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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lucas Leiva – You Can’t Put a Price on Him

''The thing about Lucas Leiva is people don't realise how good he is." These were the fewest, perhaps most befitting words that former Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, once used to describe one Lucas Pezzini Leiva after the Brazilian was booed by the club’s own fans following a disappointing barren draw against Fulham in the 2008-09 Premier League season.

Lucas was experiencing a tumultuous period in only his second season in the energy-sapping Barclays Premier League having made a £6 million move from Gremio. He was signed as an attacking midfielder then, with Benitez saying "I am looking forward to seeing him score goals for Liverpool in the future.”

The goals were not coming and the impatient fans were calling for his head vociferously claiming that he was not good enough to don a Liverpool away kit, let alone the legendary all red home kit. Some called him the worst Brazilian ever to grace English football. All manner of jokes and mockery was labeled at him in a manner that would have sent any player back to his country to play football in the streets.

Benitez nevertheless stuck to his blonde Brazilian, even highlighting to all the naysayers that Lucas had been captain for both Grêmio and his national youth team. But the haters and boo boys wouldn’t listen. Never mind he was competing for a place in a midfield that had the fantastic Steven Gerard, the pass master Xabi Alonso and the tough-tackling Javier Mascherano.

A brilliant performance in Liverpool’s 5-1 thrashing of Newcastle earned him plaudits thanks to that Xavi-esque through ball to Gerard to score one of the goals. But a game later, the then 21-year-old gave away a penalty that drew Wigan level and was then sent off against Everton in a cup tie loss. That undid all the right things and the critics were back roasting Leiva’s ass again.

Surely, he was never going to make it. Or was he?

At the beginning of 2009-10 season, Liverpool suffered the loss of Xabi Alonso, a midfield linchpin and the master of long range inch-perfect passes. The exit of the Basque player to Real Madrid opened the floodgates for Lucas to make his mark in the first team. Playing alongside Javier Mascherano, Liverpool evidently struggled, finishing a lowly seventh and missing out on the UEFA Champions League.

Benitez, Lucas’ apparent guardian was fired and rumours went round that the Dourados-born playmaker was finally going to exit Anfield for a club as mediocre as his skills with the ball.

But that never happened. What happened is; he won some doubters, and for some reason, stayed at the red half of Merseyside. 

The 24-year-old’s status as a fine footballer rose last season that saw him named Liverpool’s Player of the season. Then came Kenny Dalglish and the Liverpool number 21 became an irreplaceable man in the midfield, both for club and country. Brazil. You read it right. Lucas Leiva is a regular in the ticking Brazilian team. He’s got samba feet. Lucas, Lucas, Lucas.

If anyone still doubts the 2006 Brazilian Footballer of the year’s talents, fast forward to the away game at Chelsea a fortnight ago. Manning the Liverpool midfield with Scot Charlie Adam, Lucas scuffled any attempts by Andre Villas Boas’ men to make forays into the Liverpool penalty area.

His performance was as effective as it was eye-catching as Liverpool won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. If you thought he was top class against the Blues, you won't find a superlative good enough to describe his performance against table-topping Manchester City.

Sheikh Mansour's Manchester City have been scoring goals for fun in the Premier League. Going into the Liverpool match, they had scored no less than two goals in all EPL matches including a 6-1 humiliation of rivals Manchester United. Their midfield have been instrumental. But against King Kenny's side, Lucas and his partner Charlie Adam marshaled the midfield the best way they know how.

Despite the Brazilian’s relatively small built as compared to his antagonists in the middle of the pack, he dealt with the guile of David Silva, the beastly physicality of Yaya Toure and usurped the energy of James Milner. Samir Nasri must have gone for some energy packs after his substitution.

Silva has been simply unplayable for most part of the season. He leads the premier league assists table with 8 and has scored four goals. But the Brazilian with Italian descent made him look ordinary. He shut down City’s heartbeat and never put a foot wrong as he made timely interventions and swift passing, spreading it left, right, forwards and sometimes even covering at centerback.

The Citizens’ custodian Joe Hart was named man of the match after pulling one stunning save after another and ensuring City left with a valuable point. Lucas should have won it.

Nothing says more about his workmanlike effort than these statistics from Anfield index:
Pass Accuracy: 92.2% Tackle Win: 100% (7/7) Ground Duel Won: 81.3% (13/16) Aerial Duels Won: 100% (4/4)

Just over a year ago, his ability to play at the top was questioned by countless critics who must now be eating their humble pie and scratching their heads at just how good the Brazilian has come. Consistency has been his strength and it’s hard to identify a premier league player who has improved with every passing game as Leiva.

He was named the Standard Chartered Fans player of the year last season and with bossy performances against top sides Chelsea and Man City, he looks certain to be named Liverpool FC player of the month, an award that Luis Suarez has won for the last three months, something the Uruguayan has termed 'embarrassing'. Well, it won't be embarrassing no more as El Pistolero won't get the accolade for November.

It’s about time people gave Lucas the respect he’s earned. You simply can’t put a price on him because you just don’t know how good he can get.

Walk on Leiva.

And That's thesteifmastertake!!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Who will Thrash Manchester City?

With 119 matches played and a total 356 goals scored at the time of writing this article, the Barclays Premier League continues with its cutthroat competitive nature that sees only seven points separate second-placed Manchester United and 7th placed Arsenal.

The season has barely been short of goals as only ten barren draws have been recorded so far. Surprisingly though, the scoreless draws have come between the relatively small teams, bar the 0-0 draws for Arsenal versus Newcastle and Chelsea against Stoke.

More startling though has been the string of high scoring matches that we have witnessed among the top six teams, who you would expect to have watertight defences. It all started on August 28 when Manchester United ran riot at home, hitting six past Arsenal who were arguably experiencing a tumultuous period after the exit of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick as the Red Devils trounced 8-2, a result that remains the biggest home win, the widest winning margin (tied with Fulham’s 6-0 win over QPR) and the highest scoring match of the season thus far.

The same weekend saw Manchester City batter Tottenham 5-1 at White Hart Lane with Edin Dzeko scoring four goals. These two big wins seemed to have opened the floodgates for goals.

Since then, we’ve seen Tottenham win 4-0 against Liverpool, Manchester United experience a 6-1 karma at the hands of Manchester City at Old Trafford and Chelsea lose 5-3 and 3-1 to Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.

The only team that is yet to experience an ignominy of goals is Manchester City. The Citizens, though struggling in Europe, have been in impeccable form back at home in England. Roberto Mancini’s side have conceded the least number of goals in the premier league standing at 11, same as Liverpool and Newcastle.

They have not conceded more than two goals since the season began. The big question however is whether they can maintain their rich vein of form and will they find a side lethal enough in attack to hit them where it hurts.

Liverpool provides the opposition this weekend and the Merseyside club will go into the match brimming with confidence after dismissing Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. It will be a matchup of two clubs with the meanest defences.

Both teams won 3-0 against each other in their own backyard. Can Liverpool give the Sky Blues the beating this weekend? Never say never.

And That's thesteifmastertake!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Man City on the Brink of Elimination, Man United Labour, Madrid Cruise

Napoli's Edinson Cavani heads the opener against Manchester City
Manchester City’s progression to the Champions League knockout stages no longer lies on their hands after their 2-1 defeat away to Italian side Napoli.

The Citizens went into the match knowing that doing an Italian job over the Partenpoei will secure them a spot in the knockout stages. However, Edinson Cavani’s brace condemned the English Premier League table-toppers to a defeat that could see them drop into the less-fancied Europa League should Napoli win against bottom side Villarreal in a fortnight.

The two teams stretched each other in the opening minutes and it took 20minutes for the hometeam to reward the over 57,000 fans who turned out at the Stadio San Paolo. Edinson Cavani capitalized from some poor defending from Man City as he raced to head in the opener from near post.

Napoli decided to sit back after the goal and were duly punished in the 33rd minute with a defensive error of their own. Salvatore Aronica’s poor clearance inside the box fell to David Silva in the box and the Spaniard saw his shot parried by Napoli keeper Morgan De Sanctis into the path of Mario Balotelli who had the easy task of tapping the ball into the net to make it 1-1.

Napoli got the winner after the interval. Former Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena sped on the left and cut the ball back to Cavani who calmly side-kicked the ball past Joe Hart to elicit raucous celebrations from the capacity crowd at San Paolo.

Roberto Mancini's side tried to pull the goal back but to no avail. The win puts Walter Mazzari’s fate into their own hands and should they repeat their earlier 2-0 win away to Villarreal on December 7, they’ll progress to the last 16 and see Roberto Mancini’s side kicked out of the Champions League in their maiden appearance.

In the other Group A match, Bayern Munich clinched qualification into the knockout rounds with a 3-1 win over Villarreal at the Alianz Arena. Franck Ribery scored a goal either side of Mario Gomez’s strike in the 23rd minute to secure the Bavarians the group. Jonathan De Guzmán scored the consolation for the Yellow Submarines.

In Group B, Inter Milan confirmed their status as group winners despite drawing 1-1 away to Trabzonspor. Ricardo Gabriel Álvarez smashed the Turkish side into the lead after 18minutes but Halil Altintop drew level for the Italians in the 23rd minute as the match ended 1-1. Vasili Berezutski’s own goal in the 49th minute and Moussa Sow’s 64th minute strike gave Lille a 2-0 win over Russia’s CSKA Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium.

The race for second place in the group is wide open. The final group matches will see CSKA travel to the San Siro to face Inter Milan while Lille will welcome Trabzonspor in a winner-take-all match.

Meanwhile Manchester United continued to labour in Group C as they fought to a 2-2 draw with visiting Benfica at Old Trafford. A Phil Jones own goal and Pablo Aimar’s volley in the 61st minute saw the two teams share spoils for the second time and take the qualification right to the wire. Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Fletcher scored for Sir Alex’s side. In the other group match, Otelul and Basel served the fans with a five-goal thriller match with Basel edging out the hosts  3-2.

Man United travel to Basel while Benfica welcome Otelul Galati in the final group matches.

Real Madrid hit six past Dinamo Zagreb at the Estadio Bernabeu but not before conceding two goals, the only goals they let in so far in the competition. Karim Benzema and Callejon scored a brace each while Gonzalo Higuain and Mesut Ozil scored the other two as the La Liga giants maintained a perfect winning record in the group. Fatos Beciraj 81′ and Ivan Tomecak 90′ scored for Dinamo but the match was already won within the first 10 minutes of the game. Ajax and Lyon shared the spoils.

And That's thesteifmastertake!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chelsea v Liverpool - Suarez’s Racism Charge could Work in His Favour

Liverpool will make a trip to West London this Sunday to face Chelsea in a match which has firepower and fascination written all over it.

The two teams face each other at a time when they are struggling to find a form good enough to rival the two Manchester clubs, especially Manchester City who have opened a five-point lead at the apex of the premier league.

The match will not only see two former KOP idols, Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles (both now seen as traitors) face their former employers but a player from each camp, John Terry and Luis Suarez, are both facing charges of racism with the latter having been charged by the Football Association while the former’s case is still under investigation.

The ruling has raised a huge hue and cry from the Red side of the Merseyside and the club was fast to release a statement reiterating that it will “remain fully supportive of Luis in this matter."

The adroit Uruguayan clashed with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra during the teams’ 1-1 draw at Anfield on October 15 and has been denying allegations since the French international made the claims immediately after the match.

Against Chelsea, the FA charge could work either in favour or against the former Ajax man.

It could provide a major distraction for the talented Nacional youth product in a match that would need total concentration from all the players lest another goal fest be witnessed at Stamford Bridge in the second successive match after the 5-3 loss to Arsenal a fortnight ago. El Pistolero may also feel frustrated by the whole decision and don’t we all know what he is capable of doing when you get into his nerves?

On the other hand, the 24-year-old could go into the match with a lot of fire in his belly and vent all his anger, if any, on Petr Cech and his back four. He scored four goals for Uruguay against Chile in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers on Friday and should he carry those scoring boots to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Chelsea could be in for a long weekend.

Liverpool completed a league double over Andre Villas Boas’ men last season and are unbeaten in their last six league matches but three of the last four have ended in draws. Raul Meireles scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against his current team at Stamford Bridge last season, while Fernando Torres scored a brace in a 2-0 win at Anfield before he controversially engineered his British-record transfer to the Bridge.

The goals have not quite been coming for King Kenny’s men who have hit the back of the net only 14 times in 11 matches but they also have that undesirable record of having hit the post the most times in the league. However, their defence has been resolute conceding only 10 goals in 11 Premier League fixtures, the second lowest in the league.

Chelsea on the other hand have kept only two clean sheets since the league began, the most recent coming against Blackburn in a 1-0 win. They have won only two of their last five games but their form at home has been imperious as they (before the Arsenal match) had scored an impressive 13 goals, and conceded 4.

A win for Liverpool will level them on points with the Blues and add some bite into their aim to finish in the top four. It will also give them confidence ahead of their encounter with runaway league leaders Manchester City on November 27, before a Carling Cup matchup against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge little over 48hours later.

A loss for either team will see them fall further off the top and extinguish their Premier League title ambitions even before Christmas.

Keep your eye on Luis Suarez.

Form Guide:

Chelsea (WDLWL):
5th November, 2011: Blackburn 0-1 Chelsea
1st November, 2011: Genk 1-1 Chelsea (Champions League)
29th October, 2011: Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal
26th October, 2011: Everton 1-2 Chelsea(Carling Cup)
23rd October, 2011: QPR 1-0 Chelsea

Liverpool (DWWDD):
5th November, 2011: Liverpool 0-0 Swansea
29th October, 2011: West Brom 0-2 Liverpool
26th October, 2011: Stoke City 1-2 Liverpool (Carling Cup)
22nd October, 2011: Liverpool 1-1 Norwich
15th October, 2011: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United

My Prediction – Chelsea 1-3 Liverpool

And That's thesteifmastertake!!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CECAFA Cup Will Prove Harambee Stars’ Real Worth

Kenya’s Harambee Stars qualified for the group stages of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers after finishing the job they had started away at Seychelles with a comfortable 4-0 win in Nairobi.

The home team completed a 7-0 aggregate win over the Island nation thanks to goals from Brian Mandela, Titus Mulama, Victor Mugubi and captain Dennis Oliech who netted his third goal in the encounter after scoring two in Victoria Friday last week.

The win for the Stars was hugely anticipated against a team ranked 43 places below them. With a win and qualification to the World Cup qualifiers secured, Harambee Stars next and perhaps biggest test before end of the year will come in the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Cup.

The draw for the annual regional competition was conducted just two days before Harambee Stars beat Seychelles 3-0 in the first leg. Kenya was drawn against guests Malawi, three-time winners Sudan, and Eritrea who are unlikely to .

You have to scroll back to 2002 when Kenya last won the title though they reached the finals in 2008 eventually losing 1-0 to hosts Uganda. For a country which has found it hard to play high-profile international friendlies in a consistent basis, the CECAFA Cup, which kicks off on November 25 in Tanzania, will provide Kenya with an opportunity to not only outshine her regional rivals but also help new coach Francis Kimanzi try, test and prove homegrown players who would want to stake a claim in the national team setup.

Stars will open their campaign against the Flames of Malawi on November 28. The two teams have been drawn together in the World Cup qualifiers and this will present a perfect opportunity for either to test each others' resolve.

Group A: Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Djibouti

Group B: Uganda, Burundi, Zanzibar, Somalia

Group C: Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, Eritrea

 And That's thesteifmastertake!!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Oliech Shines as Harambee Stars Conquer Seychellois Island

Kenya’s national football team, Harambee Stars, made light work of the Islanders from Seychelles beating them 3-0 in a pre World Cup qualifying match played at Seychelles’ Stade Linité.

Defender Pascal Ochieng’ opened the scoring for the Stars in the first half before Auxerre hitman Dennis Oliech added a brace in the second half to all but assure the Stars progress to the group stages though they still have to play the second leg in Nairobi.

It was the first match for Harambee stars under the tutelage of the returning tactician Francis Kimanzi who took the reigns from former coach Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno. Stars went into the match as the firm favourites and got off to a dominant start consistently marauding the Pirates’ backline and making 37-year-old custodian Nelson Sopha have a busy day at the office.

However, they could only hold off the Stars for too long. FCM Târgu Mureş midfielder Jamal Mohammed floated in a freekick and vice-captain Pascal Ochieng’ headed in the opener for Coach Kimanzi’s outfit just four minutes before the interval.

Captain Dennis Oliech was his usual menacing self and after flattering to score for most part of the game, he finally got on the score sheet in the 73rd minute when he raced behind the Seychellois defence and tucked the ball past Sopha to double Kenya’s lead.

The Auxerre hotshot scored his second eight minutes before time to all but assure Kenya their place in the pool bar a miracle happens in the return leg match at the Nyayo National Stadium on Tuesday November 15.

This was more than less a routine win for the Harambee Stars but it will surely boost their morale as the team tries to rebuild and qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and 2013 Africa Nations Cup.

Elsewhere, Namibia gave Djibouti a 4-0 humbling to also all but secure their place in the World Cup qualifiers. The Brave Warriors scored their goals through a brace from Rudolf Bester, and a goal each from Lazarus Kaimbi and  Sydney Urikh. The return leg will take place in Windhoek on Tuesday evening, November 15. 

A win, draw or less than three goals loss for Kenya and Namibia will see them join Malawi and favourites Nigeria who were given byes in the qualifying rounds.

And That's thesteifmastertake!!