August 26, 2010
Benitez: Returning to England
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The days when a group of be-joweled old men in suits would pull balls from a couple of silk bags are gone. Nowadays, we have the Champions League Group Stage draw, an event that clearly fancies itself as a cross between a Euromillions Lottery draw and a stagey awards ceremony. Pedro Pinto and the delectable Melanie Winiger presided over nearly an hour of razzmattazz and the type of viewing discomfort usually brought on when English is spoken as a second language.
Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, still celebrating after ending nearly 50 years in the wilderness, deserve sympathy for the edge of tension supplied by the unnecessary long-windedness of the process. Their reintroduction to the elite affords them home fixtures and away matches with Inter Milan, Werder Bremen and FC Twente, a group that offers both cause for optimism and some element of fear too.
For the other three Premier League clubs, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, their decade or more of constant presence in this competition allows them to feel detached at whomever is drawn to face them. These days, the repetitive nature of the bloated Champions League means the elite is acquainted with itself to such an extent that short of Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United with Real Madrid, the blockbusters will have to wait until the knock-out stages.
Chelsea face a visit to Marseille, the long journey to Spartak Moscow and Slovakian debutants MSK Zilina while Arsenal meet old foes Shakhtar Donetsk but new opposition in Braga and Partizan Belgrade. The Londoners' Eastern trips may offer some cause for concern.
Of the continent's major names, Ajax Amsterdam's coupling with AC Milan and Real Madrid may yet hark back to memories of the old European Cup and the Dutch may feel they have a chance against ailing Milan, though even this did not quite have the pull of some of this trio's battles of the 1990s.
Even the return of Rangers to Manchester, the scene of their ill-tempered visit to the UEFA Cup final of 2008, is case of having been there and done that. Rangers were swiftly dealt with by United in the winter of 2003, an evening that saw the Glaswegians despatched over the border with chants of "Champions League, yer 'avin a laugh". The more intrepid United fan meanwhile may cherish a visit to the previously uncharted territory of Bursaspor.
Among the drawing of lots by a raft of stars including Gianfranco Zola and cheeky crisp salesman Gary Lineker, came a series of awards for the competition's best players of the 2009-10 season. Needless to say, the best goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward were all drawn from Inter Milan and Julio Cesar, Maicon, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito were all deserved winners in their class, whatever the arbitrary process from which they were selected.
Nowadays, Inter are managed by a cove familiar to Spurs in Rafael Benitez, a man who has the unenviable task of emulating Jose Mourinho's unprecedented Treble of last season. Benitez meanwhile may not be too happy to be reintroduced to a country where his relations with the press ended in a cold war.
Barcelona, as expected favourites, have again drawn a favourable group despite losing last season to Rubin Kazan while Bayern Munich, notwithstanding facing AS Roma, will expect to progress at the expense of Swiss club Basel and Romania's CFR Cluj.
Routine stuff for them perhaps but for Spurs, the journey into a competition that can both make and break a club begins with a visit to Bremen.
August 17, 2010
Spurs suffered at the back.
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"I have thought about the Astroturf and it could just kill Ledley completely, it could ruin his knee," said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp before their crucial Champions League qualifier against Young Boys. After 28 minutes, and three goals, Redknapp may have been forgiven for wanting to kill his entire defence in the absence of their talismanic captain.
Ponderous, slow and non-responsive before the introduction of Tom Huddlestone for the abysmal Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Spurs looked overawed by the occasion. The plastic pitch would not have helped, as such a surface does take some time to get used to, but a lack of concentration at the back - especially between the two centre-halves - seemed to put the game beyond them before it had really even started.
If there was an element of luck about the way the ball found Senad Lulic for the first goal, the ball-watching by all four of Tottenham’s defenders for the second was inexcusable. One player very rarely requires four markers and while Tape Doubai’s deflected shot had somewhat fortuitously opened the door for the opener, his throughball to Henri Bienvenu saw another failure of Spurs’ defence highlighted - a lack of pace - once the space had been created.
Michael Dawson was left stranded and exposed by the Young Boys’ striker, whose shot into the bottom corner was despatched as calmly as his crucial winner against Fenerbahce in the previous round. But one can’t help feeling that some better organisation by a leader such as King would have seen the danger snuffed out earlier.
Dawson was not the only one caught out, as 15 minutes later the lively Moreno Costanzo spotted a gap for a simple angled throughball to Xavier Hochstrasser, who should have been tracked by Sebastien Bassong. The Cameroon international’s loss of concentration proved crucial as the Swiss side went three up, although he did redeem himself to an extent by claiming an away goal before Roman Pavlyuchenko gave Spurs hope with another late on.
Redknapp has already made it clear that he is eyeing new faces in defence, with former Arsenal captain William Gallas an interesting (if not especially popular) option. For all of their attacking talent, Spurs will find that the Champions League is an unforgiving mistress when it comes to defensive errors and a cool head to replace King in his all-too-frequent spells on the sidelines would certainly be welcome. As would a decent left-back.
While the result looked on course to match Celtic’s unexpected 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Slovakian Champions Artmedia Bratislava in 2005-06 in the first half, the two away goals has given them hope and a 1-0 win would get them through in the return leg at White Hart Lane. Redknapp will hope his crocked skipper will be ready to face the Swiss next week to calm the nerves.
August 11, 2010
Romelu Lukaku is tipped for big things
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The front page of Spanish sports newspaper Marca featured a picture of Anderlecht’s highly-rated youngster Romelu Lukaku on Tuesday alongside the caption: “Mourinho’s secret dream.”
It is hardly a secret that 17-year-old Lukaku is in all the big clubs’ sights after his splendid first professional season, which saw him crowned Belgium’s youngest ever top scorer and get a couple of good goals in Europe. It is not the first time either that Marca has put Belgian players on display like this. Last year, it was Standard’s Steven Defour and, in April, Eden Hazard of Lille was linked to the Madrid giants. So even if Marca claim Real want Lukaku even more than other targets such as Hugo Almeida, Mario Gomez, Amauri or Fernando Llorente, it remains to be seen whether the young striker actually does leave Anderlecht this season.
Lukaku’s agent, Christophe Henrotay, says that while he did speak to Real about Lukaku, this is only because they are keeping tabs on him. “There is no rush in signing him. Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona and other big clubs are also following Romelu, but that does not mean they want to get him right away,” Henrotay says in Belgian newspaper De Morgen. “If Anderlecht get past Partizan Belgrade and into the Champions League proper, he can learn a lot at the highest level.”
Then there is the question of whether Romelu is too young to move to such an elite team such as Real. Father and former pro Roger Lukaku is sober and laidback about the rumours, saying he is pleased at Real Madrid and Mourinho’s interest. “For us, it is important that Romelu finishes school. He has one more year to go, after which he will still only be 18 and there will be ample time to move abroad. But you never know. In the end, Anderlecht will have to decide, given that Romelu has just signed a new five year contract with them. There will be no surprises as we have clear agreements on how a move away would be handled.”
Anderlecht manager Herman Van Holsbeeck says the club are “flattered at the proof of international recognition for one of their players. It is an honour for our club that Real wants one of our players - it means recognition for our youth academy and the way we coach our young talents.” Van Holsbeeck adds, however, that "no concrete offers have yet been made for Lukaku, not by Real Madrid nor any other club.”
Interestingly, little under a month ago, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba was reported to have called Romelu Lukaku, urging him to sign for the London club if he left Anderlecht. Chelsea are father Roger’s favourite as far as a transfer goes, while Romelu is known to be a big fan of the Chelsea striker. To be continued…
August 6, 2010
Harry Redknapp will be giving the draw a thumbs up.
Harry Redknapp is often keen to hang his team's state of affairs on a particular hook and then cling to it grimly. Tales of being down to the "bare bones" littered his time at West Ham and Portsmouth, while his first season at Tottenham Hotspur saw him mantra on inheriting a team who had won just two points before his arrival.
It seems hugely likely that this season's repetitive beat will centre around his club's maiden Champions League campaign. That is, of course, if Spurs actually qualify for the promised land. The delight of that May evening at Eastlands, when Manchester City were dumped out of reach, will have been gradually tempered throughout the summer by the fear of falling at the final fence of the final qualifying round.
A trip to Switzerland's capital and the challenge of Young Boys, whose gauche name hides their conquering of Fenerbahce in the previous qualifying round, and a return at White Hart Lane for the Londoners' biggest European night since the UEFA Cup Final of 1984, represent 180 minutes of tension. A club who have made an art form of making things difficult for themselves when glory was within reach will surely not be taking anything as read, even when presented with a less-starred opponent.
Whatever happens against Young Boys, it is clear that the 2010-11 campaign will almost certainly be defined by that very fixture. The pain of a premature exit will likely hang heavy over matters domestic, even before the marathon undertaking that is the Europa League hoves into view. And qualification is likely to see sights adjusted, whether by design or not, on efforts in the Champions League group stages.
There are precedents to take heed of. David Moyes' Everton were the last team to break the "big four" monopoly but fell to Villarreal at this very stage. And further back, Newcastle United and Leeds United both made hay in the competition proper only to find that their season had been unbalanced by their continental adventures and that returning to the same levels was not possible. Indeed, both soon became acquainted with another level of football, having suffered relegation in short order, with financial crisis as an accompaniment.
So there is much to beware for Spurs. After so long trying to return to the top table of the English game, with some notable near-misses along the way, Redknapp's achievement of a fourth place finish was undoubtedly the crowning triumph of his long managerial career, even allowing for his now-sullied FA Cup win with Portsmouth. Maintaining that high standard presents a still greater challenge to him and his team. The club's ambitions are strong, with a new stadium among the goals set in place by chairman Daniel Levy. Filling a 65,000-70,000 megadome, at no-doubt eye-watering prices, would seem most probably dependent on the promise of club football's blue riband competition on a regular basis.
And so Tottenham must fight on a new frontier while keeping up the home front. A tall order for Redknapp, and that may well end up being his stock line for the season. He must embrace these new horizons with just about the same group of players he called on last time, a rather unfamiliar state of affairs for football's most prominent transfer wheeler-dealer.
Though it could also represent a satisfaction with his squad, and the belief that stability can further success, it also seems likely the lack of business has resulted from financial prudence and that any Redknapp additions must come through the trimming of his playing group. Only Brazilian defensive midfielder Sandro, grabbed from the clutches of many a suitor, swells the options but he will only join after current club Internacional finish their Copa Libertadores campaign.
Redknapp may yet be granted transfer funds but only after having achieved Champions League football. That will allow him barely a week to sign reinforcements. In the meantime, those who took Tottenham to the precipice of the elite need to hit the ground running in what is surely the club's biggest game since, yes, that night in Manchester. The giant steps are coming thick and fast and Spurs cannot afford to falter now.