Monday, January 25, 2010

Masterful Mourinho is Inter home-straight

A white-hot city rivalry. First vs Second. Inter vs Milan: The Derby della Madonnina. On such special occasions reputations are made and, sometimes, broken. In the case of Inter’s irrepressible coach Jose Mourinho, his towering managerial status was once more verified – enhanced even – by the dramatic events at San Siro on Sunday night.

Of course, with near-limitless funds at his disposal and a squad packed with the best world football can offer it is easy to argue that Mourinho has little more to do in Milan than carefully steer an unstoppable juggernaut towards title after title. To an extent, that’s true. It is, however, in the major games like this clash with resurgent Milan that the Special One truly earns his exorbitant salary.

Victory for Leonardo’s side would haul them within three points of the Serie A summit – with a game in hand – a remarkable achievement, given their appalling start to the campaign. An Inter win would secure a nine-point cushion and reaffirm the nerazzurri as champions-elect. As if approaching the game in the knowledge that a second victory of the season over their bitterest rivals (they won the first handsomely, 4-0, in September) would secure not just the battle but also the war, Inter drove forward from the first whistle with tremendous verve and tenacity.

Leading the charge were three key Mourinho signings – a fearsome attacking triumvirate comprising Wesley Sneijder, Argentina centre-forward Diego Milito and enigmatic Macedonian forward Goran Pandev, signed recently on a free from Lazio. Even in the absence of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, this trio is capable of terrorising any defence – beware Chelsea – let alone one featuring 38-year-old Giuseppe Favalli (standing in for the injured Alessandro Nesta) and the positionally-wayward Ignazio Abate.

Such an abundance of attacking talent is the major reason why Inter’s Champions League challenge holds more credibility this year. Previously, it was a more-or-less a case of: give it to Zlatan and see what he’ll do. These days, there’s an altogether more ambidextrous approach from the Italian champions – rearguarded, of course, by the ultimate solid citizens in midfield – the greatly underrated Esteban Cambiasso and the apparently ageless Javier Zanetti. Of late, their defence has been a shade leaky – but Lucío, Maicon, et al, all have the experience to rise to the occasion...

Only the sharp reflexes of Dida kept Sneijder at bay on two separate occasions within the opening ten minutes. With every Inter attack giving the effect that it could result in a goal, the inevitable opener materialised: Milito clinically sweeping the ball past the huge Brazilian ‘keeper after latching onto Pandev’s sublime long pass, with Abate particularly defensively culpable.

The early progress of the blue and black hordes was threatened only by the hair-trigger temper of Sneijder. The Dutchman lost his cool completely when team-mate Lucío (justly) saw yellow for a dive; sarcastically applauding referee Gianluca Rocchi’s decision and apparently offering some choice swear-words in Italiano. As a result, Sneijder was sent to the stands for the second time in just over a month. TV cameras picked up Inter president Massimo Moratti loudly inviting the ref to enjoy the backside of another, as his team were reduced to ten men.

In adversity, however – whether genuine or merely perceived – Jose Mourinho thrives. Rather than now adopting an ultra-cautious approach in the vague hope of grinding out a result, the wily Portugese coach opted to retain his potent forward duo of Pandev and Milito, in the sure knowledge that their threat would make attack Inter’s first line of defence. This, allied to the all-Argentine midfield screen, ensured that the nerazzurri line-up retained a super-solid feel, even with one man down.

There have been whispers that Milan’s Leonardo is a strong candidate for Coach of the Season, given his dramatic reversal of the ageing, apparently disinterested rossoneri’s fortunes. The Brazilian – whose penchant for the best of Milanese fashion certainly makes him a contender for Mourinho’s dapper pretty-boy mantle if nothing else – still has much to learn, however. Was it a failure of nerve that saw him replace Rino Gattuso at half time with Clarence Seedorf rather than an extra attacker, as free-scoring Marco Borriello toiled fruitlessly at the point of Milan’s attack? Or, perhaps, his lack of faith in the potential alternatives – the diffident Klass-Jan Huntelaar or over-the-hill Pippo Inzaghi? In any case, Leo’s failure to seize the tactical initiative in this must-win game left Milan hamstrung, in spite of their numerical advantage.

Emerging for the second half fully five minutes late and in staccato fashion – clearly Mourinho was practicing the sort of gamesmanship for which his Porto side were renowned – Inter withstood a spell of pressure which emanated largely from the typically pinpoint set-pieces of David Beckham, and twice had the brilliant Julio Cesar to thank for keeping their slender lead intact. Yet, on the break, the league leaders still looked lethal.

Pandev – a constant thorn in the side of Milan’s makeshift defence – clipped a delicate effort against the post from Milito’s slide-rule pass, only for the ball to drop safely into Dida’s waiting hands. The striker, who finally extricated himself from his poisonous relationship with Lazio earlier this month, was having an adventurous – and influential – five minutes. With struggling Favalli conceding a free-kick in an ideal shooting position, Pandev curled a delightful shot into Dida’s net without so much as a flicker of response from the veteran ‘keeper. He then whipped off his shirt in celebration; was customarily booked; then immediately subbed by Mourinho. It was to be the game’s decisive act.

There was still time on the clock for Huntelaar to make an overdue, if ineffectual, appearance; for Ronaldinho to casually slash over an excellent chance, then have a penalty saved by Júlio César (as his compatriot Lucío saw a second yellow for a penalty-box handball); and for Mourinho to play ringleader of the tormentors, as he animatedly called on Inter’s dormant tifosi to roar their team towards the final whistle – gesticulating like a demented Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man to the delight of the San Siro majority.

So masterful Mourinho – never shy of a radical substitution or three – stuck to his guns throughout; showing great faith in his ten men (latterly nine) to repel resurgent Milan. Leonardo’s rapid progress has been admirable, and his approach refreshing, but it seems there’s much that the master could still teach the apprentice.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Hammer Heads must back Zola project

On the day a much-loved British institution looks set to pass into the hands of overseas owners (confectioners Cadbury being greedily swallowed with Augustus Gloop-like glee by American food giants Kraft) there are compelling reasons to celebrate the arrival of Davids Sullivan and Gold at another English bastion – West Ham United. However dubious the manner in which they accrued their vast riches, it cannot be denied that both men have made this purchase chiefly from the heart.

The pair, who bring along former Spurs chairman Alan Sugar’s TV pal Karen Brady as Chief Exec were embroiled in a messy divorce from their previous club, Birmingham City; the new regime of Carson Yeung and co. instigating investigations into the big bonuses awarded to Brady and others, before dropping the matter after a brief public spat between the two groups. Their time at the helm of the Second City’s second club was not without controversy and many Bluenoses were glad to see the back of an executive team which they believed to be penny-pinching and self-regarding in equal measure. On the whole, though, Birmingham remain a solvent club and have been left in a far stronger position than when Sullivan and Gold first got their hands on the St Andrews reins in the mid-90s.

The new West Ham administration will not be leveraging huge debts on the East End club (as opposed to the reviled North American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United), but neither will they speculate much on expensive playing purchases – at least if past form is anything to go by. But almost anything will be an improvement on the reckless behaviour of the previous Icelandic owners whose absurdly wrong-headed financial speculation (borrowing against future season-ticket sales, etc) mirrored that of the many failed banks of their now-bankrupt homeland. The shameless profligacy of CB Holdings has left the club with an estimated £100m debt.

Interestingly, the first tentative steps of the Upton Park revolution have been taken with an eye on securing a switch of operations three miles down the road, from the Boleyn Ground to the London Olympic Stadium. Perhaps this was a primary motivating factor behind the purchase, as existing restrictions on the Hammers’ growth would be truly unshackled by such a potentially lucrative move. It is for this reason alone that Sullivan’s claims that: “It makes no commercial sense to buy this club,” should be taken with a large pinch of salt. That there were several other well-regarded parties in at least first-stage negotiations bears testimony to such a conclusion.

Sullivan, though, has already outlined an idea to offer the cheapest tickets in London – citing (pre-Abu Dhabi) Manchester City’s adoption of the Commonwealth Stadium as a precedent. Negotiations with the government and local authorities are sure to begin as soon as possible, as the Daily Sport magnate looks to return East End football “to the people.” Whether such a hypothetically noble principle can be upheld will only become apparent in the coming years.

Talk of a consortia with fellow super-rich supporters such as Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes will be also be welcomed by fans; as a decent-sized investment in not only retaining existing stars such as Matthew Upson, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole, but also in adding fresh blood to a thin and unbalanced squad is vital for the Hammers’ short-term Premier League survival.

Cuts will most likely need to be made among backroom staff, but the new broom would be ill-advised to interfere with the steady progress of the ambitious front-line managerial team of Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke. The pair have made a fine fist of things in straitened times – presenting a side with an attractive style of play, as required by the bubble-blowers in the stands, and forging a tight-knit unit from a host of academy talents (Noble, Tomkins, Stanislas, and the richly-talented Jack Collison) and bargain-basement imports (Franco, Diamanti, Kovac) alongside their established England stars.

Fortunately, Sullivan expounds the theory that he and his long-term colleagues “are not sacking owners.”

“In the 16-and-a-half years we were running Birmingham we only sacked two managers, and one of them, Barry Fry, we regret sacking. So, no, we don't plan to come in and sack Zola.”

Managers of such reputation and genuine esteem come along rarely and, while his tenure to-date has been far from seamless, Zola has already revealed a deep reservoir of potential for a prolonged career in the dugout. The trick for the diminutive Italian is to get positive results while completing the process of on-the-job-learning in his first senior appointment. As far as possible, Sullivan’s reputation for patience must be exercised.

As our prestigious financial institutions have shown – with the right blend of arrogance, incompetence and bloody pig-headedness – no organisation is above a self-wrought fiscal implosion. Whatever their mid-to-long-term future, West Ham fans can at least look forward to a new era of relative stability. Maybe one day they’ll even all look back and laugh heartily at the grotesquely disproportionate pay packets received by Messrs Dyer, Neill, Faubert, Boa Morte, et al. in the profligate late-noughties era. But not for some time yet.

Few will doubt that Sullivan, the brash orator, and Gold, the softly-spoken Del Boy figure from Green Street (both of whom will personally pay Brady’s no-doubt lavish wages for the upcoming 12 months) will fight long and hard to return West Ham United toward something approaching their long-lost glory days. Their grandiose ‘seven-year plan’ (!) incorporates a brand new home and establishment in the top four of the table. As Gold says, the “adventure” begins now.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Milan goal-rush greets wing wizard Beckham

What a difference seven weeks makes. Particularly in the life of a 34-year-old global megastar and footballing itinerant.

In late November, David Beckham was a deep-lying central midfielder in despair; a limping, losing finalist in the footballing backwater of Major League Soccer, as his LA Galaxy side slumped to defeat in the U.S. season finale. Come early January, Becks is effectively an inside-right in peak physical condition; a crucial piece in the jigsaw which sees his Milan team, along with Villarreal, Rangers, and, er, Birmingham City as one of the form teams in Europe.

The Rossoneri are a team transformed; their early-season struggles, when rookie coach Leonardo came under-fire for the consistently lacklustre performances of his side, are long forgotten. Beckham’s return to the Milanello fold has hogged headlines and added a flourish to Milan’s attacking play, but the revival had its genesis before the winter break; their mid-December defeat to Palermo being their only reverse in 15 games since the supposedly apocalyptic San Siro loss to Champions League minnows FC Zürich.

In the opening week of the season’s second half, Milan have put to the sword both early Serie A pacesetters Genoa and nominal title rivals Juventus – netting eight goals in the process. Such a promising beginning to 2010 throws into sharp relief the incoherent start to their campaign, characterised by a long barren run in front of goal (Leonardo’s rein opened with just four goals in his first seven league games). And Beckham’s involvement has been integral.

The prodigal Inglese has returned from the U.S. to fill an advanced right-wing position, with Ronaldinho ostensibly on the opposite flank; in-form striker Marco Borriello provides the meat in the superstar sandwich. Few could have predicted the deployment of Beckham in this role; fewer still would have predicted its instant success.

Yet it makes a certain amount of sense, as Milan’s midfield trio (usually Pirlo, Gattuso and Ambrosini) can get through the leg work (Pirlo excepted), allowing their illustrious ‘luxury’ colleagues the freedom to create from out wide. Milan’s highly-respected medical team purport that Becks can play on until he is 40, and given his unerring natural talent for crossing a ball, at this rate it’s likely he could continue to fire in dangerous crosses ‘til well into his fifties.

Ronaldinho will never track-back in the manner that Beckham so willingly does and the extravagant Brazilian’s propensity to float away from his position lays much responsibility on young Luca Antonini to protect the left-flank almost single-handedly. That’s no real revelation though, what has surprised many is the re-application of Ronnie to a game that he appeared patently uninterested in just a few short months ago.

There are two major reasons for this rapid turnaround in Gaúcho’s game. Firstly, the continued, unrelenting support of his compatriot Leonardo amid a storm of (well justified) criticism has helped to solidify the pair’s tight relationship. To perform at his best, Ronaldinho needs to feel a sense of love and community which Leo has apparently already fostered at Milanello, if the joyous, unified goal celebrations at Turin’s Stadio Olimpico are anything to go by.

The second motivation behind Ronaldinho’s steady improvement is plain – the incentive of a looming World Cup finals, in which his participation is anything but a certainty. Given Dunga’s predominantly counter-attacking game plan, spaces in the 23-man squad for opulent, creative types is at a premium. It could be a straight fight between Ronnie and his defeated opponent in Turin, Diego. The diminutive playmaker’s form has slumped dramatically along with that of Juve’s. It was the re-born Ronaldinho that emerged from the shroud of fog that enveloped the Olimpico on Sunday evening as the clear favourite for the plane to South Africa this summer.

All in all, Leonardo’s new-look side has a wonderfully balanced look to it and – given the size of his task in succeeding Carlo Ancelotti and replacing a golden generation – the young Brazilian is well ahead of schedule in his planned Milanese renaissance.

Not only is Antonini deputising flawlessly for the injured Gianluca Zambrotta, Ignazio Abate has added further much-needed youthful pep to the defence at right-back. The marauding Thiago Silva has recovered from some early defensive slip-ups to become an unyielding partner for Alessandro Nesta at centre-half.

Borriello’s re-emergence as a regular goal-scorer (a trick he has managed during a couple of successful loan spells, but rarely at San Siro) is another major bonus for the Rossoneri. Considering that Pippo Inzaghi must one day soon bother his final linesman, Alexandre Pato is injured, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has still to come fully to terms with the demands of Serie A, the Neapolitan’s pin-sharp form has come as a major boost. The cap on his recent comeback was a magnificent bicycle kick; the fourth of Milan’s five goals against Genoa.

That game was overseen by former Milan boss Fabio Capello, and the England manager will have been satisfied by the form of one his most favoured players. And Beckham’s impressive adaptability will provide food for thought as the Italian considers his Plans B and C for the summer. Milan’s no.23, who recently announced a £4m profit for his personal image rights company (Beckham Brand really couldn’t make it up), will play an essential role as they look forward to a critical second Derby della Madonnina of the season in a fortnight.

Not only do they require retribution for their humiliating 0-4 loss to Inter in late August, a win over their bitterest rivals could pull them back into something resembling a genuine title race with Jose Mourinho’s men.

Further ahead lies a mouth-watering continental tie with faltering Manchester United. If the English champions are to turn over Leonardo’s newly-confident charges, they must first keep at bay the returning family man and the playboy that got away. The partnership of Becks and Ronnie, who shared jubilant smiles and hugs as the two brilliantly combined for Milan’s third goal at Juve, promises so much between now and May.