Monday, August 09, 2010

Will Barça boys herald a brave new frontier for MLS?

American sports fans are renowned for their love of stats – not to mention an acronym or three. The steadily-developing MLS, still in its infancy, received a sudden shot in the arm recently by the relaxing of the ‘DP’ rule. The designated player statute was drafted into MLS predominantly to cater for marketable stars such as David Beckham in a competition previously governed in a relentlessly egalitarian manner. Contracts are centrally owned by the league and wage caps must be strictly adhered to; as the administration seeks to foster a stable, competitive league. Few would doubt that MLS has, to date, achieved this goal.

While Becks’ stay in LA has so far received mixed reviews, one of the few original DPs, Colombian centre forward Juan Pablo Angel, has brought rather more to the table. In fact, the one-time Aston Villa fan-favourite has almost single-handedly proven the worth of the new system by virtue of 56 goals in 89 MLS games since his move to New York Red Bulls four seasons ago. Those are the kind of sparkling stats to get armchair fans shuttling into the fast-growing number of soccer-specific stadia springing up in cities across the US.

So, on the back of a relatively successful World Cup adventure for the national team (which attracted healthy viewing figures and grabbed front-page headlines throughout), the MLS naturally decided that the time was ripe for further growth. To get more clubs to sign DPs, therefore increasing their ‘soccer superstar’ quotient, the rules were relaxed; allocating a maximum of three Designated Players, providing the club using the third slot paid – here comes that wonderful egalitarianism again – a $250,000 ‘luxury tax’ to be evenly distributed among the other 15 MLS franchises.

The Red Bulls, who opened an impressive $220m stadium recently, have been the first to capitalise. Now joining Angel in New York (or New Jersey, to be precise) are two Barcelona stalwarts who last season fell from grace at Camp Nou as Pep Guardiola chose to integrate home-grown starlets such as Pedro and Sergi Busquets in their place. Thierry Henry’s long-touted move Stateside was something of a PR coup for the league, but the rather more unanticipated signing of Mexico skipper Rafa Marquez has really piqued the interest of the States’ significant Hispanic community.

Making their first appearance in tandem for their new club on Sunday evening, Marquez and Henry were up against Eastern Division rivals Chicago Fire – a team which has also been quick to utilise the new DP ruling. Henry’s former Arsenal team-mate Freddie Ljungberg has been traded in from Seattle Sounders to add some much-needed fire to the Chicago attack and globe-trotting Mexican forward Nery Castillo joined, on loan, late last month to take the no.10 shirt of another Latin star; bunny-hopping veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who returns south of the border to see out the final days of his career.

Some hype-hungry pundits heralded this game as the dawning of a new era in MLS, but in reality it was more of a hard-fought mid-season scrap peppered with just a little star dust from some half-fit erstwhile stars of the European game. In fact the game – in tempo and in quality – very much resembled an English second-tier game, which was fitting, as both teams featured strike-duos of former Premier League notoriety: Angel and Henry for the Red Bulls; Fulham cult-hero Brian McBride supported by Ljungberg in a free role for the home side.

A patently unfit Henry offered a limited threat during the first half – with one cutting, diagonal run through the Fire defence ending in a shot straight at impressive ‘keeper Sean Johnson. Lingering rust in the legs of a man who spent a significant chunk of the summer sulking in South Africa manifested itself in a minor groin strain, leading to his anti-climactic withdrawal just before the break. It was, instead, Titi’s former Gunners team-mate Ljungberg who came closest to breaking the deadlock. The ageless McBride fed the Swedish star with a smart angled pass, but the ball bobbled just as he looked set to bundle it in at the far post, instead going harmlessly wide off his thigh.

Henry’s nominated replacement, Jamaican winger Dane Richards (scorer of this dazzler against Manchester City last month: started the second half with a bang; a Rafa Marquez ball sent him driving to the goal-line to cross for the frequently clumsy Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji, who couldn’t convert. Chicago, under the cosh for large swathes of the game, curiously decided to withdraw target-man McBride to offer Castillo his debut. A typically understated American welcome – fireworks and furious name-chanting – welcomed the nomadic youngster to his latest home; the one-time wonderkid having flopped in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Manchester since leaving Olympiacos three years ago.

With two diminutive forwards now at the point of attack, Chicago’s threat was diminished even further – while wilful but wayward former Fulham striker Collins John remained rooted to the bench. With the substitution of Marquez on the hour went the game’s last bastion of genuine quality. If the 31-year-old can maintain peak fitness amid the hectic MLS schedule and excessive air miles, his role as a Xabi Alonso-style playmaking ‘quarterback’ will be just as significant for the New Yorkers as Henry’s. And his ambitions are plain: “My expectations are the same in MLS (as at Barça), I want to win everything possible,” he told the press at his signing. “I have a winning mentality and I want to help this team win titles.”

As proceedings at an oversubscribed Toyota Park stadium slipped into a messy morass of misplaced passes, Angel – the one truly match-sharp DP – came close with a trio of well-worked efforts on goal, before Man of the Match Johnson preserved a point for Chicago with a top-class save from marauding defender Tim Ream.

So a goalless draw, or ‘tie’ if you prefer, failed to justify the hype. Upon his arrival, Rafa Marquez likened the standard of MLS to the Dutch Eredivisie or France’s Ligue 1. In truth, the quality of the league still lags behind that of its longer-established European cousins – that’s only natural. But if the remaining MLS franchises can pull off a few more DP signings in the mould of Marquez and co, it would serve to hasten the arrival of Stateside soccer as a global player.

Monday, May 31, 2010

World Cup Moments: Magical Magyars usurped by the ‘Miracle of Berne’

Think brilliant Brazil of 1982. The revolutionary Dutch total-footballers of ’74. Or the stereotype-defying Azzurri of Antognoni, Tardelli and Bettega in ’78. Even the swashbuckling Riquelme-inspired Argentines of four years ago, in Germany. History’s catalogue of failure by the most luminescent team of a World Cup finals is a long and often inglorious one.

One such case – perhaps even more notorious than those above – arose during the Swiss-hosted finals of 1954. As Brian Glanville puts it in his comprehensive tome The Story of the World Cup:

“Never had there been so hot, so inevitable, a favourite as Hungary; the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game.”

The magical (or magnificent; masterful; mighty...) Magyars went on a 36-game unbeaten run between 1950 and the World Cup final of ’54, en route winning the 1952 Olympic gold, and ruthlessly crushing England both home and away. Ferenc Puskás, known as the Galloping Major due to his military background and powerful running style, was the nominal leader of a fearsome band of troops including the heavenly talents of Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti – the original exponent of the deep-lying centre forward position (to devastating effect, as a bewildered England found when he netted a hat-trick at the previously impregnable Wembley). It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Hungarians’ tactical innovations influenced the future of the game; their radical adoption of out-and-out wingers; Hidegkuti’s no.10 role; and a ‘sweeping’ goalkeeper still resonate in today’s more tactically conservative times.

Coached by the pioneering Hungarian Deputy Minister for Sport, Gusztáv Sebes, the white-hot favourites opened with seventeen goals in their first two games. Eight came against Germany – only just returning to the FIFA fold after missing the 1950 finals in Brazil in the bitter aftermath of the War. It was a game remarkable for not only the number of goals scored against a perceived challenger for the title (8-3 was the final score) but also for an incident which saw the all-conquering Puskás limp from the field, having taken a kick on the ankle from the towering German defender Werner Liebrich.

Brazil and defending champions Uruguay were subsequently put to the sword (their dramatic extra-time semi-final triumph was, in fact, Uruguay’s first-ever defeat in a World Cup game). Final opponents Germany’s apparently Lazarus-like resurrection from their group stage mauling raised many eyebrows and later drew accusations that they’d effectively ‘conceded’ the game as a ruse to lull the Hungarians into believing their own hype. This perception has been long-disputed by either side, but what is certain is that the side crafted by legendary coach Sepp Herberger and led out by captain and chief-goalgetter Fritz Walter at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium was a team transformed – and more than a match for their more illustrious opponents.

Puskás returned to his preferred inside-left role and seemed to have shaken off any doubts about his fitness when he scored a trademark left-foot thunderbolt after just six minutes. Three minutes later, winger Zoltán Czibor put Hungary 2-0 ahead and all was going to script. Incredibly, however, the Germans fought back to equalise within ten minutes. Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn drew the underdogs level, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.

The second half was a rainy, muddy battle of attrition, with the Magyars mounting attack after attack on the German goal. But, as time ticked by, a number of unique factors began to hold sway on the destiny of the world title. Germany’s innovative screw-in studs were particularly beneficial on a pitch increasingly resembling a mudbath; their oft-struck woodwork remained resilient and Horst Eckel's man-to-man marking assignment on Hidegkuti gradually eroded the playmaker’s iridescent influence. Hungary were also physically spent: Puskás had never fully recovered from Liebrich’s group-stage ankle-hack, while the entire squad had been embroiled in a post-match brawl with Brazil, in which Puskás allegedly attacked the Seleção’s Pinheiro with a broken bottle.

With six minutes left and the Germans still holding out at 2–2, Rahn, known as ‘The Boss’, received the ball 20 yards from goal. Unexpectedly shooting with his weaker left foot, he netted his second and Germany's third goal with an accurate drive to the bottom-left corner, leaving Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics helpless. Bowed but not beaten, Hungary launched themselves forward in desperate search of extending the game into extra-time.

Two minutes before the end, Puskás raced through the opposition defence to crash home what looked like the perfect winning goal – something which the admittedly grainy TV footage appears to bear out. But the Welsh linesman, Mervyn Griffiths, waved his flag, and English referee Bill Ling gave Puskás offside. The Galloping Major remained convinced, to the end of his long and varied life, that he was not. A further penalty claim for a clear penalty-box foul on Kocsis was also rejected a minute later: the match and Hungary’s magnificent unbeaten run then ended in one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.

The ‘Miracle of Berne’, as the final was soon christened by the Germans, was perceived in Hungary as a wrong the Magyars would never get the chance to right, as their international careers were soon to be over. They’d never again grace a World Cup together as, within two years, Puskás and several others had defected to the West to escape a Russian invasion in reaction to the Hungarian revolution.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can traumatised Germany cope with the “brutal” loss of Michael Ballack?

The short answer to the title question is this: they can’t. At least that’s the opinion of Rudi Völler, star of Italia ’90 and Nationalmannschaft coach between 2000 and 2004.

“This is absolutely brutal, terrible for Michael,” Völler told the German tabloid Bild. “He was full of optimism and wanted to play a good World Cup. There are players who can't be replaced and Michael Ballack is certainly one of them.”

From his blistering, decisive double in the 2002 World Cup playoff with Ukraine; through his peerless displays in Japan/Korea – where he inspired his team to the final, only to miss out through suspension following a ‘professional’ foul which helped defeat South Korea in the semi; to the blistering free-kick against Austria at Euro 2008 – where he again played a talismanic role in reaching the final; Ballack has proved himself a man above all others, where the national side is concerned, for the best part of a decade.

Following the Chelsea man’s FA Cup final injury at the hands, or rather feet, of Kevin-Prince Boateng who, conspiracy theorists (including a devastated Ballack: “It looked pretty intentional to me”) were quick to point out, will represent Germany’s group stages foes Ghana this summer; there is a gaping void in the centre of Jogi Löw’s first eleven.

Everyone who’s anyone in German footballing circles – from Dieter Hoeneβ, to Löw, to his assistant Oliver Bierhoff – has been quick to bemoan the luck of their Captain Fantastic. Berti Vogts followed his commiserations by putting forward versatile Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger as the main man to shoulder the extra responsibility in Ballack’s absence. Once consigned to the flanks at international level, ‘Schweini’ has benefitted immeasurably from Löw’s controversial decision to ditch outspoken stalwart Torsten Frings. The maturity of his game at club level has gone up another notch this season under the exacting aegis of Louis Van Gaal and the 25-year-old, set to participate in his fourth major tournament this summer, will undoubtedly be a key piece in the German jigsaw.

It is the slot, however, alongside Schweinsteiger – at the heart of the engine room – which now lies vacant. There are a number of potential suitors, but, as befitting a team going through something of a generational transition, few, if any, have the requisite top-level experience to command absolute confidence.

Löw prefers a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with the two central-midfielders lying deep, protecting the back four and distributing the ball quickly and efficiently to the lone front-man (usually Miroslav Klose) and those occupying the flanks. Of course, his thinking may change in the light of such a debilitating development as Ballack’s unavailability, but the stylish Bundestrainer will consider the likely candidates’ defensive attributes a priority. That could be bad news for Bayern Munich’s creative wunderkind Toni Kroos.

Having spent the best part of the last two years on loan with high-flying Bayer Leverkusen, the 20-year-old has impressed all observers with his cool-headed approach, precise passing and eye for goal. A set-piece specialist, Kroos made his full debut as recently as the surprise home defeat to Argentina in March. It would be a bold move to place the hopes of a nation upon his relatively slender frame, but on such gambles World Cup campaigns are often won and lost.

Other, more conservative, options include moving adaptable Schalke defender Heiko Westermann into a holding role – young full-back Christian Träsch can also fill-in here, but is less well established in the squad. Sami Khedira, a contemporary of Träsch at resurgent Stuttgart, is similarly inexperienced at the top level and has only just returned from knee injury.

Attention must then surely turn to the men initially rejected by Löw. 51-cap midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, out of favour with both Stuttgart, then new club Lazio this season, was omitted from the provisional 27-man squad. So, too, was Wolfsburg’s Christian Gentner – soon to join Stuttgart.

Neither man, alas, can offer the stature of a man ostensibly discarded to make way for super-talented young guns such as Kroos, Marko Marin, Mesut Özil, and Bayern’s latest prodigy Thomas Müller – all of whom are most effective at the other end of the pitch. It is Werder Bremen warhorse Frings whose wealth of experience and dogged style would so well complement the more refined talents of Schweinsteiger, Özil, et al.

It would take a substantial swallowing of pride from both men, but it’s surely not too late for both Löw and Frings to overcome their manifest differences ‘in the national interest’. Frings finished the Bundesliga season in uncharacteristically free-scoring form (with a run of five goals in seven games) and generally turning in a series of vintage performances which had the likes of erstwhile national team team-mate Per Mertesacker backing his claims for a recall. If parachuted straight back into the starting line-up, it is less likely that the headstrong veteran would cause any trouble in the camp. Necessarily, Löw will need to think long and hard before he discards this compelling option.

The one-time deputy of Jürgen Klinsmann has at his disposal a more innately talented squad of players than any Germany coach for a long while. The new tranche of attacking-midfield talents will be complemented by Manchester City new-boy Jerome Boateng and the implacable Serdar Tasci in defence, while blonde beanpole Stefan Kieβling joins the attack.

Losing their first-choice goalkeeper, René Adler, and their inimitable skipper during the run-in to the tournament, however, may be a fatal blow to their title hopes. Nevertheless, the belief that the Germans always produce eine Turniermannschaft (a ‘tournament team’) holds firm among German fans and media. It’s safe to conclude that whichever combination takes to the field in South Africa, they’ll be a fearless, formidable outfit.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

World Cup Moments: Quinn & Keane keep Irish eyes smiling in Ibaraki


Ireland’s World Cup campaign of 2002 hardly got off to the most auspicious of starts – the implosion of captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy’s malfunctioning relationship at their pre-tournament training base in Saipan saw to that.

A simmering row between the Manchester United legend and all things FAI was brought to a white-hot conclusion when Keane launched into a long-suppressed tirade against preparations for the event, which apparently concluded with an ‘invitation’ for McCarthy to “stick it up his bollocks.” It was an incident of such notoriety that the Irish Taioseach, Bertie Ahern, was moved to intervene and Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews later wrote a sell-out stage play – I, Keano – satirising the incident.

It could so easily have been the definitive moment of Ireland’s tournament – one they had qualified for in dramatic fashion, at the expense of the Netherlands and then Iran, in a heated playoff. A disunited and disenfranchised side, without their one true star, could easily have slumped quietly out of the competition at the first stage.

Their opening game against Cameroon, however, offered compelling evidence that the Irish camp had ultimately been united by the pre-tournament dramatics which had threatened to jeopardise their hopes. Matt Holland’s stunning equaliser in Niigata earned a merited point for McCarthy’s men and set up an intriguing second-game encounter with eventual finalists Germany; ruthless 8-0 slayers of Saudi Arabia in their opening match.

It was Ireland's first competitive fixture against the Germans. Rudi Völler’s side may have been humbled by their capitulation to England during qualifying, but, given Ireland’s relatively meagre resources and absent skipper, it was a clear case of snappy underdogs against established World Cup heavyweights.

Oliver Kahn, ultimate winner of the tournament’s Golden Ball, was the larger-than-life captain of a squad incorporating the talents of Michael Ballack, Christoph Metzelder, and an unknown Polish-born forward named Miroslav Klose. To mitigate these talents, lumbering Bayern Munich striker Carsten Jancker was included at the expense of veteran star Oliver Bierhoff. Nonetheless, few expected the Boys in Green to take anything from the game.

There was, therefore, little surprise when Germany took early control thanks to Klose’s fourth goal in two games, following a headed hat-trick against the feeble Saudis. The Kaiserslautern youngster got between Steve Staunton (winning his 100th cap) and Ian Harte to beat the hopelessly exposed Shay Given with another header in the 19th minute, and all was going to script.

But Ireland produced several reminders that the German defence could be breached. A Damien Duff run, a Matt Holland shot and an attempted overhead kick by Robbie Keane were reminders that Germany's defence could yet be breached. Duff – so impressive throughout – ran onto Gary Breen's knock-down and seemed certain to score, but the seemingly unbreachable Kahn threw himself in the way of his shot and the ball slipped wide.

Jancker could then have extended Germany's lead and effectively killed Irish interest in the tournament when put clear by Michael Ballack - but put his shot wide of the far post. Klose put a header over the bar when unchallenged.

With only quarter-of-an-hour remaining ageing Sunderland striker Niall Quinn, who’d been deeply embroiled in the media storm surrounding Roy Keane’s departure, was lumped onto the field in place of full-back Gary Kelly. It was a desperate bid to revive Irish fortunes, with dreams of a second round place fading fast. Quinn takes up the story from here in his own words:

“Time is galloping past. You can feel the anxiety. The bench is screaming at us, the crowd are on edge. Tick, tick, tick...

“We’re into injury time. Please let something fall for us. Please. Steve Finnan comes out with the ball, composed and cool. He sends an angled ball towards me. I’ve been through this with Robbie a thousand times on training grounds. He knows where I’m going to put it and he gets there on time. My part is done. It’s all down to the kid now.

“Robbie controls my headed pass exquisitely and the ball is his...he sticks it past Kahn. The net bulges and the response in the ground is electric, deafening. Above us there’s a wild noise, an endless cheer.”

Pubs, clubs, and bars from Dublin to Dubai, from Naas to New York, resonated with a symbiotic uproar and were left stout-spattered by riotously happy Irish folk and their sympathisers. With 91 minutes and 44 seconds on the clock, Leeds United starlet Robbie Keane has become the ice-cool author of one of Irish football’s greatest moments. His ensuing gambol of delight by the corner flag captured a glorious youthful exuberance to be replayed time and time again in TV highlights packages across the globe.

Two weeks and an unfortunate penalty shoot-out exit later, an estimated 100,000 fans welcomed the squad back to Dublin as World Cup heroes.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

McCarthy, Shelvey and Henderson: Young Guns (go for it!)

‘Change’ has been a popular word in political circles these past few weeks. According to the all-powerful party machines and egomaniacal spin doctors, nobody, it seems, is at all keen on staying the same. Sure as night follows day (or blue follows red) the industrial quantities of hot-air spent espousing political change is all too rarely realised, however.

Genuine change, though, is in the rarefied air surrounding the ever-popular Barclays Premier League. Aside from essential regulatory reforms on issues such as club ownership and levels of debt, there will soon be a new dynamic in how the playing staff of each club is composed.

A “home-grown player rule” will take effect at the start of next season. All Premier League clubs will be required to name a squad of up to 25 players, of which no more than 17 can be over the age of 21 and not ‘home grown’ (i.e. trained for three years under the age of 21 by any club in the English and Welsh professional system). This long overdue imposition of a quota system – the first baby-step towards Sepp Blatter’s beloved ‘6 plus 5’ rule? – is designed to restrict the hoarding of talented youngsters at the biggest clubs and, primarily, to force clubs to invest in and carefully nurture their own British talent (or at least buy it in from closer to Leeds than Lagos).

Liverpool’s recent signing of follicularly-challenged Charlton youngster Jonjo Shelvey is surely a harbinger of things to come, given the incoming statute. Particularly when considering the club’s recent reluctance to invest in youngsters from these isles. Yet Shelvey is not exactly a trend-setter, as all top-flight clubs, from title chasers down to rank-and-file members, have already been concentrating their efforts on compliance with the new ruling, which they were formally made aware of earlier this season.

Since the turn of the year, a growing band of teenagers have been offered a taste of Premier League action. What’s more, a number of these new kids on the block have taken to life in the self-styled ‘greatest league on earth’ with impressive ease. One or two have even rapidly established themselves as irreplaceable first-team fixtures, with top clubs’ scouts already admiring their every move.

Wigan Athletic is perhaps an unlikely home of future International-standard talent, given the club’s previous preference for a mixture of battle-hardened journeymen and athletically able exotic imports. The startling emergence of Scotland-born Republic of Ireland international James McCarthy this year indicates a change of direction in recruitment at the DW Stadium, as confirmed by the cut-price January signing of exciting winger Victor Moses from Crystal Palace.

Though baby-faced McCarthy had long been tipped for stardom – and has been the subject of much controversy over his ‘defection’ to Ireland despite having been born and raised in Glasgow – few would have necessarily predicted the sudden and explosive impact the 19-year-old has made in his debut season at the top level of English football.

Perhaps his finest hour in a Wigan shirt to date came during the March win over Liverpool in which the callow youth clearly outshone a struggling Steven Gerrard (who would have been McCarthy’s skipper, had the Scottish Young Player of the Year’s proposed move to Anfield reached fruition. It was a performance which came only a week after McCarthy survived a crazy ‘tackle’ from Birmingham City’s Liam Ridgewell, which could easily have had season-ending consequences. Instead of being cowed by such an act of ruthless brutality, McCarthy instead went on to end the season on a high, comprehensively bearing out the words of his manager, Roberto Martinez: “I was delighted when he made that rather strange decision not to go to a top, top club like Liverpool. I think that decision is being proved right now.”

England under-19 international Moses – who, like McCarthy before him, has designs on representing a country other than that of his birth (Nigeria) – has had a more sporadic impact since his winter arrival. The same can certainly be said of the much-hyped Fabian Delph, of Aston Villa. The £6m midfielder showed glimpses of his undoubted talent during his rare opportunities at first-team level this year, but the well-established Stillian Petrov/James Milner axis has proven to be impenetrable. Delph’s season ended in ignominy, with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament suffered during training last month potentially keeping the ex-Leeds star out until Christmas.

Of course, buying in young, unproven talent is an expensive and risky process. In an ideal world, each club would produce a clutch of first-team-ready youngsters each year. It’s relatively inexpensive; and the fans all love to see a local-boy-made-good wearing the shirt they’ve dreamed of donning since they hoofed their first fluorescent fly-away football over the garden fence.

This year in the Premier League, there have been several shining examples of showing faith in youth being spectacularly rewarded. Phil Jones, of Blackburn Rovers (born in Preston), has garnered an array of praise from all quarters since his late-season emergence as the heir apparent to John Terry (if Sam Allardyce is to be believed.) Certainly, the 18-year-old’s authoritative and assertive displays since a sparkling debut against champions-elect Chelsea have marked the centre-half out as one to watch in the near future.

Sunderland’s home-grown starlet Jordan Henderson started the season out on the right flank; as is so often the case, marginalised by more senior stars at the centre of the Black Cats’ engine room. Since Lee Cattermole’s injury, however, the 6ft teenager has made a central midfield spot his own. Some optimistic pundits even tipped Henderson to make an unlikely surge for World Cup inclusion. Clearly, though, he’ll have to bide his time before making such a breakthrough.

Henderson’s success has been rewarded with a fresh five-year contract, with a similar deal also being agreed with his recent midfield partner, 20-year-old David Meyler (a product of the recently-defunct Cork City, who, like Delph, recently suffered a serious knee injury).

Elsewhere, well-regarded young guns at the top clubs have started to make serious breakthroughs this term. Everton’s giant midfielder Jack Rodwell has established himself in the Toffees’ first team squad and has scored some vital goals. Jack Wilshere’s loan at Bolton has been a tremendous success for the 18-year-old who was much-hyped but largely untested before his temporary move north in the January transfer window and Owen Coyle is naturally keen to extend the Arsenal prodigy’s spell at the Reebok into next season. Back at Ashburton Grove, 19-year-old deep-lying midfielder Craig Eastmond has had more playing time in Wilshere’s (and Aaron Ramsey’s) absence.

Nathan Delfouneso, born just up the road from his senior Aston Villa colleague and fellow Brummie striker Gabby Agbonlahor, is slowly establishing himself as a viable alternative to Emile Heskey as Villa’s primary centre-forward back-up. Indeed, the majority of Villa fans bay for the pacy teenager to be given the nod ahead of out-of-form Heskey when first-choice John Carew begins to tire. In March he notched his first goal for England under-21s; then scored the Villans’ winner at Fratton Park in mid-April.

With the new ‘homegrown’ edict coming into effect in a just a few short months, we should expect an increasing number of teenage squad members to join the likes of Delfouneso, Henderson and Jones; and, incrementally, a greater number of youthful first-team stars born and bred on these shores. So it’s a case of; ‘British jobs for British workers’. Perhaps one of those nice political parties could borrow that line.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Roma eternally grateful for radical Ranieri tinkering

23 games unbeaten. Five wins on the spin. One point clear of distracted Inter in the most hotly-contested scudetto race for years. The recent record of Roma’s well-travelled coach Claudio Ranieri stacks up well against the wealth of past evidence suggesting that the ‘Tinkerman’ was something short of competency at the very highest level.

Chief among the concerns of the ever-diminishing anti-Ranieri brigade has been his past propensity for oblique team selection – and a long history of strange substitutions at curious times. The fact that the Roman has thus far failed to secure a top-flight title, in an otherwise trophy-rich career, is commonly used as a stick with which to beat him. The events of the past weekend in Serie A, however, may well prove crucial in changing perceptions of the ex-Chelsea and Valencia boss forever.

In the aftermath of an execrable (and tempestuous) Derby d’Italia, played on Friday evening to assist with Inter’s Champions League preparations and illuminated only briefly by Maicon’s marvellous moment, and Sampdoria’s last-gasp win over Milan, Roma’s brief was clear – beat bitter rivals Lazio to reclaim the league lead and write Milan out of the race for good. Simple, no?

It’s rare that any Derby della Capitale proves to be a straightforward affair, though. In contrast to their title-chasing adversaries, Lazio – boasting an improved record under Edy Reja after Davide ballardini presided over their worst league run in 20 years – are battling hard for Serie A survival; lying a mere three points above the drop-zone before kick-off. It’s just three years since the biancocelesti were enjoying Champions League football, but a gradual decline in standards now threatens to totally destabilise one of Italian football’s grandest names. With so much at stake, the Roman police feared tensions between the two sets of tifosi would be exacerbated; and so peculiarly reacted by bringing kick-off forward by a couple of hours, at short notice.

Clearly, favourites Roma miserably failed to adjust to the new set of circumstances as they fumbled their way through the first half; rocked by Lazio skipper Tomasso Rocchi’s expertly-taken opening goal and continually tormented by the perceptibly passionate play of their struggling counterparts. It had become, for Roma, one of those derby occasions where the heart rules the head and brainless football is the product. Both captain fantastic Francesco Totti and his deputy Daniele De Rossi were rightly yellow-carded, as the charged atmosphere on the terraces of the Olimpico seeped onto the field of play.

It was obvious a half-time change was required – of tactics, of personnel, of anything which would shake up the slumbering giallorossi. Roma president Rosella Sensi must have been reaching for the keys to a padded dungeon and dusting off an old straightjacket long-abandoned in the Stadio Olimpico lost property box, however, when Ranieri pulled a rather spectacular make-or-break decision from the darker recesses of his unpredictable mind. Both Rome-born gladiatori – Totti and De Rossi – were substituted; in their places arrived Rodrigo Taddei and fast-improving Frenchman Jeremy Ménéz.

Recall, if you will, the press-pack and phone-in hysterics surrounding Rafa Benítez’s occasional withdrawal from action of either Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres with some 20-or-so minutes remaining. Then, to extrapolate, picture a (wildly improbable) scenario in which Liverpool are taking on Everton with the Premier League title on the line; the Reds trail at the break, so Rafa hauls off both Gerrard and Torres in response. The sheer rabid apoplexy that would ensue hardly bears thinking about. So make no bones about it: Ranieri’s decision was risky in the extreme.

Almost immediately it appeared that it had backfired when Lazio continued their flying form into the opening seconds of the second half. Mobile wing-back Aleksandar Kolarov surged towards the Roma penalty area and obliged with a swan-dive as hero of the season’s first derby, Marco Cassetti, left his leg dangling dangerously on the fringe of the box. The game’s momentum was instantly reversed, however, when on-loan striker Sergio Floccari had his mediocre penalty kick repelled by Roma ‘keeper Júlio Sérgio.

An apparent sense of relief instantly pervaded the Roma team. Let off the hook, the probing of Menez and the indefatigable David Pizzaro pushed their teammates forward in search of an equaliser, which duly materialised within just minutes of Lazio’s penalty miss. Sub Taddei repayed Ranieri’s faith and meted out a spot of karmic justice, as he too ‘earned’ a penalty by clearly diving over the half-challenge of Kolarov in the area. Unlike Floccari, free-scoring Mirko Vučinić would make no mistake from the spot and matters were again level. The usually implacable Montenegrin’s release valve obviously exploded following the sudden release of such immense pressure, as he celebrated the goal – his 9th in ten matches – in an atypically wild manner.

Vucinic’s reactions were a little more muted ten minutes later, when he capitalised on Cristian Brocchi’s reluctance to face up to his rocket-like free-kick from just outside the ‘D’. The veteran midfielder leapt out of the way, leaving Fernando Muslera woefully exposed, as Vucinic hammered a shot straight through the disintegrated defensive wall and into the top-centre of the Lazio net. His tenth goal in as many games was a most emphatic rebuttal of those critics that have so frequently doubted his contribution to the cause. It was also a goal to settle the derby.

Mauro Zárate (on for the revved-up Stephan Lichtsteiner, who refused to shake Reja’s hand upon his substitution, then returned to the field at the final whistle to participate prominently in one of a number of unseemly scuffles between the players) briefly threatened to provoke a Lazio revival, but Rocchi acrobatically zipped an effort from the Argentine’s pass just over the bar. To cap a miserable second half for the Aquile, influential midfielder Cristian Ledesma was shown a second yellow late on as the final moments descended predictably into bitter acrimony.

The last time Roma overcame their detested city rivals, in December last year, they stood 11 points adrift of Inter in 6th place. They now sit atop the standings with only four rounds remaining and challengers Inter potentially preoccupied with the considerable challenge of taming the Barça beast.

In the Eternal City it’s said that fortune favours the brave, and if Roma can pull off this, one of the greatest comebacks in calcio history, Claudio Ranieri’s boldest move yet may be regarded as the pivotal moment in securing a Roman triumph.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Thierry Henry threatened by Domenech’s devil’s advocate

Within a year Thierry Henry has gone from vital cog in Barcelona’s well-oiled Champions League-winning machine to barely-used squad player. Three goals in his 16 league appearances this season is a paltry return for a man boasting such a prolific past record and is indicative of the French forward’s sharp decline in stature over the past 12 months. This has not gone unnoticed by Henry’s international manager, Raymond Domenech, who this week gave a TV interview stating that ‘Titi’ is still not certain of a trip to South Africa in June.

“When we have so many injuries and players who are not playing right now, it's not reassuring. If I have to do the squad list today, how do I do it?” Domenech recently asked in L’Équipe. “There is only one rule: the player who isn't ready on May 18 won't be kept.”

Perhaps this warning should be taken with a pinch, if not a ladleful, of salt, as the largely reviled Domenech also threatened to shoot his players if they failed to check their egos at the door and unify their talents under his uniquely oblique authority. Nonetheless, it does pull into sharp focus the current predicament of Henry, who, lest we forget, confirmed his team’s passage into finals by virtue of an infamous one-man game of pat-a-cake-pat-a-cake deep in the Irish penalty area Henry hand article.

Those who would delight in his absence on ‘moral’ grounds, have had the waters muddied by the increasing acceptance of Henry’s actions among the footballing fraternity – everyone from Frank Lampard to several of the Irish players involved that night has owned up that, if roles were reversed, they’d probably have done the same. Henry’s harshest critics, as is their wont, have been the French sporting public. Their frequent booing of the man who played such a prominent role in the country’s successes at their own World Cup and Euro 2000 has soured further the acrid atmosphere during Les Bleus’ recent lacklustre home performances. Yet, crucially, he retains the unstinting support of his teammates.

So the case for Henry’s exclusion can only be made solely on footballing grounds.

Aside from his uncharacteristically meagre goal tally, beyond all dispute is the fact that the 32-year-old’s once-searing acceleration has diminished significantly of late. This was made all the more apparent by the electrifying impact of his erstwhile Arsenal team-mate Theo Walcott (yet to figure out how best to harness his abundant talents) during the absorbing Champions League quarter-final ties between Henry’s past and present clubs. Henry did not feature in Barça’s home leg footballing exhibition, following criticism from the Catalan press of his supposedly over-milked reception at the Emirates a week previously. He then sat out El Clasico completely; dropped from Pep Guardiola’s squad for the make-or-break Primera División clash.

Guardiola clearly has plenty of options to call upon to play alongside Messi and Ibrahimović in preference to his ageing striker – Bojan Krkić, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro, even the versatile Dani Alves. Come season’s end – with presidential elections leading inevitably to a new wave of signings which could include luminaries such as Franck Ribéry, David Villa or Benfica’s sublimely gifted winger Ángel Di María – Henry will most likely be on his way.

MLS franchise New York Red Bulls would be delighted if they could lure such a globally-renowned name as Henry’s to join the likes of ex-Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel and Notts County’s Brummie pocket-rocket Luke Rodgers in a squad comprised of never-made-its and has-beens. The ambitious outfit have long been linked too with Real Madrid’s Raúl – another infrequently-used star at a Spanish giant, who has not represented his country since being ruthlessly dumped (to good effect) by Luis Aragones. Such a move for Henry, though, would surely spell the beginning of the end of an illustrious, award-laden career.

David Beckham’s stateside defection came erroneously early – the decision taken at a time when he was out of favour in Madrid, yet not an entirely spent force (as his Serie A spells have proven). Henry, however, has so much based the effectiveness of his game on speed – primarily of movement, but also of thought – and is less likely to forge such a mid-30s comeback, given his persistent back troubles.

That established, the big question facing Domenech is whether he should effectively draw the curtain on Henry’s top-level career in the most dramatic and, arguably, unreasonably premature manner. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one of the most notoriously idiosyncratic coaches of modern times could omit an out-of-form superstar from his World Cup plans, given his clear disregard for public opinion and the lack of accountability arising from his guaranteed departure from his role after the finals. Certainly, there are compelling alternatives.

Djibril Cissé will win few awards for the consistency of his finishing, but is enjoying a new lease of life in Athens this year; Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka, though goal-shy in recent months, is a certainty; Sidney Govou is a reliable – and versatile – squad member who is fancied to join either Sevilla or Roma when his contract at Lyon expires this summer; temperamental winger Hatem Ben Arfa, of Marseille, is a livewire who can be deployed across the front-line; one-time Arsenal target Loïc Rémy has topped the Ligue 1 scoring charts for most of the season in a modest Nice side; Louis Saha, André-Pierre Gignac, Karim Benzema, Jimmy Briand (recently returned from long-term injury) and others are all also in the chase for a place on the plane.

But unlike his old friend Patrick Vieira, the only other player remaining in the French squad from their 1998 apogee, Thierry Henry is not a totally busted flush. Any semblance of form – should he be given the opportunity during Barça’s La Liga run-in – will likely be rewarded with selection. It is, perhaps, a little too early to turn out one of France’s favourite footballing sons; even Domenech admits: “I always have faith in great players and Titi is a great player”. But should that be ‘is’ or ‘was’?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What next for shattered Aston Villa?

Taken with archetypal Roman confidence, young Federico Macheda’s exquisite later-than-late goal at once re-established Manchester United’s dominance in the title race and thrust a dagger deep into the fading heart of Aston Villa’s season. In the second minute of stoppage time came the cruellest of blows – Villa’s hard-earned 2-1 advantage was finally overturned with a swaggering swish of the teenage Italian’s right boot. Was this the moment the Midlands side conceded defeat in the chase for fourth place?

Well, of course not. Publically, Martin O’Neill will not make a concession to that effect, but it’s been clear to all and sundry that Villa’s Champions League challenge faded quite some time ago. In taking the hotly-debated decision to rest a host of first-teamers for the difficult UEFA Cup 2nd leg tie with CSKA Moscow, the Villa manager had on his hands a team that were no longer mildly-fatigued winners, rather dog-tired losers. The momentum which had been gradually building since Intertoto duty kicked off their season at the height of summer was irretrievably lost.

Round about this time too, a telling piece of TV production (occasionally it happens) highlighted the rising tide against which Villa’s tiring troops were battling. As the magical skills of Andrei Arshavin were beginning to re-ignite the Gunners’ waning goal-making - and taking - prowess following their lengthy lean patch in front of goal, the camera panned along the line of upcoming Arsenal returnees. Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Eduardo da Silva were all among a benchful of world class talent, each on the verge of a return from one long-term injury or other. It was an ominous signal that the North London club were ready to kick out of the stupor which had dogged their season.

Villa have quite patently been unable to compete with such impressive strength in depth, and understandably so; because they have not been party to continued Champions League ‘financial doping’ (a term Arsene Wenger used about mega-rich club owners such as Roman Abramovich having a distortive effect on the game, but which can easily be applied to the current Champions League cartel). The wafer-thin squad of the Second City side was supplemented only by Emile Heskey (who has unfortunately been largely MIA since his debut goal at Fratton Park) during the January transfer window. Rather than speculating to accumulate, O’Neill stuck steadfastly with his hand and subsequently went bust. At the time, it must be said, few fans complained about the lack of recruitment.

Successive defeats culminating in Sunday afternoon’s unlucky – if somehow inevitable; given United’s prodigious injury-time goalscoring record – loss at Old Trafford have again drawn a harsh light on the limitations of the squad. Without defensive lynchpin Martin Laursen, the back four – too often featuring Nigel Reo-Coker as a fish-out-of-water right-back and Mr Consistency Luke Young deputising for Freddie Bouma at left-back – has been sieve-like. The switch to 4-4-2 in order to accommodate their new England centre forward saw the counter-attacking menace of the previously preferred 4-5-1 significantly diluted.

For some time now, the more pragmatic Villa fan has been glancing down the table at surging Everton rather than dreaming of gate-crashing the Champions League party. The Toffees are one of the few clubs to have usurped the big four’s hegemony in the past decade and, led by the exceptional David Moyes – one of Martin O’Neill’s few equals or superiors in the Premier League – their recent form is enough to suggest that it is they that should now be favourites for fifth.

As the New Year rolled around and the tightly-packed table promised a dramatic conclusion to events at either end of the league, there was much talk of a refreshing shift in the static Premier League hierarchy – with Villa at the vanguard of the uprising. It looks unlikely now that such a change will transpire: United are probable champions; Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal cruise along behind. Even at the bottom, a previously intoxicating survival battle is fast losing its allure – at least for the neutral. It’s still possible (though unlikely, given Stoke’s outstanding home form) that the three promoted clubs could slip back into the Championship and the status quo would then be well and truly restored.

Following that logic, many would have pencilled in Everton and Villa battling it out for Europa League entry and so it has turned out. The two sides meet at Villa Park next week with the momentum inexorably in Everton’s corner. For Martin O’Neill’s men, the game has the feel of make or break – a defeat here would finally concede Villa’s dearly-held ‘best of the rest’ tag to the Merseysiders.

Gareth Barry’s future destiny again looms on the agenda like a long-feared dentist’s appointment – though let’s hope any ensuing saga doesn’t drag on as painfully as last summer’s snore-athon. This year, Stillian Petrov’s contribution to the Villans’ engine room has matched, even surpassed, that of the England star. Yet to lose their talisman – and longest-serving player – would be a shattering blow to the hopes of a club with fast-rising ambition. So far, progress under O’Neill’s guidance has been admirable. Whether or not the Ulsterman can now lead his team up another level will define the success, or otherwise, of his Villa Park reign.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Rooney, Rio and Terry out of the World Cup: An Alternative England

It’s the morning of Saturday, 22nd May and Fabio Capello is within a week of naming the definitive England party of 23 which he will lead to the much-anticipated World Cup finals in South Africa in just a few days time. Yet, with typically ghastly timing, his best-laid plans are laid to waste.

Wayne Rooney provokes eerily-familiar frenzied tabloid headlines (“Roo-Knee Wrecked”; “Wayne’s Sprain Pain in Spain”) by tweaking his right knee in the process of grabbing Manchester United’s opening goal in the Champions League final in Madrid. A Roo-less United go on to lose 8-1 to an unexpectedly rampant CSKA Moscow side and England’s premier striker is ruled out of action for more than a month.

It gets worse. Within hours of Rooney’s misfortune, recently-installed captain Rio Ferdinand stages a remarkable eve-of-tournament walkout; following his dream career in TV production by accepting a lucrative offer from ITV to oversee the resurrected 80s telly ‘classic’ Beadle’s About (starring former Bristol Rovers striker Peter Beadle as prankster-in-chief).

The grieving nation is sent into a state of sheer apoplexy when it is later announced that the remaining members of the England squad (including deposed skipper John Terry) are kidnapped and held captive by an extremist faction of Fathers 4 Justice, headed by a masked man known only to the authorities as ‘W. Bridge'.

So, facing such a (vastly improbable) scenario, what’s an England manager to do?

Here’s an alternative 23 for Signor Capello, a notoriously avid reader of, to peruse. Included are a number of the disregarded or unheralded English players that have performed with distinction this season, without even a sniff of international recognition.


Steve Harper (Newcastle United). Definitive one-club man, benefitting from his longest first-team run in years. A paragon of consistency with top-class reactions; Harper is currently revelling in a new club clean-sheet record.

Lee Camp (Nottingham Forest). Undoubted star of Forest’s charge up the Championship table; recently handed the skipper’s armband.

Scott Loach (Watford). Under-21s no.1, sensibly gaining invaluable experience in the Championship rather than rotting in Premier League reserves.


Michael Dawson (Tottenham Hotspur). If there can be such a thing as a defensive lynchpin at White Hart Lane – a renowned graveyard for central defenders – this season Dawson has been it. Certainly less error-prone than previously, his improved authority and consistency has led to the Spurs captaincy and plaudits from the press and fans alike.

Roger Johnson (Birmingham City). Has, along with defensive partner Scott Dann, surpassed all expectation during his first season at the elite level. Blues’ recent success has been built on the bedrock of his calmness on the ball and relentless appetite for headed clearances.

Sol Campbell (Arsenal). Notwithstanding the fact that the erstwhile Notts County employee cannot cut it for more than 90 minutes per week, he brings a wealth of experience and is regarded by no less than Arsene Wenger as a model professional. Emergency back-up.

Gary Neville (Manchester United). Injury has quickened the apparent decline of this England stalwart, but his vintage performance in the Champions League home tie with Milan reminded us of his long-underrated talents. Perfect captain material.

Danny Fox (Burnley). A short-lived stay at Parkhead brought mixed reviews and the Clarets’ form since his January arrival has hardly provided a ringing endorsement of his defensive talents. However, offensively able left-footed left-backs are a rare enough breed and he is a talented set-piece specialist.

Chris Smalling (Fulham). The 20-year-old is Old Trafford-bound and has impressed on his intermittent appearances for Fulham this season. The new Rio?

Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace). Should be commended not only for his loyalty to Palace in their hour of need, but also his confidence, pace and progressive play. Can cover either full-back position.


Michael Mancienne (Wolves). Permanently out on loan from Chelsea while he awaits the decline of the immovable incumbents at centre-half, this has proved to be something of a breakthrough season for the versatile starlet. It seems that a deep-lying midfield role has brought out his best qualities.

Phil Neville (Everton). Accredited with much of the praise for the Toffees’ meteoric post-Christmas rise by David Moyes. Glossing over his occasionally inglorious international past; Gary’s younger brother is a true Mr Consistency, is versatile, and, like big bro, is perfect captain material.

Jack Rodwell (Everton). Regular appearances this season have provided a platform for the powerful midfielder to shine. Has impressed in a more attacking role of late, yet many predict a great future for Rodwell at centre-half.

Lee Bowyer (Birmingham City). To build a respectable career from the ashes of such a loathsome past takes a certain amount of character, which few people would’ve credited Bowyer with in years gone by. Compensates for declining lung-power with intelligent runs from deep and canny interaction with club cohort Barry Ferguson.

Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United). Considered a Gerrard-lite in his younger years, Nolan has rediscovered his shooting boots in the second tier and revels in his newfound seniority at club level. The FourFourTwo/Coca-Cola Football League player of the year.

David Dunn (Blackburn Rovers). In a previous era, Dunn was oft-touted as the solution to England’s left-sided problem. Unfortunately for him, so was everyone else from Steve McManaman to Trevor Sinclair. Only a calf injury prevented the 30-year-old from building on a lightning start to the campaign (six goals in his first 11 games). Plus ça change.

Adam Johnson (Manchester City). Failed to make it past the provisional selection for the recent Egypt game, this delightfully old-fashioned winger should be a shoe-in.

Peter Whittingham (Cardiff City). Possessed of a left foot of wonderful dexterity, the former Villa man has been scoring relentlessly in the Championship. Can certainly handle the step up to the Prem, should the Bluebirds successfully negotiate the promotion playoffs.

Jack Wilshere (Bolton Wanderers). Every World Cup squad needs a wild-card; a callow youth with abundant talent but zero experience. Already making a significant impact at the Reebok Stadium during his first ever extended first-team run.


Darren Bent (Sunderland). Has not impressed upon previous call-ups, but his Premier League goalscoring record is irrefutable. Possible weakness: taking penalties against giant, erratic Brazilian goalkeepers.

Bobby Zamora (Fulham). What a season. What a transformation.

Andy Carroll (Newcastle United). The big man has firmly established impeccable boxing credentials (ask Steven Taylor) and has shown similar prowess in and around Championship penalty boxes this year. Brings to mind a young (for ‘young’ in this instance please read ‘late-twenties’) Luca Toni.

Michael Chopra (Cardiff City). Like Bent, a true fox-in-the-box in the classic style. His late, late derby winner against Swansea this weekend showcased how ‘Chops’ earned an early reputation as the ‘new Michael Owen’. That billing was an over-estimation, as unhappy times in his native North East have proven, but he still sure knows how to sniff out a chance and bury it.

With this alternative squad – a rag-bag collection of gnarled veterans and not-quite-international bright young things – England might still expect to give World Cup group opponents Algeria, Slovenia and the USA, a good run for their money, but an exit in the last 16, against stiffer opposition, would surely await. It might be a nightmare scenario for some, but should Signor Capello need to resort to Plans C, D and E, then we can rest assured that the nation’s hopes will be in safe hands.

Based on club form this season, which players would you nominate for an England squad shorn of its stars?