Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hales keeps England alive with a dazzling hundred


England’s World Cup Twenty20 hopes were kept alive after a breath-taking unbeaten Alex Hales hundred, which helped them chase down 190 with four balls to spare, their highest ever chase in the shortest format of the game.

It was Hales, alongside Eoin Morgan who added 152 for the third wicket, a record in twenty20 internationals, as they maintained a freakishly high run rate throughout after England had slumped for 0-2 in the first over. Earlier on a beautifully-timed Mahela Jayawardene had elevated Sri Lanka to 189 off their 20 overs.

England’s perilous position in the tournament made their chase all the more stunning, a defeat to Sri Lanka would have left them on the verge of an early exit after a controversial defeat to New Zealand in their opener.

The game was characterised by dropped chances at crucial stages of each innings. Jayawardene was dropped three times on the way to making 89, whilst Hales was dropped on the boundary by Jayawardene himself as he anchored an unlikely chase. It will bring England some much needed confidence, after series defeats to both West Indies and Australia in respective Twenty20 series going into the tournament.  

The win adds greater significance to Saturday’s clash with South Africa, who snuck home to victory against Netherlands prior to England’s epic, despite an edgy performance. If England beat South Africa and then the Netherlands on Monday, they should progress to the last four.

The game started off in a blazing fashion, Jade Dernbach controversially dismissing Kusal Perera, caught behind down the leg side. Replays showed Perera was unlucky, but the scores were evened by the umpires in the very next ball, in bizarre circumstances. Dernbach was full and straight at Jayawardene, the veteran batsman getting a leading edge into the offside that Michael Lumb appeared to hold onto after a sprawling dive.

Jayawardene was well in his rights to stand his ground and wait for video conformation, but replays showed no signs that the ball had fallen out of Lumb’s hands. But after minutes of deliberation the third umpire called not out, incensing Broad and his men.

Their fury seemed to get  the better of them, as Tillikaratne Dilshan and Jayawardene proceeded to take the attack apart, via a few dropped catches. In the sixth over Jayawardene got under the ball and skied to mid-off, where a toppling Dernbach dropped a sitter.

Dilshan was subsequently dropped on the leg-side boundary after a Dilshan swipe, with the score on 58. Both batsmen duly took advantage. After coming in on 4-1, Jayawardene eventually departed with the score on 149, with four dropped chances accumulated between him and Dilshan in the process. Dilshan followed him back to the dugout shortly after an ugly yet dogged 55, the brazen opener battling against his own form more than anything.

Some late order hitting from Perera England was damaging the England bowlers, despite a brilliant 19th over from Chris Jordan which yielded just four runs. Bresnan was given the last over, and another solid over was ruined when Angelo Mathews nonchalantly flicked the last ball for six.

England would have to chase 190 at over nine runs an over, a score that seemed beyond them even before Nuwan Kulasekara caused utter devastation in the first over. Lumb seemed fidgety after four dot balls a row to start the innings, and his attempt to try and apply pace onto the ball was ill-fated, as he was bowled for a duck.

Moeen Ali was next, fresh of a wristy and brisk knock against New Zealand that awoke many to his potential. But Kulasekara was too good first up, finding a little bit of away movement, Ali edging to second slip.

England seemed to be on the verge of another embarrassment, a quick yet painful death against the subtlety ofAjantha  Mendis and the dead-eye accuracy of Lasith Malinga. Yet they managed to see out a succession of Malinga Yorkers early on, and purposefully targeted Mendis, who struggled for any movement off the pitch.

Mendis was bludgeoned for 52 off his four overs, Hales crucially taking 25 off the 15th over to haul his side back into the contest. There was a period where England looked as if they may fall behind again, with Morgan and Jos Buttler falling in the same over, needing over 10 an over still.

But Ravi Bopara managed to hold his nerve against Malinga, two delicate fours back to back down to the third man the moment the match swung back in favour of the England. Hales capitalised on this momentum as he destroyed Kulasekera’s last over, becoming England’s first twenty20 hundred scorer in the process.

That left just seven off the last over, a mere formality given the dramatic events that had just gone before. The match and comeback was sealed when Hales deposited the second ball into the night sky, sparking joyous scenes. England had done what no one expected them to do, turning the mood on the bench from seething to ecstatic. It may not to prove a turning point given England’s recent form, but it ensures they will go home with some sort of pride left intact. A stunning game of cricket. 

Manchester United 0-3 Manchester City: Talking Points


 Mata struggles to shine again, as Silva flourishes:

When Manchester United broke their record transfer fee to sign Juan Mata from Chelsea for £37 million, it was thought that there would be an automatic rise in the quality and intricacy of the their play, and rightly so after some of the Spaniards glittering performances at Stamford Bridge last term. Chelsea fans and neutrals alike had been left in a collective state of shock with the undisguised way in which Mourinho ostracised Mata from his team, the Chelsea boss citing tactical reasons for his decision-making. But now it almost seems as if Jose might have been wise to let Mata leave his position on the Chelsea bench. Once again United’s designated playmaker struggled to impose his game in a United side hurried and hassled by their Manchester rivals. Mata did have the chance to equalise in the first half, but his effort from the edge of the box after a Rafael cut-back lacked control and went way over the bar, a poor attempt that rather encapsulated his evenings work. Rather than help raise the bar at Old Trafford, Mata’s performance have simply been a symbol of United’s current slump.

David Silva on the other hand, was majestic. He played an instrumental part in City’s first after just 45 seconds, exquisitely taking a Yaya Toure ball in his stride, outfoxing Phil Jones in the process. Rafael was able to race over to make a last minute interception, but he was subsequently out of position, allowing the Blues to take advantage with devastating effect. Silva laid another opportunity on a plate for Edin Dzeko minutes later, his constant movement and awareness too much for United to handle. It was a brave move from manager Manuel Pellegrini to start Silva, Navas, Nasri and Toure in the middle of the park, but a combination of domination by possession, tireless full-backs and expert work from Fernandinho allowed City’s architects to pick United off. Silva was the jewel in the crown of an impressive display.

One step forwards, two steps back for Moyes:

If anything, the back to back wins against Olympiakos and West Ham United gave Moyes a much needed breather from unrelenting pressure and criticism. A place in the Champions League quarter-finals followed by a comfortable victory away from home were encouraging, albeit small steps for his floundering side. Yet when United have come up against real quality this season, they have failed the test miserably. Both Liverpool and Manchester City have now both done the double at Old Trafford, whilst Chelsea have collected four points against them in the league. Even Everton picked up three points at Old Trafford, something Moyes never managed whilst manager of the Toffees. Most worrying is United’s complete lack of invention in front of goal. The Reds have scored less home goals than Hull, Stoke, Swansea and West Ham, and the same as Fulham and Cardiff. Mata has yet to impress, Kagawa has been misused, Zaha has been shipped out on loan, whilst Young and Valencia have got progressively worse. If United are to move forward next season, Moyes must find a way to bring back some attacking verve.

City find defensive solidarity at last:

At times, City’s defence has completely shot them in the foot. During their poor early run away from home at the start of the campaign, the Blues looked a team on edge, one defensive disaster away from throwing away another game they had dominated. Part of the reason was the inability of Matija Nastasic, Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis to maintain their levels of consistency alongside the imperious Vincent Kompany. But it seems as though they may have finally cracked it, with the Blues having kept five clean sheets in the league in a row for the first time since 1915. Credit must go to Martin Demichelis, who has often bore the brunt of criticism directed at City’s shaky back line. Demichelis has started the last five league games in question; and despite a blip in the Champions League first leg against Barcelona which saw him being sent off, the former Malaga man has started to show everyone why Manuel Pellegrini had such faith him in the first place.

United’s midfield imbalance:

United’s decision to start 4-3-3 against a powerful City side seemed a perverse at the time, and turned out to be just that. Tom Cleverly was shifted out to the right, a position where he is not at home. The United academy graduate has taken a fair amount of flak for his side’s position this season, but his game is to get hold of the ball and keep it moving. This was simply not possible on the right, where City were able to shut him off with relative ease. Maroune Fellaini on the left of a midfield three was just as questionable. The Belgian is usually deployed in either a defensive midfield role to break up play, or just behind the striker, to exert his physical prowess. Playing out on the left allowed him to play to neither of these strengths. The only notable thing Fellaini accomplished all evening was an ugly elbow on Pablo Zabaleta, a challenge that should have seen him walk. Fellaini’s inflated transfer fee currently looks even worse waste of money than the £37 million spent on Mata.

Shinji Kagawa entered the field of play at half time, replacing Tom Cleverly in what appeared to be a show of intent from Moyes. But the Japanese playmaker, so central to Borussia Dortmund’s back to back titles in Germany, was once again inhibited by his team mates. It was Juan Mata who moved in behind Rooney for the second half, not Kagawa. The same applied earlier in the season, where Rooney was deployed behind Robin Van Persie. Kagawa does not have the pace or the physicality to play right or left of the three, and the more he does so, the more an exit from the club in the summer seems likely. It is a shame to see someone of such quality struggle, but if United feel they have better players in his position, then they should prepare to sell and look to spend the money made. After all, a few midfield alterations could be made.

City favourites for the title, like they always were:

People have often questioned Jose Mourinho’s assertion that his Chelsea side are not favourites for the Premier League, labelling his words as mind games. But given their strength and depth, City should be the real favourites to lift the league title. Win every game from here on and out and that is exactly what they will be. If they win their games in hand the Blues will be three points better off than Chelsea, with a superior goal difference. City may have a slightly tougher run of fixtures, but both sides still have to go to Liverpool, games which will help decide the title for all three clubs. City have a difficult trip to the Emirates on Saturday, but with Arsenal going through another blip and City starting to accelerate, it is hard to see them not coming away with a win. With Silva and Toure in sensational form and Sergio Aguero still to come back, City have everything they need to secure a second title in three years. Maybe Mourinho was right all along.

Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona: Title race heats up as Messi rules once more

All-time el clasico top scorer. First to score two el clasico hat-tricks. Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer. You sometimes wonder if Lionel Messi is aware of the records he breaks at such an unrelenting speed, defying footballing logic one week at a time.

As he masterfully guided the ball into the top right-hand corner of Diego Lopez’s net to give Barcelona a coveted 4-3 lead at the Bernabeu, a win that ensured the Catalans still remain in a gripping title race, the Argentine genius also became the first Barcelona player to score a hat-trick at the home of his bitter rivals. It was a performance of sublime individualism in a furious game oozing with attacking quality and packed to the core with drama.

On any other night the game will have belonged to Messi’s compatriot Angel di Maria, who seemed to be on a one man mission to feed Karim Benzema with service of the highest order, tearing into Barcelona’s right side with frightening consistency during a frenetic first half.

Perhaps it was Carlo Ancelotti’s daring 4-3-3 that allowed the game to be such a riveting contest, with Benzema, Di Maria, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale all making his starting eleven. Even If Madrid were willing to take a point at the start of proceedings, there was no evidence of a conservative nature to their play early on.

In fact if anything they were too open, as Barcelona raced into an early lead. Messi, drifting in between the midfield and the backline of the opposition, as he so often does, picked up the ball and found Andres Iniesta. Having been sucked infield Daniel Carvajal was in a bad position, allowing Iniesta to thrash the ball across Lopez.

It was the ideal start for the away side in a game where victory was the only agreeable outcome, but they barely had time to catch a breath before Benzema fired over the bar with the goal at his mercy. At the other end Messi fluffed a routine chance by his standards, giving Benzema the chance to make amends.

Make amends he did, as he towered over the Barcelona defence to convert a majestic header, after yet another teasing Di Maria cross. It was Di Maria from the left who found space once more, his cross dissecting a hapless Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. Benzema’s thigh control was exemplary, giving him ample time to slot past Victor Valdez. 2-1 in no time.

The Frenchman could have had the perfect hat-trick by half time as he took down another pass from di Maria, but his shot was blocked on the line by a scrambling Pique. Instead Messi decided it was about time to grab hold of the goalscoring baton, with a moment of improvisation.

It was Messi who drove at the heart of the Madrid defence, feeding the ball into Neymar inside the area. Neymar was beaten to the ball by Carvajal, but the ball landed straight back at the feet of the on-rushing Argentine, who barely broke stride to guide the ball into the bottom right hand corner.

Just before the break Benzema headed inches wide, a fitting end to the half for a striker who had alternated between wasteful and clinical in an pulsating game. Never had a set of players deserved the half-time whistle more.

Perhaps the two most subdued players on the pitch in the first half were both Gareth Bale and Ronaldo, who had quite frankly been upstaged by di Maria and Benzema. It didn’t take long for the two superstars of the team to make up for lost time, Bale setting off on a lung-bursting run before feeding Benzema, who was this time thwarted by Valdes.

Ronaldo took Bale’s lead just two minutes later, bamboozling Dani Alves and drawing him into committing a foul, on the cusp of the box. A free-kick it should have been, a penalty it was. Ronaldo dispatched with aplomb for his 42nd of the season. Madrid were in control of the title once more.

But Barcelona as always held their nerve, and it wasn’t long before Messi exerted his control once more, dropping deep this time, curling a perfectly waited ball in behind the Madrid centre-back pairing for Neymar to burst on to. Sergio Ramos was reeling as Neymar cut across him, and minimal contact was enough to send the Barcelona forward sprawling. Ramos inevitably saw yet another Clasico red, and Messi tucked away the first of two penalties.

Ancelotti was finally forced into a defensive move to try and preserve the draw, Raphael Varane replacing Benzema. But that didn’t stop Iniesta finding a way in, as he wormed through two Madrid players to earn the last penalty of the night. The stage was set for Messi to end a whirlwind occasion, and this time he went over Lopez’s outstretched hand to finish a game of spectacularly pure football.

It is a result that will suit Atletico Madrid as much as anyone else, returning to the top after their 2-0 win earlier in the day. Barcelona are firmly back in the race, lying just one point off the summit, while Madrid remain drop to second on head to head. With Atletico’s trip to Barcelona scheduled for the last day Madrid will fancy their chances, but La Liga is now rivalling the Premier League for the most exciting league of the season.