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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What do you Hiddink?

February 19, 2009

hiddink1Guus Hiddink faces his first big challenge as Chelsea coach against high-flying Aston Villa on Saturday. The importance of this fixture against the club immediately above Chelsea in the Premiership has doubtless not been lost on the new Dutch manager. But can any result turn Chelsea into winners after the circumstances that have beset the London club over the past two weeks?

I don’t think so. Even if Hiddink can mastermind victory over Villa by springing a surprise or two (for example thrusting Michael Mancienne into the action), I don’t believe one win – or even a piece of silverware – can undo the long-term damage Scolari’s sacking has done to the club. For starters, Hiddink isn’t just a part-time replacement for a full-time manager. Along with Scolari, Chelsea dismissed Flavio Teixeira, Darlan Schneider and Carlos Pracidelli from their backroom team. So Hiddink is a part-time replacement for a manager, an assistant manager, a fitness coach and a goalkeeping coach. And given the short term nature of his contract, Hiddink seems both unlikely and unwilling to bring in any additional support – despite the availability of a ready-made assistant like, say, former Chelsea star Gus Poyet.

Then there’s the problem of preparing for the summer transfer window. Last season, before Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had already splashed out £16.3m on José Bosingwa. Neither Scolari or his predecessor Avram Grant has been able to stamp their mark on a squad that has lost key peripheral players including Claude Makélélé and Wayne Bridge in the past six months. Makélélé’s loss in particular has had a visible impact on the team, with his replacement Deco so clearly unfit for task that Scolari was forced to look to German Bundesliga and Brazil flop Mineiro for back up. With news breaking today that Hiddink intends to bring Russian crony and CSKA Moscow winger Yuri Zhirkov to Stamford Bridge – regardless of whether or not he is still manager by the time the player arrives – there is surely a possibility that his successor will be lumbered with yet another unwanted new arrival with allegiances to the former regime.

Of course, it is not Hiddink’s job to worry about these details. After all, he has enough on his plate holding down his five jobs (at last count). Rather, they are problems for his successor – Carlo Ancelotti perhaps? Which is a great shame, because Hiddink is absolutely the right man to take Chelsea to the next level, namely Premiership and European success on a consistent basis. But no manager can deliver all that in a fist full of months: just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who took three years to assert his vision on Manchester United. Or even Hiddink himself, who was given just seven months to turn around Real Madrid in 1998. And, for the record, couldn’t.

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Once more into the Bridge, dear friends

February 10, 2009

scolari4_33796tLuiz Felipe Scolari‘s transformation from the amiable Brazilian who first greeted the English media in June to the humbled and humbugged coach who was sacked by Chelsea yesterday afternoon was perfectly epitomised by his reaction to Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Hull City. The man who had handled footballs harshest critics, the national papers, with such aplomb in the summer could no longer bear to face their hacks after the 15th and 16th points of the season were dropped at Stamford Bridge. Instead, Ray Wilkins was thrust in front of the cameras. If Scolari could no longer manage to charm the pants off the people who make the real decisions in the Premiership, the media, then he was no longer worth his £6 million a year.

So what are the criteria for Chelsea‘s next manager, and who can possibly live up to the job? The general consensus seems to be that the next coach has to deliver results both in the Premiership and – crucially, given the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premiership table – in Europe, which arguably presents Chelsea with their best chance of silverware this season. On those grounds, it seems that Roberto Mancini has been discounted for his failure to get Inter Milan to perform in the Champions League. But I actually disagree. I don’t think Roman Abramovich, Chelsea‘s billionaire backer, craves success or even trophies. Instead, he dreams of being popular and loved – not just by Chelsea supporters, but by fans of the beautiful game across the globe. That means aesthetically pleasing, “total football”. It means lots and lots of goals and attacking verve. But most of all, I think it means resuming the project Scolari started back in June – building a relationship of jovial back-and-forth, even co-dependence with Britain’s press. That means one man in particular is on Abramovich’s radar – while another holds the hearts of the supporters.

Guus Hiddink has been consistently linked with the Chelsea job since José Mourinho was shown the door in September 2007. From the land that invented “total football”, Hiddink has an impressive CV that spans six different clubs across three countries not to mention managing the national teams of his native Holland, South Korea, Australia and Russia. With South Korea and Australia, he grasped the imagination of millions by leading teams of little fancied underdogs to magical World Cup runs. What’s more, in his latest job with Russia, he has built strong links with the Russian Abramovich and cemented his reputation for combining flair with a solid foundation. But his only stint with a club the size of Chelsea, at Real Madrid in the 1990s, lasted less than one barren season. And the key players from his current side who he may have earmarked to join him at Stamford Bridge nine months ago, namely Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, have already made the trip across to London to join rivals Tottenham and Arsenal respectively.

Whoever Abramovich turns to, there is only one man the fans want to see in the job – and only one man who could deliver Chelsea‘s owner with the adoration he has been longing for. And he is also plying his trade on the other side of the Thames at a rival club. West Ham‘s charismatic manager and Chelsea‘s best ever player Gianfranco Zola is the only name in football that could guarantee Abramovich popularity. Popularity, but not results. Even die-hard Arsenal and Manchester United fans wouldn’t be able to stop a little smile sneaking out over the thought of Zola at the helm at Stamford Bridge, assisted by Steve Clarke and perhaps even Roberto Di Matteo. Though admittedly that smile would only get bigger if the untested trio failed to deliver results. It may not happen yet, but sooner or later Zola is the appointment Abramovich is going to have to make to secure his legacy at Chelsea as the club’s guardian angel and not just some crackpot dictator.

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A trans-Atlantic lesson in eloquence

February 2, 2009

No, not Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, which has had more than enough media coverage. The unlikely source of America’s most recent lesson in eloquence is Ken Whisenhunt, coach of NFL team the Arizona Cardinals. Put on the spot as the half-time whistle sounded in last night’s Super Bowl defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Whisenhunt delivered a composed and honest assessment of his team’s first half performance and chances.

Were his comments anything particularly unusual? Well, yes and no. In American football coaches are generally available for commentary through the game. But as somebody who is used to watching Mike Phelan speak on behalf of the UK’s most respected “soccer” coach, or Liverpool‘s Rafa Benitez and Chelsea‘s Luiz Felipe Scolari self-destruct in front of the cameras, this felt like something extraordinary. After all, this was no ordinary game for Whisenhunt. First, his side was 10 points down in the biggest spectacle on the American sporting calendar. Second, the Cardinals have the worst record of any team in NFL history and have never won the Super Bowl. And last, the opposition are the NFL’s most successful team of all time, and are also Whisenhunt’s former employers. Who he left in 2007. After being on the verge of sealing an appointment as head coach in what turned out to be last night’s opposition dug-out. In the circumstances, one can only imagine the expletives a Premiership manager would have been hurling. Except, of course, they wouldn’t have been speaking to the media at half-time. Or indeed at all, if the result was poor enough or the referee controversial enough.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a video of Whisenhunt’s half-time interview. It seems that my interest in his approach to public relations is somewhat dwarfed online with a slightly creepy national obsession for the aging Bruce Springsteen. So instead I’ll have to leave you with the other enduring memory of Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison‘s stunning 100 yard interception: