Posts Tagged ‘ FA Cup ’

A Beautiful Game No More

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In the last number of weeks, we have been treated to a flurry of high-profile football games, with clashes at the top of the Premier League, big name ties in the FA Cup and the return of the Champions League with the first knock-out round. But did any of those big games bring about a truly enjoyable and competitive game? And if not, why not?

This week’s Champions League ties saw Barcelona take on Manchester City and Bayern Munich against Arsenal. All four teams would have to be considered expansive and attacking in their play, and with both English sides at home, the onus was on them to come out and attack. In theory, we were set up for two classic encounters with sides attacking and counter-attacking constantly. Yet the City game in particular was a huge disappointment. Manuel Pellegrini’s side have averaged 3.5 goals per home game, but ceded ground to the Catalan side from the off, which must have been why Aleksandar Kolarov was picked to play from the left wing. They only looked vaguely threatening and hugely dependent on Yaya Toure to roam forward from midfield and David Silva to create the chances. In fairness, it almost came off when Silva played in Alvaro Negredo, who rounded the goalkeeper only to be driven too wide to apply the finish. By and large though, City were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, and their attacks were few and far between.

They were largely successful in containing Barcelona until their defensive unit were complicit in giving up the lead. Barca won the ball up the field, Vincent Kompany dropped too deep too fast and played on Lionel Messi, and Martin Demichelis brought him down, giving up the penalty and earning a red card, and changing the complexion of the game from then on. It’s almost impossible to play gung ho against this Barca team at the best of times, but with ten men it becomes time to batten down the hatches. It is interesting to note that it was Jesus Navas, as well as Kolarov, who got withdrawn, as he had the genuine pace that could have offered City a swift counter-attacking option.

The Arsenal game was fairly similar, in that it was changed by the red card to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but really by that time Munich had taken hold of the game. But Arsenal did come out and play hard and fast for the first fifteen minutes, making Bayern look like a ragged bunch of journeymen. This spell culminated with the penalty won and missed by Mesut Ozil, who was presented with the chance to answer the bandwagon jumpers who have blamed him for most of Arsenal’s problems of late. Unfortunately for him and that game, he missed and the belief seemed to transfer from the Arsenal players to Bayern’s almost immediately. Arsenal barely had an attack of note after that, and certainly none after the red card.

In the case of Champions League ties, the home tie is a tricky one, given the importance of away goals. Even though the crowd are roaring you on and looking to take a lead for the away leg, it may suit a lot of teams to come out with a nil-nil, knowing a score draw in the next leg would see them through. For instance, if City had registered a scoreless draw the other night, would it have seemed farfetched that they could have nodded in a couple of goals from corners or free kicks in the Camp Nou, and put the game beyond Barcelona? Down a man, it is obviously pertinent to minimise the damage, and the couple of away goals both sides gave up mean they are highly unlikely to overturn the deficit and win their ties.

Pellegrini clearly has a lot of fear when thinking of this Barcelona side. Who wouldn’t? He has seen this team first hand a little too often for his own good in the last ten years, as he managed Villareal, Real Madrid and Malaga against them in La Liga during their pomp. It is unlikely he didn’t carry battle scars from all those encounters, and they possess great weapons. But Man City went away from their own strengths in the face of all this, when really they might have been better served by trying to put them on the back foot. Going forward, Barca’s most impressive player was Dani Alves, but he was on a yellow card from early on and is not the most accomplished defender on the planet, could they not have looked to exploit him more? Fortune favours the bold, and Man City had the team that could have troubled Barca a lot more than they did.

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What made these games in particular quite dull affairs was the possession-based game plan of both winning sides. As Bayern and Barca camped out in the English sides halves for the second half of their games, who was visibly enthralled? Toni Kroos smashed in a beautiful goal from outside the box, but Bayern didn’t really carve Arsenal open. Rafinha and Alves as full backs were the most incisive players of the midweek action as they had lots of space when defenders were already sucked in, but Bayern had to resort to lumping on big centre forwards to get the second goal. Nothing wrong with it, but they weren’t exactly cutting holes in the Arsenal rearguard by passing slowly and laterally outside the box. It was dull.

There is a trend in football now, largely thanks to the successes of Barcelona in the last decade, to play possession-based attacking games. Hog the ball, wear down your opponent, wait for your moment when the concentration levels drop, then pounce.  This has seen the rise of the offensive full-back, who is seemingly the player with the most space available to them. In turn, it now seems the centre-back is the new full-back, as the wider areas are closed down and the middle is where the space lies, so if you are lucky enough to have a centre-back with good ball skills they can drive forward and pick a pass, allowing your team to recycle possession effectively. But it is this type of dominant attacking that is making games less open. Opponents are generally pinned back and have to play with a defensive mind-set. There have been examples of teams capable of getting results with strong counter-attacking, such as Gareth Bale’s Spurs (no offense, AVB) and Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan team. These sides were able to take advantage of the major weakness of teams like Barca and Bayern, which is the defensive side of the game. Inter were able to knock out Barcelona and eventually win the Champions League by attacking when the moment was right, and defending solidly otherwise. But teams down the bottom of the league rarely have the speed of thought found in that Inter team’s Samuel Eto’o or Wesley Sneijder, nor the clinical finishing of Diego Milito. Thus, they spend the whole game defending and more or less awaiting the inevitable.

Even away from the elite teams in Europe, this trend can still be the case. The Europa League game between Swansea and Napoli had a similar plot. Swansea were always going to enforce their possession game too, but with all due respect they are not at the same standard as Barca or Bayern. The Napoli line-up was also one that boasted great talent, particularly going forward with the tremendous Gonzalo Higuain and the high profile Marek Hamsik, as well as winger Lorenzo Insigne who has played for Italy and Jose Callejon, who came through the ranks for Real Madrid before making a summer move to Naples. Add in counter-attacking away-leg specialist Rafa Benitez (see; any successful Liverpool European tie during his reign), and this should have been a rip-roaring tie with back and forth attacks. Unfortunately, not the case. Swansea played well but didn’t create too many clear chances, while Napoli were quite poor and resigned themselves to defending from early on.

Liverpool have played Arsenal twice in the last few weeks, with the first game a one-sided slaughter as Liverpool exposed Arsenal’s defence repeatedly in the first twenty minutes. The game was over after those early exchanges, and the second game could have gone the same way, with Daniel Sturridge having two great chances early on. Admittedly, the FA Cup game was a much more competitive game than any of the others mentioned, particularly in the second half. But it still wasn’t an end to end kind of game, as Liverpool dominated possession while pushing for an equaliser. The dross served up in the Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture was perhaps explainable by the frailty of both sides. Arsenal were just coming off the hiding at Liverpool, while United have struggled all year as a particular game plan and style remains unclear.

This is not to say anything is wrong with being a strong defensive side. Some of the best games in history have been based on a strong defensive effort defying a ferocious attack, like the Italian win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. There is certainly an art to defending, and it seems to evade the Pep Guardiola inspired teams like Munich and Barcelona. But if opposing teams are unwilling or unable to launch attacks and get at their back four, they will continue to get steamrollered. A fascinating encounter (not unlikely after the first leg results) would be a two-legged affair between these two teams down the Champions League line. None of the other games mentioned were uninteresting in their own right, but a tie between Bayern Munich and Barcelona might give us the furious, frenetic end to end game we’d all love to see.

Images courtesy of uefa.com, uefa.com/AFP/Getty Images

Wenger : Dawn Of A New Era Or Beginning Of The End?

wengerAfter an opening day defeat to Aston Villa and the home crowd turning on manager Arsene Wenger and his team, Arsenal’s season looked bleak and all hope was lost after only 90 minutes into the new season.

However, with Arsenal clinching a much-needed Champions League qualifier victory in a relatively easy fashion against Fenerbahce last Wednesday night, and following it up with an equally impressive 3-1 league win away at Fulham, the perspective on the Gunners’ season has already changed  for concerned fans. Continue reading

Five Irish Players Who Need A Move This August

kdAs all football fans know, the summer transfer window is a time of upheaval with fresh starts, new challenges and last chances for managers and players alike. However, sometimes there is a select few players that may be in need of a move to rekindle or enhance their international career.

Here we take a look at five Irish stars who all need a move before the transfer window slams shut at the end of August. Continue reading

Explosion In Online Gaming Results In Sponsorship Opportunities

Over the last decade, the online gambling industry has exploded and this explosion in popularity has presented new opportunities for football teams in the forms of sponsorship.  Below are some of the squads who are
currently sponsored at least in part by online gaming companies.

English Premier League

At least seven EPL squads are sponsored by online gaming companies.  League champion Manchester United was the beneficiary of bwin’s decision to discontinue their association with Real Madrid.  In August the team announced that bwin.Party is the team’s new online betting partner. Continue reading

Super Sunday Should See United Pull Clear As City Slip Up

Robin van Persie of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal of the gameTwo huge games on Sunday see four of the biggest names in the Premier League come up against each other. Liverpool travel to Old Trafford to play the table toppers at 1.30 and at 4pm Arsenal host Man City. Man United should come out on top of the earlier tie, the match at the Emirates is harder to call. Yaya Toure’s departure to the African Cup of Nations is going to leave a massive hole in the City team over the next few fixtures, and Arsenal can prosper from this. However, Arsenal’s defensive frailties should be exposed by Man City’s attacking threats. The bookies are offering shortened odds on the draw for this match, and I can’t help but agree that both sides will earn a solitary point.

We’re going to invest our accumulator interest in the Saturday fixtures however, starting at the Madejski Stadium. Fulham stuffed West Brom and so too our bet in the previous round of Premiership matches, and I don’t think the Baggies’ away tie against Reading will be a fruitful endeavour either. They come into this game on the back of three games without a win and are seriously depleted; Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob are unavailable and the sad news that Zoltan Gera will miss the rest of the season will resonate like a death bell for Albion. Reading on the other hand are showing signs that they have shored up their defence. Narrowly beaten by a late Gareth Barry header against City, their next two home games saw them preventing both Swansea and West Ham from scoring. If they can continue this sort of defensive performance on Saturday, I think that 9/4 are generous odds for the home side to earn a draw.

Next off to Carrow Road, where two teams on a dismal run of form come up against each other. Both teams have lost their last three Premier League games but there can be no doubt which side are cowering in the darker realms of depression. Languishing two points above the drop zone, injury ravaged, knocked out of the FA Cup by Brighton for the second year running and having just lost their one beacon of hope light to Chelsea, Newcastle’s season just seems to relentlessly continue to go from bad to worse. The one lonesome positive of the winter is the signing of French right-back Mathieu Debuchy, but I can’t see him dragging his new teammates to victory on Saturday. Chris Hughton will be out to get one over on his former club who senselessly sacked him months after he had inspired the Magpies to promotion back to top flight football. His Canaries should overcome their opposition whose hopes now rely on Papiss Cisse, who may prosper from his fellow countryman’s departure. Norwich are available at 6/5 to win.

The final leg of our accumulator finds us focusing on the match between Sunderland and West Ham, two teams who are looking somewhat busy during the current transfer window. The Hammers have welcomed back one of their many long lost sons in the figure of Joe Cole and he made an instant impact in his homecoming match, creator of both goals in a 2-1 victory over Norwich. West Ham will be heartened by their 2-2 draw with Man United in the FA Cup, whereas Sunderland’s identical result with Bolton should have the opposite effect. The home side are lacking in defense but still pose a threat up front with the exciting Stephane Sessegnon and Steven Fletcher always dangerous. I think this one will end up in a draw; it’s available at 9/4 and means that this week’s accumulator packs odds of about 22/1.

Premier League Preview

This weekend`s fixture list throws up some exciting derby matches as the Premier League resumes following last week“s FA Cup third round matches.   

 

West Ham V Arsenal

 

With the backing of their tremendous fans, the Hammers may well pull off a result in what would appear to be Avram Grant`s last match in charge. However, Arsenal will be eager to avenge their recent results, with a 1-1 FA Cup Draw with Leeds and a 1-0 defeat to Ipswich in the League Cup semi final leaving Gunners fans aggrieved.

 

Verdict: Draw

 

Liverpool V Everton

 

This Merseyside derby always serves us a tense battle and Kenny Dalglish will be eager to get his first win as Liverpool manager over their arch enemies. He will have to do so without the services of the influential Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Dalglish will be hoping his side can improve on their disastrous midweek performance, where Blackpool came from a goal behind to beat the Anfield side for the second time this season.

Everton manager David Moyes will be hoping like Blackpool, that his side can do the double over Liverpool this season. However Everton may well struggle for goals as top scorer Tim Cahill is away on international duty with Australia. Expect the home side to edge this one with Fernando Torres putting his critics to shame.  

 

Verdict: Liverpool

 

Spurs V Man Utd

 

Man United travel to Spurs on Sunday for what should be an intriguing tie. United will find it tough against Harry Redknapp`s men and their unbeaten record in the Premier League this season faces a real threat.

 

Spurs will definitely frustrate the Red Devils, with a draw the most likely outcome.

 

Verdict: Draw

 

Chelsea V Blackburn

 

Chelsea host Blackburn Rovers at Stamford Bridge as they aim to put together a steady run of results following their desire form as of late. Roque Santa Cruz`s return to Lancashire will boost Steve Kean`s men and they will certainly be up for this match. However with their inconsistent form this season Rovers may just fall short.

 

Verdict: Chelsea   

 

Man City V Wolves

 

Roberto Mancini`s men will be aiming to crank up the pressure on Manchester United at the top of the table this weekend but they must not underestimate a Wolves side, who have beaten both Liverpool and Chelsea in recent weeks.

Mick McCarthy`s men will travel to Eastlands in a confident mood but the relegation candidates may well fall fowl to Edin Dzeko, with City`s new 27 million striker the catalyst for a title tilt.

 

Verdict: Man City   

 

Stoke V Bolton

 

Bolton travel to the Britannia Stadium this weekend hoping to maintain their push for  Europe. While the Trotters have produced some outstanding displays this term they may well come unstuck against Tony Pulis` men. A draw is the most likely result.

 

Verdict:Draw  

 

West Brom V Blackpool

 

Ian Holloway`s side will roll into the Midlands this weekend in confident mood after putting Liverpool to the sword in midweek. Blackpool have every reason to be confident ahead of this match as West Brom are on an alarming slide down the table after their early season exploits.

 

Verdict: Blackpool

 

Wigan V Fulham

 

Wigan will be eager to start putting more points on the board as they currently sit second bottom. A win over Mark Hughes` men may well move them out of the relegation zone but they must rely on results elsewhere. Fulham will provide stiff competition for the Latics as they are in a similar position. Should Roberto Martinez`s side win they will jump above the Cottagers but this match has draw written all over it.

 

Verdict:Draw

 

Sunderland V Newcastle United

 

Sunderland host their fierce rivals in the second Tyne Wear derby of the season, with manager Steve Bruce still smarting after the Geordies thrashed the Wearsiders earlier this season.

 

Sunderland may well fall short again with key players missing through injury and suspension. Newcastle are no different with Andy Carroll set to miss out yet they still possess the quality to to the double over their neighbours.

 

Verdict: Newcastle  

 

Birmingham City V Aston Villa

 

These two sides meet at St Andrews with only a point separating them. This season has proved to be a frustrating one for both sides as they languish in the bottom half of the table. For Birmingham, its been a case of lacking goals while for Villa it has just been one long slide under Gerard Houllier. Birmingham look set to appease their goal drought with the signing of Spurs striker Robbie Keane while Villa are in the market for some new players, with Jean Makoun of Lyon undergoing a medical at Villa Park.

The incentive is their for both sides but Alex McLeish`s men may prove too strong for Villa.

 

Verdict: Birmingham City