Friday, July 13, 2012

What's Going on with Milan?

I still can't wrap my hear around the looming possibility of Ibra and Thiago Silva moving to PSG from Milan for 62m Euros. Ibra and Silva are the bedrock of Milan's attack and defense respectively and they're being let go for a paltry 62m?
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Just weeks ago, Silva was the target of a 46m Euro bid from PSG. Ibra is worth at least 25-30m. that should add up to least 70+m.
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Is Galliani and Berlusconi intentionally sabotaging their own club?
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Thank God I'm a Madridista.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament

Here's my best XI of Euro 2012. It's an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1: with an attacking midfielder on one side of the '3' and a winger-forward on the other. I've also opted to put certain players in positions that they didn't necessarily play in during the tournament just to best fit the players whom I felt deserved to be in the XI. It must be noted that when I was making my selection, I did not intentionally choose exclusively from just the semi-finalists (Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal).
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GK: Iker Casillas - Spain (Captain)
San Iker: Captain, Leader, Legend. (Take That John Terry!)
For the third consecutive major international tournament, Casillas lifts the cup. He's been the best goalkeeper in the tournament - keeping alive his streak of 0 goals conceded in 990 minutes of elimination football in the international stage. He's also set the record for most international wins by a single player. This Spain team will be forever associated with their midfielders, their backline led by 'San Iker' was solid as a rock. He calmly saved Moutinho's penalty in the shootout vs. Portugal after Alonso's shot was saved and has been tested by some tasty shots on goal during the tournament (Rakitic, Di Natale in the final, etc.) and has repelled them all. It's hard enough to get the ball against Spain... to have to face a goalkeeper like him once you get a scoring chance makes it even more seemingly impossible. He's clearly the best goalkeeper in the world. I've heard many English fans and EPL fans say that it's Joe Hart - I think they're all on drugs.
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RB: Sergio Ramos - Spain
Sergio Ramos made La Roja fans forget about their anxieties from Puyol's absence
I'm placing Ramos at RB because I'd rather accommodate the 3 CBs I liked in the tournament rather than a RB I feel 'hmmm - he wasn't bad' about. Ramos spent the past club season as a Center Back and played his first major international tournament as a Center Back too. He filled in for Carles Puyol in that role and did superbly. He's Great in the air, physically strong, quick on his feet, technically great and has greatly improved his reading of the game. He's managed to kill off his penalty shootout hoo-doo (from the Champions League semi-final vs. Bayern) too with his own panenka.
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CB: Pepe - Portugal
No thuggish dirty tricks this time for Pepe - just some great rock-solid defending
The Pepe-Bruno Alves partnership was, in my opinion, the best CB partnership in the tournament. The guys at the Football Ramble have hilariously commented that the 2 of them can 'terrorize a village' - and I agree. Pepe gets the nod ahead of his compatriot though because he offers a wider range of abilities: speed, passing and of course making penalties. Pepe had a couple of ugly 'oh I'm dying' incidents of injury feigning during the tournament, but there were no thuggish hand-stamping incidents. I honestly can't remember him putting a foot wrong this entire tournament.
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CB: Mats Hummels - Germany
Hummels cemented his place as being one of the world's best CBs in this tournament
Before the tournament, Mats Hummels carried around a reputation as a player who couldn't carry his Bundesliga-title-winning-form to his country. He put that to bed in this tournament. After his performances for Dortmund and in Euro 2012, I have no idea how it is someone would be able to say that a Badstuber-Mertesacker partnership would be the first-choice defensive option for Germany. From this point on, the question should no longer be if Hummels is the best partner for Badstuber - it should now be: who'd be the best partner for Hummels?
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LB: Jordi Alba - Spain
During Spain's Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 campaigns, Left Back was considered to be one of  Spain's weaker spots. They won't be saying that anymore
Until that run and eventual goal in the final, I had Fabio Coentrao locking down the left back spot. But it's difficult (almost impossible) to choose someone other than Jordi Alba for this. Jorbi Alba's runs down the Spanish Left flank were critical in de-congesting the cluttered midfield that their ponderous tiki-taka-on-steroids was causing. He's been known entity in Spanish football for sometime now - but this tournament has marked him out as a revelation. It will be interesting to see Barca play with 2 attacking fullbacks next season: I think it will cause weak teams to get crushed almost instantaneously, but will give stronger sides 2 channels to hit Barca with on the counter (instead of 1).
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CM: Sami Khedira - Germany
Sami Khedira: he's got a Horseface, and he runs tirelessly like a horse
This was a closely-contested spot between Sami and Italy's Danielle De Rossi. I gave the nod to Khedira because he showed in this tournament facets of his game that we didn't see much of in the past. His forward attacking runs rattled opposing midfielders and defenders. It was all capped off by that wonderful karate-kick volley against Greece too. I look forward to seeing how Mourinho can incorporate this dimension of his game into the coming club season. On defense, Khedira was a horse: tirelessly running and closing down the gaps, winning the ball and performing his water-carrier duties superbly. I take absolutely great satisfaction at seeing others finally give Khedira the credit that he oh-so-deserves.
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CM: Pirlo - Italy (1st Runner-Up: Player of the Tournament "Silver Ball")
Andrea Pirlo was absolutely be-witching this Euro 2012
If Italy won this tournament, or if they weren't beaten as badly in this tournament, or if Pirlo himself wasn't neutralized that extensively in the final, I'd have had him down as my Player of the Tournament. It's unbelievable when you consider the fact that last season, Pirlo was the first target of AC Milan's clearout of their 'past generation', only to end up at Juventus to become the cornerstone of their scudetto-winning side and then onto the national team where the squad became essentially built around him... a tactical exercise that took them all the way to the final. Pirlo's passing created Italy's scoring chances, stretched the field laterally and vertically as they needed it and also dictated the tempo of their gameplay. His set pieces have also been the source of goals and scoring chances for the Azzurri. And who would ever forget that sublime penalty?
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RAM / LAM: Andres Iniesta - Spain (Player of the Tournament "Golden Ball")
Andres Iniesta: PURE Fantasy
Muhammed Ali describes Iniesta best in 'the great one's' description of the great boxer's own style: "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee." Cristiano Ronaldo has many times been described as this unfortunate character who has to live in the era of Lionel Messi to be denied the opportunity to be fully appreciated. Tell that to Andres Iniesta, whose shy personality and odd look (combining a pale baby face with the hairline of a 50-year old man) sees him overshadowed by his Barca buddy and his Real Madrid rival. Iniesta has emerged as Zidane's heir as that graceful attacking midfielder/playmaker who embodies the Italian term for his position: fantasista. Iniesta's game is pure fantasy: he doesn't run frenetically  - he glides... he doesn't zip about to rattle his defender - he gracefully turns with the subtlety of a dancer. Followers of Spanish football have already coined the act of succumbing a to a late crucial goal as Iniestazo to embody his clutch play. Amidst all my railing about how Spain had been boring before the final: Iniesta has been the absolute exception. I curse the football Gods that he was fated to play for Barcelona.
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Winger-Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo - Portugal (2nd Runner-Up: Player of the Tournament "Bronze Ball")
Peek-A-Boo - I See You. This season and this summer, we all saw Ronaldo turn up for the Big Moments.
After just finishing a club season where he had finally shaken off being labelled as a big game choker, Cristiano Ronaldo has also managed to quash the impression that he fails to bring his club form to the national team. Those who have watched him this past season and this summer will also notice that he has lost his penchant for diving / feigning and note that his bicycle and stepover moves are no longer overdone. He's also evolved to becoming a sort of hybrid-winger-forward while adding a playmaker's functions to his game to fill up his National Team's need for an 'attacking platform' in the final third. Needless to say, his performances this past season for Real Madrid and in this tournament have in my opinion, earned him this year's FIFA Balon D' Or.
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AM: Cesc Fabregas - Spain
Fabregas' role defined Spain's play in this tournament. They will be studying his rendition of the 'false 9' for years to come because of him
I dread that Vicente Del Bosque's application of the 'false 9' idea which Pep Guardiola used Messi for will open a Pandora's box in the coming years - a pandora's box that will yield a host of poor-quality, cheap imitations accross many clubs and national teams. This tournament's winning team however will be forever known for Del Bosque's tactical innovation of the 'false 9' - a role Fabregas played effectively: having scored and created key goals for his team. I've got him down as a conventional '10' in my XI though (given my lack of faith in this striker-less system). Cesc must also be noted for being the man for the big occasion: having been the man who took the final penalty to dispatch Italy in the 2008 quarterfinal shootout and doing the same this tournament against Portugal (where he reportedly asked to take the 5th penalty).
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ST: Mario Balotelli - Italy

At 21 years of age, Mario Balotelli tells us all that there's still a long way to go before strikers become extinct.
If Cesc Fabregas was the argument to drop the striker position altogether, Mario Balotelli was the argument to the contrary. If Spain's use of Fabregas might mark the dawn of the striker-less era, it will be the 21-year old Mario Balotelli who can very well spell the doom for teams who choose to adopt their defensive systems to play against striker-less teams. The Ghanaian-born Italian was a showcase of physical power, speed, audacity, and technical ability. It is terrifying to consider the variety of qualities he has as a striker when you are reminded that he is only 21. Mario Balotelli led the line for Italy with fellow 'wild-child' Antonio Cassano, and surprisingly did not have any meltdown moments. It was in fact his maturity, focus, and application of his talent that created Germany's defensive meltdown in the semis. Have his Italian mentors (Prandelli for the Azzuri and Mancini for Man City) started to figure out how to access his talent while blocking off his other issues? The world better watch out.
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Coach: Cesare Prandelli - Italy
What a class act. The combination of his man management, his tactical mind, and sheer guts to try his ideas (back 3, diamond midfield, etc.) has brought Italian football from being the source of infamy (with yet another match-fixing scandal), to their dark horse tag in the tournament... and then onto the final of the tournament. This Italy side are a good side, but I'll call it what I think it is: they over-achieved in this tournament. For that, credit must go to the man who made his side WAY MORE than the sum of its parts. (runner-ups: Paulo Bento - Portugal, Vicente Del Bosque - Spain)
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Bench:
GK: Gianlugi Buffon - Italy
My wife continues to insist that Buffon is a better keeper than Iker. I disagree of course. I concede however, that Buffon remains one of the best goalkeepers in the world today. The likes of Neuer, Lloris and even Hart may have joined the elite of today's goalkeepers, but Buffon remains a giant amongst them.
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LB: Fabio Coentrao - Portugal
Madridistas continue to scoff at his 30m Euro pricetag and wonder why he's on the squad with Marcelo already onboard. I think his performance in this tournament has hushed many such voices. Solid on defense and tireless going forward, his display this tournament shows him off as the most balanced left back today.
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RB / LB: Philip Lahm - Germany
It is rare for a player to be EQUALLY dangerous from both fullback positions. He is solid on defense and dynamic going forward, while also offering a goal threat. He's a leader too.
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CB: Bruno Alves - Portugal
Bruno Alves went under the footballing radar after moving to Russia. He carries a reputation of being slow and clumsy but showed very little defensive vulnerability for Portugal in this tournament. A Portuguese friend was critical of Paulo Bento for ostracizing Ricardo Carvalho, resulting in Alves becoming the automatic choice at CB. On the back of his performances in this tournament, my friend's criticism holds no water. Alves may have his weaknesses while playing for his club. In these Euros however, he's been a rock. 
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CM: Danielle De Rossi - Italy
He's the fantasy player of practically every great coach club coach/manager you name it: Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini. It's too bad (but deeply admirable for him) that he is fiercely loyal to AS Roma. Just as Pirlo's quality prompted Prandelli to build the team around him, it was De Rossi who probably inspired the Azzuri's coach's 3-5-2 experiments to put De Rossi's qualities to full use. He tackles, he runs, he wins balls, he distributes, initiates plays, and even scores - what else can you ask for?
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AM: David Silva - Spain
Many might consider it a travesty that I opted to exclude a player who had 2 goals and 3 assists in the tournament from my first XI - and I wouldn't blame them for it. The truth is that the reason why I have a 'bench selection' is to be able to specifically include him in some way to the selection. He lost out on his first XI place because of his notable drop in stamina late in games and the fact that he's NOT adequately in the 'abosolute core' of the Spanish XI (he gets subbed out for wide players to open the pitch up when Spain where lumbering to boring wins before the final). Having said that, he's an absolutely wonderful player.
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ST: Fernando Torres - Spain
How can you have a 'bench team' without including the supersub striker who turns out to be the tournament's golden boot winner? That's 2 consecutive Euro finals now with goals for him. It's ironic that the player whose profligacy has become the stat-source for a striker's inefficiency would become literally the tournament's most efficient goalscorer/maker. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Another Gear

One day, my son will be old enough to ask me about this game... and I will tell him that as it happened, as I witnessed the greatest performance in a final of a major international tournament of all time - that he was there beside me, sound asleep. And that one day, he will hopefully share a similar moment with his own son.
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Spain were simply too much for Italy. Let me further qualify that statement: THIS Spain (that we saw in the final) were too much for Italy.
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A Tale of 2 Sides
I am not however, part of the press/pundit bandwagon-thinking who are now saying "You see!?! Spain aren't boring!" Come on. Watch all the pre-final games again: they were boring (at least to me). They were ponderous and over-elaborate - they were also a very good side. 'Very Good' as a functional team capable of winning matches, scoring goals when it mattered and keeping clean sheets. The pre-final Spain's brand of ponderous and over-elaborate tiki-taka was as boring as it was effective - and yes: DEFENSIVE. It was in short, a complete opposite of their 'we play beautiful flowing football' advertising.
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Thus, let me make it clear: my criticism of Spain's 'boring' play pre-final is not because they were boring per se - but because of the insistence among them and their blind followers that it was supposedly 'beautiful'. If the 'advertising' was merely about how good they were, how effective, how impenetrable they were (and there's no shame in that at all), then I wouldn't have minded at all. 
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Another Gear
Last night (or rather, this morning) however, Spain played at another level - it was as if they had another gear they could go up on and that all they needed to do was get Del Bosque to flip the switch to crank it up. That's exactly what they did. Their speed by which they passed the ball, resembled the movement of a ball in a pinball machine: zipping back and forth from player to player, gaining speed and momentum as they got closer to Buffon's goal. Even before Silva's opening goal, the 1-2 exchanges between Iniesta and Fabregas at the edge of Italy's penalty box had been very impressive and were a clear indication that Del Bosque has in fact managed to get his boys to crank it up another gear against Italy. 
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Tiki-Taka's beauty does not come merely from passing and moving. It in fact comes from passing and moving with purpose, speed and attacking intent. This was what Spain did last night that made its performance so mesmerizing and truly memorable. My friends who aren't fans of the sport have asked me casually about how these Euros have been and while I've been telling them that they've been enjoyable to watch, the tournament still needed a match that would make you tell yourself that you were proud to have seen it happen 'live'. Who knew that it would be Spain's performance in the final that would give me such an experience? 
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Erasing the 'Pirlo Factor'
Over dinner last night, my non-football-watching friends had asked me who I fancied to win the final. My answer was 'the winner based on who the better team was would be Spain' but 'the winner based on momentum, timing, "destiny factor" and the intangibles would be Italy.'
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"Pirlo!" my friend Oliver (who knew a bit about the game) shouted. "Pirlo's been great right?" he asked me.
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"Pirlo rattled Spain in the group stages. Pirlo destroyed England by himself. Pirlo is the reason Germany played scared and changed their entire system to deal with him - only to fail." I said. 
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"Pirlo..." I continued "...has been the player of the tournament so far in my opinion. If Italy are going to win, he'll need to boss the game. I don't know if he can do it against Xavi, Alonso, Busquets, Cesc, Silva and Iniesta though - those FIVE are all just as good as he is in bossing a game."
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On my way home, I read Michael Cox's tactical preview, including the diagram over-laying Italy's midfield diamond vs. Spain's 4-6-0. Pirlo was the beef patty in a Catalan midfield sandwich between Fabregas and Xavi. As the game unfolded, it was very apparent that Xavi was given instruction to pester Pirlo when the ageless Italian got the ball. Pirlo barely had any room to breathe as a result. Most of Italy's offensive moves instead came from De Rossi and Montolivo while Marchisio (who had impressed me in this tournament) was invisible. Italy's midfield diamond was swallowed by Spain's 6-midfielder formation. 
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Having lost the battle in the midfield, the battle on the flanks was on - and with Arbeloa and Alba taking turns to move forward (mostly the former), Italy's fullbacks (the Azzuri's only source of width) were pinned back too. Pique, Ramos with Arbeloa, together with the security that Casillas provided, was enough to keep Balotelli and Cassano at bay. The Real Madrid-Barca central defensive axis of Pique and Ramos possessed aerial power, physical strength, speed and technical ability not just as individuals but playing together as well - adequate to deal with Balotelli's menace. 
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Italy Should Hold Their Heads High
I felt very sad at the sight of Bonucci crying uncontrollably. Pirlo was clearly weeping too in his typically dignified demeanor. The Italians however should hold their heads high with what they have accomplished. their countrymen ought to be proud of them too. From being once again at the epicenter of yet another match-fixing scandal, their results in the tournament allowed the world to look again at Italian football and see not a scandal, but quality. Most of all, Prandelli's brand of pro-active attacking football showed the world that Italian football has in fact moved on from the dark days of cantenaccio and onto possibly a new footballing rennaisance. I will remember Italy's Euro 2012 team as the one who played attractively, who dared to defy the tactical conventions - giving us a refreshing look at the game and how it's played, not to mention Italian football.
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Spain and Their Golden Generation
Many pundits scoffed at my thought that Spain, until last night were boring. What I scoff at is the idea that Vicente Del Bosque is a mediocre coach who uses his teddy bear persona to just let everyone get along in order to win. You don't win 2 Champions League Titles, a World Cup and a Euro merely by being a nice guy 'teddybear-grandpapa figure'. I've said it before and I'll say it again: "When God created the idea of a Real Madrid Manager, he was thinking of Vicente Del Bosque. The problem was that Florentino Perez (at the time) thought he was God."
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Spain's Golden Generation have now won an unprecedented 3 major international titles. The scary part for the rest of the world is that there's a new batch of tiki-taka technicians already in reserve to carry the mantle from the current batch. We may no longer be talking about just a Golden Generation, but a Golden Dynasty.
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I will openly admit that I fancied the Germans to win this tournament and that on the back of their dour performances till last night, I wanted Spain's brand of boring tiki-taka to end in defeat in these Euros. Last night's performance however has shown to me that the beautiful version of tiki-taka is alive and well and was just hidden away in the backpocket for the big occasion. I can only hope that there will be more of it to see in the coming years. God knows the world is desperate to see more of it.