Monday, 22 March 2010

Lionel Messi

Superb article from Sid Lowe as per usual on the utter brilliance that is Lionel Messi in his current form. As the article makes clear, whilst pundits often go overboard in their praise of players, Messi's skill, pace and awareness are something truly amazing to behold. If you can, get hold of a copy of Barcelona's game at home to Valencia last weekend, and away to Zaragoza's yesterday to witness it for yourself.

Despite the fact that his best play has been almost exclusively with Barcelona and not Argentina, football fans should be praying that Messi makes it to the World Cup this summer without injury.

Channel 4 election coverage

On the political front, another interesting article from today's Independent about Channel 4's plans for general election coverage this year, the only one of the main British news broadcasters (and arguably the best) not to be hosting one of the debates.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Forget the French resurgence, it's the Italians who will strengthen

The later stages of both European competitions inevitably produce the annual question of the relative strengths of the domestic leagues.

This last week has seen the surprise progress of CSKA Moscow after an away win in Sevilla in the Champions League, and Bordeaux join them in the quarter-finals, marking the first time that two French sides have reached the stage since the 2003-2004 campaign.

The Moscow result should perhaps be the most eye-catching, largely because it came away from home to a team from one of Europe's strongest leagues. CSKA's progress also comes in a year where Russian football is looking fragile, but should not come as a shock given the European successes of CSKA and Zenit since 2005 and the subsequent large-scale export of players, notably to the Premier League.

But the football world has instead reacted to Laurent Blanc's claims that his side's progress to the quarter-finals is indicative of a rise in the quality of the French league: "It could well mean that French football has bridged some of the gap behind the big countries like Spain, England and even Italy."

The problem comes when we attempt to utilise results in the European Cup as a barometer for the standard of a domestic league. The French teams that made the quarter-finals in 2004 did not go on to precede a period of Ligue 1 dominance across the continent. Indeed one of those sides, Monaco, have fallen away dramatically since.

Whilst the French media may be trumpeting the progress of Lyon and Bordeaux, the latter have not only been postponing domestic fixtures to increase preparation time, but beat Olympiacos in an unconvincing manner and are arguably the weakest remaining side. Lyon, meanwhile, are a side that has seen a huge financial backing from club president Jean-Michel Aulas and whose ambition has always been success on the European stage.

Ligue 1 however, is far from being a top domestic league in Europe. The current standard of play is below that of its neighbours, yet as Howard Johnson notes in the April edition of World Soccer, wages remain unfathomably high, leading to increases in fan disgruntlement, tensions and the threat of hooliganism.

UEFA is eager to promote the idea that the talent field in Europe is levelling out, which fits with the egalitarian approach adopted by Michel Platini since he came to Presidency; most notably reorganising the qualifying rounds for the European Cup and expanding the European Championships from 2016. On paper it appears to be working; teams representing six different nations have reached the final eight of the European Cup for the first time since 1999.

But the reality is that the Spanish and English leagues remain the 'big two' in terms of talent and revenues. Spain has it's own 'big two' issues to contend with, but the sheer scale and influence of both Real Madrid and Barcelona on Spanish culture and media rarely reduce the spectacle to being merely a two-horse dash for the title.

The Spanish league is home to more raw technical talent, players capable of playing a fast-flowing, one-touch game that can lead to extraordinary passages of beautiful football. The spread of competition is the Premier League's forté, where any fixture can produce any result. The Bundesliga is home to Europe's highest goals-per-game average and its best supporters, where standing areas are legalised and tickets affordably priced.

The Italian game is perhaps the most intriguing to watch over the upcoming seasons. Whilst the classic Italian strategy of absorbing opposition pressure and attacking on the counter produces league games that are difficult to watch to English viewers accustomed to a livelier pace, Internazionale's win at Chelsea on Tuesday night showed the possibilities of an aggressive tactical approach to the Italian public. It will be interesting to watch whether this approach begins to appear more regularly in the Italian domestic game over the course of the next few years, and if other Italian teams utilise a similar strategy, combining existing skills with a new approach.

In England we are often guilty of overlooking domestic leagues beyond our borders. As Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, we pronounce Wayne Rooney as 'the best player in the world'. Just as we build up national expectations leading into international tournaments, we are so eager to protect our own game that we fail to appreciate the strong elements of others. With an increased appreciation of other leagues, results that occured this week could stop being analysed as 'the rise in strength of League X' and instead be appreciated as entertaining knock-out competition football.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Lyon defeat is a bitter blow for Madrid

This was truly a week of contrasting emotions for Real Madrid, as the highs of Saturday night at the Bernabeu met the crushing lows of Wednesday night's exit from Europe's elite football competition.

The spirit shown in the Madrid comeback win against Sevilla was in complete contrast to the listless manner in which they lost to Lyon last night. It is difficult to suggest reasons for two such differing displays, but the emotional momentum for the remainder of the La Liga season could have shifted once more towards Catalonia.

Spanish pundits had been suggesting that all was not well in the Barcelona camp during the 'slump' in performances in February, when even Pep Guardiola acknowledged that his team's efforts were not at an acceptable level. Furthermore, last weekend's events had left many commentators speculating that the title had taken it's first significant turn, Barcelona held 2-2 at Almeria, whilst Madrid took the three points against a competent visiting side that had edged to a 0-2 lead after 52 minutes.

And whilst there was talk of Real being the team of individuals that quarrelled over who was getting the ball passed to them enough times in the chase for the Pichichi, it seemed little more than tittle-tattle targeted at the side, of the big two, who were on the up.

The Lyon defeat will test these supposed player tensions in a way that even a La Liga defeat would not. The European Cup is Madrid's trophy, the competition that matters so highly in the club's priorities, that defines their legacy and image. The final is to be held in the Bernabeu this May, and Real will not be there to grace that stage, a bitter blow to the club's pride. God forbid for the Madridistas that Barcelona should make it that far.

Make no mistake, this Real team has the makings of a fantastic side, and they look more settled this season than they have for several campaigns of late. Players such as the explosive striker Gonzalo Higuaín should light up the World Cup come the summer, and even combinations of players that critics declared would fail, such as Ronaldo and Kaka, have largely proved to be successful.

But the defeat on Wednesday night marks the sixth consecutive season in which they have exited the Champions League at the first knockout stage, arguably when the competition really begins, a startling statistic given the financial expenditure in this same period of time.

The loss puts yet more focus on the one game that everyone in Spain is now focused on, despite the fact that 13 rounds of the league remain. The remainding Clásico of the season takes place in Madrid on April 11th, and will almost go a long way in deciding where the trophy is headed at the conclusion of the season. As things stand, it is a far more significant milestone for Madrid than their Catalan rivals.