Tag Archives: Scolari

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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Filed under BBC, Football, ITV, Quarter-Finals, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

You Asked For It (Part 2)

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Another day, another team who think disorganisation and panic are vital ingredients in defending a lead. Not that I’m complaining, as the culprits in question this time contributed to one the most astonishing games seen at this or any other championship.

More viewers will inevitably tune in to the final, or semi-finals, but what they don’t understand is that it is the final round of group matches which provide the truly unmissable fayre at a tournament. Mind you, this group had the potential to peter out timidly; one game was a dead rubber with Portugal already through and the Swiss already out, which meant it was left to Czech Republic and Turkey as the only ones in a position to provide drama. They didn’t disappoint.

With Euro 2008 already being touted as one of the greatest football tournaments ever, two more unfashionable sides raised the bar by several more notches. UEFA had already offered the match the possibility of breaking new ground, by declaring that a penalty-shoot out would settle a draw at ninety minutes, with the two sides having identical records after the first two games. In the end it wasn’t necessary, and the tension created in the final 15 minutes surpassed anything that the penalties could have thrown up.

The Czechs dominated the first half to such an extent that it must have been worrying to end it only one goal up. They got their direct game based around the giant Jan Koller working to far greater effect than they had against the Swiss in their opening match, and Turkey couldn’t cope. A traditional British style of play was employed (is it always us who must learn from the Europeans?), and was thoroughly enjoyable to watch, with the ball being played forwards with urgency to two wingers attacking at pace, who regularly got behind the full-backs before delivering crosses for a big target. And those crosses, they kept coming in, causing difficulty almost every time, and Koller inevitably got his head to one to register his 55th international goal.

Turkey, who had virtually surrendered all possession in the first period, had to make a change and they did. Tuncay was moved in from the wing to play in the centre of midfield and ran himself into the ground in order to get the Turks back into the game. It initially worked, as Turkey began to apply pressure, but then they were caught by a Czech break which resulted in a second for Jaroslav Plasil. The Turks on the touchline raged that they had not been allowed to make a substitution with one of their defenders clearly injured, but the ball hadn’t gone out of play in order to allow this to take place.

ITV’s Jon Champion, like the rest of us, thought that this would be the signal for Turkish meltdown. On previous evidence it’s difficult to argue that this did seem the most likely outcome, especially with the disappointment at going two down exacerbated by the injustice they felt about the second Czech goal. The final half an hour might easily have seen Turkey end the game without their full compliment. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, but by the time it did Champion, and all of us, owed the Turks an apology.

The Czechs came within inches of burying the match when Jan Polak smacked one against the post, but Turkey survived that, then launched a quite staggering comeback. The inspiration for this was the much-maligned (especially by me) Tuncay, who ran and ran and ran some more, and set a magnificent example to any fragile temperaments there may have been amongst his colleagues. His endeavour embodied a never-say-die attitude that began to rub off amongst his team mates, and was encapsulated when he ran twice across the pitch to receive a replacement linesman’s flag, and deliver it to the official who had managed to break the original.

Still two down with a quarter of an hour left, the Turks were piling everyone forward. It was by this time that the Czechs had made the fatal error of retreating to the edge of their own box, guaranteeing that they would only the final period one way – under intense pressure. Turkey finally broke through thanks to a smart finish by Turan, and the Czechs knew they were hanging on for dear life. They made it to within three minutes of the ninety ending before Petr Cech made surely the biggest howler of his career, though by no means his first of the season, and handed an equaliser to Turkish captain Nihat on a big shiny solid silver plate. Bedlam ensued at the Turkish end of the ground, and on the bench, as they celebrated a well earned shot at a place in the quarters via a penalty shoot-out.

The drama, however, had barely started. The predicted Turkish indiscipline had not materialised, but there was now plenty of it from the Czechs, who lost their way completely. The next Turkish attack resulted in a shambolic Czech defensive line being comfortably breached by that man Nihat, who stunned everyone with a majestic curling finish off the underside of the bar. The bewildered Czechs, who had taken off their wingers and now had no attacking shape whatsoever, attempted to launch a response, and Milan Baros inevitably began to strip off but amongst the mayhem never actually made it onto the pitch.

Four minutes of injury time were signalled almost immediately after the third Turkish goal, but these were barely underway when suddenly curtailed by yet more craziness. A disbelieving crowd saw Turk goalkeeper Volkan Demirel make a valiant attempt to secure himself a chance of saving some penalties after all, by first flying out of his goal to flap at a ball, leaving an empty net which the Czechs failed to find, then following it up by shoving Koller to the ground in full view of the referee who dismissed him immediately. What Demirel had almost certainly forgotten was that the Turks had used all their subs. So, the question was, who would go in goal for the remaining time? There was only one answer of course, the heroic, if completely insane, Tuncay pulled on the gloves, and safely kept a three minute clean sheet.

The broken Czechs slumped, and amid the chaos there was no real chance for them to bid goodbye properly to two heroes, manager Karel Bruckner, and the magnificent Koller, both of whose careers came to an end with the final whistle. They should have had more to show for a fantastic Czech dynasty, and they will always look back knowing that Euro 2004 should have been their moment.

What this incredible match offered was yet another example, and once again I beg TV executives to take note, of what makes football the phenomenon it is. In fact if all games were like this there would surely be no non-believers left. At face value, this match was as far from being box-office as it gets, and therein lies the problem. Czech Republic v Turkey, ask our TV friends? Who’s interested in that? Where are the superstars? I can’t see anyone from a cola commercial on this pitch, which one out there earns 80 grand-a-week and dates a model? How the hell do we sell this? Surely the people would rather watch Portugal?

The truth is you don’t need any of the above. When left alone, football looks after itself. Without any help at all this match descended into glorious anarchy. Don’t these people realise the lifeblood of football is it’s unpredictability, and that’s the very thing being eroded by the Premier League and Champions league as every season goes by. Perfection isn’t exciting, we want disorder, pandemonium and instability. This match had them all in spades, which is why it will live long in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have seen it.

The Swiss bowed out of their home tournament against Portugal reserves, and happily went out with a victory for their departing coach Kobi Kuhn. He will surely look back on Hakan Yakin’s scoring record of 3 in 2, and wonder why on earth the last part of that stat is only 2. The man who provided the Swiss’ only threat of the tournament was not given the opportunity to do so in the opening game, and they’ll always wonder if it could have been different. Only saw highlights of this one thanks to the simultaneous kick-offs, but from what I could tell Portugal appeared to be offended that they’d actually been asked to play the match.

Their early demise was a great shame for the home fans, who are a massive part of any tournament. For national bonkersness we must now look to Austria, and if they beat the Germans believe me, it will be on a grand scale. If it comes about in as dramatic a fashion as last night’s game, I think I shall need a lie down. As this incredible tournament has gone on, each match has had more and more to live up to, but has somehow risen to the challenge. We just have to hope now that Czech Republic v Turkey doesn’t end up as the match of the tournament.

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Filed under Football, Group A, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

Come on, admit it…

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…you missed it didn’t you? Even many hardened fans will consult the tournament schedule in order to find a gap, a night when they can return to the real world and try to ensure that their normal lives aren’t damaged beyond repair by an entire month of football worship. I know you’re out there, and I know many of you would have chosen Switzerland v Turkey as your one to miss. The BBC appeared to agree with you too, relegating this match to BBC2. Shame, shame, shame on you all.

The best match of the tournament so far by a mile saw the earliest ever exit of a Host Nation in this event, but only after they had been sent through an emotional mangle thanks to the weather gods, who intervened midway through the first half with a match-altering downpour, perhaps sent as a reward to those of us who had kept the faith.

The opening twenty minutes actually suggested that the absentees may have got it right, as an anxious stalemate began to develop. Then the heavens opened, and naturally the results were glorious. Within minutes the football match had been replaced by It’s A Knockout, as players began to run, fall over and collide with each other as standard, and the ball became an afterthought. Wherever he was watching, I bet Stuart Hall was laughing uncontrollably, whilst awarding both sides 15 points.

To anyone reading this who is involved with the production of our television coverage, especially if you work for ITV, please try to understand that it is this supporters really want to see. Judging by the groveling of Rider, Tyldesley and co, they seem to think that we’re all here to sit open-jawed at the technical prowess of Portugal, Holland or Spain and all the millionaires they bring with them. Wrong. What we want is mayhem, pandemonium, instability, and lunacy. Preferably in farcical conditions with footballing life or death at stake. Last night, we got what we came for.

Hansen and co might have been on the wrong channel, but they were in no doubt that this was pure entertainment. Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon revealed a hitherto dormant sense of humour, relishing the slippery chaos to the full, and laughing fully in the faces of unfortunate defenders with the rest of us.

Switzerland initially benefitted from the cloudburst, as Turkey’s short passing game was rendered useless by the puddles that began appearing all over the pitch, and one puddle in particular which had formed in the Turkish six-yard box assisted a Turk in Swiss colours, Hakan Yakin, to open the scoring. Hakan missed an almost identical chance (an open goal from three yards), just minutes later, and incredibly the absurd circumstances resulted in just that single goal. If the rain had continued into the second half, or if UEFA were as precious about players health as they are the tournament schedule, the game would almost certainly have been abandoned. However the rain relented at half-time, allowing the Swiss ground staff to do an extraordinary mopping up job, making the pitch perfectly playable again in the second half. Big mistake on their part.

It probably seemed sensible at the time, but as the Swiss were mainly relying on pinging long balls towards their pacy forwards, the sodden surface was assisting them far more than their opponents. In hindsight the act was either commendably fair-minded, or criminally naive. The spirit the entire match was played in suggested the former, which given that the last time these two met competitively (in a qualifying play-off for the last World Cup) the match ended in a full-scale riot this was a refreshing surprise.

Turkey grew in confidence, and knocked the ball around as well as anyone in this tournament so far, though given their unfashionable status no one on TV bothered pointing this out. The goals that secured their victory were somewhat fortuitous, a lovely move ending in a goalkeeper error, and a speculative shot aided by a deflection, but they were thoroughly deserved on the balance of play, and given that Switzerland appeared the better side only when playing in a swimming pool.

That said, they very nearly managed to pull it out of the bag in a frantic last 20 minutes, as both sides realised a draw was no good to them and launched into each other with gusto. It was magnificent viewing, and the Swiss fans would have raised the roof had they managed to convert a 4-on-1 breakaway in the 89th minute. They failed, and moments later Turkey punished them with the clock ticking into the second minute of injury time. Cue what seemed a 50-strong Turkish bench invading the pitch, indulging in wild celebrations whilst yards away from them there was devastation. The TV director filled his boots, quickly switching from a shot of Turkish coach Fatih Terim making a very half-hearted attempt to calm his charges down, to one of his Swiss counterpart staring numbly into space. Pure gold.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Swiss, just imagine how long their fans have been waiting for this. All of them decked out in national costmes, faces painted, ready to unite for an amazing month-long adventure. Four days in, and its all over. It’s sad for everyone because host nations and their fans are great for the atmosphere of the tournament, but the truth is the Swiss never looked good enough. However, they weren’t nearly as dull as in the World Cup, and a cynic might suggest that they would have been better off sticking to a plan that did work for them up to a point, but they should take credit for entering the spirit of the tournament and at least trying to give their supporters something memorable.

Prior to the fun part of the evening Portugal had recorded an impressive, if somewhat predictable, victory over Czech Republic, predictably with the help of Ronaldo, the reaction to whose first goal of the tournament was met with predictably toady obseqiousness by commentators on both channels, who squirmed to find superlatives for what was a tidily placed sidefoot shot from the edge of the box. As for the Czechs, they were largely just, well, predictable.

On last night’s evidence, I think Turkey will fancy their chances in a winner-takes-all meeting with the Czechs on Sunday, especially as their opponents now appear to be uncertain as to which striker should be sent out to receive no service, Koller or Baros. The inevitability of the Portuguese win, in what they would have considered their toughest fixture of the group on paper, will strengthen their claims on the trophy, but I have a feeling that they could get caught cold in the knockout stages due to failing to receive a real test.

During the Switzerland v Turkey match, news broke that the Portuguese boss ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, is off to join the Premier League circus with Chelsea. So no doubt what his advice will be to Ronaldo regarding his potential transfer to Real Madrid then. This is good news, as Scolari will bring some much needed dignity and decorum to a world dominated by egomaniacs, as the above picture displays.

Now, having finally discovered the secret behind what can really make Euro 2008 into the most exciting tournament ever, I’m off to check the weather forecast.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group A, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008