Friday, May 31, 2013

The lack of ambition

When James Rodriguez from FC Porto, one of the most interesting players in the world right now, last week announced that he was changing to AS Monaco I thought: "What a waste of a good player! He could have gone to any top side in Europe!"
But Monaco, with a billionaire Russian behind it, Dmitri Rybolovlev, has money, lots of money, for players who have no ambition.
One of these players is Radamel Falcao.
In the last few years Falcao has been a scoring machine for FC Porto and Atletico Madrid respectively, winning two Europa League titles (and the first player to score in two Europa League finals in a row), and is largely considered one of the best center-forwards in the world at the time. He could surely have chosen to play for almost any big club in Europe; clubs that would be fighting in the Champions League. But not so with AS Monaco: the side has just been promoted to Ligue 1, and Mr. Rybolovlev has invested heavily to bring in new players (other signing have been Joao Moutinho and Ricardo Carvalho), without doubt with a hope to be fighting for the French title next season against sides such as Paris St. Germain, Olympique Marseille and Lyon.
What a waste of great talent for the sake of money.

New managers all around!

With Guardiola's signing of Bayern Munich and Alex Ferguson's goodbye at Manchester United there have already been huge managing news in European football. But lately there have been even more interesting news on this front, most notably the exit of Jose Mourinho from Real Madrid. Notwithstanding that Mourinho is a brilliant manager, what he most takes away from Madrid is that the club was indeed bigger than him, something that must hurt his ego. While the team won a lot of matches, the titles eluded them under Mourinho, and that is really the only thing that matters to such a huge club. At the same time, and this is where I part ways with the Portuguese, is that he did not add much positive to the club. No matter what you think of Real Madrid (and I am certainly an anti-Madridista), it is a club know for great football, proud traditions and a gentlemanly attitude to the game (fans have clapped when an opposing team is just too good! Almost no fans in the world do that!), and with players who are known for being gentlemen on and off the pitch. One of these is Iker Casillas; that he is not playing is Mourinho's insult to what Real Madrid wants to stand for.
So where is he going? All bets seem to be a return to the club where he made his first foreign forays, namely Chelsea. Mourinho will always be bigger than Chelsea, a club that said bye to its latest "interim" coach after Rafa Benitez gave them a European title. Rafa Benitez, a well-traveled manager, is in the meantime returning to Italy, where he already coached Inter Milan, but he is now going south, to Napoli, the runners-up in Serie A and Champions League participants next season. It is surely going to be interesting to see what title he takes them to there!
Real Madrid without a coach is a matter for huge speculation: matters seem centered on Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes. The problem with Ancelotti is that Paris St. Germain will not free him of his contract, but Heynckes had announced his retirement; a change to a club that he already once led to Champions League glory in 1998, but fired him anyway that same season, is surely going to raise some eyebrows.
A man that will try again with a club that treated him like that is surely worth investing in!
Another interesting change is that of Manuel Pellegrini who will be replacing Roberto Mancini in Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini is a hugely experienced coach who first succeeded as coach in his homeland Chile, at Universidad Catolica, and in LDU Quito in Ecuador, as well as in San Lorenzo and River Plate in Argentina. In all places he got titles, and he then went to Villarreal in Spain, which he took to an unprecedented Champions League semifinal. He then went on to Real Madrid, created a solid side that broke the point season record for the club, but without a title, he was out. I always loved his reflection about Real Madrid: "I didn't have a voice or a vote at Madrid. They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won’t be able to do it so well. He (Florentino Pérez) sold players that I considered important. We didn't win the Champions League because we didn't have a squad properly structured to be able to win it."
His time at Malaga was not a success, but now it will be hugely interesting to see what he can do in a club with money, ambition, and in his first non-Spanish speaking country!
But a lot of pressure and interesting new arrangements all around Europe for next season!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bayern Munich champions!

Until Saturday's final Borussia Dortmund was the only undefeated team in the Champions League. Still, Bayern Munich was the slight favourite after taking the German title and played outstanding football in the matches against FC Barcelona and Juventus. But this did not show in the beginning of the final where Dortmund seemed liked the team with most desire to win, and only some outstanding saves by Manuel Neuer kept Bayern Munich in the match. One can only speculate whether Dortmund's attacking force would have been even stronger had Mario Gotze played. But without goals Bayern Munich worked themselves into the match. Arjen Robben missed a couple of excellent chances, and one wondered whether the curse that seems to follow Robben would continue. However, in the last minutes of the match, with the score 1-1, Arjen Robben slipped through the defense and scored the winning goal for a relieved Bayern Munich, for whom losing the third CL final in four years would have been a devastating blow. Jupp Heynckes finished his coaching career with a second CL triumph (his first was as Real Madrid coach), and there will now be enormous pressure on Pep Guardiola when he takes over as new coach: how can he do better that a German championship, a CL triumph and a possible Cup victory (they are playing the final next week)? A pity for Borussia Dortmund, who has been building up a young competitive side for some years. This has already resulted in German championships and Cups, and plays good attacking football. Mario Gotze's farewell for next season will undoubtedly be a huge blow, and the team will also struggle to keep players such as Lewandowski and Marco Reus. But they will be in the CL again next season and will surely continue to be one of the most competitive sides in the tournament. But thanks to both teams for a great final, and congratulations to all Bayern Munich fans out there celebrating with a good pint of beer!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Last time they won: Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are facing one another in what will be an exciting German invasion of Wembley! Both teams share a long national rivalry and play high quality attacking football so the final has all elements to become an epic clash. Furthermore, both teams have already won the Champions League before, and I vividly remember both finals where they won. In 1997 I was in university, and we were in the process of finalizing a heavy group assignment at a group member's place north of Copenhagen. We took the evening off to watch the final between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. The final was played, of all places, in Munich, and the Italians, with a young superstar called Zinedine Zidane, were probably weak favourites after having eliminated Manchester United. But Dormund, with Ottmar Hitzfeld as coach, started attacking. Karl-Heinz Riedle scored two goals in the first half. In the second half Alessandro Del Piero scored one for Juventus but the young Lars Ricken sealed the victory for Dortmund with a goal 20 seconds after coming on as a substitute. Four years later was the last time Bayern Munich won the Champions League (but they have been in two finals since). I watched the final with my compadre Soren (whom I had also watched the 1997 final with) in a bar in downtown Copenhagen. The Germans were facing my dear Valencia, who started best, went 1-0 up, but ended up losing by penalties and breaking my heart. Incidentally, on the next day I travelled to Valencia but did not talk about football. One thing of the final in 2001 should be noted: the coach of Bayern Munich was Ottmar Hitzfeld! Same manager who four years before had led Dormund to the title. All these years after I will be watching this final in Caracas, Venezuela (who would have thought back then?), and one of these sides will be celebrating as they did many years ago!

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Interim" Chelsea

Chelsea has been up and down over the last few years. In 2011 Carlo Ancelotti was fired as the club "only" made it to second place in the Premier League (the previous year he had led them to their first "Double"). For the start of the 2011-12 season Andre Villas-Boas became manager, and under him team performance dipped with a string of defeats. Villas-Boas was fired in March 2012, and was replaced by "interim" coach Roberto Di Matteo, who in the subsequent months pulled the side up to win the FA Cup and the Champions League in May 2012. One could have been led to think that this would be enough to keep him in the club, but Chelsea's elimination in the first round of the 2012-13 Champions League season (as the first defending champions ever) led Di Matteo to lose his job in November 2012, and a new "interim" manager took over: Rafa Benitez.
And Rafa Benitez stayed as "interim" in spite of continued controversies and criticism, and eventually he announced that he would be leaving at the end of the season in spite of securing a CL spot in the Premier League. In the meantime the team progressed in the Europa League and last night Rafa Benitez led Chelsea to the Europa League title when defeating Benfica 2-1 in Amsterdam. It wasn't pretty: only Benfica inefficiency and an excellent late header by Branislav Ivanovic gave them a victory that must surely have felt somewhat bittersweet for Benitez, who will nevertheless probably not have to look much around for a more steady job.
And Chelsea? Rumors abound about a certain Portuguese gentleman returning to Chelsea. He will probably not have the title "interim", although that may always be the case in Chelsea anyway.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The champions from Paris

Anything can happen in football, but money often is victorious. After 19 years Paris St. Germain again won the French League title after a 1-0 victory over Olympique Lyon (a team that dominated French football with seven league titles in a row until 2008).
In 2012 the Qatar Investment Authority bought the stock majority in Paris St. Germain and made them one of the richest clubs in the world, investing heavily in creating a competitive team. Carlo Ancelotti became coach of a team and some of the players that arrived were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Maxwell, and even the ageing but ever-present David Beckham. And there is no doubt that the team has been steadily improving, and after finishing second last season they put up a great performance in the CL against FC Barcelona.
Now the title arrived, and it was surely a deserved title. Many people will criticize that it is only a victory of money, and that is surely true. But it is also true that Paris St. Germain was always a great team in a city - one of the greatest cities in the world -, that needs a top level football side. If the French league can avoid the trappings of the Spanish league, the French league will benefit from a strong Paris St. Germain side that will also be great to have in European competitions.
Great new champions, and congratulations to all fans!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Champions and champions

I usually find myself in cool places around the world to watch the FA Cup finals, but this year I found myself in an airplane, and was thus unable to watch a surprising final where Wigan Athletics won a surprising 1-0 victory over Manchester City. Wigan are fighting relegation from the Premier League and this victory is their first FA title ever! Manchester City in the meantime finish a "disappointing" season: second in the Premier League, second in the FA Cup and Champions League would have seemed like a miracle some years ago, but with growth expectations overshadow hope.
Wigan won with hope and no expectations, and must now hope for survival in the Premier League.
But that is what makes English football so great: these things can really happen!
Not so in the Spanish league.
When I finally got home from the airport I watched Espanol and Real Madrid play 1-1 in the Spanish League. This result makes FC Barcelona champions without playing, as Real Madrid can no longer hope to catch up with the Catalonians who will be playing Atletico Madrid later.
No surprises there: not since 2004 has another team than Barcelona or Real Madrid won the league (Valencia), and since then only one team has ended in top-2 (Villarreal in 2008).
Real Madrid can still hope for a title though: next Friday they will be playing Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. Atletico are no Wigan, but are still the smaller side against mighty Real Madrid, who will be playing at their home stadium.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The end of an era

Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement as manager of Manchester United after 27 years at the end of this season. He took over in 1986 after a brief stint as Scottish national coach at a time when the club had not taken the English title since 1967. In the first years Manchester United didn't win the title, but steadily improving, Ferguson held on, taking the FA Cup in 1990, and the UEFA Cup winners cup in 1991. And in 1993 Ferguson won his first Premier League title. By the time he retires, he will have led Manchester United to 13 League titles, of the 20 that Manchester United have ever won. Besides the League titles he won five FA Cup titles, four League Cup titles and two historical Champions League titles.
The speculations about who will replace him next season abound, with the favourites being David Moyes and Jose Mourinho. But no matter what no new manager will achieve what Sir Alex Ferguson achieved, and not only Manchester United fans but all football fans should be sad and respectful of the end of one of the impressive eras in football.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Juventus champions!

With a 1-0 victory over Palermo Juventus won their second Italian Serie A title in a row. In spite of Napoli defeating Inter Milan 3-1, the runner-ups cannot catch up with Juventus.
Great for Juventus, who are cementing their place back at the top of the Italian league after their disgraceful season in the lower Serie B league following the "Calciopoli" match fixing scandal.
Napoli will follow them into the Champions League, while AC Milan, Fiorentina, Roma, Udinese and Lazio seem to be fighting for the three CL qualification spots.

The poor men and the champions

I have not been able to watch Brøndby play the entire season, so it was perhaps in place that the match I watched was against the arch-rivals FC Copenhagen, in the match that could make the latter champions. 0-0 was enough to make the Copenhagen team champions with three rounds to go.
In spite of the fact that I have not seen them play this season it was obvious that in spite of the spirit and fight that Brøndby played with, FC Copenhagen are the best side tactically and technically. Brøndby was recently saved from bankruptcy by a massive input of money by fans and supporters, and that is to be admired. That said, when the leadership of the club is talking about European football within a few seasons it seems like they have remained living on planet "Illusion". Tactically Brøndby plays a primitive type of football where high balls are kicked up to a tall (and talented) striker. Technically, the quality of the average player is no better than the lower clubs of the English Championship.
This is not a team that will play European football within a few seasons, so they should just concentrate on surviving, for now, and then on building up a new team by replacing the weaker players.

FC Copenhagen continues to be the powerhouse of Danish football. That they did not win the title last season (FC Nordsjaelland did) was largely a fluke, and the team that was created in 1992 won its 10th title, and the 9th since 2001. With a variation of strong Danish players and foreigners they remain the only team with possibilities to compete decently in Europe, and not get the thrashings FC Nordsjaelland received last season in the CL.
I am not an FC Copenhagen fan, but I recognize them as the strongest and most competitive team in Denmark, and the right chanmpions.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The German final

Without Lionel Messi Barcelona never seemed really to believe in a historic comeback from 0-4 down to Bayern Munich. And without Carles Puyol down in defense FC Barcelona looks like a pretty ordinary side. It must be time for some reflection and perhaps a new coach? Tito Vilanova simply is not cut out for leading the side. While he maybe a product of their football philosophy he made some wrong choices in a match where Bayern Munich's victory was never in danger.
Bayern on the other hand are simply perfect. In all aspects of the game they were superior, and I do not think there has ever been amore resounding semifinal trashing of 7-0 in CL history.
For the first time ever we will now see a purely German final (there have been purely Spanish, English and Italian finals over the last 13 years). At Wembley. Germany will invade London!
Bayern Munich will be favourites against Borussia Dortmund, who in the end suffered more than necessary against Real Madrid. Still, in a final anyone can win (just look at Chelsea last year!), and it will surely be an exciting and well-played final on May 25th!