Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spain November 2015

England’s friendly in Alicante plus a couple of Spanish second division matches.

I flew from Stansted to Alicante on the Thursday evening, the day before this England match.

13th November 2015  Spain 2 England 0 Alicante     Friendly international   c. 5,000 away

Why go to Benidorm when Alicante offers a conducive environment of bars and restaurants albeit without Watney’s Red Barrel (or the equivalent) and fish & chips ?

Its a pleasant, medium-sized city with a stadium that is walkable from the centre.
On a reasonably mild evening the ground was well-filled.

England have arranged a series of challenging friendlies, ahead of Euro 2016, to test themselves following a facile qualification group.
This first test was failed - fairly comprehensively.

Spain soon established a familiar rhythm that seem to bemuse the English stars.
Ross Barkley, amongst others, would come to realise the reality of top level international football.

But for all their dominance the Spanish side ultimately lacked a cutting edge.

That was until a sublime finish from Mario Gaspar on 72 minutes, acrobatically volleying in from a Fabregas pass, gave the home team the lead.
Sub Santi Cazorla added a second 12 minutes later to complete a deserved 2-0 win.

Yes England did clip the bar and Harry Kane missed a good chance but overall you felt Spain had won, although against an under-strength opposition, without getting into top gear.

Sterling was one who did offer some hope for the ‘Three Lions’ , and Kane a solid perseverance,  but it leaves plenty for Roy Hodgson to contemplate.

Looking ahead many would predict the ‘usual’ tournament outcome for England - quarter final exit.
While Spain, for whom Gerard Pique was consistently whistled by the home fans, would expect at least a semi-final appearance.

14th November  Leganes 3 Alcorcon 0  Segunda Division     5,538  c. 400 away

I travelled on the train to the capital to see this local derby.

Not that it has any of the visceral atmosphere of a clasico in South America.
The visiting fans could easily mix in with the locals on a cooling evening.

After a slow start the match was brightened by two great home goals.

Firstly striker Guillermo converted from close in for the first then soon after Szymanowski drove in a great right footer from 25 yards.
Guillermo would seal the win with a feint and an excellent left foot finish in the second period.

Alcorcon repeatedly failed to make anything of their free kicks and also missed a couple of decent chances.
It was a bad day at the office for the visitors and the result allowed Leganes to match the Alcorcon points total

I took the metro to my hotel in Getafe and settled for a chicken asado.

15th November  Cordoba 1 Huesca 1  Segunda Division   14,500

From Madrid south to Cordoba and another very pleasant mid-sized historic Spanish City.

My hotel was in the old Roman area with its temple and burial areas.
Nearby were typical bars and restaurants.

Again the local stadium is walkable (25 minutes) from the centre.
Its a good sized, two-tiered, all covered, ground kitted out in green and white.

Beforehand we had the club song and some sombre music to commemorate the atrocities in Paris.

When the match began Cordoba, the league leaders, soon showed a confident attacking approach and they pressed back the much lower placed visitors.
Victor Perez tested the Huesca goalie with some fine long range shots while ex-Arsenal player Fran Merida provided the odd threat for the visitors.

Though the first half ended goalless it seemed only a matter of time before Cordoba would go ahead.
It happened after Fidel got booked for ‘simulation’.
Afterwards he immediately went on a Messi like run along the right wing, all left foot, before delivering past sub goalie Whalley on 53 minutes.

But eventually the momentum altered, a combination of more Huesca aggression and Cordoba consolidation.
And so late on Machis (again from the right wing) drove in a great left foot effort for the equaliser.
That rather stunned the home crowd who would have expected another three points.

Back in the centre I enjoyed a ‘menu’ meal plus some vino tinto.

Overall it had been a pleasant visit to Spain with some decent football, pleasant ambience and excellent logistics.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

UAE November 2015

This trip comprised the AFC Champions League final 1st leg in Dubai plus a second level UAE match.

I flew BA from Gatwick to Dubai, arriving fairly late at my hotel in Deira at around ‘zero dark thirty’.
Just the one glass of wine helped the sleep process plus some of Spurs v Anderlecht.

The next day I checked out the Al Ahli stadium before, eventually, persuading a taxi driver (the first two said ‘too far’) to take me out to the Dubai Sports Club along the Al Awir road.


6th November Dubai SC 2 Al Khaleej 1  UAE Federations Cup  c. 200

Not surprisingly this was a low-key second level encounter before a small crowd in a stadium, outside of the centre, capable of holding around 7,000+.

Though it wasn’t very convincing Dubai went joint top with the victory.
They went ahead on 6 minutes from a decent right foot effort.

Then the visitors had more play although they lacked a decisive finish.

The half ended with the home side in front.
But when the away coach brought on another striker (no.9), soon after the break, he was there to convert a left wing cross for an easy leveller.

It seemed Al Khaleej would go on to win but a controversial penalty was awarded for a foul and the big Dubai striker walloped in the winner with about 18 minutes remaining.

I managed to get a lift back to the Deira and stayed local for a (vegetarian) Indian meal.

Even in Dubai.

7th November  Al Ahli 0 Guangzhou Evergrande 0  AFC Champions League final  9,480 (c. 900 away)

In attending this match I felt somewhat privileged as I was completing a ‘set’ of 2015 Champions League final matches - CONCACAF (America v Montreal), UEFA (Barcelona v Juventus), CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores (Tigres UANL v River Plate), CAF (USM Alger v TP Mazembe) and this AFC final.
Plus the Europa League final (Sevilla v Dnipro) & the UEFA Super Cup (Barcelona v Sevilla)

I realise there is also the OFC version but, for me, that is somewhat below the radar.

However this final ended a little flat not only because of the goalless stalemate but also it lacked the intensity of (for example) the CAF final in Algiers.
But on the other hand it was much better organised even though there were, apparently numbers of Chinese fans outside the stadium unable to gain entry.

Those that were inside, mostly local workers, were positioned in a section to the right of the main stand - all in red, of course.
The local fans setup some choreo along one side and gave decent encouragement to their team, making its debut in the final.

Guangzhou had triumphed before, in 2013, and they will be favoured to do so again and add to Phil Scolari’s CV.

The first half certainly went the way of the Chinese team with Zheng Zhi and Paulinho (ex-Spurs) going close.
Just one effort from the home side - but Al Hammadi did test Zeng in the away goal.

The second period had more action with an early effort from Huang Bowen striking the post.
After which Al Ahli developed some rhythm and pressure.

The disappointment was the general lack of influence of the Brazilian contingent, from both sides.
That was Lima and Everton Ribeiro for Al Ahli and Goulart and Elkeson for the Chinese team.
Maybe if there had been some more free kicks in dangerous positions then they might have well have displayed their skills.  

Nearer the end sub. Yu again tested Ahmed in the home goal before the final significant action - a red card for Haikal for a senseless slap aimed at Gao.

All may not be lost though for the ‘Red Knights’, coached by the impressive Romanian Cosmin Olaroiu, who though undoubtedly second favourites could rise to the occasion in the second leg in China.

I went back to my hotel via the metro and enjoyed some red wine while watching Chelsea

lose (again)

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Algeria October/November 2015

Four matches in Algeria including the CAF Champions League final in Algiers, the Super Cup in Constantine and two league games.

After picking up my passport with the Algerian visa I travelled to Gatwick to stay overnight before getting an early morning BA flight to Algiers.

Where it was bright, mild and dry.

One of the issues you soon realise on arrival into Algeria is that not everything works.
Start with the ATM’s in the airport - there are five - and none of them functioned at midday on this Thursday.

So I changed some euros and got a taxi to my hotel.

After settling in I asked where the Algiers matches were being staged.
I was assured (‘200%’) that MC were playing at the stadium in Bologhine.

But on arrival by taxi it was evident that they were not playing there and in fact they were at the large 5 July stadium, some way out of the centre.
That entailed a prolonged uphill ride in slow traffic resulting in a late arrival.

But at least I witnessed a surprising comeback by the visitors.

MC implode.

29th October MC Alger 3 RC Arbaa 3   Ligue 1   c. 17,000 (c. 800 away)

The impressive main stadium in Algiers is mostly a substantial two tiers with a lower level along one side.
A reasonable number had come to support RC and they were informally separated from the home fans.
The main home ultras, the ‘Green Corsairs’ were in the Virage Sud and they supplied plenty of noise throughout.

It was a match that seemed all over with about 17 minutes remaining as MC were 3-0 up after goals from Abid, Karaoui (a nice left foot strike) and Hachoud (following up a goalie parry)
But Yettou volleyed in what seemed a consolation on 73 minutes and that gave the away team some encouragement.

Two set plays, one in the final minute, completed an unlikely comeback.
Salif Keita converted a free kick and Salim Mahsas headed in a corner to send the visiting fans into ecstasy.

That feeling was not shared by the home contingent who soon expressed their frustration and anger at their teams capitulation (against the league’s bottom team)

Meanwhile I exited to try to find a taxi while the ructions continued inside the ground.

Eventually, after a tour of part of Algiers and a conversation with a local, I was back at the hotel.

Good Dey.

30th October  NA Hussein Dey 2 JS Kabylie 1   Ligue 1   c. 8,000 (c. 1,000 away)

No problems with finding this stadium, the 20th August 1955 stade, as it was close to my hotel in the Belouizdad area of the city.
And there was clearly groups of fans arriving some time before kickoff as I tried to find somewhere to eat nearby.

That was hard because of Friday prayers - the shops being shut.
So the only option was a costly snack in the hotel prior to strolling round to the stadium.

Inside this old style ground, overlooked by apartments, the locals can generate plenty of atmosphere.
The ‘Dey Boys’ to the right build up the noise and the ‘main stand’ often joins in.
Just three sides are accessible - one end being interesting for its vintage but not suitable for current use.

The large group of away fans, supporting historically the most successful team in Algeria, were opposite.
An indication of the state of their team is shown by the fan’s flags being upside down.

That will no doubt continue as it was not a great performance by KSC.

The game was played at what seemed a faster pace than yesterday’s although with many misplaced passes.
After an even beginning the home side went ahead when striker Ahmed Gasmi was put through to drive in the opener.

That was on 39 minutes - a good time to score.
After the break JSK achieved more play and eventually following some pressure they got a leveller via a close range volley from Mohamed Boulaouidet.

However the home fans were not to be denied and Mourad Benayad would send them crazy as he slide in the winner, just inside the far post, with about ten minutes remaining.
And so Hussein Dey overtook JSK in the league table.

I negotiated the exit (after a slight delay to let the away fans disperse) and enjoyed a stroll in the nearby botanical gardens.
There the local families were enjoying a very tranquil ambience, somewhat different to that taking place a short distance away.

(or Zemmamouche do the fandango)

31st October  USM Alger 1 TP Mazembe 2  CAF Champions League final 1st leg
Stade Omar Hammadi, Bologhine, Algiers  c. 12,000 (c. 300 away)

In terms of atmosphere this was up there with the best of South America, Turkey and Greece.

The directors of USMA had decided to stage this important match at the ‘municipal’ stadium because it provides a visceral, very intimidating atmosphere.

We certainly got that.

I set off by metro then walked through the centre of Algiers and out by the sea to near the ground. Along the way you see red and black banners stretched across the streets.

I stopped near to the ground assuming I was a little early.

But after a while I realised the fans gathered had been moved away from the entrances - because the stadium was virtually full, probably by 4.30pm.

That was four hours before kickoff.

Fortunately I managed to negotiate my way through and was inside well over 3 hours prior to the start.

Perhaps only CAF would allow such a final to be played in this kind of ground.
But what it lacks in facilities it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

The build up was impressive with noise and chants.
At one point, as the nearby mosque signalled the call to prayer, the fans solemnly intoned ‘Allah Akbar’.

The players came out, from both camps, to look around and small groups of TP fans began to arrive - to be greeted by missiles.
They were likely to be students or local workers.
Few would have made the journey from DRC.

One particular point of interest to many was the presence of some female TP fans in the VIP area.
I never saw one local female fan at any of the matches - not in the culture apparently.
And judging by the regular skirmishes and intensity it’s not surprising.

Eventually the time came for the players to enter.

And we had an explosion of flares, noise and choreo.
If all that was intimidating for the TP players it didn’t show.

They even produced a nice touch before the start by forming around the centre circle and greeting each part of the ground.

Maybe some had seen it all before - Mazembe have appeared in six finals and won the title four times.
For USMA, fielding an all-Algerian team,  it was their first final.

The side from DRC comprised a mix of nationalities and it soon became evident they were a very competent outfit.

With such a buildup it was inevitably a hectic beginning with TP pressing hard from the front.

We saw chances at both ends with the home side threatening from the right wing speed of Ferhat and the fine left foot crosses of Benmoussa.
But it was the visitors who set about silencing the noise when  Zambian Rainford Kalaba delivered a great right foot shot over goalie Zemmamouche on 27 minutes.

TP might have added to that score but Zemmamouche made some good interventions.
And the home cause was enhanced when Kalaba struck out at a USMA defender just before half time and he made the long walk of shame.

The second period began and we had a lull before the Egyptian referee awarded two penalties for TP.
Firstly El Orfi received a second yellow for holding in the area.

Mikis Mina then stepped up after the protests but his shot was well saved by Zemmamouche.

The Algerians celebrated by berating the referee.
But a second spot kick came on 79 after pacy striker Mbwana Samatta was brought down.

The Tanzanian got up to send the goalie the wrong way and settle the outcome.

By now the noise had long since dissipated as the crowd drifted away.
Many missed the consolation goal by sub. Seguer late in the match.

On this basis TP Mazembe look well set to collect their fifth Champions League title.
It would need an heroic performance by the Algerians in Lubumbashi to turnaround the tie.

I left on the whistle and made the walk back towards the centre with the rest of the disconsolate USM boys.
Some produced flares they had been saving for the expected celebrations.

Eventually I found a taxi and was back at the Sofitel by 11.30pm

Entente cordiale.

1st November  Entente Setif 1 MO Bejaia 0  Algerian Super Cup  Constantine  c. 11,000
(mostly Setif fans)

The next day I had an early 5am start to get the one hour flight to Constantine for this Super Cup match between the cup winners (Bejaia) and the league champions (Setif).

Beforehand I had met a contact at a hotel in the slightly surreal Neuvelle Ville area with its mix of unfinished apartment blocks and poorer parts.
Afterwards I told the taxi driver the immortal words ‘take me to the casbah’ or words to that effect.

Actually I was dropped in the centre and from there I strolled around taking some pictures of the views.
Though I had a brief look the casbah is somewhat claustrophobic for my taste.

After a lunch in one of the cafes I made the walk, some 40 minutes, towards the Stade Mohamed Hamlaoui.
This time there was no need to arrive particularly early as the stadium can hold around 40,000.

It is a large bowl with a track and curving ends that overall lacks the intimate atmosphere at yesterday’s match.
But nevertheless this is Algeria and Entente are well supported and their fans were packed in areas to my left.

On what became a chilly afternoon we saw a game that took a long time to spark into life.
The first half featured few significant incidents with just a couple of headers at either end.

But on 50 minutes it seemed the deadlock would be broken after Hamzaoui was held back and MOB were awarded a penalty.
Their captain Zerdab took the kick but he blasted it over the bar and that was their chance gone.

Afterwards ES started to take control particularly following the substitutions made by the coach.
One of the replacements, Belameri, a tiny wide man, would produce the decisive moment with about six minutes remaining.
That was when he cut in from the right to shoot left footed past the Bejaia goalie.

The ES victory was probably deserved as they had shown more attacking intent.
And so the large contingent from Setif could celebrate their first Super Cup title.

I departed and watched the fireworks from outside the stadium.
As had been the case at the other big matches the police closed off most of the surrounding roads meaning it takes some time to get a taxi (they also seem to disappear - watching the game on TV i guess)

And not only that it meant a long diversion to get to the airport
Fortunately my flight back to the capital was not until 9.25pm.

The next day I relaxed, took the metro to the Algiers centre, and settled for a kebab in the evening.

As for Algiers and Algeria.

It was safe and friendly.

Yes the traffic could be very bad and the organisation sometimes problematic.
But the people were welcoming and the weather mostly a very pleasant 22-17 degrees.

And my schoolboy French enabled a basic level of communication.
Outside of the prohibitively expensive hotel you could eat comfortably for around £3 per day.

In Algiers the metro, albeit limited in size, allowed quick access to the centre.
Wandering around near the casbah was not an issue.

In a way what you didn’t see was as interesting as what you do see.
No tourists for instance - and as a result there were no hustlers and also few beggars.

The two cities I visited felt like France some years ago with few coffee outlets, modern shopping centres or restaurants.

Obviously the football was different.
With its large population of young people the big games are seriously passionate and would be intimidating if you are not familiar with such situations.

But if want that visceral experience Algeria delivers though it is definitely not for the faint hearted.