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…

It’s been a great year for long-range volleys, particularly those of a left-footed variety, but not such a great year for individual goals (with two obvious exceptions).

With an apology for an inevitable English football bias, I proudly present my goals of the season…

1. Matthew Taylor (for Portsmouth v Everton)
à Premiership

2. David Nugent (for Preston North End v Crystal Palace)
à FA Cup

3. Robin van Persie (for Arsenal v Charlton Athletic)
à Premiership

4. Paul Scholes (for Manchester United v Aston Villa)
à Premiership

5. Wayne Rooney (for Manchester United v Portsmouth)
à FA Cup

6. Francesco Totti (for Roma v Sampdoria)
à
Serie A

7. Lionel Messi (for Barcelona v Getafe)
à Copa del Rey

8. Diego (for Werder Bremen v Alemannia Aachen)
à Bundesliga

9. Christian Vieri (for Atalanta v Siena)
à Serie A

10. Thomas Hitzlsperger (for Stuttgart v Energie Cottbus)
à Bundesliga

Seething at an omission? Aghast at an inclusion? Let me know.

Steven Gerrard - one player who should survive the anticipated cull...It was hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Liverpool last night.

For almost the entirety of the first half they cowed Milan into submission. Mascherano and Alonso successfully nullified the twin threats of Kaka and Seedorf, presenting Gerrard, Zenden and – in particular – Pennant with the opportunity to make inroads into the Rossoneri’s much-vaunted back four.

But for all their territory, they didn’t once stretch Dida, and paid the price with that cruel Inzaghi goal on the stroke of half-time.

The second half was distinguished by the lack of any discernable onslaught from the men in red. They poked and probed, but Milan stood firm. Gerrard spurned
Liverpool’s best chance when he tried to work the ball too hard when faced with Dida one-on-one, and the nearest they came to breaking the deadlock before Kuyt’s late header was Crouch’s speculative 25-yard effort.

The problem with Benitez is that he didn’t have the players for the formation he wanted to play. Mascherano was excellent, and Alonso supported him commendably. Gerrard was typically influential, and Kuyt’s link-up play was customarily efficient, but it was on the flanks that they were found lacking.

Paradoxically, Pennant was Liverpool’s most dangerous player in the first half, but the limitations of his play meant that he was unable to make the most of the advanced positions he found himself in. Zenden, likewise, was heavily involved but frustratingly ineffectual.

The problem with Pennant and Zenden – and this is no personal criticism – is that they are both conventional wide midfielders (although Zenden has learnt how to play as a combative and disciplined central midfielder).

The 4-4-1-1 that Benitez deployed last night requires wide men capable of cutting in and heading for goal. Joe Cole and Arjen Robben are one of the most effective wing partnerships in this context, with both players placed on the ‘wrong’ flank (Robben on the right, Cole on the left) so that they can cut in and shoot at goal with their stronger foot.

Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi assume similar roles for
Barcelona, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are sometimes asked to do the same for Man United.

With touchline-hugging wide-men like Pennant and Zenden in the team, all you get are a succession of high crosses delivered in the general direction of a solitary striker (in this case Kuyt) who, given the sheer number of defenders around him, is unlikely to get many headers on goal.

If Benitez is intent on improving his team, attacking players whose target is the goal rather than the byline should be a priority, although it must be said that subtlety is as much a necessity as raw pace in these positions.

Goal of the Season?

April 19 2007

I didn’t think anyone would score a better individual goal than David Nugent’s superb effort for Preston against Crystal Palace in the Cup earlier this season, but Lionel Messi’s goal in Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Getafe in the Copa del Rey last night comes pretty close.

Observant observers will note that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Diego Maradona’s famous goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup.

And this handy website lets you compare the two. Shame they couldn’t have stuck Nugent’s goal in there as well…

Advantage Liverpool

February 22 2007

John Arne Riise celebrates his goal against Barcelona in last night's Champions League gameBarcelona 1-2 Liverpool. It sticks in the throat a bit, but I thought Liverpool were excellent last night.

The absence of a real, defence-stretching frontman in the Barca team meant they were forced to field a more compact team than they would prefer to, and Benitez robbed Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho of the space on which they thrive by packing the midfield with Sissoko, Alonso and Gerrard. It enabled Liverpool to play a classic counter-attacking game, and even though Barcelona just shaded possession, there wasn’t much between the teams in terms of shots on goal.

The lack of space in front of the Liverpool back four frustrated Barca’s attackers, and the persistent harrying of the Barca defence by Bellamy and Kuyt meant that the Catalans were frequently hurried out of their usual passing game. As a consequence Barca began to look ragged, but Liverpool retained commendable caution by sitting back and trying to pick them off on the break.

Before the game I thought the Liverpool team looked a little unbalanced with a left midfielder (Riise) and a centre forward (Bellamy) on the left, and two right-backs (Arbeloa and Finnan) on the right, but Riise and Bellamy did a great job of shackling Messi, and both Liverpool’s goals came from attacks down the right.

Frank Rijkaard’s post-match comments will not inspire much confidence in the Barca faithful: “We must always be positive, but we have to be realistic. It will be difficult to make a comeback.”

Hardly Churchillian, but it demonstrates the unyielding pragmatism of many European clubs. The never-say-die attitude synonymous with British football is something that a lot of Spanish and Italian teams just do not understand, but it’s looking stronger than ever in this season’s Champions League.