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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two better match conclusion methods to the Penalty Shoot-Out

The Champions League final between Man Utd and Chelsea was a solid match high on tempo if not sparkling in true quality. Its conclusion also, for me at least, again raised the issue of the suitabilty of deciding games by the method of the selection of five players from each side to take penalties. Its an issue that strikes every team: in recent years alone, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham, West Ham - to name just a few - have been involved in major games that were decided by this method. Even today, a match that could represent the only chance for Bristol City and Hull City to reach the Premier League, could be decided by the inherent fickle fortune of the penalty shoot out.

Focusing briefly on Wednesday, Man Utd dominated the first half against a frozen Chelsea team and should have been at least two goals up before Chelsea - with a rare attack in the Man Utd half of the pitch - benefited from some fortunate ricochets for the Lampard equaliser in injury time. The second half saw Chelsea drive Man Utd back and the game was a played at a high tempo which made for good watching. The game predictably went into extra time as the solidity and the balance of the two teams meant no real chances were created.

It looked quite clear that both sides - probably more so Chelsea - were looking to the finish line of the penalty shoot out rather than taking the riskier option of winning outright before the 120th minute, and so it was that Man Utd went to take the trophy on the penalty shoot-out method thanks to Edwin van der Saar's save from Niclas Anelka's nervous penalty.

So the biggest club competition in Europe was decided by penalties. Just like the biggest international cup competition, the World Cup final in 2006. For me this method of deciding matches - particularly huge matches - is a poor method of deciding matches. This is because I think that to win a match on penalties just means that you were luckier with the taking of penalties - rather than proving yourself to be the better team on the pitch by winning in open play, eleven against eleven.

As I see it there are two preferable alternatives to the current penalty shoot-out method.

My preferred method is to introduce the golden goal into extra-time and simply to play on until a goal is scored. Why this is not the present solution I don't know - the only drawback I think that can be argued against it is that matches can potentially run on and on. But for me if that is the case, so be it. Anyway, looking at other sports, I think battles that run on and on can make for epic, sporting occasions - look at McEnroe v Borg in the Wimbledon final tie-break of 1980, for an example. It is also clear to me that with the removal of the option of penalties the incentive to attack and score will be far greater, so that in practice matches aren't likely to last long into the night as I guess some may fear.

For me, the golden goal method is better than penalties because it keep the essence of football in tact until its conclusion - eleven against eleven taking it to each other on the pitch until a winner is scored.

The other method is a concession to those who - for whatever reason - want penalties to remain as the method of deciding matches. For me one of the worst things about the current method is that five players who has played 120 minutes of football are ruled out of having an impact (unless the score is tied after five penalties each) on whether his side ultimately wins or loses, and are simply left to hope that fortune is supporting five of their teammates in the taking of penalties. A better solution for those who want penalties to remain is that all ten outfield players on the pitch should have to take a penalty, and the winner is decided simply by what team scores more.

This way every individual is still involved in the conclusion of the match and the winning or losing of a match retains a stronger sense of collective involvement - which is the essence of football.

I think it would be great for football if UEFA/FIFA seriously looked at the current 'five takers from each side' penalty shoot-out method. I can understand how it was seen in 1970 as a preferable method of the drawing of lots - but surely it is now time with more and more high profile games seemingly decided by this method that a review took place of alternative and more satisfactory methods of deciding tied cup games.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kanu has the skills to light-up Wembley

Portsmouth play Cardiff in tomorrow's FA Cup final and my strong sense is that the Premier League side has too much experience, physical strength, organisational ability and class in forward areas to fall foul of an upset if they give it their maximum as they should.

Harry Redknapp has been very shrewd in the transfer market for Portsmouth and a major cup final place and a top-half league finish is testament to his experienced ability to build and organise a good football team.

He bought in a superb keeper in David James from Man City whose fitness levels are such that he will go beyond the best-before date of most goal-keepers. Former Arsenal and England star, Sol Campbell, is a champion-level centre-back and the acquisition of the consistent and athletic Sylvain Distin from Man City to partner him was a master-stroke. They are a very good centre-back combination.

Right back, Glen Johnson, is another great purchase - he looks to have focused properly on his football after looking to lose interest in the Chelsea squad and is now showing a level of football that deservedly has put him back in the reckoning for the England team. For me he has had a very strong season - and its great to see that a young guy of his talent is not letting it waste.

The trio of Muntari, Diarra and Diop in central midfield is very powerful, athletic and hard-working. To have these guys screening a a very solid defence is a massive reason why Porstmouth have had a very consistent season and been very hard to beat. Then on the wings there is the class of the Croatian international and reported Arsenal target, Niko Kranjcar, and the lightning fast Nigerian, John Utaka.

Finally Redkanpp usually goes with the one up-front option and I expect to see the magnificently skilful Nwankwo Kanu take the starting position tomorrow. I hope that Kanu can show some typical aweseome ball skills tomorrow and get a crucial goal - he is a man who career and ability deserves a big cup-final moment.

He was a nearly-man at Arsenal - overshadowed in the forward positions by the legend Dennis Bergkamp and the awesome Thierry Henry - and he left somewhat quietly in 2004 on a free transfer to WBA which I felt at that time was a club not appropriate for his ability and that the great former Ajax forward may be sliding prematurely into relative obscurity. Fortunately a guy wth such high talent was rescued from WBA reserves by ability-admirer Harry Redknapp - and both have prospered since. For me it will be something great to see the uniquely talently Nigerian striker show the world his sensational skills on a big stage tomorrow.

My feeling is 2-0 win will follow for Portsmouth. However, this is based on a lack of awareness of Cardiff City. I watched with appreciation their fine win over Middlesbrough and their workmanlike semi-final win over Barnsley - but I would like to know more about their qualities. If there are Cardiff supporters out there who can shed some light on this that will be very welcome? A view from Portsmouth supporters on their club's cup final chances would also be welcome.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can Fulham complete a fantastic fightback? (and a word on Jimmy Bullard)

Looking forward to tomorrow's last round of Premier League matches the battle at the top between Man Utd and Chelsea is obviously dominating the headlines. But at the bottom if Fulham can go to Portsmouth and win they will complete one of the most amazing great-escapes I can remember.

For a lot of the time this season they looked to have sealed 19th position for themselves - not showing enough ability or fight over 90 minutes to remain in the top league. But three wins in their last four games - including crucial wins over fellow relegation battlers Reading away and Birmingham at home - means that Roy Hodgson's men have control over their own destiny with one match to play.

The other win in their last four matches was a truly amazing victory away to Man City. As an Arsenal fan I revelled in our comeback from two goals down at Bolton last month to keep us fighting in the title race. But Fulham's comeback from two goals down at Man City equals it - and given that defeat would have effectively relegated them probably beats it. Three goals in the last twenty minutes - with the winner coming two minutes into injury time with one of the most skilful goals of the season by Diomansy Kamara- in a must win match is some feat which demonstrates a lot of fighting spirit and character. Please watch this great montage of the match below if you haven't already seen it:

For this comeback alone I hope Fulham stays up. I remember hearing Kamara's winning goal on the TV and applauding in honour of what I was hearing - it was great to hear of a team come back against all expectations and in the process keep their Premier League survival hopes alive.

Finally, I hope to see Jimmy Bullard play a full Premier League season next season. He is a player I really admire because he has a presence and work ethic on the pitch - as well as good ability - that stands him out as a player of great character. A guy like that should be worthy of a place in the England squad that in recent times has had too many character-less players.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Wenger must remember Campbell was killer signing before Arsenal's 2nd generation success

After the Chelsea defeat, when Drogba roughed up the Arsenal centreback combination of Kolo Toure and William Gallas, I wrote on EFT that Arsenal's achilees heel in this developing third-generation squad is a power centre-back in the mould of a Sol Campbell/Tony Adams/Nemanja Vidic.

And watching Arsenal since throw away advantages in games against Man Utd and Liverpool in the last month and overall noting the lack of clean sheets the team is keeping when more-or-less dominating possession my belief is now very strong that Arsene Wenger's number one priority should be a champion centre-back.

In early July of 2001 I remember very well the day we bought Sol Campbell. I was delighted wwhen I heard of the signing - I rated Campbell really highly and instantly felt very confident that our defence would be super strong to give true solidity to a team that I knew could dominate play and score goals with a progressing midfield featuring Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires and a superb attack featuring Henry, Bergkamp, Kanu and Wiltord.

Arsenal won the double in Campbell's first season and after leading the league for the majority of the second season (only to fall away right at the end) then went the whole season unbeaten in Campbell's third season.

Of course it was not just down to Campbell that this success came to Wenger's second-generation Arsenal side - but I don't think it is a coincidence that winning trophies coincided with his arrival because his magnificent power and athleticism at the back was the foundation for the rest of the team to play their attacking football.

In this third-generation side, Arsenal have in Toure and Gallas what I call excellent 'second-in-command' centre-backs. In other words they are a great compliment to a dominating power centre-back like Campbell/Terry/Vidic but do not have the size, presence and power to be a champion force together.

With this concern in mind I'm really happy to hear the hints Arsene Wenger has made about his transfer plans for the summer. Last month he said that he would bring in one 'experienced' player of 'real, real quality' and that his concern is not the number of goals being scored but the number of goals being conceded.

And today comes the headline from the Independent that Wenger is after a powerful centre-back - just as I hoped and wrote about in the aftermath of the Chelsea defeat.

I'm now not only hoping but somewhat expecting Wenger to deliver to Arsenal fans another 'Sol Campbell moment' this summer: unveiling in the summer sun a proven, top quality power centre-back that will ensure that Arsenal's defence will concede around ten less league goals per season and in the process give Arsenal that killer edge that we have lacked this season.

Lets wait and see that this is the current Wenger thinking - and keep the trust in Arsene to get it right.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Chelsea v Liverpool: The Blues' first European Final

To say I'm gutted as a LFC fan is not so much near the point, but not that far off. It was a battle, a good one, better than the other semi-final. More goals, and no telling of who would emerge more the winner.

To say Didier Drogba was on a mission after Rafael Benitez' comments wouldn't be, for me, truthful. He definitely had something to prove but he played as he usually plays, less than his customary man-of-the-match performances. His first goal was a severe blow, considering Pepe Reina had parried Salomon Kalou's shot and three Liverpool defenders were present. But the acuteness for Drogba to strike his shot and squeeze it past Reina at the keeper's near post seemed to be a strike of fortune. Those shots usually fizzle away off the post, defender or the keeper blocks it. This time it went in.

Liverpool were much better second half, almost as if Chelsea had stepped back and invited them on. Yossi Benayoun dragged the ball from the right inwards and fed Fernando Torres, who poked in the equaliser of immense proportions. It is Torres who should have been awarded the PFA Young Player Of The Year, his first in the English Premier League.

The more it went on, the more I cried for the likes of Ryan Babel and Peter Crouch to come on, having already used Sami Hyypia to replace Martin Skrtel. We were in the ascendancy and the chances were there for us to further puncture Chelsea but it wouldn't function. I felt we would score and hold them to 1-1 and extra time. Then my heart sank as first Nicolas Anelka shot then Michael Essien and Chelsea were 2-1 up, only to be ruled out for offside with Drogba considered impeding Reina's vision. Tough call.

Yet Chelsea kept up the attack and were awarded a penalty, rightly so. Hyypia fouled Michael Ballack, no dive, no feigning, clear penalty. Frank Lampard back in the team after a tragic week stepped up to deposit the killing, established 2nd goal from the spot. We had it to climb again. Torres was substituted for Babel, and with Jermaine Pennant on for Benayoun, Crouch was no longer an option.

Tiredness, lapse of concentration, and a reliance on the linesman that was incorrect, John Arne Riise felt Anelka was offside, the former Bolton man went on to deliver a cross that Drogba, despite having two defenders around him, snapped up with one sharp clinical touch past Reina's near post again. the first half of extra time came to a close.

Second half, a quick fifteen minutes, produce a Liverpool wave seeking something of a glimpse of a miracle. Babel gathered in the centre of the Chelsea half and let fly a shot from 25yards that deceived Petr Cech and gave Liverpool the faintest of hopes of a comeback. But likewise with Chelsea in the first cup encounter of the League Cup, we were 3-1 down to come back to 3-2. And likewise in the 2007 European Cup Final, we were two down to come back with one goal, one goal the constant denial.

I felt Chelsea earned this passage into their first Champions League Final in their history, no complaints. They pushed, we battled, they pushed harder and we battled back in vain. the main difference was of course he who was criticised. As right, or wrong, as that maybe, such words before a big game, or even any game, should have remained diplomatic or silent. Remembering how Jose Mourinho said "[Liverpool] play at home and 99.9% of Liverpool fans will be thinking they are in the final but they aren't and it will be difficult for them", after the first leg at Stamford Bridge back then came to haunt him afterwards?

As for Liverpool, they were brave, just not tenacious enough in front of Chelsea's goal, and had we been so we really would have deserved going through. Had it not been for Skrtel, I would have looked to establish Kuyt off for Pennant, Benayoun goes left, and then bring on Babel for Alonso, Babel on the left wing, leaving Benayoun behind Torres, finally bringing on Crouch for Benayoun. Crouch is a known problem for Chelsea and has scored mostly when he plays, why he was not available to bring on is beyond me.

Overall, I discussed this with others and concluded that the difference thus far between the top three and Liverpool is that they have the luxury of players who individually can bring something into the game to their team's advantage more times than not. We lack such numbers of players. We have Babel, Torres, Gerrard, Crouch as those who can bring something from little to make that break, that leeway to a goal. Four players out of eleven on a regular basis.

Compare that to Man Utd who have Christiano Ronaldo, Nani, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, on occasion the likes of Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves (superb at interim right back) and a stern tough quick back four of Patrice Evra, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, well positioned to defend. Chelsea have Frank Lampard, Salomon Kalou, Didider Drogba, Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Nicolas Anelka (mainly from his Bolton days), Michael Essien, and a stern central partnership in Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry, with a reliable Paulo Ferreira.

Arsenal use Emmanuel Adebayor, Nicklas Bendtner, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Aleksander Hleb, Eduardo, then a stern defence consisting of Kolo Toure, William Gallas and Gael Clichy, even Armand Traore. Arsenal just need another right back and use Toure and Gallas as their regular central defenders.

I believe Hyypia, as dependable as he has been for the club since his arrival, is too slow now to remain. Maybe Riise needs to move on, I find Alvaro Arbeloa as reliable as Ferreira, Skrtel can improve with time, and we still await Daniel Agger to return. With Fabio Aurelio needing to further sharpen up, we need another left and right back, either employ Kuyt up front or release him, release Andriy Voronin, and bring in a couple of wingers who are high class. We should endeavour to keep Crouch, look to perhaps the likes of David Villa, Ricardo Quaresma, Lyon's Karim Benzema.

We have some young blood to brig through which will take time but for now we want stamina, flair and the ability to carry-things-on-your-own players brought in and some players leaving. There are too many players who provide good football at times, sharp football on occasion, but neither of both regularly enough. This is why we seem to fall out of the title race and not be in there towards the end of the season. It is about time Benitez changed up his Rafalution and incorporate a sharper, different, attacking style of football to bring us further from where we are now. That is when we will win the league.

Well done, Chelsea FC, thoroughly deserved it.



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