Thursday, 28 April 2011

Aesthetics And Barcelona's Sense Of Superiority

“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly” – Oscar Wilde

If a quick perusal of Wikipedia is to be believed, aesthetics is a complex subject. The study of beauty is something that has evolved in different ways in all corners of the globe. Debates have raged over whether art can be intrinsically beautiful or merely subjectively so. Can it stand alone without making a wider point or must art stand for something? When it comes to Barcelona and their tiki-taka style what they claim to represent is obvious. Orchestra conductor Xavi Hernandez claims that “the result is an impostor in football...there’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.” Xavi’s claim to be creating a legacy is true, particularly of the 2009 Barcelona side. Jonathan Wilson has stated that one of the biggest indicators of how great any given side was is how many imitators they produce. It would not be surprising in the least if Guardiola’s Barcelona has the same sort of impact on the game as Michels Ajax side or Sacchi’s Milan. However there is a darker side to Barcelona’s play which has avoided scrutiny due to the sheer brilliance of Messi et al.

In her book “Thinking Past Terror” Susan Buck-Morss noted how the logic in the United States had shifted from an epistemological approach to human rights (because the U.S. doesn’t violate human rights it is a civilised nation) to an ontological one (because the U.S. is a civilised nation whatever it does to combat terrorism can’t be a human rights violation). Put another way, because the U.S. is a nation based on certain principles, whatever it does cannot violate those principles even if all evidence is to the contrary. The U.S. is inescapably bound up with its identity as a land of the free, leader of the free world. It’s acceptance of human rights violations should strike at the very core of its sense of self. Yet through the idea that anything is permissible as long as we’re the ones to do it because we’re the good guys, the logic of 2+2=5 was upheld.

Although the link between America and Barcelona initially seems tenuous, the ontological fallacy is being repeated again. While the U.S. deals with the rights of the individual against the state, Barcelona and their admirers have been dismissive of accusations that their pretty football and ethos is undermined by a darker side to their game. The Catalan club claim to be playing football “the right way” and building a legacy. They claim to be “Mes Que Un Club”. Such a stance is impossible to maintain when indulging in outrageous antics designed to get opponents sent off. Xavi said of Madrid’s performance in the first leg “I wouldn’t dream of playing that way and Barca cannot allow ourselves to play that way.” Except that Xavi’s puritanical streak doesn’t seem to stretch to Busquets or Pedro going down clutching their faces when they haven’t actually been touched there. The aggressive and negative tactics of Madrid are indefensible but for all their tiki-taka prowess this Barcelona team is in danger of being remembered for Busquets peek last season as Messi’s wonderful slaloming second goal. The inversion of the logic that occurred under the Bush administration seems to have happened at the Nou Camp. When Barcelona were a team based around metronomic passing and lethal attacking movement (which they still are in all fairness) they were hailed as the best team on the planet, playing football the right way. Since then the title has been so often repeated that Barcelona have begun to wallow in the title and regard any attempts to stop them almost as an affront. The cheating that they indulge in isn’t addressed because its them doing it and they’re the torch-bearers for all that is good in football therefore it isn’t wrong.

In each of the four Clasico’s we’ve had so far this season Real Madrid have had a player sent off. Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Angel Di Maria and Pepe have all seen red against the Catalans so far. And while this could be attributed to poor discipline in the derby, it doesn’t explain why both Inter Milan (last season) and Arsenal (earlier this season) have also both been reduced by a man when against Guardiola’s side. It seems barely credible that six dismissals in six of the biggest games Barcelona have played in the past two years can all be put down to coincidence alone. The play-acting of Pedro and Sergio Busquets, the incessant tactical fouling of Andres Iniesta and the constant hounding of referees are all contributing factors in Barcelona enjoying a man advantage in important games.

Of course it isn’t all down to cynicism on the part of Barcelona. Their phenomenal ability to retain possession frustrates opponents and provokes reactions like Ramos in the 5-0 earlier this season or Pepe in the first leg of the semi-final. Red cards don’t happen in isolation, players earn them. When Mourinho complains about never being able to play Barcelona 11 vs. 11 he needs to take a good long look at some of his own players actions before commenting on Guardiola and his side. Ramos deserved his red card. Pepe arguably deserved his. But the never-ending hounding of referee Wolfgang Stark by Puyol and company certainly influenced his decision making over the course of the 90 minutes.

Of course many sides engage in underhand tactics and Barcelona are not the worst. Nor do their tactics result in broken limbs like the overly aggressive tactics of others. Nevertheless it is impossible to maintain a posture of being footballs saviours and use such cynical means to win. Before going after Real Madrid, Xavi might just want to have a look at his own camp before passing judgement.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Relegation Spells Huge Problems For Blackburn

There are two types of relegation. The easy kind, in which the club bounces back after a year or two and can even use the chance to clear out some deadwood and reorganise itself a la Newcastle last season. Then there the hard kind, the kind that sets of a slow but terminal decline in the standards of a club such as Coventry or Sheffield United. Sometimes which type of relegation a club is experiencing isn’t immediately apparent but nevertheless the majority of teams that drop down a division fall into one of the two categories.

When talking about Premier League winners, Blackburn are always the forgotten child. Along with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, they form part of an exclusive club of title winners since 1992. Sadly, it’s hard to see Blackburn as anything but the Ringo of the four. While John, Paul and George have all won multiple titles and established themselves among the European elite, Blackburn have become a mid-table side. Since their league title triumph in 1995 Blackburn haven’t finished in the top five. Relegated in the 1998/99 season the club spent two years in the Championship before returning. That was a fairly easy relegation as the club bounced back into the top flight with relatively little worry and resumed their place as a Premier League fixture.

However, throughout the past two decades the club have been able to fall back on the generosity of the Jack Walker fund, the steel magnate who bankrolled the 1995 title. Walker broke the British transfer record multiple times to bring in the likes of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. The difference this time is that the Walker Trust is no longer around to inject cash into the club. Should Blackburn suffer relegation this season, the outlook is far more grim that in 1999.

In 2008 the Trust discontinued support for the club saying that it saw no need to carry on investing. This assessment was pretty much correct based on the assumption that the club would be fully self-sufficient as long as it remained in the top flight and therefore party to that magical television money. However Venky’s had other ideas. Like Newcastle before them, the new owners decided that Sam Allardyce wasn’t the man they wanted running their club and replaced him with the inexperienced Steve Kean. It would not be unfair to say that the appointment has not been a success in any sense with the team taking a grand total of four points from their last ten games. The team is in freefall and looks the least likely of the relegation candidates to pick up any points aside from possibly Blackpool.

The reason that the Walkers Trust and the television money have been so important for Blackburn is that their match day revenue is appallingly low, the club earning less than £7m a year. Former chairman John Williams admitted that match day revenue was an area “where we find it difficult to compete.” The upshot of this shortfall is that revenue needs to come from elsewhere namely the Walker Trust and television. Without either of these two income streams, Blackburn may find life in the Championship much harder than before.

Unless they want to own a club on the slide Venky’s need to make good on promises of investment. Sadly, so far they have provided no indication that they have any expertise in football whatsoever. Talk of Kaka and Ronaldinho at Ewood Park just serves to make them look foolish. More than most of the clubs in the top flight, Blackburn’s business model requires top flight football. The new owners need to invest players to consolidate Rovers position as a solid mid-table, top flight club above all else. The second priority needs to be finding ways to boost match day income but this is dwarfed by the necessity to retain access to Sky’s television money. So far Venky’s have yet to make one decent, intelligent football-related decision. That needs to change and quickly otherwise Blackburn could be in real danger of dropping out of the top flight for a long time.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Shopping In Serie A This Summer

The end of another season approaches and with it comes the truly important stuff in football. Trophies and medals are all very nice but the real business happens in the transfer market as fans of all affiliations whip themselves into a collective mindless frenzy hoping to see mega bucks splashed out as marquee names arrive by the boatload. This summer, almost without exception the most fertile shopping ground is Serie A. Forget the fashion designers in Milan or sight-seeing in Rome, anybody travelling to Italy this summer with a wad of cash will be hoping to bring back a footballer. Aside from Lille’s Eden Hazard and Anderlecht’s Lukaku (billed as the next David Silva and Didier Drogba respectively) the bright new talents of Europe are currently plying their trade for the likes of Palermo, Napoli and Udinese.

No longer the powerhouse that it was in the 80’s and 90’s Italian football nevertheless has some genuinely exciting superstars emerging. The question is whether clubs can hold on to their prized lumps of meat as the big boys circle like piranhas. Napoli have been the obvious surprise package of the season and while a first Scudetto since 1990 looks increasingly less likely the trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi have all been hugely impressive. All three are relatively young, Lavezzi being the oldest at 25. Napoli will certainly exercise their buyout clause regarding Cavani who is still technically on loan from Palermo. Given that they will be playing in the Champions League next season they will certainly try to hang on to all three but if rumours of interest from Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea are true then Napoli can expect to receive at least €20m for each. Any of the three would seem to offer excellent value. Lavezzi and Hamsik operate as schemers and creators while Cavani’s 25 goals so far this season testify to his lethal ability, making him the highest league scorer in a single season in Napoli’s history.

Outside of Napoli the talents at Udinese have been attracting attention all over Europe. The crown jewel of the Zebrette is undoubtedly the young Chilean Alexis Sanchez who can play across the board behind a striker. His partnership with Di Natale this season has been nothing short of exhilarating. Sanchez has the pace, power and technical ability to make it at any top club in Europe and his blossoming has hardly gone unnoticed by scouts. The likes of Antonio Di Natale, Gokhan Inler and Kwadwo Asamoah would all be excellent signings for a number of Premier League outfits as well. As Javier Hernandez and Cheick Tiote have proven, there is value in the market still and if any of those three are available at reasonable prices, they could prove remarkably astute acquisitions.

However if there is one shining jewel in the whole of Serie A that should be scooped up it would be the Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore of Palermo. Ironically the cream of the crop is the one not playing for a side that hasn’t mounted a challenge to get into Europe this season. Nevetheless, the former Huracan player is strong, tall and quick. Moreover he has a wonderful eye for a pass and the technical ability to pull it off. As Manchester United seek to replace an aging Paul Scholes their first stop should the office of Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini who claims to have already turned down a €50m offer for the Argentine.

It will be a test of the strength of Serie A as a league to see how many of the names mentioned above begin next season still plying their trade in Italy. There are numerous problems in the Italian game as it still struggles to overcome the shadows of Calciopoli and the decline is evident. How fast and how bad the decline is remains to be seen. But unless Italian clubs can hold on to players like Pastore, Sanchez and Cavani, any reversal in fortunes will remain a dream.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Weekend That Changed Everything

What with the Manchester derby in the FA Cup semi-final and the first game in the football World Series over in Spain, viewers could be forgiven for taking their eyes of the relegation race in the Premiership this weekend to focus on other matches. Nevertheless, it could be that this weekend marks the time when the bottom half of the table finally begins to take shape and serious relegation candidates emerge. We’ve been waiting for a long time but it finally looks like there are five serious candidates for the drop. Blackpool, Blackburn, Wigan, West Ham and Wolves all look like the real contenders for the drop. Sunderland are also on a horrific run of form but they should have enough points from the first half of the season to avoid the drop. Nevertheless they could still be sucked into the scrap if they don’t record a win soon. Indeed, it says a lot about Arsenal’s title challenge that the one place that both Sunderland and Blackburn have managed to pick up points in recent weeks is at the Emirates where both sides kept clean sheets.

Of course many teams have been mired in the relegation scrap for a long time now but before this weekend there was always the promise that even one victory could alter a team’s position fairly drastically. Blackpool have been the neutrals favourite side this year, not just because they came up via the playoffs which tends to endear fans to a club, but because they have really set out to attack team’s this year. However the sad fact is that this attitude may also be their downfall. Having gone two-nil up against Manchester United, the Seasiders didn’t attempt to sit back and defend their lead but try for a third. Seeing both full-backs bombing forward with fifteen minutes to go is certainly admirable but it is also suicidal against a team like United. Their defeat to Wigan might prove to be crucial. A win at home to the side bottom of the lead and they might have reversed their slide down the table. Now a return to the Championship looks very likely to the disappointment of everyone.

Along with Blackpool, Blackburn are in a wretched run of form and the decision to sack Sam Allardyce looks worse every week. Both teams will struggle to pick up many more points this season which is a problem because, as bad as West Ham, Wolves and Wigan have been at times this season they all have the ability to pick up points here and there. One of the three sides in the drop zone currently will almost certainly escape but which one remains to be seen. Wolves currently have a game in hand on their rivals but have the victims of rotten luck as much as poor form. Who will go down is still unclear but this weekend finally saw breathing space emerge between the teams in real trouble and the likes of Fulham or Aston Villa.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Champions League Semi-Final Predictions

So once again the Germans have ruined a clean sweep of predictions. Well I’ll get them and their little dog too. Raul and his Schalke team mates dumped Internazionale out with an aggregate score of 7-3 which just feels so old school. So before we move on to the World Series Of FootballTM lets have a look at their chances against Manchester United:

Schalke 04 vs. Manchester United: Schalke have already dumped Valencia and Inter out of the competition and Manchester United can hardly afford to take them likely, especially given their relatively poor record against German clubs. In the knock-out stages they’ve suffered against Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich during Ferguson’s reign.

On the other hand, this is a United side that is built to deal with these European encounters. Firstly there is vast experience of Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes etc. Even Wayne Rooney has seven seasons worth of wisdom under his belt at 25. That reservoir of “been there, done that” is invaluable at the highest level. The ability to remain calm even when under the cosh as United will no doubt be for at least some portion of the tie will be crucial.

Secondly Ferguson has taken his time to learn how to play in Europe but there is absolutely no chance of Schalke putting seven past this United side who’ve only conceded three goals all campaign, compared to the 19 shipped by Inter.

Finally there is the fact that, with all due respect to Schalke, United have a better team. Jurado, Raul etc are by no means bad players but on paper they are not a match for Ferguson’s men. With the second leg at home, United will feel very confident of a third final in four years.

Prediction: Manchester United to win home and away without really pummelling the Germans.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Even at their most meaningless the average El Clasico is more important than Armageddon. The fact there will be four in the space of two and a half weeks will have to involve some re-writing of the laws of physics in the Spanish press to allow for the sheer gravity of the situation. Mourinho vs. Guardiola. Messi vs. Ronaldo. Cantera vs. Cartera (Youth versus wallet).

The Golden Boys inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats in Clasico history earlier this season with a 5-0 manita. But if there is one thing that Jose Mourinho does rather well it’s learn from his mistakes. Plus the Portuguese tactician will have two “practise” Clasico’s with which to try out various formations. Furthermore Barcelona miss Eric Abidal and Carlos Puyol. Badly. Without the duo they are far more defensively vulnerable than they were before. Abidal will certainly miss the clash and doubts over Puyol go right up to kick-off.

Yet Madrid have not yet been moulded into a Mourinho side. The process is happening and next season with a few judicious acquisitions La Decima might be much more of a possibility but questions marks remain over how sturdy Madrid will be against Barcelona. The scars from the Nou Camp still hurt. Much will depend on the league and Copa Del Rey games. If Barcelona win both then it will take a super-human managerial effort to instil the required confidence in the Madrid players. However even one victory, preferably in the cup would have Madrid enter the tie on a high.

It will also be fascinating to see what tactics Mourinho uses to counter Guardiola in the two games running up to the Clasico. Even with less than two weeks to go, there are so many unforeseeable variables that predicting this clash is stupid.

Prediction: With that in mind, Barcelona still look ever so slightly more likely to reach the final. Last time this blog predicted a tight, edgy affair, settled by a single goal. So don’t, you know, rely on it.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Ancelotti: The Not So Special Specialist

There is something flattering about being brought in for a specific purpose. To do the job that nobody else has been able to do. Michael became the Godfather because Sonny could never be a real Don. Nobody other than Petruchio could hope to woo Katherina. And when Roman Abramovich brought in his own Italian specialist the message was clear. Carlo Ancelotti was to deliver the Champions League to Stamford Bridge because nobody else could. The Special One tried and failed despite his success with Porto and later Inter Milan, Avram Grant missed out by the width of a post and Guus Hiddink was deprived by Guardiola’s all-conquering 2009 Barcelona team and the right boot of Andres Iniesta. Yet after last night’s defeat at home to Manchester United his Chelsea side is on the brink of going out before the semi-finals for the second year running. A Chelsea side that has made it to the semi-finals since 2007 under three different managers prior to Ancelotti’s arrival. Failure to beat Manchester United next week could be the nail in the coffin for the Italian tactician.

Ancelotti was chosen as the replacement for Hiddink because, despite only winning one Scudetto he guided Milan to three Champions League finals winning two. In 2003 penalties decided the worst Champions League final in years against Juventus and in 2007 his Milan side exacted revenge against Benitez’s Liverpool after the amazing 2005 defeat. His record in the competition is remarkable by any standards. Even more useful to Chelsea was his ability to coax winning performances out of aging stars, something Chelsea have in embarrassing abundance.

When it comes to the Champions League Chelsea are becoming the anti-Real Madrid. Both crave the trophy with all their soul. Madrid crave La Decima, the tenth European Cup that will cement them as the biggest club on the continent, Chelsea thirst for their first. The difference is that European triumph is the raison d’ĂȘtre of Madrid; the entire club is predicated on pre-eminence but Chelsea’s craving for European glory stems from one man. While Madrid have the swagger and arrogance that nine wins brings, Europe has become Roman Abramovich’s Moby Dick. No London club has ever won Europe’s biggest prize and Chelsea will need to overturn history to do it this time because Manchester United have never lost a European tie after winning the first leg away. The league leaders have conceded a grand total of two goals all season and are unbeaten at Old Trafford since the visit of Chelsea last year.

Chelsea’s travails in the league this year have been well documented. The November/December collapse followed by the arrival of a misfiring Torres has seen the champions fall way off the pace set by Ferguson’s team. But all these issues will be instantly forgotten if Ancelotti masterminds a way past United and a victory in Wembley in May. However, the Italian faces an uphill battle and it is hard to see Abramovich tolerating two years of relatively poor performances. Last year the Blues went out to the eventual champions and Chelsea won the domestic double but after investing a further £70m in the team the Russian oligarch will be expecting results. Ancelotti was brought in as a specialist. A specialist who gets worse results than the guys before is someone who is very expendable.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Ibrahimovic Can Lose Without Even Playing

“You can’t lose if you don’t play.” Marcia Daniels may have thought she was giving sage advice to her husband in The Wire but tomorrow Zlatan Ibrahimovic will face the prospect of losing precisely because he isn’t playing. The Swede has many salient characteristics; karate black-belt, freakish height and a galactic-sized ego but the fact that, no matter the domestic league in which he plays, he does not lose titles must be one of the most striking. In the past seven seasons, whether in Holland, Italy and Spain Ibrahimovic has won the domestic title. In the early stages of the season the giant striker was virtually winning games single-handedly as Milan raced into a commanding lead over their rivals. And once again as we enter the final stretch of Serie A, his Milan side is top of the pile.

But that hardly tells the story behind tomorrow’s derby. Because only a few months ago, Inter were 13 points behind Milan and the Rossoneri juggernaut was looking firm favourites for the Scudetto. Because the one of the other salient characteristics of Zlatan is that he can be ever so slightly temperamental. To the point that in the 1-1 draw against Bari last month he smacked Marco Rossi and landed himself a ban which see’s him miss the Milan derby. Because, since Leonardo took over from Benitez and they began to look a bit more like the Grande Inter of Jose Mourinho and the title race has been reignited. With twelve wins from their last fifteen games the Champions have narrowed the gap at the top to a mere two points. It would have been difficult to imagine Inter under Benitez going into the derby with confidence as high and the gap as close as it is now.

There can be no doubt that this derby is huge. Possibly the most intense in over a decade. The momentum of the title race is firmly with Inter as AC Milan stutter and stumble, watching their lead vanish. A defeat in the derby would not be the end of their title bid but it would see them knocked off the top of the pile after 19 straight weeks at the top. With Napoli and Udinese also jockeying for position a defeat for either side in the derby could be a huge turning point in the title race.

The best team may have gone out against Spurs (at least according to Gazzeta Della Sport) and Inter may have scrapped through against Bayern by the skin of their teeth but the contrast encapsulates the respective form of either side in recent weeks. Milan huffed and puffed but didn’t have the ability to get the win while Inter have rode their luck to outrageous extremes but have the knack of pulling through somehow.

Compared to Inter under Mourinho this Inter have all the stability of a man’s first attempt on a unicycle but they have a seat of the pants energy which Milan look unlikely to match. As he watches from the sidelines, Zlatan might just reflect on the fact that while you can very much lose if you don’t play, it’s almost impossible to win. For a man so used to lifting trophies this could be one of the biggest missed matches of his career.