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Archive for September 2009

Stevan Jovetic: Fiorentina's Main Man

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009 by

The over-riding reaction at seeing Fiorentina's name being drawn in Liverpool's Champions League group was something of a surprise. Perhaps it is an indication of the falling standards of the Serie A that, where once Italian teams were feared now they are met with a feeling that is somewhat akin to relief. Which is how Fiorentina were viewed; a sort of lucky draw.

Despite the internet making it much easier to follow football from across the globe, certain misconceptions are hard to eradicate. Looking through Fiorentina's squad, for instance, it is hard to identify any big name players. The only possible exception is Adrian Mutu and he isn't going through an overly positive patch, particularly after the verdict that requires him to pay millions in compensation to Chelsea after he was sacked in reaction to being found guilty of doping.

Dig a little bit deeper, however, and you'll start to find just why Fiorentina have made it to the Champions League. There you will find Claudio Prandelli, one of Italy's brightest managers and a man who always seems to get players to play better than what everyone assumes they are capable of. Just as he has done with Alberto Gilardino, laughed out of the San Siro during his spell at AC Milan but who at Fiorentina has rediscovered his form as one of the Serie A's leading goalscorers.

Then there is Pantaleo Corvino, their sporting director and the man who choses which players to buy. There are few people around who can spot talent better than Corvino, whose CV includes discovering Fabrizio Miccoli, Valeri Bojinov, Javier Chevanton, Mirko Vucinic and Felipe Melo.

His biggest find, however, could be the most recent one. Stevan Jovetic was hardly an unknown quantity when he joined Fiorentina from Partizan Belgrade last year. Having played more than forty games for the Serbian champions - an incredible statistics for someone who was still eighteen at the time - his progressed had been monitored by a number of top European sides including Real Madrid and Manchester United.

Yet Fiorentina and Corvino trumped them all by getting him for £7m, a deal that can already be labelled as a bargain. Consistency has been added to last season's occasional flashes of brilliance as Jovetic has become a permanent fixture in the side. Class and elegance coupled with good physical strength have seen him take over the reigns of the team and lead to inevitable comparisons with Roberto Baggio, a Viola legend.

Jovetic himself won't hear of such comparisons but it is difficult for the Fiorentina fans not to get excited, especially after he scored the goals that got them through the qualification rounds of the Champions League. By his own admission, it is on this stage that Jovetic wants to test himself to see exactly just how much he has progressed. And it is how he does here that will really underline his abilities. Liverpool have been warned.


Spreading the Workd: Remembering the Wrexham Miners

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Thursday, September 24, 2009 by

Ever since former Liverpool striker Dean Saunders took over as manager at Wrexham, I have been following the fortunes of the Welsh club to see how he is doing. In all honesty, it hasn't been a great season for them so far and a season that started off with the hope of promotion is being played out in the bottom half of the Conference.

This week, however, something special took place at Wrexham. Not because they beat Luton 3-0 at home - even though it was an important result - but rather because of what happened before the game.

In a touching ceremony, 266 black baloons were released into the sky, each one to commemorate a miner who died in a tragic accident that took place seventy five years ago.

On 22nd September, 1934, during a night shift at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham a violent explosion tore through the mine killing 266 miners. It’s believed that a spark ignited a build up of methane gas trapped down the Dennis Shaft causing a ferocious fire which hampered any rescue attempt.

Every man on the shift was killed apart from six miners who managed to escape. Three members of the rescue team were also killed brining the death toll to 266.

At this point, you might be wondering what all this has to do with football and you would be justified in doing so.

The reason is that Wrexham is a town that is based - or at least was - on it mining comunity and most of the football club's support came from the miners. IndeedWrexham was the only club in the Football League which used to kick off at 3:15pm rather than at 3 o’ clock, giving the miners of Llay and Gresford time to get changed at the end of their shift and make it down to The Racecourse.

Indeed, on that night in 1934, many of the miners were “doubling up” - working a double shift - to make sure they had time off to watch Wrexham v Tranmere Rovers the following day. With the club's training ground, Collier's Park, being situated above what was Gresford Colliery, the ceremony was more than fitting and is something about which the club's fans should be proud.

YNWA


Good Game Bad Game [vs Leeds United]

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009 by

This was always going to be a tricky game, one from which Liverpool had everything to lose whilst Leeds United, doing so well in League One, were going to be determined to do well in front of their own fans. For Benitez, the headache was going to be who to play: on the one hand there was the calls to put in some of the younger players but on the other there was the fear of being shown up by Leeds with the hammering that would undoubtedly follow.

In the end he settled for a side filled with squad players with the welcome inclusion of Jay Spearing. The experimental nature of the team – Fabio Aurelio in central midfield for instance – showed and play was disjointed.

There will be those who will claim that Leeds were hard done by to lose this game. In reality, they showed little of note bar some flashes by Beckford and Snodgrass. Not that Liverpool were much better yet the difference in class showed. Now let’s hope for a good draw in the fourth round.

Good Game
They were occasionally shown up by Beckford’s speed but on the whole Jamie Carragher and Sotiris Kyrgiakos were solid. In particular, the Greek had a very good game and showed that he should prove to be a more than useful replacement for Sami Hyppia.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the game was the performance of Philip Degen. The Swiss defender is nothing special defensively but going forward he showed some classy moves and, if he stays fit (which means a very big if), he could prove to be good cover for Glen Johnson.

Playing Fabio Aurelio in midfield was a clever experiment by Benitez and, whilst the Brazilian used the ball very well, he is too one footed to play in that role on a more permanent basis. For most of the game, Javier Mascherano was anonymous but then came to life in the final half an hour. He could have paid the price for a reckless accident with Beckford and there were fears that he might lose his calm. That didn’t happen and he helped out in defence as Leeds tried to create something towards the end.

Let’s make it clear: Jay Spearing didn’t have a fantastic game. Yet he showed the kind of touches that anyone who has seen him play for the reserves knows that he is capable of. In particular, in the second half he really started taking over Liverpool’s midfield - perhaps as a result of being used in a more advanced position - as he put in some very intelligent through balls.

I’m undecided as to whether Albert Riera had a good or a bad game. On occasions he simply didn’t look interested whilst on other he drove the Leeds players crazy. He needs to add consistency if he is to play more regularly. Much better was Ryan Babel particularly when he was playing on the right. Indeed, he continued on the good touches that he showed against West Ham and, if he keeps on like this sort of form, he could yet force his way into the first team.

David N’Gog remains a highly under-rated player. His work rate up front is impeccable, his touch very good and he took his goal well. Isolated up front for long stretches, he did his best to win the ball and gave his all showing touches of real skill. Despite keeping Beckford onside for the disallowed goal, he is still my man of the match.

Bad Game
This might seem harsh on Diego Cavallieri but his positioning left a lot to be desired whilst he flapped on a couple of crosses. Yet the worst player on the pitch was Andrea Dossena who kept getting beat on the left and losing possession whenever he made a move forward.

Substitutes
Having toyed with the idea of playing Fernaro Torres, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel all seemed like move designed as a move to wind down the clock by Benitez (as well as ensuring a win)


A Look At: Every Boy's Dream by Chris Green

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Monday, September 21, 2009 by

Much has been written about the Gael Kakuta case which has led to the ban on transfer dealings that has been imposed on Chelsea. There has been debate about whether the decision was too harsh or not; others have focused on going over Chelsea's actions to see whether they were right in what they did or not.

What has escaped most people's attention is why they've acted in that way. Why is it that all the big clubs (and the not so big ones) feel compelled to go raiding across Europe in order to find young players with which to load their reserves? Isn't that the reason why they spend so much money on their own academies?

Ten years down the line from the publication of Howard Wilkinson's 'Charter for Quality' that set up the academy system, England should be flush with promising young players coming through the ranks. Instead, the likes of Jack Wilshire are the exception rather than the rule. With the cost of getting things wrong being that of missing out on the Premiership's millions few managers are willing to risk their future by giving young players a chance with the temptation of going for cheap imports being too strong to resist.

Or, at least, that is what normally gets blamed for the evident lack of results and what Chris Green tries to confirm in his book 'Every Boy's Dream'. What he finds out is that, whilst there is a lack of opportunites out there, it is only one of the reasons for the declining number of local players; it is only one element of a much larger and more complex issue.

By talking with a whole host of experts in the field of youth development, as well as some players who have been chewed up and spit out by the system, he slowly starts piecing together the various reasons for the system's failure. Some of these are to be expected - lack of money lower down the league structure for instance - but many will inevitably shock because quite simply the expectations being placed on young children are, frankly, unacceptable.

The risk that such books run is that they become over-bearing, that the doom suffocates the initial interest that there is. Green avoids this by skillfully managing the pace of his writing, alternating between moments that are laden with serious thoughts and others where the writing takes a more personal tone which, as a result, make the whole piece a lighter read.

Green also looks beyond the conventional boundaries of academy football by talking to those who are doing things their own way. He looks, for instance, at the ideas behind the Give Us Back Our Game project that aims to let the children auto-regulate themselves rather than impose rigid the kill off all the fun. Again, these lighten the mood but also offer a genuine alternative for the game.

The end result is a fine piece of work and as exhaustive a look at the state of English football as you're likely to come across. Yet, reading it I couldn't avoid the nagging question about whether, despite all the negative aspects of youth football that Green uncovers, we as fans are really bothered about it. Does it really matter if the big clubs prey on the smaller ones, if the children are put under undue pressure or if the academic side of thing is pushed aside? The sad truth is that the answer most probably is a negative one.

Which makes Every Boy's Dream all the more important for it looks into areas that we're not normally bothered about and asks the questions that we should be asking. For those reasons alone, it is a vital read.


Good Game Bad Game [vs Debreceni]

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Thursday, September 17, 2009 by

Going to the game I started thinking to myself: how is it that I'm always tense before a match? Whilst everyone around me was confidently predicting 5 or 6 nil wins, I was praying that Debrecen wouldn't cause some surprise.

Forty five minutes into the game and my fears were being fulfilled. Liverpool looked like the better side but sloppy passing and a well organised Debrecen side were keeping them at bay.

That should have paved the way for Liverpool to close it in the second half but instead they ended up hanging on for the result. No one played particularly badly, yet there were a lot of mistakes being made all across the pitch.

Good Game
A fantastic save in the first half was followed by normal administration of the game by Pepe Reina who got another clean sheet. This thanks also to a solid performance by Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher even though thei task was made easier by the fact that the Hungarians played with a lone striker upfront.

Glen Johnson might have his critics whilst playing for England but no one is complaining for Liverpool. When hes starts going forward there is an air of expectation that something is going to happen and so too tonight.

In midfield, Dirk Kuyt got the all important goal and was full of his usual rynning. His play, however, was punctured with mistakes just as Albert Riera was. The Spaniard can sometimes be untouchable but his inconsistency remains a major issue. He was good againt Debreceni, however, causing them headaches particularly in the first half.

Steven Gerrard started in deep midfield again but never really looked comfortable. Of course there were moments of brillaince but, like the rest of the team he never really got going.

The same criticism (although criticism is probably too harsh a word) could be made of Yossi Benayoun who was full of his usual trickery but too often lost his way.

This leaves the player who, in my opinion, was the best on the pitch. Many are quick to critise Lucas Leiva and often he deserves at least some of it. Not on this occasion though, as he bossed the midfield. Indeed he was so good that Javier Mascherano wasn't missed at all. Which, in reality, is part of the problem: Lucas is being asked to replace Xabi Alonso when in reality he is better suited to fill in for the Argentine.

Bad Game
Emilaino Insua has easily slotted into the first team and deserves to be first choice. Yet for some reason - perhaps fatigue - he was very poor on this occasion and rarely got up to support Riera.

It was also an off night for Fernando Torres who never even got close to a scoring chance except, perhaps, the shot which eventually Kuyt poked in.

Reserves
Having criticised Benitez last week, there was a lot at stake for Ryan Babel when he came on. Yet he did allright, showing a couple of flashes of his talent and hints of what he could do if he really got going.

It was nice to see Fabio Aurelio back but he nearly gave us a heartarrtack when he lost that ball in the final moments of the game which allowed Debrecen to counter with Liverpool unbalanced.

Javier Mascherano was introduced with a minute to go as an insurance policy by Benitez who clearly was as anxious as the rest of us that something could go wrong in the closing stages


The Risks Behind the Gamble on Aquilani

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009 by

'La rabona'. Talk to anyone who is into Italian football about Alberto Aquilani and that word is bound to come up. It is how Italians describe an audacious bit of skill where a player backheals a pass while running, a move that done well is likely to put any defence off balance.

Just as Aquilani did at the San Siro on the 11th of November of 2006. It was a fantastic move, one that set Roma on their way to scoring and at the same time silenced the whole stadium as everyone took in what they’d just seen.

For Aquilani, it was a defining moment as he finally started to emerge from the shadows of Roma’s two other home grown stars in the form of Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi. Or it seemed like it at the time. Looking back, he never really managed to do that and the quite acceptance of his sale by the Roma fans – where the over-riding sentiment was of relief as the move was to generate some much needed money for them – is not one you would expect for the departure of a local player.

The reason for that is one: injuries. Throughout his career, Aquilani’s talent has never been in doubt. Growing up, he was the star player in Italy’s national youth teams including the Under 19 side that won the European championship back in 2003 where, incidentally, he was voted as the tournament’s best talent. By that time, Aquilani had already made his debut for Roma and was on his way to Triestina to spend a season in the Serie B in order to add experience to his talent.

And gain he did as the eighteen year old quickly lit up the division as he played in all of the club’s forty one games and scored four goals in the process. Impressive stuff for someone so young.

It also ensured his return to Roma and the culmination of a dream. Aquilani was always going to be a Romanista: his father was not only a huge fan but also worked at the ground on matchdays. Indeed, he was working at the Stadio Olimpico in May of 1984 when Roma took on Liverpool in the final of the Champions Cup and even got to touch the famous trophy. An omen, perhaps.

For Aquilani, therefore, playing in the red and yellow of his home city’s club was what he had always wanted. Yet fitting into the side wasn’t that easy. Roma already had De Rossi playing in the centre of midfield, Aquilani’s nominal position whilst the role just behind the team’s strikers was normally reserved for Totti. With the Brazilian Rodrigo Taddei, another local favourite, also guaranteed a starting spot in midfield, space for him was limited.

Yet he was too good to leave out and eventually managed to find his way into the team. Which is when misfortune struck: a training ground injury meant that he missed half of the 2006-07 season and another injury, this time at Old Trafford, cost him three months of the following campaign. Then came last season where Aquilani was injured most of the time this time for no clear reason.

It is those injuries that made the Roma fans forget how good he is. That Roma had refused Juventus’ reported €30 million bid for the midfielder last summer – ironically, the then Juventus manager Claudio Ranieri saw him as a better option than Xabi Alonso – had come to be considered, in hindsight, to be a bad move by them. Better get rid of Aquilani while someone was still willing to pay good money for him, was the over-riding feeling.

Lost amid all of this was the reason why Aquilani had often been missing or, rather, why he was missing for so long after each injury. In recent times, Roma have had quite a troubled relationship with their medical staff and the frequency with which their players got injured or failed to recover raised doubts over their efficacy. There were rumours that appointments with the medical staff were made because of who they knew rather than because of their skills, that Luciano Spalletti had asked for advice from outside the club whilst some players refused to be looked after by the club’s doctors. All this led to the dismissal of Mario Brozzi, the head of Roma’s medical staff.

Therein lies the big hope: that rather than being a fragile player as has been hinted in some quarters, Aquilani had simply been treated badly.

His transfer remains, in all honesty, quite a big gamble by Benitez. Yet it isn’t anything that he hasn’t done before: remember the incredulity when Javier Mascherano was signed? This was a player that couldn’t get a game for West Ham and suddenly he was given a starting role for Liverpool. Benitez, however, had seen Mascherano play before he had come to England, he knew how good the midfielder could be and how he was going to fit into his tactical schemes.

The same logic has been applied to Aquilani. Whilst he might not have the same passing range as Alonso, the Italian is much more dynamic which fits in nicely with Benitez’s desire to have a team that plays at a high tempo which has the opposition constantly on the back foot.

Here you can see Aquilani's rabona (and count the number of times that the commentators mention it)