Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Christiano Ronaldo for Portugal (vs Czech Republic), June 11 2008

The whole grubby "Ronaldo to Madrid" saga is taking all of the usual ups and downs at the moment (you know: Madrid whisper sweet nothings at a player under contract to someone else and insinuate that the move is on to the press; the press print stories and elicit angry denials from the club holding the player's registration; the player comes out with his desire to play for Madrid; Madrid innocently claim they have definitely not tried to tap up the player; other club threatens to let the player rot in the reserves for the duration of his contract... then sell him for the maximum amount of money. Everyone's happy?)

I was interested to read this piece in the Guardian by Daniel Taylor though. He tells the story of some petulant behaviour by Ronaldo at a press conference at the Manchester United training ground to commemorate the anniversary of the Munich air crash. The behaviour itself is probably not so surprising and the article is designed to reinforce your view of Ronaldo as a petulant little shit and generally unpleasant piece of work. The really interesting bit is when Taylor says:

"It was such an unpleasant scene the journalists decided not to write about it because we had been invited to the training ground to cover a far more important subject and, when you have sat with men as noble as Charlton, Foulkes, Albert Scanlon, Harry Gregg and Kenny Morgans and seen the hurt in their eyes, it felt incongruous to veer off-track."

I can kind of see what he means, but as the commentators on the post point out, are the football press pack really so complicit that they didn't think this worthy of comment and collectively decided to sit on it? What other stories are they sitting on?

The story doesn't make Christiano Ronaldo look terribly good, but neither does it do the press pack any favours.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Daniele de Rossi for Italy (v France), 17 June 2008

I know we shouldn't be surprised by the pundits on the BBC talking absolute nonsense, but Spain's penalty shootout triumph over Italy last night was twice referred to as "a victory for football".

I can see what they are getting at - Spain played almost all of the expansive attacking football when compared to Italy's defensive minded approach - but a vacuous soundbite of that stature surely can't go unpunished?

The whole point of football (and, some would argue especially international football) is that it pitches different styles and mentalities against one another. Italy are the second most successful international team in world football history and their success has, as a generalisation, been built on defensive knowhow coupled with a plethora of attacking talents. The Italian game is defined as careful, possession-led, organised and, I suppose, somehow stylish.

If, as Gary Lineker would have you believe, that Spain's win was "a victory for football" then we ought to be seeing Brazil win every World Cup from now on. Real Madrid would presumably be the European Champions every year and Arsenal would win the Premier League. The fact remains is that it doesn't work like that. History is litterered with triumps borne from tactical knowhow and organisation (think Greece in 2004), home advantage (think England in 1966) and, on occasions, luck (think Germany in 1996).

Teams who adopt defensive strategies that play to their strengths are as valid and as important to the game as those carefree attacking sides. Whether they are as easy on the eye is a different matter entirely, but they should not be criticised for adopting an approach within the rules of the game that suits their priorities. If I admire the organisation and defensive style of the Italians and the quality of their world-class goalkeeper (which I do), their frustration of a talented Spanish side for 120 minutes is as much of a "victory for football" as any.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Blaise Kufo for FC Twente (v Ajax), 10 May 2008

After some weeks of negotiation, it was today announced that hapless ex-England manager Steve McLaren has agreed to be the new manager of Dutch top-flight side FC Twente. An interesting career decision it is, but a good one, I think. Twente are a nice side, have just qualified for the Champions League and are in a league where the dominance of the top three sides is not as strong as it has been in previous eras.
It has been a bizarre managerial season in the Eredivisie in so much as the top six sides from last season will start the new campaign with a different manager. Ajax have replaced (temporary) manager Adrie Koster with the current national coach Marco van Basten. Bert van Marwijk quit Feyenoord to be the new national coach and Gertjan Verbeek left Heerenveen to replace him at the de Kuip. Norwegian Trond Sollied has joined Heerenveen and PSV appointed well-respected coach Huub Stevens to replace temporary coach Sef Vergoosen. McLaren has jointe FC Twente after previous manager Fred Rutten left to take up the Schalke job.
The oddest managerial change though came at NAC Breda. After finishing third in the Eredivisie - their highest ever league position - the club decided not to renew coach Ernie Brandt's contract. To say the fans weren't happy was something of an understatement after he fashioned a side including journeymen like Anthony Lurling and Joonas Kolkka that at one stage were challenging for the title.
I think McLaren might do an OK job in Holland. Twente played well last season and knocked Ajax out of the Champions League qualifying play-offs. In Orlando Engelaar they have one of the stars of Euro 2008 so far, and prolific Swiss striker Blaise Kufo extended his contract in April. It will be interesting to see whether McLaren turns to England for new signings (ex-Boro player Luke Wikshire already plies his trade at the Grolsch Veste) or whether his knowledge of the Dutch game is good enough that he can buy from rival clubs.
From my point of view, it just adds (yet another) reason to watch the Setanta coverage and I might even add Twente to my next Dutch excursion. Oh, and Steve - the Dutch for "umbrella" is "paraplu".....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Andrea Pirlo for Italy (v France), 17 June 2008

I can't make any particular excuses for the lack of biting analysis and stunning insight into Euro 2008 on this site of late. Such as that was likely, obviously.

The simple fact is that it is, as I predicted before the tournament began, the first World Cup/European Championships I haven't watched avidly in two decades. I simply can't get that excited about it. Some of the football has been good, and there have been one or two intriguing/exciting games but I somehow feel that I have seen it all before.

The one pleasing element has been the success so far of the maligned Dutch side. In England's absence, the Dutch (thanks to my love of their league game) were always going to be the side I would follow, but I (like many others) never gave them a chance. However, van Basten's change of formation (from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1) has allowed their talented attack-minded midfielders to shine and the two defensive midfielders (de Jong and Engelaar) have played brilliantly, providingthe platform on which the rest have played.

I predicted a Germany v Italy final and not much has swayed me from that view. Indeed, I backed the Italians at 20/1 after their draw with Romania and that looks like awfully good value all of a sudden. As I said a while back, I strongly believe that Spain won't prevail and despite them performing better than I anticipated, I still don't think they will be strong enough.

Perhaps it is football fatigue, England's absence (saying that, wouldn't we have been humbled and out already bearing in mind the quality we'd have faced?) or (as I said before the tournament) the prevalence of familiar faces but I can't really get terribly excited.

(Oh, and Gary Lineker becomes more smarmy and irritating every time I turn my television on. It is now at the point where I can barely watch him.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Giovanni van Bronckhurst for Holland (v Italy), 9 June 2008

I knew this competition would be good for these...

"Did he just say he was making a "pasta di natale"?"

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Luca Modric for Croatia (v Austria), 8 June 2008

I can see the European Championships being a rich source of these....

Mrs LB: "....did he just say that player is called Outhouse?"

Friday, June 06, 2008

Xavi for Spain (v USA), 4 June 2008

According to the bookies they are second favourites, but has no-one remembered the little-but-important fact that the second Spain get to a major football tournament that they are *utterly* rubbish?

I know they have Torres this time and Xavi and Iniesta and assorted other excellent players, but they have had top class players at every tournament they've ever been in. When Gary Lineker says he will plump for "perennial underachievers Spain to win Euro 2008" he seems to be ignoring the key two words in his analysis - the "perennial underachiever" bit.

The Germans are the clear favourites, although it should be remembered that their brand of un-German free-flowing attacking football came unstuck last time out against the Italians. Germany are putting (basically) the same XI out this time around and so whilst they would be a surprisingly popular (I think) winner, I just think they'll encounter someone who'll blunt their attack and take advantage of their slight weaknesses in defence.

Portugal could be brilliant or awful - they have spent a decade playing international football with one rubbish striker and that situation hasn't altered much. There aren't enough wings on a football pitch to house Quaresma, Simao, Nani, Ronaldo et al and so some square pegs must fit into some round holes. They'll have a good run, but short of a certain Madrid bound winger winning it singlehandedly I don't think they have quite enough.

So who does that leave? The French (average age 42) have a wealth of experience and one or two youthful matchwinners in Benzema and Ribery. Italy are always strong and come in as World Champions but the loss of Cannavaro is a blow and their current crop of players have been pulling up no trees in the Champions League of late. Holland got the worst of all draws as to have any chance they have to eliminate either France or Italy in the group stages, but if they do get out of the group it is an easier path to the final than you might think. Saying that, it wouldn't be a major international tournament without disharmony in the Dutch camp and with concerns over van Basten's managerial abilities, players leaving the squad and an acute shortage of talent in certain areas (Mario Melchiot is in the squad, for Lord's sake) they might horrifically underperform.

I've each way money on Sweden - always better than the sum of their parts and "only" Russia and Greece to contend with to escape group D. Croatia would have been a good outside bet also but the goals of Eduardo will be too much of a miss.

So, what's the conclusion of all that, then? Er, I don't know really. I suppose you'd just have to be brave to back the Spanish, insane to back the Austrians and don't underestimate the power of the home support in these events (the Swiss, clearly, are the pick here). Oh, and a Germany v Italy final, with the World Champions prevailing. That should guarantee Carlos Puyol holding aloft the trophy on 29th June, then.....

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Marco van Basten for Holland (v USSR), 25 June 1988

So, the European Championships begins this weekend. Despite the BBC's constant badgering (they might as well have called their promotional campaign "Please Watch This Anyway!") I can't get terribly excited about it.

Clearly I'll watch it all, and clearly I'll blog about it incessantly (despite having absolutely no angle to take whatsoever) but for the first time in years I could happily let a major international football tournament pass me by.

I'm not sure why this is. On the face of it, the absence of any partial interest is probably unconsciously a factor. It's also the first European based football tournament I haven't physically attended in a decade. I think it's more straightforward than that, though, and I blame the Premiership and the Champions League.

When I was younger, and even into my twenties, I'd tune into the World Cup or European Championships to watch colourful fans and skills and players from far away lands of which I had no knowledge. I met a bunch of Slovenians in Amsterdam in 2000 and could name one of their squad (the mercurial playmaker Zlatko Zahovic) and yet got caught up in the atmosphere of that day precisely because they were "new" and unknown.

Now, fed on a diet of Premiership football and the Champions League, most of the mystique has gone. In 1990, no-one outside of Italy (and many inside!) had heard of Salvatore Schillaci but half the wonder of that tournament was the emergence of this little, bulging-eyed dynamo. The stars of Euro 2008 are likely to be Torres and Henry and Ballack, players who we know inside out.

We'll be surprised, as ever, a dark horse will give us a good story (a la Greece in 2004) and a wondergoal will come from an unknown as surely as it has from a Vasily Rats or a Tomas Skuhravy over the years. Back in the day we were lucky if we got to see one or two world class players on "Match of the Day" and so we tuned in eagerly to these summer tournaments to see the others in action. This summer we'll pretty much have seen it all before.