Thierry Henry – Is he only a club Legend?

 Thierry Henry, an artist with the football in his feet, called it a day last week. Soumyadip Das gives him a tribute here with Goalden Times.

DC United v New York Red Bulls - Eastern Conference Semifinals

Henryyyyyyyyyyyyyyy- the scream of commentator Martin Tylor will be remembered by Gunners forever as it was the sound that they use to hear after each of Thierry Henry’s goal for Arsenal. Earlier this week , he has called time on his career and retired from professional football. He is a living legend of Arsenal. He has won several trophies for them after moving from Italian club Juventus. He has also been a part of FC Barcelona later in his career, winning many trophies. For France in the national colours, he has won a World Cup and a Euro Cup. Although rated highly by many experts, Henry was not that much successful for France. Many people say that he was unable to replicate his club form for the national team. Was it really the case for a player, who played a big part in winning World Cup and Euro Cup for his national side? Let’s look back at his achievements for both clubs and national team during his prime.

Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona. Most footballers would be glad and proud to play for just one of those clubs over the course of their whole career: Thierry Henry played for all of them. The former France international plied his career in five different nations with five different clubs, breaking through at Monaco and moving on to Juventus before really coming of age and capability at Arsenal. He later moved to Barcelona before ending his career with New York Red Bulls (NYRB). He topped the charts in goal scoring in Premier League and won the Premier League Golden Boot four times (2001-02, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06). He is Arsenal’s leading goal scorer of all time with 228 goals. Also, He finished his career with the highest number of assists in for NYRB.

Arsene-Wenger-signs-Thierry-Henry

After an uncertain start to his Monaco career in 1992, Henry was named the French Young Footballer of the Year in 1996. After a moderate run with Juventus, he joined Arsenal by the pursuit of his former Monaco manager Arsene Wenger. There he finished as the top scorer in the league with 24 goals to his name. He  scored 32 goals in all competitions thereby starting a run of five successive seasons where he topped the goals’ tally across various competitions. The team as a whole were just as extraordinary, winning both the Premier League and FA Cup to clinch the double in 2002. 2003 was a top year for Henry personally as he won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year. He was also voted into the PFA Team of the Year and the UEFA Team of the Year. The striker was in the form of his life; scoring at will and showing great poise and power to be one of the biggest threats anywhere in the game. That was recognised as Henry was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year, eventually finishing in second place behind fellow countryman Zinedine Zidane. Arsenal fans will never forget 2003-04 as they went through the entire Premier League season unbeaten to claim another league title. Henry was, of course, central to all that the “Invincibles” achieved that year. He scored 30 goals in 37 league games and 39 in all competitions. Henry’s tally of 30 in the top flight was also enough to find him crowned the top scorer in Europe, winning the Golden Boot as a result. Wenger said of his fellow Frenchman: “Thierry Henry could take the ball in the middle of the park and score a goal that no one else in the world could score”. Again in 2006, he became the top scorer for Arsenal across all competitions. A statue of Henry’s trademark goal celebration outside the Emirates Stadium stands as a tribute to all he accomplished with the London club. “He deserves it, he is a fantastic player,” Ian Wright, the man Henry surpassed atop the Gunners’ scoring charts, said at the time. “It is no mean feat to come second to a player like that.”

After leaving Arsenal in 2007, Henry joined Barcelona in Spain and formed part of a deadly attacking line up which included a growing Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o. Henry’s best year with the Catalan side came in 2009 as he helped them win the Copa Del Rey and La Liga, with the Champions League following soon afterward. Further success was around the corner at the start of the next season, still in 2009, as Barcelona won the Supercopa, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup— a sextuple, every tournament won which they entered, with Henry a huge part of it.

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In 1998 World Cup at his home soil, he scored in the group-stage match against South Africa and scored a brace against Saudi Arabia. Inspite of starting the campaign as a surprise inclusion, Henry finished as the leading goal scorer for France in their maiden World Cup winning venture. Two years later in the Euro 2000, which they also won he netted against Denmark and Czech Republic in the group stage and further scored one more, a crucial equaliser, in the semi-final against Portugal. In 2002 World Cup he couldn’t score and France were eliminated from the group stage. Henry returned to form for his country at the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup. Despite playing without Zidane and Patrick Vieira, France won the tournament largely due to Henry’s exceptional performance. He was adjudged the Man of the Match by FIFA’s Technical Study Group in three of France’s five matches. He also scored the golden goal in the final to lift the title for the host country. Henry was awarded with both the Adidas Golden Ball award as the excellent player of the competition and the Adidas Golden Shoe as the tournament’s top goal-scorer with four goals. During the 2006 FIFA World Cup Henry was one of the regular starters in the squad and scored three goals, including the winning goal from Zidane’s free kick which eliminated the defending champions Brazil from the competition in the quarter-final.  Henry did not played much part in 2010  World Cup in South Africa and his sole appearance was as a second half substitute against the host nations. France lost the match by 2-1 and were eliminated from the tournament. Subsequently he announced his retirement from international football, having won a record 123 caps and scoring a national record of 51 goals for the Les Bleus.

Henry had a great ability to score from free-kicks. But his trademark style was scoring in the far post from outside the box after cutting inside from the left wing. In 2004, former Arsenal striker Alan Smith commented on Henry: “I have to say I haven’t seen a player like him. He’s an athlete with great technical ability and a tremendous desire to be the best”. Although he scored 51 goals for France including the goals in their World Cup and Euro triumph, but his critics argue that he couldn’t deliver in the biggest stage after 2000. During 2001-06, He was at his peak form for Arsenal. Unfortunately, he could not replicate that form for France except the Confederations Cup. Questions were raised after a disappointing show in 2002 World Cup. Many people said that he cannot perform in big stages when the other star player like Zidane was not in the team due to injury. In 2010 World Cup qualifier, France were second in the group and won the controversial play-off to qualify for the World Cup finals. In the play-off against Ireland, he controlled a long pass with his hand before making the assist for teammate William Gallas.

France

He scored many goals for France and many matches. But people expected more from him after his eye-catching performance for Arsenal. Most of his goals in the World Cup and Euro have come in the group stage. Some fans always consider him a legend, but could not compare him with other legends like Zidane, Platini etc. With his overall achievements, it can be said that Thierry Henry was a great French footballer who has served the French football over the years, but people will always remember him for his brilliance for Arsenal.

Xavi Hernandez-The Best Passer

Xavi Hernandez, one of the best midfielders of all time retired from International football earlier this week. While his achievements, both for the club and country are unprecedented, Xavi has had his critics. Saumyadip Das looks back at his playing days with Goalden Times.

Xavi Hernandez Creus, the midfield maestro decided to call it a day from international football arena on 5th August 2014 after 133 caps to his name. He was undoubtedly one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A key player in the history-making squad of FC Barcelona as well as Spain, he won virtually everything which was there to be won – the only blip could be the Confederations Cup which Spain lost to Brazil in the 2013 final. He does not have a big athletic body – he is short, he does not appear very strong, but he did have an eye for those delightful passes. And that was accompanied by tremendous consistency. In Barcelona, he used to run the show as the bandmaster in an orchestra. He was a very hard-working midfielder who always found space –almost effortlessly – to dictate the game.

Honestly, Xavi’s game was never very much eye-catching – it had no long-runs, no great dribbling, nothing much flashy like others greats of his generation. Some say that he could not even tackle. He was criticized on many occasions, mockedwith the nickname“Windshield Wiper” –that all he ever did was pass sideways. On 13thJanuary 2009, The Daily Mail even went ahead with an article on that year’s Ballon d’Or shortlists having the headline “The best players of the world (and Xavi).” Probably they forgot the fact that Xavi used to run more than anyone else on the field. He used to create more chances than anyone else on the field. He looked fitter and fresher than anyone else on the field. His game was predictable, but he was deadly efficient at that. Playing a miss-pass is considered the biggest sin in la masia, the FC Barcelona academy Xavi joined at the age of 11. His ex-team mate and ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has aptly described Xavi’s playing philosophy: “I get the ball, I give the ball, I get the ball, I give the ball”. So, it was quite evident that he would carry on making short pass after short pass and all of a sudden he would made a telling pass to kick start a move which would eventually finish at the back of the net. Xavi’s extraordinary vision, supreme technical skill to pass relentlessly with pinpointed accuracy and unbelievable ball control allowed him to keep possession of the ball for eternity and boss the gameplay. Perhaps, the best explanation of Xavi’s game came from the man himself, in a widelylauded interview with Sid Lowe, in The Guardian: “That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.”

Xavi-1

Xavi has also been a very humble person, a role model for younger players. In an interview, when asked if Paul Scholes can be called as the English Xavi, he replied-“Paul Scholes! A role model. For me – and I really mean this – he’s the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years. I’ve spoken to Xabi Alonso about him. He’s spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he’s strong, he doesn’t lose the ball, vision. Players love him”.

Xavi will be remembered as a dedicated and loyal footballer – a trait so rare in these days. He joined Barcelona senior team in 1998, and remained with them following the tough times after their La Liga win in 1999. Barcelona remained trophyless for next five seasons, they struggled during that era of Joan Gaspart and were on the verge of bankruptcy. Xavi could have easily left Camp Nou but he did not.  He chose to remain at the club, brought the honours for the club making the deep lying playmaker role his own and went on to become the most capped player in the history of the club with more than 700 appearances (and still counting!!!). His record as a player is impeccable. With FC Barcelona, he won seven La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey, six Supercopa, three UEFA Champions League, two UEFA Super Cup and two FIFA Club World Cup honours. And with Spain, he won back to back UEFA EuropeanFootball Championships in 2008 & 2012, sandwiched by their only World Cup trophy in 2010, an Olympic Silver medal in 2000 and a U-20 World Cup in 1999.

But what he did in those matches? Did he just pass the ball sideways as the critics mentioned? The answer is an emphatic No. He was the “The Puppet Master”, as he is fondly known to the whole world. In his competitive debut on 18thAugust 1998 in the Super Cup final, he scored against RCD Mallorca. He then made his debut in La Liga against Valencia CF on 3rd October 1998 in a 3–1 win. Xavi continued to appear for both the reserve (Barcelona B) and the senior teams and opened his account for Barcelona FC in the 1–0 victory over Real Valladolid when Barcelona were placed 10th in the league standings.He kept on impressing and soon became a key member of Louis van Gaal’s title-winning team that year. Xavi finished his debut season with26 matches La Liga title and La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

The journey continued and Xavi became an important part of a legendary Barcelona team where he chipped in with vital goals and assisted for more than 50 different teammates. He also played a crucial role in Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph under Luis Aragones. He scored the opener in the semi final against Russia and in the final he assisted Fernando Torres for the only goal to clinch the title for Spain aftera gap of 44 years. He was named the player of the tournament. “We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,” said Andy Roxburgh, head of UEFA’s technical committee.

“We have chosen Xavi because he epitomizes the Spanish style of play. He was influential in the whole possession, passing and penetrating kind of game that Spain played,”
-Andy Roxburgh

In 2009 Copa del Rey final, against Athletic Bilbao, he scored with a free kick en route a 4-1 win. That season in La Liga, among many games, one of the most significant was the 6–2 El Clásico victory over Real Madrid on 2nd May, 2009 where he assisted for four of those goals. Xavithen helped Barcelona to win the 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United2–0 where he crossed for the second goal to Lionel Messi and was judged the Man of the match. Prior to the match, Manchester United’s then manager Sir Alex Ferguson had feared that it is very difficult to mark him and blank out his game – and Xavi proved him right. In the same season Xavi was the highest assisting player with 20 assists in La Liga. He was also had most assists in the UEFA Champions League with seven assists.

In the 2009–10 season,Xavi again topped the assists chart and provided both the assists in Barcelona’s 2–0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Barcelona won the league title with a record 99 points and Xavi was voted the second best player of the team. On 3rdJune, 2010, the Madrid based newspaper Marca announced Xavias the third best player in the league behind Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.in the annual Trofeo Alfredo di Stéfano award. On 29th November, 2009, he scored his third goal again against Real Madrid in a 5–0 victory at Camp Nou which is arguably the Best performance in the history of Football. On 18th December,2009, in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup Final in Yokohama, Japan, Barcelona won 4-0 against Santos where Xavi scored a goal and provided with an assist for Messi.

In 2010 FIFA World Cup, he ran over 80 kilometer, more than anyone else. To give it a more tangible perspective, he back heeled to David Villa for the only goal in the round of 16 match against Portugal.  Xavi once again made an assist to Puyol via a corner for the only goal in the semi-final match against Germany. It was not a surprise to anyone when Xavi was selected in the 2010 World Cup All-star Team.

In 2011/12 season Xavi scored 10 goals in the league and two more in the title winning run of Copa Del Rey. Later that year, in 2012 Euro, he created record by having the most number of passes(136,127 were succesful) in a group match against Ireland, surpassing Ronald Koeman’s record of 117 passes in a single game.In the final against Italy, Xavi assisted twice – for Jordi Alba and Torres – and become the only player till date to have assists in two different Euro finals. Once again, he was part of the all-star team.

As far as individual honours are concerned, Xavi won the World Soccer Player of the Year award in 2010. Xavi has also received five Ballon d’Or nominations, and to his ill fortune missed out as he was up against two of the most lethal goal scorers of all time – Messi and Ronaldo. In fact, Messi has eclipsed Xavi for the top honours on the back of countless goals he has scored from Xavi’s direct contribution. It is no coincidence that he has been awarded the IFFHS World’s Best Playmaker award for four successive years from 2008 to 2011. He has been a part of UEFA Team of the Year for five consecutive years from 2008 to 2012), and FIFA World XI for six straight occasions from 2008 to 2013. Xavi is also the most successful player in the Spanish football history with more than 25 trophies. Among other awards and accolades, he has been decorated with Spanish Sportsman of the Year in 2009, Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit in 2010 and Prince of Asturias Award for Sports in 2010 and 2012).

Messi-Xavi-Iniesta
Messi-Xavi-Iniesta

Xavi formed a deadly partnership with his midfield partner – both at the club and national level – and close friend Andres Iniesta –Xaviesta. Once Rivelinho, member of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning squad said: “Xavi and Iniesta think fast and that gives their teams an advantage. They pass and pass and pass, and suddenly pick out spaces for the forwards with great precision. They’re always doing something different. The last player I saw play with that intelligence was Zidane. They know what they are going to do before the ball gets to their feet. And that’s like gold in football”. He assisted many of the goals scored by Lionel Messi in his route to become Best Player in the World.

No doubt, Xavi Hernandez is one of the greatest midfielders of all time and possibly the best central midfielder of his generation. He has been loyal to his childhood club and one can say he has Barca DNA. Recently he thought about leaving the club,but newly appointed manager Luis Enrique convinced him that the team needs his experience and handed him thecaptain’s armband. His national team coach Vincente Del Bosque always regarded him as a “unique” player and he will have a tough time finding a replacement for Xavi. Just like old wine, he became better and better as he was approaching the age of 30 and beyond. He never had a flamboyant personality which could be used for worldwide brand building. He did not have a strong frame or athletic features to boss the game either through muscle power or agility. And he was aware of that: “I’d love to be faster. Physically I’m limited, but I’ve survived by using my head”. With his exit from international football, we shall surely miss one of the best passers of all time. May be it will help him to extend his playing days and he would continue to mesmerize us at club level.

Tito Vilanova’s journey from the mortal life to that of immortality

Goalden Times pays tribute to Tito Vilanova — a ‘great football strategist’ but, above all, ‘a deeply honourable human being’.

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Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova i Bayo bid farewell to this world on Friday, April 25, 2014 at the age of 45 after battling with throat cancer for more than 30 months. His passing has immersed the entire football fraternity in mourning. Tito has led an exemplary life of courage and integrity. Even in the most difficult times in his life, Tito said football was his best therapy. The man, who mostly preferred to stay behind the scene, significantly contributed to the making and shaping up of the footballer we know as Lionel Andrés Messi today.

Tito started his playing career at UnióEsportivaFigueres, football team based in Figueres, a town in the Girona province of the autonomous Catalonia. In 1984-85, at the age of 15, he came to FC Bercelona for a trial and joined La Masia where he stayed for five years. Some of his close associates in those early days included Pep Guardiola, Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira. Who would have thought that they together would create the dream Barcelona team later!

He played his club football with Barcelona B and a number of other clubs including his native Figueres, Celta, Mallorca and Elche. Tito was a lanky midfielder and particularly known for his free-kicks. No wonder Messi started getting better with his free-kicks under Tito!

In 2002, Tito joined La Masia’s coaching staff and started working with the young Messi, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas among others. After a spell as technical director at Terrassa FC, Tito joined Barcelona B as the assistant manager under Pep Guardiola and their coaching, promoted the team to Segunda Division B. Pep was given the charge of the senior team in the following season and he took Tito there along with him . Tito was a master tactician; it was his idea to play Messi in the false 9 role for the first time when Barcelona annihilated Madrid with a 2-6 win in the Spanish capital on May 2, 2009. Fourteen major titles in four years and playing some of the most breathtaking football that the universe has ever seen, the Pep-Tito tandem created the dream Barcelona team.

When Pep took a sabbatical in 2012, Tito was asked to be the main man in charge and, what a season he had at Barcelona! In spite of him missing four months of the season due to surgery, Barcelona won the 2012-13 La Liga with a record 100 points equalling Real Madrid’s record from the previous season. Upon their feat, Iain Macintosh, the UK- based sports journalist, tweeted: “Tito Vilanova orchestrated a title-winning campaign from his hospital bed even while desperately ill. The man’s a legend.”

Tito Vilanova was the first manager in Spain to field a team with 11 home grown players. His team won 32 of the 38 games (84.21% win rate) in La Liga, more than any other coach in this millennium. The team scored 115 goals in 38 games and set a new goal-scoring record.

Tito was first diagnosed with parotid gland cancer in November 2011 and got his tumour removed. But the cruel cancer relapsed in 2012 December and he went to New York for treatment where he was given chemotherapy and radiotherapy before he returned to Spain in March to see his Barcelona take the Spanish title.

Tito Vilanova, Eric Abidal and rest of the Barcelona players after winning La Liga 2012-13
Tito Vilanova, Eric Abidal and rest of the Barcelona players after winning La Liga 2012-13

Tito was set to continue as the manager of the team. But on July 21, 2013 Tito Vilanova sent an emotional letter to FC Barcelona explaining that he had to leave the Blaugrana bench to continue medical treatment. His health condition just did not allow him to continue his football therapy any more.

On April 18th, 2014, Tito was operated for a gastrointestinal complication and within a week he was rushed to Hospital Quirón’s emergency room where he quietly retired from football and life, forever.

With homage pouring in from all corners of the sporting world, ex-Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes’s words echo the loudest: “…Tito is a great football strategist. He’s hard-working, reserved and valiant, and has a direct, fluid relation with his players. He has a positive sense of human values. He has not only set an example for the sporting world, but for the world in general with his outstanding elegance…”. Perhaps this world was never meant for one as beautiful as Tito.

Andy West, the Spanish football writer, has concluded aptly, “And more than that, he should also be recalled as a deeply honourable human being who met adversity and triumph alike with humility and dignity.”

Goalden Times extends their sincere condolences and prayers for the family — wife Montse and children Carlota and Adrià. With Tito up there, I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.

Photo credits: Talk Sports

Triviela – Beyond Trivia

 The Trivela is a Portuguese term to denote the art of kicking the football with the outside of one’s foot. It is used to hide one’s weaker foot and also to suddenly fool the opposition with a wickedly swerving ball from a difficult angle. In Triviela, we will attempt to find some football feats/facts which would make you sit up and take note, like it happens when you see Ricardo Quaresma try these

Is Barcelona Popes’ own team? 

Barcelona 4-0 Real Madrid (1958), Barcelona 4-0 Las Palmas (1978), Barcelona 4-0 AC Milan (2013) -what connects these three results? The answer is divine, well almost. All three results coincided with the papal conclave.

The first such occasion it happened was on  October 26, 1958. Brazilian Evaristo De Macedo (top scorer for Barcelona that season) scored a hat-trick for Barcelona. Meanwhile Pope John XXIII was getting elected as the new Pope through a rigorous voting process – known as the papal conclave –  from October 25-28,1958. The “divine intervention” helped Barcelona to beat a Real Madrid team having the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas (the top two scorers of La Liga that season) and they went on to win the La Liga title.

In 1978, Pope John Paul I passed away after holding the office for only 33 days.The consequent papal conclave started on October 14 and after two days, Pope John Paul II was elected. Barcelona was facing UD Las Palmas at home on the same day. Las Palmas, who had finished runner-up in Copa Del Rey in the previous season after losing 1-3 to  Barcelona, were having a good season till then. But they ran into a determined Barca side who thrashed them 4-0 led by two goals from Hans Krankl, who went on to become the highest scorer in La Liga that season despite Barca’s pathetic performance. Incidentally, this season was one of Barca’s worst – they finished fifth in La Liga.

Macedo, Krankl and Messi (L to R), the three heroes
Macedo, Krankl and Messi (L to R), the three heroes

On  March 12, 2013, after Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope in nearly 700 years to resign, the cardinal electors convened at Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Meanwhile, Barcelona was facing AC Milan in the round of 16 match of UEFA Champions League. AC Milan won the first leg by 2-0 at San Siro, a venue that is about 360 kilometres  from the Vatican City. But Barcelona turned around the deficit with a brace from Lionel Messi and a goal apiece from David Villa and Jordi Alba to advance to the quarter-finals. Messi, however, wasn’t the only Argentine to make the headlines that week. The newly elected Pope Francis was also an Argentine.

There is a myth that Barcelona always wins during a papal conclave – this has not been always true. The last time a papal conclave took place before 2013, was in 2005 and Barcelona lost 2-4 to Real Madrid. It was their first defeat during the meeting of the College of Cardinals. Still, the three 4-0 records  are interesting, especially for football statisticians.

Maximus Tacticus – Barcelona

When Tito Vilanova’s failing health forced him to quit the Catalan giants, a relatively low profile Tata Martino was presented to the football fans around the world. Some undermined him for his inexperience at this level. Some hoped he would prosper just like another Argentine has done over the last decade or so. Results have been mixed so far; but how far has Martino reached in stamping his own authority? Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you through the season at Nou Camp.

It was going to be a job under scanner after Pep Guardiola revolutionized football with his tiki-taka. Tata Martino was handed the job amidst speculation surrounding his so-far moderate CV. To add to that, Martino is not a Catalan, neither is he a  Dutch – Barcelona’s spiritual ancestors. Martino did not play for the Spanish giants and was a greenhorn in the club. So it was always going to be interesting how an outsider could fit into the system, or improve the system.

It is unclear whether the former coach Tito Vilanova would have stayed beyond the 7-0 thrashing by Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League semifinal even if he did not have any health concerns. One thing was for sure – something had to change. Barcelona was not surely 7 goals adrift of the eventual champions.

But the core philosophy – pressing, possession and fluidity –had to be retained. Understandably, Martino did not go for a complete overhaul of the system that has been so successful over the years. Rather, he has tried to tweak it here and there. So, the strategy of pressing high up the pitch, winning the ball back and then rampaging ahead to mesmerize the opposition defense  – at least trying to do so – remains in tact. Barcelona continues to play the rather familiar 4-3-3 formation where Messi dictates terms. Martino tried something rather unusual against Valencia when they were trailing 2-3. He introduced an unusual 4-2-1-3 system  in the 77th minute with Messi supporting the front 3 —  Christian Tello, Alexis Sanchez  and Pedro Rodriguez. But unfortunately Jordi Alba’s send off a minute later threw his strategy  afield.

Tata Martino started with a bang as he created history by winning the first eight games in the league. To tackle the packed defensive cordon of most of the opponent teams – two banks of  four or parking the bus – there has been more emphasis  to stretch the playing area. Rather than going through the middle, which is the Catalan trademark, Barcelona are trying to spread the game wide and switch flanks in an attempt to draw the opponent out. Dani Alves, in particular, and wingers like Sanchez and Pedro –each scoring 16 and 13 goals and providing 7 and 8 assists respectively – have been instrumental in this new style of play.

Another new dimension to Barcelona’s play has been its increased directness. Last season they created 397 chances – a little over 10 chances per match. This season, with more directness in their game, the average has gone up beyond 12 (328 in 27 matches) – that too when Lionel Messi has been injured or absent for  seven of these matches and has played less than 30 minutes for another  three matches. Possession is all good, but they are trying to give it a proper end product.

 

Down but not out
Down but not out

This directness and wing play has resulted in five headed goals already, matching the entire last season’s tally. It is an improvement, however slight it may be, but still there is no target man up front. Sometimes this deficiency becomes very critical, especially to open a dead lock. Barcelona has shifted their focus towards more long rangers, from angles and situations where they have been reluctant to shoot and try to walk the goal. Martino has been instrumental in convincing his troop that clear-cut goal scoring opportunities are hard to come by and Barcelona need to find other ways to score.

So, Barcelona are trying to play more sensibly, cutting down on killer passes. They are instead trying  to be patient and looking for moments. But their ball possession has dipped, albeit slightly, compared to their unusually – rather absurdly – high standards. In fact in the 4-0 win against Rayo Vallecano their possession dropped below 50% for the first time since the start of Pep’s reign – breaking a jaw-dropping 316 matches stretch .

Tata Martino has already proved his adaptability even before joining Barcelona. He is deeply influenced by his mentor Marcelo Bielsa’s attacking philosophy. Yet he never hesitated to grind out results nor bore the spectators to death while in charge of Paraguay during their commendable showing in 2010 World Cup campaign (Quarter Final exit against eventual winner Spain)  or at the following year’s Copa America (losing to Uruguay in the final).

New Picture (1)
Still fluid, still pressing but less effective

So it is no surprise that Martino has also tried to bring in more defensive urgency. That is commendable considering Barcelona plays with such a high pressing line. In La Liga, they have the second best defensive record (goals conceded 22) behind Atletico Madrid after 27 rounds. But the old problems  continue to haunt him – be it lack of height in set pieces,  or losing out in physical battles  or a heavily exposed defense on counter attacks down the flanks.

Some variation in play sees Barcelona sometimes stepping back to soak up the pressure and trigger a counter attack. But this style is not suitable with a fragile defensive line. An aging Carlos Puyol, injury-hit Gerard Pique are not the ones to provide stability to a make-shift backline. Pressing high up the field meant holding midfielders with good passing skills (Alex Song, Xavier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets) could pitch in as stop gap center backs as they need not do combative defensive duties or mark the opponent forward to track his runs – just pass the ball around for most of the time. But no longer,  with this sitting back approach.

Martino has still tried to work with his limited resources and has shown his adaptability and game reading skills. He swapped Maschearano and Pique so that the Argentine is on the right hand side and could take care of Cristiano Ronaldo during El Classico. The move paid off as the Portuguese star was quiet for most part of the game.

But not all his moves have been so successful. His sit-back-and-invite-opposition strategy and occasional long ball theory has led to 24 aerial duels per match so far compared to only 20 last season. His preference for zonal marking over man marking has also been suicidal as poor height of most of the players meant most of these aerial duels would  be lost. Barcelona conceded only 3 goals (out of 40) from headers in La Liga last season, but the number has gone up to 8 (out of 22) already.

"Keep calm and have faith"...but will they?
“Keep calm and have faith”…but will they?

Busquets often used to drop deep under Pep or Tito to help his center backs and make a 3-v-2 situation against the opponent front two. He continues to do the same this season. In fact he has been the fulcrum of two very important triangular pattern of play – dropping deep to provide support to center backs and staying back to cover up for more advance central midfield duo –  thus being an integral cog in transition of play.

In the midfield, more emphasis has been given to what Martino himself calls vertical play. In a nutshell, it is actually long periods of possession culminating  in a sudden burst of attack. Another aspect of this style  is to try out long goal kicks from Victor Valdes. Opponent midfielders can no longer commit to press the Barcelona back line assuming that they will build up the game from back by playing it short. But then again, Barcelona does not have the players to win the aerial balls – out of 183 long balls only 59 had found its destined target – and hence this plan has not been fruitful so far.

One player benefitting from the style of play is Cesc Fabregas. Having spent his grooming years in England, he is more comfortable with the vertical approach and that is why Martino has given him a more integral – as well as more advanced – role in his plans. That is why he has racked up 12 assists already along with 33 key passes. Those figures for the entire league campaign last season was 11 and 39 respectively. Agreed his numbers have improved as he has been time and again thrust into a false 9 role – both tactically and due to Messi’s injury. But Fabregas has been an able deputy to Iniesta and seems destined to fill up the void when Don  calls it a day.

Fabregas playing further up front
Fabregas playing further up front

Along with Messi’s injury, another concern for Martino has been Xavi’s diminishing influence on the game. He is still one of the best midfielders in the world, but by his own high standards, it might just be the beginning of his swansong. He is playing in a much  deeper role and his forward passes are more and more overshadowed by square passes. He had  76% successful take ons out of a total 29 last season .This year in La Liga, the figure has dropped to 47% out of 15.

We have to accept the fact that Pep era was as much fictional as much real, it simply could not continue and Barcelona, like other great clubs, are on a natural decline cycle after 3-4 years of stupendous success. Tata Martino has his own limitations but he has been cruelly hit by injuries, an ageing midfield general, an already sloppy backline and insurmountable pressure of being compared with his predecessor’s success. His position in the club has become even more uncertain after this week’s loss against Valladolid. But he may just deserve another full season to prove his worth.

MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Bayern Munich

It cannot get more intriguing than this. Bayern Munich on the back of their treble-winning season is set to further establish their claim as the strongest team in European club football. Taking charge is the man who has masterminded the rise (and rise) of Barcelona, one of the best teams ever to play the beautiful game, according to many. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses how Pep Guardiola shapes up the German superpowers

Change is in the air. With the onset of a new season, comes a fresh new series of Maximus Tacticus. Having covered the EPL clubs exclusively in the first season, we now look beyond and our first destination is the reigning European champions Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola returns to the limelight after a year’s sabbatical and he would look forward to emulate his unprecedented success at the Camp Nou.
 
One thing that Pep’s Barcelona lacked heavily was a strong defence. It is a testimony to their overwhelming attacking and possessional display that very few teams were able to exploit that weakness. At Bayern, Pep is presented with a strong defence marshalled by Dante and Jérôme Boateng. Behind them, German shot-stopper Manuel Neuer forms a solid foundation at the back. Pep likes to have attacking fullbacks; don’t be surprised if Philipp Lahm and David Alaba are deployed more as wingbacks this season. Their attacking forte is already on the show as the duo have provided with five assists, and the latter scoring twice already in the season.
 
Unfortunately, Javi Martínez is out injured currently. I have a feeling he might be deployed in the heart of the defence as a ball-playing centre-half (remember Javier Mascherano?). Pep loves to build up attack from the back and Javi will give him that option. Another aspect of Barcelona under Guardiola has been their pressing football higher up the pitch. The centre-backs often played close to the centre circle in an attempt to narrow down the playing area and intercept any through ball from the opponent. But at Bayern, he is urging his defenders to stay a bit behind while not in possession. This enables them to spread the ball wide and launch a counter-attack through fast-paced wingers.
 
Over the last couple of seasons, Bayern’s success has been built around its dynamic wing play which as a matter of fact is in direct contrast to how Barcelona evolved under Guardiola. But it seems Guardiola is adapting to the Bayern way than the other way around. Quite sensible I’d say, with Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben on the wings, not to mention some of the other aces up his sleeves.
 
Guardiola loves to have a jam-packed midfield even at the cost of out-and-out strikers. It is no surprise that he has not had the best of relations with his main striker during his managerial career. This time too he has shown his cards with the sale of main striker Mario Gomez and being happy with only one clinical finisher, Mario Mandžukić. The signs are clear that Bayern will play with one man upfront, or some time with the False 9 formation.

Bayern under Guardiola

 Precisely the reason why even after having a plethora of options in the centre of the park – Javi Martínez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller – Guardiola has added Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara to his squad. Schweinsteiger will continue to link up defence with attack in his usual midfield anchor-man position while Kroos will complement him in a box-to-box midfield role. Muller completes the three-man midfield where he would be the furthest man forward. This is the favourite formation of Guardiola where his asymmetrical three-man midfield dictates the play which is in direct contrast to their traditional 4-2-3-1 system. It is most demanding for Schweini as he is accustomed to play alongside another holding midfielder in a double pivot system but so far he is doing pretty well.

Bayern Evolution

Guardiola can best be described as a football romantic and his thinking out-of-the-box presented us with the tiki-taka style of play. He loves to experiment and is eyeing an evolution, rather than revolution at the Allianz Arena. His much favoured 4-3-3 requires fast-tracking wingers and although world class, Robben and Ribéry are not really known for their defensive work rate. So Pep has his eye on a 4-1-4-1 formation where Lahm is positioned as a defensive screen. Lahm, or for that matter Javi Martínez, having very good control over the ball, are ideal for this linkman role which allows the game to spread more and gives more options to his wily wingers. It opens up the avenue for his central midfield pairing. Schweinsteiger can be partnered higher up front with either Kroos or Thiago. The wingers are encouraged to be involved in tika-taka, a short passing style of play, and their proximity to the respective fullbacks help them retreat easily while trying to defend. This pairing of wide players gives the team an added advantage in attack while Robben or Ribéry can cut inside to exploit the space vacated by the opponent fullbacks. The advantage of this system is that a single substitution, or even mere change of role of the on-field players, can alter the formation to a more robust 4-2-3-1 or a more attacking full throttle 4-3-3.

New Look Bayern
 
Bundesliga is much more defensively organized and far more physical than La Liga. It would certainly be hard for Pep to implement his favourite False 9 with 4-3-3 formation at Bayern. But one feels he would surely try it out at some point of time – maybe against a less fancied opponent in the league or in a dead rubber in the Champions League. He loves to have a pack of midfielders passing the ball around while interchanging their positions with maximum flexibility. And who says we do not have a Messi in Germany? Götze, the German Messi is raring to go!
 
 

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Note: Read *Boateng* for *Boetang* in the three images

Jack Greenwell – The Original Journeyman of Football

While the world has its eyes on the new FC Barcelona manager, Kinshuk Biswas revisits an almost forgotten anecdote in the archives of international football and recounts the remarkable story of the globe-trotting enthusiast who got the ball rolling close to a century back

Tito Vilanova recently resigned as the manager of FC Barcelona, after only a year in charge following the success of the Pep Guardiola years, to continue his battle against cancer. The appointment of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino as the new manager has been the subject of headlines all over the media. Management of Barcelona has always been in the news because of the club’s philosophy and history. Let us today look at the life of its first full-time manager who made his mark globally.

Jack Greenwell - Barceona Total Football

19th century Barcelona seemed light years away from Crook, a small village in County Durham district in the northeast of England. It was in Peases West, just north of here that on January 2, 1884, John Richard Greenwell was born. His father was a miner as the entire region was a coal mining area. He was popularly named Jack and started working at the mines himself at the age of 14. It was a hard life punctuated by his passion – Football. Jack played in inter-mines tournaments and was asked to join Crook FC when he was 17. Mainly an old-fashioned wing-back, he could use both his feet and had a good football sense. He was drafted as a guest player in the West Auckland Town FC in the 1909 Thomas Lipton Cup which was one of the earliest international club tournaments. His team won the trophy. He played his last match for Crook in 1912 and joined Barcelona. Very little is known about how he joined Barcelona. However, it is believed that Joan Gamper, the founder of FC Barcelona had seen him play in the Thomas Lipton Cup and managed to persuade him to move to Spain. In those days, people were afraid of moving to big cities in their own country and this man left his home and moved to a country with a different language and culture. It may seem insignificant in the age of big international transfers but we should remember there was no air travel or television those days and it took seven days to travel from London to Barcelona. He struck up a good understanding with a young player named Paulino Alcántara and the team went on to win the Catalunya Championships in 1912-13 and 1915-16. Jack had met and married a Jewish lady named Doris Rubinstein in Paris in 1913 and they had a daughter named Carmen in 1915. Jack retired after the victorious 1916 season. John Barrow was appointed as the first ever full-time manager of Barcelona. He was not liked by the players, supporters or the officials and was sacked after just four months. Greenwell was appointed as the official coach of the club by Gamper, immediately after his retirement on the recommendation of the players.

John Richard “Jack”Greenwell (l) and Paulino Alcántara Riestrá (r)

Greenwell managed Barcelona for seven continuous seasons from 1917 till 1923. Only one person has managed the club longer – the legendary Johann Cryuff. The duration of Greenwell’s management was the first golden age of the club. The team won five Catalunya Championships and two editions of the Copa del Rey. There were calls of his dismissal when he was experimenting using players in different positions early in his management career. He was trying to evolve a system where any of the team members could play in any position in case of injuries as there was no concept of substitutions back in the day. It could be speculated that he was trying to create a system similar to Total Football which came more than 50 years later. This gives us an insight into the great footballing mind this man possessed. Greenwell spoke fluent Catalan and Spanish and was a very popular figure at the club. Great players like Ricardo Zamora, Josep Samitier and Franz Platko loved playing under him. Alcántara was a close friend and confidant. He left Barcelona to manage smaller teams like UE Sants and CD Castellón whom he improved from lower table relegation scrappers to the top half of the league. In 1927, he joined Barcelona’s local rivals RCD Español. He led them to a seventh place finish in the inaugural La Liga in 1928. The La Liga disappointment was forgotten when the team won the Catalunya Championships and the Cop del Rey in 1929. He was reappointed as Barcelona manager in 1931, post his stay at RCD Mallorca, guiding them to a sixth Catalunyan championship. He managed Barcelona for a total of 492 games when he left to manage Valencia CF in 1933. His stint at Valencia was not that successful except a Spanish Cup final loss to Madrid CF, the forerunner of Real Madrid in 1934. Incidentally, his old players Samitier and Zamora played for Madrid. He then managed Sporting de Gijón in 1935-36.

After 1936, Spain was in the throes of a bitter civil war. Greenwell was considered an ardent supporter of Catalunyan nationalism. The nationalists led by General Francisco Franco were unleashing a reign of terror in Catalunya. In this charged and dangerous atmosphere he moved to Turkey to continue his football management career. His daughter lived with his mother in South Wales. Very little is known about Greenwell’s time in Turkey. But the looming spectre of war in Europe saw him seek employment 6000 kilometres away in Peru, South America. He was asked to help the Peruvian national team manager Alberto Denegri with tactics for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Peru was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Austria in highly controversial circumstances. In 1939, he was made manager of the Peruvian national team and Universitario de Deportes club. The Copa America in 1939 was held at Peru. The hosts met Uruguay in the final which they won 2-1. Jack Greenwell thus became the first Englishman to manage a national team to win an international tournament. He is till date the only European manager to win the Copa America. He is also the first foreigner to win a trophy managing a national team.  He is still considered a revered and cult figure in Peruvian football.  So many records yet very few people in his home country know about him.

Crook Town photo before Greenwell’s last game with the team

After his exploits in Peru, Greenwell moved to Colombia in 1940 to take over the management of the national team for the Central American and Caribbean Games of 1942. The Games were postponed due to the war. He then joined the Independiente Santa Fe club. Colombia did not have any league or FIFA affiliation at that time. Greenwell guided the side to the final of the Torneo de Cundinamarca where they were beaten by America de Cali. On October 5, 1942, Santa Fe defeated local rivals Deportivo Texas 10-3. Two days later, while returning home after a morning session he had a massive cerebral haemorrhage and passed away before any help could arrive. It is said the entire city of Barcelona wept when they received the news of his demise. Paulino Alcántara said he had lost his soul.
 
It is not the achievements of Jack Greenwell which make him an all-time great in my opinion. It is his love for the game. He was often asked why he was in Colombia, a country not even recognised by FIFA. His answer was a counter-question; did the people of Colombia not deserve the beautiful game just because FIFA deemed so?  Two things he always carried with himself, an image of St. George killing the Dragon, although he preferred the name St. Jordi like the Catalans do, and a small piece of cloth, of Barcelona team colours, in his pocket.
 
A true legend who left behind a sparkling legacy. Not just a man, he was ‘More than a Man’!

Spanish Corner | Looking beyond FC Barcelona and Real Madrid

In this feature we will bring in stories from Spain. In the first of its series, Indranath Mukherjee looks beyond Barça and Real Madrid and shows how Spanish football is more than the sum of the two giants

The 2012-13 La Liga season started earlier than usual and after five games, FC Barcelona is sitting at the top of the table with a perfect record while the defending champions, Real Madrid are 8 points behind. But we all know that by the end of the season the 7 teams that separate the two champion sides will fail to keep pace and the league will turn out to be a two-horse race.  To quote José Mourinho, Barcelona and Real Madrid will make any football league in the world a two-horse race. On the basis of the last two-three years, there is merit in what José has said. Look at the nominees for the Ballon d’Or awards for the last few years and you will see that arguably the best players of the world today play for either of the two clubs. They have been playing incredible football weekend after weekend and it’s not easy to end the season with 99 or 100 points, however superior they may be, compared to rest of the clubs in the league. Barcelona and Real Madrid look like two sides from a different planet and we shall talk about their rivalry throughout the season. But for now let us turn our attention to the other clubs in Spain and see if there’s an interesting story somewhere.

Football is a way of life in Spain and it reflects the country’s regional cultures much more than any other country in Europe. Each region feels so special about their identity that many could even take offense to the term ‘Spanish’ in the title of the story. Many pundits call the Europa League the true test of a league’s depth and if there is any element of truth in it then La Liga would certainly claim to be one of the strongest leagues in the world. And this is despite the criminally discriminating television rights that are systematically destroying any possibility of the other clubs to be competitive in the league. Yet Spanish football cannot be about its two giants only.

Most recently, we saw Atlético Madrid completely destroying the Champions League winners, Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup final. Last year, in the UEFA Europa League we saw how Athletic Bilbao dominated Manchester United both home and away. Valencia was perhaps a relatively familiar name in Europe even before the beginning of the millennium. They, in fact, made it to consecutive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 but football historians perhaps remember them from the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup final when they beat Arsenal FC 5-4 on penalties. Celta de Vigo came from the wilds of Galicia to knock out Aston Villa and Liverpool, in the 1998-99 UEFA Cup. Deportivo de La Coruña, from the same region, won La Liga in 1999-2000 in some style finishing five points ahead of the runners-up Barcelona. In 1999, Real Mallorca from the Balearic Islands stormed into the final of the last Cup Winners’ Cup only to lose out 2-1 to Lazio at Villa Park in Birmingham. The rise of Alavés, in 2001, was brief but astonishing to say the least. In the 2001 UEFA Cup final at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund they came from behind twice to finish the match 4-4 against Liverpool. Pool went on to win the final on the golden goal rule, thanks to a Delfí Geli header in his own net and thus completed a treble of Football League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

Valencia Club de Fútbol came into European prominence after winning the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1980

 

With the advent of the likes of ESPN, Sky Sports, Eurosports, Ten Sports and more importantly the World Wide Web, football fans across the world now know a lot more about Spanish football. For instance, they know that there exists another football club in Barcelona called Espanyol, but what they may not know is that the club have officially changed the spelling of their name in Catalan since 1994, using the ‘y’ in place of the previous Castilian ‘ñ’, as in Español, the provocative name given to them back in 1902.

Villarreal CF, the small town club in the province of Castellón within the Valencian Community won the Intertoto Cup in 2003-04, thus qualifying for the old UEFA Cup where they went on to reach the semi-finals only to lose out to the eventual champions, Valencia CF. But their dream season in Europe was 2005-06 when they qualified for the UEFA Champions League by defeating Everton in the play-off. In the group stage, they had drawn both their games with Manchester United and eliminated Internazionale on away goals in the quarter-finals. They went out in the semi-final against Arsenal after Jens Lehmann saved a Juan Román Riquelme penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg at Villarreal. But by then The Yellow Submarine had won the hearts of millions of football fans across the globe.

Miguel Pérez Cuesta, nicknamed Michu, has gained instant popularity in England for his display at Swansea City. Folks there know that he hails from Rayo Vallecano, a football club based in Madrid, in the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Another Madrid club, Getafe made it to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2007-08 and gave a gutsy performance against Bayern Munich to draw 3-3 in Madrid but lost out on aggregate.

Three Spanish clubs have won five of the last nine UEFA Cup / Europa League competitions, and we are not talking about Barcelona or Real Madrid here. This in itself is ample testimony to the fact that Spanish football is more than the sum of the Madrid and Catalan giants.

The infamous missed penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg of the UCL semi-final against Arsenal

 

The football rivalry within Spain also goes beyond Madrid and Barcelona and by some distance. The rivalry in Spain exists in two layers: one among clubs competing from different regions and the other among clubs competing from the same city. The atrocious animosity that exists between Sevilla and Betis, for instance, may make the British derbies, except the Glasgow one, look like friendly matches. The primary difference between the two clubs stems from a socio-economic divide – Betis representing the relatively poorer, working class in the city while Sevilla is more a club of the bourgeois. We know that there is no discrete charm in the coexistence of the working class and the prosperous ones anywhere in the world; the economic gap between the two classes in Spain is much less than it is in England. Probably because football is a way of life in Spain, they need it to allow class consciousness to manifest itself. In 1998, when Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera announced the most expensive transfer of the season with the £22m acquisition of the over-hyped Brazilian Denílson, it was actually a statement made to the other side of the city.

Another derby in Spain which is among the bitterest is the Asturian one, when Real Oviedo visit Sporting de Gijón, supporters apparently wear blue helmets (symbol of workmen) to avoid the barrage of objects thrown at them as they approach the stadium. This ‘throwing of objects’ is symbolic too; the residents of Gijón throw coals (symbolic, or even literal at times) to accuse the visitors of having more to eat at the onset of the civil war. Although the Asturians in general were anti-Francisco Franco, and Real Oviedo’s own suffering was no less heroic – the local interpretation is somewhat ironical.

Similar class differences get manifested, although to a much lesser extent, between Barcelona and Espanyol, Deportivo and Celta, and Real Madrid and Atlético; in the capital though the actual working class is represented by Rayo Vallecano. According to Vicente del Bosque, putting regional tensions aside has helped Spain achieve international success. There is apparent merit in what he says but if one looks at the Spanish society in general, sense of nationalism is still strong in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It’s that Spain now has a golden generation of footballers and in players like Xavi Hernández and Iker Casillas, Spain have found leaders who understand the worth of defending the national side. Otherwise for the Spanish, ‘Provenance is Everything’ and it will remain that way. Football will always be among the key, if not the medium, through which the differences between the social classes will get manifested.

Coming back to 2012-13 La Liga season, it’s still very young and we will keep talking about what’s happening, in the course of the next nine months. But for now, it’s great to have Deportivo back in the top flight!

First Whistle – April, 2012

At the impressionable age, when I just entered high school, the goal that left a lasting impression is what we depicted on the cover of our very first issue. We call it the ‘Locus of God’. But that’s not the only way to score a great goal. There could be a set of amazing passes leading into a goal, or a chip or a free-kick. Our revamped look from March onwards is somewhat a convex combination of such techniques; largely run solo, but ably assisted by other key players in team Goalden Times. We have received encouraging feedback on our new layout from our readers and this kind of support eggs us on to continuously improve and enrich our content.

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Moving on to the football pitch, news of Antonio Cassano, the Milan and Italy striker finally receiving a go-ahead to resume playing following  a heart surgery has been very heartening. With the collective prayer of football fans around the globe, Fabrice Ndala Muamba is getting better and Eric Abidal is progressing fine.  However, not all news has been good for the heart. We would like to take this opportunity to send our sincere best wishes to Aston Villa’s captain Stiliyan Petrov, who doctors say, has been a victim of the Chernobyl disaster. We wish him a positive outcome and speedy recovery. The game also lost a great man in Livorno midfieder Piermario Morosini who collapsed on the pitch and died of cardiac failure last week. We extend our condolences to his family and friends.

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Outside of health hazards, Carlos Tevez is back doing what he does best – showing his (hat)tricks on the football pitch. But his club, Manchester City is now 5 points behind the city rival United with five matches to go. In Italy, just 1 point separates the league leader Juventus, still unbeaten this season, and AC Milan. Borussia Dortmund seems to have a decisive 8-point lead over Bayern Munich in Bundesliga. In La Liga, Real Madrid won an El Clásico inalmost five years at the Camp Nou to almost seal the top spot. Elsewhere in Europe, Montpellier has a narrow 3-point lead over their nearest rival – the big spending Paris Saint-Germain, while Ajax is 6 points ahead of AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord Rotterdam. In India, Dempo Sporting Club has clinched the I-League title.

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Odds are of another El Clásico on May 19 in the UEFA Champions League final. There is a distinct possibility of an all-Spanish final in the UEFA Europa League as well with three Spanish clubs in the final four.

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We shall see how the Spanish national team dominates the UEFA Euro 2012 starting June 8, in Poland and Ukraine. Goalden Times will celebrate Euro and football in more ways than one. Keep watching this space, our Facebook page and Twitter.

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UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup Semi-Final Preview

The biggest club team honour is reaching its finale while the second-tier club competition in Europe is gathering momentum too. Get the showdown of the semi-final encounters with Debojyoti Chakraborty

The quarter-final stage of the Champions League 2011-12 got over without much brouhaha. A Milan faithful may not agree, but Barcelona was a clear favourite for this tie. Real Madrid surged past APOEL FC leaving them looking rather distraught. Their opponents, Bayern Munich also eased their way through to the last four after seeing Marseille off. Chelsea had to endure the toughest of the ties as they shook off a strong fightback from a 10-man Benfica. Teams to feature in the semi-finals have been really consistent throughout the tournament as is evident from the fact that they have topped their respective groups. Spain continued its dominance here as well while Real and Barcelona established themselves as the two top club teams. Italy have lost out on one Champions League spot to Germany from next season and they should not feel hard done by as none of the Serie A teams could make it to the last four whereas German Champions Bayern Munich look to challenge the Spanish Armada. The biggest surprise in the lineup is Chelsea, who have managed to come so far this season. So after a roller coaster ride, it is that time of the season when finally men are separated from the boys. Now let us prepare for the last two-legged encounter of the season.

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FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs Real Madrid FC (ESP)

April 17, 2012

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

April 25, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

Olympique de Marseille (2-0, 2-0)

Apoel FC (3-0, 5-2)

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)

PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group A Winner

Group Stage | Group D Winner

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

SSC Napoli (H) 3-2

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

Manchester City (H) 2-0

Villarreal CF (H) 3-1

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

SSC Napoli (A) 1-1

Manchester City (A) 0-2

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

There is no bigger incentive for Bayern to win this tie than to feature in their home turf for the final on May 19. They face a mighty Real Madrid, a record nine-time conquerors of the continent. While many are preparing for another El Clasico in the final, it is the German Superpowers who seem to have a realistic chance of preventing that from happening. They had to come through the rigours of play-offs but they have looked sharper and clinical as the tournament approaches its crescendo. The Bavarians then topped the Group of Death before annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home in the Round of 16 following a shock defeat in the first leg. A typical professional German display saw them ease past Marseille thereafter. Now they find themselves in a proper Big Match, and anyone can win it. Mario Gomez vs Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery vs Kaka, Philipp Lahm vs Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer vs Iker Casillas – it is perfect show time. These two superpowers of Europe have locked horns quite a few times resulting in almost even honours. Real has been in superb form from their group stages where they secured a perfect win record – only the fifth club in the history of the tournament to do so. A creditable draw in the freezing Moscow turf set them up nicely for the Round of 16. Los Blancos followed it up with bidding adieu to APOEL FC from little Cyprus – story of the season so far. Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading his counterpart in La Liga in terms of goal scoring but he is still some way behind in Europe. It will be a good stage for him to set the records straight as the competition nears its business end. Real has a star-studded side which is performing like a well-oiled machine – they have top two assist providers in Kaka and Karim Benzema, 3 out of the top 5 scorers are from Bernabéu (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José Callejón). Coupled with a compact defence which has conceded the least number of goals so far, this is a mouth-watering tie.

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Chelsea FC (ENG) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)

 

April 18, 2012

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

April 24, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Runners-up – 1

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

SL Benfica (1-0, 2-1)

AC Milan (0-0, 3-1)

Round of 16

Round of 16

Napoli (1-3, 4-1)

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)

Group Stage | Group E Winner

Group Stage | Group H Winner

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

AC Milan (H) 2-2

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

AC Milan (A) 3-2

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Chelsea seem to have over-achieved this season in the Champions League considering their woeful domestic form and unrest in the dressing room. They saw off Valencia in the last match day in a must-win encounter in some style before staging one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of Champions League against Napoli in the Round of 16. Another tough nut waited in the quarter-finals and Chelsea rode their luck a little to knock out a resolute and gritty Benfica side. They would be determined to keep their continental form going as automatic Champions League qualification from the EPL is uncertain and hence winning this year’s Cup would be their only hope. They face the mighty Barcelona in a repeat fixture to 2009 edition. That time, Barcelona advanced on away goals and Chelsea would hope to do it one better this time.   Chelsea seem to be the weakest of the surviving teams – they have hardly been able to hold on to the ball, rarely threatened the goal mouth, scored the least and conceded the most number of goals. Add to that the quality of opposition over the two-legged semi-final tie – possibly the greatest club team ever to have played the game – and Chelsea seem down and out. But matches have never been won on paper and Chelsea would dearly love to prove this once again. Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of this competition fifth time in a row. By doing so, they have equalled the feat set by their archrivals Real Madrid in the late ‘50s – then known as the European Cup. And they would like to match another envious record held by their quarter-final rivals – win consecutive top European Club honours. Records are nothing new to the man named Lionel Messi. He became the youngest man, and fourth overall, to score 50 Champions League goals and also bettered his own Cup record of 12 goals in a season. The little magician has netted only 56 times so far this season and there will be hardly anyone who would bet against him scoring in this tie. People mesmerised by the tiki-taka brand of football often fail to appreciate their tight defence – Barca have not lost at home in Europe since 2009. They have some problem against aerial balls, but they more than make up for it through their defensive organisation. Except for Milan in the group stages, the Catalan side have conceded only 3 goals while scoring a staggering 28 in seven matches. They do keep the ball well – better than any other team in the competition – and make good use of it as they have outscored everyone else. This should be a good test for Barcelona, but not likely to be much more than a good warm-up for the impending final.

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The Europa Cup Previews

Some call it the poor cousin of the Champions League, but the teams vying for the Europa League would strongly object to that. After much blood, sweat and rigour of the horrific schedule, four teams survive to fight it out. The all-conquering Spanish dominance is even more evident here as we have Sporting Clube de Portugal sandwiched between three clubs from Spain. Some may argue that the competition is dampened by the reluctance of top clubs to compete in this demanding tournament and they have preferred to focus on their respective domestic leagues. But this, in no way, can undermine the achievements of the semi-finalists. Let us build up to these matches.

Club Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF

In their last meeting in Europe, Atletico Madrid edged past Valencia on the basis of away goals in the quarter-finals of Europa League in 2009-10 and went all the way to lift the trophy. This time they will host Valencia on April 19 with the away match a week later. The club from Madrid has failed to score against their La Liga counterpart in the domestic season and they would surely love to break the shackles this time. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been in superb form under the bars for them – taking over from the now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea – conceding the least number of goals in the competition. Up front, Falcao Garcia, the leading goal scorer in the tournament, has impressed some cash rich clubs in Europe and he would surely like to prove his worth. Not only him – Adrian Lopez, Eduardo Salvio – Atletico have quite a few options going forward and they are clear favourites to clinch it.  They have shown the desire by eliminating Manchester United from the tournament. On the other hand, Valencia are the only team to have come from the Champions League, having been eliminated on the last match day of the group stages in the hands of Chelsea. They boast of a strong defence consisting of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami. They have a free-flowing approach to the game, reminiscent of any modern top Spanish side. They have netted 4 goals in two consecutive home matches and they would look to hone their goal scoring skills once again against their Spanish compatriots.

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Sporting Clube de Portugal vs Athletic Club

Only non-Spanish team left in the competition, Sporting Club will entertain Athletic Club on April 19 in an Iberian derby. They are enjoying their best season in Europe since 2005. History favours the Portuguese side in this tie as they have beaten – that too after trailing in the first leg – Athletic Club in their only meeting so far, way back in 1985-86 season. But they will have to go past a fantastic Gorka Iraizoz who has made the most number of saves (37) in the competition. Sporting is inspired by the ex-Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua who is having a tremendous season. Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front also has performed beyond expectation. They are up against an Athletic team, which is the only team to compete with Atletico de Madrid in terms of goal scoring. Diego da Cunha is leading the pack in the midfield as he leads the assists chart with four of them while chipping in a few on his own. They have come back from behind twice against FC Schalke 04 to clinch the tie which shows their hunger for success. In fact, they have had the most number of attempts – 67, close to six per match on an average – in goal amongst the teams surviving in the competition. Markel Susaeta has orchestrated the midfield quite well and he will have a major part to play in this tie as well. But they have leaked quite generously in the back and this is one area where they would like to improve. They will be further handicapped as star defender Javi Martinez has been suspended. This should be a fierce battle as both the teams rank right up there in terms of fouls committed throughout the tournament. Nonetheless, this promises to be an enthralling contest – plenty of goals, some shrewd tactics being employed and a nail-biting finish.

Don Andres – Off the Ball

Andres Magic Iniesta stars tonight at Barcelona’s win against Milan as he sweeps past Christian Abbiati from a close range. Barcelona only lost at 1 match where Iniesta scored and they made the statistics even stronger today. Today’s page 3 star is Don and enjoy his photo shoot for El Pais.

Hugo Boss Signature Models

Do you see any rivalries any more ? Well, don’t go by their faces. They are going to fight again soon in come April with an assurance of red cards, one or two (keeping aside the goals prediction). Till then enjoy the retro looks of Xavi Alonso, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas.

Victor Valdez DT Lux Photoshoot

Victor Valdes and his wife Yolanda Cardona pose for the cover of DT its issue of November 2011.

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The business end of Champions League is about to begin. Get the lowdown on each team and each tie with Debojyoti Chakraborty

2011-12 has been a landmark year for the Champions League as it has probably taken a step to show it is no longer an elitist domain. With no fewer than nine countries being present at this stage, the UEFA President can boast of his Spread the Game campaign. One time undisputed superpower, Italy has the envious record of having at least three teams – and this time the only country to be so – for the seventh time in a row. Other giants in European football – England and Spain – are going through one of the worst seasons for years as they have only two representatives. That is the same number Russia have achieved this year, for the first time in their history, along with the usual attendees like Germany and France. Russia should not feel lonely as Eastern Europe has another representative in the form of knockout stage debutants APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus. Together with FC Basel of Switzerland, the other knockout stage debutants they have shocked quite a few with their strong showing in the group stages and it would be dangerous to demean their chances in the business end. Joining the league of debutants is the rejuvenated club from Italy, FC Napoli who are basking in Champions League glory for the first time ever. They could do well to emulate Real Madrid who is making a record 15th consecutive appearance at this stage of the competition, followed closely by Arsenal with 12th straight show down. Not surprisingly, Real also holds the record of winning the title for a record nine times. Milan is at second place with seven winners’ medals to their name. Current champion and hot favourite Barcelona have won this competition four times, same number as that of Bayern Munich, another giant in European football. Following the pack are Inter (three titles), Benfica (two titles) and Marseille (one title). When the round of 16 draw was made in Nyon, Switzerland about two months back, everybody knew that the teams from same group or same country could not be drawn together, but very few would have anticipated such delectable ties.

 

APOEL FC vs. Olympique Lyonnais

 

14th February, 2012

Stade de Gerland, Lyon (FRA)

GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)

7th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Zenit St Petersburg (H) 2-1

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 1-1

AFC Ajax (A) 1-1

Real Madrid CF (H) 0-2

FC Porto (A) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 2-1

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 2-0

AFC Ajax (H) 0-0

FC Zenit St Petersburg (A) 0-0

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 0-2

Real Madrid CF (A) 0-4

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 7-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Surprise package of the season. With a paltry annual team budget of €10 million – close to the amount Emmanuel Adebayor earns from Manchester City, and he is not even considered good enough for a substitute role – this small club created history by coming this far. They are the first team from Cyprus to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League. They are not favourites to win this tie but they were not tipped to top the group stages either. Rode their luck to a great extent as two perfect results on the final matchday of the group stages saw them through to the knock out stages. But their second half display against Dinamo Zagreb on that day, when they unleashed six goals en route a 7-1 win, showed they meant business. A few were suspicious of this unlikely result, specifically with the second half showing, but that should not distract Lyon much. Hugo Lloris has been sensational for them under the bars with the most number (30) of saves in the competition so far. Except for the games against Real Madrid, he has conceded only once in four matches. Lyon faces an uncomfortable second leg away from home and hence should try to seal the tie in the first leg itself.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. FC Barcelona

 

14th February, 2012

Bay-Arena, Leverkusen (GER)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

14th February, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

Valencia FC (A) 1-3

AC Milan (H) 2-2

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Chelsea FC (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating the best team in the world, or arguably the greatest club team ever to embrace the game of football, is not a cakewalk. But they have scalped one Spanish side in the group stages already and that should give them some hope.  Still it would need much more than the famous German steel, the undying spirit of a certain Michael Ballack and a great bit of luck – and a Bengali in the form of Robin Dutt at the helm of things – to come out of Nou Camp with their heads held high. Barcelona have not been beaten this season in the Champions League and it seems this record won’t be broken any time soon. Leo Messi and company could have got a trickier tie but they would settle for this with the second leg at home. Their La Liga form is not spectacular, but it would take some doing for any team to beat them over a two-legged tie. Their midfield has not come to the party as yet in this competition but this should be the ideal stage to stamp their authority on Europe.
 

FC Zenit St Petersburg  vs. SL Benfica

 

15th February, 2012

Stadion Petrovskiy, St Petersburg (RUS)

Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

APOEL FC (A) 1-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 1-0

Manchester United (H) 1-1

FC Basel 1893 (H) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 3-1

APOEL FC (H) 0-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 1-0

Manchester United (A) 2-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 2-2

FC Porto (A) 0-0

FC Basel 1893 (A) 2-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 1-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

This would be the home coming for the Portuguese duo Bruno Alves and Danny. Zenit would like to take the full advantage of the first leg at home under freezing Russian weather, but that’s not their only talking point. They have two of the top defenders in the Champions League this season in Nicolas Lombaerts and Tomas Hubocan with most number of balls recovered so far. Besides the return of influential star striker Alexander Kerzhakov from injury would be a major boost for them. However, Zenit would severely lack match sharpness as their domestic season will start only days before the second leg match. Topped the group which had Manchester United and thus were able to avoid other group toppers. They have also been fortunate not to be drawn against some strong runner up teams from the group stage like Milan or Lyon. A trip to Russia will not be a stroll in the park though a second leg at home might just suit them. Nicolas Gaitan has eclipsed his more illustrious contemporaries to become the most influential playmaker in the tournament with the most number of assists so far and Benfica would look upon him as an inspiration.
 

AC Milan vs. Arsenal FC

 

15th February, 2012

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

The Emirates Stadium, London (ENG)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Barcelona (A) 2-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 1-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 1-1

Olympique de Marseille (H) 0-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Barcelona (H) 2-3

Olympiacos FC (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (H) 2-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 2-2

Olympique de Marseille (A) 0-1

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-3

Talking Point

Talking Point

A battle of experience vs. youthful exuberance, a tussle between composure and agility – this is a mouth-watering clash. Milan started the campaign brightly with a 2-2 draw at Nou Camp. But they faded off afterwards and managed only two points in the last three matches. That did not prevent them from qualifying for the next stage but they finished a good seven points behind the group winner, Barcelona. They have been presented a second leg away from home which may very well suit their counter-attack based football. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored in all the CL matches he has played so far and Milan will hope that this trend continues. Arsenal have been historically drawn against tough oppositions quite early in the recent years of Champions League draw. This time too they feature in The match of the round like last year. Arsenal could enjoy a free flowing passage of play against Milan but they have to be careful of their defensive lapses which could well be exposed by the counter-attacking threat of Milan. It raises a few eyebrows if Robin van Persie does not feature in the score sheets. It will be good show down with Ibra, but can his young and inexperienced teammates see Arsenal through? The second leg at the Emirates could well be the decider.
 

PFC CSKA Moskva vs. Real Madrid

 

21st February, 2012

Stadion Luzhniki, Moscow (RUS)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 2-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (A) 0-0

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

FC Internazionale Milano (H) 2-3

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 0-2

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 3-0

FC Internazionale Milano (A)   2-1

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating Inter at their own backyard was not the only requirement; CSKA also needed a draw between Lille and Trabzonspor on the final matchday to secure a knockout stage berth. Fortunately CSKA got the result they wanted but their luck may run out against a rampant Real Madrid. They are a decent side who like to play open attacking football. Seydou Doumbia is one of the leading goal scorers in the tournament with five goals in five appearances and he would love to portray his skills in front of a wider audience. But even a star shot stopper in Igor Akinfeev could prove to be not much against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Also they are handicapped by the same problem as that of Zenit – lack of match sharpness. Real has been in superb form and their statistics prove that. They have scored nineteen goals in the group stages – only archrivals Barcelona have been able to better that by one goal – and have conceded two goals, the least by any team. Sergio Ramos Garcia has been a star performer as Real are yet to concede any goal in 400+ minutes with him on the pitch. Real have proved that they are much more than Cristiano Ronaldo alone as they have marched past the last two matches without their star striker. But Jose Mourinho should not take this Russian side lightly. They are favourites to progress and they should, unless complacency gets the better of them.
 

SSC Napoli vs. Chelsea

 

21st February, 2012

Stadio San Paolo, Naples (ITA)

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Manchester City FC (A) 1-1

FC Bayern Munchen (A) 2-3

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

Villarreal CF (H) 2-0

Manchester City FC (H) 2-1

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bayern Munchen (H) 1-1

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Napoli had attracted quite a few eyeballs at the start of the season. They have done their reputation no harm by entering into the knock-out stages in their debut campaign at the expense of cash-rich Manchester City. They were in the Group of Death but their inexperience might just catch up with them here. Star forward Edinson Cavani could be in his last season at Napoli before the cash-rich clubs snatch him away and he could leave his mark before bowing out. Chelsea are having a rocky season in the Premier League, but they have a very strong record at the knockout stages of the Champions League in this decade. Their new manager Andre Vilas Boas may be a newcomer to England, but he is no greenhorn in Europe having already won the UEFA Europa League with Porto last year. Chelsea are going through a transition phase, but getting a debutant team at this stage may just see them through.
 

Olympique de Marseille vs. FC Internazionale Milano

 

22nd February, 2012

Stade Vélodrome, Marseille (FRA)

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-0

Arsenal FC (A) 0-0

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 3-0

Olympiacos FC (H) 0-1

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

Arsenal FC (H) 0-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 3-2

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

Little known players from Marseille have caught the eyes of Europe. Surged by a strong defence, they have propelled through to the knockout stages of Champions League, but they will be underdogs going into this tie. Surely they preferred an easier opponent; at least a second leg advantage at home would have given them some hope. Inter are peaking at the right time. After starting their campaign with a shock defeat to Trabzonspor at home, they bounced back to top the group. They are not likely to be overconfident against Marseille as they bowed out to Schalke FC last year under similar circumstances. And it might be time for Wesley Sneijder to settle in and start imposing his authority again.
 

FC Basel 1893 vs. FC Bayern Munchen

 

22nd February, 2012

St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 2-1

SL Benfica (A) 1-1

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Manchester United (A) 3-3

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 3-2

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

SL Benfica (H) 0-2

Manchester United (H) 2-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

FC Basel’s shot to fame was knocking out Manchester United from the group stages on the last matchday. This may end up being their high point in this year’s campaign as they look to lock horns against Bayern Munich in their inaugural knockout stage appearance. Alexandar Frei & Marco Streller have both played in Bundesliga before but their influence may not be enough. Bayern Munich, a heavyweight in Europe will be favourites against FC Basel. Sheer professionalism of the German team would be a bit too much for Basel. Bayern would have taken a major boost from the timely return of midfield lynchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger, but his return to field was short- lived as he suffered a torn ligament in the German Cup quarterfinals. His partnership with Mario Gomez, top scorer so far in this year’s CL having scored 6 goals in less than 400 minutes in the pitch, should prove deadly going forward.

La Liga – Mid-Season Review

With Barcelona trailing by five points behind Madrid, Villareal struggling to stay afloat and the miracle of Levante, a lot of changes are taking place in Spanish football. Sumit Sarkar reviews the primera division of La Liga so far

La liga kicked off on the last weekend of August this season, and if the kick-off did not get delayed by a week due to players’ strike, twenty clubs would have played each other once by the time this review reaches the editorial desk. The first round of matches got rescheduled on the third weekend of January, and as of now, each club has played 17 games. We reviewed the primera división of la liga in our September issue of Goalden Times and with only two rounds of the first leg remaining, it is a good time to take stock of the happenings so far. After seventeen rounds, the league table looks as follows, with Real Madrid CF on top, five points clear of FC Barcelona, despite being beaten handsomely in the El clásico.

Club

Played

Won

Drawn

Lost

GF

GA

Points

Real Madrid

17

14

1

2

61

16

43

Barcelona

17

11

5

1

51

9

38

Valencia

17

10

4

3

28

18

34

Levante

17

9

3

5

21

19

30

Osasuna

17

6

8

3

21

28

26

Málaga

17

7

4

6

20

22

25

Sevilla

17

6

6

5

19

19

24

Espanyol

17

7

3

7

18

21

24

Athletic Bilbao

17

5

8

4

23

19

23

Betis

17

7

1

9

19

22

22

Atlético Madrid

17

5

5

7

23

27

20

Getafe

17

5

5

7

17

23

20

Mallorca

17

4

7

6

15

22

19

Rayo Vallecano

17

5

4

8

19

26

19

Granada

17

5

4

8

11

21

19

Real Sociedad

17

4

6

7

16

23

18

Racing Santander

17

3

8

6

12

21

17

Villarreal

17

3

7

7

15

25

16

Sporting Gijón

17

4

3

10

16

29

15

Zaragoza

17

2

4

11

13

32

10

              Green – Champions League; Blue – Europa League; Red – Relegation Zone

The Title Contenders – the Usual Suspects Tangoing

Given the state of affairs in la liga over the last 6 years, it is no surprise that Madrid garnered a staggering 43 points from 17 games, losing only 2 and drawing only 1. Barcelona, the defending champions who have drawn six and lost only two games in the entire league last season, already have drawn five and lost one. In Spanish general elections held in November, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero lost the Prime Minister’s office to Mariano Rajoy. With power shifting from the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party to the Partido Popular – with whom the Blancos always enjoyed a harmonic relation – it is being said that the Barcelona era in Spanish football is nearing its end. Incidentally, on the last weekend of November, two weeks before the clásico, Barcelona lost to Getafe. Since the clásico of December 10, the talk about shift of power in Spanish football from Camp Nou to Bernabéu was shelved for the time being, but as the liga resumed on the second weekend of January, the whispers returned with the draw at the Barcelona derby.

Real Madrid is in an even better position than they were, at this stage, when they last won the title in 2007-8. Between 24th September and 10th December they had a winning streak of 10 games. They scored 61 goals in 17 games, averaging 3.6 per game. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 21 in 17 appearances, Gonzalo Higuaín 13 in 16 appearances and Karim Benzema 10 in 15. Ángel di María and Mesut Özil produced 13 and 8 assists respectively. Real Madrid is indeed playing awesome football, and to a plan.

Beating everyone else in la liga and beating Barcelona though, are two entirely different propositions. It’s been long since Madrid came to a clásico as favourites and they took the lead before the ball reached their half even once. In spite of the slip-up, which led to Madrid’s first goal 23 seconds into the match, Barcelona kept playing the ball to Valdes, and Valdes continued to play the short passes as confidently as ever. Barcelona not only defeated Madrid, but established the superiority of the brand of football they play. Barcelona completed 681 passes against Madrid’s 427. Barcelona’s brand of football is characterized by passing and possession. No team other than the Ajax of 1971-72 possibly has played this brand of football so consistently and so efficiently. Real Madrid is playing wonderful football this season, but the Barcelona era is far from its end. Barcelona, however, is not playing as well as they played last year. Their average possession has gone up by 2-3% this season. Since the Copa del Rey final in April 2011, they remained undefeated in 24 competitive games before their shock defeat to Getafe in November. During that period they defeated Manchester United, AC Milan and Real Madrid. But they have drawn away not only against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol, but also against Real Sociedad. They drew against Sevilla too at home. In the absence of Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez, the Barcelona attack has lost its width. Injuries to Puyol and Pique left the centre of Barcelona defence soft. If either of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets play centre back instead of their holding midfielder role, it doesn’t help the team. Pep Guardiola tried playing only three at the back, and it gave width in the midfield through Thiago Alcântara, and at times through Cesc Fàbregas. Nevertheless, the 3-4-3 formation is risky and leaves a hole in the defence. The absence of Andrés Iniesta is restricting the variety of Barcelona’s game plan. The dazzling form of Leo Messi is covering up a lot, but the problems exist.

European Contenders – Some Radical Shift

Valencia are at the third spot with 34 points after 17 rounds – 4 points less than Barcelona and 9 less than Madrid. While it may not sound surprising, let us not forget they were financially in troubled waters, and in spite of losing Juan Mata at the start of the season they are playing better football than they did last year. But some remarkable changes are taking place in Spanish football and that is reflected in positions 4 through 6 in the table. Villareal, who finished fourth last year are struggling to stay outside the relegation zone. Sevilla finished fifth last year and are hanging out there at seventh spot. Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid, who finished the last season at sixth and seventh spots respectively, are now at the ninth and eleventh spots.

The Levante Miracle

Who did Madrid lose to other than Barcelona? It was Levante Unión Deportiva – a club whose entire football budget for a season cannot pay Cristiano Ronaldo for more than half a season. The club that came up from segunda division and barely survived relegation last season, shot up to the top of the table on the eighth week of this season, and remained there for two weeks. Levante apparently defies all logic, but their achievement cannot be disregarded as fluke. A club in administration and a team with average age of thirty-two, they are at number four at half way through the season only because they played rationally. Being a team of mature players, they know their limitations and are well organized. Their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez applies a simple strategy – no pretences. They don’t try to hold the ball, they have a well-organized defence and they are swift on the counter attack. 36 year old Sergio Ballesteros, their captain, who on a few occasions outsprinted Ronaldo in the Madrid game, has been the inspiration for the team. After seventeen rounds they are at number four, ahead of Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and even high spending Malaga.

Osasuna

The club that brought Levante down from the top on the tenth round is now at the fifth spot – Osasuna, a club that finished ninth last season. They have drawn against Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Malaga, and defeated Espanyol and Villareal.

Project Malaga Paying Off

Malaga finished eleventh last year. They are a European contender this season and are at the sixth spot now. Their spending of €58 million in the summer will pay dividends if they qualify at least for the Europa league. Though they lost to Sevilla and Valencia and Real Madrid, among the bigger clubs of la liga, they defeated Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Villareal. Giving a 3-year contract to the ex-Real Madrid coach, Manuel Pellegrini looks like one of the best moves of Malaga boss Seikh Al Thani.

Newly Promoted Clubs

Real Betis moved up from segunda división this season and won their first four games, and was on top of the table in September. They played some good attacking football but lost their composure.  They are presently at the tenth spot with 22 points. Rayo Vallecano, who returned to the primera división of la liga after eight seasons and Granada, the club that returned to the top flight after 35 years are placed fourteenth and fifteenth respectively. Both of them scored 19 points each through 5 wins and 4 draws, but are separated on goal difference.

Relegation Zone

After seventeen rounds, the three teams in the relegation zone are Villareal, Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza. With only 10 points from 2 wins and 4 draws, Real Zaragoza, S.A.D., another la liga team in administration, are at a sad state and are at the bottom of the table with little chance of survival. Sporting Gijón lost 5 and drew 2 of their first 7 games. After seventeen rounds they are at the nineteenth spot with only 4 wins, but they can still survive.

Villareal – from European Contender to Relegation Zone

On the third week of the season, when Madrid lost to Levante in one of the biggest upsets of the season so far, Villareal lost to newly promoted Granada in another major upset of that round. With only 3 wins against Mallorca, Rayo and Betis, they are at the eighteenth spot with 16 points. Villareal more or less retained their team from the last season with the exception of Santi Cazorla, but they are nowhere near their last season’s performance. They crashed out of UEFA Champions League by finishing at the bottom of their group without earning a single point! If Giuseppe Rossi had not been injured, things could have been better for the Yellow Submarines. Nevertheless, with only 4 points separating 8 teams from the eleventh position through eighteenth, Villareal should be able to avoid relegation.

Two Spectacular Games

La liga may not be the most competitive league around, but surely throws up some incomparable games of football. Barcelona thrashed Villareal and Atlético Madrid, but drew 2-2 with both Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and goalless with Sevilla. The game at Bilbao, when Athletic Club hosted Barcelona in the eleventh week, was uncantoalfútbol (an ode to football) according to Pep Guardiola. In a spectacular display of fast end-to-end football, Marcelo Bielsa’s boys went up twice leaving it for Leo Messi to show his prowess on a waterlogged pitch to save the day for Barcelona at injury time. After Bilbao took the lead for the first time, Fàbregas headed in a cross from Eric Abidal to level the score. Then a Mascherano back pass went out of play and Bilbao scored from the corner as it landed on Abidal’s feet, and then deflecting against Pique, crossed the goal line. Already inside the injury time, Iniesta failed to hold on a pass from Messi. Bilbao keeper, Gorka Iraizoz also slipped. Messi finally slotted in the deflection. The game had it all – tactical twists, brilliant goals, awful misses, great saves, fouls and cards. Athletic Bilbao was intensely attacking, which is a signature of Bielsa.

Another extremely competitive game was played at the Mestalla between Valencia and Madrid. Madrid were up 1-0 at the half time, but they slackened in the second half. At 71 minutes, Ramos slotted in a header to put Madrid up 2-0. Then came the most dramatic 20 minutes of la liga so far. Roberto Soldado made it 2-1 but a Valencia corner was hoofed back to their half that Diego Alves tried to clear coming out of his box, missed, and Ronaldo scored from a difficult spot. Soldado scored another, which was the fourth goal in 11 minutes. In between, Mourinho had some heated exchange with Jordi Alba. At injury time, Valencia got a free-kick near the Madrid goal line. Tino Costa took it as the entire Valencia team was up there in Madrid’s box. Artiz Aduriz and Higuain collided and Higuain fell on the ground. The ball banged on the bar and rebounded to Soldado, and was rolling towards the goal when Higuain put his shoulder on its way. Valencia was robbed of a penalty and possibly a point. Had the referee given a penalty instead of a corner, the top of the table would have looked a lot more competitive at the winter break.

 Predictions

After the winter break, the league commenced with the Barcelona derby and the Valencia derby on the second weekend of January. Both the games ended in draws. Madrid easily defeated Granada and will play Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao in their remaining games in the first leg. Barcelona plays Betis and Malaga in their last two games of the first leg. Anything can happen and the league is wide open between Madrid and Barcelona. However, it is advantage Madrid at the moment. Valencia has an outside chance, but in la liga it has been next to impossible to cover a deficit of 9 points in 21 games. It will be good to see Levante playing in the Champions League – even if they play only the qualifiers. Between Osasuna, Malaga, Sevilla and Bilbao any two may qualify for Europa league. Villareal will survive, but apart from Zaragoza, any two among Sporting, Racing, Granada and Rayo will get relegated.

Best XI

Football is a beautiful game and the excitement that a 90-minute match can pack in, is not comparable with too many sports across the world. We see brilliant teams with sublime individuals creating magic on the field  but… football’s magic is sometimes tarnished with some not-so sublime moments of ‘play-acting’ on the pitch. While acts like diving, faking injuries et al can be annoying on the one hand, they can be quite funny to watch, on the other. This month we have put together XI somewhat upsetting yet hilarious moments on the pitch which had ‘purists’ tearing their hair out!

  • Brazilian great Rivaldo is known to many for his sublime left foot. But you can watch him displaying some additional skills too! This was one bizarre incident of the 2002 World Cup that I recall. An innocuous corner kick turned into a farce by Rivaldo during the semi-final match between Brazil and Turkey.

             

  • Juergen Klinsmann is a German great but some Albiceleste fans might not welcome him with open arms. Most English football fans who have seen Klinsmann in action for Tottenham Hotspur will concur that despite his brilliance with the ball and sublime skills, he had this habit of falling over a bit too easily. Hell, he at times even celebrated his goals by mocking his diving skills!

  • This was Ecuador against Chile: Bryan Carrasco grabs the arm of Edson Montaño and strikes himself to create another ‘sublime’ moment in South American football!

  • In my opinion, Alberto Gilardino here was shot by an unknown sniper, so please leave the kid alone! Even in real-time it was clearly a dive and the referee promptly produced a yellow card. Now, isn’t that hilarious?

  • One moment David Villa was writhing with pain and the next, he was ready to participate in a brawl! Amazing healing powers, must be in the DNA.

  • Robert Pires is one of the best footballers to grace the shores of Great Britain but didn’t really cover himself with glory in this case. Pires came to English Football with Portsmouth but it seems he came back with lot more than some of the sublime skills that he displayed at Arsenal.

  • Emmanuel Eboue showing his not so perfect skills off the ball! There are a lot more Eboue moments but this one was surely one of the most desperate tries by him.

  • Taking only one incident from Cristiano Ronaldo’s compilation is an injustice to his ‘talent’ but we have to give others some space too!

  • Captain Fantastic’s not so ‘fantastic’ moment on the pitch! Steven Gerrard represents everything good about Liverpool – talent, passion and guts, but this incident might even have ‘The Kop’ cringing in disbelief.

  • Dynamo Kiev’s Olexandr Aliyev showing his own set of healing powers in Champions League game against Arsenal. Amazing stuff!

  • We will end with some of the modern day masters of the ‘art’. Mind you, this is ‘more than a simulation! Barcelona is considered the epitome of club football, right now. Players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi create poetry on the football pitch. Sometimes players like Javier Mascherano, Pedro and Sergio Busquets, create some jarring notes on the football pitch that has fans gasping for fresh air.

The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football

As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on

Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.

Return of the Prodigal Son

Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.

Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.

And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.

Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.

The Oil League

Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn.  Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.

Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.

But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.

Underdog Story of the Year

Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.

Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.

The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.

Heartwarming Victories

Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.

Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshiko went on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.

Year of the Minnows

Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA.  Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.

Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.

They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.

The Thing About 18

Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.

The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale.  Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.

At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.

Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.

The Era Continues

While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.

1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.

Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986  under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.

Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.

Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.

Transfer Deal of the Year

Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.

Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.

Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunning hat trick against Parma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.

But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.

Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)

Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.

Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.

Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.

That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.

Memorable Comebacks

Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.

Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.

Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.

The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.

I Can’t Believe This Happened

Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.

Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.

The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detail but one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.

Celebrations

Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and  the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.

 Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.

The most whacky   celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympic run. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrate it.

Best Football Performances

Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.

Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.

However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.

Best Performance by a Footballer

This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by with this performance by Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, do this and this and this and of course this makes him a complete entertainer.

Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!

This Month in Football History – December

We look back at the most memorable happenings in the month of December in world of Football

December 3, 1906 – The Rise and Fall of an Italian Super Club

 On December 3, 1906, a contingency that included a group of former Juventus players and future Italian manager, Vittorio Pozzo founded AC Torino. It became one of the most successful and tragic clubs in Italian Football history.

Torino won their first league title in 1928, but became Italy’s dominant team in the 1940s with a team known as Il Grande Torino. They won five Scudettos in the decade, including four straight from 1946 to 1949. Their run of incredible success ended in tragedy, as a plane crash in May 1949 killed 18 players and several club officials, journalists and members of the crew.

The crash sent Torino into a decline and they have spent the majority of the intervening years moving between Serie A and Serie B, though they did win another league title in 1976. In 2005, the Italian football association expelled Torino from the league for financial reasons, but they returned later that year as Torino FC.

December 4, 1933 – Arsenal beats the The Wunderteam

 

On this day, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal did, what at that time was close to unthinkable – beat the Austrian Wunderteam with a scoreline reading 4-2.

Guided by manager Hugo Meisl and Captain Matthias Sindelar (pictured), Austria were one of Europe’s most dominant teams of the 1930s, earning the nickname “Wunderteam.” They rattled off a 14-game unbeaten streak in 1931-32, including Scotland (5-0), Germany (6-0, 5-0), and Hungary (8-2). They also won the 1932 Central European International Cup with a 4-2 victory over Italy in the final.

Meanwhile, Arsenal was enjoying a good spell in the English domestic scene, having recently won the 1930 FA Cup and the 1931 and 1933 league titles.

Chapman was friends with Meisl, prompting the ‘friendly’. But the Football Association rules prohibited English clubs from playing international sides, so Austria arrived at Highbury for the match, thinly disguised as FC Vienna. The Times called it a “thrilling match,” with Arsenal taking a 3-1 lead before the teams swapped late goals to finish the day 4-2.

 

December 6, 1930 – Something was wrong at Thames

 

 On December 6, 1930, Thames AFC set a Football League record when only 469 people showed up for their Third Division South match against visiting Luton Town.

Thames had been founded just 2 years back and had a big ground, The West Ham Stadium with a capacity of 120,000. The problem with the club was that it had to compete for a fan-base against more established London clubs like including West Ham United, Millwall, Charlton, and Orient.

Despite poor support, Thames fared well, finishing in third place in the Southern League Eastern Division in 1930 to earn election to the Third Division South. There however, they struggled, winning only three matches and drawing two out of their first 16 to sit dead last in the table when Luton came to town.

Although only 469 people attended, they witnessed a rare sight as Thames eked out a 1-0 victory. 

December 10, 1997 – Pauper in the League of Champions 

On December 10, 1997, MFK Košice lost 0-1 to Feyenoord, thus becoming the first ever team to bow out of the Champions League with zero points.

sReigning champions of Slovakia’s top flight, Košice reached the group stage by beating Icelandic club ÍA 4-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round, then defeating Spartak Moscow 2-1 on aggregate in the second qualifying round. In doing so, they were the first Slovakian club to make it to the group stage.

That is where the fairytale ends. They failed to even score in the first legs opening the tournament with a 3-goal loss to Manchester United, followed by a 2-0 loss to Feyenoord, then a 1-goal loss to eventual finalists, Juventus. They improved in the rematch with Juve, but still fell 3-2, then lost again to Manchester United 3-0. They were already guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the group regardless of the results in their last match against Feyenoord, who were also mathematically eliminated from the competition.

 

December 16, 1989 – Impact Sub

 On December 16, 1989, Barnsley substitute Ian Banks received a red card. Problem was he was just getting ready to get on the pitch, when he received the card.

As the midfielder warmed up on the touchline waiting to be waved on, he berated the nearby linesman for not raising his flag on the Bournemouth goal. No one actually knows what he uttered, but they were strong enough to earn him a straight red card. It was the quickest ejection for a substitute in Football League history.

 

December 19, 2009 – Barcelona on cloud number 6

 

On December 19, 2009, Barcelona won a record sixth trophy for the calendar year, using an extra-time goal to beat Estudiantes in the FIFA Club World Cup.

That year, Barcelona had already won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, the UEFA Super Cup and the UEFA Champions League, matching Liverpool’s haul of 5 trophies in 2001. The Champions League victory qualified them for the Club World Cup, which included the champions of 5 other confederations and UAE’s Al-Ahli, who qualified as hosts.

 December 27, 1915 – Manchester United and Liverpool unite

On December 27, 1915, the FA issued lifetime bans against seven Manchester United and Liverpool players for participating in a match-fixing scheme the previous season.

The match in question was played on April 2, 1915, near the end of the season. United were in 18th place, only one point clear of relegation, while Liverpool were sitting comfortably in 13th, not in danger of relegation but out of contention for any silverware. United won 2-0, thanks in part to a missed Liverpool penalty.

Rumours started immediately about a fix, prompting the FA to investigate. They determined that seven players – Sandy Turnbull, Arthur Whalley and Enoch West from United; Jackie Sheldon, Tom Miller, Bob Pursell and Thomas Fairfoul from Liverpool – had combined to determine the outcome. The motivation was financial, with all seven players placing bets on United to win. But the two points helped United’s survival, as they finished 1 point above the relegation zone. West vehemently denied any involvement, even suing the FA, unsuccessfully, for libel.

December 30, 2009 – No country for Englishmen

 

 Asmir Begović

On December 30, 2009, Arsenal won at Portsmouth 1-4, in a match where neither side’s starting XI included an Englishman. It was the first time that had happened in the English top flight.

While not necessarily uncommon for Arsenal at the time, it was an unusual development for Pompey, who were forced by injury to start Bosnian keeper Asmir Begović in place of their regular keeper, England’s David James. The most represented nation on the pitch that day was France, with a total of 7 (5 for Arsenal and 2 for Portsmouth). Two more players – Portsmouth’s Hassan Yebda and Nadir Belhadj – were born in France, though both play internationally for Algeria. The remaining players were from Bosnia, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland, Israel, South Africa, Scotland, Ghana, Spain, Belgium, Wales, Cameroon, Russia and Croatia.