Friday, 23 May 2014

Will It Be La Decima Or La Primera?

On the eve of the first ever European Cup final to feature anything resembling a derby it’s astonishing the difference in outlook between the two teams.  Real win their tenth European Cup and a twelve year long wait will be over, a period of time when they’ve managed to break the world record transfer fee three times and average a manager a season.  Their European obsession will be temporarily sated and their season a success.  Losing would be impossible to bear.  For Atleti a season that has already delivered an impossible league title will always be savoured as one of their greatest ever.  Winning the cup would be an incredible bonus.  How Real deal with the pressure will be key.

The two games in the league this season were played at an unbelievable intensity, due on no small part to the desire and spirit coursing through Simeone’s Atletico team.  Real struggled to get anywhere near matching them in the game at the Bernabeu, succumbing 0-1 to a Diego Costa goal.  The 2-2 scoreline in the reverse fixture was pretty fair, Atleti’s desire cancelled out by Real’s class.  The game Real are probably trying to focus on least is last year’s Copa del Rey final where an Atletico team inspired by a world class performance from Thibaut Courtois beat them 2-1 in extra time.  If Atletico perform like that again Real will have to be on top of their game to get close.

The two big players missing from either side (presuming Diego Costa doesn’t make it) will probably just about balance themselves out.  Xabi Alonso will be a loss in midfield for Real, their alternate options there not supplying the same mix of intelligent screening and physical presence.  Costa will be a big hole to fill for Simeone, not only for his goals but for the talismanic qualities he brings at the top of their side.  Earlier in the season in the win against Real it was the willing runs he made into the channels either side of centre backs as much as his goal that was key to their win.

The games they’ve played in cup competitions this season have actually both gone Real’s way, winning 0-5 on aggregate on their way to winning the Copa del Rey.  The difference in both those games was that Real were able to get themselves in front.  When Real have to take the initiative Atletico can hurt them.  This Real team are at the most lethal on the break.  Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria are set up to tear teams apart on the counter (although with an average of 58% possession in the league, above even Barcelona).  Benzema is the unsung hero in this, his movement allowing Ronaldo in particular to exploit his vacated space.  When Real are forced to try and dictate play Atletico tuck their two wider midfielders in and swarm all over whoever has possession in concentrated waves.  So far this season unless they score early Real haven’t shown they can live with their pressure.

If Atletico can do it not only will they have something to hold over Real forever but given the budgets of the teams involved Simeone would be responsible for one of the best seasons for any club side in history.  Glances are understandably already being drawn his way from boardrooms all over Europe.  This Atletico team is so inexorably tied up in his vision you’d worry about their future if he leaves.  Diego Costa is already off at the end of the season.  That’s fine, they’re used to losing a striker a season.  Courtois might well be harder to replace.  Whether they win or lose change is on its way.  You wouldn’t bet against Real getting rid of Ancelotti either way.  Lose and he’ll probably be sacked before the medals have been handed out.  And why would they consider changing the philosophy now?  It’s won them nine European Cups already. 

Suarez’s injury

The most refreshing thing about the build up to this World Cup from anyone with even just a cursory interest in the England team was the for once realistic assessment of our chances.  After a decent but fairly uninspiring qualifying and a group draw that had the chairman of the FA contemplating suicide it promised to be a refreshingly sedate approach to the tournament.  The first sign of this all going out the window was reached as news of Luis Suarez’s injury broke.  All of a sudden we had a chance as long as the Liverpool striker doesn’t make it.

Just to be clear any South American team should start as favourites against a team as notoriously timid in the heat as England.  Although FIFA’s rankings are anything but perfect Uruguay’s position of 5th suggests they might be able to put a decent team without Suarez, as does their status as current Copa America champions.  Plus there’s the fact that Suarez and Caviani in the same team tends to lead to one of them sacrificing themselves for the greater good (normally the positionally versatile and willing Caviani).  After a couple of poor games against Chelsea in the Champions League Caviani seems to be have given the old Zlatan Ibrahimovic role, that of a player with a great reputation abroad who the English press refuse to rate due to him not doing it against the Premier League’s finest.  The odds are more than healthy that this will come back to bite us.  It might have been better for our reputation if we were getting beaten by a full strength team.

U17 European Championship Win

At the end of a couple of weeks that started with a report into the apparently rotten state of the development of young English players what the hell are we supposed to make of the Under 17s winning the European Championship?  This isn’t a one off either, it’s the second we’ve won in four years, beating countries undoubtedly proud of their youth development in the finals of both, Spain in 2010, Holland this year.  Clearly then elite young English players have some talent.  Greg Dyke and the FA would say that it’s the next stage in their progression that we struggle with.  There would seem to be some truth in this.  From the 2010 final sides Conor Wickham started up front for England, Jese for Spain.  While Jese (before his injury) has had a chance this season to make a place for himself in the Real Madrid side Conor Wickham had two spells this season on loan to Championship sides before being given a chance to play for a Sunderland side not overburdened with strikers.  This season the number of English players given a debut by last year’s Premier League top four stood at 0 until Ryan Giggs began his 5 game run as temporary manager.  The talent would seem to be there.  The culture that results in them getting the chance to play less so.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

West Ham’s Deal With The Devil

“It’s not if you win, it’s the way you win.” Johan Cruyff
“I don’t give a shite.” Sam Allardyce   
It’s always been an odd fit, Big Sam as West Ham boss, a Faustian contract the club signed at their lowest ebb.  Never mind about the aesthetics I’ll get you promoted he promised, and then delivered (just).  Now after two years of survival and little else the club is in a holding pattern while they wonder if just surviving is enough.
The most fascinating thing about the criticism of the rudimentary nature of his team’s playing style has been Allardyce’s utter distain for it.  To Big Sam any questioning of style over results seems completely alien.  It’s as if he can’t even get his head round the concept.  His job is determined solely through results, the table is there in black and white if anyone wants to question him.  And it says he’s done his job (his complaints about West Ham having an undeserved reputation for attacking, easy on the eye football have some truth to them, although just because they haven’t seen any for a while doesn’t mean they can’t expect to see their team at least attempt to do it).
Stoke of course were in this position a year ago.  Tony Pulis was delivering survival season on season with an increasingly expensively assembled squad and supporters progressively more frustrated by the style of play.  Mark Hughes was brought in with the brief of playing more attractive football and they’ve just finished the season with their highest ever points tally.  This isn’t to say it would work that way at West Ham.  It might just be as likely they’d plummet again without Big Sam’s sobering influence.  It’s a risk either way.
Looming in the background is the 2016 move to the refurbished Olympic Stadium.  When they’re calling that home they’ll have 54,000 seats to fill every week.  Tough to do with the functional football they’ve been playing, pretty much impossible to do outside of the Premier League.
Big Sam might rightly point out that his job thus far has just been to keep West Ham up, one he’s done comfortably.  He might get one more season to prove that he can do this while getting his team playing more football (in fairness to him at this point in his Bolton career he did bring more flair in, although this is relative).  More than likely he won’t care.
The most important factor in top level football is perception.  You’re either a club that’s going forwards or backwards.  The best you could argue for West Ham at the minute is that they’re a club standing still.  And with a stadium move to plan for and paying fans disgruntled that might just be enough to make a change.