Sunday, 29 May 2011

Barca Come To The Four

56th European Cup Final, Wembley – London: Barcelona 3, Manchester United 1

Abidal lifts the European Cup for Barcelona
Two years ago, Barcelona – shorn of 2/3rds of their defence through injury and suspension - won ‘against the odds’ against Manchester United by re-inventing the concept of possession and through their re-interpretation of Total Football.  Barcelona won tonight by essentially taking that concept and evolving it.  Because of that, Barcelona laid claim to be the best European team since the great AC Milan team of 1988 – 1991, the team of Gullit, Van Basten & Rijkard (ironically the Barcelona coach that took them to their second cup win in 2006).  Were it not for Inter Milan’s defensive display in their semi final last year, we could well have been talking about Barcelona’s third European Cup in a row.

That’s not to say that Manchester United were helpless.  They could have learned from two years ago and played a different formation, instead of the 4-4-1-1 formation they started with.  As it was, like two years ago, from ten minutes in Barcelona swamped the Manchester United midfield and kept a stranglehold on possession.  Vidic and Ferdenand were often left marking nothing as Barcelona’s forward Messi constantly dropped back, took passes from Xavi, Iniesta, Pique or anyone else.

Like 2 years ago, United started brightly before Barcelona hit their strides.  Unlike two years ago, a goal did not act as the spark for Barcelona’s dominance.  Merly Barcelona just shifted up a gear as their movement and passing range kicked in.  What was surprising was that it took so long such was the dominance of Barcelona.  Messi put Villa in but was denied by Ferdinand after 10 minutes, then Xavi put Pedro Rodriguez in for him to shoot wide.  Villa and Messi also had chances before finally breaking through on 27 minutes.  Breaking at the United defence, Xavi put a pass through to Pedro on the united right who sidefooted past Van Der Sar – who maybe though Pedro would shoot.

Barcelona then sort of retreated into their shell a bit, maybe they wanted to hold on to what they had.  What happened next though was completely against the run of play.  Six minutes after Barcelona scored United picked up the ball down Barcelonas right, Rooney picked up the ball, 1-2’s with with both Carrick and  Giggs before fired a curling shot into the top left hand side of goal.  United went in at half time level pegging with Barcelona, having weathered the storm.  Little knowing that they were about to be blown away.

Messi Goal (54")
Second half and Barcelona went straight for the jugular.  Mascherano had a cross blocked.  Alves had a shot blocked by Van Der Sar, with the follow-up shot from Messi blocked by Vidic.  Messi didn’t have to wait long before getting his first goal on British soil since bagging a brace against Celtic in the last 16 of this competition in 2008.  A passing move outside the box between Xavi and Inniesta ended when the ball went to Messi.  He took a touch before unleashing a shot that flew past an unsighted Van der Sar.  Now Barcelona were intent on inflicting the coup de grace.  Messi had a shot against Van Der Sars legs, while Fabio injured himself keeping out a Messi back-flick, had it gone in it surely would have been new Wembley’s own Zidane moment.  Messi then ran past a couple of United defenders before having the ball taken off of him.  The clearance was fluffed, Busquets regained possession and  layed off the ball to David Villa who curled his shot past Van Der Sar. Beaten.  All. Ends. Up (though it should be pointed out as well that this goal, more than any others scored in this game, is a great example of the Barcelona/Spain ethos of pressing).

Game over!

In truth, Manchester United were lucky that their defence performed or else they would have been on the wrong end of a real hiding.  Ferdinand & Vidic were good at scrambling.  The problems came when Messi dropped into midfield and ran at the United defence, such was the dominance of the Barcelona midfield.  Maybe Ferguson picked his best team, I suspect that he should have started with an extra midfielder (possiably Fletcher?).  With a resurgent Liverpool, a trophy winning Manchester City on top of Chelsea and Arsenal, Ferguson will need to give some thought about how to approach next season. 

Barcelona have now won their fourth European Cup, their eleventh European trophy in all.  Their performances over the past three seasons have seen them raise the standards of European football.  In winning in such a dominant fashion, they have staked a claim to become the next great European club side joining such greats as the Real Madrid team from 1955-60, The early 60’s Benfica team, The Ajax team of the early 70’s, the Bayern Munich team of the mid 70’s, The Liverpool sides from 1977-1985 and the AC Milan teams from 1988-94.  Indeed, this Barcelona side is the best European team since that AC Milan side that contained Gullit, Van basten & Rijkard.

In among the hype now surrounding this team, to reach that level of legendary status, they need to retain this trophy next season.  However, they must be aware of Guttman’s rule (named after the former Benfica coach Bela Guttman, who won 2 European Cups with them & went on to win the Coppa Liberatores with Penarol).  He believed that there is a natural lifespan for a successful team/manager.  Guttman put that lifespan at 3 seasons. Pep Guardiola has been Barcelona coach for 3 seasons, whether he will and what happens next will determine whether this side enters the pantheon of great European club sides.  Their performance last night suggests that they deserve to.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Where It All Started

Barcelona Lift the European Cup at Wembley: 20th May 1992
For Liverpool, it’s Rome. For Celtic it’s Lisbon.  For Real Madrid, its Hampden, while for Barcelona supporters the place that has a special place in their hearts is Wembley.  Barcelona return there for the first time on Saturday since Koeman’s screamer broke their European Cup duck, intent on regaining the big cup with the big ears. In their way is a team which also has fond memories of Wembley.  On top of the 9 FA Cup’s won at Wembley, Manchester United also broke their own European Cup duck with a win under the old twin towers, back in 1968.

Both of these teams will be going for their fourth win in this competition, with recent wins in this competition, and against each other.  Manchester United won the European Cup in 2008, beating Barcelona in the Semi final. One year on, both sides met in the final as a suspension ravaged Barcelona upset the odds to beat Manchester United in Rome, accidentally setting the template for their 4-1-2-3 formation that has captivated the world.

This time around Barcelona are firm favourites.  Five of their key players took part in Spain’s World Cup win last year (Pujol, Busquets, Xavi, Inniesta & Villa), while leading the line will be the world’s favourite footballer Lionel Messi – who piloted the “false 9” position in the previous European final two years ago.    Everyone knows that Barcelona will play the possession football that won them huge plaudits two years ago, with Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Inniesta pulling the strings behind the front three of Messi, Villa and possibly Pedro.  Busquets will play as the holding midfielder.  One development from 2009 is that Javier Mascherano has been deployed as a recycled central defender since his move from Liverpool, while Dani Alves is free to make the deep runs that he could not make in 2009 (due to suspension). 

Bobby Charleton lifts the European Cup at Wembley: 29th May 1968
While Manchester United are not hamstrung by suspensions, there is the suspicion that the 2010/11 team is not quite of the same vintage as the 2008 or 2009 teams.  Possibly because of this, United have reverted to 4-4-1-1 for key games in Europe this season (opposed to the 4-2-3-1 of 2007/8 to 2008/9).  It is thought that Hernandez will start ahead of Berbatov, with Rooney deployed in the second striker spot.   Apart from that, not very much is known about the exact nature of United’s starting line up or formation.  They have played the 4-4-1-1 formation, but may push the wingers up field for a 4-2-3-1 on Saturday.  No-one knows, and Ferguson (taking part in his sixth European final) is certainly keeping shtum. 

In order to beat the team many people are acclaiming as the best club side since the AC Milan team of Gullit, Van Basten & Rijkard, Manchester United have to put pressure on the Barcelona midfield.  They have to make sure that the Barcelona midfield has little time or space to get their rhythm going.  Barcelona are masters at the art of pressing themselves, and will do likewise with United.  I think as well that a 5 man midfield (or variation of) will work better than a flat 4 man midfield.  With this respect, key to Manchester United’s chances will be whether the Scotland captain Darren Fletcher makes the starting line up, as he will give the base of the midfield some solidity – which lets not forget was lacking in the 2009 final.

I think that logic dictates that Barcelona will win.  However, I think that if Manchester United start brightly and score first, then they will have an excellent chance to repeat their triumph of 1968.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

After The Ashes

While England have had a very tough winter with a glorious Ashes series followed quickly by a less than glorious World Cup, this summer though not so glamorous will be as tough, if not tougher.  Later on in the Summer England take on the World Cup winners, and currently Test Cricket’s number one team India.  Before that, and starting on Thursday, is the team England deposed from the number 3 spot, Sri Lanka.  This summer will go a long way to showing how good this England team really is.

Flintoff & Muralitharan walk off after Englands win at Edgebaston in 2006
Sri Lanka arrive on the back of that World Cup loss in Mumbai.  They have not won a series in England since Muralitharan spun them to glory in a one off test in August 1998.  Since then, England won a series in 2002 & tied the 2006 series, both of these were at home while they won in Sri Lanka in 2000/1.

Key to any Sri Lankan success will be how their bowlers perform.  Since the Wold Cup, Muralitharan has retired while Malinga has gone from the test arena.  Long touted as the heir to Muralitharan, this might be Ajanthan Mendis opportunity to step up.  More likely given the conditions, is the prospect that one of the Sri Lankan pace bowler will have to step up and fill the shows of Malinga, and of an earlier vintage Vaas.  Looking to be the leader of the pack will be Dilhara Fernando, he has the most experience and has at least played tests outside of Sri Lanka. Marahoof has also played test cricket outside of Sri Lanka.  However, overall the Sri lankan attack looks lightweight and inexperienced in English conditions.

If the Sri Lankans should be worried about their bowling attack, their batting line up is in good health.  Their batsman/wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara is currently rated the third best batsman in the world, just ahead of both Jonathan Trott (4) and Alistair Cook (5).  Mahela Jayawardena (8) & Thilan Samaraweera (10) are also rated in the top ten.  The only other country with three batsmen in the top ten is India.

Not that Sri Lanka are the only team with places to fill.  Paul Collingwood’s retirement leaves a space in the lower middle order.  First up to audition for that role is Eoin Morgan.  Morgan got his place by scoring 194 in the Lions tour mach against the Sri Lankans. He has so far played 6 tests (playing in all of the tests played last summer), averaging 30.00.  He surprisingly edged out Ravi Bopara – who has a slightly better record in test cricket despite a nightmare 2009 Ashes series.

The bowling berths are also still to be decided, with maybe 3 out of James Anderson, Chris Tremlett, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn making the team.  Finn might be the favourite to drop out despite being the top wicket taker in the Ashes series when he dropped out of the England team.

England start as favourites for this series, and must win to consolidate their credentials as the best test team in the world.  However Sri Lanka’s win in their warm up match against the Lions at the weekend has shown that despite looking like having a lightweight attack, Sri Lanka have got teeth.  However, if England’s batting line-up continues the form shown in Australia during the winter, there will be only one winner.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Heading For The Sunlit Uplands....

126th Scottish Cup Final, Hampden: Motherwell 0, Celtic 3

 Celtic won the 126th Scottish Cup Final by overcoming the tactical problems set out by Motherwell, and in the end creating the quality of chances that their superior use of the ball provided to them.  The win was built on Ki-Sung Yeung’s 32nd minute thunderbolt.  Further goals came in the shape of an own goal from Motherwells Steven Craigan and a free kick from Charlie Mulgrew. This win extends Celtic’s record to 35 Scottish Cup wins, is Celtic’s first win in this competition since 2007 and halt’s Celtic’s trophy drought stretching back to the League Cup of 2009.

The game was played in constant torrential rain, the first rainy final since 2005.  As a result a lot of first half was not good.  Celtic had a chance within the first minute when Hooper had a shot that hit the bar, but Hooper was flagged offside.  That apart the first half hour became bogged down in a midfield battle.  Celtic’s Majstorovic was booked for showing studs in a challenge, as was Motherwell’s Lasley a couple of minutes later.  Hammel was clattered by the Celtic captain Scott Brown, who was booked.  Then Ki was booked for a challenge on Lasley, replays showed that Lasley had not been touched by Ki.

Motherwell had been good in depriving Celtic of space, but the first lapse from Motherwell cost them a goal.  Celtic moved the ball down the Motherwell left, the ball came infield to Ki-Sung Yeung who took a touch   before unleashing a shot that flew past Motherwell keeper Randolph.  A crackerjack of a shot, we have been lucky to see goals in the last three cup finals that have been great Hampden moments.   That goal was another one.  Within five minutes, we nearly had another.  Motherwell recovered, and broke forward.  The ball came to Galvin Gunning, who’s shot hit the bar.  The ball fell into space, had a Motherwell player been there, they would have had an excellent chance to score.

Ki's Goal 32nd Minute
For a season blighted by issues surrounding the standard of refereeing, it would be a surprise if we didn’t get one controversy.  Instead we got two as both Celtic’s Majstorovic and then Motherwell’s Craigan escaped bookings when both players handled the ball. Majstorovic handled at the edge of his area, and escaped a second yellow.  Craigan wafted the ball away with his hand.  Unlike Majstorovic’s offence, no free kick was awarded, I suspect that the referee may have been unsighted as subsequent replays showed that Jennings may have obscured the referees view.  The fates would have a much crueller punishment for Craigan,

The second half started brightly as Celtic pushed for a crucial second.  An Izaguirre cross was deflected away, while another cross fell to Hooper, who’s close range back heel was parried away by Randolph.  Samaras then drove into the penalty area only to fluff is chance, despite Hooper being in a better position.  Samaras did not have a good game, he looked disinterested most of the time.  Had he been engaged, Hoopers cross into the box midway through the second half into might have been met by Samaras.  At this point Motherwell were starting to get back into the game, so a second goal would have sealed the game.

Though Motherwell came back into it, they lacked quality possession and crucially someone to provide a bit of creative guile, to be the foil to John Sutton (who was tireless upfront).  This also meant that as the game opened up, Celtic began to get better quality chances.  Commons really should have scored when Brown put him through (pass of the day that one!) and he sped past Randolph only to have Hutcheson clear his shot.  That second goal was coming.

It came with 15 minutes to go.  Substitute Stokes passed to Commons who had ran into the box at an angle.  Commons passed back to Mark Wilson, whose shot took a deflection of Stephen Craigan and into the back of the net, despite the attempts of Hutcheson.  Game over.  To add insult to injury, Celtic claimed a third.  Stokes was fouled by Craigan just outside the box, Charlie Mulgrew hammered home the resulting free kick.

For Celtic, this will be the “what if” season.  What if they had won the League Cup in March, what if they had avoided defeat in Inverness three weeks ago.  I had questioned the logic of Celtic bringing in a rookie manager in the shape of Lennon, considering that rookie managers often fail (Graeme Souness excepted).  Lennon has shown that he is capable of being a good manager.  Yes he is annoying and irritating when talking about referees.  But deep down, we would like our own managers (and I am talking to those of us who don’t support one of the Old Firm) to be as combatitive as Lennon has been.  It will be interesting to see if he can take the next step, which is winning the championship and progress in European competition.

For Motherwell, they would like some managerial stability.  Stuart McCall is the third Motherwell manager in two seasons, Motherwell fans will hope his appointment will be longer term than Jim Gannon & Craig Brown’s tenors were.

So goodbye season 2010/11.  Not one that will be looked back with any joy & pride in future years, and one that leaves a very bitter aftertaste.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Last Shot At Glory For This Year

Saturday sees the last chance for football silverware in Scotland as Celtic and Motherwell take part in the 126th Scottish Cup final.

26 May 2007: Celtic's Last Scottish Cup Win
Celtic are favourites to win, having beaten Motherwell on Sunday 4-0 and having come so close to winning the Championship.  Celtic have had a very mixed season.  Their manager, Neil Lennon, has formed the basis of a good Celtic team, one that came within a point of the Championship.  However Lennon has become the most controversial figure in Scottish football.  The controversy surrounding refereeing in the aftermath of the first Old Firm game and a game at Tannadice (stoked lest we forget not by Lennon but by Celtics Chairman & Chief Executive) led to referees going on strike. The controversy obscured the fact that a debate on refereeing standards was overdue.  Lennon also became embroiled in touchline arguments at Tynecastle and against Rangers.

That Celtic came so close to the championship was unseen by myself, but their achievements this season should have been greater.  They lost the mental battle against Rangers in the League Cup, and could not summon enough mental strength to come back from 2 down at Inverness.  The one thing Celtic could do with next season to usurp Rangers is more mental toughness.  We will see if they have any reserves left to win what would be their first Scottish Cup win since 2007.

Facing Celtic will be a Motherwell side that have shipped goals since their semi-final win against St Johnstone last month.  It might be that Motherwell, under rookie manager Stuart McCall, are keeping themselves for Saturday.  One suspects that Celtic might still be favourites even if this were the case.  That’s not to rain on Motherwell’s parade, its just fact.  This will be their seventh Scottish Cup final, and history has not been kind to them against Celtic. They contested the finals of 1931 and 1933, Celtic winning both times (4-2 after a replay in 1931 and 1-0 in 1933).   

Motherwell next reached the final in 1939, beating Celtic 3-1 in the quarter finals, only to lose 4-0 to Clyde in the Final.  Their next final was in 1951, and yes it was against Celtic, losing 1-0.  Motherwell made the final the following year, and with Celtic exiting at the first round, had grounds for optimism.  On the 19 April 1952, Motherwell broke their duck and won the Scottish Cup for the first time, beating Dundee 4-0.
18 May 1991, Motherwell 4, Dundee United 3

It would be 39 years before Motherwell would appear in another Scottish Cup final.  When they did, they broke another hoodoo. In the Semi Final they were drawn to play Celtic at Hampden.  The first game finished 0-0, but 6 days later they eased past 4-2 making it a non Old Firm final with special resonance. The first time that two Scottish cup finalists were coached by brothers – Jim McLean was still managing Dundee United while Motherwell were coached by Tommy McLean.  Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of that final, which went down as one of the best Scottish Cup finals played.  Motherwell won 4-3 after extra time.  However any nostalgia is tinged with sadness as Davie Cooper & Phil O’Donnell, who played that day, are no longer with us.  Paul McGrillen & Jamie Dolan, who did not play but were in the squad, also died young.

Celtic are the clear favourites for this game.  However if Motherwell can shackle the Celtic forwards, frustrate them and most importantly score first, I think they will have a chance.  I’m not sure that Celtic perform at their best under pressure – as we have seen against Rangers (in the League Cup) and at Inverness.  The first goal will be the key factor.  I think that Celtic will win 2-0.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Irresistable Forces Meet....

While the destiny of the championship will be decided today.  The protagonists will face teams determined to make their own mark on the championship, teams who have been here before.

Rangers have won Championships at Tanadice, at Easter Road and even at Parkhead, but I am not sure that they have won a championship at Rugby Park.  Kilmarnock, who had an fantastic first half of the season before the departure of firstly Connor Sammon and then Mixu Pattelainen, stand in their way today.  Whether this is some sort of omen or not, but Kilmarnock have been involved in two of the closest championship races of all time.  In 1965, they won the championship from Hearts by beating them 2-0, a Kilmarnock win of 3-1 or 4-2 would have seen Hearts win the championship through the now disused count of goal average.  More recently Kilmarnock lost 4-0 to Celtic at Rugby Park, who lost toe championship to Rangers by one goal (Rangers won 6-1 against Dunfermline).

Should Rangers falter, Celtic will be waiting in the wings.  However their opponents Motherwell are scrabbling for form and might not want to give too much away ahead of their next meeting in next weeks Scottish Cup Final.  If Celtic are looking for inspiration, they could always think back to the events of 22 May 2005.  Celtic were leading the championship with 3 minutes left, Motherwell equalised and then scored a winner to leave the championship heading towards Easter Road, where Rangers had beaten Hibernian.  Both Lennon & Thompson played at Fir park that day, and will spend some time reminding his players of that day. Helicopter Sunday, as the day was dubbed, was the most dramatic last day turnaround since Hearts lost 2 goals in the last 10 minutes at Dens Park to spark celebrations among the Celtic fans at Love Street.

As I said previously, I hope that both Kilmarnock and Motherwell play a part today, and don’t get caught up in the hype.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Just Another Helecopter Sunday

Celtic’s event filled win on Wednesday night meant that once again, and for the seventh time in the last 20 years, the league championship will go to the last day of the season.  Whatever happens on Sunday the curtain will come down on the Rangers career of the Rangers Manager Walter Smith.  It could also bring a first domestic trophy for the Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

Lennon’s first season as Celtic manager has been a mixed one.  The Celtic team is now playing some good football, having been much changed from the Tony Mowbray led side from last season.  Yet for all of the good football that Celtic have produced, there have still been mistakes and lapses of judgement.  This Celtic team looks flakey at times, it lacks fortitude.  They should be ahead of Rangers and they should already have a trophy in the locker already.  Lacking fortitude is an old failing of Celtic teams.  Fortitude and Andy Gormam denied Tommy Burns one maybe two Scottish Championships. 

The other thing that has not helped Celtic this season is the attitude of Lennon himself, who has shown himself to be the most divisive figure in Scottish Football since Souness arrived a quarter of a century ago.  Whether it is losing it at Tynecastle in November, or railing against referees, Lennon has not really covered himself in glory.  Lennon cannot do that, and has to learn not to.  If anything because it does affect how the team plays, its no coincidence that Celtic were very shaky when they visited Greenhill Road – at the height of the referees controversy.  That’s not to say that he has deserved the bullets or the bombs or what happened at Tynecastle on Wednesday.  However I think that the events of Wednesday night have cemented Lennon’s position, no matter what happens on Sunday, as Celtic manager at the start of next season.

Rangers though are in the pound seat to win the Championship.  A point ahead, a win will see their first hat trick of championships since Smith’s first time in charge.  Smith’s sides have always been based on the foundations of being hard to beat allied with mental toughness; even the Laudrup & Gascoigne sides had incredible mental toughness.  That the championship is still up for grabs now is probably down to Smith’s know how and the fortitude he has instilled in his teams.  Not being able to bring in new faces has also helped, as the squad is now used to playing with each other.

I think Rangers will win on Sunday, putting the Championship out of the reach of Celtic.  I would hope though that both Kilmarnock & Motherwell have a say in the championship before the destination is revealed.

Penny For John McBeith's Thoughts

Aaaannnnd welcome back.  Sorry for the delay, hard drive crashed on me & I have been busy.  There has been an election on you know...

You might remember the strange case four years ago of the former SFA president John McBeith, who had to resign as FIFA vice president elect for some comments he made about certain FIFA delegates.  The damaging quotes were

"As soon as you hit Africa it's a slightly different kettle of fish. They're poor nations and want to grab what they can.
I know two or three whom I'd want to count my fingers after shaking hands with them.
I presume the Caribbean is much the same - they just come at it in a different way.
If I come across corruption I have to expose it. I must try to stay true to my beliefs and hope I don't get seduced."

The fate of McBeith came to mind on Tuesday during the testimony of David Triesman during parliament’s inquiry into the running of the FA and the botched bid the World Cup in 2018.  A testimony where Triesman named four FIFA delegates that he believed were seeking bribes.  Before that came evidence of McBeith’s synopsis of the rulers of African football.

The Sunday Times submitted evidence that claimed that $1.5 million was paid to CAF president Issa Hayatou and to Jaques Anouma by Qatar, supposedly in return for votes for their bid for the 2022 World Cup.  There were also claims that Qatar “employed” an African fixer.

However it was the claims of Triesman that garnered the headlines.  Two of the names, Nicolas Leoz and Worawi Makudi are new to people.  The other two people are not, for Triesman also named McBeith’s nemesis Jack Warner and Ricardo Teixeira the boss of Brazilian football.

Warner has form for these types of stories.  McBeith aleges that after Scotland played Trinidad in 2004, Warner requested that the Trinidad half of the receipts be paid to his own account.  There were stories surrounding the “proceeds” of Trinidad’s 2006 World Cup campaign and also there were stories about the contract for the sale of those World Cup tickets ending up with Warner’s son’s.  Teixeira might not have the same charge sheet, however he is the son in law of the former FIFA president Joao Havelange.

Whatever happens with this story, there is one thing that the English FA should ask themselves.  Why did they rush to suck up to these people so much?  After all, McBeith did warn us all what they were like.  It’s just I suppose that the English were so desperate to host the World Cup.