Chelsea Outclass Sporting

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 10th 2014)

Different Class

Chelseaʼs manager Roberto di Matteo – currently managing Schalke had reason to be grateful to current Blues boss José Mourinho for giving him the chance to reach the knock-out phase of the Championʼs League tonight. Di Matteo won the competition for Chelsea in 2012. Schalke took care of their business by beating Maribor, but needed a Chelsea win against Sporting Clube de Portugal tonight to have a chance of progress in a match that was meaningless for José Mourinhoʼs team. Nevertheless, the Blues obliged with a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge tonight. Cesc Fàbregas Soler converted a penalty after minutes. World Cup winner André Schürrle doubled Chelseaʼs lead 8 minutes later with the pick of the nightʼs goals. Five minutes into the second half Jonathan Silva halved the deficit. Jon Mikel Obiʼs tap in 6 minutes later sealed a comfortable win for the Blues.

Comfortable

Egyptian winger Mohamad Salah, getting a rare start cut it back to the Brasilian left-back Filipe Luís Kasmirski from the byline. Filipe Luís was clumsily tripped by Ricardo Esgaio, giving referee Svein Moen no choice but to give a penalty kick. Nemanja Matić found Schürrle on the edge of the area. Schürrle turned and shot into right-hand corner of Rui Patrícioʼs goal.

Algerian striker Islam Slimani had an opportunity to halve Chelseaʼs lead – a draw would have been enough for Sporting – but he couldnʼt direct Diego Capelʼs corner at goal. Chelsea responded with chances for Schürrle, created by César Azpilicueta on the right, but Rui Patrício saved easily. A few minutes later Matić shot over after Salahʼs cross gave him the chance. He should have done better.

Salah, considered by many a luxury or a misfit, had a decent game. His cross for Diego Costa was intercepted by Paulo Oliveira at the expense of a corner, which broke to Salah. His shot failed to trouble Rui Patrício.

Deserved

Chhelsea were well worth their half time lead, but whatever Sportingʼs young coach Marco Silva said in the interval had the desired effect – temporarily at least. Five minutes into the second half Schürrleʼs attempt to clear André Carrilloʼs cross fell to Jonathan Silva . He chested Schürrleʼs header down and gave Petr Čech no chance. Salah almost responded rapidly but his effort was thwarted by Rui Patrício

Any thoughts of a come-back were soon dispelled, as Mourinhoʼs team restored their two-goal lead through the unlikely source of Obi. The Nigerian midfielder had never scored in the Championʼs League before. “It was just a tap-in,” he said rushing through mixed zone after the match. True, but they all count. The ever productive Fàbregasʼ cross was headed on by Gary Cahill for Obi to tap in at the far post for an easy, but welcome goal.

The news soon got worse for Silvaʼs team as Max Meyer scored for Schalke against Maribor. If the scores stayed the same Sporting would drop down to the Europa League and Schalke would get through to the last 16. The Colombian striker Fredy Montero was given less than half an hour to impress – he still hopes to force his way into José Pékerman Krimenʼs plans for los Cafeteros.

Carlos Mané replaced Diego Capel at the same time. A minute later Slimaniʼs header from Manéʼs cross was clawed away by Čech.

Changes

João Márioʼs awful foul on Obi deserved a booking that would have put him out of Sportingʼs next match – a fate that befell the highly rated William Carvalho for fouling Fàbregas. The midfielder was replaced by André Martins shortly after the foul on Obi. Afterwards the match was pock-marked by fouls and Moen wielded yellow four times in the last 15 minutes to Adrien Silva, Sportingʼs goal-scorer Jonathan Silva, Azpilicueta and Paulo Oliveira.

After 83 minutes Mourinho brought on the much-talked about 18 year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek to replace the impressive as ever Fàbregas. No academy product has broken into Chelseaʼs firs team since John Terry. Itʼs harder now for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Loftus-Cheek was determined to make the most of his chance. With added time approaching its end Oliveiraʼs cynical foul on Loftus-Cheek received the yellow card it deserved. Chelsea moved imperiously on to the last 16 having laid to rest any thoughts that they would play a weakened team of youngsters. It was the perfect response to their first defeat of the season. Meanwhile, Sporting must adapt to the Europa League.

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Pride

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 10th 2014)

Dangerous

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History does not bode well for Sporting Clube de Portugal. No Portuguese team has succeeded at Stamford Bridge. And Chelsea are smarting from their first loss of the season at the weekend. And the rejuvenated on-loan Nani is injured. Defenders Cédric and the Brasilian Jefferson are also out injured. “If we talk about my team Nani is out. Jefferson, Cédric is also out”, the 37-year-old coach Marco Silva said. “I believe in my players. We will fight. Chelsea is always difficult, especially here”.

José Mourinho likes to win, but he knows that Chelsea have not only already qualified, but will top the group anyway. Chelsea have nothing to prove. Their first loss of the season means they are dangerous, but Mourinho has already said that youngsters will feature in his squad tonight. It doesnʼt faze Silva.

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The young players of Chelsea are good for sure”, he said. “They are playing for Chelsea. We are prepared. They are not second choices. They are not just playing. We know they are good and important”.

Focused

But Silva is focused. He knows that a draw guarantees progress to the lucrative knock-out stage of the Championʼs League. “Iʼm very pleased with my teamʼs performance”, he said. “Itʼs just one more match. It will be crucial. Itʼs important for us, especially for Sporting. We have just been to the second stage once and it would be fantastic for everybody, especially the club. We will fight”.

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Slovenians Maribor could do the Portuguese a favour by beating former Blues manager Roberto di Matteoʼs Schalke04, but Silva is not bothered by that match. “Football is too complicated to pay attention to the other match”, Silva said. “One point is our target. If we fail we will wait for the other result, but that would be making trouble. I will not tell the players about the other match. Letʼs see. We want to achieve our objective. I think we [Portuguese teams] havenʼt won any points, but we will fight for our target, one point”.

Mourinhoʼs Wish

Mourinho cut his teeth in management as the late Bobby Robsonʼs interpreter and local coach at Sporting Clube in 1992. Robson was sacked in 1993. Mourinho went with him to Porto and later Barçelona, where he also worked with Louis van Gaal. Mourinho later became phenomenally successful in his own right, winning the Championʼs League with both Porto and Inter. He won trophies in his first spell at Chelsea and at Real Madrid too before returning to Chelsea.

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He has made no secret that he wanted both Chelsea and Sporting Clube to reach the knock-out stage. Chelsea has already achieved their part. “Mourinho said the same thing in Lisbon for the first match between the teams”, Silva said. “He said his desire was to qualify in first place and Sporting in second place, but we want to win regardless of what Mourinho said”.

Aims

A draw is enough, but Silva doesnʼt intend playing for one. “[Playing for] the draw is dangerous” he said. “We know that Chelsea will be very hard, but we have to play within our limits. One point is enough, but we want three points. All my players are important, but nobody was believing in us. Tomorrow we can show everybody. If we qualify there is justice in this group, because we are playing very well and we want to win to qualify. We are guaranteed Europa League [at least]”.

Despite the success of Algerian striker Islam Slimani (2 Championʼs League goals in five matches) who will depart in January for the African Cup of Nations, Fredy Montero will play tonight.

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Montero ruled out excuses, such as Chelseaʼs first defeat and the weather. “The defeat of Chelsea last weekend doesnʼt change anything”, he said. “On the pitch it is eleven against eleven. We respect Chelsea, but we want to play our game. The weather doesnʼt change anything. It is the same for both teams. They are used to playing in this temperature but itʼs okay, we are ready”.

Ambitions

The Colombian striker has played in four of the five matches so far. He has yet to score. “ I am here to help the team when it needs me”, Montero said. “I havenʼt scored in the Championʼs League but it is my dream. I am confident that I can score. I always believe that I can score. I am here to help Sporting and I hope that the manager believes in me. I donʼt think I am the best Montero ever, but I will try to do my best”.

Montero knows that his country has an embarrassment of riches up front. Los Cafeteros shone at the recent World Cup despite the absence of their then talisman Radamel Falcao. James Rodríguez Rubio won the Golden Boot and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado wowed too. Europa League winner Carlos Bacca was an option too as was Portoʼs Jackson Martínez. And thatʼs without Falcao, who despite his loan move to Manchester United, may never return to his lethal best.

Still Montero refuses to give up on forcing his way into José Pékerman Krimenʼs plans. “Every game is an opportunity for me with my national team”, Montero said. “I am happy to play for Colombia. I want to show my worth and be in the national team after the World Cup and for the next year”.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 9th 2014)

Crunch Time

Tonight Greek champions Olympiacos will play one of the most important matches in their history. Their fate is partially in their hands. Only a win against Malmö at their stadium which is named after Greek Independence War hero Giorgios Karaiskakis gives them any chance of progressing to the knock-out stage of the Championʼs League. But they need a favour.

While any win will do, it will count for nothing unless last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid beat Juventus. The irony of a former Real Madrid great needing a favour from his cross town rivals is surely not lost on Olympiacosʼ coach Michel (José Miguel González Martín del Campo). But the Greeks can only take care of their end, beating the Swedish team and hope that Juve lose.

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I think everything is always difficult for any team, because we never know about the challenges”, said the World Cup winning French midfielder Christian Karembeu. “We never know about it – the favourites may not play well, so all expectations always with favourites, but we never know about the challenges”.

The Greeks had an interesting draw and will take some confidence from having beaten both favourites for Group A. “I think that for my part with Olympiacos, for us itʼs a great honour to play against Juve, to play against Atlético Madrid who were finalists in the last Championʼs League tournament”, Karembeu said. “So far we are very happy”.

Safety Net

Olympicos know that a win or draw tonight will guarantee third place and barring something unforeseeable a berth in the Europa League. While the financial benefits of that competition are not comparable to the Championʼs League, they are not to be sniffed at, especially in economically ravaged Greece and in the era of Financial Fair Play (FFP).

Olympiacos can always compete on the national stage, but Europe is another matter, especially now. FFP limits their room to manoeuvre. Karembeu is thoughtful on the initiative. “I think that everyone should think about it”ʼ he says. “Everyone should talk about it, discuss it and try to find a really great solution, knowing that itʼs a really good initiative to try to make balance to any of the teams”.

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But does it achieve that or lock the door shut after teams that have done their spending in advance, or adjusted their revenue-making options to fit the new fiscal requirements? Karembeu is aware of the pitfalls, but broadly speaking he supports the initiative. “I know”, he says, “thatʼs why I say everybody should discuss [it], everybody: owners, investors and UEFA. They should work together and discuss why this matters”.

While it lacks the prestige and resources of the Championʼs League, the Europa League can expect to be taken seriously this season, even in England. The winner of the competition will play in the Championʼs League next season. Will that make it more competitive? Karembeu adopts a wait and see perspective. “We will see”, he says. “Now itʼs an idea. We will see if itʼs going to be competitive or not and thatʼs when we will see. This is like how you say like a reason. We will see what will happen”.

A Villainʼs Charter?

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 8th 2014)

A Clean Slate

This week the Championʼs League and Europa League will reach the business stage of deciding which teams will continue in the knock-out phase, drop down to the Europa League, or finish their participation in either competition. Soon the consequences of a rule change on carried over yellow cards will bite.

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Prior to the start of this seasonʼs tournaments UEFAʼs General Secretary Gianni Infantino explained the reasoning behind European Footballʼs governing body taking the decision to follow FIFAʼs lead to give players a clean slate for the final stages of the Championʼs League and Europa League for the current season. Like the World Cup yellow cards will be wiped clean at the quarter-final stage.

UEFA says it wanted to avoid the risk of top players being suspended for the latter stages of the competition. But does it? The World Cup-winning French midfielder and current Strategic Advisor of Greek champions Olympiacos, Christian Karembeu told Empower-Sport that he supported the changes.

Of course”, Karembeu said. “This is normal. I think that … every player deserve to play final, for example, and I think itʼs logical to give the chance to everyone when you dream about the finals – you dream about it”! But will it?

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Villainsʼ Charter

But the flair players – the ones spectators pay to see – are the victims of the persistent fouling, the ʻenforcer tacklesʼ designed to discourage them from playing and much more besides. This leads to them getting frustrated on occasion and reacting.

Remember David Ginola trudging off the pitch unhappily after being sent off for elbowing Lee Dixon when Arsenal played Newcastle United in the Coca Cup as it then was in January 1996. “They wonʼt let me play football”, he said. And they hadnʼt. Dixon had been fouling Ginola throughout the match, ensuring that Ginola could not function and the officials had allowed it. Finally a very frustrated Ginola retaliated by elbowing Dixon. He was sent off. The referee had no choice, but as Kevin Keegan then manager of Newcastle observed, flair players were not being protected.

And then there are cards picked up for deliberate blocks or non-violent cheating. The deliberate hand-balls, the shirt-tugging to prevent an attack developing and of course the simulation all deserve cards and the full consequences, donʼt they? Wonʼt this change in the rules encourage players to offend more as the consequences for doing so diminish?

The recent World Cup was ruined by a combination of excessively lenient refereeing and this rule. The quarter-final between Brasil – the most persistent offenders – and Colombia was destroyed as a spectacle by the failure to enforce the rules of the game. This happened under the auspices of Luiz Felipe Scolari – a manager who once declared the ʻBeautiful Game Deadʼ and the man that also said he wanted his team to foul more. What did they expect to happen other than the anti-football inflicted on the world that night?

Foul and Fouler

Far from guaranteeing the participation of the top players, these changes rewarded persistent offenders whose job it was to prevent the most talented from playing football – the exact opposite of what these changes are supposed to be delivering. What did they expect?

Letʼs hope that the amnesty on suspensions will not be accompanied by a repetition of the ludicrously lenient refereeing that rewarded the cynical and dirty play that Scolari inflicted on a world hoping for Samba football. Was it coincidence that Brasil played dirty?

It was their game plan after all – one that was cynically adopted to stop flair players by foul means or fouler – and utterly predictable that this would happen to ensure that a mediocre team undeservedly reached at least the final stages of the World Cup. Ironically, this happened at the expense of a team that had inherited the mantle of Samba football.

FIFA could not have failed to realise that Brasil would play this way. A talented Chile side and an even better Colombia paid the price. It also put a target on Neymarʼs back that put him out of the World Cup. Letʼs hope it doesnʼt happen again in the Championʼs League or Europa League.

A New Experience

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (December 6th 2014)

Return to Tunisia

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I am definitely outside my comfort zone – in a strange environment, amongst stranger people. I’m back in Tunisia – a country that has pleasant memories for me – but this trip has nothing to do with football. I have not read any newspapers or watched any news channel on television since I arrived here a week ago.

Tunisia is a French and Arabic speaking country and there are no English speaking news channel such as CNN, BBC, or even Aljazeera, etc. on television here. Although there is a channel that shows some sports, including some football matches and analysis, that too is in Arabic and only once did I see a recorded Barclays Premier League match with Arabic commentaries.

So, do not blame me if my column this week has nothing of my regular comments and analysis on football matters. Having said that, permit me and enjoy me tell you a little of my experiences.

Memories

In the past one week I have been in Tunisia. The last time I visited the North African country was some 20 years ago on the occasion of the 1994 African Cup of Nations. The Eagles won the championship,Tunisia ’94 then, marking the second time Nigeria won the prestigious African competition.

The first time was in 1980.1 In that same year, 1994, the Green Eagles were re-christened Super Eagles, and qualified for the first time to represent Africa as one of Africa’s five representatives to the 1994 World Cup. So, I have very fond memories of Tunisia, which was unlike any other North African Arab country I know. Although it is a Muslim country, it does not shove religion in the faces of visitors.

So, from my visit 20 years ago I remember Tunis, Souse and also Carthage – a city rich in history and culture that Rome owed its emergence as a world power to and which could not be fully erased from history despite Romeʼs best efforts.

Segun at Wembley

A footballer at the 2014 African Basketball Championship

I did not know about Sfax then. But here I am in the city attending the 2014 African Basketball Club Championship for Women in my capacity as consultant to one of the two Nigerian clubs at the championship, the First Bank Basketball Club. The team is known as the Elephant Girls.

Seven days in Sfax have been some sort of education and also baptism for me into the world of international basketball. It is a world that I find completely different from football. It is simpler and less political, even though it also not without its own idiosyncrasies and intrigues.

In the past two years I have been involved in basketball as well as footbball. This is my first international trip with the current national women’s basketball champions of Nigeria, and make no mistake, they are serious contenders for the African title here in Sfax.

I am learning pretty fast. I am interacting at close quarters with some of Africa’s top female basketball players and administrators;. I am observing how the championship is run, meeting with those that run it and exchanging information and views about the differences and similarities between football and basketball administration. I am sharing experiences and expectations; observing the teams and sharing their moments of joyful celebration as well as painful losses.

In short, with all its headaches (and there are a few) this trip has provided me the opportunity to peep into the world of basketball.

The Sfax Experience

Sfax is a large seaport situated some 270 kilometres east of Tunis on the Mediterranean coast. I am told it has the largest fishing trawlers in Africa and has the world’s second largest deposit of Phosphate. However, for some reason Sfax is dusty. The entire city is covered always in white dust blown probably from the desert located to the south.

There is a regular pall and smell of tobacco in the air. It is everywhere. As our guide, Mahmoud, told me, (I guess he may be exaggerating) about 90% of all adult Tunisians smoke heavily. That’s probably why there is no law prohibiting smoking anywhere in Tunisia, public places inclusive.

The hotel we are staying in must be one of the most polluted places in the world. You need to see and experience it to understand what I am talking about. Every corridor, the restaurant, the lobby, the lounges, the bar, everywhere is filled with the reeking smell and fumes of cigarette smoke. It assaults the eyes and nostrils everywhere you turn to.

Marginally Worse

There is, however, one other place worse than the hotel – the indoor sports hall of the CS Sfax Sports Club – venue of the ongoing African Women’s Basketball Championship. Although it is a massive beautiful edifice with excellent state-of-the-art facilities, the place has little ventilation and, so, regularly suffocates with the acrid smell and fumes from tobacco consumed freely within this enclosure.

It is often packed with thousands of cigarette-smoking spectators whenever CS Sfax Sport Club, is playing. In one week I must have involuntarily inhaled more cigarette-fumes into my lungs than I have done in the totality of the rest of my life. It is that serious. This totally negates the health intentions of sports.

Something Different

Beyond that, Sfax is really different. Here, no one uses seat belts whilst driving their cars. There may also be no enforcement of restrictions about answering mobile phones whilst driving, as everyone’s driving with a handset in one hand. Cars are parked randomly everywhere.

Despite being a predominantly Muslim country alcohol is available in every hotel bar.

Credit and debit cards are only sparingly used, if at all, and in my experience, only in the banks. The Internet is not easily accessible. I hope all of this is limited to Sfax.  

When we attended an official reception for the heads of delegates of all the participating countries at the championship, the entire programme was conducted in French and Arabic. No one interpreted for those that did not understand either of the languages and no apologies were offered. Yet there were participants from Nigeria, Kenya and Angola.

Life in Sfax is leisurely. The unofficial clothing of the people is jeans. Two out of every three Tunisians (male and female) wear jeans on a regular basis. It is everywhere. This simple act itself tells a lot about their liberal society. There are hardly any security personnel visible around the town. We are told there is no need for them.

Finally, the championships we came for itself has been excellent and the matches competitive, particularly with the addition of professional players in all the participating teams. The practice is that when clubs qualify for the African championships they are allowed to recruit a certain number of professionals from outside their country to strengthen them. That way the standard of the matches is higher and sponsors are attracted.

First Bank Basketball Club has three Nigerian players from the USA. They are making a big impression here and have been great ambassadors of the sport. The championship ends this Sunday. It’s been a truly new and different experience, I mean, for a footballer to experience life in the world of basketball.

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1Odegbami played a vital role in the success of 1980. He was Nigeriaʼs best player and scored 2 of his teamʼs goals against Algeria in the 3-0 triumph, which resulted in Nigeria winning the African Cup of Nations trophy for the first time. He was rewarded with the captaincy. He retired from international football the following year. Nigeriaʼs second title came in 1994, ending Zambiaʼs impossible dream to win the trophy months after the devastating Gabon Plane Disaster, which killed the Golden Generation of the Chipolopolo with the exception of perhaps their greatest ever player and current President of the Zambian Football Association, Kalusha Bwalya. The Super-Eagles won it for the third time last year: The Editor.