Germany is a model for all other European super powers. After Spain, they are now dominating World football both at club and country level. Sayan Chakraborty looks at the clubs which churn out footballers like anything. Bundesliga preview, part three with Goalden Times.
In this final and last installment of our preview of the Bundesliga we will look at the prospects of the remaining six teams that will fight in one of the best leagues of the world come August 22nd.
Lucian Favre has worked wonders with this team since taking over as Borussia Mönchengladbach’s manager in 2011. The 56 year old has transformed the fortunes of the club, 5 times Bundesliga champions who were struggling at the wrong end of the table, and turned them from relegation contenders to challenging for UEFA Champions League places. ‘The Foals’ have qualified for Champions League back in 2012 under Favre and although Mönchengladbach failed to make it into the group stages they enjoyed a fine UEFA Europa League run – a competition they will compete in this year as well. Favre, a skillful tactician, has drilled his team to play a dynamic, quick and attacking minded football. This season many key players have left ‘Gladbach, with highly rated young German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s move to Barcelona the most notable. Inspirational Venezuelan international Juan Arango has also left the club after 5 successful seasons at the club. Club record signing, Luuk De Jong, who failed to settle in Bundesliga, has also been offloaded to PSV. To cope with the loss of key players the club has done some pragmatic spending this summer by recruiting Swiss international goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who has been given the responsibility to replace ter Stegen between the sticks and young German midfielder André Hahn, one of the revelation of last season for Augsburg. Two skillful, fast and direct wingers-cum-wingbacks were signed in the form of Ibrahima Traoré and Fabian Johnson from Stuttgart and Hoffenheim respectively. Thorgan Hazard, the younger brother of Chelsea star Eden Hazard, has also arrived from Chelsea on loan. The likes of World cup winning German midfielder Christoph Kramer, Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, Brazilian playmaker Raffael and Patrick Hermann give the team more quality and options in the middle of the park. Although defence can be a cause of concern for them, with the team having a settled look and covering up their weaknesses in the form of new signings we can expect another strong campaign from Favre’s side. The biggest disappointment for ‘gladbach in the last few seasons is lack of consistency, and the ability to hold on to a good position in the table for a long enough period. With the experience and stability that they have, they should be able to hold on this time to secure UCL qualification.
Key Player : Max Kruse (Germany)
German international Max Kruse, 26, had a highly impressive debut season at ‘Gladbach since signing from Freiburg last season. Kruse has scored 12 and assisted the same number of goals for Gladbach last season; No wonder ‘Foals’ supporters are considering him as their key player for the forthcoming season. Kruse is a perfect target man, who can play direct football with devastating effect and is work ethic is absolutely outstanding with his constant runs through the channels. With Gladbach now having quality wingers and fullbacks on both wings, Kruse will hope to use those quality crosses to lead Gladbach to Champions League qualification this time which has just eluded them in the past couple of seasons.
What will you do when your team’s manager has retired after winning an unprecedented Treble? It’s simple: appoint arguably the best manager of the generation. When Jupp Heynckes left Bayern in 2013, Pep Guardiola was appointed with the aim to match his predecessor’s achievements. Guardiola almost achieved the targer by winning the Bundesliga, done in record time in terms of games remaining, and the DFB Pokal. Only a crushing semi final defeat in the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid robbed them of the opportunity to become the first team to retain the UEFA Champions League. But with Pep’s ‘Tiki-Taka’ philosophy firmly in place at Allianz Arena and with a near perfect team, Bayern Munich remain not only the favorites to win the league but also the team to beat Europe. Toni Kroos, the stylish German midfielder has moved to Real Madrid after an impressive World Cup winning campaign as did Mario Mandžukić, who moved to Spanish champions Atlético Madrid after a couple of successful seasons at Munich. But Bayern Munich may have pulled the deal of the Transfer Window so far by luring Polish striker and one of the most lethal finishers in the world right now, Robert Lewandowski. Having signed a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in January, Lewandowski has arrived from Dortmund on a “free transfer. Talented Spanish fullback Juan Bernat (from Valencia) and German midfielder Sebastian Rode (from Eintracht Frankfurt) have also arrived, providing ample squad depth. Spanish world cup winning goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been signed from Liverpool to provide competition to the almost ‘invincible’ Manuel Neuer. Having been defeated by fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund 2-0 in the German Super Cup scoreline, the start of the season was far from ideal for the club. The unfortunate injury to Javi Martinez in DFB Super Cup means Bayern will need a new player, according to Pep. Dortmund may also have given glimpses to the formula that can test Bayern’s defence: fast runs down the middle, and switching wings by the wingers. Same happened to Pep coached barcelona earlier, which remains the only glitch in the semi-tiki taka system of Bayern as Real Madrid exposed it in last year’s UCL semifinal. But Bayern Munich, a model club in many respects, would hope to retain the Bundesliga title and challenge for UEFA Champions League.Also
Key Player :Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
It is very difficult to choose a key player from a team which has the majority of players in the world cup winning German along with some world class talents like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. But Bayern’s key man for this season could be the man who joined Bayern Munich from rivals Dortmund. Star striker Robert Lewandowski is the man everybody in Bavaria will look forward to this season. Having scored 74 goals for Borussia Dortmund in just 4 seasons, Lewandowski has developed at SignalIdunaPark into one of the best finishers of the world and he will hope to continue that form for his new employers. A complete striker in every sense, Lewandowski is good aerially , can hold up the ball well, can dribble past opponents with consummate ease and above all a composed finisher in front of goal. His goals will be crucial this season if Bayern have to win or come closer to another ‘Treble’ this season.
Last season Paderborn surprised everyone and achieved an unexpected promotion to Bundesliga after finishing the 2. Bundesliga as runners-up. This season will be the debut season in Germany’s top flight football for the modest North Rhine-Westphalia outfit. Coach André Breitenreiter, 40 , has done exceptionally well last season with a bunch of journeyman footballers when nobody’s fancied them for automatic promotion. Germany is a country which now havs an abundance of innovative, exciting young manager and André Breitenreiter is the latest name on the list. Having already coached lower league sides, Breitenreiter has now lead Paderborn to the promised land of Bundesliga for the first time ever in his first season in charge. Last season languishing midtable in ninth spot by the winter break, Paderborn sensationally doubled their tally of wins from six to 12 in the second half of the campaign and out-scored every other team in the league with 33 goals. As a newly promoted side competing in the Bundesliga for the first time, Breitenreiter will know how tough life will be at Bundesliga. Süleyman Koç is a striker who will attract special attention this season. Koç was imprisoned until January 2014 due to his part in a robbery during his time at Babelsberg 03, Paderborn have offered him a second chance after his release and he has never looked back since. Paderborn have retained the core of the team that have won them promotion last season and added players like striker Marvin Ducksch from Dortmund on loan, midfielder Lukas Rupp from Mönchengladbach and have made the loan move of striker Elias Kachunga from Mönchengladbach permanent. But with a host of players inexperienced in top level, they might struggle this season before eventually getting relegated.
Key Player : Alban Meha (Albania)
Undoubtedly the star performer of Paderborn’s promotion winning campaign, Albanian international Alban Meha will again be Paderborn’s big hope this season. The 28 year old stylish playmaker flourished last season playing in a no.10 role and contributed 12 goals. The most dangerous weapon in his repertoire is his deadly set piece skills that contributed six goals – the most in Germany’s top two tiers. With this his maiden Bundesliga campaign, Meha will be craving to show off his skills in the countries Elite division.
Schalke suffered a mid season slump last term and people were not convinced whether the 43 year old Jens Kellar was the right person for the job. Kellar answered his critics by helping Schalke to qualify for UEFA Champions League for yet another campaign. With club Sporting Director Horst Heldt reaffirming his commitment to Kellar this time ‘Die Königsblauen’ will hope to hit the ground running from the start. Schalke have one of the best academy and youth setup in the land and have constantly churn out excellent players, the like Julian Draxler, Max Meyer and Donis Avdijaj to name a few. With an abundance of young talents at his disposal, summer has been relatively quiet in Veltins-Arena on the transfer front. Cameron international striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting arrived from Mainz and German winger Sidney Sam arrived from Bayer Leverkusen. The loan signing of fullback Dennis Aogo from HSV was made permanent. There have not been any major departures apart from Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos, moved on loan to Bayer Leverkusen, and Hungarian striker Ádám Szalai, sold to Hoffenheim. Striking force is weak link in this line up. Other than Hunteelar, not a lot of people are there who can be depended on to score goals in consistent basis. Farfan, Sidney Sam, and Boateng would have to be pitch in with goals. Keller has a strong squad this season and it would be a failure if Schalke fail to qualify for Champions League.
Key Player : Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Netherlands)
‘The Hunter’ as he is fondly called by the Schalke faithfuls, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has resurrected his once faltering career at Schalke after less than impressive spells at Real Madrid and AC Milan. The 31 year old Dutch striker has really thrived at Schalke which culminated in him being awarded the Torjägerkanone (Top Scorer) in 2012 with 29 goals. A lethal finisher, Huntelar has struggled with injury last season but still managed to score 12 goals in 18 Bundesliga appearances to show his worth to the team. With players like Draxler, Meyer, Farfan and Kevin Prince Boateng behind him to create chances, Huntelaar will be as clinical as ever in front of goal as long he is match fit.
One of the richest clubs of Germany apart from Bayern-BVB, automobile giant Volkswagen’s bankrolled team had a disappointing past few seasons before coming within 1 point of UEFA Champions League qualification last season. The 2009 Bundesliga champions appointed 49 year old Dieter Hecking in the autumn of 2012 after Felix Magath, who led them to the title in 2009, left the club by mutual consent. In his 1st full season in charge, the Germans pragmatic approach paid off and after a slow start Wolfsburg came agonizingly close to a Champions League qualification only to be pipped by Leverkusen. Hecking, as a player, played for Wolfsburg’s two fiercest rivals, Eintracht Braunschweig and Hannover 96 but delivered some stability to Wolfsburg, in the process saving them from the clutches of relegation in 2013 and then the subsequent 5th place finish in 2014. He is held in high regard at the Volkswagen Arena. This season Wolfsburg made some inspired signings with German fullback Sebastian Jung arriving from Frankfurt, Aaron Hunt from from Werder Bremen on a free transfer. French Defensive midfielder Josuha Guilavogui was signed from Atlético Madrid on a two season loan to provide cover for Luiz Gustavo. And after failing to sign a striker somewhat bafflingly Wolfsburg have signed Danish striker Niklas Bendtner, a player famous for his off field antics, on a free transfer. There were no significant departures with only some fringe players like Jan Polák, Nassim Ben Khalifa and Tolga Ciğerci have departed the club. Ivica Olic, an experienced campaigner, knows how to score goals and having him in the line up more regularly can be on option Wolfsburg should consider. With a strong squad and an experienced coach, and having invested heavily over the past few seasons, UEFA Champions League qualification is absolute priority for the Lower Saxony side.
Key Player : Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Kevin de Bruyne, the 23 year old exciting Belgium midfielder is undoubtedly Wolfsburg’s key player for the forthcoming season. De Bruyne, still young, had a good World Cup and would hope to continue his fine form which made him Wolfsburg’s key player since arriving from Chelsea in the winter transfer window of 2013-14. The Belgian midfield gem works tirelessly both in defence and attack and boasts a good an eye for goal, as he demonstrated with three strikes in his debut half-season. With the club having retained the services of misfiring striker Bas Dost and also having inconsistent players like Niklas Bendtner in attack, de Bruyne will have to contribute more goals if he wants to lead Wolfsburg to the prosmise land of Champions League football.
Armin Veh, on his second homecoming, will be hoping to recreate the same magic he did when he led them the club to their last Bundesliga triumph in 2007. Veh had a hugely successful 3 year spell at Eintracht Frankfurt and took charge at Stuttgart who just survived to beat the drop last season after having several seasons of underachievement. But there is a genuine sense of optimism this time at Mercedes Benz Arena as the fans seems to think that Veh is the man to turn their fortunes around. This season Stuttgart have brought in the likes of defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu on loan from Chelsea, winger Adam Hloušek and striker Daniel Ginczek from relegated Nuremburg. But their most exciting signing this summer has been the €6 million euro capture of 21 year old Serbian winger Filip Kostić from FC Groningen, one of the standout performers last season in Eredivise with 11 goals and 7 assists to his name. There has been some key departures as well with long serving former German international striker Cacau leaving for Cerezo Osaka in Japan and left sided wingbacks Ibrahima Traoré and Arthur Boka leaving for Borussia Mönchengladbach and Málaga respectively. Veh may not be following quite the same objectives in 2014/15 as he did in 2007 but would be hoping to get Vfb Stuttgart back among the countries elite in the top half of the table.
Key Player : Vedad Ibisevic (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Thirty year old Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic quickly became one of the key figures at Stuttgart since his arrival in 2012 after a successful 5 year stay at Hoffenheim. The 6’3” striker struggled with injuries last season but still got into double figures after scoring 10 goals in 27 apps. A calm and composed finisher he remains vital for Stuttgart who will be relying on him for the goals and with some exciting player like Alexandru Maxim and Filip Kostić drafted into the squad to create more goalscoring opportunities, Ibisevic would be hopeful for a much better showing this term.
German football is enjoying one of its golden periods. A chunk of the success is down to the years of efforts put in to improve the standard of the Bundesliga. The quality of young players churned out and the technical football played has turned bundesliga has truly transformed it into a truly global superpower. However, there is one area where the league needs a lot of improvement – competition at the top of the table. Bayern Munich, owing to their preponderant status and financial power, have become almost untouchable by other clubs. Among the rest of the clubs only Borrusia Dortmund, despite losing their super stars season after season, look like posing some kind of challenge to Bayern’s stranglehold of the league.
However, the rest of the teams are pretty competitive among themselves and with clubs like Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Monchengladbach the fight for European spots should be an interesting battle. As far as German representation in the champions league is concerned, barring a massive upset, at least one of Bayern Munich or BvB should make the top 4.
The BFB Pokal could throw up a few potential surprises. The cup represents a realistic shot at silverware to a lot of teams and they go all out to win the knockout matches.
In conclusion, 2014-15 season promises to be another exciting season for German football domestically and one that can potentially lead to silverware in the continent as well. We can only wait in anticipation.
MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Manchester City
Manchester City have been quite a mystery this season. While at times their attacking play has mesmerized the opposition and spectators alike, at other times, especially on the road, they have been considerably lacklustre. With the tag of one of the most expensive teams to have ever fielded on the pitch, the expectations have been sky high for the last couple of seasons. The appointment of a far more subdued but tactically genius coach in the form of Manuel Pellegrini appears to have signalled the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you with him on a journey to explore the club under its latest manager
Manchester City’s season so far has been a story of two teams. One team plays at home, where they have won everything except one UEFA Champions League group stage match against, well, the reigning champions (and arguably the best European club team currently) Bayern Munich. But their amazing form goes for a nosedive when they travel. In the English Premier League, they have lost four times out of 6 matches – they have been beaten even by the bottom-most team in the league table, Sunderland. While they have racked up all possible 18 points from six home matches so far in the league, their tally of 4 points from six away matches is better than only 4 teams in the competition. Let us try to see what the reason behind this stark contrast is.
Last year, Manchester City suffered a lot, especially in Europe, from lack of width. They did not have any natural winger and things were worsened by Roberto Mancini’s apathy towards Samir Nasri. It seems both of these are problems of the past. Jesús Navas may not have been the most talked about coup during the summer, but he certainly has added a new dimension to City’s attacking threat down the flank with his directness. A rejuvenated Samir Nasri is a treat to watch. Deployed mostly as an inverted winger / inside left player who would cut inside at his will – a role he made his own in Arsenal – Nasri has so far the most number of assists for Manchester City in Champions League. With David Silva soon returning from injury, it will be an intricate decision for Pellegrini to slot him back in the team which looks well settled now. This is going to be interesting as Silva, along with Yaya Touré, have been the foundation based on which the success of City is built.
At home, Pellegrini is quite comfortable fielding a very attacking 4-4-2. Sergio Agüero generally plays slightly off the line and his movement into pockets is a nightmare for defenders. He is ably supported by the strong and burly Álvaro Negredo. However, the fluidity in the system and growing understanding between the striking duo has allowed Pellegrini to alter their roles with smooth transition, both between and within matches. Central midfield is shepherded by Yaya Touré with licence to venture forward at every possible opportunity. He is partnered more often than not by the box-to-box midfielder Fernandinho in preference to Javi Gracia who feels at home in a more conservative anchorman role. When defending, Negredo generally slots back to make the centre of the park more compact. This paves way for the speedy Agüero to remain the furthest forward and be the focal point of any counter-attack.
But surprisingly, even with such plethora of attacking options available, off late, Manchester City are adopting a defensive strategy while playing away from home. Their problem started with the fact that neither of their central midfielders are out-and-out blockers or anchormen. Hence teams having three in the middle can easily overrun them and expose City’s fragile backline (more on that later). To address this issue, Pellegrini haslooked to shift to a more compact 4-2-3-1 system – crowding the midfield with an additional holding midfielder in expense of a frontman. While the holding midfielder, usually Garcia, ensures that City retains possession much better and dominates the passing owing to an extra man in the midfield, it becomes easier for the opposition defenders to mark one frontman instead of two. The partnership with Negredo allows Agüero to interchange positions and drift into dangerous area inside the opponent back-line, but playing as a sole striker he has to look for attacking midfielders to join him from the deep, often providing time for defenders to regroup and cut down all the angles. This certainly makes a difference.
Manchester City have been struggling to stretch the game wide in away games. This is no coincidence that Navas has had more than 45 minutes of field time only once in away matches so far. Pellegrini has been opting for a congested middle third where the midfielders would provide through balls from central areas, keeping their shape intact. So the blueprint for defending teams has been to deny any space in the middle and force the play out wide. With City lacking in any natural width from the attacking players, this augments well for the opposition.
Let us look at the following numbers to understand their attacking problems on road.
Shots on target
City are League’s top scorer with 34 goals but their scoring rate drops alarmingly (a difference of three goals on an average) when they travel. As discussed earlier in the piece, home teams are forcing them to play wider which is vindicated by high number of crosses in away matches. But lack of a true winger is hurting them. There is clear indication that number of clear cut opportunities is far less in away matches – shots on target are 60% lower and the most striking aspect of them all, conversion rates are 50% of that in home matches. Simply put, open chances are not being created, forcing to shoot from less obvious positions and those are very seldom getting converted. At home, City enjoys far better outcomes. For instance, in the last match against Tottenham Hotspurs, City had only three attempts on target in the second half. And all of them were turned into goals – attributed to their precise positional play which led to those clear cut chances.
Defence has been an area of concern for Manchester City. With emphasis on attack, the defensive unit has been unable to cope with less number of holding midfielders supporting them. To be honest, too much tinkering has not helped either – so much so that the entire defensive unit of five (back four plus goalkeeper) had been changed after the loss against Chelsea. Pablo Zabaleta has been the only constant feature for City at the right-back position and his partnership with Navas is flourishing day by day. On the other side, it has been a toss-up between Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov – but neither of them has looked convincing while defending. The injury of Vincent Kompany has meant he has been able to start only four matches this season. His absence has been a crucial one as City have not been able to field the same centre-half pairing in two consecutive matches in his absence. Joleon Lescott has gone down the pecking order, Matija Nastasić is too young to take up the leadership role at the heart of defence, and Martin Demichelis, 33, is still finding his feet at the Sky Blues and may at best be termed as patchy, so far. The problem has been so severe that Javi Garcia had to start as a makeshift centre-back in more than one occasion. But the biggest problem has been the form of Joe Hart. Last year, he was regarded as the best shot-stopper in the League. But his free fall in form – which includes this howler against Chelsea – has forced Pellegirini to bench him in recent matches. This is not an ideal situation for England’s ‘number one’ in the backdrop of the World Cup 2014. This is far from comfortable for the club as well, where Hart, in spite of being only 26, is one of the senior players and an inspirational one at that.
Let us look at how Manchester City is faring home and away as a defensive unit through some numbers.
Well, nothing to explain really. Number of goals conceded has been far too many, only one clean sheet kept in 6 matches; blocks and clearances have gone down too – constant tinkering with the defensive personnel has cost Manchester City dearly in away matches.
To be fair to Pellegrini, it is not only his tactics which has led to a dismal result away from home. At Etihad stadium, the same team looks more charged up, more passionate, more hard-working. The entire team, right from the defence to the frontman, starts pressing the opponent at every inch. The home supporters believe that the home ground is a fortress, and rightly so. If only they can translate the same killer instinct during travel, Manchester City would be looking forward to a terrific season.
MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Bayern Munich
It cannot get more intriguing than this. Bayern Munich on the back of their treble-winning season is set to further establish their claim as the strongest team in European club football. Taking charge is the man who has masterminded the rise (and rise) of Barcelona, one of the best teams ever to play the beautiful game, according to many. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses how Pep Guardiola shapes up the German superpowers
Change is in the air. With the onset of a new season, comes a fresh new series of Maximus Tacticus. Having covered the EPL clubs exclusively in the first season, we now look beyond and our first destination is the reigning European champions Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola returns to the limelight after a year’s sabbatical and he would look forward to emulate his unprecedented success at the Camp Nou.
One thing that Pep’s Barcelona lacked heavily was a strong defence. It is a testimony to their overwhelming attacking and possessional display that very few teams were able to exploit that weakness. At Bayern, Pep is presented with a strong defence marshalled by Dante and Jérôme Boateng. Behind them, German shot-stopper Manuel Neuer forms a solid foundation at the back. Pep likes to have attacking fullbacks; don’t be surprised if Philipp Lahm and David Alaba are deployed more as wingbacks this season. Their attacking forte is already on the show as the duo have provided with five assists, and the latter scoring twice already in the season.
Unfortunately, Javi Martínez is out injured currently. I have a feeling he might be deployed in the heart of the defence as a ball-playing centre-half (remember Javier Mascherano?). Pep loves to build up attack from the back and Javi will give him that option. Another aspect of Barcelona under Guardiola has been their pressing football higher up the pitch. The centre-backs often played close to the centre circle in an attempt to narrow down the playing area and intercept any through ball from the opponent. But at Bayern, he is urging his defenders to stay a bit behind while not in possession. This enables them to spread the ball wide and launch a counter-attack through fast-paced wingers.
Over the last couple of seasons, Bayern’s success has been built around its dynamic wing play which as a matter of fact is in direct contrast to how Barcelona evolved under Guardiola. But it seems Guardiola is adapting to the Bayern way than the other way around. Quite sensible I’d say, with Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben on the wings, not to mention some of the other aces up his sleeves.
Guardiola loves to have a jam-packed midfield even at the cost of out-and-out strikers. It is no surprise that he has not had the best of relations with his main striker during his managerial career. This time too he has shown his cards with the sale of main striker Mario Gomez and being happy with only one clinical finisher, Mario Mandžukić. The signs are clear that Bayern will play with one man upfront, or some time with the False 9 formation.
Precisely the reason why even after having a plethora of options in the centre of the park – Javi Martínez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller – Guardiola has added Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara to his squad. Schweinsteiger will continue to link up defence with attack in his usual midfield anchor-man position while Kroos will complement him in a box-to-box midfield role. Muller completes the three-man midfield where he would be the furthest man forward. This is the favourite formation of Guardiola where his asymmetrical three-man midfield dictates the play which is in direct contrast to their traditional 4-2-3-1 system. It is most demanding for Schweini as he is accustomed to play alongside another holding midfielder in a double pivot system but so far he is doing pretty well.
Guardiola can best be described as a football romantic and his thinking out-of-the-box presented us with the tiki-taka style of play. He loves to experiment and is eyeing an evolution, rather than revolution at the Allianz Arena. His much favoured 4-3-3 requires fast-tracking wingers and although world class, Robben and Ribéry are not really known for their defensive work rate. So Pep has his eye on a 4-1-4-1 formation where Lahm is positioned as a defensive screen. Lahm, or for that matter Javi Martínez, having very good control over the ball, are ideal for this linkman role which allows the game to spread more and gives more options to his wily wingers. It opens up the avenue for his central midfield pairing. Schweinsteiger can be partnered higher up front with either Kroos or Thiago. The wingers are encouraged to be involved in tika-taka, a short passing style of play, and their proximity to the respective fullbacks help them retreat easily while trying to defend. This pairing of wide players gives the team an added advantage in attack while Robben or Ribéry can cut inside to exploit the space vacated by the opponent fullbacks. The advantage of this system is that a single substitution, or even mere change of role of the on-field players, can alter the formation to a more robust 4-2-3-1 or a more attacking full throttle 4-3-3.
Bundesliga is much more defensively organized and far more physical than La Liga. It would certainly be hard for Pep to implement his favourite False 9 with 4-3-3 formation at Bayern. But one feels he would surely try it out at some point of time – maybe against a less fancied opponent in the league or in a dead rubber in the Champions League. He loves to have a pack of midfielders passing the ball around while interchanging their positions with maximum flexibility. And who says we do not have a Messi in Germany? Götze, the German Messi is raring to go!
Note: Read *Boateng* for *Boetang* in the three images
UEFA Champions League Final Preview
The biggest club team honour has reached its finale. Get the showdown of the Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty
FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)
Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
May 19, 2012
00:15 IST (May 20, 2012)
After two contrasting semi-final ties, we have the two finalists for UEFA Champions League 2012. Bayern Munich, playing at home, will take on the surprise opponent in Chelsea. Not a line-up many had expected, rather another El Clasico was being anticipated as soon as the road to final was clear following the quarter-final draw. Purists may argue that the best team in Europe, or possibly the best team ever, has not featured in this year’s final. But one must remember that the finalists have come thus far by knocking out the so-called best teams. Chelsea have shown us what a strong, determined and organized defence can achieve even against the fearsome display of attacking football. The two matches of Chelsea against Barcelona, especially the away leg once their inspirational captain John Terry was sent off for an off-the-ball incident through a straight red card, showcased an amazing strength of character. It established the fact that defensive tactics can also be engrossing, a team can fight against all odds as well as the statistics if they can keep their shape. It also proved that there is no point having the lion’s share of possession with more shots on target, during a match, if you fail to do the single most critical thing – score a Goal. Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo had admitted that his side would require a bit of luck to upset Barcelona and there is no denying the fact that Chelsea have been fortunate. The Catalans hit the post four times over the two-legged tie besides missing lots of clear cut chances to add to the penalty miss by Lionel Messi. But Chelsea took the opportunities when presented. Playing with 10 men away from home, in front of a buoyant Camp Nou crowd, they took the lead through an audacious Ramires chip – no mean feat that. They might have been criticised for sitting back and hoping for the best, but their tactics have worked and they are in the Final of the Champions League – who cares how!
Stand up and be counted
Bayern Munich on the other hand continued their fine showing in the competition. They have picked up at the right time and have been lethal as the tournament reached its knock-out stages. One has to think deeply amidst the hue and cry surrounding the goal-scoring duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that how can a player possibly score 40+ goals in domestic league? Surely the league is not sound in defence; Bayern surely caught Real Madrid off guard there. The German team showed no mercy for any defensive lapses Real presented them with and kept a tight back line – something the Spaniards are not used to back home. Besides, the Bavarians were proactive and took the game to the opponent even when 0-2 down at the Bernabéu. The German determination prevailed and they got one goal back which took the game to the penalty shoot-out. It is irony of fate that in one semi-final the better team over the two legs had to wait till the lottery of spot kicks to go through whereas in the other, the clear cut underdogs won easily – at least as per the score books (3-2 on aggregate).
Pressure will be on Bayern Munich as they enter their home turf at Fußball Arena München, to lift the biggest club team honour. The last time this had happened was way back in 1957 when Bayern’s semi-final opponents won the European Cup at the Bernabéu. Bayern’s midfield is in superb shape and it is vindicated by the fact that even a bad day in office (Franck Ribery at the Bernabéu) did not deter their chances too much.
Bayern will like to play a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which would change to 4-3-3 while not in possession of the ball. They have a makeshift centre-back pairing where Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is expected to start in the absence of suspended Holger Badstuber and injured Daniel van Buyten. This coupled with the suspension of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo would make Toni Kroos to sit deeper as a safety valve in front of the back four. The lynchpin in the midfield will be the stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger – he will be responsible for dictating the tempo of the game and supplying the ball forward. Thomas Muller will be the most advanced among the midfield trio and would like to pressurize the Chelsea defenders as much as possible. The lone striker upfront, Mario Gomez is in superb form flanked by two deadly wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, in particular, has been lethal this season and the opposition wing-back will be in a dilemma to launch forward in presence of the Dutch assassin.
Chelsea will again enter the final on May 19 as underdogs – this might just suit them as there will hardly be any pressure to deal with. Following a season which has seen their domestic campaign fall apart, reaching the finals of the Champions League in itself is a massive achievement, that too under the supervision of a caretaker boss (Avram Grant, anyone!).
With Captain John Terry, Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires missing through suspension, it won’t be surprising if Chelsea adopt a very defensive 4-5-1 approach once again. Garry Cahill is also a major doubt following his hamstring tear against Barcelona at the second leg of Champions League semi-final. If he fails to make it, Paulo Ferreira – with only one and a half Champions League games under his belt this season – might partner David Luiz, who is himself expected to be fit and available for the Bayern match. To shield the makeshift centre-halves, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel would be deployed as the holding midfielders who will complement each other in a double pivot role. Frank Lampard would like to link up with the front men whenever possible. But owing to injuries and age not being on their side, the midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are not the same players they used to be. It is likely to be a misfit against the superb Bayern midfield even in the absence of suspended Luiz Gustavo. On the wide right, Juan Mata would like to exploit any possible weakness in the German armour in the absence of Gustavo (left-sided midfielder), Alaba (left-back) and Badstuber (left centre-back). The opposite flank would be a toss-up between Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Up front, the work-horse Didier Drogba would be fighting for everything with Fernando Torres being used as an impact player. It will be very interesting to see how Chelsea can keep a clean sheet. And if they happen to concede – which if they do, won’t raise many eyebrows as they are fitted against a well-oiled German horse – will they be more adventurous and push more bodies forward? If this happens, spectators will be in for a very open game of football.
Both Chelsea and Bayern have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the season. Chelsea is still not sure if they would qualify for the next season’s finals. There is a controversy over dominance of senior players in the dressing room which has allegedly led to the premature sacking of former manager André Villas Boas. In a strange turn of events, the club which was heavily criticized for trying to buy a trophy is drawing unparalleled sympathy – for their underdog sticker as well as suspension ragged squad – at this stage of the campaign.
Listen to me
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have had to deal with egos of superstars for quite a while now. Der Kaiser has often criticized the current bunch for their failure at the bigger stages. In a way he was asserting the glorious achievements of his own playing days. The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not far behind in blowing his (full) trumpet and that is not helping the team any bit but bogging them down with enormous pressure. Things have gone worse for them after surrendering the Bundesliga for two consecutive years due to some indifferent form. Their players are also nothing close to being innocent – Franck Ribery was recently involved in a brawl with Arjen Robben over a free-kick during the half-time of a match – which does not augment good team spirit.
Holger Badstuber (DF)
David Luiz (DF)
Daniel van Buyten (DF)
Branislav Ivanovic (DF)
John Terry (DF)
Luiz Gustavo (MF)
David Alaba (DF / MF)
As both the teams are hampered due to injuries and suspensions – mostly in the defence or defensive midfield position – goals are to be expected in the final showdown. With a compact and well organized midfield, supported by greater threat going forward, I would like to put my bet on Bayern to win the trophy at their backyard.
UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup Semi-Final Preview
The biggest club team honour is reaching its finale while the second-tier club competition in Europe is gathering momentum too. Get the showdown of the semi-final encounters with Debojyoti Chakraborty
The quarter-final stage of the Champions League 2011-12 got over without much brouhaha. A Milan faithful may not agree, but Barcelona was a clear favourite for this tie. Real Madrid surged past APOEL FC leaving them looking rather distraught. Their opponents, Bayern Munich also eased their way through to the last four after seeing Marseille off. Chelsea had to endure the toughest of the ties as they shook off a strong fightback from a 10-man Benfica. Teams to feature in the semi-finals have been really consistent throughout the tournament as is evident from the fact that they have topped their respective groups. Spain continued its dominance here as well while Real and Barcelona established themselves as the two top club teams. Italy have lost out on one Champions League spot to Germany from next season and they should not feel hard done by as none of the Serie A teams could make it to the last four whereas German Champions Bayern Munich look to challenge the Spanish Armada. The biggest surprise in the lineup is Chelsea, who have managed to come so far this season. So after a roller coaster ride, it is that time of the season when finally men are separated from the boys. Now let us prepare for the last two-legged encounter of the season.
FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs Real Madrid FC (ESP)
April 17, 2012
Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)
April 25, 2012
Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:
Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4
Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:
Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3
Olympique de Marseille (2-0, 2-0)
Apoel FC (3-0, 5-2)
Round of 16
Round of 16
FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)
PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)
Group Stage | Group A Winner
Group Stage | Group D Winner
Villarreal CF (A) 2-0
SSC Napoli (H) 3-2
GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0
Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0
Manchester City (H) 2-0
Villarreal CF (H) 3-1
AFC Ajax (H) 3-0
GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2
SSC Napoli (A) 1-1
Manchester City (A) 0-2
Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0
AFC Ajax (A) 3-0
There is no bigger incentive for Bayern to win this tie than to feature in their home turf for the final on May 19. They face a mighty Real Madrid, a record nine-time conquerors of the continent. While many are preparing for another El Clasico in the final, it is the German Superpowers who seem to have a realistic chance of preventing that from happening. They had to come through the rigours of play-offs but they have looked sharper and clinical as the tournament approaches its crescendo. The Bavarians then topped the Group of Death before annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home in the Round of 16 following a shock defeat in the first leg. A typical professional German display saw them ease past Marseille thereafter. Now they find themselves in a proper Big Match, and anyone can win it. Mario Gomez vs Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery vs Kaka, Philipp Lahm vs Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer vs Iker Casillas – it is perfect show time.
These two superpowers of Europe have locked horns quite a few times resulting in almost even honours. Real has been in superb form from their group stages where they secured a perfect win record – only the fifth club in the history of the tournament to do so. A creditable draw in the freezing Moscow turf set them up nicely for the Round of 16. Los Blancos followed it up with bidding adieu to APOEL FC from little Cyprus – story of the season so far. Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading his counterpart in La Liga in terms of goal scoring but he is still some way behind in Europe. It will be a good stage for him to set the records straight as the competition nears its business end. Real has a star-studded side which is performing like a well-oiled machine – they have top two assist providers in Kaka and Karim Benzema, 3 out of the top 5 scorers are from Bernabéu (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José Callejón). Coupled with a compact defence which has conceded the least number of goals so far, this is a mouth-watering tie.
Chelsea FC (ENG) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)
April 18, 2012
Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)
Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)
April 24, 2012
Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:
Runners-up – 1
Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:
Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3
SL Benfica (1-0, 2-1)
AC Milan (0-0, 3-1)
Round of 16
Round of 16
Napoli (1-3, 4-1)
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)
Group Stage | Group E Winner
Group Stage | Group H Winner
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0
KRC Genk (A) 1-1
AC Milan (H) 2-2
FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0
Valencia CF (A) 1-1
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2
FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0
AC Milan (A) 3-2
KRC Genk (H) 5-0
Valencia CF (H) 3-0
FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0
FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0
Chelsea seem to have over-achieved this season in the Champions League considering their woeful domestic form and unrest in the dressing room. They saw off Valencia in the last match day in a must-win encounter in some style before staging one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of Champions League against Napoli in the Round of 16. Another tough nut waited in the quarter-finals and Chelsea rode their luck a little to knock out a resolute and gritty Benfica side. They would be determined to keep their continental form going as automatic Champions League qualification from the EPL is uncertain and hence winning this year’s Cup would be their only hope. They face the mighty Barcelona in a repeat fixture to 2009 edition. That time, Barcelona advanced on away goals and Chelsea would hope to do it one better this time. Chelsea seem to be the weakest of the surviving teams – they have hardly been able to hold on to the ball, rarely threatened the goal mouth, scored the least and conceded the most number of goals. Add to that the quality of opposition over the two-legged semi-final tie – possibly the greatest club team ever to have played the game – and Chelsea seem down and out. But matches have never been won on paper and Chelsea would dearly love to prove this once again.
Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of this competition fifth time in a row. By doing so, they have equalled the feat set by their archrivals Real Madrid in the late ‘50s – then known as the European Cup. And they would like to match another envious record held by their quarter-final rivals – win consecutive top European Club honours. Records are nothing new to the man named Lionel Messi. He became the youngest man, and fourth overall, to score 50 Champions League goals and also bettered his own Cup record of 12 goals in a season. The little magician has netted only 56 times so far this season and there will be hardly anyone who would bet against him scoring in this tie. People mesmerised by the tiki-taka brand of football often fail to appreciate their tight defence – Barca have not lost at home in Europe since 2009. They have some problem against aerial balls, but they more than make up for it through their defensive organisation. Except for Milan in the group stages, the Catalan side have conceded only 3 goals while scoring a staggering 28 in seven matches. They do keep the ball well – better than any other team in the competition – and make good use of it as they have outscored everyone else. This should be a good test for Barcelona, but not likely to be much more than a good warm-up for the impending final.
The Europa Cup Previews
Some call it the poor cousin of the Champions League, but the teams vying for the Europa League would strongly object to that. After much blood, sweat and rigour of the horrific schedule, four teams survive to fight it out. The all-conquering Spanish dominance is even more evident here as we have Sporting Clube de Portugal sandwiched between three clubs from Spain. Some may argue that the competition is dampened by the reluctance of top clubs to compete in this demanding tournament and they have preferred to focus on their respective domestic leagues. But this, in no way, can undermine the achievements of the semi-finalists. Let us build up to these matches.
Club Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF
In their last meeting in Europe, Atletico Madrid edged past Valencia on the basis of away goals in the quarter-finals of Europa League in 2009-10 and went all the way to lift the trophy. This time they will host Valencia on April 19 with the away match a week later. The club from Madrid has failed to score against their La Liga counterpart in the domestic season and they would surely love to break the shackles this time. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been in superb form under the bars for them – taking over from the now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea – conceding the least number of goals in the competition. Up front, Falcao Garcia, the leading goal scorer in the tournament, has impressed some cash rich clubs in Europe and he would surely like to prove his worth. Not only him – Adrian Lopez, Eduardo Salvio – Atletico have quite a few options going forward and they are clear favourites to clinch it. They have shown the desire by eliminating Manchester United from the tournament. On the other hand, Valencia are the only team to have come from the Champions League, having been eliminated on the last match day of the group stages in the hands of Chelsea. They boast of a strong defence consisting of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami. They have a free-flowing approach to the game, reminiscent of any modern top Spanish side. They have netted 4 goals in two consecutive home matches and they would look to hone their goal scoring skills once again against their Spanish compatriots.
Sporting Clube de Portugal vs Athletic Club
Only non-Spanish team left in the competition, Sporting Club will entertain Athletic Club on April 19 in an Iberian derby. They are enjoying their best season in Europe since 2005. History favours the Portuguese side in this tie as they have beaten – that too after trailing in the first leg – Athletic Club in their only meeting so far, way back in 1985-86 season. But they will have to go past a fantastic Gorka Iraizoz who has made the most number of saves (37) in the competition. Sporting is inspired by the ex-Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua who is having a tremendous season. Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front also has performed beyond expectation. They are up against an Athletic team, which is the only team to compete with Atletico de Madrid in terms of goal scoring. Diego da Cunha is leading the pack in the midfield as he leads the assists chart with four of them while chipping in a few on his own. They have come back from behind twice against FC Schalke 04 to clinch the tie which shows their hunger for success. In fact, they have had the most number of attempts – 67, close to six per match on an average – in goal amongst the teams surviving in the competition. Markel Susaeta has orchestrated the midfield quite well and he will have a major part to play in this tie as well. But they have leaked quite generously in the back and this is one area where they would like to improve. They will be further handicapped as star defender Javi Martinez has been suspended. This should be a fierce battle as both the teams rank right up there in terms of fouls committed throughout the tournament. Nonetheless, this promises to be an enthralling contest – plenty of goals, some shrewd tactics being employed and a nail-biting finish.
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 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.