Tuesday, 26 February 2013

1. FC Köln 2, Union Berlin 0: The Land Of Gluvine and Chocolate

Last weekend I travelled to FC Köln v Union Berlin to watch a bit of football and drink beer. Here's how it went.

1. FC Köln striker Stefan Meierhoffer presents the appearance of a World’s Strongest Man contestant performing a Truck Pull only without the truck. He is enormous but slow and the springs in his legs have gone plunk. If the X-Men villain Juggernaut ever lost his powers he’d be just like Stefan Meierhoffer, a man with little or no inertia and despite looking like it, decidedly incapable of running through walls. Quite simply he was probably the worst number nine I have ever seen play professional football.

So needless to say having spent the entire first half and the break at the RheinEnergieStadion slagging him off, he only went and scored in the second half. I managed to mask my embarrassment with the knowledge that everyone I was with had been just as disparaging as me. We were too red faced with our Gluvine induced hysteria to look ashamed and for his part, Meierhoffer, celebrated like a man who had heard every word.

The German football supporter’s relationship with alcohol is different to the English. In Premier League and Football League grounds, booze cannot be consumed within sight of the pitch. Consequently alcohol is binged in the hours leading up to the match in pubs outside of the grounds or in stadium bars facing away from the pitch. Fans live of the fumes for 45 minutes before piling back into the bars at half time and then back to the boozers at the final whistle. In Germany it is possible buy beer without leaving your seat. As an English football tourist, the novelty of drinking beer while watching a game is too compelling and despite the sub zero temperatures I quickly swapped the warming gluvine (a cross between mulled wine and Bovril) for a chilled Kölsch. This is the stuff of dreams for many an Englander. It’s like being Homer Simpson in the Land Of Chocolate.

Despite the oncoming snow, there was no yellow ball. This is another improvement on the game in Germany. Perhaps not up there with supporter ownership and progressive club licensing but all it takes is the ruffle of hair from an unkempt spectator and the snow ball is out in England. You'd think there was some sponsorship deal or something.

There is no doubt that FC Koln are a traditional Bundesliga club. Their modern stadium held 42,000 on Saturday which is mind boggling for a second division match outside Germany. Reasonable ticket prices have contributed to a loyal fan culture that keeps the punters  rocking up. The booming anthem sung by all before the game maintains a big match spectacle despite the football being pretty ordinary.

Koln’s opponents, Union Berlin, played their City rivals Hertha a couple of weeks ago in front of 75,000 at the Olympic Stadium. Union have a reputation for a vociferous support reinforced by their clubs strong commitment to their supporters and a well defined left wing ideology. Union were based in the old east Berlin and identified themselves as an anti-Stasi club, a position that saw their traditional rivals, Dynamo Berlin, profit greatly at Union's expense.

On the field, however, they're not much cop despite being relatively high up the table. However, given their sharp rise through the leagues it would be unkind to be critical and they would be a welcome addition to the top flight should they continue to progress.

Kevin McKenna scored the opener in a 2-0 win that was impressive by being routine. Coach Holger Stanislawski's team may be unspectacular but they have survived a troublesome start to the season after relegation and are now looking to snatch third spot from a faltering Kaiserslautern. Whether they can gain promotion via the play off with the third from bottom team in the first division is another matter. They may need an upgrade on their striker.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Match Review: Arsenal 1 Bayern Munich 3 - Humming a different tune

On reflection the pre-match caution from Bundesliga watchers seems a little silly. On paper, this was very likely to be an away win but such is the respect for Arsenal that it was hard to conceive of a club with such a proud history and European pedigree to allow themselves to get turned over like they this, on grass. At times like this it’s tempting to lay down markers but football is not really like that. There are no blue plaques nailed to the side of football grounds stating “This is where Arsenal became better than ordinary rather than top class.”

Despite their much publicised issues and shrill protestations from the David Dienites, Arsenal still remain a top European club who are just having a below par season. Maybe a change of coach is required, maybe that would be a mistake. One thing is certain: Piers Morgan knows no more than you or me about football.

But teeth gnashing and axe grinding aside this was not a pretty sight for Arsenal fans. Not necessarily because they were blown away in the first half an hour. Bayern are obviously a cut above most teams in Europe this season so getting blown away by them is no disgrace. What was more vexing was that the Gunners seemed unable to sustain enough pressure on their opponents when they obviously took their foot off the gas. After Thomas Müller capitalised after some ordinary corner defense to double Toni Kroos’ cracking opening strike, it looked like things could get Biblical and the Bavarians would rain down some hurt on Arsene Wenger’s players. But as if suddenly stricken with a caution virus, the current Bundesliga leaders dialed down the intensity and looked to contain.

Perhaps coach Jupp Heynkes felt that it was wiser to hold back in the event of getting caught on the ball from a troublesome Jack Wilshere ball from deep to the dangerous, if slightly flaky, Theo Walcott. Or maybe the players, mindful of the speed of the journey they’d traveled in such a short space of time, adopted a conservative stance in order to draw breath. In any event, it kind of backfired after conceding that comedy goal from Lukas Podolski after the Bayern ‘keeper, Manuel Neuer failed to take control in his six yard box.
With the belief that can only come from a jammy goal, Arsenal’s quest for the equaliser was nearly completed thanks to the maligned Olivier Giroud who shot straight at Neuer with a strike which was bizarrely characterised by ITV’s Andy Townsend as too good. With the moment passed and the chance blown, Bayern regained enough composure for Mario Mandžukić to turn in a cross by Phillip Lahm from which even a Grandmother could have scored.
If Bayern can maintain a high tempo for 90 minutes then a third final in four years should be an expectation rather than a hope. Arsenal, on the other hand, may have to reconcile themselves with a period in the relative doldrums for the time being. Those Emirates ticket holders should consider the possibility that the next European game they watch  will start with a different tune.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Watford 2 Palace 2 Match Review: The three interventions of Ian Holloway

Watching a Championship football match in a pub located within a relatively short train ride of the ground is not exactly hard core. But the lure of the beer, hotdogs, good company and a roof over the head supported by actual walls proved too alluring for this football fan. Such are the evils of modern football.

Crystal Palace and Watford offer up something of a conundrum for the TV schedulers. Both clubs do not enjoy a widespread national support and both have old stadiums ill-suited to the myriad paraphernalia required for broadcasters to set up their gear. A combination of both factors make either club an unattractive prospect  so by putting the match between the two on the telly, two crows are killed with a single high definition stone.

Heads up

The conundrum lies in that despite an shortage of TV eyeballs, both teams are actually worth watching. Both teams are play-off contenders on the back of some cracking football. The home side have joined the Pozzo family and are enjoying the benefits of their sister club Udinese with some promising youngster coached by professional nice guy, Gianfranco Zola. Palace meanwhile are ran by a consortium of fans turned businessman who insist upon running the club sensibly and recently pledged to put the money from the transfer of Wilfried Zaha towards the reconstruction of the stadium. In Ian Holloway they have a coach who is committed to attacking football and sets his team up with an agreeable playing style. All terribly right-on.

Somewhat unexpectedly then Watford v Palace on Sky has become a game for football heads everywhere and it was a game that did not disappoint.


Watford have taken some stick for their recruitment policy this season after being taken over by the Pozzo family who also own Udinese and Granada from Italy and Spain respectively. Many of Watford's players are on loan from the Serie A club and critics complain that this is unfair and not in the spirit of the game. I personally see no problem with three clubs under the same owner pooling their resources and if the end result is the blistering and crisp football that Watford played, especially in the first half an hour of the game then I reckon more people will set aside their misgivings.

The home side set the tone for the game with an aggressive pacey attack on a Palace defence not yet attuned. They played with a high tempo with clean and precise passing that blew the visitors away. If the English game adopts this style of play as a model for the future then the future is a good place to be.  Alme Abdi is one of a number Swiss youngsters breaking through the professional ranks in Europe. A zippy attacker his goal after seven minutes was a cut inside from the flank after a shocking attempt clearance from Palace's Jazz Richards. His run and shot was as much about his technique as it was the Palace back line's trauma. After 14 minutes Nathaniel Chabolah's second goal was totally reflective of the balance of play and I took a long swig of beer in preparation of what was likely to be a slaughter.

Rather than turn to the dubious company of Bacchus, Palace manager, Ian Holloway, was in a position to do something. For a moment I wondered if he'd try to take the pace out of the game or maybe garner  a few more yellow cards by kicking Abdi, Chabolah and nineteen goal striker Matej Vydra up in the air but no. Instead he maintained the game's ludicrous pace and more significantly moved Wilfried Zaha off the flank and played him through the middle. This ploy worked an absolute treat. Zaha, revelled in the extra space while the Watford defence figured out who was supposed to be looking after him. In my mind's ear I imagined a conversation between Sir Alex Ferguson and Ian Holloway after the sale of Zaha to Manchester United and subsequent loan back to the Selhurst club. He would have told Holloway that he could see Zaha playing in the middle one day and bolstered by this insight, the Palace boss thought he'd give it a crack. Fantasy, I know, but then the beer was flowing freely by that point.


Eventually, Palace regained their composure and by half time the match, if not the score, was even. Then came Holloway's second intervention: the half time substitution of Jonathan Williams. None of the pub-mates I was with had seen the Welsh Under 21 player but by the final whistle they knew exactly who he was. The 19 year old dubbed "Joniesta" by the Palace fans took full advantage of the tiring Watford legs down the flank and through the middle. Williams can run with the ball and has the imagination to choose the right pass. He made a mess of the opposition and finished the game with the Man Of The Match Champagne despite having only played in half of it. Between him and Zaha enough pressure was put on the home side and finally a breakthrough was made thanks to what can politely be described as a moment of hesitation by Watford keeper Manuel Almunia which allowed Peter Ramage to larrup the ball home from all of two yards, give or take.

Old Dude

Holloway's final intervention came through the introduction of Kevin Phillips who is on loan from Blackpool. The former Watford striker will be 40 in July but despite the years he still knows how to pop up at the back post, especially late in a game. He met Richards' redemptive cross in characteristic fashion and finished off a memorable comeback after 70 minutes. What a guy.

The pace of the game had wilted with about ten minutes to go but neither team seemed satisfied with a point. There were no further goals however and this would have pleased the football gods as there was no worthy loser in this match.