Uchida shines for SchalkeI’ve watched a lot of football matches this past week but none have come close to being as entertaining as the Europa League clash between Schalke and FC Twente on Thursday. With the match televised on ITV4 and it being the Europa League, I had low expectations, but the beauty of football is you should always expect the unexpected. After Twente taking an early lead, Schalke needed to score 3 goals to overturn a two-goal aggregate deficit and progress into the quarter-finals. It was a gigantic task, but they did it with a swashbuckling 4-1 win. Aside from Robin Van Persie, there is another Dutch striker who ‘scores when he wants’ in the form of Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The klaasy (sorry) striker has scored 38 goals in 38 games this season, scoring a hat-trick on the night with some emphatic finishing. One of the stars of the show, though, was Japanese right-back Atsuto Uchida. After an uncertain first half, he battled through the second half and controlled the right-wing with Jefferson Farfan, putting in a tireless shift of defensive astuteness and productive forward runs. It was his smart reverse pass which found Raul Gonzalez who cleverly back-heeled for Huntelaar to finish off another chance.
Africa’s answer to Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns
Elsewhere, in England, we saw Mali’s Mahamadou Diarra make his first start for Fulham since joining the West Londoners in late February. The Malian, who suffered a serious knee injury in 2008 and has struggled to reach the heights he once reached, is one of Africa’s most decorated players of the 2000s, a vital cog in for Lyon and Real Madrid as he won 6 league titles in a row (4 with Lyon and then 2 with Real Madrid) – Africa’s answer to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, if you will.
Diarra was making his first start since last April and he showed the signs of a man who was starting his first game in nearly a year with several misplaced passes and jumpy moments when in possession of the ball. Perhaps it was the sign of his nerves, but the role he was asked to play was certainly beyond his capabilities. Fulham manager Martin Jol sacrificed playmaker Danny Murphy from midfield for Diarra. Prior to the game, the decision made sense as Swansea are supremely comfortable in possession and the added midfield steel of Diarra could have gone some way to disrupt their rhythm. However, it seemed like Diarra was instructed to play the same role as that of Murphy as he bombed forward and attempted several unsuccessful lofted balls for Andrew Johnson and Pavel Pogrebnyak, or over-hit passes for the likes of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele. Certainly, Martin Jol pinpointed their inefficiency in possession as one of the reasons for the heavy home defeat and Diarra was one of the main culprits.
In search of Jean-Jacques Gosso
In Turkey, Sivasspor’s Nigerian forward Michael Eneramo was a constant thorn in Orduspor’s side in a 1-1 draw as their defence struggled to come to terms with his physicality. The Nigerian scored with a cheeky flick after a low cross into the box, the sort of trick a striker attempts when their team is comfortably winning, which was his 10th goal of the season. Also on the pitch – and the main reason I tuned in – was combative defensive-midfielder-cum-right-back Jean-Jacques Gosso, my 2nd favourite player at the Cup of Nations (after Christopher Katongo). Playing as a defensive midfielder, it was strange seeing the Ivorian in his preferred position, instead of as a makeshift right-back, but he was as committed as ever, putting his body on the line with series of blocks and challenges verging on reckless. Rumour has it that Man City are after him, I’ll say this: please don’t go to Manchester City, Jean Jacques, you’ll lose your biggest fan.
The best of the rest
On Sunday, we saw Panathinaikos v Olympiakos – the derby of the eternal enemies. Ghana’s Quincy Owusu-Abeyie was largely anonymous – the type of performance where you wonder if a player is actually on the pitch whilst Mozambique’s Simao and Mali’s Cedric Kante also featured did nothing of note. Algeria’s Djamel Abdoun scored with sharp, well-placed low shot after cutting in from the left and was probably one of the liveliest players on the pitch in a rather underwhelming match. Unfortunately, the game was abandoned after 83 minutes due to crowd trouble by the home fans (there are no away fans in Greek derbies) and the score will now be Panathinaikos 0-3 Olympiakos and Panathinaikos will probably be docked points.
Finally, in France, Toulouse recorded a 1-0 away win at Rennes. Stade Rennais regularly feature a host of African names in their starting XI and the bedrock of their defence was formed by Cameroon’s Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik (son of Andre Kana-Biyik and nephew of Francois Omam-Biyik) and Ghana’s John Boye, who achieved his customary red card. Burkina Faso’s Jonathan Pitroipa was as lively as ever, as was DR Congo’s Jires Kembo Ekoko, but that wasnt enough to break through Toulouse’s stubborn defence. Impressively, Les Pitchouns have the best defensive record in Ligue 1 this season with only 24 goals conceded thus far and Tunisia’s physical, shirt-tugging, wrestling-loving Aymen Abdennour has been at the heart of it. He was a standout performer yet again in what many would call a “smash-and-grab win”.