Phil Ball: Marking Neymar, Barcelona brilliance & appearing on Basque TV

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Neymar has been in sensational form, and now Lionel Messi is back for the Catalan outfit.

I received a phone call last Thursday from the Basque TV channel inviting me onto their football programme this Monday, a sort of post-mortem chat-show to analyse the fortunes of the Basque clubs over the weekend. Of course, the Barcelona and Real Sociedad game was uppermost in their minds, as well as the Eibar-Real Madrid clash on the Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence that both these teams, from the Gipuzkoa region of the province, play the big two this season on the same weekend and then meet the following week in their new-ish derby, but I rather disappointed the TV presenter with the news that I was intending to travel to Scotland to watch my son play against Ormiston, in the East of Scotland Premier. ‘But you’ll see the Barcelona game on the telly?’ he pleaded, to which I replied that I might get to see the second-half – which convinced him to stick to the invitation. Besides, he also wanted to know what David Moyes has been saying since returning home from his brief La Liga stay, so I said I’d do my best to report something of semi-substance. 
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He needn’t have worried since my son’s game was called off on Saturday morning, due to the appalling weather, which meant that I could watch the whole game at the Camp Nou at his flat. Since the quick visit required four flights it was a rather expensive way of seeing the match, but anyway, it’s always nice to see your kids, whether they’re on the pitch or not. It was also a different perspective on the game, because rather oddly, watching La Liga from a distance reveals things you don’t always notice when watching in Spain – and the relative silence of the commentators was music to my ears. What was also interesting was the general sensation, purveyed by the match commentary, that Real Sociedad were simply an irrelevance, another inconsequential sparring partner in Barcelona’s ever-growing dominance of the universe. This is also true of the Spanish perspective, but it was interesting to see it in a similar guise, albeit from afar. It took Barcelona and Neymar 22 minutes to score, but for the previous 21 you could have been forgiven for thinking that this resistance by the away team was an affront to the gods, a subversion of the natural order. The commentary team seemed almost terrified that the script was about to be re-written, and that the famous play that they had turned up to see was actually going to feature a different story line.

They needn’t have worried, of course, but as Neymar appeared in a flash in front of poor Aritz Elustondo to sweep in Dani Alves´ cross and open the floodgates, the analysis of the move and the fluency of its execution was not what I was looking at. Elustondo is from the same generation of local players as my son, and as I watched him progress from skinny youth to still-pretty-skinny post adolescent, I never imagined that I would one day see him in such circumstances, surrounded by the enormity of the Camp Nou, attempting to mark a player of Neymar’s substance and fame. Perhaps alone on the planet, I simply remarked to my son – ‘He was ball watching. No way should Neymar have got that’. My son, used to similarly annoying dad-analyses of his own defensive performances over the years, simply raised an eyebrow. The rest of the world applauded Neymar. 

For the second goal, wonderfully executed by Luis Suarez – who prepares the shot with an uncannily accurate adjustment of his body to connect with the looping angle of the ball – it once again seemed to me that young Elustondo was at fault, turning his back to the shot and jumping up to leave a space under which the ball passed perfectly. It was a great volley, but it should never have gone in. Elustondo will be a great defender in about two to three years, and he had a decent game in general, but aside from a run of games under Moyes last season during which he scored a memorable header at the Bernabéu, a few months ago he was back to pitching his wits against some of the hairy cloggers who inhabit the darker recesses of Spain’s Second Division ‘B’, in front of 200 or so spectators. This fact would not be apparent to most of the planet’s spectators watching the game, with eyes only for the new Holy Trinity of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, the MSN who are now responsible for 30 of the 33 league goals scored by the Catalans this season. One thing is their undisputed astral brilliance, another are the conditions and circumstances that reign in other more terrestrial squads. Elustondo is a decent young lad, but was only playing because the regular full-back Joseba Zaldua is injured, and because the more experienced Carlos Martinez is still not 100 per cent fit.

Barcelona, fresh from stuffing Real Madrid and Roma in quick succession, have only a midweek King’s Cup game to resolve against Villanovense from the aforementioned Second ‘B’ (the first leg in Extremadura ended 0-0) for which Luis Enrique will use a side of reserves and promising youth-team players. For this reason, he was able to field a full-strength side against Real Sociedad (with the exception of Jeremy Mathieu for Jordi Alba), a fact which probably had the visitors cursing the calendar. It is circumstances like these that help young players like Elustondo to develop, but only those spectators who are not slavering over Barcelona’s latest goal-fest are ever aware of this.

One semi-weak link, and the pack of predators that represent Barcelona FC quickly smell blood. For the fourth goal, simple as it looks, Elustondo inexplicably fails to track Neymar for the reverse pass that he plays with Suarez, after the Brazilian has moved inside the full-back and passed the ball in an obvious attempt to play a kind of wall-pass, to win space. Suarez returns it wonderfully, Neymar crosses and Messi scores, but the young full-back has given up, as if he just wants to get on the bus and go home. You could hardly blame him. We might all dream of playing in the Camp Nou, but we might also choose not to have to mark the world’s most in-form player. 

To conclude, nobody really noticed Real Sociedad, as the MSN triumvirate continued with their orgy of goals and vibrant offensive play. This is a much better-looking Barcelona than the one controlled by Xavi’s metronome, with all due respect. Neymar, suspect in his first season, has transformed the side into a more vertical collective, and Luis Suarez is not simply a great goal-scorer but a highly intelligent footballer, capable of fitting into a system and then of defining it in a way that Cristiano Ronaldo can never do, because he is too focused on himself. Suarez is a team player, an unselfish predator – if such a concept exists. 

Real Sociedad didn’t actually play too badly. For the first quarter of the game they made a decent attempt of pressuring Barcelona high up, and of trying to keep possession themselves. Their new coach, Eusebio Sacristan, was of course an integral part of the original Dream Team, and his insistence on possession through pressure will eventually help revive a squad that has more quality than David Moyes ever realised. But for some reason, they just can’t win in Barcelona. They’ve only managed it three times since 1928, and perhaps in future it would just be a cheaper option to say at home. They managed a few shots and had a decent last half hour, but in the end they’re mortal. The gods of the Camp Nou are from another space-time continuum.  Real Madrid stayed within shirt-pulling distance (six points) by surprisingly beating Eibar 2-0 away in tiny Ipurua – ‘surprising’ given their previous performances and the media-whipping they’ve received, but they failed to convince with their play. Eibar were also missing two of their best players, top-scorer Borja Baston and Keko. They’ve now only lost three times this season, to Barcelona, Atlético, and Real Madrid. Say no more. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have stopped the bleeding, although some went on in Valencia on Monday morning when coach Nuno was inevitably relieved of his duties after a 1-0 defeat at Sevilla.  Phil Neville takes over temporarily, with Michael Laudrup and Frank Rijkaard rumoured to be interested. We shall see.

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Bale and Ronaldo secure Real victory

Sport360 staff 29/11/2015
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Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrates a goal with teammate Pepe.

Real Madrid got their La Liga title challenge back on course despite an underwhelming performance as goals from Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo handed them a 2-0 win at Eibar on Sunday.

In front of a capacity 6,000 crowd at Ipurua, Madrid did little to dispel the doubts caused by their 4-0 thrashing by Barcelona last weekend but Bale’s first-half header and a late penalty from Ronaldo were enough for all three points.

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Madrid remain in third, but victory takes Rafael Benitez’s men back to within six points of league leaders Barca and two points of city rivals Atletico Madrid.

Eibar have enjoyed a stellar start to just their second season in the top flight, but as against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in their only other two prior defeats this season, they didn’t have enough quality to trouble Madrid in the final third.

After a slow start, Ronaldo was presented with a great chance to open the scoring on 15 minutes from James Rodriguez’s fine through ball, but he couldn’t lift the ball over the advancing Asier Riesgo and Mateo Kovacic wastefully fired the rebound over.

Luka Modric’s fierce strike from the edge of the area was also comfortably handled by Riesgo as the pressure built from Madrid.

And it told when Modric’s brilliant cross was flicked home at the near post by Bale for his first goal for Madrid in three months since netting twice against Real Betis on August 29.

The Welshman could have had a second moments later as he brilliantly controlled a long ball into the box, but lacked the power needed in his final effort to beat Riesgo.

Bale turned provider at the start of the second period with a pinpoint cross for Ronaldo only for the Portuguese to fluff his lines when attempting an overhead kick.

Aleksandar Pantic had Eibar’s best chance to level when he headed over when unmarked from a corner on the hour mark.

However, the hosts were lucky moments later when referee Gil Manzano was unmoved despite an apparent push by David Junca on Ronaldo inside the area.

Ronaldo’s wayward afternoon in front of goal continued when he somehow failed to hit the target with the goal at his mercy after rounding Riesgo from Lucas Vazquez’s pass.

Yet, he was gifted the chance to register his 16th goal of the season when Manzano did point to the spot after Vazquez went down under minimal contact from Dani Garcia eight minutes from time.

Earlier, Villarreal missed the chance to move back into the top four as their awful form continued with a 2-0 defeat at Getafe.

Angel Lafita and Alvaro Vazquez struck for the hosts to leave Villarreal still in sixth having won just one of their last seven league games.

 

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INTERVIEW: Emam's advice for Salah

Ashraf Abdin 29/11/2015
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The Egyptian Emperor: Hazem Emam. (Credit: eparena.com)

Just mention the name Hazem Emam to any Egyptian who follows football and they are likely to wax lyrical about his status and demeanour – on and off the pitch.

Emam is one of the most loved and respected football players in Egypt and the Arab world. A glittering career with Zamalek and a spell with Serie A’s Udinese as the first Egyptian to play in Serie A, Emam proved himself to be one of the most skilful and intelligent players Egypt has ever seen.

Currently a pundit for Al Jazeera Sport, Emam now enjoys a platform to share his ideas and thoughts about the Serie A and Sport360 sat down with him to discuss Italian coaches, Serie A’s top teams and, of course, a certain Mohamed Salah.

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Egypt superstar Salah has been a revelation in Italy since first moving on loan to Fiorentina from Chelsea in January. He impressed so much in his six months in Serie A that Roma moved to bring him to the capital on a permanent deal in the summer. Expectation has been building to fever pitch, however, with the Egyptian press piling on the pressure and hype, something Emam does not think has been helpful.

“Do not listen to all the gossip coming from Egypt would be advice,” Emam tells Sport360. “Do your thing, and continue with your performance. Stick to Roma as the club will teach you many things and give you the experience needed to succeed.”

Many Egyptian stars have gone abroad to Europe but Emam believes that Serie A presents the most difficult challenge, and should not be on young players’ radars until they are more experienced. 

“It is not possible for young Egyptian players to make it in the Italian league,” Emam opines. “Serie A is a rather tactical league, and these players will have to be experienced enough to adapt to the approaches there.

“Salah managed to adapt because he had different adventures from Basel to Chelsea to Fiorentina. That is how he is succeeding there.”

Salah is impressing under French boss Rudi Garcia but Emam – who played for the likes of Alberto Zaccheroni and Francesco Guidolin at Udinese – believes that Italian managers are the crème-de-la-creme .

“Italian managers are the best managers in the world,” Emam says. “There are Italians who shocked Europe and the world with their success. Roberto Di Matteo when he won the Champions League against Bayern Munich with Chelsea. Giovanni Trapattoni with Inter, Marcelo Lippi with Italy, Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti. The list goes on!”

The Egyptian legend touched on the big teams of Serie A, stating that Roma’s approach keeps them in contention for the league, while Inter Milan’s tactics are winning them few admirers, despite their position at the top of the table.

“Roma’s football is a joy to watch and I think that they are title-contenders this season. The signings that they have made are on point and sporting director Walter Sabbatini should be lauded for his efforts.

“Inter Milan might be winning, but the manner of it is not very attractive. It seems that Roberto Mancini only cares about the points. It is rare to see this team winning by three or four goals. That magic touch is not there now.

“You feel that the team is more like an army, with a discipline and a routine that are quite astonishing!”

Inter’s city rivals AC Milan began slowly in the league, winning just two of their first five games, with Emam suggesting the indifferent start was down to the formation that was initially implemented when Sinisa Mihajlovic took charge of the Rossoneri.

“I feel that the 4-3-2-1 formation was inadequate as the team did not have the defensive mentality to pull it off properly,” Emam explains. “Keisuke Honda has failed to adapt to the false nine in Mihajlovic’s system and the attack was not well-organised.

"The coach reverted to the old 4-2-3-1 and since then the team are performing much better. The cohesion is there and the wingers are doing their jobs.”

Juventus’ poor run of form in the league has not gone unnoticed by the former Zamalek great, who comments: “Juventus’ season is not going well, but keep in mind that some of the leaders of this team has left after almost winning everything: Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, and Arturo Vidal.

“No adequate replacements were made, and Max Allegri’s careful approach is not helping.”

Emam’s passion for Serie A is clear and having watched closely so far this season, he believes that Roma and Napoli will be the main contenders for the Scudetto, dismissing Inter and AC Milan’s chances.

“For me, the Serie A title will be fought between Roma and Napoli,” Emam concludes. “They both produce excellent football. AC Milan and Inter are both out of the title race – their main aim is to qualify for the Champions League.

“If Napoli wins the league it is because of their fighting spirit. I have not seen a team that plays with so much passion. I hope that Napoli win it!”

Original interview was conducted by Sport360 Arabia's Ahmed Ezz.

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