Saturday, April 29, 2006

Andres Iniesta

Anyone else watch the two legs of Barcelona against AC Milan and leave as impressed with Barca’s Andres Iniesta as me? Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard has a tough choice to make ahead of the Champions League final against Arsenal since the 5 month injury layoff to usual starter Xavi is set to end this weekend.

Iniesta was instrumental against AC. How often can you say a player makes Ronaldinho look good? That’s just what he did, linking up effortlessly with the World Player of the Year in attack and providing needed cover in defense throughout the 180 minutes.

The 22 year old Spanish international has good skills on the ball and I don’t recall seeing him miss a pass in the second leg. I was also impressed with his field generalship and intelligence as a co-orchestrator. In an attacking team like Barca, it would be easy to become washed out with Deco, Ronaldinho and Ludovic Guily all demanding a role in midfield but he wasn’t. He popped in as needed and matched the flow. Recall that 20-something pass buildup in the first leg in which he was the central orchestrator and forced a great save from Dida when he shot low and to the right? That was impressive.

Iniesta has been a Barcelona player since age 12. Louis van Gaal was the first coach to give him a start during a 2002 Champions League game. For the next 2 seasons he played a peripheral role but managed to break thru in 2005 with 35 appearances during the season.

Iniesta has a long history as a junior international and has been on the shortlist of players for the World Cup in Germany. His impressive performances this year have probably earned him a place on the team but we’ll have to see if Xavi again proves the talented players spoiler.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Scolari to England?

It seems that Luiz Felipe Scolari is one of the candidates for substituting Sven-Goran Eriksson in the command of England. As a portuguese football fan, I know Scolari for almost 4 years, since he came to my country after winning the World Cup 2002 with Brazil. I think he's a good coach, maybe not great as I think Rijkaard, Mourinho or Wengèr are; but one thing he knows for sure: how to unite a group, how to make a team strong psychologically. I remember seeing images of Brazil praying after the World Cup final. In Portugal, he implements, for example, "samba", the brazilian dance, and his squad loves him. I say "his squad" because that relates to what I believe is the only (although huge) problem about Scolari as a coach: he's stubborn and has a group of not much more than 30 players to choose from since the Qualifying Round of the World Cup; players like Costinha, Maniche, Nuno Valente, Miguel, Quim or Hélder Postiga are or have been in bad phases throughout this season, but Scolari always called them for the team. For example, Costinha and Quim aren't nowadays playing for their squads (Dinamo Moskva and Benfica), but they'll surely be on the World Cup. Scolari doesn't attend to the form of his players and he doesn't care about some he just puts out of the squad: in Brazil Romário was excluded; here in Portugal having excluded Vítor Baía, Sérgio Conceição and João Pinto is one of Scolari's main problem with the media. Personally I think I won't miss him if he really goes to England, although I recognize his qualities as a coach; if I were british I would be worried about the possible exclusion of players like Beckham (who may have problems with being just one part of a group).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

41 goals not enough

Estonia striker Tarmo Neemelo scored 41 goals this season and were it not for the league multiplier which gives more value to goals from bigger leagues, the FC TVMK Tallinn striker would have won the Golden Shoe.

Let’s be fair, a 41 goal season in the Estonian league is not the same as Italy or England so the multiplier has a purpose. Neemelo has gotten almost no attention for his goals scoring prowess considering he managed it in 33 matches. TVMK won the Estonian league championship and Estonian Super Cup with an average attendance of 150 people. That might explain the lack of attention.

This summer he’s heading for Swedish club Helsingborgs IF on a 4 year contract. At Helsingborgs, the 24 year old is planning to partner Henrik Larsson as he exits FC Barcelona in the summer.

Neemelo cost TVMK only 430 pounds from his previous club FC Flora in 2004. At 1m 92cm he’s apparently an accomplished volleyball player as well. He says his biggest ambition is to play in the Premiership. As England is drawn in the group with Estonia for the 2008 European Cup qualifying someone will be watching.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Don’t do it Dennis

Arsenal are going to see one of their legends depart in just a few matches. Say it isn’t so.

Dennis Bergkamp has spent 11 glorious seasons in a Gunner’s uniform and has said he will retire at the end of the season. He shouldn’t. At 36 he is still extremely useful, as evidenced in the way he orchestrated the win against West Brom last weekend. Those 3 points helped keep the pressure on Tottenham and could yet be seen as the points which gave Arsenal their Champions League spot for next season, which is unless they win it all.

I bring this up because I was given a DVD of Bergkamp’s 100 Arsenal goals as a gift the other day and when I watched it I was filled with nostalgia and reminded what a true master he is. Not many guys will get Motty to say “well, you just run out of superlatives”.

Remember that goal (’97 I think) where he took that long cross and magically dinked it towards the center of the box across the defender’s momentum and scored? And that goal where he took that long ball from over his head and dribbled it in the air 3 times to beat the defender, finally smashing it across the keeper? The unforgettable spin against Newcastle? And the countless other wonder strikes from outside the box like the short Overmars corner where he curled it into the top corner of the net from outside the corner of the box?

Beyond great goals it’s the football brain that still makes him so useful. Many players lose their speed and there is nothing left to prop them up. Not Bergkamp, he was never the fastest player to begin with. With Dennis, you move and bam, there is the ball. Ask Pires against West Brom. And who was more instrumental during the 49 match run? With Bergkamp it’s all about ball control, first touch, defense splitting passes and quick thinking. None of those really deteriorate with age.

There have been other useful players who played on well past Bergkamp’s age and deserved their place on the pitch: Gianfranco Zola and Teddy Sheringham are prime examples. Bergkamp is also a great influence on the younger players on the squad. You can’t tell me that Robin van Persie would be where he is now without him.

For all those reasons and more I wish Dennis Bergkamp would play on. It’s a shame some players have to age. Dennis, you’ve got at least 2 good years left in you. Stay on.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ricardo Quaresma

Portugal never lacks wingers... Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, Simão, Figo or Boa Morte, the portuguese World Cup squad may include FC Porto's superstar, Ricardo Quaresma. Ricardo plays in both right and left and he's recently developed a peculiar skill: something the portuguese call "trivela", that consists in crossing with the outside part of his right foot. The famous squad's number 10 is now 22 years-old and, after growing up in Sporting's frutuous academy (Cristiano Ronaldo, Hugo Viana and, more recently, João Moutinho and Nani are other examples of it) he was bought by Frank Rijkaard on his first year in spanish Barcelona. Ricardo didn't stay more than that single season mostly because his teamwork just wasn't 'Barcelonable"; he loves playing for the audience, catching the eye on marvelous technique demonstrations on every single game. Quaresma is difficult to beat one-on-one and his crossing and teamwork are improving enormously. Soon you'll be hearing from him again, but for now you may see him here, in a 2005/06 best of.

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Half way to Ars-elona

Last night Arsenal put a foot in the door towards their first ever European Champions League final by winning a hard fought contest 1-0 against Spanish side Villareal. Barcelona won their first leg on an away goal against AC Milan. We could have a great matchup for the final.

The Gunners deserved the win. They created more chances and took the edge in midfield. They were sharper but by no means won easily. Villareal pressured Arsenal a lot, it was an intense contest which needed concentration and care for the full 90 minutes.

Villareal defended well but their two most important players didn’t make an impact. Striker Diego Forlan was ineffective and looked lost trying to carve out a role by playing deeper. Riquelme managed the midfield for Villareal but failed to dictate the match the same way he did against Inter Milan in the quarterfinals. Both sides gave very little space.

Arsenal have been very strong defensively up to this point but last night they were exposed a few times. It could have easily turned into a costly mistake. Kolo Toure, quickly becoming one of the top 3 defenders in the world, was uncharacteristically erratic. Although it was his redirection to goal which gave Arsenal the win, he could have easily cost them with a rubber-chicken moment flubbing a header followed by tripping himself up. Senderos was often out of position and never really looked comfortable. Eboue and Flamini did the best at the back as very few dangerous crosses made their way across Lehmann’s box but they were not convincing either. That said, it makes 9 strait clean sheets.

It was midfield where Arsenal won the match. The Gunners were sharper and showed characteristic quick passing. Arsenal were often let down by the final ball where Fabregas had been doing so well but worked hard to open space and showed class with deft touches. Villareal were a stiff back four supported very well by Alessio Tacchinardi (yellow carded and misses the next match) in a holding role. In the end, the growing maturity was on display at Highbury as Arsenal forced their tempo on Villareal.

While not a classic, it was a good football match worthy of a semi-final. Jose Mari wasn’t, he dived and feigned injury all night making a mockery of the occasion. Arsenal must play the same tempo at El Madrigal next week. Villareal are not to be underestimated, especially at home; with the goal in hand Arsenal must show the same poise they did against Juventus, if they do, it’s a dream final.

I was interviewed recently for sportolysis.com about England’s World Cup hopes. Check it out. Pratuyush has the noble ambition to interview someone from all 32 countries before the cup begins so if you are interested, mail him (email at bottom of interview) and give him a hand.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The outstretched leg

Over the last decade I’ve noticed a dangerous trend devolving in football. More and more you see defenders attacking the offensive player’s pass by getting closer and closer to the outstretched leg. This is career ending dangerous, and difficult to police.

Examples of this abound. I think there is a combination of reasons for this problem. There is an ever intensifying, big money pressure on players and managers to produce results. There is a carelessness evolving towards opponents (which is agitated thru retribution), skilled defending is dying, and it’s a way to intimidate opponents.

Referees, match commentators and the footballing press are not giving this situation any voice but I think it’s worth mentioning. Referees should be paying more attention to this growing problem and consider more yellow cards when contact is made.

Often these situations arise when it’s really too late to do anything really useful defensively. Sometimes pressured to defend, players are often bad or halfhearted defenders by nature. A well executed block of a pass or tackle starts with anticipation and poses very little risk to either player using good technique. When you are late it’s often an easy out to strike at the ball as its leaving the opponents foot. This is dangerous.

Defending among most professional sports is a dying art. America’s NBA is now loaded with 18 year old kids with very few fundamental skills. The defending is laughable. It’s forgiven because it’s a high scoring game. Football is not. One mistake in football can turn a game much faster which makes quality defending even more important. As players get younger and younger these techniques don’t have the time to be perfected and you get what you have now: players putting each other at risk because they don’t have the skills to match their will.

I was interviewed recently for sportolysis.com about England’s World Cup hopes. Check it out. Pratuyush has the noble ambition to interview someone from all 32 countries before the cup begins so if you are interested, mail him (email at bottom of interview) and give him a hand.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Portsmouth turn it around

It looks like Harry Redknapp has managed to weave some magic into Portsmouth after all. It looked hopeless a few weeks ago, 8 points back and a goal difference of -12. But a Pedro Mendes goal sent the ball rolling a few weeks ago and it’s culminated with a 1-0 win against Middlesbrough Saturday.

The win was the first time since probably November that Pompey has been out of the relegation three. Help from West Brom and Birmingham losses makes it 3 points above the bottom. There are 4 games to go this season, if Portsmouth can get 5 or 6 more points they should be safe. They may survive with just a win and a draw.

Unbeaten in 6 matches it’s the mid season signings that are making a big difference. Pedro Mendes has been inspirational since his move from Tottenham. He sparked the entire run with that smashing last minute goal against Manchester City in March.

Portsmouth’s least successful signing, 4m pound striker Benjani has not scored for the club yet, but was able to setup the winner on Saturday. While critics abound, he’s a fantastic player. Yes, his start has been slow, terrible even, but he’s worked hard and has been playing well recently. I get the feeling he’ll score in his next game.

What a turnaround story. I had written Portsmouth off. They face Charlton Athletic away today followed by Sunderland, Wigan and Liverpool to close the season. It looks like the easiest of the schedules when you consider Birmingham draw Blackburn, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton and West Brom have to face Bolton, Newcastle, West Ham and Everton. I’d say they’ve survived and deserve it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Bolton Wanderers have lost their way. 5 losses in a row have seen them slide all the way into 8th place which has me wondering, has the Premiership’s toughest team to play been figured out?

Chelsea came into the Reebok yesterday and took Bolton apart 2-0. While they made things hard in midfield and could have taken the early lead when Ricardo Vaz Te hit the post it always looked like Chelsea would win.

So what has happened to Bolton? Well, as much as I like Sam Allardyce I think he is partly to blame. With so much talent on his side, smart signings, and a relatively healthy group to choose from he seems too committed into molding a team in his own image.

Allardyce needed to play his summer signings more this season and really give them a chance. He’s allowed players like Jared Borghetti and Hidetoshi Nakata to wallow all season on the bench. He’s also hardly played Ivan Campo and turned his nose at Jay Jay Okocha when a dip in form took place, even Gary Speed has not featured as often.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of frustrated players are in the Bolton dressing room and that has a lot to do with the dip in form.

Sam Allardyce has a reputation for grudges against players and making decisions too much on the whim. He’s done very well to build Bolton to where they are now and all along the results always came as a surprise. There is a new pressure now for the squad, the expectations of a result and with that a new paradigm. Sam Allardyce has never has so much talent at his disposal and he’s not as skilled dealing with it as more experienced Premiership managers.

So, I doubt Bolton has been figured out. I think it has more to do with the mood in the camp. Bolton are more talented than 8th place, and Allardyce has done some smart things this season like giving Ricardo Vaz Te a real chance but at the same time he’s relied too much on players like Kevin Davies who holds the ball up but rarely score. Note that besides the Chelsea loss, the other 4 losses were by a single goal. Virtually all Bolton’s games this season only have a goal in them, a team like that, which grinds out results doesn’t need a lot to upset the balance and start a slide.


Ferguson feeling foolish

If anything, football is unpredictable. When Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was playing his typical mind games throughout the week he (and me) didn’t exactly expect his side would draw 0-0 against Sunderland, but that is exactly what happened.

How United didn’t put at least 3 past Sunderland is beyond me. They dominated the game completely. Sunderland managed a couple of chances but they were few and far between. A lucky break could have even given Sunderland the win.

Mind games and motivational tactics are fine until they make you look like a blowhard. Yes, United have had a great run recently with something like 9 wins which had reeled in Chelsea’s lead significantly, but it was just never going to happen.

Sunderland’s keeper Kelvin Davis saved certain goals over and over which is really the only thing that kept Sunderland alive. Other than that sparkling performance in goal, Sunderland, like they have been all season long, are a team to forget.

They are awful. No kidding. They couldn’t string 3 passes together for most of the game and their boys punted the ball to nowhereland the first time they came under pressure. Poor Gary Breen, never looked capable, and a team captain at that. I recall a few years back for West Ham United he looked like a pair of rubber legs when run at, now back in the Premiership and despite a better showing this season he was never going to be the player to keep a back 4 together or keep a team up.

For old Sir Alex, the mind games are looking more and more see-thru. His comments implying that United would be in the thick of it come the last day of the season look as hollow as Old Trafford’s soul under the Glazer regime.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Champions League and the last 4

We’ve reached the last stages of the champions league and for my money, I hope its ArsenalBarcelona in the final. I think it will be.

Arsenal have to face a stubborn Villareal team which has been underestimated time and again. Barca face AC Milan, who I still can’t believe won against Lyon.

Milan won as much because of Lyon’s tactics as their quality of play. Milan looked beaten and uninspired even thought the first goal in the match was theirs. Lyon had the better of the match and evened the score only 6 minutes after Milan’s opener. Starting in the second half, Lyon decided to hang back and soak up pressure. What a stupid move. I watched the tactics devolve and thought to myself ‘this is just what Milan want’. And boom, minutes before time Milan scored and then again seconds before the end.

I really believed this Champions League could have been won by the French side. They showed flair, grit and class throughout the entire tournament. They lost it all in the final stretch because they chose to punt the ball out of their own end rather than play to their strengths.

Milan, last year’s finalists, like so many Italian teams are lucky to join the club of 4. They hang around until a break appears and take it. I can’t see this AC Milan defeating Barcelona. This is not the Milan of the early 90’s.

Barcelona defeated Benfica to reach the last 4, a stubborn team who held the Catalan side to a goalless draw in the first leg. At home Barcelona won an admittedly ugly and sloppy affair. Sometimes you have to win ugly which is probably what they will have to do again.

As for those Gunners, what can you say? All season, all those commentators saying Arsenal are easily roughed up and break down when in a physical game were wrong. Its true, Arsenal had been weak early in the season under physical pressure but the team has evolved in leaps this season, a team now unrecognizable from the ballerinas which started the campaign.

The first leg again Juventus was a brilliant performance. The second match was ugly, but enough to win. 3 sending off’s did nothing to help the Juventus cause. In the end, Arsenal showed that Juventus was in fact an Old Lady.

Villareal are about 2 players: Riquelme and Diego Forlan. If Arsenal can shut them down they will win. Arsenal will have trouble with them at home but have a better attack than any team Villareal have faced.

In conclusion, has anyone else noticed the shift in European football towards England? Last years Cup was Liverpool; this year could very well be Arsenal. Last season saw Liverpool and Chelsea in the semi’s. Juventus, leaders by a mile in Italy, were taken apart by a team that sits 5th in the Premiership, Liverpool finished last season in 5th, outside of the Champions League placement. Could we see Arsenal win and also finish outside the qualifying 4? If we do it shows how tough it is to win the Premiership and just how many strong sides are now in England.

Could it finally be that the quality and pace of play in England is beating out the old style of grind and foul until you win? Are players going to Italy later in their careers (Figo, Vieira) and leaving in the primes (Shevchenko)? I think so.