Category Archives: Match Reactions

Statement Signing Stipe Plazibat Shines as Sailors overcome ten-man Eagles

Lion City Sailors have been making waves in the local footballing scene since tech firm Sea’s takeover of Home United. Besides becoming a fully privatized club, the Sailors have recently launched their football academy, and they made the news recently by becoming the first academy in Singapore to receive AFC’s one-star rating. Geylang International were looking to resume where they last left off in the campaign. The Eagles lost their opening tie to Albirex but subsequently scored impressive victories against Young Lions and Hougang United. 

The Sailors started brightly against the Eagles, with Stipe Plazibat opening the floodgates with a debut goal in the 8th minute. The assist came from none other than Tajeli Salamat, a player I interviewed a few months ago. Shadan Sulaiman’s corner kick was met by Tajeli, whose drooping header found Stipe in the 6-yard box, whose strike easily found the back of the net. 

In the 17th minute, an unmarked Nur Luqman wasted a golden opportunity to equalize when his lobbed effort beat Sailors keeper Hassan Sunny also beat the post. Minutes later, Stipe came close to adding to his tally, but Zainol Gulam pulled a magnificent save. Similarly, Tajeli once again made his presence known in the match by keeping the visitors out with a goal-line clearance in the 35th minute after a spectacular move by the Eagles.

Drama unfolded just before the break, as Geylang goalkeeper Zainol Gulam committed a nasty challenge on Arshad Shamim in the penalty box, which resulted in a red card for the custodian. Substitute keeper Hairul Syirhan went the right way and almost kept out Song Ui-yong’s penalty, but the South Korean’s strike was too much for Syirhan to handle. Stipe made it three in the 84th minute with another simple tap in from Gabriel Quak’s low-driven pass. 4 minutes later, Singapore icon Sharil Ishak made it 4-0. 

Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

All eyes would have indeed been on Stipe Plazibat for this fixture. The Croatian transferred from Hougang United to the Sailors during the league’s suspension. He was brought in to replace Australian forward Andy Pengelly, who returned home to Australia following the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Pengelly came in with a lot of promise. He scored an impressive 52 goals in 34 games for the semi-professional outfit, Brisbane Queensland National Premier League (NPL). While it would have been interesting to see how Pengelly would have fared in Singapore, I don’t know if he was what the Sailors needed. He could have been a “Hidden Gem” that potentially set the league on fire. I mean, he did score in his first game for the Sailors. However, he could have struggled later on as well. We would never know. 

Stipe, on the other hand, is a proven striker in Singapore. Scratch that, he is arguably the best foreign player in our shores right now. With him leading their frontline, the Sailors have that statement signing that seemingly eluded them at the start of the season. His double against the Eagles brings his tally to 11 goals in 7 appearances for this season. The forward scored 9 in 6 for Hougang before the league’s suspension. 

At the start of the season, the Sailors looked like a disjointed team that had no bite. Pengelly scored the first goal against Tanjong Pagar, but the subsequent 4-0 thrashing by Tampines showed that the Sailors had a long way to go. The long break of 211 days certainly helped to promote team cohesion, and that probably helped build chemistry. That being said, I Stipe Plazibat’s acquisition helps to lessen the load on Song Ui-Yong and Sharil Ishak, the two primary sources for goals for Home United for the past couple of years. 

This is the Sailors’ first win of the season, and it sees them move up to 6th place. However, with two games in hand, they could see themselves top of the table if they win both fixtures. The Sailors play against Albirex Niigata next, and a win against the three-time league champions would really emphasize their calibre. It would be a real test against the White Swans though, who cruised past Young Lions in a 4-0 win this past weekend. Geylang, on the other hand, are now in 5th place after the loss and host Balestier Khalsa this Saturday. Based on Balestier’s match against Tanjong Pagar, Geylang have an excellent chance to come away with a victory.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European leagues, 5 substitutions are allowed as opposed to 3. More importantly, there is a lot at stake for clubs this season, given how the top 3 teams will be eligible for continental competition next season onwards. The revisions to the AFC Champions League means that the top-placed Singaporean club would have an automatic berth in the group stages, and for the first time in a decade, we will definitely have a Singaporean representative in Asia’s premier continental competition. The second and third placed Singaporean sides would have an automatic place in the AFC Cup group stages.

Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

I’m just really excited for local football to be back.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

Bouncing Back: A Chat With Tampines Rovers No.1 Syazwan Buhari

In the past decade, two goalkeepers have dominated the national spotlight and have been used interchangeably. Don’t get me wrong, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are great keepers. In fact, they are arguably Singapore’s greatest ever custodians in the past two decades. They have put in consistent performances for club and country over the years […]

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s […]

English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

Heroes and Villains of the EPL

The Premier League is back, and it has not disappointed at all. Drama from VAR, referees and players have dominated headlines. There have been some surprising results but the resumption of the Premier League have seen some teams make sluggish starts which could be due to the long break. However, once the nerves had settled, it was business as usual. Here are some of the best and worst performers over the weekend.

Heroes over the Weekend

Bruno Fernandes

Fernandes continues his fiery form since his transfer and has been at the heart of United’s best attacking displays. Fernandes was a joy to watch and it seems he is able to visualize the game slightly faster than his teammates. It is also no coincidence that Manchester United has remained undefeated in all of the games Fernandes has started. The Portuguese midfielder is proving to be a talismanic player that United have been lacking. His clever passes, ability to drop his shoulder and change direction allowed him to stay ahead of his marker and get out of tight spaces. Fernandes’ game would only improve with more quality players around him and the Pogba-Fernandes partnership has got off to a great start.

Christian Pulisic

The American star scored after coming on for five minutes in the Chelsea’s game against Villa. With more performances like this, Pulisic could become a more influential player in Lampard’s team. His goal meant that Chelsea have some cushion going into their next fixtures as the Blues still have to face Manchester City, Leicester City and champions-elect, Liverpool. After coming off the bench, Pulisic should have a better shout at starting Chelsea’s next game. It remains to be seen if this is a one-off performance for Pulisic but the American does have the talent to become a regular in Chelsea’s starting lineup.

Phil Foden

The talented English midfielder was one of the top performers over the weekend with goals against Arsenal and Burnley. A tactically astute midfielder, Foden has the ability to pop up in the right places to pounce on opportunities leading to goals. Foden’s left-footed finish from the edge of the box should earn himself a starting place in City’s next game. His talents are wasted warming City’s bench. He should establish himself as a starter at City soon or should seek first team football elsewhere over the summer.

Neal Maupay

A villain in the eyes of Arsenal fans, Maupay had collided with Leno and had caused the latter to land awkwardly. Leno’s knee had bent backwards from the landing and it seems to have damaged his cruciate ligament. However, Maupay’s 94th minute goal against Arsenal could be the one that saves Brighton from relegation this season. The crucial goal meant that Brighton established five points away from relegation. The Seagulls now have a fighting chance of staying in the Premier League and Maupay’s could be the one that saves them.

Villains over the Weekend

David De Gea

Another game, another mistake. Full credit goes to Bergwijn for his determination to drive forward with the ball. A mistake as well from Maguire, who did not have the pace to match Bergwijn. However, Bergwijn’s shot should at least have been parried away by the Spaniard. A keeper of De Gea’s calibre should have dealt with the shot better. The goal was a sucker punch for United as Spurs did not offer as much as they could going forward and allowed United to have the ball. De Gea’s mistake was costly to United’s top four ambitions and would only increase the talk of Dean Henderson taking over the no. 1 spot at Old Trafford.

Jonathan Moss

“Jon, you’re taking the p*ss”, McTominay clearly summarized the performance of Jon Moss after the referee booked James for a foul. Moss had been lenient throughout the Spurs vs Man United match as he did not pull out his cards for earlier fouls. Even if Moss had wanted to limit himself from showing cards after the resumption of the season, he was clearly out of his depth with the second penalty awarded to Manchester United. Fortunately, the intervention of VAR had corrected the wrong decision. It seems like a mistake would eventually be made by Moss whenever he referees a match.

David Luiz

The ultimate disaster-class. Subbed in for Mari in the 24th minute, “assisted” Raheem Sterling for City’s first goal and then brought down Mahrez in the penalty box to give away a penalty that was converted by De Bruyne. Luiz had singlehandedly undo Arteta’s organizational work on Arsenal’s defence as the Gunners were playing well before Mari’s injury. Luiz failed to clear De Bruyne’s whipped cross and the ball had kindly bounced in front of Sterling who finished the goal well. Luiz had also failed to read Mahrez’s movement and the attempt to tackle Mahrez had brought the winger down instead. Luiz’s failure to read the game and clumsy tackling would surely see him transferred out of Arsenal. He is simply no longer the defender he used to be.

Supporting Bayer: Reflecting on my 1st match [Werder 1- 4 Bayer]

The weekend prepared me for this fixture. The Leipzig-Freiburg, Dortmund-Schalke, and Union-Bayern matches hyped me up for the last tie for the match week. I had already decided that I would be rooting for Bayer before the Bundesliga resumed and now it was finally time for me to support the club I had chosen. The match kicked off at 2:30AM on a Tuesday (Singapore Time), and I feared that I would doze off half-way during the game. Thankfully, Bayer truly know how to entertain. Their encounter with Werder Bremen demonstrated how they are an energetic attacking team that look menacing upfront.

In the first-ever match held behind closed doors at the Weser-Stadion, Bayer attacked from the get-go. Bremen’s defence couldn’t handle the fast-paced counter-attacking football that Bayer produced. In many ways, their displays reminded me a bit of how Premier League teams play. Leverkusen were in fine form before the suspension of the league and had amassed a commendable 19 points from 8 games after Christmas. This match highlighted how they were determined to sustain their exceptional run.

The hype is real with Kai Havertz

Operating as a centre forward in this fixture, Havertz posed a constant threat throughout the game. Whether it was dribbling past defenders or dropping back to feed the ball to his teammates, he demonstrated why he was highly sought after.

Havertz always looked like scoring, and he did so in the 28th minute when he opened the floodgates with a looping header that was difficult for the Bremen goalkeeper, Jiří Pavlenka, to keep out. Havertz suffered an impact injury while heading in the goal, and that just demonstrated how much the promising German youngster wants to win for his team. He had scored his 7th goal of the season and his team’s 1000th away league goal.

However, in the span of a minute, Werder Bremen somehow equalized after the restart. After gaining a corner kick, Gebre Selassie flicked in the goal from Bittencourt’s cross in the 30th minute. Prior to this fixture, Bayer had only ever conceded twice from corners during this campaign. A lack of match sharpness could perhaps explain the questionable defending that led to Selassie finding space to convert his chance.

The quickfire response by Bremen could have put a massive dent on Bayer’s resolve, but it did quite the opposite, Bayer kicked off with every intention of restoring their lead and did so in the 33rd minute. In those 5 minutes, 3 goals had been scored in this fixture, and I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the first half-hour of this match. Once again, it was captain Kai Havertz who headed in a cross from a Kerem Demirbay free-kick.

Bayer are good, really good

It wasn’t just Havert’s brilliance that shone through that match. Other Bayer players put in fine performances as well. Moussa Diaby was one stand out player for me, the pacey french winger showed a lot of grit and determination and created space to provide two assists.

While Diaby occupied the left wing, it was a real spectacle to behold Florian Wirtz play in the right wing. Making his debut for the club, he surpasses Harvertz and now holds the record for being the youngest ever player to feature for Leverkusen in the Bundesliga at 17 years and 15 days. Incidentally, Havertz made his debut 4 years ago against Bremen as well. It was a real treat to see him play and if his performances this fixture are anything to go by, Wirtz is one to watch for the future.

Kerem Demirbay also produced a quality performance that night. Besides assisting Havertz in the first half, he also scored his first-ever goal for the club since joining from Hoffenheim in 2019. The no. 10 gracefully chipped the keeper to round up the 4-1 thrashing of Bremen, who find themselves stuck in the relegation zone.

In all honesty, though, Bayer’s fine performances were also because Werder Bremen were absolutely awful that match. The Bremen defending was virtually non-existent, and this was especially evident with Demirbay’s goal where the Bremen players seemed to have lost the will to play. Bayer ensured they killed off the game and despite letting in Selassie’s goal, their defence effectively dealt with Bremen’s offence for the rest of the game.

Onto the next game

Supporting Bayer was indeed a unique experience, and the team has grown on me. Their thrashing of Werder Bremen demonstrated their prowess, but in all honesty, Supporting Bayer was indeed a unique experience, and the team has grown on me. Their thrashing of Werder Bremen demonstrated their prowess, but in all honesty, there was a serious gulf in quality between the clubs and Werder paled in comparison. Leverkusen’s next game against Borussia Mönchengladbach would be a better test to show their quality. Gladbach find themselves third in the table after winning their first match against Eintracht Frankfurt in a comfortable fashion. Knowing the quality of players that both clubs possess, it is a tantalizing contest that I’m looking forward to this weekend.

My first Bundesliga Experience: RB Leipzig vs SC Freiburg [1-1]

For the first time, I plotted myself on the sofa and watched an entire Bundesliga match from start to finish. I have to say it wasn’t a bad experience at all. Sure, it wasn’t as fast-paced and physical as the English Premier League, but I don’t think that was a bad thing. Instead, it showed a different style of football that I was less accustomed to. The Leipzig-Freiburg encounter emphasized how technical ability was the primary focus in the German topflight. While I often had to rely on google to find out who the commentators were talking about, seeing familiar names like Timo Werner and Ademola Lookman did help me ease into the game.

Besides the final scoreline, I daresay that Jack’s prediction on how this match would turn out was fairly spot-on. Julian Nagelsmann’s didn’t enact the team’s high-pressing approach to full effect. The Leipzig manager probably toned down their usual playing style due to the squad’s lack of match fitness. Yet, even if Nagelsmann wanted to, Leipzig would have struggled to successfully utilize their high-intensity pressing because of how the Freiburg team were effective in closing down Leipzig players and snuffing out passes in midfield. 

Initially, Leipzig started brilliantly against Freiburg and dominated the initial minutes. I thought that Christopher Nkunku’s thunderbolt of a strike, which forced an incredible save from Alexander Schwolow, was supposed to set the tone for the rest of the fixture – or so I thought. Instead, after the first 10 minutes, the rest of the half was truly a sluggish affair between both sides with Leipzig coming close on a few instances only to be denied by Freiburg’s outstanding shot-stopper. The only player that looked dangerous during the first half for Leipzig was Nkunku. Unlike the former-PSG Frenchman, other players like Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen, and Angeliño were mediocre at best in the first 45 minutes.

Image by jorono from Pixabay

The match seemed like a drab affair when out of nowhere, Freiburg took the lead through Manuel Gulde. The goal itself was bewildering because of the nature in which it was scored. With zero shots registered at that point in the game, Freiburg suddenly won a corner after making a rare attack. Vicenzo Grifo took the corner, and the football appeared to find its way into the goal without coming off any player in the penalty box. However, upon replay, Grifo’s cross subtly flicked off Manuel Gulde’s heel, and the ball was sent to the back of the net, as everyone watched on. Christian Günter came close to doubling Freiburg’s lead before the break, but alas that was not to be.

However, it was within their own half where Freiburg saw most of the action. Leipzig peppered the Freiburg goal with 17 shots. Out of these shots, 7 were on target, but the Freiburg custodian managed to deal with most of these attempts effectively. Schwolow’s performances have thoroughly impressed me, and he played a critical role in ensuring that Freiburg didn’t concede as many goals as they did. The highlight was when he saved Timo Werner’s effort in the second half. After finding himself ample space, Timo Werner drilled a low-driven shot which was a sure goal. Somehow, Schwolow’s managed to block the effort with an outstretched leg.

Luck was soon to run out for the keeper, and before you know it, a tactical change made by Nagelsmann proved to be effective in their equalizer. In the second half, former Everton forward Ademola Lookman was brought on for central midfielder, Nordi Mukiele in the 46th minute. In the 69th minute, Marcel Sabitzer was brought in for central defender, Tyler Adams. In doing so, Leipzig transformed from a conventional 4-3-3 formation to a wildly unorthodox 2-4-4 formation with 2 defenders, 4 midfielders and 4 forwards. This radical change arguably reflects how desperate Leipzig were to ensure they remained in the title race with Dortmund and leaders, Bayern.

The formation change resulted in Leipzig engaging on the attack more. Lookman came the closest to scoring just before the equalizer. Kampl’s long ball managed to find Lookman in the box, and somehow the English forward managed to miss what seemed like a simple goal. In fact, it was harder to miss such an open goal than score it. But Lookman’s miss also demonstrated to the Leipzig players that the Freiburg defence was cracking and this motivated them to push on.

Image by jorono from Pixabay

In fact, their break came in a similar fashion. Once again, Kampl was the architect. The Slovenian’s lobbed pass found Poulsen in the box. Before this, Poulsen was having a torrid time in the final third. While you couldn’t fault him for his work ethic and perseverance, he wasn’t clinical upfront. This time, however, he made no mistake. The Dane rose up and headed the ball expertly into the bottom left corner of the goal, well beyond the reaches of Schwolow. It was a real shame for the Freiburg no. 1, who had been the best performer on the field up to that point.

However, the equalizer didn’t cap off the night and in stoppage time some drama unfolded as Robin Koch poked in what was sure to be a late winner from a Freiburg free kick. Yet his goal was ruled out for offside after a VAR review.

Had I not known about Leipzig’s high-press approach before the match (thank you, Jack), I would have thought that the game was a drab affair. Even though I know players were not fully match fit, the match appeared slow and sluggish because that was Freiburg’s game plan: to stop Leipzig’s high intensity attacking play. Their initial formation of 3-4-3 morphed into a variation of 8-1-1 by the end of the game. Freiburg controlled the tempo for much of the game and frustrated Nagelsmann and co.

Besides the actual gameplay, the ambience, or rather the lack of one, made the fixture feel like a training game. Perhaps, the Bundesliga could emulate what the K-League has done and incorporate artificial fan chants.

Nevertheless, my first encounter with the German topflight was a refreshing one, and I cant wait to see the team that I chose, Bayer Leverkusen play. It will be interesting to see how teams perform when players are more match fit and more used to empty stadiums.

What the K-league opener has taught other leagues

I missed football, and many elements of the K-league opener has reminded me why: Artificial fan sounds, a somewhat sluggish affair, and a wild moment when a 41-year old legend scores. The K-League opener has reminded football fans what we’ve been missing out on – the beautiful game. I don’t even watch the K-League but the chance of catching any new football was too good to miss out on. Thankfully, the opener was streamed for free on YouTube and certain things stood out for me, which I feel the rest of the footballing world could learn and benefit from.

The artificial fan noises broadcasted around the stadium do help create the atmosphere for the viewer that there are fans around the stadium. I couldn’t catch the match from the start, so when I did drop into the stream, I was under the impression that a designated section was allocated for a group of fans. It was only much later did I realize that the noises were artificial. It did significantly alter the game experience for me as a casual fan and this is something that European teams should look to incorporate if or when their seasons resume. I remember viewing highlights of the clash between Manchester United and LASK and the lack of ambient noise made it come off as a training session instead of an actual football match.

Seeing 41-year-old Lee Dong-gook grab the winner for Jeonbuk in the 84th minute was something special to see. I remember watching Lee play for Middlesbrough in the Premier League more than a decade ago. The veteran striker failed to score a single PL goal during his time at Boro but managed to pull off a near-post header from Son Jun-ho’s corner. It was a heart-warming moment to see an absolute legend who could still muster a fine performance despite his age. By contrast, Bluewings forward Adam Taggart was quiet that night. His display paled comparison to his exploits in the 2019 campaign. The former Fulham and Perth Glory forward was sensational upfront for the Bluewings last season, banging in 20 goals in 33 league appearances.

At the same time, the match between Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings also demonstrated how match fitness would be an issue for some time to come. Two months is a long time out of the game and even though players can maintain their overall fitness, they need playing time to build up their match fitness. The opener was a sluggish affair which is a far cry from the high standards that these teams have consistently put in over the years. Perhaps Taggart was experiencing a lack of match fitness and in due course, we could see more goals from the Australian international.

While the global pandemic has forced the K-league to postpone the start of the season, many other leagues, that were in the midst of their seasons, had to undergo an indefinite suspension. The momentum that players, like Man United left-back Luke Shaw, had been riding on has been disrupted. Therefore, it is a tough ask for players to immediately continue the fine form they exhibited before the leagues’ suspension. Fans need to understand this and not overly pressure their club’s players. Instead, we should cherish the fact that football is back.

With the Bundesliga’s official resumption around the corner (May 16, 2020), the K-league’s commencement of their season has brought hope for me that football may soon return to many parts of the globe. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for football matches to take in countries where the coronavirus is rampant. Safety should be everybody’s concern and people should co-operate with their respective governments so that the disease gets controlled and hence, stringent measures can be lifted. Korea has done a remarkable job in controlling the disease after it rampantly spread across the country. The return of football to Korea represents the light at the end of a long tunnel. Containment and quarantine policies around the world have robbed us of sporting events and many other activities. Even with the resumption of football, it might not be entirely the same with the absence of fans and the inclusion of more substitutions each match.

The last day out with my friends: Remembering the Manchester Derby

Time has been a luxury for me this year. With a hectic semester laden with various assignments and my overwhelming responsibilities as a part-time tutor, I rarely had the time to catch a game with my friends. Yet, on March 8 2020, I somehow found myself with some time to spare and after an impromptu discussion with my mates, we decided to head down to a bar to catch the Manchester Derby.

My ragtag quartet comprised some of my best friends, Asyraf, Rynaldy and Murali. Rynaldy, Murali, and I are die-hard United fans while Asyraf was an ardent Liverpool supporter. However, on this day, we were in unison in supporting the Red Devils. Liverpool were close to winning the Premier League at that juncture and a loss to Man City would only expedite their journey to clinching the title. We arrived half an hour before the match commenced and the bar was already packed. Somehow, we were lucky enough to snag a table outdoors that was directly in front of a large TV screen. We had an awesome view and after ordering several food platters and a tower of beer, we were eagerly awaiting the kickoff.

There was one player that we all kept tabs on – United’s new talisman: Bruno Fernandes. For most of the season, Manchester United have been mostly inconsistent. Some of their displays have been god-awful and as fans (everyone except Asyraf), we were frustrated with the team. There have been a number of times where Murali and Rynaldy stayed up late or woke up in the wee hours of the morning to catch late fixtures – almost all of which have been utter disappointments. “We should have just slept,” they usually remarked. Bruno’s arrival breathed a new spirit into the squad and the entire team functioned better as a unit. Up till that point, I had only seen highlights of Bruno’s contributions, but I had never seen him play live. And well, he did not disappoint one bit. Besides setting up the first goal for martial in an ingenious manner, he was making critical passes and dictating the flow of the ball whenever United were in possession.

There was something special about watching United play with my friends that day. Besides the alcohol (disclaimer: Asyraf does not drink and did not drink that night), sharing those moments with some of my greatest friends reminds me now of the power of football. How it connects new people together and strengthens the bond you already share with your friends. The new and improved United squad definitely made the experience all the more enjoyable. It was such a pleasure to see United dominate whenever they had possession against top tier opposition like the Citizens.

United were far from perfect though. There were some potentially grievous errors that were committed by the United back-line.We gasped each time United players gave the ball away and all of us had our hearts in our mouth when City came close to scoring. Fortunately, the City players couldn’t capitalize on these errors and make their chances count.

Little did we know that was the last day we ever caught a Premier League match live. United did go on to play LASK in the Europa League days later but their heroic display in their 2-0 victory. Life without football has been miserable, to say the least. Weekend nights were times where you’d look forward to catching matches live and discuss them with your friends the morning after. Now, most of us do not know what to do with our weekends. The coronavirus has reminded us that football is more than a past time, it is an integral part of our life.

Anatomy of a Win: Inter 4-2 AC Milan

Derby mania sends the Nerazzurri top of the league

Welcome to “Anatomy of a Win”, where we take a famous result from this season and break down how it happened. Today we look at Inter’s come from behind victory in the Derby della Madonnina from February 2020.

Inter came from two goals down to complete the comeback with a stellar second half performance. The win propelled Inter back to the top of the table and cemented the existence of a three horse race for the Scudetto. The loss for Milan was disappointing, especially given the manner in which they lost. It put a massive dent in the Rossoneri‘s confidence, especially having only lost one league game in their last 11 going into this match.

This is the classic example of the old phrase “a game of two halves.” In the first half, Milan were largely the dominant team. Despite Inter’s 3-5-2 formation giving them a numerical advantage in midfield over Milan’s 4-4-2, Milan dominated possession and controlled the middle of the park. Algerian midfielder Ismaël Bennacer put together what was possibly his best half in a Milan shirt, seemingly winning every tackle and 50/50 ball and using his excellent passing ability to provide the foundation for Milan’s attacks. The main focal point of the team, however, was a man who needs no introduction. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has plenty of Milan Derby experience, having featured for both Inter and AC Milan during his career, and his arrival back in Milan from America in January kicked off the Rossoneri run of form that they took into the derby. He became the main focal point around which every part of the Milan team moved. His ability to occupy the center backs and hold the ball up allowed the players around him, namely Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu, to attack the open spaces and find opportunities to test Inter back up keeper Daniele Padelli. Ibrahimovic was responsible for both goals in the first half, with his knockdown being turned in by Rebic for the opener and later doubling the lead with a goal of his own off a corner. Stefano Pioli’s men entered halftime with a comfortable 2-0 lead, having been the better side the whole of the first half and dreaming of a memorable victory over their hated neighbors.

Milan’s brilliance in the first half was only equalled by Inter’s impotence. Antonio Conte’s men were uncharacteristically languid, lacking any energy and fight that you would normally expect from a Conte team and in a match as big as this one. Romelu Lukaku was seemingly the only major attacking threat, but apart from one major chance, where Mathias Vecino fired a Lukaku cutback pass directly at the keeper, Inter were not threatening. They seemed strangely content with allowing Milan to have time on the ball in midfield, not providing any pressure despite their numerical advantage. They had issues with midfield depth throughout the season, with Vecino, among others, not filling the necessary voids when injuries hit their first team starters, but with both Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brozovic fully fit and featuring, the Inter midfield should have performed better than they did. The defense had a problem containing Ibrahimovic. Diego Godin, who did not enjoy a good first season in a Nerazzurri shirt, was partially at fault for the first goal, allowing Ibrahimovic to tower over him to knock the ball down toward Rebic. The normally reliable Milan Skriniar was responsible for the second goal, losing Ibrahimovic on the corner kick and allowing him to be unmarked in front of the goal. Daniele Padelli, who came in for the injured Samir Handanovic, was not exuding confidence in goal, and he was largely responsible for Rebic’s opener due to his poor positioning. It was a comedy of errors and shortfalls for Inter in the first half, and I imagine Conte was not too pleased with his team when halftime rolled around.

Whatever Conte said to the Inter team in the dressing room at halftime seemingly worked, as Inter came out in the second half looking like a team possessed. Within ten minutes after the restart, Inter were level. Brozovic fired a stinging volley past Donnarumma to bring them back into the game on 51 minutes, before Vecino atoned for his earlier mistakes by firing Alexis Sanchez’s cut back pass into the back of the net. In the sheer mania that followed that goal and the subsequent VAR review, the goal was incorrectly credited to Romelu Lukaku. Regardless of who scored it, Inter were level. 45 minutes of mistakes and errors was atoned for in just eight minutes. Milan were able to get their footing back in the match after the Inter blitz, but could not find a way through a more lively Nerazzurri midfield and defense. With 20 minutes to go, Stefan De Vrij fired Inter into the lead with a glancing header from an Antonio Candreva corner. As things stood, Antonio Conte’s men were sitting atop Serie A, but the match was far from over. Milan had a few more chances to earn a point, with Ibrahimovic coming mere inches away from equalizing. Christian Eriksen, making his Milan Derby debut, also came close for Inter, rattling the crossbar with a free kick from well over 30 yards out. In the third minute of stoppage time, Romelu Lukaku would head home a Victor Moses cross, sealing the three points for Inter and sending the Nerazzurro half of the San Siro into raucous celebration.

How was Inter able to turn things around in the second half? Well, they were just better. It is, at least sort of, that simple. Inter played with much more aggression and energy, especially in midfield. Vecino, Barella, and Brozovic really took control of the middle of the park, limiting the influence that Bennacer and other Milan players could have in possession. That increased control over the match provided more chances for Lukaku and Sanchez to impact the game going forward. The significantly increased pressure at the beginning of the second half led to the two goals, and the momentum noticeably swung in Inter’s favor. While Milan did their best to get back into the match, Stefan De Vrij’s goal was a deserved go ahead goal for an Inter team that largely dominated the second half. You could perhaps criticize Pioli of being too slow to change the team to counter Inter’s resurgence. The first two Milan substitutes, Rafael Leao and Lucas Paqueta, both could have influenced the match and potentially helped Milan retake the lead had they been introduced earlier than the 80th minute. Leao’s pace caused some problems, and Paqueta was able to provide service into the attackers, with his cross being the one Ibrahimovic redirected onto the post. Milan were just unable to fully recover from the shell shock of Inter’s two goals in ten minutes at the start of the second half, and the trademarked grit and tenacity showed by Antonio Conte’s men carried them to victory. You can criticize Conte all that you want, but he absolutely gets those characteristics instilled into every team he manages. The visible joy and excitement shown in the celebrations following Lukaku’s goal show a team that demonstrates that Conte level of passion and fighting spirit. It was another imperfect performance, but it was enough for the win. Inter were top of the league.

Anatomy of a Win: Liverpool 2-3 Atletico Madrid (2-4 agg.)

Long live Cholismo

Welcome to “Anatomy of a Win”, where we look at a major result from this season and break down how it happened. Today, we look at Atletico Madrid’s triumph against Liverpool.

Atleti claimed a historic victory this past week, going to Anfield on a European night and beating Liverpool 3-2 in extra time, knocking the reigning European Champions out of the competition. It was a thrilling way to close out the Champions League, which was abruptly halted due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Do not get it twisted, though. This was not a classic Cholismo victory. Atleti defensively were not as good as they were even in the first leg. They surrendered plenty of chances to Liverpool, and had it not been for the heroics of Jan Oblak, as well as a bit of luck sprinkled on top, the story would have been remarkably different. To say Atleti were not lucky would be inaccurate, but this was an emboldened Colchonero team that put out a heroic performance. In the press conference after the match, Diego Simeone described his team’s style of play, saying his team plays “to win, with all our soul.” That it was Atleti did; they scratched and clawed and fought their way to a historic win.

Three players were crucial in this victory for Atleti. First, and he cannot be emphasized enough, was Jan Oblak. The Slovenian demonstrated why he is considered by many to be the best goalkeeper in the world, making nine saves, more than any other goalkeeper had to make in the knockout stages so far this season. Liverpool had plenty of chances, and Oblak’s heroic shot stopping did more than enough to keep Atleti in the tie, rightfully earning Man of the Match for his performance. Simeone was very complimentary of his shot stopper after the match, saying “he decides games the way [Lionel] Messi does for Barcelona.” Without Oblak in goal, it is very likely that this story would have been much different.

The second player was Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian midfielder was easily Atleti’s best outfield player on the night, becoming a one-man wrecking crew in midfield. While Atleti as a team were less solid defensively than in the first leg, Partey did his bit in the second leg, winning tackles and interceptions all over the pitch. His passing was also solid, and he had the third most touches of any Atleti player. European matches at Anfield can often become manic, which plays into Liverpool’s strengths, but Partey offered a sense of calmness and composure to an Atleti midfield that desperately needed it.

The third player was Marcos Llorente. Now, it is easy to point to the player who scored twice as the key player, and that is part of the discussion. However, it is being ignored that Simeone’s main stroke of managerial intelligence from this match, subbing on Llorente for Diego Costa in the second half, did very much change the match in Atleti’s favor. While he was largely used as a defensive midfielder earlier in his career, Simeone had used him in more of a box-to-box midfield role, able to bring energy and life into the midfield. His substitution helped to sure up a midfield that was tiring after relentless Liverpool pressure, and it took off a player, Diego Costa, who was not able to have an impact on the match. Also, not to be ignored, he scored two goals and combined well with Alvaro Morata to assist the third. Those two goals did largely benefit from Liverpool mistakes and poor defending, but you still do have to be there to score them. Llorente coming on added more stability to the Atleti midfield, which allowed them the opportunities to get forward and score the goals.

On the other side, Liverpool did play very well. In a period of the season where Klopp’s team had been, relatively speaking, struggling, they put out possibly one of their best performances in recent months in this match. It was quite possibly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best performance in a Liverpool shirt, and in general, there was a tangible difference in the Liverpool midfield with the return of captain Jordan Henderson from injury. Unlike in the first leg, the Reds were able to win the ball back high up the pitch and were able to generate very clear chances. Compared to their eight shots and zero on target in Madrid, Liverpool racked up 34 shots, with 11 on target, in this game, including several very good chances that were missed or saved by Oblak. They also tallied up their highest crossing total in a single match since the mid-2000s. Their expected goal tally would have justified a 4-1 win, so it is impossible to say that Liverpool did not deserve a victory, but the chances simply did not fall their way.

“Lack of luck” was not the sole reason for this defeat, as both of Llorente’s goals were directly the result of Liverpool errors, specifically from back up goalkeeper Adrian, and from generally poor defending from the Liverpool back four. The first goal came off of a silly giveaway by Adrian, who did not recognize the amount of time he had to pick a pass, instead needlessly rifling the ball directly to the feet of João Félix. When Llorente got the ball in the move, Trent Alexander-Arnold did not do enough to pressure the ball or take Llorente’s sights off of goal, allowing the Spaniard to fire off a shot that, admittedly, should have been saved by Adrian. The second goal was also a result of very poor defending from the Liverpool back line. With Morata charging forward, Van Dijk and Gomez both lost sight of Llorente, who moved into the blind side of Gomez. Gomez did recover, and Henderson wisely came over to assist the young Englishman, but neither really put any pressure on Llorente, allowing him to move onto his stronger right foot and shoot, all without any real challenge. Adrian also probably should have done better with this shot, but the main issue lies with Gomez and Henderson’s inability to close down the ball. Liverpool, a team who is devastatingly good at profiting off of opponents mistakes, should know that they cannot afford to make these simple mistakes at this level. Morata’s goal also was not great defending, as a simple one-two combination between Llorente and Morata allowed the Spanish striker to get in behind Gomez, leaving him one-on-one with Adrian in a chance that the striker will always be favored to finish. By that time, the tie was well and truly over, but it does highlight that much of Liverpool’s downfall was of their own making.

And that is the anatomy of Atletico Madrid’s historic 3-2 victory over Liverpool at Anfield. A bit of Cholismo paired with some brilliant individual performances, with a bit of luck and sloppiness from the opponent sprinkled on top, created a night that Atleti fans will not forget any time soon. If this is going to be our last taste of Champions League football for a while, then we sure picked a good match to end on.