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In the fluid modern game the old fashioned number nine has been superseded by the combination of the ‘faux nine’: the floating frontman, and the trequartista: a deeper lying goal-scoring forward.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.

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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.