Thursday, February 26, 2009

Commanding Performances from the Reds'

Its not often that Jose Mourinho is outwitted tactically, but Tuesday night at the San Siro saw Manchester United produce a tactically perfect performance against the Italian champions. Sir Alex Ferguson will be disappointed though that his team failed to score a crucial away goal in spite of an otherwise immaculate performance in the first leg. Ferguson opted to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench and went with a three man central midfield which overran Inter Milan with great ease for most part of the match. Playing Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher as a double pivot in front of the back four resulted in United effortlessly nullifying any threat that the Nerazzurri midfield diamond could muster and provided Ryan Giggs with ample opportunities to run at the heart of the Internazionale defence. Carrick was at his glorious best once again on Tuesday night, breaking up attacks with great aplomb and helping United maintain possession which can be most decisive in European games. Fletcher went about his job with characteristic professionalism and Giggs was once again first-rate in what is turning out to be a golden season for the Welshman.

With Vidic suspended, Jonny Evans who was a major doubt going into the match was outstanding against the Inter front two of Zlatan Ibrahamovic and Adriano. Although the Inter forwards were decidedly mediocre on the night, Evans once again displayed why he is so highly regarded at Old Trafford by producing another regal performance at the back. In what was a terrific team effort, the contributions of Cristiano Ronaldo stood out for its overall distinction. Ronaldo ran at the young Italian full back Davide Santon throughout the match with great verve and exemplified United’s excellent performance in terms of their approach play. Unfortunately for the Reds, they were unable to find the back of the net, for had they done so, the tie could have well been settled in Italy. As it stands though, Inter Milan continue to possess a great chance, but having said that if United dominate possession as they did on Tuesday night, the Italians look highly unlikely to go through to the quarter finals.


Liverpool kept up the good work of the English clubs by fashioning another memorable European performance with a commanding victory at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium last night. Rafael Benitez has a knack of getting it right in the Champions League and his tactical nous once again shone through against Real Madrid. Yossi Benayoun’s 82nd minute strike from a Fabio Aurelio free kick means that Madrid have their task cut out going into the second leg at Anfield.

Madrid went into the game full of confidence having triumphed in their last nine league games but were thwarted by a typically dogged Liverpool midfield. Xabi Alonso was superb in his holding role in front of the back four and if not for Casillas’ acrobatics, his splendid sixty yard effort could have well found the back of the net. Liverpool sat back for most of the first half inviting Madrid to have a go at them, but Real’s passing and movement was dreadfully sluggish allowing the Reds to take control of the match right from the off. Arjen Robben offered the only source of danger, but his often infuriatingly selfish play meant that Real Madrid benefited scarcely from any of his mazy dribbles. Benitez will be telling his players that the tie remains to be settled, but barring a major debacle from Liverpool, the five time champions should sail through to the next round.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dream Team Version II?

Josep Guardiola, the pivot of the famous ‘dream team’ of the early 90s has now moulded a team of his own to rival the one created by Johan Cruyff which is incomparable in the eyes of most Barcelona fans. Guardiola has managed to make his side function stupendously well by adhering to the ‘pass and move’ style of football that was indoctrinated in him by the master of total football. Although the present day requirements do not permit Barcelona to play in as fluid a manner as their team of the 90s did, in sticking to the fundamentals of the methods employed by Cruyff, Guardiola has made his Barcelona team a truly breathtaking sight to behold.

Barcelona play the most gorgeous football filled with dazzling interplays and exquisite patterns all over the pitch. Their passing and movement is so quick and incisive that the football is at times literally breathtaking. Although Barça possess an array of talent all over the pitch, it is the imperious Xavi Hernandez, who acts as the fulcrum of the team. Guardiola has ensured that Xavi can use his ingenuity and passing ability to maximum effect by utilising him in a more advanced position this season. Xavi’s static presence in the centre of midfield permits the more fluid players such as Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta to weave their magic in and around the opposition’s eighteen yard box.

Unlike many other clubs around Europe, Barça’s 4-3-3 formation is not a glorified 4-5-1, but rather a system which most definitely deploys three forwards. With Messi, inarguably the world’s best footballer at this moment of time on the right, a resurgent Henry on the left and Samuel Eto’o down the middle, Barcelona have for most part of this season been simply irresistible. Eto’o is well and truly on his way to winning the Pichichi and could even have his sights set on the 38 goal record held by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez for most number of goals scored in a single season in the Primera Liga.

Adding to the magnificent talents of the front three is Andres Iniesta, one of the most sublime footballers in Europe. Iniesta boasts wonderful balance and delicate touch and can either dribble into the opposition’s box or thread the most accurate of passes with equally devastating effect. Considering the almost gung-ho nature of their formation, one would imagine that the full backs are instructed to sit back and defend, but in Barcelona they do things differently. Whilst Eric Abidal is more measured in his approach at left back, Daniel Alves is permitted to bombard down the right wing much like his fellow countryman Cafu once used to do. Alves in full flow is a treat to watch and has added a whole new dimension to an already extraordinary Barcelona squad. At the back the likes of Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez and Gerard Pique offer superb solidity to balance the pure offensive brilliance running through the entire team.

The efforts of Pep Guardiola cannot be underestimated in spite of the talent that the present Barcelona squad contains. Guiding nearly the same set of players who finished eighteen points off the leaders last season to the top of the league by an enormous ten points after twenty three games is an astonishing achievement from Guardiola. Guardiola has instilled some of the missing passion and hunger in his players and has got them playing in true Barça fashion. But for all their glorious football this season they still have a long way to go before they can match the achievements of Cruyff's dream team.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Resurgence of Beckham and the Windies

David Beckham is doing the sensible thing by trying to broker a deal to AC Milan where at the cost of his status in Hollywood, his status in football is sure to surge. For all his off the field superstar image, Beckham has always been an excellent footballer. Beckham has never quite had the trickery to be a winger in the traditional sense, but his sublime right foot has meant that he has often been deployed in a role on the right wing from where his lethal crosses can cause maximum damage. With age though, Beckham has matured tactically resulting in Carlo Ancelotti deploying him on the right side of a central midfield three, a position from where Beckham can greatly influence games. It is amazing how some footballers are with age able to adapt and play in different positions so as to further their careers . Whilst a permanent move to Milan and a shift to the middle of midfield are likely to augment Beckham’s status as a footballer, Fabio Capello is unlikely to deploy Beckham in a similar role with the English national team who are blessed with a surfeit of talented central midfielders. Having said that though a move to Milan is sure to enhance Beckham’s chances of furthering his England career, even if he is restricted merely to a bit part role.


I was engulfed by a strange sense of satisfaction at West Indies’ superb victory against England at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. International cricket needs the exuberance and vibrancy of West Indian cricket and one would hope that this victory reignites interest in the game of cricket in the Caribbean. Jerome Taylor’s splendid spell of fast bowling in the second innings was a throwback to the glory days when the fiery West Indian fast bowling attacks terrorised batting line-ups around the world. Taylor’s dismissal of Pietersen in the second innings with a breathtaking yorker fired at tremendous pace was the highlight of a truly astounding spell from the Jamaican.

The atmosphere around Sabina Park as the Islanders romped to victory in sensational fashion was I am sure extremely gratifying to most cricket fans around the world. It would be stupid to suggest that this victory marks the return of West Indian cricket to its heady days of glory and magnificence, but it certainly is a reminder to the world of what the Windies are capable of, when at their best.

England of course played their part by capitulating in characteristically humiliating fashion. Only a few months back, English fans were filled with expectations of what they felt could be a highly successful period under the captaincy of Kevin Pietersen. With Australia facing an unusual period of decline, the Ashes could not come sooner for the English. But since then dirty politics and internal upheavals have meant that England are back to a state of familiar disarray with Pietersen being stripped of his captaincy. England were woeful in the first test with their batting line-up unable to respond to the inspired brilliance of the Windies’ bowling attack. Ian Bell continued to let down the selectors who have shown an inexplicable faith in his batting abilities. Owais Shah who deserved to be given a chance a lot earlier must surely be brought in to replace Bell in the eleven for the second test. With Alastair Cook’s batting abject at times over the last year or so and with Monty Panesar’s highly ineffectual bowling, England need to take a careful look at their team set-up if they are to recover from this shocking start to the series.