Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is Sanchez the right man for Barcelona?

He’s coming. No he’s not, or maybe he’s not. No he definitely is, but for what price? 30, 40, even €50million were at one point demanded but eventually, finally, at least one of Barcelona’s summer signing sagas was completed last week when Alexis Sanchez completed his transfer from Udinese for a very reasonable initial sum of €26 million, with potentially a further €11.5 million in variables.

Pep Guardiola stated last week that his priority for the upcoming season was a striker. A position needing all the more reinforcing once Bojan Krkic completed his transfer to Roma over the weekend. But while Sanchez fits Guardiola’s demands and is undoubtedly a player of great talent, the question remains whether the Chilean fits the Barcelona mould and what role he will play in the coming months?

From Barcelona’s point of view there would appear to be a number of concerns.

Firstly, how do you improve on perfection? On the face of it a first summer off in four years for their host of Spanish internationalists should give them an added freshness, as should the experience of winning the Under-21 European Championships for the La Masia graduates that took part. But in a front three of Leo Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez who scored 98 goals between them last season and complement each other’s skill sets perfectly, where will there be room for Sanchez?

One answer is that there isn’t. That Serie A’s 2010/11 Player of the Year will perform a supplementary role to give extra rest to those three and give a different option is things aren’t going to plan.

Another is that Pedro’s place on the inside-right will come under threat, but that seems hugely disrespectful to a player who has scored 45 goals in the past two seasons and more importantly performed when it has mattered most. He rescued his side with an equaliser in the last minute of the Club World Cup final, scored the winner in the European Super Cup, in the crucial 2-0 victory at the Bernabéu that sealed the title in 2010, in the 5-0 mauling of Real at the Camp Nou, in the Champions League semi-final for the past two seasons and of course the opener in the Champions League final itself in May. In other words, a big game player.

Any threat to Pedro’s position would also indicate a dramatic reduction in any playing time for Ibrahim Afellay and Jeffren who played important stop-gap roles at different times last season.

Either way, the Sanchez signing and the potential arrival of Cesc Fabregas at the Nou Camp will impose a new demand of Pep Guardiola’s managerial skills; that of keeping star players who aren’t involved happy. In his three years in charge he has only lost one key player due to discontent at the lack of playing opportunities when Yaya Toure, frustrated at being overtaken by Sergio Busquets in the midfield achor role, was attracted by the guarantee of a first-team place (and a few briefcases of cash) in moving to Manchester City.

There are other playing style problems to be resolved in the Sanchez signing. Primarily that his greatest strength is his devastating pace on the counter-attack. It was in these transitional phases of play that he so impressed while in Udine and at times with Chile at both last summer’s World Cup and the recently completed Copa America.

The only problem is that Barca don’t often get the opportunity to counter-attack simply because so many sides refuse to attack them in the first-place. Against packed defences it is normally Barca’s intricate passing around the 18-yard box that creates the opportunity rather than a 60-yard burst from one end of the pitch to the other.

Another signing target early in the summer, Giuseppe Rossi, would appear to fit into this template more easily than Sanchez. Not only does Rossi have La Liga but he is more suited to the subtle passing game that Barca have perfected over the past three years.

Most importantly of all though, with Bojan gone, Villa is now the only player in Barca’s squad with experience of playing as a centre-forward. Sanchez joins a number of players capable of playing in the wide areas: Villa; Pedro; Afellay; Jeffren; even Iniesta and Messi have occupied these positions in the past. But Rossi would have offered the option of playing as a more traditional number nine should Messi ever be unavailable or rested from the false nine position he has played to devastating effect in the past two years.

The final and most dreaded question and comparison for the Chilean is that of another Serie A star who Barca saw as the final piece of the jigsaw, of having something that they didn’t currently have – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ibra’s failings during his time in Barcelona are now completely overblown. It wasn’t the disaster that most try to claim. The Swede scored 21 goals, including the winner in the season’s opening Clásico, but the idea of adding a big man to complement Barca’s array of little magicians didn’t work as planned. Loyal to the tiki-taka method of moving the ball meant they were still reluctant to swing in crosses to make best use of Ibrahimovic’s height and his inability to play wide as well as through the middle caused an inflexibility that was only solved once he was replaced by Bojan for the final part of the season.

This is not a criticism of Sanchez’s wonderful ability, but a question of whether he will be able to harness that ability to the best effect in Catalunya. He could prove myself and others to be completely wide of the mark, but it seems that, like in 2009, having won the Champions League, Barca have spent big to get something they don’t have rather than replenishing a short squad with the ideals that got them there in the first place.

Juarez to seal Zaragoza loan deal

Celtic midfielder Efrain Juarez looks set to join Real Zaragoza on a season-long loan deal.

A Celtic spokesman said the club had agreed a deal with the Spanish side that would see Zaragoza take up the Mexican international’s £500,000 salary but without having to pay any loan fee.

The player’s agent, Jorge Berlanga, confirmed that he should join up with the rest of the squad on Zaragoza’s pre-season tour of England in the next few days.

Juarez endured a difficult first season at Parkhead after a near £4million move from UNAM Pumas last July. After a promising start to the campaign, including goals against Braga and Utrecht in European qualifiers, Juarez struggled to hold down a regular starting spot and made only 20 appearances for the club.

By signing for Zaragoza Juarez will team up again with his compatriot and former manager at international level Javier Aguirre.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Surprises galore but Suárez the key man

The 2011 Copa America didn’t really work out as planned for Argentina. With the world’s best player, home advantage and an 18-year trophy drought to break, a quarter-final exit wasn’t on the agenda. And as the hosts continue to lick their wounds, their borders will be engulfed this weekend as neighbours Paraguay and Uruguay head to Buenos Aires for Sunday’s final.

To describe the final as beauty versus the beast would be an exaggeration. Uruguayan football can rarely have been described as having a culture built around elegance, but while the never say die attitude that has seen a country of three million people win 14 Copa Americas and two World Cups remains, there is an extra subtlety to this side which has produced great success over the past year.

Last summer that subtlety came from Diego Forlan’s combination of creation and finishing that saw him named the World Cup’s best player. This time round it has been Luis Suárez’s outstanding example of how to lead the line that has impressed.

Suárez’s two goals were enough to see off Peru in the semi-final and take him level with Sergio Agüero at the head of the scorer’s charts, but it has been much more than his goalscoring that has caught the eye. The Liverpool striker set up Uruguay’s opener against Chile, has laid on an abundance of opportunities for Forlan and against Argentina, with his side down to 10 men, showed great intelligence in winning a number of free-kicks which not only gave rest bite to his defence, but eventually saw Argentina also lose a man when Javier Mascherano saw a second yellow for clipping Suárez’s heels.

Whilst Uruguay’s blend of steel and striking prowess has seen them deservedly arrive at the final, it has been defensive obduracy and a degree of good fortune that has helped Paraguay through.

Amazingly Paraguay have yet to win a match in open play at the tournament. Three draws in the group stages were enough to qualify as the second best third-placed side and consecutive penalty shootout victories over Brazil and Venezuela after 0-0 draws hasn’t made them the most entertaining side to watch.

They also arrive at the final on their last legs. Goalkeeper and hero of the shootout victories Justo Villar said immediately after the semi-final:

“After two lots of extra-time we arrive at the final with almost no oxygen, with five or six injured and one suspended. Uruguay is in a different state. Their key players are rested, but we will fight to the utmost.”

Paraguay’s fight can never be questioned, but by all rational theory the title is Uruguay’s to lose. They have had an extra days rest having played their semi-final 24 hours ahead of Paraguay, have played only one stint of extra-time and quite simply are a better, more balanced side.

A Uruguayan victory would also move them ahead of Argentina as South America’s most crowned champion. A final insult of a competition the hosts would care to forget.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

SPL Preview

Last season the SPL hit the headlines worldwide for a series of unsavoury events on and off the field. With minds now focused back on the game itself, here is a preview to how all 12 sides should get on before the big kick-off this weekend.

Last Season: 9th

In the past two years, Aberdeen fans have watched their club go from European qualification, to battling relegation, while attendances plummeted at the same rate as league position.

This summer saw the contracts of, Derek Young, Zander Diamond, Jamie Langfield, Mark Howard, Scotland international Chris Maguire, and Nigerian International Sone Aluko expire.

As yet, Aluko has not found a club, Diamond moved to Oldham and Maguire left for Derby - though compensation received due to his young age has yet to be seen in Craig Brown’s transfer dealings.

Jamie Langfield signed a new one-year deal, then suffered a seizure that will keep him out of action for the first half of the season, resulting in Colombian keeper David Gonzalez joining on a six-month loan from Man City. Welsh keeper, Jason Brown, also signed up after leaving Blackburn Rovers this summer.

Centre back Youl Mawene – whom Brown previously worked with at Preston North End – was the summer’s first signing. Following this, midfielder Isaac Osborne and Icelandic international Kari Arnason joined. While these three are one-year contracts, former Don, Chris Clarke joined on a three-year deal.

Returning from injury for the start of the season are Frazer Fyvie, Yoann Folly and testimonial-man Darren Mackie. Also returning from a year-long loan at arch-rivals, Rangers, is new club captain, Richard Foster, who was subjected to vile abuse from one or two moronic ‘fans’ on his first pre-season appearance against Borussia Monchengladbach.

The team as things stand remains notably short in certain positions. Given the obvious lack of width, it appears likely that the formation will become 3-5-2, with Foster and perhaps, Robert Milsom, Ryan Ryan Jack or Clarke as wing-backs should no one more natural out wide be signed.

Josh Magennis, Michael Paton and Mackie will hope to be the second striker to Scott Vernon, though whether the creativity of Maguire (and occasionally Aluko) last season can be met by players already on the books is not clear.

Peter Pawlett in particular has shown encouraging form pre-season and himself, Jack and Fyvie are most certainly the young players providing Aberdeen’s long-suffering fans the infinitesimal optimism they have remaining for the future of their once great club.

Prediction: 5th

Last Season: 2nd

The summer has been one of relative calmness at Celtic Park. After the upheaval required in playing personnel last summer, following the removal of Tony Mowbray and installation of Neil Lennon as manager, Celtic have paid for only one player since the close of last season only eight weeks ago; the Kenyan Victor Wanyama signing for a million pounds from Belgian club Germinal Beerschot.

Wanyama will though be joined by Adam Matthews and Kelvin Wilson who had already agreed pre-contract deals with the club.

However, rather than disharmony over the lack of transfer action, there is a contentment within the Parkhead faithful. Lennon has had his contract renewed - a priority amongst the support given the progress he made on the field and horrific abuse he was subjected to off it last season – and there have been no major departures.

By retaining Player of the Year Emilio Izaguirre (linked with Liverpool and Manchester United in recent months) and other star players, Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, Celtic will start as favourites for the league. However, as Lennon has recognised himself, the progress demonstrated last season must continue if the title is to be arrested back from Rangers.

One area of concern for the Northern Irishman will be the goalkeeping position. Fraser Forster has returned to Newcastle following his season-long loan spell and Celtic have been linked with a number of keepers in recent weeks.

Croatian international Stipe Pletikosa has been on trial and wouldn’t now cost anything after Spartak Moscow cancelled his contract. Lukas Zaluska will start the season as number one (as he did last year before losing out to Forster) but with Europa League qualification around the corner, expect to see a new man between the sticks in the not too distant future.

Prediction: 1st

Dundee United
Last Season: 4th

United have suffered the fate of many Scottish clubs in recent times by losing key players to the English Championship.

Prince Buaben (Watford), Craig Conway (Cardiff) and Margaro Gomis (Birmingham) have all headed south leaving a huge hole in the midfield that had been the key to success under current manager Peter Houston and his predecessor and current Scotland boss, Craig Levein, in recent seasons.

Houston has been able to welcome back one player from the English second tier in Willo Flood. The Irishman had a successful 18-month stay at Tannadice under Levein but failed to claim a regular starting place after moving to Celtic and Middlesbrough.

Flood will be joined in midfield by John Rankin who has moved to United from Hibs. Rankin’s career has stuttered recently after a couple of very promising seasons at Inverness and a good start to his time in the capital, but on form both he and Flood can provide more of a goalscoring threat from midfield than either Buaben or Gomis did.

The future of David Goodwillie is likely to be the key to other arrivals. The Scottish Young Player of the Year has attracted interest from Rangers and Cardiff but, with the striker awaiting trial over an allegation of rape later in the year, potential suitors have been put off by United’s £2million asking price.

Prediction: 4th

Dunfermline Athletic
Last Season: Promoted

Dunfermline are the SPL’s newcomers and after a four-year absence from the top tier they have been busy in recruiting both players with SPL experience and some of the First Division’s leading lights.

Goalkeeper Paul Gallacher and defender John Potter have joined from St. Mirren after being released by the Paisley club and another experienced SPL campaigner Kevin Rutkiewicz has signed from St. Johnstone.

Andy Barrowman, who helped fire Ross County to the Scottish Cup Final in 2010, should also bring extra firepower to a frontline that relied heavily on ex-Hearts striker Andy Kirk last season. While, other impressive performers in the First Division last term, Paul Burns and Paddy Boyle have signed from Queen of the South and Partick Thistle respectively.

There has been a trend in the SPL over recent seasons of sides coping well with the transition to the top league, due both to the competitive nature of the First Division and the declining standards in the SPL. Inverness, St. Johnstone and Hamilton, the previous three promoted sides have all stayed up in their first season and the relative strength of Jim McIntyre’s squad to those sides means Dunfermline should have every chance of retaining their SPL status come May.

Prediction: 11th

Last Season: 3rd

Since Vladimir Romanov took charge of Hearts in 2005 there has rarely been has dull moment. This summer was no different as again Scottish football hit front page headlines for all the wrong reasons. Hearts midfielder Craig Thomson was put on the sex offenders’ register and fined £4,000 for indecent behaviour towards two girls aged 12 and 14.

Understandably the tidal wave of public opinion, along with that of his manager and team mates, was for Thomson to be reprimanded by the club. Instead, Romanov issued a spectacular statement in which he blamed the influence of the mafia (amongst a variety of other factors) for Thomson’s discretion.

However, once sponsors started to withdraw their support from their club, the Lithuanian owner was forced accept that the severity of the situation did not require the response of a bad Soprano’s script. Thomson was eventually sacked, but once again, after a serious of Romanov rants in recent years and the attack on Neil Lennon by a Heart’s fan in May, the reputation of the club was sullied.

A very unfortunate distraction for the club since it had in fact had a very good summer in the transfer market. John Sutton who scored 17 goals for Motherwell last season was signed on a Bosman as were Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil, two of the stars of a fabulously entertaining Kilmarnock side.

St Johnstone’s Danny Grainger was also brought in to substitute for the loss of Lee Wallace at left-back after the Scottish international agreed a £1.5m move to Rangers.

However, unlike most clubs outside the Old-Firm, Hearts have been able to hold onto their other promising young players and will be hoping Young Player of the Year candidate David Templeton will return to the form that saw him shine so brightly in the first-half of last season. The future of top-scorer Rudi Skacel remains in doubt though with the Czech’s current contract running out on July 31st and no offer of a new deal in the pipeline.

Jim Jeffries’ side laboured slightly to third place in the final third of last season after a wonderful run saw them take 31 points from a possible 33 between the beginning of November and the end of January. With some shrewd additions they are pole position to again be the closest challengers to the Old Firm.

Prediction: 3rd

Last Season: 10th

There hasn’t been the same amount of scandal, but across the city it has also been an unhappy summer at Hibs.

Top-scorer Derek Riordan has surprisingly headed to China (a purely football based decision I’m sure) along with Liam Miller and Colin Nish in a raft of departures from Easter Road.

The biggest distraction however has been the speculation surrounding manager Colin Calderwood. The former Scotland defender has never been warmly welcomed by the Hibs support, as much for his negative tactics as his poor results, since his appointment last October. Calderwood was assistant to Chris Hughton during his time at Newcastle and now that Hughton has taken over at Birmingham it has been widely reported that Calderwood would like to be reunited with him in the Midlands.

Hibs chairman Rod Petrie however is famed for his tough negotiating skills and has outlined his intention to receive significant compensation before he allows his manager to return down south.

Like a number of other clubs this season, Hibs fans will at least have a couple of former favourites to cheer on this year. Striker Gary O’Connor and Ivan Sproule have re-joined the club on free transfers. The returning heroes could be joined by former Ghanian international Junior Agogo who is currently on trial and set to sign a deal with the Edinburgh club.

Yet, even if O’Connor and Agogo are able to fill the void left by Riordan’s goals, it is hard to see Hibs improving greatly on last year’s 10th position. It could be sometime before the sunshine returns to Leith.

Prediction: 8th

Inverness Caley Thistle
Last Season: 7th

The side that made its name by embarrassing Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000 were at it again at the end of last season to cap off a wonderful return to the SPL after a season back in the First Division.

That 3-2 defeat of Celtic made headlines as it cost the Glasgow side the title, but it also underlined Inverness’ excellent end to the campaign in during which they won their last five fixtures.

Earlier in their season it had been their terrific away form that had seen them rise as high as fourth near the turn of the year. Until defeat to St. Johnstone in January they had gone over a year unbeaten on the road; including come from behind draws at Celtic Park and Ibrox.

Their home form had never hit quite the same heights and a slump in form after Christmas meant that Terry Butcher’s side just missed out on a top-six place, but seventh was good enough to match their highest ever finish.

As ever new challenges await for Butcher. Top-scorer Adam Rooney has joined Birmingham on a Bosman and a host of other loyal servants to the club over a number of years were released at the end of the season.

The former England captain will be hoping that Gregory Tade, who caused a number of Premier League defences trouble during cup runs with Raith Rovers over the past couple of seasons, will be able to bring the cutting edge that Rooney did over two highly successful seasons in the Highlands.

Butcher has also been able to bring in Aaron Doran from Blackburn who impressed during his loan spell at the club last season and Rangers youngster Andrew Shinnie, brother of current Caley defender Graeme Shinnie.

However, despite being last season’s surprise package, Caley Thistle will probably return to being relegation candidates this season. The loss of Rooney’s goals and a dependence on young players could see them fall foul of second season syndrome.

Prediction: 10th

Last season: 5th

For the first two-thirds of last season Kilmarnock were the team to watch. With the precociously talented Alexei Eremenko pulling the strings in midfield, Killie displayed a wonderful brand of pass and move football that Scottish football is so often devoid of.

However, after the turn of the year the wheels didn’t so much as come off the bus as the passengers. The decline began when Connor Salmon who had scored 18 goals in the first-half of the season moved to Wigan in January. Manager Mixu Paatelainen then moved to coach his home nation of Finland in April and Killie failed to register a win under newly installed boss Kenny Shiels in the final eight games of the season.

Eremenko has now also gone, having returned to Metalist Kharkiv, as have key midfielders Jamie Hamill (Hearts), Mehdi Taouil (Hearts) and Craig Bryson (Derby). An exodus that doesn’t leave Shiels with much of last year’s successful side to work with.

The Northern Irish manager has added five players from the English lower divisions as well as Dutchman Danny Buijs, Dundee youngster Gary Harkins and former Celtic striker Ben Hutchinson. But, with such a turnaround in personnel, none of whom are proven at the SPL level, it is very hard to see Killie replicate last season’s top-six finish.

Instead they are more likely to return to the position they were in two years ago when they staved off relegation on the final day of the season.

Shiels was considered by many lucky to get the job, if he starts in the season in similar form to how he ended it another managerial change, this time of the club’s making, could be on the cards.

Prediction: 9th

Last Season: 6th

Motherwell had fantastic season in 2010/11. A top-six finish allied to a run to the Scottish Cup final, League Cup semi-final and even a few victories in Europe very early in the campaign was great progress for a side that have consistently punched above their weight in recent years.

The downside of such success has been their losing their managers. Craig Brown followed Mark McGhee’s route in swapping Lanarkshire for Aberdeen mid-way through last season, paving the way for Stuart McCall to become Motherwell’s fourth boss in five seasons.

This year they should at least benefit from some continuity with McCall having been in charge for seven months and not nearly facing the turnover in playing staff that other sides have.

The loss of top-scorer John Sutton to Hearts will be a huge one, especially as his replacement, Michael Higdon, has never been prolific during his time in Scotland with Falkirk and St. Mirren.

However, they have been able to retain key performers from last season’s cup in Jamie Murphy, Chris Humphrey, Steve Jennings and Keith Lasley, whilst new signing Nicky Law has looked good in pre-season.

How they cope with the loss of Sutton will be key, but in Murphy Motherwell have one of the outstanding young talents in the league and should be looking to retain their place in the top-six.

Prediction: 6th

Last Season: 1st

Rangers’ first pre-season under new manager Ally McCoist and new owner Craig Whyte has been one of consolidation and frustration.

Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker and Steven Davis have all signed long-term deals at the club with the dual intention of guaranteeing their future but also a significant transfer fee should they move in that period.

David Weir and David Healy have also signed one-year extensions to their deals, but elsewhere McCoist has been hampered by a lack of funds.

Lee Wallace and Juanma Ortiz have arrived from Hearts and Almeria respectively and both have a versatility that will be crucial to a squad very short on numbers. Meanwhile, American international Alejandro Bedoya has agreed a deal to join the Ibrox side in January at the end of his current deal with Swedish side Orebro.

Further new faces are expected in the 40 days before the end of the transfer window with a return for former defender Carlos Cuellar still a possibility.

Despite the lack of signings, however, the champions’ prospects look no different to how they have for the past two seasons. On both occasions Rangers were unable to add much to their squad and were up against a Celtic side with much greater strength in depth. Yet, on both occasions it was Rangers’ consistency that prevailed in winning the title.

The major difference this year though is the change in management. Walter Smith was able to use all his experience to motivate his thin looking squad to not only success on the domestic front but also some notable victories in Europe last season. Whether McCoist can match those achievements in his first year is a major challenge.

Rangers will face a seeded side in the Champions League play-off round of qualification should the overcome Malmo in the third qualifying round and with his recruitment not complete, the early start to the season, both at home and abroad, could be a penalising one for their new manager.

Prediction: 2nd

St. Johnstone
Last Season: 8th

St. Johnstone consolidated last season with a respectable eighth placed finish despite a chronic lack of goals.

At one point in the season the Saints scored only one goal in nearly three months – a run spanning 11 league games.

That goalscoring problem doesn’t appear to have been remedied over the summer. Carl Finnigan has been brought in from Falkirk, but was never a player that scored regularly during his time in the SPL with the Bairns. The loan signing of Cillian Sheridan from CSKA Sofia could prove a vital one though as the Irishman scored some important goals when on loan at the club from Celtic two years ago.

Elsewhere, there have been some impressive signings in former player and Scotland international Callum Davidson and David Robertson from Dundee Utd.

Frazer Wright and ex-Dundee Utd defender David McCracken have also come in to replace the departed Michael Duberry and Kevin Rutkiewicz at the heart of the defence. And while on that side of the game Derek McInnes’ side should remain strong, with goals so difficult to come it may be third season unlucky for the Saints.

Prediction: 12th

St Mirren
Last season: 11th

St. Mirren have arguably been the most successful side of all in the transfer market this summer. After a raft of players were let go at the season’s end two months ago, manager Danny Lennon has concentrated on trying to take the Buddies to the next level by concentrating on quality rather than quantity.

Celtic youngsters Paul McGowan and Graham Carey who impressed during loan spells at the club have signed on a permanent basis along with Nigel Hasselbaink (nephew of Jimmy-Floyd) who showed flashes of brilliance at Hamilton last season. Their youth will be complemented by the experience of former Scotland internationals Steven Thompson and Gary Teale who have signed on free transfers from Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. All five new signings promise to give the Paisley side a much greater attacking threat in the coming season, a threat they have sorely lacked since their return to the top-flight in 2006.

Goalkeeper Graeme Smith who has excelled for St. Johnstone in the past two seasons has also been brought in to replace Paul Gallacher.

Should everything go to plan for Lennon then St. Mirren could even challenge for a top-six place for the first time in the SPL era. However, more realistically, they should be looking to avoid relegation more comfortably than they have in recent seasons.

Prediction: 7th

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Upsets and strength in depth make this a Copa to remember

Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela. It is not the semi-final line-up that the organisers, sponsors or many onlookers would have envisaged.

The hosts, Argentina, have gone. So too the sights and sounds of Brazilian flair. Even Chile, the neutral’s favourite for their kamikaze style of attacking play, have been eliminated.

But, one endearing quality of the 2011 Copa America remains, its unpredictability.

An unpredictability that stems from a strength in depth that has been threatening to produce a tournament like this for the past decade. Ever since the inception of a marathon 18-game long World Cup qualifying campaign that has guaranteed the smaller nations regular competitive football, the traditional powerhouses of the region have faced a considerably greater challenge.

This depth was best evidenced by Uruguay’s fantastic run at last summer’s World Cup. La Celeste returned from South Africa placed as the fourth best side in the world. Yet, during the two-year long qualification campaign they had finished as the fifth best side in South America.

Uruguay’s re-establishment as one of world football’s major powers, however, has at least been one of the more expected features of this tournament. It may come as a surprise to those more familiar with the duopoly of Argentina and Brazil to learn that should Uruguay go on to lift the Copa on Sunday they would become its most frequent winners, one ahead of Argentina and with seven more than Brazil.

A golden generation spearheaded by Diego Forlan know though that this may be their final chance at a major trophy. The fact that they go into tonight’s semi-final against Peru as prohibitive favourites comes as no reassurance after a weekend of quarter-finals in which all four favoured sides were eliminated.

Uruguay’s encounter with Argentina was the highlight of those four ties but could serve as a physical and mental burden to Oscar Washington Tabarez’s troops this evening. Although Peru also had to go to extra-time to defeat Colombia 2-0 on Saturday, that match was played at a much slower-tempo than the battle of River Plate, not to mention the fact that Uruguay played over 80 minutes with 10 men.

Emotional fatigue could also be a factor. After the high of beating their nearest and dearest rivals on their home patch it will require a few calm heads to keep Uruguayan feet on the ground for a semi-final only 72 hours later.

There is also the added complication of going up against one of their fellow countrymen in Sergio Markarián, the Uruguayan coach who has transformed Peru’s fortunes in little over a year in charge. Much was made of Markarián’s appointment when he was made the third highest paid coach in South America, behind only the salaries of Brazil’s Mano Menezes and then Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa. For a country still ranked as one of the poorest on the continent, the $760,000 wage seemed more than a little excessive.

Yet, Markarián’s mixture of bravado and brilliance has more than paid its way as the side who finished bottom of World Cup qualifying have now made it to their first semi-final in 14 years.

Above all, Markarián has managed to tighten Peru’s defence with a midfield three sitting very deep to block any space between the lines, a tactic that worked well against Uruguay when the pair drew 1-1 in their first game of the competition two weeks ago.

Due to the bizarre format and number of upsets so far, the other semi-finalists, Paraguay and Venezuela, have also met previously. Only a week ago, in arguably the game of the tournament, Venezuela came from 3-1 down with less than a minute of normal time remaining to draw 3-3.

Venezuela’s rise to prominence has been the best example of how the redeveloped World Cup qualifying format has benefited the smaller countries. La Vinotinto (known for their burgundy shirts than a great production of red wine) have still won fewer Copa America games in their history than they have Miss World contests, but their potential has been apparent for some time now.

When hosting the competition four years ago they qualified for the quarter-finals for the first time and a sprinkling of young players, such as Malaga’s Salomón Rondón and Tomás Rincón of Hamburg, have successfully made the transition to European football.

Their opponents, Paraguay, find themselves in the strange position of making the semi-finals without having won a game in open play. Three draws in the group stages were enough to qualify as the second best third-placed side and their passage through the quarter-final was sealed when Brazil missed all four of their penalties in a display of stunning inaccuracy from 12 yards that even England would have been proud of.

Yet, much like Uruguay, this is a golden opportunity to mark a special era in Paraguayan football with only their third ever major trophy. And as if they need any extra incentive, well-known cheerleader and model Larissa Riquelme is doing her bit.

“If Paraguay win the Copa America then I shall pose nude on the pitch," she said before the competition began.

Judging by Brazil’s penalties it appears that is a sight not only Paraguayans want to see.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Copa America quarter-finals preview part 2

Paraguay – Brazil (Sunday 8.00pm)

These two meet for the second time in the tournament after a thrilling 2-2 draw in Cordoba eight days ago.

That game continued Paraguay’s run of being the South American side that Brazil have struggled with most in recent years. Indeed La Seleção only avoided defeat thanks to a last minute equaliser from Fred.

The most interesting aspect of that game was the torrid time given to Dani Alves by Marcelo Estigarribia. Alves was subsequently dropped for Brazil’s best performance and only victory in the competition so far against Ecuador and is likely to lose out to Maicon again at right-back. Whether the Inter man can handle Estigarribia’s pace and trickery better than Alves could be the key to the game.

Mano Menezes surprised many by returning to the front four of Ganso, Pato, Neymar and Robinho that had started the opener against Venezuela (a 0-0 draw) for the game against Ecuador. And despite Fred and Jadson grabbing the goals against Paraguay, the aforementioned four are likely to start again this evening.

Paraguay’s only dilemma will be whether to start Nelson Haedo Valdez instead of either Roque Santa Cruz or Lucas Barrios. Valdez has impressed when coming on as a substitute in all three games so far and scored Paraguay’s second goal in the Cordoba encounter. However, with Santa Cruz and Barrios having also scored in the competition it is more likely that coach Garrardo Martino will again use the Hercules striker as an impact player.

Chile – Venezuela (Sunday 11.15pm)

Two of the more impressive sides so far meet in San Juan for the right to qualify for the semi-finals.

Chile have been the most attractive side to watch in the competition, their brand of pass and move attacking football refreshing in a tournament where defences have generally come out on top.

Most of the attention has focused on Barcelona-bound winger Alexis Sanchez and he has been one of the few starts to live up to the hype, scoring against Uruguay and providing a constant source of danger against Mexico and Peru.

However, Chile do remain vulnerable at the back. Their 3-3-1-3 formation and pressing game often leave them exposed on the counter-attack and in Salomón Rondón Venezuela finally have a striker capable of taking chances at the highest level.

Chile are also suffering from injuries and suspensions. Playmaker Mati Fernandez was one of their standout performers in the opening game victory over Mexico but hasn’t been fit to make any other impact on the competition, whilst Jean Beausejour’s sending off against Peru means he will be suspended.

Venezuela are still on a high after a remarkable comeback saw them snatch a 3-3 draw with Paraguay having been 3-1 down with under a minute of the 90 to play.

This has already been a seminal competition in Venezuelan football history. Never before had they qualified for the quarter-finals away from home soil and victory over Ecuador saw them narrow their wins at the Copa America to wins in Miss World to 1:2 (three in the Copa, six on the stage in you’re interested).

After a positive performance in the group stage this will be a good test to see how far both sides have come. If Chile can continue to play attacking aggressive football then they are certainly contenders to lift the trophy for the first time in their history. For Venezuela just a visit to the semi-finals would be a first.

Copa America quarter-finals preview part 1

With the group stages completed the Copa America takes on a new level of intensity this evening as the quarter-finals get underway. Here is a quick guide to Saturday’s two games.

Colombia – Peru (Saturday 8.00pm)

Colombia have been one of the more accomplished sides in the tournament so far. Only Chile matched their points total of seven through the group stages and but for wayward finishing Los Cafeteros would have beaten Argentina comfortably in their 0-0 draw.

Much of the pre-tournament talk on Colombia focused on Radamel Falcao García, the Porto striker who had a remarkable season at club level. Falcao did get his first two goals of the campaign in the final group game against Bolivia but it has been at the other end of the field where his side have excelled. Colombia have yet to concede a goal and have looked like an excellent defensive unit with the experience of Mario Yepes and Luis Perea flanked by the outstanding full-back combination of Juan Zúñiga and Pablo Armero.

Their opponents this evening have shown rapid improvement since coach Sergio Markarian took over last year. Peru finished bottom of South American qualifying for the World Cup and little was expected of them in this competition with star players Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan out injured. However, much like the Colombians their defensive organisation has given them a platform to build on and in Paolo Guerrero and Juan Vargas they have a couple of players capable of unlocking defences.

Don’t expect this one to be a high-scoring affair but Colombia’s pace on the counter-attack and Falcao’s efficiency in front of goal is likely to prove decisive.

Argentina – Uruguay (Saturday 11.15pm)

Newcomers to South American football may be surprised to know that this tie and not Argentina v Brazil is the oldest rivalry in the region’s football history. Both have 14 Copas and two World Cups to their name and both after a difficult start are coming to the boil in this competition.

For the Argentines, headlines have been dominated by who from their glittering array of star strikers would best compliment Leo Messi. Early on Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzzi were given the nod with a rigid midfield three of Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega behind them.

Two draws and two poor performances saw that plan ripped up for their final group game against Costa Rica. The new plan that saw Kun Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain start-up front with Fernando Gago and Angel Di Maria replacing Cambiasso and Banega in midfield worked a treat against an inexperienced Costa Rica side. The 3-0 margin of victory could have been substantially greater.

Yet, that performance could be their downfall this evening. The side that started on Monday was very reminiscent of the one Diego Maradona used at last summer’s World Cup which similarly wiped away weaker opposition before it was found out by Germany’s dynamism and pace on the counter-attack. Germany coach Jogi Löw described La Albiceleste that day as a team split in two. Mascherano was simply overwhelmed as the four players in front of him contributed nothing on the defensive end.

Sergio Batista has already outlined his intention to go with the same line-up against the World Cup semi-finalists and while understandable it could prove a very flawed decision.

Uruguay have had selection issues of their own. Having started the tournament with Napoli’s Edison Cavani and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez leading the line with Diego Forlan in more of a playmaking position, Óscar Wáshington Tabárez has decided upon a more conventional 4-4-2 for the past game and a half.

Cavani was replaced at half-time in the second group game against Chile by Álvaro Pereira and despite losing one of their more talented players, Pereira’s presence has given Uruguay more balance. He has also scored his side’s two goals in that period.

With all the pressure on the hosts it would be no surprise to see Uruguay expose Argentina’s defensive deficiencies. That said, it is a dangerous game to bet against any side whose front line reads: Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Di Maria.

Friday, 15 July 2011

La Liga at the Copa América

With the increasing globalisation of world football when one of the world’s biggest and best international tournaments takes place the cast of characters tend to be familiar ones.

Twenty-nine La Liga registered players were selected by nine of the 12 countries taking part in the Copa América in Argentina. With the group stages now complete here is rundown of how they have all got on so far.


Bolivia 1-1 (Agüero)
Colombia 0-0
Costa Rica 3-0 (Agüero 2, Di María)
Players selected: Sergio Agüero (Atlético Madrid), Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi, Gabriel Milito (Barcelona), Ángel di María, Fernando Gago, Ezequiel Garay, Gonzalo Higuaín (Real Madrid), Ever Banega (Valencia)

Fears were raised a few months ago that the fallout from Barcelona and Real Madrid’s four-part series in April and early May could cause division in the Spanish national team. The same worries could easily have been applied to La Albiceleste with their posse of players from each side of the El Clásico divide.

Attention, speculation and a fair degree of criticism focused on Messi after uninspiring draws in the hosts opening two matches. Coach Sergio Batista’s pre-tournament plan to get the best out of Messi by replicating Barcelona’s 4-3-3 was eventually binned and it was the introduction of four La Liga based players that made a huge difference to the performance of the team and Messi in the final group game against Costa Rica.

Agüero was finally given a start and his two goals took him to the top of the goalscoring charts with three in total. Di María who was dropped for the first two fixtures by the sheer force of public opinion demanding a place for Carlos Tevez brought some much needed balance and pace in midfield and a fine goal from one of a barrel load of defence splitting passes from Messi.

Higuaín was guilty of missing a number of those opportunities laid on by the World Player of the Year but his presence created problems and he is likely to retain his place in the side for the quarter-final against Uruguay.

The other effective change which might surprise many La Liga followers was Gago replacing Banega. The Real Madrid midfielder was excellent in possession and linked the play between midfield and front better than the Valencia man had in the first two outings.

At the back Gabriel Milito has looked as bad as he did all season at Barcelona and his partnership with Nicolás Burdisso remains the major reason why it remains hard to see Argentina winning the tournament. It says everything about the decline of Ezequiel Garay’s promise in the past year however that these two aged centre-backs are still seen as more reliable options by Batista than the Real defender.


Venezuela 0-0
Paraguay 2-2 (Jadson, Fred)
Ecuador 4-2 (Pato 2, Neymar 2)
Players selected: Adriano Correia, Dani Alves (Barcelona), Elias (Atlético Madrid)

The Copa America has been a disappointing one for Brazil’s Spanish-based stars.

Dani Alves was finally given the starting role at right-back ahead of Douglas Maicon after the World Cup last summer. However, two games into this tournament was enough for him to lose his place to the Inter man once again. Alves was his characteristic self in the opener against Venezuela, providing a constant outlet for attack but was torn apart by Paraguay’s Marcelo Estigarribia in the 2-2 draw in Córdoba. The Barcelona full-back partly to blame for both Paraguayan goals.

Atleti’s Elias has had little time to make an impact, coming on as a sub for only 14 minutes in the final group game against Ecuador. The other Barca full-back in the squad, Adriano, hasn’t seen any action.


Mexico 2-1 (Paredes, Vidal)
Uruguay 1-1 (Sánchez)
Peru 1-0 (Carrillo (og))
Players selected: Claudio Bravo (Real Sociedad), Gary Medel (Sevilla)

Chile have been the most impressive side on show so far. Whilst attention has focused on Alexis Sánchez, who should seal his move to Barcelona within the next fortnight, a number of other players including midfield general Medel have performed well.

Bravo on the other hand was at fault for Mexico’s goal in the opener and has seen little other goalmouth action.


Costa Rica 1-0 (Ramos)
Argentina 0-0
Bolivia 2-0 (Falcao 2)
Players selected: Abel Aguilar (Hércules), Luis Perea (Atlético Madrid), Cristián Zapata (Villarreal)

Colombia have been one of the more accomplished sides on show through their three group games. The fact that they have yet to concede a goal reflects well on Aguilar who has protected the defence at the back of the midfield and Perea who has again saved his best form for the national side.

New Villarreal signing Zapata hasn’t yet featured due to the sterling performances of Perea and partner Mario Yepes at the heart of the defence but should prove to be an excellent acquisition for the Yellow Submarine.


Paraguay 0-0
Venezuela 0-1
Brazil 2-4 (Caicedo 2)
Players selected: Felipe Caicedo (Levante)

Ecuador’s campaign was a disappointing one as they were one of only two South American sides to go out at the group stage. Their transitional process is however boosted by the fact they may have at long last found a goalscorer in Levante’s Caicedo.

The former Manchester City man scored his country’s only two goals of the competition against Brazil, admittedly with some help from Julio Caesar in the Brazilian goal.


Ecuador 0-0
Brazil 2-2 (Santa Cruz, Valdez)
Venezuela 3-3 (Alcaraz, Barrios, Riveros)
Players selected: Justo Villar (Valladolid), Paulo Da Silva (Real Zaragoza), Nelson Valdez (Hércules), Hernán Pérez (Villarreal)

Paraguay have been involved in two of the games of the tournament with high-scoring draws against Brazil and Venezuela. A key figure in both has been Nelson Valdez who has made a positive impact from the bench in all three games for the World Cup quarter-finalists.

Valdez scored to put Paraguay 2-1 up against Brazil and helped create Barrios’ goal against Venezuela but is still expected to start on the bench behind the country’s all-time leading scorer Roque Santa Cruz and Dortmund’s Barrios in another meeting with the Brazilians in the quarter-finals.

Valladolid’s Villar has typically strode the line between genius and folly with his calm distribution from the back but has made no major errors in the five goals he has conceded in the past two games.

Zaragoza’s Paulo Da Silva has been an ever-present in an uncharacteristically leaky backline, whilst Villarreal youngster Perez is yet to be involved.


Uruguay 1-1 (Guerrero)
Mexico 1-0 (Guerrero)
Chile 0-1
Players selected: Santiago Acasiete (Almería)

Peru have made great strides in the past few months under new coach Sergio Markarian having finished bottom of South American qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Defensive organisation has been the vital factor in that improvement and Acasiete has displayed the sort of defensive solidity that Almería so often lacked last season.


Peru 1-1 (Suárez)
Chile 1-1 (A. Pereira)
Mexico 1-0 (A. Pereira)
Players selected: Diego Forlan, Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid), Martín Cáceres (Sevilla)

Uruguay have endured a mixed tournament thus far. Tuesday’s comfortable 1-0 win over Mexico secured qualification to the quarter-finals but by finishing behind Chile they now have the daunting task of Argentina to face on Saturday.

The two Atleti Diegos have certainly not enjoyed the best of fortunes. Godín has missed the last two games with injury and looks unlikely to face the Argentines whilst Forlan has continued on the form he had towards the end of last season. The man who won player of the tournament last summer in South Africa coast his team all three points with a glaring miss against Peru in the opener and then missed a hatful of great opportunities against Mexico.

Martín Cáceres has on the other hand looked good and in particular coped well with the threat of Sánchez in the Chile game.


Brazil 0-0
Ecuador 1-0 (González)
Paraguay 3-3 (Rondón, Fedor, Perozo)
Players selected: Nicolás Fedor (Getafe), Dani Hernández (Murcia), Salomón Rondón (Malaga)

Venezuela have been the surprise package of the tournament, going unbeaten through their three games and qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time away from home.

Getafe’s Fedor and Malaga’s Rondón have been key in bringing an extra spark up front to what has been a well-organised defensive unit in the past few years. Both scored in Wednesday’s incredible 3-3 draw with Paraguay which saw la vinotinto come from 3-1 down with less than a minute of normal time remaining.

Back-up goalie Hernández has yet to be involved.


Colombia v Peru
Argentina v Uruguay

Brazil v Paraguay
Chile v Venezuela

Thursday, 14 July 2011

"Todo llega para quien sabe esperar"

As those who have travelled to South America will know, waiting is most certainly part of the experience. As the locals say, “Todo llega para quien sabe esperar”, (everything will come to those who know how to wait) fittingly patience has been the overriding virtue of the 2011 Copa America.

The competition has slowly built momentum as it has reached the knockout phase. The priority for most sides in the opening games, much like the World Cup in South Africa last year, seemed to be not to lose with the resulting average of just over a goal a game failing to get even Latin hearts racing.

The past week, however, has seen the stars flourish and excitement build. The final two games in the group stage on Thursday night supplied 12 goals, a far cry from the opening weekend when the same four participants: Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela failed to muster a single goal between them.

Indeed the waiting hasn’t just involved the goals but the games themselves with, much to the annoyance of television directors, many failing to start on time. Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela were even fined after taking nearly 25 minutes to have a leisurely half-time cup of tea and orange in their opening fixtures.

Early headlines were dominated by the struggles of the traditional powerhouses of the region. Hosts Argentina along with Brazil and Uruguay were the three seeded sides, but collectively they failed to win any of their first six games.

In Argentina the coverage has unsurprisingly focused on Lionel Messi. Having the world’s best player in your side should be an unparalleled advantage. That is of course unless you focus everything on him to the detriment of everyone else.

A group that included Bolivia, Colombia and an Under-23 Costa Rican side should have amounted to no more than a parade round the provinces for the hosts. Instead, two draws and two pretty dire performances from the team and their number 10 had a country in despair.

Coach Sergio Batista had for the past year spoke of his intention to imitate the Barcelona 4-3-3 model to accommodate Messi. 180 minutes work had been enough to undo a year’s worth of planning. For Monday night’s crucial tie with Costa Rica, Argentina lined up in a very similar 4-2-3-1 to the one that saw Diego Maradona so ridiculed last summer.

Alas, all was alright on the night as Messi appeared more akin to how he does in blue and red pinstripes than the figure in blue and white ones had in the previous two games.

Those two draws did however cost Argentina first place in Group A, that honour going to Colombia who comfortably saw off the other two sides in the group and are yet to concede a goal in the tournament.

Consequently the oldest rivalry in South American football will add another chapter to its history this weekend as the hosts take on Uruguay.

Much had been expected of the Uruguayans following their fourth-placed finish at the World Cup and of the three seeded sides off to a slow start they have been the least disappointing. The excellent link-up play between Diego Forlan and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez on show last summer has been in evidence again and if Forlan had his shooting boots on Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Mexico would have been a rout.

There is even a touch of Scotland about the Uruguayans thanks to impressive young defender Sebastian Coates, a descendant of Scottish ancestry who has played the last two games in place of the injured Diego Godin.

Brazil’s problems have also been less melodramatic than the Argentines. Mano Menezes, who succeeded Dunga as coach last year, has strictly designated this competition as merely a stepping stone to developing a side for the World Cup on home soil in 2014. With that in mind there has been a heavy reliance on youth. Santos wonder kids Neymar and Ganso have started alongside AC Milan’s Alexandre Pato and Thiago Silva, while the Premier League duo of Lucas Leiva and Ramires have been mainstays in the midfield.

The five-time World Cup winners also drew their opening two matches against Venezuela and Paraguay but, despite showing some defensive weaknesses more associated with past generations of Brazilian sides than those in recent years, they did put on their best performance of the tournament to defeat Ecuador 4-2 and clinch to spot in Group B.

Due to the vagaries involved in reducing 12 teams to eight they will meet Paraguay again in the quarter-finals who qualified thanks to being one of the two best third-placed sides.

Refreshingly, it has been Chile who have produced the best football of the tournament so far. The focus of attention has shone on Barcelona bound winger Alexis Sanchez and although the Udinese man has been the star performer, it has been the passing and movement between the midfield and forward units collectively that has been so pleasing on the eye.

Some glaring deficiencies, such as the lack of a world-class centre-forward, remain and should they face Brazil in the semi-finals Chile will have to reverse recent form between the two - Brazil having won their last seven meetings by an aggregate score of 24-3. However, with no other side having made a compelling case the time may just have come for a first Chilean victory in the competition’s 95-year history.



Colombia v Peru (8.00)
Argentina v Uruguay (11.15)

Brazil v Paraguay (8.00)
Chile v Venezuela (11.15)

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Spanish still basking in success a year after World Cup triumph

In the summer of 2011 it is easy to look back at events of a year earlier as having a certain amount of inevitability. However, on the rollercoaster ride that La Furia Roja took the country on for a month last summer, the final result seemed anything but.

In hindsight it was obvious, even pre-tournament, that Spain were the best side in the competition. Seven of the side that started in Johannesburg last July also started as Barcelona cruised to Champions League glory in May. They had a £50 million striker on the bench and another playmaker soon to move in the region of €40 million alongside him. And yet, in a tournament which surprised without ever really enthralling, the final outcome was always in doubt.

Indeed Spain had been the victim of arguably the biggest surprise of all. Luckily for Vicente Del Bosque’s men their bad day at the office came on their opening gambit, early enough for a recovery to be made. Switzerland’s 1-0 victory in their first game shocked the world but crucially not the Spaniard’s faith in their style of play.

Following the Switzerland defeat though, changes were made. A move to a more conventional 4-3-3 with Fernando Torres through the middle pushed David Villa to a role cutting in from the left-side. A role that would prove decisive time and again as the competition developed.

Order was soon restored and Villa was again in the hunt for the Golden Boot, his two goals were enough to see off Honduras, but a more daunting task awaited in the form of Chile. Marcelo Bielsa’s side had been one of the tournament’s most enterprising and successful sides, heading into the game against Spain they were one of only four sides with a 100% record from their two games. With Spain needing to win to guarantee qualification, it was Chile who started brightest. The South Americans intense pressing disrupted Spain’s fluent tiki-taka passing game.

But on the half-hour another moment of Villa magic changed the course of the game and his side’s tournament, scoring from just beyond halfway as Real Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had scampered from his goal to deny Torres. Soon after Andres Iniesta added a second, an eventual 2-1 victory good enough to secure qualification and top spot in Group H.

Next up was an Iberian derby with Portugal and a meeting with some familiar faces. The Real Madrid trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho started for a Portuguese side that more than held its own in the first 45 minutes. The second, however, was a lesson on the dual advantage of possession football. Spain pushed and probed and eventual broke through. Again it was Villa cutting in from the left to finish high beyond a despairing Ricardo. Then, with fully half an hour still to play, Portugal couldn’t get near the ball. As they got more desperate, the midfield quarter of Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets hid the ball in triangles, going left and right till all Portuguese resistance was broken.

On paper the quarter-final with Paraguay was an easier tie, in practice it was anything but. Again, Spain controlled the ball but without making the breakthrough in the opening half. Indeed, had the assistant referee not wrongly flagged when Hercules’ Nelson Valdez was in an onside position, they could have been behind.

In a crazy 60 seconds after the break, both sides missed a penalty before Del Bosque swung the game in favour of his side again with decisive introductions from the bench. Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez were brought on and both had a role in the winning goal. No prizes for guessing it was Villa who applied the finishing touch.

By this point Spain had already made history. For the first time they had made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup, but this was not the landmark this squad had its eyes on. The generation that had broken 44 years of disappointment at Euro 2008 was determined to go two steps further. Their next opponents, Germany, provided a welcome reminder of what they had achieved two years previously in the final in Vienna.

The binary code nature of Spain’s results continued with another 1-0 win, but this was their most impressive showing to date.

Del Bosque showed his bravery again in dropping Torres for Pedro who hadn’t started a competitive international before. It was another inspired choice as the Canarian stretched the German backline with his pace and trickery. Again the goal didn’t come early, but when Carles Puyol met Xavi’s corner with 15 minutes to go with a bullet header there was no way back for the Germans.

A new winner of the World Cup was guaranteed, Holland – who hadn’t lost a competitive game in nearly two years – would be Spain’s opponents in the final.

One interesting factor in these two sides meeting for the first time in a competitive international in the biggest game of all, was that this Spanish side was much more emblematic of the great Dutch teams of the 70s. The Barcelona spine of Del Bosque’s team had been brought through La Masia, the club’s academy. The man who had implemented the passing, possession philosophy behind La Masia - Johann Cruyff.

The difference in philosophy between Holland past and present couldn’t have been clearer as Bert Van Marwijk’s side set out to bully Spain. Nigel De Jong’s kung-fu kick on Alonso has become an unforgettable image of the final, but all over the park the Dutch set out to disrupt the Spaniards flow in an aggressive manner. Indeed had Howard Webb not been the referee who knows how many players Holland would have finished with?

Eventually they were reduced to ten men in extra time when Johnny Heitinga saw red, and just over five minutes later the endearing moment of the 2010 World Cup in all Spanish hearts arrived.

Fabregas, again introduced as a sub, collected Rafael Van Der Vaart’s attempted clearance on the edge of the box and laid the ball through for Iniesta to fire home the most important goal in Spanish football history.

The party lasted long into the night, month and now even a year later it retains a warm glow of pride for a country which off the field has endured a difficult 12 months.

And in a football sense at least, the success shows no sign of stopping for Spain. Last month the Under-21s won the European Championships and the senior side will be prohibitive favourites to repeat their victory in the same competition next summer in Poland and Ukraine.

No matter how much joy or heartbreak is come though, July 11, 2010 will always bring a smile to Spanish faces.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Batista's final roll of the dice

It was said this week that if everyone in Argentina had put their views on the national football team to paper the Amazon would no longer be standing.

It is probably just as well for the world’s eco-system that the ferocious conversation of the nation’s cafes rattle along at a speed no author could keep up with. In a country where the salt shaker and sugar bowl are used just as much as tactical props as for seasoning and sweetening, the last week has produced a torrent of painful debate.

The opening stage of the Copa America is often just an ice-breaker to the real competition, with eight of the 12 sides progressing to the quarter-finals. For Argentina on home soil it should have been nothing more than a procession round the provinces before the real stuff started. Instead, two games and two draws against Bolivia and Colombia later, a national crisis looms.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the coverage has surrounded Leo Messi and his struggles to recreate his best form in an Argentine jersey.

Criticism of Messi’s performances at international level in the past have often been overstated. He was excellent in this competition four years ago, instrumental as Argentina won Olympic gold in Beijing, and far better in his role as a facilitator last summer’s World Cup than many who didn’t look beyond the scoresheet gave him credit for.

However, against Colombia on Wednesday evening he looked as lost and bereft as he ever has on a football pitch. And he wasn’t alone. Argentina were incredibly lucky to escape with a point as Colombia missed two glorious opportunities when presented with an open goal in the first-half and were denied on multiple occasions by goalkeeper Sergio Romero in the second. The centre-back pairing of Gabriel Milito and Nicolas Burdisso provided as many assists to the Colombian frontline as Los Cafeteros own midfield did, the midfield three of Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega looked devoid of creativity and lacking in ideas, whilst on either side of Messi, Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi were industrious at best.

In fairness to Tevez and Lavezzi they are not being played in their natural positions. Obsessed with the Barcelona model in the year leading up to the tournament, coach Sergio Batista said he would build his side around Messi in the Catalans distinctive 4-3-3 formation. The problem is that while the lead role may be played by the same character, the supporting cast doesn’t come close.

None of the midfield three have a fraction of the vision of Xavi, nor the inclination to move beyond the ball like Iniesta. Tevez and Lavezzi don’t provide the same movement cutting inside as a Pedro or Villa. Most crucially of all, however, Argentina don’t get any width from their full-backs.

Against Colombia, Batista started with Javier Zanetti and Tevez on the left meaning there was no naturally left-footed player on that side of the field. As a result it became easy for the Colombian defence to push any threat down that side inside into the congested central area.

In tournament football years worth of plans can go down the drain in a matter of minutes. For Batista - after refusing to change after the Bolivia game - it has taken 180 minutes to realise his mistakes. A much changed side including Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria will start in a must win match against Costa Rica this evening.

Messi will not be operating in the false nine position he has to devastating effect at club level, but should have better options ahead of him in a 4-2-3-1 with Di Maria providing some much needed width on the left.

It is a plan B that simply must work if the hosts are to avoid the ultimate embarrassment. Their opponents are a Costa Rica side consisting heavily of under-23 players, but one strong enough to do what Argentina couldn’t in handily disposing of Bolivia 2-0 in their last outing.

Fail to win and the talk in the water holes of Argentina may not solely focus on Messi. With Batista’s position untenable, the possible return of Diego Maradona as manager would strike fondly in the hearts of many followers of La Albiceleste.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Chile add style to a Copa America desperately needing a show

Little over a year ago with only two group games still to be played at the 2010 World Cup, the pre-tournament favourites sat on the brink of elimination. Needing to win, Spain were understandably edgy that their World Cup dreams could blow up in their face in the most embarrassing fashion. Their nerves though stemmed not only from their perilous position, but their opponents – Chile.

12 months ago La Roja entertained the world royally with their unique 3-3-1-3 formation, ruthless pressing and extroverted coach Marcelo “el loco” Bielsa. One of only four sides to win their opening two fixtures, they starred where others stuttered early on. Indeed, the course of history could have been very different had Bielsa’s side made the most of their territorial advantage in the opening half hour against the eventual World Champions before a combination of Spanish brilliance and Chilean indiscipline saw them 2-0 and a man down by half-time.

A second-half consolation combined with Switzerland’s inability to beat Honduras saw them still advance, but only in second place which meant a meeting with Chilean football’s kryptonite, Brazil, in the last-16. In their past seven meetings Chile’s record reads: W-0 L-7 F-3 A-24.

Bielsa and with it the intense pressing may have gone, but again in a tournament in which the big guns have failed to live up to expectations, Chile have been a refreshing wash of attacking bluster on a stale low-scoring canvas.

The best side at the tournament by a distance, new coach Claudio Borghi has retained the 3-3-1-3, however it is not so much the system but the fluidity and movement with which it is operated that makes Chile so pleasing on the eye.

With opposition defences understandably most occupied with Alexis Sanchez, space is created for the likes of Mati Fernandez, Jean Beausejour and Humberto Suazo to cause problems.

Another impressive aspect of Chile’s play has been the depth of their squad. Again like last year, when Mark Gonzalez made significant contributions from the bench, Chile’s unbeaten start owes much to the contribution of substitutes. Esteban Paredes had barely come on when he poked home the crucial equaliser against Mexico and the introduction of Jorge Valdivia against Uruguay swung the game significantly in Borghi’s side’s favour. With Valdivia occupying the space that Fernandez had done more successfully against Mexico than his replacement Luis Jiminez did against Uruguay, the Chileans were able to pick holes in the Uruguayan defence. It was Valdivia’s excellent pass that sent Beausejour free on the left to set up Sanchez for the equaliser.

Unfortunately, obvious weaknesses remain and are likely to be found out as the tournament progresses. Suazo, prolific in Mexican club football, has found finding the net just as difficult as he did in South Africa. It is significant that for all Chile’s attractive play that of their three goals so far two arrived from set-pieces and the other when Sanchez found himself in the centre-forward position.

They also appear vulnerable at the other end of the field. Mexico’s only effort on goal found the net thanks to an error by goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and Uruguay’s opener on Friday evening was aided by a degree of ball-watching in the Chilean backline.

Of even greater concern though for the Chilean players and public might be who await in the quarter-finals. Should Chile as expected top Group C with victory over Peru on Tuesday, the curse of Brazil could haunt them again in the quarter-finals.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

No width and no wins for Argentina on home soil

After Friday’s frustrating 1-1 draw against Bolivia Leo Messi summed up the thoughts of a nation in a sentence, “it is not what we expected,” he said.

Harsher critics might argue that disappointment with the national team is something that Messi should be used to by now, after another poor performance in their 0-0 stalemate with Colombia it is certainly a feeling he is getting used to in this competition.

Indeed it could and should have been much worse for the hosts. Colombia have improved steadily over recent years but goalscoring has remained a cronic problem. With the proflic Radamel Falcao García leading the line they had hoped that finding the back of the net wouldn’t be such an issue in Argentina. Unfortunately with the chances not falling to the Porto man they took their ineptitude in front of goal to a new level in Santa Fe.

Twice in the first-half they passed up glorious opportunities. Firstly Gustavo Ramos spooned the ball over from three yards out after a slick counter-attack. Then after a horrendous backpass from Gabriel Milito let Ramos through on goal, Nicolas Burdisso slid in to deny the Hertha Berlin striker and was lucky not to concede a penalty as the ball rolled on to Dayro Moreno, with the empty goal gaping he fired wide.

Colombia didn’t create the same quality of opportunities in the second half but they were still the more dangerous side, particularly on the counter-attack against a horrifically slow Argentine backline. It says everything about La Albiceleste’s performance that goalkeeper Sergio Romero was by far their man of the match.

The essential problem for Argentina is that coach Sergio Batista has tried to force his square pegs into round holes in an attempt to replicate Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The idea – to let Messi feel as comfortable as possible – has had the completely opposite effect. Without the movement of Pedro and Villa ahead of him, the service of Iniesta and Xavi behind him and, an often overlooked part of Messi’s play, the outball to Dani Alves on the right, Messi looks lost and frustrated at not being able to produce his magical best. Moreover, by trying to accommodate the World Player of the Year Batista is making his other star players play in unfamiliar roles.

Carlos Tevez was expertly handled by Colombian right-back Camilo Zuniga and was far too predictable in cutting inside from his wide left position. Similarly Sergio Aguero, when he was introduced to replace Ezequiel Lavezzi, couldn’t have the influence on the game as he does at club level because he wasn’t playing from a central position, receiving the ball from the midfield and driving at defences. It was no surprise that the one Argentine substitute who did make a difference was Gonzalo Higuain who was played in his natural no.9 position.

The major consequence of playing forwards more akin to playing centrally than on the flank is a lack of width. This can be resolved by a pair of attacking full-backs (with holding midfielders in front of the back four to cover any spaces left by the full-backs pushing forward). It is a system the Brazil have mastered over the years but one that Argentina have never got to grips with as they have never produced the type of winger turned full-backs that their neighbours have churned out with spectacular regularity.

In the current Argentina side, the abundance of talent in the centre-forward, enganche (playmaking) and defensive-midfield positions has meant that the build-up play tends to bottle neck around the opponents 18-yard box and makes it much easier to defend against than it should against players of such quality.

One player who could make a difference and whose involvement has mysteriously been restricted to only 45 minutes across the two Copa matches so far is Angel Di Maria. The Real Madrid man will at least provide width that should in theory stretch the opposition and make it easier to play through the middle.

However, the other problem of this Argentinean side cruelly exposed by the Colombians comes far away from the opposition goal. An abundance of talent in certain areas has masked a dearth in others and with such a weak central defensive pairing as Milito and Burdisso even if La Albiceleste get their attacking mojo working in the next fortnight their 18-year trophy drought looks set to continue.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Caution dominates early going at the Copa America

The first round of matches at the 43rd Copa America has followed a similar pattern to the primary offerings at last year’s World Cup in South Africa. The tales of caution, upsets and the depth in South American football from a year ago have been replicated in Argentina as the lesser lights have kept the traditional powerhouses of the continent at bay.

Indeed with the opening fixtures containing more deadlocks than a bad series of X-Factor, not one of the 10 South American participants have been defeated - that particular pain has only been inflicted upon the two understrength invited nations from the CONCACAF region, Mexico and Costa Rica.

The pattern was set on opening night as an expectant home crowd saw a Leo Messi led Argentina begin their quest for a first title in 18 years against Bolivia. La Verde are often thrown to the hosts as sacrificial lambs for the curtain raiser. But it was the Bolivians themselves who inflicted more embarrassment upon their hosts (their last meeting in the altitude of La Paz had ended 6-1 to Bolivia) with a stubborn performance in a 1-1 draw.

The problems encountered by La Albiceleste were familiar ones. Coach Sergio Batista has continually stressed his intention to play a Barcelona style 4-3-3 with the obvious intention of providing the best platform for Messi to succeed on the international stage. The difficulty in providing that platform is trying to balance a side that is the most top heavy talent to come out of South America since Larissa Riquelme’s animated support of her beloved Paraguay went viral.

With Messi in the false nine position, the onus is on the two wide-forwards to maintain their width to stretch the defence and create space for the Barcelona man between the lines, whilst also recognising when to make the diagonal run across the full-back in behind the defence to meet the deadly Messi through-ball.

However, for all their attacking talent Argentina don’t have those options to play the Pedro and Villa roles that allow Messi to be so effective.

Sergio Aguero – who equalised with a wonderful volleyed finish on Friday – and Carlos Tevez prefer to play in similar areas to Messi as a second striker. Gonzalo Higuain is more effective leading the line and Angel Di Maria provides excellent width but prefers to stay on the left-flank than drifting inside.

Batista bowed to local pressure to start Tevez alongside Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi and Messi in the front three. However both Tevez and Lavezzi failed to impress and the latter was eventually replaced by Aguero.

Batista, somewhat surprisingly, looks set to stick with the same front three that started against Bolivia in Argentina’s next fixture against an improving Colombia side on Wednesday. However, trying to copy the Barcelona model creates another, arguably greater problem for Batista, how do you replicate the creativity of Xavi and Iniesta?

In an attempt to eradicate the tactical malfunction suffered by Diego Maradona in the 4-0 defeat to Germany last summer, when Javier Mascherano was used as a lone holding midfielder and was swamped by the German counter-attack, Batista has filled the midfield with a triple-cinco, three central midfield players with more emphasis on destroying than creating. Mascherano has been joined by Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, but, as evidenced on Friday, this triumvirate can be as equally stale as Maradona’s line-up was cavalier. When Cambiasso was replaced by Di Maria at half-time the hosts were much more fluid in a 4-2-1-3 system.

It wasn’t just Argentina who failed to break the resistance of well-organised opponents on opening day. The unfancied Venezuela and Peru also held the other seeded sides, Brazil and Uruguay, to 0-0 and 1-1 draws respectively.

Brazil were the biggest disappointment of the competition so far. With the focus very much on building towards the 2014 World Cup in home soil, coach Mano Menezes went with a very youthful side in his first competitive outing.

Ganso started only his second game for the senior side in the number 10 role behind a front three of Neymar, Robinho and Alexandre Pato. The Premier League duo of Lucas Leiva and Ramires held in midfield, whilst Thiago Silva partnered Lucio in defence.

Pato was the standout performer and was unlucky to see his fierce drive rattle the bar with the best effort of the match. Neymar only showed flashes of his undoubted ability whilst Robinho disappointed and Ganso failed to make any impact on the game at all.

The most disappointing aspect of the Seleção’s performance however was how it fizzled out so lamely in the second period. Venezuela’s backline, expertly protected by Tomas Rincon, was rarely troubled after a bright start from the Brazilians. The task now for the improving Venezuelans is to be able to take the game to their opponents in the remainder of the competition and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

Perhaps the knives shouldn’t be out for Menezes and his young charges just yet. With 2014 in mind this side does lack experience and is just beginning to learn how to play together. The spine of the side that started on Sunday evening should be there in three years time, by which point the likes of Thiago Silva, Ganso, Neymar and Pato should be among the world’s elite.

However, that promise is unlikely to quell the expectations of a famously demanding Brazilian press and public. With Group B set to be the tightest of all three groups (with no understrength North Americans to prey upon) the pressure will be on for a greatly improved performance against World Cup quarter-finalists Paraguay on Saturday.

Uruguay will be slightly more satisfied with their performance in the 1-1 draw against Peru. The much hyped front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani functioned well in spells and Nicolas Lodeiro impressed in the playmaking role, including a nice through-ball to Suarez for the equaliser. Forlan should have given them all three points in the second-half but uncharacteristically blazed over when clean through.

Peru also more than played their part in one of the more entertaining games of the first round and showed more attacking potential than either Venezuela or Bolivia. Paolo Guerrero’s finish for the opener was composed, although the defending more than a bit shambolic, and if Juan Vargas is fit enough to play 90 minutes he has the guile to create opportunities that some other sides in the competition lack.

Overall, the overwhelming trends from the first round symbolised in these three draws provide a mixture of positive and negative points.

On the bright side there is no doubt regarding the strength in depth of South American football. The clearest example of this was provided by Uruguay last summer who finished fifth in South American World Cup qualifying and fourth in the competition itself. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador (four of the sides that did not qualify for South Africa) showed they are more than a match for the sides who did make it through the qualification stage last time round and gives an insight into how competitive the forthcoming qualifiers for 2014 will be, especially given there is an extra place for South American nations due to Brazil’s position as hosts.

Unfortunately, the other trend followed from the 2010 World Cup is how cagey the opening round of games has become in major competitions. An average of only 1.33 goals a game is even lower than the dire 1.56 offered by the 16 first round games last summer. It appears that the fear of losing the opening game has now engulfed the potential reward of a flying start.