Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yesterday was an absolute roller coaster of emotions, with the seven stages of grief taking place just minutes before unbridled joy.  The vindication and satisfaction felt by Chelsea fans, so closely juxtaposed by the Barcelona faithful that will see their legendary squad finish the season without a trophy (The Club World Cup doesn’t count).  

The pre-match nervousness was replaced with excitement as just after kickoff, Chelsea had an opportunity when Ashley Cole broke down the left side and almost found Ramires with a pass, but Victor Valdes pounced on the opportunity and Barcelona settled into possession.  The following minutes were filled with half chances to Barcelona, with a ball running just long of Alexis Sanchez, a block from Terry, another block from Cahill, and then disaster struck. 

After his block, Gary Cahill stayed down on the ground after it appeared he had strained hamstring while stretching for the ball.  Barcelona fans immediately started jeering the Chelsea defender for time wasting, but Jose Bosingwa immediately began warming up, signaling to those watching that this was more than just a time wasting tactic.  Cahill soldiered on for a minute or two before Andreas Iniesta carved open the Chelsea defense and lofted a ball towards goal that was cleared away from danger by Ashley Cole.  Cahill continued to struggle and in the 12th minute he was taken off for Jose Bosingwa.

After Cahill’s substitution, Chelsea began to settle into defense, manning the ramparts while the Barcelona hordes sent wave after wave of attack at their gates.  Chelsea for most of these periods had eight or nine men behind the ball while Barcelona relentlessly attempted to play one-two passes into the box.  Barcelona’s continued attack led them to be vulnerable at the back, which was exploited when Peter Cech launched a long ball towards Didier Drogba.  As the ball was coming in to Drogba, Victor Valdes charged out of his goal and collided with his defender Gerard Pique and Drogba, knocking the Barcelona player out cold for a short period.

Pique made a miraculous recovery, but still looked shaky in his return to the pitch.  Barcelona did not sit back and wait for their defender to recover, but continued playing their trademark style, which almost yielded the opener when Cesc Fabregas found Lionel Messi with a backheel pass.  Messi tried to make the most of his chance, but Peter Cech saved with his feet and the ball was cleared from danger.  Javier Mascherano had an opportunity from distance a few minutes later, but it did not trouble Peter Cech.

Chelsea had another opportunity again thanks to a Cech long ball that found Didier Drogba.  Drogba bullied his way past the woozy Pique and had an opportunity from a very sharp angle, but the ball only found side netting.  Just after this incident, Barcelona made an substitution of their own, replacing the injured Pique with Dani Alves.  Their tactics changed along with this, now changing to a 3-4-3 with Mascherano.  Over the next few minutes approaching the half hour mark, Chelsea looked disciplined in defense, while Barcelona continued their repeated attacks, coming from seemingly every possible angle and option.

At some point on early in the match I noticed that the referee was wearing purple, I took this as an ominous sign that the referee would be firmly on Barcelona’s side.  The first lapse in Chelsea discipline was by John Obi Mikel, who brought down Alexis Sanchez just outside the penalty area.  A minute later, Peter Cech was given his first warning for time wasting, thanks to the derision being showered on him by the Camp Nou.  On the following run of play, Barcelona struck for the first time.  Dani Alves pounced on a loose ball and moved it to Isaac Cuenca who slotted it across the box to the wide open Sergio Busquets. Busquets made no mistake with the easy finish and just like that Barcelona had the upper hand with Busquets’ first goal of the season. It seemed inevitable that Barcelona would score, but nobody expected it to come from Busquets. 

Matters would only grow worse for Chelsea over the next several minutes.  In an attempt to introduce a more intimidation into the Chelsea defense, John Terry hit Alexis Sanchez with a raised knee to the buttocks.  Alexis Sanchez made the most of the incident and fell to the ground, which prompted the linesman to signal the match official, who showed John Terry a red card.  Terry was in disbelief that he had been sent off and refused to leave the pitch for a moment, before handing the captain’s armband to Frank Lampard and making his way to the dressing room.  It was a truly unfortunate incident for the Chelsea captain, one that showed poor decision making and selfishness in the face of the great adversity Chelsea was facing.

John Obi Mikel immediately dropped back into the central defending roll and Didier Drogba joined him for extra insurance as Chelsea braced to hold out for penalties.  That strategy was smashed to pieces eight minutes later when Barcelona struck again.  Busquets gained possession and moved the ball to Alexis Sanchez who found Messi.  Messi took control of the pass and placed a ball on Iniesta’s feet, Iniesta took a touch and then two strides later slotted the finish past Peter Cech and into the goal.  This 44th minute dagger meant that Chelsea would have to score with only ten men in order to progress to the final.

Just when all hope seemed to be gone from Chelsea, a moment of brilliance restored their faith. Frank Lampard collected the ball in the middle of the pitch and played a perfect through ball for the streaking Ramires.  As Ramires entered the penalty area, Victor Valdes came out to challenge, but not before Ramires lobbed a pristine ball over Valdes’ head and into the back of the net.  This crucial goal meant that unless Barcelona could score, Chelsea would be through to the final. As the halftime whistle blew, Chelsea marched into the locker room while the Camp Nou buzzed nervously, still stunned at what had just occurred.

Immediately after the restart Barcelona was back in Chelsea’s end, enjoying possession and eagerly looking for any opportunity that would give them the goal to put them through.  They were rewarded in the 48th minute when Cesc Fabregas went down from a lunging Didier Drogba tackle that made minimal contact, but enough to award the penalty.  Lionel Messi strode to the penalty spot, the whole world expecting him to sink this opportunity and send Barcelona through.  Before Messi made contact with the ball, Cech flinched to his left, causing the rattled Ballon D’Or winner to send the ball higher than the diving Cech.  The ball struck the crossbar and was cleared by an overhead kick by Raul Meireles while Chelsea fans around the world exploded in celebration.

Barcelona did not appear to be the least bit discouraged by what had just happened, and their relentless attack resumed moments later.  Preferring to work the ball into the box, rather than shooting from distance, Barcelona’s continued efforts inside the box were blocked by defenders, ran wide due to poor shooting, or were stopped by the flailing body parts of Peter Cech.  As the seconds passed interminably for Chelsea and their fans, confidence grew within the Blues and their defense remained disciplined.

Over the course of the frantic second half, Chelsea had substituted playmaker Juan Mata for Salomon Kalou in the 58th and used their final substitution to bring on the beleaguered Fernando Torres for Didier Drogba in the 80th.  Barcelona used their remaining substitutions to replace Isaac Cuenca with Christian Tello in the 67th minute and Seydou Keita for Cesc Fabregas in the 74th.   With all substitutions used, the managers were out of options for the final ten minutes.  Chelsea chose to sink all nine of their outfield players behind the ball and absorb the onslaught from Barcelona.

In the 82nd minute it looked for a moment as if Barcelona had found the goal they sought, but the play had been whistled dead due to Dani Alves being in offside position.  As the seconds ticked away Lionel Messi had an opportunity to redeem himself for his earlier penalty miss, his shot was destined for the back of the net, but the outstretched hands of Peter Cech pushed the ball into the goal frame and the clearance earned Chelsea another brief reprieve from the assault.

Barcelona’s efforts continued and in the 89th minute another Peter Cech save was forced by Javier Mascherano and the ball went out for a corner. Carles Puyol sent the header off the ensuing corner sailing over the bar. 

Another Barcelona attack was thwarted by a tackle from Fernando Torres, but he was unable to maintain possession as he dribbled up the field and Barcelona was given another opportunity.  Ashley Cole expertly snuffed out the attack and sent a long ball upfield that Torres latched onto alone, in space, with only the keeper to beat.  As Torres closed in on goal, he looked like he was shedding all the burdens he had been carrying since joining Chelsea.  The big price tag, the scoring drought, the lack of confidence were all left behind him as he rounded Victor Valdes and easily slotted home the finish to a goal that was equal parts vindication and satisfaction.

Chelsea fans around the world erupted in applause as Fernando Torres ran to the sideline where he was joined by his teammates in celebration. Chelsea had done the impossible, beaten the best squad in the world coming from 2-0 down to do earn the draw that send them through to the Champions League Final.  As the final whistle blew, a tearful Lionel Messi shook hands with the opposition and a dejected Barcelona squad exited the pitch amid Chelsea’s celebrations.

Overall, this was one of the best football matches I have ever seen.  Chelsea will have a lot of changes to make for the final; they will be missing Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Ivanovic due to suspensions and possibly Cahill and David Luiz to injuries.  Those are issues to be dealt with later for Roberto Di Matteo, for now it is time to celebrate.

Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 by Lex

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Check us out over at  The Substitution

The race for the English Premier League title has reached a critical stage as the Sunday results have put Manchester City within 3 points of their cross-city rivals Manchester United.  The two teams will square off this Monday at the Ethiad Stadium in a matchup that will likely determine this season’s EPL champion.  Manchester City hold the important 6 goal advantage in goal differential, which will give them the title should City and United finish level on points.

Manchester United vs. Everton

This new excitement in the Premier League race comes after Everton fought back from a two goal deficit to earn their hard won point.  Nikica Jelavic made his mark on the game early, after having a couple early opportunities; he made the most of Tony Hibbert’s cross and floated his header over David De Gea and into the net.  After conceding the early goal, United were eager to draw level again and Paul Scholes nearly had a deflected effort end up in the net, but good positioning from Tim Howard prevented the equalizer.

Despite their best efforts to go into the half level, the Everton defense faltered and allowed Wayne Rooney enough space to find the goal with a 41st minute header with the assist coming from Nani.  Just a couple short minutes later, the halftime whistle blew and both sides headed to the dressing rooms level at 1.

The second half deluge of goals began with Danny Welbeck, who after a scramble outside of the penalty area, maneuvered his way into space and fired a shot past Tim Howard for the go ahead goal.  Manchester United added to their lead just three minutes later thanks to some fantastic passing that ended with Nani slotting home the finish.  At this point in the match, Manchester United looked to be in the clear with a 3-1 lead.

Everton immediately responded to the third United goal, with a one of their own. Marouane Fellaini fired a first time shot off of another Tony Hibbert cross and suddenly with the score 3-2 the match was tightly contested again.  Just after the restart,  United again found themselves in a dangerous position, but Steven Pienaar’s attempt was stopped by De Gea, giving United a moment to breathe.

United chose to press forward rather than defend their lead and in the 69th minute Wayne Rooney added to his earlier tally thanks to a brilliant run of play ending with Rooney’s finish from a very nice Welbeck assist.  In that frantic stretch of play lasting 13 minutes, the fans saw 4 goals with Manchester United increased their lead to 4-2.  Their continued aggression was almost rewarded, but Evra’s header only met the goal post, which would be critical given what was about to come.

In the 81st minute, a failed clearance from Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans fell to the feet of Nikica Jelavic, who pounced on the opportunity and added his second goal of the game.  Everton was far from giving up hope and their continued fight was rewarded when Phil Neville, Fellaini and Pienaar linked up to create the equalizing goal.  It was a beautiful passing display truly worthy of such an important goal, and gave David Moyes’ side the result they were seeking. 

As Manchester United returned to the center circle dejected, the match was not over yet as in the 5th minute of stoppage time, Rio Ferdinand forced Tim Howard to make a save on what would a have been the winning goal.  Despite their best efforts, a win was not in the cards for either team and the draw meant the door had been left over for Manchester City who was taking on Wolves later that afternoon.

Manchester City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers

After learning of their cross town rivals result, City gave an appropriate response by immediately seeking a win in the early moments.  Carlos Tevez’ set the tone with his first attempt on goal coming just 17 seconds after the opening kick.  Both teams exchanged chanced in the opening minutes with a Sergio Aguero effort trickling just wide of the goal and David Davis forcing a nice save from Joe Hart.  The best opportunity of the opening minutes fell to Samir Nasri, but the Frenchman wasted it by putting a shot wide.

Sergio Aguero managed to recover from an earlier opportunity he had scuffed wide by making the most of a beautiful through ball from Gael Clichy to open up the scoring for Manchester City.  It was a stumbling finish from the league’s third leading scorer and a well-earned goal by City that gave them the early lead. 

Manchester City looked good value for their lead throughout the match with Wolves’ best effort, a header from Steven Fletcher, being turned away by Joe Hart.  A wasted corner from Wolves, led to a break which saw Carlos Tevez pulled down and City awarded a free kick.  The kick was quickly taken and the ball returned to Tevez who set up Samir Nasri who was open in space and finished it past backup Wolves keeper Dorus De Vries. 

Manchester City squandered a handful of opportunities throughout the game, including a late miss from Sergio Aguero, but 2-0 was enough to give them the 3 points they so desperately desired.  Their win over Wolves sets the stage for what will surely be a derby day to remember on Saturday.  With so much on the line including the Premier League title, the matchup between these two clubs is eagerly anticipated by all. 
The stage has been set, but controversy now revolves around Yaya Toure, whose gesture shortly before halftime could earn a suspension.  More on that later in the week though.


In an attempt to expand our audience Full Time Football articles will now be appearing on The Substitution:

Pienaar gets the background today for his timely equalizer.

Posted on Monday, April 23, 2012 by Lex

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Barcelona defeated AC Milan yesterday in a controversial 3-1 victory, in which Barcelona was awarded two penalties.  The first penalty given was a clearly deserved, but the second penalty that was awarded shortly before halftime came as a surprise to many watching the match.  Allessandro Nesta was penalized for tugging on the shirt of notorious con-artist Sergio Busquets, an offense that occurs on nearly every set piece in the modern professional game.

Battling back from Lionel Messi’s first converted penalty with a quick attack that earned Antonio Nocerino the equalizing goal, the Camp Nou was set to be in store for an exciting second half before the second penalty was awarded.  The game was put beyond doubt when Philippe Mexes deflected a shot that bounced to Andreas Iniesta who made no mistake with the finish.  So after that quick recap I have decided to give the fans what they want, a profile on the man they came to see, referee Bjorn Kuipers.

If you’re still interested match highlights here:

Bjorn Kuipers was born on March 28, 1973 in the small town of Oldenzaal in the province of Overijsselin eastern Netherlands.  Born the son of a referee, one could say that he was born to hand out cards and award penalties to the deserving.  As a child, young Bjorn could often be found down at the local field refereeing five a side games, despite the protests of the other children.  Kuipers’ family owns a three supermarkets and a hair salon, and Bjorn took over the management of these, even winning shop of the year for the town of Oldenzaal for 2010. 

Kuipers’ studied business administration at the Radboud University Nijmegen, where he received training in bribe taking, money laundering, and corruption.  Kuipers even married into refereeing pedigree, his wife’s grandfather is former international referee Andries van Leeuwen. 

Bjorn progressed quickly through the ranks of Dutch officials, eventually becoming a referee in the nation’s top league the Eredivisie.  Bjorn earned his FIFA badge at the age of 33 and was promoted to the elite category of referees in 2009.  There was some mild controversy surrounding his promotion to elite status, cries of cronyism rang out through the Netherlands because Kuipers shares the same home province with fellow VIP referee Jaap Uilenberg.  He also drew criticism because his performances in 2010-11 did not have a high average rating and he was not awarded any of the division’s top matches.

Despite this criticism, Kuipers has refereed his fair share of important matches including the 2010 Club World Cup Semi-Finals, U-21 2009 Euro Final, as well as several World Cup and Euro international qualifiers.  In a report by the Dutch Referee Commission, Kuipers was labeled as a good referee, but arrogant. To hone his refereeing skills, Kuipers often watches game film of the teams he will be officiating, noting for this particular match he concentrated on staying out of the way of Barcelona’s midfielders whose tendency to pass quickly can catch a referee who is improperly positioned.

After this most recent match, Kuipers was quoted as saying “We [the match officials] put in a good team performance. The match went as we expected it to go.” UEFA referees are not allowed to comment on specific situations, but he also issued this quote “The fact that we have a good feeling about the match says it all. My phone has been ringing non-stop, and it's nothing but compliments."  Mr. Kuipers appears to have been satisfied with his performance, but surely Milan fans and some objective observers would disagree.  The evidence is however stacked against Mr. Kuipers, who also issued 7 yellow cards to Milan while giving only 2 to Barcelona.  To go along with the penalty decisions in Barcelona’s favor, Milan were denied a shout of their own in the first minute of the second half. 

Controversial refereeing has always been one of the more unsightly parts of the beautiful game, and in many of these situations there are no easy decisions to make.  Regardless of the decisions he made during last night’s match, he was going to upset one group of fans.  These are the men we put in the spotlight to make the tough decisions, to rule decisively when the facts remain unclear, to make a split second decision that affects the hearts, minds, and wallets of millions.  The pressure is enormous, and I do not envy any man put in a similar situation.

Some of the contents of this profile were added for humorous reasons; any misinformation can be attributed to Wikipedia, which has been rapidly updating Mr. Kuiper’s page since yesterday’s match. It currently reads that Mr. Kuipers is an official bribe taker from UEFA (IT’S NEVER WRONG!).  This piece was written in jest.  Messi gets the background because nobody else deserves it, and he’s just so cute.

Posted on Wednesday, April 04, 2012 by Lex

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