What Could Have Been: Álvaro Recoba

Uruguay’s World Cup dream came to an end on Tuesday night in Cape Town, with the tournament’s surprise package falling at the penultimate hurdle in the shape of Bert Van Marwijk’s highly organised Holland. Fans were left wondering what could have been had a couple of contentious decisions or half chances gone their way, but these “what if?” scenarios are not foreign to followers of the Celeste, as Kevyn Doran reports.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Let’s go back to the year 1997, more specifically August 31st and the dawn of a new Serie A season. Powered by Massimo Moratti’s petroleum-injected millions, under-achieving Internazionale are a goal down to Dario Hubner and Brescia on a humid, sticky summer swan song.  With 70 minutes on the clock, Inter manager Luigi Simoni’s last throw of the dice was to hand a debut to one of Moratti’s new arrivals – a buck-toothed South American with a phenomenal record of more than a goal a game. It was a debut that would end up eclipsing that of almost any other player to pull on the black and blue of the Nerazzurri, as 20 minutes and two thirty-yard screamers later, Inter fans were heading home with 3 points, but more importantly, a new hero. Unfortunately, this mere mortal would struggle to reach such heights again, as a culmination of injuries would sabotage a career we should be looking back upon with marvel. Sound familiar yet? No, this is not another story about the magnificent Ronaldo, but rather a lament for the story of the Uruguyan Álvaro Recoba, who was once considered the most gifted and highly-paid footballer on the planet.

Recoba was born in 1976 in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, and began playing football at a young age. Like current national team stand-outs Diego Forlán and Edison Cavani, Recoba’s career began with local side Danubio. After plying his trade on the under age teams, the forward was given his debut for La Franja at the tender age of 16, such was his exceptional talent. A staggering 32 goals in 31 games over the course of two seasons earned Recoba a move to national powerhouse and continental challengers Club Nacional de Football, also based in the capital city. Playing at the highest level of Uruguayan football, the teenage Recoba continued his rise to prominence by bagging a further 30 goals in 27 games for his new employers. El Chino – as he had become known for his distinctive Asian features – was taking the Primera División by storm – earning himself hero status at Nacional (left) – and had begun to attract international interest thanks to his quick feet, blistering pace, fantastic dribbling and a left foot that was unrivalled in South America. This interest peaked when Sandro Mazzola – the creative genius of that famous La Grande Inter side of the 1960’s – recommended Recoba to Inter president Massimo Moratti. Despite having already spent €18 million on the formidable Ronaldo, Moratti waved his chequebook once again and brought the young forward to Italy.

Such an exceptional debut vaulted expectations of Recoba to unachievable heights. The uncompromisin hatchet-men of Italian defences across the league bullied and kicked the 21 year old out of games regularly. A majestic, Beckham-esque chip from the half way line recaptured headlines towards the end of the season, but he remained a peripheral figure for Inter in a season that saw them finish runners-up to Juventus. During the January transfer window of the following season, Inter loaned Recoba to relegation-threatened Venezia where, once again, he became a hero. In 19 appearances for the Arancioneroverdi, he managed 11 goals and 9 assists, saving the club from relegation. One of the many sterling performances came against his parent club Inter, where Recoba scored a stunning free-kick against his employers who were having a terrible season (they would eventually finish in 8th place, only 4 points ahead of Venezia).

His heroics at Venezia prompted new Inter manager Marcelo Lippi to recall Recoba back to the Nerazzurri, where he appeared more regularly than he did under Simoni or Mircea Lucescu. He became a key player during an ultimately disappointing season for Inter, who again missed out on Champions League football – a failure that would cost Lippi his job. Despite this, Moratti had seen enough from his pet project to offer Recoba a new 6-year deal that would make him the highest paid player in the world. However, things started to go awry soon after. Recoba was banned from football for a year – later reduced to 4 months on appeal – for holding a fake passport upon his arrival in Milan. Several injuries would continue to disrupt his time at Inter, whether it was his knee, his ankle or his shoulder. Pundits in the media started to turn on him as his influential performances became increasingly sporadic, and he no longer took a hold of games. He still produced moments of brilliance, such as a breathtaking individual performance against Roma in 2002 where he scored two and set up another as Inter trounced their rivals 3-1. But for every wonder goal the Uruguayan produced (such as his magnificent solo goal against Lecce in 2002 – see here), there were countless criticisms aimed in his direction. Inter manager Héctor Cúper went public in his persecution of Recoba after poor performances against Lazio on the last day of the season in 2002, and a year later after Inter were sent packing from the semi-finals of the Champions League by local rivals Milan. Cúper would go on to lose his job because of his refusal to play Recoba, which angered Moratti.

Perhaps the highlight of Recoba’s career came in what is considered one of the greatest matches in Serie A history. On the 9th January 2004, Inter hosted Sampdoria in a crucial encounter, with both teams having aspirations for European qualification. Despite an abundance of missing players through injury and suspension, Recoba started the game on the bench. Inter were bombarding forward at every opportunity, but could not find a way past man of the match Francesco Antonioli. Sampdoria played a counter attacking system perfectly, twice catching Inter out – Max Tonetto with the first just before half time, and Vitali Kutuzov with what seemed like the clinching goal in the 83rd minute. Just like Luigi Simoni had done all those years ago, Roberto Mancini called on Recoba to salvage something from the match. And just like he did on that fateful day against Brescia, Recoba instigated a comeback that would go down in history. He played through Obafemi Martins who halved the deficit on 88 minutes. Inter threw everything forward in search of an equalizer, which came in the form of Christian Vieri’s 92nd minute strike. With seconds remaining on the clock, Sampdoria squandered possession feeling sorry for themselves. With 94 minutes on the clock, the ball landed at the feet of Recoba 30 yards from goal and he struck a blistering left-foot shot first time that rustled the back of the net before Antonioli could even react. Once again, a moment of brilliance had sent the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza into raptures. Never quite able to put together a consistent run of acceptable performances, Recoba was shipped out on loan to Torino and Greek outfit Panionios where he would retreat into relative obscurity. At the start of this year, Recoba signed a 3-year deal with boyhood club Danubio.

Although Álvaro Recoba’s story is not a tragic one, it is quite disheartening that a footballer of such sublime talent has faded into obscurity so dramatically. In a week where the technical capabilities of English football are being severely questioned, one could only imagine what England could achieve had they a player with even half the creativity of Recoba. For the moment, Jack Wilshere or Josh McEachran seem the most suitable candidates and while they both may go on to achieve a great deal of success at their respective clubs, they will dream of re-enacting such moments of magic as that Maradona-esque goal against Lecce, or that wonderful comeback against Sampdoria. But fans of the game can also dream what Alvaro Recoba could have achieved had he developed the determination and will-to-win attitude embodied by English football. Perhaps he stayed at Inter for too long, or perhaps it was just never meant to work out for Recoba, but ultimately we can only wonder what could have been for a player who for so-long appeared to be on the verge of greatness.

I just want to thank the Danubio people, this was always my home, I was fortunate to play elsewhere and succeed, but I always said that this was my home.”

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Talking Points: Argentina 0-4 Germany

Germany turned in a performance of the highest standard in Cape Town today, sending Diego Maradona’s Argentina side crashing out of the World Cup with their tails between their legs. As usual, there were plenty of Talking Points to be discussed as Kevin Doran reports.

 				 Argentina 0 Germany 4

1. A four-ce to be reckoned with..

Wow. What a display from Germany. Not content with securing the biggest win of the first round of matches, or embarrassing England in Bloemfontein, Joachim Lowe’s side sent one of the favourites in Argentina packing in emphatic style. The Germans edged out the South Americans on penalties four years ago, but it was a different story this time round as Bastian Schweinsteiger put in a performance deserving of a candidate for player of the tournament. It was a dominant box-to-box display from a player who had already guided his club to a Champions League final, yet Schweinsteiger has shown no sign of fatigue from his domestic exertions in making us forget about the absence of Michael Ballack. Mesut Ozil may have stolen the headlines earlier in the tournament, but Schweinsteiger put in a performance that highlights his importance to Germany as the man that makes him tick as he controlled the game for them today, both defending and going forward with class. He kept it simple, retaining possession for his side (under very little pressure it has to be said) and breaking up whatever Argentina had to offer in reply, exactly what Germany will need from him in a mouth-watering semi-final clash with Spain. (Click here to see a mini-compilation of Schweinsteiger’s best bits from today).

Above: Schweinsteiger (yellow indicator) going forward for Germany (left), and helping out in defence just 15 seconds later (right).

2. How do you solve a problem like Messi?

Simple – have Bastian Schweinsteiger snapping at his heels for 90 minutes. It was a glorious day in Cape Town as the sun threw itself over the pitch today, but Lionel Messi will be forgiven for not noticing, as the Barcelona playmaker never escaped the imposing shadow of Schweinsteiger. From as early as the first minute, Germany’s talisman was a nuisance to Messi all over the pitch, who had to resort to dropping deep below the halfway line to see possession of the ball. Even then, Schweinsteiger was in constant pursuit, as he was when Messi’s team mates looked to give him the ball, or when Messi made darting runs into the box (right).

Above: Schweinsteiger’s (yellow indicator) attention prevents Messi (light blue indicator) from receiving the ball (left), even when dropping deep to collect it (right).

3. Team Spirit

Germany and Argentina were polar opposites today, with the Europeans defending in numbers and closing down their Argentine counterparts at every opportunity. Thomas Muller and Lucas Podolski became effective wing backs whenever Germany surrendered possession, as seen below. Khedira fell back to partner Schweinsteiger in a defensive midfield role in front of the back four, with Ozil just ahead of them hassling the Argentine defence alongside Klose. In contrast, Diego Maradona’s holy trinity of Messi, Tevez and Higuain were isolated figures up front, rarely getting time on the ball and tracking back very little. As a result, Argentina often found themself out-numbered and out-hustled, with many of their attacks being broke up through interceptions or misplaced passes.

Left: The German back four (light blue) were supported by a midfield partnership of Schweinsteiger and Khedira (yellow), with Muller and Podolski offering support to the wing backs (red). Argentina’s front three found it difficult to create space as a result, with Gonzalo Higuain’s offside goal being the only real time they played through the middle succesfully. Even then, it took a great pass from Heinze to unlock the German defence. Per Mertesacker was dominant at the back, winning almost everything that came into the box, and throwing himself in front of the ball with little regard for his own well-being. Jerome Boateng had his most impressive game of the tournament so far, marshalling the left side of the pitch with supreme confidence – something that will have no doubt please Man City fans.

With regard to Argentina’s fullbacks, Nicolas Otamendi and Gabriel Heinze were poor, particularly the former.  Otamendi was drawn out of position far too often which left Podolski in acres of space out left for Germany (below). Thomas Muller was afforded the space to drift in centrally by Gabriel Heinze, as he was against England last week and was yet again rewarded with getting his name on the scoresheet. He will be a big loss to Lowe’s side as another yellow card rules him out of the showdown with Spain. Argentina’s defence was abysmal, particularly their handling of set pieces as was evident in Muller’s opening goal. Germany were far too often allowed have a numerical advantage going forward, and their last three goals all came from a wide player being able to centre the ball to an unopposed team-mate.

Above: Otamendi (light blue) has Muller in his sights (left), but is drawn to the ball too easily, leaving Muller in too much space (right).

4. I’m not cocky – I’m confident

Germany look a very assured team who are well aware of what they are capable of. They were happy to let Argentina have the greater share of possession, as they did England last week, safe in the knowledge that they were more than able to cope with what the opposition had to offer. An aggregate victory of 8-1 over those two games goes a long way to justifying this approach, and with Spain – another team who like to control possession of the ball – around the corner, Lowe’s tactics could topple the Spanish bandwagon.  The Spaniards struggled to break down the Swiss, but in Germany they face a far tougher task and while bookies might argue different, I fancy Lowe’s team as the favourites.

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Down and Out in Bloemfontein: The England Analysis

England were taught a footballing lesson by perennial rivals Germany this afternoon as Fabio Capello’s men were sent packing from the World Cup in South Africa. Kevyn Doran sifts through the rubble of the Italian’s fallen empire to find the answer to the question on a nation’s lips this summer: Just what exactly went wrong?

 				 Germany 4 England 1

1. System Error

We all know what it looks like. You’re on your computer working on an important document of project, when all of a sudden, it disappears. It’s vanished. Gone, all gone. All that remains is a blue screen, a grey box, and those two dreaded words – System Error. Fabio Capello doesn’t  strike me as someone who uses a computer all too often, but surely the 64 year old will be seeing a similar message as he closes his eyes in bed tonight. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard’s inability to form a midfield partnership is English football’s worst-kept secret, so while re-adjusting Gerrard to a more left-sided role against the likes of Slovenia may provide a quick-fix solution, it is not in England’s best interest to deploy one of their best players in a position he is frankly uncomfortable with. Gerrard’s natural instict is to drift infield, dragging his marker with him and further packing the midfield, which may explain the Three Lions’ tendencies to resort to a route one philosophy. England’s lack of a holding midfield player is well documented at this stage, but less explored is the effect this absence has on Gerrard and Lampard.

Neither are players that can influence a game if they are forced to come deep to collect the ball. Gerrard is at his best at Liverpool with what was Xabi Alonso – now Lucas or Alberto Aquilani – forging a link between defence and midfield and giving their captain the ball to create that second link between midfield and attack. Likewise at Chelsea, who prefer to move the ball out of defence using their full backs and then bring the ball infield to Lampard (usually from the left) or continuing their attack through wide positions. In theory, Gareth Barry should be the man to provide the defence-to-midfield link for England, but for one reason or another, it’s a role he shies away from. Instead, the full backs are charged with bringing the ball forward, or more commonly, a route one approach is taken. Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are far and away the two best attacking full-backs in the country, and one should feel confident in their ability to bring the ball up the pitch. But they rarely passed the half way line today, and this summed up England’s inability to convert the dispossession of Germany into an attacking opportunity of their own.

Gerrard’s habit of cutting infield from his left position is understandable given his role at Liverpool rarely takes him to that side of the pitch. There is even an argument for Frank Lampard being a better option on the left, as seen by his tendencies to drift to that side at Chelsea (whether this is natural habit, or instructions from Carlo Ancelotti is another thing). This is evident by taking a look at Lampard’s interaction with the ball during Chelsea’s games with Aston Villa and Portsmouth towards the end of the season, two of his best performances of in a blue shirt in what was statistically his best season with the Blues.

Instead, this role is offered to Steven Gerrard and it just doesn’t work. For me, the buck either stops with Capello, or Gerrard himself. If Capello is instructing the Liverpool skipper to drift infield, then surely he sees that a) it hampers Ashley Cole’s ability to get forward, an important aspect of the full back’s play at Chelsea, and b) it leaves the team lob sided and the opposition find it easier to snuff out attacks. If it’s Gerrard’s instinct himself, then he should take a look at James Milner. Although initally a winger in his early days at Leeds and Newcastle, Milner has rose to prominence and an England call-up thanks to his midfield performances for Aston Villa last season. Despite being charged with this role at Villa, Milner shows discipline on duty with England and holds his wide position, much unlike Gerrard. Their average position on the pitch against Germany today shows the difference in approach to what should be two similar roles between Gerrard and Milner.

The lack of an aforementioned “destructive” midfield player places a huge burden on Gerrard and Lampard. At their respective club teams, they are afford the luxury of having two of the best defensive midfielders in the game in Javier Mascherano and Michael Essien (or understudy John Obi Mikel) marshalling behind, allowing them to shirk their defensive responsibilities to some degree when presented with an opportunity to attack. On England duty, if they surrender the ball, they don’t have that player behind them because Gareth Barry also takes advantage of any opportunity t0 get forward (he himself has the impressive Nigel De Jong as cover at Man City). Indeed, this has never been more evident than it was today for Germany’s third, and potentially decisive goal, when Barry – who ideally should be hanging back from set pieces – surrendered possession on the edge of the German penalty area. Just 13 seconds later, Thomas Mullar had the ball in the back of David James’ net. Muller often found himself in more central positions than he is used to today, and this is solely down to the defensive frailties of Lampard, Gerrard and Barry.

2. False Prophets and Promises

Fabio Capello was seen as the ideal candidate to deliver glory to England once again after 44 years of hurt™, and an impressive CV combined with an impeccable qualifying campaign had seen Capello begin to deliver on such a promise. But could it be that, in the presence of the inevitable media scrutiny and hype, the usually untouchable Italian started to waver? His earlier promise to pick his squad based on club form now seems nothing more than a media-friendly sound-bite. Why else would Darren Bent be sitting at home this summer, while Emile Heskey takes up space on the pitch? Heskey, for all his hard work, should be nowhere near the starting 11 of a team with World Cup winning aspirations. He’ll give you 100%, but as Aston Villa fans will testify, that effort rarely manifests itself in the form of goals these days. Heskey’s inclusion is to the detriment of Wayne Rooney’s ability to impact a game (by Capello’s own word, Rooney should not even be in South Africa this summer, but more on that later). Rooney is at his best leading the line, as his phenomenal season at Old Trafford suggests. With two wide players in support (Nani and Valencia at Manchester United), Rooney is at the top of his game but with Heskey alongside him, he only has scraps to feed off of. In his defence, Heskey does win the majority of long balls directed towards him, but he doesn’t deal with the attention of opposition defenders hassling him effectively and as a result, the ball usually bounces off of Heskey to the other team, and possession is squandered. Even more confusing was Capello’s decision to leave Adam Johnson behind. Defence aside, Capello has only brought one left-footed player to South Africa, and that’s Gareth Barry. Why Capello would insist in their Plan B being the exact same as their Plan A (shunting a right-footed player to the left wing) is a mystery. Would it really have been a bad move to leave one of Joe Cole, Shawn Wright Phillips or Aaron Lennon behind in order to accomodate Johnson, who has been magnificent for Manchester City since making the step up to the Premier League?

“It’s very important for me that the players that I decide to put in the squad are playing (for their clubs) and are getting games. It’s impossible to be fit if you don’t play” Fabio Capello (August 2008)

So why play James Milner against the USA? Why bring David James, and then act like Robert Green was first choice all along? Why bring Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand (initially) and Ledley King? All Fabio Capello seems to have done was give the likes of Adam Johnson, Darren Bent and Tom Huddlestone the false hope of something to work towards; their great seasons went ultimately unrewarded. So what should England’s line-up have been had Capello kept his word about form and fitness? In my opinion, the following – while it may divide opinion – would certainly have put up more of a fight today.

Ultimately, England’s downfall came as a result of poor management. Capello had the wrong squad, the wrong tactics and the wrong mentality and his position as England manager is no longer tenable. As for the “Golden Generation”, another major tournament has passed them by and the immediate future looks bleak. Until a manager is introduced who can disregard reputation, player-power and the media scrutiny that comes with such a position, England will continue to flatter to deceive. Fabio Capello was that man. Now, he joins McClaren, Eriksson, Keegan, Hoddle and company in the long list of managers who could not tame the Three Lions.

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Talking Points: Chile 1-0 Switzerland

Chile chipped away at a dogged Swiss defense until Mark Gonzalez found the break through with the only goal of the game. An enthralling match with chances and cards aplenty, there was no shortage of Talking Points as Kevyn Doran reports.

1. Chalk and Cheese

 				 Chile v Switzerland

We all expected this game to be the relentless attacking force that is Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile attempting to break down the steel-infused Swiss defence of Ottmar Hitzfeld, but I don’t think any of us imagined the extent to which this game would be one-sided. An incredibly harsh red card to West Ham’s Valon Behrami – more on that later – played a huge role in deciding this intriguing match up. Chile, who have been dubbed the most exciting team to watch this summer, were always going to find it tough to get past a Swiss defence which had not conceded a goal in it’s previous 5 World Cup games, but a numerical disadvantage forced Hitzfeld to change things with captain Alexender Frei being the sacrificial lamb to make way. While Roger Federer mounted a comeback of epic proportions against South American opposition over at Wimbledon, his compatriots could not overcome a rampant Chile side who go into the last round of group matches top of their group.

2. The 3-3-1-3 is Unveiled

We at Back Page Football were slightly disappointed not to see Marcelo Bielsa’s infamous 3-3-1-3 last week against Honduras. Instead, we were presented with a slightly altered version, with Arturo Vidal filling in at left back to form a more conventional back four in a 4-1-2-3 formation. Whether that was down to only needing two centre-backs against the lone striker in Carlos Pavon or a slight sense of hesitance with it being the opening game of their campaign we will never know, but Bielsa reverted to type today against what was initially a two man partnership in the Swiss attack. Gary Medel, Waldo Ponce and Gonzalo Jara formed a seemingly solid back three that only faced it’s first real test in the 90th minute, when Derdiyok spurned a glorious opportunity to snatch a point for the Swiss. Carlos Carmona occupied his usual holding role in front of the defense, with Rodrigo Millar making way to allow Vidal and Isla to form a central midfield partnership rather than their full-back roles of last week, albeit one with plenty of license to drift into wide positions for both attacking and defensive situations. Mati Fernandez occupied his usual trequartista role, but looked a little off the pace as did last week’s goalscorer Jean Beausejour out left. Alexis Sanchez was his usual livewire self, while the returning Humberto Suazo looked to be still carrying the effects of the injury that has interrupted the start to his campaign. We could not help but chuckle at Suazo picking up a booking after just 2 minutes – there’s nothing like making up for lost time, right? Both Suazo and Beausejour made way for Jorge Valdivia and Mark Gonzalez respectively, and Chile looked far more threatening as a result, albeit suffering from the same lack of cutting edge in front of goal as they did last week which could ultimately cost them a place in the last 16.

3. Whistle Happy

 				 Chile 1 Switzerland 0

Unfortunately, as proceedings have progressed in South Africa this summer, so have numerous referees’ intentions to make a name for themselves. We saw it in Serbia’s 1-0 victory over Germany a few days ago and in Brazil’s disposal of Ivory Coast last night and sadly, we witnessed it once again this afternoon. It wasn’t so much that Khalil Al Ghamdi didn’t have control over this game, it was more a case of him having too much control as he flashed cards at every given opportunity. Nine yellow cards and one red card were shown as a result, and it really prohibited this game from having any sense of fluidity or natural flow. The players themselves do not escape the blame either. Chile have been known to commit cynical fouls to allow their players to get back in position to avoid being caught on the break. They did it against Honduras last week, and they did it again today with Carlos Carmona in particular being guilty of such an offence. Carmona, along with Mati Fernandez, will now miss Chile’s showdown with Spain next week as a result – a match which could still see them crashing out of the World Cup should other results not go their way. It was also embarrassing to see Arturo Vidal do his utmost to ensure Behrami saw red for a flailing elbow, while Tranquillo Barnetta attempted a similar act following a confrontation with Gary Medel. One redeeming act of competence from the match referee however was a booking for Valdivia when he flung himself to the ground in an attempt to win a penalty, having ran the ball wide of the post in the second half. Al Ghamdi should be applauded for that if nothing else.

4. Record Breakers and Heart Breakers

Congratulations must go to Switzerland on setting a new World Cup record, becoming the team who have gone the longest without conceding a goal in World Cup history until Gonzalez struck late on. It’s a remarkable achievement for Hitzfeld’s side considering the teams they have shut out have included France, South Korea, Togo, Spain and Chile. That record will be scant consolation for their manager however, as the Swiss must beat Honduras to work towards ensuring qualification. Meanwhile, Chile will advance should they get anything from Spain on Friday, or should Vicente Del Bosque’s side fail to pick up three points against Honduras later this evening.

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Talking Points: Honduras 0-1 Chile

1. That’s More Like It

 				 Honduras v Chile

A tremendous display of relentless attacking football from Chile was just the breath of fresh air this tournament has needed. We’ve raved about Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics on BackPageFootball, which he slightly altered today. Instead of his famous 3-3-1-3, Bielsa went for a slightly more conservative 4-2-1-3. Given that, conservative is probably the last word one would use to describe Chile’s performance today. It was a display that firmly believed in attack as the best form of defence, as Chile never took their foot off the accelerator and flooded forward up to the final whistle. It was great on the eye, but Bielsa will not be happy at his team’s inability to put the game beyond Honduras despite numerous opportunities to do so. Alexis Sanchez dragged a couple of shots past the post when placed well, and only a last ditch tackle from Figueroa prevented Valdivia from an easy finish. Waldo Ponce came as close as anybody to grabbing that elusive second goal, but was denied by a world class save from Honduras ‘keeper Valladarves after Arturo Vidal had put it on a plate for him. Chile were fancied as the best of the underdogs coming into this tournament, and their stock will have risen dramatically today, as will that of Alexis Sanchez. The Udinese man was tipped as One 2 Watch by BackPageFootball earlier this summer, and he delivered upon his expectations with a scintillating display of attacking football.

2. Unconventially Attractive

Despite not fielding the 3-3-1-3 we had expected, Bielsa’s tactics will still have caused a stir in South Africa. Waldo Ponce was the only natural defender in a four man back line, with Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla and Arturo Vidal more at home higher up the pitch. This was evident in the full backs’ unfamiliar-to-many surging runs forward. Vidal and Isla were not your conventional wide support. Vidal in particular preferred to drift infield rather than offer direct support to Beausejour on the left wing. With Honduras only playing Pavon up front, Gary Medel was granted license to roam forward, although the Boca man rarely got past the half-way line. Whenever Pavon got hold of the ball for Honduras, he was inevitably forced to retreat with the ball as one of Medel or Ponce hassled him relentlessly, such was Chile’s strength in numbers at the back. Carlos Carmona played the holding role effectively, with Rodrigo Millar occupying a box-to-box role slightly ahead of him. The front quartet lined up identical to what would be expected from Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3. While the personnel was different, the tactics remained the same with Matias Fernández pulling the strings in the trequartista role – his deliveries from set pieces showed an exceptional understanding of the dreaded Jubilani ball. Alexis Sánchez stole the show on the right hand side, waltzing past players with ease and generally being at the centre of everything Chile had going forward. Beausejour will be delighted to grab a goal in the World Cup, having only previously netted for his country just the once. He’s more comfortable up front than he is on the wing, but with the majority of Chile’s attack coming through Sánchez on the right, Beasejour’s weaknesses were hidden and he had a decent game. Valdivia played the role of striker efficiently, linking up well with those around him, but expect Humberto Suazo to walk back into the team upon his return to fitness.

3. Not Good Enough

 				 Honduras v Chile

I was very disappointed with Honduras today. They were always going to be underdogs going into this game, and their tactics reflected this. They were cut apart by Chile on several occasions today, and a 1-0 scoreline flatters Honduras as Chile should easily have had 3 or 4. The majority of this was down to poor finishing by the Chileans, although a sublime save from Valladarves and an excellent last ditch tackle from Figueroa will make their way onto highlight reels tonight. Pavon was an isolated figure up front, and was hustled off the ball too easily on the few occasions it came his way. Wilson Palacios had a great season for Spurs, but not even he could keep a lid on Chile as they came forward. They will struggle against Spain whose finishing will be a lot more clinical, and the last match of the World Cup group stages might not be one for purists when Honduras take on Switzerland.

4. Alex-cellent

Worst pun Talking Points has ever used, we know. I apologise. Alexis Sánchez was very impressive for Chile tonight. He’s not afraid to run at players, and he goes past them with such ease. It will be interesting to see how Capdevilla – the often (harshly) identified Spanish weak link – will cope against him on June 25th. Overall, Marcelo Bielsa will be pleased with his star man but will be concerned about the Udinese winger’s finishing – he could and perhaps should have grabbed a couple of goals today. If Spain are to win out this group, then Chile will have to be more clinical against their runners-up spot challengers Switzerland on Monday in a game that you expect will seal qualification for them should they win.

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Talking Points: Brazil 2-1 North Korea

1. Too much, Too soon

 				 Brazil 2 North Korea 1

Kudos to North Korea, they have won themselves millions of fans the world over with their performance against Brazil tonight. They defended with the steely discipline you expect from the Germans and Italians, against one of the ouright favourites in Brazil to win the World Cup this summer. A second-string England side lost to a similar Brazilian line-up back in Novemeber but came nowhere near to winning the plaudits that Kim Jong-Hun’s side will have won tonight. You get the feeling that it could have been a historic result for the Koreans – a result to rival their victory over Italy back in 1966 – had they been playing a lethargic Portugal side instead, but a narrow defeat against one of the world’s top teams will have given them a confidence boost to equal that of most victories. It’s often said that games balanced on a knife-edge are decided by either an individual error or a moment of inspiration. Indeed, both scenarios unfolded tonight as Korean ‘keeper Ri Myong-Guk found himself in no man’s land for Maicon’s attempted pull back from the by-line. Whether the wantaway Inter right back meant it or not is another thing, but Myong-Guk should have dealt with it and his side’s confidence took a huge blow thereafter. If Brazil’s opener was fortunate, their second was brilliant. A divine pass from a rejuvenated Robinho split the Korean defence and Elano finished with the utmost precision. Perhaps realising they had nothing to lose, North Korea pushed forward towards the end, and part full-back/part centre back Ji Yun Nam will not be begrudged his historic goal.

2. Not your typical backs-to-the-wall performance

When the draw for Group G was made back in December, most of us expected North Korea to be the token whipping boys of the World Cup. How uneducated we were. Korea are a disciplined team who religiously stick to their game plan. Korea never looked like scoring from anything other than a quick breakaway while the scores were tied. Their fullbacks rarely passed the halfway line, with creativity being the duty of Hong Jong-Yo in a trequartista role behind the emphatic Jong Tae-Se. When in possession of the ball, Korea switched from a defensive 5-3-1-1 to an ever so slightly less defensive 5-2-2-1 with Mun In-Guk pushing up to share a supportive role with Jong-Yo. As such, Korea offered very little threat from wide positions, and the majority of their attacks came through the impressive Tae-Se who justified his growing reputation in world football. The Wayne Rooney of North Korea – as he has been dubbed – caused problems for a very experienced Brazilian centre back pairing of Lucio and Juan, showing great awareness and control with body strength beyond what his meagre frame suggests. You get the feeling some of Europe’s aspiring higher-tier teams will have taken notice. An Yong-Hak occupied a Javier Mascherano-like holding role, albeit one without as much movement, but it was his presence which prevented Kaka from linking up with those around him. As we’ve already said, Korea stand more of a chance of getting something out of their clashes with Portugal and Ivory Coast, assuming they stick with the same defensive approach. Expect Jun-Il and Yun-Nam to double up on Cristiano Ronaldo in an attempt to frustrate Carlos Queiroz’s side while Portugal struggle to create chances in much the same way as they struggled today.

3. Just Mai Luck

As mentioned it took a fortunate strike from Maicon to break the deadlock in the 55th minute. We don’t believe for one second that he meant it, but a stroke of luck was just about the only way Brazil looked like taking the lead despite their dominance in possession. A flat back five from the Korean defence frustrated Brazil no end in the first half, with Kaka and Robinho beind identified as the danger men. While the former found it tough in the face of constant attention from the Korean back line, the more skilful and innovative Robinho ran riot. The (still) Man City man seems to be enjoying his football once again, and was in top form tonight providing the first real joga bonita-style entertainment the fans in South Africa had looked forward to. His sublime pass for Brazil’s second was proof that the 26-year old offers final product, something fellow hype-machine Cristiano Ronaldo failed to deliver earlier today with a paltry successful pass completion rate of just 59%. Fabiano was on his own up top, but not shy of support from Robinho and Elano. Maicon and Bastos had free reign on the wings as Korea’s only wide players – their full backs Jun-Il and Jong-Hyok – offer very little going forward and as a result, the Brazilian full-backs can relax their defensive responsibilities.

4. No room for politics

Never before have I been so happy to separate a country’s footballing identity from it’s political reputation. Rumours were flying around that this match would not be televised back in North Korea, which we really hope are not true because it would be a crying shame for this team not to be celebrated. Adrian Chiles said it best (shudder) when he said that never has a team been allowed the right to be as proud of a defeat as North Korea can be tonight. They have served their country a greater service than many of their multi-millionaire diplomats, and we can offer them nothing but applause and the utmost respect for their achievements.

 				 Brazil 2 North Korea 1

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Brilliance Or Bust For Bielsa’s Chile

The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Okay, so that’s not the best way to open an article about a perennial World Cup underdog, but bear with me here. As you’re reading this article online, I’m going to assume you’re privy to the wicked ways of the world wide web. Therefore I won’t be going into the mechanics of how one could find themselves researching one certain or specific topic on a forum at 3:00 am – perhaps for a college paper or a work report – yet find themselves in a polar opposite corner of the internet at 3:01 am. Now narrow the scope of the internet we’re talking about here to just football blogs and websites, and you still retain that same sinister, almost subliminal habit. It was the summer of 2009, and I think I must have been reading up on the latest transfer rumours and general garbage you get during a non-international tournament year, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the random football forum I ended up on at a ridiculous hour in the morning, and the anonymously posted message I read while I was there. There was a discussion on what teams people were looking forward to seeing at the World Cup. Now, obviously there was a great deal of predicting and assuming going on, as South Africa were the only sure team to be there given that they would be hosts. But that’s the joy of footballing debate.

Before I go any further, I’m going to ask you to fast forward to today – Tuesday 15th June to be exact – and ask you again to bear with me, because I’m really excited about what lies ahead. The World Cup has been a pretty cautious affair so far, with only those boring old Germans coming close to thrilling us as we enter the second last match day of the first round of fixtures. But there’s no need to fear, because Brazil are about to kick off their campaign against a lowly, unheard of North Korea side, right? And then there’s Spain, who commence with the tag of favourites the following day, having arrived in South Africa with a run of 33 wins in their last 34 competitive matches. They’ll be the business too, won’t they? Well, either way, I’m not bothered. I’ll watch their respective matches, but it’s neither the Brazilians nor the Spanish that I’m excited about, for there’s another team who kick off their campaign tomorrow. It’s the team whose bandwagon I’ve made myself at home upon, and a team who I’ve studied relentlessly for the past year. It’s the same team I read about that fateful night at God-knows-what hour, thanks to a simple, anonymously posted two word response:

Watch Chile.

The Coach

To understand Chile, you must first understand their coach Marcelo Bielsa. The 54-year old is very much a cult favourite among those of us who like to analyse games a little bit beyond plain old results. If you are already a follower of Bielsa, then it may please you to discover that you belong to a clique of Bielsistas, a term coined to refer to subscribers of Bielsa’s philosophies. El Loco – as he is affectionately known – is a colourful character, and one who demands the utmost respect from his players, an offering he is more than happy to reciprocate. His renown for being a leader in the tactics of football is derived from his implicit attention to detail and a meticulous examination of whatever resources he has available to him about his opponents.

Bielsa has been in management for just over three decades now, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that his hunger for success may be on the wane. No manager in South Africa has a greater point to prove than than the former Argentina boss, who saw his highly talented side crash out of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan. A dream strike partnership of Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo never materialised due to the players’ mutual dislike of one another, and Bielsa and co. were sent packing before the knockout stage of the tournament. He went on to atone for such a disappointment by guiding Argentina to an Olympic gold medal and a Copa America runners up spot, but you get the feeling that such is Bielsa’s fiery, tempestuous character that this is the moment he was been waiting for.

The Team

As for the Chile squad itself, it is one of the younger sides taking part this summer with an average of 25 and only one player above the age of 30. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that this is an unproven and untested squad though, as many of these players have played together at underage level for years during a particularly prosperous period in Chilean football. In 2007, the under-20 national team finished 3rd in the World Cup, being knocked out by eventual winners Argentina in the semi-final. This was followed by the under-21’s finishing as runner’s up in the 2008 Toulon Tournament. Make no mistake about it, this group of players are very familiar with one another and have already tasted a relative level of success on an international scale. This is a team who have performed remarkably under Bielsa’s tutelage, finishing just one point and one goal adrift of first-place Brazil in qualification – a team seen by many as favourites to lift the cup. But long gone are the days of household names such as Marcelo Salas, Ivan Zamarano or David Pizzaro. In their places are a team of young, hungry players eager to prove themselves on the biggest stage of all. There are no superstar names in Bielsa’s squad, but that could all change should the Chileans perform to the best of their capabilities this summer.

The Key Players

Alexis SanchezAlexis Sánchez (WF) is very much the poster boy of Chilean football. Chris Mann has already put together an excellent report on the 21 year old for BackPageFootball as one to watch this summer.

“21 year-old Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez has hardly just burst on to the scene, but this season has seen the Udinese player begin to show signs that he may develop into one of world football’s brightest talents in the years to come.”

“Having scored eight goals in his 26 appearances for the national team to date, Sanchez has shown that he more than has what it takes to play at the very highest level and, after impressing during qualification”……………”the coming months could well shape the career Alexis Sanchez, one of football’s most exciting prospects.”

Humberto SuazoHumberto Suazo (ST) may not be as instantly recognisable as the aforementioned Salas or Zamarano, but Chupeto certainly has a goalscoring record to rival the very best. In 2006, he had more goals than any other recognised striker in a single season, plundering his way to 52 goals for Colo-Colo. Now plying his trade for Zaragoza in Spain, Suazo is blessed with a delicate touch that tremendously contrasts the thunderous shot at goal that typically follows. On the downside, when things don’t go his way, you’ll be sure to know about it as his reputation for being a goalscorer is often eclipsed by that of being a trouble-maker.

Matias  FernandezMatías Fernández (AMC) is a skilful player known for both his trickery on the ball and a penchant for scoring sensational goals. An indifferent spell at Villareal where he was groomed to be Juan Roman Riquelme’s successor seems to have affected Matí’s confidence, and as a result he can be terribly inconsistent. He has since resurrected his career at Sporting, and Chile will be looking towards Fernández to pull the strings in the trequartista role at the head of a midfield diamond formation – a role he excels in. If Ferández is on form this summer, Chile will be too.

Gary MedelGary Medel (DM/DR) is a player for whom I have all the time in the world. For all of Chile’s attacking innovation and ingenuity, there is the need for a tenacious defensive talisman to keep a watchful eye on happenings at the back. Given that, there are very few players in South Africa this summer more tenacious and warrior-like than Medel. I have already written about The Chilean Gattuso on my ConsolationGoal blog, but Medel is at the very top of my watch list for the World Cup, and I am sure he is relishing the prospect of going up against Torres, Villa and co. as much as I am looking forward to watching him.

Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal (DM) will occupy the holding midfielder position to offer Chile some balance and protection from the counter attack. He has played alongside midfield partner Carlos Carmona since the under-20 World Cup in 2007, and although he has struggled to maintain the abnormally high goalscoring record he held for a defensive midfielder at underage level, he is still one of Chile’s most important players as he offers the forward quartet of Suazo, Sanchez, Fernandez and Gonzalez peace of mind should they lose possession.

The Tactics

This is where the fun begins, as Bielsa adopts a very strict 3-4-3 formation. Attacking wise (below left), this makes for some scintillating viewing, as Fernández operates as the trequartista, providing service out wide to Sánchez and ex-Liverpool winger Mark Gonzalez. Expect to see those three interchange positions regularly as they look to confuse their opponents and shake markers. It is an extraordinarly quick forward line that will leave defences requiring an awful lot of help from their defensive midfielders in front. Don’t be surprised to see Spain start with Sergio Busquets when these two meet, regardless of assured qualification or not. Expect Millar and Vidal to provide that quick link between defence and attack as they look to get the ball to Fernández, especially on the counter attack which Chile just love to play. Watch out for Gary Medel darting forward quite often too, as asking him to stay back for a whole game is akin to placing a juicy steak in front of a pitbull and commanding him to sit.

Defensively, or more appropriately, when they are not in possession (above right) Chile seem to come up short which is no surprise given their formation. Sánchez and Gonzalez are required to track back whenever possession is lost to help out Jara and Medel. The latter will revert to right back where he plays for Boca, while Jara – the more central of the two – often needs help from Carmona and Vidal, or indeed Gonzalez should the threat come from a left wing position. As a result, the regular back three stretches itself, while a new narrow block of three midfielders (Vidal, Carmona and Millar) drop back and sit on top of them, creating a trapezoid or flat-top triangle. Fernández and Suazo are relieved of defensives apart from closing down nearby opposing players, and positioning themselves in the way of prospective passes.

Despite a lack of celebrity, Chile are not in South Africa to make up the numbers. They have more than enough quality to cause even the best of teams serious problems, a theory that will be put to the test when they face Spain on June 25th. While there is a very realistic possibility that Spain will simply prove too efficient for a Chile side who like to be the ones doing the attacking, Marcelo Bielsa’s side should make the knockout stage with relative ease.

I have to say it’s been an interesting year here on my new bandwagon. Marcelo Bielsa and his tactics have opened my eyes to a world beyond packing the midfield, and prioritising not losing above winning – something I seem to have become accustomed in 99% of the matches I watch. Sadly, it’s been well documented that we are currently experiencing the dullest start goals scored-wise to a World Cup on record. And traditionally, it’s the South Americans and their attractive, easy on the eye brand of football who open up these tournaments for the better. However, this time round, it might not be the two you have in mind…

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