Louis Saha celebrates his goal in the 2-3 FA Cup victory over ReadingUnited were very lucky last night. I’ve never seen such a free-scoring start to a football match. United looked superb in the game’s opening stages, but when they went 3-0 up so early a comeback was always on the cards.

From the middle of the second half onwards, I thought United were pretty disappointing. Van der Sar flapped uncharacteristically, the defence looked shaky, Heinze’s erratic involvements demonstrated why he has fallen so far behind Patrice Evra in the left-back pecking order, Kieran Richardson had a thoroughly forgettable game, Darren Fletcher’s usually reliable distribution was found lacking, and Ji-Sung Park buzzed around to no real discernable effect.

The forwards, though, were superb. Solskjaer’s movement was marvellous, and I thought Saha looked completely unplayable. Not many forwards give Andre Bikey the brush-off quite so easily, but Saha had him in his pocket all night. Rarely do you see a centre forward play with quite such confidence in his strength and ability, and I thought he took his goal superbly.

But United did look wobbly. In the last fifteen minutes they defended like schoolboys – literally. And while the first team continues to purr like a new Ferrari, the Robin Reliant feel of the second eleven suggests the squad is considerably weaker than Chelsea and Arsenal’s.

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Not so sweet FA

February 27 2007

Cardiff City manager Dave JonesCardiff City manager Dave Jones and on-loan midfielder Simon Walton have been charged by the Welsh FA for their behaviour during and after the recent victory over Leeds, and Jones must be absolutely livid.

He’s been at loggerheads with the FAW all season over the tardiness with which they have acted regarding Cardiff’s appeals against red cards, and this may well be the final straw.

Walton was hugely unlucky to be sent off against Leeds (he was sent off for two bookable offences, the second of which was a non-existent dive). The FAW have accepted that he didn’t deserve to be sent off, but as they are unable to rescind yellow cards, they have just pressed ahead and charged Walton with improper conduct for kicking the fourth official’s electronic board as he walked from the pitch. Jones will be steaming.

Cardiff are already pursuing the possibility of leaving the FAW and joining the English FA, as they’re worried that, should they qualify for the Premiership and then for Europe, the FAW could block their involvement on the grounds that they shouldn’t be allowed to represent Wales because they play in the English system.

All this suggests that the simmering tension between the Welsh FA and Wales’s biggest football club is reaching boiling point. I wouldn’t like to get in Dave Jones’s way the next time the FAW crosses him…

Chelsea win the battle…

February 25 2007

Players from Chelsea and Arsenal clash towards the end of the 2007 Carling Cup FinalChelsea 2-1 Arsenal. A gripping game. Goals, fisticuffs, controversy, near-decapitation and the occasional flourish of sweet passing football. Shame Chelsea won though.

I am a Man United fan, but I must confess that I love the football Arsenal play. And they began today’s game with such gusto and enterprise. Walcott took his goal so well, and I began to secretly hope that they would swarm all over Chelsea’s expensively assembled team of strop-throwing primadonnas, proving once and for all that, in the long term, you really can’t buy success.

But, inevitably, Chelsea came back at them. And when Drogba notched the winner, Wenger’s ‘Young Guns’ proved that they are just as much a bunch of strop-throwing primadonnas as Mourinho’s ‘men’. It was a shame the game had to end that way – particularly after the injury sustained by John Terry – but it did make bloody good television.

And yet, when the dust settles, how happy can Chelsea be? Yes, they have the season’s first piece of silverware – and Mourinho’s attachment to the League Cup is commendable – but they are now nine points behind United and once again without their inspirational skipper. Methinks the Premiership trophy is beginning to inch its way back towards the M6…

Swing and you’re winning

February 22 2007

Craig Bellamy celebrates his goal against BarcelonaYesterday morning: the Racing Post reveals that some bookmakers are offering odds of 100-1 on Craig Bellamy scoring against Barcelona and celebrating with a golf swing.

Yesterday evening: Craig Bellamy scores against Barcelona… and celebrates with a golf swing.

Anyone else think Bellamy’s gambling mates might have had more than a helping hand in inspiring last night’s celebration?

I wonder whether he got a cut of the winnings…

Advantage Liverpool

February 22 2007

John Arne Riise celebrates his goal against Barcelona in last night's Champions League gameBarcelona 1-2 Liverpool. It sticks in the throat a bit, but I thought Liverpool were excellent last night.

The absence of a real, defence-stretching frontman in the Barca team meant they were forced to field a more compact team than they would prefer to, and Benitez robbed Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho of the space on which they thrive by packing the midfield with Sissoko, Alonso and Gerrard. It enabled Liverpool to play a classic counter-attacking game, and even though Barcelona just shaded possession, there wasn’t much between the teams in terms of shots on goal.

The lack of space in front of the Liverpool back four frustrated Barca’s attackers, and the persistent harrying of the Barca defence by Bellamy and Kuyt meant that the Catalans were frequently hurried out of their usual passing game. As a consequence Barca began to look ragged, but Liverpool retained commendable caution by sitting back and trying to pick them off on the break.

Before the game I thought the Liverpool team looked a little unbalanced with a left midfielder (Riise) and a centre forward (Bellamy) on the left, and two right-backs (Arbeloa and Finnan) on the right, but Riise and Bellamy did a great job of shackling Messi, and both Liverpool’s goals came from attacks down the right.

Frank Rijkaard’s post-match comments will not inspire much confidence in the Barca faithful: “We must always be positive, but we have to be realistic. It will be difficult to make a comeback.”

Hardly Churchillian, but it demonstrates the unyielding pragmatism of many European clubs. The never-say-die attitude synonymous with British football is something that a lot of Spanish and Italian teams just do not understand, but it’s looking stronger than ever in this season’s Champions League.

There are few finer sights in football than a well-struck left-foot volley. Right-foot volleys can be pretty special, but given the predominant right-footedness of most players, a left-foot volley is just that little bit rarer.

Robin van Persie and Matthew Taylor have both scored sublime left-foot volleys in the Premiership this season. But how do they compare to three of the best left-foot volleys scored in Europe over the past few seasons?

1. Silvinho, for Celta Vigo v Barcelona (h), La Liga, 2002-2003

2. Mariano Pernia, for Getafe v Barcelona (h), La Liga, 2005-2006

3. Francesco Totti, for Roma v Sampdoria (a), Serie A, 2006-2007

I was going to put these five goals into some kind of order, but I just can’t separate them. Football doesn’t get much sweeter than this.

Mullet over

February 14 2007

Chris WaddleToday I have mostly been getting excited about… Chris Waddle.

Not for nothing was the Geordie wing wizard once included in an All-Time Greatest XI by Zinedine Zidane. Waddle was one of the stars of Le Championnat when Zidane was starting out, and I for one can certainly see glimpses of Waddle in the languid, lolloping style of the great Zizou.

And I wonder how many football fans are familiar with this goal? OK, the goalkeeping is a bit shoddy, but it’s still pretty tasty. And with his right foot as well!