Friday, May 23, 2014

Liverpool to London; Lisbon to Sao Paolo...

Brazil have  attended all the World Cups ever played and won it five times, all AWAY from home. If the Brazilian populace enjoyed all that glory at the expense of other countries, I guess it’s fair for them to endure the sacrifice of hosting the World Cup and stop protesting on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.

A SET of curtains will be drawn on probably the most dramatic European football season in the last two decades when Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid confront each other in the Champions League Final in Lisbon, Portugal on Saturday, 25 May, 2014. Thereafter, another set of curtains will be raised as global attention turns fully to Sao Paolo in Brazil for the opening match of the 20th FIFA World Cup finals on 12 June, 2014.

During the past two weeks, I have been travelling a lot as the English Premier League, the Europa League, the Spanish La Liga, the English FA Cup and the German FA Cup were all concluded in dramatic style.  Throw in the suspense and the surprises as the national team coaches of the 32 World Cup finalists, including Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi, announced their provisional squads to meet FIFA’s deadline, and what you have is a salad of the good, the bad and the beautiful of world football.

An exciting European season climaxing into a summer of World Cup ecstacy can only be experienced once every four years, so we better enjoy this one in full. Welcome!
So much for an admittedly romantic introduction. Now to the substance of my missive.

Liverpool…

lMy trip to Liverpool on Friday, 9 May was at the instance of the club’s main shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered Bank. I was part of Nigeria’s contingent to the 2014 Standard Chartered Road to Anfield Futsal international tournament which brought together 14 teams from countries where the bank has “markets.”

I had looked forward to the trip since April when I realized that Liverpool’s final game of the English Premier League season at home to Newcastle on 11 May  would be part of our itinerary. Liverpool were top of the table at the time and I had prayed silently that we would witness our crowning as Premier League champions for the first time in 20 years.

It turned out that Liverpool stumbled against Chelsea and Crystal Palace in the run-in and, by the time we arrived for the Newcastle match, Manchester City were the new favourites for the title, which they duely went on to win.

Regardless, it was a carnival atmosphere at Anfield as The Kop  (Liverpool fans) sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before and after beating Newscastle 2-1, while City were also beating West Ham 2-0, a short train ride away in Manchester.

The proximity of the two soccer rival cities (Liverpool and Manchester) was brought starkly home when, prior to kick-off, some United fans repeatedly flew a small aircraft over the Anfield stadium trailing a kite with the message: “Manchester United 20, Gerrard 0.”

United had suffered a disastrous season, but their fans still found time (and money) to come and rub the message in for the Liverpool captain that he wasn’t going to win the league, yet again! That’s how keen the rivalry is between the two great clubs.

As expected, Liverpool fans completely ignored the United taunt and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as if they (Liverpool) were actually the champions. The players reciprocated by doing a parade of honour after the match, and that was when I first set my eyes on Nigeria’s World Cup-bound Victor Moses wearing a black suit along with other players who hadn’t featured in the match. This may be his last parade as a Liverpool player, I thought, following a disappointing season on transfer from Chelsea.

Another Super Eagles World Cup candidate, Shola Ameobi, had been impressive for Newcastle in the match before earning himself a red card for dissent. He would have to watch his mouth when he gets to Brazil, I decided.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian team to the Standard Chartered Trophy tour couldn’t erase my disappointment when the tournament got under way on 13 May. Losses to defending  champions Thailand, Korea, MENA  and Gambia condemmed them to first round elimination, despite two draws against Kenya and eventual finalists Singapore.

In the circumstance, the highlight of our tour turned out to be our personal encounters with three Liverpool legends, John Barnes, Dietmar Hamann and Robbie Fowler. They were obviously disappointed that the club couldn’t end its league title drought despite coming so close. But they were also realistic enough to admit that qualifying for the UEFA  Champions League next season was a big achievement by the manager, Brendan Rodgers.

Next season, Liverpool would hope to go one step further and win the Premier League. But with United and Chelsea strengthening their teams, Arsenal and City also in the frame, it won’t be easy.

London…

lJUST like Manchester United and Barcelona, Arsenal would most likely have been naming a new manager this week had Arsene Wenger failed again to win the English FA Cup last Saturday at Wembley.

After I departed Liverpool with a stop-over in Middlesbrough, the city where another Nigerian World Cup hopeful, Kenneth Omeruo, plies his trade, I was again on the move to London when Arsenal kicked off against Hull City, so I had to rely on regular SMS updates from an acquitance to follow the proceedings at Wembley.

Wenger had boasted before the match that his continued stay as Arsenal manager would not be affected by the outcome. But even he must have doubted his own survival on the job after The Tigers took a surprise 2-0 lead.

In the end, Arsenal turned things around in dramatic fashion with Santi Carzola, Laurent Kolscieny and Aaron Ramsey scoring to ensure a fabulous 3-2 win and end Wenger’s nine-year title drought. The headlines in the English press the following day reeked with relief as various writers celebrated Arsenal’s “deserved victory” and the fact that Wenger would not have to quit English football so suddenly as a “specialist in failure.”

Truly, the Frenchman’s position would have become untenable had he not won last Saturday, so congratulations to all Arsenal fans.

While Wenger was sweating over his Arsenal future against Hull City, Atletico Madrid were ensuring that there won’t be any chance of survival for Barcelona (ex)coach Gerrado Martino.

Regular readers of Soccertalk will recall that I spelt the death knell for Barcelona’s tiki-taka several months ago, so I wasn’t surprised that Atletico got the draw they needed to be crowned champions of Spain against Barca right there at the Nou Camp.

It would have been a cruel twist of fate and rough justice on Atletico had Barca stolen the title on the final day. But Diego Simeone’s hard-working “mad men” proved that their season-long form was no fluke by grabbing the title in Barca’s den.

Not even Lionel Messi’s reported 144million Pound new contract extension could push him to inspire a Barca victory over the extra-motivated Atletico. Justice was done and now everyone is talking about the “end of an era” which was long predicted in this column. Welcome to reality.

New Barcelona coach Luiz Enrique has no choice but to reorganize the team and introduce a new philosophy. Tiki-taka was beautiful to watch and we all enjoyed it while it lasted. So long.

Lisbon…

l BACKED  Atletico Madrid for the Spanish League title last Saturday. This Saturday, (24 May), I am backing their city rivals, Real Madrid, to beat them (Atletico) to the UEFA Champions League trophy in Lisbon, Portugal.

Let me clarify quickly that a Real Madrid victory is my personal wish, NOT a forecast. I have followed their pursuit of a 10th European title since a fabulous Zinedine Zidane goal won them the ninth title against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. I particularly shared in their pain of three successive semi-final defeats under the maverick Jose Mourinho’s watch. And now that the calm Italian Carlo Ancelloti has finally taken them into the final, my heart tells me they will push over the finish line and claim “La Decima” (The 10th).

My head tells me that beating Atletico will not be easy, however. The statistics show that Atleti are the only unbeaten team in this year’s Champions League and the decisive manner of their semi-final victory over Chelsea is still fresh. Although they lost to Real in the Spanish Copa del Rey, the way they also held off their city rivals and Barcelona in the race for La Liga says a lot about their character. At Nou Camp last weekend, Atleti lost two key players Diego Costa and Arda Turan to injuries early in the game, but still fought their way to claim the title. The momentum therefore lies firmly with this tightly-knit  Atleti team of soldiers going into their second successive “final” on Saturday.

By contrast, Real will rely on the individual brilliance and goals of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to stake their claims for La Decima.

The Galacticos comprehensively defeated Atletico 3-0 in the Copa del Rey and they will be looking for a repeat. Ancelloti will miss Xabi Alonso’s influence in midfield but with Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema also in good form to support Ronaldo and Bale, Real have enough firepower to outscore the workaholic and dynamic Atletico machines.

In truth, this first Champions League final between two teams from the same city is a 50-50 game that can go either way. The team that wants it the most and hits the better form on the night might just nick it. I hope that team will be Real Madrid.

Sao Paolo...

I WAS still in Lagos when Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi named his provisional list of 30 players that will be cut down to the 23 to represent Nigeria at 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But the list was released by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) so late that I couldn’t analyse it before I travelled.

On my return last weekend, I observed that there was a quietness about the list in the Nigerian media, suggesting that the majority of analysts had had their say and then resigned themselves to Keshi’s choices, warts and all. Now, everyone is waiting for the 23 that will make the final cut and fly our flag in Brazil.

Keshi may have stoutly defended the inclusion of some  players who have allegedly been inactive at their clubsides or been injured for many weeks. But such revelations by the media are bound to impact on the chances of such players making the final squad. It is therefore unlikely that Uche Nwofor and his ilk will make it to the World Cup.

Next week’s friendly match against Scotland and the subsequent warm-up games are meant to help Keshi assess the players first hand before making his final choices. Inevitably, some players are going to be disappointed.

I was still in Liverpool when England manager Roy Hodgson announced his short-list for Brazil and, for the first time in a long while, the traditionally critical English press had little to complain about the manager’s choices. The influx of exceptional foreign talent has meant that opportunities for Premier League football for young English players have been reduced drastically. Champions Manchester City, for instance, had only FIVE English players in a squad driven by the talent of Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko. Consequently, Hodgson has found his options limited and the local press can only sympathise with him.

The England national team has become a victim of the success of the English Premier League!
It is the opposite for defending champions Spain where star players like Juan Mata and David Silva are on a wing and prayer to make the final cut in a star-studded midfield. It is also the opposite in France where Samir Nasir and Gael Clichy have been dropped altogether, prompting Nasir’s girlfriend to launch a public attack on coach Didier Deschamps. And what about Argentina where Carlos Tevez and a host of other star players couldn’t get a look-in. Or Brazil where Kaka, Ronaldinho and several other superstars are already resigned to the role of spectators. It’s indeed a case of different stories for different folks.

On a personal note, I plan to be at the World Cup but I hope I will not be  welcomed by unhappy Brazilians protesting at the cost of hosting the Mundial. Brazil have   attended all the World Cups ever played and won it five times, all AWAY from home. If the Brazilian populace enjoyed all that glory at the expense of other countries, I guess it’s fair for them to endure the sacrifice of hosting the World Cup and stop protesting on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.

Back to Nigeria, one big wish that I have before the World Cup kicks off is for Boko Haram to have a change of heart, stop all their bombings and killings and return the girls they kidnapped safely to their families.

I plead with Boko Haram to #BringBackOurGirls so that we can have a truly enjoyable World Cup.

It’s nice to be back.

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