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Fighting Back: The Return of Real Betis

15 Aug

As Deportivo La Coruna slip out of the Primera Division following their relegation at the end of last season, another famous name returns to the top-tier of Spanish football.

Real Betis ended their 2 year hiatus from La Liga by clinching the Segunda title.  Pepe Mel’s side finished 4 points clear of nearest challengers, Rayo Vallecano, and made up for the disappointment of the previous season’s fourth place – the Verdiblancos completed 2009/10 level on points with Hercules and Levante, but missed out on promotion by virtue of having an inferior head-to-head record when compared to their two rivals.

The club from Seville have been league champions once, Spanish Cup winners twice and are said to be the sixth best supported team in their homeland.  However, to suggest that Betis have had a turbulent recent history would be something of an understatement.  As recently as 2005, they were Copa del Rey winners and in the same season came fourth in La Liga, thus qualifying for the Champions League.  Their first appearance in Europe’s premier competition resulted in a respectable third place finish in their group, including a victory over Chelsea.

However in domestic terms, it was all downhill from there.  A succession of finishes in the bottom-half of the table culminated in relegation at the end of 2008/09, sending Betis to second division football for the first time since 2001.

When they failed to achieve an instant return, Mel was appointed.  As well as having spells in charge of Tenerife (where he succeeded Rafa Benitez) and Rayo Vallecano, Mel played for Betis’ promotion winning side of 1990, scoring 22 times.  He has now repeated the feat as a boss, aided by the likes of 27-goal striker Ruben Castro and midfielder Salva Sevilla.

Any dramas on the pitch however, pale into insignificance when held up against the off-field turmoil which has engulfed the club.  By the time of Betis’ relegation in 2009, fans and other observers had became more than a tad concerned by Manuel Ruiz De Lopera’s handling of the club’s affairs.  Owner since 1992, De Lopera presided over the some of the most notable triumphs in Betis’ history, but has also overseen two relegations, the then world record signing of Brazilian flop Denilson and even had the temerity to rename the club’s stadium after himself.

Supporters frustrations came to a head on 15 June 2009 or ’15-J’ as it became known – it was estimated that up to 65,000 ‘Beticos’ took to the streets, marching to call for the end of De Lopera’s reign.  It took another year, but it looked as if finally the fans wishes were granted when first, De Lopera was charged with fraud, and then he agreed to sell most of his shares to a consortium headed by businessman Luis Oliver.  However, Oliver had hardly covered himself in glory previously having taken two other clubs (Xerez and Cartagena) to the brink of bankruptcy and it then transpired that De Lopera was merely looking to ‘park’ his shares with Oliver and will still intent on remaining very much in charge.

Step forward Mercedes Alaya, the Spanish judge who had brought those charges against De Lopera.  She froze his assets before any transaction could be completed and appointed a three-man committee to administer his shares in Betis.  One member of this committee was Rafael Gordillo.  While Gordillo is probably best known as an excellent left-sided defender and midfielder for Real Madrid and Spain in the 1980’s, he spent the first nine years of his career at Betis and was later to return for another spell – he was also at the forefront of the ’15-J’ protests.

While Gordillo has now handed over the reins to new president Miguel Guillen, his return and the departure of De Lopera led to a period of relative stability – and the stadium returning to it’s previous name of Estadio Benito Villamarin. Betis however, are by no means out of the woods – they remain in the Spanish version of administration with reported debts of around 84 million Euros.

Betis fans will aim to relegate financial and boardroom concerns to the backs of their minds in the coming season as they resume hostilities with Barcelona, Real Madrid and, most importantly, their cross-town rivals.  In terms of intensity and animosity, the Seville derbi is arguably only surpassed in Spain by El Clasico itself.  However, as satisfying as victory over Sevilla would be, in the short-term the biggest battles for Real Betis will be fought away from the field of play.

 

 

The Damned Benitez

30 Sep

It was clear before the end of last season that Rafa Benitez’s time in charge at Anfield was up.  Liverpool were going backwards and never really recovered from their failure to go on and win the title in 2009.  Benitez may have made an earlier exit, had he not received such strong backing from the Liverpool support, many of whom remained fiercely loyal to the Spaniard until the end of his reign.

Despite Liverpool’s 7th place league finish last season, Benitez was never going to be short of offers – on the continent he is still highly respected and of course is a former Champions League winner.  It was therefore little surprise when he landed the job at Inter Milan.

On the surface, it could be argued that Benitez landed on his feet; being in charge of the European Champions and the dominant force in Italian football.  While it’s understandable that he wanted to get straight back into the game at a high level, Benitez probably couldn’t have made a worse choice for his next club.

For a start, he wasn’t top of Inter’s list.  Massimo Moratti would have preferred Fabio Capello or Guus Hiddink.  On the field, the expectations are huge.  A season that would normally be considered very good, could be seen as failure when held up against last year’s achievements – you can’t improve on a Champions League win and a domestic double.  The European Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid wasn’t the best of starts and winning Serie A is a minimum requirement given Inter’s recent record – failure to deliver will see Benitez out after a year. 

Then there’s the shadow that will hang over Benitez during his time in Italy – his old buddy and predecessor, Jose Mourinho.  Any manager would find it tough taking over from Mourinho, but there will be even more pressure on Benitez to succeed, given the bad blood that exists between him and the Real Madrid coach.  It’s only natural that comparisons will be made between the two, and how will Benitez handle being at a club where a man he clearly dislikes is such an icon? 

The situation at Inter isn’t dissimilar to the 1970’s rivalry between Brian Clough and Don Revie.  Was Rafa motivated by the thought of outdoing his old foe? Perhaps he thinks he can ‘win better’ at Inter, though it’s difficult to imagine him gathering his players and telling them to throw away all the medals and trophies they’ve won so far.

It’s too late to do anything about it now, but after his exit from Liverpool, Rafa Benitez should have taken some time to consider his next move.  By stepping back Benitez  would have allowed himself the opportunity to get over the disappointing end to his time at Anfield, and helped him to decide on a club that was right for him.  Instead, he has dived straight into a new challenge where immediate success is required.  Benitez may find during the current campaign that he can’t win, even when he does.

Jose Won’t Last

16 Aug

Now that he’s finally in the job, it’s time for Jose Mourinho to deliver at Real Madrid.  As well as improving on ‘Los Merengues’ recent awful Champions League record, he will also be expected to overcome one of the best Barcelona sides of all time.

With his track record, and recent success at Inter Milan, you wouldn’t bet against Mourinho living up to the hype.  However, no matter how successful he is at the Bernabeu, Mourinho’s stay is likely to be short, for a number of reasons.

Real Madrid Doesn’t Do Long-Term

Mourinho hasn’t been brought in to build a side over a number of years.  He and his team will need to hit the ground running or could he leave via the same door shown to Hiddink, Pellegrini and Champions League winners Heynckes and Del Bosque. Incredibly, Del Bosque’s spell of just under 4 seasons in charge (1999-2003) is the longest of any Madrid boss in the last 30 years.

Neither Does Jose

Less than three years at FC Porto, just over three at Chelsea, and a couple of seasons at Inter – it’s hard to see Jose having any sort of Ferguson or Wenger-style reign at one club.  It’s already been reported that he has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for free at the end of any season.  His approach seems to be – go in, make an impact quickly and leave once the job’s done.  With two Champions League wins and league titles in three countries, it’s difficult to argue with his methods.  Anyway, everybody knows where he really wants to be.

English Premier League

You have to hand it to him – only Mourinho could use two of the world’s biggest clubs as stopping-off points on the way back to his preferred destination.  He seems to be obsessed with English football.  He talks about the fans and the stadiums, how much his family love the country and while in Italy was regularly quoted on his thoughts about the English game.  He even filmed a commercial for Sky TV, promoting their Premier League coverage.

While he won’t admit it, part of Mourinho’s admiration for all things English stems from the way he is treated by the media.  He’s not just a football manager – he’s a celebrity, who gets an easy time at press conferences (which are often entertaining) and is adored by many English newspapers and TV channels.  Contrast that with the difficult relationship that he had with journalists in Italy, who over the years had seen the likes of Trappatoni, Capello and Lippi.  To them, Mourinho was no ‘special one’, rather a talented coach with a big mouth.  Mourinho did himself no favours during his time in Serie A, and regularly courted controversy, including verbal attacks on Claudio Ranieri, comments about Sulley Muntari’s religious beliefs, and allegedly pushing an Italian reporter.

Marca

Yes, good old Marca, the Spanish ‘newspaper’ which regularly acts as a mouthpiece for the Bernabeu hierarchy, and who campaigned tirelessly for Mourinho to be recruited.  Jose is their golden boy at the moment, the hero who has ridden into town to see off big bad Barcelona, but that could quickly change.  Not only are results a requirement, Real Madrid teams are also expected to win with a certain amount of style.  While nobody could question Mourinho’s tactical ability, or his motivational skills, the teams he sends out could often be described as at best, cautious, and at worst, defensive.  Will fans and senior management accept success, no matter how it is achieved, or will Mourinho have to adapt to fit in with his new surroundings?

Personality Clashes

Jose’s not exactly shy and has previous when it comes to run-ins with presidents, directors of football and players.  In Madrid the possibilities are endless.  Imagine the reaction from Mourinho if Florentino Perez decides to involve himself in team affairs.  Surely he will be smart enough to keep his nose out? Maybe not.

Then there’s Director General Jorge Valdano, who had a pop at Mourinho’s Chelsea side after a Champions League tie in 2006.  He looked like a nervous wreck at Mourinho’s introductory press conference and even went out of his way to tell the assembled media that he and Jose had no issues with each other.  Give it a couple of months…

Jose also has previous with Cristiano Ronaldo.  The pair had words via the media in 2007 and, while both have been saying lots of nice things about each other in recent weeks, it will be interesting to see what happens if Jose decides it’s best for the team that his fellow countryman plays in a more withdrawn role.  Will he accept this as Samuel Eto’o did at Inter?

It should be a match made in heaven – one of the world’s biggest clubs and one the best coaches in the game.  However, behind the hype it’s clear that it’s not going to be easy for Mourinho in Madrid. On the pitch he will certainly find La Liga a tougher proposition than Serie A, where his Inter side still ended up champions despite doing their best to hand the title to Roma.

He will also have to deal with off-field issues that are part of life at the Bernabeu and it’s these issues that could result in Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid being brief.

However, as he showed in Italy, brief can also mean successful.

 

What Next For Le Guen?

24 Jun

Many of the managers and coaches at the World Cup are experienced campaigners who’ve seen it all before.  The likes of Capello, Lippi and Eriksson had successful club careers before taking on the challenges of international football.

Paul Le Guen, on the other hand, probably didn’t expect to be in charge of a national team at this stage of his career.  Whether he will remain in the job after Cameroon’s early exit from the competition remains to be seen. 

Just five years ago, Lyon had won their fourth straight Ligue 1 title, the third in a row with Le Guen in charge.  Considered to be one of Europe’s top young managers, Le Guen reportedly had offers to move to Benfica or Lazio, but instead decided to take over at Rangers in 2006.

What may, on paper, have looked like a stepping stone to a top job in England proved to be anything but.  At Lyon, Le Guen’s focus was solely on coaching the first team, and he had no involvement with the signing of new players.  Le Guen’s inexperience in the transfer market was shown at Ibrox, with some poor signings including a bizarre triple swoop from Austria Vienna, and Rangers quickly fell behind Celtic in the title race.

Some shocking results were compounded by Le Guen clashing with captain Barry Ferguson , striker Kris Boyd and even the club doctor.  Le Guen’s position became untenable and he left after only 7 months in the job.

Next was a season and a half at Paris St Germain, where Le Guen starred as a player in the 1990’s.  Despite helping PSG to avoid relegation, his contract was not renewed in 2009.

So where does he go from here? It looks likely that Le Guen will leave the Cameroon role, and already there is talk of him taking over as coach of Australia.  Given the battering his reputation has taken since leaving Lyon, Le Guen has to ensure his next move is the right one, particularly if he has any aspirations of returning to the top level of European club football. 

It’s difficult to comprehend that a man who, only 5 years ago had such a bright future, is now battling to save his career.

No Longer The Main Event

10 Jun
Each World Cup seems to provide an equal mixture of football magic, and on and off-field scandal.  For every Maradona wonder goal, there’s a Zidane headbutt.  Everybody has their own favourite tournament – for French fans it’s 1998, anyone from Argentina has 1978 or 1986, and if you’re a Brazilian pensioner, then take your pick.
 
The tournament in South Africa is eagerly anticipated and will hopefully be one to remember – if they can overcome injury problems, Spain look a good bet to become champions for the first time. However, no matter how good a competition it turns out to be, the days of the World Cup being the number one football event on the planet are over – over the past 10-15 years, the Uefa Champions League has become football’s most important competition.

While patriots and traditionalists across the globe would be disgusted at such a statement, they need to face facts. The football played in the Champions League is of a higher standard than anything at international level, and there are a number of reasons for this. For a start, pretty much of all the world’s best players appear year in, year out, in Europe’s premier club competition. If a player is good enough, the chances are he will be bought by one of the top sides – nobody misses out simply because of their nationality, unlike George Best, Ryan Giggs and George Weah, none of whom had the opportunity to appear at a World Cup

It also stands to reason that a group of players who train together every day, and play together 50-60 times a season will develop more of an understanding than a team who meet up a handful of times over the course of a year. That’s before you consider that some big names only appear for their country when it’s a competitive fixture and give the friendlies a miss, meaning they even less chance of gelling with team-mates.

The Champions League is now an incredibly difficult competition to win. The old knockout format, containing only the league champions from each country was replaced by group stages with more top teams. This year’s winner’s, Inter Milan, entered the competition knowing they would be competing against three sides from their own country as well as the top four sides from La Liga and the English Premier League. That’s before you even start to think about sides from Germany, Holland, Portugal and Russia.

Slowly but surely, club football has become more important than the international game. The amount of money now earned by the top professionals is obviously a huge factor – it’s natural that someone earning £100k per week is going to put their club first. Due to the demands of the modern game, more and more players retire early from the national side in order to prolong their club careers, something that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

The World Cup is one of the world’s greatest sporting events, bringing people together and nations to a standstill like no other football tournament. The fact that it’s only held every 4 years adds to it’s appeal. No doubt there will be moments in South Africa, good and bad, that will remembered for generations.

However, times have changed. The rise of the Champions League, and the level of football it produces, means that the World Cup is no longer the pinnacle of the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still Capable Of Greatness

21 May

This season was always going to be tough for Barcelona. Following the Champions League and Spanish double successes of the last campaign, what else could Pep Guardiola’s side do, other than try to win the lot all over again. To be fair, they’ve made a decent attempt to repeat last year’s glories. They’ve won another La Liga title, and were only a goal short of another Champions League final.

However, the semi-final exit to Inter Milan will silence those who claimed the current Barca team is possibly the greatest club side of all time. While the Italian’s were hanging on in the closing minutes of the second leg, they were deserved winners over two legs. Barcelona lacked the creativity to break down a stubborn defence and, tactically, Jose Mourinho got it right once again.

Naturally there will be disappointment at the Nou Camp following their exit, particularly with the final being held at the Bernabeu – home of bitter rivals Real Madrid. However, Barcelona need to avoid overreacting and making wholesale changes following their elimination from the Champions League. Over the last couple of years , they’ve been the envy of the football world and for good reason. It’s not just that in Pep Guardiola they have a top manager – it’s the fact he’s a rookie coach who was also played and captained the club so understands the history and the expectation that goes with life at the Nou Camp. It’s not just the results they’ve achieved and trophies they’ve won – it’s the cavalier, and at times breathtaking, style of play they produce on the way to success. It’s not just that they’ve assembled a squad of world class players – it’s the fact that the spine of the team are players like Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi and Iniesta, Catalans who came through the youth ranks – though Pique had to be bought back from Manchester United.

Next season these homegrown talents will again be the key to Barcelona winning at home and abroad. They should have an even stronger squad, now that David Villa’s signing has been confirmed, surely replacing Thierry Henry who looks likely to move to the USA. Cesc Farbegas also looks likely to return from Arsenal after the World Cup, and while he may not be an automatic starter immediately, he will be the long-term replacement for Xavi.

Had Barca gone on and won this season’s Champions League, they would have been compared to the greatest ever European club sides. Many excellent teams have been champions of Europe, but only the truly great teams win it more than once. The achievement would have been even more special since no team has ever defended the trophy since the European Cup became the Champions League in the early 1990’s. It’s no surprise that it’s become so difficult for clubs to retain the trophy, as Europe’s top club competition is now as much a test of stamina, as it is footballing ability.

While Barcelona were also Champions League winners in 2006, that was Frank Rikjaard’s team, led by Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Guardiola’s current group of players are capable of winning the trophy once or twice more before they go their seperate ways. If they do then they will be up there with other multiple winners including Real Madrid (1950’s), Liverpool (70’s) and AC Milan (1989 and 1990). Defeat to Inter Milan was a blow, but it doesn’t have to be the end for the current Barcelona side.