Heading for glory

The opening round of fixtures in Poland and Ukraine, have been inundated with missed chances, impotent attacks, and just too much possession. It is a tournament that will rely on the potency of dependable marksmen for their countries, and could see the rebirth of the traditional centre-forward.

In the fluid modern game the old fashioned number nine has been superseded by the combination of the ‘faux nine’: the floating frontman, and the trequartista: a deeper lying goal-scoring forward. The prominence of these two roles has been built on the popularity of less rigid formations incorporating interchangeable, nippy, technically outstanding players, that threaten to make the target man obsolete. Two of the world’s finest goal-getters: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of course fit these moulds, and between them last season somehow managed to plunder over 130 goals, including record breaking La Liga figures, and they have been part of the revolutionised way that attacking football is now played.

This season has also been a fantastic one for some of the most prolific European number nines, and they are currently showcasing their capabilities on the most important stage of the continent. They range from the talismatic Swede Zlatan Ihbrahimovic, and Pole Robert Lewandowski, to the mercurial goal machines: Karim Benzema and Klass-Jan Huntelaar. They are players oozing class and ability, but also have the responsibility of being the first line of both defence and offence for their countries, and the most pressure on their broad shoulders. It is their presence on the field that can lift an entire nation.

In the past, countries have employed a battering ram of a centre-forward to get themselves an outlet when under the cosh. Two of the most infamous tournament target men were World cup winner: Stephane Guivarc’h, and Euro championship victory goal-scorer Angelos Charisteas. Neither of these front men could ever claim to be prolific in front of goal, nor mobile, but both played integral parts in their nation’s glorious campaigns, giving their teammates relief when under pressure, and ushering the side forwards.

These strikers are more integral for their goal-scoring prowess than their team play. It is the killer touch, that most valuable commodity at a knockout tournament. The opening night of the competition painted a clear picture of this when Lewandowski opened the scoring, thumping a header past the flapping Chalkias, it was one of very few chances for the Poles, yet with the potent Dortmund man on the field they garnered a point from what became a tough contest. Another example of this of course comes in the form of German goal hulk, Mario Gomez. He has the impeccable knack to position himself in the box at all times, and his record for Bayern this season was outrageous. He has however shown time and time again that he is not a team player, and this week he has been criticised for his lack of effort by Bayern legend Mehmet Scholl. He was having an anonymous game against Portugal, and just as he was to be replaced, headed Germany to victory from his favourite six-yard box position. He has his off days, but always persists to find the back of the net, and it will be this potency that could very well be the edge that sees Germany becoming champions of Europe.

There have already been games when the deficiency of a traditional centre forward has cost countries dearly. Both Spain and Italy lined up without recognised centre-forwards in their sides, and although the Spanish played interchangeable, glorious tika taka football, when the ball needed to be whipped into the box, there was no target to be hit. Balotelli and Cassano lined up together for the Italians, but neither is a true centre-forward, and they lacked the composure and nous, when in a dangerous position. It was only when Di Natale was introduced that the Italians had a finisher, and with almost his first touch put his side ahead. Fabregas found the space to equalise, following a sumptuous pass from David Silva, but if Fernando Llorente had spearheaded the attack, it would have been a straightforward victory for the Spanish. He has been in lethal form this season for Bilbao, and he would have given them an outlet, and created more space for his compatriots to buzz around him.

Finally there is the problem of the ineffective lone centre forward. This must sadly include Milan Baros, Nicklas Bendtner and Danny Welbeck. None of this trio are marked out to lead the line on their own for their prospective countries. The Czech Republic, admittedly do not have a glut of talented frontmen, but pinning goal-scoring hopes on a man whose international goal drought currently stands at two years is comparable to Mike Bassett agreeing to let Rufus Smalls take that penalty. He looked desperately shorn of confidence, and ability against Russia, and with this lack of a goal scorer, his country would appear to be among the favourites for an early flight home.

Nicklas Bedntner is unfortunately the only option for Denmark in the centre-forward role. He cannot be questioned on his confidence and level of self-esteem, but his form at times is patchy. There have been times in an Arsenal shirt when he has looked the real deal, but others when his profligacy has cost his side three points. Against the Netherlands he looked short of ideas, and tended to drift deep in search of the ball when his teammates needed him to hold his position. Despite being physically capable, he has never looked comfortable challenging aerially with a robust centre-half, and he was well marshalled by Heitinga. Bedntner’s movement was sloppy, and unrefined, and poor, when playing as a lone frontman, he needed to spend more time in the box than on the wings, and if he had gambled more he would have made the scoreline more flattering for his victorious side.

Finally there is the problem of Danny Welbeck. He has been in sparkling form for his club-side, in what has been his first full season at Manchester United, but this has been playing alongside Rooney or Hernandez. In an England shirt he needs this support, and against France, his partner Ashley Young dropped too deep to help out, leaving him isolated. The defensive manner that England had lined up made it very difficult for Welbeck to play to his strengths, and despite facing a cagey French defence of Mexes and Rami, he didn’t record a single shot.  It was a game that required a more physical presence up front to hustle and harry the wary backline, and would have been tailor made for a player of the sadly retired Dean Ashton’s ilk. A fully on form Any Carroll would have terrified the French defensive five, and when they were worn down and battered, Hodgson should have sent on Welbeck and Defoe to scamper past tired passengers. There is no doubt that Welbeck is talented, but he is not physical capable of playing the lone frontman, and if he continues in this position, England may find it difficult to make it to the knock-out rounds.

As the tournament progresses, the footballing community will no doubt be given a masterclass on finishing by the continent’s best front-men. They will be the difference between glory and despair, and more likely than not, a hero will come to the fore, just when their country needs him most.


The sour taste of the beautiful game

10th September 2011 is a date that Steve Bruce is unlikely to forget in a hurry. After months of parasites infesting his main goal getter, Asamoah Gyan’s head, the Ghanaian left the North East on a surprising season long loan to the United Arab Emirates side Al-Ain, in an apparent attempt to regain his focus. This is becoming an unfortunately common sight in modern day football; the player’s head being turned by the possible chance that they might be able to ply their trade somewhere more glamourous than for their current outfit. As the press has become more and more powerful and intrusive, there is no surprise that some players might be unsettled by a rumour linking them to the bright lights of Madrid, or that their manager allegedly dislikes them. It has affected the most loyal servants to their clubs, with the Steven Gerrard to Chelsea incident springing to mind, and has ruined the mindsets of others.  So why does it happen? Who is responsible? And how realistically can the problem be solved?

There have always been rumours and gossip surrounding footballers, especially when a player has excelled, burst onto the scene or publicly voiced their disdain for their present situation. The rumour mill these days has escalated rapidly, and we are constantly entertained by the possibility of Wesley Sneijder ditching his glorious life in Milan for the frostbite of a Manchester substitutes’ bench, or Arsene Wenger splashing out his entire budget on yet another unlikely, unneeded youthful candidate. Crass, eye-catching stories grab the attention, but really for it to become newsworthy there should be an ounce of truth in the depiction. Perhaps most worryingly as the  Steed Malbranque rumour has shown, stories can be plucked from the air, and if its discussed enough then it becomes plausible. This year has been rife with unsettled footballers, that have been apparently offered bigger bucks elsewhere, and despite the club owning that player’s registration until their contract expires, it is the player that is in control.

A prime example of recent player power has been Samir Nasri in engineering his move to Manchester City. Going into this season, Nasri had only a single year remaining on his Arsenal contract. Arsene Wenger was adamant that despite this fact if Nasri did not sign a new deal he would retain his services for the season and risk losing him on a Bosman next summer. Instead, he dug his heels in and forced the move through. Wenger has retained a strong sense of denial this summer in his attempts to keep Nasri and Fabregas, and he must have known all along that his two most prominent possession merchants were on their way out. The move went through at the end of August, and Nasri’s form and immediate coherent position in the City team, have shown that he made the correct move.

Alongside this new found power for players when dealing with a potential move, is the strength that their agents have in these negotiations. Around this time last year the Wayne Rooney debacle manifested itself onto the nation’s back pages for a couple of weeks. He claimed to have become unsettled and disillusioned by the lack of high profile recruits, and seemed almost certain to leave Old Trafford. He eventually saw the sense, signed a bumper new contract, and lived happily ever after. It is hard to comprehend why a player so well loved and respected at the most successful club in England would want to jump ship, until the salient presence of his agent, Paul Stretford is considered. Stretford was aware that any scare-mongering would force Manchester United into a tight corner, and that their only positive route out was to offer Rooney more money; allowing the agent to pocket his cut of the deal. Alex Ferguson maintained all along merely that ‘Rooney’s advisers say he’s wants a move’, accentuating the fact that the player was in all reality a puppet for his pushy money man.

Perhaps the best depiction of an unsettled footballer and his external conscience is that of the  Manchester-phobic Carlos Tevez and the suspiciously successful Kia Joorabchian. The Argentine has been on a self-imposed nomadic conveyor belt after he sold his soul to the Joorabchian fronted MSI Agency at the age of 21.  Since his economic rights were handed to Joorabchian, Tevez has seemingly moved wherever the money is best; his short spell at West Ham was an attempt to advertise the product, and Manchester United took the bait, snapping him up on a two season loan. He then trundled across the city to sign for the ‘noisy neighbours’, and has enjoyed a gluttonous goal-fest in the blue shirt. This summer another move almost materialised, but in reality was unaffordable. He has cited his family’s absence as a motive, but by contemplating a move to mainland Europe he would have migrated even further away from his motherland. They have now resumed life in the North West, and he claims to be happy to stay in Manchester. So why the itchy feet this summer? It couldn’t have merely been the player wanting out, especially after captaining the side for the majority of last season, and propelling them to their first silverware in almost four decades. He is one of the highest earning players worldwide, and were he to leave would have to take a significant pay cut. He has often spoken of his desire to retire early and to return home, it could be argued that because he is aware of this knowledge, Joorabchian knows that to maximise his profits, he and his client have to tread new nations, and infiltrate new markets because the cash cow won’t be there forever. His latest moment of disruptive madness however has pushed a move in January through prematurely, and he will be forced to rot in isolation, and then ciphered  off to the highest bidder.

This situation involving Tevez is one that documents just how futile a club’s contractual obligations are to an individual player. It appears that even the most settled players have doubts, and are always looking to progress their careers both financially and also on a personal level. Benoît Assou-Ekotto last year gave an enlightening insight into the mind of the mercenary footballer.  As a result it is easily apparent to see just what drives a large portion of professional footballers, and also their background teams to push for that quick buck. The presence of better offers in rumour form and occasionally in reality, force dreams to be considered, heads to turn, and wallets to be well stocked. It appears that this is a side of the game that is going to stay, and if anything become even more deeply rooted into the very existence of the sport. In today’s game money talks; I’m sorry Steve Bruce, but you have lost Asamoah Gyan for good.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

As a Norwich City fan the past two seasons have seemed to have sped by, leaving me almost pedestrianised as I come to terms with which division my team will be plying their trade in next season. I have finally come to terms with the fact that this season did in fact happen, after realising that Sky Sports have prepped their page for next season; with Norwich now competing in the Premier League . I have spent the majority of the past 18 months out of the country, and so my fandom has been forced to be channelled into watching a nerve-wracking live feed, or streaming sometimes patchy Scandinavian coverage to get my fix. I am however thankful that I managed to stay in the loop, and watched the exciting conclusion to the season that surprised us all. I am going to give my account of some of the most interesting parts of the season from the perspective of a Canary in Carolina.

After attending the opening matches of the past two seasons with me, I have come to believe that my American girlfriend is both a bad and good luck omen. She has overseen two defeats, yet both of the campaigns have ended in glory, and her confusion that the side who played so strewn of confidence could do well. Perhaps the most harrowing experience for me, was trying to explain to her after the 7-1 defeat to Colchester, that “they don’t normally play like this”. At the beginning of last season however, I looked forward to a year of consolidation and a possible play off push, but nothing that would involve automatic promotion come May. Paul Lambert had shaken the team awake following a sleepy start and after winning  League One at a canter,  the club was on the up.

After returning to America in August, I managed to catch Swansea’s visit to Carrow Road, and I witnessed a strange occurrence; Norwich had luck on their side! Swansea won a penalty at almost the match’s conclusion, but miraculously it was saved, and four minutes later Ashley Williams inadvertently diverted the ball into his own net, and then Simeon Jackson opened his Canary account with almost the last kick of the game, volleying home from an excellent Grant Holt cross. Norwich had been under the cosh for the majority of the game, yet managed to emerge victorious.  It was the start of the late goal phenomenon: Norwich City were at last playing until the final whistle, a trait that I have rarely seen during my time as a fan. This result gave confirmation that Norwich could compete against the better sides in the Championship, and from my football isolation zone, I could assume three league games in that the season would not be an uphill struggle.

My Saturday mornings consisted of a quick glance over the choice of internet streams, and if unwatchable, it would be on to the BBC live feed for a nerve wracking read. There is nothing quite like sitting in front of a computer screen, watching mere text document some of the most important 90 minutes of your day, especially when it does not update for minutes at a time. Perhaps the worst instance of a reliance upon the dreaded live feed was in the Ipswich game at Portman Road. For some strange reason the game wasn’t televised, anywhere other than at Carrow Road, and because I was on the move a lot that day it was a case of infrequent checks in the first half, and then waiting until much later to see the full time result. Having difficulties with coverage and waiting to discover the result however can have a silver lining, as the surprise that awaits can be a greatly enjoyable one. I had luckily returned to England for the first East Anglian derby match, and after that easy victory, I was expecting this encounter to be much closer, so much to my surprise the largest ever Norwich win in this fixture greeted my eyes.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being a fan abroad is the distinct lack of atmosphere, and the sense of once the game is over it’s back to your other life. There were two incidents when this was noticeable for me, watching Nottingham Forest’s visit to Carrow Road, and Norwich’s promotion clinching trip to Portsmouth. As the games came thick and fast throughout April, I lost track of when to tune in, and had pre-arranged to visit my girlfriend’s family that day. To reverse my folly, we stopped en route, and I snuck into a Barnes & Noble to take advantage of their free wi-fi, and armchair comforts. I was forced to silently shake my head as perhaps the worst case scenario happened: three minutes in, John Ruddy chased a long Forest punt down, and attempted to return the clearance, but it instead cannoned off of the closest redshirt, Nathan Tyson, and ricocheted into the unguarded net. It did not take the home side long however to get back onto level terms and then to claim a well deserved winner just before half-time. As my girlfriend checked on me in the second half, I was far removed from the external world, completely immersed in the events of a match some 4,000 miles away. As Forest camped in the Norwich half for the final 5 minutes, I was visibly on edge, and would have appeared out of place in such a serene atmosphere; this was not the actions of a man listening to Mozart! As the prone Paul Konchesky was given his marching orders, and the final whistle was blown, I quickly emerged back into a slow moving bookshop in North Carolina in an elated mood, and we were able to continue on to our prior engagement. It was perhaps the most  juxtaposed 90 minutes of my life, as I sat on the edge of my seat silently urging my team on; kicking every ball; and making every header, whilst mundane American consumer life went on interrupted around me.

When Norwich kicked off against Portsmouth at Fratton Park on May 2nd, they were in poll position in the automatic promotion race, Cardiff had shot themselves in the foot, following a 3-0 defeat to lowly Middlesborough, and it was up to Norwich to finish the job themselves. It was simple, if they were victorious they would earn promotion with a game to spare, it was in their own hands. I watched the game in my girlfriend’s student apartment, with our newly acquired  dog, and as far as I could tell was the only person in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that knew of the game’s existence, and that cared for the result. Our hound was confused as his new master gasped and shouted at profligate finishing, and brayed for retribution as yet another heavy challenge came in. Portsmouth’s tactics were to frustrate and to keep Norwich at bay, giving them very little in an attacking third. They were lucky to be level at half time, but I was apprehensive that they could keep it up for the remaining half, and that the promotion party would have to wait until the final game of the season. Then Simeon Jackson popped up to break the deadlock with a well timed diving header, and suddenly the dream was a reality, I celebrated as I too was there on the south coast, and our dog got even more confused. There were chances at either end, but thankfully no heart in mouth moments, and Norwich had done it. I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting nursing a cup of Earl Grey, and brimming with elation, letting it all sink in. Norwich City were the first team in over a decade to be promoted from the third tier of English football to the top in consecutive seasons. Whilst my Facebook newsfeed blew up with triumphant statuses, and glorious screenshots of the Championship table, I went out onto the UNC campus to meet my girlfriend, encountering nothing but oblivious faces along the way, as I basked in my team’s achievement.

The periods of time spent abroad, have taught me that despite being isolated from fellow Norwich supporters geographically, I was still able to be part of the promotion party, and to watch the excitement unfurl. Football is now easily accessible across the internet, and as streamed games become more plentiful, the ability to (no matter what your location) enjoy the action and to zone in is thankfully easy. Sure I might not be able to say that I was at Fratton Park on the day Norwich City were promoted, but I can happily admit that I watched the game in North Carolina, and then returned to the glorious American sun, with a semi-permanent euphoric smile etched upon my face. The world has become a smaller place, one which it is very difficult to fall out of the football loop.

False dawn or back on track?

Last week Chelsea manoeuvred a potentially tricky visit to Copenhagen smoothly and with very little fuss, but does this mean that their season is now back on track, or will it dip once more on their return to domestic duty against Manchester United on Tuesday? Before this can be answered, it is essential to document just when and where their season began to fall apart, and whether it can still be salvaged.

After beginning this season in such scintillating form it looked a forgone conclusion that the Premier League title would remain in west London for another year at least. The Blues were the first team to ever begin a Premier League season with back to back 6-0 victories, and looked on course to emulate last season’s record goal difference . The first stumble was defeat at ‘Eastlands’ by a single goal to a fortunate City side, but the team got back to their best with a victory against Marseille, and then outclassed Arsenal. One of their season’s turning points was the Fernando Torres inflicted defeat to the occasionally decent, but thoroughly unpredictable Liverpool. That lose came on the 7th November, but the London side remained top with a 2 points lead and a game in hand on United, and it appeared to be just another blip. They followed up this defeat with a victory in the West London derby against Fulham at the Bridge, and their season still appeared to be very much still on. The day after however the Chelsea season hit turbulence.

On November 11th, Ray Wilkins, the long standing assistant manager had his contract terminated with immediate effect. it was an unexpected decision for Wilkins, and for the Chelsea playing squad. He has been an integral part of recent Chelsea development, working under Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti, and has been a settled vessel amongst the management uncertainty at Stamford Bridge since 2007. Wilkins is well known to have built up  a rapport with the Chelsea squad, and to have utilised his experience to help get the best out of the team. Carlo Ancelotti claimed that “without him, we couldn’t have won a thing”, and I would wholeheartedly agree with him. His presence was required to allow the medley of recent foreign managers find their feet at the Bridge, and to liaise between the players and the manager. The unexpected news was given to Wilkins whilst he was watching a Chelsea reserve team game, and its reasoning is still yet to emerge. He was replaced by the club’s former head of opposition scout, Michael Emenalo, a man appointed by Avram Grant in 2007. Although Emenalo seamlessly slid into the position, he is a less animated man, and it has been easy to see at times how much Wilkins has been missed.

In the 14 league games since Wilkins’ dismissal, Chelsea have been on a horrendous run of form, and it is a far cry from the all conquering side of Jose Mourinho. They have only managed to garner 17 points from a possible 42, and are in danger of not qualifying for next season’s Champions’ League. Can this all be a result of Wilkins’ dismissal, or are there other factors involved in the mix? It can be argued that this season has been one of Chelsea’s most unfortunate for injuries, and that after a summer clear out, those that have departed, have not been sufficiently replaced. It has been the core of the side that has been hit the worst, with problems in both defence and midfield. The normally omnipresent Frank Lampard has been absent more than he has played, and the team have missed his assuredness and fluidity, as well as his goalscoring prowess. His absence has been compounded by that of Michael Essien, who when he has featured, has not been the dominating man-mountain of seasons gone by, and often looks off the pace. Gone from last season’s double winning squad are the experienced Deco, Ballack, Joe Cole and Belletti, and their replacements: Benayoun and Ramires have struggled with fitness, and acclimatisation to the English game, resulting in a stuttering midfield visibly lacking the composure of season’s gone by.

Perhaps most worrying from a Chelsea point of view, has been the indecision and lack of stability at the back. Petr Cech still appears to be affected by his incident with Stephen Hunt, and is hesitant and nervous when the ball is whipped across his box at pace, or when he has to contest an aerial battle with physical opposition. He has saved Chelsea valuable points this season, but is not the commanding presence that he once was, and this lack of confidence resonates through the back line. John Terry has remained his committed self, but even he is human, and has had lapses of concentration. As a result of injuries to Alex and Ivanovic he hasn’t been able to have a constant partner next to him in the centre of defence, and when an unfamiliar player has filled in, the understanding is noticeably lacking. In January Ancelotti brought in the highly rated Brazilian David Luiz to finally fill the void left by Ricardo Carvalho who moved to Madrid over the summer. Luiz is obviously talented, and will be a great ball playing defender for Chelsea, but he needs time to bed in, and to adapt to the speed of the Premier League. He impressed on his first start against Fulham, but was clumsy and rash in bringing Clint Dempsey down, which resulted in a missed penalty for the Cottagers.

It can be argued that alongside the gaps in Chelsea’s formally formidable armoury, the back bone of the vastly successful team are all ageing, and will soon have to be replaced. Lampard  and Drogba are 33 this year, Terry and Anelka are into their 30s, and even the much maligned Ashley Cole will be 31 this year. They are developing the next generation of world beaters, and are starting to ease promising youngsters into the side, with perhaps the ones to watch in the years to come being playmaker Josh McEachran, the goal poacher Daniel Sturridge and Luiz.

It appears that the best way to describe the current Chelsea situation, is one of turbulent transition, that has rendered the season a disappointing one. Two examples of this transition spring to mind; firstly Alex Ferguson’s recent response to John Terry’s pointless claim that United could falter at the top of the table, as he ruled out Chelsea from recovering the 15 points deficit. In recent years the two sides have been neck and neck, and I am sure that the Scotsman is both shocked and relieved by the shortcomings of the Londoners, with the Premier League title really being United’s to lose this season. Secondly after the signing of Fernando Torres in January, Ancelotti has been forced to tinker with his frontline to attempt to accommodate the Spaniard, and as a result the goals have dried up, and the team have been disjointed. In recent seasons, Drogba and Anelka have been two of the first names on the team sheet, and have proved themselves time and time again to be capable match winners, but neither appears to be a good fit with the new £50 million man, and Drogba has been jettisoned to the bench. With the huge amount of money spent on the striker, Ancelotti has to persist with Torres until he eventually comes good, or else lose face.

As long as they are still in the Champions’ League, there is still a chance that Chelsea’s season can be rescued, and that they will have a trip to Wembley. They will however need to get their season back on track with victory at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, and if they can coax the best out of their frontline, then they will be unplayable. Wilkins’ departure in the middle of the season left the team unsettled and confused, and there is obviously something rotten at the centre of the club, but they can press on for the final third of the campaign, and finish on a high. It is a side in transition, that has the ability to return to greatness once more, they just need to settle down, regain their confidence and to get back on track.

The battle of the total footballers

Tomorrow night marks the reunion of two of the most talented attackers to have ever graced the Eredivisie: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rafael van der Vaart. The former Ajax team mates have been at odds since an international match between Sweden and Holland in which Ibrahimovic injured van der Vaart, ending his game. It was claimed afterwards by the playmaker that the Swede had shown no remorse, and that he was “a psycho”, a remark that offended Ibrahimovic, who promptly stated that he could no longer play in the same team as van der Vaart, and was soon transferred to Juventus. Since the incident the duo have both progressed their careers, but are yet to face one another, and are preparing to do battle in the San Siro tomorrow night, with Ibrahimovic in the red and black of Milan, and van der Vaart in the white of Tottenham.

My earliest memory of the duo is from the summer of 2002, when they lined up in a friendly for Ajax against Norwich at Carrow Road. They were both prodigious, youthful and raw, but gave the home defence a torrid time, and combined well for the game’s single goal, scored by the Swede after a great cross by the Dutchman. That sunny July afternoon, I was mesmerised by their quick feet, great technique and all round ability, and could see that they were destined for greatness, but never expected that their careers would take such different paths.

It was obvious from the beginning that Ibrahimovic was a volatile character; a hugely talented player but one with the ability to frustrate. He was frankly too good for the Eredivisie, even in his youth, and a big money move was always on the cards. He exit from Amsterdam  was unscrupulous but the outcome was to be expected. His spell in Turin was one of success, but was blighted by his agent cooking up a story that Juventus had turned down a €70m bid from Real Madrid, which turned into a publicity stunt to increase his client’s value. Ibrahimovic’s chapter with the ‘Old Lady’ ended after the club were relegated after being found guilty in the Calciopoli Scandal in 2006, and he soon jumped ship to Internazionale. His most prolific spell thus far of his career was spent in the Blue and Black stripes of the Nerazzurri, where he managed 66 goals in his 116 games. It was this form that persuaded Barcelona to piece together a package to lure him to Catalonia, by offering €46m plus Samuel Eto’o, a deal that in hindsight Inter got rather the better end of. Despite being the first Barcelona signing to score in his first 4 appearances, Ibrahimovic struggled to establish himself at the Nou Camp, and after he claimed that Pep Guardiola had not spoken to him since March, and the  signing of David Villa, he realised that his Spanish adventure was fading fast. He was loaned to AC Milan, where he has flourished, and is excelling back in Serie A, and will be full of confidence tomorrow night.

Van der vaart on the other hand took up Ibrahimovic’s goal scoring responsibilities when he fled Amsterdam, but during his Ajax career struggled for fitness, making just over 140 games in his 6 seasons at the club. He too left the club under a cloud after being criticised for being overweight, and for spending too much time enjoying the Amsterdam nightlife with his fiancee of the time. In 2005 he left the club, moving to Hamburg SV, and soon became the team’s talismatic captain. At times during his spell in the Bundesliga, it became apparent that the team were over reliant on him, in a similar manner to Steven Gerrard at Liverpool as they struggled when he was injured. He signed for Real Madrid in August 2008, for €13m, and big hopes were pinned to his arrival at the Bernabeu. His spell in Spain lasted slightly longer than Ibrahimovic’s, but was just as unhappy, as he was frozen out of the team after the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Kaka in the summer of 2009. He signed for Spurs at the very last minute of the 2010 summer transfer window, and has gone on to be arguably the best signing of this season. He has found a new lease of life at White Hart Lane, and with the plethora of attack minded players surrounding him, he is able to weave his magic as he pleases. At a reported £8m he must be regarded as one of the bargains of this century, and his goals this season have often proved to be priceless. He alongside Gareth Bale, has seamlessly become the emblem of the North Londoners’ Champions League campaign, and his role in the hole behind Peter Crouch, has allowed him to cause mischief in no man’s land.

Lastly their projected inputs of Tuesday night’s game must be discussed. Ibrahimovic is widely known to go missing during the biggest games, and last season infamously covered the same amount of ground in the Champions League semi final as his goal keeper, Victor Valdes. He has the ability to produce something out of nothing, and will be a nightmare for Spur’s patched up defence to repel, but it is never possible to gauge which Ibrahimovic will be strutting the pitch. Van der Vaart has been instrumental in Spurs’ maiden Champions League campaign, and I believe that he will play an integral part of the contest. It will be interesting to see how Milan deal with him, whether they decide to man mark and harry him whilst he has possession, or allow him space to work his stuff. Out of the two I believe that van der Vaart performs better under pressure, and that that is why under his huge price tags, Ibrahimovic struggled in Spain, and in the most important games. The Swede has had a lot of money spent on him, and whilst at Barcelona had an improbable buy out clause written into his contract of €250m. With his outlandish value, it is logical to claim that he must be one of the best players in the world, and therefore able to dominate any game. I believe that he will show his talent in fits and starts tomorrow night, perhaps wowing the crowd with a moment of outrageous skill, or by scoring from an impossible angle, but the Dutchman will be victorious in this battle.

Speculate to accumulate

Since its introduction in 2003, the January transfer window has prolonged the season of excitement and good will to all of those involved in the game, and has given everyone the chance to speculate just who could be on the move. Clubs have the entirity of January to conclude a transfer, yet the biggest deals often surface at the month’s climax. This transfer window was the most costly yet, with the reported figure of more than £200 million being splashed around by just Premier League clubs, and the British transfer record twice broken on the same night. There have been some fantastically exciting off and on sagas, and some last minute panic buys; some fans will be elated, others bemused, and some just downright disheartened. The case is always put that a manager cannot make a huge impact taking over halfway through a season, one quality signing however can be the difference between promotion and mid-table, or relegation and survival. Its a mid winter lottery, and some are more willing to gamble than others.

I speak from my own experiences as a Norwich City fan, that the January window can be a delight or a dread. Some of the best signings that the club have made in recent years were conducted in January. Darren Huckerby was the first January transfer window signing presented to the fans, as his successful loan spell was  made permanent, and promotion soon followed. The following January, a prodigious lower league striker, Dean Ashton was signed and charged with firing the Canaries to Premiership survival (a task that he almost accomplished). Fast forward a year, and Ashton had been snapped up by West Ham to be replaced by the prolific goal getting Robert Earnshaw. This year with promotion again a possibility, the  squad has been modestly bolstered, and much to the surprise of many supporters, a proven goal scorer was not added to the roster. With the current crop of frontmen miss-firing, it would have appeared that an out and out striker would have been on the shopping list, but Paul Lambert stated that he would not spend money for the sake of it, and that he was happy with the squad to complete the job in hand. When a large number of clubs were calling press conferences for the last minute signings, Lambert was discussing the build up to last night’s game with Millwall, and the serenity of the situation was easily visible.

It is interesting to note that although Norwich are very much a club in transition, creeping from strength to strength, they have a reasonably settled squad, and have not chopped and changed much this winter. This can be aligned to the Premier League’s top 3: of these teams, only Manchester City have spent money this January, and that was to concluded their 6 month courtship of Edin Dzeko from Wolfsburg. It appears that these teams have stability, and that too many new faces midway through the season could potentially rock the boat. Dzeko’s signing reflects Mancini’s attempt to complete his squad, and although at £27million the Bosnian did not come cheaply, he has shown glimpses that he could be the final piece in City’s silverware quest, and will thrive at Eastlands alongside Tevez and Silva.

Monday night was an amazingly exciting evening of late transfer action. It all centred around Fernando Torres’ £50 million move to Chelsea, with the Merseysiders reinvesting the money on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. When the possibility of Torres moving to London surfaced this weekend, I thought that Daglish would persuade him to remain until the end of the season, and then allow him to depart if he still wanted. It seemed to take forever for the Suarez deal to be confirmed, but now that he’s finally here I believe that he’ll take the League by storm. He’s pacy, technically very strong, tenacious, and most importantly has a footballing brain, allowing him to slip in seamlessly with Meireles and Gerrard. Perhaps the most unexpected transfer of the night was that of Carroll, who became the most expensive Englishman yet. He is Newcastle born and raised, and it appeared unlikely that he would be jettisoned from the club whilst he was still in development. Although he has been in fine form this season, gaining his first senior England cap, he has only played 40 top flight games, and at £35 million could be a risk. He is a young man of quite some potential, and has the ability to become a Liverpool legend. Despite losing one of their two world class players, Liverpool fans have much to be cheerful about with their new multi-milion strike force. Daglish has reinvested into the squad wisely and has brought in two hungry young forwards, that could fire the boys in red back into those Champion’s League places.

Now to get to the record breaking transfer, the £50million man, Fernando Torres. His form this season has been questionable, and his body language often has suggested that sharing a pitch with Lucas Leiva and Paul Konchesky is the last thing that he would like to do on a Saturday afternoon. In recent weeks however with the appointment of Daglish, Torres has returned to his potent best, and appeared to be enjoying his football once more. Over the period of a weekend however, he has become the most hated man on Merseyside, and the Kopites that once worshipped him, have been seen burning his shirt to banish his presence from Anfield. In Torres’ defence he has made it publicly known that he will be donning a blue shirt in an attempt to add to his medal collection, and it is fair enough to say that he would have to leave Liverpool to gain the success that he craves. It is possible however to gauge his recent improvement of form as an attempt to display his talents for potential new employers, and to put himself in the shop window. Now that he has procured his big money move, he will have to establish himself in the Chelsea lineup, alongside Drogba and Anelka. The arrival of Torres suggests that one of the established forwards at the club will be forced to leave, Didier Drogba’s name has already been mentioned. He and Torres if compatible would be one of the most fearsome strike pairings ever to grace English football, but I fear that they both perform at their best when supported by wide men and a second striker, and that Ancelotti will have  to make a straight choice.

So after such an exciting January, it will be interesting to see how the new additions bed in, and who by the end of the season will have been worth the money, and whether there will be another Shevchenko style flop. The transfer window has its faults and merits, but there’s no denying that all of that frantic speculation and action would be missed if it ever were to be stopped.

Positively negative…

After watching the pulsating Norwich vs Cardiff match, I concluded that it was perhaps the most exciting Championship game I have witnessed all season, and also realised the positives of anti-football. Cardiff started the brighter, and took advantage of some extremely slack defending to draw first blood. After the ball had hit the back of the net on 7 minutes, Dave Jones instructed his players to consolidate the centre of the park, and to keep at least 9 men behind the ball at all times in an attempt to close out the game. It forced Norwich to hold onto the ball and to probe their opposition, trying to pressure them into a lapse of concentration, the  breakthrough finally came on 90 minutes. Thankfully football prevailed in the end, but it’s important to discuss how Cardiff almost stole an undeserved 3 points from Carrow Road.

If anything, scoring so early on was a negative thing for the visitors. On Saturday, they lined up with four very attacking minded players on the field, and looked like they would attempt to take the game to Norwich, and to force the opposition to play on the brake. In recent weeks the Bluebirds have been woeful away from Wales, and this was the first away point accumulated in the past 5 away days. At the start of the season, they played with a sense of fluidity not so different from Arsenal, but this recent run of form has disrupted this confidence, and they are also currently without top scorer, Jay Bothroyd. In place of Bothroyd on Saturday, was debutant, Jon Parkin, and it was immediately obvious to see that he would be the fulcrum of their attack, with a very able supporting cast of Craig Bellamy, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra buzzing all over the final third. It is a front quadrant that promised goals, but after Parkin’s wonderful volley from the edge of the area, were nullified by a combination of fantastic defending and goalkeeping, and profligate finishing. disappointed when given a sight of goal. It can be argued that by scoring so early on, Cardiff were forced to invite the home team to attack them, and attempted to shut up shop. This meant that for the vast majority of the game whenever Cardiff gained possession, it would be launched route one in the hope that Parkin would knock the ball on to a more fleet-footed team mate.

Although I have no authority to compare neither Norwich or Cardiff to Inter Milan or Barcelona, I feel that the associations make sense. This game had shades of that infamous Champion’s League match up from April last year. Admittedly Inter had a two goal league to protect, and were organised with the plan of blocking Barcelona off before they managed to probe their way into the Nerazzurri penalty area. Mourinho’s tactics that day were to frustrate his opponents, and to attack them with pace when they were given the chance. Despite conceding in the final quarter of the match, Inter held on to make the final, winning the competition. There are obvious parallels between the two games: Cardiff got the single goal that they needed to emerge victorious from the contest, forcing Norwich to spread the ball around quickly in midfield in an attempt to carve open a chance. There were nervy moments for the visitors as David Fox struck the crossbar with a furious effort from 25 yards, and Norwich had two penalty shouts waved away, but until the excellent Russell Martin tapped in from a tight angle, it looked like they would hold on for all three points. With so little space in and around the Cardiff box, it was important that the Norwich midfield moved the ball quickly, and spread the play all over the pitch in the hope of creating space for the front two. The main instigator of this play was the marauding Wes Hoolahan, who was at the heart of everything Norwich. He rarely lost the ball, and cruised all over the park, floating into space. His forward thrust forced the gigantic Seyi Olofinjana to backtrack, reducing his impact on the game to some horrendous first touches and a lot of running. It can be argued that as good as Cardiff’s defensive unit were, their midfield was anonymous, and reduced to spectators for much of the match as the ball eluded them.

The most surprising outcome of the day was the contest between Russell Martin and Craig Bellamy. It was only last season that Bellamy was one of Manchester City’s most consistent and mercurial attackers. He struggled to make an impact on the game on his first competitive return to Carrow Road, and looked short of ideas when he had possession. With the approach of Cardiff after opening the scoring, Bellamy was forced to spend most of the game marking Martin, helping out his defensive team-mates. He has never been a defensively minded player, but in the flat 4-4-2 that Dave Jones’ team line up in, forces him to track back and stay in midfield which truly limits his impact on the game. Bellamy’s contribution can be compared to that of Samuel Eto’o against Barcelona. Eto’o made his name as a jet-heeled goal getter, similar to Bellamy, but on that great night, Mourinho played him out wide, utilising his pace in both halves of the pitch, allowing Inter a chance of relief. In both instances the player’s attacking prowess is subdued for the good of the team, but utilised in a quick breakaway.

The positives of anti-football are visible for all to see, and it’s a style that can garner results. It is a tactic that invites the opposition to come and attack, and to attempt to break them down. It is obvious to see that Cardiff’s, like all team’s tactics change from situation to situation, and that against a weaker side they would go all out to attack them. It’s a credit to Norwich City, and documents just how far that they have come in the past two seasons. Negative football can win points, and is a worthy tactic, but I’m just happy that in this instance football came out on top, but neither side were defeated.