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.