Sunday, January 27, 2008

Young at heart of Villa fightback

Aston Villa 1-1 Blackburn Rovers, Villa Park, 26/01/08. Att: 39,602

Ashley Young’s set-piece mastery once more rescued Aston Villa, as the Midlands side came from a goal down to salvage a point at Villa Park.

Blackburn’s free-scoring Roque Santa Cruz had opened the scoring midway through the second half, bundling the ball home from close range. Young’s stunning 72nd minute free-kick, however, was enough to deny a resurgent Rovers outfit and send his team into fifth place in the Premiership in front of the watching Fabio Capello.

Given Rovers’ appalling recent record at Villa Park, this clash of the FA Cup drop-outs promised an opportunity for Villa to push their way into the fourth and final Champions League qualification spot by virtue of an eighth home league win of the season. In truth, that rarely looked as if it would be the case as the points were deservedly shared.

Clear-cut goalscoring opportunities for either side were sparse in the opening exchanges, and it took a clumsy trip from Nigel Reo-Coker on David Bentley to present the visitors with a chance to open the scoring from the spot. Matt Derbyshire strode forward to take the kick, but Scott Carson dived low and right to repel the youngster’s tame effort. The ensuing mêlée left Derbyshire crumpled in a heap on the penalty spot, but referee Howard Webb elected to award a free kick to the home side amid congratulations for hero Carson from his relieved team-mates.

An inert Villa toiled to find a way back into the match; a Young free-kick was hacked clear by Blackburn’s Irish international Steven Reid, who played a key defensive role in the Lancashire club’s five-man midfield setup throughout. Targetman John Carew utilised his ‘good touch for a big man’ - managing to work his way clear of three defenders in close attendance but then delaying a second too long before pulling the trigger, and his shot was blocked-out on the edge of the area.

Then, just short of half-time, Derbyshire raced clear of the static Villa defence but an expertly-timed Wilfred Bouma tackle just inside the penalty area prevented the England under-21 forward from getting into a favourable one-on-one situation against Carson.

Young’s considerable influence on the game intensified following the interval; the once-capped England winger’s surging run from the restart had to be halted by an incisive Stephen Warnock tackle, and it took a desperate challenge from David Dunn soon after to block his progress once more.

Frustrated Villa boss Martin O’Neill withdrew midfielder Stillian Petrov – tireless but ineffective – and introduced Monday night’s unlikely hero Marlon Harewood in his place. The oft-maligned Harewood received a glowing reception from the Villa faithful; demonstrating that one spectacular goal at Anfield could, however briefly, mask a lacklustre start to his career at the club. The ex-West Ham frontman was quickly into the heart of the action; a powerful, direct run was followed by a firm, low shot which tested Brad Friedel in the Rovers’ goal.

Blackburn, however, were first to break the deadlock, on 66 minutes. David Dunn danced away from his marker and surged brilliantly past Curtis Davies on the edge of the Villa area to fire a low shot at Carson which he could only parry into the path of the hitherto invisible Roque Santa Cruz. The Paraguayan duly nudged the ball into the net from close-in to claim his 15th goal of an impressive first campaign in English football.

A tired-looking Villa side were essentially bereft of the required inspiration to conjure an equaliser from open play, but with a dead-ball expert such as Young amongst their ranks they will always carry a substantial threat from set plays. An innocuous-looking challenge on the otherwise anonymous Gabriel Agbonlahor was adjudged by Webb to be worthy of a free-kick, a decision which Rovers’ manager Mark Hughes later described as “disappointing”, and Young curled a brilliant effort over the defensive wall and past a helpless Friedel to equalise.

Another precision Young free kick then found the head of Harewood, but his header cannoned back off the bar and to immediate safety. A good opportunity from a similar situation was spurned by Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose effort was driven straight at Villa skipper Gareth Barry.

Pedersen also then dragged a speculative long range shot wide and a Brett Emerton run culminated in a disappointing left foot shot, easily gathered by Carson, as the visitors looked to snatch a win on the break.

In the dying minutes, Agbonlahor turned well to slot in from a Martin Laursen flick-on, but the ‘goal’ was rightly ruled out by the offside flag. Ashley Young’s stellar showing was almost capped off in style, as the £9m arrival from Watford in last season’s winter transfer window whipped yet another first-class free kick narrowly over the bar with the last meaningful kick of the game.

After the match, Mark Hughes alluded to Villa’s strong physical presence and subsequent threat from set pieces being a key factor, but still felt that with “a little more craft and composure” his charges could have earned maximum points. He said: “Villa Park has not been a happy hunting ground for us. When you miss the penalty you think ‘here we go’, but I think we possibly deserved all three (points).”

Martin O’Neill said of his side’s saviour: “Ashley’s exceptional. He’ll always stay back and practice (free kicks) after training. He’s improved immensely in the last year.”

When pressed, O'Neill added that the club would be making an announcement about the immediate future of Juventus-bound Olof Mellberg and “perhaps something else” on Monday. Villa fans will be hoping that ‘something else’ pertains to further creative support for their rapidly-rising starlet Young. He, in turn, will be hoping that his display sufficiently impressed Signor Capello – and surely it did.

Monday, January 21, 2008

King Salomon gives Elephants the edge

Ivory Coast 1 – 0 Nigeria, 21st January 2008, Sekondi

The Africa Cup of Nations came to Sekondi, capital of Western Ghana, with the tantalising prospect of a number of the continent’s superstars coming head-to-head drawing much hype and expectation across the globe. Such a clash between two African super-powers so early in the tournament schedule was always likely to result a cautious affair though, and that proved to be the case as Berti Vogts’ Super Eagles yet again wilted in the face of expectation, falling to an inspired goal by Ivorian livewire Salomon Kalou.

Both sides adopted a wary approach from the outset, on another overgrown playing surface to match yesterday’s in Accra – the Ivorians, under the temporary stewardship of Olympic team coach Gerard Gili (boss Uli Stielike remains at home in Germany, tending to his sick son), opted for the hulking Steven Gohouri at right-back. This selection pushed Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue up onto the right wing in place of the more naturally attacking option; Kader Keita, club record signing of Lyon. Though Nigeria lined up with a stellar front-line of Martins-Kanu-Yakubu, ably supported by Portsmouth winger John Utaka, their stilted performance ultimately lacked sorely in both urgency and cohesion.

Kanu’s wayward early left-footed drive from the edge of the area, following a neat Yakubu lay-off, was as good as it got for Nigeria from open play during the first period, and though Ivory Coast ‘keeper Boubacar Barry flapped wildly at several innocuous crosses, they failed to take further advantage of the inexperienced Lokeren stopper’s nervous indecision. Not long after, a thunderous Taye Taiwo free-kick from 25-yards out rattled the crossbar, with Barry well beaten. However, Nigeria failed to seize the initiative from thereon.

Throughout, Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora had the rule over John Obi Mikel and, nominally, Kanu in the midfield contest, and Toure had a 20-yarder well saved by Austin Ejide near the half-hour mark.

An absorbing, if at times disjointed first half was superseded by a far better second period, enlivened by Kalou’s jinking run through both the near ankle-length grass and a sea of Nigerian defenders’ legs to fire firm and low past the helpless Ejide with an hour on the clock.

The pacy Chelsea forward was schooled in Dutch football, primarily with Feyenoord, and only missed out on an appearance at the 2006 World Cup for his adopted country due to a wrangle with officials over gaining full Dutch residency. Ironically, the group draw for that tournament paired the Ivorians with the Oranje, but Kalou’s failure to ‘go Dutch’ in time caused him to instead join his elder brother Bonaventure in playing for the country of his birth. Any lingering scepticism towards Kalou junior from Ivorian fans was surely blown well and truly away though by his stunning, decisive contribution to this game.

Going behind naturally implored Nigeria, with the dangerous Mali lying in wait next time out, to improve upon their hitherto laboured efforts. However, with the game opening up, it was instead the Ivory Coast’s front men – including lively substitute Kader Keita – that looked more likely to add a second. Les Elephants’ towering talisman Didier Drogba was undoubtedly far short of peak fitness following his recent knee operation and he was withdrawn late on, to be replaced by tiny Bakary Kone who seemed barely half his captain’s size as the pair swapped places on the touchline. It was, instead, the performances of Barcelona’s rising star Toure, Aruna Dindane and Kalou that carried the greatest threat, and the Ivorians – Kalou in particular – spurned several decent chances to wrap things up conclusively.

Nevertheless, the disjointed and 'not-so-super' Super Eagles never seriously looked like getting themselves level, and the final whistle brought defeat, to sighs of dismay from supporters growing wearily accustomed to such let-downs. Yet again the big names and similarly big egos had flattered to deceive on the big occasion, the predominant factor when it comes to explaining why the multi-talented Nigerians have fallen at the semi-final stage in the past three tournaments.

The upcoming game against Mali – themselves featuring an impressive array of talent such as Real Madrid’s Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita (of Sevilla), Momo Sissoko (soon to be ex-Liverpool) and, of course, Fredi Kanoute – will prove a fiercely stern test and one which will undoubtedly have 130 million-plus Nigerians on the edge of their seats throughout.

On the other hand, the Ivory Coast – with, they hope, Drogba slowly re-gaining his explosive edge – will be favourites to progress from Group B as winners, therefore most likely avoiding hosts Ghana in the quarter-finals. Anything less than being crowned Kings of African football in four weeks time will be heralded as nothing other than failure for Les Elephants. They remain a united squad, a beacon of hope, all in spite of the sectarian strife riven through Ivorian society. If they can handle such pressure, the trophy is theirs for the taking.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Six on the spin for relentless Inter

Inter finish 2007 seven points clear of second-placed Roma in the Serie A standings, following a deserved 2-1 victory in an action-packed derbi di Milano. Their sixth straight league win came before a raucous San Siro crowd, at the expense of deadly rivals AC Milan. The nerazurri’s derby success was made in Argentina - goals either side of half-time from the in-form Julio Cruz and combative midfielder Esteban Cambiasso rendering Andrea Pirlo’s wonderful early goal from a free-kick insignificant in the final analysis.

With the mid-winter break looming large, Inter’s challengers –at least notionally – for lo scudetto had been narrowed down to Roma and a re-born Juventus. Both found themselves in the unusual position of willing Milan to victory – Carlo Ancelotti’s side being way off the pace themselves; languishing sullenly in the bottom half of the table. In spite of their complete absence of domestic form, Milan were recently crowned World Club Champions - defeating Boca Juniors in the Tokyo final - and hoped to use that fine achievement as a springboard for an overdue derby victory.

Inter were nominally the home team at the packed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, populated predominantly by interista, and Roberto Mancini’s charges formed a guard of honour to welcome Milan onto the pitch to recognise their rivals’ triumph in Japan. However, that gesture was where the seasonal goodwill ended. Milan’s tigerish midfield enforcer Gennaro Gattuso set the tone for what was to come with a trademark crunching challenge on Inter playmaker Luis Jimenez in the second minute, and was lucky to escape a booking.

Pirlo was the first name in the book just a few minutes later, but had a more decisive impact in the 17th minute. Veteran Milan forward Pippo Inzaghi did what he does best (that is aside from snaffling goals by the bagful and habitually getting caught offside), collapsing flimsily under an innocuous challenge by Ivan Cordoba. Pirlo stepped up to expertly curl the resulting 20-yard free-kick up and over the defensive wall, into the top-left corner of the Inter net.

Far from being subdued by this early setback, Inter instead flooded forward and within two minutes Jimenez saw a left-footed shot from an acute angle bounce to safety off the crossbar. Shortly after Cristian Chivu – successfully moved into midfield by Mancini to help lessen the impact of Milan’s Golden Ball winner, Kaka – fired a tame free-kick disappointingly over, when someone of his undoubted dead-ball pedigree would have expected to at least test Milan’s Dida. Though Kaka was kept largely quiet by his own explosive standards, a mazy run by the Brazilian turned Walter Samuel inside out and caused the burly Argentine defender to pull up with a knee injury – not for the first time in his career –and Marco Materazzi, an explosive character in his own right, was thrown on in his place.

Within moments of his arrival Inter found a merited equaliser. On 35 minutes, deft footwork on the edge of the penalty area by the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic brilliantly took out three Milan defenders and Julio Cruz broke free to rifle in powerfully from a well-judged Cambiasso pass – his seventh goal in as many Serie A games. Tireless Inter captain Javier Zanetti fired a long-range drive narrowly wide soon after, following a thrusting run from his right-back station. Three further yellow cards followed before the half-time interval – including an obligatory caution for Materazzi – as the game became increasingly fractious.

Ancelotti – who has Jose Mourinho, among others, waiting in line to succeed him in the Milan hotseat next summer – rang the changes during the break; Emerson and Alberto Gilardino were on, the injured Gattuso and hopelessly isolated Inzaghi off. Initially, the manager’s bold decision very nearly had the desired effect – Gilardino nodded a tempting Paolo Maldini cross just wide in the 49th minute.

However, following a period of Inter pressure, a slack defensive header by Maldini – in his 24th and final season of a highly distinguished career defined by unqualified loyalty and professionalism – fell short of third Milan sub Serginho, and Cambiasso pounced. The much under-rated midfielder’s 62nd minute shot was low and hard, but Milan ‘keeper Dida made a hash of it, almost diving out of its flight path, though he will undoubtedly claim in his defence that he was left unsighted by bodies in the box. The former Brazilian no. 1 has, of late, lost his national team place to opposite number Julio Cesar, and can surely expect to be one of many joining the summer exodus planned by rossoneri owner Silvio Berlusconi.

Julio Cesar was himself only briefly called into action, saving comfortably from Kaka with ten minutes to play. Then, on 87 minutes, Massimo Ambrosini spurned Milan’s best, and final, chance of an equalising goal; Serginho’s devilish whipped cross beat Chivu at the near post, but Ambrosini failed to connect with the ball at close range. At the final whistle, Inter’s players looked totally satisfied with a win which rarely looked in doubt after their second goal slipped under Dida’s flailing body.

The game served to again expose Milan’s over-reliance on Kaka to dig their ageing stars out of numerous holes and their frustrating inability to shift up a gear when they go behind. These traits should, in theory, play very much into the hands of their upcoming Champions League opponents Arsenal. Meanwhile Inter can boast a multi-faceted squad, packed with attacking options and, with just one defeat in their last 56 Serie A games, will be feeling full of confidence as they approach a tricky last-16 clash with Liverpool. As of this moment, few could legitimately bet against a league and European Cup double for the nerazurri in 2008.