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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Zinedine Zidane: world class plus!

On Tuesday, one of the world's best ever footballers announced that he will retire after this summer's World Cup.

Zinedine Zidane combined power and grace like no one else. He made fantastic football look beautiful and amazingly simple.

I will always remember Euro 2000 when he was at the absolute height of his game and produced a string of great performances that I can't recall any other footballer in my time ever achieving. In particular, I remember being in Holland with some good friends of mine (including two EFT colleagues) when I watched the semi-final between France and Portugal and saw one of the individual performance of all time by Zizou. It was truly awesome.

And, of course, who can forget one of the best moments in recent football history: Zidane's left-footed swivel volley against Bayer Leverkusen to open the scoring in the 2002 Champions League Final.

I liked the fact that THE BEST IN THE WORLD was of North African origin when this area of the world is not renowned for producing top footballers. I also liked the fact that he was a sportsman in every sense- a true role-model to emulate.

In the last couple of years he has not been able to sustain his 'world's best' status because he has a lost a couple of yards in pace- which is natural for a players in his thirties. Because of this I want to remind readers of what he was like at his absolute peak. If you have a couple of minutes to spare check out the following two video's of Zidane at his best.

The first features the best of Zidane from his career with Bordeaux (when he still had all his hair!), Juventus, Madrid and France (including that match against Portugal).

The second features more magic moments from Zizou, a cool soundtrack, and the classy Barry Davies saying 'Zinedine Zidane' in a way that no commentator could equal today. Even if you were not a fan of Zidane (can't believe it if you weren't) it's worth watching alone for this!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Middlesbrough heroes: Producing Teeside's very own Fantastic Four

Which one of these circumstances is the odd one out?

1) You are 0-3 down, in the Champions League Final, against AC Milan, it's half time, 45mins to go, and you need three goals to get back level.

2) You are 0-1 down, 0-3 on aggregate, in the quarter-final 2nd leg of the UEFA Cup against FC Basel, have scored a goal back in return, it's half time, and you need three more goals to win to progress into the UEFA Cup semi-finals.

3) You are 0-2 down, 0-3 on aggregate, in the semi-final 2nd leg of the UEFA Cup against former European Champions Steaua Bucharest, have pulled a goal back, it's half time, and you need three more goals to win to progress into the UEFA Cup Final.

Answer: None. They all involved sensational comebacks in European football.

'It was not too long ago they were throwing season tickets at him; now they will probably throw bouquets.'

Words to that effect were mentioned in commentary in regard to Steve McClaren. The European Cup Final 2005 we already know about. Go back to when Middlesbrough faced FC Basel on March 30th, at the Sankt Jakob-Park stadium, where two quick goals within two minutes of each other from Mathias Delgado and Daniel Degen, just before half time, placed a burden on the away side. A week later, Basel came to The Riverside stadium to complete the job with a comfy enough advantage to begin with and then adding another goal through Eduardo Da Silva after some 20mins. It looked well and truly Middlesbrough were going to go out after a superb campaign.

Mark Viduka had other plans, pulling one back before half time and then emerging, with help from Fabio Rochemback and sub Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, in the second half with another goal that actually made for hope. Boro were aided some way through the dismissal of defender Daniel Majstorovic, and then Hasselbaink added a third with a trademark strike from 20-25 yards and the hope then turned into near possibility. Then when we dared to dream, having been introduced in the 67th minute, Massimo Maccarone aimed low and well to beat Pascal Zuberbuhler at his near post in the last minute of normal time.

I said in my article on that match that Basel looked for lightening to strike twice, only that it did but it's name was Viduka. Tonight, those who watched ITV4 saw lightening proverbially strike twice in the name of Middlesbrough FC. Go back to last week Thursday, 20th April, as Middlesbrough faced Steaua Bucharest at the Ghencea stadium, and they again went behind to a Nicolae Dica goal, allowing the Romanian to gather, turn and shoot, with Mark Schwarzer having no chance. Boro came away with just the single goal deficit, and returned tonight to overturn it. But they got off to a bad point after 16mins when Petre Marin came inside on his right and took a shot that Bradley Jones, covering for the cheekbone-injured Schwarzer, only managed to palm forward. That man Dica was allowed time to tee up the ball and deposit it into the corner. To make matters worse, a Gabriel Bostina corner was met by centre-back Dorin Goian's head, Jones managed to block, Stuart Parnaby stuck a foot out to clear but Goian controlled it and scored, with 25mins gone. It seemed to be definitely all over for Middlesbrough, for they now needed four goals again to proceed. It happened once, it couldn't happen again.

Well, it happened before in Ataturk last year, it happened before at The Riverside against Basel, so why couldn't it happen again? The Middlesbrough players were formulated in the 3-2-3-2 that brought them a 4-1 victory against Man Utd at the same ground, and tonight, after Goian's goal, they looked to go for the comeback yet again. Even with the inconvenience of Gareth Southgate coming off for Maccarone, Middlesbrough looked one way only. Viduka looked to feed the right side where Parnaby had popped up before, and he did it again for Maccarone on 33mins, who collected and shot past the Portuguese Carlos Fernandes. Slovakian ref Lubos Michel blew for half time and again Middlesbrough faced an identical uphill struggle to that previously experienced almost a month ago. The comeback looked to be incredibly on again.

Steaua were pinned in their own half from the beginning of the second half. Hasselbaink was fed the ball from Maccarone but it came off his shin and went wide. Middlesbrough relentlessly came forward with no respite, with Maccarone and Stewart Downing on the wings, Rochemback and George Boateng battling in the centre. Hasselbaink took on the defence and made it into the box but one touch too many found he lost control and he went down, theatrically for the referee. A number of balls were crossed into the box but were always too heavy for anyone to latch onto, Carlos coming out confidently to catch. So it would take a clever ball to attract the keeper out and be enough to be attacked. On 62mins, Downing gathered on the left and crossed, Hasselbaink and Viduka both jumped and it was the Australian who made the vital touch as Carlos came out. Steaua were hit but not stunned, they held the advantage still. Middlesbrough pressed even more for the vital third, and it came on 72mins. The ball was cleared from a Boro corner, Rochemback headed it back, the Steaua defence reacted too slow and the ball made its way over to Downing, who took aim and fired, Carlos parried it along the goal and Chris Riggott stepped up to placed it in. What had looked too incredible to believe some 50mins ago was almost becoming true. Not only that, Middlesbrough were one goal away from the club's first ever UEFA Cup Final.

The tempo of the attacked then dropped a little, with 18mins+ to go, as if there was no need to panic so much now, McClaren had told his players to not get too agitated before the two second half goals were scored, and now they could relax just a little to gather thoughts and keep track of their focus. Destiny was in their hands and they played the waiting game, for Steaua would come forward only when they kept possession in the middle, thus they were in charge briefly enough to waste some seconds. One or two balls didn't make their target for Boro but they knew they could afford to do so for the moment. Then they came forward and all knew where they should be. Carlos came out to gather a ball that he then let slip as defender Sorin Ghionea came to clear it but saw his keeper get to it first. Carlos gathered the ball quickly a second time, with Viduka and Maccarone ready to pounce. Ghionea aimed a verbal volley a few inches away from his keeper's head, which was slumped over the ball on the ground, as the defender wanted his keeper to call and collect.

That was too near a disaster for the Romanians, for coach Cosmin Olaroiu would possibly 'face the music' back in Bucharest were Steaua to go out after holding a 0-3 advantage. But with 89mins on the clock, the Steaua coach made a date with the Romanian orchestra. A Boro corner was headed out, Rochemback headed it back, it wasn't dealt with by the defence and spilled off one defender towards Downing. Downing then took on the defender and crossed, Carlos didn't come out for it, and as it went past Viduka, Maccarone took up the invite and make contact with his head to grab that vital fourth goal.

The comeback had happened again at The Riverside.

Maccarone popped up to grab another vital fourth goal for Middlesbrough in Europe and the Teesiders were some 4mins away from the final. Now we began to see a different Steaua, they needed to come forward now, no longer afford to defend so deep. Ugo Ehiogu came on to harden the defence in replace of Hasselbaink. The Romanian side found vigour to threaten the Boro goal and somewhat inexplicably Franck Queudrue handballed just outside of the box. I wondered if Middlesbrough would now throw away their immense effort to get so far, but the freekick struck a Steaua player in the wall and was thankfully decided to have resulted in a goal kick. Soon after, Mr Michel blew to end another dramatic European night for Middlesbrough, scarves were thrown and strewn amongst the ground near the advertising boards as players picked them up and wore them with huge pride. Another tremendous night for another tremendous comeback, to face Spain's Sevilla on 10th May in the Philips Stadion, Eindhoven.

Now cast your minds way, way back, two decades exactly, when liquidators placed locks on the gates of Ayresome Park and Middlesbrough were that close to closing up for good, when Steve Gibson took control. Middlesbrough lost a FA Cup Final to Chelsea 2-0 in 1997, then actually added silverware with a League Cup 2-1 victory over Bolton in 2004, the first cup in their history. Chairman Steve Gibson said before the 1st leg Basel game, "Twenty years ago this club was on its knees and it is fitting that the anniversary could bring us a special reward." Middlesbrough face a Sevilla side currently 6th in La Liga with only 10 league defeats out of thirty-three, who have beaten off, narrowly, a Schalke 04 side currently 4th in De Bundesliga with four league defeats out of thirty-one. For English football it is superb and sets up yet another England v Spain European final clash. It is enough of an anniversary for Middlesbrough to win it.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Barcelona V AC Milan preview

All football eyes will be on the Nou Camp tonight as two of the biggest names in club football clash head to head in a Champions League second leg tie for the right to meet Arsenal in the final on 17 June. The first leg in the San Siro was a cagey match with Barcelona gaining a one-nil victory courtesy of a Guily textbook volleyed finish from an exquisite Ronaldinho pass.

Tonight, the initiative will be on AC Milan to cancel out Barcelona's advantage. AC Milan do not engage in much team rotation and I fear that their players - many of them in their late twenties/early thirties - will be at a physical disadvantage compared to Barcelona's. This is especially because Barcelona's game last weekend at Sevilla was called off meaning their squad have had eight days recuperation entering into tonight's match.

Importantly for Milan, their livewire striker Filipo Inzaghi is available after missing last week's first leg tie. This player is significant because not only is an excellent penalty-box predator who is not scared to score in the big games, but his presence - that demands the preoccupation of opposition defenders - leaves the amazing Shevchenko more room to find gaps that he can exploit with ultimate effect. Shev is the top scorer in Champs Leaguer history- and he should relish the opportunity of taking on the Barca defence in the wide expanse of the Nou Camp. When you add the fearless, surging Kaka to AC Milan's goal threat, I would say that it'll be unwise for Barcelona to start the game with a defensive mentality.

Messi is still out injured for Barcelona, and there is a fitness doubt over Henrik Larsson. This means Guily should feature on the right of Barcelona's broad attacking line-up with Eto'o down the centre and Ronaldinho on the wide left. Crucially, Deco will be back in midfield tonight to quicken up the rhythm of their attacking passing game. Although Barca have not been hitting the same heights as in early-to-mid-season, I feel that with the luxury of a weekend off plus an expectant home crowd, they can breach the AC Milan defence a couple of times if they run hard and intelligently at them. This is because my general sense of Italian clubs are that they are unaccustomed and struggle against opponents that play high tempo, pacy, attacking football.

I highlight Liverpool last season in the final (three goals conceded in ten minutes), PSV in last season's semi-final second leg (three goals conceded), and Deportivo two seasons ago in an away quarter-final second leg (astonishingly four goals conceded) as examples that a high, attacking tempo can break Milan.

Barcelona's game-plan should be to try to hurt AC Milan's resolve in the first half hour with a goal that would mean that Milan have to score three. I expect they will score in this time playing really high tempo attacking football, and then shift gears to play a professional, containing game that AC Milan will struggle to penetrate.

Score prediction: Barcelona 2-1 AC Milan

Arsenal reach first Champs League final… it's great to write those words!

The picture at the top left hand side of this site shows Dennis Bergkamp celebrating a last minute winner against FC Thun in Arsenal's first Champs League game of this 2005-2006 season. Some seven months later, and Arsenal are still celebrating in this competition as tonight we reached our first ever Champs League final. Paris here we come!

Arsenal played an almost 'total defence' game to secure a nil-nil scoreline away at Villarreal, and progress to the final 1-0 on aggregate. Gilberto - again!- was immense in the midfield protector role shadowing the Villarreal ultra-playmaker Riquelme. Gael Clichy made his first appearance in the first team after half a year out injured and showed fantastic character replacing the injured Mathieu Flamini. Sol and Kolo were back together and did a fine job in the centre of defence. And, again in this tournament, the rest of the team - including our excellent Captain Henry - put in a committed defensive effort to support Gilberto and his back four.

But the man of the moment is Arsenal's ever-controversial goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann. Not only did he keep his tenth successive clean sheet in the competition- but in the decisive moment of the match he dived to his left and saved an 88th minute Riquelme penalty. The Russian official who gave the penalty would have gone down in infamy if the penalty had been converted because Jose Mari made a complete meal of Clichy's aerial challenge in the box. Fortunately, I don't need to dwell badly on the ref's decision because of the German number one's crucial save.

As an Arsenal supporter I want to reserve my biggest plaudits to Arsene Wenger. Maybe I'm biased, but for me he has long been deserving of taking a team to the field in a Champs League final because of both his domestic success and a fantastic coaching philosophy of seeking to achieve total football. And now, on May 17th in Paris, he will finally fulfil this feat.

Well done Arsene, and well done the Gunners! And here's hoping (and it would be unbelievably great if this happened) for another last minute winner from the Dutch master in three weeks time!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Arsenal v Spurs; Chelsea v Liverpool; Middlesbrough v West Ham

Arsenal v Spurs

Approaching this game was similar to a FA Cup semi-final. Arsenal are now aiming for the remaining Champions League place possible, currently occupied by Spurs. A home victory would mean Arsenal are one point behind with a game in hand. Spurs had only faltered with their home defeat to Man Utd, in which they gave a good second half, so one could feel if Spurs could have a second half like that against Man Utd, without captain and defensive rock Ledley King, they could be more of a match to Arsenal.

From the kick-off it was Arsenal who were the sharper, Emanuel Adebayor took the attack forward and gained a corner, possibly setting the tone for the game as an exciting one. Then after some 10mins or so Spurs came into the game and both sides shared good possession and passing, Spurs edging Arsenal in the first half. Thierry Henry, Emanuel Eboue, Cesc Fabregas and Aleksander Hleb were omitted from the starting side, while Spurs had to do without King, Jermaine Jenas and Calum Davenport, bringing in Antony Gardner and Teemu Tainio. I do not consider Gardner as a good defender and simply has height as a skilful trait. While Spurs took more of the attacking initiative, a number of passes went astray and this broke down their attack on occasion. I felt Michael Carrick was not settling in midfield, Jermaine Defoe seemed not as energetic and Robbie Keane spent a chunk of his time dropping back to aid the midfield. Edgar Davies seemed enterprising on the left wing. Defoe had carved a good chance for goal, the ball came over and he made space to receive and hook a shot that Jens Lehmann was just big enough to block. Later, Carrick picked up the ball on the left wing and went past three Arsenal players and Lehmann but stumbled a little when he drew to use his left foot. So Spurs edged the first half.

In the second half Arsenal started well again, a through ball to Robin Van Persie was just a tad too much and he made contact that just went wide of the goal, the Dutchman's contact with Paul Robinson's outcoming body made RVP look for a decision that did not come. After, the pace was shared by both sides, Philippe Senderos went to block Keane and slightly injured himself, Eboue came on for the Swiss on 54mins. Spurs still kept firm against Arsenal to the degree where Arsene Wenger felt compelled to introduce two final players, a double substitution of Henry and Fabregas for RVP and Diaby respectively. But four minutes after then, Carrick carried the ball forward and was met by the double effort of Gilberto Silva and Eboue, who both collided with each other. Carrick went on and gathered the ball by the touchline, fed Davids on the left, who in turn sent the ball across goal for Keane to tap in behind Lehmann, ironically in Arsenal-style.

With Eboue and Gilberto down, the Arsenal players felt Spurs would kick the ball out for treatment, but Spurs carried on. Robert Pires and Lehmann remonstrated with Davids and not Carrick, which makes me wonder if that was down to one's temperament. Lehmann sized up to the Dutchman, the height difference clear. Earlier in the first half, Lehmann gathered the ball which Defoe chased. The slightest of touches from Defoe and Lehmann got up and spoke out towards referee Steve Bennett, when simply getting on with the game was more necessary. At the moment when Eboue and Gilberto had gone down, Match Of The Day replays showed Wenger remained seated; Martin Jol was standing; Carrick on the ball; ref Bennett indicating to the grounded players a hand to say he will deal with them once play has stopped; and crucially, Fabregas and Pires were the nearest Arsenal players to Carrick. Because play had not stopped, Bennett was content to continue, so were Spurs, Pires and Fabregas made no call or indication for Carrick to kick the ball out. Gilberto got up, Eboue looked up and remained on the ground, Davids collected the ball, he was faced by Kolo Toure, Johan Djourou and Mathieu Flamini behind him in line, none of these players made any appeal or call for the ball to be kicked out.

Flamini had indicated that someone was coming up behind Djourou but Djourou was focused on Davids, so Flamini did not pick up the threat of Keane coming in, and instead aimed to cover if Davids pulled the ball back towards the edge of the box. Davids didn't, Djourou couldn't make the ball and Flamini wasn't there to cover Keane. Now, Arsenal were incensed but I feel this is because Spurs scored. Wenger was incensed enough to pass words in Jol's direction, which prompted the Spurs coach to walk up to Wenger and retort, with Rob Styles' arm in the middle. After that Jose Antonio Reyes aimed a sharp shot that was blocked by Robinson and Danny Murphy came on for Aaron Lennon, which I felt was a mistake as Spurs needed to keep Arsenal on their toes and Lennon's pace and tenacity had worried the home side. Funnily enough, I felt Murphy should have replaced Davids, because Davids was the only Spurs player on a booking, ideal for Murphy to replace in central midfield, and could have lost his head with Lehmann and Pires.

With that, 7mins passed and Spurs had another 10mins to hang out for, but Adebayor managed to keep the ball in play around Paul Stalteri, Stalteri claimed for a foul for Adebayor snapping at the back of his legs, Adebayor went on and touched a nice ball for Henry to run onto for a first touch forward and then an instant left foot that angled away from Robinson into the net. Replays showed Gardner was alone, ball watching and not keeping Henry in focus. Dawson came over to stop Adebayor, at which Gardner should have come across and possibly stall Henry if the ball got through. He didn't, and Henry needed nothing more than the ball to run onto, the space to run into, and hope something else would make it all count. And it did. A minute later, Davids lost possession and frustratingly stuck out a leg to trip Fabregas and received a second yellow. Fabregas consoled Davids and then pushed him, which added insult to injury. At the end, neither coach shook hands as Henry particularly shook hands and bowed as he did with all.

Jol said in post-interview he did not see when the two Arsenal players were on the ground, that he was concentrating on his players in attack, Wenger claimed Jol was lying. Again, in the replays, when Wenger and Jol came to, you could see Jol mouth the words 'I did not see it". It's an unwritten rule, a convention if you like, yet one that's universally accepted where serious injury is suspected. The referee would blow if it involves a clash of heads, certainly if, as in Alan Smith's case, it clearly looks very serious. Previously when a player went down and remained down, the ball would have to go out first before treatment could ensue. There is little difference with that and today, only that more sportsmanship has been encouraged. What supersedes is that players should play to the whistle. Arsenal were doing just that, they continued with no appeal and conceded. However, this point in the match added to Wenger's fury, for he did not look content during the first half.

Blame had been levelled at Wenger's omission of those four players from the start, and Arsenal had lost some of their attacking impetus. With Henry, Eboue and Fabregas on, it took some 30mins, and potentially an incident against them, to carve out an opening for their equaliser. This could have been different if those three players had started, with Djourou instead coming on for Senderos, but on the other hand one must understand why those players didn't start, the Arsenal starting line-up was still sharp enough to give Spurs problems.

Fourth place is still in the balance, Arsenal are on the move to Sunderland, to Man City, and finish at home with Wigan. With the draw, which from a neutral's point was a good entertaining one, the situation takes a slight turn. If Spurs win against Bolton, it would make Arsenal's next two matches immaterial. If Spurs were to win their remaining games against Bolton and West Ham, they hold onto fourth, a scenario which makes Arsenal's game in hand vital.

Chelsea v Liverpool

There were words from both teams about each other in the days counting down to Saturday. I read mostly those from Liverpool, I can only recount Jose Mourinho speaking from Chelsea. Nonetheless, Rafael Benitez made it clear for the second time before a semi-final that Liverpool were prepared for the challenge, as underdogs. The tenth time both sides meet in two seasons? If this was in a book or film, I couldn't take to it for lacking in some form of probability. But from the kick off Chelsea started the brighter, Drogba earned a corner, Hernan Crespo headed on Frank Lampard's ball, Drogba missed with a header. Later, Asier Del Horno passed to Lampard and Lampard aimed a sweet ball over the Liverpool defence for Drogba, who went on to miss with Pepe Reina coming out and making himself big. Replays showed Drogba was offside, another erroneous decision from the official on the line.

Harry Kewell was on good form, taking on both Del Horno and William Gallas before his left-foot shot went low and wide when it should have tested Cudicini. Then another decision of near influence occurred as Luis Garcia and John Terry both aimed a foot in mid-air for the ball near the edge of the Chelsea box, the Spaniard claimed for a infringement and one was granted by Graeme Poll. I felt there was nothing wrong with Terry's challenge, however the freekick had to be defended, which Chelsea are well capable of. Steven Gerrard and John Arne Riise plotted over the ball, Gerrard touched it for the Norwegian to hit, the wall where Lampard and Paulo Ferreira held opened up and the ball exploited the gap and went in unchallenged by Carlo Cudicini, who must have been unsighted. An advantage which Liverpool aimed well to hold onto, they could have added to it when Terry headed back for Cudicini but the ball was open to a challenge from Peter Crouch and the Chelsea keeper. Both came together and went down but got up and on with the game. Then Harry Kewell crossed for Gerrard to nudge the ball past Del Horno and pull back for Garcia to touch, up and high with Peter Crouch waiting by the penalty spot.

Chelsea brought on Arjen Robben for Del Horno and it was Robben's freekick from the Chelsea right over the defence that gained Chelsea a goal through Terry's downward header, but the skipper was judged to have held down Riise as he went for the ball. Work down the Chelsea right by Liverpool carved a chance for Garcia but to no avail, which left a sense of feeling that the Spaniard would prevail if allowed more chances. So what followed was a Liverpool throw that was headed backwards by Ferreira and then also by Gallas, in the running path of Garcia, and the former Barca player caught the ball on the bounce with a superb left foot half-volley that flew in past Cudicini. With the advantage doubled, Kewell took on Claude Makelele and then pulled back for Garcia to aim another half-volley that Cudicini touched away. Just over the hour, Mourinho decided for a final change and made a double substitution of Damien Duff and Joe Cole for Crespo and Geremi respectively, which turned the tide and led to a Chelsea onslaught.

Robben went on a mazy run past three players but shot low for Reina to gather comfortably. However, Chelsea broke through when a Makelele ball came over for Riise to head comfortably clear but he managed only to head the ball up, Drogba was free, Reina saw the threat and came out but Drogba had managed to head the ball into an unguarded net to pull Chelsea back. Riise should have head well clear, Reina could have remained near goal as Carragher was near enough to challenge Drogba. From then, as time ticked away, Liverpool aimed to deny with their defending, but Robben eventually gained another ball over the defence for Cole to pick up, onside through Steve Finnan, only for Cole to hit high.

At the final whistle, as jubilant Liverpool celebrated, the two coaches failed to shake hands, something that threatens to become a pandemic. OK, 'pandemic' is perhaps too strong but human emotions take over where old-fashion diplomacy and respect once reigned. Benitez has stated Mourinho would not have achieved but for the financial backing of Roman Abramovich, respects certain Chelsea players but couldn't extend that to the coach; Mourinho replies that Liverpool are nothing if not league champions, are nowhere near the quality to challenge Chelsea and that Liverpool may surprise him. Unsavoury at best. I have advocated for football to do the talking instead of mere words.

I mentioned to SKG that I felt Liverpool would win by a single goal and I was right, albeit I expected a 0-1 win. For the hour Liverpool earned the lead and potential win but Chelsea are a fighting bulldog breed, give them time to flow and they can hurt you, and then some. Once again Mourinho has claimed the better side lost, that decisions went against Chelsea, that Terry's goal should have stood, but obviously I am glad for the win which puts Benitez in his first FA Cup Final and potentially to another trophy in just his second season.

Middlesbrough v West Ham

I expected Middlesbrough, despite their UEFA match with Steaua Bucharest, would be to much for West Ham to handle. Despite not having Mark Viduka upfront, the choice of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Aiyegbeni Yakubu leading gives strength, pace and a good eye for goals. A tribute was held before the game kicked off in respect of two former West Ham managers who had recently passed away. Ron Greenwood, who managed West Ham in 1961, led them to a FA Cup win three years later and a European Cup Winners' Cup in 1965, and took over England from 1977 until 1982, passed away in early February. John Lyall succeeded Greenwood in 1974, taking the Hammers to FA Cup victory in 1975 and 1980, the latter brought Trevor Brooking to produce a header for the only winning goal for a Second Division side over a top flight team. It was an unusual one, for as the whistle was blown to begin, silence gradually became cheers as some fans cheered in memory, while others showed their clear discontent towards the cheers in booing.

It was Middlesbrough who looked the sharpest from the beginning and kept West Ham on the back foot. Fabio Rochemback aimed a left-foot shot wide after Stuart Parnaby got round Paul Konchesky. Hasselbaink came close with two headers, Franck Queudrue came close with a header himself that went over, but a setback followed as Mark Schwarzer jumped to gather a ball and was met with a challenge by Dean Ashton. The keeper gathered, went down and stayed down, to be subsequently diagnosed with a broken cheekbone. Fellow Aussie Bradley Jones came on to replace.

West Ham attacked more in the second half, Ashton had a header go just over as Yossi Benayoun and Nigel Reo-Coker ran marathons to aid the cause against the more enterprising George Boateng and Rochemback. The Brazilian's touch on occasion let him down as Boro made it to West Ham's third in attack, and he was joined by Stewart Downing, whose efforts on goal were to be desired. All in all, West Ham fought to hold back Boro, Anton Ferdinand, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins having to head or kick out the numerous balls of danger that came their way. However, as Middlesbrough's stern defence of Gareth Southgate, Chris Riggott and Queudrue cleared most of any danger that came their way, a high ball from midfield was headed on by Ashton and Marlon Harewood, who at best had been niggling the defence, managed to step ahead of Southgate for a fierce left-foot shot past Jones. It was a sucker punch.

Steve McClaren brought on Massimo Maccarone for Andrew Taylor, making for three strikers, and with the clock ticking West Ham faced the inevitable onslaught. Queudrue took on a Hasselbaink-earned freekick which had more accuracy than power and produced a punch-out from Shaka Hislop. In the closing stages Downing took on another Hasselbaink-earned freekick from almost the same spot as last time, this time Downing stepped up for what could produce a good chance to equalise, but it was spurned over everyone and wide.

At the final whistle, the West Ham players and staff celebrated a FA Cup final appearance for the first time since 1980. Though I felt Middlesbrough had enough to win, and with the amount of chances and possession they had they could have, it was ironic for the Hammers to go through for the first time for 26 years in the memory of one manager who last took them there.


Wenger labels Spurs "liars"

The North London derby is one the best fixtures in the Premiership. Full of passion, excitement, controversy and now squaring-up contests between the mangers. Wenger and Jol were nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball and the assitant ref was like a boxing referree keeping them apart. Extraordinary! And the reason why? Because Spurs scored whilst two Arsenal players were down injured.

The "rule" about putting the ball out of play when players are down injured is accepted by all footballers worldwide. OK we all have to accept that sometimes players just don't see this and sod's law they go and score. This is what the Spurs camp are saying anyhow. Wenger does not accept this. He says, "their first goal was a disgrace. They lie when they say they didn't see it. I can't believe they didn't see it. Of course they lie. I find it very disappointing and it is a shame that a thing like that can happen."

I have the utmost respect for Wenger and can understand why he is angry. However I think it unnecessary that he should label Spurs as liars. Henry's behaviour on the contrary was exemplary; not only is he a great player but now also a great diplomat. He said that Arsenal had the right to be angry at the time but that he also accepts what Carrick and Davids told him after the game that they did not see Arsenal's players injured. Wenger could learn a few lessons from his captain. I hate to think what he would have said had Arsenal lost the game.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Young defensive leader - Kolo Toure - gains Arsenal the first leg advantage

Yesterday Arsenal came up against a Villarreal yellow brick wall at Highbury, but managed to put a dent in it to gain a one nil lead. It seemed to me that after moving ahead through Kolo Toure's goal late in the first half, Arsenal somewhat psychologically settled for this advantage and were most intent in not conceding a 'counting double' away goal. The strong pressing game applied by Villarreal which made it hard for Arsenal to find space and get into a good fluent attacking rhythm also contributed to the stalemate nature of the second half.

The attacking side of Arsenal's game may not have been at its best- but the defensive side was excellent. Again in a Champs League match this season, Arsenal put in a total team defensive effort reminiscent of a George Graham side whenever Villarreal got possession. To take one player as an example, it was great to see Alex Hleb sprint back on a number of occasions to try to catch up and tackle the rampaging Riquelme. This sort of effort and determination sets the right tone across the whole team: a mentality of total commitment. This individual and collective attitude has been a massive factor in our progress so far in the competition.

The goal scored by Arsenal's magnificent young defensive leader - Kolo Toure - was amazingly his first ever at Highbury. The way he has assumed responsibilty for leading Phillipe Senderos to this left and Emmanuel Eboue to his right in the absence of Sol Campbell shows what great character Kolo has combined to his fantastic natural defensive ability. The combination of these two superb assets make him a really worthy player to score the last ever Champions League goal at Highbury.

Kolo's interview after the match underlines why I have always really liked the Ivorian centre-back. He always comes across as amazingly humble, positive, friendly and focused. After talking about the team performance and his happiness in getting the goal, he ended by saying that we must now focus on Tottenham on Saturday. This concentration on what's ahead just minutes after a high pressure match is fantastic. He is an outstanding representative of Arsenal FC.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Liverpool consolidate 3rd; Man Utd keep chase as Chelsea 1pt away; derby brings Brum setback

Playing against a side that can pass the ball well in attack, have a physical strength to them that allows them to tussle well for the ball and have players who can create opportunities and strike unceremoniously, can make for a more challenging game. Both Lancashire sides Bolton and Blackburn are two who can do just that. Bolton can attack well, encouraged by the midfield runs of Gary Speed and Kevin Nolan, tenacity of Kevin Davies, wing attacks of Ricardo Gardner and Stelios Giannakopoulos, and on occasion the tight finishing of El-Hadji Diouf. Blackburn have made a late rise for even the Champions League section and have made inspirational process through the exploits of Craig Bellamy, Morten Gamst Pedersen, David Bentley, Paul Dickov, and on occasion Steven Reid's finishing. Jussi Jasskelainen and Brad Friedel have respectively added their talents to the cause.

Liverpool have now encountered both consecutively, and I'm not surprised a single goal separated the sides in both games. Both sides are difficult to break down, though a number of chances for Liverpool and Bolton could have made that game look more competitive in the scoreline. Yesterday I felt either Liverpool or Blackburn were capable of snatching victory, therefore a draw was the best I expected, possibly a 0-0 or 1-1, though on Friday I mentioned to my EFT colleague SKG that, impartially, Liverpool would snatch victory but only at 0-1. I do not know why, I just felt a victory would only bring one goal.

Yesterday my prediction should have been wrong. No Steven Gerrard nor Peter Crouch, Harry Kewell on the bench only because Dietmar Hamann pulled out with illness, Liverpool hadn't warmed to the beginning as expected. Blackburn made the most of the attacks in the opening stages but their passing was either off target nor was made to a player in a less advantageous position and Liverpool's defending stopped the attack. But incredibly Robbie Fowler chested the ball forward, Djibril Cisse aimed a foot towards it while in an offside position, play was allowed to continue, and Fernando Morientes went on to square for Fowler to finish as the Blackburn defence stopped to appeal. Frankly, the goal shouldn't have stood and I wouldn't have complained, but I'm glad it did. Yet Cisse should have scored when through on two occasions, Friedel got down well to one attempt before half time and the Frenchman had two takes on another, Friedel and Ryan Nelson intervening to stop him.

Liverpool have now consolidated 3rd place, with Spurs losing yesterday. Arsene Wenger and Phillippe Senderos said Arsenal could catch us up and overtake 3rd place, at the time when Arsenal began to produce their fast-paced pass-and-move football that has now brought them 5 wins out of the last 7. With Spurs in 4th as an added danger, the fear was Liverpool would ease of their pace and slip down, to have to fight it out for 4th but with Rafael Benitez, there is a sense that he has good strategy in dealing with selections and pushing for victory. Though we could have been sharper against the Lancashire sides, the main thing is the three points, and we have managed thirty-two clean sheets in all competitions, twenty-two of which, currently, have come in the league. 'Thank you' to the players and management of LFC, and good luck as we still push to catch Man Utd.

Speaking of Man Utd, they have kept their push for catching Chelsea with the 1-2 victory yesterday. The game was fantastic from the start, Man Utd took early possession and then both sides passed and moved against each other so well that every attack looked to produce a goal. When one did materialise, it came on the counter, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was fed by Christiano Ronaldo, Ronaldo ran on to collect a pass from VNR, and a first time square across goal found Wayne Rooney sneaking behind Young-Pyo Lee, the South Korean was not playing attention to danger behind him and wasn't in place to block the ball. He was at fault for Man Utd's second as he was closed down by his former PSV teammate and compatriot Ji-Sung Park near the corner, Rooney capitalising on the loose ball for his second. After then the tempo began to reduce, both sides lost a little of the rhythm that encapsulated the first 20-25mins, Spurs mainly giving away the ball and being blocked out by Utd's defending.

Yet the home side came back courtesy of Nemanja Vidic in the second half, who was pressured under a high ball by Jermaine Defoe, resulting in Rio Ferdinand coming to head clear for a corner. From the corner Vidic poorly headed, which came off Ferdinand towards goal for Jermaine Jenas to simply poke in. I imagined Chelsea fans were Spurs fans, Arsenal fans were Man Utd fans, for the day. But with Chelsea first having won away at Bolton and then beating Everton yesterday, they are 1pt away from mathematically reclaiming the title. That point could be achieved in their next home game against Utd.

Meanwhile this defeat further dents Spurs' hold on 4th place, a dent that occurred when Ledley King was diagnosed as suffering from a broken metatarsal and is likely to be out of the remaining games. Calum Davenport has moved into his space, and Dawson played very well to deny Utd in the second half. Spurs have Arsenal, Bolton at home then West Ham away, while Arsenal face Spurs, Sunderland and Man City away, then Wigan at home.

Just as Steve Bruce dared to believe the light was becoming brighter, someone pulled the power switch. First Matthew Upson develops an Achilles injury in warming up at Villa Park, then David Dunn comes off with a calf injury. Birmingham go a goal down then get back in it through Chris Sutton, only to poorly defend again to allow Villa to take the points. Upson isn't expected to return for the remainder. Portsmouth started excellently and looked to continue their run with another win, only for Charlton to deny them. West Brom had a chance to make their mark on the relegation zone but failed to score in a 0-0 draw with Bolton. These teams are ever so tight at the moment, with 3 or 4 games left and Portsmouth now not looking at ease as much.

My fear is Birmingham have too many influential injuries now to maintain a progressive run from Blackburn at home on Wednesday, Everton away, Newcastle at home then Bolton away. Tomorrow's match is pivotal to their hopes, the proverbial win or else. If this game is a home win, then Birmingham have a slim chance, otherwise anything else will make it too difficult to achieve survival. Portsmouth face Sunderland at home, Wigan away then home with Liverpool. I would expect they will have a good game against Sunderland, a potential away win at Wigan, and I strongly feel a defeat against Liverpool.

West Brom's scoring rate has dipped with only one goal managed in a match since their 2-0 win against Blackburn ten matches ago. Nathan Ellington has scored twice and one goal apiece has come from Nwankwo Kanu, Kevin Campbell, Curtis Davies and Nigel Quashie in a run of seven defeats and three draws. So in the remaining three games they need to a higher attacking system if they want to survive so much. They could potentially force a draw at St James' Park though I anticipate a home win, while West Ham's away record in the league is five wins out of eighteen, where West Brom could gain a draw. In their last match away to Everton, I anticipate a home win, I'm afraid.

This in total renders Birmingham and West Brom to be relegated with Sunderland. Portsmouth suffered a setback against Charlton but they have a belief that emits from their attacking that they can score well, which is something I see more with Pompey than with Birmingham and West Brom. Birmingham have Chris Sutton back but now need more of a push from Emile Heskey and Mikael Forssell to score. West Brom look to Ellington, Diomansy Kamara, captain Campbell and Kanu, but need to have Kanu playing from the start. Jonathan Greening and Zoltan Gera have ebbed in their play slightly and need to help spearhead an attack to encourage the strikers. It would help if Kamara would look up more for others as he fights and runs into good spaces near the opposition's goal. For Portsmouth, Lomano LuaLua, Pedro Mendes and Dejan Stefanovic are needed and were missing against Charlton but Gary O'Neil has made good progress in his play and Andres D'Alessandro is looking a good player, good enough to keep Pompey up.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Can Chelsea capitalise on Man Utd's slip-up to inspired Sunderland?

If anyone predicted a draw between Man Utd and Sunderland at Old Trafford they have my admiration. Man Utd, on an impressive run of nine Premiership wins in a row and gunning for a Chelsea side that has been slightly inconsistent in the last two months, were massive favourites to beat the Premiership's bottom side who had accumulated only 11 points all season. If ever there was a 'lock-on' victory in the Premiership, this was it.

But football being football you know that anything's possible. And when Man Utd hadn't broken the deadlock after twenty minutes there were already signs of anxiousness as they implored the referee to ensure he added injury time for some perceived time-wasting by the Sunderland team.

The creeping pressure of getting a goal affected Man Utd's rhythm and attacking cohesion. This, combined with facing a resolute and energetic Sunderland team that visibly grew in confidence with every minute that passed by without a goal conceded, plus an inspired performance by the Sunderland keeper, Kelvin Davis, who looked unbeatable on the night, were the key elements that produced the most shocking scoreline of the season to date.

Chelsea were already in pole position to win the title before last night's match. But with Man Utd unable to pick up all three points last night, I imagine that the Blues can approach today's match with Bolton in a more relaxed and positive mood than expected.

My own prediction for this match is a significant away win for Chelsea. Travelling to the Reebok has been a very tough task for most Premiership teams this season- with only Everton and Man Utd gaining wins. That said, I like Chelsea's chances for three reasons.

First, I remember this time last season they went to the Reebok and comprehensively beat Allardyce's team. I'm sure Mourinho will be telling his players to recall this experience as evidence that they are well capable of a win today. Second, travelling to Bolton at midday in April is a better prospect than making the same trip to the elemental Reebok stadium in the wind and rain of dark mid-winter. Finally, Bolton have suffered four defeats in a row which means they are likely to enter the game with low morale, while Chelsea will be high-on-confidence after an excellent home performance last week against West Ham. Man Utd's unexpected failing last night can only help this confidence factor.

Predicted scoreline: Bolton 1 - 2 Chelsea

Chelsea-bound Ballack is ballacked; Wolves' Hoddle misquotes as Championship race turns

Michael Ballack appears to have made, through his agent, good publicity over his talks with Chelsea. His manager at Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, feels the Germany captain is more interested in money than in pursuing a change in team for sportive achievement. It may well be, yet if a player wants to move, his motives why are immaterial though they may fare ill with his current supporters. Hoeness said Ballack will leave with Munich's blessing and good luck but it's questionable the Bayern fans will think so when Hoeness has made a statement like that. I personally wonder why Chelsea wish to seek a 29 yr old midfielder who can be temperamental, according to rumours, and is not accustomed to not playing regularly. Yet with Frank Lampard and Ballack in front of Claude Makelele, it makes a great midfield greater, perhaps at the expense of Michael Essien or Makelele.

I've been intrigued with the Championship race for promotion. Reading are already guaranteed their lift and congratulations go to their supporters and the club for an excellent season that has achieved a goal difference of 64, and their chairman wants them to achieve the maximum of 110pts as they currently stand with 4 games remaining and 98pts. Sheffield United are within touching rights with their away win yesterday at Cardiff, and if Leeds fail to win against Reading at Elland Road, then Neil Warnock will have taken Sheff Utd back into top flight football once again, since Dave Bassett achieved it some 16 years before. That would leave the third team curently out of Preston North End, Watford, Crystal Palace and Leeds. 6th place is some 4pts away from 3rd, so it is still too close to call, however one team outside the quartet may have counted their chickens too soon, pessimistically.

Wolverhampton Wanderers drew 1-1 against Watford yesterday, and remain in 7th place. They have 3 more games remaining, need to win all three and also need 6th place Palace and/or 5th place Preston to lose all four of their remaining games, to stand a chance of breaking into the quartet at a steal. Even then, it would go down to goal difference, which Preston and Palace are more superior, so it a very tight glimmer of hope for Wolves, but no doubt a win yesterday would have been very helpful. Post-match, there occurred a difference of fact between a Sky Sports interviewer and coach Glenn Hoddle:

SSI: "Given that, very briefly, on your future, given that Jez Moxley in the programme today, the chief executive, has again reiterated that getting to the play-offs is a minimum requirement, does that undermine your future here?"

Hoddle: "No, it doesn't, and what you said to me before the game, he didn't actually, you need to read his notes again cos obviously you didn't read them, did ya?"

SSI: "Well I did, what he.....

Hoddle: "He didn't say that it was a complete disaster,....

SSI: "......said was it would be a complete disaster

Hoddle: ".......he didn't say that. So go and read them, then come back and maybe you will apologise one day, but, you know, probably won't because you will move on to the next game, cos I read them and he didn't say that, he said they were disappointed, we're all disappointed, we're all disappointed, course we are."

The Wolves chairman said in the programme notes:

"It has to be said that most of us feel that this season has been a complete disaster because of where we are likely to finish in the league table."

Mr Moxley went on to say finishing 7th would be nice but, in terms of expected achievement, is as good as finishing 21st. This would indicate the chairman would be bitterly disappointed with the draw and does not see 5th and 6th teams dropping enough points to allow Wolves to take advantage.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Football in Gaza

Little reported in the British media last week was the news that Gaza's main football stadium was intentionally hit by an Israeli air strike. The bomb left an enormous crater in the middle of the stadium.

A FIFA representative immediately condemned the attack, saying it was "without reason".

"The field was not being used by Palestinians as a missile launching pad, as Israel's ambassador to Switzerland had claimed," said Jerome Champagne, FIFA deputy general secretary in charge of political issues.

"FIFA has been fighting for more than a century to make this game universal. To hit a football field is really the wrong signal. Football should remain outside of politics."

An Israeli army spokesman later told Reuters that there was no confirmation the stadium was ever used as a launching pad for makeshift rockets. He added that the intention of the air strike was to "send a strong message to the Palestinians that Israel can target any point in the coastal strip and will not tolerate rocket fire at its citizens."

Today, the FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that FIFA would pay for the rehabillitation of the football pitch in the Palestine stadium in Gaza. Mr Blatter said:

"In the world of today, which is disrupted by long-lasting disputes and violence, football is one of the very few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and peoples, and to symbolise what unites our planet over what divides it. FIFA's role is not to reprimand, but to help create bonds and ensure that the young people of the region have hope and the possibility to enjoy the school of life that football represents. Therefore, I call on the relevant authorities to do everything they can to allow Palestinian and Israeli football to develop."

This site has a policy not to carry pictures in it's posts. But I make this post an exception because the picture of the disfigurement of Gaza's best football pitch has a symbolism that not only goes beyond mere words, but also beyond the beautiful game itself.

Good luck Sol

Tomorrow night, Sol Campbell will be back in the Arsenal starting line up for the first time since a dark night on 1 February. That night at Highbury, Arsenal slipped to a shock 3-2 defeat to the Hammers, with Sol Campbell being substituted at half-time after uncharacteristically looking a liability and being at fault for the two West Ham goals. In fact, the preceding month of January saw Campbell look really ill at ease alongside Senderos to his right and a rotation of makeshift left-backs to his left.

It was clear that we were not watching the same Sol Campbell who had been the reliable bedrock of the England and Arsenal defence for the previous five years. An apparent reason for this was that Sol had been troubled by recurring injuries since the previous February- which of course can have a big impact on form and confidence. Less apparent were the rumours that Sol had been suffering psychological trauma for an undisclosed reason. Wenger denied this, with an ankle injury the stated offical cause for his absence from the side. But comments at the same time made by Robert Pires implied heavily that the squad was aware that Sol Campbell was undergoing mental strain, and that this was a factor in his move to the sidelines.

Arsenal were in a bad way when Sol Campbell last played ten weeks ago. It was a poor time for us to lose such a big and experienced character from the side. But football is not the most important thing in life, and if Sol needed a time-out to regroup because something significant was badly affecting him, than I support that. This would go for any Arsenal player, let alone one who has been such a influential figure in Arsenal's recent success.

I imagine that Sol will psychologically get a big boost being back in the starting line-up, and that his game will go from strength to strength if all Gunners' show solidarity with him. This will be significant because a fit and confident Sol Campbell can really help Arsenal's cause for the last few weeks of this season.

Making a comeback against free-scoring Portsmouth, with the livewire Lua Lua and the Yakubu-like Mwaruwari playing up-front, will be a tough challenge. This is especially so because I would say that a win is a must tomorrow night, and for that to happen everyone needs to be at the top of their game, including the returning Campbell.

I believe he can achieve this because he has a natural big-match determination and commitment, and because he will being playing alongside his favoured CB partner, Kolo Toure. But, of course, the proof will be in the playing. Good luck Sol.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Chelsea show spirit; Man Utd/Pool continue chase; relegation issue no clearer

Lousy Premiership fixtures led to five games on Saturday and five on Sunday. Alright for those who have access to Sky, where three big matches were featured live on Sunday, otherwise highlights of Match Of The Day would suffice for the average football enthusiast.

Saturday brought Charlton v Everton, Portsmouth v Blackburn, Sunderland v Fulham, Wigan v Birmingham, and Tottenham v Man City. Spurs maintained their winning form after Newcastle with a 2-1 win over City, which Robbie Keane again the main instigator of many attacks. This placed pressure on Blackburn to follow suit, only for the Lancashire side to twice concede the lead against battling Portsmouth to finish 2-2. Craig Bellamy finished off two superbly taken goals with his left foot, with Lomano LuaLua scoring a neat effort himself.

Charlton v Everton ended goalless, surprisingly, Darren Bent was possibly rested with the FA Cup replay with Middlesbrough in mind on Wednesday, while Mike Riley gave the Sunderland v Fulham fixture a chance to proceed before deciding some 20mins into the game to abandon it due to snowy weather. Wigan v Birmingham was an evening kick-off, and Birmingham knew they had a chance to distance themselves further from the relegation three with a vital away win at the JJB Stadium, but they were held by an expected stern home front that took the lead through John McCulloch's header and Andreas Johansson's headed finish. But Birmingham look to have suffered enough to know not to surrender, Emile Heskey resiliently running down the left to square across for David Dunn to put enough on the ball for it to cross the line.

The highlight of the weekend came on Sunday, where all the games were big games. Aston Villa v West Brom regarded the relegation issue, yet ended in a 0-0 result which does nothing for either side. It is not convincing for those who seek the exit of David O'Leary, neither does it allay fears for Bryan Robson's side, perched now in the zone, a point and place behind Birmingham. Middlesbrough came down from Thursday night's excellent comeback to face the North East derby, where a 1-2 home defeat cap their season of having a bad game after a good one. Not convincing for Newcastle but the job was done.

Chelsea faced West Ham at Stamford Bridge, went a goal behind from early through James Collins' header, and then a man down as Maniche was judged to have gone over the top with his challenge on Lionel Scaloni, a straight red. But Chelsea showed they do not buckle from such a disadvantage, with Didier Drogba then Hernan Crespo tidying away for a half time 2-1 lead. John Terry and then William Gallas finished off a comprehensive victory. The message clearly was 'The Bridge isn't falling down.'

Liverpool v Bolton meant a win for Liverpool would keep them that much more in 3rd place and seeking for Man Utd to slip up and relinquish 2nd place. Not a first half to write home about for both sides but mainly Liverpool were seeking the goals and not giving Bolton the openings they can easily carve chances from. Stelios Giannakopoulos made a great chance for himself but Pepe Reina was down to stop it. Peter Crouch touched a return to Robbie Fowler of the only goal of the game. Three points in the bag, that is needed.

The main focus was left to last and so much depended on its result. Man Utd v Arsenal comes at a time where a Man Utd defeat would have made it harder to catch up with Chelsea, render Utd 2pts ahead of Liverpool, albeit a game in hand, and a big scalp for one of their main adversaries. A defeat for Arsenal would keep them in 6th behind Spurs and Blackburn but a point and a game behind 5th place. Again, a draw would mean little to either side. I was surprised to see no Thierry Henry, but perhaps Arsene Wenger wanted to test his side without his talisman starting, giving Robin Van Persie a chance with Emanuel Adebayor. Also with games against Portsmouth and West Brom to follow, it could be considered less risky for Henry to come through those than a battling Man Utd.

But even without Henry starting, Arsenal were the brighter of the two from the whistle and Man Utd took time to come back into the game. Wayne Rooney wasn't his usual bustling dribbling self but come some 10-15 mins later he was causing problems to the Arsenal defence. A contentious moment came when Ruud Van Nistelrooy played through a superb ball for Rooney to chase. Rooney rounded Jens Lehmann and cut back to shoot, but the ball deflected off Kolo Toure and then the post. Rooney immediately claimed handball and replays showed he was correct, Toure getting up with both forearms in the path of the ball. The referee was Graeme Poll, you either love him or hate him. I don't hate him, I just feel he likes the limelight rather than adjudicate appropriately, for it appeared he had a decent view of the incident. Then there is the view of the linesman to consider.

Half time came at 0-0, but the breakthrough came from a Mikael Silvestre cross from the left that was allowed through to Rooney, who controlled and drilled past Lehmann. Then from there Man Utd pushed up to increase their lead. Arsenal brought on Henry with some 20mins of normal time but it may have been too late for him to make any impact, for his first touch came from a freekick that was slightly wide and then his involvement in attack was minimal. Arsenal made chances through Van Persie and Adebayor. Van Persie narrowly missed with a shot and when Robert Pires fired in a drive, it curled in Adebayor's direction, with the Togo man missing out on a touch with a flick. Whether this was telling on Man Utd's pressure for their second goal is questionable, but Rooney ran across behind Phillippe Senderos and collected the ball on the right , ran on to ride a Senderos challenge and square for Park Ji-Sung to beat Emanuel Eboue and touch in.

While Arsenal made a number of breakthroughs from which they could have converted goals, Man Utd kept shape strong enough to earn the win. It may have been justice for the potential penalty claim that was overlooked, but Arsenal gave a good account of themselves. This defeat could be immaterial for the Gunners, with the game against Portsmouth on Wednesday night, then Spurs visiting Everton and Blackburn hosting Liverpool at the weekend as Arsenal face West Brom.

For Man Utd, they are still in the chase for Chelsea. With the Friday evening game at home with Sunderland, Chelsea could possibly find they are 4pts ahead of their match away to Bolton. Then Utd won't play until the following weekend away to Spurs as Chelsea host Everton. The next game after that weekend for both teams is their encounter at Stamford Bridge on the last Saturday of April. The chase could very well conclude then.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Middlesbrough v Basel FC: another dramatic English comeback

Last night Middlesbrough Football Club practically did what Liverpool FC achieved last May in the European Cup final, and practically under the same circumstances. Middlesbrough entered into last night's UEFA Cup tie with Basel FC at The Riverside two goals to the bad from the 1st leg at St. Jacob-Park. Last week's TV coverage, I presume it was on Five, did another injustice by pronouncing the Swiss team as 'Barl' or 'Baaal', the former is the French pronunciation. It is 'Baa-sel' or 'Bay-sel'. Now, last week the BBC post-match report on the 1st leg began with:

"Middlesbrough have a montain to climb in their Uefa Cup quarter-final with FC Basle (sic!!) after conceding twice in the last three minutes of the first half. Steve McClaren's side fell behind when Argentine Matias Delgado beat Mark Schwarzer after his long-range shot took a wicked bounce. Midfielder David Degen then raced through to double the advantage with the last kick of the half.....Emanuel Pogatetz had to be carried off after breaking his nose in an aerial challenge."

Middlesbrough made great efforts that time but were outplayed on many occasions, particularly along the wings upon a pitch that seemed more suited to a local park in Fife than in the ground of a top Swiss team competing in the UEFA Cup. I wondered if the pitch had been deliberately allowed to attain its condition. Nonetheless, Middlesbrough began last night's match two goals down, Pogatetz out for the remainder of the season with a nasty facial injury, Gaizka Mendieta out with a broken metatarsal, and Lee Cattermole unfit. If they didn't take the game to Basel, they faced an exit from what they have worked so hard to progress in. As one quote put it, "if Boro play at a high tempo in the second leg Basle (sic) won't be able to live with us."

Oh, how those very words came to light. But not before Middlesbrough could have had a penalty, as Aiyegbeni Yakubu was tackled by midfielder Mile Sterjovski. Yet some 10mins later a ball over the home defence found Boris Smiljanic on the left, who headed across goal for the Brazilian Eduardo Adelino Da Silva to score to further compound Middlesbrough's fears. Now they needed four goals, it wasn't impossible, it was quite realistic, but it would depend on their resolve from that point on. When you consider that, you are the proverbial badger in a corner, therefore you have no alternative but to fight your way out. Middlesrbough's biggest boxer was Mark Viduka.

Daniel Majstorovic held his task of marking Viduka tightly but the Australian is skilful and smart for his size and can be underestimated. He collected a pass just by the Basel 'D' with his back to goal, turned his marker and fired a shot that wrong-footed keeper Pascal Zuberbuhler. The comeback was on, albeit weakly, and if Middlesbrough could only score another before half time then two goals in the second half and a tight defence could see them through . Then before half time Yakubu almost did just that, turning Majstorovic on the bounce, but his shot was not powerful enough to beat the keeper.

Second half, Steve McClaren brought on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for James Morrison, effectively changing the 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, Hasselbaink an unorthodox link behind the front two, increasing the attacking potential. On 57mins Yakubu released Viduka, who timed his run to outpace the defence, sidestep Zuberbuhler and tuck away the ball for no.2. Now with some 30mins more remaining, the comeback expectation became more vibrant, the crowd imploring for more, sensing the possibility with time remaining that Middlesbrough could score two goals. McClaren sensed it too, bringing off the head-bandaged Franck Queudrue on 67mins for another striker in Italian Massimo Maccarone, Middlesbrough now had four strikers in a potential 3-3-4 or a 3-3-1-3!!

That very expectation then turned more realistic, as Basel's main defensive rock Majstorovic gave away a foul in the Middlesbrough box and proceeded to stall George Boateng from starting a quick attack. Boateng verbally remonstrated and the Swede defender raised his hand to Boateng's neck, which was spotted by the Russian referee Yuri Baskakov. Having been already booked, Majstorovic was sent off for a second yellow, 20mins remaining, including injury time, for Middlesbrough to score those two vital goals.

Middlesbrough took every opportunity of possession that came their way as Basel looked to get all behind the ball. Stewart Downing and Stuart Parnaby took turns in attacking gaps on the wings, but huge inspiration followed Fabio Rochemback as he found Hasselbaink in space, the Dutchman touching the ball once to tee it up and then unleashing his trademark drive from 20-25 yards past the keeper. With 79mins gone, the score now 3-3, one more goal was needed for Middlesbrough to complete a comeback that at best seemed unlikely. And score, they did. A relentless second half onslaught on the Basel goal reaped excellent dividends as chance after chance was thwarted until, in the last minute of normal time, yet another Rochemback shot from outside the box was this time spilled by Zuberbuhler, and Maccarone was on hand on the right to follow it up with a side-foot scuff that found its way into the net, despite Zuberbuhler's outstretched left-hand.

Middlesbrough FC had completed the expectation.

Now they needed to instruct their injury time defence. Basel had a last ditch corner to take, a minute remaining of injury time, keeper Zuberbuhler came up, approximately 6'6", McClaren threw on young England U-18 defender Andrew Taylor for Rochemback, Taylor immediately went over to mark the keeper, jostling occurred between the two requiring the referee to come over and have brief words, Chris Riggott instead stepped up to mark the keeper, the corner came and was headed away slightly, Riggott came to clear, Zuberbuhler caught him unceremoniously and was booked. Danger over, the whistle went, and The Riverside was ecstatic, the Basel players were understandably looking down, the Middlesbrough players understandably elated.

This comeback ranks alongside that of last May and of Manchester City in the FA Cup at White Hart Lane in February 2004, when they faced a second half 3-0 and a man down with Joey Barton too fiery in protestation for Rob Styles' liking. I mentioned how Middlesbrough did practically what Liverpool had done but that reference also includes when Liverpool also faced Basel FC, in the Champions League in 2002/03. Drawing at Anfield 1-1, we needed to win, only to go to St Jacob-Park and concede three goals within half an hour, therefore needing four goals but instead scoring three.

That time Basel played for the away goal and last night they did the same, but they hadn't reckoned on lightning not striking twice in their favour. Unless lightning had a name like Viduka. Potentially, with results like this and against Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd at The Riverside, McClaren will not take up the England coach role. He is now Middlesbrough, through and through.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Eboue is fast showing he can be Arsenal's Cafu

Last night, the 'next-generation' Arsenal completed the disposal of Juventus to qualify for the semi-finals of the Champs league for the first time in the club's history. Concentration, organisation, and application were the elements required after gaining a good two nil first leg lead, and this is what the team delivered in the Stadio Delle Alpi. George Graham would have been proud!

Arsenal's young and inexperienced defence deserve every plaudit for achieving another clean sheet in the competition. The character and resolve shown by Eboue, Toure, Senderos, and Flamini was again simply fantastic. In particular, the Swiss Guard - Phillipe Senderos - took full control of the countless long balls aimed in his direction. Capello must have thought this was a weak part of Senderos' game after studying some of Arsenal's defeats earlier this season. Time for Capello to think again!

But the number one key to our eighth successive clean sheet in the competition is that every player is contributing to the defensive effort in an organised and accomplished manner. In particular, selfless Gilberto's marshalling of the young back four has been outstanding. Also great to see is Alex Hleb's determination to consistently double-up with Eboue in defence, which yesterday saw off the energetic threat of Pavel Nedved.

After another outstanding display the player I'd really like to focus on is Emmanuel Eboue. We have been discussing Eboue on EFT since last November when a great contributor - GunnerPete - stressed that 22 year old Emmanuel should be in the first team. I first truly thought Eboue was a big prospect after seeing him a few weeks later on Sky Sports against Doncaster. Then, ever since his emergence in the Arsenal first team following his return from the African Nations Cup in February, I have really enjoyed tracking his stunning progress on this site. As I wrote after Arsenal knocked out Real Madrid at Highbury:

'Eboue is a superstar in the making. He has absolutely everything: heart, pace, strength, excellent defensive awareness, strong tackling ability, thrilling attacking drive, confidence, composure, good passing range… as I said, he has everything!'

Watching Eboue's performance yesterday made me think that he is rapidly resembling the amazing Brazilian international right-back, Cafu. His natural defensive abilities kept Nedved quiet and frustrated to the point that the Czech legend lost his cool and got sent-off, while simultaneously he constantly offered a surging attacking presence. Having a player with such a superb workrate and combination of excellent defensive and attacking qualities is undoubtedly a fantastic asset for the first team to have discovered this season.

I read Wenger say that Eboue played like the legendary Brazilian winger Garrincha against Villa last Saturday. This says it all about the spirit of the Ivorian's game; which combined with his massive natural footballing talent and the nurturing skills of Wenger makes me believe that he will progress into one of the world's best full-backs. With 'the fighter' Kerrea Gilbert also having energed this season, it's a sure thing that Arsenal now have a combination of young right-backs to rival the quality of Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy on the left.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Chelsea drop pts; Spurs drop pts; Arsenal in session; Portsmouth resurrection

Birmingham City 0 Chelsea 0

Jonathan Pearce: "[Ricardo] Carvalhoooo.....Oh! What a chance! What an opportunity for Chelsea to header...7 yards out...didn't hit the target. Carvalho knows it would have taken Chelsea a step nearer the title retention, it would have been very hard on Birmingham."

Goodness, wouldn't have, and didn't, banked on this happening. Not only a draw but Birmingham kept Chelsea out of their goal. They took the game to the visitors in the first half, and then Chelsea came out in the second as if they had been blasted by Jose Mourinho. But the home fans must have been happy to see no further capitulation and a better, home performance.

Mourinho gave credit to Birmingham, felt they deserved the point presumablybecause Chelsea didnt get to score, and I agree. But the Chelsea boss was adamant the goals should have stood when in fact they were rightly cancelled, he may not have seen the replays. For the first one, Carvalho came from an offside position actively, for the second Damian Duff was offside along with Didier Drogba.

Birmingham fans: A performance just as important as the point, now Steve Bruce needs equal support, if not more, for the Tuesday home game against Bolton.

Chelsea fans: Players tried and tried but could not blow the house down. Yet considering the players around and the league position, few would hesitate changing places. Man Utd clawed back points against Newcastle in 1995-96, and Arsenal in 2002-03, to win the league, albeit it happened in the remaining three months of the respective seasons. It would be an amazing feat if it occurred in two.

Bolton Wanderers 1 Manchester United 2

Simon Brotherton: "Oh, it's an easy goal from Ruud Van Nistelrooy! It's 150 for him for Manchester United, and it could be the goal that keeps the pressure on Chelsea."

No one has won yet at the Reebok Stadium this season since the opening game against Everton, Arsenal had lost, Liverpool drew, Spurs lost, Chelsea are due to play there next. Following Chelsea's opening draw, Utd came to gain more on the Blues and keep further from the Reds. So when Kevin Davies picks up the ball by the penalty box D and cleanly nutmegs Rio Ferdinand on his way to score, it looked bad. But Mikael Silvestre and Louis Saha combined for the defender to send a through ball down behind Joey O'Brien for Saha to run onto and strike with the outside of his LEFT foot for 1-1. VNR comes on to a welcome from the away fans and suddenly Utd are in major threat of a breakthrough as chance after chance is denied, until Silvestre passed to John O'Shea, who sends a through ball to Saha, who squares for VNR's winner.

Bolton fans: Two defeats back-to-back, one in which an impressive home record is dented for the 2nd time this season, just by the single goal. Going away to a Chelsea-denying Birmingham at St Andrews could make or break for the trip to Anfield.

Man Utd fans: More delight from an eighth successive win and with Chelsea dropping pts leaves both teams on equal games. The run-in seems more difficult for Utd with Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea to come. See last sentence in 'Chelsea fans' above.

Fulham 1 Portsmouth 3

Alastair Mann: "[Michael] Brown is going to get sent off....his challenge on Davis....automatic red for a dangerous tackle"

The proverbial football gravy train? No one at Portsmouth are getting off with Harry Redknapp driving. Yesterday they rode through Fulham's lacking defence and played as if they were the home side. An attack in the first minute up the left side found Benjani Mwaruwari on the ball and his cross eluded Wayne Bridge, who made a poor attempt to make it, and Gary O'Neil mis-hit the ball to bounce it over Mark Crossley. Steed Malbranque has turned great form recently and it was his dummy that created space for a 25-yard shot that curled enough to go in off the post. Benjani Mwaruwari collected on the right side and fed a sweet through ball for Lomano LuaLua, who, despite Zat Knight's clumsy attempt to pull him, kept upright and shrugged off enough to score.

In the second half, Fulham upped the pressure and went very close through Collins John, but it was made harder when O'Neil's shot deflected off Philippe Christanval over Crossley for Portsmouth's third. To compound Fulham's fall, Brown dives in on former cottage boy Sean Davis with what would describe as one of the few horrific two-footed lunges I've ever seen. Had Davis' leg not rolled with it, his studs caught on the grass or was trapped for another reason, it would have been broken. What in good sensed mentality possessed Brown to produce such conduct, because it was not a tackle, would put it with the mysteries of the universe in the category 'Questions of considerably immense analysis'.

Portsmouth had some fortune, I refer to John above with Dean Kiely to beat, Heidur Helguson came on John and cut inside Andy O'Brien to meet a through ball, only to be off-balance and aim high. Then with Kiely coming out to the edge of the box and failing to gather a shot, the Icelander picked it up, pushed past Kiely and seemed locked on to score, but for O'Brien's last-gasp intervention.

Fulham fans: I suspect Fulham need to reconstruct the central defence, while Volz is sufficient, Bridge is likely to return to the Bridge. Otherwise, with Malbranque, John, McBride, Radzinski, Boa Morte, Helguson, Pembridge, Papa Dioup, you could add a central midfielder too and be sharper in the league. Warner is key in goal as I feel Niemi and Crossley are going to be surplus in a couple of years.

Portsmouth fans: Early days with three consecutive wins, but the revival is feeling strong and home games are an advantage numerically over the other relegation-threatened sides. A consistent run kept up and no injuries can certainly prove Harry is better than Houdini.

West Bromwich Albion 0 Liverpool 2

John Motson: "This is becoming a one-man show, and that's not the [West Brom] goalkeeper I'm talking about, it's Djibril Cisse."

Having the advantage of seeing Man Utd play first showed Liverpool the chase continues and nothing less than three points would do at The Hawthorns. The home side thought likewise after Pompey's away win and Birmingham's draw. But it was a better start for the away side once Xabi Alonso's through ball evaded Paul Robinson, reached Cisse, who ran on and saw Robbie Fowler free on the left, crossing it for Fowler to score. First there was a question over a possible handball Cisse handball, then Cisse was possibly offside, then Fowler's position was questioned. However, none of those points concerned ref nor linesman. Liverpool's second goal came from an Alonso ball over all, for Cisse to run onto, round Tomasz Kuszczak and score.

It wasn't all Liverpool's way, Diomansy Kamara had an effort gathered by Pepe Reina, West Brom worked Jonathan Greening into good positions but two efforts from him missed the target, Zoltan Gera broke down the right and curled just away from goal, as Liverpool seemed to take their foot off the pedal. Cisse could have added a third when latching onto another through ball from Jamie Carragher, only for the Polish keeper to impressively block the shot. Mohamed Sissoko survived a handball claim that Uriah Rennie saw as more likely an Andy Johnson push on the Mail man.

West Brom fans: A setback, but from the games against particularly Chelsea, Man Utd and yesterday they have the edge to fight to come back in the game. It's the kind of spirit that would emulate last season's grit that kept them up, and it's a stern test of a run-in in the remaining games with Arsenal, West Ham, Newcastle and Everton among the opponents.

Liverpool fans: Good response without Gerrard to add to that last week and keeps us going to consolidate at least third place. The timing seems adequate enough, for I'd prefer Gerrard to miss this game and be ready for Bolton's visit. Importantly is the team effort, for it's not the same ones who shine, more are coming forward with positiveness. Alonso commandeered, Sissoko enforced well, and with Cisse, Fowler, Morientes and Crouch we have a forward line that can be devastating. Fowler could make way for another striker in pre-season.

Newcastle United 3 Tottenham Hotspur 1

Guy Mowbray: "And Jermaine Jenas with a chance...and he will score, surely......Oh my word!! Oh dear, oh dear! Well, he knew he would have a difficult day....for difficult, now read miserable."

[After another Dawson foul on Alan Shearer]: "Now there might be, er, trouble here for Michael Dawson...already booked, it's a second yellow card. Spurs' task has just been made doubly difficult."

Spurs seemed destined for another win with their luck of runs, two tight victories previously against Birmingham and West Brom, as Newcastle faced up to a fifth potential collapse since losing to Man Utd, and now losing Scott Parker to glandular fever for the season. But nothing of the sort happened, as Spurs caught contagious chills instead. Charles N'Zogbia was one I stated before as a player to watch for Newcastle, and his runs and left foot aided the cause again, combining with Shearer and Nolberto Solano to sprint down the left and cut back for the equally sprinting Lee Bowyer to score. It's the best I've seen from Bowyer for Newcastle.

Spurs replied when Aaron Lennon showed more jinks near goal to cross for the solid Robbie Keane to head the equaliser. Keane's form additional with Ahmed Mido's form and height, it's little wonder Jermaine Defoe is on the bench. But Spurs gave in again when Solano's shot was parried by Paul Robinson, and Shola Ameobi tucked away the rebound. Matters worsened when Edgar Davids, of all midfielders, showed he was having a task keeping with the ever-running Bowyer, as Solano crossed into the box. The ball came nearer them but Davids shoved Bowyer and gave away the penalty, coolly slotted by none other than the captain.

After Keane had hit the post before half-time, Jenas went further and appeased the home fans as much as he agonised the away ones. After a corner, Spurs went on the counter through home-born Michael Carrick's run, Jenas sprinting through the middle. Carrick's ball was overhit, Robbie Elliott mis-headed terribly into Jenas' path and, despite Bowyer's desperate tackle from behind and Shay Given coming out, Jenas evaded both with the open goal in plain sight and Keane glaringly free to his far right. He ended up inexplicably missing both, the home supporters booing his every touch after his choice words on leaving Newcastle, now cheered as Jeans missed in front of his former fans.

To compound Spurs' effort, Dawson pulled on Shearer as a high ball bounced over them, it was his second bookable one on Shearer and he was dismissed. I wonder if Ledley King's supervision was the reason why Spurs didn't have that solidified look.

Newcastle fans: A good answer against a top team after four defeats. There is pride and passion to play for, and the fans respect that much with little else to play for. That and the fact this is Shearer's last season.

Spurs' fans: The stability not displayed yesterday could be said to have been lacking against West Brom, leading to the opening goal then. Without King, the coordination of central defence went awry, possibly leading to Dawson's dismissal, in similar fashion to that against Fulham. Keane is to start but Martin Jol may need to have Mido and Defoe on from the start as well in a revitalising new angle to spearhead their campaign to remain in Champions League position.

Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0

John Roder: "[Arsenal] have been so much in command in this match, Villa have been given a footballing lesson at Highbury. What now for David O'Leary?"

I started this article with 'Goodness', I need another superlative for this match. From the scoreline, it's impressive. From the host team, it understandably looks impressive. From the goals, it was mesmerising. The goals, two of which were sublime and inevitably came from the feet of Thierry Henry. He made the first, running onto yet another through ball, Thomas Sorensen came out and palmed it away, Henry turned and chipped it towards goal, it was headed away poorly by Aaron Hughes, Emmanuel Adebayor headed it back towards goal, it came off the crossbar, off Hughes, into the net. Then Henry's sublime first, Arsenal's second, came with a overhead ball from Jose Antonio Reyes, Henry reacted as usual the fastest, controlled it sweetly with a mid-air jump, then his second touch lobbed it over the advancing Sorensen.

In the second half, the two Emmanuels', Eboue and Adebayor, combined for another sublime goal. Eboue's long ball chased Adebayor and he back-heeled it to Henry as the Frenchman pulled back from attack. Henry collected, aimed and sent a dipping ball over Sorensen for no.3. It was thought Arsenal would miss Lauren, but Eboue is yet another great find by Arsene Wenger. Nuff said. Robin Van Persie came on for Henry and scored himself, chasing a Robert Pires ball down the right, tipped past Sorensen, tight angle, he then swapped the ball from left foot to right, back onto his left, shot and scored. Adebayor then dazzled Hughes to send a ball over to Vasiriki Abou Diaby to touch past the probably now despairing Sorensen.

Arsenal fans: A much revival of fortunes, very much in time for Champions League aspirations and the push for a Champions League place, particularly with a game in hand on Spurs and their defeat to Newcastle. Concern in Eboue out and potentially Fabregas for the visit to Turin, potentially Djourou will move Toure to right-back, and a stern 0-0 at the least will see the Gunners through. RVP looks raw again.

Aston Villa fans: Well, to face Arsenal in their current form and confidence, with only a point from four games now since their Portsmouth win, 10pts out of last 36, you need to reshape defensively. The midfield is good with McCann, Hendrie, Barry and Steven Davis but Wilfred Bouma is out of position on the wide. I said O'Leary is nearing the sack with recent results and this could be the straw, for a change in management could be key to changing Aston Villa. Henry is difficult for most teams, but yesterday he managed to step back from play and be free for chances with embarrassing ease.

Everton 2 Sunderland 2

Tony Gubba: "Well, he's a hero once, Rory Delap, with that headed equaliser, but my goodness me, they'd have given him the freedom of Sunderland if that had gone in."

Gone,, not yet going. With West Brom winning against Liverpool, Sunderland would have been officially relegated. I wonder what went through their minds when Gary Naysmith crossed on the left, James Beattie mis-hit it back, it missed Simon Davies but was touched by Leon Osman for the opener. But nothing seemed to effect Sunderland after, as John Stead shot an effort that was saved away by Richard Wright for a corner, taken by Grant Leadbitter, headed on by Chris Brown, touched in from yards by Stead, his first for 1,383mins, according to Mr Gubba. I'm led to believe on decent authority (my own recall and research!!) that it was Stead's first since April 30th 2005, when he scored in a 4-1 loss to Birmingham City at St. Andrews last season in Blackburn Rovers' penultimate game.

However, relief was short-lived when Phil Neville's throw reached James McFadden and he turned his marker well to score. Tim Cahill and McFadden had chances to extend their lead but they failed to make sufficient use of their opportunities. Sunderland did not. Dean Whitehead came down the right and crossed deep for Rory Delap to head in the equaliser, then the Irishman ran on to fire a shot that just missed it's target, something that could have produced a shock win.

Everton fans: Moyes rues not taking advantage last week against 10-men Liverpool and in holding Sunderland until the 80th minute, but the last time they lost and draw was to Newcastle and West Ham respectively, then wins followed against Fulham and Aston Villa. Their next games are away to Charlton and home to Spurs.

Sunderland fans: Like Birmingham, this was a good point against an in-form side, particularly at Goodison Park. Kevin Ball should push for a repeat in the remaining six games. The results maybe academic against the likes of Man Utd and Arsenal, a derby against Newcastle, and a relegation-battler with Portsmouth, but the fight would be monumental to the fans. The Championship may beckon even more, but West Brom's defeat should now give more impetus and inspiration.

Mark Lawrenson stated John Stead went 1,399mins without a goal before yesterday. Commentary stated 1,383. Also the Premiership table at the end of Match Of The Day showed Liverpool level on games with Chelsea and Man Utd with thirty-two, and eight points behind Man Utd. I'm not sure about Stead's statistics (apart from what I detailed above), but the table mistake shows that the best of us can make mistakes. To those who insist EFT is 'elite', as in 100% flawless! We do our best.



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