Getty Images

Wayne Rooney gets fitting farewell

1 Comment

LONDON — Wayne Rooney‘s incredible, if not fairytale, England career had a fitting farewell.

It was, in many ways, as wonderfully subdued as the general demeanor of the all-time leading goalscorer for England and Manchester United. It oozed class in front of nearly 70,000 fans at the home of soccer.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Winning his 120th and final cap in a one-off comeback 3-0 win against the U.S. men’s national team on Thursday, England’s fans screamed “shoooooot!” every time Rooney touched the ball after coming on in the 58th minute. Instead he tried to set up others whenever he could, but he did come close as he beat two defenders but his low shot was saved by Brad Guzan, then moments before the final whistle he threw himself at a cross he couldn’t quite get on the end of.

That would have been too perfect of a finale for a laidback lad from Liverpool.

As he disappeared down the Wembley tunnel one last time as a player, most of the fans had already gone. But Rooney applauded those that stayed and then looked on wistfully around the Wembley pitch one last time before he spoke about his farewell.

“It’s my opinion that England are in very safe hands from what I’ve seen this week,” Rooney said. “The way they are being coached is brilliant, it’s a great group of young players who have a bright future. They will go close to being the next team to bring a trophy back for England… I’ve had my time, I can sit back and watch them now.”

Again, classy. Just like the entire night was as he was welcomed onto the pitch with a guard of honor and had his kids alongside him as chants of “Rooney, Rooney” cascaded down from the stands.

To put the magnitude of his glittering career into context, Rooney’s 120 caps were more than England’s entire starting lineup combined.

Rooney, 33, made his England debut when he was 17 and up until last year he carried the hopes of soccer’s home nation on his shoulders year after year.  In truth, he made every English youngster dream that they could follow in his footsteps as a homegrown Premier League star and an England hero.

When Rooney stepped out onto the pitch in his famous number 10 jersey as a second half sub, he was handed the armband and it seemed all so familiar to see him strolling around Wembley as if he was playing in his local park.

It is clear he was more than just a player to his teammates and opponents. For an entire generation around the world, he was an example of what could be achieved when pure hard work meets incredible skill.

His goals, his guile, his drive, Rooney had everything in his early years to suggest he was the man who could end the heartbreak of 1966. England’s wait for a trophy goes on.

England’s all-time leading goalscorer will always be criticized for not leading the Three Lions to glory, but the Liverpudlian seemed to be the right man at the wrong time.

It’s intriguing to think about what would be if Rooney was born 15 years later. There’s no doubt that his cerebral brilliance, his sublime weight of pass and clever flicks would still have a place in the game today, but the pace and power of this England attacking line suggest August 2017 was the right time for him to step away from the international game.

Youngsters like Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli are tasked with trying to lead the Three Lions to silverware and as Rooney said, the no. 5 team on the planet look set to do just that.

As a team, England never hit the heights they should have with Rooney as their leader. The numerous penalty kick agonies for Rooney and the “golden generation” were backed up by his untimely injuries before big tournaments, that red card against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup and his meltdown in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.

His relationship with England fans, the media and everyone in-between has been tumultuous over the past decade or so but Rooney has always done one thing: turn up and give his all for his country.

Look at the way Harry Kane, Gareth Southgate and the current England squad laud his ability, his quality not only as a player but as a person.

Rooney was thrust into the spotlight as a teenager and was expected to be a leader. A few hiccups off the pitch over the years suggests he just wants to be normal. That he was always a reluctant superstar who wanted to be one of the lads watching England play down the pub.

One moment sticks in my mind when summing up Rooney’s understated demeanor that was showcased fittingly in his England farewell.

Last year I attended a Football Writers’ Association tribute dinner for Rooney at the swanky Savoy hotel in London. As I walked down a corridor, Rooney was walking towards me and with his hands in the pockets of his tux. He looked more uncomfortable than a linebacker performing ballet. I simply said, “congrats on the award, mate!” Rooney replied, “thanks, mate” and smiled as he put his head down, took a deep breath and then walked back into the main ballroom at the Savoy, where 300-plus adoring fans and industry giants were waiting to hear him speak as many stood in a huge line for photos and a chat with him.

What I wanted to say, as an Englishman who remembers watching Rooney in his debut Premier League season when we were both teenagers, was, “no, thank you.” Thanks for for giving us the opportunity to watch your fantastic goals, surging runs and bulldozing of defenders for club and country. Thanks for making every young lad in England dream and somehow believe they could emulate your play in one small way or another.

Even if he wasn’t his scene to attend fancy dinners and sit down for hours talking to the media, Rooney has grown into his ambassadorial role over the years with both England and Man United. So much so that he is now seen as a true role model to younger professionals on how to continue a relentless pursuit of perfection.

He was England’s main hope for his entire career. Now, that time has come and gone. Rooney got the farewell he deserved on Thursday against the U.S. men’s national team and after seeing him suffer and succeed for England, the fans were united in applauding a legend off the pitch one final time.

Rooney’s place in the pantheon of soccer greats is secure and the reception he received at Wembley, the home of soccer, underlined how much he has been admired. It also reflected what he always wanted: to be admired as a player who always did his best for his country.

Champions League preview: Man City visit Schalke; Atleti v. Juve

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City’s quest for European glory resumes on Wednesday, when the reigning Premier League champions travel to Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to take on a struggling Schalke side in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Schalke sit 14th in the Bundesliga with barely a point per game (23 from 22 games) nearly two-thirds of the way through a disastrous league season. Manager Domenico Tedesco’s position will surely come under consideration this summer, though he could do himself a massive favor by knocking off a heavy favorite to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.

Man City come into the first leg in fine form, having won 12 of their last 13 games (all competitions) after their season nearly went up in smoke back in December. Sergio Aguero’s red-hot finishing touch has been at the center of recent successes, with the Argentine scoring in five of his last six appearances (nine games during that time, including a pair of hat tricks). City will, however, be without the services of three key figures: left back Benjamin Mendy (knee), forward Gabriel Jesus (hamstring) and center back John Stones (groin); meanwhile, Vincent Kompany (muscular strain) has been passed fit and made the trip to Germany.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

All Atletico Madrid have to do to compete in this season’s final at their brand new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the Spanish capital is run through three home-and-away ties over the next three months, beginning with seven-time reigning Serie A champions Juventus. To further complicate matters, the Bianconeri are now led by Atleti’s old nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, from his days at Real Madrid. On the plus side, Atleti haven’t lost a home knockout game in 22 years, so they’ll almost certainly head to Turin with a puncher’s chance of sneaking through.

Massimiliano Allegri and Juve, on the other hand, intend to leave little to chance in the second leg on March 12.

Our team is growing physically, mentally and technically and we have to keep going as we enter the most important stage of the season,” the Juve boss said this week. “We have to be focused, knowing that we face a compact team that make the most of set pieces, and who in recent years have achieved a lot of good results in Europe. I wouldn’t take a draw now — I said to the lads that it’s important to score goals.”

Sarri an isolated manager after Chelsea fans turn on him

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
2 Comments

LONDON (AP) The volley of abusive chants from Chelsea supporters were aimed in a different direction this time. Toward the sideline at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Players were spared on Monday, there was no need to dig out the “rats” banners from 2015, and supporters seem just fine with Eden Hazard and Co.

Typically loyal to their managers — and there have been a dozen alone this century — many Chelsea fans instead seem to be done with Maurizio Sarri even before the end of his first season in charge.

Losing in the FA Cup to Manchester United was the breaking point, even if it wasn’t a complete rout. The cup competition is low on Chelsea’s priority list — winning it wasn’t enough to save Antonio Conte last season — but the end of that quest only adds to the despair.

In this rebuilding season, winning the Premier League — as Conte did in 2017 before finishing fifth the next year — couldn’t have been expected given the strength of Manchester City. But neither was a slide to sixth in the standings and a scramble for one of the four Champions League places.

“I am worried about the results,” Sarri said after Monday’s 2-0 loss to United. “Not about the fans.”

But the mutinous atmosphere won’t be lost on owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent the year watching from afar because the British government stymied the Russian billionaire’s visa renewal. That offshoot of the London-Moscow diplomatic dispute feeds the uncertainty at Chelsea.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Without fan backing, the 60-year-old Sarri — without a trophy in his career — looks isolated and exposed. The much-vaunted “Sarriball” is now part of the vocabulary of vitriol in chants — with added expletive.

It’s reminiscent of Rafa Benitez‘s interim title being used against the caretaker coach five years ago. Even in the darkest days of Jose Mourinho’s second spell in charge — as Benitez’s successor — it was the players who were blamed. Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Hazard were branded “rats.”

Hazard is the only one of the trio still on the team — not that he gives the impression of wanting to stick around. The Belgium winger has avoided committing his future to Chelsea and has openly stoked talk of a transfer to Real Madrid.

Much like Madrid, Chelsea oscillates from glory to gloom under a conveyor belt of managers.

There’s also a regular flow of trophies, albeit only potentially secondary ones this season. Chelsea can still win the League Cup by beating Manchester City on Sunday and remains in contention in the Europa League.

While Madrid dropped to sixth place at one point this season in the Spanish league, the team hauled itself back up to third. Chelsea, which has won the Premier League five times since 2005, hasn’t been as successful. In the last month, the London club has lost to Arsenal, Manchester City — a 6-0 humiliation — and even to an ostensibly inferior Bournemouth.

For the stubborn Sarri, there seems to be no alternative to the “Sarriball” pressing tactics that helped his Napoli team push Juventus hard for the Italian title. Just a repetitive sequence of decisions.

– a reluctance to trust young players like Callum Hudson-Odoi.

– a determination to shoehorn Jorginho into defensive midfield, forcing N'Golo Kante out of position in favor of the recruit from Napoli.

– persisting with a back four after a three-man defense proved so effective for Conte.

– substitutions repeated in like-for-like changes. If it’s not Ross Barkley replacing Mateo Kovacic in central midfield, then they are interchanging the other way – 20 times this season. Pedro Rodriguez and Willian have swapped places 14 times.

For all the problems, it’s easy to forget that it took Chelsea three months to lose a game as Sarri started on an 18-match unbeaten run. Losing to Tottenham in November now seems to be a significant turning point.

Before that 13th game, Chelsea was in third place and had scored 27 and conceded only eight times in the league. Since then, Chelsea had netted 18 and conceded 21.

The cups will now define Sarri’s future, and it’s one down and two to go this week.

Chelsea holds a 2-1 lead over Malmo in the Europa League heading into the second leg of the round of 32 on Thursday before the League Cup final against City at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

“The most important thing now is to stay calm, train really hard and recover our best football and our best feeling,” Pedro said, “because if not, we are in trouble.”

More specifically, Sarri will be.

First-leg draw “not the worst, not a dream result” for Liverpool

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

If indifference — and its inherent lack of feeling — could be classified a feeling, it’s the one most Liverpool players, and manager Jurgen Klopp, would use to describe their collective mood following Tuesday’s 0-0 home draw with Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

While the high-quality chances weren’t quite there for a meeting of two sides the magnitude of Liverpool and Bayern, the frenetic pace and end-to-end nature was still on display, which did plenty to keep a scoreless draw plenty entertaining for the neutral observers.

Speaking after the game, Klopp said it “wasn’t a dream result,” but also called it “a good one.” Wishy-washy — quotes from the BBC:

“From a result point of view, it’s OK. It’s not a dream result, but it’s a good one.”

“We made life more difficult with the last pass today – about 10 or 12 times a promising situation [fizzled out]. We can play better. We should play better.

“In the first half we had the bigger chances. I can’t remember any chances for either side in the second half. It wasn’t a Champions League night from that point of view.”

Midfielder and captain Jordan Henderson, who, it must be said, was a titan for the Reds on Tuesday, called it “not the worst result in the world.” Noncommittal.

“It’s not the worst result in the world. The performance level was good but we lacked that bit in the final third.”

“We’re disappointed not to score. But we kept a clean sheet and defended well. We had enough chances, especially in the first half.

“They’re a good team, they’re going to keep the ball. At times we found it frustrating. We were a bit unlucky in front of goal.

“It’s still alive. We’ve got games before the second leg. We’ve got to be confident still. It’ll be difficult but we have experience in the Champions League. We can go there and hurt them.”

In fairness, all of the above is true. The feeling of Liverpool having left so much on the table stems from how effervescent they were en route to reaching last season’s Champions League final. To see them struggle so early in the knockout rounds was, even after just one deep run a year ago, a bit jarring and unsettling.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Take into consideration the 10 days they had to prepare between games, and you get the feeling that Klopp and Co., know they needed to do so much more to give themselves a better chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.

The second leg is set for the Allianz Arena on March 13.

Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw

Peter Byrne/PA via AP
Leave a comment

There was virtually nothing to separate Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday, and the two sides will head to leg no. 2 (March 13) at the Allianz Arena with everything still to play for.

[ MORE: Spain revamps Super Cup (and others should follow suit) ]

0-0 was the final score at Anfield, and neither side will be thrilled with the result, nor will either side be devastated not to have found the back of the net.Control and momentum swung back and forth over the course of 90 minutes; the only thing missing was a goal to well and truly liven things up.

Liverpool, it should be noted, failed to pick up a single point away from home in the group stage, losing all three times on the continent.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson was called into action with barely 10 minutes on the clock, and perhaps the Brazilian knew nothing about the goal-saving block he made. Serge Gnabry crossed the ball into the box from the right wing, but Joel Matip stepped into the ball’s flight and booted it clear, only back toward his own goal. Fortunately for the Reds, Alisson was no more than two yards away and took the wayward clearance off his chest.

Liverpool’s first golden scoring chance came in the 33rd minute, when Naby Keita‘s shot from the edge of the box was blocked but fell ever so perfectly for an unmarked Sadio Mane 12 yards from goal. With Manuel Neuer all on his own and unable to close down the angles in such a rush, Mane let the six-time reigning Bundesliga champions off the hook by yanking his left-footed shot well wide of the post.

[ MORE: CONCACAF Champions League returns with TFC, Houston ]

While the first half was quite open with end-to-end tendencies — particularly for a first leg — the second half was even more so, at least early on. Robert Lewandowski got on the end of a cross Gnabry into the six-yard box, but Fabinho, forced to play center back due to injuries and suspensions, made a brilliant tackle to poke the ball away. Liverpool raced to the other end through Andrew Robertson, who nearly scored an unlikely goal off Neuer’s clearance, but the ball fell to Mohamed Salah who wasn’t able to fire a cross or shot under immense pressure.

Down the other end, barely five minutes later, it was the constantly active and involved Gnabry who went inches high of scoring a stunner into the upper-90. The 23-year-old winger cut inside to and unleashed a blast with his left foot that Alisson was never going to get a hand to, but Georginio Wijnaldum did just enough to harry Gnabry and cause him to lift his shot over the crossbar.