About Me

Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Os Três Grandes. Um Dois Três?

The dominance Portugal’s Big Three, Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica, hold over the Primeira Liga cannot be overstated. Throughout the history of Portugal’s domestic league these sides have shared seventy-four titles between them, with Belenenses’ victory in 1946 and more recently Boavista’s success at the turn of the millennium the only occasions where Os Três Grandes have been denied from reigning supreme at the end of the season. The most successful team of the trio for the last 25 years, Porto, continued to display their superiority over their rivals last season, reclaiming the title after a year in Lisbon with The Águias of Benfica.

Led by the charismatic Andre Villas-Boas, Os Dragões took Portugal by storm, heading the league table from the second round of games through to the end. Not content with calling the shots domestically, Porto ran riot in Europe too, scoring 37 times throughout their resounding Europa League campaign. Come May they finished a mighty 21 points above their O Clássico rivals Benfica, despite the Lisbon clubs fantastic mid-season form. Meanwhile Sporting were forced to endure a scrap, albeit a successful one, with the Big Three’s closest challengers Braga during April and May for third place. However with the annual Summer shake-up on the Iberian Peninsula, the coming season looks open and quite promising, with big names coming in as well as out and managerial changes at the championship’s most serious contenders, traditionally.

After dictating over their opponents in the league last year, Porto were expected to struggle to keep hold of some of their key players. Leader of the orchestra Joao Moutinho has been linked to a rendez-vous with Villas Boas at Chelsea, although it seems the London side are fixated on Luka Modric primarily to inject the direction they lack in midfield. Falcao’s renewed contract is a sign to European powerhouses that the Dragons are not prepared to step aside easily and allow the players who led them to silverware last year exit the doors at the Estádio do Dragão.

Instead, Porto have searched for talented youngsters who can not only contribute this season but for many seasons to come. Brazilian wingbacks Danilo and Alex Sandro (both 20) have joined for a combined fee of over €20 million after being swiped from under the nose of Benfica. While it is necessary for both to improve defensively, the right and left sided players respectively have the potential to become future Brazilian internationals and are expected to join up with the squad after Santos’ attempt to win the World Club Championship in December. Fans can also expect to be dazzled by Argentine winger Juan Manuel Iturbe, unfortunately lazily labelled “The New Messi” after his exploits at the South American Under-20 Championships as a seventeen year old earlier this year. Add this menacing trio to the Colombian prodigy James Rodriguez, who produced some magical displays last season on the fringes of the first team, and Porto have four players of outstanding potential who, assuring their development continues, can lead them to more titles in coming years. The loss of Andre Villas Boas should dent their ambitions, however with his former assistant Vítor Pereira now at the helm, the continuity should ensure that the effect isn’t as severe as possible at one of the best run clubs in Europe.

Like Porto, Sporting are heading into the new season with a new coach, the tactically astute Domingos Paciência. He joins after a couple of bright seasons with Braga, guiding them to the Champions League and the Europa League Final after punching above their weight during an impressive campaign. With young talent such as Daniel Carriço and Rui Patrício already in place at the capital, the new manager had plenty to work with once he had joined. However Paciência wasted no time in his new role, culling his squad of players he deemed deadwood such as Maniche, Pedro Mendes and Timo Hildebrand., while also bringing in established players European leagues. Bulky, yet injury ridden centre half Oguchi Onyewu has joined permanently from A.C. Milan, while Valeri Bojinov is similarly aiming to reignite his career after a spout of fitness problems. Atila Turan has moved to Os Sportinguistas from French side Grenoble after the rapid youngster impressed down their left side this past season. Eighteen year old Diego Rubio is an unknown quantity to the capital side’s fans but after provoking a significant amount of excitement at Colo Colo (enough to nearly make Chile’s Copa America squad), The Lions should be positively intrigued by his signing.

However three marquee signings have given even the most pessimistic Sporting fan hope for next season. Diego Capel has joined for a measly €3.5 million from Seville. Despite his career stalling in the last couple of years, the electrifying Andalucían left winger has pace in abundance which can be utilised to beat a man, and at twenty-three he has time on his side to return to the form which led to interest from Real Madrid earlier on in his career. They’ve also gone double Dutch at Estádio José Alvalade in the form of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Stijn Schaars. Van Wolfswinkel is a natural goal-scorer who stands at 6’1’’ and is best known for sticking to his word and single handedly knocking Celtic out of Europe last Autumn. While Van Wolfswinkel has a degree of experience despite being so young (twenty-two), Schaars has seen it all. A member of the Dutch squad for the World Cup last year, he has played in the Champions League for AZ Alkmaar after leading them to only a second Eredivisie title. A natural leader, and a bargain at less than €1 million as he was entering the final year of his contract, Schaars is a forward thinking midfielder and can provide the guidance which Sporting have not had in the centre of the field since the loss of Moutinho to Porto, with the ultimate ambition being to lead the capital’s second club to only a third title in thirty years, or a first in ten.

While Sporting’s only departures were with the club's wishes as they cleared big earners who offered little but experience on the pitch, their bitter rivals Benfica were forced to sell arguably the Primeira Liga’s best player, Fábio Coentrão, to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side. To nullify the marauding left back’s absence The Eagles have acquired the services of World Cup winner Joan Capdevila. While Capdevila’s experience should prove to be a valuable asset, it cannot be denied that his ability is waning, having become Villareal’s second choice left back last year. Despite this, he should prove an astute replacement for Coentrão.

However while one talent-ridden star has left, a potentially wonderful player has come in. At a reported €8 million, Axel Witsel arrives from Standard Liege as a bargain buy and one of the most exciting players of Belgium’s current Golden Generation. The afro-supporting twenty-two year old’s reputation as a player likely to explode in an act of petulance tarnishes the fact that he is an incredible talent who has the ability to play as a box-to-box midfielder or as the furthest advanced one. His technical ability is often ignored as a result of his tall shape and tough tackling nature, and both Roma and A.C. Milan were accredited with an interest in his services earlier this summer. The skilful and highly rated Enzo Pérez , who can play out wide or centrally, has been bought to support Witsel in midfield. Pérez’s compatriot Ezequiel Garay has come in as part of the Coentrão deal, and could prove a valuable addition at Estádio da Luz as the Portuguese league seems to be more of his standard. At the beginning of the Summer it looked as if free-scoring Paraguayan Óscar Cardozo was destined to leave for Dynamo Kiev, while inspirational captain Luisao was rumoured to be on Leonardo’s wish list at big-spending Paris Saint-Germain. However with both expected to stay now, along with the additions to the squad, Benfica are well-equipped to extend their lead in terms of Portuguese Championships won.

The Portuguese clubs monopoly of the Europa League Final last year, as well as Benfica’s presence in the semi-finals, should have given The Big Three the inspiration to push on and reach the knockout stages of the Champions League at the very least in the next few years. Unfortunately Portugal’s fiscal strains will undoubtedly affect the finances of Portuguese football. However, in the short term, this has not stopped Os Três Grandes from making some astute signings this year. While some patriotic supporters are not happy at the signings from abroad as they stifle the growth of homegrown players’ development, it cannot be denied that they have injected a level of excitement around the continent that the Primeira Liga may deliver one of Europe’s most competitive competitions next year, with the added spice in the form of the disdain all three clubs possess for each other. Of course the title could end up outside these three clubs. History however suggests otherwise.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dani Alves: The Essential Liability

Messi. Villa. Pedro. Iniesta. Xavi. The fearsome front five of Barcelona. Constantly lauded for their outrageous attacking play in a Blaugranes side which have revolutionised the way the game is played. Arguably the most influential trait of the greatest team of this generation however is the intense pressure exerted on opponents regardless of how innocuous their position on the pitch is. The perfect example of this is the opening half of the first leg of the Champions League first leg between Barcelona and Arsenal at The Emirates in 2010. Arsenal couldn’t control the Catalan compression, led by Messi et al (bar Ibrahimovic), The Gunners confined to their own half as Barcelona consistently won the ball back and bombarded shots at Manuel Almunia as if it was some cruel training field joke. The formula is pretty simple, press the opponents, patience in possession, pick the clinical pass, goal.

However to exclude the name of Dani Alves when discussing Barca’s unique and exciting attacking brand of football is criminal. Alves  is an integral part of the jigsaw, providing a unprecedented outlet from right back as a result of his pace and winger-like-trickery. Constantly marauding down the right flank Alves is a key component in Pep Guardiola’s side and his philosophy of the game. With either Pedro or Villa in front performing as an inverted winger, Barcelona rely on Alves for width on his side of the pitch. Luckily they have an overlapping full back with mighty lungs, allowing him to cover a substantial amount of ground for the whole ninety minutes.

Frequently Alves finds himself in the opposition penalty box after being detected by a delicious Xavi or Iniesta pass (for example his neat finish after a pinpoint ball over the defence from Iniesta against Shakhtar Donetsk). He regularly takes on the role as the true winger in the side, providing countless assists from wide areas particularly when the opposite full back tracks his man infield (see David Villa luring Patrice Evra infield at Wembley). While he has extraordinary technique previously unheard of in a full-back when it comes to both scoring and creating goals, his most influential and effective work comes when raiding into the final third out wide.  The Brazilian’s sublime offensive attributes have culminated in a direct involvement (goals or assists) in 62 Barcelona goals over the last three years, with countless other opportunities spurned by his Catalan colleagues. Undoubtedly Alves is the world’s primary attacking right back.

Paradoxically, defensively Dani Alves is a liability, protected from exposure by the sheer dominance of his Barcelona side. Guardiola’s side do not lose many games, big games especially, but when they do the goals regularly come as a result of their right back’s defensive flaws. Barcelona’s highest profile loss under their majestic manager came at the San Siro against arch-rival Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final. After the underrated Pedro struck Barcelona into an early lead Inter came firing back and equalised through Wesley Sneijder. As Samuel Eto’o’s low cross limped towards the penalty spot Alves was dragged centrally to pick up the diminutive Goran Pandev, completely unaware that Sneijder was drifting in behind at the back post. After the Dutch maestro’s ample finish from a slid Diego Milito pass Internazionale went on to subdue and defeat the team from Catalunya in a manner no team has managed to do since, or indeed during the Guardiola reign, and in the process ensuring that Barcelona’s obsession with reaching Europe’s pinnacle at the Bernabeu that year would remain unfulfilled.

A year later at the scene of the first half massacre in London (or miracle considering the score remained 0-0 at the break), Arsenal inflicted another rare European defeat on Barcelona aided by Alves’ lack of awareness and defensive effort. For the winning goal late in the game the former Seville full-back trotted back towards his goal during a textbook counter attack, not only allowing Robin van Persie to chase past him but also Andrei Arshavin, the goal-scorer. Absolutely atrocious defending and evidently a sheer reluctance to help out his defence, an uncharacteristic trait for a member of this Guardiola side.

In the painful defeat in the Copa del Rey final this year, again at the hands The Translator, against acrimonious rivals Real Madrid, the goal which secured Los Blancos only trophy of the season again transpired as a result of an attack down Madrid’s left flank against the vulnerable Alves. After Angel Di Maria played a simple one-two with Alves’ compatriot Marcelo, he accelerated over the first five yards like a Formula One racer, tearing past the world’s most expensive right-back caught on his heels before planting the perfect cross (under little pressure) onto the head of Cristiano Ronaldo. While this may only have been a dent in Barcelona’s procession towards a double winning season, it prevented them from winning an historic second treble in three years.

If Dani Alves is susceptible defensively on occasions where Barcelona are required to scrap for victory, how can he cope as an integral member of a Selecao side flaccidly attempting to prove they can cope with the extraordinary pressure of lifting the World Cup Trophy at The Maracana 2014, something their compatriots could not manage in 1950. The initial signs don’t look promising. Behind a now out of form Maicon in South Africa last Summer, Alves is now Brazil’s starting right-back at this year’s Copa America. At Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes last Saturday night Paraguay’s pacy winger Marcelo Estigarribia was an ever present threat to Brazil’s right side, constantly wreaking havoc and exposing Dani Alves’s frailties by galloping past him. Estigarribia, no matter how impressive he has looked during the tournament, is no world beater, yet he played a major role in Paraguay’s initial equaliser with Alves nowhere in sight after initially being turned by his predator. In the second half while dwelling on whether to guide the ball out or dribble his way to safety Alves was dispossessed by Cristian Riveros in his own box, leading to a crucial goal. Only Fred’s late equaliser spared his team-mate's blushes.

As a result of his incredible attacking attributes Daniel Alves is a fixture in Barcelona’s first eleven. Regardless of how weak he is defensively, it does not negate the fact that Alves is one of the most influential full backs in the world. However while Barcelona’s tiki-taka, relentless pressing and utter dominance protects Alves more often than not, these luxuries are non-existent in Mano Menezes’ struggling Brazil side. Menezes, despite a barrage of criticism in his homeland, surely cannot be oblivious to this, especially as Maicon is a much more astute defender. If only Dani had his fearsome front five in front of him to press and gain the ascendancy.