Thursday, 16 October 2014

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Friday, 22 August 2014

What next for Iker Casillas?

Johannesburg, 11th July 2010. Spain versus the Netherlands in the World Cup final. The clock reads 61 minutes, and it is still a stalemate between the two sides. Suddenly, Wesley Sneijder slips a ball through to Arjen Robben on the halfway line, who dashes past the Spanish defenders and into the penalty area. Robben looks up to see the onrushing Iker Casillas, and time stands still as he decides whether to go round the keeper or shoot first time. He picks his spot, and shoots low with his left foot. Casillas goes the wrong way, but deflects the ball wide with an outstretched boot. The danger is averted.

That save was the defining moment of Iker Casillas’ career. There may well have been better stops, but none have been as significant as that one he made to deny Robben in the World Cup final. In Spain, the save is talked about in almost the same glowing terms as Andrés Iniesta’s late winner in added extra time, and rightly so. Casillas’ intervention was crucial in ensuring that Vicente Del Bosque’s side went on to win the World Cup, and his performance in the final meant he would go down in goalkeeping history.

Four years later, Spain faced the Netherlands again, this time in their opening group game of the World Cup in Brazil. Spain lost 5-1 and Casillas was awful, later admitting that it had been the worst performance of his career. It was none other than Robben who stuck the final nail in the coffin, turning past the Spain captain and leaving him scrabbling frantically in his tracks as he slotted home the fifth and final goal. Casillas was just as useless against Chile, as Spain lost 2-0 and were dumped out unceremoniously. In both matches he seemed uninterested, a shadow of his former self.

Fortune has played an important part in Iker Casillas’ career. When Real Madrid’s first choice keeper César Sánchez was injured in the 2002 Champions League final, it was Casillas who came on to make a string of fine saves to rescue his side. Then it was Santiago Cañizares’ misfortune that meant that Casillas was made Spain’s No. 1 in the World Cup later that year, after Cañizares dropped an aftershave bottle on his foot, severing a tendon and ruling himself out of the tournament. In the round of sixteen tie against Ireland, Casillas saved two penalties in the shootout and instantly became a hero, with the Spanish press dubbing him ‘San Iker’- Saint Iker. He has not looked back since, captaining Spain to victory at Euro 2008, Euro 2012, and of course in South Africa. “Luck?” he said, in an interview with Sid Lowe during Euro 2004. “Maybe. But if you let in three, what's the point? You have to take advantage.”

But Casillas has also fallen prey to his own misfortune. In the 2012/13 season he was dropped by José Mourinho after trying to negotiate peace between Madrid and Barça, along with his friend and Spain teammate Xavi.  “I called Xavi because it was my duty to do so, as the captain, it’s my responsibility. I knew what I had to do because the group was becoming divided, because I represent my country and I have to defend an idea,” Casillas said in an interview with El País’ Luis Martín.

Mourinho was outraged, and decided instead to play the hugely inexperienced Antonio Adán. Things seemed to settle down when the Portuguese coach finally saw sense and decided to restore Casillas to the No.1 spot, but in a desperately unlucky turn of events he broke his hand during a Copa del Rey tie against Valencia, after a collision with Álvaro Arbeloa (ironically, one of Mourinho’s favourite players at Madrid). Casillas was sidelined for the rest of the season, and Diego López was bought from Sevilla to cover for his absence.

López barely put a foot (or hand) wrong while Casillas was out injured, making save after brilliant save without getting anywhere near the same kind of recognition from the Madrid press. Mourinho soon departed, with his tenure turning increasingly sour, but López remained, leaving new coach Carlo Ancelotti with the dilemma of how to keep the two keepers happy. In the end he settled on playing López in La Liga, and Casillas in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. Ancelotti’s plan worked to a certain extent. Casillas was able to lift the fabled Décima and the Copa del Rey, but he lacked playing time. His decision making suffered, and his error in the Champions League final was a sign of how he wasn’t in the best form coming into the World Cup.

Now Casillas finds himself at a crossroads. Keylor Navas was poached from Levante this summer, fresh from an impressive World Cup for Costa Rica, and Diego López has been sold to Milan. While Ancelotti may have been able to juggle two good custodians last season, three would have been impossible, and López was simply too good to be benched.

Fresh from an excellent World Cup, Navas will put pressure on Casillas.
Keylor Navas will provide stiff competition for Casillas. He emerged as one of the best keepers in La Liga last season, making 141 saves, more than anyone else in the Spanish top flight. His training methods are intense and he is an excellent shot-stopper, boasting a fine set of reflexes. Despite this, he only has one year of experience in Spain’s top division, having previously played second fiddle to Gustavo Munúa at Levante. A year of assimilation into the Real Madrid setup would come in handy for Navas, instead of instantly being put in the spotlight. It is clear that he will become first choice at some point, but there is no need to rush the process. This transfer window has shown how keen top clubs are to have two top level keepers between the sticks, and, given the number of trophies Madrid will have to contest this year, the likelihood is that Ancelotti will use a similar policy to last season, rotating Casillas and Navas between competitions.

Casillas deserves the chance to prove himself again to Ancelotti. At 33, he has plenty of experience and could take some of the pressure off Navas, while trying to go out on a high note. Provided Casillas can start regularly, there is a chance he could recover some of his form and confidence.

Casillas is not the keeper he once was, that much is true. But in the small window of an international tournament, things can be blown out of proportion, especially with goalkeepers. Time will tell if Casillas’ terrible World Cup was merely down to bad form, but we shouldn’t be too quick to write him off. Whatever happens this season, he doesn’t deserve to be remembered for his performances in Brazil. In time, Navas will replace Casillas, and Navas will be replaced by someone else. But Casillas will always be one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, if not the greatest.


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

5 keepers who have impressed in Brazil

International tournaments are usually defined by moments of attacking brilliance and skill, and this World Cup has been no different. The likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and James Rodriguez have lit up Brazil, and it is no surprise that they have received most of the plaudits. Despite this, the 2014 World Cup will also be remembered for some fine goalkeeping. Here are just five of the keepers who have impressed in Brazil.

Manuel Neuer (Germany)

Neuer has taken the role of the sweeper-keeper to new extremes in Brazil. The German No.1 surprised everybody against Algeria in the round of sixteen, taking up extremely high positions outside his box and dashing forward to deny the onrushing Algerian attackers throughout the match. Although many saw his actions as risky (he was almost caught out early on by Islam Slimani) his decision making was perfect, and he spared his defenders’ blushes on a number of occasions. Neuer’s shot-stopping has also been excellent, as demonstrated by the save he made against Karim Benzema in the final minutes of the quarter-final against France, and his distribution has been equally impressive. His arrogance can irritate neutrals, but he has undoubtedly been the best keeper of this tournament so far.

Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
It was a fantastic tournament for Costa Rica, who finished top in a group containing Italy, Uruguay and England, and made it to the quarter finals of a World Cup for the first time in their history after overcoming Greece with ten men. This was in no small part down to Keylor Navas, who had an outstanding tournament. While players such as Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz were important in Los Ticos’ remarkable run, nobody was more influential than Navas, who at times kept Costa Rica in the competition. He was excellent against Greece in the round of sixteen, saving from point blank range on two occasions, but he will inevitably be remembered for his heroics in the penalty shootout which followed. He produced a great save against Theofanis Gekas with the score at 4-3, allowing Michael Umana to seal Costa Rica’s progress to the quarter finals with the next spot-kick. For all of their qualities, it is unlikely they would have got this far had it not been for Keylor Navas.

Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)

Considering Ochoa wasn’t even guaranteed to start for Mexico before this tournament started, he had a remarkable World Cup. He made a series of stunning saves against Brazil, including a fine, one-handed stop from a Neymar header which prompted comparisons with Gordon Banks’ save against Pele, and which might just be the save of the tournament so far. Ochoa was on his way to PSG in 2011 before he failed a drugs test (it later turned out that he and other players had eaten contaminated meat) and he was subsequently snapped up by Ajaccio, where he became a hero. Ochoa is now a free agent, and one can’t help feeling that he will get his dream move to a top European club after his performances in Brazil.

Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)

Belgium had a solid if unspectacular World Cup given the expectations placed on them. They were rarely troubled, but when they were, Courtois was there to rescue them. In the final few minutes of extra time against the USA, for instance, the big Belgian made a brilliant, sprawling save at the feet of Clint Dempsey, and against Argentina he stood tall to prevent Lionel Messi from making it 2-0 late on in the match, demonstrating his composure and speed off his line. Courtois is less prone to mad dashes outside his area than Manuel Neuer and has less of an ego, perhaps giving him an edge over the German keeper.

Tim Howard (USA)

The USA are renowned for producing good goalkeepers, and Howard can perhaps lay claim to being the greatest of them all after his performances at this World Cup. Certainly he produced one of the best US goalkeeping performances of all time against Belgium, making a record number of saves (15) in a single World Cup match, and he was just as important against Portugal in the group stage. Although some of his flaws were exposed (he has a tendency to go to ground too early and his distribution can be dodgy), Howard was largely faultless, and his leadership was also vital in ensuring the USA reached the knockout rounds.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

England's early exit: Hodgson is to blame

As soon as the group was drawn the FA and England were preparing for an inevitable early exit from the World Cup.  Roy Hodgson himself admitted, "It is difficult. There is no doubt with Uruguay and Italy we have almost got two number one seeds in our group” whilst Greg Dyke made the infamous and pessimistic throat-slit gesture.  But make no mistake, Group D was no ‘Group of Death’. This is not the glorious Italy team of old, they are much weaker defensively and lack conviction going forward – and were deservedly beaten by Costa Rica. Uruguay have suffered a sharp decline since winning the Copa America in 2011, were also deservedly beaten by Costa Rica, and rely heavily on a couple of select players. Costa Rica have performed admirably, but ultimately have a population of fewer than 5 million and had one player in the self-proclaimed best League in the World last season (who was injured for this tournament).  With the players available, England should have at least qualified in second – however, Hodgson seems to be receiving very little backlash from the mainstream media (primarily the BBC) whatsoever, and has received assurances on his future from the FA.

In 2010 England crashed out of the World Cup and Fabio Capello was widely derided and mocked, with a dash of xenophobia, and many in the media called for his head.  This was a man who had won multiple leagues in both Italy and Spain, not to mention the Champions League, and still wasn't good enough for England. But it seems merely because he is English, Hodgson is beyond reproach. Now, I am not suggesting Hodgson is an inept manager – he has managed extensively abroad, is evidently intelligent and multilingual, a quality that should be applauded and is sadly rare with modern English managers - but he is not the type of manager England should be persisting with at this moment in time. He does not fit any bill – he is not the free-spirited attacking manager some have made him out to be, and he has proven both at the Euros and now at the World Cup that he is incapable of grinding out results at knockout tournaments with England. Yes, England did not play too badly in either of their two defeats (so far), but that was largely down to the relative mediocrity of the opposition.

Everyone knew that England’s defence was vulnerable, yet Hodgson did not select a single natural defensive midfielder in the entire squad. Jordan Henderson, who had a fantastic season in a midfield three, was left to cover far too much, with Gerrard not fulfilling a role of any kind. Gareth Barry, who has played consistently well anchoring a midfield this season was not selected, on grounds of age, but Frank Lampard, who now does not really fit into a rigid 4-2-3-1, still was. Natural strikers – Welbeck and Rooney – were played out of position, reducing their capabilities going forward, and leaving attacking full-backs Baines and Johnson woefully exposed at times. Baines was widely lambasted following the Italy match (despite the recurrent overlaps he had to contend with), as was Rooney, but the man who forced that situation upon the players seemed to escape criticism. So many fans and pundits could see the situation unfolding, but relatively little action was taken. James Milner, England’s best defensive winger (who could also fill in at central midfield) has not played a single minute of football.

Perhaps such decisions would be excusable if England had been immeasurably potent going forward. But they were not – two goals in two games is not impressive. It could be argued that they had many more shots than Uruguay, but to me this is indicative of a lack of clinical finishing, and more importantly creativity and incision. Too often the fullbacks made good attacking runs but were never found, with natural strikers understandably wanting to cut inside. Gerrard often slowed the game down with his typical Hollywood balls, which are painfully easy to defend against, and there was an absence of a natural playmaker. The solution to this particular problem was probably Ross Barkley, if not maybe Adam Lallana or even Jack Wilshere, but as Hodgson so positively said: “I'm not prepared to address your obsession with Ross Barkley. If he's going to be the player we want him to be, he has to make better decisions of when he turns with the ball.”

Hodgson may well be right when it comes to Barkley, but those are not the quotes of a positive, attack-minded manager. They are the quotes of a naturally negative, conservative defence-minded slightly antiquated manager, who felt the media pressure to seem offensive. Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez or Arsene Wenger would never have criticised a 20 year old player in that manner – and it is a manager of that ilk England should now seduce.

Grassroots football should be invested in, but I don’t believe a massive overhaul of the system is required. England had and will have the players to play genuinely attractive and attacking football, with the right players to balance the system. This World Cup could have been refreshing, exciting, and a sign of significant progress from 2010 – but crushingly, it was inevitably an abject failure. And the buck stops with Hodgson. 

By Alex Jennings

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

La Liga 2013-14 season review

It was another brilliant season in La Liga, and one which will go down in history as the year that Atlético Madrid finally broke the duopoly between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Atlético's success was remarkable, especially given their financial constraints (it is worth mentioning that they had a smaller budget than QPR this season) and the fact that they lost one of their best players last summer in Radamel Falcao.  As well as winning the league, they reached the Champions League final, and, despite losing to Real, Diego Simeone’s side have defied expectation this season.

Although the loss of Falcao was seen as a big blow at the time, it actually benefitted the team. Diego Costa’s influence had often been stifled by the Colombian forward, and this season he was able to spread his wings, scoring 27 goals in La Liga (he had previously failed to score more than 10 in a single league season) and playing a huge part in Atleti’s success.

Likewise, Diego Simeone’s influence cannot be overstated. El Cholo has transformed the club, and the Argentine has cemented his place in Atleti folklore, surpassing his achievements as a player at the Vicente Calderón. He has succeeded in bringing unity to a club which was in a shambolic state when he arrived, and has given players such as Gabi and Tiago a new lease of life. While various names do stand out in this Atlético side, there is no one star player, and perhaps this is testament to the sense of togetherness that Simeone has created at the club. 

The likelihood is that at least some of these names will depart this summer. The trio of Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Tiago looks set to leave for Chelsea, but this could mean that Atlético get to hold onto Thibaut Courtois for another season.  Koke is being heavily monitored by Barça, while Miranda, one of the stalwarts of Atlético’s defence, has been linked with a move to England. Whatever happens to this group of talented players, they deserve credit for a fantastic season.

For all of Atlético's qualities, Barça and Real underperformed in La Liga. While Ancelotti’s side managed to cover this up by winning the elusive Décima in a tense final against Atlético themselves, ending a 12-year wait for the trophy, Barça were not so lucky. Tata Martino’s side crashed out of the Champions League to Atlético, and lost the Copa del Rey final in the last few minutes thanks to a Gareth Bale dash from the halfway line. Such is the bizarre nature of La Liga that Barça actually had the chance to win the title on the final day of the season against Atlético, but Martino’s fate had already been sealed. The Catalan club have replaced him with Luis Enrique, who seems to be a better fit for them. He is well schooled in Barça's methods, and introduced a number of youngsters into the first team at Celta, his previous club. Expect 2014-15 to be a more settled year of transition for Barça. 

For Real Madrid, this season was only ever going to be about La Décima. Ancelotti was the perfect man for the job, in many ways representing the anti-Mourinho. Los Blancos were still shaking off some of the effects of Mourinho's tenure in the first half of the season, and towards the end they allowed the Champions League to dominate their focus, as they resigned themselves to third place in La Liga. However, Ancelotti did well to calm the team down, and they were largely faultless in the Champions League, barring some nervy moments away to Borussia Dortmund, when the tie had virtually been won. Bale had a good first season after a shaky start, scoring the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final and the goal which put Real ahead in the Champions League final, making that world record transfer fee look slightly less ridiculous. Not bad for someone the Spanish press cruelly labelled 'Forrest Gump' after the first Clásico of the season. 

Athletic Bilbao were reinvigorated by new manager Ernesto Valverde and comfortably secured the final Champions League spot, playing some lovely football along the way. Ander Iturraspe was a vital part of Valverde’s starting eleven, and earned himself a place in Del Bosque’s preliminary World Cup squad, while the hugely promising Aymeric Laporte was one of the best centre-backs in Spain this season. Aduriz experienced something of a resurgence, scoring 16 goals in La Liga, and Susaeta and Muniain were also impressive. Athletic are on the up, and, if they do get through to the group stages of the Champions League, they will be a team to look out for.

Sevilla also played some very attractive football under Unai Emery and won the Europa League, with Ivan Rakitić in particular having a brilliant season. They fell short in qualifying for the Champions League, and their hopes next season will rest on whether or not they can keep Rakitić this summer, with a number of potential suitors lurking. Villarreal finished in sixth place after bouncing back up from Segunda, and were inspired by their manager Marcelino. Sadly Real Sociedad couldn’t repeat their achievements from last season, as they failed to juggle the challenges of domestic and European football.

As always, it was a tense battle at the bottom end of La Liga. Paco Jémez’s Rayo Vallecano did brilliantly to avoid the drop, even though they looked destined for relegation. Betis had a horrendous season, as they sacked first Pepe Mel and then Juan Carlos Garrido after just 47 days in charge of the club, finishing bottom. Valladolid were also relegated, and Juan Ignacio Martínez’s tactics won his side few admirers. Osasuna waved goodbye to La Liga following 14 seasons in Primera Division, and it was a shame to see such a proud club go down. A special mention should go to the newly promoted sides Elche, Almería and Villarreal, who all stayed up this year.

Unfortunately the ugly side of La Liga did rear its head again, with a number of racist insults and jibes coming from the stands. It tarnished what was otherwise a brilliant season for Spanish football, and the LFP (the league’s organisational body) have to do something about it.

Despite this, it was a great season for La Liga, and we can expect an equally competitive league next season. In the often overused words of Marca, ‘hay liga’. There is a league.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Why Isco isn't the next Canales

Isco has become a vital part of Madrid's transitions in recent weeks.
When Isco signed for Real Madrid last summer, worrying comparisons were made with Sergio Canales’ failed transfer to the Bernabéu. In July 2010, Canales, only 18, signed for Madrid after becoming one of Spain’s hottest prospects, bursting onto the scene with a number of eye-catching performances for his struggling boyhood side Racing. Twelve months later his career was all but ruined, after an injury-hit season in which he had found opportunities limited.
Of course, this is not strictly true. Canales was only 19 when he left the capital to join Valencia on loan (later he would join permanently) and still had the rest of his career ahead of him. Even so, there were questions as to whether the youngster would ever fulfil his potential after that year wasted at Madrid. Fortunately he is now at Real Sociedad, where he seems to be back to his best.
It is easy to see why parallels were drawn with Isco’s signing. Like Canales, Isco had stood out as a big fish in a small pond at his previous club Malaga. He was instrumental in his team’s improbable run to the Champions League quarter-finals, and was brilliant for Spain’s Under-21 side, as they swept all before them at that summer’s European Championships. Florentino Perez jumped at the chance to sign the midfielder, and he was soon presented as a Real Madrid player. He was given the number 23, the same as David Beckham during his time at the club, perhaps an indication of how highly Perez rated him. Certainly the Real Madrid president had high hopes for the fledgling Spaniard. No pressure then.
But for a while it looked as if Isco would be frozen out of the starting eleven, just like Canales. After a bright start, scoring on his debut against Betis, he seemed to fade and fall behind in the pecking order. His defensive contribution was heavily scrutinised, and Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-3-3 formation which didn’t favour Isco’s creative talents seemed to be the final straw. It wasn’t long before Isco was cruelly being labelled the ‘next Canales’.
Not so on Wednesday night against Barcelona. Some eyebrows were raised when the youngster was named in the starting lineup, with some arguing Isco wouldn’t offer Xabi Alonso enough protection. But despite these worries, Isco put in one of his best performances in a Real Madrid shirt, hassling Barça’s players relentlessly and putting in a huge defensive effort. Xabi Alonso, in contrast, was largely anonymous. As Marca pointed out, no other player made as many ball recoveries as Isco (12), despite the likes of Busquets and Modrić being on the field. It is an impressive stat, especially for a player who earlier this season was heavily criticised for his lack of defending. His superb off-the-ball work was demonstrated in the first goal, in which he dispossessed Dani Alves to start the move which culminated in Di Maria’s finish.

It was a sign of how Isco has become a crucial part of Madrid’s transitions in recent weeks, and has finally settled at the Bernabéu. He has adapted to a new role since falling out of favour, demonstrated in recent games against Dortmund in the first leg of the Champions League tie, and against Almería on Saturday. 
It was fitting that Isco’s coming-of-age should come at Mestella, where he began his career with Valencia. Forget Canales; if Isco keeps performing like this, he could swiftly become a vital player in Ancelotti’s lineup.
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Why this Clasico could decide La Liga

On Sunday, Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in a game that could decide the outcome of La Liga, and Barça coach Tata Martino’s fate. For Madrid, it is a chance to cement their place at the top of La Liga, while for Barça it represents their last realistic shot at mounting a title challenge. Such is the crazy nature of Spanish football that despite a 7-0 win against Osasuna last weekend, the vultures are circling around the Camp Nou, and if Madrid were to inflict a heavy defeat on the Catalans, it would be the final straw for the directors of the Catalan club, who are said to be looking for a replacement for Martino already.
When these two sides met back in October, it was a very different story. Ancelotti was just finding his feet in the capital, and Madrid succumbed to a limp 2-1 defeat, barely threatening Victor Valdes’ goal. The Italian manager had named a defensive line-up, including Sergio Ramos in midfield, and it was clear that he didn’t yet know his best eleven. Star signing Gareth Bale paled in comparison with Neymar, and the general consensus was that Barça could have scored more. It seemed as if Tata Martino’s side were on the up, whereas there was still a lot of tinkering to do for Ancelotti.

What a difference five months can make. For now, talks of crisis have been subdued after Barça secured their passage to the last eight of the Champions League against Manchester City, but recent defeats against lowly Valladolid and Real Sociedad have put Martino’s position in jeopardy. Madrid, meanwhile, look a different team to the side that played against Barcelona in October. The attacking trio of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo has finally clicked for Ancelotti, while the team’s defence has improved drastically. Diego López has conceded 26 goals in 28 games, putting him third in Marca’s Zamora rankings for the best Spanish goalkeeper in La Liga, and, while his heroics cannot be understated, this is also down to the solid back four that he has had in front of him.
But there is another reason that this Clásico has taken on so much importance. There is a third team involved. Traditionally Madrid and Barça have occupied the top two places before this clash, but this time the outstanding Atlético Madrid are ahead of Barcelona, in second place. Up until recently, Atlético could rightfully have considered themselves as the best team in Madrid this season, and they have certainly been more impressive than the Catalans. A glance at the points totals in La Liga shows why some have labelled this a three-team Clásico. Real are top with 70 points, while Atlético are second with 67 points, only one point ahead of Barça in third place. The margins for error are extremely tight, and, if Atleti were to win against bottom side Betis on Sunday, and Real Madrid lose against Barça, then they would go top again.
While some have predicted a heavy defeat for Barça, they still remain formidable opponents when it matters the most, as demonstrated in the recent performances against Manchester City and Osasuna last weekend, and they will certainly be no pushovers. However, Ancelotti was right when he said that his team ‘arrive in a really good moment’, and we can expect a Real Madrid performance far removed from the tentative display in October. This promises to be an intriguing Clásico.
Be afraid, Barça, be very afraid.
This article first appeared on Sabotage Times. 
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero