Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spain November 2016

Three games in northern Spain.

I based myself in central Bilbao for this weekend trip to the Basque country.

That Condor moment.

19th November  Gernika 1 Athletic B 0  Segunda B  500 (c. 20 away)

Gernika/Guernica has a place in the hearts of all Basques and has become significant for many others around the world.
The local museum presents the history of the infamous bombing of the town by the Condor Legion in 1937, at the behest of the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.

Themed as a Peace Museum it also highlights the work of many famous campaigners around the world.
Nearby is a Pablo Picasso bar and street, the artist’s memorable painting having served to sear the name of Gernika into many people’s memory.

Gernika was targeted because of its significance in the Basque culture and history and you can still see the remains of one the famous trees under which the locals assembled in times gone by.

Assembling for the football took place at the small Urbieta stadium, a fifteen minute stroll from the centre.
The ground comprises a main stand, old open terrace/seating and a Jai alai (pelota) court at one end.

On the pitch we saw a fairly contest with the ‘B’ team generally passing it around and the home side being more direct.
Gernika improved after the break and they hit the bar in the final five minutes.
It seemed that would be the nearest to a decider until we entered the closing minutes of added time when the home side were awarded a free kick just outside the area.

After the referee had sorted out the wall Larruzea drove a right footer into the top of the net.
Fans and players could celebrate.

I took the train, slightly slower than the bus but conveniently timed, back to Bilbao and spent the evening with some (Basque) tapas and vino while watching Cristiano Ronaldo strut his stuff for Real Madrid.

Morenoshank Redemption.

20th November  Deportivo Alaves 0 Espanyol 1  Primera  19,550 (c. 150 away)

Vitoria Gastiez can be reached by bus in under an hour and that was my route for this midday kickoff.
The city is renowned for its greenery and on this Sunday morning, in the rain, you could understand why the grass might grow.

Walkable from the bus station is the Mendizorrotza Stadium, and its not difficult to work out the local teams colours, the neat tiers being all resplendent in blue.

With a midday kickoff many fans arrived after the start and it took a while for the noise to get going in what became a nearly full stadium.

Perhaps not surprisingly with the two teams adjacent in mid-table it was likely to be an even contest.
Espanyol, in particular the ageless Jose Reyes, clipped the bar from a free kick in the first period and Alaves had a few half chances including a Deyverson disallowed effort.

The decider came from a Gerard Moreno header, converted from a corner on 81 minutes.
Seconds earlier the same player had a penalty saved by Pacheco after Alexis had handled.

The home side never really got close enough to respond and so it meant redemption for Moreno and three points to take back to Barcelona.

Then it was a return bus ride back to Bilbao, a break for more tapas and then a stroll to the San Mames.

Bilbo Baggins.

20th November  Athletic Bilbao 1 Villarreal 0 Primera  38,245 (c. 10 away)

Near the centre, atmospheric and a vision in red the new San Mames must be one of the better new builds.

On the pitch we watched a steady first half with limited opportunities possibly edged by the visitors.
The second period had a lot more action.

And it often featured striker Aritz Aduriz.
After seeing him contribute little at Wembley for Spain this time he became a lot more involved.
Headed chances and a breakaway opportunity featured before his shot inside the area on 67 minutes caused Asenjo to parry and Raul Garcia was on hand to score what turned into the winner.

Inaki Williams was another who played a part, his pace often creating chances, though he did contrive to hit the post after evading the goalie.

The Yellow Submarine brought some star substitutes, Pato (nice run and shot), Bakambu (missed half chance) and Jonathan Dos Santos, but to no avail.

Ultimately the Basques could enjoy the result against the highflying Villarreal.

While I joined the massed ranks on the walk back to the centre.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Ireland November 2016

A flight from London to George Best airport on Saturday morning.

Then I made the walk through part of East Belfast, with its flags and murals, to Tillysburn Park.

5th November H & W Welders 0 Institute 2  NI Championship  c. 80

This was a convenient fixture prior to my visit to Dublin.

Although there was a very chilly wind fortunately the ‘main stand’ afforded a seat in the bright sunshine to watch this encounter.
The Welders had some reasonable chances before the team from near Derry went ahead from a penalty just before the interval.

Institute added another after 66 minutes and they probably deserved the victory.
Overall they played the more controlled football whereas H & W were more direct.

Institute moved into third and look to have a reasonable chance of promotion back to the top level.

Afterwards I moved to the Europa for the bus down to Dublin.

6th November Cork City 1 Dundalk 0  FAI Cup Final  Aviva Stadium  26,400

I stayed out towards the M50 (Dublin centre hotels are not cheap) and got the Luas into Abbey street late Sunday morning.
Along the way some Cork fans joined at the Heuston station stop.
They were in the majority and no doubt would enjoy their time in the capital.

Rather than settle for watching the N. London derby in the pub I chose culture.

In particular the National Gallery where you can admire timeless masterpieces by Vermeer and Monet.
And at the moment a fascinating exhibition of Irish historical art that captures images from the period around 1916 as well as much earlier.
An elderly gentleman was walking round with a young relative endeavouring to explain the turbulent events of the last 100 years or so.

And there was a bit of turbulence at the Aviva where both sets of fans produced flares to warm up the afternoon.
I seem to remember they first appeared in Italy (?) about thirty years ago and it has taken that long for these Isles to ‘catch up’.

On the pitch we witnessed a hard fought encounter, a repeat of the previous year albeit with an alternative outcome.
League champions Dundalk dominated the first period and they should have been in front with David McMillan having at least one good opportunity.
Promising wide man Daryl Horgan also provided threats down the wing.

But Cork did much better in the second period and both sides had decent half chances.
The ninety minutes ended goalless and we entered extra time.

Despite their extensive schedule and travelling Dundalk edged most of those additional minutes, in general they played the steadier passing game while Cork were more direct.

Penalties then seemed likely until Luton-born Sean Maguire produced a shot that was partly blocked but drifted agonisingly into the corner of the Dundalk goal.
Much celebration ensued amongst the men from Cork and their fans behind the goal.

It was the final minute and though Dundalk sent everyone forward for one last effort it was to no avail.
Cork had won the Cup and had reversed last years result.

Back at the Red Cow I had some beef and, appropriately, Guinness.

The next morning I took the bus to Dublin airport, going the other way were Irish-based Liverpool fans returning from the mainland.
Once upon a time I too would have been at Anfield, now I choose alternative places.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Hong Kong & China October 2016

Five games in Hong Kong and two in the Chinese Super League.

From Heathrow to Hong Kong, arriving early Saturday morning.
After a coffee at the airport, a bus to Kowloon and my (basic) hotel.

22nd October  Southern District 7 Hong Kong FC 0  Premier League  239

For simplicity I took a taxi to Aberdeen for this opening afternoon match that turned into a very one-sided affair.
I expected it to be low key and indeed it was.

HKFC were poor with some defenders having the turning circle of an ocean liner and it ended as a facile win for the home side.
The opposition made Brazilian forward Wellingsson look like a world beater as he notched a comfortable hat-trick.

Expect HKFC to be relegated if it stays like this.

22nd October  HK Pegasus 1 Kitchee 3  Premier League  1,110

But the second match of the day, later in the afternoon,  was much more vibrant fare.
This was played in Happy Valley in the impressive main HK stadium (where the dark green seats are similar to those in the US) with skyscrapers as a backdrop.

Though as in all the games here the attendance was fairly small.

League leaders Kitchee looked like a decent team and they went ahead on 14 minutes when a Fernando free kick flew over the home goalie.
(Goalies are not a HK strong point)

Kitchee added a second eight minutes later and although Pegasus managed a penalty before half time it never seemed enough.
And a third via the left foot of Sandro soon confirmed the points would go to the visitors.

On a hot day (I had just missed the typhoon but humidity remained high) I walked back to Causeway and took the metro back to Tsim Sha Tsui.
Where the evening was spent in an upmarket local restaurant enjoying the fish and wine.

Afterwards I endured the usual enquiries as to whether I needed a new suit, or a dodgy watch or indeed a new SIm card. (All were declined)
And the rather annoying wait for a lift up to my 10th floor hotel.

23rd October  R & F 0 Wofoo Tai Po 2  Premier League  210

This match was played in Siu Sai Wan, reachable by MTR then minibus.
Beforehand I made a pre-game visit to Starbucks in the ‘Island Resort’

R&F are the younger version of their equivalent in China and they perhaps characterised an academy team showing good coaching but liable to make mistakes.
One such led to the opening goal when their goalie made a misjudgement and Lucas converted the subsequent spot kick.
The Portuguese would get the clincher in the final minutes from a breakaway.

A few minutes after that we had something of a mass brawl prompted by the actions of Ni Bo of R&F who received a red card.
Eventually that calmed down and the referee soon blew the whistle to end any more nonsense.

I returned on the MTR, took in a visit to the palatial Harbour City mall then chose kimchi and tempura plus a small beer.

24th October South China 2 Lee Man Rangers 4  Premier League  991

The morning was spent initiating the process for my Chinese visa followed by an iconic trip across the harbour on the Star ferry.
Up on the 55th floor of a Central tower block the views were ideal for some snaps of the skyline.

Meanwhile down in Mongkok the most successful club in HK were hosting the club with the Scottish connection.
It turned into the best match of the five I saw in HK often featuring end-to-end action.

Not that it began well for the visitors who allowed Serbian Komazec a nicely chipped opener.
LMR would soon replay when Lai converted a cross a couple of minutes later.

However another defensive error gave Komazec a straightforward second past a static keeper on the half hour.
The first period ended 2-1.

But the visitors always looked capable and they levelled with about twenty minutes remaining.
To the dismay of the home fans (it was about a 50:50 split) LMR finished strongly scoring two late goals in the final minutes.

That gave them their first league victory of the season and took them out of last position.
On another very steamy night I sampled a cocktail in one of the many bars close to the stadium.

26th October Guangzhou R&F 1 Liaoning 1  Super League  7,608 (c. 70 away)

Having picked up my visa the previous day I travelled by train to Guangzhou for this final R&F home game.
I stayed at a business style hotel, which was far better value than in HK, close to a metro station.
The name of the station (and the nearby campus) was South China Normal University, which of course prompted the thought - where is South China Abnormal University ?
And who goes there ?

Anyway most people I met seemed normal.

R&F play near the Sun Yat Sen Memorial & you walk past it on the way to the ground.
Where you soon get engulfed by those trying to sell unwanted tickets.
I enlisted the help of a local English speaker who soon directed me to the right option.

Inside there was clearly plenty of space, in a ground, and in conditions, that felt a little like some in South America.

As in HK (Guangzhou is a two hour train ride away) the temperature and humidity were high and hence we had a couple of drinks breaks.
After the mostly steady pace in HK we were back to serious action.

And it often featured Israeli star man Eran Zahavi who led most of the home attacks.
They struck the bar in the first half and edged the possession.

But it ended all square after 45.

Into the second period and though Zahavi gave R&F the lead with a decisive finish the visitors, from the colder North East, equalised when German defender Lukimya scored from close range.
It was a frustrating finish for the home fans whose team probably should have won but Liaoning certainly had threats.
In particular from free kicks when they, amusingly, had a player duck down in front of the opposition wall, a tactic that brought smiles but ultimately no success.

Back to Memorial for the metro ride home (where the carriages were still crowded even at 10pm)
And then the return train the next morning to HK.

29th October Eastern Long Lions 4 BC Glory Sky 1  Senior Shield  446

Earlier I had visited the excellent HK History Museum which does a fine job of describing both the geological and more recent changes to this dynamic region of Asia.
Maybe the accelerated growth would have happened anyway but it gives you the impression the British didn’t do a bad job overall.

Then one last HK game, this one at Tsing Yi which is on the way to the airport.
Again its a ground overlooked by apartments with views towards the cemetery.

Eastern, the existing league champions, have had some famous English connections including Alan Ball as an ex-player and Bobby Moore as an ex-coach.
But 1966 was a long time ago, as we England fans know.

On this afternoon they did not need help from World Cup winners to beat Glory Sky.
Although the visitors did take the lead when the useful Everton Camargo seem to deceive the home keeper after just ten minutes.
(see previous comment re goalies)

Glory Sky managed to hold that lead until the interval.
However that soon changed when two quick efforts (the first a cross/shot from wide on the right) from Lee turned things around.

The away cause was not helped by having their goalie injured for large parts of the game, he would eventually be replaced, and having tall sub. striker Raul Fabiani dismissed for an ugly ‘scissors’ type tackle later on.

Two late goals sealed the win for Eastern who went through to the semi-finals.
Again it was an easy return ride on the MTR followed by football to watch in a bar (Arsenal) while the Halloween activity was building up.

30th October  Guangzhou Evergrande 4 Shandong Luneng 0  Super League  42,537 (c. 300 away)

And so back to Canton to see the Chinese champions.
Again it was easy enough to buy a ticket and join by far the biggest crowd on this trip.

The stadium in the Tianhe area, fairly close to my hotel, is sizeable and reached via a road lined by more skyscrapers.
Feel the progress.

And checkout the philosophy - as it appeared on billboards along the way - ‘Democracy + Prosperity’, ‘Civility + Harmony’, ‘Freedom + Equality’, ‘Justice + Rule of Law’ and ‘Patriotism + ‘Dedication’.

Meanwhile inside the stadium the fans, with the ‘Canton’ flags prominent, enjoyed a celebratory evening.

Mainly because of the prowess of their Brazilian contingent.
Alan and Ricardo Goulart plus the skills of Paulinho in midfield were all excellent.

All that was too much for Shandong.

Goulart headed the first and set up the second (a superb finish from Liao Lisheng) giving Evergrande a 2-0 half time lead.
Alan was then brought down in the area and he converted the penalty for number three.

On 67 Paulinho delivered the pass for Goulart to deliver his second and the clincher.
The fans began the ‘Wave’ and the home side brought on youngster (born in 2000) Aokai Zhang.

For Shandong, who included Graziano Pelle and Papiss Cisse in their lineup, it was a night of frustration.
They certainly produced threats, hitting the woodwork and developing pressure, but could never quite get over the line.

But they did retain their place in the Super League while Evergrande, coached by Big Phil Scolari, ended seven points clear at the summit.

I decided not to stay for the final presentations (there didn’t seem to be any fireworks) and strolled back to the hotel with beer and nuts on hand.

The following day I returned by train to HK and onward to the airport for the long flight back to the UK.