UEFA Europa League Preview

The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform

The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.

 

GROUP A

   Liverpool            FC Anzhi Makhachkala            FC Udinese Calcio          BSC Young Boys

None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.

GROUP B

Atletico           Viktoria Plzeň             Academica           H.Tel Aviv

Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.

GROUP C

Olympique de Marseille          Fenerbahçe           AEL Limassol         Borussia Mönchengladbach FC

Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.

GROUP D

Bordeaux             Newcastle United               Club Brugge              Maritimo

Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.

GROUP E

VFB Stuttgart          FC København             Steaua București               Molde FK

Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.

GROUP F

AIK Solna                       FC Dnipro               PSV Eindhoven             Napoli

Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.

GROUP G

FC Basel                  Videoton           K.R.C. Genk            Sporting CP

Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.

GROUP H

Inter                       Partizan                  Neftchi               Rubin Kazan

Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off.  In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.

GROUP I

Athletic Club              AC Sparta Praha                Lyon           H.I. Kiryat Shmona

Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.

GROUP J

Panathinaikos                 S.S. Lazio             Tottenham                    NK Maribor

Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.

GROUP K

Metalist Kharkiv          Bayer Leverkusen         Rosenborg BK              SK Rapid Wien

Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.

GROUP L

Twente FC               Levante UD           Hannover 96            Helsinborg

The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.

The ‘Nearly Man’

The world is shrinking fast. And the world of football is shrinking faster.

When I started watching football, there was something distinct in the way each national team approached the beautiful game. The Latin Americans were skillful and fast; the English, the Italians and the Germans more organised and less adventurous; the Dutch, the Spanish and the French a bit of both. With every passing year, however, these traits are getting more and more indistinct.

Take Germany, for instance. The players are believed to be big burly lads; their strategy has always revolved around a strong back line. They are supposed to make up for inadequacies with their physical abilities. They are like literal giants in the world of football. If you looked at the current German squad though, none of what I said would make sense.

They are led by one Philipp Lahm who is 5’7”, an elf by German standards. The core of the team consists of relatively diminutive players like Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Mario Götze. Although Germany is playing quite an eye-catching football it has ever played, the nostalgic in me can’t help but miss the way the old Germany played football.

The reason I miss the old German team most is because they taught me that determination and desire to win can override talent. Gone are the days of the burly lads with more determination than natural flair. Gone are the days of the German giants. Gone are the days of players who stood against the sands of time. Gone are the days of Michael Ballack.

In an age where every other German player (and coach) is earning a nickname ending with ‘i’ – Poldi, Schweini, Jogi – Ballack was always ‘Der Capitano’. One cannot help but wonder how misleading the nickname would have been had this been applied to Ballack though. Lacki (lucky) is certainly not how the world will remember Michael Ballack.

In the world of football, particularly in Germany there have been debates and raging arguments whether MB13 should be inducted into the ‘Hall of Germany’s Greatest Footballers’, where the likes of Der Kaiser, Gerd Müller and Lothar Matthäus find their places. His detractors will point out the fact that Germany has not won a World Cup or Euro Championship under him. His followers will point out that football is a team game.

Germany has always been a powerhouse in the world of football. However, crashing out to Croatia in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final and finishing last in the group stages of Euro 2000 had left the German national team reeling. With no new stars on the horizon and the old guard ageing fast, Germany was facing a crisis it was unaccustomed to.

Into this impasse stepped Michael Ballack.

Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98
Ballack during his FC Kaiserslautern days. 1997/98

Ballack was not some child prodigy being trained at a huge club, destined to succeed. In fact, it was his humble beginnings that make him all the more inspiring. Having played in the regional third division and second division, he made his way up the ladder and broke through to the national team in 1999.

Ballack would spend the next three seasons with Leverkusen, and the 2001-2002 season leading up to the World Cup 2002 in Asia would be one of near misses for Ballack and “Never-kusen”– a recurring theme for both.

In 2000, Leverkusen had to only earn a draw against Unterhaching on the final day of the season to win the league. They lost the title to Bayern Munich as they were beaten by two goals; one of them being a Michael Ballack own goal. But that didn’t deter Ballack an iota as he went from strength to strength in the coming seasons culminating unfortunately in what is widely known as the ‘Treble Horror’ in 2002.

Ballack rose to prominence through Leverkusen and was instrumental in Leverkusen reaching the finals of the Champions League in 2002 – their only shot at the top European club football honours till date.

Ballack was by then one of the most influential players at Leverkusen who stood five points clear at the top of the league table with only 3 matches to go. They had reached the finals of the Champions League as well as the German Cup. With a treble in sight, however, Leverkusen collapsed spectacularly. They finished second to Borussia Dortmund in the league, to Real Madrid in the Champions League and also to Schalke 04 in the German Cup.

When the 2002 World Cup came around, Ballack was at the heart of the German team. Sans any notable ‘stars’ with the exception of goal-keeper Oliver Kahn and the ageing Oliver Bierhoff, not much was expected from the Germans. However, stars are made at World Cups and Ballack was no exception. He became the engine room of the team, playing box-to-box, winning tackles, creating goals for Miroslav Klose and winning admiration from peers and fans alike.

Germany won the quarter-final against USA 1-0 with Ballack scoring the winner. In the semi-final against the hosts South Korea, Ballack was booked on the 71st minute for a tactical foul on Lee Chun-Soo to stop his team from going behind. Three minutes later it was Ballack who scored the goal that would take Germany through to the final. However, having been booked earlier, Ballack was suspended from the final; the yellow card had put Ballack unceremoniously out of the game and he had to watch Germany come second to Brazil.

Several big clubs including Real Madrid showed interest in acquiring Ballack’s services at this juncture and Ballack finally signed for Bayern Munich which turned out to be a very profitable venture for both the club and player. Ballack would go on to score forty-four goals in 107 appearances for Bayern. Bayern would go on to win the Bundesliga title in three of the four seasons when Ballack was involved; add to those three DFB-Pokals in that period.

On the international front, however, the picture was bleak for Germany. Euro 2004 was a disappointment as they crashed out again from the group stages. Ballack’s fierce left foot volley against Czech Republic, however, was one of the highlights of an otherwise rather dull Euro. Ballack was named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament. He was the only German to feature in the team, and the only player to feature in the team despite not playing in the knock-out stages.

The Euro 2004 debacle, prompted changes. Coach Rudi Voller was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann and Ballack was made captain of the German National Team. And he led by example. It was as if he was born to be captain – a natural leader who gave his all for his country and expected nothing less from his compatriots.

Ballack had the immense honour of leading his team on home soil in the 2006 World Cup. Germany was in transition now, with the likes of Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger ably supporting the captain. Germany made it to the semi-finals of the tournament. However, it turned out to be a heart-breaking match for the German loyals. Italy scored in the 119th and 121st (120+1) minute of the tie to progress into the finals. Germany eventually finished third. Ballack was again named in Team of the Tournament.

After four successful seasons with Bayern during which he had won 3 “German Player of the Year” awards, he had little left to achieve in Germany, domestically. With his sights set on the UEFA Champions League, Ballack chose Chelsea as his home for the next four years. Although many feel that Ballack was the shadow of the player at Bayern, the Chelsea faithful feel differently. How else can you explain the rousing reception he received at Stamford Bridge when he went there to play for Leverkusen in the Champions League last month?

It is true that Ballack did not replicate his goal-scoring record with Bayern or Germany at Chelsea. That is to be expected, however, with Frank Lampard being given the more attacking role. Ballack had selflessly filled in the more defensive roles, as the situation demanded.

During his second season at Chelsea, Ballack was out of action for eight months due to a career threatening ankle injury. While in rehabilitation, Ballack saw things getting very messy at the club. Jose Mourinho was sacked, enraging the players. Captain and stalwart, John Terry was out injured. Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Salomon Kalou would go away shortly to play in the African Cup of Nations. Manchester United held a healthy lead at the top of the table.

It was Boxing Day. Aston Villa was the opponent at Stamford Bridge who took a surprise 2-0 lead midway through the first half. And when Lampard limped off, injured, it looked like the 71 game unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge was going to come to a crashing halt. Lampard was replaced by Ballack, back from oblivion, playing in the Premier League for the first time in eight months, though he looked as if he had never been away.

Just before the half-time break, Ballack went into the box with one of his trademark runs and won a penalty for his side. Andriy Shevchenko put it away. Chelsea went into the half-time break thinking they could still get something out of this. Flash forward to the fag-end of the game with the score tied at 3-3. Chelsea won a free kick just outside the box and it was time for the German to step up to the plate. He drilled it in the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. One of the commentators said, “He takes free-kicks like penalties and penalties like a German.

The game would, however, end at 4-4 with Ashley Cole sent off in stoppage time. But it was a sign of things to come. Ballack went from strength to strength as the season progressed towards a rip-roaring climax. Ballack was brilliant in this period for Chelsea, scoring vital goals in the EPL as well as the Champions League.

Then came the match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Frank Lampard would be missing again, having lost his mother in the week. Ballack would go on to score twice in the emotionally charged match of high stakes. Chelsea would go on to win 2-1 to set up a cracking finale to the season.

Chelsea finished second on the last day of the Premier League. They lost on penalties to Manchester United in Moscow in the Champions League final. Germany lost to Spain 1-0 that summer in the final of the Euro 2008 championships with Ballack, not surprisingly, having scored the winner against Portugal in the semi-final. So you see, Ballack is not known as the ‘nearly man’ for nothing.

As his rather illustrious career seems to have run its course with Joachim Löw shrugging him out of the national team and with him playing again in a bits-and-pieces role at Bayer Leverkusen, chances are that Ballack will end his career without an international trophy to his name. He may be the only player in the history of football to have won silver in the World Cup, Euro Championships and the UEFA Champions League without winning any of the gold. He has, however, won 6 domestic trophies with Bayern Munich in his four-year stint at the club.

Ballack was the Rolls-Royce of any team for which he played; low on noise; high on efficiency. Still there was always a maddening quiet about him. A man who gave his all for Germany, who epitomized German football when it was struggling for identity, surely deserved more than what he finally got.

Many believe that Ballack should have accepted the offer to play his farewell game against Brazil; that he was being too much of an egoist. What they do not understand is that “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress”, Michael Ballack’s ego was surely the fountainhead of the German national team’s progress in a period when Germany was destined to lose itself in the doldrums.

Scout’s Corner: André Schürrle

André Schürrle

Born: 06 November, 1990
Height: 1.84m (6 ft 1/2in)
Weight: 74kg
Position: Forward/Winger
Worth: 14m €
Transfer Fee (possibly): 25-30m €
Current Club:Bayer Leverkusen
It’s been a magnificent few years for Germany in terms of young talent coming through and even with the likes of Mesut Özil and Mario Götze being the outstanding new talents of the generation, André Schürrle deserves his own place in the sun. He made his Bundesliga debut as an 18 year old for Mainz and it is a testament to his impact that in his two years as a senior squad member, he played 33 matches each year out of the 34 matches that a club plays in the Bundesliga. His 66 matches played in 2 years (some were as a substitute) for Mainz are also a testament to his fitness apart from his obvious skill and suitability to the top flight of German football.
Schürrle started his youth football for Ludwigshafener SC, a club in the south-west regional leagues, and rose to prominence in the youth ranks of Mainz winning the German A Youth Championship in 2009. Schürrle represented the German teams at U19 and U21 levels in a space of a year and ironically he entered those teams when they were European U19 and European U21 champions but could not help them to subsequent glory.
His breakthrough season came in 2010-11 when he scored 15 goals and 5 assists in 33 matches for Mainz and led them to their best ever position of 5th in the club’s history. That earned him a transfer to Bayer Leverkusen for 8mn€ which was an absolute steal in the Bundesliga transfer market of this season. His season so far for the Werkself has not produced a goal (till writing) but a red card. One hopes the settling in would work better with time. By this time though, he had already made his senior debut, on 17th November 2010 coming on as a second half substitute in a friendly vs. Sweden. That was a momentous debut as Schürrle and Götze both came on at the same time and thus became the first two international players to play for Germany who were born in re-unified Germany. In 8 matches so far for the senior team, Schürrle has smashed in 4 goals, including a goal in 3-2 win over Brazil on 10th August 2011, which was Germany’s first victory over Brazil in over 18 years.
As a player, Schürrle is a much pacy version of Lucas Podolski in the current German setup and plays as an inverted winger on the left flank. His pace, acceleration and off-the-ball movement are something which makes him such a terror on the left flank. That he can then cut in and finish so well makes him an asset for Joachim Löw. He still has to work on his delivery of final balls in the attacking third but his most vital asset is his work rate and stamina which allows him to be more than useful in other tactical roles as the manager desires.