Thursday, 3 October 2013

Keller Dwellers - Schalke are 100% in Europe but can they beat Augsburg?


The good news is that the there are more goals scored in the Bundesliga than in any of the major European leagues. The bad news is that there are more goals conceded in the Bundesliga than in any of the major European leagues and at Schalke 04 they have conceded more than most. That's right the team that has a 100% record in the Champions League finds itself leakier than Nürnberg, Augsburg and yes, Werder Bremen. Die Knappen find themselves closer to the bottom of the Bundesliga table and their coach Jens Keller is under intense scrutiny as doubts continue to be raised about his acumen and fitness to look after a group of players that, not undeservedly, finished fourth in the table last season.

The moderately bizarre aspect of all this Kellerangst is that he, Keller, is largely responsible for the Gelsenkirchen club’s position last season. The former youth coach who “enjoyed” a brief stint as coach of Stuttgart took over from Huub Stevens relatively early last season and in the view of many, he has been unsuitable as a coach despite guiding Schalke through to the second round of the Champions League and seeing them into the group stages of that competition, this season while beating the reigning German champions and arch rivals Borussia Dortmund along the way.

Perhaps it is that hang-dog look that tend dominates his visage even when he smiles (and he does smile) or his lack of pedigree as a head coach that fails to inspire confidence. Or maybe there is the sense that no matter what he does there is probably someone else, someone better out there and that Schalke, as one of the biggest and most traditional clubs in Germany, deserve someone better.

Or maybe it’s just a bunch of trouble makers that don’t support the club and are looking for a pretext to write a blog ahead of what promises to be a tricky game against Augsburg…

In any event, Keller is still there and since his arrival we have seen the rise to prominence of Julian Draxler and very recently Max Meyer. Plus he has integrated Kevin Prince Boateng into the side with very little effort. Where he falls down is in those pesky goals conceded and in that respect he is not alone.

Schalke’s relatively poor position in the table stems from a poor start. Points dropped at home to Hamburg and defeats at Wolfsburg and Hannover were followed by wins against Mainz and impressively Bayer Leverkusen. However, just when it looked like things were getting under control, along came Bayern who cut them down 4-0. That was followed by a 3-3 draw with the goal crazy Hoffenheim, in which Keller watched his team take a 3-1 lead only watched it get spunked away by a series of defensive howlers. The team’s focus was called into question, specifically that of long serving midfielder Jermaine Jones who was left out of the subsequent Champions League squad.So after seven games it’s not looking too rosy and once again questions have been asked about the coach’s fitness for the post.

The thing is though, despite their rocky League start, Schalke are getting it done in Europe. PAOK may not be the strongest team on the continent but can easily provide a banana skin for any team that is struggling for form. Steaua Bucharest may be the weakest team in their subsequent Champions League group but they still need beating and beaten they were, at home and by three goals to nil. Add to that the impressive win over the Chelsea conquering FC Basel and a tricky DFB Pokal win at Darmstadt and the seemingly bleak picture is highlighted with a few more vivid brush strokes.

Nevertheless, until things improve in the league it will be difficult to shake the feeling that Schalke are succeeding despite Keller rather than because of him. What better opportunity then than to beat a traditional minnow in the shape of FC Augsburg? Except that FCA are higher in the table and after two seasons of holding on the Bundesliga precipice by their fingernails, coach Markus Weinzierl has a assembled a squad of hard working journeymen who are willing to battle for every inch of space on the pitch and while there are more interesting teams in the league, Augsburg are a good example of the kind of bastard hard teams to beat that you find in European top divisions and in attacking midfielder, André Hahn, they have a player who bears closer scrutiny.

That being said, Augsburg are more than beatable and so long as Schalke can survive 90 minutes with a well-disciplined defense then they will be well worth the three points which should be enough to keep the Keller doubters at bay, at least for the time being.

Photo from official Schalke 04 website.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Di Canio's departure creates recruitment issues for Sunderland

Rarely have we seen the unhappy demise of a football manager illustrated in a single public gesture as we did with Paolo Di Canio’s stand off after Sunderland’s 3-0 defeat at the Hawthorns last Saturday. It will go down in English football lore as yet another one of those bizarre moments of experimental theatre by a man who has for many years been a colourful conversation piece of the English Premier League.

From pushing referees off their feet to hoodwinking Fabian Bartez, the Italian forward (who would have been an eccentric journeyman had he not moved to a fledging Premier League that despite its wealth was still struggling to emerge from its tactical backwater when he was in his pomp) was a scorer of great goals and whose demonstrative manner and charisma made him a darling of the football media. But as a manager he appears to lack the skills of his trade that he had as a player and his antics now make him look like foolish. It is suggested that he had alienated himself to the point where even the tea lady had cause to complain.

Given the circumstances of his departure and his reputation as a coach, it is unlikely that we’ll see the former Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham striker managing a Premier League club again. One can imagine a low ranking Serie A club taking a punt on him for the last weeks of a season in a desperate attempt to avoid relegation. However, beyond that it is hard to see too many clubs employing a man whose previous employer at Swindon described his methods as “management by hand grenade”.

As Di Canio departs, Sunderland are faced with a task that in recent years, has proven problematic. Di Canio’s predecessors Martin O’Neil and before him, Steve Bruce had their moments but the former was not popular for his tactics and the latter was just not popular. However, had they continued, it is as likely as not that they would have steered Sunderland to a consistent lower mid table position which, the club’s owner Ellis Short probably feels is not sufficient but in the grander scheme is no disgrace.

A little further back, Roy Keane was recruited to inject some dynamism and energy into a club that from the outside appears moribund. However, despite a blinding start leading to an emphatic Championship victory, Keane too was unable to lift the Black Cats out of their mediocrity.

It seems that in recent years, the club has appointed either experienced managers who have hit a bump in their careers or inexperienced firebrands who promise to energise the club. We can deduce, therefore, that Mr Short and his Sporting Director, Roberto Di Fanti, is looking for a high profile coach who can inspire the fans while at the same time actually coaching the team.  This is probably why, Gus Poyet is the current favourite and the other names in the frame, Steve McClaren and Tony Pulis are not.

McClaren is reputed to be an excellent coach and the only Englishman since Howard Wilkinson in 1991 to win a domestic league title. In fact I argued in this week's Sound Of Football that he would be a good choice for Sunderland. However, the former FC Twente coach’s reputation is damaged following bad spells at Wolfsburg and perhaps more pertinently at Nottingham Forest. However, you can be sure that Harry Redknapp will be a relieved man if his assistant coach at Loftus Road is discounted. As for Pulis, there can be little argument with his record at Stoke but he wins ugly and you suspect that Sunderland have had a belly full of ugly.

The other prime suspect Roberto Di Matteo who won the Champions League with Chelsea and demonstrated his skills in re-motivating an unsettled dressing room after the departure of Andre Villa Boas. You can’t shake the feeling however, that the former West Brom manager was not much more of a caretaker and that the real power during that extraordinary cup run lied in the Stamford Bridge Dressing Room with the senior players. This may be a simplistic interpretation but one that is widely felt and may prove to be a barrier to employment for Di Matteo.

Poyet exudes the image of the modern coach and is an obvious choice. His final week’s at Brighton were scatty in more ways than one but the Uruguayan has proved to be a more than competent manager who has served his time as an assistant and enjoys a positive media profile.

His first task will be to look after the tea lady and then the dressing room will follow.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Champions League Match Review: Bayern Munich 3 CSKA Moscow 0

Recent happenings at Bayern Munich are a classic example of how to manufacture a crisis where there is none. After having won the treble, the Bavarian club have changed their head coach and the transition has resulted so far in a mere two points dropped at Freiburg. Yet, during coach Pep Guardiola’s press conference before the Champions League opener against CSKA Moscow, he found himself fielding questions, about comments made by his Sporting Director Matthias Sammer who criticised the Bayern players after their 2-0 win against Hannover last Saturday. Yes that’s right, a 2-0 win.

Sammer’s remarks elicited a reproach from no more imposing a figure than Uli Hoeness. The club president said that Borussia Dortmund would be laughing at Bayern’s expense following Sammer’s outburst. And you’d have to say he had a point because while it is fair to say the Bayern have not been the rampant trans-European express from last season, were it not for Dortmund’s perfect start Bayern would be top of the Bundesliga table, right now.

Respite


The Champions League provided the opportunity then to focus minds on the football and a home opener against a decent but beatable CSKA Moscow side would prove a worthy adversary and allow Guardiola’s players to address the concerns of their sporting director and give the scribes something else to talk about. They did not disappoint.

This was one of the most one sided performances you’re likely to see in the Champions League and although much had been made of the Guardiola style this Bayern performance had stronger echoes of last season’s team. The flank player’s bamboozled the CSKA defenders with their versatility. Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben frequently switched sides and would also be found playing down the middle as the nominal front men, Thomas Müller and Mario Mandžukić would deputise. Supporting Ribéry and Robben were the full backs, Rafinha and David Alaba, the latter being the player to open scoring after four minutes with free kick from range that eluded CSKA keeper, Igor Akinfeev, as the ball bounced just before his gloves.

In those opening minutes it looked as though Ribéry was going to the roast the opposition full back, Kirill Nababkin. However, the Russian maintained his composure and was to an extent spared by Bayern’s positional rotation of their forward players. CSKA did, fo a few minutes mid way through the first half, manage to recover enough to press Bayern off the ball and force enough loose passes out of them to fashion a half chance via a long range effort from Ahmed Musa. Despite this, Mandžukić still managed to miss a couple of golden chances, one of which bounced off the post. That was before he finally headed in from a free kick by Arjen Robben to make the score 2-0.

Flawless Kroos


While the wide men continued to hover and attack, Phillip Lahm, a seeming natural in his relatively uncommon position of defensive midfielder put in what appeared to be an effortless performance in front of the back two (and yes, it was a back two). Just slightly ahead of Lahm was Toni Kroos, who took advantage of the extra space in front of him created  by the otherwise preoccupied CSKA midfielders to make killer passes out to the aforementioned wide players and the marauding Thomas Müller.

The third goal came in the second half. Unsurprisingly the move began out wide with Rafinha linking up with Ribery whose passing and movement at breakneck speed was a hallmark of last season’s Bayern. The ball was floated over to Alaba in a central position who lobbed the ball into the area where the onrushing Robben who, unmarked, calmly slotted home.

It is difficult to criticise CSKA too harshly as they were hardly given a second to think. On 39 minutes, Vitinho managed a mazy if ineffective run in the midfield but there were no options for him and inevitably he was dispossessed by Robben and forced to try and draw a foul for his trouble. Similarly, Keisuke Honda wasn’t given a kick and the only real opportunity he had was from a free kick that he wasted. The Muscovites will have better days.

Less Pep 


After the game, Guardiola was quoted by UEFA as saying “the style we play is Bayern’s style not mine.” which is a somewhat contrary perspective. However, judging by that performance it is difficult to argue. Bayern are set fair for another successful campaign in Europe and Matthias Sammer can feel as though his work is done.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Match Review: Borussia Dortmund 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 0 – The general awesomeness of Robert Lewandowski



Prior to recording this week’s Sound Of Football podcast we speculated as to what would happen if the World actually stopped moving. I was reliably informed that the results would depend on whether it was day or night when it happened and that both eventualities had the same grizzly outcome.

Mercifully the World did not stop although it did preoccupy itself with the moral centre of a high foot attached to the leg of a Manchester United winger. This is just as well because the thought of this Borussia Dortmund team being cast into a deep freeze by a bout of histrionics at Old Trafford is enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Rampage


The pre-match Twitter chatter was all about Dortmund defender, Mats Hummels and his pesky virus. The German international had missed the weekend's Bundesliga fixture against Hannover with the flu and was poised on the fitness frontier. However, there was a problem with his papers and Hummels didn't even make it to the team coach. Gone was his assured positional sense and rampaging runs through the middle of the park that proved so effective in the first leg and so too, in some people’s minds, were Dortmund’s chances of progress.

Hummels deputy is Felipe Santana, a no nonsense center half rather than a ball player who has looked out of his depth at times. Against the rapier like seasoned campaigners that are Shakhtar Donetsk, he may struggle. But he didn't and he allayed the concerns of worried fans with pretty much and error free display and a meatball header to open the scoring from a corner at the Westfalenstadion.

Bender break


Shakhtar, with their wealth of experience and wily coach made a tactical blunder and were way too conservative. This was in part understandable as coach Mircea Lucescu has eyes and can see the danger posed by İlkay Gündoğan’s deadly passing, Marco Reus, Mario Götze (Reutze?) and Jakub Błaszczykowski’s quick transitions and Robert Lewandowski’s general awesomeness.

But Lucescu  could have made more of his own attacking threats in Fernandinho, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Taison and Douglas Costa. The latter's impact was not felt until the second half because he'd started from the bench. Sven Bender was immense in breaking down any attacks before they troubled the weakened Dortmund defense but he is only one man and was beaten on one occasion by Fernandinho who released a crisp shot from the right towards the end of the first half. A more ambitious strategy may have influenced the result. Despite their early second half flurry, Shakhtar did not turn up and in that respect the game was a disappointment.

Languid 


In every other respect it was a triumph for coach Jürgen Klopp’s tactics and for his roster. The Dortmund squad has powerful eddies but is shallow, relative to their competitors. But after this games BVB have confirmed that they have defensive cover at centre back, although goodness knows what would happen if either of the two fullbacks, Marcel Schmelzer and Łukasz Piszczek, went missing.

Lewandowski’s cross for the second goal was an exercise in languid deception. As the Sky Sports summariser Gary Birtles pointed out in commentary, the Shakhtar defense looked to have everything under control but the Polish striker’s cross was like a slower ball in cricket. It looked easy to defend until it found Götze  like a middle stump between the two centre halves and was in the back of the net before you could say ‘solid forward defensive.’

Balls


The third goal from Blacyakowski settled what remaining fluttering nerves there were in the Dortmund camp. His goal symbolised the team’s tenacity in winning the ball back, resilience in finding enough space and confidence in the finish. Game over and the Dortmund journey continues for another round. After knocking out a seasoned European team and given their group stage performances, the odds of a trip to the final will be shorter than the road to Wembley itself. I suspect, however, that the balls will need to be kind in the forthcoming draw.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

1. FC Köln 2, Union Berlin 0: The Land Of Gluvine and Chocolate


Last weekend I travelled to FC Köln v Union Berlin to watch a bit of football and drink beer. Here's how it went.

1. FC Köln striker Stefan Meierhoffer presents the appearance of a World’s Strongest Man contestant performing a Truck Pull only without the truck. He is enormous but slow and the springs in his legs have gone plunk. If the X-Men villain Juggernaut ever lost his powers he’d be just like Stefan Meierhoffer, a man with little or no inertia and despite looking like it, decidedly incapable of running through walls. Quite simply he was probably the worst number nine I have ever seen play professional football.

So needless to say having spent the entire first half and the break at the RheinEnergieStadion slagging him off, he only went and scored in the second half. I managed to mask my embarrassment with the knowledge that everyone I was with had been just as disparaging as me. We were too red faced with our Gluvine induced hysteria to look ashamed and for his part, Meierhoffer, celebrated like a man who had heard every word.



The German football supporter’s relationship with alcohol is different to the English. In Premier League and Football League grounds, booze cannot be consumed within sight of the pitch. Consequently alcohol is binged in the hours leading up to the match in pubs outside of the grounds or in stadium bars facing away from the pitch. Fans live of the fumes for 45 minutes before piling back into the bars at half time and then back to the boozers at the final whistle. In Germany it is possible buy beer without leaving your seat. As an English football tourist, the novelty of drinking beer while watching a game is too compelling and despite the sub zero temperatures I quickly swapped the warming gluvine (a cross between mulled wine and Bovril) for a chilled Kölsch. This is the stuff of dreams for many an Englander. It’s like being Homer Simpson in the Land Of Chocolate.

Despite the oncoming snow, there was no yellow ball. This is another improvement on the game in Germany. Perhaps not up there with supporter ownership and progressive club licensing but all it takes is the ruffle of hair from an unkempt spectator and the snow ball is out in England. You'd think there was some sponsorship deal or something.

There is no doubt that FC Koln are a traditional Bundesliga club. Their modern stadium held 42,000 on Saturday which is mind boggling for a second division match outside Germany. Reasonable ticket prices have contributed to a loyal fan culture that keeps the punters  rocking up. The booming anthem sung by all before the game maintains a big match spectacle despite the football being pretty ordinary.

Koln’s opponents, Union Berlin, played their City rivals Hertha a couple of weeks ago in front of 75,000 at the Olympic Stadium. Union have a reputation for a vociferous support reinforced by their clubs strong commitment to their supporters and a well defined left wing ideology. Union were based in the old east Berlin and identified themselves as an anti-Stasi club, a position that saw their traditional rivals, Dynamo Berlin, profit greatly at Union's expense.

On the field, however, they're not much cop despite being relatively high up the table. However, given their sharp rise through the leagues it would be unkind to be critical and they would be a welcome addition to the top flight should they continue to progress.

Kevin McKenna scored the opener in a 2-0 win that was impressive by being routine. Coach Holger Stanislawski's team may be unspectacular but they have survived a troublesome start to the season after relegation and are now looking to snatch third spot from a faltering Kaiserslautern. Whether they can gain promotion via the play off with the third from bottom team in the first division is another matter. They may need an upgrade on their striker.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Match Review: Arsenal 1 Bayern Munich 3 - Humming a different tune

On reflection the pre-match caution from Bundesliga watchers seems a little silly. On paper, this was very likely to be an away win but such is the respect for Arsenal that it was hard to conceive of a club with such a proud history and European pedigree to allow themselves to get turned over like they this, on grass. At times like this it’s tempting to lay down markers but football is not really like that. There are no blue plaques nailed to the side of football grounds stating “This is where Arsenal became better than ordinary rather than top class.”

Despite their much publicised issues and shrill protestations from the David Dienites, Arsenal still remain a top European club who are just having a below par season. Maybe a change of coach is required, maybe that would be a mistake. One thing is certain: Piers Morgan knows no more than you or me about football.

But teeth gnashing and axe grinding aside this was not a pretty sight for Arsenal fans. Not necessarily because they were blown away in the first half an hour. Bayern are obviously a cut above most teams in Europe this season so getting blown away by them is no disgrace. What was more vexing was that the Gunners seemed unable to sustain enough pressure on their opponents when they obviously took their foot off the gas. After Thomas Müller capitalised after some ordinary corner defense to double Toni Kroos’ cracking opening strike, it looked like things could get Biblical and the Bavarians would rain down some hurt on Arsene Wenger’s players. But as if suddenly stricken with a caution virus, the current Bundesliga leaders dialed down the intensity and looked to contain.

Perhaps coach Jupp Heynkes felt that it was wiser to hold back in the event of getting caught on the ball from a troublesome Jack Wilshere ball from deep to the dangerous, if slightly flaky, Theo Walcott. Or maybe the players, mindful of the speed of the journey they’d traveled in such a short space of time, adopted a conservative stance in order to draw breath. In any event, it kind of backfired after conceding that comedy goal from Lukas Podolski after the Bayern ‘keeper, Manuel Neuer failed to take control in his six yard box.
With the belief that can only come from a jammy goal, Arsenal’s quest for the equaliser was nearly completed thanks to the maligned Olivier Giroud who shot straight at Neuer with a strike which was bizarrely characterised by ITV’s Andy Townsend as too good. With the moment passed and the chance blown, Bayern regained enough composure for Mario Mandžukić to turn in a cross by Phillip Lahm from which even a Grandmother could have scored.
If Bayern can maintain a high tempo for 90 minutes then a third final in four years should be an expectation rather than a hope. Arsenal, on the other hand, may have to reconcile themselves with a period in the relative doldrums for the time being. Those Emirates ticket holders should consider the possibility that the next European game they watch  will start with a different tune.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Watford 2 Palace 2 Match Review: The three interventions of Ian Holloway


Watching a Championship football match in a pub located within a relatively short train ride of the ground is not exactly hard core. But the lure of the beer, hotdogs, good company and a roof over the head supported by actual walls proved too alluring for this football fan. Such are the evils of modern football.

Crystal Palace and Watford offer up something of a conundrum for the TV schedulers. Both clubs do not enjoy a widespread national support and both have old stadiums ill-suited to the myriad paraphernalia required for broadcasters to set up their gear. A combination of both factors make either club an unattractive prospect  so by putting the match between the two on the telly, two crows are killed with a single high definition stone.

Heads up


The conundrum lies in that despite an shortage of TV eyeballs, both teams are actually worth watching. Both teams are play-off contenders on the back of some cracking football. The home side have joined the Pozzo family and are enjoying the benefits of their sister club Udinese with some promising youngster coached by professional nice guy, Gianfranco Zola. Palace meanwhile are ran by a consortium of fans turned businessman who insist upon running the club sensibly and recently pledged to put the money from the transfer of Wilfried Zaha towards the reconstruction of the stadium. In Ian Holloway they have a coach who is committed to attacking football and sets his team up with an agreeable playing style. All terribly right-on.

Somewhat unexpectedly then Watford v Palace on Sky has become a game for football heads everywhere and it was a game that did not disappoint.

Trauma


Watford have taken some stick for their recruitment policy this season after being taken over by the Pozzo family who also own Udinese and Granada from Italy and Spain respectively. Many of Watford's players are on loan from the Serie A club and critics complain that this is unfair and not in the spirit of the game. I personally see no problem with three clubs under the same owner pooling their resources and if the end result is the blistering and crisp football that Watford played, especially in the first half an hour of the game then I reckon more people will set aside their misgivings.

The home side set the tone for the game with an aggressive pacey attack on a Palace defence not yet attuned. They played with a high tempo with clean and precise passing that blew the visitors away. If the English game adopts this style of play as a model for the future then the future is a good place to be.  Alme Abdi is one of a number Swiss youngsters breaking through the professional ranks in Europe. A zippy attacker his goal after seven minutes was a cut inside from the flank after a shocking attempt clearance from Palace's Jazz Richards. His run and shot was as much about his technique as it was the Palace back line's trauma. After 14 minutes Nathaniel Chabolah's second goal was totally reflective of the balance of play and I took a long swig of beer in preparation of what was likely to be a slaughter.

Rather than turn to the dubious company of Bacchus, Palace manager, Ian Holloway, was in a position to do something. For a moment I wondered if he'd try to take the pace out of the game or maybe garner  a few more yellow cards by kicking Abdi, Chabolah and nineteen goal striker Matej Vydra up in the air but no. Instead he maintained the game's ludicrous pace and more significantly moved Wilfried Zaha off the flank and played him through the middle. This ploy worked an absolute treat. Zaha, revelled in the extra space while the Watford defence figured out who was supposed to be looking after him. In my mind's ear I imagined a conversation between Sir Alex Ferguson and Ian Holloway after the sale of Zaha to Manchester United and subsequent loan back to the Selhurst club. He would have told Holloway that he could see Zaha playing in the middle one day and bolstered by this insight, the Palace boss thought he'd give it a crack. Fantasy, I know, but then the beer was flowing freely by that point.

Larrup!


Eventually, Palace regained their composure and by half time the match, if not the score, was even. Then came Holloway's second intervention: the half time substitution of Jonathan Williams. None of the pub-mates I was with had seen the Welsh Under 21 player but by the final whistle they knew exactly who he was. The 19 year old dubbed "Joniesta" by the Palace fans took full advantage of the tiring Watford legs down the flank and through the middle. Williams can run with the ball and has the imagination to choose the right pass. He made a mess of the opposition and finished the game with the Man Of The Match Champagne despite having only played in half of it. Between him and Zaha enough pressure was put on the home side and finally a breakthrough was made thanks to what can politely be described as a moment of hesitation by Watford keeper Manuel Almunia which allowed Peter Ramage to larrup the ball home from all of two yards, give or take.

Old Dude


Holloway's final intervention came through the introduction of Kevin Phillips who is on loan from Blackpool. The former Watford striker will be 40 in July but despite the years he still knows how to pop up at the back post, especially late in a game. He met Richards' redemptive cross in characteristic fashion and finished off a memorable comeback after 70 minutes. What a guy.

The pace of the game had wilted with about ten minutes to go but neither team seemed satisfied with a point. There were no further goals however and this would have pleased the football gods as there was no worthy loser in this match.