Pride

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

Dangerous

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

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

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

Focused

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

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

Mourinhoʼs Wish

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

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

Aims

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

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

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

Ambitions

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

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

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

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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

Crunch Time

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

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

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

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

Safety Net

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

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

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

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

Spurs Ease Past Partizan and Pranksters

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 28th 2014)

Rudely Interrupted

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Tottenham Hotspur guaranteed progress to the last 32 with a 1-0 victory over already eliminated Serbian outfit FK Partizan of Belgrade. The Serbian fans behaved immaculately despite three pitch invasions and the provocation of an Albanian flag being flaunted at them. They had their chances, but both teams were profligate.

Former Valencia striker Roberto Soldado being one of the worst culprits even though he got an unconventional assist for former French Under-21 international Benjamin Stambouli’s 49th minute game-winner. Stambouli put Soldado through and the striker did everything right but score. He latched on to Stambouli’s pass and chipped Partizan keeper Milan Lukač, but as was typical of his luck since joining Spurs, it hit the post and rebounded. Stambouli had followed in to score easily – his first goal for the club.

Amazingly, given the number of chances it was the only goal in the match. Within the first minute Erik Lamela, scorer of the fantastic rabona against Asteras Tripolis in the last Europa League match at White Hart Lane, found Soldado on the edge of the area. The former Valencia striker pulled his shot wide. Petar Grbić was at the heart of much of Partizan’s best attacks. With less than 10 minutes played Grbić crossed from the right flank, but Petar Škuletić couldn’t make contact.

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Near Misses

In microcosm it summed up the Serbians’ luck. Grbić’s long ball found Branko Ilić on the right wing after 17 minutes. His cross was controlled by Darko Lazović, but his shot went just wide of Hugo Lloris’ goal. Both Partizan and Spurs exchanged near misses. Moussa Dembélé, later to take down the third of three pitch invaders which organisers Troll Station called entertainment, won possession before spreading it to the left wing. Lamela crossed, but Soldado failed to connect at all.

Almost ten minutes later a nice move by Partizan culminated in another missed opportunity. Lazović bypassed Spurs’ defence by chipping it to Škuletić who rounded Lloris turned and squared, but the inviting cross eluded both Jan Vertonghen and then Lazović.

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Three first half ‘pranksters’ were rudely interrupted at White Hart Lane when 22 men insisted on playing a football match last night. Apparently the organisers of the invasions Troll Station think this was entertainment. The company whose t-shirts they were wearing headphones manufacturers BassBuds caught initial flak over it. The first of the invaders Nathan Brown amused the crowd by eluding security while taking selfies with Spurs players. The other two wore the joke out and the third managed to get play suspended for the best part of ten minutes.

More of the Same

After Stambouli scored Soldado had one last chance to ignite his Spurs career. His Head Coach Mauricio Pochettino claimed to be satisfied that he was getting into the right positions and making chances, but after Aaron Lennon’s delightful dink put Soldado through with just the keeper to beat, Pochettino must have expected to see his team’s lead doubled. Instead Lukač managed to save at point blank range. It summed up Soldado’s night and career to date at White Hart Lane.

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A minute later a flowing Spurs move ended when Vojislav Stanković blocked Lennon’s shot. Lamela went very close shortly afterwards. The in-form Harry Kane replaced Soldado with 25 minutes to go. His 30 yard free-kick was tipped round the post by Lukač. The resulting corner eventually broke to Algerian international Nabil Bentaleb. His shot took a wicked deflection off Škuletić, but Lukač managed to tip it over for another corner.

With less than ten minutes remaining a flowing Spurs move ended with Lennon picking the ball up on the left wing before cutting inside and putting Kane through. The striker scored, but a late flag – correct – ruled it out for offside. Playing for pride Partizan probed again. Lazović’s free-kick was cleared to Grbić – Partizan’s best player on the night. Grbić’s cross was headed at goal by Vladimir Volkov, which was well saved by Lloris, but substitute Andrija Živcović spurned the rebound by hitting the side-netting from a tight angle.

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There was time for Stambouli to make the wrong choice by passing to Lamela rather than shooting and for the officials to make a howler that simply should not have happened. Kane slipped past Vojislav Stanković and bore down on goal. Lazar Ćircović came across and tripped Kane in area with clumsy challenge. Astonishingly Ukrainian referee Yevhen Aranovskiy, and his assistant referees failed to give a foul. It was a stone-wall penalty that will fuel demands for technology to be used to get these decisions right. Lamela went close again, but Lukač was once again equal to the task. Spurs qualified for the last 32. Their position in the group will depend on their final fixture in Turkey next month.

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Spurs Trounce Asteras

by Satish Sekar at White Hart Lane © Satish Sekar (October 23rd 2014)

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Rabona

Tottenham Hotspur warmed up for this weekend’s match against Newcastle United wit an emphatic display. Mauricio Pocchetino’s team demolished Group leaders Asteras Tripolis 5-1 and it was Spurs rather than the Greeks that came bearing gifts. With misfit Roberto Soldado confined to the bench Harry Kane showed the former Valencia idol how it’s done, scoring a hat-trick.

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Argentine Érik Lamela scored a brace – the second and third. Lamela’s first was one of the best goals you could hope to see – an absolutely awesome strike. With just over 12 minutes played Kane was supplied by Moussa Dembélé 35 yards out. He drove forward before scoring off goalkeeper Tomas Kosický’s right-hand post. Lamela’s goal was sweeter still as less than a minute earlier Thanasis Panteliadis was through on goal. He was partially thwarted by Hugo Lloris, but collected the rebound on the right of the area and shot. He hadn’t reckoned on Europa League winner Federico Fazio’s magnificent block. Spurs counter-attacked. Kane passed to Emmanuel Adebayor and it broke to Lamela, who scored a rare left-footed rabona – kicking it with the foot wrapped around the standing leg – to Kosický’s left. The Slovakian keeper stood no chance. The last rabona was scored a month ago by Olympique de Marseille’s Ghanaian international André Ayew against Stade de Reims in France’s Ligue Un.

Emphatic

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Despite creating opportunities Lloris was hardly tested prior to Lamela’s goal. Twenty minutes into the second half Lamela made it safe. A give and go with Kane created the first opportunity which was blocked. He reacted quickly to beat Kosický at his right-hand post. Asteras tried to respond. A lovely chip pass found Fernando Usero in the area, but his volley was magnificently turned aside by Lloris at the expense of a corner.

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As the match approached its final quarter of an hour Kane completed his brace – a tap-in. Lamela played a short corner to Dembélé. His shot was parried by Kosický to Kane who Kosický scored easily. Lamela was replaced by Christian Eriksen. He received a deserved ovation.

With less than 10 minutes of normal time remaining Kane completed his hat-trick. His first effort was blocked, but Fazio reacted quickest, collecting the rebound and crossing for Kane to nod in. About the only negative on a night when a deserved tribute was paid to Spurs – no football – legend, Bill Nicholson at half time, came in the last minute. Despite being well beaten the Greeks still chased an opportunity. It came late. Through with just the keeper to beat Gasos Tsokanis was cynically upended by Lloris just outside his area. Slovak referee Ivan Kružilak had no choice but to brandish the red card. The stage was set for Kane to cap off a truly memorable night as the striker donned Lloris’ jersey and the captain’s armband – all three permitted substitutions had been made.

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Substitute Jerónimo Barrales stepped up to take the free-kick. He struck it more in hope than expectation, but Kane let it squirm under his body to give the Greek’s a consolation. He knew he had had a good night as the Spurs faithful – a disappointingly low crowd – chanted ʻEnglandʼs number one at Kane after the blunder. After the disappointment of draws against Partizan (Belgrade) and Beşiktas, Pocchetino’s team has responded in style.

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Eyes on the Prize

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

Pared Down

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Hull City paid the price for taking the Europa League lightly. KSC Lokeren progressed to the group stage on away goals, leaving England with just two representatives in the Europa League this season – the one where it really matters. This seasonʼs winners qualify for the Championʼs League. Tottenham Hotspur and Everton are Englandʼs only representatives in the Europa League this season.

Mauricio Pochettinoʼs Spurs team will play Turkeyʼs Beşiktaş, whose striking prowess was bolstered by the capture of Senegalese international Demba Ba in the summer. Belgradeʼs Partizan dropped down from the Championʼs League qualifying stage, but only had the chance to play in the top competition because Serbian champions Red Star were banned after falling foul of Financial Fair Play obligations by failing to pay their debts. Greek outfit Asteras Tripoli completed Group C.

Meanwhile, Roberto Martínezʼ Everton will play Russiaʼs FC Krasnodar, Germanyʼs VfL Wolfsburg and Franceʼs LOSC Lille in Group H. The French team, boasting last seasonʼs record breaking goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, were beaten by Porto for a place in the Championʼs League group stage.

Pick of the Rest

Defending Europa League winners Sevilla will play Croatiaʼs HNK Rijeka in Group H along with Belgiumʼs Standard de Liège and Rotterdamʼs top team Feyenord. Following Pochettinoʼs departure to Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton lured Feyenordʼs manager Ronald Koeman to St. Maryʼs Stadium. The vacancy at the de Kuip Stadium was filled by Fredericus Rutten. Unai Emery Etxegoien will expect the Andalusian club to dominate Group G despite losing captain Federico Fazio to Spurs.

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Villarreal is the only other Spanish team to make the group stage. They will expect to progress from Group A. Germanyʼs Borussia Mönchengladbach along with Cypriots Apollon Limassol and Swiss outfit FC Zürich complete the group. French outfit Saint-Étienne and Ukrainians Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk will expect to confirm Azerbaijanʼs Qarabağ Ağdam FK as Group Fʼs whipping boys while Internazionale di Milano complete the group.

 

Interʼs Vice-President and former on-pitch icon Javier Zanetti welcomed the draw, but assured us that Inter would not take the tournament lightly. Group K consists of Portuguese club EA Guincamp, Belarusʼ Dinamo Minsk, Salonikaʼs finest PAOK and Fiorentina, still boasting the talents of Colombiaʼs coveted winger Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. Fiorentinaʼs CEO Sandro Mencucci told us, “He [Cuadrado] is one of the best players in the world”. The Viola do not want to sell him and Mencucci refused to put a figure on Cuadradoʼs value.

Controversy

Italyʼs final representative is controversial. Torino got the nod, although Parma have a right to feel aggrieved at being denied their place due to a financial infraction over taxes that they had not been informed of in time to meet the deadline – an utterly absurd situation. Despite the sympathy of Italian courts the sanction against Parma stood and Torino took their plaCIMG9125ce.

Torino could have qualified in their own right if Alessio Cerci had not missed a penalty against Fiorentina at Florenceʼs Artemio Franchi Stadium on the last day of the Serie A season. Cerciʼs tears showed what it meant to him, but the Granata were reprieved by Parmaʼs fate. Torino will face Belgians Club Brugge and the Scandinavian challenge of FC København and HJK Helsinki.

Celticʼs heroic recent performances in the Championʼs League particularly against Barçelona won the Glaswegian club deserved plaudits, but that goodwill was dissipated after a 6-1 thrashing by Polandʼs Legia Warszawa was turned into a 4-4 draw that allowed Celtic through on away goals after a technicality that had no bearing on the result. A Legia player had a three match ban – he actually served it, but the paperwork was defective. UEFA overturned the result, costing Legia their win and the possibility of earning in the Championʼs League. Legia was dumped out of the Championʼs League, allowing a shambles of a Celtic team another chance, which they failed to take. Sloveniaʼs Maribor beat them in Scotland to progress. Celtic and Legia both qualified for the group stage of the Europa League, but the draw kept them apart.

Austrian club FC Salzburg, little known Romanian outfit FC Astra from Giurgi, and Croatiaʼs Dinamo Zagreb provide the opposition for Celtic in Group D. Meanwhile, Ukraineʼs Metalist Kharkiv, Hull Cityʼs Belgian conquerors KSC Lokeren and Turkish outfit Trabzonspor are Legiaʼs opponents in Group L. The Europa League Final will be held in Warsaw this year.

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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.

Shifting The Bus

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 14th 2014)

Celebrations

With a bitter election campaign reaching its conclusion tomorrow and talisman Radamel Falcao García Zárate out of the World Cup, José Pékerman Krimenʼs Colombia unlocked Greeceʼs bus and forced Fernando Santosʼ team out of their comfort zone. The masters of parking the bus were forced out of their comfort zone and made vulnerable to counter attacking football.

So rich was Colombia’s talent pool that even without Falcao there was no place in the starting line-up for Europa League winner Carlos Bacca Ahumada. It didnʼt matter as Napoliʼs Pablo Estifer Armero put Colombia ahead after just 5 minutes and offered an early contender for celebration of the tournament. Téofilio Gutiérrez Roncancio and Falcaoʼs team-mate at Monaco, James Rodríguez Rubio completed the comfortable 3-0 win.

Control

Colombia seized control of the match early. Fiorentinaʼs Juan Cuadrado Bello tormented the Greek defence. His pass to Armero freed the defender to shoot. Armero celebrated with such joy it would almost be churlish to point out that a huge deflection off Kostas Manolas was needed to give Armero his second goal for his country.

Bolognaʼs Panagiotis Kone had a couple of chances that he failed to capitalise on while Rodríguez, tipped to shine at this tournament in Falcaoʼs absence created chances. His shot was saved by Orestes Karnezis and Rodríguez resulting corner was flicked on to Gutiérrez by Abel Aguilar Tapias for the second. The third was fitting. Cuadrado ran at the defence before teeing Rodríguez up to slot the third in and complete a deserved victory after an exhibition of counter-attacking football earned by driving Greece out of their tactical comfort zone early.