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.