Decoded At Last

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 5th 2014)

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Enigma

It is Wednesday night. I have just watched my favourite football club in the world, but strangely I am in a rather melancholic mood. I watched ‘my team’ trounce Amsterdamʼs finest Ajax FC in the ongoing European Champions League. It was a very exciting and very entertaining match. I should be feeling great, yet, I feel empty inside.

The best football player of all time, in my humble estimation, Lionel Messi, scored a brace as usual and equalled Raúl González Blancoʼs European Champions League record of highest number of goals scored by an individual – 71. He achieved that feat in just 90 matches. It took Raúl – 66 goals for Real Madrid and 5 for Schalke – 142 matches to reach that tally. But hot on their heels is Messiʼs contender for best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, trailing by just one goal – albeit from 17 matches more than the mercurial Argentinian.

I should be happy, but, the match against Ajax was revealing. All is not well with FC Barçelona.

The Greatest?

This season they have left most of their fans hungry for the Barçelona of old – the team that won everything in club football in the world. They also contributed the largest number of players to a Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010.

In the past 10 years Barçelona have been the team to beat in global club football with unforgettable memories of performances beyond description. In terms of actual performance, for a period of years, the rest of the world was playing catch-up. Without being disrespectful to any one of the other great clubs in Europe and South America, at their best, Barçelona stood alone far and away better than the best the rest of the world had to offer.

The System

The secret to their monumental achievements was a system and football philosophy implanted, nurtured and perfected in the club’s academy – La Masia. It was then brought to fruition as a generation of exceptional players came through that academy, augmented by shrewd purchases along the way. It also required a great coach schooled in Barçelona’s ways. All these ingredients combined at the same time to deliver a sumptuous feast of football.

Personally, it is in the work perfected by coach Pep Guardiola that I started to have a fuller appreciation of how a coach can truly impact a team, how the daily grind of training sessions could transform into a playing style and system that become entrenched as a culture in the performance of a team, and etched into the psyche of their followers. Now I understand and appreciate Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, and Tihomir Jelisavčić1 – the shamefully neglected architect of Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations triumph – even better.

Tiki Taka

That was the birth of the phenomenon called Tiki Taka, an intricate ‘dance’ movement like no other with the ball: quick short one-two passes, endless, seamless movements and interchange of positions, back and forth, leaving in their wake a perplexed, bemused and confused opposition struggling to keep pace.

Match after match of the Barcelona brand of football rattled and embarrassed coaches and dazzled the world. Playing some of the ‘weirdest’ and unconventional football imaginable, Barçelona’s midfield tore through opposing teams’ defences like a knife through butter. Never had the world seen such a display and such a team that performs with such elegance and ‘arrogance’, completely dominating every match with effortless running and ball possession. They were a delight to watch and a nightmare to confront.

Deciphering the Code

So, last season, when Barçelona failed to win any silverware many felt it was due more to ‘winning-fatigue’ rather than because Tiki Taka had been finally decoded. Now we know that there was more to it. The football ‘laboratories’ of some of the big clubs in Europe had not been asleep, They had been very busy and on full throttle to find an antidote to the Barça epidemic.

At the same time, in order to stay one step ahead and sustain their invincibility, Barçelona took some steps that may now have backfired. Most significant amongst several of them was the exit of coach Pep Guardiola and the departure to fight a sadly losing battle against cancer of his successor, Tito Vilanova. That resulted in the appointment of a new coach – one not brought up on Barçelona’s philosophy and culture. The Tata Martino experiment failed and Barça returned to a coach brought up the Barça way.

But there were other problems – the ‘reinforcement’ of the Barçelona striking force. Last season the hugely talented Brazilian Neymar Jnr joined Lionel Messi upfront. The combination had not fully clicked before, this season. Now former Ajax and Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez Díaz has been added to the mix. On paper it may look like a dream striking partnership, but the reality after three matches is that in order to accommodate these new players that are not nurtured on the diet of the Camp Nou style and philosophy, Barçelona’s playing style has had to change.

Laid Bare

Last Wednesday night, against Ajax Amsterdam FC, the ‘new’ FC Barçelona was laid bare. It is nothing like the Barça of old. Gone is the intricate ball possession that defines Tiki Taka. Gone are the endless running, the pressing and the hot pursuits every time the team loses possession. Gone is the creative ingenuity of a team playing without an outright striker but conjuring a whole array of striking and free scoring options from mid-field.

Gone is the team that played with the patience of a vulture, probing, teasing and taunting opponents to pry open even the tightest and hardest defences. Gone is the team that dictates how every match is played, and, even in occasionally losing, usually is the better team.

Slowly but surely, the demystification of FC Barçelona is taking hold. The team has not won any silverware in two seasons and several big European clubs appear now to have their number – Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Bayern Munich. Even Celta Vigo, a team at the bottom rung of La Liga, defeated them last week so tamely and so easily it was hard and painful to watch.

Do not get me wrong. FC Barçelona are not finished. Far from it. After all, they defeated Ajax and barring any disaster will qualify easily for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Decoded

They have only lost their edge. They have dropped from their place as the best team on the planet and rejoined the league of the great teams in Europe. They no longer stand ‘alone and apart’ at the very top of world football.

It was inevitable that the ‘end’ would come one day, but for many of us it is coming too soon! I still love my Barça, but even I must admit that the end is in sight for the philosophy of football that made FC Barçelona the best team that ever played football – the team that the world stood still and watched every time they stepped out to dance to the beat of Tiki Taka.

For now I can only celebrate in muted anticipation of what would happen next to my beloved club. My Barça have been decoded!

1Jelisavčić coached the Super-Eagles from 1974 until 1978. We won the next edition in 1980, coached by Otto Gloria, but the foundations of that triumph were laid by Jelisavčić.

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Mouthwatering

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 24th 2014)

Segun at Wembley

El Classico – Another War

This weekend there is going to be another battle of epic proportions. It will be fought between two of the biggest and most powerful ‘armies’ in the world. The battleground is the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid Football Club. The invading ‘army’ is, in my humble estimation, the greatest team ever – Barçelona FC!

Leading Real Madrid and Barçelona are with respect to Zlatan Ibrahimović and others the two greatest footballers of their generation – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. At stake are the crowns of ‘best team in La Liga’ and the ‘best player in the world’. In the past 6 years these players have held the title of the world’s best player in a vice – Messi four times, and Ronaldo twice. 2014 promises to be no different; perhaps it will be the most interesting contest yet as it is far more open than previous contests where one or other seemed the clear winner.

The Battle Lines

This season there appears to be a new edge to the rivalry between the two players. Although they both deny that their rivalry fuels their performances, the truth is that both players have drawn inspiration from each other and have shared the global limelight in almost equal measure because of each other.

Ronaldo, who always seemed to play second fiddle to Messi before the last season, needs to prove a point. Many people believe that although he was brilliant last season for Real Madrid, but in my opinion he won the title of world’s best player more because the world wanted a change from Messi. The mercurial Argentine had monopolized it four consecutive times. Did Ronaldo win because he was clearly better than the little Argentinian, or for changes sake?.

I have watched Ronaldo play this season. He has not been this sharp and focused in a long time. He is playing with a deliberate single-mindedness that convinces me that he has more than just helping Real Madrid FC to win La Liga trophy on his mind. He has ‘Messi must be beaten’ written all over his game.

Messi, on the other hand, has less to prove, but he has shrugged off the rustiness and casual attitude of the World Cup and is playing now with a lot of physicality and uncommon determination. Surely the avalanche of falling records at club, Spanish, European and World levels is propelling him to even greater heights. The list of his established and near-accomplishment records is very long. What must be noted, however, is that between them they have made goal scoring an art form.

Several great players spend a lifetime chasing after recording one hat trick. Ronaldo is about to break an all time La Liga record in that regard. He needs one more hat trick to beat the late great Alfredo di Stéfano and Athletic Bilbao maestro Tello Zarra (Tello Zarraonandia Montoya) – Marcaʼs award for Spanish scorers in La Liga was named after the Athletic Club great. Ronaldo is already in legendary company, three ahead of Messi.

The Supporting Cast?

But tempting as it is to focus on these two great players, El Classico boasts plenty more great players. Gareth Bale is the most expensive footballer on the planet, Karim Benzema is rated by no less an authority than Ronaldo as the best striker in La Liga. Luka Modrić is the cog that makes Real Madrid tick and while finding his feet in a new league Colombian heir apparent James Rodríguez has immense talent and of course thereʼs Sergio Ramos marshalling the defence too. And thatʼs just Real Madrid. Barçelona had a poor season by the their standards last term. It cost current Argentina coach Tata Martino his job. But the Catalans are no one man team. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta arenʼt just club legends, they are football ones. Neymar is a precocious talent and El Classico is set to witness the La Liga début of former Ajax and Liverpool icon Luis Suárez. Meanwhile another duel with El Classico dimensions to it takes place this weekend too.

Van Gaal versus Mourinho

No roads lead to Rome this weekend and not all roads that will lead to Madrid either. In England Old Trafford is the place Iʼd like to be at as an almost equally important rivalry between two of the BPL’s great teams will be ignited. Manchester United and Chelsea will face off in what promises to be a match up between the coaches – two of the most experienced and renowned football managers in the world – as well as the teams they select.

Louis van Gaal will test his fledging Man U squad against a high riding Chelsea. In this encounter current form would matter little. It is the team that gets its tactics right that will carry the day. Van Gaal is going through a difficult period with his team struggling to find the old rhythm that made Manchester United the most successful team in the history of the Premiership and him one of the most successful coaches around.

Mourinho has donned his armour of confidence and loquacity, and is daring any other team in the premiership to break down his defensive tactics and, at the same time, stop his rampaging forwards. He has been trophyless for two seasons – he doesnʼt like it and seems set to take it out on opponents this season, although he insists that it is far too early to talk about titles. So, this weekend the battle line is drawn between them.

Chaos Theory

It simply would not be Nigerian football if there were no crisis, or at least one around the corner. I truly believed that with the start of the era of Stephen Keshi as manager of the national team Nigeria has seen the last of a foreign coach handling its national team. While Clemens Westerhof was a great success, letʼs not forget the disastrous appointments of Berti Vogts and Lars Lagerbäck, which cast Nigerian football into the doldrums.

We turned to local coaches, eventually settling on Keshi. I thought that Keshi’s generation, with their experiences in Europe and a little training in the coaching techniques, would kick-start the period when only qualified Nigerians would handle Nigeria’s national teams. It should have happened and it still can.

Keshi may have failed in his human relations, and may also have been slightly deficient in some of his tactics, but he surely did better than most of the foreign coaches that Nigeria hired since Westerhof. Success as a coach is measured only with the results of a team. Keshi delivered the African Cup of Nations – the first Nigerian to do so. For that he has our respect and a lasting place of honour in Nigeriaʼs football history.

It would be interesting to see which foreign coach would be hired of all the names being dangled by the media. We are waiting to see, hoping that if it happens it is not Berti Vogts Mark II. Keshi, with all his failings won laurels and went beyond what any coach, local and foreign, had ever done for Nigeria. Of his generation there are a few that could have been challenged to come ‘try their luck’.

Sunday Oliseh is an interesting proposition. His limited experience in handling a big team notwithstanding, his intellect and analytical prowess, which are acknowledged worldwide, should more than be a compensation. Check out several of the best coaches in the world at the moment led by Pep Guardiola, and you would see a trend that swings away from old, retired and tired coaches, local or foreign.

So, a foreign coach? Without great players any coach would ‘fail’. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have exceptional players in this era. Mark my words: Nigeria would soon be back to square one, looking for an indigenous coach from amongst our own.

Chelsea held by Schalke

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar )September 17th 2014)

Held

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Captaining Schalke04 in the absence through injury of World Cup-winner Benedikt Höwedes, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar latched onto Julian Draxlerʼs through-ball to beat Thibaut Cortois. Huntelaarʼs strike just past the hour equalised Cesc Fàbregasʼ controversial opener after 11 minutes. The Spanish midfielder fouled Max Meyer and then linked up with Hazard to put the Blues ahead.

Croatian referee Ivan Bebek waved Schalkeʼs protests away and booked Huntelaar for his. To some it was poetic justice that Fàbregas appeared to be fouled in the build-up to Schalkeʼs equaliser and that Huntelaar scored it.

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The Legend Returns

Without a win so far this season Schalke faced a hard task, but emerged from Stamford Bridge fully deserving the point they won by holding José Mourinhoʼs in form Chelsea. Didier Drogba got his first start since his return to Chelsea two years after playing a vital role in bringing the Championʼs League trophy to Stamford Bridge. The Ivorian was off the pace, but having played in China and Turkey for the last two seasons that was to be expected.

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Drogba spurned chances to add to Chelseaʼs lead. Five minutes into the second half, Nemanja Matić dispossessed Huntelaar and passed to Hazard who switched ball from left to right. Willian pulled the ball back across Ralf Fährmannʼs goal, but Drogba couldnʼt connect. Ten minutes later Eden Hazard,, poised to become one of the highest earners in football aged just 23, put Drogba through. The striker should have scored, but a heavy touch made the angle harder than it should have been and Drogba shot wide.

Nip and Tuck

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Ten minutes before half time Fàbregas spurned a golden opportunity to add to Chelseaʼs lead. Branislav Ivanović set him up, but the former Arsenal prodigy shot over the bar from near the penalty spot. The former Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boataeng drew a save from Belgian international Thibaut Courtois from 20 yards out midway through the first half.

The impressive Draxler ought to have levelled just before half time as he carved a swathe through Chelseaʼs defence before shooting wide. He wanted a corner that never came.

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Ten minutes into the second half Hazard was on the end of a move begun by Matić. It involved Fàbregas and a one-two with Drogba before Hazard shot wide. Shortly afterwards Boateng drew a save from Courtois from a 35 yard effort and John Terry thought he had a scored a stunner rather than earn the booking that Bebek gave him. Draxler shot with just under 20 minutes remaining required a decent save by Courtois and Hazard tested Fährmann again in the final ten minutes as well as spurning another chance to take all three points.

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Opening Round

Meanwhile, a late equaliser in Slovenia gave Celticʼs conquerors Maribor a point after Naniʼs late strike gave Sporting Lisbon the lead. Juventus beat Malmö 2-0 after Carlos Tévez scored his first goals in the competition since leaving Manchester United. Olympiacos beat last seasonʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid 3-2. Liverpool left it very late – a Steven Gerrard penalty – to beat Bulgarian newcomers Ludogerets Razgrad. Real Madrid put recent woes behind them, by thrashing Basel 5-1. André Villas-Boasʼ Zenit St Petersburg defeated Portuguese champions Benfica 2-0 in Lisbon and Monaco beat Bayer Leverkusen 1-0.

Arsenal prop up Group D after Jürgen Kloppʼs Borussia Dortmund beat them 2-0. Anderlecht drew 1-1 with Galatasaray in Turkey. Jérôme Boatengʼs injury time strike gave Bayern München a 1-0 win over Manchester City, while AS Roma thrashed CSKA Moscow 5-1. Gerard Piquéʼs goal was enough to ensure that Barçelona beat APOEL 1-.0 while Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax drew 1-1.

The champions of Belarus BATE Borisov were taken apart by Porto 6-0. French-born Algerian international Yacine Brahimiʼs hat-trick makes him the leading scorer in this seasonʼs Championʼs League so far. Ukraineʼs Shakhtar Donetsk held Athletic club 0-0 at the San Mamés Stadium.

Newcomers handed Plush Group

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 28th 2014)

Mixed Bag for English Clubs

Bulgarian first-timers to the Championʼs League, Ludogorets, were handed a plush group of fixtures as defending champions Real Mardid – ten times winners were paired with five times European champions Liverpool, returning to the top flight of European football in the post Suárez era. FC Basel 1893, who defeated Chelsea home and away last season before losing their the Pharaohsʼ prize asset Mohammed Salah to the west-Londoners, make up Group B.

Manchester City, yet to excel in Europe, have another tough ask. Pep Guardiolaʼs FC Bayern München are the class of Group D, but CSKA Moskva (Moscow) and AS Roma will provide tough opposition. Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, Arsène Wengerʼs marquee signing for this season will hope to guide his new team past former winner Borussia Dortmund. SC Galatasaray and RSC Anderlecht complete Group D.

2012 champions Chelsea, boasting the return of the legendary Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, face Kevin-Prince Boatengʼs Schalke 04 along with Sporting Club de Portugal. Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor complete Group G. The victory of the Slovenians in the last round of qualifiers avoided the embarrassment of an undeserving Celtic finding a way into the Championʼs League group stage despite by thoroughly outclassed by Polandʼs Legia Warsaw.

Celtic were fortunate to be given a reprieve despite being thrashed by 6-1 on aggregate by Legia, due to the Poles fielding an ineligible player for a couple of minutes of a dead return fixture. A bureaucratic error to be sure, but a classic case of the punishment exceeding the offence. The Scottish champions failed to benefit from their good fortune. Celtic were defeated at home by Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor who took their place in Group G.

Curses

The beaten finalists in the last two Europa League finals, Benfica begin their latest effort to defeat the Curse of their legendary coach Béla Guttmann in Group C in a tough group against and AS Monaco, recently shorn of the Golden Boot winning Colombian maestro James Rodríguez, but still boasting the services of fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao, whose efforts to join Real Madrid seem plagued by Guttmann at his malevolent prime.

Falcaoʼs former club and last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid will face competition from Juventus, Olympiacos and Malmö, as they bid to make club history with a first triumph in Europeʼs top competition. They have a tough group to negotaite, especially after selling prized striker Diego Costa to Chelsea along with defender Filipe Luís Kasmirski. Coach Diego Simeone faces a tough test from teams whose radar are set to ensure Atlético will not evade it.

Fresh from evading the consequences of the serial breach of the rules on transfers of youngsters from foreign nations Barçelona by splurging in the transfer market ahead of the inevitable and fully deserved ban – they knew they were serially breaching that rule – the Catalan giants crammed a couple of years worth of transfer activity into this window. Paris Saint-Germainʼs Zlatan Ibrahimović will play against two former clubs – the Catalan giants and Ajax as well as rank outsiders Apoel of Cyprus in Group F. Porto are the top ranked team of Group H. Ukraineʼs Shakhtar Donetsk will provide the stiffest competition for the Portuguese according to UEFAʼs ranking system. Bilabaoʼs Athletic Club and Belarusʼ Bate Borisov complete the Group.

Awards

For the first time ever the Womenʼs Best Player in Europe Award was presented along with the menʼs. Last yearʼs inaugural award was won by Germanyʼs goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. The repeating champions VfL Wolfsburg provided all the three nominees. Swedenʼs Nilla Fischer and Martina Müller lost to the clubʼs captain Nadine Kessler.

Bayern Münchenʼs flying Dutchman Arjen Robben was nominated along with his team-mate Germanyʼs World Cup-winning sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. They were beaten by record-breaking marksman Cristiano Ronaldo, who paid tribute to his team-mates at Real Madrid. The former Manchester United star couldnʼt resist a swipe at Liverpool. Ronaldo pointed out that when Liverppol beat Real 5-0 on aggregate, it was different as he wasnʼt playing for Real then.

Brasil Fail Again

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 12th 2014)

Controversial Start

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Despite denouncing the match at Brasiliaʼs Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha as pointless, Manchester-bound Louis van Gaal sent a strong team out to contest the penultimate match of Brasilʼs World Cup. Luiz Felipe Scolari, also named a strong team, but the Seleção got yet another awful start, although it should have been worse.

Just over a minute into the match the Netherlandsʼ captain Robin van Persie out-muscled Paris Saint-Germainʼs Thiago Silva. He controlled it, turned and passed to Arjen Robben. Bayern Münchenʼs winger out-paced Silva who pulled him back.

As Silva was the last man he plainly should have been sent off, but the Algerian referee Djamel Haïmoudi only brandished a yellow card. It plainly ought to have been a red card – yet another example of the ludicrous leniency that has plagued this tournament, especially in Brasilʼs favour.

Pointless

Júlio César Soares de Espíndola was easily beaten by van Persie from the spot to give the Dutch the lead – a lead they never surrendered. It soon got embarrassing. Danny Blind will take over managing the Dutch team in two years time. His son Daley – a defensive midfielder – has never scored an international goal previously.

The Ajax player found Brasilian defending – a misnomer if ever there was one – to his taste. Swansea Cityʼs Jonathan de Guzman crossed from the right wing after being released on that flank by Robben. David Luiz inexplicably headed the cross towards the penalty spot rather than over the bar. Blind could hardly believe his luck. He brought it down, set it up and placed it carefully out of Júlio Césarʼs reach to double the Netherlandsʼ lead.

White Elephant

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Brasiliaʼs stadium was well attended tonight. Sadly that is unlikely to be repeated. Last years manifestations (demonstrations) against the corruption that had permeated Brasilian society from top to bottom began in Brasilia. Its stadium is state-of-the-art. The facilities are top notch. It is an excellent stadium, but there is no chance of it being anything but a white elephant of gargantuan proportions.

Brasilia doesnʼt have a team that is capable of filling the stadium after the 2014 World Cup. Their top team is in the fourth division of Brasilian football. They do not have the slightest chance of filling this stadium week in week out and everyone knows it. It is a colossal waste of money and worse still the promises that public resources would not be spent on stadiums has not been kept.

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The protesters have got every point”, the BBCʼs South American football expert Tim Vickery told Empower-Sport last year. “Firstly because they were explicitly lied to and they were told in 2007 that all of the money to build stadiums would be private money with public money being used for infrastructure. Hasnʼt happened at all”.

So what has happened? The oligarchy that has brought Brasillian football to the brink of disaster has overtly lied to the people. “Almost all of the money being used on stadiums is public money and so many of the transport infrastructure projects never got off the page and there are some projects that should have been in there that arenʼt anyway”, Vickery says.

Their Fiefdom

Brasilian football was run as a personal fiefdom by the former President of the Brasilian Football Federation Ricardo Texeira. His successor José Maria Marin is no better. In some ways Marin is even worse. Brasilia will have no World Cup legacy, just citizens saddled with enormous debts to maintain a stadium they never wanted. Vickery supports the protesters.

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I think two of the cities that youʼve been to that I was at – Salvador – Salvador is paying for an underground since the year 2000”, Vickery said. “Itʼs not operational. You know, why? Belo Horizonte has an underground that kind of links somewhere not very interesting to somewhere else not very interesting”.

This was a terrible wasted opportunity. “What an opportunity the World Cup was to make the underground the main platform of the public transport system”, Vickery says, “so these opportunities werenʼt taken”. The transport system and other essential infrastructural projects fell by the wayside. The priority was stadiums and more stadiums and even those had glitches.

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Quite apart from the fact that of these twelve stadiums four of them have limited viability – I mean you mentioned Brasilia”, Vickery says. “You could certainly throw in Cuiabá and Manaus as well and possibly Natal, so the protesters have every point”. But itʼs too late. Resources Brasil could ill afford have been squandered on a stadium that cannot support itself, which should never have been built.

Pride

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After the shameful capitulation in Belo Horizonte Luiz Felipe Scolari knew that his team owed Brasilians a performance. Chelseaʼs Ramires and club team-mate Willian too in a far more competitive line-up. Fred – the scapegoat for most of this teamʼs woes is second only to the injured Neymar in scoring – was dropped and Hulk too.

How quickly they forget. Just a year ago the afore-mentioned Fluminense striker started slowly and ended the Confederationsʼ Cup as the tournamentʼs top scorer. It made no difference. The 64 year wait to avenge Alcides Ghiggiaʼs destruction of Brasilian hopes had ended in shameful failure, leaving nothing but restoring pride to play for.

With seven minutes of the first half remaining Paris Saint-Germainʼs Maxwell should have received at least a caution and probably red for elbowing Dirk Kuyt in the head. Kuyt and his Dutch team-mates were unimpressed. The leniency shown to Brasil for their persistent and niggling fouling made a mockery of the tournament and helped an inadequate team not only to overachieve, but deny better teams a fair chance.

The Beautiful Game

Within ten minutes of his introduction at half time Fernandinho fouled Robben and got himself booked for one on van Persie. Minutes later Hernanes clattered Robben. He should have been booked. It took almost an hour for Ramires to get the better of Aston Villaʼs Ron Vlaar, but the Chelsea midfielder pulled his shot wide of Cillessenʼs goal.

But halfway through the second half Óscar was booked for simulation. As a result of his challenge Blind had to be stretchered off. Meanwhile, Ajaxʼs Jasper Cillessen hardly had a save to make and was replaced in injury time by Michel Vorm.

Swanseaʼs keeperʼs hardly got a touch. Moments before he came on Daryl Janmaat overlapped Robben on the right wing and crossed for Georginio Wijnaldum to make it three – a convincing win that suggests there are still very serious problems to address in Brasilian football.

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Van Gaalʼs Bluff Pays off

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 5th 2014)

The Bluff

Despite making an excellent save to deny Kuban Krasnadorʼs Marco Ureña Porras and keep his country in the World Cup a few minutes before the end of extra time, Ajaxʼs Jasper Cillessen was replaced by ʻpenalties specialistʼ Tim Krul. It was a very brave call by Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, especially as Krul did not have a good record with penalties. He had only saved two out of twenty for Newcastle United. Ironically Swanseaʼs Michel Vorm has a better penalty saving record.

Krul emerged the hero despite his gamesmanship, which worked. Van Gaal and Krul got into the heads of the Costa Ricans. Bryan Ruiz Gonzálezʼ penalty was weak and saved by Krul. They didnʼt work on the Columbus Crewʼs Giancarlo González or FCKʼs Christian Bolaños Navarro, but Michael Umaña Corrales – one of the Costa Rican-based players in Jorge Pinto Afanadorʼs team – was psyched out by Krul.

Not even the Man of the Match performance of Levanteʼs Keylor Navas Gamboa could deny the Dutch from the spot as all four of their penalty-takers scored.

Credit Where itʼs Due

Van Gaal was hailed a tactical genius, but credit where itʼs due, this was not the first time this tactic had been tried and succeeded. In 2004 FC Enyimbeʼs coach Felix Okey Emordi did it twice to the bemusement of his number one Vincent Enyeama in the African Championʼs League and it worked both times. Tunisiaʼs Esperance were astonished when Dele Aiyenugba replaced Enyeama for the penalty shoot-out.

Aiyenugba emerged the hero as FC Enyimba advanced to the final. Enyeama was back between the sticks for the final, but with penalties looming Emordi decided that a repeat dose was necessary. Aiyenugba was the hero again as FC Enyimba retained the Championʼs League on penalties. Tunisiaʼs Étoile du Sahel fell at the final hurdle to the same tactic. To try the tactic twice in a semi-final and repeat it in a final takes incredible courage and is worthy of great credit.

The Fairytale Ends

The USA reached the semi-final of the inaugural World Cup in 1930, but that was years before CONCACAF was founded. Costa Ricaʼs previous best was the last 16 in 1990. They bettered that and gave the Netherlands a run for their money. The match really came alive in extra time. Two minutes into the first period Robbenʼs corner was headed goal-ward by Ron Vlaar. Navas saved. He was hurt shortly afterwards, but recovered to continue.

A minute after Navas resumed Ureña received a throw-in from substitute Dave Myrie and cut into the box. He went down under Aston Villaʼs Vlaarʼs challenge wanting a penalty which Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov declined to award. It was third penalty appeal that the surprise package of this World Cup could and perhaps should have had – two in normal time.

After 23 minutes of extra time Galatasaray midfielder Wesley Sneijder slotted it through for PSV Eindhovenʼs Memphis Depay, who was just offside. He shot anyway and Navas made his customary excellent save. With less than five minutes left Myrie intercepted Daley Blindʼs punt forward, kicking on for Ruiz to head into Ureñaʼs path.

The man who replaced Arsenalʼs on loan Joel Campbell Samuels after 65 minutes dribbled into the area, but his shot was well saved by Cillessen to keep the Dutch in the contest. With two minutes of extra time left Sneijder finally found a way past the excellent Navas, but his 25 yard shot hit the post. A lazy shot by Schalke04ʼs Klaas-Jan Huntelaar went out of play allowing van Gaal to bring Krul on for the perplexed Cillessen.

Immense

Navas enhanced his reputation once more and will surely earn a move to a bigger club – Levante would be crazy if they let him leave for a cent less than his buy-out clause. He was absolutely immense. It began just after 20 minutes as a move involving Bayern Münchenʼs Arjen Robben, Fenerbahçeʼs Dirk Kuyt, Depay and finally Manchester Unitedʼs Robin van Persie on the left, but Navas saved well. The rebound was helped on to Sneijder by Depay, but Sneijderʼs shot was never going to beat Navas.

Six minutes later Ruiz was shoved in the back by Sneijder. Irmatov gave a free-kick which Bolaños whipped in, but it went out of play although AIK Stockholmʼs Celso Borges Mora was manhandled by Bruno Martins-Indi. Replays confirmed that it should have been a penalty, as the Feyenoord defender was impeding Borges, as the replays confirmed. Irmatov either missed or ignored the offence.

A minute later van Persie surged forward and slotted Depay in, but Navas was equal to the task again. With under ten minutes of the first half remaining Júnior Díaz Campbell who booked for tug on Robben. Sneijder tries free-kick from 25 yards out, but well saved to right by Navas. Five minutes later PSV Eindhovenʼs Georginio Wijnaldum poked it through to Robben. The Dutch winger put van Persie through on left of area, but Navas rushed off his line quickly to claim at van Persieʼs feet.

Intense

With just under an hour played FSV Mainz05ʼs Díaz found space on the left wing and crossed for Campbell who was pushed in the back by Martins-Indi. Again it looked a penalty, but wasnʼt given. A minute later when Feyenoordʼs Stefan de Vrij committed the same offence nearer the half way line than penalty area. That was given, but the opportunity was wasted.

With just over ten minutes of normal time left Kuyt crossed from the right, but found Dynamo Kyivʼs Jeremain Lens just offside. Navas saved his header anyway. A minute later despite suggesting that Robben had dived González was booked for tugging him off. Sneijder responded with a fantastic free-kick, which hit the near post with Navas beaten – he had earned some luck. And two minutes after that Robbenʼs free-kick broke to van Persie on right of area. His turn to make room to shoot was magnificent, but once again Navas was equal to it.

In added time Díaz who had already been booked was fortunate to avoid another card for tripping Robben on the right edge of the area. It was a dreadful tackle. With added time drawing to a close the Dutch had one more great opportunity.

Blind crossed from left. It deflected off Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissaʼs Yeltsin Tejada Valverde to van Persie whose shot beat Navas, but was miss-hit onto bar by Tejada on the line. Extra time came and went and Costa Ricaʼs dream was ended on penalties. The Netherlands will face Argentina in a repeat of the controversial final of 1978 which helped to prop up the disgusting dictatorship of the late and unlamented General Jorge Videla Redondo.

 

México’s Curse Continues

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 29th 2014)

Cruel, but self-inflicted

Not even the remarkable heroics of goal-keeping phenomenon Ajaccio’s out of contract goal-keeper Guillermo Ochoa Magaña could deny the Netherlands a late win. For once Miguel Herrera Aguirre – the worst paid coach at the World Cup – got his tactics badly wrong. Leading by a splendid Giovanni dos Santos goal since two minutes into the second half Herrera chose to shut up shop with more than ten minutes remaining.

It backfired as the tenth Dutch corner led to something different. Schalke04’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar nodded the corner away from goal on to Wesley Sneijder, who had been ineffective until then, to strike it sweetly into the corner to Ochoa’s right with just three minutes of normal time remaining. It soon got worse, as México paid a high price for the negative tactics..

After a minute of added time the Méxicans fell to the sucker-punch as the Netherlands’ one influential player this afternoon Bayern München’s Arjen Robben induced México’s captain Rafa Márquez Álvarez into a rash attempt to steal possession in his own area, tripping Robben. It was a penalty. Huntelaar who had replaced a below par Robin van Persie kept his nerve and scored to Ochoa’s right. It proved to late to change the tactics back again.

México’s tactic of wasting time by belting the ball into touch started early – far too early and in the end it cost them dear. Their own negativity robbed them of the chance of matching Colombia’s achievement of making history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time.

Errors of Judgment

México had the best of the match, creating the better chances. With just over a quarter of an hour played an incisive move on the right flank led to Oribe Peralta laying it off for Héctor Herrera López, but Herrera shot just wide of Jasper Cillessen’s left-hand post. Shortly afterwards Portuguese referee Pedro Proença and his assistant proved the need for the use of technology in football wherever necessary.

Defender Ron Vlaar kicked the ball and Herrera’s head. It should have been a penalty. It was absurd that it was not given and that would have provided México with an opportunity to take the lead. Vlaar wasn’t even penalised let disciplined as such a challenge deserved. Robben was later denied a penalty that should have been given too. Héctor Moreno Herrera plainly tripped Robben after Márquez had an unsuccessful attempt – he missed the winger. The case for technology is becoming overwhelming.

And Robben tripped over a prone defender’s heel in the second half too, but the biggest error was Herrera’s courting pressure with 15 minutes remaining only for his team to buckle at the last minute using a tactic that had been used often and found wanting often too. The Dutch were far from their best and an upset was on the cards, especially after Villarreal’s Giovanni dos Santos individual effort a long-range half-volley from at least 25 yards out to the Ajax keeper’s left.

The Formidable Last Barrier

Ochao’s form has been sensational. Prior to this match he had only conceded once in the tournament. He was the goal-keeper of the first round of matches. His performance against Brasil was exceptional. A free agent after declining to extend his stay at Ajaccio, he’ll surely have attracted the admiration of far bigger clubs then and added to it tonight.

Once again he was immense. Less than ten minutes into the second half a corner was needlessly conceded by Diego Reyes Rosales. Stefan de Vrij and volleyed from point blank range. Somehow Ochoa pushed it onto his left-hand post – an incredible save, but he needn’t have bothered as de Vrij was offside. Over twenty minutes later he repeated it. Huntelaar was denied that time. Again he was offside. Ochoa’s heroics won’t be seen again and that’s a pity – he’s been sensational. Herrera’s done an incredible job considering how short a time he’s been in the job, but the Netherlands are through to face either Costa Rica or Greece in the quarter-final.