“Bobby Robson became the heart that English football wore on its sleeve”

August 1, 2009

47d4fd8b1eae95c2d20d167ad1e20398_immagine_det“Bobby Robson became the heart that English football wore on its sleeve.” The words are a touching epitaph from the beginning of David Lacey’s tribute to Sir Bobby Robson in this morning’s Guardian, after the footballing great passed away yesterday. But they only do him partial justice. Best known in England for successful spells as a player then manager at Fulham, West Bromich Albion, Ipswitch Town and Newcastle – and for his eight years at the helm of the English national team – his feats overseas often go undocumented, or at best overlooked.

Robson is arguably England’s most successful ever manager abroad. Two stints at PSV Eindhoven, four years in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto and his highest profile position in club management at Barcelona are more than enough for most glittering careers – let alone crammed in between a World Cup semi-final in 1990 and a return to the club he supported as a boy in 1999.

Perhaps the best mark of his success during those nine years (four national titles, three domestic cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup aside) are the number of careers Robson helped launch in that time. He bought and then brought the best out of Ronaldo at Barcelona, inspiring the Brazilian to score 47 goals in 49 games and to declare the Englishman “one of the greatest [trainers] in the world“. He worked with Luís Figo in Portugal and in Spain, tamed the famously tempestuous Romário in Holland and brought calm to the twilight of Hristo Stoichkov‘s career.

Yet far greater than all of these achievements, he helped three of modern football’s leading figures prepare for life in the game’s back rooms. First, Frank Arnesen, one of the key players in Roman Abramovich‘s Chelsea revolution, started his post-playing days as Robson’s assistant at Eindhoven before becoming the clubs general manager. His next big find was a young Portuguese translator who become assistant manager at Porto and then Barcelona under Robson – José Mourinho. Finally, Robson can lay some claim to being one of the first of football’s impresarios to identify Josep Guardiola‘s talent for motivating and lifting his team. Between those three, Robson’s mentees have won two Champions League titles, six league crowns across Spain, England, Portugal and Italy, and countless cups in all four countries.

All of these great men have been quick to pay tribute to the unique Robson, who may have been the greatest of them all.

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A Bridge too far?

June 12, 2009

Carlo AncelottiA few eyebrows will doubtless be raised by Chelsea‘s decision to appoint an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English just six months after sacking an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English. Accusations were certainly cast about Luiz Felipe Scolari‘s ability to control the dressing room given his alarming accurate impression of an overweight Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. But will Carlo Ancelotti be able to do any better at Stamford Bridge?

Yes, Ancelotti has the European club football credentials that Scolari never had. But it is hard to escape the notion that he is Serie A‘s answer to Rafa Benítez – an extraordinary manager in Europe, woefully unable to reproduce that success at home. In eight years at AC Milan, Ancelotti won the Serie A crown just once. And that from a club with 17 league titles to their name. To be fair, over the same period he also reached three Champions League finals, winning two of them (with that one memorable defeat coming at the hands of Liverpool on that evening in Istanbul). Now there is nothing Chelsea fans, players and management desire more than victory in Europe – Didier Drogba‘s reaction to their last gasp defeat by Barcelona in this year’s semi-final says everything you need to know about that painfully empty shelf in Chelsea‘s trophy cabinet. However, Liverpool supporters will tell you about how frustrating it can be to be kings of Europe and paupers of the Premiership.

So if Ancelotti is to join José Mourinho and, now, Guus Hiddink in Chelsea‘s managerial good books, what are the three things he can do to get fans and players on side before the season starts from scratch in August?

Sign Carlos Tévez – Like the Argentineans, Chelsea fans have loved short, stocky, smiling assassins ever since Gianfranco Zola. As effective as Nicolas Anelka and, towards the latter end of last season, Drogba have been, neither is lovable. Tévez, on the other hand, has the perfect blend of work ethic and sublime skill. The £30 million fee would be well spent in these days where most football club’s transfer budgets wouldn’t buy Joey Barton‘s image rights.

Develop youth – Huddink came to Stamford Bridge with the promise of bringing fresh, local blood into the squad. Despite all his achievements at Chelsea, finding the next John Terry proved a challenge too many for the charismatic Dutchman. Jack Cork has demonstrated some promise at Watford last year, while Scott Sinclair is capable of moments of genius (or at least moments of blinding pace and a couple of good feet). But with millions invested in the youth set-up under Frank Arnesen, Ancelotti needs to start seeing results from the academy if he is to create a Chelsea for the future rather than another generation of aging footballers beginning to look past their prime.

Build a strong back room staff – There can be absolutely no doubt that Steve Clarke‘s departure for West Ham dealt a serious blow to Chelsea‘s title ambitions last year. Ray Wilkins is a sound coach, but the club are still in need of a defence specialist to get the most out of the likes of Alex, Branislav Ivanović and Michael Mancienne (who could be the long-term answer to Ancelotti’s search for talented youth). If rumours are to be believed, Paolo Maldini could be that man. Now there’s no greater emblem of modern football and everything Ancelotti built at AC Milan. But if the big Italian is looking for a fresh start, Marcel Desailly is available, speaks Italian, knows Ancelotti and has the bright blue of Chelsea running through his veins.

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Who are Europe’s top marksmen?

March 28, 2009

Marc Janko

Last season Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo took no prisoners as he slotted, slammed and stroked 31 goals past the Premiership‘s goalkeepers. In doing so, he became the first winger in history to earn the European Golden Shoe for the continent’s top goal scorer in 2007-8. This season form and fitness have contrived to take the Portuguese winger out of the race to retain his coveted title – so who are the main contenders to usurp his thrown?

German Bundesliga – Grafite

In reality, Grafite currently shares top spot in the Bundesliga scoring charts with Vedad Ibišević, the Bosnian striker who led newly promoted 1899 Hoffenheim to the summit of German football before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament to prematurely end his season. So VfL Wolfsburg‘s Brazilian striker has had his chance to shine, becoming one of European football’s hottest properties with 18 goals. Wolfsburg are one of four sides in contention for this season’s domestic title, and Grafite seems sure to profit from former Bayern Munich coach Felix Magath‘s tight regime. After all, Grafite knows exactly what it takes to slay Wolfsburg’s title rival giants – he was part of the São Paulo side that beat Liverpool in the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship.

Italian Serie A – Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marco Di Vaio

Head to head at the top of Serie A‘s scoring charts are Inter Milan legend Zlatan Ibrahimović and Bologna frontman Marco Di Vaio. While Zlatan needs no introductions (he was described by manager José Mourinho as the best player in the world earlier this season, and is certainly its highest paid), Di Vaio is one of football’s journeymen. In fact, at 32 Bologna is his ninth club – an ominous statistic, although his former employers have included such luminaries as Lazio, Juventus, Valencia and Monaco, so life at the game’s top table should come as nothing new to the Italian.

Spanish La Liga – Samuel Eto’o

Barcelona‘s Samuel Eto’o has to be a frontrunner for the Golden Shoe after 25 goals so far this season as the needle point of new coach Josep Guardiola‘s expansive brand of football. Interesting or unexpected? Well, no. But kudos to the Cameroonian striker for retaining his place after rumours of an exodus at Barcelona in the summer and for taking his goal tally at the club past the 100 mark this season, to 102 from just 135 league appearances.

French Ligue 1 – André-Pierre Gignac

Is it possible to sound more French? I suspect not… and André-Pierre Gignac is living up to the country’s history of producing extraordinary goal scorers with 18 this season. The 23-year-old has blossomed after replacing Bolton‘s Johan Elmander in the Toulouse team this season, earning a call up to the national side for the first time. Behind him in the scoring tables is Paris Saint-Germain‘s Guillaume Hoarau, who earned a move to the capital after a return of 28 goals last season with Le Havre.

The Premiership – Nicolas Anelka

Nicolas Anelka finally looks to have found his place in life at Chelsea under first Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Guus Hiddink. He has all the qualities of the perfect forward – speed, positioning and a fizzing right foot, even if he does appear to lack motivation on occasion. But with just 15 goals, he is hardly a contender for Ronaldo’s mantle, demonstrating the paucity of top strikers in the Premiership this season.

The Verdict

The likeliest winner from Europe’s five biggest leagues looks to be Samuel Eto’o as the first from any of the divisions to pass the 20 goal mark. But this season there may just be a small chance of one of the continent’s less illustrious leagues springing a surprise. Players in the so-called lesser leagues earn fewer points for every goal they score, so the last player to overcome this weighting system was Sporting Clube de Portugal‘s Mário Jardel (who went on to play for Bolton and contend for the separate title of the Premiership‘s most overweight player ever). This year, Red Bull Salzburg player Marc Janko will have to do even more by outscoring Eto’o in the Austrian Bundesliga to win the title. And he might just do it. Janko kicked off the season with five goals in two games and by December had scored 45. With only league goals counting, he will have to improve on a tally of 33 in 27 matches, although to date he has scored five hat tricks this season and four in one game as a second-half substitute against SCR Altach to help Salzburg win 4-3 and demonstrate that anything is possible.

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Another reason to love José Mourinho

March 12, 2009

jose-mourinhoMy sense of grief at the thought of not spending more time in the company of a certain Mr. José Mourinho after his Inter Milan side crashed out against Manchester United last night has already abated. Not because I won’t miss the lovable Portuguese rogue. But because José is determined not to go down without a fight. Literally.

First, Mourinho does the gallant thing. Blame Italy, the country he will be returning to, and not Inter Milan or even Manchester United. Next, heap praise on his victorious rivals, claim they’re on for a clean sweep of trophies and all the time make sure that he – and not Manchester United – are the centre of attention. And then, as if that wasn’t quite enough, he punches a United fan in the face outside Old Trafford. I know I should be shocked, appalled even, but the truth is that this most recent act of incomprehensible insanity is precisely Mourinho’s crowning glory in my eyes. Just like watching Phil Brown sitting Hull down in the middle of the pitch to give them a half-time team talk dressing down, or Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi, it is precisely Mourinho’s violent unpredictability that makes him so enigmatic – enticing even.

The reality is that management at the top of the Premiership has become dull, sterilised even. Arsène Wenger‘s idea of losing his cool is signing a player who, shock horror, isn’t from France (queue Andrei Arshavin). While Rafa Benítez enjoys publically crumbling into pieces, he still does so in a quiet kind of way, while Chelsea have ditched Luiz Felipe Scolari for a more sanitised alternative. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, once famed for his outbursts and for kicking a boot at David Beckham, has mellowed. Now when he gets really angry, he simply buys a cheaper bottle of red wine from Oddbins to share with the opposition’s manager.

Mourinho once questioned if Barcelona‘s Lionel Messi was prone to over egging challenges in matches: “‘Can Messi be suspended for acting? Barcelona is a very cultural city. You know all about theatre. You have theatres of high quality.” At the time it was a controversial comment. Looking back at it now, it feels like a poignant reminder of precisely the kind of theatre the Premiership has lacked in Mourinho’s absence. Come home soon, José.

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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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Playing Cech up

March 5, 2009

t1_cech_all1Apparently Chelsea have identified lack of competition for the No 1 jersey as the main reason behind Petr Čech‘s alarming drop in form. Some reports have even suggested that the club are considering selling the Czech international in the summer. Any suggestion that the former Golden Gloves winner might move on is probably just making mountains over molehills, but without a doubt Carlo Cudicini‘s exit to Tottenham in January has left a gapping whole on Chelsea‘s team sheet – one that even the sprawling figure of Hilário can’t fill.

But just who is up to the task of taking on the Euro 2004 semi-finalist? Well, looking within the Premiership, there are a couple of first-class goalkeepers warming the substitutes bench at Manchester City and Sunderland. Joe Hart and Craig Gordon are arguably the two most promising young goalkeepers in Britain. Both are extraordinary, athletic players who have been frustrated at club level by the call for experience over promise – which is doing neither of their international careers any good. Whether they would have any better chance of making the first team deputising for Čech is another question. And neither Hart or Gordon fits the profile of Chelsea‘s usual, continental and glamorous headline signings.

Looking further afield, Chelsea‘s new manager Guus Hiddink could do worse than fast-tracking the career of his young ward in the Russia set-up, Igor Akinfeev. Aged just 22, Akinfeev has already notched up 29 caps and 136 appearances for his club CSKA Moscow. He was the youngest ever footballer to play in goal for Russia at the tender age of 18, and has a record of success at the highest level – he played in Euro 2008 and at one stage went 362 minutes in the Champions League without conceding a goal. Taking Hiddink a little out of his comfort zone, Hugo Lloris has excelled since moving to French champions Olympique Lyonnais in the summer and has since broken into the national team under Raymond Domenech. Another of the finest prospects in European football, Lloris was born eight months after Akinfeev and cost Lyon a cool €8.5 million – but Chelsea would have little trouble doubling up on that fee to bring the Frenchman to Stamford Bridge.

Of course there are cheaper options. It feels like half of the Premiership have been circling Espanyol‘s Cameroonian keeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, while Olympique de Marseille‘s Steve Mandanda would come with a lower price tag than compatriot Lloris. Whoever comes in, it’s worth remembering that when Čech came in he was by no means considered first choice ahead of Cudicini. And if the popular Italian (at one stage he was tipped for a call-up to the English national team) could lose his place so easily, perhaps Čech isn’t the “untouchable” he was under José Mourinho.

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Manchester United have stopped needing to try

March 2, 2009

carlingcup2008_945758I’ve been writing this blog now since January. And since the New Year, Manchester United have amassed 13 victories, scored 30 goals and kept 11 clean sheets. They are the reigning Premiership champions, the reigning European champions, the reigning Club World Cup champions and – now – the reigning Carling Cup champions. And I haven’t written about them once.

Why? Because Manchester United are boring. Not boring like an Arsenal side who have gone four Premiership games (three at the Emirates) without scoring a goal. After all, this is a team oozing with quality. They’ve got Cristiano RonaldoCarlos Tévez, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov up front without even accounting for players like Ryan Giggs, Anderson or Paul Scholes – and by the end of that roll call of attacking talent you’re half way through their team sheet.

Rather, Manchester United are boring like Roger Federer used to be boring. Predictable, relentless victory is the mark of the truly great in sport. But it isn’t half as fun as scraping a last minute victory against Wigan. For goodness sake, even Chelsea are more entertaining to watch these days, if for no other reason than at any point they might throw away the lead, sack their manager or decide to decamp to Moscow. Manchester United, by contrast, can field their youth team in an English cup final and still be so good that the opposition manager would back them over his own side: “I have to be honest,” says Tottenham manager Harry Rednapp, “we were not that confident with our penalty-takers really and you looked over there and they had very confident penalty-takers.”

Of course I am jealous of Manchester United. It’s not so long ago, supporting José Mourinho‘s Chelsea, that I was more or less in the same boat. But I also remember all too well that look on the faces of United’s fans this morning. No joy. No linking arms and merrily dancing a jig. Barely even a half-hearted gloat throw the way of their Tottenham counterparts. Just a hunger for more. Ask Federer, or Chelsea fans, for that matter – winning trophy after trophy just makes the first one you lose harder to bear.

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