Friday, July 31, 2009

Let Juventus entertain you

Seria A is bit of a mess at the moment. Unbearable taxes are putting restraints on even the richest clubs in Italy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kaka, the two giants in Italian football over the last 5 years, have both left for Spain. Fiorentina, while often exuberant and exciting, do not have a team good enough to challenge for any major trophy this season. Roma are Roma, eternally disappointing and always only a game away from an embarrassing whooping against any English team. Milan is the geriatric department and they don’t seem likely to offer us anything new or remotely exciting this season either. With that depressing outlook in mind, why should we even bother with Seria A this season? The answer is Juventus. Let the forever boring Old Lady entertain you.

Starting from the back, it’s fair to say that Juventus boast one of the best keepers in the world, if not the very best. World cup winner Gigi Buffon, as well as being Juventus’ vice-captain, an inspiration and a true gentleman, is also a man who makes very few mistakes between the stick. He will rarely feature in any “play of the day” report, but try and compile a YouTube video of his mistakes and it will be a very short and uneventful clip. An odd slip with the ball at his feet is the best material you’ll come up with.

In defence, Juventus can call upon a large variety of options. On the right it will be a contest of the old guard, namely between Zdenek Grygera, Jonathan Zebina and Hasan Salihamidzic. Grygera in particular is a solid defender and will probably get the nod. On the left Cristian Molinaro seems to be the obvious choice, but talented 22 year old De Ceglie is not far off either. Lauded as one of the brightest young defenders in the league, this could be his year. It is however in the centre of defence that Juventus can offer most quality and also biggest variety of players. Gio Chielini, rated by many as one of the best central defenders in the business, will be paired with one of Fabio Cannavaro, Nicola Legrottaglie and on-loan Martin Caceres (Barcelona). At the moment Cannavaro seems to be the favorite but with Legrottaglie enjoying a fine season last time around and young Caceres determined to rebuild his career after a poor year in Spain, it could be quite a battle.

The centre of midfield is often referred to as the “engine room” and this really seems to be the case at Juventus. New signing, Brazilian hyper, wild child Melo, will team up with former Liverpool ball winner Momo Sissoko in what looks to be an all action midfield. As alternatives Juve can call upon the born again, Chelsea misfit Tiago and the ever so reliable Christiano Zanetti. If Christian Poulsen stays he too might get another chance to prove himself after a poor first season at the club. Whichever pairing Juve choose it strongly indicates a conscious choice of fielding a ball winning, physical imposing midfield. Any two, out of the five above mentioned players, are capable of covering a lot of grass and will serve as a safety platform to the offensive part of Juventus’ game.

It is, however, just in front of the two holding midfielders that things get really interesting. Early indications, after analyzing Juventus’ pre season games, suggest a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Juventus’ new and unproven manager, Ciro Ferrara, looks to field three floating offensive players and one stationary striker, last season’s brilliant Amauri (the alternatives are David Trezeguet and Vicenzo Iaquinta). The group of players that will be considered for the three slots behind Amauri consists of Mauro Camoranesi, Claudio Marchisio, Alessandro Del Piero, Sebastian Giovinco and the new signing Diego. The Brazilian maestro, signed from Werder Bremen, already looks very comfortable in a Juventus shirt and providing he stays injury free, should almost singlehandedly revolutionize Juventu’s game. Young Giovinco will also want to prove himself. Being 22 he can no longer hide behind the “talented youngster” tag. It’s time for the “atom ant” to come out and play.

Ciro Ferrara’s loose 4-2-3-1 formation and his fresh ideas of a more attacking style of play is already causing waves of both excitement and frowning in Italian football. Juventus is probably the only team in the world that would rather win ugly than win pretty so young Ciro is already a brave man, tearing down walls and kicking up a fuss. On top of that, Juventus’ director Alessio Secco has promised Juventus’ fans a brand of football “similar to that of Barcelona”. My, my, my.

Juventus most certainly won’t be strong enough to push for the Champions League trophy this season. They’re not even likely to win the league as Inter are simply too strong for everybody in Italy at the moment, especially after signing true heavyweights like Lucio, Motta, Milito and Eto’o. However, what Juve are likely to achieve this season is admiration from a lot of neutrals both in Italy and the rest of Europe. For an eternally unattractive club this will be a monumental change of philosophy.

Are Juve about to trade in their “Old Lady” for a young, sexy, teen girl?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Liverpool are ready to win the title

Experiencing the first genuine title challenge since 1997, Liverpool are back as serious contenders for the English crown. Not only did they challenge Manchester United from start to finish, even spending a few weeks as table toppers, they also finished the season with massive 86 points, which is a club record. To put things into perspective, 86 points would have won them the league in any country except Spain and of course England. Judging a team’s strength based on points amassed in one particular season is not an accurate science, but what it can tell us is that in a season of 38 games Liverpool can put together a series of results good enough to win the title.

The experience of coming so close to winning their first title since 1990 means that Liverpool will not allow themselves to go backwards this season. They did that in 1998, in 2003 and in 2007. After amassing an impressive number of points the year before, each time they went backwards the subsequent season. However, whereas the achievements in those years were built on shaky teams this time around it’s a different story. This team is not an overachieving one. This team got the 2nd place and 86 points on merit.

Liverpool’s big strength at this point in time is their experienced, yet fresh starting 11, which was one of the key reasons behind last season’s title challenge as well. If we look at what Liverpool’s starting eleven will be like at the start of the season in August, it shows that the youngest player is 24 and only one player is over 30 and that’s a central defender. What this means is that there are no inexperienced or unfulfilled potentials in the team. There are no kids that need to be carried by older players and there should be less inconsistent performances. What “finished article” players do better than their juniors is adapt to whatever the circumstances on the pitch. During unusual and unexpected moments in a given game, like being a goal down at home to bottom of the table team, a more mature group of players is less likely to panic and freeze up. They’re less inclined to try and force plays that don’t seem likely to come off. Instead they can regroup quicker as a unit and look for alternative solutions. Mature players can also last the distance of a 9 months season better than a hopeful 20 year old and this automatically means a more settled team.

While a team’s defence is always the platform, you rarely talk about the back four actually winning the title. However, Liverpool’s defence could be the difference between challenging for the title and winning it. Why? Simply because it looks like Liverpool’s back four will consist of better ball players compared to last season. Johnson looks likely to replace Arbeloa on the right while Agger is back to give Liverpool another attacking dimension from the back. Whoever is chosen on the left, whether it’s Dossena, Aurelio or Insua, it means that Liverpool will field a back four where at least 3 players are genuinely comfortable on the ball and are not afraid to attack. Potentially we’re talking about a set of defenders that can comfortably bomb forward. Regardless of whether they approach the games as attacking or controlling defense, the quality on the ball will be there. If Liverpool do field a backline of Johnson, Carragher, Agger and Insua and even if Rafa Benitez insists on them working as a tight defensive unit, they will still do it with a lot more comfort on the ball, thus allowing themselves more time and space.

Another case for a better defence is the emergence of Agger as a defensive leader. Morten Olsen, the national coach of Denmark, claims that Agger has now developed into a defender that can lead the rest of the team. He is now firmly the organizing central defender for the national team and has been trusted with lot of responsibility. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Agger’s maturing both as a person and as a player was happening while he was injured and they couldn’t reap the benefits of his personal development. However, he is fit now and this new dimension in his game could possibly ease up the pressure on Carragher as well as allow Rafa to finally begin to trust the rarely tested Skrtel/Agger partnership.

As for Alonso, Liverpool fans shouldn’t worry about it. He’s more than welcome to stay at the club, but if he leaves Liverpool will have the money and the pulling power to replace him adequately. Rafa Benitez can walk up to any club president and offer £30mil for a central midfielder whom he can promise the role of a playmaker at one of the biggest clubs in the world, playing just behind Gerrard and Torres. What player will say no to that?

Taking everything into consideration, Liverpool seem to be on the brink. Perhaps they’re the only team out of “top 4” who actually seem to be on an upward curve. Man Utd are having personnel difficulties. Chelsea don’t seem to have the required quality in attacking positions and Arsenal are shaky. Liverpool look like the strongest team on paper and they are ready to take the next and final step. Only a couple of years ago Liverpool didn’t seem that close. Miraculously enough the tables have turned completely and other top 4 teams have allowed Liverpool to sneak up on them.

Since 1997, Liverpool have felt many times that they can win the title. Now they actually believe it and that’s a victory in itself. It’s also the final obstacle before lifting the Premier League trophy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Alberto Aquilani - the good, the bad and the ugly

With a an important season ahead of Alberto Aquliani, whether it’s in Italy or England, I offer my views on both his qualities and shortcomings.

The good

- A midfielder with built in Italian comfort on the ball, which means that his first touch is sublime and he can move the ball around on both of his feet. It allows him to take a bit more time on the ball in the centre of the pitch and this could come in handy in the 100mph Premiership.

- Playing as a very mobile central midfielder allows him to arrive late in and around the box and score goals. This is not another Xabi Alonso, a centre circle “tick-tack” metronome. This is a completely different player in a sense that he moves where the ball is regardless of his initial position on the pitch.

- Respectable shooting ability from distance which has not yielded enough goals so far in his career. A lot of his shoots seem to go on target and trouble the keeper, as well as hitting all sorts of woodwork but the important thing is that the willingness to shoot from distance is there. A little bit of tweaking and a bit more experience and he could be an accomplished goalscoring midfielder.

- His height (6ft2in) is another positive aspect of his game as it allows him to command a presence in midfield that the likes of Ballack and Vieira had due to their stature. When he’s on the pitch you know he’s there. His height does not compromise his mobility though.

- Even though he has in time established himself as a central midfielder he’s a player who is comfortable playing out wide as well as just behind the striker. In fact it is behind the striker that he enjoyed his best games for Roma before eventually settling into a central midfield role alongside De Rossi.

The bad

- He has a tendency to dwell too much on the ball at times and if he doesn’t see options in front of him he can be pushed into giving it away. Roma manager Luciano Spalletti has spoken of this problem and this is one of the reasons why a more experienced Pizarro is preferred to Aquilani alongside De Rossi at times. However the general opinion is that this is something that can be worked on and is one of the reasons why Aquilani has worked on bulking up his upper body, which is quite impressive for an originally gangly character, in the last couple of years.

- Speaking of his physical strength again, while his upper body has become much stronger his legs are still weak at times and he’s not the most comfortable player going into tackling battles. However if you have a more physical player next to him he can get away with it.

- While he definitely isn’t slow for a midfielder he does, at times, appear one paced in a sense that he lacks that bit of dynamism in his game. He’s not someone who can burst through everything and everybody in a way that Gerrard, Essien or Cambiasso can. These are the players, who when being angered can take the pace of the game to a higher level. Aquilani, so far, hasn’t showed this quality. He’s more a “let me play the game at my pace” sort of player.

- As mentioned earlier there is not enough end product in his game at the moment. However he’s also lost a good chunk of his career to injuries and hasn’t really had an opportunity to work on this part of his game extensively, especially in games. For instance he started the 08/09 season like a man possessed, scoring 3 goals in the first 5 games, before being struck down with several niggling injuries throughout 2009.

The ugly

- Injuries. Please sort it out Alberto. It’s the only thing genuinely holding you back. Get fit and ready and everything else will naturally fall into place.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Watch out - Emiliano Insua is sneaking up on you

People at Liverpool know him. People in England know who he is. Argentina is waiting for him. The rest of the world will soon open their eyes.

Built like a bull (still growing mind you) and equipped with technical ability of a left back who wants to patrol the entire left side of the pitch. Endowed with a first touch and dribbling skills that make the touchline his friend instead of his foe. Blessed with a crossing ability that strikers drool over. That’s all you need to know about Emiliano Insua.

Not only is he blessed with talent but he’s also a boy who would take the ball between his teeth and run through a wall, only to emerge on the other side unscathed to tell you “Piece of cake… test me harder”.

This is a guy who’s had to do it the hard way. Swapping a youth team in his native country for a youth team in a country completely foreign to him at only 18, must have been difficult. Hundreds of players do this every year in Europe and a very small percentage ever see senior football at their new clubs. At Liverpool alone there are 5-6 foreign youth players arriving at the Academy every year. How many have made it in the last 10 years? The common sense answer would be around 5. The reality is zero. It is a testament to Insua’s qualities both on and off the pitch that he’s singlehandedly trying to change this trend.

Another thing worth remembering is that Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has tried to restructure Liverpool’s youth Academy several times and each time the people of the old regime, both players and coaches, have been let go in favor of the people representing the new regime. Only one player has genuinely survived the changes. Insua.

Just to illustrate Insua’s current level of development and to show that 20 year old full backs are rarely this good at this stage of their career we need look no further than two of the best full backs in the history of Argentine football, Juan Pablo Sorin (76 caps) and Javier Zanetti (132 caps). At Insua’s exact age, Sorin had just signed for Juventus after an average spell in Argentina’s lower ranks and was not deemed good enough to establish himself in Italian football. At the age of 21 he had to go back to Argentine football and try and prove himself in more familiar surroundings. Zanetti, considered by many to be the best Argentinian full back of all times, was still playing in Argentina’s 2nd best division, at Talleres, at Insua’s age.

Insua, on the other hand, has already played 18 competitive games, spread over 3 seasons, for one of the best teams in the world and looks more than likely to double that tally this year. By the time the World Cup comes around next summer he could be on the plane to South Africa with more than 50 first team games for Liverpool and a chance to shine at the biggest stage, at the age of 21.

The Argentine international setup knows Insua which is why he’s played for both the U21 and U23 team. They know his qualities better than anybody. What they cannot do is make him a part of the senior setup until he grabs a place in the Liverpool team. That would be disrespectful to Gabriel Heinze and Emiliano Papa. Make no mistake though, they’re waiting for the day they can justify calling him up.

All this is in the future though. At this moment he will just have to settle for being more successful than his biggest idols Zanetti and Sorin were at his age.