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.

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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

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.

Roller-Coaster

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

The Prodigal

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Suspended indefinitely by the Ghanaian Football Federation after an altercation with the Black Starsʼ coach James Kwesi Appiah that saw him sent home from the World Cup, Schalke04ʼs German-born international Kevin-Prince Boateng must wonder whether it was worth reversing his decision to retire from international football and whether he made the right decision pledging his allegiance to the Stars rather than Germany.

Boateng was a former German youth international left Brasil early. Meanwhile his half-brother Jérôme was part of Germanyʼs World Cup winning team. The brothers have faced each other in World Cup matches twice. Four years ago Kevin was a hate figure in Germany when a mistimed tackle on Michael Ballack put the then German captain out of the World Cup. Boateng apologised to Ballack, but criticised both the German FA and national team manager Joachim Lõw. Ballackʼs international career ended controversially.

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Uncompromising

Boatengʼs disciplinary record has been troublesome, but the box to box midfielder deserves credit too. He moved to AC Milan in 2010 and made headlines for all the right reasons. Within 14 minutes of coming on as a substitute against Lecce, he had bagged a hat-trick, only the second by a substitute in Serie A

He also led the five main leagues in sendings off in 2012-2013 averaging one every six games. before deciding to leave Italy for Germany and Schalke 04. Boateng decided to change his international allegiance from Germany to Ghana. It was approved in May 2010, causing him to miss the Black Starsʼ run to the final of the African Cup of Nations in Angola.

In November 2011 he retired from international football, citing the effect of long distance travel. He was just 24 and once again missed the African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and also South Africa in 2012 and 2013. He played in two World Cu campaigns, but his indefinite suspension suggests that he will never grace Africaʼs top competition – the next edition takes place in Morocco next year.

Uncompromising on the pitch Boateng proved himself an implacable opponent of racism too. During Italyʼs mid season break in January 2013, Pro-Patria, then in Italyʼs fourth tier played against AC Milan. Their fans racially abused Boateng who booted the ball into the stands and walked off the pitch in protest, followed by his team-mates. While some criticised him for walking off the pitch other praised his stand. Clarence Seedorf, then playing for Botafogo in Brasil thought Boatengʼs reaction played into the hands of racists.

They should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium,” Seedorf said. “Leave the 90% that were enjoying the match and finish the game. If Boateng was able to identify the whole corner, you just kick the whole corner out, That is how I think it should be handled Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I donʼt think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behaviour to make this mess”.

Among those who took to Twitter to support Boateng were Rio Ferdinand, Vincent Kompany and Patrick Vieira. “If the stories about KPB walking off the pitch with teammateʼs (sic) after being racially abused are true, fair play to him..well done #UefaStandUp”, Ferdinand said at the time.

Manchester City captain Kompany fully supported both Boateng and his then club. “Act of racism against Boateng during Milanʼs friendly” Kompany tweeted. “How about becoming extremely intolerant towards racist idiots”? UEFA has adopted penalties for racist conduct as did FIFA, but the problem persists despite close calls to a walk off previously – notably Samuel Etoʼo and Marc Zoro.

They need to be told I can only salute Milanʼs decision to leave the pitch”, Kompany tweeted. “Also noted that the majority of the fans were completely supportive of the players”.

Vieira, working with Manchester Cityʼs youth structure at the time, which he retains despite his subsequent promotion to reserve team manager, was vociferous in his support of Boateng. “It was brave of Kevin Prince Boateng to do what he did today, and it was the right thing”, Vieira said on Twitter. “We need to stand up and stand together. Well done”.

Boateng was appointed to FIFAʼs Anti-Discrimination Task Force under the CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. He presented his proposals earlier this year. Boateng also became an ambassador for the United Nations against racism in March 2013. He told FIFA President Sepp Blatter that he recognised that he was wrong to walk off the pitch, but that strong action needed to be taken.

Welcome

Last season Boateng completed the most dribbles in the top five European leagues. He is now an integral part of Schalkeʼs plans. Ghanaʼs decision to dispense with his services is the German clubʼs gain. Tonight he returns to England for his clubʼs opening fixture in the Championʼs League against Chelsea, weeks after playing a friendly against his former club Tottenham Hotspur.

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He was given a warm reception by Spurs fans. “Obviously itʼs a mark of respect and I think Kevin obviously did a very good job here”, Tottenham Hotspurʼs German international Lewis Holtby said. “Otherwise the reception wouldnʼt have been that good. I think itʼs good for him and itʼs good to see Tottenham fans being so positive”.

In the absence of Schalkeʼs captain the World Cup-winning German defender Benedikt Hõwedes, the responsibility on Boateng is even higher. “Heʼs a great player, a great personality, so heʼs very important for us and we are very happy that heʼs in our team”, Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta told us.

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Making History

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

Injuries

Hit by injuries German outfit Schalke04 face in form Chelsea in the first match of Group G of the Championʼs League at Stamford Bridge tonight. Schalkeʼs injury list is problematic too, headed by their captain Benedikt Höwedes, fresh from this summerʼs World Cup triumph. “Of course, itʼs very difficult if you lose your captain and from a central defence berth and itʼs also a very difficult situation”, Schalkeʼs manager Jens Keller said. “Weʼve still got a little bit of time to think about what our solutions are and what options there are for us”.

A morale boosting result against Bayern München was tempered by the injury crisis. The loss of Höwedes being the hardest blow. “I donʼt know how long heʼll be missing for”, Keller said. “Heʼs a very important player for us. Heʼs very confident now having won the World Cup and weʼve got lots of games ahead of us, two games a week, so weʼre hoping it wonʼt be too long”.

Their left sided defender Dennis Aogo agreed. “It depends whoʼs actually missing”, the sometime midfielder said. “In this case itʼs our captain, but weʼve got quite a few players missing. Itʼs not easy for us players, but we have to try and compensate and we have to try and cope with that situation whereby the players that are on the pitch, maybe theyʼve got to take on a little bit more responsibility. We canʼt just sit here and say weʼre sorry for ourselves, we have to give our best on the pitch and try and compensate for that”.

Familiarity

“I donʼt think weʼre under any more pressure than we are every year you know, because being a club like Chelsea this is our eleventh consecutive season in the Championʼs League”, Chelsea Director and Club Secretary told us. “You know weʼve been in the semi-final about eight times and two finals and also people expect us to be there or thereabouts every season, so weʼre always under that sort of pressure”.

Chelsea played Schalke last season too – a season that ended poorly by Chelseaʼs standards without a trophy. Nevertheless Chelsea were there or thereabouts and are the favourites of Group G. “I think that Chelsea will definitely have a say in this competition and are a very, very good team and they showed that last season and theyʼre showing it this season as well”, Keller said. “Weʼve learned that mistakes get punished. Weʼve learned that home and away last season and theyʼre a top team and now with the new acquisitions theyʼve got, even more a top team”.

Barnard recognises that Chelsea got a draw that they should progress from. “I think this time round when you look at our colleagues from the Premier League and the groups that theyʼre in, I think people are saying we got the better of the draw … in terms of the opposition, but weʼre not taking lightly our group”, he said. “Weʼll be playing Schalke, and Schalke we played last year in the group stage. Hopefully we can repeat those performances”.

A Tough Ask

Meanwhile, Aogo agreed with his manager. “Well of course in Germany, weʼve seen that heʼs had a great start to the season, but itʼs not just him”, Aogo said of on fire new Chelsea signing Diego Costa. “I mean the whole teamʼs doing really well. Not for nothing are they number one in the Premier League. Weʼve just got to give our best”.

Aogo knows that Schalke face a difficult task. Shorn of top players through injury the burden is higher on the others. “Weʼre playing against some of the best players in the world”, he said, “so we donʼt really need any extra motivation. Last season we actually started very well. Maybe weʼve got to be a little bit more clever in the way we play, but what is there to say against us having a good day and competing at the highest level?”

Despite the mounting problems Keller remains optimistic too. “Well Iʼm a very positive person”’ Keller said. “Youʼve got to remember that anything is possible in football. Also when we played against Bayern Munich people said we didnʼt have much a chance there and we showed what we could do there, so anything is possible; thatʼs what Iʼm saying”.

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.