Monday 10 June 2013

To be or Not be Torres

Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque faced over twenty–four hours of criticism in the Spanish sporting press following his team’s 1-1 draw with Italy in Gdansk on Sunday afternoon. With even some added stories circulating that he was extremely annoyed after the match and there was a row of sorts within the team. A matter he clarified in the press conference on Tuesday at the impressive training facilities in Gniewino, reassuring the media there was nothing of the sort. 

In fact, he was happy enough with the result given it was the first game. 

But ahead of the match with the Republic of Ireland, Del Bosque was unwilling to share any team selections, claiming he had yet to decide on the final eleven and so would wait a further few days. Not surprising given the team selection for Spain’s opening EURO 2012 match attracted the most heat, and the decision not to pick a traditional centre forward from the kick off, in the shape of either Fernando - Llorente or Torres – the main talking point. 

The choice of Cesc Fabregas to start and relying on the midfielders to break forward when on the edge of the box seems to have been the issue for the Spanish press. The fact that Fabregas then scored the equaliser spared the blushes all round and seems to have justified Del Bosque’s decision. At least in the manager’s mind anyway. 

However, the media remain unimpressed, even if they should not be totally surprised. All e too influenced perhaps by the success of Llorente in Athletic Bilbao’s Europa League campaign this season. 

During his time at Real Madrid, del Bosque did same with Guti, pushing him into the hole, with the freedom to attack the box anytime there was a chance on. The result was winning La Liga in 2001 and 2003 - doing so without solely relying on a Fernando Morientes or Ronaldo type to score the goals. Probably easier to do when the calibre of player includes Luis Figo, Zidane or Raul. Indeed in South Africa Torres was only used as an impact sub in their world cup winning campaign, and only started twice – being substituted on both occasions by Fabregas or Juana Mata. 

It was Luis Aragones, the Spanish coach in 2008, who relied on the explosive Torres speed to deliver goals. But that was then and in the now the Chelsea striker has lost some of that zip. Anyway, it is a moot point given that the great Brazil side of 1970 World Cup also had no recognised centre forward. 

Coach Mario Zagalo faced a headache as he tried not only to accommodate five players in the national squad - all playing centre forward at their clubs - but also making the combination work for Brazil. And at a major tournament as well. 

As football history records the result was a work of beauty as the five midfielders also had exceptional scoring ability and most did so by breaking into the space left vacant by the lack of a traditional number 9. Even today there are few arguments as to the formation Zagalo chose for those weeks in July, especially as Rivelino, Gerson, Pele, Tostao or Jairzinho all got on the score sheet during the tournament. 

Regardless of those facts, Del Bosque was clear about one thing ahead of Thursday’s match was that the discipline and structure typify the Republic of Ireland and it means that Spain will have to work on breaking down that lack of space. A diagnosis which shows a healthy respect it would seem for the Giovanni Trapattoni system, rather than any outright fear that Spain are vulnerable to a major threat from Ireland in their second match. 

But at Tuesday’s training session there were few clues as to Del Bosque’s thinking as the practice match saw the two teams play with Juanfran, Javi Martínez, Albiol, Busquets, Xavi, Cesc, Pedro, Mata and Torres on one side and Sergio Ramos, Piqué, Arbeloa, Jordi Alba, Xabi Alonso, Cazorla, Iniesta, Silva, Llorente and Negredo on the other. The only topic of note being that Torres scored a hat-trick. 

In the aftermath of the Italy game the Spanish players had few complaints other than some comments about the state of the pitch on the day. But Del Bosque was quick to ensure that it was not an excuse for the result and they would not be taking the issue much further. For the Ireland game the venue was the same and Spain would just get on with it – whatever the teams was on the night. For the waiting Spanish media the only clue Del Bosque did give was that he would be selecting a number 9 for the game. 

The general consensus is that whoever takes the ninth spot on the team sheet it is unlikely to be Fernando Torres.

Spain v Republic of Ireland - Preview - Group c

The Republic of Ireland are preparing to face Spain in Gdansk on Thursday knowing a defeat would send them tumbling out of Euro 2012.

The 3-1 defeat to Croatia in Poznan on Sunday was a bitter blow to Irish hopes as that arguably represented their best chance of claiming three points in Group C, given Italy lurk after Spain in their final group match.

Manager Giovanni Trapattoni is under pressure to make changes to his starting line-up following Sunday's defeat, their first in 14 matches.

The 73-year-old is unlikely to make any dramatic alternations to his side though, choosing instead to stick to his tried and trusted players.

With just two wins from 14 previous games against La Roja - who in turn are unbeaten in their last 15 competitive matches - Ireland go into the game as huge underdogs.

However, striker Robbie Keane remains confident that his side can spring a surprise against the world and European champions, despite the intimidating odds.

"We know it's going to be a tough task on Thursday," said the LA Galaxy striker. "After all, they are one of the best teams in the world but there's no reason why we can't get something out of the game.

"In any case it's very difficult as a player to go into a game thinking you just want a point. But it wouldn't be the end of the world if we did."

Over in the Spain camp, midfielder Sergio Busquets has defended coach Vicente del Bosque's decision to play without any recognised strikers in their 1-1 draw against Italy on Sunday.

Despite having Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente at his disposal, del Bosque opted to play with six midfielders, giving the likes of David Silva and Cesc Fabregas licence to roam forward.

It was one of those forward runs that led to the equaliser against the Azzurri, Barcelona midfielder Fabregas slotting home from Silva's pinpoint pass.

Del Bosque has hinted that he may stick with the formation against the Irish, with Busquets fully behind his manager's decision.

"The centre of our midfield isn't overcrowded," insisted the 23-year-old. "it's based on having players with a good touch in the centre of the field and seeking to gain an advantage like that.

"Moreover, Spain have been playing that way for four years.

"I think there is a lack of patience shown when Spanish international football is being analysed. That wasn't just anyone we drew against - it was a very strong Italy side.

"But if we don't win, there always seems to be a 'but' from somebody or other. It's precisely what happened in the World Cup."

Trapattoni is unlikely to promote Sunderland winger James McClean to the starting line-up, despite a clamour from the fans for his inclusion.

Strikers Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox are pushing for a recall though after impressive displays from the bench on Sunday.

Midfielder Darron Gibson is also in contention after recovering from a thigh injury. Richard Dunne is ok to play after sitting out training on Tuesday with blistered feet.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque looks likely to stick with his controversial 4-6-0 formation, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas taking turns to push on beyond the midfield.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Gilles Villeneuve Remembered

Former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve marked the 30th anniversary of his father Gilles' death by taking his famous Ferrari 312 T4 for a spin at Fiorano, near Modena.

The younger Villeneuve, who won the 1997 F1 championship before driving in the United States, was helping to mark the opening of an exhibition in his father's memory.

The elder Villeneuve drove the 312 T4 in 1979 when he achieved his best result, finishing second in the championship behind team-mate Jody Scheckter.

He won three Grand Prix races that season out of six in total during his five years as a racer. He died in 1982 after crashing during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder while still racing for Ferrari.

The Canadian's wife Joanne and daughter Melanie joined Jacques for the ceremony, which was also attended by current Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa as well as Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo.

Di Montezemolo had fond memories of Jacques' father.

"I remember when (the founder of Ferrari) Enzo Ferrari told me he had found a youngster with a great temperament and talent who was racing snow mobiles in Canada," he added.

"He had a pre-contract with McLaren but The Drake (Ferrari) wanted to bring some new blood into the team. He was an amazing driver and man."

Ferrari also paid tribute to their former driver on their official website.

"His memory is still vivid and alive in the minds of many at Maranello (Ferrari's home); his talent, his speed, his bravery which bordered on recklessness, all go to make his name still hugely popular with our fans, even among younger ones who have only been able to see him on replays of his races or read about him in stories written by journalists."

ARCHIVES - Managers and Rear View Mirrors

It is often said that dogs look like their owners with the passing of time. In football there is yet to be an equivalent dictum, but a lot can be said about a manager’s thoughts process by the players he purchases. It can also reflect the type of player he was in his own time, with some matters much forgotten, when as a manager the same individuals project an air of authority. For Roberto Mancini at Manchester City there are numerous examples in his own career that easily relate to behaviour of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez . Both very talented footballers on the field, but short on discipline, and sometimes so full of self belief that playing for the team falls by the wayside. 

In Mancini’s career at Sampdoria he had well documented training pitch rows with a number of more senior players, including the expensive imports such as Trevor Francis, Liam Brady and former United midfielder, Juan Sebastian Veron. When Arrigo Sacchi refused to guarantee him a place on the national team for the 1994 World Cup, Roberto retired from international football. Indeed his departure from Leicester in 2001 was less than formal, choosing to phone the club from Italy when offered a managerial position at Fiorentina. All of which sounds vaguely Tevez like in many ways. 

Having said that his achievements, for Internazionale at the cauldron that is San Siro, in the shadow of AC, were masterful with only failure in the Champions League bringing him down, and leading to his sacking in 2008. But it was after he had delivered three Serie A titles, 2 Coppa Italia’s and one Super Coppa. 

Just not enough for club owner, Massimo Moratti. Now at Manchester City, Mancini may find that one FA Cup may not be enough for Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan either. All not helped by the notoriety of Balotelli’s dalliances on the front of the tabloids. 

It is not hard to see why Jose Mourinho, when he replaced Mancini at Inter, dropped the young Italian prospect from the squad, after continuing disciplinary actions. In fact one time Mourinho brought him on in a Champions League semi-final, Balotelli did so under protest as he had not started the match. In the end he contributed little to the efforts. 

"The guy has incredible qualities, but sometimes does not know how to use his brain,” said Mourinho when Mancini was trying to sign Mario for City. 

"Let me give an example of when we played at home in the semi-final of the Champions League against Barcelona and he would not take the field. 

"I threw him into the fray and Mario was static, not even giving a hand in defence." 

After almost two seasons with Roberto Mancini little has changed with stories of fireworks going off at a house party, late night visit to a strip club, rumours of training field rows, a bizarre appearance at an Inter press conference and then a crash in his Bentley on Good Friday – it all seems a recipe for continued catastrophe. 

Mancini said he could understand why his squad sometimes got frustrated with the enigmatic 21-year-old striker. The City boss said: "I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. 

"There are different ways to help a guy like Mario." 

Mancini added: "I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist, but I speak with him because I don't want him to lose his quality. 

"If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything. 

"Mario can be one of the top players in Europe. I don't want him to lose his talent 

Further up the M6 the issues for the manager are to make an enthusiastic and energetic Andy Carroll deliver on his thirty five million pound promise, an added frustration to Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish. Who as a player himself made more effort on the field than any other, given his natural talent and ability. But it maybe the curse of the modern game for the passionate Dalglish who seems confused when players don’t respond as he did on the playing field on playing for the Reds. To see the club fail over recent weeks is the antithesis of the Liverpool of his time, who used to just get stronger as the season reached its conclusion. Often competing on the domestic and European front – successfully during the month of May. 

This season it does not look the same vintage with Carroll so closely identified with Kenny that it adds to the burden. And with US owners, keen on winning to help the franchise fund its debt, the reliance on passion, love and commitment to Liverpool Football Club may not be enough. 

Whatever happens what is clear that Andy Carroll is not a striker in Kenny’s likeness, and not since the days of John Toshack has the club really sought the route 1 approach to success. As almost the inventors of possession football in England during those heady European Cup days, the formula with Big Tosh was really the continuous scurrying of one little Kevin Keegan, who chased and rallied every bounce of the ball. When Dalglish arrived as King Kev’s replacement his game plan was the same and it delivered success year on yer, ably supported with the legendary wing play at Anfield. Which over the years had come from the likes of Heighway, Barnes, Beardsley and so on. 

In fact the last FA Cup final appearance at Wembley in 1996 the two players up front were Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore, playing the traditional style of football fostered by the boot room and guided by Roy Evans on this occasion. Albeit unsuccessfully on the day in what was a poor spectacle against Manchester United. 

At Old Trafford the mystery will always remain as to the reasons why the games most successful manager acquired Juan Sebastian Veron, a player that offered the exact opposite of the style he had pursued since his first days at Aberdeen. Although very talented, skilful and a precision passer of a foot ball, his lack of industry and physicality in the middle of the park contrast starkly to the countless names that have passed through Fergie’s teams. Even today Dimitar Berbatov struggles to find his place with the work rate of Chicharrito, Rooney or Danny Wellbeck. Or up against the work rate of one Antonio Valencia for example. 

But with yet another Premier League title within his grasp few will dare remind of Sir Alex of his Veron moment. 

For Mancini though, it is a showdown on Sunday with Arsenal that will define his adventure in the Premier League, as it will be Manchester City’s last chance to keep the race alive. For that he will really need his mirror images – Balotelli and Tevez – to be at full strength. 

In fact on the day he needs footballing fireworks to have any chance. 


Sports World Welcomes Wozzilroy

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The level of media attention over the past weeks has even surprised Rory McIlroy, which says a lot, given he has lived his life in the spotlight for the past decade, even after securing his first major at Congressional in the summer at the age of twenty two. In winning the richest prize in golf last week in China, by beating American Anthony Kim at the Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters after a final-round shoot-out, the Holywood golfer certainly courted more attention for his playing talents. However there are two other events which have fuelled the current media frenzy, the first being the dramatic switch in management companies, as he left International Sports Management to join Dublin based Horizon Sports.

It is the second issue thought that is the real curiosity factor as McIlroy’s high profile off course personal life and relationship with the Women's Tennis Association [WTA] 2011 number 1, Caroline Wozniacki, that has captured the headlines. Indeed, such is the media interest in these two young sports stars that they have joined the celebrity gossip columns along with "Brangelina" – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; "TomKat" – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; or the now defunct "Bennifer" – Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, earning the latest sporting couple the moniker of “Wozzilroy”. 

Not only is the name getting traction through social media, but also their combined earnings, which could catapult them into the top earning couples in world sport, particularly given their current ages, has sports marketing companies cart wheeling with projections of possible life long career earnings. Much of which is also now attracting the old style ink of newspaper columns, celebrity magazines and radio stations with the reality of two high profile sports people trying to live as normal life as is permitted to them possible, lost in the ether. 

If anything the media frenzy should come with a health warning to Caroline and Rory, given that they are not the first celebrity couple in the history of world sport, with stories abounding on both sides of the good and bad divide in the news archives. Even if the main benchmark being quoted on this side of the Atlantic remain David Beckham and Victoria Adams, the future for Wozzilroy will be fraught and they could join the countless sporting couples who failed to make the distance – golfer Adam Scott and tennis star Anna Ivanovic a case in point; as were golfers, Natalie Gulbis and Dustin Johnson. 

In fact more recently Australian golfer Greg Norman settled a £60m divorce with his wife of 25 years, Laura Andrassy, to marry former Wimbledon champion Chris Evert, only to see the union fail after only 15 months together. 

Then again there are happier tales of wedded bliss with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf’s nine year relationship amongst them with the two very successful tennis players - with 30 grand slam title and two Olympic gold medals between them – seeming to have transcended the mad world of celebrity into the normality of day to day marriage. They are joined by others of course, albeit the high profile casualties along the way seem to garner more attention in the media – who are only to willing to add to the notoriety and speculation. On the plus side pop star Enrique Iglesias and retired tennis super star Anna Kournikova come to mind, as do Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow – to mention a few. 

In a report by Forbes magazine well know clinical psychologist Jim Houran adds an enlightening quote, “powerful people tend to gravitate to other powerful people” a fact supported by the number of couples in the United States that have accumulated financial horsepower as a result of their union. Chief amongst them are Brazilian super model, Gisela Bundchen and NFL quarterback for New England Patriots, Tom Brady, who are listed as the world's best paid celebrity couple earning US$76M in 2010 - about US$31M more than Posh and Becks. 

Ahead of the English couple are Beyonce Knowles and rapper husband, Jay-Z, with a combined income of $72million with the income spilt showing that Beyonce brought in $35m in all last year. Surprisingly perhaps, holding down third place, are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt with a more modest $50million with Jolie still one of the most bankable Hollywood stars. 

For McIlroy the play-off win in Shanghai earned him £1.25 million (US $2 million) and helped add interest to sport's latest glamour couple as the prize was much more than the Northern Ireland golfers winnings for the US Open title. Indeed it just adds to the £3.5 million earned from golf so far this year, with the various sponsorship deals estimated to be worth another £6 million per annum. On the other side of the couple, twenty one year old Carline Wozniacki is the second highest-paid female athlete in the world this year with an estimated income from winnings and endorsements of about £8 million. Only the Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova and her fiancé Sasha Vujacic, a basketball player on a $5 million-a-year contract in the US, could rival them for earnings by an athlete couple at this time. 

However, Nigel Currie, of sports agency Brand Rapport, believes the combined of "Wozzilroy" could be worth 50 percent more than they could attract individually. 

"Between them, they cover a greater spectrum," he said. "Suddenly, lifestyle and fashion magazines will be interested in McIlroy because he is Wozniacki's boyfriend, when they would never have shown an interest in a golfer. 

"Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf had a similarly wide attraction but were at the end of their careers when they started going out, while Wozniacki and McIlory are at their best and could be there for another 10 years." 

Like with all these happy tales of money, love and glamour there are endless lists of costly high profile divorces inside and outside sport – which can happen regardless of the fame and celebrity. The tales of those sports stars that have married partners outside the limelight, or the path of fame, show there are also casualties with tennis player Justine Henin a case in point. In 2007 Henin and her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne announced that after only four years of marriage, they were officially separating. 

In 2004 Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters, tennis' most high-profile couple of the time, split up only months before the Australian and Belgian had been due to get married. The relationship had begun after they met at the Australian Open in 2000 and lasted just over three years. In the 1970’s US tennis superstar and winner of 18 Grand Slam singles championships, Chris Evert, was engaged to men's Wimbledon champion Jimmy Connors, only to see the engagement to end months before the planned wedding in 1974. Five years later Evert married English tennis player, John Lloyd., who then became the golden couple of the era with the UK media, remaining so for many years, until they divorced in 1987. 

For Roger Federer marriage to a former WTA player Mirka Vavrinec has not been a setback, even after Vavrinec retired in 2002 as the Swiss tennis player now holds a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles and is still actively competing eleven years after meeting his wife at the 2000 Olympic Games. The couple have also done so without collecting a moniker along the way, with Federrer earning a cool US$47 million in 2011 alone. Not bad work and all done so very quietly. Bit like a highly valued Swiss watch.

In contrast it seems that the moniker "Wozzilroy" was invented by Rory.  

Maybe he should give Roger a call as there is a long road ahead.