Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Copa Nuestra

So the Copa America is underway and some good and not so good signs for the Argentina :-)

Just comparing the team from the world cup 2006 to this one gives a very good indication of the progress Argentina has made over the last 1 year. The world cup marketed the passing-game of the team primarily due to that Cambiasso goal. In fact, Argentina have been one of the most attractive side in the last decade or so. The current coach has decided, from the looks of it, to take it to a different level altogether. Argentina are playing with 2 (or 3??) play-makers in the XI - and with Riquelme in the side it makes it tougher as Roman likes to be the midfield boss channelling those quality passes from the centre. Veron reminds me more of a Pirlo - a deep-lying play-maker. The team also has plenty of quality in the bench as well. Basile, the Argentine NT coach, can additionally rely on the likes on Pablo Aimar, Luis Lucho Gonzalez and the classy Fernando Gago. Additionally, Messi has done a decent job in that position given the limited opportunities presented to Lionel. The options for Basile are plenty- I feel that midfield is a bit slow mainly due to the lethargy :-) of Riquelme and Veron. Argentina would do well to put some pace into their midfield by for example moving Messi a bit wider to the right or starting with Aimar- who does run around a lot. Basile would also do well to plan for the future instead of solely focussing on this tournament. A midfield combo of Messi (as #10), Gago and Mascherano would be mouth-watering. Anyway, Basile does have options and one can be rest assured that the team will play continue playing that nice one-touch football at least for some more time.

One wonders the reason behind starting with Messi especially given that Messi is playing just behind the striker. Its a role tailor-made for Saviola or even Carlos Tevez. Saviola would be an ideal foil to Crespo (oops he is out of the tournament) or Milito and with his fantastic off-the-ball movement he does open up space in the most decisive area of the field. Anyway, my guess is that Basile being a huge fan of Messi (anybody who loves football is a fan of Little Lionel :-), cant fault Basile on that) would like to see Messi play in the field for the entire game.

An honorable mention needs to be made of the star of this Argentine side- Javier Monsterano (intentionally). Which planet is he from?? A true monster who has shielded the defense brilliantly and has shown amazing maturity and composure (he is just 23) and even has started playing a role in the attack. I personally do feel that the way Mascherano reads the game he should be able to contribute a lot more in the attack. I think that is one aspect of his game that needs a lot of improvement.

The defense has been sloppy and the Milito-Ayala combination has been poor. A roster of Ayala-Milito-Heinze-Zanetti should give nightmares to the oppostion attack- on the contrary its only giving nightmares to Mascherano, Cambiasso and Basile.
I am a bit skeptical about Milito and Heinze. Both these players do posses some amazing mental strength and in the case of Milito some great anticipation as well. However, do they have the arial command demanded from a Central Defender is the real question.

The lesser said about the Goal keeper the better-I guess its time to give a starting position to either of Leo Franco, Ustari or Carrizo (that Riverplate keeper)

The big question is will all this attractive and positive game of the team bring the trophies - time will only tell.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

End of the season

The european club season has come to end (by the end of this week). Some of my views on the season. Feel free to comment.

Players of the Season

Ricardo Kaka:

No guessing why he is the player of the season. Kaka guided AC-Milan to victory and was decisive in every knock-out game of the Champions League. Additionally, with all the strikers of Milan hitting a dry patch the burden fell on the shoulders of Ricky. He was outstanding in Europe without doubt- one of the best performances by a player in CL over the last 10 years.

Cristiano Ronaldo:

At the beginning of the season too much dirt was thrown on this player and a lot was really really cheap. Cristiano was one of the outstanding players in the world cup and carried over the WC form into the Premiership. But, ironically the english press treated him as an outcast and everyone were asking when would he move out of EPL. Thankfully Alex Fergusson had some sense and the results are obvious to everyone. He has been consistent with his performance. To me CR7 is a complete player - very fast when given space, strong in air, and with some good shooting skills. He will have to curb a bit of his skill-bragging instincts to be even more effective.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy:

If Madrid manage to win the League half of the trophy should be given to RvN and the rest to Capello :-). A machine in front of opposition goal post and the only reason Madrid are battling for the league than relegation :-). If he had been a bit more cold in his finish in the CL game against Bayern Munich I guess Madrid would have progressed to the next round.

Honorable Mentions:

Francesco Totti (the top scorer in Serie-A), Didier Drogba (scored crucial goals for Chelsea), Diego (a class act and a fantastic player to watch out for ) Lionel Messi (phenomenal in the latter part of the season), Dejan Stankovic (the machine behind Inters spectacular season). A very very special mention to Rino Gattusso as well - warrior in the field, ready to fight for his team till the very end, his attitude was really refreshing and I put him in the list just bcoz of his attitude.

Team of the Season

Again I am spoilt for choice. Its a toss-up between the Italian serie-A champions and EPL champions. I guess I would for Manchester United. Not only did they halt Chelsea in the EPL but they did so in style. Manchester United played some scintillating football enroute their glorious season. Definitely, a force to reckon with in the next few years considering that the core of the side is young and with some smart additions this summer.

A very special mention to the Nerazzuris as well. Inter-Milan have been, in all honesty, phenomenal this season. They destroyed the European champions in the local derby and did break lots of records as well. I guess they should have done better in the Champions League, probably a better planning, and should have come trumps up against Valencia.

Manager of the Season

Again I am spoilt for choice. I feel its a toss up between Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello. Rafa Benitez would win the vote for me. He orchestrated the victory against Barcelona in the CL and also out-thought the special one (Mourinho ) in the CL semi finals. Capello deserves a mention because of the way the Madrid press, management, supporters treated him - it was shocking to say the least. He could have thrown in the towel and gone back to Italy. Afterall, he just stands to gain a League title - yet another addition to overfilled cupboard of trophies. Capello has managed to instill team-spirit within Real and that explains the success of the team in the last few months.

Howler of the Season

There is no competition - Victor Valdez, the goal keeper of Barcelona, wins this without a shade of doubt. The performance of Valdez in the CL game against Liverpool was exemplary and ensured that Liverpool won the tie convincingly courtesy Valdez as a forward.
Well, there are plenty more as well. Ivan Helguera of Real Madrid, Dida of AC Milan.

Flop of the Season

He is player I have really loved during his time in Italy. A natural striker and deadly when given space, additionally he is also very good in air. I am surprised at the reason why he hasnt lighted up EPL this season. It just hurts to say that he has been a failure this season. I am not going to name the player - take your guess.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Javier Effect

"Even in the second-half I felt we were really close but we were still losing, so I brought on Peter Crouch for Javier Mascherano.'It allowed us to take more risks in attack but then we lost control of the midfield." - Rafael Benitez

This sums up the contribution that Mascherano made in the CL finals. He was undoubtedly the best player for Liverpool subduing Ricardo Kaka, currently the best player in the world, and even thwarting Pirlo from making those telling passes. Mascherano was phenomenal in that game, I just enjoyed watching that little monster play :-). I have been a vociferous supporter of Mascherano (I have to admit he is one of my favourite players in the world) for the last 2 years and I guess prior to the time he joined Liverpool many-a-people would have really wondered wht-on-earth is this guy telling ??- If Mas is that good why isnt he playing in Europe...etc...I guess all those queries have been answered about his quality with his performance in the CL games. To me it was personally very gratifying to see Mascherano deliver that performance at the highest level. It was as clear as daylight that Kaka and Pirlo were finding more space after Mascherano was substituted which actually resulted in that second goal. One knows he is not just an ordinary talent when at the age 22, he is already being touted as the next captain of the Argentine National Team and has won an astounding 22 caps for the NT. Lets also not forget the fact that he made his national team debut even before he was given the first cap for his beloved River-plate at the age of 18. I still remember the first time I saw him play for Argentina against Brazil at the Monumental Stadium where he shielded the defense brilliantly from the likes of Ronaldinho etal. To me he was the Man of the Match in that game without a doubt. He had a good world cup 2006 also where his job was to essentially cover for the short-comings of the magnificant Juan Pablo Sorin and thwart any counter-attack, needless to say he did it brilliantly.

The good part about Mascherano´s game is that he doesnt resort to a physical game rather relies on anticipation, positioning and reading of the game. Mascherano reminds me of Cannavaro, who has similar traits though they play at entirely different positions. Additionally, his passing is also pretty decent, he can start a few good moves as well, he will have to work on that part of his game. It would also be very interesting to see the way Mascherano adapts playing against players with low centre of gravity. Players like Messi, Tevez who rely on the opponents to commit - a strength of Mascherano´s game. I, for one, know who would come trumps in that case :-).

Check this video of Mascherano against Arsenal. Amazing :-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Champions League

Lets get few facts out first. The FIFA world cup currently is a no-match, in terms of quality, to the champions league. The growth of the champions league has been a recent phenomenon. With the arrival of players from the Americas/africas to europe, the champions league is a global platform for the players to showcase their true class. The globalization of the game has actually happened only over the last 2 decades. A quick glance at the Brazilian NT or the Argentine NT will suggest the same -almost all players are based in Europe. Note that this was not common say abt 12 years back when these teams were dominated by home-based¨players. The growth of the club-culture is a win-win scenario for the players and clubs. The player gets the money (a measly earning of 50,0000 euros a week ), a professional atmosphere and an international audience while the clubs benefit by winning titles and drawing a lot more fans. Its clearly a win-win situation for the clubs and the players. However, all this has meant that international football (hmm when a player plays for his country) takes a firm back-seat. Note the time the World cup is scheduled - at the end of the season. A lot has been made of the fact that players are too tired after a stressful season with the club. While it is largely true, cant the governing body move the WC at the beginning of the season?, pushing the tournament by 2 months from its current schedule. Wouldnt this ensure that players are fresh for the WC and given adequate rest before the tournament begins. The fact is such a schedule would be detrimental to the clubs as it would screw up 2 seasons. The bottom line is that the clubs are ruling the game.

Of course the game has benefited immensely from the globalization of the champions league. The champions league is an arena where the players can display their talents. The quality of the games are really of the highest standard. Additionally, with the increasing revenues of these clubs, they can buy the best and pay them handsomely as well. Hence, a team like chelsea, a team which was nowhere in the elite of europe as late as 2002, is currently the best team in Europe (its a very open question whether they play attractive football nevertheless they are effective). With the financial muscle of Roman Abrahamovich the Chelsea FC team can afford the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Carvalho, (some of the better defenders in the world), Petr Cech, Michel Essien, Andriy Shevchenko (winner of theBallon Dor), Michel Ballack (unlucky not to win the B Dor in 2002). Of course other teams have also followed suite. All this means that only a few selected clubs dominate and will continue to dominate in Europe. The european glory days for teams like Red Star Belgrade or even teams like Ajax look realistically a distant dream. Is this doing any good for the game?. The positives are very obvious-watching a game between Barcelona and Chelsea or Real Madrid and AC Milan is almost like watching a world cup. However, this also means that the pressure on players is immense- one bad season and the knives will be out for the axing of the player (the talk about Ronaldinho can all be attributed to an ordinary season by his standards). Further, the stakes involved in some of these games are really really huge. Once a team enters the CL semi-finals or thereabouts then it just means that the team will have to focus on multiple dimensions - the league title (which are becoming extremely competitive) plus glory in Europe. It can be a glorious treble as in the case of ManU in 1999 or it can be a close photo-finish second as in the case of Milan in 2005 (lost the CL to Liverpool and then lost the Scudetto to Juventus in the last week). The margin for error is indeed very small. It is hence no surprise that not a single club over the last 16 years has been able to defend its CL medal the next season. Realistically speaking, Frank Rijkaard and Fabio Capello would not have been disappointed by the exit of their respective teams from CL as it would enable them to concentrate just on the La-Liga - a safer and more secure option.

to be contd...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Messidona ?

The footballing world is all talking about the fantastic goal scored by Lionel Messi against Getafe ( Pundits have gone aboard and even declared it even better than the famous El Diego goal. Leo´s team-mates have also been quick to claim that it is one of the best they have seen.
Of course there is no doubt about the quality of that goal. Firstly, Getafe are no ordinary teams. With Schuster in charge they have the best organized defense in La-Liga. Even a quick glance at the goal would suggest the same. Messi was surrounded by about 4 to 5 players when close to the P-Box. The pace and more importantly accelaration of Lionel really ensured that he left about 4 (or is it 5?) defenders literally dead in the field. To me the finish was brilliant, the opposition defender had nicely closed in on the near-post. Leo decided to go to the far post with his unfancied right foot. The composure shown at that point is really incredible, considering that Lionel is just 19 years of age. Messi has had a good come-back since returning from injury. A hat.trick against Real Madrid and a couple of impressive displays have really capped a good latter part of the season.

The goal scored by Messi might very well be better than Maradona´s stunner at the Aztec stadium. But then, it is worth noting that Maradona´s goal was scored in a World cup quarterfinal and that too in a very tensed and heated game. Of course, Maradona went on to repeat the same (or nearly the same) against Belgium and Germany (The Burruchaga winner where Maradona provided the crucial assist). After all, Maradona is not just remembered for the goal he scored but for the innumerable titles he won. The World cup victory in 1986 is even more remarkable considering that Argentina almost failed to qualify for the 1986 WC, and the team that won it was not the most distinguished WC winning teams(in terms of talent). As Jorge Valdano (a striker in that Argentine team) put it very exaggeratingly that the rest of the players used fetch the ball and give it to Diego, and that was their only job in that WC. Then of course, there is the love-hate relation Diego had with Napoli in Italy. It was really a gamble by Diego to move to Napoli, a club with very little pedigree in Serie-A. But then his success at Napoli was really the icing on the cake. He took a small town club to the elite of Europe- incredible indeed. Maradona was more than just a player with infinite talent. Luis Cesar Menotti (the manager of the WC winning Argentine team in 1978 and the WYC winning team in 1979) observed that he has never seen a player who works on his game as hard as Maradona in the field, coming from first-hand experience just shows that Maradona was more than just talent. The work-rate that Maradona possessed was also incredible. When the team did not have possession of the ball, he would chase (like a Gattusso )and help the defense and do the dirty work and of course inspire the team at crucial moments. The confidence that Diego provided to the team was really amazing. It is actually this (the confidence) that a team like Argentina has lacked in the last 4 WC campaigns. Hence, this obsession with the next Maradona and all that. There have been players with Maradona´s abilities (or close to his abilities) but they have somehow faded at crucial moments in big games.

This season has really shown the talent in the impish boy-wonder (Lionel Messi) that has been obvious since the World Youth Cup days . Of course, he did play a more than a dominant part in the World Youth Cup victory of Argentina in 2005. But international football is a difficult test altogether as compared to Youth football. (As Pekerman rightly puts, the main purpose of youth teams is to serve as a constant source of talent for the national side.) The pressure and expectation from the fans could very well work in a negative direction as has been the case with a lot of players. With each little progress that Messi takes more comparisons would be drawn with great players which would also translate into more pressure to perform and more crucially ensure victory for his side. Additionally, with increased teams in the league and the competition the physical fitness and the consistency of a player is really tested. Something, which has not been existing in Maradona and Pele eras.
However, the evidence presented so far has been very encouraging and Messi seems to be very positive and confident on the pitch, time will only tell if Messi will continue on the good work and be remembered with the likes of his illustrous predecessors like Maradona and Di-Stefanio.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

El Enganche

You might be wondering the strange title of this post. It is a word very commonly used in Argentina and it means the link or in pure football terms it is the link between the defense and the attack who is the creative play-maker in the side. To me the creative deep-lying play-makeris the backbone of any football team. He will be rarely visible in the finish or even in the goal-assist so it is very tough to see his contribution. But there is little doubt the value a play-maker brings to the side. It is a tragedy that such kind of players are very rare in modern football. The likes of Riquelme, Veron, Zizou, Diego, Pirlo, David Pizarro etal. The reason Why I am big fan (or is it fanatic) of the Argentine NT is the importance given to passing and movement and the crucial role of the play-maker. (Riquelme wore the "sacred" Number-10 shirt in this world cup)

Football is a very creative game. It is, according to the legendary Argentine manager Luis Cesar Menotti, a game of space. The ball needs to be moved around the pitch in-order to create that vital space in the penalty-box. So the play needs to be mixed with use of width from the attacking full-backs/wingers and runs thru the centre of the pitch. This is a very crucial decision and it normally rests on the enganche. The playmaker, being at the centre of the pitch, can quickly decide the defenders who are slightly out-of-position and start the move accordingly. In modern football with a back-4 and the 2 defensive mid-fielders there is very little space especially in the final-third of the pitch. The play needs to be mixed and the defense needs to be stretched and this is exactly the job of a play-maker. So a team like Argentina relies on plenty of possession of the ball with some wonderful movement off-the-ball. Whenever an Argentine player has the ball just note the number of players who run into positions of space around him. This gives the player plenty of options say to play a quick 1-2 or to play in some neat-triangles. However, a team will be one-dimensional if it just keeps constantly pressing for the final kill. The game of possession can also be a game of patience. The now famous 24 pass (or is it 25 ?)goal by Cambiasso against S&M is a good example. The ball was being played around by the likes of Mascherano, Heinze, Ayala, Sorin and of course Riquelme without any great intention of going for a goal and then I guess it was Riquelme who decided to move the ball faster. It was actually testing the patience of the opposition players and with plenty of movement resulted in acres of space for Crespo and Cambiasso to play that wonderful 1-2 which culminated in that goal. In short, Argentina scored that goal with plenty of variation in the tempo of the game, neat passing and some great movement. Hence a play-maker is more of a player who reads the game and takes those crucial decision. He might not be flashy but he is very crucial in the team.

If the Argentina-Serbia game was a benchmark for the game of possession then the q/f between Argentina and Germany, to me, at least typically summarized the world cup. Here was a team (Argentina) that had a solid defense, a good midfield and clinical finishers of the likes of Saviola and Crespo. Additionally Argentina, if iam not mistaken, had a mammoth 66% possession in the first-half. Normally one would expect Argentina to tear the opposition to shreds with that kind of possession and that quality in the pitch (and probably more quality in the bench!!!). But the team took a very cautious approach (partly due to the stakes involved and also I guess due to Pekerman's nerves) and played the ball mostly in the middle of the park. This did not threaten the German defense who were happy chasing the ball. Klinsmann did his homework well by closing down on Riquelme with Torsten Frings. This in-effect took the creative spark out of Argentina's attack (further aggravated by a bit-of-a blind eye refereeing in favour of the hosts). Once a playmaker, and in this case Riquleme, is closed on quickly then he tries to shield and protect the ball instead of trying some creative options. This is even easier when a team plays a 4-5-1 formation. The 5 midfielders are mainly used to cut space, win the ball and hence choke any creative spark left in the opposition. This in effect means that the game can very well turn into a stale and boring affair with neither teama prepared to take the initiative (to me the Argentina-Germany match was more a test of patience of the spectator). Additionally, the lone striker up-front is usually used in a quick counter-attack thru the flanks once the possession is regained. This was a system used by France in WC-06 and also by Arsenal in UCL 05-06. It is indeed shocking to see "flair" teams like France and Arsenal using this "boring" formation to good effect. The success of Greece in EURO-04 was a start of the cautious approach and the WC also roughly proved the same. For the record, Chelsea which is one of the best clubs in Europe (yeah I hate to admit it) plays in this way . The game is actually won by the team which makes lesser mistakes.
These are danger signs and FIFA should do well to take note of it and probably think of changes in rules to encourage more open play . Otherwise the days of the Enganche are numbered.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ten sports "Analyst"

The most tortuous part in watching the Champions League on Ten Sports are the analysts. In particular, that Bald person (I dont know his name). Last year, at least the sky sports analysts were better and generally refrained from commenting in a derogatory way on certain Leagues. This year, However, it has been different.

Firstly, the Italian sides are viewed with contempt largely due to the scandal that has broken out in Serie-A. Those analysts (in particular that Bald bastard) would do well to go and do an internet search on Calciopoli- the Italian word for the Serie -A scandal. In fact, it is quite evident that the players have not been implicated. The referee fixing was in-fact done by the likes of Luciano Moggi, Adriano Galliani etal .. (they occupy position similar to a Peter Kenyon in Chelsea). So it is totally wrong to put the blame on the players. The world cup , in fact, proved the same. The players who shined in the world cup were- Fabio Cannavarro, Gigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera. All these players in fact have played for Juventus - the club that has become the face of the scandal. The quality of these teams was never in-doubt. So it is totally wrong to brand a team like AC-Milan, the top-ranked club in Europe currently according to UEFA, as cheats (this was the exact word used by that Bald person). Serie-A currently might not be in the elite league of Europe, with the sale of top players due to the scandal and additionally empty stadiums with the average attendance for a Serie-A game dropping to 11,000. However, it is the league that has given football lovers the best of Maradona, Platini, Zidane, Zico, Lothar Matheus, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ruudi Voeller, Kaarl Heinz Ruminegge, Tony Cerezo, Falcao, Marco Van-Basten, Zvonmir Boban, Dejan Savisevic, Ruud Gullit, George Weah, Gabriel Batistuta, Javier Zanetti, Marcos Cafu, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Manuel Rui Costa, Pavel Nedved, Hernan Crespo not to mention the scores of Italian players and some of the best managers in the world like Marcelo Lippi, Fabio Capello, Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trappatonni. Also, the successful Les Blues team of 1998 WC managed by Aime Jacquet was built with a distinct Italian flavor of balance (something u can see in the Madrid team currently with 2 DM's), a fact Jacquet himself tells openly. A healthier respect can be shown to a league than actually branding it a league of cheats.

Secondly, I was shocked when the Ten-sports analysts told that Internazionale (or Inter as it is called) do not have the quality to win a Champions League. They were telling that Inter can at-best enter the CL semi-finals. What can u say of a team that boasts of the quality of Recoba (this Uruguayan gem has the ability of a Ronaldinho but the consistency of an Agarkar), Figo, Solari, Cambiasso (one of the most consistent midfielders in Serie-A), Samuel, and either of Adriano/Crespo/Ibra, on the bench. There has actually never been any doubt about the quality of Inter, it has always been their lack of consistency that has been the problem. Inter have probably the most talented team at-least among the european clubs. Hopefully, they can show a lot more consistency.

The icing on the cake has got to go to the comment of that Bald person. He suggested that Ludvicic Guily is abetter player than Little Lionel and so should play in the starting XI of Barca. I am at loss of words to respond to this.