Sunday, 25 May 2014

La Decima

59th European Cup Final, Estadio da Luz – Lisbon; Atletico Madrid 1 Real Madrid 4 (After Extra Time)

They do say that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and then as farce.  History certainly repeated itself tonight as Atletico fans turned the clock right back to 1974.  Now as then they were leading going into the final moments of the tie only for their opponents to equalize.  The difference from then is that Atletico’s collapse happened in the space of ten extra time minutes rather than in a replay.

Up until Sergio Ramos late late equaliser in normal time, Atletico had superbly marshalled Real’s attacks.  When Real did pierce Atletico’s defence, they were wasteful. Gareth Bale was the most wasteful, spurning three chances in normal time.  Bale wasn’t the only culprit, Benzema and Ronaldo struggled to get into the game during normal time but had limited success even when Atletico dropped out of the game in the last ten minutes.

Atletico had the best of a tight first half.  They started with Diego Costa, but that backfired as he had to be taken off after 9 minutes.  This meant that Atletico had to change shape to 4-4-1-1 as Adrian Lopez came on. Atletico’s pressing pushed Ronaldo & Bale further up the pitch as both struggled to get into the game.  Bale’s first fluffed chance, and the first chance of the match, came just after the half hour when he latched on to a missed pass from Tiago, jinked into the box and screwed his shot wide. 

Just after that Atletico scored.  An Atletico corner was cleared by Real, and then hooked back in.  Diego Godin’s looped header flew over Castillas and into the net – it was well over the line before Castilas clawed the ball out.  At half time, you would have thought that Atletico would have simply shut up shop.  Not a bit of it as they started the second half brightly – possibly this was down to a change in formation to 4-2-3-1.

The start of the turnaround for real came with the double substitution of Contraeo and Khedira for Marcello and Isco.  Real’s fresh legs in midfield allied to the tiring legs of Koke, Gabi and Raul Garcia tipped the balance of the game.  From here on in Atletico were pressed further and further back, and more and more chances came Real’s way.  A Ramos cross failed to connect with Ronaldo, Isco dragged a shot wide before Bale’s second miss – a Ronaldo lay off was shot wide.  His third miss came moments later when he fluffed his shot wide when maybe he should have squared the ball.

The last 10 minutes saw Real lay siege to Atletico’s goal in a desperate search for a leveller, with Atletico equally desperate to keep Real out.  With two minutes of the additional 5 minutes stoppage time remaining, Real got the breakthrough when a corner was met by Ramos (below), who headed the ball into the bottom corner of Atletico’s corner and just beyond keeper Courtois.

If Atletico were just clinging on for most of extra time, Real’s second goal – 10 minutes from the end of extra time – had the effect of draining any residual energy from Atletico’s legs.  Angel Di Maria – who was with Ramos the only Real player to perform in the match – went on a run down the Real left.  He cut inside two defenders and tried to slide the ball past Courtois.  The keeper made the save, but the ball looped up and was headed in to an empty net by Gareth Bale.
As Atletico tried to go forward for an equaliser, threy left space for Real to counter.  And they did.  Number three came when Marcello drove forward and shot low and hard and could only be parried into goal by the keeper.  The fourth came when Gabi tripped Ronaldo, who dusted himself down and took the resulting penalty.  The scoreline was as much of a reflection on the game as Ronaldo’s reaction to scoring the fourth in an already decided match.

For Atletico, maybe this is the beginning of the end of this cycle for them.  They will lose Costa during the summer, whether Courtois returns to Chelsea remains to be seen.  Whether they recover quickly will depend on whether they can keep their manager Simeone and as many of the other players as they can.

For Real the victory means that they have now claimed the fabled “La Decima” – the tenth triumph.  It was a strange triumph for them though.  They were clearly second best for much of the match, and only got going when changes were made to midfield.  It’s also difficult to place exactly where and how good this side is.  They have been good enough to be semi-finalists for the past four years, but not been good enough to get further until this year. 

With Barcelona not at the peak they were four years ago, and Bayern Munich still adjusting to life under Guardiola, Real’s chance has come.  Whether they can take advantage and re-enforce their new found place at the top of European Football remains to be seen. This victory does feel more like their victories in 2000 & 2002 (where they were among the best sides a Europe without there being a dominant team) than their 1998 victory (where they found themselves in the final despite not being one of the fancied teams and up against the team to beat at that time, Juventus).  We thought that Bayern would replace Barcelona as Europe’s dominant team.  Instead it’s Real’s consistency over the past 4 years that has paid dividends.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Europe's Premier Derby

Firstly, can I say how glad I am that Chelsea lost in the semi final of the European Cup.  Not because I’m not a huge fan of Chelsea’s “park the bus” tactics, their supremely arrogant manager or JT (because I’m not anyway).  No, you can thank Clive Tyldsley’s counting of chickens act during Real Madrid’s win in Munich, where he was already looking forward to Mourinio facing up against his Real successor and Chelsea predecessor Ancelotti a full 24 hours before Chelsea’s second leg against Atletico.  We do hope that ITV’s coverage of the European Cup Final on Saturday is prefaced with some humble pie scoffing, because Tyldsley was doing plenty of licking of lips that night…
Casillas with goalscorers Zidane & Raul at Hampden in 2002

Instead of Chelsea we have Atletico Madrid taking on their Madrid rivals Real on Saturday.  I did a blogpost in the run up to the Scottish Cup final between Hib’s and Hearts where I started by saying that most of the worlds derby’s have one high profile meeting, well I can’t think of anything that could trump a derby in the European Cup Final, even if there has only been 5 all Madrid Spanish Cup final’s.  Not only that, this will be the first time that the European Cup final has been contested by two teams from the same city.

In a normal world, Atletico Madrid would be favourites, given that they have just won their 10th La Liga Championship – done the hard way with a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou.  They did finish 3 points ahead of Real in the table, winning at home and drawing at the Bernabeu.  The only blot would be their 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real in the semi-finals of the Spanish Cup, but then that was revenge for Atletico’s win against Real in last season’s final.

For Atleti, much will rest on whether Diego Costa and Turan make it to the final.  Both limped out of Atletico’s league decider at Barcelona early on and have been in a race for fitness since.  Those two playes though are not the only key players in Athletico’s squad.  Koke was a key player in the quarter final win over Barcelona, while Courtois has been excellent for them in goal.  Surprisingly, they still have in reserve the experienced figure of David Villa – a key player for Barca during the high water mark of the Guardiola years. 

Falcao with the UEFA Cup after their 3-0 win over Bilbao in Bucharest
With all the success for Atletico, you wonder how long Diego Simeone will be staying in Madrid before bigger teams come a calling.  Simeone does have an affinity with the club, having been a key player when they completed the Spanish League & cup double in 1995/96 – before being sold to Inter Milan.  Interestingly for someone who played under Marcello Bielsa in the 2002 World Cup, Simeone’s outlook (if his quote about “socialist football” is anything to go by) is influenced by another former Argentina coach – Cesar Menotti - and his talk of "Left wing football".

Atletico’s biggest incentive to win on Saturday will be the thought that their first European Cup win would deny Real the fabled “La Decima” – the Tenth triumph.  Real’s holy grail since the final whistle blew on a rainy night on the south side of Glasgow 12 years ago (above).  Since then the Galactico’s project blew up, Real have regrouped and subsequently launched Galactico’s 2.  They smashed their own transfer record with the capture of Kaka, then days later obliterated it with the capture of long time target Christiano Ronaldo.  Flavour of the month attacking players have followed, but the next big capture was… er… long time target Gareth Bale.

Bale, French forward Benzema and Ronaldo make up Real’s formidable front line, with Di Maria and another ex EPL player Luca Modric providing the creative promptings from midfield.  Missing from the match, through suspension, will be another ex EPL player – the former Liverpool midfielder Xavi Alonso.  Isco will be favourite to deputise.  Where Real look weakest will be at the back with the eternally suspect Pepe partnering walking red card Sergio Ramos.

A lot of the focus though will be on Real Madrid’s attempt to win their tenth European Cup.  Their last victory came in 2002 with a 2-1 win over Leverkusen at Hampden – a match made famous for Zidane’s glorious volley.  Up to then Madrid had won three times in five seasons (a 1-0 win over Juventus in 1998 was followed 2 years later with a 3-0 win over Valencia).  Before then you had to go back to 1966 for their last victory, a 2-1 win over Partizan Belgrade.  Their sixth win (they won 5 in a row from 1956-1960) saw them given the old European Cup to keep.  The debut for the big cup with the big ears came the first time this match came to Lisbon.

Atletico have been here before though.  40 years ago they reached the final in Brussels when a last minute goal by Swartzenbeck cancelled out Aragones opener.  In the old days, the match went to a replay, so 48 hours later Bayern Munich swept aside Atletico Madrid 4-0 (left) to take their maiden European Cup.  It’s also forgotten that Atletico are aiming to emulate Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern Munich & Chelsea in winning all of the European trophies. Atletico won the second European Cup Winners Cup but had to wait until 2009 before they could win the UEFA Cup, a trophy they regained in 2012.  Remember as well that Real, for all of their nine triumphs, have lost at this stage.  They lost to Benfica in 1962, and to Inter two years later and most recently lost to Liverpool in 1981.

This will be the first European Cup final to be held at the Estadio da Luz – even though the pre-renovation stadium hosted the Cup Winners Cup final in 1992.  When Celtic won in 1967, the final was hosted at Estadio Nacional .  I think that unless Atletico have seriously ran out of steam, I think they can do it and win.  I take them to win 2-1 after extra time.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Substance Beats Hype Once Again

129th Scottish Cup Final, Celtic Park: St Johnstone 2, Dundee United 0

Going into this final, the pre-publicity was centred on Dundee United’s battery of exciting young players being pitted against St Johnstone’s young player of the year Stevie May.  Instead it was St Johnstone’s underrated players who prevailed, with May playing a key role without being the star performer.  Undoubtedly Dundee Utd were below par, but take nothing away St Johnstone got their tactics spot on.

St Johnstone were the better side of the first half hour of the game, though it took them 10 minutes to get a shot on goal.  May attempted to riffle in a shot from outside the box and then Dunne had a shot tipped over by Cierzniack.  Moments later Cierzniak kept out a snatched effort from Wright.  Ironic for what was to follow, Cierzniak looked more settled than St Johnstone’s Mannus who dropped a cross from Dow early on and also looked nervy at a kick out.

After half an hour Utd suddenly came into the match, Gunning had a header from a corner, but couldn’t put it on target.  They then put together their best move of the match to put Robertson in down the left, his cross was nearly flicked in by Gow only to see it come off the inside of the post and just miss the goalkeeper.  United were in the match and ratcheted the pressure to get the opening goal.  Instead St Johnstone opened the scoring just before half time (below).  A Wothespoon corner just before half time was headed in by the defender Steven Anderson, with the Utd goalkeeper Cierzniak missing the cross.  It was a bad error from the United goalkeeper.

Dundee Utd started the second half intent on looking for a leveller.  Their pressure brought a free kick outside the box.  Ciftci’s free kick looked like a goal…until it hit the underside of the bar and was taken by Mannus.  At that point it looked like this was going to be St Johnstone’s day, even more so when moments later May looked to have scored.  A cross into the box was bundled into the goal by May, only to be chopped off when the 5th official spotted that May had put the ball into the goal with his hand.

The game then opened up.  Wotherspoon had a run at Utd’s defence, but shot straight at Cierzniak. Sub Graham scuffed a shot at St Johnstone’s goal while Ciftci had a run & shot from just outside the box that was just wide.  With seven minutes left, St Johnstone got their second goal.  May ran at the Utd defence and attempted to bass the ball to MacLean, his pass deflected off a defender and fell into the box.  Both Cierzniak and MacLean went for the ball and MacLean got there first, hooking the ball into the net from a horizontal position at the second time of asking. Game over as ten minutes later St Johnstone were able to begin to celebrate winning their first major piece of silverware.

It has to pointed out that St Johnstone were excellent today, their tactics were spot on and, as Tom English pointed out on Sportsound, Tommy Wright seems to have worked out how to beat this Dundee United team.  Yes Stevie May wasn’t as prominent as we thought but we didn’t have a stinker.  Remember as well it was his pass that led to the second goal.  Certainly St Johnstone were much more solid at the back than Utd, a hallmark of Wright’s early time at Perth when they went on the run in Europe at the start of the season.

St Johnstone deserved the win.  What will take up a lot of time with the analysts will be Dundee United’s performance.  In short, they just didn’t play to their potential.  Rather like the highly praised Aberdeen side in the League Cup final this season, Dundee Utd did not perform on the big stage.  The big diference being that St Johnston played much better in their final than Inverness earlier in their final.  That’s not to say that Dundee Utd’s players froze, more that they played below par.  Passes went astray and chances were defended by St Johnstone.  They also hit the post twice. I’ve said this before but for all the praise heaped on to Dundee United, they are still very much a work in progress.

For St Johnstone, this final shows that while there are improvements still to be made it will be more important to keep hold of their players.  Advances towards May have already been rebuffed.  There may be more before the start of next season.  In the meantime, this final put’s to bed the lie that Scottish Football is boring and needs a ready made Glasgow based challenger to Celtic.  The truth is that Scottish Football finally looks in a slightly promising state thanks to emerging sides at Dundee United, Aberdeen and St Johnstone.  It could be that if these teams continue to develop, Scottish Football could be back at the stage where these teams were challenging Celtic for honours.  That would be much better state of affairs than the Old Firm driven transfer arms race.  In the mean time, this is St Johnstone’s day and they should enjoy it.  After all they have waited 130 years for a day like this.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Green Shoot's Final

There is a minority view that Scottish Football needs a revitalised Rangers to get back into the top flight of Scottish Football.  The rationale is that Celtic’s relentless marches to the championship have made Scottish Football boring. The problem with that argument is that Celtic are nowhere near as dominant as Rangers themselves were in the mid 90’s, if they were we wouldn’t be looking at, and be excited at, the prospect of another non old firm final this weekend.  This is the fourth since Rangers self combusted in 2012.  And all four have had what American screenwriters like to call narrative
Dundee United's Manager Ivan Golac celebrates with Brewster & Petric in 1994

Both of the cup finals this year have featured top six sides.  With Aberdeen beating Inverness in the drab League Cup final earlier on this season, Saturday’s 129th Scottish Cup final sees Dundee United attempt to win their third Scottish Cup in 20 years against a St Johnstone team in their first Scottish Cup final. 

Prior to their win against Aberdeen in the semi final, St Johnstone had reached 8 semi finals without any success.  The closest they had come to the final was taking Rangers to a replay in 1989 (a game overshadowed by events in Sheffield) and taking Rangers to penalties in 2008.  St Johnstone’s key player is Stevie May, Scotland’s young player of the year.  May has scored 20 this season, including a brace in the 2-1 win over Aberdeen in the final.  In that semi, he was partnered with Steven McLean who helped with a lot of the link up play from midfield.  The former Hib’s midfielder David Wotherspoon is expected to provide creativity from the middle of the park while at the back Dave MacKay will marshal the defence.

From the point of view of the other saints, there are three former Buddies in St Johnstone’s squad.  The one most likely to play will be Nigel Hasslebank, nephew of the former Leeds & Chelsea forward Jerrel “Jimmy” Floyd Hasslebank.  I would actually be surprised if he doesn’t make it to the bench at least, his pace could be crucial in the later stages.  As for the others, Paddy Cregg did come on at the end of the semi final and Chris Iwelumo is on the fringes of the team.

Dundee United are, well, seasoned pros at this game now.  They lost six finals (1974, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991) before beating Rangers 1-0 twenty years ago (As it happens the anniversary of that win is next Wednesday).  Since then they lost to Celtic (1-0 in 2005) in Martin O’Neil’s last match as Celtic manager before winning it again four years ago against Ross County.  United start as slight favourites for this match.  They do have an exciting crop of young players in their squad, with commentators purring over the potential of Ryan Gauld and Stuart Armstrong.  Dundee United’s main threat will come from Nadir Ciftci, but it is astonishing to think that MacKay-Steven (Arguably United’s best player last season) is still there.  The experience in midfield will come from the former Hib’s player John Rankin.
St Johnstone's Steve May equalises in the semi final win against Aberdeen

The other facet of this game not discussed is that both sides are managed by men in their first season at their clubs.  St Johnstone’s Tommy Wright was assistant to Steve Lomas last season before declining Lomas offer to join him at Milwall.  Dundee United’s Jackie MacNamarra had been carving a reputation for himself at Partick before Dundee United decided to part with their previous cup final winning manager Stuart Houston after initially deciding not to renew his contract.  Ironically enough Derek McInnes had also been touted for the Dundee Utd post before MacNamarra was appointed and McInnes took up the vacant Aberdeen job.  Both McInnes and MacNamarras sides have shown flashes of good football but have also shown that those sides are still, for all the plaudits, very much works in progress.

Dundee United start as favourites for this final, rightly so.  They are the better side going forward and have more options.  I do wonder if their inexperience will play a part as it did with Aberdeen in the League Cup.  If Dundee United do let their inexperience get in the way, then St Johnstone have shown themselves more than capable of taking advantage & they do have the best Scottish based marksman in their team in May.  His shirt saying “May 17” could be all too prophetic come Saturday teatime. Their marksman’s name is on the date, I also think their name is also on the trophy.  I think St Johnstone will win 2-1.