22 February 2013

Spanish Inquest: Best of Enemies

My column for Eircom SportsHub

Antoine Griezmann has been in exceptional form for Real Sociedad

This weekend’s Basque derby is full of significance. Clashes between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are always to be savoured, but this one will be the last at Bilbao’s cathedral San Mamés. Come next season they’ll be moving to a new home adjacent to this storied ground.

It also marks Marcelo Bielsa’s 100th game in charge- his longest time at the helm of any club. It’s fair to say matters have been more trying this term, something the Argentine readily conceded to the press pack on Thursday. “In evaluating my work this season, the conclusion is negative”.

It’s a different story up the road in San Sebastian where Phillippe Montanier has lead his side to sixth position. The Frenchman was criticised earlier in the season for his side’s perceived lack of ambition amidst underwhelming results. But of late, it’s their fluid attackers who’ve been drawing the praise.

Clearly, their key man remains the France underage international Antoine Griezmann. Last year, he’d had his head turned and his performances suffered as a result. This season, he’s regained his focus and whether playing in a fixed position or roaming free, he’s been a real nuisance to opposing defences.

It’s not just the prospect of Griezmann that will have had Athletic’s porous backline sweating. Imanol Agirretxe’s chipped in with 5 goals off the bench, and then there’s the former Arsenal man, Carlos Vela.

The Mexican finally seems to have found himself a home after multiple loan moves during his time in London. The penalty he won- and converted- in last week’s 1-1 draw with Levante was his 10th in the league to date.

Vela is another who likes to drift across the attacking line in games in order to elude his markers. His dribbling ability and intelligent link-up play are his principal assets, but this year he’s really grown as a finisher and enjoying getting frequent time on the pitch.

Athletic’s recent form has been wretched. The defence has been a calamity all season, but  further up the field their pressing game- so central last season’s success- had been an abject failure. The frequency of their concession of goalscoring chances stems largely from this. Once the initial press is beaten, their defence has too often been all at sea.

Eyebrows were raised when their stalwart between the sticks, Gorka Iraizoz, was absent from the selection for last weekend’s 1-0 reverse at Málaga. It’s true that he didn’t enjoy the best of times in their 4-0 defeat here against Espanyol, and has been unsure in several other games since the turn of the year.

Bielsa refused to give his thoughts, instead stating that “Gorka is a player with a lot of character. And I’m not one to give up my thoughts in public on selections and line-ups before I tell it to the players themselves”. But youngster Kepa- who described the Athletic goalkeeping shirt as ‘sacred’- look certain to start.

Meanwhile, the whole Fernando Llorente saga continues. Next year, he’ll be leading the line for Juventus. For the time being, it’s hard to see what he has to do to get himself back into Bielsa’s plans.

“Llorente will be available, as will [defender, Fernando] Amorebieta”. The fact that Llorente didn’t train with the first team on Wednesday should confirm another frustrating night on the bench for the Spain striker.

Fortunately for Athletic his stand-in, Aritz Aduriz has been in exceptional form this term, with the former Valencia man contributing 12 goals; their next highest scorer is Mikel San José, the former Liverpool centre back.

Certainly, they can do with all the help they can get in attack. Óscar De Marcos is still a doubt, and Carlos Gurpegui- never much of a goal threat- limped off in the defeat in Málaga. Iker Muniain has been off the boil all season, and may not even make the starting line-up here.

Meanwhile, La Real’s Uruguayan attacker Chory Castro was talking big in Wednesday’s press conference. “I can’t tell you how much I want to win at San Mamés. They’re down at the moment and we have to make sure they don’t get up”

“They’ll want to pick themselves up so it’s up to us to make sure they can’t. If we have the opportunity to stick away two or three goals, then fine... we’ll do just that because that’s our job.”

Big words indeed, but given Athletic’s travails of late one wouldn’t put it past him and his team-mates to make this another excruciating night for the home side.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

06 February 2013

Spanish Inquest: Clash of the continents

My column for Eircom SportsHub

Edinson Cavani has yet to strike up a partnership with Luis Suárez for Uruguay

Another slice of history beckons for Vicente Del Bosque on Wednesday. When Spain take the field against Uruguay it will mark the occasion of his 68th match in charge of La Roja - equalling the record set by Ladislao Kubala.
Unlike the Hungarian maestro, Del Bosque has laid his hands on international football's most glittering prizes. His side will face off against one of the great names in this arena, the Copa América holders of Oscar Washington Tábarez, as the first world champions meet the last.
In the last international cycle, this was the clash we were denied: the champions of Europe versus the champions of South America. They came close, but ultimately Brazil and Spain's paths never crossed. In the Confederations Cup, Spain were eliminated by the USA while Dunga's Brazil side fell to Holland in 45 minutes of madness in Port Elizabeth.
This doesn't quite have the same glamour billing as the clash that never was, and not just because for all their incredible successes Uruguay lack the cachet of Brazil. That terrific run which saw them make the semi-finals in South Africa and culminated with a record 15th continental title in Buenos Aires has petered out as the Celeste undergo a difficult generational change.
It looked to be going so well. Fresh from their success, Uruguay began the marathon South America qualifying section like a train. Moreover, they had the Olympics to look forward to as they looked to bed in the next generation talent from their underage squads.
But just as the senior side began to falter, the U23 selection endured a torrid time of it in London when the youngsters failed to step up and a heayweight frontline of Luís Suárez and Edinson Cavani failed to gel. Amomgst the pre-tournament favourites, they failed to progress beyond a navigable group.
Spain's exit at the same stage represented a hiccup, but for Tábarez this was a real blow. His reorganisation of the tiny country's youth set-up has seen them cast the net as far as possible in the hope of grooming the next generation of players for the senior team. It's not all about results, but their poor showing has left him reliant on ageing legs.
The resumption of their World Cup campaign brought further pain. A Lionel Messi inspired Argentina ran riot when the sides met in October, the 3-0 final score a pale reflection of their great rivals' dominance. That followed a 4-0 humbling away to a Colombia side on the rise.
One figure from that Olympic squad earmarked for the seniors was Southampton's Gastón Ramírez. The former Bologna man has had a mixed start to his time in the Premier League but was expected to feature. Unfortunately for Tábarez, an injury sustained at Wigan means he's absent.
This, and the fact that Diego Forlan won't start will necessitate a change of shape. A one-time progidy, the 23 year old Nicolas Lodeiro should start in the hole behind the forwards. This inteligent number 10 is rebuilding his career with Botafogo in Brazil following an unhappy stint at Ajax.
Forlan himself was in fine form on Spanish radio, as he reminisced over his 7 years in Spain. Asked if Uruguay were 'the kings of football' he sensibly batted away the question, before turning more serious in his response.
“It's inexplicable - if you look at it logically - that a country so small, with three million-odd people, can keep competing against the big boys and winning titles... it's extraordinary” Given that Forlán has been the glue that held their attack together, it'll be interesting to see how they fare without him.
For Spain's part, it's likely that their line-up will have a distinctly Barcelona makeup. Xavi and Xabi Alonso have both withdrawn, meaning an abandonment of Del Bosque's favoured double pivot for something more akin to the Catalans' take on 4-3-3.
Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa are expected to make up the right side of defence, with Chelsea's Juan Mata the remaining non-Barcelona player in an eleven which will include Victor Valdés. Cesc Fábregas has been in the form of his life, often lining up in the forward line for his club but should feature in the midfield here.
Many long to see Isco get his maiden run-out but as, in his own words, “the best players in the world in my position are ahead of me” he'll surely start on the bench. Carles Puyol will win his 100th cap, while Chelsea's César Azpilicueta and Mario Suárez of Atlético hope to feature at some point for their first.
More than anything, this game represents and interesting clash in styles. Uruguay are no mugs, they know their strengths and their success has been built on playing to them. This means that a hard running midfield focusses on winning the ball before supplying it to the heavy hitters up front. Whether they will see enough of it and whether Lodeiro will prove adept at providing the darts remains to be seen.
Their preference is for a deep defensive line, and this will be further necessary as their captain Diego Lugano looks sure to feature. After 18 months with limited game time at PSG prior to his recent move to Málaga, he'll form a Spain-based partnership with Atlético's Diego Godín.
The likely full-back pairing of Inter's Álvaro Pereira and his namesake Maxi of Benfica are expected to patrol the whole flank, using their energy to give width in attack without compromising their defensive duties. Another option on the right is the more defence-minded Martin Cáceres, who's also comfortable at centre back and being part of a back three.
18 months ago before the South Americans suffered their prolonged dip in form, their chances of a win would have looked a distinct possibility. As it stands, they find themselves very much the underdogs. But it's a role they've always revelled in, and if the Suárez-Cavani partnerhip finally clicks they have the tools in their locker to put the hurt on the World and European Champions.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub