Stoke City’s evolution can now begin in earnest. Saturday’s thrilling victory over Chelsea demonstrates we needn’t fear anyone in this league… it also shows fortune favours the brave. When Jon Walters was substituted on 84 minutes Mark Hughes could have been forgiven for utilising a defensive option. Instead he chose Oussama Assaidi and it proved a masterstroke. Assaidi’s winning goal was worthy of winning any match. Sealing a victory against one of Europe’s top teams was an appropriate backdrop for such a moment of opportunist brilliance. There is however, still much to improve. We still give the ball away too easily in our own third of the pitch and in the attacking third our play is often too shapeless. Overall though we’ve now seen what our team is capable of and there is no reason not to maintain the same level of endeavour. If we maintain the same level of ambition we can shrug off the patchy start to the season and develop into a stronger unit. At Hull on Saturday we need to go all out to win the game. If we are as adventurous and resilient as we were against Chelsea we have a good chance of winning any match. It was particularly pleasing that Assaidi earned his moment of glory. Since arriving at Stoke he’s shown fleeting glimpses of skill yet failed to produce regularly. This was especially frustrating as a player like Assaidi can provide some of the extra dimensions we need to progress. Against Cardiff in midweek he was subdued, failing to run at defenders suggested a severe lack of confidence. After the victory over Chelsea Mark Hughes admitted Assaidi was disappointed he’d been left out of the starting eleven but had made it clear he must make the most of any chances he gets to impress. He certainly made the most of Saturday’s chance! From his reaction he enjoyed the moment as much as any of us! Great work Oussama Assaidi, more of the same please!
The World Cup draw has left England with a huge task to progress to the knockout stage of the tournament. Facing Italy Uruguay and Costa Rica will be an uphill struggle. The campaign starts against Italy in the hot humid city of Manaus. Prior to the draw Roy Hodgson was far too talkative regarding his wish to avoid playing in Manaus. While hoping to dodge it was perfectly understandable his words gave an air of defeatism and excuse making before we’ve even reached 2014. Now there’s also the possibility locals will side with Italy which isn’t crucial…. but hardly helps our cause. At least this time the England team won’t be dogged with the inexplicable high levels of expectation that have proved as damaging as they are groundless. Australia also lacked good fortune in the draw…. their task is almost insurmountable. Facing Chile Netherlands and Spain will be a torrid struggle. Anything Australia achieve in Brazil will be almost entirely based on a rigid formation and tactical discipline. You can’t outplay them but you can outnumber them. It will be a huge challenge for Ange Postecoglou and his players but it will prove useful experience to take into the 2015 Asian Cup.
Brisbane Roar sealed their place at the top of the table with victory in Adelaide. It’s been a productive season for Roar so far. Generally the games have been enjoyable and a good advert for football. The A-League reached a milestone on Sunday when Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets played the 1000th A-League match. Since the inaugural 2005/06 season the A-League has become a solid part of the Australian sporting landscape. That’s not to say it’s all been a breeze. The embarrassment of expansion clubs folding left a stain on the league and FFA’s credibility. For all that the competition remains intact. Eight years and a thousand games, hopefully our game will continue to grow here.
On the final day of the Brazilian Championship Atletico Paranaense met Vasco da Gama. With Atletico chasing a place in next season’s Copa Libertdores and Vasco da Gama threatened with relegation it was always likely to be an intense affair, and so it proved. In the opening exchanges of the game Atletico took the lead which lead to rival supporters involved in violent exchanges. The match was delayed for over an hour while security forces attempted to seize control of the situation. The violence was so extreme a military helicopter landed on the pitch to take some of the injured to hospital… which led to rumours circulating suggesting (erroneously) some had been killed. While it’s highly unlikely violence on this scale will erupt inside a stadium during the World Cup, it’s hardly the image they wanted to project to the world. Combine this with the threat of protests outside the stadiums and the ongoing confusion over the completion dates for stadium construction, the 2014 World Cup is already proving to be a very confused episode for everyone involved.
The recent stories about spot fixing in football are distressing. A point worth emphasising however is while some players may be corrupt, the vast majority aren’t. If the players concerned are charged and found guilty it could lead to any error or strange result tainted by suggestions of impropriety. It’s crucial to football for this issue to be addressed and perpetrators exposed and punished accordingly. A salient question is how did we ever get to this point? Well, in recent years the finance of football has become increasingly prominent. Broadcasters new deals for TV rights often generate countless headlines and the finance dissected. Many players, at all levels, see contemporaries transfer to new clubs and one can reasonably assume they involve a hefty pay rise. Some (but by no means all) of the aforementioned transfers are no doubt motivated by agents who themselves stand to gain from the moves in question. Sponsors, betting companies, pubs, clothing manufacturers all use football for their own commercial gain. The Championship play off final is one of the year’s annual showpieces. Reaching football’s highest level is an achievement to celebrate yet the build up to the game is dominated by headlines regarding the financial riches at stake. It gets billed as the 20 million 35 million or 50 million pound match… depending on which newspaper you read. In short, football generates billions, of most currencies you choose to name, every year. As corrupt and sickening as it is, if some players have been taking illegal payments…. are they evil or are they just a product of their environment?
A definitive moment of Saturdays match at Old Trafford came moments before half time. Having fell behind moments before, Stoke played a ball into the Man Utd area. The ball dropped slightly behind Walters who couldn’t manoeuvre the right angle or body shape to get a shot in. This was indicative of the difference in quality between the two teams. If a similar ball fell to a Man Utd forward they would be perfectly comfortable controlling the ball and creating an opening. Not that the home teams technical ability had overwhelmed us. On the contrary, we had taken the game to Man Utd and even had the audacity to take the lead! We continued to attack and opened them up when Crouch’s neat footwork created an opening for Jon Walters who forced a save from De Gea. That scare seemed to stir Man Utd into action and they effortlessly stepped up a gear to assert control of the game. They equalised when Robin Van Persie floated over a brilliant cross from the left, Wayne Rooney nipped in between our two centre halves to nod home a leveller. From that stage it was crucial not to be overran and it’s to the credit of our players that we tried to attack and take the pressure off. When Van Persie put us behind on the stroke of half time it was a sickener. Old Trafford isn’t a happy hunting ground for Stoke, simply reaching half time on level terms would be worthy of celebration!! When Welbeck put us 1-3 down immediately after the interval it felt the next 44 and a half minutes could be very long indeed. For a while we were under serious pressure. We were fortunate not to go further behind but managed to stabilise. Michael Kightly’s tenacious run led to us actually getting a goal back and at 2-3 down we dared to dream. We soon woke up though when Rooney scored his third of the game. Had we stayed at 2-3 we may have been able to set up a grandstand finish but we were left with too much to do. Four goals conceded, all from crosses…. Tony Pulis will know what needs work this week. There are several positives to take from the game too. It was great to take the lead, brief though it was, and a refreshing change to try and impose ourselves on the game. The biggest positive from the game is that it’s over and we know we don’t have to go there again this season. Next week we play Sunderland and we’ll all look forward to a game we have a decent chance of winning. We’ve played the top teams and only lost twice. Very commendable, but now we need some points.
Much of the British media has focused on Rio Ferdinand’s decision not to wear a T Shirt bearing the slogan of Kick It Out… the anti racism campaign. Ferdinand may feel disillusioned with aspects of the campaign but taking aim at Kick It Out is a misplaced gesture. The administrative bodies of the game have failed to address the issue properly. It has taken a whole year for the John Terry / Anton Ferdinand altercation to reach a conclusion. A year including a bizarre court case, an England manager’s resignation and thousands of column inches. Had the FA taken swift decisive action the message would have been sent out to all those involved in the game that racism won’t be tolerated, as it is the sheer length of the saga suggests they fail to fully recognise the problem. FIFA aren’t really prepared to assert their authority on this subject. During the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup, delegates were even instructed not to take racism into account when voting. last week in Serbia England under 21s Danny Rose was racially abused throughout the game yet FIFA’s response has been conspicuous by it’s absence. UEFA seem much more concerned with pacifying sponsors than dealing with issues of racism. Displaying the emblem of a sponsor’s competitor results in quick action involving hefty financial penalties, in comparison, perpetrators of bigotry remain unscathed. Despite what Alex Ferguson implied after Saturday’s game the issue is much more bigger than his own embarrassment. Ferdinand made his point, a point he’s fully entitled to make. For all that, in the future pressure needs to be applied to the ruling bodies of the game. Despite their vacuous lip service there is little action taken to adequately confront the matter.
The A-League currently flourishing. The pivot for the fresh wave of interest is undoubtedly the arrival of marquee signings Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey. While the current boom could be seen as superficial it does justify the huge expense on acquiring the signatures of big drawcard players. Football here still needs publicity to encourage the Australian public to actively support the game. While the marquee players wouldn’t be the right action for every club it’s pleasing to see our game receiving increased TV coverage crowds and media attention. Even the UK news has noticed! http://news.sky.com/story/1000408/breaking-the-rules-footy-wins-favour-in-oz.
The fallout from England’s draw in Warsaw continues to resonate. Qualification for Brazil won’t be as straight forward as we’d hoped. We clearly lacked tactical flexibility in the squad to alter the system effectively. This is where Roy Hodgson shouldn’t be heavily criticised. The nature of English football doesn’t make for international success. No manager can change an entire football culture in five months. That is the primary issue. The obsession with aggression has to develop into a more technical thoughtful game. If England are to develop into a side capable of challenging the worlds best physical clashes and gritted teeth won’t be the primary requirement. The problem is that we hype up the Premier League, import foreigners to make it tactically astute and more technical than the qualities we breed, sell it to almost 200 countries because of it’s physical conflict and fast pace….. and delude ourselves that this makes the world tremble. Until the English game is prepared to implement the required changes, invest the time and finance to install them effectively we’ll continue to just lumber through tournaments hoping to somehow get lucky. Simply blaming the manager for a disappointing result is a quick fix for the short sighted
The subject of Pep Guardiola’s next job remains a topic of speculation. Last week Milan made it clear they would be interested in his services and until he’s appointed somewhere Roberto Di Matteo can be excused for feeling nervous. Guardiola’s ex Brescia team mate Luca Toni has revealed his old friend has asked him about life at Bayern Munich, adding that Pep would be ideal for the job. With Jupp Heynckes reportedly set to retire from Bayern at the end of the season this, may just be the most feasible possibility. One thing is for sure though, until he takes his next role the speculation surrounding his next appointment won’t be fading away.