Champions League Nights: Part 2 – Sofa United


Manchester United vs. Real Sociedad – Champions League – Venue: my couch by Luge Pravda
A7cShDyCQAArcV3Anyone who knows me well enough will know I am able to watch more live football on the weekend than I was ever able to back in the UK (thanks to no Saturday 3pm embargo; and now new US rights owner, NBC, showing every one of those 3pm game on what Americans like to call TV ‘real estate’). One casualty though has often been the Champions League ties, being as they are in midweek and in slap bang in an Eastern seaboard afternoon. Of course, for many ties there was a purely coincidental increase in ‘business meetings’ in my calendar at around 3pm Eastern Standard time, 8pm back at home: meetings between myself, a pint or two and a TV screen at the local soccer showing bar in Lower Manhattan. The best kind of business meetings if you ask me. However, as I am currently on a sabbatical I have no such worries about work inconveniently getting in the way of an afternoon European tie. At least not for the time being. Perhaps in the knowledge I would be watching the match in full, Stuart asked me if I would like to write a review of the match and who was I to turn down another slice of The Ball is Round.

First things first, I liked the look of the team the team: Jones getting a chance at center back; a chance for Kagawa, and to a lesser extent Hernandez to show what they are capable of (Chicharito could well score a hat trick but he ain’t going to usurp RVP when the latter is fit, let’s face it); and Giggs in midfield. Moyes must have expected less of an emphasis on protecting the back four – and for periods of the match this was the case – but Fellaini, who has looked off the pace and prone to wayward passes in recent weeks, must have been a tad disappointed. On the subject of Kagawa, there appears to be a ‘movement’, a body of fans railing against the club, or more accurately Moyes, for his exclusion. To those people I say this: do you see him every day in training? Moyes clearly sees something; or maybe he is simply not fully fit. And you know what Klopp, you can keep your opinion on you ex player to yourself too. Thanks.

United flew out of the traps: the first move of the match results in a goal: a wonderful snaky wriggly run from my favorite player – Rooney (despite everything that has happened or not depending on who you believe) – before the pinball confusion in the box results in an own goal from Martinez. And while I am on the subject, can we all refrain from referring to Rooney as ‘rejuvenated’ now please? I think it is fair to say that Moyes’ greatest achievement to date (sorry Community Shield apologists) is the form of the Utd number 10. Headband or no headband. But rejuvenated? Come on he never became a bad player, he just seemed disinterested at the fag-end of Sir Alex’s reign.

The atmosphere in the early minutes seemed a world away from that which descended over Old Trafford for the Southampton draw. This has something to do with the ‘singing section’ so I am told on Twitter. I would be keen to know exactly what constitutes this section and how it differs from the rest of the ground, because I genuinely don’t know. And, perhaps as a result, Sociedad seemed genuinely shaken. This bodes well for a good performance from the home team I say to myself. Continue reading

Champions League Nights: Part 1 – Five thoughts from the Emirates


I rarely pass up the chance to go to the Dripping Pan but last night I committed the cardinal sin.  I put the gravy train of the Champions League above grass-roots football, or to be even more precise, corporate hospitality at the Emirates over the Ryman Premier League at the Dripping Pan.  I hope I can find your forgiveness in some way and I promise not to do it again….unless someone else wants to invite me in the luxurious surroundings of an Executive box.

My decision tree was influenced by the grade of the opposition rather than a promise of fine food and fine wine.  Borussia Dortmund are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the world today.  It doesn’t seem to matter that every so often they offload a player for small change (Mario Götze’s €37 million deal to Bayern in the Summer for instance), there is always someone new in the wings waiting to come in.

10430196403_2033f61425_b (1)The Emirates is a very easy stadium to get to via public transport from Central London.  Not so easy to get away from but we will deal with that later.  Just 25 minutes after leaving the office I was at Drayton Park, just in time to see the 3,000 strong Dortmund fans marching down the road towards the stadium.  Whilst they were being minded by the Met Police, the only issues they faced was having to use earplugs to drown out the noise.

The pre-match hospitality was first class as you would expect from one of the best stadiums in Europe.  Our host was Sammy Nelson, the ex-Arsenal full back probably most famous for once dropping his shorts in front of the North Bank after scoring a rare goal (and being subsequently fined and banned) who spoke with real passion about the club and the current side.  Talk turned to “that” goal on Saturday although he didn’t agree that Nicky Wheeler’s goal for Lewes at the same time versus Leatherhead on Saturday was better.  We were surrounded on all sides by Dortmund fans, with the boxes either side hosting German football fans and below us were the massed ranks of yellow and black. Continue reading

Football finally came home – Top that Pep


“Football is a religion in Dortmund. Bayern may have won a lot of fans and a lot of trophies because of the incredible number of good decisions they have made, but now there is another story. Along has come another club that is pretty good as well.” It’s hard to disagree with the words of Jürgen Klopp, the miracle worker behind the spectacular rise from the ashes of bankruptcy of Borussia Dortmund. Despite enduring a disappointing domestic season where Bayern had simply been too good for them and the rest of German football, Dortmund arrived en masse in London knowing that all of the pain could be erased in one ninety minute game.

20130526-214507.jpgLondon awoke on Saturday morning awash with yellow and black. Whilst 478,567, to be precise, Dortmund fans had been unlucky in trying to secure one of the 24,000 official tickets for the Wembley showpiece, tens of thousands had headed to the centre of London to party like it was neunzehn neunzig neun. By mid-afternoon Trafalgar Square was a sea of Dortmund fans tucking into traditional English beer (Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg) and traditional English food (Walkers family packs of crisps) soaking up the rare English sunshine.  Lord Nelson was looking down with an approving wink, especially at the girls who made the effort to dress in the full Dortmund kit. Football for life was the motto of the day for the fans. One game, one goal, one glorious night at the venue of legends. There were fans of all shapes and sizes enjoying the sunshine, although if truth be told some looked better in their Dortmund outfits than others.

Dortmund Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke could barely raise his voice enough over the strains of Wonderwall to explain with immense pride how special this day was. “Ten years ago every member of our club would have had a chance for a ticket.” Today fans sat on the edge of the fountains with signs around their necks pleading for a ticket for the biggest game in German club football history.  Progress.

My mission was to try to document the day through the eyes of a fan with Allianz for their Football For Life campaign. Never an easy job with half a dozen Bitburger’s sloshing around your stomach, but even worse when every time I opened my mouth the German fans broke into a chorus of Football’s Coming Home. Both sets of found laughed at the irony that here they were in the home of “Your Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottingham Hotspurs”. Bayern fans were outnumbered 20 to 1 in Central London but they knew the score. Even a performance at 75% of what they have been capable of this season would see the trophy return to Bavaria. Dortmund needed all the skill of Reus, the fire power of Lewandoski and the sulkiness of Robben to snatch a victory. But if they could, it would be the most famous win in their history, one that would give them bragging rights over their rivals for years to come.  Despite their dominance of the domestic game, Bayern had been the bridesmaid in European football for so long, runners-up five times in the last twenty-five years with just a single trophy in that time against Valencia back in 2001. Continue reading

Ninety minutes from glory


Twenty four hours ago I was in a pub in the heart of Bavaria.  Munich to be precise, talking football with some die-hard Bayern fans from our German office who were telling me in graphic detail how this current Bayern Munich team were the best club side Europe has ever seen.  They could give me plenty reasons to back this up, including a statement around the fact that “Pep”, having broken all records at Barca would only consider joining a club more supreme – and hence why he is coming to Bavaria next season.  But my argument was despite romping to the Bundesliga, and being odds-on favourites to take the DFB-Pokal in a few weeks when they meet Stuttgart in Berlin, a failure to beat Borussia Dortmund in the most anticipated Champions League final for decades will mean this season counts for very little.

8514941579_f28981bde5_bAfter the crushing disappoint of losing out to domestic honours to Borussia Dortmund last season and then losing the Champions League final in their own front garden in Bavaria to Chelsea, this season was seen as a chance for redemption.  Their ruthlessness in winning the Bundesliga title has been breathtaking – currently 22 points clear with one game to go of Dortmund, scoring nearly an average of 3 goals a game, conceding less than half a goal a game, dropping just eleven points so far.  Two defeats in all competitions is certainly a record-breaker but could they really go on their sunbeds around the pool in the summer with a smug feeling of superiority if Klopp’s team win at Wembley.

It would have taken a brave man to bet against Bayern in any domestic game this season (and that brave man would now be significantly poorer) but in a one-off game on neutral soil I think the game could be a lot closer than people think.  An early look at the odds at Unibet shows Bayern are clear favourites to lift the trophy at 1.42 compared to Dortmund’s 2.8.  This season both league games ended 1-1 and their meeting in the Allianz Arena in the German Cup saw an Arjen Robben wonderstrike the only difference between the two sides.

The key for me is the form of Dortmund’s occasional false nine, Marco Reus.  We saw Reus destroy Eintract Frankfurt earlier in the season in the Westfalenstadion, scoring a fantastic hatrick.  When he is on his day he is unstoppable.  So unstoppable that the rumours of a move to Bayern have been circulating since he was voted German Player of the Year in 2012.  With Lewandowski potentially on his way to Real Madrid in the summer, he will also want to go out on a high.

Unsurprisingly, tickets for the game are like gold dust.  As the days tick down to the final we will preview the game more, including a visit to the Champions Park in East London.

Write Barca off at your peril


History?  You want history?  What about the mighty Barca crashing out of the Champions League after a humiliating lesson in football in Milan?  That was sure to be on the cards as Dagger’s Diary Brian headed off to the Camp Nou on Tuesday…..

This trip represents a couple of firsts for me. It’s my first midweek trip to Barcelona, and also my first Champions League game here. While Dagenham Dan will be at the Daggers game against Torquay, I am here on a solo trip for the first knock out round game against Milan.

Barcelona are going through a bit of a wobble at the moment. A 0-2 first leg defeat at the Guiseppe Meazza three weeks ago has left them with a rather large challenge tonight, in order to progress. If that wasn’t enough, a league defeat at Real Madrid (coupled with a cup defeat to the same opposition) has reduced the lead at the top of the league.

Of course, even the best teams can have a bad run of form. The Milan defeat has been put down to just an off-night for the side, but the drop in form has also come along at the same time that the coach, Tito Vilanova has been in New York, recovering from cancer surgery. While those who have stepped up to lead the team are obviously giving it everything, the loss of the team leader is clearly having a negative effect on the club. While the president has said that the health of Vilanova is the main priority for the season, losing such a lead in the division, as well as the Cup and an early exit in the Champions League would mean that, in a world that demands success ever more impatiently, no trophies would signify failure, no matter what the moral issues of the time.

100_5939 Recent performances have not quite reached the high standards of the last few years, coupled with the results. Not keeping a clean sheet in the last twelve games signals a problem in defence, and the reliance on Lionel Messi for goals suggests a rebuilding exercise for the club in the very near future. However, Messi, Puyol and Xavi have all recently signed contract extensions, which should keep the side together for the next few years at least.

This game against Milan though is one that, even at this stage, will go some way to defining the club’s season. If they can succeed tonight, then the resultant boost from recovering such a negative position should provide enough to get league campaign back on track. Defeat, and the nervous looks over the shoulder at the approaching Atletico and Real Madrid might just turn the last couple of months into nerve fest which Vilanova might not appreciate, especially given the health scares of the last few months. Continue reading

The Illuminati in the City of Lights


Paris. The City of Love, home to Pepé le Pew, dancing polar bears (well, every fridge magnet I saw had them on), the birthplace of pole dancing and once home of the object of Oblix’s affections Falbala.   The most visited city in the world, where traffic jams stretch from La Défense in the west to Disneyland in the east. Where a small hotel room, no bigger than a six yard box can set you back €550 just because you can see the top of the Eiffel Tower on a clear day (which there rarely are) by hanging off the roof-top TV antenna. Paris, home of dreams, nightmares and everything in between.

So why am I here? Good question as my normal cheery outlook seems to be slightly clouded by the comments above. Let me set the record straight. I’ve spent more time in Paris than any other city on this planet bar London and Copenhagen thanks to a year-long work assignment that saw me hiring and firing all manner of people. With some of the most bizarre employment laws known to man I was sent to the Cite l’amore to “cut through the red tape”, which was American speak for let’s take a chance we won’t be sued for doing “that”. Since the heady days of 2001 I’ve been a regular visitor, and perhaps Paris and I got off on the wrong foot as I’ve always had a mild dread of trying to do anything that involves negotiation, contracts or due process. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Parisians to death, but sometimes cannot understand the quirks of life in the city. The city is simply an enigma to me.

8247825255_7bc1cb100b_bIf ever one establishment summed up this enigma more than most it had to be Paris Saint-Germain football club. The premier team in one of the premier cities in the world. Alas, their standing has never been of premier quality. For a club that are actually younger than me (that makes me feel old) their dominance of the media would lead you to believe that they are the most successful team in the country. They aren’t. Historically that title could be said to belong to Saint-Étienne or more recently Olympique Lyonnaise. Olympique Marseille would have a thing or two to say about who was the biggest club in the country, and even regional sides such as Nantes, Lens and Lille would say they were more successful. But that is all about to change if you believe the hype. Continue reading