World vs Spain: hipster favourites, hottest fashion tip and other stuff about World Cup 2014

With all the social upheavals, corruption cases, strikes and anger brewing in Brazil, it is hard to get too excited about the 2014 World Cup. But then again, since FIFA, in its infinite, corrupted wisdom, has given the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, I suppose it is better to try to enjoy this tournament in the best way you can, because this summer you just about get away watching it with a clear conscience.

But of course, I cannot really pretend not being any bit enthusiastic. Perhaps the best thing about the World Cup is that one gets to see teams rarely on show otherwise. So forget about the boring Messis and Ronaldos blocking your screen every week during the football season anyway, instead enjoy the Algerias, Japans and USAs of this tournament.

What comes to the football on show, this should be an interesting tournament tactically. The Italians, as is their wont, have a squad brimming with huge tactical potential (more so than actual individual brilliance). Japan and Chile should provide great all-guns-blazing entertainment. And Greece, again, aim to park the bus (and throw the bus furniture in for good measure) in front of goal to scrape through another major tournament without making a single dent on it.

The above mentioned teams will unfortunately probably not win the tournament, though. It would be the most boring thing in the world if Spain, the reigning champions and back-to-back EURO winners, would. So, for me, anyone but Spain. It would almost be equally boring should Brazil win. And I know people always say one should root for the host nation, but since I am not rooting for Brazil in general, there is no reason I should now. And besides, it would be a bit too perfect, should Brazil lift the trophy on their home soil. It would simply be too damn predictable as a great football narrative. After all, is that not what one should also be celebrating in order to be a good and proper fan of football – unpredictability (the life blood of football, the thing that makes it so special, blah blah blah).

The truly unforgettable football narratives come from epic failures. Had Brazil won the home World Cup of 1950, would the triumph be remembered with such overwhelming weight as is their collapse in the last game against eventual winners Uruguay? The answer is no. As a result, Brazilians now have a nation-uniting trauma to fall back on (to go with the five World Cup trophies, of course). The same goes for Roberto Baggio. Had the great man won the 1994 World Cup for Italy in the penalty shootout against Brazil, would anyone remember who scored the winning penalty? Not really. Now everyone with any knowledge of football or pop culture knows THAT penalty and the name of Baggio. The penalty miss and the fall from grace of the man who singlehandedly dragged the Azzurri to the final were as beautiful as they were traumatising.

So who will win the 2014 World Cup then? My guess is (and that is what it really is, guesswork) that Argentina and Germany play in the final. And Germany will win.

And now a few things to look forward to for the Brazil World Cup 2014.

The hipster favourites: Belgium are so 2013 – here are the true hipster favourites for 2014

  • Japan: After Japan’s drab showing in 2010, the gung-ho Japanese style is brought back by the pragmatist Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni. So there you go, pragmatism does not always translate as defensive football.
  • Greece: Yes, they play very defensively. True, they do not score any goals. Agreed, people most often dislike them as a football nation. But hey, these are exactly the reasons what make Greece special! And there is also the case to be made about our European brotherly economic solidarity. So when your hipster friends smugly say that they go for Belgium or Chile (well done otherwise, but Chile already were the hipster favourites of 2010), you know being ahead of the pack with your new favourite football country, Greece.
  • Italy: Forget the mouldy stereotypes; it is 14 years since Italy’s style of play resembled anything like a catenaccio in a major tournament. And similarly like Greece, most fans dislike Italy exactly because this tiresome stereotype. Also, to have any hipster football cred, the one thing you need to master is tactical discourse. This does not mean that you actually have to know football tactics; you just need to know how to talk about them (you know the stuff, false nines, etc.). And as Italy again showed in the 2012 Euros, if there is something the Italians do better, it is tactics (just look at the opening game against Spain or the semi-final trashing of Germany)!

The fashion tip for 2014 World Cup: Sport a beard!

And speaking about hipsters, remember all the ridiculous haircuts and silly goalkeeper shirts of yesteryear (the shaved Mohawk of 2002, the Wuwuzelas, etc.)? Looking at the 2013-14 season, this summer beards should be all the rage on and off the pitches in Brazil! And there are few who do beards better nowadays than, again, Italy. And I’m not talking about the stereotypical expertly trimmed, sleazy moustache and goatee but actual Williamsburg-approved bushy brilliance. In terms of berads, there can be only one winner: Pirlo (although expect team-mate Daniele De Rossi put in a good fight).

The teams to spring a surprise:

  • Switzerland: The Swiss have tournament-experience, tremendous solidity and a perfect blend of experience and youth in the team. They also have a potential breakthrough goal-getter in Josip Drmic, as well as a smart, if conservative, brain in coach Ottmar Hitzfeld.
  • England: Expect ‘Brave England’ for once to look fresh and exciting. That may not be enough of course as they line up against Italy and Uruguay, but at least England should this time give it a proper go with the young, unproven squad.
  • Japan: If nothing else, this Japan side should be great fun to watch. Zaccheroni has focused solely on maximising the attacking potential of the team. Which is of course just as well, when even your full-backs are better at going forward than defending their own goal. It is a balanced and exiting group with teams from four continents, all featuring different styles of play. Japan may be the surprise package of 2014 or they may go out with hardly a whimper.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sure, this is a long shot. It’s the nation’s debut in a major tournament, and they have a very slim squad. But this shout goes out to Miralem Pjanic, one of the most underrated players in Europe. And with goals like this, can you really disagree?

The teams to disappoint:

  • Belgium: Belgium to win the World Cup? Really? Come on guys, be realistic. I know every third player in the English Premier League is a non-Belgian, but the Belgian players have no experienced from major international tournaments. Out of the group just about and then out of the tournament when the first top team comes calling.
  • France: This is what they do, disappoint. France really have a tendency to go all in; either they go far (winning in 1998; runners-up in 2006), or then make themselves the donkeys of the whole tournament (2002, 2010).
  • Germany: So much is expected from this young, fleet-footed German generation that everything short of a place in the final would be a disappointment. Recently Germany have been ravaged by injuries, and they go into the tournament with only one real striker, the 37-year-old Miroslav Klose.
  • Colombia: The “third team” from South-America go into Brazil with high hopes and big expectations. This they also did in 1994 (or was in 1990?), and what happened then? Nothing, that’s what.

So there you are.

‘Miracles’ are needed to boost Finnish football story but steady progress is key to future success

Finland seem to have turned a corner. After the low-point of drawing at home to Georgia roughly a year ago, Finland have recorded four victories and two draws, while conceding only four goals, from seven official matches.

The most obvious turning point to the chronic case of poor results was, of course, the 1-1 draw at Spain. Although, ‘the Miracle of Gijon’ was a spectacular achievement and a heroic story fit to boost the ever veining confidence of the whole football nation, its significance is more down to providing another, and perhaps the greatest, unforgettable story into the folklore of Finnish football. The matches, however, that best represent the actual progress made by ‘Huuhkajat’ are the home and away fixtures against Belarus, an opposition that is of comparable level to Finland. Winning the former and drawing the latter are exactly the sort of results Finnish football needs to go forward.

Although results are what matter the most, fortunately there have been a number of other positive signs of progress as well. First of all, Finland have played fairly balanced football: the defence looks solid (a fact which is backed by the goal average after the aforementioned Georgia match) and there is a much clearer sense of urgency and precision to attacking. The perfect example of Finland’s clinical attacking play is the equalizer scored by Teemu Pukki in Gijon. The goal came after a quick exchange of passes through the middle, accompanied by a dynamic forward push, which was followed by a timely cross from the left channel that Pukki expertly struck home after having left the Spanish defence stumbling in his wake.

Another important sign of progress is that the leading players are finally fulfilling their potential: namely Niklas Moisander in defence, Roman Eremenko and Perparim Hetemaj in midfield, and Pukki in attack. Almost equally important though is that, while the star performers have upped their game, the rank and file have been reliable when called upon. It has often been said in this blog that Finland do not need a new Jari Litmanen but rather plenty of versatile professionals who play regularly in decent enough leagues. This has become evident in recent qualifying matches as squad players like Markus Halsti (Malmö IF, SWE), Joona Toivio (Molde, NOR) and Jarkko Hurme (TPS, FIN) have successfully covered for injured starting players. The epitome of the type is, naturally, Kari Arkivuo who has become a Finland mainstay at right full-back. After having made a decent if unspectacular career in Norway and Holland, the 30-year-old is currently playing for Swedish club BK Häcken, which is far from the glitz of top European football.

No Pukki. No Party!

The role of Pukki is one other vital factor in Finland’s development. The former Schalke forward, who transferred to Celtic earlier this week, has been a household name in Finland ever since he scored the three glorious goals for HJK in the Europa League qualifiers against Schalke in 2011 (here, here and here). The goals earned the young striker a transfer to the very same German giant, but after a bright start to life in Germany (despite limited playing time), Pukki found himself in the role of a fringe player. And as always happens with Finnish people whenever someone doesn’t become a huge hit abroad (and mind, we are talking about becoming a huge hit in one of the biggest clubs in Bundesliga), no time is wasted in telling what a failure the player is. At the same time as Pukki’s playing time diminished, the naysayers sharpened their knives in pointing out to the limitations in his game.

There are limitations, of course, but more importantly Pukki provides qualities that are indispensable to Finland’s success. Firstly, Pukki is the only player in the squad who comes even close to being a natural top-level goalscorer. Despite taking his time in starting to score in the Finland shirt (and regardless of still keeping the fans waiting for his inaugural goal at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium), he has found his scoring form in the national team. Like already mentioned, the 23-year-old scored the equalizer in Spain, but he also got the opener in the 1-1 draw in Belarus. Two important away points. Both provided courtesy of Teemu Pukki. Enough said.

Pukki also fits quite nicely into Finland’s attacking style (Granted, he would be more effective as a second striker, but the limited attacking options are hardly his fault). Finland’s style can be described as possession-based counter-attacking, and as a player with a good sense of movement, some cleverness and precise timing, Pukki is able to accommodate himself to both attacking phases. When Finland attacks more patiently Pukki can make space with his movement as well as link up the play. Then when Finland surges into a rapid attack (as was the case in Gijon), Pukki, making a direct forward run, is the focal point of the final pass.

Pukki may not be the best player in the Finland team, but at the moment he is the most important one. Moisander and Eremenko can be replaced for the occasional qualifier, but while Pukki remains the sole real scorer of goals in the squad, there is no substitute for the former KTP trainee.

Finland has a history of single match heroism, and people are entitled to dream for another miracle for tomorrow in Helsinki. Occasional triumphs may provide enough fuel to keep the Finnish football fans warm on freezing Finnish winter nights, but they have never provided enough to propel Finland to a major tournament. The four points gathered against Belarus will not take Finland to World Cup 2014 either, but they definitely speak volumes about the sort of comprehensive progress that may take Finland all the way in the future.

Veikkausliiga 2013: Most one-sided title race in years but scramble for European places expected

As surely as the Honka fans have the worst chants in Finnish football, and the Veikkausliiga referees are clueless to keeping a clear line on refereeing decisions, this Veikkausliiga season “preview” again arrives a good few weeks after the season has actually started.

But if poor weather is a good enough reason for the league to postpone half of the first round matches, it will do for me as well. Be that as it may, here we go again for another season of top Finnish football.

Read more…

Finland–Georgia: Finland at a watershed

After the same old story that was the gut-wrenchingly disappointing 1-0 home defeat to France a month ago, Mixu Paatelainen’s Finland are at a watershed: anything but a victory against Georgia today would spell the premature end of the 2014 World Cup campaign and cast serious doubt on the whole Euro 2016 project.

Call me a defeatist doom-monger if you will, but after more than a year and a half into the Paatelainen era, Mixu has had enough time to build his team and create a strategy that suits the players at his disposal. These two vital factors in team development have been done, finished, and the course has been set towards France 2016.

The current campaign has never been about qualifying for the actual tournament in Brazil; it has always been about laying down a comprehensive foundation for Euro 2016 qualification. Since the team and the strategy have now been set in stone (for better or for worse, but I’d still like to think that for the better), the only thing left to do is to start winning points and make the Olympic Stadium a fortress.

In normal circumstances, I’d shun the thought of putting a strict delivery deadline for a coach’s work, but this is no normal situation. When there is a concrete goal set for a project, it should not be unreasonable to demand a concrete schedule for delivering the results either. Therefore, in order to make the 2016 dream a reality, there inevitable comes a time when talk has to translate into performance on the pitch and performance into victories. And the time is, like it or not, now. Read more…

No room for naivety as Finland start World Cup qualifiers

After roughly a year and a half into the Mixu Paatelainen era, and on the eve of the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, the new-look Finland team still provide more questions than definite answers. Finland start the qualifiers in the toughest group in Europe (with Spain, France, Belarus and Georgia), and the coach needs to learn fast from the mistakes made in the build-up to the campaign.

Paatelainen has introduced plenty of fine ideas in how to develop the team’s attacking play, but his tactical naivety still undermines any hope of Finland providing a finished 90 minute product of football. With the players at the coach’s disposal, the 4-3-2-1 formation in use can only work if it is functional. Read more…

Serie A 2012-2013: Conte’s ban and Milan’s restructuring process the key themes for the season

Another season of Serie A football was kicked-off and, once again, the new campaign is defined by scandal. As a result of the ongoing match-fixing case, the scudetto-winning coach Antonio Conte is sitting out a 10-month ban and defender Emanuele Pesoli (Verona) literally sat a hunger strike in order to get a chance to answer to the allegations of his involvement in the fix. The allure of Serie A also suffered further blows as perhaps the three biggest stars of Serie A in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva (both Milan) and Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli) left the peninsula for the flush, green pastures of PSG.

But it wouldn’t be Italian football without some controversy, and there are matters fans of the Italian game may genuinely relish as well at the start of the new season. Italy’s success in Euro 2012 took most people by surprise and proved that with all the limitations and short-sightedness prevailing in the Italian football culture, there is definitely life in calcio yet. With the UEFA Financial Fair Play requirements kicking in soon along with the dwindling cash flows caused by, among other things, falling gate receipts, even the Italian clubs have to start looking, instead of scowling, towards the grassroots.

And there is a fair amount of exiting young talent in Serie A this season. Last season’s Serie B sensations Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Ciro Immobile (Genoa) should get a fair chance to prove themselves in the top flight while striker Mattia Destro will try to follow Fabio Borini’s (now at Liverpool) footsteps at Roma. Inter’s Samuele Longo might also make a genuine push for the first team with his former youth coach Andrea Stramaccioni occupying the Inter hot seat.

After last season’s none-existent title fight, this term Juve should get a proper run for their money. Also, the battle for European places will be as heated as ever as many teams should be able to make a real push for a spot in the top five. The two key themes for 2012-13 are whether Juventus can dominate without last season’s main protagonist Conte, and how Milan’s restructuring process begins after they lost a whopping 2000 matches worth of Serie A experience in Alessandro Nesta (Montreal), Clarence Seedorf (Botafoga), Gennaro Gattuso (Sion), Gianluca Zambrotta, Ibrahimovic and Mark van Bommel (PSV). For a club that has provided a sobering contrast to the cult of youth prevailing in footall, the change is nothing short of a revolution.

With all this happening during the summer, let’s now look at how the 2012-13 season will unravel. Read more…

HJK-Celtic: qualification more than possible for hosts

In the first leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League HJK put Celtic to the test in Glasgow. Celtic opened they match actively and were in total control for the first 25 minutes but gradually HJK eased into the game, and it was no huge shock when the visitors took the lead in the 47th minute by a Rasmus Shuller goal from close range.

However, this was pretty much it for the visitors as two goals conceded in quick succession turned the tide again with the hosts flooding HJK’s defensive third with constant pressure. In the end, HJK were relatively lucky to come out with just a one goal defeat from Scotland. Nevertheless, by the evidence from last Wednesday, Celtic know they are in for a much tougher contest in Helsinki. Read more…

Five Veikkausliiga players to keep an eye on in 2012

I Went For the Ball! names five leading players for the Veikkausliiga 2012 season. The players represent both established names in the Finnish scene as well as talents who should reap their potential this season and go on to even greater things.


Jukka Lehtovaara; Club: TPS; Veikkausliiga appearances/goals: 112/0; Year of birth: 1988

Jukka Lehtovaara has been one of the most highly rated goalkeepers in Finland for the best part of a half a decade and already at 24 is one of the most experienced in the league. With Finnish national team being without a safe pair of hands after Jussi Jääskeläinen’s retirement, Lehtovaara should be the obvious pick. Constant injuries, however, have limited his chances both in the national team as well as in terms of breaking into bigger European arenas. Although still relatively young for a keeper, the TPS man’s chances of leaving for better things grow thinner each year, and the current campaign begins to be a make or break season if he is to transfer to somewhere more glamorous than Sweden or Norway. Know for his fast reflexes, Lehtovaara is a much more well-rounded keeper than often given credit for and the best that Veikkausliiga has to offer.


Jarkko Hurme; TPS; 74/1; 1986

Jarkko Hurme left for Udinese at a young age in 2006, but after three unsuccessful seasons spent in Italy the former Finnish U21 full-back returned to Finland to get his career back on track. A highly physical full-back/centre-back with pace, strength and skill on the ball, Hurme was one of the few defenders in the Finnish league who was able to back-pocket former HJK winger Dawda Bah at his prime. Will most likely start the season at left-back but would perhaps benefit the team more in a central role. At 25 time is starting to run out on Hurme in terms of making it into the big European leagues, but, due to a chronic lack of full-backs, he may still feature in Finland coach Mixu Paatelainen’s plans, especially if he earns a contract to Sweden or Norway for example.

Defensive midfielder

Duarte Tammilehto; FC Honka; 29/1; 1990

The former HJK trainee was perhaps the biggest revelation last season in Veikkausliiga. The hard-tackling midfielder filled the holding player role that Honka have been without for years. Now with playmaker Rasmus Schuller gone, the U21 Finnish international must take a bigger role in the creative department as well. 11 yellows and 2 red cards speak volumes about the 22-year-old’s competitive streak, but the midfield destroyer needs to curb down his tackling enthusiasm to further develop his and Honka’s game.

Attacking midfielder

Jani Virtanen; JJK; 79/4; 1988

Also a former Udinese player, Jani Virtanen made his breakthrough last season as an understudy for Mikko Manninen. Although the 24-year-old was still somewhat inconsistent last term, he is expected to orchestrate JJK’s play in 2012. Having the eye for the spectacular as well as plenty of pace and trickery, Virtanen still needs to find consistency, get more strength and develop the tactical attributes in his game (especially movement without the ball). With Europa League matches on the calendar for the Jyväskylä team this year, this should be the season the former TPS trainee makes himself a household name in the Finnish football scene.


Joel Pohjanpalo; HJK; 9/5; 1994

The 18-year-old scored 33 goals in 23 games for HJK’s reserve side Klubi 04 in the Finnish third tier last season, which allows HJK fans to dream of another rainmaker in the Teemu Pukki mould. Pohjanpalo, however, is a different type of player to his former team-mate but has even greater potential. With pace, determination, a fine eye for movement and venom on the shot, the teenager looks like the complete forward to lead the line for HJK. Many big European clubs are monitoring his development (Pohjanpalo already turned down Liverpool once), but the budding talent should consolidate himself in the HJK shirt this season before venturing abroad. If Pohjanpalo stays in Helsinki for the whole season and remains injury-free he may go on to score 15–20 goals. The biggest talent coming through HJK’s ranks since Mikael Forssel.

Veikkausliiga season 2012: HJK will claim title, but a surprise is brewing in the relegation battle

Veikkausliiga already kicked off a few weeks ago, but I Went for the Ball!’s season guide arrives late (as usual). But let’s not allow that insignificant detail put us off since, despite the first rounds offering some surprises, there are still almost 30 matches to be played, which means that the league’s power balance will even itself out in the end. So, better late than even later, here we go for another season of Veikkausliiga football.


1. HJK: reconstruction begins after last season‘s dominance

Expect them to…be nowhere near as dominant and free-flowing as last season but still win the title due to the quality in the squad.

Strength: Variety in attack both in terms of numbers and player types should allow coach Antti Muurinen to pick the right players for the right occasion. Experienced defence that has been together for a long time.

Weakness: New centre-midfield with not enough penetration and dynamism. The use of one-dimensional Juho Mäkelä upfront will inevitably strip HJK off their attacking fluidity.

Expect great things from…the striking sensation Joel Pohjanpalo who scored 33 goals in 23 Finnish 2nd division matches last season for HJK’s reserves. Also, he recently turned down a contract offer from Liverpool. The 17-year-old has a rare, insatiable hunger for goals (added with the actual skill and vision to score them).

Expect little from…returnee forward Juho Mäkelä who will score a few goals but still be more a hindrance than an actual asset to HJK.


2. FC Inter: will give HJK a run for their money, but get left behind on home stretch

Expect them to…really challenge HJK this season but fall short due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Strength: Inter’s starting eleven is nearly as good as HJK’s, and their playing style is instilled in the DNA of the squad’s core.

Weakness: There remains a huge quality gap between the XI and bench. Especially if key members like Mika Ojala and Iraklis Siribladze get injured Inter will struggle. Job Dragtsma is undeniably a fine coach but his performance in the transfer market is less than impressive: for every find like Jos Hooiveld, the Dutchman has dragged in busloads of useless players (Guillano Grot or Daniel Osinachi, anyone?). The jury’s still out on the current lot, but Pim Bouwman does seem like the real deal (then again, Guy Gnabouyou doesn’t).

Expect great things from…dead-ball specialist Mika Ojala who will again score a tidy number of goals and assist (15+19 in 2011) and should get the next flight out of Turku if he is to further his career.

Expect little from…the strikers on the bench.


3. TPS: will to make a claim, but know own limitations

Expect them to…play balanced, safety-first football and keep the Turku title and European spot as priorities in the absence of any real chance of mounting on a championship challenge.

Strength: TPS can rely on their solid defence and having the best keeper in the league to get them through any forthcoming hard times. The Turku team are capable of playing through the middle with variety and in Toni Kolehmainen they have a clean, stylish deep-lying playmaker.

Weakness: Like their city rivals, TPS lack depth in the squad. The wide areas are another concern as, with Mika Ääritalo and Petteri Pennanen playing more centrally, only full-back Sami Rähmönen provides reliable penetration out wide.

Expect great things from…keeper Jukka Lehtovaara who would (and perhaps still should) be Finland’s No1 had he not suffered from constant injuries in the past.

Expect little from…coach Marko Rajamäki who has a decent enough XI in his hands, but may not have the required tactical ability to create a successful style for them.

Read more…

Paatelainen’s Finland revolution – phase one completed, tactical consistency achieved (part 1 of 2)

After half a decade spent going through the motions and hoping for a miracle with quick fix coaching appointments, the Finnish Football Association finally took the inevitable leap of faith in 2011 and set forth on a long-term project with the national team. The first step was taken in March with the appointment of Mixu Paatelainen as head coach in place of the largely unpopular and unsuccessful Stuart Baxter. This was a bold move, but bravery is always needed when striving to cast off reactionary tendencies and pave the way for the future.

The former Kilmarnock and TPS coach signed a five-year contract with an official goal of reaching the 2016 European Championships. Regardless of whether this objective is achieved or not, the actual significance of Paatelainen’s tenure is assessed in an even longer time span. The first task for the new coach has been to reconstruct a new tactical strategy and rejuvenate the squad not only in terms of age structure but with regards to the overall mentality as well. Paatelainen, therefore, ultimately took charge of laying out a sustainable structure for the development of the national team, and in order for Finland to have any chance of achieving the historical qualification in four years’ time (Finland have never featured in a major tournament), the development process needs to be balanced and meticulously planned.

Mixu looks forward as Finland coach

The early signs are encouraging. Paatelainen was never known for his pace when spearheading Finland attacks as a bulldozing centre-forward in the 90s, but the 45-year-old has been quick to lay the structural groundwork off it. He has instilled a new, progressive tactical strategy and tried out and got to know a host of new (and old) players, which is something few of his predecessors could be bothered to do properly. The first phase of the Paatelainen revolution has been about theory and its gradual implementation while the results have been of purely secondary interest. The second phase, the 2014 World Cup campaign kicking off next autumn, will concentrate on fine-tuning the established system to uncover more intricate details on how it functions against different playing styles and tactical approaches. Finland had the misfortune to be drawn in the toughest group in the whole draw (featuring Spain, France, Belarus and Georgia), but the silver lining is that the group offers a perfect tactical lesson as each team play a different brand of football. Then when the Euro 2016 campaign starts, the strategic platform should be set and the efforts to claim the actual cake by going for the results, and the results only, can begin. Now at the start of 2012, the curtain is effectively drawn on the first phase of the project and it is time to look at the implications of Paatelainen’s start as Finland coach.

Read more…

HJK in 2011: the double, transfers and near-success in Europe

2011 was a season to remember for HJK. Not only did ‘Klubi’ won their third consecutive title and the Finnish Cup (overall their 24th league championship and 11th cup victory), but they did this in a swashbuckling fashion. The Helsinki team finished the season with a 24-point lead to second-place Inter and scored a whopping 86 goals in 33 matches while conceding only 23.

As testament to their superiority, HJK, time and again, ripped the other title contenders apart. The season highlights included a 4-2 home victory over Inter (a result that flatters the visitors greatly), 2-0 win away to Honka and 6-2 and 6-0 demolitions at home to TPS and JJK respectively. HJK also exorcised any Honka demons they may have still harboured by collecting 7 points from three games (two away) against the Espoo team (as they did against Inter). The only flaws in the season’s makeup were the two defeats inflicted by TPS (both away).

HJK had the title in the bag already in late summer, but, despite a non-existent title race, HJK fans experienced a season’s worth of drama in Europe.

Schalke thrill turns into disappointment

After years of failures in Europe, HJK finally had a squad that gave them license to dream about success. Their phenomenal start only served to raise expectations as HJK made Champions League history in the 2nd qualifying round by beating the Welsh champions Bangor City 10-0 at home and 13-0 on aggregate (the highest scoring victories ever recorded in the tournament). Huge expectations were placed on the 3rd round meeting with Dinamo Zagreb, but in the end the Croatians beat HJK 3-1 on aggregate. The defeat, though, still meant they were able to find consolation from the Europa League.

However, when they were drawn against Schalke, perhaps the toughest opponents in the draw, few dared to hope for success. Contrary to almost all expectations, HJK managed to keep the dream alive for 135 minutes as they memorably beat Schalke 2-0 at home in the first leg and lead 3-2 (on aggregate) during half-time in Gelsenkirchen. The sky came down in the second half as the 2010 Champions League semi-finalists ran rampage and went through to the Europa League with a 3-6 aggregate result. Regardless of the monumental disappointment, HJK proved that on their day, and with a maximum performance, the team were good enough to challenge most teams in Europe.

The Schalke matches may not have brought lasting success on the pitch, but they did provide a huge boost in revenue through ticket sales and, most importantly, transfers. Star players Dawda Bah and Rafinha were sold to Augsburg and Gent respectively while Juhani Ojala had already joined Young Boys Bern after the Dinamo defeat. Although prominent players, the trio remained small bait when compared to the hero of the season: Teemu Pukki.

At his best Pukki dominated the Veikkausliiga at will, but the 21-year-old striker waited until the biggest match of the season to really explode on the scene. Scoring two spectacular goals at home against the German giants, Pukki became a Finnish phenomenon overnight and the most talked about player since Jari Litmanen. As if that wasn’t enough, the former Sevilla man went on the score HJK’s only goal in the away leg; the goal was even better than the two he scored in Helsinki and in terms of sheer class comparable to any goal scored anywhere in Europe in 2011. Schalke fans probably hadn’t heard of the curly-haired Finn before, but they certainly have wasted no time embracing him since.

All in all, it was a magnificent season for HJK; a season which will not be repeated any time soon no matter how many league titles the most successful club in Finland will go on to win. Read more…

Serie A 2011-2012: team-by-team season guide

Serie A is here again and with it, what has already become something of a tradition, another I Went for the Ball! guide to the season arrives really, really, quite frankly, ridiculously late.

The first weeks of calcio have seen no shortage of drama and intriguing plot developments. First of all, for anyone harbouring the belief that Serie A is a league littered with 0-0 results, drab matches and overtly defensive football, the first round of the 2011-2012 season should’ve offered a sobering experience.  A whopping total of 35 goals were scored during an opening weekend that kicked-off with an entertaining 2-2 draw between title holders Milan and Lazio and ended with an end-to-end 4-3 blockbuster between Palermo and Inter. The Sicily trip was the start of a four game run without a win in all competitions for Inter which was enough to settle the faith of new coach Gian Piero Gasperini. The former Genoa tactician, therefore, became the first, but definitely not the last, managerial casualty of the season.

Inter, however, are by no means the only big team making an underwhelming start as rivals Milan and Roma have been struggling at the beginning of the campaign. While the big guns are still biding their time stretching their muscles, last season’s surprise packages Napoli and Udinese  have hit the ground running with some sparkling performances. Napoli particularly have put the title favourites in Serie A on red alert by beating Milan 3-1 at home and, sensationally, Inter 3-0 away. Despite Napoli’s and Udinese’s good form however, no team have yet shown signs of domination, which can only be a good thing for the league.

While La Liga, the Premier League and Bundesliga are effectively ran by Barca and Real Madrid, ManU and Bayern Munich respectively, Serie A remains the most competitive of the big European leagues. Milan may still be the biggest scudetto candidates, but Napoli and the rejuvenated Juventus (undefeated after five games) are seriously looking to tip the power-balance this season.


Title candidates



2010-2011: 2nd; Coach: Claudio Ranieri

Inter’s rebuilding process hit the rocks before it even got properly started as new coach Gasperini was dismissed already after three league matches into the season. This came as no surprise, though, as Inter’s worst start in decades was not only represented by dreadful results (one point from a possible nine) but also by unbalanced performances. As a result, Claudio Ranieri took over and straight away they recorded their first victory of the season. Despite there appearing a shy ray of light at the end of the dark tunnel that is the post-Mourinho era, ’the Tinkerman’ has his hands full if he is to remedy Inter’s numerous ills.

For one thing, Inter have an ageing squad desperately in need of rejuvenation. Looking from a tactical perspective, there’s an imbalanced in the wide areas both in midfield and defence which results in the continuous use of a narrow, defensive-minded midfield formation. This would not necessarily be that big of a problem if Inter had good attacking full-backs. Maicon is definitely top-class on the right, but the left flank looks really light in quality. Inter should be able to negotiate this deficiency in the domestic league where the narrow three-man midfield is more or less the norm, but this may prove to be the stumbling block in the Champions League yet again. The attack, on the other hand, looks lethal despite the departure of Samuel Eto’o. Diego Forlan should become an exceptional addition due to his link-up ability which will add an extra dimension to Inter’s attacking play.

The 2009 Champions League winners have to start learning new tactical tricks soon in order to achieve a Champions League spot as competition will be increasingly tough this season after Serie A lost one place to Bundesliga.

Key player: Wesley Sneijder; One to watch: Giampaolo Pazzini; The signing: Diego Forlan

IN: Castaignos (Feyenoord), Viviano (Bologna), Muntari (Sunderland), Alvarez (Velez), Jonathan (Santos), Forlan (Inter), Zarate (Lazio); OUT: Materazzi, Kharja (Genoa), Mariga (Real Sociedad), Eto’o (Anzhi), Pandev (Napoli), Santon (Newcastle)


2010-11: 7th; Coach: Antonio Conte

After a move to the new self-owned Juventus Stadium, with the former midfield maestro Antonio Conte on the coaching bench, and after another flurry of new signings, it’s a fresh start for the Turin giants. And this time Juventus actually look like the real deal.

After a few seasons of bizarre transfer dealings, there now seems to be a more systematic transfer policy in place. First of all, Juve have shed most of the deadwood from the squad (Hasan Salihamidzic, Felipe Melo, Zdenek Grygera and Jorge Martinez) and this way eased the wage-burden considerably. Secondly, they have addressed the problematic positions in the squad: the chronic right-back predicament has been tackled by the signing of Stephan Lichsteiner (with a hugely inflated price of roughly 10 million, though) and there are now plenty more different types of options in centre midfield (Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Michele Pazienza) and in the wide areas (Emanuele Giaccherini and Eljero Elia). And should Pirlo find his majestic former self again, Juve have made one of the captures of the season.

Getting into the Champions League is the ultimate goal for Juventus, but if things finally click in Turin, they may even challenge for the title. Whatever happens, Juve are sure to better from last season.

Key player: Andrea Pirlo; One to watch: Arturo Vidal; The signing: Mirko Vucinic

IN: Pirlo (Milan), Ziegler (Sampdoria), Lichtsteiner (Lazio), Pazienza (Napoli), Amauri (Parma), Vidal (Bayer Leverkusen), Vucinic (Roma), Giaccherini (Cesena), Estigarribia (Deportivo Maldonado), Elia (Hamburg); OUT: Aquilani (Liverpool), Felipe Melo (Galatasaray), Sissoko (PSG), Martinez (Cesena), Grygera (Fulham)


2010-2011: champions; Coach: Massimiliano Allegri

With one of the best attacking arrays in Europe and now, with the signing of fresh legs in defence (Philippe Mexes and Tom Taiwo), Milan are the biggest favourites to win the Scudetto.

Alberto Aquilani (season-long loan) and Alberto Nocerino are good signings (the latter being one of the best price-quality purchases in the transfer window with a measly price-tag of 500k), but the question still remains whether or not Massimiliano Allegri can create a more fluid and mobile system to erase the nagging weaknesses of this Milan side that often struggle against teams playing with width and pace.

Milan’s pedigree should be enough to guarantee a Champions League finish, but further steps need to be taken towards reinventing both the squad and strategy to retain the title.

Key player: Alexander Pato; One to watch: Ignazio Abate; The signing: Phillippe Mexes

IN: Mexes (Roma), Taiwo (Marseille), El Shaarawy, Paloschi (Genoa), Aquilani (Liverpool), Nocerino (Milan); OUT: Pirlo (Juventus), Jankulovski (retired), Papastathopoulos (Genoa), Legrottaglie, Paloschi (Chievo), Oddo (Lecce).


2010-11: 3rd; Coach: Walter Mazzarri

Last season’s heroics are still fresh in the memory in Naples as Napoli go into to the season with not only Champions League football to look forward to, but also with great expectations to challenge the Milanese duo’s dominance in Serie A.

Napoli have made some smart signings to add much-needed depth into the squad (Inler, Pandev , Santana, Rosati, Donadel, Dzemaili, Fernandez and Britos) in order to be able to compete in all competitions. Despite having a stronger squad than last season, the key players (namely Edison Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Morgan De Sanctis Christian Maggio) must remain injury-free for Napoli to have a chance to reach another top-three finish.

Whether they can actually manage another vintage seasons is one of the most interesting questions for the new campaign. Whatever the case, at least Napoli’s take-no-prisoners counter-attacking style will be a joy to behold once more.

Key player: Edison Cavani; One to watch: Blerim Dzemaili; The signing: Gökhan Inler

IN: Fernandez (Estudiantes), Donadel (Fiorentina), Dzemaili (Parma), Rosati (Lecce), Mannini (Sampdoria), Inler (Udinese), Britos (Bologna), Santana (Fiorentina), Pandev (Inter), Chavez (San Lorenzo), Fideleff (Newell’s); OUT: Pazienza (Juventus), Blasi and Santacroce (Parma), Yebda (Benfica), Cribari (Cruzeiro), Sosa (Metalist),  Mannini (Siena), Ruiz (Valencia), Cigarini (Atalanta)


European hopefuls



2010-11: 9th; Coach: Sinisa Mihajlovic

There are no shortage of question marks hanging over Viola this season. Can the squad under reconstruction start afresh or will they just continue to disappoint like last term? Is Sinisa Mihajlovic actually up to the task of coaching an illustrious club like Fiorentina? Are the want-away key players Riccardo Montolivo, Alberto Gilardino and Juan Vargas committed to the cause or just eyeing a January move away from Florence? Will Stevan Jovetic regain form after his lengthy injury?

Despite Fiorentina making some decent signings, the squad is pretty much what it was last season in terms of actual quality.  Mihajlovic can count himself fortunate that Alessio Cerci resisted the lure of Manchester City in the autumn transfer market; whether this will be the case in January is far from certain. The Florence club do look relatively strong on paper and should better from last season, but it may just as well go all wrong once again.

Key player: Alberto Gilardino; One to watch: Alessio Cerci; The signing: Andrea Lazzarri

IN: Nastasic (Partizan Belgrade), Lazzari (Cagliari), Kharja (Genoa), Santiago Silva (Velez), Cassani (Palermo); OUT: Mutu (Cesena), Donadel (Napoli), D’Agostino (Siena), Avramov (Cagliari), Comotto (Cesena), Santana (Napoli), Frey (Genoa)


2010-2011: 5th; Coach: Edy Reja

Lazio went close to nicking the Champions League spot last season, only to bottle it in the spring as the quality gap in the squad finally took its toll. Europa League football was still a fine achievement for a club that have been wandering in the mid-table wilderness after their early 2000 heyday.

This season the Rome club will definitely aim to do a Napoli and push for the top three. After keeping their key players (all except Mauro Zarate, one of the most overrated player in the league, whose departure may actually be more of a blessing) and making some shrewd signings (Djibril Cisse, Miroslav Klose, Lorik Cana and Federico Marchetti), Lazio may be the team to watch out for this season.

Key player: Stefano Mauri; One to watch: Hernanes; The signing: Miroslav Klose

IN: Klose (Bayern Munich), Lulic (Young Boys), Konko (Genoa), Marchetti (Cagliari), Stankevicius (Valencia), Cissè (Panathinaikos), Cana (Galatasaray); OUT: Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Muslera (Galatasaray), Bresciano (Al-Nasr), Foggia (Sampdoria), Zarate (Inter), Floccari (Parma).


2010-2011: 8th; Coach: Devis Mangia

Palermo were hit hard on the transfer market by the nouveau rich PSG who signed Italy keeper Salvatore Sirigu and playmaker Javier Pastore. Then again, the Sicily club did receive an indecent amount of cash for the duo, so at least eccentric president Maurizio Zamperini should be pretty happy with the summer activities.

Despite of the sales, Palermo do have a team with potential to surprise. Especially the attack looks interesting: Fabrizio Miccoli returns after an injury-plagued season, Abel Fernandez should finally start pushing his weight and delivering on his promise and Maurizio Pinilla could be one of the strikers to watch this term. It’ll also be interesting to see whether Josip Ilicic is able to build on from last season and step into the shoes of Pastore.

Palermo should be able to beat anyone at home but will continue to struggle away. If Zamperini resists the temptation of selling in the January market and instead signs a couple of new players to add to the slim squad, Palermo may challenge for a Europa League finish.

Key player: Fabrizio Miccoli; One to watch: Josip Ilicic; The signing: Sebastian Silvestre

IN: Pisano (Varese), Mantovani (Chievo), Silvestre (Catania), Tzorvas (Panathinaikos), Alvarez (Bari), Barreto (Atalanta), Della Rocca (Bologna); OUT: Munari (Fiorentina), Guana (Cesena), Goian (Glasgow Rangers), Kasami (Fulham), Sirigu and Pastore (PSG), Raggi (Bologna), Bovo (Genoa), Cassani (Fiorentina), Liverani (Lugano), Nocerino (Milan).


2010-2011: 6th; Coach: Luis Enrique

After months of trying to find a new buyer for the club, the Sensi family finally found one in the American businessman Thomas Di Benedetto. The new owner wasted no time overhauling the old structures as he appointed Luis Enrique as coach from the Barcelona B team and gave the Spaniard a mandate to change the whole setup of the club (including the youth development system) into Barca’s mould.

This is a very respectable action, but it is risky business to both to try to import a whole new system from another football culture and to put trust in such an inexperienced coach. But fortune often favours the brave, as the American owner will definitely believe, and new ideas are exactly what Roma, and Italian football for that matter, desperately need in order to retain their competiveness and vigour.

Di Benedetto not only started reconstruction in the background, but also dipped his hand deep in his pocket as Bojan Krkic, Pablo Osvaldo, Simon Kjaer, Fernando Gago and Miralem Pjanic (among others) arrived during the summer.  This bunch will definitely add quality into the side but it’s keeper Marten Stekelenburg who may actually be the most important new signing. This being Roma, however, so nothing should be taken for granted and the new coach already endured a real baptism of fire as he failed to take Roma to the Europa League. He also didn’t have to wait long for a taste of what it is like trying to work in the court of Francesco Totti as the pair clashed during the Europa League qualifiers.

If Enrique can ride the first turbulent months and find a balance between the short-term results and his ambitious long-term plan, the former Spain international may succeed in building a platform for sustainable development for Roma and make them a benchmark club in Serie A.

Key player: Daniele De Rossi; One to watch: Miralem Pjanic; The signing: Marten Stekelenburg

IN: Cicinho (Villarreal), Okaka (Bari), Curci and Guberti (Sampdoria), Bojan (Barcelona), Lamela (River Plate), Heinze (Marseille), Stekelenburg (Ajax), Osvaldo (Espanyol), Kjaer (Wolfsburg), Pjanic (Lyon), Gago (Real Madrid), Borini (Parma), José Angel (Sporting Gijon); OUT: Mexes (Milan), Riise (Fulham), Guberti (Torino), Doni (Liverpool), Menez (Paris Saint Germain), Julio Sergio (Lecce), Vucinic (Roma), Brighi (Atalanta).


2010-2011: 4th; Coach: Francesco Guidolin

If there is one team in Italy that abide the most fundamental lesson of economics to the letter – buy cheaply, sell expensively –  it’s Udinese. With one of the best and most extensive scouting networks in the world, the Udine club have made themselves the byword for unearthing raw talent and harnessing it into a finalised product. The latest example and perhaps their masterpiece is Alexis Sanchez who transferred to Barcelona in the summer for a fee of around 25 million (they also sold commanding centre-midfielder Gokhan Inler to Napoli and Cristian Zapata to Villareal for a hefty profit). The big name departures are bound to have an effect but no dramatic dip should be expected since, at the end of the day, this is just business as usual for Udinese.

Udinese are looking to reach a Champions League finish again this season, but will probably have to settle for a Europa league spot, at the most. The team is balanced and still able to play Guidolin’s brand of attacking football, but new players must step onto the fore quickly to assist the ever impressive Antonio Di Natale to make it happen upfront. Expect Udinese to be among the most entertaining teams in Serie A, but not reach the dizzy heights of last season.

Key player: Antonio Di Natale; One to watch: Diego Fabbrini; The signing: Gabriel Torje

IN: Danilo (Palmeiras), Fabbrini (Empoli), Barreto (Bari), Torje (Dinamo Bucarest), Pereyra (River); OUT: D’Agostino (Siena), Zapata (Villarreal), Inler (Napoli), Sanchez (Barcelona), Denis (Atalanta)


Mid-table security



2010-11: Serie B champions; Coach: Stefano Colontuano

The Serie B champions were slapped with a six point deduction as a result of a match-fixing scandal during the summer that also effectively ended the career of Atalanta icon and captain Christiaon Doni, who was given a 42-month ban due to his alleged involvement in the fix.

Apart from this bit of dirty business, things are looking up for the Bergamo club. They have made some interesting signings to add to an already talented squad: Stefano Lucchini and Andrea Masiello strengthen the defence, Luca Cigarini and Mathias Schelotto provide ball-playing quality in midfield and Argentineans German Denis and Maximiliano Moralez bring craft in attack. Cigarini, an Atalanta youth product and one-time Azzurri prospect, should be hungry to find his former form after underwhelming stints at Napoli and Sevilla. There are also plenty of young, home-grown players in the team (earmark creator Giacomo Bonaventura), which makes Atalanta a welcome addition to Serie A and Italian football that is marred by a prevailing notion of mistrust in youth.

Despite the point penalty, Atalanta should look forward to consolidating themselves as a Serie A club after a season spent out of the limelight.

Key player: Luca Cigarini; One to watch: Matias Schelotto; The signing: Luca Cigarini

IN: Schelotto (Catania), Caserta (Cesena), Lucchini (Sampdoria), A.Masiello (Bari), Moralez (Velez), Brighi (Roma), Cigarini (Napoli).; OUT: Barretto (Palermo)


2010-2011: 11th; Coach: Mimmo Di Carlo

The Verona club are by no means among the most illustrious teams in Italy, but the current Chievo bunch are definitely one of the most balanced ones. Chievo are built around a solid defence, their midfield is packed with industry and the attack is reliable without being spectacular.

Overall, Chievo may have been weakened from last season but they did manage to make some shrewd signings, namely Perparim Hetemaj and Michael Bradley in midfield and Alberto Paloschi in attack. Paloschi, dubbed ‘the new Pippo Inzaghi’, should be a perfect foil to the more rugged Sergio Pellissier.

Key player: Sergio Pellissier; One to watch: Alberto Paloschi; The signing: Perparim Hetemaj

IN: Acerbi (Reggina), Hetemaj (Brescia), Paloschi (Milan), Sammarco (Cesena), Vacek (Sparta Prague), Bradley (Borussia M.), Grandolfo (Bari); OUT: Constant (Genoa), Bogliacino (Napoli), Gelson Fernandes (Saint Etienne), Mantovani (Palermo), Guana (Cesena), Bentivoglio (Sampdoria)


2010-2011: 10th; Coach: Alberto Malesani

The Grifoni could (and perhaps should) be regular features in Europe if it wasn’t for the impatience of the club President Enzio Preziosi. Laying their skin pretty much every season (if not every transfer window), Genoa have little hope of achieving sustainable success with such instability. True to his colours, Preziosi again brought a host of new players into the squad in the summer.

Despite active transfer dealings though, the squad has undeniably weakened. Without little true quality up-front (Andrea Caracciolo hardly represents an answer), it’s difficult to see Genoa improving dramatically from last season. It’s strange why Genoa didn’t bother to sign the one player they definitely should have signed, the Udinese striker Antonio Floro Flores who had an inspiring loan-spell last spring at Genoa, during which he scored 10 goals in 18 matches.

Well, at least they seem to have solved their chronic keeper crisis by snapping up Sebastian Frey from Fiorentina. This move could be the first step toward stability at Genoa, but let’s just wait for the January transfer window for Preziosi to prove us wrong.

Key player: Sebastian Frey; One to watch: Juraj Kucka; The signing: Kevin Constant

IN: Birsa (Auxerre), Constant (Chievo), Granqvist (Groningen), Lupatelli (Bologna), Ze Eduardo (Santos), Kharja (Inter), Merkel (Milan), Frey (Fiorentina), Pratto (Universidad Catolica), William (Corinthians), Bovo (Palermo), Caracciolo (Brescia); OUT: Criscito (Zenit St. Petersburg), El Shaarawy and Paloschi (Milan), Rafinha (Bayern Munich), Floro Flores (Udinese), Konko (Lazio), Destro (Siena), Acquafresca (Bologna), Eduardo (Benfica), Chico (Mallorca), Milanetto (Padova),  Kharja (Fiorentina)


2010-2011: 12th; Coach: Franco Colomba

Perhaps aiming at tad high after the heyday of late 90s and early 2000, Parma have gone through an identity-crisis during the last couple of seasons. Last season they were destined for the drop until Franco Colomba took over in the spring and guided the 1999 UEFA Cup winners to safety. A strict pragmatist rather than an adventurer, Columba will look at the defence to be the platform for success.

Despite a defensive-minded strategy, there is also flair in the team. Sebastian Giovinco is the key piece in the attacking puzzle and it’s about time that the diminutive attacker makes a real claim in Serie A. After an injury-plagued last season, Daniele Galloppa also looks to remind people of the potential that earned him two call-ups to the national team a couple of years ago. All in all, Parma have a collection of decent players with a lot to prove (Giovinco, Galloppa, Floccari, Biabiany, Pelle, Blasi and Zaccardo), so If Colomba is able to keep his golden touch and reignite the players that have fallen off the radar in the last couple of years, Parma may just surprise a few people.

Key player: Sebastian Giovinco; One to watch: Daniele Galloppa; The signing: Sergio Floccari

IN: Pellè (AZ Alkmaar), Borini (Chelsea), Brandao (Siena), Blasi and Santacroce (Napoli), Biabiany (Sampdoria), Rubin (Torino), Floccari (Lazio); OUT: Amauri (Juventus), Dzemaili (Napoli), Bojinov (Sporting Lisbon), Borini (Roma).


2010-11: promoted; Coach: Giuseppe Sannino

Siena are a tough nut to crack. The tiny club may get relegated every now and again, but they always seem to be destined to rise right back up. Last season Siena were promoted to Serie A after just a season spent in B and this term they look fairly good value for their money.

Siena could still do with a steady Serie A scorer (Emanuele Calaio, despite his decent scroring record, has never really lit up Serie A) but with the addition of some ambitious signings, Gaetano D’Agostini and Mattia Destro in particular, Siena should have enough quality to survive the drop.

Key player: Gaetano D’Agostini; One to watch: Mattia Destro; The signing: Gaetano D’Agostini

IN: Angelo (Parma), Tziolis (Racing), Belmonte and Codrea (Bari), Destro (Genoa), D’Agostino (Udinese), Angella (Udinese), Brkic (Udinese), Mannini (Napoli), Contini (Saragozza), Gazzi (Bari), Acosta (Boca Juniors), Gonzalez (Palermo), Milanovic (Palermo); OUT: Brandao (Parma), Marrone (Juventus), Coulibaly Tziolis (Racing Santander)


Relegation candidates



2010-11: 16th; Coach: Pierpaolo Bisoli

Last season Bologna were topping my list of relegation candidates, but despite of all the financial turmoil (players went unpaid for a period, for instance) they somehow managed to stay up.

Bologna have a hard-as-nails midfield duo to fall back on when the going gets tough in Diego Perez and Gaby Mundingay and they have strengthened their attack with inspirational but often inconsistent creator Alessandro Diamanti and striker Roberto Aquafresca. The duo should provide mush needed cover for veteran striker Marco Di Vaio, whose 19 goals played a key role in Bologna’s survival last season. The defence, however, looks really weak as Bologna have sold most of the starting defenders from last season. With little, if any, resources to add to a slim squad, Bologna are definitely in for a relegation scrap this time around.

Key player: Marco Di Vaio; One to watch: Roberto Aquafresca; The signing: Alessandro Diamanti

IN: Gillet (Bari), Vantaggiato (Padova), Antonsson (Copenhagen), Rodriguez (Genoa), Vitale (Napoli), Agliardi (Padova), Acquafresca (Genoa), Diamanti (Brescia), Raggi (Palermo); OUT: Viviano (Inter), Lupatelli (Genoa), Ekdal (Juventus), Meggiorini (Novara), Britos (Napoli), Della Rocca (Palermo)


2010-11: 14th; Coach: Roberto Donadoni

Cagliari are clear losers in the transfer market as Andrea Lazzarri and Roberto Aquafresca left Sardinia. Despite neither being a world-beater, the likes of Albin Ekdal do nothing more than paper over the cracks in a slim squad.

Nevertheless, it would be surprising to see Cagliari get relegated while the backbone of the team is still made of reliable veterans like Daniele Conti, Andrea Cossu and Davide Biondini. They just have to find the goals from somewhere.

Key player: Daniele Conti; One to watch: Davide Astori; The signing: Albin Ekdal

IN: Ibarbo (Atletico Nacional), Avramov (Fiorentina), Ekdal (Juventus), Eriksson (IFK Gothenburg); OUT: Marchetti (Lazio), Acquafresca (Bologna), Lazzari (Fiorentina)


 2010-11: 13th; Coach: Vincenzo Montella

With inexperienced Vincenso Montella as coach, Catania are a complete unknown. On the one hand, it’d be strange to see them fall from grace after consolidating themselves as a proven Serie A outfit. But on the other hand, with little investment in the team the Sicily side do look about ready for a serious relegation struggle.

The biggest concern is the lack of fire-power. Gaston Maxi Lopez was a sensation in 2009-10 when he struck 11 times in 17 games, but the former Barcelona striker managed only ten goals last season. To hit double-figures is obviously no mean feat, but since pretty much all the goalscoring baggage is hanging on the shoulders of the Argentinean, Catania are in dire need of another proven striker.

Playing with all the industry needed by a small team, once again Catania will rely on making their home ground a fortress (they collected 37 points at home from the total of 46 last season), and there won’t be many teams in the league that will leave Angelo Massimino with all three points. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether their home form alone will be enough for Catania to escape relegation this time around.

Key player: Gaston Maxi Lopz; One to watch: Aleandro Gomez; The signing: Sergio Almiron

IN: Barrientos (Estudiantes), Delvecchio (Atalanta), Lanzafame (Palermo), Suazo (Inter), Legrottaglie (free), Almiron (Juventus), Bergessio (Saint-Etienne); OUT: Schelotto (Atalanta), Terlizzi, Pesce (Novara), Morimoto (Novara), Silvestre (Palermo)


 2010-11: 15th; Coach: Marco Giampaolo

Last season Cesena sensationally survived what looked like a certain drop. They had an active summer transfer window but mostly for the worse. Cesena lost few real stars, Emanuele Giaccherini being the only example, but they did lose many proven Serie A players.

Cesena aren’t completely devoid of quality and the team should be decent going forward with the likes of Andrea Mutu, Jorge Martinez and Antonio Candreva executing Marco Giampaolo’s ambitious game plan. The defence, however, looks shaky which may be enough to trigger a fatal second-season syndrome.

Key player: Adrian Mutu; One to watch: Marco Parola; The signing: Antonio Candreva

IN: Mutu (Fiorentina), M. Rossi (Bari), Comotto (Fiorentina), Eder (Brescia), Candreva (Udinese), Guana (Palermo), Martinho (Catania), Martinez (Juventus), Ghezzal (Bari); OUT: Jimenez (Al Alhi), Felipe (Fiorentina), Santon (Inter), Dellafiore (Palermo), Caserta (Atalanta), Appiah, Sammarco (Chievo), Giaccherini (Juventus).


 2010-11: 17th; Coach: Eusebio Di Francesco

Only a miracle will prevent Lecce from slipping into Serie B this season. Although this was pretty much my estimation last year, there simply is too little quality in the team for Lecce to stay up. The fact that in the absence of proven goalscorers, Lecce rely on David Di Michele (a provider, not a finisher) to score the goals speaks volumes of their survival chances.

With little or no money in the bank, Lecce have had to scavenge leftovers from the free transfer market. Christian Obodo, Julio Sergio and Massimo Oddo are decent finds but in no way represent the calibre that would spark a revival.

Key player: David Di Michele; One to watch: Andrea Bertolacci; The signing: Julio Sergio

IN: Esposito (Bologna), Carrozzieri (Palermo), Strasser (Milan), Obodo (Udinese), Julio Sergio (Roma), Cuadrado (Udinese), Bertolacci (Roma), Oddo (Milan), Giandonato (Juventus), Pasquato (Juventus); OUT: Rosati (Napoli), Munari (Fiorentina), Chevanton (Colon), Donati (Padova) Jeda (Novara), Cacia (Padova).


2010-2011: promoted; Coach: Attilio Tesser

The impartial’s favourite for the season, Novara were never supposed to achieve promotion after having just come up from Serie C the year before. But here they are after a fifty-five year absence and will definitely make the most of their stay, no matter how brief it turns out to be.

Expect Novara to show tremendous attitude and spirit especially in front of their fanatic supporters, but they simple lack quality on every department, which makes their objective of staying up close to impossible. Then again, Cesena were ‘sure’ to go down last term and look what happened.

Key player: Filippo Porcari; One to watch: Andrea Mazzarini; The signing: Takayuki Morimoto

IN: Paci (Parma), Meggiorini (Genoa), Mazzarani (Udinese), Morimoto (Catania), Pesce (Catania), Garcia (Palermo), Granoche (Chievo), Radovanovic (Atalanta), Dellafiore (Parma), Jeda (Lecce); OUT: Bertani (Sampdoria), Gonzalez (Palermo)

How will lively transfer window affect HJK?

It has been a highly eventful start to the autumn for HJK. First, maintaining their devastating form in the league, the Helsinki club all but secured the Veikkausliiga title already in August. Then, ‘Klubi’ gave Schalke a proper run for their money in the Europa League play-offs, beating the Germans 2-0 at home until imploding in the second half of the away leg as the hosts ran rampage with a 6-1 victory. After being knocked out of Europe, and with only a few days to go in the transfer window, they sold three of their key players for a truckload of cash.

Euro-sensation Teemu Pukki (or “Euro-Pukki” as Bild dubbed him) transferred to Schalke on a Veikkausliiga transfer fee record of approximately 1,5 million euros while Dawda Bah and Rafinha found new homes from Augsburg and Gent respectively (Juhani Ojala had already transferred to Young Boys in mid-August). From the sale of the quartet, HJK got an estimated total of 3 million in transfer fees. This may not seem like much in the context of the mad modern football economics but the sum actually exceeds HJK’s annual budget (about 2, 2 million).

HJK show foresight in transfer policy

HJK’s dominance has been staggering this season in the Finnish league. With nine rounds left to play, the reigning champions have a 16 point lead to second-place FC Inter. Therefore, despite a quality dip in the squad caused by the sale of four leading players, it is safe to assume that HJK’s title claim will not be at stake during the rest of the season. A more relevant issue, however, is how the transfers will affect their overall playing and tactical strategy. Read more…

HJK-Schalke 2-0: hosts earn hard-fought victory

It was a night to remember at the Sonera Stadium last Thursday as HJK recorded a historical victory with a battling performance over the German giants Schalke in the Europa League play-off first leg. Teemu Pukki scored two fantastic goals to cap a magnificent team performance by the home side which put the Finns on the threshold of the group stages of the competition.

Despite their illustrious domestic history, the Helsinki club haven’t enjoyed too many European nights like this. After HJK made it to the Champions League in 1998, they have only beaten Celtic (2-0 at home in 2000) from the bigger European clubs. The Champions League adventure not only started a whole new period in the club’s history but also acted as the springboard (with players such as Mikael Forssell, Shefki Kuqi, Aki Riihilahti, Hannu Tihinen and Jarkko Wiss) for the emergence of the ‘golden generation’ in the Finnish national team. Today HJK have a similar, unique chance to start a new era in Finnish football if they manage to negotiate the away leg in Gelsenkirchen. Read more…

HJK-Schalke 04 pre-view: defensive worries for hosts

HJK entertain Schalke tomorrow in the play-off round of the Europa League. Despite the undeniable fact that HJK are marching towards the Veikkausliiga title, the home tie against the German giants is an event that eclipses their whole season (unless they make it into the Europa League group phase of course).

The match created a huge buzz as the demand for match tickets caused a meltdown in the online ticket shop. The match is sold-out but it is an unfortunate affair that probably only half of the crowd come to the Sonera Stadium tomorrow to watch the home side while the rest are perhaps motivated more by an opportunist attitude induced by the rich assortment of international stars on show. Regardless of the motivational factor for the home crowd, even fewer are audacious enough to dare to dream of HJK getting something more out of the game than another ‘respectable defeat’.

On the face of it, it does seem that HJK are without a prayer against Schalke who have the likes of Raul (who doesn’t play tomorrow), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Lewis Holtby and Christoph Metzelder on their books. But then again, who cares, HJK have Aki Riihilahti. As much as Schalke can be described as a near-world-class team that knocked Champions League holders Inter from the competition last season, they can be characterised as a bunch of over-paid has-beens and never-wasses (although they do have some interesting young players this year as well).

Schalke’s inconsistent start to the season has been nothing out of the ordinary. The perennial underachievers were demolished 3-0 at the hands of Stuttgart on the opening day of the season, but then bounced back with a 5-1 trashing of Köln last weekend, with Huntelaar bagging a hat-trick. The fact that the Dutch striker seems to have struck form doesn’t bode well for the injury-ridden HJK defence.

HJK beat FC Honka 2-1 at home with a make-shift squad on Friday with a performance that was far from spectacular. Injuries have started to plague the team at the worst possible time (while Valtteri Moren was just recently ruled out for the rest of the season, Rami Hakanpää has already been out for most of the season and one can rightfully question the decision to sell star centre-back Juhani Ojala before the European qualifiers are over) and because of this the hosts have no other choice but to start new signing and Finland U21 centre-back Timi Lahti alongside Mathias Lindström in the heart of the defence. Lahti arrived from FC Haka last week and is yet to make his debut in a HJK shirt. The home fans can only hope that the 21-year-old will showcase a can-do temperament and approaches the occasion as an once-in-a-lifetime chance to make his mark; the other choice would be to bottle it even before the match has started. Whatever the case, it is an unfortunate situation, but one that needs to be negotiated. Read more…

HJK-Dinamo 1-2: visitors win match in midfield

There was a real sense of expectation in the air at the Sonera Stadium last Wednesday as HJK took on Dinamo Zagreb in the first leg of the Champions League third round. Few HJK fans may have pinned their hopes on actual UCL qualification, but many regarded the home team having at least a solid chance of beating the Croatian champions in the two-legged tie.

HJK started the match brightly, testing the visitors’ defence with a couple of rapid counter-attacks. Then on the 14th minute, the feeling of anticipation turned into euphoria in the stands and on the pitch as Alexander Ring slipped clear from the Dinamo defence, picked up Dawda Bah’s excellent through pass, and coolly lifted the ball over the hesitant keeper Ivan Kelava.

The bliss didn’t last for long, though. Five minutes later, the visitors countered through the right, Fatos Bećiraj drilled in a cross inside the penalty area that, for the puzzlement of all, Rafinha clipped into his own net. Obviously the situation came suddenly and the Brazilian was running flat-out towards the goal, but, nevertheless, the decision to try to clear the ball was blatantly the wrong one since the nearest opponent was a good few meters behind him. Rafinha, who was one of HJK’s stand out performers, failed to adhere to one of the most fundamental defensive lessons: always know where the nearest opponent is. Read more…

HJK attack with venom but do they have the defensive rigour to make it in Europe?

HJK made Champions League history trashing Bangor City 13-0 on aggregate in the second round of the competition. Both the second leg 10-0 victory at home and aggregate result are the biggest goal-fests ever celebrated in the Champions League. The result is a remarkable achievement in its own right, especially by a team from Finland, but, in truth, Bangor never represented a real test for HJK.

HJK’s second round victory may not have sent a storm warning through Europe, but it must have caused a few eyebrows to rise, and not least in Zagreb. The Veikkausliiga leaders face Dinamo Zagreb in the first leg of the third round in Helsinki on Wednesday and the Croatians will be wary of the hosts’ attacking quality. However, by looking at the evidence from the Bangor match alone, they also must have a pretty good idea where HJK’s weaknesses lie. Read more…

HJK-Inter preview

HJK entertain Inter tonight in one of the most highly anticipated matches of the current campaign. Inter, second in the table, chase the hosts by seven points with a game in hand, so if the Turku team manage a victory in Helsinki all the talk of handing the Veikkausliiga trophy to HJK may just turn out to be premature.

HJK beat Inter 1-0 in the first outing between the biggest title candidates back in May. The result, however, didn’t do justice to the match as HJK’s domination on the pitch was apparent. And domination is exactly the word that describes ‘Klubi”s recent performances. The league leaders have recorded eight straight wins and scored 31 goals in the process, including a preposterous 6-0 win over TPS. HJK have been in crushing form especially at home which does not bode well for the visitors who have shipped in seven goals in the last two games.

Despite the defensive shortcomings (which haven’t been fixed by the arrival of former Finland and HJK defender Toni Kallio, perhaps more to the contrary) being a huge problem, Inter do have their say in the match. At best Inter can produce dynamic attacking moves which culminate in the intelligent and effective finishes by the trio Mika Ojala, Timo Furuholm and Henri Lehtonen (who have recorded 26 of Inter’s 34 goals). The dead ball specialist Ojala in particular has been in stellar form scoring 9 goals and providing 10 assists.

In order to stop Inter from inflicting their damage, HJK must clamp down in midfield to prevent Inter’s counter-attacking transitions. As the visitors will be looking to smash and grab whatever they can from the Sonera Stadium, HJK need to be determined and precise with their pressing without loosing their shape. However, since HJK’s central midfielders (Dawda Bah and Alexander Ring) haven’t found a full-proof defensive understanding yet, Inter may find the required space there to manoeuvre a way forward.

It is expected that Inter will sit back with numbers, keep a tight collective shape and hit on the counter. Dead balls will also be key, particularly since HJK’s defence have been far from immaculate when defending set pieces. Therefore, magic is anticipated from Ojala’s right foot. HJK, on the other hand, will approach the match with confidence, relying on their rolling attacking play and in-form attackers (lead by Teemu Pukki) to finish the title hopefuls off.

Finland coach Paatelainen plans revolution despite starting reign at rock bottom

The Mixu Paatelainen era for the Finnish national team could hardly have got off to a worse start. First, Finland limped to an unconvincing 1-0 Euro 2012 qualifier victory in San Marino and, then, travelled to Stockholm only to suffer one of the most emphatic defeats in the history of Finnish football. Sweden simply ran riot as they recorded a 5-0 victory that send shock waves through the whole entity of the Finnish game, and this exactly at the moment when the national team were supposed to take the first step towards rejuvenation.

At a moment such as this, it would be extremely easy for Finnish football supporters to immerse into a collective sense of self-pity, one of the favourite Finnish pastimes. But there actually may be no need for such melodrama. Despite the two dreadful performances, there are signs that Paatelainen is plotting a revolution that may change to whole face of Finnish football for the better.

New coaching staff, new strategy

Paatelainen signed a five-year contract and with it received a carte blanche to build a new team and a new strategy, with Euro 2016 qualification set as a goal. After Stuart Baxter‘s tenure as Finland coach (2008-2010), that effectively took Finnish football back to the dark ages of the pre-Roy Hodgson era (2006-2007), the appointment of the former Kilmarnock and Hibernian manager was a smart move by the Finnish Football Association both in a footballing and PR sense. Paatelainen is not only a national team legend but has also gone on to make an international managerial career for himself, something few Finns have managed. The former Bolton and Hibernian striker was an epitome of workmanship as a player and has shown the same fighting spirit, added with modern ideas, as coach. The jury’s still out on his tactical abilities, but the 44-year-old has shown that he is eager and able to develop and learn.

The FFA also showed excellent foresight appointing former Liverpool and Finland defender Sami Hyypiä and former Finland U21 coach and national team player Markku Kanerva as assistant coaches. While during the Hodgson and Baxter eras the assistants’ main job was to hand out vests during training sessions, now there is a strong coaching staff in place that combines a wealth of international experience and contacts, man-management skills, thorough knowledge of Finnish players and, above all else, a burning passion for the development of Finnish football. After his appointment, Paatelainen has regularly attended Veikkausliiga matches in order to study the players in the Finnish league and has shown trust and solidarity towards his staff (Alexander Ring’s (HJK) surprise inclusion in Paatelainen’s first Finland squad was mostly down to Kanerva’s recommendations). A sturdy platform for development has been set in the dugout. But how will progress come about on the actual football pitch?

Hodgson favoured a rigid, no-nonsense 4-4-2 with a clear emphasis on defending. As a result, Finland were hard to beat but unimaginative in attack. Baxter, then, took up a more innovative approach by using 4-2-3-1 (which often became 4-4-1-1 in practice). The Scot aimed to build on the defensive fortress constructed by his predecessor but also wanted to add some attacking touches to the system. Unfortunately, like everything else with the former AIK and South Africa coach, it only worked wonderfully on paper while the actual result turned out to be a jumble of disorderly tactical applications, disorganised defending and poor attacking play. Paatelainen, however, has set up the “Christmas Tree” (4-3-2-1) as the default formation. This is a highly interesting departure from the Finnish paradigm (4-4-2 and 4-3-3) not only in terms of the number game but also by challenging the way the Finns have played their football.

Finland have often relied on a somewhat “broken team”, using fairly strict and traditional positional roles. Usually there has been a strong emphasis on, for example, the use of wingers (often at the expense of attacking full-backs), a target forward and midfield destroyer. In contrast, Paatelainen’s new system requires more in-built fluency and collective initiative from the Finnish players. After two matches (as poor as they may have been), a skeleton blueprint of Paatelainen’s attacking game plan can be outlined:

1. When Finland get the ball (preferably in midfield), the primary target is to play the transition quickly to one of the two attacking playmakers (the deeper in the opposition’s area the better).

2. If the transition is successful, the playmaker’s job is to take the midfielders and/or one of the full-backs in the attacking move. The primary purpose is to play the ball either to the wide midfielder closest to the ball or full-back who try to exploit the space created by the movement of the playmaker in possession (always leaving one of the two behind the ball to provide defensive balance and passing options if it’s not possible to use the direct approach).

3. If there is no space for the midfielder/full-back to advance, the play is slowed down and Finland aim to attack by keeping possession.

This is obviously a very simplified description of Paatelainen’s attacking tactics, and there obviously are a number of individual attacking moves that Finland try to use, but it still gives the rudimentary idea of the player roles and key points of how Finland aim to break down the opposition. First of all, the full-backs must be active going forward since the formation lacks natural width. The wide midfielders job is to provide fluidity, width (especially in slower attacking moves) and penetration. The two playmakers are the primary catalysts after the attacking transition and the idea is that they operate as a unit with the lone striker. The central midfielder provides balance in a role that is closer to that of a deep-lying playmaker than a midfield destroyer. The striker stretches the pitch and only comes into the attacking move when Finland have possession closer to the attacking third.

Despite and perhaps because of the difficulty of the execution of Paatelainen’s 4-3-2-1, the formation may provide Finland a slight advantage when successfully implemented. After all, there is a chance that teams have forgotten how to play against the “Christmas Tree” since it is quite an uncommon formation in international football nowadays. But with Baxter’s conjurer tricks fresh in the memory, all this still remains a big if. Therefore, the pertinent question is this: does Paatelainen’s plan actually suit the players in the team?

Read more…

HJK exorcise goalscoring demons against JJK

It’s strange how things can change during one evening. Well, seem to change at least. Before the fixture against the then league leader JJK, HJK seemed to be deep in a spot of bother. The reigning champions were third in the table, trailing JJK by four points, and had scored a paltry total of eight goals in six matches. But after the 6-2 rout of the Jyväskylä team, everything seems to be fine and dandy again. HJK still remain third, but only a point behind FC Inter and JJK, and they have now scored a much more convincing average of two goals per game. So, crisis averted then? 

Active pressing in midfield strips JJK of attacking weapons

 HJK had definitely done their homework in terms of how to stop JJK from carrying out their game plan. JJK try to attack with a lot of pace with quick transitions in midfield, followed by Jani Virtanen’s and Mikko Manninen’s swift interplay upfront. HJK responded to this by sitting relatively deep in their own half in the opening stages of the match and by pressing hard in midfield, with Dawda Bah operating in a deeper position alongside Alexander Ring. As a result, the hosts effectively occupied the area what JJK were looking for with their transitions as well as made it hard for the visitors to play direct through balls behind the defence. Even though JJK started the match actively, the home team were always in control by putting the visitors exactly where they wanted them to be.

HJK takes advantage of JJK’s frailties in wide areas

HJK’s defensive strategy, therefore, had an offensive objective (like all good strategies do, of course). By defending deep in their own half, the home team invited the visitors to either stretch their shape in midfield or to lift their defence line. JJK obliged by keeping a dangerously high defence line in order to squeeze the midfield and try to stop the host from keeping possession. This daring approach backfired badly as HJK took full advantage of the space behind JJK’s rather slow defence in the build-up to the first two goals. After two quick counter-attacks during the first fifteen minutes HJK were up 2-0 and could gradually open up their shape and start to keep possession of the ball more.

JJK coach Kari Martonen has done a great job this season in harvesting the potential of this talented JJK team. But he certainly got one crucial point wrong here. Rather than approaching the match by trying to negate HJK’s main strengths in attack, the former Honka assistant relied too much on their ‘own game’. This should, of course, be the starting point of every coach’s strategy, but blind belief in one’s own system seldom works when playing away at HJK; especially when your own limitations lie exactly where HJK are at their strongest: in the wide areas. Knowing this, the hosts ruthlessly took full advantage of the visitors’ shortcomings, bombarding the flanks with relish. Especially Anssi Viren at left back had tremendous difficulty in trying to stop Veikkausliiga’s leading wide duo Sebastian Sorsa and Rafinha. For the second half, Martonen introduced a more dynamic pair on the left in Niko Markkula and Touko Tumanto, but, with the score at 3-0, this change was to little avail.


HJK executed their game plan to perfection on this occasion (bar the two sloppy set piece goals they conceded). Defensively they stopped the visitors exactly where they are able to inflict the most damage, and attackingly they used their own strengths to hit JJK where it hurts the most. The match represented the attacking quality of HJK at their best. However, they still need to address the deeper problems in their playing and avoid self-deception caused by this potential one-off exhibition of superiority. HJK play against their bogey-team FC Honka after the national team break and that match will go some way shoving what is the true standard of the Veikkausliiga title holders at the moment.

HJK need to shift focus more to centre midfield to bring the best out of their system

HJK are the biggest candidates to win the Veikkausliiga title in 2011, but the first month of the new season has shown that it won’t be a walk in the park for the reigning champions. HJK have collected twelve points from six matches and sit third in the table, four points behind surprise leaders JJK. Strictly in terms of points, this is not a disastrous early season total and there’s no reason to push the panic button just yet. But when taken into account that ‘Klubi’ have lost two of their three away games (at TPS and MIFK, both 2-0), they need to improve their playing considerably to get into title form. Read more…

HJK-JJK preview

The surprise Veikkausliiga leaders from Jyväskylä take on the reigning champions at the Sonera Stadium at 6:30pm tonight. JJK remain unbeaten with sixteen points after six matches while HJK sit third with twelve points. Therefore, even with a limited grasp of arithmetic, the hosts are in for a match they need to win.

JJK’s start to the season has been a big surprise even if it was widely known that they have the potential to succeed. Coach Kari Martonen finally has the squad he needs not only to fulfil his active strategy but also to bring stability into their performances. Especially Mikko Hyyrynen, Mikko Manninen and Jani Virtanen (who scored a potential goal of the season against KuPS) have impressed in the attack. HJK, however, also need to concentrate on stopping the visitor’s strong centre midfield (Eero Korte and Jukka-Pekka Tuomanen) from creating a platform for the attacking trio to inflict their damage.

HJK have won all three of their home games, but they have already lost twice away. Especially in the last two league games (1-0 win against Jaro at home and 2-0 defeat at MIFK) they showed signs of frustration and predictability in their attacking, not least because of their inability to turn chances into goals. Eight goals in six matches is a dreadful total by a team with so much attacking potential and, therefore, the star striker duo Berat Sadik and Teemu Pukki must start finding their sharpness in and around the box. Also, another cause for concern for the hosts is that their centre midfield (Alex Ring and Dawda Bah) has not been wholly comfortable against quick counter-attacks. So taking into account the attacking potential and direct style of the visitors, the inclusion of Aki Riihilahti in the centre of the park is possible, which would mean that Bah would take his preferred place on the left side of midfield.

HJK-FF Jaro preview

HJK host Jaro at the Sonera Stadium tonight at 6:30pm. The home side have recorded three straight victories (KuPS (H), Inter (H), VPS (A)) after the opening day defeat against TPS in Turku and sit second in the table, a point behind JJK. Jaro have also recovered from their dodgy start to the season, that saw them get beaten by biggest relegation favourites RoPS (A) and Haka (H), by taking all three points at TPS and drawing at home to KuPS. Jaro are seventh in the table ahead of today’s fixtures.

HJK are expected to field their strongest eleven after some of the key players were rested against VPS last Sunday. Berat Sadik and Teemu Pukki will start upfront, Alexander Ring will take his place in centre midfield alongside Dawda Bah, while more defensive-minded Tuomas Kansikas (who had a great game against Inter) will replace Mikko Sumusalo at left-back.

Jari Litmanen (who did’t travel to Vaasa) is expected to start on the bench and will probably make a cameo later on in the match. Old warhorse Aki Riihilahti is touch-and-go in terms of squad inclusion after the 34-year-old featured in the last two Klubi 04 (HJK’s reserve team) matches. However, there’s no reason to rush the injury-prone midfield destroyer since poor man’s Riihilahti Cheyne Fowler is fit. Sunday’s trip to Maarianhamina may be the more likely occasion for ‘Ägä’s’ return.

Jaro coach Aleksei Eremenko has most of his key players fit (though, full-back Tillman Grove is doubtful and midfielder Markus Kronholm is out for a month due to illness) and is expected not to make too many changes to his first eleven. However, despite Jaro’s inclination to an attacking strategy, the visitors will start with a bit more caution against the reigning champions. Eremenko will have his mind set on finding a way to stop HJK’s in-form wing men (especially Sebastian Sorsa and Rafinha on the right) from inflicting their damage. Therefore, there will be no place in the opening line-up for the 16-year-old Simon Skrabb. Jaro cannot come to Helsinki just to shut up shop and this is why they look to engage in battle in the centre of the park where HJK have been at their most vulnerable.

HJK can go into the match with full of confidence after keeping clean sheets in the two consecutive matches. However, against both Inter and VPS, HJK didn’t manage to open the scoring until late in the game and this is a problem coaching duo Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala need to address. The home team will start the game actively and look for an early goal while the visitors are comfortable keeping their foot on the break, with an eye for the counter-attack, early on and open up their play more as the game progresses.

Veikkausliiga 2011: team-by-team season guide

After months of media coverage going from bad to worse, comedy management at club level, and financial turmoil of every sort, we finally get back to business as the 2011 Veikkausliiga season kicks-off (to be exact, kicked-off last week, but IWFTB promises to resist the temptation to alter its definitive season guide). I won’t bore you with all the pre-season business, suffice to say that Veikkausliiga is now played with twelve teams (after AC Oulu and TamU were kicked out) and every team plays three times against every other team (twice at home against some and twice away against others). The total of matches for each club will, therefore, be 33. This will most definitely please the fans and create a better platform for player development because, due to the congested schedule, teams must rotate their skinny squads more in order to get through the season. This will, however, not add to the competitiveness of the league as the new format is prone to widen the gap between the big, with a deeper pool of players and deeper pockets, and small clubs. You can’t have your cake and eat it, so let’s simply be merry in the knowledge that at least the football finally starts.

This being said, let’s go down to the actual business at hand and evaluate all twelve Veikkausliiga teams and their chances in 2011 (the clubs are listed below in terms of their final estimated position in the table as evaluated by the ever, ehm, infallible I Went for the Ball!).

1. HJK: Superior squad, wealth of experience and, at last, a complete package

HJK are hands-down the biggest candidate for the title. Not only because they’ve won back-to-back championships in the last two seasons. Not only because they have the best squad in the league by every standard. Not only because they have strengthened from last season due to new signings and due to the fact that the young players (Juhani Ojala, Teemu Pukki, Mikko Sumusalo, Akseli Pelvas and Alexander Ring) are a year older. Nor because they have Jari Litmanen on board. But because Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala finally have a complete package (first eleven and substitutes) to work with. As opposed to the HJK squad from last season, the current player material allows more tactical manoeuvring which will be even more necessary in the new league format. The fact that there is an extra seven matches to be played only makes HJK stronger.

Berat Sadik’s (FC Lahti) arrival will mean that ‘Klubi’ have a striker who can realise the potential of their strategy. Juho Mäkelä’s (FC Sydney) goals (16 last season) will be missed, but now HJK have a striker who has the necessary footballing sensibilities and attributes to complete their attacking puzzle. Rami Hakanpää (FC Honka) will add steel to an already strong centre defence and will especially provide ball-playing prowess at the back. As a player with a long history with injuries, the 32-year-old was not signed to play week in week out in the league, but because as a former midfielder he will provide HJK’s defence with the ball-playing qualities they sorely lacked in the Champions League/Europa League qualifiers last season. And this brings us to the matter of Litmanen. At 40, ‘Litti’ will definitely not feature in every single match but is expected to deliver at the crucial stages during the season. Like with Aki Riihilahti and Hakanpää, Litmanen’s skills and experience will be needed most in the European matches. HJK are ready for a busy season on all fronts.

2010: champions

Key player: Berat Sadik (A)

One to watch: Alexander Ring (M)

Notable transfers:

IN: Rami Hakanpää (FC Honka), Jari Litmanen (FC Lahti), Sebastian Mannström (FF Jaro), Berat Sadik (FC Lahti); OUT: Pyry Kärkkäinen (KuPS), Peter Magnusson (Sandefjord, NOR), Juho Mäkelä (FC Sydney), Johannes Westö (time off from football, travelling the world).

2. FC Honka: The nearly men look stronger this year

After a poor last season, when Honka surrendered their arms in the autumn just when they were supposed to head out all guns blazing, Honka reacted quickly (and quietly) by making a few surgical signings. After Tomi Maanoja’s arrival from AIK, Honka will finally have an undisputed number one in goal (Maanoja was subsequently made captain). Before, Honka have had plenty of skilful midfielders but few natural wide players. Ilari Aijälä (MyPa) will give Honka a steady-going winger with a deft cross and dead ball venom. It must have been frustrating for coach Mika Lehkosuo to watch Aleksander Kokko (now at VPS) and Jami Puustinen disappoint year after year, but now Lehkosuo hopes he has finally found a goalscorer in Dudu (9 in 10 matches last season at KuPS) who should actually also be able to play a bit of football. Apart from Rami Hakanpää (HJK), the departures will hardly be missed. The young products of the Honka youth academy are now a year older and Lehkosuo will be looking for players like Rasmus Sculler, Juuso Simpanen, Jaakko Lepola and Demba Savage to step up their game and deliver on their huge promise. Close but no cigar for Honka, though. Again.

2010: 4th

One to watch: Tim Väyrynen (A)

Key player: Tomi Maanoja (A)

Notable transfers:

IN: Dudu (KuPS), Tomi Maanoja (AIK, SWE), Lum Rexhapi and Duarte Tammilehto (Klubi 04), Ilari Äijälä (MyPa); OUT: Rami Hakanpää (HJK), Janne Henriksson and Ville Koskimaa (VPS), Markus Paatelainen (MIFK), John Weckström (FC Haka)

3. FC Inter: Genuine title challengers. Or are they really?

Inter have been touted by many as HJK’s strongest title challengers. IWFTB is not that convinced however. Most likely Inter will be thereabouts, but more due to the inability of other big teams to throw their punches. If things go according to plan for the Turku team (like in the title year in 2008), they may just be able to stake their claim. The last two seasons have shown, however, that, despite Job Dragtsma’s best laid plans, they seldom do that at Inter.

Inter have a versatile squad, options on the bench and a decent amount of quality. Nevertheless, there still remains too many question marks: will Timo Furuholm stay fit; is Domagoj Abramovic as good as in 2008; are the Argentinians up to scratch this time around? Fortunately for Inter, with the arrivals of Magnus Bahne in goal and Kalle Parviainen in the centre, the defence looks their strongest area. This will give Dragtsma time to build his team into a coherent whole if things don’t click at the word go.

2010: 6th

One to watch: Tero Mäntylä

Key player: Timo Furuholm

Notable transfers:

IN: Maximiliano Asis and Federico Scoppa (LDU de Loja, ECU), Domagoj Abramovic (Pierikos, GRE), Magnus Bahne (Assyriska FF, SWE), Kalle Parviainen (Haka); OUT: Daniel Antunez (Tecos, MEX), Patrick Bantamoi (Telstar, HOL), Guillermo Grot (De Treffes, HOL), Kennedy Nwanganga (KRC Genk, BEL)

4. TPS: Excellent first eleven, slender bench

After the crazy years (that saw some big spending and three big name coaches in Mixu Paatelainen, Martti Kuusela and Pasi Rautiainen come and go) in the white and black side of Turku, TPS, with Marko Rajamäki as coach, are no more looking for an easy, expensive quick-fix. Nowadays, gradual development is all the rage at TPS as they aim to bring in quality youth prospects through their own youth set-up or from elsewhere.

This season’s hot prospects include Petteri Pennanen (Twente) and Juho Lehtonen (PoPa). Added to these arrivals, TPS signed two attackers with Finnish national team experience in Njazi Kuqi (Dundee FC) and Niklas Tarvajärvi (loan: Karlsruher SC), as well as full-back Jarkko Hurme (AC Oulu). Despite the fact that neither Kuqi nor Tarvajärvi is a clinical finisher and even though both will probably need a few weeks to get into full fitness, they should become key players for TPS’s inexperienced attack that has been devoid of the likes of Roope and Riku Riski (Cesena and Widez Lodz respectively) and Jonathan Johansson (retired).

2010: 3rd

One to watch: Juho Lehtonen (A)

Key player: Jukka Lehtovaara (G)

Notable transfers:

IN: Jarkko Hurme (AC Oulu), Njazi Kuqi (Dundee FC, SCO), Juho Lehtonen (PoPa), Floribert N’Galula (Wedel TSV, GER), Petteri Pennanen (Twente, HOL), Niklas Tarvajärvi (Karlsruher SC, GER); OUT: Chris Cleaver (SJK), Jonathan Johansson (retired), Igor Jovanovic (SV Babelsberg, GER), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (JJK), Robert Milsom (Fulham, ENG), Riku Riski (Widez Lodz, POL), Roope Riski (AC Cesena, ITA)

5. KuPS: Last season’s sensation is followed by stability

If you asked most so called experts (yours truly being no exception) before the start of last season that how will KuPS fare, the reply was that they are destined for the drop and Esa Pekonen is the first coach to get the chop. But what happened after the actual football started and the talking stopped? After KuPS’s 5-0 home trashing at the hands of HJK, the Kuopio club went from strength to strength and ended up in second spot in the league.

Although it will be difficult for KuPS to repeat last season’s heroics and despite added fixture congestion caused by the European matches, KuPS can look forward to establishing themselves as a top six club in the league. There’s more width in the squad but still not enough true quality to retain a top three finish. Dudu’s departure to Honka will be a huge loss both in terms of goals and overall attacking play, but Dickson Nwakaeme return after an underwhelming stint in Denmark should provide a boost to KuPS’s attack. Pekonen has been able to construct an industrious team in his own no-nonsense image and after signing defenders Pyry Kärkkäinen (HJK via AC Oulu) and Markus Joenmäki (Haka), he will look for his defence to provide the springboard for more success.

2010: runner-up

One to watch: Aleksi Paananen (M)

Key player: Ilja Venäläinen (A)

Notable transfers:

IN: Markus Joenmäki (Haka), Pyry Kärkkäinen (AC Oulu), Dickson Nwakaeme (Aab, DEN); OUT: Dudu (FC Honka)

6. JJK: They can sure talk the talk, now it’s high time to walk the walk

JJK have escaped the drop by the skin of their teeth in the last two seasons. Now they finally have a team with which to succeed in Veikkausliiga and fulfil Kari Martonen’s ambitious, proactive strategy.

JJK have splashed the cash to back up their bullish talk of a top three finish. They brought in four quality players in Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS) and Tamas Gruborovics (MIFK). Korte is an industrious, complete midfielder. Manninen is expected to provide dynamism and ideas in their attacking play. Wusu is there to score the goals and Gruborovics to provide versatility and creativity in the attacking third.

Manninen, Gruborovics, Wusu and last season’s arrival Jani Virtanen might prove to be one of the most entertaining and effective attacking collectives this season. The Jyväskylä club also have a decent bench this season which will be a vital asset. JJK have a good team that may challenge for a top three finish in the future, but, for now, there’s still too much ground to cover between being a club teetering on the brink of relegation to the top of Veikkausliiga.

2010: 13th

One to watch: Jani Virtanen (M)

Key player: Janne Korhonen (G)

Notable transfers:

IN: Tamas Gruborovics (MIFK), Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS); OUT: Kim Alonen, Mika Lahtinen and Zakaria Abahassine (all RoPS), Matti Lähitie and Christian Sund (both SJK), Jukka Sinisalo (FC Lahti)

7. IFK Mariehamn: Back to form in 2011?

The usual MIFK transfer merry-go-round lasted until the final days before the start of the season as an influx of former TamU players (Kristian Kojola, Jonas Emet and Aleksei Kangaskolkka) took the boat ride to Maarianhamina. In total, no less than twelve new players arrived while thirteen left the club. Once the fresh faces settle in, Pekka Lyyski actually has a pretty decent squad at his disposal. Six of the arrivals have Veikkausliiga experience while the rest are an assorted, international bunch.

As always, it’s difficult to know what to expect from the island club but this is an interesting team that should certainly have enough quality to keep all relegation nightmares at bay. Who knows, this just might be their year.

Last season: 12th

One to watch: Petteri Forsell (M)

Key player: Toni Lehtinen (A)

Notable transfers:

IN: Kristian Kojola, Jonas Emet and Aleksei Kangaskolkka (all TamU), Josh Wicks (DC United, USA), Fernando De Abreu (Olympiakos Nikosia, CYP), Allen Olesen (Haugesund, NOR), Luca Bellisomo (Vancouver, CAN), Hendrik Helmke (Lubeck, GER), Markus Paatelainen (FC Honka), Toni Lehtinen (FC Haka); OUT: Tamas Gruborovics (JJK), Mika Niskala (Alta IF, NOR), Patrik Rikama (GIF Sundsvall, SWE), Sasha Anttilainen (MyPa)

8. VPS: A bit flavourless perhaps, but a balanced team

VPS are in many respects a model small Veikkausliiga club. They do not try to punch above their weight (any more at least). They keep the balance books healthy. And they are a team that plays to their strengths. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t tick the box in their model club CV is that their youth set-up is a bit rubbish.

Last season VPS were comfortably 10th but they managed a paltry 29 goals (only relegated FC Lahti scored less). And this is a problem coach Tommi Pikkarainen has tried to address by signing trouble-child Aleksandr Kokko (PoPa). The 23-year-old was top scorer way back in 2008 and pretty much stopped trying after that achievement. Kokko is able to score goals, if only he’d bothered to put in the effort. VPS may be happier keeping Valtter Laaksonen (injured for most of last season) fit.

VPS have a balanced team with no real weak points and even some options on the bench. Therefore, this should be a steady if an unspectacular season in Vaasa. At the moment, that is perhaps exactly what they aim at.

2010: 10th

One to watch: Kim Böling (A)

Key player: Janne Henriksson (G)

Notable transfers:

IN: Tomer Chencinski (Harrisburg City Islanders, USA), Ville Koskimaa and Janne Henriksson (both FC Honka), Aleksandr Kokko and Paco Corr (both PoPa), Riku Heini (FC Lahti), Antti Uimaniemi (MyPa); OUT: Jussi Aalto (FF Jaro), Pekka Kainu (OPS)

9. FF Jaro: One of the best coaches in Veikkausliiga, but too many loose ends in the team

Jaro ended last season in fifth, which is quite a feat for a club of Jaro’s size. This was pretty much down to the brilliance of two Eremenkos: Aleksei in the dug-out and Aleksei Jr. on the pitch. Now, the latter is gone and he took with him most of Jaro’s attacking venom. Venance Zeze, Papa Niang, and Jussi Aalto have good attacking qualities but they are unable to carry the team like Aleksei Jr. did. Added to the departure of ‘Junior’, Jaro lost two attacking midfielders important to Eremenko’s plans in Sebastian Mannström (HJK) and Ymer Xhaferi (FK Ranova).

Despite all this, Eremenko will try to make the team play according to his vision: balanced, proactive football (with emphasis on the latter). This will work at times, especially as the season progresses, but Jaro’s chances of repeating last season’s fifth spot look pretty slim.

2010: 5th

One to watch: Simon Skrabb (M)

Key player: Venance Zeze (A)

Notable transfers:

IN: Sergii Shpak (TsSKA Kiev, UKR), Ilja Vaganov (JBK), Dickson Agyeman (RAEC Mons, BEL), Patrik Bykskata (KPV), Giorgi Khidesheli (Baia Zugdidi, GEO), Mattias Wargh (IFK Jakobstad), Jussi Aalto (VPS); OUT: Jani Bäckman (FC Lahti), Sebastian Mannström (HJK), Ymer Xhaferi (FK Ranova, MAC), Marco Matrone (FC Haka)

10. MyPa: Reconstruction underway in Anjalankoski

As the cash flow from the paper factory down the road from Saviniemi stadium wither to being non-existent, the year 2005, when MyPa won the championship, seems like from a different age altogether. And in a way it is. The age of industrial magnates/teams supported by strong local industries is gone and MyPa have to get accustomed to a new life and new status without money.

Hats off to MyPa then since they have wasted no time doing exactly this. After an non-enjoyable last term with MyPa legend Janne Lindström at the helm, MyPa took up a new, bold direction by hiring former FC Viikingit coach Toni Korkeakunnas. Korkeakunnas, at 42, has little Veikkausliiga experience as coach and none as a player.

With little money at his disposal, Korkeakunnas deserves credit for being able to assemble a believable team with a completely new look. He left no stone unturned in Ykkönen (the Finnish first division) as he scoured for potential young players and even signed a young Tottenham pair on loan (Jake Nicholson and Kudus Oyenuga). MyPa’s opening lineup is of a good Veikkausliiga standard, but there aren’t too many choices on the bench. However, if the new arrivals deliver, MyPa may have the potential to surprise a few people.

2010: 9th

One to watch: Eetu Kaipio (M)

Key player: Antti Okkonen (M)

Notable transfers:

IN: Niko Kukka (AC Oulu), Tommi Vesala and Eetu Kaipio (FC Viikingit), Mikko Innanen (FC Haka), Jake Nicholson and Kudus Oyenuga (on loan: Tottenham, ENG), David Ramadingaye (HJK), Sasha Anttilainen (MIFK), Riley O’Neill (Wilhelmshaven, GER); OUT: Antti Uimaniemi (VPS), Jarno Tuunainen (PK-35), Ilari Äijälä (FC Honka), Tosaint Ricketts (FC Timisoara, ROM)

11. FC Haka: Going, going…

Haka fans will thank their lucky stars if there are two (although they’ll probably settle for one) teams below them in the table when the season ends since this is the worst Haka team in years (perhaps ever). Coach Sami Ristilä will need to deplete his whole idea bank if he is to get something more out of this inexperienced team than simply a narrow escape from relegation.

Ristilä wants his team to play active football, but without players of true quality Haka will do better just by trying to shut up shop and to smash and grab whatever they can, whenever they can. With little ball-playing quality in midfield and in the absence of a sure-fire goalscorer, a counter-attacking strategy will serve the team best. Pekka Sihvola and Obi Metzger, as the probable first choices up-front, won’t offer much in terms of possession football but are decent attackers on the counter.

With a slim squad, Haka will suffer due to the requirements of the new fixture list. Also, they lost a total of 1001 matches of Veikkausliiga experience during the summer and this is bound to show during the long season.

2010: 8th

One to watch: Sasha Popovitsh (M)

Key player: Regillio Nooitmeer (D)

Notable transfers:

IN: Marco Matrone (FF Jaro), Juha Pirinen (TamU), Shane Robinson (Stirling Lions SC, AUS), Albert Kuqi and Obi Metzger (FC Viikingit), Pekka Sihvola (FC Lahti); OUT: Xhevdet Gela (PK-35), Mikko Innanen (MyPa), Markus Joenmäki (KuPS), Jani Kuppila (AC Oulu), Toni Lehtinen (MIFK), Kalle Parviainen (FC Inter), Toni Kuivasto

12. RoPS: Everyone’s second favourite team this season will have to work wonders to avoid the drop

The best way forward for RoPS might be to take a step backwards and start afresh, even if it means playing in the Finnish division one next season (after all, they’ve done it all before).

A total of nine players from last season are under investigation of match-fixing and subsequently thrown out of the team. Because of this RoPS had to start gathering players from wherever they could find them. Now they are at least ready to start the campaign with an ensemble of inexperienced youth teamers, out of contract fringe Veikkausliiga players and a few foreign imports.

The squad is not wholly devoid of quality, however: Eetu Muinonen and Mika Hänninen (assuming that he regains match fitness after losing two seasons due to injury) can provide stability and creativity in midfield. Zakaria Abahassine and Jose Manuel Rivera bring options to the attacking third and Mika Lahtinen can score a few goals if the service is there. Also, these are players (not including Veikkausliiga newcomer Rivera) who have everything to prove after spending a couple of seasons under the Veikkausliiga radar.

Most likely there will be no celebrations in Rovaniemi when the season ends, but the RoPS fans will probably be content just to be able to concentrate on watching football after all the pre-season business.

2010: division one winners

One to watch: Eetu Muinonen (M)

Key player: Mika Lahtinen (A)

Notable transfers:

IN: Jaakko Isteri and Tuomo Könönen (PS Kemi), Thomas Götzl (SC Wacker Burghausen, GER), Mika Lahtinen, Kim Alonen and Zakaria Abahassine (JJK), Ville Syväjärvi (FC Santa Claus), Eetu Muinonen (MP), Shpat Qerimi (RNK Split, CRO), Jose Manuel Rivera (Deportivo Guamúchil, MEX), Mika Hänninen (AC Oulu); OUT: Jukka Santala (FC KooTeePee), nine players thrown out of the team due to being under investigation of match-fixing

Milan take vital step towards title with Napoli close behind

Week 31 was all about big clashes both in terms of the title race and the competition for European places. Saturday night provided a cracker as league leaders AC Milan hosted Inter in the most important Milan derby in years. On Sunday, the stakes didn’t drop any lower as third-placed Napoli, within three points of the Rossoneri and a single point behind Inter, entertained fifth-placed Lazio. While these two fixtures deservedly took most of the attention, there were still the small matters of the Sicilian derby and the match between AS Roma and Juventus.

Milan take Inter apart with creative attacking

Saturday night presented the perfect opportunity for the high-flying Inter to go past their city rivals for the first time this season, and take the driving seat in terms of the title race. While Inter had been near impeccable in recent rounds, Milan had lost at Palermo and dropped two points at home to bottom-placed Bari in their last two fixtures.


Milan's proactive attacking opens Inter defence in build-up to 1-0 goal

However, it seemed that the international break came at a perfect time for the home team. Milan looked like a team reborn right from the start as they took the game to Inter with confidence. The hosts, without attacking spearhead Zlatan Ibrahimovic, played an inventive and high-paced attacking game and took the lead already on the first minute of the match. With Inter fielding a 4-2-3-1 formation against Milan’s 4-3-1-2, it was perhaps a bit surprising that Milan’s domination was largely due to taking advantage of the wide areas. Robinho, Alexandre Pato and Clarence Seedorf intelligently shifted positions and took turns to drift wide during Milan’s attacking build-up. Their fleet-footed movement in attack was poison for the away team’s slightly static defence as it constantly opened gaps for forward runs from deeper positions. Milan’s 1-0 goal came courtesy of exactly such a move (see image): Seedorf cut inside from the left of Milan’s attacking third, played a cross-pitch pass to Gennaro Gattuso who exchanged passes with Pato in the centre, and released Robinho inside the penalty area (the Brazilian, playing as a second striker, started his run from a very deep position). Julio Cesar was able to save Robinho’s effort but Pato was there for the rebound to score the opener.

Milan’s proactive attacking approach wouldn’t have worked had they not had control of the midfield. The hosts had numerical advantage in the centre of the park (4 v 3) and the whole midfield (Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Gattuso and Kevin-Prince Boateng) put in a tireless collective effort (Mark van Bommel was particularly impressive).

Milan dominated throghout the match and recorder a deserved 3-0 victory with two goals from Pato and one from Antonio Cassano, who then got sent off after picking two extremely foolish yellow cards (some people just never learn). But this didn’t spoil Milan’s party as the Serie A leaders took a giant step towards their first title since 2003-2004.

Storari saves Juventus with a performance of the season

Traditionally a Roma-Juve (sixth and seventh respectively) match would’ve been one of the highlights of any Serie A season, but at the moment both teams are struggling badly and are desperate for points to keep hopes of European football alive. This match may not have been given top billing but it turned out to be quite a spectacle. With a combined thirty-two shots and plenty of excellent goalscoring opportunities for both sides, it was pure entertainment from start to finish.

Despite the fact that Juve packed the midfield with five men (granted, Milos Krasic and Simone Pepe were perhaps supposed to play in wide attacking roles), Rome dominated possession and exposed the weaknesses of the static Juve defence (this being said, in the end, the home defence looked pretty shaky as well). The main man for Roma was Francesco Totti who has show signs of the Totti of old in recent weeks by scoring six times in as many matches. The Roma captain was effective in the lone striker role that he made his own during the Luciano Spalletti era, often dropping deep to link play and facilitate the forward runs of Mirko Vucinic and Jeremy Menez (who again was largely ineffective).

Despite being the better side and testing Juve’s stand-in keeper Marco Storari to the limit several times, the home team were unable to turn domination into goals. In the end, Juve were somehow able to sneak a 2-0 victory (with fine goals by Krasic and Alessandro Matri who scored his sixth in nine games for Juve). The visitors, however, owed it all to Storari who pulled a string of unbelievable saves. After a performance like this even Gianluigi Buffon should feel a bit anxious about finding himself on the bench in the next match.

Meanwhile in Serie A:

Napoli-Lazio 4-3: Edison Cavani continued his implausible form by scoring another hat-trick (his fourth this season) and singlehandedly keeping the Partenopei’s Squdetto dream alive. Napoli were trailing by two goals on the hour mark and scored the winner on the 88th minute which speaks volumes about their never-say-die attitude. Cavani now has twenty-five goals to his name in Serie A which is exactly half of Napoli’s goals this season. They may be the uninvited guests at the championship party, but if Milan leave the door open even slightly at the top of the table Napoli may just take up the invitation and end up being the last ones to leave.

Catania-Palermo 4-0: Catania routed to a 4-0 victory in the Sicilian derby which was enough for Maurizio Zamparini, the Palermo president, to fire Serse Cosmi and reappoint Delio Rossi (fired in February). So business as usual at Palermo.


Italian football in crisis: reasons and remedy

Italy’s abysmal World Cup campaign last summer and another highly disappointing year for the Italian clubs in the European competitions (Inter’s triumph in 2010 being the exception proving the rule) have shown the extent of the state of crisis Italian football is in at the moment. In the Champions League, AC Milan were knocked out by newcomers Tottenham and AS Roma were humiliated by Shaktar Donetsk, crashing out with a 6-2 aggregate (Sampdoria, who finished fourth last season, didn’t make it past the qualifying hurdles). Inter, again, were the only club to qualify into the last eight (the total for the Italian teams in the second round: six matches, one victory). The Europa League was no kinder to the Italians as Juventus, Sampdoria and Palermo didn’t even get past the group stage, while Napoli were knocked out in the second round. These dreadful results make it official that Germany surpasses Italy in Uefa’s ranking which means that Serie A will lose its fourth Champions League berth to Bundesliga.

And it is not just the senior national team and clubs that represent the decline. The Italian Under 21-year-olds have been among the European elite for decades but recently they have also done little to balk the downward trend. Since the U21 European Championship victory in 2004, Italy have reached the semi-finals only in 2009 when they were knocked out by eventual winners Germany (no shame there, but too few players from that squad have made the leap to the senior side, while over a half a dozen have from the German team). Last autumn, the Italian U21s failed to qualify for the 2011 tournament, conceding a 2-0 home victory away to Belarus who certainly are no heavyweights of Europe.

As many other nations in Europe have stepped up the pace (both figuratively and literally), Italy have been complacent in their own sense of false superiority. The reasons for their fall from grace are manifold and go deep into the cultural and structural roots of calcio. While there are plenty of fascinating and constructive elements to the Italian game, two main conclusions can be drawn to explain the downward trend: strategic conformity and the lack of investment in youth development.

Italian football out of tune with tactical trends

Football has changed significantly since the 2006 World Cup when Italy won the tournament with a tactically versatile squad that included some of the best players in the history of Italian football at the peak of their powers (for example, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Gianluca Zambrotta). At their best, this Italian team, though built (like all great side’s still are) on a foundation of a resolute defence, played some excellent football both in a tactical as well as in an aesthetical sense (the opening match against Ghana, the last group game against the Czech and the semi-final with Germany come to mind). Nevertheless, even if Italy were able to enthrall with complete organisation and clinical conter-attacking, they still lacked a sense of proactivity that characterises the football of today.

Italy’s triumph in 2006 was, similarly like Inter’s Champions League victory, a one-off event. Italy had a good squad with an excellent mix of players who fitted perfectly into different tactical systems and a great coach who was at the top of his game and able to mastermind different tactical strategies to perfection. Since 2006, however, Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) model has, for many at least, become the benchmark of how football should be played. But it is fittingly Germany who epitomise football in the new decade. For all their dominance at the moment, Barcelona/Spain perhaps represent more the combination of their own footballing pedigree and an exceptional generation of players than something that represents the development of football in a universal sense. Although the Germans may not showcase the same level of proactvity as Spain, their way of playing provides a model for national teams and clubs around the world that can be attained more easily due to its more eclectic nature. The key factors of football in 2011 are pace (transitions, movement, passing), possession, organization (both in attack and defence), tactical flexibility, physicality (more to do with stamina and athleticism than brute force) that are all bound together in an overall sense of cohesion, and Germany definitely have these characteristics in abundance.

Looking at these pieces of the modern football puzzle, it is no wonder that the German team is nowadays filled with young, skilful, and dynamic players. The Italians, on the other hand, are still too fixated in their own system, in their obsession with experience and their mistrust in youth. After all, it is telling that Gianluigi Buffon noted lack of experience as the main reason for their poor performance in the 2010 tournament while Germany succeeded with an inexperienced squad. Cultural identity and experience are always needed in international football, but so are new ideas and fresh legs.

Deficiencies of Italian youth set-up

The question of how to find a balance between experience and youth is always a difficult one to answer. But a more important question, and one that is too seldom presented, is how can young players gain the experience if they are not given a chance at the highest level. Former cultured midfielder Demetrio Albertini (who played for AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona), the vice president of FIGC (the Italian Football Federation), was clear to point out that this is exactly what is wrong with the Italian youth setup, giving Spain’s reserve league system, Barcelona and Andreas Iniesta as examples of what Italy should strive towards: “If you face opponents from Serie A or Serie B in a reserve league, you are ready for the top flight at 18 or 19 – like Iniesta, for example, who is 26 and has been playing La Liga for eight years […] Notable players have come through Barcelona’s reserve team, which identically plays the same formation as the first team[…].” It’s all quite simple: better opponents make better players and a fixed system nurtures young players to the first team.

So looking at the following list that features some of the most promising Italian players from each age-group starting from those born in 1985, and contrasting their current clubs with where they started their professional careers, go some way in showing the extent of this problem:

Riccardo Montolivo (midfielder; born 1985; Atalanta -> Fiorentina), Domenico Criscito (D/M; 85; Juventus -> Genoa), Antonio Nocerino (M; 85; Juventus -> Palermo), Andrea Coda (D; 85; Empoli -> Udinese), Gianluca Curci (G; 85; Roma -> Sampdoria), Emiliano Viviano (G; 85; Brescia -> Bologna), Luca Cigarini (M; 86 Atalanta -> Sevilla), Lorenzo De Silvestri (D; 86; Lazio -> Fiorentina), Sebastian Giovinco (F; 87; Juventus -> Parma), Robert Acquafresca (F; 87; Inter -> Cagliari), Daniele Dessena (M; 87; Parma -> Sampdoria), Arturo Lupoli (F; 87 Arsenal -> Ascoli), Andrea Poli (M; 89; Sampdoria), Francesco Bolzoni (M; 89; Inter -> Siena), Alberto Paloschi (F; 90; AC Milan -> Genoa), Mattia Destro (F; 91; Inter -> Genoa), Davide Santon (D; 91; Inter -> Cesena)…and the list goes on.

Obviously, all this is over-simplifying the matter a bit. The list is not supposed to suggest that all the players featured on it are somehow lost causes. It is a fact that for some players the best way forward is to take a step backwards early in the career (Giampaolo Pazzini (84), now at Inter, being an example). And, of course, there are players who have gone the other way in their careers (including Leonardo Bonucci (87) and Andrea Ranocchia (88) now at Juventus and Inter respectively).

Nevertheless, the fact in itself that most of the aforementioned players have transferred from a big club to a smaller one (and stayed there) does paint a pretty straightforward picture. As Albertini noted, a young player should be ready to play at the highest national level roughly before turning twenty. After that he should be exposed to the requirements of the European competitions and international football. Therefore, even if a potential young player gets more playing time at a smaller club, but at the same time does not get the chance to play at the highest level in a team competing in Europe, he will be devoid of an ingredient of development that is simply essential nowadays.

Italian Football Federation laying out blueprint for proactive future

FIGC has reacted to this obvious problem many Italians have been ignoring for too long. The appointment of Cesare Prandelli as the Azzurri coach sent a clear message in terms of how FIGC wants to develop Italian football. Prandelli has always been a spokesperson for proactive football and has kept youth development close to his heart. Also, the appointment of attacking legend Roberto Baggio as technical committee president is in line with this new approach.

As a more controversial and panic-stricken solution, however, FIGC immediately ruled after the World Cup that Italian clubs cannot sign more than one non-EU player during a season. This ruling touches upon a number of contentious issues (that are a discussion subject for another time) but the reason behind the decision cuts into the heart of the discussion at hand. While in the process of building a stabile and sustainable foundation for progressive and collective development in the long term, FIGC may have seen, rightly or wrongly, this radical decision as the only solution to make an impact in the short term in order to clear the path for Italian youngsters into the top teams in Serie A.

What Italian football needs now is a sense of patience running through the whole structure of calcio. The old foundations need not be, and should not be, demolished in their entirety but reconstructed according to the demands of the modern game. Renewal does not exclude tradition and, therefore, calcio can reinvent itself without loosing its wealth of tradition and identity.

Serie A round-up: Milan stamp their authority against high-flying Napoli, while Palermo implode and Juventus reach season nadir

Many conclusions can be drawn from the fact that one of the most anticipated, important and defining matches of the 2010-2011 Serie A season is the second outing between AC Milan and Napoli (first and third in the table before the Monday night fixture). Few tipped either team to be among the heavy favorites for the Scudetto before the start of the season; Milan have an aged squad in the process of reconstruction and Napoli, on paper at least, are a good but by no means spectacular side. For the cynic, this may suggest that the quality of Serie A has been below average this term. The realist may note that other big teams have been punching below their weight and that this has given the two teams the unlikely chance to go to the top of the table. The optimist, however, will rejoice at the fact that Napoli, the sleeping giant of the south, is putting the power balance of Italian football into question and acknowledge that, despite Milan’s weaknesses, they have been the best team in the league. However you look at it, the fixture between Milan and Napoli was a match of the highest importance in terms of the title race.

Milan expose Napoli’s limitations in a match of poor quality

Napoli, indeed, have been the toast of Serie A this season. They have played some dynamic and entertaining, if a bit reactive, football, plus they have undoubtedly one of the best forwards in Europe in Edison Cavani who has already notched twenty goals to his name (many of which have been nothing short of spectaqular). Before the game Napoli were only three points behind the league leaders so a win at the San Siro would put them level with the Rossoneri and once and for all make them a title candidate.

Milan had other ideas though. What was perhaps supposed to be Napoli’s and Cavani’s chance to shine turned out to be a moment for Alexandre Pato (a player who has gone a bit forgotten this season) who put in a vintage second half performance. The 21-year-old Brazilian inspired the home team to a convincing 3-0 victory as he provided the assist for the second goal and scored a splendid third.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the importance of the fixture, the game itself wasn’t the most memorable of events. The first half was a nervous affair that saw plenty of misplaced passes by both teams and little goalmouth action at either end of the pitch. Napoli tried to take advantage of Milan’s narrow midfield with their trademark flying wing play but the wide midfielders/wing-backs Cristian Maggio (who particularly had a dreadful match on the right) and Andrea Dossena were poor in their passing, sloppy in their crossing and never looked like providing the penetration needed to rattle Milan’s organised defence. Furthermore, due to an excellent performance by Mark Van Bommel in the holding role for the home team, the visitors, and Giuseppe Mascara playing in place of Ezequiel Lavezzi, weren’t able to build any kind of platform in the centre of their attacking third. As a result, despite his tremendous work effort, Cavani was largely ineffective in and around the penalty area.

Milan didn’t look that threatening either on their attacking third and their best (half-)chances came courtesy of the visitors who were, at times, extremely careless in opening play from the back. With little room in midfield, as both Mascara and Marek Hamsik tracked back efficiently, Milan’s build-up play in the first period was limited mostly to long passes played from deep midfield positions. In the second half Milan looked like a different team though. They added tempo and pressed Napoli aggressively further up the pitch and this way the balance of the game shifted more and more to the Napoli end. The inclusion of Kevin-Prince Boateng in place of the full-back Marek Jankulovski increased the home team’s momentum even more as Napoli’s tired defence found it hard to cope with Boateng’s direct running. The Ghanaian capped his excellent performance by scoring the second goal of the game on the 77th minute with a close range finish to a Pato cross after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot in the early stages of the second half. Pato then put the match beyond doubt with a coolly placed shot from twenty meters to the right hand top corner.

Milan showcased the deficiencies of this Napoli team that live by their industry and clinical counter-attacking, and of course by Cavani’s goals. First of all, Milan were successful in taking out the speed from Napoli’s attacking transitions by keeping enough players behind the ball at all times even when in possession (the players further up the pitch were quick to apply pressure on the Napoli player initiating the attack and the midfielders stayed close to Mascara and Hamsik whose job it is to provide the penetration in the attacking third). Also the Milan centre-backs, Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva, did a professional job in back-pocketing the industrious Cavani who was left isolated up-front.

Meanwhile around Italy:

Palermo-Udinese 0-7: 0-7. 0-7! 7-0. No matter how you look at the result, the numbers simply seem impossible: 0-7!?!!!? An utterly improbable defeat by a team that were supposed to be rock-solid at home. You might have had your suspicions after Palermo’s unfolding at home to Fiorentina two weeks ago, but after this embarrassment Palermo can forget any illusions they might have had of occupying a stronghold. But hey, who cares about the losers, we should be congratulating Udinese, undoubtedly the most exiting team in Serie A at the moment. Udinese play thrilling and balanced attacking football and they do it without any huge star players. At Palermo Alexis Sanchez scored no less than four goals and Antonio Di Natale got three and they took their goals totals to 11 and 21 respectively. And even though the annihilation may have been in breach of the unwritten code of ethics of calcio, Udinese gave the impression that they were simply being courteous with the scoreline. After all, it was 6-0 after only 48 minutes. The Zebretta are now fifth and only a single point behind fourth placed Lazio.

Juventus-Bologna 0-2: Juve clearly think they are too good to show up against the weaker teams. The new dawn talked about in this blog after the triumph of the Inter match has turned out to be a persistent hangover. Since beating Inter with a convincing performance two weeks ago, Juventus have recorded back-to-back 2-0 defeats (away to Lecce and at home against Bologna). This Juve team, and come to think of it the post-calciopoli Juventus, want to have their cake and eat it as well. After decades of success, Juvetus refuse to settle for anything less than the Scudetto and even though the squad should have enough quality to put in a believable title challenge, Juve are by no means good enough to consider themselves worthy of an automatic shot at the title. Luigi Delneri, the Juve coach and the man whose future hangs in the balance after these rubbish performances, clearly knows this as well: “For some reason, we are not able to face the easy games with the right determination. We cannot afford to make any more mistakes in our remaining games.” Too bad the players clearly don’t want to hear it.


Veikkausliiga Transfer Merry-go-round: Inter and MIFK keep busy, while Korkeakunnas builds his Helsinki colony at MyPa

The 2011 Veikkausliiga season kicks-off in two months so let’s not waste any time trying to make up a witty introductions to the ever so fascinating world of Veikkausliiga transfer tittle-tattle and instead, mimicking the transfer market behaviour of most Finnish top tier teams, the Merry-go-round is just going to plunge in among the transfers news and take any piece it can get its hands on.

Let’s begin from Turku and TPS where it starts to look pretty lonely at the attacking third of the pitch. Riku Riski transferred, somewhat surprisingly, to Widzew Lodz in Poland and his little brother, and last season’s biggest sensation, Roope Riski signed for Serie A side Cesena. In related non-Veikkausliiga news, Roope Riski wasn’t the only Finnish wonder kid who found his way to Cesena as Jusu Karvonen (Taranto) also joined the relegation candidates from northern Italy. TPS did, however, sign youngster Petteri Pennanen from FC Twente who should be an interesting prospect in TPS’s youthful midfield. So expect there to be many nimble feet in the centre of the park creating opportunities for a non-existent goalscorer at TPS next season.

Meanwhile on the black and blue side of Turku, Magnus Bahne (Assyriska) has returned from his relatively successful trip in Sweden and will replace Patrick Bantamoi (Telstar, HOL) in goal at Inter. Bahne is joined by Finnish national team…ehm…revelation Kalle Parviainen and Domagoj Abramovic (Thrasyvoulos Fylis, GRE), who seemed a decent enough forward back in 2008 when Inter won the championship.

Another goalkeeper coming home from our western neighbour is Tomi Maanoja (AIK) who signed for Honka where he made his Veikkausliiga debut in 2006. Maanoja went to Sweden with dreams of grandeur but then broke his leg just before the start of his first season there and, during his second, he was made the scapegoat for the failure of a dreadful AIK team. Things can only get better for the talented 24-year-old who only two seasons ago was touted as the next starting goalkeeper for the Finnish national team.

Being short of personnel, IFK Mariehamn figured that they should start buying players by the pound and, therefore, it made a lot of sense to start the spree by signing Toni Lehtinen (Haka) who will greatly increase the pie-rate of MIFK’s slim squad. After making this sizeable capture, Markus Paatelainen (Honka) and an assorted bunch of players from oversees joined the ranks of the islanders: Luca Bellisomo (Vancouver Whitecaps, CAN), Hendrik Helmke (VfL Lübeck, GER) and Fernando de Abreu Ferreira (Olympiakos Nikosia, CYP). The Merry-go-round doesn’t know the pie-rates of these foreign imports, but at least de Abreu Ferreira should be a decent footballer since he has received part of his footballing education at ManU. But then again, so has Jami Puustinen. Not all things Sir Alex Ferguson touches turn golden after all.

After loosing a target man who can run like the wind and score by the bucket-full, but who couldn’t trap a bag of cement if his life was dependent on it in Juho Mäkelä, HJK decided that what they actually need is a target man who can neither run nor score goals, but who has a surprisingly good touch for a big man. And who whould fit the bill better than Berat Sadik. Sadik, formerly of Bielefeld and some Belgian club no one remembers the name of, and who most definitely don’t remember Sadik’s, arrived from HJK’s feeder club FC Lahti. With already having non-scoring forwards Jarno Parikka and Akseli Pelvas on their books, Sadik should feel right at home at the Helsinki club.

And speaking of Helsinki, since HJK still remains the only top division team in the Finnish capital, new MyPa coach Toni Korkeakunnas (who failed to promote Helsinki club FC Viikingit to Veikkausliiga last season) is determined to set up a Helsinki colony at Anjalankoski. Adding to an already extensive list of players from various clubs from Helsinki, Korkeakunnas signed David Ramadingaye and Fidan Seferi from HJK (Klubi 04) and FC Espoo respectively (although the latter is technically from Helsinki’s neighbouring city Espoo). Oh, and MyPa also signed someone called Riley O’Neill (Wilhelmshaven, GER) who, according to Korkeakunnas, “will cause all sorts of problems to the Veikkausliiga defences”. So there you have it.

In Tampere more big name players have left TamU. Tomi Petrescu is having another go at the big time (well, going abroad at least) at Panthrakikos in Greece. And Tuomas Haapala has called time on his career that included stints at Manchester City, Sandefjord (NOR) and HJK.

And finally, FF Jaro have signed Dickson Agyeman from RAEC Mons (BEL) who apparently is quite the player. And VPS continue their transfer policy of signing players that you haven’t heard of by the truckload in the vain hope that even one of them will be able to cut the Veikkausliiga mustard. Usually, of course, they won’t. Well, they did sign Riku Heini from FC Lahti so at least VPS fans can look forward to inconsistent and aimless wing play in Vaasa next season.

That’s all for now.


Serie A round-up: Juventus take deserved victory against Inter, while Genoa light up Derby della Lanterna

It could have all gone differently in the final minutes of the season’s second Derby D’Italia between Juventus and Inter. After a first half controlled by the home side, Inter gradually started piling the pressure as fatigue and injuries took their toll on the Juve players, and you just knew that the visitors would get their big chance sooner or later. And then it arrived. On the 89th minute, Samuel Eto’o was staring at an open goal from about five meters as the ball was player across the front of the goal to his feet. You could hear hearts sinking for the Bianconeri fans at the sight of their team (once again) throwing away a deserved victory at the death in a match that, win or lose, might define the rest of their season. As the ball struck the crossbar they could hardly believe their eyes; it was a one in a million miss from someone like Eto’o. But as always, one needs to earn one’s good fortune and Juventus were the deserved winners with a well thought-out and professionally executed performance.

Juventus start with an interesting application of their usual 4-4-2 formation

One of the main reasons for Juve’s inconsistent performances in the autumn was that their wide midfielders were used in overtly attacking roles. They often played really high up the pitch which means that there is acres of space behind them for the opposition to exploit. When you add the fact into the equation that Juve have few natural full-backs who can actually defend (Marco Motta and Fabio Grosso are good going forward, but often in trouble at their own end), it is no wonder that Juve often both scored and conceded goals at will.

Luigi Delneri’s remedy for this problem has been two-fold. Firstly, the wide midfielders (Claudio Marchisio has been switched from the centre to the left, playing in a more central role than Simone Pepe) play deeper and go forward with more restraint. And secondly, Juve’s attacking full-backs have been replaced with defensive ones (Giorgio Chiellini, who took over at left-back after Andrea Barzagli’s arrival, and Frederik Sorensen are both centre-backs by profession). By changing a natural winger to a centre midfielder and attacking full-backs to central defenders, the tactical change might seem overtly defensive. However, Marchisio played on the left last season and even if he is not a full tilt dribbler by nature, the 25-year-old Juventus youth product is a highly intelligent and dynamic player. Also, Chiellini did play at left back at the start of his career and when the occasion arose on Sunday he went forward with gusto (even if his crossing was disappointing). So in the end, what this tactical shuffle by Delneri has actually done is that after having lost some of their gung-ho attacking intent, Juve have gained needed defensive cohesion and balance in their overall play.

Juve’s tactical plan works to disarm Inter in the first half, their defensive grip holds in the second

The strength and tactical flexibility of this new strategy was perfectly on show on Sunday as Delneri worked out a game plan to stop Inter from playing the flowing football they have showcased recently. Two key areas were under scrutiny: ‘the hole’ and flanks. First of all, Juve made sure Wesley Sneijder was kept fairly quiet all evening. This meant that when Inter had possession, Felipe Melo sat deep in front of the centre-backs with Alberto Aquilani providing cover and Marchisio moving into a central position. Juve were, therefore, basically playing with a narrow three-man centre midfield and with a defensive shape that moved fluidly to create triangular shapes around an Inter player with possession. By taking  out Sneijder, Juve not only cut off the supply to Giampaolo Pazzini (who plays in a more central, spearheading role than Eto’o) but also Javier Zanetti and Maicon.

Juve’s defensive shape worked well to take out both full-backs, even when there was space on the flanks at times due to Juve’s narrow shape, because in the absence of wide midfielders Inter are often reliant on their full-backs to create width when they attack. So with the Juve midfield sitting deep, Inter found it hard to attack through the centre with the pace they need to maximise the effect of the marauding full-backs. Therefore, even if Marchisio’s position in the centre left space open on the right, Maicon rarely dared to go forward in the fear of leaving his flank wide open for Juve’s counter-attacks in the case if they lost the ball in the build-up. For the same reason and because of Milos Krasic’s slightly more advanced position, Zanetti (and often Esteban Cambiasso) was pinned back on the other flank.

In an attacking sense Juve’s approach was not the subtlest at the start of the game. They often played long balls towards the physical front two (Alessandro Matri and Luca Toni) who put in a huge effort not only battling for the long balls but by retrieving possession and harassing  the defenders. As momentum shifted to the home side, however, Juve started using the ball better on the ground. Aquilani, playing in a deep playmaker role, controlled the rhythm well with his intelligent passing that accommodated the movement of Juve’s attacking collective. The full-backs (Chiellini especially) also ventured forward at times and the winning goal came courtesy of a well-timed run and a perfectly executed cross by the right back Sorensen. In the build-up Krasic drew both Zanetti and Cambiasso towards him deep in the Inter half and this way created space for the Danish defender to go forward. The Serb then played a simple pass backwards to Sorensen who provided a pinpoint cross between the Inter centre-backs (Ivan Cordoba and Andrea Ranocchia) which Matri finished with a professional header (his third strike in as many games). It was a perfect example of a simple build-up where your own tactical plan works to perfection against the opposition’s.

In the second half, Inter came on a lot stronger. On the hour mark Leonardo reacted further by bringing on Goran Pandev in place of the anonymous Houssine Kharja and shifted into a 4-3-3. This change worked to stretch Juve’s narrow defensive shape and the home side gradually crept into siege mode. What started out as a game Juve controlled comfortably was beginning to slip away from their fingers as player after another tired and others picked up knocks (Melo and Matri, who had to stay on despite injury). Gianluigi Buffon had to make a couple of match-winning saves to keep the home team in the game and, after some resolute defending, Juve held on. They can only hope that this victory will mark the way for a successful spring campaign.

Derby della Lanterna: visitors Genoa come on top in season’s first Genoa derby

City rivals Sampdoria and Genoa put in a highly entertaining show in an early evening midweek fixture. The match was a much-anticipated break from routine after what has been a disappointing season for both teams. Sampdoria were knocked out of Europe already in the group stages of the Europa League, and after some terrible recent form (largely due to losing Antonio Cassano and Pazzini) they have slipped to the lower half of the table. Genoa had started the season with great expectations but had soon found themselves bogged down in the mid-table anonymity. Since neither team have much to expect from the rest of the season, both were relishign the opportunity to put one over their city rivals.

The match itself (despite a dreadful pitch and a 0-1 scoreline) was a captivating and open affair with both teams preferring proactivity over caution. Genoa took the initiative and had a string of chances already during the first ten minutes of the match, the best arriving on the 7th minute as Rodrigo Palacio hit the bar from inside the box. After being run over by the visitors early on, the home side gradually stared getting some foothold as well. Their first opportunity, and their best in the game, opened in the 13th minute as Stefano Guberti snaked his way through the Genoa defense inside the penalty area but was denied by Genoa goalkeeper Eduardo (who, after some shaky performances, really redeemed himself in the eyes of the Genoa fans in the biggest game of the season). Both teams had plenty of chances to score but, in the end, it was Rafinha’s wonderstrike on the 55th minute that separated the city rivals.

Meanwhile around Italy:

On Saturday, Roma looked like starting a spring slump (as we now know that they also lost 3-2 to Shaktar Donetsk at home in the Champions League) in a bad-tempered 2-0 home defeat in the Derby del Sud against Napoli (you guessed it, Edison Cavani scored both goals for Napoli and has now 20 in total).

The match between Palermo and Fiorentina on Sunday must have been one of the strangest affairs all season. Palermo were the better and more balanced side for most of the match but somehow, without an explicit reason, imploded and concede three times during the last twenty minutes, ending up at the wrong end of a 2-4 scoreline against a team that hadn’t won away all season.

Serie A transfer update: winners and losers of January transfer window

Screams of pain were heard across Europe at midnight last night as the January transfer window banged shut on the greedy little fingers of a multitude of panicky chairmen and managers who were hanging on desperately to the window in the hope of being able to reach out and grab one last unnecessary and overpriced player during the last seconds before the deadline. So let’s take a look at the winners and losers of the Serie A transfer window.


Brescia: No spectacular signings but none was expected from Brescia. By retaining Andrea Caracciolo and by attaining two reliable players in Cristiano Zanetti (Fiorentina; M) and Pietro Accardi (Sampdoria; D) and signing talented Davide Lanzafame (Juventus, A), Brescia have strengthened their squad for an extremely difficult spring.

Cesena: Fellow relegation candidates Cesena are one of the biggest winners in the ‘mercato’, one of the most active at least. The departures include mostly just dead wood (apart from Yuto Nagatomo (Inter; D) and Matias Schelotto (Catania; (M)) and the arrivals some pretty interesting captures. The signing of Davide Santon (D) from Inter can be considered a coup, as is snapping up Alessandro Rosina (Zenit; M/A) who, despite possessing audacious talent and flair, must start providing the goods on a day-to-day basis. You’ll excuse me for my Finnish bias as I mention little known Roope Riski (TPS Turku; A) and Jusu Karvonen (Taranto; M) among the arrivals, but it’s not every day that a Serie A club signs two Finns. And these two are definitely among the biggest talents in Finnish football. Furthermore, Riski’s tally from lasts season is pretty impressive no matter where you play: the 19-year-old striker bagged 12 goals in 18 matches during his first season in Veikkausliiga (the highest league in Finland) and also scored a hat-trick in each of the three highest divisions (including Veikkausliiga) in Finland.

Inter: Title holders Inter have found their form with Leonardo in charge of late and now reinforced (and reinvigorated) the squad in order to try to make a late sprint for the Scudetto. In came talented centre-back Andrea Ranocchia and Houssine Kharja (M) (both from Genoa) and Yuto Nagatomo (D) from Cesena. The biggest transfer, however, was Giampaolo Pazzini’s arrival from Sampdoria. Pazzini has had a quiet season so far but has the quality be a big hit at Stadio Meazza (his debut at least could not have gone any better). The departures include mostly just fringe players plus Mancini (Atletico Mineiro; A) and Sulley Muntari (Sunderland; M) whom Inter will hardly miss.

Juventus: Juve can be considered amongst the winners for one sole reason: they finally got rid of Amauri (Parma; A). The Brazilian, who scored his last league goal somewhere back in the spring of 2010, was probably the highest paid player in the club’s ranks and definitely the most useless. When out of the treatment room, he was mostly lumbering aimlessly around the opposition’s penalty box and falling down every now and again. And despite being strapped for cash, Juve did make a few decent signings. Alessandro Matri (Cagliari; A) will provide a boost to Juve’s injury-gripped attack, Luca Toni (Genoa; A) can still be useful, although he immediately got injured, and is a huge upgrade to Amauri and Andrea Barzagli is a reliable centre-back.


Genoa: Oh my how Genoa have fallen from the heights of Champions League candidates to mid-table anonymity. A team that seems always in construction and never finished. The summer signings (Toni, Miguel Veloso, Rafinha and co.) have been disappointing and the fresh arrivals do not really set your heart racing either. Luca Antonelli (Parma; D) has been in Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side and is still young and talented. As is Alberto Paloschi (Milan; A) who, despite his huge potential, still has everything to prove at the highest level. Floro Flores (Udinese; A) is a clearly there to make the numbers and Zé Eduardo (Santos, A) remains a wild card. The departures have (not including Andrea Ranocchia (Inter; D)) all played little role this season for some reason but especially Giuseppe Sculli (Lazio, M/A) and Raffaele Palladino (Parma; M/A) have been important players in Genoa’s rise in the last couple of years. Genoa also lost Luca Toni (A) to Juventus and Houssine Kharja (M) to Inter.

Sampdoria: Samp are by far the biggest losers in this January’s transfer window. Losing the two players that define their whole attacking game is a big enough blow in its own right, but to lose them at a time when they have won only once in their last nine games spells potential disaster. The players in question are of course Antonio Cassano (Milan; A) and Giampaolo Pazzini (Inter; A). That’s really enough said about Samp’s transfer window, and the rest of the season for that matter. Signing talented striker Federico Macheda on loan from ManU, Jonathan Biabiany (Inter; M/A) and journeyman Massimo Maccarone (A) from Palermo is little consolation to Samp fans.

Other notable transfers:

Milan decided that what they need is a 33-year-old defensive midfielder and a 34-year-old over the hill centre-back. Therefore, they signed Mark van Bommel (Bayer Munich) and Nicola Legrottaglie (Juventus) respectively. And Catania’s talisman Giuseppe Mascara packed his bags and moved to Napoli who, despite being a hot team in Serie A at the moment, are still in need of some passing guile in the attacking third.

A full list of all comings and goings of January 2011 Serie A transfer window is found here.

Qatar 2022 World Cup: the footballing implications of a possible winter tournament

The 2010 World Cup was an anti-climactic and a worrying spectacle. Reactionary tactics reigned, too many poor teams played too many poor matches, while many supposedly good teams (Italy, France and Cameroon come to mind) were dreadful, a rogue team reached the final and, in terms of the performances, you would not have recognised many of the top players on the pitches in South-Africa unless their faces hadn’t been plastered on building walls, magazine covers, soda cans, the sides of buses etc. the world over. Something clearly needs to be done to revitalize the greatest show on earth before it becomes a footnote in a footballing reality dominated by club football. This may have been in the minds of many who voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup since the resolution will not only take the tournament to a new geographic zone but also, knowing the bottomless pockets of Qatar, provide a chance for the tournament, on the surface at least, to look like a billion dollars. However, instead of reinventing the World Cup anew, the decision might prove out to be a nightmare in many ways.

After the historical decision, there has been heated discussion on a variety of subjects of which perhaps the most controversial is whether the tournament should be played in the winter for the first time in World Cup history. After giving the green light, now it seems Fifa will not go forward with the plan to move the schedule to January, but given the indecisiveness of the world footballing governing body in general and its president Sepp Blatter in particular, who knows what the final ruling will be. Should the plan go ahead, there would probably be some pretty big consequences, for good or for worse, regarding the prestige of the World Cup and the quality of football on show.

First, let’s look at the tactical implications a winter World Cup might have. In his article in the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson analyses the reactive football widely on show last summer that has come to dominate the World Cup during the last two tournaments. There are of course numerous reasons for this negative development but one of the most important, Wilson points out, is simply that teams have so little time to prepare for the tournament and because of this coaches easily resort to negatively defensive (i.e. reactive) tactics in order to instil defensive cohesion, not proactivity, as the basis of their tactical plan. Of course, even if teams had more time to prepare, they still might concentrate more on stifling the opposition’s game rather than making their own flourish. Nevertheless, Wilson’s argument goes a long way not only explaining why so many teams dragged as many players behind the ball as possible (even when they themselves had the ball) but also why so many top players flopped last summer (Wayne Rooney (who could have been tripping on his shoelaces for ninety minutes each match and still ending up looking no less of a player), Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Kaka…the list goes on).

So how is this tactical negativity relevant to the subject of a possible winter World Cup? The Helsingin Sanomat football reporter Tommi Hannula (HS January 6 2011) argues that a winter World Cup might be the solution to this problem. He points out that because the best players would be in top condition in mid-season, a winter tournament would actually improve the standard of the football played. Hannula has a point with regards to the individual players but this is to put the individual before the team. To take Wilson’s argument about reactionary tactics into account, in order to get the best out of top individuals, one needs to create a strategy that maximises the potential of each player in a way that the whole become more than the sum of the parts (like Spain, Germany and Uruguay did in 2010). So it is always the team that provides good football, the individual might only offer unforgettable moments. It is debatable whether in the pressure of the domestic leagues and the Champions League teams would have more time to prepare before a winter World Cup. They might even have less time since the leagues and European cup tournaments most likely will not want to have a two month break in the middle of the season (which would basically mean that instead of a one whole season there would be two) and stretch their fixture schedule to July. And since preparation time is a key issue in how teams set to play, a winter tournament might only result in increasingly reactionary tactics and, therefore, even more cautious and defensive football. Furthermore, if the World Cup would be played in the winter this might lead to a situation where the tournament would lose its prestige and become a distraction from club football for clubs, players and fans.

But the fact remains that the 2022 tournament will be played in Qatar. In their campaign Qatar promised air-conditioned, eco-friendly stadiums, which is all very well, but if it is 50 degrees Celsius outside in the summer there, the whole country should be air-conditioned to keep conditions bearable for the players, tournament staff and fans alike. Therefore, looking at it from the perspective of meteorology alone, a winter tournament seems like the only smart solution. However, all this begs the question why was the tournament given to Qatar in the first place? The World Cup should be handed out, not to the highest bidder, but equally (as long as it is economically and socially viable and sustainable) among continents/geographical zones, but the fact that the World Cup is going to be played in a tiny desert nation the size of a medium-sized European city makes the resolution smack of another bad decision made by Fifa.

The resolution is a big victory for Qatar but most likely a defeat to football. For the average spectator, it is always the actual game that comes first when decisions of host nations are made (i.e. which would be the best place to play the tournament and so on and so forth). But in the risk of sounding too naive, I’m well aware of the fact that in the greater scheme of things the World Cup is as much (if not more) about politics, money, diplomacy and (hopefully) solidarity as it is about football.

The Middle East should get a World Cup tournament at some point, no doubt about that, but the selection of Qatar to host the 2022 tournament might not turn out to be a blessing but a severe blow to the World Cup institution.

Serie A round-up: Inter find new lease of life as Leonardo takes charge

Serie A kicked off again after the winter break last week with a busy fixture schedule. At the top of the table, AC Milan maintained their winning streak by taking three points from Cagliari on Thursday, but then played a freak 4-4 draw against Udinese on Sunday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting the equalizer in stoppage time. The big news for Milan during the break was obviously Antonio Cassano’s transfer from Sampdoria (and Ronaldinho’s departure to an unknown destination in Brazil which turned out to be Flamengo). Many questioned the rationality behind the move for the 28-year-old ticking time-bomb but on the evidence of the two matches Cassano has played in, Massimiliano Allegri knew what he was doing: in 45 minutes of football Cassano has provided three assists. Autumn’s surprise-package Lazio, on the other hand, seem to be struggling after the break. A 0-0 draw at Genoa was still a decent result but then Lazio crashed to a 2-1 defeat against relegation-bound Lecce at the Olimpico. Meanwhile, Juventus got to a dreadful start as first Parma ran riot in Turin, coming away with the most unlikely 4-1 victory (only to lose at home to Cagliari on Sunday) in a match which saw one of the ugliest fouls seen anywhere this season perpetrated by (you guessed it) Felipe Melo. On Sunday it didn’t get any better for Juve as they were ripped apart by Edison Cavani in Naples in a match in which Juve gave a perfect lesson on how not to organise your defence.

Perhaps the biggest news during the break was former Milan coach/player/director (or whatever the title was) Leonardo’s appointment in place of Rafael Benitez. This probably did not endear too much to the Inter fans since adding to Leonardo’s history in the Rossoneri shirt, he didn’t exactly set the San Siro on fire when he was coach of Milan last season. He did, however, make Milan play fairly attractive football and at this point the Nerazzurri faithful will settle for anything as long as it’s not Benitez’s overtly pragmatic, devoid-of-emotion-approach and strategy riddled with tactical failures.

And Leonardo’s reign at Inter could not have got off to a better start really. First, Inter beat Napoli 3-1 at home and came a way with all three points from Catania, who hadn’t lost a single home match all season. And yesterday, Inter continued their perfect start, winning 4-1 at home to Bologna. Inter might not have dazzled especially on neither of the former occasions, but particularly against Napoli Inter started to resemble the team they were last season. First of all, they defended solidly in their defensive third, keeping Cavani quiet all evening, and then looked lively and organised on the counter.

Leonardo didn’t do drastic tactical changes to Benitez’s system and started out with a seemingly defensive 4-3-1-2 against Napoli’s 3-4-3. In terms of the formations, Napoli had the upper hand because by fielding two attacker and no wide midfielders against Napoli’s back three, Inter were playing in the pockets of the opposition. In practice, however, Leonardo seems to have planned the occasion to perfection. Inter got off to a great start getting a goal already on the fourth minute with an excellent attacking combination that was emphatically finished off by Motta. This goal served as a warning to Napoli about Leonardo’s game plan. Since Napoli’s wide midfielders (Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena) were extremely eager to go forward, when Inter got the ball one of the forwards (Diego Milito or Goran Pandev) drifted wide to receive the ball which then forced Napoli’s back three to react and stretch their line just enough to create gaps for Inter midfielders to run at.

After the goal, Inter were happy to curb their attacking enthusiasm and sit back and soak up any pressure the visitors were throwing at them. Gradually Napoli started to use their numerical advantage in midfield better; they pressed high up the pitch and made it extremely difficult for Inter defenders to open play with the result that they often had to resort to seek their forwards with long balls. The visitors tried to break through the flanks (using Maggio and Dossena almost as attacking wingers) but were always short of a killer ball inside their attacking third. Inter were well organised at the back but with a bit more passing ability up front, Napoli could have inflicted some real damage. Napoli were, nevertheless, awarded with an equalizer (scored by Michele Pazienza) for their active efforts on the 25th minute which came fittingly from a corner. After the goal, Inter, however, started to take more initiative going forward, especially using the right hand channel and Maicon to take advantage of Napoli’s high midfield. The second goal came courtesy of a trademark forward run and pinpoint cross by the Brazilian full-back which Cambiasso finished with a powerful header on the 37th minute. Motta then killed the match with a perfect header from a corner which was the second in the game and third goal in four matches for the defensive midfielder.

All in all, Napoli came to Inter with a brave game plan that involved high pressing, rapid counter-attacking and mobile movement up-front. They were full of ideas but short of the end product. Against Benitez’s Inter Napoli might have succeeded, but already Leonardo seems to have restored the confidence and routine to Inter’s playing that have been the keys to their success in recent years and, as a result, Inter took a deserved victory. Leonardo still hasn’t necessarily set the San Siro alight, but at least Inter look like a team that still might have a say in the title race.

Inter's seemingly rigid 4-3-1-2... interpreted fluidly in the build-up to the 1-0 goal.


Veikkausliiga Transfer Merry-go-round: HJK already look ready for the new season, while near-relegated JJK are thinking too big for their own good

When you go to the Finnish transfer circus for a Sunday stroll at this time of the year in this financial and meteorological climate, you would expect to see a sad Merry-go-round sitting stranded in the cold, transfer ponies buried under three feet of snow, emptiness echoing in the absence laughter, shrieks of joy and the sound of little feet of transfer rumours scampering merrily around the ride. But no, the Transfer Merry-go-round is already set in motion and taking on not only those little rumours but grown-up transfers as well. So on for the ride we go as we try to make up for the time we have lost having been too timid to venture outside and defy the cold and the snow that is blockading all of Finland.

After last season’s failure, Honka are busy building a new squad

After a below-par season for everybody’s favourite team to push HJK off the title podium, ending up in fourth behind mighty KuPS, Honka are looking busy renewing their squad. Their Christmas cleaning started with the captain Rami Hakanpää who left for HJK and continued with Ville Koskimaa and Janne Henriksson (both signing for VPS) while John, “The Magician”, Weckström who, whenever he is not scoring goals like this in pointless pre-season friendlies is actually not at all that magical, found a new home at Haka. Arrivals include MacPherlin Omagbemi Dudu (also known as Dudu) who signed from bronze-winning surprise package KuPS, left midfield crosser Ilari Äijälä (MyPa) and the twenty-year-old Duarte Tammilehto (Klubi 04) who was rescued from the safe home for evil HJK’s discarded puppies. Aleksander Kokko, who after two rubbish seasons after being top scorer in the league probably still thinks he’s a top scorer, and former Inverness CT midfielder Markus Paatelainen are still without a club.

HJK making up the numbers, while Westö goes travelling

Like already mentioned, “Rambo” Hakanpää signed for HJK and will replace Pyry Kärkkäinen (AC Oulu) and Peter Magnusson in the centre of the HJK defence. Although Kärkkäinen and Magnusson are decent Veikkausliiga centre-backs, neither is probably missed much by the HJK fans. They will, however, definitely rue losing Johannes Westö who decided to have a year off from football to travel the world. This doesn’t really come as a surprise since the multi-talented humanist has made no secret of the fact that football might not be the most important thing in the world for him. After this somewhat controversial decision, the Merry-go-round is simultaneously disappointed, somewhat annoyed and overcome by awe of Westö’s bravery and strength of character. The reigning champions were quick to find a replacement for the long-haired prodigy, however, as they signed FF Jaro’s diminutive  midfield scamperer Sebastian Mannström. The former U21 attacking midfielder is a like-for-like replacement for “JW” and a talented player in the bargain, but he will do well to avoid the big [sic] fish in a small pond syndrome. HJK also signed AC Oulu’s Dominic Yobe who should be a decent if unspectacular addition to their midfield. Being disappointed annoyed and in awe at the same time reminded the Merry-go-round of goalscoring sprinter Juho Mäkelä who quite surprisingly signed for FC Sydney. Mäkelä’s sprinting abilities will come handy inside penalty areas in stadiums around Australia in general and Queensland in particular as he tries to make his trademark surges inside the box and score goals from point-blank range while trying to stay clear of “the invasion of snakes and crocodiles”.

Big words from JJK and trouble ahead for MIFK

Relegation flirts JJK have bagged some sizeable captures in Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS) and Tamás Gruborovics (IFK Mariehamn). Wusu is a former JJK favourite and is expected to provide ammunition for the goal-shy JJK attack. Korte should be able to marshal the midfield and Manninen brings pace and directness to their attacking moves. The Jyväskylä club seem to have a rocket launcher for confidence since they are already talking the talk by claiming that they will be top-three candidates next season. Even though the signings are undoubtedly impressive, they still have a long way to go from trudging knee-deep in the relegation bog for two seasons to the top of Veikkausliiga. We all know that JJK can crawl but perhaps they should learn how to walk (for example by managing to win some home games first) before trying to run.

If there is light at the end of the tunnel for JJK, IFK Mariehamn are feeling anxious that the halo they see is caused by a relegation train heading their way. No less than eight players left after a disappointing last season when they finished only  two points above the relegation spot (Gruborovics to JJK; Willis Ochieng, Dmytro Voloshyn, Medoune Gueye, Ante Simunac, Boussad Houche, Johan Carlsson and the destruction derby vehicle Sasha Anttilainen are all without clubs as far as the Merry-go-round knows). Even if few MIFK fans will probably shed tears watching these players go (Gruborovics’ departure being the exception perhaps), the fact that MIFK only have about ten player contracts at the moment speaks volumes about their failed transfer policy. Tough times ahead for the Åland club.

At Anjalankoski the winds of change are sweeping through the silent streets of what was once such a prominent paper factory town. Ever since former Viikingit coach Toni Korkeakunnas took up the reins in the autumn, there has been so much activity (Niko Kukka (AC Oulu), Eetu Kaipio (Viikingit), Tommi Vesala (Viikingit) and Mikko Innanen (Haka) have arrived while Antti Uimaniemi (VPS), Äijälä (Honka) and Tosaint Ricketts (Timisoara, ROM) left) at Saviniemi that unless the Merry-go-round knew better, it would think that the smell emanating from the factory is caused by newly printed bank notes. But even though there probably was no dancing on the aforementioned streets when the news of the new arrivals broke, things are at least looking much healthier on the football pitch than in the account books at MyPa.

And finally, joining Kärkkäinen (from HJK) at AC Oulu is former Haka captain and pseudo-hard man Jani Kauppila.

That’s pretty much your lot then for now.

Veikkausliiga transfer merry-go-round: HJK already look ready for the new season, while near-relegated JJK are thinking big

When IWFTB went to the transfer circus for a Sunday stroll it expected to see a forlorn merry-go-round sitting stranded in the rain, water dripping from the muzzles of transfer ponies, emptiness echoing in the absence laughter, shrieks of joy and the sound of little feet of the transfer rumours tapping merrily around the ride. But no, the transfer merry-go-round was already set in motion, taking on not only those little rumours but proper, grown-up transfers as well. So on for the ride we go…

After a below-par season for everybody’s favourite team to push HJK off the title podium, ending up in fourth behind mighty KuPS, Honka are looking forward to renewing their squad. Captain Rami Hakanpää left for HJK and Janne Henriksson, who for some reason reinvented himself as an error-prone bystander in Espoo, signed for VPS. MacPherlin Omagbemi Dudu (also known as Dudu) arrived from bronze-winning surprise package KuPS and left midfield crosser Ilari Äijälä was signed from MyPa. Those who left and who are still without a club are Aleksander Kokko, who after two poor seasons after being top scorer in the league probably still thinks he’s a top scorer, Ville Koskimaa, former Inverness CT midfielder Markus Paatelainen and John, “The Magician”, Weckström, who whenever he is not scoring goals like this in pointless pre-season friendlies is actually not at all that magical, which is of course pretty much all the time.

HJK fans might not know what to make of ‘Rambo’ Hakanpää’s transfer. On the one hand, the 32-year-old has a long history of injuries and is not getting any younger but, on the other, Hakanpää is one of the best centre-backs in Veikkausliiga and since Pyry Kärkkäinen and Peter Magnusson both left the club, there’s definitely a need for an extra central defender. HJK fans will most definitely miss Johannes Westö who decided to have a year off from football to travel the world. This doesn’t really come as a surprise since the multi-talented midfielder has made no secret of the fact that football might not be the most important thing in the world for him. ‘Klubi’ were quick to find a replacement for the long-haired prodigy as they signed FF Jaro’s Sebastian Mannström. The 22-year-old is a like-for-like replacement for ‘JW’ but the HJK jury is still very much out on the former U21 attacking midfielder. The reigning champions also signed AC Oulu midfielder Dominic Yobe who should be a decent if unspectacular signing. And goal-ace Juho Mäkelä has travelled all the way to Australia and FC Sydney to show just how good a footballer he…em…to show how to score goals from point-blank range.

Relegation flirts JJK have meanwhile bagged some sizeable captures in Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS) and Tamás Gruborovics (IFK Mariehamn). Wusu is a former JJK favourite and is expected to provide ammunition for the goal-shy JJK attack, Korte should be able to marshal the midfield and Manninen brings pace and directness to their attack. The Jyväskylä club are already shooting their mouths off by claiming that they will be top-three candidates next season. Even though the signings are impressive, it’s still a long way from trudging knee-deep in the relegation bog for two seasons to the top of Veikkausliiga. We know that JJK can crawl, but perhaps they should learn how to walk, for example by winning some home games first, before trying to run.

For fellow last season strugglers IFK Mariehamn things are not looking as bright. No less than six players have departed (Tamás Gruborovics (JJK), Willis Ochieng, Dmytro Voloshyn, Medoune Gueye, Ante Simunac and Boussad Houche). Even if few will probably shed tears watching these players go (Tamás Gruborovics’ departure being the exception perhaps), the fact that they only have ten player contracts at the moment speaks volumes about MIFK’s failed transfer policy. Tough times ahead for the Åland club. No wait…this is just in: keeper Josh Wicks has signed from DC United. Well everything should be fine now.

Also at Anjalankoski the winds of change are sweeping through the streets of what was once such a prominent paper factory town. Since former Viikingit coach Toni Korkeakunnas took up the reins at MyPa, four players have made Saviniemi their new home. Niko Kukka (AC Oulu), Eetu Kaipio (Viikingit), Tommi Vesala (Viikingit) and Mikko Innanen (Haka) have arrived, while Antti Uimaniemi left for VPS. There probably was no dancing on the aforementioned streets when the news of the new arrivals broke, but things are perhaps looking up at MyPa.

That’s pretty much your lot then for now.


Serie A round-up: defences come on top in clashes between big guns

Last weekend in Serie A it was time for the season’s first Milan derby, while AS Roma travelled to Juventus. Especially the former match didn’t live up to its billing in terms of the quality of play but both were heated affairs where the defences made the biggest difference: commanding performances from Phillip Mexes and Giorgio Chiellini for Roma and Juve respectively on Saturday night proved key, while Alessandro Nesta was back at his best on Sunday. The same could not be said about Inter’s defence in general and Marco Materrazzi in particular who played his first competitive game since the Champions League final in May.

Derby della Madonnina: Benitez gets his tactics wrong

AC Milan stamped their authority in the season’s first Milan derby by coming away with a 1-0 victory, thanks to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty on the fifth minute. Inter have dominated the last three outings but this time Milan were clearly the better, more organised and hungrier side, in the end holding on to a victory despite playing with a man down for a half an hour after Ignazio Abate’s dismissal.

Inter can always defend their woeful showing against their city rivals by citing their long injury list as the reason, but the fact is that they never looked like having enough ideas, or even enough industry, to break down a resolute Milan defence. It was puzzling that Inter didn’t even try to take advantage of Milan’s obvious weaknesses in wide areas. With so much congestion in the centre of the park with Massimo Ambrosini, Gennaro Gattuso and Mathieu Flamini patrolling the area effectively, one would’ve expected Inter to try to penetrate through the wings where Milan are at their most vulnerable.

Samuel Eto’o played wide for much of the first half and Wesley Sneijder during the second but the attempts to play through them were more isolated  efforts from the two players than coordinated team moves. It didn’t help that there were few full-backs at Benitez’s disposal but by leaving Davide Santon, a natural full-back of true quality, out and playing four central defenders at the back (including Materrazzi), Benitez was simply erring on the side of caution. Inter’s attacking players were left isolated since their midfielders was concentrated on keeping shape and possession, or at least trying to do that, and not actively seeking ways to break through. Inter desperately needed movement in wide areas but no help was forthcoming because Cristian Chivu and Ivan Cordoba, who were playing as full-backs, lack attacking quality and rarely ventured forward. Eto’o looked threatening during the first fifteen minutes, earning the first booking for Abate, but was then put in check by the Milan defence. Furthermore, it is alarming for Inter that Benitez is getting nothing out of Diego Milito (who, granted, is still lacking match fitness), so pivotal to Jose Mourinho’s strategy. Milito started in the centre of Inter’s attack but rarely saw any balls or made space with his cleaver runs before he was substituted for Goran Pandev at half time.

Despite all the injuries, with an attacking line-up including Sneijder, Eto’o and Milito, one is entitled to expect something more than the nothing Inter showed on Sunday. Benitez’s reputation as a tactical mastermind is being put into question in the most tactical league in Europe; he was even struggling with his substitutions as twice the wrong player was getting ready to come on, only to be call back on the bench. From their last eight Serie A matches, Inter have gathered only 10 points and have scored a paltry five goals so Benitez, who has made a habit of getting his tactics wrong in recent weeks, must come up with some fresh ideas quick and get Milito fit to save Inter’s sinking season.

Milan at relative ease

Milan, on the other hand, controlled the match quite easily despite Inter enjoying 58 per cent of possession. Their central defence with Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva looks solid and the midfield trio put in a fine performance of defensive organisation and grit. Even Gattuso, who had to be taken off at half time for the fear of him receiving a second yellow card (which was definitely on the way), looks the inspirational ‘Rino’ of old, huffing, puffing and tackling at will. A bit reckless perhaps but fun to watch.

Milan’s attacking strategy of playing long balls behind Inter’s defence might not have been the most sophisticated but made sense when faced with a slow defence line playing high up the pitch. The first time this worked was already on the fifth minute as Zlatan sprang free of his marker and was clumsily brought down by Materrazzi inside the box. The Inter old boy smashed the ball emphatically into the net from the spot. Even if Milan’s attacking blueprint lacked nuances, they at least had one. The few time Milan went forward in numbers they clearly had more ideas and  movement than the lacklustre home side.

Juventus-Roma: a deserved draw, a decent game and a cracker from Iaquinta

Both Juventus and Roma have found balance in the last few weeks after the tumultuous start to the campaign. Juve especially have a new-found stability after coach Luigi Delneri inhibited some of Juve’s attacking urges by switching Claudio Marchisio to the left side of midfield (in a more central and defensive role) and instilling Alberto Aquilani as a playmaker beside Felipe Melo in the middle. Against Roma Simone Pepe was playing on the right and put in a huge effort in both directions as he provided aid for the inexperienced full-back Frederik Sörensen.

Roma saved their season in the derby victory against Lazio two weeks ago but still looked a bit unstable at times. Despite this, it was the visitors who looked livelier in the first half an hour but Juve gradually got more control as Aquilani started dominating the midfield with his movement and passing. It wasn’t surprising that it was the former Roma player who provided the assist for Juve’s goal. Aquilani coolly put the ball between the legs of Leandro Greco and crossed inside the box from the right for Vicenzo Iaquinta to volley the ball into the far corner.

Francesco Totti then scored his first league goal from the spot on the n minute to put Roma level after Pepe handled the ball inside the box. Juve perhaps were the better side but in the end it was all level in Turin as Roma continued their good form with a performance they can build on.

HJK Helsinki, the Veikkausliiga champions 2010: player-by-player ratings

This time last year people who claimed that HJK did not deserve to win the title had a point. Of course, at the end of the day the table never lies, but in terms of the quality of football HJK were miles behind Honka and TPS that finished second and third respectively. In 2009 HJK were overtly dependant on Ville Wallén, Sebastian Sorsa and Dawda Bah without whom ‘Klubi’ wouldn’t have won the title. The difference, however, between HJK in 2009 and 2010 was huge. All three aforementioned players had unimpressive seasons by their standards last term, but that hardly mattered as the team showcased a much more sophisticated and cohesive startegy that didn’t solely comprise of no-nonsense defending, playing a diagonal ball to Sorsa or Bah and crossing your fingers that they were able to work their magic. This time around, HJK produced the same controlled defending (with added attacking intent) combined with fluid attacking play that was defined by the movement of both the ball and the players as a cohesive unit (a self-evident detail in its own right, but something that has too often been missing from HJK’s outlook).

HJK, therefore, deservedly retained the Veikkausliiga title in 2010. Like so often, the team to win the title are the ones who do not necessarily score the most goals (HJK scored 43, which was third best) but concede the fewest. HJK conceded 19 (TPS was second best with 30) which made their goal difference +24 (while the only club coming even close were TPS with +16). Unlike many people think, conceding few goals doesn’t necessarily have to signify boring football but, more often than not, proves that the team use a balanced strategy and play quality football.

One thing that must have also dismayed the HJK critics is the on-march of HJK’s own youth products. The club are often criticised because of their supposedly unprogressive youth policy. This season, however, no fewer than nine HJK trainees (the number includes only the players who are currently under the age of twenty-five; there are twelve former HJK trainees overall) featured in a Veikkausliiga match in one point or another, of whom six played regularly, three made their debuts and Juhani Ojala and Johannes Westö, 21 and 19 respectively, were key players both in the domestic competition and in the European qualifiers.

Player assessments (the rating scale takes into account the  expected level of performance of each player; in other words, a lot more is expected from key players as opposed to fringe members of the squad: 4 = dismal, horrendous underachievement; 5 = oh dear, how rubbish; 6 = saves face, but much more was expected; 7 = an unspectacular but, in the end, an ok season; 8 = a good, solid season; 9 = an excellent season, a key player; 10 = a fantastic season, straight-to-the-national-team quality):


Ville Wallén (25 appearances /0 goals/0 assists): Wallén showed uncharacteristic fallibility on surprisingly many occasions. Especially the Honka match away sticks out as a season worst. Nevertheless, he was still able to produce the odd game-winning save and continues to organise his defence extremely well. Saved his best performances to the European qualifiers (at home to FK Ekranas and away to Besiktas). Not the best season for the 34-year-old captain but there should be no cause for doubting his ability and importance to the team. Rating: 7


Tuomas Kansikas (16/0/0): An ok season for the experienced full-back. Kansikas can handle the basic defensive duties but continues to have some trouble getting forward. His lack of awareness of positioning let him down especially in the European fixtures. Works hard and keeps it simple, but only seldom convinces. One of the likely players not to continue at HJK. Rating: 7

Pyry Kärkkäinen (9/0/0): The season was cut off short by injury for the 24-year-old centre-back in spring. His return in the autumn was characterised by a poor performance in the cup final playing out of position in midfield. After Juhani Ojala’s excellent performances and Matias Lindströmssuccessful return from injury not much playing time is expected in the future for the former FC Lahti defender. Time to move on. Rating: 7

Matias Lindström (7/1/0): Injured for most of the season but returned as the same calm and trustworthy player in September. Lacks pace but makes for it with good positioning. Although featured only in seven matches, managed to score a goal against Inter. Would have been a key player had he played the whole season. Rating: 8

Peter Magnusson (15/0/0): Arrived on loan from Djurgårdens IF after Lindstöm’s injury. A decent no-nonsense type of centre-back with a nice rough edge to him. Has a fine working mentality, knows his limits and likes to keep it simple. Ran into trouble in Europe due to his lack of pace and positional awareness. Rating: 7

Valtteri Moren (2/0/0): Played two matches in the opening line-up and showed some decent, safe all-round playing. Not perhaps a great prospect but seems good enough to be a Veikkausliiga player; whether HJK quality, that’s another matter entirely. Grade: 7

Juhani Ojala (24/0/1): A breakthrough season for the 21-year-old HJK youth product. One of the best centre-backs in Veikkausliiga already and the one with the biggest potential. Played his best game of the season in the most demanding match away to Besiktas when he marked the Besiktas captain Bobo out of the game. Plays with an air of calmness and assurance, is neat on the ball, good in the tackle, strong on his feet and in the air and has fine positional awareness. Almost already a complete package. Needs to work on his passing a bit though. A future Finnish international. Rating: 9

Rafinha (24/1/1): The Brazilian is a winger by trade but played at right-back for HJK. Good going forward but has understandable difficulties when defending; positioning and concentration when playing from the back are his key weaknesses. But usually, at least in Veikkausliiga, ‘Rafi’ is able to cover the ground lost by poor positioning with his pace. Perhaps a bit more was expected from the interplay between Rafinha and Sebastian Sorsa, which is something to look forward to for next season. Rating: 7

Mikko Sumusalo (14/0/0): A breakthrough season for the 20-year-old left-back. Good going forward and fairly athletic. Still some work to do with defensive tactics but his all-round abilities should make him one of the best full-backs in Veikkausliiga. Showed his potential in the home leg against Besiktas in the Europa League qualifiers. HJK’s first choice left-back next season and, perhaps, for years to come. Rating: 8


Dawda Bah (24/3/3): Bah was one of the best Veikkausliiga players in 2009 but a shadow of that player in 2010. Then again, this didn’t exactly come as a surprise since Bah’s weaknesses as a footballer have not gone unnoticed before. In Antti Muurinen’s papers Bah is indispensable and a player who is never substituted (no matter how poorly he might be playing). In IWFTB’s papers, however, Bah is a player who can be called a good player but a poor footballer. In other words, Bah’s abilities to impress in individual situations often cloud over the fact that in terms of his overall abilities, he is extremely limited as a footballer. Lives by his dribbling and on the ball technical skills, but pretty much all other qualities need massive improvement. This became painfully clear particularly in the European matches against Partizan Belgrad and Besiktas when the game was quicker and the individual opponents faster, stronger and tactically more equipped than the average Veikkausliiga defender (sometimes also Veikkausliiga full-backs who defended with pace, strength and aggression marked Bah out of games). Needs to work long and hard in the tactical (positioning, decision making, movement etc.) as well as overall technical areas (crossing, passing, shooting) of his game. The biggest weakness is his tendency to make wrong decisions in a situation when it is possible to create a goalscoring chance, which showed in his less than impressive stats when compared to last season when he scored eight and assisted seven. Rating: 6

Dema (20/2/5, includes matches at TamU): Arrived from TamU in the autumn to replace Medo and did a decent enough job. Don’t get me wrong, Dema is no Medo (which is a bit too much to ask anyhow) but he is effective at what he does best: to make the opposition’s life as hard as possible. However, the Brazilian can also play forward quite well. Made his debut against Besiktas in Istanbul and played a good match. Tenacious, hard-working, aggressive and with good technical skills, was a decent addition to the HJK squad. Rating: 7

Cheyne Fowler (26/1/2): The South African/ Finnish defensive midfielder featured in HJK’s every league game. Has limited ball playing abilities but is smart enough to play to his strengths. Does his job well against most Veikkausliiga outfits but against top opponent he simply lacks the skills to make an impact; should, for example, improve his positioning. Is a team player through and through, however, and useful to have in the squad. That being said, the 27-year-old shouldn’t have as big a role in the team as he had last season (this was of course partly due to Aki Riihilahti’s and Janne Saarinen’s injuries). Earned a one year extension on his contract. Rating: 7

Medo (16/4/0): Was one of Veikkausliiga’s leading players for two seasons before taking the mantel of the best last term with some dominating performances. Started the season slowly but when the 23-year-old Sierra Leonean/ Finn got into full match fitness, there was no stopping him. Powerful, dynamic, excellent of the ball and with a thundering shot, Medo combines both the physical as well as the technical requirements needed for a top player. Still needs work on the tactical side of his game. Transferred to Partizan Belgrad in mid-season. Rating: 9

Aki Riihilahti (11/0/1): The veteran defensive midfielder never reached peak match fitness due to constant injuries but his experience was a huge asset to the club. Was HJK’s top performer in the clinching second leg against FK Ekranas in the Champions League qualifiers and when HJK played the last home match of the season against TPS Riihilahti showed what HJK were lacking in the cup final against the Turku club. Hard as nails and better on the ball than most give him credit for, Riihilahti is the most reliable link in the squad when things get tough. Will continue next season if his legs still carry him. Rating: 7

Janne Saarinen (5/0/0): Returned to Finland after two fairly successful seasons at BK Häcken in Allsvenskan (during which time he was also the team captain). Was absent through injury for most of the season and when the 33-year-old did play, he was lacking match fitness. Made no notable impact which was a shame since, if he had been fit, Saarinen would’ve have been a useful player. Rating: 6

Sebastian Sorsa (21/0/4): The best player in Veikkausliiga in 2009 never really found his form last season and even started some matches on the bench. Like with Bah, Sorsa’s stats pale in comparison when compared to those of 2009 (25/ 6/ 11). But, due to his work-rate and team-effort, Sorsa is still a handy player even when not in full flow and his pace and crossing always create edgy moments for the opposition’s defence. Rating: 7

Erfan Zeneli (18/4/3): Was one of the most frustrating HJK players for years due to the fact that he had excellent technical ball skills but dismal tactical abilities. Looked a different player last season, however, after spending a year in the Finnish first division at Klubi 04 (HJK’s second team) under the guidance of Juho Rantala, who is now the assistant coach to Muurinen. ‘Zene’ is now tactically more mature, has a better grasp of his defensive duties, is smarter in terms of movement, positioning and timing, and also has sharpened his precision at striking the ball. The season highlight for him came against Honka in the Finnish Cup in the summer. Was HJK’s second best goalscorer with four goals. Rating: 8

Johannes Westö (22/3/3): The 19-year-old made two cameos in 2009 but exploded on to the scene, and into the starting eleven, last season. Westö is an un-Finnish type of player with bags of natural ability and fearlessness. Showed against Besiktas that despite his relatively slender built, he is no pushover and can compete at the highest level already. Can play on either wing or behind the striker and combines almost all the qualities of a modern (Spain-style) attacking midfielder: pace, skill, timing, shooting ability, courage, and flair. Still needs to work on his crossing and spend some time at the gym though. Can be as good as he wants. A definite future international. Rating: 9


Juho Mäkelä (24/16/1): The most important player in terms of the title. Still frustratingly poor in his basic playing, although has improved a bit on that respect, but makes good for it with bags of goals. So, you can’t really complain. A typical fox-in-the-box player who scores from point-blank range. Rating: 9

Jarno Parikka (15/3/2): Again, Parikka never really got going due to injuries. A versatile forward who can also play in the hole. However, due to his lack of any special qualities, he hasn’t got to the level his overall abilities justify. Now at 24, time seems to have ran out on the player. If Parikka finds his former goalscoring instinct, he might still become a leading Veikkausliiga player. A change of scenery might do him a world of good but will remain at HJK at least for one more season. Rating: 7

Akseli Pelvas (13/2/1): The U21 Finnish international has every chance of becoming more than just a fine Veikkausliiga player. Pelvas has excellent physical qualities, combined with good ball skills and a crispy shot, but the 21-year-old must find his venom in front of goal. Got injured just before the start of the season and never found his deadly off-season form. Could become the ball-playing striker HJK’s strategy requires but does he have the mentality to take the next step? A make or break season next year. Rating: 6

Teemu Pukki (7/2/0): The 20-year-old arrived from Sevilla in the autumn and only featured in seven matches. Although short of match fitness, Pukki was able to showcase his massive potential.  Quick in his movement, excellent on the ball, unpredictable and with excellent technical abilities, Pukki has all the qualities to be a leading striker in Veikkausliiga next season. Rating: 7.

Other players: Jani Viander; Mikko Hauhia; Alex Ring; David Ramandingaye

Coaches: Like already discussed, the contrast between the quality and versatility of the football between 2009 and 2010 championship seasons was notable. Credit must go where credit is due, no calls for Antti Muurinen’s dismissal were heard at any point last term, but it is no coincidence that HJK started to play good football when they finally signed a proper assistant coach in Juho Rantala. The coaching pairing worked almost perfectly from the word go.

Player of the season: Juho Mäkelä

‘Super-Mäkelä’ scored almost half of HJK’s goals in the league (while the second best, Zeneli, scored only four) so there cannot really be any other justifiable candidates for IWFTB’s player of the season reward.

Ideal formation:


HJK best eleven 2010



Where to for Finland now as arrogant Baxter loses plot on and off the pitch?

The Hungary match (1-2) was the latest miserable performance in a long line of failures by Stuart Baxter’s Finland. This time around Finland seemingly controlled the game, created very little and, on the dying minute of the match, conceded the losing goal. Business as usual against Hungary then.

Baxter has not only managed to destroy his status as a top coach (read: in the eyes of the Finns; he has never been a top coach to begin with of course) but now also the image of the cordial Scotsman has began to shatter. A couple of weeks ago he riled at a Iltalehti journalist during a coaching conference, reportedly calling him ill-mannered and ignorant (and according to the journalist in question, using the F-word in between. Oh dear, what manners!). After the Hungary match Baxter continued to sink even lower. He let vent his frustration on another journalist who was  simply doing his job and in no way trying to provoke the Finland coach (no need to go over in detail what Baxter said, it’s better to see for yourself what a clown he makes of himself). Is Baxter’s self-confidence really at such a low ebb that he has to act like a petulant bully? The journalist should have asked Baxter how long has he worked as a journalist then if he is telling him how to do his job. The journalist at least was on top of his occupational demands; the same cannot be said of Baxter.

Added to this, neither the fans nor the players are probably that impressed after Baxter’s comments in the post-match press conference. Not only did he belittled the Finnish supporters but also insisted that he had got everything right in terms of tactics and selections. In other words, if his choices had nothing to do with the defeats in the three opening Euro 2012 qualifying matches, if he is perfect and infallible, the players must be at fault then. At least Alexei Eremenko Junior didn’t want to hear it. The Kilmarnock midfielder’s sarcastic appraisal of Baxter leaves little room for interpretation: “He is a football god and knows how everything needs to be done. That’s wrong. One should take heed of advice.” “Take heed of advice”, if that is coming from Junior’s mouth, Baxter must really be something else in terms of arrogance.

Baxter’s tactical failures

Baxter’s comments are of course absurd in their own right but also totally without foundation in footballing terms. In the tactical battle between Hungary coach Sandor Egervari and Baxter, the Scot played straight into the hands of the Hungarian. Hungary came to Helsinki with no other intention than suppress Finland’s attacking intent and attack on the counter. The visitors would have settled for a 0-0 draw but looking at Finland’s defensive record under Baxter, they must have felt confident to score at least one goal.

Hungary’s defensive game plan was based on cancelling space on their own defensive third and launching counter-attacks whenever the opportunity arose; both Hungary goals were professionally executed counters after they took full advantage of individual mistakes by Niklas Moisander and Roman Eremenko. Mind, Hungary were not too preoccupied to press Finnish player when they had the ball outside the said area. In terms of the attack, Hungary’s stand fast approach meant that if they got possession in a situation where Finland had numbers behind the ball, making it difficult to break, they were happy simply to kick a long ball upfield towards the lone front-man Adem Szalai, and effectively give the ball away almost freely to the Finnish defenders. This approach, especially in the first half, had distant similarities with Jose Mourinho’s strategy with Inter against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final second leg (nothing as dramatic of course) but Finland should not think that the Hungarians though the home side to be overtly superior in terms of attacking quality; this was simply the most certain way to get at least a point from Helsinki. Hungary just soaked up the pressure safe in the knowledge that if they minimise Finland’s attacking space, the Finns are unlikely to possess the guile to create many opportunities. In the end Finland created two clear chances and scored one goal.

Obviously it was never going to be an easy match for Finland but Baxter must have expected as much. So what was his plan then to cancel out Hungary’s defensive strategy? Finland started off cautiously but gradually got control of the game in terms of possession as Hungary dropped deeper and deeper into their own area. In midfield Eremenko and Tim Sparv kept possession and sought Mika Väyrynen, playing on the tip of the midfield pyramid, between the Hungary midfield and defence. This worked to some effect in the early stages as Väyrynen actively sought space and was able to offer some sort of platform for Finland’s attacking moves. But as the first half progressed and Hungary got more and more organised at the back, the Heerenveen man was forced to track back to fetch the ball, which resulted in leaving Mikael Forsell stranded upfront (after a while Forsell started doing the same). It didn’t help that the wide players, Daniel Sjölund and Roni Porokara, tended to drift inside as well since they didn’t receive enough support in wide positions up the pitch; not least because the full-backs were timid to adventure forward. As a result there was too much traffic in the middle and not enough width which made it extremely difficult to find a way through a stubborn Hungary blockade. As the game wore on, the midfield started playing more seeking balls which were easily intercepted by the Hungary defence.

Ditch the old approach and knuckle down

Throughout Baxter’s term Finland have strived to play a more sophisticated passing/ penetrating game with the 4-2-3-1 system that is all the rage after the World Cup. But in the absence of suitable players in the roles Baxter is trying to apply, Finland are failing to maximise the potential (and yes, there is potential) in the squad. The key to how 4-2-3-1 functions are the two holding midfielder who effectively define the system. Baxter favourites for the positions during the last year or so have been Eremenko and Sparv. Both are good players if they are implemented into a system in which their roles match their strengths. However, this is not the case with Baxter’s system.

Because both players are possession oriented (both have a fine passing range and are calm in possession) and not at their best when defending this means that Baxter’s system is keyed to produce domination of possession; the two deep-lying midfielders spraying passes and dictating the tempo of the game, without venturing forward too often. This is a pipe-dream for Finland. While in theory Sparv and Eremenko are good enough in what they do best to merit a starting place, their weaknesses have too often been the main reason why Baxter’s system fails to work. And mind, this is hardly the fault of the players. Finland simply are not good enough to take on opponents Spain-style and smother them with possession. Instead, Finland should strive to make themselves as hard-to-beat and as uncomfortable a side as possible to play against (much like Uruguay in the World Cup). In other words, Finland should use players with excellent physical attributes (especially in the holding roles but elsewhere as well). Mobility, pace, strength, toughness, stamina, and determination should be the defining characteristics but, obviously, never taking one’s sight off the ball.

New look players for a new look team

Now, one might wonder where will we find such players that combine physicality with technical skills. But actually there are players in the squad who already fill the requirements, providing that they are given new roles on the pitch. Roman Eremenko could perform this role but that would mean cutting down on his duties as a playmaker. This, however, would perhaps get the best out of the talented but by no means exceptional player who has at times been in out of his depth trying to apply himself as the driving force of the team. Eremenko definitely has the ball skills and even if he might not be the most physical of presences, he has stamina and drive to do the job. Playing a more simple game would actually improve Eremenko as a player since this would polish his poor decision-making and defensive abilities. One that should definitely play as a holding midfielder is Kasper Hämäläinen who has been used out of position on the right by Baxter; he can fill the right midfield/ winger role without difficulty but his true talent goes wasted there. For instance, against Holland Hämäläinen started on the right but was integral to Finland’s attacking moves whenever he drifted inside. Hämäläinen has great composure on the ball, good passing ability, creativity and vision and, something that has often gone unnoticed by the Finnish spectators, excellent physical attributes: height, strength and pace. The 24-year-old Djurgården man excelled playing the position in his last season at TPS and has made the central midfield role his own at DIF on his first season there. Hämäläinen’s inclusion in the centre would leave a position open on the right (because, let’s face it Roni Porokara is not good enough to be a starter for Finland). But no worries, even if Baxter has chosen to disregard one player who could easily fit into this kind of a new, crafty Finnish look and instead has used the inefficient Porokara and the one-sided and past his prime Jonathan Johansson, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there.

Perparim Hetemaj is one of the few Finns who get proper minutes in one of the top European leagues. At Brescia he is used on the right side of a three or four man midfield in a highly industrious role that requires a high work-rate and stamina. Getting a big role in a Serie A team does not come easily. One has to be mature, tactically intelligent and, in the role Hetemaj is used, to have the ability and will to play in both directions. ‘Perpa’ has played the full 90 minutes in five matches and has got on the score-sheet in the process with a composed strike in the 2-1 victory over AS Roma. Hetemaj could provide exactly the kind of industry, winning mentality and (nowadays) even the end-product Finland need. On the left Daniel Sjölund is capable to fulfil a similar role.

Other players that should be taken into contention are (still) Teemu Tainio, providing he ever gets fit enough again and gets proper minutes at Ajax. Markus Heikkinen can also play effectively in centre midfield but might be more useful at centre-back. One player who would fit the holding role perfectly in terms of his abilities is Perparim’s little brother Mehmet Hetemaj. Perhaps he shouldn’t be a regular yet but he has merited a chance in the Finland side after getting steady minutes at Albinoleffe. Playing in a lower mid-table Serie B side might not sound that illustrious but Finland never have too many players playing week in week out (and then again, it would be refreshing to see Baxter turn to somewhere else than his precious Allsvenskan for new players). At the U21 Euro Championships in 2009, Hetemaj played exactly in the kind of a no-nonsense holding midfield role we are talking about here and showed that he has progressed both mentally and as a player since his often underwhelming days at HJK. Speaking about former HJK players, Finland should strive to move legislative mountains in order to get the permission from Fifa to call Medo into the national team. The Partizan Belgrad player is a prototype of a dynamic, industrious, physical and skilful player Finland need to produce in the future.

All in all, Finland, now holding on to the disgraceful 86th Fifa ranking spot by the skin of their teeth (after crashing down 22 positions since the last ranking), need to forget any fantasies about counquering the world with attacking football. Instead, Finland must toughen up, be more physical (even a bit meaner) and industrious by using a simpler, more back-to-basics strategy that takes into account both the pool of players at the national team’s disposal and the fact that hardly one of them is a world-beater.

Serie A 2010-2011 season preview

So here we are again, really late as usual.

The new Serie A season kicks-off (read: kicked-off) amongst the default atmosphere of doom and gloom. As an added bonus this time around, after Italy’s abysmal showing in the World Cup in the summer, the Italian FA drew their conclusions and didn’t quite push but smashed the panic button with their collective fist and ruled, despite heavy objections from pretty much everybody, that, as of immediately, no Italian club can sign more than one non-EU player. The reason for this action is that they try to enhance the chances of Italian youngsters to break into the Serie A teams. The cause for concern is understandable but the means of achieving the objective is not without controversy, if you ask me.

But since no one is asking me, let’s just get on with the business, shall we. The Italian clubs might have been a bit rubbish in Europe for the last couple of season (Inter’s triumph last May being the exception to prove the rule) but Serie A still remains perhaps the most competitive league in Europe. Granted, Inter have won the title five times in a row but this season all this might change. Juventus and AC Milan look like different teams after some interesting, if totally contrary, raids in the transfer market and are really looking to smash and grab what they think is rightfully theirs from Inter’s cupboard. Behind the goliaths, AS Roma must still have a sour taste in the mouth after coming so close last Spring, only to botch it up on the finishing line.

And if someone thinks that there is no life behind these four Italian giants, think again. The European hopefuls are the teams that really make Serie A perhaps the most exiting league in Europe. Mind that last season Sampdoria surprised everybody by finishing fourth behind Inter, Roma and Milan. This season Genoa, who really disappointed last term, look like a strong bet to challenge for a Champions League spot. And also Palermo, Napoli, Fiorentina and why not Sampdoria again are all genuine contenders for a top four finish. From the rest, Bari and Parma should continue building on their success from last season.



2009-2010: 10th

Coach: Giampiero Ventura

Captain: Jean Francois Gillet

According to many experts, the promoted Bari were supposed to go straight down last season. The southern club though otherwise and finished tenth. Ventura instilled a tight regime, making Bari’s home form the cornerstone of their success. Bari are a textbook example of a small club making big on the slim resources they have: hard-working, tight at the back and tactically intelligent. Bari made smart investments for last season bringing in Massimo Donati and Serio Almiron (both experienced journeymen with a lot to prove) and Edgar Alvarez, who all remain important cogs in Ventura’s machine.

Bari play a highly organised counter-attacking game with a stubborn defence, an industrious midfield and pace up-front. The midfield is highly underrated with Donati and Almiron patrolling the centre.

The most pressing question is whether Bari can maintain their fine defensive form after loosing both of their starting centre-backs, Leonardo Bonnucci (Juventus) and Andrea Ranocchia (Genoa). They have, however, retained the Masiello brothers and signed Andrea Raggi and Marco Rossi Bologna and Sampdoria respectively. Beyond these transfers, little has changed at Bari. And this is can only be good news for a small club like Bari.

Expect them to…be one of the better home teams in the league but struggle away. In all likelihood, Bari won’t retain their tenth spot but can build for the future without having to worry about relegation. Mid-table security.

Key player: Paulo Barreto

Unsung hero: Sergio Almiron

One to watch: Marco D’Alessandro

The signing: Marco Rossi


2009-2010: 17th

Coach: Alberto Malesani

Captain: Marco Di Vaio

Bologna finished two points above the relegation line last season which was a maximum effort from the promoted side destined to go down. This season won’t be any easier though.

Any success Bologna might get (in other words safety) depends on the form of the aged, but ever effective, Marco Di Vaio and the Italy keeper Emiliano Viviano. Bologna have been able to strengthen their midfield with a few smart and shrewd signings. Somehow they managed to bring in Diego Perez, the best central midfielder in the World Cup 2010, from Monaco as well as the highly talented Rene Krhin (Inter) and Albin Ekdal (Juventus).

Expect them to…spend most of the season teetering on the relegation line but end the season above it.

Key player: Marco Di Vaio

Unsung hero: Emiliano Viviano

One to watch: Rene Krhin

The signing: Diego Perez



2009-2010: Promoted

Coach: Giuseppe Iachini


Brescia are perhaps the best of the promoted sides this season. The signing of Alessandro Diamanti from West Ham instils a vital dose of quality to their midfield that boasted industry but lacked cutting edge quality before.

With Diamanti providing the penetration, Andrea Caracciolo should be able to score double figures which will go a long way in the fight against relegation Brescia will most likely have on their hands. Also, the acquisition of Matteo Sereni (Torino) in goal was a catch since even if Sereni is prone to the odd mistake, he does have the ability to win points for his team.

Expect them to…have it all to do to stay clear of relegation but manage to pull off an escape in the end.

Key player: Alessandro Diamanti

Unsung hero: Matteo Sereni

One to watch: Perparim Hetemaj

The signing: Alessandro Diamanti


2009-2010: 16th

Coach: Pierpaolo Bisoni

Captain: Daniele Conti

Massimiliano Allegri made Cagliari an attractive mid-table side during his two seasons in Sardinia. Last campaign was no big success, however, and therefore it probably was a good arrangement for both parties to go their separate ways. The new coach Pierpaolo Bisoni earned his spurs at Cesena last season as he guided the unfancied side to promotion. This is the first attempt at the big time for the 43-year-old and where would be a better place to do it than at the club where the former midfielder spent the best part of his playing career.

And the squad doesn’t look half bad. Especially the midfield and attack are strong. The captain Daniele Conti is a neat deep-lying playmaker, Andrea Cossu and Andrea Lazzari offer the penetration into the final third and Alessandro Matri and Robert Acuafresca (after a highly frustrating last season at Atalanta and Genoa) should provide the goals.

Expect them to…play successful, attacking football at home but to turn the entertainment level down a notch when playing away. A top ten finish but not yet ready for Europe.

Key player: Alessandro Matri

Unsung hero: Davide Biondini

One to watch: Robert Acuafresca

The signing: Andrea Lazzari



2009-2010: 13th

Coach: Marco Giampaolo

Captain: Giuseppe Mascara

The Sicilians made their biggest signing for the season by appointing Marco Giampaolo as coach. The former Siena tactician is one of the most fancied young Italian managers who, despite being sacked last season, succeeded brilliantly at lowly Siean with meagre resources.

Despite Giampaolo’s talent, the direction for Catania is downwards after their successful last season. Catania have made no notable signings but have been able to keep hold of Maxi Lopez (who scored 11 goals in 17 matches last term). Once again Catania will rely on making their home ground a fortress to avoid relegation.

Expect them to…be a bit more attractive this season and to beat any side at home. Lower half of the table.

Key player: Giuseppe Mascara

Unsung hero: Marco Biagianti

One to watch: Maxi Lopez

The signing: Pablo Barrientos



2009-2010: promoted

Coach: Massimo Ficcandenti

Captain: Giuseppe Colucci

No one expects anything from Cesena but don’t write them off just yet. Back-to-back promotions is no mean feat after all. Cesena might have one of the poorest squads in Serie A on paper but the small club thrive on their die-hard attitude, hard-work and team effort.

The squad itself has gone through a huge rebuilding process as new coach Massimo Ficcandenti brought in nineteen new players. The team is still short of quality but the experience of midfielders Giuseppe Colucci and Stephen Appiah and goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli, as well as the attacking potential of Ezequiel Schelotto and Emmanuele Giaccherini will be key. If any of them get injured, it’s slim pickings after that.

Expect them to…head fearlessly into Serie A with the aim of surprising everybody. They might just do that, well for a while at least, but with a slim squad the season might prove out to be to long for the Seahorses. Relegation.

Key player: Francesco Antonioli

Unsung hero: Giuseppe Colucci

One to watch: Ezequiel Schelotto

The signing: Stephen Appiah



2009-2010: 14th

Coach: Stefano Pioli

Captain: Sergio Pellissier

The masters of relegation dogfights are in for a rough season, again. Each year Chievo are seemingly doomed for the drop, but almost every time they somehow manage to pull off a great escape (and if for some reason they don’t, they’ll be back before you even realised they were gone).

How do they do it? For a start, it helps that they have made smart coaching appointments in recent years (for example, Luigi Delneri and Domenico Di Carlo). And also to have a fine keeper in Stefano Sorrentino and a proven scorer of double-figures in Sergio Pellissier goes a long way.

With little creativity in the team, Chievo rely on making them an unpleasant side to play against.

Expect them to…position themselves on the lower half of the table for most of the season, enjoy the odd victory over one of the big teams and have it all to play for in the final rounds. There the experience will shine through and they will beat the drop once again.

Key player: Sergio Pellissier

Unsung hero: Stefano Sorrentino

One to watch: Simone Bentivoglio

The signing: Gelson Fernandes



2009-2010: 11th

Coach: Sinisa Mihajlovic

Captain: Riccardo Montolivo

It doesn’t look good for the Viola this season. Having been in the top five for three seasons running, last term, largely because of the added burden of playing in the Champions League, Fiorentina crashed to eleventh. Cesare Prandelli, the architect of their success, is gone and been replaced with Sinisa Mihajlovic. The former Lazio/Inter man has always been a controversial figure and will be a contrast to the pragmatic and amicable Prandelli. The jury’s still out on the coach Mihajlovic even if he lead Catania to a respectable 13th spot last season.

The squad remains largely unchanged, with the useful additions of Gaetano D’Agostino (Udinese) and Alessio Cerci (Roma), but there are signs of deterioration. The key players such as Alberto Gilardino, Riccardo Montolivo and Alessandro Gamberini will need to step up their game to stop to decline of the Florence club. Especially Gilardino looks far from his best and it’s difficult to see him reach the tally of fifteen goals he scored last season. If Gila does not find his venom you have to wonder where the goals will come from. Stevan Jovetic is out for the season and his stand-in Adem Ljajic is still a bit raw at this level.

Furthermore, even if Prandelli’s Fiorentina were known for their sophisticated attacking tactics, the root to their success was a dependable defence. Last season the defensive barricade crumbled down as Viola conceded 47 goals (nine more than in 08-09).

As the pact in hunt for European spots grows ever larger in Serie A, Fiorentina will find it all the more difficult to find their former mojo.

Expect them to…better their league position from last season. However, they need to do more than simply find their usual form to reach Europe.

Key player: Riccardo Montolivo

Unsung hero: Marco Donadel

One to watch: Adem Ljajic

The signing: Gaetano D’Agostino



2009-2010: 9th

Coach: Gian Piero Gasperini

Captain: Marco Rossi

After finishing fifth in 08-09, Genoa were hugely disappointing last season, finishing ninth when Europe should have been their destination. There were plenty of reasons for the downturn of form. For one thing, they lost Diego Milito and Thiago Motta to Inter. For another, pretty much none of their signings lived up to their reputations. They also had a Europa League football calendar to deal with. But these are only excuses for a club with a successful, if distant, history and huge aspirations to break into the top four.

Not to repeat the mistakes from last season, Genoa have invested big on every department: Luca Toni to provide the missing goals (their best scorer, Rodrigo Palacio, only managed seven last term); Portuguese internationals Miguel Veloso to add strength and skill in midfield and Eduardo to provide a pair of safe hands in goal; and Andrea Ranocchia (on loan from Inter), who had an outstanding year at Bari, in defence.

At their best, Genoa have the ability to play the most entertaining football in Serie A but they also have a nagging tendency to drop too many “easy” points. The coach Gian Piero Gasperini has made Genoa play fast-paced attacking football but he completely failed to organise his defence last season. The team shipped in goals like the Genoa harbour hauled in cargo at it’s prime (a staggering total of 61 goals), with only the relegated Siena conceding more. Gasperini, as much as the whole team, has much to prove this time around and it will be a make or break season for him and his team.

Expect them to…play with a bit more caution this season but still be able to thrill at times. Europa League bound.

Key player: Luca Toni

Unsung hero: Giuseppe Sculli

One to watch: Mattia Destro

The signing: Miguel Veloso



2009-2010: Champions

Coach: Rafael Benitez

Captain: Javier Zanetti

Five titles on the trot; with or without Jose Mourinho Inter are the only favourite to win the scudetto. However, with a new coach and a possible treble hangover, it’s the time for other title hopefuls to strike back.

The change of coaches might unsettle the atmosphere at Inter. Rafael Benitez undoubtedly is a fine coach but he is also exactly the opposite to Mourinho with respect to his coaching style. Mourinho thrives on his man-management skills and on the ability to make players his followers; Benitez gives the impression of being overtly pragmatic and distant in terms of man-management.

Inter have the best squad in the league by any standard and they have the pedigree and a winning mentality. Unless others start pushing their weight, Inter will retain the title without really even trying. It won’t be another vintage year for Inter, it might even be the first year of Inter’s decline, but it’s still probably too soon for a new champion in Italy.

Expect them to…underwhelm at times but go about their business and squeeze victories by force. Champions, once more.

Key player: Wesley Sneijder

Unsung hero: Esteban Cambiasso

One to watch: Davide Santon

The signing: Jonathan Biabiany



2009-2010: 7th

Coach: Luigi Delneri

Captain: Alessandro Del Piero

After a disastrous last season, Juventus should be able to get their act together and be the front-runners to challenge Inter. With a new coach and a truck-load of new signings, it’s imperative for Juventus to gel from day one in order not to give Inter too much of a head start.

Former Sampdoria coach Luigi Delneri has had his ups and downs as a coach but this is his time to shine. Delneri favours an attacking 4-4-2 system with dynamic wing play and almost all the new signings have the imprint of such a strategy on them: Simone Pepe (Udinese), Milos Krasic (CSKA Moscow), Marco Motta (Roma) and Jorge Martinez (Catania). But are the new signings good enough to be Juve players? They will cut it against the lesser Serie A sides but do they have enough quality to take on Inter and compete in Europe.

Delneri’s Juventus should be the exact opposite of Ciro Ferrera’s boring, static and timid Juve side. One of Delneri’s biggest achievements already has been to ship off most of the deadwood in the squad (Mauro Camoranesi (Stuttgart), David Trezeguet (Hercules), Jonathan Zebina (Brescia) and Cristian Poulsen (Liverpool)) and bring in players that fit exactly into his strategy. Krasic should be an exiting addition to the squad. The young Leonardo Bonnucci (Bari) is a fine signing and should form a solid back-bone with Giorgio Chiellini. Alberto Aquilani (Liverpool), once match-fit and if stays injury-free, brings penetration and playmaking ability in midfield. Also, signing Marco Storari (Sampdoria) as a number two behind the injured Gianluigi Buffon was an excellent move. And don’t forget Alessandro Del Piero who once again looks to be in top shape after a slow-burning last season.

With such an array of attacking-minded wingers and full-backs, Delneri’a most important task is to find a balance between attack and defence. After all, the most important guarantee of domestic success is a solid defence.

Expect them to…play attractive football and score a nice bundle of goals on several occasions, but perhaps come short against top sides unless defensive tactics are fine-tuned.

Key player: Alessandro Del Piero

Unsung hero: Zdenek Grygera

One to watch: Milos Krasic

The signing: Leonardo Bonnucci



Coach: Edy Reja

Captain: Tommaso Rocchi

Will Lazio’s decline come to a halt this season? After two below-par campaigns marred by financial and cabinet turmoil, Lazio should better their twelfth position form last season. This doesn’t mean, however, that the troubles have subsided but at least it’s expected that key players are not frozen out of the team this term.

Lazio made a couple of good signings by retaining Sergio Floccari (Genoa), who almost single-handedly kept Lazio up with his eight goals last spring, and bringing in Hernanes (Sao Paolo), a sought-after Brazilian playmaker. If Floccari continues scoring, Hernanes succeeds in settling in in the easily unsettling atmosphere at Lazio and Mauro Zarate ends his holidaying in the Lazio shirt, Lazio should have a relatively carefree year. Providing, of course, that they win the Rome derby.

Expect them to…reach a mid-table finish, have a good run in the cup but not reach Europe.

Key player: Sergio Floccari

Unsung hero: Mark Bresciano

One to watch: Hernanes

The signing: Sergio Floccari



2009-2010: Promoted

Coach: Gigi De Canio

Captain: Guillermo Giacomazzi

Lecce have perhaps the least quality of all Serie A team on paper but this, obviously, doesn’t mean that they are the worst team. Gigi De Canio is a shrewd coach with plenty of experience from situations like this and the knack to get the best out of his players. So Lecce definitely won’t go down without a fight.

Especially the lack of double-figure goal scorers is worrying and Lecce will need to do double-shifts for each goal. Experienced players like David Di Michele, Javier Chevanton, Guillermo Giacomazzi and Ruben Olivera must to be at their best and the young players need to step up in order for Lecce to even have a prayer. Fat chance. The only direction is downwards.

Expect them to…play defensive football and score very few goals. Going down.

Key player: David Di Michele

Unsung hero: Guillermo Giacomazzi

One to watch: Davide Brivio

The signing: David Di Michele


AC Milan

2009-2010: 3rd

Coach: Massimiliano Allegri

Captain: Massimo Ambrosini

How about it lads, one more season? Nothing really stirred in the old-folks retirement castle at the Milanello during the summer. Some people left and others arrived but no one seemed to pay any heed to them, just going about their business like they always have. The squad looked the same, only a year older (and slower). The coach had changed but promising as he undoubtedly is the former Cagliari boss Massimiliano Allegri hardly sent any pulses racing among the Milan faithful. But all this abruptly changed as ego-warriors Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho burst through the front door and gave the place a new makeover. Over-night, Milan became true title challengers.

Or did they? Milan might have one of the best attacks in Europe on paper but it will be extremely difficult for Allegri to find a balanced strategy with an aged squad while accommodating the two aforementioned show-boaters. In defence Alessandro Nesta isn’t getting any younger but forms a fine partnership with Thiago Silva, the full-back department, however, looks a bit stale. Gianluca Zambrotta, Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Oddo simply do not have the lungs any more to cavalier the flanks and Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini, as decent as they are going forward, often fail to deceive on the defensive third. Neither does the aged midfield look quite good enough any more. Pirlo is still an excellent passer of the ball but he moves like in slow-motion. Gennaro Gattuso huffs and puffs but too often only succeeds in confusing their own midfiled play. Massimo Ambrosini is not getting any younger but will have to carry the main defensive duties in midfiled. Would it finally be time for Mathieu Flamini to show his former Arsenal form in the Milan shirt? And then there is also the matter of Silvio Berlusconi who is doing everything in his infinite power to make the coach’s job even more difficult by giving out his tactical “advice”.

Nevertheless, if Allegri is able to find a solution to instil a successful, balanced strategy that gets the best out of his attacking players without jeopardising the defensive tactics, as well as to keep both his star players and Berlusconi happy, Milan will challenge their city rivals for the scudetto.

Expect them to…make it look all too easy at times but also drop too many unnecessary points. Another top three finish.

Key player: Alessandro Nesta

Unsung hero: Massimo Ambrosini

One to watch: Kevin Prince-Boateng

The signing: Zlatan Ibrahimovic



2009-2010: 6th

Coach: Walter Mazzarri

Captain: Paolo Cannavaro

Napoli are, with Genoa perhaps, leading the pack scavenging for a place in the top four. But with Europa League football splashed on Napoli’s calendar, it’s difficult to see them make the push for a Champions League finish.

After a busy transfer summer, the squad is as good as it was last season, the attack might even be slightly better: Luca Gigarini (Sevilla), Fabio Quagliarella (Juventus) and German Denis (Udinese) left and in came Edison Cavani (Palermo), Cristiano Luccarelli (Livorno) and Jose Ernesto Sosa (Bayern Munich). So, pretty much like-for-like transfers. Especially the arrival of Cavani is a huge lift for the club, considering the Uruguayan had no trouble finding suitors around Europe.

Also, retaining one of the best attacking players in Serie A in Marek Hamsik (possibly due to his underwhelming World Cup) and having the Argentinian live-wire Ezequiel Lavezzi on their books, Napoli have no shortage of quality in the attacking third. The defence, though, is a different matter. The full-backs are decent going forward but overall Napoli’s defence is not good enough to challenge the likes of Inter and Juventus.

Expect them to…challenge anyone on their own turf and start the season brightly, but gradually, due to a busy fixture list, start conceding more points. Not to worry, though. Napoli should safely retain a Europa League spot.

Key player: Marek Hamsik

Unsung hero: Paolo Cannavaro

One to watch: Edison Cavani

The signing: Edison Cavani



2009-2010: 5th

Coach: Delio Rossi

Captain: Fabrizio Miccoli

Palermo had an excellent last season, finishing only two points behind Sampdoria. Unbeaten at home all season, the Sicilians are looking to build on their heroics from last term.

It will be easier said than done, however. They have lost key players in Simon Kjaer (Wolfburg), Edison Cavani (Napoli) and Fabio Simplicio (Roma) and even though the arrivals are of good standard they lose in comparison. Massimo Maccarone (Siena) is no world-beater but a steady goal-scorer. Mauricio Pinilla was a sensation in Serie B side Grossetto (finding the net 24 times in as many matches last season) but is untried against Serie A defences. As is defender Ezequiel Munoz arriving from Boca Juniors.

Similarily like fellow Southern Italians Napoli, Palermo have an excellent attack (with inspirational pair Fabrizio Miccoli and Javier Pastore remaining at the club) and a good first eleven but because of the departure of Kjaer the central defence remains a concern. The potential heir to the throne of Gigi Buffon, Salvatore Sirigu needs to be even more impressive this season for Palermo to challenge for the top four.

Expect them to…play entertaining attacking football and collect a handsome bounty at home but have a tough time in away matches.

Key player: Fabrizio Miccoli

Unsung hero: Antonio Nocerino

One to watch: Javier Pastore

The signing: Massimo Maccarone



2009-2010: 8th

Coach: Pasquale Marino

Captain: Stefano Morrone

The promoted Parma surprised everyone by finishing eight last season. That league finish is out of their reach this term but they can look forward to have a chance to safely build for the future.

Parma have one of the most exciting and youngest sides in Serie A. Especially their attacking third is bursting with young potential: Daniele Galloppa, Sebastian Giovinco, Antonio Candreva, Alberto Paloschi and Valeri Bojinov. Bojinov was signed permanently from Man City after a successful loan season. Giovinco is on loan from Juve where the diminutive, highly talented winger never really got his chance. Galloppa and Candreva have already had a run-around in the national team. And Paloschi, although still only twenty, should start harvesting on that massive potential of his.

Parma’s defence, however, pales is comparison. First-choice keeper Antoni Mirante is a fine keeper, the starting full-backs are Serie A quality (Cristian Zaccardo has a wealth of experience and young Luca Antonelli has already been part of Prandelli’s new Italy side) but the centre is a grew area. Much is expected from former Liverpool flop Gabriel Palletta.

A firm believer in attacking football, Pasquale Marino should be the right coach to nurture this pool of talent. He has to find the right balance between attack and defence in order to compensate for their defensive frailties though.

Expect them to…play attractive football but strive to improve on the defensive front from last season. Mid-table league finish and a good run in the cup would suffice.

Key player: Antoni Mirante

Unsung hero: Stefano Morrone

One to watch: Sebastian Giovinco

The signing: Sebastian Giovinco


AS Roma

2009-2010: Runners-up

Coach: Claudio Ranieri

Captain: Francesco Totti

Roma completely turned around their awful start to the season after Claudio Ranieri took over from Luciano Spalletti. Roma went on a 24 match unbeaten run in the spring and almost snatched the title from Inter’s grasp, only to fall short on the finishing line. Therefore, the hunger should be there but question marks still remain.

With the inclusion of Marco Borriello (Milan), Adriano (Flamengo) and Fabio Simplicion (Palermo) Roma should be stronger than they have been in years. Especially the signing of Borriello is important since now Roma finally have a natural centre-forward.

Ranieri deserves full credit from last season as he not only succeeded in providing the results but also to instil a sense of balance and harmony to Roma’s gung-ho playing. But the fact remains that “the Tinkerman” hasn’t won anything for years and has had the tendency to implode. At Juve three years ago, he started off well but got the sack during a disappointing second season. The same may happen again.

Roma should not be reliant on Francesco Totti, who hardly ever is 100% fit, any more and the team looks balanced on the team sheet. The same cannot be said about the club as a whole; owner Rosella Sensi is still looking for a buyer for the club.

Expect them to…have a difficult season ahead of them but finish in the top four.

Key player: Daniele De Rossi

Unsung hero: David Pizarro

One to watch: Jeremy Menez

The signing: Marco Borriello



2009-2010: 4th

Coach: Domenico Di Carlo

Captain: Angelo Palombo

Sampdoria started the season brilliantly last term, ran out of steam mid-season and then somehow crept back up without anyone really noticing to finish fourth. This season, however, a Champions League finish seems unlikely.

Samp lost Luigi Delneri to Juventus which was a huge blow but hired former Chievo coach Domenico Di Carlo. Di Carlo will most likely continue playing with a fast-paced counter-attacking system and should be the right man to keep Samp up there in the top half of the table.

It was imperative for Samp to retain the services of key trio Antoni Cassano, Giampaolo Pazzini and Angelo Palombo. However, at least with the first two, this will only be a temporary solution. For Sampdoria’s sake, hopefully they will stay for the whole season.

The Genoa club have a strong starting eleven, apart from the full-backs, with a nice blend of youth (Gianluca Curci, Andrea Poli, Massimo Volta, Daniele Dessena and Guido Mariluongo, though, not all will be starters) and experience but injuries to key players would be costly.

Expect them to…be consistent and difficult to beat, but in for a possible spring slump if players are sold in January.

Key player: Antoni Cassano

Unsung hero: Angelo Palombo

One to watch: Andrea Poli

The signing: Gianluca Curci




Coach: Francesco Guidolin

Captain: Antonio Di Natale

If it hadn’t been for Antonio Di Natale’s scintillating form (29 goals), Udinese would be starting their season in Serie B.

There are quality players at Udinese (Samir Handanovic, Cristian Zapata, Gokhan Inler, Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale) but still there is a sensation that the team lacks something. Is it a first rate striker to partner Di Natale up front (Antonio Floro Flores, German Denis or Bernardo Corradi are hardly top class)? Is it numbers in reserve? Are they overtly reliant on the ageing Di Natale?

Although last season’s disaster will probably not happen again, it won’t be an easy season for Udinese. Udinese have actually weakened during the summer. They lost two key players Gaetano D’Agostiono (Fiorentina) and Simone Pepe (Juventus) and it is hardly likely that Di Natale will score as many goals this term. Udinese might find themselves in a spot of bother again.

Expect them to…be more consistent under the guidance of Guidolin but not reach nowhere near a European finish.

Key player: Antonio Di Natale

Unsung hero: Samir Handanovic

One to watch: Alexis Sanchez

The signing: German Denis


Serie A round-up: goals galore as small teams triumph during a crazy weekend

If the opening weekend was no great advert for Serie A in terms of goals scored, week two more than made up for it as a total of thirty-eight goals were scored during a highly exiting weekend. Highlights were Cagliari’s 5-1 trashing of AS Roma, Cesena’s deserved 2-0 victory over mighty, Zlatan inclusive AC Milan, Genoa’s humiliating 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Chievo and Juventus’ three all draw with Sampdoria.

Cesena stun AC Milan

First, let’s go to Cesena where the Milan giants were welcomed by a packed stadium and a rapturous crowd. Despite Cesena’s impressive display in Rome (0-0) in the opening fixture, Milan were expected to demolish the supposedly weak and Serie B-bound home side. Milan’s starting line-up boasted the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldinho and Pato upfront (with Robinho and Filippo Inzaghi waiting on the bench) but it was the anonymous attacking trio of the home side that, like against Roma, took the plaudits. Emanuele Giaccherini and Matias Schelotto with their pace and Erjan Bogdani with his muscle gave the Milan defence a torrid time throughout the match. Especially the quicksilvery Giaccherini, who scored the 2-0 goal, caught the eye with his quick feet and movement. Giaccherini and Schelotto are both natural wide players with pace, skill and tactical awareness so don’t be surprised if at least one of them (most likely the 21-year-old Schelotto) is called up to the Italian national team that suffer from a chronic lack of wide players.

Milan enjoyed sixty-nine percent of possession but lacked the intent and penetration to break the home defence. Their midfield was pedestrian, Ronaldinho and Zlatan never clicked or found any attacking rhythm, only Pato was a real threat to the home defence. It was testament to Milan’s poorness that Cesena could even award them a penalty without conceding; Zlatan blasted the ball into the post to cap his unspectacular début. Cesena have fought the windmills in the first two fixtures and triumphed; it will be interesting to see how their smash-and-grab tactics work against a lesser side when Lecce come to town next Sunday.

A fantastic end-to-end affair between Juventus and Sampdoria

Anyone nurturing the misconception that Italian football is all about defending should wake up to reality. Italian football might be at times overtly tactical, but it’s hardly always defensive. The Juve-Samp match was a showcase of gung-ho attacking as both teams threw caution to the wind and went all in.

Three out of four title candidates played on Saturday and only Inter were able to take three points (2-1 against Udinese at home). Therefore, Juventus had a chance to gain up on the rest of the bunch after having already conceded three points in the opening fixture. Against Bari Juve’s game looked far from complete on every department. The defence was a mess, midfield lacked bite and the forwards, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Quagliarella, perhaps due to their similar styles, flickered but never ignited. Samp, on the other hand, had claimed their first opening day victory since 1997 as they beat Lazio 2-0 at home . The match also had added significance since it was a reunion between the new Juve coach Luigi Delneri and his former team.

Juve seemed to think that perhaps their defensive problems could be remedied by overt attacking. At times their 4-4-2 formation resembled more a 4-1-4 or 3-3-4 (when one of the full-backs advanced) as the wingers Simone Pepe and Nikola Krasic as well as Claudio Marchision pushed forward to accompany the roaming Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Quagliarella; Felipe Melo being the only midfielder to stay behind. During the first half their plan didn’t quite work however. Their attacks were disjointed, midfield too open and the defence was as fragile as before. It was, therefore, no surprise that Samp started the scoring with a fine attacking move that exposed Juve’s defensive problems. Palombo spread a superb forty metre diagonal pass to Cassano who had drifted to a deep left position inside Juve’s defensive third. Marco Motta, Juve’s right full-back, allowed Cassano too much space to feed Nicola Pozzi (the stand-in for the injured Giampaolo Pazzini) on the edge of the area to fire a splendid strike home. The entire Juve defence line had dropped to a deep position even though there were no Samp players to mark inside the area.

It’s wasn’t all bad news for Juve though. In the second half, they played some very good offensive football. They found rhythm in their midfield passing, executed versatile attacking moves using both wings effectively, and Nicola Krasic started to look like the real deal as he continuously harassed Samp defenders with his directness and pace.

In the end, in terms of results, Juventus continued their less than impressive start to the new campaign but at least the excruciatingly boring ghost of the Juventus form last season has been exorcised by Delneri. This Juventus is fun to watch and as soon as they get their act together at the back, the points will start flooding in.

Results from week two: Internazionale 2–1 Udinese, Cagliari 5–1 Roma, Cesena 2–0 Milan, Brescia 3–2 Palermo, Lazio 3–1 Bologna, Genoa 1–3 Chievo, Lecce 1–0 Fiorentina, Catania 2–1 Parma, Juventus 3–3 Sampdoria, Napoli 2–2 Bari.

It's make or break time for Baxter

The Finland coach Stuart Baxter is highly skilled in the art of deception. While Antti Muurinen, when he was coaching the national team, made a parody of himself with the slogan “eteenpäin on menty” (loose translation: we have progressed), that has since been abbreviated to EOM, Baxter, due to his diplomatic skills, pretty much repeats Muurinen’s catchphrase, only better. In last Saturday’s Helsingin Sanomat, Baxter justified the fact that again he has selected a host of players that have formed the core of Finland’s national team for the best part of ten years by saying that his job still remains the same what it was when he took it up: to win and to develop players.

This is not to say that Baxter hasn’t renewed the Finnish national team. Niklas Moisander, Tim Sparv, Roni Porokara and Kasper Hämäläinen have all become regulars during the Baxter era. However, it is a worrying sign that likes of Shefki Kuqi, Jonatan Johansson and Joonas Kolkka are still important members of the team. But let’s not get drawn into the discussion of why aren’t there more young players who could cut the cheese in the team since it would require a more in-depth discussion on the ideals, traditions, operational strategy and youth national team policy etc. in Finnish football (and this has already been discussed at some length here before). Baxter has made improvements in this matter but he hasn’t stopped the trend as much as would’ve been required (or perhaps as much as he had wanted to, who knows).

The squad Baxter has selected for the first two European qualifier matches against Moldova and Holland will effectively form the team for the whole campaign. Some players who are on the fringes of the national team (Juho Hakola and Jonas Portin, for example) might feature in some matches but the default selections will still be the same what they were when Baxter first came to Finland. Baxter has now had over two years to build his team, instil his strategy and talk the talk. Now it’s time for results.

At best Baxter’s Finland have played excellent football (the two World Cup qualifying matches against Germany for example) but he has never reached the level of consistency of Roy Hodgson’s Finland. Throughout Baxter’s reign, Finland have flirted with the notion of progress the Scot seems to be aiming at. Finland have shown glimpses of more versatile, imaginative attacking football but failed to deceive in terms of results. Hopefully the dress rehearsal to the qualifying campaign against Belgium showed the real face of Baxter’s Finland; who cares about the performance, as long as you win the match. The somewhat drab 1-0 victory was a breath of fresh air in this respect.

Baxter has tried his best to give the impression that he is here for the long haul, with the intent of taking Finnish football, structurally as well as in terms of success, to a new level. He has succeeded in painting a pretty picture but it is still a bit confusing to make out what that picture actually represents.

World Cup 2010 in alphabets

The dust has long settled after the World Cup and now it’s time to recap on some of the things that took place in South Africa. World Cup 2010 wasn’t a classic tournament by no means (in 2006, for instance, the standard of play was better, both defensively and attackingly, and there were plenty more good games). Actually, come to think of it, the tournament was pretty rubbish. If a rogue Dutch team were able to reach the final, something was definitely not right.

Nevertheless, even 2010 had it’s moments. Uruguay provided the biggest and fully deserved surprise and also played in two of the most entertaining matches in the tournament: against Ghana in the quarter-final and Germany in the third-place play-off. Germany were a breath of fresh air in an otherwise highly, sometimes even overtly, defensive tournament (and mind that IWFTB! is not the first one to cast the stone at defensive tactics). The Germans showcased some thrilling counter-attacking football with innovative passing combinations. Germany were, however, completely found out against Spain in the semi-final. And Spain, in the end, were the rightful champions. France, Italy (and perhaps Brazil) and the African teams (apart from Ghana), on the other hand, were the biggest disappointments as they failed to qualify to the knock-out stages. In four year’s time the tournament will be held in Brazil and all of these footballing nations will have to re-think and re-build in order to get their act together.

So here is what happened last summer (you’ll forgive me my lack of knowledge of all the alphabets).

A for Africa: The African continent hosted their first World Cup. The tournament was a organisational success but too bad that the African teams (apart from Ghana) were hugely disappointing. All the big African powers were present, but the only nation to qualify beyond the group stage was Ghana. South Africa were the first host nation not to qualify from the group stages.

B for beards: What do you remember from World Cup 2002? Freak results, awful referees and even worse haircuts. There weren’t any fashion crazes in this tournament but what did make a comeback, sort of at least, that at least yours truly has thought gone missing from the world of football greens, were beards (proper beards, not goatees and those trimmed sideburns kind of things of which you never quite know are they beards, moustaches or extensions of the haircut). Many Greece players had them. Xabi Alono had one. Iker Casillas tried to have one. But the cake for the best Captain Haddock look goes to Daniele de Rossi.

C for Capello: The coach with the Midas touch found out that he is not as infallible as he might have thought. Tactical and selection mistakes were aplenty. Or was it that he only found out how rubbish the English players actually are.

D for defence: Defence is the new offence after 2010 (if it already wasn’t before). Spain, Holland, Uruguay all based their play strictly on making sure that they were not exposed to counter-attacks (hence, for instance, two midfield enforcers); mind, Spain only did it with more sophistication and with better attacking players.

E for enforcer: One of the most crucial player roles in the tournament.

F for Forlan: Diego Forlan was nominated the best player of the tournament and received the coveted Golden Ball award. With inspirational performances Forlan guided Uruguay to a memorable third-place play-off match.

G for Ghana: The best African team in the tournament and the only one showing true conviction, belief and quality. Twice in a row gone out in the quarter-finals, this time against Uruguay in a controversial but highly entertaining game. Will it be their time to shine in the next tournament? A young team with a great future ahead of them.

H for the Heskey role: Did we see a tactical turn in terms of the centre-forward role; a non-scoring centre-forward? Torres did it for Spain after all. Heskey, although completely useless, might remain as a footnote in footballing tactical history: The Makelele role, the Kuyt/ Park role and…err…the Heskey role. Well, maybe not.

I for the Italians: Italy started the tournament as World Champions and the Italian referees as favourites to go to the final (since Italy, in truth, were never going to get there). Both, however, had  a horrid time in South Africa. The Azzurri disgraced themselves by ending at the bottom of the easiest group, largely because Marcelo Lippi’s stubbornness, and Roberto Rossetti and co. went home after two games because the assistant referee failed to see Carlos Tevez acres in offside (which of course Rossetti should have corrected).

J for Jabulani: The official World Cup ball was criticised more than ever and it seemed for a good reason. Some of the best keepers in the world were made to look like they were playing blindfolded, most long range shots were flying everywhere except towards the goal and there were only few proficient crossers of the ball in the whole tournament. There’s a counter-logic to Fifa’s argument about the ball, with it’s minimal weight and NASA-technology, making the play more attacking; if the basic things like long range shots and crosses cannot be successfully executed by the best players in the world, how on earth can the ball make the play more attacking.

L for Lippi: Italy’s tactical mastermind from four year’s back had completely lost his genius.

M for Messi: No, Messi is not the second coming but he was still the driving force of a poor Argentina side.

O for offside: Dramatic offside refereeing decisions gone wrong sparked a heated debate on the applicability of technology to aid the beleaguered referees and dispel poor decision making

P for penalties: There were surprisingly few penalties/ penalty shoot-outs (one in the round of 16 and one in the quarter-finals).

Q for quarter-finals: Once again the quarter-finals provided the best entertainment in an otherwise drab tournament: Uruguay-Ghana, Brazil-Holland, Germany-Argentina were all exciting matches in their own way.

R for referees: Fifa says referees were good. Well, we all know that when Fifa talks, it hardly ever says anything worth hearing.

S for Spain: Spain were the heavy favourites to win the tournament and they duly delivered with a string of 1-0 victories.

T for tactics: 4-2-3-1 was the most used and most successful formation (Spain, Germany and Holland all used it, all with different interpretations of course). With this formation perhaps the most significant aspect is the presence of two holding midfielders: Alonso and Busquets for Spain; Schweinstiger and Khedira for Germany; van Bommell and de Jong for Holland; and Diego Perez and Agidio Arevalo for Uruguay. Three at the back also made a come-back. The one striker system was supposed to have made it redundant but there were successful adaptations of it: New-Zealand against Italy and Uruguay against France, for instance.

U for Uruguay: No one expected anything from the Uruguayans but they showed that with a successful mix of tactical sophistication, fine attacking players, stubborn defending, brilliant work ethic and team spirit and a dose of luck, anyone can go far.

V for Vuvuzela: Vuvuzelaitus is the new tinnitus.

Y for yellow card: A total number of two hundred and sixty yellow cards were given, which makes it roughly four per match.

HJK-Besiktas: HJK still have a chance, as long as they learn from their mistakes

Lets blow off some steam before going into the actual football stuff. The level of defeatism in the Finnish football discourse is simply astounding. The same old sing along was heard all around after HJK’s 2-0 defeat away to Besiktas. The match was shown on the Canal Plus and the Finnish commentators were full of your usual defeatisms. On the one hand, they seemed to want HJK to get trashed but, on the other hand, they were surprised about the fact that the home side could dominate possession throughout the match. Which one is it then: do you want them to lose so that you can say I told you so or do you expect them to go to Besiktas and dominate? Granted, Keith Armstrong brought some realism to the discussion but for someone who has coached HJK in Europe, he should have known better.

The same talk was all over the press. Is there no end to our rotten self-esteem? If we want, like I suspect most people connected to Finnish football in one way or another do, that Finnish football in general and Veikkausliiga in particular are taken more seriously and get better visibility (which means more money and more spectators), people should start taking things as they are and stop obsessing about the negatives. We all know the facts about the standard of Finnish football, but I bet there are plenty of people who don’t know about the positives. Indeed, Besiktas were and are a lot better side than HJK but that is simply stating the bleeding obvious.

For yours truly, HJK did a decent job with what they had. It hardly occurred to anyone that Besiktas actually fielded a very strong first eleven (that included, for instance, Guti, Bobo, Ricardo Quaresma, Matteo Ferrari and Fabian Ernst) and that HJK were without three of their best central midfielders. First of all, Medo, the driving force of the whole team, was suspended. Secondly, Aki Riihilahti, who might not shine as bright in Veikkausliiga but whose worth becomes evident exactly in these kind of matches, was injured. Also Janne Saarinen, had he been properly match fit, would have been an asset to HJK due to his vast experience, despite having been a bit rubbish in the couple of cameos he has made in Veikkausliiga this season. Taking this into consideration along with the fact that HJK were playing against an established European side just three days after the Honka match, there wasn’t much more HJK could have taken from that game. Although, of course, in the end there was. But we’ll come to that later.

Good defensive organisation and even some attacking ideas

Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala deserve credit for doing a decent job especially in terms of defensive organisation and, although it very seldom worked in practice, to a lesser extent, attacking tactics.

HJK basically started with a highly defensive 4-4-1-1 formation that included two midfielder enforcers (Dema and Cheyne Fowler) who had pretty much no attacking obligations. The game plan was, therefore, to sacrifice some penetration for the benefit of defensive organisation. Basically every attacking player had strict defensive duties. Johannes Westö (playing in the hole) and even Akseli Pelvas (central attacker), from time to time, had to track back to offer support to the midfield. Also Sebastian Sorsa and Dawda Bah played a lot deeper than usual which made the formation more like a variation of 4-5-1 (or even 4-6-0 when without the ball). Muurinen and Rantala had also done their positional homework. Sorsa was playing almost as a wing-back in tandem with left-back Rafinha. The idea was to cancel out Besiktas’ left wing (attacking full-back Ismail and winger Quaresma) altogether, the home side’s main attacking channel. This wasn’t purely a defensive ploy because it also made it possible for Rafinha to make runs forward without leaving their right side exposed.

In terms of positional organisation this defensive game plan worked quite well. HJK kept their collective shape. Sorsa and Rafinha were able to keep the respective opponents largely in check and the midfield duo were fairly successful in closing the space in front of the central defenders. As a consequence, Besiktas largely kept to a pedestrian trod, never actually threatening much from situations when HJK players didn’t make individual mistakes. Mistakes, however, were if not plentiful not entirely absent either. Rafinha gave Queresma space to deliver a cross for the first one and Sorsa didn’t close in on Queresma aggressively enough in the second. The first goal was probably offside and the second a fabulous individual effort but, nevertheless, both were down to  individual mistakes.

Attacking was never going to be an easy chore in Istanbul and even if HJK’s attacking play hardly gelled, there was a clear intent in terms of how they tried to make the transition from defence to attack. At first, HJK tried to spread the ball laterally to the wings whenever getting possession. But as it soon became evident that neither Sorsa nor Bah were able to go past their markers or connect successfully with Westö, new ideas were needed. Another route was taken then through the centre where the active Westö was playing close to Pelvas when HJK had the ball. Pelvas started decently, receiving the ball well and playing simple passes and creating some kind of a platform for HJK attacks. On a couple of occasions Pelvas and Westö also connected for a one-two, only for the final pass to be intercepted or Pelvas straying marginally offside. With a bit of luck and better final balls, HJK might have created a scoring opportunity early on.

As the game progressed these efforts became more seldom and Besiktas started to dominate possession. Then something changed. HJK hadn’t had a whiff of goal for most of the game but during the last fifteen minutes they created three excellent opportunities. First, Rafinha made a long diagonal run towards the box, much to the surprise of Besiktas defenders, and was brought down from behind. HJK pleaded for penalty that should have been given but the referee continued to favour the home side. Not long after this HJK launched a fine three against four counter-attack through the left. Bah had the ball in acres of space, he cut inside towards the box and was in a perfect position to deliver a pass between the defence line and the keeper for the substitue Juho Mäkelä to strike his trademark finish. Bah, however, foolishly went for goal and sprayed his shot high and wide. In extra-time Bah made amends for his mistake by releasing Jarno Parikka free on goal. The Besiktas keeper made a well timed rush for the ball and was able to block Parikka’s shot. A goal from one of these efforts and it would have all been different.

Ojala, Wallén and HJK’s Brazilians shine on the big stage

Juhani Ojala put in a man of the match performance. The 21-year-old centre-back back-pocketed Bobo, the robust Brazilian star striker and captain. Rafinha, despite one or two mistakes that could have turned out to be costly, had a fine game at right-back as he contributed with some well-timed attacking runs and kept Quaresma from causing too many anxious moments in the HJK defence. And also Dema’s introduction in the HJK shirt was a promising one as the former PoPa midfielder not only brought industry but also calmness in possession to midfield. And last but not least, Ville Wallén rose to the occasion by making a few excellent saves to keep HJK’s chances of European glory alive.

Where will the goals come from?

Despite being overrun for most of the game, HJK can take heart from their performance with an injury/suspension-cut squad. Even if they failed to score in Istanbul, at least they were able to create chances. This time they need to make them count.

HJK need to be braver, more more effective with the ball and more determined in their delivery. The full-backs should be more active getting forward since both Sorsa and Bah struggled to get past their markers last week. But most of all HJK must sharpen their set-piece play. The few set-pieces they had in Istanbul were hastily wasted. All in all, HJK need to be smart and patient. They will not get many opportunities but when they arrive, they must make the right choices. Bah’s attempt at goal when a pass was the only right solution was a textbook example of making the wrong one.

HJK have a mountain to climb if they are to reach the Europa League group stage (especially now that Medo transferred to Partizan Belgrad). However, the challenge is not an insurmountable one. If they can keep a clean sheet in the first half and find a goal from somewhere a bit later in the game they might, just might, have a chance. The odds are heavily against them but, nevertheless, it will be a big European night at Sonera Stadium on Thrusday night.

World Cup XI

Here is I Went for the Ball!’s World Cup best eleven. The players are selected mainly on the basis of how important they were to the team and not as such according to who caught the eye with individual performances (these should go hand in hand of course). The formation we are going for cannot be anything else than 4-2-3-1, which was used by most of the better teams in the tournament.


Oscar Tabárez: Tabárez not only created a highly functional and effective strategy that got the best out of a decent squad but also instilled a tremendous work ethic and self-belief in his players. Made some intelligent match-to-match tactical moves (without Uruguay ever losing their footballing identity) without which a team of Uruguay’s quality could never have reached the semis. This only goes to show how well the team had adopted and believed in Tabárez’s system. A huge triumph for the veteran coach.


Iker Casillas (Spain): In a World Cup defined somewhat by comedy goalkeeping, Iker had a steady tournament (apart from that mistake against Switzerland). Spain conceded only a single goal in seven matches which was largely due to Casillas making some vital saves along the way.

Defenders (from left to right):

Fabio Coentrao (Portugal): The 22-year-old full-back was pretty much a nobody before the tournament but is now on the lips of every major club in Europe looking for a left-sided full-back. Pacey, skilful and solid defensively, Coentrao has everything wanted from a full-back. Impressed in all the four matches he played for Portugal, even in the humdrum clash against Spain.

Carles Puyol (Spain): Never infallible but always the backbone of Spain’s defence. Gerard Piquet might have more natural ability and probably received more column space before the tournament but the 32-year-old showed that you cannot underrate experience at this level by leaving his 23-year-old team-mate playing the second fiddle. This was probably the last chance for Puyol to lift the World Cup and he made the most of it by giving a showcase of his trademark braveheart-defending.

Diego Lugano (Uruguay): Uruguay conceded only two goals in the first four matches Lugano featured in. Had the inspirational captain remained fit, who knows what might have happened. Lugano has always been a good no-nonsense centre-back but now his playing also had more control and a sense of calm to it. Known for his ruthless streak, Lugano received only a single caution in the six games he played.

Phillipp Lahm (Germany): The German captain might not have been as eye-catching as four years ago but the Bayern man has matured as a defender since then. Doesn’t let opponents get past him any more and always gives a valuable option going forward.

Midfield enforcers:

Diego Pérez (Uruguay): The lungs of Uruguay worked his socks off in every match and gave his everything in every tackle. The 30 year-old Monaco ball-winner was a constant presence with or without the ball, never conceding possession and almost always winning his tackles. Better with the ball than was given credit for, Pérez was the best midfielder in the tournament.

Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany): Ballack who? Everybody except the German team made a terrible fuss about the fact that Michael Ballack got injured before the World Cup. A sense of doom and gloom took over as questions were asked of how will Germany survive without Ballack. Schweinsteiger, with the aid of Sami Khedira, answered each one of them with some dominant performances. A commanding presence in the first four matches but faded against Spain, although, much due to the fact that the Germans were completely found out.

The attacking pyramid (from left to right to tip):

David Villa (Spain): Spain’s attacking lifeblood, scoring five goals in the first five matches when the likes of Fernando Torres, David Silva and Andres Iniesta were frustrating at best. One of the most reliable and versatile goalscorers in the world.

Wesley Sneijder (Holland): Had Holland reached the final without Sneijder? The question is banal in a way but also relevant. Holland, for a change, were a lot more than the sum of their parts but with a misfiring Robin van Persie and an overrated (in the tournament) Arjen Robben who only showed flashes of his brilliance, Holland would have got nowhere near the final without Sneijder’s input that was much more than simply the five goals he scored.

Thomas Müller (Germany): A perfect example of the immensely talented German youths. The dust had barely settled after Müller exploded into the scene at Bayern last season, when the 20-year-old surprised everybody by becoming the World Cup Golden Boot winner with his five goals and three assists. Intelligent with and without the ball, Müller unifies the best qualities of the stereotypical ‘old and boring Germany’ with the exciting and fresh new German footballing identity. Nifty and clean with the ball, dynamic in his movement and with an excellent physique, Müller would fit perfectly in almost any lineup in Europe.

Diego Forlán (Uruguay): The player of the tournament (the Golden Ball winner and in IWFTB’s books). Inspired a good, but by no means excellent, Uruguay side to become great and guided them all the way to the semi-finals. The embodiment of the work ethic and heart that Uruguay showed collectively throughout the World cup. Scored superb goals, the finest in the whole tournament being the one in the third-place play-off, formed a vital and lethal partnership with Luis Suárez and linked Uruguay’s attacking transitions effectively, being either initiating or at the end of most Uruguay’s attacking moves. A special player for a special team.


Manuel Neuer (Germany); Arne Friedrich (Germany), Jorge Fucile (Uruguay), Sergio Ramos (Spain), Sami Khedira (Germany), Xavi (Spain), Mesut Özil (Germany), Asamoah Gyan (Ghana)


World Cup XI





Italy's World Cup debacle: lack of creativity and Lippi's stubborn selection policy the reasons for Azzurri's decline

It’s a curious thing to lose genius. Four years ago Marcello Lippi tactical masterclass and unconventional match-to-match selection policy were the keys to Italy’s somewhat surprising triumph. Lippi picked a diverse group of players, all with some kind of a role to play in the course of the tournament. Lippi’s preliminary squad selections for 2010 had similar characteristics but in South Africa the ingredients of success from four years back were conspicuously absent when push came to shove. Lippi relied stubbornly on his favourite players and (dare I say it) at times seemed oblivious to the flaws in their play.

Lippi by no means had a brilliant Italy squad at his disposal, but then again it was a squad he had selected. Furthermore, if the tournament taught us anything, it was the fact that you don’t need a world class squad in order to be successful (if Holland could reach the final, this Azzurri side should have had equal opportunity). Already before the tournament Lippi’s selections (and particularly the selections he didn’t make) caused wide consternation. Lippi picked players who had had a poor season behind them (a host of Juventus players after an awful season), players who had fitness problems and players who had seemed way past their prime already in the Confederations Cup disaster a year ago.

Tactics and player roles

Italy opened the tournament against Parguay with a 1-1 draw in a match that was never supposed to be a walk in the park. Italy started brightly by taking the initiative and playing some fairly decent football. There was pace. There was width. There was control. There was an attacking intent and some fine passing moves. And even if Italy should have perhaps taken three points, a draw against the hard-to-beat Paraguayans was a sufficient result. Then the reigning world champions were up against New Zealand, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, which then spelled the beginning of Italy’s downfall. The Italians were unable to break All Whites’ defensive blockade (scoring only from a penalty) and failed to remedy their own defensive problems, conceding an identical set piece as against Paraguay. In addition to a disappointing result, there were alarming signs that Lippi might not be on the top of his tactical game any more (since the tactical mistakes are analysed here, there’s no point in discussing it in any great length in this article).

Despite another one all draw, Italy were always looking to squeeze through the group especially since Slovakia had been utterly rubbish against Paraguay. Slovakia, a team making their début at the World Cup stage, were never supposed to have a prayer against the four time champions who are renowned masters of situations where they are with their backs against the wall. But what happened? Slovakia dominated the game from the start. They created opportunities and put the dumbfounded Italians on the back foot. All of a sudden it was 1-0 for Slovakia. Then 2-0. Then 3-1 and at the final whistle, after a fifteen minute period when Italy actually started to show some heart, the scoreboard read 3-2. Italy were out, finishing last in the easiest group of the tournament.

If Lippi had shown tactical fallibility in the New Zealand match, he got his tactics all wrong at the most crucial hour. In the two prior matches, Italy’s centre midfield (with Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi) had been the stand out area of the team. In this game it was their poorest. Lippi brought in his old favourite Gennaro Gattuso as an enforcer and this move messed up their midfield play completely. The player roles seemed unclear, not only to the spectator but to the players as well. The understanding in terms of movement and passing that Montolivo and De Rossi had had was utterly lost. Montolivo tried to push forward but was often forced to drag back when De Rossi and Gattuso were either leaving too much open space when Italy were without the ball or failed to initiate play when they had possession. Especially De Rossi’s performance was below-par. Was he supposed to man-mark Marek Hamsik? It is unlikely (more likely Gattuso was, but he was all over the place as usual), but if he indeed was, it was a fools errand to sacrifice one of Italy’s best and most creative players to mark a player who had had, according to his high standards, an unspectacular tournament so far. If this was the case, Lippi seemed to man marked the Hamsik who plays for Napoli, not the one who was wearing a Slovakian jersey and operating in the centre of a four man midfield. All the inclusion of Gattuso did was to disrupt the best and most creative area of the team.

The Cassano controversy

Italy’s biggest failure in terms of actual play was that they couldn’t find a tactical solution in the central area of their attacking third. Pretty much before every major tournament there is animated discussion about the inclusion of a trequartista in Italy. And this year Cassano was the people’s favourite. Cassono would have been the obvious choice and in retrospect it is easy to say that the Sampdoria man would have been the missing link. It is debatable, though, whether his performances last season actually merited a place in the team. A bigger question is, why was Totti left out? Let’s not dwell on this issue, however, because it is not actually pertinent since both players were absent from the World Cup (and also because the issue is already discussed here in more detail). An interesting question is why was Andrea Cossu, an attacking midfielder for Cagliari, included in the squad if Lippi was not prepared to use him at a time when Italy were desperately struggling for creativity? Surely Lippi though Cossu to be good enough since he picked him in the first place.

Fabio Quagliarella was perhaps the player who was always closest to filling the creative void. Or at least he should have been. The Napoli forward is not a midfielder as such but he tends to operate in a wide area and is more than capable of producing the spectacular. He should probably not have been the first choice striker but, especially after his equalizer against Switzerland in the dress rehearsal to the tournament and after indifferent performances from Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, the 27 year-old should have had a bigger role to play. Lippi, however, waited for 225 minutes until introducing Quagliarella.

Simone Pepe symbolises the failure of the whole team

In the Slovakia match there were two things that crystallised Italy’s fall. Firstly, Quagliarella (after scoring a beautiful ship and single-handedly putting Italy back into the game) shedding the most tears of all the Italy players after the final whistle was blown. And secondly, Pepe (Lippi’s trusted man and favoured creative player) bluntly missing Italy’s lifeline at the far post in the dying minutes of the match. It is fair to say that Quagliarella did more in fourty-five minutes than the rest of the team during the whole game.

You can’t blame Pepe from trying though. The Juventus winger (who played for Udinese last season) has enough industry to start a revolution, but not enough creativity to even spark a light bulb. One explanation for Pepe’s big role is that Lippi wanted to use him in a Kuyt/Park role. But this is doubtable though, since the oppositions’ tactics did not require the use of such a player. More plausibly, Lippi used Pepe since he was one of the few, if not the only, genuine wide attacker in the squad. If so, one would’ve expected Lippi to replace Pepe after seeing him play 180 minutes of football in a key attacking role without delivering a single successful end-product. Lippi persisted and Italy went out with a whimper. Lippi’s trust not only in Pepe but Vicenzo Iaquinta and Mauro Camoranesi (and Gattuso) as well was probably just one of those curious things with coaches; all coaches have their favourites and these players tend to be those who follow the coach’s system to the button (even if they are bordering on the rubbish).

Not the fitting end to Lippi’s career as Italy coach

Despite this gargantuan failure, Lippi remains one of the great coaches of the modern era (and one of I Went For the Ball!’s all time favourites, which makes it all the more painful to criticise him). One who has achieved so much during a career spanning three decades should not be judged solely by a poor latter day period of two years. However, it is not unheard of that in the latter days of one’s career, even the most innovative coaches tend to show signs of conservatism and adamant belief in their own infallibility, in their own system and in their favoured players. And this time Lippi’s key players were not up to the task. Two matches should have been enough for him to see this. Let alone two years.

World Cup 2010: a tribute to Uruguay

A nation of 3,3 million. A footballing nation with two World Cup trophies and two Olympic victories. A national team that was perhaps not supposed to be in the international footballing limelight ever again. A team that was the last to qualify for World Cup 2010. Uruguay turned it all around by reaching the semi-finals and were the last South American side to depart from South Africa.

The World Cup will perhaps not be the start of Uruguayan supremacy in either South America or in the World Cup tournaments, but they provided an excellent reminder of the fact that you don’t need the best players to succeed in a major tournament. Since the margins at the highest level are nowadays minuscule, a smaller team have the possibility to succeed if they manage to maximise every inch of their potential and instil a system to deliver the maximum result. In this respect Uruguay are a prime example of a small nation making good of its modest resources. In Oscar Tabárez they have a coach with plenty of experience and an excellent grasp of tactics; a coach who crafted a strategy to get the best out of a decent, but by no means spectacular, squad. Eyebrows were raised when Tabárez decided to leave Porto’s Cristian Rodriguez out of the World Cup squad but no one is questioning his decision now. Tabárez assembled a highly functional squad that was defined not by any notion of silky attacking play (which Uruguay were more than capable of producing) but by their tremendous industry and spirit, willingness to take the bullet (Luis Suárez showed now tears when he knew he would miss the historic semi-final, simply being happy in the knowledge that Uruguay were there) and stoic adherence to their strategy.

When you have the best possible system in place for the players available,  good players with relatively small statuses have a tendency to become giants overnight. This is down to the coherence of the team as an operational unit in which each player has a clearly defined role, with clearly defined tactical details, that are geared not only to maximise the potential of that player but also the overall system. When this kind of a system works (of course, it might be a huge failure), every player who is carrying out the details of the role to the button should immediately become a better player (the best examples would be the midfielders Diego Pérez and Egidio Arévalo). Therefore, the question is not which comes first the players or the system; the two are interconnected and inseparable.

Uruguay played their trademark ruthless, organised and diehard defensive game, always having an eye for the counter-attack. This approach is hardly surprising with Uruguay or out of the ordinary in today’s football for that matter, but what made their strategy special was their collectivity and work rate. All players, regardless of status or position, worked extremely hard for the team. This might sound like a banal thing to say, but without their collectivity Uruguay could not have made their audacious run for the World Cup title (in contrast, look at France for instance). Of course, work rate and togetherness are never enough if you don’t have good enough players to compete and one or two special attacking individuals to provide the creative push and end product (think of Roger Milla for Cameroon in 1990, Davor Suker for Croatia in 1998 and Angelos Charisteas for Greece in Euro 2004). Uruguay had two, Diego Forlán (the Player of the Tournament) and Luis Suaréz.

Forlán is finally getting the credit he deserves. For many years, Forlan has been one of the most lethal strikers in the World (scoring 120 goals in 208 games of La Liga football) but still some (usually people who entertain the fallacy that in the Premier League they play the best football) have downgraded him due to his unsuccessful spell at ManUtd. Now in 2010, even the “terminally myopic” could be expected to make a full recovery and become believers after Forlán sank Fulham in the Europa League final and scored more goals in the World Cup than the England team could manage collectively. At the age of thirty-one, Forlán is finally regarded among the best players in the world.

In an age of hyper-celebrity footballers, Forlán is a breath of fresh air. He is a first-class example of a national hero and a role model on and off the pitch. Defined as much by his exquisite skills as by his tremendous work ethic, Forlán is never seen petulantly sulking at his team mates or whining at the referee; he just goes about his business of doing what he passionately loves and what he is paid for, play football.

First and foremost, Forlán is a team player. However, with his individual effort he inspired a good team to become unforgettable which is the true mark of a great player. Forlán lifted Uruguay almost on to the World Cup podium and hopefully the kids in Uruguay are not wearing the shirt of some corporated galactic mega-star, but the sky-blue shirt of Uruguay. With Forlán printed on the back.

World Cup third-place play-off preview: Germany in the driving seat but Uruguay hungry for a win

Germany had arguably been the best team in World cup 2010 before the semi-finals, but they finally met their match on Wednesday night. Spain showcased the finest piece of midfield defending seen in this tournament as they suffocated Germany’s quick-fire passing game with their incessant pressing and kept Mesut Özil, the spark of Germy’s creativity, in check . The result was a flattering 1-0 for Germany since, as in the Euro final two years ago, the Germans were soundly beaten by a Spanish side near to the peak of their power.

Uruguay, who were also outplayed in their semi-final against Holland, can take heart from the manner of Germany’s defeat. Uruguay’s midfield defending has, at times, been second to none in the tournament and, if they find the right strategy, it might prove to be their meal ticket. Now that Luis Suarez is back after suspension, Uruguay have regained their counter-attacking venom and can go to the third-place play-off full of confidence.

Tricky tactical decisions for Uruguay

Uruguay will have to make some difficult tactical decisions before kick-off. The key to Spain’s victory over Germany was that Spain controlled the midfield through their numerical advantage. This puts Uruguay into a difficult position. On the one hand, they could try to emulate Spain and stock the centre of the park with their hounding ball-winners. But on the other, Uruguay would do better to learn from their own semi-final defeat and not try to excessively man the midfield only with defensive midfielders. Against Holland Uruguay’s attacking was seldom fluid as they weren’t able to link their midfield and attack successfully.

Uruguay are still without Diego Lugano in defence but, apart from their captain, Oscar Tabarez is able to field his strongest eleven. In defence Jorge Fucile is back from suspension and will probably take his place on the left side of the defence. If this happens, Martin Caceres, who after some early troubles did a good job tracking Arjen Robben, might switch to the right where he played for Juventus last season. If this happens, the industrious Maximiliano Pereira could switch to midfield. Caceres offers more pace and muscle than either Fucile of Pereira and could, therefore, be used to cancel out either Thomas Muller’s (who also returns to the starting line-up after suspension) or Lucas Podolski’s directness and dynamism. Diego Godin and Mauricio Victorino will retain their place in centre defence.

Uruguay are expected to start with a 4-4-2 formation. Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani will start in attack and Diego Forlan will operate more freely in the hole behind the front two. If Tabares chooses a more cautious approach, the midfield duo of Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo will be joined by Walter Gargano; if Tabarez wants more movement and attacking intent, he will go for either Maximiliano Pereira or Alvaro Pereira. When Uruguay have the ball they will play in a diamond formation in midfield but when they lose possession, Perez will drop into a deeper central position while Cavani becomes an auxiliary wide midfielder.

Germany will not be making any major changes to either their personnel or tactics. Their semi-final defeat was more down to the excellence of the opposition than to any tactical failing to do wiht their strategy. Germany can, therefore, rely on their system to deliver the goods and not worry too much about the opposition. However, they do need to wary of not go all gung-ho with the full-backs and expose their flanks to Uruguay’s counter-attacks. Also, if Uruguay start with a three man attack (basically, at least), Forlan’s movement will pose a great danger between their midfield and defence.

Both teams should be extremely hungry for the third place. For Germany’s young squad, it would be a solid foundation on which to build their glorious future. And for Uruguay, this is basically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In recent World Cups, the third-place play-off matches have offered great entertainment. This match should be no exception to the rule.

World Cup 2010 semi-final preview: Uruguay-Holland

Where would Holland be without Wesley Sneijder? While Robin van Persie still continued to be rubbish and Arjen Robben was a bit confused against the Brazilians because he needed to produce something more than  just his trademark dribbling to be any good (although improved in the second half when playing in a wider position), it was down to Sneijder to pretty much single-handedly defeat Brazil in the quarter-final.

It was a game Holland were never supposed to win. The Dutch had nothing on the Brazilians until that fatal free-kick mistake by Julio Cesar. Sneijder drifted in a cross, Cesar blinked and punched the air: 1-1. Brazil were never supposed to let in a goal like that, or even a set piece goal for that matter, and this fact seemed to undress Brazil of all the excellence and mental strength they had showcased earlier on in the tournament. Then Sneijder scored from a perfectly exequted set-piece to make it 2-1. Felipe Melo lost his marbles and got sent off. And after a pretty much non-existent last push by Brazil, all of a sudden Holland found themselves with a ticket into the semi-final. It was strange how Dunga’s Brazil looked to have embarked on their World Cup journey completely without a plan-B. If you go into a World Cup expecting never to be a goal down, then this is exactly what you’ll get.

Back to the main event then. Despite their lukewarm performances, Holland is the biggest favorite in this semi-final fixture. It might not perhaps be so if Uruguay were not without a host of key players (Luis Suarez, Diego Lugano (?), Nicolas Lodeiro and Jorge Fucile). Diego Godin is fit however, which will be a huge boost. Also, Martin Caceres will finally get his chance. Uruguay have shown a tremendous  spirit in this tournament so it is unlikely that they will go down without a fight.

Suarez’s absence is a major blow but Sebastian Abreu is a fine replacement. The inclusion of the experienced journeyman means that Uruguay have to change their tactics a bit. This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing though. Abreu will play as an traditional out-and-out central forward (Suarez tended to drift wide to get the ball, which at times left Uruguay’s central position in the attacking third unoccupied) and will try to tie the Dutch centre-backs to him and stretch the pitch as much as he can. This will not only free space for Forlan but also open up the possibility to use route one and play long balls to Abreu.

Although Lodeiro has not had a great tournament (he did show some promise against Ghana though), he is a player Uruguay could use in the attacking third to relieve some of the playmaking duties from Forlan. But since Lodeiro is unavailable, Edison Cavani, who has been a disappointment so far, has a crucial role to play as he has to provide attacking support for Uruguay’s front two. In the last two games Cavani has dropped too deep, away from his comfort zone, when Uruguay are without possession. In this match Uruguay need to risk their defensive shape a bit and free Cavani of some (but by no means all) of his defensive responsibilities in order to make their attacking play gel.

It will be a hard-fought contest in the middle of the park where Digo Perez and Egidio Arevalo try to cut off the supply to Robben, Sneijder and van Persie. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong are no silky playmakers so this might be Uruguay’s best solution, especially since they are probably without two of their starting defenders.

Verdict: The heart says Uruguay, the head says Holland. Uruguay it is then.

Tactical detail: How will Uruguay be able to shift from defense to attack in the absence of the mobile Suarez, skillful Lodeiro and Fucile as full-back? Uruguay might play a variation between 4-4-1-1 (when defending) and 4-3-3 (when attacking) formations. When without to ball, Uruguay would defend with two banks of four, with Forlan applying some extra pressure on the Dutch midfielders when they come deeper for the ball, and Cavani would play on the right side of midfield. Then when Uruguay get possession, the formation would shift to a 4-3-3, with Forlan (in a freer role) and Cavani drifting to wide areas up the pitch to receive the ball. This system would require that Uruguay press the Dutch midfielders hard, leaving Sneijder relatively free, and keep their midfield shape extremely tight.

World Cup 2010 quarter-finals: who will go through, the players to watch and some tactical details

Holland-Brazil: the best team in the tournament against the team that might think they are the best

Brazil have been the most consistent and balanced team in the tournament. They showed their stoic patience in the first twenty minutes of the Chile match before unleashing well-timed and precise waves of yellow onslaughts, and in the end strolled to a 3-0 victory. This is probably the approach they will take against the Dutch; let Holland keep possession and strike with venom when given the chance.

Holland haven’t really been tested in the tournament yet. There are echoes of EURO 2008 when they all but though they had won the tournament after the group stage, only to be destroyed by the Russians in the second round. However, this is a far more cautious Dutch side who have tried to learn from their past mistakes. Therefore, Holland will do well to keep numbers at the back and not get all gung-ho like the Chileans did, even if they do think they are the best in the world.

Verdict: Brazil will edge a victory, but the Dutch will give them a run for their money.

Smokin’ hot: Luis Fabiano

Unsung hero: Michel Bastos

Tactical detail: Dirk Kuyt’s defensive role. How deep will he track back to try to cancel out Maicon and aid van Bronckhorst with Dani Alves when Holland are without possession, and when doing this, how will he be able to contribute to the Dutch attacks.

Uruguay-Ghana: defensive steel vs organisation and directness

Uruguay go into the quarterfinal as slight favourites, even if the whole of Africa is backing the Black Stars. Ghana’s victory over the US was largely due to Ghana’s defensive organisation and directness in midfield. The Americans couldn’t contain Ghana’s onrush (and especially Kevin-Prince Boateng) but Uruguay, with the excellent pairing of Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo patrolling the centre of the park, will not be daunted by a hard-fought midfield contest. Also, Uruguay’s defence (providing that Diego Godin is fit) looks more than capable to stifle Ghana’s straightforward attacking approach.

If Uruguay rely on their strengths of steely defending and quick attacking through Diego Forlan, and do not concede the game to their opponents as willingly as they did against South Korea, they should be able to proceed to the semi-final.

Verdict: Uruguay win on penalties.

Smokin’ hot: Luis Suarez

Unsung hero: Diego Perez

Tactical detail: Will Uruguay opt for an active approach and press higher up the field (which they should) or will they go for a more cautious strategy and defend deeper and try to soak up the pressure. If the choice is the latter, which they did in the second half against South Korea unsuccessfully (even if they managed to score in the end), it will be interesting to see how they’ll solve the problem of making their attacking transitions more fluid in deep midfield positions.

Argentina-Germany: a replay from 2006, this time the Germans won’t need penalties to reach the semi-final

A scintillating fixture between two of the best attacking and most entertaining sides in the tournament. However, one thing separates the two teams. While Diego Maradona perhaps relies more on the exquisite skill of the individuals, Joachim Low makes the team system the biggest virtue of both their attacking and defending. And this will be the significant difference between the teams. Germany are more balanced as a team and more versatile in terms of their attacking combinations. Argentina’s defence has not really been tested yet and they would really do with a fit Walter Samuel. The German defence, however, has been excellent (Arne Friedrich for one should get much more plaudits for his almost impeccable performances) but will need extra support from the midfielders and full-backs if they are to stop the quicksilvery Argentinian attackers.

Lionel Messi will be in the limelight once again, and has to produce the superb game everyone’s been waiting for if Argentina are to go through, but Mezut Özil is the player to watch here. Even when without the ball, the 21-year-old Werder Bremen playmaker is a threat due to his excellent movement and tactical understanding.

Verdict: A narrow victory for the Germans.

Smokin’ hot: Mesut Özil

Unsung hero: Sami Khedira

Tactical detail: Özil’s movement in German attacking transitions. Because German midfielders need to concentrate more on their defensive duties and play deep in their own half at times, the movement of Özil becomes even more important when Germany get the ball, even if the ball is not played directly to him.

Paraguay-Spain: all too easy for Spain

Spain are yet to peak, and do not need to do so in this fixture. Paraguay defeated Japan on penalties in one of the most boring matches in the tournament but showed no qualities that would suggest they are capable of beating the European champions. Sure, Paraguay have conceded only a single goal (a penalty) so far, but they haven’t yet come against a side that could throw a decent attack at them and keep them on the back foot.

Good news for Spain, they just might have found their best formation in the second half against Portugal when Fernando Llorente replaced Fernando Torres. Torres has been largely disappointing and might have to make way for the 25-year-old Atletic Bilbao striker.

Verdict: A comfortable win for Spain, though the goals might not come until the second half.

Smokin’ hot: David Villa

Unsung hero: Xabi Alonso

Tactical detail: If Llorente replaces Torres in attack, Spain will have a more traditional centre-forward as a target in the attacking area. In this case Spain can play with more width (with Villa and Andreas Iniesta or Jesus Navas/ David Silva playing wide) which will stretch Paraguay’s defensive shape. This will then create more room for the central midfielders to roam and to deliver killer passes and make runs at the defence.

Italy in World Cup 2010: one last hurrah for the old guard

Italy will start their World Cup campaign with mixed feelings. The four years since their 2006 triumph has gone decently at best. Euro 2008 was a below-par performance and the Confederation’s Cup last summer a complete and utter disaster. Their build-up to the tournament has not raised any great expectations either: 1-1 draws against Cameroon and Switzerland and a 2-1 defeat to Mexico did no favours to Italy’s confidence.

Yet, despite all the troubles and criticism, Lippi adamantly relies in his trusted players: Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi and Gennaro Gattuso all have their best years behind them but they still have some a role to play in Lippi’s plans. Cannavaro still remains key; Gattuso, however, might be this campaign’s Angelo Perruzzi.

In 2006 Italy had an exceptionally diverse and flexible squad with which Lippi could bring about a tactical masterclass. There were six strikers, all with different qualities, all of whom scored at least one goal in the tournament. There were visionaries like Totti, Alesssandro Del Piero and Pirlo. There were style and industry in midfield. There was a masterly defence built around a corner stone in the shape of Cannavaro at his prime. This time around the personnel is no way nearly as good enough but Lippi’s tactical eye is still as sharp as ever.

The XI

There are three positions in Italy’s starting eleven that are still open on the eve of their opening fixture: one of the full-back positions and two midfield spots. If Gianluca Zambrotta starts on the right, Domenico Criscito will play on the left, if on the left, Christian Maggio will start on the right. Both players are fairly attacking minded as they are accustomed to wide midfield roles in their home clubs. Especially Maggio could bring needed creativity in defence.

In midfield Andrea Pirlo’s injury has forced Lippi to change his primary plans. It is likely that the more defensive minded Angelo Palombo will start alongside Daniele De Rossi in centre of a three man midfield to relieve some of the defensive duties from De Rossi. Depending on whether Italy play with a flat midfield or a pyramid, it is either Claudio Marchisio or Riccardo Montolivo who will take the third spot. Both make a strong case.

In a flat formation, Marchisio would offer a dynamic attacking threat as an auxiliary winger which would benefit Italy’s counter-attacking aspirations. Montolivo, on the other hand, would be close to a like-for-like substitute for Pirlo. Built in the similar mould, Montolivo would instil needed creativity and slick passing on the tip of a midfield pyramid. From these two, it is perhaps the immensely talented Fiorentina captain who should finally get his big chance in the Italy shirt. In this case, Marchisio would offer an excellent tactical option coming off the bench. As an interesting detail, should Lippi field De Rossi, Palombo and Montolivo, Italy would have three club captains in midfield (of AS Roma, Sampdoria and Fiorentina, respectively).

The tactics: 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1

In the build up to the tournament, Lippi preferred to play with one up front and with two wide forwards. This is noteworthy because there is a shortage of natural wingers in the squad; the only out-and-out winger being Simone Pepe who will only be featured as a late substitute. Despite of this fact, Lippi will most likely use Vincenzo Iaquinta and Antonio Di Natale as wide forwards. Due to his power and directness, Iaquinta is better at a central role and even if Di Natale is no stranger to the wide position, because of his lack of pace, he has struggled at the international level (last European Championships showed us that much). Di Natale, nevertheless, is the focal creative point in Italy’s strategy.

The biggest problem with Italy attacking play will be their lack of pace. With pace I don’t mean flat out speed from zero to one hundred, but quick feet and sharp movement which is needed when keeping possession and breaking through in the attacking third of the pitch. Italy have quality target-forwards in abundance (Iaquinta, Marco Borriello, Alberto Gilardino and Giampaolo Pazzini) but what they need is someone who could shuffle the oppositions back line by taking on defenders. Fabio Quagliarella is the closest Italy have to someone like that and the Napoli forward will probably be used as an impact substitute. In the absence of quicksilvery movement upfront, Italy will rely on directness and power.

It would be totally foolish, however, to presume that a World Cup winning coach is not aware of these defects in his personnel. Lippi knows exactly what he is doing with this slightly modest Italy squad. Despite having a more one-sided squad that four years ago, Lippi still has a palette of tactical manoeuvres to show his tactical mastery. Italy will not retain the World Cup but they will get through from an easy group and go to the quarter-finals, at least.

Key man:

Buffon remains the most important player for Italy. Big saves are needed since the defence is not nearly as solid as it was in 2006.

One to watch:

Gilardino is the starting forward no matter which system Lippi decides to use. However, should Gilardino shoot blanks, Giampaolo Pazzini will get an opportunity. Pazzini and Gilardino are similar players, but despite Pazzini’s inexperience, the Sampdoria man is a more complete package. Pazzini is powerful in the air, can poach like a pickpocket on a crowded street and is extremely comfortable on the ball.

The likely opening lineup:


Zambrotta   Cannavaro   Chiellini   Criscito

De Rossi   Palombo


Iaquinta                                                 Di Natale


World Cup 2010: group-by-group overview of who will go through

Group A

France: Oh dear, what a waste! It’s really quite unbelievable how a group of such talented players manage to play so poorly as a group. Despite France’s shortcomings as a team, their strength in individuals will get them through from the group. However, they are far from repeating the miracle of 2006.

Key man: Franck Ribery

One to watch: Yoann Gourcuff

Uruguay: Perhaps the least fancied team from South America won’t be taking any prisoners with their brutal style of play. Cynical and highly aggressive team defending will be enough to squeeze them through from a group where anything can happen, but that’s as far as they’ll go. Uruguay have one of the best and most versatile array of forwards from any team in the tournament (Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez, Edison Cavani and why not even Sebastian Abreu) but they need someone to lubricate the attacking transitions in midfield.

Key man: Diego Forlan

One to watch: Luis Suarez

Group B

Argentina: Everyone keeps saying that Maradona will ruin the hopes of one of the best national team in Argentina’s history. I was included in this bunch of know-alls until I read this brilliant analysis. They might not win the trophy, but at least they’ll give other challengers a proper run for their money, and might even reach the semis.

Key man: Lionel Messi

One to watch: Javier Pastore

Nigeria: After years of turmoil, the Super-Eagles are back. Expect to see a balanced Nigerian team this time around with the former Sweden coach Lars Lagerbäck at the helm. No real top players, but plenty of decent players in every department.

Key man: Joseph Yobo

One to watch: Peter Odemwingie

Group C

England: Had Fabio Capello been the England coach four years ago, England might really have had a shot at the World Cup. Now the same players are four years older and many come to the tournament with a disappointing season behind them. The goalkeeping is always an issue with England and so is the quality of the forwards: would the likes of Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch be included in any other team challenging for the World Cup? Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will have to up their game to offer support to Wayne Rooney. England won’t win the tournament but they might just reach the semi-final. They will always have 1966.

Key man: Wayne Rooney

One to watch: Glen Johnson

USA: USA showed in the Confederations Cup that with hard work and pragmatic team playing they can beat anybody on their day. However, this is the World Cup, so don’t expect any Hollywood endings. The last thirty-two is as good as it’ll get and that would be more than progress for the Americans. Baby steps, baby steps.

Key man: Clint Dempsey

One to watch: Michael Bradley

Group D:

Serbia: Everyone’s favourite “dark horses” have become true challengers. Or have they? The defence should be solid enough with a defence line of Aleksandar Kolarov-Nemanja Vidic-Neven Subotic-Branislav Ivanovic but they lack firepower upfront. A last eight finish possible, which would be a great improvement from the humiliating 2006 campaign.

Key man: Nemanja Vidic

One to watch: Neven Subotic

Germany: How are the times a-changing! Germany have a young, fun, exciting team! Of course, Germany have demolished the myth of being a boring “machine” years ago, but the class of 2010 should really be something else. With Michael Ballack and co. either injured or out of the team, fresh new blood has been brought in. Watch out for the classy playmaker Mesut Özil and the dynamic midfield dynamo Sami Khedira in particular. 2010 is still a bit early for this bunch but expect great things from them in the future.

Key man: Philipp Lahm

One to watch: Sami Khedira

Group E:

Holland: The Dutch will thrill and spill in goals in their easy group, and then bow out in the quarter-final against Brazil. So nothing new under the sun. The playing of the duo, Arjen Robben-Dirk Ku…err, sorry…Wesley Sneijder will be an enjoyment to watch. Holland’s feeble defence, however, will be their downfall.

Key man: Wesley Sneijder

One to watch: Eljero Elia

Cameroon: Like Nigeria, Cameroon have also got their act together after a few year absence. The team captain, Samuel Eto’o needs to be at his best to provide not only the goals but also team cohesion if they are to beat Denmark for the second spot in the group.

Key man: Samuel Eto’o

One to watch: Idriss Kameni

Group F:

Italy: Italy will need to be at their defensive best to succeed. Should stroll through an easy group but an expected quarter-final match-up against Spain will be too much for the reigning champions. See a more in-depth analysis here.

Key man: Gianluigi Buffon

One to watch: Claudio Marchisio

Paraguay: Group F might become a bit of a bore since none of the teams are exactly thrilling attacking sides. Paraguay will rely on a stubborn defence and quick counter-attacking. Since star man Roque Santa Cruz is out of form, the big Benfica forward Oscar Cardozo may lead the attacking line.

Key man: Oscar Cardozo

One to watch: Edgar Barreto

Group G:

Brazil: For those who still think the spirit of samba lives in the heart of the Brazilian national team, wake up and smell the coffee. Brazil relies on a stubborn defence, highly organized team shape and clinical counter-attacking. This is not to say that Brazil are boring though. Dunga’s Brazil are be one of the most exciting teams to watch in a tournament where pragmatism is all the rage. With no flamboyant entertainers in the side (except Robinho perhaps), Brazil will give a masterclass of defensive virtues.

Key man: Julio Cesar

One to watch: Felipe Melo

Ivory Coast: Again Ivory Coast got the short straw as they were drawn into “the group of death” for the second World Cup running. But so what? Brazil might be too much to handle, but Portugal should be no unmovable obstacle for Didier Drogba and co. If Ivory Coast are to live up to the billing of being the strongest team from Africa, now’s the time to prove it.

Key man: Didier Drogba

One to watch: Gervinho

Group E

Spain: For the first time ever, Spain is truly one of the biggest favourites to win the World Cup. Spain are the exception to the rule of how to succeed in 2010. They will play a mesmerizing, and at times highly frustrating, passing game. Spain might seem invincible at the moment but the defeat at the Confederations Cup to USA showed that they have to keep their focus in the moment and not get distracted by their own splendour. Spain have a balanced squad with different tactical options if plan-a fails, but their full-back department might be a liability.

Key man: Xavi

One to watch: David Silva

Chile: The team to watch from South America. Marcelo Bielsa’s side are expected to play with a fun 3-3-1-3 system that might surprise a few people. No real starts but plenty of exciting prospects. Alexis Sanchez had an excellent season at Udinese, Humberto Suazo took Zaragoza by storm and Matias Fernandez finally found his talented feet in Europe at Benfica after a disappointing period at Villareal.

Key man: Matias Fernandez

One to watch: Alexis Sanchez

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