After watching his performance against Benfica there is no doubt in my mind that Torres is back, in fact, I never thought that Fernando Torres was actually playing that poorly. Ignoring his goalscoring woes (which is, admittedly, a pretty big part of being a striker) he has created a lot of chances for Chelsea and merely been lacking the final product for himself.
This is going to change in the coming weeks, Torres is becoming visibly more and more confident under Roberto di Matteo, who has put much more faith in him than AVB. Torres has been making smarter runs, finding himself in space, rediscovering his sublime ball control, and even ended his drought with 2 goals in the FA Cup (against lower league opposition).
A major component of why people are so quick to judge him is the £50m price tag, but: A. he was not in control of the price and B. it would be hard for any player to live up to that absurd valuation (The only player that I can remember living up to a price-tag that high is Ronaldo).
In the previous Champions League fixture against Napoli I remember seeing him on the pitch, not only appearing better, but genuinely appearing hungry. There was no longer a sulk in his step, but instead a genuine desire to positively impact the game. His ailment is psychological and as his confidence grows, the end product should continue to improve as well.
Tuesday night against Benfica may mark the turning point in his resurgence, though. Even without scoring a goal, Torres and his countryman Mata were the key orchestrators of the Chelsea attack and “El Nino” looked as dangerous as I’ve seen him in months. He was sliding into pockets of space, drawing defenders with great runs, and providing a target man through the middle. All of this backstory manifested itself in the the 75th minute with an inch perfect cross through 3 defenders (much more difficult than the finish) to Salomon Kalou for the opener.
Fernando Torres is back.
Beanpole and renowned robot-dance enthusiast Peter Crouch has come up with yet another potential decisive moment in a premiership race. With a superb volley Saturday, Crouch has effectively put City’s margin for error at zero, leaving them 3 points adrift of the title.
As alluded to earlier, this is not the first time Crouch has dramatically altered the run in (for good or bad):
-Plying his trade for Southampton in 2005, Crouch almost saved the squad from relegation. He scored a massive goal to snatch a draw with an excellent Arsenal side and led the club to victories against Spurs and Middlesborough. Unfortunately it was not enough to save the club, but his goal against Liverpool eventually proved the difference in the Champions League race and allowed Everton to gain the 4th spot.
-When playing for Liverpool he scored a goal to snatch a draw against Arsenal in late April. This draw meant that at 6 points back with 5 matches left Arsenal were effectively out of the title race and that Liverpool would hold off Everton for the 4th Champions League spot.
-As Spurs and Crouch jockeyed with Manchester City for a Champions League position last spring he scored the own goal that subsequently decided the race. Spurs needed to win as they were 2 points adrift and were done after being left with a 5 point deficit.
Joey Barton, hater of UGG boots, reader of Nietzsche, and master of twitter, said this yesterday:
Crossposting this from espnsoccernet, which I find appropriate for a truly remarkable story.
Fabrice Muamba’s consultant cardiologist, Dr Sam Mohiddin, has warned people not to expect the Bolton midfielder to make a rapid recovery.
Mohiddin admitted Muamba’s progress had been extraordinary since he suffered a cardiac arrest at Tottenham on Saturday evening that meant he effectively died for 78 minutes after his heart stopped beating.
White Hart Lane was completely silent after Muamba collapsed and the players quickly abandoned the game to make sure he got immediate treatment. It has since been revealed that Fabrice had a heart attack on the pitch and the public outpour to the player has been immense.
After being rushed to the hospital when CPR failed the doctor is supposed to have medicinally started Muamba’s heart and slowly brought him back to life. Now he is finally moving and talking without medicine and it is truly remarkable that he has come back to us so quickly. If there is a silver lining to the Bolton midfielder’s cardiac arrest on the pitch against Spurs it is that modern medicine will allow Fabrice to hopefully return to a fully functioning state.
I’m not a big fan of previews, but the clash between the two EPL giants at the “Etihad” tomorrow is poised to be a huge contest in terms of the results of the season. With Manchester City two points off the top and Chelsea tenuously trying to hold off Arsenal for the fourth spot both team absolutely need a win and it should be one of the most intense fixtures of the season. Two big developments are Vincent Kompant’s (alleged) return and John Terry being dropped.
City have been in dire straits since losing their captain to a muscle strain. Kompany has been a rock at the back over the past two years and is one of the few “undroppable” players that ply their trade in England. Losing to both Swansea and Sporting Lisbon after being so consistent over the course of the season should be sounding off warning bells in Roberto Mancini’s head and seeing the Belgian defender will certainly be a sight for sore eyes.
Luiz has been in good form, lessening the impact of Terry’s knee injury, but missing a smarter defender could leave him exposed against City’s potent attack. Even though I represent one of the few people that really rates the Brazilian defender and his defensive skills, it is hard to see a partnership with Branislav Ivanovic or Gary Cahill, who are both a bit less cerebral, benefitting him in any meaningful way. John Terry is certainly a despicable character, but he is also a great defender and will be a huge miss for the club.
The respective return and departure from top class defenders should turn the tide of the clash and it is hard to see Chelsea coming out here the winner, even coming off there huge successes over the past week.
(12 year old Philippe playing Futsal. Great Clip.)
Philippe Coutinho is poised for big things. After breaking into the Vasco de Gama first team(the club that produced legends Juninho, Romario, and the fabulously named Roberto Dinamite) at age 16 Coutinho was bought for £4 million and shipped off to Inter when he turned 18. He is now 19 on loan at Espanyol and has been constantly tipped for stardom over the past couple years. I had the pleasure of seeing him in person for the first time yesterday when Espanyol (where he is on loan) trounced Rayo Vallecano 5-1. Coutinho has all the technique, but it is his mental strength that might differentiate him from a pack of young stars.
During the match (which will have a photo-based post after I get my film developed) it was evident that, with the proper growth and development, Coutinho could truly be something special. He has an incredible dribble (as seen in the goal below and the match highlights), his short passing is excellent, and he has the requisite speed to pose a true threat on the break. The mental aspect of his game is even better. As a cooly creative player he makes chances for himself and others, but never looks to be in the wrong place or have the incorrect idea for the moment. He uses his dribble to control the play in a way that is reminiscent of a young Kaka (not trying to make a direct comparison). Neymar may pose a greater threat for a goal, but it is a calculated players ability to do the right thing for the team at any moment that is their significance. Imagining a Brazil lineup with Coutinho, Neymar, Ganso, and Lucas in 2014 is down right frightening.
(Stadium PA was replete with the obligatory Zombie Nation - Kernkraft 5000)
The future looks bright for the young Brazil star. In the summer he will return to Inter, but I would recommend another loan to a good European side to continue building his confidence. Inter is a side with numerous talented youngsters (Álvarez, Obi, Castaignos) that occupy similar positions and, for a player who has a unwavering drive towards success, competition might not be the best for either his form or his confidence. Having earned his first full Brazil cap in a friendly against Iran last season (at the age of 18) the sky seems to be the limit if Coutinho continues to be properly developed and appreciated.
Watch these match highlights if you doubt it.
- You can now comment on The Unseen Game
3 Points. The stoppage time winner today against Fulham crucially brought Aston Villa 11 points from the drop and represented the Birmingham club’s first home win in 8 matches.
As I have said before, Villa plays infinitely better football without Bent or Heskey in the side. This was seen in full effect today, they did not merely pinch a winner, but dominated the game and were unlucky to have it be at nil-nil in the 90th minute. In the 92nd magic struck; the two young substitutes Gary Gardner and Andreas Weimann combined for the winner. The 19 year old Gardner unleashed a well struck shot swerving right at Schwarzer, Fulham’s keeper could only parry (poor keeping) and the 20 year old Weimann took advantage of the mistake to bundle home an unattractive, yet crucial, goal.
I still have my doubts about Alex McLeish as the manager of the club going forward, but their truly is immense quality in the side and great strength in youth. Members of the reserve team from years past: Albrighton, Bannan, Gardner, Weimann, and Herd absolutely shined in this match and the centre midfield partnership of Herd and Gardner is looking to be a focal point going forward. If the team employs technical players and passes the ball out of the back the result is much much better. Moves were strung together in a way that many people thought Villa were incapable of (despite the lack of a final ball). Even when the match was heading for a goalless draw the difference between this and the WIgan performance was night and day. Villa really showed intent and pressure. It made the difference.
APOEL, the must successful team in Cyprus, is through to the Round of 8. Last night they sealed their progress after beating Olympique Lyon 5-2 on penalties at the 20,000 supporter GSP stadium. It is truly remarkable how a team from an island country of less than one-million people gotten this far, lets review.
If any team from Cyprus was going to do well in the Champions League it would be APOEL. The Nicosia based club has won 5 league championships in the past 10 years and Chairman Phivos Erotokritou has been willing to invest the necessary amount of money for the club to challenge in Europe (The New York Times suggests that the yearly budget is around 10m Euros). Since 2008 the team has been led by manager Ivan Jovanovic who has taken APOEL to two Champions League group stages, both this year and in 2009-10. His ability to earn results has seen him consistently receive coaching honors in Cyprus and he has to now be considered an up and coming manager.
APOEL finished top of Group G, despite being perceived as the weak link in a fairly balanced group. They were (along with Napoli) one of two Pot 4 sides to make it through to the knockout stage and Napoli looks a good bet to join them in the final eight. The success of perceived lesser sides in this years tournament has been exemplary of the beneficial effects of teamwork, pragmatism, organized defending, and a little luck.
The Cypriot club’s formula for success has been simple: Look for a draw away and then win at home in Cyprus. The football thus far has been nothing short of miraculous, the side has rarely had more than 40% possession or 10 shots, but they find themselves continually getting results and clutching victory from the jaws of defeat. Excellent keeper Dionisis Chiotis has, unbelievably at times, kept the ball out of the net and the clinical Brazilian strike partnership of Ailton and Manduca has finished off nearly all of the chances that have come their way.
Last night the combination of Manduca and Chiotis again proved the difference. The former blasted the ball into the net on 9 minutes (he also got sent off for two yellows in the 115th minute and will not be available for the next match) and the latter pulled out a fantastic stop against Ederson in regular time, then saved Lyon’s final 2 penalties to propel the club into the next round.
It will be interesting to see how APOEL performs in the quarter-finals, most likely matched with one of Europe’s true giants. Past results suggest that it would be foolish to write them out lest they leave even more analysts with egg on their face.
Athletic Bilbao, a surprising magnate in the Spanish game, has won the Copa Del Rey 23 times and has never been relegated from La Liga. This success has led football to be heralded as crucial to the Basque national identity and the team to be used as a political tool. The club’s history provides an interesting story about how they have grown to become a beacon of regional political pride and been molded by broader Spanish political climate. Four major periods for the Basque Lions, inception to Spanish civil war, Spanish civil war to Franco’s death, Franco’s death to 2000, and today, serve as a broad roadmap for the history of the club and the political history of Basque country.
Football in Northern Spain first flourished and spread from the English to the port city of Bilbao. As in many territories, teachers and workers from abroad were the contagions and the city, with its close geographical proximity to England, was the perfect site because of its value in trade. The relatively early adoption of football (the team was formed in 1898) allowed it to be immediately engrained into the Basque national identity, evidenced by the club developing the motto that has defined its existence to modern times, “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” or “With a home-grown and support, there is no need for imports” (Hughes). The sporting hubris was justified; Bilbao dominated the Copa Del Rey, winning the competition 10 out of the first 25 times (Ball). The creation of La Liga also spoke to this Basque dominance of the sport, as Bilbao and four other Basque teams were part of the initial 10 sides when the league started in 1928. In the 1930s Spain was slowly drawn into war as King Alphonso’s influence collapsed and a divided republic assumed power. In 1936 a military coup was raised and the newly armed political Left, of which Basque country and Catalonia belonged to, was the fascist military’s chief opposition. By 1937 Franco’s government had become the official representative to FIFA and Spain had become subsumed by the Falangist military dictatorship. This was a massive blow to Bilbao who, under the new nationalist rule, had to rename themselves from the English Athletic to Atlético (Goldblatt, 303).
The restricted freedoms that typified Franco’s authoritarian regime after the Spanish civil war made football an increasingly nationalistic activity. Franco suppressed the regional press and made minority language illegal and during the same time non-Basque immigrants flooded Bilbao’s booming industrial economy. This watering down of the Basque culture that the irredentist nation was founded on made the threat of a gradual slip into broader Castillan culture look increasingly likely and, as a result, Athletic Bilbao heralded itself as the (then illegal) Basque flag, competing to signify that their culture was still alive. This period of football was slightly less successful than the last and, while they still won titles, the club never recovered the dominance that they had in their early years. This is mostly because of a steadfast commitment to the cantera policy. Teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid were able subvert the leagues foreign-born policy by signing players with dual citizenship like Zoltán Czibor and Puskás, Bilbao didn’t sign a single player who trained outside of Basque country. Bilbao was fading in holding traditional values in a competitive and rapidly modernizing society.
2 weeks after Franco’s death in 1975, Athletic Bilbao made the first public show of the Basque flag since it was made illegal in 1938 at the end of the Spanish Civil War. This moment was instrumental to the reclamation of Basque heritage and finally regaining some sense of regional autonomy, but while this political success must have been palpable around in Bilbao, common wisdom suggests that the team was finally spent after four decades of fighting. The club never regained its previous success after the 1984 double and legendary manager Javier Clemente split ties with the club in 1986. Spain’s political climate had become gradually less and less charged and Athletic Bilbao has become more about representing a footballing ideology to an end than a political entity. In 1994 President Jose Maria Arrate elegantly said, “Athletic Bilbao is more than a football club, it is a feeling – and as such its ways of operating often escape rational analysis. We see ourselves as unique in world football and this defines our identity. We do not say we are better or worse than others, merely different” (Ball, 61).
Since the beginning of this century and going forward, Bilbao has being forced to find new ways to stay competitive in the increasingly international game. After getting their first shirt sponsor, the Basque Government, in 2005, the club has now switched to the Basque oil company Petronor in order to maintain wage competitiveness for their leading players like Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain. The 1913 San Mames stadium, the oldest Spanish stadium still in use, is being demolished to increase seating capacity by 15,000 fans and increase revenue. Bilbao is shirking much of its old tradition in order to maintain the pulse of the club, the cantera system. The term “chuleria”, or cocky self-importance (Ball, 61), has been oft appropriated to Bilbao, but this holier than thou belief system is not without contradictions. To keep up with the escalating arms race of Spanish football, but still stay true to the cantera policy, Bilbao has been a vulture. They have “traditionally been the richest team in the Basque Country and are therefore still blinded by the pretension that all the best players in the region should come unto them” (Ball, 79).
This season Bilbao has reached the Copa Del Rey final for only the 2nd time in the past 25 years. The clubs livelihood has been repeatedly marginalized in the context of the dark shadow cast by Franco’s rule of Spain and the money game epitomized by the “Galactico” Madrid side. This new upcoming opportunity against Barcelona portends an ability to build a new era in Bilbao’s history that is finally defined by the club, not the world around it.
Tevez marked his return to the Manchester City (reserves) side with a goal.
Tiziano Crudeli watches AC Milan barely hold on even with a 4 goal advantage
Roberto Di Matteo wins his first match for Chelsea courtesy of a Raul Meireles screamer
Benfica also moved on to the next round in the Champions League, winning 2-0 at home against Zenit
L’Estadi Camp Nou, a concrete behemoth hovering over the Barcelona skyline, serves as a beacon for the team, the city, and Catalunya as a whole. As such, the people of the area have great pride for their team, seeing events exclusively through the lens of Barcelona. When this manifest for regional success swarms in an area containing 80,000 supporters there is a unmistakable buzz in the air.
The system of the stadium, which was built in 1954, is surprisingly efficient. The club avoids much turnstile traffic that is constantly plaguing sports in America by marking what gate you should use in order to get to your seats the fastest. Many supporters smoked in the stadium, but when we tried to do the same a salt and peppered man embodied the vigilante force keeping the crowd’s behavior in check. The distance of the supporters from the field is slightly lamentable, but perhaps predictable considering the amount of objects that were thrown into our section during the course of the match.
(salt and pepper guy ^ )
The football was, as always, an absolute joy to watch. Iniesta and Xavi cannot be understated, their presence is felt no matter who has the ball and their prescience can swing the match in an instant. It is easy to see that they not only understand where everyone else is, but also where they are going to be. This mathematical approach underlies every decision and their choices are almost always the perfect play for the moment.
The match itself was a great one. 3 minutes before the break Iniesta was the executioner of a sublime team opener, disheartening Gijon after they had defended and countered resolutely for almost all of the first half. Early on in the 2nd Pique was sent off for a fairly clear red card* and the complexion of the match changed. Gijon bundled in an equalizer soon after and the pressure was truly on, whistles around the stadium increased and moans were quickly the only sound audible. Keita became the savior with only 10 minutes to go, hitting an unstoppable top drawer finish into the upper left corner. Seeing a goal like that in person, in such a tight match was absolutely awesome and was worth the price of admission alone.
I put the asterisk above because by far the most frustrating thing about the match was the Barcelona supporters themselves. For a self-righteous group of fans their behavior was rather simplistic and boyish. Devoid of the English creativity and the Italian organization they relied on repetitive chants and vehemently disagreeing with the referee for the entire match, even when calling fouls in Barcelona’s favor (he took too long to blow the whistle or something?). The basic chants: “Barca, Barca, Baaaaaaarca” and “La la la Barcelona” were pretty shit, but the club hymn, sung at the beginning of each match, was actually rather inspiring. After Pique’s red-card things were on the decline. For the rest of the match the mild mannered guy seated next to us was on his feet calling the referee “puta de la pais” and “perra de espana”, even when Keita scored his brilliant winner the guy didn’t stop berating him. As a side note, where do people learn to whistle so fucking loud, I swear this five-year old next to us sounded like Thomas the Tank Engine…unbelievable stuff.
(Colin in sheer footballing bliss)
The platonic form of Football may live inside the Barcelona squad, but even with all of the brilliant play and elevated metaphors that have come to define the club, something seemed to be missing. For all the gold leaf there wasn’t as much substance to the experience as I had hoped. This weekend we are going to Espanyol to see how the Spanish club of the city differs from the Catalonian. One thing I can tell you already: the tickets are a lot cheaper.