The End of the Season

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Manchester City are the first club to repeat as PL Champions in a decade

English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat.  Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight.  All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.

Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.

WINNERS

Manchester City

Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year.  The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages.  They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).

Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup.  If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team.  That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.

The off-season will be busy.  Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury.  Six other players also have one year left on their contract.  Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters.  It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.

Liverpool

It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football.  A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short.  In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches.  Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.

And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club.  Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.

A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago.   And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache.  Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”.  This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league.  A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux.  Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.

Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England.  Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001.  While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets.  They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs.  Good fun.

West Ham United

The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading.  While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence.  The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals.  However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow.  Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.

An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.

Watford

We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides.  It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table.  Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year.  Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box.  But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent.  The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way.  The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.


LOSERS

United lose to Cardiff on last day

United need a lot of work in the off-season.

Manchester United

The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?)  We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches.  Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.

Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left.  The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches.  Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.  It turns out it was the players after all…

So here they sit.  No Champions League next season.  If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition.  To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.

The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements.  It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent.  It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing.  It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move.  It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.

As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson.  Good luck finding his successor.  It isn’t OGS.

Burnley

This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake.  Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.

Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season.  Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places.  If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable.  The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses.  Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.

Huddersfield Town

Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go.  The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season.   A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet.  Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.

Cardiff City

Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing.  No money, no players, no hope.   Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.

Fulham

See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up.  Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32.   Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated.  ‘Nuff said.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season.  Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits.  But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table.  Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job.  The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.


UNKNOWN

Sarri Upset

Will Sarri win the battle of wills at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea

Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season.  At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines.  He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.

But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final.  Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.

Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against.  The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose.  With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four.  Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four.  After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018.  Nicht.  Nil.  Zip.

Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily.  They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club.  They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.

Obviously, they were not disappointed.  Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England.  Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games.  It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.

That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam.  After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.

But one can not stand still in the Premier League.  You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium.  Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs.  Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July.  Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend.  Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…

Arsenal

After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious.  Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree.  Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain.  But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room.  He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line.  Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer.  Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.

However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.  His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.

Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting.  That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th.  But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.

Newcastle United

Sigh.  The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old.  Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places.  Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table.  Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…

Bournemouth

Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons.  When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England.  Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results.  Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19.  Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.

Southampton

The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl.   Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing.  Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole.  What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower.  Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.


MEH…

Marco Silva

Much ado about nothing…

Everton

All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face.  Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth.  No Everton Cup for you, Everton.  Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.

Leicester City

Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season.  By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid.  Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth.  Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it.  Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.

Leicester is a very talented squad.  Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.  The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title.  It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six.  They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.

Crystal Palace

A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either.  An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons.  Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either.  After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals.  Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”.  Expect more of the same from Palace next season.

All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!

Brent Lanthier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

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Even Tim Sherwood can’t believe he has a job before these five guys.

Tim Sherwood is now in charge of former European Champions Aston Villa.  Tim Sherwood.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Now look at these guys who aren’t working.

I'm sure that scarf is hanging above Juande's mantle...

I’m sure that scarf is hanging above Juande’s mantle…

Juande Ramos
Age: 60
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2006 & 2007 UEFA Cups, 2007 Copa del Rey with Sevilla; 2007 League Cup with Tottenham Hotspur

If there is a manager who personifies the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” epithet, it’s Juande Ramos.  Any other manager would have been lauded for his accomplishments.  But unfortunately, the Spaniard made his mistakes under two of the footballing world’s most intense spotlights.

Ramos’ career started well.  After almost a decade of managing lower-level clubs, he took over a second division Rayo Vallecano in 1998 and led them straight into promotion… and kept them there. He did even better with a newly-promoted Real Betis, steering them to a decent sixth place.  But a switch to Espanyol the next season ended badly;  Ramos was fired after only six matches with the club sitting in 19th.   He then did a season at Málaga, before joining the club that would make his reputation.

Sevilla was a consistent mid-table side when Ramos arrived in 2005; he took the Andalusians and made them winners.  They only improved by a single place in their first season, but with eight more points, they only barely missed out on a Champions League spot due to their inferior head-to-head record against Osasuna.  More importantly, they won the UEFA Cup, beating teams like Lille, Zenit St. Petersburg (who were semi-finalists the year before), and Schalke before demolishing Steve MacLaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0.  After beating Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, they finished the next season on a mega-high, retaining the UEFA Cup by beating Ramos’ old side, Espanyol.   Los Rojiblancos then ended at a very strong third place, falling only two points short of giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (Barça won the title on GD), and challenging the Big Two’s league hegemony.  The annus mirabilis ended by beating surprise finalists Getafe to win the Copa del Rey, Sevilla’s first in almost 60 years.

After Tottenham sacked Martin Jol in October 2007, Juande Ramos slipped into place in North London, having faced Spurs in the UEFA Cup semi-final just five months before.  The club fell to 11th, after finishing fifth the previous season: not a great return.  But Spurs took two significant scalps, beating the hated Arsenal and then Chelsea in their march to win the League Cup.   The semi-final was their first derby win in nine years; as was the trophy that followed.  But after making a hash of the summer transfer market, two points in their first eight games left Spurs in dead last… and that was it for Ramos.

Not that it mattered.  Six weeks later, Ramos was the head coach of the world’s biggest club.   Real Madrid went on an incredible run, winning all but one of 18 games (the single stumble was a draw) and pulling themselves back into the title race.  But then Madrid lost 2-6 against Barcelona and proceeded to lose their last four after that.  The Catalans had the title and Ramos’ contract was not renewed.   After that, he pulled a Brian Clough in Moscow, lasting only six weeks at CSKA, before spending four years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.   He left in the spring after eastern Ukraine blew up.

Ramos is a winner… you can’t say otherwise.  But his rough ride by the English media may have tarnished his reputation, despite a trophy.

claudio-ranieri_1384968cClaudio Ranieri
Age: 63
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1996 Coppa Italia with Fiorentina, 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia

Perhaps the opposite of Juande Ramos is The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri.   After 11 top-flight clubs, and one disasterous stint on a national team, Ranieri is an example of someone who’s acquired new positions on his past successes, but has never been able to replicate them.

Like so many young managers, Ranieri first garnered attention by leading a club through to promotion. He did it in successive seasons with Cagliari, taking them from Serie C1 to the top flight.  But when they finished just above the drop zone in 1991, he jumped ship to Napoli.  Here again was the same pattern: a great initial season followed by decline.  The southerners finished in fourth in 1992, and then 11th the next season; so back down to the lower leagues he went, taking over at Fiorentina and getting them promoted.    He secured their place in Serie A, and then brought them to fourth the next year.  More importantly, he won the 1996 Coppa Italia… their first trophy in 21 years.  But even that has a mental asterisk after it: La Viola didn’t face top-flight opposition until the semi-final against Inter, and both they and finalists Atalanta struggled in the league that season.  Still… silver is silver.

Fiorentina declined the next season, finishing ninth and Ranieri left for Sunny Spain, albeit still a hero in Tuscan eyes.   The Tinkerman landed in Valencia, where he reversed his pattern.  His first season was middling, but the next season, Los Che jumped into fourth spot and into a Champions League place.  However, it was the Copa del Rey campaign where Valencia really shone.  Jumping in at the Round of 16, Ranieri’s side pumped their derby rivals, Levante, 4-0.  Then they overcame Barcelona in a goal-scoring slugfest, beating the Catalan side 7-5 on aggregate.  In the semi-finals, they embarrassed Real Madrid at The Mestalla, 6-0; a 2-1 loss back at the Bernabeu became meaningless.  A 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the final was almost anti-climatic.  Claudio Ranieri’s Valencia scored 21 goals over five games… and he now had more silver and more accolades.

That was 16 years ago, and after nine more jobs over 15 seasons, the Italian has yet to win anything else.   Atlético Madrid were relegated in his sole season in the Spanish capital.   He then took over from Gianluigi Vialli at Chelsea, slipping backwards in the league, but taking them to an FA Cup final and a Champions League semi-final.  A stint back in Valencia ended badly, after he took over the Spanish champions from Rafael Benítez… and finished in seventh.   He moved to Italy, taking over at Parma and then a newly-promoted Juventus (after their relegation for the Calciopoli scandal), followed by stints at Roma and Inter Milan.  He helped AS Monaco win promotion back to Ligue 1, before a disastrous stint as Greece national manager, with the side losing to the Faroe Islands in Athens.

At 63, the Tinkerman may not be able to tinker with the machinations of Time.

Frank-RijkaardFrank Rijkaard
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 2005, 2006 Spanish Champions, 2006 Champions League winners with Barcelona

There might not be a more decorated unemployed manager in the world than Frank Rijkaard. As a player, the Dutch star was a member of some of the best squads that ever were, including the Ajax sides of the 80s and 90s, along with a stint at Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side that dominated the late 80s (speaking of unemployed managers, this might explain why Sacchi is no longer employed).   He was also a member of that golden Dutch side that won the 1988 European Championship.

Rijkaard’s big management break came early, when at 36 years old, he took over the Netherlands national side.  The Oranje only missed out on a trip to the Euro 2000 final after losing on penalties to Italy.  He then moved into club management, suffering relegation with Sparta Rotterdam before moving to Barcelona.  Like his famous compatriot, Johan Cruyff, he helped Barcelona develop its “Golden Generation” of young Masia graduates, including Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Victor Valdes… and  a certain Argentinian midfielder.  By 2005, Barcelona had their first La Liga title in six years; the following season, they would repeat as champions.  But more importantly, Rijkaard’s Barcelona would win the first of three Champions League titles in six seasons.

Then things started to go south.  The Catalans missed out on the following season’s title due to its head-to-head record with arch-rivals Real.  The following season, Barça finished third, and were knocked out of the semi-finals in both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.  Barcelona President Joan Laporta finally pulled the plug, removing Rijkaard and replacing him with Pep Guardiola.   The Dutchman then spent a decent season at Galatasaray before taking over as manager for Saudi Arabia.  But a poor showing in World Cup qualifying and then in the Gulf Cup of Nations meant another exit.

The same rumours of arrogance and prickliness that surround his  former teammate, Ruud Gullit, also permeates Rijkaard’s reputation.  But the man won the Champions League and now he’s working at a Florida prep school.  Come on…

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes...

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes…

Delio Rossi
Age: 55
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1999 Coppa Italia with Lazio

Delio Rossi’s first taste of Serie A managerial life began when he gained promotion — and subsequent relegation — with Salernitana in the late 90s. However, that single solitary season was his only stint in the top-flight for the first 13 years of his head coaching career. It’s when he took over at Lecce that his career took off… sort of. After guiding them to a decent 10th place, he jumped ship to Atalanta in 2004, and was promptly relegated again. Undeterred, he joined Lazio, where his side played decently, but they were prevented from playing in the following season’s UEFA competition because of the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. But the following season, the Romans made good, finishing third… good enough for a qualifying spot in the Champions League.

After that, it was tough for Rossi.  The club finished in a miserable 12th place and came dead last in their CL group.  Their league form barely improved in 2008-2009… and there were rumblings that Rossi’s infamous temper did not sit well with Lazio chairman Claudio Letito.  But their Coppa Italia run that season was inspiring.  The Biancocelesti took out Rossi’s old club, Atalanta, before beating Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan side in extra time, then won against Turin’s big clubs in three straight games: a 3-1 victory over Torino, then subsequent 2-1 victories in the two legs of the semi-final against Juventus.  In the final, it took six penalties to beat Sampdoria to take the cup.

But trophy or no trophy, Letito had enough of his manager by the end of the season.  Rossi had to wait until November for another gig, this time in Sicily with Palermo.  He guided them from 12th to fifth, only missing out on a Champions League spot by a point.   The next season, they slumped in the league and dropped out of the Europa League in the group stage, leading to Rossi getting fired for two months before being rehired again.  Then cup lightning almost struck twice, as he reached the 2011 Coppa Italia final, going through eventual champions Milan again to lose 3-1 to Inter.

But the moment that will define Rossi — and probably a big reason why he is out of work — is an incident in Fiorentina.  He joined the Tuscan club in November 2011 but they struggled, sitting just six points above the drop zone at the beginning of May 2012.  Fiorentina were losing to Novara 2-0, when Rossi substituted Adem Ljajić. The Serbian sarcastically applauded his own manager, which made Rossi lose. His. Mind. He attacked his own player on the bench… and was dismissed the next day.

Rossi’s last job was at Sampdoria in 2012-2013, where the Genoese side finished 14th and were humiliated in the Coppa by Serie B side, Juve Stabia. He was relieved of his position in December 2013, with Samps sitting in the drop zone.  Rossi was replaced by the man he took over from at Fiorentina, Siniša Mihajlović, a man who is no stranger to fisticuffs himself.

FOOT - RCLJacques Santini
Age: 62
Nationality: French
Honours: 2002 Ligue 1 winner with Olympique Lyonnais

Jacques Santini is considered the architect of the mighty Lyon team that dominated French football at the dawn of the millenium.  As the club’s technical director, he built up the club and took over as manager in 2000.  The next season, he led the club to what would be the first of its eight straight league titles.  So it’s no surprise the French national team came calling, after the defending World, European and Confederations Cup champions failed to score a single goal in South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Under Santini, Les Bleus were an unqualified success, losing only single match — a friendly — to the Czech Republic in early 2003.   The French team sailed through Euro 2004 qualifying, and won the Confederations Cup again along the way.  In the actual tournament, there was the infamous opening win against England in Lisbon, when Zinedine Zidane scored a monster free kick in the 90th minute to tie the match, followed by a converted penalty three minutes later.  The French would draw the Croatians and beat rivals Switzerland to earn a quarterfinal against unassuming Greece.  The rest is history… and so was Santini as France’s manager.

Really though, the former St-Etienne star had already agreed to take over at Tottenham Hotspur from caretaker David Pleat.  But 13 games into the season, Santini quit… apparently because the former football executive couldn’t agree with his higher-ups at the club.  Of course, it didn’t help that Spurs were sitting in 14th spot at the time.  He took over at Auxerre in 2005-2006, but was sacked after losing the last five games of the season and dropping out of a European spot.

Recently, Santini has been linked with jobs in Africa, including the top spot at 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-finalist Equitorial Guinea.  But he is 62, he hasn’t managed a team in almost a decade and he has a reputation for conflict with his bosses.

Still… if Tim Sherwood can get a job…

Brent Lanthier

 

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Boss or No Boss (Managers, Part II)

So long, 'Arry!

So long, ‘Arry!

Harry Redknapp’s resignation as Queens Park Rangers’ boss likely means the end of his 32-year managerial career. Despite his colourful quotes and allegedly dubious transfer dealings, the man was still a winner… sometimes. He did take a flailing Portsmouth team, save them from the drop, and then went on to win the 2008 FA Cup (the last English manager to win a major English trophy). While ‘Arry found work… these guys are still looking for jobs.

vahidd1Vahid Halilodžić
Age: 62
Nationality: Bosnian
Honours: 2004 Coupe de France with PSG

Vahid Halilodžić is probably known more in the present day for what he didn’t win than what he did. The Bosnian should be feted in Algeria for bringing that country farther than it’s ever gone in a World Cup. The men in green played well in Brazil, pushing Germany to extra-time before the eventual champions came out ahead, 2-1. He then resigned in tears, blaming a resentful populace and media for unconscionably castigating him, despite his results.

Halilodžić’s accomplishments have been quiet, yet solid. He coached Lille OSC through promotion in 2000, and then into third place the next season; they’ve been up and competitive almost every season since (except this one). His move to PSG in 2004 resulted in winning the Coupe de France at first go, and propelled the club into second place. Although his second season resulted in his dismissal, his stints as coach of the Côte d’Ivoire (where he was dismissed despite qualifying for the 2010 World Cup) and Algeria national teams showed that he is capable of leading teams on the big stage.

glacombe_921161139

France’s answer to Tom Skerritt…

Guy Lacombe
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 2006 Coupe de France with PSG

Guy Lacombe became something of a cup specialist, winning the 2004 French League Cup with Sochaux in their second straight final. He then moved to Paris Saint-Germain and won the Coupe de France in his first season in the capital. However, his league results were middling at best… but he moved onto Rennes and Monaco, leading each side to the French Cup finals in 2009 and 2010, respectively. By January 2011 though, Monaco was in 17th place and Lacombe was fired.  Les Rouges et Blancs never recovered and were sent to Ligue 2.  Lacombe now works for France’s National Technical Director, François Blaquart.

Felix-Magath_EPA_2846160bFelix Magath
Age: 61
Nationality: German
Honours: 2005 & 2006 Bundesliga titles, 2005 & 2006 DfB Pokal winners with Bayern Munich; 2009 Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg

Few managers have as much pedigree as both a player and a coach as Felix Magath. Few managers inspire as much dread amongst players as well. As a player, Magath won every major European trophy, save the UEFA Cup (although he was in a final), with the mighty Hamburger SV team of the late 70s and early 80s.  He was also a member of the West German side that won the 1980 European Championship.  As a coach, he won successive league-cup doubles with Bayern Munich in 2005 and 2006; three years later, he won the league again, this time with Wolfsburg.

But then you hear the stories about his training regimens, his falling out with players, his desire for absolute control. Fulham loanee Lewis Holtby was reportedly aghast when he found out that his former tormentor was taking over at Craven Cottage. But “Saddam” could not save Fulham from the drop, and now no club in Germany wants him back.  Still… some English club must need a good ol’ fashioned spanking.

MazzarriWalter Mazzarri
Age: 53
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 2012 Coppa Italia with Napoli

Before Walter Mazzarri, Napoli’s recent history was not great. Relegated in 1998, promoted in 2000, and then relegated again right away, Gli Azzurri slipped into insolvency and oblivion. The team reformed in 2004 in Serie C1 and took four years to climb back into the top flight. Enter Mazzarri a year later. He brought them into the Europa League at his first go. The next year, it was the Champions League.  The year after that, Napoli won the Coppa Italia.  He topped that by leading Napoli to second place; they were never going to challenge Juventus, but they certainly beat traditional powerhouse AC Milan, along with upstarts Fiorentina.  After that season, Mazzarri bizarrely decided to take over at diminishing Inter Milan.  That lasted five months.  Cavoli!

VictorMunoz-reacts121201R300Victor Muñoz
Age: 57
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2004 Copa del Rey with Real Zaragoza

Victor’s managerial league record is not great. The former Barcelona, Sampdoria and Spain star couldn’t replicate his success as a player. He was in charge of several middling La Liga teams, along with stints in Greece, Chechnya (replacing Ruud Gullit at Terek Grozny) and Switzerland. But in January 2004, he stepped into the manager role mid-season at his boyhood club, Real Zaragoza and led them past Barcelone in the 2004 Copa del Rey quarterfinals, before taking out Real Madrid in the final. He would return to the Aragonese side last spring and then leave only eight months later. But for a brief moment 11 years ago, Victor was the King of Spain.

Coming Up: A man who’s name is synonymous with collapse in London and Madrid, and another who’s name means collapse everywhere else!

Brent P. Lanthier

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Where in the World Is…?

Matt Broderick discovers Football Manager
Matthew Broderick discovers Football Manager

Shall we play a game? Let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Wouldn’t you rather play a nice game of FIFA 2015? Later… let’s play Find the Winning Manager.

It’s not Global Thermonuclear War, but the managerial shuffle  in Europe’s biggest leagues sometimes feels like the end of the world for football fans.  What makes the hiring and firings of managers so frustrating is the constant recycling of coaches who have never won anything.  Nada.  Zip.  Sixty-year-old Big Sam Allardyce is on his sixth English club, four of them in the Premier League. Yet he has won exactly zero trophies.  Tony Pulis? He’s 57 and on his eighth club.   Hull City is 54-year-old Steve Bruce’s seventh club as a manager…nothing.  Let’s not even talk about Serie A…

A club’s choice of manager is an obvious reflection of its ambition, and it has to be disheartening to see your team hiring a gaffer who’s been run out of his previous job.  Yet there are coaches who have winners’ medals for major European and domestic trophies, but are not currently in charge of a team.

So this week, let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Here are the rules:

1) The manager must have won a major domestic or European trophy in the last 20 years.  That means Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League or Cup Winners’ Cup in Europe,  one of the top five domestic leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy or France… sorry Portugal) or one of those leagues’ major knockout trophies.  I’m biased so I’ve included the English League Cup, just to show you the dearth of winning English managers.  Oh and Super Cups don’t count.

2) The manager must not be leading a club.  This includes serving as an executive ie. Gérard Houllier at New York Red Bulls.

3) The candidate must be under the age of 65 by the end of the domestic season, just to counter the “oh he’s too old” argument.

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Antonio Álvarez
Age: 59
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2010 Copa del Rey with Sevilla

Okay, we might be starting with a bit of a dodgy example.  Antonio Álvarez was a club legend who became essentially a caretaker manager; he was Sevilla’s assistant coach when Manolo Jiménez was sacked, and took charge of Los Rojiblancos who were in fifth place with 10 games left… oh, and still had to play a Copa del Rey final.  Álvarez led them into a final Champions League position, and then a 2-0 win over Atlético Madrid for Sevilla’s second King’s Cup in four years.   But two nail-biting losses to Braga in UCL qualifying that summer, followed by a 1-0 home loss to Paris-Saint Germain and a mediocre 2-2-1 start to La Liga season, and Álvarez was out.   Who knows how influential he was?  Think of him as a Spanish version of Roberto Di Matteo.

Elie-BaupÉlie Baup
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 1999 Division 1 Champions with Bordeaux

“*Blitzkreig” Baup won the French league in his first year in charge of Les Girondins, and then leading them to a top-four finish in all but one of the next four seasons, while picking up a League Cup along the way.   But after a disasterous start to the 2003-2004 campaign, Bordeaux let him go.  An unimpressive stint at Saint-Étienne then led to his move to Toulouse in 2006, when he led the constantly relegation-threatened club to third place and a Champions League spot.   He moved onto Nantes and then Marseille, taking over from Didier Deschamps in 2012.  The mighty Marseille had finished a lowly 10th spot when Deschamps left; yet again, Baup moved in and guided his club into a Champions League spot.   But again, poor results last season got him the sack.   He’s been without a job just over a year… surely there must be something for him in England.

*Not his real nickname, to my knowledge

18FEB11LuisFernandez_800x600_t325Luis Fernández
Age: 55
Nationality: French
Honours: 1995 Coupe de France, 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup with Paris Saint-Germain

Luis Fernández is another example of a young manager whose career sputtered after a flash of brilliance.  The Spanish-born Frenchman left Cannes at 34 years old to coach in the capital, and led PSG to two domestic cups, a third-place league finish, and a Champions League semi-final.   The following year, he would win what is still PSG’s only major European Trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup.  He then left for Spain  where he guided Athetic Bilbao to its best finish in 14 years.   But a few mid-table seasons later, then a return to PSG,  was followed by some more work in France, Spain and Israel (including with the national team).  Fernández has not managed since 2011; just this week, he told French media that he wants to return to coaching.


pacoflores169Paco Flores

Age: 62
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2000 Copa del Rey with Espanyol.

Señor Espanyol himself, Paco Flores spent almost 20 years — off and on — managing at the club’s various levels.  His first real managing job was filling in for the fired Miguel Ángel Brindisi, coming up from the youth side in 2000 to lead Espanyol away from the relegation zone and winning the club’s first Copa del Rey in 60 years.  He then got Real Zaragoza promoted,  and followed that with stints in lower-league Almería and then Gimnàstic, who got relegated in 2007.   Flores hasn’t coached since… and at 62 years old, he may have decided to stay away from the benches.

Gotta love the Predator years...

Gotta love the Predator years…

Ruud Gullit
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 1997 FA Cup with Chelsea

One of the world’s best players during the 1980’s, Ruud Gullit won trophies in every country in which he played.  But he will forever be in Dutch hearts as the captain of the Netherlands team that won the 1988 European Championship against the hated Germans.  So it was a natural sight to see him transition from Chelsea player to player-manager in 1996.  The move paid off: he led his side to Chelsea’s first FA Cup in 27 years.  But disagreements with owner Ken Bates led to his sacking, despite the Blues riding high in the tables.   Gullit then moved to Newcastle United and lasted exactly one disasterous season, with rumours abounding about Gullit’s “lifestyle” issues in the notoriously fun-filled city.  The Dutchman didn’t get another managerial position for five years, taking over back home at Feyenoord, but lasted less than a season.  Two years later, he moved to MLS, coaching David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.  There reports of clashes with the team’s big players meant he was out… again after less than a year.  Gullit spent six months in Chechnya (Chechnya?!?) at Terek Grozny but was again shown the door.  That was in 2011… still no takers.

Coming Up Tomorrow:  Five more managers, including a 2014 World Cup manager without a job, and possibly the scariest coach in the game.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Fast Track Bullies: Young Managers Stumble

Where have Merseyside's managers gone wrong?

Where have Merseyside’s managers gone wrong?

Just over six months ago, on the evening of April 20th, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool FC had just finished beating a soon-to-be relegated Norwich City, 2-3, in their typical manner that season: scoring more goals than they let in.

“It’s 96 goals we’re on,” said Rodgers in the post-match interview, “and our idea is to get to 100-plus for the season. That would be an incredible effort by this team. You know when I came in here 20 months ago, we scored 47 goals so it shows their attacking mentality and their organization within the game.”

The Reds were sitting top of the league, and had been for the past month. In fact, they had remained in the top two since March 1st. The Norwich win was their 11th league win in a row.

Back on Merseyside, Everton had just ended David Moyes’ Manchester United career by beating their old gaffer’s side 2-0 at Goodison Park.  Roberto Martinez had taken the Toffees to within a point of Arsenal and the elusive fourth Champions League spot.

But the next weekend was the beginning of a decline that would reverberate into the present season.   Liverpool lost THAT match to Chelsea, after Steven Gerrard’s now infamous error (something the rest of the league will never let him forget), and the Reds’ title challenge was over.   Meanwhile, Everton would lose at St. Mary’s and then to the eventual champions, Manchester City, compounding their cross-park rivals woes and dropping out of Champions League contention for good.

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

Fast forward to this past weekend: Liverpool have lost the same match, albeit by a smaller margin.  It was their third league match without a win, and they have only won one game in their last six.   Everton, meanwhile, squeaked a point against Sunderland after converting a penalty.  Everton and Liverpool sit 10th and 11th in the table, respectively, with all the mediocrity of any other mid-table club looming over both outfits.

What has become of the reputations of two of Europe’s most lauded young coaches? Last season, the media fawned over the two Merseyside managers as men who could handle their rapid rise to take charge of the two big English clubs.  But now those reputations, and the idea that one can move quickly with new ideas, is on the ropes.  What has happened?

Much ink has been spilled over the departure of Luis Suárez from LFC to Barcelona, and the repeated injuries to Daniel Sturridge, who has not played for Liverpool since the end of August.  The subtraction of 55 goals has not been replaced in any way, shape or form.  The club has spent £120 million to bring in nine players.  Their goal total so far? Six… and three of those were scored by defensive players (Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Dejan Lovren).   Only one striker has scored a goal in the league, and that is the injured Sturridge.    It is shocking for a club of Liverpool’s size and reputation.  It is more than shocking: it is a disgrace.

Last season, the Reds scored a massive 101 goals in the league, which meant that it wasn’t just Suárez and Sturridge putting the ball in the back of the net.  Steven Gerrard — supposedly a deep-lying midfielder — contributed 13 of his own.  The emerging Raheem Sterling — so publicly embarrassed by Rodgers in a television documentary series the season before — scored nine; even Martin Skrtel scored seven of his own. (Bizarrely, the sixth-highest scorer on Liverpool was the mysterious player Own Goals).

Liverpool 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 101 — 2nd in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 50 — 8th

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored:21 — 3rd
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 14 — 8th
Goals Conceded: 15 — 11th

By this point last season, Liverpool had already scored 21 goals, the league’s third-best offence.  This season they are down to only 14… a drop of 33% and good for only eighth.  The optimist will say those numbers are decent enough until Sturridge returns.  But Rodgers already knew that Suárez wanted out, and that Sturridge was prone to injury.  Yet no one of their calibre was brought in the summer transfer period.

But what is more worrying is the defensive errors that cost them last season’s title have not been addressed.   Liverpool conceded 50 goals by May, finishing eighth defensively.  At this point last season, they had conceded 10 goals, and were sitting sixth.  This season, they have already conceded 15… a 50% increase and making them 11th in the league defensively.  Skrtel’s skittishness at the back — along with his bizarre coverage decisions on set plays — is still there.  Lovren has not been the back-line general that he was at Southampton.  Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno have struggled to adjust, with both having lapses in concentration that have led to goals.  Glen Johnson, never the most defensive of fullbacks, has not covered himself in glory since his return from injury.

Liverpool have had trouble keeping the ball out of the net, but not so their derby rivals… at least not last season.   Despite the media portraying Martinez’ Everton as shaking off the stodginess of the Moyes era, the Toffees were still solid at the back.

Everton 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 61 — 6th in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 39 — 3rd

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored: 14 — 10th
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 19 — 5th
Goals Conceded: 17 — 15th

However, that has been tossed out the window.  Everton is on pace to score more but they were shipping goals right up to their 3-0 win against Aston Villa.  Since then they have outscored their opponents 6-2, and have recorded two of their three clean sheets.   But they are clinging to the last place in the top half of the table, and have given no indication that they will improve on last season.

You get the sense that both clubs overachieved last season, overreaching in years that should have been transition periods.  For Liverpool — and Brendan Rodgers — the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge in January 2013 seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle, taking just seven minutes to score in his debut in the FA Cup tie against Mansfield Town, and eventually sparked several one-sided wins.  Everyone talks about how Liverpool misses Suárez, but Sturridge was a catalyst for the Uruguayan to go even further.

So with that much talent either leaving or on the sidelines, why didn’t Liverpool a) adequately replenish their strikeforce, and b) shore up their defence?  I imagine the club’s selection committee thought they were doing both of those things, but comments by Rodgers about Balotelli as a last-minute acquisition leads you to believe that the trio was trying to get a little too cute (and cheap?) in the transfer market.  Indeed, a list of Ian Ayre’s dealings since he took over in March 2011 do not read like a who’s who of football: so far, only Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho have made good… and those last two, not so much this season.  But yet the club has basically brought in a new starting XI and disrupted what was essentially a free-flowing team that had some problems at the back.

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The opposite could be said of Martinez’ Everton.  The Spaniard managed to sign contracts with key loan players like Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, and convinced youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones to stay at the club.  It seemed like Everton would pick up in August where they left off in May.  While the goals have come — including three in seven games from aging superstar Samuel Eto’o — they were pummeled early and often.  The Toffees gave up 2-2 draws to newly-promoted Leicester and then Arsenal, before a 3-6 shellacking against Chelsea.  A 2-3 loss at home to Crystal Palace and a 3-0 loss at Swansea City compounded the image that Martinez was the manager who led Wigan to relegation, instead of the manager who led Wigan to an FA Cup.

Both men are very smart tacticians who love the wonkiness of football’s minutiae.  They are also men raised in the Spanish tradition; Martinez by birth and performance, Rodgers by coaches’ training.   But they are both trying to lay blueprints of systems that are out-of-vogue at the moment (see Spain’s performance at the World Cup), and that have never fully taken hold in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.   It’s no good to try and pass your way forward with possession, when you are being pushed off the ball at every opportunity.   Both teams also like to press high, with the fullbacks over-running the midfielders in front of them (and why wouldn’t you with Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines?), the two centrebacks spreading out and the defensive midfielder dropping back to act as a third back, with the keeper playing sweeper.   But yet both teams have been caught out this season, time and time and time again.

Both managers also seem to be struggling with squad rotation, as they try to also compete in Europe.  But where Rodgers seems to have prioritized domestic football — look at the side he put out against Real Madrid last week — Martinez seems to putting a real effort into doing well in the Europa League.  It could be because winning that tournament is an easier route to next season’s Champions League than claiming a place in the Premier League’s top four.

Hubris and a political sense is almost necessary to survive in a league that has become as fickle towards its managers as Serie A.  So don’t expect either manager to vary from their game plans… not until they absolutely have to.  But this is not Swansea City (where both managers experienced success, and who sit several places above both Everton and Liverpool in the table) where expectations are marginally lower.  These are two of the Big Four of the Northwest, clubs whose winning traditions run deep, if not recent.

That means the pair must dig deep, and find ways to turn their fortunes around.  Otherwise both men will be used as examples of promoting too far, too fast… and that could be detrimental to the fortunes of young managers for years to come.

Brent Lanthier

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Real dominates Rayo Vallecano in Derbi Madrileño

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Nine minutes… that’s how long it took Real Madrid put down Rayo Vallecano in today’s La Liga match.  Sure the two sides played out their 90-plus minutes.  But such was the domination of the European Champions against their tiny Madrid neighbours that the result was really never in doubt.

Carlo Ancelotti changed four players from the mid-week Champions League match at the Bernabeu against Liverpool, not that it truly mattered.  His side still featured two World Cup winners and six nominees for this year’s Ballon D’Or.

Back to the ninth minute, then, and a lovely play that saw Cristiano Ronaldo feed the ball to Toni Kroos at the left of the box, who then slotted it to a galloping Gareth Bale in front of goal.  One-nil Real.

Los Blancos almost doubled their score right away after a similar play; this time, Karim Benzema lanced the ball at James Rodríguez.  The Colombian then quickly turned and passed it to Ronaldo, whose shot went wayward.  The league’s top scorer missed but it was indicative of how Real are playing at the moment; their movement is so good, so fluid that they glide across the pitch, often in anticipation of passes that almost never miss their mark.

That’s not to say that Vallecano were pushovers.  Striker Albert Bueno was on his game, sending a thunderbolt in the 21st minute from 20 yards out that a shaky Keylor Navas struggled to deflect.   The men in red also took to attacking Real’s right flank where Nacho has been playing as a makeshift fullback.  Los Franjirrojos were pesky in the box on set pieces, and a couple moments of Real disarray looked like they would lead to a goal.  On the other end, Vallecano held their lines, and Cristian Álvarez played with awareness, even as the league leaders poured forward with pressure.

But after 40 minutes, that pressure got to the visitors as another cross made its way into the box.  Real centre back Sergio Ramos took the volley on his thigh and deflected the ball into the net, doubling the lead.  It was the defender’s 50th for Real Madrid, a stunning feat for a man whose job is to stop goals, not score them.

However, four minutes later, a bad throw by Navas into a group of Vallecano players caused James to panic with a back pass. Vallecano took advantage and Bueno made no mistake.  It was 2-1 for Madrid but, after a half where the visitors passed and moved as well as their hosts, Vallecano had every reason to feel confident at the break.

That confidence quickly melted away in the second half.   Vallecano seemed to wilt under the onslaught while the home side showed no signs of fatigue from a gruelling mid-week clash.  Real’s third goal in the 55th minute was sublime as Kroos curled the ball around two defenders and into the corner of the net.  Four minutes later, Benzema scored despite being glaringly offside.   Howls of protest from the Vallecano bench fell on deaf ears, although it could be considered payback for other egregious non-calls by the referee, most notably a tackle from behind on James in the first half.   Roberto Trashorras stopped the Colombian as he was about to break, but it generated neither a twitch nor gesture from the officials.

A late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo finished the evening with a 5-1 final score.  Los Nuevos Galacticos have now won 13 straight matches, 10 of those after scoring three goals or more.  The worrying part for their upcoming opponents is that after a post-Lisbon hangover, the champions appear to be picking up momentum.   With a relatively easy schedule over the next six weeks, and progression to the knockout round of the Champions League guaranteed, Madrid will want to keep up their league form before making an almost embarrassingly easy journey to nearby Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December.

Barcelona, Valencia and Atlético supporters might disagree at the moment.  But none of those teams can boast of the firepower that Real possesses. Like Chelsea in England, and Bayern Munich in Germany, Real could be another mega-club that wraps up its league title with plenty of time to spare.

Brent Lanthier

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The New Gentlemen of Verona

img-en-9-mois-de-serie-a-cette-saison-on-a-vu-1400713649_y500_articles-184062One of European football’s most pleasant surprises last season was the performance of Italy’s forgotten side, Hellas Verona.  The team had its heyday in the 80’s, with the Nicklas Bendtner-esque Preben Elkjær leading them to their only Scudetto in 1985.  Last season, they were promoted after a decade in calcio purgatory, and proceeded to remain in the running for a European spot until the final weeks of the season.

The main reason for that improbable run was the improbable resurgence of evergreen Luca Toni.  The Gialloblu rescued the then-36-year-old from the five-year nomadic existence he endured after Bayern Munich cast him aside.  He rewarded his saviours by scoring 20 goals for Verona, good enough for second in the league (behind young Ciro Immobile, who Torino sorely misses).  Toni’s rediscovered form — along with the efforts of winger Juan Iturbe and playmaker Rômulo — helped Verona’s offence tie Inter Milan for fifth in the league.

But as good as the Venetian club were at scoring goals, they were equally awful at the back.  So when Iturbe left for Roma, and Juventus picked up Rômulo on loan, long-time coach Andrea Mandorlini knew he had to take a different approach.

Enter Verona’s shock signing: MLS reject and Mexican bad boy, Rafael Márquez.  The former Monaco and Barcelona defender left New York under a cloud, returning to the Mexican Liga with León.  But his 11th-hour move to Serie A in August sent gasps through North America’s soccer media.  Surely the surly defender would be bad for the dressing room.

Well, so far so good.  Márquez’ partnership with Greek international Vangelis Moras seems to be working.  Mandorlini also brought in Moras’ compatriot, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, on loan from Catania to play in front of the back four.   Pair these moves with the solid play of Rafael (the Brazilian keeper, the second of three Rafas on the books; the other two are named Rafa Marques and Rafa Márquez… but I digress) and you have a club that has only conceded a single goal in three matches.

Of course it’s still early… and Verona have yet to find the scoring touch from last season.  Toni has a single goal and that was a penalty.  Meanwhile Mandorlini has been playing with the four positions between Toni and Tachtsidis, rotating new boys Lazaros and Boško Janković with long-time players Juanito and Emil Hallfredsson.  The correct combination is still forthcoming: substitute Artur Ioniță’s goal against Torino on Sunday was their first from open play.  But their defensive work has left Hellas Verona in third place in this infant season.

Mandorlini’s side face Genoa at home tomorrow, before facing Iturbe’s Roma on the weekend, who sit top of table.  By then, we should have some idea if the new look Verona is ready to stay in the top-flight.

Brent P. Lanthier

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