Friday, 29 April 2011

"Best of the Rest" La Liga XI

The duopoly of “La Liga” means that when compiling a “Team of the Season” one is faced with a choice. Will the side be a composite Real Madrid/Barcelona XI, or a ‘best of the rest’ XI? ‘Best of the rest’ always seems to imply something secondary, a runners-up, which, in this case, is essentially true. However a team entitled “Best of the Rest”, it must be remembered, is ‘the rest’ only because it is playing against comfortably the best two teams in Europe, and in no way disregards the abilities of said players. In fact, such players make up a league that, in this blogger’s view, is the best in the world, aesthetically certainly. Indeed, some of them would snuggle comfortably into the respective playing styles of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

GK: Carlos Kameni (Espanyol)

In a bizarre season for Espanyol, who, at one stage, were contemplating European qualification, but ended up relying on several youngsters to see them through recent fixtures, Carlos Kameni has had yet another outstanding season. Club captain who made the number one spot his own in 2006, and hasn’t looked back since. His traits include a dominant command of his penalty area, as well as feline-esque reflexes and confidence in the air. Ten clean sheets this season and two penalty saves mark out an excellent keeper. His fiery personality has seen clashes with both fans and managers, however this only serves to demonstrate his loyalty to his country, Cameroon, and his adopted homeland of Catalonia.

Other candidate: Diego Lopez (Villarreal)

RB: Andoni Iraola (Athletic Bilbao)

A sturdy, dependable full-back, who makes very few errors and is reliable going forward, Iraola has been a regular for Bilbao since 2003-2004. He has reaped the rewards of an excellent season containing four goals and six assists, by being honoured with his fifth Spain cap, away at Lithuania. An excellent striker of the ball, capable of taking free kicks and penalties, whose positioning is rarely suspect and is quicker going forward than most full-backs, Iraola is a versatile, talented footballer. One of the most underrated right-backs in Spain is finally getting the recognition that has always been his in his beloved Basque country.

Other candidate: Miguel (Valencia)

LB: Jeremy Mathieu (Valencia)

At first glance, Jeremy Mathieu looks nothing like a full-back. Built like a bull, standing at well over 6 feet tall, with a capacity to run for days, and not as technically gifted as some of his counterparts, when seen chugging up the Valencian flanks as El Cid used to do, it is less of a heroic sight than the Cid and more of a strange one. Yet a superb debut season from the French full-back sees him shade another Valencian left-back, Asier del Horno out of contention. Mathieu’s consistency in both the Champions League and La Liga make him selected. He possesses huge strength in the tackle, as befits someone of his size, but sometimes overzealous, as Karim Benzema would readily testify. Mathieu can also produce the occasional howitzer shot, as witnessed with his only goal of the season, away at Bilbao.

Other candidate: Asier del Horno (Levante)

CB: Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)

Although Godin seems to have faltered slightly following a superb introduction to the season, he deserves immense credit for bringing even a semblance of stability to Atletico’s notoriously porous backline. With 27 appearances this season, such stability has come from his consistency, and his understanding with fellow South American Filipe and the young Alvaro Dominguez. Although mostly composed, he occasionally looks worringly mistake-prone, yet possesses all the characteristics of a world-class central defender, with pace, positioning, passing and stamina, as well as being beastly in the air. His World Cup performances prompted interest from Chelsea, which did not cease despite a move to Ateltico Madrid, and at only 25, the chronic instability at “Los Colchoneros” may force him to move on sooner rather than later.

Other candidate: Alberto Botia (Sporting Gijon)

CB: Ivan Ramis (Mallorca)

Perhaps a surprise pick, however Ramis has enjoyed a superb season with the Islanders, demonstrating the most essential quality for a centre-back, sheer consistency. Without possessing an array of stunning natural abilities, and perhaps despite possessing too short a temper, as six yellow cards this season, and two reds in the previous would justify, Ramis has become one of the finest centre-backs in La Liga. The 26 year-old has been linked with both Celtic and Fulham in recent seasons, whose oft-porous backlines he would certainly benefit.

Other candidate: Carlos Marchena (Villarreal)

LM: Santi Cazorla (Villarreal)

Cazorla seems the unluckiest player in La Liga. A natural, versatile talent capable of playing on either flank with ease, and causing perennial problems for opposition full-backs, he never seems to have been awarded enough international recognition, nor scored the goals which his talents justifiably deserve. Two goals in 29 Spain appearances and 18 in 110 in his second coming at Villarreal bely Cazorla’s instrumental role in Villareal’s rise to becoming one of the best clubs in Spain. His regular assists (8 this season) for Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar, and midfield understanding with Cani, Borja Valero and Bruno have formed the Yellow Submarine’s mechanical heartbeat, whilst his influential and undemonstrative leadership is a metaphor for the club’s dealings as a whole.

Other candidate: Juan Manuel Mata (Valencia)

RM: Xabi Prieto (Real Sociedad)

The crafty right midfielder from San Sebastian seems to have been on a one-man mission to preserve Sociedad’s first-division status, after a superb season. The desire to retain first division status is understandable, as Prieto stayed with the Basque outfit after relegation in 2006-07 and throughout a torrid experience for such a historic club and good player, in La Liga Adelante. Prieto has reaped the rewards of his loyalty this term and shown fans all over Spain his abilities with all-round contributions of goals and assists, as well as remarkable consistency and lack of injuries. Prieto is blessed with excellent dribbling abilities, good vision, and a creative mindset but his hitherto unwavering loyalty is set to be tested this summer, with Liverpool supposedly swirling. No Sociedad fans would begrudge losing another talented Xabi to the Scouse outfit, but would dearly love to keep the 27 year-old midfield schemer.

Other candidate: Jesus Navas (Sevilla)

CM: Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla)

Since Rakitic has only played half a season, this perhaps seems a surprising choice. However, the Croat has provided an instant impact at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, fulfilling his undoubted talent and potential by adding a creative spark into Sevilla’s oft-physical, and leaden-footed midfield. Indeed, Rakitic’s impact has coincided with Sevilla’s rise back up La Liga, propelling the Andalusian giants into a challenge for European spots. His five goals from midfield provide Sevilla with a deeper-lying attacking threat than Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, whose talents are undoubted but suffered from injuries, lack of service, and lack of support before January. Moreover, the Croatian’s partnership with the Chilean Gary Medel has provided balance both defensively and offensively. Picking up the disillusioned Rakitic from Schalke and reinvigorating him has proven to be an astute piece of business from the normally unstable and chaotic Sevilla.

Other candidates: Jonathan de Guzman (Mallorca)/Bruno (Villareal)

CM: Borja Valero (Villarreal)

The former, bald-headed, ball-playing unsuccessful West Brom midfielder was signed last summer by Villareal after a cull of wage-guzzling senior players. He was thrust straight into the heart of the Yellow Submarine’s midfield, and found the swift movement, precise passing, and high-tempo game just to his liking. So much to his liking in fact, that he has probably been the best midfielder in Spain this season. Were it not for Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, and Busquets standing in his way, he’d be a shoe-in for Del Bosque. Valero looks nothing like a creative midfielder, the slight hunch, the bald head, the awkward running-style, none of the ostentatious panache, swagger or self-importance that accompanies fine trequartistas. But Valero puts paid to the elegant stereotype, proving that hard work and desire, along with a dosage of natural talent can carry a team to the very top (in our league which doesn’t include Barcelona and Real Madrid, of course). Ten assists and four goals in 43 games aren’t outstanding stats, but Valero’s importance to Villarreal comes stylistically, as the living embodiment of their attractive tiki-taka, and as the link man, the unflustered creator who makes things tick.

Other candidates: Tino Costa (Valencia)/Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)

ST: Felipe Caicedo (Levante)

An international debutant at 16 will rightly have much expected of them. And indeed, the Ecuadorean centre-forward experienced a bright introduction into English football with Manchester City, scoring a brace against Hull City. However as with numerous young talents, Caicedo’s star shone brightly only briefly, before loan moves to Sporting Lisbon and then Malaga. On Summer 2010’s deadline day, deep into the dark, last, late hours of August, Caicedo pitched up on his third loan move in Iberia, this time to relegation favourites Levante. Caicedo’s goals though, have propelled Levante towards a comfortable mid-table position, and safety, that reward at the end of the rainbow. And goals there have been, headers, volleys, penalties, tap-ins, one-on-ones, Caicedo’s muscular play has been rewarded with 13 of them. His has been a mission, a man possessed, to show his rich Manchester owners what they’re missing out on, and to lead his adoring Valencian fans to the promised land of safety.

Other candidates: David Trezuguet (Hercules)/Roberto Soldado (Valencia)

ST: Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal)

Is Rossi one of the most complete, underrated forwards in Europe? The Italian scores goals. He creates goals. He works tirelessly. He possesses a lethal shot and superb movement between the lines. He regularly shows his creative instinct. He’s quick, quicker than expected. He runs for days. The term “forward” could perhaps have been created for Rossi, for his attributes, he seems to so define the position. Outside of the top two, the best striker in La Liga this season, and one of the best in European competition. His breakthrough season has changed the European view of him, as second top scorer in the Europa League testifies. No longer is Rossi another failed United starlet, he is now, by his own merits, a top forward, capable of playing just behind a frontman, as a lone striker, or cutting in from a flank. Not merely that, Rossi has that rare, cherished ability to make things happen, to excite fans, to take a game by the scruff of its neck and bend it to his will.

Other candidates: Osvaldo (Espanyol)/Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)/Fernando Llorente (Bilbao)

Friday, 22 April 2011

Bundesliga XI of the Season

It is difficult to pick a Bundesliga XI of the season without ignoring the overwhelming claims of the two Ruhr clubs, Dortmund and Schalke. Their outstanding seasons, one domestically, and one continentally see them deservedly dominate such a selection. However, I have tried not to ignore claims from teams at the start of the season who sprung surprises, such as Mainz, and teams whose influence lasted, nay increased over the course of the season, such as Hannover and Freiburg. Such a list also necessitates taking into consideration the wretched seasons endured by Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen and Koln. The team was compiled after 30 games of the season, therefore all statistics date from then.

GK: Manuel Neuer (Schalke)

Neuer has enjoyed a season that has cemented his position as one of the leading, if not the leading, goalkeepers in world football. His stellar performances throughout Schalke’s Champions League run, allied with his consistency in the Bundesliga (highest average rating in kicker’s “Torhuter” list), behind a sporadically erratic defence make him justifiably Germany’s number one, and his domestic league’s top keeper. Although nominally unpopular in Munich ahead of his ‘secret’ transfer, good early performances (which will undoubtedly come, knowing his class) will swiftly put paid to any supporter unrest.

Other candidates: Rene Adler (Bayer Leverkusen)

LB: Marcel Schmelzer (Dortmund)

The flamboyant, expansive left back with his trademark blonde hair has been a huge factor in Dortmund’s excellent defensive record, having played the full ninety minutes in each and every game thus far (30). His keenness to go forward is matched defensively by a clever positional sense, and an industrious work ethic. Not only this, but his motivational abilities and desire mark him out as a future Dortmund captain. His superb season saw him make his full Germany debut at left back against Sweden in November.

Other candidates: Christian Fuchs (Mainz)

RB: Andreas Beck (Hoffenheim)

Another flamboyant, blonde-haired German fullback, whose international recognition came earlier than his Dortmund counterpart, and at the same time was tinged with heartbreak as he was the final omission from Germany’s 2010 World Cup squad. The consistent displays produced by the right-back in 2010/11 are demonstrated, akin to Scmelzer, by him playing the most amount of minutes for Hoffenheim. His impressive performances this term have seen him linked with a summer move to Italian giants Juventus, who would surely only be benefited by the prototype of an ideal modern fullback, as reliable an option going forward (7 assists) as when defending.

Other candidates: Phillip Lahm (FC Bayern)

CB: Mats Hummels (Dortmund)

The Bundesliga’s outstanding centre-back, bar none. His positional awareness, tactical understanding and tackling strength mark him out as a player destined to provide the backbone of the Germany national side for many years to come. Formed an awesome partnership with the Serbian Neven Subotic, many commentators now see them as an inseparable pair, which has been the scourge of many a Bundesliga striker this season with 13 clean sheets. The settled backline has provided the basis from which Dortmund’s plentiful attacking talents can flourish. Can also chip in with useful goals, five this season, one a classy header in the vital away win at Bayern.

Other candidates: Neven Subotic (Dortmund)

CB: Benedikt Howedes (Schalke)

Yet another member of the 2009 U-21 European Championship winning German side to have graduated youth football and become a key member for their club. Although only 23, already vice-captain of Schalke, and comfortably handling esteemed adversaries such as Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito. His tackling has always been a strength, naturally, as with his heading, but he can be occasionally positionally suspect. Howedes has swiftly formed an easy understanding with former Real Madrid man, Christoph Metzelder. The youthful centre-back is attracting covetous glances from Arsenal and Manchester City, both perennially linked to talented starlets, Howedes seems set to stay at Schalke for the coming few years at least, having come through the youth ranks of his boyhood club.

Other candidates: Serdar Tasci (Stuttgart)

LM: Sidney Sam (Bayer Leverkusen)

Sam is perhaps the model for Leverkusen’s new signing Andre Schurrle. Signed from Kaiserslauten before this campaign for €2.5m, a tricky, quick winger who can dribble pass and shoot comfortably off both feet. Indeed, despite being a left winger at Kaiserslauten, Sam has seamlessly slotted into Jupp Heynckes’ Leverkusen team on the right of midfield. 12 goals in 34 games in the 2010/11 campaign represents a fantastic return for a player now considered as one of ‘Die Nationalmannschaft”’s future stars. Physical strength and decision making are concerns for the 23 year old, however the advantage of youth means that he has several years to mature and experience, and develop these characteristics, which certainly should not overshadow an excellent debut season for Leverkusen, from a highly gifted young footballer.

Other candidates: Kevin Grosskreutz (Dortmund), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund- I know he’s out of position but who cares!)

RM: Andre Schurrle (Mainz 05)

I’ll say it now, this kid will be one of the signings of next season. If perhaps overshadowed this season by the more mercurial, memorable Lewis Holtby, it was certainly not for performance. Statistically Mainz’s best player, and chipping in with essential goals to keep his side in the European run-in, particularly the late stunner at home to Gladbach. Schurrle possesses pace in abundance, and allies it with a rare combination of direct running and elusive movement. Indeed, the 20 year old’s work ethic belies his few years, and his will to win is unmatched. A superb season from the Mainz youngster, whom Leverkusen will be hoping replicates this season’s form for them in 2011-12.

Other candidates: Jefferson Farfan (Schalke),

CM: Mario Gotze (Dortmund)

Occasionally one is privileged enough to see genuine, raw, uninhibited talent in action. Blessed with a turn of pace, but more crucially, instinctive movement to go with it, Gotze’s skill-set is enviable to say the least. When one adds in an ice-cold finishing ability, unflustered passing ability and calm dribbling ability, one is confronted with a serious talent. A football brain that allows him to play anywhere across an attacking midfield trident, and a maturity which belies his years complete an awe-inspiring array of abilities. Despite a supposed weakness in stature, he stands at a mere 5’7”, his first senior goal was a header. Six goals and 14 assists this season will undoubtedly have the European giants hovering around this precocious playmaker, however the influence of Lars Ricken and his agent Volker Struth should ensure he sees out his current Dortmund contract until 2014.

Other candidates: Lewis Holtby (Mainz), Luiz Gustavo (Hoffenheim/FC Bayern)

CM: Nuri Sahin (Dortmund)

The sheer joy of watching talent and potential fulfilled is one of the most glorious of football sensations. Nuri Sahin’s name had always been uttered in slightly audible whispers, of a youth with serious talent, but wary of burdening one too young, or burgeoning him with lofty comparisons. This season has been his breakthrough, if you’ll forgive the cliché, as six goals and eight assists will readily testify (his goal against Wolfsburg will live long in the memory). However the unadulterated pleasure of watching Sahin pass and subsequently move in order to receive again cannot be replicated in statistics alone. The vision, the creativity and the awareness are intrinsic qualities, uncoachable, and thus making it all the more rare and more pleasant when one encounters across a player possessing such a formidable combination. It can be dangerous to claim a player has mastered the art of passing, an art so essential to football itself, yet Sahin is one of the very few to come close to the plethora of Spanish masters in his ability to control a game.

Other candidates: Arturo Vidal (Bayer Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (Schalke)

ST: Raul (Schalke)

A man selected purely because he didn’t have to be in this team at all. He could have retired, content with his numerous successes, the European Cups, the League titles, the records, safe in the knowledge as one of the greatest goalscorers ever to play the game. But no, he felt he had something to prove, or had the hunger to carry on playing, the desire, the love of the game. This season he surpassed Gerd Muller’s record of most European goals, classily enough, on his home turf of Spain, playing for his adopted German club, bringing together the two strands of his footballing life. Not only that, his influence, experience and leadership have been utterly vital in leading Schalke to the Pokal-Final and the Champions League semis.

Other candidates: Lucas Barrios (Dortmund), Didier Ya Konan (Hannover)

ST: Papiss Cisse (Freiburg)

Some Freiburg fans would call him their “football God”, whereas others would prefer to temper down hyperbolic statements of immortality, however they would all agree that Papiss Cisse has had a sensational season. Freiburg’s rise up the Bundesliga was thanks in no small part to the Senegalese hitman, bought from Metz in 2009, and who has scored 22 goals in 30 appearances this season. This record is impressive enough, but his goalscoring prowess is also highlighted by his seven goals in eight international appearances. Freiburg’s surprise eighth-place, which could have been higher, as Europe was beckoning at one stage, has been totally reliant on Cisse’s power and goals, as their next top goalscorer has five. His strength, which is prodigious despite his relatively small stature for a striker, belies an excellent touch and a clear eye for goal. A shrewd buy who has captured the eye of Arsenal, Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow, Freiburg are sure to cash in on their prize asset sooner rather than later.

Other candidates: Theofanis Gekas (Eintracht Frankfurt), Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Schalke: Debunking the Myths

Schalke, akin to a majority of European football giants, is a club that characterises itself by past achievements, as well as by modern day successes. Indeed, in barren times, a belief that some of these former achievements transcend today’s football can be seen to permeate such historic clubs, a nostalgic view of the past which allows for a belief that what occurred was somehow more romantic, more genuine, and more difficult to do than ‘modern football’. Schalke, however, is more than this, more than mere successes and achievements and historical records. “Die Knappen” (The Miners) can lay claim to being one of the founding clubs of European football, by challenging social structures, and defining myths.

A myth which this Schalke team helped the construction of, particularly in continental Europe, but often misattributed by the British media to the 1950s/1960s (Manchester United/Celtic), was that of the “hometown team”. The Schalke XI won its first-ever national championship in 1934, with late goals from brothers-in-law Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. Their fraternal relationship highlights the closeness of the mining town of Gelsenkirchen, from where the majority of the 1930s Schalke team hailed, and grew up together. This Schalke team would win five titles in seven years between 1934 and 1940, as well as never losing a home game in eleven seasons. Their stellar achievements did much for German football, providing an intrinsic belief in the power of young, local players, as well as providing the attacking trident (Gellesch, Szepan and Urban) of the Breslau-Elf, one of Germany’s finest ever-national sides. The atypical German-sounding names such as Szepan and Kuzorra came from Polish early 20th century immigration to the Ruhr region, in order to work down the mines. The working-class, mining town myth thus came to prominence, and was further built on in a variety of places throughout the following decades.

Schalke’s 1930s style of football came to be known as the “Kreisel”, the spinning top, and has just claim to be regarded as one of the first styles of football to be dependent on movement of man, and not ball. It is often, however, overshadowed by the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the early ‘30s, which ran during a parallel time period. The swift moving, ball on the ground style of football revolved particularly around the genius of Schalke’s Austrian coach Gustav Wieser, appointed in 1927, and the creativity of Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. It overwhelmed and confused opponents, relied on high levels of fitness, and, according to several contemporary sources, it was successful because it was, essentially, “playing with your mates”, and therefore the close link between the ‘local lads’ and their attractive, positive style of football arose.

Indeed, Schalke has been a club from its very inception to contravene accepted social structures and challenge the status quo. Despite its 1904 founding, the club did not join the League until 1912, due to Bourgeoisie DFB angst. Further flouting occurred in 1930 when Schalke began paying its players to represent the club. Due to massive unemployment in the local area, Schalke paid its players fractions of the huge gate receipts it was receiving, in order to feed their families. Friction occurred immediately with the middle-class DFB, whose rigid view of the amateur nature of football was laudably idealistic, but hopelessly out of touch. Their swift response was to expel Schalke, whose chairman later committed suicide. Popular uproar saw their swift reinstatement, but the club’s reputation as social revolutionaries was beginning to stick.

Some quests for money however, are a step too far, and Schalke’s participation in the 1970s match-fixing scandal, where eight players were banned for accepting Deutschmarks to throw a game against Arminia Bielefeld, is a shameful stain not only on the club’s working-class origins, but on football in general. Indeed, had the team not been decimated, with talents such as Klaus Fischer, “Stan” Libuda, and Klaus Fichtel, it may have become the dominant 1970s force in German football, a place possessed now (rightly) by Bayern Munich.

On the field, fortunes have always been unbalanced at best. The 1980s experienced relegation, three successive seasons in 2.Bundesliga, and eventual promotion to where Schalke fans believed they belong. Even their first genuine continental triumph, against Inter Milan in the 1997 Uefa Cup final, was far from easy, with the aggregate score being tied at 1-1 after two tense legs, Schalke eventually prevailed in a penalty shootout. 2001 saw another tight finish, Bayern’s last day, 4th minute of injury time equaliser against Hamburg snatched the title from the grasp of the “Konigsblauen”. Schalke’s challenging of social norms is even demonstrated in their celebrations, after winning the 2002 DFB-Pokal, their elaborate actions after the presentation resulted in permanent damage being done to the huge trophy.

And what of today’s Schalke team? Today’s “Knappen” are once again at their knack of challenging social structures, emphasised by their Champions League run, in which they put paid to the hopes of European giants such as Benfica, Valencia, and Inter Milan. This team however, hasn’t defined any myths thus far, what it has done though, is permanently established a legend. His name, Raul Gonzalez Blanco.