Friday, March 28, 2014

Barcelona’s Clasico Statement

I WAS rooting for Real Madrid last weekend as they went into the 168th El-Clasico (The Classic) match-up with their eternal rivals, Barcelona, in the Spanish La Liga. That revelation may surprise not a few readers of this column who must know me as an admirer (let’s face it, who’s not?!) of Barca’s beautiful brand of football. (I do not consider myself a fanatical, “fan” of Barcelona, otherwise I wouldn’t be rooting for their opponents under any circumstances).

I tipped Madrid to win for several reasons. The first is the remarkable unbeaten run of 31 matches in all competitions (18 in the league) which they had built dating back to October last year. During that period, they had turned an eight-point deficit to Barcelona into a four-point lead in the league table. Now playing at home at the Santiago Bernabeu, I expected that the momentum which was firmly on their side would be too much for Barca to stop.

Second, I was getting bored with Barcelona’s endless passing in midfield without corresponding attacking penetration which had led several teams to hand them shock defeats in recent times. By contrast, I was enjoying Madrid’s direct style of play and the tenacity that their Italian coach Carlo Ancelloti had brought into the team.

Third, I wanted Madrid to practically wrap up the Spanish League title and join the likes of Bayern Munich (Germany) and Juventus (Italy) as champions-in-waiting in their respective leagues.

Finally, I wanted new evidence to back my prediction made nearly a year ago that Spain will not successfully defend their World Cup title because the rest of the world had grown wise to their tiki-taka. Barcelona are Spain-personified; exposing the former is akin to exposing the latter, I concluded.

Last Sunday night, the Blaugrana threw all my permutations out of the window with a gritty performance. After taking an early 1-0 lead, they had to fight back twice from 1-2 and 2-3 before snatching a 4-3 win albeit with some help from Madrid defender Sergio Ramos who got himself sent off. Never mind the referee’s several controversial decisions in the match, Barcelona fully deserved their victory.

In my opinion, Real repeated the same mistake that had resulted in several beatings in the past. Going eyeball-to eyeball with Barcelona even when you’re playing at home is always a dangerous proposition because of their superiority in ball possession. And when you allow Lionel Messi to roam freely, you are asking for trouble.

All four teams that have beaten Barcelona in the league this year have had to defend like 11 mad men! They didn’t allow Barca’s pass masters any room to breathe and closed them down as quickly as possible all over the pitch. Unfortunately, Real are a team of Galacticos and they find it difficult, even undignifying, to defend like “mad men”. And that hands the advantage to Barcelona.

However, Real have only lost the battle, not the war. Having also lost 2-1 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg last October (their last defeat in all competitions before last Sunday), they cannot win the league if they finish on the same number of points as Barcelona at the end of the season because head-to-head rule, rather than goal difference, will be the first tie-breaker.
 What Real have to do, therefore, is to win all their remaining nine matches which would preserve their current one-point lead over Barcelona. Had they defended like “mad men” and won last Sunday, their lead would have been seven points and title race effectively over for Barcelona.

Of course the title race is not just between Real and Barca. Atletico Madrid were actually the biggest beneficiaries of Real’s Clasico defeat as it allowed Atletico to remain top of the table on goal difference from Real with Barca a point behind.

But considering that Atletico’s final game of the season is away to Barcelona, those two may eventually hurt each other’s title chances. Real can then take advantage provided they win all their remaining games starting with Sevilla on Wednesday this week. If Real win that, they will regain confidence for the title run-in. But if they drop points in Seville, their season may just unravel.

Inevitably, I must end this with Barcelona whose brave win at the Bernabeu has led to all these permutations. They may not be as dominant as they were in the past (Jose Mourinho describes the present Barcelona as “the weakest”), but they are still a team for the big occasion and you write them off at your own peril.

However, I am sticking my neck out that one of the Madrid teams will beat Barcelona to the title, while restating that the rest of the world will also find an answer to Spain at the World Cup. As Bayern Munich showed in destroying Barca in the semi-final of last year’s Champions League, which Brazil copied in destroying Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup also last year, I insist that the days of tiki-taka are numbered. All you need to neutralize it are  “11 mad men.”
Argentina Outshines Brazil

A KEY SUB-PLOT in last Sunday’s El-Clasico were the confrontations between Argentinian and Brazillian players on both sides. While Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick (including two penalty kicks) for Barcelona and his Argentine compatriot Angel di Maria created two goals for Real Madrid; Brazilian stars Neymar and Dani Alves were off-colour for Barcelona. In fact, di Maria was a handful for Alves throughout the encounter as he repeatedly took him to the cleaners. Neymar, meanwhile, was largely ineffective, apart from the penalty that he won for Barcelona while getting Ramos sent off. He (Neymar) was later substituted.

Host country Brazil and neighbours Argentina are South America’s biggest hopes of overthrowing Spain as world champions at the World Cup in June. On the evidence of last Sunday’s multi-million dollar talent display, the Argentinian stars are looking the more likely to perform the coup de grace. But then, there are many more influential players in several other clubsides that can change the tide for their countries. For example, Brazil must be quite happy with the form of Oscar, Willian, Ramires and David Luiz at Chelsea Football Club.


Chelsea Are Favourites in England

TALKING about Chelsea, I have now promoted them as the favourites to win the English Premier League.

I wrote this article without the benefit of knowing the outcome of Tuesday night’s Manchester derby between United and City at Old Trafford. Irrespective of the result, I am of the firm belief that the title is Chelsea’s to lose.

A lot has been said about City’s “games in hand” but, like John Fashanu said many years ago, games in hand are nothing compared with “points on the table.” While City are speculating on how many of those games in hand they can win, Chelsea already know what they have in their pocket and what else they need to do to clinch the title.

Last Saturday’s 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal was a real confidence booster for The Blues. I felt really sorry for Arsene Wenger that Jose Mourinho was able to rub the salt in so emphatically after labelling him (Wenger) a “specialist in failure” a few weeks  back. But Wenger can blame no one but himself for allowing a repeat of Arsenal’s capitulation so soon after suffering similar ignominy at Liverpool.

As someone said to me, Wenger himself should have donned a jersey and taken to the field if that was needed to  prevent that massive disgrace on his 1,000th game in charge. But that is the way the cookie crumbles. If I were Wenger, I would focus on the English FA Cup and make sure I end Arsenal’s nine years trophy drought this season.

I wish that my Liverpool could win the title for our captain Steven Gerrad as reward for his loyalty, but my head tells me that we may not be able to maintain our current winning run against City and/or Chelsea when those title rivals visit Anfield in the run-in. But if we manage to grab the full six points against them, then we can start believing.


Champions League Wide Open

I WAS beginning to tilt towards Real Madrid as the likely winners of this year’s European Champions League until they ran into the Barcelona road block last Sunday. Now, I’m not so sure anymore.

Nevertheless, I’m tipping them to overcome Borussia Dortmund following the quarter-final draw which paired them up last Friday. Also, I tip Chelsea to eliminate Paris Saint Germain over the two legs while defending champions Bayern Munich should be too good for struggling Manchester United. I was tipping Atletico Madrid to sturn Barcelona and create the shock of the quarter-finals, but Barca’s performance against Real has given me a rethink.

As things stand, it may be too early to predict the likely winners, so I will wait for the semi-finalists to emerge first. But something I definitely don’t want to see is a Bayern/Barcelona final. I fear that they will bore us to death with tiki-taka versus tiki-taka!

FEEDBACK

Re: Deaths in the Stadiums
Your piece titled “Deaths in the Stadiums” should be an eye opener for those who claim to be our leaders. What happened was so pathetic and a shame to the nation. One would have expected that Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) would conduct the test in conjuction, with notable examination bodies like JAMB, WAEC or NECO considering the number of applicants and the funds at their disposal. In advanced countries, such would never have happened because they know “heads would roll”. I weep for my dear country, and I join you in condoling the families of the deceased. – Jude Ehiabhi, Benin City.

Good day, Mr. Alao. I just finished reading your Soccertalk: Deaths in the stadiums. My heart bled when I read that some of the applicants died. Aside from sports papers, I neither read general newspapers nor listen to news). What a catastrophe! I started crying when I realized the unalloyed truth that most of the vacancies would be filled by “highly connected applicants” who may not even have written the tests.  But, I have this for you. Won’t you do same if you are elected? The man that ‘’had no shoes’’ would have given better ‘talk’ than you 15 years ago. – Comrade Zico, Ibadan.

WHAT happened is an indication that Nigeria’s unemployment rate is high. So, what is our government doing about it? It’s a very unfortunate and sad incident. –-Gordon Chika Nnorom, Umukabia, Abia State.

Oga Alao, please ask madam Okonjo-Iweala where are the 1.6million jobs created by the government annually. It’s a big shame and may the souls of the departed rest in peace –- Dosunmu Kazeem, Ikorodu, Lagos.

Hello Mumini, I appreciate your contributions towards development of sports in Nigeria. I took part in the scandalous NIS test, which is no longer news. Sir, the so called regrassed Abuja stadium is an eyesore. Please, help. May God help Nigeria. – Kennedy, Abuja.

NGOZI Okonjo-Iweala’s World Bank/IMF propelled voodoo economic austerity measures are responsible for Nigeria’s woes. The more she saves money; foreign reserves falls; stealing increases and unemployment skyrockets. She is coordinator of sudden deaths in Nigeria not Abba Moro. – Steve Buko.

The joy of the Lord will continue to be your strength Mr. Mumini Alao. Our leaders have succeeded in extorting money and killing many jobless youths. They must be brought to book. –- Idia Jeff Salihu, Iba, Lagos.

Mr Alao. Re: stadium deaths. FACTS: Over 6 million people applied, only 522, 000 were invited for interview. Over 5 billion Naira was collected. NIS knows NOTHING about it. It’s interior ministry 100%.  –- ???

This government’s air of insensitivity and nonchalance to the lives of Nigerians and corruption is unprecedentedly awful. I can more than acquaint Nigerians with (facts and figures) its civilian casualty and home security records since inception of this regime. To the hapless and exploited souls, R.I.P and in resurrection plead your cause with God for nationality change. Long live Nigeria! – Elder Thompson, Abuja.

Dear Alao. Nigeria is made up of many towns, local governments and states. So, where the federal government has failed, let the states show us through action not words, by giving their youths good jobs. Giving youths all kind of uniforms to harass and collect money from market people and motorists is not employment. –-Godwin.

My dear brother, I am indeed saddened after reading your Soccertalk! Indeed, I have no doubt in my mind anymore about how devilish and fetish this government is. There is something about it and the shedding of innocent blood! They are blood thirsty, believe me! –- Kola Afolabi.

THE  NIS knew beforehand the large number of applicants they were expecting. They should have informed the stadium authorities to open the iron gates around the stadium. In my own view, I think the management of the stadiums also have their own portion of the blame. May the Lord comfort the families of the deceased? –- Adegbiji Wonder, Ibadan.

Deaths in the Stadium. You have spoken so well. Many thanks. But the government of the day should know that necessity is the mother of invention. The government should watch out. –- Oludare Olorunsola, Lagos.

Mumini, what a touching write-up your “Death in the Stadiums” turned out to be. Very, very touching. –- Howard Odigie, Lagos.



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