The Battle of Seconds

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 12th 2014)

Victory

Fazio

Tottenham Hotspurʼs Federico Fazio was happy with the win if his Argentina team beaten a second string Croatia 2-1 at the Boleyn Ground – home of West Ham United. Croatiaʼs second-string – the regulars remained at home to prepare for this weekendʼs vital Euro2016 qualifier against Italy – took a shock and against the run of play 11th minute lead, courtesy of Anas Sharbiniʼs first goal for his country in only his second match. Interʼs Mateo Kovačić provided the assist.

Despite dominating the first half Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi, back to his mesmerising best, trailed to Sharbiniʼs strike. The move began on the right flank before working it inside to Kovačić, who beat Christian Ansaldi and found Sharbini on the left of the area. The mixed-race – Croatian and Palestinian – midfielder finished with aplomb across Sampdoriaʼs Sergio Romero from 10 yard out.

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Astonishing

Argentina created chance after chance. Sevillaʼs Ever Banega wasted a glorious opportunity created by the first of many mazy runs by Messi from the right wing into the left of the area. Banega missed after 5 minutes. The normally clinical Sergio Agüero had one shot well saved by Croatian goalkeeper for the night Lovre Kalinić, another volleyed straight at the keeper, failed to collect a Messi pass and prodded two shots wide from Messi passes after mazy runs all in the space of ten minutes without scoring.

Premier League defences had best savour the moment. Rarely has the in-form Kun proved so profligate. Messi was also denied. Another mazy run treading the same path as before, a one-two with Ansaldi, resulted in Messi shooting into the side-netting. He also hit the post in the second half with the keeper well beaten. However both Messi and Agüero would not be denied, albeit in controversial fashion for Kun.

Reward

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When Agüero got his goal only the eagle-eyed noticed it – well them and the replays. 3 minutes into the second half Ansaldiʼs fierce shot from just outside the area was deflected in past Kalinić by Agüero taking protective action. It went in off his arm with Kalinić stranded.

12 minutes into the second half Messi found Agüero on the left of the six yard box. Kalinić brought him down, conceding a penalty. Messi converted it. 

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Returning Idols

The Hammersʼ fans got to see the great Lionel Messi in the flesh, but by far the biggest cheers of the night greeted the return of 2007 West Ham hero Carlos Tévez. Will you please welcome Argentina and West Ham legend, Carlos Tévez”, as , the announcer said after 62 minutes as Agüero was replaced. Tévez received a standing and loud ovation despite the sparse crowd.

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But West Hamʼs former idol could not provide the fairytale goal despite a glorious chance made for him by Manchester Unitedʼs Ángel di María, which Tévez pulled just wide of the post. He also spurned another chance by heading Pablo Zabaletaʼs cross straight at Kalinić.

Midway through the second half the other Argentinian returning Hammer from the 2007 season Javier Mascherano, unleashed a pile-driver, which Kalinić saved. Five minutes earlier Barçelonaʼs defensive midfield enforcer inflicted a crunching shin high tackle on Tin Jedvaj. Not only did Mascherano not receive a card – friendly or not – but referee Lee Probert didnʼt even award the Roma defender currently on loan to Bayer Levekusen a free kick.

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Argentina got the win and Croatiaʼs second team showed spirit that pleased the President of Croatian Football Federation Davor Šuker. “[They] need to give back to Croatian national team and I think we have great performance”, Šuker said, “and we have great future in the Croatian football federation”. Croatia face Italy at the weekend and Argentina will face Cristiano Ronaldoʼs Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

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Unconvincing Draw

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

Honours Even

An unconvincing display by Stephen Keshi’s World Cup bound Nigeria, resulted in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland being pegged back to 2-2 in injury time. It was harsh on the Scots who took the lead within 10 minutes through Charlie Mulgrew. His subtle back-heeled flick from James Morrison’s shot was no fluke. It gave Nigeria’s second choice goalkeeper Austin Ejide no chance.

Scotland created the better chances in the first half but Keshi’s blushes at half time were spared as Michael Uchebo who had been profligate previously was put through by Reuben Gabriel and shot from 22 yards out,”It was a great goal”, Uchebo said with his tongue firmly in his cheek. It took a wicked deflection off Grant Hanley, giving Scotland’s keeper Alan McGregor no chance.

7 minutes into the second half Azubunke Egwuekwe’s attempt to clear Morrison’s cross as he was posed to shoot was sliced into his own net. Scotland’s captain Scott Brown had found Morrison on the right flank. Strachan’s improving team deserved to win the match, but in the first minute of added time Uche Nwofor grabbed another equaliser after being found by another substitute Nnamdi Oduamadi just outside the 6-yard box after a weak tackle by Morrison. It was barely deserved.

Referee Lee Probert had shown a thoroughly deserved yellow card for a cynical foul on Oduamadi a couple of minutes earlier. With the World Cup fast approaching it was the last thing Nigeria and Oduamadi who has problems with such tackling previously needed. Nevertheless, at times it seemed that Scotland rather than the Super-Eagles were playing like the team going to Brasil.

Slippery Brazuca

Scotland were the better team on the night, but to some extent they should have been. Anya exposed right back Kunle Odunlami’s lack of pace within the first five minutes. He really should have scored – tight angle or not. Nigeria’s reserve keeper Austin Ejide’s performance was bizarre. He is far better keeper than was seen tonight. His effort to deny left winger Ikechi Anya consisted of sticking out a leg and being relieved to see it go wide.

After 32 minutes Scotland should have seen their lead doubled. Shaun Maloney’s corner resulted in Ejide coming to punch, but under pressure he managed to catch and throw it into his own net. Was the ball playing tricks? First choice goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama prefers it to the ball used in South Africa’s World Cup. He also said,”I don’t comment on individuals”, when asked about Ejide’s performance.

Controversies

In the second half Scotland had another goal disallowed. That looked a harsh off-side call by the linesman. Before the match had even started it was shrouded in controversy as allegations of match-fixing surfaced. Chelsea’s John Mikel Obi said he didn’t know where they had come from. Keshi’s decision to start a weak team raised a few eyebrows.

Enyeama whose form has been winning awards in France was not even in the squad for this match. Nor were Mikel Obi, Brown Ideye and Ahmed Musa among others. Keshi gave chances to fringe players to play their way onto the plane to Brasil. But was there even a remote chance that some of the players seen tonight would be going to the World Cup?

Playing out of position – he’s normally at centre back – Odunlami was frequently embarrassed by Anya’s pace. The quality of Anya’s crosses and shooting left a bit to be desired, but Nigeria’s opponents will have noted Odunlami is vulnerable against pace if he makes the trip – he appears to be in Keshi’s plans.

Shola Ameobi barely starts for Newcastle United, yet started for Nigeria tonight. Why? Is it really likely he’ll go, especially after snubbing Nigeria for the African Cup of Nations last year, preferring to miss out on a medal and history for a regular place on Newcastle’s bench. And if he doesn’t go – he shouldn’t, both for the snub and more importantly because he is not good enough – what was achieved by him playing tonight rather than a more likely option.

So close to the World Cup it’s hard to believe that African Cup of Nations winning coach Keshi doesn’t already know the squad he intends to take to Brasil. Does Keshi really think that Ameobi has a chance of making the trip and if so why? Keshi has not named his squad yet. There were some in the 22 – starting eleven as well – who have little if any chance of going to Brasil. Why were Nigeria’s fans seeing them? Only Keshi knows.

 

Trophy Drought Ends

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

Relief

Arsène Wenger ended almost a decade without a trophy with a 3-2 defeat of Hull City after extra-time victory over Hull City at Wembley this evening. It was relief and happiness because of course we were under severe pressure to win today”, Wenger said. “Hull started stronger and we were hesitant, then we made a demonstration of how to respond to being 2-0 down and also how not to start the FA Cup final”.

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Wenger committed his future to Arsenal after his fifth FA Cup triumph – the sweetest of them. “This team has a special togetherness”, he said. “In the end, it finished well, so it is a big, big moment of happiness. We waited for a long time with that, and it is sometimes linked with the suffering we had to wait for. It was an important moment in the life of this team, because to lose today would certainly have been a major setback. It was more important today than all of the others”.

Reeling

With less than 10 minutes played Steve Bruce saw his unfancied team race to a 2-0 lead with goals from James Chester and captain Curtis Davies. It could have been three if Kieran Gibbs hadn’t cleared Alex Bruce’s header off the line.

Less than four minutes into the match Stephen Quinn’s corner found Tom Huddlestone on the edge of the area. He either shot badly, or intended to pass to Chester who diverted it wide of Łukasz Fabiański’s dive to send Hull’s fans wild with joy.

Four minutes after taking the lead a free-kick taken further forward than it should have been led to Hull’s second. Quinn received the ball on the opposite flank and crossed. Bruce’s header beat Fabiański, but not the post. It rebounded to Davies who scored from close range.

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Arsenal were reeling until a free-kick needlessly conceded by Bruce gave Santi Cazolrla the chance to bring Arsenal back into the match. His shot from 25 yards out gave Alan McGregor no chance. Despite efforts from Huddlestone and a move down the left flank where Mikel Arteta squared for a tap in for Cazorla who somehow failed to make contact.

Destiny

Needing to break the drought before it became a Béla Guttmannesque curse Arsenal had the better of the second half. Cazorla and Giroud had penalty claims waived away by referee Lee Probert. Arsenal created the better chances as Hull tired, trying to defend what they had. The pressure paid off as Laurent Koscielny turned Cazorla’s corner in from 8 yards out.

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Arsenal could and perhaps should have won in normal time. Gibbs wasted a glorious chance, blasting over from just inside the area. Shortly afterwards Olivier Giroud was thwarted by McGregor’s fine save. Extra-time beckoned.

Hull had acquitted themselves well, but were tiring. Man of the Match Aaron Ramsey – Wenger thought he should have been in the team of the season – came into his own in extra-time. He had contributed superb distribution previously, but in extra time threatened Hull’s goal. In the first 15 minutes he was denied by a fine save by McGregor and the side-netting.

Ramsey netted the winner in the second period of extra-time following a sublime back-heeled assist from Giroud. The long wait was almost over, but there was still time for Fabiański’s rush of blood to almost cost his team dear. Substitute Sone Aluko clipped a through-ball down the left flank, but with the goal gaping clipped his shot wide. It was Arsenal’s day.

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