It seems unnecessary to say it, but Jose Mourinho will undoubtedly be missed. He brought so much to football in this country, and our native football journalism will be all the poorer for his abrupt departure.

But it is the football journalists, rather than the fans, who will miss him the most. A lot of fans tired of his ungracious moaning and shameless referee-baiting a long time ago, but when you read the testimonies of journalists who have spoken to him face-to-face, you get an impression of a warm, charming and immensely generous individual who couldn’t be any further removed from the endlessly parodied cardboard cut-out ‘Special One’ so readily paraded before us at pre-match press conferences and post-match interviews.

Mourinho certainly did a great deal for English football. Tactically, he introduced a counter-attacking 4-3-3 formation that – in his first season at least – was breath-takingly efficient, and which has since been aped by managers the length and breadth of the country.

He developed promising young English players like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole into the genuinely – OK, occasionally – world-class performers they are today, gave Eidur Gudjohnsen the chance to prove himself a midfield artisan of the highest quality and placed sufficient faith in Didier Drogba to enable him to become one of the most complete centre forwards in the world.

Likewise, he reminded us that, behind every media-peddled stock image of a manager – Ferguson the Firebrand, Wenger the Scholar – is a man, with a family and concerns of his own that have absolutely nothing to do with the over-hyped, endlessly self-publicising Premiership.

But, for all this, we must be careful not to overstate his achievements. He certainly produced a tremendously successful team at Chelsea – galvanised by a team spirit that, for all the rather stage-managed training ground joshing appears to be real and lasting – but he was nonetheless able to do so thanks to a quite simply incredible budget that is unprecedented in English football.

Yes, he brought the Premiership trophy to Stamford Bridge – twice – but he inherited a team already brimming with international talent that had finished second in the league (behind Arsenal’s 2003-2004 Invincibles) and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

He produced a trophy-winning team capable of playing brutally effective football, but how many top European managers would be confident of achieving similar results if given a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds?

And for all the success that players like Drogba, Michael Essien and Petr Cech achieved, let’s not forget the turkeys. Over £57 million were spent on Paulo Ferreira, Mateja Kezman, Asier del Horno and Andriy Shevchenko, not to mention free transfer Michael Ballack. Mourinho may have lamented how his team struggled without John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba in the side, but with the resources at his disposal it’s hard to feel genuinely sympathetic.

The less palatable elements of Mourinho’s managerial style must not be overlooked either. For all his great soundbites and mischievous charm, he remained a terribly ungracious loser, and was partly responsible for hounding Anders Frisk – one of the best referees of the last 10 years – into retirement in 2005.

Mourinho was – and is – a truly gifted manager. He brought a style both on and off the pitch which had never been seen before on these shores, and he achieved notable success. But he was also, at times, deeply unpleasant, and for all his love him-hate him popularity, his most impressive achievement to date remains the Champions League trophy he won with Porto in 2004. That was a team he can genuinely claim to have crafted himself.

The record books will show that Chelsea were an ambitious, underachieving club who suddenly won everything there was to win in the domestic game following the arrival of a Russian billionaire. The sad thing for Mourinho is that he wasn’t given the time to intertwine his own story with Chelsea’s more irrevocably, and for that the blame must lie squarely with Roman Abramovich and Peter Kenyon and a Stamford Bridge hierarchy that expected too much too soon.

If they want to know what the future holds for Chelsea Football Club now, it might be an idea to cast their minds back to the summer of the 2003, and the departure from Real Madrid of a certain Vincente Del Bosque…

The fans in the Bernabeu may have given in to the odd bout of impatient whistling, the home defence may have been exposed with worryingly familiar frequency and Ruud van Nistelrooy may have spurned a hatful of chances before notching the goal that proved to be the winner, but there was enough in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Werder Bremen in the Champions League on Tuesday night to suggest that Bernd Schuster’s post-Capello revolution is well underway.

Mindful of the Madridistas’ disdainful attitude towards the defensive tactics of his predecessor, Schuster arrived at the Bernabeu promising to create a team capable of a brand of fluid, attacking football more in keeping with the traditions of Puskas, Gento, Di Stefano and co.

The key difference against Bremen was one of shape. Whereas Capello favoured a 4-2-3-1 with Diarra and Emerson (who has now been shipped off to Milan) protecting the back four and van Nistelrooy ploughing a lone furrow up front, Schuster fielded a 4-1-3-2, with Fernando Gago the sole holding midfielder, Raul alongside van Nistelrooy up front, Wesley Schneijder and Gonzalo Higuain attacking from the flanks, and Guti setting the pace in the middle.

The tactical shift made for more cohesive use of the ball in the final third, with Schneijder, Guti and Higuain linking up well with Raul to provide chances for van Nistelrooy. Raul seems to relish being restored to the role of centre forward, and he turned in a tigrish, industrious performance illuminated by some wonderful touches.

Playing with no less than three attacking midfielders enabled Madrid to introduce all manner of different patterns to their play, and with Bremen’s central defenders and central midfielders preoccupied, there was plenty of room on the flanks for full-backs Sergio Ramos and the impressive Brazilian Marcelo to exploit.

Typically, Madrid were often caught short at the back, and with the impish, artful Diego prompting in midfield, Bremen went close on occasion. But then, that is the beauty of Madrid, as it is with Brazil. They exist to play attacking football, and when it clicks – as it did on occasion here – it is wonderful to behold.

And with Diarra, Gabriel Heinze, Royston Drenthe, Arjen Robben, Julio Baptista, Robinho and Javier Saviola also in the squad, this might just be the season that Madrid add another European Cup to the nine they have already won in such sparkling style.

Hat-trick Heaven

September 10 2007

A few months ago I wrote about the greatest hat-trick of all-time, and came to the conclusion that few could better the stunning trio of goals that Rivaldo scored for Barcelona against Valencia in the final game of the 2001-2002 season.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a new contender. Step forward River Plate captain Fernando Belluschi, who scored three absolute screamers in an Argentine league game against Velez Sarsfield yesterday.

For his first, he nutmegged an opponent and then unleashed a left-footed 25-yard belter that cannoned off the crossbar and went in.

His second saw him hang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style in the air before despatching a cool left-footed volley into the top left-hand corner (which eventually found the back of the net via the keeper’s hand, the crossbar and then the keeper’s backside).

He saved his best till last, exchanging passes with a team-mate from a short corner and then curling a delicious lob into the far corner with his right foot.

Mind you, anything Belluschi can do, Rivaldo can do better…

England 3-0 Israel. Fair enough. A good performance. Three pleasing goals. But those English fans who booed David Bentley are complete morons.

Yes, he pulled out of the Under-21 European Championships in the summer, citing fatigue. Yes, he probably fancies himself as a bit of a player. But the sight of a crowd actively – enthusiastically – booing one of their own players was quite ridiculous.

Whatever you may think of David Bentley, he nonetheless remains a truly exciting young player. He can pass, and shoot, with either foot. He is dangerous from set pieces. He can beat a man. He scores goals. He has vision.

And yet England’s fans berate him for daring to declare that he was fatigued after a long season. Perhaps he was wrong, but he is still one of England’s most promising young players, and the reception he received at Wembley on Saturday night suggests England’s fans are more eager to peddle the agenda of an unimaginative press than to support a team that might – given time, and space, and patience – have a hope of achieving something beyond a dismal quarter-final defeat on penalties at Euro 2008.

It’s at times like this that one realises that the single most distasteful thing about England is not their pathetically unimaginative manager or their unjustifiably delusional aspirations towards grandeur, but their lumpen, lazy, boo-because-everyone-else-does supporters.

Hansen scores from 45 yards

September 8 2007

Pierluigi Casiraghi’s Italy Under-21s had a lucky escape when they only just managed to scrape past the Faroe Islands with a 2-1 home victory in an Under-21 European Championship qualifier in Trento last night.

The senior side may currently lie bottom of European Championship Qualifying Group B, but they’re not the wretched whipping boys they once were. The gap between the top teams and the weaker teams in Europe is certainly closing.

The highlights of the Under-21 game are worth watching if only for the Faroe Islands’ equalising goal, when defender Einar Hansen ambled into the Italian half and, spotting Italy keeper Andrea Consigli absent-mindedly straying from his line, swept the ball home from fully 45 yards.

Would you pay a barber to cut your hair if he only had the tools to do half your head, or a chef to cook you a meal if he could only provide half a plate of food? Probably not, I imagine, and yet football clubs the world over readily employ half-players.

I am talking, of course, about the strange phenomenon of the strictly one-footed player.

Some one-footed players get away with it. I am thinking primarily of players like Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi and Rivaldo, whose left feet possessed more guile and dexterity than most players possess in both put together.

But these are rare exceptions. Most one-footed players suffer by virtue of their one-footedness. Witness the fear on Michael Owen’s face as he realises he will have to shoot with his left foot, or the panic that grips Petr Cech when forced to clear a back-pass with his right.

Most of the time, players get away with it. After all, if you’re a one-footed professional player you’ve had plenty of time to teach yourself how to quickly transfer the ball to your stronger foot.

But occasionally situations arise when you simply have to use your weaker foot. And one such situation arose in Chelsea’s defeat at Aston Villa yesterday, when Ashley “When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55,000 I nearly swerved off the road” Cole used the wrong foot when attempting to clear Zat Knight’s goalbound header off the line.

Likewise, it was a misjudged, left-footed clearance from Cole in a game against Reading last season that directly caused an own goal by Michael Essien.

In these circumstances, the one-footedness of the player actively harms his team. If Ashley Cole finds a wage of £55,000 a week so incredibly insulting, he would do well to consider how much he might be worth if he could use two feet instead of one.

The Primera Liga kicked off at the weekend, and there were a fair few surprise results. Barca were held 0-0 away at Racing Santander, Real Zaragoza went down 2-1 at Real Murcia, and newly promoted Almeria stunned Deportivo La Coruna with a 0-3 win at Estadio Riazor.

But one of the biggest shocks of the weekend occurred at the home of title hopefuls Valencia, who suffered a 0-3 defeat at the hands of Villarreal.

Former Newcastle misfit Jon Dahl Tomasson rounded Santiago Canizares to put Villarreal ahead after 16 minutes. Valencia were reduced to ten men when star striker David Villa was bravely and correctly dismissed for diving, and new signing Giuseppe Rossi made it two from the penalty spot in the second half.

Things went from bad to worse for the home side when Joaquin received a straight red for swearing at the officials after being denied a penalty. Santiago Cozorla sealed the win with a low left-footed strike in the 73rd minute.

Neutral observers may wonder how a team that boasts Pascal Cygan at centre half could have so ruthlessly dispatched one of Europe’s most potent attacking sides, but Cygan’s leaden-footed calamitousness is more than compensated for by young talents like the Chilean attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez.

Signed from Chile’s Colo Colo in October last year, Fernandez struggled to find his feet in his first season, but his introduction from the substitutes bench against Valencia saw him win the penalty that gave Villarreal their second goal and supply the assist for the killer third.

A fleet-footed attacker who has been likened to Atletico Madrid’s Sergio Aguero and Barca’s Lionel Messi, he scored an absolutely astonishing goal in his first full season for Colo Colo in 2004:

One suspects we might be seeing quite a lot of Matias Fernandez in years to come…

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