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Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Road To Wembley

Old Wembley’s Twin Towers hold a unique place in the history of Manchester United and FC Barcelona. They both won their first European accolade in Old Wembley stadium. They are due to face each other on 28th May, 2011 in the Champions League final at New Wembley stadium, London. The winner will join the elite group of Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern München with 4 Champions League titles, and will be behind only Liverpool FC (5 titles), A.C. Milan (7 titles) and Real Madrid (9 titles).
Matt Busby was the first Manchester United manager to conquer Europe in 1968. After 31 years, another Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson repeated the feat for Manchester United. Alex Ferguson once again steered United to European glory in 2008. This year, the most successful English Premier League manager is in the search of his 3rd and United’s 4th European achievement.
Johan Cruyff was the first FC Barcelona manager to conquer Europe in 1992. After 14 years, another Dutch, Frank Rijkaard, repeated the feat for Barcelona. Josep Guardiola, who was a player in the title winning squad under Cruyff, triumphed over Europe again in 2009; this time as a Manager. This year, the only manager in the planet to win the Sextuple is in the search of his 2nd and Barcelona’s 4th European achievement.
Group Stage:
Barcelona and United topped the respective groups with 14 points from the available 18 points. Both teams never lost a match in group stage. United scored 7 goals and conceded 1 goal while Barcelona scored double than United and conceded 3 goals.
First Knock-Out Round:
I would say Arsenal was little unlucky to pit against Barcelona yet another time in what turned out to be the repetition of last year’s quarter final. In spite of the victory at Emirates, Arsenal crashed out again to that little genius, Lionel Messi in a match marred by the dubious dismissal of Robin van Persie. Barcelona is a team difficult to play against when you have 11 players on the pitch. You could imagine what would have happened after Arsenal were reduced to 10 men in Camp Nou !
For Manchester United, a cagey encounter at Stade Vélodrome against Olympique Marseille was followed with a comfortable win during the return leg at Old Trafford. Thanks to Javier Hernández’s brace.
Quarter Finals:
Barcelona thrashed Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine with an aggregate score of 6-1. At Camp Nou, five goals were scored with Lionel Messi not amongst the scorers. But, the solitary goal scored at the Donbass Arena belonged to the Argentine.
For United, QF was a tough encounter and was the repetition of 2008 Champions league final. Again, the result was same. But, this time the tie wasn’t decided on penalties. Following a defeat at Stamford Bridge, for a lone Rooney goal, Chelsea traveled to Old Trafford knowing that they must score to progress. Instead, United scored through Javier Hernández and Chelsea never looked to stifle United until the second half introduction of Didier Drogba in place of disappointing Fernando Torres. 77th minute of the match decided the tie ! Drogba scored a powerful goal and equalized for Chelsea. The response from United took no time as Ji-Sung Park restored the lead following a breath taking counter attack. Champions league curse continues for Chelsea !
There was an outstanding player who controlled the game for Manchester united in both the legs. All the 3 goals scored by Manchester United had the signature of that indefatigable, ageless, and zealous player called Giggsy; Ryan Joseph Giggs.
Semi Finals:
Until the first leg of this Champions league semi final, José Mourinho cunningly and successfully administered his team formations against Barcelona. But in Santiago Bernabéu, with entire planet watching, he failed to defend his much celebrated tactical acumen and managerial repertoire. He neither cared for Real Madrid’s aristocratic brand of attacking football nor considered the offensive talents like Kaká, Benzema and Higuaín. The harsh dismissal of the chief destroyer, Pepe, proved to be the key moment in the match. Having reduced to 10 men and the influential coach sent to stands, Madrid fluttered after an hour mark to concede the defeat to two goals from Little Messiah. El Clásico at Bernabéu was a match to be remembered for the annihilation strategy by Madrid and resultant histrionics by Barcelona.
The second leg at Camp Nou was a formality. Score line was not humiliating compared to the 5-0 thrashing in La Liga; thanks to the attacking brand of football displayed by Real Madrid. It was an admirable score line, 1-1, in the Champions league ! Real Madrid had 36% of ball possession at Camp Nou compared to 28% at Bernabéu. Madrid managed that 28% having played for half an hour with 10 men. What would have been the outcome if Real Madrid played with more attacking intent at Bernabéu during first leg  ?
Toppling the defending champions can always lift the spirit of any team and ensures further progression in the competition. But, in case of Schalke 04 it proved to be wrong. In the semi final against United, Schalke failed to replicate the eye catching performances exhibited against Inter Milan in the quarter final. The semi final was decided in favor of Manchester United with a comfortable 0-2 win at Gelsenkirchen. At Old Trafford, a second string United side proved too strong for Schalke as implied by the aggregate score of 6-1.
In Champions League, Manchester United is having a dream run and is yet to lose a match in the ongoing season. The only loss suffered by Barcelona was against Arsenal at the Emirates. Barcelona scored more than any other team in this year’s competition; 27 times compared to United’s 18. Manchester United got the best defensive record in the competition as they conceded only 4 goals compared to Barcelona’s 8. Barcelona had 62% average ball possession in all matches compared to United’s 58%.
Lionel Messi is the top scorer in the Champions League this season with 11 goals. Other main scorers for Barcelona are Pedro Rodríguez; 4 goals, and David Villa; 3 goals.  For United, Javier Hernández has scored 4 goals while Wayne Rooney and Anderson, 3 each. In case of assists, Andrés Iniesta for Barcelona, and Ryan Giggs for United, turned provider for 4 goals; Mesut Özil leading the list with 6 assists. 
Both Barcelona and United goes to Wembley as newly crowned champions of football leagues in Spain and England respectively. That means the winner at New Wembley will achieve the European Double, which include European and domestic titles. In La Liga, Barcelona overcame Real Madrid to claim 21st title and tallied 96 points.  In Premier League, Manchester United managed only 5 away wins this season, and still won the League for a record 19th time collecting 80 points.
Again, Lionel Messi is the leading goal scorer for Barcelona in La Liga with 31 goals and falling behind only to the record breaker, Cristiano Ronaldo. The mesmeric dribbler from Portugal with an unprecedented 40-goal haul in La Liga, two more than the previous record jointly held by Hugo Sanchez (1989/90) and Telmo Zarra (1959/60). In the Premier League, Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United and former Red Devil, Carlos Tévez shared the top scorer spot with 21 goals each.
Again ! Lionel Messi turned provider for Barcelona’s 18 goals in La Liga and topped the assists list ! If you believe the statistics, the right wing back of Barcelona had more than double assists to Barcelona’s midfield maestro, Xavi ! The rampant Dani Alves with 15 assists.  Luís Nani led the chart in Premier League with 18 assists, while Wayne Rooney helped his teammates finding the net 11 times.
Past 10 meetings between Barcelona and United witnessed 3 wins each and 4 draws. They have met each other in 2 finals. Manchester United prevailed in the Cup Winners Cup (CWC was abolished in 1999 and made way to expansion of Champions League and introduction of Europa League) final at Feijenoord Stadion, Rotterdam in 1991. Barcelona took the center stage in the most recent meeting; Champions League final at Stadio Olimpico, Rome in 2009.
Team News:
By now, Sir Alex Ferguson would have watched the DVD of 2009 Champions League final defeat multiple times. In 2009, United’s technical team notified Ferguson that Barcelona’s frailties lie primarily in Valdés, their dodgy goalkeeper and aerial weakness, as Barcelona looked vulnerable in the air. Subsequently, United played with a strategy of frequently sending long balls to their forward line and paid the price to the aerial prowess of the shortest man on the pitch; Messi out jumping the United defense to head the ball past Edwin van der Sar to seal the title in favor of Barcelona.
Looking at both the sides, Barcelona seems well equipped compared to two seasons ago. Barcelona used a rigid 4-3-3 formation in 2009, with Messi on the right wing, Henry on the left, and Eto’o in the center. Current Barcelona side play free flowing football, with Messi operating in the center, Pedro on the right and the ‘supreme finisher’, David Villa on the left. Messi is no longer an inverted winger, and has given the freedom to drop deep, roam in to the areas where space is vacant, and also to form that short triangle of passes with Xavi and Iniesta.
The defense of Barcelona looks more rugged compared to 2009. In Rome, both Abidal and Alves missed the final due to suspension. That prompted Guardiola to go for a make shift arrangement; Puyol as right back, Sylvinho at left back position and had the central defensive pairing of Gerard Piqué and Yaya Touré. This time, Barcelona will have the first choice central defensive pairing and right wing back. If fully recovered and back to full fitness from the recent surgery to remove a tumor from his liver, Abidal will be the first choice left back.
Most notably for Manchester United, there won’t be Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez in the lineup from the team played in Rome. Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernández eagerly waits to play their part in a Champions League final. Another man to make the impact will be the best disruptive player in the United side; Darren Fletcher, who missed the final in Rome due to suspension. Although, the latest news is that Fletcher, who has been out for two months with a mystery virus, will not be fit to play in the final. In all possibility, United may field the same back four played in the final at Rome. The only suspicious position belong to John O'Shea, the right wing back.
If not presented with an element of surprise, Pep Guardiola will field his standard 4-3-3 formation, with Messi having the freedom to roam around. Sergio Busquets will anchor the midfield along with Xavi and Iniesta. You may also expect the surging runs from Dani Alves whenever Messi drops in to midfield areas and draws away his markers along with him to create spaces in the right flank. If Guardiola decides to add more steel to the midfield, then he got Seydou Keita and Javier Mascherano at his disposal. If Pedro is not able to haunt Patrice Evra regularly, Guardiola may turn to the pace and trickery of Ibrahim Afellay, the winger who crossed for Messi’s opening goal against Real Madrid in the semi final at Bernabéu.
Sir Alex Ferguson will be in a dilemma to decide his best formation. I assume, he may not go for a direct 4-4-2; instead he will use 4-4-1-1 formation that worked so well against Chelsea in the quarter finals. Rooney looked deadly dangerous in that formation, playing in a deep-lying role, with Chicharito in the more orthodox striker position. If Alex Ferguson decides to opt for a five man midfield to upset Barcelona’s dominance in the midfield, it’s going to have multiple effects on his own team. First of all, he has to sacrifice a player, most probably Chicharito. That will compel Rooney to play the role of an orthodox striker, not a comfortable position for Rooney nowadays, thus nullifying his contributions in the midfield. Most importantly, being a wonderful and booming counter attacking side, United will miss the pace and dashes of Chicharito, if he is dropped for Ferguson’s conservative nature in big games.
I would bet for Valencia on the right, Giggs and Carrick in the middle of the park, and Park Ji-Sung on the left, if Ferguson opts for 4-4-1-1. Presence of the ever reliant South Korean will be helpful in canceling out forward runs from Dani Alves too. Carrick needs to close down Barcelona midfield quickly to deny space and time for Xavi and Iniesta to operate on. Giggs need to become the linchpin, carefully distributing the ball, as you are expecting to have negligible share of possession. In case Alex Ferguson opts for a similar strategy deployed by José Mourinho in the Champions League semi final against Barcelona, United may use Anderson to do the job of an aggressive search-and-destroy ball winner. Expect Nani and Scholes to have impact off the bench.
Here is the details about grande finale.
FC Barcelona Vs. Manchester United
Date: 28/05/2011
Time: 20:45
Stadium: Wembley Stadium
Venue: London (ENG)
If short of motivation for the daunting task of defeating Barcelona, Sir Alex Ferguson only has to look at well known managers like José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger, as well as little known managers like Martin Lasarte and Esteban Vigo ! They all outmaneuvered Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona once this season. Only once each ! José Mourinho managed that in the final of Copa del Rey, Arsène Wenger in the first leg of Champions League quarter final, Martin Lasarte of Real Sociedad and Esteban Vigo (sacked later) of Hércules in La Liga.
Alex Ferguson would know the importance of interrupting the ‘carousel’ to prevent the recurrence of an awful Roman night happened two years ago. This time he wishes the ‘London dream’ to come true by collecting that glittering trophy. Mission Impossible or Mission Possible ?

26th May, 2011
2 days before Champions League final at Wembley

Mission Accomplished ! 19 League Titles...

Blackburn Rovers 1 Manchester United 1. The result ensured this year’s League title to Manchester United. But, the final score at Ewood Park did not matter to Sir Alex Ferguson. What mattered to him was Manchester United 19 Liverpool 18 ! Finally, Alex Ferguson has accomplished in his long term target of throwing Liverpool off their perch. Now Manchester United has set the target for other teams to pursue.
When United signed the dynamic Scot from Aberdeen to replace their below par Manager Ron Atkinson in 1986, nobody in Manchester assumed he was going to rewrite the football history in favor of Greater Manchester by challenging the colossal in the League and Europe, Liverpool FC. In fact, when Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford, the ‘mattered’ score line was 16-7 in favor of Anfield. Liverpool went on to win two more titles under Ferguson’s compatriot Kenny Dalglish, who is now at Anfield hot seat for a second spell. If you quote Alan Hansen, the Liverpool legend and now a Football pundit, “When Liverpool beat Queens Park Rangers to lift our 18th League Championship in 1990, nobody mentioned Manchester United.” That was the reality two decades ago; Liverpool had 18 League titles against Manchester United’s 7.
The hardest League title, they say the first title can be the hardest one, under Alex Ferguson came in 1992. Surprisingly, the renaming of the domestic league to Premier League occurred the same year. The launching of Premier League signaling the dominance of Red Devils ! The squad contained an 18 year old left winger who scored in all Premier League seasons till today and still forms the vital part of Manchester United which won the 19th title. Ryan Giggs, the Welsh Wizard.
United triumphed next season also followed by a remarkable achievement in 1995-96 season. That was the Golden Generation of United coming through the ranks of youth system. The 3rd League title under Alex Ferguson witnessed the performances of new generation and contained the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Neville brothers. Ferguson believed the youngsters and they returned the favor to their Master by bestowing the greatest ever season in United’s history, in 1999. The Treble not only offered the 5th League title to Alex Ferguson; but, his first European success at Manchester. The ‘mattered’ score line after the Treble was 18- 12 in favor of Liverpool. Also, Liverpool had 4 European Cups to United’s 2 triumphs.
By the time Alex Ferguson masterminded the Double by conquering League title and European elite in 2007-08, he had amended the scores to 18-17, still in favor of Liverpool. In the European front, Liverpool also amended their part through ‘miracle of Istanbul’ and score was 5-3 in favor of Liverpool. In both League and Europe, United overpowered Chelsea and nobody will forget the way John Terry slipped to present the Champions League to Red Devils in a rainy pitch at Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
The following time of the year witnessed Alex Ferguson equaling 18 titles of Liverpool. None other than Liverpool came as runners up in the League, one of the atypical occasion where Liverpool played like real champions under Rafa Benitez. But, even the commanding displays against other three teams in the so called ‘Top Four’, which doesn’t exist as on today with Liverpool no longer a part of it, was not enough to stop United from clinching their 18th, and Alex Ferguson’s 11th League title.
2010-11 season. History rewritten. Much coveted dream accomplished. Liverpool is no longer the most successful team domestically. Manchester United seized that honor with 19 League titles. Sir Alex Ferguson, the longest serving Manchester United Manager becomes the most successful Manager of all time. 12 Premier League titles in 19 seasons. Precisely, 12 League titles in 25 seasons at Manchester. There is an opportunity to make an amendment to European score too. A victory at Wembley against Barcelona FC on 28th May will make the score 5-4, still in favor of Merseysiders.
Kenny Dalglish with Blackburn, Arsène Wenger with Arsenal, José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti with Chelsea are the only Managers to win Premier League other than Alex Ferguson. Only Arsène Wenger is persisted to provide a long term rivalry to Ferguson with Dalglish deciding to take over as Director of football at Blackburn Rovers immediately after winning the Premier League, José Mourinho winning the Premier League twice in three attempts but sacked by Chelsea, and Ancelotti still unsure about his future after ending the current season trophy less with Chelsea. For Ferguson’s point of view, he would cherish to renew the rivalry with Kenny Dalglish who signed a permanent three-year contract at Anfield last week. That would take us back to the days when the two Scots battled for dominance in English club football and most interestingly the ‘mattered’ score is between them with nobody else in the visible sight.
Past : Liverpool.
Present : Manchester United.
Future : Up for grab.
The above says the whole story in a nutshell. With most of the Premier league teams going to summer transfer market, the future looks exciting. Chelsea will enter the market for revamping their ageing squad with or without Ancelotti in charge. Arsenal looks to bolster their squad despite the fear of losing Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri. Rejuvenated Liverpool under Dalglish will get around 50 million transfer kitty to lavish upon young prospects. ‘Noisy neighbors’ having qualified for Champions League will now attract celebrated players with money never a matter to them.
As for Manchester United, they need to replace four or five players in the near future. Edwin van der Sar needs immediate replacement as he had announced his retirement from football. Giggs and Scholes not far away from calling time to their illustrious careers at Old Trafford. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić are not too far away from deteriorating their majestic time. Replacements for the established ones like Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand will present an intimidating task to Alex Ferguson. But again, who else could do the job better than Sir Alex Ferguson who successfully dealt with the departures of Éric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo.
One day, when Alex Ferguson announces his retirement from Manchester United’s manager post, United fans will nervously look forward to their future. May be from that day onwards, other Premier league clubs will swoop for grabbing up the future. Till that time, either pursue the records set by Manchester United or face them with sheer determination and vision exemplified by that legend; Sir Alex Ferguson.

15th May, 2011
The day after Manchester United clinched 19th League title

Dalglish Signs New Three-Year Deal At Anfield

There was no second choice. Still they made him wait before making the final judgment. Might be, American way of management. Finally the pronouncement came. Kenny Dalglish has been appointed as permanent manager of Liverpool on a three-year deal.
Do you think if Fenway Sports Group has selected another candidate in place of Dalglish and presented them to Liverpool supporters, will Kop cuddle him without any disgruntlement ? For instance, young, dynamic André Villas-Boas of Porto FC, known as ‘next Mourinho’, or José Mourinho himself in place of Dalglish ? Being a Liverpool fan I can tell you I would have been entirely let down with those selections. Kenny Dalglish embodies Liverpool FC and has a unique relationship with supporters which cannot be swapped for any qualities possessed by Villas-Boas and Mourinho. It would be brainless to believe that José Mourinho developing such a relation and status among Liverpool supporters.
Even though the permanent deal was delayed by owners Fenway Sports Group, Dalglish never appeared apprehensive and always insisted, “There is no rush. The club is more important than anyone else. Take your time, make your decisions.” For Dalglish, he knows the ultimate choice but wanted the owners to be very affirmative about their decision to bring back a legend who knows the feel and pulse of Liverpool. Damien Comolli, Liverpool's director of football described, “The decision was a no-brainer. We didn't look around. Very early on we knew Kenny was the right person and, along with Steve (Clarke), we had the right coaching staff behind him. I have been impressed by the way they turned it around: the quality of the football, the enthusiasm, the confidence of the players, the way Kenny managed to integrate very young players into the first team.”
Liverpool’s transformation under ‘King Kenny’ episode-II was astounding. The best evidence is, imagining League started in January instead of August; Liverpool will be second in the table below Chelsea. The new elect-champions Manchester United will be in 3rd position after Liverpool ! The attacking brand of football played by Liverpool under Dalglish is proving to be entertaining as well as result oriented as one can notice the number of goals scored and points earned; 35 goals and 33 points in 16 games. No other team in the Premier League scored more number of goals and only Chelsea managed more points than Liverpool since January. If Fenway Sports Group has considered Dalglish instead of Roy Hodgson last summer, who knows how the League table will look like now ?
With Dalglish, it’s smiles all around Liverpool. The enthusiasm and spirit has come back to Liverpool players and is evident from the training sessions at Melwood. Dalglish himself is expressive and responsive in press conferences, fans singing aloud for King Kenny and his players.  Thumping victories, including giant killings against Chelsea and Manchester United, unassailable victories against Birmingham and Fulham, had restored the belief.  Like a magician Dalglish has wielded his magic wand to lift the gloom formed around Anfield during Hodgson era.
When Liverpool host Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield coming Sunday, the players and the fans know they have a permanent manager in the dug-out accompanied by first team coach Steve Clarke who also signed a three year deal along with Dalglish. Even though refused to speculate on Europe previous occasion, Dalglish would love to get qualified for Europa league next season as he do not want to miss the profits from the competition. Dalglish will surely rotate the squad for Europa league matches, if qualified and young players will get a chance to stage their credentials. However, the prime target for next season will be top four finish which will ensure further profits from Champions league and restore Liverpool where they belonged. Anything beyond that will be a bonus.
And, what if Dalglish restores Liverpool where they belonged during Dalglish episode-I ? Kop will surely have a new God. This time a Scot.

13th May, 2011
The day after Dalglish signed new deal at Liverpool

The Return Of The King

Anfield is always excited about European nights.  Precisely, Champions league nights. Those are the kind of nights both players and supporters crave for season after season when European footballing giants are expected at your arena to challenge your team. Most of the time Liverpool responded to such circumstances with heart and soul and made the Kop scream and chant in elation. However, Anfield will not get electrified similar to Champions league nights when Liverpool strides out for Europa league matches. Yet, the qualification for Europe’s second tier competition, Europa League, can be considered as tremendous achievement if you judge the way Liverpool played under Roy Hodgson during first half of the season. 
Yesterday at Craven Cottage, proceedings were special. Final score line showcased the way Liverpool flourished under King Kenny, Fulham 2 Liverpool 5. To strike 5 goals at Craven Cottage, where Fulham kept six clean sheets in seven league fixtures since New Year, provided Liverpool supporters around the world something to cheer for as bitter rivals Manchester United prepare to celebrate their 19th League title.
To be frank, I was not expecting Roy Hodgson to work miracles at Liverpool. The LMA manager of the year, who arrived at the club in the summer, never got settled to the atmosphere and traditions at Liverpool. His poor tenure at Anfiled was further complicated by the ownership issues as well as the then Kop darling, Fernando Torres’s perplexing behavior in most of the games he played under Hodgson. Somehow Torres lost the appetite and passion to play and win for Liverpool and that had a major impact on Hodgson era at Liverpool. Would you believe Roy Hodgson, who guided Fulham to 7th place finish in League and final of Europa League in the previous years, managed only one away win during his time at Liverpool ? Apart from that, Liverpool was engaged in relegation battle after 6 games when the most prestigious club in Premier league was positioned 18th in the league table !
In October 2010, US Company New England Sports Ventures, owner of the Boston Red Sox, has completed its takeover of Liverpool FC. Then the New Year arrived, along came Liverpool’s savior !
Kenneth Mathieson ‘King Kenny’ Dalglish.
Even though new to football, John W Henry, NESV head was thrilled by the appointment of Kenny Dalglish as caretaker manager when Roy Hodgson was sacked.  John Henry quoted, "Kenny was not just a legendary footballer, he was the third of our three most successful managers - three giants. We are extraordinarily fortunate and grateful that he has decided to step in during the middle of this season."
Kenny Dalglish first managed Liverpool from 1985 to 1991, when he resigned on health grounds. In that time Liverpool won the Double in his first season, as well as the League two more times, the FA Cup twice and the Charity Shield twice. His second stint started against Manchester United in FA cup 3rd round match at Old Trafford. What a way to reignite the rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson. In spite of the defeat at Old Trafford, Liverpool looked different under Dalglish and displayed a spirited performance.
Sometimes things will not happen the way followers, owners and even players wanted to, when a legend takes control of dressing room. Story at Liverpool was not different. Loss at Old Trafford was accompanied by defeat at Blackpool and a home draw with Everton in the league. Well, those were the games Dalglish wanted to experiment with his players and team combinations. Dalglish did one thing that Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson dared to do; substitute Fernando Torres when not on song !
Much awaited first win came at Molineux in the expense of Wolves where Fernando Torres grabbed a double. That winning streak continued with home wins against Fulham and Stoke. In between, an unthinkable event happened at Anfield. Fernando Torres was sold to Chelsea for a British transfer record of 50 million pounds ! Even though Torres started finding net and performed better under Dalglish, the Scot was not in a frame of mind to keep an unhappy player in his team. In came Luis Suarez from Ajax Amsterdam and Andy Carroll from Newcastle United. The man who assembled a formidable strike partnership of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton at Blackburn Rovers is promising something similar in Carroll and Suarez.
Then we witnessed the ‘defensive master plan’ against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Fielding three central defenders, two in standard position; Martin Škrtel & Daniel Agger, and one sweeping central defender; Jamie Carragher, Kenny Dalglish nullified Chelsea attack which included ‘Anfield legend’ Fernando Torres. The manner in which Jamie Carragher threw his body to block Torres’s goal bound shot emphasized the Reds desire to deprive Torres opening the account for Chelsea against his old club. With Carroll out injured and Suarez warming the bench for the whole match, I would say the same Liverpool team Dalglish inherited from Hodgson did that perfect job at Bridge through Meireles goal. There was robustness in the Liverpool side along with remarkable changes. Most notably Torres wore a Blue jersey instead of Red. But, the prominent one was the presence and influence of ‘King Kenny’ on the organization called Liverpool.  
In spite of slips against Wigan and West Ham, Dalglish took no time in responding with a resounding victory against Manchester United at Anfield. Dirk Kuyt, the unsung hero and a tireless performer in the Liverpool side grabbed a hat trick but the plaudits went to El Pistolero, Luis Suarez. His dazzling movements, vision, and alertness in the field along with goal scoring capabilities made him Kop darling and soon everybody forgot about the man who became a blue ! And look at the jersey number Suarez wear…..the holy number 7 once sported by none other than his manager, Kenny Dalglish. It’s too early for a judgment, but, the Kop as well as Dalglish himself is expecting Suarez to become the true inheritor to Liverpool number 7. Is it a coincidence that Luis Suarez can play as a striker and second striker as Dalglish did during his playing career ? Let’s wait for next Premier league season.
It’s always important for a striker to open the scoring for his new club in order to remove the expectation burden on him and to express himself free in the turf. The most expensive British player in the history, Andy Carroll, pounced on the opportunity against Manchester City at Anfield with a double during that commanding victory. Dismantling of Birmingham, Newcastle and Fulham followed with Maximiliano Rodríguez racking up 7 goals in 3 matches including hat tricks against Birmingham and Fulham. The way Raul Meireles, Lucas Leiva, and Jay Spearing performed in the midfield made Dalglish pleased when you consider the talismanic Steven Gerrard’s absence due to injury.
Looking towards future is always important for Liverpool and I was not taken aback when I saw the next generation of Liverpool players drafted to first team plans under Dalglish who already knew the potentials of Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson. Don’t forget Kenny Dalglish was looking after the youth academy at Kirkby when Rafa Benitez was Liverpool manager. Wait for Raheem Sterling to join the first team sooner or later to mark his name in the Anfield history.
Before the arrival of ‘King Kenny’ for his second spell, any opponent and manager facing Liverpool had a simple strategy. ‘Stop Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. You stop Liverpool’. With Torres no longer a Red and Gerrard missing the second half of the season through injury, Liverpool have thrived under Dalglish knowing that team is always important than players. Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodríguez and Raul Meireles contributed 28 goals between them while Luis Suarez managed 4 goals along with his plentiful assists. Now that look like a team performance and the credit can be given to Dalglish and Steve Clarke, first team coach.
With two games remaining, Liverpool lie 5th in the Premier league table above Tottenham whom they entertain at Anfield on coming Sunday. A Liverpool win will ensure Europa league spot, the reasonable achievement considering the 12th position of Liverpool when Dalglish took over 4 months ago. Whatever happens in the future, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish already possess something unfamiliar to Liverpool way. While Hodgson became the ‘shortest serving Liverpool manager’, Dalglish became ‘the first Liverpool manager to serve a second term’.
Will Dalglish become the first Liverpool manager to win the League in different spells ?

Will he become the first Liverpool manager to win the League after 1990 ?

Well, to get a positive answer to those questions there is a bare minimum requirement which is not in Dalglish’s control. Upgrading his status of caretaker post to permanent manager of Liverpool FC. Rest of the things certainly lie in the hands of Dalglish and his squad for next season. A few more quality additions, like a central defender, a left wing back, one or two natural wingers, and a defensive midfielder would make Liverpool challenging for 19th League title for which Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher can sweat blood.

11th May, 2011
The day after Liverpool beat Fulham, Manchester City beat Tottenham
Reds currently occupy 5th position in Premier League table

'18' The Magic Number

Number 18. Does this number have any significance ? Well, as per numerologists, number 9 is thought to be one of the auspicious numbers and if you add 1 and 8 you get there. As the major football leagues across the world are preparing to crown champions for season 2010-11, I felt the significance of number 18 soon after last weekend’s football actions.
18 League titles was a record once held by Liverpool for years and last year Manchester United equaled that feat. And this year, with the 19th title just a formality Red Devils are going to bury the Merseysiders pride once used to taunt King Cantona, ‘Come back when you’ve won 18’. None other than Sir Alex Ferguson will be happier to overtake Liverpool for the number of League tiles won and now he can proclaim Manchester United as the most successful football club in England, domestically. In the European front, Liverpool still dwarfs United with 5 titles. But Sir Alex would be well aware that May 28, 2011 will present him with another turn on the screw to craft United’s fourth European title. United supporters along with Alex Ferguson will be thrilled to triumph at Wembley; but look, who awaits you in the final…..wonder in boots, Barcelona FC.
In Italian Serie A, against AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico, A.C. Milan managed a goalless draw which wrapped up the Serie A title with two weeks to spare. Scudetto number 18 for A.C. Milan ! The significance of the number doesn’t end there; city rivals Inter Milan have won the last five scudettos and are tied with A.C. Milan with 18 titles each. Only Juventus have won more than Inter and A.C. Milan; a record of 27 times. Yet again, adding 2 and 7 gives you the magical number 9 ! Last year, Inter fans humiliated Il Diavolo fans by chanting about their 18th title, while celebrating the Treble under successful stewardship of Jose Mourinho. By regaining the scudetto, A.C. Milan not only ended the seven year trophy draught but matched Nerazzurri’s 18 titles.
‘Del Piero e la Juventus, 18 anni d'amore’ is the statement read in the home page of the official website of Bianconeri which simply translates to "Del Piero and Juventus, 18 years of love". 1993-2011. Victory after victory, goal after goal, emotion after emotion. The bond that unites Juventus and their captain is stronger than ever…..comments continues as Del Piero signed contract extension for another year which will keep him bonded to his ‘only’ professional club, Juventus. Entering to his 19th season he carries the records for most appearances, 674 and most goals, 283 in the revered Black and White jersey. ‘Symbol’, ‘Captain, and ‘Juventino’ are the three words used by the supporters to describe their beloved number 10.
In Spanish Primera División, Barcelona needs only one point from their remaining three games to be crowned as champions for 21st time against Real Madrid’s 31 titles. But, have you noted the player in the driving seat for Zarra Trophy awarded to the Spanish domestic player with highest goals in La Liga ?  And, number of goals to his credit till today ? While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the leading scorers, but, both being non-Spanish, David Villa is the front runner. 18 goals !
As per Astro-Numerology, if you are related to number 9, in other words 1 plus 8, they are born fighters and even though faced by adversity, they emerge victorious in the end because of their mental strength, determination and courage. Red confers luck on them.
Surprisingly, both Manchester United and A.C. Milan pursued this year’s Premier League and Serie A title with determination and courage, and emerged victorious facing adverse situations. Add to that United is known as Red Devils and A.C. Milan as Rossoneri (Red and Blacks).
Now look at how Iván Zamorano, retired Chilean striker, was obsessed with his jersey number. Zamorano was wearing the famous number 9 shirt in his initial season at Inter Milan. Then Inter signed Roberto Baggio and Ronaldo was forced to give up his number 10 jersey and started wearing number 9. What Zamorano did after losing his number 9 to Ronaldo was hilarious. He wore number 18 with a plus symbol between the two digits thus making him still technically a number 9 !
Now, don’t you think number 18 is magical…..? J

9th May, 2011
The day after United beat Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford
United 1 point away from 19th League title

London Neighbors Are Always Nice

61 days meant 2 months for everyone. But for Chelsea, more than that ! Change of fortune and glimpse of hope !!
By the end of February 2011, West London felt like a bleak place and city was in a dull mood due to their team’s position in the Premier league table. Top of the table gazed red and uncertainty stared at Chelsea due to their loss of form added with their 50 million British record signing failing to live up to the  expectations. Players and fans looked dejected and their body language and confidence no longer belonged to champions. Even though North London claimed they are going to be title contenders this time, each one including Sir Alex Ferguson were confident about the lack of steel in the Arsenal side. In that contest, it was almost certain that EPL crown was heading towards Manchester. 15 points separated red part of Manchester and blue part of London.
Then came the month of May forecasting a beautiful spring. Wow ! There is chance of painting the top of the table with blue shade. Three games remaining for Manchester United and Chelsea with the title decider between them staged at Old Trafford on 8th May. Following week United travel to Ewood Park while Chelsea host New Castle. Final week will see Chelsea traveling to Merseyside, luckily not Liverpool and United host Blackpool at home. Chelsea travel to Old Trafford knowing that there is no better chance of wounding United than beating them at their own perch thereby denting United’s title hopes. Worry not; there will be prayers and wishes from Liverpool too.
3 points now separate United from Chelsea with same goal difference. Thanks to North London neighbors for beating United at the Emirates ! From Chelsea’s perspective, their performance in the last 61 days was scintillating. Credit goes to the  players as well their Italian Manager Carlo Ancelotti, who somehow found out a way to accommodate Torres in his line-up, to be fair not so convincingly, managed to bring the best out of Didier Drogba, may be emotionally challenging the Ivorian by demoting him to bench for making way for Torres. In those circumstances the big Ivorian will crave for next opportunity and will show his boss who the real boss is !
Renaissance started with a 2-1 win against United at Stamford Bridge on 1st March. Last week Chelsea beat Tottenham and the score line remain unchanged. But, the league table and the prospect of Premier league crown underwent changes. Between those two wins at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea played 9 games and amassed 25 points out of the available 27. They failed to get all points only at Britannia stadium. And during that streak Torres managed to get his first goal in blue jersey against West Ham after 734 minutes on the pitch. With the sight of United nearby and overtaking the Red devils not a distant dream, John Terry, Chelsea and English captain, has urged his teammates for a spirited display and stated “Chelsea can beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and steal the title”. If that remarkable turnaround happens at Old Trafford, Terry is to rank that achievement alongside winning the league in 2005 for the first time in five decades. Now, that seems like a Champion’s statement and no surprise the confidence factor is back again.   
Irrespective of above comments I foresee United sail over all these situations because of the man at the helm at Old Trafford. During the past years Sir Alex has undergone familiar situations and he knows exactly where to tap and whom to tap to produce thumping displays under pressure. Positives for United and their Manager are the drive for 19th league title and they are not going to give that up when the target is almost achieved. Another drive could be repeating the feat they achieved in 2008, when they completed the Double including English Premier League and Champions League.
Of course there are few concerns for United too. They have and extra game to play against Schalke 04 on coming Wednesday in Champions league. As the tie was almost settled with an away win at Gelsenkirchen last week, United will plan to rest few players in their starting XI to keep them afresh for battle against Chelsea in the weekend. But, imagine a situation where Schalke stuns Old Trafford with an early goal or two. Sir Alex has to opt for his best players to save the match and at the same time he cannot afford any key player coming out with an injury. Also, the players will feel the fatigue due to these high adrenaline games with Arsenal and Chelsea in EPL and Schalke in Champions league. If that takes a toll, then Chelsea can corner Manchester United players with their physical game.
Another deciding factor is the presence of 37 year old veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs who is considered to be the ‘engine’ of Manchester United this season. United’s best performances, especially in Champions league away to Chelsea and Schalke demonstrated the still uncompromising footballing skills of Welshman. And the last two games United lost, to Manchester City in FA cup and Arsenal in EPL, the ‘engine’ was missing from the line up.
A United victory or draw at Old Trafford will swing the title towards Manchester. But in case Chelsea prevails, then Blue wind will start blowing. United’s away form is a concern this season and they face a stiff competition at Ewood park. Even though playing at home, United will find a stubborn opponent in Blackpool, if the seasiders are still engaged in the relegation battle. Luckily for Chelsea, both Everton and New Castle are above relegation zone. Everything depends on the verdict at Old Trafford on Sunday and even neighbors and Merseysiders wait for good news.
Will the spring bloom in Manchester or London ?

2nd May, 2011
The day after Arsenal beat United at the Emirates

El Clásico...Football Extravaganza

They are going to play each other 4 times in only 18 days. This straight forward information will not be enough to thrill you wait for those matches. But, you are a football fan and I am talking about Real Madrid playing Barcelona, then it can be something worth waiting for !
In football terms, El Clásico, planet’s most hyped club football game going to happen four times within a span of only eighteen days. Spain’s two most successful football clubs; Real Madrid and Barcelona battle out for glory and supremacy. The great rivalry does not limit to the borders of football; it’s the rivalry of nationalism, philosophy, culture etc. If you compare cities, Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest cities in Spain. If you compare football clubs, Real and Barca are the biggest, most successful and richest clubs in Spain; if not biggest, successful and richest in World football.  Then try to compare the fan base; they equally share huge fans across the globe. Real Madrid, representatives of Spanish nationalism or Castile region has a football philosophy different to Barcelona who represents the Catalan region of Iberian Peninsula. While Barcelona’s youth academy is known for producing football talents, Real Madrid always tend to purchase talents and assemble them to form Galacticos.
To know the fierceness of this rivalry you would have to turn your attentions back to El Clásico in 2002. Luis Figo, the former vice captain and fan favorite of Barcelona switched his allegiance to Real Madrid in 2000 after five successful years at Catalunya. When Figo appeared out of the tunnel at Camp Nou, Barcelona’s home ground, in the sacred white shirt of Real, culés called him Judas ! For them Camp Nou is a cathedral and they will not tolerate any act of betrayal. They threw bottles, cigarettes and whatever came to their hand to show their disgust; they even threw a rotten pig’s head aimed at once their beloved player !
Let me give you the fixtures in advance to plan your all other activities accordingly.
Real vs. Barca     16th April 2011    Estadio Santiago Bernabéu         La Liga
Barca vs. Real     20th April 2011    Estadio Mestalla, Valencia         Copa del Rey final
Real vs. Barca     27th April 2011    Estadio Santiago Bernabéu         CL SF 1st leg
Barca vs. Real     3rd May 2011        Camp Nou, Barcelona                    CL SF 2nd leg
In Spanish Primera División, Barca leads Real by 8 points with 7 games remaining. So the match at Bernabéu on 16th April has least priority out of four battles, at least for Barcelona. A Real win will not displace Barca from the La Liga summit. But in case Real wins this fixture, it will surely influence the outcome of other three remaining fixtures. Even though improbable in the current circumstances, a win for Real will restore the confidence to Real players and they will start to believe that all conquering ‘wonder in boots’ are not invincible. Also, that will provide the perfect revenge for the 5-0 trouncing Real experienced at Camp Nou back in November 2010.
At Mestalla, four days after the meeting at Bernabéu, Real will find out if the trophy cabinet at Madrid needs to be rearranged for Copa del Rey coming after a break of 18 years. Barca will be so eager to bring The King’s cup back to Camp Nou which they last won in 2009 while completing sextuple under Pep Guardiola.
Then there are two mouth watering Champions league matches await as José Mourinho prepare his ‘Men in white’ for the much coveted décima Copa de Europa for which he was hired. And for Barca too, this two legged matches are equally important. Last season, Barca was obsessed to play the Champions league final at Santiago Bernabéu and declare their dominance in front of Madrid fans. But the El traductor had other ideas as his Inter Milan side swept away Barca to take away Champions league while becoming the first Italian team to complete the Treble. In his post match conference, Pep Guardiola despondently admitted Barca fans that, ‘we owe you final place at Wembley next year’. Again the same nemesis, El traductor, is blocking Barca’s way in Semi finals. But this time Barca can’t afford to lose the battle as the team Mourinho managing is none other than Real Madrid.
To be precise, if there is any football Manager in the planet who knows how to stop Lionel Messi, or rather Barcelona, that seems to be José Mourinho, The Special One. It could be because he knows the Barcelona system very well due to his spell at Camp Nou under Late Sir Bobby Robson and Luis van Gaal. The true heir to Diego Maradona is yet to find the back of the net against a Mourinho team. Oh God, that list includes Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real Madrid. Messi was kept silent by Mourinho during the 5-0 drubbing of Real at Camp Nou too. But that act alone against Messi was not enough to prevent Xavi, Pedro and Villa running riot against Real defense and smack five past one of the best goal keeper in the World, and Real Madrid Captain San Iker.
Even though ignored previously, may be purposefully overlooked, about upcoming four matches against each other, both Guardiola and Mourinho stayed away from publicly talking about El Clásicos.  But the time has come and you cannot hide the fact that rivalry is going to be renewed through this do or die series which comes as four installments. Eloquent about their midfield dominance, Barca is not going to experiment anything abnormal unless their injury crisis ask for so. But for Real Madrid and their shrewd Manager the story is different. Mourinho may try a similar counter attacking strategy deployed when he was in charge at Chelsea and Inter or a fresh strategy to stop Barcelona playing their normal Tiki-taka game. He may try those experiments either during two 45 minute sessions at Bernabéu during the first installment or even try experimenting at Mestalla if his initial strategies turn pointless. If any of the strategy works out against Barca, he is going to deploy the same with some fine tuning in Champions league semi finals to march past Barca again to achieve his dream rather than Real’s dream of décima Copa de Europa ! To become the first manager in the football history to win UEFA Champions league with three different teams. 
There could be individual battles in the turf which include great football names like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi Hernández and Mesut Özil, David Villa and Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves and Marcelo. Near the touch line, Pep Guardiola will be occupied in an intellectual battle with José Mourinho. And in the stands, Sandro Rosell will watch the encounters alongside Florentino Pérez to the cheers and rants from both supporters.
Johan Cruyff, Barcelona legend claims that ‘Barcelona does not need to win all four games, they must only win two: the second and the fourth’. In the end of the war, there could be one winner or sometimes the spoils will be shared; who knows ?

15th April, 2011
The day before Real vs. Barca match in La Liga

Memoirs Of A Fan…On The Cup That Counts

As Shahrukh Khan asks in one of the advertisement "Score kya hua hai ?" my childhood and youth were no different when there was a cricket match going on and one of the team was India. I am sure anyone of my age group would have asked this question at least once in their lifetime; may be in their mother tongue.
I was an young boy going to pre-school nursery during 1983 Prudential World cup. I do not remember seeing any fireworks or sweets distribution when Kapil's devils conquered the world. May be the lesser impact happened due to the lack of media; especially television was not a household item by that time in my area. And when I grew up I came to know about this historic achievement, mainly reading the books and sports journals. But, my mind was stuck to the description of an innings played by Indian Captain against Zimbabwe when defeat was staring at India. I would more than happily agree that Kapil Dev Nikhanj was the first cricket hero in my little mind.
Then came Reliance world cup in 1987 mostly hosted by none other than this religious cricketing nation. Meanwhile, I had already started playing cricket in the byroads of my home town and the courtyard in my own home, despite of my parents and elders who thought that my prime responsibility was studying and not to spare time for this mad game ! I was wondered, but being a 3rd standard boy I had to obey them. That didn’t stop me from peeping through the windows of my neighbor who owned a television in his home and may not welcome nuisance kids like us to watch cricket on his television. Well, I had not found adequate time to follow all matches having occupied with my studies. But, I used to get myself updated through news papers and the peeps through the window. By that time I strongly believed that Kapil Dev, my first hero, and my new hero of that time Mohammed Azharuddin would bring luck to India.  However, my nights were haunted by two Australians; Craig McDermott and David Boon. My legs would start to shiver whenever McDermott bowled against batsmen whom I loved. And I always felt that Boon is going to hit another fifty in this innings too ! My dreams were shattered when India lost to England and crashed out in the semifinal. Only consolation for me was the hat-trick by an Indian bowler Chetan Sharma against New Zealand; that was the first hat-trick in a World cup.
I was a full time sports man, may be a sports kid, hardly finding time for my studies when Benson & Hedges world cup came knocking in 1992. I was in any place in my home town where there was a football or cricket match happening. My parents were really fed up of my appetite for sports, specifically for football and the subsequent injuries. They even had tried to sway away my friends so that they will not come and invite me for playing. Finally I don't have to peep to my neighbor’s window. My home is blessed with an assembled black & white television. Glory time ! Another advantage was the time zone difference which helped us to watch some part of cricket matches before we leave to school. I was sure like any other Indian fan that Ajju Bhai and Sachin will bring the World cup back to India. I bet even though you are not a cricket fan, you might have heard about this short man with God status in India; Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. We, Indians believe that he erases all our sins by hitting, pushing, gliding, glancing, and pulling the cricket ball to and out of the fence using his willow; few even believes that bat is his holy weapon. Anyways, I was in shatters again when India did not qualify for the semifinals. Apart from Ajju Bhai and Sachin, two players forcefully occupied my heart for various reasons.
Finally I had started loving one bowler in cricket which was widely considered as batsman’s game. My friends started teasing me for heaping praise on my beloved fast bowler. Unfortunately he belonged to our fierce rivals and his name was Wasim Akram. The way he steps in to bowl, the way he reads batsman’s mind, the way he bowls swinging yorkers, and the way he helped his team in difficult situations with bat and ball made me a fan of Wasim Bhai. How can my friends tolerate when I feel affection for a Pakistani; that too when they won the world cup for the first time and made a place in that elite winners list along with India. I was not happy that Pakistan won the cup; rather I was annoyed by Indian performances which lacked spirit.
Have look at that second man who conquered my heart, Martin Crowe. Initially I thought this fellow was hoodwink by giving new ball to a spinner for the first time in the history of ODI; Dipak Patel. When I read in Sportstar that he had his master plans already drafted before the start of World cup, I felt a respect for that small cricketing country, New Zealand and their magnificent Captain. He had his Christchurch and Auckland stadiums shaped for his pinch hitter opening batsman Mark Greatbatch and then keeps his team's run rate by leading the team from the front. Finally I started understanding tactics in cricket; thanks to the vision of Martin Crowe. But, their attempt fell short in semis when Inzamam Ul Haq declared his batting capabilities to the world. I am waiting for Team India to achieve Pakistan's team spirit, at the same time vision and trickeries of Martin Crowe.
Oh dear, I was enjoying my college life with beautiful girls, cinemas and bunking classes when Wills World cup happened in 1996. In spite of my passion for sports, I had successfully cleared my matriculation and all those off-class activities were always arranged in such a manner that sports had not taken the toll. Wow, we finally have a branded color television in our home and family members even started watching cricket matches. Television has taken the control of drawing rooms in most of the houses in Kerala. I was thinking this could be Team India’s year because we had Sachin Tendulkar achieving his peak, and had Ajju Bhai and Ajay Jadeja to control the middle order. Added to that is the presence of Anil Kumble to lead the bowling attack in the pitches of sub continent. Alas, our hopes are again crushed in the semifinal; this time by Srilanka. My goodness, till that time we were thinking Lanka was only a second string cricket team and suddenly they turned hot favorites. Even though a novice strategy, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana took full advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs. Pace bowlers turned part time spinners and Captains turned nuts thinking how to cease the run flood. India against Srilanka in semifinal at Eden Gardens was no different. When Ajju Bhai won the toss and elected to bowl first everybody thought that’s a right decision because of Lanka’s first 15 over threat and chasing capability. I was wondered how you can think of batting second in a day and night match, in a spinning track like Eden Gardens ! Lankans swept away Indians en route to the final and conquered Australia to become the “real” Pearl of Indian Ocean. Had Azharuddin chose to bat first, I don’t know, but am sure fortune favors the brave. And there were two brave men stand aside; Arjuna Ranatunga, the Lankan Captain and Dav Whatmore, Lanka’s Australian coach.
I was attending my Polytechnic exams when 1999 World cup cricket arrived and was enthusiastically welcomed by our Polytechnic gang having divided our opinions for Azharuddin and Sachin. India made it a habit of making Sachin’s efforts futile unless Ajju Bhai or Jadeja stabilizes the innings. India was shell shocked when Sachin returned home for attending the funeral of his father. However, God returned to his most comfortable place and hit a century against Kenya which was dedicated to his departed father. But, this time India perished in a new hurdle called Super Six.
Slowly, my attentions started moving away from Sachin as well as Ajju Bhai. I felt an uncompromising addiction to a particular Indian player and a team other than India. To my surprise both were aggressive and too arrogant. Later, when Azharuddin made me an anti-cricket fan when he was involved in match fixing scandal, the man I started to worship both as a player and Captain restored my love for cricket. That was the Maharaja of Indian cricket, Sourav Chandidas Ganguly. I started watching matches for Sourav’s off drives and dancing steps. Soon he pulled me back to the greenery of cricket through his authority over the team and tactics to overcome fighting opponents. His Indian team made it a habit of grinding out results in style. Finally, Indian team spirit is reinstated. 
The team I started loving was Australia. I won’t say it was an eternal love, but, that was the respect for their professionalism and never say die attitude in the field. Can you think of an Indian victory like the Aussie did against South Africa when Steven Waugh led from the front with an unbeaten 120 runs ? I still remember the famous comment as Herschelle Gibbs ‘caught’, in fact dropped Steve Waugh’s catch, Waugh told him “friend, you had dropped the World cup”. That was the starting of Australian supremacy in World cricket.
2003. I am working for an Indian MNC in Mysore. Believe me; our room was not having television that time. Going back to olden days where we had only radio and news paper to get the news. No, we do have internet for anything and everything. Cool. Getting updates every time through internet, e-mails and mobile phones. Discussions in four way junctions and tea shops had given way to the chat rooms in internet and mail chains. It’s great going for Team India under Sourav, my Dada. Men in Blue reached the final in style and they play against defending champs, Australia; my other favorite. Who will support other teams when India plays in the final ? We hired a television for the final and sat down to cheer for Men in blue.
Again in shatters. Along with that defeat, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t turn my attentions away from two Australians. They trespassed into my own heart territory only through their performances. Sorry friends, you have to admit the first fellow is ridiculously impolite, arrogant and outspoken. But, whenever his blade talks Australia reach the shore of victory. He keeps his best innings for titanic occasions against giant oppositions. After that innings of 140 runs which included 8 massive sixes I had reluctantly accepted the Aussie Captain, Ricky Ponting, Punter. And the second man, oh God, again I fell in love with a pace bowler. Forgive me, this time also a non-Indian but, luckily a non-Pakistani. He did not have the swing and all round capabilities of Wasim Bhai. Instead he was a machine. Ask him to bowl 100 deliveries and he could ball all 100 deliveries in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’. Glen Donald McGrath, The Pigeon.
World cup venue reached another continent in 2007; this time West Indies. I had decided to move on from Indian MNC in Mysore to another Indian MNC in Kochi. During this World cup too I was in Mysore.  But, somehow my principal focus was settling things at office and rented home at Mysore. Not sure because of my cold response to World cup, India couldn’t advance to the Super Eight stage. Again, look at the champions Australia; successfully marshaled by Ricky Ponting and Pigeon with Player of the series achievement.
Life goes on…so too my World. I am married and currently at Gurgaon working for an American MNC. I cut myself as an ardent Indian supporter reluctantly turned to acknowledge that Australia were a better team and Ricky Ponting a better achiever in the past. But now, along with 120 crore Indian minds, want to reaffirm the ultimate judgment. India, my home nation is on the brink of taking over cricket supremacy from Australia and Sachin Tendulkar to be heralded as the greatest ever cricketer to grace the Universe. For the moment, we do have the shrewd Captaincy of M S Dhoni who had earlier won the inaugural T20 World cup, and a humble opener from Delhi who decides the shift in the match if he is able to face 50 deliveries; Virender Sehwag ! Fortunately for them too, God himself has chosen this occasion to make our dreams come true in his own land, in front of his own followers. When he pads up on this Saturday at Wankhede stadium Indians along with M S Dhoni wishes only one thing. Let God decide the result of this match !!
For me, I was a nursery boy when India won the Prudential World cup. Hence, I wish those magic moments to be recreated on 2nd April. Again, let God decide the final judgment. J

1st April, 2011
The day before World cup final, Ind vs. Sri Lanka in Mumbai

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Trequartista. What Does It Really Mean ?

Welcome to our World of Football !!
Mere footballers are normal, but artists and entertainers are a different league; Trequartista. The classical Number 10.
The moment I thought about creating a blog for conversing with my friends all about football, I never expected naming the blog would be such a difficult task. A lot of names were put forward but rejected for various reasons by close associates who are not only ardent football followers, but also breathe it.  Then, we decided to have a unique name related to football, at the same time curious to others who live other basic stuffs.
I rolled back the time, almost like a back pass to goal keeper, in this case to my childhood. As a school boy, I started kicking football under the influence of a dazzling footballer who made me addicted to that spherical mass and its rectangular green turf where he could enthrall soccer followers to ecstasy. Very soon, irrespective of my other priorities, I started following football every day, night and dream. If Adidas was for dreaming about ‘all day’, mine was ‘all time’. And that diminutive figure to enthrall me was none other than El Pibe de Oro, The Golden Boy, Diego Armando Maradona; the God football fanatics venerate and carry Number 10 in his back instead of the cross.
I decided to pass the ball forward to my defender and thought about the next deity who fascinated me and made me cry for him and his homeland. I realized that even God fumble sometimes from 12 yards. Interestingly, he practices Buddhism and renowned for his football skills and exciting gaze; Il Divin Codino, The Divine Ponytail, Roberto Baggio.
Couple of steps forward and I sent the ball swiftly to my midfielder and I could perceive him, The Midfield General, graciously accepting the ball, twisting away from the opponents like an artist or was he a scientist who can judge the attributes like flight, spin and bounce of a football ? There stood Zizou, Zinedine Yazid Zidane. His first name Zinedine means ‘beauty of the religion’ in Arabic and for football world it meant ‘beauty of the game’.
Zizou threaded a nice through ball to the future and an exceptional player from the present latched on to that pass from nowhere and the defenders of this millennium looked clueless on how to stop his slaloming run. La Pulga Atómica, The Atomic Flea, Lionel Andres ‘Leo’ Messi.
I started visualizing glorious days of Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio, and Zinedine Zidane and compared them with Lionel Messi’s mesmerizing accomplishments till today to find out an interesting similarity; their playing position. Trequartista !
Trequartista in Italian means ‘Three quarters’ indicating the player operating ¾th up the field. In England they are known as ‘Playmaker’ and in Argentina ‘Enganche’. If you aren’t familiar with those words try shadow striker, deep lying forward, withdrawn striker etc.
Now, let’s see what Trequartista is capable of. In an ideal situation, Trequartista is an attacking midfielder with striker qualities proficient in setting up goal scoring opportunities for teammates, his prime responsibility, at the same time possesses an eye for goal to score himself. Being an artist in the football ground, Trequartista brings in an element of fantasy to the game through his defense splitting passes, creativity and controls the tempo of your team’s play.  Trequartista need not be an out and out striker but, he is the best player in your team and everybody tries to find his boots when your team has possession. Due to his higher technical ability and close ball control he drifts in to spaces offered by the opposition and operates in ‘the hole’ between defense and midfield of the opposition to create goal scoring opportunities. Hence these playmakers are different from centre forwards, strikers and wingers, thus forming an elite class; Trequartista.
I hardly remember the footballing zenith of Argentina’s golden boy, 1986 World cup triumph, because I was not fortunate enough to watch that moment of victory live on television. At a later stage, sports journals and clips from You Tube helped me in visualizing ‘Hand of God’, ‘Goal of the Century’ and Argentina marching past West Germany in the final at Estadio Azteca. In Italia 90, Maradona was deliberately fouled by opponents as they did not allow him or Argentina to play their natural free flowing football. Moreover, tactically and practically Argentina was fragile restricting themselves to a defensive unit, a system new to themselves as well as supporters. How incredible that Argentina managed to reach the final in spite of not taking the most out of little genius who was tortured like an animal at times; not in streets, but on the field. No need to emphasize, Barrilete Cosmico, Cosmic Kite was the greatest enganche Argentine football ever gave birth to, if not World football.
Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. The arena where God blasted the ball into heaven thereby Italy missing the World cup, in spite of his solo efforts to guide a nation to the finals of FIFA world cup. Italy was not a bookmaker’s choice before the tournament started and things did not go well when they lost the initial match. Might be after listening to the prayers from that great nation, God decided to play the role of Trequartista to the utmost perfection. Luckily for Italy, God incarnated in the no. 10 jersey of the Azzuri and etched Baggio on his back. His dribbling was exquisite, free kicks were special, and he effortlessly infiltrated through opposition defense. Forget about the penalty miss, his pains throughout the 120 minutes which made him exhausted, and the sight of tearful Baggio in despair; would you dare to miss those thrilling runs from down the midfield or the elegance at which he deceived defenders ? Well, I won’t, at any cost, because very seldom God appears in the Azzuri jersey. May be the offers from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo were far superior to the ones from Rome and Milan !
Watching football becomes festival to eyes when footballers are merged with attributes of artists and scientists. The result was awesome; Zidane in French national jersey, again Zidane in Juventus jersey and yet again Zidane in Los Blancos jersey. Zizou was the master in pulling the strings from Trequartista position in all the teams he played for. Offer him football and a little space in the upper half of the field; he takes the spectators to a heavenly atmosphere where his team members float like angels or compelled to float into positions where Zidane want them to be. And the opponent defensive midfielders and backline gets the tormenting like a hellish life. At Stade de France against Brazil in 1998 World cup final, Zidane’s headers decided the tie while the artist in him controlled the game all the way through. At Hampden Park against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 Champions league final, his classic volley decided the tie. This time the scientist in Zidane was spot on reading the flight, speed and spin of the football as it ballooned and dropped in the air.
I read about La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, producing lots of young talents. When they adopted an Argentine and brought him up with Catalan football philosophy, nobody would have dreamed about the renaissance of a savior. In fact he was; Messiah reborn; Trequartista redefined ! Carefully observe any game that Barcelona opts for ‘Tridente’ – three pronged attack. Most of the time Lionel Messi is tightly marked by multiple players and he tend to drop deep to receive the ball. He then dashes off within no time, abruptly drops his speed and come to halt without losing the balance, and pulls away his markers along with him thus creating acres of spaces for his teammates. And his understanding associates rarely miss those goal scoring opportunities. Sometimes it’s not easy to track Little Messiah even if you are man marking him because he swaps positions with his strike partners and runs into channels where he can offer either through balls or delightful chips over the defense. True heir to Maradona, as declared by Maradona himself, is almost accurate in case of Messi. To make that reference complete, Messi has to match what Maradona has done with Argentina…‘World cup triumph’. As of now, other accomplishments are matched including the position; Trequartista or Enganche.
Trequartista, the position that is home to many football geniuses, is not a complete list unless the honorable mentioning of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Juan Román Riquelme, and Wesley Sneijder. The list continues…..
Here we go…..welcome to our blog TREQUARTISTA. Let’s have fruitful discussions, information sharing, and sometimes heated but, healthy arguments. There is gonna be a single religion bringing us together to make bridges across nations, languages and borders…..and we belong to that religion called FOOTBALL.

Introduction blog for ‘TREQUARTISTA’