Tuesday, May 31, 2016

UEFA Champions League final & Switzerland May 2016

A trip to Switzerland followed by the UEFA Champions League final in Milan

27th May 2016  Winterthur 0 Chiasso 0  Challenge League   3,000 (c. 15 away)

My route was from London to Zurich then a short train ride to Winterthur for this second level match.

It was the final game of the season for these two teams and a reasonable crowd turned out on a warm evening.
The Stadion Schutzenwiese is conveniently close the centre and it is worth a visit.

There is a sizeable covered terrace, two open ends and a good main stand.
The home ultras placed themselves behind one goal and the small, but keen, group of away supporters were at the other end.

Prior to the start we had a presentation to home striker Patrick Bengondo and it turned into a bit of a love-in for the Cameroonian.
Although he never got close to scoring he was clearly a big favourite and he enjoyed more acclaim as he did a lap of honour after being substituted later on.

The first half belonged to the home side with Milani and Hajrovic going closest.
Chiasso had about one serious effort.

But that pattern changed in the second period as Sergio Martin Cortelezzi wasted a number of passable chances for the visitors.
The match flowed better after the interval although it seemed to be drifting to an inevitable conclusion.

Then we had some late drama.
A long ball was misjudged by home goalie Minder (a great name for a goalkeeper !) who brought down an advancing forward.
Minder got red and the other player was carried off.

Silence from the locals who then saw home sub. Holenstein miss a great chance with the last kick of the match.
So it finished goalless.

A short walk to the station for the train back to Zurich and a nightcap in my hotel.

The next day I was on the train to Milano.
However that didn’t go too smoothly because of a track problem some way north of Bellinzona.

So much for Swiss efficiency.
Hundreds of travellers stuck in a small town waiting for buses, and no coordination with the follow-on trains.
That all meant I arrived over 2 hours late into Milano Centrale.
Still enough time but not ideal preparation for the ‘biggest club game in the world’.

On these days centres of cities are packed with fans and many others and so it was with the central station - mainly thousands of Atletico supporters thronging the magnificent surroundings.

On a very hot day it resulted in a sticky journey over to my hotel in the Ca Granda area of the city.
At least the local metro was on the same line (M5) as the San Siro.

28th May  Atletico Madrid 1 Real Madrid 1 (Real won 5-3 on penalties)  UEFA Champions League final  San Siro Milan   71,942

The new metro line makes it easier to get there and emerging and seeing those towers and that roof still has quite an impact.
Enhanced for Italia ‘90 the stadium certainly generates some atmosphere as the noise tumbles down from those steep, high ends.
However look closer and it does need an update.

But with red & white to the right and white to the left what’s not to like ?

Definitely no problem with the sound system though as Alicia Keys sang her songs, for a bit too long such that the start was delayed by about 5 minutes.

When we got going it was Los Blancos who went closest, especially the impressive Casemiro.
Oblak managed to block his effort but he was powerless to stop captain Sergio Ramos scoring from close range.
However it was subsequently judged to have been offside - a blot on the English officials.

Atletico just offered one or two Griezmann shots in an otherwise moderate 45 for Diego Simeone’s men.

But that would eventually change, and they should have been level soon after the break when Fernando Torres (otherwise fairly anonymous) was brought down in the area.
Sadly for the Atleti fans Griezmann powered his shot against the bar.

As the half progressed Real relied more on breakaways with Bale and Benzema both having chances to wrap up the game.
They spurned those chances and Atletico got the equaliser when Juanfran produced a great right wing cross and sub. Carrasco scored from close range.

So we went to extra time, with players on both sides clearly feeling the pace.
It was Real who looked more likely to break the deadlock.

But no breakthrough happened and we prepared for the drama of the penalty shootout.

It began with Sergio Ramos winning the toss and electing (obviously) to take the penalties at the Real ‘end’ of the San Siro.

We saw seven confident and decisive strikes before defender Juanfran stepped up.
He seemed to rush his effort and the connection was not pure resulting in the ball clipping the post and going wide.

That left the stage to CR7 who converted easily and celebrated wildly to give Real their 11th success.
Heartbreak for Atletico and their magnificent fans.

As it could well be the last chance for the current team (Torres, Gabi and co.) and possibly their last opportunity under coach Simeone.

Many neutrals also, no doubt, felt for the men in red & white.

It meant a very quiet return metro ride home amongst the distraught fans.

But you can’t deny the drama that unfolds in such situations.

The next morning I got back to Centrale and took the bus to Bergamo airport for the flight back to Stansted reflecting on a mega-hyped showpiece event that ends the club season in most of Europe.

Could you have an alternative ending ?

Well a replay would be out of the question given all the focus on the one night and as for another option instead of penalties - they have been around so long now & given the drama they present it would seem the only viable conclusion.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sweden & Basel May 2016

Four matches in Sweden including a Stockholm derby and then the Europa League final in Basel.

13th May 2016  Jonkopings Sodra 1 Helsingborgs 1  Allsvenskan   5,005 (c. 500 away)

My route was a flight into Gothenburg then I used the bus company ‘bus4you’, at quite a reasonable price, to get to Jonkopings.

The old style ground is walkable from the centre although it’s mostly uphill.
When you get there you see semi-temporary ends, to the left the away section and to the right the home fans.
Opposite is a low level covered stand while the ‘main stand’ is slightly larger.

And a good crowd turned out on this Friday night including decent numbers supporting Helsingborg.

Of particular interest was the family connections in each team.
The coach of Jonkopings, Jimmy Thelin, had as his captain his younger brother Tommy while the more famous manager of the visitors, Henrik Larsson, included his son Jordan (apparently named after the basketball star) up front.

Ultimately it was honours even.

Jonkopings produced more chances in the first period although it was Helsingborg who went closest, twice hitting the frame of the goal.
And it was the visitors who went ahead when tall defender Helstrup Jensen nodded home a corner on the stroke of half time.

In effect the lead did not last long as Pawel Cibicki nicely guided in a shot from the edge of the area soon after the interval.
Both Cibicki and Northern Irishman Daryl Smylie had a few more efforts but Chencinski in the away goal remained solid.

It was a hard fought game throughout and a draw seemed about right.

I was close enough to observe Henrik Larsson and he constantly encouraged from the touchline, offering an arm around the shoulder as necessary.
As for his son, well he showed some fine left foot touches but never had many opportunities to add to his goal tally.

It got chilly later and I warmed up on the downhill walk and enjoyed a pint, at a cost, in a pub on the way back to my hotel.
Many of the locals were doing the same, including some students in end-of-term attire (I think)

14th May  Kalmar 1 Hammarby 1  Allsvenskan  10,289 (c. 3,000 away)

From Jonkopings I was joined by some Hammarby fans for the journey to Alvesta, then more for the connection on to Kalmar.
The town itself was well stocked with those in green & white.
And not surprisingly they packed into one end of the newish Guldfageln Arena.

The pre-game show featured a tumult of smoke, most being green & white though the home fans also did their thing.
Such was the scene that the game was delayed for over 15 minutes, apparently there was a security camera issue as well.

When we eventually started Kalmar did the pressing, producing a series of corners and they generally looked more fluent.
Especially in midfield where the Brazilians Lima and Romario often set up the moves.

They got their reward when Antonsson, after missing an earlier chance, benefited from a defender error to drive in the opener.
It was a dominant first half effort from the home side.

But in a game-of-two-halves scenario Hammarby, now attacking their vociferous fans, brought on Alexssander and he soon perked up their attack.
So on the hour they equalised.

Otherwise fairly anonymous top scorer Israelsson was allowed too much space and he curled a shot into the top corner to make it 1-1.
Both sides had some more half chances but ultimately the match drifted towards a draw.

What remained was the memory of the superb Hammarby support.

I took the bus back to the station and thence on to my hotel in Alvesta.

Nearby was a restaurant - Alvesta is not flush with such things.
There I selected a kebab salad while Swedish Gladiators performed on the TV.

Later I managed to stay awake long enough to see most of the Eurovision acts.
Favouring Australia I did wonder should they have won would they have staged the next event in Earl’s Court - or is that an outdated take on such things ?

15th May  AFC United 1 Varbergs 1  Superettan  273

Sunday morning and an early train to the capital.
Which was not at its best with a chilly wind and rain.

But staying in Solna meant I didn’t have far to go to see this second level game involving the league leaders.
Their Skytteholms ground is small with one stand and some old wooden terrace at either end.

If they did manage to get promoted they would definitely have to play at a larger stadium.
The match itself, on an artificial surface, was yet another 1-1 draw.

AFC went behind early when Ghanaian wide man Thomas Boakye cracked in a shot off the bar following a corner.

It seemed that the home side were not at their best.
When they did threaten it was usually from Dutch winger Othman El Kabir.

Despite having more possession it took them a while before they levelled.
And El Kabir was inevitably involved, his shot hitting the post before sub. Ferid Ali drove home the rebound.  

Both sides came close, including an effort cleared from the line, prior to the conclusion.

It had been a chilly watch and I could have done with my woolly hat and gloves.

Afterwards I enjoyed some Souvlaki and Baklava as the weather turned even more wintry.

16th May  AIK 2 Djurgarden 0  Allsvenskan  26,109 (c. 6,000 away)

The morning and early afternoon was taken up with some time in central Stockholm and a visit to the very popular, and stunning, Vasa Museum.
Interesting to note that the vast ship, sunk in 1628,  had only two crew toilets - much like the Heathrow Express.
You have to hope they worked better.

Later & back in thankfully milder Solna I walked to the impressive Friends Arena for this Stockholm derby.
You could tell it was a significant match because there was a helicopter overhead.

And inside the ultras were well organised to put on a show.

That meant copious smoke, at both ends.
Again the start was delayed.

When we got going the match, for a derby, became quite open.
With periods of end to end action.

But the outcome was decided by two set plays.
Firstly Stefan Ishizaki chipped in a free kick that probably should have been dealt with by the Djurgarden goalie.
The second, on 56 minutes, was a straightforward header by Icelander Haukur Hauksson.

It was a mostly disappointing display by the visitors who were always denied by Carlgren in the AIK goal when they did threaten.
Throughout we had a fine range of songs from the home ultras as well as plenty of flares.
And they would go home happy with their team advancing to 4th in the Allsvenskan.

From Stockholm I travelled via Dusseldorf to Zurich then on to my hotel in Mulhouse (Dornach).
The evening was spent enjoying some saumon fume, cote de veau, assiette de fromage and
some vino tinto - sometimes you just have to slum it.

The following day I joined numbers of Liverpool fans on the train to Basel.

18th May   Liverpool 1 Sevilla 3   Europa League final   Basel  34,429

Not surprisingly red was the predominate colour as we sat in Starbucks watching the fans walking back and forth.
And there was plenty of walking to be done as there didn’t seem to be any viable transport to get to the awkwardly positioned St Jakob Park.

But once inside the stadium you could experience some atmosphere, and see a small skirmish between two sets of adjacent fans.
Nothing like the bad old days but highlighted now because it doesn’t occur so often.

That was soon quelled and we sat back and watched a mercifully short Opening Ceremony.
Before the two teams emerged into the noise.

Certainly it was the Liverpool fans who turned up the volume for the first half of the match.

And their team had the better of the first period culminating in a superb finish from Daniel Sturridge.
They might have had a another had the officials given a debatable handball decision.

In what was, at times, a very fragmented 45 minutes the Merseysiders went in ahead and looked on for a revival of past glories.

But within seconds of the restart that all changed.

Ferreira attacked down the right flank, crossed and top scorer Kevin Gameiro, up until then an observer, converted from close range for 1-1.

As many saw it Alberto Moreno was culpable but as the half wore on a number of his colleagues also went missing as Liverpool produced a very passive and tame second half performance.

Sevilla never looked back and captain Coke added two more including a brilliant combination move with Vitolo and Banega.
They might even have added a couple more as Liverpool weakly capitulated .

That was despite Jurgen Klopp’s desperate urging from the touchline.
Tellingly one of the better overall Liverpool performances was from ageing defender Kolo Toure.
Though Lallana, Milner, Can and co. delivered in the first half not much was seen of them afterwards.

And when the outcome became inevitable, and with no Steven Gerrard for inspiration, the Reds fans starting to silently drift away.
I guess they felt they had given enough support but their team had lacked staying power.

For Unai Emery’s Sevilla and the Spanish contingent it was a great triumph to claim a third successive such title.
While for Klopp, who has now lost 5 consecutive major finals, it means some soul searching in the close season.
Does he enhance what he has with a few amendments or go for drastic surgery ?

Like many I didn’t remain for the, no doubt, prolonged final rites and walked back with the LIverpool fans into the rainy night.
A couple of drinks in the hotel and bed soon after midnight for your correspondent.

The next day I travelled back via Geneva to London.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Austria May 2016

Three games in Austria including a visit to the home of Mozart and a Rapid away match.

Segovia is instrumental.

6th May 2016  St Polten 2 KSV1919 1  Austrian 1st League   2,582

From Vienna by train to sunny St Polten for this second level encounter.

The home side has a neat modern stadium with plenty on offer in the way of hospitality.
Certainly those fortified by the refreshments (not your correspondent I might add, until later)
particularly enjoyed the second half.

Before that St P missed a range of chances in what was an open game although of moderate quality.
For their part KSV should have had a penalty when Dos Santos, after eluding the goalie, found his way blocked by a home defender’s handball.
With negligible away fans there was no outcry and the officials failed to spot it.

Soon after the interval St Polten went ahead when Hartl broke down the right and his cross was well controlled and shot in by Spanish striker and top scorer Daniel Segovia.

It seemed St P were well in control.

But KSV had their say as a penalty was awarded for a rash challenge and Marco Perchtold calmly stepped up to slot home the spot kick for a somewhat undeserved equaliser.
Those in hospitality almost choked on their chicken legs.

However with five minutes remaining Senegal wide-man Cheikhou Dieng, who had a lively match, delivered a free kick to the far post and Segovia rose highest to head home the winner.
Cue much noise and happy campers.

The win (and with LASK losing) certainly enhanced St Polten’s challenge for promotion to the Bundesliga.
I couldn’t resist the chicken and the vino before strolling back to my apartment near the Traisenpark on a nicely mild evening.

Sturm and Draw.

7th May  Red Bull Salzburg 1 Sturm Graz 1  Bundesliga  11,327 (c. 500 away)

From chicken wings to a drink that gives you wings.

Not that the home side particularly need much fortification as a draw was enough for them to clinch another Austrian title.
Although the home ultras did their best it seemed a slightly low key celebration compared to those in (say) Leicester.

Sturm, also well supported by their ultras, began well and clipped the bar early on.

But then RB took over and Norwegian Valon Berisha cracked in a fine shot on 17 minutes.
A couple of times later the home midfield setup reserve striker Yordy Reyna but he failed to capitalise.

It did seem that RB missed league top scorer Jonathan Soriano.
And one goal was not quite enough for the win as defender Miranda allowed Nigerian Bright Edomwonyi to break forward and he took his chance to deliver the leveller.

Substitute Hee did go close to getting the winner for RB but in the end a draw was adequate.

I took the bus back to the centre and had some vino as a nightcap.

Rapid in control.

8th May  Mattersburg 0 Rapid Vienna 2  Bundesliga  4,500 (c. 900 away)

A cost effective way to get from Salzburg to Vienna is via the private rail company Westbahn and that is the method I chose.
From Vienna I travelled on to Wiener Neustadt and then Mattersburg.

On the way my companions included some of the Rapid ultras, well stocked with beer.

Mattersburg was fairly sleepy and without those visitors in green & white (or black in the case of the ultras) it would have been nearly comatose on this Sunday afternoon.

Your correspondent enjoyed a spritzer and some ice cream in the sunshine before the match.

Inside you see a quirky ground - grass bank at one end, large away terrace at the other plus some semi-temporary seating along one side + camera towers.

The stars of the show were the Rapid ultras who not only brought beer but a whole load of flares and other paraphernalia.
So we saw a rich display of multicoloured smoke and choreo.
Including a picture of an old stand, or was it an image from the new stadium ?

Incidentally I passed the new Rapid ground on the train earlier.
Apparently the opening game is likely to be against Chelsea.

Back to the game and on the field the star was the Rapid full back Mario Pavelic who drove in a great right footer from about 30 yards early in the first period.
Mario tried three or four other attempts but none matched that opener.

But Rapid dominated possession and left Mattersburg with just the odd chance (including a nice break by Prietl)
The second placed visitors should have scored more against their lowly opponents.

However Mattersburg had more opportunities in the second half especially with headed chances and one cross that Patrick Burger might have converted.

But any hopes of a late equaliser were doused when sub Philipp Prosenik was released and he neatly chipped Borenitsch in the home goal for the clincher.

Back at the station I joined the ultras, some of whom were buying Jagermeister to boost their alcohol intake.

Red wine was my choice later in the evening.