Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Matchmaker, Matchmaker . . .

There was plenty of great football played this weekend, including the Bolton vs Arsenal match, West Ham vs Sheffield United, Barcelona vs Villarreal, and AC Milan vs Messina. Not all of it was pretty, but a lot of it was exquisite (the Barca match) and/or oddly beguiling, which equaled plenty of excitement around these parts.

Sam Allardyce’s grubby yet thoroughly underrated squad from Bolton must perplex the hell out of Arsene Wenger and his North London team of silky-footed mirror dancers. Long criticized and mocked for their supposed reliance on the dreaded long ball—most notably by some of the Premiership’s most outspoken and fiery managers, Benitez, Mourinho, and Wenger—the Bolton Wanderers have continually confounded those that can’t quite see the appeal of their strange brand of dynamic and infuriating English hodgepodge football. I don’t always understand the appeal myself, but I’ve been watching them off and on since the 2005-2006 season when the troublesome El-Hadji Diouf started playing for The Trotters after an unfruitful stint with Liverpool. Despite his reputation as a scalawag—which is an extremely nice way of putting it—Lynda and I hold a soft spot for the little giant-killing hellion due to his unforgettable performance with the equally unforgettable Senegal national team in the 2002 World Cup. So from Liverpool to Bolton I went, always waiting to see that Senegalese spark flare up again, though sadly rarely getting a chance to. Then one of my favorite Mexican players, Jared Borgetti, joined up with Big Sam’s club of misfit toys with plenty of hype, and for reasons that will simply perplex me to my dying days, he floundered there. No—he was mistreated there. Borgetti, who is Mexico’s top goal scorer for the national team and was the first Mexican, I think, to play for a Premiership club, was lured to Bolton with all the tantalizing lucre and publicity that a player of his caliber is due. Unfortunately, the bobble-headed striker failed to make an impact, rarely starting (though Allardyce rarely played him at all) and he simply kept the bench warm game after game after game. Whatever the reasons why Allardyce decided to keep Borgetti from playing, it was a painful experience for fans of this engaging star since one of the major reasons Borgetti went to Bolton in the first place was that he wanted to play in European competition (Bolton had earned a spot in the UEFA Cup tournament that season) as a sort of warm-up to the looming World Cup in Germany. Instead, he atrophied on the bench, though he did score in Bolton’s opening UEFA Cup match and subsequently in the FA Cup and, I believe, the Carling Cup.

Anyway, I digress. Bolton’s match on Saturday against Arsenal was as exciting as I’d hoped for, and even without the presence of either Thierry Henry or William Gallas due to injuries, the Gunners weren’t exactly pushovers even though their finishing was as consistently ghastly as it’s been all season despite their command of the second half. But despite Bolton’s own defensive problems, Allardyce’s lads managed to keep on exploiting Arsenal’s own defensive weak spots without giving up goals (c’mon, the Silva one was a fluke!) and maintain the antagonizing of the easily irritated Jens Lehmann time and time again--just watch the replay of that wonderfully precise Diouf corner to Faye in the 9th minute resulting in Bolton’s first goal of the match. Lehmann’s tidal wave of anger after the fact, directed at his teammate Toure’s incompetence more than anything, had me shivering and cackling simultaneously. Brilliant. But it was the overdue emergence of Bolton forward (and ex-Arsenal player) Nicholas Anelka that really shined. A costly acquisition (Anelka is the most expensive player to join the Wanderers) to say the least, the graceful Frenchman scored two decisive goals against Arsenal—the first one being a stupefying blast from 30 yards out and the second one coming off a crazily good long ball pass from Ivan Campo, another favorite player of mine, resulting in a solid counter-attack exclamation point. All in all, it was a superbly entertaining 3-1 Bolton win.

Didn’t get a chance to watch much of the West Ham vs Sheffield United match (it was on opposite the live Barca vs Villarreal game) but I caught it later Saturday night and I’m, of course, happy with the result. Tevez didn’t score, but he played well and with that gritty conviction that Hammers’ supporters love. Unfortunately, the fleet-footed Argentinean stalked out of Upton Park and went home before the end of the match when manager Alan Pardew replaced him in the second half. Bad move on Tevez’s part, though it seems as if the whole affair has been forgiven and we can now move on.

AC Milan, who have been having a few problems of late (they can’t score!) and seem far from their stealthy best, did manage to pull out a victory—from a nice goal by Methuselah Paolo Maldini in the 13th minute—against Messina. Always hoping for the formidable Milan striker Kaka to rediscover his faith in scoring goals, I watched with increasing disinterest and eventually fell asleep and dreamed an entirely different gorgeously insidious result.

But the game of the weekend for me—sorry Dr. Gogol—was indeed the Barcelona match against the Riquelme-absent Yellow Submarine. I’m fond of Villarreal and if I could have changed the result . . . well, I wouldn’t have. But I would have loved it if Barca’s triumphant and blistering 4-0 performance had come against another squad (Real anyone?) instead. Alas, Barca deserved their spectacular win and despite Gudjohnsen’s horrible manipulation—i.e. dive--in the box when Villarreal’s Cygan grabbed him ever so lightly, subsequently climaxing in a typically brutal penalty kick by Ronaldinho, they played with their characteristic imagination and elegance. I’m biased, of course, but anyone who witnessed this match knows what I’m talking about. And what about Ronaldinho’s cosmic shot at the end of the game? A gorgeous miracle worthy of legend, and one that regrettably eclipsed Iniesta’s own 70th minute goal that was effulgent and dream worthy itself. After a slow start this season, Barcelona finally seem to be stretching boundaries and shape-shifting football into sacrament once again. I only hope the Catalans can continue this blossoming against the confident Werder Bremen in the Champions League next Tuesday.

And I guess I’d be remiss in not mentioning the mucho hyped clash between Manchester United and Chelsea yesterday. Had a great time watching it, and unlike the West Ham or Barcelona matches (or Portland Timbers for that matter), I was able to loosen up and just witness the action as a passive, neutral observer. I rarely actually enjoy watching my own teams play and only on replay or in retrospect within the stadium in my head, do I actually relish being a supporter. It’s so much easier to watch other people’s teams battle it out. For the sake of my fantasy football team, though, I did silently hope that Drogba would score for the Blues. But Carvalho’s header (or was that Saha’s?) was excellent, as was Saha’s legit stuttering strike—a nice moment of redemption for a player who desperately needed it after his ridiculous gaffes against Celtic in the Champions League earlier in the week. I’m still not convinced that the newfound rivalry between Man U and Chelsea is that earth shattering, but it sure did bring a much needed jolt to the Premiership’s so far intermittently dramatic season.

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