Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Right on Q – A great get for the A-League

OF all the news to emerge from this long, at times tumultuous A-League off-season, perhaps the best came over the past few days, when the defending minor premiers, Adelaide United, were able to confirm the re-signing of Chinese striker Shengqing Qu (pictured right, courtesy of www.adelaideunited.com.au) for at least the next season.

Initially said to be home-sick (at least his wife was), he is now apparently missing the city of churches, agreeing to come back a few weeks out from the start of the campaign.

Whatever his reasons for returning, there is no doubt it is a great coupe for an A-League that took a couple of heavy knocks earlier in the off season when two of the other standouts from season one, Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan, departed for the ‘greener pastures’ of a professional European contract.

While there is no denying players in their prime the opportunity to test themselves at a higher level, and the A-League is almost powerless to stop this, the loss of Beauchamp and Heffernan does pose a few headaches for the administrators. At the very least these players became instantly recognised as the ‘new breed’ of ‘new footballer’, charming and engaging characters in a game that has historically lacked the appeal to create profiles of players.

It was the same with Qu, a player who’s talent the A-League is better off with than without. As John Kosmina has found, it is never easy trying to replace players of his calibre.

In the pre-season Kosmina had spoken of ‘how good the big Chinese boy up front looked’. He was spot on, Qu becoming an instant hero of his teammates, United’s faithful and fans around the country, playing the game in a physical manner, but with an incredible appetite for success.

Some of his strikes were a sight to behold for Australian football followers more accustomed to seeing this sort of quality only on TV. One sublime finish with the outside of the left foot at Aussie Stadium, when he toyed with young Mark Milligan, will live in the memory.

Naturally it was sad to hear, towards the end of last season, that Qu would be taking the family back to China. This turnaround is great news for a league that should be hiring more talent from our neighbours in Asia.

Indeed, FFA’s move into the Asian confederation should be a spring-board for this type of transaction in the future. As more and more contacts are made, more Oriental and Arabic players should be given the opportunity, helping break down stereotypes both on and off the field.

Not all will be successful. Last season there were four players from Oriental Asia -Qu, Hyuk Su Seo at Queensland Roar, Hiroyuki Ishida at Perth and Xiaobin Zhang at New Zealand. While Ishida was given little opportunity at Perth, only Zhang was out of his depth, not a bad strike-rate in anyone’s language.

The message is out, Asia has talent, and it’s waiting to be tapped into. Perhaps disappointingly, the message hasn’t been heeded for season two. Qu and Seo are back, but there haven’t been any other additions from the region.

Fortunately the return of Qu isn’t the only good news for season two. The return of Stan ‘the Man’ Lazaridis is fantastic news and a nice add-on to the return from Europe of Kevin Muscat at the start of season one. Others have been mooted to return, but not surprisingly money might still be the sticking point. Tony Popovic has chosen the cashed-up Qatar league, while Tony Vidmar might still be persuaded to come home if someone can come up with the right offer.

These returning heroes have much to offer the game, both from a marketing and technical perspective, and the FFA’s idea of a fighting fund to bring them home by topping-up their wages has substantial merit.

Elsewhere the purchase of three young Brazilians by the Melbourne Victory offers intrigue and excitement. If it proves successful, expect other clubs to copy the Victory and send a representative to a region flush with talent, one that has already brought us Fernando Rech.

Meanwhile, there are signs the New Zealand Knights are learning from their mistakes of the first season where they admittedly underestimated the strength of the league, signing highly credentialed Paul Nevin as manager and spreading their purchasing around to include some good Aussies in Richard Johnson and Michael Turnbull. The pity for Nevin, New Zealand and possibly the league as a whole is that they couldn’t persuade local youngsters like Jeremy Brockie, Leo Bertos and Jeremy Christie to stay at home alongside experienced defender Che Bunce. If the team is winning and the fans continue to stay away, the lack of a local angle might be part of the reason.

Most of the other clubs have stuck with the tried and tested, players that impressed at other clubs in the A-league (Sydney signed Alex Brosque and Brockie, Melbourne snapped up the impressive Adrian Cacares, NZ have grabbed Johnson and Jonti Richter, Perth were impressed with Jeremy Christie and Queensland signed experience in Liam Reddy, Ante Milicic and Andrew Packer) or in the state leagues (Greg Owens has been signed for good by Adelaide, Lawrie McKinna picked up Vuko Tomasevic from Marconi, Melbourne signed experienced utility defender Rodrigo Vargas, NZ picked up some untapped youngsters from NSW, Victoria and home, Newcastle went on a NSW premier league shopping spree by picking up Tony Faria, Adam D’Apuzzo and Tolgay Ozbey, Perth signed local Josip Magdic, Queensland picked up former Melbourne Knights defender Sasa Ognenovski from the Victoria premier league and local youngsters Dario Vidosic and Tim Smits, while Sydney have youth international Nikolai Topor-Stanley on the books for now at least).

Perhaps this fairly conservative work in the transfer market is still an indication that the game is not yet flush with the funds or expertise to identify and compete for talent far and wide, but, ahead of only its second season, the signs are encouraging.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Status quo as the A-League is back on the agenda

A-League pre-season cup, round one wrap - Teams north, south, east and west looking for better results

THE World Cup now a memory that will be impossible to top, the attention is back on the domestic competition, the A-League, and while it's hard to read too much into the opening round results of the pre-season cup, it's almost a case of as we were.

That's because last season's top three, Adelaide United, Sydney FC and the Central Coast Mariners all kicked of their campaigns with tight one-goal wins, while last season's fourth placed team, Newcastle Jets, managed a 1-1 draw at New Zealand, a game they are reported to have dominated, a pleasing result given the depleted nature of Nick Theodorakopoulos' squad.

While most managers will argue, rightly, that the result isn't all that important still a month or so out from the season proper, they will also be keen to get the confidence flowing ahead of the campaign, particularly those teams which finished outside the four - Melbourne, Queensland, Perth and New Zealand.

Of the four teams at the extremes ends of the A-League compass, North, South, East and West, Queensland and Melbourne decided to keep faith in their managers, while New Zealand and Perth have had tumultuous off-seasons to say the least.

After each failed to kick-off the season in style on the weekend, the pressure for a result will mount, particularly for Ernie Merrick and Miron Blieberg, both of whom suffered first up losses to their nemesis' from last season, Adelaide and Sydney respectively.

Once again both managers trumpeted the 'unlucky' call after the game, but for fans of either team, who's patience was tested at times last season, 'unlucky' will only wash for so long.

Ultimately the results have to improve, but both should be given time to blend their new signings into the side. Merrick in particular has much work to do to blend the likes of Claudinho, Fred, Alessandro, Brebner, Vargas and Caceres into his first 11, while Bleiberg will be hoping that Milicic can provide the cutting edge his attack lacked last season.

Ultimately, for both, it will be a case of balancing the flowing attacking football they demonstrated most of last season with the need for results. Pierre Littbarski's championship winning team rarely played the most exciting or free flowing football last season, but it was winning football, powerful and efficient.

Both will get their chance next weekend, when the 'bottom four' face off, Melbourne travelling to Perth and Queensland hosting New Zealand on the Sunshine Coast.

The Knights, led by Englishman Paul Nevin, certainly had a more positive beginning to this campaign than they did last year, when they were only together for a couple of weeks before their first up hiding at Sydney. Nevin has had more time than John Adshead and hinted that his team were at least on the same "wavelength" against Newcastle. At the very least and given that key midfielders Neil Emblen and Richard Johnson were outinjured, they should narrow the significant gap from last season.

Newcastle are also under new management, Theodorakopoulos known in the NSL for promoting attacking football. It is a philosophy he will try and bring to the A-League and much could depend on how he utilises Nick Carle, one of the most creative players in the country. Last season, under Richard Money and after a great start, Carle appeared burdened by a greater defensive responsibilty, no doubt an asset to his game, but one that detracted from Newcastle's cutting edge.

For New Zealand and Newcastle it is a fresh start, but both have pressure to deliver, on and off the field. A reported crowd of under 1000 fans at North Harbour wasn't the greatest start for the Knights, especially when measured against crowds of 5,000 plus at the other three fixtures.

Perth are perhaps the most unsettled of the clubs, currently controlled by the governing FFA while owners and a new manager are found.

Indeed, these are interesting times not only for Perth but the A-League in general. Even the teams that won on the weekend, last year's power, have question marks over the composition of their squads and style of play. There has been much debate about how Sydney will play under Terry Butcher, fascination over who will take over from Shengqing Qu if he fails to re-surface at Adelaide and intrigue over how the Central Coast will cope without Michael Beauchamp and Dean Heffernan.

At the very least all will be encouraged by first-up wins on a weekend that proved this season is likely to be as close as the last, perhaps moreso given New Zealand's likely improvement. But it also emphasised that last year's 'bottom four' will need to continue working hard.

Gloves off for Glavas

NSW premier league grand final wrap - United striker makes the A-League world sit up and take notice

IF you are an A-League club looking for some untapped striking talent to round off your squad, then you could have done worse than to visit Marconi Stadium earlier today where you would have witnessed a truly top-notch display from a kid on the rise.

21 year old Sydney United striker Luka Glavas would not be known to many outside the confines of the NSW premier league, but this was the day he made the Australian football world sit up and take notice, scoring all four goals in an outstanding individual display of finishing, the foundations of which were laid by a dominant team performance, from front to back.

There is not much to Glavas, all skin and bones, but beyond the fragile exterior ticks a true striker, blessed with the nous to be in the right place at the right time.

He was a constant headache to the more experienced and more fancied Blacktown defence, teasing them with his movement and pace, popping up all over the front-line to damage more than the odd reputation along the way.

Lawrie McKinna was certainly among those in the crowd appreciating his performance, but any A-League manager struggling to find a striker can do worse than give this kid an opportunity to show what he has at a higher level.

Due to the more physical requirements of the A-League, a clear step-up, he mightn't necessarily set the world on fire, but if his attitude is anything to go by, he will learn.

Glavas is a player who has grown with the United season, yet another talent from a nursery famous for producing Socceroo after Socceroo.

He may at times look uncoordinated or gangly, but he proved on this day that looks can be deceiving. His finishes for United's second and final goals were clinical.

His first came not even 15 minutes in, brilliantly set up by some lovely work from United's holding midfielder Mile Jedinak, who won the ball on the half-way line before playing in Ben Vidaic with a perfectly weighted ball which drew Demons keeper Ivan Necevski off his line. Vidaic, the other half of this impressive young strike-force, rounded him, kept his cool and delivery a perfect cross onto Glavas' head.

If the first was a tap-in, the second was high quality, Glavas playing in Peter Markovic down the right, who, from the byline, delivered a perfect first time ball to the near post for Glavas to flick past Necevski. It was clinical, the finish of a true striker, confident and composed.

On top of the world, Glavas didn't stop there, driving in early shots with both feet, confidence flowing.

When the livewire central midfielder Mitchell Thompson, brother of Newcastle Jets' Matthew, drew a penalty from the shaky Blacktown sweeper Mirko Jurilj early in the second half, there was no debate about who would step up.

Not even a substitution from Demons boss Aytec Genc, which forced Glavas to wait a couple of minutes, affected him. He stepped up and comfortably claimed his hat-trick.

There was more. With Blacktown pressing for something from the game, Glavas hung out on either flank, waiting to pick the Demons off on the counter. He had his chances and eventually latched onto a Jedinak early ball, skipping beyond Jurilj and blasting it into Necevski's top corner. Thrilling front play.

This wasn't supposed to be Glavas's afternoon. It was the A-League bound Tolgay Ozbey, top scorer for the season, who was supposed to grab the headlines, his team meant to march towards their fourth crown of the season, but someone forgot to tell a United side that has grown under Jean Paul De Maringy.

When he came in for Zlatko Arambasic midway through the year he demanded more pressing from his team, and with the young legs of Glavas and Vidaic up front, it was a mantra practised from the front.

But is wasn't only the front two in control of this final. All over the park De Maringy had the measure of the two young-guns in the Demons dug-out, Genc and Milan Blagojevic. There was a strong spine behind the victory with the experienced NSL trio of Ante Juric and Joe Vrkic at the back and Jedinak in front of them laying the platform for the win.

While it was all youth up front, Juric and Vrkic showed there is no substitute for defensive experience, controlling the backline, never allowing Ozbey and Luke Roodenburg a sniff. Said to be short of pace, they used their heads, Juric dropping and covering for Vrkic, rarely allowing Ozbey any room in behind. Highly organised stuff.

But it was in central midfield where United controlled the match.

Jedinak, Thompson and Lisandro Berbis were miles ahead of Ivan Zelic, Milorad Simonovic and Kain Rastall, allowing the two flankers, Todd Brodie and Markovic to totally dominate the flanks, against Paul Karbon and Michael Brown respectively.

This is where the Demons failed, giving up the ball centrally as United pressed them into submission, before out-passing and out-pacing them. 4-0 was a fair reflection of United's dominance.

So the team that set the benchmark for much of the second half of the season (Marconi had set the early pace), fell at the final hurdle to a team which appeared to grow after Troy Halpin's departure around the finals.

Glavas was the hero and will dominate much of the discussion, but this was truly a smashing team display.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World Cup Post #18

World Cup Team of the Tournament

JUST about everyone else has had a stab at their team of the tournament, so here’s mine, set out in the most popular world cup formation, the 4-5-1, or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or whatever slant you want to put on it. The hardest part, for me, was trying to decide whether there was room for Lucas Neill alongside Fabio Cannavaro in central defence and who should slot alongside Patrick Vieira in the deep central midfield role, either one of Torsten Frings, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso. Here goes;

Goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon (Italy); In a tournament where the general level of goalkeeping was excellent, Kalac’s blunder against Croatia stuck out. Klinsmann proved he made an excellent choice in Lehmann, ditto Domenech in choosing Barthez ahead of Coupet. Such has been the focus on organised defences in modern football that no single keeper was overworked, but they had to be alert when needed. This is where Buffon shone. In every game he had to make the odd brilliant save at a crucial moment, such as his block from Chipperfield, his save against Ukraine in the quarter final when his team were up 1-0, his spectacular tip-over from a Podolski blast in the semi final and his flying stop to deny a late Zidane header that would have given France the crown, all vital work. His work in remonstrating for Zidane to be red-carded was less memorable.

Right back, Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy); One of the world’s best and most consistent defenders for the past decade, he has been a pleasure to watch in major tournaments and the Champions League, and his work this month was in keeping with these fine standards. Started on the left, but when Zaccardo made a howler against the States, Zambrotta was switched to the right and Grosso came in on the left. In terms of effective adjustments, few have been better. Blessed with two good feet, Zambrotta looks to get forward but never neglects his defensive duties, but he did get lucky not to give away what looked a clear penalty in the final, when he miss-timed a tackle on Malouda.

Central defender, Fabio Cannavaro (Italy); Like Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta, one of the best defenders in the world for the past decade, this was his stage, his time, as the Italian captain, to add to the legend. I was fortunate enough to witness, live, his performance against the Socceroos in Kaiserslautern, simply superb. In truth, I wish he’d chosen another day to be so good, but his performance highlighted everything you want from a defender – strength and speed on the ground and in the air, all done with composure and a cleanness. His performances just got better, particularly in keeping a clean sheet in the Dortmund semi final. Only the extreme pace of Henry troubled him, but even then he scrambled well. Unlucky the voting for the Golden Ball was done at half time in the final.

Central defender, Lucas Neill (Australia); While Lillian Thuram and William Gallas were rocks at the back, enhancing and reinforcing their reputations for Les Bleus, France defended largely as a unit, in numbers and deep, making it more comfortable for the central defenders. The Socceroos, meanwhile, played positive attacking football, often leaving themselves exposed at the back. It was a gamble by Hiddink, but in Lucas Neill he had a defender/sweeper who did a brilliant job at coming out of the defensive line, covering it and then playing or bringing the ball out of the back. His timing in the tackle was most often spot on, except on that one crucial occasion, when he may have been better advised to stay on his feet. Proved under Hiddink he has so much more to his game than the hack we've grown accustomed to seeing in the EPL, a revelation.

Left back, Philip Lahm (Germany); Right from the first minute of the first game, this diminutive left back was impressing with his combination of tenacity, drive and penetration. Came to prominence for VfB Stuttgart a couple of seasons back in the Champions League and became such a threat going forward in this tournament that teams in the knockouts placed players on him solely to limit his forward thrust. Peckerman did so by using Maxi Rodriguez, while Lippi used Cameronesi high up the pitch to keep Lahm busy, but he eventually got on top of both. His goal v Costa Rica was a scorcher, a great way to kick off the festival.

Central midfielder, Patrick Vieira (France); While much has been made about the sublime contribution from the great man, Zidane, in getting France to the final, the unsung hero was Vieira. When Les Bleus where down and seemingly out of the tournament (0-0 at half time v Togo), there was one thing lacking from their game, drive from midfield - too much ball-to-feet stuff and little penetrating. Up stepped Vieira, driving forward to score one and set up another. He continued his great screening and use of the ball against Spain, Brazil and Portugal, before a tweak finally brought him undone in the final. After being outplayed by the apprentice Fabregas in the Champions League, Vieira got his revenge in the quarter final.

Central midfielder, Torsten Frings (Germany); Outstanding in all six games he played (he missed the semi due to being suspended for punching Julio Cruz after the penalty shootout win in the quarter final), his energy and commitment in a four man midfield (remember most top teams had the luxury of a three-man central midfield ) was top notch, doing the dirty work for the likes of Ballack, Klose and Podolski. Frings, more familiar to us as a right wing-back in previous German teams, was everywhere, covering the fullbacks when they overlapped and even getting forward on occasions, as witnessed by his bomb against Costa Rica. Like Klose, his technique has improved remarkably over the past four years.

Attacking midfield, Zinedine Zidane (France); Despite his brain explosion late in the final, it was just great to see the great man rekindle the powers that most, including this correspondent, thought we’d never see again. His performance in the Brazil match was the stuff of a legend, grasping and controlling the game on his own, much as he had done on an almost weekly basis at his peak. Also played well against Spain, Portugal and Italy, but it was his quarter final that will live in the memory.

Right midfield, Frank Ribery (France); Largely unknown before the finals, he was a surprise inclusion ahead of Ludovic Guily in the squad. Now we know why. Ribery, blessed with blistering pace, a wonderful attitude and good technique played every game, belying his nimble frame by getting stuck in and mixing it physically, working back as often as he ventured forward. Seemed to get better and more confident by the game. Supremely fit, he could have won the trophy for France had his extra time shot finished the other side of Buffon’s post. One senses he won't be at Marseille for long.

Left midfield, Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina); A player who impressed at youth level in 2001 under Peckerman has made the step up to the senior ranks seamlessly, buzzing inwards from the flanks, driving, creating and scoring, all with excellent technique. In a sensational team performance against Serbia & Montenegro, he shone, scoring twice and being involved in everything. It was the same against Mexico in the second round, his extra time volley capping a man of the match display. Strangely, against Germany, he was deployed wide on the right, as much to stop Lahm from getting forward as to create himself.

Striker, Miroslav Klose (Germany); What a transformation from four years ago when he hardly set the world on fire with a style best described as powerful in the air but poor on the ground. This time around he still had the power - remarkable power - but his technical skills on the ground have improved beyond belief. He mightn’t be van Basten, but Klose was the busiest, most difficult to deal with striker in the tournament, teasing defenders with his intelligent movement, as Sorin found out late in the quarter final. He also proved he could create for others, teeing up two beauties for Podolski against Sweden. Not surprisingly he ran out of steam towards the end of the tournament, but that’s only because he’d worked so hard he had nothing left. Thoroughly deserved the Golden Boot.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup Post #17

World Cup Final wrap - A finale befitting the tight, pragmatic and fiesty month we've seen

FITTINGLY and not surprisingly, a world cup that has been dominated by defensive, stifling, win-at-all-costs football has been decided from the penalty spot, not an ideal scenario but in keeping with a tournament that has been the tightest in recent memory.

A final that promised so much about half an hour in ultimately delivered much of what we’ve grown accustomed to over the past month, a tactical stalemate punctuate by drama, controversy and decided by who could keep their nerve from the penalty spot.

For once it was Italy who emerged the penalty heroes, as ruthless from the spot as they have been all month, a killer instinct that has taken them to their fourth world crown. The journey hasn’t always been as clinical as their penalty taking was in the final, but it has been efficient and single-minded.

Ultimately it was all about the final objective, whatever it took to get their hands on the trophy, best summed up in the dying moments when defender Marco Materazzi, such a key figure throughout this final, wound up the departing legend Zinedine Zidane, getting a reaction out of the French skipper that swung the psychological momentum to Italy just at the right time.

France had been on top and, prompted by Zidane, looked the only team capable of settling it before penalties.

Whatever Materazzi said there is no excuse for what followed, Zidane losing the plot literally in his final hour. So a player who has conducted himself so admirably at the highest level for over a decade (bar the odd incident), earning the respect of his peers and the world, proved he is human after all.

It is hard to find anyone with a negative word about Zizou, and when the dust settles from this moment of madness, let’s hope he’s remembered for all the good things he has brought to the game, such the as the bravery needed to do a ‘Panenka’ in the world cup final.

Some might describe his seventh minute penalty as crazy or fortunate, but he proved he has the class and strength of character to pull it off, albeit with the help of the post. It came from yet another dubiously awarded penalty, the tireless Malouda going down when Materazzi had seemingly pulled out of a tackle.

Fortunately for the Italians it came early and prompted them to life, Pirlo delivering a masterclass in corner taking, planting one on the head of Materazzi for the equaliser before teeing up Toni for another bullet header, which crashed off the crossbar.

Italy was dominating the opening half, but still had to deal with the wide threat of Malouda and Ribery, constant menaces. Indeed, it was a great battle on the flanks, Zambrotta and Grosso trying to deal with the French wide men as well as launching their own raids forward.

With Pirlo pulling the strings and Cameronesi and Perrotta tucking in to crowd the midfield, Italy shaded the first half, but the second period was a different story. With Henry renewing his love affair with playing against Italian teams, Ribery and Malouda breaking in support and Makelele pulling the strings, Italy was pegged back.

But as always it relied on the solidity of its defending, both at the back and in midfield. This was not the impressive attacking Azzurri we saw defeat the hosts in the semi final, it was the pragmatic Italy we’ve also seen throughout the tournament, grinding their way to a result, the ultimate result.

Remarkably, the team’s joint top scorers finished on only two goals, defender Materazzi and striker Toni. In all they had 10 scorers, truly a team effort in a tournament dominated by team play.

While there might be some criticism that this defensive style can take a team all the way to the world crown, the reality is they couldn’t have achieved their success without the unity they’ve displayed, particularly with all that is going on around the game back home.

It takes a special bond and belief to pull off a world title, and this squad has demonstrated it in spades, lead superbly by Cannavaro, with wonderful support from the likes of Buffon, Zambrotta, Pirlo and Gattuso, as well as two unlikely defenders in Materazzi and Grosso.

But they have also had their luck, as any team needs to win a major championship. Rocking early against Ghana they were simply more efficient in front of goal, before being pushed hard by a USA that got at them with pace. It came together when they needed it, against the Czechs, only to rocked by the Socceroos, relying on that controversial late penalty to get through. Italy had hardly set the world on fire but were through to the quarter finals. Against the Ukraine they stepped it up, but only after the crossbar had come to Buffon’s rescue when they were up 1-0. The most impressive display was against the hosts, but even then they had to rely on a late late show by Grosso and Del Piero, setting up the final where they did enough despite looking jaded.

As is the Italian way, they went through undefeated, conceding only two goals along the way, one an own goal, the other a penalty. Little wonder they are the world champs.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

World Cup Post #16

3rd/4th playoff wrap + a preview of the final - No surprise as the host rounds off a month long festival in style - Does Lippi have a surprise or two for the final?

THE shackles off, this third place play-off between the hosts and Portugal was a reminder of how football was once played, roughly a month ago.

Whereas the past few weeks - particularly as the stakes have increased- have been dominated by the fearful, win at all costs approach, this match was a throw-back, an open and exciting affair, both teams having a real go.

While it's understandable that the football has become more intense and tight as the month has evolved, it's refreshing to watch a match where the emphasis isn't so much on avoiding errors and protecting the goal, but on creating openings and gambling a bit.

In truth, the Germans have been very positive from the opening game, and while they became a little more pragmatic as the tournament went on, this was as much down to the quality of the opposition as Klinsmann's approach.

This result, built on three second half screamers from Schweinsteiger (one deflected in off Petit), was the Mannschaft's reward for such a positive approach throughout this tournament. For the host nation, which had embraced the world, and belatedly its number one goalkeeper and manager, proving the 'time to make friends' slogan was not simply marketing rhetoric, this was a great way to celebrate the end of a brilliant month.

In truth, it was hardly a surprise the hosts prevailed. The Germans have a reputation for treating every game like a world cup final, while Portugal's manager Scolari admitted he was having troubling motivating his troops for this one.

The reality is that Portugal played their part in an game that ebbed and flowed, and had it not been for a couple of solid blocks from Oliver Kahn, given a farewell start by Klinsmann, it could have been Portugal who finished third.

More indicative of their fortunes was the continued wastefulness in front of goal from Pauleta, given the captains armband as Figo surprisingly started his last game for his country on the bench.

A perfect example of this wastefulness came late in the first half when he was put through by Simao with just the keeper to beat, but he shot too close to Kahn. For once he'd been able to find some space in the opposition box, yet he provided none of the lethalness that saw him top the European qualifiers charts.

The contrast with Nuno Gomes, on late and finishing a wonderful Figo cross with a clinical diving header, highlighted Scolari's blunder in keeping faith with Pauleta at the expense of Gomes.

At the other end though it was the hosts providing the greater cutting edge, Klose working tirelessly to try and increase his lead in the golden boot race, and his young side-kick Podolski living up to the hype and hopes of a nation.

For Klose, a player who was vilified four years ago, accussed on merely heading Germany to the final, this was a complete transformation, a player with a much improved technique on the ground to go with the drive, workrate and will to win, clearly the outstanding striker in the tournament.

Barring an Henry feast tomorrow morning (AEST), Klose will deservedly claim the golden boot, even with only five goals. Such has been this tournament.

This night belonged to Schweinsteiger, dropped from the semi final starting side but back in after injuries to Ballack and Borowski. Twice he cut in from the left onto his favoured right foot, a style semmingly favoured by Germans (witness Littbarski's use of Carney at Sydney last season and his own playing style), blasting past Ricardo.

It seemed the more Portugal gambled for the goal, the more space they left for Germany to exploit, but the truth is it was just great to see both teams going for it, a great endorsement for the play-off.

Tomorrow morning is likely to be a little less open, a combination of protection and calculated attack. Once again it is a major final respresenting two of the best defensive units in the competition, as is the way of the modern game.

Italy and German proved in the first semi that it can still be a recipe for quality football, but the fear is that the likes of Zidane, Totti, Henry and Pirlo, the creative guys, will be overshadowed and denied any room by the likes of Gattuso, Makelele, Cannavaro and Thuram, the nulifiers.

The likelihood is that France will stick with the same 11 that has got them here, but Lippi has been the more daring and adaptable of the managers. His use of Perrotta and Cameronesi high up the pitch to nulify Friedrich and Lahm, with Totti dropping deeper, closer to Pirlo and Gattuso, was a masterstroke.

Against the Socceroos he used Perrotta in a deeper role, next to Gattuso, allowing Pirlo to play higher up the pitch. The width on the left came from Del Piero.

It wouldn't be entirely surprising if he changed his starting 11 from the past two games. Toni has been good - improving - without being great, and Lippi might decide to give him a rest for Gilardino, who did brilliantly off the bench against Germany. He also has the option of using Del Piero or the now available Daniele de Rossi, perhaps as an alternative to Cameronesi.

Lippi may see French left back Eric Abidal as a potential weak-link, thus going at him with a more attacking option than Cameronesi, perhaps Iaquinta, who has been effective in the wide-right role off the bench this tournament.

With so much quality through the middle likely to cancel each other out, one of the most intriguing areas will be out wide, and how Ribery and Malouda deal with the ever-improving Grosso and brilliant Zambrotta.

In terms of tactical surprise, it seems Lippi holds the aces, but if Zidane, Vieira and Henry can get themselves on the ball often enough, they have the quality to breach Buffon's goal for what would be the first goal scored by one of Italy's opponents.

Whatever transpires, we can only wait and hope it's a memorable final.

Friday, July 07, 2006

World Cup Post #15

Zizou and Cannavaro battling it out for more than just the major trophy

TWO months ago I wrote a piece eulogising Zinedine Zidane, sad about his impending retirement, yet hopeful he could light it up for one last time on the ultimate stage in Germany. In all honest, it was muted hope, particularly as his form over the past couple of seasons has replicated that of his Real Madrid team – patchy and tired.

In it I begged that, during this world cup, we’d be talking about Zizou in present tense rather than about his past glories, as has become the tendency of late.

Not only has he backed up these hopes with a superlative display against Brazil in the quarter final, he is now on the verge of lifting, as France’s captain, the trophy that matters most.

It would be an image befitting his legendary status, Zidane ending his career at the highest point in the world game.

It is a fairytale thought, but the reality is it could just as easily be the Italian skipper Fabio Cannavaro that accepts the trophy from Sepp Blatter sometime between 6 and 7am (AEST) on Monday.

While either of these two great players will lift the world cup on behalf of their countries, they should also be battling for an individual prize that would be befitting their performances at this world cup.

The Golden Ball is awarded to the outstanding player of the tournament, as voted by the world’s press, and when the 10 nominations were announced by FIFA’s technical study group yesterday, Zidane and Cannavaro were among the standouts.

Part of the criteria was that the players team had to reach the semi-finals as a minimum, which ruled out the likes of Argentina’s Riqueleme and Rodriguez, but in a tournament that has been more notable for demonstrating the strengths of the collective over the individual, the list is fairly expected.

Perhaps only Gennaro Gattuso, a vital cog in the Italian midfield, Frank Ribery, a refreshing addition to France’s attack, Philip Lahm and Torsten Frings, both impressive for the host, can feel unlucky not to be on it.

Indeed, those that should be feeling lucky are Ballack and Henry, big names but peripheral figures in comparison to the other eight.

Zidane, Vieira, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Pirlo, Buffon, Klose, and Maniche have all had outstanding tournaments, and the winner appears likely to come from one of the finalists.

There is little doubt that Zidane has played the most influential game, the one that will live in the memory, but the judges will have to decide if this performance packs more punch than say Cannavaro, who has been phenomenal over a number of games.

While Australians dissected the unfortunate Grosso ‘dive’ and Buffon was awarded the official man of the match award, it was Cannavaro’s game that illuminated the second round in Kaiserslautern, weathering everything the Socceroos threw at a 10-man Italy. He monstered the much bigger Viduka on this night, winning everything on the ground and in the air, and all of it was clean.

Indeed, Cannavaro has yet to be awarded an official man of the match award by the technical study group, but there is little doubt that without him the Azzuri wouldn’t be in the final. His performance in the semi final was top notch, but again the official award went elsewhere, this time to the creative Pirlo.

This was Pirlo’s second award after his opening game heroics, but his performance against the Socceroos was muted, at times invisible.

Perhaps the evenness of the Italians – Zambrotta has also been outstanding since switching to the right and Buffon has been solid – may just spread the votes among them, opening the door for Zizou or Vieira to take the Golden Ball.

Vieira was largely responsible for lifting France from its slumber against Togo, then backed it with an outstanding driving performance against Spain in the second round and wasn’t far behind Zidane in that quarter final.

Without Vieira, France wouldn’t have been in a position for Zidane to remind us of his greatness.
The smart money would be on Zizou adding this prestigious crown to his vast collection, but an Italian victory might just shift the emphasis in the direction of Cannavaro or Pirlo. Whoever has the biggest influence on the final would certainly deserve the honour.

World Cup Post #14

Semi finals wrap - No blues for the Azzuri and Les Bleus as they get stronger by the game

Italy vs Germany: Right from the start this was an epic contest as both teams dished up some football of the highest quality. One of the best games of the tournament, it was great to see both sides play a forward-thinking style of game, full of high quality technique, tactics and a strong mental approach from both sides. The score stayed 0-0 for a very long time, but this was down to some bad luck, good goalkeeping and brilliant defending. Italy shaded the first half with some lovely interchange in midfield between Gattuso, Pirlo and Totti, who were able to dominate possession and bring the likes of Perrotta and Toni into the game. Tactically, Lippi was spot on, recognising, as Peckerman had in the quarter final, that in order to stop Germany bombing forward, as they had done earlier in the tournament, you had to keep the two fullbacks, Friedrich and Lahm, busy. So Perrotta and Cameronesi, nominally defensive players, were pushed further forward on the left and right respectively, closer to Toni, as much to nullify as to create. But Perrotta wasn’t content with that, he was often found breaking beyond Toni, keeping Friedrich and Mertersacker busy down Germany’s right. Totti dropped deeper, closer to Pirlo and Gattuso, often outnumbering the Germany central midfield of Kehl and Ballack. It kept Ballack busy, ensuring that when he did get on the ball, it was in deep areas where he couldn’t hurt Italy, clever stuff. But the hosts weren’t without their moments, Klose giving the Italian defence a physical contest and Borowski, in for Schweinsteiger on the left, looking neat on the ball. The only thing missing from both sides was a finish, as much down to some excellent defending and organisation. The hosts had more of the ball in the second half as their physical game started to tell, Pirlo and Totti fading out of it, and Lahm and Podolski becoming more prominent, but Italy’s back four and the outstanding Gattuso in front of them were magnificent, dealing with everything. Even when Schweinsteiger and Odonkor came on, Zambrotta and Grosso stepped up, denied them space, and limiting the supply. Back came Italy early in extra time, spurred on by a couple of positive Lippi changes. Gilardino and Zambrotta were each denied by a post, before the Germans showed the same spirit they have mustered throughout this tournament, fighting back to create a couple of chances of their own. Klose had given everything and was fading, but it was his partner, the much loved Podolski, who had a couple of great chances, first denied by a brilliant Buffon tip-over before heading wide from an Odonkor cross when left free at the near post. The look on Klinsmann’s face said it all; if only the chance had fallen to Klose. Back came the Azzuri, seemingly keen to decide it without the having to resort to spot-kicks, and when Pirlo forced a great stop from Lehmann not far out from penalties, the resulting corner fell to the AC Milan playmaker on the edge of the box. He again showed wonderful technique, the hallmark of this match, holding the ball, attracting four defenders, and sliding it through to Grosso to shape perfectly into the far corner. There was no falling over this time, none of the cynicism that has increasingly infiltrated this world cup, just brilliant football from both sides, and it’s a shame the hosts didn’t have more time to respond. They tried, it is their way, only to leave space for Gilardino and Del Piero to burn them on the counter. The hosts had played a positive role in this world cup, breaking down the stereotype of a dour and defensive German game. Just as the nation had opened up to embrace the world, so the team had opened up to a world of positive football - strong workrate, sound technique, an improving defence, a cutting edge in attack and a brilliant mentality. As for the much maligned Italians, their tournament just gets better by the game. This was by far their most accomplished performance, built on the foundations of a rock solid defence and an undefeated record under Lippi now stretching beyond 20 games. Remarkably they have conceded only one sloppy own goal in six games. It has been proved that defences often dominate in the major competitions and with Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Buffon, Materazzi, Grosso, Gattuso and Co. in this kind of form, playing with a growing sense of unity and belief, the Italians can almost taste their fourth world title.

France vs Portugal: Not the classic we saw 24 hours earlier in Dortmund, this was more a methodical performance from a French side that, like the Italians, is playing its best football at the right time in the tournament. Like the Italians, the French have also relied on a solid defensive unit and excellent organisation to reach the final, only conceding one goal since the sloppy late equaliser they gave up to South Korea in their second match. Here they appeared to have too much belief for a Portuguese side that might just have invested too much into its past two games, tiring victories over Holland and England. The French had built their confidence with outstanding and deserved victories over the Spanish and Brazilians and started this game in an adventurous manner. Indeed, both teams looked to attack early, confident they could defend any lead they obtained, and they both had a right to be confident. While France had only conceded two, Portugal had only copped one. The first goal would be crucial, and although there was some debate around the circumstances, Henry making the most of some definite contact from Carvalho, it appeared legitimate. Zidane’s successful spot-kick set the tone of the remainder of the game, Portugal pressing as Les Bleus, marshaled by an experienced spine, retreated around the edge of the 18 yard box. The spine were magnificent, particularly central defensive duo Thuram and Gallas, with Makelele and Vieira in front of them not far behind, restricting the space for the likes of Deco, Ronaldo, Maniche and Figo. It became predictable, Portugal getting some mileage in the wide areas from Ronaldo and from deep in central midfield from Maniche, shooting from distance, but not in the area it mattered most, in and around the box. If Portugal were to achieve the ultimate dream of winning the world cup, they needed their all-time top scorer Pauleta to provide a real cutting edge up front, but, as in Euro 2004, he failed to deliver. Portugal was left with no choice but to cut in from wide or shoot from distance. As the second half ticked on, the game was crying out for Scolari to partner Pauleta with another striker, create an extra target, an extra body for France to deal with, but instead he made a couple of like-for-like changes, and Portugal ran out of ideas. For a team that likes to play through the opposition, something the French never allowed, Portugal didn’t have the adaptability to resort to a more physical style, built around crosses. It wasn’t a pretty second half, but it was effective enough from a French side that has combined the old with the new. While the above-mentioned quartet has been joined down the middle by veterans like Barthez, Zidane and Henry, out wide the new brigade have impressed. While Sagnol doesn’t quite qualify in the new brigade (he has been terrific at right back), the likes of Ribery, Malouda and Abidal have all emerged as key components out wide. But there is no doubt where the strength lies, straight down the middle, and Raymond Domenech has done well to get this squad on side and have them pulling in the same direction. At half-time in their third game, against Togo, they looked dead, but spurred on by Vieira, prompted by Zizou and protected by Thuram, they have turned things around, peaking when it counts.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

World Cup Post #13

Second day quarter finals wrap - Zizou and Co. rewind the clock with a vintage display as England fluff yet another penalty shootout

France vs Brazil; On the evidence of this morning's (Australian time) final quarter final, the great man, Zinedine Zidane, is determined to go out with a bang. For two or three years he has been a shadow of the man who once dominated the world game, when he controlled football games on his own for the likes of France, Juventus and Real Madrid. In the past two games, against Spain and Brazil, he has reminded the world, in his final hours, of how brilliant he once was, and it seems, still is. And isn't it a sight to behold. Here he toyed with the world champs, controlling, prompting, teasing, stepping over and rarely relinquishing a ball. It was the mastero, back on the ultimate stage after some terrible luck four years ago, reminding us all about the standards required for greatness. From his first touch, when he took a couple of Brazilian midfielders to the cleaners with a sublime drag-back and run, it was the Zizou of old, simply the most outstanding individual performance of a tournament that has been dominated by team-play. Time and time again Brazil allowed Zidane to turn and tee-up a teammate and he was always the go-to man, so wonderful to see him back at the peak of his powers. But he wasn't alone, this was the most stunning turn-around from a French team which failed to live up to expectations for two and a half group games. It wasn't till the seond half against Togo, when Vieira started springing from midfield, scoring one and setting up another that this side started to look the real deal. They carried it on against Spain with a superb defensive display, but this one was even better. The spine, the big names, were back on top of the world. From Thuram and Gallas at central defence to Vieira and Makelele in front of them, this was a collective performance which stifled Brazil into submission. Zidane and Henry, supported by Malouda and Ribery on the flanks, applied the finishing touches. Even Sagnol was back to his best, and Abidal showed he is an emerging talent. Tactically they squeezed the life out of Brazil, much as Croatia and the Socceroos had to done with decent success. There was little room between Les Bleus' defence and attack lines, ensuring Brazil had no room to play in. It was a tactic used by Kranjcar, replicated by Hiddink and Domenech - defend fairly high up the pitch, keep things compact (no more than 20/30 metres between the strikers and defenders) and never allow Brazil to build any passing or dribbling momentum. These tactics are even tough for the likes of Ronaldinho to play against. While some may see it as cynical, the fact is that if you open up against this collection of Brazilians, they're likely to carve you up, as Japan and Ghana discovered. And finally, Henry scoring a goal of substance in a game of substance, it was a first rate French performance. They have shown in the past two games they still have the desire to succeed and will be hard to knock-off if they continue to display this type of hunger.

Portugal vs England; An intriguing and fascination 0-0 draw, it was great to see England playing an almost European style of game, full of patient build-ups and ball on the ground stuff, a far cry from the knock-it-long-to-Crouch play we've grown acustomed to over the past couple of weeks. Having said that, Portugal still looked the superior passing team, but continue to lack a cutting edge at the top of its attack. Pauleta continues to struggle and this is now a major concern heading into a game against a solid defensive unit such as France. Portugal build things up so beautifully and patiently, but their best chances often fall from distance to the likes of wide men Ronaldo and Figo or midfielders like Maniche. Against a team like England, which defended deep and splendidly, even when reduced to 10 men by a moment of typical petulance from Rooney, this is rarely going to win games. It happened to Portugal against Greece two years ago, and unless their central striker is providing more of a cutting edge, they might find it hard to break down the French wall. Defensively however the Portugese were magnificent and lead by the inspirational Carvalho, often cleaning up on his own. England had some half-chances and deserved to take this game to penalties, but once again the pressure of expectation from the penalty spot brought about their downfall. Just as Germany seem destined to win any penalty-shootout, so England seem ordained to lose them, perhaps down to both technique and temperament. Here they were in the box seat when Petit missed, but still managed to lose.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup Post #12

First quarter finals wrap - Germans and Italians show the mental toughness needed at this level
Tony Tannous, back in Sydney

Germany vs Argentina; No surprise to see the hosts march on to the semi finals, they are extremely solid mentally, unlike the Argentines, who can be fragile when the going gets tough. From their opening game, against Costa Rica, the Germans appeared in the right frame of mind, particularly offensively. They've been exploding into games and few teams have been able to keep up with them. They've worked hard on the defensive problems that dogged their first game (being caught too square) and have generally grown with the tournament. From the moment Argentina pumped Serbia and Montenegro six-zipp, there was concern that they may have peaked too early, and there was evidence against Mexico that their best football may already have been played. Here there was plenty of respect between the two teams in the opening period and Peckerman appeared to have Klinnsman's measure, deploying Tevez on the left and Maxi Rodriguez on the right to stop one of Germany's main sources of attack, overlapping fullbacks Arne Friedrich and Phillip Lahm. Both have been vital to Germany's success this campaign, getting forward and providing excellent width and delivery. Here they were pegged back, and a stalemate emerged. Peckerman's reaction to Ayala's goal gave Germany the impetus to press forward, not that they needed it. The Germans have a reputation for mental toughness that is second to none, but this young side must have had some doubts after conceeding first for the first time this tournament. Instead of doing what has been natural for them this campaign, pressing forward for another goal, Argentina went conservative and paid the price. They started wasting time, became cynical, and there can be little sympathy for a team that does this. The introduction of Odonkor made a big difference as he kept Sorin busy, and Germany did what they do best, fight and fight, getting their reward. They mightn't be the best team player for player, but they have remarkable mental strength, as witnessed during the penalty shootout, simply top notch. Argentina were in the drivers seat and had stuffed it, and their reaction afterwards was as much about the frustration at their own inability to get the job done.

Italy vs Ukraine; There is a certain destiny about the Italian run. All the off field drama, all the luck of the world on it, and they march on. Here they always looked like winners, too strong technically for the Ukraine, but even then they had to survive a couple of close shaves when up 1-0. First Buffon made a great stop, followed by a block on the line by Zambrotta, before the crossbar denied a back post header. It proves that, for all the good defending in the world, you also need luck to do well in a major tournament, and they've definitely had that in abundance, as the Socceroos can atest. But the Azzuri also have a steel that has impressed, lead by Buffon, Cannavaro and Zambrotta at the back, and backed up by Gattuso, Perrotta and Pirlo in midfield. Totti and Toni are finally getting going, and the Italians might be peaking at the right time, just like Brazil and the hosts. The Ukraine came late, but by then it was too late.

Tonights quater finals; England have had a soft draw and meet their first world class opponent in Portugal, who knocked them off two years ago. In the past three major championships, England have been knocked out by better technical passing teams (Romania in 2000, Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2004) and it remains to be seen whether they can pass the ball better than they have been, vital if they are to relieve pressure against the technically edept Portugal. The performance against Ecudaor was England's best so far, not perfect but a step in the right direction, albeit against an Ecuador that seemed satisfied with what they'd achieved. Portugal won't be satisfied with reaching the quarters, they have bigger ambitions, but the cards may just have fallen England's way with suspensions to Deco and Costinha. Portugal have the depth with the likes of Simao, Tiago and Petit, and if they can control themselves better than they did against Holland (where the stakes were so high), they might just have too much control of the ball for England. In the other quarter final, Brazil might just have too many gears for a French team which is on the improve. Les Bleus finally pulled the finger out in the second half against Togo, when Viera was the inspiration, finally providing some drive from midfield (which had severly been lacking for two and a half games), and against Spain it was he and Zidane who rewound the clock. Henry still struggles and unless he finally produces it against Brazil, expect the world champs to march on. Like Italy they have relied on a bit of luck (both the Socceroos and Ghana were unable to punish some gaps at the back), but they have the class in attack to create chances. One of the most telling stats against Ghana was shots off target - Ghana 11, Brazil 1. Like Germany, they are efficient in front of goals, and the prospect of a semi final pitting them against former manager Felipao wets the appetite.