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.