37. Thomas Müller’s Day Off

muller

22. The Silence of the Lahms

lahm

A world cup to forget?

I hope you haven’t forgotten about the World Cup just yet – I know I haven’t. Last week I presented my team of the tournament, and now I will bring you a team of players who disappointed during the tournament.

While my team of the tournament used the much-lauded 4-2-3-1 formation, the nature of this team leads me to use the 4-4-2 which many(perhaps prematurely) now feel has had its day.

Goalkeeper – Robert Green (England)

Club: West Ham United. 11 caps (0 goals)

It may seem unduly harsh to select a goalkeeper who only made one mistake, but Green’s error is thought by many to have set the tone for England’s poor World Cup performance.

In a tournament where many ‘keepers were remembered for their impressive stops, individual mistakes stand out more than ever. This is especially true when – as was the case with Green – the individual in question is not given time to atone for his mistake.

With David James moving ever closer to retirement, both England and West Ham will hope the former Norwich shot-stopper recovers from the media scapegoating to reassert himself as first choice for club and country.

Right-back – Jonas Gutierrez (Argentina)

Club: Newcastle United. 19 caps (1 goal)

Just as fans of West Ham United gasped in shock when their right-back Lionel Scaloni kept former Argentina captain Javier Zanetti out of his country’s World Cup squad in 2006, Newcastle fans will have been surprised to see Gutierrez take Zanetti’s place this time around.

This is not merely because Newcastle had played the previous season in English football’s second tier – Gutierrez was signed with the club in the Premier League and was clearly too good for the division below. Rather the surprised glances came because the player known as ‘Spiderman’ had made his name as a winger, not a right-back.

The supposedly versatile 27-year-old was found out in the opener against Nigeria, and by the time his country’s final group game came around he had been replaced by the lumbering and one-dimensional Nicolas Otamendi. Given the way in which Otamendi himself was destroyed by a fluid German attack, Diego Maradona will surely be ruing the decision not to include a natural right-back in his squad.

Left-back – Patrice Evra (France)

Club: Manchester United. 32 caps (0 goals)

While France may have made hard work of qualifying for the tournament, they were still expected to cruise through a relatively easy group.

It is common knowledge that a lack of leadership – rather than a paucity of talent – is often responsible for Les Bleus struggles, but the quiet and understated Evra was supposed to provide a calming influence as captain.

Few could have predicted what would follow. Two games and one much-publicised clash with a fitness coach later, and Evra was stripped of both the captaincy and his place in the team. There have since been suggestions that the defeat against Mexico will prove to be Evra’s last game for his country, with former stars including 1998 World Cup Winner Lilian Thuram calling for him to be dropped indefinitely.

Centre-back – Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

Club: Al-Ahli. 136 caps (2 goals)

Yes, the clues were there before the tournament began. Cannavaro’s decision to move to the United Arab Emirates suggested – at the age of 36 – the former Juventus captain felt he was no longer up to playing in Europe’s top leagues.

But few could have predicted the ignominy of his, and Italy’s campaign. Despite being more than matched in the opener against Paraguay, fans still expected the Azzurri to bounce back, as they have done many times before.

An embarrassing draw with New Zealand, during which Cannavaro was hopelessly exposed for Shane Smeltz’s goal, was the antipasti. What followed put to shame the defensive solidity on which the country’s success has been founded. The 3-2 defeat against an uninspiring Slovakian outfit may well go down as the moment at which Cannavaro – and the class of ’06 in general – were forced to give way to a younger and hungrier breed.

Centre-back – Simon Kjær (Denmark)

Club: Wolfsburg. 11 caps (0 goals)

How do you go from being one of the hottest defensive properties in world football to making an uninspiring move to a Europa League side? Well, why don’t you ask Simon Kjær – he should have the answer.

Just months after being sweet-talked by Sir Alex Ferguson in advance of a potential move to Manchester, the Danish defender is packing his bags for Wolfsburg.

The former Palermo man was hardly helped by an error-prone Danish defence, but he did nothing to suggest he had the solidity or leadership qualities required to succeed at the highest level, although – as you and I well know – one tournament rarely tells the whole story.

Right-midfield – Franck Ribéry (France)

Club: Bayern Munich. 48 caps (7 goals)

At this World Cup, the stage was set for Franck Ribéry to finish a disappointing season on the highest of high notes. Not disappointing on the pitch, although Bayern’s domestic double was achieved largely in spite of the French winger, but disappointing in a personal sense.

His achievements at club and international level were first blighted by a knee injury, and then by a prostitution scandal which rocked the French football scene.

International team-mate Karim Benzema had a similarly frustrating 12 months, but while the Real Madrid striker was left out of the World Cup squad – allowing him to take time out to confront his troubles – Ribéry had no escape. His abject performances in South Africa suggested one or more of these issues were still playing on his mind, and questions still remain as to whether he will ever be able to recapture his previous form on the pitch.

Left-midfield – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Club: Barcelona. 49 caps (13 goals)

All things considered, Messi didn’t play that badly in the World Cup. He lit up proceedings against South Korea as Diego Maradona’s side destroyed their Asian opponents, and showed some good touches against Mexico in the last 16.

But fans and pundits have come to expect more of the enigmatic Argentine. He netted 47 goals in 53 games for Barcelona this season, including splendid hat-tricks against Arsenal and Valencia.

Yet when the world was watching, he failed to reproduce the same goalscoring form, culminating in his nation’s 4-0 loss at the hands of Germany – a loss which he could do nothing about.

Central midfield – Frank Lampard (England)

Club: Chelsea. 82 caps (20 goals)

Frank Lampard should count himself lucky referee Jorge Larrionda failed to notice his shot crossing the line in England’s loss to Germany. Why? Because now fans will remember his campaign in a more positive light.

Now when asked about Lampard’s performance in years to come, people will mention his disallowed ‘goal’ and not his complete absence in his country’s first three games.

This is not the first time the midfielder – almost untouchable at club level – has failed to perform on the world stage. It seems he is so used to being the focal point of the side at Chelsea that he has forgotten how to work for his team-mates.

No doubt he will become a world-beater again when he returns to Chelsea for the new season, free from the shackles of significant responsibility.

Central midfield – Steven Pienaar (South Africa)

Club: Everton. 51 caps (2 goals)

If the host nation South Africa had any hope of reaching the last 16, they would need their most famous footballing expert to pull the strings right from the get-go.

Sadly for them, Pienaar never really got out of first gear, and as a result South Africa lacked the creative spark needed to separate them from the other teams in group A.

While the opening draw with Mexico and the narrow victory against a French side in total disarray gave fans of the Bafana Bafana something to shout about, hard graft and enthusiasm will only get you so far. With Pienaar unable to impose his nous and footballing intelligence on the game, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side got about as far as they could.

Striker – Wayne Rooney (England)

Club: Manchester United. 64 caps (25 goals)

Those making excuses for England’s poor performance at the World Cup have blamed the arduous Premier League season. However that is only part of the story as far as Wayne Rooney is concerned.

Rooney’s injury problems have been well documented, and many England supporters were relieved when he picked up a knock a few months before the start of the tournament.

Unfortunately, far from getting the much-needed rest enjoyed by the likes of Arjen Robben, Rooney was forced back into action far sooner than Fabio Capello would have liked. Still, with his team-mates offering little in the way of service, there is no guarantee that a fully-fit Rooney could have done any better.

Striker – Fernando Torres (Spain)

Club: Liverpool. 80 caps (24 goals)

Never before can I remember a striker featuring in every game for a World Cup winning country and having less of an impact.

Torres looked out of his depth, failing to score and failing to complete a full 90 minutes at any stage of the tournament. While his team-mates brushed aside their opposition en route to winning the World Cup, the Liverpool man was barely an afterthought in discussions of their success.

And just to cap it all, he picked up an injury in the closing stages of the final which will put a dent in his preparations for the new campaign.

Substitutes:

Fawzi Chaouchi (Algeria, goalkeeper) – Gaffe in opener against Slovenia effectively sealed his country’s fate

Glen Johnson (England, right-back) – Horribly exposed in defeat against Germany, ordinary going forward and absent at the back

Nemanja Vidic (Serbia, centre-back) – Far from his normal imposing self, gifted Germany a penalty in Serbia’s only win

Jean Makoun (Cameroon, central midfield) – Failed to impose himself after an impressive season for Lyon

Kaka (Brazil, attacking midfield) – Allowed himself to be bullied by opponents too easily, although his red card against Cote d’Ivoire was harsh

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, winger) – Victim of an overly-defensive set-up from manager Carlos Queiroz

Vincenzo Iaquinta (Italy, striker) – Static and lumbering, should have been replaced by Fabio Quagliarella far sooner.

Europe 4-0 England: Champions League round-up

Now the dust has settled on the Champions League quarter-finals, with no English teams making it to the final four, it is time to reflect on the reasons for Arsenal and Manchester United failing to progress.

Arsenal’s exit is the more understandable of the two, considering their injury problems. As if Cesc Fabregas’ broken leg wasn’t enough of a setback, Arsene Wenger’s side was forced to make do without their defensive leader and their main creative influence, in William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin respectively.

Gallas’ absence was the most significant. Time after time a lack of communication between the Gunners’ back four cost them dear, with Emmanuel Eboue’s positioning for the clinching fourth goal symptomatic of a makeshift defence ill-equipped to deal with the movement of Lionel Messi and Bojan.

Arsenal's back line had no answer to Lionel Messi

Although Nicklas Bendtner led the line admirably at the other end, he was well marshalled by Gabi Milito and Rafael Marquez, whose performances simply emphasise the strength in depth which separates the Catalans from Wenger’s young squad.

In the end Barcelona’s convincing victory was little surprise, and Arsenal will need to draw on all their reserves when they visit White Hart Lane on Wednesday.

But if Arsenal’s departure was somewhat expected, Manchester United’s exit from the competition at the hands of Bayern Munich comes as a minor shock.

The main talking point before the game was Wayne Rooney’s inclusion in the starting line-up, and I feel Sir Alex Ferguson made the right move in risking his star man.

This may come as a surprise considering Rooney’s rather subdued performance, but the sad truth is United have no other individual who comes close to worrying defences in the same way as the England frontman.

Despite not being directly involved in the moves leading up to Nani’s two goals, even an injured Wayne Rooney was enough to keep opposition defenders on their toes. Indeed it was perhaps Bayern’s overestimation of the 24-year-old which freed up so much space for his Portuguese team-mate.

Rafael’s sending-off was of course a factor, but one might wonder why Ferguson reverted to a 4-5-0 formation when his lone striker’s ankle injury flared up.

The answer to this can be found by looking at the impact made by Dimitar Berbatov when he finally took to the field with 10 minutes remaining.

Berbatov thrives on the space created by a strike partner, and his own minimal movement means he often struggles as a lone frontman. With wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia overworked to the point that the former was seen visibly gasping for breath after one lung-busting run, the Bulgarian was required to make space for himself and fight for the ball. He is unlikely to be seen doing this at the best of times, and last night was no exception.

Sir Alex Ferguson will surely deny it, but yesterday’s elimination offers proof – if any was needed – that Carlos Tevez should still have had a place at Old Trafford.

United’s success this season has been based around a fully-fit and on-form Wayne Rooney, with no ready-made replacement in the same mould.

Rooney’s game is so strong because his goalscoring and link-up play is complemented by a willingness to chase every ball and never let the centre-backs settle. For the entire second half yesterday, the often-shaky Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demechelis were allowed time and space to get forward, with only the occasional burst forward from Nani and Valencia causing them problems.

United saw before the break how the Bayern centre-backs struggled with the movement of their front three, and if they could call on someone like Tevez, rather than Berbatov and the ineffective Ryan Giggs, we might have seen a contest in the second half rather than an attack-versus-defence encounter in United’s half of the pitch.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to call upon Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf, coupled with Michael Owen’s season-ending hamstring injury, suggests the Red Devils could not afford to lose both Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo without bringing in an experienced replacement.

Mame Biram Diouf was not even named on the bench last night

It is all well and good having talented youngsters on your books, but if you are unwilling to utilise them in high-pressure situations it seems ridiculous not to augment the striking talent at the club, even if just bringing in someone on a short-term deal, as they did with Henrik Larsson in 2006.

Instead of making excuses about refereeing decisions or about Bayern players crowding around the official in a manner not dissimilar to previous United sides, Ferguson needs to have a look at his own shortcomings.

His side had no response to a Bayern side lacking their own one-time talisman Miroslav Klose, and whose star men Ribery and Robben underperformed save for one crucial moment of genius.

For all the intelligence of Ferguson’s initial approach to the match, at this level of football you need to have a Plan B which you can rely on.