Thursday, February 28, 2013

Benitez Press Conference adds spice to FA Cup Sixth Round Draw

Rafael Benitez; His press conference was surprising,
but was it really a 'rant'?

The draw for the sixth round of the FA Cup was concluded yesterday as Chelsea recorded a comfortable 2-0 replay victory at Middlesbrough in the final match of the fifth round.

The result means that league leaders Manchester United will host the London club in the next round, a difficult draw that won't have pleased either manager. Chelsea have an exceptional record in the FA Cup, having won it five times since the turn of the millennium.  
Rafael Benitez would consider himself a more than competent tournament manager and has won the trophies to prove it, but his chances of winning this season's FA Cup may have taken a blow after his unexpected outburst in the post-match press conference that followed yesterday's win. 

Benitez is known for his calm demeanour and reasoned outlook on the world of football which is why many reports describing his response as a 'rant' are exaggerated. He didn't raise his voice once. He didn't refuse to answer the question posed like Sir Alex Ferguson has done in the past, or snap unreasonably as Arsene Wenger did earlier this week. He also didn't pull out a prepared list of facts, an incident he is remembered for whilst manager of Liverpool. 

It is because he was manager of Liverpool, that Chelsea fans have never fully supported his tenure at Stamford Bridge. The majority of the Blues faithful hold issue with his past in the North West of England. The seemingly premature dismissal of previous manager Roberto Di Matteo has not helped his cause, with many fans choosing to vent their frustrations through banners and jeers at Benitez, instead of decision-making owner Roman Abramovich. 

It was in addressing these disgruntled fans that Rafa made headlines. "They have to concentrate on supporting the team, that's what they have to do. This group of fans are not making favourites with the team and they are singing and wasting time preparing banners.

Benitez's frustration at the fans is understandable, especially after a solid 2-0 victory, but it was his public criticism of the Chelsea board that was the most surprising element of this press conference, especially when you consider the ruthless track-record of Roman Abramovich. "Chelsea gave me the title of interim manager which is a massive mistake. I'm the manager." 

There is little doubt that these defiant comments will have upset Abramovich and his board of directors, but with Benitez already set to leave in May, he might just keep the Chelsea manager's position until then, albeit on an 'interim' basis.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea is not the only all Premier League tie of the quarter finals, with Everton set to host Wigan Athletic after they defeated this season's surprise package Oldham on Tuesday night.

It is fair to say that the draw has been relatively unkind to Championship strugglers Barnsley, who face the daunting prospect of a visit to Premier League Champions Manchester City whilst Millwall take on Blackburn. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Swansea Shine in Record Breaking Cup Final

Bantams skipper Gary Jones stands devastated as
Swansea winger Nathan Dyer celebrates his brace. 

Swansea claimed the first major trophy of their 111-year history thanks to a 5-0 thrashing of League Two side Bradford City at Wembley this afternoon.

The result broke a new record and is now the highest ever score in a Capital One Cup final. Bradford, despite being three divisions below Swansea had defeated Premier League trio Arsenal, Wigan and Aston Villa on their route to the final, so many were predicting an upset.

However, Michael Laudrup's Swansea side were vastly superior, and set the precedent early on with a spell of classy possession. It took only 16 minutes for the Welsh side to open the scoring when winger Nathan Dyer tapped in a rebound following a parried shot from the ever-dangerous Michu.

Michu became provider turned scorer on the 40 minute mark, as a through ball from countryman Pablo Hernandez found him on the edge of the box. His clever turn and rapid shot left Bradford goalkeeper Matt Duke unsighted and Swansea were cruising 2-0 up at half-time.

Bradford returned for the second half eager to make more of an impression on the game, but were quickly disheartened as Dyer secured his brace on 47 minutes, curling a sweet left-foot finish into the bottom corner after a clever feint from Spaniard Michu.

Bradford's afternoon at Wembley was supposed to grant them some light relief from financial struggles and mid-table mediocrity, but it soon turned from bad to worse as Bantams goalkeeper Matt Duke received a red card for bringing down Jonathan De Guzman in the area and denying him a goal-scoring opportunity.

Nathan Dyer, eager to secure his hat-trick was prevented from taking the spot-kick as Dutch International De Guzman stepped up to make it 4-0. He then claimed a brace of his own to make it a history making five, turning in a fine cross from full-back Angel Rangel beyond substitute Bradford keeper McLaughlin.

Michael Laudrup described the cup win as the finest moment of his managerial career and has won many plaudits during his first season in charge of Swansea. This is largely down to his footballing philosophy and attractive style of play, but it is also difficult to argue against 2.2million bargain striker Michu as the signing of the season.

Bradford will be disappointed in the result, especially on such a prestigious stage, but can be proud of the character they have shown throughout the tournament. That character was reflected by the fans, who sang proudly for a whole ninety minutes despite their team's performance. Manager Phil Parkinson has done a good job in difficult circumstances at the Yorkshire club, and will count himself unlucky should he not be offered a contract extension.

A first ever European campaign beckons for the Swans next season, as they continue to build upon their promotion to the top-flight in 2011.

Champions League Round-Up

Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester United

Cristiano Ronaldo scores with a sublime header,
a sight all too familiar for United fans. 

Manchester United recorded a highly satisfactory 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu against their Spanish Champions League opponents Real Madrid.

The first leg of the tie finished on equal terms thanks to a fine header from Danny Welbeck and an exceptional goalkeeping performance from David De Gea.

Welbeck guided a header beyond Madrid's second choice goalkeeper Diego Lopez from a Wayne Rooney corner as the away side took a twentieth minute lead. Former Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo levelled the scores with a sublime header 10 minutes later as the Spanish League Champions rescued a point.

United will be pleased with that all important away goal but will know that Real Madrid are capable of getting any result at Old Trafford.

Celtic 0-3 Juventus

Celtic will not be as pleased with their first leg result as they were comprehensively beaten by Italian giants Juventus.

The team from Turin made light work of the Scottish Champions with goals from Alessandro Matri, Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic and will feel confident ahead of the repeat fixture in just over a months time.

Celtic will be hoping for plenty of luck as they bid to up their performance levels during a campaign that has seen them defeat the all-conquering Barcelona.

Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich

Arsenal's horrendous run in cup competitions continued as they struggled against a powerful Bayern Munich team at the Emirates.

The Gunners were outclassed throughout the affair and three away goals from Kroos, Mueller and Mandzukic look to have settled the tie already.

The result came only a few days after Arsenal had been eliminated from the FA Cup by Championship side Blackburn and this first leg result will have done little to ease the building pressure on manager Arsene Wenger.

Best of the Rest

AC Milan hold a shock two goal lead in their tie with Barcelona thanks to goals from Ghanaian duo Kevin Prince-Boateng and Sulley Muntari.

Elsewhere, German Champions Borrusia Dortmund recorded an excellent 2-2 away draw in Ukraine against Shaktar Donestk and Galatasary vs. Schalke finished 1-1.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nigeria Crowned Champions at AFCON 2013

The Nigeria team celebrate their first
AFCON win for nineteen years.

Nigeria secured their third African Cup of Nations title as midfielder Sunday Mba scored a fine winner against a battling Burkina Faso side in Johannesburg.

Mba volleyed home the only goal of the game in the 40th minute to give the Super Eagles their first AFCON trophy for 19 years. 

Nigeria head-coach Stephen Keshi becomes only the second individual ever to have won the competition as a player and as a manager after he skippered the country to victory in 1994.

Burkina Faso struggled to form any real chances throughout the match, but brilliantly surpassed any pre-tournament expectations by reaching the final, especially as the country had never previously won a game at the competition.

They also boasted player of the tournament Jonathan Pitroipa as the Stade Rennais winger made several headlines during his time in South Africa. He was a doubt to even play against Nigeria after picking up a red card for diving during the semi final versus Ghana, but officials rescinded the booking after Tunisian referee Slim Jdidi was adjudged to have got the decision completely wrong.

The limelight though belonged to Nigeria as they celebrated with the trophy at the FNB Stadium earlier this evening. After eliminating favourites the Ivory Coast, few would argue that they were deserved eventual winners. Chelsea duo John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses were hugely influential in their side’s run to the final and vindicated the manager’s shock decision to leave out more experienced stars such as Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie.  

The final rounded off a tournament held in South Africa that unfortunately placed spotlight on a series of poor refereeing decisions and below-par playing surfaces. That didn’t however dampen the spirits of victorious coach Keshi, as he told reporters "this is mainly for my nation. When I came on board a year and a half ago, my dream was to make all Nigerians happy". 


Match Report - Southampton 3-1 Manchester City

'We conceded a goal that I have never seen in my life'
City manager Roberto Mancini on
Gareth Barry's freak own-goal

Southampton continued their promising start under new manager Mauricio Pochettino with a fine home victory against Premier League Champions Manchester City.

City's defence of the Premier League title was dealt another blow at St Mary's as a seriously improved Southampton side took advantage of a series of individual mistakes to record an emphatic 3-1 win, lifting them six points clear of the relegation zone.

City Captain Vincent Kompany was still missing through injury, so summer signing Javi Garcia was drafted in at the centre of defence alongside Joleon Lescott. The away side looked vulnerable from the beginning and were punished in the seventh minute as Saints winger Jason Puncheon dispossessed Gareth Barry and opened the scoring, slotting into an empty net after Joe Hart had saved well from Jay Rodriguez.

Southampton doubled their lead shortly afterwards, as midfielder Steven Davis poked home from close-range after a dreadful error from England goalkeeper Joe Hart as he failed to hold Ricky Lambert's powerful drive.

Manchester City showed some first-half resolve as Edin Dzeko's unorthodox finish pulled a goal back following an exceptional counter-attack started by the Bosnian on the edge of his own area.

Referee Martin Atkinson denied Southampton the chance of a third first-half goal by refusing to give a penalty after Yaya Toure, recently returned from International duty with Cote D'ivoire, clumsily collided with Saints striker Rodriguez.

City's sluggish performance was summarised by Gareth Barry as the experienced midfielder slotted needlessly passed his own goalkeeper to gift Southampton a third goal, as well as their first victory of the season over a team in the top half of the Premier League.

The result gifts bitter rivals Manchester United the chance to go 12 points clear in the title race with a win against a strong Everton side on Sunday. Roberto Mancini was angry with his players after such a poor performance and all but conceded the title to Sir Alex Ferguson, saying "It'll be very difficult to win this league now. I used to always be optimistic and want to be in this moment, but it's difficult".

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Match Report - England 2-1 Brazil

Frank Lampard celebrates his winning goal
with a trademark point to the sky.

England recorded an unlikely 2-1 victory over Brazil at Wembley thanks to a stunning winner from substitute midfielder Frank Lampard.

A Brazil side boasting world famous stars Neymar and Ronaldinho alongside Premier League favourites Ramires, Oscar and Julio Cesar were tonight’s prestigious opponents in a celebratory friendly match held in order to commemorate 150 years of the FA, the governing body of English football.

Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney calmly steered home the opener through a crowd of Brazilian bodies after goalkeeper Julio Cesar had done well to originally deny Theo Walcott’s low effort. Only moments before, England goalkeeper Joe Hart had made a brilliant double save from a Ronaldinho penalty, awarded by referee Pedro Proenca when Jack Wilshere was deemed to have blocked a cross with his hand.

Much was expected of sought-after 21-year-old Santos striker Neymar who is attracting interest from a host of European clubs, including Barcelona, but he failed to impress on a disappointing night for Brazil as he wasted his only notable chance, firing wildly over the crossbar after a dangerous cross from Oscar.

Brazil made several changes at half time, including veteran Fluminense striker Fred whose first touch brought a classy equaliser and duly punished the hesitant Gary Cahill who was caught in possession by Lucas Moura.

England pushed for a winner and looked threatening on the counter attack as the pace of Arsenal midfielders Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere continued to cause problems for a Brazilian defence captained by Chelsea centre-half David Luiz.

It was on the hour mark, that Luiz’s Stamford Bridge team-mate Frank Lampard, brought on to replace Tom Cleverley at the heart of England’s midfield curled home a superb winner following an inviting touch from Wayne Rooney, as he continues a fine run of goal-scoring form for both club and country.

The result was just one of several positives during a successful night for English football, as ever-present left-back Ashley Cole became the seventh Englishman to reach a centurion of caps as he started the one hundredth match of his International career. Jack Wilshere impressed in midfield alongside Captain Steven Gerrard and played a full 90 minutes on his return to International football after a lengthy fifteen month lay-off with an ankle injury.      

Roy Hodgson becomes only the fourth manager in history to mastermind an England team to victory over Brazil as he looks to build on his side’s strong performance ahead of the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro.

The newly appointed Brazil coach and former Chelsea boss Luis Felipe Scolari will know his squad didn’t play to their full potential during his first game back in charge. The Brazilian Football Confederation hired Scolari with hopeful expectation after he lead the nation to a record fifth World Cup victory in 2002. With media and public pressure already intense, his team will need to improve if they are to have a chance at the 2014 finals next summer.