By Sean-Paul Reilly
I remember being 8 years old, and sitting in front of the telly: I remember looking at the crucifix on the wall, and my brother sitting next to me. I vaguely remember the game itself, but most of all, I remember my dad watching.
He was an Arsenal fan, which meant I was an Arsenal fan too, despite the best efforts of my aunt, a Spurs season ticket holder (Boo! hiss!). Arsenal were playing the 2nd leg of a cup winners cup semi-final against Sampdoria, and the tie was heading towards penalties – I had even been allowed to stay up late such was the importance of the occasion.
It is normal for dreams to be brought to an end at sunrise following a good nights sleep, but in Udine last Wednesday evening the dreams of Francesco Guidolin, his faithful squad and their 17,000 fans in attendance were shattered in the final 20 minutes of the second half against Arsenal. Having taken a 1-0 deficit home following the first leg in London, there had still been hope of overturning this debt and creating their own legend.
Giampaolo Pinzi speaking before the first leg said: “we have prepared well, intensely, and meticulously” but it was all in vain. They lost the tie, but there was certainly positives to be garnered from the 180 minutes against top opposition. Across the two legs there were a few notes worth pointing out on various tactics, mainly with regard to Udinese.
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History is written, or at the very least it is influenced heavily, by the winners. The Romans are remembered as Empire building heroes – bringing roads, wine and civilisation to the barbarians. Whereas the Gauls, Celts and Numidiums were merely people whose place in history was merely to submit to the mighty rule of the peninsula. Little is said of the Gallic wealth that was plundered, nor the Greek intelligence that was treated with suspicion.
In football the accusation is frequently made, ad nauseum that it’s pointless playing beautiful football if you don’t win anything. The usual protagonist here is none other than Arsene Wenger. The criticism was thrown at him again from certain quarters following Arsenal’s humbling defeat to Birmingham in the League Cup final.
It is a point which was briefly touched upon by, Spanish Football journalist, Sid Lowe in a recent interview with Beyond the Pitch as well. Lowe spoke of the contrast in views between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, both of whom are men that are incredibly driven. The Barcelona coach’s comments speak of building a legacy, one that will be remembered beyond any results. Mourinho on the other hand makes his feelings on the matter very clear, for the Portuguese coach results and trophies are the bottom line.
I put it to you, that this simply isn’t the case.
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The offside law is a feature of the game that has been the cause of tears of joy and pain, a topic that has provoked hours of conversation in front rooms, bars, cafes and public houses all over the world. The law has been changed on numerous occasions and the shape of the game has had to adapt to meet the latest changes. Every facet of the law has not always been clear, and the changes have often muddied the waters further. Against Arsenal, the officials made a decision that sparked rounds of discussion regarding Louis Saha’s goal. But were they correct?
Last Sunday afternoon Juventus went to Bologna and disappointingly took only a point away with them, Juventus had the chance to take all 3 points but Vincenzo Iaquinta failed to convert a penalty they were awarded. The only real piece of controversy in the game was the awarding of said penalty, and perhaps there was some justice in the miss. Milos Krasic burst into the box and, expecting the defender to make a clumsy challenge after the serb had knocked the ball out of his feet, went down with the Bologna defender almost a foot away from any contact. Naturally outrage followed from Bologna’s players and staff as well as many neutrals after the game. The FIGC took action against the winger by giving the Serbian winger a 2 match ban; he will miss Saturday’s big match away to Milan as well as the game against Cesena. The loss is a massive blow to a Juventus side still trying to get into gear and somewhat dependent on Krasic despite Del Neri claims.
The outrage and backlash has led to a wide range of people offering a particular varied set of opinions. Juventus general manager Jean-Claude Blanc echoed the views of manager Gigi Del Neri saying “Milos has a reputation as a clean player. Whomever makes the judgement should take this into account.” He’s not that kind of player then? England manager Fabio Capello has given his thoughts on the argument. “Simulation is a cultural problem. A player only dives because he knows he will be rewarded.” he also says that the problem won’t be solved in a few months, blaming a vicious circle in Italy of players who dive and referees who look to continually stop games.
Learning from the past
It isn’t the first time that the FIGC has meted out multiple game bans for simulation as well as the normal transgressions. In 2007 bans were given to Adriano (Inter) and Zalayeta (Napoli) and in 2005 Ivica Illiev of Messina suffered a similar fate. Illiev’s ban was even extended an extra game because he took the act of gamesmanship one step further by celebrating the decision. There was some speculation that Krasic may have received a similar dressing down after pulling a subdued Tim Henman style fist pump, he appears to have escaped though.
The Scottish FA have not been afraid to use video evidence to ban players who have tried to deceive the officials during games. Kyle Lafferty feigned what looked like a fatal wound during an SPL game against Aberdeen at the end of the 2008/09 season. This poor piece of acting was later used against him and he was found guilty of improper conduct by a disciplinary committee. He was forced to serve his ban at the start of the following season, leaving his team without his services until almost a month into the campaign.
A cultural variance
Italian football has often been described, stereotypically, as being all about the results. In such an atmosphere coaches lose their jobs on the back of a few poor results, a penalty won here or there by hook or by crook can be all it takes to ensure a coach maintains his position.
Diving is a topic which has divided opinion with differing views being taken by fans from all over the globe either despising or tolerating the acts, sometimes hypocritically. Tim Vickery describes the attitude taken by the South American football fans is that a player who dives and is able to trick the referee into giving the infringement has done his club a service, giving them a chance to possibly win the game.
“I believe there is more tolerance of this type of behaviour in South America, where showing the cunning necessary to get away with something is widely praised. In Brazil it is often said that beating a big rival with an illegal goal adds extra pleasure to the victory.”
The view held by many fans I have spoken to in the UK is that it should not be tolerated in any form. They would like to see any deceitful acts struck out from the game, meting out bans to any players who ‘cheat’ or even bend the rules to gain an advantage. In the past the English FA had avoided the issue by wheeling out a FIFA regulation that discouraged the use of video evidence for retrospective actions with regard to non-violence related foul play. However FIFA recently released a statement stating that “they will no longer stand in the way of national associations using video evidence for retrospective punishment”. This has put some pressure back on the FA to act when players so violate the spirit of the game in England where diving appears to be so vehemently detested.
In defence of divers
However there are only a few cases, in my mind, where the player commits a clearly intentional dive. It is one of the beauties of such a subjective sport that events such as these can rarely be viewed as black or white case studies. Then there are also cases where players have intentionally avoided a challenge to evade the possibility of being injured. If a player does take such action their path changes significantly and they will often lose control of the ball or go to ground following a loss of balance, is this still a dive? Many would say so. In these situations a certain amount of benefit of the doubt must be given to the ‘felled’ striker.
The subject was at the very forefront of the news when Eduardo went down rather easily in a Champions League play off in August 2009 following a challenge from the oncoming Artur Boruc, the tie was still poised on a knife edge at the time and Arsenal held only a slender lead. Celtic, their fans and the SFA all pleaded with UEFA to ban the player, which the governing body did. The ban was later revoked following an appeal which was reviewed by a different disciplinary panel to the one which gave the Croat the initial ban, further highlighting the subjective nature which makes the topic a grey area. While it is far from ideal for a player to be sheepish about going into a challenge in such an important game, the brutal nature of his injury provides some mitigating circumstances.
Personally, I have few problems with a player going down easily when contact is made but if there is clear daylight between players it becomes a complete and utter joke. Capello’s comments are particularly poignant when we consider that a player will happily take the risk of a yellow card if there is the possibility of gaining advantages in tight games where the team has struggled to break through and have become devoid of ideas. It bears a similar resemblance to players committing cynical challenges to spoil counter attacks at the opposite end of the field.
Patrick Barclay wrote in The Times at the time of the Eduardo incident that the issue is one which cannot be policed with efficient consistency. If this is the case then any controversy that follow the dive itself will be magnified in cases where the diver is not punished. Another question that warrants consideration is how the result of a game should be affected by retrospective punishment? If a player dives and is awarded a penalty which ultimately decides a playoff or relegation, is the result reversed? Will the goal be taken out of the result and the table adjusted accordingly? A multiple game ban is a worthwhile punishment for any player to take when the possibility of relegation or winning a trophy is at stake! The matter is even further complicated by cup matches, if expunging the goal means the game was a draw do the teams replay? There don’t appear to be any easy answers that satisfy all parties involved. The worry for persons such as myself are summed up quite succintly by John Ley in the Telegraph.
“If the retrospective manner of their charge and suspension continues, what next? Every club who feels aggrieved over a costly defeat in Europe will be scanning every video recording, TV show – even fans’ phone video shots – to find a sly foul, dive or even illegal throw-in.”
You may find it surprising that for my first contribution to this blog, I will be writing about the retirement of a player. This was one of the stories this week which caught my eye, and no, it isn’t Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink. It is another player who in his prime, was one of the foremost playmakers in Europe and won great renown in his native country and then in Germany. It is Johan Micoud.
Micoud isn’t a player whose name jumps off the page at you. That I can agree. However, for many the football connoisseur; Micoud was a luxury, a Ferrero Rocher player whose vision, technical skill and expertise from a dead-ball situation, meant he was always a danger to the opposition and player who always seemed to be a fans’ favourite. His career started with a very successful spell at Bordeaux, in which he helped them win the League, then on to a more difficult period at Parma. The best football of his career however was with Werder Bremen. He was the main man, the dogs bollocks, the creative force behind the team. His great influence was one of the main reasons behind their double success in 2004, the first in the teams’ history. His play earned him glowing reviews and interest from several top European clubs including Liverpool and Bayern Munich. They were probably deterred by the nineteen million pound asking fee.
For all his club success however, at international level he was stifled. This was down partly to the fact that his position was taken up by the best player in the last twenty years, Zinedine Zidane. It was also down to the madness that is Raymond Domenech. Micoud’s contempt for Domenech was apparent after being left out of a friendly against Slovakia. He called him ‘a blind man’ and said that ‘maybe I am not in the squad because my star sign is Leo, and there are too many in the French team.’
This would not be surprising considering Domenech is a grade A twat. He is a man whose management style is baffling, consulting the stars before selecting his team and insistence to play Pascal Chimbonda at any opportunity. Many might say, ‘he made a World Cup Final, surely that is enough?’ No it bloody well isn’t, especially considering their display in the European Championships. Totally shit is a phrase I would use. Austria played better football than France in that tournament. He did have a tough group, but his tactical naivety was apparent when he played two holding midfielders against the weakest team in the group, Romania; a team France should be beating with the players at their disposal. France should have been beaten but for a Mutu missed penalty. They were literally the most boring team I have seen ever at a major championship. They even wheeled out Claude Makelele for a few games. In the end, I don’t care. He can destroy French football if he wants. The French FA has kept him on as manager saying his, ‘results were not catastrophic’; they went on to lose against Austria, but kept him on anyway.
At 35, Micoud has retired after not being given a contract by Bordeaux after his return to the club from Bremen. It is sad to see a fine player and an honest professional retire, Raymond on the other hand, can piss off gladly. It would do French football the world of good.
This was a match that was to make the headlines for a number of reasons. The fantastic personal performance of one Carlos Vela, scoring an emphatic hat trick. The average squad age of 19 or Gael Clichy mark 2 in the form of Kieran Gibbs. However I would like to draw attention to the players who played their part and shared only a very small slice of the tabloid riches.
The 3 players who caught my eye were Johan Djourou, Alexandre Song and Mark Randall. Song and Djourou had a very solid game at the back, outplaying the Blades attack, passing out of defence even from the byline. They were first to the ball at every possible occasion and the one time that Alexandre did miss a header Djourou was covering well to clear the ball tidily.
The match itself was a very pedestrian affair with few chances of note for the first 20 minutes or so, at this point Johan Djourou made a marauding forward run ending with a beautiful one-two and a fine shot that was subsequently saved by Paddy Kenny in the Sheff. Utd goal. This action seemed to spark the young Arsenal side into action. As soon as Djourou began to leave his post in the centre of defence my eyes were taken to his position expecting to see a gaping hole waiting to be exploited by
a blades counter attack. To my surprise and also delight I noticed the hole had been plugged by Mark Randall who was clearly playing a holding role. He continued to do this throughout the evening whenever either of the 2 centre backs made their way forward to join the Arsenal attack.
He also gave them an easy passing option whenever the ball was played out to the defence by tracing across the back four whenever any of them had the ball at their feet. It was this attitude, hunger to have the ball at their feet that meant Arsenal dominated possession. As well as helping the Gunners keep possession this pulled Sheffield Utd players out of their formation to try and win the ball opening space for the more attacking, flair players to orchestrate play in the more attacking areas of the pitch.
The only downer of the evening for myself was having to see Song go off with an injury that seemed to be a side strain, as of yet no mention has been made as to how serious the injury was. So I can only hope that no news is good news.
The youthful players that were on show certainly have a lot of promise, if they develop at the same rate over the coming season then I believe that next sesaon Arsenal could have a squad that is capable of winning some quality silverware.