Monthly Archives: January 2012

Anelka, Drogba and the Shenhua Revolution

by Andrew Crawford

Having even the remotest interest in Shanghai Shenhua should probably come with a health warning. When I die a decade prematurely, blame it on the side from the Hongkou stadium for weakening my heart and badly damaging my sanity. Shenhua is a dangerous interest to have. Believe me, its lots of fun but if you can, enjoy it in moderation.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has recently been thrust into the spotlight via the big money arrivals of Nicolas Anelka and Jean Tigana at my ‘local’ club, who having not won a title in almost a decade, have now exploded into relevance once again. No-one is entirely sure where the money has come from for these signings but equally, no one really cares – Shanghai is a brash, loud city where success is expected and demanded. As long as the new arrivals help the club win, everyone’s happy.

For the hardcore fans, the ones who transform the north and south ends of the club’s otherwise sparsely filled stadium into swaying, swearing, boisterous carnivals of noise, the signings are a mixed blessing.  Anelka is still a very good player and Tigana, despite being a big fan of resigning without warning, is a proven top level coach. For a success starved club, this is exactly the sort of bold investment that the fans wanted.

However, one can only imagine that there will be more than a little frustration at the sudden influx of new supporters who have been enticed by the hype of Anelka. Ticket prices will go up, not only to fund the wages of the new arrivals but also because there will be more demand, certainly for the first half of the season.

There is also the problem of our chairman, Zhu Jun, who frankly is about as likeable as small pox. This is a man who recently made Shenhua play their ‘home’ games for the Chinese FA Cup in Wuhu, a city in the neighbouring Anhui province over two-hundred miles away from Shanghai. Last season, he sold off all Shenhua’s best players midway through the season, sparking a spectacular nosedive from the top-half of the table and into a relegation dogfight. There are more unicorns in the city then there are people with nice things to say about Mr Zhu.

However, the Anelka singing has given the eccentric videogames mogul a new platform in which to shamelessly promote himself to anyone who’ll listen, much to the delight of rumour mongers everywhere. You’ll probably be reading about Shenhua’s interest in Didier Drogba, which is highly unlikely to go through as the club already have two foreign strikers (Anelka and former Australian international, Joel Griffiths) and need to get an overseas defender or two to strengthen their backline. Fans of Brazilian club, Internacional will be equally curious about the fate of their Argentine playmaker, Andres D’Alessandro, who is also rumoured to be moving to Shanghai. Basically, if you have played in a big European league in the last five years, chances are you’ve been mentioned in the same sentence as Shenhua.  Guti and Michael Ballack are among the names that have been recently mentioned and with Zhu reluctant to deny almost any rumour, the pick-a-name reporting shows no sign of slowing down.

As someone who likes to spend his Saturdays encamped with the Blue Devils, one of the supporters groups in the Hongkou’s north stand, I can’t wait for the season to begin. The all-standing atmosphere in that part of the ground is a joy to behold, especially when tickets plus a beer can be as little as a fiver. I desperately want this season to be a success, not only as a writer who likes the romantic story of a once great club returning to its former glory but also as a resident of Shanghai who wants to see his club do well. Some fans would like a title run but for me, a decent league finish with a couple of wins over rivals Hangzhou and Beijing would be just fine. And the less Zhu, the better, obviously.

You can follow Shenhua’s fortunes by following Andrew on Twitter @ShouldersGalore

Pippo Inzaghi needs to beat the odds again

by Adam Bate

Carlos Tevez’s move to AC Milan may yet happen. It may not. But the mere fact it is being discussed would indicate Filippo Inzaghi’s hopes of winning back his place in Milan’s Champions League squad let alone the first team are fading. Unless Super Pippo can prove people wrong one more time, the 38-year-old poacher may need to seek a new home before the transfer window closes.

Of course, Inzaghi has been defying the odds for most of his career. Witness his resilience in bouncing back from a cruciate knee injury in November 2010. On the field he has successfully fought off the challenges of men more technically and physically blessed – the Brazilian trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho have come and gone while Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Christian Vieri, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Borriello have all been outlasted too.

He has achieved this feat against a backdrop of whispers and doubts from some of the most respected figures in the game. The quotes are well known. There are the insults – Sir Alex Ferguson claiming Inzaghi was “born offside”. Then there are the backhanded compliments. Roberto Carlos said: “He is the man who sorts everything out – even though it’s difficult to lay your finger on what it is exactly that he’s got!”

Johan Cruyff was blunter, famously saying: “Look, the thing about Inzaghi is he can’t actually play football at all, he’s just always in the right position.” Indeed, complimenting Inzaghi is so rare within the game that when Jose Mourinho said earlier this season that he would prefer it if Pippo did not play against Real Madrid, the comment was still interpreted as just ‘mind games’.

All this talk might lead you to conclude that Inzaghi’s time at the top is some sort of fluke. The reality is that it has been anything but. After all, this is a man who has been at the top of the game for the best part of fifteen years.

It all began for the young Filippo Inzaghi at his home town club of Piacenza. Scrawny in his pomp, back then he cut an even less impressive physical figure and had to use nous beyond his years in order to succeed. After successful loan spells at both Leffe and Verona, he finally forced his way into the Piacenza side in 1994 – promptly helping the team gain promotion from Serie B.

A move to Parma in 1995 was a big step up and represented an early hiccup for the young forward. Nevio Scala’s expensively assembled squad contained more experienced competition in the form of Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Hristo Stoichkov. Just two goals in 15 Serie A games and fast approaching his 23rd birthday, Inzaghi was at a crossroads in his career. Fortunately, a move to Emiliano Mondonico’s Atalanta proved to be the right club at the right time.

Anyone who believes Inzaghi owes his success to the world class service of his colleagues should examine his performances that season with Atalanta. There were all sorts of goals: headers, volleys, left-foot, right-foot, penalties both won and converted – and even a free-kick into the top corner! Sure, he benefited from some good crosses but it was Inzaghi’s movement that demanded the ball. He finished that season as Italy’s Young Player of the Year and Capocannoniere with 24 goals.

Inzaghi’s move to Juventus in the summer of 1997 then allowed the striker to prove what we all now know – that he can score goals at any level. Aided by the service of Zinedine Zidane, he immediately forged a devastating partnership with fellow young forward Alessandro Del Piero and fired Juve to the Scudetto.

But perhaps it was his time with La Vecchia Signora that also gave rise to some of the negative clichés surrounding Inzaghi. After Pippo had flourished in the injury-enforced absence of Del Piero, it led to tension upon the return of his erstwhile strike partner. The much-debated difficulties came to a head on the final day of the 1999-2000 season in Perugia when Juve threw away the title – and Inzaghi spurned several opportunities where he could have passed the ball to Del Piero. Never had Pippo’s single-mindedness proven so costly. David Trezeguet was signed that summer and Inzaghi was shipped out to Milan the following year.

It is remarkable, given the player’s achievements at Juventus, that Inzaghi is likely to be remembered chiefly for his successes at Milan. However, the reason is simple – trophies. Not only have the Rossoneri picked up two Champions League wins in his time there, as well as the subsequent UEFA Super Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup, but Inzaghi has also been instrumental in these triumphs.

Involvement in the 2003 Champions League win over his former club must have been particularly sweet. But there was more to come. The 2003-04 season brought a Super Cup success over Porto before Milan romped to the Serie A title. On the international front, Inzaghi played his part in Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory – despite being given just 30 minutes of game time in the whole tournament, he still got his goal against the Czech Republic. No matter. It was 2007 that would be his annus mirabilis. In particular, the two goals on a balmy night in Athens – where Liverpool were Milan’s Champions League Final opponents and revenge was in the air.

It is perhaps appropriate that even in his finest hour, Inzaghi’s opening goal should be deemed to have an element of fortune to it. At first glance, Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick appeared to be deflected in by an opponent in the wall. As Pirlo’s teammates rushed to congratulate him, the unmistakeable sight of Inzaghi rushing off into the distance at full pelt left nobody in any doubt who had got the touch. It was vintage Inzaghi.

If the first was somewhat comical, the second goal that night typified all that is great about Filippo Inzaghi – breaking the offside trap, pouncing onto Kaka’s through-ball and rounding Pepe Reina. The man himself rates it as his finest moment: “When I think of all my goals, there is none better than that. It has to be my second in Athens.”

In truth, the world should have expected it. Down the years Inzaghi has so often saved his best for those glittering European nights. Incredibly, there are five different seasons in which he has scored as many goals in Europe as he has in Serie A. The result is that Inzaghi now ranks second only to Raul as the highest goalscorer in the history of European competition.

That European record, of course, hints at the fact that Inzaghi has long reserved his finest interventions for the grandest of stages. Pippo is no flat-track bully – a criticism often levelled at out-and-out goalscorers who plunder against the weaker sides but go missing on the big occasion. His brace against Liverpool was followed up by another goal in the subsequent Super Cup and then two more to defeat Boca Juniors in the World Club Cup.

So surely, at this late stage in his career, it is time Inzaghi received the respect and admiration that he deserves? The Italian press seem to have worked it out. Following Milan’s elimination from Europe at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur last season, Gazzetta’s Luigi Garlando immediately opined that: “With Pippo Inzaghi healthy today Milan would be in the quarter finals of the Champions League.” Maybe it’s a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Even those now famous criticisms seem ill-judged. Cruyff, as the creator-in-chief of Total Football – with its unique appreciation of the importance of space – knows better than anyone that being “always in the right position” is one of the finest gifts a footballer can possess.

Likewise, Ferguson’s flippant remark about being “born offside” betrays the fact that life on the shoulder of the last defender is one of small margins. Pippo has used all his guile and cunning to outwit that offside trap on countless occasions down the years and he has the goal tally to prove it.

And what a goal tally it is. With Inzaghi it all comes back to that. It is his trump card. The ace he can play in any debate regarding his worth as a footballer. Goals scored at the highest level and all of them celebrated with the kind of boyish enthusiasm so rarely seen at the top of the game. Because above all, the man just loves scoring goals. In the past, Inzaghi has likened the ball hitting the net to “a mystical experience”. It has occasionally got him into trouble. Opponents have not taken kindly to his wild-eyed celebrations when scoring in the final stages of games long since won.

But it is this sheer love of scoring goals that may well see Pippo Inzaghi bounce back from his latest setback. It may not. Whatever lies ahead, it is too much to hope that his eventual retirement will be greeted with the reverence that will come the way of his great rival Del Piero when the Juventus star finally walks away from the Bianconeri. But we are at least entitled to expect those eulogies to be free of the kind of backhanded compliments Inzaghi has faced throughout his career. After all, as Pippo himself brilliantly put it: “If they are calling me into question, why, that’s the end of football.”

 

*A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Calcio Italia magazine.

Jordan Rhodes – ‘Premier League player’?

by Adam Bate

Jordan Rhodes has certainly got the Premier League’s attention. As many as eight top flight clubs were represented at Huddersfield Town’s game against Wycombe Wanderers last week. And they are likely to have been impressed – the striker bagged five goals in a remarkable display. The question all of those scouts will have to answer is simple. Can Rhodes do it in the Premier League?

Such is the Scotland forward’s form at present, it almost seems churlish to ask. The numbers are phenomenal. Rhodes had scored 27 goals before the Christmas decorations were even down. And the 21-year-old striker is improving. “His finishing is up there with Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips,” said Huddersfield boss Lee Clark. “And his general play is excellent.”

And yet question marks will inevitably hang over the youngster. Much will be made of the massive gulf between League One and the Premier League. It’s far safer to go for proven top flight performers, or so the theory goes. But what is a proven Premier League player? The reflected glory that comes from being a youngster in and around the squad at a big club can count for a lot – but sometimes with very little substance to back it up.

Look at Federico Macheda. The 20-year-old striker has recently been snapped up by QPR on loan from Manchester United. The west London club were seemingly unperturbed by the Italian’s goalless contribution to Sampdoria’s relegation in his previous loan spell away from Old Trafford. And that’s no surprise – because he is a Manchester United player.

And then there is Everton’s popular frontrunner Victor Anichebe. The Nigerian is in his seventh season at Goodison Park with little suggestion he is likely to drop down the leagues. But Macheda and Anichebe’s combined number of career league goals currently stands at 12. In a whopping 128 games. To put this into context, Rhodes recently matched this combined league goal tally in under three weeks.

Of course, the standard is higher. But it’s equally legitimate to turn the question around and ask whether the likes of Macheda and Anichebe are capable of scoring 12 goals in five games in the competitive world of the Football League. Perhaps we should forget a few of our preconceived ideas of what constitutes a top flight player.

Norwich’s Paul Lambert is just the latest in a long line of manager’s from promoted clubs that have challenged the notion that there is a ceiling for lower league players. Lambert realised an important lesson – it’s better to sign a player adored by League One fans than ignored by Premier League ones. The Scot invested his summer transfer kitty in hungry young talent such as Elliott Bennett, Steve Morison and Anthony Pilkington and is now reaping the rewards.

Bennett and Pilkington both featured in last season’s League One PFA team of the year and they are just the latest in a long line of players who have made the step up. England internationals Joe Hart, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott, Michael Dawson, Ashley Young, Andy Carroll, Tom Huddlestone and Matt Jarvis all featured in lower league representative sides, while Gareth Bale is another graduate of the League One PFA team of the year.

So let’s not get too caught up with the question of whether Jordan Rhodes is capable of proving himself. After all, he’s been doing that all season.

GhostGoal in 2011

2011 – A Thank You

It’s been a drunken busy Christmas and New Year period and I haven’t got round to summarising 2011 on the site. I wanted to take the chance to belatedly amend that now.

2011 was the first full year GhostGoal has been in operation and it’s been great that it’s developed as it has. The year began with the ‘My Favourite Goals’ feature which started out as a chance to invite anyone to write something about, well, their favourite goal.

The fact that ‘anyone’ ended up including award-winning writers such as Andrew Thomas, Michael Cox, Dave Hartrick, Jack Lang and many more volunteers was much more than we could have hoped. I think it highlighted the fun side of blogging collaboration in what turned out to be a fraught year for the – awful phrase coming up – ‘blogging community’.

Since then we’ve been chugging along. It was good to be one of the first sites to point out back in May that Owen Coyle wasn’t all that people held him up to be, while the defence of Serie A from the criticism of the Sunday Supplement brigade in October certainly seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people.

For me personally it has been a far more successful year than I could have hoped. When Oli and I first had the idea to jot down a few of our frustrations back in May 2010, the notion that this could directly lead to me getting paid to write about football would have been ridiculous. But (albeit in a small way) that’s what has happened over the past year with magazine commissions, regular work with Sky Sports and even an award nomination.

As a result of these writing distractions, the plans for GhostGoal in 2012 are sketchy but I’m afraid there won’t be any dramatic “I quit” stories regarding the site. Not least because it’s actually looking better than ever thanks to the much appreciated efforts of Thomas Baugh and his redesign.

And besides, I’m sure Oli will have plenty of things he needs to get off his chest in the coming year and – even if I don’t get round to writing as much as I’d like – with over 200 posts there’s plenty of nonsense for new arrivals to wade through should they be of a warped disposition.

Most of all, thanks for reading, commenting, contributing and criticising over the past 12 months.

All the best

Adam

Why Mick McCarthy’s time at Wolves is up

by Adam Bate

Progress. It’s the bane of the football manager. No matter what you deliver there’ll always be people wanting more. It’s a problem surely consuming Wolves manager Mick McCarthy right now. After lifting the club from the Championship in 2009, fans are now left wondering if progress is something McCarthy is still capable of delivering.

You can read the rest of this article by clicking here to go to BT Life’s a Pitch