Hugo Steckelmacher returns with a somewhat late review for last week – excuses range from the fatigue from writing encyclopedia entries for Dave Penny and Tony Mowbray to waiting to watch Arsenal play at home on Monday night. Arsenal! A Spurs man!
All eyes were on Wembley on Wednesday night as Stevie Gerrard led out England for Fabio Capello’s first ever game in charge of the Three Lions. Capello opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Rooney spearheading the England attacks. A trio of central midfielders in Jermaine Jenas, Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry were sandwiched by “wingers” Joe Cole and David Bentley, and it is from this area of the pitch that the most accomplished performances would come. There was a surprise start for Matthew Upson alongside Rio Ferdinand in the heart of defence, and the two were flanked either side by Wes Brown and Ashley Cole. David James started between the sticks. All in all, most fans seemed happy with the selection, although Ashley Young was a notable absentee from the starting eleven.
In what was a tense, taught affair, notable more for the effort of the English players than for any flashes of attacking quality, the first forty minutes had England fans scratching their heads in bemusement. Even the pundits had trouble understanding that England were playing a different style of football in which possession was paramount and attacking verve incidental. Reports beamed in from Wembley prattled on about the price of a burger — £4.50, apparently; now that’s what you call a whopper! — seemingly in order to distract from the dismal fare being offered out on the pitch, whilst a certain Wesley Brown conjured up some heart-in-hand moments due to some dodgy defensive work.
A goal did finally arrive, however, from the feet of man-of-the-moment Jermaine Jenas, who was making his very first start for England in this his 18th cap. Joe Cole’s excellent trickery in the penalty box allowed him to pull the ball back and there was JJ to guide the ball home with his left foot. Although people seemed neglect the fact, England’s goal had in actual fact come from an excellent attacking move in which possession was retained for well over ten seconds, which used to be the par for a three lions attack!
Surely England would push on after the restart, sighed the Wembley bleachers?
This was not to be the case. Although mildly more attacking, England’s performance in the second half maintained its restrained nature, and Fabio Capello was seen to be writhing on the sidelines when Switzerland broke through to equalize. The goal was scored by 19-year old debutant Eren Derdiyok. The Euro 2008 hosts exchanged passes on the margins of the area before threading a ball through towards the teenage striker. Derdiyok took the ball in his stride before immediately releasing a powerful and accurate drive that seemed to catch veteran David James off guard. Wembley fell silent. The goal was very well constructed indeed, with some excellent interplay between the Swiss midfield players in the build-up to the assisting pass, despite the sufficient pressure applied by England’s midfielders.
With half an hour to salvage a victory, England finally began to push on, the result being a more frenetic period in which chances came and went — Wayne Rooney adding another to his missed chance collection of recent weeks — and gaps began to appear in both backlines. A number of substitutions for both sides had disrupted the careful flow of the ball conspicuous in the first 45, but the England fans and players alike seemed well up for it. The breakthrough came courtesy of the work of two substitutes, as a lofted ball found the head of Peter Crouch, Crouch’s header was flicked on expertly by Wayne Rooney, and Steven Gerrard’s driving run into the box allowed him to pick out Shaun Wright-Phillips for a tap-in at the back post.
A few more chances came and went, but it was not to be, and despite the tardy introduction of Ashley Young, Wayne Bridge and Owen Hargreaves, 2-1 it was to remain. Overall, a reasonable performance marred only by the slightly disappointing performances of Wes Brown and Gareth Barry. England kept the ball well for most of the first half, and tellingly Capello was said to be far happier with the first 45 — controlled and lacking in goalmouth action — than with the second. Meanwhile, the human Je-nome project, as I have chosen to christen Jermaine Jenas’s rejuvenation under the auspices of Juande Ramos, continues full steam ahead. I’m tempted to put it down to steroids, or some of those Pistorius blades, since JJ seems to have realized that he has a pair of legs and that they’re quite good for running with!
Spain 1-0 France: butterflies prevent Bojan debut
France failed to win for the second time in as many days, their ‘B’ side (including Gael Clichy making his debut for Les Bleus) having been held to a disappointing 0-0 draw with Congo on Tuesday night.
The match with La Furia was a fairly insipid tactical affair with little retention of possession and almost nothing in the way of sights of goal: only a Xavi curler around the 12th minute awoke Lyon keeper Gregory Coupet from his goalmouth slumber. France were marginally more impressive, with Nicolas Anelka bright and active up front, narrowly failing to find a way past the ever-impressive Iker Casillas.
Finally, Spain took the lead in the 80th minute, completely against the run of play. A powerful Andrés Iniesta header was cleared off the line by Portsmouth’s Lassana Diara, and it was left to Villarreal defender Joan Capdevila to complete the simple task of knocking the ball home. Despite a spirited comeback, France were unable to beat Casillas — Karim Benzema hitting the bar and Thierry Henry missing a couple of gilt-edged chances — and Luis Aragonés’s side held on for a confidence-boosting win.
The most notable match fact came before the game had even kicked off, with 17-year old Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krcic unable to make his debut due to an upset tummy. Few can begrudge the teenager a few nerves on his international debut, and Spurs fans and Michael Carrick in particular will sympathise with the young striker’s plight. Though Krcic did not make it onto the pitch, it seems unlikely that the diminutive frontman will be persuaded to switch international allegiances to his father’s native Serbia.
Phil Scolari maintains his record of failing to beat the Azzurri as an international manager. Although Portugal had many opportunities inside the Italy box, they were unable to take advantage, and goals from Luca Toni, Fabio Cannavaro and Fabio Quagliarella rendered Ricardo Quaresma’s 77th —minute penalty worthless. For a full match report, see Marco’s article.
I won’t dwell on this issue too much, but it was another fruitful week for the injury G-ds, with the likes of Micah Richards and Mathieu Flamini picking up light injuries (both were able to recover for the weekend’s fixtures), and Samir Nasri and Fernando Torres just the cream of the crop of players incapacitated on international duty.
I personally don’t see what the big deal is — these players are injured in normal matches or even in training in some cases, and so it is hardly as if the players have been put through over-strenuous activities by their national coaches.
Put it this way — if you lent your friend your car whilst you were on holiday, and the car broke down through no fault of your friend’s, would you demand they pay you compensation? Of course not. So unless someone can prove that the international set-ups are forcing their players to do army-style assault courses whilst pulling along giant steel tractors, the injuries picked up by players whilst on international duty are pretty random indeed — and indeed, are just as likely to be incurred on the club training pitch.
In related gossip comes the incredible news that Werder Bremen have taken out a massive insurance policy on Brazilian midfield maestro Ribas Diego, although strangely the reports do not confirm to which parts of the body the policy will apply. Diego is the most fouled player in the Bundesliga (over 113 infractions committed against him so far). Take note, Sir Alex?
One man who didn’t get injured — of course, this is because he never made it onto the pitch for England — was Michael Owen, who would go on to open the scoring for Newcastle at Villa Park. For the second time in a week, the man who looks like TJ from Recess scored from a header and Newcastle fans allowed a smile to creep across their winsome faces.
However, in a turn-up for the books — you would expect a Castle to hold out against a measly Villa, n’est-ce pas? — Villa put in a much improved performance after the break. Wilfred Bouma’s early equalizer — his first goal for the club, albeit a massively deflected one — was followed by a hat-trick from giant sentinel John Carew, and Villa temporarily roared into fourth-place. Although not the most accomplished performance from Villa, Martin O’ Neill’s side simply had too much for a shellshocked Newcastle, especially after the introduction of supersub Marlon Harewood. Ashley Young again put in a great showing, and set up one of Carew’s goals with a trademark cross.
Other Saturday games — relegation round-up
With none of the “Big Four” in action on Saturday, the day’s 3 o’ clock kick-offs offered a portrait of the great relegation scramble to which Premiership fans have become accustomed. What the day’s six games largely lacked in quality, they made up for in effort, but you will forgive me for not entering into too much detail.
Derby County remain fully on course to set a new record for the lowest points total in a Premiership season, after a 3-0 home defeat by Tottenham. Although high on huffing and puffing, Derby’s performance was perfectly abject, and was typified by a woefully wayward attempt from Kenny Miller on one of the few occasions when County did manage to break through the Spurs defence. Tottenham were pedestrian at times, and struggled with both Derby’s physical approach and an awful Pride Park pitch. However, the quality of the likes of Aaron Lennon (my man of the match) and Dimitar Berbatov eventually shone through, and goals from Robbie Keane, Younes Kaboul and the Berb were enough to put an artificial gloss on the scoreline.
Fulham’s great escape was cut off in its stride before it had even really got going, as the West Londoners followed up last week’s excellent win over Aston Villa with a 1-0 loss to Middlesbrough at the Riverside. This game was not for the purists, although ‘Boro did play some good football in patches, and Jeremy Aliadiere’s goal for The Tees (I know, not a real nickname) came courtesy of a superb through ball from Gary O’ Neill and was finished with aplomb by the Frenchman. ‘Boro’s record signing Alfonso “The Fonz” Alves made his debut after some 70 minutes, but in truth looked horribly off the pace, unsurprising considering the Brazilian has not trained in over a month. Roy Hodgson’s side was disappointing, and what little they did offer going forward was ably dealt with by ‘Boro duo David Wheater and Robert Huth, somewhat vindicating Gareth Southgate’s decision to sell wantaway defender Jonathan Woodgate to Spurs.
Reading now occupy 18th position after a dreadful run of losses continued at Goodison Park on Saturday. Phil Jagielka got the only goal of the game, heading in from a good Leon Osman cross, whilst Tim Cahill looked strangely off-colour in front of goal, missing at least two decent chances — perhaps a symptom of fatigue after having played for Australia in midweek. Reading were disappointing at both ends of the pitch, and could only point to a very early Stephen Hunt free-kick and a James Harper drive off the post as way of attacking attempts. Everton’s star men were goalscorer Jagielka, along with the perennially accomplished Mikel Arteta and the tireless Andy Johnson.
Birmingham edged out of the relegation zone at Reading’s expense after a 1-1 draw with West Ham at Upton Park, although the Blues are still searching for their first win of 2008. The Hammers started brightly and it was no surprise when Freddy Ljungberg whisked the ball home from close range after a formidable flick-on from the rejuvenated Carlton Cole. However, after missing a number of further chances, West Ham were made to pay for their profligacy. James McFadden went some way to paying off his hefty transfer fee, first winning and then dispatching a penalty for Alex McLeish’s team. The second period was utterly dull, with the only real action of note coming from the debatable sending-off of Lee Bowyer following a lunge on Damien Johnson, a decision that Hammers boss Alan Curbishley has sent off for re-examination. Blues might have stole the three points late on had Mikael Forssell not headed a golden opportunity straight into the arms of a grateful Robert Green, who could probably dye his hair electric pink and turn up for a match stark naked and still fail to catch the attention of the England higher-ups.
Finally, Wigan and Bolton’s recent good form was halted by losses away to Sunderland and home to Portsmouth respectively, although both were probably the better teams in their ties.
In the battle of the former Manchester United disciples, Roy Keane’s Sunderland continued their excellent home form with a 2-0 win over Steve Bruce’s Wigan. Not for the first time, Roy Keane could be accused of larceny, although this time he was guilty of pilfering 3 points from Wigan Athletic, and not for steeling a couple of beer cans. An awful first-half was sparked into life by Dickson Etuhu’s headed opener, and Wigan responded well, with efforts from Emile Heskey and Jason Koumas well kept out by Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, Wigan went on to hit the woodwork twice in the second half through Kevin Kilbane and the unfortunate Heskey, before a Sunderland raid and a superb 25-yard drive from Daryl Murphy sealed the stolen points for Keane’s side. Although disappointed with the result, Steve Bruce can take heart in his Wigan side’s performance.
Gary Megson will have felt the same way after his Bolton outfit inexplicably lost 1-0 at home to Portsmouth, a game that was destined to lack goals: Bolton were searching for a fourth consecutive clean sheet, Pompey had more 0-0 draws than any other team in the top flight, and both sides had recently lost prominent attackers in the shape of Anelka and Benjani. Portsmouth offered next to nothing in the way of attacking ability throughout the encounter, but after Bolton had spurned a series of chances, including two clear-cut opportunities for ex-Portsmouth man Matt Taylor. After missing chance after chance, sod’s law decreed that Portsmouth would snatch it, and so it would be, with Diarra dispatching Kanu’s through ball from a suspiciously offside position. It was David James, however, who would have the final say, with the experienced England and former Liverpool goalkeeper showing just why he has been recalled to the national side with a fantastic save to deny Tamir Cohen, son of former Liverpool star Avi Cohen, and Bolton a share of the spoils.
After a stirring 1 minute silence that was perfectly honoured by both sets of fans, Manchester United’s players failed to break out of their stupor and were comprehensively defeated by Sven Goran Erikssson’s Manchester City, who have now completed the double over their city rivals.
With both sides lining up in shirts untouched by the hands of greedy sponsors, one could be forgiven for getting caught up in the occasion. Intersticed with coverage of the game came regular shots of the Munich survivors as well as of Bobby Charlton, with a particularly poignant image revealing the extent to which the defeat had hurt the United legend.
The truth is that United simply never took off and looked sluggish throughout. Martin Petrov tormented Brown relentlessly, and it was the Bulgarian’s slide-rule pass that set Stephen Ireland through on goal. Although Van der Saar did well to block Ireland’s shot, he could do nothing about the follow-up, which a tenacious Darius Vassell swept into the empty net, hushing the United fans to such an extent that the minute’s silence seemed to have been taken up again.
The second City goal came with similar ease. Benjani’s move from Portsmouth had apparently nearly come off the rails due to the Zimbabwean taking an ill-advised nap and missing several flights (mildly ironic, considering the occasion of his debut). However, this time it was the Manchester United defence that was caught napping as Petrov’s angled cross was flicked on by Benjani and into the bottom corner of the net.
The expected response from United failed to materialize until far too late in the game. Micah Richards and Richard Dunne were gallant, impenetrable walls in the Manchester City backline and one the few chances offered up to the boys in red was squandered by Ryan Giggs. World player of the year candidate Cristiano Ronaldo again went missing on the big occasion, and the absence of Wayne Rooney — who has missed all of United’s defeats this season, hardly a coincidence — deprived the Reds’ attacking play of its usual fluency. United’s last throes of a comeback were briefly lit by Carrick’s superb curled drive in the 91st minute, but in all honesty the result never looked in doubt.
United’s display was on the whole massively muted, and Carlos Queiroz’s explanation that the recent international break had fatigued his players wreaked of hypocrisy considering the club’s recent money-spinning trip to Saudi Arabia. A far more accurate diagnosis would be to say that United’s players were overcome by the occasion, a more-than-understandable phenomenon considering the immense pressure placed on the Munich memorials. One can particularly comprehend how the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown might have felt jaded emotionally, with the combination of two particularly emotional and tense occasions (Capello’s first, nervy, game in charge, and then this) proving fatal for United’s drowsy backline.
Chelsea 0-0 Liverpool
The less said about this match, the better, except that it finally extinguished any hopes Liverpool might have had about gaining the title, as well as putting the dampener on Chelsea’s championship hopes. The game itself was a drab affair with barely any chances, and the “attacking football” promised by Avram Grant conspicuously did a no-show.
Arsenal 2-0 Blackburn
Qualification for Europe was put on the backburner for Blackburn Rovers last night, with Mark Hughes’ side, winless in 3 but unbeaten in 2008, extended that run to four games by losing at the Emirates. Arsenal started at electrifying pace and the excellent Eduardo was unfortunate to see a couple of good runs stopped prior to arriving at the goalmouth. Unable to find the direct route to goal, Eduardo instead turned provider. Having been knocked off the ball by Andre Ooijer when heading goalwards, Eduardo teed up the resulting corner for Philippe Senderos to power home with his formidable forehead in just the fourth minute.
The rest of the performance, however, was hardly vintage Arsenal, and Blackburn controlled the game for large periods. David Bentley was skilful and efficient out on the right wing, and it was the ex-Arsenal man’s well-placed free-kick that would pose the greatest danger to Arsenal’s goal. Jens Lehmann kept that attempt out, and in spite of Blackburn having one or two opportunities through the likes of Santa Cruz and McCarthy, it would be Arsenal that would have the last laugh. Blackburn keeper Brad Friedel, who had earlier performed a miraculous double save from the imperious Adebayor, as well as watching an Alexsander Hleb drive cannon back off the post, would finally be beaten for the second time, with the goal fittingly coming from goal-machine Adebayor. Hleb’s soft pass into the Togolese man’s feet was expertly controlled, and Adebayor turned to shoot unstoppably into the bottom corner of the net. Last night marked the 9th game in succession in which Adebayor had scored, and the goal drew him level with Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the Premiership scoring charts, with 19.
The Premier League sent shockwaves around world football by announcing that they hope to add an extra round of games to the current fixture list so that matches may be held at unusual destinations. The Martians, favourite team Manchester United, were spotted in a recent space expeditions doing bicycle kicks with stones, using their inordinately overdeveloped legs, are said to be in pole position to host one of the 10 additional fixtures. It is not yet known how season ticket holders will reach the planet, although Richard Branson is said to be preparing a ticket, accommodation and travel bundle. Branson is thought to have lined up a deal with Warner Brothers in order to purchase the rights to show Space Jam on board his intergalactic flights.
In spite of Richard Scudamore’s — how can you trust anyone whose name begins with the word “scud”? — assertion that normal fans will not be harmed by the new round of matches, and that those who wish to keep up personal attendance records will be encouraged to do so, reactions to the scheme have been overwhelmingly negative, especially with the league coming in for stick from managers whom they had neglected to inform about the initiative!