By Ade Ojeikere
I wish I could always talk about other sports other than football, having played the gentleman’s game – cricket. Writing about cricket would have been a lot of fun except that not many people would be able to follow it because of its language. Cricket isn’t dead in Nigeria. Those who played at all levels in the 70s and 80s know its importance and have formed clubs with most them reminding everyone about where they learned the game – in those wonderful schools across the country. That noble objective was achieved because of the existing boarding house system.
Boarding houses are gone under the guise of instituting free education, leaving in its wake the dearth of sporting activities in schools. All open spaces in schools have been built up for more classes. School pay fees to use stadiums for their recreational activities unlike in the past when you walk towards any playground of choice. At Government College Ughelli, it was fun being able to walk from one sporting ground to the other. Gone too are the games masters and games mistresses who were trained on the rudiments of sports. I remember the late GO Ogosi aka Cascar, who learned the Gentleman’s game at GCU but knew everything about other sports. Ogosi had poise and walked like turkey. He had class and showed it with some spring on his feet. Good night Casca Ogosi. I digress!
This columnist could comfortably write about tennis, having come from a tennis home. Unfortunately, the game which Coach Egbuson et al taught people inside the late Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia Stadium in Benin which produced several greats including Nduka Odizor has become an elite sport to be played in exclusive clubs. It isn’t a new development because it happened in the past. But it had a productive face because most of the tennis greats rose from being ball boys at such clubs to stardom. I recall also trying my hands on hockey and the joy of tapping your opponent on the bum for obstruction. Not forgetting trying one’s hands on the athletics field. I ran away because of the cross country at GCU. Energy sapping if you ask me.
Would I say that I played football? Well, I did but not play it to the required standard since one couldn’t call GCU a football school in the same way as one would tag schools such as Hussey College Warri, Urhobo College, Warri, Western Boys High School Benin City, Eghosa College Benin City, Saint Patrick School Asaba, Saint Peters Claver College, Aghalope, etc in the old Bendel State.
Reporting sports is very exciting, especially soccer where everyone has something to contribute. Most times this writer is stunned by the in-depth analyses from Nigerians so much so that one is forced to take down notes on certain salient points that one didn’t consider. My rich reservoir of knowledge has come from listening to informed pronouncements by those who show a remarkable understanding of the game and follow it religiously with historical facts and figures.
Soccer is the opium of the people wherever it is the primary sports. Little wonder everything stops when such countries are doing well in major competitions. In fact, the way teams in the European leagues season have begun in the respective leagues shows that most of them would be determined even on the last day. big teams winning games handsomely beginning with Bayern Munich’s 8-0 whacking of Schalke 04 in one of the early fixtures in the German Bundesliga. Indeed, the Barclays English Premier League table after two matches shows seven teams namely Leicester City, Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, TottenhamHotspur and Manchester City as the clubs to contend for the title held by the Reds.
Punters have likened the presence of Everton and Crystal Palace to the case of the elephant hung on the treetop with weak branches. It wouldn’t take time for these teams to fall off the perch. A few others have argued that Leicester and Arsenal have won the English Premier League title in the past, they do not have the character to last long in the race, which many also argue is a marathon. Whispers about the early totter by Manchester United indicates that its manager may be the first to be sacked except he hit the market to buy defenders since the team’s defence appears to be the team’s albatross.
It might appear that the defence of the Manchester United team is the club’s albatross considering its current losses, it is obvious that the team’s midfielders and playmakers are still in the form to give the team a good start. Though the choice of players which Solskjær is gunning for might not be exactly what the team needs at the moment, it is believed that the Red Devils will pull a surprise on major contenders that include Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, and Tottenham. Donny Van de Beek’s arrival at the team is one of the surprises other teams will have to deal with in the coming months considering his performances and current form.
Will Manchester United fight back? Yes. Would Arsenal drop off the perch as it has done in previous seasons? Neither here nor there, especially with Arteta as their manager. Arteta may make the difference this season as his team heads towards the January transfer window. Gunners falter from January through February, most times due to injuries to key players. The world waits for Monday next week when Gunners take their new credentials to Anfield to inflict the third consecutive defeat on the Reds in the last three games involving both sides.
Arsenal beat Liverpool in the second leg of the last EPL at the Emirates 2-1 at the time the Reds had won its first EPL in the new era, although its 19 titles at the elite class. Gunners won the Community Shield at Wembley Stadium on a penalty shootout, after a 1-1 score after 90 minutes, making Monday’s game an all systems go for the Reds.
The noise from Arsenal fans has been deafening. All kinds of permutations from their fans, who are quick to tell anyone who dares to listen that the trophy years would be at Emirates. I like Arsenal fans. They know how to carry the battle to the opposition’s fans before games are played. however, the fade away like ice-cream under the scorching sun when the results go otherwise. A rain of curses on those players responsible for the defeat forgetting that these guys took them to the point where they dreamt of a victory.
Realistically, Manchester City looks the favourite to dethrone the Reds, not Arsenal which struggled to beat West Ham at the Emirates last weekend. It would be quite laughable for Gunners to equate the 0-2 away victory over Leicester at the King Power Stadium as the reason to beat Liverpool on Monday. No two matches are the same, especially when one is a cup game with Liverpool whipping Lincoln 7-2 on away ground. Monday’s game would produce a lot of goals given the quality of strikers they parade.
Liverpool has Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane, two Africans who have continued to distinguish themselves for the Reds. Salah has scored three goals so far in two matches while Mane scored a brace against Chelsea last week Sunday at Stamford Bridge. For the Gunners, Pierre Aubameyang may be running a solo race upfront except Alexandre Lacazette shrugs off his quest for an exit from the team with Arteta seriously interested in Lyon’s Houssem Aouar for Arsenal during the window with no breakthrough. The Gunners have also been long-term admirers of Atletico Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey.
One thing which distinguishes both sides is that Arsenal is a team in progress while the Reds are champions strengthened with the inclusion of Thiago Alcantara. Liverpool’s depth in the midfield could be the deciding factor in Monday’s with David Luiz likely to play the bad card in Reds’ favour. Besides, Arsenal has ridiculed the hosts to the point of the Anfield giants seeking revenge. Liverpool knows how to play such high-stake games and the Gunners are Anfield at the wrong time.
Did I hear ask me to predict the outcome of the game? Reds all the way, except that Arsenal also wear red jerseys. Frankly, Monday’s game is too close to call. Soccer, like the Sierra Leoneans, would say is like a biscuit, you don’t know where it would crack.
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