Monday, December 27, 2010

Arsenal shed their burden against faltering Chelsea

It may well be something of an overstatement at this stage of the season, with not even half of the campaign elapsed, but last night’s Premier League meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea was the archetypal “must-win” game for both sides —  – or, at the very least, “must-not-lose.”
Both teams entered the game with big question marks against the credibility of their respective title challenges. Chelsea were on a wretched run of form, having won just one of their last seven fixtures to drop from first place to fourth. Arsenal, similarly, were tasked with throwing aside the burden of their poor recent results against fellow title contenders and prove they are not big-stage bottlers.
In that context, it was perhaps no surprise to see a cautious, safety-first approach from both teams in the early exchanges. Neither goalkeeper was tested, raising fears that a nervous, drab nil-nil lay in wait — but we needn’t have worried; this was just the calm before an exhilarating storm.
As the first half wore on, Arsenal found their passing rhythm and grew in confidence. The always-important Cesc Fabregas, previously a peripheral figure, had space to exert control on the midfield manoeuvrings with his deft passing skills; Samir Nasri and the erratic yet dangerous Theo Walcott repeatedly ran with pace and purpose at their full backs; Robin Van Persie looked capable of darting into the space behind the Chelsea defence.
Chelsea were on the ropes, relying on a series of increasingly desperate defensive clearances and waiting for relief in the form of the half time whistle. Going forward, they had nothing to offer; Didier Drogba was isolated, Saloman Kalou and Florent Malouda anonymous, Frank Lampard dominated.
The reigning champions simply couldn’t sustain any meaningful possession, and their rare sorties on the counter-attack were swiftly extinguished by a startling lack of precision and purpose.
After half an hour, Arsenal were starting to purr. Chances had been few before Arsene Wenger’s team finally came close in the 41st minute, when another spell of pressure resulted in Nasri receiving possession in space, 20 yards from goal, and lifting a delicate chip towards the top left corner; Petr Cech, tested for the first time, was equal to the task, leaping acrobatically to tip the ball away for a corner that was safely dealt with.
At that point, Carlo Ancelotti on the Chelsea bench must have breathed a big sigh of relief, hoping that Cech’s save was enough to keep his side on level terms going into the interval.
But there was sufficient time for Arsenal to maintain the pressure and finally grab the goal they deserved as Alex Song strode into the penalty area and thrashed a low shot past the helpless Cech.
Half-time and 1-0 behind, something had to change for Chelsea, and Ancelotti was quick to act by replacing John Obi Mikel with the more attack-minded Brazilian Ramires for the start of the second half.
It changed nothing; Arsenal were still emphatically in the ascendancy, and needed just five minutes to double their advantage. Hesitant Chelsea defending created the opportunity as a loose attempted clearance from Michael Essien released Walcott clean through on goal, and the winger showed maturity and awareness to eschew his shooting opportunity in favour of squaring the ball to the unmarked Fabregas for a simple prod into the empty net.
Remarkably, two minutes later it was 3-0 as the Gunners pounced upon another defensive error — Malouda this time the culpable party for dwelling in possession inside his own half — and Fabregas returned the favour by releasing Walcott, whose crisply struck and perfectly placed low finish zipped past Cech into the bottom left hand corner.
3-0, 52 minutes played, and Arsenal weren’t just beating Chelsea: they were destroying them, annihilating them, embarrassing them. By producing a fast-paced and ruthless demonstration of high-class football, the Gunners were glaringly exposing their opponents’ fragile confidence and lack of direction. It was a rout.
But Arsenal rarely make things easy for themselves, and they contrived to hand Chelsea a lifeline when slack marking from a Drogba free kick allowed Branislav Ivanovic to head past Lukasz Fabianski, reducing the deficit to 3-1.
Chelsea took some encouragement from the goal and briefly rallied, but they still lacked any cutting edge — with Drogba once again worryingly ineffective — and Arsenal always looked capable of scoring again.
With 20 minutes remaining Nasri wasted a glorious chance to restore his team’s three-goal advantage, shooting weakly at Cech after being put through by substitute Gael Kakuta’s limp back-header. But it mattered little; Chelsea never seriously threatened to mount a comeback, and Arsenal held onto the 3-1 victory with ease.
So where does this leave both teams? For Arsenal, the proverbial monkey is well and truly off their back. They now know they can beat the big names, and this victory could end up meaning far more to them than the simple accumulation of three points.
Only time will tell, but this may prove to be a defining moment in the maturation of Wenger’s young team – if they can ally their cultured passing approach with this kind of controlled aggression on a regular basis, their trophy drought will surely soon end.
As for Chelsea, the woes continue. They deserved their heavy defeat.  It was a bad result, but an even worse performance. They didn’t look like scoring goals and always looked like conceding them; something has gone badly wrong at the Bridge (maybe just the unavoidable ageing of their key players), and Ancelotti faces an extremely anxious few weeks.

Monday, December 13, 2010

United do enough as Blues return to form

     Two games in the upper reaches of the Premier League this weekend produced fixtures that were similar only in their frenzied tempo and the fact they both contained penalty misses by star strikers.
     Tottenham and Chelsea’s 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon was an enjoyably open and entertaining encounter; Manchester United’s victory over Arsenal last night, by contrast, was a rather dour affair.
     Despite playing their way to the top of the league, Arsenal seemed to enter the game at Old Trafford having taken notice of the widespread criticism they’ve received for being physically lightweight, transforming themselves from a group of subtle and thoughtful artistes into a bunch of cloggers — even Andrey Arshavin, the modern-day total footballer, was flying into brutal challenges.
     Unfortunately, the robust approach adopted by the Gunners meant that the first half was almost devoid of incident until Park Ji Sung’s wonderfully improvised headed goal shortly before the interval.
     It was the archetypal “game that needed a goal”, and the second half was better, much better, as a result of  Park’s opener. Now trailing, Arsenal could no longer play for the nil-nil draw, as had appeared to be the limit of their ambitions during the opening period.
     With renewed levels of purpose and intent, Arsenal’s pass masters Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky started to produce their usual fast, clever interplay towards the edge of United’s penalty area, with Marouane Chamakh looking increasingly capable of unsettling Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
     But United were offering a threat on the counter-attack, and a passage of play shortly before the hour mark neatly encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of the game’s most eye-catching individual, Nani.
     Receiving the ball on the right wing after a fast break by Anderson, Nani appeared to have wasted the promising position by allowing himself to be dispossessed far too easily by Gael Clichy.
     But the Portuguese winger rectified his error by immediately winning the ball back and striding towards goal, only to launch his shot hopelessly over the bar. Brilliant and awful within the space of five seconds — that’s Nani.
     A few minutes later Arsene Wenger unleashed his big guns from the bench as fit-again Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie entered the fray. But they had little impact as the game reverted to the scrappy, attritional mode that had been prevalent in the first half.
     Then came the moment that should have sealed the points in United’s favour. Nani was again at the fore, tussling with Clichy near the byline and sending over a firm low cross that cannoned against the arm of the Arsenal defender from point-blank range.
     There was absolutely no intent from Clichy — it would have been almost impossible for him to get out of the way — but the linesman swiftly threw up his flag to signal a penalty.
      The decision was harsh on Arsenal, but justice was served when Wayne Rooney blazed the spot kick high over the crossbar. Rooney had been a peripheral figure and perhaps there was some frustration behind his decision to smash the ball as hard as he possibly could, but it was difficult to feel too much sympathy because the penalty shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place.
        So Arsenal were still in the game, but they never looked like taking advantage of their reprieve. United were organised and resolute in defence, bottling up any space around the centre of the field and resultantly restricting the Gunners to speculative long-range efforts. Fabregas, lacking match fitness, was unusually wasteful in possession, while van Persie was forced to drop into harmless deep-lying positions in a fruitless attempt to exert any kind of influence on the action.
        The final minutes drifted away with Arsenal’s only opportunity being squandered by Theo Walcott’s woefully mis-hit volley, and United held onto the victory with relative ease.
        United did just about enough without producing anything like their best form, and Arsenal should regret their first-half approach — adding a much-needed physical dimension to their play is one thing, forgetting the qualities that make them such a free-scoring team is another.
        The previous day, Chelsea will have been both relieved and frustrated that they failed to take all three points despite a dominant performance at White Hart Lane — relieved because they trailed for nearly an hour after Roman Pavlyuchenko’s 15th-minute opener, but frustrated because they were by far the better team and were only denied victory by Didier Drogba’s injury time penalty miss.
       But the Blues can take plenty of encouragement from what was their best performance for a long time. Having looked lethargic and one-paced in the last few games, Sunday’s showing was far more like the Chelsea we’re used to. And with Manchester United and Arsenal coming up next, their promised renaissance couldn’t have come at a better time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pointless hosting Asian Games

        A deafening silence greeted the challenge thrown by Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek that it was up to the public to decide whether Malaysia should bid to host the 2023 Asian Games.
        If the minister was hoping for roar of approval to do it ,he must have been disappointed-but there is a suspicion that he too did not want to be responsible for such a decision.
        He knew that it would be an unpopular one especially since it is estimated to cost a bomb to host such a multi-sport event.
        The Government has already twice rejected attempts by the Olympic Council of Malaysia to host the Asian Games,once to host this years Asiad and more recently to host 2018 one.
        In both cases, the Government felt that it was too expensive to do so.
        Shabery revealed that for the 2018 Asian Games, the cost of organising is estimated to be more than RM 1.6bil. 
        Hosting the 2022 edition may, in his own words,"cost three or four times more."
        Guangzhou is reported to have spent more than RM 7bil to host the Games while India forked out some RM 18bil to host the New Delhi Commonwealth Games last month.
         Incheon City in South Korea will be hosting the 2014 edition while Hong Kong,the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and India are bidding for the 2018 Games, which will be decided in 2012.
         It's no-brainier - Malaysia cannot afford it and the money saved could better spent on proper sports development like getting our athletes to be of Asiad or even Commonwealth Games standard.
         We are still reeling from the after-effects of hosting the 1998 Commonwealth Games . Many bills are still unpaid and there several suits pending in the courts over the hosting of the event.
          Just over a decade later, most of the 1998 venues are no longer a symbol of national pride. The National Stadium's pitch is reported to be among the worst football venues in the country and the turf had to be re-laid several times.
         Many of the facilities like toilets at all the venues are aged and need to be replaced. If we have problems maintaining 12 -year-old facilities why should we spend billions to build new ones just to host 5,000 over athletes,officials and newsmen for a couple of weeks ?
         Another reason not to host it is the standard of the sports as well as the type of sports that are now included in the Games. In Guangzhou, 476 events were on offer in 42 sports, making it the largest event in the history of the games.
         Hosting the Asian Games is definitely a job Malaysia does not need

Thursday, October 7, 2010

One-dimensional Arsenal fall to Drogba again

  Here we go again: Chelsea against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
       The home team: pace, power and purpose. An unwavering commitment to playing at a high tempo with controlled aggression, seeking to impose their will on the game and force their opponents into submission.
      The away team: touch, control and precision. An abundance of short, quick passes along the ground, attempting to open up the opposing defence with clever movement and a sharp use of angles.
      And, as ever, the muscular approach of Chelsea overcame the tippy-tappy philosophy of Arsenal. So many times the same story has been told, yet still the ending remains the same.
      Will Arsene Wenger ever learn that his high-minded, purist approach simply will not prevail often enough when it comes up against equally talented but more forceful opposition?
Harsh on the Gunners? No; just look at the stats.
      Since Arsenal won their last trophy (the FA Cup in 2005), they have come up against Chelsea on no less than 14 occasions... and won just twice. Surely if nothing else will convince Monsieur Wenger of the errors in his ways, that simple fact is enough.
      Two wins in 14 games do not suggest that the teams are like-for-like title rivals; rather, it speaks of a mismatch between two clubs who have found themselves consistently at different levels of achievement for more than half a decade. (Even more conclusively, only two of those 14 games have been drawn, with Chelsea winning the remaining 10 fixtures).
      Didier Drogba neatly epitomises the contrast in approach — and success — between Chelsea and Arsenal. The Ivorian has now scored in each of the last three games between the sides, and recorded an extremely impressive personal tally of 13 goals in 13 meetings with the Gunners.
      In Drogba we can find everything that’s most effective about Chelsea, and everything that Arsenal are missing. He carries immense presence, using his powerful frame to give Chelsea’s attacking play an intimidating physical potency; if nothing else is working for them, the Blues can simply lump it forward to the big man and let him fight it out with the opposition defenders — and quite often, he’ll come out on top.
      It’s not pretty to watch, it’s not particularly scientific, and it’s not something that Arsene Wenger would consider to be the “right” way to win a football match. But it works, and the penetration and thrust provided by Drogba has been a major factor — possibly, even, the most significant single factor — behind Chelsea’s consistent collection of trophies in the last five years.
      At this point, I should state that labelling Drogba as a one-dimensional old-fashioned battering ram would be an extremely unfair denigration of the striker. As he demonstrated with his subtle finish for the opening goal in yesterday’s game, Drogba is a hugely talented footballer with the ability to produce subtlety as well as strength. But the key point is that he can do both, and therefore adds a cutting edge to Chelsea’s attacking play that Arsenal simply don’t possess.
     In all his time (14 years now) as Arsenal manager, I am struggling to recall one striker of Drogba’s type that Wenger has signed. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Christopher Wreh, Kanu, Davor Suker, Sylvain Wiltord, Francis Jeffers, Jose Reyes, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo, Carlos Vela, Maroune Chamakh... they have all been primarily touch players, much more comfortable with the ball played along the ground than in the air.
     There are without doubt some exceptionally fine players within that batch of strikers, but aren’t many of them a little similar? Where’s the physical presence, the power, the aerial threat, the penetration?
     Possibly the only “target man” type striker signed by Wenger in the last 14 years is Julio Baptista, but the Brazilian was only given very limited opportunities during his brief loan spell from Real Madrid a few years ago.
     Other than that, it’s been flair all the way and, whilst Arsenal are very pleasant to watch, professional football is about results, not style. So where are the trophies? With Drogba, at Stamford Bridge.
     The pattern of play during the second half yesterday was symptomatic of Arsenal’s limitations. They enjoyed plenty of possession and, at times, looked capable of stretching Chelsea’s defence with their clever, quick passing approach.
     But Chelsea’s defenders were organised enough and disciplined enough — and good enough — to stand their ground, not get drawn out of position and challenge Arsenal to play their way around them.
     Chelsea knew they would face very little physical pressure inside the penalty area, so they were prepared to shepherd Arsenal into wide positions and encourage them to deliver crosses into the box, where John Terry and Alex were more than a physical match for anything that Arsenal could offer.
      And despite all their possession, the Gunners failed to create many meaningful chances, with their pretty-pretty passing movements breaking down in a mass of bodies on the edge of the penalty area.
      If Arsenal had their own version of Drogba to aim crosses towards, life would have been far less comfortable for the Blues’ defence, and inviting the visitors to deliver crosses from deep would not have been an option. But that is not Wenger’s way... perhaps it should be.   

Liverpool fans try to banish bad American memories

           Memories of unfulfilled promises and bitter rows have made it hard for Liverpool fans to whole-heartedly embrace the idea of more American owners coming to restore the club to former glories.
          Three and a half years ago, when beaming US sports tycoons Tom Hicks and George Gillett posed for photos with a red Liverpool scarf on the Anfield turf and promised a new stadium and players, the club seemed to have a bright future.
          That initial optimism soon vanished, along with the pledge to start work on a new 60,000-seater stadium within 60 days of their takeover, and fans turned against the duo before they put the debt-laden club up for sale this year.
          Rumours of interested parties circulated before the club’s chairman Martin Broughton announced on Wednesday that the board had accepted a 300 million-pound bid from New England Sports Venues (NESV), owners of baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
An NESV statement spoke of dedication and success.
          “Our objective is to stabilise the Club and ultimately return Liverpool FC to its rightful place in English and European football, successfully competing for and winning trophies,” it said.
         “NESV wants to help bring back the culture of winning to Liverpool FC.”
           There has been no word yet from NESV’s American owner John W. Henry but as long as he does not make the mistake of calling Liverpool a “franchise” — as Gillett did in his first news conference — he will have got off to a better start.
Winning mentality
           Internet fan forums were flooded with reaction ranging from “out of the frying pan and into the fire” to “please let this be the end of the nightmare” but with the overriding feeling one of relief that the club could soon have new owners mixed with a heavy dose of caution.
           Chairman Broughton tried to reassure fans by speaking of the new owners’ “winning mentality”, as demonstrated by their transformation of the Red Sox into a title-winning outfit.
He said money would be available to buy players in the next transfer window and that the club would soon have the 60,000-seater stadium, although it was not clear whether this would be a new ground or a redevelopment of Anfield.
           Fans keen to make clear their expectations, wrote messages on Henry’s Facebook page like “please bring back our glory”, “do for us what you did for the Red Sox and you will be a legend in Liverpool” and “look after the club and you’ll be loved”.
         Supporters have seen their club go from Champions League finalists in the year Hicks and Gillett took over to sitting in the relegation zone now after their worst start to a season for more than half a century.
          Although Spain forward Fernando Torres was signed with them at the helm, less money has been available as they spent funds on servicing the club’s debt of more than 200 million pounds.
          There were also public relations blunders, such as when the owners admitted the club had made an approach for German Juergen Klinsmann with a view to replacing Rafa Benitez as manager and Tom Hicks junior’s foul-mouthed tirade in an email to a fan which forced him to resign from the board.
Gillett and Hicks have also barely been on speaking terms for the past couple of years and they have been at loggerheads with the board.
          Those who know the prospective new owners think there will be no repeat of these problems.
“The fans of Liverpool should be excited,” Dave Checketts, owner of MLS team Real Salt Lake, said at the Leaders in Football conference in London.
          “From a business perspective they’ve done a superb job (with the Redsox), from a PR perspective — superb — and they got success on the field. I think they’ll repeat the model at Liverpool and I think they’ll be outstanding.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rising City expose Chelsea’s frailties

Before Saturday’s meeting between the two teams at Eastlands, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini claimed that he fully expects Chelsea to retain the English Premier League championship.
“Chelsea are the best team in the Premier League at the moment,” he said. “They are probably going to win the title easily. They are a strong team, who have been playing together for many years. They have a fantastic manager and they have worked to reach this situation.”
Was this an example of Fergie-style mind games, designed to lull the opposition into a false sense of security on the eve of a big game? Probably not; Mancini and his Chelsea counterpart Carlo Ancelotti are good friends, having played together in Italy throughout much of the 1980s, and their relationship is too strong to sink into petty psychological trickery.
Instead, the not-very-hidden message within Mancini’s statement was directed internally, to his own employers — namely City chairman Sheikh Mansour. “...playing together for many years...worked to reach this situation.” These are the key words in Mancini’s comments, with the unspoken message coming through loud and clear: At Manchester City we have a new team, and I must be given time to develop that team.
His motives aside, I don’t agree with Mancini’s assessment of Chelsea’s overwhelming strength, especially the part about them winning the title “easily.” This title race will be far closer than that.
Saturday’s game demonstrated that the Blues have a worrying lack of depth, especially in the goalscoring department. It might seem crazy to suggest that a team which mustered 21 goals in its first five games might struggle to score enough goals, but that was with their full strength team and against weak opposition such as Wigan, West Brom, Blackpool.
With Frank Lampard and Salomon Kalou injured, Chelsea had worryingly little in reserve at Eastlands on Saturday — the fact that Ancelotti was forced to use unproven youngster Daniel Sturridge and 17-year-old debutant Joshua McEachran as substitutes says everything about the strength in depth at his disposal.
I’ll agree with Mancini that Chelsea have the most powerful team in the Premier League, and if they were able to field their strongest eleven throughout the season they would probably be comfortable title winners. But whether they have the best squad is altogether another matter, and Ancelotti must be fearful about the potential ramifications if Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard suffer any significant injuries over the course of the next few months.
As for City, this was an extremely encouraging afternoon. Despite his thinly-disguised pleas to be given time, he’ll be well aware that he is now approaching a year in charge of City, during which time his team has often looked largely unconvincing. The remainder of the campaign surely has to result in significant progress if he’s to remain in position.
From talking to my contacts at City, my understanding is that the club’s inordinately wealthy owner, Sheikh Mansour, does indeed have a long-term vision and isn’t demanding that Mancini must deliver the Premier League trophy immediately. Such patience from a man in his lofty position is rare but, considering the colossal investment he’s made, the minimum requirement must be a very clear demonstration that Mancini is capable of taking the team in the right direction.
Although City haven’t always looked good in the early stages of the new season, Saturday’s victory did exactly that. Winning games of this nature is precisely what City must do to convince themselves — and just as importantly the wider footballing world — that they should be taken seriously as title contenders. Taking into account the shortcomings of their rivals, I don’t think they can be entirely discounted from this season’s race.
The club’s latest tranche of big-money signings (including Mario Balotelli, James Milner, David Silva and Yaya Toure) are still settling into their new environment, so September is far too soon to draw any firm conclusions. But Saturday’s victory suggested that City are genuinely closing the gap between themselves and the elite.
The consolation for Chelsea was that neither of their principle title rivals, Arsenal and Manchester United, could take advantage of their slip-up.
Arsenal’s shock home defeat to West Brom was notable for the fact that Cesc Fabregas was missing for the Gunners — the importance of the Spanish pass master was demonstrated by Arsene Wenger’s steely resolve to prevent him from joining Barcelona during the summer, and they simply can’t afford to be without him on many more occasions. As Lampard and Drogba are essential to Chelsea’s success, Fabregas is to Arsenal’s.
Manchester United’s failure to beat Bolton Wanderers was less surprising. The Red Devils are now without victory in any of their three away games so far this season, conceding seven goals in the process, and are looking uncharacteristically vulnerable on the road. United currently just don’t carry the same fearsome aura that many of their recent teams have imposed upon opponents.
So it’s been an interesting weekend that has in many ways provided more questions than answers. Are Manchester City actually ready to mount a serious title challenge? Do Chelsea have more frailties than they had previously shown? Can Arsenal overcome the inconsistencies of the occasional off-days that have plagued their recent seasons? And when will Manchester United finally win away from home? Only time will reveal the answers.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Spain’s victory is a victory for football

Spain’s dramatic 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in Sunday’s World Cup Final was the right result. Spain deserve to be world champions for the very first time, and their triumph was also a victory for football.
The Netherlands took an extremely rough and destructive approach to the game. Several very poor challenges were made, with midfield enforcers Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel, in particular, highly fortunate not to join Johnny Heitinga in receiving a red card.
Bert Van Marwijk’s side were almost exclusively interested in defending, and they did so in an unpleasantly physical manner. Their rare attacking incisions sought to exploit Arjen Robben’s pace on the counter-attack, but over the 120 minutes they did nowhere near enough to merit victory.
Spain, by contrast, tried to get the ball down and play — just as they always do. Despite being forced to withstand a barrage of thunderous Dutch challenges, they refused to deviate from their careful, measured strategy based on maintaining possession and attempting to pass their way through the massed ranks of Dutch defence.
The winning goal, coming just four minutes from time, was worthy of deciding such a grand occasion. Cesc Fabregas slid a wonderfully perceptive pass into Andres Iniesta, whose perfect first touch cushioned the ball and created a shooting opportunity. His second touch demonstrated impeccable technique, as he closely watched the slowly dropping ball before connecting cleanly with a powerful volley that gave no chance to Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
Iker Casillas grabs the ball to stop a Dutch attack. - Reuters pic

It was a difficult skill, perfectly executed, and Iniesta was a fitting matchwinner. Aside from an irritating eagerness to dive under minimal contact, he is a joy to watch — his first touch, vision, passing and dribbling ability are perhaps only matched by his midfield colleagues Xavi and Fabregas, and he was probably the best player on the pitch last night.
There were frenzied Dutch objections to the winning goal, with referee Howard Webb confronted by furious complaints that Eljero Elia had been fouled in the passage of play immediately prior to the goal. They may have had a valid point — Sergio Ramos did seem to block the run of the Netherlands winger — but it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for a team that played in such an aggressive and negative manner.
The Netherlands also failed to dignify themselves with their reaction at the final whistle — rather than graciously accepting defeat they again surrounded the beleaguered Webb, inevitably led by objectionable midfielder Van Bommel, who could easily have been sent off for an outrageous foul on Iniesta in the first half.
With their general approach to the game and their ungracious reaction to the loss, it was not a good night for the Netherlands — yet they could have quite easily won it. Robben had possibly the best chance of the game when he was released through the middle by Wesley Sneijder’s precise throughball, but Iker Casillas did well to stand his ground and divert his former Real Madrid team-mate’s shot wide with his feet.
With less than half an hour remaining, if Robben had been able to convert that opportunity it could have proved decisive. I’m glad he didn’t, because a Netherlands victory would have left a nasty taste in the mouth. They got to the final, but they didn’t win many admirers amongst neutrals.
Not only were Spain the best team on the night, they were also the best team throughout the tournament. A surprise 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game could have led to unnecessary panic, but instead they kept their composure, retained their belief in what they were doing, and started to remind the watching world why they had been regarded as pre-tournament favourites to lift the trophy.
The Spannish have it, the World Cup. - Reuters pic
It didn’t come easily and Spain were rarely at their most fluent best, but after that defeat to Switzerland they always had enough quality to overcome any opponent. The Barcelona pair of Xavi and Iniesta were crucial to their success — always wanting possession, always looking for a measured pass, always trying to create and play constructively.
Spain’s belief in their ability and their tactics lasted right to the end. When confronted with the looming possibility of a penalty shoot-out, it would have been easy for Spain to lose their shape, throw men forward in desperation, and stop doing what they are good at. But they persisted, continued to pass, move, pass, move...and finally — thankfully – they were rewarded.
It might not have been the greatest World Cup Final in history but at least it was settled in style; the best player from the best team scored the winning goal. And we can’t ask for much more than that.