Archive for the ‘Colin’s Column’ Category

Scottish clubs need to get behind Rangers’ European campaign

Matias Fernandez’s 88th-minute equaliser for Sporting Lisbon against Rangers last Thursday could prove to be the death knell for Scottish clubs in Europe this year – and for years to come.

With the co-efficient of Scotland’s clubs in dire straits, the SPL need Rangers to progress as far as they can to give Scotland a much-needed rankings boost and regain the two lucrative Champions League spots.

The Gers will face Sporting Lisbon tomorrow in the second leg of the knockout stages of the Europa League after the 1-1 draw at Ibrox, but Rangers will need to score in the Estadio Jose Alvalade to stand any chance of making it through to the last 16.

If Rangers crash out in Portugal, then Scotland could potentially slide further down the rankings pole with Switzerland breathing down their necks.

However, manager Walter Smith has reason to feel confident due to previous encounters with the Iberian side.

During Rangers’ run to the UEFA Cup Final in 2008, Smith’s men drew 0-0 at home with Sporting before an impressive 2-0 win in Portugal sealed their progress. A tap-in from Jean Claude Darcheville and a solo effort from Steven Whittaker proved to be enough on the night.

Supporters will be hoping that Smith can mastermind a similar result this time round, but Rangers look to be having serious problems in the striking department.

With £4m striker Nikica Jelavic ineligible and Steven Naismith out injured, it looks like Smith will have to persist with Northern Irishman Kyle Lafferty up front.

The much-maligned and unpopular striker has scored just 6 goals in 26 appearances this term, and in over 2 and a half years at the club has only scored 15.

With injuries piling up and the team having suffered a 3-0 loss to rivals Celtic at the weekend, it’s not looking good for Rangers as they try to claw back some co-efficient points.

As it stands, only the winner of this season’s SPL will qualify for the Champions League (and the preliminary rounds at that). Second and third place, along with the winner of the Scottish Cup, will take the Europa League spots.

However, due to other countries slipping up, Scotland are set to regain their two Champions League places for season 2012-13 and move back up the rankings table to 15th place – which would be a welcome financial boost for the participating clubs.

But Swiss clubs are hot on Scotland’s heels and if Rangers fail to get past Lisbon on Thursday then 15th place could be in serious jeopardy.

If Basel and Young Boys, who are both still very much in their respective ties, progress to the last 16 and Rangers do not, then Switzerland will inherit the two Champions League places instead and Scotland will slip even further into the co-efficient abyss.

Thursday’s result could have an impact on the Scottish game for years to come.

Rangers, if they do embark on a European run this season, will probably lose the SPL title and will also miss out on the millions of pounds that come with the Champions League spot. 

This makes it all the more crucial for the Gers to win on Thursday to bring in some much needed finance, and more importantly, some much needed co-efficient points.

Colin Stone

What’s all the fuss about Emilio Izaguirre?

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is reportedly interested in bringing Celtic’s Honduran defender Emilio Izaguirre to Anfield.

The 24 year-old left-back signed for the Hoops from Motagua in his homeland in a £600,000 deal last summer and has made 21 appearances for the Glasgow side this season.

With Celtic apparently sticking a £10m price tag on Izaguirre’s head after little more than six months in Scotland, it shows how highly manager Neil Lennon rates the diminutive defender.

Arguably Celtic’s best player this season, the Honduran has impressed with his pin-point crosses, running, dribbling, ability to take on his man and his role in setting up crucial goals.

His most recent contribution was to set up striker Gary Hooper’s second goal during the 3-0 win over Rangers on Sunday. The left-back ran from inside his own box, beat the offside trap spectacularly and played a delightful ball across the box for the English forward to poke home.

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish was at Sunday’s game to cast his eye over the World Cup star, whilst Manchester United supremo Sir Alex Ferguson was in attendance at the 2-2 draw between the Old Firm earlier in the month to see whether or not the defender could be a potential long-term replacement for Patrice Evra.

But with the Frenchman having signed a new deal in the past few days, it seems like Liverpool could be the Honduran’s next destination.

And with Glen Johnson out of form and Paul Konchesky out on loan, Izaguirre may soon be moving to pastures new.

“He’s incredible,” Celtic boss Neil Lennon said recently. “He’s had an incredible season. He gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes. He just wants to play, he does Cruyff turns in his own box at times but he’s been wonderful.

“Our chief scout John Park saw him play in the World Cup for Honduras and he brought us some DVDs. We had a good look at him and I thought ‘yeah, he looks decent’.

“But again, you just don’t know what you are going to get. You don’t know the temperament is going to be like, what the character is going to be like and we’re very lucky because what we’ve got is very solid.”

The rise and rise of Napoli

There have been whispers in the last few weeks that SSC Napoli are in with a real chance of actually winning this season’s Serie A title. A month ago, a suggestion like that would’ve been laughed off.

But no longer.

The team from Naples, masterminded by 50 year-old Walter Mazzarri, currently sit three points behind AC Milan and have kept pace with Massimiliano Allegri’s league leaders the entire way through the season.

Napoli, who are the fourth most-supported side in the league, have started to show their title credentials in recent weeks with a series of impressive results and performances. Last weekend they completed a 2-0 away win against perennial title challengers Roma to record their first victory in the capital for more than 18 years.

Although the team boasts several talented players, it’s clear that the sublime form of Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani has been crucial in their push for the Scudetto.

Cavani, who is the Serie A’s top scorer with 20 goals, has won games on his own this season with vital goals coming against Juventus, Fiorentina and Palermo.

“The Matador” opened the scoring against Roma with a penalty and insists that his goals can fire his side to their first title in more than two decades.

“I want to become a champion, and hopefully it will be here at Napoli,” Cavani told Italian magazine Il Mattino.

“I am happy at this club and I would like to leave a mark by winning something unique.

“I would be happy if I could be part of Napoli’s history as a player who loved this shirt and made it even more prestigious.

“The coach really wanted me to be a centre-forward. This is my true position.”

Manager Walter Mazzarri also announced recently that Cavani was indispensable to the club and refused to be drawn on reports linking the hitman with Manchester City.

But it is not just Cavani who has contributed to the remarkable rise of the Partenopei.

Argentinian forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, Slovak playmaker Marek Hamsik, Italian midfielder Christian Maggio and influential captain Paolo Cannavaro have all played their part in producing some excellent results for the club.

And as Mazzarri pointed out – if Napoli can remain focused and consistent, then the Serie A title is well within their grasp.

Colin Stone

Ignorant English media finally wake up to Eriksen’s talent

Prior to the midweek friendly match in Copenhagen, some of the English media were dubbing 18 year-old Christian Eriksen as “Denmark’s own Jack Wilshere”.

But after the game on Wednesday, it’s clear that the two players are some distance apart.

Standing at 5’7 and weighing just a little over 10 stone, you’d think that Eriksen would struggle to compete in a midfield which is often dominated by physicality. But on Wednesday, his speed, agility, vision and ability to cause havoc in defences with his movement and passing saw him compared to Denmark’s very own Laudrup brothers.

The Danish youngster’s performance against England was lauded from all sides. Both Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand (via Twitter) said he was “the man of the match”, whilst the British media were falling over themselves to roll out the highest superlatives possible to describe the Danish wonderkid.

The performance of the Ajax youngster put Jack Wilshere’s debut in the shade. Although Wilshere played well, Eriksen was better. Not only did Eriksen set up Daniel Agger’s goal, but he also hit the post with a ferocious effort and was a constant threat all evening, pestering the English defence and robbing opponents of the ball.

British journalists and broadcasters alike seemed astounded by such a performance from a player they thought was relatively unknown – when really, it just added to the claim that the British media show a degree of ignorance and apathy when it comes to European football.

Had football journalists in the UK paid even the slightest bit of attention to matters on the continent, they would’ve seen that Eriksen’s performance was not something out of the ordinary and that he has being doing it regularly for both Ajax and Denmark.

Eriksen began his career at Danish side OB in 2005, working his way through the ranks of the youth side before being bought by Ajax in October 2008 for a reported sum of €1m. Like with OB, Eriksen worked his way up the youth ranks in Amsterdam before he was finally named in the first team squad in January 2010.

Since then, Eriksen has been on a straight road to success. In just over 12 months, the young midfielder has played 48 first-team games for Ajax, 11 times for the national side and was also named the 2010 Danish Talent of the Year. Coach Morten Olsen even included him in the Danes’ World Cup squad last summer where he won two of his international games against the Netherlands and Japan. Compare this to Jack Wilshere’s two games played for England and a total of 38 first-team games in three seasons for Arsenal and Bolton.

It seems that where Wilshere has been ushered in steadily and quietly for both club and country, Eriksen has been thrown in at the deep-end and thrived on it.

There’s no doubt that in the aftermath of Eriksen’s performance, Premiership clubs have begun to take an interest. Although the midfielder has said previously that he’d love to play for Barcelona, he also said that he would never rule out a move to the Premier League – which has apparently encouraged Liverpool to make a tentative enquiry.

Although Eriksen is still young and learning at this level, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he may fizzle out into nothing more than another overly-hyped, too much too soon sort of player who languishes in the lower reaches of a middle-of-the-road European league.

But with the kind of talent he showed on Wednesday night, it looks highly, highly unlikely.

Colin Stone

My favourite team – Werder Bremen

November 2nd 2004. The Weserstadion.

A packed stadium in the north of Germany are watching Werder Bremen  batter Anderlecht 3-1 with 13 minutes remaining.

Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away, I’m at a friend’s house watching the Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk match. As the game begins to wind down, we begin flicking over the other Champions League matches taking place that night and stumble across Werder Bremen’s match against the Belgian side.

After sixty seconds of watching the game, Croatian striker Ivan Klasnic turns 18 year-old defender Vincent Kompany inside out and blasts past Daniel Zitka to make it 4-1 to the German giants. My friend and I remark on the excellent goal scored and also on the cool “tic-tac” coloured shirts Werder Bremen are proudly wearing, with the bright orange front and lime green sleeves.

Within seconds of the restart, Bremen are knocking on Anderlecht’s door looking for a fifth goal and sure enough, midfielder Daniel Jensen pops up in the 89th minute to make it 5-1 to the Germans. This is the kind of football I loved to see, having just sat through a dreary 75 minutes of Celtic versus Shakhtar.I was thoroughly enjoying Bremen’s fluid, entertaining, attack-first-defend-later style of play.

And so, my love affair with Werder Bremen began.

Although they exited the Champions League in the last 16 after a 7-2 hammering by Lyon (with a hat-trick from Sylvain Wiltord and a double from a certain Michael Essien), they had left a lasting impression on me as a side who scored for fun, had second thoughts about defending, wore cool strips and also had an unusual name. That was all it boiled down to.

Although many accused me of “glory-hunting” at the time, Werder Bremen have not had the long and illustrious history that some of their German rivals have enjoyed, although arguably their biggest period of success has come in the last decade. After winning the Bundesliga in 2003, they finished in the top three in the following five out of six seasons – but are this year being dragged into a relegation dogfight.

There have also been some tremendous players in the past few years who have worn the famous green-and-orange jersey of the Werderaner: the now retired duo of French maestro Johan Micoud and German stalwart Frank Baumann; Bayern’s veteran striker Miroslav Klose; Wolfsburg’s Brazilian trickster Diego; Real Madrid’s playmaker Mesut Ozil; and the long-serving midfielder still at the Weserstadion, Torsten Frings.

Johan Micoud and Diego in particular, as well as being favourite players of mine, are perhaps amongst the most talented players to have plied their trade in Germany.

Micoud, who made 123 appearances for Werder Bremen, played as an attacking midfielder and would have been the fulcrum of the French national side were it not for the over-shadowing talents of Zinedine Zidane. A dead-ball specialist, he often made exquisite passes to team-mates, both long and short, usually resulting in stunning goals. Due to his great physique and technical qualities, he could hold the ball up extremely well and would dominate the centre of the park almost to perfection in each and every game.

The tall, long-nosed talisman belongs to that unending list of forgotten geniuses who are quickly vanishing into memory lane.

Diego, or Diego Ribas da Cunha to give him his full name, spent three seasons with Bremen before moving onto Juventus for €24.5m in the summer of 2009. Diego became a firm fans’ favourite during his stay in Germany with some outstanding goals and exceptional performances, and also won Kicker Magazine’s Bundesliga Player of the Year Award in his debut season. The goal that stands out most in my mind is one he scored from his own half against Alemmania Aachen in late 2007 (Google it!), as well as a breath-taking bicycle kick scored whilst playing Panathinaikos.

But today’s Werder Bremen is a very different side from the free-scoring, attacking side of just a few years ago. As it stands, Die Werderaner sit just a single point above the relegation zone and have struggled throughout the season. Coach Thomas Schaaf was given the dreaded “vote of confidence” earlier on in the campaign and the recent transfer of top scorer Hugo Almeida to Besiktas has seen morale wane further.

Whispers of Werder Bremen being relegated come May can no longer be laughed off.

Yet like every other football supporter, I’ll follow my team whatever happens. Although I have no German family, no links to the country, neither have I ever seen them play in the flesh, the fact is that nearly seven years ago when I began supporting them, they had cool strips and a funny name.

And they still do.

Colin Stone

German winter transfer window – the ins and outs of the Bundesliga

Bundesliga sides have been rather more frugal with their money during this year’s winter transfer window than their recession-defying English Premier League counterparts.

One remarkable fact of this season’s winter deals is that all the fees spent by German clubs during the month of January do not even add up to the £50m total spent by Chelsea on Spanish striker Fernando Torres.

Over the course of the month, English clubs spent more than £225m on players.

But on the continent, a busy, if inexpensive, transfer window slammed shut on January 31st with several intriguing deals completed in the Bundesliga.

The biggest deal of the window saw Bavarian giants Bayern Munich spend a cool €15m on Hoffenheim’s enforcer Luis Gustavo. The Brazilian, who can play in midfield or as a left-back, made his first appearance for his new club by coming on as a sub against Wolfsburg.

The other deals completed by Bayern – albeit in the departure lounge – also raised a few eyebrows.

Wantaway defender Martin Demichelis, who has had several sharp disagreements with coaching staff, players and the hierarchy, left the German side for the paltry sum of €3m. The Argentine defender headed to Spanish side Malaga to join up with his former River Plate coach Manuel Pellegrini.

World Cup runner-up Mark Van Bommel also departed after terminating his contract and signing a 6-month deal with AC Milan.

Felix Magath’s struggling Schalke side showed signs of panic-buying on the last day of the window as they brought in ageing Iranian star Ali Karimi and former-European Championship winner and free agent Angelos Charisteas.

34 year-old Karimi, who was originally signed by Magath during his stint at Bayern at 2005, signed a deal that keeps him at the Veltins-Arena until the end of the season. Karimi’s previous spell in Germany was an unsuccessful one and critics are keen to point out to that at this stage of his career, it is unlikely to work out this time either.

The signing of striker Angelos Charisteas is an even stranger one. The forward scored the winning goal in the Greece’s remarkable Euro 2004 triumph but has been on a slippery downhill slope since then and failed to score a single goal during his stay at French strugglers Arles.

And with the likes of Raul, Huntelaar, Farfan, Edu and Gavranovic already fighting for a starting berth, added to the fact that Charisteas’ contract was terminated over 3 months ago, it’s hard to see why Magath made this puzzling purchase.

On a positive note, Die Konigsblauen did sign Ghana’s highly-rated midfielder Anthony Annan from Rosenborg as a replacement for the Sevilla-bound Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitic.

Werder Bremen’s season of struggle continued as they lost top scorer Hugo Almeida to Besiktas for €2m. With only 6 months left on his contract, general manager Klaus Allofs was keen to cash in on the former Porto striker as contract negotiations had broken down. However, Bremen only managed to bring in two reinforcements in the shape of Brazilian free agent Samuel and Elfsborg’s Swedish striker Denni Avdic.

Perennial underachievers Bayer Leverkusen, who currently sit in second place in the Bundesliga, made no major signings during January. However, striker Patrick Helmes, who had an injury-filled stay at Leverkusen but still managed 28 goals in 56 games, was allowed to leave for €8m to rivals Wolfsburg as a replacement for Manchester City-bound Edin Dzeko. Leverkusen may live to regret that decision as they now only have Stefan Kiessling and Eren Derdiyok on their books as out-and-out strikers.

Wolfsburg, like Schalke, looked as if they were panic-buying too – or perhaps they were just giddy from the £27m they received for Edin Dzeko. The cash windfall provided by the sale of the Bosnian forward allowed Wolves to bring in former Standard Liege striker Dieumerci Mbokani, Stoke City striker Tuncay, Leverkusen’s Patrick Helmes, South Korean midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, Venezuelan wonderkid Yohandry Orozco and experienced Czech midfielder Jan Polak. However, it remains to be seen whether or not these signings will pay off in the long run for McClaren’s men.

Dortmund, the league leaders, added just one player to their burgeoning squad in the form of 19 year-old midfielder Moritz Leitner from 1860 Munich. The youngster was immediately sent on loan to Augsburg but again, Jurgen Klopp’s penchant for uncovering young talents is proving to be a valuable asset.

Seventh-placed HSV neither bought nor sold any players during the window as manager Armin Veh looked to retain his solid squad. Die Rothosen sit just nine points behind Leverkusen in second place.

There were some big changes at “The Village Team” TSG Hoffenheim, who brought in five new players but moved on eight. Some of the major departures included Senegalese striker Demba Ba to West Ham, Luis Gustavo to Bayern, Christian Eichner to Koln and Prince Tagoe to Partizan – but club owner and “sugar daddy” Dietmar Hopp provided the funds to bring in Liverpool’s unwanted winger Ryan Babel, the Bayern duo of David Alaba and Edson Braafheid as well as Figueirense’s Roberto Firmino for a reported €4m.

But it was VfB Stuttgart who pulled off perhaps the most exciting capture of the window in 24 year-old striker Shinji Okazaki. The Japanese international, who featured heavily in Japan’s Asian Cup triumph and has scored 21 times in 41 games for his country, signed a deal from Shimizu S-Pulse that will keep him at the German side until June 2014. With Dortmund’s (now injured) Shinji Kagawa and Schalke’s Atsuto Uchida lighting up the first half of the season, can Okazaki thrive on the success of his fellow countrymen? All eyes will be on coach Bruno Labbadia to see if he can get the best out of this untried but talented youngster.

And come May time, we will be able to see which gambles have paid off.

Colin Stone

Open to Dispute: When Stanley was wizard and George was Best

“It was better in my day!”

I’ve lost count of the number of times an elderly gentleman and I have been discussing football, and the inevitable comment has come from him whilst waving his stick manically in the air.

I’ve read football magazines where the editor, and several of the writers, long for the days of “good old football.”

One that springs to mind is World Soccer, an excellent magazine of which I am a subscriber, that does tend to get caught up in nostalgia trips from time to time. But I ask the question: Was it really better in their day?

A player who often crops up when “incredible footballers” from days past are mentioned is England’s ‘Wizard of Dribble’ Sir Stanley Matthews.

The one thing I always remember about Matthews is that he kept playing until he was 50. Now is that just an extremely fit athlete? Or were the defenders awfully slow?

Obviously, there is no doubting Matthews’ talent – he won the European Footballer of The Year during his career and has also been inducted into the England Hall of Fame. But were the defenders back then really as good as they are now?

Was Stanley Matthews up against a 1950s version of John Terry or Nemanja Vidic?

The way I see it, players nowadays are a lot fitter, faster, stronger and more skilful than they were 50, 40 or 30 years ago. It’s generally accepted that today’s athletes are in tip-top condition, better than ever before.

So surely, with better fitness et al, doesn’t that mean the standard of your average player has risen?

Another brilliant footballer of yesteryear was George Best. A magnificent player, of that there is no doubt – but was he really as good as say, Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Or even players like Arjen Robben or Jesus Navas?

Was Best faster, stronger, fitter, more skilled than today’s equivalent? And was the opposition he faced faster, stronger, fitter or more skilled than today?

OK, so I hope you agree with me that due to things like technology, advances in science and even through training, players are now better than they were in years gone by.

However, this is not the entire argument. Many of our older generation say football as a whole was better in the olden days – but do they really mean skill-wise? Or do they mean that football, as a game, was better?

Many rules have been introduced since the 1950s, with even simple things like the passback and tweaks to the offside rule being introduced. Football used to be a simple sport – stick the ball in the back of the net. But now, rules are being changed and rolled out all the time.

Most recently, video technology has been mooted as a solution to cut out cheating and debatable decisions. However, although this would help cut out cheating and poor refereeing decisions, it complicates football further.

Back when my dad was a kid, if a referee made a bad decision, the teams just got on with it. So does that mean football was better years ago when it was simpler, and with less stopagges and regulations?

Another bonus point to the oldies’ argument is that in decades past, there doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of serious cheating or feigning injury to waste time.

Obviously, the Hand of God is the one stand-out example of cheating in the last 30 years – but back then, in the English First Division, the players were mainly based in England. And thinking back to various cheaters who stick in my mind – Rivaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry – the majority of them are foreign.

Now although that sounds massively stereotypical and prejudiced, it is based mostly on statistics. Although there have been English cheaters too (Gerrard and Rooney spring to mind), the majority of injury-feigners are Latin American. That’s not to say British players don’t do it either, but back in the day, with Englishmen playing in England, cheating was basically non-existent.

So. It’s clear that your average player today is of a much higher standard. And in my opinion, I’d say footballers are better than they’ve ever been before. Messi has, arguably, the potential to become the finest player there has ever been in the history of football.

But on the flip side, football nowadays is a lot more complicated for some of the older generation than it was back when they were kicking a ball about – and even for our generation, football is no longer just a case of sticking the ball in the net. And also, cheating and feigning injury is far more commonplace than it was in years gone by.

But, finally, you have to look at the other side of the argument – when we’re all old and grey, will we be the ones saying, “It was better in my day!”?

Colin Stone

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