England Champions League flops need revamp (part I)
Posted Saturday, April 6 2013 at 01:00
It has been a case of too much cream and little cake in Europe this season with three of the top five leagues serving up boring title processions, the excitement in Spain, England and Germany not brewing at the top but further down the logs with the fights for Champions League places and relegation scraps.
Of the other two, only the French Ligue One is showing pretensions of going down to the proverbial wire, and that only because PSG have conspired to conjure up the semblance of a race by stumbling over what should really be ceremonial hurdles for an outfit so ably equipped.
Admirable though they might be, Napoli’s over ambitious attempt to bring to life the dream days of Diego Maradona are certain to come short as Juventus, looking to forget a more recent nightmare, are clearly intent on writing their own script.
Nothing beats the thrill of a protracted title battle though, the kind that saw Manchester City clinch their first in ages with the last kick of the season, Real Madrid wrestle La Liga from the vice-like grip of Barcelona at none other than the Camp Nou or modest Montpellier beat the ridiculously moneyed PSG to the tape last season.
Robbed of those kinds of climaxes this term, it comes as no surprise that some of Europe’s top clubs are already looking beyond the final whistle to the transfer window, plotting early to make amends or consolidate.
Flipping through English papers lately one would be excused for thinking it is already late July, the pages thick with speculation the likes of which is usually reserved for those last few weeks to deadline day. That predicament has been compounded by the conspicuous absence of England’s high and mighty from the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time in ages. Never mind the hot tips and greasily gossip spewing out of London and Manchester though, what does this self-anointed scout prescribe from his high stool in Kampala? This way please, first stop Manchester.
It should go down as one of football’s great mysteries that Sir Alex Ferguson has not beefed up the one area that, for weakness, has stood out like a sore thumb.
Having been embarrassingly schooled by Barcelona in not one but two recent Champions League finals, and then insulted by lesser European opposition like Benfica, Basel and Athletic Bilbao, it seemed an inevitability that Ferguson would go shopping for quality central midfielders to help United keep possession better, control games and create through the middle too, rather than (increasingly predictably) down the flanks.
In came Phil Jones and Ashley Young instead, and then a year later Shinji Kagawa and Robin Van Persie. The mercurial Dutchman might have brought back the Premier League title, but I am afraid not even he was priority following the European fallout, the others even less so. Kagawa is the closest Fergie has come in that time, but while he has got the required skills set to adjust into a central midfield role, he prefers to play further forward off the striker and has been deployed there or out wide by a manager who should have dictated otherwise.
Begs the question as to whether Fergie is really interested in shopping for this most key of departments, considering two things; one that in that time players he should have courted have arrived in England, David Silva heading to Man City, Santi Carzola to Arsenal, Mata and Oscar to Chelsea; two that he seems to have tied up two deals early, for another wide forward in Wilfred Zaha and a defender in Ezequiel Garay.
While it is apparent that the pursuit of Luka Modric, Eden Hazard and Wesley Sneijder hit all manner of snag, that can’t be said for the potential acquisition of say, Mesut Ozil two years ago or Moussa Dembele last summer.
No reminders should be needed about making the centre a priority so as to cope with the demands of the modern game, but those reminders have come on two fronts all the same; Cup defeats to Real Madrid and Chelsea, and close shaves in the league against Tottenham, Liverpool, Southampton and the likes which could all have been avoided if United protected the ball better and had more control of proceedings rather than retreated into deep, defensive mode; the other is the outstanding season Michael Carrick has had and his growing importance to and influence on the team.
In better company and in the right formation with the right tactics, Carrick could have made that wild dream of a treble borne at Christmas and extinguished by Easter Monday more real.
Fancy lists have popped up yet again depending on where you look, bearing such names as Modric (again), Malaga maestro Isco, Barca’s Thiago Alcantara, PSG’s Marco Veratti and Porto’s James Rodriguez. Any two of those joining Carrick in a central triangle would change United’s outlook entirely.
If Fergie is to turn a deaf ear and blind eye again, preferring a different kind of player and approach, then the ideal man would be Marounne Fellaini whose all round skills would improve United in the middle, but it is said Chelsea have got their eye on the big-haired Belgian and yet the Blues (and PSG, and others with sugar daddies) have bullied United in the market lately.
With that state of affairs, the must-buy becomes Kevin Strootman, a player after Fergie’s own heart by the looks of it. Already captain for club and country, he is a natural leader and strong character built for the big time. A latter day Phillip Cocu or Mark Van Bommel, Strootman is arguably more technically polished than both (attribute that to the left foot), wins the ball as much, kicks opponents less, passes as well and scores more.
It has been more embarrassing for Man City to twice fall at the first hurdle in the Champions League than it has been surrendering their league title this meekly, whatever happens at Old Trafford on Monday night.