Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

The best striker in the world who became a pancake

Exactly two years ago, the world of Dutch football evolved around one thing: a pancake. Yes, we are talking about those round things you eat in the morning with lots of syrup.

In the Netherlands there is a strong tradition of fans mocking their opponents, the referee, the players, the board of directors and last but not least, the coach. Everything imaginable was chanted in stadiums across the nation of Total Football.

The ref’s mom was active in the oldest profession in the world, the opponents all resembled a male’s sexual organ and so on.. . But is seemed nobody really cared about the insults, they were common. Just as common as it was for English fans to go abroad and eat the chairs of the opponents stadium.

But let’s move on to the man in question. His holiness Marco van Basten had a fantastic career at Ajax and AC Milan but because of an ankle injury he was forced to retire early. The footage of him saying goodbye to a full San Siro is legendary, mainly because of a crying Fabio Capello.

The calm composed former striker of AC Milan played golf for about fifteen years until he became coach of the national team and finally of Ajax, the club where his career started. Marco was known for his killer instinct as a player, his icy glance and his calm and composed attitude. Even if fans would disturb his team’s training; he would stop the session, have a chat and explain why he was the coach of Ajax and why the hoodies opposite of him were a bunch of pillocks.

However, back in February 2009, the pressure on Van Basten was reaching an all time high. He spend about £25m on random players who did not deliver on the pitch which resulted in a poor league position and a 30th league title further away than ever.

The fans started to sing bad songs about the players, the board, of course the referee, and even at San Marco. But Marco being a San, a holy man, crowned once as world player of the year and three times as the best European player, never responded to the chants. It seemed he could not care less, calm as ever. He was a man on a mission and nobody would distract him from fulfilling it.

Back to the first of February. After losing 1-0 at home to Heerenveen, Van Basten was on his way to the dressing room when a fan proclaimed the legendary words: “Je wordt bedankt, pannekoek!” meaning: Thanks a lot ya pancake! The normally so calm and composed Van Basten looked like he was going to rip the guy’s head off, eat it and then floss his teeth with the lad’s scarf.

The myth ‘San Marco’ was gone: it was the beginning of his end at Ajax. A legend fell of his thrown, because of pancake. It dominated the news headlines and since that very day they nobody dared to repeat it. Holland had a new C-word and it started with a P.

From that moment on, San Marco would be remembered as the pancake… And of course the guy who won us the European Championship with possibly the best goal ever scored in a final (together with Zidane’s volley at Hampden).

Stef Meens

Australian Open 2011: a rave review

The crap has been cleared from the seats, the sweat has been mopped from the court surface and the last of the two hundred sponsors has been thanked for the final time.  What a show it has been in Melbourne at the first of the main events in the year’s tennis programme – the Australian Open.  And it wasn’t just some terrific tennis on display.

Leading lights were upstaged by upstarts, veteran performers took their final bow and some of the theatrics were positively pantomime.  Outlandish kangaroo gaffes?  Embarrassing text messages?  Murray in the final?  Yes, this Slam really did have it all.  As the curtain closes and the British press prepare to heckle poor Andy, let us review the highlights and lowlights.  Aussie, Aussie, Aussie?  Oi, oi, oi!

BEST MATCH

1. Francesca Schiavone (ITA) bt Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 6-4 1-6 16-14 – The women’s game is very often written off these days as the frilly support act to the men’s main event.  But no one told the decidedly un-frilly Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova as they produced what has rightfully been lauded the performance of the tournament in their fourth round encounter.  Full of guts, energy and determination, the former Grand Slam champs staged an Isner-Mahut-worthy epic – but with rallies.  It was the slight-yet-strong Schiavone that somehow managed to reach every corner of the court and took the final set 16-14 after a marathon 4 hours 44 minutes – a record breaker for women’s tennis.  Bravo, ladies.

3. David Nalbandian (ARG) bt Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) 3-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 9-7 – As soon as this repeat of the Wimbledon 2002 final was drawn out of the hat (or large silver cup) for the first round, the home crowd and international pundits alike were salivating at the prospect.  It did not disappoint.  With neither player the force they once were, this was all about pride and Hewitt trying to prove to the Aussie audience that he still has plenty of homegrown grit.  In the end, though, it was “Fat Dave” who took the final set 9-7 in the wee small hours.  He then quit against Lithuania’s Richard Berankis in round two.

3. Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) bt Robin Soderling (SWE) 1-6 6-3 6-1 4-6 6-2 – Despite the earlier-than-expected exits of Rafa and Roger, this was surely the biggest upset of the men’s Aussie Open this year.  Cold and cunning Soderling, who had recently collected cups in Paris and Brisbane and moved up to #4 in the rankings, was outfoxed in the last 16 by the wily, wild-haired Alexandr Dolgopolov, the surprise package of the Slam.  The match rolled into five sets but it was the unseeded Ukranian who marched to the quarter finals in exceptional form.

STAR PLAYER

1. Novak Djokovic (SRB) – As usual, in the British press at least, it was all Andy, Andy, Andy, Rafa, Roger, Andy.  And, once again, the man they call Nole (I still don’t know why) made his usual silent assassin progress to the semis, dropping just one set and taking out Tomas Berdych along the way.  He then defeated Federer in their second successive Grand Slam semi final – this time in straight sets – and, ultimately, kicked Andy Murray’s arse in the final.  With minimal fuss, nerves of steel and complete humility, Djokovic proved that, on his day, he can be the best in the world.

2. Li Na (CHN) – If there was a trophy for the best personality of the tournament it should surely go to Li Na.  Aside from being the first person from China ever to reach a Grand Slam final, she also proved she is utterly charming, genuinely funny and refreshingly honest (when asked what motivated her to beat world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in their semi final she simply replied: “Prize money.”)  This was the tournament where Li proved she is a real asset to the game and with absence of some bigger names she could be a contender for future finals.

3. Kim Clijsters (BEL) – Everyone loves Kim Clijsters.  And rightly so.  She is charming.  She is funny.  She has had a child and she is the best female player on the planet right now.  Since her return to the circuit at the US Open 2009, she has won three of the last six Grand Slams, now including her first Aussie Open trophy.  Here’s hoping it’s the first of more before she leaves us again, as rumour has it she’s only sticking around for one more year…

BREAKOUT PLAYER

1. Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) – Yeah, I didn’t know who he was until he put Soderling out.  But the man who had never previously been beyond the third round of any Grand Slam and has never been ranked inside the top 30 certainly caused a stir and had surely had many a journo silently mouthing “Dol-go-pol-ov” to make sure they got it right.  He really could be doing with a haircut though.

2. Petra Kvitova (CZE) – Arguably, Kvitova got her big break at Wimbledon last year when her fine run of form got her all the way to the semis before she was stopped by Serena.  But she proved in Melbourne that it wasn’t a one-off.  This time she stunned home favourite Sam Stosur in round three before making it as far as the quarters.  When asked if she would like to reach the top 5 soon she responded: “Who wouldn’t?”  Indeed.

3. Bernard Tomic (AUS) – With Hewitt, Stosur, Groth and Molik all falling early on, Aussie hopes were piled on to the shoulders of German-born, Croatian-blooded 18-year-old Bernard (yes, 18-year-old BERNARD) Tomic.  And he did all right.  After straight sets wins in the first two rounds he came up against Rafa in round three and put in a decent shift – leading 4-0 in the second set at one point – before being shown the door.  He’ll probably win a Slam before Murray.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

1. Rafael Nadal (ESP) – Yes, he was playing well and, yes, it’s bad luck he sustained an(other) injury.  But it’s still all very disappointing, isn’t it?  Here he was, the best player in the world, on the brink of becoming the first man since the arena-inspiring Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.  The “Rafa Slam” they were calling it and “they” were certain it would happen.  Then – *ping* – bit of trouble with the old leg.  What is it with Melbourne’s courts and Rafa’s legs?  For the second year in a row, Nadal fell at the Aussie Open quarters.  Roger must surely have had a sneaky smirk.

2. Justine Henin (BEL) – If the story of Kim Clijsters’ comeback is one of brilliance then the story of her compatriot’s is something quite different.  Seven-time Grand Slam winner Henin abruptly left tennis in 2008 and even more abruptly returned in 2010, in time to reach the final of last year’s Aussie Open.  But things have been shaky ever since then and after crashing out to Kuznetsova in the third round of this year’s tournament, she announced a second retirement – this time permanent – due to her dodgy elbow.  An unfortunate way for a former champion to bow out.

3. Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) – One of the main talking points at the start of the Slam was the return of former top fiver and US Open champion, Juan Martin Del Potro.  After a year out with wrist issues, was a Clijsters-esque comeback on the cards for the scarily old-looking Argentine?  No.  He was dispatched in round two by Marcos Baghdatis and faces a tough climb back up the rankings in 2011.

MOST AWKWARD MOMENT

1. Caroline Wozniacki’s kangaroo – What’s the best way to react to the press calling you “boring”?  According to the world #1, making up outlandish, fake stories is the answer.  The Great Dane told journalists her leg was bandaged because she was scratched by a kangaroo.  In fact, the real “boring” reason was that she walked into a treadmill.  In perhaps the most bizarre statement ever given in sport, Caroline was presented with an inflatable marsupial by the media and forced to apologise for her fibs.  But hey, it made her more interesting.  Here’s the tall tale in full

2. Kim Clijsters’ text message – Commentator Todd Woodbridge found out the hard way not to text rumours about players – especially those as nice as Kim Clijsters – when the Belgian called him out in front of thousands of spectators.  In an on-court post-match interview, Kim told Todd she saw a text he had sent saying he thought she might be pregnant because “she looks really grumpy and her boobs are bigger.”  With a laugh and a smile – and swift confirmation that she isn’t pregnant – it was brushed aside… but I wonder if Kim’s husband had a word with Woodbridge about him staring at her boobs.  Have a look at the humiliation

3. Li Na’s non-anniversary – In another classic on-court gaffe, commentator Sam Smith insisted in a post-match interview that Li Na’s defeat of Caroline Wozniacki in the semis was extra special because it was also the Chinese player’s wedding anniversary – even though it, um, wasn’t.  Cue Na squinting for her husband in the crowd to make sure that, no, she hadn’t forgotten their anniversary, despite what Smith’s “media notes” said.  Awkward…

Martin McGale

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: What’s all the fuss about?

Cold beer in hand, I planted myself on the sofa in anticipation of this evening’s FA Cup fourth round tie between Southampton and Manchester United.

My interest in the match itself was subjective. First off, I don’t care much for the FA Cup and the “romance” that surrounds it. Secondly, and most importantly, my sole intention was to see Southampton’s much coveted wonderkid Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in action.

Bursting onto the scene at the start of the season, a string of impressive performances has seen the 17 year-old wingers’ stock rise dramatically in recent months. A £10 million transfer fee is being mooted and with Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool ready to pounce, it looks unlikely Chamberlain will be plying his trade in League One for much longer.

Complimentary in tonight’s pre-match interview with ITV, Alex Ferguson labelled the teenager as “very talented”, citing that he had “undoubted potential.” I was intrigued and desperate to find out if all the hysteria was justified.

Sporting the number 26 jersey, the youngster started brightly. Playing on the left hand side of a compact midfield diamond, he looked to put United full back John O’Shea under pressure from the word go. Brimming with enthusiasm and endeavour, he produced a quietly industrious first half showing.

With United chasing the game, they upped the tempo in the second half. As a result, Chamberlain faded and, aside from a sublime backheel to setup team-mate Dan Harding, he was virtually anonymous as an attacking force.

So what’s the verdict on the latest superstar to come bounding off Southampton’s conveyor belt of talent?

It’s definitely a positive one, albeit with an air of caution.

It’s clear that Chamberlain possesses all the tools to become a top class player. He’s comfortable in possession, has an eye for a pass and has pace in abundance. That said, it was his willingness to work for the team and put in a shift defensively that impressed me the most. For a 17 year-old merely cutting his teeth in the professional game, his disciplined attitude and approach to the game was refreshing.

However, for the time being, we’re only dealing with a player in terms of raw potential. Chamberlain is still very young and is nowhere near to being the finished article. While many think a move to one of the Premiership big boys would be in the players’ best interests, there are others who fear his career could stall and Chamberlain could find himself swallowed up in the world of reserve team football.

Perhaps it’s an idea for the teenager to bide his time, consider his options and continue enjoying first team football.

Stu Martinez

Basketball: more than just the dunk

For most people, basketball is a kind of sport which is mostly known because of the fantastic and spectacular dunking action. Of course it is one of the most spectacular parts of the game, but there is more to it. Last night Lamar Odom, Forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, demonstrated it to us. With a magnificent no-look pass in the painted area he gave Spaniard Pau Gasol the opportunity to score.

It’s all part of the game.

Mart Waterval

Suarez £23m deal: Epic Liverpool fail or the real start of the Dalglish era?

After a week of negotiations both Ajax and Liverpool got what they wanted. Well, sort of… The Reds wanted Suarez badly but did not want to pay more than £15 million. The Amsterdam side were at first reluctant to let their star striker go. However, they received the offer they wanted, which came in handy, considering Ajax’ financial woes with a debt of £20 million.

So who has Kenny Dalglish lured into Anfield? Here are a few stats to accompany the Uruguayan international’s career:

Nacional – 2005/2006                       games/goals:             29 – 12
FC Groningen – 2006/2007               games/goals:             29 – 10
AJAX – 2007/2011                            games/goals:          159 – 111

A total of 133 goals out of 217 matches is not at all bad for a player who just turned 24, but is he worth over £20 million, considering he only played in small leagues?

Let’s have a look at his strong points. He can play on every position up front. In the national team he is second striker to Diego Forlan and at Ajax he used to play on both wings alongside Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Mounir El Hamdoui . If they were injured he ran up front as a lone striker which, as his stats prove, did not stop him putting the ball in the back of the net.

Then there is his desire to win. Of course, for the amount of money most Ajax players earn, you should always be motivated. However, Suarez is extraordinary. During the full 90 minutes he never seems to get tired and he just keeps on pestering the opposition’s defence. He also does whatever it takes to win, as we saw in de quarter finals of the World Cup.

More importantly, he is the kind of player who makes the important goals in the difficult moments during a match. He is no Messi or Bergkamp, but he can score goals from angles and positions nobody else thought of. So when Suarez is on the pitch you know something is going to happen.

That is exactly what Liverpool need. With the likes of Gerrard, Torres and Kuyt, the Reds have a few players who can spur on the squad. But with the captain out with an injury and the Spanish number nine eying a move to Chelsea, Liverpool can use a player who gives everything and motivates a team in a tough stage during a match or even a season.

But with Suarez’s passion and desire to win come a few problems. He is a bad actor which leads to dreadful dramatic dives, moaning at the ref and asking for other players to be booked. Wingers like Robben and Ronaldo were not popular outside their clubs’ gates while playing in the Premier League and Suarez will encounter the same adversity.

In his never ending motivation, the right footed attacker sometimes looses his composure to overlook a game. He will just keep on going at the defence without using the rest of the team. This resulted many times in a last minute goal and the all important three points for Ajax. However, the Premier League is a bit different from the Eredivisie. The English top flight is, arguably, the hardest league in the world and Suarez he will not get away with choosing the longer road to the opposition’s goal, blanking his teammates along the way.

Also, Suarez’s ego needs to be kept happy. As long as he is the centre of attention he does not mind which position he is playing. However, as soon as lead scorer Huntelaar left Ajax, Suarez played his best football. Also, when El Hamdaoui arrived in Amsterdam last summer, the Urugyan became frustrated he had to share his monopoly on goals. The question for Kenny Dalglish will be if he can get Suarez to play for the team, alongside all the other big names.

So is Luis going to be a revelation at Liverpool? He certainly has the potential. I see him as a young Tevez, who is strong with the ball and can play anywhere on the pitch. He combines his skill with Dirk Kuyt’s work rate and a young Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘annoy’ factor. This means if Suarez does well, he will become a cult hero at Anfield and much hated and feared at every away game.

Stef Meens

Murray’s muscles are ready. Is he?

It’s called the deltoid. To you and me it’s called the shoulder muscle. When Andrew Murray first achieved prominence in the summer of 2005 the soft tissue surrounding the top of his arms was just that. Soft, weak, underdeveloped and fragile.

The same man, now Andy Murray, was pictured on the Melbourne Park practice courts this week. He was stripped to the waist, seeking a light pink tinge that is fluent of most Scots earthed beneath a glimpse of Mr Sunshine. But now those shoulder muscles have swollen up, roaring ferociously with a very British stubbornness. Given the pressure he now finds himself under from his millions of fans back home, it is somewhat understandable that he has beefed up just in time for what could be his golden moment, given the burden he now carries on those 23 year old shoulders.

He heads into tomorrow’s Australian Open final having conceded just two sets in the tournament thus far. His form has been nothing short of exceptional. With a new found sense of brutality that has been lacking in recent Grand Slam tournaments, he has diminished the hopes of opponents with the minimal of fuss, his consistent yet at times eccentric style of play proving far too much for those with far less ability.

In line with the progressive difficulties that a major tournament poses, his sternest test in Melbourne came in his previous match when he faced Spain’s David Ferrer in the semi-final. Ferrer, an unbelievably fierce competitor, gave Murray the run around, chasing down every ball from the warm up to the hand shake. The Spaniard’s experience propped his head up at times when the match was swaying towards Murray. Undeterred by the tangible resistance posed by the scoreboard, Ferrer fought hard when he seemed down and out, at times salvaging a break point deficit to remain in the match.

Yet the difference, in just under four hours, was the man from Dunblane’s ability to win the big points, the crucial points, the turning points. Two of the sets were decided on tie-breaks, both of which were won comfortably by Murray. In these moments, having battered felt for all his worth over the best part of an hour, the last thing he would want to do is succumb to poor concentration at six games apiece.

Such an affliction has bruised Murray in previous Grand Slam finals, losing a crucial tiebreak to Roger Federer in the Rod Laver Arena last year. In those days his temper, at times, looked to get the better of him. His tempestuous relationship with his racket often distracted his head from the task in hand. Often manifesting into complete self-destruction, his anger and lack of self-awareness on the court hindered his tilt at a major title.

Murray, by no means an angel on court, has often been culpable of an audible profanity, a sulk, a tantrum or an umpire gripe. It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Murray and Harry Enfield’s fictitious teenage brat, Kevin.

But experience provides an appreciation of patience and concentration, and besides a second set wobble against Ferrer, Murray focused sufficiently to glide through to the final.

His opponent come Sunday will play with the hand he has chosen that day. In Novak Djokovic, Murray faces a man whose performance just cannot be predicted. It seems odd to question the Serbian’s threat, but here you have a man who at times has a game unequalled even to the great Federer and Nadal, but on other occasions drops his wrists and prods at the ball with an apathy befitting of a man who would rather be anywhere else. But an enigma Djokovic is not: he won here in 2008 and has quite rightly affirmed his position this year as the third best player in the world.

Rankings count for little in a one-off match of such prestige, though. If Murray can keep the head and stick to what he is good at, he is more than capable of etching his name on the winner’s trophy.

To be successful though, however ludicrous it may sound, Murray must play with the arrogant dismissiveness of a young buck wreaking havoc at the top table. His tenacity, petulance and burning belly get the best out of him. A calm demeanour is not in his make-up. Instead, he must come out fighting, using his serve and groundstrokes to choke Djokovic into baseline errors.

Ultimately, Murray must win the big points. In such a tense finale at least one tie-break is almost inevitable. The Scot will take great heart from his ruthless display against Ferrer in their first-to-seven mini battles, and if history is to repeat itself he must atone for a sluggish start in previous outings.

Millions will be watching in Britain and the world over to see if Murray can attempt to disperse the Nadal/Federer monopoly of titles in recent years. His shoulders are primed, muscles rippling. Come 8.30am on Sunday, he will feel the full weight of a nation’s expectancy.

Paul Barnes

Ferrari’s 2011 F1 racer unveiled

The Scuderia Ferrari are the first F1 team to unveil their weapon for the 2011 season. After missing out on the drivers’ and constructors’ championship last year, the Maranello based team hope the new car, the F150, can bring Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa back to the front of the grid. Team principal Stefano Dominicalli talks about his expectations.

Check out the presentation of the Ferrari F150 here.

The other teams present their cars on the following dates:

31 Jan: Team Lotus, Sauber Motorsport and Lotus Renault GP
1 Feb: Red Bull Racing, Mercedes Grand Prix and Scuderia Torro Rosso
4 Feb: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
7 Feb: Marussia Virgin Racing

Force India and HRT have yet to announce their launch dates.

More on the 2011 Formula 1 season soon on Champions Chat

Stef Meens

Fourth round draw proves FA Cup is still silverware worth collecting

English football fans are in for a treat this weekend with the fourth round of the FA Cup delivering promising fixtures, including five all premier league ties.

Top of the bill is Saturday’s clash between cup holders Chelsea and Everton at Goodison Park. A good result could lift the Toffee’s spirits after drawing their last two games and loosing key player Steven Pienaar to Tottenham. Meanwhile Chelsea are on the way up after three victories in which they scored 15 goals and conceded none.

Aston Villa aim to continue their four game unbeaten run. Houllier’s star signing Darren Bent, is eying his first goal of the campaign. Opponents Blackburn are eager to continue their excellent league form resulting in a place in the top half of the table.

Two sides struggling in the league meet at the Reebok Stadium with Wigan trying to avoid relegation and Bolton trying to regain their early season form after securing only one point in the last six games.

On Sunday, Wolves host Stoke and a full house at Craven Cottage will see last year’s quarterfinalist Fulham take on neighbours Tottenham. With the FA Cup being the best chance for silverware, after dropping to fifth in the league table, Harry Redknapp hopes Spurs’ revelation Gareth Bale will be able to play.

The remaining top-flight teams face lower league sides with Birmingham and West Ham United preparing for a tough draw against Championship clubs. Coventry visit Alex McLeish’s struggling squad while Championship title contenders Nottingham Forest travel to Upton Park.

Manchester United’s goalie Edwin van der Sar announced his retirement and hopes to get his hands on the FA cup, the only English trophy he has not yet won. His side travel to Stadium of Light to play Southampton, who shocked Blackpool with a 2-0 defeat in the third round.

The Saint’s League One rivals Huddersfield, visit the Emirates on Sunday to deny Arsenal’s hunt for four trophies and a second trip to Wembley after the Gunners secured a place in the Carling Cup final beating Ipswich.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Everton v Chelsea, R4, 12:30
Swansea v Leyton Orient, R4, 12:50
Aston Villa v Blackburn, R4, 13:00
Birmingham v Coventry, R4, 15:00
Bolton v Wigan, R4, 15:00
Burnley v Burton Albion, R4, 15:00
Sheff Wed v Hereford, R4, 15:00
Stevenage v Reading, R4, 15:00
Torquay v Crawley Town, R4, 15:00
Watford v Brighton, R4, 15:00
Southampton v Man Utd, R4, 17:15

Sunday, 30 January 2011
Arsenal v Huddersfield, R4, 12:00
Wolverhampton v Stoke, R4, 13:00
Notts County v Man City, R4, 14:00
West Ham v Nott’m Forest, R4, 14:00
Fulham v Tottenham, R4, 16:30

Stef Meens

St Mirren undone as United level late again

St Mirren 1
Dundee Utd 1

Paul Barnes at St Mirren Park

Some have suggested lately that Dundee United’s players have been invited across the pond as guests on David Letterman’s Late Show. Their hypothetical auditions continued apace at St Mirren Park this evening. They’ve now scored in the last five minutes to equalise in six SPL games this season.

Just as Garry Kenneth did four days ago against Kilmarnock, David Robertson equalised for the Arabs in the dying embers of the game to take a point back to Tayside. St Mirren had opened the scoring seven minutes short of the interval, a first SPL goal for summer signing Darren McGregor.

A poor crowd of just over 3,000 braved a chilly January Wednesday in Paisley to take in the action, and it took only four minutes for them to witness what could have, and probably should have, been the opener. Craig Conway, making his second successive start for the visitors after a lengthy spell in the treatment room, darted down the left and whipped a ball across the home side’s six yard box. Johnny Russell, lively throughout the game, could only muster a faint clip at the back post and Jim Goodwin was on hand to clear to safety.

At the other end defender Marc McAusland fancied himself to break St Mirren’s dry scoring run – coming into this game they had failed to score in the league since Boxing Day – with a twenty yard swipe that sailed high and wide after a neat lay-off by Paul McGowan.

The visitors’ best chance of the first half fell, once again, to Russell. As the ball was fired into him twelve yards out with his back to goal, he spun his man and fired towards Gallacher’s net. Throwing out his legs instinctively, the Saints goalkeeper made a fine save.

It was the home side, however, who made the breakthrough seven minutes before the interval. Jure Travner whipped an inswinging corner across the United box, and Darren McGregor rose unchallenged to head to the far post. Morgaro Gomis desperately tried to skelp the ball off the line but not in time for whistler Craig Thomson to award the goal.

The visitors appeared with more urgency at the start of the second half and could have taken the lead six minutes from the restart. Youngster Stuart Armstrong floated a hopeful ball into the box and Goodwillie’s glancing header was palmed for a corner by the ever alert Gallacher. From the resultant set piece United had what looked like a strong appeal for a penalty waved away by Thomson. McGregor and Garry Kenneth bundled to the ground as the ball floated over their heads and when the ball was fired back across goal the St Mirren defender appeared to hold down his opposite number.

Kenneth was forthright about the legitimacy of his claims: “Of course it was a penalty. The boy pulled me to the ground. If he didn’t I’d have had a tap in.”

Still fizzing with the apparent injustice, Kenneth was booked for dissent a minute later after appealing once again for a spot kick, although this time his protests appeared to be more in hope than expectation.

United pressed relentlessly for a leveller as the second half wore on. Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben wasted little in midfield and provided Conway, Goodwillie and Russell with ample opportunity to stretch their legs and run at the St Mirren backline. As the minutes ticked by the hosts gradually began to cramp at the edge of their box, with few opportunities to gain territory in United’s half.

In the 73rd minute the pressure applied on the Saints almost saw United draw level. When Paddy Cregg was dispossessed cheaply in midfield Johnny Russell was fed wide, bearing down on the box. His sprayed centre was met by Goodwillie who couldn’t adjust his feet quickly enough and ended up tapping upwards onto Gallacher’s bar.

Sensing vulnerability in the hosts’ rear-guard, United manager Peter Houston used his three substitutions in an attempt to galvanise his fatigued side, Danny Cadamarteri, David Robertson and Andis Shala being introduced to the action. His enterprising decisions paid off.

Just two minutes left on the clock and United scored their now customary late equaliser. St Mirren’s defence came out in unity to meet David Goodwillie’s cross, but substitute David Robertson evaded the offside trap. Sneaking in behind Jure Travner at the back post, he divert a well guided header over the helpless Gallacher and into the far corner.

Cue a shake of the head from Travner’s manager Danny Lennon: “He could have done a lot better for me with the ball at the back post. You’ve got to defend for your life at that stage of the game.”

For United manager Peter Houston, Robertson’s last gasp equaliser was scant consolation for a dominating second half display. “If it was a boxing match they would have stopped the second half. We absolutely battered them.”

If success was measured on perseverance and strength of character, United’s Late Show stars have certainly earned their stripes.

Dear sports fans,

Champions Chat is created by a group of young aspiring sports journalists who believe sport is more than just winning or losing: it is about the athletes, the fans, the anticipation of competition and the passion for any kind of sport.  That is why we bring you in-depth, up to date and opinionated previews, round ups and features for those who are passionate about sport.

We hope you enjoy the blog!

The editors of Champions Chat

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