Friday, August 15, 2008

Aston Villa 2008/09 Preview

2007/8 in a nutshell: Martin O’Neill’s second year at the Villa Park helm brought significant progress. A deserved 6th place Premier League finish resulted in qualification for the Intertoto Cup. An assessment of the style in which the Midlanders achieved their return to European competition can be gleaned from a glance at the goals for and against columns in the final league table – Villa outscored runners-up Chelsea (71), but conceded as many as 14th placed Wigan (51). As many – Señor Benitez in particular – noticed, Gareth Barry was the driving force behind the revived Villans, but significant contributions from creator-in-chief Ashley Young and line-leading John Carew were paramount in fulfilling O’Neill’s blueprint of high-tempo, attacking football.

Summer Activity: A slow start to proceedings has given way, of late, to a rapid influx of predominantly defence-minded reinforcements. Though clearly nearing the end of a career defined by a rarely-paralleled consistency, Brad Friedel represents a definite improvement between the sticks following the confidence-drained Scott Carson. Compatriot Brad Guzan will provide Freidel’s competition. Steve Sidwell should prove a valuable addition once he can shake off the ring-rust accumulated during a wasted year at Stamford Bridge. Full-backs Luke Young and Nicky Shorey (recruited in the aftermath of Freddie Bouma’s awful injury) are solid if not spectacular signings and can expect to slot straight into the first XI. Acquiring, from Rangers, centre half Carlos Cuellar for a reasonable £7.8m fee could be key in O’Neill’s efforts to shore up a back four prone to the odd Zat Knight-mare or two. Departures: ever-reliable Olof Mellberg will be missed; Patrik Berger and Luke Moore less so. Oh, and apparently a tentative enquiry has been tabled about ex-captain Gareth Barry’s availability by an, as yet, unnamed 3rd place-chasing Merseyside giant. You heard it here first.

Key Men: Barry, if he stays. Without Young’s set-pieces and tireless wingplay, Villa would struggle even to make an impression on the top 10. The ex-Watford man can expect to wriggle his way further into the plans of Fabio Capello if he can continue the rapid progress made during the past 18 months. Prospective new skipper Martin Laursen can continue to make an impact at both ends of the pitch. Friedel’s vast experience is sure to becalm an occasionally jittery defence; notwithstanding his excellent shot-stopping ability.

Rising Star: Nathan Delfouneso was one of the brightest stars of Villa’s run to last year’s Youth Cup semis. The 17-year-old Brummie offers a poacher’s presence and will hope to make a greater impact in the coming years than the now-departed Moore brothers, Stefan and Luke. He has been handed a place in the senior squad and the no. 14 shirt.

Manager: A canny operator in the transfer market, an astute tactician and with a passion for the role, O’Neill casts his recent Villa Park predecessors in the heaviest of shadows. The Ulsterman has once more given the Villa faithful a team of which to be proud and the natural progression would be to make a concerted challenge for silverware - at home or abroad. Of course, that is far easier said than done.

Prospects for 08-09: A repeat of last season’s exciting showing is desired; but Spurs’ expected rejuvenation and an improved Pompey squad will make finishing top of the Premier League’s unofficial second tier (5th – 10th) a tough old task. Progress in the cups has largely eluded Villa under Martin O’Neill’s reign, and they’ll harbour a not unreasonable hope of making a semi-final or two. A long UEFA Cup run though, may stretch the still under-staffed squad to breaking point.

Footballing World Prediction: 7th

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Following much gossip, rumour and counter-rumour, Ronaldinho’s protracted transfer saga at long last drew to a welcome close late last month. The waning Brazilian star’s decision to swap the beguiling glamour of Barcelona for, well, the irresistible appeal of Milan was, in the end, hardly a tough one.

Of course, it wasn’t really Ronnie’s decision to depart Catalonia quite so soon – incoming Barca coach Pep Guardiola made it brutally clear that he and his fellow party-loving team-mate Deco were no longer welcome at Camp Nou. With Manchester City proving the only ‘serious’ competition for the signature of the apparently superfluous former Ballon D’Or winner, there was only ever going to be one victor.

That the mighty AC Milan should even find themselves fighting it out toe-to-toe with nouveau riche upstarts City for playing recruits could perhaps be perceived as a sign of Serie A’s diminished prestige since those heady glory days of the 80s and 90s. But, of course, Ronaldinho isn’t your average cast-off.

At the age of just 28 – and, according to vice-president Adriano Galliani, having “lost his belly” – he could conceivably yet rekindle that irresistible fire which once made him everyone’s favourite buck-toothed ball manipulator. Certainly, Milan will be resting their hopes on a Samba-rich Kaka-Ronnie-Pato attacking axis coming good this season. And it does have a rather tantalising appeal – on paper, at least.

In light of Guardiola’s ruthless approach to re-shaping the humbled blaugrana this summer, there has been some pressure on coach Carlo Ancelotti to adopt a similar ‘rip it up and start again’ policy over at San Siro. That, however, is simply not the manner in which Milan operate.

No, at least prior to the unveiling of ‘Dinho, there had instead been a quiet revolution at the club’s Milanello HQ this summer.

Though no spring chicken at 31, and another Barca redundant, Gianluca Zambrotta will bring a much-needed injection of dynamism and attacking width to what has become an increasingly stodgy side. The early acquisition of Arsenal’s Mathieu Flamini should also prove to be an excellent piece of business. The Frenchman’s tireless running and accurate passing promises to gel well with likely engine-room cohort Andrea Pirlo – who will clearly take the creative role in the partnership.

Quite where the new arrivals will leave club stalwart Rino Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf – who remains, for now, in possession of the cherished no. 10 shirt for now at least – remains to be seen.

At the sharp end of things, the ‘loss’ of inept strikers Alberto Gilardino and Ricardo Oliviera should be more than compensated for by the return from successful loan of Milan’s long-neglected centre-forward Marco Borriello. It’s surely a big ask for the Neapolitan to reproduce the rich vein of goal-scoring form which reaped 19 goals last term, but he has within him the ability to make a significant contribution when called upon.

Fellow loan-returnee Christian Abbiati may also receive an unlikely shot at redemption, as Milan have so far failed to replace calamity-prone ‘keepers Zeljko Kalac and Dida; with Galliani declaring the club’s transfer activity now closed. And that is just where Milan’s problems might lie.

The back five remains an ageing, increasingly vulnerable unit; certainly incapable of keeping up with the rigorous demands of Champions League football. Perhaps it’s just as well they won’t have to, as they’ll instead face up to the perceived ignominy of participation in the little-loved UEFA Cup.

Still much-loved, but sadly in inevitable decline; Paolo Maldini looks set to carry on into his 41st year. The plan was to retire the legendary no. 3 shirt upon his retirement, but if he continues to prolong his career much longer, the world’s finest full-back of the past two decades will be able to pass the shirt directly on to his son Christian – a highly-rated youth team prospect at Milan.

Alessandro Nesta, another defender of immense talent and composure, is becoming all too frequent a visitor to the treatment table. Rumours persist that he’ll need to go under the surgeon’s knife sooner rather than later to clear up his injury problems once and for all, but when available Nesta remains the rock upon which the side’s (occasionally shaky) foundations are built.

Serie A is, broadly speaking, contested at a speed considerably slower than the Premier League’s default ‘breakneck’ setting. The rossoneri, therefore, clearly expect the value of experience over raw pace to still hold firm at domestic level.

The Milan hierarchy, despite public niceties to the contrary, have no interest whatsoever in having a concerted crack at the UEFA Cup, so will be able to concentrate the efforts of their still ageing team on a full-blown title challenge. The absolute bare minimum required will be re-admission to the Champions League for 2009/10.

Allowing for his participation in Brazil’s pursuit of an elusive gold medal at the upcoming Olympic Games was a significant sweetener which eased through the deal bringing Ronaldinho to San Siro. Young hope Alexandre Pato will also be otherwise occupied in Beijing until just before Serie A’s big kick-off (assuming Brazil do make it to the latter stages).

Nonetheless, this state of affairs could conceivably work in Milan’s favour. Should the two return triumphant from the Games – not a great stretch of the imagination – they’ll be up and flying; ready to put promoted Bologna to the sword on day one of what promises to be an intriguing campaign for Ancelotti’s boys from Brazil.

Now all they have to do is keep their original Seleção star, Kaká, out of the greedy clutches of a certain West London-based player vacuum...

Monday, August 04, 2008


So, while Milan [featured previously] have been making characteristically slow, steady strides towards re-generation, what have the rest of the Serie A contenders been up to in the summer break thus far?

Champions Inter have, as always, invested heavily in their perennial dream of adding continental domination to their monopolisation of recent Scudetti. Brazilian winger Mancini – snatched from rivals Roma – aside though, that investment has been predominantly in acquiring self-appointed saviour José Mourinho. And the ex-Chelsea and Porto manager’s wage will be commensurate with his ego.

The princely sum of £7m a year (twice as much as pocketed by Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti) should be enough to keep the ‘Special One’ in the finest Milanese coat designs for several years to come.

The freshly-installed boss was quick to inform playmaker Dejan Stanković that he was considered past his prime. Plans to replace the Serb with Deco came to nothing, so Portsmouth’s Sulley Muntari has been brought back to Serie A after a brief Premier League sojourn. It’s a deal which has raised many a Milanese eyebrow.

Mourinho has been daily linked with a move for fleet-footed countryman Ricardo Quaresma – largely overlooked by Luiz Felipe Scolari during the Euros – but Mancini’s arrival put paid to that prospect. And, of course, the tedious Frank Lampard saga seems to have finally dribbled to a halt – until January at least.

Last week, Mourinho declared himself “sincerely worried” about his new club’s defensive situation – with key personnel; Cristian Chivu, Iván Córdoba, Walter Samuel and Marco Materazzi all hogging the treatment table during pre-season. Rumours persist that Inter will dip into the market once more before the window finally slams shut to remedy the situation – ex-Everton man Matteo Ferrari, currently a free agent, has been strongly linked.

Even the most casual football fan could tell you that Mourinho has based his past successes rather more on pragmatism and meticulous preparation than any Wenger-esque aesthetic ideals. Yet, any top side needs that special someone to “make” the play. If given the opportunity, Luis Jiménez could continue to impress in the creative midfield role, as he often did last season. The effervescent Muntari also has much to offer in that regard, while Mancini can inject some sorely needed width into the nerazurri line-up.

Whatever the make-up of his first-choice XI though, Mourinho shoulders great responsibility for converting consistent domestic success into the holy grail of Champions League glory.

Juventus, the once dominant, proud Old Lady of Italian football, have had to assume a rather more humble outlook than their Milanese rivals over the past two years, due to the fallout of Calciopoli. But their qualification for a return to European football’s premier competition, following a third place Serie A finish, injected fresh optimism into the Turin faithful.

However, most fans have been scathing about Claudio Ranieri’s subdued summer transfer campaign to date.

Xabi Alonso’s long-touted arrival has not been forthcoming, so when Sevilla workhorse Christian Poulsen was instead signed up to form an unlikely midfield alliance with Momo Sissoko, Juve’s tifosi were more than a little disgruntled. Perspiration will obviously take precedence over inspiration in such an inelegant partnership. Fortunately, the return of loan star Sebastian Giovinco (selected as player of the recent Toulon tournament) should add a much needed dash of élan to the bianconeri’s toil.

Beanpole Brazilian Amauri also provides a new focus up front at Turin’s Stadio Olimpico, while Olof Mellberg’s free-transfer signing from Aston Villa will do much to shore up a defence in need of, well, re-juve-nation.

Nonetheless, it is plainly apparent that the Juventus squad still lacks in creativity and even a little quality. A potential move for Inter’s unwanted Stanković is unlikely to convince punters to put their hard-earned Euros on a sustained Juve title challenge, let alone significant European progress.

Over in the capital, last season’s unlucky runners-up have already lost Mancini to their main rivals, and Roma have yet to land a replacement. Recent rumours linking Julio ‘the Beast’ Baptista to the giallorossi at least signals an ambition to beef up an attack which has relied too heavily upon the perpetual ingenuity and adaptability of their eternal idol, Francesco Totti.

Significantly, the Romans have been able to resist growing interest in midfield starlet Alberto Aquilani, but with only John Arne Riise featuring in the ‘In’ column, Luciano Spalletti’s recruitment team are under pressure to get busy, quick.

It’s been a mixed summer for Fiorentina. Tomáš Ujfaluši, Fabio Liverani and (mercifully) Christian Vieri have been culled from the side which pipped Milan for Champions League qualification, while incoming Milan flop Alberto Gilardino represents something of a gamble at €13m. Catania’s raiding full-back Juan Manuel Vargas arrives for a similar fee and should prove a fine addition. It’s clear, however, that holding onto Adrian Mutu (who features strongly on Roma’s wishlist) and talented ‘keeper Seb Frey remains top priority for the Tuscan club.

Other eye-catching moves around the peninsula this summer include Lazio’s potentially expensive procurement of Mauro Zárate (initially on loan from Al Sadd). Zárate was given precious little opportunity to impress in English football by his typically sceptical boss at Birmingham City, Alex McLeish. He’ll be looking for coach Delio Rossi to show greater faith in his undoubted talents during this campaign. The shrewd purchase of Matuzalem – a returnee to Serie A after a prolonged exile in the Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk and La Liga’s Zaragoza – could also prove a masterstroke by a club searching desperately for a return to the Italian elite.

Atalanta star Antonio Langella’s switch to Udinese gives the well-travelled winger a late stab at the (relatively) big time, at the age of 31. Talented Azurrini playmaker Luca Cigarini’s €6m arrival in Bergamo will do much to soften the blow of Langella’s departure for Atalanta supporters.

The arrival of Fabio Liverani, Azzurri reserve ‘keeper Marco Amelia and return of Croat forward Igor Budan from relegated Parma should strengthen Palermo’s challenge for a place in the top six. While over in Genoa, Antonio Cassano’s permanent move to Sampdoria can only aid the continued resurrection of an ailing career which started out with such promise.

Amongst the likely relegation scrappers, Walter Zenga’s canny acquirement of Nicolae Dică from former club Steaua Bucharest should boost little Catania’s chances of prolonged Serie A survival. The tricky Romanian schemer could prove a snip for the Sicilians at around €2m.

With a month still remaining of Serie A transfer window madness, much horse-trading, bluffing and rumour-mongering will continue to plaster the pages of such dependable journals of truth as La Gazzetta and Tuttosport for some while yet.

When kick-off finally does arrive though, European football’s most unfairly maligned league will collectively be going all-out to break the Anglo-Spanish duopoly of the posh seats at Europe’s top table.

And it’s looking likely that seasoned Serie A-watchers can prepare themselves for another close-fought, absorbing title race. Can’t wait.