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Benfica - Has the sleeping giant awoken?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

There's something in the air that's causing the Portuguese people around the world to
experience a vast array of feelings. Sheer euphoria and reawakened pride for some, and genuine concern and apprehension for others. This spectrum could easily be labeled as what the Benfica fans are feeling, and what Porto and Sporting fans are dreading.

For the last 15 years Benfica, arguably one of the world's top ten football clubs has been comatose. It could best be compared to someone who was in a critical condition, practically at death's door but managed to hold on and stabilize. But instead of a full recovery this patient just remained in a prolonged slumber.

And while Benfica fans around the world despaired that their beloved club showed no sign of significant recovery, the Porto and Sporting fans rejoiced and grew in stature and reputation.

But after 15 years of being in the shadow of its two greatest rivals, are Benfica finally showing some signs of life? Is there a little green line beeping and jumping up and down in their ECG? Benfica fans sure seem confident of this. And maybe they have a right to be.

This season Benfica have been in an outstanding form, in 8 league games benfica have scored a jaw dropping 30 goals, giving them an average of 3.75 goals a game, which if it was to continue would guarantee them 112 league goals by the end of the season. To get a true sense of these numbers, last year under Quique Flores Benfica only managed to score 30 league goals after 18 games. But its not only in the league that Benfica have been scoring goals for fun, in Europe too Benfica have scored 12 goals in 5 games including a 5-0 thrashing of Everton. In total Benfica have scored an impressive 48 goals in 14 games in all competitions. Making them the currently the team with the highest goal average in Europe. Defensively Benfica have also been surprisingly efficient conceding only 8 goals in all competitions.

The main catalyst for this amazing start of the season is the oddly named Jorge Jesus who for the first time in his 20 year career is in charge of one the big three in Portuguese football. A firm believer in tactical consistency and fast flowing total football, Jesus has revolutionized Benfica's style of play.

Using a 4-1-3-2 diamond formation Jesus has managed to turn a team of "has been's" and "wonder kids" into one of the most exciting teams in Europe. The back four maybe the weakest area of the team, has two quality center backs. Luisão, the Brazilian international is accompanied by David Luiz one of the hottest prospects in European football who has been described as a mixture of Paolo Maldini and Ricardo Carvalho.

The midfield is where the team finds its strength, in Javi Garcia the former Real Madrid player who arrived in Lisbon this summer for 7.5 million Euros has been one of the true surprises this year, physically imposing (1:86m, 78kg) he's the typical anchorman but with an above average technical ability and distribution.

Another new addition is the Brazilian international Ramires a complete athlete who has been averaging 10.3km a game, and endless pool of stamina but technically gifted as well. Super agent Kia Joorabchian has recently described him as Pirlo meets Essien and that the 7 million Euros Benfica paid for him was a bargain.

On the left there's Argentine international Angel Di Maria who in his third season at Benfica has finally exploded, and is showing all his potential, a truly gifted winger who like David Moyes recently said reminds him of the "throwback" wingers from the 1960's and 1970's whose only role was to beat the man and run down the channel.

But the true creative force comes from one of the "has been's" Pablo Aimar who spent the last 3 seasons out of the limelight but this season has emerged, like a Phoenix risen from the ashes in true style. The old Aimar is back in his preferred role as the creative nº10, all of Benfica's attacking play is orchestrated by his amazing ability and vision.

Up front Jesus opted for the tried and tested method of having a tall and strong target man accompanied by a small and quick second striker. Oscar Cardozo who has scored 11 goals in 8 league games and is already leading the European Golden Boot ranking this year, has been in phenomenal form a true predator and clinical finisher. Next to him is the other "has been", Javier Saviola who after spending the last 3 years rotting at the Bernabeu has finally found his form having scored 9 goals in 14 matches.

Could this be Benfica's year? Or after this amazing start are they going to fail spectacularly? Its still too soon to know, but one thing is certain, for the last 15 years Benfica fans have never felt so confident in their manager and their team.

Time will tell if this sleeping giant will finally awake and if a still more glorious dawn awaits.


posted by teedoubleyou


Is Berbatov On Borrowed Time?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Flashes of brilliance best defines Dimitar Berbatov’s Manchester United career to date, (the sublime goal line turn and flick to set up Ronaldo against West Ham comes to mind), but surely £30m warrants more than intermittent touches of class.

At the time of writing, his career at Old Trafford represents just 17 goals in 57 appearances. Ferguson and United supporters alike will generally defend Berbatov, and so they should. Most other clubs would do the same for their most expensive signing, but supporters can be so fickle.

Whilst at Tottenham it was Berbatov’s touch, vision and more importantly goals that grabbed Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention. The partnership he struck with Robbie Keane made them as revered as any in the Premiership.

Berbatov was Tottenham’s player of the season 2006-07 and was also named in the Premier League PFA team that very year – only one of three non-United players to make the list.

Berbatov soon realised his personal ambition was to be rubbing shoulders with those in the top echelons of European football. It appears though he was far more comfortable playing in the Lilywhite of Tottenham than he is in the red of United.

Keane brought the best out of Berbatov at Spurs and vice-versa. It is no coincidence that over the two seasons Keane was playing alongside Berbatov, the Irish captain accumulated more goals than in any other seasons whilst at The Lane – 22 goals in 06-07, 23 goals in 07-08, (all competitions).

They were working towards the sort of understanding that made Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke so prolific for United in the late 90’s. At Old Trafford though Berbatov has continually been battling against his reputation.

In the Premiership last season he failed to hit double figures and being on the bench in the Champions League Final against Barcelona, in essence, summed up his first season.

The biggest club in the world unquestionably expect more from their most expensive asset. With Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez out of the picture this season is his chance, maybe with a different approach, to become as indispensable as the aforementioned Portuguese captain.

But Berbatov’s performance against Liverpool at Anfield typified the flaws many see in him. United as a unit were poor, but the languid style of their number 9 only reinforced their failings. They came alive briefly when Michael Owen made a cameo; his endeavour though was more a personal vendetta of a man desperate to prove a point.

Berbatov’s lethargic tendencies were identified at Spurs but his link-up play and goals concealed that trait. He is technically gifted and has an astute footballing brain, both facets that originally attracted Ferguson. The Bulgarian must delve deeper to rediscover what made him.

A measure as to what is expected of a £30m player can be seen in Liverpool’s record signing Fernando Torres, granted he was £10m cheaper than Berbatov. But it is safe to say the Anfield jury barely took their seats, he gave them no choice but to adore him.

How much longer can Manchester United’s record signing fail to live up to his reputation and maybe more importantly, his hefty price tag. Evidently, pressure to score goals can be a dividing line between success and failure at Manchester United, Diego Forlan will testify to this.

Hypothetically it would be interesting to see how Spurs supporters would receive a Berbatov return if he became available tomorrow. He left under a cloud of discontent formed by the fans at Tottenham, which was based mostly on his attitude; they did not ever question his ability.

The fact remains, Dimitar Berbatov does not have the demeanour of Manchester United’s most expensive player, it seems a burden more than a source of inspiration.

If the murmurings drifting around Fleet Street are to be believed then Ferguson is looking at one of, if not the hottest striker in Europe, Valencia’s David Villa. With the kitty from Ronaldo’s sale still relatively untouched and Valencia’s desperate need to balance their books, a rumour such as this seems plausible.

The United boss would not like to admit failure on his or Berbatov’s behalf, but unless the latter can shake off his enigmatic status then the day may come where Ferguson may have to.

Labels: ,

posted by Pablo


"I remember when Everton were good, son"

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sunday 15th May 2005, Everton have just lost 3-2 away to Bolton Wanderers after being 1 up at half-time. Referee Neale Barry blows the final whistle to signal the end of the 04/05 campaign. Rapturous cheers fill the stadium (following a bit of handbags between Jaaskelainen and some Everton players), but the cheers are not those of the Bolton fans. Today the cheers are those of the Toffees. Today Everton have finished 4th in the table, sandwiched between Arsenal and Liverpool. Today Everton have qualified for the Champions League.

Sunday 25th October 2009. Everton have just lost 3-2 away to Bolton and currently sit 14th in the table.

There can be no denying that the blue half of Merseyside are struggling this year. All signs pointed to a decline when on the opening day of the season they lost 6-1 to Arsenal, with a team still boasting Lescott at the heart of their defence. Opening day fixtures can often be discounted as flukes, or slight blips in the graph, yet this was something greater and much more ominous.

Last season, Everton finished in 5th as they had done in 07/08. They had the 5th best defensive record in the country, and were runners up in the FA Cup. Overall they won 45% of all their matches with an excellent away record. Cahill, Fellaini and Saha all netting 7+ goals and Lescott contributing 5 from defence. It truly had been an excellent season, more so when one considered the late surge from Tottenham, the consistency of Fulham and the millions of Manchester City.

This season though it's all falling apart. Only last week an Everton side shorn of 10 starting players were torn apart by a magnificent Benfica. They conceded 5 goals, and have since conceded another 5 in games against Bolton and Spurs. In the league alone they have lost 3 quarters of their away games.

The first port of call in these situations is often the same; injuries. At the time of writing, the Toffee's injury list reads like Steve Bruce's shortlist. No less than 10 players are injured, 8 of whom are arguable starters for the club. Players such as Jagielka, Pienaar, Neville, Osman, Yobo and worst of all Arteta. Those players alone account for 27 of Everton's goals last season.

Which brings us to the question of depth.

Everton are not a rich club, they do not have the deep pockets of their red neighbours, nor the sound financial nous of their direct rivals; Tottenham. They have had to work hard to get where they are, and are lucky in that Moyes famously shares an excellent relationship with their owner, Bill Kenwright. This summer they spent quite big by their own standards and brought in Heitinga, Distin and Bilyaletdinov at a combined cost of £20 million. Compare that to the money spent by Manchester City on Adebayor alone.

Heitinga was a rush buy to compensate for the loss of Joleon Lescott, a player who won't be having a testimonial for former employers Atletico Madrid. The loss of Lescott cannot be underestimated. Moyes did everything in his power to keep him, turning away bid after bid from potential suitors, and even publicly turning down a transfer request from the player himself. Eventually the £24 million offered by City was too good to turn down, and once again in late August Everton found themselves missing a vital piece of the jigsaw.

"There is not a chance we will sell this close to the end of the window, the offers were not big enough. We think the world of him, as a centre-half and a left-back. He gives us two players in one."

They have lost a rock at the heart of their team, in both the dressing room and on the field he was a leader, a goal scorer and seemingly irreplaceable. The numbers don't lie, they have conceded 15 goals this year compared the 37 they conceded all of last season.

The contribution from the forwards is also telling; they failed to bring in a striker and so are making do with the services of Saha, Yakubu and Jo. On his day Saha is up there with the best, however his day seems to come around as often as wins for Ipswich. Yakubu is permanently crocked and Jo although having decent technique just doesn't cut the mustard. They rely far too heavily on their midfielders, and with the absence of Pienaar, Osman and Arteta, have left Cahill carrying too heavy a burden. Bilyaletdinov has contributed with one goal, yet he has come half-way through the Russian season and cannot be relied upon to pick up the slack. Fellaini has made a decent contribution, although in my opinion has struggled to live up the record-price-tag paid for him.

In the end the buck has to stop with the people who run this club. In my opinion Moyes did not do enough to strengthen his squad, especially with the likes of Man City, Tottenham, Fulham and Villa swarming all around. In his defence, the sale of Lescott ended up forcing his hand, and he played it poorly -- Heitinga may well be the answer, but it's too soon to tell. Lucas Neill's recent arrival could also provide the solidity and leadership so desperately lacking.

Hopefully by the time the winter transfer window opens, Neill, Heitinga, Distin and Bilyaletdinov will have settled and a few first teamers will have returned. Either way, it may be too late to relive that feeling of Sunday 15th May 2005.


posted by teedoubleyou


The taming of the Lion

Sporting Lisbon are 10 points off the pace after only 8 games in the Portuguese Superliga trailing the seemingly unstoppable force of Benfica. Benfica's strength, which shall be explored in this blog in the coming days, is of course one part of the situation but Sporting seem to be in a gradual state of decline since their last league title in 2002. That team was built around the colossus that was Mario Jardel who managed to bang in 42 goals in 30 league appearances and scooped up the golden boot for his troubles. However, Sporting create enough talent through their youth system to consistently challenge effectively for the title every season as well as improve on their record of 2 titles in the last 27 years.

Over the last 15 years Sporting have produced players of genuine world class that have been sold to foreign clubs for good money. Luis Figo, Simao Sabrosa, Ricardo Quaresma, Hugo Viana and Nani have been nurtured by the Sporting Academy's loving arms and sold for a combined total of €80 million. Some still remain in the form of Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso (who incidentally is nowhere near as good as he is in FM 2009, but talented nonetheless) so where is the crisis?

Apart from the general decline of the Portuguese league dating back to the early nineties Sporting suffers from the nuisance that is debt, estimated to be in the region of €200 million, which means that Sporting can only use 20% of their transfer income. Ironically this debt was only a third of what it was in 1995, and apart from the hefty income generated through sales, Sporting have benefited from Champions League revenue, the astronomical rise of TV revenue, increased merchandise sales and very, very frugal transfer spending with Rodrigo Tello representing their record signing for a grandiose fee of €7 million. Fingers have been pointed at their management which is suspected of dipping their fingers in the financial coffers (something rather acceptable throughout Portuguese football clubs).

Sporting's current manager, Paulo Bento, has ditched the team's traditional use of width, which had effectively made use of the quality wingers being churned out of their academy, and put his faith in a diamond formation. Consequently they have found it harder to unlock defences with less being created for their leading front man Liedson. Where they should have been picking up 3 points they are ending up with one as happened against Vitoria Guimaraes on Tuesday. The signing of Matias (Matigol) Fernandez was seen as the creative spark of the diamond but he is yet to settle in and perform to his potential.

Sporting's squad needs serious investment and this can't happen while they are burdened with such astronomical debts. The other two signings this season were Caicedo on loan from Manchester City and the 32 year old Angulo on a free transfer, hardly mouthwatering prospects. It has become a selling club that cannot replace the talent they sell with a much maligned manager trying to adapt to the squad available to him rather than a genuine title contender. Nurturing young talent is the key, but its not enough when grubby paws are bogarting funds from the kitty.

posted by Niles


Where have all the Brolins Gone?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

World football may not have quaked, or even trembled, at the news that Sweden are not going to South Africa next year. Sweden have struggled to reach the highs achieved in USA those 15 years ago and whimpered out of the last World Cup against a superior Germany.

Failure to qualify has seen the resignation of long serving coach Lars Lagerback who has managed to qualify for every major tournament since 2000, which considering Sweden's population, and paltry league, is an impressive feat. Sweden's ageing squad has been found out and despite having strength and depth in attack, their major failing has been to score goals. Sweden's problem is ingrained in its very culture. Stability and consistency are prized traits, as are players who have tactical awareness and a willingness to perform their duties to the letter. It has been Sweden's strength too. On their day they are the bane of creative teams, one of the most difficult teams to break down with a midfield that is hard working and able to cover for positional errors and a defence that dominates both aerially and that can mark a potent strikeforce out of the game. However, times change, and a strong defence is not enough when you can't score goals.

The Swedish Football Federation needs to ditch the Nordic values that may have made IKEA the flagship of modest, minimalist efficiency and hire someone who is willing to display some minerals when it comes to team selection. As much respect as I have for Niclas Alexandersson, Daniel Andersson and Anders Svensson, these are players I was watching when Jurassic Park came out and young Swedish players are not given a chance. Where is Toivonen, Elm or Berg? Players that were so unfairly knocked out of the U21 European Championship semi finals?

Sven has already said no, Hodgson is still on the cards, but as much respect as I have for them both I think its time to think young and fresh. Give some of the young Swedes a chance and build a team round Zlatan while he still has some playing life left in him. Otherwise where the hell are we going to find our new Tomas Brolins?

posted by Niles


Los Miserables

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Real Madrid raided their Scrooge McDuck coffers this summer for some transfer kitty they had done something which hitherto had not been the case.
Sure they spent big, but they also spent big in the days of Florentino Mach 1. No, this time they added some sense.

See, the big plan that started with the arrival of Luis Figo all those years ago was to create a team of super stars. We all know what happened; not much (apart from a stunning Champions League victory, 2 League titles, 2 Spanish Supercups, the Intercontinental cup and a UEFA Supercup).

This time though, things would be different. Florentino spent his years in the wilderness learning from his mistakes (and making large amounts of moolah in some rather dodgy real estate negotiations), and with the aid of Valdano and Zidane they would create a team of super stars. They would buy the best player in Europe, and to add to that they would buy the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best too. They would seal up the leaky defence, buy Spanish and create a team with unparalleled depth.

One problem; they forgot about "width".

Last weekend, Los Merengues failed to score a goal against Sporting Gijon. Fair enough, there were some casualties as a result of injuries, notably Ronaldo and Benzema, but to spend close to £300 million and find that you need to play a product of the cantera up front is not what one would expect.

Earlier in the season, Real experienced their first league defeat at the hands of Sevilla, a team bosting width, pace, creativity and Didier Zokora. This was the first game without Ronaldo, and it showed.

However, as Pepe succinctly put it, "There's no need to talk about the absences, we need to talk about those of us who are here".

Pellegrini employs a narrow tactic, dubbed "perfect" whereby Ronaldo and Kaka are free to roam with Alonso and Lass supporting them and thereby creating some stability and support. Up front Benzema and Raul dovetail to form what sounds like the Pro Evo dream team. The wingers in this tactic are Sergio Ramos and Marcelo. There are 2 main problems with this tactic; Sergio Ramos and Marcelo.

Sergio Ramos is a shadow of the player he was in Sevilla, showing frequent lapses of concentration, bad judgement and poor anticipation. In the game against AC Milan, a friend of mine remarked upon how much worse he is when you're watching him in real-life -- he was stunned at how frequently Ramos would turn his back to the game, allowing Pato to roam free and forcing Lass to come wide to cover him the whole time (thereby denying the midfield of one it's most stable players).
Marcelo on the other hand has been excellent going forward, but he too has had a torrid time of it when being asked to do some actual defending.

What Real Madrid miss then is this width; they played Drenthe on the left of midfield against Gijon on the weekend after his excellent impact performance in the midweek AC game, yet he was unable to provide a similar spark.

When you play Xabi Alonso, Lass and Kaka in the midfield you are going to have these problems, and unfortunately Ramos and Marcelo are not Ashley Cole, Patrice Evra or Dani Alves.

I commend Madrid in strengthening their side with some of the greatest names in the game, yet in my humble opinion it is either a call to reinforce the full backs or to change the tactic (which would force someone like Higuain to play out wide).

In the meantime, the return of Ronaldo cannot come quickly enough for Pellegrini and the supporters of this great club.

posted by teedoubleyou


Champions League be Gones for Liverpool

Thursday, October 22, 2009

There have been endless articles, blogs and podcasts espousing shock and bewilderment at Liverpool's lack of form this season. But why?

Liverpool's record in the league over the past 5 years has been one of top 4 mediocrity bar an incredibly surprising title challenge last season. Liverpool have failed to adequately strengthen their squad despite Benitez's longevity at the club whilst teams like Tottenham, Man City and Aston Villa have added impressive squad depth to their ranks. The bottom line is that the Premier League is getting more competitive by the year, largely due to the largesse of Middle Eastern oil barons, American industrialists and business savvy Jews.

Much has been made this week of Gerrard and Torres' absence as a key factor in their Liverpool's defeat to Sunderland and Lyon. But this is a top four team we are talking about, one that pushed Manchester United to the end last season I hear you cry.

Their weaknesses lie in their inability to cope with the lack of availability or lack of form of their main goal scoring threats, Gerrard and Torres. Playing Ngog as a lone striker against Lyon whose inexperience and goal scoring record lay bare Liverpool's lack of options.

Martin Kelly's full debut, although impressive, was a gamble and displayed not only a lack of faith in Martin Skrtel's ability but inadequate cover for Glen Johnson. Insistence on Lucas Leiva who hasn't got the positional awareness of a holding midfielder or the passing range of a deep lying playmaker exposes the folly of Beniez's purchase of Mr. Swarowski aka Alberto Aquilani as a direct replacement for Xabi Alonso.

Not only does it smack of a panic buy akin to losing a good player in Championship Manager and buying the first highly rated player willing to come, he has bought a player that has failed to last a full, injury free season. I bet Benitez wouldn't turn his nose up at having Reo Coker or Pavlyuchenko on their books at the moment as cover.

Blame has to be squarely laid at Benitez's feet. He may whine that the club now needs investment to paper over the cracks, but he must have had a vision for a strong, competetive Liverpool that can compete in League, the Cups and of course the Champions League when he arrived at the club.

Keane has been replaced by the return of Voronin from loan and Babel seems to be used only as a last resort. Benayoun's form this season has been Liverpool's saving grace, with some delicious creative play his ability to find space through intelligent runs has seen him on the scoresheet 4 times this season.

Adding to the lack of goal scoring personnel in Liverpool's squad, the erstwhile strength of its defence has evaporated. Carragher's flaws as a cumbersome and clumsy defender have come through added to Skrtl's loss of confidence and Agger's tendency to get crocked has seen Liverpool concede to often and too easily. How many times have we seen Reina's angst ridden face when he is let down by his defence? Sami Hyypia anyone? This isn't helped by Benitez's insistence on the zonal marking system which seems to make his defence stationary and vulnerable to well worked set piece routines.

This is going to be a season of transition for Liverpool, they are at risk of not qualifying to the next stage in the Champions League or of even being a part of it next season, something that should have happened when Everton pipped them to fourth spot 5 years ago. The team over achieved in the league last season but it is time to revolutionise the squad again. The Benitez system has ultimately failed to provide a team able to win the Premier League, and it is time now for a different approach or Liverpool fans should get used to the Intertoto Cup and signing the new Igor Biscans and Djimi Traore's of this world.
Hugo Nilsson

posted by Niles


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