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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Robbo The Blobbo

August 23 2007

In all the brouhaha about Paul Robinson’s crippling loss of confidence/form/ability to catch/kick/understand the simple movement of the ball, one staringly obvious explanatory factor has been inconceivably overlooked. The problem is, the man’s too fat!

When Robinson shuffled meekly onto the scene as an acne-splattered, fresh-faced young goal-keeper at Leeds, he was – like most fresh-faced, acne-splattered young goal-keepers – lithe and lean. Since then, his weight has increased year on year to the extent that, in his shiny yellow new goalie kit, he now resembles a Weight Watchers convention struggling to get out of a New York taxi.

Consider Germany’s equalising goal in the friendly at Wembley. Yes, Robbo blundered, but it wasn’t his fault. He was moving as fast as he could. How else do you explain getting beaten by a 40-yard daisy-cutter from one-goal-for-every-three-hundred-and-seventy-harmless-five-yard-passes-sideways Ivan Campo? Certain saves are literally beyond Robinson’s reach purely because of his shape.

The piece of praise most often bestowed upon Robinson by pundits and commentators kind enough to overlook his chronic lack of basic handling skills is that he’s ‘a good shot-stopper’. That’s what you say about goal-keepers who manage to pull off the odd he-didn’t-know-much-about-that reflex save despite being completely incapable of commanding their penalty area.

But Robinson can command his area. As Rio Ferdinand observed astutely: “He is a big enough guy”. And that’s the problem. There really is a good goal-keeper in there. He’s just struggling to get out.

Early Doors

August 17 2007

How do you stamp your authority on a game? A full-bodied Vinnie Jones-style tackle on your opposite number, to ‘let him you’re there’? A flurry of Cristiano Ronaldo-esque step-overs so the full-back knows what he’s in for? A few finessed passes to demonstrate your command of the pitch?

Or how about a 40-yard volley, 17 seconds into the match?

That’s exactly how CSKA Sofia’s Brazilian striker Claudinei announced his arrival in a UEFA Cup qualifying match against Omonia Nicosia on Thursday night. Mind you, Kaiafas’s equaliser wasn’t bad either…

The King is dead! Long live the King! Rooney is out, Tevez comes in! Simple, n’est-ce pas? Maybe not as simple as you’d think.

Manchester United began their opening fixture against Reading with the 4-2-3-1 formation that many commentators expected them to adopt this season. Carrick and Scholes sat deep in midfield, Evra and Ronaldo attacked from the flanks and Giggs played in support of Wayne Rooney up front.

This! – cried The Mirror, in the wake of the signings of Nani and Anderson – is Fergie’s vision of United’s future. Carrick and Hargreaves in midfield, Nani, Anderson and Ronaldo just ahead of them, Rooney in attack.

As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got it wrong. Including Fergie.

The 4-2-3-1 requires certain types of player, all of which United possess. The key is in fitting them all together. Observe the following, hastily scrabbled together diagram:



I’ve used ‘old-fashioned’ shirt numbers, because they will help me to embellish my point(s). In this system, the two central midfielders sit deep in front of the back four. The number 4 is responsible for winning the ball and breaking up opposition attacks. It’s the number 8’s job to get on the ball, pick out a team-mate and set the team’s attacks in motion.

The wingers (number 7 and number 11) play further forward than mere ‘wide midfielders’. It is their job to a) attack the goal directly and b) create chances for the strikers. The presence of the deep-lying central midfielders enables the full-backs to push forward alternately (it can be dangerous if both do so at the same time), so the wingers are not required to hug the touchline like wingers of old.

Crucial to this formation are the two forwards (number 9 and number 10). The number 9’s role is fairly conventional. He is the goal-getter and target man, but he must also be skilled at holding the ball up and playing with his back to goal.

The number 10 is the man who brings it all together. He is the metronome which sets the pace for the entire team, and he needs to be on the ball as often as possible. With the central midfielders sitting deep and the number 9 pushing the opposition centre halves as close to their own goal as possible, he has the run of the pitch to create magic. And that is exactly why he is in the team.

To my mind, such a system would suit a United first eleven that looked like this:

1. Edwin van der Sar
2. Gary Neville
3. Patrice Evra
4. Owen Hargreaves
5. Nemanja Vidic
6. Rio Ferdinand
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
8. Paul Scholes/Michael Carrick
9. Louis Saha
10. Wayne Rooney/Carlos Tevez
11. Ryan Giggs

And there it is. Ferguson – despite having bestowed the number 10 shirt upon Wayne Rooney before the season began – is playing Rooney as the number 9. This is not a position he suits.

Any idiot could tell you that Rooney is at his most dangerous when he receives the ball in deep areas and then heads for goal. Working the line on his own – as he did until Michael Duberry’s untimely intervention against Reading – is not what he’s cut out for. Yes, he will provide moments of inspiration, but that’s despite, rather than because of, the formation.

Rooney is good enough to have a team crafted around him, but English football has tended to look scornfully at attacking players who demand a free role. Rooney is a natural playmaker, not a goalscorer, and playing him as an old-fashioned centre forward takes all the joy out of his game.

United will undoubtedly miss Rooney, but they have as good a replacement as you could possibly wish for in Carlos Tevez. The player who really makes the 4-2-3-1 tick is Louis Saha, and it is his currently unavailability – rather than Rooney’s – which makes Alex Ferguson’s decision to sell both Alan Smith (who played the number 9 role so admirably in the 7-1 demolition of Roma) and Guiseppe Rossi seem foolhardy.

And so, after weeks of unprecedented hype – which, given the levels of hyperbole which have surrounded England’s top division since Sky invented exciting football in 1992, is an achievement in itself – the Premiership is back. Or, rather, the Premier League, for its name has now been officially changed as well.

The reason for all the hype is the hope that in the huge bucketfuls of TV cash which have been thrown at the league’s 20 clubs there lies the possibility that this season will be genuinely competitive. And the opening weekend’s results suggest that may well be the case.

All of the ‘big four’ were made to struggle, and – with the exception of Liverpool – made to struggle against teams they would have felt pretty confident about overcoming without too much fuss. Chelsea were made to look ragged by a resolute Birmingham City, Arsenal were minutes away from an underwhelming home draw with Fulham, and Reading struck a blow for fans of stubbornly unadventurous 4-5-1 football with their ‘gutsy’ 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

Of the teams harbouring serious ambitions of playing in Europe next season, Tottenham lost, Portsmouth were held to a draw by lowly Derby, Villa succumbed at home to Liverpool and only Everton, Blackburn and Newcastle recorded victories – and only Newcastle’s was comfortable. In The Battle of the Shiny New Squads at Upton Park, Sven Goran Eriksson’s team of strangers played with a cohesion seemingly at odds with the fact most of them were signed on the basis of video footage alone.

But most heartening of all were the performances of the three promoted teams. Birmingham may have lost, but they gave Chelsea some real scares along the way, Derby’s draw with Portsmouth proved they can tough it out with the Premier League’s established players and Sunderland’s last gasp win over Spurs suggests the Black Cats are already imbued with a doggedness and resilience that were the hallmarks of their illustrious manager.

Goal of the weekend was Steven Gerrard’s inch-perfect free kick to clinch victory at Villa Park, but Obafemi Martins’s overhead kick against Bolton and Matt Derbyshire’s sweet curling finish at the Riverside caught the eye as well.

So, twenty-eights goals, some truly competitive fixtures and signs that the big four have really got their work cut out if they wish to continue to lord it over their more fiscally challenged opponents. Things are shaping up nicely…

The Great Zidane

August 9 2007

If you only watch one shamelessly indulgent, 9 minutes-plus video tribute to a former footballing great this year, make it this one:

How I wish he hadn’t head-butted Materazzi.

Goal of the Season?

August 8 2007

Most of the major European leagues might not yet be underway, but I’d be surprised if we see many goals better than this opportunistic free-kick by Levadia Tallinn’s Konstantin Nahk:

Nahk’s goal gave Tallinn a 2-1 win over Red Star Belgrade in their Champions League qualifier, but they were eliminated on the away goals rule with the aggregate score 2-2.

I get the impression he’ll get over it pretty quickly.