Tag Archives: Michael Ballack

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

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The consensus after another breathtaking instalment of Euro 2008 last night was that Turkey were incredibly unlucky not to beat Germany and reach their first ever major tournament final. The facts are that Turkey outplayed Germany and should have won the match, but that they didn’t had very little to do with luck.

The conclusion of luck being the decisive factor is arrived at either by romantics who felt cheated by the denial of an exciting upset, or red faced pundits who so confidently predicted an easy German win, despite all evidence saying that the tournament is highly competitive and tough to predict. The latter were very much in evidence on the BBC, with messrs Hansen, Shearer and O’Neill learning nothing from their experience with Holland on saturday, and all making no case for even a competitive Turkish display let alone a result.

If, when reflecting this morning on how they let their chance slip despite wiping the floor with Germany for almost the entire match, Turkey also feel they were dealt a poor hand, I would ask them two things: Firstly, how unlucky was it that your goalkeeper got himself suspended for deliberately pushing someone over infront of the referee, and that the best you could do for a replacement was an ageing clown? Secondly, how unlucky was it that despite dominating possession and continually exposing the German defence as being average at best, you failed to nail your chances? As managers have been keen to remind us in many a post-match interview down the years, you make your own luck in this game.

Turkey should have ended the night celebrating a magnificent overturning of the odds, and a spectacular tactical victory. Fatih Terim produced another coaching masterstroke, with a gameplan of all-out attack that stunned the Germans and everyone else. Germany would surely have gone into the game fairly confident of spending most of the game in the ascendancy, thinking that their biggest problem would be getting past a Turkish back nine. This, after all, was how Turkey approached the quarter-final against Croatia, and they went into last night’s game with their side further damaged by injury and suspension.

The Turks’ radical change of tactics took the Germans completely by surprise, and allowed them to dictate throughout. They went for it pretty much straight from the kick-off, and the totally unprepared German defence looked a shambles in trying to deal with it. Turkey initially looked to have benefitted from one of their injuries, as Colin Kazim-Richards (or Kazim Kazim as he’s known to the Turks), in for the injured Nihat, caused Germany huge problems early in the game with his pace, though as the game wore on he ran out of gas. After a succession of near things however, it was Kazim’s shot that hit the bar and bounced out to Ugur Boral who snaffled the first goal.

In truth, the Turks should have been infront before then, and they were made to pay almost immediately; the lead they had worked so hard for was wiped out in the space of four minutes as lazy defending allowed Podolski to cross from the left, and Schweinsteiger to nip infront at the near post. A 1-1 half-time score was an unbelievable result for the Germans who desperately needed the break to try and formulate plan B, but whatever they came up with didn’t work as they were soon pinned back again.

The second half was quite different to the first, but still dominated by the Turks. In the first period they had whizzed around the Germans like eleven red blurrs, hurrying and scurrying and creating panic in the German rearguard with their urgency. They had relied on this defensive chaos for their chances however, rather than putting together moves that flowed cohesively. In the second half the Turks slowed things down a little, but this time gave the Germans a lesson in passing, movement and technique, knocking the ball around with complete assurance and starving the Germans of possession. They were forcing the Germans further back, but this time, ironically, failed to apply the urgency needed to create chances.

It appeared as though the pressure would eventually tell on the Germans, their play had descended into aimless clearances that suggested desperation and, incredibly for a German side, they were beginning to look beaten. Turkey however, were a team trying to cover up a massive weak spot, and 11 minutes from time, it was exposed. Philipp Lahm put in a fairly harmless cross, and the embodiment of the phrase ‘dodgy keeper’, Rüstü Reçber, duly obliged. The veteran idiot dashed out hopelessly after the cross, was beaten to it easily by Klose, and Turkey’s hard work appeared to have been undone in a moment’s madness.

Against anyone else Germany may have thought that the goal had come late enough to be the winner, but it would have actually been more of a surprise if Turkey hadn’t scored in the remaining time. They duly equalised with four minutes to go, and this time it was the Germans’ unreliable goalkeeper who came up trumps, Lehmann finding a dreadful position at his near post that allowed Semih Sentürk to pop up with his third vital goal of the championships, after the magnificent Turkish full back Sabri Sarioglu had embarassed Lahm for the umpteenth time down the right hand side.

If anything though, Turkey scored too early this time. I think they must have been confused when the final whistle didn’t go immediately after they’d scored, and I’m not sure they knew what to do with themselves for the remaining four minutes plus injury time. Unfortunately, whilst they were thinking about it, the Germans came in and gave them a taste of their own medicine. In the fashion we’d become accustomed to from the Turks the Germans replied “think that’s a dramatic late goal? Huh! This is a dramatic late goal!”.

Said goal came from that man Lahm, who had been a strong candidate for being the worst player on the field with an absolutely wretched defensive performace. Like all good modern full-backs though, he looks much better in attack, and went on a charge which resulted in him starting and finishing a beautiful little interchange, transforming him from villain to hero in an instant. The Turks quickly learned how Croatia felt about Rüstü at the end of the quarter-final.

The Jekyll and Hyde Germans had been unrecognisable from the victory over Portugal, and no German more so than Michael Ballack. Where was he? With the Turks running rings around the German midfield, this man who had given a herculean display against Portugal was nowhere to be seen. Germany were missing everthing that Ballack provides, leadership, physical presence, a calm foot on the ball in midfield. There just appeared to be a huge Ballack-shaped hole in the German team. How could his form turn around so quickly? The question could easily be asked of both teams, such was the sea change in their performances from their previous outings.

It was an especially interesting night for our beloved broadcasters, and not just due to the punditry team taking yet another disastrous stroll through the minefield of prediction – though there was one notable member of that team who negotiated himself across safely, the wonderful Marcel Desailly, who has easily become the leading punditry craftsman of the tournament. Desailly identified before the game exactly how Turkey could hurt the Germans, and his colleagues should hang their heads in shame for dismissing the Frenchman’s view until it turned out that he’d been right all along.

Upstaging all that however was a freak thunderstorm in Vienna, where the BBC studio was situated and where the worldwide TV feed was powered from. The storm meant a significant part of the coverage was interrupted. The BBC apologised profusely for this, clearly expecting an enormous backlash. But why? The loss of coverage meant not only a lack of picture but also sound. That’s right! John Motson and Mark Lawrenson were silenced! I would personally like to wholeheartedly thank the BBC, or whichever Austrian was responsible, for these precious moments of respite.

Not only this, but the BBC quickly moved to get the commentary from Five Live to accompany the broken pictures. Now, us cool kids had of course switched to the Five Live coverage immediately on hearing Motson’s voice in the pre-match build-up, via the red button. For everyone else though, can you imagine the delight? Suddenly all the inane drivel is replaced by actual analysis, sharp observations, humourous asides that are actually funny, and – gasp! – commonsense! I wonder how many people who had previously been listening to Motty and Lawro went straight for their red button or nearest radio as soon as normal service was resumed. Chris Waddle by the way, is a first-rate summariser who should be moved several places up the beeb’s pecking order.

This match was also another success for Basle, which once again proved itself to be the stage on which to see drama. Basle has now given us Switzerland v Turkey, Germany v Portugal, Holland v Russia, and now this. Vienna on the other hand has given us three matches involving Austria, plus Croatia v Turkey, and Spain v Italy. Is it too late to launch a campaign to get the final moved?

Perhaps Basle has just been lucky? Or maybe the conditions there are more condusive to an exciting game? Maybe the BBC viewers struck lucky getting Motson switched off? Or were they just denying themselves some decent commentary in the first place? Are the Germans lucky to be in the final? Or do they just have the spirit to hang in there even when they’re having a shocker? And did Turkey endure bad luck? Or did they just pay for having inadequate players at the sharp ends of the pitch? Depends what you have invested in the answers I guess.

Turkey have left this tournament with many of it’s greatest memories. Long after someone has finished waving the trophy around on sunday, we will remember the dramatic moments that Turkey’s unpredictable tactics and incredible fighting spirit have produced. For the fact that they won’t be adding to the legacy on sunday however, they only have themselves to blame.

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Who’s Got The Ballacks?

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One always hopes that the knockout stages will move a tournament up a notch in the excitement stakes, but often it doesn’t work like that. The nerves tend to get worse as the stakes get higher, and that’s why we generally end up with so many penalty shoot-outs. Given that the group stages have produced such fantastic action here, it seemed less likely than usual that the latter rounds would upstage them. This, however, is Euro 2008, the finest football tournament in living memory, home of the brave and ambitious, and it seems that we’ve only just started.

Germany and Portugal were the first to do battle in the quarter-finals, and they produced a classic, once again packed with over-committed attacking football, disorganised defences, and goals, goals, goals. The Germans, embarrassed by Croatia, and nervous against Austria, returned to form with a bang, surging at the Portuguese, and exposing major flaws in their defence, which had gone relatively untested in the group.

Before long they were two up, the returning villain Schweinsteiger, sent off for idiocy against Croatia, turned hero, flying in at the near post to complete a sensational German move for the first after Ballack had released our old friend Podolski on the left. Shortly afterwards he added an assist to his tally, resisting the temptation to shoot from a thirty-five yard free-kick in favour of floating a much more dangerous ball into the mix, where Klose found the freedom of Basel thanks to non-existent Portuguese marking, and glanced in the second.

The Germans succeeded with tactics that have become the theme of the tournament, using the full width of the pitch, feeding the wingers, and getting behind the opposition defence before putting crosses in, and getting men in to the box to challenge for them. Then, once the lead was established, they used regular counter-attacks to ensure that their opponents could never feel comfortable in piling everyone forward when going in search of a comeback. They passed the ball in a fashion which was direct, but stopped short of being aerial and aimless. I would like to reiterate, these are nothing more than traditional English, or perhaps British, tactics; the tactics we’ve been told for years that we had to get rid of if we ever wanted to succeed in Europe; the tactics we’re told are from the stone age. The tactics used by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa that brought six successive European Cups to England between 1977 and 1982.

The Portuguese spent the greater part of the first half doing their usual huffing and puffing and getting absolutely nowhere, but with style. Deco had his finest match of the tournament, but his efforts were so sadly wasted in a side that so desperately, desperately needs a striker. In how many more tournaments are we going to have to point this out? Please Portugal, please, please, please find a striker! There must be someone somewhere with a Portuguese granny that can improve on Nuno Gomes or Pauleta. Failing that, at least play a second idiot up front instead of one on his own.

Nuno Gomes did actually score to bring Portugal back into it before half-time, and significantly this happened when Ronaldo made a direct run through the centre, making of himself a second striker. You have to wonder why on earth Portugal didn’t just make it a permanent move, after all it’s not as though Ronaldo can’t finish, and he would have added physical presence and height, aspects of his game that are mostly wasted when he’s stuck out on the wing. You would think in this tournament of wingers that Ronaldo would be in his element, and yet he has had a quiet tournament, adding further credence to the view that he doesn’t produce when the pressure is on. He certainly grew more and more ineffectual as the game wore on and Portugal became more in need of him.

You certainly could not say the same about Michael Ballack, who was an absolute giant in the middle of the park, organising, ball-winning, passing, driving forward, and in the second half scoring the goal that proved to be the winner, rising to meet another Schweinsteiger free-kick, and again exposing a soft-centre in the Portuguese defence which was this time exacerbated by a hopeless wander and flap by goalkeeper Ricardo.

Replays showed a push by Ballack on Paulo Ferreira as he leapt to head the ball home, which Scolari saw on the big screen and showed his displeasure about, but really, this kind of thing is surely fair game in the box. Just because a replay happened to catch this one, it doesn’t change the fact that there are dozens more in every single game that go unnoticed. If free-kicks and penalties were given for this kind of thing, there would really be no point in taking any set-pieces at all.

Moreover, the ‘foul’ by Ballack was nothing compared to the assault by Pepe on Klose that led to the award of the free-kick from which Germany profited. Pepe launched himself into the striker with force, leading with his shoulder and making thumping contact with Klose’s face. The German was lucky to escape uninjured, and Pepe should have been punished with a straight red card. The fact that the defender stayed on the field meant that there was more than a hint of justice about the resulting goal.

Portugal ‘responded’ by throwing on Nani and Helder Postiga, which must have relaxed the Germans no end, and yet incredibly it was these two that combined to make them sweat for the last five minutes, the latter heading in the former’s cross as the Germans dozed off at the back. That was as good as it got for Portugal though, and the final whistle brought down the curtain on Scolari’s reign. One can only wonder what a legacy he may have left if he could have uncovered that elusive striker; Euro 2004? Almost certainly. 2006 World Cup? Maybe. As it is, his team will be remembered as nearly men, something that definitely won’t be acceptable in his next job.

The Germans had been doubted by many after a couple of mediocre group games, but you can be sure there will be few doubters left now. Certainly not amongst the bookies, who have now reinstalled them as tournament favourites. Down to serious business, several German players stood up and showed their class: Lukas Podolski, who pulled defenders all over the place with his movement, provided a constant threat, and was inches away from one of the all-time great goals as a 35-yard exorcet flew past the post; Philipp Lahm, who coped comfortably with, in effect, two right wingers in Simao and the non-defending full-back Bosingwa, and still found time to join the attack; and Schweinsteiger, who returned from the disgrace of his red card against Croatia to deliver a match-winning contribution of a goal and two assists.

Standing head and shoulders above everyone though was Ballack, a true leader with the presence to dominate the biggest of matches, and as the stakes get higher, the stronger he becomes. This is a man who led Germany to a World Cup final almost single handed when still only 25, and may have gone on to lift the trophy but for being suspended for the final. He was denied again two years ago on home soil in the semi-finals, and has been on the losing side in two Champions League finals. If he were to be the man to lift the trophy at Euro 2008, there could surely be no more deserving winner.

One enormous relief felt by all at Portugal’s demise is surely that we will no longer have to listen to the world’s worst football commentator, Clive Tyldesley, turn ITV into MUTV. Ronaldo’s lame display continually made a fool of Tyldesley, who gave him the big build up every time he received the ball around the box with a hearty “…and here’s CristiANO RONALDO…”, only for the next line to fall flat on its arse as Ronaldo’s contribution limped into obscurity. A suggestion for you ITV – Tyldesley won’t be interested in the rest of this now that Ronaldo’s out, I mean surely he can’t base an entire commentary around Edwin Van Der Sar? Do yourselves, and especially us, a favour by packing this horrendously biased idiot off early to prepare his Champions League preview, and please give the remainder of your fixtures to Jon Champion.

In fact, I will make you a unique offer – I promise to watch at least one of the dual broadcasted semi-finals on ITV if Champion is in the chair. I don’t promise to watch your analysis, but the second the BBC pass to John Motson, I’ll be over.

I await your reply with anticipation.

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The Good, The Bad, and Pogatetz

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I suppose it was probably too much to expect another capricious evening of confusion and disarray, and it was certainly too much to expect Austria to keep their hopes alive by shocking their illustrious neighbours. The Austrians, as the saying doesn’t really go, couldn’t score in a house of ill repute. As Alan Hansen put it: “If the Austrians had sat back and played on the break, they wouldn’t have scored. If they’d played all out attack, they wouldn’t have scored. If the Germans had left the field for 10 minutes and had a cup of tea, the Austrians still wouldn’t have scored”.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of not only this match, but of Austria’s entire Euro 2008 adventure. Apart from making a sluggish start in the first half against Croatia, Austria played with passion, creativity, organisation, and will to win. Unfortunately none of these guarantee you goals. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Austria watching the Germans create absolutely nothing for Podolski and Klose, they must have wanted to ask the Germans if they could borrow one of them for five minutes, seeing as they weren’t using them.

Knowing the Austrians luck, if the Germans had agreed to lend them a striker, they would have got Mario Gomez, who unfortunately would fit seamlessly in to the current Austrian set-up. The only clearcut chance created by Germany all night fell to Gomez inside the first three minutes, and he robbed the Greeks of a title they seemed nailed-on for by achieving the miss of the tournament so far, failing to tap-in to an empty net from four yards out with no defender in sight.

The rest of the match set into a pattern, Austria got the ball efficiently to their wingers, who consistently got past their full-backs and put in dangerous crosses. To absolutely no-one. The Germans, who only needed a point, could barely be bothered as it became quite clear a draw was near-enough guaranteed. When your captain is as model a professional as Michael Ballack however, nothing gets left to chance, and he stepped up early in the second half to rocket in the tournament’s first successful free kick.

That was that, and there really was no suggestion that it was going to change, but whilst the outcome was predictable, the evening was not without its interesting diversions. Firstly there was the Austrian players accommodation of their German guests. At face value the game didn’t appear dirty, and yet there were several strange incidents of the TV director suddenly cutting to a shot, usually some yards away from the ball, of a mysteriously flattened German. Time and again the referee was distracted from the play, and would suddenly arrive on the scene wearing a puzzled expression, as he found an injured German player, and no red shirt within 10 yards of him. The whole thing was mystifying, I can’t possibly speculate on what brought these episodes about.

Could it be that the two managers were debating this point when they suddenly decided to launch into a bout of touchline handbags, for which they were both despatched to the stand. Once the referee had intervened, the two managers became united in their disdain for the offical instead, and bonded like two cell-ins about to start a five-stretch together. On reaching the stand, Joachim Low managed to bump into his Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and looked as though he may take a seat beside her. Moments later, Low had found an alternative seat beside Oliver Bierhoff, perhaps having realised that the country’s leader might not have been the ideal companion had the match not gone Germany’s way.

Also adding a touch of the irregular to this game was Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who gives one the impression that he may not be of this world. He looks like the madman on the bus that you pray doesn’t sit next to you, terrifyingly wide-eyed and unstable. Pogatetz of course plays for Middlesbrough, and when you study his erratic behaviour along with that of Turkey’s Tuncay, you do have to worry about the effect the town’s infamous fumes are having on non-natives of Teesside.

Pogatetz at one stage picked up the ball and attempted to take a bite out of it. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was an attacker that is one opponent I would be giving a wide berth. Personally, I would be perfectly comfortable with any accusations of lying too deep, “Sorry boss, I am doing my best to get further forward but you see the thing is there’s a serial killer at centre-back, and I have a family”. Maybe Pogatetz was so fed up at being part of Austria’s hopeless campaign that he’d asked the manager to sub him and been refused, so now thought summoning the men in white coats represented his best chance of escape.

As I said, predictable but not uneventful. The Germans were presumably more than a little nervous at the potential humiliation of losing this one, which perhaps explains why they weren’t exactly fully committed, but with Portugal now looming the Germans aren’t exactly taking with them an abundance of confidence or momentum from this group.

Croatia on the other hand are flying. Having already secured the group, they made nine changes to the side that beat Germany but, unlike Portugal on Monday, Croatia appeared to have used the tactic to their own advantage. Instead of looking like players sent out to make a token gesture in a meaningless match, the Croat reserves had the look of a side motivated to prove themselves worthy of a place in the side and to play their part in a genuine team effort. Or maybe it’s just that Croatia’s reserves are much more capable than Portugal’s, who knows?

Whatever the reason, Croatia very impressively disposed of Poland with a 1-0 win that should have been many more, and completed a perfect group programme. Their goalscorer Ivan Klasnic, still wearing protection after a kidney transplant just last year, could have had a hat-trick on the night but for more heroics from the goalkeeper of the tournament, and the only Pole to cover himself in anything like glory at Euro 2008, Celtic’s Artur Boruc. In the end the striker had to settle just for scoring the winner. Klasnic’s story of triumph over adversity sums up the mentality of the whole Croatian team, who are showing an extraordinary unity which is threatening to overcome both the perceived gulf in class between them and their more famous rivals, and the loss of their best striker, Eduardo Da Silva.

The Croatian celebrations at the final whistle once again revealed the togetherness of their squad, and the respect they have for their coach, Slaven Bilic, who looks by far and away the strongest leader at this tournament. The entire squad took a lap of honour, just as they had against Germany, and every individual player seemed keen to embrace Bilic, and he to reciprocate. Croatia now have more confidence and momentum than any team besides Holland, but the difference between their soaring team spirit and the ever-fragile Dutch squad is cavernous.

With their next test being a quarter-final against the gritty Turks on friday, Croatia will now be favourites to reach the semi-finals, which is a stage they have never yet breached. If they make it, they are almost certain to be amongst those to whom lifting trophies is the norm, and it is then we will then find out if their squad possesses the one quality we can’t yet be sure about – belief.

It was generally another excellent night for the BBC, with Martin O’Neill and Alan Hansen in sparkling form, particularly during the half-time interval. When asked about the incident involving the German and Austrian managers, O’Neill dismissively replied “Well I don’t blame them for taking no notice of the 4th official, they’re always wrong”.

As the second half approached, Gary Lineker attempted to take back the reins ready for his handover to the commentary team, but was ignored completely by O’Neill and Hansen who preceded to lean over Alan Shearer and conduct their own in-depth discussion on the German second-half tactics. It’s little moments of lost control like this that O’Neill provides, and that makes the BBC coverage so much more entertaining than ITV’s joyless efforts.

The beeb boys did however let themselves down, right at the end of the show as they were looking ahead to tonight’s Group C conclusion. Hansen and O’Neill were almost wetting themselves at the prospect of France v Italy! O’Neill even made the astonishingly misguided observation that ‘The tournament starts tomorrow’. What? Are we ever going to get away from this boot-licking of the football aristocracy? Anyway, could someone please explain to me what they were getting so excited about? Italy v France will be a dead-rubber, and a guaranteed bore-fest of all time, should Romania score an early goal, and they both realise they’re going home.

The truth is, the clue to this evening lies within the following statement: For the final round of Group C to deliver any excitement, it is reliant on the spirit of fair play being invoked to the full – by the Dutch.

I shall say no more.

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