Saturday, June 30, 2012

Azzurri blitz will worry Spain

The Italian renaissance.

Last night Germany, a team tipped by so many for glory, succumbed to the blue surge which threatens to run away with the cup itself. Euro 2012 was supposed to end in a Germany v Spain final. The Italians have sneaked in the back door.
Balotelli flexes his muscles.
Having entered Euro 2012 under the shadow of yet another match-fixing scandal, with police hauling away defender Domenico Criscito from the squad for questioning, the Azzurri now find themselves a game from glory with another chance to get the better of Spain.

Big players step up to the big occasions and despite the 21 year-old's instability, the smouldering volcano that is Mario Balotelli justified his 'Super' prefix with a double whammy of goals in the first half, the second despatched with such aplomb it looked every inch a killer blow.

Joachim Low's proteges, brimming with confidence and scaring the continent before kick-off, found themselves two down after 36 minutes and in deep trouble. This was not in the script. Germany had been  plunged into unfamiliar territory and knew not how to chase the game. Shellshocked, they never recovered and the penalty scored by the normally matchwinning Mesut Ozil in injury time was scant consolation.

Forza Azzurri, the team the Germans cannot beat (1970, 1982, 2006, 2012...). Eight games and counting, the white shirts have failed to beat the blue. The echoes of 2006 grow louder every day. The scandal, the low expectations, the siege mentality, the hard work and discipline and the team's sleek progress to the final. Label them underdogs and they will run like greyhounds out of the traps.

While Balotelli's sucker punches have thrilled and the elegant playmaking of Andrea Pirlo, an Indian summer made in Italy, has charmed Europe, coach Cesare Prandelli remains as much an ace in the pack.

Little known outside Italy beforehand, the former Fiorentina 'c.t.' (manager) has cut an assured figure on the touchline, always on his feet, applauding and encouraging his players, directing proceedings like a conductor and never looking flustered.

Another lynchpin of the eleven has been Gianluigi Buffon, whose deep-set eyes and forbidding visage belie his 34 years as much as Pirlo's wizened looks belie his 33. It is no coincidence the two affect the game so much.

Like Pirlo, Buffon is evergreen too, employing his reflexes at key moments to prevent scores and ensuring his back four know there is another awesome line of defence behind them.

Buffon left the Warsaw field after the semi-final cursing missed chances instead of toasting victory. The whole squad looked humbled when they visited Auschwitz earlier this month, but the goalkeeper seemed deepest in thought. The custodian of the team is also its most earnest member.

Italy's calcio culture is so intense the national team should never be underrated. Serie A has been the benchmark for high intensity training and tactics for decades. And while English and Spanish clubs have stolen marches on the Italian dominance of the 1990s, the model preparation and professionalism of Italian sides remains.

While the Azzurri's eleven may not measure up as individuals to Spain's, their team spirit and collective unit is as strong as anyone's. Few tipped them for World Cup glory in 2006 but their awe-inspiring swatting of the host nation in the semi-final convinced any doubters.

When Spain and Italy met in their opening fixture in Euro 2012, the contrast in styles was fascinating. Italy bowed to Spain and let tiki-taka dictate the play, but their backline held firm. When Pirlo found Antonio Di Natale with one of his clinical insertions and the Udinese striker found the net, a daylight robbery was on the cards. Counter-attacking par excellence: Soak up the pressure until the opposition gets frustrated then strike on the counter to leave them dazed and confused.

Spain were not about to lie down however and Cesc Fabregas equalised five minutes later; honours were shared. Both sides left with bones to pick, neither having succumbed. Sunday's final offers Spain the unprecedented chance to add a third consecutive crown and retain the European Championship trophy they won in Vienna in 2008, an offer they cannot refuse. All they have to do is beat the team that dumped out Germany.

The attack-minded La Roja were better than the defensive Italy in Gdansk, but failed to win the contest. For all Spain's talent and ingenuity, the Azzurri's breathtaking assassination in Warsaw means the holders will enter Kiev's Olympic Stadium unsure of keeping hold of their cup.

Italy v Spain - two great footballing nations clash with the European Championship the prize.

Sunday's derby of the Mediterranean looks too close to call.

ITALY (probable): 4-3-1-2: Buffon, Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Marchisio, Pirlo, De Rossi, Montolivo, Balotelli, Cassano.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Portuguese men o' war fail to stop the Spanish succession

SpainFor a while, it looked like the last day of Spain's empire.

Portugal's attack-minded approach in yesterday's Euro 2012 semi-final had freaked the world champions into launching hit-and-hope clearances. Tiki-taka was only a memory as the white shirts of the Lusitanians squeezed the space between defence and midfield and closed down the Spaniards ferociously throughout the first half.

But no goals ensued, and precious few shots on target either. By extra-time, the Portuguese gamble had failed as Spain found a new lease of life and their usual rhythm again, while their Iberian neighbours played second fiddle and hoped for success via Cristiano Ronaldo's set-pieces. Paolo Bento's men still had a chance to win via spot-kicks but their plan backfired embarrassingly.

Iker Casillas saved from Joao Moutinho and a mix-up in running order between Bruno Alves and Nani seemed to have unnerved the centre-back, who then hit the bar. Cesc Fabregas fired in the winner off the post to leave Ronaldo cursing as the unused fifth penalty-taker. Will another of football's great players retire without an international trophy in his cabinet?

Portugal exit the tournament with credit however for having taken on the best two teams, Germany and Spain with a positive game-plan. Instead of defending and hoping for a break, they attacked the Germans and Spanish with pace and skill, but ended up on the losing side both times, luck having deserted them.

Spain meanwhile, look ever more vulnerable in their title defence but keep on winning while playing badly, a sure sign of a successful outfit.

Portugal's tactics dazed and confused them for an hour and a half, while the inclusion in the starting lineup of Alvaro Negredo, who proved ineffectual, baffled when the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Llorente, Juan Mata and Fernando Torres remained on the bench.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Nostalgic Korean Summer

A Nostalgic Korean Summer.
The K-League All Stars game is a regular part of the Korean football calendar and a much-loved fixture at that. The format changes as in the past, northern teams have played southern teams, the K-League team has played J-League counterparts and two years ago, even Barcelona provided the opposition.

This time though, the team lining up against the All-Stars on July 5, made up of players who won the most votes in a nationwide poll, are special. It is the 2002 World Cup team. As this month marks the tenth anniversary of that glorious run to the semi-final, the authorities have seen fit to mark the occasion with what should be a sell-out exhibition at Seoul World Cup Stadium, where the run came to an end at the hands of Germany.

It is being organized by the star of the show Ahn Jung-hwan. The recently retired striker who headed Italy out of the competition on that unforgettable night in Daejeon, an incredible night in both football terms and what happened in the country in the following hours and days, is heading the marketing campaign. He has already been seen calling captain Hong Myong-bo who then gets hold of Guus Hiddink. Both will be present.

It remains to be seen if Park Ji-sung will make it though it doesn’t look likely and Lee Young-pyo will be busy in MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps. Most of the others will be there – Seol Ki-hyeon, Kim Nam-il and Lee Woon-jae are still active in the K-League while the likes of Ahn and Song Chung-guk have just recently retired. Hwang Sun-hong and Yoo Sang-chul, who scored in the opening round 2-0 win over Poland, are now K-League coaches with Pohang Steelers and Daejeon Citizen respectively.

It promises to be quite a night.  

FA Cup fighting

There was a good deal of hand-wringing after the fist-flinging at Seoul World Cup Stadium on June 20 in the fourth round of the FA Cup between bitter rivals FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings. Once again, Suwon got the better of the capital club with a 2-0 win although the goals will not be remembered long. What will stick in the memory are 42 fouls, one red card (and there really should have been more with some of the wild challenges) and the mass brawl that broke out at the end of the game.

It didn’t stop there as Korean media reported that a Seoul marketing officials was hospitalized by a member of the Suwon staff. After a fifth straight defeat against Suwon, a number of Seoul fans then protested outside the stadium against their own team (sitting top of the league at this point) and lay down in front of the team bus.  

Back to the league

Jeonbuk Motors are the form team at the moment with five straight wins which contained 19 goals. Chile recruit Hugo Droguett has found his feet in the league and is starting to shine after a slow start. Lee Dong-gook is never far from the scoresheet and netted a hat-trick in a recent 5-3 win at home to Gyeongnam FC, goals 124, 125 and 126 in the K-League. Nobody has scored more.

There are worries for Seongnam. Three straight defeats in the league and an elimination from the FA Cup, the club’s best hope of a place in the 2013 Asian Champions League (they were eliminated from the 2012 version recently) have put the pressure on Shin Tae-young. If it wasn’t for the fact that he had led the team to the 2010 Asian title, he may be in a little danger. As it is, he can stand by the sidelines looking annoyed.

There have been many changes at the club since that 2010 win and just as the team was starting to settle in the second half of 2011, there was another raft at the end of the season. Too many good players have left for the liking of fans who have demanded a meeting with the club.

Daejeon Citizen seem to going in the opposite direction. A truly dreadful start to the season in which they lost nine out of the first ten games, had everyone tipping the Purple Emperors for the drop. But three wins out of the last four – including a 3-0 victory at Seongnam – have seen Yoo Sang-cheol’s men start to pull away from the basement.

Belgian striker Kevin Oris has started to look very good and if former injury-prone national team midfielder Kim Hyeung-beom can keep fit and scoring the kind of screamer that did for Seongnam, the future may be bright.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Italian stallions break the English resistance

Italian stallions break the English resistance.
England v Italy was expected to be the least entertaining of the quarter-finals and so it proved.

A largely turgid tale of massed English defending and missed Italian chances was put out of its misery by a penalty shoot-out, won 4-2 by the Azzurri, after Ashleys Cole and Young fluffed their spot-kicks for England.

Pre-match expectations of a level playing-field seemed correct as Italy struck the woodwork in the opening minutes through Daniele De Rossi and Glen Johnson almost netted at the other end. England had some delightful touches, but as the first half wore on Italy began to control the midfield.

The second half and extra-time saw Italy firmly bossing the game and England reverting to a siege mentality. England's two banks of four and one forward tracking back resembled table football in its rigid formation, but succeeded in not conceding. The Three Lions offered no attacking threat to Italy as recompense and Gianluigi Buffon enjoyed a pleasant summer evening in Kiev. Penalties were certain.

Andrea Pirlo was by far the best player of the evening, his telegraphed passes and elegant playmaking a joy to admire. Italy used the flanks well, Ignazio Abate whipping in dangerous crosses, while Mario Balotelli sprang the England offside trap on a number of occasions. Riccardo Montolivo was a roving danger, while subsitutes Alessandro Diamante and Antonio Nocerino proved more effective than England's Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott.

For the Three Lions, Joe Hart's acrobatics and John Terry's lionheart defending saved many a goal and Steven Gerrard ran his socks off as usual, but Glen Johnson made some key errors and Ashley Young again was anonymous, as if the switch from Fabio Capello's 4-3-2-1 to Roy Hodgson's 4-4-2 has unnerved England's best player from qualifying.

England were afraid of committing men upfield, which left their players isolated when they won the ball, leading to yet more Italian possession.

Italy looked a little fitter, but extra-time and two days less rest than Germany may tell come Thursday's semi-final.

That said, a well-drilled Italian team with some dangerous elements should not be written off, no more than their World Cup winning teams of 1982 and 2006 should have been in the opening rounds of those competitions.

For Hodgson, the real work starts now with overseeing the national training centre project, 2014 World Cup qualification and hopefully, an overhaul of the national playing style. England have fallen short so many times playing their natural attacking game it was time to try a different approach.

For the first time, England approached a tournament with low public expectations and playing safety first, if not catenaccio, aiming for penalties by the knock-out stages. But against Italy they failed to apply Walcott's speed on the counter while their other flying wingman Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was left on the bench. The statistics for passing and possession tell a shocking story. Plan B worked up to a point.

Going forward, England will have to open up, pass more and hold the ball longer. Jack Wilshere is hopefully the first of a new generation to have learnt this.

An exit is always depressing, but England should take inspiration from Germany, who were abject at Euro 2000 but overhauled their country's coaching and brought through a new generation of players to become the awesome team they are in 2012.

Semi-Finals

Weds, Donetsk: Portugal v Spain

Thu, Warsaw: Germany v Italy

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Highs and Löws of the Tournament

Having just witnessed my ninth and final match of the tournament, I thought I should look back at my experiences during this trip.

Before I set off I was aware of the negative publicity, but as a football supporter and traveller, I don't pay too much attention to people who consistently look for easy stories to create headlines. Instead I believe in finding out for myself. I can report that I have witnessed no problems between supporters and no incidents of racism at all. I have already commented on the exorbitant prices being charged for ( very) basic accommodation and personally believe that this is the reason that supporters have not travelled in the numbers I would expect. The exception being the Irish.

Gdansk Stadium, Poland


During the last fortnight I have visited six of the eight venues. I have been impressed with every one, to such an extent that I cannot believe there is such a thing as a restricted view ticket. (The only restricted view I heard of was a travelling fan's view blocked by an Irishman standing in the aisle. When the Irishman was confronted he simply smiled looked down, picked up a pint from the row of them he had and gave it to his new friend, and stayed where he was). My only complaint would be that Kiev has a running track meaning that behind the goal you are a long way from the action.

During my trip I met a German who managed to take advantage of the free accommodation in Kiev, by responding to the adverts I had seen (see 15th June), countering my earlier comments and offering a positive perspective on the situation. He rang a phone number, was picked up by his host, driven to the accommodation and then left the key as his host went to work. Then in the evening his host treated him to a sumptuous meal.


Euro food


Individuals in both countries have been eager to meet and talk to you as a visitor to their country. This wasn't difficult in Poland, but in Ukraine, where less people speak English once a local starts a conversation with you, you can see all the non English speaking people want to join in with this and hijack the local to act as translator.

The culinary highlight for me has been the pierogi (Poland) and varenki (Ukraine) which are simply dumplings with different fillings e.g. cheese or meat.

Polish food..delicious


Having been eating cakes and desserts since before you were aware of James Richardson I can recommend Blinkle in Warsaw and Veronika's in Lviv.

At this tournament I personally believe the quality of the football in the Group stages, has been better than ever before, with most teams having a chance of qualifying, maybe due to the new rules!

The hosts both played their part enthusiastically supporting the games, and had visiting supporters joining in the chants for the two home nations, as I left the stadium for the last time on Friday "Polska biało czerwoni," rang round the ground as the Poles in Gdansk also bade the tournament farewell.

The number of travelling fans has been much lower than at previous tournaments. Although I didn't see them I have heard that the Irish supporters made a favourable impression on the residents of Poznan, where around 30,000 were seen, teaching the locals to "stand up for the boys in green."

As ever the Italians and French did not have the support to match their teams. The Swedes had the luck of the draw and set up camp in Kiev, whilst The Netherlands total of points matched their interest in their base of Kharkiv.

St Andrews Church, Kiev, Ukraine


The Russian supporters I see were promised free flights to the Quarter Finals if the team progressed that far as part of Vladimir Putin's election campaign.

The Germans were present in good numbers at all three of their games that I saw, and have a strong belief that they will end their 16 years of hurt.

So those were some of the highs.

As for Löw, just remember Markus's words, as Germany edge ever Klose!

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile

France fire Blancs as Spanish sail on to the semis

France fire Blancs as Spanish sail on to the semis.
France are the latest team heading for the airport, well beaten 2-0 by Vicente del Bosque's men in Donetsk this evening.

Spain did not play fluently and a fine goal apart were never thrilling, but still won comfortably enough. The French had already lost their way in their abject 2-0 defeat to Sweden in Kiev on Tuesday, which was followed by the sort of changing-room row they hoped they had left behind in South Africa two years ago.

Watching tonight's meek surrender in the Shakhtar stadium in Donetsk, it is worth remembering Les Bleus were on a 23-game unbeaten run a week ago and were the last team to eliminate Spain from a competition - the 2006 World Cup. France suffered from nerves throughout Euro 2012, and bottled it tonight. Coach Laurent Blanc admitted in his pre-match press conference what most of us had been thinking - the best tactic is to keep Spain at bay for the first twenty minutes and then think about attacking. Unfortunately for France, the defensive mindset going into the game found itself outflanked by events on the pitch.

As it happened, Xabi Alonso, on his 100th appearance, scored in the 19th and his team never looked back, apart from the first ten minutes of the second half when the French pressed and had Spain backpedalling. Alonso added a penalty in injury time for the coup de grace.

France never truly threatened to score due to an incoherent forward line and lack of team spirit. While Frank Ribery twisted and turned dangerously on the left, Karim Benzema misfired at centre-forward and attacking substitutes Olivier Giroud, Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri all failed to make an impression.

Content to sit back and soak up Spanish attacks in the first half, they failed to put their opponents on the ropes after the break when they needed an equaliser. As the minutes ticked away, Blanc's men were reluctant to throw men forward at 0-1, presumably for fear of leaving gaps at the back.

Spain won 55% of possession, low by their standards, but registered five shots on target to France's one. Cesc Fabregas looked out of sorts as the 'false No.9', while substitute Fernando Torres had another limp display, offside more than dangerous.

Winning while playing badly is a sign of great teams of course, but all Spain knows La Roja must up their game on Wednesday to beat their Iberian neighbours Portugal and on-fire Cristiano Ronaldo, the player of the tournament so far.

Tonight: England v Italy
Weds: SF Spain v Portugal
Thurs: SF Germany v England/Italy
Sun: Final

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Greece bails out as Germans advance

The markets don't lie. Germany holds the whip-hand over Greece. And despite a heroic comeback straight out of Euripides, Teutonic willpower triumphed and the odyssey ended in Gdansk.

Georgios Samaras' unlikely equaliser came courtesy of a cheeky shirt-pull, an infringement all too visibly unpunished throughout Euro 2012.

4-2 was a convincing result and Germany's 15th consecutive competitive win, although let us not get carried away about the DFB. Greece had a straggly defence and were probably waiting to be exposed by a good team after surprisingly edging past Russia in the group stage.

If their game-plan was based on defending in deep and hitting Germany on the break and at set-pieces, they did not play the counter-attack well enough and allowed their opponents too many scoring chances. Croatia by comparison, did a far better job of trying to beat Spain, frustrating La Roja's superiority for most of the game and almost nicking the game with timely raids, foiled by bad finishing.

Germany obviously were a good bet to win the tournament going into Euro 2012 and they remain so. But however clinically they finished their chances last night, it is premature to etch their name on the trophy. Spain, Portugal, England and Italy are all still in the competition and none of them will submit so feebly as the Greeks did in Gdansk.

Their elimination came as no surprise but was still a big disappointment for the European nation in the direst straits right now. Success on the international stage can inspire a nation, or at least dull the pain for a while. Greece has more pressing matters to deal with at home now, and may have to look to its illustrious past for inspiration.





- Sean O'Conor

Friday, June 22, 2012

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Day Off At Euro 2012

As there is no football today I thought I'd send you a few postcards from Kiev. For anyone that didn't receive theirs in the post, here they are!

St Andrews Church, Kiev, Ukraine


All these were taken today and you will note there is almost no football involved.

Andriyivsky Hill, Kiev

Kiev Pechetrsk Lavra, Kyev

Church in Kyev

Entrance to Lobanovsky Stadium home of Dinamo Kiev, Ukraine

St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral, Kiev

Monument dedicated to the founders of Kiev, with Mother,Motherland



© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile

Rewriting the rules

Today I have a relatively short train journey taking me from Lviv to Kiev, only nine hours.

So I thought I could use the time to understand the rules UEFA have issued to decide how group placings are decided in the event of teams finishing level on points.

Euro 2012 rules on groups


a) Higher number of points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question.

OK, I understand this and know this system is used in leagues in Europe, in the U.K. we are used to using goal difference first, and then goals scored.

As a) is clear why do we need,

b) Superior goal difference resulting from the matches between the teams in question.

c) Higher number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question.

If there were two teams then it would not apply, but if there were 3 or even 4 teams it could come into effect.

Ok, so far.

d) If, after having applied criteria a) to c), two teams still have an equal ranking criteria a) to c) are then reapplied exclusively to the matches between the teams in question to determine the final rankings.

It is beginning to make sense.

e) superior goal difference in all group matches

f) higher number of goals scored in all group matches

So these two are the ones that I personally am used to, and would have been a) & b) in the past.

g) position in the UEFA coefficient national team ranking

h) fair play conduct of the teams (final tournament)

i) drawing of lots

So, it is quite simple after all.

A slight rewording to a), adding in the event of three or more teams finishing level on points, then it does become clearer.

My guess is that someone from UEFA was on a long journey and decided to have some fun.

Did you see that at the press conference before the Italy v Ireland game, that there was a score of 2-2 projected on a screen for the Croatia v Spain game, a result that would knock Italy out . So clearly there is at least one person in UEFA with a sense of humour.

Maybe that same person had too much time to spend on a long train journey, and created the new rules for their own personal amusement, and left them in amongst a number of items due to be released to the press.

Now my journey isn't over yet so I thought I should finish the task that they started, surely we could incorporate some of the statistics that are produced for every game.

For example, shots on target, surely the team with the most shots on target have been trying to provide the most entertainment.

In the past the number of corners, have been suggested as a means of deciding games.

A new set of statistics shown at these games is the one that shows the distance the players have covered. Now obviously each team would have to employ a specialist just to ensure they understand these rules, South Africa of course would need more than everyone else following their failure to understand previous rules when they were happy to play for a draw thinking they would qualify, when they actually needed a win.

Now if things were looking tight they could advise the goalkeeper to start running around his area. This could leave him vulnerable to long range speculative efforts, but provided his team can hang on to the ball at the other end of the pitch then he could quickly build up the miles. The speedy winger (who is on the bench as he consistently fails to deliver crosses to his team mates) could be brought on to run up and down or even across the pitch so that he doesn't get caught offside.

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Tale of Four Cities

Now coming towards the end of my tour of Ukraine, I thought it was time to discuss what the Ukraine has to offer.

Before the tournament started there was plenty of bad publicity. Now I believe that the reason there are not as many supporters here as normal is the ridiculous prices being charged from the outset by the local hoteliers.

When people see prices of over £100 a night for a basic hotel and over £50 a night in a hostel dormitory bed shared with 8 other people, a year before the competition starts, then prospective visitors are not encouraged to look at this as a sensible proposition. If you did look further into accommodation you would have been shocked to see some rooms at over £1,000 a night.

Lenin statue in Kharkiv, Ukraine


Noises were made by the Ukrainian government in April asking hoteliers to drop prices, but this fell on deaf ears. Some Ukrainians looked to put this right in May by setting up a movement to offer free accommodation to foreigners to counter the bad publicity their country had been receiving, alas this is too late to make any difference as the people who are set on coming have already made their arrangements.

School of Science, Lviv, Ukraine


The attitude of making as much as possible from the visitors is highlighted by my experiences with the taxi driver in Donetsk who would rather charge 250 hryvnia and stand outside waiting for a client than keep busy at a reasonable rate. Also the bar in Kharkiv where the price was exorbitant for locals. This shortsightedness does not endear you to the local businesses but makes me feel sorry for the local people who have to put up with this behaviour, whilst earning a meagre wage for example, the young doctors on the train to Lviv on €100 a month.

As for sightseeing, Kharkiv had several Soviet sights which you are warned that the locals don't like talking about.

Donetsk has the Donbass Stadium and the restaurant Старгород (Stargorod). The next thing to do there was visit a salt mine some 75k away where there is a football pitch 300m underground. I didn't have time to visit but I am guessing that someone from the U.A.E. did.

Lviv has a pleasant feel to it and has plenty of old buildings in the city centre which with some investment could make a popular tourist destination, especially as they have just improved the airport facilities.

Donetsk Fan Zone, Ukraine


There is also the Masoch Cafe, but don't beat yourself up if you don't get to see it!

I had read that there are plenty of things to see in Lviv, and I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the school of science, by a local. The place was used to film the Russian version of the Three Musketeers.

Kiev has (as I mentioned previously) numerous sights which make it stand out as a must see destination.

Would I come back to any of them?

Olympic Stadium, Kiev


Of course I will, if there is a football match on!

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lviv and late lie!

Arriving in Lviv, immediately asked for help to get to accommodation. As ever there were volunteers at the train station who seemed startled and surprised to see you.

They pointed me on the direction of trolleybus No. 9. (I had already problems with this address as on the google map showing directions it highlighted a completely different address to the one given. I wrote to them to confirm, but received no reply, so also wrote the Lviv Tourist board who confirmed the mistake on Google maps.

Lviv, Ukraine


So took the tram the 4k into town and began to search for the accommodation.

Couldn't find our destination wanted No. 10, had 9 & 11 across the street, locals offered to help but were just as confused. So I went round the block and saw an entrance manned with guards. This was my accommodation. Once again nigh on impossible to find.

Lviv Statue in Ukraine shirt, Ukraine


Lviv itself is a pleasant place with something to offer any tourists unlike Kharkiv and Donetsk, which I don't think too many people would visit.

The support also here in town was good with a large number of Germans once again present. There was also a number of Polish supporters here (Lviv is near the Polish border). Throughout the tournament the atmosphere has been good and fans have mingled with no problems whatsoever, and I have not witnessed any racism at all.

Lviv New Stadium, Ukraine, Euro 2012


The Lviv New Stadium lies some 6 miles out of town in the middle of nowhere, but free buses were laid on. The stadium has a strange steel looking facade, but inside offered a good view as everyone is close to the pitch.

The feeling between supporters was that there would be a 1-1 draw. However basically anything was possible in terms of who could qualify.

Maybe the Danes shouldn't have been singing "Remember 1992", as Germany drove forward looking for victory.

Germany v Denmark, Lviv New Stadium, Ukraine


The German supporters really got behind their team in the second half with a 20 minute chant of "Ole, ole,ole". Though it was only in the last few minutes that they sensed victory as they chanted "Seig".

So now after getting up at 11a.m. It's Lviv for today.

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Euro 2012 24 Hours to Lviv

Arrived at the train station to see another new train, unfortunately that was not the one travelling to Lviv at 13.31. Instead it was back to normal, and the comforts of a third class sleeper.

Ukraine Train, Lviv


Sat next to two Ukrainians who invited me to play cards, and quickly got talking about football and life in their country. They had just visited Donetsk for the first time having taken the train from their home town on a 16 hour journey.

Their accommodation sounded familiar, a student hall let out to football supporters at 10 times the normal price. If we think this is outrageous, imagine how you would feel if that amount was two thirds of your salary for the month, as it was for these two doctors in their second year of work.

Word got round the carriage that there were foreign football fans in the carriage and my new found friends warned me that they overheard others planned to join us for a party as they stocked up on alcohol. At this stop I also spotted a German friend, Markus and invited him to join us.

Sure enough our compartment was crowded as the locals asked the same questions over and over again through the help of our doctors who translated.

They insisted that we drink vodka with them and when it was suggested that they should offer something to eat, within seconds a loaf of bread, tomatoes and a gherkin appeared.

They were all in total agreement that Ukraine were too reliant on Shevchenko, and that it was unfair on him to carry the whole attack.

Oleg Blokhin


Talking of great Ukrainian footballers one man put forward his vote for Oleg Blokhin.

A young boy joined us and quickly took over as translator, as he spoke fluent French/Ukrainian/Russian and English. He offered his views on football and even communism. Finding out that he collected coins from around the world, we were reminded that he was just 12, as he rejected the offer of a €2 Italian coin as he had one already.

There was plenty of heated discussion , especially as Markus got louder and louder convincing everyone that on July 1st 2012 at 23.35 (local time) Germany will be lifting the trophy.

Eventually went to bed around 2a.m! And arose at 9a.m. Only four hours to go.

Complimentary tea was served for breakfast although the sugar that came with it gave a false impression of the train we were on.

Sugar on Ukraine train


Arrived in Lviv on time at 13.04

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Saturday, June 16, 2012

England rejoice while Swedes head for the exit

England rejoice while Swedes head for the exit.
UEFA 2012 Group D, Kiev

England 3: 2 Sweden

A helter-skelter of a game which must have pleased everyone but the aesthetes. England got the champagne after coming out on top of a five-goal thriller, but the Swedes, backed by phenomenal support, left Euro 2012 in glory, coming from a goal down to bag two in ten minutes and send England reeling for a few crazy minutes.

In the greater scheme of things, last night's yo-yo in Kiev may go down as a meaningless if entertaining tussle between two of the weaker teams in the tournament. England showed plenty of grit and fighting spirit to come from behind to win, but traditional virtues will not haul them very far. As the Swedes pack their bags, England still have to get a result against the co-hosts to avoid a speedy exit themselves.

The Three Lions are certainly more disciplined and safety-first under Roy Hodgson, but last night rode a rollercoaster which sent their supporters through an encyclopedia of emotions. The team is still learning to play with mental strength and less of the inbred cavalier quality which has so often proved their Achilles' Heel. Steven Gerrard may look glum in his assignment as an anchor instead of as a marauding midfielder but at least got the chance to swing in a diagonal cross for Andy Carroll's gleeful opener, a goal from football past where a long ball finds the big man in the box who then wraps it up.

In the end, England profited from a little more quality than Sweden in the final third. Carroll's power-header was text-book, Theo Walcott was the perfect impact sub with his troubling pace and silky feet, while Danny Welbeck's exquisite finish for the winner means he remains on cloud nine.

In reply, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic maintained a real threat for Sweden, although Kim Kallstrom troubled Joe Hart with his snapshots from distance and the young playmaker Rasmus Elm stood out as the most lively brain among a field of workhorses. England's most creative player Ashley Young had a nightmare for a change, hardly putting a foot right all evening.

It was an error-strewn game with neither defence able to defend set-pieces adequately and neither midfield able keep hold of the ball for long. But it was certainly value for spectator money.

While England's beleaguered supporters enjoyed a well-earned and rare night of joyous celebration, deep down all are aware that tougher tests await. No-one in their right mind thinks Hodgson's team are equal to Germany or Spain, and indeed the Three Lions' Euro-quest could end as soon as next Tuesday against the Ukraine. There has been little euphoria at home so far, and no St George's crosses fluttering from car windows as in previous tournaments.

Ball retention, England's perennial shortcoming, must improve, as must the sloppy marking which led to Olof Mellberg's brace and they must find a way of compensating for John Terry's now alarming lack of pace. The squad, already weakened by multiple withdrawals, remains painfully short on depth.

That said, Wayne Rooney will return to the fold and their win in Kiev plus Ukraine's exhausted surrender to France will leave the team confident of reaching the knock-out stages when the real challenges will arrive.

Sweden are left to pick up the pieces after a swift elimination. Erik Hamren's more open approach following six years of Lars Lagerback solidity has got off to a disappointing start.

Having failed to make it to the 2010 World Cup finals, hopes were high for Euro 2012, but with six of last night's side in their 30s, there will now be calls for new blood as they look towards Brazil 2014.

(c) Soccerphile & Sean O'Conor

Ukraine v France Euro 2012

Made our way into town by local bus and found that we were some 5km past the stadium. So much for on the same road.

The weather was similar to Kharkiv, so I was pleased to see some cloud in the early afternoon to keep the temperature down.

Donbass Arena, Donetsk


Arriving at the Donbass Arena, it looks like a drab space ship. Inside though the home clubs colours give the stadium a livelier feel. The stadium was the most expensive in Europe, although questions have been asked as to why?

There was an excellent atmosphere in the stadium as the match kicked off, but the rain started to empty the stand opposite me. Then a loud bang, and the players were taken off the pitch. Papers have reported that stands were emptied, truth of the matter is the people were soaked to the skin by the sudden downpour and many had already taken shelter before play stopped.

Ukraine v France, Donbass Arena, Donetsk


Ukraine tried, but relied too much on one player. Unfortunately Shevchenko had two good efforts but could not find the net. France produced an excellent performance quickly getting the ball into the last third of play and then, producing passes that Spain would have been proud of.

At the end of the game I expected to find chaos outside in terms of water everywhere but there was hardly a sign of the deluge.

Downpour at Donbass Arena, Donetsk


Now the stadium was lit up and looked as though it deserved it's ranking as one of the best stadiums in the world.

Taxi drivers were asking for 250 Hryvnia to take us back, but we went round the corner and got one for 70.

Back at the accommodation we found we had a bed there for the night. Unfortunately for one member of my party their night's sleep ended with another loud bang as their bunk bed collapsed with them in it.

Time to move on.

Will be catching the train tomorrow to Lviv for a 24 hour train journey.

Donbass Arena, Donetsk, Ukraine


© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Friday, June 15, 2012

Старгород

After wandering around Kharkiv during the afternoon cooling down with ice creams and then thunder and a little rain, the main aim of the afternoon was to find somewhere to watch the evenings football.

Старгород

Старгород


Mission accomplished.

Beer garden, unfortunately the weather ruled that out.

Home of FC Metalist Kharkov supporters club.

"An up market version of Hooters" I heard the place described as, not sure what that means.

I hope you can read the photos to see why. My colleagues are currently working hard on their membership application.

If they don't manage to enrol tonight the good news is there are also branches of the restaurant in Donetsk and Lviv, guess where we're heading next.

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Finding Accommodation in Donetsk

The journey out of Kharkiv was a lot more pleasant than the one taking us there. A departure time of 06.25 saw us catch the first metro of the day at 05.30 to the train station where waiting for us was a brand new air conditioned train.

Been out here now for a week and yesterday had to spend money on public transport for the first time, on Kharkiv's metro system, where the fare of approx 20 pence will cover your journey.

Church, Ukraine, Euro 2012


Today, had no choice but to get a taxi to the accommodation which had been booked in Donetsk, as last night I received an email giving me a different address, and I was unable to find it on a map.

I wasn't the only one.

In the end found a taxi driver and we rang the hostel so that he could get directions from them. Haggled the price down from 170 to 100 which was still expensive.

Ukraine Train, Kharkiv


The description I had stated that the place where we were staying was on the same street as the Donbass Arena. So I was pleased to catch my first glimpse of the Arena as we hurtled passed with horn beeping at various distractions.

We kept going at 100km/h for some time, albeit on the same road.... For someway then turned off..... And turned again. Eventually arriving at an area of local houses (as opposed to blocks).

When we got there we were advised that we might not be staying there!

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kharkiv Da Da Da

Decided to go for a curry after midnight to kill time before catching the 02.54 train to Kharkiv. Would you believe it, curry house closed!

So in the end found somewhere else and dashed across town in time to get the train from Kiev. Successfully negotiated the antiquated locker system and caught that train.

Kharkiv building


The great thing about this journey around Poland and Ukraine is that there was no need to pay ridiculous prices for basic accommodation. So a bargain with a eight hour train journey and a night's accommodation for less than you would pay for a bed for one night. I didn't realise that it also included a free sauna! No windows opened, and a packed train with bunks to sleep on (notice I didn't call them bunk beds!)

Arriving in Kharkiv, the sauna experience helped us quickly to adjust to the 33 degree heat.

Accommodation was 14km out of town, but the 24 hour metro took us nearby in no time. Then 50 minutes of wandering around the "blocks" and we arrived.

FC Metalist, Kharkiv


Spent the afternoon in Shevchenko Park (where else?). Headed for the Metalist Stadium on the Metro to find the nearest station to the ground was closed. So a 10 minute walk through a landscape that hadn't changed much in the last 30 years, and we were at the stadium. Looking for somewhere to watch the early game, we weren't spoilt for choice and ended up in a small restaurant with a Russian who thought he owned the place.

His English was limited to naming players and the clubs they played for. Hence, da, da, da. It would have been interesting to find out more about him, but I fear that the conversation would not have gone anywhere, especially as I couldn't tell him which clubs all the Russian players played for.

FC Metalist Kharkiv, Ukraine


The ground has the nickname of "The Spider", due to the poles supporting the stadiums structure on the outside looking like spider's legs. I couldn't find confirmation, but I believe it is also homage to Queens Park, who are known as The Spiders due to their intricate passing moves in the 1870s. This is also the model that Barcelona copied to play their ticky tacky football that has been so successful for them.

During a quieter moment in the game the neutral supporters began to chant for their country - Roo-see-ya.

Germany deserved their victory and so far are the best team and best supporters seen.

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Shevchenko

The day after the night before. As the whole of Ukraine is chanting his name I decided to dedicate the day to finding out more about him.

Kiev University, Kiev


Walking the streets of Kiev I saw they had already erected statues and plaques in honour of his two goals last night.

Shevchenko statue

Shevchenko, Kiev

Shevchenko 7, Kiev



© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ukraine v Sweden Euro 2012

Managed a quick getaway from Kiev Airport, once again making use of the free transport available from the airport with match tickets on the day of the game, catching a bus and then managed to catch the majority of the England v France game in the Lucy pub (translates to Lucky in English, the horseshoe gives you a clue).

Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine


These Ukrainians are in a weight category above that of the Poles, and England had better watch out as if Ukraine do punch above their weight when they meet in Kiev or they could be in serious trouble.

Counterfeit souvenirs were openly on display, as were political protests indicating that Ukraine is at the moment a law unto itself. The countdown to kickoff (coming to a stadium near you soon) was done in Ukrainian. Not unusual you think. In Poland it was done in English.

Olympic Stadium, Kiev for Sweden v Ukraine


Once again the stadium in Kiev was magnificent and with all supporters (with an exception!) in yellow and the blue running track, you knew you were in the Ukraine, except the sky and the fields were upside down.

Once the game settled down and I had worked out that Ukraine were the ones playing in yellow and chants of Sver-gay were replaced with Ooh-cry-eena. Ukraine threatened and like Balotelli, Ibrahomivic showed moments of class that make him look one of the best in the world whilst in the same period showed a lack of application that would not be tolerated in every team.

Shevchenko seems to score every time I see him play and do it was no surprise that their current national hero delivered the equalising goal, and then the winner.

Sweden v Ukraine, Euro 2012


Sweden pushed on towards the end but maybe it was Ooh-cry-eena's "Lucy" night after all.

Whilst both teams battled it out, nothing quite matched the passion shown and heard in the Lucy pub earlier.

© Ross Clegg & Soccerphile.com