Monday, April 30, 2007

Premiership Game Blogging

Thanks to the wonders of a free three-month digital cable trial (complete with DVR), I was able to catch the Reading-Newcastle match from the comfort of my couch. I’ll be reporting in with thoughts. This match is interesting for several reasons: 1) Reading needs a win to keep up in their battle for the final UEFA Cup spot, thanks to wins by Tottenham and Portsmouth over the weekend. 2) Michael Owen, one of England’s best strikers, is back for Newcastle after injury kept him out most of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can display the form that might lead English soccer fans to believe their team could actually score an international goal every now and then. 3) This is a match between a team who is playing for nothing (Newcastle, who can neither get to 7th nor be relegated) and a team who desperately needs a win. 4) No Sidwell for Reading. This will probably be the Reading side we’ll see next year, since Sidwell is almost certainly gone after the season.

Dumbass announcer moment of the day: there’ll be a moment of silence to “celebrate” the passing of England great Alan Ball. Celebrate? Really? Was he that much of an ass?

On to the game.

1’: Already a golden opportunity for Newcastle, as a cross narrowly missed Owen in front of goal. That’s not auspicious at all.

3’: And already a corner for Reading. Looks like a lot of offense today, kids.

6’: Reasons why I love Reading: I just watched Royals striker Dave Kitson practically throw himself at the Newcastle keeper after a back-pass. He was honestly trying to block the keeper’s outlet pass. That’s playing with intensity, right there.

7’: Another good cross from Newcastle goes unmolested to a striker, this time Obafemi Martins. Fortunately the shot is blocked… but not that one from Owen which finds net. Fortunately he was offside, but if this keeps happening they’ll get six by the time this is over. Where’s the Reading defense? Maybe Kitson should throw himself at every Newcastle player that has the ball.

8’: Another shot by the Magpies (which is a horrific nickname, up there with Banana Slugs and Terrapins in the “mascots I could probably kill with a shovel” category) forces a Marcus Hahnemann save. Trivia: Hahnemann is the only player to play every Reading fixture this year. Having that kind of bench strength is a good thing.

9’: Kevin Doyle almost takes advantage of the worst clearance by a keeper ever – Newcastle keeper Harper basically passed it directly to Doyle. Note: if you’re on defense and not sure about a pass, kick the crap out of it. Is the mascot going to take the corner kick? It sure looks like it.

11’: Why do soccer players so often pass up open 20-yard shots, only to screw up a pass and kill the attack as Stephen Hunt just did? I don’t get it.

18’: And that’s why none of our attacks go down the right-hand side: midfielders just gifted Newcastle two promising possessions. Which raises the question: how is Seol Ki-Hyeon better than Bobby Convey? Is Convey really that awful? I seem to remember him being pretty good during the first part of the season.

22’: Reading defender Brynjar Gunnarson swings and misses. That’s something I do, not the pros.

24’: Free kick for Reading. I think this is the first free kick in the game, and it was rewarded by the linesman. Is there a referee?

28’: We’ve kind of settled down a little bit here. Perhaps the defenses finally discovered that they were, in fact, useful.

31’: Yellow card on Hunt, probably deserved since it was a bad challenge. But the Newcastle guy decided to try to milk it a little bit by holding his knee and feigning pain, even though the tackle clearly hit him on the ankle. If you’re going to play-act, buddy, make it believable.

35’: Two near misses for Newcastle, first by Milner and then by Martins on the corner. Meanwhile, Reading hasn’t gotten a reasonable chance in a while. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before Newcastle punches one in.

37’: Great tactic on the free kick by Newcastle – running someone ahead well wide of the goal, passing to him, and letting him cross it. Seems like with so much of the defending team’s manpower expended in the wall, that cross will pretty much always be free. Only some lackluster striking on Newcastle’s part kept that from being a goal.

39’: Another swing-and-miss by Gunnarsson. I wonder if that’s an official stat.

40’: Another thing I love about soccer: the fact that goalkeepers routinely feel the urge to dive after shots that are going well wide of goal, as Hahnemann just did. He can’t just be bored – all the play’s been in his end this half.

45’: I think the referee almost yellow-carded the mascot. Which would be awesome. (Update 5/1: Apparently the ref actually red-carded the mascot. I can't describe how awesome that is.)

Halftime thoughts: Reading’s lucky to get out of this half without allowing a goal. There’s been some God-awful passing in midfield and some pretty bad defending as well. Reading definitely misses Sidwell, and will need to find someone to replace him next season. Newcastle looks good, but not great; they’re just missing that final touch from Martins and Owen. Look for a couple of Newcastle goals next half.

And here we go…

47’: Dicey series of clearances from Reading defenders almost leads to a goal – fortunately, a God-awful shot saves them. Newcastle’s shots can’t be awful forever, can they?

51’: And Kitson strikes for Reading! That was completely not what I expected. This is a great goal created by something I don’t see a lot of teams doing – using the strikers and attacking midfielders to put pressure on the defense, thus forcing bad clearances and sometimes getting outright steals. That time, Hunt and Doyle combined to mug a Newcastle defensive midfielder, then Doyle laid the ball back to Seol. In the confusion, Kitson was left unmarked in the box, a fact recognized by the Reading offense who let Seol’s cross bounce to him, and Kitson hammered it home.

54’: And then the spectacle of Stephen Hunt challenging three defenders and drawing the foul. Hunt’s one of those players that is simultaneously a scoring risk and a red-card risk, and you’re not really sure which is greater.

59’: Awful defending by Reading leads to a perfect cross to a wide-open Ameobi who heads it to goal from close range… and a great save by Hahnemann. How many times this season has Hahnemann bailed out suspect defending by the Royals’ back line? Emre being carted off now thanks to a legal but tough challenge from Kitson. That’s sad – he’s one of Newcastle’s best offensive weapons and he’s been all over the place in midfield this game. That’s two Newcastle players who have gone off to injury in the past ten minutes, leaving them with only one substitution (which will presumably be used on Owen). This takes away their ability to sub in an extra striker later on…

63’: Kitson almost adds another, just missing the near post on a defensive gaffe by Newcastle. Now it’s Reading putting together good offensive possessions while Newcastle is reduced to hopeful long balls. That goal and those injuries completely deflated Newcastle.

69’: Should have been a penalty for Reading as Doyle got thrown to the ground in the box, but the referee was reluctant to give the penalty on a play that probably wouldn’t have resulted in a goal so it went past. There needs to be some sort of penalty for a foul in the box that isn’t an almost assured goal – perhaps a free kick from just outside the box or something. I see too many referees balk at calling defensive fouls in the box because they know it’ll practically give the other side a goal. This needs to change.

70’: Good shot by Milner goes just wide of the Reading goal. That’s the kind of thing that a good team can use to start swinging the momentum back.

73’: Newcastle is starting to panic a little bit. There’s no reason they should have taken a shot from distance on a really good offensive possession, especially with open turf in front of the shooter.

75’: …and that’s followed with some horrifyingly bad defensive mistakes by Newcastle’s back line that lead to Reading chances. Newcastle is playing like a team that just discovered that they really don’t care about the outcome of this game. It just doesn’t look like the Magpies not named Ameobi are really concentrating.

82’: Good possession for Newcastle there… maybe they’re starting to wake up. Martins just missing a shot, though he was offside so it wouldn’t have counted anyway. This last ten minutes look to be interesting…

85’: Shot by Seol gets deflected off target. I see a lot of teams sit back on a one-goal lead… not Reading. Their attack knows two speeds – fast and game over. Personally, I like it. Soccer’s answer to the prevent defense is just as ineffective as the real thing.

89’: Another one of my favorite tactics: the delay substitution, this time Kitson for Long and Harper for Gunnarsson. Nice touch by screwing up the substitution, thus causing the clock to run past 90’. There’s no other explanation for these substitutions. Of course, the ref saw through it, giving five minutes of extra time. It’s still a funny delay tactic.

92’: “I have an idea,” said the Newcastle defender. “Let’s give up a completely unnecessary corner, thus allowing a valuable minute to run off the clock! Brilliant!” Like I said, no concentration.

93’: Newcastle has given up possession three times this minute. Just sayin’.

94’: Shoddy clearance by Reading generates a chance for Newcastle, saved by Hahnemann… maybe no one’s concentrating now.

95’: Another delay substitution by Reading, Oster for Bikey, followed by the whistle.

Final analysis: good win for Reading. The dedication to the attack led to some fun moments towards the end when Newcastle started to play again, but I still like it. The level of motivation was rather clear – Reading played hard even when the flow of the game was against them, and in so doing, forced some key mistakes by Newcastle, one of which led to the deciding goal. On the other side, Newcastle just didn’t look motivated anymore after that goal, and it seemed like they just wanted to go home. They got their wish.

Anyway, the race for 7th looks like it’s going down to the wire… this will be fun, especially since the title race just became uninteresting thanks to massive choke jobs by Chelsea and Everton.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Random Update

Well, let it never be said that there's no competition for anything in the Premiership. I may have a sincere dislike for both teams, but the Manchester United-Chelsea duel at the top is nothing short of fascinating. Now that Man U drew today at home against Middlesbrough - talk about a no-no - Chelsea can pull within one point with a win at Newcastle tomorrow. Better yet, the two teams meet May 9 at Stamford Bridge for both teams' second-to-last game of the season. Both teams have one difficult away match left (Man U has to go to fifth-place Everton next week; Chelsea has to go to fourth-place Arsenal on May 6). Whatever happens, that match on May 9 is must-see TV for any soccer fan, even for those who (like me) hate both teams.

There's also a big five-way scrum for the 5th and 6th spot which guarantee a UEFA Cup berth. Everton and Bolton currently hold them, but Reading, Tottenham, and Portsmouth lurk. Right now, I'd think Everton and Tottenham will get the spots, but anything could happen.

This race just got more interesting thanks to Reading's 3-1 away win over Bolton today (not to mention Everton's inexplicable loss to relegation fodder West Ham), a game which I was fortunate enough to be able to watch. A few notes:

- A three goal in ten minute flurry is always fun to watch, especially when it makes the announcers eat crow because they suggested Reading should stay defensive after the game went to 1-1. It always cracks me up how soccer announcers seem to think that the away team should always play for a tie, especially if the game is past the 80th minute. After Kevin Doyle's 83rd minute penalty tied the game up, the announcers seemed honestly suprised that Reading kept pushing forward. Honestly, Reading had an attacking team on the field at that moment, they had the momentum, and they weren't going to go for the jugular? Really?

- I think I heard the announcers say something about Reading manager Steve Coppell commenting that he hoped his team didn't make the UEFA Cup because he felt like they weren't ready. Excuse me? Did Coppell really say this? If so, he's damn lucky I'm not the owner of the team or he'd be right out on his ass. Can you imagine a football coach saying, "you know what, I hope we don't make the playoffs this year, because we'll just lose?" Isn't making the UEFA Cup always better than not making the UEFA Cup? What am I missing here? I really hope that Coppell is using an elaborate reverse-psychology ruse here (which seems to be working - since he made the remark, Reading has made it to 7th place, one game out of the Cup).

Anyway, the third interesting competition is at the bottom, where Fulham, Wigan, Charlton, Sheffield United, and West Ham are struggling to stay in the Premiership. With Watford's goose officially cooked, those five teams are battling for three spots. Unfortunately, Fulham's got the roughest schedule left (Arsenal, Liverpool, Middlesbrough), but Charlton and West Ham don't exactly have it easy either and Fulham's got a game on both of them. Wigan and West Ham have a game next weekend that could have huge implications; should Wigan lose that game, they'll have an end-of-season match with Charlton that could make for fascinating, if morbid, television.