Sunday, 2 February 2014

Juan Transfer to Rule Them All

When it became apparent in the wee hours of an otherwise sombre Thursday morning that Chelsea were contemplating selling one of their best players to a direct title rival (or a would-be-maybe-next-year direct title rival), astonishment abounded in football media.

Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville opined that he wasn’t sure how much Manchester United needed Mata but he was extremely sure Chelsea wouldn’t be likely to sell to a rival. The Daily Mail and the Mirror concurred- it would be outlandish to even think of it! Goal.com called it “The January Window’s most ridiculous transfer”.

 Three days later David De Gea was pictured ushering Juan into training and introducing him to the Manchester United first team. That’s what this writer loves about football- ridiculous things happen, and usually ridiculous people are involved.

Jose Mourinho was about as clear as he could be about the fact that Juan Mata was no longer his first-choice number ten.  The sniffing began with PSG and Real Madrid rumoured to be among those interested. The price would be heavy- that was clear, but it was also clear that English teams were not in contention.

So what changed? Well, to put it simply, Jose needed to do something Jose-like. He needed to set a precedent. Wayne Rooney wasn’t sold to Chelsea in the summer under the safe and reasonable pretext that a club doesn’t sell to a direct title rival.

Well, conveniently as things transpired, United fell far short of being title contenders and Jose saw a golden opportunity to make some money, get rid of a player he didn’t want and demonstrate to United that “some clubs do sell to title rivals”. His ulterior motives (if any!) are things he is best aware of but one thing is certain- it sends a powerful message about how confident Jose is in his current squad of players.

The truth is that’s a hallmark of all great managers. Sir Alex Ferguson achieved astonishing things with a group of players who, in the present season, have been astonishing in an entirely different way. Injuries plagued his teams as well but that never stopped him from keeping the bigger picture in mind and taking difficult calls- like saying goodbye to David Beckham when he was at the top of his game or spending close to 30 million on Robin Van Persie when many thought he was past his prime.

And it’s in pursuit of that very same well-timed wisdom that David Moyes has hauled Juan Mata to Old Trafford. Mata may not be the solution to United’s problems (this writer doesn’t think so) but he’s certainly the solution to Moyes’. In a season peppered with losses and less-than-perfect performances, fans are losing patience in their so-named “chosen one” and he needed to make a serious statement of intent in that window.

So, on paper the Mata transfer seemed to be a win-win for all concerned. Jose got his money and proved his point, Moyes appeased some of the growing Red Devil animosity towards him and Juan finally got a chance to play some football. How long would the sunshine last, though? Well, about seven days if you’re Manchester United.

Juan Mata was voted Man of the Match for his performance against Cardiff City, where he helped propel United to a 2-0 win. Joy abounded as many in the red of Manchester could finally see the light at the end of a pretty dark tunnel.

Cut to three days later in the windy plains of Stoke. Former Anfield “legend” Charlie Adam (err, well he is today anyway) returned to haunt the Devils of Manchester with a little help from the world’s slowest moving footballer Michael Carrick. Juan notched up another assist but it didn’t Mata.

Beyond anything else, that game proved what most in football already know. Manchester United’s problems go beyond the hunt for a midfielder, a defender or a centre forward. The problem is not with the people not signed yet. The problem is with the attitude of those currently in the team.

David Moyes was quick to come out and say they were unlucky. They created chances but somehow couldn’t finish them. And they conceded from a set-piece. Again. Clearly unfortunate. There’s no other conceivable explanation. Except maybe lazy defending, a lack of belief and abysmal finishing but we dare not venture there.

Alex Ferguson’s success mantra was always “focus on winning”. It’s never about how you win. It’s about winning. A team that gets remembered is one that wins. Many times his sides embodied that philosophy in its entirety and churned out woeful displays, somehow picking up the three points.

Moyes’ philosophy seems drastically different. He seems to be narrowing down on playing attractive football. There are many occasions this season when we’ve seen United play decently well without scoring and get caught out at the other end. One wagers United fans would prefer their players be the ones doing the catching out.

Repeated defeats sap self-esteem. And belief. And erode the core of what may otherwise be a good team. A perfect example is Arsenal post “The Invincibles”. Seasons of no trophies have seen many players leave, and one fears the same may happen if United don’t change their philosophy. It’s all well and good to try and play attractive football. It’s imperative to win. That is the Manchester United way.

If the philosophy is the problem, signings Juan Mata much. A paradigm shift in thinking and strategy is the need of the hour for the Red Devils. Motivation must return because that will propel them to play the “winning way”.

Else, their wives may wear Prada but the Devils will get nada.




Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Best Race Ever

A couple of months ago, I introduced you to the “8-horse race”. I felt absolutely certain even then though, that we would eventually end up watching two or three clear favourites battling for the ultimate prize in English football and that the others would simply wither away.

Months later and here I am again with the awkward pleasure of communicating that we are nowhere closer to knowing who those two or three contenders will be. In fact, if anything, I’m more confused now than when I churned out the last one.

Arsenal were in rampant form then- they were so good that Olivier Giroud was scoring goals. Alright, that was an easy one. But, unlike Giroud, I didn’t miss it. Aaron Ramsey’s brilliance seems to have waned slightly, but Lukas Podolski’s timely return means Arsenal are still more or less on track.

They should probably sign a centre-forward- unless Walcott thinks he’s ready to don the avatar of “Theo”ry Henry and take up the mantle himself. Then they most certainly must sign a centre-forward.

Manchester City are continuing to dismantle teams at home. It’s probably the most convincing title charge by a home team ever- they’ve scored 38 goals and conceded just 6 in 10 games at the Etihad. Away form, though, leaves much to be desired. With just 4 wins in 9 away games, they’ve scored a measly 16 goals and let in 15.

They remain title favourites but they’re bound to get found out and drop points at home eventually so the dismal away record remains a concern for Pellegrini.

Chelsea under Jose are doing exactly what the cynics expected- picking up points. It isn’t pretty but let’s face it, it never was. Jose’s teams are efficient, hard to break down and uncompromising. Most importantly, they pick up points and win titles.

The only loser in the long run is football but that hasn’t really ever mattered to Jose Mourinho. I’m also certain that isn’t the only thing that doesn’t “Mata” to him.

Liverpool were top at Christmas and 5th 3 days later. Consecutive defeats to title rivals have left Rodgers’ men a bit off the pace but good performances in both those games will encourage him.

The imminent return of Steven Gerrard and the less imminent but still early return of Daniel Sturridge may take some pressure off Suarez, especially if Sturridge finds the kind of form he was in at the start of the season. Suarez’s new contract bodes well too- always nice to see players willing to di(v)e for their clubs.

Everton continue to be the most impressive team in the league for this writer. Martinez has taken talents like Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley and turned them into household names. The best part about this Everton side is that they are an absolute treat to watch!

They keep the ball expertly and move it around with supreme confidence. They have Chelsea’s best centre-forward and Man United’s first choice left back and are currently more pleasing to the eye than both those sides put together. More power to them, I say!

Coming to the defending champions, they seem to have found a bit of form at absolutely the perfect time. The latter half has always been the United half of the season and the red half of Manchester will doubtless feel they’re still in with a shout. After all, if Danny Welbeck is scoring consistently, something wonderful must be happening.

The uncertainty over Wayne Rooney and the certainty over Patrice Evra will be equally worrying the Old Trafford faithful, though. Signings are a must if a serious title challenge is to be mounted and centre midfield remains the biggest gap in need of filling.

Sneijder? Koke? Gundogan? Time will tell. An absolute certainty is that Tom Cleverley and Anderson will never form a Champions League (or really any league) winning centre midfield.

Newcastle and Spurs are the polite pretenders but remain within touching distance. Keeping hold of Cabaye will be Newcastle’s biggest challenge and keeping hold of clean sheets will be Spurs’, but this writer can’t see either finishing in the top six.

A veritable nail-biter of a league finish awaits us and forms the perfect curtain-raiser to Brazil, 2014. They call this league the best in the world but, quite frankly, the charm lies in the fact that the best are no longer better than the rest. In fact, pretty soon there will be no rest.

The most competitive league from top to bottom is churning out another classic title race- quite possibly, the greatest ever.



Thursday, 14 November 2013

The 8-horse race?

When the Barclays Premier League began its 22nd season in August this year, all was, it seemed at the time, in the balance. The first 11 rounds certainly seem to have backed up that notion. Managerial changes for the top 3 meant the door had been opened (even if narrowly) for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs to show them what this league could become.

A veritable six-horse race ensued and expanded to include the likes of high-flying Southampton and the ever-present Evertonians. And now, we have 4 points separating Liverpool in 2nd and Manchester City in 8th. The most competitive league in the world from top-to-bottom just re-set its own benchmark. This season, in many ways, promises to be a milestone one.

Manchester United, under Alex Ferguson’s heir David Moyes, haven’t been quite the force of last season. Stuttering against West Brom at home and against Liverpool and Manchester City away in quick succession saw them slip far off the pace and at one point they were 11 points off the summit. There was fear among the Old Trafford faithful- that a club so used to being at the pinnacle of British football may now have to fight to get into its top three!

Fortunately, this happened to be the perfect season to have slip-ups. Manchester City’s horrendous away record has seen them pick up a mere 4 points in 6 away games while Chelsea have thrown their hat in the ring for “most unpredictable top 4 team” by consistently following up stupendous performances with damp squibs.

All of this has been played out against the backdrop of a sensational Arsenal start- the best the club has maybe ever seen in the Wenger era! It began all wrong with a shameful 3-1 humbling at home to Villa, but since then the Gunners have not looked back. Buoyed by the signing of one of the world’s best creative mid-fielders in Mesut Ozil, Arsenal are finally looking like a jigsaw with all the pieces in the right places.

Aaron Ramsey is looking like one of the world’s best mid-fielders, and Olivier Giroud like one of the world’s best centre forwards. Consistency seems to have found Arsenal and at the perfect time. Save a blip at the weekend at Old Trafford, the Arsenal train has been rolling along rather smoothly. This actually looks, for the first time in many years, like an Arsenal team that could win the Barclays Premier League!

If, at the start of the season, anyone had told Liverpool that they would be 2 points off the top after 11 games, that person would have been declared either insane or a Liverpool fan. While this writer is not entirely certain there is a difference between the two, even he cannot argue that this would be the perfect time to take that ill-fated plunge and become a Liverpool supporter! Suarez and Sturridge look dangerous in tandem, supported by a back four that has epitomized stability. While it remains a stretch to think they can win the title, their current form has seen them glide along comfortably and, if the others keep slipping up, one can never tell!

With a league-topping 14 points in their last 6 games, Southampton have flown into 3rd place- leap-frogging last season’s top 3 in their entirety. Adam Lallana and Co. have looked inspired, but much of the credit has to go to Mauricio Pochettino. The level of organization and discipline has been matched only by the flair- Adam Lallana’s goal of the week strike a prime example! Where will they finish? Well, only the BPL Gods know. But one would be awfully hard-pressed to think that they would be relegation candidates again. Southampton finish in the top 8 for this writer.

Everton have moved on seamlessly from the David Moyes era- maybe setting a precedent for, ironically, Moyes’ new club Manchester United. Everton had over 70% possession at the weekend against Crystal Palace- a league record this year. That’s an indication of their new approach- keep the ball, build up the play and always look to score goals. One can’t help but admire how Martinez has brought his Wigan influence to the Toffees and, for this writer, Everton finish top 6.

So what’s the verdict, then? Who gets the big prize? Who will win the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League? Hardly an easy question to answer. And the truth is that anyone who answers it today would more likely get it wrong than right.

Manchester United have finally worked up a decent head of steam but the International Break comes at exactly the wrong time. For Arsenal, it couldn’t have come at a better time! The Gunners have had 4 or 5 very pressing fixtures and can finally breathe a little easily and get back to the grind in a fortnight.

Chelsea under Mourinho can never be counted out- but inconsistency is the enemy of efficiency and the Special One no doubt recognizes that! Manchester City need to start showing up away from home and Manuel Pellegrini needs to start showing up at Press Conferences! One can only hope he’s been saving his enthusiasm for the locker room because his Conferences have been painfully placid.


All cards shall doubtless be revealed in May 2014 and then the world shall see where the chips fall! Till then, keeping the old clich├ęs going, just enjoy the ride! 

Friday, 30 August 2013

Final Day Floundering

As the transfer season comes to a close, we can look back on a veritable merry-go-round summer that saw almost all the top clubs change managers, many players make high-profile switches and we’re left with a few tantalizing last-minute negotiations that could yet usurp their predecessors in terms of impact and (more likely) in terms of fiscal profligacy.

Bale-ing on Madrid:

We begin with the much hyped, much discussed, much anticipated and now finally looking like transpiring move for Welsh winger Gareth Bale. Gareth had been touted as the next Cristiano Ronaldo, which ipso-facto led to an interest from Real Madrid. After declaring months ago that an agreement had been reached, Real President Florentino Perez must be wondering why the Real left wing still looks Bale-bereft. That question’s left most neutrals flummoxed.

 Surely, the richest club in Spain would have met any asking price and surely Gareth would have pounced at the opportunity of playing Champions League Football- so where then is the Bale-Ronaldo partnership everyone wants to see? I believe a certain Andre-Vilas Boas had thrown a spanner in the works but now, it appears, all is well for Mr. Perez and his troops and Gareth has jet-setted off to Malaga where he lurks till the smart people churn out the nitty-gritties.

The bigger question, though, remains unanswered- why? Also, how much? Though that would get cleared up once the smart folk are done churning. After really just one outstanding season, Perez seems willing to expend 100 million pounds to bring him to the Bernabeu- where, no doubt, he’ll see the “Real” thing.
Cristiano Ronaldo does what Bale does- err, better. Ronaldo has been scoring at almost a goal a game since he completed the richest transfer in football history in 2009. He had also scored 20 plus goals a season for three successive seasons at Manchester United before his transfer- confirming his status as one of the world’s best even prior to the move. If 80 million pounds delivered that, what exactly will the Madrid hierarchy expect from 100 million? No pressure, Gareth.

The long-term success or failure of the move will be greatly influenced by the patience of the Madridistas, but this writer feels Bale would benefit from another season at Tottenham. If he scores 20 plus goals again, he gains massive confidence and establishes consistency- and indeed the suitors again come calling. And it’s much easier to play your best when there isn’t a price-tag sufficient to buy most companies hanging over your head!

No way, Jose:

“The last piece of my puzzle is missing. I need the last piece”- my five year old nephew. Also, Jose Mourinho on Wayne Rooney.

Jose is an absolute master- at sneaking players to hotel rooms and stealing transfers from other clubs. And making all of it public! Many would think I’m sledging Jose, but I’m actually complimenting him. He’s honest about how he does his work and he’s open about players he targets- such a refreshing change to managers who remain nondescript throughout the window and end up signing Olivier Giroud.

A master of mental manipulation, Jose has pulled out every weapon in his arsenal to yank Wayne Rooney to Stamford Bridge. The response from United has been akin to a possum’s response to any kind of physical threat- play dead till it goes away. And, away Jose went- to White Hart Lane as it turned out, which Willian evidently thought was Chelsea’s home stadium.

Arsene “When?”ger:

Without any shadow of a doubt the most compelling club at the end of the transfer window, Arsenal F.C. once again earns lines in my transfer analysis- simply because once again, no-one has any idea who or what they will procure. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that they will sign somebody- and history backs me up on that.

They surged for Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney- but Liverpool’s pessimism and United’s “possum”ism ensured that nothing materialized there. Lukas Podolski’s injury makes the need for new players more pressing- especially considering that 21 players on the pay-roll were given the boot this summer. Side-note: how, pray tell, will they ever cope without Sebastian Squillaci?

Wenger has promised that quality will not be compromised, but this writer can’t see how that is possible. There aren’t many quality players that get signed hurriedly last-minute and there’s been no talk of any potential big-money buy. Whatever Arsene has up his sleeve, Gunners hope to see it transpire soon- maybe within the next four days?


Whatever be the outcomes, this window has been engrossing in many different ways- and the last few days usually tend to be the best. So sit back, relax and juxtapose our dwindling currency rate with European Football’s spiralling transfer rates.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Window of Opportunity

Rooney to Arsenal? Ibrahimovic to Real Madrid? Thiago to Bayern? Yes folks, it’s that time of year again when the veritable conundrum of “who should my club sign” returns to engage us all once more! Be it frantic negotiations, bloated release clauses, further bloated egos of agents or stoic, non-committal press conferences- we all love the drama, passion, excitement and yes, even the ludicrous nature of some of the outcomes of the football transfer period!

Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente made sure the Italian Champions made their mark. Neymar adds a gentle surplus to Barcelona’s offensive line. Bale, Ronaldo, Cavani, Higuain and maybe even Wayne Rooney hang in the balance. Let’s not forget Thiago Alcantara and Marouane Fellaini- who themselves seem to not have a clue where they’re headed. Lots of activity was predicted, though, and so far, not a lot has happened. Fret not though, because that leaves plenty of room for speculation- and that wins writers like me our daily bread!

Manchester City, predictably, have bolstered their reserves; one could argue that was badly needed. Fernandinho, Navas and what’s now looking like Alvaro Negredo make for major changes in their front line and, presumably, in the way they will play. Wing-play has not been City’s forte (don’t tell Pablo Zabaleta!) but evidently, there are plans to change that.

It may serve to unsettle the fulcrum of the team- Nasri, Silva, Toure, Aguero, Barry (Stop chuckling! He was part of the fulcrum!), Milner- predominantly central, incisive players. Then again, it will most definitely add an element of surprise to what last season became a tried, tested and failed recipe. Wing-play will give them another option in attack and versatility wins you titles.

Chelsea, unsurprisingly, under Mourinho management have been active as well- though not as active as many would have thought! Andre Schurrle is a good signing and Mark Schwarzer is a clever buy as well given the release of their other goal-keepers. Returning loanee Romelu Lukaku will feel he’s earned game-time and Marco Ginkel was one of the best players in the Eridivisie last season. Kevin De Bruyne will not want to be loaned out again but that’s looking increasingly likely given the improbability that Mourinho will deploy Mata, Oscar, Hazard, Schurrle, Lukaku, Torres, Ginkel, Lampard and Ramires and then say “Hey, we have room for one more!” Watch this space because Chelsea look very strong on paper.

Arsenal started out roaring. The Gunners made statements of firm intent. Sadly, statements are all the intent has remained confined to thus far. From courting Wayne Rooney and Gonzalo Higuain (both seemingly unsuccessfully), the Gunners have now turned their attentions to disgruntled Liverpool star Luis Suarez.

While Suarez may be flattered by the bid, one wagers Arsenal fans are not- given his propensity to get hungry when a match is in progress. Marouane Fellaini is another popular name being bandied about, but David Moyes may just have the upper hand if, indeed, Marouane’s departure from Goodison transpires.

Speaking of David Moyes, we come to the Champions. And the dormancy in this transfer window is not surprising. It can be misleading, though. David Moyes took over exactly two weeks ago so it’s not unfathomable that nothing has transpired yet. But, as has been the hallmark of United over the years, there’s always a surprise in store. And I’m reasonably certain we’ll see it soon.

A return for Ronaldo? A swoop for Gareth Bale? An exchange for Wayne Rooney? There’s something about Manchester United that attracts attention in the transfer window, especially near the culmination. History would suggest the Red Devils need to be monitored closely in this month.

So, who will prove to be marquee signings? And who will turn into the Andy Carrolls, Stewart Downings and Andrey Arshavins of the new season? Only time will tell. And there’s not a lot of it left.


Expect the remaining month and a half to fly by. Expect moves to come helter-skelter, players to leave countries, clubs and fans aghast, and most importantly expect football enthusiasts who like to get a word in to opine with much greater frequency! Business, in a footballing sense, will boom in this window of opportunity. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Germany In Wembley


All Italian Final- Old Trafford, 2003. All English Final- Moscow, 2008. All German Final- Wembley, 2013. The beautiful thing about football (as I’ve often heard the purists expound) is that domination happens in “cycles”. The fact that the years quoted above are in arithmetic progression certainly seems to illustrate their point.

Italian football was arguably at its zenith early in the millennium culminating with Milan finals in 2005 and 2007. What followed (and maybe slightly overlapped) that was a period of English dominance- marked by back-to-back finals for Manchester United in 2008 and 2009. English teams consistently made the semi-finals in the years that followed. The Spanish tide was then on the rise, buoyed no doubt by the national team’s heroics, and a new brand of football captivated the world- “tiki-taka” colloquially; Barcelona formally.

This season, however, has seen a resurgence of sorts- a resurgence that some were clairvoyant enough to see coming. F.C. Bayern Munchen (called Bayern for brevity hereafter) have made 3 finals in 4 years now and are spearheading a German blitzkrieg on the wave of Spanish domination- Borussia Dortmund well in tow. Is this the beginning of a new cycle, you ask? I dare say that cycle’s already begun.

Let’s not label this as “Bundesliga dethrones La Liga” though- well, you can if you want to but you’d be jumping the proverbial gun. To me, this season represents the victory of football. The four semi-finalists were all touted as potential champions when the tournament began and it’s rare to witness equally matched teams go head-to-head this late in the competition.

I, personally, relished every minute of both ties and count myself lucky to have witnessed football of the very highest standard exhibited at the very highest level. A football lover wouldn’t have wanted more! Well, maybe he would have wanted to see what a fit Lionel Messi could have done to change the dynamic of the Barca-Bayern fixture. Nonetheless, most thirsts were quenched.

And it’s not over yet. The best part, the grand culmination, awaits. The two best teams in this season’s Champions League will face off on the 25th of May for the grandest prize of them all- O wait! I hear the F.A. Cup will be won by then. I guess they’ll have to settle for the second grandest prize of them all.

Bayern and Dortmund know each other very well and the rivalry adds spice to an already rather spiced up bratwurst. It’s an intriguing contrast of styles and, indeed, of motivations. Bayern will be rallying their troops for a treble while BVB will have nothing else to play for. If the anticipation wasn’t already overwhelming, the two play each other in the Bundesliga in a week. So we even get to see a curtain-raiser.

I don’t think there’s anything to glean from that for either team though. Each has enough information on the other and both will likely rest key players. So what can we expect in Wembley? Hopefully a feisty, fiery affair with derby-like intensity and Champions League Final-like footballing mastery.

Game-changers:

Bayern:

1.    Bastian Schweinsteiger: The master of Bayern Munchen football- one of the best (if not the best) central defensive mid-fielders in the game. It’s simple really. When Bastian controls the play, Bayern play to their potential. He cleans up opposition attacks and shoots off big diagonal passes to Ribery and Robben who are inevitably in yards of space. This then draws out defenders leaving space- either in-between for the likes of Muller and Mandzukic, or on the overlap for Lahm and Alaba.

2.     Ribery and Robben defending: Something we’ve not seen too often but we saw in both semi-final legs and we will see in the Final if Bayern win. Alaba is an adventurous, young full-back and when he rampages forward, it leaves plenty of space for the likes of Reus and Blaszczykowski to make runs in behind on the counter. Fortunately, Ribery has had the experience to sit back and cover for Alaba and Robben has also been seen doubling up on wingers with Phillip Lahm. How Heynckes got them to do it he only knows, but it’s worked a treat for the Bavarians.

3.     Thomas Muller: Scores goals.
  


Dortmund:

1.     Ilkay Gundogan: Borussia Dortmund’s own mid-field maestro. The difference in style with Schweinsteiger is obvious. Gundogan is not as good a passer but he can run with the ball. His dribbling and ability to pick up the ball and draw players towards him creates space for Reus, Gotze and the rest. He’s also excellent in tight spaces- picks up the ball with 3-4 players closing him down sometimes and finds his team-mates nearly always. So like Bastian, he’s excellent at cleaning up opposition attacks. Also got a mean shot on him.
  
2.     Marco Reus: Dortmund’s most gifted footballer. Reus is sharp, quick and most pertinently very direct. He runs at defences and is never afraid to take anybody on. He made Rafael Varane look very ordinary in Germany and that is something arguably no-one else has done this season. Extremely unselfish as illustrated by his assist tally. Very good with both feet.

3.     Robert Lewandowski: Scores goals.


Prediction:

Putting myself on the spot then. 2-2 after extra-time. Bayern lose on penalties again and acquire the unenviable record of most finals lost in the Champions League.

Whatever happens though, hoping for a classic.

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