Archive for February 19th, 2008

Liverpool 2-0 Inter: 10-Men Nerazzurri in Deep Trouble at Anfield (Champions League Round of 16, Leg 1)

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Liverpool vs. Inter Milan (UEFA Champions League)

The knock-out round of the UEFA Champions League has officially begun Tuesday night, and things didn’t start in the best of ways for Internazionale. With Fabio Capello as witness (the England manager was a guest of honor tonight), the Nerazzurri have lost 2-0 in the home of the Reds, Anfield Road: the mythical stadium of Liverpool, the venue which strikes fear into all those who step onto its grass. Roberto Mancini’s men did resist for over an hour playing one man down (double yellow for Marco Materazzi), but the energetic verve and incessant attacks of Liverpool proved to be too much. Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard have put a double warranty stamp onto Quarter-final qualification, and it will be very hard indeed for Inter to overcome the two goal deficit, even in their home of Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.

Champions League Round of 16 - Leg 1 - Liverpool 2-0 Inter

Tactically, Inter coach Roberto Mancini decided not to risk Patrick vieira from the start, putting his faith into Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic instead. The two center mids were supported by Javier Zanetti and Maxwell, while Christian Chivu, often ‘promoted’ to a midfield role this season, occupied the left-back position. Up front, scoring duties were lefts into the expert hands (or feet rather) of Julio Cruz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Liverpool manager Rafael BenitezOn the other side, Liverpool’s FA Cup match this week-end may well had its elimination price, Rafa Benitez could now count on refreshed troops for this very important match, including captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando “El Niño” Torres. The Reds’ midfield wall today was composed by Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano (in front of the backline defense), one step behind the Gerrard-Kuyt-Babel trio, all supporting the lone striker F.Torres. A combination which hasn’t been always effective this season, but which today proved its worth many times over, almost as if compensating for the times it did not. Meanwhile in the stands, the Kop faithful were making Inter really understand that indeed, “This is Anfield”, and that there would a very high mountain to climb for the Serie A team tonight.

Match events started immediately, with Liverpool taking the initiative very early into the game. In minute 3, Jamie Carragher asked Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere for a handball call, on Ivan Córdoba inside the Inter box. The ref didn’t hesitate and waved play on, avoiding a terrible early mistake. Unfortunately for Inter, he would not avoid it a few minutes later. But back to the sequence of events. The ‘Rafa-boys’ were really pressing forward at this time, Kuyt and Babel creating havoc on opposite wings of the Inter box, forcing the Nerazzurri back into their own half. Still, Julio Cesar had yet to make a save (leaving the defensive work to the excellent Córdoba, saving his feathers on more than one occasion) when disaster happened for Inter. Minute 30, yellow card for Materazzi for another foul on Fernando Torres. It was his second. Red Card. Very harsh decision, but Inter down to 10 men. At Anfield. Oh boy.

Marco Materazzi sent off, two yellows = redIt wasn’t the first time that the Nerazzurri were forced to play short-handed, Mancini getting plenty of practice in the Serie A this season. Kinda like saying: “I know what to do“: Chivu reverted back to a center role, Maxwell took the Romanian’s place as left-back, Stankovic moved on the wings. A 4-3-2 formation… daring. But was it going to work?

Looking back at the first 45 minutes, one could say that it did. Inter keeper Julio Cesar had to make two saves in the entire half, and not even too complicated ones. If Mancini’s boys could hold another 45, maybe they’d pull off a valiant scoreless tie… ah, but easier said than done at Anfield, right? 10 minutes after the restart, it was finally time for Patrick Vieira to makes his appearance, substituting one of the strikers (in this case Julio Cruz). Mancini was looking to patch up the leaks into his line-up, but the ex-Arsenal captain’s debut was far from being reassuring: one missed pass, leading to a ball stolen by Torres, through to the edge of the Inter box. El Niño’s accurate shot found the ready hand of Julio Cesar however, saving his team into corner. It was minute 58.

Esteban Cambiasso tries to block a Steven Gerrard crossMinutes later, some more Vieira-craziness. With Liverpool in possession inside the Inter box, a Gerrard attempted chip over the Frenchman ended up striking his hands in rather obvious fashion, but the referee gave a corner. Shivers for Inter, but in all honesty one had the feeling De Bleeckere was compensating for something. That crazy red card in the first half perhaps, but I digress. Liverpool and Inter were still busy doing their little Champions League theatre, but judging by the possession statistic thus far, the play had rapidly turned into a Reds’ monologue. Finnan and Fabio Aurelio were multiplying their runs down the wings, ready to send in dangerous crosses, all the while Torres continued to hammer at the Inter goal from a distance (great turn by the Spaniard in minute 64, sending a show narrowly wide to the left).

Shortly after, Benitez decided it was time for Lucas Leiva to take a break, and for Peter Crouch to come in. Liverpool effectively turned into a 4-2-4 formation with Babel, Torres, Crouch and Kuyt operating very deep inside the Inter half. With their opponents one man down, who could blame the ex-Valencia coach for trying such a move? It immediately paid dividends, because on Crouch’s first real dangerous shot (wide), the man of the match (thus far) got injured: Ivan Córdoba landed akwardly in trying to head an aerial ball to safety, and twisted his knee. On came Nicolás Burdisso, a valid replacement but not as good as the Colombian had been tonight.

Dirk Kuyt opens the score for Liverpool... finallyLiverpool continued their assault, no I should say ‘their siege’ to the Inter goal. The Nerazzurri weren’t even trying to move forward at this point, and there’s only so much a lone striker can do when the rest of his team is entrenched into its own half, even if that striker’s name is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The corner-kick count for each team (11-1 for Liverpool) really tells the whole story on how this game was going, a match which would have been marked as ‘epic resistance’ had Inter managed to keep their goal safe for just another 5 minutes. Minute 85 was fatal to them: Jermaine Pennant (on for Babel) controlled a loose ball on the right wing, and delivered a high cross for Dirk Kuyt at the opposite side. The Dutchman chested the ball, before slamming a hard shot into the ground which surpred the vigilance of the Inter keeper (with a little help from Maicon), and crashed into the net. 1-0 Liverpool, with 5 minutes to go.

Reds fans keep reading, it gets better. Inter fans, close the book and go to bed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Minute 90, Liverpool made it two, and who else to deliver the blow than Reds’ Monsieur-tout-faire, captain courageous, Steven Gerrard. On the edge of the Inter box, wide on the right, the England international managed to imprint the ball with a magic trajectory, a powerful yet precise effort which avoided a couple of Inter legs and finished its course on the inside part of the left post. 2-0 Liverpool, Inter in shambles. It will be a very hard task indeed at San Siro, Inter will now need a miracle. The same kind of miracle perhaps that took place on May 4, 1965, when the Nerazzurri lost 3-1 at Anfield before winning 3-0 in the return leg. Can history repeat itself, 43 years later? We will find out in three weeks’ time.


Liverpool F.C.
[Match Highlights]
F.C. Internazionale Milano
GOALSCORERS: 80’ Kuyt (L), 90’ Gerrard (L)
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina – Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, F.Aurelio – Lucas Leiva (64’ Crouch), Mascherano – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (72’ Pennant) – Torres. (bench: Itandje, Riise, Arbeloa, Benayoun, X.Alonso). Coach: Benitez.
INTER (4-4-2): Julio Cesar – Maicon, Córdoba (76’ Burdisso), Materazzi, Chivu – J.Zanetti, Cambiasso, Stankovic, Maxwell – Cruz (55’ Vieira), Ibrahimovic. (bench: Toldo, Maniche, Figo, Suazo, Crespo). Coach: Mancini.


Roma vs. Real Madrid and Cannavaro vs. Totti: Tale of an ‘Azzurri’ Derby

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Roma vs. Real Madrid and Cannavaro vs. Totti: An ‘Azzurri’ Derby is in Program

Everything is ready for Roma vs. Real Madrid. Merengues supporters have arrived in the Italian capital, ready to face off against their Giallorossi opponents in a battle stadium chants. Meanwhile, the two managers Luciano Spalletti and Bernd Schuster have already begun their ‘battle of the mind’, a tactical showdown which will determine who holds the key to this game and who will reign supreme at the end of the two legs. Players, Roma’s and Real Madrid’s alike, have been training hard and are fretting in anticipation of the big match. All players, including Francesco Totti and Fabio Cannavaro, protagonists on a veritable ‘match-within-a-match’ Tuesday night. Riccardo Pratesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport introduces us to this epic battle.

Two champions, with a wonderful memory in common. July 9, 2006, a day they will remember for eternity: Berlin. the FIFA World Cup final game, the victory against France. It could have been the apogee of their football career but instead, both rebounded to fly even higher. Cannavaro went on to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, an ‘intruding’ defender amongst the dozens and dozens of European scoring machines. Totti won the European Golden Boot, aka the award for the best goalscorer in Europe. Almost an irony for someone whose playmaking abilities and passing skills have always tagged him as a ‘midfielder’ in fantasy football charts. Tonight, they will be left facing one another in one of the top matches of UEFA Champions League First knock-out round. A classic duel between the striker and the defender, between he who must score the goals and he who must prevent the other from doing so.

Francesco Totti & Fabio Cannavaro with the Italian national team


Francesco Totti

Francesco Totti with the Azzurri shirtHe will be acting as host for this match. The Olimpico, all sold out for the occasion, is like a home to him. Francesco is 31 years old, he first wore the Giallorossi shirt in March 1993, quite some time has passed since then. During all these years, the boy grew to become a man, the great Italian promise became a symbol for all Romanisti worldwide. This has become Totti’s Roma, he’s the face, the emblem, the heart of the team. Born and raised in the Italian capital, he never betrayed his colors, despite the many tentations from the top teams across Europe. Totti fought many battles through the years, some lost and many won, and he also made mistakes. All forgiven by the Olimpico faithful. Better yet, mistakes which have made them love Totti even more than before. The kind of little defects that you learn to live with, as you do with a best friend or a soul mate.

As Totti steps on the Olimpico grass tonight, he will reach 35 caps with Roma in the UEFA Champions League and 66 in European cups. 1 more than another Giallorossi legend, a certain Aldair Santos do Nascimento. Totti, the man who in the top-flight European Cup competition has scored 12 goals, two of which against Real Madrid, one of which the victory goal at the Bernabéu, October 30, 2002. Another unforgettable moment. Totti, the same man who hasn’t scored a goal since January 16 however, and who seemed a bit lost in Roma’s latest match against Juve. Francesco Totti Roma shirtTotti, a player for which Roma coach Luciano Spalletti recites words similar to the national motto of the United States (“In Francesco I trust“) and on which former manager Fabio Capello says “Roma will need Totti at his best in order to beat Real“. Totti, a man with a real spine, capable of saying no even to the best clubs of Nothern Italy and Europe. Totti, a man whose same spine is causing him a myriad of fitness problems this year, and which has forced him to specific work-out programs in training.

But Totti will be there tonight, despite the spine problems. For Roma, he is their main man and their main limit at the same time. There is no substitute for Totti. As the Real Madrid website states, “to talk about Roma means talking about Totti“, and only he can provide a match for a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the player with the 12 goal-total in the Spanish Liga. Two more than Totti in Italy. But Francesco will be there, despite the injury problems, ready to battle it out with Fabio.

Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro with the Azzurri shirtFabio, 34 years old. With Francesco, he shared the Italian jersey and two managers, Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello. One thing he didn’t share however is the dedication to a single team, despite remaining a true Neapolitan at heart since his birth. Napoli first, then Parma with his friend Lilian Thuram (the best years of the Gialloblu in the past decade), with whom he won his first important trophy, the UEFA Cup in 1999. Then came Inter, followed by Juventus, now Real Madrid. And that’s okay if some of the supporters back home were angered by his last transfer, judged as “one too many” by several. Italians love Cannavaro, as demonstrated by the many handshakes and autograph requests at the Fiumicino airport yesterday, when the Real Madrid team arrived in Italy. He is the symbol of the 2006 Azzurri, the player which you would find everywhere on the field during the World Cup. “Cannavaro… Cannavaro… KKKannavaro!!“, as the mythical Fabio Caressa would say.

Fabio Cannavaro Real Madrid shirtHe was everywhere, now he is in Spain. Trying to win the first Champions League of his career, the 10th for the Madrid giants. He started off the adventure with Capello, had a bit of a tough year following the World Cup, but now has become the main man of the Blancos’ back-line. Don Fabio is gone, Schuster is keeping a close watch on the boy from Napoli. Boy? I should say ‘man’ really, but Fabio is the kind of player that most closely resembles a kid on a playground: he will steal the ball from you in a perfectly graceful tackle and will then throw a big smile in your face, as if he was just kidding around, playing cat & mouse with you & the other kids. The kind of kids that play football for a living, in a stadium in front of 80,000 people. This kid right here has a resumé of 56 caps and 2 goals in the UEFA Champions League, a bit more than that other kid we were talking about before. When they meet on the grass tonight, Cannavaro will undoubtedly feel somewhat emotional, but then armed with his big smile, he will start running. Running to keep Iker Casillas’s goal safe.

For our two Italian heroes, the UEFA Champions League represents the only forbidden dream remaining. They have achieved the peak any football professional aspires to, the FIFA World Cup, which they hoisted together high in the Berlin sky. This time, the ‘Cup with the Big Ears’ will not allow them to share the joy, one must go. So tonight, Cannavaro and Totti will put their Azzurri memories aside, if only for a moment, and step onto the field as gladiators. Gladiators of the beautiful game, ready to battle in the circus of Rome.