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Monday

"Cagey".

The Angle...  investigates the intricate workings of the two-legged cup tie:

The Draw.
The most significant issue when two teams are drawn together to play a two-legged cup tie is who plays at home first. Teams generally prefer to be at home in the second leg. Boring statistics apparently back this up. Football supporters will pin their hopes on the second leg, where they hope their side will finish the job.

The 1st Leg.
Not always a great spectacle for the neutral, to be honest. First legs are often cagey affairs, with both sides either attempting to feel each other out or succeeding in cancelling each other out. Both of these circumstances are often suggested by the co-commentator, who likes to think he is analysing in great detail what is simply just a rather shit game. The act of feeling each other out perhaps deserves its somewhat creepy name. The pace of the game is slow, and far from pulsating. Feeling each other out can also be referred to as probing, which also maintains a sense of slight perversity. The concept of cancelling each other out has its basis in tactics, where both teams mirror the other's set-up.

The home team in the first leg face a difficult proposition - the visitors are likely to set their stall out, but will be on the lookout for that all-important away goal to take back to the return leg. As we described briefly yesterday, away goals can be crucial, vital and precious. Woe betides anyone who believes that they literally count double, however. Snatching an away goal in the first leg, especially in a smash-and-grab raid, lends a sense of exciting criminality to an away win. Alternatively, if a team that is 3-0 down manages to snatch a late away goal in the 1st leg, it will be regarded as a glimmer of hope - in football matters, hope only ever manifests itself in glimmers. Rays of hope are surprisingly rare.

The final whistle in the first leg heralds the virtual "half-time" in the tie (and, furthermore, half-time in the first leg will be pointlessly signposted as being a "quarter of the way through this tie"). Co-commentators and pundits will be asked which manager will be the happier with the result. Just in case any aspiring pundits or co-commentators are reading, here is a cut-out-and-keep guide to who is happier with a 1st leg result:

Fig 1.0

A good first leg result can virtually book a place in the next round, making the second leg academic or a mere formality, and setting up a mouthwatering clash with the next opponents. Not that the manager or players will allow themselves to tell the media that, of course - the tie isn't over and there is still a job to do, so they won't be "getting carried away", let alone "thinking about the next round". Conversely, a catastrophic first-leg performance can leave a team with a Herculean task or a mountain to climb in the return fixture. No particular mountain, even Everest, is ever offered as an analogy here.

Neither of these circumstances is great for the TV hype machine though. What Sky and ITV love most is a tie that is too close to call after a tense first leg. Perfectly (or even beautifully) poised, often on a knife-edge, such ties allow the broadcasters to beef up their opening montages for the coverage of the second leg.

The 2nd Leg.Endless previewing and build-up leaves no-one unsure about the state of play going into the second leg. Any team that has any sort of deficit to peg back is advised to get an early goal. Any goal that is scored within the opening twenty minutes can be considered early, which is probably why the first 20 minutes are always considered crucial in these circumstances. In these first 20 minutes, teams must be expected to make a bright start. Bright starts are usually heralded by the commentator, but have arguably been cheapened in recent years. Once upon a time, an early goal was the prerequisite for a bright start. Now, in an era in which Soccer Saturday demands analysis from its pundits only seconds after kick-off, a bright start can often be achieved by merely winning a throw-in in the opponent's half. Nevertheless, a team attempting to reduce an aggregate deficit must make a bright start. A goal in the first 20 minutes serves to get the crowd going, particularly on a special European night. Such a match is a very good time for a striker to score a quickfire brace or, even better, an x-minute hat-trick.

Teams seeking to protect an aggregate lead will aim to put in a professional performance. One of football's finest euphemisms, a professional performance simply means playing out the ninety minutes with as little bother as possible. Alternatively, they may seek to step up a gear to put the tie out of reach of the opposition. The cautious probing, so characteristic of first leg matches, gives way to throwing caution to the wind and going for the jugular. In such dynamic circumstances, it is not rare to find the tie swinging dramatically between the two teams, as the second leg ebbs and flows. The excitement of a cup tie is often rubber-stamped when the co-commentator reveals that "we've got a genuine cup tie on our hands now." Commentators have the unenviable additional task of keeping track of the various permutations of the aggregate score. They will always be on hand to let us know the point at which the scorelines means "this cannot now go to extra time or penalties". Late goals can provide dramatic climaxes and heartbreak. Analysts will look back on pivotal moments with smug hindsight, while teams going out of the competition will be left to rue missed chances.

The relative complexities of two-legged ties mean that they are a rich source of cliches, as commentators, co-commentators and pundits seek desperately to provide mindnumbingly inane analysis.

Unfortunately, it also means we endure twice as much of it.

Adam.

Tuesday

Seven Deadly Sins

One of the main effects of cliche is that it maintains certain opinions, however misguided. In a football context, the autopilot observations offered up week after week by commentators, co-commentators and pundits are absorbed by the sponges that many football fans have for brains. Many of these opinions are outdated, inaccurate or exaggerated. Some are downright wrong...

1. Hitting the Post/Bar is "Unlucky".
The objective of the sport is to force the ball within the 8ft x 8yd rectangle. The size of a standard goalframe should be familiar to us all. The goal does not move during the match, and is not subject to any sort of random and unpredictable external force.

One can understand how a shot hitting the post or bar could be regarded as more dramatic than a shot that misses the goalframe completely - after all, the ball is back in play and there is little time to immediately reflect on what has just happened. However, under no circumstances should it possibly be considered unlucky. A shot that hits the post or bar is simply slightly better than a shot that misses the goal, and worse than one that actually goes in. It is not unlucky, and certainly not "desperately unlucky". Furthermore, if a team happens to hit the woodwork on more than one occasion during a match in which they fail to score, their fans, manager and players have no moral or logical justification to "bemoan their luck".

There is absolutely no reason why a shot that misses the goal by an inch is unluckier than one that flies high, wide and [not at all] handsome. Better, yes. Closer, certainly. But not bloody unlucky.

The only exception to this rule occurs during informal games between schoolchildren. Often denied the luxury of actual goalposts, they are forced to use jumpers, coats and rucksacks. Very often, the participants are faced with the moral quandary of the ball going over the post. The attacking team will inevitably claim that the ball "would have gone in off the post". The defending team will proceed to forensically reconstruct the shot in question, and demonstrate that it would have rebounded back into play. The debate has a common resolution - the two teams simply keep their own score forthwith. However, the issue continues to rear its ugly head whenever someone is brave enough to shout out loud the current "scoreline".

The point being made here is that, given the random allocation of scary bigger boys to either side in such games, it is only in these circumstances that a shot that hits the post can be considered unlucky. Until FIFA dispenses with goalposts and decrees that a panel of teenage ne'er-do-well bullies will rule whether or not a shot has gone in, a shot that hits the woodwork is never unlucky. It's simply not good enough to go in. Oh, erm, unless it's hit too well.

2. "...a Keeper of His Quality From That Distance."
Forming approximately 27% of Brian Marwood's total co-commentary output, this statement relates to speculative 30-yard shots that fail to test the opposing goalkeeper. As the 'keeper retrieves the ball for the goal-kick, we are shown a replay of the shot and the co-commentator exclusively reveals to us that it "would take something special to beat a keeper of his quality from that distance".

It's hard to know where to start here.

3. Away Goals Count Double.
The Angle...
are a fairly intolerant bunch, so anything that confuses or alienates the football ignoramuses is usually fairly acceptable. However, the frequent assertion that "away goals count double" must not pass unchecked. Away goals, especially in Europe, are all-important, precious and even vital, but they do not literally count double. Winning 3-0 away from home in the first leg, for example, does not put your team 6-0 up on aggregate.

4. Forgettable Player Ages.
Co-commentators, to go with all their other faults, appear to have memory problems. Despite young players having their ages measured right down to the unit of days when they make their debut for club or country, and then being labelled with adjectives such as "starlet", "wunderkind" and "precocious talent", their age tends to momentarily escape co-commentators whenever these youngsters have a bad game. A common target for this peculiar amnesia is Wayne Rooney, who, people tend to forget, is still only 21 years of age.

5. "Their goalkeeper doesn't fancy it".
As we all know, Continental goalkeepers invariably elect to punch. During coverage of European games, the co-commentator is primed to pounce upon any hint of a flap by the foreign goalkeeper. Once the flap is identified, the English team will be advised to test him out by pumping balls into the box. The co-commentator will react strangely silently to the goalkeeper comfortably dealing with the ensuing aerial onslaught, because it is not in the co-commentator's remit to backtrack. Heaven forbid.

6. "The crowd are getting impatient, and that can transmit itself to the players."
I am desperate for a professional footballer's view on this. Does the mood of the crowd really transmit itself to the players? Another classic example of an opinion that is floating around the otherwise vacant brain of the co-commentator, who is just itching to use it, no matter how untrue it is. It usually appears when a stray pass is met with an understandable collective sigh of anguish from the home support. Why that should be of any significance is bewildering, but yet it provides the cue for the co-commentator to treat us to his fascinating psychological hypothesis.

The tiredness of a cliche is directly proportional to its predictability. Believe me, this one is right up there with the worst of them.

7. "They could, and perhaps should, be 3-1 up"
This one firstly needs careful explanation before its stupidity becomes clear. Let's say Portsmouth are playing Aston Villa. Villa take an early lead, but Portsmouth pile on the pressure. They miss three gilt-edged chances to equalise.

"Portsmouth could, and perhaps should, be 3-1 up."

No, they couldn't, and perhaps shouldn't. Because, Mr Co-Commentator, if any of those chances had been converted, it would be 1-1, Villa would have kicked off, the ball would thus be in a completely different place, and it's highly unlikely that the other exact same two chances would have happened. Portsmouth might go on to create two more golden chances, but you couldn't possibly know that.

This lack of logical thinking is also applied to individual players, who "could have had a hat-trick today."

So, if you hear any of these seven nonsensical statements on the BBC, Sky or Premiership Plus this weekend, don't hesitate in letting everyone around you know about it. The crusade against such ridiculous accepted wisdom starts here.

Adam.