The “Golden Generation” conundrum

England are out, in case you hadn’t already heard. In events that are simultaneously shocking and predictable, Hodgson’s men have been sent home from Brazil after just eight days; this elimination the earliest we’ve ever succumbed to underachievement at a World Cup. England’s performance against Uruguay was very poor last night, the reasons for defeat so obvious and so characteristic of what is lacking in the team that they hardly merit further discussion. In fact, I think I’d bore myself writing about them.

From England’s misery, though, springs perhaps the best underdog story of the Brazil World Cup so far: Costa Rica’s brilliant qualification from Group D. It has been written, said and tweeted since their victory over Italy in Recife this evening that it would be unfair to suggest Costa Rica have been “plucky” or “brave”, as underdogs are so commonly categorised. Costa Rica showed exactly what England, Spain – and today, Italy – have failed to display in both of their ties against strongly favoured Uruguayan and Italian opponents: an energy and desire to play and win for their country. They were magnificent in both games and are through to the last sixteen of the World Cup for the first time in their history. It will be fascinating to see how far they can go with such a strong team ethic and some very skilful individuals. One thing is for sure: they ought to be considered favourites in the final group game against England.

Whilst it would be most pleasant to wax lyrical about the remarkable nature of Costa Rica’s success, there is another question that requires attention. With Spain and England out of the World Cup, both slain at the first hurdle, it seems the discussion about fallen “Golden Generations” is rearing its head once again, just days after the English media was abuzz with chatter about the youthful promise of the performance against Italy.

It’s difficult to know how to define a “Golden Generation” given that it is a label seemingly attached to any team laden with talented individuals. It has been suggested over the last 48 hours that both England and Spain will bid farewell to members of their respective Golden Generations after this World Cup; the two teams polarised in terms of success. By definition, Spain’s triple-title winning side is a “Golden Generation”. Those players thoroughly merit such a description and although their disastrous performance in Brazil suggests that their grip on world football has been well and truly relinquished, they have set the standard for international football over the last six years or so. The likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Ramos and out of form captain, Iker Casillas, will go down as integral members of one of the world’s greatest ever teams.

England’s alleged golden crop has more or less gone already, the World Cup in Brazil seen as the first real departure from the old generation that promised so much and delivered so little. Only two of the last remnants of that 2002-2010 “Golden Generation” were on display last night in Sao Paulo, perennial under-achiever Steven Gerrard and under-pressure Wayne Rooney once again hugely disappointed but more importantly, disappointing. Evidently, both England and Spain leave Brazil prematurely and in disastrous fashion but what’s the difference between the two nations’ golden generations?

Golden Generation

First and foremost, delivery. Spain’s golden generation are known as such because they have achieved so much that they are worthy of the title. England’s press, typically, bestowed on the team this title as a token of the sheer potential that the individuals possessed. Put simply, that English generation – individually and quite clearly, as a team – were never even nearly as good as the Spanish triple champions. To call that generation “Golden” is nothing short of embarrassing, much like England’s most recent exit.

The reasons for Spain’s capacity to deliver are numerous, as are the reasons for England’s perpetual failure. Naturally, timing is everything when it comes to generations of footballers. Barcelona’s domestic and European successes provided perhaps the most technically gifted backbone to a national side ever seen when Spain entered Euro 2008. The group of players they had nurtured and seen blossom into world class talents had played together from a young age and the rest of the team was made up of Real Madrid players. Spain had a situation whereby their players knew each other so well, either as club team-mates or bitter rivals in La Liga, that cohesion was already a given.

England, by contrast, were and continue to be a team of individuals. The Lampard and Gerrard tedium comes to mind, as does the Ferdinand and Terry partnership. There was never a truly collective direction to the English golden generation and it would appear that there is even less so now. Technical ability is lacking, of that there is no question, but it is a willingness and ability to play for each other that is ultimately the most significant of the missing pieces. There was not a single leader on the pitch against Uruguay last night, not even Rooney or Gerrard able to raise their games at what may well be their last World Cups.

There has been talk about a Belgian golden generation emerging too. They were unconvincing in their opening game, which they won fortuitously after falling behind against Algeria. By virtue of the fact that they are everybody’s dark horses, they are no longer anybody’s dark horses but apparently genuine contenders, though surely their crowning is unthinkable, ironically. The truth is that Belgium are only being hailed as a golden generation because they are a team filled with talented individuals of whom plenty is known due to their exploits in the Premier League. Realistically, Marc Wilmots has a mighty task on his hands if he is to gel that team together and get them playing effective, let alone attractive, football.

So what makes a golden generation, if not a band of talented individuals? Of course, any generation can be golden. Greece’s Euro 2004 winners must be deemed a golden generation, as must Italy’s 2006 crop and then there’s Spain, of course. What links these teams is a joint belief and work ethic, with a sprinkling of good fortune and technical brilliance. Individual performances are vital, make no mistake. Zidane for France in 1998, Ronaldo for Brazil in 2002, Iniesta for Spain in 2010 – all marvellous individuals who compliment, rather than make, the team. Golden generations are not constructed but grown. They grow together and work as such, knowledgeable of one another and determined to ensure that this is their time to succeed.

England’s golden generation was not a golden generation and it is undoubtedly for the best that its final elements will now leave the set-up. It is, and has been for a while, time for some realism and acceptance that England will never be strong until our top clubs are full of English players and we get a generation genuinely capable of challenging foreign players not only for technical ability but for desire and cohesion as well.

Excitingly, whichever nation is triumphant in three weeks time will have a new golden generation on their hands. Maybe this is Costa Rica’s “Golden Generation”.

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Youthful promise not enough for England

Very few bemoaned Roy Hodson’s squad selection for this summer, as England fans have seemingly welcomed the unpredictable inexperience of a number of the more attacking players. Despite the ineluctable disappointment of a 2-1 defeat to Italy in the opening group game in a sweltering Manaus, there has been an overriding sense of positivity in the post-match discussion with many highlighting the youthful promise of performances from Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley.

Indeed, there was a refreshing sense of energy and even, I dare say, fearlessness about the first England game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with those players at the forefront of England’s most attractive play. Sterling was particularly impressive, carrying his form for Liverpool into the Amazonian heat. Not since Michael Owen quite literally burst onto the world stage against Argentina in 1998 have I seen an England player so unperturbed by his first World Cup appearance. The diminutive winger took on all-comers, at times gliding past experienced Italian stars and even providing a wonderful pass to Wayne Rooney who delivered for Sturridge to equalise at the end of the first half.

By the same token, Ross Barkley’s unerring confidence made for encouraging viewing when he came on in the second period to bolster England’s attacking options during their search to draw level for the second time. Another player comfortable running with the ball, direct in his attitude and powerful in his approach, Barkley’s performance gave strength to the idea that there is something in the water on Merseyside. Indeed, Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge provided an equally accomplished performance, his composure on and off the ball suggesting that he is looking to perpetuate the success of his season at Anfield as well. His finish, albeit from close range, was also very tidy. A striker who scores: you can’t ask for more at a World Cup.

Omitting Ashley Cole from the squad was perhaps the only bone of contention that England fans had with Hodgson heading into the tournament and it would appear that the qualm was justified. In spite of the aforementioned promise of England’s youngest troops, Leighton Baines falls into a rather peculiar category in that he is both highly experienced at club level and entirely lacking on the international stage. At the age of 29, the tie in Manaus was only the 8th competitive cap that Baines has earned and the Ashley-Cole-shaped void he was supposed to fill seemed more considerable than ever. Perhaps putting it down to international inexperience is unfair but Baines appeared lethargic and lacking concentration in the face of Antonio Candreva, who deserves the plaudits he is receiving but in truth, was given the freedom of the right wing; his deep cross leading to Mario Balotelli’s eventual headed winner.

Of course, experience is important but it can belie the capacity to perform when required. Wayne Rooney was frankly and perhaps predictably disappointing, his perfectly weighted assist aside. The United forward, of whom so much is constantly expected, looked out of place on the left wing and indeed the lack of support he showed Baines in defending against Candreva was as notable as his missing of the clear-cut opportunity to pull England level in the second half. Jack Wilshere’s performance left a lot to be desired, his inclusion in the squad seemingly borne out of what he might be able to offer rather than what we really need, which is strength and discipline in central midfield. Question marks remain over the quality of Glen Johnson at right back, his defensive work almost as frail as that of Baines on the other flank. Captain Steven Gerrard was a little quiet given the magnitude of the opposition we faced, his counterpart Andrea Pirlo dictating far more for the Italians than Gerrard was able to for England.

Italy played well and whilst England may have deserved a draw at the very least given some of the sterling (apologies) individual performances, the 2006 world champions showed a certain know-how that England’s youngsters can hardly be expected to have developed at this juncture. Certainly, the excitement of Hodgson’s selection is the reason I am, along with the rest of the nation, looking forward to the clash against Uruguay to see just what this team can do once they find some sort of rhythm at this tournament, not to mention some cooler climes. However, perhaps a bit more of the “old” and the “boring” England might have served us well. In short, this should have been Ashley Cole’s final tournament.

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A few thoughts

In the last few months, I’ve not felt compelled to rant, rave or even write anything about the Premier League. Despite the predictable unpredictability of the title race and the topsy-turvy nature of the relegation battle in which my beloved Aston Villa find themselves well and truly embroiled, I’ve been uninspired – or perhaps just not particularly wound up. Maybe I just don’t care anymore.

The situation at Manchester United over the last few days has shifted my apathetic disposition to one of discomfort and even outrage. The ceremonious dismissal of David Moyes on Tuesday came as little surprise to those initiated in the displays of perpetual disloyalty shown by chairmen across the sport but there was something unsettling about the disloyalty shown equally by the United players and fans.

The media had apparently been informed of his imminent departure before he had and if true, Moyes has every right to be miffed. For a club that reiterates a policy of respect in words and in actions, the lack thereof is nothing short of embarrassing, particularly as it results in the setting of a troubling hire and fire precedent just ten months after Ferguson’s anointment of the former Everton boss.

However, it is neither this precedent nor the media frenzy prior to Moyes’s exit that causes deep concern but rather the manner in which Manchester United have, collectively, painted the Scotsman as the scape-goat for this season’s dismal performance. It goes without saying that the players have been poor by any standards, let alone those of 20-time winners of the English top flight. The lack of quality is but one element of the disappointment at Old Trafford this season. Perhaps even more perturbing is the unwillingness of even United’s most senior players, including Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney (with his new £300,000 per week contract) and even Ryan Giggs, to step up and illustrate any desire to fight not just for their manager but for their club.

As has been alluded to in various football writings this week, Sir Alex Ferguson must shoulder a considerable portion of the blame for Moyes’s swift demise. Having hand-picked his compatriot to succeed him in a move seen by some as a conservative attempt to quell any potential over-shadowing of Fergie’s own imperious record, Ferguson has only succeeded in casting said shadow over Moyes’s shoulder; the reigns never truly handed over with Sir Alex still hanging around at the club. Surely a big-name European manager would not stand for this sort of situation and would request Ferguson cuts all ties with United’s management before signing a contract. How can a new boss be expected to organise and gain the respect of a team if such a commanding figure still has everybody’s ear in which to whisper?

What’s more, Ferguson left having won United’s 20th league title but that does not hide the weakness of the team he left behind, with centre-backs depreciating with every game played and a midfield completely void of any commanding presence or creativity. Moyes’s addition of Juan Mata only served to highlight the feeble players behind him with the likes of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley and most notably, Marouane Fellaini, incapable of providing the required drive and passing range to link the team together.

Undoubtedly, Moyes has made mistakes and is far from faultless in his sacking but the club’s treatment of the manager – a very good manager whose reputation is now tarnished to an extent previously unseen – is frankly awful.

Still, all of this obscures what really concerned me when watching tonight’s Match of the Day, being force-fed the pro-United sensationalism of the BBC. The true provocation of this post was the unsavoury image of the Class of ’92 sitting alongside one another in the Old Trafford dugout, evoking images of “new boss” Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville plotting months ago to once again rule the roost at United, using Moyes’s disastrous tenure as the means for taking control without pressure and in naturally heroic style. There’s something of an “old boy’s club” feel about the Class of ’92, all of them very much in bed with Sir Alex Ferguson who of course coached them to glory, glory Man United.

Perhaps this is all just a ridiculous conspiracy theory but I firmly believe that everyone still at United, including the Class of ’92, including Sir Alex and certainly including the players, should take responsibility for the mishandling of David Moyes’s unsuccessful career at Old Trafford and his embarrassing dismissal. Such a disconcerting episode should be as worrying for any sensible United fan as the widespread delight due to a victory over a dreadful Norwich City side and the subsequent worship of a new dawn under rookie Ryan Giggs.

A quick word on Villa:

Perhaps this is the defeatist in me talking but I’m starting to believe that Villa deserve to go down. In fact, I’m starting to believe they need to go down. Just for a change of scenery; to awaken the club to the reality of how mediocre it has become. You cannot display, at such a crucial point of the season, the kind of form we have in the last few weeks. You just cannot play with such little pride, desire and most importantly, quality. Villa deserve to go down and I don’t think I’ll be all that disappointed if we do. In reality, I’ve just never looked so much forward to the end of a season.

I’d like to end with a few words about Tito Vilanova. The football world is in mourning after the death of the wonderful and record-breaking coach of Barcelona; a true football man and an incredibly courageous person in the face of a terrible illness. My thoughts are with his family.

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Randy Lerner Deserves Credit for Managerial Policy

The League Managers’ Association leader, Richard Bevan, expressed on Wednesday that the recent sackings in English football have left him “embarrassed”. From fallen Premier League winners and contentious European Champions right down to the depths of League Two, there have been some frankly outrageous decisions made by nearly one hundred clubs this season with regard to the termination of their managers’ contracts.

Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal by Chelsea in late November is probably the example that most aptly underlines a concerning predicament in the culture of hiring and firing coaches. The Italian, who had been a loyal servant to the Blues as a player, was given just eight months in charge at Stamford Bridge despite winning the most improbable of Champions League titles and an FA Cup trophy to boot. Incredulous though Chelsea fans were and indeed remain, many other managers, if not quite as shockingly, have been forced out in a similar vein across the country.

While the Premier League has seen just three further managerial casualties to Di Matteo (Mark Hughes from QPR, Nigel Adkins from Southampton and Brian McDermott from Reading), these are just drops in an ocean of 103 sackings across the four professional English leagues.

Embarrassing: Roberto Di Matteo fired by Chelsea after winning Champions League and FA Cup

Embarrassing: Roberto Di Matteo fired by Chelsea after winning Champions League and FA Cup

Of course, the attitude of a certain Russian oil billionaire is likely to have a significant impact on public opinion given his financial impact on the world’s most lucrative division. However, the Blackburn Rovers ownership has caused a stir all of its own making since the takeover in 2010. With promise of riches and a reversion to distant triumphs for the Lancashire side, Indian company VH Group has overseen a capitulation quite contrary to those ambitions that saw even the great Ronaldinho linked with a move to Ewood Park. Rovers fans have been enraged since their relegation from the Premier League last year and the circus continues with Michael Appleton becoming the third coach to exit the club this term.

Perhaps the super-rich owners who care little for loyalty and greatly for immediate returns on their investments are to blame for this perverse brutality when it comes to managerial careers. Whatever the cause, it is disgraceful and certainly embarrassing. Nevertheless, clubs of all levels seem to be adopting these severely strict and often unreasonable policies, in acts that suggest these professional coaches are as dispensable as the money with which the top clubs compete. The real question is one that is hard to fathom – why do so many clubs opt to fire during the on-going hardships of a competitive season? While a new manager can bring short reprieve through the famous (or infamous) “honeymoon period”, very rarely does a change of leadership formulate the desired result. In short, it is better to fight and wait until the end of the season at least.

Certainly this is and has been the case for Aston Villa and Randy Lerner. It’s a sad indictment of the situation when you find yourself in a position of pleasant surprise because your manager has not been shown the door despite an exceptionally challenging campaign. This is not due to Lerner’s record, which is simply lacking in terms of dismissals mid-season. And yet, that is how many Aston Villa fans must feel, particularly given the itinerant nature of the numerous head coaches to have come and gone over the past few years, not to mention the precarious state of affairs on the pitch at Villa Park.

Paul Lambert has come under pressure, of that there is little doubt. What is of paramount importance and, though it is regrettable to admit in light of this disposable culture, to the credit of Randy Lerner is the fact that he has maintained the Scotsman’s position at the club and trusted him to do the job set out upon his arrival. With two vital wins against Reading and Wigan under their belt in recent weeks, Lambert’s Villa now have a real chance of surviving the drop that Blackburn and many others now mourn so ruefully.

Randy Lerner: Aston Villa chairman has never sacked a manager mid-season

Randy Lerner: Aston Villa chairman has never sacked a manager mid-season

Randy Lerner has had a tumultuous tenure at Aston Villa Football Club and many people, this author included, have strongly criticised his capacity to direct, particularly this season when irresponsible overspending in prior seasons has become rather blatant and detrimental to on-going purposes. That said, his continued and principled operation with regard to his managers has been nothing short of exemplary, especially in mind of his arrival in 2006 as just another foreign investor with an interest in this great football league.

Martin O’Neill, after four successful but expensive years as Villa boss, parted company with the club in August of 2010 citing a conflict of ambitions as his reason for departure. Between that time and Paul Lambert’s appointment in June 2012, Gérard Houllier and Alex McLeish shared the responsibility of keeping the side afloat, let alone aspirational. Although this was not the most prosperous of claret and blue periods in history, Lerner never rocked the team by ridding of a manager prior to the end of a season.

Many others this season (103, to be exact) have faltered and given into the whimsical and impatient decision-making that the ever-emerging pressures of modern football seem capable of creating. Lerner, on the other hand, has allowed Lambert to develop his team, albeit a weak team, and this has given the club a far better chance of survival than say, Reading, or indeed than any alteration could possibly have done for Villa. This is a virtuous trait the American chairman has in his possession and while the rest of the League Managers’ Association will be embarrassed by recent turbulence in the profession, Aston Villa and Randy Lerner ought to be rather proud of their managerial policy.

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Wayne Rooney: Much said but more left unspoken

We were always going to remember the name. From the moment he whipped home that iconic goal at Goodison Park to defeat one of the finest sides in Premier League history, Wayne Rooney’s name was etched into the tapestry of undying national hope. Seemingly, this explosive forward had all the talent to lead England to World Cup glory.

He became the player of whom the most words were spoken since Paul Gascoigne, with contrived similarities cited as a means of emphasising just how good this young player could be, or indeed how disappointing, as the former ultimately was. Often compared to Gascoigne in terms of his talismanic ability and invariably aggressive style, Rooney differs at least in one significant fashion – career management. Gazza, who has recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre in Arizona, perpetuating a long line of self-abusive behaviour that was in evidence even during his playing days, retired from the sport at the age of 34. In reality, his role in the game was over long before that, such was the extent of his harmful attitude.

Rooney has had his fair share of pernicious tabloid attention, to say the least, renowned for his fondness of tobacco, destructive involvement in extramarital affairs and a careless attitude with money. But by and large, there is an acceptance that Rooney has settled as a man and a family one too, and his ability to laugh off much of the media slur is even considered exemplary in some circles. That said, there exists an ineluctable, yet entirely bizarre sense of unfulfilled potential as a footballer, which is not too dissimilar from Gascoigne, despite Rooney’s four Premier League and one Champions League winners’ medals.

Rooney has been in the glaring spotlight ever since that goal for Everton against Arsenal just five days shy of his seventeenth birthday, and the expectancy has risen with every appearance for club and country. To no avail, as far as English hopes are concerned. The reality is that there is something of an unspoken acceptance now that this boy wonder is not to single-handedly deliver on the greatest international stage, partly because the game has changed. England fans are more realistic, or perhaps just defeatist, with Spanish supremacy an indictment of how modern football is not a sport dominated by the individual unless the collective is of a similar calibre, or at least on the same wavelength. Of course, that does not stop the media, British and foreign alike, emphasising the apparent importance of Rooney’s role in any success to go England’s way.

Rooney’s rise to prominence saw him move to Manchester United in August 2004 for around £27 million, one of the signings to kick-start a polemic over-pricing of English players that exists in an even more perverse form today. The real question is whether Rooney can in fact continue to be considered the key to England’s success and indeed, with an eruption of journalistic certainty that he is out of favour at Old Trafford following his omission from the starting line-up against Real Madrid, whether his future as Manchester United’s figurehead remains intact. For foreigners looking in, Rooney remains a symbol of English football, almost a caricature of the British bulldog sat on a mountain of outdated and unfounded hope. This ought not to be as accurate as it probably is.

With Wayne Rooney, in spite of his omnipresence in the papers, so much has gone unspoken. Perhaps it was assumed. Never as a Manchester United player has he been the most talented in the side, though there has been a considerable element of assumption with regard to his prominent role in the first team, let alone the squad. Rooney has always had others to share the limelight, to drive the success and to help him to be as effective a goalscorer as he has been for United, be it Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie or the perennial brilliance of Ryan Giggs at his side. Vitally, Rooney has never had to carry Manchester United alone, even if many of his individual performances have indicated his wonderful ability. On BBC Final Score on Saturday, Mark Bright alluded to Rooney’s exclusion on Tuesday, saying that “Ronaldo and Messi would never be left out of Real Madrid or Barcelona’s biggest matches”. The harsh truth is that Rooney is not of the same quality as these players and his presence for his club is not as essential. The early expectations will always weigh him down, however.

It is imperative that we learn to appreciate the differentiation between Rooney for England and Rooney for Manchester United. If Rooney were left out of an important England fixture, it would be genuinely disconcerting simply because he is the finest player in the national selection. The same does not apply to his absences from the United starting line up, because he is quite frankly not the best player at Old Trafford. A great deal of this stems from other problems, including an unwillingness on the part of English players to go abroad and experience foreign leagues. Indeed, if Rooney were a Real Madrid, Barcelona or even a Paris-Saint-Germain (given recent rumours) player and had been left out of an important match, there would not have been the same reaction from the Spanish, Catalan or French media, because he is not the shining light in their patriotic psyches. As it is, as the best English player in our greatest sporting export, the Premier League, his omission leads to outrage, particularly with the backdrop of a clash between England and Spain’s juggernauts in Europe’s elite competition. The dynamic so swiftly changes to one of national pride and Rooney has long been a pawn in this dance.

Another key omission from the dialogue about Rooney is that to an extent, it’s a miracle that he is still playing every week in the most aggressive league on Earth, given his physique. He was just five and half when Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut on March 3rd, 1991. The reality is that the latter is probably in better physical condition even as he ventures into his 40th year. Rooney’s pace has receded already and his ability to play at full intensity for 90 minutes is questionable. This is not necessarily a criticism of Rooney but more a demonstration of how ignorant expectations of him continue to be. Rooney is a footballer who was not naturally given the body to accommodate his ability and in that sense, he is a flawed phenomenon in his own right – one of the more potent similarities with Gascoigne.  Inevitably, Rooney was never going to be the lasting boy wonder that people persist in casting as a shadow upon him, Manchester United and England.

Wayne Rooney is a very good footballer and his career has been one of notable success. Unfortunately, the amount that has been said about him, the expectation that has grown to unreachable levels and perhaps to an even greater extent, that which has gone unspoken, will always leave an unjust sense of unfulfilled promise as a mark on his career. Rooney will stay at Manchester United this summer and the evidence as to whether he will ever leave, given this sort of media outburst every year, is thus far unconvincing. One thing is certain: his prominence in the starting line up at Old Trafford will diminish, whether the media accepts it or not.

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Football Is Business

The expected ramifications commonly associated with the influx of money to a football club, invariably from abroad, have been shaped largely by the most successful cases. Manchester City, and Chelsea prior, are the standout examples in English football of financially-bred fruition and with Paris-Saint-Germain set to dominate French football for the foreseeable future with their Qatari funds, Real Madrid and Barcelona in a Liga of their own in terms of turnover, television benefits and of course, quality football, the correlation between financial and footballing prowess is now not only an evident trend, but an entirely dominant one.

Perhaps the only true commonality between all of these clubs of apparent stature is that they have become more than just football clubs, but brands as well. For some, including Madrid and Barcelona, Manchester United and certainly the German juggernaut, Bayern Munich, the global image and exportability has come over years of shrewd popularisation of the football played and undoubtedly, an element of good fortune. These traditional clubs, so to speak, are now being challenged by the nouveau riche, PSG probably the most potent of teams to find (or at least be on the brink of) success as a result of an inexhaustible money source.

Admittedly, there is something uncomfortable about the description of football clubs as “brands”, particularly given the perpetual lamenting of the sport’s ineluctable commercialisation. While it is deemed by many as an unsavoury progression in the modern game, in many respects “football is business rather than sport,” in the words of Zdneck Zeman just last year. The authorities appear to have had enough, too, of these monopolising brands and this summer will see the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, seeking to penalise any club that cannot justify its expenditure on athletic talent with a turnover to offset it.

While the impact of the FFP introduction is yet to be seen, there are already indications that it will not have the desired effect for those sides that are barely capable of achieving self-sufficiency, let alone creating an image of eminence. The question has been raised as to whether FIFA will punish any of the top sides accordingly if they do indeed break their new rules. Champions League football is essential for Europe’s elite and the cornerstone of most clubs’ ambitions every season. The suggestion is that sanctions by FIFA for non-compliance with FFP would include automatic disqualification from the tournament, as has already happened to Malaga for next season after failure to pay bills. However, the likelihood of the authorities banning a Real Madrid, a Manchester City or a Paris-Saint-Germain from future competitions, in regard of their important branding and ability to promote and sell tickets, television rights and the competitions themselves, is unlikely.

Even more significant, though, is the fact that these huge clubs use their brand power to ensure that no matter how much they spend, turnover will always be greater, essentially rendering them immune to sanctions in any case. In reality, Financial Fair Play will serve only to punish those clubs lacking in self-sufficiency, when in fact these were the clubs it was supposed to help become more competitive.

Aston Villa: A Brand Forced Into Remission

It would be decidedly unnatural for a supporter of any top flight club to have banished or entirely avoided the consideration of a big-money takeover of their club. The peculiar thing for Aston Villa fans, who probably ponder the idea regularly given their current plight, is that it’s already happened – supposedly.

Brand generation, or perhaps regeneration, given Villa’s size and history, was underway at Villa Park following Randy Lerner’s arrival as the new owner of the club in 2006. The club crest, along with the team management, was adapted to fit the sense of a new start that arrived with the American. The simplest of brand initiatives though a logo may be, it was an indictment of the changes that the club was to undergo under this new management. Lerner, having paid in the region of £62.6 million for Villa, wanted to elevate them once again to a former greatness, with Champions League football the natural ambition.

The rest is history, as one might say in the knowledge that readers are fully aware of Martin O’Neill’s deceptive and ultimately detrimental advancements with a young, English-based, counter-attacking outfit that finished sixth place in the Premier League for three consecutive seasons. The price of Lerner’s financial trust in the Northern Irishman led to wild over-spending on players who were for the most part entirely incapable of giving Aston Villa long-term service, let alone long-term success. Champions League football was missed out on, albeit narrowly, and Lerner had either run out of money, or run out of interest – a question that has still not been adequately answered even today.

The new brand failed after its three-year launch. Three managers later and Villa are in the worst Premier League position they have been since the new format’s inception in 1991. Relegation is on the cards for a team made up of youth and inexperience, with a smattering of older players who have shunned responsibility and a faint sprinkling of quality that will soon be out the door.

Defeat against Manchester City on Monday night was something of an inevitable representation of the Villans’ campaign, with a growth in confidence and a genuine opportunity destroyed by moments of lacking concentration or simply, a shortage of ability.

The truth is that Aston Villa are now playing in a period of irrelevance, both in terms of their own history and that of the English top flight. They are not competing, as they were a few years ago, and they are barely surviving either. But is there any option given that on Saturday, the club revealed huge losses of around £17.7 million for the year ending May 31, 2012, which was in fact a huge reduction from the £53.9 million losses the year before. The club cited reasons such as a poor performance the year before, fewer live TV matches and lower crowd attendances. The obvious nature of these suggestions hardly adds enough comedy to make the reading bearable for Villa supporters but at least it gives cold, hard financial reasoning to the desperate weakness of Paul Lambert’s squad and the unacceptable standard of the performances this campaign. Or does it?

Surely that isn’t good enough – not for a club like Aston Villa. One of the traditional clubs in English football, with an enviable support base, they are now undoubtedly one of the examples of an unsuccessful takeover story and something must change in the near future.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow – the realisation that money is everything in football – but one that must be digested quickly at Villa Park. The few good players will leave, there will be no draw for others to join, and the club will fall hard. This will happen, but it can be rectified, with a new direction.

There is little question that Randy Lerner cares greatly about the club but his Aston Villa brand has failed because of poor mismanagement so early on. Football is a business as fickle as the fans who frequent its stadiums and it is time for Lerner to remove the emotion from it, and sell the club.

The issue of who exactly would want to buy it is a fundamental one, of course, but perhaps not as pertinent as the question as to how the Villa support would feel about the club being taken over once again, with potentially unpredictable results, and the possibility of a total makeover of this great, old club.

Ligue 1: Exponent of French football or football in France?

It’s not even March and already three of Europe’s top five league titles have been all but decided. On Sunday, Manchester City and Atletico de Madrid won to reduce the gap between them and the leaders in their respective leagues to twelve points. In the Bundesliga, currently billed as Europe’s most exciting proponent of footballing talent – both in terms of players and coaches – Bayern Munich lead by a monumental seventeen points. Even in Italy there appears to be a gulf between the top side and the rest, with champions Juventus on course to retain their Serie A title, as they sit six points clear of Napoli. In each cometition there seems to exist a club far superior, leaving the rest of the league to compete in relative futility. Not in France.

Super rich Paris-Saint-Germain find themselves top of Ligue 1 by three points, ahead of Olympique Lyonnais, who are persistent with their pressure upon the Parisiens.

On Sunday night, Paris-Saint-Germain, consisting of a plethora of international stars, managed by an Italian, watched by the world awaiting the appearance of a certain Englishman and funded by the state of Qatar, defeated rivals Marseille at Parc des Princes. The elite of France sat uncomfortably in the presidential seats and private boxes, demonstrating a distinctly frightening growth in the power and interest that is being invested in the French capital’s capital club. PSG were fortunate to win against a Marseille side that battled fiercely against the blizzard of snow and the formidable Salvatore Sirigu, who was on top form. The Parisiens looked very beatable, however, and the game, though it ended 2-0 in their favour, was a clear indication that the contest for the Ligue 1 title is far from being concluded.

Beckham PSG
Suggestion that Ligue 1 is an inferior league is quickly becoming little more than fallacy. While there appears to an imbalance in the financial prowess of the top teams and an emergence of a disturbingly international landscape to French football’s appeal, imbalance does not necessarily exist in the competitive nature of the league. Ligue 1 may be shifting away from French football and becoming more like football in France but in terms of the division’s prominence as one of Europe’s most exciting, that may not be an issue. The French national side may have something to say about that in a few years time if the trend continues. After all, England and the exportability of the Premier League stand as potent examples of the incompatability of a rich top flight saturated with foreign talent and a nation yearning for quadrennial success.

That digression aside, Ligue 1 and almost ineluctably Paris-Saint-Germain as the main proponents, have kick-started a nouvelle vague of interest. PSG, who were dominant in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Valencia at the Mestalla, are not to be underestimated in Europe’s elite tournament even in this supposedly formative year for the club. Bordeaux are the only other French representatives in Europe, having defeated Dynamo Kyiv to reach the round of sixteen. Les Girondins find themselves in 10th place in Ligue 1, which would further allude to the idea that the division is growing stronger.

Midweek, there has been another bout of fixtures across the continent, largely incorporating the numerous and unpredictable domestic cup competitions that each nation seems to pride itself on. To add to the notable Real Madrid victory at the Camp Nou, highlighting Barcelona’s vulnerability in the absence of their ailing coach, Tito Vilanova, the Parc des Princes hosted Marseille once again, with the same outcome. Ibrahimovic scored both in the combative 2-0 win for the Parisiens, shedding light on PSG’s irresistible talents but also another instance of the capital club’s defensive diligence. Great sides are created by great managers and great managers ensure their defences are the best part of the team. Carlo Ancelotti could be setting a precedent for this upcoming league.

Demoralising though the past week may be for PSG’s rivals, Marseille particularly, Ligue 1 is still very much a wide open competition. Not only the mere three point gap but the significance of how hard and how capable Lyon and Marseille are of challenging is reason enough to watch French football. Last season’s champions, Montpellier, are sixth and fifteen points behind Paris but there is no ruling them out of Champions League place contention. More important is Ligue 1’s perpetual capacity to surprise and to have unexpected teams rise the table to challenge for such places. Nice, who finished thirteenth but just four points off relegation last season, now find themselves fourth and a point behind third placed Marseille.

PSG may be the principal exponents of Ligue 1 currently and to a large extent, there is good reason for that given the financial might and their premature heavyweight title in Europe. With some of world football’s biggest stars lining up for them most weeks, an investment of interest is natural, which it is not necessarily for the rest of the league. In view of its evident and perennial competitive nature, whether it is French football or quickly converting to international football in France, there is no reason why Ligue 1 cannot be one of Europe’s most exportable competitions.

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Are Villa set to face Arsenal at the wrong time?

Arsene Wenger is under pressure, relatively speaking. Aston Villa are under even greater pressure. Villa’s pressure is absolute – if the side doesn’t build on the victory over West Ham two weeks ago, relegation is inevitable. If Arsenal don’t begin to pick up some results, Wenger’s previously untouchable status will begin to feel the weight of some genuine questions.

Paul Lambert has gone full-scale with his clichés this week, explaining that the Villans have “twelve cup finals” to play before the end of the season. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking given that Arsenal have lost their last two matches, which have both been cup games and both have been at the Emirates Stadium, where Villa will travel to on Saturday. Lambert’s men will undoubtedly have to illustrate an effort that would be fitting of a cup final if they are to come away with anything because the wounded Gunners may well be at their most ferocious this weekend.

Arsenal are a good side, whatever seems to be reported and repeated on a regular basis about their inherent ability to capitulate when they are in vital need of a result. For Villa fans, that will sound rather familiar because the claret and blues have infrequently done as required this campaign, which is why they find themselves in a lowly, rather uncomfortable seventeenth place. Victory at the Emirates on Saturday seems somewhat unlikely, but it is not an impossibility. In fact, Villa might just be able to cause an upset for a number of reasons.

With the deployment of Charles N’Zogbia on the right hand side to considerable effect against West Ham, the Frenchman, whose stature in Villa’s season is growing by the game, could be the man to dismantle the left-side of Arsenal’s defence, which has been a perpetual concern for the North Londoners. Bayern Munich, though something of a different opponent to Aston Villa, exploited that weakness to maximum effect and while it would be downright insulting to even compare Matthew Lowton to Philippe Lahm, the Villa man does have an ability to overlap and support N’Zogbia in the more advanced areas of the right flank.

Lambert has been an advocate of the widely popularised 4-2-3-1 formation this season and the gap between the opposition’s defence and midfield might just be one that the Scot will look to trouble, with Andi Weimann’s link-up play with Benteke placing him as key contender for that role. Arsenal play with defensive midfielders but they are far more expansive than most, with Wilshere and Arteta often found wanting defensively. Diligence is also imperative if Villa are to survive and therefore, the inclusion of Stephen Ireland would be difficult to envisage.

Although it has become an example of truism when discussing Arsenal, physicality is something with which they don’t deal well. According to Premier League statistics, Aston Villa have the worst disciplinary record in the English top flight this season, which is perhaps an illustration of incessant struggle but by the same token it could highlight the aggression that has become a cornerstone of Villa’s play. Certainly, it would be beneficial if they can show aggression, in a positive manner, on Saturday. Away from home, the Villans are also the second highest most formidable side in the league when it comes to aerial duels won.

Indeed, aerial challenges may well require winning if Villa are to get anything from the game. Just below Manchester City, Arsenal are the second highest team in terms of the average possession percentage statistics and the Gunners have the highest pass accuracy in the league. Therefore, Villa scoring from open play is less probable than conversion of set pieces, as evidenced in the match against West Ham.

In Theo Walcott, Arsenal have a player on form and determined to make an impact. His pace will be a constant threat, naturally, but perhaps this will be nullified by the deep backline often employed by Lambert. The true architects are undoubtedly Wilshere and Cazorla, though, and the battle will be won or lost in midfield. The return of Karim Al-Ahmadi from the African Cup of Nations could be essential to elevating the workrate and mobility in the centre of the pitch and Fabian Delph ought to make way. Ashley Westwood has a superior passing ability and in spite of his own goal last time out, protects the defence better than Delph if only due to his more level-headed style.

Ultimately, Aston Villa face a great test on Saturday in the shape of an Arsenal side that will be fighting for their manager and their fans who are discontented at present. The game is one that Arsenal will be desperate to win but one from which Villa will need to take at least a point. The performance will have to be gritty and aggressive, as it regularly is away from home. Villa will find themselves on the back foot more often than not so must seize any opportunities afforded to them. Darren Bent’s presence on the pitch might be tactically opportune but more importantly, each Villa player must be working for their manager and for their fans.

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Ibrahimovic Will Never Win The Champions League

Zlatan is a nine-time league title winner in three countries, a self-proclaimed “legend”, and among other things, a verb in the French and Swedish dictionaries, meaning “to dominate”.

Innuendo aside, Ibrahimovic only has one true ambition to accomplish and one competition left to dominate: the Champions League. Despite being the only player to have scored for six different teams in Europe’s top tournament, he will never win it.

On Tuesday, the Swede’s Paris-Saint-Germain side travelled to Valencia to do battle in the first knockout round of the Champions League. Even for those who follow PSG closely, the side is somewhat enigmatic in spite of its impressive form in Ligue 1 recently, which has seen Les Parisiens take a six point lead at the top.

For all of the capital club’s attacking prowess, at the forefront of which Ibrahimovic has firmly placed himself with 21 goals in 21 league games, there is still a natural element that comes with being a club of the nouveau riche variety, a lack of composure perhaps, that will prohibit Zlatan from ever dominating in Europe’s elite tournament. But more than that, Ibrahimovic is an obstacle and an hinderance to his own ambition, illustrated in his rash act in the dying minutes of the first leg at the Mestalla.

Initially, it was hard to work out just how well PSG would fare in the clash with Ancelotti opting for a 4-4-2 formation against a Valencia side that plays a quick passing game with five in midfield. But the French giants took hold of the game and were as forthcoming as their hosts, if not more so, exploiting the pace and direct nature of Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi down the right side, the Argentinian forward being given a free role in comparison to the target-man, Ibrahimovic.

Javier Pastore, whose pedigree as a Paris-Saint-Germain player has been questioned intermittently since his arrival from Palermo, was playing on the left side of midfield but drifted too. Pastore delivered one of his finest performances in a Paris shirt of recent times, though he has been coming into his own in the new year, perhaps inspired by the signings of Brazilian, Moura and the embellished influence of his compatriot, Lavezzi.

PSG were leading within 10 minutes, having settled into a frenetic match. Lavezzi and Pastore linked up seamlessly, with the former skipping past a lunging centre-back to fire a powerful shot into the far top corner from an angle. A superb move, a clinical finish and the multi-millionaire, Qatari-financed, French stars looked at home in the Champions League knockout round, which they haven’t reached since 1995. Qatar Sports Investment, who bought the club in 2011, pledged to build a side capable of winning Europe’s top club competition, but it was after they had taken a 0-2 lead that it became apparent just how far off this objective they remain.

PSG grabbed a second goal largely thanks to the brilliance of €45 million winger, Lucas Moura, who has settled into life at the club almost as quickly as his inherent ability to glide across the turf. Jinking sharply past the Valencia full back and cutting the ball back to Pastore in a swift movement, the Argentinian midfielder had the space to strike a powerful low shot through the keeper. PSG were cruising to a surprisingly straight-forward progression to the quarter-finals.

For much of the second half, though PSG had to combat an insurgence of pressure from Valencia, who were unable to break the defence that has been exceptional in the French top flight in recent months. To a large extent, the Parisien defence has been equally as important as its attack because even when PSG fail to press home their offensive advantage, they rarely concede. Again, they stood up and kept things tight. Until the 89th minute. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the defence, but more of an error of the collective play throughout the second half, which saw Frenchman, Adil Rami, flick the ball in from four yards out with nobody tracking and Sirigu flat-footed. The first leg ended 1-2, which represents a good result to take back to the Parc des Princes.

That said, there are a number of reasons why Paris-Saint-Germain and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not win the Champions League this season at least. The towering Swede, whose performance had been decent, providing something of a link-up target man rather than a goal scorer, was sent off in the 92nd minute for a mis-timed and rash studs-up challenge on Andrés Guardado. With Champions League referees more reactive than in France’s domestic competitions, the dismissal appeared a little harsh but it was a clear indictment of why Ibrahimovic will never win the greatest prize of all – because he is incapable of accepting a position as just a team member and struggles to prioritise the collective victory over personal endeavour. He must be centre of attention, the showman, even at the age of 31. His experience would suggest he has the capacity to dictate and influence PSG’s play but he must do so even when he is not the one on the score-sheet.

Champions League winning teams are exactly that – teams. Paris-Saint-Germain are taking the form of a more convincing one every time they play but individualistic acts like this one will continue to hinder the French side and the ambitions of its most talented striker. The goal scored by Valencia could prove costly in the overall tie and while it was a lapse in concentration, the persistent concession of free kicks in similar zones to the one that was eventually converted was a result of an inability to maintain possession on the part of the Paris players. Valencia kept coming forward, often with little success, but there was always that risk. The victorious teams don’t allow the opposition to have possession, even when they lead. They keep the ball, remain on the front foot and therefore disallow the opponents any opportunity to score. PSG have the players to do it but they need to learn to lead with the front foot, studs down in Ibrahimovic’s case.

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The Cost of Disregarding Value

The blatant reality of Aston Villa’s era of over-spending has become particularly clear in the last six months as the Villans struggle in the lower echelons of a league from which they have never been relegated. After a vital victory over West Ham on Sunday to take the Villans out of the drop zone, placing the fate of the club back in its own hands, it is evident that an appreciation of certain players’ values is being realised by Paul Lambert.

There is little question that Christian Benteke has been the claret and blue revelation of the season, scoring an impressive eleven goals in 21 starts. While this may not be the most formidable goal-scoring record in the Europe, the Belgian forward’s goals comprise 44% of those scored by the side this season, making him the most valuable striker in terms of contribution to his team in the Premier League.

At just 22 years-old, Benteke has taken naturally to life in the English top flight and the inevitable rumour mill has started churning whispers of interest from those much nearer the top of the table than relegation battlers, Villa. His aerial prowess, enviable strength and athletic speed are all elements of his game that have made him perhaps the most fundamental player at Villa Park this season. Quite simply, when Benteke plays well, Villa pick up points.

Christian Benteke: Vital for the Villans

Christian Benteke: Vital for the Villans

Alongside him, Andreas Weimann has come into his own and while his ability in front of goal is not quite as formidable as Benteke’s, the two have forged a dynamic partnership. Lambert has recently elected to deploy the Austrian as a right-sided midfielder and his work ethic means he is well suited to the task. Having come through the Villa youth ranks, Weimann has become a favourite among the supporters, given his illustration of utter determination to do well for the club. This is an essential aspect of what has been lacking among a number of the more experienced Villa players this term and is undoubtedly the reason for which Paul Lambert has let his most expensive players collect their wages from the bench.

The tide is changing and apparently, so is Lambert’s mentality towards those older, seemingly more insipid performers. Inspite of the new, young talent that has been so heavily involved in Villa’s albeit challenging campaign, it is imperative that the Scot has now realised that there are members of the team that he was unwilling to use earlier in the season who will be key in saving the club from relegation.

Charles N’Zogbia has played a mere fourteen games for Aston Villa this season, six of which have seen him emerge from the bench. The 26-year-old, once titled “Charles Insomnia” by Joe Kinnear for his frequently lazy performances, has recently come into his own. Having arrived at Villa Park from Wigan with a £10 million price tag on his head, many were touting him to be a very good signing. Many were wrong. N’Zogbia delivered very little in his first season in claret and blue and has scarcely been employed by Lambert as a result of his independent style and often questionable effort.

The win over West Ham saw the Frenchman give a man of the match performance as he was involved in both of those pressure-relieving goals. His talent is quite evident, either from the left or the right wing, N’Zogbia’s quick feet, neat touch and considerable speed makes him a real headache for full backs when he is in the mood. His trickery to win the penalty on Sunday and his deft free-kick that rippled the top corner of the net are sights that Villa fans will hope, and need, to see more often in the coming months if the club is to maintain its Premier League status. In N’Zogbia’s last five starts, Villa have won two, drawn two and lost one, which is a pretty decent record, relatively speaking.

One of the most talked about players in the English top flight this season has been one who has played very little football and whose perpetual ability to lengthen the transfer window has been something of a bore for English football fans. Darren Bent has made just seven starts for Villa this season, scoring two goals. For the amount of money paid for the England international, that’s rather disappointing, to say the least.

In short, Darren Bent is a valuable asset for Aston Villa Football Club. The number nine has had little to do with the Villans’ predicament so far but when he has, his impact has been positive. One only has to analyse the games in which he has played a full 90 minutes to comprehend just how important Bent is to his side. Undoubtedly Villa’s finest performance of the season came back in September, out-playing the side that often teaches other teams how to play, Swansea City, and winning 2-0. Bent scored in the next two games, which saw Villa pick up seven points from three games – their finest run of the season.

N'Zogbia and Bent offer a value worthy of recognition

N’Zogbia and Bent offer a value worthy of recognition

It was another two and a half months until Bent played 90 minutes, by which time the side’s form had capitulated and the relegation battle was well underway. In this game, Villa beat Norwich City 4-1 in the League Cup. While he didn’t score or get any of the assists, it would appear that Bent’s presence added a lot to the performance. That match was on the 11th of December and Bent didn’t play again until the end of January, his 45 minutes on the pitch not enough to salvage a 1-2 defeat. Again, he fell out of favour until this weekend, when he played in one of the most telling 30 minutes in Villa’s season. Again, no goals or assists for Bent, but he gave the defenders something to think about alongside Benteke and N’Zogbia, who stole the show.

Lambert has been wise to drop a number of the players who would, at the start of the season, been the first names on the team sheet. Brad Guzan has come in and done well behind a very weak defensive line, his worth proved once again with multiple saves against the Hammers. Stephen Ireland, a player that this author has tried to see the best in on countless occasions, no longer merits a place in the side, let alone the wage he is paid for frankly futile showings.

Nevertheless, the cost of disregarding the value of Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia would be a great one indeed, for they have the capacity and the experience to lead Villa’s youthful outfit to the edge of the relegation zone and to keep them there. Thankfully, Lambert appears to have made note of such at just the right time.

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