Phil Ball: Barcelona epitomise roller-coaster ride of season

Phil Ball 13/03/2017
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For an extraordinary team accustomed to extraordinary circumstances, the past fortnight will nevertheless loom large in the archives of Barcelona’s history. On the Tuesday prior to their midweek game at home to Sporting Gijón, at the turn of the month, coach Luis Enrique admitted to the press that he intended to ‘take a rest’ and would not be seeking the renewal of his contract. Next day the team went out and battered poor Sporting 6-1, a few days after the 4-0 debacle in Paris had been mollified somewhat by the resilient 2-1 win at Atlético Madrid’s Calderon stadium.

The debate began as to the successor – a decision which tends to assume Papal proportions both in the Camp Nou and in the Bernabéu but one which is particularly crucial for the club now as it begins to contemplate a future without Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta, a transition that their next coach may have the unfortunate responsibility to both plan and manage. It’s going to require a special one, but not the one in Manchester, of course.

Meanwhile, Madrid conveniently stumbled at home to Las Palmas (3-3), the league looked open again, and after a 5-0 stroll at home to Celta the Catalans defeated PSG in an extraordinary match, itself worthy of a top place in club history. But as often happens in the wake of extreme football events, the protagonists came down to earth with a big bump and lost 2-1 up in the wilds of La Coruña. Barcelona are usually phobic about visiting San Sebastián, but both trips to Galicia this season have ended in defeat (they lost 4-3 at Celta too).

Cynics will say that there was an absence of a certain German referee in La Coruña, whereas more measured football analysts will point to tiredness, a hangover and Deportivo’s own need for points. The new-manager syndrome (Pepe Mel) might have helped too. Nonetheless, the result has once again changed the complexion of La Liga, especially with Sevilla failing to win a game that looked straightforward, drawing 1-1 at home to struggling Leganes. The newly-promoted team from Madrid’s suburbs have been improving of late but they seemed to offer no match for Sevilla in the Pizjuan. The subsequent slip-up means that Sevilla missed out on the chance of tucking up at the top, one point behind Barcelona. They may live to further regret this result, because their next game is a visit to Atlético’s Calderon.

One interesting consequence of these 12 days of destiny is that the post-PSG euphoria has failed to close the debate on how Barcelona should play out their final months under Luis Enrique. After all, they can still win the treble – or nothing at all, as the coach himself admitted last Friday.

Against PSG, perhaps considering the obvious need to score a bagful, the line-up looked something like a 3-5-2 formation, with Javier Mascherano’s return presenting the opportunity to go three at the back and stuff the midfield with playmakers, bolstered by the usual presence of Sergio Busquets. Sergi Roberto, the hero on the night, looks more comfortable on the right side of midfield than at full-back, where he played after coming on for Rafinha.

Against Deportivo, the system seemed to be more or less repeated, albeit with different characters. Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Sergi Roberto and Denis all started in midfield with Busquets, leaving a two-pronged attack of Messi and Luis Suarez. Barcelona didn’t exactly play badly, but seemed to miss the inspiration of Neymar – on fire of late – and fell victim to Deportivo’s ability to counter attack. The Galicians are not having the best of seasons, but they occasionally come out of their shell and show their potential. High-flying Real Sociedad, whom they slaughtered in Riazor 5-1 in December, will attest to that.

I was at the rain-soaked Basque derby in Anoeta to see Athletic Bilbao win 2-0 and dent the host’s Champions League hopes, but it was interesting to see the approaches of the two coaches, both of them on the list of possible successors to the Camp Nou throne. Although Real Sociedad’s Eusebio has publicly removed himself from the candidacy and signed a new contract with the Basques, you get the impression that if he continues to impress in San Sebastián, the call will come sooner or later. He could still be bought out, if the Barcelona board really thought it worthwhile, but his counterpart in Sunday’s game, Ernesto Valverde, looks like the more plausible runner at present.

Eusebio, of course, was a playing member of the original Dream Team, whereas Valverde’s Camp Nou career was less extensive – twenty-two games over two seasons between 1988 and 1990.This was quite unusual, given that his previous seventy-two games had been at Espanyol. There has not been a great deal of direct traffic between the teams over the years. Indeed, Valverde managed the team for two seasons (2006-2008) and although this may seem difficult for La Liga initiates to understand, this ‘Periquito’ past may prove to be the only stain on his candidature.

The same has been said of Mauricio Pochettino’s credentials, since he has committed the far greater sin of playing 275 times for Espanyol in three separate spells, clocking up nine playing seasons with them and then compounding this misdemeanour by coaching them (successfully) for three seasons. Good though Pochettino may be, Valverde is more likely to be forgiven.

Valverde was born in Extremadura, but brought up in the Basque Country. His non-confrontational style may be attractive now to Barcelona, after three seasons of tension with the local press, cultivated with some passion by the prickly Luis Enrique – prickly partly because he is a naturally edgy character but also because he is from Asturias, and has never quite fitted in with the whole Catalan vibe. It’s a complex thing, and you’d need a Catalan to best explain it to you, but his popularity with the faithful has never quite attained the emotional heights that others on the bench have managed, whether Catalans or not. You get the feeling that he won’t really be missed.

Ernesto Valverde.

Ernesto Valverde.

Eusebio too, is from the unassuming school of coaching. He rarely criticises referees, never makes excuses, and is unfailingly self-critical. His press conferences lack the wit and edge of the Luis Enrique show, and are generally as interesting as watching paint dry, but he’s a nice guy. He’s not a Catalan either, but his long association with the club, for whom he also coached the ‘B’ team (curiously enough after Luis Enrique left the post) put him into the original frame, until his recent announcement. He may not move from Sociedad, but his name on the list shows how the Barcelona board are now thinking.

Another obvious candidate is Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, although his experience of La Liga is severely limited. In that sense he would represent a risk. Juan Carlos Unzue, Luis Enrique’s coach might stand a chance if recent pre-Enrique tradition is continued, passing the reins to the assistant coach – but you feel that the club wants an experienced pair of hands. Old boy Ronaldo Koeman might also be under consideration, having improved his image in England after his unsuccessful spell at Valencia.

Whatever happens, the new coach will need to be healthy in body and mind. The roller-coaster ride in the league this season is not for faint hearts, as evidenced on Sunday night when Real Madrid almost blew the chance to go two points clear with a game in hand. In the end, Sergio Ramos turned up yet again to save the day against Betis, increasing the possibilities of his eventual sanctification. When Betis took the lead in the Bernabeu, however, there must have been several sofa-sat Barcelona players who were beginning to dream yet again. This time there was no miracle, but you get the distinct impression that this interesting season is far from over yet.

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Five highest scoring defenders of all time

Sport360 staff 13/03/2017

STEVE BRUCE

A commanding centre back for Manchester United during the late 80’s and early 90’s, Bruce scored 113 goals in his career as a professional footballer, mostly due to his accurate heading ability and pin-point penalty execution.

He now manages Aston Villa after spells at Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland and Hull City.

GRAHAM ALEXANDER The former Scotland international is considered one of the best penalty takers in English football history. With 129 goals in over 900 games, perhaps his fondest memories will be his eight seasons at Preston where he scored 52 goals… from right back. Strangely never scored when lining out for his country.
FERNANDO HIERRO The former Real Madrid captain was a totemic presence at the back, but it was his ability to score from a header that made him one of the most dangerous marksmen in the game. During a decorated career in La Liga, Hierro netted 163 goals to become Spain’s best ever scoring defender.
DANIEL PASSARELLA Serie A Hall of Famer Daniel Passarella epitomised the perfect defender with solid tackling, strong game intelligence and leading from the back. The Argentine scored 175 goals during a glittering 18 year professional career which included spells at River Plate, Fiorentina and Inter.
RONALD KOEMAN Everton manager Ronald Koeman made over 750 appearances as a player with Groningen, Ajax, PSV, Barcelona and Feyenoord, scoring 253 goals. The Dutch also won the 1988 European Championship with Holland and domestic titles in both Holland and Spain.

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Atalanta’s youth policy paying off under Gian Piero Gasperini

Adam Digby 13/03/2017
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The 2016-17 season did not start well for Atalanta. Before the end of September they had lost four of their opening five games, leaving Gian Piero Gasperini as the clear favourite to be the first Serie A coach to lose his job.

They arrested the slide with a 3-1 win over Crotone but, as he prepared his side for their week seven clash with Napoli, the 59-year- old knew something drastic had to be done if the club was to retain its top-flight status and he was to avoid becoming unemployed.

“I was on the verge of being sacked, it’s true,” Gasperini has since told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“So I decided to play Mattia Caldara and Roberto Gagliardini. I told the president my formation the day before and he was shaken to the point of not sleeping, but I’d made up my mind because I’d seen them in training.”

At the time Napoli were the only undefeated team left in Italy and arrived at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia fresh from a 4-2 Champions League victory over Benfica. Maurizio Sarri’s star-studded line-up seemed certain to take three points, but thanks to a ninth-minute goal, they instead found themselves as the first victim of Gasperini’s revolution.

Franck Kessie.

Franck Kessie.

Fast forward to today and a glance at the Serie A league table shows that the coach’s plan has paid off handsomely. Atalanta entered March sitting in fourth place, a remarkable achievement for a club without a top-half finish since they won the Serie B title back in 2010-11. Now they are dreaming of qualification for Europe.

Last week, thousands of fans waited at Bergamo Airport to greet the team, celebrating another victory over Napoli after Atalanta secured a shock 2-0 win at the Stadio San Paolo. In addition to those twin triumphs over the Partenopei, Gasperini’s side have beaten Inter and Roma – losing just three times.

The coach deserves immense credit, and since his initial gamble worked he has become even more emboldened. He has converted Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola from a winger into a fine full-back, the left-footed youngster complementing the work of Andrea Conti – another Atalanta academy product – on the opposite flank.

That duo have mixed defensive diligence with a willingness to push forward, already combining for seven assists between them. Striker Andrea Petagna has been a beneficiary of their work, the 21-year-old netting the winner in that first clash with Napoli and finally delivering on the promise he had shown when making his AC Milan debut back in December 2012.

But none of this is really new for Atalanta. Known in Italy as La Regina delle Provinciali – “The Queen of the Provinces” – the club has a long and storied history of producing young players at an incredible rate. Juventus icons Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini began their careers with the Atalanta, going on to incredible success with the Bianconeri and even helping Italy to their 1982 World Cup win.

The likes of Roberto Donadoni, Giampaolo Pazzini, Simone Zaza and Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini also began wearing the black and blue of Atalanta, as did countless others around Italy’s top flight. Indeed, a 2015 study by the CIES Football Observatory ranked the club’s youth system eighth in the world, with 25 former graduates playing in the top five European leagues.

It is an incredible achievement, and one Serie A’s biggest clubs are all too aware of. Gagliardini was only handed his full debut in that landmark home win over Napoli, but just three months later Inter Milan had seen enough. Looking to resurrect their own campaign, they completed a deal worth Dhs109 million (€28m) for a player with just eight league starts to his name; the 22-year-old has slotted perfectly into their midfield since arriving at the San Siro.

Gagliardini scored his first goal for the Milanese giants in the win over Cagliari last weekend, and has proven smart at receiving the ball and distributing it quickly, His effort to get into the opposition box without neglecting his defensive duties has been notable, while he also seems aware of his limitations and rarely tries to overcomplicate things.

Seeing him flourish elsewhere might sting, but Atalanta have also struck a similarly lucrative deal with Juventus for Gagliardini’s former team-mate Caldara, with the defender sold to the reigning champions for Dhs97 million (€25m). However, he was immediately loaned back to his hometown club for the next 18 months, the Bianconeri hoping he can continue to develop under Gasperini’s tutelage before joining them in the future.

“I know that Juventus believe in me and made a real investment to sign me, so that is very flattering and makes me really proud,” Caldara said as he was signing a five-year contract. “I need to focus on doing well in Bergamo still so I can be ready when the time comes to join Juve, a club with big ambitions. I need to concentrate on Atalanta and think about improving with every game, because I still have a long way to go and it’s early into my career.”

Next to move on is likely to be Franck Kessié, an Ivorian midfielder who has become hot property in the transfer market. Roma have made their interest known, while Arsenal and Chelsea reportedly had bids rejected by Atalanta in January, the 20-year- old having impressed with six goals this season.

Kessié’s powerful running, robust tackling and limitless energy appear to be the ideal modern midfielder, and he is not shy about making his intentions clear. “I did not hear any rumours around Roma, as I was at the Africa Cup of Nations and so focused only on playing,” he told Tuttomercatoweb last month. “I like the Premier League and in particular Manchester United, the club I dream of playing for.”

That could well be in his future, but life will continue at his current club even if he does depart, with Gasperini seemingly the perfect man to lead their talented young team as more and more players emerge.

“Age doesn’t matter, it’s what you do on the pitch,” says the coach. “If you run, if you play well and have good technique, there is no reason to wait.”

For Atalanta, the future is already here.

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