Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The number 3 doesn’t quite stack-up for Barca

2006/07 La Liga wrap

LA LIGA is over for another season, somewhat belatedly, and it has been an intriguing one, perhaps more for the evenness of the competition than its quality.

While Spanish football is invariably easy on the eye and the teams right across the board can play, the standard this season was been a bit of a let-down (and I’m not just talking about the refereeing, which has to be among the worst in the world), particularly in comparison to the past couple of seasons, where Barcelona had dished up some of the most delightful football you could imagine.

More of the same was expected this season. Surely a team so stacked with attacking superstars would make it a hat-trick of titles, the pundits predicted.

And they started reasonably well, skipping away to an early lead on the back of some decent early form from Ronaldinho, keen to prove he hadn’t lost his powers after a disappointing World Cup. Only the Dani Alves and Freddie Kanoute inspired Sevilla seemed likely to challenge. But then it all went pear-shaped for the reigning European Champions.

Much was written and said about the absence of Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi for large periods in the middle of the season, and there is little doubt they were both missed, Eto'o goals in particular.

But what became more obvious during this period was Frank Rijkaard's inability to deal with these losses and in particular is blind-insistences that Xavi, Deco and Andres Iniesta should all be in the starting 11.

This had in part been forced by the brilliant form of Iniesta in the first half of the season. Frankly, his excellence demanded his picking, and Rijkaard had no choice but to start him.

But is was his unconvincing attempt to incorporate him into the first 11 that, for me, brought Barca back to the field and gave Fabio Capello and his Real Madrid outfit the sniff they were looking for to get back into the title race.

When Eto'o and Messi were out, one of the first things Rijkaard did was to play Eider Gudjohnsen or Javier Saviola up-top, through the middle, and shift Iniesta out to the right, in the Messi position.

It immediately turned Barca into the world's greatest ball-to-feet mob. Suddenly the drive and penetration of Eto'o and Messi, especially off the ball, was gone. Not content with Ronaldinho, Deco and Xavi wanting the ball to feet, suddenly Iniesta, Gudjohnsen and Saviola were also demanding it.

The possession was good, the football easy on the eye, but the goals dried up. The balance between on-the-ball and off-the-ball players had been lost.

The mystery from Rijkaard was that he had one of the squad's best off-the-ball drivers, Ludovic Guily, warming the bench for long periods.

It was all about rewarding Iniesta, and as I wrote above, he deserved his reward. But it had to be at the expense of either Xavi or Deco. Most evidently it should have been the later. Deco, up until this season, has been one of my favourite players, most notably because of his ability to keep the ball and create openings under the most intense pressure. He has been a winner wherever he has gone.

But this season was his worst by a long way. Seemingly uninterested, he appeared to be a passenger in games he once owned. Yet Rijkaard persevered with him, arguably on reputation ahead of form.

A little later, when Messi and Eto'o were back, the Dutchman still had a decision to make in order to accommodate a holding midfielder along with Deco, Xavi and Iniesta.

So what did he do? He went with a 3-5-2, playing Iniesta in a defensive left-sided position, half as a defender, half as a midfielder. Suddenly the fullbacks in the squad were rendered superfluous, so out went Van Bronkhorst, Sylvinho, Zambrotta and Belletti.

Instead he used a combination of three at the back from Oleguer, Puyol, Marquez and Thuram. Cue for disaster.

It was a far cry from the Rijkaard that barely put a foot wrong on his way to the domestic and European double last season. It was at about this time I had one of those great football dialogues with a close friend, a La Liga and Barcelona fanatic, and a knowledgeable one at that, who noted that much of 2005/2006’s tactical success had been attributed to one of Rijkaard’s assistants, Dutchman Henk ten Cate, who departed in the off-seas0n to take up the head-job at Ajax, only to be replaced by ‘our own’ Johan Neeskens.

Clearly something had gone amiss at the Bernabeu this season. Whatever it was, it allowed Real, who themselves looked all over the place in the first half of the season, back in.

Capello and Real seemed a miss-match from the beginning, the pragmatic Italian hoping to guide a club that prided itself on the flowing and beautiful game. In came grafters like Emerson and Mahamadou Diarra, an Italian ‘rock’ in Cannavaro and a Dutch goal-sniffer in van Nistelrooy, all very un-Real…

But the master-manager kept chipping away.

Eventually Ronaldo disappeared, van Nistelrooy profited from the extra attention and someone – was it Capello or the player himself? - finally worked out that David Beckham is a right midfielder and a right midfielder only.

Take Beckham away from the right and you take away his greatest weapon, his right peg, the best in the business, and pretty much all he has.

Eventually the Englishman rekindled his Manchester United knack for creating goals for Van the Man, this year’s Pichichi. Add the odd piece of off-the-bench brilliance from the tragic enigma that is Guti and the pressure was back on Barca.

Only the strongest squad would win, and in the end there were enough cracks in the Barca squad to encourage Real to grow stronger with the season. How else could you explain the last minute capitulation at home on the penultimate day to Catalan rivals Espanyol, or Real’s comebacks on both the second last and final day (or any other day in the past three months for that matter)?

Sevilla continued to linger without every really convincing they could grab the title. Every time they needed a win they could only muster a draw. Kanoute appeared tired or injured for the last three months and even Alves proved in the final few games that he is human after all.

Indeed, none of top three ever really set the world on fire. Most of the enterprising football this season came from the impressive Real Zaragoza, lead by two wonderful Milito brothers, Gabi at the back and Diego up front, or surprise packet Recreativo Huelva, inspired by their manager Marcelino Garcia Toral and their former Liverpool man Florent Sinama Pongolle to an eight place finish.

Villareal flew home thanks to the goals of Diego Forlan (surprisingly after Juan Ramon Riquelme went home), while Racing Santander caught the eye, as much for their short and tall combo up front, Pedro Muntis and Nikola Zigic.

While the overall standard was a little down on last season, the competitive nature of the league (there was only 21 points between sixth placed Zaragoza – Europe - and the drop – 18th placed Celta Vigo), made the task of choosing a team of the season even more difficult. Soccernet’s man on the spot, Phil Ball, has, as always, done an outstanding job in covering the season and the players that have caught his eye, but for the sake of some debate, I’ve gone for a more traditional 4-4-2 with the versatile and dependable Raul Albiol at the base and Andres Iniesta at the point of a diamond in midfield;

Goalkeeper; Andres Palop (Sevilla)
Back four (r to l); Dani Alves (Sevilla), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gabi Milito (Real Zaragoza), Antonio Puerta (Sevilla).
Midfield (r to l); David Beckham (Real Madrid), Raul Albiol (Valencia), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Silva (Valencia).
Strikers; Ruud van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid), David Villa (Valencia)

Reserves; Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Ezequiel Garay (Racing Santander), Julien Escude (Sevilla), David Albelda (Valencia), Renato (Sevilla), Jonas Guiterrez (Mallorca), Diego Milito (Zaragoza), Nikola Zigic (Santander), Freddie Kanoute (Sevilla), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Albert Riera (Espanyol).

A couple of interesting ones to keep an eye out on are Ezequiel Garay, a 20 year old Argentine defender who chipped in with nine goals for Racing, and David Silva, who scored an absolute bomb against Chelsea in the Champions League.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A strong 23, but big questions remain

Asian Cup squad - How Arnold deals with the loss of Chippers could be the key

SOCCEROOS boss Graham Arnold has done a pretty decent job in naming his 23 man squad for the AFC Asian Cup, but a couple of things still need addressing, most noteably the question of what to do on the left side of defence.

Missing three of the established stars in Moore, Chipperfield and Skoko, he has rewarded those that have been doing well in the green and gold of late - the likes of Kisnorbo, Valeri and Holman - and thrown in a couple of the A-League's match-breakers in Carle and Carney.

The selction of four A-Leaguers - Milligan and Thompson being the others - is a decent reward for those plying their trade at home, and sends out a message, as it should, that playing at home shouldn't hinder your chances of cracking the national squad, even if there is a clear need for more A-League games.

Indeed, Arnold could have gone further, in my opinion, by rewarding Central Coast custodian Danny Vukovic, who might now have to wait for the world cup qualifiers to prove he can cut it at this level.

Others from the local competition that will no doubt come under the microscope in the near future include the likes of Burns, Bridge, Djite, Pantelis, Sarkies, Spagnuolo, Musalik, Leijer, Allsopp and Joel Griffiths, but for now they must bide their time and continue to develop, much as Nick Carle has been doing for the past five or so years.

Deservedly, he gets his chance and one can only hope Arnold hasn't taken him along for the ride as he offers something totally different to the other attacking midfielders, Cahill and Holman, who are more the type to drive off the ball and pick up scraps in and around the box.

Carle, on the other hand, sits in the space between defensive midfield and attack, prefering the ball to feet, invariably keeping it alive, often with an outrageous killer final ball. He is more the creator than the goal-scorer, and might best be utilised feeding the likes of Aloisi and Thompson, who I would argue would relish his service.

Little doubt though that at attack featuring Viduka, with Kewell, Sterjovski, Bresciano and Cahill leading support, is the first choice at this stage.

But why not give Carle, Aloisi and Thompson some extended game-time off the bench, especially against Oman, and at some stage in the tournament he might be to unlock a packed defence.

Elsewhere, the choice of Carney is perhaps the most surprising and intriguing of the lot, surprising because he was left out of the match-day squad for Uruguay (perhaps Arnold felt he knew him well enough and wanted to see what Ryan Griffiths could offer? or perhaps Griffith's ineffective job off the bench made up Arnold's mind?) and intriguing because of the reasons Arnold gave for choosing him.

In his press-conference yesterday Arnold explained that he was looking to change Carney's role, possibly using him on the left, in a four man midfield, ahead of a back three and behind Kewell, who, given those comments, can expect to start on the left of a three man attack.

It was fascinatingly fortright from Arnold and shed light into his thinking around the problem left back area.

Hitherto, with Chipperfield in the fold, he hasn't had a problem - flat back four, with plenty of forward thrust from Emmo and Chippers.

Now that the latter isn't avaliable, it appears Arnold is toying with the option of a back three, with Neill central, flanked by twin stoppers in Kisnorbo and one from Beauchamp and Thwaites.

This, it would seem, is partly due to the unconvincing job Thwaites did at left back against Uruguay, and the fact we have no natural successor to the Swiss-based wingback.

Whatever way Arnold goes at the back, at least it shows he is thinking and questioning, further signs of the lessons learnt under Hiddink.

How well he handles Chipperfield's absence will probably decide how far this team goes. His ability to adapt and think on his feet will be tested.

There has been concern in some quarters that only six defenders have been chosen, and Spiranovic might have been unlucky, but with Milligan and Wilkshire around, there are alternatives.

The selection of Valeri as back-up for Grella is clever, for this area is arguably the most vital part of the midfield engine, and the need for alternatives in the event of an injury or suspension are crucial.

More strange is the saga over Scott McDonald and whether he wanted to play for the green and gold or the green and white hoops. To the Australian audience, during Fox's coverage of the Uruguay game, it was firmly for the former. But the message out of Scotland was more clouded later in the week.

Then Arnold went on the record claiming him to be the number three striker behind Dukes and Aloisi but that it would benefit him, Australia and Celtic if he stayed behind for pre-season training. He then added him to the standby list. It was all strange stuff, and time will be the judge.

Overall though it has been a decent job by Arnold, but the hard work starts now. Getting this squad physically, mentally and tactically ready is a part of it, but the hardest job will be to make the tough decisions, like who to leave out of the starting 11 at any given time.

As Hiddink proved when he left Kewell out of the 11 in the 2nd leg against Uruguay and Cahill in the world cup opener against Japan, reputations shouldn't cloud judgement.

He also has to make a call on the captaincy, and his explaination yesterday wasn't the most convincing start.

Paraphrased, he spoke of how well a job Viduka had done but that he might be leaning another way for Singapore and Thailand. Then he appeared to go back to Viduka. It was puzzling stuff, but at least kept us guessing.

Perhaps the modern trend of a job-share is in the offing?

Either way, we wish Arnold and his 23 all the best in their first Asian venture. It is a very strong squad, certainly strong enough to go a long way, but Arnold has to prove he can pull the right punches at the right times.

So what did you make of Arnold's 23? and how do you think they'll fair next month? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A point in Amman...

...THAT'S all the Olyroos need overnight to navigate what has been, shall we say, an interesting 2nd phase of the Olympic qualifiers, and we wish Rob Baan and the boys all the best on a pitch which is said to offer 'concerns'.

If they do get the point in Jordan (or the group leaders Saudi Arabia do us a favour in Tehran), it will have been a job well done by all involved. It has been a nightmarish campaign in terms of continuity, with injuries, suspensions, matchdays not falling on FIFA dates and Asian Champions League committments denying Baan the opportunity to build winning momentum.

So frustrated has our technical director become with the logistics that this will be his last game in the dugout, with Graham Arnold muted to be taking over post the Asian Cup. It seems the Dutchman has 'drafted in' or used almost a zillion or so players throughout the six matchdays....has anyone been keeping count?

The two constants in the starting 11 have been book-ends, Vukovic in goal and Djite up top.

Tonight is no different with circumstance robbing him of the likes of Topor-Stanley, Bridge, Musalik, Troisi, Broxham and Sarkies from the starting 11. It has forced Baan to bring in yet another 'trialist', little known Turkish-based fullback Ersan Gulum.

But it's still a pretty formidable 11 he puts out in something resembling a 4-2-3-1;

Vukovic; Zadkovich, Leijer, Downes, McClenahan; Milligan, Kilkenny; Vidosic, Burns, Williams; Djite.

There's enough potency in the front third to suggest the odd chance will be created against the bottom placed team in the group. Reports out of the matchday 5 3-1 win over Iran at Hindmarsh suggest the players, after almost four months of having it drilled into them, are warming to Baan's ways, but the problem for him is that he will be fielding his 6th new-look 11.

The pity for us is we won't be able to see it on the box, but fingers will be crossed the boys and Baan can get the job done and keep the Beijing dream alive.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A-Leaguers on the A List

GOOD to read that a number of A-Leaguers will be right in the mix when Graham Arnold names his 23 for the Asia Cup later this week.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Still plenty to ponder beyond the first 11

Asia Cup warm-up, Socceroos 1 v Uruguay 2

ENCOURAGING signs in some quarters, but still plenty to ponder for Graham Arnold after last night's friendly loss to Uruguay in Sydney, not least the choice of who he takes to Asia in the back up positions.

The goods news is that this was a predominantly second string unit that did well to compete with a first choice Uruguay side that were clearly set on righting the perceived wrongs of November 05.

Lets face it, unless there is a radical rethink by some of the first choice European stars, only six of last nights starters - Neill, Emerton, Culina, Sterjovski and possibly Wilkshire and Kisnorbo - can expect to be a part of the first choice 11 in Asia. Compare that with a Uruguay side bristling with first choices - Carini, Lugano, Dario Rodriguez, Diogo, Garcia, Perez, Christian Rodriguez, Forlan, Recoba and Sanchez.

So the performance was decent without being spectacular.

But the point of last night wasn't so much about the overall performance but to find out if the second tier players could cut it at this high level and whether they can be relied upon to provide the requisite back-up should the firsts miss a game or two in Asia.

Overall, the jury is still out on a number of back-up positions.

Lets start between the sticks where the back-up goalkeeping position has been providing the most headaches, with a succession of experienced keepers - Covic and Petkovic - failing to grasp their chances. Last night it was Brad Jones's turn and he added to the headaches, responsible, in my opinion, for both goals.

As I had speculated in my pre-match look at Arnold's squad, I wasn't surprised to see him so hesitant in dealing with both cross balls. It had been a feature of his work at Middlesborough when he was first choice for a period throughout 2005/06.

Brilliant at shot-stopping (most keepers at that level are!), he is a one who prefers the comfort of his line (much like Dudek), and last night's two efforts provided further evidence.

While there might be blame apportioned to the likes of Thwaites, Neill and Kisnorbo for some ball-watching for the first goal, there is little doubt Jones reacted slowly to Recoba's cross. That moment of hesitation cost him and his country dearly. These are the types of balls defenders cry for the keeper to pick off, and the best exponent at dealing with these types of balls across the six yard box is Petr Cech, decisive and brave.

The second was a shocker, another example of a keeper not entirely comfortable in commanding his area.

So what to do now for Arnold? I have held the view that Clint Bolton has been among the top two or three Australian keepers for at least the past five years, but that he has often been denied opportunites by the fact he continues to ply his trade at home, that he has been percieved as having a lack of ambtion and the fact his main competitors have been playing bigger games in Europe.

This belief has been fostered by having watched him develop into a conistent leader over the years, able to dominate games from the back through his ability to control the area from the first minute to the 95th. After an inconsistent start to his career at Brisbane, he has done it all at Sydney Olympic, Parrmatta Power and now Sydney FC.

The pity for Bolton is that the door has finally opened, but his performances of late haven't been of the standard to warrant him walking through it. After a brilliant season one in the A-League, he had a bust up with Terry Butcher early in season two (after an error in Perth) and his confidence and form have fluctuated since.

Now back with a former mentor in Culina, his form has also been a little disappointing in the Asian Champions League, but Culina puts that down to the fact he hasnt been playing every week, so crucial to keeping consistently.

It's hard to pick him on the form in the ACL, but in an even money choice for the senior back-up role, for mine he is ahead of Covic and Petkovic.

As for the third choice youngster, with succession planning in mind? After Jones's performance last night there is little doubt in my mind that Danny Vukovic should be in the Asia Cup squad. Here is a young kid that has grabbed every opportunity. Second choice behind John Crawley at the inception of the A-League, he is now firmly first choice for both the Mariners and Olyroos and, given a chance in the national first team, would more than likely snap it up.

Not only a solid shot-blocker, he is confident, brave, decisive, has decent distribution and loves to look after his area, all key ingredients.

At the back, most of the pre-match conjecture centred around what Arnold would do in the left back area given the missing Chipperfield and the lack of a likely successor. Thwaites was given the gig and didnt do too bad a job in the main, but the fact remains that both Uruguay goals came from crosses from his side.

While he still appears more suited to the central role, his adaptablity might be enough to get him on the plane to Asia.

So what then off Nurnberg's two towering defenders, Beauchamp and Spiranovic? Neither saw time last night and, if Thwaites is chosen on his adaptability, at least one appears likely to miss Asia. The former appears to be behind Kisnorbo as Neill's preferred partner, while Spiranovic is still waiting to debut, much to the disppointment of many fellow Socceroos fans at yesterday's game.

With Milligan (who can play in the holding role in midfield or anywhere across the back) seemingly a shoe-in, both might miss.

In midfield there are less headahces for Arnold. Grella is the obvious anchor with Milligan as back up. So what of Valeri? After a good first hour against China he was up and down against the higher quality of the Uruguay midfield, and might need a bit more time against quality opposition to feel entirely comfortable at this level.

While he always presented and went looking for the ball, often his use of it lacked conviction, little wonder when you had the impressive no. 7 Christian Rodriguez buzzing away nearby and Recoba and the eye-catching Vicente Sanchez (no. 22) popping up all over the place to cause problems.

The question for Arnold is whether he feels the back-up of Milligan is enough or whether there is room for another out and out sitter in the mould of Grella?

Nearby Culina was his usual efficient self. Believe it or not, it was 34mins before I saw him give up his first ball, so easy on the eye. At times though I find his contribution too disciplined and it would be nice to seem him drive into the box on the odd occasion, with Wilkshire dropping off to lend defensive cover.

With Wilkshire also a defensive minded player, there was little foward thrust from central midfield, and it showed, with McDonald and Holman increasingly isolated as the La Celeste midfield gradually took control.

Early on there was plenty of change for the Socceroos front three, with Sterjovski in particular giving Carlos Diogo a working over. His goal was scrappy and owed much to some indecisiveness from Fabian Carini, but the drive of Emerton and willingness of McDonald to attract a defender were also telling.

McDonald had the odd decent touch and put himself about but once again failed to impress overall, adding to the mystery of why he continues to be picked in the sole striker role when it clearly doesn't suit him. Late in the first half he snatched at a long range shooting chance and then skied one high and wide on the left peg in the second period.

As noted in my most recent post, it is a role that is tailor made for Viduka thanks to his remarkbale ability to withstand defensive pressure and bring those nearby into the frame, but others in the mix (Aloisi, McDonald, Thompson and Allsopp) appear more suited to two up front.

After working McDonald out, Lugano and Dario Rodriguez (when he shifted infield for the injured Andres Scotti) were in total control, while Pablo Garcia soon saw to the early influence of Brett Holman, who disappeared after being robbed of a shooting chance about half an hour in.

It was about that time the momentum swung to the visitors, who gradually got the likes of Sanchez, Christian Rodriguez, Forlan and Recoba onto the ball.

The Socceroos were now struggling to hold the ball up front, and the midfield and defence were under greater pressure. The game, at the break or soon after, was crying out for the introduction of Carle, who might have been able to hold the ball up and relieve some of the defensive pressure.

Conversely, he might be have been able to conjure up a moment of brilliance - as we so nearly saw with his first touch - for the likes of Allsopp and Thompson, but they too were given little time to make an impression.

The pity for all three - like all the A-League players not involved in ACL or Olyroos - is that they haven't been playing regularly since late February (depsite Carle being at Sydney Olympic), an issue the A-League powers need to address.

It now leaves them and Arnold with a headache ahead of the Asia Cup. Given the lack of impact from the likes of Ryan Griffiths and McDonald, there is still enough of that 'joker' element, as Hiddink liked to call it, in selecting Carle and Thompson, and maybe even Allsopp.

Certainly Carle, as an option off the bench, might even provide some decent delivery at the dead ball, an area the Socceroos have consistently been poor in. This time it was Emerton entrusted with most of the delivery, and almost every time the next touch was a Uruguay head.

Carle, when he came on, either wasn't given the repsonsiblity or didn't take it on. Either way it was to Australia's detriment.

Thompson, meanwhile, is worth persisting with. All of these local based players need to be loved and told they are a part of this.

But Arnold appears altogehter more conservative and willing to choose a European based man over a local, as witnessed by the demotion of Carney, Bridge and North from yesterday's 20, and the noises earlier in the week from Carle that he needs to go overseas to become a Socceroos regular.

It sounds all so depressingly 'here we go again'.

Arnold could do the A-League a massive favour by chosing a number of the locals ahead of the second tier Europeans. Perceptions count, and sight of a 23 that rewards some of the players that have done well in the A-League would be another boost for the game downunder.

And importantly, it doesn't appear like it would detract from the quality of the squad.