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Book Review: El Clasico by Richard Fitzpatrick

El Clasico, Barcelona and Real Madrid, is one of the biggest games in World football. Richard Fitzpatrick’s books subtitle goes further still, posturing that it is “Football’s Greatest Rivalry”.

Football's greatest rivalry?

Football’s greatest rivalry?


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Guest Post: 1860 München & FC Augsburg

A few weeks ago, a long Easter weekend trip took me to Munich. I was able to experience the sights and sounds of Southern Bavaria, but also, more importantly, get to a few football matches. I have written about my time at the games – and in Germany – for Danny Last‘s wonderful blog, European Football Weekends. We were able to take in two 2. Bundesliga games, seeing 1860 Munich at the Allianz Arena and FC Augsburg at the Impuls Arena.

Danny’s website European Football Weekends chronicles the adventures of football fans across Europe – and occasionally in the UK as well. The site is a guaranteed procrastination method, and you are likely to find yourself traversing adventures from the south of Spain to deepest Slovakia. It has been highly commended by numerous news outlets, and a personal favourite of my own.

You can read the article I wrote with fellow Football Express writer, Matt Campbell, here:

1860 München & FC Augsburg

Inter v Twente: Benitez rolls the dice in the hope of some panettone

Wednesday’s Champions League encounter at the San Siro had been billed as Rafa Benitez’s last chance. The last game he had before owner Massimo Moratti would put him to the sword in the hope of rescuing what has so far been a tumultuous season. In the end they secured a place in the Champions League knock out rounds following a nervous 1-0 victory at home to Dutch champions Twente Enschede. The deciding goal scored by Esteban Cambiasso in the 56th minute, ironically the player rumoured to have asked Moratti to find a way to get rid of Benitez just a few weeks ago.

Inter's 4-2-4 against the 4-2-3-1 of Twente

The pressure on Rafa Benitez’s shoulder has been steadily mounting. In the early season exchanges he appeared to have revolutionised Inter’s style of play – making them a thoroughly exciting, attacking team to watch while maintaining the results that have been consistent for some 5 seasons. This was all going on while Liverpool, his former club, wept his departure together with the arrival of Grandad Hodgson; Benitez was of course still to blame for that catastrophe. Since those early exchanges things have taken a turn for the worse for Benitez and he was left with 2 games to save his job. He lost the first, which brings us nicely onto Wednesday evening’s events.

A mere cursory glance at the starting line up gives us an indication of the kind of trouble that Inter are currently in. A back line composed of Ivan Cordoba, Lucio, Marco Materazzi and Javier Zanetti hardly inspires confidence when the side require a win to keep up with Tottenham Hotspur in the group. Cordoba was selected ahead of David Santon – on the bench – after the young full back has failed to really kick on after showing signs of early promise and an abhorrently poor display against Chievo on Sunday.

Looking at the bench proved to be even more worrying, only Thiago Motta and David Santon played any sort of role in the treble winning side of last season. The depleted squad have had to call on players with no experience at league level, never mind in the Champions League. The Inter benched comprised of youngsters including Biraghi (18), Crisetig (17), Nwankwo (19) and Natalino (18) all of whom have made just 4 first team appearances between them.

With the prospect of such aged full backs, Benitez deployed Inter as a 4-2-4 with Eto’o and Biabiany on the wings and Pandev and Sneijder operating in the central areas. The attempt to provide width using only his forward players required a great deal of discipline from Eto’o and Biabiany. Any deviation from their flanks would make the side very narrow going forward and easy to stifle. In the first half Inter’s play was focused down the left hand flank – combination play between Sneijder and Eto’o helping to maintain possession in Twente’s final third.

Eto'o receives all passes in wide left channel

This can be seen in the chalkboard above. First of all, we can see that Eto’o receives all of his passes in the wide left channel. We can also see from the first half passes made by Inter that there is a heavy bias toward the left flank; indeed during the game Pandev was largely anonymous in the first half. Despite lots of possession high up on the left flank, there was rarely a ball available into the box and only 7 crosses were attempted in the first half.

Inter play mostly down left hand side in 1st half

In the second half we saw Inter spread the ball a little more evenly across the playing surface, Biabiany and Pandev became slightly more involved in the build up play but they were still rarely at the heart of the action. The goal itself came in the 55th minute from a set piece, Sneijder blasted a free kick into the wall and Esteban Cambiasso reacted to the the multiple ricochets to fire home from about 10 yards out. Cambiasso was unmarked after having hid behind the wall prior to the free kick, Twente could’ve done much better with that despite the fortunate dropping of the ball.

Despite eventually taking the lead Inter were never comfortable in either half, Twente had their fair share of possession and threatened to score on numerous occasions – Castellazzi and the woodwork coming to the rescue of the Milanese a number of times. However, the telling statistic is that Inter had 3 times as many attempts (27 vs 9) and they had 9 shots on target. Twente had few shots and when they did arrive they were not particularly potent or accurate (barring the couple that hit the crossbar).

Twente's inaccurate shooting

The formation used by Inter (4-2-4) allowed them to keep the Twente defence occupied for the majority of the game, but it also gave their own players plenty of work to do. The formation requires an incredible amount of technical ability to be shown by the players at the centre of the action – Stankovic and Cambiasso in this case. Cambiasso focused his passing to the left flank, and from a slightly deeper position, compared to Stankovic who sat just ahead of the centre circle and spread play to both flanks. Both players will have had lots of work to do when defending because they were essentially outnumbered by Twente’s 4-2-3-1.

Stankovic spreads the play

It was no surprise to see Stankovic had completed the 2nd highest number of passes (50), surprisingly behind Samuel Eto’o who attempted 53 but completed some 13% less than Stankovic.

Conclusion

Benitez was correct in his pre-match prediction, Inter did not lose. However, the manner of the victory left much to be desired. Despite fielding what has inherently been regarding as an ultra attacking formation there was little fire power behind the Inter win, mostly due to some defensive frailty. Inter fans and Rafa sympathisers will hopefully forgive me for saying that this was one of the most boring 4-2-4 performances I have ever witnessed, but at least Rafa is getting the job done.

The headlines in the papers a few weeks ago were asking if Benitez would be eating his panettone – will he still be in a job at Christmas? I think he will, purely because of the circumstances he finds himself in. Injuries and lack of additions in the summer have not given him the best conditions to work in, but a workman should never blame their tools.

Ajax – A trio of magicians

Dutch football has been famously associated with beautiful, expansive and expressive play ever since Johan Cruyff and the great Ajax side that dominated the European footballing landscape in the early 1970s – although you wouldn’t know it if you based your view on the last World Cup. Below are three examples of Ajax showing off at their very best. The first is the most recent from 2009, Luis Suarez takes a ball on the right hand touch line and gives it a juggle. My favourite thing about this clip is how the full back can do nothing but applaud, if he’d listened to Lee Dixon he’d know he has to get much much tighter if he wants to stand any chance.

Left winger Richard Witschge goes one step further in October 1997 in a 4-0 demolition of Feyenoord, takes the ball on the run and juggles down the left wing…

Finally, the man who started it all, Gerrie Muhren. This bit of play is far more subtle, but the occasion was the 2nd leg of the European Cup semi final against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Muhren later stated that he was simply waiting for left back Wim Suurbier to reach him so he could release the pass, so he did some keepie uppies to use up time. The crowd could do nothing except acknowledge this man’s huge kahunas.

Krasic takes a tumble, FIGC up in arms

Last Sunday afternoon Juventus went to Bologna and disappointingly took only a point away with them, Juventus had the chance to take all 3 points but Vincenzo Iaquinta failed to convert a penalty they were awarded. The only real piece of controversy in the game was the awarding of said penalty, and perhaps there was some justice in the miss. Milos Krasic burst into the box and, expecting the defender to make a clumsy challenge after the serb had knocked the ball out of his feet, went down with the Bologna defender almost a foot away from any contact. Naturally outrage followed from Bologna’s players and staff as well as many neutrals after the game. The FIGC took action against the winger by giving the Serbian winger a 2 match ban; he will miss Saturday’s big match away to Milan as well as the game against Cesena. The loss is a massive blow to a Juventus side still trying to get into gear and somewhat dependent on Krasic despite Del Neri claims.

Taking a dive

Taking a dive

The outrage and backlash has led to a wide range of people offering a particular varied set of opinions. Juventus general manager Jean-Claude Blanc echoed the views of manager Gigi Del Neri saying “Milos has a reputation as a clean player. Whomever makes the judgement should take this into account.” He’s not that kind of player then? England manager Fabio Capello has given his thoughts on the argument. “Simulation is a cultural problem. A player only dives because he knows he will be rewarded.” he also says that the problem won’t be solved in a few months, blaming a vicious circle in Italy of players who dive and referees who look to continually stop games.

Learning from the past

It isn’t the first time that the FIGC has meted out multiple game bans for simulation as well as the normal transgressions. In 2007 bans were given to Adriano (Inter) and Zalayeta (Napoli) and in 2005 Ivica Illiev of Messina suffered a similar fate. Illiev’s ban was even extended an extra game because he took the act of gamesmanship one step further by celebrating the decision. There was some speculation that Krasic may have received a similar dressing down after pulling a subdued Tim Henman style fist pump, he appears to have escaped though.

The Scottish FA have not been afraid to use video evidence to ban players who have tried to deceive the officials during games. Kyle Lafferty feigned what looked like a fatal wound during an SPL game against Aberdeen at the end of the 2008/09 season. This poor piece of acting was later used against him and he was found guilty of improper conduct by a disciplinary committee. He was forced to serve his ban at the start of the following season, leaving his team without his services until almost a month into the campaign.

A cultural variance

Italian football has often been described, stereotypically, as being all about the results. In such an atmosphere coaches lose their jobs on the back of a few poor results, a penalty won here or there by hook or by crook can be all it takes to ensure a coach maintains his position.

Diving is a topic which has divided opinion with differing views being taken by fans from all over the globe either despising or tolerating the acts, sometimes hypocritically. Tim Vickery describes the attitude taken by the South American football fans is that a player who dives and is able to trick the referee into giving the infringement has done his club a service, giving them a chance to possibly win the game.

“I believe there is more tolerance of this type of behaviour in South America, where showing the cunning necessary to get away with something is widely praised. In Brazil it is often said that beating a big rival with an illegal goal adds extra pleasure to the victory.”

The view held by many fans I have spoken to in the UK is that it should not be tolerated in any form. They would like to see any deceitful acts struck out from the game, meting out bans to any players who ‘cheat’ or even bend the rules to gain an advantage. In the past the English FA had avoided the issue by wheeling out a FIFA regulation that discouraged the use of video evidence for retrospective actions with regard to non-violence related foul play. However FIFA recently released a statement stating that “they will no longer stand in the way of national associations using video evidence for retrospective punishment”. This has put some pressure back on the FA to act when players so violate the spirit of the game in England where diving appears to be so vehemently detested.

In defence of divers

However there are only a few cases, in my mind, where the player commits a clearly intentional dive. It is one of the beauties of such a subjective sport that events such as these can rarely be viewed as black or white case studies. Then there are also cases where players have intentionally avoided a challenge to evade the possibility of being injured. If a player does take such action their path changes significantly and they will often lose control of the ball or go to ground following a loss of balance, is this still a dive? Many would say so. In these situations a certain amount of benefit of the doubt must be given to the ‘felled’ striker.

The subject was at the very forefront of the news when Eduardo went down rather easily in a Champions League play off in August 2009 following a challenge from the oncoming Artur Boruc, the tie was still poised on a knife edge at the time and Arsenal held only a slender lead. Celtic, their fans and the SFA all pleaded with UEFA to ban the player, which the governing body did. The ban was later revoked following an appeal which was reviewed by a different disciplinary panel to the one which gave the Croat the initial ban, further highlighting the subjective nature which makes the topic a grey area. While it is far from ideal for a player to be sheepish about going into a challenge in such an important game, the brutal nature of his injury provides some mitigating circumstances.

Personally, I have few problems with a player going down easily when contact is made but if there is clear daylight between players it becomes a complete and utter joke. Capello’s comments are particularly poignant when we consider that a player will happily take the risk of a yellow card if there is the possibility of gaining advantages in tight games where the team has struggled to break through and have become devoid of ideas. It bears a similar resemblance to players committing cynical challenges to spoil counter attacks at the opposite end of the field.

Patrick Barclay wrote in The Times at the time of the Eduardo incident that the issue is one which cannot be policed with efficient consistency. If this is the case then any controversy that follow the dive itself will be magnified in cases where the diver is not punished. Another question that warrants consideration is how the result of a game should be affected by retrospective punishment? If a player dives and is awarded a penalty which ultimately decides a playoff or relegation, is the result reversed? Will the goal be taken out of the result and the table adjusted accordingly? A multiple game ban is a worthwhile punishment for any player to take when the possibility of relegation or winning a trophy is at stake! The matter is even further complicated by cup matches, if expunging the goal means the game was a draw do the teams replay? There don’t appear to be any easy answers that satisfy all parties involved. The worry for persons such as myself are summed up quite succintly by John Ley in the Telegraph.

“If the retrospective manner of their charge and suspension continues, what next? Every club who feels aggrieved over a costly defeat in Europe will be scanning every video recording, TV show – even fans’ phone video shots – to find a sly foul, dive or even illegal throw-in.”

The view held by many fans I have spoken to in the UK is that it should not be tolerated in any form. They would like to see any deceitful acts struck out from the game, meting out bans to any players who ‘cheat’ or even bend the rules to gain an advantage. In the past the English FA had avoided the issue by wheeling out a FIFA regulation that discouraged the use of video evidence for retrospective actions with regard to non-violence related foul play. However FIFA recently released a statement stating that “they will no longer stand in the way of national associations using video evidence for retrospective punishment”. This has put some pressure back on the FA to act when players so violate the spirit of the game in England where diving appears to be so vehemently detested.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1308839/FA-faces-pressure-stamp-diving-FIFA-opens-door-punishment-video-evidence.html

Out of the darkness and into the light

“When I saw that one of the first miners brought to the surface was called Mario Gomez, I knew that it was going to be my match.”  (Mario Gomez)

What have Bayern Munich and the freed Chilean miners got in common? The answer is that both have someone called Mario Gomez within their number.  This would on the face of it be a small coincidence which is not the slightest bit  interesting.  However, there are also 33 freed Chilean miners, which is the same number on the back of the Bayern striker’s shirt.

Still not convinced?

Then what about the 3 goals Gomez scored against Hannover on Saturday, ending his goalless streak in the league this season, the same week the miners were freed?

“These goals are a sign of destiny. 33 miners were saved, I wear shirt number 33 and I scored three goals,” said the delighted Gomez. Who am I to disagree with him? After all, since his 30 million Euro move to Bayern last season, Gomez’s goalscoring  and performances have taken a serious dip since his exploits during his Stuttgart days. The Bayern fans could’ve been mistaken for believing Gomez had been buried under ground.

At Stuttgart, Gomez was one of the most feared strikers in German football. He was elected German Footballer of the Year in 2006-07 having had a major contribution to Stuttgart’s title winning campaign. He then went from strength to strength scoring 28 in 32 games in 07-08, then 35 in 44 games in 08-09. Bayern were suitably impressed by the golden boy of German football. He was 24, had scored goals for fun in the Bundesliga and was seen as an ideal signing. Unfortunately for Bayern, the most expensive Bundesliga signing turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.

He scored only 14 league goals in 45 appearances last season. This was not an absolutely terrible return, but following the high standards set during his time at Stuttgart and the big transfer fee, more was expected. Maybe it was the pressure of the massive transfer fee? Maybe it was playing for a bigger club with more demanding fans? Maybe it was the weight of expectation, dragging him down into the darkness. Whatever the reason, Gomez had clearly lost the goal scoring touch.

The start to the season had given no indication that Gomez would rekindle his goal scoring fire. He only started 2 games for Bayern with Van Gaal preferring Klose and/or Olic up front. With those two out injured though, Gomez finally had the chance to kick start a barren league campaign. He did so with aplomb.

His first was an instinctive diving header from an Altintop cross, timing his run across the defender superbly. Toni Kroos then put him through in the 77th minute, and after twisting and turning the defender inside out, he drove home with his left. Having been booked for his troubles after removing his shirt, Gomez finished his hat trick with a cushioned header from a great cross from Thomas Muller.  This performance followed a goal for the national team during the week against Kazakhstan, his first in a competitive international game for Germany since June 2007.

Both Gomez and Bayern will hope that the goal scoring floodgates will now open, and that he will start justifying his massive transfer fee. Bayern certainly need him. After winning the league last year and getting to the final of the champions league, the start to this season has been a little underwhelming. They sit in 10th place after 8 games, with only 11 points.

Bayern’s indifferent start to the season has meant that they already have a lot of catching up to do with the two runaway leaders at the top; Dortmund and Mainz who are both already 10 points clear of the defending champions. Van Gaal’s injury list continues to grow with Van Bommel, Van Buyten, Robben and Ribery still missing. Schweinsteiger started on the bench on the weekend and has only just got back from injury. Van Gaal also decided to cancel the players annual visit to the Oktoberfest celebration in Munich in order to concentrate on more training.

With arguably their two best players out injured, Bayern will need to hope that their squad players will step up to the plate. If Gomez can start terrorising  defences like he did during his time at Stuttgart, then it is not all doom and gloom. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

“I am very happy that Mario Gomez scored three goals because it’s very important for his confidence. And that is very important for Bayern.”     (Louis Van Gaal)

Gomez hat trick vs Hannover

Guest article: Glory days returning to Napoli

I’ve written a guest article in the run up to Napoli v Liverpool in the Europa League for the ITV Football website. It’s a brief profile of Napoli’s turbulent history since the departure of Maradona in 1991.

Give it a read here: Glory days returning to Napoli

Rocco

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