Rivaldo: Profile – 19/4/1972

Standing 6ft 1in, Rivaldo was an imposing figure for such a technician – unusual for someone of such slight build. But slight he was and his rubbery gait made him seem even more of an unlikely hero. That said, his bow-like anatomy echoed another of Brazil’s most famous sons – the distinctively bent-legged Garrincha.

Just like Garrincha, Rivaldo utilised his unusual lineament and created a style that made him one of the most watchable attackers in a highly competitive era.

It is a shame that one of Rivaldo’s most memorable moments is one that haunts an otherwise thrilling legacy – the infamous bit of gamesmanship that saw Hakan Unsal red-carded. But rather than dwell on a sour episode, I’d rather appreciate the best of a wonderful talent.

Rivaldo probably first came to worldwide prominence as the 24-year-old over-aged player in Brazil’s 1996 Olympics squad – frankly a ludicrously talented team. Accompanied by Aldair, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Juninho (of Middlesbrough fame), Ze Maria and Flavio Conceicao, it’s surprising that this Brazil team did not break the Olympic hoodoo hanging over the nation.

Ultimately they took bronze, succumbing to a Nwankwo Kanu-inspired Nigeria in the semi-finals (despite beating them 1-0 in the group stage). Rivaldo featured in all three group games and the quarter-final win over Ghana before losing his starting place for the Nigeria defeat. Though he made an appearance from the bench, Rivaldo conceded possession on the halfway line at 3-1 and Viktor Ikpeba pulled a goal back for the Super Eagles. It was enough to inspire a comeback and cost Rivaldo his place in the bronze medal match as Mario Zagallo blamed him for the loss.

Despite this setback Rivaldo would then embark on the most devastating chapter of his career – his time in Spain.

But the story could have been different had Parma found the cash to secure Rivaldo’s transfer back in the summer of 1996. Instead they signed his Palmeiras and Olympic team-mate Amaral (who coincidentally is still playing professional football at the age of 39). Deportivo La Coruna spotted an opportunity and snapped up Rivaldo, signalling the start of his stunning spell in Spain.

It only took one season at Depor to alert the bigger clubs to the prodigious talent they had unearthed. After netting 21 goals in his debut year in Spain, the mighty Barcelona came calling, wafting a cool £17million in the face of the Riazor honchos.

It was 1997 and in his five years at the Camp Nou, he would score 130 goals in 235 games. Over that time, I find it difficult to find a type of goal he was unable to score. Whether it be a rasping free-kick, a daisy-cutting thronker or an overhead, Rivaldo appeared to be capable of anything in his prime.

I say in his prime, but even after his golden years at Barcelona (in which he won EIGHT individual awards in 1999 – including World Footballer of the Year, European Footballer of the Year and the Ballon d’Or), Rivaldo continued playing at (almost) the highest level up to the present day.

He won the Italian Cup and was a member of Milan’s 2002/03 Champions League winning squad – remember that thrilling 0-0 with Juventus at Old Trafford…? Well, in many ways that summed up Rivaldo’s time at Milan. An unused substitute, the Brazilian often played second fiddle to Rui Costa which understandably given his prominent role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup winning team, meant he felt he should seek pastures new.

At the age of 32, Rivaldo agreed what I can only imagine was a substantial financial package to take him to the Greek Super League to play for Olympiakos. His new side had experienced something of a blip – failing to win the league in 2003/04 for the first time in seven seasons – but teaming Rivaldo with his former Barcelona strike-partner Giovanni, Olympiakos regained their grip on the domestic scene.

During the three seasons Rivaldo played for the Red-Whites, they won three league titles and two Greek cups. Rivaldo scored an impressive 43 goals in 94 games, came second in the top goalscorer charts in his final year as well as winning the league’s best foreign player award twice in 2006 and 2007.

He also scored important goals. It wasn’t a case of boosting his figures with strikes against the Ionikos and Panionios’s of this world. In his time at Karaiskakis Stadium Rivaldo scored against AEK Athens, had a penchant for goals against Panathinaikos as well as Champions League strikes against Liverpool and Real Madrid. He saved one of his best for the Greek Cup final in 2004/05 where he curled one from near to the corner flag into the far top corner (see the below video).

It was a very successful career move at a time in which you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d moved for a final bank account swelling swansong.

After his contract expired and he was released by the chairman of Olympiakos, Rivaldo opted for one more year in Greece with AEK Athens before taking the first flight to Uzbekistan – purely for financial reasons. Allegedly.

His time at Bunyodkar resembled his years at Olympiakos as he won three league titles in three years and two Uzbek Cups. In many ways it seemed a sad an undignified end to his career but that was remedied as he returned to Brazil to play for Sao Paulo for the 2011 season. He managed a whopping 46 games at 39 years of age before he was discarded by the management. Never one to quit, Rivaldo cropped up at Angolan side Kabuscorp this January in yet another ‘final’ swansong.

Judging by the reaction to his move they clearly don’t deserve such a master plying his trade in the Girabola league: “Rivaldo’s hiring by Kabuscorp – which is a very modest club in Angola – has not attracted as much enthusiasm as you might expect.”

Rivaldo has clearly had a decorated and colourful career in football but as you may be anticipating, it was the five years at Barcelona that will drive his legacy.

Captained by a certain Pep Guardiola, the 1997/98 season introduced Rivaldo to the big time as he helped push Barcelona to their 15th La Liga title and claim a Copa del Rey trophy for good measure. Another title was sealed in the following season whilst on an individual level Rivaldo finished runner-up in the Pichichi tropy. He also became Barcelona’s fourth ever recipient of the European Footballer of the Year award.

But the first warning signs arrived in a spectacularly tight 1999/00 La Liga campaign. Barca would finish five points behind Javier Irureta’s famed Deportivo side (who still managed 11 league losses and a low points haul of 69) and it would signal the end to Louis Van Gaal’s tenure as coach.

These were dark times for Barcelona though, as they fell further behind their rivals in the 2000/01 season. It was only thanks to a stunning Rivaldo hat-trick in the final game of the season against Valencia that they ensured Champions League qualification. With time eroding and the score locked at 2-2, Valencia looked to have done what was required at the Camp Nou. Sitting three points ahead of their hosts, Hector Cuper’s team just had to avoid defeat in the final game of the season to nudge Barca out of the Europe’s premier competition.

Enter Rivaldo, who lest we forget, had already scored two fine goals from 25 yards out. With 89 minutes up, Frank de Boer trotted beyond the halfway line and lofted a hopeful pass towards the Brazilian. Positioned just outside the box, his first touch on the chest padded the ball vertically into the air above him. His second was a whirring back-flip of limbs, measured immaculately and with perfect techique. A split-second later, the ball had zipped into Santiago Canizares’ bottom-left corner. The Camp Nou erupted and the zeal of President Joan Gaspart’s celebrations high in the stands indicated all one needed to know about the importance of Rivaldo’s strike.

It will remain his greatest moment and stand the test of time as arguably the best hat-trick ever scored. It also fittingly brings the profile to an end, but allows me to insert this video of Rivaldinho – his son – scoring a remarkably similar overhead kick. Happy birthday Rivaldo, keep loving football.

#WengerOut: Advocating the departure of Arsene Wenger

This is a guest piece written by Andy Levy (@Remix_Design), a season ticket holder of 15 years, who follows Arsenal home and away.

‘Sacking’ is too harsh a word for a man who has single-handedly turned Arsenal Football Club into a world-famous, iconic brand, comfortably sat at a world class new stadium.

However, all good things come to an end and unfortunately this should have ended by now.

It does not matter how many times we qualify for the Champions League, Arsene will always be remembered for the ‘Invincibles’ season. He will never beat this unique achievement (will anyone?!), however, it is clear he intends to try (we can’t knock his ambition).

But his stubbornness in his transfer policy, wage structure, tactics and loyalty to sub-standard players will unfortunately be his downfall and be the reason that, under his helm, we will not win another title.

Tactically he is totally inept. He plays the same formation every game, with no Plan B. His substitutions this year especially are beyond bewildering.

His total reliance on the apparent ‘character and spirit’ of the squad is widely joked about and embarrassing. Many fans don’t bother to listen to his post match comments because they are just so predictable and lacking any tangible content.

To lose against QPR, Blackburn and Wigan, yet be able to put five past Chelsea and Tottenham (and beat City) points to a distinct lack of concentration, character and respect for the opposition.

This takes me back to the Carling Cup final of 2011. Arsenal’s best chance of a trophy for six years, against a Birmingham team bound for relegation.

We did not take the occasion or the opposition seriously. We turned up in tracksuits, not Cup Final suits (as we had one eye on our upcoming Barca game) and Wenger seemed to completely underestimate the fact that Birmingham would die for their shirt, and would want to win through blood, sweat and tears. That is what you call ‘spirit & character’. Wenger thought that if we played our pretty football then we would waltz it.

Fast forward 13 months and Arsenal play a relegation threatened QPR. Now, any football fan can tell you what to expect when your side faces a Mark Hughes managed team.
And so a football game is not won on paper. QPR are a poor team with many Championship standard players. But once again we turn up with ‘Plan A’ and look bewildered when we face a team who are up for it. The same goes for Wigan on Monday night.

We will never make a sustained challenge for the title whilst Wenger refuses to acknowledge a Plan B.

Note that Plan B does not mean sticking Chamakh up front for the last 5 minutes. I’m talking about tactics here. We never seem to have a solution to teams that pack the midfield and slow our game down. Yet United, Barca, Bayern etc all face this scenario every weekend.

I seriously believe that my Sunday football team could at least get a draw against Arsenal. I’ve seen enough teams do their homework against Arsenal and it looks pretty simple to stifle Plan A.

I’ve deliberately not compared our tactics, manager or situation to any other team. Mainly because I know that there are 89 other teams in the football league who are in a worse off situation than The Arsenal. But there can not be many fans as frustrated as Arsenal’s.

For 6 years we have been kidding ourselves that we are 1 or 2 top signings away from mounting a real challenge for silverware. And whilst Wenger has baffled everyone by not obliging, it is the mentality at the club that really needs to change.

From the shenanigans in the boardroom (initiated by the departure of David Dein) to the fact that our beloved, but ancient, assistant manager embarrassingly still takes the warm up (whilst forgetting the ‘spirit & character’ that got him his 1971 double winners’ medals).

The fact that Wenger has had to bring back Lehmann, Campbell & Henry in recent years (albeit good fun) has underlined his reluctance to address the real problems and paper over the cracks with a short term fix.

And don’t get me started on that goalkeeper shambles that embarrassingly rumbled on for seasons. And although it seems to have finally resolved itself in the form of Szczesny – we’ve seen Given and Hart both move during that period.

Other signings that have been made in this time for less than £10m include Parker, Cahill and Samba (to name a few). Say what you want about them- we could have purchased them and avoided utilising Squillaci & Djourou & Denilson in the past two or three seasons.

How can the players themselves believe we can challenge for the title next year when we’ve already lost 10 (yes TEN) games this season? It is completely insane.

So much has to change, and I believe it all starts with the man in charge. No one at the club questions him. Who is he accountable to?

Whenever the fans start questioning Wenger the pundits always respond to the calls for his head with the question: “Well if not Wenger, who else?”

I’m not going to roll off a list (although I do have one), but let me leave you with this: If we fail to qualify for the Champions League, that list will shorten dramatically. And is therefore why I believe now is the time for change, before it is too late and we tumble down the table, hanging on to the theory that we still have Championship winning required mentality and spirit.

We all saw Arsenal from 2001-2004 become one of the best sides in Europe. Comparing the talent and character of that team is chalk and cheese. So let’s not kid ourselves any further Mr Professor. Merci and Au Revoir.

Andy Levy can be found on Twitter here.

Advocating the sacking of Harry Redknapp

It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. As Harry Redknapp sent Jermain Defoe onto the pitch, softening the midfield, many of the club’s more cerebral followers knew what was coming next. Fast-forward to full-time and Tottenham had shipped three more goals to Chelsea and left Wembley humiliated as their season imploded further.

If we ignore the inept officiating that handed Chelsea a second goal, the performance was mixed. A spell of dominance just before Didier Drogba’s opener had followed an uncertain and nervy opening half hour but it teased before the characteristic Tottenham collapse arrived in the second period. Some appalling defending contributed to the humiliating loss and ended dreams of a first FA Cup win since 1991.

On the face of it, this particular loss doesn’t point to major flaws in Redknapp’s management, but dig a little deeper and you can find the hallmarks of a number of criticisms often levelled at the Spurs boss and for me, at least, highlight why I believe Redknapp is worthy of the sack.

I am choosing to begin with Tottenham’s league form rather than the FA Cup defeat as to me this has been the root of the desperate situation the club are in.

Miguel Delaney put together a fantastic statistical look at the performance of Premier League clubs over the first-half of this campaign and compared it to the second-half. The idea was to dispel the myth that early season form creates ‘truths’ about the entire year’s work.

One of the focal points of his piece revolved around Tottenham and the catastrophic plummet in form Redknapp has overseen. Four wins in the last 14 league games is wretched enough but to compare the points per game (PPG) statistic as Delaney does in his article, gives an even better impression of just how badly it has gone wrong.

From the first 19 games of the season, where Spurs had the third best PPG in the league (2.21) they have slipped a full point lower in the following 14 league games (1.21). Across all 20 teams, it is the largest fall in form and only Liverpool come close with their PPG slipping by 0.93. As Delaney states – “that is one of the worst drop-offs in league history.”

In Redknapp’s time at Spurs, the current situation is easily the most concerning. Last year saw his side drop from fourth to fifth amidst mitigating circumstances. Focus certainly switched to the glamour-tie against Real Madrid but once the European adventure ended, Spurs again dropped away, recording a PPG of 1.53 in the back 19 games compared to an opening 1.74.

The 2009/10 season is the only year in which Spurs have actually improved on their PPG in the latter half of a season, going from 1.79 to 1.89 as the north Londoners clinched their maiden Champions League place. Even in his first year, the PPG remained at 1.63 over the games he managed after his appointment in October.

So just why does league form take such a nose-dive? There are a couple of key reasons but I suggest starting with the terrible squad management – a string notoriously missing from Redknapp’s bow. In comparison to the top six teams, Tottenham’s first eleven (Friedel; Walker, King, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Parker, Modric, Bale; Van der Vaart; Adebayor) have played more minutes than any other side. In fact, between them, they have played the equivalent of 42 games (3862 minutes) more than Manchester United’s first eleven (De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Rooney, Welbeck).

Gareth Bale and Luka Modric – unquestionably the two crown jewels of the current Spurs team – have played 2766 and 2764 Premier League minutes respectively this year. That puts both of them in the top ten midfielders in the league for number of minutes played. Mikel Arteta (2588 minutes) is the only player from any of the sides above Spurs to feature in the top 15 and from their immediate rivals, only Newcastle’s Jonas Gutierrez (2855 minutes) leads Bale or Modric.

The squad, quite simply, is knackered. They have been driven into the ground by Redknapp, who for the majority of his time at Tottenham, has needlessly overplayed his star players. Not only have the pair (and we can throw Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto into the mix) played over 30 Premier League games each, they’ve all featured heavily in the FA Cup. The games against Stevenage and Cheltenham were ripe to rest these four but in some form or another, all four featured.

The poor management of clearly fatigued players and the reluctance to rotate his squad can also thread a further flaw of Redknapp into the argument. As the January transfer window opened, Spurs were six points off the summit in third position. It was a prime opportunity for chairman Daniel Levy (who can’t remain totally blameless) and Redknapp to combine and reinforce the squad for the business-end of the campaign.

Instead, by February, veteran free transfers Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha were signed whilst useful, if underused, squad players Vedran Corluka, Sebastian Bassong and Steven Pienaar all left on loan and Roman Pavlyuchenko returned to Russia permanently. In the space of a month, the Spurs squad had been trimmed and considerably weakened through their dealings. Whether Redknapp’s impending court case had a bearing on Levy’s willingness to sanction cash deals, is open to conjecture. However, you’d hope it did factor into the chairman’s thinking, otherwise the January failure becomes as damaging to his reputation as Redknapp’s.

One thing that serves as a defence for Levy was the nature of the signings. The Spurs chairman has always advocated the signing of youthful prospects who retain their value if and when the club decide to sell them. Saha and Nelsen have a combined age of 67. Their immediate benefit is in the dressing room as Redknapp told the gathered press after Spurs beat Bolton at White Hart Lane:

“At the end of the season you have got to keep him [Nelsen] here next year because he’s worth his weight in gold just to have around for other people to look at the way he works.”

Is that really what a club with top four (and beyond?) ambitions should be expecting in the summer? Retaining the services of a 34-year-old veteran who has featured in just seven games and is well down the pecking order of centre-backs is a prime example of the short-termism often exhibited by Redknapp. Where is the long-term planning at Spurs? Nelsen, the fans presumed, was merely a stop-gap.

Redknapp lives the moment as a manager. His free-wheeling ‘attack, attack, attack’ style is testament to that and you’ll find many a Tottenham fan in agreement that when it comes to foreseeing future problems, he simply doesn’t see a bigger picture. Aside from his transfer dealings, which I believe highlight that short-sighted thinking (see the return of Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Pascal Chimbonda, if you’re after further proof), this excellent piece written by Ewan Roberts at the beginning of the season, details many of the long-standing problems with Redknapp.

He wasn’t appointed by Levy as the long-term answer. His ability to put an arm round players and give them confidence was required to address the alarming Juande Ramos tenure and bring Spurs back to safety. He did that, and probably to the surprise of Levy, found an extra gear – pushing Spurs into Champions League contention for each full year he’s been at the club.

The easiest and sometimes laziest attack is to call Redknapp tactically clueless. But whilst suggesting that he is totally incompetent is a hyperbolic statement, there is no smoke without fire. Over the recent months his tactical decision-making (or lack thereof) has been called into question on numerous occasions. The gung-ho 4-4-2 that has served him well in the past has now become so hackneyed and predictable that he has had to revert to the 4-5-1 that every man and his dog could see suited Spurs best. And yet, his alarming post-match analysis of the systems he can choose between beggars belief. A sample of some recent quotes:

After defeating Bolton and Swansea in the same week, Redknapp spoke of how the 4-5-1 formation ‘suited the players‘ and how he ‘liked the system‘. Following the loss to Norwich just two games later he said:

“We played 4-4-2 today but it leaves us a little bit open. It’s an attacking system but I felt we’ve looked stronger recently with 4-3-3. It was disappointing the way we played.”

If he knew that, why did he play that way? Is it just to appease fringe players like Jermain Defoe? And finally, when talking about the relevance of tactics:

“It’s 10 per cent about the formation and 90 per cent about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to.”

You can draw an awful lot from these quotes and it is alarming listening to him de-construct the tactical options he believes he has. The idea that 4-4-2 is an attacking system and 4-5-1 is defensive is untrue and an archaic way of thinking, particularly in the modern game where it has been proved otherwise. See Paul Lambert’s Norwich in their 2-1 win at White Hart Lane. They lined up in a 4-4-2 but it was far from an attacking system. The midfield was narrow and designed to prevent the Spurs four from playing before launching counter-attacks full of movement as the wide-men interchanged with the Canaries front-men. It was a lesson in how a clever, forward-thinking manager could disguise a game-plan within a tactical label.

This brings us back to Sunday’s loss to Chelsea. With 75 minutes on the clock, there was still ample time for Spurs to find an equaliser and they were just about edging possession heading into the latter stages. Then came the hammer blow – Defoe was brought on for Van der Vaart and immediately any grip Tottenham had on the midfield was lost – two minutes later, Ramires had the ball in the back of the net and the game was over. The reason I’m so critical of this incident ties in with my above point. It’s far too simplistic to think ‘we need a goal so I’ll take off a midfielder for a striker’. There was no thought paid to the overall repercussions it would have and Chelsea clinically punished the move.

It can be argued that he had to press for the equaliser and that it was the right move, but to watch this trademark Redknapp late-game ploy was to watch him hand the Chelsea midfield the initiative. He may not be tactically clueless but he is tactically predictable and if it is this simple for a writer to pick up on his Plan B, you do wonder just how prepared the game’s deeper thinkers are – i.e. Arsene Wenger – see Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham.

Aside from that long-standing issue, the last two months have really highlighted a major problem but it is perhaps the most intangible of the lot. Redknapp became the bookies favourite to take the England job when Fabio Capello resigned back in February. The FA have still not acted and whilst their dalliance is a gripe for Spurs fans, the uncertainty it has created within the club is palpable. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane was reduced to nothing more than a whisper for the majority of the Norwich fixture. As different sets of standpoints clash on the future of Redknapp and indeed players like Bale and Modric, the home fans had to suffer the taunts of ‘is this a library?’ as they stood and watched the Canaries defeat Spurs for the first time in 19 years.

I’m not suggesting the grievances of the supporters should dictate Redknapp’s future – rather that it is a window into the current malaise plaguing Tottenham. In the same week that Redknapp was cleared on tax evasion charges – a week that should have been full of celebration – his mind was immediately filled with thoughts of filling the vacant England position. Though Newcastle were demolished 5-0 in the club’s next game, Spurs’ form drastically declined and it is surely no coincidence that it ran parallel with visions of taking England to the Euros.

He has painted a good picture of the work he is doing at Spurs and in fairness has batted away questions on the England job relatively diplomatically. However, every so often a sound-bite emerges that if dwelt upon serves as a reminder of his loyalties. Just over a month ago Redknapp reminded the nation’s press that he felt the England job wasn’t one for a younger manager and reiterated how great it would be to manage your country.

It’s fair to say that his mind has not been solely focused on taking Spurs back into the Champions League. The FA Cup became a priority for Redknapp as it would have capped a good three-and-a-half years at the club, especially knowing he won’t be staying at the club beyond this campaign. As it has worked out, he won’t be claiming a second FA Cup and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Spurs will qualify for Europe’s premier competition.

Put bluntly, this Tottenham team – a first eleven that on paper, at least, is a top three side – should have sewn up a top four position. To watch their form completely fall off a cliff in the second-half of the season would not be acceptable at a top club. That is half the problem. In my 26 years, Tottenham have been below average. They’ve won the odd cup but could never be trusted to achieve something meaningful. Redknapp gave the club a glimpse of what it felt like to be part of the elite in the 2009/10 season in coming fourth, but that should not be the pinnacle of this Tottenham team. Instead of using the dark days as the measuring stick, Levy should be using the last couple of years as his gauge in deciding if Redknapp is fit for the task.

I accept that an FA Cup semi-final and a fifth or sixth place Premier League finish in years gone by would have been more than welcome but times change and so should expectations.

If Redknapp is off at the end of the season, I see no reason why a change of management now should be deemed such a risk or conversely a drastic decision. It would be a PR disaster, sure, and the media would have a field day, condemning Spurs as the laughing stock they were once so familiar as. But aside from Parker, Aaron Lennon and surprisingly Emmanuel Adebayor, it seems to me that a number of Spurs players are lacking the spark they had earlier in the season. Whether it is through mental fatigue or a distracted mind – as is the case with Modric – Tottenham have been inadvertently jettisoned by Redknapp.

Will he get sacked between now and the end of the season? I doubt it. The only scenario would be if the FA made an official approach, as is rumoured to be the case this week, and an agreement was made between both parties. The compensation package he would be due from the club probably prevents this suggestion materialising but that’s not to say it doesn’t deserve a place in the debate.

I will close by reiterating the point: if Spurs fail to claim a top four place, it will go down in history as one of the all-time biggest Premier League collapses – and that is through mismanagement of a very capable squad.

The Balotelli Conundrum – a defence of sorts

Another week, another drama in the life of Mario Balotelli. Except, this time, Manchester City’s maverick striker looks to have blown it as his red-card at the Emirates capped a reckless performance. Asked whether he’d look to sell the Italian in the summer, Roberto Mancini answered “probably” as his patience finally eroded.

The pair have a curious relationship: during his time as Inter manager, Mancini took the young Balotelli under his wing. Compliments had rained down on the striker after emerging in Serie A as a prodigal 17-year-old but as fantastic as some brief cameos were, the lasting impression he gave from his time in Italy was of unfulfilled potential and very obvious signs of a poor attitude.

Through his many shenanigans, Mancini has always been there to defend him – like a good manager is supposed to do. But following the defeat at Arsenal, it seemed Balotelli’s biggest fan had finally given up on him. Mancini stated: “City cannot afford to play Balotelli anymore. He will sit out for the rest of the season.” With that, it looks increasingly likely that the game against Arsenal was his final appearance in a sky blue shirt.

From setting fire to his bathroom to allegedly stamping on Scott Parker’s head and throwing darts at youth team players to almost breaking Alex Song’s leg, his time in England has been eventful to say the least. But for the great value his antics have provided, we’ve had many of the most entertaining stories about his off-pitch life rubbished by Balotelli as pure fabrication.

The British media has been quick to exploit his mystique through stories that played on his eccentric reputation. But they have been faster to switch tact, this time condemning a man harder than the studs that raked down Song’s shin. Listening to the drivel Jamie Redknapp spouts into the Sky Sports cameras is always an eye-gougingly painful experience but as he sat there laying into Balotelli he marked the moment in which the striker became the City scapegoat. As his never-ending stream of venom was fired at the Italian throughout the coverage, it became painfully apparent of just how tough a ride Balotelli is given. Would it be the same if Jack Wilshere had the same attitude? Probably not.

Initially it suited everyone to enjoy Balotelli’s every caper. Whilst City sat on top of the Premier League, his behaviour was tolerated. However, now eight points behind United, someone must take the blame for a remarkable implosion.

But of course, that is the duty of the media – they are there to laud the entertainment but to deliver the death knell on the ridiculous. What is irksome though, is the faux surprise that Balotelli could dare be as idiotic as he was on Sunday. The signs have been there throughout his entire career, not least his brief time in Manchester. He is still in the infancy of his career and will most definitely learn from his mistakes (see the apology issued on Monday) but to state that he has thrown the title through his poor performance is extreme hyperbole.

What about Carlos Tevez? Isn’t it funny how the striker that left City in the lurch as he headed to Argentina for a five month jolly is receiving less criticism than Balotelli? Watching coverage of Tevez’s impact as a substitute against Chelsea was embarrassing as the Match of the Day pundits praised his return as if it were a chivalrous act way beyond the call of duty.

For Balotelli’s mistakes, he has plodded through the entire campaign and returned a decent number of goals. His cool demeanour won the points when Tottenham visited the Etihad while his second goal against Sunderland was the spark as City salvaged a point. There is an odd expectation in Britain that every player should hare about the pitch, flying into tackles and giving ‘110%’ in every game. Perhaps that is why Tevez is let off for his ill-discipline? He looks like he cares when he plays, Balotelli doesn’t.

And where does Mancini figure in this story? For the past seven months, he has batted away questions on Balotelli with commendable commitment. However, perhaps it is more telling that as City’s title bid effectively ended, the Mancini life jacket hung around Balotelli’s shoulders was deflated for good. For Mancini, it is no longer worth hanging his reputation on the striker and it’s noticeable that a portion of his team-mates feel the same way. It is easier to pin the blame on Balotelli than take responsibility.

Mancini’s managerial credentials should be questioned, but they are not because he can use the Balotelli sideshow as a shield. It is a debate for another day, but Mancini’s faith in Balotelli has detailed a major flaw in his ability. I wonder if this would have happened at Old Trafford. Would Ferguson allow a 21-year-old to be so publicly vilified? Did he allow that to happen to a young and imprudent Wayne Rooney? No, he protected him through some brash episodes and barren Premier League years and he has emerged a more reliable character. Who expected Rooney to go a domestic season without a yellow card five years ago?

Mancini closed his on-screen interview with Sky Sports by suggesting Balotelli is wasting his talent. The insinuation was clear – if he did not address his commitment to the sport he has such a gift for, his career will be wasted. But maybe we should take a step back. The rebellious, eccentric side to his character and game are why so many football fans and pundits took Balotelli to their hearts. The ‘why always me?’ t-shirt, scoring a goal with his shoulder – they all endeared him to Premier League fans.

No-one can deny Balotelli let City down on Sunday but to call him the root of all problems at City is frankly ridiculous. I fear it is too late for him to recover his reputation and fully expect him to head back to Italy in the summer and that is a great shame. I’ll leave you with a James Milner quote from last summer:

“Mario is Mario, he does some strange things sometimes.”

Pietro Vierchowod: Profile – 6/4/1959

For someone who played professional football until he was 41, the prospect of adding another year to the tally must register fairly low in his list of concerns. Pietro Vierchowod turned 53 on Friday and the man once described as ‘an animal’ by Diego Maradona had a career worth recalling. Suitably I’m here to take a compact look at the accomplishments of the man known as ‘Lo Zar’.

The source of the majority of my early football interest came via the much-cherished channel of Football Manager and it’s various iterations. The Italian leagues were introduced in 1996 and a 35-year-old Vierchowod was patrolling Milan’s squad. The thing that stood out was his surname – it didn’t match his Italian nationality. A sweeper too? Not many of those specialists existed within the game. He was an intriguing entity and when I discovered him knocking about as a free transfer five years later, it was obvious that this was a man worth knowing.

The son of a Ukrainian Red Army soldier (hence the ‘Zar’ nickname), Vierchowod’s sterling reputation owed as much to his longevity as his achievements in both club and national football. In a career that spanned 24 years, racking up a mighty 647 club appearances he managed to squeeze in two Scudetto’s, a Cup Winners Cup, four Coppa Italia’s, a Champions League and a World Cup.

Standing a short 5ft 11ins for a centre-half but with a unique turn of pace that elevated him above his defensive peers, Vierchowod bridged two Italian eras, adapting admirably to the changing tactical worlds thrown at him. Initially a classic ‘stopper’, Vierchowod forged his reputation as a fierce man-marker – a vital line of defence in the Catenaccio systems that had started to disperse in the 80’s. As Italian football cast off the shackles of the defensive model that continues to stereotype the reputations of Serie A clubs, Vierchowod became one of the few defenders of the time to span both the 80’s and 90’s with his reputation intact.

Asked who was his toughest opponent was Gary Lineker spoke of the defender: “Vierchowod. He was absolutely brutal and lightning quick.”

He began his career at Romanese in Serie D, making three appearances in the 1974/75 season though his first notable employer was Como in the north of Italy, where he spent five years. The 1978/79 campaign saw him establish himself at the heart of the defence and attain successive promotions from the third tier. Back in Serie A, Como gave him the platform to display his talents and halfway through their two year stay in the top flight he moved on to Sampdoria. He was taken to the Luigi Ferraris by oil tycoon Paolo Mantovani but given two years in Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma. His first year at the Viola was a success and saw the club finish just one point behind Serie A winners Juventus in second place.

Vierchowod’s impressive campaign encouraged Azzurri boss Enzo Bearzot to take him as an unused member of the Spain ’82 squad where he would go on to collect a World Cup winners medal. The following season saw his stock rise further as he helped his new club Roma capture the Scudetto for only the second time, keeping 17 clean sheets and winning the Italian Player of the Year award.

In 1983 he finally moved back to his parent club, Sampdoria, where he would further enhance his standing in the game. The ‘Zar’ nickname not only alluded to his heritage but his influence on the pitch and in the dressing room. He would go on to appear for Sampdoria 358 times in Serie A and helped lead them to their first and only Scudetto in 1990/91. He won four Italian Cups, won and finished runner-up in the Cup Winners Cup as well as a runners-up finish in the European Cup in this time.

By now, Vierchowod had competition in the form of the great all-Italian Milan back-line of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti. The formation of one of the greatest defences in Italian history saw the same chemistry often supplied to the national team and as such Vierchowod never secured a permanent place in the starting line-up. That said, he did acquire 45 caps – further testament to a distinguished standing in the Italian game. He was also part of the 1990 World Cup squad that finished third.

During his time at Sampdoria, Vierchowod adapted his game and became a more forward-thinking defender, often winning possession and surging from the defensive line, helping to launch counter-attacks.

To draw a modern comparison, Phil Jones’ style of play is reminiscent of the dynamism Vierchowod had during his days at Sampdoria. The competitive spirit and vivacity that separates Jones from his generation did so for Vierchowod throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As well as playing alongside Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Vierchowod also faced some of the most fearsome strikers in the world as Italian football attracted the likes of Marco Van Basten, Rudi Voller, Careca and Diego Maradona.

On Vierchowod, Maradona eulogised: “He was an animal, he had muscles to the eyelashes. It was easy to pass by him, but then when I raised my head, he was in front of me again. I would have to pass him two or three more times and then I would pass the ball because I couldn’t stand him anymore.”

Vierchowod left Sampdoria in 1995 at a time where you’d be forgiven for thinking his time was up. Quite contrary, he moved to Juventus and played in the Champions League final against Ajax, helping stifle the likes of Patrick Kluivert and a 19-year-old Kiki Musampa no less! He helped take the game to penalties and picked up a winners medal aged 37.

As his career wound down, he turned out for Milan in a final big-club swansong before settling down at Piacenza where he helped them battle relegation to Serie B for three seasons. As his physical attributes waned, Vierchowod operated as the sweeper in a three man defence. He famously said in 1999: “I used to be much quicker than everyone else – now I’m just as quick as them.”

Why Napoli are walking a tightrope between success and failure

Chelsea returned from Naples five weeks ago with their tail between their legs following a 3-1 loss that led the British press to hail Walter Mazzarri’s side as the reincarnation of the famous Scudetto winners of the late 80’s. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that they couldn’t defend and relied almost exclusively on the ability of the ‘Three Tenors‘ and the comic last days of Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea reign.

Fast-forward three weeks and the hyperbole thrown their way was soon extinguished as Napoli contrived to implode at Stamford Bridge, squandering numerous early chances before succumbing to an aerial bombardment that they just could not cope with.

Their European exit left mixed emotions – Napoli were not expected to go as far as they did, particularly after they were drawn in the toughest group, and yet, Chelsea were floundering. You could argue that the unfortunate timing of Villas-Boas’ dismissal conspired against Napoli, but then it would be more sensible to point to their rancid defensive display as the prime reason for their exit.

The heavy 3-0 loss to Juventus on Sunday added weight to the suggestion that Napoli are stumbling towards the finish line. Since defeat at Stamford Bridge, they have gained just two points from nine and head to Rome for a massive fixture against third-place Lazio on Saturday evening. Edy Reja’s side are three points in front of Napoli and crucially occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot in a year where fourth only sends you to the Europa League.

Although owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is not shy of a few Euros, he is well aware of the esteem Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani are held across Europe and it’s entirely possible they could be flogged to the highest bidder this summer – particularly if the club miss out on Champions League football.

Hamsik is a curious case as his value is almost entirely measured on his goal threat. Away from the box it remains difficult to assess his best attributes but for as long as he scores goals he will continue to command a big fee.

Cavani has frequently professed his love for his current surroundings and has had an outstanding two years in Naples but there is a lingering feeling that these could well be his best years. He didn’t exactly show prolific form for Palermo, scoring 37 goals in 117 appearances and has just 11 in 37 for Uruguay. Although his Napoli record currently stands at 61 in 86 appearances, cashing in on the Uruguayan may be more tempting than it should be for De Laurentiis.

Completing the trio, Lavezzi is experiencing an excellent fifth year at the San Paolo, sitting just one goal shy of his best return of 11 goals. But as rumours of an impending bid from the scandalously wealthy backers at Anzhi Makhachkala grow, the financial welfare of a club with a chequered history of account mismanagement may trump sentiment.

The potential departures undoubtedly hang on European football. The Europa League is unlikely to push the three forwards away but that situation would certainly entice bids from Europe’s richest clubs. Saturday’s fixture is of paramount importance as every passing week dictates the number of vultures circling above Napoli’s three elite players.

Bela Guttmann’s “the third year is fatal” theory has been discussed extensively in recent times and seems worthy of a mention. As Pep Guardiola reluctantly passes the La Liga baton to Jose Mourinho, the belief is that Real Madrid’s impending domestic usurpation will confirm the final days of Catalan dominance. Over in Italy, could the same be said of Napoli?

Mazzarri is in his third year at the San Paolo and recently said: “Last year we did exceptional things, but it is not always possible to repeat seasons like that one.” Scouting around Europe, it is clear to see what is afflicting his side. The debut Champions League campaign has taken it’s toll on both management and players. In a similar way to Tottenham’s fifth placed finish in 2010/11 and the relegation-threatened predicament Villarreal currently find themselves in, the first meal at Europe’s top table is always the toughest to keep down.

If, (and it’s a big ‘if’) Mazzarri leads his side back to Champions League football, he will have placed Napoli on the verge of a period of stable success. The UEFA mega-bucks thrown at De Laurentiis will not only allow Mazzarri to continue to mould his side into a bigger beast, it will keep the wolves at bay.

There can be no denying that Napoli have dined out on their flimsy squad and with the addition of European games and a run to the Coppa Italia final we are noticing the effects. In Serie A, 13 players have featured in 80% or more of the club’s fixtures. In a squad of 28 players, seven haven’t started a game. That leaves eight players who have made the odd start and handfuls of sub appearances. Continuity has pushed the squad to the same heights in Serie A as last year, but can it last?

Against Juventus, all three forwards were employed to work hard defensively and as such created little in the attacking third. Right-sided Christian Maggio – one of the team’s most vital components – had to be substituted (as he was at Stamford Bridge) due to injury, while Juan Zuniga, the other wing-back was sent-off for elbowing Giorgio Chiellini and will miss two games. There is a fear that Salvatore Aronica will have to play wide against Lazio – a frightening prospect for any Neapolitan to endure.

Those with a glass half-full disposition will chuckle at Lazio’s loss to lowly Parma and see little to worry about. But others may cast a southerly glance to Roma and a rejuvenated Inter Milan and grimace at the prospect of totally falling out of the European places.

Cavani once said: “Playing in this team is like being a member of a well-tuned orchestra.” 55 goals between the ‘Three Tenors’ in 2010/11 confirmed his assertion. However, recent weeks have shown that many of the instruments around the attacking trident are showing signs of rust. It is the time of year across Europe that the big players – the most coveted footballers – earn their stripes.

Ironically, should Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani propel Napoli into another Champions League season, their value may never be higher. Whether that is a positive will be down to De Laurentiis and his vision of the club’s future. He stood by Napoli in the dark days of Serie C1 football in 2004 and helped commandeer a remarkable rise to the upper echelons of Serie A – it’s hard to believe he would deplete the squad by selling players unless it was in the best interests of the club.

Ferenc Puskas: Profile – 2/4/1927


Ferenc Puskas would have been 85-years-old today had he not passed away in 2006 and it seems apt to get a snapshot of the career of the man known as ‘the little fat chap’.

Puskas is arguably more renowned as the goalscoring inside forward for the Hungarian ‘Golden Team’ of the 1950s than one of many superstars plying their trade in the Spanish capital for Real Madrid in the back end of the 50’s. He achieved as much in (and with) his native country than he did with his adopted nation of Spain.

He played for the Hungarian team Kispest under two separate guises between 1943 and 1955. His father, also called Ferenc, appeared for Kispest in the 1930’s when the club was more of a village side before coaching the club in the 40’s. But it was the impact his son made on Hungarian football that was chronicled as legend. Puskas made his debut for Kispest AC in 1943 alongside Jozsef Bozsik – another of the future stars of the Golden Team – long before the club became synonymous with the politics of the nation.

The Communist rulers had long since recognised the potential of sport as a tool of propaganda and by 1949 decided to focus on the development of the national team. Unlike many other nations, it was decided that Hungary would follow the blueprint that led to the great Austrian and Italian teams of the 1930’s by adopting one club as a puppet for national team development. Kispest became that team and were led by Gustavs Sebes, who was also appointed the national team manager that year. Kispest became Budapest Honved or literally ‘Defenders of the Motherland’.

Honved had Puskas and Bozsik on their books already and once Sandor Kocsis reached conscription age in 1950, he took the option of moving to Sebes’ club over rudimentary army duties. They were joined by Zoltan Czibor, Laszlo Budai, Gyula Lorant and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics in the following year.

Here, Sebes effectively had the spine of his national team available all year round to mould to his style. Puskas and co. adapted to Sebes’ take on the increasingly antiquated W-M formation and employed it successfully for Honved and Hungary.

The 1952 Olympics gold medal winning side was the first true indication of the ability of the Golden Team. Puskas netted a relatively modest four goals in Hungary’s five games but crucially scored in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, ultimately claiming victory in a politically relevant clash with Yugoslavia. Puskas described Hungary’s success:

“It was during that Olympics that our football first started to flow with real power. It was a prototype of total football; when we attacked everyone attacked; in defence, it was just the same.”

Puskas’s ability was well summarised by his international team-mate, right-back Jeno Buzanszky, who said:

“If a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot three options. Puskas always saw at least five.”

The following year, Buzanszky’s assessment was confirmed: 1953 gave rise to the game often referred to as the ‘match of the century’ – the 6-3 humbling Hungary dealt England at Wembley. Puskas, who netted twice, scored arguably the most famous of the six goals that day, collecting the ball on the right side of the box and dragging the ball back past England captain Billy Wright before slamming it into the goal. He also picked up an assist in a victory inspired by Nandor Hidegkuti’s hat-trick. The Magical Magyars had arrived.

A rematch the following year merely confirmed Hungary’s superiority as they trounced the English 7-1. These results came during a four-year spell of supremacy in which the Golden Team remained unbeaten for 31 matches. As the 1954 World Cup approached, many felt it would fittingly crown Sebes’ team as the finest footballing side in the world.

However, an early injury to Puskas meant he missed the quarter-final and semi-final and although Hungary defeated Brazil and Uruguay en route to the final, they lost 3-2 to the Germans in the final. Puskas featured in the final, and despite being judged unfit, scored what looked to be his second goal of the game:

“I got an equalizer right at the death but that Welsh linesman Griffiths…disallowed it for offside. Even the English ref Billy Ling had given it.”

The 1954 World Cup should have invigorated Hungarian football further but it did the opposite. Where there had been adulation for Sebes’ side following the 6-3 victory at Wembley, the defeat to Germany in Bern provoked so much anger in the Hungarian people that the returning team had to be protected by armed guard.

Between 1950 and 1956 Honved won five Hungarian league titles. However this success came before the introduction of the European Cup and, aside from glamour friendlies with the likes of Wolves, little activity was seen on the continent. The timing of the creation of the European Cup – a competition Honved would have been contenders for – ironically conspired to unravel this great side.

In the first round of the 1956 competition, Honved travelled to Spain for a clash with Bilbao. The timing was dreadful. The Soviet Union had invaded Hungary as the Revolution collapsed and the vast majority of Hungarian players used the opportunity to search for a way out of Hungary. The Honved striker Lajos Tichy said of the time:

“We hadn’t even had time to unpack our suitcases before we were surrounded by agents. There wasn’t a single player who didn’t get some kind of offer.”

After Honved toured Europe, many of the players found new clubs and indeed Puskas had searched for other options away from Budapest. After refusing to return to Hungary, Puskas was given a two year ban by UEFA, preventing him from moving elsewhere. During his time at Budapest Honved (and Kispest), Puskas scored a remarkable 352 goals in 341 games.

Despite that record, as the ban expired, his age (he was 31) and his size (hence ‘little fat chap’) put doubt in the minds of many of the top clubs. Santiago Bernabeu of Real Madrid, saw sense and snapped up the unattached Puskas, marrying him with the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano.

Their finest moment together came in the 1960 European Cup final as Madrid tore Eintracht Frankfurt to pieces in front of 130,000 people at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Although the Germans took the lead, Puskas and Di Stefano responded, scoring four and three goals respectively in a 7-3 rout that crowned the Spanish club European Champions for the fifth consecutive time.

In the eight years Puskas played for Madrid, he won five league titles and three European Cups as well as four Pichichi trophies for topping the goalscoring charts in Spain. He even made four appearances for Spain after becoming nationalised in 1961. In his time in Spain, Puskas scored 157 times in 182 games. For Hungary, his record stands at 84 goals in 85 games.

Though Puskas continued at Real Madrid until he was 39, there is something poetic to be taken from the ‘breathtaking ingenuity’ he showed in the 1960 European Cup final. Germany had denied the Golden Team their coronation in Austria in 1954, but Puskas’ brilliance ensured he did not suffer a repeat of such disappointment.

Real Madrid 7-3 Eintracht Frankfurt | 1960