Posts Tagged ‘Football’


There was a moment during Leicester City’s unveiling as Premier League Champions at the King Power stadium following their victory against Everton. While players were taking turns to lift the trophy some of them had to literally drag a reluctant player from the background, thrust him with the trophy and make him lift it while all along he was blushing with the new found fame. It was N’Golo Kante, the midfield destroyer around whom most of team’s victories was scripted. Leicester City’s extra ordinary tale from bottom of the premier league to champions in a matter of a solitary year is filled with sub plots of such individuals who raised themselves from obscurity to one of the biggest titles that they could ever hope to hold, English Premier League Winners. But it all begins with a manager, the perineal bridesmaid who has finally become the bride.

Claudio Ranieri finally has that league trophy that has eluded him in all of the 26 years that he thrust himself in managing a football club. He is to the premier league what Goran Ivanisevic was for Wimbledon. When Ranieri was announced as Leicester Manager at the beginning of the season following the controversial yet successful Nigel Pearson, there were a lot of eye brows raised in doubt which included yours truly. Despite managing some big clubs has been always identified as a cup winner than a league winner. But why would they turn to a man who had failed so badly in his previous assignment in Greece? There was a sense of Leicester simply trying to stay afloat in the league or they just did not have many choices. Lest we know that they were making a coup very similar to the ones they pulled off in bringing in the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. And how well has he done! He turned a team of mostly second choices and discards into a fearless well-knit unit where everybody knew what they were doing and played for each other than for themselves. I guess this is what he had always wanted. Not a top team of glorious individuals but a team that he could mould. Reminds us a bit of Valencia and Rafa Benitez doesn’t it? And how in the world did he make 4-4-2 relevant again? All it took was a compact back four and Kante with excellent support act from Danny Drinkwater. Finally, a good old fashioned English football. It helped that the foxes barely played more than a game a week for most part of the campaign. But so did Liverpool in the title chasing 2013-14 season. We all know how that ended! Brendan Rodgers first fell under the Chelsea bus and tried to close an outrageous 12 goal gap with Manchester City with two games to spare. Ranieri simply chose to play the opponent by their merit. Experience do counts.

Perhaps nobody epitomises the fearless spirit of the foxes than their poster boy, Jamie Vardy. From the interviews he gave to college students as a non-league player to being mentioned in awe by the likes of Gary Linaker is no mean feat. His searing pace, finishing ability and that touch of audacity while leading the line for Leicester made him the face of Leicester city and rightfully so. But none of this would have happened without the outstanding Riyad Mahrez who deservedly won the PFA player of the year. His trickery and skill has been the real difference to the Midland club’s rise to the pinnacle of English Football. Despite all their creative ability, the foxes’ fans owe a lot to their two colossal central defenders in captain Wes Morgan and Robert Huth who put their bodies on their line week in and week out while also coming up with the occasional but all important goals. Leicester City was relentless throughout the season but the key to that was staying injury free (which they did) and Ranieri’s vision to play a game on its merit and give enough respect to the opposition but at the same time closing the games out when it is done and dusted. No extravagance and focus only on crossing the line game after game. At the same time, it did not look like Chelsea’s parking the bus trick.

The real question however will rise now. Will Leicester City be able to maintain this? Purely on gut instinct I feel that they will most likely finish outside the top four next season. Will they be able to do well in the champions league? If they get out of their group, it will be a miracle. But there is no doubt that they will enjoy their football and their fearless attitude will give them new fans but Ranieri for all his experience will know that it will be tough for them in Europe. Are we in for more surprises from the Tinker man and his fearless foxes? Because on face value any European standard forward will shred both Morgan and Huth to pieces and if they get out in group stages, then a long journey in the Europa league awaits. They won the league by fielding fewer players than any other team. Will they be able to sustain the pressure of playing in four tournaments and 60 games a year? Will Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City do a Nigel Clough and Nottingham Forest?

Their first step will be in tying their star players to long term contracts and secondly in bringing quality backups. The scouting team that spotted the likes of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante will have do overtime to bring in new players of such promise. There are a million questions but now is not the time to answer them. Now is a time to celebrate one of the greatest sporting triumphs of all time. A reinstating of the belief that it’s not always about money and that hard work, focus and dedication still has relevance in modern day success stories. This is not a fairy tale. This is a tale of one team unwilling to give up and ready to fight like their lives were dependent on it. Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri has done it. The team did not bully their opponents nor did their manager played mind games with other managers and players. They just played good football. And for that we thank you.


Sports can be such a different career in a lot of ways. Sports persons peak at an age when young men and women take baby steps in their careers. They retire in an age where every other professional attain their peak powers. The moment their bodies don’t respond to the mind, they call it quits. Yet in such a short career span, sport can be so satisfying and fulfilling. As a professional sport, dominated by club games, football can be so demanding on a player’s body and mind. Yet with their endurance and skill set, they manage to illuminate our hearts as well as the stadiums they play in. This particular season in English football, many players who would be branded as greats in the not so distant future and one manager who is probably the greatest of them all, chose to call it a day. Here is a look at those amazing people.

He was the most naturally gifted striker that England has ever produced. Fast as a blur, boyish charm and with the kind of instinct inside the box, he was a nightmare for defenders around the world. But post his explosive start and prolific scoring for Liverpool, Michael Owen never really found that gear at Real Madrid where he found his chances limited among the galaxy of stars at the Bearnabeu. His career hit rock bottom after a plethora of injuries he sustained during his stay at St James’ Park. But that did not stop Sir Alex Ferguson from signing him (Being a Reds fan, I was livid to say the least).  Though he played fewer matches during his time at Manchester Unted, he did make his mark with a signature last minute goal in that amazing Manchester derby. Despite his move to United, he is still my favorite striker. Two moments still stays fresh in memory, that amazing goal at the ’98 World Cup game against Argentina and his brace in the FA cup final against Arsenal in 2001 where the Gunners did not lose to Liverpool but to Michael Owen.

A season of goodbyes, none bigger than Sir Alex Furguson.

He would probably go down as one of the last one club player in the premier league. The great wall of Liverpool, Jamie Carragher’s legacy lies in his loyalty, commitment, using maximum use of one’s potential, fighting instinct and most of all, being the ultimate team man. He was the bedrock of Liverpool’s defense for the past 15 years and every time I see his name on the team sheet I feel secure and assured. Images of an exhausted Carra fighting cramps but still throwing his body around against a marauding Serginho in 30 tiring minutes of extra time at the Champions  Trophy finals in 2005 still stands out. Wonder if anyone can replicate that.

He retired a year ago only to come back at his boss’ request. Though he had a very ordinary season by his high standards, one can’t take away the fact that Paul Scholes is one of the strongest pillars on which lies the museum of those glittering trophies that United won in the Ferguson Era. United will sorely miss and will need a midfield general that was Scholes. Who is going to deliver those killer passes from deep in the midfield? Who is going to dictate the game? Can Michael Carrick step it up?

He is a superstar in more ways than one. Despite not being an exceptionally talented player, with his dead ball skills and that precise, defense splitting pass, he was such a potent weapon in any team’s midfield. But David Beckham’s footballing legacy lies beyond the pitch. He was an icon, a poster boy who drove people, especially women to watch the game. Though the game is much bigger than him, he became the reason why a lot of people watched football. That is something very few people can do. You can talk about Dennis Bergkamp’s technical acumen, laud Steven Gerrard’s leadership or wonder how cool Alan Shearer is every time he puts it past a keeper. But you always need a Beckham to make people watch all that in the first place. He was football’s brand ambassador.

The English Premier League has indeed lost its sheen a bit after the decline and retirements of so many greats in recent years. When I first started to watch the game seriously, I remember the great battles between two amazing quartets. Sir Alex Ferguson’s trump cards Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistelroy for Manchester United against Arsene Wenger’s invincible geniuses Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry for Arsenal. When will we ever get to see something like that again?

And now the biggie, the actual reason why most of you are reading this article. Being a Reds fan it is such a difficult thing to talk, let alone praise someone from 40 miles away, especially one who vowed to knock Liverpool off their perch and did that successfully. But of late, Sir Alex Ferguson is held in such high esteem that it’s okay to do so. Looking at him from beyond my mental borders, I have to say, “Thanks Fergie”! I remember my time in Manchester when I used to work at the Theatre of Dreams as a bartender, interacting with the club’s long standing members. They spoke so fondly of Sir Alex and how he is the source of all the glittering trophies that begs for space in the Museum downstairs and that no matter who comes and goes, as long as he is there United will be fine. I wonder if they can still say that next season.  Yes they do have a credible replacement in David Moyes, handpicked by Sir Alex himself, but it remains to be seen how the Red Devils play from here. Of course in all those interactions, I had to put up with a lot of RED faced poking, making a mockery of Liverpool’s current form and I had to endure all that with a straight face. Damn me and my dignity! I also vividly recall the aura that he carried. I remember this one time in the 1969 Suite inside Old Trafford where I was working, suddenly there was a buzz around the place. It was strange because I already saw Christiano Ronaldo, Nemaja Vidic and Ryan Giggs walk into the suite a while back and it was all normal. But this time there was a lot of buzz and this time it was Sir Alex himself. In a flash, the whole place transformed into some sort of a hypnotized magic hut. Everyone, including the players themselves was looking at him and only at him as he moved from table to table greeting the members. That aura is carried only by one other sporting icon that I know;  a little man who got the most British of all crowds in Brighton buzzing when he walked in during a tour match, a certain Sachin Tendulkar. Very few personalities justify this increasingly over used term, but from the next season “Football will never be the same again”.

This season significantly closes the chapter of the end of a beautiful era in EPL. With only the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Cole & Ferdinand left, let’s hope that the Suarezs, the Carricks, the Matas, the Hazards, the Wilsheres, the Bales and the Walcotts will step up and become the next set of greats to have played the beautiful game. There certainly is talent but it also needs careful nurturing. This is where I hope the Rodgers’, the Villas-Boas’, the Martinez’, the Ladrup’s and the Mourinho’s will step it up.


          Balaji Ramamurthy

          Editor – Football, The CouchExpert

          September 17, 2011

 

Firstly here are last week’s actual results:

Saturday

1. Arsenal vs Swansea: 1-0

2. Everton vs Aston Villa: 2-2

3. Man City vs Wigan: 3-0

4. Stoke vs Liverpool: 1-0

5. Sunderland vs Chelsea: 1-2

6. Wolves vs Tottenham: 0-2

7. Bolton vs Man United: 0-5

Sunday

1. Norwich vs West Brom: 0-1

2. Fulham vs Blackburn: 1-1

Monday

1. QPR vs Newcastle: 0-0

Prediction results:

Me – 9 points (1 exact score + 6 correct results)

Harshit Khanna – 7 points (7 correct results)

Varun Atri – 11 points (2 exact scores + 5 correct results)

Mayank Gupta – 6 points (1 exact score +  3 correct results)

Standings as of now:

1. Me – 28 points

2. Harshit Khanna – 26 points

3. Varun Atri – 24 points

4. Mayank Gupta – 23 points

5. thecognitivenomad – 13 points

Onto this week’s predictions,

Saturday

1. Blackburn vs Arsenal: 1-2

2. Aston Villa vs Newcastle: 1-1

3. Bolton vs Norwich: 1-0

4. Everton vs Wigan: 2-1

5. Swansea vs West Brom: 1-1

6. Wolves vs QPR: 1-1

Sunday

1. Tottenham vs Liverpool: 2-1

2. Fulham vs Man City: 0-3

3. Sunderland vs Stoke: 1-1

4. Man United vs Chelsea: 2-1

Keep your predos coming in via comments!


          Balaji Ramamurthy

          Editor – Football, The CouchExpert

          September 9, 2011

 

Firstly here are last week’s actual results:

Saturday

1. Aston Villa vs  Wolves: 0-0

2. Wigan vs QPR: 2-0

3. Blackburn vs Everton: 0-1

4.  Chelsea vs Norwich: 3-1

5. Swansea vs Sunderland: 0-0

6. Liverpool vs Bolton: 3-1

Sunday

1. Newcastle vs Fulham: 2-1

2. Tottenham vs Man City: 1-5

3. West Brom vs Stoke: 0-1

4. Man Utd vs Arsenal: 8-2

Prediction results:

Me – 5 points (5 correct results)

Harshit Khanna – 9 points (1 exact score + 6 correct results)

Varun Atri – 5 points (5 correct results)

Mayank Gupta – 8 points (1 exact score +  5 other correct results)

Standings as of now:

1. Me – 19 points

2. Harshit Khanna – 19 points

3. Mayank Gupta – 17 points

4. thecognitivenomad – 13 points

5. Varun Atri – 13 points

Onto this week’s predictions,

Saturday

1. Arsenal vs Swansea: 3-1

2. Everton vs Aston Villa: 1-1

3. Man City vs Wigan: 4-0

4. Stoke vs Liverpool: 1-1

5. Sunderland vs Chelsea: 1-2

6. Wolves vs Tottenham: 1-2

7. Bolton vs Man United: 1-2

Sunday

1. Norwich vs West Brom: 1-1

2. Fulham vs Blackburn: 0-0

Monday

1. QPR vs Newcastle: 1-2

Keep your predos coming in via comments!


          Balaji Ramamurthy

          Editor – Football, The CouchExpert

          August 25, 2011

There are two reasons why I have refrained from writing about Arsenal’s season until now. To a smaller extent, work and to a larger extent, I did not wish to write Arsenal’s premature obituary week after week until things settled down a little bit on the pitch. And as I write now, Arsenal have marched into the UEFA Champions League thanks to a 3-1 aggregate win over Udinese in the qualifiers. More on that later.

Newcastle 0 : Arsenal 0

Arsenal entered St. James’ Park knowing that they had seen the last of Cesc Fabregas. Samir Nasri was more of a 50-50. But the focus was on having to start the big season despite the monumental losses in midfield. The playing XI though was good enough to beat Newcastle. Arsenal really should have made the 3 points at Newcastle. Newcastle barely threatened and were as dull as a Nicholas Cage movie when it came to attacking. And this is why I chose to highlight the losses in Arsenal’s midfield to begin the game analysis with. Arsenal were almost on the same page as Newcastle. Chances were far and few. Robin Van Persie was not sharp enough and it was pretty much an out of sync Arsenal performance. Aimless dribbles, sloppy passes and horrendous decision making in the final thirds of the pitch. The less said about their final ball delivery the better. Gervinho looked lively enough but more often than not his indecision in the final delivery took away from us any chance of scoring. And when you have the creative links missing in your team (read Fabregas and Nasri), you really need to make the most of the few chances that you get. Arsenal’s players would do better to just shoot at the keeper rather than having the ball in the opposition penalty area and thinking there. This is not Chess. You need to be fast, accurate and intelligent in the final third if you are to score plenty.

Hit me baby one more time!

The game was so boring that the only moment it came alive was during the Joey Barton-Gervinho fracas. Gervinho went down under minimal contact in Newcastle’s penalty area and the referee waved play on. And then came Joey Barton who manhandled Gervinho and got a slap in return for his favors from the Ivorian. Notwithstanding professional behavior, which was obviously missing from Barton in the first place, I personally wished that Gervinho should have slapped him harder. It was a melee that ensued and it was a no brainer that we were going to see red. Regrettably it was a shocker of a decision from the referee who gave Gervinho the red and let off Barton with a yellow. I am not buying the argument that the referee had his back turned when Barton was manhandling Gervinho and just saw what Gervinho had done in what followed. The linesman had a clear view of the incident and should have rightfully informed the referee of what had instigated Gervinho. Why I say I wished the slap was harder is because of this. It was more like a flick on the side of his head and the so called “manly Englishman” in Joey Barton went down to the floor shrieking like a road dog that just got run over by a truck. I am not at all arguing for Gervinho to have been let off but Barton should have seen red too. Arsenal held on with 10 men and it ended 0-0. Not good. Not bad either. For the second season in a row a new signing was sent off on his debut in the first game of the season. Last season it was Laurent Koscielny, this time Gervinho. To make things harder for Arsene Wenger, Alex Song was handed a three match ban in a post match review for his stamp on Joey Barton. Quite stupid of Song given how threadbare the Arsenal midfield is already.

Arsenal 1 : Udinese 0

Arsenal hosted the Italian high fliers Udinese at the Emirates in the first leg of the Champions League qualifiers. Arsenal needed to score, prevent Udinese from scoring and get a good result to carry over to the second leg at any cost. Champions League qualification is priceless when you really are intelligent enough to look above the £25m revenue that it guarantees you. More than the money its about playing in Europe’s elite competition and the prestige that comes along with it. For a club of Arsenal’s stature, playing in Europe is a must especially if they are to attract big names in the transfer market.

One-Nil to the Arsenal

As far as the game itself was concerned, Arsenal started very well and Theo Walcott put them ahead very early within 5 minutes. But that is where the scoring ended. Arsenal saw off the half comfortably and ideally would have loved another goal plus a clean sheet to carry to Italy, just to be safe. But there were no more potent Arsenal attacks in the second half. The final delivery was lacking again and there was wave after wave of Udinese attacks and counter attacks. Everything was centered around the seasoned Italian marksman Antonio Di Natale and as Arsenal and we would find out, the man would find his mark in the second leg. It was a nervous second half and Arsenal luckily scraped through 1-0. Not enough but okay.

Arsenal 0 : Liverpool 2

Arsenal then hosted Liverpool in their first domestic home game of the season. Cesc Fabregas gone, Gervinho suspended, Song suspended, Wilshere injured, Gibbs injured. And as if that was not enough already, first choice defender Laurent Koscielny had to be substituted with the reserve team defender Ignasi Miquel before the clock had even completed 15 minutes, thanks to a back injury. Any casual viewer would have been gladly forgiven for having mistaken this game for a Carling Cup game. Such was the absolute threadbare nature of the playing XI and the bench for Arsenal. It was always going to be a tough game against the resurgent Liverpool who had invested handsomely in strengthening their squad over the summer. Emmanuel Frimpong got his game and would be remembered for both the right and the wrong reasons. Arsenal did quite well in the first half and even for most parts of the second half. They were stroking the ball pretty effortlessly much to the dismay of Kenny Dalglish and the average Liverpool supporter. Liverpool were content to defend and earn a point from the game and that is a result a Gooner would have taken as well. Frimpong was immense in the midfield and worked his heart out. But inexperience would show soon and a rash tackle on Lucas Leiva would get him sent off as a result of a second yellow.

Emmanuel Frimpong sees red

The young lad was visibly upset at having potentially cost his team the game but the Emirates faithful saw it otherwise. And I have to admit myself that its been a long time since I have seen an Arsenal player wear his heart up his sleeve and love the cannon on the chest so much. Frimpong played his heart out and though it was a silly tackle that got him sent off for a second booking, the Emirates crowd gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch dejected. No less than what he deserved for a brilliant performance full of heart. Dalglish would smell blood and sent on Luis Suarez for the kill against the 10 man Arsenal. It was havoc. Sagna was playing left back throughout the game and we had the extremely inexperienced Miquel and Jenkinson defending for us. And it happened eventually. An unfortunate own goal resulted from a clearance hitting Aaron Ramsey and looping into the net. And Luis Suarez finished the game in the final minutes. 2-0 to Liverpool away from home and a reeling Arsenal. The effort put in by the Arsenal lads was never ever in question. It was stupendous. But quite simply many of those raw youngsters should not have been playing such a high pressure game in the first place. The squad is vapor thin that these talented but inexperienced youngsters have been unfortunately thrown into the lion’s den right-away. The boos that emanated at the final whistle were never aimed at the youngsters. They were aimed at Arsene Wenger and more precisely the boardroom staff for having failed miserably in strengthening the squad over the summer despite the worries over Cesc and Nasri. Nasri did play in the game but that was more of a necessity than a choice really.

Udinese 1 : Arsenal 2 (agg 1-3)

Arsenal really needed to shake off the horrendous start to their league season and find their focus for this much awaited and potentially do or die clash against Udinese in the away leg of the Champions League qualifiers. A bad result here could have quite really made Arsene Wenger’s position as manager of the club untenable and left Arsenal’s stature as a top club in tatters. The good news was that Robin Van Persie returned from his European suspension and Song and Gervinho were playing with their domestic bans invalid in Europe. Thank God. But the injuries were still there. On the missing list were Koscielny, Wilshere and Gibbs. We started off very well but the occasional warning signs were there and looming large in the form of Antonio Di Natale. Di Natale had a goal ruled out (rightly so) for offside and minutes later smashed a great effort on to the post. The defensive pairing of Vermaelen and Djourou did not look sure or comfortable. It was more like Vermaelen was not sure about Djourou and that in turn affected his concentration. Djourou was absolutely shaky at best. Time after time he showed his total lack of awareness as he let in Di Natale into dangerous positions at the rate of about a dozen times a second. Djourou seriously needs someone like Martin Keown to sit down and teach him the basics on positioning and awareness. And then it happened. Wojciech Szczesny as good as he had been thus far could not keep a peach of a looping header from Di Natale out after the Italian striker had yet again beat Djourou to a dangerous position in the Arsenal box. Udinese were now level on aggregate and looked to be in the ascendancy. But thankfully half time arrived soon. Arsenal got the much needed break quickly enough to reorganize and come back strong. And it was not mission impossible either. All they needed to do was to score once and Udinese would have to score two more times to qualify thanks to Arsenal’s away goal.

The two saviors

And thankfully it came early. Gervinho’s nice and elegant run from the left flank resulted in a great final ball from him to Robin Van Persie. And the captain who was waiting in the center gleefully smashed it into the net with his first touch. Arsenal had leveled the game, gone ahead 2-1 overall and with this away goal, Udinese now needed two more to win. And just when I thought Arsenal were comfortably through, a tricky Udinese ball into the box caught Thomas Vermaelen on his arm and Udinese were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Antonio Di Natale against Wojciech Szczesny. It was a cracking spot kick. And it was an even more cracking save that Szczesny produced under immense pressure. Szczesny had just made a £25m save if you could put a value to it. But for most practical purposes, it was a priceless save, a great save under pressure. So much so that I have started referring to him as Wojciech “The Legend” Szczesny. I shudder at the very thought of Almunia keeping goal for a team as defensively frail as this one right now. So thank heavens Szczesny has stepped up his game so well and become a confident first choice keeper for Arsenal. Arsenal scored again when Sagna released Theo Walcott free and the Englishman coolly slotted the ball into the net after a superb run to beat the last defender. With the 2 goals in the 2 games Walcott more than made up for missing a sitter earlier in this game that could also have potentially costed Arsenal the tie. 2-1 to Arsenal and game over.

With this win, Arsenal have made it to the Champions League for the 14th season in a row. And that is quite an achievement when you realize that the only two teams who are on a longer run are Manchester United and Real Madrid. And well you know how much money both those sides have thrown around in the market season after season. In that aspect I do not think there is another manager on this planet who can achieve this feat with the tight budget and transfer policies that Arsene Wenger has to operate under. Now what is to be done is to build on and strengthen. For now, Arsenal are still a big club getting to play among the best in Europe. And that is what this qualification does. It maintains Arsenal’s ambitions and prestige and helps attract good players in the transfer market. Admittedly there is only a week left for the transfer window to shut, but at least there is time left to buy, now that a major hurdle to maintain a big name in Europe has been achieved. I ideally hope that we sign that genuine creative replacement for Cesc, a proper fit left back, a center half and a striker who can take up scoring responsibilities when Van Persie does not fire. Those are 4 signings that we need really badly, although we could do with a Cesc replacement and a couple of defenders for now and see that striker in January when the winter window opens.

This Sunday Arsenal play Manchester United. If Arsenal are even to stand a fighting chance, they need to build the squad and build before kickoff. It may happen or it may not happen. It will be a tough game and I expect United to see off Arsenal going by the current form and the two squads. United have enough depth in experience, youth as well as talent whereas Arsenal already lacking in squad depth have been resorting to reserve players playing in the starting XI. And with Song and Gervinho suspended and all the other injuries persisting and no new signings made, I really have no idea how we are going to be able to come away with anything other than a defeat in the hands of United. Both defensively and from the point of view of creativity from the midfield, we look very very frail and paper thin. The start to this season has been domestically very shaky but Arsenal have qualified for Europe, which is immense. Another defeat is expected against United this Sunday on the domestic front but more important than that is to sign those players needed to get the squad decently up and running quickly and come back strong in this season as it progresses. Do it Arsene. Please do it soon.

P.S: You can follow me at twitter.com/evolution219