come for Falkirk. Finnigan had a goal disallowed for offside, while with 8 minutes to go, a Lovell shot narrowly hit the post. Rangers were only just still on their feet when the final whistle went.

For Rangers, this was their 33rd Scottish Cup win. They are now one behind Celtic’s record. They can now afford to put this season behind them, with a sense of satisfaction. After last week’s championship win, Rangers go straight into the group stages of the European Cup, manager-less Celtic have to try and get in through the problematic preliminary rounds. There may be some issues still surrounding the Booze-gate 2, and this story might come to a conclusion during the close season. But by and large, this has been a good season for Rangers.

For Falkirk, the game was their season in a microcosm. They played good football, but like several of the teams at the bottom of the SPL, lacked the ability to convert good possession into goals. Their manager John Hughes was under incredible pressure for much of the season, part of the bi-product of there not being an outstandingly bad team in the SPL this season. Hughes has, somewhat unwisely, never hidden his desire to go far in management. After staying up, Hughes maybe contemplating a change in job. After all, after the departure of Mixu Paatelinen from Hibernian last night, there are now 3 vacancies in the upper reaches of the Scottish football hierarchy

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Not So Magic Roundabout

With the 2008/09 Scottish Premier League not even cold, the managerial merry go round started in earnest with the exit of 2 of its high profile managers in Jimmy Calderwood and Gordon Strachan. In their posts, their fortunes differed greatly, but there was always the undercurrent of unpopularity amongst the fans.

Calderwood was the first to leave his position, hours after his Aberdeen team had clinched European Football for the first time in 2 seasons. Calderwood had kept Aberdeen in the top half of the SPL for most of his time at Aberdeen. His best results were guiding Aberdeen to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup last season. However what infuriated Aberdeen fans was not the lack of silverware but the continued failure to generate cup runs. They have been knocked out of cups by Partick Thistle and Queens Park, and lost a cup semi final to Queen Of The South, after knocking out Celtic in a replay at Parkhead. Calderwood’s other cup semi in his time at Aberdeen resulted in a thumping 4-1 reverse at the hands of Dundee United. The last straw for many, including some of the Aberdeen board, would have been the loss on penalties in the quarter finals to Dunfermline.

Hours after their 2-1 win against Hibs, Calderwood and his backroom staff of Jimmy Nichol and Sandy Clark were bagged. For Calderwood, this might be his last big job in Scottish football. For Aberdeen, this is a chance to change direction. The most obvious candidate for the job is Motherwell’s Mark McGee. However, there are others who may be after the Motherwell boss.

Strachan left his position just over 24 hours after Celtic lost their first championship since 2005. Strachan won 3 Scottish Championships in a row, 2 League Cups and a Scottish Cup (in 2007). He also took Celtic to the last 16 of the European Cup 2 seasons on the trot (being eliminated by AC Milan and Barcelona respectively). Yet despite the glittering CV, the Celtic fans couldn’t wait to see the back of Strachan. Maybe it was his position as a prominent member of Alex Ferguson’s Old Firm smashing Aberdeen side a quarter of a century ago, or maybe his personality rubbed the fans up the wrong way. Either way (and it can’t possibly be because he wasn’t “Celtic minded” enough) it’s an attitude which mystifies.

For Strachan, a position with one of the Premierships middle teams awaits. Celtic on the other hand are at a crossroads. The handover from Martin O’Neil to Strachan was pretty flawless, despite the appointment being seen as an imaginative and left field decision. In order to pick up the momentum again from their rivals across Glasgow, they must make the right decision. Problem is, apart from the decision making process being in the public domain for the first time since John Barnes was bagged nearly a decade ago, there is not really an obvious candidate.

Mark McGee (him again) is Strachan’s choice as successor, while some of the newspapers have mentioned the West Brom and former Hibs manager Tony Mowbray. The former St Johnstone manager Owen Coyle ruled himself out of the running straight away. Then again if you’ve just taken your team into England’s top flight for the first time since 1976…

For both teams, who is picked to coach them next is the most crucial decision they will have taken for years. For Aberdeen, it could mean a change in direction. For Celtic it is likely to mean the breakup of Strachan’s team. Nakamura might be the first to go (he is likely to return to Japan), while this might be the summer where Boric wins that big move to one of Europe’s aristocracy. Whether this means the end of this period of 6 titles in 9 seasons remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Barcelona 2 Manchester United 0

The English Premiership is reputedly the best in the world, with their champions Manchester United supposedly at the pinnacle of their powers. Barcelona were missing most of their defence, and according to the BBC’s Alan Green were handicapped by having a clown in the shape of Valdes in goal. With such a set of overwhelming circumstances against them, how the hell did Barcelona win the 54th European Cup final?

It didn’t look good for them in the first 10 minutes when United absolutely pummelled the Barcelona defence. Cristiano Ronaldo had 5 shots on goal alone in that period. However the key moment arrived just 10 minutes in when Iniesta, making his first run at the United defence, passed to the Cameroon forward Samuel Eto’o, who danced around Vidic and struck a powerful shot. Van Der Sar could only parry it into the ground and into the net. From then on Barcelona took a firm grip on the game, and the writing was on the wall for Manchester United.

Barcelona won by playing what used to be called “continental” football, ie measured passing and possession football. It was this which killed the Manchester United game plan more than anything, as United struggled to mount any momentum. The midfield three of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta were fantastic as their possession and passing became the platform of the Barcelona performance. Xavi and Iniesta built on the plaudits they received when they were in the midfield during Spains European Championship win last year. Yet Barcelona didn’t really press home their advantage until the second half, when they created a flurry of chances with Henry, Eto’o and Messi all coming close. With 20 minutes left Barcelona won the game with a second goal.

Xavi on the Barcelona right put in an absolute peach of a cross, quite possibly the best cross of the season, and Lionel Messi headed the ball into the net (right), it was a strange header, slow but gave Van Der Sar no chance. That as they say was that.

Yep, Manchester United didn’t really turn up (first 10 minutes apart), and were quite obviously missing Darren Fletcher. However, there are not many teams who would have been able to have coped with the fluid multi-tempo passing. This type of team just simply does not exist in the harem-scarem world of the English Premiership.

Barcelona’s victory represented a return to the values of possession football, something which is non existent in this country. More than that, it represented two fingers at the dominance, and the playing style of the English Premiership.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Final Straight...

With 2 games to go in the SPL, everything is still to play for, but the question has to be asked if this has turned out to be a decisive night at the bottom of the SPL.

After the Old Firm game at the weekend, Rangers went top for the first time this year. However tonight’s draw with Hib’s has seen them fall back into second place on goal difference. Truth be told, it was a good point for Hib’s, they deprived Rangers of space behind their defence. They enjoyed a huge slice of luck when Rangers were deprived a goal, the officials were possibly unsighted. With 2 games only goal difference separates the two teams.

However not all the drama was confined to the top of the SPL. St Mirren fell to the bottom of the league after their 2-1 loss at Kilmarnock. Since the cup semi-final, St Mirren have shipped 7 goals in 3 games, with the majority of them coming from poor marking at crosses/set pieces. St Mirren have also suffered a dramatic loss of form at precisely the wrong time of the season. Inverness changed manager at the start of the year and have got the new manager bounce. Kilmarnock and Falkirk have also found form, Kilmarnock in the shape of Berti Vogt’s discovery Kevin Kyle.

St Mirren are odds on to go down, very possibly on Saturday at Falkirk, but the thing that might save them is the same complacency which crept around Greenhill Road since the 2-0 win at Fir Park 4 weeks ago. At the moment, it’s not looking good for the Bud’s.