That Sums It All Up

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From the archives

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Originally published, October 2008 for Setanta.com

It is not often that Arsene Wenger’s judgement of a player is found to be faulty, but after the fire and fury of Wednesday’s gripping North London derby finally faded away, it was apparent that the little figure of Luka Modric could well prove the exception to the rule.

Listless and directionless under the rudderless ship that was Juande Ramos’s failing side, Modric has, more than any other, been the player who has benefitted most from Harry Redknapp’s appointment and while not reaching his best form during the 44 draw at Emirates Stadium, this was a performance that hinted at the emergence of a great Premier League playmaker.

This is no surprise of course. Spurs paid the princely sum of £15.8 million to sign him from Dinamo Zagreb over the summer and anyone present at Wembley for that dark night when Croatia ended England’s Euro 2008 hopes will have not forgotten the man who orchestrated the 32 defeat.

But there were some that doubted, including Wenger. Fears over the ability of the young man to adapt to the rigours of The Premier League seemingly precluded any move by Arsenal to sign him over the summer. His initial steps into the English top flight looked only to have reinforced those fears but against Bolton and again at Arsenal, Modric looked fearless both with the ball and without.

Although he was nudged aside a few times at Emirates Stadium, most notably by William Gallas, his overall performance left a real mark on a team renowned for their own playmakers. Redknapp’s decision to play him off Roman Pavlyuchenko in the past two games has seen Modric excel. Guilty of some stray passes on Wednesday, this was more often than not down to his teammates failing to find the superior wavelength that the midfielder operates on.

It remains to be seen whether Pavlyuchenko and Darren Bent are of the calibre to benefit from his vision, but Modric is a threat in his own right – his prodigious dribbling and the rasping effort that struck the post and set up Aaron Lennon for the equaliser were proof of that. David Bentley was of course outstanding too, but while his every touch of the ball against his former side brought a chorus of boos, the sight of Modric in possession was greeted by a collective chewing of fingernails as his presence palpably heightened the nerves of the home support.

Like Wenger, Redknapp trusts a creative genius in the midfield. The new Tottenham man has already compared Modric to former player Eyal Berkovic and boasts a history of bringing the best out of mercurial talents like Paolo di Canio, Paul Merson and Robert Prosinecki.

The latter of course was the Croat who lit up the old First Division while at Fratton Park and it would be no surprise to see Modric eventually exert a similar influence over a Spurs side that looks desperate for a figure to revolve around.

There were many reasons to appreciate Wednesday’s breathless encounter: Arsenal’s stirring comeback from 10 down, Tottenham’s absolutely astounding comeback from 42 down with just minutes remaining, David Bentley’s wonder strike, the unpredictable and eccentric figure of Heurelho Gomes, the genius of Robin van Persie.

For anyone who missed the game, Tottenham will no doubt have a DVD release on the shelves within the week and although Modric will be competing for space on the highlights reel, there is no doubt who was the best supporting actor on Wednesday night.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

As another season of Serie A football draws to a close, Italy may begin to soberly reflect that next year’s league table will have a slightly different complexion to it. Instead of four Champions League qualification spots, Serie A will be reduced to three having been usurped by the Bundesliga in UEFA’s coefficients - an unfamiliar position for a country accustomed to continental success.

But even taking in Inter’s success in the Champions League last season, it registers just as a minor surprise. After all, in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and Europa League in April, Italy was only represented by Leonardo’s Nerazzurri. Ukraine had two countries across the two competitions, Netherlands had two and Portugal had a heady three.

Despite their rejuvenation under Massimiliano Allegri, Milan fell to a disappointing defeat to Tottenham in the second round of the Champions League, Roma were eliminated at the same stage and Inter were taken apart by Schalke in the quarter-finals. It was a humbling experience for Italy’s clubs, while the Europa League was even more chastening as Juventus, Palermo, Sampdoria and Napoli all failed to make it out of the group stage in the secondary competition.

Italy has been leaking coefficients with a prolificacy that would make Edinson Cavani jealous, and there is now an imperative for next season’s European competitors to uphold the honour of Serie A in a bid to help wrest back that place from Germany. As ever, ESPN will be bringing you live coverage of the conclusion of the season as the final European places are established.

ESPN is also proud to be broadcasting the Coppa Italia final live on May 29 as the big domestic prizes are handed out at the end of the season. Italy’s elite clubs would do well to remember that continental success is also desirable next year though.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

At the start of April, only three teams remained unbeaten in Europe’s top five leagues in 2011. Two were established continental giants, feted for their style and worshipped from Boston to Beijing, who together have accumulated 33 league titles, 37 domestic cups and 12 European trophies. But the identity of the team sharing this distinction with Barcelona and Arsenal came as a surprise: Udinese, a club without a major trophy to their name in 115 years of existence.

However, a run of 14 wins in 21 games has installed the Zebrette as the most unlikely of title contenders. Though a first Scudetto remains a distinct improbability given Napoli, Inter and Milan must all be overtaken - a task that coach Francesco Guidolin insists is an “impossible goal” - Udinese’s form and style have demanded attention on the peninsula.

April could be decisive, and a stern test arrives on the 17th with a trip to Napoli, who, before Udinese’s rise, had been the sole dark horses to stalk the Milan giants. ESPN will be bringing you live coverage of the tie at Stadio San Paolo.

Udinese have already shown they are no respecters of reputation on the road - with their superlative performance of the season being a 7-0 thrashing of Palermo at La Favorita at the end of March. On target that day were the two men who above all have defined Udinese’s challenge: reigning Capocannoniere and current Serie A top goalscorer Antonio Di Natale, and Chilean wonderkid Alexis Sanchez, who scored four in the rout of Palermo.

Together they have 37 goals which is more than any other pairing in Serie A, but Udinese are becoming used to leading the way in Italian football in 2011. Whether they can finish the season leading the table is another matter.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

If Milan, and not Naples, is to be the destination of the Scudetto this season, then the coming month will be a vital one. As such, ESPN is proud to be bringing you live coverage of five games involving Inter and Milan, culminating in the highly-anticipated Derby della Madonnina on April 3.

Of course, history dictates that the city of Milan will be a key player in the title race. The northern citadel boasts a record total of 35 Serie A triumphs, more even than Turin’s 34, while in the oft neglected south, Naples can only draw on the memory of the two triumphs inspired by Diego Maradona in 1987 and 1990. This skew in the geographical balance of power is a phenomenon not restricted to Calcio.

Given the resources at Milan’s disposal and the rejuvenation of Inter overseen by Leonardo of late, it appears likely that the honours will once again go to one of the clubs from the fashion capital, meaning the ‘home’ derby game for the Rossoneri at the start of April will be crucial to Milan’s hopes of drawing level with Inter on 18 league titles.

Milan took the honours in the first derby of the season in November when former Interista Zlatan Ibrahimovic snatched a 1-0 win, but Inter’s away trip last season set the tone for their Treble-winning campaign when Wesley Sneijder made a sparky debut in a 4-0 victory, and that result must be avenged by Massimiliano Allegri’s side.

Napoli cannot be discounted yet, though, especially when they boast a player in Edinson Cavani who became the first to reach the 20-goal mark in Serie A. The Partenopei are in action when hosting Cagliari on March 20 and will hope to still be firmly in contention for Serie A honours by that point. Breaking the northern stranglehold would be a rare achievement indeed.

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From Russia with gloves

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This was extreme cold, otherworldly cold. It was Harry’s tongue stuck to the ski lift in Dumb and Dumber. It was Captain Oates chowing down on a Fruit Pastille lolly. While an Arsene Wenger-esque coat preserved my torso, my face and feet (protected by a tatty pair of Converse) grew steadily numb. Watching Spartak Moscow v FC Basel in near -30 temperatures on my first night in Russia was clearly a move not without its pitfalls.

Any trip to a foreign field demands an attempt to watch some local football, but this was no breeze down to Camp Nou. As introductions to Russia go, it was a fairly brutal one. Racism, the extreme cold and a daunting police presence made this an eye-opening experience. Thank god for that half-time pint of tea.

After rushing from the hotel to the Luzhniki, and having missed Scott Chipperfield’s opening goal (but just about worked out the identity of the scorer from the scoreboard with a basic knowledge of Cyrillic), we shivered as Spartak painted plenty of pretty patterns, only to be let down by some slapdash finishing from Artem Dzyuba. Under Valeri Karpin, Spartak are an attractive side to watch, they move the ball intelligently and quickly, and both Aiden McGeady and young Georgian Jano Ananidze were impressive in wide positions.

In the closing stages, Basel’s desperation for the goal they needed to take them through became apparent as they left gaping spaces at the back, which McGeady exploited to the full as he finished off a counter-attack. The goal was greeted with a raucous reception by the Spartak fans who had braved the cold at the Luzhniki Stadium, but also a strange phenomenon whereby home supporters actively smashed the seats they were standing on, some of which were then hurled in the air.

Perhaps being forced to share an arena with local rivals fails to engender any kind of pride in your own stadium, or perhaps it was a spontaneous protest against the combination of running track and UEFA hoardings that actually prevented us from seeing whether the ball had crossed the line at one end (enjoy that West Ham fans) but this wanton destructiveness was hard to fathom; however, it was far from the worst behaviour of the night.

Racism, I am afraid to say, was prevalent. Basel’s black players were subjected to very audible monkey chants on a regular basis, and though sadly I was not surprised given Russia’s problems in this regard, I was disgusted to be firmly in the middle of a group of supporters who behaved in this way. I haven’t yet seen any evidence that UEFA is taking any action (though given their far-from-zero-tolerance policy on these matters, that’s no real surprise).

Reflecting on that night a few days later, it suddenly struck me how Moscow is a city lacking in any kind of diversity. As a resident of London, it was a very strange experience to wander round a city of 12 million people and its sprawling metro system for three days and not see a single black man.

Who knows how the Russian population will react to an influx of supporters from across the world when the World Cup takes place in 2018. FIFA should be concerned, and though some may say that Russia’s record with racism should have precluded it being awarded the tournament, the arrival of the global football community should now be viewed as a chance to change attitudes at home.

They certainly need to be changed. Later, in St Petersburg, we became involved in a vodka-inspired chat with a Spartak fan, discussing the merits of McGeady (“the best player in Russia” apparently) before things soured when the man in question openly, brazenly and without any sense of shame declared himself a “far-right hooligan”. The universal language of football was swiftly abandoned, and excuses to leave made.

That is not to say all Russian football fans have a problem with racism, of course they don’t. However, in my limited experience there are evidently big barriers that must still be overcome in this wonderful, unique but daunting country. It’s not just the temperatures that are extreme.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

Some of Italy’s most passionate derbies come when a city is divided, be it Rome or Milan, or indeed an island, when Catania and Palermo clash in Sicily. However, perhaps the most famous is not determined by geography, but by history, tradition and power. On the eve of Valentine’s Day, there will be no love lost when Inter and Juventus meet in the Derby d’Italia.

The term was coined by famous sports journalist Gianni Brera in 1967, at a time when Inter and Juve had each won three of the previous eight Scudetti . Ruled by the Moratti and Agnelli families, they were financial powerhouses, the dominant forces in calcio, and rivalry was naturally fostered. But animosity has persisted, and become something more: a genuine grudge match.

Of course, in recent seasons, and with the impact of Calciopoli, Inter have enjoyed the upper hand. Following the appointment of Leonardo, they also appear resurgent in Serie A this season and will be hoping January signing Giampaolo Pazzini builds on that brilliant debut performance against Palermo when Inter visit Turin on February 13.

Indeed, ESPN features Inter four times across the month, with three of those games coming away from San Siro. By the end of February, when current leaders Milan host the impressive Napoli, we should have a much clearer idea of whether Inter have managed to creep their way back into title contention.

Certainly Massimo Moratti has done his best to support Leonardo. After joking that “now Rafa has left, we’ll buy five players”, referencing his former coach’s demand for reinforcements, he did just that in January, including Pazzini, Andrea Ranocchia and Yuto Nagatomo. Juve did not rest either, bringing in Alessandro Matri and Luca Toni in attack, but they have some way to go to achieve a balance of power in Italy’s grand rivalry.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

The Coppa Italia may have taken on a strangely distorted appearance in recent seasons, with Roma and Inter contesting no less than five of the past six finals, but in January, ESPN features an ambitious side with aspirations of breaking that stranglehold: Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli.

The Partenopei started 2011 in the lofty realms of second place in Serie A - evidence of a wonderful first half of the season for a side that only returned to the top flight in 2007 following a spell of financial discord.

But as well as excelling in Serie A, they have also demonstrated their aptitude for cup competition, becoming the only Italian side to make it out of the Europa League group stages this season, succeeding where Juventus, Palermo and Sampdoria failed.

Central to their success, aside from the wonderfully talented trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi of course, is their aptitude for scoring late goals, so much so that the Italian press have dubbed the last 15 minutes the “Mazzarri zone”. Bologna, their opponents in the Coppa Italia on January 18, will be wary of late heartache.

Of course, the biggest news story of the Christmas period in Serie A was the removal of Inter coach Rafa Benitez following his misguided outburst in the wake of his success at the Club World Cup, and ESPN is on hand to broadcast the early stages of Leonardo’s reign at Appiano Gentile.

The Brazilian - who has the unusual distinction of his first two coaching jobs being the two Milan giants - tests his wits against Bologna on January 15 and Udinese on January 23, while his former club are also featured three times throughout the month, as well as in the Coppa Italia. Leonardo’s task is to ensure that Inter’s legacy of success continues, despite the mess bequeathed to him by Benitez.

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Calcio column

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Each month I write a brief advertorial column in Calcio Italia magazine, previewing the upcoming live games on ESPN. Here’s the website should you wish to subscribe.

(This was written previous to the news that Milan will be signing Antonio Cassano from Samp).

A new year, and a new dawn for Serie A and the city of Milan? Inter have monopolised the Scudetto in recent seasons, but now, inspired by the man who did so much to establish that hegemony, rivals Milan appear to have instigated a shift in the balance of power in the northern city.

In a month that starts with Massimiliano Allegri returning to Cagliari, due deference should of course be paid to the coach who has picked up the pieces left by Leonardo’s reign and forged a winning side. Narrowing and strengthening an ageing midfield by bringing in another enforcer – sometimes at the expense of the luxuriantly gifted Andrea Pirlo – has given Milan a solidity that has often escaped them in recent seasons.

However, the most visible aspect of their transformation has been the success of a brooding, giant Swede at the apex of their attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move from Barcelona has been a masterstoke, the striker weighing in with a succession of goals. After his falling out with Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola – a man he dubbed ‘The Philosopher’, and not due to the Catalan’s appreciation of the Socratic method – Ibrahimovic has enjoyed his return to a city he feels comfortable in after winning three Scudetti with Inter.

A goal in a 1-0 win against the Nerazzurri in November was of course important, but spectacular efforts against Fiorentina and Brescia have also encapsulated the mix of talent, genius and audacity that makes up this compelling character. Expect similar fireworks heading into 2011 as Ibrahimovic aims to finish the league season in first place for the eighth successive year. Indeed, prior to the punishments imposed following Calciopoli, Ibrahimovic could boast of five league medals in five years in Italy. Will the spell ‘Ibracadabra’ has cast over the Scudetto remain unbroken?

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Money, money, money

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What would you do with a £50m transfer fund in January? That was the question posed to the Soccernet editorial team by our podcast presenter, Dan Mason, this week.

Safe in the knowledge that Arsenal would never do anything as silly as spend vast amounts of money in strengthening their squad, this was very much a flight of fancy on my part, but here’s the breakdown…

£25m - Sign Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich. Okay so he’s just signed a new contract, no problem, replace his current agent with Paul Stretford and Kia Joorabchian and let’s get him out of there in double-quick time.

£20m - Bag Hugo Lloris from Lyon. The need for a new keeper is obvious, and why not make it a totally French back five? (Though Thomas Vermaelen’s return will scupper this, and prohibit the need to spend fantasy money on a new defender of course).

£3m - Construct a triage centre at London Colney. Something needs to be done about these perpetual injuries.

£2m - Employ Paolo Maldini as a defensive coach. Something needs to be done about these perpetual mistakes.

Any thoughts?

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Classic footage

What with the Ballon d’Or shorlist being dominated by Barcelona (Xavi over Messi and Iniesta for my money), it seems opportune to reflect once again on perhaps their crowning glory - the 5-0 win over Real Madrid in el clasico.

This wonderful film encapsulates the game from start to finish - pre-match preparations to post-match celebrations - and showcases the exceptional talent of the three players in one of the most dominant performances of recent times.

This is how football should be played.

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