The Milan Derby

Two slide-rule balls from Kaka, one on to a grateful Filippo Inzaghi’s head and one past a sprawling Julio Cesar, were the difference in a match that has greater ramifications for the red half of Milan than the blue. The three points were vital to keep the Rossneri’s fingertips on that fourth and final Champions League spot, whereas the Scudetto remains Inter’s to lose. No doubt Inter would have loved to have clinched the title at the ground of their bitter local rivals, but in the end Milan’s greater coherence in the midfield made the difference. Maniche, though the supplier of Milan’s first two meaningful efforts on goal, was a largely peripheral figure and made way for 17-year-old Mario Balotelli during the second half. Patrick Vieira and Esteban Cambiasso fared little better than their little colleague, with the former particularly guilty of squandering possession. Vieira at times battled manfully, only to be let down by woeful distribution. On one occasion in the second half he held off two defenders at the edge of the Milan penalty area, only to misplace his pass to Maicon who was standing not three metres away. It was emblematic of Vieira’s struggles to impose himself on a game that was clearly passing him by.

In the end the game was decided in the middle of the park. Ambrosini was tireless and with Seedorf intelligently supporting Kaka’s darting runs, it was clear that Inter lacked the creativity in the final third that Milan had in abundance. Inter’s greatest attacking threat in the first half was Maicon, who stormed up from his position at right full-back at every opportunity. Unfortunately for him Milan’s backline, marshalled by Alessandro Nesta prevented Hernan Crespo and Julio Cruz from getting anywhere near any of the Brazilian’s dangerous crosses.

A Cruz free kick made for a tense final quarter of an hour. Though Cruz was clinical with his placement, Zeljko Kalac in the Milan goal could have positioned himself better along the goal line. The Australian redeemed himself to turn away a sweetly struck dead ball from Christian Chivu some minutes later, and in the end Milan were comfortable winners. David Suazo looked dangerous when he replaced Crespo, but in the end the Honduran relied on pace alone, and though that was enough to force Daniele Bonera into a bookable foul of desperation, only Mario Bolatelli seemed to possess any the the guile needed to unpick the Milan defence. Mancini’s substitutions were effective but it was too much too late for a team that desperately needs a creative influence in the centre of the field. With Juventus regrouping well after a season in Serie B, and Milan finally hitting form over the past few months, I’m not sure that a Milan team that rely so much on the currently injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic for improvisation will be able to retain their title next season without more investment in imaginative midfield passers.

Donovan scores, Guzan Goes Missing,

CWhile the Galaxy have, since last year’s signing of David Beckham, become cynics’ poster child for a perceived crass culture of personality in American sports, there is no doubt that they have started the season well. With five matches played, the galaxy are currently in the second spot in the western conference, and with 8 goals, Landon Donovan currently sits atop the scoring charts. Donovan is arguably the most talented American attacking player of his generation, and his deft control, precise passing and blistering acceleration should have made him one of the most in demand players of his generation. Perhaps he made the move to Germany too soon in his career, but at 26 surely he must be thinking that his gifts deserve to be paraded on a finer stage.

Of course he and his team must own many thanks to Arsenal and Celtic target Brad Guzan. The higly rated goalkeeper fluffed his lines and was most clearly at fault for a goal that bobbled off the back of Alan Gordon’s head and into the back of the net. Surely the unfortunate Guzan’s stock must have fallen rapidly on Saturday night. Although woefully exposed time and again by a comedy defence, Guzan failed to show the nerve of a keeper determined to soldier on no matter how lost the cause. A few more matches like this, and there will surely be no summer move for the American, though perhaps a move to Europe in next January’s transfer window, or even next summer would be a small price to pay for another season of guaranteed first team football.

Here’s the highlights package, which includes Donovan’s clearest indication yet that he wishes to be counted amongst football’s very elite: his homage to Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal.

Barcelona vs Manchester

Ah, St George’s Day. This augurs well for an English team marching into a Catalan fortress to do battle with the locally assembled gladiatorial cream. What’s that? George is also the patron saint of Catalonia, where he’s known by the dashing, Latinate moniker Jordi! Oh, dear, next you’ll be telling me that George/Jordi was neither English nor Catalan, but rather a Turkish-born Roman soldier. Oh dear. Well at least he slayed that dragon. Oh, I see….

It’s all at this site here. Apparently he’s also the patron saint of Ethiopia, Canada, Serbia, Montenegro, Moscow etc and so on.

As for tonight’s match, whether the stalemate stemmed from St George favouring both teams or neither I couldn’t say, though I suspect it was because, knowing that it would be the second leg that counted, he spent the evening with Ethiopia or Canada. The match did get off to a decent start. Barcelona survived an early penalty scare when both of central defender Gabriel Milito’s flailing hands connected with the ball, but Cristiano Ronaldo, with goalkeeper Victor Valdes going the wrong way, could only find the right-hand post. After that Barcelona regrouped, but although they had the lion’s share of the possession, they offered very little in the way of penetration and Edwin van der Sar was hardly tested until Thierry Henry came on and showed that rasping shots on target are one of the best ways to fluster goalkeepers. Unfortunately for Barcelona, he didn’t have enough time to make his theory stick, and on a night when Messi was reasonably effective, and Ronaldo started fairly brightly but never really caught fire none of the supporting cast of either team really got going. Rooney in particular seemed curiously off the pace, and with Anderson on the bench and Ferguson playing Owen Hargreaves at right back to allow Wes Brown to slot in for the ill Nemanja Vidic at centre half, there was no dynamism in the middle of the pitch, where Scholes and Carrick were solid but uninspiring. In the end Ferguson seemed to be content to settle for the draw and trust that his team to be more enterprising at Old Trafford next week.

As a neutral I for one hope that Deco and Messi, both today returning from injury and both substituted tonight, will have regained match fitness in time for the second leg. I also hope that Rooney and Ronaldo shake off the malaise that seems to have afflicted them since Saturday’s league draw with Blackburn. At least Ronaldo looked pacey and threatening in bursts tonight, but Rooney, though willing, seemed ill at ease, and as much as his defensive commitment is to be commended, he seemed more comfortable operating as an auxiliary left back whenever United had conceded possession than marauding forward when they had reclaimed it.

Frank’s revenge

Frank and John

Frank and John plot revenge on the evil Michael Ballack

Fat Frank has turned down a lucrative contract offer with Chelsea. Meanwhile, in a sleepy mediterranean town, a small fan-owned club called Barcelona has decided that they don’t require the services of England’s porky, misfiring midfielder. Having already met their quota of one portly tackle-shy hasbeen, and having just splashed out £16 000 000 on another soon-to-be 30 year-old on the fast-track away from brilliance, the Catalonian club clearly feels that one fat man and one comedy signing is all they need at present.

Perennial fontrunners in la liga’s laughing stock stakes, Real Madrid, have also decided to deprive their fans the sight of Frank’s plaintive look of schoolboy sorrow, primarily because Ruud van Nistelrooy’s salary means they can’t afford to lose more than 5 balls a game to the fans in row Z.

Milan join Barcelona and Madrid in denying any interest in Frank, which means that our hero can either swallow his pride and accept the paltry £110 000 a week on offer from Chelsea, or embark on a danger-filled but comical expedition of great genius to reclaim from the personal vault of Michael Ballack the millions that are rightfully Frank’s. With John Terry also reportedly unhappy about the money on offer to him, Frank may have found a Brad to his George. However, until they can find an American willing to flog a cockney accent within an inch of its life, Ballack’s bullion will be safe for the time being. Oh, Don Cheadle’s free next week, you say….

Copa America

Three handsome young men tussle for the ball. Riquelme represents a kind of footballer shunned in recent years by Brazil

Three handsome young men tussle for the ball. But does Riquelme stand for the kind of football Brazil have turned their backs on?

The man who loved his nose so much he changed his name to match it, Juan Roman Riquelme, has come out of retirement to play in this year’s edition of the Copa America. By reversing the decision he made last year, Riquelme joins an illustrious list of players who have made a similar choice. Household names like Zinedine Zidane, Roy Keane, and George McCartney, have all reconsidered the wisdom of depriving the international stage of their incomparable genius, and Riquelme must surely hope to go one better than Zidane in leading his country to a major international trophy. One can only suspect that mummy will expect nothing less than success, or Riquelme may withdraw himself from selection once again.

Riquelme’s volte-face will please fans of patient football generated from the middle of the park. Brazil, the perennial (non-South American) neutral’s favourite at tournaments, have spent the past twenty years undoing the midfield magic of Socrates and Zico, preferring instead to clog the centre of midfield with the water-carrying genius of the likes of Gilberto Silva and leave the excitement to Roberto Carlos and his fellow lifetime members of the Speedy Gonzalez Appreciation Society. For all the press that Kaka, Ronaldinho and Robinho (when he stays on his feet) receive, creativity is in short supply from midfield. The Brazilian backline look more like bouncers at a flashy nightclub than samba warriors. Brazil seem to rely too heavily on a Gilberto Silva figure to receive the ball from the defence and lay it on quickly to the Kaka or Ronaldinho in the hole, or the full-backs bombing forward.

Hopefully the inclusion of more complete central midfielders such as Shaktar Donesk’s Elano, and Werder Bremen’s Diego will restore more balance and beauty to Brazil’s play. In the meantime, with the rejuvenated Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron, plus the possiblity of Messi being allowed to influence matches from the centre of the pitch, opens all sorts of possibilities for exciting football played on the ground and through the midfield, the sort of football that Brazil became famous for from the 50s to the 80s. Winners are often copied, so lets hope that even if Argentina don’t win, the team that does win does so by favouring elegance and passing over sheer pace and power.

Football will surely be richer for Riquelme’s return. Let’s hope the fans lay off his mum, this time!

The Manchurian Candidate

Has it occurred to anyone that Alexi Lalas is actually an unwitting agent of the American state, programmed to throw a liberal western democracy into chaos, though not by assassinating a controversial politician with a well-lubricated media machine, but by defaming a controversial football league with a well-lubricated marketing machine. Clearly the English Premiership’s house of cards is a mere flick of the finger away from collapse, as evidenced by the in-fighting precipitated by an interview the former U.S. international gave to the (formerly Manchester) Guardian. There’s not much to say, really. Is it credible to assume that Lalas genuinely believes that the Premiership an inferior product. Probably. After all, he is not forwarding the argument that the English top flight is worse that its American counterpart, merely that an aggressive marketing strategy has convinced many around the world that English football is of a greater quality than the top-heavy nature of the league more genuinely indicates. Isn’t he on the money there?

Or is he just distracting football lovers in England while corporate America annexes the Premier League?

Alexi responds to his English critics

…and the winner is…Ukraine and Poland

What does Uefa’s decision to send the 2012 European Championships to Poland and Ukraine mean for the two countries involved? What of the fact that the tournament was awarded to two former Soviet bloc countries at the expense of one of the heavyweights of western Europe in Italy? It would be tempting to say that the political balance of power is shifting in European football, but surely the major nations are not going to let go of any of their share of the pie anytime soon, no matter how disproportionately large that share might be. Certainly it indicates that the Uefa president, Michel Platini, himself from one of the so-called bigger countries, owes his current position in no small measure to the backing he received from eastern Europe. One of the more striking soundbites he generated during his campaign was his pledge to democratise the Champions League by taking away spaces from the dominant leagues to give to the rest. And it looks increasingly as though the Sheriff of Nottingham, an Italian citizen since the mid-20th century, (surely this must refer to pantomime villain Silvio Berlusconi) has had the wool pulled over his eyes by man in tights Platini.

On the domestic front, what will the effects be? It has been argued that Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko’s recent decree to dissolve parliament and hold early elections is tantamount to a coup sanctioned by the west. What will the effects be on countries trying to emerge the long shadow still cast to this day by the Soviet Union?

And what will the long term effects be on football in Poland and the Ukraine? Will this provide the spur two nations with a great love for the game need to lay the groundwork for successive generations of top class players? Will Poland and Ukraine be able to produce players with populations of over 38 and 47 million people respectively, surely the raw talent must be available in abundance. Let’s hope that in five years time, and in twenty-five years time, Andriy Shevchenko won’t still be the only genuinely globally recognisable star from the two countries.

Just another day at the office for Mr Platini

Messi the king (where’s my Spanish football?)

Those of you who can’t get coverage of Spanish football because you feel a second mortgage isn’t worth the pleasure, may think twice when you see this goal from Lionel Messi for Barcelona against Getafe in the King’s Cup. I for one am having second thoughts about paying for the subscription that would free up the funds for Rupert Murdoch to buy panda skin boots for half the presenters at Fox News. Those of us who like our football to be of the high octane variety often scoff that while Spain’s Primera Liga may be justly considered more technically proficient, it can’t offer the excitement of its English equivalent, but on this evidence a rethink may be in order.

eating my own words dept, vol 1

In an entry I composed in response to Michael Carrick’s exorbitant transfer from Spurs to Manchester United I was perhaps a little critical of the former West Ham man. Certainly I believe that Man Utd paid over the top, but unlike some United players who have commanded fantasy fees in recent years (see Veron, Juan Sebastian and Ferdinand, Rio), Carrick has proved that he is a player of the highest quality. Two exquisite goals in the first and second halves against Roma have been the most eyecatching of his work as a Manchester United player thus far, but it is with a season of consistently outstanding performances moving the ball simply from defence to attack Carrick has answered critics that quick to condemn him for failing to fulfil the potential he showed as a junior. Clearly the time is well overdue to re-evaluate Carrick’s ability to control the flow of the game–especially in light of England’s dire performances in the qualification campaign for Euro 2008. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of the man in an England shirt, especially if Frank Lampard can develop a convenient habit of injuring his hand before international fixtures.

He can speak English?

“Speaking with good if hesitant English, Martins understood enough to rebuff questions comparing him to Andriy Shevchenko, another Premiership import from the San Siro” was the word from Guardian reporter Michael Walker in this Saturday’s edition of the respected London paper. Fair enough, Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins is a footballer, and as such stereotype would dictate that he might not be able to string too many more coherent sentences together than a president of the United States. However Martins is from Nigeria, not Italy, home of the San Siro, and as such is it not accepted that his English ability would be sound at worst? Nigeria is an English speaking country, and I would wager that if Mr Walker were to take a venture that far south he might be amazed at the number of people speaking good, even unhesitant English in the country.


What’s Emartins.jpgnglish for Goal?

I don’t mean to belittle Mr Walker. I’m sure he means well. But in all honest, did he expect Obafemi Martins to speak no English? Perhaps he had confused Nigeria with Niger, an understandable error, but for the fact that to a football journalist, confusing Nigeria and Niger because their names are similar would be somewhat akin to mistaking Columbia and Ecuador because their flags are pretty much the same. Shame on the Guardian for such shoddy reporting.

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