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Kevin Strootman can benefit from Mark van Bommel’s retirement

The news that Mark van Bommel has retired from kicking people at international level so that he can prolong the habit at club level will be welcomed by one man more than most.

PSV Eindhoven’s Kevin Strootman, a reported target for Manchester United, will see van Bommel’s retirement as his opportunity to become a regular for the Oranje. Following on from a Euro 2012 campaign that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster, Holland need new faces, a new generation. Strootman, at 22, can hold down a place as the lynchpin in the centre of the Dutch midfield for the next decade.

Holland’s penetration, or lack thereof, in Poland and Ukraine was put down to slowness in getting the ball forward, according to the iconic Johan Cruyff. He claimed that having both van Bommel and Nigel de Jong starting in holding roles in front of the defence was a hindrance to Holland’s style of play as they were seeing “too much of the ball” and made their attacking transitions too slow to be able to counter effectively. One holding midfielder was considered to be more than enough; the De Jong-Van Bommel axis was tired and tested rather than tried and tested.

However, even when taking out van Bommel for the final group game against Portugal and replacing him with Rafael van der Vaart, Bert van Marwijk’s side were painfully slow in possession and horribly exposed in midfield. De Jong was left alone to support either the inexperienced, 18 year-old Jetro Willems against Nani on the left or Ajax’s Gregory van der Wiel against Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite side.

Van der Vaart’s inclusion left Holland open without the ball and Portugal took full advantage; their attacking transitions were fluidly swift and led to numerous chances for A Selecção as Holland struggled to contain the onslaught. Cristiano Ronaldo hit the post, Nani forced Maarten Stekelenburg into a fantastic save though he really should have scored, and Ronaldo’s second goal – the winning goal – came from a quick counter-attack.

There were cries before the tournament for Strootman to be given time on the pitch but this was ignored by van Marwijk and he was given a grand total of zero. After a disastrous tournament, though, the contract extension that the manager signed to take him past the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and 2016 European Championships in France could well be torn up.

If, indeed, this turns out to be the case, the new man has to integrate Strootman into the team as quickly as possible. He has the vision, passing range and energy to bring some equilibrium to the national team as a compromise of both a holder and a creator, something that he excelled at in the early stages of his career when playing behind the striker as a trequartista before moving back to become a deep-lying playmaker.

In a side that seems so imbalanced – the front four are often reluctant to track back – Strootman seems like the perfect replacement for van Bommel to allow Holland to progress as a team. They haven’t progressed since Euro 2008, in which they fielded Orlando Engelaar alongside de Jong in the holding role before bringing van Bommel back for the World Cup in 2010 to play with de Jong.

The system has become stale; it is the same outcome, just with different personnel. It is time for change and the change needs to happen now with Strootman at the forefront of it all. Whilst his involvement will not change everything, it would be a start and that, for Holland, would be better than nothing.


Eden Hazard: Please, make your move

It doesn’t threaten to be one of the long-running transfer sagas of the summer, but it does.

The conundrum of Eden Hazard’s next move shouldn’t be that complicated. All of the hints have been dropped to suggest that he will be turning out for the Premier League champions of last season and this, Manchester’s United and City. Hazard said at an awards gala that he would be “going to Manchester” but has since become open to the idea of joining Chelsea.

All of this came after months of suggestions that the Belgian could turn out for Barcelona, Inter Milan, Manchester United, Arsenal and even Tottenham. Zinedine Zidane recommended the 21 year-old to his former club, Real Madrid, stating that he would take him to the club “with his eyes closed”.

If Zidane had kept his eyes open, he would have seen the Lille star advertise himself to every European giant possible in January, shortly before the end of the transfer window through a YouTube video. Uploaded by Belgium’s branch of Nike, the winger was shown to be looking at the names of teams on cards (which face away from the camera for obvious reason) and giving his opinion on each. The video concludes with Hazard saying “For the moment I play at Lille” and asking what he should do next.

What he should have done is show much more respect to his current employers rather than showing a bit of leg to potential future employers. Then again, how foolish to expect a modern-day footballer to show such class and integrity. Evidently, the most important thing to Eden Hazard is Eden Hazard.

That said, he did stick with Lille despite interest in him starting after he starred in the U17 European Championship of 2007. Whilst other squad members like Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Moussa Sow left, Hazard stayed and signed a new contract which has ensured that Lille will get a premium price for their superstar. For that, he deserves some credit.

The longer this goes on, though, the more boring it gets. Hazard remains linked to both Manchester clubs and he would, undoubtedly, improve both. The real impact, though, would come if he were to show up at Old Trafford. Manchester United are in need of quality in the midfield; not particularly in the wide areas, per se, but Ashley Young has failed to live up to the promise that he showed in the early months of his career after moving from Aston Villa last summer.

If Hazard were to be played through the middle, it could help to reinvigorate Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and give them a new dimension; the nineteen goals he has scored this season far surpass the eight of Manchester United’s top-scoring midfielder, Nani and he has more assists than Antonio Valencia, United’s chief creator (16-13). Indeed, when Ferguson sent a scout to the north of France to watch Hazard play against Paris Saint-Germain, he came back having saw him convert a penalty before providing the assist for the winning goal with a delicious rabona cross.

Across the city at the Etihad, he would merely expand the pool of talent and give an extra option to Roberto Mancini. David Silva was clearly running on empty at times in the middle of the season yet City still relied on him to produce. Other members of the squad struggled to share the burden – Samir Nasri has done an adequate job, but hasn’t been outstanding and Adam Johnson has found his role to be bit-part as Mancini does not trust him within the system he uses. There may well be room for Hazard in the City midfield as it is expected that Johnson, like Hazard, will be moving on to pastures new over the course of the summer.

Hazard is an excellent player and the Premier League could only benefit from playing host to someone of such talent; that cannot be argued. All of the talk surrounding him, on the other hand, has become extremely mundane. So, we beseech you, Eden: shut your mouth and make your move.

What next for Giuseppe Rossi?

With three minutes of normal time to go they were safe. Villarreal, after appearing in the same Champions League group as Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli earlier in the season, would be spared the embarrassment of relegation with Rayo Vallecano going down instead. Then it all changed.

The prolific Radamel Falcao headed his 36th goal of the season past Diego López with 88 minutes on the clock. No matter. Although Zaragoza were 2-0 up away to Getafe, Granada were holding Rayo to a goalless draw in Vallecano; it would be Rayo who went down. Until injury time, that is.

With Rayo needing a goal to stay up, they won a corner. The goalkeeper, David Cobeño, came up, hoping to make himself a hero. The corner came in; cleared. Cobeño began to sprint back towards his own goal; Rayo were more vulnerable now as they had been all game. The ball broke kindly for them and a shot came in – deflected off the legs of a defender, it fell for Michu, who stretched out a leg and got the ball past the goalkeeper. It hit the bar but bounced down on the line where Raúl Tamudo headed in. The stands exploded. Rayo had done it and Tamudo’s goal meant that Villarreal were down.

The news filtered through to El Madrigal but the President, Fernando Roig, had already left the directors’ box after Falcao’s goal. When he left his seat, his side were safe, when he got to his office, they were down.

It is extraordinary that this is the same club that was a Juan Riquelme penalty away from the Champions League final in 2006. In the past season they have had three coaches – the same number as in the seven preceding years. Chaos has taken over from continuity.

Last summer they had a choice: their two best players, Santi Cazorla and Giuseppe Rossi, would be subject of speculation and it was anticipated that bids from bigger, more ambitious clubs would come in. Villarreal, realistically, could get away with selling one and keeping the other – which is what they did. Cazorla moved to Málaga for €21m, Rossi stayed despite reported £40m interest from Barcelona and Tottenham. However, disaster would soon strike.

In a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in October, Rossi suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament which would leave him out of action for six months. Upon his return in April he was unfortunate enough to suffer a relapse and picked up the same injury in training, leaving him sidelined for another ten months. By the time he is scheduled to return he will have missed over a year’s worth of competitive football as well as Euro 2012, where it was expected that Rossi would lead the Italy frontline.

Had he not been injured, perhaps things may have been a lot different for El Submarino Amarillo. Villarreal decided to take the gamble and have now lost with the harshest consequences.

The question now is what do Villarreal do with Rossi or what does he do? With relegation comes a plummet in value. At the end of last season, in which he scored 32 goals in all competitions – averaging a goal every other game in the league – they could have asked for over €20m for arguably the best player outside the monopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Now, though, the circumstances have changed and, accordingly, Rossi’s market value has too.

Signed from Manchester United for €10m after 70 goals in 72 reserve games, limited first-team opportunities and loan spells with Newcastle and Parma, Rossi began to stake his claim for a place in the Italian national side. Although he was born in New Jersey, the 25 year-old moved to Italy at the age of 12 to become a part of the youth setup at Parma. He was handed his full international debut by Marcello Lippi after impressing at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 in which he was the top-scorer with six goals in six games.

Having his allegiances firmly with Italy has left Rossi open to a tirade of abuse from those of his country of birth – particularly on Twitter, where complete strangers celebrate the ACL injury whilst calling him a “turncoat”, “traitor” and “Judas”. The same people conveniently ignore the fact that José Torres decided to represent America at international level rather than Mexico.

As a striker of international and Champions League caliber, it seems ridiculous to even contemplate the possibility that Rossi might play in the Segunda División. He is a player who should be facing Barcelona at the Camp Nou, not their B team at Mini Estadi.

There have been reports linking Rossi with a €25m move to the newly-crowned Italian champions, Juventus, though it is now claimed that the injury has seen them seek other targets such as Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Liverpool’s Luis Suárez.

A transfer to another big-name European side could still be on the cards if it is decided that the risk regarding Rossi’s right knee is one worth taking. However, a February return, at the earliest, would need to be consideration before any transfer is agreed.

To injure the anterior cruciate ligament once is bad enough; to do it twice in such a short space of team leaves doubts over the durability. Perhaps he will need to return in the yellow shirt and prove to those who doubt him that his knee can take the strain of playing professional football again, albeit at a poorer level that what he has been accustomed to.

If he can find full fitness and previous form, the chances of Villarreal keeping hold of Rossi are slim whether they win promotion back to La Liga or not.

(Credit to Marco Jackson – Twitter @Marco4J – for the graphs.)

Coentrão exposed as Bayern move towards dream final

Bayern Munich and Real Madrid met in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals in what was a hotly-anticipated clash of two European giants. As it turned out, the game wasn’t the spectacle that everyone would have been expecting but it was still an intriguing battle, nonetheless.

Both sides have their motivations to reach the final. The Allianz Arena, home to Bayern Munich, is hosting the final on May 19th which gives the Bavarians more than enough incentive to get past Madrid whilst José Mourinho’s side could complete a double if they hold onto their lead in La Liga. There is, of course, the possibility of usurping Barcelona in doing so, which would be the biggest of bonuses for Real Madrid.

Bayern lined up with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation; Toni Kroos preferred to Thomas Müller in the central attacking role behind Mario Gómez, perhaps because he is not as attack-minded and offers more stability to a midfield five, which Bayern formed when they didn’t have the ball. As it turned out, that didn’t happen all that often with the home side dominating possession throughout though Madrid did have more shots on target than their hosts and were the better side in the opening quarter of an hour or so.

Real started with Karim Benzema, a more willing runner than Gonzalo Higuaín, up front, which would be vital away from home. Fábio Coentrão began the game at left-back with Marcelo left on the bench.

Coentrão was seen as the weak link by Bayern. He has often been deployed in midfield by Mourinho this season and was susceptible to being dragged out of position which would leave space in behind for ex-Madrid man Arjen Robben to exploit. Indeed, there were a few occasions in the first half alone when Coentrão tried to get too tight to Robben and he was left desperately trying to get back after the Dutchman had lost him. Bayern were breaking quickly and often with Madrid slow to recover without the ball.

Madrid themselves looked to take advantage of the Bayern Munich full-backs with Xabi Alonso frequently spraying passes towards the wide men, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel Di María, hoping that they would bypass the 5 foot 7 Phillipp Lahm. However, the away side were more likely to score on the counter-attack than they were by playing with a more direct style. It was expected that Lahm would have his hands full with the threat of Ronaldo down Bayern’s right hand side. Robben would be expected to track back and help out his captain.

There were signs early on that Madrid might have some joy with Benzema up top. Despite Mesut Özil already having the attention of Luiz Gustavo, Holger Badstuber deemed it necessary to storm out of defence towards the German, who promptly slipped the ball past his fellow countryman to set Benzema away into space but he fired straight at goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

The breakthrough came from a corner kick that should have been defended in a much better manner than it actually was. Former Real Madrid full-back Míchel Salgado, a pundit for Sky Sports, claimed that “big clubs in Spain do not like defending set pieces”. It was to be Madrid’s downfall. The ball fell to Franck Ribéry in the penalty area and, with his marker Di María watching on a few yards away, rifled the ball past Iker Casillas.

It was evident that Bayern’s width would be their greatest asset if they were going to take a positive result to the Bernabeu with them for the second leg, which is a week on Wednesday (25th April). Madrid never looked comfortable when defending crosses; Gómez wasted a few opportunities and planted a header straight at Casillas.

In the second half, Álvaro Arbeloa was beginning to fall into the same trap as Coentrão by tracking his man too high up the pitch. A simple ball in behind Arbeloa sent Ribéry scampering down the wing but, alas, it came to nothing for the French international.

As stated earlier, Madrid were likely to score on the counter attack and they did so after Bayern were caught out from their own free-kick. Bastian Schweinsteiger lost the ball to Xabi Alonso on the edge of the Madrid penalty area and the Spanish midfielder sent a pass straight out to Di María on the halfway line, giving Real a situation from which they profited to the maximum.

Benzema was sent free down the right by the Argentine before crossing for Ronaldo, whose shot straight at Neuer came, somewhat fortuitously straight out to Özil; he gave the ball to Benzema, who danced past a couple of defenders and again squared again for Ronaldo, who pulled the ball back for Özil to tap home the equaliser.

The away side began to find some joy on the flanks with young left-back David Alaba showing his naivety by drifting infield towards the ball, allowing Di María time and space to get his shot away but it was blocked by the Bayern defence.

Both managers decided to shuffle their packs. Bayern replaced Schweinsteiger with Müller. As a result, Kroos dropped deeper to support Luiz Gustavo in front of the defence whilst Müller moved into the vacated space behind Gómez for the remaining half an hour. Real replaced Özil and Di María with Marcelo and Esteban Granero to provide more stability down their left-hand side. Coentrão, booked for a rash foul, was walking a tightrope and needed the support of the Brazilian defender.

He could have even been sent off having dived in and wiped out Gómez with 87 minutes on the clock; although Sergio Ramos took the ball with the original challenge, the follow-through from Coentrão could have been deemed worthy of a penalty kick and a second booking had referee Howard Webb seen the incident clearly. It was an omen for what was to come.

Lahm, who had dealt with Ronaldo relatively well all evening, found space on the right and skipped past Coentrão, who dived in needlessly, and skedaddled towards the penalty area. Looking up, he saw a gap of six yards between the goalkeeper and the nearest defender and fired the ball into the empty space. Sure enough, the predator, Gómez, was on hand to tuck the ball into the net having manoeuvred himself into the fissure between the centre halves, Ramos and Pepe, and sent Bayern over to Spain with a slender lead.

At home, you feel that Mourinho will be more adventurous in his setup and will revert to starting with Marcelo at left back with Coentrão on the bench. Both, however, are in the precarious position of being a caution away from missing the final, should Madrid get there. Regardless, Mourinho will not be happy with what he saw from his full-back tonight and is likely to make changes for El Clásico at the weekend before focusing on the second leg of this tie.

Bayern travel to Bremen this weekend in the Bundesliga and are likely to rest a number of first-choice players for the second leg with the title all but out of their reach.

In terms of what Real Madrid need next week, Gómez’s goal didn’t make that much difference if any at all; a 1-0 win would still send Mourinho’s men through to the final though it is better for ex-Real manager Heynckes and Bayern that they have a lead to defend.

Praising a pariah – Sergio Busquets

If anything encapsulated public opinion of Sergio Busquets, it is the top search result for the Barcelona and Spain midfielder on Google: “Sergio Busquets dive”. Fair to say, then, that most people don’t like him.

His play-acting is indefensible, a perennial pain the arse. The most famous example comes from the Champions League semi-final of 2010 against an Inter Milan side then managed by José Mourinho. Busquets was supposedly pushed in the face by former Barcelona man Thiago Motta. If, by chance, Busquets looked through his hands for long enough, he’d have seen Motta being given his second yellow card by the referee.

The footballing world exploded with rage. Motta hit out at the Spaniard, saying “He always does it, it is terrible behaviour.”

However, when Busquets isn’t throwing himself on the floor, pretending to be injured, he is a superb footballer. Without him, Barcelona would not function in the manner that has people across the globe salivating.

The son of former Barcelona goalkeeper Carles Busquets, Sergio is the anchor of the midfield. His presence gives Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta – Cesc Fàbregas has recently come into the fold, too, since his summer move from Arsenal – a licence to work their magic further up-field, safe in the knowledge that Busquets is on hand to stop any potential counter-attacks. Whilst this is not an infallible tactic, it works most of the time.

The most vociferous support for Busquets comes from his team-mates; Xavi says that Busquets is “fundamental” to both Barcelona and Spain, he “reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches as possible.” Robust and simple, but effective too. He receives the ball, looks up, spots a team-mate and gives them the ball; no complications, merely continuity.

Busquets, who has had only three shots all season in La Liga, could be seen as representative of everything that is anti-Barcelona to the footballing purists. The 23 year-old does the dirty work in a team of beauty; a footballing paradox, if you will. In the midst of a squad with an exuberance of quality, he takes little credit for his role in the side. Instead, it is Xavi, Iniesta and Messi who usually pick up the plaudits.

Nonetheless, it is Busquets who provides the foundations. He, himself, has said that “People who don’t like football don’t appreciate” his style but his team-mates do: “They appreciate that I do the dirty work and I know it is necessary.”

It is not just Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola who sees Busquets as a quality player either.

The Spain coach, Vicente Del Bosque, who led the national side to World Cup glory in 2010, said before the tournament: “If I could be like any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets”. High praise, indeed, from such a decorated manager who oversaw the height of the Galactico era at Real Madrid. He promptly put the La Masia product into his midfield for every game of the competition and made him a World Cup winner at the age of 21.

So often the pantomime villain, Busquets has been accused of being out of place at Barcelona. On the field it is rare to find him out of place. He is their destroyer, a vital cog in a footballing machine. He has, on occasion, been forced to play at centre back and has shown great versatility and competence in doing so.

Busquets currently has a contract that runs until 2015 with a buyout clause of €150m. Even that may not be enough to tempt Barcelona to part with a player whose contribution is priceless.