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?