Monday, December 24, 2007

Carew rules the roost, but Sven’s men escape with a point

Aston Villa 1-1 Manchester City, Villa Park, 22nd December, 3pm

Manchester City’s dreary away record this season – now standing at a total of 4 points from a possible 24 – continued in the Villa Park gloom. They will have ultimately been glad to leave the Midlands with a point however, as the home side failed to capitalise fully on their overall superiority.

City led early on; through a close-range Rolando Bianchi goal in the 11th minute from an inviting Martin Petrov cross, however Villa levelled soon after – powerful forward John Carew slaloming through the visiting back-line to fire a deflected equaliser past Joe Hart in the City goal. Thereafter Martin O’Neill’s men looked the more likely to grab a winner, but the second half fizzled out into a damp squib, with Villa frustrated at their inability to take one of several chances from set pieces.

Bianchi’s opening goal originated with Didi Hamann’s fine interception in front of his back four; the veteran ex-German international fed playmaker Elano who created space for the effervescent Martin Petrov to fire a low cross past Villa’s Martin Laursen, and Bianchi duly slid the ball under Scott Carson from close-in.

It was beginning to look possible that City could belie their woeful away form, but Carew’s equalising goal just four minutes later put the Manchester side firmly on the back foot for the rest of the half. Carew received the ball from Wilfred Bouma and managed to bustle his way past Richard Dunne to power a deflected right-footed shot home from just inside the area, as he slipped under pressure. Nigel Reo-Coker’s cute through-ball then found Carew in a similar position soon after, but the giant Norwegian couldn’t repeat the trick; his shot charged down by Dunne.

Villa’s Laursen failed to convert two headed opportunities from Ashley Young corners, and Elano cleared off the line from a goalmouth scramble – sending Martin O’Neill and around 40,000 Villa fans into a furious appeal for the award of a second goal, but to no avail. On the half-hour mark, Carew was again set free but his rasping drive was expertly tipped onto the post and wide by young Joe Hart, who then excelled himself again a minute later by bravely diving at Carew’s feet to deny an almost certain goal.

The second half began with ex-Villa star Darius Vassell – so often the nemesis of his former employers in the past few years – heading a rare chance onto the roof of Carson’s net. Both sides’ dead-ball experts – Elano and Shaun Maloney – came up short, having each been presented with a good opportunity to show their prowess; Elano fired a free kick over from an ideal position, while Maloney’s effort was easily saved.

Somewhat subdued by a determined Nigel Reo-Coker performance, Elano was then withdrawn by City boss Sven Goran Eriksson and, shortly after, they wasted their best chance of a scarcely deserved winner – Petrov slicing wide of Carson’s right-hand post from substitute Antonio Garrido’s deep cross with just ten minutes remaining.

There was still time for Villa to spurn a glorious opportunity when Reo-Coker burst clear and unchallenged from the centre circle, but by continuing to delay his pass to a totally free Gabriel Agbonlahor, he allowed Dunne to get a block in. Seconds later Villa were thwarted for a final time by another fine Joe Hart save – from Agbonlahor – on the edge of the City area.

After the game, Martin O’Neill agreed that, for his team, it was a case of “two points lost”. He was, however, full of praise for goalscorer Carew - describing his display as; “phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. He was almost unplayable today.”

Sven was understandably more pleased with the outcome: “We started fantastically...but Villa came on top of us and we did well. We fought and tried to win. In total, we are happy today.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gritty Granata shut out listless Roma

Single-point specialists Torino racked up their tenth draw of the season in an incident-packed encounter with scudetto challengers Roma, which somehow finished goal-less; fluffing a host of gilt-edged chances in the process. The home fans would have arrived at Turin’s Stadio Olympico in hope more than expectation of gaining anything from a fixture which their more illustrious southern counterparts were expected to win comfortably. In the final analysis however, Walter Novellino’s Serie A strugglers had passed up a rare opportunity to humble one of Italy’s ‘big four’.

The home side had marginally the best of the early exchanges, but the diligent approach play of the industrious Simone Barone and tricky winger Alessandro Rosina repeatedly foundered as and when Il Granata broached the final third. Two glaring misses in particular characterised Torino’s chronic lack of confidence in front of goal; the first coming just before the half-hour mark, as Barone fired wide of Roma ‘keeper Doni’s near post following a delightful back-heeled through-ball from busy frontman David Di Michele. Di Michele – whose debut for the club, following his summer arrival from Sicilian side Palermo, was delayed until last month due to a suspension for ‘illegal betting’ – was again involved in the second.

In the 38th minute, an incisive combination between Barone and Paolo Zanetti sliced open the Roma back-line, and as Zanetti’s cross slid across the face of goal it looked a certainty that either Rosina or Di Michele, both totally unmarked and facing a gaping net, would slide home the opening goal at the far post. Toro hearts sank though, when the profligate pair somehow conspired to collide in their eagerness to finish the job, with the ball inexplicably hitting the outside of the post and going wide for a Roma goal kick – leaving Barone kicking the post in sheer frustration at his team-mates’ complete lack of composure and awareness.

That extraordinary miss was quickly followed at the other end by a tame Mirko Vucinic cross-shot that barely troubled ex-Ipswich ‘keeper Matteo Sereni in the home side’s goal – virtually Roma’s only scoring opportunity of the first 45 minutes. Shorn of vastly influential talisman Francesco Totti (who may now be out until the mid-January resumption of Serie A with his recurring ankle problem) and with the returning Simone Perrotta and Brazilian dynamo Cicinho marooned on the bench, the Giallorossi were bereft of any discernable invention.

Perrotta was wisely introduced by Roma boss Luciano Spalletti following the half-time break, and Ashton-under-Lyne’s favourite footballing son made an immediate impact – firing a volley on the turn over Sereni’s crossbar from a clever Vucinic chest-down within a minute of the re-start. It was, however, to be Roma’s last clear chance for some time. As the game began to open up, Torino firmly took the initiative, with Di Michele continuing to unsettle Roma’s formidable defensive axis of Phillipe Mexes and Juan with his darting runs and impressive close control. On 48 minutes, the six-times capped Italian international had a headed ‘goal’ correctly ruled out for offside by referee Gianluca Rossi.

Soon after, Croatian forward Sasa Bjelanovic directed Di Michele’s driven cross over the bar from inside the six-yard box, though in fairness to the ex-Ascoli man, the ball arrived behind him and at a ferocious pace. Then, on the hour, Bjelanovic’s header from evergreen veteran Eugenio Corini’s cross was tipped onto and over the bar by Doni. Barone later fired wide and Di Michele was again denied at close range by Roma’s over-worked Brazilian ‘keeper and then once more by a superb last-ditch intervention by Juan.

A disillusioned Spalletti elected to withdraw the anonymous Ludovic Giuly, who has thus far underwhelmed during his fledgling Italian adventure, replacing him with youngster Marco Cassetti. Another underperforming stranieri, Cicinho, was also belatedly thrown into the action, but had a negligible impact on the right flank. Despite their insipid showing, the Giallorossi nearly snatched all three points late on, when Daniele de Rossi’s looping cross from deep was met by the flowing blond locks of Mexes, who was only deprived of an underserved winner by the smart reflexes of Sereni. Perrotta then fired a half-chance wide from the resultant corner.

In the closing stages Torino lost both their coach and captain Gianluca Comotto; the former sent to the stands for his over-zealous quarrelling with the fourth official, the latter harshly dismissed for an apparent shove on an otherwise-muted Mancini as the Brazilian ran through on goal.

The subsequent suspensions will be of more consequence for Turin’s second side than any impact they had on this game, and though they managed to halt Roma’s impressive run of scoring in every Serie A fixture so far this season, Novellino’s men still hover just outside the relegation zone as the winter break approaches. Roma, on the other hand, will be hoping that rivals Milan present them with a much-desired Christmas gift by halting the Inter juggernaut at San Siro next Sunday. If not, their slim scudetto hopes may have to be shelved for at least another year.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Muntari fires Pompey in the rain

Portsmouth earned a sixth away win on the trot, with a thoroughly effective display of counter-attacking football to pull three points clear of rivals Aston Villa in today’s early kick-off at a rain-lashed Villa Park.

The tiny travelling support from the south coast were well rewarded for their dedication, as Sulley Muntari struck twice with a pair of thunderbolts either side of the interval to follow-up a bizarre early Craig Gardner own goal. Villa could only reply through a 72nd minute Gareth Barry penalty, but were distinctly unable to make a full recovery from their miserable first half showing.

The opening chance of the game fell to Ashley Young - who enjoyed a lively opening half hour - on eight minutes, but the tricky winger shot weakly wide past David James’ right post. Within a minute Portsmouth found themselves in front, thanks largely to a share of good fortune and Villa’s defensive incompetence. From a corner kick, Noe Pamarot’s shot from the edge of the penalty area was heading well wide until Wilfred Bouma inexplicably gifted the ball to Pompey forward Benjani, and in his desperation to recover the situation, Gardner turned the ball past his stranded ‘keeper.

A series of corners and free-kicks in and around the Portsmouth area ensued, as Villa pushed for an immediate response. Two such Ashley Young dead-ball kicks in quick succession each found Martin Laursen unmarked, but the Danish centre-half followed a weak header - which James dealt with comfortably - with a glaring headed miss from an even more advantageous position, just six yards out. Shortly after, newly-anointed Barclays Premier League player-of-the-month Gabriel Agbonlahor wriggled clear of the Pompey backline and fired a shot at James’ near post which the veteran stopper saved smartly with his feet.

Martin O’Neill’s men were shortly to pay for their failure to capitalise on having the lion’s share of possession, as Portsmouth went further ahead through winger Muntari. The Ghanaian star cut inside, having been unforgivably invited onto his favoured left foot by the hapless Laursen, and unleashed a stunning curled shot into the top-right corner of Scott Carson's net from outside the area.

Agbonlahor had a further chance to pull a goal back on the stroke of half-time, but his powerful drive from a John Carew flick-on was expertly repelled by James. Referee Mike Riley was then roundly booed down the tunnel by the home fans following the half-time whistle for some apparently dubious decision-making, but in truth Villa’s profligacy and occasional clueless defending were the chief culprits in their deficit.

Having emerged from the dressing rooms first, Villa set out to claw back the south coast side’s scarcely merited two-goal lead. However, Harry Redknapp had obviously drilled his troops to keep hold of the ball in order to frustrate their hosts, and the Portsmouth midfield began to exert their dominance over an out-of-sorts Gareth Barry and the returning Nigel Reo-Coker; playmaker Niko Kranjcar and the combative Pedro Mendes playing key roles in keeping Pompey in command.

Their third goal made victory more or less a formality, coming in the 63rd minute as a direct result of a careless kick-out from Carson which Reo-Coker couldn’t draw under his control. Muntari pounced; dispossessing the young midfielder and poking the ball between Zat Knight’s legs before going on to swerve another powerful left-footed shot, from all of 30 yards out, around the Villa ‘keeper and low into the net.

Having thrown on Patrik Berger and Marlon Harewood for Bouma and Gardner respectively, switching Barry to the left side of defence, O’Neill went for broke in what was an all-but-lost cause. When, in the 72nd minute, Young was unnecessarily hauled down by the otherwise impressive Sylvain Distin, and Barry expertly dispatched the resultant penalty past ex-Villa colleague James, belief in an unlikely comeback burned brightly among the home support.

In truth though, by the final whistle Portsmouth could themselves have added a further two or three goals; on two separate occasions Reo-Coker did brilliantly to prevent a fourth, Papa Bouba Diop missed from close range when it would surely have been easier to score, while a rampant Benjani was running the woefully exposed Laursen ragged down Villa’s left flank.

In stoppage time, Agbonlahor struck the bar with a header after good work from Harewood and a hat-trick effort from Pompey hero Muntari was tipped over by Carson, but Portsmouth’s first top-flight win at Villa Park for 52 years had long since been acknowledged by the disgruntled home fans streaming through the exits. On this showing though, Portsmouth will be confident that they should not have another half-century wait before their next win in this part of Birmingham, as they continue to go from strength to strength.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Giants clash in controversial Euro draw

As far as entertainment is concerned, sitting through a football draw can be very much considered on a par with a rainy February afternoon spent watching your toenails grow. In other words; a fruitless exercise, best avoided. Nevertheless, the ensuing ceremonial pomp and circumstance are made just a little more tolerable when the prospect of a summer watching Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Ribery, et al strut their stuff lies ahead. In fact, sometimes such a draw can leave the viewer rubbing their hands in anticipation.

Though there is no doubt that the 'group of death' moniker is appplied all too liberally in draws for sporting competitions, today's Euro 2008 draw on the shore of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland threw up a series of heavyweight group-stage combinations unseen since the championship expanded to it's current 16-team format back in 1996.

An illustrious catalogue of European Championship winners such as Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini, Marco Van Basten and Jurgen Klinsmann were on hand to see world champions Italy drawn in the perilous Group C, alongside defeated finalists France, traditional guardians of 'total football' Holland and a resurgent Romania, who topped their qualifying group ahead of the Dutch.

When jovial Austrian TV host Rainer Pariasek, nominally in charge of proceedings, announced cheerfully that it was 'fantastic' for the French to be drawn as the Azzuri's final group opponents, Les Bleus' head coach Raymond Domenech looked distinctly unimpressed. Domenech's pre-draw criticism of Uefa's seeding system proved to be spot-on, as the European game's governing body singularly failed to dodge a bullet they had themselves loaded with their, frankly misjudged, seeding policy. Making co-hosts Switzerland (world ranked 44th) and Austria (91st, two slots above those much-heralded footballing giants Guyana) top seeds was nothing less than a half-baked nod to those who, reasonably it must be said, believe that such tournaments benefit from the prolonged involvement of their hosts.

However, it will require a freakish portion of luck and favourable circumstance for the Austrians to progress from a Group B loaded with historical resonances - a section which also comprises neighbours and bookies' favourites Germany, Poland and Croatia. Indeed, Croatia boss Slaven Bilic, who so skilfully masterminded the double defeat of England in their qualifying campaign, could barely restrain his delight at the draw; swapping high-fives with his coaching staff and sporting the broad grin which has become all too familiar to English fans of late.

A playful smile also teased across the face of Turkey's seasoned coach Fatih Terim when his charges emerged alongside Switzerland in Group A - the most recent meeting of the two nations, during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, was a fractious affair that descended into a mass brawl, drawing record bans and fines for those involved, and diplomatic intervention was required to diffuse the resulting hostilities. However, the former Milan boss failed to see the funny side moments later when the warring pair were joined by the distinctly more formidable Portugal and the Czech Republic, to make up another intriguing foursome.

Group D should provide an altogether more tame affair, as Euro 2004 group-stage foes Spain, Greece and Russia were re-united, and this time around will be joined by a faltering Sweden side which scraped qualification ahead of plucky Northern Ireland.

The finals will kick-off on June 7th, with co-hosts Switzerland meeting Karel Bruckner's Czechs at the St Jakob Park Stadium in Basle and culminate at Vienna's newly-renovated Ernst Happel Stadion on Sunday, June 29th.

Organisers Uefa earlier this week revealed that none of the 15 matches under suspicion of match-fixing in their 96-page report on corruption in the European game were, in fact, Euro 2008 qualifiers. Under the stewardship of Michel Platini - a man who of course steered hosts France to victory in Euro '84 with a phenomenal haul of nine goals in five games - Uefa will be hoping to avoid further controversy in the run-up to a championship which promises to be brimming with enough titanic clashes to match the skill and drama of classic tournaments past such as France '84 and Euro 2000.