FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 2nd 2015)

Fan

I guess every reader of this column knows by now that I am a fan of FC Barçelona. I love the team because, like me, they are football purists, always winning by playing the better football, cleanly, clearly, and on the field – never in the boardroom. In the past decade, it is hard to find many lovers of football that have not been captivated by the club’s achievements, its football brand and philosophy, its youth academy and its very exceptionally gifted players.

Without question, FC Barçelona have been the team of the 21st Century, winning the world’s most coveted club trophy three times since 2000, getting to the semi-finals six times, and the quarter finals twice. Compare this to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which have won it twice each in that period, although, under José Mourinho, Real Madrid had a semi-final hoodoo, broken by Carlo Ancelotti winning the historic ʻLa Décimaʼ last season against cross-town rivals Atlético de Madrid.

Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Realʼs supporters, there is no question of who has played the better football and been more successful this century. It is clearly the Camp Nouʼs finest. This century the world has been treated to a brand of football that had never been seen previously in the history of the game.

The Blueprint

Tiki-Taka was a deliberate style of football conceived in Barçelona’s youth academy, complimented by acquiring some of the best players in the world – but many of Barçelona’s young players, not only held their own in élite company, they went on to play for Spain and made them World Champions for the first time in their history and the only nation to win and retain the European Championship.

Tiki-Taka became an art exhibition on display every week and everywhere FC Barçelona played. The team taught the rest of the world the ultimate art of ball possession, the quick one-two passing and movements, the short interchange of passes, back and forth and sideways, the players running and pressing when they lose possession, and maintaining a fluid but intricate organised pattern of movements all the time like a well-oiled machine.

With this style of play the team simply ran rings around most opposing teams. They were a delight to watch, even though critics of their style began to describe them as boring and rather monotonous. In the past decade, particularly, the ultimate challenge for European club managers was how to decode the team’s play. In the past three years a few have succeeded.

Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany discovered the antidote and reduced Barçaʼs impact and dominance. FC Barçelona needed to do something different to compete to win the UEFA Championsʼ League again.

The New Era

As great players aged – not even Barçelona have discovered the elixir of perpetual youth – a new style was needed too. Barçelonaʼs captain supreme Xavi Hernández i Creus doesnʼt play so much now, but Andrés Iniesta Lujáremains an integral part of the new machine.

I have just watched Barçelona FC take Manchester City FC to the cleaners in the first leg of the round of 16. It was a very emphatic and comprehensive performance that captured the essence of a ‘new’ FC Barçelona.

What is clear is that Tiki-Taka has been dismantled and is metamorphosing into something new, something less dramatic but, potentially more exciting and more deadly when the ‘concoction’ fully matures!

The old Barça played with 7 or more midfield players without a permanent striker upfront. Now, from outside the influence of the Barçelona youth academy, the team has been experimenting with new players for two seasons. FC Barçelona may have returned to the conventional style of European club football but they have created a new headache for European club managers.

The price that Barça have had to pay for this new formation is a midfield and defence that now look less compact with more open spaces for opposing teams to play. FC Barçelona are no less exciting than they once were, are less patient in attack than they once were, are less dominant in ball possession than they were previously, and less imposing on opposing teams than they once were. But for everything that they now are in deficit over, they make up for it with a striking partnership of three of the best goal scorers on the planet in their team!

In Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (Neymar), Luis Suárez Díaz and Lionel Messi Cuccittini, FC Barçelona now have a dream attacking formation almost unmatched by any other team with the exception of Real Madrid.

Questions

Having said all of that the question now arises: can the new FC Barçelona win the 2014/2015 UEFA Champions League? I run a betting shop so I know a good wager when I see one. This one is not. I will not put my money on FC Barçelona winning the Champions League this season.

Do not get me wrong. With a little bit of luck they can win it but the chances of that happening, in my humble estimation, are slim. Looking at how they have been playing this season, with Tiki-Taka dismantled, and a new style still developing, it may require the experience of one more season for the emerging philosophy to take a firm hold and make them champions once again.

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

Lionel Messi’s lethargic performance at the World Cup cost him a great deal. All he needed to do was alter his mindset and commit one hundred percent to the cause and lead Argentina to win the World Cup. That feat would have earned him the highest honour in the history of football – the best footballer that ever lived.

But something happened to him during the World Cup that I still cannot fathom. He did not play with the spirit of one that wanted to win very badly. He ‘strolled’ through the matches, and even got to the final playing without conviction and fire in the eyes. When Argentina lost Messi lost even more.

As a result, no one raised an eyebrow or complained when a few months later the hard-working, but obviously less talented Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show again and took away the crown of World’s best player from him again. Ronaldo thoroughly deserved it and it appeared as if the spirit to win had left Messi.

Now here comes a new season and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, Barçelona FC and Messi are back. Lionel Messi is playing spiritedly again. It is quite apparent in the way he plays these days, chasing and running around, joining in defending when his team loses possession, getting involved more than ever before during play, and playing his team from the front through physical effort.

It reminds me of the Messi of the early days of his career. He anchored Barçelona FC’s unique brand of football that dominated world football in the past decade. At that time there was no disputing the fact that in Barçelona and Messi the world had the best team and the best player respectively.

For Lionel Messi there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest to have ever played football. He may not have the complete range of skills like Pelé, or almost singled-handedly led his country to win the World Cup like Maradona, but in terms of sheer natural ability and affinity with the ball at his feet, there has never been a better player.

There is a magnetic relationship between his left foot and the ball that makes him do almost anything with it at will, almost effortlessly. It is hard to put into words his ease and comfort on the ball, his dribbling ability even in the tightest of corners, how he wriggles between defenders, how he rides tackles, how he glides and races past defenders, how he makes difficult shots look so easy, how he makes goal scoring a habit.

From what I have seen of Messi this current season, if all goes well and he remains injury free, he is set to extend his grip on world football. He will likely win the World’s best player award again for an unassailable 5th time. And probably the world will now accept, as I have claimed over and over again, that there has been no player like Lionel Messi in the history of football!

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.

Christian Karembeu 2

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”.

Christian Karembeu 1

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”.

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.

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.

Football Returns – And Not Before Time

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (August 21st 2014)

The Morning After

Segun at Wembley

It is the morning after. I am counting the number of the victors and the vanquished! I am quite aware that the premiership is a marathon race and not a sprints event. In a sprint a fractional faulty start would have a catastrophic consequence. Not so in a marathon.

Arsenal clearly illustrate this from the marathon race of the EPL last season when they started off disastrously with a loss at the Emirates to Aston Villa. Many did not think they could recover from it but a few matches down the line they not only recovered but began a sensational climb that would see them come within touching distance of winning the league trophy but for some injuries to key players and a dip in form (probably due to fatigue) to their talisman – the man that anchored that resurgence – Mesut Özil.

The Missing Elixir

After last Saturday, Manchester United FC must now be taking some consolation and lessons from Arsenalʼs experience. They have also started the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League on the worst possible note – losing their first match on home ground, under the tutelage of a manager whose credentials were considered good enough to succeed the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.

To the horror and consternation of their supporters Manchester United FC put up an ordinary performance that left their millions of global fans wondering where Sir Alex kept the concoction that made Manchester United FC a fighting machine throughout his time as manager! This used to be a team whose cutting edge was fighting until the last second. The number of matches won in the last few seconds, or minutes of many of their matches, is innumerable.

Last Saturday night the team looked like a wandering ghost of its past. Ok, so, it is still only the morning after the first round of the league. It may be premature to start to draw conclusions, even though the twilight of dawn may already be revealing the faint outlines of what the rest of the season may look like. 

So, Manchester United must be looking at the script of the Gunnersʼ formula last season. Doubt, fear and worry have crept into their pre-season excitement and the magical turn-around promised by Louis Van Gaal’s entry.

What happens this weekend when they face Sunderland FC away from home is going to be critical. Will the great Manchester United recover? That is the million-Dollar question that has everyone of their millions of supporters worldwide tottering on the edge of anxiety.

I have only one comment to make from my observatory. Manchester United may consider looking closer at the performances of David De Gea Quintana since he joined the team last season from Atlético de Madrid. Every team that will win the championship must have a very safe pair of hands in their goal! De Gea has been ‘leaking’ at the wrong times. I need not say more!

Quick off the blocks – Manchester City and Chelsea

On the other hand their city rivals, Manchester City FC came off the blocks steaming! Their two-goal margin against Newcastle United was emphatic. It sent a clear message to the rest of the league and testified to their current status as defending champions. They simply took off from where they left off the last season, with an even stronger and more confident squad.

But Chelsea look impressive too. With the introduction of Diego Costa at the head of the attacking pyramid Chelsea have injected pace, sharpness and very intelligent movements off the ball in attack that will drastically alter the style of the team. We saw it already in the first match. They played masterfully like champions!

The Blues change their style!

Only José Mourinho’s Chelsea FC bettered the start of Manchester City FC with a highly entertaining performance in the match against Burnley FC that had everything including some beautiful goals.

One goal, in particular, will resonate for the rest of the season – a beauty that came off the boots of André Schürrle from a series of quick interchange of passes from midfield involving Cesc Fàbregas and Eden Hazard,  seamless movements and a final superb visionary lob that tore apart the helpless and hapless defence of Burnley FC, the German striker was left clear to deliver a low cross from the right flank to the far side of goal beyond a bewildered Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul. It was a superb goal signalling Chelsea’s intent to be serious contenders again for the title.

My only comment on Chelsea is their refreshingly different style this time around. Far from their usual boringly defensive system that had typified Mourinho’s philosophy in past years, we saw an uncharacteristically freely attacking Chelsea playing at an incredibly delightful fast pace.

Beyond that, Mourinho has typically again commenced his mind games. He delivered the first salvo at a recent press conference with some snide remarks aimed at his greatest threat to the league title this season – Arsène Wenger!

Wenger has not responded. I guess his players will do the replying for him on the field when both their teams meet.

The Gunners on course!

Arsenal FC played well last weekend. But they were lucky to have won their first after struggling against a hard-fighting Crystal Palace FC until the dying seconds of the match.

The presence of Alexis Sánchez to compliment the array of attacking options (Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud) has added an exciting new dimension to the front-line. Alexis’ dazzling pace, dribbling skills, superb vision and finishing power up front will pose plenty of trouble for most opposing defenders.

When Mesut Özil finally returns to form and gets back into the team, the full potency of the new Arsenal FCʼs attacking arsenal will be revealed for all to see.

Liverpool FC – again?

I have deliberately not written anything about Liverpool FC so far this season because I do not see them, still, as possible champions. They won their first match at home against Southampton FC but did not look really convincing.

One of the most successful teams in the history of English football have had their ups and downs in past seasons. In 2012 crept like thieves to win the League Cup but have not maintained that sparkle until last season again when with the mercurial Luis Suárez they could have stolen the championship title at the tail end.

They have joined Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the league table as day breaks on the championship.

Segun at Wembley

So far, so good, the EPL has lived to expectations!

Glorious Defeat, but USA Finally Embraces Football

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 1st 2014)

Belgium Defeat America the Brave

Everton goal-keeper Tim Howard set a World Cup record of 16 saves in a heroic losing effort against Belgium tonight. The excitement flowed as the USA were beaten 2-1, but the nation finally got excited about football and made headlines for all the right reasons after the notorious Chuck Blazer affair. Even President Barack Obama was watching.

Neither Kevin de Bruyne, nor Chelseaʼs seemingly permanently on loan Romelu Lukaku had set the World Cup alight to date – Lukaku lost his place to Liverpool target Divock Origi – but they found a way past the record-breaking Howard in extra time. They had the assists on each othersʼ goals too.

Lukaku replaced Origi at the end of normal time. His run down the right flank and pull back for de Bruyne broke to his team-mate. De Bruyne shot across Howard to finally beat the American keeper.

In the last minute of extra time in the first period of it de Bryune found space on the left before threading it through to Lukaku who blasted it past Howard at the near post.

But the Americans refused to give up despite Lukakuʼs strike. Substitute Julian Green – one of the German-Americans recruited by Klinsmann – was brought on for the second period. He was put through by Michael Bradleyʼs chip and volleyed powerfully past Thibaut Courtois two minutes after coming on.

The young Belgian keeper who has spent the last three years on loan at Atlético de Madrid has yet to lose for his country.

The Formidable Last Barrier

Howard began his assault on the record books with less than a minute played. De Bruyne surged forward before finding Origi. The 19-year-old Lille strikerʼs shot was saved by Howard with his legs at the expense of a corner. It proved to be the first of many, some far easier than others. Both de Bruyne and Eden Hazard had efforts more akin to practice than the greatest stage.

The second half opened as the first had with a Howard save. Dries Mertens headed de Bruyneʼs cross at goal and Howard tipped over. Meanwhile, Courtois was not really tested. Their first shot on target came after 20 minutes. Clint Dempseyʼs run and interchange with Bradley resulted. Unfortunately the ball stuck under Dempseyʼs foot as he shot, so it was saved by Courtois.

With less than 20 minutes of normal time remaining a mazy run by substitute Kevin Mirallas, but was poked away as he was poised to shoot. It broke to Origi whose shot was saved by Howard. With 15 minutes remaining Hazard tracking back broke up an American attack and unleashed a quick counter-attack. Origi passed to Mirallas on the left of the area. Mirallasʼ shot across Howard was saved the immense keeper with his feet.

Three minutes later Howard was at it again denying Hazard after a superb run and pull back by Mirallas that was touched back to the Chelsea midfielder. Hazardʼs shot was powerfully parried by Howard. With six minutes left Origi shot powerfully from just outside the area, but Howard easily tipped it over. An end to end counter-attack started and finished by Vincent Kompany resulted in yet another save by Howard.

Despite being finally beaten after three minutes of extra time Howard pulled more saves out of the hat denying Lukaku after 6 minutes to concede yet another corner that Belgium failed to profit from. With ten minutes gone Hazard released Lukaku on the left of the area, but yet again Howard blocked at his near post. Belgium tried the right with a nice flick by Hazard releasing Mirallas, but his shot could not beat Howard..

Lukaku was in the mood for more. He latched on to a long clearance and beat both Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler to get his shot off from the left of the area only for Howard to deny him again with his left foot. Howard was simply imperious tonight.

Attack and Counter-attack

Both teams attacked and counter-attacked. While Belgiumʼs had greater quality, the USAʼs defence and Howard held firm. De Bruyne was profligate, although he created chances too. After 25 minutes an excellent move on Belgiumʼs left culminated in Jan Vertonghen squaring it for Marouane Fellaini to tap in, but DaMarcus Beasley had other ideas and cleared with Origi wondering why Vertonghen did not pull it back for him instead.

With just under an hour played Hazard released Origi on the left of the area. Origi got to the goal-line and pulled it back for Dries Mertens who tried something fancy that almost came off – a subtle back-heeled flick went just wide. Further attacks created chances for Origi, Hazard and even Kompany, but perhaps the best of normal time fell to the Americans. After pressing in the final third Geoff Cameron lofted it into area. Jermaine Jones nodded it to right where substitute Chris Wondolowski was clearly onside, but wrongly flagged. He was played onside by Alderweireld, but missed badly from 7 yards out, shooting well over Courtois and the bar – he had to score, but didnʼt. It could have been so different.

They had a chance to tie when the excellent DeAndré Yedlin crossed from the right for Wondolowski to nod back to the right for Jones who struck it with the outside of his right foot. It went just wide. Still the Americans refused to give in. After 23 minutes Michael Bradleyʼs inventive free-kick was touched on by Wondolowski to Dempsey, but Courtois was huge and blocked Dempseyʼs close range effort. The USA certainly added to this World Cup and will be missed. Belgium go on to play Argentina in the quarter-finals, but football has arrived in the USA at last.