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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Liverpool progression with inclusion of Crouch

Saturday's win against Man City made for our 4th consecutive one, our 5th out of the past 6 games. Whereas we were languishing in the bottom half of the table for far too long, we now sit in 7th place, fitting for a side who'd began with a win and 4 draws out of our first 5 games. Bringing in new players who needed to adjust to residing nearer to Anfield, adjust to Liverpool Football Club, and then to the Premiership, coming after the Ataturk final win, the team needed time to gel. Expectations were understandably high, considering the European Cup, through a manager successful in Spain, and having eventually kept our captain and high member of the club.

Looking at our current squad, while others see the potential of a team capable of matching, if not surpassing, Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea, others are yet to be convinced of any sign of a team prepared to dominate in the same vein as the mentioned three have and continue to do. Slowly but surely, as I felt it would happen, Liverpool have emerged up the table, and so they should. It's still a question whether we will achieve a Champions League spot come May but it's certainly not impractical. Along with the presence of the top three, Spurs, Wigan, West Ham, Charlton, Man City made excellent starts to their seasons, Newcastle felt more vibrant with the inclusion of Michael Owen, a guaranteed scorer on reputation.

Our performances domestically have been superseded by that in Europe. In Europe it is the best out of six matches and if successful after that you do not face the other team from your group. Whether that has significance on the quality faced is debatable, but at home the level of expectation in competing in the Premiership is the same at all the other 19 grounds. Table positions may be a factor but as Chelsea found in 19th place Everton, positions can count for very little. So it is in this sense that Liverpool face stiffer opposition in the Premiership than Europe, with obvious exception to Chelsea.

In our first 6 league games we had scored 4, conceded 6; the past 6 league games we have scored 9, conceded 2. Our first win over Sunderland was not comprehensive, and following two no-score draws, earning a point at St Andrews and playing well to draw Chelsea in the Champions League, we collapsed heavily to them the Sunday after. Managing a win against Blackburn after that, we lapsed to a defeat at Craven Cottage and remained in London to visit Crystal Palace and bowed out of the League Cup, something that would have been nice to remain in and win but not a priority. Not a comfortable run of results for European Champions, but the belief was still there. Questions flew about either Liverpool not scoring, or why it was we were developing well in Europe more than the Premiership. We could have sunk into a difficult period, looking for a change of form to rise up the Premiership table. The main thing, for us fans as well as for Rafael Benitez, is that we were creating chances. If we kept doing that, we were halfway there in improving our scoring.

Four clean sheets and 8 goals later, we're looking more a defensive/attacking Liverpool with room for more improvement. The quality of the squad shouldn't have been questioned. Because we do not run away with results as expected straightaway, many consider our performances overall as stale. Less reported on the chances we create, more on the fact that we hadn't scored enough and often.

But now the media keep on the simmer, seeing Liverpool emerge up the table, and doing so without the goals from Peter Crouch. I had said when he was purchased that he wouldn't have been a buy for me, that Benitez had good plans for him in regard to the progress of the team, that even Harry Redknapp, who is renowned for churning out quiet players into good first-teamers, saw something in him. But because he is 6ft 7in and very slim or 'gangly', reporting on him as a potential striker for Liverpool as well as his chances for England was like taboo. Because he hasn't scored yet, he is scoffed at. 'He doesn't have lean muscles like most players and isn't as pacy as other strikers'. 'He is useful in the air because of his height advantage over most, if not all, players, but that seems all to his game.' Please note the inverted commas.

Yet when he came on for England against Columbia, he impressed enough. Against Austria, he played in Michael Owen on occasion, add good touches, good little headers. The same happened for him against Poland, Peter has always aimed to play well, for he knows the criticism he will get if he doesn't contribute enough into the game. And shortly against Argentina he played England safe defensively, a move that led to Joe Cole being found down the left and his cross scored by Owen, with Crouch there behind him, but he didn't get a mention in the match reports.

He can hold the ball, pass and has shown to have a nice touch skillfully, but the current flavour of the month is to point fingers at him, even though he has played quite well. Against Real Betis at Anfield, he came ever so close to scoring on a number of occasions, but little to nothing is mentioned of any writer's gut feeling that, playing as he did against Betis, Crouch must be nearer to scoring, yet more on the fact that he hadn't scored again. I'd prefer he came close than never at all, and he will score. MOTM awards have gone to players who have never scored before. Gone to players who have never scored but made numerous attempts in trying, as well as playing in other teammates, but Crouch will never get MOTM unless he scores. I would like to see Crouch have an excellent game, like he did against Betis, in the Premiership, without scoring, and see if he receives MOTM.

Another under scrutiny is Djibril Cisse. Mixed reactions around LFC fans, mostly in favour of the Frenchman staying at the club, which I agree with. Others say if he goes, it is likely because Benitez wants to bring in someone sharper, more consistent in scoring. There is less media spiel about his scoring and now more on Benitez wanting to release him. He is not interested in leaving, he has been chosen by France coach Raymond Domenech on his appearances for Liverpool and I do not see his World Cup place under threat when he has enjoyed scoring for France recently. While Liverpool's search continues for a suited right-winger, on occasion Cisse helps out and does good work in that position. I'm not content with it but it will do for the time being. Cisse will play wherever as long as he is effective enough for the team He takes comfort from the words of Thierry Henry, who told him while away with France, that he himself took time to settle with Arsenal at the beginning. I feel Cisse will stay and become better.

Lastly, Fernando Morientes. Perhaps another taking his time to adjust to the pace of the Premiership but he has an eye for goal, without any doubt. He will start scoring plenty when he is ready, as he has done so far in the Champions League, and needless to say played well for Real Madrid and Monaco. It is there for the Spaniard, only a matter of time.

Considering Liverpool's strikers have been noted for lack of scoring and we still manage to go up the table, then consider how we'll be when they do, and they will. Defensively, we are holding well (I still have scepticism over Hyypia but happy the Finn is proving me wrong), we have good attacking players, evident from the chances we create, and are winning. With new players, the task was to form well to add consistency to our game, which we lacked somewhat in our first 6, but during our last 6 that consistency has improved and can get even better.


Monday, November 28, 2005

Van Persie's grooved technique is the reason why he won't stop scoring

The signs had been increasing in evidence since the start of last spring's sunshine (at Ewood to be exact) : RVP's ready to explode.

I previously wrote about the 'signs' and the imminent 'explosion', and now its fantastically happening before all our eyes!

RVP has seen the return of Henry and is trading goal for brilliant goal with him. His excellent run and shooting technique for the final goal in Saturday's solid 3-0 home win against Blackburn must be seen by all fans of pure football.

RVP's technique is picture perfect, and the results are similarly breath-taking: the curve, pace, and accuracy with which he is placing his left-shots is thrilling.... and what's more, it is repeatable.

The great thing about RVP is that his technique is so flawless, and seemingly grooved, that he is able to repeat fantastic finishes. Even his penalties against Man Utd in FA cup final and Sunderland in Carling Cup are a wonder to behold: technique that is pure poetry in motion followed by unstoppable shots into either top corner.

And RVP does not just have the most awesome-looking and effective technique. He has pace, he can glide round defenders (and goalies' a'la at Ewood which was fantastic to watch!), he has a physical size and strength that means he won't be eaten up by powerful centre-backs, and he has a feisty edge to his temperament that means he will not go missing when up against teams that look more interested in wrestling AFC than playing football. Last of all, he is still only 22 yrs old.

Wenger is the best coach in the world that RVP can play under. His coaching techniques are proven to maximise the talent in individual players: Henry being the number one example. And I am convinced that if RVP remains focused he will thrive under Wenger's coaching just as Henry has.

The RVP/Henry partnership is effectively only a month old. They didn't even start together on Saturday, but for the third successive game both got on the score-sheet, and the latent potential contained within it gives me the confidence that there is much more of this 'double-striking' to come. I have also noticed from Henry's reactions that he loves what he is seeing from RVP... and anything about AFC that keeps Henry happy keeps me happy.

This is the partnership that AFC in the champs league has been lacking under Wenger's reign. With Bergkamp never available away from home, Arsenal have always entered away legs with Henry having to effectively play up-front all alone. Now with an exploding RVP to shoulder the burden, it is probable that both Henry and AFC will thrive with the presence of the young Dutchman.

For me, RVP is the story of this season so far for AFC... long may he continue to explode!

P.S. The outstanding Pires through ball for Henry's goal is yet more evidence as to why AFC should give him the length of contract he is asking for.

P.P.S. Last year TH deserved to be World Player of the Year. However, Mark Hughes (who had a vote as the present Wales manager) didn't even consider him worthy of any of his top three picks (Nedved, Makaay and Larsson?!) .... so its only just that Henry did the business on Saturday. His Cruyff-control-touch in full stride followed by outside of the foot bending shot would have torn down Highbury if it found its way into the net! What was Hughes thinking when he cast his vote last year?!?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Premiership Saturday review

On a day when the nation remembered and respected the passing of a legend, one who graced our pitches with skill, pace, determination, tenacity and guile that many were found desperate in attempting to keep up with, much less match, the kick-offs held either a minute's silence or a minute's applause, either of which were clearly appreciative. But not by a small minority. I believe someone was quoted as saying football had put up with this type of disrespect for far too long, and I concur. If those who jeered or booed during the minute wish to be disrespectful, simply stay away from those who do not, and stay away from where they wish to do so. If those same people wish to be disrespectful then there should be no surprise nor complaint when dealt with in a Draconian manner.

Rest assured if I had authority, those same minority would be identified and ejected immediately, perhaps for good. That goes for ALL, including any rumoured to have been attending at the City of Manchester stadium, purporting and identified as Liverpool supporters. Match of The Day last night showed footage of the respects paid from the Premiership grounds, bar Manchester City's, for the same reason. When paying respects, the club in question is and will ever be immaterial, the man was a great football player and that earned admiration from all connected to football. All.

Man City v Liverpool
It wasn't a great game, but Liverpool and City seemed to show little response in wanting to be in an advantageous position. Both seemed to match each other in the first half, but in the second we kept up our possession and commitment and manage to strike at City for a breakthrough through trademark John Arne Riise effort, something which has taken a long while to come from the Norwegian this season. This was City's 2nd defeat at home, out of 8 games, so going into this match I predicted it would be very tight for Liverpool to gain three points.

Aston Villa v Charlton
Alan Curbishley laments on the side's current away form and yesterday they were at 60% potential, Danny Murphy was on the bench, a far cry from the form that earned Charlton great heights at the season's beginning and an potential England call. Villa have become more tenacious in attack, and when you have Milan Baros defenders are guaranteed to be tested with a lot of running around. When the ball came over leading to the goal, Kevin Phillips clearly aimed to impede keeper Stephan Andersen but no appeal was made. Baros crashed his close effort against the underside fo the crossbar and it was headed out in the direction of Steven Davis, who chested and hit a nice left-foot volley past the keeper.

Sunderland v Birmingham
What the Sunderland players need is constant reminding they are playing for Sunderland AFC, a club with a passionate set of fans. The spirit that pushed them to the Championship title last season has faded and their adjustment to the top league may have been a step too soon for some players. The introduction of Walter Pandiani, Julian Gray and Jermaine Pennant in the 2nd half applied width on both sides with pacy players, and a striker's guile in Pandiani. Pennant had already crossed dangerously and no one got on to it, so when he did it again, Pandiani reacted with a header which Ben Alnwick got a hand to, Gray following up to score.

There needs to be more effort and push from Sunderland, I can't personally accept they will roll over and make way for the inevitable route to relegation, despite 5pts out of 14 games. Graeme Le Saux made an analysis of what and why on MOTD which seemed pretty accurate. On attack John stead is trying to beaver through but with little support. Wingers are not getting forward into vulnerable positions to deliver more accurate crosses, defensively they lack pace in Gary Breen and Danny Collins. Their midfield should be bursting blood vessels in creating and supporting the attack, taking the pressure of their defenders all the more. Their effort is there, rightly said by Mick McCarthy, but the belief in its application is missing.

Arsenal v Blackburn
Blackburn's most serious threat yesterday came through Craig Bellamy and from little else. The Welshman left Arsenal's defence on occasion, only to let down on his final finish through misses, Jens Lehmann or some quick defensive recovery. The mark of some wholehearted defending was to see Sol Campbell just lunge across the path between Morten Gamst Pedersen and goal, foot and leg making a strong barrier, foiling the Norwegian. Cesc Fabregas hit a nice curling side-foot effort, Robert Pires sent a lovely through ball for Thierry Henry to take first time, Robin Van Persie comes off the bench to twist up Michael Gray and Robbie Savage, defies Savage's attempt to deliberately foul him and sends another left-foot flash into the net from a restricting angle.

It was ironic for Mark Hughes to slap the ball out of the hands of Arsene Wenger, as if to show the Frenchman was taking up time, when Stephen Reid held on to the ball last week. It was equally ironic that when remembering the days of Best, when hard knocks were part and parcel of the game, Savage receives a faint hand stroke from Jose Reyes after a choice of words to the Spaniard and then turns to look to see where the referee was immediately before clutching his face.

Portsmouth v Chelsea
Joe Jordan should remain in charge for the season. The players are familiar with him, the backroom staff remain, coaching staff remain, and Milan Mandaric is saved the effort of chasing another for the next six months. Or the chairman will pursue for someone he believes can bring Portsmouth further from the brink of relegation. I think Jordan can do that as well as anyone else who is available. Jordan needs the talents of Lauren Robert, providing the Frenchman is behaving himself, and Lomano LuaLua, both are key to Portsmouth's cause. Also strikers Dario Silva, John Viafara and Zvonimir Vukic need to get scoring otherwise they are wasting time at Fratton Park.

Considering the above, Portsmouth were quite unfortunate. Paulo Ferreira's shot seemed to go off target until Hernan Crespo was allowed to move and intercept, directing it in. He was onside. Joe Cole became more troublesome in the 2nd half, leading up to Dejan Stefanovic's foul on him in the box, Frank Lampard crowned his record 160th consecutive league appearance by scoring the penalty. Otherwise Portsmouth gave Chelsea good resistence and a testing time.

Wigan v Spurs
Two consecutive defeats at home and Wigan are looking at a slump. I don't really think so but Paul Jewel reckons the MOTD 'experts' will, but they didn't. I think. I can't tell if Mark Lawrenson is being sarcastic or straight-forward. But Wigan are 3rd, and as Jewel said, if anyone was offered 3rd place before December it wouldn't be turned down, particularly from a newly-promoted side. Individual mistakes may have cost them yesterday but they can happen to the best, though it was unusual for the usually focused Arjan De Zeeuw to mis-read the ball that gave Robbie Keane the chance to score. Mike Pollitt should have stayed level with Keane to clsoe him down rather than aim to kick out, Keane comfortably beat the keeper to the ball.

Edgar Davids had to score some time, when Michael Carrick plays a defensive midfielder alowing the Dutchman to advance. Good run and good finish. Lee McCulloch gained a late consolation at the far post.


Friday, November 25, 2005

The departure of the Best of the best

Old Trafford have had the depature of one legend questioned this month. For another, there is simply no question, no doubt, instead tribute to the passing of George Best. I would value Best as one of those who could grace the pitch alongside Johan Cruyff, Pele, Maradona, Marco Van Basten, there are few who can. Players who had no fear but talent, could excel against any in the world, taken their share of knocks and tackles and still get up, which puts many, many of today's players way, way down in my respect, those who fall to the ground from the most slightest or tedious of contacts. Those very players should review the days of Best, when football boots came in one colour, footballs were heavier, and shinpads were worn like eskimos have fireplaces.

Discovered when he was 15 in East Belfast, Best played his first game against West Bromwich Albion at 17, help lead Manchester United to the league title in 1965 and 1967, scored in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica at Wembley which put United towards a 4-1 victory (the first English side to win the Cup), and was named European Player of the Year during the same year. Best made 466 appearances for United, scoring 178 goals. He made 37 appearances for Northern Ireland, scoring 9 goals.

United's manager at the time of Best's arrival was Sir Matt Busby, who left Old Trafford in 1969. Tommy Docherty was the high profile name to take over after Sir Matt, in 1972, saving United from relegation. Yet in 1974, Best and Docherty clashed, leading to the Irishman's exit from Old Trafford, the same year they were relegated. That was the end of an unique legend at Manchester United.

"Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life." - George Best.

"I think I've found a genius." - Manchester United scout Bob Bishop to Sir Matt Busby on discovering Best, in the streets of Belfast praticising with a tennis ball.

We have now lost him.

While Best has been well documented largely for his alcoholic consumption, EFT refer to the man known as the 'Fifth Beatle' for what he gave the football world. Best's physician at Cromwell Hospital, Professor Roger Williams, said he would be surprised if Best survived another 24hrs. Best died 23hrs 55mins after that statement. He has been arranged for burial beside his mother in Belfast, Saturday 3rd December 2005.

I convey EFT's thoughts and condolences to the Best family and friends after what has been a terrible moment for them all, received as inevitable and yet still incredible in his passing.

George Best, football legend
22nd May 1946 - 25th November 2005

Monday, November 21, 2005

Weekend Premiership action

Wigan v Arsenal

T has written on this game, with particular praise for Wigan and their approach, and I concur his thoughts. I was confused on the rule regarding the quick free-kick. Clearly against Chelsea last season Graeme Poll allowed Thierry Henry to take it quick and he scored; Saturday, he decided against the quick taking, leaving Henry, and myself, slightly bemused as to why. Still, the free-kick was executed by the Frenchman, but what is the rule? It is left up to the referee's discretion?

Spurs v West Ham

Something told me this wouldn't be an away win, more a home win. Yet while West Ham defended against pressure, they were not being executed by Spurs' finishing, found wanting on many occasions. One fan was heard saying they need to pick up on finishing teams more often, Martin Jol echoed those words by stating it wasn't Spurs' day. The thing is if you fail to finish off good chances, the risk increases that you will pay for it. Considering current form, Spurs were to edge this match and worryingly Jermaine Defoe is not scoring, much less consistently, why he managed to only have 10mins or so coming on.

To the West Ham fans chanting at Ahmed Mido, are you now looking to revert to racist chanting? Mido was subjected to racist chanting connected to his Muslim faith. Football fans are better than that, it's had it's day, it's illegal and very tasteless. The Spurs fans applauded Teddy Sheringham.

Liverpool v Portsmouth

From my POV, excellent for Liverpool to finally emerge into the top half after such a while. We are still yet to find the current form we deserve, with the players we have, and so far it is looking very well and still some way to go in the league. We performed as expected against a side who have found their defence and forward line weakened with the departures of Arjan De Zeeuw and Ayegbeni Yakubu and minus their impressive skipper Dejan Stefanovic. Time will come when Peter Crouch will score, the striker needs to avert the media's attention elsewhere and focus on playing, get early into positions and snatch at opportunities, and he will. Nice for Cisse and Morientes to continue to add to our goals, the Spaniard scored for Spain in the break, which lifted him all the more.

It is harsh for Alain Perrin to be given the Anfield game and subsequent games to change things around. Milan Mandaric couldn't have chosen a tougher run of matches to form a miracle from, with Chelsea at Fratton Park next and then Man Utd and Spurs away. Portsmouth do not have a consistent scorer as they did with Yakubu, Lomano LuaLua received little to attack with, Robert wasn't active enough, and it seemed they were not in good shape mentally to come at us as they have done in the past. If they utilise Richard Hughes and Gary O'Neil in central midfield, LuaLua and Lauren Robert wide, Matt Taylor supporting behind the forward man, Stefanovic and Linvoy Primus at the back, it will provide a better shape.

Sunderland v Aston Villa

Difficult to analyse Portsmouth's answer, here it is practically impossible. Sunderland began the season against Charlton at home and should have given better resistence then, instead of gifting Darren Bent too much space. No one is prepared to step forward enough to pressurise the opponent's goal and teams are given time and space to come at them. Surviving 0-0, they seemed to capitulate in the second 45mins and almost completely from the same area, Kevin Phillips and Gareth Barry scored easily when the ball came across behind the defence. They miss Julio Arca's invention and loanee Anthony Le Tallec seems the only player with the potential to score. Dean Whitehead hadn't played enough to deserve taking the ball from John Stead, who himself didn't deserve the penalty, providing little consolation for the North East side. Unfortunately, I cannot see any progress for Sunderland, which is hard to imagine given their best performance against Middlesbrough.

Middlesbrough v Fulham

This was a game that played below Premiership standard in the first half, the only enlightening point being Collins John's goal, well taken. Constant squandering of possession from both sides made it frustrating to enjoy even for a neutral in me. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Yakubu threatened with the strength and pace but the end effort was lacking on a number of occasions. But come the second half Boro kept up their persistence as Fulham dropped their focus and this allowed the home side back into the game twice and then go on to win it.

I felt Boro's 2nd goal was legitimate and while the work rate of Moritz Volz and Steed Malbranque stood out the most in the West London side, they held little innovation going forward, with squandered possession accompanied by the number of slips onto the grass while attacking, meaning they only made an impact in the 2nd half from a set-piece. Had Luis Boa Morte been playing he would have made more of the possession Fulham had, particularly in the 1st half.

Chelsea v Newcastle

I wondered if the international break would hit Chelsea more than Newcastle. Coming down to Stamford Bridge without Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, Newcastle still provided a gutsy approach through Shola Ameobi's presence. What was Claude Makelele doing with his foot so high??? Replay showed he looked at the ball and then sensed Scott Parker coming forward and aimed his foot at him. Nonetheless, he came off the worse, with Michael Essien replacing him. Didier Drogba suspended, Hernan Crespo had a chance to shine after the international friendly. So did Eidur Gudjohnsen, ahead of Essien.

While Newcastle have added to a sturdy midfield and forward line, their defence is very questionable, the central partnership of Titus Bramble and Jean-Alain Boumsong needs to sharpen up, considerably. They miss Stephen Carr, all of which left Shay Given with little chance against Chelsea's goals. Crucially without Shearer and Owen, they fared very little against a renowned Chelsea back line. If Shearer finally quits and Owen becomes unfit too regularly, Graeme Souness may have to rely on his midfielders for goals.

West Brom v Everton

To think Everton would come away with a point seemed the least of probable results as they enjoyed a draw against Chelsea and two consecutive wins against Birmingham and Middlesbrough, whereas West Brom lost their previous three. But as people questioned Nathan Ellington's arrival from a side now currently Chelsea's best rivals for the title, and his scoring rate of 0, the striker came good twice to coincide with the birth of his baby. His and Albion's first came from a very dubious penalty decision, Tony Hibbert making contact with Ellington clearly outside the box, the right-back even had his feet in position, in good view of Dermot Gallagher. A cool penalty followed.

Everton followed with some good attacks, seeking the equaliser but come the 2nd half they were snuffed out when Neil Clement headed in and Ellington completed a brace with a left foot curling finish low past Nigel Martyn. The usually reliable Kevin Kilbane compounded the woe as he awfully passed back to David Weir, the Scotsman had no chance as the pass went by into empty space and Robert Earnshaw's pace set him up for Albion's 4th.

Man City v Blackburn

Man City are very stubborn to get a win over at the City of Manchester Stadium, ask Sam Allardyce. One defeat and a draw is all from 6 home games, so Blackburn, coming from a 4-2 finish last week, still had their work cut out for them. Despite the majority of the attacks going City's way, they couldn't penetrate Blackburn. It was a non-eventful score draw, the highlight of which was Stuart Pearce. With his attitude he is a prime candidate for England coach by the time Sven Goran Eriksson relinquishes the role. Steven Reid held onto the ball for too long in Pearce's opinion and after attempting to get the attention of ref Martin Atkinson to the issue, Pearce simply sprinted on towards Reid to get the ball, with Reid duly and quickly obliging before Pearce could get to him. Later, a free kick was given to Blackburn and as it seemed they were taking too long to set it up, Pearce came on again to pick up the rolling ball and place it where it should be, to the smiles of Robbie Savage. Atkinson came over for a quiet word, which Pearce respected.

Charlton v Man United

I would estimate Arsenal and Man City would be pleased at Roy Keane's departure from OT for good. Well, practically anyone not connected to the club. But where there were questions regarding the shape of the squad as a result, they were answered well at The Valley. I question Ruud Van Nistelrooy's leadership, but he is the appropriate person in Gary Neville's absence. Wayne Rooney provided enough supporting play for VNR, when he emerged into the box to flick across for the Dutchman to chest and turn then volley in. Great goal. Two in a row, the consistency will be monitored with immense scrutiny by the media.

Keane surely wouldn't come back in the Premiership, and that would rule him out of the Championship too. If Celtic prefer a wage cut to sign him, it could well happen. Currently, talk says Juventus are interested. Tying him up alongside nemesis Patrick Vieira?!? He maybe able to play for a further 5 years, the Italians appreciate veteran players more than the Premiership, and his desire for the game would be an asset to any side. But I can't see it.

George Best:

Legend George Best enters into a critical 24 hr period in his battle against a lung infection, a second setback coming after the development previously of a kidney infection. It's critical in terms of his survival and the consequence on his health as a result. Needless to emphasise EFT's wishes to him and his family and friends during this critical moment.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Wigan have impressive qualities and deserve greater recognition

Wigan hosted Arsenal yesterday lunchtime and put on a proud display of relentless hard running, team unity, strength, pace, skill and desire. I was really impressed by what I saw from a team that I had dismissed at the start of the season… in retrospect because of ignorance of the extent of their attributes.

Wigan lost 3-2 but this was a case of a team losing, but also winning at the same time. They started the better team only to be hit by two counter attacking goals of the highest order; one from RVP after a supreme control and pirourette around one of the Wigan centre-backs followed by decisive run towards the box and low hard finish, the second a clinical low finish into the far corner by Henry after a perfect through ball from Francesc.

This is when Wigan showed the excellent character which has propelled them to an amazing second place in their first ever Premiership season. They didn’t put their heads down; instead they kept on coming at Arsenal and pulled one back from a set piece free kick: Baines lifted the ball into the box, De Zeeuw headed it back across the goalmouth, and Camara showed a good stikers instict by flying low across the ground and heading it in.

Wigan regained their early momentum and were looking threatening before Henry's inch-perfect 32 yard free kick in the 41st minute: Andy Gray then remarking that 'world class' was not appropriate to describe TH… he was 'universal class!'. But again Wigan didn't lie down. Pascal Cygan this time woefully at fault (and not for the first time!!) as he got sucked out of his left back position into the centre of the pitch where he first failed to clear the ball despite reaching it marginally before the Wigan opponent, then failing to charge back into the left back position which was exploited by the persistent and impressive right midfielder Jimmy Bullard, who used the space to optimum effect and blasted the ball home past Lehmann.

So the half-time scoreline was 2-3, and everyone watching the entertainment- either at the JJB or at home on Sky- should have been thoroughly impressed by the Premiership new-boys.

The second half saw no goals. And although Arsenal had a greater control of possession, Wigan still showed team unity, fighting spirit, and good skill to keep the Gunners' on their toes. I was impressed by the front play of Camara and Roberts: who possess fearsome attributes of pace, power, and determination to surpass the vast majority of strike-partnerships in the Premiership. The four midfielders of Bullard, Francis, Kavanagh, and McCulloch are never-say-die players who attack and defend as a formidable unit. And once again Chimbonda was outstanding in supporting Bullard down the right-hand side: they definitely won their dual with Ljungberg and the catastrophic Cygan.

The great thing about the Wigan performance yesterday is that it's their norm, not their exception. They played with similar spirit on the opening day of the season against Chelsea, only to lose to an injury time curler by Crespo. They then lost 1-0 at Charlton, but since had gone on an unbeaten run of 10 wins and one draw in the Premiership and Carling Cup combined... which came to an end yesterday.

Despite this defeat, Wigan did impress me a lot. They possess a lot of qualities, and decisively show more hunger for the game than I have seen from most other Premiership teams. I personally look forward to seeing more of their matches over the rest of the season.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Roy Keane Exit - An Appraisal

T has questioned the role of the Glazer's in the exit of Roy Keane. I have no doubt in my mind that this parting of ways by "mutual consent" has nothing to do with the Glazers and everything to do with Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson's relationship having totally broken down. There has been an increasing tension between the two for several months if not for the past couple of seasons. Formations, transfer dealings and Queiroz's influence at the club have become huge obstacles between the two. The recent MUTV interview was, as T says, the straw that broke the camels back. And despite Keane's status, Ferguson is still all powerful - so Keane goes.
Besides, the Glazer's have absolutely no interest in the playing side of things at Old Trafford (where were they for the Chelsea match?) and even less so the dynamics of player/manager relations.

So T, this was definitely Ferguson's call - so I dont think this will influence his deceision to stay at United beyond the end of this season. If he had his way, he would be at Old Trafford for the next 5 years. The only way he will leave at the end of the season is if he is forced out because of another trophy-less season.

Redsman, in answer to what happens next - I agree that Gary Neville should be made the next United captain. He is one of the few players currently at United who has as much hunger for success and passion to win as Keane. Its time Neville's nickname changed from "Scargill" to skipper.

As for Ballack - his signing has become an absolute imperative. This is not as a replacement for Keane - they are completely different - but because without Keane United are in need of a talisman. Ballack, like Keane commands, respect and exudes a winning mentality. Its this that United have been missing and will miss even more without Keane.

But Ballack will not join United mid-season and in fact I believe he will move to Real, Barca or Ac Milan ahead of United. With the current status quo at United, leaving Bavaria for Manchester would be a step down and it hurts me to write that.

Keane will be sorely missed at United (see my laughable attempt at a tribute "poem" below), and I knew that he would not be wearing the red shirt next season - but I only wish that his deparure from United had been less acrimoniuos because his was a glorious career at Old Trafford.

Roy Keane: A tribute to the greatest gladiator to have graced the modern game

Keano, when you first stepped into our theatre,
you took to the stage to ensure victory as if you cared for no other matter;

Keano, your passion, your determination, we will always love and cherish,
this admiration no other player in the world will accomplish;

Keano, from your very first season you elevated us to an exalted status,
now with you gone who will inspire us?

Keano, even your dark, dark side we learned to endure,
because you were our fooballing knight in shining armour, our saviour;

Keano, nobody will ever forget your contribution over the past dozen years,
when we won the European Cup, most of our appreciation was for you, do you remember our cheers?

Keano, you will agree that things have moved on and we need to rebuild,
we must create a new team, a team fitting for the staduim that for so many years you have thrilled;

Keano, you will always be revered, you were our modern day gladiator - farewell RK16

1999 Intercontinental Cup Winner
1994 Premiership Champion
1996 Premiership Champion
1997 Premiership Champion
1999 Premiership Champion
2000 Premiership Champion
2001 Premiership Champion
2003 Premiership Champion
1994 FA Cup Winner
1996 FA Cup Winner
1999 FA Cup Winner
2004 FA Cup Winner

Big questions arise as Keane leaves Man Utd

In the past hour Roy Keane has officially left Man Utd after 12 years service at the club. Age and recurring injuries had diminished his effectiveness on the pitch. A MUTV interview a couple of months ago stating he may leave in January inferred that everything was not stable in the relationship between himself and Man Utd. And it now seems that a later MUTV interview made a couple of weeks ago- that was censored by MUFC officials because it is alleged he attacked younger teammates- is the straw that broke the camel's back.

I'd personally like to know if the Glazer's put their foot down over Keane's behaviour and were instrumental in Keane's departure today? And I'd also like to know why Keane gave an interview that amounted to damaging the mutual trust and confidence between himself and the rest of Man Utd? Was he merely looking for a reaction from his teammates, or was he trying to force his own departure? It certainly seems that he was not at all happy with things going on behind the scenes.

And how does Ferguson feel about the way Keane has left the club? With his right-hand man going, will Ferguson now begin to contemplate leaving sooner rather than later... perhaps at the end of the season?

The answers to these questions may not be known for some time. In my opinion, Man Utd do owe a responsibilty to its fans to be transparent about why Keane has left with immediate effect. But I'm quite sure the party line will be 'it's just business as usual'...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Should Switzerland qualify for the WC2006?

It's a hard question. Speaking after the tunnel trouble at the end of the play-off in the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, amid scenes of a melee just inside the tunnel entrance, I question the lead-up to the game. Turkey supporters chanted abuse at the Swiss team as they arrived in Istanbul, a banner held up read 'Welcome to Hell', and a 2-hour delay in the airport seemd to be aimed at unsettling the Swiss.

This can be seen as a reaction to The Turkish Football Federation complaints after the 1st leg in regard to the Swiss fans booing the Turkish anthem, security officials shouting at the Turkish players, and coach Fatih Terim denied access to the post-match conference. A Swiss security spokeswoman claimed Terim was asked to wait 2 minutes until coach Jacob Kuhn finished answering questions, and subsequently stormed off.

The TFF called on their supporters to show no reaction to the complaints and instead support the side to win the game and qualify. After what turned out to be a superb match with 6 goals, afterwards tempers and tensions flared. TV replays clearly showed Swiss midfielder Benjamin Huggel lash out with his right foot at a Turkey staff member, who didn't retaliate, and then immediately Turkey and former Aston Villa defender Alpay equally lashed out at Swiss forward Marco Streller, who didn't retaliate. Huggel then grabbed Alpay around the neck, both players falling to the ground amidst a crowd of people inside the entrance. Deplorable scenes. Swiss and Auxerre defender Stephane Grichting received an injury to his scrotum that resulted in internal bleeding and the necessity of a catheter, recovery expecting to take 10 days.

FIFA are to hold a meeting on the incidents this morning, which thankfully led to no crowd trouble and therefore no casualties or fatalities. Word from the Swiss camp stated Huggel was acting in self-defence, which seems very contradictory looking at the footage. It sounds draconian to suggest, but such scenes should follow explusion from any competition for any team involved in such a manner. A play-off between Norway and Slovakia should follow, the winner taking the place of the Swiss.

Switzerland coach Kuhn: "It is a scandal. I have never seen anything like it. No one has every seen anything like it."

FIFA President Joseph Blatter: "I can tell you this, not as a Swiss, but as the president of FIFA, that we will act here and we will act tough."

Well done to the Socceroos and the Trinidadians, who both secured their first entrance into the World Cup. Australia haven't featured for over 3 decades. The Czechs and Spaniards secured their places with well-earned performances from their respective 1st legs.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Who would you select in best ever Gunners' XI?

GunnerPete emailed me with this question and the suggestion that it should be put to Arsenal supporters everywhere.

GunnerPete has been supporting AFC since 1948, so his own selection of Gunners' greats is based on a depth of knowledge that is both immense and impressive. His 4-4-2 selection (and reasoning behind each pick) is:

Howe_McLintock_Adams__ Hapgood

Jack Kelsey....he was without doubt the greatest commander of a penalty area I have ever seen, and you have to remember that during his time we had some of the worst defenders in our history. I genuinely believe that Jack kept us in the first division almost single handed a couple of seasons. I was lucky to meet him many times after he retired, because I was working at Finsbury Park & he was running some early fund raising scheme. He was so modest and genuine, its hard to believe in the context of today's players. My second & third choice Goalie are.....Seaman & Jennings.

Don Howe.........I remember how wingers used to disappear when playing against us, and when so called wonder men from Brazil were up against him. He was a really great thinking defender. He was a stopper, like Sol, but Don could pass. Tactically, he was the best ever, as he organised all those around him, like he did after he retired. 2nd / 3rd......Rice & Dixon.

Tony Adams......Don't think I need to say much about big Tone. You want to have the will to win in all weathers and against all types of opposition, and with the worst biased officials, you pick him. AND he was a great defender too!
2nd / 3rd = Bould & Simpson.

Frank Mclintock...I remember Frank's first game after AFC paying out a record fee for a midfielder. We were murdered at home and he was terrible. His face said it all " what have I joined here"? It took at least 6 months before he decided what role we needed, and he began to take over defensive duties alongside starting most of our attacks. He became the best timer of a tackle I had seen, and never gave up whatever the score, home or away. A thing some of our foreign players will never learn. I shall never forget his greatest game, when he drove our young pre double winning side of 1971, to overcome a better side (Anderlecht) to win 3-0 in the Final, after being 3-1 down from the first leg.......stupendous ! 2nd / 3rd....Roberts & Campbell.

Eddie Hapgood...Like Tony Adams, Eddie was a great organiser (according to my Dad, who was a Chelsea Supporter) His positional sense was uncanny, very similar to Bobby Moore, no pace but they did not pass him often. He was also the most dapper in his appearance on and off the field. He would be my Captain too. 2nd = Samson.

David Rocastle...What potential he had that was not completely realised. I believe he was sold because George Graham had been told of a knee injury that would return for longer & longer periods as his career progressed. AFC, wrongly decided to cash in on him, and helped destroy his wonderful AFC & England future. He had the lot. Pace, strength, shot, & defensive ability second to none. I remember meeting Geordie Armstrong in my village in Cambridge, a couple of times, and he raved about David. Geordie knew what he was talking about, being one of the best ever. 2nd / 3rd.....Mcleod & Clapton.

Alex James.....Well, what can you say about a player who can knock Liam Brady out of any team. Apart from my Dad, all my family ancestors, were Gunners, and before the great George Eastham & Jimmy Logie, we had Alex. He was often a few drinks for the worse, but my family say that his skill was of the level of Maradona, and that says it all except that the podgy Argy never played with the huge leather ball, with very painful laces right across the top. He also never played in the mud that Alex played on week in, week out, and he was tiny. One cup match I heard about was a sensation: when the opposing Manager told his defenders to not bother with James just cut out his final pass, because he does not score. Alex then scored the first hat-trick of his career. When people talk about George Best, it makes me squirm, because although a great player, he never faced the defenders Alex did or the pitches etc. AND most of all, he was at a club that media have always overdone the praise since the tragic 1957 crash. That was when we all supported Man, U. for a year. " 2nd / 3rd = Brady & Eastham.

Patrick Vieira......All I will say is that he is unique. I cannot remember any past player to compare Pat with. The nearest I came was Tommy Docherty (who was great & never mentioned now as a player). Alex Forbes, was very hard, but lacked finesse.
Pat should have seen his career out at AFC. The stadium deserved him, and I hate to say it but, watch out when the 'love in' at Juventus wanes (T adds that Overmars, Petit, etc found that the grass was not greener away from Highbury, but hopes Pat has a better time at Juve). 2nd / 3rd Docherty & Bowen

Cliff Bastin.......The simple fact that it took a super striker like Wright to beat Cliffs record, says it all. He was so rare. A goal-scoring winger who made so many for others and frightened the opposition to death; he was very similar to Henry today. He actually (from the wing) scored his total in many less matches that Ian or Thierry, but with so much modesty. One day when the so called experts who run the polls in the media, actually take a look at all teams for the greatest ever players in the UK, and not just from favourites like Man, U. Liverpool & Spurs, you will see Cliff up there with Best, Pele, James & Maradona.
2nd / 3rd = Pires & Haverty.

Ted Drake.......I think I am right in saying that Ted still holds the record for a one man score in top football. He scored seven against Villa, and the best story came from the Ref after the game when interviewed, he said " When I disallowed what would have been 'Teds' eighth goal, he asked why, and all I could say was, don't be greedy Ted, seven is enough for anyone" . After the game the ref admitted he had got that decision wrong! The biggest joke about this match was that Ted should not have played due to injury, but started with his leg heavily strapped. He also hit the bar. Ted was fearless, but controlled. His footwork was excellent and he was a great team man. BUT, he was without doubt the best header of a ball AFC ever had. The only other player I saw as good was Jackie Milburn (Newcastle). He only edges Wrighty out because of Teds variation. 2nd / 3rd David Jack & Bergkamp

Thierry Henry......Absolutely no doubt who should be my number 10. Thierry, is the greatest striking forward Ive ever seen, and that includes Galacticos such as.......Drake, Wright, Dalglesh, Lawton, Pele, Maradona, Eusebio, Puskas, Van Basten, Best, Greaves, Law, and many, many more . The difference, which is enormous, is that TH, creates more than any other player that Ive seen. BUT his conversion record is second to none. Only Greaves made scoring look as simple, but Jim could not score from 25/35 yards. If TH, ever learned how to head a ball, he would score 40/50 per year, and against the organised defences we have world wide now days, that is sensational. My mind boggles when I remember the pace of yesteryear, and how there was no falling back to help your defence etc. Very little packed defences, and you played with injuries week in week out. Today, stars miss 6/10 games per year that in the 1950 / 60's, they would have had to play.
2nd /3rd Wright & Joe Baker

GunnerPete's subs: "pick 6 out of this lot":-
Seaman, Jennings, George, Mcleod, Bowen, Docherty, McNab, Cole, Male, Pires, Bould, Roberts, Howe, Compton, Rice, Simpson, Radford, Logie, Baker, Clapton, Toure, Tapscott, O'leary, Bergkamp, Winterburn, Brady, Petit, Reg Lewis, David Jack, Forbes, Lishman, Holton, Barnes, Samson, Lambert.

My own selection is based on being an AFC supporter since 1988, so I must rely only on what I have heard and read about the past Arsenal greats' that are pre-Graham and Wenger.

My 4-4-2 selection is:

Dixon__ McLintock_Adams_Hapgood

Kelsey: Informed Arsenal watchers say he has not been surpassed by Jennings, Wilson or Seaman. Also goalie for Wales team that reached quarters of World Cup 1958 before losing 1-0 to Brazil.

Dixon: For 15 years gave 100% commitment under Graham and Wenger, picking up 4 championship medals along the way.

Hapgood: England captain left-back who played 434 over 11 seasons during prolonged era of Arsenal domination in 1930's.

Adams: Colossus of a leader that marshalled the world's famous Arsenal water-tight defence for 16 years. Led AFC to four championship wins (including two doubles) under Graham & Wenger, three FA Cups, and the European Cup Winners Cup (when English teams were generally struggling in Europe).

McLintock: 1970-71 double-winning captain.

Overmars: Only with Arsenal for three seasons (integral to winning the double in his first), an awesome winger with supreme ball-control sprinting speed; determination; and killer instinct in front of goal. I had to find a place for him in my starting line-up so placed him on the right because Bastin is unremovable from the left wing position.

Vieira: A one-off CM phenomenon: great ball-control, stamina, tackling ability, accurate & quick passer, unlimited passion, ultimate team-player, and captain of the Arsenal 49ers.

James: Key-man, playmaker, and prolific assist-provider of 1930's team that dominated and revolutionised football.

Bastin: 176 goals from left wing, his lethal form of wing play (along with Hulme on the right) was ground-breaking.

Drake: An outstanding strike-rate of 136 goals in 182 games before the war ended his AFC playing career sees him edge out Legend Dennis (whose 'rolling back the years' performance against Man Utd in the 4-2 defeat last February will always live long in my memory).

Henry: To quote Andy Gray (fantastic piece of commentary after TH scored his fourth against Leeds in the unbeaten season): "I’ve seen most things in top flight English Football over the last 25years or so – but I’ve never seen anything like him!". The ultimate striker with limitless potential (which was immediately evident when closely watching him for the first time in an AFC shirt), a goals and assists record that is simple incredible, a consistency which is unsurpassed, a combination of awesome technique, pace, skill, passion, and finishing ability that is untouchable and thrilling to watch, and a sportsman in every sense of the word. Star player in his six and a bit seasons at the club; won the Premiership twice, FA Cup three times, but no Champs League success for AFC…. yet!

I definitely recommend thinking about and selecting your own greatest Gunners' team. Recalling those AFC greats' that you have seen play, or read and heard others' speak about, simply reinforces the belief that Arsenal is a uniquely great football club with a long and rich competitive football history at the top of the English game…. and with many more years of it still to come!

I'll open up EFT for you to compile your own greatest Gunners' team, and to discuss the merit's of all our selections. Many thanx again GunnerPete for your suggestion and input…

Monday, November 14, 2005

Internationals' injury jinx strikes another Arsenal victim

Gael Clichy (a suspected fractured foot) looks set to now join Sol Campbell (twice), Alex Hleb, RVP, Freddie Ljungberg (indirectly- he has been injured twice in the opening minutes of games immediately following international week) and Thierry Henry (re-aggravating a groin injury minutes after wonder goal in Ireland) as casualties- this season alone- of an international week.

Add Gilberto's unavailability if he has been playing in South America for Brazil's World Cup qualifiers, and it accumulates to Wenger now regularly counting the cost of international matches in terms of the faltering strength of the first-team line-up.

Against this negative context, the one positive to flow out of the mistaken omission of two-time World cup select squad nomination, Sol Campbell, from the starting line against Argentina, was to spare him from a potential third successive injury in an England shirt.

Each of the three matches after the international break has seen Arsenal play away from home without players who had featured the game before the break. Add the lack of match preparation time for Wenger to hone the team to the unique Arsenal groove, and the damaging result (although should not have been the inevitable result) has been successive defeats.

This time around the majority of international teams do not have midweek matches so Arsene will have the whole week to prepare the team, as well as fresher players to choose from: ingredients which should inspire a good result at Wigan (subject to further announcement of new Arsenal injuries!).

Pascal Cygan will probably be drafted in to replace Cole/Clichy- especially with the excellent Senderos playing in Turkey on Wednesday night and therefore unlikely to be considered fresh enough to play a lunchtime kick-off in Wigan. My thoughts on Pascal in the centre-back position have been published before (fair to say not a great fan), but he has less capacity to cause catastrophic errors at left back than in the centre of defence. Anyways, as Arsene has unending faith in Pascal, than I guess I should have some faith in him too.

After the Wigan match, should the predominantly left-footed Senderos be considered as an emergency left-back a'la Gallas? Or is the versatile, but right-footed, Toure a better suit for this role than either Cygan or Senderos?

The low-intensity match at FC Thun next week will be the perfect occasion to experiment with either of these latter options.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

England players had the last war cry

If you are not aware, the Argentinian players arrived at the Stade de Geneve in their team coach, chanting, dancing and allegedly singing derogative lyrics to a football song against the English team. Nice banter to boost the team for victory, though I'd expect with the talents of Javier Zanetti, Roberto Ayala, Juan Pablo Sorin, Juan Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso, Hernan Crespo, potential youngster Lionel Messi, Maxi Rodriguez and Carlos Tevez, they needed to count on simple lyrics for confidence. Boost the team for victory, I said. Yes, they wanted to win this 'friendly'. So did England. I wish to forget about past matches, forget about the 'Hand of God', our victory in the WC2002, and the Falklands War, they have been well documented enough in the press. This is a friendly in terms of its status, no points, no competition, no knock-out stage, no trophy. Other than that, the game remains competitive.

The game began superbly, Argentina held most of the possession in the first 20-25mins, coming close and threatening well, though it was a bit uncomfortable to see England having to defend desperately when we could have avoided doing so if we kept a better shape at the back. John Terry started edgy but got better as the game progessed, Rio Ferdinand clearly an understudy, Wayne Bridge starting for the first time after his injury and looking some levels below the required fitness for such opponents. Wayne Rooney went on a run and brushed off by ayala, fairly so. Then he went closer still with a little dink to the far post. But he should not have been so deep over at the right wing in Beckham's way, giving away possession which led to Crespo's goal. Their dangerman was MOTM Riquelme, his pass across pitch found Rodriguez, who got past Bridge to square, the ball coming off Ferdinand's trailing right calf into Crespo's path. But Rooney was looking to make amends. England pressure kept at their opponents, and as Ayala inadvertently pushed the ball into the air, Beckham outjumped Sorin to head into Rooney's path, a fortuitous bounce found the ball past Roberto Abbondanzieri. The half ended an entertaining 1-1.

The main thing is that we came at the opponents, I wonder if it had anything to do with them being Argentina. Their players were said to have continued their chanting off the coach into the dressing room. Argentina staff members were said to have aimed insults at Beckham as both teams lined up to make their entrance. But we showed that when the going gets tough, we get going. We don't hang back stringing pass after pass to end up eventually breaking down, failing to thoroughly penetrate the defence. Thid time, we aimed to get back into the game, we were much better than before. Forget the Poland match, it wasn't fantastic while it served to stamp our Germany passage. This was much better, a better passionate response from the team. Argentina had a little more strength in their side while we were missing key full-backs. And I expected Sol Campbell to feature instead of Ferdinand, though to have done so may have effected the Man Utd defender's confidence.

For their threatening set-pieces, Riquelme delivered sweet crosses, from which we had no one designated to deal with and so they crept through, only to be averted from danger. Crespo had a goal disallowed from one when he shouldn't have had the opportunity in the first place. At times Riquelme dwelled on the ball with no fear, passes culminating from him to his teammates that put us under concerned pressure. Yet when we were under pressure, the defence aimed to block with vigour. Michael Owen had a quiet half despite having a header disallowed for offside. Steven Gerrard played the left-wing role with unease, didn't see him using that role to effect, for obvious reasons, and he welcomed the chance to bring Bridge into attack.

Come the second half, Argentina kept up the pressure. England had one change of Paul Konchesky for Bridge. A freekick some 30 yards out found Riquelme once again delivering a smart ball over to the right for Walter Samuel to head across, similar to Darren Fletcher's goal last week Sunday, the ball going in with Ayala making sure. At that time I felt we could buckle and see a 3-1 scoreline, but no, we kept up the pressure this time equal to the Argentinians. Ledley King was sacrificed for Joe Cole's introduction, and the Chelsea man was sharp on the left, meaning Gerrard came back into his usual position. Cole danced and stepped-over in front of his man and look more likely to break the defence. Argentina went very close to my predicted scoreline when a cross came over for Sorin to head, the sharp Paul Robinson keeping goal well by preventing the ball from just going over the line.

And we still kept going. Luke Young, who has done a good job deputising for Gary Neville, came off for Peter Crouch, with Gerrard now doing a right-back role. Mr Versatile, to think there were questions regarding his inclusion in the team after King and Frank Lampard's performance against Poland. Some 5mins of normal time remaining, Gerrard advanced into the Argentine half to send a cross over to Crouch and Owen, Owen moving behind the defence to purposely aim a downward header to bounce into the one space not covered. 2-2. And even after that, we still kept going. I felt we could actually win this, the way we kept going forward, Cole, Rooney, Gerrard, Beckham, Owen threatening. They must have sensed it too. 92nd minute, Cole chipped a ball into the box and Owen nodded a header into the corner. We had the final war cry.

If we had ended up losing, it would have been worth it to see us perform so much better, particularly in the second half, if not the whole game. This is a segment of the performance we can achieve with the current crop of players, and with the waiting talent on the bench and potentially lined up to come in, it can get much better. We are football fans, we know of the calibre England have, and a good deal of it can be put down to the influence of foreign players who have integrated into the football clubs, and foreign managers. There's a combination of foreign flair and English grit and yesterday it's influence combined well for the first time in a long time. Did we need to face stronger opposition in Argentina to play much better? We shouldn't do. We should want to get at sides from the kick-off but in the beginning of yesterday's match we still seemed concerned at gong forward and getting at our opponents for fear of failing and being criticised. The players have the talent, they should relax and play their usual game. It's why they are chosen. Currently the best manager in the top league, I would wager that even Jose Mourinho would be happy with a defeat provided his team played well and made chances at every opportunity.

I felt Lampard was not himself in the first half but he too became better the further he played. The same for Ferdinand. Our MOTM was a pick from Robinson and Beckham; one kept us in the game and the other kept going, inspirational to others. I would just shade it to Beckham. I don't know what it was but his game has improved much more, I hope he doesn't burn out leading up to Germany, that goes for the other players too. Yesterday, win, lose or draw, it was a good match with a better England response. The Argentinian side were mysteriously quiet on the coach from the stadium. God wasn't prepared to lend his hand, yet again.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

What are the most memorable goals?

When it comes to goals, I wondered what the criteria of the BBC panel was when they chose the Goal of The Month. Sometimes I see spectacular goals fly in in one month, only for a simpler tap-in or a header is judged to the the winner; other times a goal flies in at such a rate that it is a wonder in itself and clearly wins. I wondered which goals have caught your eye and for what reason.

1. Jon Harley, Fulham 2 Aston Villa 1, 8th February 2003, Craven Cottage

Jon Harley picks onto a loose ball some 35 yards out and hits a dipping, swerving effort right over Peter Enckleman on 36mins. Harley was a big prospect for Chelsea yet he has fallen down to the lower league. Rufus Brevett was sold to West Ham and Harley found his chance to shine, and how. Superb strike.

2. Samuel Eto'o, Barcelona 5 Panathinaikos 0, 2nd November 2005, The Nou Camp

It's Barca's last goal in a game where they could have clearly scored more, 4-0 up in the first half, in the second half Argentine Lionel Messi is found on the left, and he passes slowly to Eto'o on the wing, the Cameroon striker coolly strokes the ball first time high and dipping, right over Croatian keeper Mario Galinovic. It was a rout.

3. Stan Collymore, Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3, 3rd April 1996, Anfield; Robbie Fowler, Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3, 10th March 1997, Anfield

Voted as the Premier League's 'Match of the Decade', Kevin Keegan's Newcastle came to Anfield that April, where no one could have envisaged the kind of game that would enfold over the next 90mins+. We went ahead and then Newcastle pegged us to 1-2. We equalised in the second half but Faustino Asprilla put them into the lead, Collymore equalised and it seemed to end in a draw. But Steve McManaman found Collymore on the left in the dying seconds and the former Forest, Villa and Leicester man scored from a tight angle. The camera panned tot he Newcastle bench where Keegan hid his head behind the advertising boards. Anfield was in uproar.

The odds on the same thing happening again would have paid off a mortgage. And it did. Happen again, that is. Kenny Dalglish was manager of Newcastle this time. Liverpool went ahead 3-0 through McManaman, Fowler and Patrik Berger. Then David James happened, spilling a Keith Gillespie effort and running out to be lobbed by Asprilla. Warren Barton made it 3-3 and it looked,t his time, to be a 3-3 draw, but the hope of deja vu came true. John Barnes and Ian Rush played one-two and then Barnes found Fowler running up on the left (that left side again!) and the young striker headed in from a diving header. Anfield was in uproar again.

The two goals go together because they were very similar.

4. Alan Shearer, Manchester United 5 Newcastle 3, 22nd November 2002, Old Trafford

Another cracking game. Man Utd were 3-1 up at half time, and Newcastle were looking second best until Olivier Bernard was fouled by Solskjaer some 35 yards out from goal. Gary Speed rolled it to Shearer and the former England captain unleashed a shot that literally went like a firework. Fabien Barthez in goal was routed.

5. Alan Shearer, Newcastle 2 Everton 1, 1st December 2002, St James' Park

Everton were performing very well at this time. I believe they were 6 games unbeaten, hadn't even conceded in the last five leading up to this game, and they held Newcastle in the 17th minute through Kevin Campbell. Joseph Yobo was sent off for a professional foul on Craig Bellamy five minutes later and Everton held strong with the 10 men, until 4mins from time. A high ball was won by Shola Ameobi against David Unsworth, the ball coming down in the vicinity of Shearer. From 25 yards out or so, Shearer let fly a ferocious volley that dipped over Richard Wright. This goal gave hope to the Magpies, and they won it with Bellamy hitting across near the goalline and Li Tie's intervention pushed the ball into the net. Superb textbook volley.

6. David Beckham, England 2 Greece 2, World Cup Qualifier, 6th October 2001, Old Trafford

I remember this match very well. England were playing at about 70% playability and the Greeks were not giving us an easy match. they went ahead twice, either side of Teddy Sheringham's equaliser after coming on for Robbie Fowler. Deep, deep into injury time we looked to be heading for the play-offs when a foul was given some 25-30 yards from their goal, in other words Beckham territory. Old Trafford, Man Utd player, captain, David Beckham, there isn't any other scenario you'd wish to be in, much less scoring a crucial effectively winning goal in. Though he was becoming renowned for his free kicks, it wasn't safe to bet on it going in. But when it did, my friends and I were ecstatic. We didn't deserve to win the match but we had the players who deserved to go to the Far East. The goal was so important, it was the equivalent of winning the lottery when you're repossessed and bankrupt.

I don't have top goals, the above are some of the ones that stand out the most when I ponder. Shearer had scored a ferocious freekick for England one time, a match we won 0-2 and I'm sure it was away, his goal was the second goal but I can't remember the opposition. It may have been Bulgaria, but I remember Shearer running up and hitting it with some venom from a tight angle and it was another superb goal. Realistically, if I were to list every goal I remember that stood out, I'd need two hard drives to contain them in. There have been some fantastic goals, shots from distances, 6-7-8 passes that led to a goal, solo efforts, some that have happened at the expense of another's blooper. They are part of the reason why football is such an attractive, entertaining sport.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Jestrovic providing yet another racist example

Liverpool played Belgian side Anderlecht at Anfield in the Champions League last week Wednesday, won 3-0. During the game, Anderlecht's Serbian forward Nenad Jestrovic came into contact with Liverpool's Mohamed Sissoko and as a result the Serb turned to Sissoko and muttered something. This was captured on replay. Nothing was captured of any words before or after Jestrovic's words, from Sissoko. The replay was slow enough for me to lip-read Jestrovic, and I deciphered the words "F*** You......", and I didn't decipher another word which followed. Sissoko reacted, shown on replay, with a glance towards either the Liverpool bench or someone else and stepped away. That word must have been the racial insult referee Kim Milton Nielsen picked up, to have sent off Jestrovic, and when you're around Nielsen you're just as well in the vicinity of Robocop. No disrespect to the Dane, but little seems to get past his senses.

To think that Jestrovic had only come on as a sub 5mins prior to the sending off, makes me wonder why he had to be involved in such an incident. That is not to say he was guilty, but at the time his side were 2-0 down and he should have been focused on helping the side get back into the game, not getting into silly words with the opposition. Afterwards, Jestrovic said he went up to Nielsen's dressing room to speak to the referee, not to apologise, but to find out why he was sent off, despite having been told this at the time of the sending-off. Jestrovic alleges that on the night, not only did Sissoko initially insult him regarding his mother, that he did so in French after having elbowed the Serb, and Jestrovic in return swore back in English because he felt Sissoko "deserved it."

Sissoko's words were said to have been missed by the referee due to the possibility that Nielsen couldn't understand French, which asks why didn't Jestrovic reply in kind. Jestrovic also alleges Sissoko provoked him when the sides met a fortnight earlier at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Claims which were unsubstantiated. In interview Jestrovic said "I don't understand why the referee sent me off. Sissoko didn't hear it and he look surprised when I was sent off."

Jestrovic was eventually suggested to have said "f*** off, black" to Sissoko. Nielsen reported the incidents, that of the sending-off and Jestrovic coming to his dressing room allegedly using foul language, to UEFA, stating "I showed Jestrovic a red card because he said something racist to Sissoko. I know UEFA are very keen to stamp out racism. They want strong action and sending him off was the correct decision."

Anderlecht coach Frank Vercauteren: "I have to believe my player. The other player should have also been sent off as well, he said something similar. Okay, these things should not be said, but I do not intend to punish my player further, he has been punished enough and anything I do will only punish the team. If it was racial abuse, I cannot condone that. I do not want to explain it in detail, but I can say that the words and language used you hear 50 times in an average game. Sissoko insulted Jestrovic and he replied in kind and the referee said he heard Jestrovic and sent him off. It is what you hear often. We will wait and see what the referee's report says. Maybe what was written may not be correct and I will want to see what is supposed to have been said."

Clearly the coach spoke on what he heard from his player, rather than wait, as he said he would, for the referee's report to come across him. Six days on, Jestrovic has now been proven to UEFA of using a racist insult and has been banned for three European games, therefore missing the remaining two games against Chelsea and Real Betis and the next European game after.

Of course this follows from when Lazio's Sinisa Mihajlovic, ironically another Serb, was banned for two games after pleading guilty to racially insulting Patrick Vieira during the Lazio v Arsenal Champions League match in Rome, 18th October 2000. Mihajlovic claimed that Vieira insulted him first, calling him a "gypsy ****", and the Serb replied with "black ****". Mihajlovic denied his words were racist, saying they were equal to that said to him by Vieira. His claim was also unsubstantiated.

For Jestrovic, had he used foul language he may have remained on the pitch, there is little to say he would have been sent off, more to say that with such an exchange of words, Nielsen would step in and tell them both to stop it and get on with the game. First Nielsen is said to have not heard Sissoko, then he is said to have heard Sissoko but couldn't understand it because it was in French. A confliction which added to the confusion of Jestrovic's version, and to his case. Since Mihajlovic received a 2-game ban, perhaps Jestrovic receive one more for going to the referee's dressing-room, which was said to have also upset UEFA.

Racist overtones and approaching the referee inside his quarters is a violation of the integrity of the game. Vieira and Sissoko both said they have received chanting from the crowd, regarded as stupid, but to receive it from a fellow professional was even worse. For me, it's another level of ignorance but used during the play in an attempt to disrupt the player more than insult. Nonetheless, wherever and whenever it occurs, it must be clamped on immediately, and for that I applaud the Dane for his quick actions that aided highlighting this continuous issue in the game.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Vieira in hot water; Crespo in exit; Rix is one for Hearts

Finally, some titbits. Patrick Vieira has stated in his autobiography some words about Van Nistelrooy, labelling him "a cheat", "a coward", and a derogative term concerning the Dutchman's mother. Very strong, and I sense they are enough for contemplation of legal action against the Juve man. Also in his bio, Vieira mentions the time when the TV camera filmed Roy Keane becoming annoyed with Vieira when the teams met at Highbury in February this year, explaining why he confronted Gary Neville, because he felt Neville had deliberately targeted Reyes at the Old Trafford meeting earlier. So Neville was being warned by Vieira and Keane managed to step out and come across it.

Vieira stated his annoyance when Keane mentioned about the former Gunners skipper playing for France when he was born in Senegal, but yet those comments still didn't shroud his respect for the Man Utd man, his playability and his leadership. But his hatred for VNR is very, very strong, and it is something said to have reverberated around Highbury. Vieira wasn't alone.

Hernan Crespo was missing from the squad at Old Trafford. It was mentioned to Jose Mourinho after the match and he stated Crespo was being rested on his own (Mourinho's) judgement. The Argentinian is said to have been upset over not being included in those considered playable for the Betis game, and that Didier Drogba is favoured much more by the manager, despite Crespo having done well on his appearances. Add to this that Mrs Crespo is said to be homesick (though I sense it is because she misses Milan than appreciates London), then there's a hint of realism to the rumour. This has, in turn, done wonders for Eidur Gudjohnsen's selection.

While Birmingham aim to resolve their goalscoring crisis and table position, Mario Melchiot has apparently stated his intent to leave St Andrews on a Bosman move if the club do not show more enthusiasm regarding his Birmingham future. Perhaps this is untimely, given the circumstances and that the club may have to revise finances IF they were to be relegated.

Hearts appear to have chosen former Arsenal player, Chelsea and Portsmouth coach Graham Rix to fill the manager's position. This after a shortlist consisting of Sir Bobby Robson, Claudio Ranieri, Kevin Keegan, former domestic title and Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich Ottmar Hitzfeld, amongst others. How the appointment of Rix as manager can be justified for a club starting spritely as Hearts is the question.

Rix spent 14 years playing for Arsenal, joined Brentford on loan, travelled across the river to France for Le Havre and Caen and finishing his playing career with Dundee in 1993. He joined Chelsea as the youth team coach and played one game for them during a shortage of available players, ironically against Arsenal in May 1995. He was made assistant manager under Ruud Gullit and kept his position alongside Gianluca Vialli. Chelsea won the FA cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Cup. He was convicted of unlawful sex with a 15 yr old girl, and six months later returned to Chelsea in his previous position, where Chelsea won the FA Cup again in 2000. Vialli was the manager at the time and Rix departed when the Italian was sacked.

He went on to coach Portsmouth a year later and was sacked in March 2002, replaced by Harry Redknapp. Joining Oxford United as caretaker manager in replace of Ian Atkins in March 2004, he took on the role in full a month later but was relieved of his duties, due to poor results, for a position elsewhere in the club in November 2004. He is said to have left Oxford in March this year, presumably after an initial 12 months probation period had passed. Ray Wilkins gave Rix his backing for the Hearts position, though I doubt such confidence could be installed into the parents of his 15 yr old victim. The chances of the Yorkshireman keeping a run of consistent wins at the club will be heavily scrutinised, not by Vladimir and Roman Romanov, but by the fans.


The big questions for Chelsea and Man Utd

Yesterday, Chelsea saw their excellent 40 match unbeaten run end at Old Trafford which has historically been a happy hunting ground for them. This now raised several very interesting questions that only time and games can answer.

Firstly to the victors. Over the past month or so Utd have been getting lots of bad press regarding their performances and a few hacks have once again tried to suggest this could be the end of the Utd era. While there has certainly been cause to question Utd that did seem a little premature. Inept and soulless performances against Boro and Lille left even their own captain questioning the commitment and ability of members of the squad. This appeared to have the desired affect as against Chelsea the team played with more purpose than in any other game this season.

Ferguson, having clearly taken note of the suggestions from this board, dropped the 4-5-1 and went with the tried and trusted 4-4-2 and with great results in the first half where Utd deserved their fortuitous lead. The defence also answered a few critics as they defend as a team and held strong against wave after wave of Chelsea attacks in the second half.

The big question for Utd is can they now keep it going? It’s easy to raise your game for the visit of the Champions and big pressure cooker games but with the less glamorous games of Charlton and West Ham to come after the international break will the passion and desire clearly on display yesterday still be there? Will Ferguson stick with the 4-4-2 that worked so well yesterday?

As for Chelsea everyone has been waiting for them to lose a game to see how they will react. Much has been made of how Arsenal felt the loss of their unbeaten run at OT last year was a psychological blow that sent their form into a tail spin. Will the same now happen to Chelsea?

One thing in Chelsea’s favour is that there was not the emotional investment in the game that Arsenal had last year. The game ended and the players and management teams shook hands (although the Chelsea side of things looked understandably glum). Last year after Chelsea lost, again in Manchester, to City they went on a run of seven straight wins. Can they put in that sort of run again to get back on track?

I also think the international break can help. Usually teams claim they would like a match as soon as possible to set things right but I feel that with the (as yet only minor) wobble Chelsea have had a pause for reflection and to catch our breaths can be just what the doctor ordered.

The run of games up to Christmas will go a long way to answering both of the big questions. Are Utd back? And has Chelsea’s bubble finally burst?


Arsenal drive the Van; Benitez's first back-to-back

Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1

Steve Wilson (Match of the Day): "And once he was there, there was only one real outcome."

Steve Wilson during commentary at Highbury. As Sol Campbell sent a long high ball, quite accurately and sweetly considering it was his left foot, and it dropped over the Sunderland defence in the path of Robin Van Persie, two touches and it was finished into the net. Wilson said the above words in the replay and he was spot on. Gunner fans on EFT stated he was more favourable to deputise upfront for Thierry Henry, or even alongside him, instead of Jose Reyes. Once the Frenchman returned, Bergkamp made way for his compatriot, Reyes into his comfortable left wing role. Henry wasn't to be outdone with two of his own, his second coming typically via rash movement by the defence that found the ball in Henry's path. Arsene Wenger said RVP was improving, and he should be starting regularly from now on.

I looked for some other comments from the other commentators on the programme which summed up the individual matches.

Portsmouth 0 Wigan 2

John Roder: "Portsmouth have committed plenty of players forward, and they might be paying the price here."

Portsmouth came into the game with home advantage and having hit Sunderland for 4. But their start began well then waned as a continuous display of passes going astray, attacks breaking down and possession given away pushed Wigan to aim at the goal often in the first half. Misses by Henri Camara and Damien Francis made me feel Portsmouth would be punished if they didn't grab a firmer grip on the game. Having the best defensive record in the league by conceding only 5 (2 less than Chelsea), Pompey needed to infiltrate Wigan more thoroughly than they were attempting to do. Lo and behold, in the second half, the concentration by the home side was lacking and was eventually punished, with poor marking by Brian Pirske allowed Pascal Chimbonda to head another goal to follow last week's against Fulham. Then Portsmouth were caught on the break in Wigan's half within the corner flag, with Chimbonda creating a superb one-two with Francis and sprinting up the wings to send a side ball to Jason Roberts to score. An earlier introduction of Lauren Robert and Lomano LuaLua could have given the width Pompey needed. I would like to hear from Pompey fans as to any concerns they have with the team.

Blackburn 4 Charlton 1

Guy Mowbray: "Richly deserved, and what a difference a fully fit Craig Bellamy is making to 4-goal Blackburn."

What it does to score early in a game, and how! Brett Emerton lashed his shot past keeper Stephan Andersen from a narrow angle. Lucas Neill crossed, deflecting off Jonathan Spector, which found Paul Dickov to head a second. Though in an offside position, deflecting off Spector meant the cross was legal, which fooled the Charlton defence. Charlton scrambled on back through Bryan Hughes and then found Blackburn coming at them again in the second half. Hermann Hreidarsson survived a blatant penalty claim when his arm happened to be in the path of the ball in the box, but Morten Gamst Pedersen scored with a touch off Stephen Reid's cross. Brad Friedel did well to deny Hreidarsson and former player Jay Bothroyd, only for Bellamy to round the match off after Shefki Kuqi nodded down a cross.

Fulham 2 Man City 1

Dan O'Hagan: "We have seen the best and the worse from David James."

The Prime Minister Tony Blair made an appearance on BBC1's Football Focus, and noted Steed Malbranque as one of three players who had recently caught his attention. It must have found its way to Craven Cottage because the Frenchman was MOTM. Luis Boa Morte was fast to intercept the ball within the City defence and his side ball found the equally sprinting Malbranque to score. New member Lee Croft equalised for his first City goal only for Malbranque to be released yet again by his skipper, rounding James with both feet and tidying away. Joey Barton reverted to a malicious overtone when he crashed into Malbranque, and was lucky to escape a red card. James saved twice from Collins John's shot and then at the feet of the in-coming Brian McBride.

But to add to a moment in the first half where he felt the ball would go off for a goal-kick but was sharply turned back across goal by a Fulham player, in the dying seconds of the second half injury time James went one further. Coming up for a freekick, the ball came to him and he aired his kick and then, gaining possession, blindly passed to a Fulham player, who found Malbranque on the right. The Frenchman sprinted towards goal, one of four Fulham players to do so matched by the lonely covering Sun Jihai. Malbranque then crossed unselfishly to Tomaz Radzinski, when he could have gone for his hat-trick. Radzinski then sent a lame lob towards goal that Jihai reached in time to clear. James, at this time, then came jogging, not sprinting, back to goal with a very sheepish grin on him. I don't know.

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 2

Jonathan Pierce: "Steven Gerrard will take the penalty for Liverpool. And surely to win it. And Liverpool have had a bucketful of chances to do so."

Following from the 3-0 Anderlecht win, Liverpool took long to score but it wasn't through lack of chances. In the first half both sides enjoyed moments where they could have scored. Gerrard sent a superb goal over the defence in the path of Djibril Cisse, and with time, acres of land to grow corn, and Thomas Sorensen to beat, he hit the ball at the keeper, which was disappointing. I liked seeing Fernando Morientes and Cisse starting together, I think they are our best two strikers and the Spaniard could have added to his account. Luis Garcia, Morientes and Cisse came off for Bolo Zenden, Peter Crouch and Harry Kewell. Crouch met a Zenden cross with a free header straight at the keeper, but was given a penalty for a foul by Liam Ridgewell, which I thought was dubious. Gerrard stepped up to score. Xabi Alonso made certain with a shot that cannoned off Sorensen and in, winning our first back-to-back wins for the season.

Newcastle 1 Birmingham 0

Martin Fisher: "Birmingham looking for something in the shape of a goal."

Birmingham are looking a goal. They haven't scored since their defeat to Arsenal at Highbury four games before the visit to St James' Park. Saturday now makes it 1 win and 3 draws out of 12. Steve Bruce has added to the squad and helped the club up from the lower division. The likes of Emile Heskey, Mikael Forssell, and Walter Pandiani should be making chances, much less scoring. Bruce went 4-5-1 and Birmingham were strongly in favour of scoring, with two Jiri Jarosik efforts going very close. But after Emre was nicely set up for his goal, Maik Taylor may have been unsighted, the team changed to 4-3-3 some 4mins from full time when perhaps there should have changed earlier when they held dominance. Muzzy Izzet and Stan Lazaridis, rightly booked for diving under a keen Mike Dean eye, came off for Forssell and Pandiani, making a three with Heskey, Jermaine Pennant and Neil Kilkenny either side of Jarosik.


Three defeats so far mean nothing to Mourinho

I hadn't banked on Sir Alex using 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 to equal that of Chelsea's formation, I felt he would go for a battling 4-4-2 to go back to basics and aim to restore more pride into the team. Expecting Wayne Rooney to go head-to-head alongside with Ruud Van Nistelrooy seemed a better spearhead than the Dutchman alone. Rooney's role yesterday was less the striker and more the soldier to VNR's general, just as the other 9 men were comrades for the cause. Man Utd came out fighting from the kick-off, it was the classical beginning to a game crucial to their own campaign, much less of the other Premiership teams. Crucial to themselves for their fans, crucial to themselves for the manager, on his 19th anniversary at the club, and the injured club captain. The publicity from the words of Roy Keane sparked unrest at OT, the rapid withdrawal of filmed Keane interviews, the veil of secrecy drawn across the pane of those who knew, it was a matter that was to remain continuous behind closed veils.

The key moments came from the Man Of The Match Alan Smith. Utd needed a Keane out there to bring forward the charge and Smith was that man. The tackles were not reckless, ill-timed, weak or hopeful, they were spot on and tough. There is nothing like being criticised for lacking on the pitch, further to have it publicised and raised to a crescendo it has been the past week. Smith showed he felt it more, than most, and as a Yorkshireman demonstrated that he at least lacked not in faith for the team. And others followed suit, Chelsea had Didier Drogba's effort to put the ball over Edwin Van Der Sar, after Frank Lampard's superb ball over the defence, and Asier Del Horno coming behind Darren Fletcher to meet a Lampard free-kick only to miss it by inches, were Chelsea's only decent chances in the first half. Utd kept up a mount of pressure whenever a Blues player came in contact with the ball. Decent cross and nice goal from Fletcher, regardless of whether it was meant or not, it counted. But that was the first half.

In the second half, Utd tried to pick up from where they had left off before the break but Chelsea, as expected, came looking for the equaliser, numerously. If Utd had withered in coming forward, they aimed to make it up in defence, backs to the wall, Rio Ferdinand, who slacked off when Drogba controlled for his first-half chance, made sure of meeting in-coming balls to clear, along with Mikael Silvestre. John O'Shea was found slightly unfocused on occasion when Joe Cole threatened on the wings and when Shaun Wright-Phillips took the England man's place, but the overall defensive effort managed to keep out Chelsea when needed. Drogba danced a little in the box, creating a diversion for Lampard to steal in and be denied by Van Der Sar. Eidur Gudjohnsen came on for Michael Essien and make more of a threatening impact, creating the chance and ball for Del Horno to attack from a late Lampard-type run and effort that just went over. Gudjohnsen also pulled back for Damien Duff to strike but the Irishman scuffed his effort and Drogba poked the ball past the post.

Though Chelsea failed to take their chances, Utd had theirs too. Paul Scholes was teed up to strike from outside when Rooney passed across, but went wide. Fletcher pulled back a ball at the goalline for VNR to meet with time and little resistence but he snatched at it and it went up high and over, Rooney went close with a shot at goal but was deflected off Paulo Ferreira. If Rooney is discontent at not playing a more central role beside or behind VNR, then he didn't show it. He knew his role was more than for himself, it was to raise the game for Utd and he duly took to his task, chasing, shutting down, passing, more focused in this 'unsettling' position.

Jose Mourinho spoke of diving, presumably from the Utd players, but the Chelsea players were not shy of it themselves. Gudjohnsen was seen on replay to have blatantly dived, infuriating Christiano Ronaldo, who was less in contact with the ground than before himself. Cole became frustrated in the first half over a number of decisions against Chelsea and he too went down easily in the second half. Damien Duff dropped to the ground when fairly challenged in the first half, so it was 6 of one and half dozen of the other and the diving was very minimal. What wasn't was Utd's strong defiance to Chelsea, but as Mourinho seemed to show in the post-match interview, it is a defeat, the third out of all competitions, but Chelsea look still to be unhindered. Six points apart from nearest side Wigan, they will seek to return to business as expected when they open at home to Newcastle.

Another who was correct in his post-match interview was Smith, when he said all those watching know from where the inspiration to defy came from, and that the game only brought 3 points, the form has to continue away to a well-run Charlton, smarting from a hard defeat at Ewood Park. The same commitment from yesterday needs to be found again for the Valley, otherwise the next criticism will be televised.

Two mentions. One goes to the Chelsea fan on Fanzone, who made more noise than the Blues' fans in the stands altogether, and the other to Graeme Poll, who seems so unorthordox at times to me. Booking Fletcher for becoming slightly irate with the linesman, who simply waved the Scotsman's protest away and Fletcher duly followed, only for Poll to instantly book him. Drogba was booked for protesting further when Silvestre fouled him coming in for a header, though I'm unaware whether that was the final straw of patience the official had with persistent Drogba protests, who is now suspended for the Newcastle match. I felt Smith hardly put a foot wrong all game and felt his booking wasn't necessary. Other than that, the Hertfordshire official had a decent hold on the game and it was, overall, an entertaining clash.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Champions League round-up

Man Utd fans, is there anything you feel you can read from Man Utd's current form that warrants alarm? In a season where the Red Devils aim to put a spanner in the Chelsea works to claim another title, they have won more away from Old Trafford impressively, with Sir Alex aiming to make their ground one to fear coming to, with 1 defeat and 1 win out of 6. This is in contrast to one's perception of coming to Old Trafford many seasons before. That in itself means the manager considers his side are not fearsome enough this season, 13 games gone, and that is a reflection of the team's progress overall. Comprehensively, Utd faltered at the weekend, in style, and last night they were expected to bounce back with anger and determination to show their fearsome reputation that they had enjoyed in previous European encounters.

When Lille attacked for their goal, captain Gregory Tafforeau ran down the left practically unchallenged and when he pass diagonally, it went across Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown to former Spurs player Milenko Acimovic, clearly seen running between Brown and Mikael Silvestre without anyone picking him up. Utd's best chances went to Christiano Ronaldo, with his contact hitting the ball off the underside of the crossbar, and Park Ji-Sung, on for Kieran Richardson, played in nicely by VNR only to miss with some contact made on him prior to. Utd were spared 20mins from time when Matt Moussilou headed freely over from centimetres from Mathieu Debuchy's cross, with the Utd defence comatose.

Sunday's clash with Chelsea at home is more even more significant, with both sides smarting from 1-0 defeats away in Europe where they were expected not to. The difference is while Jose Mourinho has the players and the hunger to put things back on the right track again, plus a second XI from which he can replace an injured player with little worry of disrupting the team's flow, Sir Alex is without key players and has a side wondering what is happening to them why they have lost twice in a row in such a manner. On the backsiding of a Roy Keane blast, one may question whether the blast was appropriate, but many say Keane is feeling it for the club and wants to raise the players. Critics say Ferdinand kept his place despite recent criticism, but who else is available to replace him anyway?

Arsenal conducted business last night with their man Thierry Henry marking yet another low, curling effort out of the blue that the keeper Jaromir Blazek couldn't expect, much less see. But they left it late in the game to wrap it up, with Henry replaced by Robin Van Persie on 66mins and Arsenal breaking minutes later on the counter. Either Gael Clichy or Lauren found Bergkamp on the left, he passed across to RVP, who seemed to have delayed too long but simply moved to his preferred left foot and curling in. Sub Emmanuel Eboue was key in RVP's 2nd, finding RVP on the edge of the box, the Dutchman this time finishing low with his right foot. It had been debated whether RVP or Reyes was the sharper finisher but with Reyes on the wing, RVP had clear instructions after replacing Henry, in that this was the moment to score goals if he had indeed improved. He didn't disappoint.

The football over the past 48hrs produced some goals that I hope we'll see from individuals in the WC2006. Splendid goals taken. All of Barcelona's goals were superbly taken as Panathinaikos capitulated. Andres Iniesta threading through for Mark Van Bommel's lob; Samuel Eto'o's header; Lionel Messi chipping over the advancing keeper and finishing; Messi and Ronaldinho, with a backheel pass to Eto'o, setting the Cameroon striker for his second off his weaker foot; Messi again, an 18 yr old Argentinian, finding Eto'o on the left and first time Eto'o sent a curling high ball over the keeper and in, the best goal of the game.

From Tuesday night's action, three of them came from Liverpool. For Fernando Morientes to score was something to quell the usual press mongers hovering over Anfield, but also for himself. Controlling a chip from Steven Gerrard, he characteristically chested it down and then finished, the delight obvious in his celebrations. Then in the second half Finnan's cross whipped in for Luis Garcia to glance a header in from outside the box, superbly taken. Then as Harry Kewell aimed to break through, the ball came within Djibril Cisse, who slotted it in crisply through the keeper's legs. No bias here, they were three well taken goals.

In Olympiakos v Lyon, Juninho Pernambucano's equaliser was best goal there, a trademark free-kick curled past the keeper's left into the corner. The Brazilian is the one Lyon player to have for freekicks and his touch has failed to disappoint the French side managed by former Liverpool coach Gerard Houllier. But where Inter Milan faced Porto, behind closed doors again, Hugo Almeida, Porto's Portuguese forward, unleashed a ferocious thunderbolt of a freekick from 30-35 yards that completely rocketed straight past Julio Cesar. There was no chance of stopping it. 21 goals Tuesday, 31 last night, a better Champions League week this season.

Finally, much may be said regarding Chelsea's defeat to Real Betis. Mourinho said Chelsea should not take into consideration Everton's position when they played at Goodison Park, and he said the same about Betis. The Spanish side came 4th last season after 16 wins, 14 draws, 8 defeats and currently lie 3 places off the foot of the Primera Liga after 2 wins, 3 draws, 5 defeats, 3 defeats coming at the Rui­z de Lopera. With Chelsea's current form, this defeat went against the grain but it was mentioned by Ray Wilkins on Sky Sports last night that Chelsea at least aimed to come back, which we would expect from such a side. And as Mourinho said after the game, they are a great side but weren't so on Tuesday, it's a matter of reviewing and correcting what went wrong.



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