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.

France v Colombia

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.

France v Colombia

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.

Australia v Colombia

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.

Australia v Colombia

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.

Australia v Colombia

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.

A Date From Hell?

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fifa World Rankings March 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for March 2018 were published on March 15 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

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

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, France and Chile.

England are 16th, Wales are 20th. Tunisia are the top African team in 23rd place followed by Senegal in 27th.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 37th place; Japan are in 55th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 59th place and have also qualified for the 2018 World Cup. The South Koreans are in Group F.

The USA are in 25th but failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Scotland are in 32nd position one spot below The Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland are in 24th position.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings