Monday 31 December 2018

Summer Lovin' Hazard So Fast. France v Belgium, 10th July

Four from the starting line ups tonight play for Tottenham (one for France, three for Belgium), plus one former player, but I found that I could put club prejudice aside in the hope that the Tottenham/'s of whoever went through to the Final, would be fit and unscathed to face the Tottenham's of England on Sunday, should that looming personal disaster come to pass.

Like with De Bruyne, I've let go of my normal animosity towards Lloris, (admittedly minimal), Vertonghen (not so minimal), Alderweireld (minimal) and Dembele (not so minimal) this summer, and though the affiliated of Tottenham would have ended up claiming credit for Belgium becoming world champions - like West Ham with England 1966 - this irritation carried a more distant quality than the surely unbearable, forever, ever crowing of England 2018 winning it with half of the Spurs.

Anyway, all I've done so far in this piece, is shine Tottenham in a good light, which was never the point of this blog, but the amount of representatives they have in the last four of a World Cup can't be ignored, like that time I had a strep rash all over my body. In tonight's commentary, Danny Murphy repeated something he'd referred to in Belgium's last game, citing Alderweireld as playing a key role in Tottenham's "success" over the last few years. As a prickly Arsenal fan, I carry out petty investigations on the use of this term, having suffered nine years of invariable journalistic thread about Arsenal's trophy drought from 2005-2014, despite the club's far longer run of successive Champions League qualification.

Tottenham have certainly made an improvement under Mauricio Pochettino, though even before him they would have theoretically been Champions League regulars, or at least qualifying play/off regulars, had it not been for the impact of Russian and Qatari oil to the Premier League. With Poch, Tottenham not only came runners up to Chelsea in 2016-17, but recorded a points tally that was good enough to have won the Prem on eight occasions, So OK, I'm prepared to let Murphy off with his version of "success". Call the petty investigation off, and loosen up, man, no need to dredge up the fact Tottenham haven't won the league since 1961. No ever mentions it anyway, so need for me to.

Less contentious is the ability of Eden Hazard, who early on tonight, tested the stability of Raphael Varane's head with a right footer, coming in off the left flank. His displays this summer against both minnows and favourites, is surely proof that he has transferred his Premier League excellence to the world stage. Perhaps he's been even more impressive in Russia, combining his attacking threat with periods of defending. Although I dearly love Anders Limpar, Robert Pires and Marc Overmars, I do get pleasure from wingers who track back, like Ryan Giggs used to. I certainly helped out when I played on the left for Highground in Division 2 of the Arlon Printers League, scoring a number of own goals to prove it. 

There aren't many players I warm to who play for a top six club that isn't Arsenal, but I have liked watching  Hazard (except against Arsenal) ever since he started playing in the Prem for Roman Abramovich's Chelsea (not sure which manager, hard to keep track). And yes, I realise it may seem contradictory to admire any Chelsea player in the post Ken Bates era in light of comments I have made in a recent post.

"So what's the difference with De Bruyne, then?", you definitely ask.

Well, I think my peak dislike of Chelsea was tied up in Mourinho, who was a good baddie, but not on the same level of evil as Mansour and friends are at City. While Mourinho deliberately provokes a core following of haters, he doesn't facilitate serious, authentic, dreadful suffering that is far removed from anything football can offer. Abramovich has no doubt as ruthless steak as anyone with a reported £8billion fortune (on arrival in England), but his only equivalent crime is to have rescued Chelsea from huge debt and funded their development to domestic and European glory.

Tonight, I was even worried for the welfare of Hazard and De Bruyne (although, in truth, more for my welfare), knowing they were both on yellow cards going into this match. But then I learned that this threat of the cruellest of sporting punishments had itself been rescinded, as all bookings are now apparently wiped from the record in semi-finals. I'm sure this a source of much comfort for messrs Gascoigne, Caniggia, Costacurta, Blanc and Ballack to know that their personal heartbreaks haven't been in vain.

I should of course, have realised that my concerns for Belgium were, as Del Boy would put it, "epidemic". Arsene, after all, had already indicated that Belgium couldn't win the cup, so I should have reserved my fretting for the wellbeing of Lloris who, shortly after Hazard's shot was diverted by Varane's head, kept out an Alderwereld shot from inside the box. Yet in such a tight, even game like this, 11 v 11, does history and population really influence the winner?

History says history does, and indeed the nation with the 40,000+ benchmark won through tonight to help keep that tradition alive. Lloris's two centre halves matched their captain's contribution, with Barcelona's Samuel Umtiti heading in the only goal of the game from Griezmann's corner and Real Madrid's Varane impersonating a nightclub bouncer with a zero-entry policy. Umtiti even took time out in this Premier League-heavy match, to parody the antics of Liverpool's Bruce Grobelaar during the 1984 European Cup Final penalty shoot out.

France could even afford the luxury of playing a centre forward as a 'false nine', Olivier Giroud, who has always had the whiff of high-end Europa League quality about him (love you, Olly) refusing to score in the great traditions of the striking French, even when extravagantly back-heeled in by Mbappe. In fairness to Gizza, who has scored over 100 goals for Arsenal in 5 and a half seasons, he at least ran on to the ball while the rest of us dropped our jaws.

So France are back in the Final, which will be their third appearance in it, and I'm just one game away from Chris Sutton (pre tournament) and my dad (second phase) having their predictions come true.    



Tuesday 4 December 2018

Seeking solace in Arsene to ease semi-final fears...but maybe he really doesn't know anymore - July 9th

Summer 1998, and Arsenal had just won the Premier League and FA Cup 'Double' in Arsene Wenger's first full season as manager. The 'Arsene Knows' faith hadn't been created yet, nor the banners draped inside the stadium, but beyond success on the pitch, Wenger's ability to wind up Alex Ferguson and get George Graham's committed drunkards doing aerobics, spoke of a man who could influence the masses for many years to come. So when Wenger predicted at the beginning of the 98 World Cup that France, hosts but yet to lift the game's biggest prize, would win it, it should have come as no surprise a few weeks later when France won it.

Only now, twenty years on, the followers of Arsene Knows must look to a higher being. In truth, murmurings and whispers of doubt, and half-heated singing, had first crept in to the sacred House of The Emirates not long after the place of worship had been moved down the road to get more people in. By then, all Arsene knew was that the demoralising costs of the new premises meant they had chuff all chance of competing with both the established order and wealthy new rivals, spawned by injections of oil cash.

Eventually, the scale of lapsed Arsene Knowers was sadly evident in the empty seats around the new stadium, as people grew weary of constant Champions League qualification in a climate of austerity and three FA Cup wins out of five seasons when the stadium debt was finally paid off. The Church of the Poisoned Mind attempted a coup of Arsene Knows with banners flown from helicopters, and radio and 'Fan TV' rants, all the while dismissing the existence of Boy George and 'his like'.

Even when his desk, chair and personal belongings were being removed around him, Arsene found a dignified end, his last home match full to capacity again, like friendly old faces turning up on an episode of This Is Your Life to applaud him, but all wearing the same t-shirt.

Back in 98, Arsene's protégé, Glenn Hoddle, who played for him at AS Monaco and then became a manager because of him ("he saw something in me when I was 29-30 that I probably didn't see in myself", Hoddle claims, although others suggest that Arsene had merely observed how much the afterlife thing was starting to affect the playmaker, and recognised his need for a distraction), led England to their valiant second round exit to Argentina (Yes!), and next week will be in the commentary box alongside Clive 'Frankly who cares Barry Davies said it 11 years before me' Tyldesley, as England play Croatia in the final four.

While Hoddle may look to the 'heavens' for the result that most English people crave, I still turn to Arsene, even in a time far removed from his messianic standing of two decades before when he correctly backed his homeland to be world champions. For all the mockery and the tarnishing of his reputation these last few years, his understanding of football cannot be questioned, so in search of reassurance, I explored the web to find his view on the remaining candidates this year: simply, I wanted him to tell me that England couldn't win it.

I quickly found a tv clip of him on BEIS Sports in Russia, where he is working as a pundit. This footage is from last Monday, July 2nd, the day before England v Colombia.

"I've said many times before that since 1954, just after the second War, no country under forty million people has won the World Cup" he said, which in terms of those still in, rules out Belgium and Croatia, if this sturdy tradition continues.

"Nobody mentions England - but England is dangerous. So I would say Brazil, France or England".

So going on the basis that Brazil have now been knocked out, this leaves two obvious challengers - France and England. Not the reassurance I was looking for.

Perhaps his identity of three possible champions, rather than the emphatic one of 98 would, to some, be symbolic of Arsene's compromised judgement now. When pressed on tv to name just one, his answer of "France" is only, he indicates, from "my heart".

Again, the naysayers would argue, the power of the heart over the head was the major reason for Arsene's undoing in the latter years of his Emirates reign. Either way, I'm looking at a Tottenham Hotspur player lifting the World Cup aloft in seven days - Hugo Lloris or Harry Kane. I just hope - in the absence of reassurance - that a second goalie captain in three World Cups will be clutching it above his head.          


Putting my life in the hands of a crocks 'n' old band - Croatia v Russia, World Cup quarter final

I was in and out of the kitchen, between programmes or making tea, keeping tabs on the remaining quarter final, Croatia-Russia, that was open on my laptop, next to the hob.

A goal for Russia just after half an hour seemed to add another crack to my world falling in. The goal was impressive, and perhaps should have served as encouragement, suggesting that Denis Cheryshev could do that to England next, but it still felt like only Croatia could save me. If Russia won, I could only see them playing the well-worn role of hosts who'd failed just one step away from reaching a fairy-tale final, like Italy in 1990, South Korea in 2002, Germany in 2006, Brazil in 2014. Are Russia the worst of all those thwarted teams? South Korea might have a case to argue, but I don't know if there's much in it.

So if Russia were beating Croatia, what was I actually hoping for in Croatia? They'd only just scraped past Denmark, and now they were behind again.

Even when Croatia equalised just eight minutes later, I was merely reminded that the scorer, Andrej Kramaric, was rejected by a Leicester City team that had just avoided relegation to the Championship (he left early into 2015-16, and I can't quite recall how Leicester got on without him, but seem to think they did alright).

Like Spain in the previous round, Croatia couldn't find a way past their limited opponents in the 90 minutes. Luka Modric, 32, who's played to the very last game of the European club season for the last three, seemed to spend the entire second half with his hands on his knees. Goalkeeper Subasic punched the ground in agony during extra time, clutching his hamstring and giving over goal kick duty. Atletico Madrid defender, Vrsalijko, was forced off injured in the first half of extra time. I rubbed my forehead like Messi during the Argentine national anthem.

I was still happy to see Croatia go ahead in that first half of the additional thirty minutes. Yes, the corner was headed in by Domagoj Vida of Turkish side, Besiktas, but I was moved to pull out the decisive football fan tactic of turning the match off, knowing that this would definitely end the scoring.

When I read one of the reports of Croatia's win later that night, I learned that they had achieved it via a penalty shoot-out. Maria Figueira Hernandes had turned in a free kick five minutes before the end of extra time, allowing himself the opportunity to miss the goal completely in the shoot-out. Just as against Denmark, Rakitic rifled in the winning penalty. So at least they are well-practiced for the traditional post 1966 semi-final England story.

‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

 I've already back-tracked on unflattering comments I made towards Alvaro Morata in these pages, so let me now add Marc Cucurella to tha...