Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Barcelona collapse or Real fluke?

The most critiqued lines of thought in these column is how I expressed the disinterest in how the boring Manchester United are great despite how badly they played. Together with the fact that I saw bolts coming off the Arsenal wagon, for which I was ‘justifiably’ crucified since the horse had the experience, cost me the credibility as an independent blogger. Not that it mattered at all, but now that the fans are plucking the body off the wagon itself, I feel vindicated.
The Gunners belonged to a club that was disillusioned by the idea that they played like Barcelona but lost like Aston Villa. The similarity with the conceived pattern of play was however not related to a similar trend seen at the Catalans. Just before the departure of Pep Guardiola, it was here that we claimed that Barca were finished.
Now that both Arsenal and Barcelona are suffering the symptoms of our diagnosis, their non-performance is no longer of interests. Is it thinking ahead of the game? Their game may not be really over. Maybe people were right after all. There is some consderable playing shrinkage somewhere.
I cannot shake off the feeling that the 3-1 loss of Barca to Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in the Del Rey Cup is the end of the beginning of Madrid rather than the expired end of Barcelona. In fact, both Arsenal and Barca can never be thought of as teams that were once good and are now ordinary. That would be an insult to the game and the game-changers like Arsene Wenger.
However, prudence is recognizing the rise of other teams in England; namely, you guessed it, Tottenham Hotspur. Many saw Spurs as a team and Gareth Bale as a player at the San Siro three seasons ago in that dramatic comeback in the UEFA Champions League. Wisdom is realizing the growth of Real Madrid over Barca since Jose Mourinho took over the Galatico.
Of course, there has been talk of the gap between the two sides in the La Liga and worse, there is a team and possibly two between the two. That emphasizes the point being made, that the gap below Barca is diminishing. Teams are getting better in the game and dealing with problem teams or players is becoming a thing of the past.
If you are a Barcelona fan, their collapse against Real was temporary and a fluke. If you are a Gunner, Arsenal are not finished, but Wenger is done. That is die-hard support and is commendable. For football fans, this is the football revolutionary times.     

Monday, February 25, 2013

Highlanders dismembered by Dynamos in Cup match

Dynamos scored 4 unanswered goals through Khumbula in the 8th and 39th minutes, Jaure in the 10th minute as well as a 45th minute own goal to crown a miserable day in the office for the Highlanders players, technical team and supporters to lift the Bob89 Cup with a 6-1 aaggregate scoreline.

Bosso always put a show void of meaningful purpose to trouble the Zimbabwean champions. Flashes of brilliance from the usual suspects like Bruce Kangwa, Peter Moyo and Mthulisi Maphosa was evident but insufficient to turn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg around.

None had the brilliance to overturn the 4-0 half-time scoreline or even to register a single goal to save face. There is loads of work if the Bulawayo giants will have a say in the upcoming season of the Zimbabwe Castle Lager Premiership.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Poor Pirates pathetically lose 4-1 to amateurs

Orlando Pirates write history at will. As double treble champions (two consecutive seasons winning three titles per season), they were beaten 4-1 in one title they are defending and by a team four levels below their stature. Pirates are former African champions and they are still in the running to win that title and of course the local championship.

Maluti FET College were 2-0 up by half time and had the luxury of missing a penalty kick in the second half. No matter what the Ghosts did, they were never going to reap anything on the day. Despite their experience and talent, they were found wanting mentally and failed to cope with unconventional lower division football.

It was a Pirates side that could have dismembered giants like Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns. They were unstuck as many expected the 24-0 drubbing that the Nedbank Cup produced last season when Sundowns dished out a thumping to amateurs. It was Pirates who had a lesson to learn from the College boys from the the Free State province.

A defeat would have been embarrassing, but four goals were a little too much to bear. The novice way the goals were conceded would be a worry for the coach but the glaring truth was how bad the attitude of the players was. Carelessness in both attack and defensive tactics was unbelievably horrible. Pirates actually conceded the first goal in 40 seconds. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Afcon 2013; The best teams in the finals.

The poor officiating took shine off the best performance of the South Africa Afcon 2013 when Burkna Faso blasted Ghana out of the tournament to reach their first ever final that they will play against Nigeria on Sunday. While that bad and incompetent referee has been sent home, as if there was a chance he would stay and referee the final, his bad decision will directly impact on the whole history of the Africa football because, Pitriopa, a victim of his ineptitude will not take part in the final.

The Burkinabe was one of the brightest things left at the tournament and his charge at goal was unlawfully brought to a halt by a Ghanaian. The referee denied the player and Burkina Faso a penalty and adding salt and chillies to injury, Pitroipa was dismissed for simulation. Together with Traore, they would have been value for money against Super Eagles of Nigeria but the Stallions have enough ammunition to dispatch the super-charged former champions.

The soft penalty Ghana got was not anything close to a penalty, even from distance and at first glance. The denied goal Burkina Faso scored was legitimate. The referee could have awarded two penalties to the minnows, but the tall Bance could have scored four times at least. At the end of the day, while the match could have been wrapped up in 90 minutes or at worst in extra time by the Burkina Faso, poetic justice was served in the penalty shootout as Ghana were sent packing 3-2.

The match was the most entertaining so far and above all, very mature. Ghana showed some discipline in their operation as each man reasonably covered their spaces effectively as they attacked purposefully but patiently. They exercised their influence in strictly keeping their shape and temperament at all times. While this made them effective in their passing game and their shape, it allowed Burkina Faso to operate better with their physical approach.

The Burkinabe then found spaces to function and moved forward in compact units that did not leave open spaces in both offence and defence. This improved their efficiency in passing and receiving the ball and hence their attacking power was greatly enhanced. 

Ghana did not have easy access as a result of how Burkina Faso responded to the conditions. It would take the Black Stars some clinical efficiency to dismantle this cohesive unit, which they did not. The ping-pong match became conducive to how the Burkinabe played as they were presented with obvious goal-scoring opportunities which they failed to convert in regulation and extra time. Bance was the chief culprit but he made amends with the equalising goal after Ghana led for most of the match, and he put away his cheeky penalty to the delight of the crowd at Mbombela Stadium.

By any measure, the defending by both teams was atrocious while the finishing was appalling. The gravity of the occasion could be to blame as the nerves took their toll. The passing and reception was a little above board bit the marksmen were guilty on poor first touches. Tackles were cleaner and solid while the marking was reasonably structured. I must particularly mention that Burkina Faso blasted the ball on many occasions when placing it safely into the net could have done the business. Bance was the chief culprit.

Nigeria were at another level when they dispatched Mali maliciously with a solid display of football that they dished out with an unforgiving attitude. Victor Moses played a superb game with his runs with and without the ball. More than their shape and discipline of the strategy, the Super Eagles were clinical. They did not create an avalanche of chances but put away the vital half-chanes coming their way to put Mali on the back foot.

The opening minutes were evenly balanced until the first three quick goals dismantled the Malians. Nigeria were better composed in midfield as they supplied cleaner balls to forwards. Their defensive shape forced long range shots from the Malian midfield and that desperation continued and grew worse after half-time.

After the fourth goal, Mali were presented with many obvious scoring chances which they fluffed. If they managed to put away two or three of them, it would be interesting to see how Nigeria would react. The Super Eagles were fairly solid and disciplined but Mali did not seem to push hard to repel the firepower that came their way.

Their game plan was different from what was noticed in their group stages, where they played very slowly and waited for single opportunities to pounce. This might have invited Nigerians to threaten more and harder and move forward. 

In both semi-finals, decision-making improved from what we saw at the beginning of the tournament but there was much room for improvement, especially in the final attacking third. All teams respected each other and placed many men behind the ball. The solid defensive shapes were broken down by individual brilliance of the midfielders.

One specific tactic Nigeria used was the Malian left back position of Taumbura. Taumbura was always offensive throughout the tournament and left yawning gaps behind. Moses exploited the cavity in that flank, something that we cried about that Thuso Phala of South Africa should have done in the quarter final. That gap was the single most used channel and source of all Nigerian attacks. How the Malian coach did not adjust or react to it was surprising. 

Mali got ripped easier than they deserved as their crumbled like a sand castle or a deck of cards. The efforts to fight back were met by tough resistance from the Nigerian midfield and defense while the heads dropped for the Malians, a death knell to their ambitions to conquer Africa. More telling between the two sides was the believe and determination and it boiled down to the psychological edge that the Super Eagles had over the Eagles of Mali. #

The bigger story was to come, the defeat of Ghana by minnows Burkina Faso, a small nation previously known as the Upper Volta, whose name was changed by one Captain Thomas Sankara, whose African renaissance spirit truly came to the party and pulled the revolutionary victory for the Burkinabe, the upright men.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

How hosts South Africa were embarassed by Mali

The first 45 minutes of the quarter-final at Moses Mabhida Stadium were the best football Bafana Bafana ever played since time immemorial. It looked like a solid game-plan. As it turned out, it was a fluke.

Champions in 1996, runner-up in 1998, quarter-finalists in 2000 and first-round participants in 2002, South Africa hosted a tournament they have not been part of for over 10 years. By the inverse proportioning the events, they reached the quarter-finals of Afcon 2013, they will be in the semi-final in 2015 and eventually win it in 2017.

Currently tagged perennial failures, Bafana Bafana surprised many by progressing past the first stage. That shock success came courtesy of an unbelievable 2-0 victory over Angola and draws against Cape Verde and Morocco.  

It has been proved how good the hosts were, given a false sense of security that the Islanders were a piece of cake. Cape Verde are probably the team of the tournament, given their other performances against Morocco, Angola and Ghana. They had eliminated Cameroon.

South Africa had enough manpower playing behind the ball and accelerating forward to attack. They employed this with and without the ball. This afforded them in equal proportions the liberty to attack and defend in numbers comfortably.

Scoring opportunities were created in a flurry of movements into the attacking third and penalty box in good measure. The composure and finishing put to waste the tactical advantage realised by the sound orchestration of offensive behaviour.

South Africa‘s tournament ended with a half-time whistle. With those fluffed chances gone begging, one assumes the coach in the dressing room had good words and praise for creating them. With that pat on the back, that was the last participation by the hosts.

Mali came in the second half getting the ball and sitting on it. They utilised the spaces every time they were invited by Bafana, which was too often for the West Africans to fully and comprehensively punish Bongani Khumalo and his troops.

That was a great piece of coaching in terms of playing hosts who were spurred by a vociferous crowd. It ensured the ground was even by eliminating the participation of the player number 12. As soon as the stakes were even, it was game on as they pushed to even out the score-line, which they did with a lot of ease.

A ball to the left wing took the right back out of the equation, drew both central defenders out position and attracted the left back into a situation where he could not make his mind to mark the man in front or behind him. In all their numbers, they ball-watched, giving their backs to the most treacherous situation.

As all this was happening, Seydou Keita trotted to the central attacking position to nod past Itumeleng Khune unopposed. Khune could have come out for the cross but he stayed rooted to his line rendering himself useful to a ball headed downwards with power.

Mali relaxed more and slowed down the match after their equaliser knowing the hosts would be frustrated chasing shadow and the fans would be agitated by lack of action. That is exactly the script for the rest of the match and extra time.  

The amateurish conclusion to the Bafana campaign left a huge lump in the throat of all South Africans. There is no doubt of the progress Bafana made throughout the 2013 Afcon and hopefully they will get the basic defending principles in place for the Brazil 2014 Fifa World Cup.

The nation is nursing a long hangover that may last the whole month, for some the whole year.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The only El Classico Real dominated

I cannot remember the last time I watched Real Madrid dominating Barcelona in open play they way they did this week. It has never been so clear, ever. In so many other matches that the Galatico won, they got the result by luck or brute force. This was one moment they dominated each encounter and duel player per player and unit by unit. Despite that, they conceded and scored only once and at the dearth.

As a show, the match was entertaining. Barca had clear cut chances besides the one put away by Cesc Fabregas. Real missed a few clear-cut opportunities but scored a half chance through a young centre back in Raphael Varane in that El Classico at the Bernebeu.

By some measure, it was a typical Barcelona versus Real Madrid fixture but played under cooler vibes and smarter tactics. The usual ping-pong between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were never a big deal and the blow by blow attacks were enjoyed by Madrid for a change.

Barca enjoyed better quality on the day’s proceedings while Madrid had reasonable quality time with the ball. Their movement in midfield showed an improved construction by the mastermind, Jose Mourinho. The plan was never to stop the opponents from playing, but to push his team’s abilities to the maximum.

Still, they were not close to what that talent can do. In the middle of their worst campaign under the reign of The Only One, it remains to be seen if the approach will be implemented in the return leg at the Camp Nou.   

The match was tidier and cleaner than many previous encounters. Both Messi and Ronaldo not scoring was testimony of fresh things happening, that they do not need to be gladiators even if they are protagonists. Many saw it as Barca losing their grip rather than Madrid getting their bearing right on the way to out-playing the Catalans.

It would be nice to hear the opinion of the neutrals.

North Arab Africa failed at the AFOCN 2013, why?

Ghana and Cameroon won the Afcon four times each, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo twice, while the Egyptians had it seven times, including that incredible popular hat-trick.

Other champions since 1957 are Tunisia, Congo, Zambia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan, Algeria and Ivory Coast.

Let us remember the losing finalists as well for a change. Ghana and Nigeria lead the pack by having been there four times each, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Sudan, Cameroon and Tunisia lost the finals twice each.

Egypt lost the final once in 1962. They were third thrice. Nigeria were seven times number three while Ivory Coast and Zambia achieved that four and three times respectively.

Ten times did the north Arab Africa lift the trophy, making them the most successful region in Africa. This is a total of the Egyptians (7), Moroccans (1), Algerians (1) and Tunisians (1) champion titles.

Cameroon (4), DRC (2) and Congo (1) representing Central Africa won it seven times. This equalled the West African titles of Ghana (4), Nigeria (2), Ivory Coast (1). Sudan and Ethiopia got two titles for East Africa as did South Africa and Zambia for the Southern African region.

At the quarter-final stage of the 2013 Afcon in South Africa, there are seven West African countries and the hosts, South Africa left. Besides, even at club level, the north Africans have won the continental title on 26 occasions since the inception of the African club championship.

It may not be a trend but what happened in this Afcon that led to the elimination of the game’s power houses? Let us look at the luck of the draw.

Algeria and Tunisia were grouped together and toiled hard to eliminate each other. Both could have qualified but they played bad football, especially Algeria. Morocco engaged the hosts and minnows Cape Verde as well as Angola. They were tipped to top the group.

Algeria were rated the second best team in Africa, passing the ball well and moving forward quickly in smooth transitions. There was not much to separate them from their French speaking neighbours.

A world-class last minute strike robbed them of victory as they did not have time to respond. Actually, they did not need to have been in that situation. At worst Algeria could have done was to have a lead they failed to protect. They were supposed to hit the net and more than once. As all other northerners, their downfall was what is usually their strength – the excessive speed.

All Arabic countries played too many players ahead of the ball. This comes basically from the passion of the things they do rather than the speed of thought. The eagerness and anticipation never materialised as the opposing teams closed the men on the ball too quickly.

This made it impossible to deliver the early balls from crossing positions and denied the five passes following the winning of possession. The seven seconds counter-attacking window elapsed quickly for them.

If ever there was delivery of the ball, it was a shade too late. In few instances where the delivery was on time and at the right areas, the haste to deal with the ball let them down. More often than not, they were always caught napping by counter-counter-attacks of the opposition.

In their bid to get on their bikes to attack very fast and in large numbers, their rear was exposed tremendously. These were obvious in the matches involving Algeria versus Togo, Tunisia versus Togo as well as Morocco versus South Africa.

Usually, teams would keep enough resources at the back to deal with speedy players and systematic counter-attacks. By hook or crook, and maybe fluke too, the 2013 Afcon teams were well prepared to deal with counter-attacking football.

One cannot really place a finger on whether the failure of Egypt to be at the tournament had anything to do with countering the counter-attack. By contracts, the Ethiopians patiently attacked their opposition despite their naivety in being too casual at the back and depending on being just too timid.

To have a productive processes in the pipeline, the Arabs were better off playing the Ethiopian way because they concentrate well and they are solid at the back. This would then allow them to play behind the ball, save for an attacker or two.

The pace of the attack can increase and yield results if they ran at opponents, exactly the way Tottenham Hotspurs’ Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon would tear defences down. They have the capacities to play that way, but they failed dismally in their endeavours.

With Africa, one never knows if change is here to stay. One day, the winds of change will flow south and then east. Morocco failed to register a win, Algeria could only find the net in their last match in which they relinquished the a healthy 2-0 lead to afford the Ivory Coast a 2-2 draw. Tunisia managed a 1-0 victory over Algeria, a 1-1 draw with Togo despite that 3-0 drubbing by Ivory Coast.