Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming

Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming.

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Croatia’s creative axis out to ruin Seleção’s homecoming

 

Modric will be crucial to Croatia's hopes throughout their World Cup campaign

Modric will be crucial to Croatia’s hopes throughout their World Cup campaign

On Thursday, hundreds of millions will tune in to the World Cup’s opening ceremony and curtain raiser; Brazil v Croatia. For Brazilians, it will be the glorious homecoming of the World Cup to its greatest nation and a chance to banish the demons of 1950- the only other time Brazil has hosted the World Cup, when they were stunned in the final by Uruguay. However, for their opponents, it is the perfect opportunity to re-establish themselves as a feared side and prove that they can go further than what it is being predicted (last-16 at best).

Amidst the feverish expectations of Brazil once again rubbing shoulders with giants such as Germany, Italy and Argentina, their opponents in Group A have gone largely under the radar. The reality is though, barring some footballing catastrophe, that Brazil will comfortably progress through their group that pits them against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. Arguably, the strongest of that trio is Croatia. Perhaps not as strong as in 1998 when they reached the dizzying heights of the semi-finals and Davor Suker went home with the Golden Shoe, the Croatians under new boss Niko Kovac look to their terrifying playmaker axis as the biggest hope they have to rock Brazil in the tournament opener.

Niko Kovac is inexperienced but can trust his creative players to deliver against any side

Niko Kovac is inexperienced but can trust his creative players to deliver against any side

Due to the absence of Mario Mandzukic, the top-scorer in qualifying, through suspension (he was sent off in their play-off against Iceland), the attacking threat will largely come from Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Playmaking maestro’s, Modric and Rakitic will thrive in the “4-2-3-1 come 4-1-4-1” described by Kovac. During Croatia’s sluggish qualifying campaign that saw them fail in a bid to gain automatic qualification, Igor Stimac destroyed morale and confused the players with his incessant tinkering of tactics and shape. There was zero cohesion and Croatia’s momentum suffered badly as a result. What Kovac has done has restored tactical responsibility, intelligence and a sense of leadership to the side. This leadership quality has stayed with Kovac after he was the country’s captain and talisman under the popular manager, Slaven Bilic, at the 2006 finals.

Kovac’s lack of managerial experience did not deter the players from placing their trust in him and so far it has paid off reasonably well. The shape he has restored to the team will allow Modric, Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, Inter Milan’s rising star, to gain plenty of possession for Croatia and feed the lone striker, most likely to be Eduardo, the former Arsenal man, or Nikita Jelavic, who still plays in the Premier League for Hull City.

Croatia know their limitations. In terms of technical ability, star power and muscle, they don’t quite match up to Brazil but they will utilise this by playing on the counter. Croatia’s lack of muscle in midfield means that attempting to go toe-to-toe with Brazil’s Paulinho and Ramires would be a thankless, and ultimately, pointless task. What Croatia do have, however, is speed and cleverness. Their team is packed with smart players that can make use of the little chances they will have in front of goal. Rakitic, for one, is blessed with an array of attacking qualities. Fresh off a stellar season with Sevilla, where he helped guide them to Europa League success, he has rapidly developed into one of the hottest properties in European football and reports are claiming that he is on the verge of completing a big-money transfer to Spanish giants, Barcelona. Whether or not he remains at Sevilla throughout the summer, however, will not affect his importance to the national team.

Rakitic could be one of the tournament's top-performers after a brilliant season with Sevilla

Rakitic could be one of the tournament’s top-performers after a brilliant season with Sevilla

Rakitic has a brilliant range of passing and an eye for goal, having bagged 15 last season for Sevilla, but is also extremely hard-working in the middle. In September, he impressed everyone in the Camp Nou with his tireless work-rate and attacking threat, scoring one and setting up another. It was perhaps the perfect audition and expression of talent for a team who looks to have won the race to sign him.

Working alongside Rakitic will be Luka Modric, arguably Croatia’s most pivotal asset. Modric is the string-puller-in-chief for his country and they will rely on his creative scheming. Modric is also coming into this year’s tournament on the back of an excellent campaign with Real Madrid. Modric struggled to impress after signing for Madrid under Mourinho but Carlo Ancelotti’s introduction of a fluid 4-3-3 has enabled Modric to dictate games in the centre along with Xabi Alonso. For Croatia, Kovac will ask Modric to play a slightly deeper role but that will not completely stunt his abilities. Once Croatia get the ball and flood forward, Modric will be able to feed the more advanced Rakitic, Kovacic and Perisic on the wing. Modric boasts a 90% passing accuracy rate for Real Madrid, which exceeds any other regular starter in the team and it is this quality that will make Croatia tick.

A lack of depth and balance in the squad coupled with a slow and sloppy defence will make wrecking Brazil’s party a difficult task but Kovac has plenty of experience and quality in the likes of Rakitic and Modric that could see them post a serious upset and provide great drama from the very beginning of the tournament.

 

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Muller, Total Football and the ‘Lost Final’: The Story of the 1974 World Cup Final

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It was the show-piece for international football’s most intense rivalry; the 1974 World Cup Final between West Germany and Netherlands in Munich is still regarded as one of the most dramatic and shocking finals in the competition’s history. For the Dutch, it will always be remembered as the final that never was. Their unique vision of Total Football captured the imagination of millions but it ultimately ended in heartbreak as they failed to get Oranje hands on the Jules Rimmet trophy.

Suddenly, with a typically quick turn and finish in the box, Gerd Muller set West Germany on their way to their second World Cup triumph. One precise swing of his right boot was enough to shatter the Netherlands’ hopes of claiming their first Jules Rimmet trophy and with it, sent the revolutionary style of totaalvoetbal tumbling into the footballing abyss. It was a defeat Holland couldn’t quite stomach. They swept the 1974 World Cup with consummate style and swagger and their team are, to this day, regarded as one of the finest teams ever to grace the World Cup. But for all their brilliance, they had nothing to shoe for it at the end of a dizzylingly entertaining tournament. The Johan Cryuff-led Dutch insurgency crumbled in the face of German ruthlessness and efficiency, typified by Der Kaiser- Franz Beckenbauer. Muller, the captain’s trusted lieutenant on the front line, conducted the greatest last act as a German international footballer by quashing the Dutch charge and ensuring that the sea of orange would have to wait, at least another 4 years, before completing the job and conquering the world. 

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That Holland side are seen as the perhaps the greatest innovators in terms of footballing tactics. Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to their 1970 triumph, once said: “The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.” Not for the first time, Calros Alberto seems to have got it absolutely right. The Dutch national side of 1974 were a team of immeasurable talent, virtuosity and artistry, who set the world’s greatest sporting competition alight 40 years ago by abandoning the stiff rigours of footballing tactics and affording unprecedented liberation to their players with the ultimate goal of leaving their opponents bereft in the ways of combating it.  

The man behind the brilliance was Rinus Michels- the creative director and commander-in-chief of a Dutch vision that shook the World Cup 40 years ago. Michels had a clear apotheosis of thought when he came to the realisation of how the game should be played. He started to encourage his players to interchange positions, with the view that a different player would always be available to cover the position left vacant. It was, as Alberto said, a very ‘carousel’ style of football. But it worked. Michels took advantage of an improved infrastructure of sports science and nutrition in the post-war era to enhance his team’s physical prowess, conditioning and all-round fitness. The goal was to enact a dramatic metamorphosis and turn the Dutch into a relentless pressing machine. Michels altered the way the Dutch trained, placing particular emphasis on fitness, ball-work and drills that increased technical proficiency. It was a team very much modelled in the mould of Michel’s Ajax side of the 60s. At the heart of both systems lay the one underlying core principle; control space on the pitch, make it big when you have the ball and small when you do not and it becomes far more difficult for the opposition to keep it.

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Drawing sharp contrast from the fortunes of the Dutch in the World Cup are their arch nemesis; Germany. West Germany, to be specific in that era. West Germany’s World Cup history makes for more jovial reading. They revelled in the Miracle of Berne in 1954 when an imperious West German side famously ended the 36-match unbeaten run of Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary and then there was 1974, for which the Germans will eternally be straddled with the reputation as the party poopers of the Dutch express. West Germany were the reigning European champions at the time and boasted a significantly impressive squad; Beckenbauer, Vogts, Bonhof, Heynckes and the immortal Muller.

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Under the managerial leadership of Helmut Schon- who holds the record for most World Cup matches won by a coach (16)- West Germany found it tough going on their own turf. They scraped past Chile 1-0 in a tentative opener in the Olympiastadion in West Berlin but found a team ripe for a hammering in Australia in the next match. They duly obliged and thumped them 3-0 without breaking a sweat. Their next match, however, went down as one of the most iconic moments in modern football. A match permanently etched into the German national consciousness for its importance and its politics; West Germany vs East Germany. Incredibly, it was their Eastern counterparts who came out on top with a 1-0 victory courtesy of a Jurgen Sparwasser strike in the 77th minute. It was a result that the crowd in Hamburg and rocked the tournament by allowing East Germany to progress to the next round as winners of Group 1. It was an historic moment considering the history and the context, but in the specific context of that World Cup’s landscape, East Germany’s charge was to be halted whilst the West marched on with machine-like fluency and aggression. 

West Germany’s passage through the second round group phase was slightly more serene. They amassed the maximum points following defeats of Poland, Yugolasvia and Sweden. It was the 4-2 spanking of Sweden that alerted the rest of the tournament to the scary realisation that the Germans were peaking at the right time. Arguably the most surprising aspect of that match was that Muller failed to register on the score-sheet but it was irrelevant as the most important thing for Germany was that they had the whole team working in tandem. Sweden came up against a team which had been harshly criticised for not exactly setting the tournament on fire thus far and they hit back vehemently, starting with a thunderous volley from Wolfgang Overath. Bonhof, Grabowski and Hoeness added three more to add gloss to the final scoreline and it became increasingly apparent that West Germany where a team with something to prove at home. Writing them off was a foolish mistake. 

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What West Germany inflicted on Sweden mirrored the demolition enacted by the Netherlands on Bulgaria in the first group phase. A 4-1 rout, with Johan Neeskens providing two penalties before Johnny Rep and Theo De Jong confirming the Oranje superiority. It all seemed to be perfectly in place for Holland in 1974. According to David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football, “Holland clicked immediately the 1974 tournament began.” The excitement as to what the Dutch could achieve caused a feverish atmosphere back in Amsterdam where passionate fans watched their teams electrifying performances in technicolour on TV (the first time the World Cup was televised in the Netherlands). Their dominance in the first phase of the group stages continued into the second as they blew Argentina away with a 4-0 smashing in Gelsenkirchen. Argentine defenders were reduced to quivering wrecks by an irresistible flow of Dutch attacks inspired by the inimitable Cryuff. Four days later, they ended East Germany’s run by dispatching them 2-0 and setting up a hotly anticipated collision with the reigning World Champions Brazil in Dortmund. 

Needing only a draw to reach the final, Holland went one better and comfortably outplayed Brazil in a 2-0 win, with goals coming from once again from Neeskens and Cryuff. A performance that once again entranced the footballing world, making the World Champions of 1970 look unrecognisable and forcing them to try and foul their way to victory. It was a plan that was swept aside with ease by the Dutch as they set up a mouth-watering finale with West Germany. 

And, almost like a cruel act from the footballing gods, the final was shroud in controversy following revelations on the eve of the match that there had been a ‘naked party’ in the Wald’s Hotel swimming pool prior to the Holland-Brazil match whereby unnamed Dutch players partied with German girls. The German tabloid Bild Zeitung published the story and claimed to have photographic proof of the incident (although the pictures never appeared) and it was slammed by Michels during his pre-match press conference as a vicious and cunning act of waging psychological warfare on his team in the build-up to the biggest match in Dutch footballing history. The pool story now has attached to it a legendary status and is offered as an explanation by many Dutch people for the main reason why Holland lost the 1974 World Cup Final. The story is believed to have triggered discord in the Dutch camp and unsettled several of their key players, including Cryuff. Legend has it that Cryuff received a phone call from Danny, his wife back home in Holland, which kept him up all night before the final. Versions of this tale attribute much of the blame to Danny for causing Johan to crucially lose focus at such a critical juncture in the World Cup campaign. In addition to this, it is said that she informed Cryuff’s decision to announce his retirement from international football, leaving Holland without their talisman for the Argentina World Cup in 78′.

With the tabloid storm slowly settling, people began to realise that there was a match to be played. The match, as previously touched upon, was the conclusion of two contrasting fates. Holland had captured the imagination of millions with totaalvoetbal whilst West Germany had, with the exception of one match against Sweden, rather stuttered their way to the final in a distinctly unspectacular fashion. However, they were armed with two pieces of the most formidable footballing weaponry; Der Kaiser and Der Bomber (Beckenbauer and Muller). Muller is still considered by many to be the most devastating striker in the history of football. He certainly stands proudly in the pantheon of truly great goalscorers. He was blessed with a low centre of gravity, enabling him to bob and weave into space with perfect balance and poise and also utilised his blistering acceleration to free himself from the shackles of man-marking centre-halves. But above all else, he could score goals. His record reads as 365 in 628 for Bayern and 68 in 62 for Germany including 14 in 2 World Cups (surpassed only by Brazil’s Ronaldo).

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“I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, when a defender will make a mistake. I have a voice inside my head that says Gerd go that way or Gerd go this way. I don’t what it is.” – Muller’s explanation for scoring with such lethal profligacy.

The final started with Holland dictating the tempo, controlling their passing much to the frustration of the Germans. That frustration boiled over after only 2 minutes as Uli Hoeness trips Cryuff in the box and English referee, Jack Taylor points to the spot. As expected, Neeskens converts the penalty with due precision, putting the Oranje in the driving seat early on. No German player had managed to touch the ball before that moment, it was the start millions of people back in Holland where dreaming about. After the goal, West Germany struggled to muster an effective response as the Dutch arrogantly stroked the ball back and forward in a sustained spell of controlled possession. They showcased plenty of technical superiority but their arrogance with ball led to no second goal. For all their possession, the Dutch didn’t create many openings. Apart from one. An absolute golden opportunity that haunts them to this very day. 24 minutes in, Cryuff breaks clear and is bearing down on a hideously exposed German defence, he slips the ball selflessly to the left, which is picked up by Johnny Rep. Rep had been in a rich vein of form throughout the tournament and was unquestionably one of the Dutch’s finest and most consistent performers but he could only manage to stab the ball straight at German keeper Stefan Maier. 

What happened next vaulted Rep’s miss into the realm of a miss of epic proportions. Holzenbein, occupying the left side of a three-pronged German attack, cuts inside towards the Dutch penalty area and is brought tumbling down by Wim Jansen, desperately trying to stop the forwards run. Jack Taylor once again points to the spot. Paul Breitner steps up. 1-1. The tide is pivotally turned. The German attacks flood in and Netherlands don’t look as though they will withstand the pressure. Then, the moment Der Bomber strikes. Like an assassin waiting in the shadows, Muller had been teetering on the periphery of proceedings for most of the first-half. He was being watched diligently by Rijsbergen and Arie Haan at the heart of the Dutch defence. But not for long. Bonhof, in a moment of typically effective wing-play, screeches past Ruud Krol down the right and drills a low cross in towards Muller. He gets his foot to the ball but the pace of the ball causes it spring backwards once his boot makes contact. For a split second, maybe Dutch blushes are spared. But it was not to be, as Muller pounced on the loose ball inside the box to hit it on the turn low and beyond a frozen Jan Jongbloed. Muller sprints towards his team-mates and leaps into the air. Jon Champion for the BBC exclaims: “Gerd Muller makes history. He is the most prolific striker in World Cup history. That is his fourteenth goal.” It doesn’t matter to Muller, however, he only cared about the match.

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It was shattering for the Dutch. A cataclysmic conclusion to the first-half. The Dutch are irate with Jack Taylor for rewarding the German a ‘soft’ penalty which allowed them to equalise. Cryuff is booked for his protests as the players descend down the tunnel for half-time.

The Dutch looked somewhat regrouped in the second half as they generated a few opportunities following some solid play. Rep once again spurns a glorious opening, only this time he is guilty of not passing the ball back to Van Hanegem, who was in a better place to score, not to mention unmarked and screaming for the ball. Rep shoots and wide and throws his hands to his head in exasperation. Then, Neeskens unleashed a ferocious volley that is somehow turned away by Maier for a Hollan corner. The Germans are defending desperately. Last-ditch. They are bombarded by an endless flood of orange but somehow manage to hold on to that slender advantage. At the final whistle, German players sink to their knees and throw their arms up in jubilation. 

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The desolation and anguish which encapsulated Dutch hearts is perfectly summed up by Bastiaan Bommeljé: “It made an immense impression on me to see grown men cry because we had lost to Germany, but then no one spoke about this game for a decade.” 

The tournament ended in utter disarray for Netherlands but that 1974 team is still universally regarded as one of the greatest. They stunned the world playing a type of football that teams couldn’t comprehend. They fought valiantly and came out second best. Michels and his players were greeted as heroes upon their arrival back at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and were greeted in a banquet at the Royal Palace by the Queen Juliana. But the grief was insurmountable. It was a footballing rivalry that had its roots deep in the history of the Second World War. It was something that, for many people, went far deeper than football. It set up what has become one of the fiercest rivalries in football today but it always seems to go back to 1974 for the two nations. Germany tricked the Netherlands. It was and always will be the Lost Final for Oranje.

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Van Gaal’s pedigree, managerial nous and tactical expertise can make Manchester United great again

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It is times like these when a football club, especially one of the stature of Manchester United, need to simply focus on getting back to the top. The misery and indignation that has engulfed this year’s campaign will perhaps never be forgotten. For the hardcore doyens of the Stretford End, David Moyes’ ignominious 10 months as the Theatre of Dreams’ creative director has etched itself irreversibly into their sunken hearts. But it’s football. The dust has well and truly settled after the furore created by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor and Manchester United, as a business, but more importantly, as a football club, look forward and are intent on concentrating their energy on what truly matters; success. 

Of all the prospective candidates to replace Moyes, Louis Van Gaal stands above the illustrious names of Guardiola and Ancelotti as a manager most suited to United’s needs. The slim possibility of a Guardiola departure from Bayern, likewise Ancelotti from Madrid would steer them towards Old Trafford almost purely out of the necessity to be employed at the highest level. Guardiola has had his 12-month sabbatical, and benefited greatly from it, and like his Madrid counterpart, has only begun the process of making Bayern his. As managers who champion an obsessive attention to detail and believe in the patience needed to make a club great, one year at both Real and Barcelona suggest that the time isn’t right for them at United. In light of that, United fans are beginning to get the sense that the Dutchman truly wants this job.

Since first being mentioned as a top candidate being considered for the job, the 62 year-old has come out and openly expressed his ambition to take Manchester United into the next chapter of a storied footballing history. “I would love the job,” he told the BBC at the start of a three-day World Cup training camp with the Netherlands. “I hope that I shall be the one. It’s the biggest club in the world and it’s a fantastic challenge.”

Van Gaal’s public declaration means that his appointment seems to be a matter of when, rather than if. Initial reports suggested that he made adamant demands to have it tied up by the time he underwent formal preparations for the World Cup with Holland on May 7. However, it has now been suggested that he has softened that demand slightly to allow Manchester United to accommodate Ryan Giggs for his final fixture in charge as interim player/manager. It is now believed that Van Gaal’s appointment will be officially announced not long after the Premier League season concludes this Sunday.   

One of the reason’s for United’s attraction to Van Gaal is the fact that he possesses a clear footballing vision. David Moyes was anointed as the ‘Chosen One’ before his team had even kicked a ball and perhaps the pressure and sheer magnitude of the challenge obstructed the Scot in truly engineering a Moyes style of play. There will be no such problems for Van Gaal, however, as his managerial intelligence has fast-tracked his adaptability around Europe. Words like ‘vision’, ‘philosophy’, ‘mantra’ are flung about recklessly when discussing modern day managers but the argument here is that it is actually applicable to Van Gaal.

The ‘Czar of Alkmaar’ championed a great footballing vision which flourished in the 90’s during his time at Ajax. He placed great emphasis on encouraging the development of talented youth players and integrated them expertly into a team of proven stars, shaping the side into true champions. Van Gaal’s Ajax were a team that defied expectations and attracted great admiration from all corners of European football. One such corner was Manchester, as Sir Alex Ferguson studied Van Gaal’s coaching methods during that famous season for the Amsterdam club and put it into practice himself by including the Class of 92′ graduates into his team of Premier League winners and established internationals. Interestingly, it is well-documented how well Ferguson thought of Van Gaal. When the legendary Scot initially announced his retirement for the end of the 01/02 season, Van Gaal was on the short-list of managers to succeed along with Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Martin O’ Neill. 

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Ferguson’s admiration for Van Gaal stemmed from the unlikely success created by the Dutchman at Ajax. His side won the Champions League of 94/95, beating a formidable AC Milan side managed by Capello in the final, took the Eredivise title without losing a single game and is perhaps the ultimate example of what discipline, sophisticated tactics and intelligent system-building can achieve. Van Gaal’s blueprint for Ajax had the ability to be truly spectacular. The players and passes flowed with speed and precision and blew away titanic footballing institutions to achieve the highest prizes.

Van Gaal created a wonderful footballing machine comprised of a rich array of talents. He packed his midfield with tactically astute and physically commanding players like Gullit, Rjikaard and De Boer. He lined-up with two wingers blessed with blistering pace; Marc Overmars and Finidi George. Up front he had the goalscoring prowess of Patrick Kluivert (now his assistant at the national side) and employed the fantastic technical abilities of Jari Litmanen just behind the striker. It was a formula that worked brilliantly and cemented Van Gaal’s place as one of Europe’s most respected and coveted young managers at that time. 

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After the dissolution of his team at Ajax, Van Gaal revived a dying giant of European football when he succeeded Bobby Robson at Barcelona in 1997 and led them to successive La Liga championships in 1998 and 1999. During his time at Barcelona, he again emphasised the importance of letting home-grown players flourish including handing Xavi his first-team debut against Manchester United at Old Trafford during the sides’ 3-3 draw in September 1998. Furthermore, he inherited an assistant from Bobby Robson. A young Portuguese scout and analyst who had a “certain arrogance about him” and did not respond well to authority; Jose Mourinho. Despite their clashes and confrontations which led to Mourinho’s departure from working under Van Gaal, the Portuguese speaks very highly of him because he recognises he was given his first big chance under Van Gaal. Again, it shows a shrewd eye for talent, on and off the pitch, that the Dutchman possesses and it is this very quality United crave. 

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If Manchester United decide to appoint Van Gaal, they will be getting a dizzying mixture of positive and negative characteristics that have brought Van Gaal both wonderful success and abject failure in the past. He can be abrasive, arrogant and can undermine his players. He has had several confrontations with leading players at clubs he has managed including a persistent disagreement with Rivaldo, during his time at Barcelona, over where the Brazilian should be played. Rivaldo made it clear to Van Gaal that he felt he was best used in the centre, where he could control the play and score more goals. Van Gaal disagreed, he suggested that Rivaldo’s pace and trickery and ability to cross the ball meant he should play wide left, still with licence to cut inside and influence the play in the middle. In addition, he believes in seizing firm control of a football club which has prompted internal discord, sometimes to an irreconcilable extent, in the past with Bayern, Barcelona and Ajax. It is indeed a distinct possibility that his personality will clash with some of the bigger egos at Manchester United but the important thing to remember is that, more than anything, he knows his football. He knows how he plays and isn’t prepared to change that for any player, club or coach. This may cause problems, but his record speaks for itself. The bottom line; getting past personality clashes will more than likely bring Manchester United a return to success and trophies and re-establish their standing as one of the game’s greatest powers.

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The tackle that broke Antonio Valencia

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One of the most unsettling sights in football is a serious injury. Watching as a player writhes in pain, cries of anguish echoing through pitch. Players, still standing, can only watch on with extreme trepidation in the hope that it is not career-ending. In some cases, a tackle can indeed bring the curtain down pre-maturely on a playing career. At other times, however, it can leave an ineffaceable mark on the player and seriously curtail their progression.

One such footballer to suffer the fate of the latter is Antonio Valencia.

When Manchester United signed the Ecuadorian winger from Wigan Athletic in 2009, he was on the cusp of turning 24 and had the brightest of careers ahead of him. The scent of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Armani aftershave was still strong in the dressing room when Valencia arrived, embedding in Valencia the importance of continuing the legacy of his predecessor on the right side of United’s midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson was a keen admirer of his lightning pace, his attitude and his direct style of play that produced dozens of crosses per game, contributing worthily to Wayne Rooney’s 35-goal tally in Valencia’s first season. Many believed that he would merely pale in comparison to Ronaldo’s unforgettable genius but they were to be proven wrong. He may not have been Ronaldo, but he did not disappoint.

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Valencia built on his impressive displays with Wigan to become an indispensable point of United’s attack, notching up 49 appearances in his first season (scoring 7 goals). Valencia ignited Old Trafford when he took off on a blazing run, leaving defenders wobbling wearily in his wake. He seemed a more reliable attacking option than the frustratingly enigmatic Nani, who has never found prolonged consistency at United.

Valencia frequently impressed during his first season at United, being voted Man of the Match during United’s League Cup triumph over Aston Villa- he provided the assist for Wayne Rooney’s winning goal. His inclusion in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year was a demonstration his standing amongst his peers. He was confirmed as the most deadly right-sided midfielder in the one of the greatest leagues in the world.

Riding the crest of a wave into his second season at the club, it looked as though Valencia was going to, along with Wayne Rooney, lead Manchester United’s bid to reclaim the Premier League trophy of Chelsea. Then Rangers came to town in the Champions League. The night that broke Antonio Valencia. It was a seemingly innocuous challenge on his first glance, but going deeper illustrates just how serious a situation it was. Knocking the ball past Kirk Boradfoot, Valencia was bearing down on his favoured position of close to the right by-line when Broadfoot lunged in on the winger. The ball bumbled out for a throw. A clumsy challenge one would initially be led to think.

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However, the frenzied reaction of opposition players is a telling sign of when a player is truly hurt. Broadfoot waved frantically for medical attention as soon a she caught sight of Valencia’s left ankle. He was joined by United’s Wes Brown and Javier Hernandez, who both looked decidedly troubled by the injury. The most indicative reaction though of the true extent of Valencia’s pain was summed up by Rangers’ centre-half Sasa Papac, who walked towards the scurrying of players only to look down and immediately turn away, looking to the sky and puffing his cheeks out, fearing the worst for the befallen Valencia.

It didn’t get better, unfortunately. Valencia was carried off the pitch breathing oxygen from a cylinder which probably remains the most harrowing post-injury sight for anyone watching. It becomes a universal fear of the player’s well-being. The injury was later confirmed as constituting a broken bone in Valencia’s lower left leg, a dislocation and fracture to the left ankle and serious ankle ligament damage. He would not play again for six months.

Valencia’s return was, understandably, greatly anticipated. The tendency to attach a higher level of sentimentality to a player once he sustains a serious injury did not allude the Old Trafford faithful. With Valencia restored to the right side of midfield, the consensual feeling was that he would pick up from where he left off pre-Broadfoot. The reality that has ensued, however, has been a sad one. Valencia’s inability to re-capture the form that had led Ferguson to believe he was a replacement for one of the club’s greatest ever players, has left patience amongst the fans wearing wafer-thin with him. He has never been the same deadly weapon since that injury and, for now anyway, it looks unlikely that he will ever be again.

The most vital attribute Valencia possessed was his raw speed. He has always been a terrific athlete with broad-shoulders and thick quads providing him the ideal physique for powerful, direct running but that night against Rangers seems to have placed in him the fear of a repeat incident. He still has speed, blunted slightly maybe, but his willingness to explode past players has severely waned and United fans are treated to isolated glimpses of how he can destroy players now. Take this burst of accelerated ascension to full throttle below as evidence:

It says much to the decline of Antonio Valencia when he and Ashley Young are labelled Manchester United’s “cautious options” on the wings, as was the case when the teams were finalised before their 2-0 loss to Olympiakos mid-week. Adnan Januzaj possesses the potency Valencia once had, now revered as the most exciting angle of United’s rather limp attack. The rise of Januzaj has not helped Valencia, but his trials and tribulations had been an element since before the 19 year-old emergence.

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It was only thanks to Ferguson, who guided a not-so-spectacular United to one of their most comfortable league triumphs, that a lid was kept on Valencia’s withering form. Now that David Moyes has come in and steered the Manchester United ship rapidly towards catastrophe, the form of certain players can no longer hid behind the brilliance of a manager, it is out in the open, and intensely scrutinised.

Analysis of Valencia’s movements during a game draw uneasy comparisons to a professional golfer, who struggles to hit a short-length putt with fear of missing it, frequently referred to as “yips.” Valencia, like the pitiful golfer, often confronts a defender with the ball at his feet only to crouch slightly and feint to actually do something. He often freezes and turns back, laying the ball of and squirming away from the heart of the action. It used to be that Valencia’s immediate impulse was to run with great abandon but he longer possess the blistering pace and confidence that drove his great performances.

Image At 28, he should be in, or at least approaching, his peak years but it is becomingly increasingly evident that he may be destined to spend them somewhere other than Old Trafford. David Moyes has inherited a player whose abilities have been numbed by a freak injury. He appears caught at a footballing crossroads continuing to slip further and further away, irrecoverably, from the player who was widely considered the most effective right-sided midfielder in the Premier League.

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Two moments of individual recklessness shatter Manchester City and Arsenal’s European dreams | Champions League analysis

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It would be easy to review the Champions League knock-out ties this week containing Premier League contingent and conclude that, in terms of quality and class, Arsenal and Manchester City pale in comparison to their continental counterparts, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

These two giants of the game are universally regarded as two of the greatest teams in recent memory, manufactured in some way in both cases by the greatest manager of recent times, Pep Guardiola. Both teams are dripping with world-class talent, enviable depth and embedded within them, is an unwavering obsession with football perfectionism. That perfectionism derives from Guardiola’s incessant, relentless drive for improvement. He instilled in his Barcelona team the golden touch of controlling football matches. Controlling the tempo, controlling the movements of the opposition defenders and above all else, controlling the outcome (the vast majority of the time at least).

Tuesday and Wednesday night showcased these admirable attributes, but with an ironic twist in the narrative. Decisive refereeing decisions handicapped the chances of Arsenal and Manchester City and left them helplessly on their knees in front of frighteningly formidable opponents.

Lukas Eriksson showed a red card to Martin Demichelis of Manchester City for a desperate trip on a Lionel Messi who was bearing down on goal with the view of producing the inevitable outcome while the Italian, Nicola Rizzoli, had no choice but to send Wojciech Szczesny packing after he collided with an Arjen Robben who had sneaked behind the Arsenal defence in one of a catalogue of errors from a dishevelled looking back-four.

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Considering the sheer ruthlessness of Bayern and Barca coupled with the task of entertaining their guest a man light, the hopes of a miracle for the two English sides were next to zero. In football, sometimes there is no dramatic comebacks and heroic performances of a cinematic nature. Sometimes, teams are just well and truly battered.

One can only wonder the discomfiture Demichelis and Szczesny had to endure as their team-mates returned to the home dressing rooms at the Etihad and Emirates Stadiums with their heads bowed low. Their sparks of rash and foolhardy play cost their teams greatly in the long run. In the long run, the Champions League dreams of Arsenal and Manchester City have been shattered and put to bed for at least another 12 months.

The inescapable truth proceeded the dismissals of both players, Arsenal and Manchester City were pinned back, boxed in and run down comprehensively as the European machine’s calculatingly dismantled the resistance. Chasing shadows rapidly became chasing a lost cause. Admirable as it was, their efforts were in vain as they could only watch the ball pinged and sprayed afar right in front of their very eyes.

It was a fantastic embodiment of that famous Art of War mentality; attack, attack and attack again your opponent’s weaknesses until they are exhausted of all hope and then strike that final, decisive blow. Additionally, deploying these footballing soldiers deep into enemy territory was added reassurance that counter-attacks would be a rarity.

That’s not to say that Gerardo Martino and Pep Guardiola are modern-day footballing Sun Tzu’s. Rather they are proficient and proactive in their own style of battle. Both Bayern and Barca portrayed the aura of teams who knew, without complacency or arrogance, that this was their match to control.

They were the puppet-masters in another unfortunate Champions League tragedy for City and Arsenal. Neither team, after gaining the upper-hand, illustrated that they were to be hurried to the finish line. Patience was again that irreplaceable virtue. When presented into the hands of such exemplary practitioners, patience becomes the most potent of deadly weapons in disarming the opponents entirely.

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Bayern Munich, in particular, looked ludicrously comfortable in possession against a wearying Arsenal side. Overflowing with brilliance, Guardiola’s men parked themselves in Arsenal’s side and conducted a masterclass in patient probing. Rafinha ran behind a disappointing Ozil on several occasions while Robben brought Monreal and Gibbs before him to the touch-line, leaving Kroos and Thiago to roam perilously close to Arsenal’s box.

Pass after pass after pass, Bayern were never shaken. They were never nervous about getting that elusive second away goal and killing the tie off. They knew that by exhausting Arsenal bit by bit, minute by gruelling minute, a chance would present itself. Thomas Muller was the benefactor of such a chance, heading the ball low and beyond Fabianski, who had replaced the befallen Szczesny. Before that, Toni Kroos had laid down an emphatic reminder as to why Manchester United were enquiring about his signature with a wonderfully imaginative curled shot into the top corner. A touch of sheer genius.

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 As the second goal nestled safely into the bottom corner, Guardiola sprung up from his seat and hopped jubilantly around the touchline as he had just watched his tactical masterplan unfold in the smoothest of manners, and not for the first time.

24 hours previously, a similar showing of merciless superiority sunk Mancunian hearts as Barcelona capitalised on Demichelis’ dismissal by controlling the match with great poise and balance. They spurned opportunities through Xavi and Dani Alves, but the latter added to Messi’s penalty to ensure that City have a mountain to climb in Catalonia.

The reckless desperation from Demichelis provides further credence to idea that he is, by some distance, Manchester City’s weakest player. A liability at the best of times due to his penchant for going to ground early (often without contacting the ball), the Argentine centre-half left his team-mates in the slaughterhouse as Barcelona thrive on plunging teams into the abyss with prolonged spells of controlled possession.

Like Bayern after them, Barcleona never looked entirely agitated when the second goal didn’t arrive immediately. They bided their time like their German counterparts and were rewarded in a similar manner; a late goal that effectively killed the tie.

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Both Demichelis and Szczesny had their reasons for doing what they did. Demichelis believed that letting a four-time Ballon D’or recipient through on goal unscathed was a silly move and had to intervene, albeit not divinely. Szczesny probably had good reason to lament the laziness of his defenders but his challenge on Arjen Robben was always likely to end with him walking down the tunnel.

In the biggest matches, players need that ability to live with the lesser of two evils. Allowing Messi and Robben to confront their own destinies in all probability would have produced goals, but it would have extinguished the crucial advantage of the extra man and perhaps would have kept Arsenal and Manchester City in with a glimmer of hope.

In the end, however, moments of individual recklessness prevailed much to the dismay of their managers, team-mates and fans. The great Champions League challenge from Arsenal and Manchester City will have to put on hold for another year, barring the most unfathomable of miracles.

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Felix Magath’s hardened discipline may prove vital in Fulham’s bid to survive

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The news that Felix Magath is to replace Rene Meulensteen as Fulham’s manager was certainly one that induced shock and discussion. The appointment could be seen as one of a number of things; opportunistic, dumb-founded, panic-stricken or even inspired. A manager whose notoriety around Europe lies in his history of excruciatingly difficult training sessions and hardened disciplinarian style is also a manager armed with 3 Bundesliga titles in his CV.

For Magath, the choice of Fulham seems peculiar, particularly when he was a whisker away from returning to his beloved Hamburg a mere 24 hours before the announcement came from Craven Cottage. Contrarily, Fulham’s decision to abandon Meulensteen’s sinking ship could be the exact antidote their season requires.

It’s true. Magath is as uncompromising and hard-nosed as they come and the talk is that Fulham’s squad will not warm to his unanswerable approach but this will not matter to him or to the club in the long run. They can hate him, but Magath has the experience, drive and ability as a top-flight manager to steer this team to safety. Meulensteen is widely regarded as one of the finest coaches in the modern game however, he didn’t display enough conviction to suggest that he was cut-out for management. Fulham needed a manager. Now they have one.

Magath possesses that unwavering will to win that is found in the composition of most world-class managers. His disciplinarian style has proven extremely difficult for his former players but his emphasis on conditioning and fitness is a crucial element in his managerial philosophy and has proven effective in the past; title-wining effective.

Of all the anecdotes related to Magath’s training-ground brutality, the story of a hill and some coffee and cake stands above the rest. While in charge at Wolfsburg in 2008, Magath took his players to a training camp in Switzerland. After lunch, Magath announced, much to the team’s relief, that training would be cancelled for the day and they would be treated to some coffee and cake at a nearby mountain-top coffee house. That relief quickly turned to despair though as Magath revealed that each player was required to run the entire 2362 metres in order to get to the coffee house. The players found it tough going to say the least- Brazilian striker, Grafite, collapsed during the run and required a stretcher to take him back down the hill while the rest of his team-mates suffered the rest of the painstaking run.

It draws similarities to Paolo Di Canio’s pre-season trip to Italy with his Sunderland squad which was rumoured to have contained near-pulverising methods of training in an attempt to vanquish the lethargic, low-tempo style of Martin O’ Neill’s final days in charge at the Stadium of Light. However, there is one decisive difference that elevates Magath above Di Canio- his player management skills are sound and his tactical versatility is a hallmark of his former sides. Unlike Di Canio, however, Magath cares about his players. He pushes them to extreme limits, but he instils in them an undying hunger for victory and his willingness to adjust his tactics to suit different squads has proven a great success. Magath has a method to his perceived madness, in an era when player power is paramount to the running of a club, the 60 year-old German knows how to get the best out of a player. Di Canio just knew how to really piss them off.

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Unsurprisingly, Magath’s persona as a no-nonsense drill sergeant has produced fraught relationships with players in the past. Jefferson Farfan felt decidedly disillusioned with “Saddam” (as Magath was sometimes referred to) stating that he would rather work down in the Peruvian mines that play under him again after the manager left Schalke. Clearly showing no signs of wanting a future reconciliation with Magath, Farfan added that playing under him was a “huge strain psychologically.”

However, Magath has proven his worth as a thoroughbred winner and although his near-comically maddening approach to physical fitness and conditioning may prove a stumbling block to effective communication between him and his Fulham squad, his deep-lying obsession with winning will surely shine through. Fulham may have been quick to fire Meulensteen, but it was clear the club was heading south and remedial action was necessary. Bringing in a manager with such a reputation is undoubtedly a risk, but it’s a risk that needed to be taken and Fulham have shown that they are prepared to dig deep in attempting to secure their Premier League status for next season.

 

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