Thursday, May 30, 2019

Chelsea Baku to Life


Europa League Final 2019: Chelsea 4:1 Arsenal
Baku, Azerbaijan

Well done Chelsea.

No-one would have bet on a 4-1 thrashing in a Europa League final of a side led by that competition's specialist winner Unai Emery.

The manner of their victory was comprehensive in the end. Worthy winners indeed.

After bossing the first couple of minutes, the Blues surrendered most of the ball to the Gunners for the rest of the first half. As Arsenal's high press stopped Chelsea attacking in numbers, the match threatened to turn into a possession v counter-attacking narrative.

Arsenal went into the dressing room reasonably confident of qualifying for next season's Champions League, but tellingly it was Petr Cech whose gloves had been dirtied in the first 45.

When it came to Chelsea's goal blitz in the third quarter of the match, the movement and firepower of their front line Olivier Giroud, Eden Hazard and Pedro, were too much for Arsenal's pedestrian defence. After their fourth hit the net, it briefly seemed Chelsea could go on and emulate Manchester City's massacre of Watford in the FA Cup final.

At the other end Arsenal's strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were firing blanks all evening, to the immense frustration of their fans, while Mesut Ozil turned in another of his drowsy, zombie-esque offerings on a key occasion. All three of their big guns choked in their biggest game of the season.

Emery's bitter anguish on the touchline was palpable. He kept gesticulating and pacing the technical area even when all was lost but left with his hands in his pockets, alone and distraught.

No one should be judged too harshly on one season which featured a top five finish and a cup final, but then his opposite number Maurizio Sarri had gone that much further in his inaugural campaign at Stamford Bridge.

After the Kepa fiasco in the League Cup final and increasingly loud grumbles from fans, Sarri's goose looked cooked. A few months later and Sarri has bagged the Europa League, a place in next season's European Super Cup and after finishing third in the Premier League, a spot in the Champions League;  smiles all round.

There must still be doubt around his job however with Juventus knocking on the door and offering him an escape from the obvious stress and depression he has felt at times this season.

The imminent loss of Hazard to Real Madrid and next season's transfer ban will not make it easier, although the Blues have a sound squad and players on loan who could be recalled like Victor Moses, Tammy Abraham, Kenedy and Curt Zouma.

The incoming American Christian Pulisic is earmarked to step into Hazard's large shoes, but no-one expects him to be match that level immediately.

Hazard's final match for the Blues was a fine swansong, a two-girl flourish and several thrilling dribbles displaying his exceptional close control and ability to shift direction at speed. He is a big loss to English football.

Chelsea Baku to Life
Chelsea Baku to Life
At the other end, one of the world's greatest goalkeepers hung up his gloves for the last time with a loss, removing his finalist's medal unceremoniously as soon as he had donned it and shedding a tear or two.

Cech has been an outstanding professional who leaves the field having won every domestic and European club trophy, a slew of Premier League awards and 124 caps for his nation, appearing at the World Cup and four European Championships for the Czech Republic.

When he rejoins the Blues as their technical director this summer, Cech will hug his rivals from tonight and might even share a puff of Sarri's cigar.

Baku, the most controversial final venue imaginable, lived up to its billing as the wrongest of wrong choices with empty seats and an atmosphere which felt almost ghostly at times, transmitted via television to watching millions.

What should have been a tense and fiery clash between two London rivals was redolent of a pre-season friendly in another continent with only a scattering of visiting supporters who had completed the almighty and excessively costly trek from England.

The sub-par atmosphere was exacerbated by the stadium having being designed for athletics, not football, with the concomitant faraway sightlines and distance from the action an eight-lane running track always brings.

It was both clubs' final match of the season and the usual maelstrom of alternate sadness and joy filled the air, the stands and the players' boots. Only half those attending a final can leave the ground happy.

Sarri was the biggest winner. His success in repairing the open wounds in his dressing-room earlier this season has been an immense achievement, crowned by this remarkably comfortable capture of the old UEFA Cup.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Always a reckoning


Tomorrow's Championship Playoff match at Wembley is billed as the highest-stakes match in the football world.

The prize is £170 million and Premier League membership, rising to closer to £300 million if the club avoids relegation at the end of next season. That works out as between £1.88 and £3.33 million per minute.

So expect a nervous and possibly titanic clash between Aston Villa and Derby County. Villa lost last year's final to Fulham but could pass the relegated Cottagers on their way up. Derby's outstanding 4-2 away win at Leeds in the semi final means Marcelo Bielsa stays outside the Premier League again and the Frank Lampard for Chelsea rumours remain stoked.

Veteran Ashley Cole, loanees Mason Mount and Fiyako Tomori and assistant coach Jody Morris are all ex-Stamford Bridge men too, while Villa loanee Tammy Abraham and assistant coach John Terry complete a very Chelsea-flavoured final.

Villa did the double over Derby in the league this season, but so did Leeds before the Rams won the match which counted most.

* * *

Leeds could become the first English football acquisition of the state of Qatar, according to London's Financial Times.

"Qatari Sports Investments will be entering English football, " said the FT's source, "and Leeds is the club of their choice."

QSI, who already own PSG, are reportedly negotiating to buy a controlling stake from Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani, although the club says various offers are on the table.

Financial Fair Play rules mean Leeds could not go straight into a PSG-style spending spree if they receive a cash windfall but could start buying other clubs and swap players to get around the rules.

* * *


Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City are another team who acquire players from myriad sources and feeder clubs but the Blues might still fall foul of financial fair play rules.

For now their dominance of the English game looks unlikely to be toppled. The manner in which they demolished Watford in the F.A. Cup was worrying. Cup finals should be struggles, not 6-0 drubbings which resemble pre-season cricket scores between ill-matched clubs.

Yes, Liverpool did not treat the FA Cup as seriously this season because their mind was on other trophies but equally because they do not possess City's strength in depth.

Watford were no mugs and were worthy finalists, stronger than some of those clubs who have made the final this century since the UEFA Champions League diluted the FA Cup - Millwall, Cardiff, Stoke and Portsmouth.

So the manner of their demolition should ring alarm bells at FA headquarters if they hope the world's oldest football contest can retain any credibility as a competition going forward.

 * * *

While the mega-millions swirl around the Premier League, FIFA and UEFA, former Premier League side Bolton Wanderers appears on the point of collapse.

Relegated from the Championship this season, they will begin League One in August with a 12-point deduction for having gone into administration, if they are still afloat.

The club owes £1.2 million in taxes, which is chicken-feed to most EPL sides, and players have not been paid for two months. Non-playing staff received no wages in April too and a food bank was recently set up at the club, accepting donations for their employees.

Founded in 1874, the Wanderers are one of the founder members of the Football League, have won the FA Cup four times and were in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup as recently as 2008, beating Atletico Madrid and drawing away at Bayern Munich en route. Nat Lofthouse is their greatest player.

With a fine stadium barely 20 years old to boot, it would be tragic if such a historic team were to bite the dust at a time when money is overflowing in English football. The problem is of course it flows mostly into a few pockets.

* * *

As if anyone were in any doubt about how the love of money is poisoning the beautiful game, one needs only to look at the farce of this year's UEFA Europa League final.

In its wisdom UEFA chose Baku as the venue, despite the fact there are visa restrictions for tourists and no regular flights from London, Western Europe's largest city.

As if the mischief-maker of the Norse gods Loki himself had planned it, two London teams reached the final.

Faced with the Herculean task of even getting to the game, most Arsenal and Chelsea supporters will stay in London and the clubs are set to return unsold seats from their already paltry 6,000 allocations, an extraordinary situation. There are set to be barely 3,500 Gunners fans in Azerbaijan and only 2,000 from Chelsea.

It was revealed by The Guardian this week that both clubs have only sold a single pair of tickets for wheelchair-bound fans.

The icing on this despicable cake was the news that Arsenal's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhiytaryan will not be travelling to Baku because of safety concerns as Azerbaijan does not recognise his passport.

UEFA's cack-handed choice of venue has interfered with team selections, let alone inconvenienced thousands of fans. We all know why oil-rich Baku was selected, the same reason Qatar was chosen for the 2022 World Cup, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Singapore for Formula One races.

If only Arsenal and Chelsea could come together with the FA, refuse to play in Baku and then see whether UEFA had the balls to exclude clubs from their biggest market England, from next season's competitions.

Now, more than ever, it is time to take a stand against the greed in the game. Everyone agrees Baku was an insane choice so why are we going along with it?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, May 23, 2019

32 is more than enough, Gianni


Finally some good news: FIFA has abandoned its grandiose plan to expand the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Gianni Infantino's dream of 48 finalists and additional host nations was one fantasy too far.

An idea long poo-pooed by the wider game has finally bitten the dust and one can only wonder how it managed to get this far, two weeks from being debated by FIFA at their annual congress.

The only realistic joint hosts, the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 and relations remain sour.

32 is more than enough, Gianni

This year's ill-tempered Asian Cup semi-final between the two nations saw booing of Qatar's anthem and UAE fans hurling missiles onto the pitch: The idea of joint hosting was therefore a non-starter even if the planning and logistics could have been managed.

Neighbours Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also cut diplomatic ties. The idea of thousands of boozed-up party-loving football fans in Saudi is too surreal to even imagine, although some might say the same about Qatar. We will see.

The 2022 tournament was a brave or controversial enough concept anyway with the host being an Islamic country with negligible football heritage nor existing stadia and the tournament happening in the winter to boot, squeezed in around the Christmas period with domestic seasons duly disrupted.

Against this backdrop, the idea of compounding the risk by adding another 16 teams was borderline barmy.

48 nations will be there in the USA, Mexico and Canada in 2026 but there is plenty of time to plan for that tournament and those nations combined have more than enough capacity for such a huge event.

But what about the football? Given the standard of play across the World Cup is now inferior to the UEFA Champions League, it is impossible to see how an extra 16 qualifiers could improve it. The jewel in the crown of the sport runs the risk of becoming an overbloated jamboree satisfying nobody except the multinational sponsors.

Seven years from now there will undoubtedly be more also-rans and meaningless matches, cannon-fodder for the bigger nations.

The increase to almost 50 finalists means future World Cup hosting is almost certain to be continent-wide as well rather than having a single host nation.

I would love to see England host the World Cup again but could we really accommodate 48 finalists, fans, media et al? The accompanying cultural marker of a single host nation will be diluted and that is a shame, but football flies the flag for rampant liberal economics, where too much is never enough.

In throwing in the towel Infantino accepted the inevitable but has still sullied his initial reputation as a sane pair of hands after the myriad excesses of Sepp Blatter's regime.

This was a hair-brained scheme straight out of the Blatter or Michel Platini unicorn playbook. Dangling extra World Cup places in the faces of minor football nations in exchange for their loyalty was the trick invented by Joao Havelange and perfected by Blatter but it led the game's governing body into an Augean stables.

Barely a few days after Manchester City completed their clean sweep of England's domestic cups and devalued the F.A. Cup beyond all previous blows by massacring Watford 6-0 in what resembled a Harlem Globetrotters show, FIFA was mercifully reined in from allowing another 'greed is good' change to the game.

But let us not be fooled: The victory is only temporary and Infantino is definitely not the white knight we had hoped for.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Champagne with a bitter aftertaste


What a mind-blowingly magnificent week for the Premier League - an unprecedented clean sweep of the Champions League and Europa League finals. Four out of four.

As many have pointed out it is the financial clout of the EPL more than English footballers who triumphed. The final four lined up in their second legs with no English managers and the following tally of English players:

Arsenal: 1 (Ainsley Maitland-Niles)
Chelsea: 1 (Ruben Loftus-Cheek)
Liverpool: 3 (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and James Milner)
Tottenham: 3 (Dele Alli, Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier)

Eight out of 44, 18% of the total or as Britain's tabloids called it, "Full English".

The Prime Minister made a cack-handed analogy to beating European opposition with regard to her beleaguered Brexit efforts, swifly swatted down by anyone in the know about football's international realities and the benefits English clubs have derived from European freedom of movement.

Never mind the player provenances, we live in a globalised world now and ask any of the respective clubs' followers this week if they cared where their idols were born.

England was stuffed with success on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and there really was too much to take in so quickly.

Champions League Trophy

We had barely 24 hours to process Liverpool's barnstorming 4-0 demolition of Barcelona before Spurs went one better by overturning a three goal deficit away from home. Both did the impossible without their star strikers as well - Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane were sat injured on the sidelines.

Spurs did it without an Anfield roar to sweep them to victory and were also up against a young, zestful Ajax brimming with confidence at home on the brink of a historic ascension, not a complacent and lazy Barcelona apparently jaded by repeated success.

The Champions League second legs were a reminder of one of football's aces - the instant and unforeseen ecstasy, anguish and catharsis of last-gasp goals. Conversion of sadness into happiness in the blink of an eye - it is no wonder we speak of miracles. There can be magic in the mundane.

Whither the school of Cruyff in Ajax and Barcelona's capitulations? The credo of pass, pass, pass is back to square one, muscled aside by the power-play of Liverpool, inspired by Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing and Tottenham not being afraid to use route one to the big man up front.

Both flunked their tests when three goals to the good. The English tortoises beat the continental rabbits.

Despite the lack of Englishmen in uniform, the EPL teams used old English footballing virtues of brawn, grit, implacable determination and never-say-die pluck to get over the line first.

One could accuse Ajax of naive inexperience at this level in letting slip their lead, a harsh lesson in the need to win the mental game as well as the physical one. At the end of the day no side should lose when 3-0 up at home. No excuses required.

But Barcelona's surrender is harder to explain, especially as they performed an almost identical collapse last season away at Roma, where they let a 4-1 first leg lead evaporate. Catalan fans must be livid.

Barca were so insipid and lethargic at time they looked like 1980's Anfield cannon-fodder. It should be remembered Liverpool had played very well at the Camp Nou and had only really been undone by moments of magic from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who both had off-nights in England.

Spanish champions they might be, chuckling at eternal rivals Real Madrid's woeful season, but Blaugrana fans are frustrated not only by their side's surrender on Merseyside but also by the gnawing knowledge that they are ageing and in need of a large-scale overhaul.

Real, in acknowledging their need to rebuild before Barca, might therefore have the advantage for the next few years. Hard as it is to accept in the Camp Nou, there has to be life after Messi.

For fans from Mokum (Amsterdam), the dream of a first Champions League final since 1995 was cruelly and impossibly stolen in the 96th minute by Lucas Moura. Crestfallen, devastated, you name it. The tableau of despair at the end said it all - Ajax players were collapsed face down on the turf.

The pain for the fans was compounded by the knowledge this team will be broken up in the summer and this was a golden, if effervescent grasp at glory which slipped out of their hands

It was not cruel fate however. The statistics showed Tottenham aced their Dutch masters for shots on and off target, corners and two skills at the heart of the famous Ajax philosophy - passing and possession. The better team won.

Once again the euphoria generated by an Ajax European cup run evaporates. A fetishistic following has developed overseas for the red and white shirts and their philosophy, a creed passed down via Barcelona and disciple Pep Guardiola which in some eyes has become more puritan than purist.

Inflexibility is the Achilles Heel of any devotion and Ajax's lack of plan B cost them again, as it did when their rigid possession-obsessed game was undone in the 2017 Europa League final by Jose Mourinho's destructive yet effective tactics for Manchester United.

Will Ajax fans have to wait another 20+ years? At this rate they will lucky to get beyond the first round again. English clubs' financial power, as Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag rightly reminded us, is far, far stronger than anything the Dutch league can muster.

There are also no teams in the Eredivisie who play like Tottenham so Ajax were in unknown territory.

Being a big fish in a small pond has its limitations for Barca as well. Watching them succumb to the Anfield hurricane was a reminder there are no clubs who play like Liverpool in La Primera either.

Arsenal had little trouble navigating Valencia in the end to reach the Europa League final, but Chelsea made heavy weather of a determined Eintracht Frankfurt before finally winning on penalties.

After the champagne was drained, the hangover of UEFA's criminally unjust ticket allocation for both games, the ratcheted-up cost of flights and hotels has hit home.

The first sour taste in the mouth came when it was learnt that Liverpool and Spurs had been handed only 16,000 tickets per club for a stadium that holds 68,000.

Spurs fans particularly will be eager to be in Madrid for their first ever Champions Cup final but having seen the inflated prices might hitch-hike to the Spanish capital and spend the night in the Parque Retiro.

The club has happily promised to open up their new London stadium to show the game on big screens but there is nothing to beat the atmosphere of a foreign away trip and you can be sure thousands of North Londoners will be in Spain for that special occasion.

Liverpool are favourites of course but just the chance of being in the same city where your club first wore its continental crown is surely irresistible to many. Planes to Madrid look unaffordable but at least there are other airports in Spain and driving from England is not impossible as long as you can take most of the week off from work.

For Arsenal and Chelsea fans however, TV seems the best option. Yet even that could be problematic. Despite four English clubs in the final berths, neither the Champions League nor Europa League will be transmitted on terrestrial English television, either as highlights or live, a victim of the incessant greed choking our national game.

Everything about the finals seems designed to inconvenience English supporters.

There are no regular direct flights from London to Baku, the venue for the Europa League final 2,500 miles way, charter flights are priced at around £1,000, ten hour return trips with one change cost £1,500 and the clubs were only allocated a paltry 6,000 tickets each anyway.

Oh and to cap it all, British citizens need a visa to enter Azerbaijan.

UEFA's desire to rebrand the old midweek European Cup final into a Superbowl weekend is largely responsible for this fiasco, but the host nations' governments could also step in to stop the jacking up of flights and hotel rooms around the final.

If possible, decisions on the final venue should be made after the semi-finals to stop repeats of this absurd trek across the continent by two London clubs. It has happened before (Chelsea and Man United in Moscow, Real and Atletico in Lisbon and Milan and Juventus and Milan in Manchester) but never so painfully as this time.

Given the finalists, Wembley or Twickenham would have been perfect Champions League final venues and the Europa League could have been held at Tottenham or West Ham.

That would mean of course cancelling these jumbo events the finals have metamorphosed into and getting back to a pure final tie.

Football might mostly be watched on screens from afar these days, but the truest supporters still make the effort to be there in person and are the last people who should be abused and exploited like this.

In a week where Mother Earth was reported to be increasingly frail and at risk of demise, jetting thousands of people at huge expense to a gas-guzzling oil extractor on the farthest edge of Europe when they could be playing in their home city looked particularly grotesque.

EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, BAKU - Weds 29th May 8 pm GMT -


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

UCL Semi-Finals 1st Legs: Ajax and Barça make early gains


So it looks like it will not be an all-English final showdown in the UEFA Champions League after all.

Tottenham's 0-1 reverse to Ajax and Liverpool's three-goal defeat at Barcelona means the Cruyff final is on the cards instead.


It has been a bad 48 hours for the world's richest division, the English Premier League.

Young Dutch masters rained on Spurs' parade in their stunning new stadium, outpassing and outplaying them on their home ground.

From Harry Kane's injury and Son Heung-Min's suspension to Dele Ali's frustration, Fernando Llorente's missed headers and Jan Vertonghen's concussion, nothing would go right for the Londoners.

Spurs were weary warriors by the end of the match, but a one-goal deficit and Son's return for the away leg mean they have not lost all hope of making the final.

Liverpool look beaten after going down 3-0 in the Camp Nou but can count themselves a tad unlucky. They had more of the ball than the hosts, matched Barcelona for shots on target and missed a couple of good ones to boot, Mo Salah striking the post in the second half being particularly galling. Football can be a cruel game and final scores are often inadequate summaries of the previous 90 minutes.

The Blaugrana looked rather mundane at times and certainly nowhere near as crisp and fluid as Ajax had been the night before. Ernesto Valverde changed their famous 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1 to combat the risk of the Reds pouring forward as they have done all season and only magic moments from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez spared their blushes.

Ousmane Dembele should have made it four and game over in the 96th minute but scuffed his shot, leaving a chink of light for the Reds at Anfield.

Ajax were the best of the four semi-finalists on the evidence of the first legs. Their team spirit is on a high and their telepathic quick passing to feet is potent enough to carry them to Madrid.

Their Champions League dream continues to gather fervour. I was on a plane from Amsterdam to London carrying Dutch fans and their expectations were giddy. For the first time in more than two decades supporters can dream of the big prize and with the knowledge their club is too poor to retain its starlets, they are making the most of their joy while it lasts.

The fact Ajax are an assembly of homegrown kids and offloaded players like Dusan Tadic from Southampton and they do not play in one of Europe's big leagues means they deserve even more credit and neutral support.

A mesmeric name in football culture renowned for schooling footballers better than anyone - Tottenham played Amsterdam old boys Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen for instance, the latest crop in red and white will nevertheless dissolve in the summer like all the others have, cherry-picked by richer clubs from bigger leagues.

It seems tragic that just as a great team has been created it will be dismantled but that is the price for a lack of financial fair play across UEFA.

Frenkie De Jong for one will be moving to Barcelona in July. The two clubs could yet meet in the final in Madrid on the first of June.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile