Owen relishing Beckham meeting

Michael Owen knows tonight’s MLS All-Star game will be a special occasion for David Beckham.

For the second season running, Manchester United provide the opposition for one of the highlights of the footballing year Stateside. Owen joined Thierry Henry at the top of the Empire State Building to illuminate one of the world’s most famous buildings in the red and green colours of the competing teams.

And Owen knows the entire evening will mean more to Beckham given the decade he spent with the Red Devils before joining Real Madrid in 2003. “We are all delighted he is playing,” said Owen.

“It won’t be the first time he has played against the lads but the club holds a special affection for him. He is a top player and it is nice to meet up again.”

Owen and Beckham were Real Madrid team-mates five years ago when the former England striker last came to the States. Then he was allowed to walk down the streets in total obscurity.

Not so now, with interest in the game at an all-time high. “We had Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham then,” said Owen.

“Now it just seems to have gone to a new level. We went out to buy presents for the kids on Sunday and it was amazing how many people stopped us in the street.”

Owen may yet have a new team-mate by the start of the new season given United chief executive David Gill has adopted a more optimistic stance than his manager about getting a replacement for Paul Scholes.

Midfield shopping
Sir Alex Ferguson has repeatedly played down the prospects of bringing in what would almost certainly be a marquee signing given the vacancy exists right in the centre of midfield.

However, Gill believes there could still be developments. “We are looking at one more player to bring in,” Gill told MUTV. “There will still be 31 days of the transfer window to see if anything develops. The important point to understand, and Alex has made clear, is that we need someone who is going to improve the quality of the squad.

“We have a great squad and to get into that squad you need to be a world-class player. If you can’t get the players you want, there is no point buying someone for the sake of it.

“But you never know. There is often movement in August. I am not saying I am working on anything specific because I’m not. But that situation could change quickly when we get back to Carrington.”

For USA, Hope springs eternal

    For USA, Hope springs eternal

According to many experts, goalkeeping is one of the positions where the women’s game simply does not have the requisite quality. However, any fans witnessing the recent performances of USA goalkeeper Hope Solo would be well equipped to refute this dubious theory. Indeed so commanding was Solo’s performance in her country’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Brazil in the quarter-final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ that she was voted Player of the Match

Her impressive all-round display included a penalty save in normal time – although the kick was eventually retaken and scored – and some spectacular stops from Cristiane, Rosana, Fabiana and Marta. With the teams tied at 2-2 after extra time, she then went on to play a starring role in the ensuing shoot-out, parrying Daiane’s spot kick to help the Stars and Stripes into the semi-finals of the tournament.

“She’s a great keeper – she’s done really well here. She’s very solid, and comfortable with the ball at her feet too. We could almost call her our fifth defender,” said the coach of the USA women’s team, Pia Sundhage, who has been keen to emphasise the work that backroom colleague Paul Rogers has done with the American No1.

Solo is in complete agreement with those sentiments. “He’s given a lot to the team, and being one of the few men that works with us, he’s provided us with a different perspective. He’s tough and demanding, but he’s the best goalkeeping coach that I’ve ever trained with,” she explained, adding, “He’s great with all the tiny details, and prepares us physically, technically and tactically. I’m specifically focusing on him because I respect him and have learned so much from him.”

This improved knowledge of the game and plain hard work have propelled the 29-year-old shot-stopper into the FIFA Women’s World Cup spotlight once again, four years after her good displays at China 2007 were marred by a decision to publicly criticise then national coach Greg Ryan for having dropped her to the bench for USA’s semi-final with Brazil, a match that the Americans lost 4-0.

I feel like our country is behind us, and that now the whole world is watching us, because people realise we’ve been playing some really good football.USA goalkeeper Hope Solo
Those statements led to a spell in the international wilderness for Solo, but the following year the newly-appointed Sundhage brought her back into the fold. “When I took charge of the team, I knew that, in order to win games, I would need a top goalkeeper, and that’s what she is. I’ve got no desire to talk about what happened in 2007. I asked the girls not to necessarily forget, but to forgive, and to try to move forward as a group. This adventure is not about one player; what’s important is the team,” explained the Swedish-born tactician.

“What happened in 2007 is now in the past, and I don’t want to go through that again. That year changed me a lot. It both destroyed me and rebuilt me in many ways. Now I’m back and I feel at home in this team,” said Solo in a calm, succinct manner, looking her questioner directly in the eyes.

Run of redemption
While her previous experience of a semi-final at this event marked the beginning of a personal ordeal for the American custodian, this time around she and her team-mates stand on the verge of history. Solo is well aware, however, that their opponents in the last four represent a tricky hurdle.

“France have one of the best attacks in the world. They’ve also got some very physically imposing players. We’re certainly not going to underestimate them; we have the utmost respect and admiration for the great performances they’ve put in at this tournament,” she pointed out. “It’s going to be a very tough match – anything could happen,” added the keeper who plays her club football for the Florida-based magicJack club.

From her comments, it is possible that Solo has been indulging in some statistical analysis of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. France happen to be the team with the highest number of shots in the competition: 80, 32 of which have been on target. When the fact that the United States have just four fewer attempts is taken into account, the chances of an entertaining encounter look good, at least on paper.

Goalkeepers do not tend to have a problem with the concept of entertainment, as long as it does not take place at their end of the pitch, of course. “Actually, I’m not too concerned about any particular French player. I trust in my team. I know that we’ll be very focused, and that we’ll do what it takes to beat a very attack-minded side that’s having an amazing World Cup,” said the Richland-born player.

For Solo, the road to victory lies in repeating the positive aspects of the Brazil game: “We went forward as a unit, we were solid, we didn’t lose our concentration, and we gave everything we had. It’s given us lots of confidence for the challenges that lie ahead.”

The historic and tumultuous triumph versus the Brazilians actually had an effect on the Americans’ pre-match preparations, she revealed.

“After the game I was emotional and exhausted. We talked for hours about what happened; everyone had a story to tell. The next morning we were still talking about it. It probably took us a full day to get it out of our systems, but as we arrived in Dusseldorf on Monday evening, just seeing a new city and a new stadium changed our mindsets. We’ve put all the euphoria behind us now and are fully prepared for the demands of the France match,” Solo explained.

“I feel like our country is behind us, and that now the whole world is watching us, because people realise we’ve been playing some really good football. My main aim is to keep doing well here. We came to Germany to take part in the Final. I believe anything is possible,” she concluded with an air of confidence. Now more of a team player than ever, she is well aware that attaining that goal will be much more than a solo mission.

Azkal’s building a history in Philippines football

The preliminary qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ sparked unprecedented attention from Asian media, with footballing passion reignited among all sixteen participating countries. Not surprisingly, the eight triumphant teams sent their respective nations into raptures after advancing to the second qualifying round.

In the Philippines, celebrations took place throughout the country after their team prevailed over Sri Lanka 5-1 on aggregate to progress to the second round for the first time. Even Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III took time to acknowledge the team’s historic achievement.

“The entire nation was thrilled by the victory of our very own Philippine Azkals,” the 51-year-old was quoted as saying by the state-run Philippines News Agency. “Truly, there is no place like home, as those gathered at the Rizal Memorial Stadium and who gathered before their TV sets today [Sunday] experienced,” he remarked following the team’s 4-0 victory in the return leg.

“The entire nation was thrilled by the victory of our very own Philippine Azkals.” Benigno S. Aquino III, Philippines President

Some local media were encouraged enough to talk positively of the second qualifying round, where their respective teams will have to battle it out against higher-ranked opponents – including some of the continent’s big boys – over two legs on 23 and 28 July.

In a report entitled “Azkals itching to take on Kuwait” from Manila Times, Philippines coach Michael Weiss was confident about his side’s chances against Kuwait, who are 44 places above his team. He said: “The true test has come for us. It will gauge where we really are in football. I personally admit Kuwait is really strong and we need to step up, but the Azkals will do everything to qualify for the third
round.”

Barça crowned as Messi and Villa see off United

Just as in 1992, Wembley provided the setting for a Catalan celebration as FC Barcelona turned on the style to beat Manchester United FC 3-1 and claim their fourth European crown. Barcelona where worthy winners, taking the lead through Pedro Rodriguez and responding to Wayne Rooney’s equalizer with two superb second-half strikes from Lionel Messi and David Villa.

If Barça’s triumph at the old Wembley broke down a barrier with their first European Champion Clubs’ Cup, this underlined the Spanish title holders’ status as the continent’s dominant force – their third UEFA Champions League in six seasons conferring the stamp of greatness on Josep Guardiola’s side. For an outplayed United team, it was a sorry repeat of their Rome defeat by the Blaugrana two years ago. There were dancers with umbrellas in the opening ceremony and even the simulated sounds of a storm but it was on the pitch that lightning eventually struck twice.

For a short while, it looked like things might turn out differently for the English champions. Sir Alex Ferguson selected an attacking formation, resisting the temptation to pack his midfield and instead fielding both Javier Hernández and Rooney in attack.

As in Rome, his team raced out of the blocks, pushing up and aiming to deny Barcelona the time and space to find their stride, and briefly the ploy worked. Barcelona seemed edgy as Hernández hustled a defender into losing the ball on the edge of his area. Javier Mascherano, starting in central defence in place of Carles Puyol with Éric Abidal at left-back, then failed to deal with Edwin van der Sar’s punt down the middle, forcing Víctor Valdés into urgent action to deny Rooney.

Inevitably, though, Barça clicked into gear, and they fashioned the first clear opening on the quarter-hour as Xavi Hernández drove in a low cross that Pedro, drifting free of Fabio, turned wide. Barcelona soon had United pinned back as more chances came. Villa flashed a shot narrowly wide before forcing a low save from Van der Sar. A superb Nemanja Vidić challenge then foiled Messi yet, in the 27th minute, United were undone.

Xavi was the architect, advancing into United territory and picking out Pedro with a diagonal pass. The winger’s movement had carried him clear of Vidić on the right side of the box and he applied a cool finish, sidefooting the ball into the near corner with Van der Sar wrongfooted.

Amid the many predictions about this contest the general consensus appeared to be that United needed the first goal. However, they responded seven minutes later with a fine equalizer, their first and only attempt on target. After Barcelona had lost the ball from an Abidal throw-in, Rooney surged forward on a one-two with Michael Carrick. He then slipped a pass to Ryan Giggs inside the area and met the Welshman’s return ball with a superb curled finish into the far corner.

Sir Alex had anticipated “the final of the decade” and an absorbing first half almost produced another goal when Messi drove forward and after feeding Pedro on the right, was just a whisker away from meeting the return. United’s respite was short-lived, though, after Barça resumed control after the restart.

Although Van der Sar saved from Daniel Alves, Messi restored their advantage after 54 minutes, the Argentinian punishing the failure of United’s defenders to close him down by sweeping the ball powerfully past Van der Sar from 20 metres. Messi’s ensuing explosion of emotion showed just what the goal – his first on English soil but 12th in this season’s competition – meant.

The little magician could have had more goals as Barcelona went for the kill. Van der Sar denied him with his legs before Fabio kept out his back-heeled effort with a goal-line block. Van der Sar, on his final appearance, offered a fitting reminder of his class with a full-length dive to foil Xavi yet he had no chance with Villa’s third goal after 69 minutes.

Although United stopped Messi’s surge into the box, substitute Nani lost out to Sergio Busquets who teed up the Spain striker to curl an exquisite finish into the top corner.