Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Return of the Rhinesiders: Kroos puts Leverkusen back on top

“He’s been the man of the season so far. I've always had the feeling that he could be the next Michael Ballack and he's certainly living up the expectations.”

So said Beckenbauer to German tabloid Bild. The subject of Der Kaiser’s uncharacteristic excitement? 19-year-old playmaker, Toni Kroos, of German ‘winter champions’ Bayer Leverkusen – for now.

For Kroos – a wonderfully gifted midfielder with a footballing maturity which belies his years – belongs, long-term, to Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich. Having spent last year on loan at the BayArena, Kroos was granted a second year by the Rhine due to the congested nature of Bayern’s squad. Leverkusen impressed many observers last year under the aegis of Bruno Labbadia (now coaching Hamburg), but lacked consistency and finished up 9th in a tightly-packed Bundesliga table; also losing the DFB Cup final. This term, the club once dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ for their innate ability to fluff their lines in league title-fights, cup finals and even the odd Champions League final, have led the similarly close-run title race for months.

And they’ve done it in some style. Unbeaten through the entire campaign (nine wins and eight draws so far), Leverkusen have taken on all-comers with their youthful squad, of which set-piece specialist Kroos has grown to become the creative fulcrum, supported ably by their stand-in captain Sami Hyypiä and led by veteran coach Jupp Heynckes. A multiple Bundesliga champion with Bayern in the late 80s and, more recently, Champions League winner at Real Madrid, who, as is the form, sacked him by way of celebration, Heynckes had been left on the managerial scrapheap after a string of failures at home and abroad.

Last season, however, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach striker enjoyed a renaissance in a successful cameo appearance at Bayern following Jürgen Klinsmann’s brief but chaotic spell in charge. Nevertheless, at the birth of the 2009-10 season, few expected any such heroics at (relatively) little Leverkusen. His winning blend of youth and experience has, so far, defied expectation; holding Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent Bayern, Schalke (coached by last year’s champion coach Felix Magath) and Hamburg at bay.

24-year-old goalkeeper René Adler is the impeccable last line of defence, ahead of whom Hyppiä (now in the record books as the man with the most unbeaten minutes played in Bundesliga history) has been an unsurpassable rock – restored to his early Liverpool pomp, away from the unforgiving pace of the Premier League. Bombarding full-back Gonzalo Castro (22) starred for Germany’s under-21s last summer and already has five caps in what is something of a problem position for the senior side.

A regular fixture in der Nationalmannschaft, Simon Rolfes is captain and Leverkusen’s destructive box-to-box force in the centre of the pitch, though currently talented Stefan Reinartz (20) deputises for his injured skipper. Lars Bender (twin of Dortmund’s Sven, also 20) is another exciting prospect in the engine room, while Chile's Arturo Vidal adds bite in the tackle.

Creativity comes primarily from Kroos (6 goals and 3 assists in 17 games), Swiss wide-man Tranquillo Barnetta and the currently injured Renato Augusto, signed from Flamengo in 2008. Turkish youngster Buruk Kaplan is on the verge of a first-team breakthrough and offers a sweet left foot – which he used to great effect in preserving the team’s unbeaten record with a late, deflected goal in the entertaining 2-2 draw with bottom club Hertha Berlin.

While no.9 Patrick Helmes (24 goals in his first season at the club last year) has sat out the remarkable run because of a torn cruciate ligament, his strike-partner Stefan Kießling has filled in the gaps skilfully. The tall, blond forward finds the net on a regular basis; showing great touch and balance (...for a big man) and intelligent interplay with his current partner, Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok.

All in all, it’s a group packed with promise, energy and an almost tangible determination. The perfect platform, perhaps, for a talent like Kroos to flourish – particularly in a World Cup year. Despite his tender age, his biggest fan Beckenbauer “wouldn’t be really surprised” if Jogi Löw takes him to South Africa next summer. To learn from the master, Michael Ballack, in such a rarefied atmosphere would be an ideal step-up in Kroos’ development before he inevitably returns to Bayern – who will have a significant creative vacancy following Franck Ribéry’s impending departure.

Curiously, Leverkusen’s most marketable stars, both ‘keeper Adler (born in Leipzig) and Kroos (Greifswald), are that all too rare occurrence in the modern era – successful footballers born east of the Berlin wall. They will surely be aiming to emulate the towering achievements of two fellow GDR-born Leverkusen graduates: Bernd Schneider and Ballack.

That pair, along with Zé Roberto and Emerson, formed the midfield hub of the last nearly-great Leverkusen side of the early noughties. Kroos, whose brilliant double strike against Mönchengladbach last weekend ensured his team would go into the winter break ahead of the pack, has the prodigious talent to help hold off the challenge of his parent club and finally bring some glory to the success-starved Rhinesiders.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Journey to the Centre of the Europa League

It’s labyrinthine. It’s interminable. It’s...the UEFA Europa League. Monsieur Platini’s brainchild reached its group stage climax this week to a decidedly raptureless reception from Malvern to Moldova.

And it’s a crying shame, because even the weakened line-ups, the semi-meaningless treks to far-flung Eastern Europe and the media vacuum in which it operates cannot undermine some of the entertainment the competition has offered up in this, its inaugural season. Allowing in the eight Champions League failures discredits somewhat the efforts of those teams who have been working their way through tie after tie since mid-July, and it might well take the equivalent of half a league season to get there, but from the evidence so far there’s still much to look forward to for a competition in its infancy.

Take, for example, Fulham’s group (E), which culminated in a hard-fought spectacle at St Jakob Park on Tuesday night, between the West London side and hosts Basle. Following a pair of absorbing ties with Champions League regulars Roma, which brought only a single point despite the occasional superiority of Roy Hodgson’s side, this game would decide the European destiny of both sides. Fulham had to snatch a win in an arena which has been a near-impenetrable fortress in recent years to be sure of progress, while Basle (and Roma – 3-0 victors in Sofia) needed only a point to make it to the last 32.

Hodgson’s return to Switzerland – where he enjoyed significant success with the Nati at USA ’94 and laid the foundations for the country’s more recent under-17 successes – brought two first-half goals from Bobby Zamora, giving the Cottagers a healthy lead going into the break. However, as against Roma, high drama was to follow at the game’s conclusion; Basle twice pulling themselves within a goal as rampant Ghanaian full-back Samuel Inkoom stormed forward at will and experienced strike duo Marco Streller and Alex Frei presented a physical threat to Fulham’s mix-and-match back-line.

It is to the immense credit of Hodgson – surely the right choice for the England job, post-Capello – that his squad rotation in continental competition has not backfired, with several back-up players (such as promising ex-Maidstone defender Chris Smalling and West Brom old-boys Zoltán Gera and Jonathan Greening) taking their opportunity by the scruff of the neck. Despite the continued absence through injury of Andy Johnson and Diomansy Kamara, and a modest budget, the 62-year-old manager has developed a versatile squad that plays with a pleasingly progressive style. And the widely-predicted impact of a plethora of European engagements has, thus far, had negligible impact on Fulham’s Premier League form, sitting, as they do, in a comfortable mid-table position.

In Basle, the concession of a debatable penalty and a powerful Streller header were overcome by a breakaway goal from Gera, as Fulham held on to join Roma in today’s draw for the knockout stages. While groups such as Celtic’s (C) and Everton’s (I) had been decided during their penultimate rounds, there was still much to play for across the continent on Thursday night.

Genoa hosted Primera División giants Valencia (Group B) needing to match Lille’s result in Prague (against Slavia) to secure their place in the post-Christmas action. Unai Emery fielded his full artillery – David Villa, Juan Mata, Joaquín, et al – in pursuit of the single point which would seal the onward progress of Los Che. Villa was in fine early form; denied only by fine saves from Genoa’s experienced ‘keeper Alessio Scarpi on three separate occasions, but was then justly yellow-carded for a kick-out at ex-Valencia team-mate Emiliano Moretti.

The visitors lost captain Carlos Marchena – a key member of Rafa Benítez’s 2004 UEFA Cup-winning side – to an innocuous-looking injury, but, with Lille cruising to victory in the Czech capital, looked very much in control of their fate. Their confidence grew stronger as defender Bruno, brought along from former club Almería by Emery, flukishly looped a header over the ill-positioned Scarpi to open the scoring. Genoa’s hopes seemed all but dead and buried.

The second half, however, brought a dramatic revival. Led by chief cheerleader Hernán Crespo, the shivering Marassi crowd were brought to life as Gian Piero Gasperini’s team was transformed into a frenzied red and blue swarm camped in the Valencia half. Veteran forward Crespo, now 34, but a regular scorer in Europe since the days of Parma’s victorious 1999 UEFA Cup campaign, utilised all his remaining vitality and undisputed penalty-box virtuosity to snatch an equaliser – poking the ball between the outstretched legs of Miguel Àngel Moyá.

Within a single goal of sealing progress at the expense of their illustrious visitors, expectation surged through the rossoblu faithful, yet, despite continuous pressure, a second goal was not forthcoming. In a rare moment of counter-attacking freedom, Joaquín broke free in the Genoa area only to be callously shoved off his feet by Salvatore Bocchetti. Moments later David Villa was left standing incredulously in the penalty area, hands clasped to mouth, having seen his hopeless penalty kick flash wide of the left post.

In the final minute of injury time – as Emery jigged around furiously on the touchline à la Martin O’Neill, contradictorily imploring his men to remain calm – Villa was redeemed and Genoa were finally dispatched to the European scrap-heap. Scarpi mis-kicked in his desperation to launch one last Genoa attack, and Villa capitalised to virtually walk the ball in for the winner.

So Valencia, along with Fulham and Roma, join continental powerhouses such as (Champions League drop-outs) Liverpool, Juventus and Marseille, plus a significant selection of hard-punching middleweights: Hamburg, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg from the Bundesliga; Villarreal, Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao from La Liga; back-to-back Russian champions and Camp Nou-conquerors Rubin Kazan; PSV, Ajax and Twente (of Steve McLaren fame!) represent the Dutch Eredivisie; while Fenerbahçe (without Roberto Carlos, who appeared in European football for the final time last night before returning to Brazil next month) Galatasaray, Sporting Lisbon, Benfica, Panathinaikos and (sort of) defending champions Shakhtar Donetsk will all make challenging opposition for pretenders to Europe’s second-tier crown.

UEFA Europa League draw takes place at 12 noon today (17th December). Last-32 ties start February 16th.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Serie A highlights: Cassetti records Rome derby winner and Marchisio magic puts new face on Scudetto race

He may be dreaming of a return to England, but his mind is more presently occupied with the dirty work of achieving back-to-back titles for Inter Milan. Jose Mourinho, serving a touchline suspension, watched on from afar as his side and Ciro Ferrara’s Juventus quite literally scrapped for Serie A supremacy.

It had been a no-holds barred kind of occasion in any case, as is the form for a top-of-the-table Derby d’Italia, when Inter’s controversial young striker Mario Balotelli joined the fray. The Azzurrini star replaced Sulley Muntari on the hour mark, as Inter looked to retrieve a 2-1 deficit; Sammy Eto’o’s unmarked header answered a goal from Juve’s Felipe Melo in the first half. Fit-again Claudio Marchisio snatched a brilliant second Juventus goal early in the second. Marchisio’s was quite some finish; the World Cup squad hopeful danced effortlessly through the Inter defence with exquisite precision, scooping the ball over the prostrate Júlio César with a deft flick of his left boot.

Balotelli’s arrival was greeted by loud jeering and booing from the home fans at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino, but also by the display of placards featuring the player’s picture from the travelling Inter tifosi in support of their wayward young gun. Debate rages as to the true nature of the unremitting abuse that ‘Super Mario’ receives at grounds around the peninsula. It’s sometimes suggested that the 19-year-old, born to Ghanaian parents in Palermo, is targeted due to the colour of his skin (the chant: “you’ll always be an African” is an unpalatable favourite of a certain faction of the Juventus fans), while others say that the hateful reception he receives is because of his truculent, often sullen, demeanour on the pitch.

At this stage in his nascent career, Balotelli does not yet possess the mental toughness to withstand the vilification which greets his every touch. Rather than absorbing the abuse and using it as a source of positive energy as do Cristiano Ronaldo, Craig Bellamy, etc; Balotelli’s rage visibly intensifies as the boos grow louder – most probably because of their assumed racist overtones. To his credit, Juve’s vastly experienced Fabio Grosso twice took his future Azzurri colleague aside on more than one occasion in an effort to cool the fire raging within. Sadly, it had little effect.

Balotelli, aggressively chasing the ball, careered into Melo’s back; the Brazilian swinging an elbow at his assailant which contacted only with his shoulder. The disproportionate response of Balotelli – rolling around, clutching his face in apparent agony – was the cue for Melo’s early shower and the normally sanguine Gigi Buffon to storm from his goal as a major mid-pitch scuffle broke out. The forward – whose late corner was headed just wide by Esteban Cambiasso as Inter slumped to only their second league defeat – has incurred the wrath of Mourinho for numerous training ground transgressions and is sure to divide opinion wherever his career path takes him, which, rumour has it, might soon be towards the Premier League. Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham are all supposedly suitors.

In better circumstances Balotelli might have been an outside bet for a wildcard place at the World Cup (though the acutely conservative Marcello Lippi probably doesn’t ‘do’ wildcards), yet Marchisio – just back from surgery and growing in stature under Ferrara’s tutelage – must be considered a certainty for South Africa. His midfield cohort, Diego, was once a surefire bet for Dunga’s Brazil squad, but now finds himself undergoing a season-long audition for the role of understudy to the unimpeachable Kaká. However, the little playmaker could affect little influence over this crucial game, in which he enjoyed a rare pairing with Alex Del Piero in support of Amauri. Nonethless, Juve’s vital win concertinaed the Serie A table-top; bringing them within a point of second-placed Milan and five of Inter.

You’ll need to glance much further down the standings to find deadly Rome rivals, Lazio and Roma. The two clubs came into the season’s opening derby in contrasting form – Claudio Ranieri overseeing a recent upturn in league form and Europa League wins over Fulham and Basle; Lazio’s Davide Ballardini under mounting pressure with a midweek European exit coming on the back of a domestic winless streak stretching back some three long months – their worst Serie A run in two decades.

As against Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday, Ballardini fielded an ultra-cautious 5-3-1-1 formation – Mauro Zárate as lone forward, with full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Aleksandr Kolarov given a brief to supply some width. Roma were more or less at full strength up until just before half-time, when Phillipe Mexès limped from the field to be replaced by Marco Cassetti.

It was a first half interrupted by an unplanned ten-minute interval as disturbances among the febrile Roman crowd caused the referee to call a temporary halt to play. With the thunderous sound of smoke bombs still resounding around the Olimpico, play resumed and Lazio surprisingly had the best of the play, but with very little to show for it in terms of shots on goal. Roma’s relatively flat display prompted Ranieri to make a second substitution early in the second period, as Jérémy Menez made way for Matteo Brighi; Mirko Vučinić switching from the left to partner free-scoring Francesco Totti up front.

At Lazio’s apex stood little Zárate, largely starved of service aside from Lichtsteiner’s forward surges and some assistance from Stefano Mauri. It is the Argentinean who is suffering most from club president Claudio Lotito’s decision to banish his partner Goran Pandev to the reserves for submitting a summer transfer request. Yet the former Birmingham striker was ready to pounce on a careless Nicolás Burdisso slip-up; wriggling clear to strike the foot of Roma’s post. Mauri’s attempt from the rebound should surely have rippled the net, but the giallorossi’s stand-in ‘keeper Júlio Sérgio affected a miraculous, acrobatic reflex save to deflect the ball over his bar.

Totti; like a fine wine, Ryan Giggs, or Helena Christensen, just gets better with age. Now 33, the Roma captain is in peak goalscoring form and his immense creative input has yet to wane. It was his sweeping cross-field ball that put Roma quickly on the front foot – at a time when Lazio were beginning to dictate play – a quick switch to the right flank then found Vučinić unmarked; the Montenegrin’s sharp, accurate cross was steered into the net by a side-footed volley from one of the most unlikely candidates on the pitch – Roma’s no.77; first-half sub Cassetti.

There was still time for Fernando Muslera – recently capped for the first time by Uruguay – to make a smart save from a trademark fierce volley from the left boot of John Arne Riise, and for whistle-happy referee Nicola Rizzoli to send David Pizarro to the showers for a second bookable offence. The biancocelesti, however, were a beaten side and now languish just outside the trapdoor to Serie B – the dark depths from which they last emerged in 1988. Without a sharp change in fortunes, Coach Ballardini might be spending Christmas on the dole queue, as Lazio legend Siniša Mihajlović – a flop in charge of Bologna last year – has been lined up as his potential successor.

Roma are up to sixth, yet are an intimidating eleven points adrift of leaders Inter. It’s far too late now for Ranieri’s men to mount a concerted scudetto challenge, but at least Marchisio’s magic in Turin has given Italian fans hope of at least a three-horse title race approaching the new year. So it was not only a valuable win for Juventus, but also a small victory for diversity in an Inter-dominated league.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry hands lucky Domenech a late reprieve

Thierry Henry’s outrageous opportunism will dominate the headlines, as is just, but there is plenty more to disseminate from a memorable night in Paris, as Raymond Domenech’s France were fortunate to qualify for the World Cup in controversial circumstances. Still, as will a thousand-and-one other articles on the issue, that’s where we’ll start.

In the immediate aftermath, words such as “robbed” (Sean St Ledger) and “embarrassing” (Kevin Doyle) were bandied about by the bitterly disappointed Irish players of Henry’s conduct. Giovanni Trapattoni cited Italy’s acrimonious elimination from Korea/Japan 2002 as a similar example of an appallingly unjust exit. It’s to be expected; as emotions are running sky-high when such a gleaming prize is at stake.

St Ledger, who expertly herded the razor-sharp Nicolas Anelka throughout, said that the Barcelona forward’s handling of the ball in the setting-up of William Gallas’ deciding goal had “cost a lot of people their dreams” and, unsurprisingly, called for FIFA to introduce video technology to the game immediately. It was, undoubtedly, a horrifically bitter pill to swallow, yet both players freely admitted that any Irish player would consider doing the same if placed in the same position – a stance also backed by ex-international Ronnie Whelan.

Henry’s own guilt – not exactly evident as he wheeled away in delight at his ill-gotten gains – became apparent when ‘comforting’ the indefatigable Richard Dunne at the final whistle. Awkwardly sitting beside, and then embracing the Ireland centre-half (who showed great sportsmanship to accept the gesture in his moment of despair) Henry looked every inch a man who knew of the upcoming repercussions of his actions upon his proud reputation. ‘Titi’ had clearly made a tit of himself.

Of course, this isn’t the first time some top-grade Henry gamesmanship has earned a vital result for his country. In a World Cup last-16 game the valiant challenge of Spain was undermined by a frankly pathetic dive by the striker. All of which makes his self-pitying touchline rant against referees, Barcelona and UEFA (among others) in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League final defeat seem all the more hypocritical.

For his most recent misdemeanours, there can be no adequate defence. The first contact between ball and hand could barely be avoided, but the second contact was an instance of bare-faced cheating. Nonetheless, it’s already a moment destined for an unsavoury sort of sporting infamy (will ‘Hand of Henry’ soon enter the footballing lexicon?)

So, what of the game itself? Coming, as it did, on the back of France’s successful excursion to Croke Park last weekend, few expected the first 90 minutes in Paris to transpire as it did. Ireland may not have dominated possession as such, but carved out a whole host of chances, which Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and, most particularly, John O’Shea will rue the spurning of for months and years to come.

Trapattoni’s much-maligned ‘static’ midfield performed to the very limit of its supposedly restricted potential. Damien Duff has carried his sparky Fulham form into recent internationals and was responsible for the old boys’ act – with captain Keane – which gave his team a deserved lead late in the first half. Glen Whelan offered his usual unwavering industry until his withdrawal through injury, while his midfield partner, Blackburn’s Keith Andrews, excelled throughout. Liam Lawrence, still very inexperienced at this level, supplied precision delivery from the right flank and kept Patrice Evra largely subdued during a commanding performance. It was almost enough to make the fans forgive and forget the unfathomable omission of Andy Reid. Almost.

Substitute Darren Gibson showed that he remains a little raw, but has immense promise, as recognised by both Trap and his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Birmingham’s Keith Fahey is also a future contender, while Stephen Reid, of Blackburn, will soon return to the fold. Steven Ireland, mercifully, has called time on his shambolic ‘contribution’ to his country. The only black-spot on the horizon is the potential future decline of such stalwarts as Kevin Kilbane, Duff and Keane, as age takes its inevitable toll. Whether or not these great servants to the cause can continue until 2010 will dictate whether or not Ireland can realistically hope to qualify for the next Euros. The qualified success of this past qualifying series will boost their world ranking and, they will hope, ensure a more comfortable ride on the road to Ukraine/Poland (or wherever it may eventually be).

Whatever its dubious genesis, Gallas’ goal takes France to the World Cup, where they will be dangerous dark-horses. Continuously clueless Raymond Domenech lucked-out in reaching the last World Cup final courtesy of Zinedine Zidane’s heroics, and, now that qualification is sealed, might expect to contend once again. Sure, they were spiritless and shapeless at the Stade de France, but any side which – at full strength – can boast a forward line of Ribéry-Anelka-Henry-Benzema is one to be reckoned with. Jérémy Toulalan will also be a welcome returnee, while Domenech should stick to his guns regarding his exclusion of over-the-hill Patrick Vieira. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has already proven his worth and is a star of the future.

Only the coach’s typically obscure selection policy (A-P Gignac starting both games despite a lack of recent goals for Toulouse and a horror-showing in Dublin, while Benzema warmed the bench) can prevent a talented team from reaching at least the later stages of a World Cup which will be littered with unlikely outsiders (North Korea, New Zealand, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Honduras, et al).

Their “very, very lucky” qualification (according to Florent Malouda) will fade from French memories once the great football festival kicks off next summer. Ireland, however, will only have bitter acrimony and the sympathies of football fans around the globe to console them as they consider what might have been had the footballing gods looked more kindly upon them.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brilliant Balkans can capitalise on Ronaldo saga

On the surface at least, Portugal’s beleaguered boss, Carlos Queiroz, is philosophical about Cristiano Ronaldo's absence from the World Cup qualifying playoff with 5-1 outsiders Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Real Madrid had strongly insisted that Portugal’s talismanic captain was not fit for service, yet Ronaldo was called up by the Selecção in any case. After further examination by the national team’s medical staff, ‘CR9’ was swiftly dispatched back to Madrid; offering good luck wishes to his remaining team-mates. Queiroz then told the press: “There is a call-up, an evaluation, a decision, and then life goes on.”

Which is quite true, but the weighty psychological blow meted out by this unseemly affair has the capacity to undermine preparations for a tie which will decide the fate of Queiroz and – more crucially – whether or not the footballing world’s most marketable star will grace South African soil next summer.

To add to the ex-Real manager’s growing troubles, regular right-back Jose Bosingwa was then ruled out of both games and could miss up to three months of action in all. Rangers midfielder Pedro Mendes will also sit out the contest due to a knee injury. Notwithstanding such significant absentees, Portugal’s form since reaching the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 has been relatively dismal anyway, taking into account their previously sparkling record under ‘Big Phil’ Scolari. Only five wins from ten games characterised by a chronic inability to score goals - they were held to goalless home draws by both Sweden and Albania - in one of the easiest European qualifying groups doesn’t reflect well on Queiroz’s stewardship.

He admits to making “a few errors” during his team’s early qualifying games, but claims that such “dark times”, have been left far behind. Positive recent results, allied to better performances, against Denmark, Sweden and Hungary showed, says Queiroz, that Portugal are now “hitting top form”. They will need the recently-rehabilitated Deco to assume the creative burden in Ronaldo’s absence, while the predictably unpredictable Nani could be called upon to fill a flank. Naturalised Brazilian striker Liédson is favourite to lead the line against a vulnerable Bosnian defence which shed five goals in their ‘dead rubber’ final qualifier against irrepressible Spain.

Defensively suspect, perhaps, but attack-minded Bosnia racked-up 25 goals in qualification – only England, Spain and Germany scored more – with imposing Wolfsburg forward Edin Džeko notching nine of them.

“The biggest point in our favour is our unity and determination,” said Džeko, this week. “We're a band of brothers and we are dangerous when we go forward. All we lack is experience."

And there’s the rub. While Portugal can offer a host of players (Deco, Carvalho, Pepe) with that undeniably crucial quality in abundance, the Bosnian line-up is an altogether more callow assembly. Pure, unadulterated talent, however, seeps from all quarters of the side helmed by wily old Bosnian-Croat coach Miroslav Blažević. Partnering Džeko will be Hoffenheim’s Vedad Ibišević, who has been incessantly troubling Bundesliga onion-bags either side of a cruciate injury last winter. They’ll be prompted and assisted by the absurdly-talented playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, also of Wolfsburg, and Hoffenheim captain Sejad Salihović. Lyon’s gifted young midfielder Miralem Pjanić will also hope to feature at some stage.

In an illustrious 40-year-long career – which appeared to have already reached its zenith with Croatia’s remarkable bronze medal at France ’98 – Blažević claims to have never overseen a more important match. A clear game plan, in which ‘playing to our strengths’ features strongly, has been devised.

“We will be doomed if we sit back and the playoffs will be over for us after the first leg in Portugal,” colourful ‘Ciro’ told Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz.

“The Euro 2004 final, in which Greece beat Portugal 1-0, is the way we should play, meaning that we have to stifle them in midfield and keep going forward whenever possible. We have to close down every inch of space and try to get the away goal, because our chances will be very slim if we don't score in the first leg.”

No fewer than nine Bosnian players carry a yellow card on their record going into the game, so the dichotomy between self-preservation and the collective cause may loom large in some minds; perhaps invoking indecision in the ranks. Yet, any kind of positive result (which in this context would include an away-goal-scoring draw) would leave the brittle Portugese facing a daunting task in front of a rambunctious rabble in febrile Zenica next Wednesday.

Against all probability, Blažević has so far succeeded in bringing together players from disparate ethnic backgrounds amid a society still riven by sectarianism and widespread prejudice. The 74-year-old has cajoled and unified talents from 13 different leagues; creating a unit truly capable of upsetting the so-called ‘world order’. In the 17 recent European play-offs to earn qualification for the World Cup or Euros, the higher-ranked team in FIFA’s rankings has gone through 11 times, so the odds are firmly stacked against the Bosnians (currently 42nd to Portugal’s 10th) from a historical perspective. Yet momentum is on their side – and the Ronaldo saga has only served to foment hopes of a famous against-the-odds triumph for Blažević’s men.

As for his under-pressure counterpart, Queiroz, he’s already planning ahead. “I think the hardest part for us has been qualifying. If we qualify, Portugal will definitely be firm contenders to win.” That’s a big ‘if’, isn’t it, Carlos? He continues:

“I'm 100 per cent convinced we'll be there. I've got no doubts whatsoever.”

That’s the very definition of ‘tempting fate’.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Under-fire Ranieri halts Mourinho’s winning run

The run-in to Roma’s Sunday night visit to San Siro was dominated by the supposed thawing of frosty relations between opposing coaches Claudio Ranieri and Inter’s José Mourinho. The two former Chelsea managers have been at each other’s throats in recent years – the Special One once responding to the Tinkerman’s frequent criticisms of Inter by claiming his Stamford Bridge predecessor lacked a winning mentality, because “he’s nearly 70-years-old and has only won a Super Cup and other small tournaments.” Adding further insult to his characteristically waspish rebuke, Mourinho opined: “He is too old to change.”

A year or so later, with Inter now standing clear above all others in Serie A as Ranieri’s Roma struggle inconsequentially in the bottom half of the standings, Mourinho can afford to change his tune.“I respect Ranieri,” he said. “It’s true we have had a few run-ins and who knows there could be more in future, but I respect him as a person and as a coach.”

Nonetheless, Ranieri (who, for the record, is aged a mere 58, while both the Coppa Italia and the Copa del Rey are among the ‘small tournaments’ he’s won) would truly savour any victory over his larger-than-life adversary, particularly with pressure already mounting on his position after a mixed start in charge of his hometown club. A barely-deserved home victory over Fulham in the Europa League midweek gave something of a boost to his side as they travelled north to take on Mourinho’s all-conquering juggernaut, themselves fresh from a much-needed Champions League win in Kiev.

Inter’s slovenly start allowed Roma to grab the early initiative, with lone foward Mirko Vučinić springing the offside trap to latch onto a delightful pass from stand-in-skipper Daniele De Rossi, only to fluff a glorious chance to score the opener. Minutes later though, the Romans took the lead courtesy of Vučinić’s looping header into the top corner from a precise diagonal ball by full-back Marco Motta. It took a prodigious leap for the talented Montenegrin to out-jump Inter’s defensive colossus Lucío, scoring only his second goal of campaign during which he has been habitually abused by a section of the Roma support.

Wesley Sneijder was mysteriously confined to the Inter bench (along with another influential midfield mainstay, Esteban Cambiasso) as one-paced Patrick Vieira and ill-disciplined Sulley Muntari toiled to cope with De Rossi’s considerable influence. Top-scorer Francesco Totti’s unavailability through injury ensured that both teams were without their key creators during a first half throughout which Inter slumbered and their visitors battled gainfully. Roma’s reserve ‘keeper Julio Sergio made sharp saves from both Diego Milito and Muntari – who should’ve had his marching orders for a couple of petulant stamps and kicks when already on a yellow card – but Roma were otherwise comfortable leaders, even in spite of their captain’s 34th minute withdrawal due to head injury.

As anyone who has followed his career closely will testify, it is, in fact, Mourinho who is the true ‘tinkerman’, though when the Champions League-winner makes a change (or two, or three) it generally has the desired effect. And – with predictable consequences – the Portugese threw on Cambiasso and Mario Balotelli for the dreadful Vieira and Muntari, at the start of the second half. Within three minutes Inter were level.

A trademark penalty-box swivel and finish by Samuel Eto’o sunk the shoulders of Ranieri and inspired thoughts of a swift Inter comeback among the nerazzurri faithful. Yet, even without their on-field generals – De Rossi and Totti – the resolute Roma rearguard quickly negated a brief spell of Inter pressure. Despite Sneijder’s best efforts, the league leaders failed to impose their superiority; entirely bereft of any sense of urgency or rhythm during a fractious second period which finally petered out into a 1-1 draw.

The permanently scowling features of wonder-kid Balotelli were screwed up in frustration when the rangy 19-year-old spurned the home team’s best opportunity late on, not long after substitute Ricardo Faty blew Roma’s clearest chance of a winner at the other end. Clearly, a typically forthright Mourinho thought his young striker could have “done a whole lot more” to influence the game: “Balotelli?” he said, post-match, “His performance tonight was close to a zero. He had little movement and did little work for the team.”

In a “bad” game, Mourinho believed that “one team did everything to win; another did not want to win”, echoing his often-quoted ‘parking-the-bus’ comments for at least the hundredth time. Ranieri will hardly care though. A point at San Siro might not take the giallorossi into the top half of the table, but the undoubted fighting spirit with which it was achieved may help to galvanise an unsteady ship.

With a significant chunk of the Roma tifosi calling for the head of Ranieri and his deeply unpopular boss, club president Rosella Sensi, it was crucial for his side to halt their slide down the standings. Nonetheless, they still have much ground to regain upon their return from the upcoming international break. Inter, meanwhile, will resume proceedings five points clear of their only genuine title rivals, Juventus (5-2 winners over Atalanta this weekend).

Mourinho, it’s apparent, remains capable of some curious selection choices, but few can argue with a manager now unbeaten in 140 consecutive home league games and with a second scudetto in his sights. So it’s a moral win for Claudio, but only José will win the war.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maradona’s redemption?

It’s been a long and interesting life in football for Diego Armando Maradona. Outrageous talent, uncontrollable egotism, and a tendency towards controversy matched by few others (check out his crazy, stream-of-consciousness autobiography for all the gory details). Since he first laced up his boots as a jinking juvenile at Argentinos Juniors all those years ago, the Argentine icon has played a central role in quite some number of memorable matches. Sadly, the content of Maradona’s managerial career to date has proven rather less memorable. Until the events of Saturday night in Buenos Aires.

A pivotal World Cup qualifier against continental minnows Peru provided the setting for one of the most remarkable climaxes to an international game since, well, Ireland-Italy a couple of hours earlier. Deep into the second half, Argentina (featuring the twin delights of Lionel Messi and Pablo Aimar, but missing suspended Juan Verón, Carlos Tévez, and numerous others by virtue of the manager’s revolving door selection policy) were labouring towards a desperately-needed three points, as they led 1-0 courtesy of a goal from the boot of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Híguain, making his much-delayed debut. Peru’s Juan Manuel Vargas, of Fiorentina, had earlier struck the Argentina bar with as sweet a left-foot volley as you’re ever likely to see, yet the two-times world champions still looked set fair for the win. Then the heavens opened.

As a diabolical downpour washed around River Plate’s Estadio Monumental, Maradona – who has thus far proved himself to be anything other than a tactical genius – made a series of substitutions which included the half-time introduction of bulky target-man Martín Palermo; the Boca Juniors striker having last been involved at international level nearly 10 years ago. Palermo recently made the record books for scoring the first 40-yard header in professional football, but is better known as the man who fluffed a hat-trick of penalties against Colombia in the 1999 Copa America. His recent recall, at the expense of younger, sharper stars such as Inter Milan’s in-form Diego Milito (now injured, incidentally) had been a contentious one.

The 35-year-old took the field rather than either of Argentina’s supremely talented, but vertically-challenged, forwards Tévez or Kun Agüero. His impact on the second half had been sporadic by the time disaster struck – and struck hard – as substitute Hernán Rengifo headed in a last-minute equalising goal for the visitors, who celebrated joyously amid the squall. All was lost, and Maradona was a dead man walking. Only, that wasn’t the case at all.

Deep, deep into stoppage time the Argentine attack launched itself forward one last time. A cross from the right touch-line eventually found its way to the lurking Palermo. Time stood still as the veteran composed himself to pass the ball into the bottom corner of the net; turning away in an instant to rip off his shirt and celebrate in front of the delirious home support. Maradona, meanwhile, shrugged off persistent doubts about his health by embarking on a Klinsmann-esque diving swan (well, more of a bellyflopping bullfrog) by way of celebration.

Incredibly, there was still time for Peru’s Rainer Torres to strike the Argentinian woodwork again – this time, direct from the kick-off. His remarkable effort was tipped onto the bar and over by an alert Sergio Romero. Had that effort gone in, it would have truly rounded off, with an absurdist twist, a climax which seemed far-fetched enough in any case. The final whistle blew, and a nation celebrated.

Amid the tempest stood two figures, redeemed. For now, at least. The manager and his striker stood locked in a deep and apparently tearful embrace. At half-time, Maradona had apparently told Palermo to “go and resolve this”. Resolve it he certainly did. And with such a sense of dramatic timing too.

“To be honest I never thought I'd experience something like this again. It was hard to think clearly when it was raining so hard and desperation had taken over,” said Los Albicelestes’ returning hero. “This is a reward for all of my hard work; it's one of the happiest days of my life.” Palermo continued: “Men cry too, of course they do. We suffered so much, it was so emotional. A goal like that needs to be experienced and really felt.”

Argentina’s relief was palpable as the dramatic win, which came on the back of three straight defeats, sealed their ascension into the fourth and final qualifying place in the CONMEBOL section. Three points from what is sure to be a tumultuous battle with bitter rivals Uruguay, on Wednesday evening, would now assure Maradona’s men of a trip to South Africa next summer. For all their talent and artistry, on current form they can’t be considered among the favourites; yet the Diego-led circus is sure to be a compelling diversion amid the heat of the battle.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ronaldinho hits rock-bottom at maudlin Milan

Dropped by Dunga. Condemned as past-his-prime by the Milan hierarchy. Hauled-off by Leonardo with half-an-hour still to play against Serie A minnows Bari. Ronaldinho’s had better weeks, that’s for sure.

Winner of the Ballon d’Or just four years ago, the one-time star attraction at Camp Nou has slumped to a shocking low this season. His slump from pinnacle to past-it has been a dramatic one. Perhaps, though, it was an inevitable outcome for a footballer who has always focused more on the vibrant nightlife of Paris, Barcelona and now Milan, than dedicating extra hours preserving his fitness on the training ground.

Outrageous natural talent alone is simply not enough to maintain a sustained period at the very top of the game, as evergreen stars such as Raul, Ryan Giggs and Ronaldinho’s team-mate and good friend Clarence Seedorf have proven by matching their considerable natural reserves with an intense dedication. Aged a mere 29, Ronnie now faces being consigned to history as a quite brilliant flash-in-the-pan who fell short of true greatness.

His recent out-of-touch showing against little Bari, as the plucky visitors dominated proceedings before a hushed San Siro, was painful to behold. Countless stray passes, misguided flicks and tricks and a missed sitter from eight yards. Error after error was greeted by an increasingly familiar sheepish grin; as if to say to his frustrated team-mates “Sorry guys, I used to be good at this lark...honest.” A bad day at the office? Sure. But the malaise in Dinho’s game lies deeper than a shoddy 60 minutes on Sunday.

Milan’s long-serving Adriano Galliani, right-hand man to owner Silvio Berlusconi, admitted as much when talking of Ronaldinho’s sudden loss of eminence.

“He hasn’t a different status in comparison to the other Milan players,” said the Rossoneri’s general manger before Sunday evening’s game.

“Should coach Leonardo consider him in good condition he will play. Otherwise he will sit on the bench, like the others. He must become the player he was few years ago. But I don't know what he's missing,” he concluded.

Galliani’s boss, the Italian premier, refused to condemn his superstar purchase for his penchant for nocturnal misbehaviour, perhaps aware of subsequent ‘pot-kettle-black’ accusations (not that such considerations usually stop the veteran media mogul from speaking out). Tellingly though, Ronaldinho’s line manager, so to speak, Leonardo, publically confirmed that “he’s not the player of three years ago.”

The rookie manager, though, has more immediate concerns to deal with than the plight of his flamboyant compatriot. Former BBC pundit and World Cup winner (in that order) Leonardo accepted what increasingly looks like a poisoned chalice from his predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti.

A tired squad in inexorable decline reached the end of its natural cycle with the somewhat fortunate defeat of Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. Talismanic figures such as Maldini, Kaka and Ancelotti have all since departed, but restructuring work has been minimal. The purchase of Brazilian prodigy Alexandre Pato aside, little serious investment in squad development has been forthcoming.

The potentially exciting capture of Wolfsburg’s prolific Bosnian striker Edin Džeko fell flat this summer, Real Madrid-reject Klaas-Jan Huntelaar arriving at a cut price instead. One-time free-scoring, KJH has been far from immune to the stodgy start to the campaign of his club – no goals in seven Serie A appearances (and nineteen games in all, for both clubs and country) has left the former Ajax hitman looking like a shadow of his former self. Three years on, Andriy Shevchenko (mk.1) has never been adequately replaced.

Another stat – set-piece specialist Andrea Pirlo has failed to score one of his once-trademark free kicks for the club since way back in December 2007 – symbolises the diminishing of the playmaker’s previously masterful influence. In the goalless draw with Bari, the back four featured Kakha Kaladze, also past his peak and still searching for fitness following a seven-month injury lay-off, and inexperienced Ignazio Abate, whose lack of defensive nous was exploited as a matter of routine by tricky winger Emanuel Rivas. Only the southern side’s last-third ineptitude and the spectacular agility of back-up ‘keeper Marco Storari spared Milan from a mortifying home defeat.

Gazzetta dello Sport recently reported a significant slump in season ticket sales at San Siro. The dedicated faithful currently stands at 25,984; down from last leason’s 41,606. The team were jeered from the field by the remaining few at the final whistle, while Ronaldinho absent-mindedly kicked his heels in the dugout following his early substitution.

Since he delighted us all with goals such as this sugar-coated treat against Chelsea, Ronnie’s career has hit a brick wall. Talk of a switch to his homeland, with Corinthians, has surfaced as he now struggles to hold onto a place in the Seleção set-up ahead of the World Cup. Perhaps his predicament is not irreversible, but the continuing decline of Ronaldinho illustrates perfectly that even a world-beating talent can fall from grace in the blink of an eye.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Diego and Sneijder: A tale of two 10s

The number 10 shirt has long been the most prized of all in Italian calcio. It’s generally handed to the chosen few with the creativity, vision and finesse to fulfil the role of play-maker. In Serie A, they even have a couple of special terms for the player who dictates play from the ‘hole’ behind the striker(s). These days the fantasista or trequartista might not actually wear the ‘10’ on his back (more likely 14, 23 or even 80, such as Ronaldinho), yet the role remains the same.

In the first game of the weekend’s early-season-defining double-header – Roma would entertain Juventus 24 hours later – Jose Mourinho’s Inter showcased their bright new hope on the most daunting stage imaginable. By happy fortune rather than contrivance, Wesley Sneijder arrived at the club within hours of the season’s opening Derby della Madonnina. After a summer spent frustratedly chasing old flame Deco, to no avail, Mourinho instead plumped for one of the countless Dutch cast-offs of the Real revolution. Already, it looks a wise move for both parties.

Listless in the opening day draw with top-flight returnees Bari, Inter were, this time, ruthless in their exploitation of fellow San Siro-sharers Milan’s numerous limitations. Sneijder – denied a spectacular debut goal by Marco Storari after only six minutes – provided the spark, while Dejan Stanković deputised for the stricken Esteban Cambiasso at the base of midfield.

Though Milan, under the stewardship of rookie coach Leonardo, took the early initiative, the pendulum had clearly swung Inter’s way when Thiago Motta benefitted from neat inter-play by new strike-partners Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o to steer the ball comprehensively past Storari. Five minutes later, the irrepressible Eto’o (can he really be worth €40m less than Zlatan Ibrahimović?) charged clear of the inattentive Milan defence, and was haring menacingly in on goal when Rino Gattuso hauled him down. Milito slammed the resulting penalty high and hard into the centre of the goal.

Worse was to follow for Gattuso. Struggling with injury, the Milan captain tried to substitute himself by virtue of furious hand signals to the bench and sporting a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. Sub Clarence Seedorf was not ready to take his skipper’s place – a critical error, as it turned out – as Gattuso received a merited second booking for a typically inelegant challenge on Sneijder. Down to ten men, the rossoneri capitulated. Brilliant Brazilian full-back Maicon danced his way through the gaps in the porous Milan defence to add a third goal on the stroke of half-time.

Either side of Inter’s fourth and final goal – a typical 30-yard thunderbolt from the boot of Stanković – Sneijder again missed out on a first Serie A goal by a matter of inches, then was withdrawn to an ovation from the already adoring Inter tifosi. The Dutchman’s opposite number, Ronaldinho, wore heavily the burden of replacing the irreplaceable Kaká in the Milan attack. Ronnie’s decline has been a sharp and unsightly one, and on this evidence the former Ballon D’Or winner may struggle to inspire his side out of a tricky Champions League group which also includes Real and Marseille.

So, while Nathan Tyson was busy waving a red flag at a crowd of white-shirted bulls in the aftermath of a characteristically boisterous East Midlands derby, Milan were listlessly offering a white flag in the direction of their bitter rivals. Given Milan’s current state of flux, it most likely lies with Juventus to provide Mourinho’s men with any kind of cogent title challenge.

Slowly returning to prominence following their brief flirtation with Serie B, Juve have gambled on the capabilities of Brazilian maestro Diego to add a little grace to their play; hoping to mirror the heady days when Brady, Platini or Baggio dominated all-comers on the Turin turf. There has been the feel of a guard-change around the bianconeri this summer: former captain Ciro Ferrara was installed as manager, while talisman Pavel Nedved finally retired. For the trip to the Stadio Olimpico, to face Roma, big names such as David Trezeguet, Mauro Camoranesi and Alex Del Piero were confined to the bench, while Diego and fellow Brazil international Felipe Melo (signed from Fiorentina) took up residency in the engine room.

Diego – free-scoring in the Bundesliga last year – took only 25 minutes to make an indelible mark on the game. Dispossessing the sluggish Marco Cassetti in the centre circle, Diego used all of his significant powers of power, touch and composure to hold off Phillipe Mexes’ challenge; poking the ball firmly past Roma’s goalkeeping debutant, Júlio Sérgio. Such brilliant opportunism, however, was matched by Daniele de Rossi ten minutes later. The heartbeat of the Roma team slammed an unstoppable pile-driver past ashen-faced Gigi Buffon, as the Juve defence dallied while David Pizzaro took a quick free-kick.

At the end of a fractious opening period – in which six bookings were issued – Diego rolled another chance against the base of the post, while an off-colour Francesco Totti spurned the opportunity to give the home side an unmerited lead: Buffon’s desperate point-blank save from the Roma skipper rescuing his inattentive back four. Juventus’ domination grew stronger as the game wore on – lively strikers Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta could easily have notched two goals apiece before Diego clinically claimed the a 2-1 lead for his side by again bamboozling Mexès with a dextrous shuffle of feet, burying the ball beyond Buffon.

When timid Roma eventually threw on Montenegrin forward Mirko Vucinic to support a floundering Totti, the change had an immediate effect, as both Vučinić and Jérémy Menez went close to an equalising goal. Totti then rattled the post from the kind of self-crafted opportunity he has dealt in for so many years. But, just beating the final whistle, it was Juventus that instead sealed the deal by virtue of a charging Felipe Melo run and shot which Julio Sergio could only glance at as it zipped, low and hard, into his net.

So, the boys from Brazil proved to be the decisive factor in the game between two sides which have often been scudetto rivals during the past decade. In 09/10, however, it is unlikely that Roma can keep pace with Juve or Inter, as De Rossi has more or less admitted to the press. When Serie A returns after the international break, much interest will lie in the fortunes of calcio’s two new playmakers par excellence; Sneijder and Diego.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A tactical revolution? How the Big Four have changed

Much has been made of the many comings and goings at the ‘Big Four’ clubs throughout a summer full of signings and speculation. The Premier League title is destined, however, for the team which makes the most of their resources, whether massive or relatively meagre. Personnel, motivation – and luck – are all important factors, of course, but countless points will be won and lost on the pre-game chalkboard.

The relative importance of tactical systems is debated long and hard by so-called students of the game, and, from Harry Redknapp’s successful “keep it simple and enjoy your football” mantra to Arsene Wenger’s relentlessly analytical approach, the pros differ wildly in their methods too. It’s undeniable, though, that there has been a significant tactical shift at the top table of English football between this season and last.

Starting with the defending champions, whose hand has been forced by the much-hyped loss of their free-scoring talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, early season outings have seen Manchester United reclaim their beloved (but long-estranged) formation: the classic 4-4-2. Ronnie’s departure, allied to that of Carlos Tévez, has necessitated a switch from Sir Alex’s patented ‘strikerless’ set-up to a more orthodox approach. United often exhilarated spectators and overwhelmed lesser opposition, during their golden run of the past three years, with a fluid forward line of Rooney, Ronaldo and A.N.Other. Michael Owen’s arrival means that the manager will, more often than not, adopt a flattish midfield four incorporating two wingers from Nani, Valencia, Park, and, in due course, Obertan and Tošić.

Wayne Rooney, therefore, will shoulder the burden of responsibility for both goalscoring and goalmaking, alongside Owen or Berbatov. The evidence so far suggests that reining-in the multi-talented forward’s excessive workrate outwith his new penalty-box remit will be more difficult than first considered.

It is, these days, something of an anomaly to operate a simple two-man central midfield partnership too. Can Carrick and co. still influence games in the same way as before, especially when taking into account the continuing physical decline of old stagers Giggs and Scholes? All told, it is difficult to see United, barring late investment in the squad, dictating to the Premier League minions in quite the same manner as before.

Old rivals Arsenal, meanwhile, have made alterations with an eye on suffocating those opponents that stubbornly refuse to roll over upon mere sight of pretty passing football. In other words: Bolton and Blackburn. In order to turn over their Lancastrian nemeses (and other sides of their ilk), manager Arsène Wenger has in fact borrowed (just a little) from Gary Megson’s team.

Though he’d hardly admit it, the right-sided role that Wenger has thrust Nicklas Bendtner into of late echoes that of Bolton warhorse Kevin Davies – one of the league’s most quietly feared opponents – in seasons past. While the big Dane’s physicality is minimal by comparison with Davies, his presence in the new-look three-man Arsenal front-line draws defensive attention away from the mercurial talents of Robin van Persie and, particularly, Andrei Arshavin.

Wenger explains: “I want to play high up the pitch and bring the threat to the opponents half very early in the game. We are an attacking team and that gives us an opportunity to show our character.”

This plan worked to tremendous effect at Goodison Park last weekend, but doubts persist over whether the Alsatian’s slavish adherence to the beautiful game in its purest form can realistically yield a first league title since 2004. Much will depend on the consistency and continuing development of Cesc Fabregas’ midfield cohorts; Alexandre Song and Denilson. If that pair can form an effective shield in front of an already impressive Gallas-Vermaelen defensive axis, the Gunners might prove more than just also-rans this year.

To finish as relatively close runners-up last year was something of a breakthrough for Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool. To then lose one of their most consistent and able performers from that campaign might be considered careless if it weren’t for the sheer scale of Xabi Alonso’s new employers’ ruthless ambition. Thirty million big ones is an impressive haul, some would say, for a deep-lying midfielder with a shamefully weak goal/assist record. However, the technical prowess and vision offered by Real Madrid’s new no.22 was crucial in the delicate tactical balance which held together the 4-2-3-1 line-up favoured by Benitez.

Notwithstanding the possible impact of energetic Roman midfielder Alberto Aquilani on the Merseysiders’ fortunes, there’s no doubt that they have lost a significant dimension to their play. The over-reliance on Steven Gerrard’s freakish blend of athleticism and finesse, and on Fernando Torres as the point of attack (Andrii Voronin might have returned from a brilliant loan spell in Berlin with greater confidence, but still lacks a little star quality) means that Liverpool will inevitably struggle to maintain their momentum.

While a significant departure has placed Benítez in something of a tactical quandary, title rivals Chelsea will surely benefit from continuity of key personnel. The latest head coach along the Stamford Bridge production line, Carlo Ancelotti, has brought with him from Milan a narrow midfield structure; latterly used by a certain Jose Mourinho. The Blues’ abundance of able central midfield players lends itself to such a ‘diamond’ formation, it’s true. The absence of orthodox wingers from the XI, however, brings with it serious limitations.

One of the main beneficiaries of the switch, Michael Ballack has played the old “you can play any system with good players” card in recent interviews. Tellingly, the 32-year-old has conceded Ancelotti’s preferred option has as many cons as pros: “You gain a small advantage through the centre but there's more hard work for the four midfielders because they have a lot of work to do on and off the ball in this system,” said Ballack.

Quite where this approach will leave the likes of resurgent Florent Malouda, expensive new-boy Yuri Zhirkov and the returning Joe Cole is for Carletto to know and the King’s Road hordes to find out. At least the Premier League’s most frightening front two – Anelka and Drogba – can both be accommodated within the new framework. At the Stadium of Light this week, near-forgotten Deco was given a chance in support of Drogba, showing a certain flexibility in Ancelotti’s thinking. It is for this reason that Chelsea can produce their most cogent title push since the departure of their one-time tactical tsar, Mourinho.

Of course, it’s too early in the season to fully assess the impact (and longevity) of these changes, but it will be fascinating to see how events unfold on the chalkboard as the season develops.

To tinker with a winning formula exhibits bravery, for there’s the risk it can all go horribly wrong – witness Martin O’Neill’s switch to 4-4-2 spectacularly de-railing Aston Villa last term; beware Harry Redknapp, who has spoken of altering his hitherto winning formula by adding a third man to the Tottenham front-line.

For those who gamble and win? Well, they’ll be lionised as tactical geniuses forevermore. Well, at least until their next cock-up. 4-5-1 at home to Stoke!? What were you thinking?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Signings: Six of the Best (so far)

Where did the sporting summer go? Federer’s grand-slam supremacy; Armstrong and Contador bickering their way through the Pyrenees; Watson holding back the years on the sun-kissed links of Turnberry. Like 10pm sunsets and long, hot afternoons (ok, long rainy afternoons) these glorious events have, already, been consigned to the annals for another year. But don’t despair – football’s back! Though it’s hardly been away and – for the love of God – the destiny of the Ashes is still in the balance, the English league season has kicked off once more.

As ever, through the barren months, wild transfer speculation has kept us all engaged, entertained and amused (Christian Vieri to Blackburn?? At 36, Big Bobo is surely in worse shape than Big Sam himself). Despite most of the guff which fills footy gossip columns lacking even the slightest thread of veracity, occasionally a juicy deal or two does, in fact, come to fruition. And – resisting the temptation to include broadcaster ESPN for their audacious signings of not only the English Premier League, but also Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga – here are six of the best mid-summer moves (so far):

Diego (Werder Bremen to Juventus) – Erstwhile team-mate of Robinho and Elano in the 2002/03 Santos superteam, Diego has been a star attraction in the Bundesliga since moving to Bremen three years ago. Juve expect the diminutive playmaker will add a necessary dash of élan to their workmanlike engine-room; aiding the transition of rookie boss Ciro Ferrara’s men from Champions League also-rans into genuine contenders. With a healthy haul of 20 goals during his final season in Germany (six came in Werder’s run to the UEFA Cup Final) and a hatful of assists, the 24-year-old from São Paulo appears to be reaching a peak which looked like it might never arrive when he failed to flourish in the first post-Mourinho Porto side. With several big names deserting Serie A like a sinking ship, Diego now has a golden chance to become a Calcio superstar in their absence.

Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Zenit St Petersburg to Bayern Munich) – Bayern’s shambolic 08/09 campaign ended in bitter recrimination, as the fall-out from the all-too-brief Klinsmann era threatened to destabilise the German giants. However, the shrewd acquisitions of experienced coach Louis van Gaal, Hamburg’s workhorse forward Ivica Olić and – in particular – Ukrainian grafter Tymoschuk give an altogether more resolute sheen to the FC Hollywood starting eleven. The ultimate professional, ‘Tymo’ will filter out opposition attacks in front of a back four now shorn of inspirational Lúcio; feeding the ball quickly and accurately to front-men Franck Ribéry, Miro Klose and €30m man Mario Gómez. Having been the lynchpin behind Zenit’s recent continental successes (including a 4-1 humiliation of Bayern in the 2008 UEFA Cup semi-final), the Ukraine vice-captain now chances his arm at a genuine European football heavyweight.

Yuri Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow to Chelsea) – A summer of relative austerity for previously profligate Roman Abramovich, but at least Carlo Ancelotti has been allowed at least one exciting new plaything, by means of Zhirkov’s expensive acquisition. Given Joe Cole’s forthcoming return and Florent Malouda’s unexpected mid-season turnaround last term (...from disinterested to unstoppable in the eye-blink between Scolari’s dismissal and Hiddink’s appointment), the signing of a crafty, industrious left-footed winger will create intense competition for a starting place alongside Messrs Anelka and/or Drogba. Hiddink has used Zhirkov as a left-wing-back to great effect at international level, and the Blackburn Rovers fan (?) is certainly defensively capable. Causing havoc in the final third, though, is where Blues fans will see the costliest ever Russian footballer at his very best.

Lucho González (FC Porto to Marseille) – Few would have predicted that one of the Champions League’s most reliable, versatile and sought-after midfielders would switch to the Mediterranean coast, rather than to one of Italian or Spanish football’s big guns. El Comandante’s move, for a fee in the region of €18m, indicates the extent of OM’s ambition under new head coach Didier Deschamps. The former River Plate star will fill the gap in the Marseille midfield vacated by Sunderland’s new recruit (and former OM skipper) Lorik Cana, though he’ll offer far more offensive flair than the fiery Albanian ever did. With Gaby Heinze and Stéphane M’Bia among a number of impressive fellow arrivals, ‘Lucho’ will be confident that his new side is on an upward curve.

Nilmar (Internacional to Villarreal) – Though the Yellow Submarine’s general manager José Manuel Llaneza refers to the club’s new record signing as a “global superstar”, Nilmar has much to prove before he can truly substantiate such lofty acclaim. In a World Cup year, with his place in the final Brazilian squad still in the balance, it could be perceived as something of a risk for the 25-year-old to return to Europe. But now the time is right for the clever goal-poacher to atone for the aberration on his CV which was a short, unhappy spell at Lyon. With the talismanic Nihat Kahveci returned to Beşiktaş after seven productive years in La Liga, much of Villarreal’s attacking onus now falls upon the slender shoulders of their new star and his strike partner Giuseppe Rossi. The young duo are set to be one of the most scintillating in the Primera División.

Cristiano Ronaldo/Kaká/Xabi Alonso/Karim Benzema (all to Real Madrid) – There have been some exciting deals swilling around in football’s bottomless money pit of late, but for sheer arrogance, ambition and razzmatazz there’s simply no-one that can match the peerless profligacy of Florentino Perez. Even the greatest sceptics of his approach cannot wait to see how the second generation Galacticos ‘project’ pans out – both on and off the field. Let the fun begin...

Other great deals:

Top 3 young guns on the move

Fabian Delph (Leeds Utd to Aston Villa) – has enjoyed praise from quarters diverse as Steve Claridge, Steve Staunton and, perhaps more credibly, Fiorentina boss Claudio Prandelli. A left-footed English midfielder with authority, composure and great passing range: who needs Gareth Barry?

Radamel ‘Falcao’ Garcia (River Plate to FC Porto) – long-touted for a move to Europe (and already familiar to fans of certain football management games), the fleet-footed front-man has big boots to fill now that Lisandro Lopez has set sail for Lyons. Nonetheless, Porto’s new no.9 has all the raw talent to set the Champions League alight.

Marcus Berg – top-scoring at the under-21 Euros drew Premier League attention towards the Swedish striker, but the 22-year-old was instead destined for the Bundesliga, with Hamburg. If he can translate his scintillating Eredivisie form to one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, Berg will soon replace Ivica Olić as the Hamburg fans-favourite.

Top 3 freebies (Bosmans/loans)

Aleksandr Hleb (Barcelona to Stuttgart [loan]) – turned down a season-long switch to Inter (as a makeweight in the megabucks Eto’o-Zlatan deal) to return to his old home. An excellent move for both parties.

Valeri Bojinov (Manchester City to Parma [loan]) – continuing his long, laborious return from serious injury with Serie A returnees Parma could be the ideal switch at this stage of the powerful striker’s stop-start career.

Michael Owen (Newcastle Utd to Manchester Utd) – what a move for the one-time Anfield hero, whom the press had prematurely consigned to the knackers yard, and what a bargain for wily old Sir Alex. Everyone’s a winner.