A collection of my match reports and reaction pieces for AFP from the 2014-15 season:
Reaction: Hodgson lionises England record-chaser Rooney (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Rooney sees off Slovenia to close on record (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Reaction: Coleman foresees glory for conquering Wales (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Bale sinks Belgium to fire Welsh dreams (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Reaction: Hodgson tells under-fire Sterling to toughen up (friendly)
Report: England and Ireland draw a blank in Dublin (friendly)
Reaction: De Gea uncertainty clouds Man United’s horizon (Premier League)
Report: Arsenal thwart Man United as De Gea departs (Premier League)
Reaction: Liverpool prepare for life without ‘irreplaceable’ Gerrard (Premier League)
Reaction: Gerrard ‘devastated’ after final Anfield game (Premier League)
Report: Gerrard says farewell as Crystal Palace poop party (Premier League)
Reaction: Arsenal manager Wenger irked by Swansea ‘accident’ (Premier League)
Report: Arsenal sunk by Fabiański and Gomis (Premier League)
Reaction: Rodgers accuses Fàbregas as Liverpool’s top-four bid fades (Premier League)
Report: Chelsea close Champions League door on Liverpool (Premier League)
Reaction: Mourinho steels Chelsea for challenges ahead (Premier League)
Report: Hazard storms Palace to give Chelsea title (Premier League)
Reaction: Mourinho feels the love despite Chelsea jibes (Premier League)
Reaction: Arsenal ‘boring’, not Chelsea – Mourinho (Premier League)
Report: Arsenal stalemate delays Chelsea coronation (Premier League)
Reaction: Fight for final places, Sherwood tells Villa (FA Cup)
Report: Aston Villa end Gerrard’s FA Cup dream (FA Cup)
Reaction: Mourinho calls for caution as title beckons (Premier League)
Report: Hazard fires clinical Chelsea closer to title (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal says Man United top dogs after derby romp (Premier League)
Report: Man City blown away by Man United fightback (Premier League)
Reaction: Hodgson urges Kane to build on perfect debut (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Rooney, Kane on target in England stroll (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Reaction: Van Gaal beams after Man United storm Anfield (Premier League)
Reaction: Gerrard sorry for red card against Man United (Premier League)
Report: Gerrard off as Mata brace ends Liverpool run (Premier League)
Reaction: PSG revel in Champions League breakthrough (Champions League)
Report: Thiago Silva and 10-man PSG claim Chelsea revenge (Champions League)
Reaction: Wenger thrilled as Welbeck proves point (FA Cup)
Report: Old boy Welbeck fells Man United in FA Cup (FA Cup)
Reaction: Rodgers rues cost of Liverpool resurgence (FA Cup)
Report: Blackburn intrude on Gerrard’s FA Cup dream (FA Cup)
Reaction: Wembley win leaves Mourinho feeling ‘like a kid’ (Capital One Cup)
Report: Clinical Chelsea earn Mourinho third League Cup (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Man City stirrings give Pellegrini Barça hope (Champions League)
Report: Suárez scores brace as Barcelona down Man City (Champions League)
Reaction: Rodgers plots Liverpool assault on top four (Premier League)
Report: Coutinho rocket sinks seething Southampton (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal defends Man United’s ‘long-ball’ tactics (Premier League)
Report: Blind late show rescues spluttering Man United (Premier League)
Reaction: Pellegrini remains hopeful as Mourinho sulks (Premier League)
Report: Silva keeps Man City on Chelsea’s heels (Premier League)
Reaction: Mourinho cries foul over Costa ‘stamp’ claims (Capital One Cup)
Report: Ivanović sinks Liverpool as Chelsea reach final (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Odds were against Man United – Van Gaal (FA Cup)
Report: Minnows Cambridge hold Man United in FA Cup (FA Cup)
Reaction: Rodgers buoyed by Sterling-inspired Liverpool (Capital One Cup)
Report: Sterling slalom checks Chelsea in League Cup (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Arsenal masterclass sets standard, says Wenger (Premier League)
Report: Cazorla stars as Arsenal stun Man City (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal defends methods after United defeat (Premier League)
Report: Tadić strike punishes shot-shy Man United (Premier League)
Report: Bloodied Skrtel earns Liverpool a point (Premier League)
Reaction: In-form United ‘forcing luck’, says Van Gaal (Premier League)
Report: De Gea stars as United deepen Liverpool gloom (Premier League)
Reaction: Liverpool will ‘fight’ for return – Rodgers (Champions League)
Report: Basel thwart Liverpool to reach last 16 (Champions League)
Reaction: Van Persie rescued United, admits Van Gaal (Premier League)
Report: Van Persie sends lacklustre Man United third (Premier League)
Report: Agüero undoes Southampton as Man City go second (Premier League)
Report: Stunning Agüero treble gives Man City hope (Champions League)
Reaction: Hodgson dismayed by England fan chants (friendly)
Report: Rooney at the double as England silence Scots (friendly)
Report: Rooney, Welbeck inspire England fightback (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Tevez returns as Argentina overcome Croatia (friendly)
Reaction: Man City have ‘crisis of confidence’ – Pellegrini (Champions League)
Report: Nine-man Man City left on brink by CSKA Moscow (Champions League)
Reaction: Van Gaal says beaten Man United getting closer (Premier League)
Report: Agüero gives City spoils against 10-man United (Premier League)
Reaction: Shocks are warning for England, says Hodgson (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Rooney on mark as England school San Marino (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Reaction: Mourinho urges Chelsea to stay grounded (Premier League)
Reaction: Wenger plays down Mourinho touchline spat (Premier League)
Report: Hazard, Costa sink Arsenal in stormy derby (Premier League)
Reaction: Pellegrini rues carelessness after Roma hold City (Champions League)
Report: Totti makes history as Roma thwart Man City (Champions League)
Reaction: Rodgers heartened by Liverpool resilience (Champions League)
Reaction: Van Gaal wants more from match-winner Di María (Premier League)
Report: Falcao debuts as Man United crush QPR (Premier League)
Reaction: Hodgson hails Welbeck for biding his time (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Report: Welbeck gives improved England winning start (Euro 2016 qualifying)
Reaction: Angry Hodgson dismisses England statistics (friendly)
Report: Rooney rescues England in turgid Norway win (friendly)
Reaction: Wenger backs Sánchez to fill Giroud’s shoes (Champions League)
Reaction: Pellegrini gladdened by Jovetić display (Premier League)
Report: Jovetić at the double as Man City sink Liverpool (Premier League)
Reaction: Ancelotti predicts ‘new cycle’ for Madrid (UEFA Super Cup)
Report: Ronaldo still the boss as Madrid win Super Cup (UEFA Super Cup)
Reaction: Wembley win sets tone for Arsenal – Wenger (Community Shield)
Report: Vibrant Arsenal down Man City in Community Shield (Community Shield)
Reaction: ‘Lethargic’ Arsenal not ready yet – Wenger (Emirates Cup)
Report: Falcao scores comeback goal to sink Arsenal (Emirates Cup)
Reaction: Wenger enthused by Sanogo-Campbell double act (Emirates Cup)
Report: Sanogo upstages Sánchez in Arsenal romp (Emirates Cup)
Lyon are 1-0 up at home to Metz and labouring when a lofted pass from Nabil Fekir finds Yoann Gourcuff in space on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. He deftly brings the ball down and throws a step-over to unbalance Metz defender Jonathan Rivierez, only for a posse of four opponents to force him towards the corner flag. The opening appears to have closed up, but Gourcuff holds off Rivierez and manages to drill a low pass to Corentin Tolisso, who steadies himself before shooting into the bottom-left corner from 25 yards.
At first glance, the goal seems all Tolisso’s own work, but it is the pace of Gourcuff’s pass that creates the opportunity. Tolisso is too far from goal to shoot first-time, but Gourcuff knows that by fizzing the ball into his feet at speed, Metz’s defence will be caught off-guard and the young midfielder, an accomplished striker of the ball, will have time to pick his spot.
Though incidental, the assist bore all Gourcuff’s hallmarks, showcasing as it did his sensitivity to the precise technical requirements of each on-pitch situation. Every action he performs seems delicately calibrated, from the deliberate way he paces backwards before taking set-pieces to his habit of bobbing on his toes at the start of his run-up and the exaggerated follow-through when he strikes the ball. Sadly for Gourcuff, and for Lyon, he is also uniquely sensitive to the condition of his own body.
“In August it will be five years since Wilshere made his England debut, aged 18, as a late replacement for Steven Gerrard in a friendly against Hungary, but with injuries having limited his involvement, it has taken him time to find his voice as an international footballer. It took him 26 caps to register his first assist — a raking, 40-yard pass that was headed in by his Arsenal team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain during November’s 3-1 friendly win over Scotland in Glasgow — and his goals in the qualifier against Slovenia came at the 28th time of asking. He is not prolific with Arsenal either, having scored only 12 goals in 153 first-team appearances, but when he does find the net, it tends to be in memorable fashion.”
I’ve written a piece on Jack Wilshere’s international coming of age with England and you can read it here.
“At Thatcher’s behest, the Football Association suspended English clubs from European competition for a year. European governing body UEFA went further still, announcing a five-year ban on English clubs and an indefinite suspension for Liverpool that would last until 1991. An inquiry into what had happened at Bradford and Heysel — as well as a riot at Birmingham City’s St Andrews stadium in which a 15-year-old boy died — led by leading judge Oliver Popplewell resulted in new, wide-ranging public order powers for police. Recorded incidents of hooliganism sloped off, while attendances in the English Football League the following season slumped to a post-war low of 16.5 million.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP on the Heysel stadium disaster and the role it played in the eradication of mass hooliganism in English football. You can read it here.
“Of course he likes to keep the ball, to have possession as much as possible. Sometimes I miss the up and down, an open football game like you have in England. This kind of football that he played in Barcelona, it’s different, it’s more tiki-taka, but if you play against teams that are really defence-orientated, it turns into a boring football game sometimes. It’s not nice to watch from a football perspective, if one team plays around the box, passing the ball and having 70 or 80 percent of ball possession, but not many chances. It’s about finding a balance between having the ball and targeting the offensive.”
I sat down for a chat with Michael Ballack on Monday and you can read his thoughts on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelonification of Bayern Munich and Mario Götze’s post-World Cup problems here.
Related link: Ballack tips Juventus to beat ‘vulnerable’ Barcelona
“A bronze statue that went missing and then reappeared has become the symbol of the steady and unedifying decline of former Premier League football club Blackpool. Depicting club legend Stan Mortensen, scorer of a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup final, the statue had stood on a plinth outside Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road home in northwest England since August 2005. Last week it vanished, after fans earmarked it as a rallying point for a protest against the club’s owners, the Oyston family, prior to the final game of the season against Huddersfield Town. Although it reappeared on Wednesday, the club’s fans are furious, with the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust describing what happened as “beyond contempt”.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP on the peculiar goings-on at Blackpool and you can read it here.
“The Premier League title beckoned for Chelsea from the moment André Schürrle put them ahead after 20 minutes and 45 seconds of their opening fixture at Burnley on August 18. Diego Costa’s first Chelsea goal cancelled out Scott Arfield’s opener and four minutes later Schürrle converted a sumptuous, half-volleyed pass from Cesc Fàbregas at the culmination of a superb 25-pass move. Branislav Ivanović’s 34th-minute goal completed a 3-1 win that took Jose Mourinho’s side above defending champions Manchester City on goals scored at the top of the table, and they have been there largely ever since. “They’ve definitely been the best team in the league,” admits Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. “They’ve only lost twice this season. Their consistency has been the best and that’s what you need.””
I wrote a piece for AFP on how Chelsea won the Premier League title and you can read it here.
We need to talk about winning. Because although winning matters, in one way it doesn’t matter at all. And the bit about it not mattering matters a great deal.
We have listened to professional footballers talk glibly about the importance of “winning things” and watched pundits pore over win/loss ratios and trophy tallies for so long that some of us might have started to think that we watch football for the same reasons. But although everyone obviously likes to see their team win something every once in a while, that’s not what keeps us coming back.
The British expatriates who carried football around the world in the latter years of the 19th century, alighting on quaysides in Andalusia, Buenos Aires or São Paulo with a football under their arm and a pair of rudimentary boots in their luggage, didn’t become globe-trotting evangelists for the sport because they were obsessed by winning. The fans who turned out week after week after week after week to watch Rochdale during the 36 years they spent in the English fourth tier without once being promoted or relegated weren’t in it for the glory. And when generations and generations of children have rushed into the street or onto the playing fields to replicate the feats they have seen their heroes perform in the stadium or on television, they have seldom simulated the act of raising a trophy.
Co-commentating for Sky Sports on Chelsea’s 3-1 win at Leicester City on Wednesday night, Gary Neville opined that “no-one remembers” Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ because they didn’t win anything. It was a throwaway remark, but as a quick glance at the reaction to what he said on Twitter demonstrated, he was wrong. For all their shortcomings, many people do remember the ‘Entertainers’, and fondly, just as people remember the magnificent Hungary team beaten by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final or the bewitching Holland side that fell to the same opposition at the conclusion of the 1974 tournament.
“With Luis Suárez having left for Barcelona and injuries restricting Daniel Sturridge to only seven starts, Liverpool have struggled for goals badly, averaging 1.38 per game compared to 2.66 in 2013-14. Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, brought in to soften the blow of Suárez’s departure, have failed, and Liverpool’s four recognised strikers (Sturridge, Balotelli, Lambert and Fabio Borini) have mustered only eight league goals between them. Promising Belgian striker Divock Origi is due to arrive during the summer, having been loaned back to Lille after being signed last July, but Liverpool also need to find a proven goal-scorer (or goal-scorers) if they are to recapture the heights of last season. “You can’t hide the fact we’ve lost over 50 goals,” Rodgers said after Tuesday’s defeat at Hull. “We have to look to improve the squad. It’s always great if you can get marquee players to come in and help you. The owners will support that.””
I’ve written a piece on the five issues Brendan Rodgers needs to address in order to get Liverpool back on track and you can read it here.
“Having snatched the crown from Manchester United’s grasp on the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, City stagnated and finished the following season 11 points adrift of their derby rivals in second place. Manager Roberto Mancini paid the price with his job, sacked two days after a shock defeat by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final, and a similar fate may lie in store for Pellegrini. Heralded as the antithesis to the spiky and combative Mancini, the urbane Chilean steered the club to a league and League Cup double in his first season. But Pellegrini’s position now appears under serious threat, with British bookmakers offering odds of 2/7 that he will no longer be at the helm on the opening day of next season.”
Who is to blame for Manchester City’s failure to defend the Premier League title? Some thoughts in this piece for AFP.
“Any evaluation of the English teams’ woes in this season’s Champions League must, however, also take into account the major club-specific failings that led to each side’s elimination. Chelsea showed complacency by electing not to press home their advantage following the dismissal of PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimović in the second leg of their last 16 tie, enabling the French champions to claim a 2-2 draw that sent them through on away goals. Arsenal paid the price for kamikaze attacking — a habitual failing — in their 3-1 first-leg loss to Monaco, while in setting City out in a porous 4-4-2 formation, Pellegrini allowed Barcelona to take control of their tie with a 2-1 first-leg win.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP analysing why England’s Champions League representatives came unstuck in this season’s competition. You can read it here.
“In building his teams, Mourinho has often used the number six as a cornerstone. At Porto he had Costinha, another wiry, combative player, and the scorer of the goal against Manchester United during the 2003-04 Champions League that sent Mourinho sprinting down the Old Trafford touchline and into the wider football consciousness. At Chelsea there was Claude Makélélé, the tip of the inverted midfield triangle with which Mourinho swamped the central midfield pairings that prevailed in England at the time.”
My AFP piece on José Mourinho and the search for the perfect number six can be read here.
“For Manchester United’s fans, manager Louis van Gaal’s attempts to explain their team’s shortcomings may be beginning to carry faint echoes of the reign of his doomed predecessor, David Moyes. United’s regression under Moyes was spectacular, but it was his continued insistence that progress was being made — despite stark evidence to the contrary — that particularly irked supporters. Fans could just about countenance the team slipping back after the departure of Alex Ferguson, but hearing Moyes claim that his side should aspire to play like Manchester City or that Liverpool were travelling to Old Trafford as “favourites” was impossible to stomach. With United still on course for Champions League qualification, Van Gaal’s stock has fallen no way near as low as Moyes’s did, but the excuses he gave after Monday’s FA Cup elimination by Arsenal raised more than a few eyebrows.”
I wrote a piece for AFP on Manchester United’s FA Cup elimination and Louis van Gaal’s inability to explain away their failings, and you can read it here.
“Arsenal’s defensive naivety and gung-ho attacking have long been used as sticks with which to beat Wenger, but his side seemed to have turned over a new leaf in last month’s 2-0 victory at Manchester City. After years of one-sided losses to rivals, Wenger appeared, belatedly, to have grasped the importance of defensive shape and to have accepted that a team can cede control of possession and still prevail. But against Monaco, and despite the fact Arsenal fielded £90 million of attacking talent in Alexis Sánchez, Danny Welbeck and Mesut Özil, all the old failings returned.”
My take for AFP on Arsenal’s calamitous Champions League defeat by Monaco can be read here.
“Liverpool began the season with a four-man defence, but after losing seven of their first 16 games, [Brendan] Rodgers rejigged his team, introducing a three-man defensive configuration in a loose-limbed 3-4-2-1 formation. It has yielded defensive stability — Liverpool have conceded only seven times in their last 10 games — and greater zip and dynamism in attack, where the positional fluidity has allowed Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to thrive, plugging a void created by Daniel Sturridge’s long spell on the sidelines due to injury. “We have great control of the ball and we’ve got the ball longer in the opponent’s half, which means they don’t have to defend as much,” Rodgers has explained.”
I’ve had a look at the reasons behind Liverpool’s improved recent form in the Premier League and you can read it here.
“The most eye-catching initiative in his sleek, 20-page manifesto is a proposal to expand the World Cup from its current 32-team format to a super-sized sporting extravaganza featuring 40 or even 48 national sides. Last year’s World Cup in Brazil was seen as one of the most successful tournaments in the competition’s 84-year history, but Figo said it was important to keep growing it for both financial and political reasons. When it was put to him that the proposals could ruin the tournament, he replied: “I don’t think so.””
I sat down for a chat with FIFA presidential candidate Luís Figo at Wembley on Thursday and you can read about our conversation here.