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The value of free-kicks, an appreciation

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hristian Eriksen redefined the boundaries as far as free-kicks go, when his laser-like set-piece set Spurs on their way to victory over Sheffield United. In these modern times where there is so little between teams on occasion, even when separated by 40 odd places in the football pyramid, a free-kick has become almost priceless, for any number of reasons.

The hardest thing in football is to score a goal, the very essence of the game. Basically you have eleven opponents trying everything from out thinking and outplaying you to out muscling you with every physical means available. Anyone who attempts to score a goal, from infrequent exponents, such as defenders, to strikers whose day job it is, often has to deal with over-physical methods in defence of their goal; kicking, hacking elbowing etc. How nice then, when a direct free-kick is awarded, because, lest we forget, you cannot score from an indirect free-kick, the taker can take his time. Assess the situation, weigh up his options and then, almost leisurely, utilise those highly tuned professional skills to score a goal without having to put life and limb on the line.

More and more teams these days have set-piece specialists who have the ability to fire a ball through, over or around a defensive wall with what is basically a free-shot.

Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto, was the master of the most difficult to execute free-kick, cutting across the ball and bending it inwards on target as opposed to the more regular swing of the kicking leg across the body and sending the ball curling inwards on to the target.

It is well documented that David Beckham spent hours after training sessions honing his set-piece skills. It worked. Who can ever forget that splendid goal against Greece that sent England through to the 2002 World Cup finals, and practice does make perfect. When it is a professional footballer who is practising with the skills that took him into his enviable profession it is reasonable to expect that the more a better player practises the better he becomes at scoring.

Just put yourself in the place, momentarily, of a player about to take a free-kick. The opposition, perhaps behind that invisible foam barrier, the goalkeeper crouching, maybe too low, ready to pounce upwards. And you, the taker, knowing that they could build a Berlin Wall there but you still know you can score. You know you can hit that small area, just inside angle of post and bar, that is beyond any mortal custodian. Christian Eriksen knows he can, more often than not. The rest of football knows it too so opponents, until that momentary lapse of concentration, will be well advised to back off just a tad lest they present a goal scoring opportunity which is basically an open invitation to score.

I loved that free-kick that Eriksen netted on Wednesday but it still is in second place to what I consider to be one of the two best free-kicks ever in the history of professional football.

In 1953 the FA Cup Final took place between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers. For Seasiders’ icon Stanley Matthews, aged 38, it was almost certainly his last chance to crown a distinguished career with an FA Cup winners’ medal. The final went down in history as the ‘Matthews Final’ which denigrated the part played by Stanley Mortensen, still to this day, the only player to score a hat-trick in a Wembley FA Cup Final.

For many reasons I choose Mortensen’s third goal, from a free-kick, as the best of all time. Blackpool were 3-2 down and were awarded a 90th minute free-kick. Bolton built the mandatory wall as Stan Matthews and Stan Mortensen eyed up the situation. It is a story that few have heard but Matthews turned to Mortensen and whispered. “I bet you a tanner (2.5 pence) you can’t score.

Few players would have even attempted what Mortensen took on. Most would have lobbed the ball into the box and hoped for a lucky break. They were in stoppage time and there would be no second chance. But Mortensen had the balls to fire at the minutest of gaps that he spotted in the Wanderers’ wall and the ball flew into the back of the net to make it 3-3. Moments later Matthews set up Bill Perry for the winner.

Matthews had his medal, Blackpool had the cup, and Stan Mortensen, from ‘Stan’s Final’ completed the only Wembley FA Cup Final hat-trick with the best free-kick of all time.

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