Monday, 20 December 2010

Pressing and Pedro the secret keys to Barca’s success

During Barcelona’s 5-1 demolition of Espanyol on Saturday one of the Champions’ many fabled characteristics shone through – the pressure and pressing they put on the opposition backline.

A point often missed amongst the eulogising of Barca’s passing and movement is that the one of the cornerstones to their philosophy of dominating possession is how quickly they can win it back. This tactic has been employed by Pep Guardiola from his first match in charge and has been highlighted as the major difference between his and Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona that similarly shone between 2004 and 2006, winning two consecutive league titles and the 2006 Champions League.

Such intensive pressing high up the pitch does have its drawbacks. In particular it forces the next two bands of midfield and defence to push up and deny space between the lines. As a result Barca’s defensive line is often preposterously high for a team so often in control of the game – as demonstrated by Espanyol’s goal on Saturday when the visitors were leading 3-0.

However, by pressing those that are generally more uncomfortable in possession (defenders) so vigorously it also allows Barcelona to win back possession in dangerous areas of the pitch. As Sid Lowe remarked at half-time on Saturday, what was most impressive about this Barca side was its aggression and character.

One player who has demonstrated these qualities more than most this season is Pedro Rodriguez. Pedro’s brace on Saturday took his tally for the season to 11, his ninth in nine games, yet it was his all round play that caught the eye.

Playing in a more central position as Leo Messi dropped deeper to receive the ball in a ‘false nine’ position. Pedro’s link-up play, running in behind and closing down was exceptional. His first goal was made by a sublime first touch from an uncharacteristic hoof out of the Barca defence. Once it was in his stride, he laid the ball back for Messi before spinning in behind the defence, running onto Messi’s perfectly weighted through ball and finishing clinically. His second demonstrated his hunger and striker’s instinct. In a remarkably similar movement to his goal against Real Madrid, after again exchanging passes with Messi, he streaked past two defenders to tap in the rebound after Carlos Kameni had parried Messi’s original attempt.

Last season he scored 22 goals, including the amazing achievement of scoring in all six competitions Barca took part in, and important ones too. The one that sealed the title at the Bernabeu, the one that rescued the World Club Cup in the 90th minute against Estudiantes, the away goal in the San Siro against Inter in the Chmapions League semi-final. Yet, somehow it always felt that he was ignored and overshadowed in a team of star names. Many saw his success as merely a by-product of playing alongside Messi, Xavi, Andres iniesta, Dani Alves et al. He only just sneaked into the Spanish World Cup squad but, once there, proved pivotal when he got his chance to play in the latter stages, particularly against Germany in the semi-final.

Summer transfer rumours linking Robinho, Juan Mata and David Silva with an arrival at the Nou Camp also seemed disrespectful to a young man who, Messi apart, had the most successful debut season of all of the current first team’s La Masia graduates.

So far this season though any lingering doubts have been categorically dispelled. With Messi operating more and more as a deep, central forward and David Villa using his intelligence to break the defensive line from a wide-left position, as he did to such devastating effect with two goals against Espanyol and Real Madrid, Pedro’s exceptional pace offers a different dimension. As he plays narrower on the right his contribution to his side’s tight interplay around the box has developed remarkably, as shown by his involvement in the first two goals against Real Sociedad last weekend, and by playing slightly infield he allows the rampaging Alves more space to bomb in to.

Ultimately, the crucial point is that the 23 year-old from Tenerife is no longer a weak link in a devastating front five, comprising Villa, Messi, iniesta and Xavi. Rather he is a key component in that devastating quintet. 42 goals in the last 10 games is testament to that. An aggregate score of 34-2 in the last eight is even more so.

At the moment there is no stopping Barca at home or abroad. Whether any Mourinho magic can stop them come May remains to be seen but my Christmas bonus would definitely be on Barca.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Scotland hoping lightening can strike thrice

Spanish defeats to USA and Switzerland the only crumb of inspiration.

It is often said that fortune favours the brave. If this is the case then on Friday night Scotland not only betrayed one of their most fabled characteristics but got exactly what they deserved.

Ironically the only source of bravery emanating from Scotland on Friday came from their manager, Craig Levein. For a man who is so inherently negative that he will now forever by synonymous with football’s first double digit formation, Levein’s decision to so clearly put his head on the block was incredibly ballsy. Before deploying the now infamous 4-6-0 formation he had to have known the unparalleled amount of criticism that was about to come his way. Even in recent times where good results have been few and far between success gained by playing negatively is never looked upon gloriously in Scotland.

Nevertheless had Levein succeeded in achieving his much desired 0-0 in Prague that criticism may have been left to sources outside of Scotland, so desperate is the entire nation to qualify for its first major tournament in 14 years. By going down with the most feeble of whimpers Levein has, in contrast to Petr Cech who described the evening as ‘his quietest as a professional’, had criticism ringing in his ears for the past 72 hours.

The only positive for Scotland to come out of Friday was that Levein displayed at least one characteristic of all the great managers, he took a massive risk. Going against the sway of public opinion is never popular but it often demonstrates the kind of self-belief needed to succeed at this level. It is a feeling Levein’s opposite number on Tuesday night knows all about.

Heading into the biggest game of his managerial career, the World Cup semi-final against Germany, Vicente Del Bosque was left with a massive dilemma. A combination of fitness, form and the Samson affect had left Fernando Torres rudderless, without a goal and without any sign of getting one. It was time for Del Bosque to turn to his array of attacking talent on the bench. The sort of decision that every manager dreams about, yet dreads at the same time. There was a huge amount of experience to call on and creditable arguments to be made for any of Fernando Llorente, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas and David Silva. Yet, instead Del Bosque gave a first competitive start to Pedro Rodriguez, the decision was inspired and the rest as they say is history.

The problem with Levein’s gamble was that it was completely uncalculated. He had rightly said pre-match that the Czech Republic were vulnerable to the counter-attack, Lithuania had shown so with a 1-0 win in Olomouc last month, but you can’t counter-attack when every time you win the ball you have 10 or 11 players in your own half.

Friday’s failed experiment makes Levein’s approach to tomorrow night’s game even more intriguing. It seems impossible to go even more defensive and after admitting that ‘Prague Plan A’ was strictly a one-off there will undoubtedly be a place for Kenny Miller up front, probably ahead of a five-man midfield, although it is likely Miller will seem more like Gerard Pique’s stalker than pose any serious threat to the Spanish goal.

That said there are a few qualifications to the assumption that this will be a walkover for the World Champions. Firstly, Scotland are never an easy out at home with only two defeats in their last ten competitive outings at Hampden and even those defeats to Italy in 2007 and Holland in 2009 came with late goals as Scotland chased the victory they needed to claim a playoff place.

Secondly, for all that many, including Levein, think that this Spanish side may be the best international team ever they do have unexpected momentary collapses. Their last two competitive defeats also came against unfancied, athletic, defensive sides in the form of the U.S.A. (Confederations Cup 2009) and unforgettably Switzerland at this year’s World Cup. Moreover, any team no matter how talented will miss the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Fabregas and Torres. Friday’s 3-1 victory over Lithuania for la selección will also have given Scotland some heart as, without Xavi, Spain failed to create many opportunities of the kind that tiki-taka is famed for. Rather they relied on crosses into the box for their three goals; something that Scotland will be much happier to deal with.

Strangely the key to the game will probably be how Scotland contain the Spanish defence. With the midfield likely to be extremely congested, Miller and Steven Naismith (playing on the left side of midfield) will have to occupy Pique and Sergio Ramos in an attempt to stop them starting the attack. Similarly, on the opposite side, Alan Hutton who can be got at defensively will have to ensure that Joan Capdevilla doesn’t get round the back of the Scottish defence. This may be the tactic most used by the Spanish with either Villa or Silva starting on the left and drifting in, leaving space for Capdevilla to move into and with the supply coming from long-diagonals from Xabi Alonso.

If Scotland can protect themselves down the wings it is possible the Spanish attack may just bottleneck down the centre, particularly without the added creativity of Xavi or Fabregas.

Should Scotland get anything from the game it certainly won’t be pretty. Undoubtedly Marca, AS, El Mundo Deportivo et al will cry foul and ‘anti-football’, and to be fair they will probably be right. But for now any result, achieved by fair means or foul, would help Hampden roar again with some semblance of credibility.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

It’s as easy as 4-2-3-1

In an excellent article written for during pre-season, Daniel Gillespie analysed that post the World Cup 4-4-2 was on a life support machine. The fluid 4-2-3-1 systems used by Germany, Spain and Holland had highlighted the deficiencies of a rigid 4-4-2. This it was argued was a lesson that Neil Lennon must learn from in preparing for his first full season in management.

At the time most of the comment surrounded how playing a five-man midfield could help improve results away from home in Europe. Alas, two ‘consistent’ (that was the most positive adjective I could find to describe them) performances in Braga and Utrecht have left that debate redundant for another season.

Nevertheless in recent outings Lennon has consistently changed the team’s shape both from game to game and during games and in so doing has displayed both the positive and negative characteristics of the rookie manager.

On the positive side by showing his willingness to change things and, most importantly, make substitutions that have an effect on the game, in contrast to the like for like or just throw on another striker type of changes that have undermined recent mangers, Lennon has shown that (Scott Brown’s selection apart)he is not too stubborn to change and doesn’t have blind spots - even on players he has recently signed.

On the flip side his tendency to switch formations shows that he is yet to concentrate on any particular footballing philosophy and can disrupt the flow of the team as players’ positions are regularly changed.

Which brings me back to the 4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1 debate. In recent weeks Lennon has been forced to switch his formation because he has started with a 4-4-2.

The trend began as far back as the Motherwell game and has persisted up to last weekend. Against Motherwell there were extenuating circumstances with the game coming only three days after the Utrecht debacle. Yet, after starting with a 4-4-2 for the first time in the SPL this season it was only once Samaras was withdrawn (and no it wasn’t just that) and Maloney came inside to play behind Murphy that the pace was upped and chances started to flow. Maloney immediately went close with a few efforts across goal and eventually won the game winning penalty.

Similarly, against Hearts after a shaky first 20 minutes it was only once Stokes went to play wide right of a front three with Murphy down the middle and Forrest on the left that Maloney, now playing in the hole, began to influence the game. By doing so he sent Murphy away to set up the opener and then scored the second of two perfectly onside goals (just in case you’re reading Mr. Jeffries).

The same thing happened against Hibs when our best spell of the game came when Juarez played in the middle, with Stokes going wide, for the last twenty minutes of the first half. After the break Hibs gained momentum in the middle of the park due to the double whammy of Ledley moving to left-back and Juarez strangely being moved back to the right of midfield. Ironically, Juarez nearly killed the game off late in the second half when he hit the bar by coming from a central position.

Lennon’s poorest team selection came against Hamilton last weekend. Defensive errors apart the problem was a complete lack of balance throughout the side. By playing Samaras as an ‘inside-out’ wide-forward on one side and the more defensively orientated Juarez on the other side, Hooper was left isolated up front. Meanwhile, a big gap emerged between Maloney who was trying his best to support Hooper and the other two deeper lying central midfield players. Again, only once Stokes was introduced as another wide-forward on the right did the whole team start to put pressure on the ball higher up the field and force Hamilton into the mistake that led to the third goal.

That was a long-winded ‘Zonal-Markingesque’ way of saying that instead of starting 4-4-2 and changing to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 combination during the match it is time for Lennon to start that way. As any doctor will tell you prevention is better than cure and we must eliminate the sloppy starts that have caused us problems in the past few weeks, particularly in the upcoming Old Firm game.

We all know Rangers will come with the 5-4-1/4-5-1 system they have used so far in the Champions League. In order to avoid being overrun in midfield a central midfield three is a necessity and, bearing in mind recent injuries, Ledley and Juarez are a must. I’m also a fan of Ki Sung-Yeung but fear that the frenzied environment of an Old Firm game doesn’t suit his skills-set. Instead it might be better to go all out attack with Maloney playing ahead of Juarez and Ledley and behind a front three along the lines of Forrest (if fit), Hooper and Stokes.

Whatever the case may be it’s hard to criticise Lennon’s start. We all knew that hiring an inexperienced manager would have some pitfalls and to date, Utrecht apart, he has negotiated them successfully. The thunder may not have returned just yet but the clouds are on the horizon and hopefully by 3pm on October 24th Celtic Park will be rumbling once again.

Commonwealth Games: Belonging of a previous empire or important sporting entity?

In the 21st Century the idea of a sporting event based on the principles of ‘The Commonwealth’ seems somewhat of an anachronism. It is arguably even more so that, now, for the first time the Commonwealth Games will trudge into India, a country that fought so hard for its independence before its eventual partitioning from the British Empire in 1947.

Even prior to the latest problems surrounding Delhi’s ability to stage the event there have been serious questions as to whether a sports event based on such an antiquated grouping of nations is needed anymore.

The development in global travel and the sponsorship and organisation of sports events means that athletes no longer have to wait four years for the Olympics to show their wares on the international stage. The sporting calendar is riddled with World and Continental Championships, foreign tours and lucrative athletics meetings. Why then is there a need for another championships without sporting superpowers like USA, Russia and China, not to mention all of South and Central America and the majority of Africa and Asia.

The paucity of competition on show is added to by the withdrawal of premier athletes from those countries who do qualify to compete. Even before the latest concerns surrounding accommodation and infrastructure two of Britain’s leading athletes, European Championship double gold-winning distance runner Mo Farah and World and European Champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis had decided to withdraw from the competition. Meanwhile one of the faces of the successful Glasgow 2014 bid, Chris Hoy, has decided to compete in the Cycling World Championships rather than travel to Delhi.

Therefore, if the Commonwealth Games are not worth having then why has Glasgow gone to the hassle, time and expense to host them in 2014?

The truth is that the state of the Commonwealth Games is very similar to that of the Europa League in football. Like the Europa League compared to the Champions League, the Commonwealth Games doesn’t have the same quality, depth of competition, recognisable names or even the glitz and hype of an Olympic Games. However, it is still the third largest multi-sport event in the world. It gives smaller nations the chance to gain recogntition on the international stage, gives all those who compete more ‘Games experience’ and British athletes their only opportunity to represent Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales at an international event.

Moreover, it is the biggest sporting event that we will ever have the opporunity to host in Scotland. Whilst Scotland has proven itself over many years to be capable of hosting large, one-off, single sport events such as the Open Golf Championship and the Chmapions League final, we are simply not big enough nor do we have the capacity in our cities to host an Olympic Games or a World Cup.

Despite the latest concerns surrounding the athlete’s facilties and bridge collapses the Delhi Games will go ahead, too much money has already been invested for it not to. Whether a number of the major nations including the Home Nations, New Zealand and Canada take part will wait to be seen. However, there is one selfish positive for Glasgow to take out of the Delhi debacle. In 2004 Greece bankrupted itself in an attempt to rival the unparalled success of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At least Glasgow will not have to go to such lengths to appear impressive in 2014.

Europe Expects but America’s Sleeping Tiger is Ready to Pounce

The great and the good of European golf head to Wales’ maiden Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor this weekend with a quiet sense of optimism.

For the past year European golf has been on a high with five players ranked in the world’s top ten players and recent Major Championship victories for Martin Kaymer (USPGA) and Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell (US open). The array of talent on offer to European Captain, Colin Montgomerie, was so strong that he even had the luxury of overlooking world number seven, Paul Casey, for one of his three wild card picks.

However, expectations of a European whitewash should be tempered. Memories of 2008 are still fresh where at Valhalla, Kentucky Europe also started as heavy favourites. Then after a weekend that began with farce, when captain Nick Faldo mistakenly leaked his foursome pairings and ended in disaster, Europe were soundly beaten 16 ½ - 11 ½.

This time round the Americans are on paper slightly stronger than two years ago. They have five of the world’s top ten in their twelve-man squad and have Tiger Woods back after he missed Valhalla due to a knee injury (apparently induced by a wonky swing, although which one we’ll never know).

Woods’ absence from the game following his well publicised crash into a fire hydrant last November, allied to his poor form since his return to the game earlier this year meant that he had to rely on a wildcard pick from American Captain, Corey Pavin, to qualify. Despite his poor form Pavin insists he had no second thoughts on picking the man still officially ranked as the world’s best:

"I have always wanted to have him on the team but I want guys that are playing well and he's starting to play well. I am glad to have him.

"He is the number one player in the world and when Tiger's on his game, he is the best."

There are also a few concerns for the Europeans over the relative inexperience of their side in previous Ryder Cups, with six rookies and only 25 previous appearances in their squad compared to America’s 32, and a recent injury to their leading player Lee Westwood.

However, the most exciting aspect of the Ryder Cup is that all the statistical analysis and conjecture prior to tee-off is normally pretty redundant. The Ryder Cup is full of surprises. For years the USA had a far superior team on paper but Europe always ran them close or even beat them convincingly as in 2002, 2004 and 2006. These results were put down to a better team spirit within the European camp. Yet, last time round with the roles reversed, the Americans won.

It is this mixture of unpredictability, passion and tension that has made the Ryder Cup by far the most watched and anticipated golf tournament. It is where golf not only becomes a team sport but a continental sport. Where a partisan crowd is encouraged. Where any of the 24 players can play horribly for two days but still hold the winning putt on the Sunday. Where for one weekend, We Are All European! And, most importantly, where even non-golf fans watch golf.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Axe falls on Antonio Alvarez first

Five games and five weeks in, a uncharacteristically long time by Spanish standards, La Liga has its first managerial casualty of the season.

After a 2-0 defeat to Hercules on Sunday evening, Sevilla announced that Antonio Alvarez would be the first of undoubtedly tens of managerial changes this term.

In a widely anticiated move, Sevilla have again aid the rice for not acting during the summer. For the second consecutive season they played managerial blackjack in the off season and regretted sticking with what they already had.

Last season Maonolo Jimenez, despite his impressive cojones, was sacked in March. His replacement, Alvarez, was charged with the objective of getting an expensively assembled squad back into the Champions League. He did so. Just. And the decision to keep him was based somewhat on a false premise.

On the last day of the season Mallorca's players assembled in the centre circle of Son Moix after a comfortable 2-0 victory over Espanyol. Their comical and loveable mascot Demonio took to the pitch, champagne bottles in hand. Unbelievably, a club on the verge of bankruptcy had been saved. Thanks to the wonderful efforts of their manager, Gregorio Manzano, they were headed for a fourth place finish. Then as they watched in horror, an unheralded 19-year-old, Rodri, scored a 93rd (a them some) minute winner for Sevilla in Almeria.

Alvarez had achieved his goal. Or so they thought. Come August and a 5-3 aggreagate defeat to Braga in the Chamions League qualifiers, Alvarez's fate was sealed. A strong start to the domestic campaign only served to delay the inevitable. Sunday's loss, the first of the season in the league, was the final straw. But at least he has robbed his successor the chance of Champions League football, twice. The man now stepping into the breach at Sevilla, Gregorio Manzano. Funny old game and all that.

Alvarez's sacking has somewhat overshadowed another great performance from Hercules who are shaping up to be inconsistent, mad, exciting and a whole lot of fun deserately needed around the mid-table spots of the league. They were so good against Sevilla that even Royston Drenthe looked like that 'New Roberto Carlos' that Real Madrid signed three years ago.

Players being overprotected?

Two weeks ago after the Saturday evening game between Athletic Bilbao and Ateltico Madrid I supported Sid Lowe's assertion that sometimes madness is better than genius. In San Mames' latest Saturday night offering madness and genius were combined for a thoroughly entertaining fare. Barca beat Athletic 3-1 and again looked imperious, particularly in the creation of their first goal. However, the pattern of the game was determined by Fernando Amorebieta's sending off for a semi-lunge on Andres Iniesta. It was a challenge that on another day might have seen just a yellow but in the light of the 'protect the best players' debate precipitated by Ujfalusi's challenge on Messi last week, and which also got Ernesto Galan sent off for his challenge on Cristiano Ronaldo midweek, it was always going to see red.

Four-Point Roundup

1. Valencia are for real. Pace, skill, clinical finishing and good organisation is a heady mix. They should really test Man Utd in the Champions League this week and given the form of another team in white who knows...

2. Which leads to point two. Real Madrid are rubbish! Well, at least in front of goal. Six goals in five games it sounds all so Mourinho. Their drought is so bad that this week they couldn't even score against a side still in administration and whose highest earner (Felipe Caicedo, yes, thats right Felipe Caicedo is their highest earner) earns less than Ronaldo does in a week. Well played Levante!

3. Depor 0 Almeria 2 means that Depor have now gone 563 minutes without a goal from open play...quelle suprise.

4. That talk of madness being better than genius. See the first 43 minutes of Malaga-Villareal. At that point the score was 3-2 Villareal (including 2 corkers from little fat Santi Cazorla!). Anyway, at that point it was all too much fun for Carlos Marchena,record breaker, leg breaker and arguably La Liga's most evil man. Eliseu saw red for this 'assault' on poor Carlos, although (the only thing) in Marchena's defence, Eliseu is a dirty cheating scoundrel aswell.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Important life lessons, fatalism is good for you and God exists all in this week’s La Liga roundup

Every once in a while the humble La Liga offers a life lesson. No not that a pigs head doesn’t make a good missile nor even that its probably not a good idea to spend nearly a billion euros on a squad of players then bugger the pitch they play on by infecting it with a BP style oil spill. No, rather than some things, like Paris Hilton going to jail or the Tories being out of power are too good to last. Alas, Atletico de Madrid’s title challenge of 2010/11 is no more.

After three months of unparalleled success including two European trophies, a cup final, somehow keeping one Uruguayan legend called Diego, then gaining another and after two victories which meant three weeks worth of opportunity to look at the table and see themselves atop it, Atelti fans are back to that familiar feeling of disappointment.

In fairness they were never even in the match and their potential challenge for the title was not the story. The story of the evening was scandal. Pep Guardiola wanted to reflect on what he described as a ‘scandalously good’ Barca performance, a first victory for him in three league visits to the Calderon. However, the ‘scandal’ that covered pages, front and back, across the planet on Monday morning was the sight of poor, little, defenceless Leo Messi’s ankle buckled under caveman looking Czech Thomas Ujfalusi’s studs. A sight so distressing that Argentina Football World described it as killing Bambi or Bambi’s mum, either way you get the point.

Ujfalusi immediately claimed the injury was down to bad luck rather than malice and apologised to Messi (via the phone of team-mate Kun Aguero) but the shocking images of Messi’s ankle blown up to thrice its normal size does again raise the issue of protection for small, skilful players. It is an interesting observation that when incidents like this happen in Spain the mainstream press immediately call for double-digit match suspensions, whereas in England, when an Arsenal player’s leg is snapped in half Arsene Wenger is criticised for ‘whinging’ about player protection.

Thankfully, Messi’s injury will only keep him out for around two weeks and with home fixtures against Sporting Gijon and Mallorca followed by an international break it is only on the tricky trips to the San Mames to face Athletic and to Russia for a reacquaintance with Rubin Kazan that Messi should be missed.

Messi’s injury also overshadowed what was in truth an absolute mauling. The Champions have responded in Champions fashion with two sublime performances since the amazing defeat to Hercules.

On the bright side for Atelti there were some obscure positives to take form the game.

1.They wont play Barca every week.

2.In days gone by Atleti might have collapsed and lost by a barrow load. See 5-2 and 6-1 defeats to Barca in the past two years and a 6-0 humiliation at the Calderon in 2007.

3.The reason Atletico didn’t collapse was David De Gea. The 19-year-old was fantastic and gives Los Rojiblancos the solid base they have been lacking for years (not mentioning any names………Leo Franco)

4.Expectation is Ateltico’s worst enemy. What is worse than being constantly disappointed? Being constantly disappointed when you don’t expect to be let down. For years Atelti fans have developed a sense of fatalism, a sort of constant anaesthetic to the inevitable pain. Hence, the ‘Daddy, why do we support Atelti?’ ads. The successful end to a overall poor campaign last season followed by an impressive summer transfer window and a bright start to this season had seen Atleti fans get way too far ahead of themselves. Now with a giant Catalan pin having been stuck in the balloon of hype and optimism, Atelti can concentrate on more realistic goals. Principally, Champions League qualification and a stab at retaining their Europa League crown.

Challenging Atletico for third place behind the big two will be Valencia. At the start of the season I couldn’t see how they could maintain their status without their two stars called David. However, they still have the flair and goals that many teams in La Liga lack. Two more screamers from Mata and Pablo Hernandez proved that at the weekend as they overpowered (sorry couldn’t resist) Hercules. They will struggle with playing twice every week from now on and will inevitably have the Valencian mid-season slump but at the moment they look well on track to qualify for the last-16 of the Champions League and be strong contenders to compete in it again next year.

Real Madrid won 2-1 at Real Sociedad. Real were pretty fortunate to come away with all three points and not just because their winning goal was so fluky even Ronaldo was disgusted with his effort as it cannoned off Pepe’s (fortunately restored shaven) head and looped over Claudio Bravo. Even better news for ‘San Cristiano’ (Marca have relegated him from God to just a saint after a dodgy start to the season) were the words of everybody’s favourite WAG, Sara Carbonero “Cristiano Ronaldo siempre ha sido así, egoísta e individualista en el campo y el Real Madrid ya le fichó así"….’Cristiano has always been an egotist and an individualist’…finally a female football journalist who knows what she’s talking about, take note Sky Sports girls!

The good news for all La Liga fans is the return of Sociedad to the top league. As Sid Lowe says this week a proper team in a proper stadium with proper fans. From my one solitary visit to Anoeta I have to concur.

Surprisingly, Depor and Getafe played out a cracker, sort of, in La Liga’s latest unenthusiastic version of Monday Night Football. If only they had the technology of Andy Gray and Richard Keys….oh wait that was meant to say Thank Christ they at least don’t have Andy Gray and Richard Keys. In the words of LaLigaLoca‘The earth rumbles and lions lie down with lambs! A goal for Depor. Not a proper one mind. A penalty converted by Guardado’ x 2. And just when everyone had finished booking their eye-tests having seen ‘Depor 2’ on the screen Arizmendi scored a beauty for Getafe! The pope was right on secularism there must be some explanation to all this.

In slightly less surprising news Osasuna still haven’t scored this season (oh the thought of Osasuna-Depor this season. That’s 180 minutes that should be put to some use like as a prison sentence or even better make those bloody bankers watch it then terrorise them with the thought that if the fuck up again we’ll fix the draw for the Copa Del Rey and make the bastards watch it again…that’ll teach ‘em) anyway at least Jose Antionio Camacho can still show his face in public…sort of

This week’s results in full

Espanyol 1-0 Almería
Mallorca 2–0 Osasuna
Sporting 2–2 Athletic
Real Sociedad 1–2 Real Madrid
Hércules 1–2 Valencia
Racing 2–0 Zaragoza
Levante 1–2 Villarreal
Atlético 1–2 Barcelona
Málaga 1–2 Sevilla
Deportivo 2 – 2 Getafe

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Golazos, shocked sheikhs, a trophy ……. oh and Depor on opening weekend

La Liga’s opening weekend after a summer during which everything changed proved a lesson in how some things never do.

Villa, Messi and Iniesta were brilliant, Marca tried to beautify poor Cristiano (despite the fact he missed a hatful of chances), Osasuna drew 0-0 and Depor uuuhhhhh Depor!

Yet, the debut weekend in the shadow of the glowing reflection of a glorious summer did provide much to be excited about. Principally, can Atelti continue to be this good?

Of course it’s a stupid question. It's Atletico. The team that had 44 managers in 17 years. The team so cursed that the only side they beat regularly in the Calderon is Barca, to the extent that one Real Madrid director described Atleti as giving them a 9 point advantage in the title race everyear (given the 6 they donate to Real annually and the 3 they are good enough to deprive Barca of). A team with a fanbase that has fatalism cursing through their veins like vitriol out of a Mallorcan mouth towards Geneva. Except, Atleti’s paranoia is justified.

Or is it? On Friday they claimed their second Euopean trophy in three months. The Super Cup victory over Inter may not have registered across Europe as a major event but the manner of the victory does add to the growing sense that Atletico have a positive momentum for the first time since the 1996 double winning season.

Even after a stellar world cup they have not only retained their Uruguayan talisman but added another one. Diego Godin’s presence could prove to be as valuable as Forlan’s in the coming months if the Rojiblancos are to take advantage of Forlan’s prolific scoring record. Euoprean football’s summer of austerity has also left Aguero, Simao and a rejuvenated Reyes in Madrid but somehow left them with €11 for Jurado. Arguably though the most important factor is that for the first time in years Ateltico have a stable coach who could survive a short term loss of form.

Quique’s revolution continued apace on Monday night with a 4-0 hammering of Sporting Gijon, propelling Atleti to the top of the league ahead of Barca. Kun and Forlan ran riot against Manuel Preciado’s bewildered side (although you must say –What a tache! Joey Barton could learn a thing or two

Yet, for all the attacking prowess displayed by Atleti in the past four days it is the two clean sheets that have caught the eye. No doubt in future weeks Perea will have his obligatory Titus Bramble moment, De Gea will make a rookie mistake and Ujfalusi will realise he isn’t Cafu, but, for now all looks rose in the rojiblancos garden and who can begrudge them another shower in Neptuno?

Elsewhere Barca were typically impressive, Racing Santander’s Miguel Angel Portugal describing them as even better than last year and bearing in mind they were statistically even better last season than the treble winning year of 2009 that is some going.

David Villa scored twice on his debut, although one was wrongly chalked off, while Messi recorded his fastest ever goal for Barca and Iniesta showed characteristic technique and touch to gently lob the goalkeeper for Barca’s second. Most worryingly for the rest of the league s that this was a Barca with no Puyol, Mascherano, Pedro or Bojan in the starting eleven.

Real Madrid by contrast took to the field on Sunday evening without the fanfare that had surrounded their £268m galactico spend of last summer, although there was a rather well-known ‘special’ coach (‘special’ now has a different meaning of course, it means bloody expensive given the €100m in contracts Florentino Perez had to dish out to Mourinho and his staff to complete their move form Inter).

Alas it was an unsatisfactory beginning for Jose. In a scrappy match, only helped by an unusually boisterous Mallorcan crowd, Real squandered numerous chances and were left to rue them as it finished 0-0. Alarm bells shouldn’t be ringing too loudly as Real didn’t play badly and wer eplaying a side with the third best home league record last season. However, given that the stranglehold of La Liga’s duopoly is only likely to increase this season and that Barca only dropped 15 points all season last year, two points dropped so early in the season could be costly.

Down in Malaga Spanish football’s first sheikh watched uncomfortably as his side went down 3-1 to Valencia. Two goals from forgotten man Jaoquin proving decisive. Unai Emery’s side will badly miss the two David’s – Villa and Silva – this season but do still have quality in their ranks with Mata, Pablo Hernandez and Banega joingin Jaoquin and should still push for a European place. Although the demands of playing Champions League football may be a burden too heavy for a small squad.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Messi the Messiah

And then there were none. After years of Champions League domination the debt laden Premier League ship has sunk. The previously supreme big four that have made up three semi-finalists in each of the past three years are not part of Europe’s last four remaining contenders. Chelsea, done for by a canny ex-employee, Manchester United by overreliance on a striker with only one good ankle and Liverpool by such sheer incompetence their bid didn’t even make it past Christmas. Only Arsenal can lay the defence of being outclassed by utter genius. 5ft 7in worth of genius to be exact.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had in December 2008 with the landlord of my local pub in Pamplona, where I was ‘studying’ for the year. Tall, broad and with a beaming Dublin accent (even when attempting to speak Spanish) he was the quintessential Irishman abroad. Famous for his ridiculous tall tales of cocaine cruises, drinking sessions with the Killers and the number of Erasmus girls he had slept with, our conversations were littered with disagreements and wagers. However, on that December evening we did agree on one thing - Leo Messi. He was the best player we had ever seen and in our young opinion would prove to be the best the world had ever seen.

The following day I took the journey I had dreamed of all my life, to watch Barcelona v Real Madrid in the Camp Nou. As the rain lashed down, one tiny figure shone out from the sodden hallowed turf. Real had only one way to stop him – kick him – over and over and over again. Yet, what separates Messi, even from other immortals, is that rough treatment doesn’t make him give up, like Pele in ’66, or retaliate, like Maradona in ’82, it makes him angrier, faster, stronger and frighteningly, even better. That December night it took him 92 minutes, but he made his mark on Real. He did again, twice in fact, in the 6-2 romp in Madrid four months later, just like he did when he scored in the Copa Del Rey, Champions League and World Club Cup finals. Like he did when he scored a 70 minute hat-trick against Real Zaragoza in March, a 28 minute hat-trick against Valencia the week before and has done 39 times this season already. But, against Arsenal, even he did something even Lionel Messi hadn’t done before. This time he wasn’t satisfied with a 21 minute hat-trick. This time he scored four.

Arsene Wenger compared Messi afterwards to a ‘Playstation player’ and Barca as the best side he had ever faced. Sir Alex Ferguson said Barca’s midfield was ‘a passing carousel you can’t get the ball off’ after last season’s humiliation in the Champions League final and Bernd Schuster, the former Real Madrid manager, described Barca as impossible to beat, words that unsurprisingly got him the sack.

Yet, despite all the plaudits from around Europe Real couldn’t stand to see Barca humiliate them. Last summer with the Champions League final to be played at their home, the Santiago Bernabeu, there was only one way to stop Barca, or more accurately millions of them, 220 million to be exact. In came Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Alonso and Albiol and, as many expected, Madrid’s spending has had a major impact on the last four of the Champions League. The only problem for ‘los madrileños’ is that it’s not those they brought in that have made the difference. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were sold to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich respectively for roughly the price of Ronaldo’s left leg and have carried their sides to the semi-finals. Whilst, the other semi-finalists, Lyon, unceremoniously dumped Real out of the competition at the last-16 stage for the fifth year running.

For Europe’s most decorated club the nightmare scenario awaits. Watching their greatest rivals lifting the greatest prize in their own back yard. For those still in contention the outlook isn’t much brighter. In December 2008 Messi was arguably the best player ever, he’s a lot better now.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Paddy’s Argie Granny

Stepping out from the McDiarmid Park stands on Sunday the euphoria from the travelling support having seen Celtic hit four in a league match for the first time since the sides last met in August was palpable. As one punter put it “Diego Maradona is looking to see if Paddy McCourt has got an Argentinean granny”. Keeping Leo Messi out the team might be going a step too far but the Northern Irishman certainly gave Celtic an extra dimension as they stormed the Saints goal in the second-half. McCourt was unlucky not to have a hat-trick to show for his 35 minute cameo having been denied by a stunning save by Graeme Smith and a goal-line clearance before his reward came with a sensational individual goal on 86 minutes.

However, even McCourt’s performance shouldn’t overshadow Marc-Antoine Fortune’s performance which was so good even Neil McCann gave him man of the match. Fortune has taken his fair share of stick over the past few months and not only from the naysayers of the Scottish press but from our good selves in the stands and on the forums. Hopefully the Frenchman’s 2 goals will give him the confidence to now go on a badly needed scoring run. Fortune’s ability in linking the play and moving off the ball was on show more than ever on Sunday and not only in his goals but in causing the panic that led to the sending off and in creating simple chances for McGeady and Samaras when the score was still 1-0.

With Samaras’s fine goal again masking a generally frustrating performance, McDonald on the treatment table and potentially for the off and Rasmussen likely to need a settling in period similar to Hooiveld now more than ever Celtic need Fortune to hit his straps and the back of the net in the forthcoming hectic few weeks.

New Orleans and Indianapolis to Contest Super Bowl

The New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts will meet in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on 7th February after 2 thrilling Conference Title games.

In one of the most sensational NFC Championship Games ever the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in overtime at the restored Louisiana Superdome. The Superdome has been a symbol of New Orleans reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city 4 years ago. As the natives of New Orleans fled their destroyed homes during Katrina the Superdome originally became a haven for the homeless. Yet within hours it became the scene the horror as reports emerged that armed gangs had formed within the stadium and as lawlessness took over looting and violence became commonplace.

As the city recovered the Saints played their home games in San Antonio for a season. Some thought the Superdome should be demolished to wipe away the image of suffering that took place during the summer of 2005 but with the support of the community in New Orleans the Superdome was restored and ever since has been a symbol of New Orleans’s phoenix rising from the flames. In the first game back at the Superdome U2 and Green Day performed their cover of “The Saints are Coming” pre-match and although the 2006/07 season ultimately ended with defeat in the NFC Championship Game with defeat to the Chicago Bears they have now reached the Super Bowl for the first time.

After a topsy-turvy encounter in which the lead changed 5 times the Saints took advantage of a turnover pass from Vikings Quarterback and “There’s Something About Mary” star Brett Favre to drive down the field in overtime and set up a game-winning 40 yard field goal from Garrett Hartley.

The Colts have happy memories of Miami where they won the Super Bowl three years ago. However, their place in America’s showpiece sporting even looked in jeopardy when the New York Jets lead 17-6 in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game. In the end the Colts prevailed thanks to their star man Peyton Manning who threw 3 touchdown passes in an unanswered 27 point run to make the final score 30-17.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Time for Andy to be the Wizard of Aus

2009 will live long in the memory for Roger Federer. Last year saw the Swiss break his duck at the French Open to complete a career grand slam. Weeks later he surpassed Pete Sampras’s record of 14 major titles, winning his 15th major at Wimbledon.

Yet, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Less than a year ago having been defeated by his nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, Federer stood on the podium in tears. So disconsolate was he that he could not even speak. It was the third grand slam final in a row that Nadal had usurped Federer. After a humiliating defeat at the French Open, Nadal ended Federer’s reign of five successive titles at Wimbledon in the sports match of the decade in 2008. The King was dead, long lived the King. Nadal now had his sixth major to go with Olympic Gold, he had taken Federer’s place as World No. 1 and significantly had beaten Federer in a grand slam final on every surface. However, a dip in form caused by a serious knee injury gave Federer the chance to regain his throne; he obliged and now once again sits atop of men’s tennis.

So what will 2010 have to offer? Well, most intriguingly the hegemony of Nadal and Federer looks under threat. Neither player has won a tournament since August. Nadal has slimmed down his bulging physique in an attempt to reduce the pressure on his ailing knees whilst many feel Federer’s focus has slipped recently after the birth of his first child. With the world’s two best players possibly not at their peak, now more than ever the time is right for Andy Murray to breakthrough and win his first major title. There is no doubting Murray’s ability. Last year he won more tournaments than any other player. Yet disappointing defeats to Fernando Verdasco, Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Roddick and Marin Cillic put pay to any hope of grand slam success in 2009. Murray, by his own admission, has had the best ever preparation for an Australian Open by arriving in Australia three weeks before the tournament to play in the Hopman Cup with fellow Brit Laura Robson. However, by sacrificing the chance to defend his title in Doha earlier this month Murray slipped to No. 5 in the world rankings, behind US Open champion Juan Martin Del-Potro.

At one point last year Murray was world No.2 but a drop in the rankings has left him with a hazardous draw in Melbourne. His route to the final is blocked by the dangerous world no.12 Gael Monfils in the 4th round. Should Murray negotiate that hurdle Nadal awaits in the quarters before a potential semi-final against Del-Potro or Andy Roddick.

On the other side of the draw Federer has a potentially tricky matchup against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarter-finals. The Russian who won the season ending ATP Tour Finals in London last November, followed up that success by defeating both Nadal and Federer to take Murray’s crown in Doha. Meanwhile No. 3 seed and 2008 champion Novak Djokovic has the easiest path through to the semis and will be amongst the favourites to regain his only major title.

All in all the second week in Melbourne promises to one the most competitive tournaments in years but maybe just maybe Andy can be the Wizard of Aus.

Africa Nations Roundup

On the field the Africa Cup of Nations has produced the usual mix of upsets, excitement, goals and poor goalkeeping. With the World Cup only 5 months away extra attention has been focused on the 5 African qualifiers participating. The first round of fixtures was not encouraging for Africa’s hopes of hailing its first world champion come July. With Ghana’s game against Togo cancelled Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon all fell to defeat whilst the highly fancied Ivory Coast stumbled to a 0-0 draw with Burkina Faso. All five have since done enough to qualify for the quarter-finals along with hosts Angola, holders Egypt and Zambia.

Group A

Undoubtedly the game of the tournament came on the first evening when Angola buoyed by a vociferous home crowd raced into a 4-0 lead against Mali. With 11 minutes remaining the hosts looked as if they were cruising but a remarkable comeback inspired by 2 goals from Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita gave Mali a 4-4 draw. As gutted as the Angolans were they were surely not as depressed as one English student who bet his entire student loan of £4,500 on Angola to win with 12 minutes remaining at odds of 1/100. He has now dropped out of uni, due to a lack of finance or a lack of brains I’m not sure.

Minnows Malawi stunned Algeria with a 3-0 thrashing in the first game. However, they could not maintain their blistering start and after defeats to Angola (2-0) and Mali (3-1) they bowed out. Algeria’s 1-0 victory over Mali meant that a draw in their final game against Angola would see both sides through. Surprise, surprise it finished 0-0. Mali launched an official protest, not surprisingly it fell on deaf ears.

Group B

Togo’s withdrawal left only 3 games in Group B. The Ivory Coast for all their striking talent, lead by Didier Drogba, couldn’t find a way past Burkina Faso in a 0-0 draw but made amends with a 3-1 victory over a severely depleted Ghana to finish top. Ghana also qualified after an edgy 1-0 win over the Burkinans.

Group C

Holders Egypt have been by far the most impressive side so far. The only side to qualify with three wins they strolled past Nigeria (3-1), Mozambique (2-0) and Benin (2-0). Despite missing star man Mohamed Aboutrika the Egyptians are on course for a third consecutive title. It remains a great mystery why Egypt always perform well in the ACN yet have failed to even qualify for the World Cup in 20 years. Nigeria recovered from the defeat against Egypt to beat Benin (1-0) and Mozambique (3-0) but have looked very unconvincing. Unrest in the Nigerian camp is a common occurrence but they always have one big performance per tournament and could well progress to the semis. However, their overdependence on John Obi Mikel as a playmaker will continue to cause problems looking forward to the World Cup. Mikel was once seen as creative goal-scoring midfielder but years of playing in the holding role at Chelsea and the influence of Jose Mourinho early in his career has instead turned Mikel into a poor imitation of Claude Makalele.

Group D
The most competitive of all the groups left only one point dividing all 4 teams. Cameroon and Zambia eventually prevailed but only on goals scored ahead of Gabon on 4points whilst 20004 champions Tunisia finished bottom despite going undefeated on 3 points. Gabon shocked the Cameroonians in the opening game with a 1-0 victory thanks to ex-Rangers striker Daniel Cousin but the four-time winners recovered with a 3-2 win over Zambia and Celtic midfielder Landry N’Guemo sealed their progress with the equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Tunisia. Gabon had seemed set to progress after they followed up their impressive win over Cameroon with a 0-0 draw against Tunisia but a disappointing 2-1 defeat to the Zambians meant they missed out by the narrowest of margins.

Angola v Ghana
Ivory Coast v Algeria
Zambia v Nigeria
Egypt v Cameroon

Angolan Party Marred by Tragedy

Tragically the story of the 27th Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) was written before a ball was kicked. 48 hours before the tournament was due to kick-off the bus carrying the Togo team to their base in Angola was ambushed. Three members of the Togolese party were killed, many were injured and a host nation anticipating the biggest event to take place in the country after 27 years of civil war had its tournament and reputation on the international stage ruined.

In the aftermath of the attack the decision to choose Angola as host has received a barrage of criticism. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has traditionally been more daring than its counterpart UEFA in selecting some of the smaller and poorest countries in Africa for the tournament. Generally this has met with success, particularly in Mali in 2002 and Burkina Faso in 1998. However, the selection of Cabinda, an outpost in the north-west of Angola, where a fight for independence means violence remains a part of everyday life must surely be questioned. To add insult to the injuries suffered by the Togolese their Football Association requested the team return to the tournament after three days of mourning. Astonishingly CAF declined this request, stating that as Togo had forfeited their first match against Ghana they were now expelled from the competition. Unfortunately in some places in the world life is still cheap. That those who were mercilessly murdered upon that bus should have their lives cheapened further by the insensitivity of CAF is a disgrace.

However, CAF should not bear the burden of blame alone. The Togolese and Angolan authorities should have arranged for the Togolese team to arrive by air or for more security personal to escort them to their training base. Contrary to early reports two police trucks were escorting the bus but were overpowered by the dissident group, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), who claimed responsibility for the attack.

That the fear that swept Angola in the following days should lead to ignorance and selfishness on these Islands was also undesirable. Football managers immediately demanded their players return home from Angola. That their calls were made solely with thought for the safety of their players is questionable. Unsurprisingly Hull boss Phil Brown shouted loudest: “I want them back home with us as soon as possible...This throws a question mark against next summer’s World Cup”.

Brown may want to pass the time consulting a map during his intense sunbed routine - you never know he may learn something. Cabinda and Johannesburg are separated by more than 1500 miles. That people with a public voice continue to denigrate Africa as an impoverished scar upon the world rather than a vibrant continent of 53 independent states is at best ignorant and borders on racism.

Sports stars have always be targets for terrorists from the 1972 Munich Olympics to
last year’s shooting on the Sri Lankan cricket team. Attacking global icons creates such a powerful message for terrorist organisations. Let’s be honest after decades of fighting how many people outside Angola knew about the existence of FLEC? After one attack they and their cause are now internationally recognised.

The World Cup in South Africa this summer will be an amazing spectacle, let’s just hope it is remembered for the football.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Mowbray's meddling doesn't help stuttering Celts

Five changes, same result but a very different story. When Celtic last took to the field against Rangers they did everything but win the game in a positive display bar the poor defending that allowed Rangers an equaliser. Two weeks on and unfortunately for Tony Mowbray the only thing that remained was the poor defending as his disjointed side saw their title chances take a further dent as bottom placed Falkirk came away from the East End of Glasgow with a deserved point. With Gary Caldwell and Barry Robson never to return and Landry N'Guemo not due back for at least another fortnight Tony Mowbray must find a solution quickly if the title is not to be out of his sight by the end of January.

Mowbray certainly didn't help Celtic's fluency in bizarrely chosing to go with a 4-3-1-2 formation against a Falkirk side that had won only once away from home all season. Darren O'Dea, Stephen McManus and Lee Naylor were drafting into a desperate backline for Caldwell and the injured duo of Glenn Loovens and Danny Fox. All three were at fault when Falkirk surprisingly took the lead through Carl Finnigan.

Falkirk could have extended their lead ten minutes later when Ryan Flynn forced Artur Boruc into a smart smave after more poor defending from O'Dea and McManus. Josh Thompson replaced the injured McManus on the half hour mark but also looked a bag of nerves on his first appearance in the SPL and was continually put under presssure by the towering presence of Enoch Showunmi.

In midfield Celtic lacked cohesion. Ki-Sung-Yong looked tidy on debut but Marc Crossas and Zheng Zhi struggled to gain control against a busy Falkirk midfield whilst star man Aiden McGeady looked uncomfortable in the unfamiliar role behind the front two.

Crossas began to make more of an impression as the half wore on and it was he who played Georgias Samaras through to equalise five minutes before half time. For once the Greek took the ball in his stride as he drove into the box and fired a low left-footed shot beyond Olejnik in the Falkirk goal.

The second-half brought waves of Celtic pressure but without McGeady's spark on the wing they failed to create many clear cut chances. The best effort came from a marvellous Ki free-kick that forced Olejnik into a flying save.

Mowbray then baffled most inside the ground when he decided to withdraw Crossas for Nial McGinn with 25 minutes to go. The Spanish midfielder could be forgivenfor feeling hard done by having been unfairly withdrawn against Hearts and Rangers in previous weeks. His manager currently fails to understand that throwing on as many wingers and strikers as possible doesn't necessarily lend itself to more chances and goals but does tend to sacrifice the midfield. Mowbray repeated the trick with 10 minutes to go by replacing Andreas Hinkel with Paddy McCourt forcing McGinn to play at full-back after a generous 15 minutes to make his case.

For all their faults Celtic should have had the opportunity to take all three points when Marc-Antoine Fortune was hauled down in the penalty area but on a day of poor performances referee Alan Muir rounded off his inept performance by waving away the appeals.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ivorians needing ingenuity to spark World Cup glory

7 games, 22 goals and 1 horrific tragedy the 27th Africa Cup of Nations has already left its scar upon a troubled host nation and the football community worldwide, on the pitch one harsh lesson has beenlearned from the first round of fixtures. Africa's wait for a World Champion is likely to continue

After all the hullabaloo over the possibility of an African winner this summer the four qualifiers that took to the field in the first round of fixtures failed to register a win between them, three lost and only one even managed a goal.

The Ivory Coast, Africa's most fancied and popular pick to succeed in Angola and South Africa again demonstrated their inability to perform on the big stage with a 0-0 stalemate against minnows Burkina Faso. The Elephants lineup and performance on monday demonstrated their obvious strenghts and one patent deficiency in equal measure. A first 11 boasting both Toure brothers, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba has the strong spine always essential to go far in any international tournament but against a stout Burkina Faso their lack of a significant creative force was laid bare. The Elephants squad boats a number of second strikers in Solomann Kalou, Aruna Dindane and Aruna Kone who have all scored goals in second rate European leagues but as yet have failed to prove themselves at the top level in Europe or on the International stage. Drogba’s current strike partner Gervinho has so far had a fine season with Lille but needs more time to develop into a top class striker.

On the bright side the Ivorians tough World Cup draw may benefit them. Unlike the way in which Burkina Faso approached their encounter this week, Brazil and Portugal will take the game to the Ivorians allowing the Elehpants to utilise their pace on the conuter attack.

It is still to early to judge how the Elephants will fare come June but they will certainly need to be more ruthless in their showdown against West African neighbours and fellow qualifiers Ghana on friday to prevail in Angola.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Do Milanese duo have enough to conquer again?

The days of Van Basten, Gullit, Zola, Vialli, Ravanelli, Zidane and James Richardson’s Ice Cream cones have long gone. Serie A’s position as the poor relation amongst Europe’s top three leagues was uniquely demonstrated this summer when Milan and Inter both lost their best player to the Spanish superpowers of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Once upon a time even clubs outwith Italy’s big three could outbid anyone around Europe - Lazio, Parma and Roma consistently among the continent’s big spenders. Italy had four different champions in four years between 1999 and 2003 and three of the Champions League semi-finalist’s in 2003 were Italian.

Its place at the top table has been taken by the absurd wealth of the Premier League and now by the power and prestigue of La Liga’s top two - with a little help from the taxman along the way. Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd eliminated all of Italy’s big three last year and perhaps even more frightening for pretenders to the Champions League crown is that in Madrid and Barcelona Kaka and Ibrahimovic are not the star players and leaders they were in Milan. They are just one piece in a glittering array of stars.

This weekend may have proved that Inter still just have what it takes to retain the Scudetto. However, it appears their neighbours are again appear better prepared for a run at the Champions League. Inter’s 4-3 win over bottom side Sienna showed they have the quality often overlooked in a title race – a winning mentality. For all their errors throughout the first 93 minutes they had conjured up three moments of quality. Three superb strikes, one from Diego Milito and two from Wesley Sneijder free-kicks, kept them in the game. In the 94th they stole victory through centre-back turned striker Walter Samuel. It was quite apt that Samuel should make his significant contribution to the game in the opponents penalty area. Brought on as a make shift left-back at half time Samuel had been truly awful. Continually pulled out of position and at fault for Sienna’s third goal so poor was his defensive performance that Mourinho was forced to being on another make-shift left back to avoid Inter falling further behind. Despite their manager’s undoubted tactical nous Inter’s potential to self-destruct is what will again undermine their attempt to land Europe’s biggest prize for the first time since 1966. Stamford Bridge will be filled with emotion for their former hero when he returns in mid-March but at the moment it seems inevitable that Roman Abramovich will have the last laugh over his former employee. Chelsea’s dynamism seem too much for an experienced but ultimately weak Inter midfield. Barcelona have already showed the way in completely dominating Inter over two games earlier in the season and although Chelsea will not be able to retain the ball in the same manner as Xavi, Iniesta and co they will have the firepower to overwhelm an ageing Inter rearguard.

Milan by contrast appear to be coming to the boil under rookie coach Leonardo. After a high-tempo goal fest against Genoa earlier in the week, the rossoneri showed their discipline in a ruthless 3-0 victory in Turin over Juventus. This was not the demolition of the grand old lady that Bayern Munich laid down before Christmas. Rather Milan strung along their opponents, keeping possession, denying space in behind and taking their few opportunities with ruthless efficiency. Milan have the players to make the difference in the latter stages of the Champions League and unlike previous years now have a degree of youth in their side in the form of Thiago Silva, Luca Antonini and Ignazio Abate. Their upturn in form may have come too late to save their bid for the Scudetto but Man Utd beware Milan will again be a tough out come the spring.