ON THE WHISTLE
The 45th-minute sucker punch
AS THE clock edged closer towards 47 minutes, a fleeting thought flashed across my mind. “If only we can get to half-time without conceding…”
Almost immediately, Ronaldinho bewitched the England midfield with his dribbling, and slid the ball to Rivaldo in the box, who slotted it in to make it 1-1.
After that World Cup quarter-final defeat in 2002, much of the blame was attributed to David Seaman (who made a misjudgement with Ronaldinho’s looping free-kick) and David Beckham (who ducked out of a tackle in the lead-up to the equaliser).
The pivotal point of the match, I would suggest, came with the killer timing of the Rivaldo equaliser. This is what really denied England a crucial lead after the break, and a winnable semi-final against Turkey.
Football history is full of legendary 90thminute winners, but the value of the half-time goal is perhaps as crucial. Key games in World Cups and the Champions League have been shaped by a goal just before the break.
Four years before scoring in the loss to Brazil, Michael Owen tore Argentina to shreds with a wonder goal in St Étienne, putting us 2-1 up in a scintillating first-half.
Injury time arrived, and Javier Zanetti made it two-apiece with a neat free-kick, setting up a nerve-jangling second-half. While Beckham’s red card is often blamed for England’s eventual penalty defeat, the timing of Argentina’s equaliser must have played a part in tipping the scales in a tight game.
In an evenly matched encounter, a goal just before half-time can swing momentum and change the direction of a match. It can cause doubt and confusion in the opposing players’ minds, and they may go into the dressing room downhearted and despondent.
A well-timed smash-and-grab goal can undermine the best football in the world. The half-time break gives players time to mull on the scoreline and there is no immediate opportunity to rectify a mistake.
Experienced players who have that inner mental steel are not thrown, and these are situations where strong leadership is needed. For a young or inexperienced team, this can be a critical incident which they never recover from.
Scoring a goal just before the break can flood players with confidence, and give them much-needed belief for the second half. It gives them a psychological stranglehold over their opponents for a key spell of the match.
All of Chelsea’s goals in the 2012 Champions League semi-final were scored in injury time at the end of halves. The most critical was Ramires’ audacious chip at the Nou Camp. Barcelona were dominant and flew into a 2-0 lead.
Down to ten men, the Ramires goal supplied Chelsea with exactly the boost they needed. The goal encouraged the away side and planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the home team, even one as great as that Barcelona side.
Two years later, and a rampant Liverpool were charging towards the title, when the Blues stopped them at Anfield.
Like the Rivaldo goal in 2002, an England
captain made a mistake with the ball (this time giving it away to Demba Ba).
Again the timing was critical. The goal punctured Liverpool and you could sense an atmosphere of gloom as players left the pitch.
Heads went down, shoulders slumped and body language said it all. That goal must have changed the manager’s half-time message.
Conceding on the stroke of half-time means there is no time to reformulate an alternative message.
This is where an inexperienced or inflexible manager can come unstuck. A 45th-minute goal may prompt an unfair barracking from a manager, despite a decent performance.
Equally, a manager cannot simply ignore the goal and continue with his original message. It takes a skilled manager to invigorate his players after a body blow like this.
The period just before the interval is the time when concentration might falter or when some teams take their foot off the gas.
An alert and focused team will take advantage of any lapse, and will capitalise by snatching a goal just before the break. No team ‘plans’ for a half-time goal, but a ruthless team like Chelsea are ready to pounce on any weakness at any time.
There is a sense of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’ with the ‘half-time sucker punch’.
If Ramires had not scored when he did, would Chelsea have won the Champions League? Would Liverpool now be defending the Premier League title, having ground out a 0-0 with Chelsea?
I believe that despite coming just before the ‘Golden Generation’ came to the fore, 2002 was our best chance to win a World Cup since Italia ’90. If we had gone into the break 1-0 up, who knows what would have happened?
Rivaldo nets in 2002 – and England’s World Cup dream begins to crumble
Oh Stevie, Demba Ba scores