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.