Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Why Chelsea's attacking quartet means they don't need a striker

With the transfer window firmly shut, there aren't many sets of supporters that are happier with their club's squad than those of Chelsea. One point, however, that people keep pointing to is their strikers. With Romelu Lukaku being loaned out to Everton on deadline day and a perhaps over-the-hill Samuel Eto'o coming in, many people feel that Chelsea could struggle due to not having the likes of a Robin Van Persie up top.

I want to throw out the question, do Chelsea need one particular player to score so many goals?

Despite scoring over 20 goals in all competitions last season, many people feel that Fernando Torres' goal scoring stats are not high enough for a team aiming to challenge for trophies on all fronts.

20 goals in all competitions might not be the best return for a traditional lone striker but the role of Fernando Torres in the Chelsea team is vastly different to the traditional role of a lone striker.

When you think of world-class lone strikers you think of the likes of Didier Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao. All strong, physical players who can hold off defenders with ease and wait for support from the midfield or else shrug the defenders off before smashing the ball into the net. Torres is certainly not this, but in the Chelsea system he doesn’t need to be.

With the likes of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar in behind him, it is not solely down to Torres to score. It is more a collective effort from the four attacking players. Last season in the Premier League, the above three players contributed 25 goals and 28 assists. With it being Oscar and Hazard’s first season in England, it is safe to assume that this figure will dramatically increase this coming season. This is a logical assumption to make when you look at the other member of the trio – Juan Mata. The Spaniard scored just six league goals in his first season at The Bridge, a figure which he doubled in his second season.

The style Chelsea are looking to implement is very similar to that of the Spanish national team, at least on the attacking front anyway. It is a style based on fluidity and having a lot of tricky, fast and agile players who are constantly on the move. Vicente Del Bosque famously deployed a strikerless system on more than one occasion in the 2012 European Championships – a tournament which Spain were crowned champions. Having no recognised striker might look anti-attacking but it is in fact the opposite. The constant movement of the front four players causes mass confusion for opposing defences and the absence of a Drogba style striker leaves central defenders with no reference point, often confused as to where exactly they should be and who they should be watching at any particular time.

In one of Chelsea’s opening fixtures against either Aston Villa or Hull City, Fernando Torres only had one touch in the opposition box. In a normal one striker system this would be a major problem. I don’t see it as an issue for Chelsea though. Torres can often be found playing deep, with the likes of Mata, Hazard and Oscar finding themselves in more advanced positions at times. He often drifts out to either flank, dragging defenders with him and, as a result opening space for the above three players to exploit.

A ‘striker’ in this system is not a striker, rather a member of an attacking quartet.

Chelsea have added depth to this position with the arrival of Willian and Andre Schürrle to the squad. The latter contributed 11 goals and seven assists to Bayer Leverkusen’s Bundesliga campaign last season. Perhaps trying to reduce the reliance on Juan Mata who was responsible for saving Chelsea time and time again last season. The arrival of these two also allows for Chelsea to put together a serious challenge in every tournament. Rotation will be possible without weakening the starting eleven too much.

Many people, myself included were initially surprised and somewhat annoyed by the decision to loan out Romelu Lukaku again this season but when you look at it, it’s a move that makes sense. With this new style that Chelsea will be deploying, is there really room for a striker in the mould of Lukaku? Players like Torres and Eto’o seem to fit the system a lot better. It is a system that relies a lot on clever movement, intricate passing and through balls. This is a system which involves minimal crossing and little or no long, high balls up to the front man. A system based on possession. Torres is used to this kind of play from the Spain squad and Eto’o has experienced it before with Barcelona. Lukaku is still learning and another year on loan will do him the world of good. Under the guidance of Roberto Martinez, he will surely be used in a system which also encourages short, quick passing and constant movement meaning he will be ready to come back and become Chelsea’s first choice striker next season.

So, to round off this piece and to answer my initial question, do Chelsea really need a striker? I don’t think so, they have a plethora of attacking options who are more than capable of providing for one another as well as scoring goals themselves, so why limit themselves to putting all their eggs in one basket? 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Airtricity League Premier Division: Bottom Four Fight Heating Up

With the third series of fixtures underway in the Airtricity League of Ireland, the battle at the bottom is shaping up to end in thrilling fashion with all still very much to play for. The four teams in the most immediate danger of the drop are separated by just four points; Bohemians, Bray Wanderers, Shelbourne, and UCD. Bohs currently sit bottom with 18 points, next in line are Bray with 20, then Shels, also with 20 but a goal difference which betters that of Bray by 4, fourth from bottom sit UCD with 22 points. Even outside of these four, Drogheda United sit in eight place with 26 points, leaving the Louth side not too far from the danger zone themselves.

First things first, I’ll start at bottom club Bohs and their survival chances. It was predicted by many that this season would be a struggle for the Dublin side, but just how much of a struggle was always in question.

Their season started relatively well with a 2-1 victory over UCD. They went on to pick up seven points from their first five games in which they defeated two relegation rivals UCD and Shelbourne, and shared a point with fierce rivals Shamrock Rovers in Dalymount Park. Then things took a turn, losing three on the trot to Derry, Limerick and Dundalk. Bohs began to realise they were involved in this relegation scrap.

One major contributing factor to where Bohs find themselves is that they, unlike the teams around them, have not really had a good run of games this season. Had they have put a run together like those around them did, they would be well clear of this fight but instead they find themselves at the foot of the table.

One factor that could play into their hands is the very stature of the club. Bohemian Football Club is a huge club in Irish football terms. It is a club which has never been relegated. Travelling to Dalymount to play Bohemians still has a certain feel to it. Travelling to an intimidating ground to come up against a big club who, if you ask anyone associated with the club, belong nowhere near the bottom of the table. I’m certain it will be drilled into the players that this club is almost too big to go down and I expect Bohs to put up more of a fight in the final series of fixtures.

Next, I’ll take a look at Bray. The Seagulls find themselves second from bottom in the league. They also have the second worst defence in the league, with only UCD leaking more goals than them to date this season. At a first glance, things look pretty bleak for the league’s only Wicklow based team. But Bray do have a few factors which could prove to work in their favour. Pat Devlin’s men are one of, if not the most experienced League of Ireland side when it comes to fighting for their lives, and more often than not they come out on top. They will not be panicking about the fact that they find themselves near the foot of the table as it’s very much where they expect to be season after season.

Another thing which gives Bray hope is their record goal-scorer Jason Byrne. Since returning to the club in 2012 the veteran striker has netted 26 times in just 40 games. Byrne is a man who is always capable of scoring with just one chance and having him in the team means Bray will always be likely to score goals. Young gun Ismahil Akinade has also been finding his goal scoring touch since the halfway point of the season and should he continue this form Bray could well pull off a surprise or two before the season ends.

Tolka Park next, and Shelbourne the team to be looked at. Another big club that find themselves battling for their lives. For a long time Shels looked dead and buried, written off by most who follow the league and the teams above them possibly even began to relax. Following the departure of manager Alan Matthews in May and the arrival of Johnny McDonnell they began to show some fight and claw their way back into the battle.

Perhaps being written off by almost everybody helped, it certainly would have eased the pressure as nobody expected anything from them. Their best run of form came as they burst into life with a draw away to Drogheda was followed by successive victories over Cork City, Limerick and UCD, then came a draw away to fellow strugglers Bray before finally succumbing to defeat at the hands of Dundalk. Shels have come into form at a good time and this could be a decisive factor in regards to their survival hopes.

Now to the team who currently sit four points clear of bottom, UCD. Like Bray, UCD are well used to finding themselves at the bottom of the table as the season reaches its end.

Like Bray and Shelbourne, UCD showed signs that they are capable of winning games. UCD’s hot streak coincided with Bray’s. The Students have a massively inexperienced squad. The coaching staff at UCD will be experienced at fighting the drop, the players, on the other hand will not. With the right guidance UCD will be able to remain calm and keep their heads above water. Knees will no doubt be trembling in the dressing room at Belfield, it will be interesting to see how The Students handle the pressure of another relegation dog-fight.

It could well come down to the remaining fixtures between each clubs, I have put together a small table of games in which the bottom four have faced each other. 

Thursday, 27 June 2013

St Patrick's Athletic vs Bray Wanderers match preview. Friday, June 28th 2013.

The midsummer break is now over and league leaders St Patrick's Athletic welcome Bray Wanderers to Richmond Park for their first game back.

Top of the table Pat's will be looking to claim all three points as they continue to push on in an effort to claim the title come the end of the season. Having been defeated 2-1 by Dundalk in their last game before the break, it will be interesting to see how the Saints bounce back to this with the pressure surely being higher than normal due to this defeat. Previous to this defeat, Pat's had not lost since April, once again at the hands of The Lillywhites.

Saints manager Liam Buckley has stated his side have welcomed the break with open arms, continuing to say it was a good opportunity to give his players a rest and that they will not be taking the opposition lightly.

"The break was good to give some of our lads time off and the squad is all back in training now and look rested and ready to go again. We’ll need to be at it on Friday as Bray will be tough opponents." Said Buckley as he spoke to stpatsfc.com.

“We’d a tight game in their place earlier in the season and since then they’ve been going well lately. Jason Byrne has been banging the goals in and they had good wins recently against UCD, Drogheda and Cork. We know they’ll test us and pose us problems, so we just have to apply ourselves as best we can and hopefully we’ll get a result.”

Jake Kelly, who moved to the Inchicore side from the Seagulls further enforced how his side will not be underestimating their opponents on Friday night.

“Bray came to Richmond last year and beat us 1-0 and also got a 3-3 draw against us in Bray so we don’t need any reminding of what they’re capable of. They can get goals from nothing as lads like Jason Byrne and Kieran Marty Waters are so dangerous. But we’re still confident in ourselves and we’ll be looking to win on Friday.” Kelly said as he spoke to stpatsfc.com.

The home side go into the game without Killian Brennan, who is beginning a two match suspension following his sending off in the Dundalk game.

Bray will also be looking to continue their good form as they come into Friday's clash. The Seagulls have been performing above all expectations of late having won four of their last six games. 

The visitors also have the pleasure of having a full squad of players to choose from for the first time in seemingly forever. Danny and Kevin O'Connor are both available for selection following a prolonged absence before the break. Shane O'Neil and Eoin Hyland are also back in contention for a place in the squad having missed a few games prior to the summer break.

Bray's Director of Football Pat Devlin stated his happiness with how his side have recently lifted their levels of performance following an underwhelming start to the campaign. 

"I am happy with our performances especially in the final weeks before the break." Commented Devlin while speaking to braywanderers.ie.

"We now need to move forward from here, we have a tough programme ahead of us and we hope to get more points on the board from the first phase. We need to push forward and we hope to strengthen the squad in the window. We are looking forward to the remainder of the season."

Bray will no doubt need to be at the top of their game in order to stand a chance on Friday. Two of the leagues form teams coming together does, however, mean the crowd at Richmond Park should be in for a treat.

Follow Conor Clancy on Twitter: @conorclancy9

Friday, 14 June 2013

Bray Wanderers vs Derry City Review. Friday, June 14th 2013

On a night of torrential rain and strong winds this clash at the seaside never looked like being an appealing game of football to watch. On a saturated pitch which allowed for little football to be played, form side Bray Wanderers hosted title hopefuls Derry City in the Carlisle Grounds.

Derry started the game and immediately set out to all watching that they would not be attempting to play the ball around too much as they shot straight from kick off. Derry dominated the early parts of the game squeezing a penalty appeal and the opening goal of the game into the first fifteen minutes of action. The opening goal came as Rory Patterson flicked the ball across the box for  Patrick McEleney to divert the ball home past Darren Quigley in the Bray goal. The game was providing no real entertainment and the highlight thus far proved to be three brave Derry fans leaving the enclosed stand to support their team from beneath the lashings of rain and gusts of wind on the opposite side of the pitch. This was a move which brought a smile to the faces of most and was met by applause from the vast majority of the Carlisle.

Bray then began to get the ball under control for the first real time in the game with twenty-five minutes on the clock. Kieran 'Marty' Waters attempted to feed Jason Byrne through but the conditions meant the ball skidded through kindly to the hands of Ger Doherty in the Candystripes' goal. Moments later a long ball was nicely touched on by Bray youngster Ismahil Akinade and Gary Dempsey drove forward past two City players before releasing the ball to Jason Byrne whose effort was tame and straight at Doherty.

As Bray found their stride Derry broke down and looked certain to make it 2-0 but for a superb last ditch tackle from Conor Earley to set up a Bray attack. Waters ran at the Derry defence before being brought down on the edge of the box. Dave Webster powerfully drove the ball at goal and were it not for a wonderful save from Doherty the score would have been level once more. The save was so good it even prompted Jason Byrne to go and shake the hand of the Derry keeper. The scores were level from the resulting corner, however. The man affectionately known as 'Izzy' by Seagulls' supporters found himself free in the box and looped his header inside the far post to draw Bray level on thirty-five minutes before making full use of the conditions in his celebration.

Bray went on to dominate the next ten minutes of play. Time and time again the ball was lofted into the Derry box where each time it was rather easily headed away.

Just as the fourth official indicated how long would be added on to the end of the half Quigley brilliantly parried away a speculative drive from Kevin Deery. It wasn't long before Quigley was beaten for the second time. On forty-seven minutes Rory Patterson glanced a Barry McNamee cross past the Bray shot stopper to restore his sides lead right on half time.

As the second half began, Bray had the wind behind them and it didn't take long for them to cause Derry a problem or two. Gary Dempsey found himself bearing down on Doherty's goal only to go down under a challenge but Bray's rather tame penalty shouts were turned down by referee Paul Tuite. Tuite was once again the centre of attention moments later when Marty Waters crossed was caught by the wind and dipped down, bouncing out off the crossbar before Ger Doherty picked up what appeared to be a back-pass from one of his defenders but the referee stood firm and turned down the appeals.

Bray soon found themselves with a mountain to climb as Paddy Kavanagh lost his man from a throw in and was allowed the space to easily roll the ball into the six-yard-box where Rory Patterson tapped home to double his tally and City's lead.

Bray did not give up, however and a long ball to Byrne cause confusion in the Derry defence and led to a corner which came to nothing. The warning signs were there. Shortly after Waters found himself to the left of the box, cutting in onto his weaker right foot his shot was blocked wide for another Seagulls corner. This time the end result was a goal. Dean Zambra's initial cross was blocked, but rebounded to him providing him with a second opportunity which he took full advantage of. His cross was met by the head of Patterson who put the ball into his own goal to give Bray a lifeline.

Shane O'Connor found himself lucky to remain on the pitch for the second time in the game following an off the ball incident with Patterson in which he appeared to kick out at the Candystripes' forward. Luckily this incident was not spotted by the referee. Earlier on in the game O'Connor appeared to have swung an arm at a Derry player. The second of these incidents resulted in O'Connor escaping any cards while Patterson picked up a booking for descent.

From here on in Bray will rightly feel they should have earned at least a point from the game. Firstly, Gary Dempsey broke the offside trap before trying to lift the ball over the onrushing Doherty only for his effort to go wide. Then came the best chance, and most surprising miss of the game. A long hopeful ball into the Derry box found Jason Byrne six yards out, completely unmarked. The veteran striker somehow managed the fluff his connection and the ball went wide. Byrne's reaction said it all as he stood with his head in his hands. Jason Byrne was once again involved as he beautifully beat two Derry players at once on the right wing before firing an extremely optimistic shot from range which never came close to troubling Doherty.

After this the game kind of just fizzled out with the only real chance falling to the head of Barry McNamee who should have killed the game but headed wide from right in front of Quigley's goal.

Derry held on to claim all three points and the celebrations of City boss Declan Devine showed that they had escaped with a lucky three points on the night. An important win for Derry, but an unfortunate and undeserved defeat for Bray.

Monday, 10 June 2013

AC Milan - Transition complete; Ready for Take Off.

It's fair to say that after an excruciating summer for the Rossoneri faithful last year, this season was always going to be an interesting one. It started off poorly, to say the least. Dreams of the Scudetto rapidly raced from the minds of Milan players and fans alike as they plummeted into a time of crisis. It was beginning to look unlikely that the seven time European Champions would even be representing their country in a European competition next season. Of their first ten games, Milan had won just three, drawing two and losing five in the process. This was not the form of a Europa League contender, never mind the form of a title contender.

On October 30th, Milan found themselves 2-0 behind away to Palermo thanks to two goals either side of half time. Milan looked spineless. Nobody was willing to fight for the cause. Nobody was willing to rally the troops and push the Rossoneri through. Milan were a wounded animal. An under-performing Bojan Krkic was brought on to replace an equally underwhelming Alexandre Pato. He made a difference. On 69 minutes Milan were presented with a glimmer of hope. A goal from Riccardo Montolivo, a rare consistent performer for Milan gave them new life. Milan pushed on and equalised on 80 minutes through Stephan El Shaarawy. They even could and perhaps should have won the game were it not for a few fluffed chances in the dying moments of the game. This was a turning point. From this point on, Milan were a different animal. The beast had been woken up. 

Results began to change and from November onwards, Milan were the form team in the league. January saw the exit of Pato and the arrival of one Mario Balotelli. Heads were being held high in the red half of Milan, even more so given that their run of good form coincided with a dramatic dip in form for their city rivals - Internazionale. From the 18th of November no team would pick up more points than Milan in Italy's top flight until the end of the season. 

The coming season will be different, very different. Milan have reasons to be positive. 

This summer will not see any major exits like last summer, primarily because they haven't got as many big name players this year. Last year they lost the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Antonio Cassano, Gianluca Zambrotta and Marc Van Bommel. On top of this Maxi Lopez and Alberto Aquilani both left following the expiry of their respective loan contracts as well as a plethora of rumours surrounding the futures of Pato and Robinho. This time round their main superstar is also their latest arrival and he's not going anywhere - Super Mario. Their young gun Stephan El Shaarawy has been attracting rumours which Adriano Galliani has firmly denied. The only real transfer talk coming out of the club is to do with the potential arrival of Carlos Tevez from Manchester City - a signing which would further strengthen Allegri's squad. The side have adapted from being focused on the above players to being focused on the likes of El Shaarawy, Montolivo, Balotelli, Pazzini. A new spine has been formed and it has been formed a lot quicker than many anticipated.

One huge plus that Milan will have for next season is simply having Mario Balotelli for a full campaign. His form since setting foot on Italian soil has been nothing short of remarkable. Scoring twelve goals in thirteen games he is beginning to make headlines for all the right reasons again and this will put a smile on the faces of Milan fans worldwide. It's clear that Balotelli feels loved at Milan, he feels like he's an important player to that team, something which was evidently lacking during his time in England. He is the main man now at Milan. All eyes are firmly on his footballing ability and it would appear that he is loving every minute of it. If he can take this form into next season then there is no reason why he can't be scoring title deciding goals come May 2014. 

Another factor which could very well play into Milan's hands is that Juventus will be giving more attention than ever to the Champions League. Having found themselves to be very unlucky to come up against a wonderful Bayern Munich side this season, Juve will want to show the world that they are well and truly back after years of suffering following the Calciopoli scandal. This might well see The Old Lady resting players in Serie A matches allowing teams to take points off them more so than they did this season and thus providing Milan with a golden opportunity. 

On top of these factors, Milan will have a new-found hunger, a hunger stronger than ever before to reclaim what they feel is their post at the summit of Italian football. Having seen Juventus win the previous two Scudetto's, Milan will do everything in their power to stop it from becoming a hat-trick of league titles for their enemies from Turin. Furthermore, winning a third consecutive title is by no means an easy thing to do and Juventus will face enormous pressures which could see them crumble and the Rossoneri will be waiting to pounce at any sign of weakness.

For the above reasons as well as others, I would not be the slightest bit surprised to see AC Milan emphatically bounce back this year. The transition is now complete, the Rossoneri are ready for take off.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Republic of Ireland: Evolution takes time, small steps are being taken.

After the shameful performance from the Irish football team at the 2012 European Championships in the Ukraine and Poland, the ‘Boys in Green’ took a bit of a verbal battering from myself and many of the country’s other football fans and writers alike. This criticism, in my eyes, was perfectly justified. The team simply did not perform in the manner which was expected from them. Expectations were not unrealistic, the team were never expected to beat sides like Spain, Italy and Croatia. The way in which they played these games, however, was nothing short of deplorable.

A lot of the blame was placed on the head of Giovanni Trapattoni, his tactical approach and team selection was thrown into question countless times. The Italian was criticised from almost every football fan in the country. It was evident to everybody that some sort of change was needed if the Italian was to remain in his post as Irish manager. Fortunately, that change has begun to occur.

Trapattoni seems to be, for the first time during his role as Irish manager, listening to the nation. For over a year now, there has been a demand for the likes of Séamus Coleman and James McClean to become regular starters for Ireland. They are now finally being given a chance on a regular basis and proving that they are more than deserving. Coleman has been brilliant at right back. Taking the step to being an international footballer in his stride, something that is not always easy for a young footballer to do with such comfort. McClean’s performances have shown that he is not making the transition to international football as convincingly as Coleman, but he is by no means doing a bad job. He has handed in some very respectable performances in an Irish shirt and has provided a good foundation on which he can look to build and improve. He has already become a very important part of this Irish side and his ability to be a match winner is clearly seen by his teammates. During the game against Austria it was visible that whenever James McCarthy had the ball in the middle of the park, the first place he looked was out to the left to see where McClean was and whether or not he was available. Nearly every time McCarthy received the ball into feet with the time and space to look up and pick out a pass, that pass was out to James McClean was more often than not met by more than one Austrian player, which in itself is a complement – it’s a sign that they were worried about him.

James McCarthy is stepping into the role of Ireland’s primary creative, passing midfielder. With Glenn Whelan or Paul Green alongside him to do the majority of the ‘dirty work’ McCarthy is allowed to find space and time when on the ball to allow for him to play important and potentially match winning passes. With the ever threatening James McClean to the left, the powerful Jonathan Walters to his right, and the clinical Shane Long in front of him, McCarthy is never found short of options and the movement of these three players will often open up space and an opportunity for the Wigan midfielder to play a killer ball into. McCarthy is going to play an even more integral part for this Ireland team in the coming years. As the side develops further and inevitably moves away from this ‘defend, defend, defend’ style, his role will become even more prominent. It appears to be unanimously accepted that Trapattoni’s contract will not be renewed again after this campaign, leaving the job vacant for a new manager with a perhaps more open mind to come in and allow the squad to play in a system most suited to the best players within it.

A man mentioned above whose reputation is growing is Paul Green. Green was torn apart in certain areas of the media during and after the European Championships. Since then, improvements have been made and Ireland are benefitting from this. For the first time in an Irish shirt, everybody who watched the game against Sweden had nothing but good things to say about his performance. In the following game against Austria as he prepared to come on, the usual groans and shouts of frustration were noticeably absent. The only criticism of this change was that he was brought on for the wrong player and then played out of position - neither of these are criticisms of Green. Trapattoni insisted on playing Green out on the right and pushing Jon Walters up front when it was felt that Green should have been brought on as an extra body to crowd out the Austrian midfield and attempt to reduce the threat posed by David Alaba who was pulling the strings for them. Paul Green is growing as a footballer, if his performances continue at this level he will almost certainly develop into an important player for his country.

Another key contributor to the Republic of Ireland side at the moment is Shane Long. Long is becoming, and already has become in my mind, Ireland’s best striker. The time has come for the team to be built around him and not Robbie Keane. I am extremely thankful and respectful towards everything that Keane has done for this nation during his career but his time has come and gone. He is no longer the striker he was, his goals are beginning to dry up for his country and at a time when the Tipperary man is playing better than ever and constantly improving, it makes sense for this transition to occur now.

So what lies ahead for Ireland, then? What more needs to be done and how can they continue to grow?

Ireland need time to blend and time to familiarise themselves with their fellow players. With only two of the eleven that started the opening game of the European Championships starting the game against Austria, it’s clear to see that the team is changing.

In the coming years we will more than likely see the introduction of Greg Cunningham at left back, who could well be the left hand side’s answer to Séamus Coleman on the right. This would give the team great balance to have a good, solid defensive full back who can also threaten when the team go forward. He could potentially provide support for James McClean and take advantage of any space occupied by the opposition doubling up on McClean.

The probable departure of Trapattoni after the World Cup Campaign will also open up the door for the reintroduction of Darron Gibson into the Irish set up. The Everton man would be a welcome addition to the side and would provide competition for Paul Green should he hold onto his place in the starting eleven.

I said before the campaign began that I would happily take not qualifying for Brazil 2014 if it meant the team was beginning to evolve and new players were introduced with the nation’s future in mind. This has absolutely been the case so although not qualifying might be painful for the immediate future, in the long term, this early stage of evolution could prove key to Ireland’s hopes for the next European Championships in France three years down the road.

To briefly summarise the message I’m trying to get across here: it’s not all doom and gloom for Ireland. Small steps are being taken, improvements in performances and results are imminent. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Why Mario Should be Cherished, not Chastised.

Mario Balotelli is without doubt a footballer who, to coin a clichéd phrase, is a lot like marmite – you either hate him or love him. There is very rarely any middle ground when it comes to this particular young man.

As I sit here, sipping on a fresh cup of tea and typing away I can’t help but think back to an argument I had today, an argument I often have with people, an argument discussing the ability of Mario Balotelli.  As I think back to the argument, I can’t help but laugh. Only a matter of hours after the discussion of Balotelli’s ability, during a friendly between Brazil and Italy, he beautifully placed the ball into the top corner of Julio Cesar’s goal from 25 yards, leaving the Brazilian goalkeeper with no chance of getting anywhere near the shot. It’s almost as if he did that just to reassure me that I was right, and that he is in fact brilliant.

I happen to be a keen admirer of Balotelli. It is a far too regular occurrence for me to be involved in a discussion in which I will find myself endlessly defending the ability of the controversial Italian front man and telling those who disagree with me to “look at the stats from when he plays.” There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Mario Balotelli is an astonishing footballer. I do not understand the view shared by so many that his ability is nothing worth getting excited about and I personally feel we should be screaming from the rooftops about just how brilliant this boy is.

Firstly, let’s take a quick look at his recent form. Since moving back home to Italy to play for Milan, Balotelli has scored seven goals in six league games, of which he started five. Seven goals in six matches, which works out as being an average of a goal every 73 minutes. He has notched up a total of eight goals in eight games this calendar year. This is pretty black and white for me. This form is outstanding. However, to refer to the well-known saying that form is temporary and class is permanent, I’ll show you that the boy has class too.

In his time at Manchester City, Balotelli came under a lot of criticism from fans of the English game. People are quick to remind you how he carelessly got sent off in a vital game against Arsenal which almost ended City’s title hopes, but are a little more forgetful when you respond by pointing out that he returned to the side to provide a brilliant assist for that Sergio Aguero goal that clinched the Premier League title. That wasn’t even his only contribution in that match. Coming off the bench when his side were a goal behind, he played brilliantly, he changed the game. Critics are either extremely forgetful or choosing to ignore the fact that he scored twenty goals in forty games that season also. A record of a goal every two games which in a world without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, is a brilliant return. His overall record at Manchester City is nothing to turn your nose up to either. In a total of eighty games for the club, he found the net thirty times. Not bad for a player who is still developing and maturing as a footballer, as well as a person.

It is not only with his club that he has been performing to a very respectable standard. For Italy he has played a total of eighteen games, scoring six times. The peak of his international career to date was without doubt his performances at Euro 2012, where he had a return of three goals in his six games and had the whole of Europe talking about him. He helped Italy to reach the final where they eventually fell short against Spain.

Another attribute of Balotelli’s which makes him stand out as a world class player is that he scores in big, important matches. As stated above he scored three times in the European Championships for Italy. Two of these goals coming in the Semi-Finals against the highly tipped Germany. As well as this he has scored against many top teams in England. He put Manchester City 1-0 up at Stamford Bridge in a game against Chelsea in Manchester City’s title winning season. In the same season he scored a crucial last minute penalty at home to Tottenham which kept his side top of the league. The tension within The City of Manchester Stadium was felt by all who were watching and Balotelli seemed to be the most composed person in the ground as he strolled up to the ball and nonchalantly stroked it into the bottom corner. As well as these big games, he also scored against tough opposition such as Everton, Newcastle, Napoli and Manchester United in this season. I will come to his goal in the derby soon.

Controversy is a shadow that appeared to follow Balotelli during his time in England. Every week there would be a new outrageous story about how he rescued a child from bullying or how he drove around with his winnings from a casino on the passenger seat of his car. Most of this stories were later discovered as being untrue. As Balotelli said himself on the issue: “Certain people really don’t know how to make money in life and therefore try to take advantage of others. Gossip is one thing, but what these people do is close to criminal. Many stories are invented about me, I’d say about 0.01% of them are true. Who uses me? Almost everyone”.

One story, however which caught the eye of everybody was the infamous firework incident. In the aftermath of this, came one of Balotelli’s most explosive days in English football. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The game following this incident was none other than the Manchester derby, arguably the biggest game in English football since the blue half of Manchester became realistic title challengers. It wasn’t long before Mario was making headlines for all the right reasons. He opened the scoring with a typically calm finish from just inside his opponent’s box where most would have put their heads down and laces through the ball, he kept his head up, opened up his body and trickled the ball into the far corner past the despairing David De Gea. Scoring two goals in the home of his side’s most fierce rivals and helping his team to an historic 6-1 drubbing of their Manchester counterparts it was nice to hear that the whole country was talking about Balotelli and his t-shirt for all the right reasons.

Another thing which is interesting about Balotelli is that he’s not your typical striker. He does not have any one defined position. He is versatile. He can play as a target man, on the shoulder of the last defender, as a second striker, out wide, you name it. This is a wonderful characteristic for a striker to have. It allows him to be utilised in many different formations and playing styles and to cause opposing teams a number of different problems. It must not be forgotten that while at Internazionale, Balotelli was one of Europe’s hottest young prospects. He has shown that he is capable of performing to the heights expected of him, he now just needs to show that he can do it on a more consistent basis. If he can do this, he will inevitably begin to win over his critics sooner rather than later.

Balotelli is a phenomenal talent. This can simply not be debated in my view. He has won everything available to him in club football by the premature age of 23 and has a European Championships runner’s up medal to go along with those honours. I cannot think of another player who, if they had achieved what he has achieved would face such unjustified criticism. Mario Balotelli should be judged by what he does as a footballer, not by what he does or is reported to do in his private life. If this is the case, it cannot be denied that he is a wonderful talent who is only going to get better as he matures.