Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wasteful Bayern blow title race wide open

The Bundesliga title race resumed with a bang following the lengthy winter break, as Bayern Munich travelled to Hamburg on Friday night. Two former Spurs heroes went head-to-head in the battle of the dugouts: Jürgen Klinsmann’s Bayern were tied at the top (on 35 points) with tiny Hoffenheim; Martin Jol’s Hamburg lurking behind on 33. With Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen also within three points of top spot at the break, the race for supremacy in German football this spring promises to be an intensely-fought one.

Bayern’s faltering start to the season has been well documented, but hopes of an improved showing were boosted by a thumping victory over Stuttgart (now managed by ex-Liverpool defender Markus Babbel) in the German Cup last week. However, as Klinsmann later stated, the Bavarians were ‘asleep’ for the first 30 minutes of the resumption of league duties.

During the opening half-hour, Hamburg flooded forward at will – tricky winger Piotr Trochowski causing havoc with his ceaseless work ethic and clever invention. The German international struck the base of the post with an early shot from distance. Dominant HSV hardly seemed perturbed by the absences of Nigel de Jong (now plugging the many gaps in the Manchester City engine-room) and tireless frontman Ivica Olić (bound for Bayern in the summer).

TV cameras homed in on the Croatian, serving a controversial suspension for dismissal in a mid-break friendly, watching on as his present team-mates dominated those of his future. Yet it was Bayern who were unfortunate not to take the lead when Luca Toni had an apparently legitimate goal chalked off, ostensibly for impeding Hamburg’s Bastian Reinhardt. It was, in fact, Reinhardt that might have been penalised instead – for shirt-tugging – as the giant Italian strode through to fire past Frank Rost.

One of Klinsmann’s main concerns about the side he inherited in the summer must be the security (or otherwise) of its last line of defence. Oliver Kahn’s successor was always going to have a tough act to follow, but Michael Rensing has consistently struggled under the weight of expectation that comes with being Bayern no.1.

On the cusp of half time, Rensing palmed David Jarolím’s rather tame deflected shot straight into the path of the grateful Mladen Petrić. The Croat striker nodded in from near the penalty spot to put Hamburg into a deserved one-goal lead. The Bayern ‘keeper’s pain would hardly have been soothed by Klinsmann’s post-game description of the goal as “stupid”.

Within seconds of that concession, Bayern broke upfield and, from Bastian Schweinsteiger’s cross, Toni flashed a header narrowly wide of Rost’s goal. On the other side of the whistle, the second period opened with Hamburg on the offensive once more. Petrić latched onto ex-Bayern striker Paolo Guerrero’s smart through-pass, but could only divert the ball against the post; Guerrero then wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to grab a second goal from the rebound.

The brightest star in Bayern’s galaxy – Franck Ribéry – was, as ever, full of flicks, tricks and no-look passes. Only the end product was missing from his repertoire, as the lime-booted winger found his influence suppressed by the close attentions of Collin Benjamin throughout. Zé Roberto, still sprightly at the grand old age of 34, offers great skill and industry in his second spell at the club, while giant Brazilian centre-half Lúcio still enjoys the odd lung-bursting upfield surge. Yet Klinsmann’s side palpably lack the formidable aura carried by all-conquering Bayern teams of the past.

They pressed hard for an equaliser throughout the second half – having another possible goal denied by the linesman’s flag when it looked as if Rost might have clawed a shot out from behind the goal-line. Trochowski, probably the shortest man on the pitch, then headed off the line from a Toni flick-header.

Toni’s profligacy continued, as his performance leant more towards Euro ‘08 than Fiorentina 05/06. With 20 minutes to go, the 31-year-old inexplicably headed wide of the target again when set-up with a presicion headed pass from Miroslav Klose. It was a chance that ‘Coach Klinsi’ himself would surely still have bulged the net with, even at the age of 44.

Klose, Lúcio and Toni again, spurned further opportunities to level the score as the clock ran down. Even the late introduction of Landon Donovan (who arrived on a Beckham-esque loan deal from LA Galaxy) couldn’t alter the destiny of the game, HSV hanging on for three precious points. For twenty-four hours at least, Jol’s men lead the table by a point.

Rumours persist that Zenit St Petersburg’s midfield general Anatoliy Tymoschuk will also join Bayern – possibly in the summer – while Philip Lahm, Ribéry and, for definite, Lukas Podolski (who returns to Koln at the end of the season) could all be heading for the exit. Whatever the comings and goings, Klinsmann certainly has his plate full.

A Champions League tie with Sporting Lisbon looms on the horizon amid a close-fought Bundesliga title race which is beginning to resemble that of 2006/07, when a young Stuttgart team emerged as unlikely champions and Bayern finished only fourth. A repeat of such an outcome would not be at all palatable to the giant egos at ‘FC Hollywood’. Klinsi: the pressure is on.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Moyes makes most of meagre resources

If Bill Shankly wouldn’t open his curtains to see Everton playing at the bottom of his garden, then it’s fair to assume that Rafa Benitez would hardly bother to pop on his specs to watch the Toffees knocking neat one-twos across his solid oak dining table; such is the Spaniard’s apparent disdain for Liverpool’s Merseyside rivals. Yet, due to his erratic recent conduct, the credibility of the former Valencia coach’s various opinions has seriously nosedived – none less than his assessment of David Moyes’ men.

Everton stand accused of boring, stultifying and – shock, horror! – defending, their way up to sixth place in the Premier League on the back of a nine-game unbeaten run. That they haven’t lost a game since their unfortunate 2-3 reverse in early December’s “Thriller with the Villa” speaks volumes for the deep reserves of fortitude and ability at the Goodison Park club. Taking into consideration the paucity of forward options Moyes has been forced to deal with – Yakubu, Saha, Vaughan are all M.I.A – that achievement should be heralded all the more.

Since his switch from Preston in 2002, Moyes has made a name for himself as an accomplished maximiser of relatively meagre resources.

Arch-critic Benitez has had a net spend of £100m-plus, with his predecessor Gérard Houllier reportedly getting through £120m (with sales of approx. £57m) during his tenure. In his first six years at the Everton helm, prior to last summer, Moyes had spent just less than £80m and recovered £52m – effectively at an annual cost of around £5m. At a time when finances are especially thin on the ground and a healthy chunk of his squad is laid up with injury, it seems that the taciturn Glaswegian has, once again, come into his own.

Due to his reticent nature, Moyes is generally shy with the superlatives, but didn’t hesitate to apportion full credit to his two defensive bedrocks following the Toffees’ 1-1 draw with Arsenal on Wednesday night. Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka were both “outstanding” and “out of this world”, according to their manager. Jagielka continues to draw praise as one of the Premier League’s apparently ‘unsung heroes’, but it is the consistently brilliant Lescott – the duo’s senior partner – who has shone the brightest since his overdue switch inside from left-back.

Boyhood Liverpool fan Leighton Baines has now come good in the position vacated by Lescott. Elsewhere: in midfield; Phil Neville is a limited player, notoriously so, but a solidly dependable one. Record-buy Marouane Fellaini has split opinion, but the aerial threat the lanky Belgian offers in absence of Everton’s recognised front-men has been invaluable to the cause. Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar’s assiduous endeavour on the flanks has allowed much-admired creator-in-chief Mikel Arteta to shine in his preferred central role.

It is, of course, the goal-getting efforts of Tim Cahill which grab the majority of the headlines. To watch the versatile Australian’s adept penalty-box manoeuvres at attacking set-plays is to watch a master at work. His prodigious spring, and uncanny knack of appearing ethereally from off-radar to bulge the net, makes Cahill an invaluable asset to a decidedly workmanlike outfit.

It is exactly how Moyes has sculpted these key players, as well as those in the margins, into an unassailable unit which is most noteworthy aspect of their recent ascent. Without an established target-man, Everton have adopted a set-up which could be crudely described as a 4-6-0 formation. Fellaini, when available, has provided an unlikely attacking fulcrum; with Cahill, Pienaar and Osman breaking forward at will to join in on the team’s rare forays forward.

Over the course of the last few seasons – as the vast majority of Premier League line-ups have moved away from the long-established 4-4-2 – it has become fashionable to flood the midfield and leave one man up front to plough a lone furrow. Though borne of necessity rather than careful invention, Everton’s forward-less formation is not in itself revolutionary.

Facing a similar injury crisis as they challenged strongly for the 2006/07 Serie A scudetto, Luciano Spalletti’s Roma used Francesco Totti (typically a classic no.10) as a nominal centre-forward; supported by quick, able runners from midfield such as Mancini, Taddei and Simone Perrotta. Often, Totti would drop into his more conventional position, leaving the team bereft of a single out-and-out striker. The ploy worked to some success, as the Romans played some of the most enterprising football throughout Europe that year. In a slightly different case, Manchester United featured a fluid front-line of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo on many occasions last season – often with all three working outside the penalty box; leaving the team entirely without an old-fashioned no.9.

Such justification for their current style won’t appease Everton’s harshest critics though. In the aftermath of the second 1-1 Merseyside derby draw within a week, and in sharp response to Benitez’s harsh appraisal of the Everton approach, Moyes went on the offensive with characteristic maturity and distinction. He said: “This is a great club, and we do things with dignity and style. I take great pride with how the players are performing at the moment – the resilience they are showing.”

It’s not hard to surmise, then, that his high-flying side are made very much in the image of their resolutely single-minded manager. On Saturday evening, the immovable object which is Everton’s back four (or perhaps back five, six, seven...) meets the irresistible force of Manchester United. Ironically, an unlikely Toffees win at Old Trafford would play nicely into the hands of Rafa’s boys across Stanley Park. Moyes won’t care about that for one moment though. Instead he’ll concentrate fully on once again making the most of the hand he’s been dealt.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Is Arshavin the man to rouse erratic Arsenal?

Zenit St Petersburg general director Maxim Mitrofanov claimed yesterday that talks are on-going with Arsenal over the potential move of their prized asset, Andrei Arshavin, to the Emirates Stadium. Some sources have it that Arshavin has already visited London with a view to wrapping up one of this season’s most tedious transfer sagas.

It seems a deal is imminent. So is it a move that can revitalise Arsenal’s flagging title challenge, or is this impending transaction too high-risk and somewhat ill-advised given the evident shortcomings of the Gunners’ squad? In short: is Andrei Arshavin really the right man to rouse Arsene’s Arsenal?


Arsene Wenger admitted to French TV channel Canal Plus last month that he wanted to secure the services of a creative midfielder during this transfer window. Following last weekend’s FA Cup victory over Plymouth he said: “What I want, if we do add somebody, is someone who can create a little spark.”

“If the right player comes in, even if he is not available for the Champions’ League, the class is more important. Players like (Aaron) Ramsey, of course they still show lapses, through lack of experience.”

He concluded: “In the Premier League now, you need to be really a man.”

It’s implicit, then, that an experienced, inspirational talent such as Arshavin would be a more than welcome arrival at Ashburton Grove. And rightly so.

Signing a technically adept, innovative playmaker might not seem an immediately obvious response to a campaign characterised by defensive lapses and a lack of engine room fortitude. However, it is a typically Wenger-esque solution to his team’s exasperating form of late. Just look at one of his previous expensive winter purchases – José Antonio Reyes.

OK, so in the long-run that deal didn’t work out for the best, but the impetus of Reyes’ arrival from Sevilla helped the Gunners along to their ‘perfect’ 2003/04 title. Arshavin would have his hands full trying to steer Arsenal to top spot this time around, but could make all the difference in the battle, with Aston Villa, for a precious Champions League spot.

It’s a move that would also relieve the creative burden which falls heavily upon the slim shoulders of Ramsey, Nasri, et al, in the continuing absence of talisman Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky. It is the little Czech midfielder who stands to lose out from this move, but few fans will shed a tear should his inconsistent, injury-riddled stay at the Emirates be terminated come the summer. Like Rosicky, Arshavin is not a frequent goalscorer, but will weigh in with his fair share and create at least twice as many for others. In his best year to date, 2007, he notched up 15 goals and a remarkable 25 assists in 46 league and European games.

Those harbouring doubts whether the player can adapt to the relentless rigours of English football need only cast their eye across North London towards Spurs’ Roman Pavlyuchenko – the major protagonist behind the Lilywhites’ run to within touching distance of the Carling Cup final. The striker was not an immediate success, but his numerous qualities have become all the more apparent in recent weeks. Should he finally arrive, Arshavin must similarly be given time to acclimatise.

One recurring complaint about the proposed deal is the financial aspect. Zenit are holding out for a fee in the region of £20m, to be paid in full. Yet, when you consider that Arsenal alumnus David Bentley – a gifted, but essentially superfluous performer – cost Tottenham £17m last summer, Arshavin should certainly command such a sum. In any case, the eventual price will surely be less, with Zenit keen to cash in on a disillusioned asset before the window slams shut.

Finally, though it would hardly concern Wenger, signing the mercurial midfielder would really spice up the upper reaches of the Premier League. Arshavin is one of those rare players, in the mould of a Messi or Ribéry, who can routinely turn a game on its head – as evidenced by his stellar performances during Euro 2008; particularly in Russia’s comprehensive quarter-final defeat of Holland. Throughout that tournament, Wenger eulogised to all and sundry about the exceptional talents of the little man from Leningrad. Now is the time to give the tricky no.10 his big chance to make it in the West.


Zenit want £20m payment in full, a deal which, given the standard Premier League practice of paying by instalments, would spectacularly shatter Wenger’s strict model of prudency. Arsenal’s record outright payment (Reyes cost £10m plus various add-ons) was the £13m acquisition of Sylvain Wiltord some eight years ago. Mid-season, while a new, young side is in its infancy is hardly the time for the ex-Monaco manager to abandon his famed principles.

And what of Ramsey and 17-year-old prodigy Jack Wilshere? Surely Arshavin’s arrival would curb their encouraging development, with first team opportunities at a premium – especially once Fabregas returns.

Even if a lavish outlay is forthcoming, Wenger must spend it in the right areas. As Bill Shankly used to say: “A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.” The potential addition of Arshavin to the Arsenal ranks may add another virtuoso player, but leaves them, still, with precious few carriers.

What Wenger most needs now, as most observers would surely agree, is a destructive element. Someone to sift through the dirty work; as Messrs Vieira, Petit and, latterly, Flamini did with such authority. A box-to-box player such as Barcelona’s Yaya Touré would fit the bill nicely. Mark Hughes apparently hopes to persuade the Ivorian to swap Camp Nou for Moss Side, but if any club might prise Kolo’s little brother away from the Catalans it would more likely be Arsenal. And, of course, there are many other, cheaper, alternatives. Arshavin’s Zenit team-mate Anatoliy Tymoshchuk would be one.

With ex-skipper William Gallas and Mickael Silvestre ruled out of action for the rest of the month, defensive recruits must now take priority – Matthew Upson is supposedly a key target.

As for the transfer target himself; between making his first-team debut at, curiously enough, Valley Parade (against Bradford City in the 2000 Intertoto Cup) and his influential role in Zenit’s UEFA Cup triumph last season, Arshavin made only a negligible impact on the football public’s consciousness. His star turns against Sweden and Holland during the Euros were impressive, it’s true, but the 27-year-old was notable by his absence during the Russians’ capitulation in the semi-final clash with Spain. In that game, it was Xavi, Iniesta and Arsenal’s own Fàbregas that shone, while Arshavin floundered.

Since that time, he has sulked his way through the remainder of the Russian League season, as potential summer moves to Spurs and Barcelona faltered at the negotiating stage. Zenit then fell through the Champions League trapdoor, with Arshavin failing to make an impression. His fleeting appearances in the competition this season would also rule him out of Arsenal’s challenge for European honours – their best remaining chance of major glory this term.

Should this gamble fail, Wenger’s apparent infallibility will be drawn under further scrutiny. Any departure from the policy of youth and shrewdness that has served the 59-year-old so well in his career cannot – and will not – be taken lightly.