Friday, 5 June 2015

History Awaits...

You may remember that last year that ITV’s football commentator Clive Tyldsley was counting chickens at the prospect of Chelsea playing Real Madrid in the European Cup final.  Well this year he was at it again, whetting his appetite over the first ‘El Classico’ European Cup final.  Well that worked…  So where is that humble pie for Tyldsley then ITV Sport?
Steve Archibald evades Juventus defenders during Barcelona's
quarter-final win over Juventus in March 1986

Instead of Real Madrid, we have the dominant team in Italy at the moment, Juventus.  At the start of the season they lost their manager Antonio Conte, who quit to become the coach of the Italian national side.  His replacement was Max Allegri, who was sacked from his job as Milan coach in the aftermath of a defeat to lowly Sassuolo.  Despite winning the Scudetto in his first season with Milan, his appointment was a controversial one among Juventus fans, eager to see their team stay ahead of their chief rivals – namely Roma and Napoli.

Yet Allegri’s Juventus surpassed expectations, reaching their first European Cup final since 2003 – when they also deposed the holders Real Madrid in the semi-finals – and also winning their first Scuddetto & Italian Cup double since the last time Juventus dominated Italian football.  Way back in 1994/5.

Juventus will be missing their defender Giorgio Chiellini through injury, but all their other key men will be available.  Andreas Pirlo played for Milan when they beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford 12 years ago.  Paul Pogba only came back from injury during the semi final win over Real while Carlos Tevez will be playing in his third European Cup final, six years after losing to Barcelona while with Manchester United.  Artur Vidal has been in and out of the side (due to injuy) this season but should be fit.  Whether they play as a 3-5-2 (which I think they should) or with 4-4-2 (which has been Allegri’s preferred formation) remains to be seen.  There is however a very big obstacle in Juventus path towards emulating Inter Milan’s feat of 5 years ago – the Treble of Scudetto, Italian Cup and European Cup.
Barcelona are, of course…  of course, going for their own treble.  Six years after their own La Liga, Coppa Del Rey and European Cup treble, they’re looking to repeat that feat, becoming the first team to achieve that feat.  So many of the cast list from their last European Cup win four years ago are still at the Camp Nou.  Messi, Inniesta (both holding the cup, left, after winning in 2009), Busquets, Pique…  pretty much the spine of the side.  Not to mention Xavi Hernandez, who will be making his last appearance in a Barcelona shirt on Saturday.  I’d suspect that Rakitic will start ahead of Xavi though.

Most of the attention will be on Messi & his fellow forwards.  Both Neymar & Luiz Suarez compliment the movement of Messi and fit in with the Tiki-Taki ethos at Barcelona.  It could be argued that the reason for Barcelona’s successes this season has been down to the fluidity of Barcelona’s front line.  For that reason, I think three at the back would be a better bet for Juventus than a back four.
Gianlucca Vialli lifts the European Cup after Juventus last win in 1996

Barcelona start as favourites, and lead the head to heads between the two sides.  Juventus last win was an extra time winner in the quarter finals 12 years ago that saw them through to face Real Madrid, while their only other win came in the semi finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, winning 1-0 but going out 3-1 on aggregate.  Barcelona also ended Juventus defence of the European Cup in 1986, winning 1-0 at the Camp Nou before getting a 1-1 draw in Turin (pictured above).

This will be the first European Cup Final to be staged at Berlin’s Olympiastadion and will see both Pirlo & Buffon play there for the first time since they played key roles in Italy’s World Cup win there in July 2006.  Much will depend on Juventus and how they set up their defence and (more crucially) their midfield.  If they play 4-4-2, I think this Barcelona side will win more comfortably than they will if Juventus play 3-5-2.  I suspect that Allegri will stick with his favoured 4-4-2 so we will see Barcelona lift their fourth fifth European Cup, and Fourth in 9 years.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Can't Defend, Can't Score & Can't Get A Grip In Midfield

You know, thank goodness for all of the politics.  If it wasn’t for that, I’d be up the wall with how bad we’ve been…

St Mirren players troop off after their 5-0 defeat to Motherwell
The split has come and there are still issues to be decided.  Celtic are comfortably ahead of Aberdeen in the championship race but still need to cross the finish line while the playoff place needs to be decided.  This leaves us with the team scheduled to be relegated on Saturday.  At home, where they’ve only won once all season, against Kilmarnock.

Any time I’ve seen St Mirren this season, they reminded me of the reaction to the English cricket team touring Australia in the winter of 1986/87 – “There's only three things wrong with this England team - They can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field”.  Well, St Mirren’s version was, can’t defend, can’t score and no grip in midfield.  We were already light at the back and in no way, shape or form did Goodwin & McAusland ever… ever look like a Premier League standard defensive partnership.  Ellis Plummer being a very young player looked out of place from the start, though to be fair I thought that he did have promise perhaps as a defensive midfielder.  St Mirren’s season on the pitch was built on the disaster that was the Goodwin/McAusland partnership.  The worst defence in the country by a mile and guaranteed to provide one defensive blunder a game to boot.

We couldn’t score because, well, we had strikers that simply did not look Premier League class.  Then again Calum Ball (who seemed to get more game time than James Marwood) just looked totally unfit and not up to the pace of Premier League football.  Not having Steven Thompson for half/most of the season hasn’t helped but then again neither has the performances in midfield.  That and the fact that our best performer, Kenny McLean, left in Aberdeen’s swagbag at the end of the Winter transfer window.  In his place we did get Alan Gow, a player who knocked us back twice and really shouldn’t have gone for third time lucky such has been his impact.

McLean apart, our Midfield has had no grip whatsoever.  John McGinn looks to have gone backwards this season, probably not helped by not having an experienced older head along side him.  The only time the midfield has looked solid has been when Issac Osborne has been fit, and that was only for about 5 games in November.  Meanwhile both of our wingers, Gregg Wylde and Adam Drury have looked distinctly uninterested by it all.  Drury disappeared during the Winter transfer window while Wylde is still here.  The one bright spot has been Steven Mallan, who has put in a couple of good performances but is too young to put together any consistency.

If that is a brief synopsis of what has gone wrong on the sporting paddock, that tells half of the story.  At the end of last season the Board decided not to renew Danny Lennon’s contract, and instead appointed his assistant Tommy Craig as manager.  However your opinion of Lennon (mine was that it was possibly time to get a new manager as his team was looking tired and the life span of managers is normally 4 years anyway – Gutmans Law so to speak) the appointment of Craig smacked of being a halfway house in that the board were not sure whether to get rid of Lennon or to get a new manager.  Instead of being the new broom, a fresh pair of eyes on the first team, we got continuity Lennon.  Instead of a young hungry manager or someone with a bit more experience, we got an old experienced coach who would have been better off staying as coach.

The BBC’s Tom English rightly fingers the Board for their decision making, particularly in the last year, saying they were “asleep at the wheel”.  Within English’s piece, there is also an element that for a club that was given at the end of the last decade a foundation stone in the shape of the new stadium and coaching facilities, that this has been squandered.  Encapsulated within this is that fact that among the plethora of attacking players that have pitched up at Greenhill Road and then disappeared, tail between legs, the last experienced out and out central defender St Mirren signed was Lee Mair in 2009.  In a sport where defence is the cornerstone of a good team, that statistic says it all about St Mirren’s not very dramatic fall from the Premier League.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Let The Madness Descend

Is it just me, or are the close seasons getting shorter and shorter.  I mean, it was only five minutes ago that Germany brought the World Cup back from Brazil.  And here we are, on the start line for another Scottish domestic season.

Except of course for those teams in the lower leagues who have been competing in the early rounds of Petro-chemical-or-whatever-it’s-called Cup (At least we knew who B&Q were when they sponsored the thing).  Oh and at the time of writing all of our teams will have been, saw and been conquered in Europe – only for Celtic to receive a pardon in the shape of Legia Warsaw’s fielding of an ineligible player.  Still at least the Scotland national team look in decient shape.  Just as well their opening qualifier for Euro 2016 is that team that brought the World Cup back from Brazil…

Conventional wisdom dictates that the Scotland national team will be the only outlet for thrills and spills in the Scottish game.  Conventional wisdom dictates that Celtic will be Scottish champions before tea and the true race is for second & that "The Championship" is where it's at...  baby!  That might be true, but if there’s anything to be learned from Celtic’s cuffing at the hands of Legia Warsaw then it is that there are clearly teething troubles surrounding their new manager Ronny Deila and his assistant John Collins.

Celtic have seen their side that won a League and Scottish Cup double while reaching the last 16 of the European Cup sold without the quality maintained.  Maybe that’s an issue with the scouting, but with the departure of Neil Lennon, Celtic may well be at their weakest since Rangers meltdown.  I suspect that it won’t be a given that Celtic will finish as far ahead as they had been. It is conceivable that Celtic will take time to settle into this campaign.  In the possible event that they falter, who would be best placed to capitalise.

Second placed Motherwell have not added to their squad to date, however have not lost any of their players either.  A top six finish awaits for Motherwell, however there is the suspicion that the two teams that pundits thought were better than Motherwell will finish ahead of Motherwell this season.  Aberdeen will be a year older and wiser, have kept their players and added David Goodwillie to their squad.  This Aberdeen side are favourites to finish second, but given the correct circumstances could topple Celtic.  It’s not that inconceivable.

The other side much fancied last season, Dundee United, have seen Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson sold to Sporting Lisbon and to Hull City respectively.  Funnily enough, United’s season hinges not on adequately replacing Gauld but Robertson.  Like Aberdeen, Dundee United will have a years experience under their belt and will be the better for it.  Third for Dundee United it is then.  Motherwell & Scottish Cup winners St Johnstone will be secure within the top six, though who joins them will be either Inverness, Ross County or maybe Dundee.

Next Season's Title contenders? Aberdeen puting Celtic out of the Scottish Cup in February
Unlike last season, there will be competition at the bottom.  My own team St Mirren are something of an unknown quality this season. The release of Danny Lennon and the promotion to manager of Tommy Craig has seen familiar faces leave (McGowan, McGregor & Van Zanten) and unknowns come in.  The highest profile is probably James Marwood, son of the former Blades midfielder Brian, from Gateshead.  Possibly the key signings might be the return of Jerome Tesselar from Doctor Who (Tesselar…  Tesselector…  oh do keep up) and Ellis Plummer from Manchester City, who will be hoping to follow the footsteps of Paul Dummett by coming here on loan and after a spell make his way into the first team – though clearly not the bit that stipulates that he receives hate tweets from Uruguay.  I still think at the moment we’re too light at the back but need defenders to help us get up the table.

So who will finish in the bottom two?  The favourites to go down will be the two promoted teams.  I think Dundee will survive though it will be interesting to see Paul Hartley crowbar Paul McGowan and Gary Harkins into the same team – a feat that Danny Lennon couldn’t achieve.  Hamilton on the other hand may well struggle, though they have resigned Dougie Imrie who last looked good the last time he pulled on a red and white hooped jersey.  I think though that Hamilton will be fighting it out with Partick come the end of the season.  Partick’s squad have been depleated, though they have brought in Ryan Stevenson and  Abdul Osman.  Partick’s problem though is that they were a good team going forward but could not score.  In the annuls of Scottish Football, there have been quite a few teams that were relegated because of their inability to put the ball into the back of the net.

While the top flight has all the exposure, the old First Division (now cringingly called the “Championship”) was always the more interesting league because it was always the most difficult to get out of.  Since 1990 only five sides have been relegated and come straight back up (Falkirk in 1993/4, Dundee United in 95/6, Hibernian in 98/9, Dunfermline in 1999/2000 and Inverness in 2009/10).  It’s this feat that both Hearts and Hibernian have to emulate to return to the top flight.  Falkirk, Queen of The South and Raith Rovers will be the big challengers that were contenders in this division last season.  The added spice will come from last season’s League 1 (or, in old money Second Division) champions, Rangers.

Many people think that Rangers will win this championship, having put their money where their mouths are by bringing back Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller.  Except, that’s the problem – Rangers are sailing close to the wind by making exactly the same mistakes that saw them liquidated in 2012.  Meanwhile Ranger’s problems last year were caused by a lack of grip in midfield resulting in the long ball to Jon Daly.  This worked in the Second Division, but they were found out when the played better teams.  And Albion Rovers.  Nah, I think Heart’s have turned themselves around better than Rangers and will take the automatic slot.  Not that I think Rangers will necessarily get up through the playoffs either.

For all that Celtic were the dominant team of Scottish Football, they suffered surprising reverses that showed how tenuous their grip at the top is.  That Kilmarnock, Hearts, St Mirren, Aberdeen and St Johnstone have won trophies during Celtic’s supposed dominance has shown that they are not that dominant.  With a change in manager, Celtic are maybe more vulnerable than they have been for some time.  I think that how quickly their new management team beds down will be key to them retaining the championship.  If there are still issues around the team come, maybe September, then the other teams may smell blood.  Sorry, I’m just not confident that this Celtic team will be miles ahead come Christmas, but I think experience will see them over the finish line this time.  With that, let the games begin.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Now The Bride

20th World Cup Final, Mario Filho “Maracana”– Rio Di Janerio; Germany 1 Argentina 0 (After Extra Time)

Four years ago I mused that the finals of tournaments at times are a microcosm of the tournament.  The climax of the 20th World Cup mirrored the knock out stages – games with chances that were not taken or converted into goals.  In spite of not controlling the game, Argentina had all of the best chances and failed to take any of them.  Germany controlled the match, but could not manage to create a clear-cut chance until Mario Gotze’s chest & volley across Romero with 7 minutes of extra time remaining.

Germany were not at their best in the first half.  Pre-match Sami Khedera was withdrawn with Christoph Kramer taking his place.  Kramer only lasted 20 minutes as he suffered a head injury.  It was about this time that Argentina fluffed their first (best?) chance.  Kroos heading back to his keeper was interecepted by Higuain in lots of space. Higuian dragged his shot wide.  He did have the ball into the back of the net 9 minutes later, a Lavezzi cross was turned in by Higuain, who was just offside.  While Germany’s best chance in the first half came at the end, with Howedes hitting the bar with a header.

In the second half, Argentina made the change straight away, swapping Aguero for Lavezzi.  This meant a change of shape for Argentina switching to two up front with Messi playing behind.  This looked to pay dividends straight away when Higuain just strayed offside.  Moments later Messi had his best chance of the match – getting behind the German defence on the left he put the ball past the far post.  He should have scored.  Higuain also managed to recreate the famous Schumacher/Batistion incident with Neuer, with the same result!  Higuain was shortly afterwards replaced by the Inter Milan forward Rodrigo Palacio, while the all time leading goalscorer in World Cup finals matches Miroslav Klose made way before the end for Mario Gotze.

Extra Time saw the game open up.  Kramer’s replacement Schurrle hit a shot straight at Romero.  Aguero had a run at the German defence, but his cross couldn’t find an Argentinian recipient.  Argentina’s next great chance came when Hummels misjudged a cross to allow Palacio in one on one with Neuer.  Neuer came out narrowed the angle and Palacio’s attempted chip went wide.  The second period was scrappy before the breakthrough came with 7 minutes to go.  Schurrle attacked down the left and crossed in to the substitute Gotze, he chested the ball down and volleyed the ball across Romero (above).  The angled volley was all very reminiscent of Iniesta’s winner from four years ago.  Argentina had a chance right at the end though, Messi’s free kick sailed high, wide and not very handsome capping a miserable night for him.

Like Spain’s win four years ago, Germany’s win has created history.  Their fourth triumph is the first by a European team on American soil (no European team has triumphed either in North, Central or South America).  After being the bridesmaids to Spain’s European Championship win in 2008 (followed by semi final losses to Spain four years ago and to Italy in the subsequent European Championships) Germany are back in the winners circle for the first time since 1996 & their first World Cup win in 24 years – ironically enough the length of time between both Italy and Brazil’s third and fourth World Cup wins.

Like Brazil, Argentina were reliant on one player to generate a moment of magic.  Unlike Brazil, Argentina were solid defensively and gave nothing away.  Yet had Higuain, Messi or Palacio had the composure they obviously have for their club sides – Argentina could easily have won.  Like the Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola, Messi is lauded as one of the best but in truth falls short of true greatness.  He has had a good World Cup but not the great tournament needed to cement his place at the top table of great players.

As for the victors, Germany won the World Cup in the hardest way possible.  They came through a tough group playing all their matches in the sub tropical north with afternoon kick offs.  Respite came with their last 16 tie with Algeria – played in southern Porto Alegre.  The cold/flu outbreak possibly played a part in their muted quarter final win over France, but nothing will surpass that semi final win.  Like the great German sides of the past, you could set your watches with their arrival in the later stages of a football tournament – and their arrival would almost always be accompanied with their form.

While the big story at the start of this World Cup was the fall of Spain, the end could be construed with the rise of New Germany.  Except this side have been knocking at the door for a while now.  With Germany back in the winners circle, an exciting Belgium side now with tournament experience and Spain with some rebuilding to do (but with the bricks already available) both the next European Championships and the World Cup in four years should be interesting.  In the mean time, Germany are the deserved World Cup winners.