Friday, May 22, 2009

Dzeko & Grafite: The deadliest duo in Europe

Shearer and Sutton, Torres and Villa, Butch and Sundance, Cheech & Chong...the list goes on. Deadly partnerships all, but few can confidently boast a record to match that of Bundesliga champions-elect Wolfsburg’s Bosnian-Brazilian duo; Edin Dzeko and Grafite.

4-5-1 or a fluid 4-3-3 has become the football formation de rigeur, so genuinely successful scoring partnerships are now few and far between. This pair, however, have bucked that particular trend spectacularly. With 51 league goals between them, they each share their place in the higher echelons of the prestigious ESM Golden Shoe rankings with names illustrious as Samuel Eto’o, David Villa, Diego Forlan and, er, Marc Janko (who leads the list courtesy of his 39-goal haul in the Austrian Bundesliga). Their veritable hatful-and-a-half of goals has been the primary force behind the Wolves’ charge to within a point of the first Bundesliga title in their previously unassuming history.

On Saturday afternoon, the club financed by Volkswagen’s millions and led by authoritarian head coach Felix Magath will host beaten UEFA Cup finalists, Werder Bremen. They need only a draw to ensure German football supremacy ahead of fellow contenders Bayern Munich and VfB Stuttgart – who meet one another at the Allianz-Arena knowing only a win allied to a Wolfsburg defeat will do.

That Wolfsburg are still in pole position at the denouement of Europe’s most open and exciting title race comes as something of a surprise to those who expected Bayern’s big names to undergo a late-season resurgence. For all the merits of Italian internationals Cristian Zaccardo (who has, in fact, featured little) and Andrea Barzagli, in-form Swiss ‘keeper Diego Benaglio, and impassable Brazilian midfield patroller Josue, it is with free-scoring strikers Dzeko and Grafite that the plaudits must mostly lie.

Burly forward Grafite (disappointingly pronounced ‘graff-eetch’, rather than ‘grafitti’ or even ‘graphite’) had, prior to this season been something of a peripatetic journeyman. The 30-year-old moved to the Volkswagen Arena from Le Mans for a modest fee of £5m, with spells at Sao Paulo and, more obliquely, Anyang LG Cheetahs of South Korea’s K-League filling out his sparse CV. Few could have predicted the man with just one cap and one goal for the Brazilian Seleção would have set alight one of Europe’s top leagues with goals such as this stonker in April’s spectacular 5-1 dismantling of Bayern. In that game, ex-Bayern boss Magath enjoyed twisting the knife by needlessly substituting his ‘keeper Benaglio with just minutes to play. To conclude that the Wolves’ boss – who heads for Schalke this summer – would ‘love it, just love it’ if his current side could hold off the all-conquering Bavarian powerhouse for 90 minutes longer would be a fair assessment.

While Magath’s Brazilian import has, in part, relied on his penalty-spot prowess to boost an already impressive goals total, his strike-partner Dzeko’s 25 league goals have come entirely from open play. Of the two, it is the 23-year-old Sarajevan who has drawn the most admiring glances from Europe’s top clubs. His stunning second half of the season has culminated, during the past fortnight, in a pair of clinically-taken hat-tricks against Hanover and Hoffenheim – whose own Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic led the scoring charts pre-Christmas only to suffer a season-ending injury. The Balkan nation lie second, behind European champions Spain, in their World Cup qualifying group. They sit ahead of both Turkey and fast-improving Belgium, and the goals of Ibisevic and Dzeko (the top scorer in qualifying to date) could well make the young nation a surprise package in South Africa next summer.

At Wolfsburg, master-marksman Dzeko has been fed the bullets time and time again by the “sharpest passer in central Europe” (at least according to Bundesliga expert Rapha Honigstein); playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic – also a Bosnian, though Munich-born. It is the exceptional success of this particular on-field alliance which has elevated Dzeko to the status as one of Europe’s hottest properties. Arsenal, Chelsea and a host of Serie A’s leading lights have been touted as possible destinations for the lethal frontman. In a way, it would be a shame – though entirely predictable – for the Wolves’ wunderteam to be dismantled with next season’s Champions League on the near horizon. Yet with Magath’s departure will come the vultures ready to pick off the stars of this remarkable season.

Wolfsburg’s squad, for now, will have thoughts of next year firmly stricken from their minds by tough taskmaster Magath. They now have a golden opportunity to etch the club’s name into football lore for reasons other than having had, to the amused delight of many, a manager named Wolfgang Wolf. They may not grace the Volkswagen Arena for much longer; but the scene is set, much like Butch and Sundance, for Wolfsburg’s deadly duo to go out in a blaze of glory.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Cull of the Coaches: Playing greats must learn their trade

Loved to loathed; revered to reviled; that’s so often the lot of playing star turned struggling boss. The list is long, and ever-growing, of successful footballers that fall short when it comes to applying their knowledge to management.

“This season, we have not been good enough,” admitted one recent ‘victim’ of this curse, Marco van Basten. His Ajax side had just conceded second place (and with it a Champions League place) to Steve McLaren’s FC Twente by virtue of a shocking 0-4 defeat to Sparta Rotterdam. That result followed hot on the heels of a thumping 2-6 reverse at the hands of old rivals PSV, who themselves have been rifling through managers like a tabloid hack through the dodgy expenses records of a cabinet Minister.

“Mentally and tactically, the team has shown to be lacking. Next season we should be a lot better,” was the former World Player of the Year’s brutal assessment of his squad. Within 48 hours, his bags were packed and the 44–year-old had departed the Amsterdam ArenA for the final time as head coach. “I am not able to fulfil the demands that Ajax have for a coach,” said van Basten.

Following his early exit from the game, aged just 30, van Basten took a lengthy sabbatical – committing himself to the golf course and, in 2002, publishing a thoughtful, innovative manifesto for the future of the beautiful game. The former Milan marksman suffered from spells of depression in the wake of his enforced retirement - due to knee injury - at an age when he would have been at his very peak, and it looked for all the world that one of the all-time greats would be lost to the professional game for good.

Ajax intervened, however; offering their favourite son a route back in with a role coaching the under-19 side of their famed academy. He was then a surprise appointment as national team coach. It was a position which Van Basten struggled to get to grips with and, despite the dynamic Dutch displays at Euro 2008, few were surprised at his resignation from that post. His tactics were often maligned, no less so when the Dutch were outmanoeuvred by their old master Guus Hiddink’s Russian revolution in the quarter-finals.

Back at his old club this season, van Basten fared little better. Expensive purchases such as Miralem Sulejmani and Darío Cvitanich backfired, while established stars Johnny Heitinga and Klaas Jan Huntelaar departed Amerstdam for opposite sides of Madrid. His continued exclusion of ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenburg in favour of playing inexperienced Kenneth Vermeer even prompted his successor as Oranje boss, Bert van Marwijk, to (unsuccessfully) call upon Edwin van der Sar to resurrect his international career once again. A UEFA Cup exit at the hands of Ligue 1 champions-elect Marseille was no disgrace, but recent results in the Eredivisie made Van Basten’s position untenable.

In the wake of Bayern Munich’s ruthless dismissal of Jürgen Klinsmann last month – and the Premier League failures of Roy Keane, Tony Adams and Paul Ince – the body of evidence grows ever stronger against the appointment of big-name stars, without sufficient experience, in high-profile managerial posts. It’s early days yet, but Alan Shearer’s motivational skills in the relegation dogfight have proved as stimulating as his yawnsome post-match analyses on Match of the Day. Even Frank Rijkaard, apparently heading the wanted lists of both Bayern and Ajax as a result of his initial success at Barça, flopped at Sparta Rotterdam in his first club-level appointment, and doubtless learned valuable lessons from his mistakes in the role.

There are exceptions, of course. Still wet behind the ears as a manager; Laurent Blanc is masterminding an exciting revival in Bordeaux’s fortunes. Roberto Mancini enjoyed near-instant success as Lazio, then Inter boss – though only after serving a valuable apprenticeship under Sven Goran Eriksson while at the former. Gianfranco Zola, with the invaluable assistance of Steve Clarke, has made a good early impression at the Boleyn ground. It’s true enough, too, that Pep Guardiola seems to have got a fairly decent handle on running things down in Catalonia.

Broadly speaking though, there’s no compensating for that most precious commodity – experience. It’s no coincidence that those in charge of the English ‘Big Four’ (Barcelona excepted, they are now Europe’s premier clubs too) are all 45-plus and have held posts previously at clubs diverse as St Mirren, Nagoya Grampus Eight, Extremadura, Nancy-Lorraine and De Graafschap. A little lower down the Premier League food chain, Martin O’Neill cut his teeth with Grantham Town, Wycombe, Norwich, then Leicester. David Moyes started out at Preston. Harry Redknapp career, as he never tires of recounting, began on the Bournemouth breadline.

While it’s crucial that potential managerial talent from within playing stars is nurtured and allowed to flourish, the unforgiving environs of the Premier League are not the ideal place to do so. Of the current crop of footballing talent, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville have been most explicit in their ambition to manage at the top level. If they have even a lick of sense between them they should heed the warning of Klinsi and Marco’s managerial misadventures and start out small. The transformation from player to gaffer is not a given – virtuosity with a ball does not necessarily translate to effortless tactical acumen and people-management. Even for those with the requisite aptitude, management is a skill to be fine-tuned and honed to perfection.

Picture this, if you will: 38-year-old Wayne Rooney up to his neck in paperwork as he desperately tries to sell his star striker on transfer deadline day to keep Tranmere Rovers out of administration; sedately-suited, sensibly-coiffed Djibril Cissé publicly censuring his captain for spending the build-up to the Blue Square Premier playoff final in a top Macclesfield hair salon; Didier Drogba out on a rain-lashed Torquay training pitch, helping his top scorer to perfect the dark art of the penalty area swan-dive. It could happen...couldn’t it?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Supermac makes Celtic firm favourites for four-in-a-row

Once more the SPL title race will be fought to the bitter end of the Scottish league season. Four rounds of fixtures between now and May 24 will decide the destiny of the championship for another year. Will it be four-in-a-row for leaders Celtic, or can Walter Smith take the first step towards restoring Rangers’ supremacy of the 90s with a first title since 2005?

Most bookies regard Celtic as odds-on to retain their trophy, with Rangers marginally odds against. Heading into Saturday morning’s season-defining Old Firm clash, Gordon Strachan's men are just one point (and, perhaps crucially, three goals) to the good. They were the obvious beneficiaries of Rangers’ fixture-list meltdown at the end of last season and must hold their collective nerve if they are to keep their old rivals at bay this time.

This season more than most others, there’s little to choose between the sides. Rangers; workmanlike and defensively-sound, have racked up five wins on the spin in their dogged pursuit of a marginally more subtle Celtic team reliant on the craft of Shunsuke Nakamura, Paul Hartley and Aiden McGeady and the dynamism of (currently suspended) PFA Player of the Year, Scott Brown.

The weekend’s fixtures saw both clubs take maximum points with, on paper at least, routine two-goal victories. In fact, with minds oppressed by fear of failure and legs rendered heavy by a long, gruelling campaign; both Glasgow big guns laboured to get the job done.

On Sunday afternoon, Rangers stumbled to a 2-0 home win over Europa League-chasing Hearts. The visitors from Edinburgh matched the Gers’ toil and indeed held the majority of possession, but, as an attacking force, were as blunt as a bubble-wrapped turnip. Clueless striker Christian Nadé was the main culprit for Csaba László’s side, whose only cutting edge came, again, from highly-rated winger Andrew Driver.

The Oldham-born left-footer proved a thorn in the side of the Rangers defence throughout – though playing predominantly on the right flank where the 21-year-old’s lack of strength on his weaker foot was sometimes exposed. Nonetheless, his relative success offers some encouragement to McGeady and Shaun Maloney, who may be called upon as a sub if things aren’t going Celtic’s way at Ibrox.

Hearts old-boy Andrius Velička pounced to score from strike partner Kris Boyd’s nod-down in first-half stoppage time to break Hearts’ stern resistance. When that rather static front-pairing was augmented by the introduction of first Kenny Miller and then, late on, Kyle Lafferty (returning from injury at the ideal time), Rangers carried a far greater threat. When Eggert Jónsson spurned a glorious opportunity to grab a headed equaliser with just minutes to play, it seemed almost inevitable when the Light Blues shot up the other end to seal the deal; Boyd bundling in his 30th goal of a typically prolific season from Miller’s cross-shot.

Hearts welcomed back long-term injury victim Laryea Kingston as a late, but ineffective, sub. The powerful Ghanaian’s return will give the Jambos a significant boost going into the Edinburgh derby with Hibs on Thursday evening. They remain strong favourites to claim the best-of the-rest crown, ahead of ex-Leicester boss Craig Levein’s Dundee United, in third place.

Early on Saturday afternoon, Celtic’s barely-deserved 3-1 win at windswept Pittodrie came courtesy of the sheer industry and ingenuity of Australian forward Scott McDonald. His “phenomenal” (in the words of his boss) performance was clearly the difference between the Hoops and an industrious, but luckless, Aberdeen side.

Like Liverpool, Celtic’s zonal marking system at set-pieces has been much maligned and is a definitive weakness in the champions’ make-up. They fell behind to an early Chris Maguire header from Charlie Mulgrew’s brilliant in-swinging free-kick. Having escaped another close call at the hands of young Maguire, Celtic stole an equaliser on the stroke of half time through a needless Andrew Considine own goal.

In the second period, the Bhoys’ continuing lack of fluency was more than compensated for by McDonald’s goal-taking master-class. The ex-Motherwell man’s instinctive opportunism and clinical finishing put the home side to the sword in style; his beautifully-taken double bringing his haul to 50 goals in 95 games for the Parkhead club. The quality of Supermac’s play in the final third surpasses anything Rangers have to offer at present, and it is for this very reason that Celtic should be favoured to take at least a point from Saturday’s crunch clash between the pair.

It’s an indictment of the Scottish game that, even in second (or third) gear, the Old Firm can muster two-goal wins over two of their ‘nearest’ rivals. Debate will continue to rage over the feasibility of the Glasgow giants move to a new two-tier Premier League as dreamed of by Bolton chairman Phil Gartside. If the perceived threat of the loss of Scottish footballing sovereignty is enough to veto such a plan, an ‘Atlantic League’ featuring sides from Belgium, Holland, and Scandinavia is another firm favourite of media speculators.

Not to mention the significant hit in prestige and finance that any such switch would bring for the remaining Scottish clubs, the absence of hard-fought title battles like that of the current campaign would leave a gaping abyss in the sporting fabric of the country. Saturday’s game in Govan will be the latest in a long, long line of intense blood-an-thunder epics to match any other spectacle in the world game. With Supermac in top form, it’s Celtic’s game – and title – to lose.