Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Real Madrid 0 vs 2 Barcelona

Wednesday 27th April 2011 - Champions League Semi Final 1st Leg

A little piece of magic from Lionel Messi has given Barcelona one huge foot in next months Champions League final at Wembley. A brace from the Argentinian, following a straight red card for Real Madrid’s Pepe, was the difference between Madrid and Barcelona in their Champions League Semi Final 1st Leg at the Bernabeu.

In what could only be described as an ugly match which produced more petty squabbles than clear cut chances, it was a piece of sheer brilliance that rubber stamped Barcelona’s dominance of their domestic rivals.

Before the game at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, it was the usual ‘Jose Mourinho show’, with a war of words between the two managers coming to the boil the day before the game.

Mourinho, a master of the mind games, had his opposite number, Pep Guardiola, uncharacteristically spitting feathers in his pre-match interview with the press. Following Barcelona’s somewhat comfortable victory tonight in Madrid, it was Mourinho who looked lost for words come the final whistle.

With a second leg, and a fourth meeting in 16 days, to come next week at the Nou Camp, this match between the two giants of Spanish football was never going to be an expansive show of class and quality.

Unlike Barcelona’s 5-0 thumping of Real earlier in the season, this was always going to be more a-kin to the most recent El Clasico, in the Copa Del Rey final just seven nights ago. On that occasion Real were the victors 1-0, and it was more of the same from the outset this evening.

The first half was a cagey, tense and sometimes lifeless affair, which was only broken up with outbreaks of en-mass arguments between players on both sides, and the German referee, Wolfgang Stark.

Barcelona, who passed Arsenal to death earlier in the campaign, toyed with their most recent conquerors, securing the bulk of the first half possession, keeping the ball at arms-length for most of the opening exchanges.

Occasionally Madrid were allowed brief forays with the ball, but were unable to create any clear cut chances, with the only real chance in the early stages falling to Barcelona’s Xavi.

Following a delightful through ball from the mercurial Messi, Xavi found himself with time and space to get a shot away just inside the Real box, forcing a smart save, low to his left, from Real goalkeeper Ike Casillas.

This, though, was to be the only action of note in what was a dull first half of football, right up until added on time.

A speculative effort from Ronaldo in injury time was spilled by Victor Valdes straight to the feet of German World Cup star, Mezut Ozil, who, from 10 yards out, could only find the legs of Valdes with his follow up.

With the half time whistle falling on a tetchy first half of football, the petty tone of the match descended on the players’ tunnel, with yet another melee breaking out between players, staff and security. Barcelona’s substitute goalkeeper Pinto was sent off as a result.

The second half began where the first had left off, quiet and lifeless with no chances of note. Then, with an hour on the clock, the game was sparked into life with a dubious, and technically second, straight red card. This time pointed in the direction of Madrid’s Brazilian-born centre half, Pepe.

Pepe, who was also sent off in the Copa Del Rey final last week, was given his marching orders again, this time for a high foot which caught Barcelona’s Daniel Alves on the knee after they’d both gone for a loose ball.

The incident was followed by a swarm of red and blue shirts heading in the direction of referee Stark, and whether that influenced the referee or not, the dismissal seemed harsh.

A third sending off was to follow, as in the aftermath Mourinho said a little too much to the fourth official and found himself sat in the stands moments later.

Barcelona, with their extra man, began to turn the screw and almost grabbed a vital away goal minutes after the sending off.

Xavi, picking up the ball from midfield, drove forward finding striker David Villa in space on the left hand side. A simple slide-rule ball presented a golden shooting chance for Villa whose snap shot was saved well by Casillas, only for the ball to be punched straight against the head of Villa’s strike partner Pedro, leaving the Spanish number one stranded as the ball floated past the post.

It was a brief stay of execution however, as with 15 minutes left on the watch, Barcelona made their numerical advantage count, grabbing a priceless away goal.

Xavi, who was involved in everything as he always is, under pressure from Lassana Diarra was able to find Affelay on the right wing, with the Dutchman’s jinking run allowing enough space to hit a low hard cross which was met beautifully by Messi at the near post, leaving Casillas with no chance.

It was more than what Barcelona deserved for their persistence and sheer dominance of the ball, and the tie was all but secured thanks to a piece of magic by Messi.

With a couple of minutes of normal time left to play, the petite Argentinian picked the ball up about 40 yards from goal with only one thing on his mind.

After gliding past not one, not two, but four Real Madrid challenges, the little maestro calmly slid the ball into the net, effectively giving Barcelona at least one foot in the final ahead of the second leg next week.

Barcelona were well worth their two goal advantage that they can now take to the Nou Camp next week, as it looks increasingly likely that we will have a repeat of the 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.

Both sides take 2-0 leads into their home legs, with what would have to be considered a monumental collapse being the only thing preventing a repeat of 2009 in Rome.

Undoubtedly Mourinho will have something to say about that dubious red card which preceded the Messi master-class, but, on this occasion, Mourinho got his tactics wrong and it looks like he will have to wait another year before attempting to become the first manager to win three Champions League titles with three different clubs.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Chelsea Bandwagon Jumping the Gun

Following Chelsea’s second 6-0 win of the embryonic 2010/11 Premier League season every man and his dog seem to be jumping on the Chelsea bandwagon praising their prowess and ability to score goals, and score lots of them.

I agree, two 6-0 wins to open up a Premier League season is an impressive feat – beating the previous record of +10 after two games achieved over a hundred years ago by (I think) Sunderland – but before everyone gets over excited about Chelsea and becomes hypnotised by their prowess in front of goal, you have to consider the opposition.

West Brom, though noted for their valiant attempts to play good football rather than scrap and battle and bully their way away from relegation, were always going to come unstuck at Stamford Bridge, and if it wasn’t for their diabolical attempt at blocking free-kicks the arrears wouldn’t have amounted to six.

West Brom, simply put, are relegation candidates so a 6-0 defeat away at Chelsea is no disgrace, especially when you compare it to similar score-lines from last season when Chelsea only won the league by a single point.

Following on from their thumping of The Baggies, Chelsea travelled to perennial whipping boys Wigan Athletic, again coming away 6-0 winners. Impressive on paper. In retrospect, not so much. The fact that on the final day of last season Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0 at Stamford Bridge and only the week before, newcomers Blackpool won at the DW Stadium by 4-0 takes some of the gloss from an otherwise textbook performance.

A huge question mark would have been placed against Chelsea if they hadn’t of come out comfortable winners in both of their opening matches, and with a home games against Stoke – who have already lost their opening two matches – and Blackpool, either side of a visit to West Ham – who have also lost two from two – in their next three league outings the champions are not likely to face a real test until the end of September, when they travel to ‘Middle-Eastlands’ to face Manchester City.

The way the opening league fixtures have panned out for Chelsea couldn’t have been any better, even if Roman Abramovich had paid off the Premier League and let him pick them himself.

Chelsea had, by their high standards, and pretty sub-par pre-season and looked off the pace against Manchester United in the Community Shield at Wembley, the week prior to the Premier League kick-off. Receiving a favourable opening allows their players to find their form and, as we have already seen in the opening two matches, find the net as they prepare for much bigger tests ahead.

Last season Chelsea done the double over all of the other three ‘big four’ sides, Manchester United (1-0 at home, 2-1 away), Arsenal (3-0 away, 2-0 at home) and Liverpool (2-0 home and away) and it will be these matches against the bigger sides, which now has to include Manchester City also thanks to their bottomless pit of money, that Chelsea’s title hopes should be judged upon, and when their praise would be richly deserved.

To think that the title race is all but over based on two performances against sides that will mostly likely be in the Championship come this time next year, is jumping the gun just slightly, and suggestions that Manchester United are already on the back foot following their disappointing 2-2 draw with Fulham at the weekend, also reeks of prematurity as Chelsea WILL drop points.

If last season’s up and downs in the title race are anything to go by, plenty of points will be dropped by both sides as the best of the rest (Tottenham, Manchester City, Everton and Aston Villa) draw the ‘big four’ in, as they progressively have been doing season on season.

Chelsea are deserving of their pre-season favourites tag, they did win a league and cup double last year, but hold off on the praise just for the moment, at least until Chelsea have beaten one of the bigger fishes in the Premier League’s deep, deep ocean.

Friday, 9 July 2010

FIFA's Eureka Moment

A long time has passed since I last blogged on here, and as usual a lot has transpired in that time, in the world of sport at the very least.

The issue that has brought me back on here is what everyone else has been, again, battering on about since 'the goal that never was' in the World Cup 2nd Round match between Germany and England...goal line technology.

Time to batter on some more.

There are few that, honestly, believe that should the goal have been given to Frank Lampard the end result would have been any different. England were dismal the entire tournament - best we gloss over the Algeria game - and on the day Germany were, by far, the superior outfit. However, the England team's presence in the World Cup may have been abject, at least actions on the field will have spurred FIFA to finally fall in line with the other top sports across the world, by bringing in goal-line technology, with the hope of eradicating any further embarrassment for the sport as a whole, not just FIFA, who have been so against technology in the game for so long.

The arguments used by football's world governing body were, at best, outdated. Arguments such as, it would slow the game down and that it wouldn't fit into football played on the 'hackney marshes' have been surpassed, or at least disproved, for a long time now.

A blog entry by David Bond, a member of the BBC Sport team, noted that having this ideal that what happens at the top level needs to go on in the far flung, lower reaches, of football have gone the way of the Dodo. I don't know about you, but when I play football on a Saturday afternoon, I don't see Andy Gray and Martin Tyler on the side commentating at how awful we are...but I digress.

The television directors who are currently overseeing the coverage of the World Cup have proven that within seconds a replay can be shown, either on a big screen to the entire crowd, the players and officials, or simply to the fourth official on a monitor on the sidelines. Time is of the essence in such a fast paced sport, but no time will be lost if replays are that quick, and getting a fair and honest result must surely be the be all and end all for FIFA?

The only question that would remain then, should FIFA go ahead with technology in football, is what decisions should this technology be used for?

Personally, I feel that goal-line and offside decisions should be the only decisions referred to technology. If you want every single decision judged by a video replay then the fear of slowing the game down will, almost certainly, become a reality.

One of the great things about football is that it's a sport that will always create debate. Not everyone is going to agree on everything. Things such as penalty decisions, corner kicks and even throws are left up to a person's interpretations. Whether or not a ball has crossed the line and whether or not a player is in an offside position when the ball is played are, in the most part, clear cut decisions call - especially with the help of a replay. Bringing it in for everything will just make the game cluttered and more like our American counterparts interpretation of 'football', with stoppages every five seconds. I'm sure I'm not the only one hoping that that won't be the case.

Football will continue to cause debate, off the field as well as on. All of this has even caused a debate about something that's meant to eradicate debate, so in that sense the part of the game will never leave. Should FIFA bring in technology, it certainly won't make the beautiful game perfect, far from it, but it will make it better.

FIFA have finally seen the light. All we can hope for now is that this isn't just smoke and mirrors and that FIFA follow through. Providing the world with a fast paced, intriguing, enjoyable, and ultimately fair, beautiful game.

Monday, 14 September 2009

What does Clijsters' win say about Women's Tennis?

In April 2007, Kim Clijsters stepped out onto the red dirt court in Warsaw, Poland, in what was later to be her farewell match on the WTA Tour.

Clijsters, the Belgian former world number one, was in the midst of her swansong season, after already announcing earlier in the year that she would be leaving the tour at the end of the 2007, enabling her to concentrate on her family life.

A shock defeat, though, in the round of 16 to Julia Vakulenko, forced Clijsters to question whether there was much point in waiting till the end of the season to retire. Her heart had well and truly left the game. A week later, Clijsters announced her retirement, with immediate effect.

Two years on, now married to her long term partner, basketball player Brian Lynch, and with a baby daughter, Jada Ellie, born in early 2007, Clijsters decided that take the leap, and come back to tennis.

You would imagine, even for a top player like Clijsters once was, that coming back into the world of professional tennis, after a hiatus of over two years, would, or should, have been a baptism of fire.

That presumption, though, could not have been any further from what was to transpire, as the Belgian returned to the tour to post a couple of respectable showings in the two tour events that she entered (Quarters in Cincinnati, 3rd Round in Toronto), only to then go on and beat both Williams sisters, and finally the 9th seed Caroline Wozniacki in the final at Flushing Meadows, on her way to a second US Open title.

Clijsters' win, while storybook, must raise questions about the state of the women's game.

The fact that someone can just leave and come back two years later and still - not only compete - beat the top women who have spent their entire year striving to achieve what Clijsters achieved in a matter of just a month back on the tour, must raise questions about the state of women's tennis at the moment in time.

Clijsters, in her heyday, was certainly a great player, a deserving number one, but when compared to compatriot Justine Henin, she wasn't exactly prolific when it came to the majors. Only picking up the one grand slam title, again in New York, back in 2005.

Has the game got worse since then or has Clijsters simply just matured and maybe even got better?

She certainly had her fair share of luck on the way. Nowhere more so than in the semi final against defending champion and the self proclaimed 'true number one' Serena Williams.

On Williams' second serve, at 15-30, 5-6, one set to love down, Williams was wrongly foot faulted.

The call prompted the American into a fearsome tirade towards the line judge, who went on to report Williams to the umpire.

After already receiving a code violation for racket abuse at the end of the first set, the match referee ordered the umpire to give another code violation to Williams, which came with a point penalty.

After the foot faulted second serve and the point penalty the match was over without Clijsters having to hit a ball.

The final was straight forward by all accounts. Wozniacki, appearing in her first grand slam final of her young career, was simply outplayed by the wiser, more experienced Clijsters.

In the history of professional sport you will find, dotted through time, fairytale stories. Stories you couldn't make up. Stories that unless you were there or saw them on television you wouldn't believe. Clijsters becoming the only unseeded player to ever win the US Open, was certainly a storybook moment for her and for tennis.

In my opinion, though, this moment could not have been more poorly timed, as the state of women's tennis is consistently coming under question, as it has been ever since the retirement of Henin back in 2008.

Since the retirement of Henin, the WTA tour has been going through transition, with five players holding the number one ranking between May 2008 and September 2009 (Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic). None of which have been able to make the ranking their own.

The current debate over whether Safina is the worthy number one, considering that Serena Williams, until last night, was the holder of three of the four grand slam titles on offer, was only added to this fortnight just gone, and Clijsters' success is only going to add fuel to the fire for whoever holds the poisoned chalice that is the number one ranking.

Following Clijsters' win at Flushing Meadows there have been rumours circulating that Henin may want to follow in her country women's footsteps and also return to the WTA tour.

The tour organisers would no doubt be delighted with such a star name returning to the game. The players who are there currently, though, might have different ideas after what occurred following the return of Clijsters.

Soon, the WTA tour and its players will come through this transition phase and one day return to be strong, with great depth and aspiring young talents trying to make their name in the game.

For the time being, though, the tour will just have to go along with the old timers, who are either making a mockery of the women's game, or if your a glass half full time of person, an inspiration to every young girl trying to make a name for themselves on the WTA tour.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Let Battle Commence

Yesterday's Community Shield, won by F.A. Cup winner's Chelsea on penalties over English champions Manchester United officially raised the curtain on the new football season, which has been as eagerly anticipated as ever.

Manchester City's summer spending, which has seen the likes of Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, among others, come through the doors at Eastlands, has raised questions over whether City have to team now that can break the top four monopoly.

On the other side of Manchester, the much publicized departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80million and the loss of Tevez to their Manchester rivals has sparked questions over whether United can retain the league title for a record fourth time.

The surprise arrival of Michael Owen on a pay as you play deal, may well turn out to be a great piece of business by Sir Alex Ferguson, if he can keep the Englishman fit.

If the Community Shield game, a game I was in attendance for, was anything to go by, this season will certainly be a very memorable one.

The football league season however is already underway with some remarkable results already on the first day of the campaign, most notably Norwich's 7-1 thumping by East Anglia rivals Colchester United at Carrow Road.

Other big wins came from Gillingham and Sven Goran Eriksson's Notts County who both recorded 5-0 drubbings of Swindon and Bradford respectively.

But, in my opinion, the day belonged to Cardiff, who's woeful run at the end of the season, including an embarrassing 6-0 defeat by Preston North End, saw them lose out on a playoff place by one goal.

The Bluebirds opened the new campaign with a handsome 4-0 win over newly promoted Scunthrope in the first competitive game to be played at their new 27,000 all seater stadium, literally a stones throw away from the notorious Ninnian Park.

The season has only just begun and already there is so much to talk about up and down the divisions, and all across Europe, and thank god for the football aye? Kept my eyes well a truly away from Headingly.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Serena: The 'True' Number One...


No, no, no, no, no,!!

This statement, which was made around March of this year, that came from Serena Williams, holder of three of the four grand slam titles, saying that she is the 'true' number one has riled me up beyond comprehension.

Let me explain to those of you reading this, first of all, how the rankings work, in layman's terms, how Serena has come to this conclusion and why I think that her statement is a load of tosh.

OK, in simple terms this is how to tennis world rankings are made up.

Every tournament, from ITF Futures to Grand Slams, have ranking points, per round, which are dependent on the status of the tournament.

The winner of a Grand Slam, for example, will be awarded 2000 ranking points; the winner of a Tier I event (now known as Premier Mandatory...don't ask) will be awarded 1000 ranking points, and so on and so on.

Your overall ranking points are comprised of your results from all four majors (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open), the four Premier Mandatory events (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and your best other eight results in other tournaments. I never said this would be easy.

The results that are used will be results that have occurred in the last 52 weeks. So, for example, by winning Wimbledon this year Serena Williams increased her ranking points by 700, as last year she was runner up and only gained 1400 points, Venus Williams, obviously, will lose 700 points. Still with me?

So that's how the rankings are worked out, by your performance in the major tournaments and a set of other smaller, less prestigious, tournaments.

Currently the world number one is Dinara Safina, who has been in three grand slam finals and has won none of them, and who was also decimated by Venus Williams in the semi final at Wimbledon on Thursday 6-1 6-0.

Now, Serena believes that as she holds three of the four grand slam titles that there are on offer, that by right she should be the world number one.

You have to admit that she gives a good case, I mean three grand slam titles is no mean feat and she has been convincing throughout, but this is where I ask the following question...what about other tournaments, what has Serena done in them? The ones with less limelight and television coverage, the ones with less ranking points and lesser prize money.

The answer to that question is simply, not a lot.

In 2009 Serena has, so far, only competed in 10 tournaments, winning two, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and reaching the final of just one other, Miami. She also has notched up three semi finals, one quarter final, and three first round losses (in a row I might add).

Dinara is number one because she has won five tournaments in the last 52 weeks, made five other finals, four semi finals and two quarter finals in the 19 tournaments that she has played a part in, I don't care who the hell you are, that is consistency and that is impressive.

There has always been a question mark, especially so on the women's side, when a player reaches the number one ranking without winning a major. The same question was being asked of Jelena Jankovic not so long ago, who managed to reach the number one ranking without even coming close to reaching a grand slam final, let alone winning one.

The reason I feel that Serena doesn't deserve the number one ranking is because I, personally, feel that they (Venus and Serena) shouldn't just be allowed to turn up to the major tournaments, power their way through, take the prize money, take the glory and go off into the spotlight.

Of the 15 tournaments that Serena has taken part in over the last 52 weeks, about three or four of them have been, what were known as, Tier II or below level tournaments. Tournaments that are short on glamour, prestige and prize money. And even when Serena did play in these lesser tournaments, she often didn't do very well in them.

Yes, Dinara hasn't won a grand slam; winning a Grand Slam is a great achievement and one that can never be argued against or taken away from you, but if you honestly believe that you are the world number one player, prove it, week in week out, not when you please and when the money is right.

It has been a consistent criticism of the Williams sisters that they have, in the past, not been fully focused on their tennis, with other money making schemes going on in the background. More recently however this hasn't been so much the case, with both the sisters looking more focused and determined than ever before.

If you are fully focused on the WTA tour and on tennis, though, Serena, and are so transfixed on the the world number one ranking which you behold as being your own, and are so upset and dismayed as to why you aren't the world number one ranked player...then do something about it, turn up, win tournaments, at ALL levels and let the computer do the rest.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

"...there's always Michael Owen!"

No more than 48 hours after those very words were uttered by my lips, in a phone conversation with one of my many University housemates, had my possible 'tempting of fate' occurred; Michael Owen had become a Red Devil.

The conversation that took place began with us discussing our landlord, then onto my desire to purchase a Manchester United season ticket which I couldn't possibly afford, and then we discussed the team itself and the issue of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez heading for the exits, and Antonio Valenica coming in the opposite direction.

In my eyes, even as a Manchester United fan who has on more than one occasion been proven to never doubt Sir Alex Ferguson and his decision making, the idea of Michael Owen, who since the World Cup in 2006 has had uncountable injury problems and not to mention is a former Liverpool icon, signing for United was somewhat of a gamble.

Sir Alex, though, has previous in this sort of area. Look what he done to Eric Cantona, who wasn't a regular at Leeds and had a bit of a reputation as being a tough man to please and contain, became a Old Trafford legend; a name that will live in infamy at the Theatre of Dreams.

On a smaller scale you can also use the example of Henrik Larsson, who, despite coming off the back of a serious injury, made a considerable contribution to United during his three month loan spell.

Both example's were, without any question, gambles; gambles that paid off.

Despite Owen's injury plagued 2008/09 season he still managed to score 10 goals. Not bad for someone who had to battle through a number of injury setbacks, for a team who ultimately were relegated to the Championship.

After his lucrative £110,000 a week (reported) contract had expired, Sir Alex saw the chance of carrying out what could be a very astute piece of business, signing the former Liverpool and Real Madrid star for the pricey sum of nothing, and on a pay as you play contract.

You cannot deny that Owen is a born goalscorer, and as the saying goes 'form is temporary, class is permanent' which he has proven over the years, even during his less than encouraging spell with Newcastle, proving that he still has that killer strikers instinct, something he has shown year in year out for club, and for country.

Owen still harbours hopes of getting back into Fabio Capello's England squad, with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just one more win away, and where better to be playing at club level than at the home of the English and World Champions, where chances will be created in abundance?

Ever since Ruud Van Nistelrooy left the Old Trafford club United have been trying to find an out and out goal scorer to replace him. Wayne Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and more recently Dimitar Berbatov have managed to make this void seem minimal at best, scoring countless goals in United's endless pursuit of silver wear between them.

Owen will, hopefully, fill that void, and will, if fit, hope to be a key member of the United strike force, as they try and replace the 30-40 goals a season that Ronaldo and Tevez provided them.

Despite my original pessimism about the move, I must say that in the days that led up to the signing, and that have now preceded them, I, personally, am more and more upbeat about the possibilities of Rooney and Owen reuniting, in the hope that they can strike up a world beating partnership for club, and maybe for country again.

So far, of the reported £100 million cash pot that United have at their disposal, they have only spent £16 million, all of that on, Ecuadorian, Valencia from Wigan Athletic. United would probably like another striker, another winger and another left back before the season begins against Birmingham City on August 16th, but, so far, have seemingly missed out on their main targets this summer of Tevez, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, the latter two, presumably, following Ronaldo to Madrid, and Tevez, presumably, going down the road to Manchester City.

Some might see Owen's signing as a desperate act after missing out on their main targets to Real Madrid's ridiculous millions, but as another one of my housemates at University said to me 'In Fergie we trust'...who am I to argue with a man who has won 23 major domestic and European trophies in 23 years?