An invite to my 6th annual charity soccer tournament

Hello footy fans

As many of you know my columns on the game are now available to read on TSN.ca which is why very little has been posted on this site. However, this site gave me a platform to write when I didn’t have one and I thank you all for reading it.

I am using this site today to give you an opportunity to be play in my 6th annual charity soccer tournament.

Over five years ago while running on a treadmill it hit me. I always wanted to do more for people who are not as fortunate as us and this was how to do it.

Combining the great sport of soccer with friendship and work camaraderie, for the past five years I have run a soccer tournament to help raise money for certain charities that are close to my heart.
Year one started with 30 of us kicking a ball around for a few hours and last year over 100 people played and some had to be turned away as my squads were maxed out.
During that time I was a proud employee of the Score Television Network and the day itself became one of the highlights of the year for many staff members. Not only was it a way of getting people together out of the work environment, but it also improved relationships, raised morale, created great memories and brought many smiles to people’s faces.
Although I am no longer with theScore, I am proud to be close to many who work there, including Sally, John and Benjie, who have again offered this year to help me with this endeavour once again.
It didn’t take long for this event to get to the public and over the last few years I have opened it up to a select member of people who do not work in the sports media industry.
I am delighted to once again have my friends on board from Umbro Canada who supply us with jerseys so we all at least look like a player, even if most of us don’t play like one!
Please do not be put off if you have never played the game. This is a fun day out, where you will be placed on a team to play a few games, knowing you are making a difference in people’s lives.
All you need to do at the moment is confirm whether or not you will be able to play.
The event takes place between 1015am and 230pm on Friday December 20th at Lamport Stadium in Toronto. Cost is $50 and in return for that you will receive a shirt, a spot on a team and one golden raffle ticket to win some outstanding prizes.
This is not a tournament that accepts local teams, just individuals who are placed on teams that feature people from the media industry.
If you want a spot in this tournament follow these instructions:
1) Please email KJtournament@outlook.com as soon as you can. Spots are currently open but running out quickly.
2) You must indicate your jersey size preference (I will do my best to get this)
3) If you have never played with me in an event before please let me know if you have any experience, preference of position, etc. This will be used when setting up the teams.
The event is also looking for volunteers to referee games or monitor scores so please get in touch if you want to be involved that way.
Later this month an email will be sent out to the players selected with the schedule, teams, information on how to pay and details of the charities we will be supporting this year.
Many thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon
Kristian

A review of the European Under 21 Championships

Those in Canada will be aware that during the European Under 21 Championships in Israel I worked as an analyst for TSN. Since the tournament ended last week I have been busy with MLS work for TSN but now that has finished here is my review of the tournament:

Francesco Bardi couldn’t handle it anymore. At the final whistle he sunk to his knees and looked up at the Israel sky turning dark.

The Italian goalkeeper had conceded one goal in four games before the final, and that was a penalty, yet on this night in Jerusalem he allowed four goals to a very special team. You could forgive him for needing a lie down.

In fact, the month of June is often spent lying down for the majority of footballers. Dubai, the Maldives and the USA are hotspots for footballers after a long 10 month season. Israel? Not so much. Just hot.

However, the small country, sitting on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, hosted close to 200 players from eight different countries for two weeks for a 2013 European Under 21 Championship tournament that provided onlookers with a picture perfect view of the international game’s future.

For a time much of the discussion focused on the players who were eligible to be there, but instead chose to be lying on beaches away from Israel. The likes of Jack Rodwell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck could have been there for England. They weren’t and England used it as an excuse to shield a woefully poor squad from further embarrassment after three losses in three games.

The likes of Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze, and Ilkay Gundogan, all born after the tournament’s cutoff date of January 1st 1990, also chose to rest elsewhere, only this time the decision from the players and their country’s footballing association was right, despite Germany failing to qualify from a competitive group B. The quality shown by each of those players in the highest club competition in the game, the Champions League, this past season showed the only thing they needed at this time of the year was to be horizontal champions, not football champions again.

Instead it was a time for other people to have their moments in the sun.

There was the image of Israel coach Guy Luzon sinking to his knees with his arms raised aloft after his host side had upset a desperately inept England side. As Luzon, who now heads to Standard Liege, gazed into the dark sky content with a glorious finale, across the pitch there was no lying down on the ground for the England players, following their third successive loss in Group A. Their lack of quality had already ensured they had done that.

Once England departed the stories spoke for themselves. Norway, whose technically improved side had put on a counter attacking clinic against Stuart Pearce’s side to beat them 3-1 in group A, played the part of unlikely sleeper, a character almost every tournament creates. The Norwegians, whose tournament ended in a semi final loss to Spain, were a breath of fresh air, showcasing to the continent a highly technical style that looked nothing like the style a nation, once so heavily influenced by England, showed over a decade ago when their senior national side’s more direct systems led to success in tournaments. Forced, by some poor scheduling by UEFA, to play two of their three group games without four of their best players (who played for the senior team in a World Cup qualifier during the tournament) Tor Ole Skullerud’s side matched their best ever performance at this level by reaching the final four for just the second time in their history. Producing players comfortable on the ball like Markus Henrikson and Magnus Eikrem, direct and powerful forwards like Marcus Pedersen, and skillful, intelligent defenders such as Omar Elabdellaoui and skipper Stefan Strandberg, not only shows their national team are on the right track but also validates the country’s stance on producing home grown players through their clubs, originally forced upon them during the 2009 financial crisis.

Three hours after Norway’s ticket home was stamped by Spain they were joined in the departure lounge by the Netherlands. The Dutch team, whose best XI started all three of their important games in the tournament (their final group game saw them play their second XI), boasted a combined 56 senior caps and looked like the tournament’s best team during the group stage. Cor Pot’s side raced into a 2-0 lead in their opening game against Germany and still had enough firepower to win it at the death after allowing two second half goals to their rivals. In the second game they dismantled an undisciplined Russia side 5-1 and headed into the game against Spain as the pure entertainers on show in Israel. Pot’s decision to rest his best team denied them of top spot in group B and denied the rest of us a tasty encounter against the Spanish. Some thought that would come in the final but it never arrived as the Dutch team lost 1-0 to Italy in a semi final that was the competition’s dullest match by some margin.

For the Dutch is was an all too familiar finish to a tournament. They had so much talent on show and dominated the game but they couldn’t put away their chances and ultimately allowed the Italians to suck the life out of the game, turning it into a physical encounter that they edged through a late Fabio Borini winner. There may have been no trophy but the future looks to be now for many of the Jung Oranje players. Feyenoord centre backs Stefan De Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi were formidable, showcasing excellent skills on the ball and strength off it and you could make the case the pair are the country’s best at their positions already.

In front of them sat brilliant young midfielders Kevin Strootman and Marco Van Ginkel. Strootman’s elegance is admirable in a deep position as he almost glides through a game with wonderful ball control and distribution before exploding into dribblers with a physical side that gives him the potential to soon be the perfect deep lying midfielder. Alongside him, 20-year-old Van Ginkel may be even better. He had the greatest engine in the tournament, driving in top gear from deep positions and into space that has allowed him to score so many goals in the Erevidise this season. His tactical discipline at such a young age was outstanding, making him a perfect partner for Strootman. Ahead of them was 19-year-old playmaker Adam Maher, the AZ Alkmaar man who knew when to make up a three in midfield before exploding into the final third with a pinpoint pass or a shot from distance. For sixty minutes the trio dictated their semi final but Italy’s physicality wore them down and a game with no flow sent them to lie on the beaches elsewhere. As they did, the future of the Dutch midfield, just three years on from a Mark Van Bommel, Nigel De Jong Royal Rumble in Soccer City, looks breathtakingly fresh.

A year on from meeting twice at Euro 2012, including the final, Italy met Spain in this final hoping to change their fortunes. Bardi’s constant returns to the back of the net to retrieve the ball was not what Italy imagined but indeed brought back memories of their senior team being dismantled in last summer’s Euro 2012. That day a formidable Spanish midfielder, who never really made his mark on the tournament until the final, took over the match for his team. Like Xavi in Kiev, Thiago Alcantara, his Barcelona team-mate, did the same in Israel, blasting in a first half hat-trick that put the final beyond doubt at the interval.

If it was Thiago’s final then it was certainly Isco’s championships. The Malaga magician was by far and away the best player on show, particularly after game one when his coach, Julen Lopetegui, moved him further up into a front three and gave him licence to go anywhere. Up 3-1 in the final, the selfless Thiago could have added a fourth goal from the spot but rightfully handed it to Isco to get his moment in his final match at this level. Throughout the tournament his name was linked with Real Madrid and Manchester City followed by internet chatter that he would struggle to get minutes at those clubs. He has things to learn but, to me, he certainly could walk into those teams and play often. He may not yet have the lateral movement of Mesut Ozil or the passing ability of David Silva but he is stronger than both on the ball, just as good at dribbling and could one day be better than both. He certainly has the ability to challenge Cesc Fabregas as the impact substitution his senior team needs. Watching Spain dominate the tournament for the second successive time it is easy to see their players and think one day that they could challenge for senior caps and that might be the greatest compliment they can receive considering just how many legitimate world class stars Spain produces. Right back Martin Montoya, and reserve Daniel Carvajal for that matter, both look players who will one day soon be better than Alvaro Arbeloa. Centre back Inigo Martinez has the technical ability of a midfielder and is one of the most comfortable defenders on the ball I have seen, a player who loves to drive into space and spread an accurate cross-field ball to the right back. His Real Sociedad team-mate Asier Illarramendi is a marvellous midfielder, a young man who reads the game quite superbly, a player comfortable dropping deep and allowing his centre-backs to split (in the Sergio Busquets role) but is actually better when he plays further up the field where he can tackle, pass, shoot and drive his team forward at the opportune time. If Real Madrid need to replace Xabi Alonso in a year this is their man.

And yet without Alvaro Morata, Spain may not have been allowed to show their brilliance late in the tournament. Like David Villa did in South Africa 2010, Morata scored valuable goals early in the tournament when games seemed to be heading to a 0-0 draw. Morata, who had never made his debut at this level until these championships, who was more direct than Rodrigo, pounced when his opponents were at their weakest moment. It was no coincidence that six of Spain’s eight goals on the way to the final came in the last few minutes of the half, a time when their rivals were physically and mentally exhausted against the possession-dominated style shown by the Spanish.

That wasn’t the story in the final, however, as Italy were simply not good enough, although there is no real shame in that. This Spanish Under 21 side could beat most senior teams in Europe. Italy’s team in Israel gave their country hope as the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Bianchetti certainly showed they could join Marco Verratti one day for the Azzurri.

For their final night in Israel, though, their aim was to pick up their goalie from the floor as Spain celebrated around them.

Tournament Best XI

GK – David De Gea (Spain) – had very little to do in over half of his games but was outstanding vs Russia and brilliant with his distribution from the back.

RB – Giulio Donati (Italy) – Brave and physical at right back, harshly adjudged to give a penalty away in the final. Just gets the nod over Montoya.

CB – Matteo Bianchetti (Italy) – Was the real leader of their impressive back four, commanding in the air and good on the ball.

CB – Inigo Martinez (Spain) – Another future world class star in the making.

LB – Bruno Martins Indi (Netherlands) – Plays mainly at CB but has a great left foot, good technique, very powerful and exceptional at running back to his own goal.

M – Asier Illarramendi (Spain) – Will be surprised if he is playing Champions League for Real Sociedad this season. Bigger stage is coming.

M – Marco Van Ginkel (Netherlands) – Covers so much ground, remarkable football IQ for a man so young. Ideal midfielder to play as the attacker in a 2 of 4231.

M – Thiago Alcantara (Spain) – Motored his way through the tournament in third gear and was impressive until exploding into top gear when the world watched.

F – Isco (Spain) – Introduction of Koke deeper allowed him to get forward and terrorize defenders who were often drawn out towards him, leaving space behind.

F – Lorenzo Insigne (Italy) – Just edges out Florenzi into the best XI. When Italy were at their best it was because of him. Excellent in field runs from wide areas.

F – Alvaro Morata (Spain) – Unlikely Golden Boot winner was there when his team needed him the most, allowing them to just get across the line twice in the group stages.

Top three games

1. Netherlands 3 Germany 2.

2. Spain 4 Italy 2.

3. Israel 2 Norway 2

Top three goals

1. Isco vs Norway

2. Wijnaldum vs Russia

3. Insigne vs England

Borussia Dortmund 1-2 Bayern Munich – Robben’s redemption a fitting story before Pep takes over.

Starting XI’s

Jurgen Klopp lost Mario Gotze through injury earlier in the week so caused no surprises by picking Kevin Grosskreutz in his place, allowing Marco Reus to play more centrally, and effectively putting Dortmund in a 4-4-1-1 shape to counter Bayern’s threat in wide areas.

football formations

Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes’ chose Jerome Boateng over Daniel Van Buyten as Dante’s partner in central defence and otherwise lined the team up as expected in their 4-2-3-1 shape. With Toni Kroos still injured, Thomas Muller started the game centrally, as he did in the semi final against Barcelona, giving Arjen Robben a chance to start again.

football formations

Observations

  • It took three touches. One to get away from the defender, one to position himself for the shot and one to pass the ball into the back of the net, and shortly past 930pm in North West London, inside Wembley Stadium, Arjen Robben could finally forget about Johannesburg 2010. For 88 minutes it looked like it was going ‘the Robben way’. His team were entering the final moments of a game, not winning and haunted by a number of misses from the Dutchman. Then from a free kick, deep inside their own half, Franck Ribery controlled the ball brilliantly, again brought Dortmund players towards him, before sending Robben through on goal. He leaned heavily on his left foot, once again, and one, two, three touches later it became Robben’s final.
  • Ribery and Robben had combined 28 minutes earlier to put Bayern ahead when three Dortmund defenders (sound familiar) flocked to the Frenchman who found Robben to his left, before the winger sent a ball across for Mario Mandzukic to nod Bayern into the lead.
  • It was a lead that they narrowly deserved having been the better side for the final 15 minutes of the first half and the opening 15 minutes of the second.
  • Typically, though, electric Dortmund dug deep and got a break when Dante used his wrong leg in a challenge against Reus, one Mr Miyagi would have been proud of, to concede a penalty. Ilkay Gundogan, a man who grew into a star in this year’s competition, converted the spot kick with ease to set up such a dramatic finale.
  • It will easily be forgotten now but the manner in which Bayern played, at 1-1, with the game on the line in the late stages was courageous. A team whose own players said they can be known as ‘losers’ if they didn’t win on this night could have gone into their shell, played nervously and tried to take the cautious approach for a winner. Instead, they reacted like a champion and now great, world class players like Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger quite rightly are looked at as winners.
  • The use of Robben centrally during that crucial period was pivotal, not only in the game’s winning goal but in their overall attacking flow. Thomas Muller did not have a great game (failed to link better with midfield; was indecisive in front of goal) but his ability to stick closer to the touchline stretched Dortmund’s back four more than they would have liked, Ribery got stronger as the game went on and Robben thrived in the space afforded to him.

KJ-footy1

  • Muller, David Alaba and Bastian Schweinsteiger all came close to scoring in that period and the central midfielder, in particular, was enjoying how the game’s pendulum had swung having played a key part in it during the first half.
  • Dortmund came as advertised, pressing their opponents early, starting in top gear and pushing Bayern deep for the opening 25 minutes of the game. It was a fascinating period to see how Bayern would cope, as they still dominated possession but couldn’t play their way to their front four in the usual manner. Schweinsteiger dropped deep to ensure they could at least treasure the ball while losing the territory battle, often splitting the full backs to maintain composure at the back. Only when Bayern got into their gameplan did he start to venture further forward.

KJ-footy 2

  • Schweinsteiger was not the only one making adjustments at this stage. As all great teams do, all 11 Bayern players worked tirelessly during a difficult moment for them. In the 16th minute even Robben was in his own box to make a significant clearance and eventually they grew into the first half, which was dominated by brilliant saves by both goalkeepers, with three stops on Robben being the ones most remembered.
  • Until that final minute that is. Robben won a major final, playing centrally in a match where both midfields struggled to insert their dominance, in a tournament where central midfields have been essential to success. Mark it down, folks. It was as unusual as a Robben pass. Robben, and Reus, effectively saw two teams playing with just two central midfielders, using width more than most, which effectively meant the game for the neutrals was a wide-open entertaining affair.
  • It is fitting that it be Robben who takes this current Bayern Munich team to the promised land before Pep Guardiola takes over next season. The Dutchman is not a Guardiola player and it is very likely this performance will keep him at the club next season, but he will struggle to get a lot of playing time before moving elsewhere. And with that Bayern will get better. Many will wonder this evening what the Spaniard can possibly do to make them even stronger but a club should not always be defined by trophies. There is still plenty to improve on. Next season Bayern may not win the Champions League (it is a cup competition after all) but they will become more efficient in their passing and, with the return of the exceptional Toni Kroos, will have a central midfield trio that can rival any side in the world. Players like Muller and Ribery, for all of their strengths now, can get better and will be pushed by the likes of Mario Gotze and Kroos going forward to do so.
  • This is clearly just the beginning of Bayern’s greatness but going forward it will have a different look and charisma about it than the one that won the 2012/13 Champions League. Robben’s three touches took care of that.

Bayern Munich: Neuer 8, Lahm 6, Boateng 7, Dante 5, Alaba 6, Martinez 6, Schweinsteiger 7, Ribery 7 (Gustavo 90), Muller 6, Robben 8, Mandzukic 7 (Gomez 90).

Borussia Dortmund: Weidenfeller 8, Piszczek 6, Subotic 7, Hummels 6, Schmelzer 6, Blaszczykowski 7 (Schieber 90), Bender 6 (Sahin 90), Gundogan 6, Grosskreutz 6, Reus 7, Lewandowski 7.

An in-depth look back at Roberto Mancini’s reign as Manchester City manager. Where it went right, where it went wrong & why it was time for him to go.

Roberto-Mancini-Real-Madrid-Manchester-City_2864325

The Early Years

It is Saturday December 19th, 2009 and inside their own stadium, on a cool afternoon, with Christmas in the air, Manchester City are in the giving mood.

They’ve powered into a 2-0 early lead against Sunderland, through goals from Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tevez, but the visitors have hit back with two goals themselves, also inside the first 25 minutes, to level the score. When Craig Bellamy makes it 3-2 after 35 minutes the rumours begin to spread and by the time Kenwyne Jones levels on the hour the entire stadium knows Mark Hughes is getting sacked. Santa Cruz’s winner makes it 4-3, a famous scoreline in the Premier League, and one that gave the watching Roberto Mancini much to think about.

The Italian isn’t in the job yet but he is already in the stadium. His presence, before one of his own has even cleared his desk, just added to the narrative post-match where most in the football community felt the Welshman had been hard done by.

“Patience is not a big quality anymore in our society and when football is quicker, the patience is even shorter,” said Arsene Wenger following the firing.

He was one of many managers who stuck up for Hughes. However, those who looked closer could see City were in a mess that December having conceded 17 goals in the final seven league matches of his tenure, with Hughes struggling to find a team that could score and be defensively solid. In those seven games alone, in the six positions in front of the back four, he had played Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong, Stephen Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Martin Petrov, Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho, Tevez, Santa Cruz and even midfielder Vincent Kompany.

Sitting sixth after 17 games, after spending over 120 million pounds in the summer on Barry, Tevez, Santa Cruz, Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarek made his move:

“Roberto is a hugely experienced manager with a proven track record of winning trophies and championships. What is absolutely clear is that he believes our potential to achieve at the highest level and importantly in his own ability to make it happen.”

The English press disagreed and so harsh was their take on the firing of Hughes that newspapers were banned inside City’s training ground.

On Christmas Eve, Mancini gave his first pre-match press conference and had to deal with questions about his current players loyalties to Hughes. He reacted with a swagger, a smile and a message of intent, saying: “I appreciate some are close to Mark, that is a good thing for a manager. When I go away from here in 15 years with five Premier League titles and four cups, the players will be the same with me.”

A woefully poor, defensive-minded, Stoke provided the perfect tonic for the Italian’s debut at home, although Shay Given’s magnificent saves on efforts by Tuncay and James Beattie certainly helped City secure a comfortable 2-0 win. Mancini’s XI that day played a fluid 4-2-3-1. With Lescott out with an ankle injury, Kompany played centre-back for just the second time that season and ended his career as a any kind of holding midfielder. Barry had his best City performance alongside De Jong as two pivots set the tone for Mancini’s City, while the three of the four in front of them played very well. Robinho, who was taken off for Bellamy, did not.

City were rejuvenated and more importantly organised. Another clean sheet followed two days later in a 3-0 win at Wolves. “In Italy it is impossible to play two games in three days but this is England and that was fantastic. Can we win the league? All is realistic,” stated the Italian post match.

By the middle of January, City were fourth but were outplayed at Everton, a ground Mancini would grow to dislike. That day Santa Cruz left the game injured after just nine minutes and Robinho was sent on to replace him. By the hour mark the Brazilian was back on the bench. It was the first sign of Mancini’s impatience with his players and Robinho never played in the Premier League again, leaving for Santos by the end of the month.

Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira came through the door swung open by the Brazilian but were stunned on their debuts with a 2-1 loss at Hull. City’s front four of Ireland, Bellamy, Tevez and Adebayor were poor and the overall tempo to City’s play was too slow.

Ten days later they showed up to Stoke on a cold, February evening without Tevez who had been allowed to go home to Argentina to be with his family following the birth of his premature baby daughter.

Five days later, 4th placed City drew 0-0 with 5th placed Liverpool a game remembered for nothing but Mancini’s quote afterwards: “I do not know where Carlos is. It is a big problem for us because we have an important week. It is no good, Carlos has been eight days at home and I do not know if he has been working on his fitness. I hope he can come back here within two days, he has had some problems which have now been resolved and I need him.”

Never was this more evident upon his return when City went to leaders Chelsea and won 4-2. While the world focused on Wayne Bridge not shaking John Terry’s hand, Mancini masterminded a 4-5-1 with Pablo Zabaleta in central midfield and Johnson joining Bellamy on the wing, feeding the forever moving Tevez, in front of them. City destroyed Chelsea on the counter attack, which caused two Chelsea players to be sent off, and Mancini had his first key win.

A month later, however, they remained out of the top four after losing 2-0 again to Everton, this time at home when Mancini was sent off for a fracas with David Moyes over the ball.

They had now lost momentum to Tottenham for the fourth spot and it all came down to their penultimate match when they hosted Spurs, who led them by a point, in one of the most anticipated games of the season.

Peter Crouch’s 82nd minute goal secured Tottenham’s place in the top four and ensured City would have to wait another season to play in the Champions League.

“We must now be allowed to develop, ” the manager said post match.

“We believe he is definitely the right manager for this club for many years. Roberto’s going to do a wonderful job,” stated Al Mubarek following the loss. He added: “He needs time this summer to prepare.”

Prepare he did helping City spend close to 150 million pounds on Mario Balotelli, Jerome Boateng, Edin Dzeko, Aleksandar Kolarov, James Milner, David Silva and Yaya Toure.

Only Silva and Toure started the opening game of the 2010/2011 season, a 0-0 draw at Tottenham, remembered for the day Joe Hart took over the number one spot from Shay Given. Hart wasted no time in making Mancini look good, making brilliant saves to deny Jermain Defoe,  Tom Huddlestone and  Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

City were clearly more talented but struggled for consistency early on, impressing in wins over Liverpool and Chelsea but again looking lethargic in losses at Sunderland and Wolves.

Away performances were becoming a concern, even if the results didn’t always show it, as Mancini struggled to find ways to let his creative cannons loose.

Eight clean sheets in their first 16 games of the season showed they’d make significant progress in organization post-Hughes but it had come at a cost in front of goal.

Everton, fittingly, marked the Italian’s one year anniversary at the club with a 2-1 win at City but this would prove to be an extremely rare blip on their home form as they wouldn’t lose a league home match for another two years.

On their travels, though, problems persisted. A 0-0 at Arsenal in January saw the Italian lambasted by the newspapers for negative football and losses at Aston Villa, Chelsea, Man  Utd and Liverpool soon followed with the one at Anfield arguably their worst performance of the season.

City, with Milner and Johnson playing wide, and Dzeko and Tevez up top, conceded far too much space and were battered 3-0. While Andy Carroll celebrated his first goals for his new club, 4th placed City, after 31 games, looked down and saw Tottenham just three points back with a game in hand. It was a position they never imagined they would be in and it was all down to their away form.

A further loss to Everton again highlighted their inability to dictate an away match against a top side but a Champions League slot was eventually secured when they won at Blackburn and beat Tottenham at home prior to a date in the FA Cup final against Stoke.

A day out at Wembley saw them simply overmatch their opponents in midfield and although the game wasn’t thrilling, City cruised to a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from the game’s best player in Yaya Toure. It was their first FA Cup triumph for 42 years.

Eight days later they wrapped up Mancini’s first full Premier League season in third place with a win at Bolton, securing their 18th clean sheet of the season and ensuring the 33 goals allowed past them was the least they had ever conceded in their history of top-flight football.

One and a half season’s into his time at City, Mancini had made City far more organised, harder to beat, taken them into the Champions League and brought them a trophy. Mark Hughes was a forgotten man as the fans, repeatedly singing Mancini’s name, saw the Italian as the leader who took them to a place they had dreamed of when their club had hit the football lottery.

Time to deliver

City’s summer spending of 2011 was relatively moderate compared to the previous two years but there was nothing conservative about the capture of Sergio Aguero, who arrived from Atletico Madrid for 38 million pounds. Aguero was seen to be the man who could unlock tight games and be the difference maker to help the team go from third to first. In Mancini’s first full season the club had got to 71pts and scored 60 goals, targets many clubs would be happy with but not tallies that win titles, which is what City now fully expected to do.

City hosted Swansea, to complete the opening weekend of the season, on a Monday night and the game was one of many played under Mancini that ignited in the second half after a stuttering first half, with City netting four outstanding goals in the last 35 minutes to win 4-0. It was cruel on Swansea but Aguero’s brace was stunning, marking his arrival in England with an exclamation point.

After a 3-2 win at Bolton, City travelled to Tottenham at the end of August. Spurs were a shambles, Luka Modric had to be taken off because ‘his head was gone’ as transfer speculation surrounded the Croatian, but City were absolutely magnificent. In a 5-1 victory they produced the perfect away performance, scoring goals from distance, on the counter and as a result of outstanding passing moves. A 6-1 win at Old Trafford would come two months later but there best performance under Mancini remained that sunny day at White Hart Lane.

In 10 Premier League games from late August to late November they collected 28 points from a possible 30, featuring high-scoring games – 6-1, 3-0, 2-2, 2-0, 4-0, 4-1, 6-1, 3-1, 3-2 and 3-1 – that averaged an astounding 3.6 goals for per game. City were ticking all the boxes. Entertaining, fluid, ruthless and successful. In the Champions League they had won two, lost one and drawn one of their first four games and were still favoured to advance by most.

However, cracks were beginning to show in Europe. They needed a dramatic late winner (Aguero again) to beat a poor Villarreal at home, and were badly outplayed in a 2-0 loss at Bayern Munich and at home to Napoli, which ended 1-1.

Then they went to Naples and everything changed. Most remember the brace by Edinson Cavani and the 2-1 scoreline but few will recall how easy it was for Napoli to defend against City. They simply let them have the ball and the English side didn’t do anywhere near enough with it, despite attempting 401 more passes than the home side.

The book was in on the new City. They were too good to try and play around, teams adapted, defended deeper at home and City’s reign as ‘the pure Premier League Entertainers’ was gone for good under Mancini.

In 2010/11 City had scored 26 away goals at a rate of 1.37 goals per game. Good, but not enough to win a title. Following the loss at Napoli, they went to Anfield on the final Sunday in November with 42 goals scored in their first 12 league matches (an incredible rate of 3.5 goals per game) with 23 coming in their first six away games for a sensational rate of 3.83GPG.

For the next six months they played 13 other Premier League away matches, scoring just 15 goals, including six in one game late in the season at Norwich. A 1-1 draw at Liverpool was their worst performance in the league to date, Balotelli got sent-off, and the point only came thanks to a fantastic display by Hart. In their next away game, at Chelsea, they scored early, again went down to 10-men, and lost their first game of the season. It was a performance more like the one at Anfield than any of the first half dozen games of the season, where they had at least 18 goal attempts in all six of the games. At Liverpool and Chelsea they had just seven.

Games over Christmas saw them draw 0-0 at West Brom and lose 1-0 at Sunderland while in January they won 1-0 at Wigan and lost 1-0 at Everton. In four matches they had scored one goal and that was from a set piece. A 1-0 win at Aston Villa, courtesy of Lescott, was again secured via a set-piece. Afterwards Mancini said “It is not easy when teams put ten men behind the ball, but I hope we win all the rest of the games one nil, although one nil is not easy on my heart.”

The two away games in March saw them lose 1-0 at Swansea and draw 1-1 at Stoke, thanks to Yaya Toure’s 35 yard piledriver that deflected off Ryan Shawcross and into the net. Next up on their travels was a trip to Arsenal, Balotelli got sent off again in a game that City failed to register a single shot on target in, losing 1-0 to a late Mikel Arteta strike.

In almost four months, in eight away matches, that featured some of the poorest opponents in the league, City had scored three goals. The same amount as they had scored in injury time at Old Trafford. Even more alarming was the nature of the goals, from set-pieces and a slice of luck that should have gone down as an own goal. Tactically, Mancini had no answers. Milner and Kolarov would give the occasional cameos to add much-needed width but it was in the centre of the pitch where the manager struggled to find the chemistry. At West Brom he played only Yaya Toure in a pivot role, yet in the next match against Sunderland he went with De Jong and Barry with Toure further forward. With Toure at the African Cup of Nations, he attempted to bring more creativity to his team by again playing one holder (Barry) at Wigan and Aston Villa but when the Ivorian returned at Swansea both Barry and De Jong were back in again alongside him.

Mancini had ran out of answers. It was a dramatic fall from grace from their early season dominance and one that anyone in charge of running the club should have been very worried about.

“The title is finished,” said the Italian after watching his side pathetic’s display against the Gunners. His team were eight points back with six to play, United having out gained them 50pts to 37 in the games 13 to 32 of the season. Throughout that run City’s home form had been almost perfect but their lack of invention and overall slow tempo on their travels had allowed United to overtake them.

Six wins from their final six, including key away games against very poor sides in Norwich and Wolves, galvanized them and restored belief and when they defeated Man Utd at home in late April the title challenge was in their hands again, and of course secured in the most incredible circumstances by Aguero (again) in the final minute of the season.

Inmates take over

Mancini’s grin never left his face as he celebrated with his players on May 13th, 2012. It was the club’s first top flight league title in 44 years and a sign of how far they had come under their new owners, but privately those in charge at the club couldn’t have been completely satisfied.

City’s season had been littered with stories about Tevez and Balotelli. The Argentine forward allegedly refused to warm up during their Champions League loss in Munich and afterwards Mancini said he would never play for the club again. It seemed like a remarkable statement, yet once he had calmed down and reflected on it, he repeated it time and time again and even before a game against Newcastle two months later went out of his way to tell the press his feelings remained the same.

Tevez, meanwhile, was destroyed in the media although it was never proven whether or not he actually refused to come on as a sub (as Mancini claimed) or just refused to warmup (as Tevez claimed). One would admit either is a real lack of professionalism but only one would require such a dramatic response from the manager. Whatever the real truth was the story was a mess for City and their attempt to become a worldwide force as a global brand.

When Tevez came back for the final nine matches of the season not even Mancini could spin it a way where he looked good. By then he had bigger things to worry about in the form of Balotelli, whose off-the-field distractions, on-the-field temper tantrums and all too regular suspensions far outweighed the quality he brought to the team. Through it all Mancini stuck by him and would often treat questions about his young player with contempt, as if he was the only one in the country who knew what his star pupil could do. Tactically, however, he never backed up his words of conviction. In a 4-3-3 he often used Balotelli on the left, exposing his laziness without the ball and, more importantly, his lack of discipline.

Mancini’s championship, to some, proved that despite the turmoils they went through they had the talent to still win at the end. What it also did was prevent City from making much-needed changes in the summer. Mancini, Balotelli and Tevez all returned together to help City defend their crown in August. The mischief-makers may have thought they could unite and cause lightning – or fireworks – to strike twice but City’s owners smartly disagreed. A change was needed.

The Spanish Armada

Having lost the FA Cup final to Wigan it is now not an exaggeration to think in years to come Manchester City’s most significant moment of the 2012-13 season was the hirings of new Chief Executive, Ferran Soriano, and Director of Football, Txiki Begiristain.

The season on the field was a relatively forgettable one. They were embarrassed in the Champions League after failing to win a single game, and where famously Mancini publicly called out Joe Hart and saw his own players call him out for forcing three at the back on them when they didn’t feel comfortable. In the Premier League they never looked like winning the title, playing at a similar way as they did between games 13-32 the season previous, struggling for width, creativity and, ultimately, goals.

And throughout it remained Mancini’s bizarre choices. His admission publicly that Robin Van Persie signing with Manchester United tipped the balance in their favour was strange considering the amount of talent he still had, talent he had bought. His words continued to do damage to his own club when he did the man, then in charge of transfers, Brian Marwood, no favours by saying the club had made a mistake in not securing the Dutchman’s signature. His choice to use a 3-5-2, particularly from the start at home to Real Madrid, when his team never succeeded in it was naive. As was some of his selections, such as picking Balotelli over Tevez versus Manchester United when he had scored just one goal in his first 12 games leading up to the December clash.

“I love Mario as a guy,” he said afterwards. He continued: “But it is important for him to start to think about his job. He has everything to play well, but we wanted more from him and he cannot play like he did today. I saw players like that in my life with fantastic quality and they end up with nothing, but I don’t want that for him.”

Balotelli would play only two more minutes in the Premier League before departing for Italy, this time for good, but only after being caught having a fist fight with his manager during a training session.

It was the first major move from Soriano and Begiristain as they began work on turning Manchester City into a world class football club on and off the field.

Soriano’s mental intellect and business acumen combined with Begiristain’s football intelligence makes them a dynamic duo not to be ignored inside the landscape of English football in 2013. To understand their beliefs and attitudes it is important to know the roles they played at Barcelona, specifically Begiristain, and, in this case, specifically in the recruitment of a new manager.

At the end of the 2006-07 season Barcelona, a year after winning the Champions League and La Liga titles, lost their domestic league on goal difference to Real Madrid. Their manager Frank Rijkaard could not lose his job just 12 months after conquering Europe, but deep down Barca’s Director of Football, Begiristain, knew he wasn’t the man to take them forward. In Graham Hunter’s excellent book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, it is revealed that he began to search for the Dutchman’s replacement as early as October 2007, despite the change not taking place until the summer of 2008.

In a discussion about considering Jose Mourinho for the Barcelona job, Soriano tells Hunter: “The first board discussion about Mourinho was in December 2007. Retaining Rijkaard had proved a mistake.”

A mistake clearly the pair have learned from in the case of Mancini. The rest of the chapter offers a fascinating look at Mourinho’s attempts to persuade Barcelona to hire him including Begiristain’s reasons for not hiring him. After reading this it is clear why the former Spanish international had grown frustrated with Mancini at City.

Begiristain couldn’t imagine Mourinho understanding the club didn’t want or need outbursts in the media two or three times a week. What’s more, the Basque felt that the Barca he was trying to build valued respect for the opponent, honour in defeat, dignity and other fragile concepts more highly than Mourinho did at that time, or perhaps ever would.

Now Mancini is certainly no Mourinho when it comes to loving the sound of his own voice and Barcelona’s players are certainly no choir boys to opponents or referees when things go against them, but the point is how important Begiristain values these traits. This is a brilliant football mind who thinks about a club from top to bottom, who thinks a club’s branding should start with its name and badge followed by its players. More from Hunter on Begiristain:

He was 100% sure, and remains to this day, that Barca would have trained well, played decent, if pragmatic, football and won trophies under Mourinho. However, he was equally sure that these would become pyrrhic victories compared with what Mourinho would cost the socios, the board, Barcelona’s international brand and a host of other intangible concepts that the club saw intrinsic. Begiristain feared that Mourinho felt he was more than the club.

Conclusion

In a league where the managers are the media’s main source of on-the-record information it is not easy for a manager to say just enough and never too much but that was a skill Mancini never mastered. The language barrier didn’t help but can also not be left as an excuse either. He and those he stuck by created too many fires for a club incessant on getting to the top in all areas from analytics, scouting, developing, marketing and playing.

He also didn’t help cover himself in glory with his coaching. Some of his signings – the likes of Dzeko, Kolarov, Lescott  and even, you could argue, Balotelli – regressed and lost confidence under the Italian. Others like Maicon, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair and Samir Nasri at this stage look like very poor buys but even in Nasri’s case, a player many have used as an example in the case for Mancini’s pity, you could say he wasn’t given anywhere near enough chances to play in the central role he succeeding in at Arsenal.

Ultimately, managers are judged by results and that is why the club statement in announcing his firing, says ‘Despite everyone’s best efforts, the club has failed to achieve any of its stated targets this year, with the exception of qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.’

The dismissal has, not surprisingly, been met with an outcry, led again by City fans who three and a half years earlier did the same with Hughes. Mancini will always be the man who brought them their Premier League title but he was also a manager who won three of 12 Champions League games, two against a team who would be relegated in Spain and the other against a Bayern Munich side who had nothing to play for in that game. He was also a manager who, since winning 6-1 at Old Trafford over 18 months ago, achieved 139pts in 65 games, scoring 122 goals. Manchester United during that time achieved 157pts in 66 games, scoring 144 goals.

With a considerable gap to make up to their rivals, Mancini still leaves City an abundance of talent but without a clear identity. All of the game’s best clubs have a way of playing on the field and a particular way of recruiting and developing players, yet under Mancini there was nothing from the academy in three and a half years and almost a feeling that bringing together a group of expensive players and putting the same shirt on them would lead to success. A Premier League title was achieved but should that really be enough for a club to hold on to him when they haven’t consistently played very well for over a year and a half?

City’s fanbase continues to be divided on how big they should dream. In one corner stands the old group of loyalists, who remember not too long ago the likes of David White and Ian Brightwell playing in midfield, and still think the team has come along way very quickly. And in the other are the new fans, who love the club because of its new found wealth and world class stars, these fans demand success and are shocked more than the others when they lose because they are not used to it.

Txiki Begirustain and Ferran Soriano aren’t used to it either. And they’ve also likely never heard of David White or Ian Brightwell.

Manchester City are a club going places. They will get there sooner rather than later now they are concentrating on the windscreen rather than the rearview mirror.

Stan Petrov – you are nineteen forever at Villa Park.

In a world influenced more and more by social media, we are surrounded by people who have too much to say for themselves.

There are those who say much to very few, those that say much to too few and there are those that say way too much to way too many and the drivel that comes out of their minds gets them exactly where they want to be; into the limelight.

Thankfully, there remains those who say very little who get still get the love and respect they deserve.

On a day where the game’s biggest club announced a manager change for the first time in three decades, Stiliyan Petrov chose today as a day to retire from football.

For a quiet man, on and off the field, it was fitting and it would have been perfect for him to do what the unassuming footballers do when they retire and disappear from the field quietly, slipping into a career elsewhere in the game.

His life took a different path.

The 33-year-old Aston Villa midfielder, who announced with a heavy heart on Thursday that he has retired from football after winning his battle with Acute Leukaemia, will get the send-off he deserves.

The man affectionately known as ‘Stan’ to his football family has been in the thoughts and prayers of many since being diagnosed with the serious medical condition last March and has since received a standing ovation for a minute at every Villa match the moment the game clock hit 19:00, the number he wore at Villa.

It has been a wonderful tribute and an opportunity for Villa fans to show their solidity in support of their captain, a player who was already in a special place in the heart of Villa fans where only the likes of Paul McGrath, Gordon Cowans and Peter Withe have entered.

Petrov was the perfect Villan. Originally signed by Martin O’Neill as a midfielder who could score, he reinvented himself in front of the intelligent Villa fans, bringing a much-needed assurance from a deeper midfield position where he could execute his outstanding passing game and ignite transitions. While the likes of Ashley Young, Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew brought the storm; the Bulgarian brought the calm all clubs need, on and off the field. He was an outstanding captain who never took a game off, a terrific leader who represented a football club, whose badge has a lion on it with the word ‘prepared’ underneath, quite perfectly.

Yet despite all of this, living in North America, I found myself on more than one occasion defending Petrov’s role as captain. Fans of sport on this side of the continent are used to their captains standing in front of microphones – and for some this was enough evidence that the leader of their team was the right man for the job. Football is different. Petrov, who I should say isn’t uncomfortable with the media, simply didn’t need that attention globally.

A football captain’s job is done between the white lines and, of course, once the door closes on their dressing room, and Stan was more than a good enough leader for the four managers he worked under at Villa Park, Martin O’Neill, Kevin MacDonald, Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish.

He was also the perfect skipper for the Holte Enders. Results had not been good for Petrov’s last two playing seasons and throughout that time fans had found it difficult to latch on to specific heroes on the field who wouldn’t subsequently let them down. Petrov, an intelligent midfielder who knew his strengths and limitations, was consistently better than most.

He also, usually once or twice a game, gave those fans that magical moment when he would pick the ball up 25 or 30 yards from goal that immediately prompted them in unison to shout “shooooooooooooooot.”

Of course, since his Celtic days, he missed more times than scored, but the drives from outside the box now and again did go in, such as those days in the 2011-12 season at the Reebok and Goodison Park, leaving Villa fans with lasting images of that wide smile that would appear across his face.

Petrov’s place among the fans of Villa also comes from the way he is as a man, not just a midfielder. Hang around the club you love long enough and you’ll soon get to know what kind of men the footballers are. Anyone who meets Petrov has a similar story to mine.

In 2007, when the club was in Toronto, players mixed with fans in their hotel. My brother, being an obsessive collector of sports memorabilia, latched on to the most personable player in the room and asked him if he could have his shirt that he would be wearing in their game against Toronto FC that night. Petrov wouldn’t disappoint. Following the match, Stan remembered his promise and gave it to him.

No Villa fan in the world had worn their new top yet, so when I put it on for their match in Columbus three days later, it was the talk of the stand. No one had any idea of where it had come from or whose it was. On the back it simply had the number 19 on it and it couldn’t have been more fitting. All too often Villa fans lately have had to cheer for players who care more about the name on the back of the shirt than the one on the front. Petrov was different.

The Courteeners once sung ‘not nineteen forever’ and Manchester United recently adopted it as their theme tune for their 20th title but in the case of Petrov at Villa Park, he will be nineteen forever.

The captain of the lions has spent the best part of the last year fighting for his life, showing all the characteristics he did for the club, needing the heart of Villa’s iconic lion.

His retirement announcement won’t get the column inches nationally, but already Villa fans have declared their final match of the season at Wigan ‘Petrov Day’ where flags and banners will give their former skipper the goodbye party he deserves.

The sadness that comes from the premature end to his playing days should not be forgotten, of course, but Petrov now has a new direction ahead of him, setting up a foundation to raise money to address issues around the diagnosis of leukaemia.

Keep shooooooooooting Stan. You just have a different goal to aim at these days.

Kristian Jack

Part of this feature was taken from my original post on Stiliyan Petrov in March 2012 when he was originally diagnosed with Acute Leukaemia.

Farewell to the Footy Show

On Tuesday the CRTC officially confirmed Rogers Media’s acquisition of  Score Media. Beginning immediately new programming will make its way on to The Score Television Network, which will soon be renamed, as the integration process begins. This means the Footy Show is now finished. Hosts James and Kristian were unable to announce this on Monday’s final show so wanted to share some thoughts with you following today’s announcement.

Footy Show 4

From James Sharman:

I have to say I had reservations when we decided that Sportsworld needed to evolve into the Footy Show back in 2007.  Rugby and Cricket were very close to my heart after all, but with the arrival of the Premier League to theScore, plus the birth of TFC, we decided that jumping on the soccer wave was the smartest thing we could do.  Boy, am I glad we did.  The Footy Show evolved, grew and blossomed into a 360 brand, a term itself that was new to the media landscape.  A TV component, a blog, a podcast, a bunch of footy idiots swashbuckling through twitter… but above all it was fun! I’ve often used the analogy of a ‘conversation’ when explaining what the Footy Show vision was, and truly it was that, we wanted the viewer/user to feel as if they were chatting with us.  That was paramount because you know what, we liked our viewers/users (well, most of them) because I really think they were like us! And what about us? The Footy Show allowed you to meet Nobbers, Punners, Willy… and of course KJ, a likely bunch of lads who truthfully enjoy each other as much off camera and away from the mic as we do on it.
It’s an end of an era, but we’ve always landed on our feet when change arrives, the future is exciting as hell, and I for one can’t wait to get at it what ever that entails.  Cheers for watching.

From Kristian Jack:

The debut of the Footy Show, alongside the rights to the Premier League games gave me a chance, as a producer, to make sure we covered the sport the way it should be, with a real emphasis on entertainment and insight. I never dreamed small on-camera cameos on those early shows would lead me to become the show’s analyst/co-host later on. For that I owe a tremendous amount to our wonderful viewers. From 2007-2013 the television landscape changed, we changed as people, but the biggest change of all was the IQ of soccer viewers in Canada. They demanded smart, funny, insightful shows and I feel we delivered with those across all the platforms James mentioned. Soccer fans can spot fakers a mile away – and although James and I have been accused of sometimes having fake accents, I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say you got the real us every time;  two normal blokes, blessed to work in this business, working extensively to cover a great sport. It was an absolute pleasure doing the show, the pregame and postgame shows around the Premier League and Serie A matches, the podcast and the blog. To think that so many people cared what we had to say is very humbling and something I will never take for granted. The show allowed me to make great friends, thank you to the many great people who worked on it and to everyone who went out of their way to tell us how much they enjoyed it. It meant so much to hear that every time. Thanks to past producers Thomas Dobby and Dom Gentile  and the current one, Will Farquharson, (pictured above with us) for their brilliant visions. Today is a rare day for me to look back. The future is close and will be addressed shortly, but in the meantime thanks for letting me to talk to you all so much. It truly was an absolute pleasure.

Flying with Tim Cahill: The art of winning key headers, making runs & countering zonal marking.

Cahill celebrates

A dressing room after a successful football match can be a loud place for a winning team but last Saturday in Toronto the New York Red Bulls were all business after securing a dramatic late 2-1 victory.

There was no loud music blaring out but there was a tune being sung by one of their players.

“I believe he can fly,” he sung, “oh yeah you are flying Timmy, lets get you an Air Jordan sponsorship.”

Tim Cahill remained unmoved. After scoring the game winner in the 89th minute with his head he acted like he had done it before. And he had.

Listed at a generous 5ft 10 inches, the 33-year-old has made a living executing late runs into the box and scoring with his head. In his eight seasons at Everton in the Premier League he scored a remarkable 31 headed goals, averaging one every 7.3 matches, a better ratio than some of the finest headers the league has seen such as Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson, Les Ferdinand and Gus Poyet.

After the match I chatted with Cahill about some of the key moments in the game, which had highlighted all the key areas the Australian excels at.

On making key runs into the box

“Firstly, I thought we played some beautiful passing, especially in the first half, the organisation and consistency has to be there first. Its about making sure we fill in the holes and not concede. If we don’t concede we will score and make things happen, lets get more solid and then I will break more. I’ll be honest with you I said today we need to be disciplined, control the team from the middle and let the play come to us and if we get a chance then we break, and all my career I have done that but we had to pick and choose when we broke,” said Cahill, who only had one goal in 22 matches for New York prior to Saturday.

Break he did. Twice into the box to score, once with his foot to open the scoring and the second with his head to end it.

The first goal came via a broken play that meant the midfielder was still in an advanced role but just showed his ability to firstly find space and secondly hit the back of the net with an instinctive, one-touch finish. This is the build up to the move where Lloyd Sam’s cross comes into the box with Cahill perfectly positioned in space, unmarked and ready to pounce.

Cahill 16

Thierry Henry then brilliantly dummies the ball, knowing full well where his team-mate is, allowing Cahill to smash home with his left foot.

Cahill 17

Cahill’s first goal of the season…..

Cahill 18

New York’s opening goal brought them calmness and a confidence that allowed them to play the disciplined style Cahill preached. After a key goalkeeping error allowed Toronto to equalize, the game appeared to be heading for a 1-1 draw until ‘Henry to Cahill’ won them the game. Much focus in Toronto was rightfully on Ashtone Morgan’s poor clearance but watch Cahill’s brilliant run into space and his fantastic ability to not only get high but then put the ball into the ground to beat Joe Bednik in Toronto’s goal.

Cahill reflected on the winner afterwards: “If we were up 1-0 I don’t think I would have went but Thierry didn’t even look at me, I screamed and he heard and being the footballer he is he knew exactly where I was, put the ball in the air and from there, if they are not going to follow me and follow the runners, then there was only going to be one winner on that cross and that’s what I have been looking for all season. Thierry’s class (showed) on that ball and like I said he didn’t even look at me, that’s football, instincts.”

On sitting deeper and helping out his defence

In a cagey first half Cahill sat intelligently in the middle of the visitors midfield with Eric Alexander, concentrating more on being a key outlet for the defenders behind him than connecting with the four in front of them.

“If you watch Toronto’s videos they are a second ball team, they pump it in the box, pick up the second ball, back into the box, third ball, but if you have the players set in the right positions then you can break and find the players like Thierry (Henry) and Lloyd (Sam).”

On two occasions during the match a key header needed to be won deep in New York’s own half and it was done so by the Aussie who has a clear, supreme understanding of the ball when it leaves an opponents foot for a cross, knowing more than most where it is going to fall. ”I pride myself on defending just as much as attacking, Toronto are a dead ball team who lump the balls in the box, I am not scared to win a challenge when I am defending and if it starts with me then it will only influence on the others in this team.”

On executing their plan at corners

You do not score 31 Premier League headed goals without knowing how to find your way around a crowded penalty area on corners. On Saturday, following the game, Toronto FC boss Ryan Nelsen admitted that he had warned his team about Cahill’s strengths at corners and although his side did a decent job at just the three corners New York won, the set pieces provided all with a fascinating look at why Cahill is so successful.

Before we take a look at New York’s process on attacking at a corner it is important to see Toronto FC sets up in a full zonal marking shape with all 10 players labelled, all doing a specific job.

tfc Zonal Marking 2

1 – is the man on the near post.

5 – this man monitors the near post but also blocks the angle of the ball coming across the goal.

2, 3, 4 – three players across the six yard box. 2 and 4 usually are the length of a goal between each other with number 3 in the middle, thus blocking off the zones.

6, 7, 8 – three players are then put in front of them and the job of these six players is to mark their zones and stay focused on going forward and side-to-side not back.

9 – This player’s position can be flexible depending on the set up of the opposition. He is usually deeper but here the player in question Ashtone Morgan is attracted to the large group of players and as you will see will go back with his marker as the play develops. He is effectively marking man-to-man unlike the rest of the team.

10 – This is the most advanced player whose job is primary to track any late runners and find crucial space to be a key outlet if his team wins the ball back.

Cahill is the team’s leader in executing what his coaching staff work on through the week. He immediately sets himself up on the edge of the area, running through the positions of the players in his mind.

Cahill 3

Then it is time for a quick meeting between Cahill and his team-mates to go through their runs, so they do not copy one another and pick the right areas to attack and then create holes.

Cahill 5

Cahill 7

After reviewing their assignments it is time to begin early movements to keep defenders on their toes. Cahill, fully aware the attention of many is on him, drifts into space. At this stage you will see Fabian Espindola walking towards Cahill…..

Cahill 8

Espindola then moves into the six yard box to occupy the attention of those in that area and stop them coming out. Now it is time to put the plan into action as Cahill explained to me post match: ’It’s all about trying to move the defence out of holes, and try and make areas where I can get in, if we dont make the right runs you wont get the goals and in these MLS games you need two or three goals to win games. I am constantly talking on the pitch and organising them to make sure people are in the position and if you get set early it makes it easier.”

Cahill 10

In this case the players are set early. As Henry prepares to take the corner it is time to make the aggressive moves. The two players to Cahill’s right (above) are going to rush in while Cahill spins around into space.

Cahill 11

The importance of everyone doing what they are told with intelligent movement is now evident as Cahill finds himself with some space in front of him ready for the ball…..

Cahill 12

As expected the ball finds Cahill in the space he helped create but is quickly closed down by the zonal markers….

Cahill 13

Cahill is not one to be denied easily though and now the importance of getting the second ball is vital. Cahill explained this afterwards when he referred to its importance from both set pieces and open play against a direct team like Toronto, saying: ”The lads are probably sick of me screaming the entire game  ’second ball’ because if you win that then you start to play, regardless of the circumstances.”

Cahill 14

Cahill fights for the second ball and wins it getting a shot off saved by the onrushing Bendik.

Cahill 15All-in-all it was a complete performance from Cahill who at 33 is starting to become a coach on the field as his head coach Mike Petke explained: “The two goals today were just the cherry on the cake to be honest with you because he does exactly what we ask him to do.  He leads in the midfield, he plays very stingy defence and he’s a work horse.  He’s an example for our young midfielders to be honest with you.”

Suarez’s 10 game suspension shows a real lack of awareness of what the game of football is for.

The number ten.

It is a number in football that evokes wonderful visions in the mind of the likes of Pele, Maradona, Bergkamp, Totti and Messi doing something with a ball millions could only dream of doing.

As they ran themselves past defenders and into our living rooms there stood the number on their backs standing out as bright as can be, a sure sign that their genius was labelled correctly.

Oh how beautiful number ten is to football fans.

Unfortunately for the number it exploded negatively into headlines everywhere today across the world when Luis Suarez was given a ten game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic during Sunday’s Premier League match at Anfield.

Such a high number, of course, led to many discussions playing out on twitter, talk radio and in offices around the globe with the majority seemingly agreeing that the suspension was fair.

“What else could the FA have done? They would have looked ridiculous if they had given less than seven. He got seven games for biting in Holland, is a repeat offender, was banned eight games for racially abusing Patrice Evra, didn’t learn his lesson by shaking his hand. Ten games is lenient,” preached Talksport’s drive time host Adrian Durham.

It seemed to be a common argument.

“I agree, he has to be taught a lesson,” said his co-host Darren Gough.

However, is it really the Football Association’s job to teach Suarez a lesson? And does handing him 10 games to watch from the stands stop him from doing something he shouldn’t do next time when eight last year did not?

Furthermore is it not in the interest of the FA to keep Suarez in the Premier League? I do not expect them to have noticed the alarmingly lack of true world class players now in their league but, surely, even the suits will know the benefit of having the Uruguayan representing their league each weekend?

A lengthy, intelligent discussion with one of their finest clubs, in Liverpool, would have revealed to them the precarious situation the Reds currently stand. Suarez is clearly playing at a level with his club that doesn’t match his talent and with another year without sitting at the top table of European football’s elite competition looming it was clear the summer months would be very challenging for Ian Ayre, Brendan Rodgers and the Fenway Sports Group to keep their prize asset.

The lengthy ban does nothing to keep Suarez happy with the country he is working in and gives him more reasons to slip back into the ‘them against me’ mentality that he so often displays while on a football field.

This was not Lewis Swares, an average footballer the world had never heard of because he wasn’t very good. This is a star footballer who the Premier League are fortunate to have at the moment and the hearing should have recognised that and come down with a number slightly lower that would have satisfied all involved, not a number that is sure to drag the situation on now with an appeal. Special consideration for premium talent happens in every workplace for a reason, the person in question is always very valuable to those who he represents and the FA have been naive in not thinking that way.

There have been many reports written in the past few days siting an ‘embarrassing situation’ for the branding of Premier League and Liverpool Football Club when nothing could be further from the truth. The Premier League is in the entertainment business and this publicity has done them no harm whatsoever.

The fact that a three-person independent regulatory commission today sat around a room and threw a 10 game suspension towards one of its finest players for a bite is not only misguided but also, perhaps more seriously, shows a real lack of awareness of what the game of football is for.

Football is about entertainment. Millions of people go to work miserable Monday to Friday in England and one of the main things that keeps them going all week is the allure of the football match on Saturday. A chance to watch their beloved team and some of the finest players in the game perform magic tricks with a ball. Today’s ruling denies Liverpool football fans a chance at that until, at least,  late September and quite possibly much longer.

Suarez was rightfully dubbed this week ‘a world class player and a world class problem’ and of course he has let down the entire city and should have been banned but lengthy suspensions in football are doing nobody any favours.

A suspension is supposed to be a severe punishment that represents the crime committed, to prevent you from doing it again but the game is now making a laughing stock out of itself against this notion. Suspensions are thrown out so often that the purpose of them in the first place has been lost. Three yellow cards gained in the Champions League season through to the semi finals and you are banned. A three game ban for mistiming a tackle for a split second in the Premier League and it is ‘violent conduct’, get another red and you miss another four games.

Today’s ruling ensures the 26-year-old, if he stays in England, will miss a quarter of a season when you consider at least two domestic cup ties plus 38 league matches. This is the equivalent of around 20 games in the NHL or NBA, 40 games in Major League Baseball, five races in Formula One and ten PGA tour events. Excessive to say the least.

Many of these sports have handed out lengthy suspensions in the past when sportsmen in question have done very serious acts such as break the law and take performance-enhancing drugs, deliberately cause accidents in a car, use a hockey stick to hit an opponent in the head or run into the crowd and fight with fans.

In fact football itself has rightfully done the same to players for despicable acts such as kicking fans, pushing referees or punching opponents in the face but it now adds an act that caused absolutely no harm to an opponent. A pathetically disgusting act, no doubt, but one hardly worth removing one of the game’s greatest entertainers for 25% of its season.

Suarez may have hurt Ivanovic for a split second but the FA’s ruling will hurt their consumers and their prospects of keeping such a talent for much longer.

Bayern Munich 4-0 Barcelona – The end of an era & the final chapter for the game’s greatest team.

Barcelona now have a game that closes the chapter on their glory. They will win La Liga this season and the history books will show their continued success at winning trophies but this was a night where they were absolutely dominated on the game’s biggest stage.

It was also a performance from them that had been coming. They barely showed up in Milan, never got out of second gear in Paris and when they stuttered in Munich they were absolutely obliterated. One and a half excellent home performances when they got home allowed them to get this far but there will be no further progressing after this stage for Barcelona.

When Thomas Muller, the game’s star performer, made it 4-0 with just under ten minutes to go it was a fitting reminder to the visitors that they best not concentrate on two of the goals being unfairly allowed by the officials. Although they’d have a point, the scoreline absolutely reflected the performances of both sides.

Bayern Munich pressed smartly, passed brilliantly, spread the field intelligently and beat Barcelona in every department. They certainly deserve the credit they will receive but this was a night to focus on the closing of a dynasty.

Barcelona’s six successive semi finals in the Champions League is a remarkable run and their two losses within that came only when two teams, both down to 10-men, shut up shop and stopped them from scoring at the Nou Camp.

For the first time in their great run they were beaten by a team who could do what they set out to do. There will be no comeback this time around.

“I’m drained and I need to fill up. The demand has been very high,” said Pep Guardiola when he announced he was leaving the Barcelona bench during last season. Few disputed his claim and fewer thought of his key players, the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, who might have felt the same way.

The magnificent trio have played together for a number of years but you’d be hard pressed to find a game at any level where they were outplayed like this. Messi was clearly not fit, afraid to step into his stride when he received the ball and regularly dropping deep to lay off a pass and not have to make a run. He simply should not have played but who’d be the coach who would ever not play him if he is telling you he can?

Xavi and Iniesta, two of the greatest players Spain has ever produced, struggled to get any grip on the match but, in truth, were let down by many of their teammates.

No players in world football have played close to the amount of minutes these two footballing masterminds have played in the past six seasons. Those who have followed their careers closely have been waiting for the burnout to hit for sometime. During Euro 2012 some thought their heavy schedule would catch up with them only for Iniesta to be the best player at the tournament and Xavi to takeover the final, leading Spain to a magnificent 4-0 win over Italy.

The pair, who have each claimed an incredible 17 winners medals in the last five seasons, have had some incredible highs in this great game but tonight they fly back to Barcelona demoralized with images stuck in their head from one of the biggest lows of their sparkling careers.

At 33, Xavi, surely a future Barcelona manager, will know only too well what went wrong and what will be needed to make sure this is not repeated. Javier Mascherano is a fine player but should never have been the only recognizable centre-back in the squad when (and not if) Carles Puyol was injured. Starting a 22-year-old centre back in Bartra in a monumental match wasn’t a risk, it was idiotic. He is certainly no Raphael Varane.

It is time for Barcelona to stop playing roulette with the art of defending and go get any of Mats Hummels, Daniel Agger or Laurent Koscielny. Comfortable on the ball is an important requirement, of course, but a defender who is simply good in the air, who can take command from set pieces is essential. If he is a world class defender there is a pretty good chance he is decent technically. Look at Puyol, for example.

And this is where the Barcelona’s philosophy has to be tested and pressed. They have lost some smart football minds in the last two years – do not underestimate the loss of Txiki Begiristain – and it is time for them to reinvent themselves while sticking to their principals. 4-3-3 and the art of treasuring the ball will never change but for them to move forward they simply have to recruit better. While they wasted money on Alex Song, Bayern went in their backyard and found Javi Martinez. For an iconic club like Barcelona that cannot happen again.

Dani Alves has become a massive problem. His link up with Pedro on the right in Munich was admirable for the first quarter of the match but after that it just became suicidal. Bayern exploited their wide areas all game long and Alves not once, even at 3-0 down, looked like a right back. With the excellent Jordi Alba on the left, Barcelona need a defensive minded right back who has the ability to pick his moments when he goes forward, instead of a right back who regularly leaves gaps the size of parking lots behind him. On this night poor Bartra never stood a chance playing next to the Brazilian.

Barcelona will be back but absolutely must learn some key lessons after being taken to school by Bayern in this first leg. While Xavi and Co spend the next few months thinking ahead any one who loves football should take some time and think back at what this team and their greatest players have achieved. Some called them the greatest team to ever play the game. Whether they were or not they, along with their national team, led a passing revolution that changed the game and forced others to be better.

Without Barcelona’s performances in the last six seasons, Bayern Munich do not produce a performance like this tonight. The lines have met each other once again on the circle of footballing life.

Every dynasty comes to an end eventually, the best ones are the ones who pave the way for others to continue their way.

On United’s Robin Reliant approach, why the Premier League is too easy for them + my PL team of the year.

It started with the ring of Arsene Wenger’s phone.

And with it came Robin, revenge, redemption and a ruthlessness that got Manchester United to the finish line a full 27 days before the end of the season.

Champions for the 20th time. It was what Sir Alex Ferguson had dreamed of during one of his many summer visits to New York City just ten months ago.

It will have taken the shrewd Scot many an hour to get the image of Vincent Kompany lifting a trophy he thought he had won already out of his competitive mind.

His side had come within seconds of winning title number 20 only to have it snatched away from them in a storybook ending that even most film directors would have thrown out for being too unrealistic.

Yet, as he consoled his players on that final day, despite being so close, he will have been only too aware of the dismal season that had unfolded. Dumped from the Champions League in the group stage and not one domestic honour claimed, for just the fifth time in the 20 years of the Premier League. It had nowhere near been good enough.

Something had do be done. He had been here before. Of the four previous times they had failed to win any domestic trophies, three times they had bounced back immediately the following season with a Premier League crown. It was time for recruitment.

Many expected a new centre back or a new playmaker in midfield, perhaps even a new goalkeeper. Few expected a new striker and a world class one at that. United had just completed their league season scoring 89 goals, the most since they bagged 97 back in 1999/00. Despite that they had lost the league on goal difference, pointing many to believe the defence needed improvement.

Ferguson looked at it differently. He knew that against all 18 other teams, other than Manchester City, they had reached 89pts from 36 matches, while their neighbours had claimed just 83. The title had been lost in the head-to-head games and he needed a gamebreaker who could make a difference against the quality of City and, at the same time, ensure that the six point gap in which they were better than City, versus the rest of the league, would get wider.

He recognized the league’s greatest weakness, the art of defending, and sensed with the reigning player of the year he could batter teams into submission, while at the same time help his slightly flawed defence by giving them bigger leads to work with.

Van Persie was signed, sealed and would go on to deliver on both of those key demands.

After an opening week loss at Everton, where the Dutchman came off the bench,United won four in a row with Van Persie scoring five goals, three of which tied the games when they were losing while the other two were game winners. Essential points-changing goals.

After a loss at home to Tottenham, United won five in a row, Van Persie scoring the go-ahead goal against Stoke before netting crucial goals in back-to-back games against Chelsea and Arsenal that were each separated by just one goal.

After a loss at Norwich another five game winless run followed and Van Persie’s four goals in that stretch all broke ties during the games and proved to be game winners, 1-0 at home to West Ham, 4-3 at Reading, 3-1 at home to Sunderland and, crucially, 3-2 at Manchester City through a 90th minute free kick.

After a draw against Swansea, Van Persie scored in five straight matches and only when Clint Dempsey scored a 90th minute equalizer for Spurs in January did the 29-year-old walk off the field not a winner after scoring in a match for United. Until then he had scored in 14 of the club’s first 22 matches and they had won all 14 of them.

He had become their momentum changer. In 19 days last April they lost the grip on the league title by winning just one of four league matches. This season, with Van Persie, they have not gone more than a game without winning. Only six times they failed to win a match and in the six games following they scored a thumping 17 goals, scoring at least two every time. They never allowed themselves to go on a poor run. In contrast, City had two separate runs of two games without a win and one three game winless streak.

The Van Persie factor certainly paid off in the two areas Ferguson had hoped but even he couldn’t have imagined it would end this early, coming so thanks to some dismal City performances. The title was secured on April 22nd, a year ago to the day in which United handed City the momentum back following a 4-4 draw at home to Everton. With three games left, United led 83-80 last year. Twelve months on, with four games to go, United lead 84-68. The gap is so large it is a fight that was called weeks ago.

And that may have been one of the reasons for the looks on the faces of the United players and fans as they celebrated the title at Old Trafford on Monday night. Sure, there was happiness, sheer joy in a few, but it felt more like ‘job done’ than ‘something won’. It had almost been too easy.

Sir Alex looked like he was enjoying himself and how could he not but even he must start to wonder if it can get any better than this. There was some irony that the title was won on the eve of the Champions League semi finals, a tournament the manager so craves. Should they have been preparing for a final four clash this week, championship number twenty will have to have waited but instead it was celebrated, for the 13th time in the last 21 seasons.

This week then he will sit and watch Europe’s best clubs fight it out for a spot in the Wembley final and as he does so he should use these teams for motivation this summer, just like he used City last year. United’s monopoly on the Premier League since it was born in 1992 has happened for many positive reasons of their own but is also been helped because of a clear lack of ambition from their domestic rivals.

Financially only Chelsea and City choose to compete with the Red Devils each season, essentially meaning United won a three team race to be champions of England and this season both their main rivals let themselves down badly. Sure, there was some close, excellent matches when the teams came together and it will be those wins that Ferguson will be most proud of this season because they were achieved in top gear. The stark reality is the rest of the league is rarely testing his side and is certainly not helping prepare them for Champions League glory because the team can go through many games stuck in third gear and still win.

Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have all had poor seasons. Rafael has had good and bad months, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand started just eight games together while Ryan Giggs, despite being lauded by every commentator who covers his game, has spent the majority of the season looking like a 39-year-0ld.

And then there is Wayne Rooney whose inconsistent performances against some very average teams were inexcusable for a player seen by many as among the game’s elite.

Yet still United cruised. As the club and its global fanbase celebrated on Monday many other football fans came together for a collective yawn. United would be wise to do the same back at the league. City will be back to fight, Chelsea quite possibly too, but United and their manager know they are in cruise control against the rest, allowing average players to give average performances on their way to picking up a winners medal more seasons than they don’t. It is little wonder, then, that the majority of these players freeze in a big spot against Real Madrid when the going gets tough.

Last summer Sir Alex convinced ownership they needed to buy a world class player in an area many didn’t think they needed. If they want to be considered amongst the game’s best he will need to do the same again this year.

He can enjoy beating up on the domestic mediocre teams he sees most weeks for now and thrive in defeating the noisy neighbours once again but he will be naive if he concentrates on only achieving Premier League glory each season. That race may still be a marathon but within it they have barely broken a sweat.

Time to pick up that phone.

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For some moronic reason the PFA players awards will be announced later this month including the team of the year. Votes are already in because apparently games this late in the season do not count! Much stock is put into this process by media outlets around the world ignoring the fact the votes are sent in by players who usually judge a colleague by watching highlight shows and saying terms such as ‘he is quality’. I much prefer to give my choices for such awards at the end of the season but some of you have asked on twitter so while I have spent this piece reflecting on the season that was, here are mine.

Player of the Year – Robin Van Persie

Young Player of the Year – Eden Hazard

Team of the Year – Simon Mignolet (Sunderland); Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City) Phil Jagielka (Everton) Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) Leighton Baines (Everton); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Michael Carrick (Manchester United); Juan Mata (Chelsea) Robin Van Persie (Manchester United) Gareth Bale (Tottenham); Luis Suarez (Liverpool). Subs – Asmir Begovic (Stoke); Matija Nastasic (Manchester City); Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton) Eden Hazard (Chelsea) Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) Marouane Fellaini (Everton) Michu (Swansea City).