Phil Ball: The strange moments that could alter La Liga’s outcome

Phil Ball 4/05/2015
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Luis Suárez' namesake scored a hat-rick for Barca in an 8-0 win 56 years ago.

I really can’t remember the season, but I think it was back in the 1980s.  It was a cup match between Grimsby and Chesterfield. Grimsby were winning 1-0, with about 5 minutes to go.  As Chesterfield were attacking, a Grimsby defender lunged in and sent the ball hurtling up into the stand towards me.  In those days, ball-boys were a rare sight in the lower divisions, and even if there was a smattering of them, they didn’t have bags of balls at the ready to throw tactically to a home defender, or delay returning to a visiting attacker.  As such, the Grimsby defenders relaxed momentarily, thinking that it would take a few seconds for the ball to be retrieved from up in the stands.  But as the ball whizzed towards me, a young buck leapt up in front for me and with exquisite timing, punched the ball two-fisted straight back down towards the pitch.  As his mates applauded, the ball fizzed back towards the pitch, straight into the arms of a Chesterfield forward, jogging down to the touchline. With the Grimsby defenders caught by the sudden re-appearance of the ball, the player took the throw quickly, the winger crossed, and bang, goal.  Chesterfield won the replay, went on an excellent cup run, and used the momentum the next season to gain promotion to the old 3rd Division. 

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I used to think about this incident incessantly.  Sad but true, I almost wrote a book about it.  It seemed a mice-and-men moment, where the best laid plans are simply undone by a random occurrence – one out of anyone’s control. Had the young guy not been standing in that exact position, had he not been capable of the goalkeeper’s punch that he exhibited, then Chesterfield’s history – indeed Grimsby’s, would have been different.  Better or worse, but different.  You can’t plan for this sort of stuff.  You can only try your best, and hope that if random occurrences befall you, they’ll incline in your favour.  Probably no-one remembers the incident apart from me and the guy who punched the ball. But it changed two teams’ fates, maybe even people’s lives.  It was chaos theory in a nutshell – a weird moment.

Which is a rather circuitous way of introducing this week’s theme, sparked by Real Madrid’s rather unlikely 3-2 win at Sevilla on Saturday afternoon.  This was the weekend when things were scheduled to change, when Barcelona were supposed to disappear over the horizon. Well – they almost did, waiting until the 42nd minute before opening the scoring at bottom club Cordoba’s Estadio Nuevo Arcangel (New Archangel Stadium) , but after that the archangel stopped singing and looked on in horror as the pumped-up visitors scored another seven before the final whistle.  It was Cordoba’s worst-ever defeat, and it sent them mathematically back to the Second Division, from whence they came last season.  If you’re going to go down, you might as well go down in style.  Spookily, of Barcelona’s three 0-8 away wins in their history, the first one in 1959 was in Las Palmas, and a certain (Spanish) Luis Suárez scored a hat-trick. Zoom forward 56 years, and another Luis Suárez manages a hat-trick in a 0-8 victory, albeit this time he’s Uruguayan.

However, back to the topic.  Real Madrid were obliged to face Sevilla in the Sanchez Pizjuan two hours after the Cordoba result. Sevilla hadn’t lost there since February 2014 (to Barcelona) and were on the shirt-tails a record home run.  The league trophy was fluttering azulgrana colours in the Saturday evening breeze, and Sevilla were looking good up to the half-hour mark when Sergio Ramos clashed fortuitously with the excellent Grzegorz Krychowiak, obliging the Polish defensive midfielder to stagger off and receive treatment on the touchline for a bloodied nose.  Unai Emery, in one of those moments which may be remembered less than the eventual winner of this season’s league title, decided that Krychowiak might be able to go back on, instead of putting on the more-than-capable Vicente Iborra in his place. 

Fatefully, he dilly-dallied –although his desire to keep him on the pitch showed just how important the Pole has been to Sevilla this season (he’s played in every single game).  By the time he came back on, semi-fractured nose and all, Real Madrid were 2-0 to the good.  Talk about taking full advantage.  If you watch both of those Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, they come from crosses that have been built up under a lack of pressure from Sevilla’s full-backs, pulled out of position and exposed by the lack of Krychowiak’s presence in the middle.  Carlos Bacca pulled one back before half-time, after ex-Sevillista Sergio Ramos had fouled Alex Vidal, but Ronaldo scored his 29th hat-trick for Real Madrid and they eventually ran out 3-2 winners.  That’s 53 goals for the Portuguese power-plant in all competitions, 42 of them in the league.  Despite Leo Messi scoring twice at Cordoba (and generously handing a penalty to Neymar), Ronaldo remains ahead in his obsessive quest to win this season’s ‘Pichichi’ (top scorer) trophy, but you can’t help but think that it was a bit of chaos theory that intervened, a distant fluttering of the butterfly’s wings that eventually caused the hurricane – or the shift of air that made Krychowiak incline his head too close to the back of Sergio Ramos’s.

So now, the only thing apparently standing between Barcelona and the title is their penultimate game in the Calderón, but you might be forgiven for thinking that some accident might happen, some random event or some unexpected occurrence will intervene to make things more interesting – assuming, of course, that we accept the Calderón premise itself.  Atlético are running out of steam, and Real’s game at home to Valencia next week is hardly a cake-walk.  Also of course, there is the inflationary-deflationary effect of the Champions League, which rears its head back into prominence this week.  Real Madrid travel to Juventus, euphoric after securing the Italian title this weekend. They may be Pogba-less for the first leg, but the idea that Juve are the  soft touch of the four semi-finalists seems slightly askew.  Everything is relative (where Bayern Munich are concerned) but it’s hardly an easy call.  There could be fall-out next weekend from the events in midweek.  Barcelona have a relatively easy-looking game at home to Real Sociedad, but who knows what will happen on Wednesday night, and anyway, Sociedad are showing recent signs of improvement.

At the weekend I actually saw most of La Liga’s action on Sky, after a quick weekend visit to the lowlands of Scotland to see Stirling University’s B team play Lothian Thistle in a do-or-die contest in the East of Scotland Premier.  It was 28 degrees (Celsius) when I left Spain on Friday morning, but during the game on Saturday afternoon under  the bleak grey skies of a Scottish spring, it was officially six degrees, but the wind-chill factor made it seem as though the new ice-age were about to begin.  Lothian Thistle, needing a win to take the league title, are a side of some recent pedigree, having seen John Collins, Gary Caldwell and Real Sociedad’s Alfred Finboggason pass though their ranks, and were facing the university side, for whom several of the first-teamers had been drafted in (their Lowland League season has finished) to help their feeder team avoid relegation. 

My son was playing as the defensive midfielder, and I wanted to see how we would fare against experienced and aggressively motivated players.  It’s interesting to watch football at this level, to see why the majority haven’t quite made it, and also to look out for those who still might. But true to the weekend’s form, it was the random factor which eventually swung the game Lothian’s way, after the university had played all the decent football.  A quick turn by a lively Lothian winger, a sudden cross and a defender unable to get his swinging arm out of the way – a dumb penalty but a penalty nonetheless.   The same winger takes it, the ball hits the post and bobbles ridiculously on the uneven surface away from a defender’s panic-stricken boot and into the path of the winger, who bangs it back into the net.  Lothian go on to win 4-2, but they don’t really deserve it.   History will not record the favourable bounce of the ball, just as it will probably forget Krychowiak’s fatal 10-minute absence from the action. Real Madrid, like Lothian and Chesterfield before them, were of course capable of taking advantage of the circumstances – a trait that characterises winners and raises them above the level of outrageous fortune, but sometimes you can spend a lifetime wondering what might have been. 

With only three games left to play in La Liga, the title might still go to the wire, but if it does, it might be a sudden gust of wind in the Calderón that determines its destination.  

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Arsene Wenger backs Olivier Giroud after Thierry Henry criticism

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Focused: Arsene Wenger praised Olivier Giroud’s (l) mental attitude after Arsenal legend Thierry Henry claimed the Gunners cannot win the title with striker.

Manager Arsene Wenger says Thierry Henry is “wrong” to claim Arsenal need to buy four new players and cannot win the title with striker Olivier Giroud.

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The Gunners boss also feels the progress of his squad in 2015 has made him rethink his summer transfer plans.

Following last weekend’s frustrating goalless draw against Premier League winners Chelsea, former Arsenal striker Henry used his new role as a pundit for Sky Sports to lay into his old club.

Henry said Arsenal “need that spine” down the side “and, I am afraid, they need a top, top quality striker to win this league again”.

Giroud, who missed three months of the season with a broken leg, responded to criticism after a poor display in the Champions League defeat to Monaco with an impressive run of seven goals in 10 matches.

Wenger feels while the former Arsenal captain is entitled to his opinions, they are unfounded.

“I think he is wrong,” said Wenger, who takes his side to Hull tonight looking to keep up the pressure on Manchester City in the battle to finish second.

“It doesn’t cost to say that. He’s paid for that. We know all the system now of the modern media, especially on TV.

“I know how it works, they push you to be controversial because they give you a lot of money.”

Henry has started working on his coaching badges at Arsenal since announcing his retirement when he left New York Red Bulls.

Wenger quipped: “He has to pay to come in because he makes a lot of money.”

The Gunners boss, however, insists he has heard it all before, even about the former French World Cup winner himself.

He said: “I can accept that is an opinion, but the comment on Giroud was a bit more wrong, especially because I heard the same thing being said about (Nicolas) Anelka, about Thierry Henry himself and about Robin van Persie, and they all became world class players.”

He  added: “What I know is Giroud works very hard for the team and has fantastic mentality and if the team does well it is down to him and, if on top of that he scores 20 or more goals, he has done his job.”

Despite the disappointment of not being able to close the gap on Chelsea, Arsenal have nevertheless been in superb form since the turn of the year, winning 17 from 21 matches with a quarter-final Champions League exit to Monaco the only real disappointing result.

“What will be interesting, lets get a new start and see where we stand next year,” Wenger said.

“We feel we have made up some ground, that will be the challenge of next season from the start, lets show we are there and capable to fight for it.”

Asked how much of what happened in 2015 had changed what he was thinking about summer transfers, Wenger said: “(It has made) massive changes.

“I believe as well that some players who were questioned, like (Mesut) Ozil, have made big improvements in the second part of the season, getting slowly to be the leader you want him to be in guiding our game.”

Full-back Mathieu Debuchy (hamstring) is a doubt for tonight’s game while captain Mikel Arteta (ankle) needs another couple of weeks training.

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Man United must target EPL title next year - Fletcher

Alam Khan 4/05/2015
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Pressure is on: Darren Fletcher (l) believes his former side Manchester United must challenge at the top of the Premier League next season.

Darren Fletcher says Manchester United must aim to be Premier League champions next season to fulfil the demands and expectations of the club.

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The midfielder, 31, won five titles during his 12 years at Old Trafford under Sir Alex Ferguson.

And he says the pressure is on Louis van Gaal’s side to be No1, and not be content with a top-four spot.

Fletcher returned to Old Trafford on Saturday for the first time since his January move to West Brom and helped them snatch a 1-0 win – and cut fourth-placed United’s lead over Liverpool to four points with three games left.

But he said: “The aim for United this season was the top four – that was realistic.

“I think they will go on and do that, but then next season they have to challenge for the title. 

“The fans expect it and Manchester United need to be there.

“I hate even saying accepting top four, but the fans and everyone will maybe accept it for one season, but that’s it.

“Any United side talking about accepting the top four is just not good enough.”

Van Gaal, who has targeted Gareth Bale, Mats Hummels, Memphis Depay and Nathanial Clyne among his summer signings, knows his side need to improve to become challengers.

They will head to Crystal Palace next week bidding to avoid four successive league defeats for the first time since 1979.

And Fletcher added: “They have to up it a level. 

“They had the run before these last three games and played some fantastic football, but then three defeats come along and you think what has happened.

“I am sure they will spend, youngsters will be given a chance.

“The manager knows football and he has great belief in his methods that they will work and everyone has to buy into that. 

“If anybody isn’t, it won’t work, but I think the United lads are buying into it and believe in it.

“He (Van Gaal) will be the first to admit he has learnt about the Premier League and how difficult it is compared to other leagues he has been in and the style you need.

“Hopefully that learning curve will help United next season.”

Fletcher’s focus now is on helping West Brom avoid relegation and, with a seven-point gap to the bottom three, they should be safe.

And boss Tony Pulis has hailed the Scot’s impact as he said: “He’s been the biggest influence in the club since he walked through the door.

“On and off the pitch he is wonderful. 

“It’s a disappointment that [Gary] Neville and [Jamie] Carragher, very astute football people, have not gone into the coaching side. 

“I hope and pray that Darren becomes a coach or a manager because he’s a top bloke, a really good guy. 

“He’s a leader and he’s got great standards, obviously brought up by Sir Alex. Darren’s at the back end of his career but is in the same mould in lots of respects.”

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