Friday, May 26, 2006

It’s the Socceroos, but not as we knew 'em

Socceroos vs Greece wrap

THIRTY-two years we’ve waited for a World Cup farewell party. If this is what they’re like, lets have one every four years.

As far as an exercise in preparing the Socceroos for the serious stuff which starts in just less than three weeks, this was just about as good as it gets. A 1-0 victory that sends the team on its overseas adventure in great spirits, sends a strong message to the world that the Socceroos aren’t going to the fiesta to simply make up the numbers and reassures the manager, Guus Hiddink, that his message is sinking in, even beyond the first 11

And just as importantly, perhaps more so, no new injury concerns.

Yes there will be pockets of Greek fans from Melbourne to Mykinos a little disappointed with their side’s contribution to this match, but for Australia, making an impression in Germany is now within reach.

Make no mistake, this was, along with the Sydney display against Uruguay in November, among the most controlled and complete Socceroos performances this correspondent can remember.

To see an Australian side so in control of their opponents, as they were last night, as they were last November, is simply too good to be true. Since Hiddink hit our shores midway through last year he has preached the mantras of flexibility and adaptability, and here they were, all on display.

Even in the build up to this match much was said about Hiddink’s ability to tailor his team’s formation to suit whatever the opponent is doing, and here Australia shifted to a fluent 3-4-3 formation as soon as it was apparent Greece were playing with two strikers.

Much was also said about the absences of three top line attackers, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi, but this performance proved what Hiddink has said all along, that the team is more important than any one, two or three individuals. The show must go on.

Socceroo teams of the past have all played with genuine purpose, belief and passion, but never with this amount of calm, control and thought. Everything is in sync, everything has a purpose, and while the Europe Champions threatened to equalise with a couple of half chances in the second period, the Socceroos rarely looked under duress.

As skipper Mark Viduka said to the packed MCG house shortly after Mike Reily’s final whistle; “We keep the ball very well, we don’t panic. We play like all the other big teams around the world. It’s a tribute to him.”

‘Him’ being Hiddink, of course.

But it is also a tribute to this generation of Socceroos. Empowered by their experiences throughout Europe, they have been quick to recognise their amazing fortune of being able to share a few fleeting months with this worldly practitioner, seizing on his tactical acumen and applying themselves to the cause.

It is a tribute to their learning powers that they have been able to soak up everything he has drilled into them, playing with the intelligence and technique that the likes of Johnny Warren have long campaigned for.

He told us so, and he was right.

The only pity is that he wasn’t at the MCG last night to exorcise the Iran demons of almost nine years ago when he wept openly at yet another missed opportunity.

If he was watching from above, he would have seen a fluid Socceroos unit, playing the type of keep ball possession, full of movement, purpose and pace, we have come to associate with other, more powerful, football nations.

Yes, there are still things to work on, such as the final ball and killing off a game when you are in control, but for now the signs are encouraging. Hiddink will play it down a touch, and he is right to. After the game he emphasised one key word, ‘consistency’, and there is little doubt he will be seeking it in the build up to next week’s Dutch friendly, which will be another challenge for these players.

Controlling games at home is one thing, controlling them abroad – and regularly – is a different matter all together.

But for now Australia can rejoice in finally having a football team that can compete on the world stage, not only physically, but where it is most often decided, in the mind.

The beauty is this generation of players now has the opportunity to showcase their collective talents and spirit on biggest stage of all, and, on this showing, who would bet against them making an impression.

The Greeks would certainly think so after last night. And privately even Hiddink would be amazed at how far this unit of players has come in such a short period under his tutelage.

Whatever happens to the Socceroos in Germany, we can only hope that in 12 years time, and hopefully with a couple more World Cup farewell parties behind us, this period is remembered as the awakening of Australia as a competitive player on the world stage.

Players Report Card

Zeljko Kalac, 6; after so long as the second string keeper he finally got his chance, but on the few occasion he was involved he looked a little anxious to impress, particularly on one early cross. Perhaps he was rusty from having played second fiddle to Dida at AC Milan. Got better as the match went on, just needs to be a little more sure coming for crosses.

Brett Emerton, 6.5; adapted well to being pushed further forward in the pre-game reshuffle to a 3-4-3, showed he still has bundles of fitness despite not playing much at Blackburn since the November qualifier. Hiddink will look to build his confidence up as he is an important part of the Socceroos formation.

Craig Moore, 7.5; in his first Socceroos game for almost 12 months, since the ill-fated Confederations Cup campaign, Moore played like he’d been under Hiddink for years. A model of composure and leadership.

Lucas Neill, 8; what a revelation Neill has been under Hiddink, both a central defender cum sweeper and a distributor from the back. Showed how adaptable he is by shifting to the left when Tony Popovic came on for Scott Chipperfield, making a number of timely runs up the flank.

Scott Chipperfield, 7; solid when he was acting as a stopper and showed how quick he is when venturing forward, another excellent display from this consistent Socceroo.

Jason Culina, 9; simply outstanding, along with Vince Grella he controlled the game with his brilliant technique and wonderful distribution, both long and short. On the one occasion Greek left back Fyssas got to the byline, it was Culina tracking back to snuff out the danger. Could emerge as one of the stars of the World Cup. Man of the match.

Vince Grella, 8.5; not far behind Culina, he was the launching pad for Australia’s domination in the first half and again picked Australia up in the second period after the Greeks had started well.

Josip Skoko, 8; excellent 60 minute hit-out for a player who hasn’t played much football this season. While his touch isn’t at tight as Culina, he’s an intelligent user of the ball, always looking to link up with a short pass. After a brilliant display against Bahrain in February, he scored another trademark long-range gem and will keep pressure on the likes of Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano with this type of performance.

Marco Bresciano, 8.5; another outstanding display from one of the Socceroos’ true marathon men. He was everywhere, playing wide left, wide right and buzzing around the midfield whenever Greece had the ball. A constant threat with his set pieces, he will be one of Hiddink’s trump cards in Germany as he can just about play any one of four or five positions across the midfield.

Mile Sterjovski, 7.5; took his opportunity very well, creating countless openings down the right flank and even firing in a shot from the left. If there’s one area he will be disappointed in it’s his final delivery when in good positions. Too often it let him down, but his movement and involvement was excellent. Gives Hiddink options.

Mark Viduka, 7.5; for the hour he was on, the big man was at his calm and composed best, holding off defenders and bringing his wide men and midfielders into the game. Will be a little disappointed he didn’t have a shooting chance himself, but if he continues to be this influential, Hiddink won’t mind as it’ll be creating openings for others.


Tony Popovic, 6; a good 40 minute hit-out considering he hasn’t played much of late. Came in alongside Moore and never allowed Angelos Charisteas much space, solid job.

Luke Wilkshire, 6.5; Did some good things in the 30 minutes he had, combining well and Grella and Culina in the centre of midfield. Even got forward to hit one rasping shot just wide.

Archie Thompson, 6; Very busy contribution, making a nuisance of himself to the Greek central defenders. Worked back to pressurise the likes of Katsouranis and Zagorakis.

Stan Lazaridis, 5.5; Only had 15 minutes but got his foot on the ball a couple of times. Was a bit rushed crossing the ball on one occasion, understandable for someone who’s played as little football as him.

What were your thoughts on the Socceroos performance? Who stood out for you? and how do you think the Roos will fair in Germany? Post a comment.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Forget the result, this is all part of the broader World Cup plan

Socceroos vs Greece, preview

GUUS Hiddink is right in saying that the focus on tonight’s World Cup warm-up against Greece at the MCG shouldn’t be about the result.

While most of Australia is hoping the Socceroos take off with a rousing victory in front of bumper and jovial gathering, the ultimate goal is to get the result on D-Day, when it most counts, in Kaiserslautern on June 12, against Japan.

This match is merely a step in that direction, and while Hiddink knows that a positive result will instill his men with the right mind-frame as they head to Europe, ultimately he will keep the big picture in mind.

And for him that means that this match is about preparation, both physically and tactically. So on the one hand he will look to get the right mileage into his players’ legs and on the other he will be fine-tuning his tactical blueprints ahead of the real action in 19 days.

On the physical side, it has been fascinating to see Hiddink and his conditioning unit, lead by conditioning coach Anthony Crea, pushing the boys hard in the four or five days ahead of this game. The sight of the Socceroos huffing and puffing after a beep-test on day one of the camp was not one many expected, including the players themselves.

Conventional wisdom is to taper off in the few days leading up to a big game, but recognising that the big game is on June 12, the freshening up will be done in the days ahead of that match. As such, this game becomes a vital part of building up the fitness, especially for those players Hiddink feels need it.

As assistant manager Graham Arnold pointed out yesterday, the players aren’t here for a holiday, it’s all business. So a planned afternoon on the golf course has been cancelled, replaced by guess what? More training.

Fitness first, rest later, that appears to be the modus operandi.

While the Greece match is a crucial part of the physical build up to the Cup, the tactical side is equally as important, some would argue more so.

In terms of the three opponents the Socceroos will be facing in Germany, Greece doesn’t appear an ideal template for either of Japan, Brazil or Croatia.

Of the three, physically the European champions are most similar to Croatia, Australia’s final group opponent, big and tough. There is no doubt they will provide a stern physical battle tonight, and Hiddink will hope his players come out of it hardened, but not jaded.

Yet tactically they play differently to all three Socceroos opponents, preferring to sit back and rapidly counterattack. When they do have the ball, they move it forward at pace, combining quick movement of the ball and players like Stelios Giannakopoulos and George Karagounis breaking forward in support of a lone striker, normally Angelos Charisteas.

Again, Croatia is probably the closest of the three opponents to Greece, although the Croats are arguably as comfortable at building up play as they are at playing on the counterattack.

The Greeks like to test their opponents’ patience, defending deep and cramming the midfield, so for the most part it will be the Socceroos controlling the ball and trying to unlock the Greek defence.

These are unlikely to be tactics the Socceroos will encounter in Germany, at least not in the group stage. All three opponents there will try and control periods on the game through possession, and aim to put pressure on the Socceroos defence.

So the dynamics of tonight’s encounter are intriguing, if not necessarily providing absolute insight into what the Socceroos can expect to come up against tactically in Germany.

What Greece should provide going forward is good movement of the ball and rapid mobility off the ball, and the Socceroos will definitely have to deal with this throughout their World Cup sojourn.

So tonight’s game will be as much a mental battle for the home side, both in the discipline needed to thwart Greece on the counterattack and at set pieces, and the patience needed going forward to break Greece down.

It appears Hiddink has opted for what is nominally a 4-2-3-1 formation for this match, and possibly beyond. If Greece, as mooted, play with one up front (likely to be Charisteas), you can be sure that Hiddink will ask his two fullbacks, expected to be Brett Emerton on the right and Scott Chipperfield on the left, to push on into midfield, ensuring the Socceroos can control that area.

Defensively, this allows to Socceroos to have one central defender (likely Craig Moore) marking Charisteas and the other, likely to be Lucas Neill, providing the cover, as he did so splendidly in Sydney in November.

Offensively, by pushing Emerton and Chipperfield forward, it allows the two wide men to get further forward in support of Mark Viduka. Just who these two are will be one of the intriguing aspects of Hiddink’s selection. Had Harry Kewell been available, he would have been the obvious choice on the left.

Now it provides an opportunity for someone like Mile Sterjovski or Archie Thompson on the left. With Emerton playing a deeper, more defensive role, there is also an opportunity on the right side of the Socceroos attack.

Had Tim Cahill been available to play in behind Viduka, there is every chance Marco Bresciano could have been lining up on the right, giving the Socceroos a potent attacking quartet of Viduka up front, with support from Kewell (left), Cahill (central) and Bresciano (right). As it is, Parma’s attacking midfielder could be deployed behind Viduka tonight, creating an opportunity for either Sterjovski or Thompson on the right.

If Hiddink gives Josip Skoko an opportunity to impress behind Viduka, then Bresciano will start in one of the wide roles, meaning either Thompson or Sterjovski miss out.

These attacking options are the areas of the pitch Hiddink will tinker most with. Defensively he seems set on a back four with two guys, Vince Grella and Jason Culina, screening them.

By having the adaptable Chipperfield and Emerton in the back four, Hiddink then has the option of instantly reverting to a back three in the event of an opponent playing two up front. Chipperfield can slide infield and become a left stopper, with Emerton pushing further up the pitch.

Australia could well be faced with such a scenario tonight if Otto Rehaggel decides to partner Charisteas with George Samaras.

If a team play with three forwards, then Chipperfield, Moore and Emerton become the stoppers, with Neill providing the cover.

Every scenario has a solution, giving the Socceroos tactical control. So long as there is one spare man at the back, she’ll be right, that appears to be the motto under Hiddink.

These are the things that Hiddink will be looking for tonight. As long as his players adapt to the various scenarios thrown up by the game, Hiddink and his brains trust will be content knowing they have taken another significant stride on the way to Germany.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Whistle blower steals space from stars

Champions League final wrap

SO another European season draws to a close and just when you thought last season’s miraculous comeback by Liverpool would be hard to top in the surreal stakes comes another bizarre Champions League final, influenced as much by the man with the whistle as it was by the main attractions, the 22 or so men on the park and their two managers.

While much of the talk in the build up was about the likes of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Deco and Samuel Eto’o, there is little doubt that much of the post match analysis will be about the contribution of Norwegian referee Terje Hauge and particularly the early incident which saw Jens Lehmann red-carded and Barcelona’s Ludovic Giuly denied the advantage of playing on, which would have seen the Catalan’s go one up.

Both teams could feel aggrieved by the referees decision, Barcelona denied the lead by an over-eager official who failed to play advantage, Arsenal reduced to 10 men for 70 or so minutes. Had advantage been granted and the goal been allowed to stand, there is an argument for Lehmann to remain on the pitch, as there was no longer a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The pity is that we'll never know whether the Gunners, with a full compliment, would have been good enough to claw their way back from one down. The popular theory in the build up to the game was that the first goal would be crucial, particularly if it came from Barca. Arsenal would be forced to open up - contradictory to the way they've been playing this Champions League campaign - leaving holes for Ronaldinho and Co. to exploit.

While Barca would have felt aggrieved not to have gone one up, their anger would have multiplied a short time later when captain Carles Puyol was adjudged to have fouled Arsenal's effervescent overlapping right back Emmanuel Eboue, resulting in Sol Campbell's opener from a free-kick that should never have been.

Arsenal, for its part, feel they were hard done by in the lead up to Eto'o brilliant equaliser, Arsene Wenger claiming the Cameroon striker was offside when played in by a delightfully weighted Henrik Larsson touch. It was marginal.

While Henry launched into a tirade at the referee shortly after his final whistle, the reality is that Hauge was bad for both sides, and it spoilt what started as a breathtaking encounter that promised to live up to the pre-match hype. First Arsenal's captain should have opened the scoring three minutes in when he reacted quicker than Rafael Marquez to an Eboue cross, only to see Victor Valdes react sharply. Back came Barcelona, spraying balls wide to Eto'o and Ludovic Giuly, both hugging the touchline, left and right respectively.

Frank Rijkaard had sprung a surprise in his starting formation, with Ronaldinho central and Eto'o left. It seemed strange. Perhaps the idea was to stretch the Arsenal defence, creating space in the middle for Ronaldinho to weave his magic. When he had time to turn and look up in the 17th minute, he played Eto'o in with the most sumptuous ball.

We all know what happened next. The send off changed the complexion of the match, forcing Wenger to sacrifice the unlucky Robert Pires for reserve keeper Manuel Almunia, as the Gunners reverted to a 4-4-1. Other than the odd burst forward, such as Eboue's run that led to the opener, Arsenal had little choice but to sit deep, play on the counter and get to the break. With Henry working back to make up for the shortfall in midfield, it was essentially a 4-5-0 for the remainder of the half.

The pattern was set, Barca working over an Arsenal side on the retreat. Intriguing it was, but not the even attacking contest many had hoped for.

At the break it was almost certainly a case of whether the Gunners could hold out or whether Barca had the patience to keep working them over, and take their opportunities when they arrived. Certainly Barca appeared weighed down by the expectation, no surprise given their meagre return from this competition. While he would have been churning inside, no doubt Rijkaard preached calm and the need to 'stick to our convictions'.

Knowing that the control of the match was with his side, he introduced the forward thinking Andres Iniesta for holding midfielder Edmilson and soon after introduced striker Larsson for surprise starter Mark van Bommel. They would prove to be telling moves.

As for Arsenal, Wenger would have known it was impossible to merely defend for the second 45. No doubt he spoke of the need to hold the ball, relieve some of the pressure and get men forward in support of Henry. Freddie Ljungberg responded, bursting forward to give his marker Presas Oleguer all sorts of headaches, creating a shooting opportunity from a tough angle, well saved by Valdes. Oleguer, struggling both in defence and in bringing the ball forward, was sacrificed for the attacking minded Juliano Belletti. It was all or nothing for Barca.

Poised on a knives edge, the next goal would prove decisive. Score and Arsenal might kill off the game, concede and the balance would shift in Barcelona's favour.

Next came a pivotal moment in the game, Henry through on goal thanks to a Puyol slip, only to shoot straight at Valdes. Perhaps his post-match comments were born as much from the frustration of this vital miss as his annoyance with the referee.

With Iniesta pulling the strings and Larsson now offering a target up front, Barcelona kept passing and moving, convinced the opportunities would arise. Ronaldinho was becoming more of an influence, tiring the Gunners defence with his dribbling.

They knocked and knocked and sure enough the door was opened by a sublime Iniesta pass, helped on by Larsson, for Eto’o to find a gap at the near post.

Arsenal’s goal had finally been breached, albeit disputably, after almost 11 games.

Sure enough they didn’t have to wait long – five minutes in fact – to suffer another blow, Belletti combining beautifully with Larsson to deflect a shot off Almunia. The Gunners had nothing left as Barca stroked the ball around, keep ball at its best.

Arsenal had been magnificent but had fallen 15 minutes short against Europe’s finest, so near yet so far. For Barca, the pressure that at one stage looked like weighing them down was finally released and it was time to party.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Champions League Final - Tactical Preview

The biggest test yet for Arsenal's defence

AFTER the semi finals a couple of weeks ago I delved into how both Barcelona and Arsenal, two teams known for their flowing football, have relied on a more pragmatic approach to reach the final.

It was a point re-iterated by Barca’s intelligent Portuguese playmaker Deco, such a key figure in the outcome of tomorrow morning’s (Australian time) mouth-watering feast, who, when talking about his team’s run to the final spoke with such tactical awareness about how deliberate Barcelona have been to ensure they haven’t leaked goals this season as they have done in previous Champions League campaigns.

In the past couple of weeks he has spoken, on more than one occasion, about the new thoughtfulness prevalent at the Nou Camp.

“Playing better does not mean scoring goals and winning by three or four - that's not always possible. I think we're better this year because we have become more mature, more intelligent at crucial moments in games. That's what we were maybe missing last season,” he said on the eve of the second leg semi final.

This week, he added: "It is true that we now know how to defend well. Instead of just pressing forward we have learnt to adapt to each game and remain concentrated throughout. We still go out to win the games like before but now also we put a lot of importance on defending strongly and not getting caught out by sloppy mistakes. It is going to be a difficult game against Arsenal definitely, but we will play to our strengths and we have confidence."

There is little doubt that Deco has sacrificed some of his own attacking instincts to aid this more defensive structure, particularly since teammate Xavi has been out injured.

In previous campaigns for both Porto in 2003/2004 and Barcelona last year, you would often find Deco high up the pitch, influencing the final third of proceedings with a telling final ball or shot on goal. This season, particularly since the knock-out phase began, Deco has been found deeper, closer to holding midfielder Edmilson, providing the necessary blanket for Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly to strut their stuff.

It has been this sense of purpose that has stamped Barca as the favourites to lift the ‘trophy with big ears’ since knocking off Chelsea in March, and they will enter the final knowing that if they continue with the same formula - dot their ‘i’s’ and cross their ‘t’s’ in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch - they have the necessary punch up front to finally breach Arsenal’s amazing rearguard.

There is too much at stake for Barca – they have only won the European crown once in 50 years - for them to suddenly open up and throw men forward merrily.

They will also know that this Arsenal team is among the most ruthless of counterattacking teams in the world, blessed with the blistering pace and finishing of Thierry Henry up front and the support cast of pacey midfielders like Jose Antonio Reyes, Freddie Ljungberg, Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. Then, when they are free of their defensive duties on Ronaldinho and Giuly respectively, Emmanuel Eboue and Ashley Cole will try to get forward in support.

It appears there will be few surprises in team selection or shape for both sides. Both will stick with what’s worked to date, except at the back for Arsenal, where the quartet of Eboue, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini appear likely to be broken up by the return of Sol Campbell and Cole.

It is hard not to feel sorry for both Senderos and Flamini, but injuries at the wrong end of the season have probably opened the door for the experienced English duo.

Certainly Campbell looked shaky both on the ground and in the air on his return to the team at the El Madrigal, and Frank Rijkaard might look to exploit this hesitation by sending Eto’o in his direction.

Eboue, a flanker converted to a right back by Arsene Wenger, has been the revelation of the Arsenal campaign, but here he faces his biggest test. How Eboue deals with the world’s best player will be crucial. Yes he destroyed Robinho at the Bernabeu, but Ronaldinho is an altogether different prospect cutting in from the left.

No doubt Eboue’s Ivory Coast colleague Toure will be under instructions from Wenger to stay close to Eboue, ensuring Ronaldinho is double-teamed as often as possible. We saw how lethal he can be if left one-on-one when he destroyed Gennaro Gattuso in the semi.

When the Brazilian drifts infield, the job on picking him up will fall to compatriot Gilberto Silva, with Fabregas and Ljungberg expected to be nearby.

Arsenal will defend fairly deep, conscious not to leave too much space between defence and midfield, space the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco and Andres Iniesta would relish.

That is the beauty of this Barcelona outfit, they have the creativity to break down teams who defend deep and the pace to burn teams who defend high up the pitch.

Arsenal will adopt a similar pattern to Sevilla last week, moving the ball forward at pace, hoping they can get midfielders breaking in support of Henry.

Barcelona have spoken this week of the need to stop the supply to Henry, a tactic that worked so effectively against Chelsea, where they put pressure on Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard, stopping the supply to the front three. Here they will look to pressure Arsenal early, ensuring they can’t get their flowing passing game together.

Essentially, they will look to copy the job Villarreal did in the second leg of the semi final, denying Fabregas opportunity on the ball and forcing him to do his fair share of defensive work.

With Carles Puyol and Rafael Marquez sure to be busy with Henry, Edmilson and the two fullbacks (likely to be Presas Oleguer on the right and Giovanni van Bronkhorst on the left) will have the job of tracking Arsenal’s breaking midfielders.

From a selection perspective, it will be interesting to see who Rijkaard goes with as the third of his central midfielders alongside Edmilson and Deco. Will it be the defensive minded and more physical Thiago Motta, who he used against Chelsea, or the more positive Iniesta, so impressive against AC Milan?

The other option of course is the recently returned Xavi, but given the little action both he and Lionel Messi have seen, they’re more likely to be potential wildcards off the bench.

Arsenal will have done well if it gets to the stage where Messi is needed to win or rescue the game, but confidence is no doubt high after 10 consecutive clean sheets, a point everyone in the Gunners camp has been making in the lead up to the final.

The big question is how this defence handles the step-up in class and whether the twinkle toes of Ronaldinho & Co. can dent Arsenal’s confidence.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sevilla make a telling Mark

A UEFA Cup final to remember, even if it was far from memorable for our two Mark’s.

THERE are times throughout a long European season, with fixtures coming thick and fast around all the major leagues and the Champions League captivating the world, that the second tier UEFA Cup gets lost in the background.

With 80 teams starting the first round (after two qualifying rounds) and the competition last year expanded from the original knock-out format to a group set-up in line with the Champions League, there are fixtures all over the continent, making it near impossible to keep up with who’s in and out.

But on the evidence of this morning’s (Australian time) final, a 4-0 hiding handed out by emerging Spanish side Sevilla over English outfit Middlesbrough, there is a compelling argument why the UEFA Cup remains a viable competition, a showcase for emerging and hidden talent – clubs, players and managers.

Certainly there is a strong case for the Cup to revert back to a knock-out format – the final was the 15th European game of the season for both sides – although club bosses would argue that the revenue from TV and gates brought by the extra games is vital, particularly given that most of the competing clubs aren’t part of the rich G14.

At the very least, the final is always well worth casting an eye over, and if you look back over the likes of Porto in 2002/2003 and Liverpool two years earlier, both of who went on to enjoy Champions League success in the subsequent years, it is clearly used by some clubs, players and managers as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Rafa Benitez was another case in point, winning the UEFA Cup with Valencia in 2003/2004 before conquering Europe with Liverpool 12 months later.

Sevilla could well make the step in the coming years. In Eindhoven they turned on a sumptuous display of technical and pacey football, at the same time unearthing a couple of players that might yet make a mark on world football.

While central midfielder Vicenzo Maresca, an Italian picked up from West Bromich Albion, took the official man of the match plaudits with his two late goals, it was right back Daniel Alves who caught the eye with his excellent defensive work on Stuart Downing complemented by his technical work coming forward, which included setting up the opener for Luis Fabiano, once of Porto, with a pin-point delivery.

Perhaps not surprisingly given they infiltrate the European game, both Alves and Fabiano are Brazilian, and they had a third compatriot, left midfielder Adriano, who terrorised Boro’s Stuart Parnaby and Chris Riggott with his constant bursts through the left channel.

Alves, a 22 year old in his third year at the club and tipped as a possible Liverpool recruit, has made no secret of his love for the English game, claiming he watches the English premiership religiously, and while his compatriot Ronaldo mightn’t have heard of Mark Viduka or Harry Kewell, Alves certainly emphasised ahead of the game how dangerous the big Aussie was to Sevilla’s chances of winning, claiming Viduka was the type of player who could look disinterested for large spells and still pop up with a crucial goal.

And he may have been proved right had Viduka taken either of the two great chances that fell his way after the break, first volleying straight at Andres Palop from a Riggott knock-down before shooting wide from a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink tee-up.

It was clearly not Viduka’s night. We can only hope he’s not so charitable in Kaiserslautern in a month’s time.

The same goes for his Socceroos teammate Mark Schwarzer, back after a cheekbone fracture and wearing a protective mask. Despite a couple of excellent stops, he will be a little disappointed he couldn’t do more in Sevilla’s second and fourth goals, but he should have every right to be equally as upset with a back four that failed to provide the requisite shield or reaction to his initial saves.

Indeed, there was a clear gulf in class between the two sides all over the pitch, particularly at the back, where skipper Javi Navarro and side-kick Julian Escude, brother of French tennis start Nicholas, dominated proceedings alongside the diminutive Alves and left back David Castedo. This solid quartet has been the story of their campaign, particularly since the round of 32, conceding only three goals in its eight knock-out games, compared to Boro who had copped 10 over the same period.

In terms of controlling possession, Sevilla were light years ahead, moving the ball around with real purpose and pace, Boro running into dead ends every time they pushed the ball wide. But for a 15 minute spell in the second half, when Viduka missed his two chances, it was all Sevilla.

When the pressure valve came off, shortly after Maresca made it 2-0 with his first real burst from midfield, some of the passing was captivating, five, six and seven one and two touch passes using both the outside and inside of the foot. Breathtaking stuff.

Sevilla’s lot was helped in no small part by Steve McClaren’s decision, with 20 minutes left and 1-0 down, to take off a defender, Franck Queudrue, for a striker, Yakubu. By going to a back three it was an invitation for Sevilla to exploit the space on Boro’s left, which they accept, the impressive Jesus Navas, best friend of Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes, bursting forward at pace to ask questions of Schwarzer and his defence.

Bossing both flanks and stretching the English side, it was little wonder space was created for Maresca to utilise. In twelve ruthless minutes he scored two and set up a third, for Freddy Kanoute, not a bad return for the midfielder who tops Sevilla’s goalscoring chart with 10.

McClaren, the soon to be England boss, and his men had been ripped apart, and there was no miraculous comeback this time, despite the efforts of their own Brazilian, Fabio Rochemback.

Regardless, they will take heart in reaching their first European final in miraculous circumstances and in only their second European season and look to build a team that can regularly mix it in this company.

As for Sevilla, the world now knows about the obvious treasures in their midst and will look to pillage the squad, nothing new for a club that has made a reputation for itself as an astute trader and great developer, turning healthy profits on the likes of Reyes, Sergio Ramos and Julio Baptista in the past few years.

Navas and Alves seem set to add to Sevilla’s shrewd work in the transfer market and training track.

The man credited with much of this is sporting director, Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, responsible for reorganising the development structures when he arrived at the club in 2000, a policy that has reportedly seen almost 20 kids introduced to the first team in five years. As for his eye in the transfer market, Baptista left for seven times the value he arrived. Alves and Maresca were unknown when they arrived but would command a kings ransom if sold today.

Those that follow La Liga will know that Sevilla have been building towards this success over the past two seasons, finishing sixth on both occasions. This season, under new manager Juande Ramos, they are in fifth, three points off a Champions League qualification spot with one game in hand on fourth placed Osasuna. While its two remaining games are at home, they are against Barcelona and Real Madrid, two teams they are hoping to join in next year’s showpiece.

Anyone who witnessed their methodical demolition of Boro this morning would certainly hope to see them back on the European stage sooner rather than later.

Watch the match? If so, what were your impressions of Sevilla and the likes of Daniel Alves, Jesus Navas and Adriano? Post a comment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Why Zinedine Zidane is the greatest of the modern day greats

ALL good things must come to an end, but when it is a great thing, it is just that much harder to stomach. And so it is with great sadness we learn that one of the all time greats, Frenchmen Zinedine Zidane, affectionately known the world over as ‘Zizou’, has graced the Santiago Bernabeu - home of Real Madrid - for the final time.

It happened on the weekend, in the penultimate round of La Liga, when the great man played his final home game, a 3-3 draw to Champions League semi finalists Villarreal, a game he illuminated with a goal, before departing with the quiet, almost unassuming manner that has characterised his career, before swapping shirts with Juan Roman Riqueleme, almost as if passing on the baton and another worthy player.

Soon he will grace the fields of the World’s showpiece, the World Cup in Germany, for one last dance, bidding farewell to the game he has adorned with his amazing blend of technique and humbleness.

A class act, both on and off the field.

It is little surprise that in Spain he is thought of as the fifth great, up there, in no particular order, with Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona.

By virtue of globalisation and the subsequent good fortune of being able to see him on an almost weekly basis, both domestically in the Serie A and then La Liga and across Europe in the Champions League, he is widely acknowledged as the best, at least since Maradona.

The bloke who replaced him at Juventus in 2001, Czech Pavel Nedved, himself a modern star, simply describes Zidane as ‘Number One’, a sentiment echoed around the world.

Three times a winner of the FIFA world player of the year, once the Ballon d’Or for European footballer of the year, perhaps Zizou’s biggest accolade was topping the votes in the 2004 UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll to find the greatest European footballer of the past 50 years, beating such luminaries as Franz Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Di Steffano and Eusebio.

What has stood out so much about him has been an amazing ability to control games on his own. At their peak, when Zidane first arrived at Real in season 2001/2002 and took them to the Champions league success that season and the La Liga title the following season, almost every goal Madrid scored relied in some part on Zidane’s influence.

Whether it was a telling final ball, a sharp turn in central midfield, a slalom-like glide past a bamboozled opponent or a simple pass and move, he was the one pulling the strings, dictating the tempo his team played at with his amazing ability to keep the ball. It is clichéd, but watching Zidane was the closest thing to watching a ball on a string.

Pass it to him and you were guaranteed the move wouldn’t break down. In fact, quite the opposite happened. More times than not it was Zidane playing the role of instigator, prompting Madrid or his beloved Les Bleus - or Juventus for the five seasons before Madrid - forward with his intelligent maneuvering of the ball.

He was not the type of player to decide a game through one moment of individual brilliance - although he had the ability to rise to the big occasion, as we saw in the Champions League final of 2002 when he produced an outrageous left footed volley from the edge of the box to beat Bayern Leverkusen - he was the type to run the game through his sustained brilliance, an artist surveying his canvass and filling it with exquisite touches, strokes and colourful offerings.

But he did so quietly, never making a song and dance, always just getting on with the job and letting others make the noise.

In writing about Zizou it is too easy to slip into past tense. Watching Zidane these days is much harder to stomach, like watching a once great boxer without his sharp hands and knock-out hook.

But at the height of his powers he was a sight to behold. At France ’98 and again at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium he proved, like all the greats before him, that he could produce it at the highest level, when it really counts.

In ’98 he was part of a French team that lacked a real goal-getter, but by controlling games with a tight defence and defensive midfielders like Didier Deschamp and Emmanuel Petit, Zizou was allowed to flourish going forward, providing enough creative spark to take his nation to the final, where he produced two headed goals from corners, the complete player.

Again in Holland and Belgium it was Zidane controlling games as France confirmed their home victory two years earlier was no fluke. Not surprisingly, it was Zidane running the show, and he was appropriately named player of the tournament.

No surprise that when he was injured on the eve of Japan/Korea 2002, Les Bleus hopes and goal creating threat went with him, and by the time he returned for the third game, France’s fate had been sealed, out without scoring a goal.

By the time of the next major championships, Portugal 2004, France had paid the price for not re-invigorating its team, and the ‘old guard’ were eliminated in the first knock-out phase by eventual winners Greece, forcing Zizou and a number of his teammates to retire.

When France were struggling to qualify for the upcoming World Cup, it was Zidane who lead the likes of Claude Makelele and Lillian Thuram out of retirement, ensuring Les Bleus topped their group.

We can only hope that the maestro – once dubbed Harry Potter the wizard – can rekindle some of his lost magic in Germany, but the odds are against him having a major influence.

There is little doubt that as his legs have slowed down, the modern game has quickened up. These days it is the twinkle toes and greater goal-scoring threat of Ronaldinho that have taken over, much as the quick feet of Maradona ruled the world in the late 1980s. Both these guys are a little different from Zidane in that they influence the play in the final third of the pitch, while Zizou did his stuff a little deeper.

Often you would see him receive the first pass out from defence, his strength able to keep play going before he was back on the ball a couple of touches later further up the pitch.

There is little doubt that Ronaldinho is one his way – some would argue already there - to becoming the sixth great, particularly if he can add a couple of Champions League trophies and significantly influence the winning of a World Cup or two (he was only a youngster four years ago, albeit good enough to knock-out England in the quarter finals).

For now though, we can only marvel at the contribution made by one of the true gentlemen of world football and hope that in his final fling in Germany we are talking about him in present tense.

What were your impressions of Zidane? Was he the greatest you’ve seen? Post a comment.