Sunday, November 25, 2012

James' last-gasp goal gives Porto the win

Starting elevens
After Braga's last few seasons, this clash is already considered a clash of titans, and rightly so. Braga's insistence on fighting FC Porto and Benfica for the top spots means that the Estádio Axa is no longer a safe haven for any opponent. Benfica's win against Olhanense on Saturday was on the minds of both teams and neither one could afford to slip up, especially José Peseiro's team, who were also trailing their rivals by six points.

FC Porto coach Vítor Pereira made a few changes, bringing Alex Sandro and Fernando back into the team, instead of Abdoulaye and Defour. Other than that, his selection was as expected, particularly in light of both players' appearances midweek against Dynamo Zagreb. José Peseiro's only change from their heavy defeat at the hands of Cluj was the choice of Mossoró ahead of Ruben Amorim.

The first half was extremely entertaining and offered further evidence on the merits and qualities of both teams. Whether they were being purposefully more cautious than usual or their latest results were in the back of the players' heads, Braga went down a very different path. In fact, they were hardly similar to anything they have shown over the past few months under José Peseiro. Instead of pressuring, they stood off; instead of attacking in numbers, they tried a more direct style. Apparently, this Braga may well have been Domingos or Leonardo Jardim's.

FC Porto came on strong out of the gate and created several clear-cut chances in the opening minutes, Otamendi even hitting the woodwork on the third minute. The Dragons' blueprint did not deviate much from their standard procedures and involved James Rodríguez drifting inward, with Lucho (or Danilo) occupying the Colombian's space. With Mossoró (usually less adept at defending) deployed on the left and Ruben Micael too close to Éder, FC Porto dictated the tempo for the opening 20 minutes, giving the impression the goal would be a mere formality.

However, Braga managed to settle down, started showing what they are capable of, and made their first shot 20 minutes into the match - FC Porto would in fact not muster a single shot after Braga's first one until the half-time whistle. Micael dropped further back goalside of Fernando and hindered the away team's passing rhythm.

José Peseiro, in turn, read his opponent well. Mossoró's deployment on the left was not an accident, nor was Éder's insistence on drifting to the left wing. James' forays in the middle mean that Danilo (or the centre-backs, whenever Danilo doesn't make it back on time) is often exposed. With Mossoró on the left wing, the team had a clear out-ball and looked to take advantage of FC Porto's known weak spot. The final 25 minutes of the first half would belong to Braga.

The second half was far less entertaining, with both teams misplacing numerous passes and apparently too wary of each other. Thanks to Peseiro's tweaks, FC Porto were now unable to find their precise passing to carve Braga's defence open. On the other hand, Braga looked dangerous on the break a few times, but the fear of a loss seemed to mean that the draw was something both teams could live with.

To prove just that, José Peseiro did not make any bold changes, opting to rotate his central-midfielders - Amorim for Viana and Djamal for Micael -, since he knew that, despite playing with width, FC Porto are deadly through the centre and he wanted to stop them in their tracks.

Ironically enough, that was the area from which the Portuguese champions would grab their late goal. Danilo drifted inward, James got the ball and was quite fortunate with his shot, which hit Douglão (who was at hist best today) and deceived Beto. The goal came only a few seconds before the 90th minute. The fate would be even more cruel to Braga, who would concede their second on the 93rd minute, after an unfortunate clearance from Salino and Jackson Martínez's well placed shot.

In conclusion, FC Porto may count themselves lucky, since a draw looked like it was all they were going to get out of the match. Analysing the flow of play from both teams and the opportunities they created, a draw would indeed be a more truthful result. Both Braga and FC Porto tried to win the match on their own, very specific terms and had the chances for it - on periods they clearly dominated. The hosts might have said goodbye to any title hopes, but José Peseiro might have realised that a gung-ho approach is not necessarily the only way to hurt other teams.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Topic of the day - Chelsea

How can the reigning European champions be such a lost cause?

Any analysis of last night's match I might have thought of doing is now tragically informed by the knowledge that Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Chelsea. The question now remains: which manager is bold enough to go where so many have failed before him?

It is often hard to understand what goes on in the minds of today's CEO, presidents, directors, managers or voters. It seems that people dedicate less and less time to assess processes, rather focusing on results and results alone – ignoring that results may sometimes be random, whereas processes are not.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich fired José Mourinho in September 2007, a few months into that season. The precedent for sacking coaches in the middle of the season had been established and only Carlo Ancelotti managed to see out two full seasons (even if he was fired by the end of the second after winning an unprecedented double in his first year in charge). After that, Luiz Felipe Scolari, André Villas-Boas and now Roberto Di Matteo have all been axed before the end of the season.

The Italian manager was André Villas-Boas' assistant coach during the Portuguese's few months in charge and therefore was able to watch first-hand the developments of his former boss' sacking, which meant that he had to be aware of the pressure that had been mounting over the past weeks. Despite leading Chelsea to the Champions League for the first time, Di Matteo's position never looked secure and Abramovich actually seemed reluctant to hire him on a permanent basis as the club's manager.

Di Matteo succeeded where AVB had failed for numerous reasons, but it was particularly because he was not so adamant at casting the dressing room owners aside - possibly one of AVB's biggest mistakes - and, most importantly in my view, because he went for the diametrically opposed: a cautious, compact and disciplined team that broke quickly and exploited the space left by their opponents.

Despite their ultimate success, Abramovich was not satisfied, insisting on winning with panache - and took out his seemingly endless chequebook and signed players that were specifically designed to bring the attractive and spectacular, if not romantic, approach he has been craving for so long.

Now any coach will tell you that defending is the easiest - and most likely best -starting point while coaching a team. Yes, it can be challenging at times, but deploying your players in two compact banks of four when you have players - such as John Terry, John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba or Petr Cech - who thrive on that particular brand of football was clearly the easiest and familiar way to go. That was why I was so curious to see what Roberto Di Matteo would bring when next season started.

To be honest, all the signs were there. Even though Chelsea managed to grab several wins and hold on near the top of the Premier League for a few weeks, it didn't look like a case of "if", but "when". While it was true the Pensioners were playing a more expansive kind of football, they were also displaying leaks all over the place and there were no significant adjustments made to the initial plan of playing all of Óscar, Mata and Hazard behind the ever unhappy Torres.

Chelsea kept playing fast, attacking football, which was sometimes enough, but kept conceding too many goals, giving the ball away too cheaply. They were constantly overrun in the middle, not because Mikel and Ramires were poor, but because they were so often left exposed by their front four - and too often Ashley Cole, whose defensive positioning is becoming more and more questionable by the day.

Mind you, they didn't forget how to defend - they were simply out of their comfort zone. Terry is not a quick defender and is vulnerable to balls over the top. Ricardo Carvalho, the player who used to cover for him, is long gone and neither David Luiz nor Gary Cahill are good replacements for that particular sort of task.

When the two men felt the heat from above, Villas-Boas and Di Matteo went in different directions. AVB remained true - probably ill-advisedly - to his principles and stood his ground in a crucial match for the team's aspirations (at Napoli) by daring to leave out some of the squad's key figures and showing who was the boss (not him, evidently). Di Matteo, conversely, tried to steer into safety and resorted to a strategy that had worked miracles in the past, playing compact, benching Fernando Torres, deploying the right-back Azpilicueta further up front, and leaving Hazard up front on his own, trying to exploit the space behind the apparently unstoppable Lichtsteiner.

To be honest, even though I'm aware that Chelsea lost 3-0 and that Cech was back to his golden days, I have to admit that it was the most comfortable I have Chelsea this season. Yes, Juventus bossed them around, but that was pretty much what happened during the last few months of last season - and it still yielded results. On the other hand, whenever Chelsea managed to break free from Juventus' initial pressure, they were extremely dangerous, particularly through the sheer speed and skills of Óscar and Hazard.

Regardless of the identity of the new Chelsea manager, it will be extremely hard not to see a return to safer sceneries. The new gaffer will have no time, no wiggle room to implement his ideas and will probably go back to basics: Where and how to defend, break quickly, bench Torres and take advantage of Hazard's swiftness and dribbling skills, and Óscar's vision.

Despite the unfortunate end, Di Matteo's last match in charge could well prove a blueprint for the next man - provided he has the time to put it in place.

Sabotage Times - Benfica

There is a new piece from Combination Play on Sabotage Times -this time on which Benfica would be expecting Celtic. The article can be found here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

New piece for Sabotage Times

My new article for Sabotage Times revolves around Porto upcoming starlet James Rodríguez and can be found here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Will Ronaldo's Real Madrid win the Champions League?

Last night Real Madrid managed to salvage a point against the ever impressive Borussia Dortmund, whose goalkeeper might have done something more to keep Mezut Özil's effort out. The result was obviously not good, but the overall display should be far more worrying.

José Mourinho is famous for many, many things, but one thing he usually excels at is tactics. The last two matches against the reigning German champions exposed too many frailties in a team that tends to become broken between the six men at the back and the foursome up front. Even though today's headlines in Spanish newspapers will probably lash out at the defence (and rightly so), there was another thing that caught my attention.

Cristiano Ronaldo is most likely Portugal's best player ever - with all due respect to Eusébio. His transformation from tricky (yet profligate) winger at Sporting and Manchester United into powerful, lethal goalscorer gave him the recognition, accolades and goals he craved so much. His stats are most definitely beyond reproach - in his 448 club matches so far, he has scored 263 goals, a bit over 0,5 goals per match.

Ronaldo also had his sights set on becoming the leader on the field, both at national and club level. Thanks to his ability to solve games singlehandedly, his team-mates always look to him for an easy fix, a way out for tougher games, where the team's skills might not be enough. Most of the times, it works. However, when it doesn't, things get much tougher, especially for Real Madrid.

This is where the issue of Ronaldo starts to become a problem. Paulo Bento (Portugal's coach) and José Mourinho both design their teams and relevant moves around Ronaldo - the midfielders know they have to cover for him, Coentrão and Marcelo are aware they will have no cover from up front and the strikers know they're simply there to divert their opponents' attention for Ronaldo's efforts. However, their rivals' coaches are also very aware of that and often find the first chink in Portugal or Real Madrid's armour on their left wing.

Worse, Ronaldo is becoming more and more predictable. His dribbling skills are not what they used to be and his deployment on the left is specifically designed to allow the full-back to overlap him on the wing and allow Ronaldo into the centre to shoot at goal. By now, any knowledgeable coach is aware of CR7's insistence on drifting inward and his reluctance to make the simple pass, play in a team-mate or deliver a cross.

Yesterday all of that was plain for everyone to see. Dortmund's right-back Lukas Piszczek had clear instructions from coach Jürgen Klopp to push high up the field and exploit the space behind Ronaldo - much like he did two weeks ago or like Denmark did in Euro 2012. With the not so dynamic midfield duo of Xabi Alonso and Modric, Real Madrid's right wing was constantly under attack. As for his attacks, Dortmund were clever enough to double up on him - Piszczek defending him up close and a team-mate (usually Gundogan) covering for his right-back on the inside.

Ronaldo also needs to work on his leadership skills, since he is the first to get frustrated with his team-mates and angry at the referee when things don't go according to plan. A leader must inspire those around him and drive them to excellence, instead of just taking the credits for the goals scored and sulking when things do not work out.

While no doubts remain about Ronaldo's individual skills, worth and importance, it is hard to conceive a scenery where his team won't be punished precisely for having one of the world's two best players. Even though it is enough for most matches in La Liga, it surely is not enough for the tougher ones in the Champions League and at international level. If he insists on pursuing the "me, me, me" road, he won't be remembered as he would most definitely like - one of the truly greats of all time.