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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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England’s Fury: France ’98

Kevin Hoggard

On June 30th 1998, David Beckham would find himself disappointing the English, due to a coming together with a Latino.  On June 28th 1998, I would come together with a Latina and ultimately disappoint her by being too English.  It took me 10 years to dissolve my union. Beckham screwed up his happy marriage to the nation in 47 minutes.

England qualified comfortably for France 98.  OK that was a joke: when have we ever qualified comfortably for a major competition? South Africa 2010, that’s when.

Needing a result in the final game to avoid the dreaded playoff, the boys battled out an impressive goalless draw with Italy.

So Glen Hoddle — mad as a hatter — accompanied the boys to France.  We weren’t seeded so we had to face one of the top sides in the group stage.  We got a little lucky in drawing Romania; Columbia and Tunisia would fill out the group.

Looking back at it, our side was actually damn good.  Here’s your childish giggle of the day: Campbell, Southgate and Adams were charged with covering Seaman.  Paul Ince, David Batty and Paul Scholes were in the middle of the park.  Graeme Le Saux and Darren Anderton charged down the wings, supplying the ammunition for Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham.  Not only that, but we had a good bunch of youngsters on the bench.  Amongst them were Gary Neville, David Beckham, Steve McManaman, Rio Ferdinand and Little Mickey Owen. 

One notable absence was Paul Gascoigne.  Poor Gazza was out of the squad due to loss of form on the pitch and finding too much form in the pubs.

We started the World Cup by seeing off the Tunisians comfortably. Goals from Shearer and Scholes won us the game 2-0.  The Romania game was our toughest test and it was notable for me, as Viorel Moldovan put Romania ahead in the second-half.  He was a Coventry player at the time and hardly ever scored for us.  The irony was not lost on me.  Owen replaced Sheringham late in the game, and within 10 minutes, the nippy 18-year-old scored an equaliser for us.  But in the final minute, Dan Petrescu broke English hearts and won the game for the Romanians.

I watched the deciding group game in a small bar in San Diego.  My new wife went for a stroll whilst I pounded beers with nervous abandon.  For once, it was a fairly simple game for us.  Owen and Beckham started against the Columbians and both played a big part.  Owen set up Anderton for England’s first goal.  A moppy-haired Beckham curled in what became his trademark free kick and we were coasting.  My wife returned to help cheer on England during the second half, as I sang us heartily into the round of 16.

We returned to Toronto for the next match.  I found myself in a pub packed full of ex-pats all ready to send the Argentineans back south of the equator.  It was a vibrant atmosphere full of beer bellies and replica jerseys.  Just 6 minutes in, Seaman brought down Simeone.  Bati-goal — or Batistuta to the uninitiated — dispatched the spot kick.  It was a lead that only lasted 4 minutes.  Ayala took down Owen and Shearer leathered the ball into the net, 1-1.  Beer flew everywhere.  On 16 minutes, Beckham chipped a delightful through ball to Owen just past the halfway line.  Owen used his speed to race by the Argentine defence and dinked a beautiful finish over Roa.  It was one of the goals of the tournament and Owen had announced himself to the world.

In the first half of injury time, Campbell committed a foul on the edge of our box.  The Argies worked a nice free kick, leaving our defence flat-footed and Zanetti equalised.  Two-two at the half and the chatter in the pub was muted.  As usual, England looked capable of scoring… but looked equally capable of giving up that lead just as fast.

Two minutes into the second half, Simeone flattened Beckham.  As the Argentine untangled himself, Beckham flicked out a leg in retribution, kicking him as hard as a pre-school child kicks a balloon.  Simeone was booked for the challenge but Beckham would receive a straight red for a brief moment of youthful exuberance.

That was it.  There was no way we could hold out for a whole half with 10 men.

But the Three Lions would surprise us and Sol Campbell scored what seemed like the winner on 81 minutes.  He rose majestically at a corner and drilled the ball in with his head, 3-2.  We jumped around and celebrated but as I spun around with mouth wide-open — hoping to catch stray spillage — I looked up and saw the Argentineans attacking.  How could this be?  It was too quick.  They should be taking the kick-off! 

While we madly celebrated, the goal had been disallowed for a push or climbing or being English.  I can’t remember.  I was pretty drunk by this stage.  The referee received the vitriol pouring from drunken English mouths as we cursed our luck for the final 10 minutes of the game.  England held out for the extra 30 minutes.  It was enough time to dull my senses with another pint in preparation for penalty kicks.

We didn’t really need to watch, as we knew what was coming.  Seaman actually saved Crespo’s kick to give us false hope but Ince stepped up straight afterwards and Roa evened things up with a save.  Penalties were exchanged and then Roa would save from Batty. Our World Cup had ended for another four years.

At the end of the match, Toronto’s The Fan590 was interviewing fans, asking their take on England’s demise.  I was asked for a few words.  Unfortunately, all of them were swear words.  It wasn’t live — just sound bites — so I composed myself and let them ask again.  My response was again laced with expletives.  I’d tried to put a cap on my emotions but apparently, that’s impossible after your dreams have been shattered and eight pints of Stella consumed.  They moved on as I continued to talk to my half-empty pint.

The press would vilify Beckham and he was booed mercilessly by opposing fans the next season.  Man United fans took to singing “Argentina” repeatedly in support for their young star.  The Sun — that magnificent publication — published the referee’s email address in the paper, encouraging the knuckle-dragging public to send him their kind missives.  Luckily for Mr Nielsen, they got the address wrong. 

You can’t pin the blame of an exit on a player or a referee.  We all make mistakes (although the disallowed goal was probably the right decision) and frankly, the hatred towards them is uncalled for. 

My anger dissipated by the time someone put an arm around me and said, “Qualifier for the Euros starts in a couple of months.  Fancy another pint?”

A smile then broke across my face, with hope building that we could win the next one.

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