Jul 172011
 

When the Copa America was due to start at the beginning of July, I checked out the TV coverage. South American teams are always a joy to watch, playing a brand of football where the emphasis is on skill.

The schedules of ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel quickly revealed that they were passing on this competition. My last hope was the Spanish channel Gol-TV but it too offered no coverage. It looked as if I was destined to miss out.

On Saturday night, I saw The Guardian’s report on the Uruguay versus Argentina match and learned that Uruguay had won 5-4 on penalties to reach the semi-final stage of the competition.

I was both pleased an annoyed. Pleased that my favourite team of the last World Cup, Uruguay, had won through; annoyed that I had missed the opportunity to see the likes of Forlan, Suarez and, of course, the best football player in the world, Lionel Messi of Argentina.

I did a Google search, typing in “Copa America on TV USA”. The search threw up an entry on by bleacherreport.com, entitled Copa America 2011 TV Schedule: What and When to Watch. Perfect.

I discovered much to my chagrin that the entire competition had been televised live on the Latino Univision channel. I do not speak Spanish but when the likes of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are playing I can put up with the Spanish commentary..

The schedule revealed that Brazil were taking on Paraguay this afternoon, with Chile versus Venezula kicking off in the early evening.

Brazil create an unexplainable ambiguity in me. I am the first to admit they are one of the best footballing sides in the world but they are perhaps too good and machine-like, tending to sweep opponents aside with ease.

For that reason, I did not tune in when Brazil’s match kicked off at 3:00 pm. But 30 minutes later, growing tired of sorting through images taken yesterday, I decided to sample Univision’s coverage.

I joined the match with the score at 0-0.

With Paraguay playing in red and white stripes, as a Stoke City supporter I find myself drawn to supporting them. And the similarity between Paraguay and Stoke City extends beyond red & white stripes. Paraguay play like Stoke City. They have an organized defence, closing men down quickly, and hitting long balls to lone striker Valdez. Right back Veron with his shaven head even reminded me of Stoke’s full-back Andy Wilkinson.

Paraguay defended brilliantly and when Brazil did penetrate the wall of red and white shirts, they found goalkeeper Justo Villar in unbeatable form.

In the hour of the game I saw, he pulled off five brilliant saves to keep his side in the game. On the one occasion when he was beaten, a teammate headed off the line.

The scoreline remained at 0-0 until full-time. Thanks to Villar’s heroic display. In cricket, one can describe a captain’s innings, alas football has no equivalent phrase but captain Villar certainly led from the back.

In extra-time, the game boiled over and Brazil’s Leiva and Parguay’s Alcaraz were sent off – the former for an over-the ball challenge; the latter for wading in with his fists to exact justice on behalf of the injured party.

The period of extra-time ended 0-0, although Valdez did have the opportunity to snatch victory in the closing minutes but he opted to volley a shot rather than bring the ball under control and pick his spot.

But more drama was to follow in the penalty shoot-out. Brazil, usually the masters of every footballing skill, were suddenly reduced to mere novices. First, Elano took a kick that had the trajectory of a field goal in the NFL.

Barretto stepped up to take Paraguay’s first spot-kick and the chance to pile the pressure on Brazil. He put his shot wide of the left-hand post.

Then Villar reproduced his unbeatable form of the previous 120 minutes, diving to his left to beat out Thiago Silva’s spot-kick.

Paraguay’s Estigarribia powerful shot gave his country the lead.

Brazil’s Santos had the chance to restore parity but blazed his shot high over the bar and then turned away and pointed at the penalty spot and an imaginary divot.

Riveros blasted into the roof of the net to give Paraguay a two goal advantage.

When the hapless Fred fired wide of the post for Brazil, it was game over. Copa America champions were out of the 2011 tournament in the most dismal of circumstances – four penalties taken and four penalties missed.

After the game, Paraguay’s jubilant captain Villar paid tribute to his team’s fighting spirit.

“It is difficult to analyse,” he said. “Brazil were much better and we had to defend ourselves.

“We had almost no opportunities to score, but we fought a lot. Order and focus were the keys of the game.”

The last sentence was straight out of an interview by Stoke City manager Tony Pulis.

For Villar’s sake, I am glad Paraguay won. I am also glad that I found the live coverage on Univision. It was a cracking match, entertaining throughout and with a dramatic finale.

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May 142011
 

It is one thing to lose when your team has done its best but quite another when they fail to perform.

Stoke City were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City in this afternoon’s FA Cup Final at Wembley. If the scoreline had read 4-0 in favour of the Manchester side, Stoke would have had little reason to complain.

In the first half, Stoke’s attack and midfield failed to turn up at the office. It was only thanks to some splendid saves by goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, and some woeful shooting from Manchester City,  that Stoke went in at half-time still in the game with the score at 0-0.

Stoke were completely outplayed in the first half. Man City’s manager Roberto Mancini had done his homework, nullifying the threat of Stoke City’s wingers Matthew Etherington, who looked far from fit, and Jermaine Pennant, as well as target man Kenwyne Jones.

A hallmark of Stoke’s midfield play is that they chase and harry, putting the opposition players under pressure and forcing them into errors. Too often, Stoke simply sat back and let the likes of Silva, Tevez and Touré orchestrate the game.

In the second half, Stoke briefly pressed and made more of a game of it but without ever really threatening. Man City’ goalkeeper had only one save to make in the entire match, thwarting Kenwyne Jones when he managed to get past defender Lescott.

It was always a question of when Man City would score and the goal duly came in the 75th minute when inter-passing between Silva and Balotelli in Stoke’s penalty area eventually saw the ball run free to Yaya Touré who drove home from 10 yards out.

It was game over as far as Stoke were concerned. They were never going to get back into this match. Too many players failed to play to their full potential; too many passes went astray. At times Stoke looked clueless and out of their depth, with balls aimlessly punted into areas where no Stoke player was present.

Stoke City’s first corner of the game came in the second minute of injury time. That statistic says it all.

The corner saw the strange sight of goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen making an extra attacker in the Man City penalty area but it was to no avail.

The better team won. In football, there is simply no substitute for class and with players such as Tevez, Silva, Touré, Balotelli, and de Jong in the Man City side, class and talent triumphed.

After decades of living in the shadow of the illustrious neighbours Manchester United, Manchester City’s blue moon is rising.

For Stoke, unless quality players are brought into the side and manager Tony Pulis actually plays them, next season will see them once again fighting to retain their Premier League status, with little chance of challenging for major honours.

The best thing that can be said about Stoke City today was their fans. The Stoke team gave them little to sing about but their support never wavered. They completely outsang Manchester City’s supporters.

May 132011
 

It’s official. I have FA Cup fever.

I thought living 4,200 miles away would bring me immunity but I have succumbed. My thoughts these past few days have been preoccupied by Stoke City and Stoke-on-Trent. Browsing through my collection of football programmes yesterday left me in doubt that I was stricken.

One of my most prized possessions when it comes to Stoke City memorabilia is a programme from the Centenary Celebration Match. Stoke City took on the mighty Real Madrid at the Victoria Ground on Wednesday 24th April, 1963. The Spanish club side, the best in the world at that time, included legends such as di Stefano, Puskas, Amancio and Gento. Somehow the programme has survived to this day.

A prized possession. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

In the photograph above, I used Photoshop to remove my name written in the handwriting of a nine-year-old. The things we do as children. That embellishment probably means the value of the programme is probably a fraction of what an umblemished copy would fetch. Oh well.

The signature belongs to the then Stoke reserve goalkeeper Bobby Irvine. The team photograph on the back of the programme also carries several autographs, among them Tony Allen and Jackie Mudie; while inside I have the autograph of English footballing legend Stanley Matthews, later to become Sir Stanley Matthews and the first footballer ever to be knighted.

With the final less than 24 hours away, a degree of tension is creeping in. Cigarettes smoked out on the back deck are now accompanied by thoughts about whether Stoke City will beat Manchester City. My earlier optimism has given way to one or two nagging doubts.

The first concerns Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez. The Argentine international has been out for several weeks with a hamstring injury. He is back. He played for the last 10 minutes of Man City’s 1-0 victory against Tottenham Hostpsur on Tuesday.

I have enormous respect for Tevez, as I do most Argentine players. He is probably not quite in the same class as Lionel Messi but is pretty close. Tevez has the ability to destroy Stoke singlehandedly.

My second worry relates to Stoke manager Tony Pulis. If, with 20 minutes to go, Stoke City are leading 1-0, I can see him pulling off attacking players and bolstering the defence in attempt to cling on to the one-goal lead. But what if Man City equalize? Stoke will then lack the ability to get back in the game. Pulis has adopted this strategy before and lost the gamble.

In the Carling Cup against West Ham last October, Stoke took a 1-0 lead. Pulis decided to try and hold on to that lead and withdrew his strike force of Pennant, Jones and Tuncay. West Ham equalized and the game went into extra-time, with West Ham scoring two more goals to win 3-1.

That kind of mentality worries me. I subscribe to the philosophy that if the game is in your opponent’s half of the pitch, your own goal is not under threat — attack is the best form of defence.

The extent of Robert Huth’s knee injury also worries me. Huth has been a rock at the centre of Stoke’s defence and also contributed vital goals at the other end. He is the highest scoring defender in the Premier League. If Stoke go into the final without Huth, it will be a major blow.

Winger Matthew Etherington is also doubtful having a suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Wolves two weeks ago. But the way Stoke saw off Arsenal 3-1 on Sunday shows that they can be an effective attacking force with Etherington absent.

I believe the man of the hour could well turn out to be  Jon Walters. Since his two goals in the FA Cup Third Round replay against Cardiff City in January, he has gone from strength to strength. The first of his two goals in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Bolton is worthy of goal of the season in my opinion.

If Walters has his shooting boots on in tomorrow’s game then life could be pretty uncomfortable for Man City.

The tension is beginning to rise again. It’s time for another cigarette out on the deck and more deliberations on how the game will turn out. Being a Stoke City fan has never been easy; suddenly it seems to have got a lot harder and a lot more nerve-wracking.

Apr 172011
 

In what was arguably Stoke City’s second greatest game in their 148-year history, the first being the League Cup final win in 1972, they made it to their first FA Cup final appearance after defeating Bolton Wanderers 5-0 in the semi-final at Wembley.

I doubt that any fan, even the most diehard, would have predicted such a victory. It was unbelievable. I am still pinching myself to make sure that it wasn’t a dream.

With the new Wembley stadium echoing to the strains of Delilah, the anthem of Stoke City’s fans, Stoke found themselves with an amazing three-goal lead after just 30 minutes.

Matthew Etherington seized on a sloppy pass just outside the Bolton penalty area to rifle in a sweet shot to put Stoke 1-0 up after 11 minutes.

Six minutes later, a poor clearance by the Bolton’s Cahill saw defender Robert Huth volley home from 20 yards to give the Potters a 2-0 lead.

Exactly on the stroke of half an hour, Jermaine Pennant robbed Bolton’s Martin Petrov and took the ball 70 yards up the field before laying off an inch-perfect pass to Kenwyne Jones who calmly sidefooted the ball past the despairing dive of Bolton goalkeeper Jaaskelainen.

Leading 3-0, it looked like game over.

But I remember Stoke taking a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. Arsenal came back in the second-half and scored a last-minute equaliser to a secure a replay and eventual victory.

At half-time, I pondered whether such a fate was once again in store for Stoke.

Bolton’s manager Owen Coyle made changes to his side for the second half. He had to. The changes gave them a little bit of impetus but not enough to threaten Stoke’s dominance and any hope of a comeback was dashed in the 68th minute when Jonathan Walters, whose career began at Bolton, latched on to the ball and left Bolton defenders in his wake before cutting inside and firing a perfect shot into the corner of the Bolton goal.

Football fans throughout the UK pillory Stoke City’s style of play, saying that it lacks quality. As the TV commentator said of Walters’ goal, “It was quality with a capital Q.”

In fact, all of Stoke’s goals were quality efforts and I should imagine a great many football fans throughout the country will have to change their opinion on Stoke’s style of play.

The lead and Stoke’s ascendancy took on the stuff of dreams 13 minutes later when Walters pounced again after good work by Jones. His cross was deflected by Wilkinson into the path of Walters who chipped the ball beyond Jaaskelainen into the net for his second goal of the game and Stoke’s fifth.

It was not a victory but a history-making rout that will see Stoke meet Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 14.

Stoke will again go into that match as underdogs but, as the saying goes, every dog has its day, and it could well be that Stoke may cause another upset next month to lift the FA Cup trophy.

Here’s hoping that they do.

Mar 132011
 

Stoke City did it. Don’t ask me how but they managed to defeat West Ham United 2-1 and secure a place in the FA Cup semi-finals where they will meet Bolton Wanderers.

Stoke are now just one game away from an historic appearance in the FA Cup Final Despite the club’s long history, it was founded in 1863, an appearance in an FA Cup final has eluded them. The nearest they came was in the early 1970s when in successive seasons they met Arsenal at the semi-final stage of the competition and lost on both occasions following a replay.

I well remember the agony of those encounters and for that reason have little time for Arsenal. I was so pleased when Barcelona dumped them out of the Champions League and even more delighted when Manchester United knocked them out of the FA Cup yesterday.

As for today’s game, it was a close run thing and the last 10 minutes were tense as Stoke reverted to their characteristic sitting back when in the lead thus allowing West Ham to launch attack after attack. But Stoke’s defence held firm.

In fact, you could say the entire victory was down to the defence. Stoke’s attacking players have lost the plot when it comes to scoring goals. Even Matthew Etherington managed to miss a penalty. Both of Stoke’s goals came from set pieces, it’s the only way they know how to find the back of the net.

German central defender Robert Huth, one of manager Tony Pulis’s better signings, converted a long throw from Rory Delap to give Stoke the lead. That was cancelled out by a goal from West Ham’s Frederic Piquionne who blatantly handled the ball before chipping a shot over the advancing Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

It took a thundering free kick from full back Danny Higginbotham, driven at pace about six inches above the ground and through the defensive wall, to ensure that Stoke reached the FA Cup semi-final stage for the the first time in 39 years.

In an all-round battling performance by Stoke, the only disappointment was the woeful and inept performance of record signing Kenwynne Jones, perhaps one of Pulis’s worst ever signings in view of the amount of money spent — £8 million.

Sunderland were laughing all the way to the bank on that deal. I doubt Stoke could get £80,000 for Jones if they wanted to sell him. His first touch is woeful, he lacks power in the air, is too easily knocked off the ball and seems to be on a different wavelength to the rest of his team mates.

The only time Jones should be allowed on the pitch of the Britannia Stadium is when the grass needs cutting. On second thoughts, I doubt he has the application and concentration to perform that task.

I hope Jones proves me wrong in the semi-final but I have a feeling it will take hypnosis to turn him into a footballer of merit.

Personal problems — a messy divorce — have been cited as the reasons for Jones’s drop in form, just one goal in his last 16 outings. If that is the case, why is manager Pulis picking him week in, week out?

Still, today is not a time to dwell on the shortcomings of Jones, Stoke City and manager Tony Pulis. The team won and stand poised to make history for the club.

Wembley here we come!

Feb 022011
 

I may as well come clean now as later. I am a Stoke City fan. I attended my first game as a boy in 1959. For the next few years I saw a handful of games but, in 1963, I was allowed to go to matches on my own and attended every home game for the next 14 years.

Even when Stoke were languishing in the lower divisions of the Football League and I could no longer attend because of work commitments, their result was always the first one I looked for on a Saturday evening. And on Sunday mornings, the first items I read in the Sunday newspapers were the Stoke City match reports.

Stoke City have never won the Championship or FA Cup. For a club that has been in existence since 1863, the only major trophy they have won is the League Cup in 1972.

But with a football club there can be no divorce, your support cannot be annulled. Unlike marriage, it truly is until death do us part.

Since Stoke City returned to the top flight of English League football, I have been able to watch their games via the Internet. This afternoon, they played Liverpool at Anfield and I arranged my day so that I would be free to watch the game.

My usual source of livestream is ATDHE.net. I clicked on the Web site and was greeted by the following message by AOL: “This domain has been seized by ICE — Homeland Security Investigations.” I wonder what that is all about.

Just as any assignment photographer has a back-up camera in case of mishaps, I have a back-up Web site. I clicked on fromsport.com but the coverage was diabolical, the action kept freezing every two seconds. Matters improved a little after 20 minutes but it was still not an enjoyable experience.

The coverage of the game matched Stoke’s performance. With one man up front, and with a side that is basically devoid of skill, class and guile, it was pretty clear from the start that Stoke were hardly likely to threaten the Liverpool goal.

The team selection by Stoke manager Tony Pulis almost defied belief.

There comes a point in a footballer’s career when they become an embarrassment to not only themselves but also the fans, the club and football in general. That point has been reached by Salif Diao who was later substituted by a player of similar standing — Rory Delap.

Manager Pulis selects Delap week in and week out. One can only assume that Delap holds some incriminating digital photo files on the hard drive of his laptop. He certainly does not justify a regular place in the team based on ability. Even in his cameo appearance this afternoon, Delap was woeful but he will probably be the first name on the team sheet for Saturday’s encounter with Sunderland.

Stoke went into half-time with the score at 0-0 but goalkeeper Begovic’s two outstanding saves were warning of what was likely to happen in the second half.

Liverpool struck early, taking the lead in the 47th minute. A ball into the penalty area was not cleared and Raul Meireles drove the ball home from eight yards out. As far as Stoke were concerned it was game over.

And yet with the introduction of Ricardo Fuller and the ball being played to feet rather than in the air, a better footballing side than Stoke may have scored an equalizer, which would have made for an interesting final 15 minutes.

Liverpool took control when their midweek signing, Uruguay international striker Luis Suarez, came on as a substitute. Suarez, who impressed me during the World Cup, soon latched on to a through ball from Kuyt, rounded the onrushing Begovic and stroked the ball towards the unguarded goal. Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson raced back to make a valiant effort to clear the ball and should have but somehow managed to send it against the upright. The ball flew across the face of the goal and spun into the back of the net.

It was not a happy afternoon from a Stoke fan’s point of view. The only consolation is that Liverpool spared us a goal onslaught. Before the match I believed we were in for a hammering, 4-0 or 5-0.

I don’t mind Stoke losing, but I do mind the manner in which they lose. Like the game at Fulham two weeks ago, they were dire and dismal and made no impact whatsoever. If Pulis presides over more inept performances like today’s I honestly fear for Stoke’s continued presence in the Premier League.