Football – In Tact as Ever (Part Two)

By Traolach Kaye © Traolach Kaye (March 19th 2015)

Shenanigans

The BBCʼs Dan Roan alludes to how offended the Premier League will be by all these shenanigans to host the World Cup in the winter in Qatar to avoid the searing heat of an Arabic summer. That is most odd. English football is all about the Premier League. Clubs are either in the Premier League or aspire to be in it.

Those seeking to give the lie to this will claim that the Championship play-off final is the ʻrichest game in footballʼ … by dint, oddly enough, of the winner being ushered into the Premier League. Should football fans, globally, take umbrage at how the machinations of the Premier League, itself – something of a tyrantsʼ charter – have been upset and knocked marginally out of kilter by the decision to host the 2022 World Cup during the Winter months?

Roanʼs assertion that the FA might be upset as it may interrupt some ceremonially flavoured FA Cup programme – 2022 is the centenary of the Final at Wembley Stadium – is laughable. This presentation of the FA Cup as some Holy of Holies sits uncomfortably with how the event has been policed and how its attendees have been treated – Hillsborough, for example.

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Uncomfortable

It sits uncomfortably with how managers and players treat it. It sits uncomfortably with the stark reality of attendances at FA Cup games with certain clubs, at even advanced stages of the Cup. If it is important, why is it being treated as an after-thought, especially by the big clubs and the prize of qualification for the Europa League being seen as a unwanted burden, even though for some clubs, it is the only possibility of Champions League football.

Take Hull City for example. A lacklustre approach to it saw them dumped out without even reaching the League stage. This in the year that the winner of the Europa League gets into the Championsʼ League. Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool dropped out in the last 32. Only Everton still fly the flag.

Disproportionate Effects?

If Roan is so concerned that the effect of hosting WC 2022 in the Winter Months will have a disproportionately negative effect on the ʻSmaller Clubsʼ, he would do well to look at how the same ʻSmaller Clubsʼ themselves treat the FA Cup, and how the FA Cup treats them. Name the last non-top flight Club to win the FA Cup?

Southampton, 1976. The last 10 winners are Arsenal, Wigan, Chelsea, Manchester City, Chelsea, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal. Who owns those clubs? Portsmouth at the time of their winning the FA Cup in 2008 were owned by Alexander Gaydamak. He had bought the club from Milan Mandarić who was subsequently charged with tax-evasion.

Gaydamak then sold the club to Sulaiman al-Fahim who had acted as spokesperson for Mansour al-Nahyan and smoothed al-Nahyanʼs takeover of Manchester City. Al-Fahim in turn sold the club six weeks later to Ali al-Faraj, a supposed Saudi oil tycoon. Portsmouth went to rack and ruin and who paid the price? The loyal supporters who were the backbone of the club and who ultimately saved the historic club.

By 2013, Portsmouth FC had finally returned to the ownership of the fans themselves, with the club having been bankrupted, relegated three times and almost forced out of existence in the intervening period. But we must keep an eye out for FIFA, it seems.

Fit and Proper

Anybody can own an English football club. They are for sale every day of the week on whatever index you choose to consult. They are open to bids from everyone, irrespective of their morals, their achievements, their politics, their ethics, or the pedigree of their finances. They are not even the Harrods of their time, for which a purchase price AND favour had to be first agreed. Who buys these clubs?

The best known example is everyoneʼs favourite ʻBillionaire from Nowhereʼ, Roman Abramovich – a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin. Abramovich rose from nothing to dominate the Russian aluminium and gas sector, after being the understudy of Boris Beresovsky who was subsequently found dead at home in March 2013 soon after a protracted legal battle with Abramovich ended badly for Beresovsky.

Other noted humanists such as Thaksin Shinawatra, Tom Hicks, George Gillette, Mike Ashley, Vincent Tan, Venkatesh Rao, the al-Mubaraks, Alisher Usmanov and the aforementioned al-Fahims, Gaydamaks, al-Farajs, Mandarićs, etc. either own outright, have owned outright, possess, or have had strong financial interests in various English clubs.

Chicken factories. Bangladeshi sweatshops. Human rights abusers. Leveraged buyout merchants. Corporate raiders. Oligarchs. Oil tycoons. Silicon valley entrepreneurs. Eastern-Bloc businessmen. But look out for FIFA.

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Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United has used his position to try take advantage of the collapse of Glasgow Rangers such that Rangers was in danger of becoming a satellite club of Newcastle United. But look out for FIFA.

Universal Problem

This is not alone an English problem. Perspective is loaned to the matter when one considers that Real Madrid have agreed a £350m deal with a construction company owned by a member of the family that owns Manchester City. These clubs are supposedly in competition. They are instead each otherʼs keepers. This is supposedly the football that we should be worried will be ʻtorn apartʼ by a tournament being hosted in the Winter months – a tournament 7 years now.

No self-respecting journalist capable of even the slightest abstract thought could possibly find themselves offended uniquely by FIFAʼs alleged corruption juxtaposed as it is against the backdrop painted above. A brief examination of those invited to do business in England, and fêted for doing same, says a lot about this. 

England held its nose and took its reluctant place at the trough in the run up to the decision to award the World Cups for 2018 and 2022 respectively. Had England walked away early-doors and refused to have anything to do with the selection process, then we might have avoided the entire saga. Instead, the tit-for-tat will continue, presumably up and until such a stage as England is awarded a World Cup to host.

And letʼs remember that three-times beaten finalists the Netherlands have never hosted the World Cup, let alone suffered a long delay waiting for it to return. Isnʼt it their turn first?

Life After Cuadrado

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 18th 2015)

Won’t be Missed

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino told a press conference that Fiorentina won’t miss Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. The Colombian winger – one of the stars of los Cafeteros’ best ever World Cup – went to Chelsea in the January transfer window. Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah went in the opposite direction on loan for the rest of the season.

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Salah has already said that he wants to stay in the renaissance city. He scored at the weekend and will be keen to impress. Salah’s rapid return to English soil with a point to prove will grab the headlines, but a forgotten Englishman returns too for the first time since his departure for sunnier climes in the summer – former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards

But most column inches will be about the Cuadrado-sized hole in the Viola’s plans, plugged by among others Salah. “Juan [Cuadrado] is an unbelievable player, but it is true Fiorentina have a strong squad”, Pochettino said. “We have seen a lot of their games and they have a very good team. They have a lot of players and I’m sure they will do fine without him”.

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Impact of the Loss of Cuadrado

Vincenzo Montella the young coach of the Viola would rather talk about the players he still has or brought in than the versatile Colombian winger, but talk he must. “Well I think we pulled of a bit of a coup ourselves to be honest with you in signing Salah, but joking aside of course, itʼs almost a source of professional pride that someone wanted to pay so much for Cuadrado and that he developed so much as a player, because he certainly wasnʼt at that level when he first arrived to play for us, so I think us, the management and the players are very proud of how far heʼs been able to go with our help, but we havenʼt just replaced him with one player”, Montella said. “Weʼve replaced him with several players”.

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Cuadrado wanted to leave Florence last year even before the World Cup. His erstwhile Viola team-mates must get used to his absence and to his replacement. “Salah is a very good player”, Montella said. “Heʼs used to playing at this level and although heʼs only been with us for a short while, heʼs already shown very quickly thatʼs heʼs up to playing very well in Italy and playing very well for us”.

Veteran defender Manuel Pasqual agrees. “Cuadradoʼs a great player, the kind of guy who could make a difference on the pitch, but I think that Salahʼs got off to a flying start”, he said. “Heʼs being doing really well and I hope that he just continues playing the way he is at the moment”.

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The Shop Window

Fiorentina did not want to sell him, but money talks and Cuadrado had put himself in the shop window by having an exceptional World Cup. It was going to be a tough job to keep him. The Viola did well to stave off interest in the summer transfer window.

James Rodríguez Rubio had starred in the absence of the injured Radamel Falcao García Zárate and got the move both coveted to European champions Real Madrid. Falcao moved to Manchester United on deadline day on loan – a move that hasn’t worked for either party yet.

But while those stars got their moves Cuadrado stayed put in Florence, but his heart was already wandering. Cuadrado wanted to capitalise on his successful World Cup, but the hoped for move to Barçelona failed to materialise – he was the one major Colombian star not to get a big money move.

For a while at least it looked as if the Fiorentina might just keep their star. “He’s very important”, Fiorentina’s Administrative Delegate Sandro Mencucci told us exclusively at the Europa League Draw. “He’s one of the best players in the world in my opinion and it’s important that Cuadrado is with our team. We are a strong team – very tough”.

Going, Going, Gone

Cuadrado was not happy, but the Camp Nou faded into the distance as the transfer ban on the Catalan giants ended any hopes of a transfer there this season or in the summer. “Yes, he’s very important,” Mencucci.

Fiorentina had made him a better player than when he joined them from Udinese in 2012.Montella was quick to point that out. So how much was he worth? Mencucci laughs. “It’s difficult to talk about a sum”, he says determined to avoid tipping off potential suitors to the likely price. “I think that’s great valuable”. The message from Mencucci was clear. “No, no”, he said. “I don’t want to sell”.

But money talks and Cuadrado wanted to leave Florence. Chelsea knew his buy-out clause and got permission to talk to him. Before long their bid was accepted. Cuadrado – a boy who grew up in poverty without his father, because he was murdered during the appalling drug-related violence that tortured that nation in the 1990s – had joined the Premier League’s millionaires row.

He’d come a long way from his origins when the boy with a passion for football would go to extraordinary lengths to play the sport he loved, despite his mother’s and then grand-mother’s disapproval. He made his Champion’s League bow for his new club from the bench on Tuesday against Paris Saint Germain.

Familiar Faces

If he’s watching his old team tonight he will see plenty of familiar faces, including an unexpected one. “As far as officiating, then, no [he has no concerns] as far weʼre concerned”, Montella said. “The referees do their job. We respect their decisions; thatʼs it”. Cuadrado will beg to differ when he sees who the referee is. Carlos Velasco Carballo was the official who lost or never had control of the quarter-final between Brasil and Colombia (see Pockmarked at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/pockmarked/).

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If the Spaniard referees as he normally does (see Tatters at https://empowersport.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/2007/), Cuadrado’s incredulity will turn to bemusement and then incredulity and anger. Velasco Carballo was a very different type of referee before the World Cup and returned to form afterwards. Colombians still await a satisfactory answer of why he refereed against form in Fortaleza.

Ambitions

Ambitions

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 18th 2015)

Test

Vincenzo Montella wants success. The current coach of Fiorentina, known as the Little Aeroplane due to gis goal celebration has made the transition from player to coach. His opposite number Tottenham Hotspurʼs Mauricio Pochettino has too. Both teamsʼ league positions suggest that qualifying for the Championsʼ League through their respective leagues will be difficult, but there is another option – winning the Europa League.

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Thereʼs no doubt of course that itʼs a really important game tomorrow and yeah, this is what we work for, this is why we are involved in football”, Montella said. “Weʼre very, very passionate about the game and Iʼm sure that tomorrow will be a fantastic experience and weʼre focussed on tomorrowʼs game. Of course we want to go as far as possible, but we want to focus on tomorrow and the rest will take care of itself”.

Montella knows that Spurs will be a difficult side to beat. “Tomorrow, itʼs going to be very difficult”, he said. “We need to ensure that weʼre extremely focussed out on the pitch. We need to be full of energy, but by the same token not get too carried away, because that could perhaps make things difficult for us, perhaps even have a slight bit of fear that could keep us on edge during the game”.

Ready

Veteran defender Manuel Paasqual has no illusions either. “… weʼre in the Europa League, direct knock-out round”, he said. “We know weʼre playing a very good team, perhaps one of the favourites for the competition. We know that theyʼre fast, tough, very physical. And this year weʼre up against Tottenham, but weʼre going to go up there and do our best to carry on in the competition”.

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His coach is ready too. “I think whatʼs really important for us is to be ready, to be prepared, physically, tactically, mentally as well and I think that is something which we all are”, Montella said. “My team is ready for the game. We know itʼs a big game. Itʼs a big game against a strong team, playing at home with their own crowd behind them, which is not necessarily something weʼre always used to playing in this kind of atmosphere, but yeah weʼre ready”.

Important

Itʼs not a season-defining match, but both teams know that victory is important. “Well I think itʼs a very important game for us, because obviously weʼre playing a very strong team in Spurs, but I think we ourselves in the past and at the moment, we are showing ourselves to be a very good team”, Pasqual said. “We know that Spurs are going to be difficult.

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Montella is keen to play their own match. “Well I think that we know that we have to play our game”, Montella said. “We have to display what weʼre capable of doing We have to be combative; we have to be energetic. We have to know match the opposition, whether itʼs physically, mentally. We need to play well, stay true to our style, be brave and also a little bit humble and be aware of what might happen if we donʼt play to our top level”.

Commitment

Among the players returning for their first taste of football in England since leaving these shores are Mohamed Salah on loan from Chelsea and former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards. Montella doesnʼt think that will matter much. “I think that what is important isnʼt so much being used to play here in England, itʼs being used to playing at this kind of level against these kind of teams,he said.

He has no illusions that Fiorentina face a tough tie. “Tottenham are a complete team”, he said. “Thereʼs nothing missing from them whatsoever and theyʼre pretty special in that they combine a Spanish style of play and an English style of play, so a lot of possession and the slow the ball down, but then theyʼre also very quick in the transition phase. Theyʼre able to speed things up. Theyʼre able to be very direct as well, so thatʼs something you have to get used to and yeah, theyʼre strong opposition. We know that. Theyʼre a very, very complete team”.

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Pasqual shares his coachʼs opinions. “Itʼs going to be tough, but the important thing for us to give our best, play well on the pitch in exactly the same way as weʼve done in any other game weʼve played whether it be the Cup Italia – the Italian Cup – or in the Italian Championship”, Pasqual said.

Montella tempers his enthusiasm with a note of caution. “We need to be extremely enthusiastic”, he said. “We need to be very brave. We need to enjoy the opportunity, but by the same token we canʼt get too carried away. We canʼt be too euphoric, because obviously that might lead us to become a little bit careless and thatʼs when mistakes can happen”.

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The Final Chapter

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 15th 2015)

Afcon 2015 – New African Champions

After an exciting three weeks of pulsating but technically mediocre festival of football in Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants of la Côte d’Ivoire have become the new Champions of African football. They took the coveted trophy that was relinquished, rather humiliatingly, by Nigeria. The Super Eagles had exited at the qualifying stage of the championship.

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It may have taken well over 20 years for their trophy drought to end, but when it finally did the whole of Côte d’Ivoire exploded in an orgy of celebration as the government declared a national public holiday and lavishly rewarded the gallant heroes with houses and cash gifts. It was a far cry from the disgraceful treatment Ivorian players received from former dictator Robert Guéï after a poor performance in Afcon 2000.

History

The final match against Ghanaʼs Black Stars created razor-sharp pressure for both teams. Tactically, they cancelled each other out for 120 minutes and the match had to be settled by penalty kicks – again. That match marked the third time the Elephants played in the final of the Nations Cup and did not score a goal. It also marked the third time a final involving the Ivorians had gone to penalties.

The recourse to penalty kicks against these opponents historically favoured the Ivorians. In 1992 they won the championship for the first time against Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out that ended 11-10. They had tasted defeat in a penalty shoot-out too when Egypt won the first of their unprecedented three consecutive titles in 2006.

Two Sunday night’s ago the elements were on the side of Côte d’Ivoire once again, as ‘lightning struck twice on the same spot’. 

Ghana were left stranded on the banks of misfortune as they threw away an early two-goal lead, due to nerves, and lost 8-9 in the end, continuing a trophy drought that has lasted 33 years. The Black Stars have lost their last three finals, twice on penalties to the Ivorians and once to Egypt in 2010

Apart from the penalty shoot-out the final match was tension-soaked but technically ordinary and boring – a true reflection of the entire championship.

The Special Generation

Winning the championship was momentous for Côte d’Ivoire as it marked the end of an era for several of their ageing generation of players, some of whom have been among the best footballers in the history of African football. Between them, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have won the African player of the year award 7 times. Add to that other great players playing at a high level in Europe, including Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and so on.

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It is unfortunate that Drogba chose to retire from international football on the eve of the championship. The victory would have capped a very illustrious and unprecedented career that had only the African Cup of Nations title as the missing trophy in his rich chest.

Scant Consolation

Overall, Ghana looked the slightly better and more organised team, even though Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten did not lose any of their matches throughout the championship. However, the Ghanaians were the more entertaining team during the tournament. Consequently, it is not surprising that the player of the tournament came from the Ghanaian team.

Christian Atsu, currently on loan from Chelsea to Everton got more opportunities under Avram Grant than he has from José Mourinho or Roberto Martínez in England. The fleet, left-footed player operated from the right side of the Ghanaian attack, scoring two of Ghana’s three goals in the quarter-finals and constantly terrorised the Ivorian defence during the final. He deserved the award. He was a bright star in a very grey constellation.

Memories

Finally, the Championship will be remembered not for memorable matches but for other reasons: how the championship ended up in a country that did not even qualify for the championship and was under suspension by CAF; how the terraces were empty during most of the matches except those involving the host country; how Morocco were suspended (and rejected the suspension) for two tournaments for refusing to host the event due to genuine health fears; how Tunisia were suspended for failing to apologise for accusing CAF of bias and complicity when they were openly ‘robbed’ by a referee who only got a slap-on-the-wrist six-month suspension, for his shameful handling of the match in question; how supporters of the host country threw decorum to the dogs and unleashed mayhem on players and supporters of an opposing team with the shameful scenes watched on television all over the world; how both CAF and FIFA Presidents condemned the Western media for ‘exaggerating’ reports of the incidents that smeared the organization of the championship because they needed to make more friends than enemies amongst national federations with their elections coming, and so on.

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At the end of Afcon 2015, the championship simply could not produce or showcase the best version of African football as well as authentic new stars to illuminate African football into the immediate future. Letʼs hope that Afcon 2017 will supply both. The country that will host that tournament will be decided by CAF in April, following the withdrawal of Libya as hosts due to security concerns.

Next Time the Fire-power

Four countries that expressed an interest met CAFʼs conditions to host the tournament. Beaten finalists Ghana last hosted in 2008. They also hosted and won the tournament twice previously. The first time was in 1963 – the first appearance of the Black Stars in the tournament. That was the first of three triumphs under the legendary African coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Only Egyptʼs Hassan Shehata has matched him, although Hervé Renard has made history already and has power to add.

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The next time Ghana hosted and won was in 1978, the only victory of the Black Stars not under Gyamfiʼs supervision. Fred Osam Duodu was the successful coach. The most successful team in African history, the Pharaohs have won the trophy seven times. Egyptʼs last success – qualification too – was in 2010. They hosted and won in 2006.

Their fierce rivals the Desert Foxes of Algeria have only one title to their name. They hosted and won in 1990. That leaves Gabon. They have never won the trophy. Their best achievement was reaching the quarter-final twice, in 1996 when they went out on penalties to beaten finalists Tunisia and when they co-hosted in 2012. Gabon has never hosted in their own right.

Thriller in Florence

Editorʼs Note

We republish this article due to the imminent transfer of Fiorentinaʼs Colombian sensation Juan Guillermo Cuadarado Bello to Chelsea. He subsequently excelled at the World Cup. We will be publishing an article on the transfer shortly – a transfer that the Italian club did not want, but seemed to have little choice due to the playerʼs wishes.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 6th 2014)

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Breathtaking

Relegation threatened Sassuolo ended hosts Fiorentinaʼs admittedly slim hopes of third place and a berth in next yearʼs Championʼs League in Florenceʼs Artemio Franchi Stadium with a thrilling 4-3 win thanks to a first half hat-trick by Domenico Berardi and the winner by Nicola Sansone after 64 minutes.

Trailing 3-0 at half time Vincenzo Montellaʼs Viola left the field to deserved boos. Despite dominating possession and creating the better chances in the first 20 minutes they failed to capitalise on their advantage and looked a beaten side as they trudged off. Montella had other ideas. Sassuolo, however, took nothing for granted. “We saw Liverpool go three up yesterday,” Nicola Sansone said, “so we knew that anything could happen.”

It very nearly did. Whatever version of the Riot Act Montella favours, it worked – well almost. Former Real Betis and Valencia winger Joaquín Rodríguez made an immediate impact when brought on in the second half, triggering hopes of a comeback by winning a 56th minute penalty when fouled by Alessandro Longhi. Gonzalo Rodríguez converted it. The come-back was on? Sassuolo had other ideas. Sansone restored Sassuoloʼs three-goal cushion only for Giuseppe Rossi and Juan Cuadrado to set up an exhilarating final 15 minutes.

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The False Dawn

Fiorentina knew that they could afford no slip ups if they were to overtake Rafa Benítezʼ Napoli – already boasting an 8 point advantage with just three rounds remaining. A harsh penalty and yellow card was awarded against former Barçelona starlet Borja Valero for handball after he blocked Davide Biondiniʼs shot.

Valero protested that it was not deliberate and he had a point. He was far too close to be able to respond, but it made no difference to referee Tagliavento di Terno. 10 minutes later the Artemio Franchi Stadium was silenced when Berardi doubled the visitorsʼ lead. Sansone put him through, but despite not being Montellaʼs first choice goalkeeper Antonio Rosati has to do better than allow himself to be beaten so easily at his near post.

|With less than five minutes of the first half remaining Berardi completed his hat-trick after being put through by Simone Zaza who had hit the post from just outside the area two minutes earlier. Again Rosati should have done better. The Viola had several chances, none of which they had taken. Sassuolo deservedly led 3-0 at half time.

Chastened

Having seen Liverpool blow a three-goal cushion against Crystal Palace, Sassuolo were determined to keep the pressure up. No sooner had Gonzalo scored than Sassuolo cranked up the pressure. Only Simone Zaza will know how he failed to score on 63 minutes after Berardi gift-wrapped the chance for him. A minute later Zazaʼs blushes were spared by Sansone.

But any thoughts the visitors may have had that it was match over with 25 minutes left were quickly dispelled. Former Manchester United and Villarreal forward Giuseppe Rossi took Valeroʼs pass in his stride to score from close range.

Three minutes later the ʻremarkableʼ come-back was definitely on as Fiorentinaʼs best player on the night, Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado latched on to David Pizarroʼs long ball to delightfully chip keeper Gianluca Pegolo.

Fiorentina believed again, but try as they did they could not find another. Two minutes after Cuadradoʼs goal Rossi went close, but his shot was narrowly off-target. With time running out Berardi needed treatment. He decided to continue, but soon succumbed kicking the ball out and going down near the touchline.

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That incensed Fiorentina players – Berardi was dragged off the pitch and a brawl ensued. The Viola refused to return the ball. Berardi stayed off despite all substitutes having been used. Despite 6 minutes added time Sassuolo hang on for a famous win that took them out of the relegation places and ended the Violaʼs slim chance of Championʼs League football next season. It also gave new-comers Sassuola a fighting chance of survival.

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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A Long Time Coming

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 23rd 2014)

A Change is Gonna Come

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It;s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come”, sang the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke. Just 42 years ago Englandʼs womenʼs football team played their first international against Scotland at Greenock since the FAʼs 50 year-long ban on womenʼs football was overturned. Prior to that outrageous ban womenʼs football had been popular. Before the ʻWar to End All Warsʼ it had even threatened to eclipse menʼs football.

The ban had a seriously detrimental effect. Other nations had not stood still and there was now a lot of catching up to do as the lack of exposure, investment and development of infrastructure all took a heavy toll on the sport. The first international that England played was in Scotland, but that squad had trained at Wembley Stadium ahead of that match. That team captained by Sheila Parker, who was later inducted into the Hall of fame, never got to play a match on the famous turf.

Against the Odds

This afternoon – almost 50 years after Cooke was murdered – a seismic change will come to Wembley Stadium. History will be made and itʼs long overdue, as Englandʼs women will play at Wembley Stadium against European champions Germany in front of around 50,000 football fans. Five years ago England met Germany in the final of the European Championship, losing 6-2. Both teams have a very impressive record in qualifiers for next yearʼs World Cup.

Just five years ago the best English talent had to go abroad to develop their skills to the maximum. There was no professional league here. Lianne Sanderson is a classic example. She had the dedication and talent to become a professional footballer, but like Kelly Smith before her, she had to go to the USA where the sport was taken seriously.

She had played for both Arsenal and Chelsea before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She also played in Spain before another stint in the USA. After that she returned to Arsenal, the club she started her life in football at, a better player, having benefited from a commitment to womenʼs football in the USA that was absent here at the time.

Now the Football Association has demonstrated that it is committed to womenʼs football. In 2010 the FA delivered a long-awaited promise – the Womenʼs Super League. Liverpool recently won the title after a nail-biting conclusion to the season. Sanderson has returned, helping to build that league and pass on what she has learned.

Making History

The challenges are immense. Television wasnʼt interested in womenʼs football at first, but that has changed. The first time they will play at the home of football, the BBC will cover the match live. Another piece of history will be made as Birmingham Cityʼs Karen Carney will receive her golden cap.

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Carney, like Sanderson, has come full circle – a journey that took her to Arsenal and then Chicago before returning to Birmingham. She won her first cap in 2005 – the youngest player given a debut by former manager Hope Powell. The winger has scored 14 times for England. She also played five matches for Great Britain during Londonʼs Olympic Games in 2012 including at Wembley against Brasil.

She will become only the seventh English female player to reach the landmark. She will join Gillian Coulthard, Kelly Smith, Casey Stoney, Rachel Unitt, Fara Williams and Rachel Yankey as Englandʼs female centurions. She will also be the youngest, aged just 27. Carney hopes that this afternoonʼs match will be the first of many at Wembley.

Coulthardʼs record of 119 caps was beaten by Yankey two years ago. Yankey is Englandʼs most capped player with 129, but she is over 200 caps shy of the most capped player ever, the USAʼs Kristine Lilley who appeared for her country a staggering 352 times.

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.

Imperious Chelsea Crush Maribor

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (October 21st 2014)

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Unbridgeable Gulf

Albeit with some decisions going their way Chelsea thoroughly outclassed Sloveniaʼs champions and conquerors of Celtic, Maribor 6-0 at Stamford Bridge tonight. The injuries woes piled up as Loïc Rémy scored, but immediately succumbed to a groin injury that will keep him out for a fortnight. Diego Costa is also injured, meaning that veteran striker Didier Drogba in his second coming at Stamford Bridge will most likely start against Manchester United on Sunday.

Maribor certainly didnʼt have the rub of the green. Two debatable penalties against them and a goal that ought to have been disallowed never help, but Mariborʼs coach Ante Šimundža made no excuses. The better side had deservedly won. “It was obvious that was a team that is a serious candidate to win the title in this yearʼs Championʼs League and the quality of the players was out of reach for us – their individual quality also”, Šimundža said. “Chelsea was just the better team and deserved to win all there points”.

CIMG9333José Mourinho was more circumspect. “We played well”, Mourinho said. “The best way to respect is to play the best possible way and I think this was a good thing of the team. From minute one to the last minute we tried always to play and to play well and even defensively we respect the opponent. We know the qualities they have. The strikers are good players and the wingers are dangerous players. They deserve our respect and we respect them so much and because we respect them so much we manage to have such a solid performance in both ways with or without the ball… We won three points. We have seven. We are happy. We are top of the group. We played very well”.

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Demolished

With less than 15 minutes played Rémy opened the scoring after latching on to John Terryʼs pass on the right flank. It was Rémyʼs last touch after looking sharp. The former QPR man made way for Chelsea legend Didier Drogba. To the cheers of the Stamford Bridge faithful Drogba stepped up to take the penalty ten minutes after Rémy had given Chelsea the lead.

Slovenian international Aleš Mewrtelj was adjudged by Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, making his Championʼs League debut, to have handled Willianʼs pass at close range. To Mourinhoʼs disapproval Drogba was allowed to take the penalty by regular penalty taker Eden Hazard. “I donʼt like it”, Mourinho said. “They have the freedom to do it. They can do it, but he has score”.

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And he did. Drogba sent keeper Jasmin Handanović the wrong way to score his first goal for Chelsea since winning the Championʼs League two years ago under newly appointed Schalke coach Roberto di Matteo.

A magnificent counter-attack from a Maribor corner put the table-toppers three ahead. Drogba cleared to Hazard who dribbled into the heart of the Slovenians defence before releasing Cesc Fàbregas on the overlap. Terry made up the ground to score from close range from Fàbregasʼ cross. It ought to have been disallowed for offside, but didnʼt really affect the result.

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After the break Chelsea pursued more. Willian fed his compatriot Filipe Luis on the left wing. Some neat footwork bamboozled the defender, but the cross went across the goal to Hazard whose cross clipped Mitja Vilerʼs heel for an own-goal after 54 minutes. Ten minutes later Agim Ibraimi went down under Nemanja Matićʼs challenge. Summing up Mariborʼs night Ibraimiʼs penalty hit the post with Petr Čech beaten.

With less than 15 minutes remaining Branislav Ivanović won a penalty for a shove in the back by Marko Šuler. Again it looked a bit soft, but the Serbian international could have gone down under a previous challenge if he had wanted to for a clear penalty. Hazard scored. Just before that goal Willian a nice run and shot from distance by Willian beat everyone, but the crossbar. Still Chelsea were not satisfied. In injury time Hazard got his second after latching onto a raking pass from substitute Nathan Aké and making space to beat the disconsolate Handanović for the sixth.

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The Legend

Strikers like to score goals”, Mourinho said. “He [Drogba] was not for a long time on the pitch in previous matches. He just had a start against Schalke. His last goal for Chelsea was the most important in the history of this club, so to be back and to score again at Stamford Bridge is nice for him. Good”.

Drogba is far from up to the pace of English football yet, but the injury crisis that has developed seems to leave Mourinho with little option but to play the Ivorian against Manchester United on Sunday.

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I was not expecting him to play 75”, Mourinho said. “I spoke with him yesterday and we spoke about 30, but circumstances, he had to come on and the game went in a direction where he could manage the intensity and he could manage his range of movements and he was comfortable to play 75 minutes, so in the end it was very, very important for Didier, because the best thing for a player to improve his condition is to play, so very good for him”.

Mourinho thought it too early to think of being contenders for the trophy. “We are in the group phase”, he said. “We played three matches. To be in the final we have to play 12 and qualify for the final. Long, long way to go. I think itʼs premature to speak about that. We are not even qualified for the next phase, so step by step. First objective is to qualify, second objective is to finish first in the group, so letʼs go step by step”.

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The Ides of October

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 10th 2014)

BPL – Under Starter’s Orders

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There are two things on my mind this weekend – the Barclays Premier league and Nigeria’s match against Sudan! I am thinking and looking closely at the real contenders for this season’s BPL trophy already. Just one week into the league season I noted that Chelsea FC looked very seriously like the team to beat this season – not much insight needed there. But Manchester United was proving an enigma. Was last season just a blip, or is there a bigger problem?

Until last week Manchester United looked out of sorts with the much travelled and successful Louis Van Gaal wondering whatever happened to his football magic wand. Van Gaal conceded that this has been his worst and most challenging experience since he started coaching and he acknowledged how difficult it now appeared to be for the club to rise again and play like the champions of old.

Although it is still morning in the league, the signs don’t indicate a typical Man United resurgence. Whatever happened to Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and the new mercurial on-loan striker, Radamel Falcao? Colombia’s talisman looks lost in the team, although he and United have the class to demand not to be written off. Falcao has scored goals wherever he [plays, but ominously United don’t play the way that he has thrived on.

English football’s most expensive player, the Argentinian Ángel di María, may well become the Joker in the pack and alter the fortunes of Man U for good if and when he hits full throttle and finally starts to play as well as we all know he is capable of doing. There’s no doubt that United have bought class players and paid well for them. It remains to be seen whether they will deliver and what place if any will be found for the club’s previous record signing Juan Mata.

Fluctuating Arsenal

The Gunners spent heavily this season, but results show that they still need to spend some more to get the perfect combination going. The Chilean winger Alexis Sánchez arrived from FC Barçelona sporting great credentials, but for me, he has been a great disappointment.

His performances during the World Cup for Chile were so fantastic that even I believed that any club would be lucky to pry him away from Cataluña. Instead, he has looked rather slow and uncertain about how to play in Arsenal, just as the team also continues to display great vulnerability when defending. He may just need time to adjust to a new league and team and his team-mates to him, but football is not known for patience.

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The team’s performance has kept oscillating between mouth-watering brilliance and the abysmal. Arsenal also, like Manchester United, have not played like potential champions. Arsène Wenger still needs to make use of the next transfer window for players that can to shore up the team’s defence. Otherwise, despite celebrating 18 years at Arsenal recently – the longest serving manager in the BPL currently – this may be his last season with the Gunners.

Liverpool face different problems. They have just not struck a great rhythm yet. They have played with the promise of great things, but have failed to be firm in their delivery. There is more bottled up in side the team than being displayed so far. Despite new signings led by Mario Balotelli, along with Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, world class is hard to replace. Warts and all Luis Suárez is world class and proving hard to replace. Liverpool may find a way to click, but in my opinion they are unlikely to walk alone with the crown this time even if on paper they have the capability.

Impressive Defence

Manchester City FC have been impressive. They are improving with every match, and may indeed have the best front line in the Premiership this season with several attacking options upfront led by Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Stevan Jovetić.

Yaya Touré continues to inspire with his week-in week-out textbook demonstration of how to play in central midfield. When in top form he is the perfect bridge between defence and attack. He surely must be in contention for the best central midfield player in the world, and a leading contender for Africa’s next Player of the Year Award again this December!

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But it is Chelsea FC in England (not in Europe where they have looked boring and have been played tamely) that have shown quite clearly their intention to win the Premiership. The team has played every match with the signature of José Mourinho written all over it. The shoving spat between Wenger and Mourinho last weekend, when Chelsea beat Arsenal with consummate ease, really confirmed Chelsea’s strength and determination this season. They are the team playing with the spirit of potential champions.

Stephen Keshi, Super Eagles and the Ides of March!

The last thing on my mind as we approach this weekend is the most discussed issue in Nigerian football at the moment. As Nigeria Super Eagles of play away in Sudan the match could determine Stephen Keshi’s fate as manager of the Super Eagles.

Undoubtedly, while not plumbing the depths of Berti Vogts’ Super Chickens, the Super Eagles have been anything but super since after the World Cup. Before then Keshi could do no wrong. He had amassed the most successful record for a Nigerian in the history of football in the country. Then he took Nigeria to the World Cup where he put up a fairly good performance until some immature behaviour by the players, that many people have said he encouraged and benefited from, crept in to ruin everything he had worked for.

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With a new Executive Committee that appears not to want him but cannot get rid of him easily, he now faces the biggest threat to his stay as manager of the national team. For now he is hanging on to the job by the skin of his teeth and is likely to be laid off should the Super-Eagles fail to impress this weekend.

The biggest thing going for him is the absence of any alternative to him as coach of the Eagles. In this era of ex-internationals, no other Nigerian ex-international has his rich football management credentials. So, to consider anyone amongst a list of the few in his category is difficult. It can’t be justified.

Samson Siasia, whose name is being mentioned as a possible replacement, would be a hard sell. Nothing has happened in Siasia’s career since he was replaced by Keshi to indicate that he is now a different and better coach. Perhaps, Sunday Oliseh? He looks the part, but can he walk the walk?

I do not like the setting of this weekend’s match at all. I wonder why CAF would allow a match of this magnitude to be played on artificial turf. This could well spell doom for the Super Eagles.

I do not like it one bit! The Super Eagles and Stephen Keshi must beware the Ides of March, or should that be the Ides of October. But good luck to the Super Eagles.

Segun at Wembley