Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The return of the Champions League

The wait is finally over. Champions League football finally returns this week as 16 teams can briefly put their league worries on hold and focus on the glittering European prize. The original European Cup always had a strong appeal right from its inception in 1956. But in recent years, the quest for this trophy has certainly reached obsessive heights. In fact, quite a few teams have made the Champions League the most important quest of their season while letting their league form dip since winning the league title is no longer a requirement to take part in the competition like in the old days of the European Cup. For example last year even if AC Milan had not won the trophy, they would still have been in the Champions League this season as they finished in the final 4th spot required for the Champs League with 61 points, a staggering 36 points behind the league champions Inter Milan (this includes Milan's 8 point point deduction, without which they would have been still 28 points behind).

The Champions League is once again the only trophy that Milan will be playing for this year as they are currently 21 points adrift of Inter Milan and were dumped out of the Italian Cup in January. In fact they have been in cruise mode in the league for a few weeks now, while Arsenal have been involved in a tight league championship race. Ofcourse, not withstanding this previous weekend's game, Arsenal should return fully motived for this Wednesday's game as they once again bid to go one better than their 2006 runner's up spot.

Arsenal vs AC Milan

This is the first meeting between Arsenal and AC Milan in European competition. Even though both teams have a proud history, this encounter has been atleast two decades in the making.

A new start in 1986

After winning the 1979 Italian league title, AC Milan went through a bad phase in the early 1980's when they got relegated. The team's history was forever changed when Silvio Berlusconi bought the team in 1986. His main master stroke was hiring Arrigo Sacchi from lowly Parma. Sacchi transformed the team by ushering in a new exciting playing style and leading Milan to the league title in 1988, followed by two European Cups in 1989 & 1990. The current Milan team's origins can be traced back to that Sacchi team as Paolo Maldini evolved under Sacchi and Milan's current coach Carlo Ancelotti was part of the European Cup winning squads in 89 & 90 (including scoring a goal in a 5-0 rout of Real Madrid in the 1989 European Cup).

The years 1979 and 1986 also stand out in Arsenal's history. After a famous 3-2 victory over Man Utd in the 1979 F.A Cup final, Arsenal went trough a period of indifferent results and no trophies in the early 1980's. Their success only started after former player George Graham was hired in 1986. A league Cup victory followed in 1987 before a famous league title in 1989. Arsenal went onto win another league title in 1991 (losing only one game), won both domestic cups in 1993 and championed a gritty 1-0 win in the 1994 Cup Winner's Cup final. Arsene Wenger inherited the tough defense that George Graham created and if not for that solid backbone, then it is hard to believe Wenger would have fashioned a championship winning team so quickly in 1998.

So if there was ever a chance that two different playing styles and cultures would have clashed, it should have been in 1990 when a defensive Arsenal could have met an attack minded Milan team in the European Cup. But because of the European ban on English clubs, that meeting was not to be.

1994: Arsenal's defense overcame a skilful Parma team packed with Zola, Asprilla and Thomas Brolin to win the Cup Winner's Cup. Also, in 1994 AC Milan thrashed Barcelona 4-0 to win the European Cup. Prior to the game, Johan Cruyff and a few Barcelona players ridiculed Milan and said that Barcelona's attack would easily overcome Milan's defense. But like that night and many more nights after that, Milan have proved their critics wrong.

Playing styles reversed:

On Feb 20, 2008, as Arsenal prepare to take on AC Milan, both teams playing style has reversed from those under George Graham and Sacchi. Arsenal are not known for their defense like under George Graham and even though Milan possess a talented attacking streak in Kaka, they are not know for their attacking potential like under Sacchi. In a recent interview, Kaka was full of praise for Arsenal and said: "They play football the way we like it to see it in Brazil, with style, changing position all the time, moving the ball among themselves so quickly,". Praise indeed. But as past Champions League games have shown, a team can possess as much talent as possible but it amounts to nothing if the opponent is tactically able to negate their opponents strengths.

While Arsenal vs Milan is easily one of the most eye catching fixtures, there are 7 other games which should provide enough drama.

The European Quest:

Safe to say, all the 16 teams have their own reason for doing well in Europe. In Olympiacos' case, a good European performance will help ease the constant taunts they get in league football. Even though Olympiacos are completely dominant in Greek league football with 35 league titles (including 10 of the last 11 league titles) compared to Panathinaikos's 14 titles, Panathinaikos fans often joke that only their team has true "European pedigree" because of their solitary runner's up spot in the European Cup in 1971 and two semi-final appearances (1985 & 1996). Whereas Olympiacos only have a quarter-final berth in 1998 to show for their European Cup exploits. This taunt is similar to one that the English media often use against Arsenal, thanks to Manchester United & Ferguson. Manchester's solitary European Cup under Ferguson in 1999 is often used to imply their greatness over the Gunners. Even though with each passing year's failure in Europe, Manchester's win in 1999 appears to be more of a fluke than something earned through true quality. But the Champions League failure is used a sword over Wenger and Arsenal.

Lyon are another team that feels the pressure of European glory every year. Last season, their 6th straight league title felt like a consolation prize after another failure in Europe. Real Madrid always have tremendous expectations on their shoulders in the Champions League despite their 9 Cup victories. But considering their last Cup was in 2002, the almost 6 year gap must feel like a drought to the team's owners and fans. And Liverpool have been able to use the Champions League to mask their poor domestic form. It is hard to believe that Rafa Benitez would have earned so much respect from Liverpool fans had Liverpool not conjured up six minutes of magic to erase a 3-0 deficit against a stylish Milan team in 2005.

Final note:

There Will be Brazilians:

15 of the 16 European teams have atleast one registered Brazilian player on their squad. The only exception is Celtic. While some teams revolve around their Brazilian players, other teams such as Arsenal have only been using their Brazilian players when the first team players have been injured.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You own the night? Nah. You Own the Year!!

We Own the Night (2007, USA, Director James Gray): Rating 10/10

Curiosity first drew me towards We Own the Night. But I was hooked after the film's first scene appeared following the opening black and white shots depicting a city's drug war. Captivated and intrigued completely. In fact, I hardly moved during the film's almost 2 hour running time. There was no reason to look elsewhere, be distracted or even wander away. Watching a simple story, in fact a story often tackled by Hollywood, bathed in cool and soothing 80's music was a real pleasure.

Although looking back the opening scene was probably my least favourite, yet the background music put me at ease. While there is no harm in watching Eva Mendes (playing Amada) pleasure herself, I found the scene needless. For me, the movie truly began after Amada's boyfriend Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) indulges her for a few moments before she reminds him of the more important tasks of running a nightclub and the need to attend a meeting with his family. When Bobby leaves Amada and steps out to look down upon his pulsating lively club, the film truly began. Images of Michael Mann's Miami Vice flashed through my head, another film which began in a night club. In We Own the Night the nightclub is Bobby's world, where he is king. People shake his hand and are happy to be in his presence. But when Bobby goes to meet his family, it is a different environment. No one rushes to offer him food like what he gets at his bosses house (the Russian Buzhayev) or even a drink. In fact, no sooner does Bobby's family see him, they want to talk business. And that is where the problems begin.

Bobby runs a nightclub owned by Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). The Russian owner has some shady relatives (Vadim Nezhinski played by Alex Veadov) who traffic drugs. Bobby's family, including his father (Bert played by Robert Duvall) and brother (Joe played by Mark Wahlberg) are police officers in pursuit of the Russian drug ring. They want Bobby's help in nabbing Vadim but Bobby wants nothing to do with it. He wants to live in his isolated happy world. Unfortunately, Joe is restless and believes in using force to knock things down. After a un-necessary show of force towards Vadim, Joe is a target for the Russians revenge. When things get ugly, Bobby decides to help his family. And then things get even more messy and complicated.

What made this such a fascinating viewing was how Gray puts the story of family & relationships in the film's nucleus while showing the cop/drug elements as hovering particles. Sometimes the cop/drug elements crash into the characters lives and alter their future (examples: the brilliant car chase scene and the tension packed drug hide-out scene). But overall, the relationships take most of the key scenes. There are some well done moments in the film which highlight the relationship between Bobby and Amada. Amada is very close to her mother while Bobby wants nothing to do with Amada's mom. This tension is highlighted well in a scene when he uses his security as an excuse to not visit Amada's mother while visiting his own family. Bobby and his brother's relationship (or lack of it) are also covered nicely. Very early on, it is obvious that Joe is jealous of Bobby's lifestyle. When Joe is angry at Bobby, the first insult that leaves his mouth is against Bobby's Puerto Rican girlfriend. To which Bobby replies that atleast he has a Puerto Rican. Even though Joe has the respect of his father and colleagues, he seeks a bit of Bobby's freedom and is clearly jealous of his luscious girlfriend. On the other hand, Bobby seeks a bit more of his father's love and admires his brother. So he tries to do his best to help his family even if it means putting his life in risk.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The F.A Cup tie

Saturday's 5th round F.A Cup tie at Old Trafford brings together not only the current league's #1 and #2 teams but also the two best teams in the history of the F.A Cup.

The two titans:
Man Utd have the most F.A Cup wins with 11, followed closely by Arsenal's 10 victories. Both have also have finished runner's up on 7 occasions each, with Man Utd finishing second best to Chelsea in last year's final.

Ever since Arsene Wenger took over Arsenal, they have been THE dominant team in the F.A Cup. In the 11+ years under Wenger, Arsenal have reached the F.A Cup final 5 times out of the last 11 years, winning 4 titles. No team can match this result in the F.A Cup over the last decade. Man Utd on the other hand have reached 4 F.A Cup finals since 1997 and won on two occasions. Under Ferguson's 21+ years, Man Utd have reached a total of 8 finals and have won 5 trophies.

Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg also holds the joint record of scoring in two successive finals with goals in the 2001 and 2002 finals. Freddie's goal in the 2-0 win over Chelsea (in 2002's double year) was an absolutely beautiful curling shot.

Arsenal and Manchester United have also been the two best teams in the 15 year history of the Premier League. So needless to say, there have been plenty of fiery encounters between the two and numerous stars who have delighted their supporters while frustrating the opponents. The league and F.A Cup ties have featured plenty of debating points ranging from kicks, shoves, punches, red cards, penalties, dives, beautiful goals and even a pizza toss. But the rivalry would not be what it is today if not for the two managers.

You talking to me?

For two managers to develop a rivalry, they have to be employed long enough for their respective teams. In that regards Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have had plenty of time to get acquainted with each other. Currently, the two are not only the longest serving managers of a team in England but also in Europe. This was not the case three years ago when Guy Roux was easily the longest serving manager of any European team. But after leading Auxerre for a remarkable 44 years, Roux finally stepped down in 2005.

While Ferguson and Wenger have not been reduced to physical blows yet, they have exchanged plenty of memorable verbal battles. It all started in early 1997 when Wenger uttered the following words: "It's wrong the programme is extended so Man Utd can rest and win everything".

But Ferguson decided he needed to make his usual 'intelligent' reply:"He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football"

Ferguson was always annoyed that Wenger never stayed for a post-game drink with him and that Wenger never gave Man Utd the respect Ferguson thought they deserved. So it is not a surprize he said this about Arsenal's 2002 double winning team:
"They are scrappers who rely on belligerence - we are the better team"

Wenger's perfect weighted reply was truly memorable: "Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home".

And then there was that infamous Old Trafford match in 2003 when a little shoving took place after the final whistle. Even a year after the incident, Ferguson talked about the game: "They got away with murder. What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport"

Wenger summed up Ferguson's intentions perfectly: "Maybe it would be better if you have put us up against a wall and shot us all. I hope that he will calm down".
Yes that would certainly have made Fergie happy.

No wonder the Oct 24, 2004 game was such a high octane kick and cheat fest. But not according to Fergie: "In the tunnel Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats. Arsenal are the worst losers of all time"

Wenger's reply: "I will never answer any questions any more about this man. In England you have a good phrase. It is 'bringing the game into disrepute'"

In the last few years, there have been some other remarks by Wenger. For example, Wenger did confirm that when he runs into Ferguson at the airport, atleast they don't tear the place apart: "When we meet in airports we don't fight. Those meetings are even funny"

The following Wenger remark was directed towards Fergie: "I'm ready to take the blame for all the problems of English football if that is what he wants"

Maybe Ferguson will say in the future that since Arsenal sign so many non-English players, the team's scouts spend so much time flying about and are destroying the environment. Climate Change might be Arsenal's fault!

Recap of those old games:
The last F.A Cup meeting between Arsenal and Man Utd was in the 2005 F.A Cup final when Arsenal somehow managed a win. Despite being dominated for the entire game, Arsenal survived until the penalty shoot-out when Jens Lehmann saved a kick from Scholes and captain Patrick Vieira scored with his final kick for Arsenal (sniff sniff) for the 5-4 shoot-out win. The game was also the first F.A Cup final to have been decided on kicks. The footballing gods were kind to Arsenal that day feeling they had to make things right after Arsenal were hard done by earlier in the season when a fake penalty gave Man Utd a win and halted Arsenal's 49 game unbeaten run.

In 2004, Arsenal lost 1-0 to Man Utd in a F.A Cup semi in one of the toughest fixture week for the Gunners. A week before the semi, Arsenal were held to a 1-1 tie with Man Utd. And a few days after the 1-0 loss, Arsenal met Chelsea in the Champions league 2nd league tie before a title deciding match against Liverpool at Highbury. Seriously, who came up with that fixture week? A computer corrupted with a Man Utd program? Unfortunately, Ferguson could not be reached for comments regarding this manner.

Then there was the Old Trafford tie 5 years ago on Sat, Feb 15 2003 when once again the soccer gods aided Arsenal when a deflected Edu free-kick and a Wiltord goal gave Arsenal a 2-0 win. Giggs missed a gapping net that day and that win meant that Arsenal made up for an earlier 2-0 league loss at Old Trafford, in a game which ended Arsenal's 55 game scoring streak. Ofcourse, had Pires’ lob not gone a few inches wide earlier in that 2-0 league loss, it might have been a different game.

Giggs miss in that 2003 F.A Cup tie balanced the books so to speak because in 1999, he scored a super goal to beat Arsenal in a hard fought F.A Cup semi-tie. A penalty save that day in the 90th minute proved to be a turning point for a Man Utd win.

So...on to Sat

A packed crowd at Old Trafford would not care that Wenger believes the F.A Cup is third priority this season for Arsenal as the Man Utd fans cheer their team on. And given how the Man Utd players have wildly celebrated their wins over Arsenal in recent years (especially 2004's F.A Cup semi win & the league game in Oct 2004), beating Arsenal means a lot to them. Every time a newspaper or a commentator mentions 'beautiful football' and 'Arsenal' in the same sentence, certain Manchester players must get irked because the first comments made by some ManU players after the 2-2 league draw earlier this season was regarding Arsenal's 'so called beautiful football'.

Arsenal's growing injury list will mean many players will be unable to partake in Sat's game such as Djourou, van Persie, Diaby, Almunia, Denilson, Rosicky, Walcott (unsure?), Clichy, Sagna and Senderos. Besides the injuries, the team selection might also be altered keeping in mind next week's Champions league game. On Man Utd's side, you can be sure that Rooney will play as he loves scoring against Arsenal. He has found the net 3 times as a Man Utd player and 2 further times as an Everton player against Arsenal. Ofcourse, he scored his first league goal against Arsenal as well, ending Arsenal's 29 game unbeaten run. In recent years, Ronaldo and Scholes have also found the net three times each against Arsenal.

Thierry Heny looooved scoring against Manchester. He scored 8 times against them (all in the league), including a bullet of a goal in the unbeaten season, a fantastic looping goal in 2001 and ofcourse that winning goal in a 2-1 league win last season. That 90th minute goal was the second last goal Henry scored in an Arsenal shirt and the last time he scored a winning goal for the Gunners. With recent reports that Henry has been in touch with Adebayor and giving him advice might hopefully mean that one day Ade takes up Henry's goal-scoring record against Manchester. Ofcourse, Ade already has a winning goal against Manchester in a 1-0 win last season. But it is unsure if he will start on Sat.

No matter who starts, it will be an electric atmosphere. Not one for the faint hearted and that even includes fans following the game via tv or the internet!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group D, Sweden

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): Thriller a cruel picture (1974, Bo Arne Vibenius)
Rating: 6/10
Rules compliance: All rules met
Relevance to Soccer: Violence and revenge

The off-field violence in soccer has become a cause of growing concern over the last decade or so. In the 1970's and 80's, the problem of soccer gang violence was mostly restricted to England. But after a few serious incidents of fan deaths in the 80's, the English game began to clean up and crack down on hooligans. Since the 1990's the English game's image has improved with regards to gang violence, but this problem has intensified in parts of Eastern Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Turkey, Holland to name a few regions. The tv show The Real Football Factories does a good job of showcasing the cauldrons of hatred that lurks amid so called fans of the game. The show idea sprung after the 2004 film The Football Factory showed how gangs organized themselves for fights in England. After that film, a tv show started by first exploring the real life gang violence around stadiums in the U.K before hopping across the ocean to observe the gangs across Europe and South America. These gangs use the soccer games as an excuse to get revenge, create havoc and sometimes ruthlessly kill opponents of another team. Most of these 'fans' spend more time organizing fights but might be hard pressed to even name a few details of the beautiful game. In some cases, the causes of hatred go back a few decades or even a century of so. The game then becomes an excuse to revive revenges from incidents of times past.

The Swedish film Thriller is about pure revenge. But the main character in the film (Madeleine) has a genuine need for revenge. Madeleine's life tragedy started in her childhood when she was raped and rendered mute. When she was barely a teenager, she was tricked by Tony who drugged and forced her into prostitution. Madeleine tried to resist but she had to pay the cost by losing an eye. After that her life becomes an endless cycle of misery with the exception being on Monday, her only day off.

Eventually Madeleine's hatred at Tony and his customers starts to build. She starts taking training lessons for ultimate revenge.

Armed with a shotgun, she goes about executing those who wronged her.

While the plot may sound simple by today's standards, the film stands out because of its graphic sex scenes. Thriller could be described as an exploitation film appropriate for a grind-house double bill. The 1974 film would have stayed hidden from the World if not for Quentin Tarantino who mentioned that he modeled the Daryl Hannah character in Kill Bill after Christina Lindberg's Madeleine character from Thriller. In fact, the shrill background noise in Kill Bill when Uma Thurman's character eyes an opponent is also influenced from this Swedish film. The violence in Thriller is tame as all the killings are shown in slow-motion and appear more comic than gory. Although there is an act of uncomfortable cruelty when Madeleine is turned into a pirate by Tony -- the point of view camera shows Tony's razor heading closely towards Madeleine's left eye until the camera pulls back to show a scene more graphic than the razor-meets-eye scene from Luis Buñuel Un chien andalou.

Overall, the 12th film from the Euro festival is certainly a shock to the system compared to the other features.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Soccer Sunday

Sunday, Feb 10: Plenty of good soccer on tap
(mountain time):

6:30 am: The Manchester derby kicks off at Old Trafford.
7:00 am: The Italian Serie A games kick-off
7:30 am: I tune into the Manchester derby and shockingly Man City are 2-0 away. Wow!
8:00 am: I catch up with French Ligue 1. Lyon and Bordeaux register another win each.
8:15 am: Milan take a 1-0 lead with 18 year old Italian kid Paloschi scoring with his first touch. It is an amazing sight. The youngster comes on for Serginho and less than 60 seconds later smashes home a great goal. Another star in the making? The upcoming weeks will tell. I have never seen such a smile on Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti's face :)

approx 8:20 am: The Manchester Derby is over with Man City winning 2-1.

9:00 am: Chelsea-Liverpool kick-off along with the top of table clash in Germany with Bayern Munich hosting Werder Bremen.

9:07 am: Diego scores a beautiful goal to stun Bayern.

9:45 am: The boring Chelsea-Liverpool game is 0-0 at half-time with Bayern drawing 1-1 with Werder.

10:00 am: The African Cup of Nations Final between Egypt and Cameroon kicks off.

11 am: The boring awful Chelsea-Liverpool game ends 0-0. One of the worst games ever, typical of Liverpool and Chelsea games. Bayern stay top in Germany with a 1-1 tie with Werder.

Around 11:35 am or so: Egypt finally score a goal after Mohamed Zidan latches on a mistake by Rigobert Song and stays on his feet to calmly pass the ball to an unmarked Aboutrika who slots the ball into the net.

11:50 am: The final whistle goes and Egypt win back to back African Cup titles and their 6th overall crown.

What a tournament! Egypt certainly deserve their title as they played some amazing football, especially the 4-1 win over Ivory Coast and their opening day demolition of Cameroon 4-2. The final with a cagey affair but overall, Egypt were the better team.

Oh also on Sunday, Real Madrid put 7 past Valladolid to go 8 points clear at the top in La Liga.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Recap of African Cup of Nations Semi's

On Thursday, Feb 5 the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations took place. In the first semi, I expected the hosts Ghana to edge past Cameroon while I expected the talented Ivory Coast team to beat the defending champs Egypt in the other semi.

Well I was wrong on both counts. Even though Cameroon are not the force they were once in the 90's, they managed to do enough to get past Ghana. Despite an opening day 4-2 thrashing by Egypt, Cameroon have improved steadily and managed to hold their defense together against the heavily supported home team.

The second semi between Ivory Coast and Egypt was a cracking affair. The game was fast paced and completely physical. It was surprizing to see Egypt outmuscle and outplay Ivory Coast for most of the game. Even though Egypt were fortunate to take the lead with a deflected shot, they managed to keep Ivory Coast at bay. Credit goes to the Egyptian goal-keeper for making two world class saves, including one early in the second half from a perfect Drogba header. Drogba's downward header appeared to be going in the goal until a superb reflex save by Al Hadari preserved Egypt's narrow 1-0 lead.

Just after the hour mark, Amr Zaki lost his marker (Arsenal's Kolo Toure who was back in the line-up after an injury early in the tournament) and perfectly headed the ball into the far corner to give Egypt a 2-0 lead. A minute later Keita scored one of the goals of the tournament with a brilliant long range shot to pull the score back to 2-1. From then on, Ivory Coast pushed forward and Egypt caught them on the break with Zaki getting his second of the game to make it 3-1. That third goal took the wind out of Ivory Coast and they never looked like getting back in the game. Egypt duly wrapped things up in the 90th minute with a 4th goal. The Egyptian captain looked towards the camera and appeared to utter "khallas" refering to the game as finished. Indeed. There was no doubt that the defending champs Egypt had put in the best performance of the tournament to take out the talented Ivory Coast 4-1.

Sunday's final promises to be interesting with Egypt taking on Cameroon. Saturday's third place game will be an anti-climatic event as pre-tournament favourite's Ghana take on Ivory Coast.

Weekend EPL games

This weekend's English Premier League games are the return legs from the Round 3 fixtures.

Recap of Round 3:
None of the big four of Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool picked up a win in Round 3. But Arsenal, Liverpool and Blackburn had only played one game heading into the weekend of August 19 because of European ties.

Arsenal 1-1 Blackburn
No Arsenal fan needs reminding of this game. A mistake from Jens coupled with his opening day error against Fulham signaled the end of his first team days. Prior to this game, my image of Jens was either seeing him in a defiant mood, pushing someone, shouting or being authoritative. But this was the first time I saw him lower his head in his gloves and go silent.

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
A superb Torres goal gave Liverpool the lead and they should have picked up all 3 points until a non-existent penalty was given to Chelsea. Even though the ref admitted later he had made a mistake, it did not erase the fact that Liverpool were robbed. Chelsea never looked like getting anything from this game until that gift.

Man City 1-0 Man Utd
Nothing went right for United and City rode their luck after a sliced deflection gave them three precious points.

So after Round 3, Man City were alone at the top with 9 points, Chelsea had 7 points, Liverpool, Arsenal and Blackburn had 4 each while Man Utd were winless with 2points.

Round 26:
How the table has changed. Arsenal are top with 60, Man Utd right behind with 58, Chelsea have 54, Liverpool are in 5th with 43, Man City are in 7th with 41 and Blackburn are in 8th with 39 points. Liverpool still have a game in hand.

Arsenal's home record is second only to Man Utd's in the league. The Gunners have 11 wins and 2 draws, one of them being a 2-2 with Utd. Arsenal also lead the league with most goals scored at 52.

Blackburn's away record is slightly better than their home record. Away from home, they have picked up 20 points (5 wins, 5 draws and 2 losses) while at home they have 5 wins, 4 draws and 4 losses. Blackburn have scored 32 goals this season and let in 31, with 19 goals scored away from home and 18 conceded away.

The Manchester derby takes place early on Sunday morning, followed by the Chelsea-Liverpool game on Sunday evening. Arsenal take on Blackburn on a rare monday night game.

Arsenal should not expect any favours from Man City or Liverpool. The Torres injury will not help Liverpool against a Chelsea side who are still grinding results out.

Familiar Foe:
In recent years, the frequent meetings with Blackburn in the domestic cup competitions combined with their tactics have made them an annoying opponent for Arsenal. In the last 8 seasons, Arsenal have faced Blackburn 3 times in the F.A Cup (4 games in total) and twice in the Carling Cup, including this season's 3-2 win. Last season, Arsenal lost 1-0 away to Blackburn in the F.A Cup after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

But Arsenal's 6-2 thumping win over Blackburn at home last season surely makes up for some of those frustrating moments with Blackburn over the years. Since Blackburn's promotion back to the league in the 2001/02 season, Arsenal have won 8 times, drawn two (this year's 1-1 draw and a 3-3 home tie in the 2002 double year) and lost 3 times. Arsenal lost both fixtures to Blackburn in a dismal 2002/03 season. In the 90's, Arsenal also failed to beat Blackburn in both fixtures on three other occasions -- the first season of the Premier League & Blackburn's return to top-flight football in 1992/93, Blackburn's title season of 1994/95 and the 1995/96 season.

Overall, Arsenal have 46 wins, 29 draws and 24 defeats against Blackburn since the two first met in league football in the 1904/05 season. The first meeting between these two teams took place appropriately in a F.A Cup tie on Feb 9, 1901 when Arsenal won 2-0.

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group C, Romania

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006, Corneliu Porumboiu)
Rating: 9/10
Rules compliance: All rules met

Relevance to Soccer: Revisiting history

Some of the best soccer games and players existed in days before television. The only way today's fans can learn of these glorious past episodes is by reading books by fans, former players or journalists who were lucky enough to witness those magical moment in the sport. But what if the writer's memory is weak and there is no one to provide a better version of the truth? In that case, the tarnished memory will serve as fact and a legend will be formed.

The core of 12:08 East of Bucharest is about confirming a historic moment in a small town's past. In order to verify whether a revolution took place in the town in December 1989, a tv show host (Jderescu) gets two people together for a live tv debate.

The idea is to get these two people's versions and then get viewers to call in with their own stories. To start things off, Manescu (the local school teacher) gives his account and confirms he led a small revolution on that historic date.

While Manescu is providing his story, the other guest Piscosi (sitting on the left) is bored and distracted.

Once the phone lines are opened up, all the viewers who phone in only call to contradict Manescu's story. He is considered a town drunk and no one thinks much of him. After that, the show turns into a dissection of Manescu's version as opposed to having a civilized debate.

12:08 East of Bucharest is a hilarious film that is just fun to watch. It mixes political, subjective and even racial views in an easy flowing manner. In terms of film-making, 12:08 East of Bucharest may be third best when compared to its fellow Romanian films (The Death of Mister Lazarescu and 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days) but it is more light hearted than those two films. And sometimes, one needs humour to depict the absurd situations.

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group B, Austria

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): Antares (2004, Götz Spielmann)
Rating: 8/10
Rules compliance: All rules met

Relevance to Soccer: cautious approach

No soccer manager or team ever takes the field with the intent of playing out a dull game. But sometimes managers approach the game with a cautious line-up because they rather get one point from the game and not lose. And if the opposing team manager also puts out a cautious line-up, then we get a stalemate of a game, with very few chances and no excitement.

Similarly, no couple every gets into a relationship with the intention of leading a dull marital life. But with the stresses and strains of every day life, a marriage can often become a routine with very few exciting moments.

At the start of the Austrian film Antares, Eva is living an ordinary life with her husband.

Her quiet and peaceful marriage offers very little excitement. So in order to shake things up, she undertakes a passionate affair.

The affair forms just one of three stories, all of which involve residents of an apartment complex in a manner which seems to echo Krzysztof Kieslowski's

But Decalogue was completely engaging and featured memorable characters. Whereas, only some of the characters and stories in Antares are interesting. The film also runs for longer than it should.

Overall, Antares along with the two Austrian films by Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days and Import/Export) give a very bleak view of Austrian life. Hopefully, the Austrian soccer team can give their nation something to cheer for in the summer. Currently, as it stands, Austria are the weakest soccer team out of the 16 teams taking part at Euro 2008.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group C, Holland

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): Interview (2003, Theo Van Gogh)
Rating: 7/10
Rules compliance: All Rules met

Relevance to Soccer: listening to the star

A few decades ago, people just watched the soccer game and only discussed the player's performance. No one interviewed the soccer player or cared to hear what the soccer player had to say. Then with the advent of tv and the popularity of the game, countless tv shows and publications on the game originated. In order to accommodate all the different media needs, interviews with players were needed to fill the tv spots and pages of papers. Unfortunately, most of the interviews are not very useful which give very little insight into the game or even the player's thinking. But every now and then, a good interviewer manages to corner a player and get something useful related to the game out of the player.

Just like soccer, the history of interviews with film stars has followed a similar pattern. A long time ago, in the era of silent movies, the actors performed in front of the camera and no one really cared to listen to what they had to say. But with the popularity of movies, the number of interviews with the actors increased. And in today's day and age, interviews with actors outnumber the films they act in -- actors are often carted from room to room giving the same interview over and over. As a result, a single movie spawns more than a few dozen interviews. Most of the interviews turn out recycled words but just like the soccer interviews, sometimes an interviewer actually manages to get the actors to say something interesting.

The Dutch film Interview starts off with Pierre (a political journalist) accepting to interview Katja, a popular B movie actress.

Pierre has no interest in the interview and early on launches into a personal attack. But Katja is unfazed and bites back.

What follows is an intense dialogue, with one person clearly playing the other.

One of the reasons I picked this Dutch film was to finally see something by Theo Van Gogh. I only heard of him after he was murdered. Ian Buruma's book A Murder in Amsterdam details not only his murder but also looks at how this murder made people question Holland's stance of tolerance. Also, this film was also remade into a low budget Hollywood film with Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller released in 2007.

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group D, Greece

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): Rouleman (2005, Panos Karkanevatos)
Rating: 7/10
Rules compliance: All Rules met

Relevance to Soccer: Fame and a better life

Every year plenty of soccer players from around the World leave their small town soccer team for a big professional team in the city. Very few of those who leave their homes actually make it as a professional. If the rejected players are smart, they would try for a different team or if things do not work out at all, then choose an alternate profession. Ofcourse, the options for the rejected player are easier if the player moved to the city in legal manner. Recent reports have suggested that players have been getting picked from South American or even African clubs and transported to Europe on shaky immigration papers and were often left to fend on their own. But soccer is not the only case with gruesome stories of people's lives getting turned upside down after a move to the big city.

In Rouleman, Loula wants to leave her small town for the city.

Kosmos enters her life and promises to marry her and take her to the city.

But he does not mention his financial problems and shady past to Loula and as a result, the two are forced to continue living in the small town after marriage. Loula is frustrated and leaves for the city on her own. She initially faces difficulties but manages to do fine. However, Kosmos is jealous of her life and wants her back. But she does not want to have anything with him. A confrontational situation leads to only one possible predictable outcome.

No matter how bad his life is, Kosmos still manages to show interest in soccer. He wants to take Loula to see an AEK Athens derby game but she is not interested. Even when Kosmos is in jail, he is curious to know how AEK did.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group C, France

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): Angela-A (2005, Luc Besson)
Rating: 7.5/10
Rules compliance: I have seen a handful of Besson's previous films so the selection fails to be one from an unseen director's work.

Relevance to Soccer: Own goals

Scoring an own goal in soccer is an awful feeling. There can be many reasons for an own goal such as lack of communication between the player and his goal-keeper, bad judgment on the player's part or just plain bad luck. Although some players are more likely to score own goals than others. But with enough training and experience, one expects these players to make correctly timed tackles to avoid those dreaded own goals in the future.

At the start of Angel-A, we find André (Jamel Debbouze)

who has made one too many bad decisions. Finding himself with a debt that he cannot pay, André chooses to end his life. But a guardian angel Angela (Rie Rasmussen) comes to his rescue and helps get him out of trouble.

Unfortunately, it is in André's nature to make bad decisions and he once again manages to dig himself into a hole. So Angela decides to give André a lesson in self-confidence in the hope that he can evaluate future situations in a better manner.

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, Angel-A is a light hearted film set in Paris. No matter how miserable André feels, he can always count on the presence of the Eiffel tower as a guiding light in his life.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Euro 2008 Film Festival: Group A, Switzerland

Film Festival Rules & Guidelines

Film selected (Year, Director): The Boat is Full (1981, Markus Imhoof)
Rating: 8/10
Rules compliance: All rules met

Relevance to Soccer: Passive Offside ('neutral'), goal-line

The offside rule is often a source of dispute and controversy in soccer. Not a week goes by without professional soccer teams disputing an incorrect offside call or having a valid goal disallowed. In recent years, the offside rule has become even harder to interpret and implement because of the 'passive' offside concept. As per the 'passive' offside rule, if a player is an offside position but is deemed to be not involved in their team's play, then the referee does not call offside and stop the play. This guideline was meant to encourage attacking soccer because if a player is not involved in the play, then why should that player's team be penalized for having a valid scoring chance called back? But this interpretation has caused plenty of confusion and heated debate. Some people argue that if a player is on the field, then that player is always involved in the play, directly or indirectly -- the player might not touch the ball but instead might distract an opposing team's defender or the opposing goal-keeper's view. Also, the rule is exploited by some players who can cleverly move from a 'passive' position to an 'active' position and help score a goal. When Ruud Van Nistelrooy used to play for Manchester United, he was an expert in taking advantage of this offside rule loop-hole. In plenty of Manchester's plays, he was often in a 'passive' position at the start of the play but then turned up to score a goal from an 'active' position. But the reality was that as soon as he touched the ball, the game should have stopped because he was no longer passive. Yet, he continued to get away because in a fast paced game, the referee and linesman could not keep track of his movements.

So I wanted to compare this 'passive' offside rule to the concept of neutrality in times of war. If one reads the history books, Switzerland is often considered as being neutral during WWII. But can a nation be truly 100% neutral when its neighbouring countries are at war? For a nation to be neutral, its borders have to be shut tight and no neighbouring citizens or armies should be allowed through; no enemy planes should be able to cross its air-space and the neural nation should not be involved in transporting or selling any resources to the neighbouring nations. In reality, it is very difficult to maintain such restrictions. While the neutral nation might not send its army to actively participate in the war, if the nation allows the enemy troops to cross its boundaries, then it is no longer neutral.

The film The Boat is Full questions the Swiss claims of neutrality. Based on Alfred A. Haesler's book, the story shows how a group of Jewish refugees struggle to stay within the Swiss borders. In order to get asylum the group have to pretend to be a family. But if the group is not found to be a family, they will be deported and sent to their death. One of the questions that arises from the film is that if a country knowingly hands over people to their death, can that nation be considered neutral?

As the camera closes in on one of the Swiss borders near the film's end, I was reminded of a goal-line in between the two goal posts.

The goal-line creates two binary situations -- in order for a goal to be scored, the whole ball has to cross the line; on one side of the goal-line is a goal, on the other side is no goal.

So I thought of the border in this film as depicting a binary situation. On one side of the border is life for the Jewish citizens, on the other side of the border is death for the citizens. The area in between the border is a partial state of uncertainty -- neither life nor death, similar to the situation where a ball stays on a goal-line, alternating between a goal and no-goal.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Just soccer but no films

Sunday: Feb 3, 2008: The African Cup of Nations Quarter-finals kicked off.

Today's two matches pitted 4 West African Nations against each other. I am familiar with almost all of the players from Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast but I have yet to see a movie from any of the four countries.

Quarter-Final 1: Ghana 2-1 Nigeria

pic from Eurosport

The hosts Ghana were the clear favourites going into this game and they duly beat Nigeria to advance to the semi-finals. Although, Nigeria surprized the hosts by taking the lead in the 35th minute via the penalty spot. Everton's Yakubu coolly slotted the ball for the opener, but on the stroke of half-time Ghana's midfield dynamo Essien powerfully headed the hosts level. On the hour mark, the Ghanian captain (John Mensah) was sent-off for bringing down Nigeria's Odemwingie on the edge of the penalty box. The decision was a correct one as Mensah was the last Ghanian player in between Odemwingie and the Ghanian net but only if Odemwingie had looked up and passed the ball to his team-mate who was completely unmarked, Nigeria could have taken the lead. Ten-men Ghana battled on and grabbed a winner in the 83rd minute thanks to Agogo tapping in a cross from a few yards out. The Ghanian goal came of nowhere and thrilled the packed stadium.

Despite having a man advantage for the last 30 minutes, Nigeria never looked like getting a winner. They never created any clear-cut chances and in fact, their performance has been very poor at this year's African Cup of nations. Nigeria started the tournament with a 1-0 defeat to Ivory Coast and followed that with a 0-0 tie with Mali. Only a 2-0 win over Benin coupled with Mali's 3-0 defeat to Ivory Coast ensured that Nigeria were in the quarters. Nigeria were once a force on the international stage in the mid 1990's but their star is fading fast not only in International soccer but also in African soccer.

Quarter-Final 2: Ivory Coast 5-0 Guinea

pic from Eurosport

This was clearly a mismatch. Before the game, I had expected a 3-0 or a 4-0 Ivory Coast win but I was surprized at how well Guinea managed to contain the talented Ivory Coast team in the first half. Keita's well taken goal in the 25th minute was all that separated the two teams at half-time. In the second half, it all came undone for Guinea in the final 25 minutes. After a long ball opened up Guinea's defense in the 68th minute, Aruna Dindane raced past Guinea's goal-keeper (Camara) but he somehow missed the open net. Even though Dindane let Guinea off the hook, it was a worrying sign to see Guinea exposed so badly as their entire defense was missing. Guinea were throwing caution to the wind and were pushing forward to get an equalizer, so it appeared to be only a matter of time before Ivory Coast would hit them on the counter-attack. Sure enough, two minutes later Didier Drogba powered past the final Guinea defender to calmly place the ball into the bottom corner for a 2-0 lead. Another two minutes later, Drogba carved open Guinea's defense with a perfect through ball and Kalou rounded the helpless Camara to walk the ball into the net to make it 3-0. Guinea were in shambles now and it was not a surprize to see Ivory Coast score two more goals.

Ivory Coast continue to march along in this year's tournament. Their team is loaded with talented players in every position and should be one of the favourites to win this year's tournament.

Monday, Feb 4 Quarter-Finals:

Tomorrow's two matches see the defending African Cup Champs Egypt take on Angola and the talented Tunisian team take on Cameroon. With the exception of Angola, atleast I have seen films from the other three countries.