My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

My Favourite Game: Germany 0-2 Italy (2006)

Watching a football game free of emotional attachment can be a rewarding experience. It unburdens you to study a game’s unique tactical nuances, sub-plots and refereeing decisions without any hint of conscious bias.

For someone who watches a high volume of football throughout the year, the World Cup is the pinnacle of global sporting stakes; national pride is on the line, virtually the entirety of your home country is counting on not only your talent but your collective strength of character and will to deliver.

4 July 2006, the venue: Borussia Dortmund’s feared Westfalenstadion, where host nation Germany boasted an impeccable record of thirteen wins and a solitary draw from their 14 appearances at the home of one of Europe’s most revered clubs.

In contrast, while Italy had been quietly negotiating the earlier tournament stages, a sizeable portion of the squad were being dogged by controversy surrounding the “Calciopoli” scandal, not least Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and captain Fabio Cannavaro whose heavily implicated Juventus side were facing demotion to the third tier.

Normal time proved elusive as far as goalscoring, or even clear-cut chances, went. The game was being played on an absolute knife-edge, both teams seemingly prioritising nullifying the opposition’s attack over utilising their own weaponry, but the encounter was growing to be no less absorbing nonetheless – there was a tangible feeling that one goal for either side would earn a World Cup Final spot.

Extra-time came by, and soon enough a cathartic sense of liberation was manifesting, as both sides began to take more risks. Italy were gradually gaining a foothold in midfield and appeared to be intent on scoring before a shootout, conscious of the Germans’ favourable record at penalties.

Substitute Alberto Gilardino and full-back Gianluca Zambrotta both saw efforts strike the woodwork, while Buffon was also called into action at the other end, making a brilliant one-handed save from the standout German attacker Lukas Podolski.

The moment then came, two minutes shy of the shootout, when the genius flickered.

An Italian corner was cleared to the edge of the area when Andrea Pirlo slipped a deceiving forward pass, oozing with exquisite precision, through for Fabio Grosso, who made no mistake in curling past Jens Lehmann.

Grosso wheeled away in celebration, shaking his head in sheer disbelief at the enormity of the moment, before being bundled by his jubilant teammates.

Simultaneously, the deafening silence that enveloped Signul Iduna Park, at that numbing moment in time, could not have been more representative of the entire expectant German nation.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s side poured forward in predictable desperation, but the colossal captain Fabio Cannavaro stole the ball and set Gilardino away who, in acres of space, fed the overlapping Del Piero to finish beyond the advancing Lehmann to confirm Italy’s first World Cup Final in twelve years – a chance to avenge the haunting Roberto Baggio penalty miss and seal a fourth star onto their badge – cueing scenes of Italian ecstasy in the process.

The Azzurri would indeed go onto become World Champions in Berlin courtesy of a shootout victory over France, in a game largely remembered for a notorious Zinedine Zidane headbutt, but it was this resplendent, tactical display that was so pivotal on their path to glory.

A Love Letter to Bubbles

A Love Letter to Bubbles

Football club songs can be a strange concept.

Frequently they are overlooked, particularly in their significance to their respective clubs’ identity. As fans witness the recurring cycle of managers – and owners too – come and go, over time they tend to develop opinions and preconceptions over their fellow clubs, often based on recent media activity, style of football, or managerial appointments that embody regime.

It can change in a short space of time too. The Manchester United we all knew – loved, feared, detested or respected, whatever it may be – from nearly a decade ago, is simply not the same model now. It is quite a while since we have heard “Glory Glory Man Utd” reverberated around Old Trafford with the same gusto since their last title win, in 2013, as they resoundingly bid farewell to their own – and the Premier League’s greatest manager – Sir Alex Ferguson.

For a club’s football anthem, it is the underlying emblem, from a fan’s perspective, to verbatim assert their undying support to their team.

In respect to some clubs, however, a song not only reflects their ethos and values, but shapes and somewhat bizarrely, fates it. To no English club does this fittingly apply to than of West Ham United.

Anyone who is accustomed to the viewing delights of the claret and blue, self-professed 1966 World Cup-winning, long-afflicted outfit from East London will be well-versed to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” ringing out at the London Stadium – or the much beloved Upton Park previously – routinely three minutes before every kick off, but it is easy to overlook the lyrical significance of this grand old melody.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding,
I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air

Originating back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley era, Bubbles was first debuted in the Broadway revue production “The Passing Show of 1918” and subsequently became popular in British music halls of the 1920’s.

West Ham United’s official account of how the tune became adopted by the Upton Park crowd is just as endearing as the anthem itself.

The story goes that a 1920s schoolboy footballer Will Murray was nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ due to his resemblance to a character in a well-known painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap. Accordingly, during a schools match at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground, Murray’s headmaster serenaded his pupil with I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, prompting other spectators joined in.

Thereafter, The Upton Park faithful adopted it as their own, and although the first recorded instance of West Ham fans singing Bubbles isn’t until the 1940 Football League War League Cup Final at Wembley, it soon became a renowned melody defining the East London spirit. Indeed, the song was often sung in air raid and underground shelters during the Blitz, cementing itself as a proclamation of positivity in times of adversity.

Various recordings were made of the tune throughout the second half of the 20th century; from notable names too, including Doris Day, Vera Lynn, The Kaye Sisters, and not forgetting that distinct punk-sounding version by East London’s very own Cockney Rejects – whose timing of release fittingly coincided in May 1980 with their last FA Cup triumph.

To merely listen to Bubbles semi-consciously renders the anthem somewhat inane and simple, albeit admirably optimistic.

But to the understand the deeper significance Bubbles, not least given the context of the club’s prolonged starvation of honours – West Ham’s last major trophy was that 1980 FA Cup win over Arsenal, which was followed by promotion from the second division a year later, in which time since the club have been relegated and promoted on four different occasions – and you cannot help but feel a palpable tinge of sadness and regret from the lyrics given the unrelenting suffering and lack of glory.

While other football anthems like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” have that emotionally uplifting, romanticised and collective narrative that looks to the future, Bubbles is virtually the antithesis. “Then like my dreams they fade and die. Fortunes Always Hiding, I’ve looked everywhere”. It oozes melancholia and transmits a kind of wistful feeling that almost celebrates the notion that, in life, you don’t always win, and you will have those days when it feels that you just aren’t nearing your goal at the end of the road.

Curiously, one angle that illustrates the implied essence of Bubbles is how the song is described in affectionate terms by figures outside the football world. In a 2014 Late Night with Seth Meyers interview, British film star Keira Knightley was quizzed about her unlikely allegiance to the club: “I just have to say about West Ham- they are not a team that win very oftenyou have this song that all the fans sing but the problem with it is that the song is actually really sad. The song is about not winning. The song is in fact about your dreams fading and dying the whole time, so it’s sort of not really a surprise that we lose all the time when we have this song”.

The female Hollywood star is plainly suggesting that maybe this has been West Ham United’s problem all along. Beyond all the historical narratives about them being a selling club before the Sullivan-Gold-Brady triumvirate walked in the door – or even irrelevant to their turbulent, self-parodying reign that, since their move from the Boleyn Ground to the former Olympic Stadium, has manifested the club into a toxic, polarised entity. Is it at all possible to contemplate that underneath all the complex, plot-thickening soap operas over time they have essentially been cursed by their own song?

It is certainly worth considering. Nevertheless, they are a proud club, and with good reason. Many West Ham supporters will tell you it was not the footballing prestige that enticed them into being a fan of the club. It was rather the heritage, passion and soul- something Upton Park was, and Bubbles still is, a huge part of – and entails the tormenting beauty of supporting West Ham United football club.

Lazio overcome Inter resistance to intensify title dream

Lazio overcome Inter resistance to intensify title dream

This felt like the turning point.

This felt like the moment that Lazio would transform from title outsiders to genuine title contenders.

The moment of the final whistle served as an instant cue for Lazio’s players to react with discernible emotion – many immediately raising their arms in the air in expression of sheer elation while others dropped to their knees simultaneously.

Simone Inzaghi’s side sealed their eleventh straight league victory, a record that dated back to October that, in turn, overcame their previously held Serie A best of nine consecutive wins under Sven-Göran Eriksson. Lazio finished second that season and followed that success by recording their last ever Scudetto Championship in 1999-2000 under the tutelage of the to-be England manager.

It was more than just the record, though. It was the fact that they had, yet again, overcome one of their revered title rivals: this time Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who they overtook in second place. They now sit a solitary point behind current Serie A holders Juventus, who, right now, appear anything but their normal imperious selves.

The fact that Lazio went in at the interval a goal down, having suffered the setback of conceding to an Ashley Young volley a minute before the break, felt even more significant.
A less assured side may well have buckled, but this Lazio side are made of sterner stuff this season, showing a consistent capacity to turn come from behind.

Back in October, during a home encounter to Atlanta, Inzaghi’s men recovered to score three goals in the final twenty minutes to rescue a 3-3 draw, not least to mention their stirring 3-1 home victory over Juventus that came after trailing to a first-half Cristiano Ronaldo strike.

Five minutes into the second period, Lazio found a way back into the game courtesy of a familiar face, former defender Stefan de Vrij – who memorably was responsible for conceding a penalty in his last game for the Roman club, ironically against Inter, who he had already agreed a pre-contract with the following season, and cost Lazio a Champions League qualification spot – by making enough contact with the back of Ciro Immobile – albeit a soft foul to concede – who duly made no mistake to convert the subsequent penalty for his 26th goal of the season.

Fortune was to play no part for the second goal, though. Immobile controlled neatly from a corner and his goal-bound effort was superbly cleared off the line by Marcelo Brozovic, only for the ball to land at the feet of the player who had looked the most potent all evening, Sergej Milinković-Savić.

The Serb, who had arguably looked the most threatening player on the field all evening and had seen an earlier long-range effort crash the woodwork in the first period, showed exquisite close control to manoeuvre space away from the onrushing defensive endeavours of Romelu Lukaku to fire into the bottom corner and send the majority of the Stadio Olimpico into raptures.

The 6 ft 5 in midfielder’s return to peak form this season has been integral to the Biancocelesti’s surge in this campaign under Inzaghi, for a side that appear to be wholly benefitting from the palpable squad togetherness and continuity under their young manager, who, at the very least, appears well on course to earn Lazio their first Champions League qualification in over a decade.

As for their title chances, they may be the most inexperienced of the title-challenging trio but they are the most in-form outfit, riding the crest of an indomitable wave.

If they achieve what many would have deemed unthinkable, it would, without doubt, surpass their previous Scudetto triumph twenty years ago.

Andy Carroll’s West Ham departure – a sad indictment of a wasted career

Andy Carroll’s West Ham departure – a sad indictment of a wasted career

The Offside Rule

By @HalWalker

It is 5.00pm on Saturday May 4 at the London Stadium.

The West Ham United players are completing their annual end-of-season lap of appreciation following their final home game of the season, a comfortable 3-0 victory over Southampton to ensure a rather serene summer send-off from the fans.

Familiar faces from the first team with their wives and children are present, but any attentive observer will have noticed the sad and final sight of a forgotten figure – Andy Carroll – crutches in tow, feebly walking incapacitated around the perimeter accompanied by children and girlfriend.

In many ways it was an apt final image of the player in club colours given the materialisation of a move, and career, that promised so much, to begin with, and sporadically at best since.

On May 29 West Ham announced the departure of now 30-year-old Carroll upon the season end, ending a…

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Alternate PFA Team of the year

Alternate PFA Team of the year

In a season where the points record for second place is on course to be comfortably beaten, it is almost predictable that the annual Professional Footballers Association Team of the Year be largely dominated by the two supreme forces likely to be duelling for the league title until the final day, Liverpool and Manchester City.

The line-up, which was voted for by fellow professionals, did not overly defer from most expectation, but it did throw a surprise inclusion for Paul Pogba. The 2018 World Cup winner has suffered see-sawing form throughout the campaign, and his presence in the PFA’s official announcement has met with collective doubt.

A certain lack of representation from clubs outside of the top 6 has also prevailed in fans’ feedback of the team award compilation, necessitating in an alternate eleven to reflect a fairer celebration of talent across the league.

Goalkeeper

Lukasz Fabianksi:

Signed from relegated Swansea City for £7m last summer, it is fair to say that the 34-year-old’s arrival at the London Stadium was rather more understated than the likes of record-breaking £35m signing Felipe Anderson.

However, the former Arsenal stopper has been one of the few outstanding individuals for West Ham – who have suffered a wildly inconsistent season but at no point due to any indifferent form from their new no. 1 – displaying his highly impressive shot-stopping ability and positional awareness throughout, despite being frequently let down by an unstable back four. Outside of the top six teams, you would be hard pushed to identify a more safe and reliable goalkeeper this season.

Right-Back

Aaron Wan-Bissaka:

The 21-year-old has hugely impressed for Crystal Palace in his first full maiden season, delivering a host of standout displays for Roy Hodgson’s side, and establishing himself as an established first team full-back as a result.

The Croydon-born youngster has missed just three league games so far this season, making such an impact that many pundits have bemoaned the inclusion of established stars like Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva in the PFA Young Player of the Year nominations at Bissaka’s expense.

Maintaining such form next season will inevitably pose questions about an international call-up to the England senior side and will undoubtedly trigger interest from top 6 outfits.

 

Centre-Back

Conor Coady:

The Wolves captain has been a key figure in the three-man defence that Nuno Espírito Santo has deployed since the start of their 2017/18 promotion campaign, showing excellent leadership qualities alongside teammates Ryan Bennett and Willy Boly that ensure Wolves boast the fifth best defensive record in the league.

Coady’s wide-ranging passing range, combined with his physical robustness in the tackle and aerial prowess has not only contributed so much to Wolves’ season, but has made him one of the most intimidating and awkward defenders for attackers to face in the league.

Centre-Back

Toby Alderweireld:

One of the Premier League’s most underrated defenders. The Belgian suffered last season in a campaign blighted by injuries and contract issues but following an excellent World Cup showing, he has rediscovered his solidity and dependableness this season, delivering match-winning performances on numerous occasions for Mauricio Pochettino’s men – not least in their recent heroic Quarter-Final beating of Manchester City in the Champions League.

 

Possessing a proficient reading of the game, adept at dealing with aerial threats as well as being more than competent at building play from the back and, the 29-year-old can count himself unfortunate to have not been included in the season’s PFA TOTY.

 

Left-Back

Jose Holebas:

The 34-year-old made an early impact in Watford’s early pace-setting form this season, scoring once and contributing four assists from the same number of opening games and has not let his form dip since, proving one of the Hornet’s key players in their run to the FA Cup Final and quest for 7th.

What the Greek full-back lacks in pace is compensated in the quality of his crossing from the left wing. Now boasting three goals and 6 six assists to his name, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the only defenders to have set up more goals in the entire League this season.

 

 

 

 

 

Right-wing

Ryan Fraser:

The 25-year-old Scotsman is enjoying the finest season of his career to date and has admitted that recent talk of strong interest in his services from Arsenal – with Fraser entering the final year of his contract on the South Coast – is only testament to the form he has been showing for Bournemouth.

The diminutive and robust winger, who can operate on either flank, has notched more league goals than either Mesut Ozil or Dele Alli this season, and more impressively boasts the most league assists bar Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.

Fraser’s unyielding and relentless style has played a huge part in Bournemouth’s success story since their promotion to the top tier in 2015, and only underlines why he would be such a colossal lose to a club with such limited financial means.

Centre-midfield

Ruben Neves:

The 21-year-old Portuguese prodigy became one of Nuno Espírito Santo’s first key men when he was signed for a record £15.8m from Porto last season when Wolves were not even a Premier League team, quickly establishing himself as one of figureheads behind their promotion to the top tier last season, displaying a vision and passing ability that appeared so marked in the Championship.

Neves has benefitted from being entrusted with consistent first team football by his manager, and has only matured by playing better quality of opposition this season, contributing two goals and 4 assists; the pick of which being the exquisite dipping free-kick converted in the 3-1 home victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night.

Centre-midfield

Declan Rice:

West Ham’s recently converted England midfielder has enjoyed a superb season under Manuel Pellegrini, who has utilised him to his full potential in a deep-lying role for the Hammers.

The 20-year-old has looked by far the most composed player throughout the campaign in a Claret and Blue shirt, making 35 appearances in his first full season that has seen him score his first professional goal and receive an England senior call-up.

Having primarily been a centre-back before his conversion under Pellegrini in the early part of the season, he possesses a level of technical assuredness on the ball that is sure to blossom in the future as he gains more top-level experience.

 

 

 

 

Left-wing

Eden Hazard:

The Belgian superstar is arguably enjoying his finest season in a Chelsea shirt, in what could well be his last for the Blues and in the Premier League.

For goals and assists combined, he is enjoying his finest campaign since his arrival on English shores in 2012. He is currently one goal short – with three games remaining  – of surpassing his previous best tally  of 16 goals scored in the league in 2016/17, whilst his 13 assists is already two greater than his previous Premier League best, achieved in 2012/13.

Hazard’s omission from the PFA TOTY makes for all the more remarkable reasoning considering only days earlier to the announcement, the 28-year-old had been shortlisted as a nominee for the PFA Player of the year.

Such an honour would be deserved recognition for some stirring performances for the Blues this season, including vital goals against Cardiff, Liverpool and Tottenham (League Cup), as well crucial domestic strikes to keep Chelsea in touching distance of the Champions League places; namely against Waford, Brighton and an utterly mesmerising goal and man-of-the-match performance in April at home to West Ham.

A widely speculated move to Real Madrid may be on the horizon, but Chelsea’s dependency on Hazard only underlines further why they should do everything in their power to resist selling their most prized asset.

Striker

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang:

The Gabonese striker is currently the joint-highest Premier League goal-scorer this season – tied with Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah – and in his first full season at the Gunners he is beginning to prove vindication why Arsenal lavished £56m on the now-29-year-old in January of 2018.

Aubameyang’s goals have been directly responsible for winning the Gunners 16 more points than they would have done without him in the side, underling his value to Unai Emery’s side.

His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette has also been a growing influence on Aubameyang’s form, with the dynamic duo contributing to 31 goals in the league this season between the two.

Striker

Son Heung-Min:

When Son Heung-Min fired Tottenham’s first ever goal at their new stadium in their earlier this month, it not only confirmed his 21st goal of the season but, with the arena festooned with not only Tottenham but flags of his own country, embodied the meteoric rise to new heights as a global South Korean superstar.

For a player who has admitted he was closing to leaving North London in 2016 due to lack of first team opportunities, Son has used his cameo appearances to become one of Tottenham’s most potent attacking weapons.

Following on from leading his team out to a gold medal at the Asia Games in August, his goals, positional awareness and outstanding work-rate have played a pivotal role in Tottenham’s annual chase for the top four domestic spot and reward for their first European Semi-Final since 1962.