Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Napoli emerging from Maradona's shadow

The 26th April 1990 is a day that will forever be celebrated in the city of Naples.

For it was on this day that tens of thousands of proud Neapolitans flocked to the city’s historic San Paolo stadium to watch a team of their heroes, inspired by its captain – a certain diminutive playmaker from the slums of Lanus, Argentina – defeat Lazio to secure only the second Serie A title in the club’s history.

The captain, of course, was Diego Maradona. In a six-year spell which would prove to be the zenith of an illustrious career for club and country, this flamboyant genius transformed S.S.C Napoli from the sleeping giants of Italian football into one of its leading lights and, in the process, firmly established himself in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats.

Maradona’s achievements in the south of Italy tend to be overlooked in the light of his World Cup exploits. But he will forever be the darling of Naples because, to put it simply, Maradona IS Napoli – there is perhaps no other football club in the world whose history and identity is so dominated by a single player.

This is in part because Napoli’s achievements are almost entirely Maradona’s achievements: the Partinopei’s two Scudetto triumphs, one Coppa Italia victory and sole European success – the 1989 UEFA Cup – all came during the Argentine’s time at the club.

But there is more to it than that.

Maradona’s connection to the Neapolitan community runs deeper than simply the trophies he lavished upon them. He was not just the symbol of a club and a city; he was the physical embodiment of the spirit of its people – an icon who warranted the kind of reverence usually reserved for the Pope and the Virgin Mary.

Dave Taylor, an Italian-based journalist writing for Football Italia magazine, explains the relationship in the following terms:

“He [Maradona] was loved immediately on his arrival. He was every mother’s son, everyone’s brother, every girl’s boyfriend. He was the man who would show the world that Napoli could and would teach everyone else how to play football. Apart from his calcio skills, his social importance was of enormous benefit to people’s self-esteem and he soon became an idol of the people.”

What has enhanced Maradona’s legacy at Napoli arguably more than anything else in the last twenty years is the swift decline the club endured following his departure in 1991.

The financial problems which plagued the Neapolitan club throughout the 1990s – a direct result of the lavish spending which had brought galacticos such as Maradona, Careca and Ferrara to the club in the preceding years – resulted in several self-imposed exiles from Italy’s top flight, culminating almost inevitably in a formal declaration of bankruptcy in 2004.

The football club plunged briefly out of existence, only to be resurrected by Neapolitan film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, nephew of the late Hollywood producer Dino. Napoli Soccer, however, as they were now known, would have to start from scratch in the third tier of Italian football, and it looked as if the glory days were well and truly over.

Instead, relegation has proved a blessed rebirth. Over the last six years, De Laurentiis has presided over a sustained rebuilding program which has seen Napoli regain its name and history, work its way back up the domestic footballing ladder and re-establish itself as a fixture at Italy’s top table.

And this season it looks set to get even better.

With two-thirds of the Serie A season gone, the Neapolitans find themselves second in the table, three points behind leaders AC Milan and two points clear of last season’s all-conquering Inter. How did this happen?

Admittedly Napoli, together with the likes of Palermo, Sampdoria and Genoa, has benefited from the slow but steady decline of Serie A over the last decade.

A combination of financial mismanagement, comparatively poor television revenue and the economic fallout from the 2006 Calciopoli scandal has impeded the ability of Italy’s biggest clubs to consistently compete with the giants of the Premier League and La Liga for the world’s top players – thus levelling the playing field and opening the door for some of the country’s more conservatively-run clubs to upset the established domestic order.

But ultimately the credit for Napoli’s remarkable rise belongs to the club and the club alone. De Laurentiis’ policy of signing young talent rather than established names has proved prudent on a footballing as well as financial level. It has helped craft a young and dynamic team, possessed not only by lofty ambitions but also the hunger to achieve them.

Of course, having the league’s top scorer helps: Edinson Cavani, the big Uruguayan loaned from Palermo in the summer, has made a mockery of his previously indifferent scoring record by banging them in for fun this term – his Serie A tally currently stands at an impressive 20 goals in 26 appearances, and this golden touch in front of the net has made him such a hit with the San Paolo faithful that they have even named a pizza after his nickname – El Matador.

Cavani has undoubtedly benefited enormously from having little Ezequiel Lavezzi buzzing around him. The Argentine has only netted four times in the league this season, but his ten assists are a truer reflection of his invaluable contribution. He, like the rest of Naples, worships Maradona, and his performances have at times evoked fond memories of “the Great One” in the minds of Neapolitans.

Finding the openings for this red-hot partnership is Marek Hamsik. The 22-year-old Slovakian is rated as one of the finest young playmakers in world football, and his excellent form this season proves him worthy of such praise. In addition to his creative gifts, Hamsik has also averaged just over 10 goals in each of the last four Serie A seasons – which, achieved against the notoriously stingy Italian defences, is no mean feat.

But Napoli’s unexpected title challenged owes just as much to defensive as to attacking qualities. Their backline, superbly marshalled by Italy’s former World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, is the second stingiest in Serie A, having churned out a peerless 14 clean sheets along the way. And with promising young Spanish centre-back Victor Ruiz having further bolstered the defensive ranks in January, the Partinopei are not likely to become easier to break down any time soon.

Key to the excellent balance Napoli has achieved between attack and defence this season has been through clever use of the flanks.

Manager Walter Mazzari employs Colombian Juan Camilo Zuniga in the left and the less exotic Christian Maggio on the right of a 3-4-1-2/5-2-1-2 formation, depending on whether or not his team has the ball. This tactic flies in the face of the tendency of many Serie A teams to play very narrow in the midfield, and on many occasions this season the Neapolitans’ ability to maintain width has afforded them a vital extra dimension to their play.

It is inevitable for a club of Napoli’s stature that spectacular overachievement invariably leads to star players becoming the subjects of attention from Europe’s elite clubs – the outstanding trio of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik have all been linked with big money moves to England next summer – but De Laurentiis is adamant that turning Napoli into a selling club never has been, and never will be part of his plan.

Speaking at the start of the season, he said:

“Napoli wants to grow together with its talented players. We don’t sell players who are integral to our plans, we sell players who don’t fit in.

I’ve read that [Sir Alex] Ferguson would like to buy Hamsik and Cavani for €40m and I started to laugh. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise that it is important to keep your best players to be able to become champions.”

What’s more, it is clear from the actions of Napoli’s outspoken chairman that his insistence that his club can once again become “champions” is not merely idle talk.

Current Lazio manager Eduardo Reja led the Neapolitans to a rapid return to Serie A following bankruptcy in time for the 2007/08 season, but was shown the door the following year after falling out of contention for a UEFA Cup spot. Reja’s replacement, former Azzurri coach Roberto Donadoni, was also booted out after a few months in favour of then-Sampdoria manager Mazzari when results were deemed unsatisfactory.

In the long term, De Laurentiis expects seasons like this one to become the rule rather than the exception. And despite his financial conservatism, he is willing to spend in order to make it happen.

“Neapolitans must be calm, because I am working for the future and not for today,” he said.

“If [sporting director] Pierpaolo Marino finds us a great signing, I will go for him. I will put my hand in my pocket and pay for the player.”

So can Napoli fulfil their owner’s dream and win Serie A this year?

Their relative lack of title-challenging experience and squad depth suggests they might just come up short against one, or both, of the Milan giants. On the other hand, Mazzari’s young players have already shown they have enough fighting spirit to remain in the title mix until the very end – just under 40% of their goals this season have come in the last 15 minutes of matches. Time will ultimately be the judge.

Perhaps a more realistic prospect this season is securing Champions League football. With Napoli enjoying a four point lead over the chasing pack, a place in Europe’s premier club competition is beckoning, and the benefits would be enormous.

Not only would it provide a powerful incentive for the likes of Cavani and Hamsik to commit their long-term futures to San Paolo, it would also give the club a platform to establish itself as one of Italy’s big players for years to come.

Long-suffering Neapolitans have clung to that glorious spring afternoon in April 1990 for over two decades. Now, at long last, they have a team capable of creating new memories for them to cherish, and proving, after all, that there is life after Diego.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Arsenal and Spurs show their mettle

The Champions League roared back into action this week, as Tottenham and Arsenal produced performances of the very highest quality to deservedly claim the scalps of two of European football's giants. 

In doing so, they delivered the most emphatic riposte possible to those who like to claim that the steady migration of top talent to Spain in recent seasons has eroded the Premier League's status as the strongest in the world.

For while there may be an argument that Chelsea and even Manchester United have been weakened slightly in that period, there are currently more teams in this country capable of challenging Europe's elite than perhaps at any point in the history of the Premier League - a fact made evident by the fact that two of our top flight's chasing pack have just beaten the champions-elect of La Liga and Serie A.

Perhaps inevitably given the pedigree of their opposition, both Spurs and Arsenal went into their European ties widely regarded as underdogs. 

After all, Harry Redknapp's side were charged with taking on an AC Milan side staring down the barrel of their first Scudetto since 2004 in one of the most intimidating stadiums in world football - and without either Gareth "Scourge of Maicon" Bale or a fully fit Luka Modric.

Arsene Wenger, for his part, could be forgiven for having limited sympathy with his North London rivals, having drawn Barcelona - last season's conquerors, the La Liga champions and a team of such exceptional quality that their fiercest competition appears to be coming from the footballing annals of history rather than the pitches of the present.

But rather than wilt in the face of the challenge, both English sides arguably produced their most mature displays of the season.

Much of Spurs' success this term has been built on their ability to overwhelm their opposition in the final third, utilising the pace and direct running of Bale and Lennon on the flanks, the creativity of Modric and Van der Vaart in the middle, and the physicality of Crouch up front. 

Their expansive approach has made Harry Redknapp's side compulsive viewing in Europe this season, but it has often left them defensively vulnerable - never more so than on their last visit to the San Siro to face Inter, when a brilliant second half hat-trick from Gareth Bale papered over the cracks of a torrid first half defensive display.

And so, with Redknapp still perhaps sensitive to the sting of that particular defeat, Spurs this time set out to defend deep from start to finish, allowing Milan to have possession in safe areas and looking to use the pace of Lennon to land a sucker punch on the counter-attack.

The Italian giants were too slow and laboured on the ball to break down the organised Spurs defence, marshalled by a superb Michael Dawson, and the glamorous duo of Robinho and Ibrahimovic were never more than peripheral figures. Even on the rare occasion the Spurs defence was breached, the hosts found themselves confronted by Heurelho Gomes in world-class form.

When all attempts at incision failed, Milan resorted to blatant provocation of their opponents - led by Mathieu Flamini, who should have been sent off for a horrible two-footed lunge on Vedran Corluka, and captain Gennaro Gattuso, who could feasibly have acquired more cards than Clintons' in the 90 minutes he astoundingly remained on the pitch.

Spurs' level-headed response was to regard the Italians' anger as a compliment to the success of their approach rather than an invitation to retaliate, and their patience was rewarded with a superb goal ten minutes from time: Aaron Lennon showing blistering pace to leave several Milan defenders in his wake, and then remarkable poise to pick out Peter Crouch, who must have been delighted that the most important goal of his career was also one of the simplest.

In defeating Milan on their home turf, Spurs have shocked the footballing world for the second time. The first - the destruction of Inter at White Hart Lane in November - was impressive because it proved Harry Redknapp's team possess the talent to compete with Europe's best. The second is equally significant because it confirms they also possess the determination to do so. 

But of course, Tottenham weren't the only ones to shock the footballing world this week. In fact, they weren't even the only ones in North London.

In a match almost the entire footballing planet was watching, Arsenal produced a stirring second half comeback against Barcelona to save themselves from Champions League oblivion and even give their fans hope of pulling off an unthinkable upset over Pep Guardiola's "Dream Team".

Even more surprising than the result was the method by which it was achieved. Barcelona are universally acknowledged to be the best footballing team in the world, and consequently it was believed that any team foolish enough to attempt to outplay them would be doomed to failure. 

It is a theory which has been widely accepted in the wake of Barca's beautiful destructions of Arsenal in last season's Champions League and of Real Madrid in last November's Clasico. But it is false.

Of course, no one in their right mind would claim that Arsenal played Barcelona off the pitch on Wednesday evening. But they stayed true to their attacking philosophy - Arsene Wenger is too much the footballing purist to ever attempt the perceived "anti-football" employed by Mourinho's Inter at the Nou Camp last year, for better or worse - and it was these attacking instincts which underpinned the Gunners' remarkable comeback.

In order to stay true to their identity, the Arsenal players knew they would have to absorb considerable punishment against the possession kings of world football. They remained dogged in the face of prolonged periods chasing shadows, and even sucked up the body blow dealt by David Villa's opener - a work of surgical precision as much as beauty.

They also rode their luck at times, on several occasions relying heavily on Lionel Messi's uncharacteristic profligacy in front of goal to remain in contention. But in coming back from a goal down against such exceptional opposition, Arsenal managed to ally sheer determination and mental toughness with the technical excellence more regularly associated with their game.

This attitude was epitomised by Jack Wilshere who, at 19 years of age, more than held his own against perhaps the greatest midfield in history, and seemed completely unfazed by the occasion. 

It is an understatement of monumental proportions to herald him simply an exceptional young prospect. By demonstrating such poise and ability at the highest level and at such a young age, Wilshere has shown he has the potential to become the greatest midfielder England has ever produced.

Of course, Barcelona had a hand in their own downfall. They were guilty of not finishing off the game despite creating more than enough chances - a criticism with which Arsene Wenger will certainly empathise. The decision to bring on Seydou Keita for the dangerous David Villa also surrendered the initiative precisely at the moment when Pep Guardiola's side needed to keep control.

However, while the Spanish giants may have left the door ajar for Arsenal, the Gunners still deserve all the credit they have received for being able to walk through it - not only did they drive their illustrious visitors back through sheer force of will, but Robin Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin took their chances brilliantly.

Ultimately when all is said and done, what do these results actually mean for two of the Premier League's finest?   

Harry Redknapp will certainly be mindful of the fact that a team of Milan's quality can never be counted out. The Italians are unlikely to play so poorly again, and the mercurial duo of Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are more than capable of ending Tottenham's European adventure if afforded time and space. 

That said, Spurs now carry a priceless lead into the home leg in three weeks' time, where they will hopefully have Bale, Modric, and what will undoubtedly be an electric White Hart Lane atmosphere to spur them on to victory. They are now firm favourites.

For Arsenal, much, much work remains. Arsene Wenger will remember all too well what Barcelona are capable of at the Nou Camp, and that David Villa away goal remains a significant cause for concern. Then there is also the fact that Lionel Messi does not have too many bad days, and may have used up his quota at the Emirates.

But unlike last year, Arsenal have a lead - albeit slender - to protect, coupled with the belief that they can beat the Champions League favourites. Key to their gameplan in the Catalan capital will undoubtedly be the searing pace of Theo Walcott, who ran Maxwell ragged in last season's fixture. Gunners fans will hope his contribution will be even more decisive this time around.

Whatever the future holds, keep the evenings of the 8th and 9th of March free in your social calendar. If the contests at White Hart Lane and the Nou Camp yield anywhere near the amount of drama and quality this week has delivered, we are in for quite a treat.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Clubs roll the dice on deadline day

On Monday - against the backdrop of a national austerity drive of unprecedented scale - came the most expensive and enthralling transfer deadline day ever, as the owners of two of the Premier League's troubled giants laid their cards (and their cash) on the table.

Chelsea's reclusive and volatile owner Roman Abramovich, seemingly unable to tolerate further evidence that his own policy of belt-tightening is not conducive to keeping the Blues at the top of the domestic and European game, splashed out over £75m in less than 24 hours on the acquisitions of Fernando Torres and David Luiz.

At Torres' former club Liverpool, new owners New England Sports Ventures oversaw spending of just under £60m on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in the same time period, as they look to placate an Anfield faithful reeling from the departure of one of their most revered stars and desperately seeking reassurance on the club's ambitions going forward.

The aggressive transfer strategies of Abramovich and NESV have the potential to transform their respective clubs' short-term and long-term fortunes. Having said that, there is more than a hint of a gamble in their common decision to pay massive fees for players who, at one level or another, have a lot left to prove.

For Abramovich and Chelsea, the signing of Torres in particular is an awesome statement of intent. 

It is also an emphatic way to pour scorn on the suggestions of some observers that the Russian billionaire had fallen out of love with the West London club, or that his heavy involvement in the planning for his homeland's first ever World Cup in 2018 would prove a potentially damaging distraction.

But the significance of Torres' capture is greater than this. Of course, the £50m price tag will inevitably invite comparisons to Abramovich's last major outlay - the misguided move for Andriy Shevchenko in the summer of 2006.

But there the similarities end.

In Torres, Chelsea have acquired a player who as recently as two years ago was regarded as the best out-and-out striker in world football.

His goals were integral as Liverpool challenged Manchester United for the Premier League title in 2008, and he also netted the winner in the final of Euro 2008 as Spain won their first international honour for over 40 years.

Admittedly, Shevchenko boasted a similarly illustrious CV when he moved to England. But the Ukrainian was 30 years old, having just suffered a serious knee injury which, in hindsight, meant he was already finished as a top-level performer.

A combination of injuries, underachievement and disillusionment with life in Liverpool has undoubtedly curtailed Torres' progress in the last 18 months.

But at only 26, it is a reasonable bet that the Spaniard's best years remain in front of him. If this turns out to be true, then £50m could actually end up being good value.

The biggest risk in Abramovich's rationale lies in the fact that he has smashed the British transfer record based on the player that Fernando Torres can be, and not the player he is right now.

But Chelsea's move for Torres does not represent the biggest gamble of deadline day, even if it was the most expensive one. In fact, it wasn't even Abramovich's biggest gamble.

The signing of Fernando Torres may be considered by many a 'luxury' for Chelsea, but the addition of David Luiz for £21m from Benfica was borne out of pure necessity. 

Defensive injuries played an instrumental role in the Blues' decline over the last two months, and with Alex still on the sidelines following knee surgery, Branislav Ivanovic perversely looking more comfortable at right-back, and Jeffrey Bruma not yet ready to make the step up, fresh blood was urgently needed.

But is the 24-year-old Brazilian the right man for the job? At £21m, he would be an expensive mistake. 

It must be stated that consistently solid displays for Benfica have earned Luiz a reputation as one of the best young defenders on the continent.

But the risk remains that the urgency of Chelsea's need for defensive cover clouded their judgment and resulted in them paying over the odds for a player who is, as yet, unproven in a major European league, and who will at the very least take time to adjust to a very different footballing environment.

Time will inevitably be the judge of whether or not Abramovich's deadline day gambles pay off. What is certain, however, is that those in West London will not be the only ones hoping that fortune favours the brave.

Some 176 miles north of the capital, John W. Henry and his associates at New England Sports Ventures took perhaps their boldest move yet as owners of Liverpool FC, bankrolling a last-minute transfer spree of their own as they look to re-establish the country's most successful football club among the footballing elite.

Having spent close to £60m on bringing in Luis Suarez from Ajax and Andy Carroll from Newcastle United, NESV's expenditure may lack some of the scale of that undertaken by Chelsea's wealthy patron, but an examination of the players acquired reveals the Americans' investment lacks nothing in terms of sheer audacity.

Suarez is a signing which carries promise and excitement, even if the former Ajax star was a little overpriced at £23m. He boasts a phenomenal scoring record of 111 goals in 159 appearances for the Dutch giants, as well as an impressive World Cup which deserves to be remembered for more than that handball

Moreover, he is young, tactically versatile and hungry - in short, exactly the sort of player Liverpool should be looking to sign as they aim to recapture past glories.

Of course, the risk is that Liverpool may become just another Premier League club who live to regret signing a player on the basis of an impressive goal tally in the Eredivisie. 

After all, for every Ruud van Nistelrooy there has been a Mateja Kezman, and only the brave or the foolish would attempt the extol the virtues of Afonso Alves to any self-respecting Middlesbrough fan.

However, Suarez's current ability and potential for further improvement minimises the risk which comes with his slightly-inflated price tag. He may take time to adjust, but when he does, he is should become a considerable asset.

At any rate, the chance which NESV have taken in bringing Suarez into the Premier League pales almost into insignificance when compared with the decision to pay £35m for Andy Carroll.

When Newcastle United placed a price tag of £30m on Carroll's head at the beginning of January, it was rightly interpreted as a club plucking a completely unrealistic fee from thin air to ward off any potential suitors.

Never in a million years did Mike Ashley, Derek Llambias or Alan Pardew actually think that anyone would be willing to meet this outrageous valuation.

Not only did Liverpool meet it, they exceeded it. In doing so, they have taken a gamble of monumental proportions. 

At the time of writing, Andy Carroll is not worth £35m. He is barely worth half of that.

Like Chelsea and Fernando Torres, the fee Liverpool have paid is based on the player they think Andy Carroll can become, not the player he is today. But unlike Chelsea and Torres, Liverpool have no solid evidence that Andy Carroll is capable of shining consistently at the very highest level.

The 21-year-old has shown fantastic potential in his first few months in the Premier League, as well as standing out in a wretched England side in last November's friendly against France. But he remains far from the finished article on or off the pitch.

Carroll's immaturity and personal problems have already resulted in several court appearances, and the young man's inner demons provide yet another obstacle to this rough diamond being fashioned into the jewel of the Anfield crown.

It is a project which Kenny Dalglish will undoubtedly set himself to with relish, but Carroll's price tag has raised the stakes to such an extent that it is now one which Liverpool cannot afford to fail. 

NESV's logic will undoubtedly be that a swift and decisive response was needed to quell the unease created, both internally and externally, by Fernando Torres' acrimonious departure. 

To this end, the signings of Suarez and Carroll have already succeeded, encouraging an atmosphere of cautious optimism around the red half of Merseyside.

Similarly, Roman Abramovich will hope that his own investment will breathe life into a faltering season, and give the Chelsea fans hope that a campaign which is unlikely to result in Premier League glory may yet yield other, and perhaps greater, rewards.

It is with almost inevitable timing that Chelsea host Liverpool this Sunday. Rest assured that both Roman Abramovich and John W. Henry will be watching with breath as baited as the rest of us, looking frantically for the first signs that their gambles are starting to bear fruit.