Monday, March 29, 2010

Toni topples Inter and turns title race around

In an ever-tightening Serie A scudetto race, a quirk of the fixture list saw the two table-topping giants from Italy’s fashion capital each facing snappy underdogs from the Eternal City on the final weekend of an eventful March. Inter (1st) and their bitter rivals Milan (2nd) met Roma (3rd) and Lazio (16th) respectively, with the nerazzuri’s league form apparently suffering as a consequence of their determined focus on European matters and Milan, still suffering from their Old Trafford shellacking, counting Messrs Nesta, Pato, Abbiati, Beckham (all injured), Ronaldinho, Pirlo (both suspended) among an extensive – and expensive – list of absentees.

Coach Leonardo was still able to field a strong line-up for the Sunday night visit of Lazio; opting for a rare 4-4-2, with Pippo Inzaghi partnering mainstay Marco Borriello up front and Clarence Seedorf featuring alongside Flamini, Ambrosini and Abate in midfield. An intriguing tactical battle was in prospect, because Eddy Reja – recently in for the jettisoned Davide Ballardini – selected three centre-halves, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Aleksandr Kolarov as wing-backs.

The mastermind of precious back-to-back wins in the biancocelesti’s relegation fight, Reja has clearly galvanised a group of players that often looked dispirite under the previous incumbent. Despite an early setback – Borriello converted a penalty won by Flamini’s 17th minute surge into the box to put Milan one ahead – there was little to suggest that the visitors could not compete on an even footing with opposition from the other end of the league table.

As ever, stand-in ‘keeper Dida brought his own special brand of jittery incompetence to proceedings, as Milan sat on their lead, inviting Lazio to seize the initiative. All too briefly the darling of St Andrews, Mauro Zárate – palpably a victim of ‘second-season syndrome’ if ever there was one – and strike-partner Tomasso Rocchi (just two Serie A goals so far) have struggled desperately for goals all season long in a team with just 27 goals in 31 games. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that it was a wing-back who scored a deserved equaliser for the strugglers just after the half-hour mark. Swiss international Lichtsteiner was rewarded for his prodigious work-rate with a well-taken close-range goal, after a glaring miskick by rossoneri full-back Luca Antonini.

Lazio were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty for a clear shove by Flamini on Kolarov (a reversal of roles from the first penalty incident) just inside the Milan area, but, curiously, not a single visiting player appealed for a spot-kick. Taking that, plus a later glaring miss from Lazio’s recently-acquired Brazilian defender André Dias, in to account – and given the general paucity of ideas offered by the hosts – it would have been unjust had Antonini been successful with a shot smashed against the crossbar early on in a second half devoid of inspiration. One-all then, and for the biancocelesti: a point well-earned. Surely they are ‘too good to go down’. But since when did that guarantee immunity from the drop? For title-chasing Milan – as attested to by the grimaces of touchline spectators Ronaldinho and Paolo Maldini – it was more an opportunity missed.

Such an opportunity – to draw within a single point of stuttering Inter – had been opened up by Roma’s exploits at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday evening. Increasingly invincible in domestic football – their only recent blip was the Europa League exit at the hands of Panathinaikos – the giallorossi entertained José Mourinho’s men with that very same incentive in mind: to reduce Inter’s once-formidable advantage to just a point.

A rare howler from Brazil’s no.1, Júlio César, presented Roma vice-captain Daniele de Rossi with a tap-in for the opening goal; which he celebrated in curious style by kissing his shin-pad. In response, efforts either side of half-time from Walter Samuel, then Diego Milito, each rattled the woodwork – proving Inter’s intent. It was the league leaders who were firmly in the ascendancy following a characteristically early substitution from Mourinho: in-form Goran Pandev replacing midfielder Dejan Stanković.

Their overdue equaliser owed a little to fortune, as heroic last-ditch blocks from first Jeremy Ménez – mounting a late, but likely fruitless, run for inclusion in the French World Cup party – then De Rossi, fell kindly to Milito. The Argentine striker further extended his fine scoring run from close range. Replays showed, however, that Pandev was clearly offside in the build-up.

Another slice of luck saw Maicon’s spiteful studs-up assault on De Rossi go totally unpunished – which was particularly fortunate given the same player’s later booking for a reckless challenge on Roma’s Man of the Match David Pizarro. The resolute Chilean playmaker displayed outstanding endeavour and peerless composure on the ball, once more outlining his vital importance to the Romans.

The wheel of fortune was to spin in the giallorossi’s favour soon after, as Luca Toni profited from sub Riccardo Taddei’s wild-shot-turned-precision-cross; slotting the ball past Julio César to net his fifth goal in nine games for his new club. The 32-year-old finished with the kind of aplomb which lit up his previous Serie A spell and made him Italy’s leading centre-forward for a brief but productive spell. Younger models – Milan’s Borriello, Samp’s Giampaolo Pazzini and Alberto Gilardino of Fiorentina have since moved ahead of the lumbering Modenese marksman in the Azzurri pecking order, however.

Before the winter break, while Roma were still toiling to regain ground lost from an awful start to the campaign, Toni was resolutely bench-bound and embroiled in a very public war of words with Louis Van Gaal and the rest of the Bayern Munich hierarchy. How things have changed. Capping his return to favour with a World Cup call-up really would put the cream on the cassata.

In search of a second equaliser, Mourinho was even desperate enough to throw on expensive flop Ricardo Quaresma for the final ten minutes – but the best his side could manage was another shot against the woodwork from Milito, deep into injury time. Roma even had the luxury of welcoming back Francesco Totti, to a rapturous reception, in the dying moments of a vital win.

Taking into account Milan’s ever-lengthening injury list, Claudio Ranieri’s charges must now be considered the greatest challengers to the hegemony of Inter – who have Javier Zanetti, Samuel Eto’o, Lucío and Maicon missing through suspension for the upcoming visit of Bologna. Cristian Chivu’s name should have been added to that list too, but the ex-Roma defender was only yellow-carded for a stamp on Toni.

In the aftermath, Mourinho – who wore a fixed wry grin on his face during the final minutes, as if silently protesting against some unseen injustice – declined to comment; so exacerbating his tortuous relationship with the baying Italian sports media.

Inter’s sudden loss of discipline and upcoming continental diversions give further hope for their new nearest challengers. A viewpoint acknowledged by the customarily forthright De Rossi, who was more than happy to fill the media vacuum left by Mourinho’s all-too-rare reticence.

We hope the Champions League can distract them,” said the Rome-born midfield general.

Inter have slowed down and now we will have to spit up blood in order to finish top.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Europa League highlights, starring: Villa, Agüero, and fantastic Fulham

It’s been a pulsating week in European football; as Sneijder, Messi and Gourcuff strode magnificently across the Champions League centre stage, provoking awe and admiration from a global audience. Thursday night offered a chance to shine for their able Europa League understudies David Villa, Sergio Agüero and...Bobby Zamora?

Fulham’s battering ram centre-forward, who can’t stop scoring at the moment, played a central role in a star-studded evening packed full of goals and breathless action which brought the continent’s second-tier competition to life.

The Cottagers had already battled through an unfeasibly crowded schedule to reach the last 16. Therefore, last week’s 3-1 reverse in Turin perhaps came as little surprise to those expecting a compact squad to run out of steam in the final stages of a long, laborious season. Given the magnitude of their opposition – 14 years ago Juventus were well on their way to Champions League glory under Marcello Lippi, while pre-Al Fayed Fulham were set to finish 17th in the old Third Division – few predicted the kind of miraculous turnaround that the nation’s new second-favourite team, at the end of ninety credibility-defying minutes, affected.

David Trezeguet’s characteristically opportunist early goal seemed to have wiped out any remaining semblance of hope for Roy Hodgson’s men. But observers of Fulham’s travels so far this season would have found familiar the fortitude in adversity they offered up to a boisterous ‘Craven Cauldron’ crowd. Zamora’s rapid and emphatic equaliser was followed in quick order by fast-fading Fabio Cannavaro’s unfortunate dismissal for a trip on the lively Zoltan Gera. Third-choice ‘keeper Antonio Chimenti, much-maligned for his lack of authority as Juventus frittered away a three-goal lead against Siena on Sunday, acrobatically tipped away Zamora’s curling effort from the resultant free-kick.

At this stage, over in Bremen where Werder were ‘defending’ an away-goal advantage following a 1-1 draw in Valencia, the visitors from the sharp-end of La Liga had waltzed into a two-goal lead. Early goals from David Villa and Juan Mata (each crafted by David Silva) should’ve been split by a reply from Claudio Pizarro, but the big Peruvian failed to capitalise on a glorious opportunity. His partner Hugo Almeida did manage to pull one back, only for Villa to snatch another to quieten the Weserstadion, with the home team then trailing 2-4 on aggregate. The result was a forgone conclusion, or so it seemed.

Back in west London; Simon Davies – recently returning from injury, to great effect – echoed Yoann Gourcuff’s unanticipated free-kicks for Bordeaux on Wednesday by whipping a shot from a wide angle against Chimenti’s crossbar. Moments later Dickson Etuhu, wresting himself free from the hands-on attentions of a brittle Juventus back-line, headed against the outside of the post, as the Old Lady began to stumble.

A wonderful team goal soon followed; set in motion by Zamora’s deft flick, served up by Davies’ goal-line cutback, and finished by the late-arriving Gera. The roof-raising response from a capacity crowd recalled Portsmouth’s raucous reception of Milan in 2008. This battle of English minnow and Italian colossus was to have a happier ending for the Premier League team however, as off-form Diego’s clear penalty-box handball early in the second half gave Gera the chance to slam in a penalty for his second and Fulham’s third. The tie was now – remarkably – dead-level.

Following such head-spinning mayhem, there was, inevitably a lull as both sides gathered their thoughts – with extra-time and penalties now a distinct possibility. There was no such opportunity to catch the breath over in northwest Germany as, by now, Torsten Frings’ penalty and a powerful drive from Marko Marin (effectively Diego’s replacement at Werder) had levelled the tie at 4-4.

The definitive moment in this game arrived on 65 minutes as David Villa completed his hat-trick by thumping in from Juan Mata’s cross-field ball; Werder’s defence again AWOL, leaving Tim Weise cruelly exposed to the prowess of Europe’s most lethal marksman. Pizarro’s late goal made it five apiece, but the away goals rule accounted for last season’s beaten UEFA Cup finalists.

Into the final fifteen minutes at the Cottage, American agitator Clint Dempsey’s arrival from the sub’s bench had the desired effect as first he met Simon Davies’ excellent cross with a header which had Chimenti at full stretch. Fulham’s black-eyed boy, just back from a long-term knee injury, then sent their apparently ‘placid’ fans into raptures with a wonderful chipped goal from just outside the area. A phenomenal finish, which some pundits were quick to claim – erroneously – as unintentional; a misdirected cross. It was a fitting climax to a dream-like sequence of events for Hodgson’s heroic charges.

There was, therefore, much to live up to later in the evening, as the second tranche of ties kicked off. Liverpool were keen to avoid joining Juve as giants felled from both European competitions in one season; hosting Lille to whom they trailed 0-1 from the first leg. Frequently derided midfielder Lucas Leiva was the unlikely catalyst for the Reds’ comeback – buying a 7th minute penalty with a surging run into the penalty area. Steven Gerrard, slowly returning to form, rattled in the spot-kick.

Mickael Landreau saved two further efforts (including one from the boot of the unshackled Lucas) before Lille’s lively starlet Eden Hazard burst through the central defensive gap left by Jamie Carragher’s dereliction of duty, only to fire the visitors’ best chance of an away goal straight at the formidable figure of Pepe Reina. Casting an eye over proceedings at Anfield – most particularly the input of his captain Javier Mascherano and the reliably erratic Emiliano Insúa – was Argentina head coach, Diego Maradona.

Maradona’s singing son-in-law Sergio Agüero used all his cunning and penalty-box nous to snatch two away goals for Atlético Madrid at Sporting Lisbon. El Kun’s timely emergence from a goal-scoring slump cancelled out Miguel Veloso’s soft free kick and Liédson’s headed goal. Sporting will feel hard done by; having a strong penalty claim (for Tomáš Ujfaluši’s clear trip on Carlos Saleiro) rejected in the final twenty minutes.

Liverpool, visibly lifted by the nature of their thumping win over EPL dead-ducks Portstmouth on Monday, were largely dominant against Ligue 1 title-chasers Lille. Fernando Torres wrapped up progress for the tournament favourites; latching onto a long-ball to punish a defensive lapse by Adil Rami. Any remaining belligerence from Les Dogues was finally becalmed as Torres knocked in a rebound from Gerrard’s shot. With that pair returning to peak form and fitness, few would bet against the Merseysiders salvaging more than just pride from their troubled season.

The pick of the night’s other ties came in Brussels, where Anderlecht staged a Fulham-esque renaissance; fighting back from an early 1-4 aggregate deficit to draw even at 5-5 with Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Hamburg. Mladen Petrić finally killed off the Belgians’ hopes with a decisive late goal (sound familiar England fans?) About one hundred miles east, in Liège, Panathinaikos turfed-out favourites Roma in the last 32, but quietly succumbed to Standard; 4-1 winners on aggregate.

Double Russian champions Rubin Kazan, enjoying a colourful European campaign which took in ‘that glorious night in Barcelona’, took defending German champs Wolfsburg to extra time. The VW-backed club were steered into the final eight though by Stuttgart-bound Christian Gentner’s composed finish, with penalties just seconds away.

Hosting Everton’s group-stage conquerors Benfica, Marseille took a 70th minute aggregate lead through talismanic skipper Mamadou Niang. But late goals from Maxi Pereira and Alan Kardec turned the tie on its head at a wild and windy Stade Velodrome, before Hatem Ben Arfa was dismissed for a spiteful kick on Kardec in the dying moments. Both sides – Zenit and Shakhtar – that knocked OM out in the past two seasons went on to win the UEFA Cup. What price the Eagles to triumph this year?

We’ll soon find out who the Lisbon giants face next – in the tantalising draw for the quarter and semi-finals; made this afternoon, at 12 noon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Capello’s Choice: Beckham out, Johnson in?

The painful snapping of David Beckham’s Achilles tendon has apparently been heard around the world. Already, innumerable obituaries have been offered for Becks’ World Cup dream; some were keen to even write-off the 34-year-old’s career before a complete diagnosis was even made. What is for sure, however, is that England’s commander-in-chief, Fabio Capello, who quickly offered a message of sympathy to one of his most-valued squad members, will have already have ‘moved on’ in the re-composition of his selection for South Africa.

Beckham was, of course, due to fill a back-up slot; covering the right-wing and central midfield positions; offering technical assurance and set-piece wizardry as and when necessary. He was the ‘Plan B’ for England’s right flank, which, for all their innate talents, has yet to have been rightfully claimed as his own by any of its most recent occupants. Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, even Shaun Wright-Phillips, have all dazzled intermittently, while James Milner’s assiduous reliability and impressive versatility has pushed the Aston Villa midfielder to the forefront of late.

Given that Lennon’s recurrent injury woes appear likely to rule the Tottenham man out of the running, it looks as though Walcott, for all his faults, remains the favourite for the right-wing berth. Beckham’s enforced withdrawal, however, frees up space for another wide-man.

So, what if there was an orthodox winger available to Capello; someone with undoubted potential, the ability to drift past his marker, to easily beat a full-back with a trick, then cross onto a fivepence (even tougher than a sixpence, you’ll agree). What if such a player was so highly-regarded that both Chelsea and Real Madrid were apparently interested in securing his signature before he moved from his boyhood club in a deal worth an ample £7 million – during a depressed mid-season transfer market and in spite of having only a few months remaining on his contract. And, as if to confirm his potential for divinity, this young man is predominantly left-footed. Now, surely the astute Italian wouldn’t fail to select such a player?

Well he’s certainly considering it. Adam Johnson’s call-up to the preliminary squad for the Egypt game confirmed that Signor Capello has the Sunderland-born starlet in his thoughts.

Already it is apparent that Johnson has the raw talent to follow in the footsteps of the best British wingers of recent years. The ‘new Giggs’ labels were as premature as they were predictable, especially given his move to Manchester, but it is no surprise to discover that the Welsh wizard, whose videos Johnson studied at length while in the Middlesbrough youth ranks, was the “hero” of Johnson’s footballing youth.

Comparisons to Chris Waddle also hold a grain of authenticity – what with their North East backgrounds, willingness to attack full-backs at speed, and penchant for pinpoint left-footed crosses. The forthright former Marseille star cited Johnson’s rapid progress in the footnotes of his scathing (though fairly accurate) portrayal of Walcott earlier this month. The young Arsenal forward was, of course, himself a World Cup wildcard four years ago. Perhaps Johnson, his senior by two years, can fill that ‘role’ this time around.

His manager at Eastlands has shown great belief in Johnson’s ability – offering him an unexpected full debut against Bolton, where the winger earned the Man of the Match award, and again turning to the 22-year-old as Sunday’s game at the Stadium of Light threatened to slip away from City’s cast of stars. In front of his family, all Sunderland fans, Johnson, with stunning virtuosity, jinked to the edge of the penalty area before unleashing an unstoppable curling shot into the extreme top-left corner of the previously unbeatable Craig Gordon’s net. Salvaging a valuable point in the chase for Champions League football, Johnson enjoyed the plaudits of Roberto Mancini, who, it has frequently been reported, has had at least one in-depth discussion with Fabio Capello about his new protégé.

The praise was not unfettered by a certain degree of realism, however.

“Adam is a good player, but is a young player,” said Mancini.

He continued: “I think that in the future, he will be a good player for the national team, but now I don't know. The England national team has a good manager and he knows very well Adam Johnson and he will decide.”

The man himself acknowledges the size of his task in jumping from the Championship to the World Cup in six months. Lest this be held against the youngster, it should be noted that both Jonás Gutiérrez and Fabricio Coloccini are likely to feature for Argentina, having played second-tier football all season long. Robert Koren, in and out of favour at West Brom, will captain Slovenia at the finals.

Just last week Johnson, who has won 19 caps for the under-21s, presciently said: “Who knows? If there are a couple of injuries and I have some great form between now and the end of the season, you never know. I’ve come a long way in a short space of time.

“Somebody always comes in late, and if you know the England manager is watching, you can’t help but try a bit harder. It’s up to me to do well for City and, if we get fourth spot with me playing a big part in it, then you never know.”

Certainly, his early showings back in the Premier League have overshadowed the more prosaic form of the man he understudied at Middlesbrough, Stewart Downing, whose crossing ability is undoubted, but lacks the capacity for the unexpected that Johnson has to offer. Meanwhile, the immensely-talented Joe Cole’s return from injury has been so far underwhelming (perhaps untimely contract discussions have played their part) and Steven Gerrard has been, and always will be, an unwilling ‘narrow’ left-winger. In the negative margin, though, Capello must consider whether he can afford to include another inexperienced left-sided player, with either Stephen Warnock or Leighton Baines set to deputise for Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge.

Following that dazzling full Premier League debut against Bolton, Johnson received a standing ovation from the City faithful upon his late withdrawal, having outshone Carlos Tévez and Emmanuel Adebayor – his partners in a three-man attack (in which he figured on the right). Should the confident young product of the fruitful Boro academy continue to have such an impact on the absorbing ‘race for fourth place’, then a fairytale trip to South Africa is certainly not beyond his compass.