Monday, June 18, 2018

Do not smile at a Russian

Everything was fine in the end with the accommodation! I was just a little tired on my first day.

Do not smile at a Russian

Well my first game was interesting. I sat among a hoard of Mexicans (thanks Manuel) who kept me supplied with refreshments and for once didn't spill any!

World Cup 2018 Russia

After the game I went to visit my friend who was not well. Sure enough there he was with his neck brace on. But the first thing he said to me was: "I am going to Volgograd" (England's first game on Monday). You'll never guess what his name (No, it's not Lazarus).

World Cup 2018 Russia

We watched Peru mess up their chance to beat Denmark. Whilst with him I asked if he had any tips to help me whilst in Russia.

The two pearls of wisdom I got were:
Number One. Do not trust a Russian.
Number Two. Do not smile at a Russian.

World Cup 2018 Russia

The next morning I had arranged to meet another friend in Moscow. He delights in just sending me a photo of a place and saying I'll be there at such and such a time.

I always enjoy the challenge of getting around different places indeed I have thought about turning it into a sightseeing sport. Urban orienteering I would call it.

At our meeting I was introduced to a friend of his from Marseille who was to be my companion for the next two days.

World Cup 2018 Russia

This time you can identify him by the crutch he is using to get around to support his ankle ligament damage done whilst playing futsal. So that's a neck brace and a crutch my friends are using as accessories, whilst at the Germany v Mexico game I met an able bodied German using a disabled ticket!

World Cup 2018 Russia

Ross Clegg

See Ross' photos of the 2018 Europa League Final

Copa del Rey photos

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Four Years On Russia World Cup 2018

Four years on and here I am at the World Cup again. After my experiences at the last one I have decided to take things easy this time.

Moscow 2018

I considered visiting every venue in two weeks, but slowing things down I have opted to just visit nine of the stadiums in eight cities in 16 days taking in 13 games.

Whilst my plans have been in place for a while and have remained unchanged (before I arrive in Russia). Those around me have not fared so well.

Argentina fans in Moscow, Russia 2018
Messi masks
Three friends were due to join me for the first week in Moscow and St Petersburg but with weeks to go they decided against making the trip.

Then my Mexican friend who had planned to leave for Europe at the same time as I departed after Scotland's game in Mexico City two weeks ago was unable to come due to a personal matter.

Mexico fan praying for success
Mexico fan praying for success
Finally (I hope) another friend in Moscow has just had an operation and is having to wear a neck brace for three weeks. So he has decided to give the 24 hour train journey to Volgograd a miss. Although he will go to games in Moscow.

All this made me think of my one and only previous trip to Russia. Back in the day when my team were in Europe (no I don't mean the Brexit vote) they were drawn against Spartak Moscow at the end of November.

Now the weather was a little cold and the warning signs were there when I saw the Moskva River for the first time, covered in ice and with people fishing through a hole in the ice in the middle of the river. You won't be surprised that the game was called off, and the match rearranged for Sofia, Bulgaria.

Statue of Spartacus outside Spartak Moscow's stadium
Statue of Spartacus outside Spartak Moscow's stadium

I took the overnight flight from London on Friday night, managed to see the competition come alive as I watched the second half of Portugal v Spain before departing.

The plane was full and noisy with the Argentinians being the loudest. Also present in numbers were Peruvians, Mexicans (as always), Costa Ricans and Nigerians.

Arriving in Moscow around 5 am I slowly made my way to my accommodation. I had sent them a message to let them know I would be arriving around 7 am and had booked for last night to ensure I could get a few hours sleep before heading out to my first game.

I found my accommodation, but they did not seem aware of me. I presented emails confirming my booking and the woman still struggled.

"This is the price per night?" she asked me. "No, this is the price for the three nights I have booked". "How did you get such a price?"

She clearly wasn't happy, but we started the formalities as I handed over my passport. She then knocked meekly on a door, and again but no louder.

She then explained that she could not give me a receipt at this time, and that if she did not give me a receipt then I would not be able to stay because if I was seen by the authorities then they would make her pay for my stay.

The onion domes of Moscow
The onion domes of Moscow

She pointed to a notice in Russian in the wall. I did not even bother trying to read it as I knew there was no point. Interesting to see that the archaic Communist system and mentality is still prevalent. I agreed to come back later.

A quick visit to Red Square and St Basil's and then it was time to head off to the Spartak stadium for my first game.

Ross Clegg

See Ross' photos of the 2018 Europa League Final

Copa del Rey photos

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Day Three - Super Saturday

France 2:1 Australia

VAR made its World Cup debut in Group C and gave France a dodgy penalty, dispatched clinically by Antoine Griezmann.

Even after the game debate raged in the TV studios, pubs and homes as to whether Josh Risdon had played the ball first and/or done enough to impede Antoine Griezmann.

Russia World Cup 2018

If even after video analysis there is no unanimity, surely the referee should have played on, as he originally did. But later in the afternoon the consensus was that it was indeed a penalty as Griezmann's trailing leg was caught by Risdon's boot.

The football gods made amends by making Samuel Umtiti do a Superman impression to an Australian cross. His handball allowed Mile Jedinak to slot in a penalty leveller.

France looked dormant for most of the match, as good teams often are when facing a minnow of defensive banks, but needed a 'Geoff Hurst' goal off the crossbar to win. Pogba's shot was approximately 0.00001 millimetres over the line, but a goal it certainly was.

Winning while playing badly is a sign of a good side and while France looked steady if unspectacular, it is only their first outing in Russia and they got maximum points. Australia showed they can frustrate effectively and should not be written off yet.

The pitch at the Spartak Stadium, which is only four years old, looked like Centre Court in the second week of Wimbledon and this was only the first game.

Argentina 1:1 Iceland

An enjoyable contrast of styles with as expected the South American passing game meeting English second division football in Group D.

Iceland fans

That is a bit unfair to Iceland given their results. Perhaps Tony Pulis' Stoke City would be a closer equivalent. They use physicality, long throws into the box and above all win the second ball.

A compact defence of about 12 men frustrated Argentina until Sergio Aguero thumped in an opener after 19 minutes, reminding us how thunderous his shots are when the pulls the trigger. Four minutes later Iceland equalised from a second ball in the box with a goal much like they scored against England at Euro 2016.

Alfred Finnbogason etched his name into the annals by scoring his country's first ever goal in the World Cup finals.

As the second half wore on, as expected Iceland held out for a draw while Argentina attacked. All eyes were on Leo Messi after CR7's hat-trick the night before but the Barcelona legend could not find the target, despite some classic dribble and shots on the edge of the box.

In the 64th minute Messi fluffed a spot-kick as Icelandic keeper Hannes Halldorsson dived right to parry his relatively high kick away. Replays questioned whether Maximiliano Meza had bought the penalty by initiating contact. We'll never know for sure, VAR or no...

Argentina looked better when they brought on Cristian Pavon for Angel Di Maria with a quarter of an hour left. Pavon's hugging of the left wing created space by dragging Iceland's shield wall open and he should have had a penalty when he was tripped entering the box in the 77th minute.

Bizarrely, no VAR was called although the contact seemed fairly clear.

Hannes Thor Halldorsson saves Messi's penalty
Hannes Thor Halldorsson saves Messi's penalty

Denmark 1:0 Peru

An even starker style clash. Peru, back at the finals after 36 years away and backed by the majority of the crowd in Saransk, managed to dominate a match, miss a penalty and lose in the end.

Poor Christian Cueva who launched his penalty just before half time into the crowd. Maybe he had spotted some family and friends. The Sao Paulo midfielder looked crestfallen and got consoling or was that counselling from his teammates as he went to the dressing room.

In the second half Denmark netted on a breakaway engineered by Christian Eriksen, who else, but otherwise looked lucky to come away with three points.

Peru pressed and pressed, winger Andre Carillo looked particularly incisive and Kaspar Schmeichel saved the Danish bacon more than once.

When returning hero Paulo Guerrero back-heeled audaciously a yard wide you knew it was not going to be their night.

Los Incas looked devastated by the final whistle, a reminder that football can be a cruel game.

But France will certainly be more worried about playing them than they will facing the Danes.

Croatia 2:0 Nigeria

Four games in one day is a wonderful footy binge but as with beers, the law of diminishing returns applied here.

The tablecloth-clad fans of Croatia had colonised the western enclave of Kaliningrad, another ground with a pitch looking less than perfect before the first ball had been kicked.

An uneventful first half hour saw the deadlock broken when Mario Mandzukic scored from a stooping header via a deflection off Oghenekaro Etebo.

Luka Modric stroked home a penalty (is it mandatory now to award one per match?) after William Troost-Ekong holds onto Mandzukic like a man who has leapt out of a plane without a parachute and grabs someone who has one. There was no need for VAR for a change.

Nigeria had been insipid and unthreatening in the first half and dull and uninspiring afterwards. Their change strip of dark green made them almost invisible in more ways than one.

How good are the Croats? We'll see against Argentina on Thursday. How bad are Nigeria? We seem to know already.

And so the four game super Saturday is over at last. Can we have the World Cup every year please?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

World Cup diary, here we go

Day One: Russia 5:0 Saudi Arabia

A reasonable start to the World Cup. Fans on the ground seem to be happy and enjoying the down to earth and friendly Russian people, in contrast to the austere enforcers in government who project such a negative image to the outside world.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia World Cup 2018.

Vladimir Putin opened the show of course with a speech of the usual but necessary platitudes of the globe uniting in love of sporting endeavour, but the whole ceremony, less than half an hour long, was mercifully free of any nationalism. It is odd that the World Cup is more readily linked to patriotism but has less of it in its opening ceremony than the Olympic Games, which is more about individual endeavour.

Bravo to the host nation for such a fireworks display in their opening match, albeit against a side who not for the first time did not seem to be of the calibre of the World Cup finals.

We can all agree the host nation needs some success to keep the atmosphere buzzing, but one wonders if that was Russia's one and only moment of glory.

Vladimir Putin had his bit to say of course, the usual but necessary platitudes about sport being a uniter across cultures - let's hope the Russian hooligans were listening, some hope...

Sitting beside the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as every Russian goal hit the net cannot have been easy for Vlad, even if his true love is ice hockey and naked horseback riding in the Steppes.

Day Two: Uruguay 1:0 Egypt, Iran 1:0 Morocco, Spain 3:3 Portugal

Mohamed Salah sat on and watched as Uruguay failed to ignite in Group A until the final minute when they found the Egyptian net. The match as a whole was disappointing after the Russian fusillade in Moscow.

Luis Suarez made a successful return to the World Cup i.e. not biting any opponent's anatomy. Long may that toothless spell last. It was also interesting seeing the banks of empty seats in Yekaterinburg, rather reassuring in fact that not everyone had bought into the FIFA hype.

Morocco v Iran was more entertaining at first because there was a contrast of continental styles. The North Africans looked more battle-hardened and with a better shape and superior pressing - proof perhaps of their players' European league experience.

Iran looked awed for the first half hour before opening up and causing some trouble if not danger with some probing channels balls.

Iran's Sardar Azmoun missed the best chance on 43 minutes when one on one with the goalie but the football gods happily injected some life into a lifeless second half when Morocco's Aziz Bouhaddouz headed past his own keeper in injury time. Never mind lad, these things happen.

The evening match was one of real, top-draw quality. Spain's marinated possession brought back memories of the tiki-taka golden age. They were clearly better than the European champions, who seemed to rely on the counter-attack and whose passing was ragged in comparison.

Raging bull Diego Costa, otherwise a fish out of water in a cultured passing side, proved his worth with a brace, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored three, albeit the first a penalty kick he had cheekily won against his Real Madrid team mate Nacho.

David De Gea's stance for the Ronaldo free-kick, rooted to the spot like a Russian war memorial in the wrong place, was reminiscent of Alan Rough watching Zico's free kick rocket into the Scottish net in Espana 1982.

Nacho's revenge, which sounds like a western or a fairground ride, was the goal of the tournament so far, a swerving rocket from 20 yards.

Excellent football but a bit of a quiet atmosphere wasn't it? Were there not enough travelling fans, put off by costs and fears of violence? The cameras struggled to find them, preferring mostly Russian girls with temporary face tattoos.

Anyway, Spain seem to be fine without their manager and CR7 is back with aplomb. Now bring on Messi.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Zizou Checks Out

Zinedine Zidane played another blinder.

Just like his volley in Glasgow to win Real the Champions League, his goals to take France to the World Cup final or his headbutt on Marco Materazzi.

This man does the unexpected.

The latest and hopefully not last abrupt punctuation to his career was the shock announcement he had resigned as Real Madrid manager a few days after having won a third successive UEFA Champions League.

Whites owner Florentino Perez had been kept in the dark, the press were ignorant and only his captain had been given forewarning of his boss' plan to call it a day.

Apparently the French legend had told Sergio Ramos in the week leading up to the final against Liverpool in Kiev but it came as a shock to the rest of his squad, Cristiano Ronaldo included.

Knowing it was his manager's final match and that he had put faith in him by confiding his getaway, did that make Ramos all the more determined to win the cup for Zizou, by any means necessary..?

The latest news is that Ramos' elbow had concussed Loris Karius, damaging the Liverpool goalie's reflexes.

Bernabeu Stadium, home of Real Madrid

Despite a third place finish in La Primera, which is a black mark for any Real manager, as well as a lame quarter-final exit in the Copa del Rey to Leganes, there is no suggestion that Zidane was in any danger of being sacked.

His three years at the helm have been such a triumphant trophy haul they probably needed to buy a new cabinet at the Bernabeu - one league title, two European Super Cups, two World Club Championships and above all, three Champions Leagues.

His overall win ratio was 70% over 149 matches, more than Rafael Benitez's 64% from 25, but a little behind Jose Mourinho's 72% of 178 games and Manuel Pellegrini's 75% of 48 matches.

So why did he jump?

According to the man himself, it was because he felt unable to take the team further or even maintain it at the same level next season.

"This is a team that should keep on winning and it needs a change for that," Zidane explained, although he did not go much deeper. "After three years it needs another discourse, another working methodology."

With the average Premier League managerial tenure down to less than half that figure, his reasoning makes sense, although leaving the best team in Europe and a deep-pocketed owner who liked him leaves more question marks.

Real, despite millions of debts, seem incapable of not breaking transfer records each summer. Only when their planned redevelopment of the Bernabeu earlier this year was put on hold did doubts emerge about how relaxed the banks were about Perez's relentless spending spree.

Perez is the club at the end of the day, a president who without a director of football calls all the shots. And while he put faith in Zizou and the two get along well as far as we can tell, did Perez's latest magpie coveting of star players make his manager despair?

Rumours had been circulating for weeks that Neymar was on his way to Madrid, for another telephone number fee and wages, while Zidane apparently wanted Eden Hazard instead. Gossip too was that Perez would resume his quest for Davide de Gea, against the better judgment of his coach.

Robert Lewandowski had been touted as another target for a while, but again we cannot be sure how much the manager wanted him.

Neymar would tick the galactico box to sell shirts and Asian TV contracts, but how would his arrival affect the BBC attacking trio?

As the PSG man plays on the left or right side, in all likelihood it would mean one or both of Gareth Bale and Ronaldo leaving and while Ronaldo seems untouchable, the Welshman is one of Perez's favourites, which meant a dressing-room fracture would occur should the Brazilian be signed.

The BBC cannot last forever, but perhaps Zizou did not want to preside over its demolition.

All things age and in all likelihood the same eleven which beat Liverpool will not win the Champions League next year, although that thought was what was widely expressed after last season's victory in Cardiff.

And yet with Zizou in the dug-out and Perez calling the shots, Real have stayed on top of Europe for the past three seasons, so the more mundane truth is probably that the manager's exit was stress-related.

"I've shot it" was how Brian Clough admitted to losing his touch at Nottingham Forest.

Zidane used the Spanish word 'desgaste' meaning exhausted, fagged out or run out of ideas.  Despite the silverware, he felt all played out.

What must never be forgotten is the sheer attritional nature of that job.

Being head coach of Barcelona or Real entails relentlessly unrealistic expectations, fuelled by an insatiably unintelligent media, who lip-read everything managers and players say, reducing them to covering their mouths with one hand when they speak.

Any defeat is immediately 'a crisis', any sign of unhappiness in a player an 'it's him or me' ultimatum and any poor run of form means a death knell for whoever had been brave or foolhardy enough to take the job in the first place.

A poor two or three games and the knives are out more quickly and sharply than in any other nation.

It is hard to see how anyone can last more than three years in Zidane's position to be frank.

"It's a demanding club," he agreed. "We always want more and more and there is a moment when you think, 'Well what more can I ask from my players?' I want to win and if I don't see clearly that we are going to keep on winning then it is better to change."

He sounded like a man desperate for some peace and cool tranquillity after years in the furnace.

The Bernabeu is an unforgiving environment and Zidane had been there effectively full time since signing as a player in 2001. 17 years seems plenty.

Upon retirement in 2006 he became Perez's advisor and moved up the coaching pyramid, eventually being parachuted in to replace the sacked Rafael Benitez three seasons ago.

Two of his sons came through the Real youth ranks: Enzo is now playing in midfield for Lausanne in Switzerland while Luca is still at the Bernabeu as its third-choice keeper.

Some doubt remains about Zidane, uncertainty produced by his apparent refusal to divulge his feelings openly. Did he always want to be Real's No.1, what was his relationship like with Ronaldo etc.

Zidane never showed his pain, his rage, his frustration or his ultimate desolation with the dream job.

As in the 2006 World Cup final, it all exploded suddenly when he just could not take any more.

One moment he was the world's greatest, shining success in motion. And the next he just stepped off the stage without warning.

When it comes to those with fame and fortune, it is easy to forget the human behind the mask.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Fifa World Rankings May 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for May 2018 were published on May 17 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. There were no changes in the top 20 places or indeed in the top 47 places.

Confederations Cup winners and World Cup holders Germany remain first with Brazil second and Belgium third. Euro 2016 winners Portugal are fourth. Argentina, who struggled to qualify for World Cup 2018 are in fifth.

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Argentina, Switzerland, France, Spain, Chile and Poland.

England are 13th, Wales are 21st. Tunisia are the top African team in 14th place followed by Senegal in 28th.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 40th place; Japan are in 60th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 61st place and have also qualified for the 2018 World Cup. The South Koreans are in Group F.

The USA are in 24th but failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Scotland are in 34th position below The Republic of Ireland in 31st. Northern Ireland are in 27th position.

World Cup hosts are back in 66th position.

1 Germany
2 Brazil
3 Belgium
4 Portugal
5 Argentina
6 Switzerland
7 France
8 Spain
9 Chile
10 Poland
11 Peru
12 Denmark
13 England
14 Tunisia
15 Mexico
16 Colombia
17 Uruguay
18 Croatia
19 Netherlands
20 Italy

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Luck of the Draw?

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.


Real Madrid v Liverpool


Atletico Madrid v Marseille

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, April 23, 2018

Thanks for the trophies, but...


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.

Emirates Stadium
Emirates Stadium
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. Perhaps the only spot of hope for Arsenal is young midfielder Alex Iwobi, who fans can next see if when they watch the FIFA World Cup 2018 HD.

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