Category Archives: The Panenka

Switzerland – the next Belgium?

Much publicity has been given to Belgium and the genuinely breathtaking talent, young and old, that runs throughout their side as they impressively charge towards the 2014 World Cup. However, another side brimming with young talent has slipped under the radar somewhat.

Switzerland have never been associated with exciting football. Workman-like? Yes. Committed? Yes. Efficient? Yes. Attractive? No. Indeed, the Swiss have been responsible for some very forgettable appearances at major tournaments of late and indeed have played their part in some of the worst games in modern international tournament history. Remember Switzerland 0-0 Croatia at Euro 2004? Or Switzerland 0-0 France at World Cup 2006? Or Switzerland 0-0 Ukraine at the same tournament? Or Switzerland 0-0 Honduras at World Cup 2010? No, us neither.

However, under Ottmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland have dispensed with the rather decrepit and ageing line up that took the field at the last World Cup and instead prioritised a new generation of young talent, based on the Under-21 side that reached the final of the European Championships in 2011 only to lose to Spain, and the Basel side that shocked Manchester United in the Champions League last season.

In goal, the Swiss continue to call upon the reliable Diego Benaglio but in reserve they have potentially the most exciting young keeper in Europe in Yann Sommer. The defence contains the experience of Stephan Liechtsteiner, currently marauding down Juventus’ right-flank, Johan Djourou, who remains only 25 and the usually consistent for his country Philippe Senderos, while at left back, Wolfsburg’s 20-year-old Ricardo Rodriguez looks a star of the future.

However, the central European’s real talent comes in midfield. Marshalling the central area is imperious skipper Gokhan Inler, who gained such rave reviews at the last World Cup and is currently at one of the most exciting sides in Italian football in Napoli. Accompanying him in the middle of the park is the quite wonderful Granit Xhaka. After coming to the fore against Manchester United for Basel last season, the young playmaker made the move to German club Borussia Monchengladbach and has already impressed in this season’s Bundlesliga. Xhaka has a languid style and often looks lackadaisical at times but on the ball, his range of passing and ability to dictate the tempo is match-winning influence.

The two central midfielders are flanked by the experienced Tranquilo Barnetta, currently plying his trade at Champions League outfit Schalke 04 while on the opposing flank, Hitzfeld can call on the bright young hope of Swiss football, Xherdan Shaqiri. The Kosovo-born starlet tormented both Man Utd and the entire Swiss league last season, scoring 14 goals a year after he was named in the Under-21 European Championship’s team of the tournament. His performances earned Shaqiri a move to Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern Munich where he has already kept Arjen Robben on the bench at times, impressing with his speed, trickery and dribbling skills. Shaqiri is the poster-boy for this young Swiss outfit and there remains little down that the wideman will eventually become one of the best players in Europe.

Up front, Switzerland have lacked a regular goalscorer since the departures of Stephane Chapuisat and Alexander Frei from the international scene. It does seem as if Eren Derdiyok at 24 has been dubbed the “new” Chapuisat for an extremely long time, particularly when you consider he made his goalscoring debut for his country against England back in 2008. Indeed, the forward has only added six to that tally in  42 appearances since that cold February night. However, Derdiyok has hit double figures in each of his last three seasons in the Bundesliga for Bayer Leverkusen and has already scored three times for his new club Hoffenheim. Perhaps at the age of 24, the change in scenery is just what the striker needs.

So where are the weaknesses in this supposedly brilliant Switzerland side that are set to become one of the powerhouses in European football? Well firstly, the undoubted problem is depth. While Switzerland’s first XI may be capable of testing the very best, the question remains what happens when say Xhaka or Shaqiri gets injured, as young players often do? Do the likes of Valon Behrami or Gelson Fernandes offer the same quality in reserve? Similarly up front, Derdiyok may have his doubters but if he is not the man to lead the attack, then who? Nassim Ben Khalifa and Mario Gavranovic may offer youthful promise but remain vastly inexperienced, even compared to the likes of Xhaka and Shaqiri who have played Champions League football.

The Guardian’s Paul Doyle has been very forthright with his belief in this promising Switzerland side and undoubtedly the talent is there for the nation to make a real impact on the international stage for the first time since reaching the Quarter Finals on home soil back in 1954.

Adam Mazrani

Late Giroud equaliser bodes well for Arsenal (Video)

It may seem like stating the obvious but Olivier Giroud’s dramatic late equaliser to give France a deserved point against an all-conquering Spain side may just be looked upon as one of Arsenal’s most important moments of the season.

It’s fair to say that the former Montpellier hitman has not had the easiest start to life at the Emirates. The weight of replacing goal machine Robin Van Persie has appeared to weigh heavily at times on a man that could not be more different in style from the departed Dutch talisman. Where Van Persie’s technical brilliance often came to the fore, Giroud appears to just lack that sureness of touch. What the Frenchman needed then was an early goal or two for his new club to silence any doubters. Unfortunately, they failed to materialise and worse, several chances were spurned including three howlers against Sunderland, Liverpool and worst of all, at home to Chelsea in the dying moments when having rounded Petr Cech, Giroud could only find the side netting when a goal would have levelled the game at 2-2.

However, there just seems signs of improvement of late. The 26-year-old finally got off the mark for his new club with a goal in the League Cup against Coventry (though he would later miss a penalty) before crucially, grabbing his first league goal for the club in the Gunners’ last match at West Ham.

One thing the Arsenal fans have not been able to fault Giroud for is his work-rate and movement, something he shows in abundance to find himself in the position to head home France’s equaliser against the reigning World and double European champions.

In his short time at the emirates, Giroud has looked very much like a confidence player and so a goal of such importance against Spain will only send his spirits sky high and in turn, only mean goods thing to come for Arsene Wenger’s team.

Adam Mazrani

Williams may blame pitch but previous errors speak volumes (Video)

Wales captain Ashley Williams was adamant post-match yesterday that though he perhaps should have simply cleared his lines, the pitch at the Gradski Stadium in Osijek was at least partially to blame for the under-hit back pass that resulted in Mario Mandzukic slipping in the crucial opening goal for Croatia.

However, the evidence this season appears to point to the contrary. Unfortunately for Williams, he has made two very similar mistakes for his club side Swansea this season. The first of which occurred against Sunderland, when Steven Fletcher capitalised on a very under-hit back pass to steer his side into the lead before a week later, Williams produced the very same error to allow Christian Benteke to seal a 2-0 victory for Aston Villa.

This is not an assassination on the qualities of the newly-appointed Wales captain, who has proven himself to be a solid defender both at Premier League level and on the international stage. The timing of his poor form however, coinciding with being awarded the captaincy from Aaron Ramsey by manager Chris Coleman, could not have come at a worse time for the 28-year-old.

Perhaps the incident should be looked back on as a learning curve for the Swansea defender. Being captain of your country means an added responsibility to say the right things in front of the press and unfortunately on Tuesday night, in the aftermath of a defeat that left Wales’ hopes for qualifying for Brazil 2014 looking near-impossible, Williams slipped up.

Adam Mazrani

Ronaldo prepares for landmark century of caps (Video)

Remarkably at the age of just 27, Cristiano Ronaldo is set to reach 100 appearances for Portugal in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland in Portugal. Such has been Ronaldo’s enduring brilliance at club level, it is easy to forget just how long the Real Madrid man has been on the international stage. Indeed, having made his debut in 2003, Ronaldo has since gone on to participate in three European Championships and two World Cups and though a trophy with his country has eluded him, he still thoroughly deserves all the acclaim he will receive on Tuesday night.

However, just why is there no fanfare surrounding Ronaldo as there was for say David Beckham’s 100th cap? Of course, in this modern age of international football, reaching 100 caps is not quite the achievement it once was. Indeed, given the vast amount of football played, there are some very average players indeed who have clocked up either over or close to a century of appearances for their country – Kevin Kilbane for the Republic of Ireland take note.

Some will point to Ronaldo’s relative lack of success on the international stage but a record of 37 goals from 99 appearances from a player who started off his career as a hardly prolific wideman represents a solid enough record. Indeed, Ronaldo may have disappointed at both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, the latter of which was marked by some abysmally negative tactics from coach Carlos Queiroz. The 27-year-old shone at his first Euros in 2004 on home soil, would have won the award for best young player at the 2006 World Cup but for an internet campaign begun by England fans in protest against Ronaldo’s part in Wayne Rooney’s quarter final sending off between the two nations to hand the honour to Lukas Podolski, before lighting up the recent Euro 2012.

At the summer showpiece in Poland and Ukraine, Ronaldo scored three times as he threatened to individually take the competition by storm and as shown in the video below, memorably produced a quite outstanding performance to put Holland to the sword with two brilliantly taken goals in Portugal’s final group game. Ronaldo’s tournament may have ended in disappointment as Portugal’s semi-final penalty shoot-out with Spain was decided before the Madrid number 7, as the fifth and final penalty taker, was due to step up, but for a week or so there was real speculation that Ronaldo could win the trophy for Portugal all on his own.

Adam Mazrani

Who are the candidates to be the next Scotland manager?

General consensus is that following the defeat to Wales that essentially ended Scotland’s hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup bar a miraculous result in Belgium on Tuesday night, that Craig Levein’s reign as manager of the Tartan Army is all but over. It was never going to be an easy job considering the fact that the last time the Scots graced a major tournament came over 10 years ago at France 98 but with only three competitive victories since he took charge in 2009, two of which came against minnows Liechtenstein, the writing appears to be on the wall for the ex-Dundee United manager.

However, just who could possibly walk into Levein’s shoes and improve on his work?

Gordon Strachan – The former Coventry, Southampton, Celtic and Middlesbrough manager would appear the ideal candidate on paper. At 55, he now has the experience that he has previously felt he lacked when linked with the position and will possibly fee that having experienced both the highs of managerial life at Celtic and the lows at Coventry and latterly Middlesbrough, that he will be well equipped for the rigours of life at Hampden Park.

Indeed, Strachan would prove a popular appointment with the fans considering his reputation for producing good footballing sides, a stark contrast from the style Levein seems to be employing at the moment. However, Strachan has openly admitted that in his disappointing spell at Middlesbrough, he lost a touch of hunger for the game, though that beast would surely be re-woken if given the chance to take the Scottish reigns.

Stuart McCall – Having cut his teeth as a manager in an unsuccessful three-year spell at Bradford, McCall has done a sterling job at Motherwell since taking charge in 2010. Indeed, last season the Fir Park-based club finished in third position and were awarded a place in the Champions League due to Rangers’ financial difficulties, though a difficult draw against Greek heavyweights Panathinaikos ended their involvement in Europe’s top competition.

However, Motherwell have started their domestic season extremely brightly and are currently only two points behind overwhelming favourites Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premier League. McCall would represent a risky choice but in an again important contrast with Levein, McCall’s Motherwell side appears to play with an attacking intent currently lacking in the Scottish national side and with Celtic surefire favourites to dominate Scottish football for years to come with Rangers out of the picture, McCall could be tempted to jump ship if the Scottish Football Association came calling.

Mark McGhee – McGhee was almost appointed Scotland manager back first in November 2007, where he lost out to George Burley and then in late 2009 when Levein was appointed ahead of him. At the time, McGhee was working wonders with Motherwell but since then, a move to Aberdeen failed to prove a success and the 55-year-old is now currently involved in a relegation scrap with League Two side Bristol Rovers. Would surely prove to be an unpopular appointment with the supporters and unfortunately for McGhee, the ship looks to have sailed for him.

Alex McLeish – Would be a controversial appointment given the nature of the way he was seen to have abandoned the Scotland national side in 2007 following their narrow failure to qualify for Euro 2008. However, after being relegated with Birmingham before then enduring a horror season in charge of Aston Villa before being mercifully relieved of his duties last summer, McLeish is in danger of being cast adrift into the international wilderness and could be tempted to quickly get back in the saddle in a job that he knows so well.

Derek McInnes – The Paisley-born Bristol City manager is only 41 but earned the job at Ashton Gate after a superlative job at St. Johnstone north of the border. His Robins outfit have endured a patchy start to the Championship season and currently lie in 17th place but they have been noted for their free-flowing attacking football that looks capable of scoring goals at almost any moment. Could well be an interesting appointment if the Scottish FA look to go down the route of a “project” manager to lay the groundwork for future success.

Kenny Daglish – An unlikely appointment in the extreme considering that the only reason “King Kenny” came out of retirement was to take over at his beloved Liverpool. However, with his unceremonious sacking by the club’s owners at the end of last season, it is possible that Daglish may have “caught the bug” of being back in the hotseat. At his age and experience, international football might even be more suited to him. However, one would imagine that the Scottish FA would be on a wild goose chase if they chose to pursue him.

Adam Mazrani

Wilfried Zaha – the latest talent off the Crystal Palace production line (Video)

Wilfried Zaha has certainly been in the headlines of late. His quite wonderful recent performances for Crystal Palace have had both fans, managers and opposition purring at Selhurst Park and unsurprisingly, Premier League heavyweights Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are all set to be circling for the Eagles forward.

Zaha comes from the same Crystal Palace production line that in recent years has seen the likes of John Bostock, Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne all emerge and while Bostock has failed to fulfil the potential that had him so highly rated as a youngster at Selhurst Park, Moses and Clyne have gone on to establish themselves as Premier League players.

Judging by the video below, Zaha will surely join the latter two before too long. At times, the 19-year-old is simply unplayable as he combines electric pace with sublime technique and dribbling skills. Indeed, none other than Manchester United were given a torrid time by the Palace youngster last season as the Eagles shocked Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie.

This season, Zaha appears to have added goals to a game that last season looked to have everything bar consistent finishing, with four goals in his last two outings as Palace continue their march up the table. As shown by the departures of Moses and Clyne recently, the Eagles will inevitably find it difficult to hold onto their star man if the big clubs come calling, no matter what price tag they put on him or how many denials the club’s owners may speak of.

Certainly, if Zaha continues his current rate of progression, he will have his key of the entire Premier League come the January transfer window.

Adam Mazrani

What is England’s best central-defensive partnership?

With John Terry now consigned to international retirement, the debate rages on as to who should Roy Hodgson turn to at the heart of his side’s defence as he begins to plot England’s route to success at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, should they qualify.

The Rio Ferdinand saga continues but as shown by the whole “tube-gate” furore, Hodgson appears unlikely to give the Manchester United man an opportunity in an England shirt again so for this argument’s sake, Ferdinand will be removed from discussion.

On first glance it would appear that Joleon Lescott would be a shoe-in for one of the central-defensive roles. The Manchester City man was one of England’s more impressive performers alongside Terry at Euro 2012 and with his left-foot, offers a sense of balance to the backline. However, Lescott’s form so far this season at the Etihad has been shaky, so much so that he has lost his place in the side to young Serbian Matija Nastasic. Indeed, questions have been raised about Lescott’s use of the ball at the highest level and at the of 30, hardly represents the long-term solution to England’s problems.

Lescott had his opportunity given to him at the Euros after Terry’s expected partner for the finals, club-mate Gary Cahill, suffered a broken cheek in a pre-tournament friendly. Cahill has youth on his side at the age of 26 and has performed with distinction since his move from Bolton to Chelsea, where he was part of the side that somehow kept out both Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to an unlikely Champions League success. Hodgson is known to be a fan of Cahill and he can surely expect to be given opportunities to stake his claim for a place.

However, it has actually been Phil Jagielka who has been given an extended run for his country so far this season. After failing to get off the bench at the European Championships, Jagielka has enjoyed an impressive start to the season for Everton and impressed for England by scoring in the August friendly victory over Italy. Tellingly perhaps, Jagielka was then started ahead of Cahill when John Terry was ruled out of September’s home qualifier with Ukraine through injury. However, there just appears to be doubts about Jagielka’s quality on the international stage. A fine defender he may be but his showings in defeats against Spain and Holland in the past have betrayed a lack of technique required from a defender at this level and though he has never had to rely on his pace, is hardly going to get any quicker at the age of 30.

Thus, could it be that Hodgson’s best central-defensive partnership actually currently sit on the Manchester United treatment table. At the start of last season, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling looked set to cement themselves as regulars for both Manchester United and England for many years to come, particularly after an impressive showing from the pair of them in central defence for England’s Under-21 side in the 2011 European Championships. However, the pair have almost slipped under the radar due to a combination of poor form where Jones is concerned and injury concerns for the both of them.

However, both seem most at ease when playing simply in central-defence, and importantly, alongside each other. The two appear to bring the best out of each other, with Jones preferring to be the ball-playing sweeper-style centre-back, while Smalling is the more traditional defender. The former’s form has suffered arguably due to his versatility in being able to play in a number of positions but has excelled in the past for Blackburn when given an extended run in central defence. Smalling’s form is less of a concern and indeed were it not for injury, it is possible that the former Fulham man would have started ahead of Lescott alongside Terry in Poland and Ukraine in the summer.

With the two of them both currently absent however, it appears as if Hodgson will turn to Jagielka and Lescott for the qualifier against Poland and indeed that does seem to be the correct, safe choice. Jagielka will certainly not let anyone down and although Lescott lacks form this season, the alternatives have either not had much game-time in Cahill, or are complete novices at international level in Ryan Shawcross.

However, if Hodgson really does have one eye on the World Cup as he continually refers to when asked on Rio Ferdinand, then perhaps he should take a longer term view than having two 30-somethings at the back and once they return to fitness, hasten the arrival of the Jones/Smalling partnership as quickly as possible.

Adam Mazrani

Failure to qualify for Africa Cup of Nations could spell sorry end for Eto’o’s international career (Video)

In the end, even the return of legendary striker Samuel Eto’o from international exile was not enough to take Cameroon to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa. The Indomitable Lions were already staring down the barrel against the tiny Cape Verde Islands, who had taken the first leg 2-0. However, the re-emergence of Eto’o after the Anzhi Makhachkala man had been frozen out of selection for a dispute over payment, to play alongside the likes of Alex Song, Achille Emana and Pierre Webo was expected to be far too much for the Islanders, population of only 500,000 to hold out for 90 minutes.

However, after taking a shock early lead from a precise free-kick, the minnows were effectively out of sight and although Cameroon managed to score twice, the second coming from an Eto’o assist, the gap was simply too big to close. For Eto’o, it in all probability represents a sad end to his international career. For a striker used to the standards of Barcelona and Inter Milan, he has been extremely critical of the Cameroon Football Association and it’s preparation of the national side. His return to face the Cape Verde islands was surprising enough but now with no tournament to look forward to and at the age of 31, Eto’o will surely question his international future, particularly with the travelling involved to and from his club side Anzhi.

If he does call it a day, Eto’o will probably look back on his international career as one of missed opportunity. Yes, there may well have been two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations triumphs in 2000 and 2002 and yes he may be the tournament’s top scorer in its history. However, for the most decorated African footballer of all time, it is in a World Cup where Eto’o would have truly wanted to shine. Too young in 1998, possibly still too immature in 2002 (despite grabbing a goal against Saudi Arabia), 2006 was probably the tournament when Eto’o would have been at his peak. However, remarkably, Cameroon failed to make the finals. By 2010, Eto’o was past his best somewhat but still cites his country’s early exit from a World Cup hosted in Africa as one of the biggest disappointments of his career.

Adam Mazrani