Saturday, 14 June 2014
There had been some murmurings about the “end of an era” prior to Spain taking the pitch – the age of key figures Xavi and Xabi Alonso combined with the fact that repeating a World Cup is rare at best and near impossible at worst. But the manner in which La Roja have seemingly fallen was as shocking as the score itself.
Those murmurs will ring loud now, as questions will be as difficult to deal with as the Oranje were last night. How was a team that two years ago exited Euro 2012 after losing every game able to cut through Spain like this? Robben was just as fast in 2010, yet it seemed like Spain had forgotten how to run.
Vicente Del Bosque will be under pressure to make wholesale changes – Iker Casillas, Spain captain and symbol of the Iberian’s world domination over the last six years was at times a shell of him as several costly mistakes helped ramp up the embarrassment. Two years after imploring referee Pedro Proenca to stop the Euro 2012 final against Italy as Spain led 4-1 against the 10 man Azzurri, the Madrid goalkeeper was perhaps wishing someone would do the same for him.
It’s unlikely that Del Bosque will consider changing what has been so successful in the past, but philosophical ponderings are now turning into tactical demands from supporters believing that Spain’s defeat is another example that the passing game is representative of a previous generation.
It can be argued that it was a freak result, a debate that historical evidence would certainly back up. After Stefan De Vrij gave the Dutch a 3-1 lead Spain seemed to mentally check out of the game, one where they were apathetic and lackadaisical defensively to begin with. Following the third, the game seemed to take on an almost schoolyard quality where the fastest child outruns a seething mass of his peers. In last night’s game, that child was Arjen Robben.
Spain will go into the two remaining group games mentally rattled following the defeat, but focused on proving the now growing choir of doubters wrong. They faced similar questions following a defeat to Switzerland in 2010 before going on to win the World Cup, but even the most ardent Spaniard will agree this is somewhat different.
The Dutch’s ability to punish Spain’s highline and poor defensive positioning is a method that Brazil utilised to perfection in the 2013 Confederations Cup win and is also what Jupp Heynckes Bayern Munich did to Barcelona in the semi-finals of the 2012/13 Champions League. Real Madrid’s rout of Pep Guardiola’s pass-happy Munich side in the season just past is perhaps another example.
It appears that there is a developing blueprint in how to deal with sides that adopt the “Spanish approach”, which is surfacing against the innovators that kick-started the modern possession revolution in the first place. Whether Spain, like their rivals, can prove to be assertive with a “Plan B” could be what defines their success now and in the future.
Perhaps the most worrying thing from a Spanish perspective is in the space of 90 minutes the question of "will Spain retain the World Cup" is now "can they retain the World Cup." Football tacticians have questioned their approach, but never their ability. The ease in which Louie Van Gaal's side were able to cut through an awful Spanish defence was astonishing and those questions of about the legitimacy of their World Cup bid only grow louder as Spain risk failing to make it out of their group.
The crown is still atop of Spain following their Dutch disaster. But it is slipping.
Monday, 9 June 2014
We have never met, and chances are we never will. You don’t speak my language, nor I yours. But your profession, as far removed as it is from mine, changed my life. You reminded me of romance. Don’t worry; I’m not talking about rose-petals on the bed sort of romance.
I’m talking of romance in football. Some say there isn't any, or at least, not any more. Footballers like you live glamorous lives where their existence and ours seem so far apart it’s almost like they’re on different planets. There’s no connection between the two parties any-more.
However, I think there is romance in football. The romance in football is that of an imaginative child who grows up idolising his favourite players, dreaming of wearing the sacred colours of his club and kicking a ball alone in his back garden, wheeling away, pulling the shirt over his eyes and imagining scoring that goal, in that final.
As the boy becomes a man, he still visits the stadium, cheering every win, remonstrating at every loss – and the brief moments of unbridled joy as his heroes score a goal, the man that he is reverts back to that little boy in the garden, even if just for a moment. That romance made me a fan of A.C Milan, the club you once played for.
Like many an English football fan – I watched Channel Four’s TV show Football Italia that covered “Calcio” as it’s known in Italy, and revelled in the sights of players like Marco Van Basten, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio.
As a young boy, these were my first forays into European football as a whole – falling for the colour, the fans and the sheer exoticness of central Europe. It was so different to England, still lost in rigid tactics, cold weather and horrible Manchester United-supporting schoolchildren.
I always loved A.C Milan thanks to their bold colours, always remembering how enraptured I was as a child by their cooler-than-cool red and black stripes, the nickname “Diavolo”, meaning ‘devil’ in Italian struck a chord with my young self too. I was an admirer, but not yet a supporter.
As your Milan side progressed in the Champions League (your favourite competition, if I remember rightly) and challenged for European honours during the 2000’s, I began to take a further interest. I was silently pleased if I saw Milan beat a big English side, my sporting guilty pleasure the reason behind the frustration and misery of my Manchester United and Liverpool supporting peers.
I hate bringing this one up, least of all to you – but my love for Milan truly began with that 2005 Champions League final, as I watched your beloved team lose after taking a 3-0 lead. Of course, as you remember – you weren't in the squad that game, and watched from the stands.
Signed from Juventus, you perhaps connected more with fans than any footballer I have ever seen in my short existence as a fan. I'm sure you would be the first to admit that you weren’t blessed with technique most of your fellow professionals take for granted, your ascendancy came through hard work, attention to detail and your innate ability to read the game.
As a result, I've always thought you have a level of humility I don’t see from many other footballers. You are loyal, passionate and you celebrate every goal like a fan, with the fans.
You watched from the stands as Liverpool fought back and defeated your side, unable to do anything for a team that I know you considered yours as much as any other. You cheered like a fan, cursed like a fan and went home having not played a minute of football – just like a fan.
Two years later, fate would have it that Milan and Liverpool met again. After once again doing internal, joyous dances as you ousted Manchester United in style, the world prepared for Milan to face Liverpool once again. This time, you started.
Milan took the lead thanks to a deflected goal that hit your rib, but it is the second, crucial goal that holds sentimental value to me, and is the reason for this letter.
In the 82nd minute, Ricky Kaka (I've probably got a letter for him too somewhere) received the ball about 25 yards from goal. Making eye contact with the Brazilian, you made a run that left the Liverpool defence standing. You took a touch, neatly rounded the onrushing keeper and rolled the ball into the empty net. You sprint off toward the corner flag, celebrating before ball even crosses the line. Reaching the by-line near the fourth official, you drop to your knees, screaming as you did so, frantically gesticulating.
For that moment as I watched, overjoyed at what I had witnessed, I saw you revert to the little boy in the back garden, wheeling away and celebrating alone. For those few seconds, I connected with you because there was a feeling that you and I were very alike. I, like you had dreamed of scoring a vital goal in Cup Final for club I loved. I, like you - wheeled away and exalted with passion, without shame or doubt. I, like you – was just a fan.
Since then, I became hooked. I am a passionate fan of a football team that speaks a different language, plays in a different country and has no cultural connection to me at all, and I'm proud of that. In a way it feels more satisfying, because I feel my sporting preferences have not come about through circumstantial geography that I can’t affect, but an emotional epiphany that I feel I chose and simultaneously chose me.
Now, as fate would have it, it appears our shared bond with AC Milan will once again resurface. Once again you watched, I'm assuming with sadness, as the once great club you played for stagnated. Once again someone else was chosen to fix that problem, while you hoped for the best. Once again, you have the opportunity the second time around to help.
I can only hope that in this next phase of both my fandom and your career, you can deliver a fraction of the joy you brought on that May evening in 2007. I have you to thank for all of this, yet I probably will never get to explain to you in person about how you changed my life, and helped me pick a side that has become part of my identity that to this day you are a huge part of.
But I guess, that’s the point.
Grazie, e buona fortuna.
Thursday, 22 May 2014
Cristiano Ronaldo has chance to cement his status as all-time great in Lisbon return ahead of Champions League final
On Saturday 24th May, Real Madrid will face city rivals Atletico Madrid for a chance to lift their 10th Champions League title, in what will be their first final appearance since Zinedine Zidane's sumptuous volley sealed a 2002 victory in Glasgow.
Since that evening, now 12 years ago, Real Madrid have viewed the 10th title, called "La Decima" to Madridistas and Spaniards everywhere as an "obsession", a dream that has formed an identity of its own, fuelling managerial appointments, transfer fees and press conferences almost immediately after the ninth Champions League title was lifted into a dark Glasgow night by then Real Madrid captain Raul Gonzalez.
For Real Madrid, a team of unparalleled European success, the next title is always the most important and the tenth is of symbolic significance not lost the club's owner Florentino Perez and all those he employs to bring said trophy back to the Bernabeu.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, talisman of this Madrid side since his arrival in the summer of 2009, "La Decima" is more than symbolic significance to his employers but arguably a chance to complete a year of redemption for the Portugese star.
Redemption is an admittedly odd word for a man who has routinely considered one of the top two players on the planet since he lifted the Ballon D'or in 2008 following Manchester United's Champions League win against Chelsea, but it is appropriate.
Because despite Ronaldo's personal achievements, record-breaking goal tallies and irrepressible surge up the all-time scorers lists for Real Madrid and Portugal, the advent of Lionel Messi's greatness has somewhat demeaned those achievements as an afterthought compared to the Barcelona stars personal quest with history.
It is almost unfair to compare Cristiano Ronaldo to Lionel Messi, a player of almost universal popularity and praise that as a result, has elevated the Argentine almost beyond normal comprehension. Because of the staggering achievements of Messi from his 2009 Ballon D'or win at 22 to his ascension as Barcelona's greatest ever goalscorer amidst his four consecutive Ballon D'ors during a period as the fulcrum of a side dominating football like few sides before it, Ronaldo's achievements appear secondary.
If Cristiano Ronaldo's CV is put in a vacuum, you're looking at one the greatest players of all time, who would also be unquestionably the greatest in any era in terms of efficiency bar the one he is part of right now. 164 league goals in 142 league games coupled with 51 Champions League goals in 50 appearances since his arrival at the Spanish giants is a return that should only be found on a computer game. His 16 goals in 10 Champions League matches this season is unparalleled in the history of the competition, also providing four assists and hitting the woodwork four times.
The Ballon D'or win was a vindication of sorts, but the Portugese's critics will point to the absence of the injury-hit Lionel Messi as the prevailing factor in his recognition. Even in his finest hour, Messi's shadow looms large.
Similarly, Ronaldo's superb form since arriving at Real Madrid comes with the caveat of an absent space in Madrid's locker room, forever reserved for the 10th Champions League trophy. Regardless of his transfer being considered an undoubted success despite the enormous price, the lack of a tangible, European reward is a blot on an otherwise pristine record, emphasised by the continental achievements of bitter rivals Barcelona and the 2011 Champions League appearance made by former club Manchester United. Should Ronaldo take over Raul Gonzalez as Real Madrid's all-time goalscorer (which grows more and more inevitable every season), his bid at becoming one of the Spanish club's all-time greats will also be diminished should it end without a European title. For a club like Real Madrid, records and trophies must go hand in hand.
Lisbon's hosting of the final takes on a multi-faceted sense of significance for the homecoming forward. It offers the opportunity for Ronaldo to crown a historic season with the European trophy that his arrival sought to ensure, as well as the opportunity to affirm his status as one of Real Madrid's all-time greats.
For once, in almost five years, Cristiano Ronaldo will not be talked about as an antagonist to Lionel Messi, the rival that pushes the more talented player to new heights. It will be a singular achievement for a man that has led his side to the promised land of the Champions League, and will arguably allow him to stand as a player whose career must be evaluated among those who have graced the history books in years gone by.
For Ronaldo, it is more than La Decima. It is the chance at all-time greatness.
Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Even though it was beginning to feel a little inevitable, the news that David Moyes has been sacked as Manchester United manager was still a shock to the system. This is the same Manchester United who haven't had a new coach for 26 years, will now have their third head coach in 12 months and probably their fourth by the summer.
Whether David Moyes was given enough time, money or quality to properly complete the job he was hired to do is another question, but in most Manchester United fans worst case scenario's, 7th and 23 points behind Liverpool at the top of the table would have taken some real imagination to envisage last June.
Even if Sir Alex Ferguson's final title run last season was perhaps more a testament to the great man's ability to squeeze results out of teams with his own two hands than the quality on the pitch, Manchester United are still better than where they are right now.
So, we move to the contenders. They say it's best to follow the guy who follows the best act, and in the managerial merry-go-round Moyes will have done his successor a favour, giving fans another comparison apart from just the memory of one of the greatest British managers of all time to live up to. "At least it's not Moyes" gives the new guy at least 6 months to get his ideas across.
So, in order of perceived (bookmakers) likelihood, lets take a look at the contenders:
Bookmakers favourite: Louie Van Gaal
A staunch disciplinarian with the locker room presence of a frightening headteacher, Van Gaal brings pedigree as well as a stern approach that should get some additional work ethic from United's lackadaisical players.
Pros: Proven winner - seven titles in four countries including the Champions League. Has the Dutch connection with Robin Van Persie that should keep the Dutchman happy.
Cons: Has a tendency to fall out with players, media, be outspoken and unpopular among fans. Will either be a lightning rod for the players or further exacerbate the tension in Manchester. Players historically take time to learn his methods.
Verdict: Proven winner but loud, angry and outspoken - sounds familiar, doesn't it United fans? Van Gaal may not bring the beautiful game to Old Trafford right away, but with his track record he's a surer bet than Moyes was.
Fans Favourite: Jurgen Klopp
The smiling, bubbly German has earned his place as the darling of the European football press with his imitable character, exciting Borussia Dortmund sides and youth development. His hand in taking the German side to a set of league titles and the Champions League final despite Bayern's historic stranglehold over the Bundesliga has been incredibly impressive.
Pros: Will instantly win hearts and minds, brings a charisma to the job somewhat lost under David Moyes. Promotes youth, could tempt Dortmund star Marco Reus to come with him.
Cons: Has no history of dealing with a large budget, never coached outside Germany.
Verdict: It's easy to see why Klopp is the fans's choice for the job. His work in Germany has been remarkable and his ability to promote youth-driven, fast paced football is a huge plus for a club like Manchester United. If he's available, makes perfect sense.
The outside bet: Diego Simeone
The hard-nosed Argentinian has been the architect behind the Atleti side that has had a miracle season - in the semi-finals of the Champions League and competing for the La Liga title despite losing Falcao in summer. Tough, abrasive and tactically excellent, Simeone would be a much-needed shock to United's system.
Pros: Will not take liberties with players, excellent motivator that will provide a real work-ethic to an ailing club.
Cons: Has never coached a "big" club, underdog tactics may not translate to a larger side.
It really depends on what Manchester United want next. All three coaches offer unique approaches and will come from tenures at clubs that have brought trophies, but looking at three prime contenders, Jurgen Klopp seems to match up best with United's philosophies and may be the modern European coach that Manchester United need going forward. However, if Jurgen Klopp keeps to his word and stays in Dortmund this summer, Simeone would be an intriguing appointment.
Tuesday, 15 April 2014
There's always an air of disappointment that accompanies reading an autobiography. To revel in your heroes success before revealing the machinations behind thrilling victories occasionally have the effect of pulling the curtain up from behind "The Phantom Of The Opera" to reveal a small bearded man operating a lever system.
Sometimes, the mystery is better than the truth.
This is somewhat emphasized in sporting autobiographies. Never known for their literary prowess, hearing tales of physical, emotional batterings spoken through the writings of a footballer is often a redundant exercise.
Football is a spectator sport, one to be watched rather than recorded in writing. Hard analysis can be found aplenty when typed by professional fingers, but even among experts the ability to place a clear image in a readers head, one with a vividness that does justice to the sporting romance portrayed is a skill possessed by very few.
Yet there is a heady sigh that can often accompany sporting books of this nature. One (perhaps unnaturally) expects to be able so tangibly read the passion emanating from the autobiography of a Roy Keane or a Steven Gerrard that it burns red on the page. The cacophony of simple sentences that follow almost sully the image, like a Mona Lisa in a dull, unwashed frame.
It is then, with a deep pleasure to read a biography that is written with the characteristics that a reader would expect from a particular player. "I think therefore I play" by Andrea Pirlo does just that.
Pirlo is the thinking man's football player, a testament to an almost lost art of grace and calm that is a rare sight among his uber-athletic peers. As a result the midfielder looks almost frozen in time, slowing the game to a pace more suited to him, seemingly oblivious (or perhaps impervious) to the trends enveloping in the game around him.
Pirlo's now famous facial hair (which despite first appearing in 2012 feels like it has always been present) emphasizes his image of experience, the groomed veteran looking more scholarly that sporting.
His prose echoes with wit, short sentences interjected with snide comments that so neatly fit with his clever movements on the pitch. Cutting remarks about peers ("We were 4-1 up so the chance of us losing were as likely as Gattuso completing an Art Degree") are interspersed with a metaphoric view of his own ability ("After all, Dolly will never just be an ordinary sheep").
The stories you'd heard before, detailing his exit from Milan in 2011 to Silvio Berlusconi blocking his move to Chelsea in 2009 and even Real Madrid, and Italy's World Cup victory.
But what you didn't have before was the way in which Andrea told you the tale, weaving with humour like one of his famous free-kicks (a notable example was where he calls a case pulled by Adriano Galliani from under the table during negotiations as "just as well hidden as Monica Lewinsky under Bill Clinton's desk in the Oval Office.")
The simplicity of Pirlo's writing style keeps the anecdotes lively, short sentences zipping along like a well-placed pass.
In review, the book was everything I hoped, because it was nothing like I feared.
No-one, (at least not me) expected Pirlo's book to be a thesis with a more expansive vocabulary than his passing range, but it was nevertheless pleasant to read a book from a sportsperson that for once, didn't leave me unsatisfied.
Monday, 14 April 2014
In the build up to Milan's late-March win over Lazio, rumours were rife.
After a galling loss to Roberto Donadoni's Parma, where four goals were sent past a typically hapless Milan defence, many were wondering what the difference was between the cast-off Massimiliano Allegri and his shiny new Dutch successor.
With all the promises of Seedorf's charisma turning around the sinking Milan ship and directing it toward the treasure island of European qualification, four straight losses followed including an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid that ended the Rossoneri's European adventure.
"This is not a team," former Milan coach raged Arrigo Sacchi raged following the loss.
The criticism didn't end there.
Club hero Paolo Maldini told Gazzetta dello Sport that Milan director Adriano Galliani felt "omnipotent" while the decline of one of the more graceful and respected European giants left him with a "mixture of anger and disappointment."
His sentiment was shared by fans and pundits alike, which seemed to be mirrored by the increasingly desperate members of the club's board.
Milan dropped out of the top 10 in the Serie A league table and whispers that Seedorf could be ousted after just two months on the sideline at San Siro were growing louder.
As the Milan players lined up to take on Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the match against the Roman side and the following one against Fiorentina would be Seedorf's last two games to save his job. Mauro Tassotti, long-time assistant coach would takeover for the rest of the season before Filippo Inzaghi, Cesare Prandelli or Roberto Donadoni - somewhat appropriately considering it was his Parma that so convincingly downed Milan - would be the next man up.
While the hiring of a rookie coach over another one would appear vastly redundant - perhaps the bringing in of an experienced tactician would've been the best idea to begin with.
That idea however appears, for now at least, to be in the rear-view mirror. The reason for that is that since Italian dailies screamed of unrest, Seedorf has led his squad to four successive victories in Serie A that now leave Milan eighth, level with high flying Torino and just a three points away from the Parma side that so convincingly beat them in mid-March.
There is still a window open for a late Europa League push (although the long-term benefit of said push is yet to be determined - that's an article for a different day) which in itself is an impressive feat. Europe seemed out of the question as Milan were slipping into free-fall a month ago, but is now one of the possible outcomes that could follow the season's conclusion.
While not displaying the vibrant attacking football that was once so often associated with Milan in years gone by, the Rossoneri have created chances, converted them and - crucially considering previous defensive issues - conceded just one goal.
13 points earned in five games, second only to Roma during the same period.
For now, the arrow is pointing up for Clarence Seedorf and his Milan side.
Sunday, 13 April 2014
Roma beat Atalanta 3-1 on Saturday night in a flurry of attacking fervor that has become common custom when watching the Giallorossi in 2013/14 season.
Gervinho tears past opponents with ease, Daniele De Rossi anchors a midfield that dominates possession and the juggernaut keeps going. Francesco Totti turns every weekend into 2001 with an array of flicks and tricks that makes you think taking a 37-year-old to the sweltering heat of the Brazilian World Cup in summer wouldn't be a bad idea and as usual, Rudi Garcia adds another win to an impressive debut season.
Roma have only lost twice all season, losses to Antonio Conte's soon-to-be historic Juventus side and Rafael Benitez's dangerous Napoli the only negatives to be found in a season that by and large, has brought almost unrelenting satisfaction to the usually weary followers of arguably Italy's most chaotic giants.
Yet, there will be a tinge of disappointment when the season ends and the inevitable Bianconeri festivities begin. Juventus's pending three-peat will be the first time the Turin side has won a trio of consecutive league titles since a quintet of Scudetti between 1931 and 1935, and will deny Roma the chance to celebrate a title that in previous years would've been almost guaranteed. To call Juventus's title a landmark achievement, especially in the context of today's hyper-competitive footballing sphere, is an understatement.
As a result, Juventus's five point stranglehold over the top of Serie A (and a game in hand to boot) has somewhat overshadowed Roma's own season, which has been notable in it's own right and in context - arguably more impressive.
Roma's achievements are plenty - their 79 points from 32 games is the most earned in that period by any Giallorossi side in Serie A history while the 19 clean sheets held by Garcia's side are more than Juventus had in the entirety of Juventus's 2012/13 title winning season.
Their goal differential (+49) is better than any in Serie A; two better than Juventus and a huge 21 goals better than next best Napoli. However, the lack of a Scudetto parade celebrating said achievement will unfortunately condemn this excellent Roma year as the unfortunate ugly sister alongside the dominating Juventus placed above them. Sadly, a casual fan would probably fail to recognize the success this season already has been for the 2nd placed side, and the point differential doesn't accurately depict the huge progression made by Roma under their coach.
Roma's season should be compared to the one had in 2012/13 to more accurately explain the quantum leap this team has made.
2012/13 was a season that began with huge optimism following the return of former coach Zdenek Zeman, who brought with him his expansive, daring, entertaining and ultimately suicidal tactics back to the Italian capital.
Nine losses in Zeman's first 23 matches in charge brought a abrupt ending to the veteran's second Roman tenure and caretaker coach Andrea Andreazzoli guided the capital club to 6th place, with the final match under his charge a disappointing Coppa Italia loss, which nearly drove Daniele De Rossi out of Italy.
Roma's final points total through 38 games in 2012/13: 62. Win/Draw/Loss record: 18/8/12. Goals For/Against: 59/45.
Now look at the same Roma statistics through 33 games, with 5 remaining to improve said record:
Points total: 79. Win/Draw/Loss Record: 24/7/2. Goals For/Against: 68/19.
Roma with five less games have 13 more points, six more wins, 10 fewer losses and despite having a distinct lack of Zeman's cigarette smoke on the Olimpico sideline - nine more goals. Somewhat unsurprisingly by the same regard, they've also conceded 26 less goals than their 2012/13 rivals.
Thanks to Walter Sabatini's terrific summer of work bringing in Kevin Strootman (contender for Serie A midfielder of the season before injury practically handed the award to Arturo Vidal), Mehdi Benatia (Serie A's best defender this season by a mile) and managing to replace 15 goal Erik Lamela with walking disappointment Gervinho and come out the winner of that transaction (with about €20m in change too), Roma are set up to contend for a few years yet.
Tying it all together has been Rudi Garcia, whose arrival from Lille was the best addition any Serie A side has made all season. Carlos Tevez will probably be Serie A's top scorer, but Garcia's work in transforming the chaotic, frustrating Roma side that has annually disappointed for over a decade into a title contending side is frankly astonishing.
The announcement of a new stadium that will be the club's home in 2016/17 - bringing in income that will allow Sabatini and Garcia to continue building a team capable of winning silverware all but confirms this as Roma's best season since Fabio Capello was parading a Serie A trophy atop a bus around the streets of the Italian capital in 2001.
Regardless of what Juventus have achieved, that should be remembered.