Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Russia 2017

Seven games at the Confederations Cup in Russia.

Getting the Fan-ID and visa takes a while to reach England but once it arrives you’re all set to travel to Russia.

For me the trip began in Saint Petersburg where it was warm and sunny for the start of this eight team ‘tournament of champions’.

An ideal day to stroll along Nevsky Prospect, admiring the views, along with the tourists thronging the area around the Hermitage.
I forgoed culture this time and nudged down a pastry plus cappuccino in Starbucks.

Before using the ever-efficient metro to Krestovsky island for the opening match.
From there you take the long hike through the park.

Red Machine.

17th June 2017  Russia 2 New Zealand 0   50,251 (not many from NZ)

Built on the site of the old Kirov stadium the new home of Zenit was completed very late and massively over-budget.
But as you might expect it is impressive although the addition of semi-temporary seating at the top level detracts somewhat.

Inevitably the Opening Ceremony involved traditional singing and dancing though sadly without the Black Eyed Peas.
All this took place, oddly, about two hours before the start in front of a small crowd.

Many more were present when President Putin, arriving by helicopter, opened the event saying, I think, ‘you will receive a warm welcome in Russia’.
And ‘hail Trump’ (maybe he didn’t say that)

The crowd cheered loudly as they did when the Russians set about attacking the static NZ defence.
Within a couple of minutes the islanders were clearing balls off the line, often from set plays taken by Samedov.
And on the half hour the hosts took the lead when Glushakov was put through to force the ball home off a defender.

They would add the clincher with about twenty to go after striker Smolov converted a right wing cross.
It was a deserved victory though New Zealand did produce some second half threats from a Thomas shot and a Tommy Smith header.

So a solid beginning for the hosts though more severe tests would follow.

Back in Zagorodnyi Prospect I had an OK pizza in Mama Rosa.

Chile win the replays.

18th June  Chile 2 Cameroon 0  Moscow  33,492

The following day I took the Sapsan high-speed train to Moscow, four hours and on-time.

Again the Russian capital was decidedly warm, a contrast to most other visits when it was definitely not.
Later that evening I took the metro to the relatively new Otkrytiye Arena, home of Spartak, which features a large gladiator statue and a red & white exterior.

Inside a lively crowd of Chilean fans watched on as their team eventually overcame the African champions.

Chile started quickly and soon overran the Cameroon defence, in particular the overworked Collins Fai at left back.
But somehow the Africans held out against Vargas and co. including surviving what looked like a late first half goal by the striker.
Much to the consternation of the South Americans the goal was disallowed, for offside, after reference to the VAR system.

It would one of a number of controversial moments featuring the Video Assistant Referee (s)
at this event.

Cameroon began more promisingly in the second period without offering too many threats to the Chile goal.

The turning point came when Chile’s talisman Alexis Sanchez appeared and it was from his cross that Vidal powerfully headed in for 1-0.
Sanchez should have scored himself (and set a new national goal scoring record) towards the end but delayed his shot giving Ondoa the chance to block.
However Vargas was on hand to convert the follow up.

Much to the amusement of many the VAR had to be called on again to confirm the validity of the goal.

So Chile would press their cause and Cameroon would have to step up a level or two.

The ‘B’ team.

19th June Australia 2 Germany 3   Sochi.  28,605.

And so to the Olympic venue, and resort, of Sochi.
Actually Adler.

They lay on a shuttle bus to take you to a transport hub from where you trek through the Olympic Park to the Fisht stadium.
Which is another with an impressive roof structure, larger sides and ends that have those semi-temporary add-ons.
Judging by how quiet it was Sochi is not a football hotbed.

Most animation came from when the ‘wave’ went around.

On the pitch the German second string set about the Aussies.
And within 5 they were one up when Brandt crossed for the unmarked Stindl to score.
Wagner should have added another soon after.

However the men in yellow created chances, first Sainsbury missed a header, then Rogic was put through to force the ball past Leno at the second attempt.

But within a couple of minutes Germany were ahead again.
Luongo bringing down Goretzka giving captain Draxler the chance to score from the spot.

The reserves soon added to their lead after the interval as Kimmich set Goretzka free to easily beat Ryan for 3-1.

Australia would not quite lie down and Juric pounced on a Leno error on 55 minutes to narrow the scoreline.
This incident again involved the VAR, confirming that the front man did not handle the ball.

Germany would hold out for the win despite some Aussie pressure, with legend Tim Cahill coming on for the final minutes.
The world champions also provided an opportunity for the promising Timo Werner to show his undoubted talent.

Back in Sochi I indulged in a cocktail and some mussels with a touch of caviar (as one does)

CR7 scores on 8.

21st June 2017  Russia 0 Portugal 1  Moscow  42,759

Russia changed formation, with Smolov the sole striker, for this more testing encounter against the European champions.

While Portugal fielded a trio of Silvas’ - Bernardo, Andre and Adrien - and resident superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
Who at times looked a little precious as the Russians tried to unsettle him.

But that was to no avail since on eight minutes Guerrero provided the perfect far post cross and our hero headed past Akinfeev.
That proved the winner.

In general Russia never created much to trouble Rui Patricio although young Golovin showed some skills and Smolov the odd shot.
Defender Dzhikya had perhaps the best chance, late on, but he headed over.

At times the hosts applied pressure, and got the crowd going, but the experienced Portuguese had enough nous to stay in control.

The outcome meant Russia would probably struggle to make the final four.

As usual you did not have to wait long for a metro train back to the centre.


22nd June 2017  Australia 1 Cameroon 1  Saint Petersburg   35,021

Moscow weather was back to normal (rain) as I made the return trip to Leningrad via (naturally) Leningradsky station.
The Sapsan train was as efficient as previously allowing plenty of time to get settled and travel on to Krestovsky island.

Incidentally the island has an interesting history being where a Prince Yusupov fought a duel and near to which they found the corpse of one Rasputin (ref Boney M)

Both teams came into this second match really needing to win.
And as often happens, they didn’t.

That was mainly because Besiktas striker Vincent Aboubakar contrived to miss a series of chances.
Australia started well but the improved Cameroonians got into the contest with Bassogog, Moukandjo and Aboubakar showing some of the ability the led to them winning in Gabon.

There was one particularly nice combination between the latter two in the first half.
Then on the stroke of 45 a straightforward through ball down the right found Zambo Anguissa and he neatly guided his shot past the advancing Ryan for the opener.

It was a merited advantage for the Africans.

But they would be pegged back after Mabouka brought down the useful Gersbach leaving Milligan the chance to level from the spot.

In amongst all that the ball always seem to find Aboubakar but each time he failed to deliver. (One setup by Bassogog was especially feeble)
That left his team frustrated and, like Australia, unlikely to go further.

It was a chilly evening on the island not helped by a brisk wind.
Being an elevated stadium close to rivers I hate to imagine what it would be like to watch in winter.
Some had brought blankets to watch this game - even in June.

Your correspondent warmed up during the long walk back to the metro and during the post match meal (fish)

The following day I flew, via Domodedovo, to Tartarstan.

For a return visit to Kazan.

Where the pedestrianised main street features some street entertainment and numbers of fans strolling around.
My friend Pat, from Ireland, was there with his bag and cuddly Rubin mascot.
We discussed the various logistical issues surrounding  getting around Russia.

Then I adjourned to a traditional restaurant for some local fare - soup, steak and a Tartar dessert creation.

The next day I found an islamic style cafe where the green tea and baklava were great value at just 80 roubles.

Anyway back to the football.

Lozano the brave.

24th June  Russia 1 Mexico 2   41585.

The new stadium in Kazan again offers up an impressive roof structure, larger sides and smaller 2 tier ends.
Strains of ‘Rossiya’ rang out along with the anthems.

Russia really to had to win and for a while they were in with a chance when Samedov finished a sequence that included Smolov hitting the post and an Erokhin airshot.
That got the noise levels up.

It was end to end for a while before the Mexicans levelled on the half hour when a left wing cross was looped over Akinfeev by the head of Araujo.
Smolov had a possible opportunity soon after the interval before Mexico scored a fine winner.
A long punt by Guardado was reached by Lozano and he, bravely, headed past the onrushing Akinfeev.
It was a spectacular decider and fortunate for the striker that Harald Schumacher was not in goal (ref 1982 World Cup)

Subsequently it looked like Mexico had added a third but, after much celebration, it was ruled out by the VAR.
Offside by Hector Moreno.

But Mexico held on OK, though they did survive a glaring miss by sub. Smolnikov, to qualify for the last four with Portugal.
The crowd would drift away early and the hosts departed with them.

I marched to the bus and onward to my hotel (stopping for a 5.7 beer and nut bar along the way)
Behind me the minarets were framed by a notable sunset.
Setting on the Russian Confeds Cup campaign.

Chile do enough.

25th June  Australia 1 Chile 1    33,639   Moscow.

The flight back to the capital takes just over the hour and I took the familiar route through Domodedovo to the airport express train and Paveletsky.

For the final group game of the South American and Asian champions.
As before the large Chile contingent extended their anthem prior to the start.

And respect was due to Tim Cahill who notched up his 100th cap.
I guess he won a few headers during those matches.
And one or two in this game before being substituted later on.

Australia needed an unlikely decisive victory to go through and they set about the task in a robust manner gaining a number of yellows along the way.
And surprisingly they did take the lead when the ball broke to Troisi who couldn’t miss from close in.
That was on 42 minutes and gave them the first period advantage.

Chile made changes including bringing on Rodriguez who would score the equaliser after Vargas had headed back a Mena cross.
Though Sainsbury might have done better with a volley the Aussies never really looked like doing enough.

While the South Americans, though never fluent, were able to go on to meet Portugal in the semis.
Back via Tushinskya metro I chose some Georgian stew and a (moderate) baklava for dinner.

And so ended my 7 games in Russia.

The following day I travelled back via a crowded Domodedovo airport to the UK.

Going to the World Cup ?

Well expect some logistical and linguistic challenges.
You will meet numerous volunteers who are good at pointing but not much else.
Some can speak English and some can provide useful information.

While the locals, assuming they comprehend what you need, are helpful.

Expect to walk a lot because, as usual, FIFA and the Organising Committee, arrange most transport to be in another oblast from the stadiums.
It there is a long way round to your entry point then you’ll probably be taking that route.

But on the other hand the metros are fearsomely efficient as is the Sapsan, high speed train (assuming you can make a reservation)

Moscow and St Petersburg should manage OK next year but how the smaller host cities will cope with a large influx of fans is another matter.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Paris June 2017

13th June 2017  France 3 England 2  Friendly   Stade de France

I let the Eurostar take the strain and it was relatively painless.

Arriving in Paris in the middle of a warm Tuesday afternoon gave me time to collect the match ticket and settle down in a budget hotel near the Peripherique.

From where I took the familiar journey of metro and RER to the Stade.

The England section was separated off from the rest but with more than adequate, though pricey, refreshment options (i.e. beer)
Inside the locals did us proud with sympathetic choreo and a stirring rendition of ‘Don’t look back in anger’.

On the pitch the locals displayed their attacking talent.
In particular the precocious Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele.
Our central defence proved a poor match for these two.

However we did start well with Bertrand setting up captain Kane for a close range finish on 9 minutes.
Only for the French to equalise when a free kick reached Giroud whose header was parried leaving Umtiti to drive for 1-1.

In an entertaining game Sidibe was on hand for another follow up finish just before the break after a Dembele shot was again diverted.
That gave the French a 2-1 half time lead and the feeling was they would keep it.

But straight after the restart Alli broke through and tangled with Varane in the area.
Enter the ‘VAR’ - for the first time in an England game - and the subsequent, fairly brisk, award of a penalty and the, harsh, dismissal of the Real Madrid defender.

Kane decisively struck home the spot kick past his Tottenham team mate.

So England in the ascendency.
Well maybe not.

Because the talented French side carried on attacking.
And Mbappe should have delivered no.3 but contrived to hit the bar when presented with an open goal.
But his fellow striker Dembele would produce the coup de grace shooting past Butland with 12 remaining.
All this would expose the defensive (and midfield) limitations of the visitors.

So England had taken part in a couple of games with plenty goals but most fans will have the usual doubts.
Qualification for Russia is a given but how will we cope against quality teams like France and in particular pacy and skillful attackers like Mbappe and Dembele ?

A familiar pattern looks likely to emerge.