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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Pato fires AC Milan to victory over Napoli

Alexandre Pato scored one goal and set up another as AC Milan dismissed Napoli 3-0 to open up a 5 point lead at the top of Serie A. In what was hailed as the match that could decide the Scudetto, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Pato scored second half goals to seal an AC Milan victory in a match where second placed Napoli failed to direct a single shot on target. Ibrahimovic converted from the penalty spot in the 49th minute after defender Salvatore Aronica handled the ball in the penalty area. In the 77th minute, Pato displayed great composure after steaming down the left flank and patiently waiting for Boateng to find space in the box before threading a delicate pass to the Ghanaian midfielder who slotted the ball home. Two minutes later, Pato displayed his cool yet again by chasing a through ball that left him in front of two Napoli defenders, before carving out that extra yard of space to curl a rocket of a shot into the far right corner of the net. In this game, Pato recalled the great Alessandro Rivaldo and his ability to wait for defenders to commit themselves into making a move before finding either the open man or the back of the net. Milan are now 5 points clear of Leonardo's Inter, who kept up the pressure at the top of the table with goals from Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto that earned them a 2-0 victory over Sampdoria over the weekend. The Rossoneri now face Italy's most successful club, Juventus, on March 5, while Inter have an easier match-up with Genoa on March 6.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Brazil's Midfield Under Mano Menezes

Brazilian football currently stands at its lowest moment since Paulo Falcao assumed the responsibility of coach of the Brazilian team after the 1990 World Cup, roughly 20 years ago. Ronaldo has retired, Ronaldinho's career appears to be at a sunset after his move from AC Milan to Flamengo, Kaka has yet to find his form, and the Brazilian midfield continues to lack a quality player of the caliber of Socrates, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Leonardo or Kaka. Mano Menezes introduced new blood into the Selecao after their disgraceful performance at the 2010 World Cup, but the team has yet to gel and display any signs of coherence in five performances.

Mano's midfield selections in the friendlies since he has taken over the responsibility of coach are as follows:

Brazil v. France: Lucas, Elias, Hernanes and Renato Augusto
Brazil v. Argentina: Lucas, Elias, Ronaldinho and Ramires
Brazil v. Ukraine: Lucas, Elias, Ramires, Carlos Eduardo
Brazil v. Iran: Lucas, Ramires, Carlos Eduardo
Brazil v USA: Lucas, Ramires, Ganso

Experimentation is good a thing, and if there's ever a moment to give promising young players experience in the yellow jersey, the time is now. As Mano noted in an interview following the loss to Argentina, Brazil needs to start thinking about a midfield without Kaka and Ronaldinho. That said, Brazilian fans should start demanding one of two things: (1) clearer delineations of midfield responsibility such as the way Dunga had Gilberto Silva take charge of the hard tackling, while Kaka and Elano orchestrated the more creative attacks; or (2) a more explicit commitment to the total football of the 1970s where the midfielders, and players at large, assumed multiple roles and switched positions with one another as the game dictated.

Up front, Brazil has considerable problems as well. While Pato and Robinho are blossoming into quality strikers, they have yet to find their form on the world stage and lack the understanding between one another that should develop from their time together at AC Milan. Meanwhile, Brazil's left back position needs further review as Andre Santos has done well, except in the latter two games against Argentina and France. Against Argentina, in particular, Santos was responsible for freeing Ezequiel Lavezzi to set up Lionel Messi's last minute goal.

The one bright note in Brazilian football concerns the U-20 side's breathtaking South American U-20 championship performance where they emerged as champions. Ney Franco's team demolished Uruguay 6-0 in the final match to take first place and guarantee an Olympic berth and spot in the World U-20 Cup finals. Neymar scored a record 9 goals for the tournament, Sao Paulo starlet Lucas scored 4 goals and Casemiro, also of Sao Paulo, scored 3 goals while serving as both a rock and architect of attacking plays in his midfield position.

While we applaud Mano's commitment to rebuilding a new squad without looking back on the old, we feel the time has come for a more focused midfield formation that, like any good midfield, can create chances for goals and score goals. Brazil has started to rely in excess on the overlapping fullbacks to create goal scoring opportunities and allowed the midfield to stagnate. The midfield must gel first and then allow the fullbacks to express themselves. Maybe the answer will come from Brazilian based players in the form of Paulo Henrique Ganso or Sao Paulo's Lucas and Casemiro.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Player Profile: Roberto Carlos

"I always practise (free kicks), every day. I prefer to kick with the outside of my foot. There's no secret, it's much more (a question of) concentration."

--Roberto Carlos on the art of free kick taking

When Roberto Carlos burst onto the European football scene at Inter Milan from Palmeiras, coach Roy Hodgson played him as a left winger, otherwise known as an attacking left midfielder with the license to move forward and score goals like a striker. Carlos was assigned the left winger position because of his extreme pace and ability to backtrack as necessary. He disliked the winger position because he wanted to see more of the pitch ahead of him, and accordingly, Inter played him as a left midfielder. Even after Inter tagged Carlos as a left midfielder, the conversation between the player and coach continued about his optimal positioning on the pitch. Roberto Carlos resisted the left midfield position as well so Inter ultimately played him as a left fullback. The Brazilian wanted to race up and down the left flank and enjoy the freedom to shift from defense into attack as the game dictated. Carlos not only settled into the left fullback, but he went on to redefine it completely over the next ten years by becoming the best left fullback in the history of football. Also known for his powerful free kicks, swerving corner kicks and long range strikes on goal, Roberto Carlos enriched a decades long Brazilian tradition of samba flair from the dead ball that dates back to Rivelino, Eder, Zico, Branco, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

While Roberto Carlos is perhaps best known for his thunderous free kicks, he set new standards for athletic excellence in football more generally. With legs like tree trunks that he acquired from a childhood spent assisting his family haul farming and textile equipment in Cordeirpolis, Carlos is famous for his phenomenal speed and physical strength. From 1996 to 2007, Roberto Carlos played a whopping 584 games for Real Madrid, scoring 71 goals and even more assists. 370 out of the 584 games were Spanish league games in which he scored 47 goals from his left back position. As one of eight players to play in more than 100 champions league matches, Roberto Carlos joins a elite group of Champions League veterans featuring Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Paulo Maldini, Gary Neville, Raul Gonzalez and Ryan Giggs. A tireless worker with explosive pace, Carlos was feared by defenders and strikers alike given his capacity to sprint at speeds where he could cover 100 meters in less than 11 seconds. At the international level, Carlos was surprisingly left out of the 1994 World Cup squad in favor of Leonardo, but he dominated the left back position in 1998 and 2002, combining powerfully with Rivaldo on the left flank and complementing the brilliance of Cafu, the team's right fullback. Carlos earned 125 international caps for Brazil in a distinguished international career featuring a World Cup Winners Medal in 2002 and two Copa America titles for Brazil in 1997 and 1999.

After 11 years at Real Madrid, Roberto Carlos enjoyed a brief stint at Fenerbahce before returning to Corinthians in Brazil where he was voted the best left back in Brazil's Serie A. Carlos enjoyed success at Corinthians alongside his teammate Ronaldo, narrowly missing out on the 2010 Brazil Serie A title to Muricy Ramalho's Fluminense in the final games. Carlos also scored an amazing "Olympic Goal" from a corner kick while at Corinthians, the first ever in his career. He recently decided to leave Corinthians after a two year spell in the wake of fan harassment in February 2011 following the club's elimination from the Copa Libertadores. The 37 year old left back from Sao Paulo has decided to follow the money trail by accepting a lucrative offer at the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, the club owned by the Russian senator and metals and oils magnate Suleiman Kerimov.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Brazilian Soccer Legend Ronaldo Announces Retirement from Corinthians and Professional Football

For an article that recalls Ronaldo's explosive pace and finishing skill, see:

Flashback: The Magic of Ronaldo

Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo announced his retirement from professional football today citing difficulties maintaining his body and hypothyroidism, a medical condition which made it difficult for him to maintain an optimal weight. In a tearful press conference where he was flanked by his sons Alex and Ronald, Ronaldo remarked:

"It’s very hard to leave something that made me so happy. Mentally, I wanted to continue, but I have to acknowledge that I lost (the fight) to my body. With this announcement, it feels like it’s my first death. The pain made me anticipate the end of my career. My career was beautiful, was wonderful. I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories."

Ronaldo ended his career at Corinthians at a moment when he and Roberto Carlos bore the brunt of anger from fans after the club's February 2 elimination from the Copa Libertadores. Ronaldo's extraordinary career was plagued by knee injuries related to his explosive power and pace.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Roberto Carlos leaves Corinthians for Russian club Anzhi

Corinthians has confirmed the departure of left back Roberto Carlos by "mutual consent" after the player expressed a desire to leave the club following harassment by fans after the elimination of Corinthians from the Copa Libertadores. Carlos and his family received a number of threats from irate fans after Corinthians's February 2 elimination. The Brazilian club just reported that Roberto Carlos will sign with the Russian club Anzhi for a reported $9 million a year, for a two year contract with the option of an extension for another year. The 37 year old is widely regarded as the best left back football has witnessed in the last 30 years. The Brazilian national team has begun to find replacements for the brilliance of their former right back Cafu in the form of Maicon and Dani Alves, but thus far have been unable to locate a player of Carlos's extraordinary pace, strength and vision on the left flank. Ronaldo of Brazil also remarked on the possibility of leaving Corinthians after suffering similar harassment by fans because of their poor Copa Libertadores performance. Ronaldo revealed considering early retirement immediately but appears set to continue at Corinthians for the time being.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

France defeat Brazil 1-0 in friendly as Benzema shines and Mano's midfield struggles

France defeated Brazil 1-0 in a match that showcased Brazil's lack of quality strikers and creativity in midfield. Coach Mano Menezes opted for a midfield composed of Hernanes, Lucas, Elias and Renato Augusto in a classic 4-4-2 formation with Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Andre Santos in defense, and Robinho and Pato up front. Mano gave the number 10 jersey to Renato Augusto of Bayer Leverkusen. After soaking up some early pressure from the 5 time World Champions, France began to settle down in the early stages by finding ways to release Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema. In the 9th minute, Bacary Sagna combined with playmaker Yoann Gorcuff to give Benzema a chance on goal but the France number 10 shot just wide. Pato, Robinho and Alves threatened for the Selecao in the first half but narrowly missed the target or failed to capitalize on minor rebounds from French keeper Hugo Lloris. The match changed dramatically in the 40th minute when Brazil number 11 Hernanes attempted a kung fu style play on a ball bouncing near Benzema's chest and made contact with the French striker. The referee promptly issued Hernanes a red card and all of a sudden, Brazil were put back on the defensive. In the 55th minute, Jeremy Menez ran down the right flank and crossed over the face of goal to Benzema who promptly tapped the ball in to give France a 1-0 lead. Menez's assist and Benzema's goal eerily recalled the 1986 assist from Rocheateau to Michel Platini to give France the equalizer that enabled them to progress to the penalty kick shoot out that ousted Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Mexico. Brazil threatened episodically for the rest of the match, but were unable to put together any impressive combination play in midfield leading to high percentage strikes on goal. Moments after Benzema's goal, Julio Cesar saved Brazil from incurring a 2-0 deficit with a spectacular save from a Benzema header. Just after the hour, the Inter Milan keeper came to Brazil's rescue again to stop another threatening shot from Benzema.

After the match, coach Mano Menezes remained defiant about his selection of a young squad and the inexperienced midfield combination: "The red card had a major influence. In the second half things changed with us being a player down. It would be easy to hark back to Kaka or Ronaldinho, but that's not what we are about. We are looking to the future, to 2014 when Brazil will host the FIFA World Cup."

But for all of Mano's investment in renovation, his youthful squad has now suffered consecutive losses to Argentina and France, casting strong doubts about Brazil's continued place amongst the top 5 footballing nations in the world. Meanwhile, the French curse continues as the Selecao continue to struggle against a French national team that knows how to pin back the Brazilian full backs and create a maginot line in midfield. Whether under Aime Jacquet in France's 3-0 victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final or Laurent Blanc in the February 9, 2011 friendly, Les Bleus conceded the occasional defensive lapse, but for the most part took the attack directly to the Brazilians in a case of the student (France) teaching the master (Brazil) a lesson about attacking football.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Laurent Blanc names France squad for Brazil friendly

French coach Laurent Blanc named his squad for the February 9 friendly against Brazil, notably leaving out Manchester United defender Patrice Evra because of his support of the boycott of a training session during the 2010 World Cup to protest disciplinary action against Nicolas Anelka, who had been sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech.

Evra's place at left back is likely to be taken by Barcelona's Eric Abidal. Phillippe Mexes and Adil Rami are likely to form the central defensive pairing. Yoann Gourcuff is expected to take the role of playmaker in midfield despite a recent run of poor form at his club Lyon.

France squad:

Goalkeepers: Cedric Carrasso (Bordeaux), Hugo Lloris (Lyon), Steve Mandanda (Marseille).

Defenders: Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Gael Clichy (Arsenal), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Philippe Mexes (AS Roma), Adil Rami (Lille), Anthony Reveillere (Lyon), Bacary Sagna (Arsenal), Mamadou Sakho (Paris Saint-Germain).

Midfielders: Yohan Cabaye (Lille), Abou Diaby (Arsenal), Alou Diarra (Bordeaux), Yoann Gourcuff (Lyon), Yann M'Vila (Rennes), Blaise Matuidi (Saint-Etienne), Florent Malouda (Chelsea).

Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kevin Gameiro (Lorient), Guillaume Hoarau (Paris Saint-Germain), Jeremy Menez (AS Roma), Loic Remy (Marseille).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Brazil v. France: A Brief World Cup History

France and Brazil have played four times in the World Cup, namely, in 1958, 1986, 1998 and 2006. In 1958, Brazil encountered France in the quarterfinals in Sweden en route to the championship. Brazil crushed Just Fontaine's team 5-2 thanks to goals by Didi, Vava and a hat-trick by the 17 year old Pele. But since the 1958 victory in Sweden, Brazil has lost to France at the World Cup on three successive occasions. In 1986, Brazil drew France in the quarterfinals once again, this time in Guadalajara, Mexico. France boasted a star studded squad featuring Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Manuel Amoros. Brazil, meanwhile, featured a host of world renowned players such as 1982 World Cup stars Socrates, Zico and Junior, in addition to a crop of new faces in the form of Branco, Alemao, Muller and Careca. In the first half, Brazil flourished in the sweltering 45 degree Mexico heat. Right back Josimar found Muller, who played a give and go with Junior who in turn passed to Careca across the face of goal. The unmarked Careca emphatically buried the ball in the roof of the net to give Brazil a 1-0 lead. Later in the half, Muller hit the post as the South Americans continued their onslaught on the French goal from the left, right and center. Socrates orchestrated a bevy of Brazilian attacks and received back-up in midfield from Elzo and Alemao as he ventured forward. But in the 41st minute, against the run of play, France received the lucky break that enabled them to draw level. Michel Platini tapped in a cross from the right flank by Rocheateau, whose ball across the face of goal was fumbled by Carlos, the Brazilian goalkeeper. Nearly invisible for 40 minutes, Platini emerged out of the blue to give France the equalizer just minutes before half time.

The second half continued in the same attacking vein from both teams. Tele Santana substituted Zico for Muller in the 72nd minute, and within minutes, the Brazilian number 10, also known as the white Pele, had set Branco free on goal. French goalkeeper Bats brought down Branco giving Brazil a penalty. Barely warmed up, Zico stepped up to the penalty spot and missed, giving France another leash of life on a game that was rapidly turning into one of the most entertaining, attacking displays of football in recent memory. The match went to extra time and penalty kicks.

Socrates missed the first penalty for Brazil. Yannick Stopyra scored for France. Alemao scored, as did Amoros for France. The score was now 2-1 France. Zico and Bruno Bellone scored for Brazil and France respectively. It was now 3-2 France. Branco made it 3-3. And then, Michel Platini spooned his kick over the cross-bar. Julio Cesar went for a spectacular kick that was saved by French goalkeeper Bats. And finally, France's Luis Fernandez gave France a thrilling 4-3 victory.

The next time Brazil and France met was in the World Cup final at the Stade de France in 1998 in a dream match-up between the defending champions and the host nation. France had failed to impress in the matches leading up to the final and their strikers had, for the most part, failed to find the back of the net. Brazil, on the other hand, progressively improved as the tournament unfolded and had just come off a thrilling victory over the Netherlands on penalty kicks. Ronaldo finally seemed to find the spaces for which he had been nicknamed "The Phenomenon" in Europe. Meanwhile, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu collectively started to emerge as a formidable strikeforce to supplement the experience and positional awareness of striker Bebeto. But there was something different about the Brazil team that stepped onto the Stade de France in the final on July 12, 1998. Ronaldo appeared sedated and off his game. Correspondingly, the entire Brazilian team lacked the rhythm and concentration displayed in their preceding matches. The game prominently featured a match-up between the two number 10 shirts in the form of Rivaldo for Brazil and Zinedine Zidane for France. Like the rest of the Selecao, Rivaldo struggled to impose himself and conversely, Zidane roamed all over the pitch as he dictated play for the French in midfield and attack, dribbling through the Brazilian midfield, organizing triangular passing formations and ensuring that the full backs Lizarazu and Thuram had the freedom to contain the marauding Brazilian fullbacks Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Zidane scored on headers from two corner kicks in the 27th minute and the 46th minute respectively, effectively sinking Brazil before the end of the first half. In the second half, Mario Zagallo brought on Denilson Oliveira and Edmundo "The Animal" but all to no avail as Brazil's possession advantage failed to translate into goals. Emmanuel Petit put the icing on the cake for the French in a counter-attacking play that sealed the score at 3-0 in what amounted to a devastating loss for Brazil. Rumors gradually spread that Ronaldo had been seen at a French hospital minutes before the match for an ankle injury, or that he had suffered a seizure or set of convulsions. To this day, no one knows the truth of what happened to Ronaldo and the Brazilian team, other than that they looked like the ghost of the team that had defeated Morocco, Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands en route to the final.

In 2006, France defeated Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals thanks to another inspiring performance by Zidane and disciplined French marking of the Brazilian fullbacks. Brazil's "fab four" of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano failed to trouble the French defense. Zidane, on the other hand, took control of the game for France and dominated midfield play even more so than in 1998. In the 57th minute, Zidane swept a curling free kick to Thierry Henry who volleyed the ball into the top of the net to give France the one goal they needed to launch into the semi-finals.