The 45th-minute sucker punch

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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