Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Twente-one and out for McClaren

To make a wretched exit from the position regularly touted as ‘the biggest job in football’; to be derided as a tactical novice and dubbed the “wally with a brolly”; to be cast out of the reckoning as a Premier League-level manager. Such was the sorry lot of Steve McClaren in the grisly aftermath of England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

All of this was undoubtedly a heavy burden to bear, but perhaps the accusation which rankled with the one-time assistant of Sir Alex Ferguson more than any other was that he was simply not cut out for the role of manager. A fine no.2, sure; a capable link between players and gaffer with unimpeachable coaching pedigree. But as the top man? McClaren had overstretched himself; once more proving, so we were told, the old footballing maxim that two-into-one doesn’t go.

In the two-and-a-bit years since his Wembley nadir, McClaren’s stock has recovered significantly though. Retreating to the relative safe-haven of the Dutch Eredivisie, echoing the path of fellow ex-England boss, the late Sir Bobby Robson, has certainly proved to be a wise decision.

Initial suspicion of his motives (were FC Twente merely a platform to impress watching Premier League chairmen?) and a fear that he would bring ‘English’ tactics (i.e. hard-running and mindless long-balls) eroded when, last season, McClaren led his new side to a second place finish. He had inherited a strong unit from Fred Rutten (who departed for an unhappy spell with Schalke, but now leads rivals PSV), but much of the acclaim was rightly reserved for McLaren.

Stevie Mac’s vertiginous ascent from the depths of despair to the widely-admired leader of De Tukkers has been further enhanced by the style in which they have opened the current campaign. Leading into last Sunday’s game with Ajax, Twente had won 17 and drawn four of their 21 league games: an unbeaten run illuminated by the kind of free-flowing attacking football (in a typically Dutch 4-3-3 formation) rarely associated with the previously prosaic McLaren.

That game, at the Amsterdam ArenA, again confirmed the Eredivisie as the go-to place for lightning-quick, technically adroit football – particularly in the opening half-hour. After Ajax’s prolific Marco Pantelić had a flick-header stopped by Twente’s 39-year-old Sander Boschker (later substituted through injury), Twente went on the front foot. Veteran Swiss striker Blaise N’Kufo ‘blaised’ over from close range; Ajax reject Kenneth Perez squandered an opportunity created by a masterful Brian Ruiz through-ball; then Perez headed over the bar from inside the six-yard box.

That opening salvo was as good as it would get for the visitors, as the combative Demy de Zeeuw – just booked for a cynical block on Twente’s Stoch – guided a 20-yard shot past the reach of Boschker and into the bottom corner. Perez’s critical failure to capitalise on the vision of Ruiz ceded the initiative to Martin Jol’s team, which started the game nine points adrift of their less illustrious opponents.

The electric impact of their Costa Rican import Ruiz – and Slovakian winger Miro Stoch (on loan from Chelsea) – has made coping with the loss of Eljero Elia, Marko Arnautović (on loan, but unused, at Inter), and Edson Braafheid (now on loan at Celtic from Bayern Munich) so much easier. This season’s Twente are a real league of nations: South Africa, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Azerbaijan, Australia, Serbia, among several others, are all represented in the diverse squad of the Enschede club.

A supremely gifted and versatile forward, Ruiz, has arguably been the pick of the bunch to date. Freshly arrived from Gent in the Jupiler League, Ruiz has adapted to life in the Netherlands seamlessly – scoring at a regular lick and adding a dash of elegance to Twente’s irrepressible three-man attack (alongside burly N’Kufo and tricky Stoch). Already the 24-year-old has spoken of his desire to move to Spain within the next two years, as he plans his ascent to footballing stardom. Few would bet against Ruiz realising his dream in the complimentary environs of La Liga.

Another young Latin American star proving his worth in the Eredivisie is Luis Suarez; Ajax captain. Regarded as something of an enfant terrible prior to being handed the skipper’s armband, Suarez has reached new heights this year with a healthy haul of 22 goals already. The Uruguayan’s wonderful curled shot on the cusp of half-time struck Twente’s post, falling to the feet of flying full-back Gregory van der Wiel. His shot was repelled by Boschker; then bundled into the net by the predatory Pantelić – the Serbian’s seventh in seven games.

McClaren stalked the touchline, bawling at the defensive ineptitude of his side, as the referee called a halt to the first period. Following the restart, Twente renewed their efforts to keep intact their unbeaten run; Theo Janssen’s hammered drive stinging the palms of the relatively untested Maarten Stekelenburg. However, the Amsterdammers – for whom the Belgian marauding centre-half Jan Vertonghen again starred – produced some intricate and occasionally incisive play which saw them close the game stronger; finally finishing Twente’s hopes when Pantelić teed up sub Dennis Rommedahl to fire past replacement ‘keeper Cees Paauwe in the 75th minute.

There was even time for Jol to offer a debut to the highly-rated Uruguayan playmaker Nico Lodeiro; signed from Nacional in the January transfer window. One of the stars of the under-20 World Cup in Egypt last year, Lodeiro has all the potential to match, surpass even, the achievements of his countryman and captain, Luis Suárez. It was a comfortable first appearance in European football, as his new club secured a 3-0 win to draw within six points of their visitors and nine of leaders PSV. Fred Rutten’s side now hold the only unbeaten record in the league and their position as favourites to take the title looks stronger than ever.

In the end, it was an inglorious conclusion to a remarkable run for Twente – though recent performances indicated that defeat would arrive sooner rather than later. Much can be learnt about the character of a unit in defeat, however, and the extent to which McClaren can now rally his troops will not only be crucial for their title hopes, but also in protecting their English gaffer’s burgeoning reputation. Come the summer, the disheartening and laborious process of replacing his star players is likely to start all over again for that rarest of footballing breeds – the successful Englishman abroad.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ghana pose Africa’s biggest World Cup threat

His young team may have lost narrowly in last week’s Africa Nations Cup final, but, already, Ghana’s coach Milovan Rajevac is moving on. The previously unheralded Serb forged a youthful, resilient unit from diminished resources to take the Black Stars within touching distance of the trophy they have craved since their last continental triumph in 1982. Having gained acclaim and admiring glances from fans, pundits and scouts alike, the next step for Ghana is to re-integrate a tranche of established stars into the hungry, disciplined group which maximised their talents in Angola.

The first step in this process was yesterday’s announcement that versatile Inter midfielder Sulley Muntari would be welcomed back into the fold ahead of the summer’s trip to South Africa. The former Portsmouth man had gone AWOL ahead of the Nations Cup – Rajevac even spent two days in Milan, waiting for Muntari to reply to his calls – and so was unceremoniously dumped from the squad. One of the brightest in the Black Stars’ galaxy, Muntari instead remained with Jose Mourinho’s squad – featuring (to little effect, it must be said) in the Milan derby on the same day as his erstwhile team-mates were downing the hosts in the CAN quarter-finals.

Rajevac has been quick to build bridges – assuring the press that the problem was merely a “misunderstanding” which has now been “sorted”. Pragmatically, the 56-year-old coach said:

“For the World Cup you need players with experience. Players like John Mensah, John Paintsil, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari. They will be important players for the World Cup.”

“But it depends on how much they want to play, because I want players who are willing to give their best for Ghana.” He concluded: “All the players who got the chance in Angola used it very well so there will be a lot of competition.”

Such a blend of youth and experience can only strengthen Ghana’s claims as the most eminent hope of ‘home’ success at the first African World Cup. Of the other candidates, Paul Le Guen’s Cameroon are perhaps too flaky; Algeria – blessed with a certain amount of capricious talent, but far too erratic; Nigeria – lacking in any cohesion and genuine quality in key positions. As for South Africa themselves; progress from the first phase will be considered a minor miracle in itself. That leaves only the Ivory Coast.

That’s the glamorous, orange-shirted Côte d’Ivoire of the irrepressible Didier Drogba; of the indestructible Yaya Touré; a side of astonishing power, athleticism and no little finesse. Yet Les Éléphants find themselves drawn in a hideously difficult group alongside favourites Brazil, talented Portugal, and the hard-running 11-man defensive blockade that is North Korea. Should they somehow emerge from such a tough section, then, rightly, the Ivorians would feel confident of further progress. However, Coach Vahid Halilhodžić opined, in the aftermath of their Nations Cup exit: “Some of my players can't handle the favourites’ status and the problem is in their heads.”

A better bet, then, would be for the Ghanaians to escape Group D – comprising a German team in transition, ageing Australia and the dangerous Serbia, of whom Rajevac will be acutely aware.

It’s far from a straightforward passage, of course – and England might await in the last 16 – but a squad comprising those who so impressed four years ago in Germany, such as Essien, Muntari, Mensah and the rehabilitated striker Asamoah Gyan, cannot be discounted. Add to the mix a whole host of talented youngsters (or Black Satellites, as they’re known), and Rajevac can boast of a potent formula.

One of the stand-out youngsters in the recent Nations Cup team (though he surprisingly didn’t feature in the official ‘squad of the tournament’) was dynamic full-back Samuel Inkoom, of Swiss club Basle. The callow 20-year-old narrowly missed out on a golden treble with final defeat in Angola, having already triumphed at both the African and World Youth Championships (in Rwanda and Egypt respectively) last year.

Inkoom’s natural style is one of all-out attack; relying heavily on endless reserves of energy and speed to dig himself out of defensive holes when necessary. The effervescent right-back rarely looked out of his depth taking on both Fulham and Roma in this season’s Europa League; featuring heavily in the offensive play of the side he joined only last summer from Asante Kotoko. Fulham’s Paintsil will struggle to reclaim his berth in the Ghana back-line, should Inkoom maintain his vast progress between now and June.

Allied to those of the new generation, including centre-half Isaac Vorsah and exciting midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana will also hope to call upon their once-talismanic captain Stephen Appiah – who struggled with injury and, somewhat bizzarely, lack of employment for the past two years, before recently securing a move to Bologna in his second home, Serie A. With all these tools at his disposal, coach Rajevac will be expected to make a serious impression on the global stage in four months time.

Had Egypt managed to successfully negotiate their intoxicating qualifying struggle with neighbours Algeria (though they managed an unedifying measure of revenge in the spiteful CAN semi-final between the North African nations), they’d undoubtedly pose a significant threat to any opponent. Though the Pharaohs won a somewhat parochial battle in Angola, they will be absent from the war – to which the beaten Black Stars will be heading off to fight.

So will Ghana finally become Africa’s first world champions? Not likely. Perhaps the first African finalists? Don’t put your semi-detached on it. But the continent’s best hope of an illuminating run through the earlier stages of the greatest show on earth? Certainly.