Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bosnia and Slovenia June 2015

Two Euro 2016 qualifying matches - in Zenica and Ljubljana.

Dzekoshank redemption.

12th June Bosnia-Herzegovina 3 Israel 1   Zenica   c. 12,000

I 'd travelled on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul to Sarajevo then a further hour or so on the bus to Zenica.

Even with just a short time in Sarajevo you realise this is a country of contrasts.
Girls in shorts - women in burkas and the gamut in-between.

My hotel was close to what was an old Austro-Hungarian era brick factory and the vicinity still has two tall chimneys preserved from that period.
Sarajevo is definitely a mix of old and new - an extravagantly tall Avaz tower also dominates the nearby skyline.

And you see the murals - a la Belfast.
As they say history casts a long shadow.

Meanwhile back in Zenica the fans gathered, early - a sign of a good atmosphere.
And so it was in a stadium with fans close to the pitch and plenty of intimidation for the visitors.

Who heard their team and anthem roundly booed and whistled.

Who knows if that was a factor in the Israeli performance but they looked undercooked.

Bosnia started strongly, went close with some half chances and usually were  the superior side.
The midfield of Lulic, Besic and Haris Medunjanin (with his sweet left foot) always seemed more dangerous than their counterparts.
Pjanic also looked a constant danger.

But Israel did take the lead albeit from a miskick from Dzeko that Ben Haim converted from close range.

That sparked a quick response from the home side with Visca getting the first of his double then Dzeko redeemed himself by coolly slotting home a penalty given for handball.
All that got the fans going in a breathless end to the first half.

The second period was more about consolidation and keeping Israel at arm's length.
Which was mostly achieved despite a few threatening crosses.

Visca added his second, and the clincher on 75 minutes, with a close range header after the Israeli goalie had parried a shot.
And Dzeko had time to clip one against the post before the whistle blew.

The outcome meant Bosnia were back into the race for the top three.

For me -  red wine as a nightcap.


14th June  Slovenia 2 England 3  Ljubljana  15,796 (c. 2,200 away)

Onwards via Zagreb to the Slovenian capital for another England away match.

Roy Hodgson’s men came to this Group E encounter with a perfect qualifying record and they maintained their 100% status with the help of two cracking left foot strikes by Jack Wilshere and a late winner from Wayne Rooney.

In an atmosphere without the intimidation of (say) Bosnia the visitors contrived to miss some decent chances - Sterling and Rooney being culpable.
Though those forwards did combine well at times, as for a while did the ‘trident’ of Henderson,Delph and Wilshere, without the necessary finish.

The shakeup came when Ilicic set Novakovic free and he curled in a low shot for the opener.
It was probably the wake up call England needed.

And they came out with more purpose in the second half.
Eventually, on 57 minutes, the ball broke to Wilshere and he rifled in the first of his double.

His even better second followed a great run by temporary right back Henderson and a flick by Lallana. An educated left foot did the rest.

It seemed then that England would stay in control.
But a move down the left and a fine cross found sub. Pecnik rising above Gibbs to head past Joe Hart for the equaliser.

For a few moments the crowd were very animated but the natural order was preserved when Rooney finally converted a chance and England could almost confirm those French hotel bookings.

But as always questions remain - usually very good in qualifying will England have the inherent strength in defence to overcome the top European teams ?
Because to win anything a team normally needs a solid base and as in recent times that is something far from guaranteed within Hodgson’s squad.

At the end I waited for the rain to ease before sharing a taxi back to the very pleasant centre of Ljubljana.
Meanwhile my compatriots boosted the local economy with conspicuous consumption.

more pictures at

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Poland, Champions League final and Ireland

From east Poland to Berlin for the Champions League final followed by the England game in Ireland.

5th June 2015  Gornik Leczna 1 GKS Belchatow 0  Ekstraklasa  4,269 (c. 80 away)

I flew from Luton to Lublin then on by bus to the small town of Leczna for this relegation round final game.

It was a game of few goalmouth incidents that was decided by a single goal forced in by Kosovan striker Shpetim Hasani after 23 minutes.
Otherwise we had a number of bookings but little quality play.

GKS were effectively relegated and though they exerted some late pressure that was easily resisted by the home side who will continue to participate in the top level.

What we did get was some impressive ultras pyro, both from the group from Belchatow and the home fans in the left hand end.

Conveniently for the trip back there is a bus stop opposite the small stadium for the return service to Lublin.
Where the evening was winding down in the pleasant old town area.

6th June Barcelona 3 Juventus 1  Champions League final Berlin  70,442

Early the next morning I took the train via Warsaw to the German capital, arriving at around 3pm.

Even with some time to go before kickoff it was evidently the day of a big game.
Lots of fans of both sides were trying to find their way around Berlin.

For your correspondent - a small hotel to the south of the city fairly close to a S-bahn station.
And then back towards the centre and on to the historic Olympiastadion.

Where the masses congregated - 70,000 with tickets and maybe another 30,000 hanging around.

Some looking for tickets -  genuine fans but many looking to sell on.
Some just wanting to be there and sample the atmosphere.
And others with dodgy tickets (rumoured later to be forged by the Naples mafia)

The latter were likely to be Juventus fans and that was why there seemed a lot more Italian supporters than would normally be expected.
That situation was not so much in evidence when you entered the stadium.

Where the Barca contingent was larger.

Beforehand we had the regulation singing and dancing and then the choreo at either end (predictably - ‘more than a club’ from the Catalans)

I thought it was certainly a very good, but not great, final.
It had a lull during part of the first half but a better second period.

When Juve went close to upsetting the odds and threatening the very confident Barcelona team.

Barca had started very casually, almost suicidally so.
But Juventus failed to capitalise and they then went behind to a goal initially crafted by a superb Messi crossfield pass, followed by a great run by Iniesta and finished by the Croatian Rakitic.

Some would then predict a comfortable Barca win especially if they got a second.
However while it remained a single goal Juve could stay in contention.

And, as the second half progressed, they started to trouble the Catalan defence with Evra more adventurous and Pogba showing his potential.
This period culminated in a Tevez shot being parried by ter Stegen to ex-Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata who converted for the equaliser.

For a while it then looked like Juve might pull off a shock but when you have the best player in the world in your side it only takes a moment and the pattern of the match has changed.
Messi’s strong shot on 68 minutes was only partially saved by Buffon and Luis Suarez was ready to pounce to make it 2-1.

At the death, with Juventus pressing for another leveller, Barca broke away and Brazilian Neymar joyously drove in the clincher.

It was Barcelona’s 5th title and their evident confidence was ultimately justified although the Italians gave a spirited account of themselves.
In the end the ‘trident’ of Messi, Suarez and Neymar surpassed their counterparts Tevez and Morata.

I couldn’t endure the long wait for the presentations and battled my way out of the stadium, past the hundreds still trying to get in and was back at my hotel by midnight.

7th June Ireland 0 England 0  International  Dublin  43,480 (c. 3,000 away)

Another early start to get the 7am flight to London and a connection on to Dublin for this friendly.

The logistics worked fine - I arrived in Dublin airport at 11am and was lucky enough to get a lift to the Arriva in good time for the 1pm start.
In comparison with the previous night the game was lamentable.
With little flow and few moments of quality.

Ireland, who threatened from set plays as expected, could take more out of their runout having not lost to a superior team and presumably not incurred any significant injuries ahead of their important encounter with the Scots.

For England it seemed many players were already mentally ‘on the beach’.
Jack Wilshere was one who did shine a times, as did Joe Hart and Jamie Vardy could relish his debut but for many it was a match to forget.

If one moment summed up the contrast with the Champions League final it was when Rooney badly miscontrolled a through ball - if that had been Suarez or Messi the outcome would no doubt have been different.

And so from early on a goalless draw was predictable.

On the plus side there were no apparent incidents and little untoward chanting.
Naturally the banter about Blatter was humorously received.

1966 World Cup winner and ex-Ireland coach Jack Charlton probably enjoyed his lunch and then quickly looked forward to the fishing.

Meanwhile I negotiated the walk around the Aviva and enjoyed a meal (Rogan Josh) with a friend before getting the flight back to London.

more pictures at

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

UEFA Europa League final & Romania May 2015

The Europa League final in Warsaw plus the Romanian Cup final and two league matches in Romania.

Wacky Bacca.

27 May 2015   Dnipro 2 Sevilla 3  Europa League final 45,000   National stadium Warsaw

I took a late decision to travel to Warsaw for this final and, perhaps, inevitably had some trauma finding a hotel for the Wednesday night.

With the only availability being at sky-high prices, or in distant locations, I eventually took a chance on a late cancellation at the small hotel I stayed in the night before.
That meant hanging around until about 6pm, when luckily a room did become free.

The alternative, trying to sleep in the station, was not a particularly pleasant thought.

Another option was taking an apparently midnight train towards Breclav but though it was shown on one railway timetable website it turned out not to be running.

Anyway I made a return visit to the impressive National stadium on a chilly night near the Wisla river.
With the roof closed there was a vibrant atmosphere, with Ukrainians to the left and Spaniards to the right.

And we had a surprising start with Kalinic winning a header, nodding on to Matheus who delivered a neat cross for the Croatian striker to head in after just seven minutes.
It was a great beginning to a half that provided plenty of action.

Though Sevilla dominated possession Dnipro always presented a threat on the break.

After the initial setback the Spanish title holders would hit back with two quick goals, firstly through Pole Krychowiak then the first of a double by Carlos Bacca.
Well known ex-Arsenal midfielder Jose Antonio Reyes had delivered the pass for Bacca and the Columbian kept his nerve to round Boyko and score.

It then seemed like Sevilla would consolidate but Dnipro proved determined and resilient and got an equaliser just before half time when their captain Rotan chipped in a free kick.

The second half slowed down and the deciding goal came after 73 minutes - a high ball was not properly cleared and Vitolo picked out a pass to Bacca who scored left footed.
There was no way back for Dnipro after that.

We had a moment of concern (and sudden quiet in the crowd) for Brazilian Matheus when he went down with a delayed reaction to a clash of heads but I assume he recovered well enough.

So Sevilla retained the Europa League and gained direct entry into next years’ Champions League.
The win would also, no doubt, enhance the future prospects of their coach Unai Emery.

While Dnipro could look back on a great campaign and a spirited effort in the final.

I warmed up with a brisk walk to the hotel - with an early train to catch I had opted not to stay for the usually prolonged presentations.  

Dinamo runs down.

29th May  Dinamo Bucharest 0 Astra Giurgiu 2  Liga 1  c. 2,000 (c. 20 away)

Some 30 hours of train rides, the loss of a mobile phone and a reasonable night to myself in a sleeping car later and I was in the Romanian capital.

It was not the most convenient route, or particularly cheap, but I had the time.
(and plenty to read)

Dinamo’s stadium, near to centre of Bucharest, has that typical Eastern European feel with lots of open seating and partial cover along the sides.
A small group of away fans were positioned to the right while the home ultras were to the left.
In front of them the firemen were ready to damp down the fireworks.

But none were lit as there was not much for the home fans to celebrate.
Their team had lots of possession but, apart from the odd effort, failed to produce in the final third.

Astra moved up to third with this victory and they  offered more threats on goal, often prompted by their captain Budescu.
The opening goal was converted by their striker Alibec following a cross from the right.

Astra consolidated soon after the interval when Brazilian William broke away before being brought down in the area.
Budescu coolly dispatched the penalty.

Meanwhile the pattern of steady Dinamo buildup continued as the second period progressed, without much change.
In fact it got worse for the home side with Steliano Filip getting dismissed after a second yellow card.

There was no way back for them after that.

I walked back to my hotel near the station and had a glass of wine as a nightcap.

Crying over.

30th May Univ. Craiova 3 CFR Cluj 0  Liga 1  1,500 (7 away)

Craiova is three hours or so on the train from Bucharest.

It has a pleasant, partly redeveloped, centre with some conducive bars.
In one I had a pre-game glass of Belgian beer whilst admiring the indigenous scenery.

Further south next to the substantial Romanescu Park is the less substantial Extensiv stadium, the temporary home of Universitatea.

This was the final game of the Romanian league season (which curiously did not all complete on the same day) and it felt like an end-of-season encounter for most of the first half.
The only threats came from free kicks including from the local Player-of-the Season (given a nice trophy before the start) Bogdan Vatajelu.

However the stalemate changed soon after halftime when striker Bawab (also given an award) headed in from close range.
Another was added when energetic Cape Verdean Nuno Rocha surged down the left and crossed for Baluta to convert a fine second.

The deciding strike was also scored by Bawab after he avoided the offside trap to chip over Amadio Remo in the CFR goal.

It was a satisfying way to finish for the home side before a fairly small crowd in warm conditions.

Back in the centre I enjoyed an evening meal as the locals strolled around a la Italia.

Steaua power dampens Cluj flares.

31st May  Steaua Bucharest 3 Univ. Cluj 0  Romanian Cup final  37,764

Back in the capital the 77th edition of the Romanian Cup final was played in the modern National Stadium before an audience of mostly Steaua fans.
However the Cluj contingent, in the left hand end, produced much more noise.

Not only songs but a plethora of flares - many thrown onto the pitch at the start of the match.
That delayed proceedings for about 3 minutes while the firemen damped down the debris.

After the smoke had cleared Steaua scored - Adrian Popa getting the first of his two goals - both going in via a post.
That added to the Bucharest sides’ confidence and they dominated the first half with Dutch midfielder Breeveld consistently setting up attacks.
Universitatea only seemed to get anywhere from misplaced Steaua passes.

Otherwise they never managed to exert much influence although Cameroon striker Mengolo showed pace up front without much support.

Cluj did stay in the game until halftime but soon after the outcome was decided when first Rusescu finished a fine move started by a raking crossfield pass by Breeveld.
Then Popa cut in from the right and struck a great left foot shot in-off the ‘woodwork.

That was game over but the ‘U’ ultras kept on singing and they even woke up the Steaua fans with a  ‘Dinamo’ chant.

But the ‘Red and Blues’ had the last word and they could celebrate a record 22nd Cup victory and it left Universitatea having to wait at least 51 years for another such triumph.

Despite being told the metro would still be running past the usual 11 o’clock this turned out not to be the case so I had to get a taxi back to the hotel where I calmed down with a couple of glasses of red wine.

more pictures at