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Sunday, July 30, 2006

A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Lebanon

Exceptionally, there will be occasions when this site will publish a post that is not related to football. Indeed, it has happened only once before, when Redsman published a post on 7 July 2005 expressing our condolences to all those directly affected by the suicide bomb attacks of that day on the public transport services in Central London.

The news today that more than 54 civilians, including at least 34 children, have been killed in an Israeli air strike on the southern Lebanese town of Qana, is the tipping point for me to express on this site my sheer frustration and sadness at the widespread civilian suffering and destruction of infrastructure in Lebanon over the past 19 days (At this point I should make it clear that I'm writing in a personal capacity, and shall not presume that my views are shared by all my colleagues at EFT).

The Lebanese health minister now says about 750 people - mostly civilians and about a third of them children - have been killed by Israeli action in Lebanon since their operations began 19 days ago. Many more civilians have been injured; while around 800,000 people from the population of 3.5 million have now been internally displaced, many of whose homes have been destroyed by Israel's military pounding of residential areas. Sadly too, at least 18 Israeli civilians have died in this time due to the indiscriminate firing of Hezbollah rockets into northern Israel.

After the air strike on Qana, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Sinoura, cancelled a planned meeting with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Reuters and the BBC both report that he demanded an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, and that he will not enter into negotiations until a ceasefire in place.

The consistent failure by my own government to publicly demand an immediate ceasefire while this humanitarian catastrophe is being reaped upon the Lebanese people is utterly deplorable. Tony Blair's stance to publicly stand side-by-side with the US administration in giving Israel the green light to continue their excessive and disproportionate use of military force in gross violation of international humanitarian law is counter to the majority of British public opinion (see Guaridan/ICM poll published on 25 July), as well as the opinion of the vast majority of the international community and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

Further, the Leader of the House of Commons and Cabinet member, Jack Straw, publicly condemned Israel's 'disproportionate' use of force in a statement yesterday, plus it is reported in today's Observer newspaper that many other members of Blair's own Cabinet pressed him this week to break with the Americans and publicly criticise Israel over the scale of death and destruction.

Next Saturday, 5 August, there will be a major national demonstration in London repeating the Lebanese Prime Minister's demand for an immediate and unconditonal ceasefire. The meeting point will be at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park at 12 noon, and the demonstration will march to 10 Downing Street where a signed petition will be delivered. I hope many can attend so to powerfully show Tony Blair that a large swathe of the British public uneqiuvocally oppose his current position, and want the killing and destruction to stop now.

It may be asking too much to think that a show of public protest can influence those in power. But those who oppose the unwillingness of our Prime Minister to publicly demand an immediate ceasefire as the unlawful conduct of Israel and Hezbollah has wrought enormous cost to civilian life and infrastructure have, I think, a duty to try to prompt a change.

Friday, July 28, 2006

WC2006: EFT Player and Match of the Tournament

Forgive the belatedness, but you see two more pictures added to our already impressive gallery of impressive players. The two new additions come from the recent World Cup tournament and depict who we at EFT feel deserved the accolade of Best Player and Best Match of the tournament.

Player of the WC2006: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

Despite Italy's mediocre passage through the group stage, Cannavaro had been there from the first match. Tantamount to his ability was Italy not conceding at all throughout the tournament up until the final itself, albeit Zaccardo scored a very unfortunate own goal. Two goals conceded throughout, superb performance in the final, fitting for the captain to lift the cup and the EFT player of the tournament, and not Zidane.

Match of the WC2006: Germany v Italy

It wasn't a stupendous match but it was very entertaining. Argentina v Mexico was a great serving of an underdog scoring first and how and the stronger side equalising and then plotting and probing to secure their supremacy to no avail until a superb cross and goal from Juan Pablo Sorin and Maxi Rodriguez respectively secured that close 2nd round tie. However the first semi-final appeased the majority at EFT more, both sides were tight in defence and upfront, the Italians bossed the midfield as the Germans infiltrated more upfront with a litter of chances that you would have wagered your house on someone scoring.

From the Italy captain to the tournament's best young player in Lukas Podolski, from the forward movements of Michael Ballack, the tenacious battling of Andrea Pirlo, to the minor moments of fine goalkeeping from Gianluigi Buffon and Jens Lehmann, this made for a more enthralling match and then some with Fabio Grosso making the eventual beakthrough and Alessandro Del Piero applying the finishing touch.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Italian football scandal: FIGC cave in after a waste of time

Yesterday evening the sports court of the Italian Football Federation, the FIGC (see previous article on acronym) heard the appeals from Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio regarding their sanctions over match-tapping, and decided on their implications handed down by the FIGC tribunal:

Juventus remain as they were after the first decision, in Serie B, stripped of their 2005 & 2006 league titles, out of European football with officials banned from football, to play three games behind closed doors, with the mere consolation that they will begin Serie B football with 17pts deficient rather than the originally imposed 30pts. They have had to watch their captain Fabio Cannavaro leave for Real Madrid along with Emerson for a combined £13.7m, and Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta for £13m jointly to Barcelona. They may have been fined 120,000 euros (my calculation is just over £80,000) but that has not been confirmed.

Fiorentina were reinstated to Serie A yet begin their season with a 19pts deficit rather than the originally imposed 12pts. They are still refrained from European football. It was mentioned they too were fined 120,000 euros and to play three matches behind closed doors but I have not heard or read it confirmed about the fine.

Lazio was also reinstated to Serie A and begin their season with a 11pts deficit instead of the originally imposed 7pts. They too were said to have been fined 120,000 euros and forced to play two matches behind closed doors, again the fine has not been read or heard by myself to have been confirmed. They too are refrained from European football.

AC Milan were further reduced in punishment with a 8pts deficit to begin Serie A with instead of the imposed 15pts, forced to play behind closed doors for one match AND reinstated in the qualifying stage of the Champions League with Arsenal and Liverpool. I said previously in my last article on this that AC Milan starting with 15pts deficit was not a punishment, it was a challenge. Eight points now makes a mockery of that statement, and European football to boot (excuse the pun).

Implications reverberated elsewhere. With Fiorentina and Lazio up into Serie A, Leece and Treviso now find they are eventually consigned to Serie B while Messina remain up pending Juventus' appeal, which I strongly expect to not be overturned. In the Champions League goes AC Milan with Roma, Chievo and Inter, meaning Palermo now joins Parma and Livorno into the UEFA Cup, Empoli are out of European football. I am not against the four clubs, my position is with irrefutable evidence the punishment fits the offence. If the evidence indicated a necessity for the punishment, then an appeal will have to be equally irrefutbale to reduce that punishment. If these appeals were so convincing, that questions that which the FIGC relied upon to issue the original punishments. If the evidence against the four clubs is that questionable, the FIGC should not have issued such punishments in the first place.

What could have occurred to change a demotion back into a promotion? Even more puzzling, the promotion is accompanied with a heavier points deficit, so Fiorentina and Lazio did wrong and should not be demoted but hit with a heavier points deficit to begin with. Sounds to me that the FIGC caved in to crocodile tears. In light of fresh new evidence in favour of the appellants, the punishments should have stayed or never made in the first place. Leece and Teviso considered it a reprieve for a bad season only to find they are to be in Serie B, Palermo considered Champions League football and now settle for the UEFA Cup (no disrespect to the UEFA Cup but clubs know where they prefer to be) and practically Juventus' major rivals are given a further helping hand. Bearing in mind the implications to others in this matter, the FIGC should have been more considerate and sanctioned with appropriate punishment, not that which is hugely overturned.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Dennis Bergkamp: football legend and fantastic contributor to the history of AFC

It is fitting that Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial against Ajax tomorrow afternoon will be the first ever match played at Arsenal's magnificent new 60,000 capacity football stadium. He is a definitive Arsenal legend; a player whose positive impact upon AFC has been simply invaluable.

On the BBC website there is an excellent tribute on Dennis Bergkamp by the former Arsenal right-back, Lee Dixon. It sums up many of the points I want to raise about the awesome impact of Bergkamp on Arsenal's upward trajectory in the last decade to three league championships, four FA cups, one Champions League final, a record breaking unbeaten league run, and the most sublime football any supporter could wish to see.

First, the signing of Dennis Bergkamp in June 1995 signalled for the first time that AFC were in the market for the world's best football talent. I really liked the battling John Jensen and Stefan Schwartz, plus the wizardry of Anders Limpar, but Dennis Bergkamp was an overseas player of the highest repute and set a new standard for the sort of player that Arsenal should try to bring to the club. With Dennis Bergkamp in the team I'm sure it made it easier for Arsene Wenger to tempt the likes of Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Pat Vieira to the club in 1996/1997- and later on the likes of Robert Pires and current captain Thierry Henry.

Signing Bergkamp also showed an intent that Arsenal were ready to attack for the top honours again after a gradual decline in the George Graham era - and to do so by playing a more sophisticated and technical style of game that in time would prove to revolutionise the whole image of AFC. This intent quickly materialised into real success: with Dennis Bergkamp at the attacking fulcrum of a new Arsene Wenger-led Arsenal team, the side rapidly developed to the level of champions in the 1997-1998 season playing a new style of incisive attacking football that gained plaudits from many quarters.

Dennis Bergkamp was the main man of Arsenal's double winning side in 1997-1998. But for me the greatness of Bergkamp is in his sheer longevity at the top of professional football. He was vital to Arsenal's double-winning side in 2001-2002. Then, come 2003-2004 - the unbeatable season - he still was the player in the Arsenal team that every other teammate looked up to get the side playing in a fluent and incisive attacking rhythm. And then there is one of the most memorable and emotional performances I will ever see from a player in February 2005, when Bergkamp rolled back the years to put on a sheer master-class performance in a 4-2 loss to Man Utd. The spirit and mastery of Bergkamp's performance in the twilight of his career is one of the best things I've ever witnessed watching football.

Finally, aside from his enormously positive impact on the fortunes of AFC and the profound mastery of his attacking football, one more factor comes into play to explain why I and many others think that Bergkamp is an Arsenal legend: unmistakable loyalty to the club. He found his footballing home at Arsenal: a home where the fans loved him, the style of play suited him, and where the competitive ambition of the club met his. So - in what amounts to quite an achievement for a top player in the modern era of football - he stayed for eleven consecutive seasons. In this time he conducted himself off the pitch as a meticulous professional plus an honourable family man - and it's great for me that I can respect a guy as much for who he is off the pitch as I can for his footballing ability on the pitch.

There's only one Dennis Bergkamp…. and thanks for your magnificent contribution to the history of Arsenal Football Club!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Juventus, Fiorentina & Lazio sanctioned as AC Milan survive

Last night the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (the Italian Football Federation), concluded its investigation into allegations of match-fixing in Serie A, that was said to involve twenty-six individuals ranging from executives and management personnel at four clubs (Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio), officials within the federation and referees. Under suspicion, phone-tapping was agreed and various phone calls were recorded detailing conversations that was said to have amounted to the commission of arranging for certain officials to officiate certain matches of the mentioned clubs. The FIGC's decision was read out last night and declared certain officials employed at all four clubs and who were involved in the match-fixing were guilty and as a result sanctions would incur on the clubs.

Juventus, who had won the back-to-back titles of 2004/05 and 2005/06, were to be stripped of those titles, they will be relegated to Serie B and begin their first season there with a 30pts deduction, out of European football for 2006/07 and 2007/8, their former general manager Luciano Moggi and former chief executive Antonio Giraudo banned from football for five years. I understand both Moggi and Giraudo have been recommended by the prosecutor for a lifetime ban.

AC Milan will remain in Serie A but will begin the new season with a 15pts deduction, are out of European football for 2006/07 after receiving a 50% pts deduction from last season's tally of 88pts to now 44pts (meaning AC Milan will officially be 12th for 2005/06), their vice-president Adriano Galliani banned for 12 months from football while club official Leonardo Meani received a 42-month suspension.

Fiorentina, who narrowly avoided relegation to Serie B in 2004/2005 and have therefore come some way a season later, are now heading there with Juventus to start their season with a 12pts deduction, with the same European football implications as Juventus, the Fiorentina president Andrea Della Valle banned for three years, and his brother and Fiorentina honorary president Diego Della Valle, banned for four years.

Lazio will join Juventus and Fiorentina in Serie B with a 7pts deduction to begin the season with and the same European football implications, their president Claudio Lotito banned for three years.

I say from the outset Juventus were hit hard and not with a pillow but a jackhammer. I considered none of the clubs would be relegated but heavily fined and docked points but the FIGC were not kidding, and for such sanctions they must have sifted through substantial compelling evidence to have come to their decision. This is subject to appeals with one club, I believe it was AC Milan, stating they may very well be prepared to take any appeal outside of the football jurisdiction into the civil courts. Yet any appeal to be made has to be logged within three days, therefore Monday was said to be the day appeals would occur. The FIGC have to adjudicate over any appeal and finalise a decision before the 25th July, when they are expected to submit the Italian teams for the Champions League campaign.

I would imagine the appeals will be jointly lodged, but as far as their European implications go, there is no way back. Last night's decision was final in regard to European football, these teams will definitely not be participating therefore the appeals will cover only the demotions, suspensions and points deductions. The FIGC are expected to promote AS Roma, Chievo and Palermo along with Inter Milan for the Champions League, and now Livorno, Parma and Empoli for the UEFA Cup.

Was AC Milan not demoted because their involvement was minor or because it would misconstrue the numbers in Serie B? Consider the players, particularly those at Juvenuts, who collectively formed thirteen of the Italy World Cup winning squad, who may decide to move to remain in European football, given that an appeal may reinstate their Serie A status. If I was in charge of any of these clubs, I would call an emergency meeting with the players and discuss. I'm sure further comment will ensue after the appeal hearings and decisions.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Zidane reflects on his last moment in football

Zinedine Zidane is a French national football hero, equally to Argentina and Maradona, England and....well, Bobby Moore. Opinions in some parts of France (where Sky Sports have ventured) state mostly he should have thought before he acted. ZZ will say the old school is, in consideration of the insult and its repetition, it was an extreme act which required no thinking or any other process other than a violent act. Speaking on French TV last night, he apologised to the young viewers watching yet nonetheless was unrepentant in regard to his actions. Materazzi did say something insulting, of that I am in no doubt, but whatever it was it did not equate to the retribution he served in return. Preaching of behaviour has been preached from the cavemen days up to now and it will never cease. I believe children know not to be violent on the pitch especially but where words are spoken in insult, it is the only thing to walk away, they are intentionally spoken to provoke a reaction, they are most of the times inaccurate, untrue, so why pay attention to them?

Perhaps what Zidane should have done was exchanged words back or simply grabbed hold of the ball and initiate a pass to attack Italy's goal, and ensure France scored. With nine minutes or so remaining it would have been a bigger blow to Materazzi than the one Zidane physically supplied. Not only do I and a majority of people not condone the action, it also stamps itself in history as an incident that abruptly ended Zidane's footballing career. Did Marco Materazzi think of this when he made his comments? Did he think it was Zidane's last game, insult him and make him irate enough to physically retaliate? You then consider how significant was that action? If Materazzi had planned it to happen, with ten minutes remaining, Zidane perhaps Italy's biggest threat with Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry both off, it sounds a bizarre notion during a World Cup final.

Did Zidane's action add to or was it the sole reason why France lost in the end? France still attacked as well with ten as they did with eleven. Italy looked too jaded to attack back and therefore gave onus to their opponents. Nonetheless France could not breach Italy's defence with or without Zidane. The penalty taking was presented on equal measure. Having taken one already during open play, to add to his Portugal one, would Zidane have taken the second kick or last one, or indeed the first one, for France? He could have done so and missed, he could have done so and someone else missed. It is not probable to say Zidane lost France the final. However, the final was set for someone to miss as all the penalties bar David Trezeguet's were excellently scored, Barthez was the closest of either keeper to saving any.

In reference to the incident, Zidane said Materazzi insulted his mother and sister, which in itself was insulting but was not the match to the powderkeg. That match was the repetition, three times it was mentioned. Therefore the words were not per se the hurting thing with Zidane. Materazzi's answer to questions was to state he had not mentioned anything insulting in regard to religion, politics, race, Zidane's family members. Materazzi has admitted he was insulting but he too has averted from saying exactly what he had said. Perhaps that is because he feels bad about it or, having actually said something about Zidane's mother and/or sister and denying it afterwards, he would look rather foolish in confession. Zidane says he is a man and some words are harder than actions, where he would have preferred being assaulted with a punch than to be insulted as he was. Again, this is wrong, this goes back to the point words only have the meaning which one wishes to apply to them. Man or woman, boy or girl, the implications of striking back are immense, particularly in public.

One proposed translation of Materazzi's words were lip-read as "you're the son of a terrorist whore." Another states Materazzi said, either alternatively or additionally, "calm down", called Zidane a "liar" and said "an ugly death to you and your family", followed up with "Go **** yourself." Materazzi has said it happened because:

"I held his shirt, for only a few seconds. He turned towards me and scoffed at me, looking at me with super arrogance, up and down. He said 'if you really want my shirt, you can have it later'. It's true, I shot back with an insult."

How much has this to do with football? Well, FIFA are investigating the incident in case there has been a reference to race, I'm not certain how they can find this out, perhaps they have sensitive acoustics around the pitch that record throughout the game. If they don't, they jolly well should do. Perhaps we the viewers also missed something, which I would surmise was the referee speaking to the fourth official who FIFA confirm saw the incident. The fourth official did not come onto the pitch so the referee would have to have been in contact somehow with him. If such contact made its way over the airwaves through the boom mike strapped to the referee's face, that is feasible. Then maybe the referee came over to the linesman and asked for any clarification from him before jogging over and issuing the red card. All in all, the fourth official may have replayed the incident in haste of deducing what happened, if anything, and ensuring the officials got it right in the biggest game of all. The furore if they had missed it, would not bear thinking about for FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

As FIFA are said to contemplate relieving Zidane of his Golden Ball award, the lesson is to ignore what is said and do what is right. What is necessary, not what one negatively wants from you.


Monday, July 10, 2006

WC2006: Italy World Champions under Zidane disgrace

Previously in another article I mentioned how Italy had made it to the World Cup finals every twelve years since 1970, winning it in 1982, losing it in 1994, which would make 2006 their year. Had one been aware of these facts perhaps a wager would have been in order but reality makes a mockery of superstition. Had one wagered on the events that would unfold last night, maybe the bookmakers would have made mockery of it themselves.

Italy played as they always have, in their native blue, as France played in white. Italy started with Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta, Marco Materazzi, captain Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso, Mauro Camoranesi, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perotta, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni. France emerged with Fabian Barthez, Willy Sagnol, Lillian Thuram, William Gallas, Eric Abidal, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, captain Zinedine Zidane, Florent Malouda, Franck Ribery, Thierry Henry. Both sides fielded a relative 4-5-1, the game began and then stopped as replays showed Henry had ran into Cannavaro and was stunned by the impact, the Arsenal captain looking concerningly groggy and possibly an early candidate for a substitution. But to his credit Henry regained his full senses and came back onto the field.

France made the breakthrough very early in what was billed as a game of equal standing but on different measures, Italy's youth, France's experience, both sides nonetheless showing continental flair. A throw found the head of Henry who headed the ball on to Malouda that found the Lyon man entering the box, and as he did so he nudged the ball beyond Materazzi, the Inter defender then judged to have made contact with Malouda that resulted in the midfielder going down. At the speed of play, it looked clear cut, in the replays it looked dubious but you see Materazzi go to tackle, pull his left leg at the last moment but still making minimal contact that shouldn't have impeded Malouda. Malouda then knocked his right leg onto his left calf and fell over. Overall, I have no qualms about the decision and in fairness neither did the Italians.

Up stepped Zidane, the captain, the midfield master of play and skill and vision, in his last game, internationally, domestically, in his local park even. As he did against Portugal, he took the penalty that could go on to see him lift the World Cup in glory to end a glowing football career. As Buffon dived to his right, Zidane chipped the ball almost like Peter Crouch against Jamaica, the ball went up and came down off the underside of the crossbar and bounced out. Slight delay in deciding if the ball crossed the line and then the referee, Argentine Horacio Marcelo Elizondo, pointed towards the centre-circle. Zidane had scored, quite fortuitously as I wondered what if he had missed, which was something he may not have bothered about being this was his last match.

And yet Italy made no panic moves, no subs, no change of system, they continued to pursue their control of the game and made their mark twelve minutes later. Camoranesi went to take a corner from the Italian right then left it for Pirlo. Pirlo crossed a deep corner, practically one of the best delivered in the whole tournament and there have been very few of them, and being that Materazzi has jumped up before against the Czech Republic to score, I would have thought he would be marked as he came up. Yet as Vieira was in front of him when the ball came over, the Juventus man jumped weakly as Materazzi towered to head Italy level. From another corner soon after Pirlo delivered an identical ball for Materazzi to drag others away for Toni to head off the crossbar. Italy looked very dangerous with height advantage at set-pieces.

At the other end found Henry in his inquisitive role, where he drifts off to the side and then comes inside to run at the players. Zidane had not been as enthralling as before but nonetheless he made cool, sensible passing and possession when he was on the ball. One ball found Henry through into the box with Cannavaro beside him, the Frenchman striking the ball only to be blocked away by the Italy captain. But there lacked a spark from France that had been there from previous matches, Malouda was a nuisance more to his side than to Italy by dropping to the ground and looking up for a decision often that didn't come his way. Abidal was non-existent in attack, Ribery made a number of excursions in the Italian third but ran out of space or invention. The first half went to Italy.

Come the second half, France had a change of playability. Henry was on 3rd gear, running on the left and hitting at Buffon, bustling through on the right and being denied by Cannavaro, Malouda broke into the box on the left and denied by Zambrotta, the French were now in the ascendancy. Italy had a goal disallowed after a Pirlo freekick found the head for a neat finish but Toni was one of three offside participants. The game turned to the mandatory with Vieira clutching his left thigh after a little sprint, meaning a possible hamstring problem and coming off for Len's Alou Diarra, a straight swap. Marcello Lippi made a double change soon after, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Daniele de Rossi for Totti and Perotta, and with four minutes of normal time remaining brought on Alessandro del Piero for Camoranesi.

The game eventually ended after 90mins level with France the better side, and as a number of players receive treatment for cramp, tired muscles, the constant engines of Makelele, Zidane, Henry, Ribery, Gattuso, Pirlo, Grosso, Zambrotta still remained. France had yet to use two substitutes. Ribery went on to break into the Italy box and shoot for the ball to go agonisingly wide. Zidane found Thuram, Thuram to Sagnol, Sagnol crossed as he has done on many occasion, and there was Zidane, unwatched, a firm header that Buffon had to touch over, the Juve keeper hailing immediately at his players to sharpen up, because while Italy held back, France continued to press in the first half of extra time. Now Raymond Domenech, the France coach, made another change, Ribery coming off for David Trezeguet, he who scored the winner in the Euro2000 final against Italy, and he who plays for Juventus. An omen, perhaps, but quite simply, France were threatening to take the final all the way with Italy looking less interested. The referee blew for half time.

Second half of extra time, 15mins more remaining of open play of the 2006 World Cup final. Two minutes into the half, Henry was withdrawn for the introduction of Sylvain Wiltord, he who scored the equaliser in that Euro final. I wondered if either Wiltord or Trezeguet would become a thorn once again, but significantly France were down two experienced penalty takers were the game to come to that, in Henry and Vieira, with Zidane a main spot-kick contributor on the field. But with ten minutes of normal time in extra time remaining, Del Piero was attacking down the Italy left and tumbled over from a challenge and there was a mention by BBC1's commentator John Motson of an off-the-ball incident that occurred within the Italy defence and a camera shot turned to show Materazzi on the ground, Trezeguet debating with Italy players and a sheepish Zidane fiddling with his armband. Buffon had come out of his goal to remonstrate to the nearest linesman, the referee trying to calm players down to establish what had happened and tend to the medical requirement of the Inter defender.

Then replays depicted what had actually happened. Moments before, France were on the attack and Italy got the ball away, Materazzi had hold of Zidane slightly and then let go. Zidane turned to Materazzi and made comments with a smile, Materazzi replied without any, and there were a few exchanges with Zidane trotting off and then, turning back to look directly at Materazzi, stepping up to him and aiming a head-butt onto the centre of Materazzi's chest. At 6ft 4in and the strength put into his display thus far, you would have thought a battering ram would struggle against Materazzi, much less a human head. It took a couple of minutes for some order to appear but eventually the referee sought advice briefly from the linesman and then jogged over to Zidane, reaching to open his back pocket, where the red card was kept. Zidane was sent off in his last football game, his last international since his debut in August 1994, in the World Cup final which France were not favourites to reach but did, and for those efforts to go in vain, those efforts to make it for France, for Zidane to leave the football scene in fitting glory of lifting the World Cup.

As Zidane debates with his team-mates to the referee, the inevitable was he was coming off in disgrace. Bad enough to have committed the act, it was worse for him to debate its sanction. As the France captain trudged off the pitch, he left a headache for Domenech, who had carefully held off making substitutions until extra-time to see who can carry the fight and who could not for France, who to strategically pull here, there, and now the France coach had not only 10mins remaining to maintain France's stability, but also he was another solid penalty-taker down, and worse of all it was his captain, the talismanic Zidane. Zidane trudged on further, past Domenech, past the France bench, towards the exit, and ironically past the World Cup trophy on its stand, gleaming in gold, being so near and yet to remain eternally far away from the grip of the France man as captain.

France made no bones of their disadvantage, they still came forward, Malouda swapped to the right, Wiltord on the left but there was no way through for France as penalties beckoned again, this time for the second time in a World Cup final since 1994 that also involved Italy. Italy looked tired and I thought this would play on their kicks. After a while, up stepped Pirlo to score, followed by Wiltord who scored as well. Materazzi stepped up and I felt he would miss but he deposited the ball past Barthez, and he was followed by Trezeguet, whose effort came off the crossbar and down, the Juve striker against his club keeper waiting to see if the ball went over the line, but this time he was not so lucky. Next was de Rossi, again someone I felt would miss but he too scored well, and he was followed by Abidal, who surprised me with his successful spot-kick. If the following Italy kick is converted, then the next France kick would be crucial. Next was del Piero, who was ruthless in execution, meaning Sagnol had to score to keep up France's hopes, and he did with a cheer towards the France bench.

This now meant that the next kick would put Italy into history as the 2006 World Champions, if it was scored, albeit France had one kick left. That responsibility went to Grosso, he who went over and gained the penalty against Australia in the dying moments of the 2nd round clash, he who curled the first against Germany in a tight semi-final late in extra-time. Grosso stepped up, glanced at the ball and briefly at the goal, then took aim and fired.

Italy were crowned the 2006 FIFA World Champions.

And cue the expected jubilant, ecstatic Italian celebrations. France were equal in their devastation, mostly Sagnol and Thuram, the latter stepping down from international football alongside Zidane. It has been described as an average World Cup, and I would agree with that, the Germany v Italy semi final and this final made for entertaining viewing, for a World Cup emanating more for its goals than its performances.

Considering that Buffon had conceded two goals, one an own goal that not even the respected defender knew about, the other a penalty, neither of which Buffon had a chance at, otherwise he had maintained sheer dominance of his goal throughout. Considering Buffon was aided by an Italian die-hard defence, on occasion breached to no avail, on others it was stalwart, harnessed and marshalled. Would have been a game to see with Italy facing Brazil to add another test to that defence. Considering the much better partnership of Gattuso and Pirlo, better than their AC Milan show against Barcelona, where I felt they had not been good enough, how these two made a great advert for energy, passing in confined spaces, running, and getting back under attack. Considering the attacks by their full-backs, Zambrotta and Grosso, with telling contributions. And considering players of four major clubs in Italian domestic football played 24hrs before a decision that could start a tremor of immense magnitude through their careers. Italy were worthy champions.

Talk has been said that the better team had lost but what is your possession and chances counting for if you fail to convert anything into goals? All the penalties were excellently taken other than the missed one, the better team is not per se the team that will win, it's the one who scores one more than the other who emerges victorious.

Word has come through that it was the fourth official who witnessed the Zidane incident and therefore the referee was aided with that information and not video replays. Perhaps the fourth official informed the linesman and the linesman then advised the referee, because I didn't see the fourth official come into the moment at all. And if it was video replays used to reach the decision, then it should have been available for when Figo head-butted Marc Van Bommel. Also, as I type, Zidane has been named as the winner of the Golden Ball award, as voted by journalists at half time per FIFA's instructions. How can you vote for the best player in the tournament at half time of its final? Zidane is Zidane, but there have been more worthy players even if Zidane had not committed his head-butt. It's a farce, yet again under FIFA, I do not agree with it at all and it's one people will notice and then cast aside.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Germany grab 3rd place finish

Germany grabbed bronze in the World Cup 2006 with a stern effort against Portugal last night. There was some decent footbal in the first half, with Oliver Kahn in goal, Michael Ballack injured, Torsten Frings back after the semi-final suspension and new faces in place of Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich. Portugal had began without Luis Figo and Ricardo Carvalho due to suspension. Figo was said to have fallen out with Luiz Felipe Scolari why he did not start, leaving Pedro Pauleta to captain the team. This was the 127th opportyunity for Figo to represent his country and it was to potentially begin and end on the bench.

Sebastian Kehl made a start and with neat ball control he fashioned an opening for a dipping chip which forced Alexandre Ricardo into a tip-over save. Lukas Podolski shot a tremendous freekick straight at Ricardo to further employ the Portugalkeeper's services. What marred the first half were a number of dives yet again. Early in the game Simao Sabrosa was approached down the left side corner by two German players and once a foot came out it touched the ball off for a corner, yet Simao jumped in the air and landed on the ground, looked up and got up and jogged away. Pauleta again was aproached and the challenge made no contact with player nor ball yet Pauleta went down. Once again the biggest dive went to Christiano Ronaldo as he went on a run across the defence, Christoph Metzelder stuck out a foot, it made no contact with player nor ball yet Ronaldo jumped and dropped to the ground. The referee, Japanese Toru Kamikawa, was in excellent position and gave nothing, when he should have given a yellow card.

The second half was much better, with more attacking and less diving. Ronaldo was Portugal's main threat all game and it was his run that found Pauleta, who took on the ball and turn Jens Nowotny in the box, with two German players by the six-yard line yet Ronaldo waiting alone just by the penalty spot, eagerly awaiting a perfect pass. Instead Pauleta feebly aimed a left-foot grasscutter into Kahn's arms, Ronaldo understandably frustrated. However, with 10mins played, Bastian Schweinsteiger collected on the far left, cut inside of Paulo Ferreira onto his right foot, pushed pash sub Armando Petit, and with the angle of a shot shortening took the effort nonetheless. With Ricardo already moving to his right, the Sporting Lisbon keeper continued to do so when the ball was struck and was then caught out as the ball turned slightly to the right then the left and zipped past the keeper's left ear.

The attack stemmed more from the host team. Miroslav Klose picked up on the left and then crossed past all for Philipp Lahm, who volleyed just over the goal, which would have surpassed his own effort against Costa Rica with ease if he had indeed scored. But the Germans doubled their lead when Podolski was fouled on the left by Ferreira and Schwein steiger tookt he freekick. I felt he would aim it over all towards goal but Ricardo would have been expected to save it so instead the Germany midfielder struck a low effort that eluded Ricardo Costa but cannoned off the left leg of Petit past Ricardo. Portugal continued to come forward, producing a Deco shot that Kahn got a left hand to to palm away well. Ronaldo went on another run across the box and looked to be impeded by Metzelder but nothing was given.

Two goals down, Scolari had already brought on Petit at half time for Francisco Costinha, and Nuno Gomes for Nuno Valente, so one final substitution was allowed, and it was Figo, on for Palueta. The man eventually came on to take his final bow for Portugal. Yet a minute later another midfielder added more to Portugal's woe and Germany's lead, and to his own display. Schweinsteiger. With sub Oliver Neuville on for Klose, the Borussia Monchengladbach striker ran across field to find Schweinsteiger on the left. Portugal had not taken heed of the midfielder's fortune from the left side and again allowed him to cut in and shot on his right foot, this time the ball curled tot he right out of reach of Ricardo and nestled in the corner of the goal.

With two goals and an assist in a Petit own goal, Schweinsteiger celebrated with his shirt off and a booking on. On 79mins he departed, clearly saving his best ability to the last in this tournament, coming off for former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger. The goal scoring had not finished and 9mins on Figo help gain a consolation for the Portuguese. Kahn had had a good time in goal, and in the second half he kept out a potential Metzelder own goal, a Ronaldo freekick and other timely efforts but he was left ungauarded. Figo cross from the right, where he had teased Marcell Hansen during his time on the pitch, curled behind the defence and found Gomes with a diving header, which Kahn had no chance of stopping. Kahn could not end his international career with a clean sheet display, but it was a minute mark on a great career for the keeper.

Two others called time on their international careers, Figo and also Pauleta. If Scolari does not continue as Portugal coach (indications are that he will), then Portugal will also face appointments for a new coach and captain. For the former, I have no immediate notions, but for captain I would install Carvalho, I think overall he has been a good defender, if not an excellent one. Meanwhile, Ronaldo appears to have called time on his career at Old Trafford.

"I should get out of Manchester as the circumstances are not right. Nobody stood up for me and my desire is to play in Spain. Will it be Real [Madrid] or Barcelona? It will be one of them.

"For some time I haven't had any support from my chief executive or my coach [Ferguson]. They should have come out in my defence but no-one did."

I wish to add my observations of Jurgen Klinsmann on the bench, and passion does not sum it up. Every goal, every chance, freekick, foul, decision, he kicked them, walked past them, took them. When Klose, Podolski and Schweinsteiger came off, he greeted them all and they all reciprocated, no frustration in coming off, no disgruntlement. Maybe it would have been different if Germany were losing, heavily even, but even during the semi-final Klinsmann was upbeat in defeat and it came across to the players too, however heartbroken they were. And Klinsmann lives abroad from Europe. His wife is not extravagantly glamourous, and nothing is seen of those of his players. It was not the salary that spurred on Klinsmann, it's the passion and that came across during the tournament.

To think the German media criticised Klinsmann before the tournament, my goodness they would have ostracised Sven-Goran Eriksson. Steve McClaren, at forty-five years old, maybe the nearest England have to a younger mind, younger approach to formulating a good playing squad for the future. Klinsmann, forty-two at the end of this month, is inspirational for Germany, if he stays. The same can be said of Marco Van Basten too, also forty-two years old, as he looks to inject a more youthful context into the Dutch national side. I just hope McClaren is not inlfuenced by the media and the FA, yet works in tandem with his players.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

WC2006: France face Italy as Portugal bow out

This semi-final did not equal the one 24hrs prior in Dortmund. There were decent attacks from both sides, but neither came close enough to score, which made for an anti-climax in multiple proportion. Notably Christiano Ronaldo was booed from the first touch of the ball, which didn't deter him from playing well, just not well enough for the most outstanding player on the pitch. Diving occurred once again, maybe unsurprising to some, with Florent Malouda dropping near the left of the Portuguese box. Ronaldo, Pedro Pauleta, Helder Postiga dived and add to that a melee from Portugal over Luis Miguel's fall to the ground that occurred with no France contact. Ronaldo made for the most audacious dive, jogging nearer the penalty spot to approach a cross and then launching in the air as if he faced a swimming pool.

Luis Figo almost made Eric Abidal pay for low defensive approach as the Inter man made his way on occasion down the France left for crosses. But the only figure in the box that had any chance of meeting such balls was Pedro Pauleta, who I felt would have another poor World Cup, scoring wise. Marshalled away from threats via William Gallas and Lillian Thuram, Pauleta needed support and hardly received it. Therefore the French were troubled but not brought to task as Portugal made little of testing Fabian Barthez, albeit Maniche Ribiero came close with a shot that skimmed over the bar.

One goal separated these two, courtesy of another of the moment, in England at least, Ricardo Carvalho. Zinedine Zidane played a ball to Thierry Henry, the Arsenal man turning into the box and away from Carvalho. Carvalho came with a right foot to challenge and missed, then followed up with his left that made contact with Henry's right foot. The mere contact constitutes to a foul and has done mainly outfield, so when this occurred the Uruguayan referee, Jorge Larrionda, gave the decision to France. On another day, perhaps in the Premiership, the contact may have been waived away with Henry making more of the contact. But in the World Cup semi-final, it counted. So did the stand-off between Zidane and Portugal's impressive stopper Alexandre Ricardo, the veteran master midfielder and the astute penalty-stopper.

Recall that the Portuguese keeper mentioned he saw in the eyes of the English players which post they were looking at when they took their spot-kicks four days ago, which helped him guess which way to go. He did the same last night to Zidane and almost got a hand to the ball. He may have contributed to England's exit but there seems an acute sense of direction from the Sporting Lisbon keeper that I have only seen followed somewhat by Jens Lehmann and Pepe Reina.

Try as they did, the Portuguese could not convert on goal, even when they were gifted a good chance when a high ball was headed down by Gallas to the waiting Fernando Meira, who blasted it wide instead of keeping some composure. Figo began to tire, Deco wasn't his influential best, Pauleta came off for Simao Sabrosa to no effect. When the final whistle blew, it seemed to a number of Portuguese players they had accepted defeat from the final 10mins. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari remonstrated at the referee. Afterwards, Carvalho stated France were no better than Portugal and that the referee gave France their victory, while Ronaldo stated the crowd were against him because he was a dangerous player and the referee would not give decisions because Portugal was a small country.

Ronaldo: "I was pleased about being booed. I am a dangerous player, and maybe the French fans were upset to see a dangerous player."

"We played well and did our best but the referee didn't help us. Everyone who saw the match could see the referee wasn't fair. He should have shown yellow cards but he did not because Portugal is a small country."

Portugal were reasonable, they did not play well and Ronaldo was more dangerous against England than last night. He made some runs along the flanks but nothing that superseded that against England. Those who booed him were apparently a combination of English and French fans added to the boos, and potentially other foreign nationals who had tickets for the semi-final in anticipation of their team getting through. And calling for the referee to issue yellow cards is hypocritical, considering that had the referee decided to pull out for bookings often, Ronaldo, Pauleta and Postiga would have to have been on the referee's list without doubt. It was also questionable for Portugal to have not changed their 4-5-1 system as it was not making appropriate channels towards goal. However, any system would fail if certain players do not produce the kind of football such a system is expected to enhance. It is at this point I interject a minor digression of Sepp Blatter's criticism of the English lone striker system which suspiciously went no further, even towards the Portuguese camp, prior to the semi-final.

Nonetheless, it is France who face Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, Berlin, 7pm kick-off. While they failed to produce inspirational football in the group stages, the French have not looked back since. Henry appears to be more flexible in his own lone role (another user of the Blatter criticised system not mentioned), Zidane wasn't as impressive last night as he was against Spain and Brazil but he enters into his last World Cup final. Patrick Vieira is anchoring well with Claude Makelele in central midfield, Franck Ribery still has to sparkle as he did for the U-21s', but best of all is their defence. William Sagnol has been very good on the right, Gallas and Thuram are quick, stern, no-nonsense defenders, while Barthez has come into action on occasion and done so with confidence, albeit a lack of handling for a Ronaldo freekick.

Possibly France's weakness is Abidal, has shown up well in attack but in defence has become quite susceptible. If Italy are to exploit the tight French resistance, it is through cunning quick football and more acute efforts on target. For France are quite capable of snatching a lead and sitting back on it, which commands the opposition to come at them and invite the quick counter-attack.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

WC2006: Italy 'impressionante', Germany 'verzagt'

In 1970, Italy were runners-up in the World Cup tournament, beaten 4-1- by Brazil. In 1982, Italy won the World Cup, beating then West Germany 3-1. In 1994, Italy were runners-up in the World Cup as they lose out to Brazil 3-2 on penalties after a 0-0 finish. Italy are now into the finals of the World Cup 2006, the significance is the occurrence of these finishes in the World Cup for Italy every 12 years since 1970. Meaning Italy are potentially due a World Cup win, and after the display they gave last night, I certainly would not begrudge them of it.

Italy have faced Ghana, USA, Czech Republic, Australia, Ukraine and while all of those sides showed good football play to warrant being in the tournament, Italy's most worthy opponents were the USA and Australia. The Germans had faced Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador, Sweden, Argentina and had neither lost nor drawn those matches, albeit a late, late winner against the Poles, all of which made for a contrasting performance to that estimated in the German media, and the fans. The Germans had not looked back and had an edge to their game that oozed good link-play and execution. I expected the Italians to struggle into the quarter-finals and then go out. They were pushed into a 2-0 win against Ghana, drew with the Americans, had the advantage of one man with the Czech, were fortuitous against the Australians and romped against an eventual lacklustre Ukraine side. The best bet was on the Germans last night.

The gist of the game last night, first of all, was the referee Benito Archundia Tellez from Mexico, a non-European to diminish any alleged ties or links of favouritism. Yes, England had a non-European in their quarter-finals but he was Argentinian. No question of impartiality there but at the back remains my very own niggling feeling about that. Mr Tellez has shown previously a reluctance to pull back play for every blade of grass that made contact with a player for a freekick and a booking. He made three bookings last night of Tim Borowski on Francesco Totti, Christoph Metzelder on Gennaro Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi on Lukas Podolski, and otherwise told certain players to get up as they appealed on the ground for a freekick.

Next was the football. In the first half Italy were the better, Andrea Pirlo and Gattuso linked with Totti mainly to weave touch-and-go passes, one-twos' and to help when not in possession, and the German midfield had little answer to it other than watch and hope for a mis-pass. On occasion a chipped ball would occur forward for Fabio Grosso or Luca Toni that was overhit mainly or rendered the intended player offside. This was the only downfall of the entire match. Germany came the better side in the second half, Miroslav Klose was tightly marked but he still found the ball when he dropped off to collect and pass to join up with the attack, something Wayne Rooney relishes in but was not given the chance to do. There were no rash, severely ill-timed tackles, no face-offs, a little disgruntlement between Michael Ballack and Gattuso, Metzelder and Camoranesi but very minor, hardly handbags.

Then there were exceptional individual performances. Chances were created from both sides, and such attacks led to the excellent performance of Fabio Cannavaro, second to which was either the partnership of Pirlo and Gattuso, two thoughtful, energetic players who literally ran all over the pitch, and the performance of Jens Lehmann. The Arsenal keeper came for crosses and corners with great confidence and even picked up on threatening passes that eluded the defence, clearly showing why he was chosen Germany's no.1. Jurgen Klinsmann made no mistake there. But the Man Of The Match was Cannavaro, who had hardly put a foot wrong throughout, led like a true captain, snuffed out any threat that came his way, and was influential in the killing second goal. If Pirlo and Gattuso covered all over the pitch, in defence Cannavaro was never far behind.

Marco Materazzi has covered well for Alessandro Nesta and he was second-in-command in defence, numerous times he made a header or interception to clear danger. Where Lehmann covered to keep Germany settled at the back, Gianluca Buffon was called upon at times to thwart Germany's chances, Podolski shot at him from the left with little to deny him and also from close range on the turn, both of which Buffon dealt with with cool hands. Klose was through on goal until the Italian keeper came out and smothered the ball away.

Finally, the goals, both of which came in extra time, second half. The first was the type that would separate two fighting equal sides. It called for tiredness in the German defence and a change in approach from the man Pirlo. Picking up the ball central of the German goal outside of the box, Pirlo dinked to shot then ran to his right, dragging four German players to him. Then he passed into the box to Grosso, who had another four German players in front of him but who had made for an inadvertent passage for Grosso to curl a shot through. Sub Daniel Odonkor jogged away from far post just before the shot was made and had he remained he could have blocked the shot. But he hadn't, Grosso's shot curled and as Lehmann dived the curling effort bent round him and into the net.

That was timed at 119mins, and with moments to spare the Germans went forward for an equaliser and were caught out. A high ball was headed back by Cannavaro and then the Italy captain ran out to nick the ball off Ballack before the Chelsea man knew about it, Cannavaro passing to Totti, Totti finding sub Alberto Gilardino, who had a shot come off the crossbar much earlier in the first half of extra time. As Gilardino took on Metzelder, two other German players came to the attack but none picked up on another sub, Alessandro Del Piero, racing down the left other than Gilardino. The AC Milan striker found Del Piero and with just Lehmann to beat, the German defence opened and wounded, the Juve midfielder dinked a sweet ball over Lehmann that lined up with the underside of the net's roof.

A hundred and eighteen minutes of entertaining football kept the scores level, a moment of tiredness allowed a chink in the German armour to open up and grant two gracious openings to their opponents. Talk has been made of the best game in the tournament so far, Argentina v Mexico topped the opinion but now makes way for this semi-final result. I predicted a Germany v France final, tonight I only see a France victory.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lame Brazil rumbled by France again

Practically as it was in the summer of 1998 in Paris, Brazil surrendered their World Cup route to the cup to France with a performance that equalled to that of England's, but worse. Worse because we did ours with ten men and kept out difficult Portugal and needed penalties to sepearte us from the tournament forever. Brazil had eleven and simply failed to show up. This is the same Brazilian side found wanting against Croatia, Australia, and Ghana and failed to take heed. It was as if they had to turn up and play football and the rest would fall into shape. But that is fairytale, they came up against a rejuvenated France side who found some resolve to beat Togo 2-0 to ensure they went through and had Zinedine Zidane come back in time to link with Patrick Vieira and a spirited Franck Ribery to finally inspire their win over Spain.

For Brazil to have not seen this meant they did not take things seriously. Ghana came ever so close to unravelling them, the scoreline in that game didn't tell as big a message as this quarter-final eventually did. Percentage of possession was 50-50 and Brazil had not gained theirs from being in the French half the most so both sides enjoyed possession in Brazil's half, telling you the French were the most energetic in attack. Eric Abidal (finally spelt it right), Florent Malouda and Zidane connected well down the left because Cafu was not playing well. I think it is time for him to step down from the squad for good, his passing was overhit, his pace was tested and failed and his vision was poor. Roberto Carlos was no better when given time on the ball, in fact even Kaka struggled in midfield once Zidane stuck to his own words 'I play my game as if it was my last.'

While the ITV commentary of Clive Tydlesley and David Pleat salivated over Zidane's moves on the ball like savages beside a hot spit of boar, Zidane added the touches of skill necessary to get the job done. That wasn't to find Claude Makelele, shoot at goal or showboat like a circus performer. It was to gain and hold control in midfield, practically wherever he was at the time. It wasn't fancy, it was to dictate in order to hold Brazil from taking over and going offensive. Carlos Alberto Parreira made the error of dropping Adriano to the bench for an extra midfielder, for Brazil were capable of working round a five-man midfield and leaving Ronaldo and Adriano to work the defence. Juninho didn't shine, at the back Lucio had a battle with Henry and Juanwas found short on occasion where France should have capitalised on. Constant passing around the back consumed time, as if they had little game plan once France had numbers behind the ball, and the amount of times a simple pass was mis-controlled was amazing. It was a matter of time with such lapses that France would breach through.

A needless freekick on the French left was floated over all gathered within the penalty spot except for Thierry Henry to lurk mischieviously at the rear to volley past Dida. It was so sharp and quick it was a second before it was confirmed a goal. From then Brazil then began to play, Adriano was on for Juninho, and suddenly the offensive was Brazil's, but it was too late. Ronaldo tried to bustle his way through but one France player simply blocked the ball and another cleared it away. At the back France were strong, it need not be extravagant, it just needed to be firm and no-nonsense and that is exactly why Brazil did not score. A well-earned move into the semi-finals to face Portugal in Munich on July 5th, kick off is 8pm.

I now sense a Germany v France final.


WC2006: End of the road for England

In the World Cup of 1990, in Italy, we faced the Germans in the semi-final where it finished level at 1-1, only to lose as Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their penalty kicks. During the European Championships on home soil, we defeated the Spaniards 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw to go into the quarter-finals and face Germany, where it finished level at 1-1 and we lost 5-6 on penalties, Gareth Southgate missing his penalty kick. In the World Cup of 1998 in France, England were in the 2nd round against Argentina, where the game finished 2-2 and again went into penalties, where Paul Ince missed that made scores level but David Batty's miss at the end won the game for Argentina. In the 2004 European championships, we faced Portugal, where the tie ended emphatically 2-2. David Beckham slipped and missed his spot kick, Portugal keeper Ricardo Pereira was a hero in Lisbon by saving Darius Vassell's penalty then scoring the remaining one himself.

So we faced Portugal again in the quarter-finals of the World Cup of 2006. Christian Ronaldo was fit enough to play, and as I predicted Portugal had the 4-2-3-1 line up of players. England were 4-5-1 and endured yet again Wayne Rooney alone, isolated, chasing lost causes, overhit passes, long balls 40-50 yards away, surrounded like an island by Portuguese defenders who, like Ricardo Carvalho, were very good in stifling Rooney of space to turn or run. Owen Hargreaves played the holding role and played very well, on occasion he stopped Luis Figo and Ronaldo from going further, but it looked as if he was the only central figure in midfield. David Beckham appeared initially in the first half then disappeared, Frank Lampard hardy moved around, hardly a tackle from him, Steven Gerrard tried to mobilise himself often but found it difficult to find players in space, passes were overhit. Joe Cole tried to make openings down the left to no avail. At times we made moves towards Portugal's goal only to lack that pass, that shot, that 'killer instinct' in front of goal.

I can remember a freekick for Portugal from Figo was not dealt with, came off Gary Neville and bounced comfortably to Paul Robinson with Cardoso Tiago looming. Again we were vulnerable from a set-piece, no one dealt with the ball aerially. Ronaldo then Figo were allowed to come in from the left and take shots at the goal, dangerous defending. We broke forward and looked promising, only for it to end poorly. Beckham had not played well, a poor freekick and a poor corner, and he then took a knock in the second half and had to come off for Aaron Lennon. Beckham wept in the dug-out while his foot was treated, and that was a telling sign that things were not going right for us.

Rooney was closed down on the ball by Carvalho and Armando Petit. Despite the two challenges which connected with his leg than the ball, Rooney stayed up and battled for the ball, Carvalho at one point pulling Rooney's shirt. Rooney still stayed up and in frustration he stomped his left foot near Carvalho's groin area and the Chelsea defender winced. The referee was right on the spot to witness it all and blew for a freekick, and then Portuguese players came over to remonstrate. Ronaldo did so and clearly made words to indicate action should be taken against Rooney, for Rooney to react with a little shove on Ronaldo. The referee, Argentinian Horacio Marcelo Elizondo (don't groan), blew to calm order and pulled Rooney to the side to issue a red card. Now, this could not be given for the little shove, that would be a scandal.

I surmise that the referee did not take immediate action while monitoring Carvalho's injury but then decided to do so once it became clear friction would ensue from Rooney's shove. Nonetheless, I had to see from the replay the stomp because I wasn't convinced of any offence, and even then the referee should have blown for an England free-kick much earlier when Rooney was tapped twice on the leg while battling for the ball. Had those two contacts been on Ronaldo or Figo or any other Portugal player, that player would have gone down immediately, gaining a freekick.

Peter Crouch came on for Joe Cole, when it should have been Lampard coming off. Twenty four minutes of backs to the wall stuff as Portugal huffed and puffed, tried to shot without success, without accuracy. They then played the ball around the penalty box, looking for an opening, almost breaching the defence on two occasions but England held out. We were valiant as Portugal continued to probe, Hargreaves, Lampard, Gerrard, Lennon, Neville, Cole had to put in that extra percentage of energy as John Terry and Rio Ferdinand kept stalwart in defence. Robinson made two saves to keep the Portuguese out, and when the ball was cleared Crouch was there more times than not to hold up the ball and lay it off. We came agonisingly close to snatching victory but lacked that edge to shoot well on target.

But we kept out Portugal until the end of 120mins. It came down to penalties, once again, in the quarter-finals. Simao Sabrosa stepped up and scored well, Frank Lampard stepped up and Ricardo saved well. Hugo Viana stepped up and missed, Hargreaves stepped up and Ricardo almost saved it but it went in. Petit stepped up and missed, Gerrard stepped up and Ricardo saved. Helder Postiga stepped up and scored, Jamie Carragher stepped up and scored but had to re-take it as the referee had not blown. Carragher stepped up again and Ricardo saved. Ronaldo stepped up, he who had appealed to the referee for action against Rooney, he who was caught on camera pinching then nudging Rooney with his head from behind before the initial kick-off as Rooney talked with Pedro Pauleta. If he scored, England were out. He did.

I could not believe it, so promising albeit misfiring, is-performing yet we knew how they can play, we hoped they would give a big performance when it mattered, when it counted. They did in those 54mins after Rooney was sent off while we also wanted it with ten outfield men and in the Portugal half. We should have won because we battled to keep out a tricky, skilful, pacy side and it is difficult to pick apart a team with one man less. The Argentinians felt this eight years ago, we did it again yesterday. But I feel playing with ten men took its toll and the energy sapped from us, particularly Gerrard who at one point came out on attack but the ball was won back by Portugal, Gerrard walking back rather than sprinting to aid our defence.

The sending-off was a major body blow, the uppercut that catches well on the ribs and knocks some air out of you. England rallied and kept defence under the pain, blocking blow after blow to make it to the final bell. Had it been anyone else, it is questionable the potential of the damage caused, we would have taken one from midfield to replace and still have an option upfront in Rooney. But it was Rooney, our only attacking option. It is arguable we should have played with Crouch and Rooney together from the start and let Lampard and Gerrard sort out who goes and who stays. We should have taken the game in the first half and then with that cushion hit Portugal on the counter, difficult but effective and achievable with our players. But the curse of those penalties has occurred again. There is a new direction needed to make England that much of a better, more lethal side and I am not sure that even Steve McClaren can produce it.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Germany meet Italy as England and Portugal prepare

Germany v Argentina was an entertaining match, a tight one. Good header by Roberto Ayala from Juan Roman Riquelme's corner for Argentina's goal, and I sensed the Argentinians felt they had the control of the game by then with little worries. But being in that frame of mind allowed the Germans to engineer themselves towards goal, Michael Ballack crossing well for an excellent head-on by Tim Borowski for Miroslav to steal ahead of Juan Pablo Sorin and yet again score, an essential equaliser. The goal drew Germany level with 10mins of normal time to go but also it stunned their opponents. The lull from then to the end of extra time seemed inevitable, the Germans may have been confident with penalties while the Argentinians had no more power to penetrate the German defence.

Argentina coach Jose Pekerman made two errors in bringing off JRiquelme and Hernan Crespo, these two are main players whose game is for 90mins. Provided injury or serious ill-play is at hand, then indeed replace them, otherwise leave them on. Without Riquleme the midfield control was effectively surrendered, without Crespo moving his marker with him upfront, there was little way made by Carlos Tevez' movements. Tevez was bustling but towards the end became more predictable and therefore easier to monitor. Pekerman should have replaced Mascherano with Esteban Cambiasso, pushing Cambiasso defensively, Riquelme behind Tevez and Crespo. If need be, it should have been Tevez rather than Crespo coming off for Julio Cruz. The two substitutions were fundamental with Roberto Abbondanzieri coming off injured, Leo Franco did not seem confident to me, perhaps unsurprisingly.

As for the penalties, here it was evident how much the equaliser stunned the Argentinians. Oliver Neuville scored first, Cruz next, then Ballack. Ayala weakly passed more than shot at Jens Lehmann, while Lukas Podolski scored. If Maxi Rodriguez missed, game over, but he didn't and hope still remained for Argentina. Borowski scored his, meaning Cambiasso had to score or else. He didn't. Germany went through, Lehmann went the right way on all spot kicks while Franco fared half as good. Germany executed their kicks in excellent style while the Argentinians produced desperate efforts, as I said they looked to have no more resolve in them. If the equaliser stunned the Argentinians, then the penalties potentially provoked anguish into anger.

Afterwards, a melee of officials, team members and bench members came together in some furore, Gabriel Heinze clearly incandescent with fury in the direction of Oliver Bierhoff, an official trying to restrain the Manchester United defender. Clearly, as Bastian Schweinsteiger, wearing an orange vest over his Germany sweatshirt, turned to walk away, he was struck on his back by a charging and lunging Rodriguez, someone who, for me, scored a wonderful goal against Mexico but otherwise has stained his performance in the tournament as a whole with a number of drops and dives, one of which he was excellently booked for by the referee in this game, Lubos Michel. Mick McCarthy, co-commentating for BBC1, spotted German defender Per Mertesacker assaulting an Argentinian player. One report suggests Borowski told the Argentinan players to be quiet after he had scored and when Cambiasso missed, Fabricio Colocchini approached Neuville.

The Argentinian side have history for this behaviour after a World Cup match, this is another episode for FIFA to mull over with their 'Muller-Thurgau' and 'Big Baby Swiss'.

While I had Germany to win, because for some reason I felt being the home team would give that magic advantage, I also had Italy to win. Maybe not a surprising choice but the Ukraine still had enough talent to cause a stir while Italy had yet to show their renowned potential. Marcello Lippi gambled on dropping Alberto Gilardino, using Luca Toni up with Francesco Totti as his strike force. It was Gianluca Zambrotta who went on the run, receiving a sweet back-heel off Totti and then a left foot strike that Alexander Shovkovsky got down to but should have palmed away, the ball going in off his gloves.

Toni notched his first goal in the World Cup when Totti again got involved and crossed for Toni to head in. Fabio Cannavaro was in an offside position and aimed to head the ball but missed, and that is interfering with play, offside should have been given. Toni then finished with a brace as Zambrotta ran down the left and crossed low to evade Shovkovsky and find Toni, who had stolen ahead of his marker for a simple tap-in. Germany v Italy, July 4th, Dortmund, 8pm, should be a very good contest.

Last word for tomorrow, because no doubt from sunrise we will hear much about it. I understand Christiano Ronaldo is 60-40 to start, while Frank Lampard and Gary Neville are A-OK. With that, Sven-Goran Eriksson will deploy 4-5-1 while I prefer 4-4-2. The usual players will play, save Owen Hargreaves is said to hold instead of Michael Carrick. Hargreaves is more defensive than Carrick, though I would have Carrick holding. If it were 4-4-2, no doubt Peter Crouch would start with Rooney.

As for Portugal, I suspect Luiz Felipe Scolari will go 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1. If the former, expect the usual five of Ricardo, Luis Miguel, Fernando Meira, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente at the back, then Armando Petiti holding and a four of Ronaldo, Maniche Riberio, Luis Figo and Simao Sabrosa behind Pedro Pauleta. If the latter, which is what I feel Scolari will play with, the same back five, Petit and Cardoso Tiago both holding, a three of Ronaldo, Maniche and Figo behind Pauleta. If Ronaldo is unfit in the 4-1-4-1, Figo will go on the flank with Tiago coming in.

Francisco Costinha and Anderson Deco being suspended does not give us an edge, they can be replaced well.




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