Friday, 5 June 2015

History Awaits...

You may remember that last year that ITV’s football commentator Clive Tyldsley was counting chickens at the prospect of Chelsea playing Real Madrid in the European Cup final.  Well this year he was at it again, whetting his appetite over the first ‘El Classico’ European Cup final.  Well that worked…  So where is that humble pie for Tyldsley then ITV Sport?
Steve Archibald evades Juventus defenders during Barcelona's
quarter-final win over Juventus in March 1986

Instead of Real Madrid, we have the dominant team in Italy at the moment, Juventus.  At the start of the season they lost their manager Antonio Conte, who quit to become the coach of the Italian national side.  His replacement was Max Allegri, who was sacked from his job as Milan coach in the aftermath of a defeat to lowly Sassuolo.  Despite winning the Scudetto in his first season with Milan, his appointment was a controversial one among Juventus fans, eager to see their team stay ahead of their chief rivals – namely Roma and Napoli.

Yet Allegri’s Juventus surpassed expectations, reaching their first European Cup final since 2003 – when they also deposed the holders Real Madrid in the semi-finals – and also winning their first Scuddetto & Italian Cup double since the last time Juventus dominated Italian football.  Way back in 1994/5.

Juventus will be missing their defender Giorgio Chiellini through injury, but all their other key men will be available.  Andreas Pirlo played for Milan when they beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford 12 years ago.  Paul Pogba only came back from injury during the semi final win over Real while Carlos Tevez will be playing in his third European Cup final, six years after losing to Barcelona while with Manchester United.  Artur Vidal has been in and out of the side (due to injuy) this season but should be fit.  Whether they play as a 3-5-2 (which I think they should) or with 4-4-2 (which has been Allegri’s preferred formation) remains to be seen.  There is however a very big obstacle in Juventus path towards emulating Inter Milan’s feat of 5 years ago – the Treble of Scudetto, Italian Cup and European Cup.
Barcelona are, of course…  of course, going for their own treble.  Six years after their own La Liga, Coppa Del Rey and European Cup treble, they’re looking to repeat that feat, becoming the first team to achieve that feat.  So many of the cast list from their last European Cup win four years ago are still at the Camp Nou.  Messi, Inniesta (both holding the cup, left, after winning in 2009), Busquets, Pique…  pretty much the spine of the side.  Not to mention Xavi Hernandez, who will be making his last appearance in a Barcelona shirt on Saturday.  I’d suspect that Rakitic will start ahead of Xavi though.

Most of the attention will be on Messi & his fellow forwards.  Both Neymar & Luiz Suarez compliment the movement of Messi and fit in with the Tiki-Taki ethos at Barcelona.  It could be argued that the reason for Barcelona’s successes this season has been down to the fluidity of Barcelona’s front line.  For that reason, I think three at the back would be a better bet for Juventus than a back four.
Gianlucca Vialli lifts the European Cup after Juventus last win in 1996

Barcelona start as favourites, and lead the head to heads between the two sides.  Juventus last win was an extra time winner in the quarter finals 12 years ago that saw them through to face Real Madrid, while their only other win came in the semi finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, winning 1-0 but going out 3-1 on aggregate.  Barcelona also ended Juventus defence of the European Cup in 1986, winning 1-0 at the Camp Nou before getting a 1-1 draw in Turin (pictured above).

This will be the first European Cup Final to be staged at Berlin’s Olympiastadion and will see both Pirlo & Buffon play there for the first time since they played key roles in Italy’s World Cup win there in July 2006.  Much will depend on Juventus and how they set up their defence and (more crucially) their midfield.  If they play 4-4-2, I think this Barcelona side will win more comfortably than they will if Juventus play 3-5-2.  I suspect that Allegri will stick with his favoured 4-4-2 so we will see Barcelona lift their fourth fifth European Cup, and Fourth in 9 years.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Can't Defend, Can't Score & Can't Get A Grip In Midfield

You know, thank goodness for all of the politics.  If it wasn’t for that, I’d be up the wall with how bad we’ve been…

St Mirren players troop off after their 5-0 defeat to Motherwell
The split has come and there are still issues to be decided.  Celtic are comfortably ahead of Aberdeen in the championship race but still need to cross the finish line while the playoff place needs to be decided.  This leaves us with the team scheduled to be relegated on Saturday.  At home, where they’ve only won once all season, against Kilmarnock.

Any time I’ve seen St Mirren this season, they reminded me of the reaction to the English cricket team touring Australia in the winter of 1986/87 – “There's only three things wrong with this England team - They can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field”.  Well, St Mirren’s version was, can’t defend, can’t score and no grip in midfield.  We were already light at the back and in no way, shape or form did Goodwin & McAusland ever… ever look like a Premier League standard defensive partnership.  Ellis Plummer being a very young player looked out of place from the start, though to be fair I thought that he did have promise perhaps as a defensive midfielder.  St Mirren’s season on the pitch was built on the disaster that was the Goodwin/McAusland partnership.  The worst defence in the country by a mile and guaranteed to provide one defensive blunder a game to boot.

We couldn’t score because, well, we had strikers that simply did not look Premier League class.  Then again Calum Ball (who seemed to get more game time than James Marwood) just looked totally unfit and not up to the pace of Premier League football.  Not having Steven Thompson for half/most of the season hasn’t helped but then again neither has the performances in midfield.  That and the fact that our best performer, Kenny McLean, left in Aberdeen’s swagbag at the end of the Winter transfer window.  In his place we did get Alan Gow, a player who knocked us back twice and really shouldn’t have gone for third time lucky such has been his impact.

McLean apart, our Midfield has had no grip whatsoever.  John McGinn looks to have gone backwards this season, probably not helped by not having an experienced older head along side him.  The only time the midfield has looked solid has been when Issac Osborne has been fit, and that was only for about 5 games in November.  Meanwhile both of our wingers, Gregg Wylde and Adam Drury have looked distinctly uninterested by it all.  Drury disappeared during the Winter transfer window while Wylde is still here.  The one bright spot has been Steven Mallan, who has put in a couple of good performances but is too young to put together any consistency.

If that is a brief synopsis of what has gone wrong on the sporting paddock, that tells half of the story.  At the end of last season the Board decided not to renew Danny Lennon’s contract, and instead appointed his assistant Tommy Craig as manager.  However your opinion of Lennon (mine was that it was possibly time to get a new manager as his team was looking tired and the life span of managers is normally 4 years anyway – Gutmans Law so to speak) the appointment of Craig smacked of being a halfway house in that the board were not sure whether to get rid of Lennon or to get a new manager.  Instead of being the new broom, a fresh pair of eyes on the first team, we got continuity Lennon.  Instead of a young hungry manager or someone with a bit more experience, we got an old experienced coach who would have been better off staying as coach.

The BBC’s Tom English rightly fingers the Board for their decision making, particularly in the last year, saying they were “asleep at the wheel”.  Within English’s piece, there is also an element that for a club that was given at the end of the last decade a foundation stone in the shape of the new stadium and coaching facilities, that this has been squandered.  Encapsulated within this is that fact that among the plethora of attacking players that have pitched up at Greenhill Road and then disappeared, tail between legs, the last experienced out and out central defender St Mirren signed was Lee Mair in 2009.  In a sport where defence is the cornerstone of a good team, that statistic says it all about St Mirren’s not very dramatic fall from the Premier League.