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Hakuna Matata #8: When the Champions League was for Champions

Another fine entry in our Hakuna Matata series. The Football Express’ own Matthew Campbell harks back to the infancy of the Champions League.

As a poor young boy without Sky, my opportunities for catching a live game were somewhat limited to the odd domestic cup tie and The Sunday Match: just about enough to keep me going, but not exactly hitting the heights and showing the cream of top talent I yearned to see (although it was a fantastic novelty to see my football coach David Holdsworth on the telly on a Sunday afternoon). But in the 94-95 season I became aware of this thing called the “Champions League”.

A young Ajax side captured the 1994-5 Champions League trophy, as well as the imagination of millions watching


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Tactical observations – Udinese’s shattered dreams

It is normal for dreams to be brought to an end at sunrise following a good nights sleep, but in Udine last Wednesday evening the dreams of Francesco Guidolin, his faithful squad and their 17,000 fans in attendance were shattered in the final 20 minutes of the second half against Arsenal. Having taken a 1-0 deficit home following the first leg in London, there had still been hope of overturning this debt and creating their own legend.

Giampaolo Pinzi speaking before the first leg said: “we have prepared well, intensely, and meticulously” but it was all in vain. They lost the tie, but there was certainly positives to be garnered from the 180 minutes against top opposition. Across the two legs there were a few notes worth pointing out on various tactics, mainly with regard to Udinese.
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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.

Edgar Davids – A tribute

Today – Monday 8th November 2010 – the career of a very good player came to what appears to all to be a very quiet end, for now at least. At the age of 37, Edgar Davids announced that he would be leaving Championship side Crystal Palace after 6 league appearances and an outing in the League Cup for the club playing as an auxiliary left back.

Edgar Davids

Dreaded Edgar

Davids began his career at Ajax in 1991 like most of the stars Ajax has given to the world he graduated from De Toekomst and was thrust into an Ajax side entering into the autumn of it’s years at the top of the European game. What followed however was an incredibly successful 4 season spell at the Amsterdam club winning a UEFA cup, 3 successive Eredivisie titles and a Champions League by beating defending champions, the club he would soon join, A.C. Milan.

In 1996, his first big chance to shine on the International stage at the European Championships being held in England and going into the tournament it looked like they would truly entertain. Sadly, incidents of political in-fighting and accusations of racism within the Dutch camp led to coach Guus Hiddink sending Davids home and into the International wilderness.

“In what was intended as a piece of firm leadership, Hiddink kicked Davids out of the squad, a move that didn’t address the black players’ grievances and left the team even more divided than before.”

Brilliant Orange, David Winner

A year after the Bosman ruling came into effect, this Champions League winning Ajax side was ripped to shreds and with it Ajax’s hopes of success. Davids was one of the first players to take advantage of the ruling, securing a move to A.C. Milan. His first taste of Italian football was to leave a taste of indifference in Davids’ mouth, failing to make an impact at A.C. Milan, he didn’t stick around for long.

The following summer he would join Juventus, this was to commence 6 successful season in Italy that saw Davids return to his form before his move to Italy. At Juventus he would win 3 titles, all under the stewardship of Marcello Lippi, and we would also see the fruition of his most recognisable features – his long dreadlocks and his tinted goggles (which he needs because he has glaucoma). Nicknamed “The Pitbull” early on in his career by Louis Van Gaal at Ajax, he showed exactly why when he played for Juve. Davids would charge about the centre of the pitch making sure that every other midfielder knew that the centre circle was his, they would have to go the long way round!

Edgar Davids' Goggles and Dreadlocks

Unforgettable set of goggles and dreadlocks

He would play in a grand total of 243 games in League, Cup and Champions League for La Vecchia Signora during some of the most important years of his career, the only great shame is that he could not crown them with a Champions League – Juventus were runners up twice during his stay. His years at Juventus were not to pass entirely trouble-free off the field though, in 2001 Davids (together with Fernando Couto) was suspended from football by the FIGC as well as FIFA after testing positive for Nandrolone would land him with a 2 year suspension causing him to miss the World Cup in Japan and S. Korea.

After leaving Juventus he was never to bed down as well as he had in Turin; he had spells at Barcelona (on-loan), Inter and Tottenham before moving back to Ajax, presumably to see out his playing career. Sadly, he broke his leg in a pre-season friendly before his 2nd season in Amsterdam and failed to get into the first team, he left the club at the end of the 2007-08 season. Since that point in time he has been involved in an exhibition match as part of an Oceania XI, some fairly bland TV punditry for ITV’s World Cup panel and his main area of interest has been travelling around the world skilling up kids as part of his street soccer tour.

Davids brought a bit of sparkle to the Championship this season when he joined financial strugglers Crystal Palace in August on a pay as you play deal but today decided that his time with the South London club had come to an end. He hasn’t made it clear if he is hanging up his boots, but whatever he does next.. good luck Edgar!

Shakhtar Donetsk: How far have they come?

Just over a year ago the Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk were lifting the final edition of the UEFA Cup. The ‘miners’ also competed in the 2009/10 edition of the Europa league but were dumped out of the competition by beaten finalists Fulham FC.  For all of Shakhtar’s wonderful, short, accurate passing they failed to penetrate the South West Londoner’s organised defence.

Throughout the two legs the Ukrainians failed to use any width to attack Fulham, choosing to cut inside and shoot into a crowded penalty area on almost every occasion. On the few occasions they did contrive to use width and were in behind the defence they scored, if only they had learnt to do this a little more often.

A season on and they have made it to the Champions League group stage, the draw has handed them as good a hand as was possible. They have been drawn against Arsenal, SC Braga and FK Partizan. The group is one they will fancy their chances of getting out of, especially after having taking 6 points from their first 2 games. It has been an intriguing journey, personally, to witness from afar the change in attitude and tactics that they have undergone since I saw them lose at Craven Cottage.

Their performances so far in the Champions League this season suggest that they have transplanted some of their lateral passing for more incisive movement at the attacking end of the pitch. Without winger Ilsinho who has moved back to Brazil and Fernandinho, carrying a long term knee injury, there have been outings for younger Brazilians in the squad such as Douglas Costa, Alex Teixera and Willian. Despite having come a long way since their over intricate passing style that appeared to ultimately result in no gains there are still a number of areas in which they will need to improve if they want to progress further than the 2nd round of the tournament.

Starting from the front, one of the signings made by Lucescu last January was the young Brazilian prodigy Douglas Costa. Costa had been linked with a number of clubs before having a poor season full of off the pitch troubles and then signing for Shakhtar. The young starlet has reined in his tendencies to cut in and shoot, but not enough to give him the real unpredictability required to open up the very best defences. Usually deployed on the right hand side of an attacking three as an inside-out winger, he has been given plenty of license to cut inside but he needs to change his approach at the top level.

Douglas Costa - stays wide without the ball

Douglas Costa - stays wide without the ball

Above we can see, marked in yellow, Costa when he does not have the ball at his feet has the tactical sense to stay close to the touch line and on the full back’s shoulder offering the threat of picking up balls in behind the full back’s inside shoulder. This is very good play for the winger and will cause full backs lots of problems if his team mates can play balls in between centre back and full back for him to run onto.

Douglas Costa in possession, cuts inside

Douglas Costa in possession, cuts inside

However when he does get the ball to feet, we see the same pattern emerging where by he will charge in-field and very often shoot from upwards of 25-30 yards because there is rarely enough space to continue a run or find an accurate pass. In fairness to the lad, on this occasion he feigns to shoot and lays off a nice pass for Luiz Adriano to score with. Willian, who regularly plays as the left winger (also inside-out), has a similar tendency to cut inside too often but usually finds a pass to Jadson or Gai in the centre. Willian’s pass completion rate in the game against Partizan was 91% to Douglas’ meagre 54%.

The central play of both wingers means that Shakhtar were often a very narrow team last season, to get by without the wingers width a lot of attacking play is required from both full backs. Darijo Srna (Right) and Razvan Rat (Left) tend to play very high up the pitch, particularly in games where Shakhtar are dominating possession.

Average positions - Shakhtar Donetsk

Average positions for Shakhtar players (subs ringed in yellow)

There are a number of observations to be made from the pitch map above. First of all, as discussed earlier, the very narrow positions of both wingers (10 & 20) as well as the high positions of the full backs. While Tomas Hubschman (3) plays a very capable role as defensive midfielder he tends to get sucked into the middle of the pitch looking to block off play and intercept passes which leaves tons of space in the channels to be exploited on the counter attack.

Up front Luiz Adriano has shown that he has what it takes to bag goals and has steadily been upping his haul year on year since moving to the Ukraine. He is a versatile player who can play as a traditional number 9 on the shoulder of the last man as well as dropping deep to interchange and link up with Jadson in the hole. He’s not bad with his head either. He has been joined this summer by former Arsenal striker Eduardo, who appears to be rebuilding the career that was on the ropes after that Martin Taylor reducer. The Striker has 4 goals in 7 games so far this season, hopefully he can rediscover the ice cold finish that brought him to the Premier League in 2007.

To round off with a pointlessly interesting statistic, Oleksiy Gai the Shakhtar central midfielder passed to every one of his team mates 2 or more times when they faced SC Braga except to his central midfield partner Tomas Hubschman. I’ve not heard of any John Terry style antics from the pair so we’ll have to assume that this is a sign of their new found commitment to onward rushing attacking play?

The true test of just how far Shakhtar have come will be against a side who play a very similar brand of short passing football next week. They will play Arsenal on consecutive game weeks, first home then away. If they can maintain the kind of passing football I have seen from them over the last 18 months I would like to think that they will win over a few fans from these fine shores. These are the two games I have been most looking forward to in the whole group stage since the draw was made.

Alternative Champions League

The Champions League group stage began in earnest a few weeks ago and the predictable merry go round maintained it’s course, as it will do until mid December. Long gone are the days of European Cup dramas early on in the competition. Some of the most exciting games in the history of the sport have been incited by the fear and the glory of a knockout round. Any shocks witnessed in the group stages are rendered insignificant by the smoothing process that occurs over the 6 games, as it should. This is sadly not the most exciting prospect for the armchair fan, where the best one can hope for is Chelsea to struggle to a 0-0 draw deep in the eastern bloc.

Lack of surprises has left many calling for a reinstatement of the old European cup format. A return to the 2 legged knockout ties could mean the possibility of banana skins being slipped on early in the campaign. At the moment we can comfortably predict 12/16 2nd round competitors already based on their accounts alone. Knockout rounds could introduce enough uncertainty to freshen up the early stages of the competition. I agree with this view in part, an alternative to the purely knockout format that could appease the accountants is a format that was used in the first couple of editions of the tournament.

Hold 2 knockout rounds between the same 32 entrants, qualification should remain the same, this can be seeded if the powers that be decide the big sides need to be given some insurance. This will reduce the competitors to 8, who will be drawn into 2 groups of 4. A single or double round robin will then be used to determine semi finalists.

Alternative Champions League format

Change of system?

The advantages of such a system are that the better teams will have to play against at least half of the best teams in Europe, thereby earning the right to be crowned champions of Europe. We are far more likely to be treated to matches between the 2 sides perceived to be the best on the continent. E.g. Spain vs Brazil

No plan would be complete without the obligatory flaws though. The fact is the current format generates an enormous amount of funding from TV rights across the continent. The funding has been distributed very well over the last few seasons and Monsieur Platini’s changes to entry for non champions has fostered further interest in eastern bloc minnows who have made it to the group stages. We may miss out on the likes of Cluj and Rubin Kazan making life tough for some.

It is also worth remembering that the past is often seen with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia. There have been some magnificent finals over the history of the European cup and Champions League but there are also all the games which are lost in the darkest depths of dire uninteresting quasi-stalemates. There is no guarantee that if Barcelona were to face Man Utd, Bayern and Porto that the games would resemble anything vaguely exciting.

So maybe what I’m saying is that while the current format has its caveats, there are many more positives than negatives taking into account the current European footballing landscape.

Biggest shocks of 2009-10 season

While the new season is closer right now than the season that has just passed, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at some of the biggest surprises that were thrown up by the footballing gods last season. Everyone likes a shock once in a while, that is after all what makes the sport an interesting spectacle rather than a pure statistical amusement.

5. Barcelona v Rubin Kazan (1-2)

First up a clash in the Champions League group stages. Rubin Kazan had qualified for the competition as champions of Russia, based in Russia’s 8th largest city deep in the Russian vastness it may have been less surprising had the result come at home. However the Russian’s went to the Nou Camp on the 20th October and came away with all three points.

Rubin’s manager, Kurban Berdyev, revealed his master plan after the match. Having seen Barcelona’s 0-0 draw with Valencia he noted that there was space to shoot from distance because of the Catalan midfielder’s reluctance to drop into the penalty area to screen the defence. Rubin’s players were told to shoot on sigh, in truth they were rather fortunate to score an absolute screamer of a goal and were lucky not to concede late in the second half when Barca forced an oustanding save and Yaya Toure headed against the post. Rubin pulled off a smaller shock at home two weeks later, taking a 0-0 draw in freezing temperatures.

4. Allianza Lima v Estudiantes de la Plata (4-1)

When Tim Vickery asked is the Copa Libertadores more entertaining (better) than the UEFA Champions league, he was served up the perfect example by Peruvian side Allianza Lima. They faced the holders Estudiantes one round after the Argentinians had demolished Juan Aurich, another Peruvian team, 5-1 at home. Estudiantes had also come within a mere minute of being declared club champions of the world when they faced Barcelona at the 2009 Club World Cup.

The game looked as though it would be another rout for the visiting side when Jose Sosa put the holders ahead after just 4 minutes. Wilmer Aguirre, the Allianza striker, was having none of it and scored a neat hat trick before Jose Fernandez put the icing on a 4-1 defeat.The altitude would certainly have been a factor in the defeat, Lima is approximately 5,000 ft (1,500m) higher than La Plata, but the first two goals came in the first half which suggests that fatigue was not purely to blame. You can see the highlights on Youtube here.

3. Spain v Switzerland (0-1)

In the build up to the 2010 World Cup Spain hit Poland for six, pardon the pun. They had held an incredible record over the past 4 years having lost just twice in 45 matches, the curse had been lifted at Euro 2008 and it appeared that they were absolutely unstoppable. Nothing would stand in their way, except for Switzerland’s determined dogged, determined and tenacious defending. Spain were stifled by their own lack of width and they were even showing signs of panic, they appeared to run out of ideas against a Swiss side harking back to the days of the ‘Verrou‘ or Catenaccio. Although Switzerland should’ve had 2 goals, it is safe to say that Spain were well and truly mugged.

We are all aware that they went on to take the trophy, so perhaps it gave them the wake up call required to really knuckle down and grind out the performances. They only won one of their 7 games by over a goal margin (against Honduras), they may not have been playing in the same manner as their pre-tournament friendly win but the Swiss lesson taught them to get the job done.

2. Manchester United v Leeds United (0-1)

The FA cup has a great reputation for delivering upsets to the fans. When these two sides met for their 3rd round tie there was not a vast chasm in leagues between them, just two divisions effectively separated the sides. The writing was on the wall however from the previous round. Leeds were held to a 1-1 draw against Kettering, both home and away, needing to go to extra time before they were able to despatch the conference side. After the initial draw at Kettering’s home ground the 3rd round draw was made and Manchester United together with Leeds United/Kettering Town were drawn as the final tie. Almost as though it had been scripted.

Leeds were by far the hungrier side on the day, after Jermaine Beckford’s scuffed shot trickled under Tomasz Kuszczak and into the United goal the home team appeared somewhat stunned and unable to reply. Leeds were hardly subjected to the kind of pressure cooker style attack that we normally expect to see in these types of game situations.

1. Real Madrid v Alcorcon (1-4 agg.)

Cup competitions are rarely taken as seriously in European countries as they are in England but I still think was the biggest shock of last season. Following the dawn of the new galacticos era Real Madrid spent hundreds of millions of pounds, euros and dollars in an attempt to buy some glory. Real Madrid travelled to Alcorcon with a side consisting of expensive reserves, not a single youth player was included in the side. The side was as follows: -

Dudek; Arbeloa, Albiol, Metzelder, Drenthe; Mahamadou Diarra, Guti (Gago, 46), Van der Vaart; Granero (Marcelo, 63); Raúl (Van Nistelrooy, 72), Benzema.

These millionaires were trounced by the lowly Segunda Division B, Spain’s third tier, side 4-0 in the first leg and were only able to win the home leg 1-0. Dumping Manuel Pellegrini out of the Copa del Rey, defeat was to become a running theme throughout the rest of Real’s season much to Pellegrini’s dismay.

I’d like to hear what your favourite shocks and cupsets have been over the past year or so.

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