The Magic of English FA Cup: David & Goliath

Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal coined the phrase "twitching our ass" prior to his side's game at Cambridge. It must have been twitching overtime at the Abbey Stadium last night and it's safe to say he wasn't too happy after his moneybags side was held 0-0 by the League two minnows.

"Every aspect of the match is against us. We have to come here, the pitch is not so good, but that can influence also that you play in another playing style. The opponents are always giving a lot more than normally. And defending is always easier than attacking," said Van Gaal.

Just to give you an idea of Cambridge's achievement in holding Manchester United to a 0-0 draw, the Abbey Stadium side only got back in to the Football League this season after a nine-year absence. But does Cambridge boss Richard Money now believe they can go to Old Trafford and beat United?

"No. I don't, but you never know. We've said in the dressing room 'You're going to Old Trafford. Who cares what happens? Just go and enjoy it, soak it in'. This club has been in the doldrums for 10 years, out of the Football League, and suddenly here we are taking everybody back to Old Trafford. It's incredible," said Money.

Yes, the League Two minnows, whose starting XI cost nothing, held a United first XI which was worth £180m to a 0-0 draw to set up a money-spinning replay at Old Trafford. Cambridge wrote a little piece of FA Cup history as they battled to a 0-0 draw with Manchester United to earn a lucrative replay at Old Trafford.

It was another miserable outing to lower league opposition for Van Gaal’s men, who succumbed to a 4-0 thrashing at MK Dons in the League Cup earlier in the season.But the main story was the heroics of Cambridge, with many on social media quick to praise the League Two outfit’s efforts:

The Abbey Stadium outfit might be 76 places below their Premier League opponents but Louis van Gaal's side still couldn't find a way through Cambridge's defense. That, my friends, is what you call the magic of the Cup.

Source: Associate Press, Eurosport, BBC, The Guardian, Getty Images
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BVB: Klopp, Routine and Positive Thinking

Six months ago, Borussia Dortmund was the club supposedly set to provide the biggest challenge to apparent title favourites FC Bayern Munchen in 2014/15. At the halfway point in the season, however, BVB’s objectives have required radical alteration, with the club sitting second-bottom in the table - a staggering 30 points behind the leaders from Bavaria - after ten defeats in 17 games.

Now, Jurgen Klopp’s target for the remaining 17 games is very simple. He stated, “Get some wins on the board and make sure we stay in the division. Right now, where we finish is of no interest to me.” BVB’s winter training camp in La Manga, Spain has given the players an opportunity to get back onto the training ground and begin intensive preparation for the Bundesliga's resumption, but there is no doubt that their paltry points total in the league still rankles.

In a candid interview with German football magazine Kicker, Dortmund’s coach since 2008 expanded in depth on his comment following Matchday 17's 2-1 defeat to SV Werder Bremen that it had been “the worst first half to a season of our lives”. “We knew it would be tough, but nobody could have predicted the problems we ended up having, or the chain reactions that made them worse. Where we struggled wasn’t in identifying the problem but in finding the solutions. We tried to deal with the most pressing issues only, and swept everything else to one side. We lurched from one catastrophe to another and in the end didn’t have time to work out a proper solution,” said the Stuttgart native.

The glass is always half-full with Klopp, though, and despite the misery they endured between August and December 2014, the coach maintains the ordeal has helped his battered squad grow. With perfect conditions in which to train, prepare, analyse and plan for the second half of the season, and with some key players nearing a return to full fitness, Klopp now glimpses the outline of a bright future from the sunshine of southern Spain.

“In about a week, we’ve been able to train better here than we did than throughout the entire pre-season. We’ve been able to do what we couldn’t do before, and that’s practice our routines with a large group of players. Every player here training in La Manga is further in his development now than he was back in the summer. That’s what makes me optimistic,” Klopp continued.

Well-documented mistakes in defense were blamed as the cause for many of Borussia’s defeats in the league, but in fact, a potentially graver problem was their inability to convert chances. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is their top scorer with five league goals, while summer arrivals Ciro Immobile, Adrian Ramos and Shinji Kagawa have added just three, two and one respectively.

Perhaps of the utmost importance for Klopp, the squad and even the club itself, though, is that Marco Reus will be fit and raring to go when the whistle sounds to begin Dortmund’s game at Bayer 04 Leverkusen on 31 January 2015. After his 2014 campaign was seemingly decimated by various serious injuries, the worst of which prevented him from featuring in Germany’s triumphant FIFA World Cup campaign, 2015 marks a new start for the 25-year-old superstar, even if Klopp admits he will need time to get back to his competitive best.

Quite apart from the fact Reus’ return usually makes his team-mates play better, it is that type of selfless, team-oriented approach that Klopp will be looking to channel as die Schwarzgelben attempt to bring a turbulent campaign back under control. It is also in their favor that, regardless of their position in the table, they are only “four or five points from where we want to be".

Dortmund have made sure that the adversity of the first half of the season has made them an even tighter unit, and that will always be the core principle of any Jurgen Klopp side, regardless of its objectives. “We’ve not let ourselves become divided, we’ve not fallen apart and I haven’t lost my job. We’ve all endured a six months that we’d have gladly spared ourselves from, but that’s how things are during the difficult times in life. Now we start doing something about it,” Klopp stated.

Source: Kickers. Associate Press, Bundesliga, BVB

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AFCON 2015: Against All The Odds

The 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off on Saturday, 17th January 2015 (in few hours from now), with organizers, players and fans hoping the tournament can thrive in the face of adversity.

It was only in November that Equatorial Guinea took over as hosts from Morocco, whose plea to postpone the finals over fears about the spread of Ebola was rejected by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). With concerns over the short time for Equatorial Guinea to prepare, worries about potentially poor attendances at matches in remote parts of the country and doubts about the infrastructure and facilities, football itself has taken a back seat in the build-up to the 16-team, 17 January to 8 February event.

It is not the first time the small, oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea, with a population of just 740,000, has hosted the tournament - they did so jointly with Gabon in 2012. However, the extra burden of going it alone, and at such late notice, is weighing heavily.

Matches will be hosted in four cities; Bata and Malabo - as they were three years ago - and in Mongomo and Ebebiyin. The new venues will be relatively basic because there has been insufficient time to build better facilities in those towns. The stadium in Ebebiyin has a reported capacity of only 5,000. Even so, there is a real chance of it not being filled - one of the 2012 Nations Cup matches hosted by the country was attended by a tiny crowd of 200 people.

It is that kind of statistic which has moved the country's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema to personally pay for 40,000 tickets for fans to attend matches. "We have to buy tickets to fill stadiums. Let those who have the means help the poor," said Nguema. Additionally, the hotel capacity in the new host cities is minimal, making it a struggle for both media and fans to find accommodation and follow the tournament.

On the pitch, little is expected of Equatorial Guinea team, who were eliminated from the qualifiers when they were penalized for fielding an ineligible player - Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu Tazemeta - in a match against Mauritania, only to be reinstated when they stepped in as hosts. It would be the biggest shock in the history of the tournament if the "National Thunder" became the 12th hosts to lift the trophy. Their chances of making any impact have not been helped by the fact their new coach, Argentine Esteban Becker, was only appointed 11 days ago.

The deadly virus, which broke out in West Africa in March 2014 and has claimed the lives of 8,386 people in six countries according to World Health Organisation figures, has cast a dark shadow over the tournament. However, there are no reported cases in Equatorial Guinea and the country's government has taken measures to prevent Ebola from reaching their soil, including hiring the expertise of a team of Cuban doctors. All players and visitors entering Equatorial Guinea will be tested for Ebola.

Source: Associate Press, BBC, The Guardian, WHO
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Lionel Messi: The Messiah From Camp Nou

After a week in which FC Barcelona sacked their sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, and Carles Puyol left the club, and less than a month since the director general was sacked, the president, Josep María Bartomeu, announced Luis Enrique will continue as the coach. But he also announced the presidential election will be brought forward a year to this summer. In other words, no one’s future is secure - least of all his own.

And what, everyone wanted to know, of Lionel Messi, the man who has stood silently at the heart of the gathering storm over the last few days. It is his departure that concerns them. Many fans want others to leave; Messi leaving frightens them. Messi is not an angel, and that's OK, he shouldn't have to be. Recent events have shown as much. There have been countless reports, theories and evaluations, after Enrique committed the unholy transgression of benching Messi for the match against Real Sociedad.

Cesc Fabregas, who swapped the Camp Nou for Stamford Bridge last summer, also believes the reports about Messi’s current situation at Barcelona are wide of the mark. He stated, “I don’t know Luis Enrique. I do know Leo and I doubt very much that what is being said is happening, because he’s a very relaxed guy and I’ve never seen any of that in the three years we spent together. Messi is happy at Barca and they are happy with him.”

Whatever you choose to believe, whether Messi and Enrique had a heated confrontation or that Messi actually was sick, the evidence indicate that the Argentine was highly upset by his benching and showed it - the cameras focused at him on the bench revealed as much. This altercation and the small event of Messi inferring that he may not finish his career at Barcelona has been like a stream of blood from a capsized boater to a school of piranhas. It's as if the great mob has finally found the swamp of the ogre, once thought mythical.

Part of it is the fault of Barcelona's holier-than-thou club motto and their general elitism in world football. When Messi came into his own, he was heralded as more evidence of La Masia's mystical powers of producing world-class talent, along with Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Jeffren, Bojan, Tello and so on.  He was the quiet, shy superstar. The humble one, the meek boy who spent all of his time with his family.

As we know, you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. For the past few years, there has seemed to be a hanging verdict over Messi's head. The silly truth is that Messi's behavior is so common among elite athletes that it's frankly boring: Cristiano Ronaldo himself had his own bust-ups and disagreements with Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson. SAF himself had fiery confrontations with everyone from Roy Keane to the British Adonis, David Beckham. Guti openly refused to listen and insulted Manuel Pellegrini during a match. The Chelsea old-guard practically ran Andre Villas-Boas out of town.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, during his time at Milan, laughed in Max Allegri's face because he didn't feel that the manager was intelligent. Paul Scholes refused to board a team bus for a league cup game because he was left out against Liverpool the previous weekend. Even the angelic Mesut Ozil had stare-downs with Mourinho. Any player that you identify has probably had his moments of arrogance, petulance and anger. It is normal. Anyone who has been on an organized sports team will tell you that it is even more commonplace than the general population realizes.

It seems that Messi is not allowed that distinction, though. It's the darkest side of idolization. He was elevated to such a high pedestal of morality because of his meek nature that it was always going to be a long fall once frustration set in. He's fallen from grace, though he never asked for the blessing in the first place. That's where the main problem resides. Dehumanization is of two extremes - belittling or idolizing someone. With each one, you strip the person of their nature as human beings and the allowance to share in the flaws and triumphs as a complex creature.

And because of Messi's silent nature when it comes to making the news, people start to fill his silences with their own thoughts and conspiracies, which gives birth to streams of stories about his behavior. If he doesn't denounce them, then they must be true, it seems. The carnivorous mob was bound to devour Messi eventually. His guard was always going to come down; age has a way of revealing the persons behind the mask. Messi is not the first that it's happened to and he definitely won't be the last to be raised up by the people and then torn down when they see his position, the same one they pushed him to, as demeaning. It will be just as silly reflectively in the future as it is now.

Source: Associate Press, Fox News, The Guardian, The Telegraph

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