Champions League Preview: Maribor – Chelsea

Chelsea visit Maribor tomorrow evening hoping to put their qualification to the second round on ice- the Londoners can move clear of Schalke if the latter fail to beat Sporting Lisbon.

Celtic fans will certainly be hoping that Maribor can pull off a coup against Chelsea tomorrow, as the Bhoys were knocked out of European contention by the Slovenians, who were embarassed 6-0 at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago.

And the Slovenian outfit certainly has what it takes to pull off a shock- especially if the Blues fall victim to fatigue: this will be their fourth game in 11 days. We saw some signs of that on Saturday against Queens Park Rangers, where Eden Hazard rescued his side from the spot fifteen minutes from time.

With some form of turnover likely names like John Obi Mikel and Ramires have been doing the rounds. Another hot topic is Andre Schürrle, though Hazard and Oscar’s youthful energy are also in the mix. Mourinho’s biggest question mark is the form of Diego Costa. With the Spaniard’s fragile legs always in need of rest, Didier Drogba’s recent form may prove decisive.

The Blues are heavy favourites, but would do well not to underestimate their opponents, whose 6-0 drubbing was still a testament to just how impressive their Champions league campaign has been, it being their ninth game in this year’s edition.

Far from embarassing themselves, the Purple had aquitted themselves well before facing Chelsea, pulling off two draws against European regulars Schalke 04 and Sporting Lisbon. Though both sides have endured a difficult start to the season, there is no doubt that few expected Maribor to come away with points. Chelsea have been warned.

The Slovenians will be without defender Aleksander Rajcevic (out with a head injury) and Ales Mejac (hamstring), whilst Zeljko Filipovic and Agim Ibraimi (both ill) are last-minute calls.

Maribor themselves lost to table-topping Domzale, the 1-0 defeat leaving them 11 points adrift and pushing them further out of title contention. Then again, they have lost twice before facing European opposition, so it is clear their focus is more on European football.

UPDATE 14:05

Neither Mikel or Remy trained today, so they will both miss the trip to Slovenia.

Tactical Preview: Chelsea v QPR

QPR head to Stamford Bridge a clear favourite to lose- and possibly bag a huge shellacking in the process. Though Harry Redknapp’s men are coming off a two-game winning run, they are still second from bottom in the Premier League table- not to mention weak on a number of levels, and this is the wrong time to be visiting a Chelsea side that won’t be in a very forgiving mood.

Last Sunday’s disappointing draw aside, the Blues will remember how threatening QPR can be in the Derby, the Rs winning both in their last visit here two seasons ago and at home in a game more remembered for what horrible things John Terry yelled at Anton Ferdinand. The resulting furore made everyone forget just how poor Chelsea had looked that day, going down to nine men before the half and losing to a Heidar Helguson penalty.Heidar Helguson!

QPR don’t have a high-variance option

One of the more damning indictments of QPR’s football this season is their inability to combine defence and attack. Which is just as good, because a good calculated risk against a team like Chelsea would be to avoid sitting back, and try something that the opposition isn’t expecting. A perfect example was when Everton visited the Bridge a few seasons ago, coming away with a 4-4 draw. It’s certainly a bigger risk, but adds a surprise factor and does give the minnow a bigger window of success, and QPR do happen to boast a fearsome attacking duo in Charlie Austin and Bobby Zamora. One came up with the goods against Villa, the latter has the grit and athleticism to bring Eduardo Vargas into play.

Trouble is, QPR have tried this before, as the ludicrous 3-2 home defeat to Liverpool proved. What’s worrying is that Harry Redknapp’s choice to throw caution to the wind and press Liverpool all over the park still ended up backfiring. His team should have won, but Leroy Fer (usually one of their best players) hit the woodwork twice in the first half alone, and QPR shipped in two goals after the 90th minute to come away with nothing. The Rs only opted for all-out aggression against Liverpool because they didn’t respect their passing game anyway, and may not dare be so brave this time round, especially as…

The Diego Costa party bus is back in town, and Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker are terrified

Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas’ arrival in the summer has given Chelsea a whole new attacking dimension. Gone is the team that struggled down the stretch last season against packed defences, not now that Fabregas can pick defences apart with his vertical passing, one-twos and neat interplay with the fullbacks, and Costa… well…

Caulker and Dunne need help, as they aren’t exactly the speediest defensive pairing on the circuit. Picking up from the previous point, Burnley tried aggressive tactics against Chelsea, and paid the price despite taking an early lead at Turf Moor. All it took was a neat pass from Cesc Fabregas to Branislav Ivanovic… and a finish from Diego Costa.

QPR aren’t built for the counter

Trouble is, even a more cautious QPR could fail to make the grade, having been very average when adopting a more defensive approach, even against teams who struggle to build from the back. QPR looked awkward against both Aston Villa and West Ham, and can count themselves lucky to have pulled away against the Villains just as their opponents were looking to take control.

With two midfielders (Henry and Sandro, for example) sitting in front of their frail back four, only Leroy Fer is left as an attacking outlet in the middle. Redknapp may not have the stones to deploy attacking players like Vargas on the wing, or two strikers up front- a setup that has allowed them to win their last two games. When one thinks of Stamford Bridge upsets, QPR are unlikely to emulate Sunderland’s impressive effort from last season: they haven’t got the defensive mettle and the Blue are much improved. In most things anyway…

Chelsea need a wake up call on set pieces

50% of QPR’s goals in the league this season have come from set pieces, a worrying trend for a team like Chelsea that still has its work cut out ironing out that very weakness. Against Manchester United, it cost Chelsea two deserved points. Now that Manchester City look weak, it would be the wrong time to start dropping points. Manchester United certainly rue the chances they didn’t put away to keep the Citizens at a distance three seasons ago.

Eduardo Vargas v Gary Cahill

A final point concerns last week’s GOAT, Gary Cahill, who for all his talent does occasionally have games where he makes multiple- and often costly- mistakes. He will need to keep a careful eye on Eduardo Vargas who- if Redkapp starts him, and that’s quite an if- will be a major pain in the neck, cutting inside to create one-two scenarios and look for the chink in Chelsea’s armour. The former Universidad de Chile man was woefully misused in Italy, and is slowly putting together a campaign that will justify all the hype we read about him two years ago.

The Elusive Mr Cousins

We first got Kirk Cousins wrong in the 2012 NFL Draft, when the Washington Hogs* were understandably accused of having wasted a draft pick on a second quarterback after trading 5 For Robert Griffin III.

One year on, Cousins had led a comeback against the Baltimore Ravens and deputised for Griffin against the Browns, going 26 of 37 for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But there were a couple of snags, namely Mike Shanahan’s choice to stick with RG3 when 14-0 up against Seattle, when Kirk Cousins was right there on the sidelines. Surely a two-TD lead was a safe enough cushion for the former Spartan?

It’s here that the misunderstanding of Kirk Cousins (if Lauryn Hill can use “miseducation”…) really took off, with the team that really wanted him in the fourth round – yet had far more urgent needs- refusing to play him until it was too late against the Seahawks, or indeed when a very precarious-looking Griffin rushed his rehab to be ready for Week 1 of the 2013 season.

We all know how that went, and so does Cousins, who had been drafted as a competent replacement for just that kind of situation. Perceptions of him would fluctuate wildly over the following 18 months, but one common thread would remain: he would always be misused and misunderstood.

Cousins the Good

Whilst the Washington Peanut Salesmen wouldn’t play Cousins, some members of the media- not to mention the fans- went to the other extreme, seemingly unable to get enough of him. A few supporters even went as far as claiming that he was *better* than the man in front of him on the depth chart, whilst stories abounded in the media about him being worth a first rounder. This goes beyond the usual pipe dreams about reserve signal-callers, who, the logic goes, are just a couple of snaps away from summoning their inner Tom Brady.

Darker forces were at play,too, as the African-American Griffin was already in the process of turning into a media pariah. Though he would certainly do a lot to damage his reputation during the 2013 season, the stories circulating during the previous offseason were downright ridiculous: he was portrayed as greedy for having fans send him unsolicited wedding presents, unfaithful because a story leaked of alleged pictures he sent to a Hooter waitress (never verified) and a punk for wanting to play injured.

It didn’t take long to turn the starter into a glory boy, and Cousins into the worker bee who deserved his own E:45 documentary. Doubtless, there were plenty of people who had a more reasonable grip on reality, seeing the MSU graduate as a mid-round QB prospect whose ceiling didn’t seem to be all that high, but who was a decent pair of hands who had done enough to deserve another chance.

Yet perceptions did not change following three disappointing outings for Cousins in 2013- essentially an audition to see if he could replace the now disappointing RG3 in the long-term. The first round pick conversation continued unabated into the 2014 season, with more and more fans and members of the media clamoring for his inclusion in the starting team, not least Joe Theismann, who argued that Cousins “had always played better” than Griffin. A quick look at even Cousins’ more encouraging games (Cleveland 2012 springs to mind) still shows a flawed player, whose mechanics quickly go haywire when the pressure is cranked up. It became all too easy to forget just how electrifying RGIII had been.

All this media attention was seemingly justified once Cousins took over from Griffin against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 of the 2014 season. Cousins went crazy, throwing for big yardage as the Washington Park Ranger Bullies trampled the Jaguars. Jay Gruden himself seemed to drop a few hints to the effect that he was as happy, if not more, to work with Cousins. The former Spartan proceeded to play well against Philadelphia and Seattle, but was disappointing in three outings, including a miserable performance against Arizona where fans started clamoring for Colt McCoy. A bad game against Tennessee later, it was McCoy time in D.C.

Cousins the Bad

From enthroning Cousins as the saviour of the franchise to calling for his head a few weeks later, the fans had gone full circle. For the same rhetoric that had once promoted Cousins had now come back to haunt him, McCoy inheriting the mantle of hidden gem who could grit his team to glory. Even worse, Cousins’ rise had owed more to the fans’ (and possibly his coaches’) unreasonable expectations than his actual talent. Once at the top, he wasn’t expected to play as a fourth-rounder, but as the next Tom Brady. Backup QBs are popular because they haven’t had the chance to draw criticism, leading desperate supporters to project their unreasonable expectations on them, in the hope that they’ll turn into the next hidden Joe Montana. Once their limitations are exposed, however, they’re as food as dead.

Cousins became a victim of the very process that had brought him to prominence: he was promoted beyond his own merits, but was torpedoed once he came up short of these ridiculous expectations. It’s not as if he was terrible, his demotion owing just ad much to the league’s new-found propensity for safe quarterbacking play (far more signal callers are being rated above the 90 mark compared to even a few years ago. Heck, even Austin Davis is making the grade these days) as to the 9 interceptions he threw. What were people honestly expecting, moreover in a team that is in transition anyway? They were just as much in a transition last year as they are now, and yet still chose to gamble on a QB they gave the crown jewels for mere months after his return from major surgery.

Gruden’s choice to roll with McCoy is certainly understandable: he was hoping for a quick turnaround, for the short-term feelgood factor a backup QB can bring. But he did this at the expense of a man his franchise dealt a fourth-rounder, someone who had been brought in to not look bad. It feels like people have never truly treated Cousins on his own merits, and now he gets to watch from the sidelines as McCoy plays a decent game against Dallas, doing things he was more than likely capable of, and was more used to anyway. McCoy himself confessed before the trip to Texas that he still needed to get to know the fiest team offence. And why would he? Someone had been drafted for these emergencies. It is increasingly apparent that this someone may have said goodbye to Washington for good.

*Today’s post will experiment with all the alternative names the Washington franchise should be considering at the moment, seeing as the current one is a derogatory term chosen by an outwardly racist man whose intent was to appeal to Old Dixie, and who also happened to be the last man to desegregate his locker room after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Not all the names will have been in the debate, and some I will have invented for the fun of it. Because the Washington Fired Park Rangers are there to be made fun of. And because George Preston Marshall’s successor is giving him a strong run for his money in the despicable charts. That shouldn’t be possible.

 

Incubi del fantacalcio: Andrea Consigli

C’è chi passa settimane a studiare statistiche obsolete e trafiletti fuorvianti per sfornare la rosa vincente, e chi preferisce affidarsi al proprio quinto senso e mezzo per scovare quella pepita che nessun’altro ha notato. Ma c’è, naturalmente, anche chi si iscrive ad un campionato all’ultimo minuto, scegliendo di spendere poco sui portieri “perché tanto non valgono nulla”.

Non a caso, lo stesso luminare è stato costretto a raddoppiare il proprio budget saracinesche al primo mercato di riparazione, ormai troppo tardi, però, per evitare certe figuracce, come il -2 rimediato contro l’Inter (sette pugni incassati da un attacco piu’ Jekyll che Hyde), il tris della Lazio e il pareggio di Marco Sau al Mapei, arrivato pochi secondi dopo la prodezza di Zaza. Insomma, tredici gol presi in 7 giornate, e sono pochi se si considera che i prodi di Di Francesco hanno affrontato la bellezza di Juventus, Napoli, Lazio e Fiorentina dopo la disfatta di Milano.

E’ la punizione che tocca a chi crede di poter comprare un portiere a basso costo senza fare caso alla difesa, a chi conta solo sul talento di un giovane ex estremo difensore della nazionale olimpica senza rendersi conto che davanti non ha nemmeno le controfigure di Thuram e Cannavaro, bensì il fratello di quest’ultimo e Cesare Tavernel Terranova. E’ una cosa comprare Consigli al fantacalcio, un’altra ritrovarsi col portiere del Sassuolo.

Come detto, qui non si vuole puntare il dito su Consigli, un estremo difensore di cui si dice un gran bene da tanto tempo, ingiustamente ignorato dalle big nonostante le numerose prodezze con la maglia dell’Atalanta. Se non altro è una sorta di omaggio, la constatazione che il destino di un giocatore è talvolta molto piu’ soggetto al caso di quanto si voglia pensare. Non è certo banale fare buona figura sotto i riflettori e guadagnare un posto in nazionale, ma non lo è nemmeno giocar bene per una squadra provinciale e a tutti i livelli cadetti degli Azzurri. E’ un’ingiustizia non avere l’opportunità di sfondare nel calcio che conta, di mettere in mostra il proprio talento dove può essere notato. Chiamatela sindrome Taibi, che ha passato troppo tempo a Piacenza e troppo poco a Manchester, roccaforte che ha risputato tutti interi giocatori della risma di Veron.

Ora speriamo che Karnezis e Gillet non facciano schifo. E che non finiscano in panchina. In bocca al lupo Andrea!

Don’t discount the Bucs

It’s been a rough couple of years at the New Sombrero. The team fell pray to a staph infection which ended two players’ careers. The promise shown in 2010 evaporated under draconian loon Greg Schiano, as the franchise went 0-8 and risked being the only franchise to win after Jacksonville did (which they did chronologically speaking, though it was on the same matchday. Phew). Schiano himself could be reasonably suspected of acting as a double agent for Bill Belichick, what with his gifting some of the franchise’s best players (LeGarrette Blount, Aqib Talib) to New England for peanuts and kicking out franchise quarterback Josh Freeman in acrimonious fashion. The Bucs continued their Costa Concordia-like swashbuckling by cutting Darrelle Revis, a man they gave a first round pick for in 2013.  Even worse, personal tragedy struck the franchise with the passing of Malcolm Glazer. In other words, what better opportunity to talk up the team? In all seriousness, bringing in a coach not named Greg Schiano may just propel them to .500, even a playoff place.

What they’ve got going for them

Greg Schiano went to great lengths to emulate another famous Italian

Greg Schiano went to great lengths to emulate another famous Italian

The Buccaneers were unlucky last season, the sixth-unluckiest according to Bill Barnwell, losing 1.3 games more than their Pythagorean expectation. Put simply, Pythagorean expectation tries to calculate how many games a team should have won by basing itself on the amount of points it scored and conceded. It is a very reliable tool, made even more so by the fact that teams who wildly overshoot or underperform tend to return to the mean the following season. A good example is a team that scores more than it concedes, but loses a lot of close games: is bound to get better the following year. Tampa Bay could very well rank in that number, going 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A couple more wins could propel them to 6-10.

Things are also going to get better on offense, starting from the return of Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s standout running backs before a 2013 season blighted by injuries. It will be even harder to stop him now that Tampa have discovered other running backs capable of carrying the rock, Bobby Rainey and Mike James doing a brilliant job last year in keeping defenses honest.

There is little need to introduce Tampa’s own defence, which ranked in the Top 12 in DVOA against both the pass and the run last year. Freaks like Gerald Mccoy and Lavonte David will shore up the front seven, though barring Clayborn there is no-one else with more than 3 sacks. David himself was the object of a reddit thread analyzing every single play he made against the Falcons running game. Not the best opposition by all accounts, but he looked monstrous. The loss of Darrelle Revis is certainly a shock, but Alterraun Verner is going to be a good, not great replacement. The arrival of Lovie Smith, a known defensive guru, will certainly improve the defence.

There he is! Smoke the bugger!

There he is! Smoke the bugger!

Morale-wise, Smith will also be a major improvement over Greg Schiano. If press reports from last season are anything to go by, Schiano seems to have behaved like Satan’s representative on earth (as played by David Byrne… sigh). From rigging the vote for team captain to strong-arming quarterback Josh Freeman by leaking news of his failed drug test, it is likely Schiano lost his players as early as the first month, which explains how a talented team could push the Saints, Cardinals and Seahawks, but also mail it in on other occasions.

They could also improve in the NFC South, especially if one considers the Panthers (their Week 1 opponent at Bank of America Stadium) don’t have anyone to throw the ball to, or indeed a decent secondary. The Falcons couldn’t stop the run if they’d had access to spygate technology, and don’t look much better on defence this year. This could be the Bucs’ chance to improve on last year’s 1-5 record.

What might go wrong

Expectations should be tempered by the Buccaneers’ lack of receiving options: Tim Wright’s average numbers from 2013 (571 yards, 5 TDs) were enough to rank as Tampa Bay’s number 2 receiver behind Vincent Jackson.

Though Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Mike Evans are physical freaks, most rookie receivers need at least a year’s apprentiship before truly putting up monster numbers. Not everyone can draft Randy Moss or Keenan Allen. Then again, with Mike Freeman barely contributing last year, it’s not as if Tampa Bay can do any worse this time round. At least they’ll have bodies to throw to. An eye should be kept on the Austin Seferian-Jenkins, about whom Walter Cherepinsky had this to say: “From his first day at Washington, Seferian-Jenkins was a difference-maker. He was one of those rare players who looked like he could play in the NFL as a true freshman. Along with Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins in the fall of 2011, Seferian-Jenkins looked like a special NFL talent from the very beginning.” Jeepers.

14-9 Tampa Bay 3

Seferian-Jenkins: can play!

There are questions at the top as well, not least in gauging how much of an impact new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who has been absent from team activities since undergoing a medical procedure undertaken on August 25th. Knowing just how poor Lovie Smith is as an offensive mind, not to mention his reputation for wasting timeouts and flags, concern on that side of the ball is more than justified. It is a true pity, as Tedford is known for being a sharp offensive mind and an excellent improviser.

#Hottake dispensers the world over will focus on the quarterbacks he worked with, many of whom promised mountains and came up with molehills. With the exception of Aaron Rodgers and (cough) Trent Dilfer, Tedford will be remembered for working with Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington and Akili Smith. An unfair red flag which should be viewed from a different perspective: what does it say about him that he made so many duds look like sure-fire first rounders? Even allowing for the less challenging nature of college football, that is downright impressive.

The quarterback situation is another unpredictable facet of this Florida team: they picked up a player (Josh McCown) with a preposterous 13-1 TD to interception ratio nearly took the Chicago Bears to the playoffs. It is hard to gauge just how well he will do this year, though many see him regressing somewhat towards the middling numbers he had put up before losses. Will it be enough? Perhaps not, though Tampa Bay have a perfectly capable replacement whose ceiling could well surpass expectations: despite middling DVOA scores, Mike Glennon posted a 19-9 TD-INT ratio last year, something incredible for a team in the midst of a rebellion, and for a rookie throwing to Vincent Jackson and precious little else. Despite a quarterback controversy brewing over the summer- owing in large part to Lovie Smith’s u-turn- Tampa Bay have a promising signal-caller who took on the league’s toughest schedule in 2013 waiting in the wings. I say he eventually takes that job and becomes a regular long-term starter.

And now his whole team f*&%ing here! Chulo!

And now his whole team f*&%ing here! Chulo!

Will all this be enough to make a big leap forward? It is if the goal is 7-9 or 8-8. Tampa Bay still have the 11th-toughest schedule this year, but with only six games against teams who made the playoffs, they certainly have a chance to stretch it to 9-7. The Bucs open against two teams who are in major quarterback trouble (Carolina and St Louis) and four five under .500 teams after their Week 7 bye. Their list also includes Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington and Carolina- franchises who could swing either way. Their situation seems to sum up the NFC: outside of the top 4 candidates (Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans) it’s hard to see anyone else end the season with a dominant record. After all, this is the NFL. Stranger things have happened.

 

 

 

 

 

Are the Saints overrated?

With football season’s first Sunday slate only 36 hours away, the NFL prediction machine has predictably kicked into gear, with every pundit under the sun giving his two cents about who will make the big dance, and who will come home with the prize. This article is the first of a two-parter tackling a couple of fancied teams who I think will fall short: New Orleans and Green Bay, both offensive juggernauts led by legendary quarterbacks, both held back by poor defenses. The Saints’ drum has been beaten by many, including one representative on NFL.com’s Around the NFL podcast, as well as Don Banks of SI and Sky’s very own Kevin Cadle.

Trouble is, defence has been a particular headache for New Orleans, never important enough to stop the Saints from regularly reaching the playoffs under Sean Payton, but always a problem once the proverbial dung hit the fan. Poor defending cost the Saints a run at defending their title in 2010, when Beast Mode was blasted into our living rooms and New Orleans was the only victim of Seattle’s man-made earthquake. It happened again in 2011, when Gregg Williams’ defense made Alex Smith (Alex Smith!) look like an All-Pro. In those two games alone, New Orleans allowed a mammoth 857 yards.

Admittedly, the arrival of Rob “Wolfman” Ryan in early 2013 immediately paid dividends: the Saints ended the season in the Top 10 in Defensive DVOA, and fans the world over got to enjoy Ryan’s ranting and raving on the sidelines. The trouble is, the Saints are far from being home and dry, their second playoff defeat to Seattle in 2014 proving that once the offense goes dormant, the defense isn’t good enough to keep New Orleans in the mix. With Brees throwing for a meagre 34 yards in the first half, Seattle took a 16-0 lead, and quashed any hopes for a comeback by converting on a gutsy call on 3rd and long- Doug Baldwin’s masterful catch paving the way for Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown. 23-8, game over.

The Saints have certainly done a decent job shoring up the numerous holes in their D, but will it be enough? Ryan has helped historically poor defenses return to the mean before, only to plateau around the middle of the pack. There is talent in the Saints back line- Keenan Lewis did a good job on Desean Jackson last year, whilst Jairus Byrd is the franchise’s big free agency prize- but is still not elite. Worse, pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette both topped 12 sacks last season, yet the next best contributor only made 4.5. For a team that actually got a remarkable amount of coverage sacks last year, an injury to one of these two – or a drop in secondary play- could have catastrophic consequences, possibly forcing Ryan to use the more expansive blitzes he is known for, thus exposing his defense even more. The Saints would also need to improve on last year’s 20th place in Run defense DVOA.

The offense itself is hardly spotless: despite all the past accolades, New Orleans return a lineup without former regulars Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, as well as a diminished Marques Colston and an irked Jimmy Graham, who saw his potential earnings reduced in a franchise tag dispute, and his trademark celebration outlawed by Dean of Distractions Roger Goodell. Mark Ingram is being touted by just about everybody who’s been to Saints camp as a sleeper- trouble is we’re in Year 4 of his career, and his talent has only come out in spots. Though there is little doubt the Saints’ offence will thrive to some extent this season – first round pick Brandin Cooks has looked incredible in camp- will it have enough options to keep defenses honest?

Any early season rust will certainly have an impact on a team whose away record last season was 3-5, and who plays three road games in the first month. Though none of its first five opponents had winning records last year (two, the Browns and the Cowboys, look to be in pretty bad shape), New Orleans will need every win they can get, as the rest of their schedule proves.  Those last 11 games will, for the most part, come against teams with strong playoff aspirations, with only a couple of them looking like they will fall short of contending. The NFC South, against whom the Saints went 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, is also likely to improve- especially when we consider that the Buccaneers were one of last season’s unluckiest teams- losing three games more than their Pythagorean rating expected them to.

What makes the schedule so important is the Metrodome, and how certain Saints backers are citing it as a decisive factor in the playoffs: “Just you wait until the visitors come out of that tunnel!” Sean Payton has, after all, never lost a home playoff game, the franchise’s last L coming in 1992 at the hands of the Eagles. Trouble is , New Orleans needs to actually secure top seed in order to guarantee a home slate in the playoffs. With Seattle in rambunctious form following yesterday’s mauling of the Packers, the 49ers still one of the most consistent NFC franchises and, yes, the Packers still able to win at least 10 games through sheer firepower, this may be tougher than advertised.

Worse, the home game argument goes both ways, and has come to stink of desperation, almost as if it is implied that the Saints need to play in NOLA to progress to the final rounds. Hardly a ringing endorsement by all accounts.

 

“Nu’ fuoc’ ‘e paglia”

One of the first things I learned at University was that history doesn’t repeat itself. After all, how can a series of complicated, interwoven phenomena always produce the same exact result? Isn’t it rather the case that hindsight is 20-20, and that we tend to oversimplify things in order to fit a particular narrative? Good thing we put that notion to bed. Now, what were we talking about again?

 

Ah.

For the uninitiated, the first clip was of Juan Mata scoring Chelsea’s sole effort in Naples two years ago in a 3-1 defeat. Game over, right? Wrong. Chelsea won the return leg 4-1, exploiting some more lax defending as well as a series of woeful Cavani misses to power their way to the 2012 Champions League final. The second is of Aritz Aduriz exploiting a hesitant Napoli defense to send Athletic Bilbao through to the Champions League group at Napoli’s expense.

Wednesday evening’s elimination proves that it really is possible to always be the bridesmaid without ever being the bride, especially if you’re a club like Napoli, and you have repeatedly failed to make much headway in Europe or even come anywhere near winning the Serie A (their best score was 9 in 2012-13. Last year they were 24 points short of Juventus).

This is not to disparage what the Partenopei have done over the past few years: they’re hardly Sophie Thompson‘s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral (who actually ends up getting married, but whatever), but rather one of Serie A’s most spectacular sides since returning to the fold in 2007.

Trust me, as an Inter fan with a dystopian view of his club and Serie A’s future, Napoli have done a lot to restore my faith in Italian football, what with that powerful combo of attacking midfielders, Higuain’s finish in the first leg… you get the picture. But two Coppa Italia trophies are a poor return for a team that always threatens to compete before fading away, with Wednesday night’s debacle causing fans to demand spending and results, and not necessarily in that order either.

It certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect title upon title from Napoli either, or indeed expect them to win the Champions League (though De Laurentiis has certainly tried). For every Lavezzi or Cavani, Napoli have also had to make do with the Mestos, Cannavaros and the Garganos of this world. But why haven’t they come close, even just once? Or made a deep run in Europe? Are they what Americans would call “chokers”, or have they actually over-performed in coming second and third in the past two seasons?

It actually turns out that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does come pretty close. Though Napoli have had many different iterations since they came up in 2007, the end result is very similar, whether they show up with a porous defence (last night) or a wasteful forward line (Edinson Cavani at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12), whether they attack head on (Benitez) or on the counter (Mazzarri). An exception should also be made for the Europa League- which former coach Walter Mazzarri never took seriously (I’m sure De Laurentiis fully agreed) and often used as an excuse to trot out the reserves.

Worse, there is a common thread to all of these underwhelming results. It is said insanity is doing the same things over and over and hoping it all works out. Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Napoli are guilty of just that. A prime example is the kind of players the Partenopei bring in, or rather how meager the returns have been on signing centre-backs. Albiol and Britos both cost over €8 million, and Victor Ruiz just under that. To put it kindly, they’ve not exactly been slam-dunks, though Albiol can certainly improve. Ruiz, for his part, lasted a whopping six months. De Laurentiis generally prefers cheaper options who work fine in Serie A, but come undone in Europe (Cannavaro, Aronica, Grava, Campagnaro, Gamberini). It was Cannavaro who provided us with that moment of unintended hilarity that Mata was so happy to profit from.

Buying defenders in Italy is a tough business these days- just look at how the league’s decreasing prestige and buying power has seen many big stars (Thiago Silva, Mehdi Benatia) leave, or how Juventus pieced their back three from recycled parts (Barzagli), in-house talent (Chiellini) and young Italian potential. The obvious names for the latter category are Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna, two players who show just how risky it is to invest in Italian talent. But Juventus and Roma conceded 23 and 25 goals respectively last year, Napoli 39, on a par with Inter. Hardly a breathtaking performance.

Truth of the matter is that the Partenopei always seem to have something missing, whether they’re looking to put out a truly competitive starting XI, going for European glory, or even simple respectability: having done remarkably well in their first season back from purgatory in 2007-8, Napoli spent several years floating around the Top 10, alternating brilliant home performances with disappointing outings. In 2008-9, the squad looked capable of shooting for the stars with the likes of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Maggio, and racked up 20 points in their first nine outings. Regrettably, they then failed to win a game in three and a half months, leading to coach Edy Reja’s sacking.

It’s like Napoli have to do accompany every good decision with a bad one, whether it is having Marcelo Zalayeta and Michele Pazienza in that 08-09 squad, or even hiring a good coach like Walter Mazzarri, the man who saved a Reggina side that had begun the 05-06 season with a 15 point penalty. Mazzarri could get the best out of his creative players, motivate his men and cook up a very good gameplan, but could also be tactically inflexible at the worst times. His failure to shore up the back line at Stamford Bridge will stay with him for a long time.

Napoli have arguably ramped things up over the past couple of seasons: bringing in Mertens on the cheap, as well as Callejon and Higuain from Napoli, and Insigne back from his loan to Pescara. Faouzi Ghoulam is a very promising player, and Benitez just the man to bring them European success. But just as things looked set for a turnaround, the bad news hit like a hurricane: it turns out we all forgot that Benitez doesn’t do leagues (his last win in 2004-5, before I could legally drive. Not that I do anyway), and was outsmarted in Europe, the very stage he normally excels in. We also discovered that Napoli’s choice to bring in cheap players from less fancied European leagues (a very market efficient approach) doesn’t always pay off. Khalidou Koulibaly can certainly become someone special, but needs time to adapt to life after the GAUNTLET that is the Belgian league. Why on earth was he starting against Athletic? Why was Michu watching the return leg from the stands?

It’s hard to disagree with the title of this piece, a Neapolitan expression for “[this team is] a flash in the pan”, uttered by a dejected fan as the defense bumbled its way to conceding a third goal. All this feeds into an increasingly depressed mindset. Napoli fans are somewhat like Philadelphia Eagles supporters, always close, always sucked in, never winning anything in the NFL. Even a quick backwards glance does seem to confirm that Napoli don’t just take the long road, they cover it in marbles and go about the task with their stilettos. It goes back to former owner Achille De Lauro, who spent a whopping 105 million lira to tempt Nordic superstar Hasse Jepson back in 1952, expecting the titles to rain down on the back of his massive spending spree. He would not live to see the day when Diego Maradona lifted the trophy a whole 35 years later, though he went out with a bang, bossing around his coaches and sacking players like nobody’s business. Even with El Pibe at the helm, Napoli never even got close to winning the European Cup, all whilst being accused of blowing a title race in order to help the local Camorra make a killing (a financial one, not that they mind much either way).

Let’s just hope Napoli don’t make life too hard for themselves this season. After all, things like this tend to happen when they don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

Italy needs a makeover

“In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here instead we get Opti Pobà, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio.”

This is not how a potential Federation President should chair one of his meetings. Not in Italy. Ever since Carlo Tavecchio, the heavily favoured candidate to take over the FIGC, uttered these words, the international footballing community has reacted with disgust. Not the Italian one, where Tavecchio still has a chance to take over, provided Italy’s major clubs don’t attempt a sudden volte-face.

This incident will, like many others before it, plunge Italy into infamy, and says a lot not merely about the inverted pyramid of power in the old boot, but also about how race and immigration are perceived there; about how plenty of revulsion hasn’t provided the necessary storm to hound Tavecchio from office, nor indeed necessarily helped Italians perceive racial questions in the same way as some of their European neighbours.

The emphasis in this piece will always be on the word some– there are plenty of kind-hearted people among my countrymen who treat other nationalities and creeds with the respect they warrant, though percentages regarding a subtle, widespread and multifaceted phenomenon are tough to quantify.

Yet the national debate on race in Italy can be incredibly skewed, and what’s even more worrying is that those either at the top or in a position to shape public opinion can be some of the worst transgressors.

Whether it is the Gazzetta dello Sport publishing a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong or Tuttosport trying some suggestive double entendre (“Li abbiamo fatti neri”, meaning “we have beaten them black and blue”), it is worrying that certain mainstream newspapers are trying to go for the cheeky joke (and refusing to acknowledge the racist nature of their gags) even after the Ghanaian-born Mario Balotelli, (who else?) had buried Germany with an impressive double to send Italy through to the European Championship Final. Why a damn gorilla? Why always remind him he’s black? Shouldn’t he just be an Italian by now?

It’s a bit of a déjà vu in Italy, that of the higher ups embarrassing a country it does not represent and caring little for the public backlash, something akin to when Silvio Berlusconi called Barack Obama “tanned” upon the latter’s inauguration. This is probably why a critical mass sufficient to topple Tavecchio has yet to form. This may also explain why Joseph Minala came out in his defence: Minala plays for Lazio, whose president is backing Tavecchio to the hilt.

But it is frankly too easy to just blame it on the politicians and pretend that Italy is as tolerant as the Western European democracies it so desperately wants to emulate. Truth is that for all the upstanding people we have here, there are others who cross the line in all walks of life- and it happens all too often.

What can you say when someone claims that a council house has been “filthy since Albanians have been living in it”, or refusing to sleep with black girls because “they smell”? The first quote comes from an otherwise sensitive, articulate and moderate person, the second from a hip-hop enthusiast who repeatedly boasted of his ethnic friends. Both acquaintances, both Italian.

Admittedly there are times when ignorance, or rather the lack of an African component in modern Italian culture, could be an excuse, like when a local baseball team hit the ol’ blackface routine to lampoon Wesley Snipes from comedy film Major League. As Italy had never had a history of blackface comedy, or indeed of recent slavery, who would be offended? And how could the perpetrators know they were in the wrong?

On the flipside, such naivety could have something to do with a selective national memory (they all are), one that has conveniently left Faccetta Nera (little black face) behind in the post-war Italiani Brava Gente trend, when a rebuilding Italy pointed the finger at Germany and tried to forget its own sins. Faccetta Nera was a popular sing celebrating Italy’s African conquests in the 1930’s, achieved thanks to gas attacks and exploding-and outlawed- dumdum bullets.

Maybe the problem goes deeper than John Foot’s contention that your typical immigrant can never truly be “one of us”. Maybe we never even think about him to begin with, or rather not what he might feel when we cast the umpteenth stone. He isn’t even a part of the culture, of the local mindset, and is there to be made to made fun of.

Even then, when the anti-racial indignation hits the fan, it is dismissed with incredulity: “We’re not racist! Can’t you take a joke? DELIVER US FROM THE PC POLICE!”. Ironically, Italians are (rightly) never far from the war path when the boot is on the other foot, whether an English journalist makes a lazy crack about Neapolitans, international websites immediately cry racism as a reason for Mario Balotelli acting up in a Serie A game or when Das Bild goes full pelt on the anti-Italian propaganda. For a people whose history is synonymous with immigration, Italy could surely do unto the newer generations what its forefathers would have liked to have done unto themselves?

The country’s take on Ghanaian- born striker Mario Balotelli is particularly infuriating, and shows that even those who are well versed in racial sensitivity don’t quite grasp many of its niceties. For example. when Super Mario was the target of a Juventus ultras banner proclaiming that “there are no black Italians”, some threw it back at him, his provocative posturing blamed as the catalyst for the incident. Just to rub salt in the wound, there are those who have rushed to the offending ultras’ defence: they weren’t racist, but just used those terms because they knew it would hit him where it hurt most. It is telling that some would be willing to defend a group of ultras when it comes to race – when they would draw instant condemnation in many other fields. For a start, it’s a racist attack. Secondly, why give a bunch of fans not known for their moderate views the benefit of the doubt? Even taking this argument at face value, it may not be racist, but it’s racially insensitive. Is that something to feel proud of?

Tavecchio’s behaviour after the scandal broke has been nothing short of shocking, declaring that “Few have done what I have for the Third World”, plugging the work he claims to have done to bring more immigrants into the amateur footballing fold. Whilst I am no expert on such matters, even taking him at face value doesn’t absolve him: “I helped a black guy play football, so it’s fine if I don’t treat him as an equal. What a fabulous master I am!”. Worse, his use of “negro banana-eater” and “handicapped women” is essentially pre-empting post-scandal classics like “I have plenty of black friends!”. His delivery smacks of a racist doing everything he can to crudely prove that he isn’t- but he’s so out-of-touch that he can barely keep it under the surface.

It is frankly depressing that a country that places so much importance on manners should seem ready to flout them when it comes it to immigration and race. It’s not just about a supposed lack of awareness, but about treading carefully when dealing with certain subjects. Just because you don’t understand how insulting a particular word can be, doesn’t mean you should bulldoze through the situation with all the subtlety of resident Northern League lunatic Mario Borghezio spraying DDT over African prostitutes on an early morning train.

What does it say of Tavecchio, and Italy, that a 70-year-old should use racially charged language in what was effectively the run-up to the most important job interview of his life? Maybe that is the most depressing thing of all.

To QB or not to QB: a year of transition for the SEC?

The 2014 NFL Draft was another flagship day for the Southeastern Conference, as America’s premier football league topped the rankings once more with 49 players selected, narrowly pipping the Atlantic Coast Conference (42) into second place.

Yet such a strong showing seems to have a silver lining for its rivals in the NCAA. With so many SEC teams forced to build anew under centre, the Pacific Conference could boast a unique chance to take over at the top thanks to stars like Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Kevin Hogan (provided he improves). By bringing back a very strong quarterback class, the thinking goes, the PAC-12 is in a strong position to gun for its first BCS title since the early aughts.

But is this truly the case? Whilst it is already unwise to assume that the quality of this QB class will prove to be enough to help eternal bridesmaids like Stanford and Oregon finally tie the knot, it is also going too far to assume that the SEC’s chances of making the playoffs will be gravely weakened. Some teams may fall by the wayside, but those who will keep their playmakers -namely Alabama and Georgia- are frighteningly dangerous, especially considering the high defensive standards the conference has maintained.

There is, to begin with, frankly little point in speculating about the presumed quality of the SEC’s Class of 2014 QBs: what little we have seen of Jacob Coker, Anthony Jennings or Hutson Mason may be encouraging, but constitutes such a small sample that even hot take guru Paul Finebaum has warned listeners not to overreach themselves on Jacob Coker, who looks set to take over from A.J. McCarron at Alabama.

And he’s right: how can we judge Coker, a quarterback who spent a year riding the bench behind Jameis Winston at Florida State? He could be just short of Winston’s talent and a potential star, or someone who never really troubled the Heisman winner, and who only has a big arm to boast about , considering his low completion percentage.

The truth is probably tucked in somewhere between these two, with some lingering rust thrown in for good measure. Even then, it will arguably take Coker a few games to get into the groove, a feasible plan considering the Tide’s toughest opponent this side of Florida will be opening day adversary West Virginia. The Mountaineers have gone 3-8 against ranked opposition over the past two seasons.

Chances are, however, that the Cokers and Masons of this world won’t need to carry or inspire their teams like so many Andrew Lucks or Tim Tebows in order to win. As long as they’re functional, there is little to stop the SEC from sending one, maybe two teams to the first ever BCS playoff.  Both Bama and Georgia bring back a shockingly talented class of playmakers, who will make sure that the gameplan is either a) not too complicated for the QBs b) not based around them anyway.

The Crimson Tide still boasts the likes of Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, backed up by a promising class of hungry go-getters and a strong offensive line. If Alabama could reach 2 SEC Championship finals with the likes of John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, then they can surely do so with another middling QB.

Georgia, for their part, bring back promising speedster Keith Marshall and Star Wars enthusiast Chris Conley back, and will hope to keep Todd Gurley fully fit for the duration of the season, his injuries one of the factors that slowed down the Dawgs last time round. Though Georgia were hit by 9 defections to the NFL Draft and a slurry of injuries on defence, there is little doubt that Gurley brought balance as well as penetration to the Georgia offence. Crucially, QB Aaron Murray never showed the same type of murderous streak in big games, his QB rating dipping from 171 to 140 against ranked opponents in his four years at the helm.

This is not to knock either Murray or McCarron: Jon Gruden identified the first as his sleeper in the draft after four wonderful years in Athens, whilst the Mobile product was the first Saban QB to make critics reconsider the “game manager” label. It is hard to imagine Greg McElroy leading Bama to a spectacular comeback in Baton Rouge, or being trusted enough to launch a 99 yard missile to retake the lead in the 4th quarter of the 2013 Iron Bowl.

Then again, McCarron could also be maddeningly inaccurate on routine throws, so much so that he had only completed one second half pass before connecting with Norwood and Yeldon for the comeback win against LSU.

Whilst it does not come at a surprise that Alabama can survive regardless of who plays under centre, saying as much about Georgia would have been tantamount to blasphemy only a few short months ago. Though Murray played at a high level during his collegiate career, he never became the kind of QB who could make up for all his team’s deficiencies, or decide big games, coming oh-so-close in that rollercoaster SEC final defeat to, you guessed it, Bama.

With Hutson Mason impressing in the final stretch of the 2013 season-coming on the back of a horrific Murray injury- chances expect Georgia to be just as explosive on offence, and ready to make big strides on the other side of the ball with the arrival of former Noles Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The consensus has them reaching the 11-win mark, this in a division where Florida are stuck in a rut, South Carolina always drop one unnecessary game when things are on the up and Missouri have lost Dorial Green-Beckham.

Ultimately, what truly matters is the loss of key playmakers. Anthony Jennings may have shown some promise in leading LSU to a last-gasp comeback over Arkansas, but will struggle without the fearsome trio of Hill, Beckham and Landry around. Otherwise, losing a QB in college football should only be bad news if Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck have left the building. Even then, the Voles ironically won the much-coveted BCS title the FOLLOWING year, with the far less remarkable Tee Martin under centre.

Worse, losing a QB is usually the sign that the team as a whole has too many holes to plug. Texas A&M lost three key contributors in the first round alone, leaving their often at-sea defence to fend for itself. Kyle Hill will have a tough time replicating Johnny Manziel’s form, that’s for sure…

Growing pains: Belgium and Switzerland analysed (Part 2): Pas de la Petite Bière…

There are plenty of positives Belgians can glean from the 2014 World Cup: they are one of only four teams to qualify to the second round with maximum points, and forced 16 saves in second round cliffhanger against the United States. Even in the wake of their elimination, Belgians have generally consoled themselves with the oft-repeated mantra that they possess one heck of a golden generation, and that is was only pipped by an elite side at the quarter final stage.

But it is just that collection of talent that keeps Marc Wilmots from obtaining a positive grade- or even from making a case for renewed faith in his tenure. Considering the squad he had at his disposal, he simply should have done better, and using a quarter-final elimination to a presumably elite side like Argentina as a cop-out only makes it worse, as the Red Devils are likely to stick to someone who won’t be able to plan Belgium’s rise to elite status.

On paper, there is nothing wrong with how Belgium or Wilmots did ( just look at how Italy, England or Spain fared) but there is something to be said about how the manager failed to muster a coherent gameplan against an Argentinian side weakened by injuries to Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero, not to mention its own poor play.

With the likes of Martin Demichelis starting in central defence, one could have argued that Los Albicelestes were there for the taking. Could some direct running at the clever-but-slow Citizen stopper bring down the Argentinian back line? We will never truly know, as Belgium favoured their usual cumbersome build-up down the wings, peppering the box with the kind of crosses Demichelis feasts on, despite his stocky build.

Even worse, Wilmots once again failed to provide the attack with a good option down the middle, or even to allow his trio of attacking midfielders much leeway in swapping positions and/or combining together. As a result, Hazard was strung out on the left and Mirallas on the right, with De Bruyne left to mop up as best he could, or even pick balls up deep and attempt a few doomed forays of his own.

Wilmots must surely have had his reasons for this- possibly to leave room for Witsel and Fellaini to make late runs in the centre- but he must surely have realized the futility of this arrangement after four games? Why not use a player who specialises in these kinds of runs like De Bruyne, or the pace of someone like Divock Origi?

Though the latter’s first touch was atrocious against Argentina, he could have been provided with a few neat passes behind the defence, or even a partner with which to try the one-two and beat Demichelis for pace. Instead, Origi got the usual dose of Route One and back-to-goal football, only this time he was up against an opponent experienced enough to not let him run rings round him off the knock down, something Algeria had allowed him to do with abandon.

Considering how this new generation of Belgian superstars has been taught to play the ball on the deck, the complete absence of any semblance of quick, accurate interplay throughout the World Cup was just shocking. It was understandable for a nervy debut against a disciplined, clever opponent like Algeria, but downright unacceptable five games in, even with Argentina at the other end.

Wilmots’ failure extends to other facets of Les Diables’ performance. Total Football taught us long ago that a team should aim to compress space whilst in defence, and open it up at the other end. In this light, Belgium weren’t just ineffective, they were grossly inefficient: how else do you justify a 4-2-3-1 when the two deeper midfielders don’t put pressure on the opposition, or adequately shield the defence? Whether it was Witsel or Fellaini, Dembele or Defour, the Red Devils have never found a combination that could provide satisfactory cover to the back four. To compound problems, Steven Defour’s sending off against South Korea also owes a lot to how often he was out of position, a fault he shared with his teammates.

Wilmots’ management errors also extend to the wings- where his choice of fullbacks ultimately penalised the side. True, Jan Vertonghen got better as the tournament went on- even providing two dangerous crosses against Argentina. But he was also very wasteful against the United States, and not quite capable to capitalise on the numerous balls that were fed to him in dangerous positions.

Vertonghen may have played his heart out (as he did against Manchester United at Old Trafford two years ago), but he was not the speedy, composed (remember the penalty he conceded to Algeria?) option Belgium needed out there, somebody capable of stretching opposing defences and taking defenders out of the picture. Instead, he fit right into the lumbering tactics Wilmots seems to favour, where the objective seemed to pack as many players into the box before going for the cross.

It was even worse on the right, where Toby Alderweireld looked nothing if not lost, another talented central defender who, whilst not utterly unaccustomed to playing on the wing, was clearly unable to play at a top level. The truth is that world-class teams aren’t entirely made-up of world-class players, and there has to be a compromise, especially when Belgium didn’t need their best players out there, just two capable fullbacks who knew how to provide Hazard, Mertens & Co with an outlet down the flanks.

Could Guillaume Gillet – who scored a screamer against Croatia in the qualifiers – have been an option, instead of falling progressively down the pecking order? What of Laurent Ciman and Antony Vanden Borre, who were also included in the squad but barely got any time on the pitch? Vanden Borre may well hold the key to the personnel debate, as even he was rarely able to get forward in his one shot at glory against South Korea. Maybe it was all down to tactics after all, with Wilmots picking the players that suited them the best. For a tournament where the best teams have often boasted quality wing-backs, this may well have been short-sighted of him.

Fingers will doubtless be pointed at the players themselves, or rather at their relative inexperience: barring Daniel Van Buyten, not a single player in the squad had been to a major tournament before.

This is certainly true to a point, as can be seen by how certain midfielders (Hazard) were only too keen to take on multiple opponents in small pockets of space, something England fans can relate to. Yet when given the chance, de Rode Duivels often didn’t show the nerves some would associate with a first bite at the cherry. For example, Belgium couldn’t stop scoring at crucial moments, whether it was in the dying minutes (Russia), extra time (the USA), when a goal behind (Algeria) or under pressure (South Korea).

It is of course too easy to simply blame the system and give the players a pass. One man who was expected to leave his mark, Eden Hazard, was subbed off late in the quarter final having failed to do much except make the crucial goal against Russia. Too often he was allowed to stare down multiple markers and slow Belgium’s attack down to a snail’s pace.

Then again, it is equally unusual that Hazard was so unsupported (those full-backs again), or indeed that his teammates seemed surprised even when he DID make a breakthrough, as witnessed by the complete lack of movement in the box. Chelsea’s players certainly don’t stand on ceremony when Eden does his thing on the wing. It looks like Wilmots has abdicated part of his responsibilities, allowing his attackers to freelance at will.

This may well work against the likes of Wales, Scotland, Serbia and Croatia, all countries whose sights are invariably set on their own feet. Wilmots can certainly point to the deflection which allowed Argentina to take the lead – and he did- as a case of bad luck, but he can hardly lament the fact that Belgium generally failed to convince against packed opposition defences, even in the qualifiers.

Admittedly, Wilmots also got a lot of things right, starting from the substitutions that were able to turn numerous games on their heads: both goals against Algeria came from the bench, as did Romelu Lukaku’s splendid performance against the USA. But there is a flipside: why was a manager who seemed to get his subs right always get his starting lineups wrong? Why did he start Chadli against Algeria after he’d had such a poor season in London? Furthermore, such success could never be repeated indefinitely, especially not for a manger who relied on fresh legs rather than a Plan B.

Granted, it’s never easy to instil discipline in players who rarely meet over two years before being asked to surpass themselves in a short period of time on the world’s biggest stage. Then again, the international manager doesn’t have to be a tactical genius, nor go for complicated, revolutionary systems. Bielsa and Sacchi are two examples of when a certain style can get be too complicated or does not fit its components. What has tended to work are tactics that are comparatively easy to put in place, and then repeatedly drilled over a period of a few weeks. Wilmots could only provide the simplicity, but neither the effectiveness nor an alternative.

Wilmots can point to the good job he did keeping players out of sick bay, employing physiotherapist Lieven Maesschalk to great effect. Wilmots credits Maesschalk with his own speedy recovery from major surgery, a brave call as his doctors had tried to impose a lengthy stop. It is arguable that Maesschalk did a good job keeping the Red Devils fit and injury-free, likely boosting Vincent Kompany’s chances of playing in the second round. Only Christian Benteke’s grave injury slipped through his fingers, though it is debatable to what extend Wilmots can hold his injury up as handicap: the Villa Striker barely scored in the 2013 portion of the last campaign, and would have doubtless struggled to make something of his manager’s schemes anyway.

It feels so cruel to heap all this criticism on Wilmots, Belgium’s very own last Mohican: his was the overhead kick against hosts Japan in the 2002 World Cup, a tournament where he gave a frankly average Belgian squad its only semblance of star power. Wilmots is a father figure to the players, something that can be witnessed in Les Diables au Coeur, a wonderful fly-on-the-wall documentary produced by television channel RTBF during the qualifiers. It is here that we can fully gauge exactly how much he has done for this young team, from the constant bantering and playful fines (late players had to pay for a round of, yes, champagne) to the constructive criticism and stern approach a leader sometimes need to employ. Gone is the dressing room instability, which ranged from Hazard’s bickering with then-manager Georges Leekens (which included an open letter essentially questioning his non-selection) to the formation of language and, yes, league-based factions in the locker room, which included the “Frenchie”, Dutch, Walloon and Flemish groups.

That said, Wilmots’ biggest legacy will always be how he gave a whole nation its pride back. Five missed tournaments in a row had caused untold damage to the country’s fans, emptying the stadiums and promulgating a sense of farce and futility that was hard to shake off. There were Stijn Stijnen’s dumb threats to Ronaldo when Belgium visited Portugal: rather than have his legs broken (as Stijnen had promised), the Ballon D’or winner helped Portugal to a 4-0 cakewalk.

The talent Wilmots could count on isn’t enough to dismiss his achievements either, especially as predecessor George Leekens botched the previous qualifying campaign with a well-endowed (if not as much as this one) squad by drawing at home to the likes of Turkey and Austria. Belgium used to be the laughing stock that was desperate enough to go for a part-time Dick Advocaat, only to be jilted by the Dutchman as soon as a better offer was made to him.

Belgium have a lot to thank Wilmots for, yet it doesn’t look like they will improve under him. Inexperience is not enough to justify why this side didn’t go far enough. When you have a Top-10 side in terms of quality, the quarter finals are around par for the course, and it is up to the manager to help the side make that extra step. It is often not the most talented teams who come home with the trophy (just ask the 2004 Greek squad, or the 2006 Azzurri), but the better coached ones. Whilst Wilmots helped the Red Devils get rid of their losing mentality, Belgium need someone who can win games, not just avoid losing them.

 

Growing pains: Belgium and Switzerland analysed (Part 1)

With the quarter finals just 24 hours away it’s not too early to look back and analyse two sides that have largely disappointed in this World Cup: Belgium and Switzerland.

On the surface, both countries had a lot in common coming into the tournament, ranging from their poor recent form (Belgium having failed to qualify to a major tournament in five attempts) to the sudden emergence of a talented core of skilful youngsters, most of them plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.

Even more newsworthy was the latter’s foreign extraction; their Albanian, Congolese and even Indonesian roots blending with the local multilingual culture to create a heady mix- ranging from Romelu Lukaku’s perfect Flemish to the Swiss attack’s Balkan make-up. Echoes of France’s stunning propaganda coup from 1998 were not far away, though few were expecting either side to go all the way.

That said, nobody expected the quality on offer to be so disappointing, something that became apparent when Switzerland went down with all hands on board against France in a 5-2 drubbing. Though La Nati ultimately survived its group and Belgium were able to come up with a much-improved performance to knock out the USA, it is obvious that both sides are also brought together by an inability to kick their golden generations into gear.

Switzerland – the object of this first part- eventually went out to Argentina after a moment of magic from Lionel Messi, who teed up Di Maria’s superb finish after a dazzling run from midfield. Whilst the quality at its disposal may not have been the same as Belgium’s (Xerdan Shaqiri is no Kevin De Bruyne, let alone Eden Hazard), La Nati has undoubtedly been the more disappointing of the two sides.

Hitzfeld’s team only truly kicked into gear in their third group game, when Xerdan Shaqiri scored a rather unexpected hat-trick to send his team through to the second round. Beyond that there was little to write home about: La Nati was horrific against France in a 5-2 thrashing and unconvincing in their last-gasp win over Ecuador. The Argentina game saw them create very little against a side chronically uncomfortable versus counter-attacks and utterly dependent on Messi’s ability to beat one, two, sometimes even three opponents to create mismatches. What does it say about the Swiss that Iran were far more convincing against Argentina?

Blame Dzemaili all you want for that missed chance (and it was a truly awful header), but not without including Hitzfeld in the firing line. His team simply never looked comfortable on the ball, and made a number of elementary mistakes in possession that had Swiss fans reaching for the sick bag. The players should definitely share a portion of the blame, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that their coach tried to get them to fit his rigid system, and not adapt to what he had at his disposal.

How can a midfield play so badly when it boasts a good destroyer (Behrami), an occasionally-great regista (Inler), as well as three young, explosive playmakers in Xhaka, Shaqiri and Mehmedi? Pointing the finger at the players is too easy, especially when Switzerland were so reminiscent of England back in 2004 and 2006, with Shaqiri playing the role of Wayne the Saviour. Conservative tactical choices and a lack of cohesion ended up doing for these teams, despite the wealth of talent waiting in the wings for a chance to shine.

The Swiss defence’s many weaknesses- and the need to make up for them- are hardly an excuse. Switzerland’s cause wasn’t hampered by a supposedly defensive approach; rather by the cautious and unimaginative attacking football they played. The Argentina game was an exception, but even then the Swiss midfielders were incapable of finding each other regularly when on the counter. At least Iran forced a one-on-one with Romero. The USA nearly broke Belgian hearts by finding Chris Wondolowski in the box with mere seconds to go in normal time. Switzerland only created something once Argentina had taken the lead: unfortunately Dzemaili could do no better than hit the post from four feet out.

Even worse is the fact that Switzerland could count on one of the better full-back pairings in the World Cup, with the metronomical Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and the dominant Ricardo Rodriguez on the opposite wing- this at a time when many are waxing lyrical about the importance of just that position.

The importance of Rodriguez’s devastating forays became apparent against Ecuador, when his work down the left served up the winner on a plate for Haris Seferovic. Lichsteiner, for his part, has been impressive at Juventus, and even has a knack for scoring goals in Serie A. Why weren’t they more involved in Switzerland’s attacking play, and how is it that the midfield looked so cumbersome when working the ball forward?

Defenders of Hitzfeld could also point to the attack’s middling play as an extenuating circumstance, made up of the very local-sounding Drmic, Seferovic, Mehmedi and Gavranovic. There is little doubt this group did not pass muster, especially when you consider that Gavranovic didn’t play a minute and Mehmedi was used as a winger. But it’s hardly fair to put it all on their shoulders. They weren’t clinical, but didn’t exactly have a ton of service either.

A telling stat is that Gokhan Inler was Infostrada Sport’s 13th most wasteful finisher, taking a shocking seven shots during the group stages without ever scoring. More worrying than his lack of accuracy is the fact that Switzerland were counting on Inler to get the job done- or were, rather, unable to thread the ball through to someone better. Seferovic was, moreover, able to punch it in when it mattered the most against Ecuador.

The truth is, then, that Switzerland’s pathological inability to create anything against organised and motivated opponents (Honduras already had a foot on the plane home) has a lot more to do with manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was shaken by the devastating news that his brother had passed away the night before the Argentina game.

Hitzfeld was the manager with Champions League pedigree who was supposed to put Switzerland back on track after a disastrous group-stage elimination at the 2008 European Championship, which Switzerland hosted along with Austria. It is never easy for a club coach to come in and stamp his authority in a national setup- only Marcello Lippi and Vicente Del Bosque have managed to win both the World Cup and the Champions League since the latter’s inception in the early 1990’s.

Yet Hitzfeld had six years to leave his mark, and every step forward was followed by several in the wrong direction: a good example being when Switzerland crashed out of the 2010 World Cup group stages after famously defeating eventual champions Spain in their opening game. Hitzfeld also qualified his side for this World Cup- yet failed to reach the 2012 European Championship and was even responsible for a humiliating defeat at the hands of Luxembourg.

Even when boarding the plane to Brazil, the whole squad already knew that former Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic would be taking over as soon as the tournament was over. Far from reinforcing Hitzfeld’s position it seemed to undermine his authority even more. Petkovic wasn’t just his polar opposite, but likely what La Nati needed the most: somebody who has grown as a player and manager in the cantons, and someone who knows this country’s football culture well enough to build around its crown jewels.

Giuseppe Rossi: The Case Against

It sometimes occurs to me that being the manager of a national team may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. With too few games in which to evaluate their players and too much time to agonize about each and every single option available to them, these lucky few are then left with the unenviable task of distilling it all down to 23 names whilst dealing with the media backlash, the fans’ expectations, and their players’ wounded egos to boot.

It is in this context that Italy reacted negatively to Cesare Prandelli’s decision to leave Giuseppe Rossi at home last week on fitness grounds, compelling the Fiorentina starlet to miss a third major tournament in a row. The flames were further fanned by the apparent controversy surrounding the validity of Prandelli’s fitness tests – and Rossi’s irked reaction on twitter- leaving many Azzurri fans reaching for the panic button.

And who could blame them? After all, a fit Giuseppe Rossi brings something that the Azzurri have often lacked: a rare combination of flair, creativity, pace and, more importantly, a clinical touch few Italian strikers possess. For all his talent, even Mario Balotelli failed to score in four out of six Italy games at Euro 2012, not to mention his current scoreless streak with the Azzurri going back to October.

In the aftermath of this latest tormentone, some (including this correspondent) were drawn to parallels with a namesake of Rossi’s named Paolo, who went from being a washout who hadn’t played in two years to leading Italy to victory in the 1982 World Cup. Bring a player like Pepito along- the argument went- and he may well rekindle that old spark in a crucial game, fit or unfit. The former Ferguson protégé seemed to confirm this suspicion by adding two goals in an impressive four-game stretch towards the end of the season with Fiorentina- albeit one from the penalty spot.

It was fitness that won out however, ultimately being the factor that axed Rossi’s chances of making the plane after the Fiorentina striker looked like a shadow of his former self in a friendly against Ireland. It may have appeared fanciful to Prandelli to assume that the New Jersey native could come on and turn a game on its head – even as a sub- without that extra half-yard Fernando Torres has been chasing since 2008, and too much of a sacrifice to risk him whilst he wasn’t on his game. Rossi had yet to play a full game since his return, often appearing hesitant to go into challenges and still a step off the pace. Managing 35 minutes as a sub in Serie A, may not have equated in Prandelli’s mind to braving the last quarter of an hour or even extra time in the Amazonian weather- which Italy would only escape come the semifinals if they win their group.

Though the fitness issue has been laughed off by some – after all, Rossi’s namesake Paolo hadn’t played in two years before catching fire in 1982- Prandelli looks to have taken certain lessons from last year’s Confederations Cup to heart, namely the fact that Italy were run off the park by Japan and were barely able to stay on their feet as the clock wound down in their semi-final loss to Spain. It is unlikely the coach wants a repeat performance, as his choice of Mangaratiba (where humidity often spiked in the 90’s) as his World Cup HQ abundantly proves. In this context fitness is much more than a convenient excuse to dump Rossi, and rather a mantra his staff has constantly repeated over the past few weeks. For a squad that is 11th in average age coming into the tournament, this may well turn out to be a deciding factor.

Rossi is also the unfortunate victim of what has, ironically, been a great season for Italian attacking play. Ciro Immobile is one of only six players to have bagged at least 22 goals in one of Europe’s Top Four leagues, assisted by the brilliant, if a tad mercurial Alessio Cerci (one of his outbursts allegedly caused Torino manager Giampiero Ventura to be suddenly taken ill). Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Cassano have, for their part, massively contributed to Napoli and Parma’s campaigns.

For want of a better comparative adjective, it may have been easier for Prandelli to stick with the safe options from a form and fitness perspective, rather than risk upsetting fans by not backing four players who may just have done a little more to deserve a place on the plane. Furthermore, Il Mister’s likely choice of formation would exclude the aforementioned strikers from earning a starting spot, with the midfield cabal and Super Mario shotgunning most of the slots in Prandelli’s 4-1-3-1-1. If none of them are even starting, why should Rossi even be on the plane?

Prandelli may have also felt that rushing Rossi back would have been too great of a risk for a player who has not even come close to playing a full season since 2010-11 (ironically the year after Lippi excluded him from the last World Cup), and whose career is unlikely to survive another ligament tear. Fresh from his recent contract extension, Prandelli may be playing a longer game than many of us give him credit for, and could well envisage France 2016 as the stage on which Rossi can bring the footballing world to its knees.

Granted, it is very hard not to feel sorry for one of Italy’s most promising strikers of the modern era, a player so handicapped by injuries and plain bad luck that his international career may never amount to more than what it is now: a halfway house between his untapped potential and the untold frustration fans (not to mention Rossi) feel every single time fate conspires to keep him out of a tournament.

Yet this unfortunate sequence of events shouldn’t compel Prandelli to select him, or even make him the butt of the fans’ vitriol. For that purpose, all guns should be trained on Marcello Lippi, who recently expressed regret at not selecting Rossi for the 2010 World Cup. With Vincenzo Iaquinta (and his 8 Serie A goals) heading the line, Italy were humiliated in ways that made the 1966 defeat to North Korea appear a respectable outcome by comparison.

Ultimately, it is tempting for fans to want to consider every single possibility before a major tournament, and to add another illusory layer of protection in those unbearable hours before going over the top. Yet whilst the squad is doubtless important, Italy will likely live and die by the starting lineups Prandelli chooses, and the select subs he feels comfortable throwing in the fray (though he is quite inclusive). An English journalist learned that lesson when he negatively compared England’s 2002 squad to Argentina’s, arguing that the Three Lions could never hope to compete against a squad that had kept out the mighty Santiago Solari.

Like Marcelo Bielsa’s side, or indeed Rossi’s Villareal, Italy could very well fail to make the grade, though it won’t be for want of experimentation. Having been pretty much assured of a place in the World Cup as of last summer, Prandelli has enjoyed a luxury few in his position have had: that of tinkering with multiple formations and numerous players, affording him plenty of time to consider the possibility of a World Cup without his own Pablito. Chances are he’ll do just fine.