Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Cup Final weekend

 I had looked forward to a weekend of Cup finals in Monrovia, but was disappointed with two matches that did not live up to expectations, although the outcome was perhaps to be predicted.
I watched the FA Cup final in a small local shop in downtown Monrovia. Atmosphere was not as lively as expected; although Arsenal commands many loyal followers in Liberia, Aston Villa hardly raises any passion.
And it seemed the lack of passion was also on the pitch at Wembley, where Arsenal were far superior to an Aston Villa side that simply seemed to lack the spirit of the FA Cup. 4-0 to Arsenal was good entertainment, but it was not the excitement one has grown accustomed to in the FA Cup final.
The Spanish Cup Final, “Copa del Rey”, I watched in a local bar called Sajj. Most people were there to watch circus Barcelona, with their main magician Lionel Messi, and were not disappointed: Messi scored two goals, the first one spectacular, to give FC Barcelona a 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao that was never in any doubt, and that, if anything, could have been much larger. The Basques were a mere sideshow to the Barcelona act, and they never really stood a chance in a match whose result could have been called beforehand.
After a difficult start to the season (do any Barcelona fans remember how they were whistling and attacking Messi at the start of the season?), FC Barcelona are well on the way to winning the Triple if they take the Champions league against Juventus next week. As much as one has to respect Messi's magic and the joy of Suarez and Neymar alongside him, I would prefer to see Buffon and Pirlo lift the trophy next week.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Seville champions in Warsaw

On a day with a lot of football news of the bad kind (FIFA politics and corruption), we had a great Europa League final in Warsaw between the defending Champions of Sevilla and Dnipro Dniprotovosk from Ukraine.
I think nobody expected much from the Ukrainians; but you do not get into a final for nothing, and with spirit and skills they gave the Spaniards and football fans a great match. 3-2 was the Spanish victory with two goals by the tearful Carlos Bacca, who is following in the step of another Colombian, Radamel Falcao, who also won two Europa League's in a row, albeit with two different teams (Atletico Madrid and FC Porto).
This is not the first time Sevilla win the title twice in a row: they also did it in 2006 and 2007, and with four victories they are surely the best team in the Europa League over the last 10 years. 
Dnipro could not repeat what another Ukrainian side, Shakhtar Donetsk, did in 2009, by winning the title. But surely Dnipro should be proud of their team, which has made a mark in Europe this season.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Friends and losers

In 1994 Deportivo stood on the verge of winning the Spanish league in the last round of the league. Instead, they failed to defeat Valencia at home (with an infamous missed penalty by Miroslav Djukic), which gave FC Barcelona the Championship.
Today FC Barcelona, sure of the title, was playing for nothing against a Deportivo side that needed at least one point to stay in the top league. It was also the great Xavi's farewell match at home, so it was all a cause for partying for FC Barcelona. And the hosts gave their Galicians friends the needed result: 2-2, where FC Barcelona had been 2-0 up at halftime, but largely stopped playing football, as they obviously did not want any sad faces at their party.
This is not to say that Deportivo did not deserve it: I think everyone likes the club from Galicia, and nobody really wants them to be relegated.
Except perhaps Eibar and Almeria, who are going down instead (alongside Cordoba).
Almeria fought bravely at home against a Valencia side that still needed a victory to ensure their 4th place and a Champions League qualifier. The score was 2-2 until ten minutes before time, when Paco Alcacer gave Valencia the victory goal and Almeria a ticket down to second division.
It was an exciting end to the Spanish league, despite the continuous dominance of the top two sides.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Farewell to greatness

Steven Gerrard is one of those players that is impossible not to like as a football fan: he is an outstanding player with strong personality and a winning mentality that for many years has lifted Liverpool to greatness (most memorable is the 2005 Champions League final, a year during which he was among the best players in the world). And he is a man who has a quality that exists less and less in modern football: loyalty.
Loyalty to his club and his city; he had many chances to go and play in the best-paying clubs in Europe, but he chose not to go because his heart belongs in Liverpool.
Today he played his last match at Anfield, and nobody could help but being touched when the fans sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" to this player who did so much for them. It was nevertheless not a complete celebration, as Crystal Palace won 1-3, with Liverpool playing a very poor match.
Perhaps the poor performance was because of the emotions of the match. However, last year Luis Suarez left, and with Gerrard leaving, there are simply no World Class players left in Liverpool! Nobody could take over from Suarez, and nobody will be able to fill the enormous hole that will be left by Gerrard!
Gerrard will not only be missed in Liverpool though: any football fan with respect for great players will miss him. Me too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The fall of the Champions

Real Madrid is the team of records in the Champions League, and this year they were hoping to become the first team to win two finals in a row. But it was not to be: they ran into a highly motivated and well-organized Juventus side whose Alvaro Morata, who grew up in Real Madrid's ranks, scored to eliminated his friends from Madrid.
Juventus were fantastic underdogs in both matches. They played like they really wanted the title. They were very organized and played with discipline.
Can they defeat mighty FC Barcelona? They have to play their best, but the Catalonians are not invincible!
So where does Real Madrid go from here? First of all, this should mean that Carlo Ancelotti is out. The problem is not that they will win no titles; the problem is rather that they have no plan, no tactics. If anyone should know that you cannot rely on your brilliant players alone, it should be Real Madrid! Against Juventus he played with fear: when they were up 1-0 Real Madrid drew back to defend, instead of attacking and closing the match.
They played more Italian than the Italians!
If I wanted Real Madrid to win, it would only have been for the great Iker Casillas, who has suffered several unfair attacks this season, and has been blamed for defeat after defeat. Ironically, the "old man" was the best player of Real Madrid, so I hope he shut up all those idiotic fans who cannot see that Spain's and Real Madrid's problems are not due to Iker Casillas, but due to their coaches!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Masters against mediocrity

Yesterday FC Barcelona got a major boost in the Spanish title race when their rivals from Real Madrid failed to defeat Valencia. 2-2 is likely to land the title in Catalonia.
Even as a Valencia fan I have to admit that the tie was not entirely deserved: Real Madrid pressured and had chances for a victory, and it was either a great Diego Alves or luck that saved Valencia. That said, looking at the top 4 teams in Spain, Barcelona is a deserved champion: Barcelona defeated Valencia twice in the league, 0-1 in Valencia and 2-0 at home. In the meantime, Real Madrid lost 2-1 in Valencia, and with 2-2, Valencia have been better than Real Madrid on their head-to-head tally.
The same is the case for Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid; Atletico won both matches, 1-2 and 4-0. FC Barcelona still have one away match left against Atletico Madrid, but they already defeated them 3-1 at home earlier in the season.
Only against FC Barcelona does Real Madrid have an acceptable head-to-head record: they won 3-1 at home, and lost 2-1 in Barcelona.
Real Madrid's poor record against the few Spanish top teams reveals two things: firstly, that the top of the Spanish league has become a bit more equal, and secondly, that Real Madrid may have a problem when performing against bigger sides; while they routinely trash all the mediocre sides of the Spanish league, they do not seem at the level when it counts.
Real Madrid still have the possibility to get the Champions League title, but must perform at the highest level to get past Juventus, and possibly the rivals of FC Barcelona in the final. If the final turned out to be all-Spanish, nothing but a victory would count, and Ancelotti's job would hinge on that.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Higuain the missing machine

Napoli are one semifinal away from a European final, and are surely favourites against the Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. And in the first match in Naples tonight Napoli had 70% possession and 22 shots on goal. Still they only got a meager 1-1. Although Dnipro's goal was a clear off side, it does not take away that Napoli can only blame themselves for not taking advantage of their enormous pressure, and their striker Gonzalo Higuain, who missed some big chances.
This is not the first time Higuain misses chances. In fact, throughout his career in different teams, he has almost been more known for his misses.
In the other semifinal Sevilla seem to be underway to their second final in a row after trouncing Fiorentina 3-0. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Messi-Guardiola 3-0

It was a fantastic match between two great teams; there is no discussion about that. Every player delivered, with Lionel Messi nevertheless delivering the death punch to Bayern Munich with his two splendid goals and his late assist to an otherwise anonymous Neymar.
However, there is something to be said about Guardiola's approach to the match. Just like last year, when he totally failed in his lineup against Real Madrid, Guardiola totally overestimated the capacity of his own side to play 90 minutes of hard physical work with only three men in a line-defense. In the first half only the quality of Manuel Neuer saved them, but in the second half, after Messi's strike, the weakness of the lineup was exposed.
No bad words to Bayern Munich's players though. Were it not for Messi, they are at the level of Barcelona, even without their two stars Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery.
But where does this put Guardiola? Let us face it; he is not a tenth as good as Jose Mourinho (who is a real football genius), and not much different from Luis Enrique. As an admirer of Bielsa, he wants physically demanding pressing attacking football. As admirable as that may be, it is not realistic if you do not have the players and the physical strength to do it for an entire match (which is almost impossible; you need that degree of cynicism to finish the job). And was Guardiola a success in Barcelona? Of course he was; but despite his skills, the major reason for his success was the same reason for his defeat tonight: Lionel Messi.
Let us face it: without Messi, Guardiola is just another average coach, who will get results with a big club like Bayern, not because of his skills, but because Bayern spends all their money buying the best players in Germany for him.
Messi is the difference. Not Guardiola.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Semi-final of Dreams: Barcelona-Bayern Munich

The second semifinal of this season's Champions League will see two giants of world football face one another: FC Barcelona, with seven finals and four titles in the tournament, against Bayern Munich, finalist 10 times with five titles.
That said, their history of mutual confrontations is only quite recent. First time they faced each other was in the group stages in 1998, where Barcelona were eliminated in the group of death, and Bayern eventually made it to a memorable final against Manchester United.
In 2009 the sides faced one another in the quarterfinals, where an incredible Barcelona first defeated Bayern 4-0 on goals by Lionel Messi (2), Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry (and that attacking trio is as least as scary as the current trio), and then went on to play 1-1 in Munich. After this Barcelona defeated Chelsea and Manchester to become one of the most awesome champions of the European Champions League with a side that has already gone into history. A central man in that history was Barcelona's then-coach Pep Guardiola, who is now managing Bayern Munich, and the clash between Guardiola and the club he was born into is one of the most expected things of this match.
But Bayern Munich have also been part of Barcelona's history even before today's match: in 2013 Bayern Munich had built up a side that thoroughly dethroned the Spanish side in the semifinals of this tournament. In the first match Bayern Munich destroyed Barcelona 4-0 with goals by Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Arjen Robben, and they completed the humiliation winning 0-3 in Barcelona.
In many ways that semifinal signaled the end of an era and the start of a new one: for Barcelona they went away from their characteristic tiki-taka, but have found a new strength with their awesome attacking force and a solid defense around a Pique and Mascherano who complement one another well.
That era also showed an end of Spanish national team dominance, to be replaced by a Germany built around Bayern Munich, who went on to become World Champions in 2014. As Barcelona and Spain seek to reclaim their position, this semifinal clash will be another mighty battle in the epic football history of this decade!!!

Anyone who misses this match will not have the right to speak about football ever again!!!

Old man Pirlo

It was an epic clash when Juventus defeated Real Madrid 2-1 in the first Champions League semifinal. A fantastic match with interesting tactical moves, it was almost more a chess match between the coaches than a football match. That said, Juventus' Queen was a disappointment: the first time I saw the genius Andrea Pirlo play a poor match, it more than anything saddened me. Any guy my age identifies with Pirlo; a player who has kept at this level because of his brain, first of all, and then his skills, secondly, and lastly because of his physique. Makes guys like me believe that we are still worth something when our bodies turn too old, and we must rely all on brains.
But no, sorry guys, brains is not enough. Every success lies in youth.

I think Real Madrid will have the upper hand in the next match, with what should be a not-wanna-be-defensive Italian side. Only a touch of genius could save Juventus from a complete rout.
A touch of genius from an old man all old men will be cheering on.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Semi-final of dreams: Juventus-Real Madrid

Tomorrow evening we will see the first of two dream semifinals in the Champions League when the Italian champions from Juventus take on the Spanish giants of Real Madrid. This is a match between two of the greatest teams historically in European club competitions (Champions Cup and Champions League). Juventus has been in seven finals of this tournament and won two of them. Their latest victory was in 1996, but were also in the finals of 1997, 1998 and 2003. Real Madrid is, of course, the giant of this tournament, with ten victories in 13 final appearances, the latest one last year!
In fact, both side have already faced each other in both semifinals and in a final: in 1998 Real Madrid beat Juventus 1-0 on a goal by Predrag Mijatovic, which gave them their title after 32 years of waiting.
In 2003 the sides faced one another in a semifinal that is perhaps comparable to this year's: Real Madrid were defending champions with a side that included legends such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Raul. In the meantime, Juventus had a side with other great players such as Pavel Nedved, David Trezeguet, Liliam Thuram, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero. Real Madrid had won the first match at home 2-1, but Juventus played a fantastic match to defeat the Spanish 3-1, and make it to an all-Italian final against AC Milan (which the Milanese won).
Since this legendary semifinal they have met six times in the Champions League: four in group matches and two knock out matches (2005 last-16, where Juventus carried the day).

There is no doubt that Real Madrid are probably the favourites to progress to the final. But do not discount a hungry Juventus side who, having already taken the Italian title, can focus entirely on this, while Real Madrid still need to concentrate on the Spanish league race. However, both teams have some injuries of central players: for Juventus Paul Pogba and Kwadwo Asamoah will both be absent. For Real Madrid Karim Benzema and Luca Modric are out. Modric will surely be missed, and he leaves a space in the defensive midfield that could be exploited by the skills of Carlos Tevez and the genius of Andrea Pirlo. In the meantime, the absolute genius of a Cristiano Ronaldo who is on fire these days, could surely upset any chance that Juventus may hope for.

No matter what, it will be a splendid match that you cannot miss if you even barely like football!!!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Weekend of Champions

Today Chelsea made sure of what everyone have been expecting: a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, on a goal by Player of the Year Eden Hazard, has made them champions of the Premier League, no matter what happens in the last three matches.
Surely Chelsea are not easy to like under the genius of Jose Mourinho. Their football is defensive and result-oriented. Just like Atletico Madrid's, who everyone liked last season...
No, Chelsea are well-deserved champions, and the credit lies mostly in the fact that they have been steady in the most difficult league in Europe (if not the world!). This is not a league where you can expect to win 8-0 against a lower-ranked team, but where you can lose points in every match if you do not concentrate (ask Manchester United, Liverpool or Manchester City). That makes Chelsea's achievement so much more deserving of praise. Mourinho is a genius and Chelsea are champions.
That said, subjectively, I must say that I can think of 19 other teams I would have preferred as champions of the Premier League....

And another noteworthy champion was Juventus, who won Italy's Serie A after defeating Sampdoria 0-1. Fourth title in a row for the Torino side that has retaken its awesome position as the best side of Italy. They continue in the Champions League, so this could be a golden year for the Italians, although they still need to get past Real Madrid.

Bayern Munich had had no competition winning a German league that is becoming too much like the Scottish of Spanish leagues: one to two team affairs where many matches are nothing but expecting how many goals they will score against an opponent that is mostly there for show. Sad that the German league, with perhaps one of the best youth systems in Europe, should come to be so dominated by one side.
In the meantime the French league is awaiting an exciting end with Lyon and Paris St. Germain both vying for the title - with the Paris side having a slight edge, but with everything still awaiting to happen!!

It has been a great football season in the European leagues indeed!