Friday, May 4, 2018

The Luck of the Draw?

The Curiousity of the Two-Legged European Tie


Drawn away first.

When a supporter hears those three words at the end of an announcement of a cup draw they often breathe a little sigh of relief.

'That gives us the edge' they mutter to themselves.

Home advantage in the final race to the line is reassuring psychologically, as momentum joins the battle more readily with the roar of supporters in your ears and familiar sights in your eyes.

Get the tough one over first and if possible grab an away goal and then it will all be downhill for us in the second leg at our own patch.

If David v Goliath had been a best of two, then David would have wanted to travel first.

If that is so then this season's UEFA Champions League final should have been between Real Madrid and Roma, who both had the luxury of playing at home second in their semi finals, while the Europa League final tie should therefore have seen Atletico Madrid take on Salzburg.

But as those match-ups clearly show, playing the away leg first is not enough alone to ensure success: Liverpool and Marseille advanced despite playing away second.

Real seemed to have proved the point by winning having played the second tie at home, although for the second round running they did the hard work away from home in the first leg before surviving a succession of scares to stagger over the line on their own patch.

Roma's spectacular fightback from starting 1-4 down from their quarter final match in the Camp Nou also seemed to confirm the edge which being drawn away first hands to clubs and the Giallorossi came within one goal of hauling back Liverpool's 5:2 lead in the semi final.

Each time they scored their hunger to score again increased in parallel with the fervour and thunderous support of their tifosi in the Stadio Olimpico.

Had Barcelona been at home instead second time around, one suspects the intimidating atmosphere of their immense Catalan cauldron would have prevailed instead over the Italians.

Unlikely too that the Blaugrana would have been so complacent and lackadaisical as they were in letting slip a three goal advantage in Italy, bunkering down pathetically in attempt to see out the clock.

But in this age of soccer statistics, what do the number-crunchers have to say about this popular belief?

Well, in 2007, the Journal of Sports Sciences analysed 12,000 UEFA cup ties going back to 1957 and found that 53% of teams playing the second leg at home advanced, a majority but a far from overwhelming one and a majority that has actually been in gradual decline.

Why in decline? It is hard to prove but one suspects that travelling overseas these days is much less of an unsettling experience than it was in the past.

Europe has become far more interconnected in many ways over the past twenty years and its football leagues manifest this globalisation in their multinational playing and coaching staff.

There is no mystery anymore about playing on the continent and the days of homesick British stars pining for Rice Krispies or lamenting that everything around them is foreign are mostly in the past.

There is also little risk of encountering an unknown playing style since the internet affords such immediate scrutiny of every ball an opponent has kicked all season along with a treasury of information on every player.

The computer programs clubs employ can quickly show every tackle made by Giorgio Chiellini or every ball headed by Christian Eriksen for instance, along with a treasury of stats covering the game from every angle.

So a Dynamo Kiev or Mighty Magyars shocking other nations by playing unexpected styles belongs to the history books.

Some, usually more limited teams are set up to play better at home first, with a battle plan of scoring then shutting up shop for a 1-0 win at home and playing catenaccio for the second 90 minutes. Being drawn away first upsets their psyche as they are not used to chasing the game.

Playing away can still psychologically shock unprepared teams, as Roma proved by going 5-0 down at Anfield in an extraordinary capitulation, but when they woke up they netted twice to give themselves a fighting chance.

And clubs still find it hard to win at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu, although Juve triumphed 3-1 in Madrid in the quarters against an uncharacteristically feeble Real.

Instead it was finely poised for Roma to repeat their Barcelona heroics if the Reds relaxed and clock watched. While Jurgen Klopp's men never looked like losing the tie, they still let in four away from home, which is rarely a recipe for victory.

In the Europa League, as expected Atletico Madrid advanced having played away first at Arsenal, although Salzburg, despite having had a lot to do after going down 2-0 at Marseille in the first leg, pulled the scores back to 2-2 before succumbing to an extra-time winner; more proof of the edge playing at home second gives you.

Out of interest, in this year's Champions League knock-out stages, the Round of 16 saw a 4:4 result between clubs who played at home first or second going through but the Quarter Finals saw a 3:1 win for the teams playing at home second (Bayern, Real and Roma) with only Liverpool bucking the trend.

In the semi finals it finished one apiece; 8:6 to the second leg home sides overall then.

By contrast, the Europa League's Round of 16 saw only two of the eight clubs playing the second leg at home advance, with winners split evenly 2:2 in the quarters and one-all in the semis.

In total in the 2018 European knock-out stages therefore, the teams playing the second leg at home advanced 13 times while those playing it away got through 15 times, evidence that the popular assumption of the being drawn away first being intrinsically more beneficial is a bit of a myth.

That default relief that fans feel at the time of the draw might be a red herring as obvious yet underrated factors such as hunger, resilience, ability and that old chestnut called confidence are more telling when it comes to overcoming your opponent.

There is also the matter of the away goals rule to consider of course, a real dash of vinegar in the dressing.

The away goals rule shortens ties by avoiding the need for extra-time and penalties, but otherwise serves little purpose and is probably counter-productive if it was intended to promote attacking play.

It was introduced in the 1950s to avoid the need for a third eliminator in the event of an aggregate draw and in an age when few Europeans travelled overseas and propeller-driven aircraft took longer to fly from city to city and where local food and customs were real culture shocks to footballers.

Several voices have been raised in recent years questioning the law's continued existence and frankly UEFA should have no qualms about proposing its deletion and then removing it, as they did with their Golden Goal (1993-'03) and Silver Goal (2003-'06) rules.

These latter laws were abolished because they had not let to more attacking play or seemed to needlessly curtail games which had been action-packed.

The away goals rule similarly changes the nature of European ties. In the first leg, home sides are often over-cautious to avoid conceding an away goal while the away side defends en masse in the hope of snatching a breakaway goal, leading to a cagey match of few chances or open play.

In the second leg, a team with a first leg away goal can then bunker down at home, reducing the likelihood of an entertaining match for the spectators.

Permutations fly around whenever a goal is scored, the lead swings to and fro and a final advancement on away goals never seems wholly satisfactory. Is extra-time and penalties really the worse alternative?

Someone has to play the second leg at home of course, which in theory hands them an advantage if the tie goes into extra-time, although the away goals rule could be argued to be a counterweight to that.

Overall however, the rule's application damages the nature of what should be an open and fear-free contest where not only the best team wins but attacking and attractive play is rewarded.

When domestic cup competitions have only one leg, it is interesting this possibility has never been raised in terms of European cups, although it is inconceivable the money-mad organisers would agree to halve the number of matches played, while conspiracy theorists would have a field day if particular clubs were repeatedly handed home draws.

So we have two legs, but the away goals rule seems to complicate matters unnecessarily in an age when playing overseas holds no terrors or unforeseen shocks.

The moral of this season's UEFA competitions however is that clubs have to treat the second leg as intensively as the first, irrespective of the away goals rule or where the score stands at what after all, is only half-time.


UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL, KIEV 26th May

Real Madrid v Liverpool


UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, LYON 16th May

Atletico Madrid v Marseille



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, April 23, 2018

Thanks for the trophies, but...

WENGER'S DEPARTURE LEAVES AN ODD AURA AROUND ARSENAL

So Arsene Wenger is leaving after 22 years in charge of Arsenal and after such a long stretch, moving the familiar furniture creates an unusual feeling.

Yesterday the fans at Ashburton Grove gave him a polite and warm welcome but hardly an overwhelming crescendo of praise for a departing hero on his way to Valhalla.

It was after all supporter unrest in the form of banners, chants and vacated seats which ultimately sealed his fate.

Arsenal have been drifting for some years and there is no doubt that had Wenger not transformed the club and engineered its new stadium, he would have been fired some time ago. It is impossible to think he would have lasted as long at Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid for instance.

Such an elephantine reign in a business where bosses last an average of 18 months is extraordinary and for that the Frenchman deserves much praise.

Only Alex Ferguson's 27 years at Manchester United or Brian Clough's 18 at Nottingham Forest compare in the English top flight.

Like those men he had become almost unsackable because of the body of work he had already produced and the metamorphosis he had effected.

Yet Wenger also resembled Guy Roux in the way his fellow countryman embodied Auxerre over 44 years, while Valeriy Lobanovsky's 19 years of statistical and technical innovation at Dynamo Kiev have similarities with the wholesale changes Wenger brought to Highbury.

Once the Arsenal board realised the man they had hired to replace the yeoman Bruce Rioch was intent on a revolution on all fronts they bowed down to his evidently superior wisdom, even if two decades down the line that deference had turned into a hindrance.

Wenger modernised English football more than anyone really, and it was his bank of ideas more than Sky TV's millions which changed the First Division into the Premier League.

Arsenal had a notorious drinking culture before his arrival but Wenger soon cut that out and swapped the steak and chips for pasta and broccoli.

He brought in conditioning and not just training, using his economics background to apply performance analysis to justify his changes, including selling star players once they had reached their maximum transfer value.

He also used dieticians, masseurs and psychologists in a successful attempt to make football truly professional and move beyond the traditional virtues of English football, which had grown obsolete.

Yet however huge his achievements at Arsenal, it became hard to justify the club keeping him in the dugout for another season.

Last campaign was a disaster as the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years. One wonders if winning the F.A. Cup on the last day of the season even saved the manager's bacon.

Winning the Europa League this year and qualifying for the Champions League through the back door will not be enough. The club appears to have already made up its mind to relieve Wenger in the summer, hence his desire to leap first to avoid the end of season guillotine.

Indeed it should be noted that the Frenchman did exit with consummate grace, gently and almost silently, refusing to blame anyone in the management or be overcome with much emotion.

The fan protests became loud last season, with several anti-Wenger banners visible. This season they have returned and for the first time the ghastly spectre of swathes of empty seats at home games has added insult to injury.

Add to that star player Alexis Sanchez's departure to Manchester United, Arsenal's embarrassing F.A. Cup exit as holders to managerless Nottingham Forest of the Championship and their 3-0 League Cup final loss to Manchester City and the mood of gloom seemed ingrained.

Sailing wide of the Champions League for a second successive season was surely the coup de grace for another season of unhappiness. However inert the owners appeared last season in failing to act on supporter unrest, this time they have done the right thing.

Those owners must take some blame for allowing the club, rated the sixth richest in the world by Deloitte this year, with wealth almost twice that of Europa League rivals Atletico Madrid, to slowly deteriorate from their invincible season of 2003-'04 and Champions League final of 2006.

The drawn-out struggle between Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov for majority control did not help Wenger or the team.

Arsenal have clearly been in decline for some time and a sluggishness has infected the starting eleven, who have only been able to raise themselves for certain games.

One shudders when comparing the great Arsenal back four of Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould/Keown which Wenger inherited with the ropey defence of recent years, the midfield enforcers of Vieira and Petit/Gilberto with the current crop of Granit Xhaka and Mohamd Elneny or even the mercurial yet inconsistent talents of Mesut Ozil and Sanchez with the diamonds that were Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.

Wenger had the advantage over his rivals for a few years after bringing the benefits of sports science to bear on the English game, but his rivals have all copied his methods and caught up.

The only solution was to look for new ideas in the same way Alex Ferguson brought assistants like Carlos Quieroz and Steve McClaren to sit beside him but Wenger, whom Pat Rice shadowed for so many years, was allegedly unwilling to accept others' ideas.

This included a director of football, the norm at most clubs but absent until this season at Arsenal. In that sense, Wenger's demand for total control over transfers resembles that of Clough and traditional English gaffers more than the new continental era he supposedly ushered in.

He should not leave wholly blameless. While he was right to call time on certain English football traditions such as the pies and pints, he paid scant respect to others.

He was quite happy to source players from all over the world and often left British players on the periphery. Young English talents like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere all began well under Wenger but failed to reach their expected promise and were transferred.

International football meant little to him, much less any respect for England's national team.

The F.A. Cup, the sport's oldest competition, has lost its stuffing and special character and while the Champions League's riches are largely to blame, it was the Alsatian former coach of Monaco who began the trend of fielding reserve teams in that competition, as well as in the League Cup.

Ironically it was the F.A. Cup he captured most often, seven times in total, including last season's win over Chelsea, which could prove to have been his last trophy.

While courteous to the press after a victory, too often Wenger entered wars of words with other managers and referees when game decisions or results went against him.

Notoriously he would bemoan apparent miscarriages of justice committed against his side but when roles were reversed trotted out the sheepish phrase "I did not see it so I cannot comment", a refrain which turned into something of a comic turn.

His character was that of a research scientist totally devoted to the job in hand, certain he would attain his goals with the correct application of the methods he had studied.

So when the equations failed to work and Arsenal failed to become one of Europe's greats, invariably exiting in the last eight of the Champions League, the measured and polite professor would turn into Mr Hyde, raging at the cruelty of fate.

Even yesterday at his first post-match conference following his announcement he equivocated, first apportioning blame to the supporter unrest:

"Our fans did not give the image of unity I want and that was hurtful...The image we gave from our club is not what it is," he told reporters, before adding confusingly,

"I have nothing more to say. I am not resentful with (sic) the fans...It is nothing to do with the fans."

Like Arsenal's fans, people are split on the final analysis of Wenger.

The 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona, lost 2-1 after leading and going a man down early on, remains the official high point of Wenger's Arsenal, although the superb football they played in their unbeaten season of 2004 and the following campaign, with Henry pre-eminent, will live longer in the annals.

And finally, the historic cathedral of Highbury he wasted no time in asking to leave in exchange for a new and bigger home. Inevitable perhaps, but melancholic too.

Arsenal had some golden spells under Wenger but like all great leaders, he stayed in power for too long. Change was clearly required now.

Yet he leaves as the club's greatest and most significant manager. 22 years in charge while Chelsea went though 19 coaches remains an extraordinary testament to him, as does the Emirates Stadium.

As Christopher Wren's tomb in St Paul's cathedral says,

"Si requiris monumentum, circumspice - If you are seeking my monument, look around you."

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Friendly Fire

Down and Out in Paris and London in the International Break

FRANCE 2:3 COLOMBIA          Stade de France, Paris
COLOMBIA 0:0 AUSTRALIA    Craven Cottage, London


It was the March international break and I opted to nip over to Paris on the Eurostar to check out two of the World Cup finalists before heading back to London to see another.

As an England fan member who has spent the last quarter century travelling to see the Three Lions, I plead not guilty in choosing to ignore Gareth Southgate's latest experiment against Italy (1:1) at Wembley last night in favour of Colombia v Australia at Craven Cottage instead.

I am totally behind Southgate's cerebral enterprise, a brave metamorphosis of the national team into one which builds from a three-man defence and uses possession-based football instead of emphasizing those rather meaningless virtues of 'pride' and 'passion' which are invariably invoked by the tabloids.

The only thing is, England are in truth aiming at 2022 or even 2024 on the basis of their young guns' triumphs at U-19 and U-17 last summer so the current national team seems dangerously green and experimental so close to the World Cup finals.

Maybe it is the persistent underachievement of our heroes, maybe it is the manifest superiority of some other nations and club sides or maybe I am just getting old, but I am finding it hard to get so excited about England right now.

For all the talk of evolving a system, presumably to rival Spain's tiki-taka success between 2008 and 2012, England relies heavily on an old-fashioned, if brilliant centre-forward in Harry Kane.

Beyond him, when we should have a settled starting eleven, instead we have an erratic bunch of decent players, none of whom seem to be able to cement their places in the starting lineup.

Nobody is sure who will start for England in Russia. When I think of previous World Cup winners they have mostly arrived with a settled side and well-developed telepathy and Southgate's side are a country mile away from that consistency.

They should still hurdle the group stage without too much trouble but sterner tests await. As it stands, there seems to be a 50-50 chance England will face Colombia in the second round.

The sides are of similar standard - Los Cafeteros are ranked 13th by FIFA this month and England 16th, and coming from different confederations they have only met five times in history.

Darren Anderton and David Beckham despatched Hernan Dario Gomez's team from France '98 but their last meeting was in a New York friendly in 2005, where a Michael Owen hat-trick saw England win 3:2.

On Friday, Colombia started weakly against France in Paris, conceding two in the first 25 minutes. For France's first goal, goalkeeper David Ospina was to blame in patting a cross smack into the path of a lurking Olivier Giroud, his erstwhile Arsenal teammate.

Giroud has never been a fan idol in France any more than in London but it is worth remembering this typically underrated striker has now equalled the tally scored for Les Bleus by legends Just Fontaine and Jean-Pierre Papin of 30 goals.

Two more would take him ahead of the equally legendary Zinedine Zidane.

The visitors looked rattled and the prospect of a hammering loomed. A large Colombian presence in the 80,000-full Stade de France notwithstanding, the team was playing as if feeling far from the comforts of home.

France's second was a piece of joy, a counter-attack of passes among multiple runners, redolent of the French rugby team of yore, with the exciting Kylian Mbappe on fire and a lethal finish from Thomas Lemar of Monaco.

This flash of flair was what many of us want to see at the World Cup. Didier Deschamps can call on the aforementioned talent in addition to Antoine Griezmann, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, firepower most coaches would be overjoyed to have in their ranks.

Jose Pekerman's men meanwhile looked winded, confirming how disappointingly they have failed to build on their thrillingly unexpected ride to the 2014 World Cup last eight.

Then just before the half hour a chink of light for them. Talisman James Rodriguez fed Luis Muriel on the left and the Sevilla forward curled a cross towards the far post.

Tottenham's Davinson Sanchez lurched towards the ball and the near post but missed, inadvertently throwing Hugo Lloris a dummy and letting the ball creep in at the unguarded far one.

A break, certainly. A gift from the gods all losing teams crave. 2-1 to the French at half time.

In the second half, France eased up while Colombia went through the gears. Just after the hour, Kante, the FWA, PFA and Premier League player of the season in 2017, lost control sloppily and Rodriguez pounced, zipping a grasscutter towards his former Porto teammate Radamel Falcao to fire home.

Colombia looked keener and got their reward with five minutes to spare. Blaise Matuidi lunged in and caught the ankle of Jose Izquierdo and River Plate attacker Juan Fernando Quintero lashed home an unstoppable penalty to hand an unexpected win to the visitors.

Indeed it was a game of two halves, or rather two thirds and one third.

The French media lamented the lack of leaders and passion in their side, a curiously English reaction but true. There was particular dismay at the fact their centre backs Samuel Umtiti and Rafael Varane played for Barcelona and Real Madrid no less but were cut through like paper in the second half.

There are some footballing traits or stereotypes which endure however and one can easily feel the French lack a little backbone.

At least the image of Mats Hummels out-muscling Varane to eliminate Les Bleus from the last World Cup suggests that in my mind.

France were universally popular when winning the World Cup on home soil in 1998 and remain a side popular with neutrals.

Yet the way they fell away at home to Colombia after going two up means it is impossible to be confident in them going all the way.

France play Australia, Denmark and Peru in Russia and should they exit that group as expected will play one of Argentina, Croatia, Iceland or Nigeria in the next round.

As regards the fan experience, it was a typical big full arena one: A visual spectacle of colour and waving flags, but long distance sight lines can never be as good as being close to the action.

It reminded me a lot of watching England at Wembley, although entering the Stade de France there were longer security checks, probably inspired by the endless wave of atrocities on French soil.

In the upper tier, there was bizarrely no stewarding to be seen. When three beer-swilling mates opted to stand in the aisle and block views as well as routes of escape despite the requests of others, there was nobody to tell them to desist.

The steward standing by the entrance replied there was noting she could do when asked, an extraordinary failure of authority and organisation by the stadium.

Colombia arrived in London buoyed by their win and with another 20,000-odd fans to support them, but despite dominating the match failed to beat an Australia team ranked 24 places below them.

They came close. Rodriguez had a diving header saved by a quick-fingered debutant Danny Vukovic while substitute striker Miguel Borja had an extraordinary night.

He hit the post twice, had a goal disallowed for offside and had a late penalty saved.

James remains the ace in the pack but los Cafeteros have a number of useful cards to play in Russia:

Left back Johan Mojica looks assured and whips in dangerous crosses, Abel Aguilar at 33 is still a precision passer from defensive midfield and they have a pack of attacking talent.

Borja is an intimidating number nine and the experienced Carlos Bacca is another useful alternative striker to Falcao.

Izquierdo, Muriel and the diminutive Yimmi Chara all like to run at defences and the emphasis is on attack.

Ospina is a little accident-prone between the sticks, which makes Pekerman's lack of playing time for his understudies in these friendlies a little surprising, although Ospina's few appearances for Arsenal this season (15) was the probable reason.

Australia held firm despite the South American onslaught and carved out a couple of chances themselves.

Two minutes before half time Tomi Juric flashed a chance just wide of the far post and in the 69th minute Massimo Luongo sidestepped three defenders delightfully but could only fire straight at Ospina.

The Socceroos are not the outfit they were in 2006, when they were unlucky to be knocked out by eventual winners Italy, but they will be no pushovers in Russia and will surely improve on their 2014 nightmare when they went home after losing all their first round games.

Australia will be anxious as will all 32 finalists going into the tournament but some have bigger headaches than others.

I came home from a chilly West London to find the holders Germany had lost at home to Brazil, the very team they humiliated on their own turf in 2014, Argentina, the other finalists had been hammered 6-1 by Spain and that hosts Russia had lost again, 3-1 at home to France.

As of now there is little sign the host nation will be anything better than South Africa was in 2010.

Then Japan and Egypt both lost at home to teams which had not qualified for Russia - 2-1 to Ukraine and 1-0 to Greece respectively, while Sweden, another finalist, lost 1-0 away to Romania, who also missed the boat.

Time for ironing out the creases is running out.

The big show kicks off on the 14th of June in Moscow.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Date From Hell?

ENGLAND & RUSSIA ARE THE BEST OF ENEMIES HEADING INTO THE WORLD CUP

Many a lonely man has fallen in love with a beautiful Russian woman online and sent her cash, only to find out she has taken the money and run and was probably never even a woman in the first place.

This summer the Football Association has a date to keep with Mother Russia herself but is currently squabbling with her like a betrayed groom to be, even threatening to call the whole thing off.

How unfavourably aligned are their stars right now.

The apparently state-sponsored murders of a Russian dissident in London and the use of a banned nerve agent to dispatch another in sleepy Salisbury do not bode well for a stress-free visit of the Football Association to Russia in June.

Its president the Duke of Cambridge has already cancelled his trip.

Above the world of football the two nations are at loggerheads, trading insults and expelling each other's diplomats willy-nilly while binning once again any hopes of a healthy relationship.

And England's supporters, already planning their trips with a little trepidation after what happened in Marseille two years ago, will be sighing at yet another external worry.

Keep politics out of sport cry the exasperated; if only that were possible.

At the England v Russia clash at Euro 2016, Russian hooligans charged harmless England supporters inside the Stade Velodrome and attacked others outside with weapons including iron bars, leaving two Englishmen in comas.

Why? Was it merely the thugs' desire to test their nastiness against the inventor of the pastime?

Seasoned watchers were shocked at the level of violence but Russian leaders tut-tutted and even joked about the blatant crimes committed by their citizens, instead of offering the unequivocal condemnation one expects from governments.

Subsequent reports in England suggested the state had encouraged the attacks as part of President Vladimir Putin's asymmetric or 'hybrid warfare' with the West.

As Putin celebrates another election win by fanning the flames of nationalism, it would be a surprise if there is no violence surrounding England's first round games in Volgograd, Niszhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad.

Should Gareth Southgate's men advance, England will play next in Moscow or Rostov-on-Don. The events in France and the well-documented football hooliganism in Russian domestic football do not bode well for a trouble-free summer.

We should forget a unilateral boycott however. That would be the ultimate act of self-harm to the England team and hurt the purity of the sport's greatest competition.

A multi-country opt-out sounds attractive but is logistically impossible this close to the tournament, while it should be remembered that the American refusal to travel to the 1980 Moscow Olympics made no difference to the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan, their stated reason for not participating.

Maybe England's fans will misbehave so badly the team will be sent packing anyway while Russian hooligans can enjoy the luxury of being at home already so can run amok, in theory.

It is tempting to think the press is being unduly alarmist with its slew of scare stories on this topic where every bonehead is given a microphone, a pattern repeated before every major tournament, often by journalists with no experience of being travelling supporters.

Travelling overseas with England in the 1990s I got frustrated with the fantastical coverage of spectator violence coming from Fleet Street, which often bore little reality to the situation on the ground, even from the broadsheet press.

The media should be more responsible and not promote hooliganism before each tournament, pour encourager les autres. But chicanery, standard in a country without a free press, is also one of the prices of a free press in others.

Alas, Russian football racism and violence has a long and blotted copybook so fears of violence cannot be completely dismissed as the usual hooligan hysteria.

In October 2017, Detective Chief Constable Mark Roberts, head of UK policing at Euro 2016 and Russia 2018, said that English fans faced "a genuine threat" in Russia this summer.

"There is an active hooligan issue in Russia," said Roberts, "and it generally operates at a pretty extreme level of violence."

Roberts was quick to admit however that he had full confidence in the Russian police preventing any outbreak of fighting.

Andrei Zakharov, Moscow's deputy chief of police, echoed his reassurance.

"It is definitely safe for British fans to come here," he said last Autumn. "Everything will be secure. There is nothing to be afraid of."

The peaceful unfolding of last summer's Confederations Cup gives cause for hope and we do expect the Russians to act with force when required.

Public disorder in June would be played out in front of a billion worldwide viewers, a feasible scenario which would lead one to think Vladimir Putin will demand his country put on its Sunday Best.

It certainly put on an expensive and flamboyant show for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games as a way of promoting Russia and brand Putin, with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies peppered by a generous helping of nationalism.

Putin's cult of personality is as strong as ever so he will not want the World Cup to be a damp squib as he knows a violence-marred tournament would resonate more than bumping off the odd turncoat with a poisoned cuppa.

At the same time it is hard to know how much the Kremlin cares about its reputation going into the Finals which is an interesting paradox.

In the wake of the Russian athletes' doping scandal, the proxy war in the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the interference in the U.S. Presidential election, the assassinations of various dissidents and the President's boasting about his latest nuclear missiles, one cannot help wonder if merely winning the bidding for 2018 was enough for Putin.

Fortunately for Moscow, Ukraine has failed to qualify as well as the USA, which leaves England as its convenient persona non grata.

The UK Foreign Office is certainly doing little to cool the tension.

Its website warns visitors to Russia to "be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time."

It goes on to warn ethnic minorities of "unwanted attention" and British tourists in general of robbery, dating scams, spiked drinks and "groups of women or children who beg".

It also reminds us that "terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks" such as the bomb on the St. Petersburg metro last year which killed 15 people.

Against this backdrop it is surely incumbent on England fans to behave impeccably, although that in itself sounds comically fanciful.

It is true that these days England's travelling fan army, of which I have been a part many times, are more sinned against that sinning, paying for the baggage of the 1970s and '80s heyday of hooliganism.

Yet at the same time, large groups of them do not help themselves by disrespecting local traditions with their aggressive and xenophobic chanting which plumbs the depths of boorishness, stupidly referencing the Northern Irish conflict, the Taliban or the European Union.

As recently as last week, some Chelsea fans in Barcelona were taunting the Catalans by singing 'You'll always be Spain.' This is not 'banter', this is yobbery.

Gathering in squares to neck beer en masse and covering local monuments with flags is something the Dutch, Germans, Irish and Scots do too but without any hint of trouble. Yet all too regularly with England fans,  as the evening wears on and the alcohol takes effect, the sound of smashing glass, animalistic roars and police sirens arrives.

Being happy, enjoying the local culture and hospitality and making friends should be high on any England fan's agenda but too often it is not. Russia is a proud and special nation and deserves respect, not forthright assertions of superiority from foreigners on its soil.

While congregating en masse in the closest approximation to an English boozer is not wrong in itself and you can forgive disorientated young men ill at ease overseas for thinking there is safety in numbers, the risk of trouble increases with that behaviour too.

So if the Three Lions's travelling support make a point of being good tourists in Russia this summer but are still targeted by the local louts, at least the watching world will be in no doubt where the blame lies.

Sometimes all the doom and gloom and predictions of disaster from afar turn out to be just scaremongering.

Let us at least hope that this potential date from hell has a happy ending. People forget how easy it is to bond across cultures via a shared love of the Beautiful Game.

So here's to Anglo-Russian friendship via football.

Na zdorovie (Cheers)!

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Champions & Europa League QF draws

ONE ENGLISH CLUB MAKES THE SEMIS, BUT SPANISH GIANTS REMAIN


The English torrent of five clubs in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League has become a trickle with only one making it through to the last four.

Liverpool and Manchester City have been drawn against each other in the quarter finals, leaving the possibility of three Spanish teams in the semi finals.

Sevilla put a lame dog to the sword at Old Trafford but are less likely to overcome Bayern Munich, who routed Besiktas 8-1 on aggregate in the Round of 16. Bayern are often ignored compared to the Spanish giants for not being sexy enough but they are always a good bet for the last four at least. As with Barcelona and Manchester City, Bayern are running away with their domestic league.

As of now it looks like Pep Guardiola's side will be joining the usual suspects of Barcelona, Bayern  and Real Madrid in the next round, but only a fool would write off Jurgen Klopp's men before their two-legged clash with the Premier League leaders.

The Reds are the only side to have inflicted a league defeat on City this season and if they can register a home win in the first leg without conceding an away goal, then do not bet against them nicking one at the City of Manchester stadium.

With the knowledge of how to undermine the Blues banked at Anfield, the electrifying Mohamed Salah in imperious form and Liverpool's Champions Cup pedigree as a fillip, City's passage to the final four is no foregone conclusion.

The Reds may be far behind the Blues in the league in 2018 but equally they were not the best team in England when they won the Champions League in 2005 or reached the final in 2007.

Juventus will be keen to exact revenge on Real for last season's Champions League final hammering and against Tottenham they showed their will to fight back and inflict telling blows on an arguably superior foe. 

However, reports of Real's death have been greatly exaggerated after their confident despatch of young pretenders Paris Saint Germain woke everyone up. Like Liverpool they are struggling domestically but are finding a new lease of life and brimming with confidence in Europe. They could even repeat last year's win.

Like Real, Barcelona are another ageing outfit who refuse to lie down and whose simple game plan is still frighteningly effective. Their efficient use of space and clinical finishing made light work of a talented Chelsea side and with Lionel Messi as effervescent as ever, it seems hard to see who can beat them.

Roma should succumb in the intimidating cavern of the Camp Nou as Chelsea did, leaving the Catalans in touching distance of the final, their first for three seasons. Now what price a clasico in Kiev on the 26th of May?

The Europa League meanwhile lost a few big names in Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Milan in the last round and unless they are drawn against each other, the two big names left, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid, appear to be closing in on a final showdown on the 16th of May in Lyon.

While pleased to avoid Atletico, who thrashed Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1 on aggregate, Arsenal would have wished to avoid a Russian club at a time when the two countries are at loggerheads over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

The two favourites could draw each other in the semi finals of course and Marseille, 5-2 aggregate conquerors of Athletic Bilbao, might have something to say about that too.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTER FINALS

Barcelona v Roma
Sevilla v Bayern Munich
Juventus v Real Madrid
Liverpool v Manchester City

Ties to be played on the 3rd/4th and 10th/11th of April

Recent Winners:
2013 Bayern Munich
2014 Real Madrid
2015 Barcelona
2016 Real Madrid
2017 Real Madrid

EUROPA LEAGUE QUARTER FINALS

Leipzig v Marseille
Arsenal v CSKA Moscow
Atletico Madrid v Sporting Lisbon
Lazio v Salzburg

Ties to be played on the 5th and 12th of April.

Recent Winners:
2013 Chelsea
2014 Sevilla
2015 Sevilla
2016 Sevilla
2017 Manchester United

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

City's millions sweep Arsenal aside

GUARDIOLA BAGS HIS FIRST SILVERWARE AS ARSENAL STRUGGLE AGAIN

League Cup Final: Manchester City 3:0 Arsenal

Pep Guardiola has finally won a trophy in England, albeit the least prestigious, the League Cup. Yet no-one could begrudge the stunning improvement he has made to Manchester City this season.

The Blues are playing dynamic and flowing football week-in, week-out, garnished by a panoply of attacking talent, which rightly makes them the runaway leaders of the Premier League.

A bias for attacking has been rewarded, while Jose Mourinho's defence-first, deny-second, attack-third mentality resides in a distant second in the table.

The acid test is of course Europe and the prospect of a Champions League final between City and Guardiola's former kingdom of FC Barcelona is an exceptionally attractive one.

For every winner there is a loser of course and Arsenal did not just lose but took a brow-beating at Wembley. So comprehensive and numbing was their defeat that the fans probably wished they had been knocked out earlier.

The manner in which £35 million signing Shkodran Mustafi allowed Sergio Aguero to break free and open the scoring was truly the stuff of schoolboy football.

Domestic cups have been a tonic in recent seasons for Gunners fans coming to sorry terms with their gradual decline as a big club, last season's surprise F.A. Cup final win over Chelsea being a case in point.

But now Arsenal are out of both the League and F.A. Cup, having surrendered ignominiously away to Nottingham Forest in the latter. And with the North Londoners adrift again in the league, that leaves the gargantuan slog of this season's Europa League as their only hope.

That competition however has a stronger than usual lineup with Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Atheltic Bilbao, Lazio, Lyon and Marseille in the last 16. Oh and Milan, whom Arsenal face next.

Nevertheless, for all the gloom in Highbury, for all the angst that Arsenal cannot put together a run of good results and all the frustration that the club's faceless owners cannot think beyond a manager clearly in decline, Arsene Wenger still has the ability to pull the odd rabbit out of a hat as the recent win over Chelsea showed.

Guardiola is in a sense the new Wenger, the cultured multilingual foreigner bringing novel and exciting ideas to a staid football culture. The irony of Sunday's defeat was that Guardiola was said to have been interested in taking over at Arsenal after coaching Bayern Munich, but Wenger was going nowhere.

Yet make no mistake that the majority of the Blues' meteoric rise from perennial unachievers to potential European champions is still down to its owners' deep wallets.

While the coach is an outstanding one, probably the world's best in fact, the glittering arsenal (no pun) of talent that has jetted in to the Etihad is the main reason for his team's success.

City's squad for the final was collectively worth £777 million in transfer fees, constituting the most valuable in the history of the game.

Yet the most startling pre-match statistic from Wembley is worth repeating and ruminating upon: In 21  months, Guardiola had spent more money than Wenger had spent in 21 years.

If there were ever a reason for enforcing some financial fair-play in football, it is that jaw-dropping, inconvenient truth.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Champions League resumes

The Champions League resumes.
AND IT'S LOOKING LIKE A PREMIER YEAR

It feels a little churlish to have grown up in the 'terrace generation' of the 1970s and then look forward to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, given that I grew up understanding it as a cup for champions alone, as it still says on the tin.

However, in 2018 I was delighted to see the planet's premier club competition spurt into action again after the winter hiatus. January is a dead month in Europe in more ways than one, a turgid, virus-plagued icy slog after the lights of the Christmas period are packed away, the festivity forgotten and the summer is still hidden over the horizon.

Without the joyful injection of meaningful football, life is always a little grey and pallid so anything soccer-related is a welcome fillip right now.

There is no international football to get your teeth stuck into yet and even in a World Cup year, the 'Coupe du monde/Mondiale/Mundial/WM' is a long way off.

Some players changed clubs in the transfer window to get noticed in the run-up to the final squad announcement, but for most international-class players the World Cup is still at the back of their minds right now.

While the domestic leagues are wearily getting back into gear after the Christmas recess (outside of England that is), the domestic cups afford only slim pickings.

In England the biggest story seemed to be that megabucks Manchester City might get some of their stars crocked when playing in such lesser tournaments, more proof that the Champions League and Premier League have sucked the lifeblood out of domestic football.

Across the continent, Champions League money has created several domestic hegemonies but those same dynasties from the minor leagues have been caught in a no-man's-land of dominating at home but failing abysmally in Europe.

Porto's 0-5 and Basel's 0-4 home reverses to English clubs were proof enough of that. Those sort of scorelines should not be happening in the knockout stages but there are big inequalities even among the elite.

While Liverpool's erratic league form and lack of recent Champions League pedigree suggest they are unlikely to lift the trophy, they could equally make the last four and should not be underestimated.

Man City however look ominously good on all fronts. Pep Guardiola's magic powers are not confined to the playing fields of England and his side must be a candidate for the final now.

City have never won the competition before of course which makes talk of them being an unstoppable force a little unfair. In five years' time we might think differently of course. With the relentless buying power of their Emirate owners showing no signs of slowing down, a blue conquest of Europe seems inevitable.

Tottenham's rise is just as exciting and supporters nervously expect a famous night at Wembley in three weeks when they host Juventus, with whom they drew 2-2 in Turin.

Last season's finalists were humbled on their own patch having been so impregnable for so long, although Spurs' double concession in the first ten minutes was a reminder they still have things to learn at this level.

Rather like Monaco last season, Tottenham's exciting crashing of the party could lead to a feeding frenzy of its stars in the summer unless the club pull out all the stops. Dele Ali, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane will soon be weighing up staying part of an exciting project or earning more at one of the two Spanish giants or PSG.

Reports of Real Madrid's death have been exaggerated as they breathed late fire to defeat PSG 3-1 at home, although the second leg will still be a stiff test as the French have an away goal. Neymar, supposedly wishing to move to the Bernabeu, performed a surprisingly boorish audition and was lucky not to have received a second yellow card for an obvious act of simulation.

Chelsea v Barcelona is the pick of next week's ties and it would be a surprise if the Blues and their beleaguered coach can pull off a famous victory over the Spanish league leaders.

A blaugrana win could still mean half the quarter-finalists English, but talk of an all-Premier League final are premature as they could draw each other in the next round.

The two Spanish giants are still in the field and we should never write off Bayern Munich, who have the relatively modest obstacle of Besiktas to overcome.

The bookies currently rate Man City as favourites, closely followed by Bayern, Barcelona and Real.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile