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The Downing Of A New Era?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Moving on from our look at Everton's continuing decline and descent to the relegation zone, we turn to another challenger; Aston Villa.

Only 3 points from Tottenham in 3rd (assuming that Arsenal will leapfrog them with their games in hand), it seems things aren't going too badly for the Villains, and they're not. They're not going wonderfully either.

There are many positives to look at; the signing of Dunne was a shrewd move by Martin O'Neill. Costing only £6 million from moneybags City (another challenger for 4th) he has proven to be the rock Villa were lacking in the centre of the defence following the departure of Mellberg. The games against Chelsea & Tottenham a great example of how they are now able to soak up a greater amount of pressure before breaking quickly.

Using both Young and Milner they are a team who drive play down the wings delivering passes and crosses to Agbonlahor and Carew, the former putting away 8 goals thus far. Milner has been in outstanding form this season earning a justified callup to England's B-Team experiment against Brazil. His workrate has never been in question, but he has worked on his final ball and is looking terrific.

Young too has often promised much, and has yet to deliver on that promise. He only has to look as far as North London to Lennon to see the kind of progress he could be making, and as David Pleat points out he still has a tendency to retreat into his shell. Petrov is a terrific player and of great importance to this Villa side, but it is at the point of this midfield that I have questions.

In the summer Martin O'neill captured the signing Stewart Downing; a player long since linked to the likes of Spurs and Manchester United amongst others. A slow player, he perhaps one of the best crossers of the ball in the England team. So he bought as a left winger right?

What if though he was bought to play as the point of a midfield diamond? What if he was bought to play across the front of the midfield, allowing all 3 of Milner, Agbonlahor and Downing to drift into channels pulling defenders out of position wreaking havoc. Perhaps MON had initially thought of playing Milner in the middle yet his performances have been so consistent that the idea of playing Downing in the middle isn't so crazy after all.

Sidwell was brought to fill this role, playing a similar role for Reading before being groomed to substitute Lampard at Chelsea. Mourinho may have seen something in the player, although as a free transfer it's tough to tell. Sidwell however is far too shy to play this role, he is a decent passer and tackler (and is a great striker of the ball) yet seems to be afraid to continue his runs into the box. Downing is a much more attacking minded player who won't have a problem ending up in the box.

There is also the chance of forming a Ronaldo/Giggs partnership with the 2 wide players, something which really would add a different dimension to their game.

Either way, Villa fans should look forward to his debut in claret and blue, it may the Downing of a new era.

posted by teedoubleyou


Portugal's Bosnian Examination

Friday, November 13, 2009

So here it is; the playoff.

Portugal face off against Bosnia-Herzegovina and are massive favourites, but the reality may not be as the bookies have predicted. Firstly Portugal are without talisman and "greatest player in the world"Cristiano Ronaldo. Secondly they are playing a side who scored 25 goals in Qualifying, in a group containing Spain.

How did things become so complicated for the Lusitanos? They were drawn in a group containing both Sweden and Denmark, teams notorious for their organised and unadventurous football. There was also a tricky tie with Hungry to negotiate (although a far cry from the unbeaten Magnificent Magyars of the early 50s), and the compulsory whipping boys; Albania and Malta.

There is never one answer to any footballing question, and this case is no different. There can be though, many hypotheses; Queiros and his management, the selection policy, the pressure on Ronaldo to reproduce his domestic form, and the desire of the team. There is one thing above all else which seems to be the problem; goals.

Since Pauleta's retirement from international football Portugal have failed to replace his goals. Pauleta has the distinction of being Portugal's top goal scorer, usurping the great Eusebio late in his career. As a player he divided opinion in Portugal; some considered him to be a superb striker as proven by his record in Ligue 1 for PSG, others on the other hand thought of him as average, scoring goals against the likes of Lichtenstein yet not against tougher opponents like France. The truth is somewhere in between, yet what remains obvious is that when Portugal needed him he often cropped up and put the ball in the net.

In the 2010 qualifying, Portugal's top scorer was Simao with 4 goals. The top scoring striker was Hugo Almeida, with 2 goals. 2 goals. To put that in some sort of perspective, Wayne Rooney scored 9, but perhaps more importantly Edin Dzeko also scored 9.

Not since 1998 have Portugal failed to qualify for a major tournament, and costly 0-0 draws in away games to Armenia and Northern Ireland decided their fate. Once again, the lack of goals could prove their downfall.

Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal face Dzeko, Misimovic and Muslimovic with a combined firepower of 18 goals. That's 1 more goal than Portugal scored in their entire qualifying period.

Fortunately for Portugal, their opponents also conceded 13 goals. This record is what will set these teams apart, Portugal's defence is far superior only conceding 5. Pepe and Carvalho are two of the best centrebacks in world football, plying their trades at 2 of the greatest clubs in Europe and should be more than a match for Dzeko and co. Former FC Porto defender Ricardo Costa has been drafted in, a suprise inclusion to many, the reasoning may be more immediate; he plays at Wolfsburg together with both Dzeko and Misimovic.

In the midfield both Tiago and Raul Meireles are expected to start, neither a stranger to the big game environment. On the wings Querios is expected to name Nani and Simao to partner the creative spark of Deco. Finally the fulcrum; Liedson.

A controversial inclusion, Liedson's call up to the national side has caused arguments over coffee in practically every counter in the country. Some (admittedly many Sporting fans) see his inclusion as an obvious step, as his domestic form is stunning; the 31 year old has scored 146 in 250 games. On the reverse there are those who regard the call up of a third Brazilian born as one step too far. There is a very real worry that these naturalisations are diluting the desire and commitment of the national side, after all does a Brazilian really care how well Portugal do, or is he satisfying his own ego?

The lack of captain and superstar Ronaldo will be felt very keenly, but Portugal have enough quality to see off the challengers. They will depend on their defence more than ever as it will be tested thoroughly. Should they achieve a good result at home in Lisbon (and importantly keep a clean sheet) then they have a very real chance to show what they're worth in South Africa.

posted by teedoubleyou


Strikers: The resurrection

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

If anyone were to bring up the subject of the summer transfer window, the first player to probably come to mind is Ronaldo. Last season saw the rise and rise of the Portuguese star, culminating in his £80 million move to La Liga, a league now containing 3 of the best (if not "the"
best) footballers in World football; Messi, Kaka and the aforementioned Ronaldo. It was the season of the midfielder.

When Xabi Alonso was sold to Real Madrid, Liverpool fans threw their arms up in despair. When Drogba was injured, Chelsea fans were thinking "well, that sucks, but we've got Lampard!". When Tottenham were exploring the nether regions of the Premierleague, Modric was there to pick up the pieces.

For this humble observer, there can be no doubt that last season the midfielder reigned supreme. Anyone who played fantasy football last season will tell you that unless you had Ronaldo, Lampard or Gerrard (or a combination thereof) then you weren't going to win didly. On the other hand, there wasn't a single striker who seemed to be at the top of his game for the whole season.

Anelka ended up with the gong for Top Goal Scorer, however he scored the vast majority of those before Christmas. Torres too was in the top 5, yet he scored the majority of his after Christmas. Drogba had a season to forget, and other contenders like Rooney, Berbatov or Van Persie just didn't turn up.

However this season everything is different. This season is the season of the striker.

Look through the Top Scorer statistics for this season and you will find that the top 10 is made up entirely of strikers. From Drogba on 12, to Agbonlahor on 6, these guys have accumulated 80 goals between them.

Drogba is on incredible form at the moment, having scored 2 goals in his return to Champions League action last night against Atletico Madrid. He has contributed 8 assists as well as his 9 goals. The story is similar for Van Persie, who has scored 7 and assisted 6.

Of course it's easy to sit here and point out statistics supporting this theory, but what is more puzzling is "why"?

In Chelsea's case the answer is immediate; Carlo Ancelotti. The new manager is obviously bringing the best out of the Ivorian, which in turn is having wonderful effects on the rest of the team. With Liverpool the absence of Xabi Alonso and erratic form of Gerrard has left Torres to carry the goal scoring mantle. With Arsenal the answer is less immediate; although perhaps the improvement in Fabregas' form combined with Arshavin's adaptation has given the dutchman the service he requires. For Manchester United, it's clear; Ronaldo has gone.

For other teams though, the answer is less clear. Darren Bent, Carlton Cole and Jermain Defoe are all chart topping scorers this season. Darrent Bent is perhaps the most curious, his goal scoring abilities have never been in doubt (he was in fact Tottenham's top scorer last season) but he seems to have truly found his feet in Steve Bruce's rigid 4-4-2. Partnering Kenwyne Jones (and a beach ball) upfront has created chance after chance, and the Englishman has been putting them away.

Cole has been threatening to explode on the scene since his days as a promising youngster at Chelsea, and perhaps it is just a coincidence that Zola's coaching has finally had an effect.

Jermain Defoe has always been a prolific scorer (although much more in purple patches rather than with any sort of consistency), and the beginning of the season saw him bang in goal after goal. The absence of Luka Modric though has curbed Defoe's enthusiasm.

Overall there can be no doubt that the striker has returned for 09/10. There isn't one golden rule which explains this resurgence, rather it's simply a combination of factors. Regardless, it's making for some very exciting football, and long may it continue.

posted by teedoubleyou


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