Monday, October 30, 2006

Sheringham and the Spastics

There's still a lot of work to be done before the club transforms back into the gritty yet dynamic West Ham squad that we love, but today's gloriously ramshackle and much needed win against Blackburn (minus the ghastly Robbie Savage, who was supposedly blow drying his hair in the loo or something) was a great start toward good form. I could barely take most of it--I was too nervous, too aware that at any moment Sheringham and the lads would blow it and we'd have to start all over again next week, against Arsenal of all teams.

But the Hammers didn't blow it, and their performance today was heroic, inspiring, and entertaining to watch (on second viewing, of course), despite the uneven performance. But I don't care about that right now. I tried to really analyze the game on that second viewing (I was half-asleep and terrified during the live broadcast in the morning), but my emotions swept me away when I heard the faithful at Upton Park sing, chant, roar, and do whatever it took to conjure up the Twelfth Man. It was damn emotional, and what with me being inclined toward sweeping dramatic narratives, I was easily sucked into the team's desperate attempt for a little salvation.

It's hard to believe that the team hasn't won a match since opening day back in August, but it's true. Even harder to believe that they didn't score a goal for seven straight! Zamora (who was scoring before that but is now struggling like everyone else on the team) looked a lot better today, though Harewood is still confounding with his lack of putting . . . the . . . ball . . . into . . . the . . . back . . . of . . . the . . . net. He'll regain his predatory ways eventually, so I'm not really worried.

At times I felt the game was ugly and spastic. But when Sheringham scored in the 21st minute with that confident blast of a header, I could've cared less about the aesthetics of how the Hammers were going to win. I wanted melodrama and redemption, not subtlety and grace. As the game went on, the Hammers did start playing with that peculiar snap and working-class conviction that appeals to the faithful--me included--though they almost blew it at the end when Blackburn scored in stoppage time and then immediately attempted to even it up when Jeffers took that uncomfortably close shot. The Hammers didn't break, though, and they managed to claw their way out of the relegation zone into 16th place. Still a precarious position to be in, but I can live with it. I'm just glad for a glimpse of salvation.

You can read more about the match here and about the hero of the day here.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Cruel Fascination: AC Milan 3-Inter 4

I have to admit that my enthusiasm for a lot of the matches I've been watching of late has been very low. My teams, Barcelona, West Ham, and my dear local club the Timbers--who ended their poor season in September--have all left me feeling exasperated and a bit bewildered. Barcelona are still top of their league and they are far from lousy or anything like that. But when it comes to the big matches, like their Champions League game against Chelsea a couple of weeks ago or last week's disappointing loss in the El Clasico against Real Madrid, the superstar Catalans have looked anxious, indecisive, and more than a bit lost without their star striker, Mr Eto'o. And I won't even get into talking about West Ham--at least until tomorrow--because I can't even grasp the melodramatic turmoil fermenting across the pond at Upton Park. I've tried, I've tried to write about it, and everytime I start a post about the Hammers' dilemma I reach for a book instead--or a last cigarette and a blindfold.

But today, the Italians brought me back. And my peculiar (for me) interest in the Serie A continued to deepen and fascinate. The rivalry between Inter Milan and AC Milan is always a contentious affair (what derby isn't?) and today's match was no big surprise in that respect. But what was a surprise was the amount of goals (seven in all) and the absolute euphoric atmosphere and, more importantly, the courage and unbridled passion from both teams that was on full display down on that glorious pitch.

I've never watched a Milan derby before, so I don't know how it compares to previous matches between these two squads. But I'll go ahead and take at face value what the GolTV commentators exclaimed over and over again by the end of all the drama: this was an absolute classic to be remembered for a long, long time. It sure seemed that way.

I missed the first half due to my very late waking time (it's a long story), but the beginning of the second half was enough to pull me into the storyline and keep me seduced throughout its forty-five minute (and then some) feverdream of a game. At first, I wasn't so sure. Inter was up 2-0 (goals from the fabulous Crespo and Stankovic) and I almost switched off the television, even though I like the lads in blue and black, because I figured it was just going to be a good yet slightly depressing pummelling of Berlusconi's Rossoneri. And when Inter's Ibrahimovic scored a brilliantly brutal and wild goal against Milan's Brazilian keeper Dida within a few minutes into the second half, I was convinced. Fun for a team's supporters, but boring for the relatively neutral spectator like myself (I lean toward Inter, though I have to admit that I have a perverse sort of infatuation with Milan, and I feel dirty, sleazy, and used because of it, but I keep watching nevertheless).

How could a team, even with the deep talent of the Rossoneri, come back now? It seemed impossible and stupid even to contemplate. Milan's fans were stunned and silent. Creepy capitalist-cryptofascist-godfather-devil (redundant, I know) Berlusconi glowered in the stands and I imagine was mentally making a list of what players to torture after the match (Ah, Maldini always looks so pretty with tears in his eyes!) But before the steely-eyed bureaucrat could figure out a way to slip out of the stadium with some dignity intact, Milan's Seedorf restored some honor to the club by scoring in the 50th. Then Inter answered back when everyone's favorite wise-ass and self-proclaimed idiot Materazzi (I don't even know what a terrorist is!) delivered a vicious header and sealed up the game, one could safely assume. Oh, and then Materazzi got red carded for his celebration. How come I wasn't surprised?

At this point I really wouldn't have blamed the Rossoneri for giving up. That they didn't, though, is a testament to the quality and passion of the team. Fired up even more, Milan attacked, attacked, attacked and earned a well-deserved second goal when Gilardino scored again (his first goal was ruled a no-go for offside a few minutes earlier) and then Kaka shot one in during stoppage time. The Rossoneri may not have won the match, but their crusade to regain some respect after such a dispiriting first half was inspiring, entertaining, and memorable to say the least. The Devil may have ultimately betrayed the team's devotion to the dark side, but they were dragged down to Hell with style, flair, and determination--cementing my cruel fascination with this attractive gang of lost souls.

Monday, October 23, 2006

el clasico, 2006 edicion: or, the evil Earps at the OK corral

Was it really just Wednesday when 2/3 of a pretty move met with Zach from 11 Devils and got the life-force sucked out of us watching a weirdly vacant Barca well and truly pummelled by the overpaid boys in blue? (See Zach's inimitable description here. Not only does he write with vigor and style, he even secretly paid for the french fries. Thanks, man.) It didn't bode well for this year's battle in the ongoing war between Real Madrid and Barca, AKA the Fascists v the Catalans. Last year's showdown was a sparkling triumph for Ronaldinho and the boys, in which they garnered a round of applause from hardened Real fans at the Bernabeu just for playing so damn well.

This year falls into the realm of different gods entirely. Darker gods, the kind that hunker and lurk.

Two minutes into the action, Sergio Ramos (he works for the devil, but he may be my favorite of all the young Spaniards) sent a perfect ball forward and center to Raul who headed it past Valdes so smoothly that we collectively got the wind knocked out of us and nobody spoke for a full minute. Then Lynda muttered something about NOW is the moment Raul decides to make his long-delayed and much-despaired-of comeback? I said he's like the gunfighter who spends the whole movie drunk in the gutter then cleans up and busts into the saloon just in time for the final shoot-out.

In retrospect, it's an apt metaphor for the whole team. All season long, the word about Real has been nothing but negative. Bloated, ego-heavy, unmanagably expensive, the team has emitted the warning creaks and groans of a sinking ship all year. And yet, here we are, the smoke clearing in the saloon with the wrong cowboys still standing. Evil cowboys, yes, but today they do look shiny. Robinho's yellow boots owned the pitch from one end to the other. Raul exuded youth and vitality the whole 90 minutes, as did Reyes when he came in during the second half. Ruud and Guti indulged in some bullying Schadenfreude and I wish I could say they played badly, but that would be disingenuous.

As for the Catalans, Ronaldinho remained unmanned (or, as Zach aptly put it, "decoded"), as he had been against Chelsea. He delivered some lovely crosses and one splendid free kick but the finish was fumbled by Gudjohnsen. The mighty Viking was invisible at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday and worse today, missing every opportunity that came his way. Messi had some shining moments, setting up what ought to have been the equaliser more than once. Puyol did some brave defending but we all sorely missed Marquez.

The man of the match for me was announcer Ray Hudson, with his musings on "manly machismo" and "donkey work", and his whimsical metaphors, one in particular about "a snowball plunging out of a snowy sky." I swear he even referred to one of the Real players (for God's sake, WHO?) as "my little lollipop."

In then end it felt like the STAR TREK episode in which Kirk and the landing party found themselves cast in the roles of the Clanton gang and facing a dashingly evil and seemingly invincible line of Earps. Today, the Bad Earps won, but even I have to admit they looked rather magnificent doing it.

some questions about irons and wisdom from Ray Winstone

OK. How do you get BITTEN by some wanker on the pitch and still come out looking like the bad guy in the scenario? Explain that to me. There has to be a particular talent involved.

Second question: How does a Hammers' fan stay sane in trying times? My immediate instinct is to distance myself. I no longer watch the matches. Instead, I make Derek and Lynda watch them then describe them in excruciating detail ("OK. Tell it again, the thing about Benayoun. So, he just...what? Freaked out?") .

In search of answers, I did the obvious thing and went to sit at the virtual feet of veteran Hammer follower Ray Winstone. I leave you with his (paraphrased) words: "Being a West Ham fan, one must be an optimist." Read the casual interview here from this summer, with its genuinely touching moment of naivete (much like ours here at a pretty move. Was that really just a few months ago?) on the day England was slated to cross swords with Portugal, and another here about watching West Ham in '66 when the fellows who won the World Cup mostly sported the claret and blue. While you're at it, go see THE DEPARTED, in which he gives another in a series of perfectly-focused performances, like a string of flawless gems. Do not, however, under any circumstances, go to see it with your grey-haired mum on one side and a Catholic priest on the other (come on, I said. Let's go see the new Scorcese, I said. It'll be FUN, I said).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Barthez to Chelsea? Mais, non!

This flew completely under my radar, but according to Czech Football Daily, apparently in the aftermath of the Petr Cech injury, rumors circulated that eccentric (to say the least) former French national keeper Fabian Barthez might be joining the Blues (not Les Bleus) as a replacement. Mourinho has put a stop to those wild imaginings, citing the need for a keeper who will "give us security." Yeah, when I think about a stable, secure keeper, Barthez is pretty much the last guy who springs to my mind. I'm relieved it was only a rumor; adding Barthez to the squad might have actually tempted me to support Chelsea now and again. Horrors!

In other good news, for what it's worth, the same Czech Football Daily link includes remarks from the doctor for the Czech national team speculating that Cech's injury is not as serious as it sounds to us laymen, as head injuries go, and that he might be making a return to form within months rather than an entire year. Despite our antipathy for Chelsea, we here at a pretty move count Cech among our favorite keepers, and our fingers are crossed for just such a speedy recovery.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Barca Miscellany

The current Champions League and La Liga champs, Barcelona, beat the current UEFA Cup and European Super Cup champs, Sevilla, today 3-1 at Camp Nou; a much needed win to start a tough week for Frank Rijkaard's lads. From the reports (the game wasn't televised because none of Sevilla's games are being shown this season due to a television rights issue) the game sounded like a great vindication for the Catalans who brutally lost to Sevilla in August during the European Super Cup, and who have managed to stay unbeaten atop the La Liga standings despite a rather lackluster beginning of the season from the trickster/phenom, Ronaldinho. But whatever post-World Cup blues have been seriously impeding Ronaldinho, the drought seems to have abated at just the right time (he scored twice against Sevilla: a penalty kick and off a free kick) considering the Catalans' schedule over the next week--they face a bruised and battered Chelsea this Wednesday for a Champions League match in London, and then next Sunday the rivalry of all rivalries commences when Barca play out the Spanish Civil War for yet another year against Real Madrid. Two tough matches, though I'm looking forward to basking in some much needed beautiful football and camaraderie by this time next week.

Barca's remarkable renaissance the last few years has flourished under the guidance of former player (Ajax, AC Milan, Dutch national team) Frank Rijkaard. The Dutchman was brought to Barcelona in 2003 after a disastrous stint coaching Sparta Rotterdam, and although it took a while for this enigmatic, supercool and collected coach to find his bearings with the Catalans, his worth to the club is obvious now and I can't imagine what the team would be like without him. You can read more about Rijkaard and his "weird" ways here from the Guardian site.

Also on the Guardian web site is a rather hilarious yet uncomfortable "interview" with Barca's tempestuous yet incredible and indispensable striker, Samuel Eto'o. You can read more here.

And lastly, here's an update on Chelsea's injured first keeper, Petr Cech, who underwent skull surgery last night and who will unfortunately be missing out on Wednesday's match against Barcelona. I like Cech a lot due to his service with the Czech national team and we here at a pretty move wish him all the best despite our desire to see the Blues go down in flames against the Catalans.

Mes Que Un Club!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bizarro Chelsea

It was only thirty seconds into the game against Reading when Chelsea keeper Petr Cech slid in the box to make a save and ended up taking a knee to the face from Reading’s Stephen Hunt. Immobile, Cech was eventually stretchered off and taken to the hospital for a precautionary measure. Then near the end of the match, Chelsea’s replacement keeper, Carlo Cudicini, was taken down in a gruesome collision with Reading player Ibrahima Sonko, and he too was eventually carted off and taken to hospital to join his comrade. With only a few minutes left, as the stoppage time neared the 100th minute mark, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had to think fast to keep their 0-1 lead: designate center-back defender John Terry the keeper. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anything like that before. Crazy man, crazy. Moving striker Didier Drogba into Terry’s usual role, the London club held on for the few remaining minutes against the peculiar odds and a lackluster Reading squad who just couldn’t capitalize on their strange advantage. And I didn’t even mention the two red cards handed out against both clubs or the return of Joe Cole. Oh, how I love this sport.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


A new round of UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying matches today . . . and most of them--at least by looking over the scores--seem to be relatively predictable, including the England loss. But more about that later.

The Iceland vs Sweden match broadcast live on FSC was intermittently enjoyable despite long passages of boredom. Why in the hell did I watch it? Well, if you figure it was basically a battle of Vikings vs Vikings, who wouldn't want to experience watching such a raging tumult of football prowess? Unfortunately, the blessings of Odin upon the pitch seemed scarce, though the game did open up with a bang in the sixth minute when Icelandic midfielder Arnar Vidarsson delivered a wonderful volley past Swedish keeper Rami Shaaban. Sweden immediately answered back in the eighth when Kim Kallstrom scored off a blistering Raganarok of a free kick. Sweden cemented their fourth straight win of the tournament when Christian Wilhelmsson scored in the second half near the hour mark. Not a thunderously brilliant game, and I do wish Iceland's number one player, Eidur Gudjohnson, could have really turned things around, but . . . . And despite the hearty bravery of the Iceland team, it should be noted that the Swedish side were missing quite a few of their best, including key-Gunner Fredrik Ljungberg, Anders Svensson, Tobias Linderoth, and striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the latter who is still on the outs with Swedish coach Lars Lagerback. I fear the loss could've been a whole lot worse.

It's easy to make fun of teams like the Faroe Islands. We've all done it at some point. But I still love the idea of these so-called lesser teams competing in big tournaments like this. Yeah, I know they don't have a chance in hell, but every once in awhile a little team does rise up and challenge the status quo, reminding us that against all the odds . . . . Okay, you've seen the movie. It still doesn't mean it can't happen in the real world. The Faroe Islands, unfortunately, are not one of those teams. They looked awful. Rubbish, really. No defense, certainly no offense, and their speed (or lack of it) and ball control were appalling. Still, it really could've been a whole lot worse than the 5-0 pummeling they endured (three of the five goals against them happened in the later part of the second half) at the feet of France. I made no excuses: I watched the match to indulge my growing French national team infatuation. But I still wanted the boys (and many of them did look like mere scruffy-faced boys) from the Faroe Islands to at least put up a good fight, look defeat in the face with courage and conviction and go down knowing they'd given it their all as darkness blessedly obscured their eyes. Sadly, the team from the North Atlantic looked terrified and disorganized for most of the match (wouldn't you?). They took only two shots, I believe, on goal the entire game and their defense was abysmal. No surprise, I guess. But I still held out hope for them despite my glee at watching Saha (2"), Henry (22"), Anelka (77"), and Trezeguet (78", 84") work wonders on the net.

And then there's the case of England. Didn't see the match (England lost 2-0), but I did just see highlights on Sky News and that was enough for me. Truly dreadful. You can read more about the strange Croatia vs England match here. And while you're at it, you can read about the exciting looking Republic of Ireland vs Czech Republic 1-1 game here.