Football

Top, top World Cup Moments

The opening goal by Paul Pogba against Nigeria was the 146th of this World Cup, that is already more than the total from South Africa four years ago. My memory of that World Cup is hazy as not a lot really happened apart from Suarez’s handball and celebration against Ghana (surely his behaviour had improved), Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany (surely there’d be goal-line technology this time, Sepp) and deserved last-minute glory for Spain. So much has already happened in this World Cup that it hasn’t even finished and it is being heralded as one of the finest in living memory. This could be down to several reasons; a change in mindset and the death of ‘tika taka’, which was laid to rest on 13th June 2014 in Salvador, being an obvious one. Perhaps it is down to the more reliable Brazuca ball actually hitting its intended target instead of mimicking the flight of a beach ball. The second round has just been completed and there have been several memorable moments so far, here are a few of my favourites. Sometimes you have a moment in a match where everything changes, when all that seemed true and righteous suddenly dissolves before your very eyes. The signs were there that football had moved on from ‘tika taka’ ever since Bayern Munich ripped Barcelona apart 7-0 on aggregate in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals. However, Spain were still being talked about as potential winners of this World Cup, albeit in hushed tones. It took 44 minutes for that expectation to be gazumped. Dutch left-back Daley Blind had already shown Spain to be shaky to a well-aimed long ball and another found Robin van Persie through on goal. Many strikers would have brought the ball down, aimed and shot but the Flying Dutchman has such technique and nous that he made the diving header look effortless. The Netherlands were to run out 5-1 winners, the World Champions were on their way home.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman (Photo by Getty)

“Anticipation has a habit to set you up, for disappoint”, so sang Alex Turner in ‘The View From The Afternoon’. It’s also a line that brings to mind England World Cup campaigns. For once, the expectation was patted down as England were placed in a difficult group with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy. Many expected the opening game in Group G to be a tepid affair due to the sapping conditions in Manaus yet England actually came out and attacked with a verve and energy rarely seen since 1996. Of course, Italy punctured that early enterprise with a typically considered set piece. Still, England came forward and equalised with a sublime goal; Raheem Sterling feeding Wayne Rooney on the left and an inch-perfect cross found Daniel Sturridge who tapped in from close range. All downhill from there though as England eventually limped home bottom of their group.

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy (Photo by Telegraph.co.uk)

Part of me wonders whether Pepe is simply from a bygone era of mindlessness on a football pitch. Back in the early 90’s you could hack a sprightly attacker from behind, stamp on his goolies and get away with it. In 2014 that gains you a lengthy ban and a Daily Mail expose on how no-one is thinking of the children watching this depravity at 5pm. Germany ran out comfortable 4-0 winners yet it may have been less brutal had Pepe not gotten himself sent off in the first half. Alas, Portugal left Brazil with Cristiano Ronaldo still carrying so much hair gel it’d put many traveller’s hand luggage allowance to shame. Had they not lost as heavily to Germany in their opening match they may have squeezed through on goal difference, then again if you have someone as mindless as Pepe in your defence you are always running the risk.

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

As a Manchester United fan you could forgive me for being harsh on Marouane Fellaini. For £27m you expect a bit more from a Premier League player than a few bookings and a selection of painfully inept performances. Still, he remains in the squad so I was hoping he would demonstrate some worth on the international stage. With Belgium losing 1-0 to Algeria in their opening group game there were several more dynamic substitutions Marc Wilmots could have made. It all seemed hopelessly desperate, a bit ‘David Moyes’ then the cross came in, Fellaini met it and the ball bounced in off the crossbar. Redemption and maybe a bit of hope he can reproduce such form back in M16.

Fellaini equalises against Algeria

Fellaini equalises against Algeria (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Having witnessed first-hand how mediocre this Australian team could be I expected some tennis scorelines in a group containing Chile, Spain and Holland. They finished bottom with no points yet left with their heads held high following some spirited performances (take note, England). You would be forgiven for thinking that of the Tim Cahill goals I could have picked it would be the ‘worldie’ against the Netherlands, however, that was a 5pm kickoff I missed. Of the 11pm kickoffs I have managed to catch the Chile v Australia game was a welcome surprise. Having gone 0-2 inside 20 minutes I feared the worst but then Cahill scored a trademark header and Australia galvanised. Sure, they eventually lost but against a highly fancied team they arguably deserved a draw. It is weird for Australians to go into a tournament as unfancied so to come out with no points and still feel proud must be a pretty new sensation.

Tim Cahill scores against Chile

Tim Cahill scores against Chile (Photo by AP)

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Football

No United this weekend, no worries

In these troubling times a weekend without United in action is actually a relief. For instance, Match of The Day can be watched painlessly even if you do have to suffer through the dulcet tones of Messrs Shearer and Hansen. On Monday morning you can stride past those ‘football fans’ in the office who have failed to betray any knowledge of the Premier League until this season. It’s all a bit.. peaceful.

We are a spoilt bunch yet there are subtle differences between previously ‘difficult’ seasons. The game against Olympiakos proved a new nadir for David Moyes. You could not claim that this defeat was unlucky yet it was symptomatic of United’s struggling season so far. Since Sir Alex Ferguson left in May the fear factor has gone with him to be replaced by an inferiority complex and you wonder how damaging this season will be.

There was always the fear that by employing David Moyes there would be a change of mentality and playing style. The game in Athens proved how far the emphasis has shifted from attack to safety first and how difficult the players are finding it. With an away goal crucial in the first leg it was inexcusable to not record a single shot on target. Only in the last ten minutes did United actually threaten which was far too little, far too late.

The tie against the Greek league leaders was seen as one of the easy picks yet United made them look far more threatening than they actually were. Passes went astray, there was a limited discernible threat and no ‘zip’. When Andy Townsend seems to realise what is going wrong on the pitch then you know you’re in trouble. Above all, the Greek side simply looked like they wanted it more.

Right now David Moyes looks alarmingly weak and Robin van Persie’s post-match criticism will have gone down like a wet fart in church. In such situations it is difficult not to compare the two tenures and realise that such an outburst would not have been tolerated. Whether Moyes can adopt the same hard line as his predecessor is yet to be seen, certainly after Rooney’s bumper deal.

The muchly-anticipated summer overhaul already looks essential. Not simply for bringing new players in but for putting a fire under so many under-performing squad members. The club have been here before yet the main difference is that so many first-teamers have seem to have regressed. Tom Cleverley still manages to retain his England place as if his mediocre performances have simply gone unnoticed. Antonio Valencia cannot even get into the position to deliver another poor cross and the least said about Ashley Young the better. Though vastly experienced, the partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic looks increasingly outdated and slow with each passing week.

Whether the change in playing style is far too radical for them to comprehend the team’s psychological well-being seems to have suffered dramatically. The vicious circle of defeats followed by hard questioning has taken it’s toll to the extent where players simply do not seem to be expressing themselves. There is a tangible anxiety to play as if each of them are expecting the worst already. In turn players become cautionary and vulnerable, gifting hope to the opposition. Against apparently inferior sides there is a tendency to contain instead of charge. Ask yourself, when was the last time United went for the throat from kick-off?

Should United triumph against Olympiakos then all may still be forgiven from the pathetic midweek display. Hindsight is a bitch and perhaps the worries will be allayed between now and May. Maybe another great European night could be in store yet right now just some fight would be nice, a few chances would be lovely. In the next few weeks it would be nice to be able to watch a football highlights show without avoiding the shirts. That’s not too much to ask is it?

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Manchester United have one objective left this season

Out of both domestic cup competitions and with a fix on the heady heights of sixth place, it is almost a relief to see the return of the Champions League.After the disappointment of lacklustre league performances, there is a sense of redemption that comes with facing continental opponents. Hope springs eternal and any team can beat anyone over two legs so not all may be lost in this difficult season. Who knows what might happen come what May.

While no-one at the club would admit that fourth place is a distant dream, this could be the last Champions League campaign for at least a year. Let’s be honest, to reach fourth spot United would have to achieve a string of victories and a level of consistency that has eluded them all season. Other contenders would need to suffer a collapse and that looks equally improbable. Could United take inspiration from their most despised rivals? Could the easier route to Champions League football next season come from winning the competition itself?

Strangely, the Champions League has seen United at their best this season with some positive performances. Stranger things have happened than a team suffering from a substandard league campaign actually winning the elite competition, you only need to see who won it in 2005 to see that.

When Liverpool last won the European Cup it was seen as far-fetched. Their league form was patchy and from a position where reaching the top four was tough, they concentrated on their European campaign. By fielding weakened line-ups in the run to the final, they effectively sacrificed their league campaign in an effort to keep key players fresh. We all know what happened in Istanbul and while it seemed like a miracle, having decided to concentrate on the final their chances improved.

The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid,Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG should all have domestic campaigns to juggle alongside the knock-out stages. The Champions League remains the only competition left for United so few could argue against concentrating on it. For David Moyes, the competition has the added incentive of a chance at redemption. There is still a rebuilding task at hand yet progress into the latter stages would prove a few doubters wrong while the players will also see this as an opportunity to prove themselves.

As the season reaches ‘squeaky-bum time’ regular starters like Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie may find themselves oddly refreshed. The challenge for the league title has already ebbed away and without domestic cup fixtures, there are several opportunities to rest and recuperate. While these players will be used to fighting on multiple fronts you would not blame them for trying to make the most of a difficult situation and concentrate on the Champions League.

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