Saturday, June 14, 2008

River Plate recover from self destruction to win Argentine Championship - Clack

That old football cliche; it's more difficult to play against ten men. Does it therefore follow that it's even harder to play against nine? Diego Simeone's River Plate certainly put the theories to the test over the last month, and the answer would appear to be a resounding yes.

River Plate versus San Lorenzo in the last 16 of La Copa de Libertadores on the 9th May was a massive match; two top Argentine clubs, both with serious aspirations of winning the trophy (South America's equivalent of the Champions league), and a number intriguing sub-plots aswell:

San Lorenzo manager Ramon Diaz was a legendary ex-River Plate player and manager, at the helm during 'Los Millionarios' last golden era when they won the Libertadores in 96. But he was sacked by current River president, Jose Maria Aguilar, in 2002, only to be invited back at the beginning of this season. An offer Diaz rejected.

Ditto Andres D'Alessandro. The former River Plate playmaker also turned down a return to his former club, prefering, like Diaz, the lucrative salaries of San Lorenzo, who are bankrolled by millionaire TV presenter and king of tack, Marcelo Tinelli. "River didn't try hard enough to sign me", said D'Allesandro on the eve of the big match, adding fuel to an already potentially inflammatory encounter.

San Lorenzo won 2 1 at home in the first leg, leaving the tie perfectly in the balance. A week later, Simeone's side came out all guns ablazing in front of their 70,000 capacity home crowd, sweeping San Lorenzo aside in an impressive first half display of attacking and cohesive football, while pyro-technics lit up the terraces. Fans and team in harmony, Abelairas scored for River after 12 minutes and San Lorenzo's Rivero was sent off just before half-time.

Then Botinelli stupidly, and blatantly, elbowed River Plate's Uruguayan striker Sebastian Abreu in the face, conceding a penalty 13 minutes into the second half, which was neatly dispatched by Abreu himself. 2-0 to River (3-2 on aggregate), and San Lorenzo down to nine men.

What happened next is beyond explanation. River Plate seemed to freeze, unable to cope with the change in circumstances. Their defenders looked lost and nervous as if their whole game plan had been thrown off course by their numerical advantage. San Lorenzo's nine men scored twice in three minutes in front of stunned, and now silent, River Plate fans.

With a somewhat tragi-comic display of long range spooners, scuffed shots and miscued headers, River lost all their first half fluidity and were unable to break the nine men down. There were no more goals and San Lorenzo ran out winners over the two legs.
Highlights of the match here:

How does it happen? Surely footballers of this level ought to be able to make an extra man, or in this case, two extra men, count? But we have seen it so many times in every league in the world - why can't the team with superior numbers just simply out-pass their opponents? Shouldn't the manager be able to make telling substitutions? eg. take off a redundant defender, who is marking noone, and replace him with a more attacking player? In this age of prozone and attention to detail, do team's not prepare and practise playing against ten men. Or less? Especially considering how regularly sending offs occur?

In fairness to Simeone, he did make a substitution, and it could be argued that the change unsettled his team? "The only person responsible for what happened tonight is myself, thank you gentleman, that is all", he said in his post match conference that lasted all of 10 seconds. 'Increible' was the single word headline in many of the papers the next day, in the true essence of the adjective - 'beyond belief'.

River Plate as an institution was destoyed, but worse was to follow in the aftermath. Midfielder Oscar Ahumada blamed the crowd."There was a silence after the first San Lorenzo goal and that affected the players", he said, "it's not like at Boca where the fans continue to sing and cheer the team". Blasphemy. River Plate fan forums, aswell as some directors, demanded Ahumada left the club forthwith for this act of treason.

River had lost to Boca in the league a week beforehand, an insipid performance, and the Boca fans had thrown 'maiz' (chicken-feed) at the River players as they descended the team bus, a reference to 'Chickens' as River are historically called by other clubs for supposedly bottling big occasions. But now, in an unprecedented incident, River Plate fans themselves threw chicken feed at their own players at the first home match after the San Lorenzo defeat. "The club is self-destructing", said President Aguilar in a resigned, but frankly honest, assessment of the situation.

The only player exempt from criticism in the eyes of the fans was Ariel Ortega, who hadn't appeared against San Lorenzo due to yet another bout of alcoholism. Stories emanating from the club suggested that the rest of the squad were tired of his behaviour and the number of training sessions he missed. Even River Plate's Barras Bravas (hooligans) had split into two factions, fighting among themselves in pre-planned armed battles that had lead to a murder last year. Disasterous times for the club both on and off the pitch, and, as if all this wasn't enough, things seemed to be going quite smoothly at Boca Juniors, where Riquleme and Palermo's goals had seen them through to the semi-final of the Libertadores.

However, in what can only be a testament to Simeone's excellent man-management skills, River Plate somehow have managed to turn it all around over the last few weeks, perhaps helped by Boca and San Lorenzo concentrating on the Libertadores and fielding reserves in crucial league games.

The key match came away at Colon where River's defensive king-pin Ponzio received a red card after only 19 mins. Like the San Lorenzo match, but in reverse, the sending off seemed to galvanise River Plate's remaining ten men. Recalled Ariel Ortega, rolling back the years at 34 and pulling the strings behind the strikers, set up Villagra for a quite brilliant opeing goal in the 2 1 victory.

Despite the boos, Ahumada has played like a man possessed ever since he made his unfortunate remarks, turning the jeers from his own fans into silence, and then eventually into cheers, an outstanding player in River's run in.

While San Lorenzo went onto lose to La Liga (Ecuador) in the Libertadores, amidst squad squabbling over the Tinelli bonus money and the resignation of Ramon Diaz, Boca lost their semi -final to Fluminense (Brazil), and suddenly it is only River Plate who have ended up with something to celebrate.

"River Plate Campeon - I can hardly believe we're saying it", said the commentator on Sunday afternoon as River sealed the Argentine championship, their first trophy in four years, "but that's what it says on the screen - it just shows the contadictory nature of football", he pondered.

By then, the festival was in full-swing in the Monumental after the 2 1 victory over Olympo. Once again, Ortega and 'the Dwarf', who scored both goals, had been the outstanding pair (at 1 metre 60 is Buonanotte the smallest player in world football?). Together they produced some sublime moments, Ortega setting up the championship winning goal with a perfect defence-splitting pass to ten minutes from the end.

River v Olympo goals here.

Suddenly, it all looks rosy for River Plate and manager Simeone. It's a team full of 'pibes' (young players) that could be on the cusp of another successful era - providing their opponents don't have too many players sent off, of course!!

Bless - Chanelle

Umpire Darrell Hair takes good care of Stuart Broad

This pic of the, like, totally hot Stuart Broad is just so, totally, awesome.

But, like, if you have a better caption - go for it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Presenting the latest flying burrito brother…Diego Buonanotte - Pipita

When Ariel Arnaldo “el burrito” Ortega made his explosive impact in River Plate’s first team in 1992, he was immediately regarded as a typical product of the club’s youth policy. He combined the essential blend of outstanding technique, skill, and flair that had characterized the likes of other illustrious products of the River “school of football” such as Labruna, Di Stefano, Moreno, Loustau, Sívori, Onega, Alonso, and many others. Plus, his “gambeta” was regarded as the most impressive since the mid-eighties appearance of Claudio Caniggia in River’s line-up. His memorable performances in both of River’s successive triumphs against Boca at the latter’s Bombonera stadium during 1994 immortalized him as a hero of the fans.

By that time Ortega was part of a tremendously powerful forward line that also included the likes of the 34 year old Uruguayan and former River super-idol Enzo Francescoli, back from a long sojourn in France and Italy, and the very promising centrefoward Hernán Crespo. These forwards were assisted from midfield by two other youngsters that had also just broken into the first team from the youth ranks: the pint-sized Marcelo “el muñeco” Gallardo, tremendously skillful number ten, and Matías Almeyda, a very aggressive and versatile defensive midfield player. This team was coached by former River glories such as Daniel Passarella and “el tolo” Gallego, who eventually left River to become part of the Argentine national team staff. They were replaced by Ramón “el pelado” Díaz another River Plate legend.

Under Díaz’s guidance River won the 1996 Libertadores Cup and also the Apertura tournament during that same year. After this success, Ortega was transferred to Valencia. Although he played alongside Romario there, he never really adapted to Spanish football and left to the Italian Serie A to join Sampdoria a year later. In spite of the fact that this team was relegated during his first season there, “el burrito” managed to outshine the rest of that team, alongside the team’s goalscoring number nine Vincenzo Montella, and was sold to the then high riding Parma outfit. Here, despite teaming up with Crespo again, Ortega seriously went off the boil in the second half of the season and, after a succession of interminable rows with coach Malesani, decided to head back to his beloved River in 2000. His arrival created a commotion at the club where he began his first steps as a professional footballer, as he linked up with two new prodigies of the club’s youth policy, Aimar and Saviola.

Although River produced some delightful football with the “cuatro fantásticos”, the fourth in contention being the Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, the team failed to pick up a trophy during “el burrito’s” first two years back home. However, Aimar and Saviola, who both left to play in Spain by 2001, declared to have profited enormously as a result of playing alongside Ortega. By 2002, Ortega was linking up with two new promises that had been promoted to the first team, largely as a consequence of Aimar and Saviola’s departures: attacking midfielder Andrés D’alessandro and centrefoward Fernando Cavenaghi. With this new powerful attacking trio, plus the invaluable assistance of other quality players such as Demichelis, Coudet and Cambiasso, River won the Clausura of 2002 playing some delightful attacking football.

It was clear that “el burrito” had become a referent for the young skillful players emerging from River’s junior ranks. Ortega departed from River again after playing for the national team in the 2002 World Cup, and began a most traumatic experience playing for Turkey’s Galatasaray. In the mean time, however, River had clearly profited with the maturity acquired by Ortega’s latest “disciple” D’alessandro the main commander of the team that won the Clausura again in 2003 alongside Cavenaghi, who in turn became the main referent, after D’alessandro was sold to Germany that same year, when River clinched yet another Clausura trophy in 2004. It was precisely at the end of that season that Ortega returned to Argentina, after his nightmarish Turkish experience that cost him a two year FIFA suspension for breach of contract, but this time to join Rosario club Newels Old Boys.

It would only be a matter of time, however, for Ortega to rejoin River for a second time. After a year and a half at Newels, where he obtained an Apertura trophy under the guidance of former coach Gallego, the man who promoted him to River’s first team in the early nineties, Passarella, was back at River eager to reunite Ortega with Gallardo, who had returned to River in 2003. In mid-2006, Passarella finally achieved this ambition but would rapidly be confronted by Ortega’s ever increasing personal problems, especially related with his drinking. Somehow “el burrito” managed to sustain himself after being in and out of the team during his first year, and produced some outstanding personal performances in the second half of 2007, especially in a 2-0 victory against Boca.

Nevertheless, Ortega’s impressive form was not enough to elevate River to the top level, and Passarella received the sack at the end of 2007. By the time Cholo Simeone took over as coach at the beginning of the following year, a diminutive and very frail looking offensive midfielder had erupted into the first team and would rapidly begin to score goals by way of his dribbling skill and powerful shots. The nineteen year old Diego Buonanotte proved to be a perfect new “compadre” for Ortega and, after traumatic defeats against Boca in the league and San Lorenzo in the Libertadores cup, these two players enabled River to clinch the Clausura league after four years without winning trophies of any sort. A new “burrito” disciple had yet again emerged.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ode to joy - byebyebadman

For a good half a century Britain has been divided on the question of whether to go into Europe. The four national football teams that make up these islands have perhaps made a bold stance for the naysayers in that regard this summer as none of them will cross the Alps to Switzerland and Austria for this years European Championships. Scotland and Northern Ireland played above expectations and missed by a whisker, whilst the decline of Wales continues. In teeming rain England were played off the park by Croatia in their final match of a doomed campaign, Steve McClaren lost his job and the FA brought in a crack team of Italians in his place.

So there are thirty-one games in this summer’s European Championships in which the British folk will not have their own national team to side with. The drop off in media interest is noticeable, with the BBC running an embarrassingly tokenistic series of adverts asking ‘Who will you support?’ that are so clunky you half expect a drunken yob to stagger out of a kebab shop claiming the lukewarm doner in his hand is the reason he’ll get behind Greece.

I must admit to a certain level of bemusement at the whole England-aren’t-there-so-just-enjoy-the-jamboree attitude sweeping my nation. Do people here not engage with the tournament regardless? In the last World Cup England only participated in five of the sixty-four games played. That’s an awful lot of World Cup to have turned a blind eye to if you concerned yourself only with matters Anglo-Saxon. My soul is a far richer place for having seen amongst other delights that summer Zidane glide imperiously around his Brazilian opponents and Esteban Cambiasso score maybe the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.

Yet the cynic in me wonders how much the national mood was summed up by Ian Wright (whom, this time, we are mercifully spared). When asked in his role as a BBC pundit to analyse the action between Holland and Serbia & Montenegro at half-time in that tournament he said “I don’t care about this to be honest, I’m just interested in England.”

The last time any British side failed to qualify for a tournament was the World Cup in the USA in 1994. My GCSE exams finished the very day Diana Ross missed her penalty at the opening ceremony and with that freedom I watched and loved every second of that tournament which, when spared any jingoistic coverage of the Three Lions, showed England what a ‘World’ Cup was. It was Russian forwards scoring five and forty-six year old Cameroonians replying; Saudi Arabian playmakers dribbling in goals from their own half; Colombian full-backs showing the true definition of tragedy; my boyhood idol, Argentina’s captain, failing a drugs test; balding Bulgarians and flying headers; Buddhist Italians shooting high over the bar.

When asked what he intended to do during this period England’s captain at the time David Platt told reporters he would not watch it, prompting numerous Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells types to write in to the national press and complain that as his team weren’t capable of this level of football perhaps he should watch and learn. The disappointment of England’s failure to qualify that time was tempered by the presence of Geordie Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland and his squad peppered with hastily assimilated Englishmen with Irish ancestry, a horse on the back of which English fans were only too happy to hitch their (band) wagon. As a Manchester United fan I not only had one eye on the fortunes of Denis Irwin and Roy Keane but also Andrei Kanchelskis, a Ukranian who had decided to play for Russia that summer.

With the multinational make-up these days of what some would argue is the greatest league in the world one would think that should be enough to hook people in. The Premiership might not be able to produce an England team fit to qualify for Euro 2008 but it currently houses forty-six players, two whole squads worth of talent, selected for these championships across all but three of the competing nations.

Personally I will lend my armchair support to France. Not only am I a card-carrying Francophile as a result of their food, wine, cinema and midfield of the eighties, but my sister’s partner is French and in Provence just eighteen months ago I became an uncle. With a fusion of the stereotypes of English grit and French flair I have the idle dream that one day she’ll be the girl that breaks through into the male elite of professional football. Naturally, she’d opt to represent Les Blues; the maverick showMAN struggles to make the bench for England, let alone the woman.

Others of course will not bother and I overheard in our office a few days a go a man say he couldn’t be bothered entering the sweepstake for a tournament England weren’t playing in. Plus ca change as my adopted nation might say, but I hope his pull-up-the-drawbridge attitude is not representative of our island nation. Even without a tenuous reason to support one team or another there is still plenty to tune in for. Good football is still good football, even if it is played out on a foreign field without England.

Bad editing - Ebren

My fullest apologies to all concerned. I have been shocking recently at getting stuff on the site, there are three things that should be on and aren't (yet).

I will upload forthwith – and apologies again for being crap.

it's now set up so they drop onto the system over the next couple of days. I love that blogger now lets me schedule content...

Post abuse - both personal and professional - below.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Formula One v MotoGP - Mimitig

It is a rare weekend when the bike boys go head to head with the F1 drivers – well sort of. On Sunday 8 June the calendars coincided but due to the time difference between Spain and Canada, fans of both forms of motorsport did not have to make a choice of which race to follow.

By the time the cars came to the grid at the circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, the boys in leather were partying (or licking their wounds) in Barcelona. It’s hard to imagine the race winner – Dani Pedrosa – being life and soul even at his home race although for once he did display some excitement and enjoyment on the podium and in the post-race interview. He is well-known in the paddock and amongst the fans of MotoGP as being more than a little dour. In contrast, Valentino Rossi could not have been more thrilled with his second place.

A race-long battle with Australian Casey Stoner had provided almost as much entertainment for the crowd as Valle’s unbelievably tasteless new leathers and helmet design. “I cannot ride a bike race in T-shirt and shorts” Rossi said, so in tribute to his beloved Azzurri, he sported Euro 2008 leathers mimicking the kit and topped off with a lid painted like a football. “I even have the footballer’s tattoo” he told us, showing off the XLVI on the right inner forearm of his leathers.

It’s hard to imagine any single one of Formula One’s drivers expressing their personalities in the way that Rossi does, and it’s one of the reasons why he has so many fans and why they are all hoping that he signs another two-year contract with Yamaha.

As far as the rest of the race went, well Pedrosa stormed into the start as soon as the lights went out and went on to ride a peerless race – at one point leading by over seven seconds before easing off to stroke it round and win by just over four seconds. It was a faultless performance, but despite the fact that this was a Spanish rider winning in Spain, the race director showed respect for the fans and the other competitors and allowed us to see not only the battle for second between Rossi and Stoner – which was a cracker, but also tussles further down the field.

Rookie James Toseland had a great race fighting with his team mate Colin Edwards, Honda’s Nicky Hayden and Suzuki’s Chris Vermuelen to take his third sixth place – a great taster for the next race at Donington where JT will be racing for the first time on a track he knows.

There were crashes galore as de Angelis and Capirossi tangled and de Puniet took himself out. Elias was black-flagged for a jump-start and with so many down, Marco Melandri, perhaps in his last race for the factory Ducati team after a disastrous start to the season found himself in the points.

It was a cracking race, exciting right down to the last lap. Rossi had stalked Stoner for eight laps before making his move for second, and even then there was no feeling that Casey had given up. No surprise that over 115,000 people had turned up to watch this show, and they sure got their money’s worth.

Across the pond then for part two of the day’s motor fun. Plenty for Brits to get excited about as Lewis Hamilton had stolen pole off Pole Robert Kubica in the dying moments of Saturday’s qualifying, and last year’s World Champion Kimi Raikkonen was in third, looking almost as off colour as he’d been in Monaco.

As the cars assembled on the grid, it was almost unbelievable that the track was still being mended – problems with the surface at turn 10 – the Hairpin. In the sport that commands multi-millions of pounds it is scarcely credible that the organisers had not provided a fully functioning track. Before the start there were warnings that the safety car might have to be deployed, not for the normal reasons of accidents to the cars, but because the track might not hold up.

But this is Formula One and let not the state of the track get in the way of the commercial need for the race to get underway. On the grid only Ferrari’s Felipe Massa was prepared to talk to ITV’s Martin Brundle and he was refreshingly frank, saying that it was a bit of an adventure into the unknown. So they did their formation lap and then with Jensen Button and Sebastian Vettel starting from the pitlane, they all set off, following Lewis Hamilton’s clean lead away from the lights. Nico Rosberg made up a place but apart from that it was a crawl round and nothing could have been more of a contrast to the fast and furious place-changing first lap of the GP boys.

Lap five and still nothing had happened. The leaders were in their original starting places and strung out by two or three seconds per place. The mid-field provided a bit of action – Heidfeld fighting Barrichello and Glock and Piquet having a little fight for position – but for pride only.

A third of the way into the race and unless someone fucked up, it would be all about pit stops and strategy. A far cry from out and out racing as we’d seen in Barcelona.

On lap 15 we had an incident. Luckless Adrian Sutil, punted out of a fine fourth place in Monaco by Kimi Raikkonen, had a mechanical failure in his Force India car and parked it. In a bad place.

Brought out the safety car and Hamilton’s lead was neutralised and ironically it was Kimi Raikkonen who benefited the most. Or should have done. All the front-runners piled into the pits but as they pulled away, for some reason, unsighted maybe, Hamilton smashed into the back of Kimi while the red light was still on and that was race over for the pair of them. The innocent – there’s always one – was Nico Rosberg who had been doing a grand job but had his afternoon ruined. A new nose required and bye bye podium or points.

Nick Heidfeld, out played all season by team mate Kubica, made hay and took the lead from Barrichello and Nakajima. With the big guns either out or compromised it looked as though we might have a bit of a race on.

But no. Unlike a bike race where you can guarantee that once on the track it’s all down to rider skill, with a bit of rubber wear to worry about, this was F1 and so far from a race, what we had for the final laps was strategy.

There was one genuine fight. At half distance, David Coulthard held fourth ahead of Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock and Sebastian Vettel. On the same strategy this was about pace. Barring accident this was how the race would finish. Alonso had third behind the BMWs until he binned it – whether that was driver error or the same brake problem that saw Renault retire Piquet I don’t know. It could have been the same sort of error that saw Nakajima on the marbles and … gonski.

22 laps to go and Kubica had enough time to make a pitstop and rejoin in the lead. Coulthard was buzzing around happily in third and the only excitement was what Massa could do. The Ferrari was obviously faster than the cars ahead and as Kovalainen put a move on Barrichello, Massa just drifted into the slipstream and took them both in the overtaking manoeuvre of the day. He was up to fourth and chasing Coulthard down.

Then Fisichella lost it into the first chicane – driver error or mechanical problem, doesn’t matter. Brought out not the safety car, but double waved yellows and almost everyone dived into the pits for a final stop.

The three leaders, Kubica, Heidfeld, Coulthard came out still ahead. Barrichello lost places to Trulli and Glock which was bad news for Honda but good for Toyota. Massa somehow nicked a place off Trulli but this was minor stuff.

BMW had come through the chaos for Robert to take a maiden F1 win, and the first for a Pole (not surprisingly as he is the first Pole to compete in F1!) and moreover make it a one-two with Heidfeld taking second spot.

Coulthard, in the evening of his F1 career confounded all critics, yet again, by being on the podium and the Big Two – Ferrari and McLaren scarcely garnered a point.

However, despite this unexpected and rather delightful result of the Canadian Grand Prix, it had none of the genuine excitement of Barcelona. The results were more to do with errors and team strategy than genuine driver skill and utter courage.

In the post-race interviews no-one was “very ‘appy” and no-one wore repulsive pink and blue Azzurri race overalls with roman numerals on their forearm.

Look – I have no doubt that F1 drivers are immensely skilled and brave, but they don’t race elbow to elbow like the boys and they just don’t seem to care as much about what they do and what the fans think.

So come the weekend this season when MotoGP goes head to head with F1, and it will happen, always does, I know what I’ll be watching and I know where my heroes are.

In leather, on two wheels, and the main man is the one whose name begins with a big fat V.

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