Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thierry ain't no Saint and more

Henry the Cheat

I have seen the incident involving Thierry Henry against the Republic of Ireland last night a few times and the more I see it, the more deliberate an act it looks. It’s quite unbelievable that Henry did what he did, for he has an otherwise untarnished reputation to go with his remarkable footballing qualities. Together with his fellow countryman, Eric Cantona, Henry will undoubtedly go down as the leading player of the Premier League era, but this blatant act of cheating, is sure to send Henry’s reputation down a few notches amongst the fans of the British game.

Joe Cole: Sole English Genius

England have now lost to France, Brazil and Spain under Fabio Capello and in spite of their superb qualifying campaign, doubts persist about England’s ability to rub shoulders against the heavyweights of world football. England’s troubles arise primarily out of a lack of creative influence in the middle of the park, the presence of somebody who can bring a game alive with a bit of magic. Rooney tends to drop into the hole and tries to act as the creative force, but often the movement in front of him is far too unimaginative for his vision to come to the fore. With Lampard and Gerrard tending to rely more on their physical prowess, Capello will have to turn to Joe Cole to provide England with the inventiveness and guile that could be so vital in taking them to the next level. If Cole is fit, Capello has to find some way to fit him in, as he remains the sole English player who is capable of turning a game on its head purely with his ingenious skill and ability.

Ancelotti: Tactically Outstanding

Now that Russia have failed to qualify for the finals of the World Cup, Guus Hiddink is sure to be hot in demand for some of the top managerial posts around Europe. But Chelsea, with whom he had a golden stint last season, will be more than content having Carlo Ancelotti at the helm. Hiddink was astoundingly brilliant during his time at Stamford Bridge, but Ancelotti with his rich European experience and with Chelsea’s transfer ban lifted, albeit temporarily, is likely to have a far more sustained impact. The Italian has brought all his tactical nous with him from Milan and in instilling a diamond in midfield, has ensured that Chelsea play in a set-up that best suits the players at their disposal. With Joe Cole and Deco alternating at the apex of the diamond and Ballack and Lampard acting as the shuttling players and the immense Michael Essien at the base, barring Barcelona, Chelsea inarguably have the strongest midfield in Europe. The system does have its weaknesses though, which were admirably exposed by Manchester United last weekend who were extremely unlucky to come away with nothing from Stamford Bridge. But by and large Chelsea have been in impressive form throughout the season and the fact that Hiddink is not required at Stamford Bridge speaks volumes about the job that Ancelotti has done so far this season.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Federer's Best Chance?

Rafael Nadal’s shocking loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open yesterday has left the door ajar for Roger Federer to finally clinch the title at Roland Garros and in the process equal Pete Sampras’ record 14 grand slam victories. Much like Sampras, Federer has been constantly thwarted in the French Open, most notably and most imposingly by Nadal. The Spanish Ace has over the last couple of years become more than a mere clay court bully by triumphing over Federer in the holy grass of SW19 and in the hard courts of Melbourne Park. Nadal has not only wrestled the world number one tag from the Swiss maestro, but has also halted any claims of Federer’s unparalleled greatness. 

Federer, unlike Sampras is a more than competent clay court player and his forays at Roland Garros have been brought to a grinding halt only due to the superiority of Nadal and not due to any perceptible weakness in his own game. The meteoric rise of Nadal, has seen true greatness slip from Federer’s grasp and had Nadal not been the player that he has been over the last few years, Federer would have been sitting comfortably on a lofty perch in terms of grand slam victories and would have perhaps been recognised by one and all as the greatest player of all time.  With Novak Djokovic, who has been the second best player on clay this season also having crashed out, it opens up Federer’s side of the draw and has presented the Swiss with the most glorious chance to succeed at the French Open.

Federer will argue with good reason that he is capable of defeating Nadal at Roland Garros and that he’d ideally like to defeat the world’s best players en route to victory, but the Swiss often seems to suffer from a mental block and perhaps even a tinge of an inferiority complex when playing Nadal and in the eyes of many, Nadal’s ouster provides Federer with his best ever opportunity. I am not for one moment suggesting that Federer is incapable of defeating Nadal at Paris, but merely that the departure of the Spaniard makes Federer’s road to a hitherto unconquered goal that less arduous.  

If Federer succeeds, will victory be as great or as sweet as it could be if Nadal stands in his way? To my mind, this matters little. The nature of a grand slam tournament is such that the last man standing has more than a worthy claim to victory and if Federer succeeds it may not be the most memorable, but would nonetheless qualify as an extraordinary achievement. Had Nadal been injured or missed the grand slam altogether for whatsoever reason, there may well be a case for an argument that the victory is soured by Nadal’s absence, but as it stands, if Federer wins, it will be the largest step that he has taken in a glitteringly illustrious career towards his quest for absolute greatness. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guardiola's Oeuvre

Sport has a capacity to throw up the most wonderful stories from time to time and yesterday’s victory for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team was one such story which is sure to have warmed the hearts of not just Barcelona fans but also the lovers of the beautiful game. Rarely does football transcend the division that exists between fans of opposing clubs, but Barcelona’s victory in the Champions League final last night, is one such moment when even ardent fans of Manchester United would have found it hard not to appreciate what was an extraordinary display of footballing supremacy from the Catalan Giants. It was indisputably an unimpressive performance from Manchester United, one that reeked of timidity and excessive respect for the opposition, especially when considering the nature of the occasion, the Champions League final, but that cannot take anything away from Barcelona. There are always going to be question marks over the tactics, when a team gets undone in the manner in which Untied were last night, but the focus for me shouldn’t be on the frailties of Manchester United that were so ingeniously exposed, but on a performance of rare polish and elegance from Barcelona. 

Champions League games often tend to be tense tactical battles and rarely bring out the attacking brilliance in teams, but last night’s performance at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome must surely rank alongside the most impressive of performances in a European Cup final. Pep Guardiola claimed that Barça know to play only in one way and many claimed that this may well prove to be their downfall in trying to conquer a superb Manchester United outfit, but as things panned out, Barcelona well and truly mesmerised a disorganised and weary United. Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out before the game, “I don't think Iniesta and Xavi have ever given the ball away in their lives, they get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy.” Iniesta and Xavi certainly got the Man United midfield on that carousel once Barça opened the scoring against the run of play and some of the superbly imaginative passing and movement from the midfield duo left even the audience gasping for breath.

When Iniesta is in the kind of form that he so wonderfully exhibited last night, it leaves me with no doubt that he is the best footballer in the world. Often unheralded and overshadowed, the shy lad from Albacete more than came to the fore in the biggest of occasions producing a performance of magnetic brilliance. Blessed with superlative footballing intelligence, Iniesta as I have opined in the past is certainly one of the most sublime footballers that the world has been privileged to witness in many a year. It was the pint sized magician who provided the first goal, darting past uncommitted tackles in midfield with consummate ease and laying the ball for Eto’o to finish. Lionel Messi was no doubt in magnificent form, scoring from a superbly athletic header and providing a constant threat with his movement, but it was in the midfield that the game was won and lost. Xavi and Iniesta did not let Carrick get anywhere near the ball and created one exquisite pattern after another and kept the Barcelona metronome ticking with minimum of fuss.

Manchester United could quite simply not respond to the supreme levels that Barça surpassed with such elegance and class and were unable to do much with the ball on the rare occasions when they got hold of it. Manchester United have proved their dominance over the last couple of seasons and it takes an exceptional performance to outdo the Reds, let alone embarrass them. Barça though provided not only an exceptional performance in terms of efficiency but also one that was crammed with such splendour and majesty that United were well and truly outclassed on the night. United though mustn’t be overly disheartened, for they have been marvellous over the last three seasons and with a few tweaks here and there, they can be back at the top of Europe. Barcelona on the other hand will be basking in the glory of a superb treble and their manager Pep Guardiola who has had a fantastic debut season will look to stick to the footballing philosophies indoctrinated in him by the great Johan Cruyff that have produced such outstanding results to go with the most gorgeous of football. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Europe's Best 'Johnny on the Spot'

I have often been unfair on Frank Lampard in the past and I have perhaps gone to the extent of deriding his talents, especially when comparing him with Steven Gerrard, but with Lampard having another cracking year in the middle of Chelsea’s midfield, I must admit I have warmed to the extraordinary skills that Lampard possesses. Over the last few years, Lampard has proven to be one of the most consistent players in Europe with his goals from midfield contributing immensely to Chelsea’s success. His goals may not be quite as spectacular as the ones that Gerrard conjures up, but he certainly has the unique ability to find space in the opposition’s box, which ensures that he enjoys one of the best goals to games ratio in Europe for a midfielder. Lampard has this outstanding ability to arrive late in the box and in the process find just the kind of space that can cause maximum damage. Lampard’s finishing may not be the best, but his undying work rate ensures that he constantly supplies his teams with the goals.  Always barraged by opposition fans, Lampard has managed to go about his football with minimum fuss and with magnanimity unknown to the majority of today’s stars.

I must state that it is no more than mere coincidence that I have managed to eulogise Lampard a few days after Sir Alex Ferguson has waxed lyrical about the Englishman. That apart, I believe it is time to recognise the supreme ability that Frank Lampard contains. A box to box midfielder, Lampard rarely gets into disciplinary trouble and is quietly dignified in his on-field behaviour, something which cannot be said about some of his teammates in the Chelsea line-up. I have always felt that Lampard falls short of Steven Gerrard, in terms of ability and that the two are incompatible with each other meaning that they cannot be picked to play together in the English team. I must admit though that Fabio Capello has proved many of the sceptics such as me wrong by implementing a system that is capable of utilising the talents of both Gerrard and Lampard.

Much of this new found compatibility has come from Lampard’s increased tactical awareness and ability to adapt to different systems of play. I didn’t think Lampard would be able to add an extra dimension of discipline to his midfield play, but over the last year or so, the Londoner has certainly managed to mould himself into one of the most complete midfielders of the world. In a day and age when teams are moving towards striker-less formations, goals from midfield could be more crucial than ever before and there is perhaps nobody better than Lampard at providing that. I opined in one of my earliest posts that Lampard and Gerrard are far too similar to play in the same team, but with Lampard adding a great deal of discipline to go with his terrific dynamism, as Capello has shown, there could well be a way to accommodate the talents of these two extraordinary footballers. Although this accommodation has seen Gerrard pushed to the left for England, come the World Cup, we could well see Rooney occupying the left wing with Gerrard supporting the centre-forward and Lampard holding in the centre along with either one of Carrick or Barry. Playing these magnificent footballers together could cause some of them to give up aspects of their play, but it will at least ensure that their supreme abilities are not put to complete waste.

In spite of Lampard’s absence from the PFA Player’s Player of the Year Award shortlist, I would agree with Lampard’s own assessment that this season has been his best thus far. He has always had the goals in him, but the current campaign has seen him mature into a more tactically aware footballer which is making him contribute to Chelsea in a range of manners. Managers have come and gone at Stamford Bridge, but Lampard continues to remain Chelsea’s metronome. Lampard’s relentless hunger and determination could prove crucial not only in Chelsea’s quest to regain dominance, but also in England’s mission to put up a performance of repute in next year’s World Cup. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Far Too Defensive

With the advent of the offside law, catenaccio in its classical form, if I may be pardoned to call it that, may have become redundant, but tactics involving systems which are organised to spoil rather than create continue to play an important part in modern-day football. Although defence minded systems may be commonplace in today’s football, it was not until the 1950s that an arrangement shaped merely to spoil attained prominence. Nereo Rocco’s tactics with Triestina first and later with AC Milan was designed to ruin the attacking play of the opposition and was adopted with great success by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan. The system involved a libero who helped sweep any loose balls that escaped the clutches of the centre-backs and hence the system was christened ‘catenaccio’ which literally means ‘door bolt’ in Italian. Chelsea’ tactics may not have been catenaccio in its famed form, but it certainly involved an exceedingly rigid defensive structure which gave little freedom to the midfielders to dictate play.

Chelsea’s approach over the two legs of their semi-final tie against Barcelona smacked of defensive diffidence and in the end brought about their own downfall. No doubt refereeing decisions in the second leg were more than merely questionable, but a better approach to the game could have well ensured Chelsea’s place in Rome, especially considering the problems that the Catalans had in the centre of their defence. Whilst it may well have been acceptable to play in the manner in which they did at the Camp Nou, the tactical ploy employed certainly acted as the prime cause for Chelsea’s demise at Stamford Bridge. Many have argued that playing in a flamboyant attacking manner is the correct and respectable way to play football, but one needs to look no further than the manner in which Arsenal capitulated to Manchester United to understand the need for pragmatism, especially at the European stage.

Chelsea’s approach at the Camp Nou in trying to quell Barcelona and deprive them of space was certainly prudent and ensured that they gave themselves a glorious opportunity to take another crack at the champions league final. Their downfall in my opinion stemmed almost entirely from their decision to adopt a similar tactical structure at Stamford Bridge. I don’t wish to maintain some sort of moral high ground by stating that Chelsea’s approach amounted to ‘anti-football’, but viewing from a pure tactical standpoint, they were unquestionably wrong in implementing an exceedingly defensive formation. At the European stage, there is nothing more important than maintaining possession. By playing Ballack and Lampard deeper than they are used to, Chelsea were never in a position to keep hold of the ball for consistent periods of time and in the end it ensured that they couldn’t take advantage even against a ten man Barcelona outfit.

Barcelona were at times worse than a sitting duck, waiting to be put to the sword. Chelsea though were unable to string passes together, which would have certainly knocked the wind out of Barcelona’s sails. Michael Essien after scoring the most wonderful goal hardly ventured into Barcelona’s half of the pitch. Ballack and Lampard were likewise keener on ensuring that Chelsea maintain their defensive discipline rather than taking advantage of Abidal’s sending off. There is no questioning the superb defensive display from Chelsea, but more than just that was required from the Londoners to wrap up the tie. Hiddink’s very rare tactical mistake has cost Chelsea a place in the finals and has provided the world with the most mouth-watering of football contests to look forward to. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Cup Competitions and Strachan's 'Wit'

Teams have for a while now devalued domestic cup competitions in their quest for League and European glory. Of late the Uefa cup has also lost its sheen with managers such as Martin O’Neill fielding a weakened side so as to keep his team fit and fresh in their bid for Champions League qualification. O’Neill would rightly argue that his Aston Villa squad lacks adequate depth to compete in multiple competitions forcing him therefore to emphasise on Champions League qualification which would bring massive amounts of revenue to the club. But by earnestly competing in a tournament such as the Uefa cup, a team can obtain a great amount of European experience which could prove crucial in the long run as can be seen from the likes of Sevilla and Porto. Undoubtedly management these days involves a lot of prioritisation, but on the evidence of recent league results, it seems like O’Neill may well have missed a trick in failing to take the Uefa cup seriously enough.


Gordon Strachan’s latest exhibit of ‘wit’ has seen him branded sexist by the media and Matt Dickinson of the Times has lambasted Strachan for his poor handling of the press. Query from Michelle Evans (Reporter, Real Radio): “Today’s loss obviously means there’s no treble for Celtic. How disappointing is that?” Response from Strachan: “I cannot tell you because you will never understand it unless you are me. I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way it goes. If you try and tell me about childbirth, you couldn’t explain it to me, could you?”

Strachan has always been prone to quirky and at times hilarious remarks and this according to him should be taken as nothing more than a mere tongue-in-cheek observation. Real Radio though are having none of that and are demanding an apology from Strachan. Irrespective of what one’s views on the comment are, we can be rest assured that Strachan’s response (if at all one is forthcoming) whether apologetic or not is certain to ruffle a few feathers. 

[For some of Strachan’s quotes: ]

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Quick Notes

1. Return of Valeron: It is wonderful to see Juan Carlos Valeron, a classical playmaker of exemplary stature once again at the forefront of Deportivo La Coruna. Valeron who has had a torrid time with his knee for a few years now had made a brief return to the first team last season, but this season has seen him revert slowly towards his scheming best.

2. Beckham to Milan: The Italian Serie A was not so long ago the most celebrated league to play your football in. Off late though the Serie A has only been able to attract players who are well past their sell-by date. That said Beckham’s proposed permanent move to AC Milan is certain to further his international career and may well see him play a vital part in the 2010 World Cup.

3. Influence of Nike and Adidas: Staying with Beckham, it comes as no coincidence that the last three clubs he has played for are all associated with Adidas, the brand that Beckham endorses. Nike and Adidas influence football transfers more than one would imagine and it is rumoured that Nike will do all that they can to ensure that if Cristiano Ronaldo does move from Manchester United, it would certainly not be to Real Madrid who are backed by Adidas.

4. Wide Open Relegation Battle in England: West Bromwich Albion look doomed, but 8th place Manchester City are only 9 points ahead of 19th place Middlesbrough meaning that this season offers the most fascinating relegation battle in ages. I pick Portsmouth and Hull City to go down to the Championship along with West Brom.

5. Referral System: The objective of the referral system is to cut out obvious errors made by the on-field umpires. By detailing more than is required on their part, umpires such as Daryl Harper have made a mockery of a system which could well prove to be a turning point in cricket officiating. At the end of the day technology can only be as good as its users are and as long as its users are the likes of Harper and Bowden we can be rest assured of its failure.  

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Commanding Performances from the Reds'

Its not often that Jose Mourinho is outwitted tactically, but Tuesday night at the San Siro saw Manchester United produce a tactically perfect performance against the Italian champions. Sir Alex Ferguson will be disappointed though that his team failed to score a crucial away goal in spite of an otherwise immaculate performance in the first leg. Ferguson opted to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench and went with a three man central midfield which overran Inter Milan with great ease for most part of the match. Playing Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher as a double pivot in front of the back four resulted in United effortlessly nullifying any threat that the Nerazzurri midfield diamond could muster and provided Ryan Giggs with ample opportunities to run at the heart of the Internazionale defence. Carrick was at his glorious best once again on Tuesday night, breaking up attacks with great aplomb and helping United maintain possession which can be most decisive in European games. Fletcher went about his job with characteristic professionalism and Giggs was once again first-rate in what is turning out to be a golden season for the Welshman.

With Vidic suspended, Jonny Evans who was a major doubt going into the match was outstanding against the Inter front two of Zlatan Ibrahamovic and Adriano. Although the Inter forwards were decidedly mediocre on the night, Evans once again displayed why he is so highly regarded at Old Trafford by producing another regal performance at the back. In what was a terrific team effort, the contributions of Cristiano Ronaldo stood out for its overall distinction. Ronaldo ran at the young Italian full back Davide Santon throughout the match with great verve and exemplified United’s excellent performance in terms of their approach play. Unfortunately for the Reds, they were unable to find the back of the net, for had they done so, the tie could have well been settled in Italy. As it stands though, Inter Milan continue to possess a great chance, but having said that if United dominate possession as they did on Tuesday night, the Italians look highly unlikely to go through to the quarter finals.


Liverpool kept up the good work of the English clubs by fashioning another memorable European performance with a commanding victory at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium last night. Rafael Benitez has a knack of getting it right in the Champions League and his tactical nous once again shone through against Real Madrid. Yossi Benayoun’s 82nd minute strike from a Fabio Aurelio free kick means that Madrid have their task cut out going into the second leg at Anfield.

Madrid went into the game full of confidence having triumphed in their last nine league games but were thwarted by a typically dogged Liverpool midfield. Xabi Alonso was superb in his holding role in front of the back four and if not for Casillas’ acrobatics, his splendid sixty yard effort could have well found the back of the net. Liverpool sat back for most of the first half inviting Madrid to have a go at them, but Real’s passing and movement was dreadfully sluggish allowing the Reds to take control of the match right from the off. Arjen Robben offered the only source of danger, but his often infuriatingly selfish play meant that Real Madrid benefited scarcely from any of his mazy dribbles. Benitez will be telling his players that the tie remains to be settled, but barring a major debacle from Liverpool, the five time champions should sail through to the next round.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dream Team Version II?

Josep Guardiola, the pivot of the famous ‘dream team’ of the early 90s has now moulded a team of his own to rival the one created by Johan Cruyff which is incomparable in the eyes of most Barcelona fans. Guardiola has managed to make his side function stupendously well by adhering to the ‘pass and move’ style of football that was indoctrinated in him by the master of total football. Although the present day requirements do not permit Barcelona to play in as fluid a manner as their team of the 90s did, in sticking to the fundamentals of the methods employed by Cruyff, Guardiola has made his Barcelona team a truly breathtaking sight to behold.

Barcelona play the most gorgeous football filled with dazzling interplays and exquisite patterns all over the pitch. Their passing and movement is so quick and incisive that the football is at times literally breathtaking. Although Barça possess an array of talent all over the pitch, it is the imperious Xavi Hernandez, who acts as the fulcrum of the team. Guardiola has ensured that Xavi can use his ingenuity and passing ability to maximum effect by utilising him in a more advanced position this season. Xavi’s static presence in the centre of midfield permits the more fluid players such as Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta to weave their magic in and around the opposition’s eighteen yard box.

Unlike many other clubs around Europe, Barça’s 4-3-3 formation is not a glorified 4-5-1, but rather a system which most definitely deploys three forwards. With Messi, inarguably the world’s best footballer at this moment of time on the right, a resurgent Henry on the left and Samuel Eto’o down the middle, Barcelona have for most part of this season been simply irresistible. Eto’o is well and truly on his way to winning the Pichichi and could even have his sights set on the 38 goal record held by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez for most number of goals scored in a single season in the Primera Liga.

Adding to the magnificent talents of the front three is Andres Iniesta, one of the most sublime footballers in Europe. Iniesta boasts wonderful balance and delicate touch and can either dribble into the opposition’s box or thread the most accurate of passes with equally devastating effect. Considering the almost gung-ho nature of their formation, one would imagine that the full backs are instructed to sit back and defend, but in Barcelona they do things differently. Whilst Eric Abidal is more measured in his approach at left back, Daniel Alves is permitted to bombard down the right wing much like his fellow countryman Cafu once used to do. Alves in full flow is a treat to watch and has added a whole new dimension to an already extraordinary Barcelona squad. At the back the likes of Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez and Gerard Pique offer superb solidity to balance the pure offensive brilliance running through the entire team.

The efforts of Pep Guardiola cannot be underestimated in spite of the talent that the present Barcelona squad contains. Guiding nearly the same set of players who finished eighteen points off the leaders last season to the top of the league by an enormous ten points after twenty three games is an astonishing achievement from Guardiola. Guardiola has instilled some of the missing passion and hunger in his players and has got them playing in true Barça fashion. But for all their glorious football this season they still have a long way to go before they can match the achievements of Cruyff's dream team.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Resurgence of Beckham and the Windies

David Beckham is doing the sensible thing by trying to broker a deal to AC Milan where at the cost of his status in Hollywood, his status in football is sure to surge. For all his off the field superstar image, Beckham has always been an excellent footballer. Beckham has never quite had the trickery to be a winger in the traditional sense, but his sublime right foot has meant that he has often been deployed in a role on the right wing from where his lethal crosses can cause maximum damage. With age though, Beckham has matured tactically resulting in Carlo Ancelotti deploying him on the right side of a central midfield three, a position from where Beckham can greatly influence games. It is amazing how some footballers are with age able to adapt and play in different positions so as to further their careers . Whilst a permanent move to Milan and a shift to the middle of midfield are likely to augment Beckham’s status as a footballer, Fabio Capello is unlikely to deploy Beckham in a similar role with the English national team who are blessed with a surfeit of talented central midfielders. Having said that though a move to Milan is sure to enhance Beckham’s chances of furthering his England career, even if he is restricted merely to a bit part role.


I was engulfed by a strange sense of satisfaction at West Indies’ superb victory against England at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. International cricket needs the exuberance and vibrancy of West Indian cricket and one would hope that this victory reignites interest in the game of cricket in the Caribbean. Jerome Taylor’s splendid spell of fast bowling in the second innings was a throwback to the glory days when the fiery West Indian fast bowling attacks terrorised batting line-ups around the world. Taylor’s dismissal of Pietersen in the second innings with a breathtaking yorker fired at tremendous pace was the highlight of a truly astounding spell from the Jamaican.

The atmosphere around Sabina Park as the Islanders romped to victory in sensational fashion was I am sure extremely gratifying to most cricket fans around the world. It would be stupid to suggest that this victory marks the return of West Indian cricket to its heady days of glory and magnificence, but it certainly is a reminder to the world of what the Windies are capable of, when at their best.

England of course played their part by capitulating in characteristically humiliating fashion. Only a few months back, English fans were filled with expectations of what they felt could be a highly successful period under the captaincy of Kevin Pietersen. With Australia facing an unusual period of decline, the Ashes could not come sooner for the English. But since then dirty politics and internal upheavals have meant that England are back to a state of familiar disarray with Pietersen being stripped of his captaincy. England were woeful in the first test with their batting line-up unable to respond to the inspired brilliance of the Windies’ bowling attack. Ian Bell continued to let down the selectors who have shown an inexplicable faith in his batting abilities. Owais Shah who deserved to be given a chance a lot earlier must surely be brought in to replace Bell in the eleven for the second test. With Alastair Cook’s batting abject at times over the last year or so and with Monty Panesar’s highly ineffectual bowling, England need to take a careful look at their team set-up if they are to recover from this shocking start to the series.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Chelsea in Need of a Tactical Overhaul

Chelsea under Luiz Felipe Scolari are suffering from tactical setbacks which need immediate attention if the Londoners are to mount a serious title challenge this season. Under the present set-up, more than half the job is complete if the opposition finds an effective way to stifle the attacking threat from Chelsea’s full backs. Relying upon full backs for width by itself isn’t the problem, but playing the system with a badly organized central midfield is a disaster waiting to happen. Chelsea have won only five of their eleven premier league games played at home and this evinces the tactical troubles that they are suffering from.

Chelsea’s present system of playing a cramped midfield five with John Obi Mikel acting as a defensive shield relies heavily on full backs Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole to provide the threat from wide areas. With inadequate width on offer in the final third, the likes of Lampard, Ballack and Deco are restricted to weaving pretty patterns in the middle without threatening the opposition with adequate creative vigour. The lone striker up front is easily countered by the opposition centre halves with the full backs tucking in to offset any attacking runs made from central midfield. Although Lampard, Ballack and Deco bring different skill sets to the team, their preference for playing in a similarly advanced central midfield role makes the area heavily congested and leads to the creation of space in other areas of the pitch for the opposition to exploit. Manchester United last week were able to effectively squeeze the trio into central areas and this allowed the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Park Ji Sung and Wayne Rooney to fashion their magic in the acres of space made available to them.

Football formations and systems require players to either move into space or into specific positions. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal arrange their players to exploit space as opposed to positions although not to the same degree as was utilised during the Dutch total football days under Rinus Michels. Liverpool under Rafael Benitez and a lot of the Italian teams play a rigid system wherein players stick to positions and although the system tends to sacrifice fluidity in attack, it infuses tremendous discipline making the team hard to break down. Chelsea themselves under Jose Mourniho were organised in a similarly rigid manner. The difference under Mourinho though was that width came from traditional wingers such as Arjen Robben and Damien Duff which enabled the team to break quickly on attaining possession. The fundamental problem with the present Chelsea team is that they are not able to either exploit space or positions on the football pitch. When the team does get possession in midfield, they are unable to release their wide players swiftly enough to be able to put pressure on the opposition. The likes of Lampard, Ballack and Deco tend to take up positions from which they can neither create nor exploit the creativeness of other players on the pitch.

Chelsea’s problems also stem from the fact that Obi Mikel lacks the quality to play as a deep lying central midfielder. If Chelsea are intent on playing with only one player as a front sweeper, the player necessarily must be a capable passer of the football. Mikel when isolated in his own half lacks the ability to get out of the situation with any inventive success. Deco is evidently past his sell-by date and is unable to control the tempo of the game in the manner in which he once did. With Essien out injured, the Blues lack a player who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make things happen on the pitch.

In the absence of a player who can create from deep positions, the present system seems unviable. If Chelsea are to attain sustained success this season, it will require a significant tactical overhaul from Scolari, one which could however continue to involve the offering of width from the full backs as opposed to the midfielders. Scolari could consider using three central defenders or shifting to a Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), which requires great discipline from the three central midfielders. The other option is to play a diamond in the middle of midfield with Frank Lampard at its apex and both Anelka and Drogba as strikers. Scolari though is unconvinced about Anelka and Drogba as a partnership and is therefore unlikely to experiment with such a structure. The only option is therefore to play a rigid system involving three disciplined central midfielders which will ensure that Chelsea aren’t left exposed by their bombarding fullbacks. This will also require the two playing behind the lone striker to constanly make diagonal runs behind the opposition centre halves to ensure a greater variety in attack. With the quality and depth that Chelsea posses, if Scolari can get it tactically correct, the Blues can certainly mount a serious title challenge.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

ODIs, Rankings and Hayden

Considering the advent of twenty-twenty cricket and the status attached to test cricket, one would imagine that the fifty over format of the game isn’t here to stay. But if the ongoing series in Australia is anything to go by, one day internationals can make for enthralling viewing. The series is evenly balanced after Australia’s victory earlier today in the second ODI and with the recently introduced batting power play the game continues to provide tremendous scope for tactical innovations. ODIs over the last few years have however tended to be a bit predictable with teams unwilling to experiment and bring enough tactical originality into the contests. The format will therefore require the ICC to make suitable modifications and innovations which may include a possible reduction of the games to a forty over a side match to ensure its survival.  

The South Africa-Australia series has so far seen the deployment of interesting tactics as regards the use of the third power play which is a group of five overs selected by the batting team wherein only three fielders can be placed outside the thirty yard circle. The Proteas chose to use the power play as late as possible in the game and whilst it worked to their advantage in the first ODI, it certainly proved detrimental to their chances in the second match. No doubt, these innovations make for interesting viewing, but it’s important that the ICC maintains a sense of perspective when determining the extent of reforms that are required in the fifty over format. The bowlers must be provided with conditions that go beyond ensuring that their role is merely to stem the flow of runs. If all new innovations are garnered towards making sure that the batsmen get greater opportunities to score runs, ODIs are bound to face a possibly slow but certain death. 

Speaking of the ICC, their recently introduced rankings for all time great players is an appalling joke. A list which places Kumar Sangakarra, as fine a batsman as he may be, alongside Gary Sobers and ahead of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar in the batting rankings and Derek Underwood ahead of Shane Warne in the bowlers rankings can hardly be considered with any level of seriousness. The exercise of coming up with such a ranking system by itself is steeped in stupidity as it makes little sense comparing players of different eras. Of course the hue and cry that it has raised in India has much to do with how much individual performance and ratings are valued in the country as opposed to collective team effort, but the ICC would have done well to stay away from this futile exercise and in the process could have avoided the media maelstrom that ensued. 

The rankings itself came to light due to the retirement of Matthew Hayden, which motivated certain tributes from different quarters including one from the ICC which had placed him in tenth position on the list of the world’s greatest ever batsmen. As ridiculous as the rankings may be, Hayden has been a magnificent batsmen over the years, one whom Australia are certain to miss in all forms of the game. Although, he has never been the most elegant of batsmen, he has unquestionably been one of the game’s most effective batsmen. When Michael Slater retired, the Australians were able to replace him with an equally ferocious player at the top of the order, one who could take the wind out of the opposition’s sails right from the go. Hayden’s fearless attacking approach to the game has in many ways epitomised the Australian way of playing cricket over the last decade or so. The value of having a match winner at the top of the order can never be overemphasised and Australia are unlikely to dominate world cricket as they once did unless they can find a player of Hayden’s authoritarian and brutal nature. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Great Team Effort

Manchester United’s defeat of Chelsea on Sunday was a team effort of the highest excellence. As Andy Gray aptly put it during commentary, ‘in grand slam terms, the victory was really a thumping’. Most felt that Sir Alex Ferguson was being tactically inane by picking runners over passers in the middle of midfield. Ferguson’s decision to go with a mere two in the middle by itself seemed unintelligent, but add to the mix the selection of Giggs and Fletcher over the passing maestros Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, the selection seemed downright disastrous. The Scotsman though was fully vindicated in his selection as he saw his team inflict a severe dent on Chelsea’s title hopes. Luiz Felipe Scolari, the famed former Brazil manager has managed to consistently get his tactics wrong in the big games and against Man United, his decision to crowd the middle of midfield opened up spaces in other areas of the pitch, which the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Park Ji Sung exploited to full potential. 

With Ryan Giggs in magnificent form and Darren Fletcher at his exuberant best, United maintained an excellent tempo throughout the game. Giggs at the grand old age of 35 epitomises all that is good with Manchester United. He hasn’t lost any of his appetite for the game in spite of being asked to don a more central role these days. Giggs is the first to admit that he cannot maraud down the wings as he once did, but he still brings a whole lot of quality on board through his supreme footballing intelligence and evergreen skill. He doesn’t seem to tire of winning trophies and his hunger and desire sets a fantastic example for budding footballers around the world. Against Chelsea on Sunday, Giggs put in a majestic performance, the full value of which will only be realized at the end of the season. Central midfielders are often measured in their approach to the game. Giggs though wasn’t afraid to dribble at the heart of Chelsea's midfield often taking two or three players with him and thereby creating open spaces in other areas of the pitch. His defensive awareness and incisive runs from the middle was perhaps the most telling of all contributions in what was a sensational team effort. 

With Rooney and Berbatov showing signs of establishing a potent partnership and Park being his effervescent self, Ronaldo played his best game of the season thus far. He was a threat every time he got the ball and his adept flick to set Evra free down the left wing leading up to the second goal was one of the highlights of the game. What was striking about Ronaldo’s contribution on Sunday though was his willingness to track back and help the full backs counter the attacking threat of Bosingwa and Ashely Cole. Ronaldo is usually reluctant with his defensive duties, but on Sunday his contribution to the team’s cause went beyond his customary attacking brilliance. 

A word of mention must also go to Jonny Evans who displayed a maturity and calmness unknown for a 21 year old centre half. Evans only played due to the back spasm suffered by Rio Ferdinand hours before the kick off, but in dealing splendidly with Didier Drogba, he showed the world exactly why Ferguson rates him so highly. Through clever positing and adroit tackling Evans ensured that Ferdinand was barely missed by the champions. If Manchester United can win their games on Wednesday and Saturday, Liverpool will play Everton knowing that they need to win to regain their position at the top of the table. The rout of Chelsea could well be the game which sets Manchester United’s season well and truly rolling.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Cracking Year In Prospect

Last year saw three different grand slam champions in the men’s arena in what was a fantastic season for the viewing public. The men’s tennis field has never been so open and crammed with excellence at the same time for many years now. Nadal’s domination, Djokovic’s realization of potential and Federer’s return to form post Wimbledon made for truly enthralling action on the courts. It is Andy Murray’s ascendancy though that was the most astounding of all achievements last year.

Murray always gave me the impression of someone who had the game but not the temperament and the strength to succeed at the highest level. Towards the latter part of last season though, the Scotsman well and truly established his qualities as a top class tennis player. In a statement of supreme intent, Murray defeated Federer and Nadal in consecutive matches to win the tournament at Abu Dhabi earlier this week, which in spite of being a mere exhibition event was played in highly competitive fashion. Murray’s attacking game has come on by leaps and bounds over the course of the last year and many believe that this may well be the year when he lifts his first grand slam title. Add to Murray’s ascendancy, Nadal’s valour, Federer’s brilliance and Djokovic’s magnificent all-round ability, the year is a ripper in prospect.

What tennis needs though is a bit more artistry at the very top. Agreed, Federer is one of the most splendid players to have ever graced the game, but the game would benefit if someone like Richard Gasquet, the Frenchman who boasts the most elegant of strokes can compete with the best players on the circuit. One of the most naturally gifted players on the ATP Tour, Gasquet has lacked the commitment and focus to produce quality tennis on a consistent basis. His game though is so attractive and pleasing to the eye that one can only wish that he finds the right attributes to challenge the best players.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dream Football Team

I have put down several dream football teams over the years and I felt the beginning of the new year is probably a good time to let everyone know of my favourite players. Whenever one puts forward a team of this kind it is only natural that a certain element of bias creeps in, but to ensure that I remain fair to all the great footballers who have graced the game over the last decade or so I have named only two footballers who have played for Manchester United over an extended period of time in my eleven.

The team will play in my favoured 3-4-1-2 formation, which I believe will lend excellent balance and stability to my line-up. The formation is essentially a variation of the 3-4-3 formation with the primary difference being the fact that the width will come from the wingbacks as opposed to the forwards. A flat back four tends to kill creative midfielders and I believe by playing three centre halves and by getting my wingers to push up and down, I can provide a lot of freedom to my trequartista without compromising on the defensive aspects of the game. My insistence on playing this formation causes a lot of my favourite footballers to miss out, but then I am not one for accommodating players at the cost of my tactics.

Goalkeeper - Iker Casillas: Without a shadow of doubt I can say that Casillas is the greatest shot stopper that I have ever seen play. Playing in a team that believes it is unlawful to defend, ‘Saint Iker’ as he is referred to by the Real Madrid faithful has at times single-handedly kept the opposition at bay. In spite of his inability to deal adequately with balls played into the box, Casillas will be my pick for the number one jersey.

Centre Half (Left) - Paolo Maldini: The iconic Maldini’s exemplary commitment and professionalism together with his supreme defensive abilities means that choosing him is a no-brainer. Maldini will add an element of class and splendour to my back line and I am sure he can marshal the defence to several clean sheets.

Centre Half (Centre) - Laurent Blanc: It’s not the job of central defenders to look pretty when defending, but Blanc was as elegant a footballer as one can hope to see. He made defending look ridiculously easy at times and although he had a somewhat forgettable time at Man United, he walks into my team courtesy his unbelievable ability to read a football game.

Centre Half (Right) - Alessandro Nesta: Sometimes a team needs a player who can defend dirty and Nesta is my candidate for the role. He will bring pace and athleticism to my back line and will act as a great foil for the graceful Maldini and the stylish Blanc. If not for his athleticism and swiftness, Nesta may have been pipped by Tony Adams to a place in my eleven.

Left Wingback - Gianluca Zambrotta: Zambrotta has the exceptional ability to play at right or left wingback and adds wonderful versatility to my eleven. Hard on the tackle and blessed with a good engine, the Italian will rampage down the wing all match long and will help provide the front men with the necessary support.

Right Wingback - Javier Zanetti: A fantastic leader, Zanetti’s qualities as a wingback are unquestionable. He possesses the requisite defensive attributes and at the same time he has the strength, skill and passing ability to contribute immensely from an attacking perspective.

Central Midfielder (Right) - Roy Keane: Keane epitomizes the sort of ideal commitment that all managers seek from their players. Keane was a monster of a player, one who could run up and down the pitch throughout the ninety minutes contributing thereby at both ends of the pitch. Being a born winner, Keane will captain my team and I am sure he will be able to inject the right sort of desire and aspiration in the other players.

Central Midfielder (Left) - Paul Scholes: Scholes' abilities are often undervalued and I believe in terms of pure footballing skill, he is up there with the very best. The ‘ginger genius’ as he is referred to by Jim White in his book on Manchester United possesses an astute positioning sense and remarkable finishing ability for a midfielder. It is his passing though that really sets him apart as a world class footballer. Scholes can go an entire game without giving the ball away with the outstanding aspect of it being that he doesn’t merely pass the ball backwards or sideways. Scholes along with Zidane and Bergkamp will act as the creative spark of my team.

Trequartista - Zinedine Zidane: Zizou’s close touch and control and his guile and athleticism together with his penchant for coming up with the goods in the biggest of stages made him in many people’s minds the greatest footballer of his generation. Goals in the finals of the World Cup and the Champions League are testament to his big match temperament. For all his ability though, Zidane seldom showboated. His tricks and flicks were always garnered towards ensuring results for the team and that in my opinion sets him apart from the likes of Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Inside Forward - Dennis Bergkamp: Bergkamp is a player of rare ability who when in full flow was a sight to behold. He had the ability to conjure up moments of brilliance out of nothing and his goal against Newcastle United in my opinion ranks as the best goal ever scored in the Premier League. With Bergkamp’s intelligence and Ronaldo’s sheer natural talent, my team will take some stopping.

Centre Forward - Ronaldo: The ‘Brazilian Ronaldo’ as he is referred to these days was when in full flow a treat to watch. He possessed great pace, power and precision and could score goals that others couldn’t dream of. Ronaldo as Martin Tyler would probably put it is both a great goal scorer and a scorer of great goals. In his prime he could leave defenders with twisted blood and finish with the greatest of panache.