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Hamburger SV makes hash of young season

The Guardian’s Rafael Honigstein opened up his Bundesliga blog this morning with his bleak analysis of a massive club that has picked up their season right where they left off: on the bottom.  After three matches, Hamburger SV sit at the foot of the German league table with just a point, and without having scored a single league goal.   If things continue like this, the Bundesliga’s only unrelegated team will finally fall through the trap door.

The stats against the northern side are not pretty: one point in their last eight matches, and not a single away win since October.  It looks like curtains for manager Mirko Slomka, who has lost 16 of his last 17 matches as boss of both Hamburg and Hannover. But despite the wholesale change, the same problems seem to remain.

Last season, Hamburg had the worst defence in the league.  The only difference from last year’s campaign is that they are not scoring.  The permanent signing of loanee Pierre-Michel Lasogga from Hertha Berlin was supposed to maintain momentum.  But the departure of problem child Hakan Calhanoglu may have brought more problems than it solved. To top that off, it was arguably a new defender who was responsible for Hannover’s two goals on Sunday.  Former Augsburg player Mattias Ostrzolek was in for leftback in place of Petr Jiráček, but missed his marker on both efforts.  By the hour mark, Ostrzolek was out and the Czech player back in.

It is almost impossible to understate how big a crisis this has become for Die Rothosen.  Hamburg are a massive club, and are consistently on Forbes Top 20 list.  But if you compare them to the side they once were, and to the other teams in their tax bracket, you see the long decline:

– Out of those top 20 “big teams”, Hamburg were the only side to finish in the bottom half of their domestic league table this season.   The next closest were AC Milan (who are going through their own prolonged decline) in 8th and Spurs in 7th.

– Hamburg have the third-longest span without a title (1983 – the same year they won the European Cup), being surpassed only by Schalke (1958) and again, Tottenham (1961).

– Hamburg’s best league finish over the last 10 seasons has been near the worst among the big clubs.  HSV finished 3rd in 2006; all other clubs — except, you guessed it, Tottenham! — have finished at least second. Thirteen of those teams have gone on to win their leagues at least once over the past decade.

– Only 10 of the Big 20 have a European Cup/CL title — Hamburg being one of them — but since HSV’s win in 1983 (and their automatic qualification the next year), they have only returned twice, dropping out in the group stages both times.  Compare that with this season, where only five big clubs did not at least make the third qualifying round.

– All of the other clubs have won at least one trophy, domestic or international, in the last seven years.  HSV’s last piece silverware was the DFB-Pokal in 1987 (as well as that year’s Supercup).

Clearly the team of Ernst Happel that won three league titles in five years, and dominated the European landscape, is long gone.  But with Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach up next for Der Dinosaurier, Slomka does not have the most ideal matches to try to integrate his new players and relive former glories.  Furthermore it remains to be seen if the 47-year-old is even the man for the job.  He may be gone by the end of September, but it may already be too little, too late.  By then, the top-flight existence of one of the biggest clubs on the planet will have gone the way of… well, you know.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Pieces of Eight: Why Spain is So Money and Other Euro Observations

Well that was fun.  Lots of goals, an upset or two, some behind-the-scenes drama… and for what? At the end of three weeks, the new Champions are the same as the old Champions.  The footballing universe is balanced and unsullied, and in six weeks, we can go back to watching club football.  In the meantime, enjoy my little observations about the highlight of the summer.  Don’t you dare mention the Olympics!!!

1) This Spanish side may be the best international side ever.  Duh.
Euro.  World Cup.  Euro.  Nineteen players in the side have now won both tournaments.  More than half of those players will still be under 30 by the time they reach Rio in two years time (not to mention next year’s Confederations Cup).  An average possession rate of at least 65%.  A side that has gone 646 minutes without conceding a goal in a knock-out match.  This is more than a “Golden Generation”;  this is utter and complete dominance.

2) Buffon and Pirlo are studs.
Despite every indication that they would do the opposite, the Italians (the Italians?) took the game to Spain, trying to play offensive and open-pitch football (seriously, the Italians?!?).  Prandelli’s tactics allowed the world to see Andrea Pirlo’s incredible play-making abilities. Pirlo is a big reason why Juventus won the Scudetto this season, and AC Milan (his old team) didn’t.   Meanwhile, Buffon faced a barrage of attempts, especially in the final’s second half. When the winners were getting their medals, Buffon was stoic in defeat.

Prandelli: “Balotelli has to learn to accept defeat.”

3) Balotelli needs to grow up.
He may have put on a clinic against ze Germans… but Mario is still a super baby.  He stormed off the pitch after Italy lost against the Spaniards and was the last person to receive his medal.  That’s too bad because he had an exemplary tournament.   Colourful players with heaps of talent have always made the game more interesting…. but Balotelli can be a detriment to his team(s).  Luckily for both Italy and Manchester City, his behaviour may mellow with time.  Witness another former petulant son in…

4) Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’s an incredible player… he just needs a team.
Like the Italians, the Portuguese weren’t expected to do much.   Critics assumed that Ronaldo would once again be unable to replicate his club form for A Seleccao.  But not only did Ronaldo have a great tournament, he showed tremendous un-Ronaldo-like restraint as teams gave him a kicking.   Old Ronaldo would have flopped around like a fish.   New Ronaldo recorded the most shots in the tournament.   Too bad that he also hit the wood work more than any other player… and let’s not even mention the penalty shot that never was.

5) The end of the Van Marwijk era means the end of the Van Bommel era, et al.  Praise Cheebus.
The Dutch gaffer opted for pretty much the same side as he used in the World Cup. Oops.

Before the tournament even began, the players exhibited symptoms of Dutch Disease: an in-fighting both in and out of the public spotlight that hobbled everyone. Their performance on the pitch reflected the lack of unity and tactics.  One hopes that it wasn’t nepotism that led Van Marwijk to start his over-the-hill son-in-law Mark Van Bommel.  The captain sums up all that’s wrong with the Oranje:  old, dirty, and petulant.  A mid-tournament rebellion in the dressing room, followed by an early exit,would make the Dutch this year’s France, except that…

6) France is this year’s France.
After a disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa, you’d think Les Tricoloures would avoid their petty squabbles and unite under Laurent Blanc. Malheureusement, it was not to be. Reports of a dressing room bust-up after losing to Sweden in their final group-stage match was followed by Samir Nasri’s unseemly outburst towards a reporter. A tidy loss to the eventual champions meant the end of another tournament… and the dismissal of another manager.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… Someone tell the French players.

The other sad Mario…

7) Das Jahr der Schrecken for Bayern Munich players.
What a season for the eight men out who play for both the German national team and Bayern Munich.  Bayern suffered a double domestic loss to Borussia Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and the DKB-Pokal, followed by a baffling defeat at Chelsea’s hands at home in the Champions League.  Top that off with Germany’s semi-final loss to unfancied Italy and they face a tough summer staring into their schnitzel.  Mario Gomez even lost out on the Euro Golden Boot because he tied Fernando Torres in goals and assists, but took more minutes to do it!  Scheisse!

8) England, thanks for coming out.
Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard played well.  Surprisingly, so did John Terry.  Andy Carroll scored the same amount of goals as Wayne Rooney, but played 50 less minutes.  Theo Walcott had a game to remember.  Now let’s never mention this again.

Brent Lanthier

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Inter Tinkers with their Manager… Again

Gasperini: Don't look back in anger

It took five matches for Internazionale to fire Gian Piero Gasperini… the fifth manager to leave the club in three years.  But only in the world of sport does a organization hire its leaders from a steady pool of failures.

The rumours are that Claudio “The Tinkerman” Ranieri has been given a two-year contract to take over from Gasperini.  No stranger to football’s revolving door, Ranieri has managed 10 teams over the last 20 years; this will be his seventh Serie A club. In that time, he has only won two major trophies: a Coppa Italia with Fiorentina… and a Copa del Rey with Valencia.  Yet this is the man who has allegedly been chosen to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Inter fans and management must be perturbed that their recent domination of Italian football has come to a jarring and screeching halt.  Long known as “the other Milanese club”, i Nerazzurri shook off its inferiority complex by winning five consecutive Serie A titles under Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, topping off the run by winning the quadruple: the league title, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa, as well as being crowned both European and world champions… defeating mighty Barcelona along the way.  Life was good for Inter Milan. Then Rafael Benitez arrived.

Rafageddon unleashed again

Sure, Rafa led them to a World Club Championship. But they did it by beating club teams from South Korea and the Congo… one of the poorest nations in the world.  Not so fast, cry Inter fans.  They beat the world’s best to get there.  But Rafa’s infernal reputation of maniacal stubbornness is well deserved, and it didn’t sit well with the club’s superstars.  By Christmas, Inter would be down by 11 points from their San Siro rivals and Benitez was shown the door.  He has yet to manage in a single match since.

While not a bad choice, the Spaniard’s replacement was perhaps difficult for Inter fans to accept.  Not only did Leonardo play over a hundred matches for hated AC… he was also part of the Brazilian team that beat Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.  No matter: the new gaffer lead Inter on a run that pulled them to the brink of another championship.  But in the end, the club failed to defend the league, and were laughed out of Europe by a mediocre German side. While Inter managed to hold onto the Coppa, the writing was on the wall.  Leonardo left Italy for the bright lights — and a big pay cheque — in Paris.

Enter Gasparini and an immediate cloud of suspicion. Rumours abounded that the former Genoa gaffer was only chosen because others refused the job.  Fabio Capello is still under contract to the England FA.  Young Andres Villas-Boas snapped at the chance to manage Cha-ching! Chelsea, after only one season at Porto.  Even Marcelo Bielsa followed up Chile’s impressive display at last year’s World Cup by signing up to manage the Spanish powerhouse… of Athletic Bilbao.

It all must have been secretly humiliating for owner Massimo Moratti.  If it was, it only got worse as the season got underway.  After succumbing to their hated rivals in the SuperCoppa, Inter emerged from the one-week players’ strike to lose to up-and-coming Palermo… one of the teams leading a Southern renaissance in Italian football.  That was followed by a CL league loss (at home!) to Turkish side Trabzonspor, who weren’t even supposed to be there.  A draw against Roma might have been acceptable, if it was not for a humiliating defeat Tuesday night to newly-promoted Novara.  Gasperini uscita… Ranieri entri.

Zanetti: Is it exit time for Inter's Iron Man?

There are some — including the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson — who argue that Moretti should never have hired Gasperini… not because he is a bad manager, but because his system doesn’t gel with Inter’s squad.  Gasperini favours variations of 3-4-3.  But at Inter, that meant using an ancient back-five of Samuel, Lucio, Maicon, Cambiasso and Zanetti as defensive anchors (the average age of the South Americans is 33).  Gasperini let his fullbacks roam just behind the wingers, and the aforementioned central players like to play up-field…. leaving Inter vulnerable on the counter.  Consequently, ball after ball has gone sailing over the heads of the defenders, with only an increasingly erratic Julio Cesar to stop it.

Offensively, the club is only marginally better off.  The “Will He Leave, Won’t He Leave” speculation surrounding Wesley Sneijder had to have been a distraction, considering the Dutchman’s pivotal role in the formation.  Plus, the fiasco signing of cup-tied Diego Forlan from Atletico Madrid is unforgivable.  If you believe in omens, it does not portend well for The Big Grass Snake.

Obviously, the scudetto is still too young to start picking out trends.  But with non-traditional leaders like Palermo, Napoli, Fiorentina and Udinese continuing where they left off last season, Inter may have to look deep within itself and try to decide what it needs to do to turn itself around.  Ranieri will likely perturb players with his constant manipulation of the side, not unlike Benitez.  We will see if The Tinkerman soothes or chafes raw egos at the club.

From my perspective, Inter fans can take solace in two things:

1) Super Sneijder and Forlan seem to be developing an understanding, despite the recent run of form.  Both players were magnificent in South Africa, with Forlan leading what could be considered South America’s new powerhouse.  If they can get service, look out.

2) AC Milan is only playing marginally better, stealing a draw last week against Barcelona in the CL.  Italy’s axis of power may be shifting.

Brent Lanthier

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AC Milan: Il Diavolo is in the Details

C'mon Thiago, give us a kiss...

One club is considered the best in the world; the other is a team that has found its way back to the top of its domestic league.  Both were surprised this weekend by so-called lesser sides.  Tonight, it was Barcelona that showed its quality over AC Milan.  Unfortunately for Barca, the scoresheet didn’t reflect it.

Two goals by Milan’s Brazilian stars bookended the game and stole a point for the Rossoneri.  The World Champions dominated up until that point: Barcelona had 80% possession at the 75th-minute mark… a calling card for the Catalonians.  Gaffer Pep Guardiola says he’s not worried… nor should he be.

It’s the Italian club that should be wringing its hands.   The consensus is that AC Milan will have a tough time defending the scudetto…  and judging by their last two performances, they may prove the pundits right.  Not only did Barca’s tiki-taka have Milan on the back heel for most of the match, but the Italian champs kicked off the Serie A season on Thursday by having to fight back against a new-look Lazio.  Add the Roman club to Milan’s growing list of league rivals:

– Internazionale is aging but still potent.
– Juventus may be an Old Lady, but she may find a sabbatical from Europe rejuvenating.  
– Udinese was the better team against Arsenal in CL qualifiers, and could build on last year’s success.
– The South seems to be rising again with Palermo beating Inter 4-3 (again, the Nerrazzurri looked slow and old)… and Napoli being picked as a dark horse for the title.

Zlatan the Terrible

And while he didn’t play tonight, Milan still has its good luck charm: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Every team he has played on since 2004 has won its domestic title (if you include Juventus’ revoked trophies).  He is a big, black belt-wearing nutter who has a goals-per-game average of at least 50% in the last six seasons.  Plus, NOW he’s eating his Wheaties.

Brent Lanthier

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The Football Brand in America

Beckham: The Face of Football in America

This week, Bloomberg Businessweek released its Power 100 ranking of the most prominent athletes in America.  Only two football players made it: Landon Donovan came in at 40th — on the strength of his exposure from the World Cup — and David Beckham… of course.

Becks came in at 19th… which is not bad, but it’s not great.  He came ahead of Derek Jeter (Mr. Yankee himself), Venus Williams, NFL photographer Brett Favre and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (America luuuuuvvvvvs its NASCAR!!!).

David Beckham the Brand has become bigger than David Beckham the Player ever was.  The high-profile wife, the high-profile teams, the high-profile switch to the MLS.  Becks is photogenic, scandal-free (lately) and is one of the few soccer players who will get stopped on the streets of North America.  He’s a marketers dream… which is why the MLS inked a major deal to make him the poster boy for the LA Galaxy and, by proxy, the League itself.

Becks tells Capello he still wants to play for England...

Except it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.  Becks hasn’t played nearly as much as he was supposed to, focusing more on his waning England career… and trying to get as much continental football to fight for his place on the Three Lions. That quixotic quest led him to infamously tear his Achilles tendon while playing for Milan… excluding him from the World Cup AND his MLS obligations.  He tried to earn a temporary place back in England this winter… but the Galaxy are apparently getting fed up with his wantaway ways.

Thierry Henry looks miserable in NYC

Becks’ signing with El Lay hasn’t exactly brought the intended stampede of Europeans to American airports either.  Lots of fading players give lip service to wanting to end their careers here, but that’s all it’s been… lip service.  And those who have come have become anonymous. Thierry Henry — the world’s greatest striker in his day — claims to take the New York subway to home games and practices, travelling unaccosted.

Becks’ ranking indeed shows his marketing power… and his marketing potential.  But with only one other player on the list — an American who is a regular squad member in any big European club — it goes to show you how far football/soccer still has to go in the eyes of the North American consumer.

Brent Lanthier

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Fringe benefits for Spurs

Which way to the pitch again? I haven't been there in ages.

As our ’Arry is so fond of saying, there are no easy games in the Premier League. With the possible exception of Werder Bremen circa late-2010, there aren’t too many gimmes in the Champions League, either.  And being drawn against local rivals Arsenal in your first Carling Cup match isn’t much of a party, not when you’re used to a diet of Port Vales and MK Dons in the early stages of that competition.

So at the risk of jinxing things, it’s fair to say that Charlton’s FA Cup visit to White Hart Lane this Sunday is the first time in a long time that Tottenham have had the luxury of giving a good number of fringe players in their deep squad a chance for some action. And it’ll be interesting to see just who Redknapp kits out for the 3rd round encounter.

The manager-less Addicks, having just pink-slipped former Colchester gaffer Phil Parkinson, sit some 45 places below Tottenham. They’re in the League One playoff zone, but they’ve got a bunch of teams breathing down their necks and they haven’t won in five matches. Seems like a super opportunity for Spurs to showcase some lads whose boots are gathering spider webs, especially those who might be pushed further down the pecking order if a certain Mr. Beckham moves from La La Land to the Lane this month.

After taking maximum points in all three holiday fixtures, and weathering a pair of sending-offs in the process, Tottenham lost at Everton in the week, their first EPL defeat since October. Gareth Bale left with a sore back, and the squad was far from sharp. Time for some R & R, lads. You’ve got Man. Utd and AC Milan on the horizon.

It was back in September’s 4-1 extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup when Redknapp last dug deep into the reserves to field a team. And even though Samir Nasri’s pair of late penalties killed Tottenham off that evening, it was still fascinating to watch youngsters Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore get their feet wet with the first team.

For players like Robbie Keane and David Bentley, whose twittering wife has provided yet another reason for ’Arry’s anger, the Charlton clash could be a chance to get in the shop window and line up transfers away from Tottenham this month. Birmingham have expressed interest in both, but only Bentley (17 million pounds and he can’t even drive the team bus!) looks likely so far.

It’s 99.9 percent not likely to line up this way, but here’s a Tottenham XI (and subs bench) I’d be curious to see take on the visitors from South London this Sunday.

GK Stipe Pletikosa: The Croatian hasn’t featured since the Arsenal defeat (if memory serves) and Carlo Cudicini is out with a sore shoulder. Give Heurelho Gomes a good rest.

RB Vedran Corluka: Banished to bench for long stretches after CL miscue in favour of Alan Hutton. Time to dust him off.

CB Bongani Khumalo: Redknapp might not think South African newcomer is ready for trial by fire but hey, it’s Charlton, not Chelsea. This is like trial by lighter.

CB Sebastien Bassong: Plays the least of THFC’s unfortunately few fit central defenders. Dawson and Gallas could use a break and Kaboul is banned for his recent red card.

LB Benoit Assou-Ekotto: Caulker and the Kyles are all away on loan so we’ll stick with a starter here.

RW Andros Townsend: Newly-sacked Roy Keane (suck it, you thug) didn’t want him at Ipswich so he needs showcasing for a new loan.

MF Sandro: The Brazilian beast has had too few chances since his switch from Internacional. We know what Palacios can do. Let’s have a closer look at this lad.

MF John Bostock: I know, even Hull didn’t want him. Give him a run and maybe someone else will fancy a longer look. The kid needs to play.

LW Niko Kranjcar: The other Croatian lost in the wilderness at Spurs. Plus my made-up team is pretty young and needs some veteran savvy. He’s got it in spades.

FW Roman Pavlyuchenko: The Russian donkey was in fine form at the end of last season when he got some regular playing time. If he finds his feet again, it would be a big boost.

FW Giovanni Dos Santos: Remember him? All kinds of rumours say he’s on the way out. How about one last look before he leaves?

SUBS: GK Heurelho Gomes (in case of emergency), CB Michael Dawson (same as Gomes), FW Robbie Keane (for when Dos Santos disappoints again), MF Jermaine Jenas (can’t hurt), MF Jamie O’Hara (unless his back still isn’t better), MF David Bentley (in case his Brummie deal isn’t done yet) and FW Peter Crouch (for when my Spurs XI go a goal down).

Ian Harrison

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CL draw: Spurs get San Siro return

When Tottenham was drawn against Young Boys of Bern in Champions League qualifying back in August, it was a dream draw for the North London’s debutantes, the easiest opponent Spurs could have faced at the final hurdle before the group stages of the competition.

And although they nearly bolloxed things up by falling behind 3-0 in the opening 30 minutes of the first leg, Spurs recovered to sweep past the Swiss side and move on to the tournament proper, where their only slip-up in six matches was a 4-3 defeat to Inter at Milan’s San Siro. A 3-1 triumph in the return leg at White Hart Lane put Tottenham on top of Group A to stay, meaning they’d avoid some of Europe’s heaviest hitters in this morning’s draw for the Round of 16.

This time, there was no dream draw, and Tottenham must go back to their house of first-half horrors to face Inter’s crosstown rivals AC Milan in February. The best scenario this time, if it could be considered as such, was probably FC Copenhagen, the first Danish side to reach the last 16. But even as a group winner, Tottenham still faced the prospect of many problematic opponents. And in the Rossoneri, current Serie A leaders, Tottenham have drawn one of the toughest. Sure, Marseille, Lyon and Valencia wouldn’t have been cakewalks, either, but this promises to be a stern, serious test.

Spurs, who will hope to be healthier in 10 weeks time, will be coming home for the second leg, of course. And our man ’Arry isn’t afraid of the big, bad boys from Northern Italy, saying he’s happy to keep measuring his squad against the best.

Of course, as North London squads go, Tottenham’s draw looks far better than neighbourhood rivals Arsenal, who face the daunting task of a battle with Barcelona, the same team that knocked them out of the tournament last year, and beat the Gooners in the 2006 final. Good luck with that one, lads.

Rather than Spurs, it was West London’s Chelsea who got the great Dane draw against Copenhagen, while Manchester United will meet Marseille. Inter got Bayern Munich in a rematch of last year’s final. Will the embattled Rafa Benitez still be in charge by then?

Meanwhile, the scabby Europa League teams also learned their fate today, with Man. Citeh drawn against Greece’s Aris Salonika, the team that knocked title holders Atletico Madrid out of the tournament. Obi Woy’s Liverpool get Sparta Prague, and Tottenham’s old adversary Young Boys, still alive in this competition, get Zenit St. Petersburg, who were UEFA Cup winners in 2008.

Finally, speaking of Swiss men and young boys, FIFA head of corruption president Sepp Blattter has apologized for his recent remarks urging homosexual fans to refrain from gay sex in Qatar. I give old Joseph a piece of my mind in my weekly Toro Magazine column today.

Ian Harrison

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