The value of not being complacent

If there was a lesson to be learnt from watching the Japan – Belgium game, it was this: never be complacent, concentrate, keep fighting to the end.

You may think I have been talking about the Belgians, for the traits we associate with the Japanese are their will to keep fighting to the very end. Even in the face of defeat, giving up is a lack of honour. Remember World War Two? Dozens of kamikaze pilots crashed to their deaths, flying their planes onto ships to try to sink them. The will to keep fighting is honourable. And wasn’t it the South Koreans who pulled off an upset with Germany by their tenacity and willing to keep chasing the ball and fight, scoring two injury-time goals in the process?

Unfortunately for Japan, it was them that were outfought.

A 2-2 game seemed destined for extra time. In the last minute of play, the Japanese had a corner with forty seconds remaining. Everyone assumed this would be the last forward play of the game, and a corner, if unsuccessful, would result in the referee blowing the whistle. Instead of passing the ball short, the Japanese merely lobbed the ball hopefully into the goal area, where Thibault Courtois caught it easily. You might have thought he would have played it short, moved it forward slowly, or take his time, wait for his players to go up, and then lob one long into the area. Instead he quickly rolled it short to Kevin de Bruyne, and four Belgian players raced ahead to launch a counterattack that resulted in Nacer Chadli scoring an injury-time goal. No need for extra time. Actually, the whole world watching had been out-foxed. No one watching that game would have expected that counterattack with the last play of the game.

What lessons can we take from the game? The first is of course, not to get complacent. If you are like everyone else, you would have merely assumed that extra time would roll along. But the Belgians created their own opportunities, sensing a chance to win. The Japanese team might have thought they would have the last attack of the game, and in all fairness, so did we; but fatigue confuses the mind, and probably the sensory overload of time management and game tactic caused a lap of concentration that paid dearly. This can happen in any area; in fact, a Crouch End piano teacher reckons that one of the problems children face in learning the piano is the overload of work conflicted with the lack of time for self actualisation, that causes a lack of physical activity (in this case, piano practice).

And what a good week for Marouane Fellaini! New Manchester United contract, a goal in the game, an immediate impact as a substitute. Next stop – Brazil! The Belgians are on form at the moment and the operatic Neymar best raise his game!

Channeling circumstance into victory

Liverpool are on the verge of a Champions League final against Real Madrid, who survived a Bayern Munich draw in their own home stadium to eventually triumph via their 2-1 victory in Munich a fortnight ago. While Real’s progression was never really in doubt, if you believe those who think that they will always find a way to grind it out, Liverpool – despite their 5-2 advantage have still got things to do and are not safe.

Things would have been easier if the Merseyside team had ground a 5-0 win last week but the defence, it seems, had too muchc of an eye on a next game and coasted in the last ten minutes, giving a chance to Roma to snatch two precious away goals. Surely 5-2 must be enough? Don’t forget that this is the Roma team that defeated Barcelona 3-0 away – AWAY! – to progress via away goals, despite losing 4-1 at home. They are a dangerous team, capable of scoring.

And Liverpool are capable of conceding.

It is no surprise that Liverpool’s attacking players have been let down by the defence, and while Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has calmed the ship in its storm, the whole backline is still not rock solid. Lloris Karius has improved but is not consistent, and Simon Mignolet’s fine form that saw Liverpool sign him seems to have evaporated.

Liverpool’s quest is not helped by the fact that many of their fans have chosen to stay away from Roma. A BBC report saw that the “flash stabbing”, a drive by or quick attack, is one famously perpetuated by the ultras that support Roma, and even factions within the fan base almost see that as a badge of courage. Last week a Liverpool fan was stabbed prior to the match in Roma. This week, many fans have decided against visiting the stadium. Some are doing so with security. The team have issued advice that under no conditions should anyone walk to the Stadio Olimpico. And forget about wearing the Red t-shirt; it is a target board.

Will the conditions be a factor? Few home fans, attacking team, hostile atmosphere? Liverpool fans only need to look back at the conditions they created for a Manchester City team when they threw missiles at the visiting team bus. The Premier League Champions suffered a 3-0 defeat after a run of victories. Whether or not it was because they were jaded, or whether or not they suffered because of the conditions at the visiting ground depends on your point of view.

Perhaps Liverpool will use the circumstances to inspire themselves to grind out a draw or victory to allow them to progress to the final without a show of fear. Channelled correctly, hostile cirumstances can inspire artistry. Look at a different field such as music at the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. While he is famous for the Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy, he famously had to overcome a difficult childhood involving abuse, bullying, health deterioration and rose in spite of it (read more about it here).

Liverpool stand ¬†on the edge of Champions League history. Can they overcome and channel the spirit into victory? They should do, but don’t count against them to concede and make it difficult for themselves!

 

 

French Connection

Ah, Arsene Wenger. Heading into the first leg of the Europa League, having announced his retirement, the Frenchman was living in the praise of the pundits, lauded for revolutionising the English game when he first took over Arsenal having managed in Japan. “Arsene Who?” was Gary Lineker’s reaction at the time. But the pundits, in the run up to the game, as well as the media personnel, just couldn’t get enough of Arsene Wenger. Perhaps it was because it was a quiet day for sports news. So it was Arsene here, Arsene there, Arsene out of every nook and cranny and inch of the woodwork.

I speculated in the last post that the timing of the resignation was perhaps linked to the Europa League and the end of the season, that perhaps it was almost designed to give them an emotional boost heading into the final part of the campaign. So while the journalists were still reproducing the “In Praise of Arsene” articles they had long written, and trying to get the full benefit of them, it was no surprise to me to see a few days later the “Win It for Arsene” cries from individuals such as Per Mertersacker.

The game began rather auspiciously for the home team. Cheered on by a large crowd in Highbury, there were no sign of divisions, as fans of both banners cheered their team on. And when I refer to both sets of fans, I don’t mean the Arsenal and Atletico fans, I mean the Wenger Out and the In Arsene We Trust fans. The manager had at least achieved his aim of eliminating some of the mental distractions for his players. They did not have to play an important game while their own fans fought among themselves.

Further luck was in store when French referee Clement Turpin sent off an Atletico defender with two yellow cards in the space of twelve minutes. Really? In a game of this magnitude? Now, experience tells you that referees try to set the tone of the game at the start, so you try to lay off a hard challenge at the start, no matter how you want to set the tone of the game. Give it ten minutes, let the referee and the emotions of the game settle, then make such challenges. Vrsaljko had obviously not had much experience and naively laid two hard challenges within a short span, believing he was helping his team set a tough tone. Unfortunately he did. He made it tough for his team, alright. Ninety minutes with ten men, away from home.

The visiting team held their ground defensively but withered and it was left to Arsenal’s record signing for a few months, Alexandre Lacazette, another Frenchman, to play his hand and assume his role in the plot. Latching on to a cross from the right, he powered home past Jan Oblak. Both sets of Arsenal fans cheered. Finally the Gunners could score a goal against a team with ten men in their own home ground!

The Europa Cup final in Lyon, Lacazette’s home town. French manager Arsene Wenger’s last campaign. Clement Turpin, French referee, helping to engineer a cup final with Marseille, another French team, in the French suburb of Lyon.

The introduction of former Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Was it because it was Torres’ last season at Atletico, as well, and he would be fired up to give his best? Was it because during his time in the Premier League, he had known how to work his magic at Highbury?

No, silly. It’s because in a game riddled with French connections, Torres is Spanish.

It was left to French centre back Laurent Koscielny, for so many years under the wing of veteran Metersacker and now leader of the defence, to put his hat in the game. Letting an innocuous pass get by him, it was picked up by Antoine Griezmann who with one of Atletico’s few chances managed to get the advantage for the second leg. Griezmann, in case you have not noticed, is also French.

So. One Frenchman’s bid to make it to a final in France in his last managerial season, aided by a French referee and French striker, foiled by a French defender and opposing French striker.

Laurent Koscielny revealed that during a team meeting he had broken down when his children asked why the Arsenal team were so bad.

Wonder what he has to say now?

Team Breakdown

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking that in a week with Champions League football, exciting comebacks galore, that much of what I’ll be writing about is either something out of one of the following teams:

Manchester City’s and their successive failings, losing three in a row

Liverpool and their Champions League success – now up to face Mo Salah’s old team, Roma

The decline of Barcelona and Messi

How Real Madrid nearly got tossed out by Juventus

How Juventus and Gigi Buffon’s career in the Champions League came to a sad run.

Actually, I’m talking about none of the above.

Aha! Wait a second. You think I’m going to write about Arsenal and how they nearly lost it in Moscow, how Arsene Wenger’s life flashed before his own very eyes.

Nope.

Instead I’m going to write about Tottenham.

Tottenham? You say. They haven’t done anything note worthy. They haven’t really been in the news for anything special.

Well, in fact, before tonight’s game against Man City, which saw the Spurs lose 3-1 at White Hart Lane, you could have predicted that the Spurs would lose. Really? One might have been forgiven in thinking the boys in white could have snatched one from the boys in blue, coming off a bad week for Manchester City, with successive losses at Liverpool, Manchester United (the enemy from town!) and then Liverpool again … maybe City were suffering from fatigue? What better to strike them while they were on a losing roll? Spurs might have fancied their chances.

Actually, it didn’t really matter who Spurs played. They could have played West Brom and lost. They could have played Southampton and lost. Heck, they could have played any team in the Premier League and not got a favourable result.

And you know why?

Because the Spurs are imploding.

Imploding? How so?

You can date it back to the game where Christian Eriksen, Spurs’ talisman over the recent two months, swung a ball in from the left corner of the field, which then slightly out of form striker Harry Kane claimed to have grazed his shoulder on the way in. The replays really were inconclusive, because if you watch the replays, the goal post is in the way right at the crucial moment that Kane claimed it brushed his shoulder. The Spurs striker swore on his daughter’s life that it had touched his shoulder and should have been awarded to him. During the game, the goal was credited to Eriksen but after a goals panel (all English) reviewed it, Kane got the nod.

What does it do for team spirit?

Really, Harry Kane should have let that one go. Sure, he is chasing Salah to be top scorer, and he wants to be the league’s top scorer three years in a row. But he should understand that Salah is in exceptional form, and is likely to run away with the award. Would you bet against Mo Salah to win the Player of the Year? Not even Kevin de Bruyne is in with a chance now. It’s all Salah, Salah, Salah.

Kane’s whingeing about how the goal was his instead of Eriksen’s really is unsporting. What do you think it did to his team and team mates?

To also swear on your daughter’s life that a ball grazed your shoulder in mid flight and ended up in a net is really a case of a selfish player putting only himself in his own frame.

If you wish to score, seek to make your teammates better first. Then when the opposition clamps down on them , you will have your chance. Look at Salah against Bournemouth.

But for Tottenham, unfortunately, every one knows the road will pass through Harry Kane. And his team mates feel obliged to help him. Stop Kane, and you stop Tottenham winning. They are too focussed in this selfish dream to think about winning now.

Which is why they are imploding.

 

Red and Blue

Did he or didn’t he?

Paul Pogba’s agent claims that in the January transfer window he offered his client’s services to Manchester City. Really?

Remember this is Mano Raniola, who reportedly does not get along with City manager Pep Guardiola. Their disagreement stems from the criticism of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whom Raniola also represents. When Ibrahimovic was at Barcelona, he accused Guardiola of buying a Porsche but driving it like a Fiat. Further digs have included comments such as “Mourinho brightens up the room, but Guardiola draws the blinds”.

So why is it that Raniola, who does not like Guardiola, would offer Pogba to the sky Blues?

Firstly, you have to remember that whatever agents do, they work for money and a cut of their star’s contracts. So it doesn’t really matter what he thinks of Guardiola. Raniola isn’t going to play wingback at City. If Pogba went there, he would get a share of the transfer fee.

Secondly, realistically you have to remember that agents do whatever they can to place their player in the limelight. So ahead of a derby between two Manchester clubs, it would have been a good time for Raniola to draw attention to his client, and mention that he was good enough to play for both. Not only does it draw attention to his client while the world is watching, it also is a message to the United hierarchy better not to take his client Pogba for granted.

Pogba had not been on good terms before the derby with Jose Mourinho. Until Alexis Sanchez turned up, Pogba was an influential player. But with the focus turning to the piano playing Alexis Sanchez – is it really him or does he have a body double? – it is dangerous to any football agent to have your client’s worth diminished. Think Cristiano Ronaldo when Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid. The world could have been enamoured with Bale, but Ronaldo found a way of maintaining his omniscience, making sure that his name still remained in the headlights. Pogba had been criticised by Mourinho and the press reported that they had fallen out. Raniola’s claim that his client could have gone over to the Blues is a way of hitting back at Mourinho.

Pep Guardiola is certainly a fan of Pogba. He will be more of a fan now that the Frenchman led a rejuvenation against his Manchester City team, taking them from 2-0 down to 3-2. What did Guardiola say to Pogba at the end of the game? “Well done, you played well, you have good skill, you and de Bruyne would really take us into the dazzling heights of Europe”. Did you see how the City boss fawned over him and tried to plant a seed of doubt into the Frenchman’s minds? Mourinho gives scathing criticism, Pep gives encouragement. It was so obvious it gave me the creeps!

And did Pogba really entertain a move across town. Don’t count on it. The way he taunted the City fans, telling them to be quiet and not to talk so much essentially means he is not interested. He probably wasn’t in the first place – it might have just been Raniola agitating for a bigger contract. But that blue hair dye would have annoyed the Man United faithful though!

David and Goliath

Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Little David, with his little slingshot and stone, seemingly pit against the mighty Goliath, who could ______ (fill in the blanks with superlatives here) and ______ and crush ten men with a sneeze. Yes, that story. The mighty Goliath, up to the point where he had to be confronted by David, was seemingly unbeatable, invincible. And then little David toppled him with the humblest of weapons, that story was big news and made him a worldwide sensation.

I repeat this story because it was perhaps not so much David’s prowess more than the unfailability of Goliath that kept people talking. Had David taken out any other opponent with the same amount of pizazz he would have probably received less publicity. It was not so much David, but more Goliath. Even if it had been bad news for the latter, it was what sustained conversations for weeks to come.

So when you read about how Liverpool destroyed Manchester City in the Champions League match at Anfield last night, this fact is underpinned by the supposed Premier League giant being toppled by a lesser neighbour that fuels the news. The Mancunian Blues got toppled by an opponent sixteen points below them in a league which they are expected to win. Can you name what Liverpool did right? True, they had a great attacking first half, and then sat back in the second. And if you read the morning papers, while some of them go on about little David’s conquest of Goliath, some write about how Goliath was dismantled. It is still all about Goliath.

City did miss the experience and guile of talisman Sergio Aguero. In him they have a proven champion and winner who is not fazed by big events. Remember who won City their first Premier League title with what was essentially the last kick of the game? The Cup was almost being flown across town to rivals Manchester United before being called back at the last minute. At least that year the engraver could have made a head start with engraving Manchester on it.

City miss Aguero for various reasons. When they were behind, they would have tried to contain. It has been said of Aguero that had he been playing, he would have known not to make those runs in deep behind the centre back, but would have dropped back to help his midfield. Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sana lack the experience to monitor the game like that.

It was also unfortunate that the City bus came under attack on its journey to Liverpool. Now, say what you like about it, but you cannot disagree that the City players were shaken on their journey in, and would have been shaken on the pitch too. But Pep Guardiola has a point. The attack had been mooted on social media days before and the police did nothing about it. Or at least, they did not take it seriously enough. What would have happened if the City players merely had a typical journey into the grounds? They would undoubtedly have played a better game and would have been more focussed.

The unfortunate thing is, after all that has been written about how the Liverpool fans suffered at Hillsborough, incidents like these, and the ones at Heysel Stadium during the UEFA league clash with Juventus, paint a darker picture.

You can almost be certain that on the return leg, the Manchester City fans will not let it go and there will be crowd trouble.

Going around, coming around

Brighton missed the chance to advance further up the table this weekend, losing 2-0 to Leciester City. Question though, does it matter much? Further down the table, both West Brom and Southampton lost today, so as things stand, we’re all no better or worse off, but there is one game less to play.

The Seagulls hosted Leicester at home, facing Leonardo Ulloa’s old team, the team which he felt had not treated him right – remember his tweet saying he would not play for the team again, in the time of Ranieri? Ulloa transferred back to his even more previous team, the team he had played for during the Championship, but Brighton were unable to make it past Claude Puel’s team. No matter. Claude Puel’s old team, Southampton, were soundly beaten.

Wonder why Southampton let Puel go? He apparently was doing well enough. But since his departure Leicester have rode their way out of the relgation zone, while Southampton has slid into it. Bet Puel is laughing now.

Southampton lost 3-0 to West Ham at the Wembley Stadium. Fans will remember the chaotic scenes weeks ago when the Hammers played Burnley – who incidentally showed class by allowing West Ham kids to watch the game from their subs bench. The Hammers did well on the back of a stellar performance by Marco Arnautovic, facing his old manager Mark Hughes. In the previous meeting, when Hughes was still at Stoke and Arnautovic at West Ham, the Stoke home fans gave their ex-player a torrid time, and as he was substituted even Mark Hughes had a go at him, telling him to go off. Arnautovic obviously remembered this, gesturing at Mark Hughes after he had scored the Hammers’ second goal. Perhaps Hughes presence with his new club was the motivation for the ex-Stoke player’s magnificient performance. The Hammers seemed galvanised and the events of a few weeks ago were forgotten.

Mark Hughes current team are a place ahead of his old team. Now, Opta does not probably keep track of this, but is he the first manager to manage two of the bottom three that – on the current state of things – end up relegated?

Everton lost to Manchester City at home, with two old Man United boys, Wayne Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin playing in the middle of the Everton field. Rooney had a stellar career with Man United but against City he was way past his best and one fan remarked that he should retire to America for a golden payday on that form, where he would end up playing with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Did you know that Los Angeles was The Zlatan’s preferred destination instead of Manchester United? After his signing was complete, Zlatan claimed that America had been his preferred place but he signed for United instead. What a stab in the back for the Reds fans who had sung his name from the terraces and supported him during his rehab! But that is what arrogant players do.

Romelu Lukaku, formerly of Everton, helped Manchester United close the gap on the league leaders, but let’s face it, you should count on City picking up the title now. They are one point away from the Premier League points record of Chelsea, Lukaku’s previous team, and could better that.

Isn’t it strange how ex-teams and ex-players merry go around in this little world of football?

Lack of English representation

Should we take it to be a conspirital snub? For the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there will be no British referees for the first time in 80 years.

Those of you open to conspiracy theories may link this to the recent British government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats after a critic of Vladimir Putin was found assassinated in a quiet British countryside town. It is as if the Russian establishment is trying to say “Mess with us and forget any chance of a quiet life”. After a British expulsion of Russian civil servants, the Russian followed with a tit for tat response that triggered a world wide anti-Russian foreign service backlash.

So – the World Cup next year will be held in Russia. Do you think that any pressure was put on FIFA, a governing body plagued by corruption, to not have British referees?

One person perhaps not fussed by the decision is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has always been critical of English referees, saying they don’t work hard enough, and as we have seen from past examples, always criticising them when the odds are against him.

There will also be no British referees running the unpopular VAR system.

Arsenal face Stoke this weekend and are hotly expected to win, but don’t put it pass Stoke to pull off an upset. Arsenal traditionally don’t have a good record against hungry teams – you can debate if you like if this reflects on the lack of mental strength, or complacency – and often when you expect Arsenal at home to win against lower opposition, they disappoint, and the Wenger Out brigade returns. Remember Ostersands? Arsenal had a 3-0 first leg lead and then lost 2-1 at home to the minnows. Stoke is arguably tougher than Ostersands, and are an incredibly physical team who will try to resort to put Arsenal off their beautiful passing game with a bit of Northern welcome.

It appears more make or break for Arsene Wenger than Paul Lambert. Lose this one to Stoke, and he can really forget about a top four finish, and the fans won’t let him off for a poor result.

VARdy denied by VAR

International week is here. The week where a series of friendlies, decided by FIFA, sees teams try out their different players and formations. England played the Netherlands a couple of days ago and yesterday played Italy. Jamie Vardy scored in the early stages of the game and would have been on course for the winning goal had a penalty not been awarded to the Azzuri via VAR. So that is how Vardy was denied the chance to be the match winner.

England manager Gareth Southgate was disappointed with the decision, and for good reason too. James Tarkowski, the England defender who has had a brilliant season marshalling the backlines at Burnley, along with goalkeeper Nick Pope (who has yet to play a friendly), conceded the penalty in the later stages of his debut. What a debut it would have been for the centre back. And despite the fact that England in their last eight games have had five wins and three draws, Southgate would have taken six and two if he could.

Italy did not have much to play for, having not qualified for the World Cup. Can you imagine a World Cup without Italy? The country that is shaped like a boot not going to the World Cup? But just as transfer windows are good opportunities to showcase skills to the Premier League team scouts, so are friendlies. The Azzuri had a quiet first half and England seemed in control until the late penalty.

“If you look at the replay, Tarkowski stood on his foot but it was in the act of running and he was already going down.” Southgate said. Tarkowski himself conceded – like a true Burnley player not afraid to man up – that he had stood on the opposing player’s foot, but it may have been a case of 50-50 and the referee chose to give it against England.

VAR has not really had a satisfactory debut and is still rough around the edges. I have been calling for so many times now, stop the referee reviewing each decision. Just let the referee control the game, and give managers a challenge in each half, or two per game. Once they use it it is gone, and if there is undisputable evidence that the decision was incorrect then it is overturned. If not, the referee’s decision stands. Just like in the NFL. The game is more likely to flow because of the relative lack of stoppages (no more than four a game), and if the referee made a wrong decision then it is not his fault, it is the fault of the manager for not challenging it (or not managing his use of challenges wisely).

It really is that simple, but of course the media loves VAR and its problems because it fills column inches. But for a reader, it is just boring to see teams going var, var, var when a result doesn’t go their way.

Not all Reds are rosy

Um … what is going on at Manchester United?

I wrote a while back about Luke Shaw, about this on again off again relationship he has with Jose Mourinho. Back in December I thought that while Mourinho was praising his form and suggesting he could be a part of greatness, he was merely talking Shaw up for a transfer sale. Then when the January window passed and Shaw stayed, I thought I was wrong. But it appears that Shaw is not in his manager’s good books. Replaced at half time in United’s most recent game, he has been called out by his manager again.

There are those in the Manchester hierarchy who are concerned with the slightly erratic behaviour of their manager. Now, in this day and age, that kind of psychological behaviour and tricks that Mourinho was famous for in his younger days no longer works – as he found out at Chelsea – and players really want to have a sense of where they are with their manager, not having him speaking in parables. You don’t need to go further to look at a manager like Sean Dyche. Dyche is straight-talking, speaks his mind, praises the effort of his players, or criticises them collectively instead of singling them out. Mourinho? No one can really get what he’s all about.

Even the star players are flummoxed. Paul Pogba’s form has been erratic of late, with manager questioning him and praising him in the next breath. No one yet knows if Pogba and Alexis Sanchez can play together, but even the latter is said to be struggling at the club. This is not really much of a surprise really, because you don’t really need to place doubt in the mind of a team. It appears as if Mourinho thinks these sort of mind games take the heat of his players, and gives reporters something to write about instead of the poor form of his players, but that is all in the past now. Instead the team is under a cloud of darkness thinking “What is he really on about?” and we have seen time and time again that doubt fuels poor form.

Is Anthony Martial staying? Who knows? Is Marouane Fellaini moving elsewhere? No reassurances about his future. And Shaw? There are many who believe Mourinho’s treatment of him leads to bullying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shaw, at some point, files for unfair dismissal against Manchester United. Now, you don’t have to be dismissed to be able to do that, you can resign based on the untenability of your position because of the treatment of superiors. There is plenty of evidence for Shaw to put forward.

And Mourinho? It all went downhill from the time of Eva Carneiro.