The FA Cup Final

A trip to Wembley is always a memorable experience but from the very outset this one felt a bit different.

Two years ago when City lifted the FA Cup it felt as though the biggest hurdle had already been cleared with the 1-0 victory against Manchester United in the semi-final. This year it was Chelsea who were vanquished in the last four, with Wigan Athletic and Roberto Martinez awaiting Roberto Mancini and the Manchester City squad in the final at the home of English football.  Again, it would seem that the hardest part had already been accomplished as tens-of-thousands of City supporters made their way south; City were huge favourites to lift the trophy. Wigan were in a relegation scrap – again – were decimated by injury and before the weekend’s events, Wigan had failed to even score a goal in the seven previous encounters.  City, apparently, only had to turn up to win.  The only problem was the fact that City didn’t turn up at all.

That run, and the history books, belied the true situation – Wigan are a team that cause City problems as the league encounter just a month ago indicated. The result that day – a 1-0 victory to City at the Etihad with the only goal scored late on by Carlos Tévez – glossed over the problems the Blues seem to have against Martinez’ different team. No other coach in the Premier League plays the way he does with a back three and it seems Mancini is yet to find a suitable method of dealing with it.

A more insipid turn-out would be difficult to find in a season oft-punctuated by below-par performances however the team have been set up.  This was much more than a case of skill over will, however.  It’s not without irony that Wigan were the team to deny Mancini his 2nd FA Cup during his tenure as the Blues’ boss – and his 19th cup win as player and coach – playing a fluid 3412 formation similar to which the City manager had tried to implement this season with little-to-no success.  Martinez has nothing like the squad of Mancini but tactically, in these 90 minutes of football, showed himself to be infinitely superior to the man who delivered the FA Cup in 2011 ending City’s near-35-year barren spell.

Wigan moved the ball so freely throughout the entire game, and devastated City in wide areas of the pitch.  The tendency Mancini has of playing inverted wide players (not exactly wingers in the old or modern sense of the term, more like inside forwards) in the three ahead of Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry – David Silva and Samir Nasri on the right and left respectively – leaves City extremely narrow and full-backs exposed.  In a game that City were expected to dominate, this shouldn’t prove to be a problem but when conceding possession so frequently it proved to be the ultimate downfall.  A recurring criticism from fans this season is a lack of width, often coupled together with an incorrect assertion that is the reason Edin Džeko hasn’t fired as well as he can.  He never played with wingers at Wolfsburg, but I digress.  The unexpected reality of the game saw City squeezed by Wigan’s high line without ever trying to counter it with the obvious pace of Sergio Agüero in behind.

Honduran international Roger Espinoza (who rarely played in a similar role during his four years at Sporting Kansas City) was made to look incredible by a combination of the space afforded to him by a lack of protection in front of Pablo Zabaleta and Arouna Koné dropping in front of him when City were in possession. Koné worked tirelessly and ran Vincent Kompany ragged, dragging him out of position creating gaps for Maloney to create and general uncertainty in City’s back line.  On the opposing side of the pitch, Callum McManaman was outstanding against one of City’s more consistent performers this season, Gael Clichy. Again exposed by Nasri’s attacking tendencies, Clichy struggled all afternoon against McManaman who had the beating of his man on just about every occasion.  With the exception of 10 minutes or so at the start of each half, Wigan were well on top. City looked flustered, unable to cope with highly-functioning Wigan and looked as though they believed the game was won before putting their boots on.

All credit goes to Wigan Athletic and their exceptionally tactically astute manager, Roberto Martinez.  Football is about romance and dreams, and what’s more romantic than a massive underdog lifting the cup at the end of the match?

Congratulations to the supporters of Wigan, to Dave Whelan who took his local club from the depths to an FA Cup win, and to Roberto Martinez for bettering his opponent on the day. Here’s #ToTheDream.


The Madness of Bolivian Football

Firstly, let me set the scene.

It’s my first game from the Bolivian LFPB (Liga del Fútbol Profesional Boliviano) with Universitario de Sucre facing Oriente Petrolero, two teams languishing in the mid-table region of the Apertura half of the competition. Going in to the game, Oriente Petrolero had drawn a mind-boggling 8 of their 11 games, and had only lost once. Universitario were just a point better off but were playing at the Estadio Olímpico Patria, where they had a fine record.

Football tends, more often than not, to follow certain formulae and basic principles. Being a Bolivian football newcomer (save for a few games in the Copa Sudamericana and a harrowing experience with Aurora in the Libertadores), I applied these principles to the game and assumed it would be a turgid, boring, low quality draw. Despite my inexperience with Bolivian football, I’ve commentated on scores of South American games from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru – well, you get the picture.

As it turns out, I was right. The game itself, the football, was pretty dire. The game, however, was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever borne witness to.

The first 20 minutes or so were as expected; more like a basketball game than football. Turnover after turnover, nobody on the pitch seemingly with the ability to retain the ball and find a teammate. Then something happened off the ball, after a rather ugly tackle between Rolando Barra, a 25 year old Universitario Centre Back, and 23 year old Alcides Peña of Oriente Petrolero, which turned out to be the catalyst of a shocking, violent assault by the former.

Play carried on as did the fracas between the two players, off camera. As they tried to disengage, Peña attempted to shrug Barra off to allow himself to get up. Once on their feet, Rolando Barra landed a headbutt of seismic proportions flush on to the bridge of the nose of Peña. Poor Alcides went down as you’d expect, out cold. Play continued still.

The referee, who will I doubt will ever be permitted to officiate a football match again in his sorry life, was alerted to the incident by some of the players and halted the game. After discussion with his assistant (also a spectacularly incompetent or disgustingly corrupt person), the ref sent both players off. Both! I was speechless – which, considering what I do for a living, is somewhat inconvenient to say the least.

The game continued, 10 on each side, with the same dearth in quality we’d been witness to in the minutes leading up to the double sending off. Universitario took the lead as the clock ticked over in to stoppage time at the end of the first half, and it was a welcome goal in an otherwise drab and soporific first 45 minutes.

The first half over. The football, as expected, woeful. Think of the worst football you’ve ever seen. This was worse. The ugly, violent assault had, however, pricked my interest in a car-crash viewing kind of way.

Still, as shocking as it was, that Barra headbutt didn’t even come close to preparing me for what the second half had in store.

With the game following a similar instantly-forgettable path as had been forced upon us in the first half, suddenly Universitario went on the offensive. A through ball brought a clumsy challenge in the box from Bolivian international defender Miguel Ángel Hoyos, and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. The first thing that flashed through my head was ‘so much for the bore draw’ . This was just the beginning of the most jaw-droppingly incredible thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch.

Up stepped Jose Gabriel Rios, whose penalty was well struck, high to the keeper’s right hand side. The kind of penalty that draws superlatives from commentators – unstoppable, two keepers wouldn’t have saved it, etc – except this time, Carlos Erwin Arias, capped 39 times by the Bolivian national team, guessed the right way and pulled off an absolutely wonderful save. Before his team mates, particularly Hoyos who gave away the penalty, could congratulate him, the whistle went.

The referee’s assistant had adjudged Arias to have moved off his line before the ball was struck, and Eberth Cuellar ordered it to be retaken. Suspicious, particularly given the incident in the first half, and bloody unlucky considering the calibre of the save from Arias which was genuinely World Class.

Rios stepped up once more and struck it low, to the keeper’s left, only for Arias to pull of an equally impressive stop. Again the celebrations cut short, again the whistle. Incredible. The replays showed that Arias had stepped off his line before the ball was struck, but – as we all know – these are only penalised by the most pernickety of officials, and never twice in a row.

Oriente Petrolero, restrained in their protestations after the first retake, weren’t so bashful. They surrounded the referee’s assistant and that all-too-familiar South American sight of riot police getting involved was splashed across the screen, before the Verdolagas, en masse, left the pitch in protest at what they perceived to be biased officiating. 7 minutes of Reservoir Dogsesque stand off ensued, before Oriente agreed to allow the game to reach its conclusion after much debate with the officials from the Asociación de Fútbol Nacional.

Take three, then. This time it was Edgar Escalante who faced the possessed Carlos Erwin Arias from 12 yards. Given the fact it was a retake, I’m not entirely sure a changing of the taker is allowed. Largely irrelevant in the scheme of things, however.

Up stepped Escalante who fired low to Arias’ left. Once again, Carlos Erwin Arias saved the penalty and this time the celebrations were allowed to run their course, the penalty stood (despite Arias moving off his line for the third time!).

What seemed to be a perfunctory, run of the mill win for Universitario in Sucre just a few minutes earlier was now anything but. Still a goal ahead, the game continued while this commentator was an absolute wreck, banging on about divine intervention and stumbling over malformed words that made little or no sense whatsoever. If the incident in the first half had me flummoxed, this unbelievable sequence of events rendered me entirely ineffective.

6 minutes after, cosmic order restored, Oriente Petrolero went down the other end and Rodrigo Vargas netted. The rest of the game a blur, it finished with the teams all square. A run-of-the-mill, formulaic draw as expected. Except it was anything but.

© Paul Sarahs, 2012.