Are the Spanish greedy?

An interesting article, the thrust of which was that Spain’s poaching of the world’s top players has left more balanced leagues in the rest of Europe, recently caught my attention. As an Aston Villa fan, I’m not sure I agree that parity has reached the Premiership. If you look at the top 5 or 6 teams of the past few years, the same select group of names crops up time and time again: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and a n others. Yes, one or two have climbed a few places thanks largely to their new deep pockets and others, including my beloved boys in claret and blue, have slipped back. However, I would agree that this season is looking as competitive as 2001-02 season. But that could change.

A not too dissimilar situation can be found in the Italian Serie A and and the French First Division where the typical powerhouse teams are being challenged by some sporting minnows. But we’ve not yet reached mid-season. Often the lesser teams can’t maintain their challenges for the entire season, as injuries and other factors take their toll. One could argue that zones or tiers have appeared in the leagues and it’s difficult for teams to progress to the next tier without significant financial investment.

Over in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been busily acquiring the world’s best soccer talents and, so the article argues, doing the Spanish fans a disservice by rendering anything other than the classicos a walkover. The author (unfairly, in my opinion) compared the Spanish league to that of Scotland where two clubs, from the same city, Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, have dominated for years. It’s true that in recent years in La Liga the gap between the winner and the also rans has widened. Last year Barcelona won with 96 points, 34 points clear of 4th placed Villareal. While in 2006-07 season, Real Madrid won the title with a much narrower margin and 23% fewer points. But it’s winning that counts, not the margin of victory.

The article also points to the players short-listed for FIFA’s Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or. In 2007, the list comprised 11 Premier League players, eight from La Liga, seven from Serie A, three from the Bundesliga and one from France. Since then, the world’s elite have migrated to Spain and this year’s short list included 13 players from the Spanish League, four from the Premiership, two from Serie A and the Bundesliga, and one each from Russia and Brazil. Could Spain’s dominance of recent World and European Cups not provide a simpler explanation?

Well, I have to confess that I’m not sure I agree with the author’s conclusions. Clubs with deep pockets, who regularly enjoy European football and have plenty of silverware in the cupboards, are going to attract the best players. Taking those players and moulding them into a winning side, is a whole other ball game. It is perhaps interesting to note that those teams who regularly place well in their respective leagues have “superstar” managers. Ones who have enjoyed significant periods in charge, such as Wenger and Ferguson, ones who have an abiding affinity with the club, like Guardiola, or ones who have enjoyed success wherever they have roamed such as Mourinho. Remember, football is a team sport and great teams, not teams of great players, win trophies. Though I do accept  they could be one and the same.

Handbags at dawn

These two teams, neither of whom has ever been relegated from La Liga, first met in 1929. Real Madrid holds the upper hand in head to heads or “El Clasico” as it’s called in Spain. The rivalry is more intense than any local derby, it’s Castile versus Catalonia. Real Madrid have the lion’s share of honours but, in recent years, it’s been tipping in Barcelona’s favour. Nonetheless, Real Madrid is the more successful club both financially and in terms of success on the pitch. They were voted the most successful team of the 20th century. A review of their players past and present reads like a “Who’s who in football”. Scant consolation, but with 90,000 seats, the Nou camp is bigger than the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium which only seats 80,354.

To arrest that slide, at the start of this season Real bought in the “Special One” aka Jose Mario dos Santos Felix Mourinho, the (first) FIFA Ballon d’Or Best Coach in 2010. A man who won the first treble in Italian football with Inter: Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. It’s fair to say he has an enviable record. Will he be the first manager to win three Champion’s League titles with three different clubs?

Josep “Pep” Guardiola i Sala is a former Barcelona born and bred player who took over as coach in the 2008/9 season when they won La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champion’s League . He was the youngest ever manager to land a Champion’s League title and he added to his trophy haul with Supercopa Espana, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Not bad for the new boy on the block; six major trophies in one calendar year.

Years of intense rivalry and simmering animosity, sparked no doubt by Barca’s 5-0 drubbing of Real at the Nou camp in November 2010, their 5th straight El Clasico win, have boiled over in the past few weeks as the teams have played one another four times. Real managed a draw at the Bernabeu and then won the Copa del Rey at the Mestailla stadium, Valencia’s home ground. But this was the big one, the Champion’s League semi-final, a competition that Real have won an amazing nine times.

The respective managers were generating sparks off the pitch in the run up to last week’s first leg. It was a journalist’s delight as the two traded insults and those back pages wrote themselves. Mourinho accused the referees of kowtowing to Barca but was left with egg on his face as FIFA awarded the first leg to a Portuguese referee. Sadly, there weren’t as many fireworks on the pitch. Mourinho’s spoiling tactics,  Barca’s histrionics and an overly long grass pitch got in the way of the beautiful game. Reduced to 10-men once again against Barca, Real were unable to prevent Messi slotting home two goals, the second a real gem, in the second half.

This left Real with an unenviable uphill struggle this evening in the Nou Camp where the onus would be on them to attack providing they could wrest control of the ball from Barca. Mourinho would be watching the game from his hotel room, banished from the touchline, no doubt burning the mobile phone airwaves to his Basque assistant Aitor Karanka who, in the pre-match press conference, carried on where Mourinho had left off.

This evening the scene was set after a  heavy pre-match thunderstorm soaked the pitch, possibly putting a damper on that enmity. Iniesta and Abidal were back for Barca, while Pedro and Sergio Ramos were suspended for Real. Real started brightly, eager to get on the scoresheet. But Victor Valdes, by comparison with Iker Casillas, was rarely troubled. Soon the hosts were running rings around Real and it was only a matter of time before they scored. Actually, Real scored first in the second half but Gonzalo Higuain’s goal was disallowed by the Belgian referee as a consequence of Ronaldo’s supposed foul on Mascherano. It was the referee’s only poor call of the game and no doubt the Special One will have something to say about it. A sublime pass from Iniesta allowed Pedro to score in 54th minute, while Moreno equalised 10 minutes later. The goals, rather than sparking the game into life, encouraged the teams to cancel out one another’s efforts. There was no repeat of the ugly scenes of the first leg and little evidence of gamesmanship. Barca go through 3-1 on aggregate to the Champion’s League Final, their third in six years, which will be held at Wembley, the same day as La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev.

Handily poised

Having devoted yesterday’s post to a round up of the cycling, today I felt I should turn my attention to the football. I will, of course, firstly address the two clubs closest to my heart: namely, AVFC and OGCN. The former didn’t play at the week and as their would-be opponents were involved in a replay. Unsurprisingly, they’ll be playing Manchester City in the next round of the FA Cup. My beloved boys in claret and blue are the filling in a Midlands sandwich. They’re lying in 16th place with 30 points, the same as Birmingham who are above us thanks to a superior goal difference, and a game in hand. Below us, on two points less, are WBA. To put this in perspective, the league leaders, Manchester United, have twice as many points. OGCN lost 3-0 at home to PSG. They’ve played one game less than Villa and are on 27 points in 17th place, just above Monaco, who are in the relegation zone. The similarities are alarming but I don’t believe either will be relegated.

I will now turn my attention to the Champion’s League which tends to be a bit of a closed shop. There’s 4 English sides (Man U, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal), 3 Spanish teams (Real, Barca, Valencia), 3 Italian teams (Inter, AC Milan, Roma), 2 German teams (Bayern, Schalke), 2 French teams (OL, OM) plus 2 others (Copenhagen, Shaktar Donetsk).  Following the results of the first leg, there’s only one side which looks likely to be eliminated: FC Copenhagen who were beaten 2-0 at home by Chelsea.

If we look at the results from the remaining first legs, there are at first glance some surprising results: most notably Spurs winning 1-0 away at AC Milan and Manchester United drawing 0-0 away from home at OM. In other instances,  while the favoured team lost, they do have that all important away goal as in Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona, Lyon 1 – 1 Real Madrid which should provide the platform for a home, and overall, win in the next leg.

At this stage, it’s not easy to forecast who will win. There’s so many variables not just the opponents in the forthcoming rounds, domestic situations but,  more crucially, the availability of key players. However, I’m all for sticking my neck out and I’m going to predict that the last 8 teams will be Spurs, Schalke, Shaktar, Barca, Real, Chelsea, Man U, Bayern. I would have liked to include Arsenal in that list but cannot see them beating Barcelona at home. I hope, in this case, I’m proved wrong.

 Of course, it’s difficult to work up enough interest if your own team isn’t playing, nor shows any sign of qualifying to play Champions League in my remaining lifetime. I will however always be able to treasure the moment when Peter Withe’s knee struck the ball in Rotterdam and put in the back of the Bayern net enabling my beloved boys to bring home the trophy in 1982. I watched the game after barracading myself into the tv lounge of the hotel where I was staying in Taunton while auditing Somerset CC.

Wasteful

As a manager, you always want your team to give of their best. After all, a manager is only as good as the people who work for him or her. Management is not an art, nor is it rocket science. It’s grounded in common sense. In my experience, if someone isn’t performing to the level you expect, you need to sit down with them and try to get to the bottom of the matter. Don’t assume, it’s all down to the individual either, it’s far more likely to be your fault. You cannot expect anyone to work well if they do not know or understand what it is you expect of them. This is true of whomever or whatever you’re managing. Clearly, some managers are better than others in unlocking and developing an individual’s potential.

My chouchou of the French beautiful game is one Yoann Gourcuff who was the subject of several pages of conjecture in L’Equipe this week which may have contributed to him being unfairly whistled at by the French crowd when he was substituted in 86th minute in yesterday’s friendly against Brazil.

My take on the issue is that he feels crushed by the overwhelming burden of expectation. The French public regard Gourcuff as Zizou’s natural successor. Those are mighty boots for anyone to fill, let alone someone who, let’s not forget, is only 24. True he plays in a similar position, behind the strikers, and displays the same kind of creativity and technique as Zidane.
 
He’s the son of Lorient’s manager and until his teen years played tennis to a competitively high standard too but, having been beaten by one Raphael Nadal, he chose to concentrate on his football. After a successful debut in the professional game at Rennes, he moved to  AC Milan in 2006. It was not a good move. He couldn’t get a game. 
 
He returned to France in 2008, initially on loan, to Bordeaux where he flourished under Laurent Blanc leading Les Girondins to the League and League Cup titles as well as being named the French League’s Player of the Year after scoring 12 goals and claiming 11 assists. He continued to play well and was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or award in 2009.
 
After the departure of Blanc, Gourcuff signed for Olympique Lyonnais in 2010 where he has failed to build on that early promise. Promise that is evident when he plays for France under Blanc. He played well yesterday evening, as did Karim Benzema who scored the only goal of the match. He’s another player who can’t get  a game at his club: Real Madrid.
 
For whatever reason, neither of these players are playing to their full potential at club level. I don’t know why this is and no doubt many columns have been written speculating on the various reasons. It just strikes me as a great shame that their respective managers can’t or won’t make best use of these talented players.
   

Home advantage

For the first time this year, everything fell into place. My beloved was home, OGCN were at home and the weather was glorious. As a consequence, we decided a trip to Stade du Ray was in order.

We parked our car at the tram terminus and hopped on the tram for the two stops the stadium, to pick up our tickets. There’s never any problems buying tickets on the day. We had some time in hand, so we retired to a local bar for some fortification.

Three days after qualifying for the quarter-finals of the French Cup at Drancy, OGCN were back on home turf taking on Sochaux, a team with whom we’ve had some memorable encounters in recent seasons. And when I say “memorable”, I should add that the result has generally not been in our favour.

We started brightly with several shots on target in the first 20 minutes. Frankly, we weren’t looking like a team staring down the barrel of relegation. Our efforts were finally rewarded by a goal in the 29th minute from Nemanja Pejcinov, following a 45m free-kick from Anthony Mounier.

Sochaux lost arguably their best player (Anin) in 44th minute following a second yellow card after a handbags at dawn set to with Clerc. There was barely a reaction from the 18 Sochaux fans (yes, I counted them) in the away enclosure.  

During half-time, we’re generally treated to a shoot out between two local junior sides. This evening, we were also afforded a bunch of nubiles dancing to opera. I’m not sure that it was truly appreciated by the fans. Just stick to the football.

In the second half, OGCN failed spectacularly to exploit their advantage. Indeed, on a number of occasions I did a quick headcount just to check that Sochaux only had 10 men on the pitch. Early on in the second half, Sochaux had a goal rightfully disallowed, for a foul on the goalkeeper.

Sochaux, however, continued to press their disadvantage and, in the final 20 minutes, looked as if they might score. Particularly, as their substitutes kept barging into and knocking flat our goalkeeper. These were all the size of players who in the UK would prompt the chant “Who ate all the pies?” Pies are not served at Stade du Ray: pizza, pissaladiere, club sandwiches and tourte aux blettes, but no pies. I’m not sure whether these are the preserve of northern French clubs, but I suspect not.

In any event, we held on to take all three points and now lie 14th in the division. The same place as occupied by my beloved boys in claret and blue, after their regrettable 2-2 draw with Fulham.

Today’s ride started under climatic conditions similar to last week: wet and damp. However, the sun soon burned through the clouds, heating us up and drying out the roads. Today’s pointage was in Valbonne village, always an enjoyable ride and an opportunity for a little window shopping as we ride through the village.

I lingered at the pointage just long enough to exchange greetings with one of the home club’s members, an American lady who’s lived here for over 20 years and who’s a pretty good rider. I decided to return via a different route and then headed for my regular watering hole for a coffee and the newspapers where I settled down to wait for my beloved to put in an appearance.

We returned home for lunch and an afternoon spent dealing with various work-related matters. We decided to turn on the new all-singing, all-dancing, HD television and, much to our surprise, it worked. We travailled happily side by side enjoying the Chelsea v Liverpool match, followed by Real Madrid v Real Sociedad. I have to be honest, this TV has been one of my beloved’s more inspired purchases.

Twinkle, twinkle

Gratifyingly good performances from both England and France yesterday evening as they look to distance the disappointment of the World Cup in South Africa. For Capello it is business as usual, though injuries have prompted (forced) him to give opportunities to some promising players, notably Adam Johnson. Revelations about Wayne Rooney’s off field escapades have fortunately not affected his on-field form, quite the opposite. However, is it only me who thinks Capello might be better off leaving Lampard on the side-lines?  After two resounding wins, England top their Group.

Laurent Blanc has a much harder task with his “blanc piece of paper” but the signs are promising and, once many of his players return from injury and/or suspension, expect more score-lines like yesterday evening. Help may be at hand as I understand that Zinadine Zidane’s eldest is playing for Real Madrid’s youth squad. He’ll be 17 come the European Cup in 2012.

There may soon be a Gallic flavour at Villa Park. Rumour has it that Gerard Houllier is mulling over an offer to step into Martin O’Neill’s shoes. They have a potential banana skin away at Stoke this Sunday, after riding their luck to most recently scrape past Everton. They’ve been a bit of a curate’s egg and, with no additions to the squad following the sale of James Milner, will quickly need to bring on some of their promising youngsters.

OGCN are also playing on Sunday, when they’ll be home to Bordeaux now bereft of my favourite French player Yoann Gourcuff who’s hightailed it to Lyon. However, the first installment from the sale of Loic Remy has finally arrived into the OGCN coffers, allowing them to balance (cook?) the books. Nonetheless, OGCN have done their usual last minute shopping in football’s equivalent of Filene’s basement. Let’s hope they have unearthed some gems.

Lights out

We woke yesterday morning at 07:00am to find that it had been raining in the early hours but was now, thanks to a stiff wind, starting to dry out. The sky was positively leaden and, while we doubted we would make it to the pointage, after 4 days off the bike, we were keen to get out. On the way to the club’s rendez vous point, we passed a few, but not many, other cyclists.

About a dozen hardy club mates had gathered and, as we set off, it started to rain again, albeit gently. The wind was still blowing hard so I tucked in behind our former Directeur Sportif, not a good choice of protection as he’s much smaller and lighter than me, but then aren’t they all? As he dropped back to chat to someone, I went to the front of the bunch and rode alongside M Le President. The rain had now started falling in earnest as we approached the Promenade des Anglais, M Le President muttered something about his waterproof and dropped back. I forged on, head down, only to be pulled back by my husband who advised that everyone else had turned tail and headed for home. We wisely did the same.

Predictably, we got drenched riding back and it took several minutes under a hot shower to warm us up. We went out to collect the newspapers and some shopping,  returning home resigned to spending the rest of the day indoors, in the warmth. We spent a lazy afternoon watching a veritable feast of derby matches: Everton v Liverpool, Arsenal v Chelsea, Barcelona v Real Madrid. The more fancied teams winning in all three games. My two teams had both played on Saturday. The boys in claret and blue had a hard fought home draw with Spurs while Nice, away at Sochaux, were undone by a goal which didn’t actually go over the line, according to the replay.

While enjoying the football, I pottered around in the kitchen preparing some meals as my beloved is home all week and will, no doubt, require feeding at regular intervals.

We were woken early this morning by loud claps of thunder and lightening overhead and when we got up found we had no electricity. I could see that the other apartment blocks in the Domaine had lights at a number of the windows; obviously the problem was restricted to our building. Actually, it was restricted to our block of the building, although the lift and the lights in the common parts were working, we just had to wait for the problem to be fixed.

At 11:00am, I decided to investigate what progress was being made to repair the problem and, in the lift, I bumped into my neighbour’s housekeeper who lives in one of the other buildings. She advised that the lightening had thrown out the circuit breaker. I said we’d tried that already, without success. We returned to the flat, she opened the door to the fuses and pressed a switch, in the bottom left-hand corner, which we didn’t know was there, and voila, normal service was resumed. Needless to say, we both felt, and looked, more than a little sheepish.