Errors and exciting talent make for excellent start to Euro 2012

Day one of Euro 2012 was packed full with entertainment, with Poland throwing away first half dominance to draw with Greece, and Russia powering past Czech Republic in what was a cracking start to Group A, a group which so many predicted to be boring and lifeless.

Russia’s Alan ‘Player To Watch’ Dzagoev was the headline grabber, scoring with two cracking finishes against Czech Republic. He did miss a sitter at one point and was outshone by the superb Andrei Arshavin and the dominant Zenit-based midfield, but it was a fantastic start to a tournament where Dzagoev is expected to shine.

Russia took advantage of some slack Czech defending throughout the game, exploiting the gaps with great fluidity and speed of movement. Czech left-back Michal Kadlec was hideous out of position a lot of the time but most pointedly for Russia’s second goal, Roman Shirokov somehow able to stroll into the six yard box unmarked and deftly chip over Petr Cech.
The Chelsea goalkeeper should have come out quicker and stronger but he was left hideously exposed by a wayward defence. When Dzagoev smashed in his second, Cech should have stood up to the shot and Russia’s fourth should have been met with similar composure, Roman Pavlyuchenko powering past defenders with great ease and firing past Cech. It was a poor day for a world-class goalkeeper, but there is the slight saving grace that it wasn’t the worst goalkeeping performance of the day.
Wojciech Szczesny is an ‘outspoken’ character, in that when he speaks he says something of interest and he’s actually a character in a game packed with PR-tuned robots. But being so verbose gives the critics an immediate stand-point and, when mistakes are made, sympathy is hard to come by.
So when the Arsenal goalkeeper horribly misread a cross to allow Dimitris Salpigidis to equalise, and later conceded the penalty that Przemyslaw Tyton brilliant saved, howls of derision could be heard from the realms of Twitter where Szczesny has so often annoyed and overjoyed so many at the same time.
The penalty was particularly poor decision-making from Szczesny; to come out that quick and misread the speed of the move like that is bad enough but to then leave a leg trailing, giving a player the open pass to go down inside the area, is sheer lunacy.
But it came in on a day filled with mistakes and errors from all sides. Carlos Velasco Carballo, the referee for the Poland-Greece opener, started off well, dealing with robust tackles in a firm and authoritative way, but then descended into card-happy territory. The sending off of Sokratis Papastathopoulos was incredibly harsh seen as his first booking wasn’t even a foul and his second was a dubious yellow. Howard Webb, in the second game, was much better and wasn’t actually forced to get his cards out of his pocket at any point.
Aside from that, Sotiris Ninis – another player tipped to have an impressive performance – had a stinker, summed up by his attempted backheel to a teammate who was 5 yards away and not looking to move in that direction. Georgios Samaras was dreadful and served little purpose out on the wing for Greece other than to helpfully give the ball back to Poland, while Aleksandr Kerzhakov seemed to want to hit shots wide rather than go for the easier option and just score.
But from the ridiculous errors we went to the sublime football. Vaclav Pilar’s rounding of the goalkeeper and superb finish from Plasil’s majestic pass was a highlight of day one, while the tirelessly excellent Arshavin sent a warning out to the rest of Europe: he’s back.
We almost had an early contender for goal of the tournament too, but Theodore Gebre Selassie’s Van Basten effort hit the side netting.
It was the perfect tonic: the bad and the brilliant of football all wrapped up in one day. The defending wasn’t good enough to make the game too tight but, at the same time, it wasn’t a laughable shambles. Both games were open and all four sides had their periods of domination – as a neutral, it really doesn’t get much better than that.
Apart from, of course, some controversial red cards, some goalkeeping errors and an erratic refereeing performance that all, frankly, added to the entertainment. No pressure, Group B.

Chelsea win the Champions League

Finally, they’ve done it. A season that looked to be disastrous under Andres Villas-Boas ends with Chelsea winning the double under Roberto Di Matteo.
At times, it wasn’t pretty. Organised and resolute defending where the team knew their strengths and weaknesses, or negative football – call it what you like, it’s effective. Chelsea have won the Champions League, beating the mighty Barcelona on the way as well as Napoli, Benfica and Bayern Munich.
They’ve had their graft and determination greeted by luck, but you make your own luck. Bayern had 43 shots on goal to Chelsea’s 9, but 22 of Bayern’s were blocked; even the most stout believer in defensive positioning coming before overplayed heroics would have to admit that that is fantastic defending. Gary Cahill and David Luiz were incredible, while Ashley Cole put in a Man of the Match performance, putting to bed (ahem) the claims that he’s finished as a top-flight full-back.
There were horrible Munich misses, with Mario Gomez perhaps the worst perpetrator. But Chelsea had an effect on some of those misses – pressure on players contributes to them snatching at shots, bodies flying in puts an attacker off. Stats won’t show that. They did have their luck, though – they’re lucky that Arjen Robben’s penalty in extra-time was dreadful. It really did just feel like it was their night.
Of course, the only stat that really matters is this: Bayern Munich 1 – 1 Chelsea after 90 minutes.
(picture from Markus Unger on Flickr)
The way the game was played was no real surprise; Bayern set out to retain the ball, keep possession and keep creating chances. Chelsea set out to frustrate and then counter, just as they did against Barca. They were organised and they did have periods of slight domination.
And yet, after winning the FA Cup and the Champions League, Di Matteo’s full-time job at the club – we’re told – is still not set in stone for next season.
Roman Abramovich has always wanted the Champions League, and now he’s got it. He apparently also wants the style to go with the winning; he wants to be entertained. Fine. Give Di Matteo the chance to bring in his own players, as this is still Villas-Boas’ side. Allow him to build his squad, implement the style that Roman wants and keep that winning feeling.
Cahill, Luiz, Bertrand and Mikel have all now played in a Champions League final and won. Ramires and Daniel Sturridge have played large roles in a victorious campaign. Petr Cech, Juan Mata, John Terry and Frank Lampard are all winners of the highest regard. Marko Marin is coming in in the summer, as will others no doubt. These are the foundations. They can win ugly, now give Di Matteo a season or two to make it pretty.
There were plenty of signs of good, attractive, intelligent play from Chelsea on Saturday night. There were periods where they seemed to attack at will – maybe Bayern allowed them to come out a little so that they could then counter, but it didn’t work all that well as Robben, Franck Ribery and Gomez all had poor games (partly due to Chelsea’s defending).
One move in particular showed that Chelsea can strut with the best of them: a low cross was met with a cheeky backheel from Drogba on the edge of the box; Lampard squared it intelligently for Salomon Kalou, who tested Manuel Neuer at his near post.
The late equaliser, though, after Thomas Muller had stolen in at the back post to give Munich the lead, had no perceived grace about it. A thunderous header from a thunderous man who cut a forlorn figure for most of the game but didn’t once show any sign of frustration. He chased, he harried, he lost out most of the time – but Didier Drogba knew his role. He would get his chance eventually, and good God did he take it.
And with what was possibly his last kick for Chelsea, he crowned them champions of Europe.
Drogba celebrates
(picture from rayand on Flickr) 

The post-match celebrations seem to irk a few which, with Twitter in its default setting of OUTRAGE, was no real surprise. EVERYTHING John Terry does is AWFUL, of course. ALL. THE. TIME. Terry decided to celebrate in his full Chelsea kit which he must have been wearing under his suit, which he was wearing in the stands due to his suspension.
John Terry
(picture from Ronnie Macdonald on Flickr)
Terry wasn’t the only player to do this – the other players who were banned also did it, but they came in for significantly less criticism (i.e. none) than the former England captain did. Given that Terry isn’t a likeable human being in any way, it’s hardly surprising, yet the internet’s insistence that he shouldn’t lift the trophy was ever so slightly baffling.
The Champions League isn’t just won in the final, and Terry has played a magnificent part in the European campaign, not to mention some outstanding performances in other competitions this season. John Terry, to be blunt – and putting Liverpool to one side for the moment – has been fantastic this season.
So when his club, a club he has been with for over seventeen years and a club he has made more than 300 league appearances for, wins the Champions League, he’s allowed to be a little bit happy about it. His actions in the semi-final that brought him the red card were unjustifiable but that doesn’t mean he should be stopped from performing his duty as captain in lifting the trophy.
And the Roy Keane comparison is pretty nonsensical, as people are allowed to do things differently and that doesn’t make them wrong. Just as Terry’s actions could be interpreted as arrogant and twattish, Keane could be seen as a miserable, self-centred sod who didn’t want to celebrate with his team on one their defining nights. Cheer up, Roy – it’s not all about you.
Congratulations Chelsea – Champions League winners 2012.
Main picture from rayand on Flickr.

Wigan Athletic to beat the drop again?

Picture from BBC

The fans sang “we shall not be moved” at full volume, adamant that they’d not be forced from their position. It was the continually-ridiculed Wigan fans making the noise, though, not the much-fabled Newcastle away support as the DW Stadium (including it’s JJB days) witnessed what must be one of its finest hours.

Going in to the match, the Latics had won five out of their last eight games, a run of form that has seen them rise from the relegation zone. Before March, Roberto Martinez’ side had won just four games, but recent weeks saw wins against Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Just when Wigan appear to be finally down and out after years of final-day drama, they do it again. Survival now looks likely rather than virtually unfeasible, as it did at the end of January, with only three wins under their belt.
With an outstanding and in-form Newcastle side visiting Greater Manchester, though, it was widely thought that Wigan’s superb run of form was about to be halted. The Toon had won their last six games, conceding just one in that time and with one of the Premier League’s most lethal strikers, Papiss Cisse, scoring in each of those six games.
Newcastle are chasing the Champions League, wary of Chelsea winning this term’s competition preventing them reaching next year’s equivalent. Wigan are fighting against the drop to the Championship. Both sides had something to play for then, which makes it all the more remarkable that the latter beat the former.
And they really did beat them, in a ruthless fashion. Wigan dominated the first half, their play consisting of short, intricate passes in the middle and long, ranging diagonal balls to the flanks, be it to Maynor Figueroa on the left or the right-sided Emmerson Boyce.
The first goal came from great wing-play, on both sides. Figueroa burst forward, with the excellent Shaun Maloney eventually playing the ball out to Boyce. His cross landed perfectly on the head of Victor Moses, who really is starting to show the potential that he has long been touted for.
Moses’ second goal was more controlled than his first, more beautifully crafted. Another clever pass from Maloney – this time a backheel – found Moses who touched it to the ever-improving Jean Beausejour. The winger whipped in a devilish ball which was cut out by Fabio Collocini, only for Moses to steal in and place a shot past goalkeeper Tim Krul.

At this point fans, players and coaches must have been equally as delirious. Where do they go from here? At 2-0 up with 15 minutes gone, do they park the bus? No. They keep playing their game, just as they always do. In the build-up to Moses’ second, the Wigan defense exchanged passes, aware of the Newcastle pressing but never looking to go long. Keep the ball, keep the play, work the ball forward.
Newcastle, on the other hand, were desperate to get back into the game, and it showed. Too eager to get forward at times when the personnel forward did not equate, they gave the ball back to Wigan repeatedly. The Latics may not have great possession in games – 49% average, per game, after this meeting – but when they do have the ball, they use it well – an average pass completion rate of 80% places Wigan higher than Napoli, Borrussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao in that particular league.
When Wigan do lose the ball, they are dogged in getting it back. They harass, they are aggressive and are quite happy to foul to break up the play – they make sure no one plays their game against them.
Newcastle attempted to mirror their system for a short period in the first half to try and stop Wigan from playing, but it didn’t work. The 5-4-1 that becomes a 3-4-3 in attack means there are always options, especially on the wings. A great togetherness and work-rate makes for superb energy and fast but measured attacks.
It was down the left-hand side, again, where Wigan attacked for their third; Franco Di Santo playing a magnificent first-time ball to the surging Maloney, who buried it in the bottom corner with ease. It was Di Santo who started and finished the move for the fourth, too – a one-two on the halfway line was clever, the placed shot into the corner from 30 yards was incredible.

Newcastle, of course, had their chances and were by no means dreadful at the DW which, as harsh as it sounds, they’d be expected to be if utterly outplayed by Wigan. Hatem Ben Arfa curled a free-kick over and pulled a shot wide late on, Cisse hit the bar and Ba dragged a shot wide. Battled and weary, Wigan controlled the second half but allowed Newcastle to press and threaten more, but it’s times like that that clubs really value their goalkeeper – a strong performance from Ali Al Habsi, thwarting Cisse in a Gandalf-esque performance. Newcastle rattled the bar and post but, as Liverpool fans know, that’s poor finishing rather than bad luck.
To pick a man of the match here would be difficult, which speaks volumes for the widespread brilliance of this Wigan performance. They finished the game attacking, still playing their game – Collocini preventing Conor Sammon from adding a fifth.
Wigan will keep doing it their way. A trip to Blackburn and a home game against Wolves await, two games that look set to be exhilarating and, on current form, the Latics look the favourites. Wigan are going to do it again. They’re going to survive.

The eventual English comprehension of Mario Balotelli

On Sunday evening Manchester City faced Arsenal in a game that, pretty much, could see their title chances either fade away or give hope of a possible resurgence.
With rivals United drifting to a 2-0 win over QPR earlier, victory at the Emirates was needed.  A Mikel Arteta strike soon put paid to that, though, leaving City eight points behind United with six games to go. Mathematically possible, sure, but – in reality – it is hard to see City putting in a convincing performance at the minute, never mind United slipping up at this late stage.
The fluidity and sheer power seen in the first half of the season has completely evaporated for City. And the man that has, slowly but surely, taken most of the flak for this demise is the man who was so revered just months ago, the ‘character’ of the Premier League, the ‘enigma’.
English football, it seems, has finally turned on Mario Balotelli.
It’s been coming. As stupid hats and toilet trips turned into car crashes and hookers, Balotelli’s actions became less innocent, more idiotic. All of a sudden, Balotelli wasn’t the lovable rogue – he’s disruptive, a trouble-maker. He’s the problem.


Of course, he’s not the problem at Manchester City, just one of many. There were players who put in worse performances against Arsenal, but some dangerous tackles, petulant play and a general futility up front are all more high-profile than the complete ineffectiveness of James Milner, or a clearly-exhausted performance from Sergio Aguero.
The second-half collapse of City’s season is down to many, many things but Balotelli is the easy target. When winning, a maverick’s fun; when losing, he’s a detriment to the side.
Of course, Balotelli has had poor stages of his Manchester City career and that will impact on his team, but the way in which he’s being used as a scapegoat seems a little harsh on the young Italian.
Yet, the 21-year-old has been playing football long enough now to know that going into a tackle with studs showing is stupid and doing it in a vital game such as Sunday’s is certainly that, to an almost infuriating level. It is hardly surprising, then, that Mancini feels he can’t trust Balotelli, and now seems ready to cut ties with the man he has placed so much faith in both in Manchester and Milan.
The dangerous tackles are nothing new and the free-kick blusters and common on-pitch arrogance (or ‘swagga’ as it’s called when you’re winning) seem to have all taken their toll now. Surely the negatives largely outweigh the positives for Balotelli now, given that the positives seem so intermittent in occurring? 
Even the things that originally gave Balotelli cult-hero status have been dismissed as silly rumours. In the BBC interview with Mario, it turned out that the media – whomever their sources may be – fed the nation false stories on their latest headline-commanding Premier League footballer, while Balotelli came across as reserved and, really, rather shy.
And that’s the thing, in interviews Balotelli seems like a nice, affable chap. Entirely innocent although obviously with a cheeky side and an expert in not giving a fuck. Hardly arrogant, anyway.

He talks of working towards being the best rather than already being there, he’s reluctant to talk about his youth and, let’s not forget, this is a man just out of his teens who’s forced to live his life under the spotlight of country that expects the very best of the celebrity youth. He’s immediately likeable, then.
But then we get to the business end of the season. Football likes its mavericks but they have to turn it on when needed. They have to be professional when it really matters. You mess about on our terms, basically.
Interruptions of Inter Milan press conferences are as bizarre as they are bewildering and one wonders whether Balotelli misses home, and the continual assertion that he’s at Manchester City because of Mancini rather than any great affiliation with the club hints at a possible exit in the summer if Mancini has had enough, or even if Mancini departs Eastlands.
Will the Premier League miss Balotelli? The striker does bring the odd chuckle, a smile to the face of fans bored by banal footballers who make up a game that is meant to be entertaining.
But a man who infuriates his own manager and fans will not last long, no matter how many titters he delivers on a weekly basis.
At the start he was loved because it was promised that he would come good, that there was good in there. Now, with the discipline continually slipping and the form so erratic, the English seem to have finally worked out Mario Balotelli. And they, overall, don’t like what they see.

Crouch for England?

No manager, no captain, no Rooney for the first two games, no visible or viable philosophy, no hope: it is fair to say that England have very few, if any, expectations going into EURO 2012.

There is plenty of realistic scepticism. Get the tournament out of the way and deal with the real issues in youth football, the quality of coaching and the general state of English football. Developing a footballing nation takes generations of development and well-structured planning, something that is completely irrelevant to the current crop of players. EURO 2012 is a write-off for England.
Whoever does become England manager will be criticised whichever way they choose to approach the tournament, such is the diverse opinion of English football collectively. Too much youth will be not taking enough experience and naively placing too much hope on young shoulders, while too much experience will be a return to the old guard. Same old, same old.
But it is a return to a player from the old guard which could be best for this tournament (and it may only be this tournament alone, which is perfectly fine).
To like Peter Crouch is unfashionable, and not just because he’s quite tall. His height makes his every movement seem comically clumsy, almost accidental, making him immediately unfavourable for the top level of international football.
He is easily mocked: the attempts at overhead kicks which almost always fail; his persistent airborne-fouling which, given his height-superiority over most players, is rather odd; his lack of aerial prowess and general heading ability; and the robotic dance moves, moving him more towards a character from a James Corden sketch rather than an actual footballer.
Make no mistake, though, Crouch is a good footballer. And this isn’t a reactionary piece after his wonder goal on Saturday, either, as Crouch has been in good, solid form for Stoke all season. Crouch is excellent at dropping deep, linking the play well and actually looking to find a man rather than just flicking the ball on blindly and hoping for the best.
Crouch is effective rather than stylish and, while it is easy to criticise the 31-year-old in this tiki-taka world, he’s very good at what he does. Let’s be clear, England can’t play like Barcelona and aren’t going to for some time (if ever at all). There’s nothing wrong with a long ball flicked on for someone to run on to and score – it might not be pretty or any use for the future of English football but, if it works, it’ll do, for now.
Taking Crouch would be another option, both personnel-wise and in terms of system. If a fluid attack of two wingers and Welbeck or Rooney centrally isn’t working, bring Crouch off the bench, have Rooney in behind, the two wingers whipping balls in and Steven Gerrard delivering from deep. A change of offensive system for England would mean a change of defensive system for their opponents – Crouch would simply give defenders something different to worry about.
It would be far too simplistic to look at Crouch’s international record and say that he only scores against the lesser nations. A hat-trick against Jamaica, two against Greece and two against Belarus are probably the highlights, and his last international goal was in a friendly match against France in 2010, but his record (22 in 42) still commands respect. And, really, England struggle to score against lesser nations even now – at least Crouch is something of a threat, no matter the opposition.
If Crouch’s weekend strike showed anything – other than a lack of intensity to close down on City’s part – it was that Crouch is supremely confident right now.
With 12 goals in 28 appearances, Crouch is Stoke’s top goalscorer this season. Of course, there are arguments for other ‘big man up top’ options – Norwich City’s Grant Holt has impressed in the Premier League, scoring 13 in 19 games. He is perhaps better in the air than Crouch and is an expert at drawing fouls. And, like Crouch, he maybe is a victim of playing for a less-than-fashionable club.
And to argue for or against one another is not the point here – they both have their plus-points, both have their significant negatives – but it is to say that Crouch is, at the very least, a viable option and should not be discredited as such simply because he has ‘had his time’ and England ‘are moving on’.
If England really want to move on they need to keep the quality on the pitch to a respectable level whilst doing some serious graft behind the scenes.
EURO 2012 might be a write-off but England, it surely goes without saying, should still be looking to put in the best performances they possibly can.
They’re not going to do that by leaving one of the most in-form strikers at home who, whether fashionable or not, can play to the strengths of certain England players. Gerrard would benefit, Rooney, Sturridge and Young would benefit from running in behind. England would benefit.
Picture from The Guardian