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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Beckham inclusion inevitable, but is it right?

Hindsight is a funny thing to experience, funnier to comment on. Yet it seemed on the horizon in the days and performances post David Beckham's exclusion from Steve McClaren's England XI preference that Beckham would be recalled. I felt it was McClaren's intention to withdraw the captaincy from Beckham to give to either John Terry or Steven Gerrard, and he communicated this to Beckham prior to the WC QF against Portugal, if not sooner. I say it was before that game. Hence why Beckham was off-key during that game and subsequently was withdrawn due to illness and eventually vomiting on the pitch. Also hence the decision to step down rather than have the media report he had the captaincy taken from him, I always wondered why would he step down but still play for England? Why not continue as captain if you intend to play?

As Beckham's exclusion echoed on through English football, McClaren got on with selecting either the interim role of Gerrard or including Aaron Lennon on the right wing. At this time Joe Cole was on the left with Stewart Downing not impressing for England, and I felt Beckham's exclusion also paved the way for both Gerrard and Frank Lampard playing at the same time. It did in a sense but it didn't have both players in their preferred role. Nonetheless Lennon went on to produce his work rate down the wings which did not bore fruit as expected while Gerrard more or less floated in and out of his right wing role against the Israelis. The right side needed a Beckham-Lennon player, combination of pace and delivery and the eye for defence-splitting passing. Beckham has some pace and delivery and can pass the ball. So too can Lennon but his delivery is questionable, so in essence Beckham is the right person for the right side.

So in hindsight it seemed inevitable Beckham would be recalled because other than Lennon and the now-and-then choice of Gerrard on the right which should only be used in an emergency, there is no one else for the role. David Bentley has been appealing for a first XI start but is not good enough yet while Lennon is out injured anyway. Lampard and Gerrard will probably come in with Owen Hargreaves holding, and with this I would consider 3-5-2, as long as England have two strikers. OR consider my approach which would have one central defender doing an ad-hoc holding role in that 3-5-2, dropping back under attack beside Terry. Ferdinand and Matt Dawson are out, so potentially Phil Neville at right-back, Terry centre with Wayne Bridge on the left (subject to a fitness test, failing which it will probably be Nicky Shorey of Reading), Ledley King/Jamie Carragher in that ad-hoc role.

The 3-5-2 accommodates for Lampard and Gerrard and this time round with Gary Neville, Micah Richards, Ferdinand, Dawson and Ashley Cole unavailable, seems suitable to deploy. With Beckham back it has to be 3-5-2, leaving little to the 4-4-2 that most feel, including myself, England are better with. With Neville and co to return when fit, I wonder which formation McClaren will use. If he was brave enough to drop Beckham, he may well have to repeat such bravery with another household name.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

AC Milan 2 - 1 Liverpool: Milan the new European champions 2007

Wednesday night's match gave a good performance by Liverpool but a matching finish from Milan to take the trophy this time round. Liverpool were a credit for their approach to the threat of Milan, well renowned through Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Andreas Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso to name four. But Liverpool lacked a cutting edge to their finishing, something else had has been past around amidst rumours why we have failed to thoroughly establish a domestic challenge to the title.

It was clumsy of Xabl Alonso to concede a foul so near to our box and with Pirlo poised, his effort came off Fillipo Inzaghi past Pepe Reina and delivered a crucial blow to the effort of the Reds, just before half time. Liverpool imposed themselves well in the first half and could have equalised in the second through Steven Gerrard but one-on-one from an angle Dida was down to the save. And as Liverpool legs appeared to grow wary and tired, Massimo Oddo combined with Kaka to thread through to Inzaghi, who collected and coolly rounded Reina to slot underneath the keeper for Milan's second. Yet another cruel blow.

With mere minutes of injury time remaining, a Liverpool corner from Jermaine Pennant was deflected off Daniel Agger then Oddo to Dirk Kuyt, who headed past Dida to give a faint glimmer of hope, but that glimmer was diminished as time went down and once the final whistle was blown, the Milan bench erupted onto the pitch in celebration.

AC Milan are, for the seventh time in European football history, European Champions 2007!!!

Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti:

"Liverpool didn't allow us to play at our best and for us it has been difficult. Anyway, I think it was our destiny to win this match and this cup for what happened two years ago and what happened this year. I think it has been a deserved win for the troubles we had to live.

"Undoubtedly there is a big satisfaction because in November the situation was really hard. I'm happy also because we have been able to recover and react from the bad situation we had in that period."

Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez:

"And the difference sometimes is that you can work hard, but you cannot close the space or the pass, or the penetrative pass from Kaka, or a Seedorf or Inzaghi. The first half we did really well, we played really, really well and then we conceded a deflection at the end of the first half. Second half we were pushing, pushing, but then you leave space and then they have quality and it made the difference.

"We tried to keep the ball and press high, but you need to take your chances - we did have a lot and went close, but the quality they have if you lose the ball you will be in trouble. I think the team in the first half was really good."

For this Liverpool fan it was hurting to watch the players in despair, being so close, having gone so far but to no avail, to cruelly concede two then gain one so late when we needed it earlier, much earlier. It was hurting to watch Milan celebrate, and then there was some relief to the pain as I reflected on our celebrations in Istanbul, where the better team did not win. It was a severe reverse of fortune last night, once again the better team did not win but simply AC Milan earned their victory by the simplest of sayings: score one goal more than the opposition to win.

I felt the two comments above summed up the game for me. For AC the win signified a beacon for more than one reason. That of two years ago, the match-fixing scandal back home that put their presence in the competition in doubt, Seedorf's fourth win, his second with Milan, and captain Paolo Maldini's fifth in Milan's third final in five years. Maldini now has one win fewer than that of Real Madrid's midfielder Francisco Gento in the late 50's - early 60's, the current record holder.

Liverpool were close to equalling Milan's European Cup record and now it stands with five for Liverpool, seven for Milan and nine for Real Madrid. For Liverpool, lacking that cutting edge I referred to above means a revamp and potentially good signings with funding for the coming season. Liverpool need to increase their scoring regularity for it is in this department where they flutter away leads and games they should win. For the likes of Man Utd and Chelsea, if it is not Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba scoring, it's Frank Lampard or Christiano Ronaldo, Salomon Kalou or Ryan Giggs. Shaun Wright-Philips, Arjen Robben, Michael Ballack; Michael Carrick, John O'Shea, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Even with Arsenal, Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fabregas, Julio Baptista, a fit Robin Van Persie, Thierry Henry.

We need more consistency with our scoring from almost every player to really challenge for any competition. But I'm proud of the Reds, of the effort they put in to get to Athens, the effort last night, the respect from the champions. I just wish for a Part III with the excitement from Parts I and II mixed in!!

I want to add my frustration over the ticket allocation for the final. Many fans were left stranded at John Lennon airport as a chartered flight to Athens was cancelled at the last minute, with little regard for those booked to fly. UEFA received some 4,000 tickets from Milan unsold yet refused to pass them over to LFC for those in need of them. There were fans who had geniune tickets refused from entry as their own seats were taken up by those holding fraudulent tickets. The UEFA spokesman William Gaillard said:

"The behaviour of the Liverpool fans is in the end responsible for the problems that took place before the game."

Absolute rubbish. The British ambassador to Greece, Simon Gass, begged to differ as the British Embassy vowed to take up the matter with UEFA. Ambassador Gass said: "The organisers had a plan which involved three cordons to try to ensure that people who didn't have tickets were not able to get into the stadium. Clearly there was some element of breakdown where those fake tickets appeared to be legitimate - that's something Uefa must look at. The vast majority of fans with proper tickets got in but even if a small minority did not, that's not satisfactory."

With a capacity of 70,000 plus and 34,000 allocated to fans, leaving a remainder of 36,000 plus tickets to third parties, namely ticket offices and potentially touts, the Greek authorities along with UEFA simply opened up a circumstance to ridicule. We'll see if under Michel Platini's stewardship UEFA will repeat or avert such a fiasco occurring again. Their spokesman does not fill me with confidence:

"[Thanks to the Greek police because they had ] To control the fact that so many fake tickets were around as we warned but this was all done in Britain."

"It is very easy to say it is not a suitable stadium, coming from the man that invented the poll tax." [in response to the former Conservative leader and Liverpool fan Michael Howard's comments that the stadium was not appropriate enough]

"The Milan supporters didn't face the same problems because they didn't behave in the same way. The kind of pushing that was going on and the attempts to jump over barriers - imagine if we had turnstiles, we could have had a tragedy."

"The only responsibility we could have is that we did not choose a stadium with 250,000 seats, but unfortunately they do not exist."

A piss-up in a brewery, anyone??


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Most untalked about goal this season! (plus two buys please)

Since the 2003-2004 season when Arsenal went the season unbeaten to complete a unique title triumph in the modern era of the game I have kept a sneaky eye and interest on teams in the major leagues around Europe who threaten to equal this feat. And with Arsenal lacking a real momentum this season I increasingly became aware of what was going on at the top of the table in Italy.

For a long time this season it looked like Inter Milan had the quality and intent to go 'invincible' with Patrick Vieira in line to do something incredible and be part of two teams that go unbeaten in a title-winning league campaign. By mid-April, Inter were still unbeaten with just seven league matches to play as they faced a home match against second-placed Roma who were just coming off the 7-0 embarrassment defeat at Old Trafford.

This was arguably Inter's last main hurdle to going the season unbeaten as they had a simple enough run-in. And with one minute left on the clock against the Romans they had a 1-1 scoreline to extend their unbeaten run.... until this:

I'll be the first to congratulate the team that equals Arsenal's feat from 2003-2004- but I'd prefer that it remains our exclusive claim for a bit more time to come! And so despite Totti's deflected (off the legend Luis Figo) free-kick barely receiving a mention in the English football media, I'd like to say a belated thanks on this site to Francesco!

And while I'm writing about the Arsenal I should mention that after seeing Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool in major finals over the last seven days, I believe that Wenger and his squad should have the arrogance to think that they must at least be on a par with these sides next season.

I believe a high octane CM (perhaps Reo-Coker who has a definite winning mentality) and a flying/goal-scoring wide player (the current roster of Hleb, Rosicky and Ljungberg is understaffed and continually susceptible to injury) should be the two signings we require to add the finishing touch to a squad that has so much potential (the future forward options of the next few years comprising Carlos Vela, Walcott, Van Persie, Adebayor, Bendtner and a timeless Henry looks simply stunning).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Chelsea Football Club: FA Cup Winners 2007 in the new Wembley Stadium

Congratulations to Chelsea Football Club to have won the double of the League and FA Cups this season. The game proved to be a very tight contest with little given away by both sides. The essence appeared to be that either side would close down their opponents very quickly and restrict as much as possible the room and speed which both are renowned for utilising in their attacks. The game went into extra time goalless, such was the extent both sides defended their goals, and it was Didier Drogba, who at times has been the one to forge something out of nowhere in the remaining moments of matches, who created a one-two with Frank Lampard, the ball chipped over the Manchester United defence for Drogba to touch ahead of Edwin van der Sar.

The goal came in the 26th minute of extra time, therefore four remaining minutes of extra-time and three more of injury time. But Manchester United had had the suffering knocked from them by then to convert any attacks into an equaliser, which allowed Chelsea to be crowned the winners of the first FA Cup final in Wembley since it was last played there in 2000, also won by London Blues. They made Saturday a Blue day.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Milan continue Liverpool ridicule

At half time, two years ago in the Champions League final, Milan thought they had already won and were heard celebrating. The players came out in the second half impeccably manicured with huge smiles on their faces. This was the start of Milan's lack of respect for Liverpool and they paid the price on the night.

Switch to present day and we hear this from Gattuso:

"I feel there is a noticeable difference in talent between Manchester United and Liverpool.
Liverpool are like an Italian team of 10 years ago. Every ball a long ball. All they try to do is defend with everybody behind the ball and one striker. United have far more technical players, who are quick and able to do things on the ball. Liverpool do not have those individuals. This final will be different - that I promise. It is important to put the record straight."

And this from Ancelotti:

"Technically, Liverpool are the worst team of the three English sides who reached the semi-finals. Milan are a strong Italian team. There is a strong Italian culture running through the team. Liverpool do not have the DNA of an English side. It is more of a Mediterranean team because of the coach."

Even Sir Alex Ferguson has had a say:

"I'd bet for sure that Milan will win the Champions League. I'm absolutely certain of it. I told their manager Carlo Ancelotti at the end of our semi-final that there is no way he cannot win it now. Carlo gave me a magnificent bottle of wine, but I immediately told him I would only drink his wine once I see him lifting the Champions Cup."

Now you would assume that Milan had learnt their lesson. You thought wrong. I am astonished how they (and others) continue to mock Liverpool in the build up to next week's game. If this is mind games then Milan are playing it very dangerously because this is just the sort of thing that will spur Liverpool on even further to beat them.

Let's face it, Milan shouldn't have even been allowed to play in the Champions League this season. I hope Liverpool make them wish they hadn't.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

For Whom The Bells Toll

'For Whom The Bells Toll' is an old Ernest Hemingway novel that was turned into two film versions. The title came from a poem by John Dunne, 'Meditation XVII' within his 17th century publication 'Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions':

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

In Hemingway's novel, a group of rebels during the late 1930s' Spanish Civil War are given a task of blowing up a bridge to hit back at the government forces. The rebels sense they will not survive the mission, nonetheless they pursue their objective in the name of honour.

On Sunday, 13th May 2007, that mission was survival in the English Premiership. Two of those facing the prospect met at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. A third team was scheduled to combat at Old Trafford, Manchester. Wigan Athletic HAD to win, there was no alternative. Sheffield United had home advantage and needed to avoid defeat to guarantee their position. Most dauntingly West Ham United faced the champions and FA Cup finalists Manchester United. Nothing was sure or certain or clear. West Ham was expected to lose, but that result could be irrelevant, for the outcome in Sheffield was debatable though the senses went for a home win.

Manchester United 0 West Ham United 1

Sir Alex Ferguson said he would field a strong side today. It was not as strong as it could have been with Christiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic not starting but it's attacking prowess was not dulled by the selection. Wayne Rooney started with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Alan Smith, Edwin van der Sar in goal than Tomasz Kuszczak. Man Utd looked the most likely to score after a slow start gave the visitors some impetus to come at them, Wes Brown called on on two occasions to diver the ball away from goal. Alan Smith worked a deft touch from a corner for the ball to go goal-bound with Robert Green beaten but for a Yossi Benayoun headed clearance off the line and then an ensuing block from Kieran Richardson. Richardson had an excellent chance to score after he dazzled his way into the box only to hit the ball right-footed over the bar. John O'Shea met a Richardson cross with a firm header only for Green to tip it over for a corner.

For West Ham it was cometh the hour, cometh the man, in Carlos Tevez. Hardly in the game, along with Bobby Zamora and Luis Boa Morte, The Argentinian challenged with Gabriel Heinze to a high Green ball, and after exchanging with Zamora and the ball coming off him from Brown's weak touch, Tevez ran on to slot the ball in from an angle under van der Sar. The half was the proverbial 'best-team-attacking-but-then-conceding' scenario and the visitors had secured as much as a draw, if not a lead come the second half. sir Alex made a triple change on the hour with Giggs, Scholes and Ronaldo on for Patrice Evra, Carrick and Smith respectively, making again a 3-4-3. But Man Utd could not break West Ham, and as the home crowd chanted "Champions! Champions!", the visitors celebrated equally at the final whistle.

Did Utd conspire to send either Wigan or Sheff Utd down by fielding a weaker side? And what of the chances for either team with this unexpected victory?

Sheff Utd 1 Wigan 2

Wigan went into overdrive during their mission, Kevin Kilbane crossed from the left hand side that entered into the box for Paul Scharner was on hand in the 14th min to strike left-footed past Paddy Kenny. What was looked on as a home victory turned difficult for Sheff Utd. Wigan then lost captain Arjan DeZeeuw on the half hour, Emile Heskey took over the armband. A spell of possession for the home side found an equaliser through John Stead's header as Mike Pollitt came out to meet Phil Jagielka's cross. There was a collision between Pollitt, Stead and Ryan Taylor which required treatment for all three, Taylor going off through a leg injury. More drama followed as Jagielka then inexplicably stuck out his hand to give away a penalty. Why he did it is bewildering in such a tense match. Former Blades defender David Unsworth, on for Taylor, was handed the spot kick challenge. Remember Unsworth missing from the spot for the Blades during September at Ewood Park? He made no mistake this time as he stroke the ball to Kenny's left.

Utd provided their depiction of 'The Alamo', forcing Wigan onto the back foot for most of the second half, and their quest was further aided by Lee McCullouch's foolish tackles that earned him two bookings, the second of which came with 15mins remaining of normal time. Add that to the 5mins of injury time and Danny Webber missing with only Pollitt to beat gave cause for a potential cardiac arrest amongst both benches. Heskey was instrumental in keeping out Utd with defensive blocks and headers, Stead fizzed a low cross across goal that no one was on hand to meet, while Webber's effort found him with just the keeper to beat and he dinked the ball over him only for it to come off the post and away from danger. Then there came the final whistle in the 95th minute.

Wigan Athletic secured their Premiership tenure. The bridge has been exploded, the bells tolled for Sheff Utd into relegation.

The final teams relegated are Watford, Charlton and Sheff Utd after one season. Of course the positive thinker says there are 38 games in the season to ensure you are safe in the top league but sometimes that does not happen as beautifully as it sounds. Sunday was about who wanted to stay the most and who wanted to defend that stay the most. And some fortune, there is little that can survive in football without some luck. West Ham could be considered lucky after their Premier League punishment, even after a record £5.5m fine which looks to compensate for not issuing docked points. Sheff Utd could be considered unlucky, because of the Premier League punishment, because they came at Wigan with all they had albeit they faced 10 men that can either be an advantage or disadvantage depending of the spirit and determination of those 10-men, because Webber missed that chance.

Wigan were lucky. Ten defeats and four draws both home and away meant the writing was on the wall against an expected stern Sheff Utd at home but the writing was wiped off and replaced with an extraordinary backs-to-the-wall display to remain in the Premiership. There was simply no stopping Wigan from celebrating after the game, though that which they were celebrating was exactly that the Sheff Utd players were mourning. But there didn't seem to be that anxiety and loathing on Neil Warnock's face. I sense the Blades boss, obviously wanting to win or draw, actually enjoyed the moment as it went on.

It seemed to me he was watching another Premiership game than one which hinged on just one goal for survival. Then to hear that Warnock may leave Sheff Utd puts two and two together. He would enjoy the moment because he contemplated it would be his last for the club he loves, where he has been since 1999. Not a long time in football but then again if a manager manages to stay more than three years in the game he is doing something right. A fan in charge of his club or just a manager? The former, someone who is prepared to go down with his ship as well as steering it up to high waters. It may have been one voyage too many for Neil Warnock, and it is said he may step down from management.

Paul Jewell has resigned from Wigan. The pressures of maintaining the club in the Premiership had taken its toll on him and after seeing his players fight virtually to the death and emerge triumphant, it was enough. Having joined in 2001, Jewell raised Wigan from Division Two into Division One in his second season and in his second season in Division One gained promotion via the play-offs. Was the writing actually on the wall for Wigan to secure their place in their second season under Jewell in the Premiership?

Jewell was asked by chairman Dave Whelan, after handing in his resignation, whether he was going to another club. Jewell's reaction was to swear he had not been approached at all and he added:

"I have given everything I have as a person to bringing success here over the past six years. It is not an easy thing to walk away from somewhere and something which has been such a part of your life for so long.

"The intensity of football at the highest level, although completely addictive, is also draining. I feel I would be kidding the chairman, my players and the supporters if I was to carry on without being able to put in the energy and dedication I know is required to be successful at this level."

The end of the 2006/07 Premiership season has brought it's champion in Manchester United, the first time for four years, and its relegated teams. The season has brought along one resignation and potentially another from two men who have given heart and soul to their respective clubs over the years. It has been said football is a funny old game. That it is more important than life and death itself. For two men, it could very well be either.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Is it poetic justice time for West Ham?

West Ham were fined £5.5m for not following Premier League rules in registering Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano when the two arrived at Upton Park in . However they were not docked points, which has been the usual method of punishment for non-compliance with the rules, which the football world therefore found unusual. Rumours surfaced the Hammers made a deal with the Premier League to evade losing points, which would have potentially put West Ham into further relegation depth as to virtually seal their drop before the home game against Bolton. The verdict has caused irritation and dismay at Sheffield United, Wigan Athletic, Fulham and Charlton, and the four clubs have had talks with legal advisers and themselves in consideration of a legal challenge to the decision.

Briefly, the decision stems on the evidence which implicated the former West Ham chairman Terence Brown and managing director Paul Aldridge, who negotiated the transfers, acted improperly and withheld vital documentation concerning ownership of the players. The Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore was lied to by Aldridge in regard to the existence of the documents, the full details of which were eventually submitted to the Premier League in January when the Premier League considered an investigation into the deals. West Ham entered a guilty plea before a 3-man independent panel, consideration was taken of the plea and that the dealings would not have occurred under the current ownership of Eggert Magnusson. Thus West Ham were only fined a record fee to potentially compensate for avoiding docked points.

With Mascherano taken in by Liverpool on a 18-month loan, the question arose further of Tevez's ownership. West Ham have proven to the Premier League that Tevez is under their ownership and not that of a third party, though this is still to the dissatisfaction of the four clubs mentioned. Nonetheless Tevez was stated eligible to play for West Ham straight after the verdict and was influential in their away win at Wigan, ironically, by three goals to nil, as well as at home to Bolton the following match. With the last match to played tomorrow for all EPL clubs, Sheffield United are at home against Wigan, Manchester United host West Ham, Charlton and Fulham have had their fates sealed. Crucially if Sheffield United win, Wigan are relegated. If Wigan win, the goals difference would determine which of the three will go.

Sir Alex Ferguson said after the Chelsea game on Wednesday that he will field a strong side against West Ham with no favours but respect to the other teams below, adding that Rafa Benitez was disrespectful to the same teams for fielding a reserve side at Fulham. I found this hypocritical as Sir Alex also mentioned, after rolling down the names of those injured within the Chelsea squad, that he hopes to field his best XI for the FA Cup final. Precisely the point Benitez had in mind before the Fulham game. In saying that, I sense Man Utd will field nothing more than six or seven first teamers tomorrow. West Ham will have the option of sitting defensively for the majority of the game, try to dampen Utd from playing around them for long periods and look to take the game mainly on the counter-attack.

I heard Oliver Holt, sports journalist for The Daily Mirror newspaper, on the radio this morning saying he is looking to West Ham to relegate in reflection to how they evaded the docked points. Though I feel they should have been docked points as Middlesbrough were in 1997 for impropriety, the decision was to not do so in the discretion of the hearing panel and that is that. The point is to be debated with the Premier League who initiated the panel, not West Ham football club. Mr Holt's opinion is not a fair reflection and something niggles at me to suggest there will be a draw at Old Trafford which would secure West Ham's tenure, and a home win at Bramall Lane to condemn Wigan to the Championship.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lawrie saved the day but not his captain

"I asked Browny what happened at half-time and he said they ran into each other, there was no headbutt. I believe my captain if he says that. He did say they clashed heads but added there was no intent."

That was Fulham caretaker manager Lawrie Sanchez in response to the allegation his captain Michael Brown head-butted Liverpool's Xabi Alonso. Sanchez is known for managing Northern Ireland where his position was looking untenable until a win against England, Spain and then Sweden has propelled him as a good manager. Given the task of keeping Fulham up from relegation, he did exactly that on Saturday in managing the side to a 1-0 win, which was aided by Charlton's defeat last night to Spurs at The Valley that condemned the South East London club to the Championship.

Yet to hear from one of your players one version of an event and then say you believe him is quite frankly sidestepping the issue. Before Sanchez says he will review the moment and take it from there internally if the respective player deserves discipline, he says he believes his captain. Arbitrary? If it were a Fulham player on the receiving end of that which the cameras caught Brown doing, Sanchez would be livid. Rafael Benitez certainly was, because such an incident warranted a sending-off and Fulham may well have had the game very difficult to handle otherwise. Brown has until 6pm today (Wed) to answer guilty or not.

The incident with Michael Ball on Christiano Ronaldo was so clear cut with cameras catching the actual moment and the scar left on Ronaldo's stomach. Ball has pleaded guilty, apparently has apologised, and is set to be banned for three matches. On the Man City official web-site Ball has said:

"My action should not be seen on a football pitch and I know we have a responsibility at Premier League level to set a good example to the whole football community. I am proud of my disciplinary record and have never been sent off in my professional career."

For me, this is all immaterial. To say his action should not be seen on a football pitch was an understatement. It shouldn't be seen anywhere. None of this featured in Ball's mind at all during the match and to mention his disciplinary record and having not been sent off in his career mitigates nothing. There were a number of moments where Ball seeked to niggle at Ronaldo, he was aware of what he was doing with no aforethought for anything else.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Congrats to Man Utd as champions; West Ham out of zone

Manchester City 0 Manchester United 1

Sir Alex Ferguson aimed to show the right reaction for Utd fans after the Champions League exit on Wednesday. City appeared to demonstrate the derby takings would be evenly competed for in coming forward to attack until one moment that may have paved Utd's way to victory. Christiano Ronaldo had possession and released it before he was challenged by first Michael Johnson then Michael Ball. Johnson appeared to shove into Ronaldo and the Portuguese winger went down, and as play went on elsewhere Ball stamped on Ronaldo's stomach. It was noticeable during play if you kept your eye on Ronaldo but replays left no doubt. Rob Styles for me had an edgy time officiating. From then Ball came to Ronaldo with a number of hefty challenges but was caught out when Ronaldo controlled a high ball from the other side of the pitch and skilled his way towards Ball. Ball's left leg challenged and made contact with Ronaldo's right foot. I felt Ronaldo added weight to the contact but considering the stamp earlier, the penalty was deserved. Ronaldo scored from the spot.

Man City were not dead and buried and came at Utd with more vigour. Ball picked up the ball outside the box and went to glance his way through into the box. As he went on, Wes Brown was the nearest defender and being too late to challenge Ball decided to let him by, arms out wide to indicate not making contact. Ball spun round and went down, penalty given. I didn't think it was right and with Joey Barton absent, Darius Vassell stepped up and didn't hit the ball with much conviction, the ball coming off Edwin van der Sar's leg. Utd went on to take the points and send a 'It's up to you now' message to Chelsea for today.

I imagine, and hope, the FA will look into the stamping incident. In Ben Thatcher City released a thug, in Ball they appear to have gained another. Add that to the Barton incident in the week and it has turned into an unsavoury PR task for the Eastlands side. It's uneasy to say but Stuart Pearce's job could become untenable shortly.

West Ham 3 Bolton 1

Penultimate week of football, penultimate game for the Hammers. Strange Sam allardyce leaving with two games left, clearly an unusual move to commit and one that may have left more than Bolton managerless. Assistant Sammy Lee was appointed manager, Gary Speed player-coach and the Lancashire side move on. West Ham face an away game at Old Trafford and even though Bolton held Chelsea to a 2-2 draw, three points were very vital to obtain for the home side. Carloz Tevez is oblivious of the plight and of any mention of not playing for a team in the top half of the table as he continues to perform like a man on a mission. Tevez was linked to Chelsea before and here he is fighting to help West Ham avoid relegation. The circumstances have not fazed him.

Tevez is on a run before he is brought down by Abdoulaye Meite near to Bolton's box. The Argentinian steps up to sweetly curl the ball over and away from Jussi Jaaskelainen into the top right corner. Inch perfect. West Ham's second came via a george McCartney ball down the left which found its way to Luis Boa Morte, who ran down and then squared for Tevez to score. Tevez was involved in the third Hammers goal as he collected then paused down the left to chip over all for a Mark Noble volley. Bolton's response was for Nicolas Anelka to pass to Gary Speed, the Welshman skimming an effort across Robert Green into the far corner. The win brought West Ham out of the relegation zone and with this performance, and Utd winning the title by Chelsea's default, West Ham could earn themselves a vital draw to stay up.

Wigan 0 Middlesbrough 1

Paul Jewell made comments that Stewart Downing had touched the ball twice as he aimed to deliver a freekick but he also conceded that it was not West Ham's evasion of docked points under the FA decision over the illegal handling of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano's registration, it was Wigan's failure to score and win games. It was Downing's freekick that led to Wigan's loss yesterday, for as he kicked it he slipped, the crowd cheered the slip then were stunned as the resulting delivery found only Mark Viduka reacting to it. The ball sweetly dropped tot he Australian's feet for him to touch in the game's only goal. Compare that to Wigan's relentless surge to grab an equaliser that led to Emile Heskey outmuscling Jonathan Woodgate to run on near goal and then slice his effort wide. With West Ham's win and Wigan's defeat, Wigan dropped into the relegation zone. Nothing short of a win at Bramall Lane will do otherwise Wigan will drop down.

Fulham 1 Liverpool 0

Fulham almost held Arsenal away until they opened up and conceded twice and with such generosity, I expected Liverpool to takne advantage as well. The crowd at The Cottage was behind the hosts and Liverpool made nine changes from the side who faced Chelsea on Tuesday. With Pepe Reina and Jermaine Pennant surviving, Reina made a number of saves to keep out Brian McBride and then the tide change where Craig Bellamytested Antii Niemi twice. Robbie Fowler should have scored when Pennant drilled the ball across goal but Fowler's touch placed the ball off for a goalkick. Xabi Alonso released the ball and then felt Michael Brown bounce onto him, and as the Spaniard had words with Brown the Fulham skipper appeared to headbutt Alonso. Alonso was left with a bloody nose and annoyed words for referee Steve Bennett, another moment for the FA to take action on.

Fulham's breakthrough came via Clint Dempsey, one who impressed me during the WC2006 and who I earmarked for Liverpool on the right wing. His run ended with a pass to Liam Rosenior and the full back returned the ball as Dempsey broke into the box, Liverpool looking for an offside. Dempsey's contact spun the ball past Reina. As Liverpool came forward, Fulham hung on for three points to the delight of Lawrie Sanchez, whose task it is to steer them from the drop. They are not mathematically clear due to the fact that Charlton would need to win their remaining games with some goal margin, but the chances are Fulham will make it another season in the Premiership.

Everton 3 Portsmouth 0

With few chances in the first half ending the first 45mins goalless, Everton looked more likely to score and did so on the hour. James Vaughan ran across the penalty box with Linvoy Primus in chase only for Glen Johnson to upended the striker, earning a booking and Everton a spot-kick from which Mikel Arteta duly obliged. Everton made it two in three minutes as a Manuel Fernandes' corner was firmly headed in by Joseph Yobo. Arteta is arguably Everton's player of the season and it was his corner from the left that was flicked on by James Beattie, Gary Naysmith coming at the rear to head in Everton's third. The win cement's their European place, barring a defeat of doule figures by Chelsea and a huge win by Reading, while Portsmouth drop outside into 8th.

Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1

As mentioned above, Chelsea needed nothing short of a win to sustain their title challenge to the very end. Jose Mourinho had no Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko, Ricardo Carvalho and former Gunner Ashley Cole, with Khalid Boulahrouz filling in alongside John Terry. Both sides enjoyed good possession though Chelsea seemed to lack the cutting edge upfront to make Jens Lehmann work. Arsenal made a number of breaks but found Chelsea were equal to the ball in defence. It was stalemate towards the end of half time until a pivtoal point in the game led to a breakthrough. A high ball was missed by Emmanuel Adebayor and Terry, which bounced to Boulahrouz who felt it would go on to Petr Cech but Julio Baptista came from nowhere to nip in and control the ball. This put the Dutch defender into panic and his contact from behind whipped away Baptista's balance as the Brazilian teed up to shoot, Boulahrouz being the last man. Alan Wiley issued the dismissal; skipper Gilberto Silva issued the goal from the spot.

Second half meant Michael Essien slotted into defence beside Terry, Chelsea down to a 4-4-1 with John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard between Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole behind Salomon Kalou. It seemed a tall order for the Blues to get one goal, much less two, but they came back with greater intensity. It was Essien, as it was back in December at Stamford Bridge, who made a difference for Chelsea, glancing a header off Wright-Phillips' cross past Lehmann at the far post with 20mins to go. And it was Essien who came back into Chelsea's defence time and again to block and head and practically thwart Arsenal's attacks. Emanuel Eboue could have snatched it in injury time but his shot went to the far post and off the corner of the frame.

Congratulations to Manchester United, champions of the Premiership 2006/07!!

Aston Villa 3 Sheffield United 0

With the other relegation-threatened results swaying in their favour more or less, United needed something of a point to secure Premiership status but they were served a cold dish by the Villians. Gabriel Agbonlahor picked up the ball outside the Sheff Utd box and outmuscled Matthew Kilgallon to slot past Paddy Kenny. villa made it two when Ashley Young, still yet to justify his transfer, skipped past Chris Montgomery's challenge and shot past Kenny. Villa made it three through Patrik Berger as he and John Carew exchanged passes with Berger emerging into the box to tap under Kenny. Utd have their last game at home to Wigan and it is questionable how that game will end.

Reading 0 Watford 2

Relegated Watford put a dent in Reading's European qualification position unexpectedly. On the hour Lee Williamson's free-kick was floated over with the Reading defence running out but the ball passed Marlon King and came to Danny Shittu to score past Marcus Hahnemann. Reading appealed offside by King but replays showed King was onside by a Reading player running out and additionally he did not touch the ball on its way to Shittu. Watford scored a second when Hahnemann fumbled Tommy Smith's cross to King, who duly headed it in.

Newcastle 0 Blackburn 2

Blackburn took the majority of plaudits in this game which ended with a crescendo of boos and chants from the home fans for Glenn Roeder to be dismissed. Benni McCarthy has been a superb signing by Mark Hughes and he added another to his tally when Stephen Warnock swung over a cross and the Newcastle defence was exposed by Oguchi Onyewu, playing McCarthy onside. That was after 15mins, and with 20mins to go in the second half David Bentley went on a run down the right and then chipped for Jason Roberts to also add to his recent tally to double the scoreline. I understand as I type that the chairman has called an emergency meeting with Glenn Roeder to be present, the rumour is that Roeder will be sacked and Sam Allardyce will take over. But it has been confirmed by Freddie Shephered that Roeder has resigned with immediate effect.

So Man Utd are champions, both they and Chelsea meet on Wednesday and in the FA Cup final on 19th May. The bottom of the table is yet to be finalised and a number of things could determine who will join Watford. Crucially Charlton host Spurs tomorrow before going to Anfield on Saturday. If they lose or draw tomorrow, they are relegated.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Rafa Bud-nitez the Prophet

Someone spoke to me as to why Rafa Benitez sat on the pitchside with crossed legs as the penalties were taken, like a Buddhist. I don't know but it seemed to emit calmness personified. The following is of Agger's goal and the ensuing penalties with Rafa in said position:

This link from the official web-site clears up any question:

I also came across this, dated 20th February this year:

"Rafa Benitez believes Liverpool will meet Milan in this season's UEFA Champions League final.

The Spaniard has predicted that the two sides could contest the final in Athens in a repeat of the epic showpiece in 2005.

Liverpool face holders and favourties Barcelona in the last 16 and Benitez is confident his troops can cause an upset again like they did against Milan two years ago.

"I think the final will be Liverpool v Milan and that we will win again. It's sure," Benitez told Corriere dello Sport.

Liverpool face the daunting task of Barcelona this week and Benitez has hit out at critics who have ruled out his side's chances of progressing.

"In football there is nothing impossible," added Benitez. "We are ready to astonish you once again.

"Whoever sees us as victims is wrong. We were the same also against Milan in Istanbul's final and to those who see us already beaten by Barcelona, I suggest to see how that match ends



Thursday, May 03, 2007

Man Utd non-reaction to San Siro scintillation

With Liverpool into the Champions League final, it was down to Manchester United to emerge through their 2nd leg at the San Siro last night to make the final an all-English one, the first in the competition's history. The Spaniards have achieved it in 2000 with Real Madrid v Valencia, and so have the Italians in 2003 between AC Milan and Juventus. But last night things went quite astray from the norm with Man Utd. From the kick-off Milan were playing sharp passing and moving football while Utd could not get a touch on the ball. The word is constantly about the Brazilian Kaka, with perhaps Gennaro Gattuso added, and no doubt had Paolo Maldini been fit his name would have been repeated too. There are others who additionally contribute largely to the cause for Milan, and last night those names were Clarence Seedorf, Andreas Pirlo and for me Massimo Ambrosini, captain on the night in Maldini's absence, to name three.

The threat came within the opening minutes from Kaka and Seedorf. Kaka broke down the right easily past Nemanja Vidic to pass across goal. Seedorf picked up a loose ball from a corner by the penalty box 'D' and shot for Edwin van der Sar to tip over. Fillippo Inzaghi touched an effort inside thebox into van der Sar's arms. So when an Alessandro Nesta ball came over for Seedorf to nod on, Kaka was on hand by that very same 'D' to hit the ball into the corner on 11mins. In response Christiano Ronaldo tried to break down the left where he started but Gattuso was equal to him, clearly fulfilling his role to watch the Portuguese winger. Utd hardly gained a touch on the ball to threaten Milan at this stage, Milan were busy threading pass after pass with near accuracy, near enough to keep possession and build up their attack. Giggs picked up on a Nesta mis-header to turn in and shoot low for Dida to palm stop and gather.

However, on 30mins, Utd conceded again. Gabriel Heinze collected the ball and could have either cleared it down field or chipped it across to either Wes Brown or John o'Shea over to the right, but instead he turned it to Vidic, who was immediately put under pressure by Inzaghi and slipped, the ball came to Pirlo who was closed down by Heinze. Yet Pirlo still managed to get a cross over, which was touched on by Vidic with three other Utd players in the box, the only players in the box. Seedorf picked up the ball, again by the 'D', evaded one challenge and another and then fired low into the same corner Kaka did. It was calamitous. Utd then enjoyed a brief spell of possession with Wayne Rooney trying to thread through a pass but to no avail, there was little from Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Milan were becoming welcome to shutting out the attacks and calmly threading themselves out of danger.

Being 2-0 down meant potentially Utd could once again for the second consecutive match come back, and in doing so they would need just two goals and not conceded anymore. They had more possession, which was good in that they could now perhaps command something more in Milan's third to open them up slightly and cause some panic. But it was not to be, Dida was rarely tested and time was not of the essence. One chance Utd had to make a difference came via Rooney passing down the right to Darren Fletcher, who could have kept his shot down but saw it go up and wide instead. This meant Sir Alex would make a change as the game moved into the last quarter.

O'Shea was sacrificed for Louis Saha, the idea being the formation was 3-4-3, Ronaldo up with Saha and Rooney, keeping the four in midfield to break up Milan's passing in the middle of the pitch and feed the three upfront on the immediate counter. Yet a minute after the change Milan exposed the 3-man defence on the counter themselves. From within their box, they construct pass after pass until Ambrosini passed into a canyon of a gap in the middle of Utd's defence, where only sub Alberto Gilardinho, on for Inzaghi some ten minutes earlier, galloped alone with only Brown in pursuit. Gilardino tucked away Milan's third to compound Utd's exit.

Sir Alex was gracious in defeat in the post-interview, submitting that he has had to play with the same players for a while while Milan could rest theirs over the weekend, how Milan were sharper and physically prepared to battle in a downpour of weather that engulfed the pitch before and during play. In hindsight the manner which Utd found themselves 2-0 down at Goodison Park on Saturday may have been a more obvious indication of fatigue than was first thought. But not in hindsight was the line-up last night. I would have preferred Ronaldo on the right and Giggs on the left to start with, contemplated having Alan Smith starting to get at the Milan defence as he did to Roma.

There was talk mentioned that Rooney as the lone striker didn't work as he loves to play off the striker rather than be one. In that sense, Smith or Saha would have been better to start with Rooney, pitting Ronaldo against Marek Jankulovski, Giggs to press on Massimo Oddo as the right-back has shown a regularity in attacking often, like his predecessor Cafu did. I mentioned above the penalty box 'D', which was significant as there was no one covering that area to clear danger at all why Milan managed to exploit it, something which I expected either Scholes or Fletcher to do. Also on a night like last night, thought should have been given to introducing Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer, who can interject something into the game from nothing. From when the 60th minute came and Utd had made no progress, I would have contemplated changes.


Kaka is Fabregas-plus!

A quick post to mention how good it was to see the AC Milan performance in their 3-0 win over Man Utd at the San Siro last night.

The midfield five that has been assembled by Carlo Ancelloti were great to watch and I really liked the sheer understanding and balance of the quintet: Ambrosini is the underrated Gilberto Silva type anchor-man and captain; Pirlo, Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf possess a great mix of big-match experience and heart, excellent defensive and attacking awareness and economical passing ability, and in front of them is Kaka whose ultimate composure on the ball, attacking finesse and pure footballing ability makes me reckon he is the number one footballer in the world: Fabregas-plus!

Personally I am a massive fan of both Kaka and Seedorf and to see both of them at their best yesterday was great to see. Both took their goals with supreme confidence and ability: big match players doing it on the big occasion when their team needs them.

Kaka is a Rolls Royce player: his dribbling and running towards the goal is super-smooth and his end product is supremely clinical. And for me Clarence Seedorf is so under-rated - this guy has one three champs league medals with three different teams - and his economy of play is fantastic. He hardly ever wastes possession and can be relied on from midfield to score or decisively contribute to vital goals as he did last night and in the previous round when scoring in Bayern Munich.

So commisserations to Man Utd but last night they came up against a team of exceptional footballers who really play as a team and were totally determined to win from the first to the last minute. It was comprehensive and clinical from Milan - and you can tell that they will relish their amazing opportunity for redemption in Athens in three weeks time.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Liverpool book European Cup position in Athens

Last night was a nervy night for me, possibly for a number of LFC fans. Chelsea were well documented to have had control and enough chances to have extended their 1-0 lead at Stamford Bridge last week as Liverpool failed to react enough in the first half of that leg but responded more in the second. A number of words were passed to the media from the coaches of both sides which perhaps is par to the course but I felt it was insulting for Jose Mourinho to suggest Liverpool players would harass and entice Didier Drogba into conduct that would have him booked and therefore suspended from the 2nd leg. Dirk Kuyt was mentioned to have deliberately got himself booked in the quarter-finals 1st leg against PSV to miss what appeared to be an already won quarter-final 2nd leg and therefore emerge into the semis' with a clean record. Rafael Benitez conceded Liverpool did not control the tie:

"I think it was two different parts [last week] - the first half we were not controlling, the second half a little bit better. We gave them chances on the counter-attack and we were giving the ball away, then they were playing counter-attack.

"We were running back and we needed to be more compact. We were not doing these things in the first half.

"I think you need to score just one goal and see what happens. If we score two, as in the league, we will be there."

But crucially the words pale in comparison to the objective ahead, to win the semi. Chelsea arrived at Anfield with their advantage and minus Ricardo Carvalho, Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack and potentially aiming to right the wrong they felt during this exact fixture, venue and month in 2005. Liverpool rested seven players at the weekend in preparation while Chelsea were held out to a home draw by Bolton. The game was not one for high drama, numerous chances and shots on target and may have therefore fallen flat from the image conveyed from the pre-match build up in the media. But what it did contain was tension, for as determined as Chelsea have been this season since the league defeat at Anfield, since which they have remained unbeaten, Liverpool have been more cunning at home and with Rafael Benitez at the helm, he is being renowned for his tactics.

With chances few and far between both sides, Liverpool took the lead after Joe Cole had fouled Steven Gerrard on the left and with the Liverpool captain poised over the kick alongside Bolo Zenden, the expectancy was it would curl over towards perhaps Peter Crouch. Instead Gerrard passed the ball swiftly across the penalty box edge where Daniel Agger met it with a first time left foot touch that curled it inside Petr Cech's near post. A smart freekick that was rewarded.

Didier Drogba was put through by Jon Obi Mikel on the right and had his shot blocked by Pepe Reina. Ashley Cole ran down the left and crossed for Drogba only for Jamie Carragher to intervene. Michael Essien in central defence blocked out Dirk Kuyt, Cech saved with his feet from Crouch's header, Reina had to come to punch clear over Drogba as Frank Lampard curled over a freekick, Kuyt saw a firm header hit the crossbar and had a goal disallowed over an offside decision which I felt was just right. Since Agger's goal, chances had been created but on target they were lacking that extra quality. Chelsea had ended the first half and begun the second with possession with Liverpool then soaking up their attacks and going on the counter.

Surprisingly the tie went into penalties even after extra-time. TV cameras showed Mourinho consulting briefly with Arjen Robben as if to say 'Are you up to take one?', with Robben potentially replying 'Sure, why not, if no one else will.' Chelsea won the toss and chose the Anfield Road End for the penalties, as there were dual support there. Zenden stepped up first to deposit past Cech, and then Robben followed his compatriot only to have his effort saved. Xabi Alonso scored Liverpool's second with Lampard slamming past Reina. Gerrard sent Cech the wrong way and then Geremi stepped up to also have his effort saved, meaning that Liverpool's next spot-kick would put the Reds through to their second European Cup final in three years.

That responsibility was down to Kuyt and as Cech dived the right away, the Dutchman struck wide of Cech's right hand to put Liverpool on their way to a booking in Athens on 23rd May against either AC Milan or Manchester United. It wasn't a fantastic match to even rival that of Man Utd v AC Milan last week, but it brought tension and attacking play from two sides who have recent history between them and a tight game which seemed so tight as to inevitably end in penalties.



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