Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Villans of the piece must exploit Cesc’s untimely absence

Upon end-of-season reflection, the hectic festive period is often mused upon as to where title, promotion and relegation battles were effectively won and lost. For high-flying Aston Villa in particular, their Boxing Day clash with fifth-placed Arsenal has the makings of a season-defining one.

At the season’s genesis many pundits had Villa pegged as the team most likely to head up the ‘Little 16’; trailing in some 10-20 points adrift of the all-conquering Big Four and being bloody well delighted about it too. What wasn’t supposed to happen was that Martin O’Neill’s men would not only be nipping at the ankles of the established Premier League superpowers, but actually going toe-to-toe with them in the apparently closed four-horse race for precious Champions League places.

But, of course, there can be no losers in such a race – which makes it so blindingly dull for supporters of the clubs not involved (i.e. the majority of football fans). For a fifth club, an upstart such as Everton or Tottenham in the recent past, to enter the pursuit makes it a race so much more entertaining to behold. This season, quite clearly, Aston Villa are the greatest threat to the monotonous quadropoly; lurking, as they do, in third place with virtually half the season done.

It is to be expected that Manchester United will return, victorious, from Japan hungry to make up the ground lost on their key rivals – few doubt that the World Champions will rejoin the top three sooner rather than later. Chelsea and Liverpool may be stuttering, but still hold a significant points advantage over the chasing pack. They, too, are both involved in what promises to be a fascinating title race for the long haul.

That, of course, leaves Arsenal – still suffering from a perplexing lack of consistency – as the team most likely to accede to the rise of the charging Villans. The general perception, at least outside of their plush Bodymoor Heath training complex, has been that the Birmingham club would take fifth place and a complimentary pat on the head as reward for their exciting brand of lightning-quick attacking football. Even as recently as last month – when their side crashed consecutively at home to Middlesbrough and away at St James’ Park – most Villa fans, still basking in a re-found pride in their club under the sound stewardship of Randy Lerner, would most certainly have accepted such a fate.

Yet, of late, the tide of opinion has turned. News yesterday of inspirational Arsenal playmaker Cesc Fabregas’ enforced absence through a medial ligament injury, while greeted with the apposite sympathy, has caused that tide to swell further. For Arsenal, already feather-light in central midfield, to lose their influential captain for the bulk of the remainder of the season is – in football terms at least – nothing short of a tragedy.

Sure, the young Spanish superstar has suffered from intermittent form this term – most likely as a direct result of losing stalwart engine room colleagues Gilberto Silva and, in particular, Mathieu Flamini. But his untimely withdrawal from the Ashburton Grove stage this week has rocked the foundations of an already restless side. Authentic on-field leadership is in short supply at the Emirates Stadium, as any casual observer of ex-skipper William Gallas will testify. Arsene Wenger now has an almighty task on his hands to galvanise his remaining troops for the mid-winter slog to come.

Focussing on the positives – and there are a few – in Denilson, Diaby and co, Wenger can call upon a selection of promising midfield players that most other top-flight clubs would love to call their own; a return to first team duties of fox-in-the-box Eduardo is approaching; and, most importantly of all, the January transfer window will slide satisfyingly open in just one week’s time. To salvage the Gunners’ season Wenger must bite the bullet and invest.

In this new era of so-called economic prudence – when we, the general public, are being urged to get out on the High Street and spend, spend, spend – to maintain the wonderful results of his young Villa squad, Martin O’Neill must now do the same. His late-summer splurge aside, the name of the game to date has been slow and steady progress at Villa Park. It’s a model which has served the ex-Celtic boss well.

However – and money-man Lerner would surely agree – it’s particularly rare that such an opportunity to make a seismic breakthrough arises in the all-too static environs of the Premier League. With Manchester City and, conceivably, Spurs waiting in the wings to challenge for European spots again next season (providing neither club is relegated of course) the time to strike is now. If Villa can preserve their new-found ruthless streak and overturn a Cesc-less Arsenal on Friday, they would surge six points clear of the Gunners. Not enough to seal a magical European odyssey right there on the spot, but a significant and tangible psychological blow to Wenger’s young side.

Whatever the result, it is patently clear that Villa’s current staff is lacking in the depth of quality required to feature prominently on three fronts in the season’s second half – a cursory glance at a bench featuring Zat Knight, Marlon Harewood and a bunch of raw youth-team prospects tells that story quite plainly. To support the free-scoring ways of Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Young; the midfield industry of Stillian Petrov and re-focused Gareth Barry; and the defensive solidity of Martin Laursen and Brad Friedel, one or two quality reinforcements will be required – particularly in the striking department.

It should not prove a difficult sell to encourage top talent from around the globe to a club so clearly on an upward curve. Should their abundantly generous American proprietor adhere, once more, to his policy of ‘speculate to accumulate’, Villa might yet dethrone one of English football’s four reigning kings.

Football’s my religion; Prenton Park is my church

As Noddy Holder once sang: “Come on feel the noise, girls grab the boys; we’ll get wild, wild, wild.” More pertinently, the Black Country legend also once roared – on Slade’s inescapable ode to December 25th: “It’s Christmas!!”

That’s right, it’s here again. As if you hadn’t noticed. Come this Thursday morning we’ll all be heading off to the church of our favoured denomination for hymns, prayers and an engaging sermon on the life and times of Jesus Christ & chums.

Except that, in all probability, none of us will be adhering to that model of a traditional Christmas celebration. In a secular society, it’s far more likely that the once-holy day will be spent unwrapping iPods and hedge-trimmers, downing a Guinness or six, tolerating overcooked Brussels sprouts, and rowing with the missus/significant other over the merits of a can of De-Icer as a suitable Chrimbo present.

Once that unholy ordeal is done and dusted, it’s on to Boxing (or for any Irish readers – St Stephen’s) Day. Then we can really revel in the joys, thrills and spills of our modern religion: football. It’s housed in the contemporary cathedrals, churches and chapels; the ones we fondly call Anfield, Molineux and, erm, The Reebok. And I, for one, can vouch for the uplifting hymnal qualities of Villa Park’s rousing “Paul McGrath m’lord; Paul McGrath...On the piss m’lord; on the piss...”to the tune of campfire classic ‘Kum Ba Yah’.

With the obscene sums of money swilling around the upper echelons of English football, endlessly cosseted players and a raft of power-hungry club owners; the beautiful game, as it stands today, seems as far detached from the lofty altruistic ideals which form the basis of any major organised religion. Yet, amid the sheer godlessness of it all, there are a number of top footballers that hold strong religious beliefs. In a profession which is entirely, some would say necessarily, self-centred, and in an age when practising religion is the exception rather than the rule, there remain a few dedicated to a higher power than even Sir Alex, Rafa or Arsene.

No, no, it’s not Fabio Capello, rather the big man (or men, or whatever spirits/beings apply) who dwells upstairs.

Currently top scorer in the Premier League and a (mostly) reformed character; Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka directly attributes the recent resurgence in his career to his 2004 conversion to the teachings of Islam. Having earned himself a reputation as a wayward star; difficult to work with and prone to fits of sulkiness that would shame even Antonio Cassano, Anelka was apparently lost to English football for good when spells at Arsenal, Liverpool and, finally, Man City ended sourly.

Following his conversion, Anelka swapped the Light Blues for the environs of predominantly Muslim Istanbul, at Fenerbahçe. Upon his return to these shores – at Bolton, in 2006 – doubts about the Frenchman’s attitude lingered. But it soon emerged from the Wanderers dressing room that the quicksilver striker was a changed man. Still a quiet, contemplative character, but now with a new-found maturity and, quite implausibly, known for his friendly demeanour around the training ground. Success in Lancashire soon brought Chelsea a-knocking.

It’s true, his first season at the Bridge ended in ignominy, as his Champions League-deciding penalty kick was stopped in Moscow. Now though, in the continuing absence of Didier Drogba, Anelka is firmly established as a key man for both the Blues and Les Bleus.

The 29-year-old’s interest in his faith dates back to his childhood in the tough outskirts of Paris: “The Muslim religion interests me,” he told reporters back in 1999. “When I'm in Trappes, I hang out with Muslims and we discuss it a lot. In the summer we're outdoors until 4am, so we have the time to talk. It opens your mind and the subject fascinates me, just like astronomy does.”

Similarly brought up in the roughest of rough neighbourhoods; Franck Ribéry (whose wife, Wahiba, is Algerian) and Zinedine Zidane (also of Algerian extraction) are among a number of other French stars committed to a religious path. The cultural melting pot of France’s inner cities clearly has had a profound effect on many of their top talents.

Anelka concluded: “I listen in order to understand and learn, just like Roberto Baggio on Buddhism.”

Ah yes, the Divine Ponytail, Signor Baggio himself was another of this rare breed – the religious footballer. In deeply Catholic Italy, the Azzurri star stood out not only for his innate footballing talents, but also for his closely-held Buddhist beliefs. Baggio ‘found’ his religious calling during the late 80s, while enduring an injury nightmare at his first major club Fiorentina. The opening line of his autobiography reads: “Life is an endless cycle for those who believe in reincarnation.” Such a philosophy can only have helped nurse the great no.10 through is USA ’94 penalty heartache and enabled him to maintain his career, as he did at Brescia, well into his late 30s.

Just this year, highly-rated Fiorentina ‘keeper Sebastien Frey cited Baggio’s influence in his adoption of the Buddhist faith: “Roby Baggio helped me discover Buddhism and it aided me a lot, therefore I keep practicing this religion, as it makes me feel much better.”

Frey, as with Baggio, turned to religion when suffering his darkest hour – facing up to the prospect of serious injury bringing an untimely end to his career. So, it seems, the serenity engendered by subscription to a system of faith can sometimes play a vital role in a footballer’s long-term recovery – psychologically, at least.

Individual choice aside, it’s indisputable that religion pervades the global game.

Quite obviously, in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, Islamic life is inextricably entwined with football – diet, training and fixtures are all arranged around the call to prayer and duties such as adherence to fasting during Ramadan. In the Ivory Coast, the raw divide between Christian and Muslim factions – during the recent civil war – was soothed, albeit temporarily, by the united stars of their stirring 2006 World Cup campaign.

It’s not all positive though. In Glasgow, putrid bigotry unconvincingly poses as a religious divide between Celtic and Rangers supporters. In Bosnia, the newly-integrated Muslim/Croat/Serb league faces violent riots between warring fans on a habitual basis. In football, as in all walks of life, mindless morons are determinedly keen on using religion as tool for ill deeds.

To concentrate on the brighter side though, in this season of goodwill, committed Christian footballers – including characters as diverse as Linvoy Primus, Jermain Defoe and regular wearer of an ‘I Belong to Jesus’ t-shirt, Kaká – will each take time out this week to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. Ex-Chelsea midfielder and erstwhile Beeb pundit Gavin Peacock will be quietly celebrating in the Canadian seminary where he now studies Divinity and Theology. Meanwhile, Wayne and Colleen Rooney will be holding a contemplative prayer meeting for assorted WAGs (and hubbies) in their ultra-lavish Cheshire mansion...well it could happen, right?

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Make no mistake about it, while the likes of Tony Mowbray and, already, Franco Zola are feeling the full strain of the relentless Premier League rat-race, the top-flight gaffer with the most to lose is Manchester City’s Mark Hughes. As the figurehead of City’s anticipated transformation from inconsistent also-rans to continental heavyweights, Hughes has, quite inadvertently, landed every football manager’s dream job.

An open chequebook and a brief to mould a team capable of challenging for the top honours in the game, though, can bring with it an immense pressure. The signings Sparky makes in the rapidly-approaching January transfer window could define the length and future success of the 45-year-old’s tenure at the City of Manchester Stadium.

As neighbours United saunter off to Japan for a not-so-jolly mid-season-jolly, recruitment personnel at Eastlands are frantically endeavouring to cross and dot various I’s and T’s on deals for some of the world’s best. Wild speculation, which has been met with a mixture of amusement and bemusement by Hughes, has it that upwards of 50 players remain on the recruitment radar. Everyone from Kaká to Brian Deane has been linked with a move to the north-west, but only Lassana Diarra’s switch appeared anywhere close to a ‘done deal’ before Real Madrid swooped to steal the Pompey midfielder from City’s clutches.

The club are keen to get their winter-time conscription wrapped up as soon as possible; aiming to initiate a sharp resurgence in their incoherent league form. The manager promises a transfer campaign of clarity and urges a cautious approach. Whether his glory-hungry superiors in Abu Dhabi will concur remains to be seen.

Hughes said recently: “The acquisition of Robinho was a huge statement and exactly what the owners wanted at that time. But at this time, we are looking for targets to balance the team. The reality is that we have four or five positions to improve and we are working on it.”

“January is a very difficult window to negotiate for top players as they are inevitably involved with Champions League teams and striving to win titles."

It is precisely for these reasons that Hughes’ short-term targets should be realistically amenable to signing up to the cause – let’s face it Buffon, Messi, Casillas, et al, will not be arriving at this time of year, if ever. The following are five key buys which would go a long way towards shooting City out of the mid-table mire and establishing a firm base for the Welshman to build upon next summer.

1. ANATOLIY TYMOSHCHUK (Zenit St Petersburg). £12-15m.

The Ukrainian holding-midfielder would be the ideal man to knit together the Light Blues’ engine room. Now aged 29, he’s at the peak of a career which has incorporated a World Cup quarter-final appearance and the successful captaincy of two Eastern European giants: Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg. With Zenit now out of the Champions League and the Russian league in hibernation, the tigerish ball-winner would surely consider offers from the West – Bayern Munich have been strongly linked.

Described as the ultimate professional by current boss Dick Advocaat, the UEFA Cup winner once offered to fight Mike Tyson – providing tackles were allowed. Along with Vincent Kompany, he has exactly the right stuff to cover the dynamic forward runs of Stephen Ireland, SWP and co.

Tymoshchuk’s contract is not up until 2011, but, of course, City comfortably have the buying power to push through a January move....Alternatives: Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Gökhan Inler (Udinese), Scott Parker (West Ham Utd).

2. MATTHEW UPSON (West Ham Utd). £10-12m.

Another 29-year-old, at the peak of his powers. Mr Consistency for the Hammers and generally impressive on his intermittent appearances at international level, where Fabio Capello is clearly a fan. A fire-sale is in the offing down Upton Park way and the ex-Arsenal man recently hinted at his growing dissatisfaction: “If I'm to stay and we sell key players in January, then that would frustrate me. I signed for the club because of the vision they had and if players went now that would disappoint me.”

Frequently linked with a return to north London, Upson will be in demand among the Premier League elite in the winter window, so Hughes, Cook and co. will have to move fast to secure his signature. A calm, assured left-footer, he would add balance and reliability to a City back-line which has suffered as a result of the sharp decline in form of both Richard Dunne and Micah Richards this season....Alternatives: Joleon Lescott (Everton), Carlos Salcido (PSV), Branislav Ivanović (Chelsea).

3. TAYE TAIWO (Marseille). £8-10m.

Left-back has been a problem position for City for quite some time now. Michael Ball and Javier Garrido have not convinced at all; so a quick, powerful, hard-tackling replacement is high on the Sparky wish list. Taiwo, capped 26 times by Nigeria (and scorer of seven International goals) at the tender age of 23, fits the bill perfectly.

As per usual, Marseille have flattered to deceive – both in Europe and domestically, so the bullish 6ft full-back with a rocket shot is keen on a post-Christmas switch to a league ideally suited to his game.

“I know a lot of English clubs are following me,” he said last month. “Manchester City? Yes, that is a club who would like me. But it is up to the directors to decide.” This is one shameless come-and-get-me plea that should be swiftly heeded....Alternatives: Wayne Bridge (Chelsea), Stephen Warnock (Blackburn Rovers), Adriano (Sevilla).

4. MARIO GÓMEZ (VfB Stuttgart). £14-17m.

Blackburn’s Roque Santa Cruz is widely-touted for the role of goal-scoring targetman, in light of Jô’s apparent failure to adapt to the rigours of English football. However, Gómez – currently recovering from a torn calf muscle – has been scoring for fun this season (with 16 goals in 22 games so far).

The German international can lead the line alone or combine well with a partner; offers a solid physical presence at the point of attack; and, crucially, is a natural goalscorer – a resource that City still sorely lack. Again, Bayern are interested, but are likely to be dissuaded by the hefty price tag around the 23-year-old’s neck. Sure, his showing at the summer’s Euros was something of a let-down, yet at such an age there is plenty of room for improvement to an already impressive all-round game.

Perennially-injured striker Valeri Bojinov is pencilled in for a February return to first-team action and could strike up an exciting alliance with a partner such as Gómez....Alternatives: Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn Rovers), Luis Fabiano (Sevilla), Vedad Ibišević (1899 Hoffenheim), Fernando Cavenaghi (Bordeaux), Vágner Love (CSKA Moscow).

5. FRANCK RIBÉRY (Bayern Munich). £25-30m

OK, so this one breaks all the aforesaid rules – Bayern would be reluctant sellers (though a bid in the £30m region might relax their iron grip on the inspirational Frenchman) and City are hardly in dire need of another tricky winger. But there’s next to no chance of January giving way to February without a further marquee signing adorning the Eastlands turf. A buy to once again stun the football world and enforce the idea that the City of Manchester Stadium will soon be host to an all-conquering super-club. Ribéry should be that man.

Since the 2006 World Cup, the star of the Bayern no.7 has continued to rise. The sparkling form the distinctive 25-year-old has enjoyed during his 18-month Bundesliga stay was interrupted only by ruptured ligaments suffered at Euro 2008.

Scandalously, Ribéry only placed 16th in the Ballon d’Or voting, but any club in the world would welcome his unique ability to slalom through the very toughest of tightly-packed defences. Incorporating the nomadic wide-man into a team already featuring Robinho and SWP would be a tactical conundrum Mark Hughes would gladly try to solve....Alternatives: Antonio Valencia (Wigan Athletic), Andrei Arshavin (Zenit St Petersburg), Ángel di María (Benfica), Mohamed Aboutrika (Al Ahly), Niko Kranjčar (Portsmouth).

Agree? Disagree? Who would be your five to transform City?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Where are they now? Juan Sebastian Verón & Andres D’Alessandro

In the sultry surrounds of Porto Alegre, Brazil, last week, two Premier League old boys met in a clash to decide the destiny of the seventh Copa Sudamericana. Loosely speaking, the competition is South American football’s equivalent of the UEFA Cup; playing second fiddle to the mighty Copa Libertadores. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the clubs taking part in this year’s two-legged final lent the occasion a heightened air of significance.

Estudiantes of Argentina, Intercontinental Cup winners from 1968-70, faced a one-goal deficit going into the decisive second game with Brazil’s Internacional – World Champions as recently as 2006. The side from La Plata were led into this do-or-die scenario by an unmistakable figure.

The bald pate, deliberate gait and wonderfully broad passing range were instantly recognisable to fans of both Serie A and the Premier League. Sporting the number eleven shirt – and captain’s armband – of Estudiantes was former Manchester United (and Chelsea) star Juan Sebastián Verón. At the age of 33, what little pace the creative midfielder ever had has long deserted him, but his unerringly perceptive ‘football brain’ has dimmed little through the passing of the years. ‘Seba’ still orchestrates a game with authority and style.

Following the closure of his illustrious career in Europe, which also incorporated fruitful spells with Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio (and concluded with a two-year spell at Inter) many would have considered Verón’s career effectively at an end. Rather than returning to Boca Juniors – the club at which he made his name – or bitter arch-rivals River Plate – Verón elected to go back to where it all began for him in 1994.

The Verón family name was already firmly ingrained in Estudiantes’ history, thanks to the heroic goal-scoring exploits of Seba’s father, Juan Ramón, during the club’s halcyon days of the 60s and 70s. He even scored a crucial goal at Old Trafford in their controversial defeat of his son’s future club in the 1968 Intercontinental final. Not surprisingly, Juan Ramón was the definitive figure behind his son’s return to La Plata in 2006.

The return of La Brujita, ‘the little witch’ (his father was known as La Bruja; the witch) was rapturously received by the fans of a club which had fallen upon hard times since his departure more than a decade earlier. Incredibly, within months the returning son had inspired his team-mates to within an inch of a first domestic title for 23 years. Coached by the-man-least-likely-to-receive-a-Christmas-card-from-the-Beckhams, Diego Simeone, Estudiantes finished the Apertura campaign level with the all-powerful Boca. An 81st minute Mariano Pavone winner in a title playoff between the two clubs snatched the glory for Estudiantes and local idol Verón.

Though in Argentinean football instability reigns – with hundreds of players exported to all corners of the globe on an interminable basis and clubs regularly making their way through four or five coaches a year – since that remarkable triumph, Los Pincharratas have been a club rejuvenated.

On the international stage, Verón happily co-existed with maverick Juan Román Riquelme throughout Argentina’s exhilarating Copa America campaign of 2007, but the team characteristically blew their chance against old foes Brazil – though it’s heresy to say so; the technically inferior side – in the final. He’s been out of favour since, but with the bizarre recent appointment of Diego Maradona, a huge Verón fan, comes hope of a recall in time for a possible final swansong in South Africa 2010.

There have even been rumours of an imminent switch to Brazil, where Corinthians – returning to the top flight following their humiliating relegation last year – are keen to add the midfield maestro to their ranks, which now includes fellow veteran Ronaldo. A rare phenomenon in years past, the trade of players between the two countries has become an increasing trend – Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano’s spell at Corinthians being a prime example.

Via a somewhat circuitous route, Verón’s fellow ex-Premier League combatant in last week’s Copa Sudamericana decider has recently found success as an Argentine in Brazil. Since leaving an indelible, but all too brief, mark upon the Portsmouth faithful, Andrés D’Alessandro has lived the life of a footballing itinerant.

Aged 27, though in diminutive stature and impudent style he more resembles a callow teenager, D’Alessandro has within the last year been stationed at La Liga’s Real Zaragoza, San Lorenzo in his homeland and now Internacional. His effervescent displays of slinky dribbling and quick passing regularly illuminated Fratton Park following his surprise arrival in January 2006, on loan from German club Wolfsburg – a truly stunning individual goal against Charlton at The Valley being the highlight of his stay.

He’d initially moved to the Bundesliga from River Plate, on the back of sparkling successes at youth and Olympic level. His exploits at Pompey priced d’Alessandro out of a permanent move to the South Coast, but instead lured high-flying La Liga club Zaragoza. It seemed the perfect move.

Yet, with Zaragoza relegation-bound during an unexpectedly disastrous 07/08 campaign, the wee man was on his way once again. His move to San Lorenzo rapidly floundered and Brazilian heavyweights Internacional came a-calling. D’Alessandro has quickly established himself as a favourite in Porto Alegre.

As the Final second leg crept perilously close to a penalty shootout last week, D’Alessandro was clattered violently by a tiring Verón; desperate to provide a kick-start to Estudiantes’ ailing hopes. Shortly afterwards Verón limped off to generous applause from the travelling Argentine contingent. Within minutes of his withdrawal, ex-Lyon forward Nilmar had grabbed a late, late winner for Inter.

At the final whistle, as D’Alessandro jigged with delight, the old stager Verón returned to the field looking even more bedraggled than usual; his boots and socks conspicuous by their absence. The pair embraced briefly and then Verón graciously took his leave. “I gave my best, but it wasn’t enough,” he humbly told the press afterwards.

D’Alessandro saw Inter’s triumph as a personal victory. “It is revenge for me,” he said. “For everything I've experienced around the world, with my family, with the kids, for having to play for three clubs this year.” He continued: “I work to keep on improving, to be in the national team. Surely playing all around the place doesn't help.”

The mercurial midfielder would do well to heed his own advice. If so, it’s surely not beyond the bounds of probability to suggest that he and countryman Verón could both have a significant role to play in capturing an overdue world title for their fiercely proud nation.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Schalke can’t shake those Man City blues

Two underachieving Bundesliga giants met on Sunday night, entrenched in the middle of the table as the winter break looms large. Both hosts VfB Stuttgart and their visitors FC Schalke 04 were in UEFA Cup action earlier in the week – with mixed fortunes.

Stuttgart met Sampdoria; returning from Genoa with a 1-1 draw in caretaker coach Markus Babbel’s first game as boss. The one-time Liverpool defender took temporary control of first team affairs in the aftermath of 2006/07 title-winning coach Armin Veh’s recent dismissal. It will be some act for the 36-year-old to follow: even in relative failure Veh was a popular figure at the club and ‘Danke Armin’ placards abounded at the packed Mercedes-Benz Arena prior to kick-off.

Schalke, meanwhile, were embarrassed at home by a rampant Manchester City side. 0-2 could easily have been 0-4 or 0-5, given City’s total supremacy in Gelsenkirchen. Stephen Ireland strolled through the German side’s midfield with alarming ease, and star full-back Rafinha was run ragged by the pace and exuberance of young Daniel Sturridge. In short, it was a whitewash.

Coming on the back of Thursday night’s comprehensive defeat and the news that the table-toppers – Bayern Munich and miracle club Hoffenheim (the two meet next weekend) – had each picked up another three points on Saturday; Schalke were sorely in need of a win.

Their bright start, however, went unrewarded. Energetic midfielder Jermaine Jones – much like Tottenham’s JJ, Jermaine Jenas, a player of great athleticism and willingness, lurking on the fringes of the national team – hit the base of the post early on. From the rebound, Jefferson Farfán somehow contrived to miss a near-open goal. With Jens Lehmann stranded, left-back Arthur Boka blocked heroically on the line, when Farfán really shouldn’t have given him any opportunity to do so.

Just minutes later, Farfán, a €10m summer buy from PSV, fluffed his lines again. Schalke’s goal-shy striker Kevin Kurányi hared in on goal as the slumbering Stuttgart defence failed to react and last man Boka had little choice but to halt his progress with a clear trip in the six-yard box. Remarkably, referee Wolfgang Stark opted to keep his cards to his chest – a trend which the decidedly liberal official maintained throughout the game – but a penalty was awarded. Not for the first time in a long, illustrious career, Stuttgart ‘keeper Lehmann guessed right: diving low and left to repel Farfán’s spot kick.

Spurred on by that let-off, the home side started to turn the tide. Free-scoring forward Mario Gómez, impressive throughout, was denied by goalkeeper Manuel Neuer at close range; had a strong penalty claim turned down; and then had a borderline-legitimate ‘goal’ ruled out for offside, all before half-time. It looked as if it was only a matter of time before he would get his reward.

After the break, Stuttgart’s superiority grew steadily into total dominance, as they penned the visitors firmly back in their half from the whistle. Managerial novice Babbel smartly opted to throw on Brazilian forward Cacau in place of the anonymous Ciprian Marica, with momentum tangibly building.

The substitute was quickly involved: threading a clever cross just beyond the reach of the unattended Gómez. Neuer then reacted quickly to keep out another effort from the German international. Ex-Aston Villa hammerfoot Thomas Hitzlsperger was uncharacteristically inaccurate with a drive from 20 yards soon after.

All of the hosts’ endeavours seemed as if they were to be in vain, as the clock ticked down and the deadlock remained unbroken. In the end, it took a 79th minute killer pass – from the most unlikely of sources –to shatter it decisively.

Khalid Boulahrouz, regarded as something of a hatchet-man (as his ‘Cannibal’ nickname might suggest) during brief, unsatisfactory spells with Chelsea and Sevilla, was surprisingly the man with the vision to pick out Czech sub Jan Šimák from deep inside his own half. Babbel had introduced the dynamic blond midfielder at the expense of captain Hitzlsperger only five minutes hence. That gamble was rewarded spectacularly, as Šimák escaped Fabian Ernst’s close attentions to send a magnificent lob over the on-rushing Neuer, from the edge of the area, which looped satisfyingly into the top-right corner of the Schalke net.

The Gelsenkirchen club’s spirit irreconcilably crushed; ruthless Stuttgart then went on to add a decisive second.

A bone-shuddering centre-circle collision between Jermaine Jones and Sami Khedira sent the ball spinning free for Pável Pardo to feed Gómez. The 23-year-old striker raced clear to fire in confidently with his favoured left foot. Khedira knew little about it, as he was escorted from the field looking like he’d gone 12 rounds or more with David ‘The Hayemaker’ Haye. Nonetheless, his side had done enough to deservedly confirm their first win in six games.

Schalke, though, clearly haven’t yet shaken their Man City blues. With this defeat they effectively conceded any lingering hopes of a post-Christmas title challenge.

Previous coach Mirko Slomka lost his job in spite of reaching the Champions League quarters (losing only to Barça) last year and finishing second to Stuttgart in 06/07. On that form, current boss, Dutchman Fred Rutten – lured from Steve McLaren’s FC Twente along with lumbering midfielder Orlando Engelaar – can only survive so long if results to not take a turn for the better. And soon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beauty vs Beasts: Can Mowbray’s men beat the drop in style?

Stoke City offer different types of problems than we give teams and yet they are just as effective, and at this moment more effective, than what we do. Whatever they do it is within the laws of the game and difficult to defend against.”

This was West Brom boss Tony Mowbray’s tacit admission, in the build-up to Saturday afternoon’s clash with Stoke City, that brawn can conquer brains. For a dedicated advocate of short-passing football such as Mowbray it is a difficult acknowledgment to make. The aesthetically-pleasing nature of his side has gained many admirers so far this season but, gradually, the Baggies have slid to the foot of the tightly-packed Premier League table.

Meanwhile, Stoke have hassled and harried their way to mid-table (admittedly, only three points ahead of their Midlands rivals). Along the way they have earned a certain notoriety. Arsene Wenger’s ill-advised whining in the aftermath of Arsenal’s deserved defeat at the Britannia Stadium, earlier this month, held the magnifying glass up to the ‘merits’, or otherwise, of the Potters’ physical approach.

Upon their promotion to the top flight, Tony Pulis’ side were widely-touted as relegation certainties, yet few observers would now confidently put much money on that outcome in late May. Rory Delap’s ridiculously prodigious throwing abilities have warped the result of many a Stoke game already, and their massed ranks of 6ft-plus scrappers ensures that they’ll not be out-fought all season long. As Pulis says, Stoke have forged a clear identity:

“There’s a system in place, so the players know exactly where we want the ball to go in certain areas. The organisation is very good and that goes right through the club.”

It’s not popular among the neutrals - comparisons with past Wimbledon and Watford sides are quite accurate – but few teams will travel to the Potteries expecting an easy three points. On the other hand, West Brom have already developed a reputation as something of a soft-touch.

Last season’s ‘if you score three then we’ll score four’ attitude has lingered at The Hawthorns, yet Mowbray’s men palpably do not have the capacity within their ranks to maintain that mantra in the unforgiving surrounds of the Premier League. The ex-Hibs manager has been lauded and barracked in equal measure for his strict adherence to a ‘pure’ footballing philosophy. To date, he’s shown no sign of acquiescing to the pro-pragmatism pack.

“You have got to keep believing in what you're doing, that it's right and keep going until someone tells you ‘enough is enough’,” he said this week.

“I don't feel any pressure. Hopefully in January we can strengthen our team with a couple of quality players and keep pushing on.”

Mowbray’s confidence is admirable, but such comments seem to almost invite the pressure he claims not to feel. If, in a worst-case scenario, Albion find themselves cut adrift at the turn of the year, Chairman Jeremy Peace might feel inclined to call his manager’s bluff and tell him that enough is enough.

Just a couple of wins from mid-table obscurity they may be, but West Brom’s numerous problems are glaringly apparent. The raft of defensive recruits from Holland’s Eredivisie are still struggling to adapt to the rigours of English football – Ryan Donk particularly. At the head of things, Roman Bednar and Ishmael Miller are beginning to show signs that they can make the step up, but neither could be considered prolific. The Baggies have scored only a paltry ten league goals so far and a Kevin Phillips-style poacher is prominent on the January shopping list for Mowbray. Naturally, though, such players rarely become available and cost a pretty penny when they do.

The technical and creative qualities of the Albion midfield are without question; with much-missed talisman Felipe Teixeira returning from a frustratingly long layoff to compliment the likes of Robert Koren, record-signing Borja Valero and skipper Jon Greening. Like the Arsenal team whose style they are so keen to emulate, a midfield enforcer is sorely lacking.

To cap their troubles, ‘keeper Scott Carson has just endured another confidence-sapping international experience. It’s hardly the ideal preparation for Saturday’s 40-mile trip. After all, Delap’s missiles + the foreheads of Sidibe & co. x Carson’s hesitancy = impending disaster, surely?

That’s not to mention that Stoke are Albion’s bogey team – they’ve not won in the Potteries since 1982, when a young Cyrille Regis was on the scoresheet. A solitary point from the last possible 18 also makes for sorry reading. A small crumb of comfort can be garnered from the absence through injury of Ricardo Fuller – their chief tormentor in recent games between the clubs.

It’s still too early for talk of six-pointers and must-wins, but at least avoiding defeat this weekend is essential if the Baggies’ self-belief is not to be further deflated. Their fans are among the most dedicated – and vocal – in the country, but even they need a scrap of hope to cling onto going into the hard winter months ahead.

About as far-removed from a glamour fixture as you can get, Stoke vs West Brom will, nonetheless, offer an intriguing gauge of each side’s ability to beat the drop.

Stoke are uncompromising and unremittingly physical; a throwback to darker days in English football. Albion are dedicated to a strict policy of ball-on-ground possession football. The third promoted club, Hull, chose to take the middle road – and have reaped the rewards. Only the passage of time will tell which - if either - of the two proud Midlands clubs has chosen the right route to avoid the top-flight trapdoor.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Benzema takes the plaudits for unassailable Lyon

Lyon’s Stade Gerland hosted, on Sunday night, what could prove the definitive game of the Ligue 1 season. The billing – Lyon v Bordeaux; Claude Puel v Laurent Blanc; Karim Benzema v Yoann Gourcuff – was impressive. Future captains and, perhaps, coaches of the French national team went head-to-head in the final game of a weekend which had already seen the newly-installed dream (or nightmare) team of Damien Comolli and Alain Perrin ‘guide’ struggling St Etienne to a record 6th loss on the trot. No, they haven’t lost that golden touch.

In 07/08, Lyon’s home and away double over their rivals decided the destiny of the title. Last year’s top two came together this time with champions Lyon already a healthy six points clear of Les Girondins at kick-off.

On Saturday evening, fellow title-contenders Marseille had imploded against little Lorient – blowing a two-goal advantage in the last quarter-of-an-hour to slip-up in the most spectacular fashion; 2-3. Once again, it was down to Blanc’s Bordeaux to do the chasing.

The game arrived against the backdrop of an explosive clash between the clubs at boardroom level. Since Milan made it publicly known that their man Gourcuff’s season-long loan with Bordeaux might be made a more permanent arrangement for a fee in the region of €15m – thereby inviting higher counter-offers from other clubs – things turned nasty between the men in suits.

Lyon’s canny president Jean Michel-Aulas (who has extracted a pretty penny out of Chelsea, among others, of late) agreed, in an interview, that Gourcuff would make a fine purchase and that money was no object in the pursuit of his acquisition. Bordeaux were, understandably, riled at this Calderon-esque loud-mouthing on the eve of such a crucial game. Aulas belatedly tried to shift the blame onto the L’Equipe journalist to which he had blabbed. The damage, however, was already done.

Bordeaux wasted little time in laying out their intentions. Fernando’s indecent hacking of Lyon veteran Juninho received only a booking, despite the fact it was so late Wembley’s construction team would’ve been ashamed of it – and that poor old Juninho ended up in face-down in the dugout, such was its ferocity.

Throughout the first half-hour, the unremitting physicality of the game recalled a particularly grim East Lancashire derby, rather than a showcase of the intricate talents of la crème de la Ligue 1. This period, though, incorporated the visitors’ best spell of the match. In fact, Bordeaux were dominant: Jean-Alain Boumsong made a superb last-ditch block on Marouane Chamakh’s goal-bound effort; Hugo Lloris tipped over Gourcuff’s 30-yard pile-driver at full stretch; and Kim Kallström hacked off the line following a dangerous Bordeaux corner.

The influence of Gourcuff, sporting the no.8 shirt like his playmaking and set-piece taking counterpart Juninho, began to flower – a fine range of accurate cross-field passes featured strongly his early play. Yet, not all-together surprisingly, it was the home side’s undisputed star man who broke the deadlock.

Lyon’s opener came entirely against the run-of-play and owed more than a fair share to the sharpness of a touchline ball-boy. Bordeaux defender Marc Planus kept Benzema in his back pocket for the opening 32 minutes. In 33rd, however, having hoofed a clearance deep into the stands, Planus switched off for just a second. That was all it took for Benzema to receive the ball from a quick throw-in and then maraud past the rest of the Bordeaux rearguard. A cute one-two with strike-partner Fred allowed the in-form forward to slip the ball left-footed past Mathieu Valverde.

With Blanc’s men still reeling, Lyon struck the hammer blow just five minutes later.

Kallström made a characteristic driving run past Matthieu Chalmé and fired into the top corner – with the considerable help of a deflection off the heels of the hapless Planus – from the edge of the area. Bordeaux’s palpable frustration at their sudden capitulation was summed up by hatchet-man Fernando’s blatant elbow on Kallström, which – unseen by the referee – went unpunished.

The second-half fight-back barely materialised, with wasteful winger Wendel and the increasingly erratic Gourcuff fluffing a series of half-chances. It was Gourcuff’s ill-judged selfishness and decreasing lack of awareness in adversity that calls into question his readiness for the highest stage.

Sporadic appearances at San Siro as deputy to Kaká left his obvious talent unfulfilled, but sparkling form at the Parc Lescure club this season saw Gourcuff – son of Lorient boss Christian – promoted to international status – and to great effect. Unconvincing displays against Chelsea and in this game, though, leave a number of questions left unanswered for potential transfer window suitors.

Perhaps the early incident with Fernando had adversely affected Juninho’s notorious ability with the static ball; all night long his radar was as crooked as a yacht-based George Osborne/Jeffrey Archer tête-à-tête. Puel finally withdrew the 33-year-old in the 80th minute. Within seconds, substitute Fernando Cavenaghi snatched a goal back for Bordeaux: profiting from a concentration lapse in the Lyon defence to prod home, unmarked, his seventh of the season.

Alongside David Bellion, the Argentinean striker had been dropped to leave the tireless Chamakh to head-up Blanc’s 4-5-1. Cavenaghi is now Ligue 1’s second-top scorer with eight goals.

At the top of the charts (with 9) is the irrepressible Benzema. He could, quite conceivably, have scored another either side of what turned out to be Bordeaux’s consolation: twice in succession skinning poor, bedraggled Planus and forcing ‘keeper Valverde to get on his bike to stop powerful shots with either foot.

Last week, the 20-year-old all but declared his availability to Europe’s leading clubs come the end of the season. Some starlets head abroad too soon, chasing glamour and big bucks before their development is complete (Gourcuff being a prime example). Whichever continental super-power Benzema ends up at though, they need not fret over his ability to adapt.

Direct, explosively powerful, and genuinely two-footed; the hottest prospect in Ligue 1 recalls Ronaldo at his very best. Once he’s fired his side to an 8th straight title and helped his country further towards the 2010 World Cup, President Aulas will be, once more, able to reap the rewards of the Lyon production line. Let the bidding war commence.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hazard’s perception makes him one to watch

It’s a name that might conjure up images of shiny red apples, devilish serpents and everyone’s favourite fig-leaf-wearing sinners: Adam and Eve. But don’t be misled. Rather than some kind of an obscure biblical warning, Eden Hazard is, in fact, the wonderfully colourful name of one of European football’s most promising talents.

The 17-year-old Belgian’s adept balls skills, elusive dribbling, and almost preternatural on-field awareness have long distinguished him as a potential star of the future to scouts across the continent. Hazard, though, is reluctant to wait too long for his apparently golden future to come to fruition. Already, the attacking midfielder or trequartista (an Italian term for the traditional no.10) has made a considerable impression on the first team of his French club, Lille.

Hazard first came to the attention of many observers with his captivating displays in the 2007 UEFA European Under-17 Football Championship; held in his homeland. The attractive Belgian side he orchestrated fell only at the semi-final stage of the competition – exiting, on penalties, at the hands of a Bojan Krkić-inspired Spain. Throughout, the considerable qualities of the lad from La Louvière shone through like a beacon.

The flicks and tricks within his repertoire impressed, of course. But it was his innate ability to conjure a clinical through-ball from nothing that set the scouts of many a major European club frantically scribbling superlatives in their well-worn notepads. Inevitably, the vultures will circle, but – for now – Hazard remains committed to breaking through in Ligue 1.

He’s yet another one off the Lille production line – which has produced such luminaries as Lyon’s Jean Makoun, the Cheyrou brothers, and, er, Pascal Cygan (ok, so they can’t get it right all of the time). The present side, under the guidance of Rudy Garcia following the summer departure of Claude Puel to imperious Lyon, plays neat, attractive football, but patently lacks a cutting edge. As of now, the creative burden lies heavily on the shoulders of Ludovic Obraniak. In the mid-to-long term, Hazard might assume that responsibility on a full-time basis.

In his brief cameos to date, Lille’s Belgian prodigy has habitually illuminated proceedings. Hazard’s first senior goal came at the thrilling climax of their last-gasp 3-2 win over Auxerre, in September. Just a quarter-of-an-hour after his introduction, in place of Slovak striker Róbert Vittek, he’d grabbed a dramatic 88th-minute equaliser – Túlio de Melo then grabbed the winner in injury time.

There have since been further impressively confident displays from the bench.

Just last week; with time running out, trailing by a goal to nil against the grim defensive blockade that is the Paris St Germain first team, ball-playing Lille were going nowhere fast. Coach Garcia looked to his young star for inspiration. Following his late arrival from the sidelines, Hazard – on a number of occasions – sliced through PSG’s resolute defence with an ease which had plainly eluded his more senior colleagues. This time out, there was to be no miracle resurrection – but the young man once more left with his reputation enhanced.

He has now firmly succeeded Kévin Mirallas (now at Saint-Etienne) as Lille’s young Belgian hope. The talented pair are not alone, though. There is a gifted new generation emerging in Belgium – a nation which has drifted, lately, into becoming a footballing backwater, despite its illustrious past.

They are led by the skipper of Jupiler League champions Standard Liège; cultured 20-year-old midfielder Steven Defour. Much-admired winger Axel Witsel (aged 19) and Marouane Fellaini (record buy at Everton, aged 20), along with Defour, made up Standard’s championship-winning midfield last year.

Elsewhere; Jan Vertonghen (Ajax, aged 21); Moussa Dembélé (AZ Alkmaar, 21); and Genoa’s Anthony Vanden Borre (also 21) are thriving. Man City’s colossal centre-half/midfield anchorman Vincent Kompany might seem to have been around forever, but is still just 22.

The ‘other’ Red Devils might have to wait a few years for this burgeoning crop to reach full maturity, but when it does, Hazard could conceivably find himself at the forefront of a Belgian side to rival those of the early-to-mid 80s.

At just 5ft 7ins and slight of build, doubts will be raised about his ability to adapt to the cut and thrust of, say, the Premier League or Serie A. Yet, he has time on his side to develop physically and, despite popular perception, size isn’t everything.

It is for his mercurial talent with a ball at his feet that Eden Hazard will be feted in years to come. With the right application and a little fortune, the little maestro might be capable of emulating the achievements of Scifo, Wilmots and van Himst. Let’s just hope temptation won’t lead Eden astray.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Keane’s vitriol earns popularity, not points

It’s been another busy old week or so in the life of Roy Keane. It kicked off in style with a charge of improper conduct by the FA, following Keane’s clash with referee Martin Atkinson and subsequent rubbishing of their increasingly devalued ‘Respect’ campaign.

A string of controversial, headline-grabbing statements have since kept the Sunderland’s manager firmly in the spotlight, even when the performances of his expensively-assembled team have been distinctly average.

And ‘average’ is the word which the driven Corkman detests the most – closely followed by ‘mediocrity’ and then, presumably, ‘discretion’.

In an era of ‘celebrity’ managers – when TV cameras pan straight to the triumphant/red-faced/passive gaffer following a wonder-goal/concession of a last-minute equaliser; compensation fees for managerial ‘transfers’ climb ever higher; and every result (whether positive or negative) is attributed solely to the input of the boss – Roy Keane has become a prime illustration of the trend.

His current club, now swathed in the kind of mediocrity for which he famously admonished it in his book, are rarely, if ever, the main thrust of any major story. Instead it is Keane – and his propensity to start a row with anyone and anything short of the rubber plant on his office desk – that keeps the press corps in clover day-in, day-out.

Following Sunderland’s recent defeat to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium, Keane damned not only the lame efforts of his players, but also his own “below average” contribution to proceedings. “And I don't want to be average,” seethed Keane.

He continued: “I should have been braver. If you want to be successful there is risk involved. Ultimately I have to be critical of myself and I always am, whether it be team selection, tactics, whatever. The bottom line is that I got it wrong.”

But, as if to prove he’s not all about merciless self-flagellation, Keane reserved his fair share of ire for several other quarters in another well-publicised interview last weekend.

The steely-eyed Irishman has long been renowned for giving the shortest of shrift to – amongst others – corporate sandwich-munchers; incompetent match officials; and, above all; professional football’s contingent of ‘bluffers’ and ‘clowns’ (see Messrs Mick McCarthy and Jack Warner). Oh, and blond, journeyman Norwegian defenders. Never really cared for that particular breed either, come to think of it.

This time round, though, it was the massed ranks of dim-witted TV pundits that Keane laid into with fearsome relish. Prompted by a Sky Sports reporter to add his considerable voice to the tiresome Wenger vs Pulis media knockabout, the Black Cats’ boss instead let rip with a bitter (but entirely agreeable) broadside about the shabby state of sports broadcasting and the all-pervading influence certain quarters of the fourth estate have on the modern game. With glorious predictability, he wasn’t coy in naming names.

“I certainly don't see myself being in management (that long) because of the media side of it, particularly Sky Sports,” Keane said.

“The debate about Arsene Wenger: How crazy is that? What that man's done for the game - and we're giving these people air time. I wouldn't listen to these people in the pub, and yet they're on television constantly, ex-players, ex-referees getting interviewed giving out their opinions.

“Will Arsene Wenger be remembered in 25, 50, 100 years' time for what he has done for football? Bet your life he will. Will any of these people on the television be remembered for what they've achieved? None whatsoever.

“I wouldn't trust these people to walk my dog.”

Keane has it exactly right here – I wouldn’t even leave my pet hamster in the care of the likes of smarmy (yet strangely ubiquitous) Graham Poll or dull-as-ditchwater Nigel Winterburn (freely interchangeable with Merson, Le Saux, Shearer...).

He was far from finished there though:

“I was asked by ITV to do the Celtic-Man U game, but never again unless I fall on hard times. I'd rather go to the dentist.

“You're sitting there with people like Richard Keys and they're trying to sell something that's not there. I tell people any time they watch a game to switch the commentators off, don't listen to experts, gather your own opinion.”

So there’s no denying the malice he bears for the media. Yet, paradoxically, Keane stands in clear danger of becoming the Premier League’s premier rent-a-quote – that’s if he hasn’t already. Ghost-writer of Keane’s revelatory autobiography and one-time Keano confidante, Eamonn Dunphy, recently highlighted this trend. In the absence of the Special One, it seems the ex-Manchester United hardman has assumed the mantle of English football’s antagoniser-in-chief.

He will – privately, of course – have the backing of many other managers for his latest tirade. In fact, Keane is generally well-liked among the fraternity. Not that he cares (or so he’d have you believe).

Old sparring partner Tony Adams even came out before his side’s victory over Sunderland to say that his new-found pal Roy is a “very intelligent, courteous and respectful” man.

Keane took the time to send Adams a congratulatory fax when the ex-Arsenal man was appointed Portsmouth manager last month. It was clearly a much appreciated gesture:

“I thank him for his support” said Adams. “In my experience of Roy he is a fantastic coach, gets involved and has a drive there that I identify with. He wants to do things right and is very determined.”

These are the undeniable qualities Keane shares with – perhaps even derived from – his brilliant mentor, Brian Clough. Like Cloughie before him, Keane knows full well that he’s great value for those – the journalists – he so professes to loathe. It still remains to be seen if Keane will ever come within even a country mile of replicating Ol’ Big Head’s stellar achievements in management. He must be given time, of course.

But it’s a landscape far, far removed from that of Clough’s era – player power, billion-pound telly deals, and an all-consuming sports media are all part and parcel of the crazy, hedonistic swirl of the Premier League today. To progress further in his new career, Keane might occasionally find need to bite his tongue before once more bemoaning the excesses of the modern pro. After all, the grand master of this managerial lark, Fergie, seems to restrain his obvious contempt for the playboy lifestyles of some of his stars, so long as they perform both on the training ground and on the pitch.

Keane will continue to rail against all of the ills in the modern game, of that we can be sure. For us, the fans, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had along the way.

Long term though; can Keano adapt and survive, or will he go muttering bitterly into the night about the ‘good old days’? For long-standing fans of the player, the man and the inimitable persona – a group in which I include myself – we can only hope that the man from Mayfield will grace the nation’s dugouts at least a little while longer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Proud ‘Rooster’ Etxeberria will play for free

Before Barça’s spectacular 6-1 dismantling of supposed title rivals Atletico Madrid hit the back pages, it was an extraordinary gesture by veteran Athletic Bilbao winger Joseba Etxeberria which had hogged the week’s football headlines in Spain.

By signing up to a year-long contract, for which he will be remunerated with precisely nothing, El Gallo (‘the Rooster’ – due to his long neck) shocked and delighted football fans wearied by tales of the greedy modern pro. Exteberria, it emerged, will not receive one single euro for his services during the 2009/10 season; the final one of a long, often illustrious career.

“My dream was to play for 15 years with Athletic, which is a lifetime,” said the 31-year-old earlier this week. He continued: “In my last year as a professional I will play without pay.”

“This is a thank-you to the behaviour of the club towards me and the love I have received from so many people.”

Keen to ensure his contract wouldn’t undermine the worth of his fellow pros, he added: “I do not intend to establish a precedent. This is a professional world and everyone is entitled to defend their rights and contracts.”

By taking this extraordinary step, Etxeberria hopes to prolong his career to reach the landmark of 500 senior club appearances before he retires. It is most likely not, as Athletic president Fernando Garcia Macau claims, a “football first” – and Etxeberria is hardly a Primera División pauper now is he? – still, it’s a gesture which throws the likes of Ashley Cole’s infamous strop about Arsenal’s ‘failure’ to offer him an extra five grand-a-week into an even harsher light than before.

"From the club's standpoint there are not words to thank such a gesture," Garcia Macau said of the deal.

From a cynic’s standpoint, it’s not all that surprising that a club chairman would be so enamoured by the offer of free labour. They would also question just why, if he is still so valued, was the player not offered a full contract by the club?

But that is to underestimate the true worth of ‘Etxe’ to the proud Basque side, who have remained stoutly entrenched in the Spanish top flight since its inception in 1928 – this despite their restrictive Basques-only policy.

Admittedly his star is now fading, but as captain of Athletic, Etxeberria joins the likes of Carles Puyol and Francesco Totti as symbolic standard bearers for both their club and their region. Such players define the character and nature of their people and will be fondly remembered as loyal heroes when they finally hang up their boots.

As with all fairy tales though, there is a twist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this rare modern day story of nobility and loyalty is somewhat confused by the controversial nature of Etxeberria’s arrival at San Mamés back in 1995.

Athletic splashed out a record €3m+ fee on acquiring the 17-year-old from the cantera (youth set-up) of local rivals Real Sociedad, against their will. As a result, Etxeberria was ordered to pay compensation to La Real for breaking his contract and bad feeling resulted between the neighbouring clubs. The move was seen as a betrayal by bitter fans in San Sebastián.

The Bilbao club’s unique principles inevitably mean that they must dip into the talent pool of their Basque rivals (Sociedad, Osasuna, Alavés, et al) from time-to-time, which understandably creates resentment. Yet, it would be unfair to let that storm-in-a-teacup colour the actions, earlier this week, of the boy from Elgoibar.

The industrious culture and proud heritage of the Euskadi club has always stood as a template of football club as community. Athletic are a unique club; one admired and revered worldwide. The remarkable gesture of one Joseba Andoni Etxeberria Lizardi only serves to enhance that reputation.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pioneer Tévez could still face Premier League exit

English clubs have traditionally harboured a deep-seated suspicion of stylish Latin stars. To the conservative coach, such players have always represented a big gamble. A gamble which many Premier League clubs, unlike their Spanish and Italian counterparts, have long been unwilling to take. After all, for every Ossie Ardiles there’s been a Mirandinha. For every Juninho; a Kléberson.

Sure, they might turn it on for glamour ties in the early-season sunshine, but what of wet, windy Wednesday nights in Hull or Wigan? They’d go missing, it was said, when the pitches muddied and the temperatures dropped (i.e. by early October). They’re over-elaborate, ‘luxury’ players, who could never adapt to the frenetic demands of our hundred-miles-an-hour football.

Yet it’s clubs such as high-flying Hull and battling Wigan which have, in fact, owed a significant chunk of their recent successes to exotic imports from as far and wide as Brazil, Honduras and Ecuador. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Geovanni has enjoyed an electrifying start to his time by the Humber; Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and, particularly, Luis Antonio Valencia have each added a dash of élan to Steve Bruce’s pragmatic side.

Elsewhere, Chilean winger Carlos Villanueva has settled well alongside Roque Santa Cruz at Blackburn; Lucas and Fábio Aurélio impress intermittently for Liverpool; and, of course, Elano and Jô were followed to Eastlands by record-breaker Robinho. Chelsea, who boast Juliano Belletti, Alex, and Brazilian-born Deco amongst their ranks, have even gone so far as to hire a South American boss, for goodness sake.

Several of these players did not even arrive at their current home via another European club; which is considered the safety-first method of filtering out those without the mentality to adapt to the unique challenges of top-flight English football.

It’s arguable of course, but the impact of one man has done much to lay the foundations for fellow Latin imports. That man is Manchester United’s Carlos Tévez.

The arrival of Tévez at West Ham – in somewhat shady circumstances – from Brazilian club Corinthians was greeted, initially, by astonishment. When the dust had settled on his and Javier Mascherano’s bolt-from-the-blue switch to East London, the early excitement turned to scepticism. Boss Alan Pardew – clearly not enamoured with the high-profile Argentinean duo being foisted upon him – was reluctant to give Tévez a regular first team slot. Still, who needs a world-class attacking talent like ‘Carlitos’ when you’ve got Marlon Harewood working the channels?

As any Sheffield United fan will tell you, with the appointment of Alan Curbishley to the Upton Park hot-seat came a dramatic upturn in Tévez’s fortunes. Much has already been said about the issue, but there is little doubt that the stocky striker’s improved input was the critical factor in West Ham’s survival at the Blades’ expense. He’d proved entirely that – despite the cynicism which still surrounds such signings – flamboyant South American stars can adapt to life in English football.

Last year – his first at Manchester United – could hardly have gone much better for the boy from downtown Buenos Aires. Domestic and continental success came on the back of a season in which his relentless work-rate and telepathic understanding with Wayne Rooney illuminated the Premier League.

But Dimitar Berbatov’s impressive integration into the United line-up has disrupted the serene progress 24-year-old Tévez has enjoyed at Old Trafford. As Sir Alex Ferguson recently said: three into two won’t go.

He also said: “He (Tévez) has not started as many games as he would like but he is just as important to us as the guys who have hogged the headlines of late. I stressed to him last week that our faith in him remains absolute.”

That may be the case, but speculation persists that Tévez could be on his way to sunnier climes come the end of the season and, subsequently, the end of his two-year loan from (nominally) West Ham. The Rooney/Berba partnership is clearly now the first choice one. Can Sir Alex really justify a transfer fee reckoned to be in the region of £30m being lavished on a third-choice forward? If not, Tévez will, sadly, be lost to the Premier League.

Post-Tévez, the trickle of Latin players into the country has turned to a flood. Now, with a larger support network surrounding them, players from South and Central America are in a better position to make a lasting impact.

The hurdles of an alien culture, cuisine and style of football are significant ones, it’s true. But in the days of Brazilians in Uzbekistan (see Rivaldo) and Ivorians in Romania (see multi-national CFR Cluj), it’s not so hard to accept that – given the right backing – Latin stars can succeed over here.

If once they were considered a luxurious accessory; now few self-respecting Premier League clubs take to the field without one. The next generation – that of Rafael da Silva and Franco di Santo – are already making their presence felt. It’d be a shame if pioneer ‘Carlitos’ wasn’t here to enjoy their success.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Landon's landing - but where?

Landon Donovan. Remember him?

Long before the emergence of Freddy Adu (remember him?) the LA Galaxy forward was vaunted as the great hope of US football. He was destined, it was said, to be the first American to crack the higher echelons of the European game. Nearly a decade since he first surfaced, for a number of reasons, it simply hasn’t happened.

Even at the relatively tender age of 26, it seems like Donovan has been around for an age. Starting out at Bayer Leverkusen as a 16-year-old, the diminutive Californian found it hard to adapt to life on the banks of the Rhine. While his club career in Europe singularly failed to launch, Donovan impressed at the 1999 U-17 World Championship, winning the Golden Ball awarded to the tournament’s star player.

A return to the States in 2001, initially on loan, came as a welcome respite from the disillusionment engendered by his failure to impact on the Leverkusen first team. At MLS club San Jose Earthquakes, the young striker found his feet in the professional game – and spectacularly so. Goals, assists and headlines galore saw Donovan established as the biggest ‘name’ in US football.

Naturally, Leverkusen monitored his progress closely and, impressed by his development, invited their great young American hope back to the club in the summer of 2004. Again, Donovan’s impression on the Bundesliga was negligible – no goals and only two starts – and pretty soon he was on a flight home to the safe sanctuary of MLS; this time with Los Angeles Galaxy.

During the past four years, Donovan has cemented his place as the biggest fish in what is, to be frank, a footballing backwater. Galaxy may have endured more downs than ups of late – they finished rock bottom of the ‘regular season’ table – but Donovan finished as the League’s top scorer with 20 goals in 25 games; striking up an intuitive understanding with David Beckham in the process.

But, with the recent departures of Alexi Lalas, Ruud Gullit and now Milan-bound Becks symptomatic of a faltering franchise, Donovan has decided to cut and run.

Donovan clearly needs a new challenge on the back of his most productive season to date in La-La Land. He’s done and won everything in MLS and is already the all-time leading scorer for the US (with 37 goals).

“Nothing against our guys (in MLS), but in a lot of situations where you're making 12, 15 thousand a year, you're worrying about other things other than training the next day or getting ready for the game,” he said recently.

His conclusion: “Mentally, I'm ready (to play in Europe) and I wasn't ready before in any way. I want to make the most of that. I've only got one career and I want to make sure that I give myself a chance.''

So, Donovan wants to swap the LA beach-house for a luxury penthouse apartment in one of Europe’s myriad cultural hotspots. Or Middlesbrough.

But where should he go?

Despite the forward’s previous travails in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen, there have been strong rumours linking him with ex-California resident Jurgen Klinsmann’s Bayern Munich. Donovan, though, has plainly intimated he’d prefer a shot at England or Spain this time around.

“I'd love to play in the Premiership or in Spain, I think that would be incredible,” Donovan said, earlier this week.

“I watch games every weekend and I think I could contribute on a lot of teams.”

He added, when asked about a move to England: “It would be a much easier fit than most places, for sure,”

“In my situation I can't be super-picky, but if it’s the right offer with the right team...there's a lot of ifs.”

He’s right; there are a lot of ‘ifs’. But, available at what will surely be a reasonable price tag – given the MLS’ centrally-controlled contract policy – Donovan represents a gamble worth taking for many clubs.

The smart money would probably be on the US no.10 rocking up at ‘Fulhamerica’ sometime during the January transfer window. Several other teams in the mid-to-lower reaches of the Premier League could certainly be interested in Donovan’s services too. A player of craft and significant natural ability, he would considerably augment the attacking options of many an English side.

Whichever club Donovan does end up at, they might well be glad they were brave enough to give the Californian star another shot at European success.