Ligue 1 has captured everyone’s imagination with Paris Saint-Germain splashing the cash. But here in this regular column, Ogo Sylla takes you through the league and shows there’s more to it than just oil money
The main thing we can take away from last month is that there are no more unbeaten teams in Ligue 1. Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) were the last two teams left unbeaten and they both lost their status of invincibility within a week of each other. In the meantime, Marseille had the time to lose their title lead to PSG but only to go even on points with them later. So today, PSG still lead but Marseille has a game in hand while there are only four points separating the top 9 sides.
We could not begin discussing the month of October without mentioning the big Le Classique clash between (the then) first-placed Marseille and second-placed PSG, as the Paris club travelled to the Vélodrome, trailing Marseille by a mere three points. At the end of the day, both clubs shared the spoils following a flying start to the first half. The second half petered out however, as both teams settled for the point. The hallmark of the game was also the goals scored by the clubs’ two symbols this season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG) and Andre-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), who both scored a brace. The draw, however, did allow PSG to take the lead at the top of the table, courtesy of a more favourable goal difference.
Lyon and Toulouse have hung on well though to stay close to the two French giants. Following Lyon’s loss to Bordeaux, they went on a good run after a tricky fixture against high-flying Lorient where they could only manage a draw. However, a 1-0 win over Brest followed by an impressive 5-2 win against Bastia allowed Les Gones to move to third spot, a point behind Marseille and PSG. Toulouse have also enjoyed great form and vanquished that bad cliché they had of being an overly defensive team that scored few goals. Indeed, Toulouse have scored nine goals this month. It was that man, Wissam Ben Yedder, who was the main artisan of this goal-glut, having netted three times and lifting his current Ligue 1 tally to seven. The Toulouse forward now sits in the third spot behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (AS Saint-Étienne) in the goal-scoring chart. Their good October form would however come to an end, travelling to Bordeaux as Les Girondins snatched a late winner. However, Toulouse are still today within three points of the Champions League qualifying spot.
Bordeaux is one club who flattered to deceive and was riding high on their undefeated run. But there were far more draws in this run and a 3-1 loss away to Bastia would turn everything into a rather negative run where Bordeaux lost far more points than they gained and slipped to seventh position. Indeed, Bordeaux had been very inconsistent since the start of the season and, for the most part, unable to fight on multiple fronts with demanding mid-week Europa League excursions. However, Bordeaux coach Francis Gillot refused to blame the extra games and fatigue for his team’s inconsistency. In fact, following the defeat to Bastia, the French coach publically berated his players accusing some of being ‘too comfortable’ and pushing them to focus and work harder. Gillot’s message got through apparently, as Bordeaux hosted the in-form Toulouse and won 1-0, thanks to Yoan Gouffran’s late goal. Their good run continued as they came up with an impressive 4-0 away win against FC Lorient to move up to the sixth place.
Another team that was also inconsistent at first but turned it all around this month was Saint-Étienne. After a 4-0 rout against hapless Nancy, Les Verts went on to draw Nice but convincingly beat Rennes (2-0) before getting the biggest scalp of them all when they travelled to the Parc des Princes and beat the (then) undefeated PSG 2-1. Another win against ESTAC Troyes saw them climb up to the fourth spot in the league table. The secret of Christophe Galtier this month has simply been the new striking partnership of their new Brazilian (and ex-Marseille player) Brandão and the prolific Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
There is another team that has been full of goals, this season’s surprise package, and keeps growing in confidence: Valenciennes. It is all due to the great work of their coach, Daniel Sanchez, whose attacking philosophy is really bearing fruit this start of the season. And despite a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Lille in the derby, we will remember the North of France’s club impressive 6-1 dismantling of Lorient. Valenciennes have scored 15 goals in total in their last five matches.
Lorient was one of the great surprises of this start of the season but have really slipped this month. Where Valenciennes have been able to maintain themselves in fifth spot, Christian Gourcuff’s men have slipped all the way down to 11th. In fact, they are winless since mid-September across all competitions with three defeats against the aforementioned Valenciennes, a 2-0 away loss to Brest and a 4-0 loss to Bordeaux. The highlight of Lorient this month, however, would be their improbable comeback to snatch a point at home to Ajaccio, after having trailed 4-1 at halftime.
So we will remember today that Marseille’s weekend draw with Nice was enough for them to remain at the joint-top with PSG, who were held themselves by Montpellier Hérault SC. What we will also remember is that the still inconsistent French champions Montpellier still sit in the second half of the table (14th) and Lille’s slowly improving form lifted them to seventh place. The midweek Coupe de la Ligue rounds were also noteworthy, when we had another Le Classique, but this time when PSG beat (holders) Marseille 2-0, and that too without Ibrahimovic, to set up a mouth-watering next round tie against Saint Étienne. But it was Marseille’s form that has looked quite worrying too, as their Coupe de la Ligue elimination had been their third defeat on the trot in all competitions, including the 1-0 loss to basement-boys Troyes and the loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach in Europa League. Nancy and Troyes keep struggling at the bottom, with Sochaux completing the trio. It has been a fascinating October month and the race for the Ligue 1 title continues to be ever so close. The questions we now all ask are: will PSG manage to pull away and who will be able to stay close to them long enough to worry them?
Nouveau Pompier – A Fascinating Start
Ligue 1 has captured everyone’s imagination with Paris Saint-Germain splashing the cash. But here in this regular column, Ogo Sylla takes you through the league and shows there’s more to it than just oil money
It has been a fascinating Ligue 1 season so far, as many pundits had anticipated. We are only seven games in but we already have much drama and many talking points. League favourites, PSG, have raised the bar having now found their right rhythm. Ligue 1 giants Marseille have come out of the gates running and have shocked most observers with a blistering start to their season. Alongside them, however, as always, we have the customary surprise packages and disappointments of the season.
Let us begin with league-leaders, Marseille. After a disappointing end of last season when they ended tenth and a tumultuous summer with some departures – most notably Didier Deschamps (France national team), Alou Diarra (West Ham), Stéphane Mbia (QPR) and César Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – and a few big arrivals, Marseille went on a six-game unbeaten run. It is significant in the sense that good starts to a season are not customary for Marseille, and for them to record their best start of a season in the club’s history and the best in Ligue 1 since Monaco some half a century ago is quite extraordinary, given the circumstances. It all started with an away 1-0 win to newly promoted Reims, and Marseille have just gone from strength to strength since then. Their most accomplished win has been away to Nancy. Although the adversary was not of equal quality, the Marseille performance was a complete one. Many had berated Deschamps’ rigid style but under Élie Baup, the team seems liberated and more fluid in their style. Marseille’s unbeaten run would, however, come to an end at the hands of their bogey team of the last few years, Valenciennes. Marseilles suffered a heavy 4-1 defeat to the North of France club, and that only a week away from the much-awaited clash against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Vélodrome.
PSG under Carlo Ancelotti, however, had a much more difficult start to their season. Indeed, the Paris club failed to win in their opening three games, being held by Lorient, Ajaccio, and Bordeaux. But the month of September would prove the turning point, with the first test of the season arriving in the shape of Lille. It proved a masterclass by PSG who, thanks to their star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rolled over the former French champions. The 2-1 victory also marked a triumphant return to the Champions League with a 4-1 win over Dynamo Kyiv. Their Ligue 1 form also vastly improved with consecutive wins against Toulouse (2-0), Bastia (4-0) and Sochaux (2-0). Ibrahimovic was the main architect, netting six times (in all competitions) to keep their good run of form going. Like Marseille, however, this run of invincibility would come to an end just before the penultimate clash against the great rival, as PSG fell 1-0 to Porto in their midweek Champions League fixture.
Of course for each season, fortunes are as differing from one team to the next. The aforementioned Lille is one of the great disappointments of this season. In fact Lille now sit 15th in Ligue 1, with no more than a solitary win (on opening day to Saint-Étienne). Four draws and two defeats (to PSG and Rennes) don’t do much to improve the picture as Lille seem to not be living the loss of Eden Hazard (to Chelsea) very well. The Belgian was quite instrumental indeed, scoring 20 goals and providing sixteen assists. New signings, Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Marvin Martin (Sochaux), are also struggling to adapt to Rudi Garcia’s system. Especially in the latter’s case, considering his difficult season for Sochaux last season, the talented playmaker’s best form still seems to evade him. Moreover, Garcia seems to be hesitant to choose between Nolan Roux and Tulio De Melo for the striker position, making it difficult for his front three to gel together. The unexpected dip in form of Florent Balmont, a key figure of Garcia’s engine room last season, is also proving to be an issue as personal problems have been distracting the French midfielder. Dimitri Payet, a player now looked upon as Lille’s new technical leader is proving to be short in quality – despite his obvious talent – and especially consistency to replace the departed Belgian’s impact. Finally, the most recent injury (meniscus) to club captain Rio Mavuba is a particularly troublesome absence for the coming few weeks for Rudi Garcia.
Amongst the season’s disappointments have been Montpellier, who lived a difficult start of the season. It has more been an issue of inconsistency (two wins, 1 draw and one loss in September) for the French champions. This past month has been more clement to them, however, as they seem to be finding their better form once again. The return of the defence has indeed coincided with the team’s improvement in form, as injuries to Garry Bocaly forced René Girard to break up the central midfield partnership of Hilton and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (by moving the latter at right-back to cover for the injured Bocaly). Suspensions – rolling over from last season – to Younès Belhanda and Marco Estrada in midfield had also been to blame at the start of the season. Today, after a heavy defeat 3-1 to Reims, the team seems much more fluent, especially considering a valiant draw they snatched away to Schalke 04 whilst being a man down. The only issue still remaining for Montpellier is new signing Emanuel Herrera, replacing the departed Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), who is struggling to adapt to Ligue 1 despite his promising pre-season form.
The surprise packages so far are surely Lyon and Lorient. Although the former’s performances have been on the wane, they remained unbeaten before last weekend’s 2-0 loss to Bordeaux and now sit third of Ligue 1. After many departures and a low-budget recruitment, Lyon have performed above expectations as their current league position might suggest. Indeed, despite the departures of Cris, Kim Källström, and Hugo Lloris, the maturing of youngsters such as Clément Grenier and clever signings like Steed Malbranque keep Lyon a coherent team with some aspirations to finishing in the top three. As for Lorient, the start of this season has been a great one in comparison to the difficult year they had when they flirted with relegation. The new arrival of Alain Traoré from relegated Auxerre has proven a massive boost to Christian Gourcuff’s men. The Burkina Faso international has provided three goals this past month (four goals and an assist in total, so far) and has fit in perfectly into Les Merlus’ system. Gourcuff has also brought back Ludovic Giuly (who had been let go by Monaco) and the former French international is bringing all his experiences to this young Lorient team, having helped them onto fourth spot and a single point behind Lyon.
Of course, for each season we have to have the teams who are already looking in danger. Newly promoted Troyes have to be first on that list, rooted to the ground with only a paltry two points on the board so far and thus winless in the first 7 games of this season. Nancy are in just as much trouble, winless since their opening day win against Brest. September has been particularly tough on Nancy in fact, as they have the unwanted record to have strung together five consecutive defeats. Evian Thonon Gaillard join the basement-boys but it is Sochaux (a point above the relegation zone) who I would like to bring attention to. After a very difficult season last year when they narrowly escaped relegation, Les Lionceaux don’t seem like they will be able to repeat the feat this time around. In effect, with two wins amongst 5 defeats this season so far, it could likely turn out to be a very difficult season for Sochaux who hold the record of being the longest lasting club in Ligue 1 without having been relegated (64 seasons).
We would also do well to discuss some of the players who have shone so far. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be the top scorer with seven strikes to his name, but it is Toulouse’s Wissam Ben Yedder who is catching some of the spotlight. With his unique background of having come on the football scene just a couple years ago from a futsal background, he already has five goals and an assist to his name. But Ligue 1 is under the charm of young 19-year-old Marco Verratti, who has – beyond all expectations – become an immovable piece of Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield at PSG. But this year’s Ligue 1 is mostly marked by the unlikely return of Marseille’s André-Pierre Gignac, who seems to have refound his best form after some injury-plagued seasons. The Marseille striker has three goals so far this year. Appropriate indeed that we would conclude with PSG and Marseille, as the month of September ended with the Paris club having clawed its way back up the table to set up a first against second clash in Le Classique against archrivals, Marseille.
The French Revolution
A new force in Europe emerged last summer in Paris. With the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, they gained momentum. Ogo Sylla investigates why all is still not well
“PSG version Ancelotti”, as the French media affectionately (even if a bit patronisingly now, given recent form) refers to it, has been an interesting new step in the project funded by a Qatari group.
It all started in the summer of 2011, at that time under the stewardship of Antoine Kombouaré, when the club splashed a Ligue 1 record-breaking €43mn on Javier Pastore. The Argentine starlet made a blistering start to his Paris Saint-Germain career with 5 goals and two assists in his first 10 games, which accounted for nine wins and a single draw. A considerable dip in form, however, – linked to his lack of pre-season preparation and adaptation to a new league – has directed a lot of the PSG fans’ ire towards the ex-Palermo playmaker.
Some other players brought along on this project, like Jeremy Menez and Diego Lugano, also failed to impress and were heavily criticised, especially the Uruguayan defender. Only the talented Salvatore Sirigu was irreproachable as his consistency and decisiveness in the goal endeared him to the Parc des Princes faithful. An embarrassing elimination in the group stages of the Europa League in the last home stretch before the winter transfer season, and a sentiment that Antoine Kombouaré could not survive at the helm of such an ambitious project (in terms of coaching in the Champions League and handling the dressing room), all led to the sacking of the PSG idol and so entered Carlo Ancelotti.
Ancelotti arrived at PSG with a biodata unrivalled by anyone except, probably, by PSG’s eternal rival – Marseille’s coach, Didier Deschamps. In his suitcase, the Italian brought Alex from Chelsea, Maxwell from Barcelona, and Thiago Motta from Internazionale. The nature of these purchases and structure of the PSG squad have many of the French press succumbing to old catenaccio stereotypes and thus labelling Ancelotti as a defensive coach. The fact is Ancelotti reinforced critically weak positions in the PSG squad, which were the left-back and the defensive midfield spots. Alex is an extra centre-back he possibly could have done without but this remains logical when we consider that Ancelotti deemed Milan Bisevac more apt to play as a (right-sided) fullback. The only weak position PSG and its Qatari millions were not able to reinforce was the striker position where the club only counts on Kevin Gameiro, Guillaume Hoarau, and Peguy Luyindula (who was brought back by Ancelotti after a judicial row with the club under the previous Kombouaré regime). Despite all this, Ancelotti went undefeated for the first 10 league games until his first loss as PSG coach in the Coupe de France against Lyon and then in the league against Nancy.
In recent weeks, PSG’s game has been deteriorating. Ancelotti seems to be struggling to get the best out of his team. The team, as a whole, is not playing well and is labouring through games. PSG have often managed to salvage draws from losing positions in the final five minutes of games, something the French press came to rather cleverly and humorously refer to as “Ancelot-time”. The issue is that Ancelot-time has masked many of the team’s failings; one in particular, which was an inordinate amount of goals conceded on set pieces.
Beyond that, Pastore was still below his best level – despite it being his statistically best season yet, sometimes looking leaden-footed in games, almost as though he was going through the motions. Even his technique failed him as the Argentine’s first-touch evaded him and he missed easy passes that he used to complete blindfolded.
Menez was also a constant target of the Parc des Princes faithful for his unique running style, always keeping the ball too long and looking to beat his man rather than make a pass. Nene, the talismanic Brazilian, too, experienced his customary seasonal dip in form, barely ever scoring a goal or making an assist. Gameiro is not proving to be the clinical striker he was at Lorient, despite his constant complaints that he does not receive enough of the ball from his teammates.
As for the club’s young captain, Mahmadou Sakho, he struggled hard since Ancelotti’s arrival. Some said the Italian’s presence on the sidelines inhibited his game and thus caused a string of rather dilettantish errors.
In fact, the offensive line is the real issue for Ancelotti. Those who know the Italian well can vouch that he often goes for a tridente (trident) to spearhead his attack. The lack of variety and depth in quality behind the likes of Menez, Nene, and Pastore, however, prevents him from truly influencing and changing things when the game is not going his way.
Ancelotti has attempted to change the formation, starting with his famous ‘Christmas Tree’ formation (4-3-2-1) which has been the most successful so far. However, he attempted switching to a 4-4-2 or even a 4-1-2-1-2 but the team looked lost and failed to adapt to the change. This lack of flexibility in his players frustrates the Italian.
The fact remains that PSG were at the top of the table when Ancelotti took over from Kombouaré. But have now slipped to second spot and on even points with the league’s surprise package, Montpellier. Four points behind them are defending champions Lille, headed by an inspired Eden Hazard. Ancelotti has managed 5 wins, five draws and a single defeat in his first 11 games at the helm. PSG are heading into le Classique as well, and after having been left licking their wounds following a 3-0 hammering at the Vélodrome, they will certainly be looking for revenge.
The question is how will PSG version Ancelotti fare against Marseille this time round? The situation is identical, with Deschamps’ men on a terrible run of form and coming into this always highly charged derby atmosphere with the bit between the teeth. PSG are fighting for the title and Marseille would love nothing more than to derail their archrivals from their objective.
With players not in their best form and usually suffering from an inferiority complex vis–à–vis Marseille and also considering that even Ancelot-time has turned against the Italian in last month’s shock defeat against a vibrant Nancy ending his invincibility streak, it may not be too tough a task for PSG’s fiercest rivals.
It is a new project, a new team. The team is not only different from the one Kombouaré coached last season but has also seen a marked improvement in six months since the signing in of new players. It will be very disappointing if PSG does not secure the title given the poor competition around them with Marseille nowhere near the podium, Lyon in transition, and Lille looking a bit inconsistent. However, it is equally important to allow this end of the season to be a test-driving period for Ancelotti and judge the next season, despite that the Italian has added some key players to the squad already this season.
Ancelotti is left with little margin for error in a project that seems even less indulgent of failure.
The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football
As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on
Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.
Return of the Prodigal Son
Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.
Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.
And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.
Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.
The Oil League
Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn. Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.
Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.
But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.
Underdog Story of the Year
Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.
Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.
The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.
Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.
Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshikowent on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.
Year of the Minnows
Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA. Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.
Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.
They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.
The Thing About 18
Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.
The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale. Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.
At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.
Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.
The Era Continues
While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.
1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.
Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986 under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.
Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.
Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.
Transfer Deal of the Year
Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.
Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.
Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunninghat trickagainstParma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.
But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.
Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)
Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.
Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.
Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.
That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.
Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.
Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.
Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.
The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.
I Can’t Believe This Happened
Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.
Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.
The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detailbut one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.
Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.
Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.
The most whacky celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympicrun. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrateit.
Best Football Performances
Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.
Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.
However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.
Best Performance by a Footballer
This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by withthisperformanceby Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, dothisand thisand thisand of coursethismakes him a complete entertainer.