Ancelotti - The Really Special One

After nine games of the 2010 -11 Barclays Premier League Chelsea stand top of the pile, five points ahead of the chasing pack.  That pack of three is made up of Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. 
Many had predicted that the Old Trafford outfit would be Chelsea’s main competition for this season’s title, however of late events on the field at Manchester United have taken second place to the circus that has been the Wayne Rooney saga. United have suffered on the field this season also, the home game against West Brom being their low point, only one win in five on the road illustrates how much they are struggling to maintain a challenge for the title thus far.
The new money over at Eastlands have flattered to deceive at times this season, the home victory over Chelsea on September 25th indicated that they may be ready to dine at the top table of the Premier League. However a reverse away to Sunderland at the end of August and this weekend’s home drubbing at the hands of Arsenal show they are not quite the finished article yet.
Arsenal, while irresistible so far in Europe appear to have the same old failings in the Premier League. The fact that West Brom plundered The Emirates for three points show they may not be ruthless enough to claim the crown of Premier League Champions.
Granted there is a long way to go in this season’s title race, although Chelsea’s form this season has impressed many, and it must be form that really worries their main challengers. Their performances at Stamford Bridge has been particularly impressive; played five, won five, goals for sixteen, goals against zero. A huge amount of credit for this form must go to their manager of fifteen months, Carlo Ancelotti. Since he arrived Ancelotti he has gone about his job in a quiet, no nonsense manner. In his first season he became only the second non-British manager (the other being Arsene Wenger) to capture the league and cup double. Consistency was something Chelsea were craving in the manager’s office. Since Jose Mourinho departed in September 2007 and Ancelotti arrived in July 2009 three managers occupied the hot seat (not including Ray Wilkins). For all their riches, newly acquired global brand and superstar squad Chelsea did not have a stable regime in the manager’s office.
When Mourinho arrived to much fan fare in June 2004 he unabashedly titled himself ‘The Special One’. No doubt Mourinho’s record as a manager to that point was impressive; two Portuguese league titles, one Portuguese Cup, one UEFA cup and the 2004 Champions League title. Compare that to Ancelotti’s lack of self anointment on his arrival in London, added to that the fact that Ancelloti’s record to that point was at least as good as if not better than Mourinho’s when he took the reins at Chelsea. The Italian had already lead AC Milan to one Italian Cup, one Seire A title, two Champions League and one FIFA World Club title. That unassuming manner has been the hallmark of Ancelotti’s reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s time at Chelsea was blighted by one omission, the Champions League. It seemed Chelsea could not attain the European crown under the Portuguese supremo and he could not attain it while at Chelsea.  Mourinho captured the Champions League post Chelsea in only two years at Inter Milan, Chelsea meanwhile still have an empty spot on that particular shelf on their trophy cabinet. The stability Ancelotti has provided since he arrived seem to have Chelsea in great shape to win Europe’s top prize this season, that prize their owner Roman Ambramovich reportedly covets so much.
Recent history in the English club game suggests that a top manager does not need to have been a top player, Ferguson, Wenger and the aforementioned Mourinho all provide good examples of this. Surely though when trying to motivate a dressing room it cannot hurt to have seen and done it all yourself.  In this regard Ancelotti has arguably the best record of the current crop of Premier League managers. Alex McLeish, Roberto Mancini, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes to mention a few have had fine careers as players and all collected various domestic honours as well as success on the European Stage (Cup Winners Cup), the recently departed Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill too sparkled as a player, and was part of Brian Cloughs all conquering Nottingham Forest side, collecting two European Cups.
Ancelotti for his part was part of one of the finest sides the European game has seen, a side that included names such as Maldini, Baresi, Tassotti, Costacurta, Donadoni and their trio of Dutch men; Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten. During his time at AC Milan from 1987 to 1992 he won two league titles and two European Cups. Their march to the 1989 title is probably most remembered for their 4-0 annihilation of Steaua Bucharest in the final. However this performance followed on from an equally impressive 5-0 semi final second leg destruction of Real Madrid at the San Siro. A game where Ancelotti himself opened the scoring for the Rossoneri with a glorious strike in the 19th minute.
Ancelotti in his fifteen years as a manager has always had a thoughtful and considered approach to the game. It may be a tired cliché to suggest he is a ‘student of the game’, but this tag surely fits easily on Ancelotti’s shoulders. In 1997, two years after taking charge at his first managerial post at Reggiana, Ancelotti was studying for a Masters course at Coverciano (the Italian Football Federation’s Training Centre outside of Florence).  While studying here Ancelotti penned a thesis ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’. It appears that thirteen years later his current charges are reflecting their bosses’ views on the game.
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Must Go to Moscow

Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea travel to the Russian capital on Tuesday to play Spartak Moscow in a meeting of the top two in Champions League Group F. Both sides have already notched six points out of six so far in their Champions League Campaign. Tuesday’s match in the Luzhniki Stadium and the return tie in London will surely decide the top two spots in this group. Marseille will have been very disappointed with their start to their European campaign this season while Slovakia’s MSK Zilina will probably have been happy with the achievement of getting to the group stage.
Tuesdays match will also be the first opportunity for Irish most fans to see Aiden McGeady play ninety minutes in the red and white of Spartak. McGeady should relish the chance to test himself against the current Premier League champions. As last summer drew on it looked certain that McGeady would leave Celtic, a club he had been at since he was fifteen years old.  McGeady leaving in 2010 was only a surprise in that many expected him to leave Glasgow a year or two earlier. McGeady’s relationship with Celtic’s erstwhile manager Gordon Strachan was reportedly a bumpy one and the Paisley native looked set to depart in the January of 2009. He however outlasted Strachan at Celtic Park and saw another manager come and go in Tony Mowbray.  Following Mowbray’s departure in March 2010 Celtic’s league performance improved under then caretaker manager Neil Lennon in what were turbulent times for the Scottish club. McGeady was however intent on finding pastures new.
Aston Villa was seen as a likely destination for McGeady in a move that would have seen him link up again with Martin O’Neill. Internal problems at Villa Park, which eventually culminated with O’Neill’s departure, saw McGeady’s move to the Birmingham club scuppered.
Spartak Moscow invited McGeady for talks in early August and the Republic of Ireland international signed a four and a half year deal with Russian top flight side on August 13th for a fee of around £9.5 million.
A move to Russian football was certainly unchartered waters for an Irish player, indeed travelling beyond the familiar surroundings of the English or Scottish Premier League is not something Irish Internationals seem inclined to do. Of the current Senior Squad only Cillian Sheridan of CSKA Sofia has ventured beyond the comfort zone of British league football to earn a living. In recent years there have been very few exceptions to this trend. Ian Harte joined Levante of Spain in 2004 and stayed for three years while in 2008 Steve Finnan linked up with Espanyol in what would be an injury plagued year at the Barcelona club. In 2000 Phil Babb and Alan Mahon joined Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon, Babb made 37 appearances while Mahon only managed one in Sporting’s green and white hoops. If one casts the net back a bit further to Jack Charlton era there were only sporadic examples with John Aldridge’s time at Real Sociedad, Kevin Moran’s two years at Sporting Gijon and Mick McCarthy’s stay with France’s Olympic Lyon. These examples have always been the exception to the rule with Irish players constantly relying on the leagues of England and Scotland for their Football employment, culture and education.
This reliance has undoubtedly shaped our approach to the game. The fact that the vast majority of prospective Irish professional footballers travel to England in their mid teens makes this an inevitability. This reliance means the health of our national football side is inexorably tied to the progression and international standing of the English game. With this in mind events at last summer’s World Cup should be a cause for concern. For those who may have looked down their noses at the Bundesliga in recent years events in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on 27th June last should be a cause for extreme concern.
In the absence of a fully professional national league it would be reasonable to argue that it would be healthier to have Irish internationals plying their trade across the continent in four or five of the top leagues rather than 95% plus of them playing in the English Leagues. There is surely plenty to learn from the coaches of the Spanish, French, German and Italian leagues for Irish players. For that matter the coaches of the Dutch, Portuguese and Russian leagues among others could add so much to the skills and knowledge of our professional players. The Republic of Ireland national side have no doubt benefited from the English game over the years; however such a reliance on one way of playing the game, one way of thinking about the game and one way of living the game cannot give our professional players a balanced football education.
Some predicted we may see a mini flight of Irish players to Seire A on the back of a stamp of approval from Giovanni Trapattoni, this migration never materialised. However with the January transfer window on the horizon, given their current club difficulties Robbie Keane and Shay Given could do worse than to consider asking Trapattoni for his little black book of contacts.
If anyone is concerned that McGeady’s game may not develop due to the standard of the Russian Premier League, only five of the current Russian international squad; Zhirkov (Chelsea), Arshavin (Arsenal), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Spurs), Bilyaletdinov (Everton) and Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart) play their club game outside of their native land. Anyone remember the goings on at the Aviva on Friday October 8th?
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Generosity Reaffirmed

It’s September 8th 2007 and I’m standing outside the Stadium Pasienky in the Slovakian capital Bratislava. It’s about an hour before the kick off of Slovakia Vs Republic of Ireland in a Group D qualifier for the 2008 European Championships. I notice an elderly Irish man meandering his way through the throng of Irish fans waiting on the streets outside the stadium. This individual is clearly the worse for wear and more than likely indulged in a liquid lunch, liquid breakfast and probably liquid snack to get over that half three slump. He walks up to the group I’m standing in and informs us that some of the less desirable residents of Bratislava have relieved him of his match tickets and some cash to boot. I have a spare ticket so I offer it to him, he makes a pathetic offer to rummage a few Slovakian Koruna out of his pocket. I hand him the ticket and tell him to hang onto whatever cash he still has.
Acts of generosity by Irish men weren’t restricted to the streets outside the stadium that night. The national football side grasped a draw from the jaws of victory in the second minute of injury time when Marek Cech drilled them ball home for the home side, sure we wouldn’t want to spoil the locals Saturday night, what kind of guests would we be then?
The first Slovakian goal that night was aided by more generous Irish defending. A corner kick was helped on by a header at the near post, Maros Klimpl took advantage of poor Irish organisation to head home from close range at the back post. Old habits seem to be dying hard. That game was also punctuated by a glorious strike by Kevin Doyle and Stephen Ireland cleverly finishing to make the breakthrough for the boys in green, the only catch with that goal was he was never a boy in green again.
Three years on and Ireland are as generous as ever in this corner of Europe. Robbie Keane was the most giving yesterday. Early in the first half the impressive Shane Long is in possession and takes the ball to the byline on the right side of the Slovakian penalty area, a brilliant low cross by Long across the six yard box just begs for a touch to finish it off. Keane unfortunately is a yard behind the pace in his head and doesn’t read the situation, he makes a vain attempt to slide in for the touch but alas in vain. Seconds from the half time whistle with the game locked at 1-1, Richard Dunne sends a wonderful ball through for Aiden McGeady. The energetic McGeady is now in a foot race with the Slovakian keeper Mucha, McGeady gets the ball, Mucha gets McGeady, penalty kick. Keane steps up, 12 yards out, a very poor effort follows and Mucha is the toast of Zilina. Ireland were clearly on top in the first half with Keith Fahey performing particularly well. It was Fahey’s superb delivery of a free kick in the 16th minute that caused panic in the Slovakian defence, the ball is not cleared properly and Sean St Ledger pounces to slot the ball home. One nil to the visitors, not so generous now, I hope we are not losing friends.
Twenty minutes later Kucka heads on a Slovakian corner at the near post. Glen Whelan is sound asleep at the back post at lets Durica breeze past him to head home from close range. We should really write things down.
Buoyed on by their great escape just before half time the hosts have much better of it in the second half. Darron Gibson is now in centre midfield for Ireland, Paul Green was withdrawn on 42 minutes with a hamstring injury. Green had another underwhelming performance prior to his injury, all too often Irish passing moves ended at the feet of Green. Gibson for all he was an improvement on Green, he didn’t prove to be the crafty locksmith of defences some quarters lauded him as.
Captain Keane wasn’t finished endearing himself to the locals. On 86 minutes Kilbane plays the ball across the area, an instinctive touch from Keane takes him away from his marker, seven yards out with only the keeper to beat, three vital points are there to be taken, Keane blazes it over. Ireland have to settle for a point. If only we were two one up at home against Andorra, Keane would have been un-backable to find the target.
The qualified criticism of Keane back in RTE-land was something to drain a little more power from the batteries in many remote controls. One wonders what would be said by the three wise men if one Christiano Ronaldo had turned in an identically inept performance as Keane in such an important fixture. I fear the ears of the man from Madeira would be an inferno for years to come. He’s a cod Bill, a cod.
The performance in Zilina yesterday was definitely a huge performance on Friday’s debacle in the Aviva Stadium. The first half in particular was very encouraging.  One could argue that if Keane had been absent through injury and not Doyle Ireland could well have plundered Zilina for three points. Centre midfield and defending set pieces continue to be a worry. Keith Fahey wouldn’t be the worst solution in the world for the former issue and you would hope that the latter will get sorted as the campaign continues.
Next up is the friendly against Norway on November 17th. This should be a real chance to blood a few fringe players and try out some more options in the pivotal and problematic area that is centre midfield, oh wait, sorry I forgot.
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Caught in our Trap

Friday 1st October 2010 and Ryan Tubridy is chatting to a charming old Italian man on The Late Late Show. Giovanni Trapattoni , along with his translator Manuela Spinnelli, have a light hearted conversation with Ryan, a few jokes are made and chuckles are the order of the night. What a nice man. On the business side of things Trapattoni has led our senior soccer side to a 100% start in the first two games in our 2012 European Championships qualifying campaign. One of our main rivals, Russia have already dropped three points at home to Slovakia. All of a sudden this group looks very winnable. The ‘Ole Ole Brigade’ are furiously printing new membership cards, the brigade certainly seem to be plentiful in number among the audience in Montrose as every half quip in broken English is met with excited laughter. The cover is taken off the bandwagon, the bonnet is up and the oil levels are being checked. Life is good.
Friday 8th October, 49 minutes into our vital qualifier with Russia. A strike from Shirokov deflects off Richard Dunne, Shay Given is wrong footed and the ball squeezes in at the post to Givens left. Republic of Ireland 0 - Russia 3, oh dear.  At this stage no one really could have begrudged Russia three goals, in fact it could have been four or five. Ireland’s central midfielders have well and truly been taken to school by their Russian counterparts. Glen Whelan and Paul Green who are both utilised by Trapattoni as defensive midfielders, however on Friday night they resembled and were equally effective as The Maginot line.  They continually took up a holding position just on the Irish side of the centre circle. The Russians simply passed the ball around or through them, once the ball was goal side of the Irish centre midfield they lacked the ability or mobility to turn and chase, turn and retrieve the ball. Our Maginot boys had been figured out by the Russians, this was too easy, this could be a long night.
Arshavin, Shirokov, Zyryanov et al flooded in between our midfield and defence, so many passes were on, so many options, too many for the Irish back four to deal with for ninety minutes. It was Kevin Kilbane who was sucked infield to cover one of these options on 27 minutes, the ball was whipped out wide as Kilbane’s absence opened an ocean of space. The ball was crossed in, a delightful step over was followed by a tidy finish by Dzagoev and the visitors are two up. Russia’s first goal on 11 minutes scored by Kerzhakov owed equally to inept defending by Ireland and some luck on the part of the Russians. Shay Given who now relies on the national side for competitive action made a poor effort at organising his defence to deal with the in-swinging free kick from the Russian left flank. The Donegal native compounded matters by not dealing with the ball when it came his way. Shay Given’s lack of first team action at Eastlands was not the reason Ireland shipped three goals and dropped three points at home. When Irelands defensive midfielders cannot defend and protect their back four they are largely ineffective. Playing against Russia was always going to be a challenge, when Ireland had to do it with 8 effective outfield players it was going to be near impossible. This was a long way from the summer friendly against Algeria in the R.D.S. for Paul Green. It all looked so promising back then as he gave a somewhat impressive display and even chipped in with a goal. Summer friendlies are one thing, Autumn qualifiers are the real deal. His poor touch in Yeravan may have been excused as nerves, he would settle into this role given time. His poor touch on more than one occasion in the Aviva may highlight a tougher truth, he might be out of his depth at this level. Our here to fore ‘solidity’ in midfield was now a straightjacket that was restricting our response to the Russian approach, Ireland were caught out by their own approach to the fixture.
If Ireland been torn apart by the Russian midfield was tough to watch then the response was torture most cruel. The artillery barrage launched from within the Irish half made Jack Charlton’s approach to the game look like an intricate game of chess. The fact that this approach produced two goals highlights the visitors deficiencies in defence, and for all they are going forward they are far from classy defending their own goal area. This allied with Akinfeevs part in Shane Long’s goal should give Ireland some hope for the return fixture in Moscow. The Russian goalkeepers poor flap at Aiden McGeady’s shot gave Long something to fight for, something we scarcely deserved, a second goal. Ireland could do worse than employ a shoot on sight policy when we next encounter the CSKA Moscow custodian.
All is most certainly not lost. With regard to the potential of this side we will always have Paris, reproduce that display and we should have enough to top this group.  Experience will tell us that these qualifying campaigns are a marathon and not a sprint. Giovanni Trapattoni’s long experience in the game should stand Ireland in good stead at this time, he has been in tighter spots in his career – tighter spots and had achieved a positive outcome. Roll on Zilina on Tuesday, Operation Restore Hope.
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