Thursday, 5 April 2018

All this, it is fantastic: yesterday Liverpool, today the Masters

I quoted Claude Puel's comment about sport in my post of 20 March: "I like the competition. I like the story, I like the effort of the athletes to prepare the competition, how they live, their success, their defeats, their comebacks. All this, it is fantastic". 

Well, last night's Champions League tie between Liverpool and Manchester City was certainly that. I was watching out for cynical fouls by City to stop Liverpool breaking (see The Most Cynical Team In The Premier League, 3 April). However, unlike Everton, Liverpool were too fast - and, in the first half, often won the ball back too far up the pitch - for City to thwart them that way. Even when they won the ball back deep in their own half, they were out of reach and playing the ball forward before the City players could react. For the first goal, Liverpool intercepted a poorly placed diagonal pass. This is a tactic which football writers have noted City use a lot, so Liverpool had their striker Mane positioned deep to prevent it. He quickly freed Alexander-Arnold. The 19 year old full back was thought to be a potential weak link, up against Sane, who has been flying lately. But it was A-A who had the upper hand in that duel all evening. He passed briskly up the line to Cat Stevens (as Mrs H calls Mo Salah) before any City player could close him. Salah fed Firmino and the first goal followed. As we know, City (like Arsene Wenger's Arsenal) only have one way of playing. Not only do they have no plan B, they make defensive mistakes under the kind of pressure Liverpool exert, as shown in the Premier League match at Anfield. Firmino's weak shot was parried but Walker dallied instead of clearing his lines and the Brazilian disposessed him right in the classic danger zone (the edge of the six yard box), prodding it to Salah who converted. 

I've said before that City play too much football and take risks that give the other side a chance (Pep isn't All Right, 13 February). I predicted that, while they will win the Premier League with ease, Guardiola's stubborn determination to play football at all times could cost them in head to head games against strong teams in the Champions League. If you drill players to always try to play the ball out calmly, they just won't be balanced and ready to get rid quickly when it's required. So it was with Walker (he also cost City their F A Cup tie at Wigan, see As I said, Pep Isn't All Right, 20 February). The first goal set the tone and Liverpool gave City a nightmare first half. Worthy Premier League midfielders Milner, Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain wouldn't let their opposite numbers settle and made the much vaunted de Bruyne and Silva look comparatively ordinary, lightweight even. From Milner's strong challege the ball broke to the Ox, who unleashed a tremendous shot for the second goal. Liverpool were outstanding but, even when the third goal went in after half an hour, I was wondering if they could hang on. They looked tired even by half time. 

A phrase I remembered from my playing days came into my head. "What we have, we hold". Liverpool wouldn't be able to play the same way in the second half. Could they defend? They could, denying the runaway league leaders even a single shot on target.

So City weren't able to disrupt Liverpool by 'professional' fouls.  Yes, there were numerous yellow cards but some of these were for fouls borne simply of frustration. I can relate to thinking "I've had enough of you going past me, not this time, chum". I thought the referee, German Felix Brych, was superb. One could see why no British referees will be officiating at the World Cup, for the first time in 80 years.

Of course the tie is only at the half way stage. City will be sore and will play with more urgency in their home leg. It may yet come down to whether Liverpool can get an away goal at the Etihad to put it beyond City's reach.

Just time to catch my breath before the U. S. Masters teed off at Augusta. And what scope there is for drama. Puel's 'comebacks'? Well, what a story it would be if Tiger Woods were to win after being unable to stay in his seat for more than five minutes at a time due to back pain at the Masters Champions' dinner just a year ago in addition to the nadir of his highly publicised marriage break up a few years previously. I had thought that Woods could only earn redemption by using his 'brand' for good causes. It never occurred to me that he might do so, after coming through the most recent of several significant operations, by winning golf tournaments again. Or that a new, apparently socialised Woods would emerge: he even played a practice round with Phil Mickelson this week! Perhaps Woods has been humbled to realise that, despite everything, so many golf fans - and so many of his professional rivals - were still rooting for him. 

Mrs H's favourite golfer, Ian Poulter, also making a comeback from injury, is playing instead of commentating at Augusta after his heroics winning the Houston Open last weekend. Poulter needed to win the tournament to qualify, nothing else would do. But Poulter had never before in his long and succesful career won a stroke play event in the USA. After leading for most of the final round and playing beautifully, he found himself trailing by one shot at the last hole. He needed to hole a putt of 20 feet (measure it out in your living room!) to take it to sudden death extra holes, longer than any he had made that day. He nailed it and went on to win. His celebration on holing the putt was classically Poulteresque. Poulter has never won a major - could he this time?

Of course Rory McIroy has won majors - 4 of them. And he's in good form. Can he become only the sixth golfer in history to win a 'career grand slam' by winning at Augusta? Woods is the only golfer currently playing to have done it. Or could the entirely self taught, never had a golf lesson in his life, reputedly borderline autistic Bubba Watson join the select band of golfers to win three times at Augusta? Watson is also coming back from tough times, having reportedly considered quitting golf last year.

Of course there are plenty of other golfers in the field who are good enough to win it and it wouldn't be a great surprise if it was a first time winner (other than Poulter, that would surprise me). There is a hackneyed saying that the competition doesn't start in earnest until the back nine on the final day. We've certainly seen such drama many times. In recent years we've seen Mickelson's amazing shot to the 13th green from the trees in 2010, Spieth blowing up on the par 3 12th to let in Danny Willett in 2016 and Bubba Watson's remarkable improvised banana shot from the trees to win his first Masters on hole 10 in a play off in 2012 - a shot that many felt Watson was the only current generation player who could even attempt it. James Corrigan, writing in the Telegraph, had the Mickelson and Watson shots in his list of the best five shots ever at the Masters in the Telegraph yesterday. (The others were Larry Mize chipping in to win in a play off in 1987, the much shown Tiger Woods chip which hung on the edge of hole 16 before dropping as he "won on one leg" in 2005 before his knee operation and Sandy Lyle's shot from the fairway bunker on hole 18 when he won in 1988). 

All this is indeed fantastic. And I'm sure it will be on Sunday.

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