Brazil Recovery On Track As Copa Approaches

BrazilThe 2014 World Cup semi final still haunts Brazil. The humiliating defeat at the hands of eventual winners Germany was an eye opener for a team so confident of success in the tournament that they became blinded towards the truth. Despite having arguably one of the best players in the world in Neymar, the Brazil squad selected for the World Cup in their home land was less than inspiring. Luiz Filipe Scolari’s side were good on paper but lacked the creative spark or cutting edge of previous Brazil world cup teams. No Robinho or Ronaldinho to add an extra dimension to their play and no Romario or Ronaldo like striker to fire them to glory. All in all it was a side built for one purpose – to support Neymar. The talented 22 year old was given a free role, allowed to roam and create and basically do what he does best. With that freedom, Neymar shone picking up four goals on route to the quarter finals and placing himself in the running for player of the tournament. But a bad clumsy challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in the last few minutes of their clash in the quarters ruled Neymar out for the rest of the tournament. Heading into the semi’s Brazil were like a chicken with its head cut off. Unable to function and without Neymar to lead the way, Brazil were torn apart by a rampant Germany hungry for success. The 7-1 score line was flattering to Germany but in truth it could have been more. Their pride severely dented, Brazil’s national team was in tatters.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup (Image from Getty)

Two months later a fresh looking Brazil side took to the field to play Colombia in a friendly. Led out by new manager Dunga returning for a second spell as national boss, Brazil looked nervous yet prepared to start to rewrite the wrongs that had happened months previously. Their ranks had been changed dramatically with several key players from the World Cup notably absent. Striker Fred, who suffered the most due to his poor showing at the World Cup, had retired from international football aged 30 whilst Julio Cesar, Jo, Hulk, Maxwell and Paulinho all were left out in favour of fresh blood. In came Diego Tardelli, Everton Ribeiro, Philippe Coutinho and a recall for Robinho to add options to Brazil’s approach. The inclusion of Atletico Madrid defender Miranda was also welcomed by the fans and Brazilian media, many of whom felt that he should have been part of the World Cup squad in the first place and not have been excluded. His addition helped to solidify a shaky looking defence, even if it meant breaking up the much hyped PSG duo of David Luiz and Thiago Silva.  The match against Colombia finished in a 1-0 win with newly appointed captain Neymar sealing the win with an 83rd minute free kick. That nervous win would kick start a run of friendly victories that has now stretched to eight in a row. Brazil are back so it would seem and with a bang. Or are they?

Yes they have played against some good sides (notably France, Chile, Argentina and Colombia) scoring 18 times and conceding just twice but in a majority of the games Brazil have labored away to get the win. This may be due to Dunga crafting the team in his vision – less flair, more workhorse like in their performances. Brazil is more disciplined than before preferring to play through teams on the deck rather than looking for adventurous but risky long balls. Neymar in his new role as captain has a more disciplined approach too, less free to roam the pitch and more focused on linking the play and inspiring the team with some quick setup work or a shot on goal. The results of this change have been evident with the Barcelona player scoring eight times in as many games, including a self demolition of Japan when he scored four goals. Unlike during the World Cup though, the pressure on Neymar as his country’s only real goal threat has been lifted with several new players drafted in to ease the burden. In particular, the emergence of Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino has been a massive boost to Brazil’s attacking options with the 23 year old playing a significant role as provider and finisher of some of Brazil’s best moves in recent games. Despite having only four caps to date, Firmino has scored two fantastic goals and looks set to cement his place in Dunga’s long term plans as long as his form continues for both club and country.

Brazil’s fresh start under Dunga has been impressive to date but the biggest challenges await with the Copa America the first of them. Due to be played in Chile in June, Dunga will know that only a strong performance and perhaps a win will be enough to mend the bridges with the Brazil fans that were so violently destroyed by that defeat by Germany. The Copa is far from an easy competition to win, arguably tougher than the World Cup so Brazil will need to be on their best form to be triumphant. Brazil face Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in the group stage starting June 14th with progression expected. Failure to progress is not an option open for Dunga especially with the heartache from the World Cup still fresh in Brazilian hearts and minds.

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Deconstructing Brazil – What Went Wrong

Down and Out - Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in stunning fashion (Image from AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)With the dust now settled on what was a stunning World Cup, the inquest into what went wrong for Brazil can now begin. Whilst other teams like England, Spain and Italy exited earlier than expected and before Brazil, it was the nature of the home teams implosion in the semi finals against eventual champions Germany and their failure to recover for the irrelevant third place playoff game that has many talking. Expectations were high going into the tournament off the back of winning the World Cup warm up event, the Confederations Cup. A spectacular demolition of Spain in the final by 3-0 lifted the hopes of a nation and set about creating a false dawn ahead of the World Cup. How could they not win? With Neymar playing well, the defence solid as a rock and Fred finishing top goal scorer, Brazil fans started to plan the victory parade before the World Cup had even began. After a group stage that taught us little except for Neymar’s brilliance, Brazil went into the knock out stages with more belief that ever before. But after crashing out in the semi finals to Germany by a score of 7-1 and then throwing away the third place playoff against Holland, many are wondering exactly what went wrong?

World Cup winners, Germany  (Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

World Cup winners, Germany
(Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Over reliance on Neymar

Neymar’s brilliance was on show from day one but so was Brazil’s apparent over reliance of their boy genius. Even from the first kick of the ball against Croatia, it appeared as though the tactic was simply give the ball to Neymar. The Barcelona star was at the heart of every play that Brazil made and in the beginning it was mesmerizing to watch. But as the tournament progressed, it gradually turned into predictable. Oscar, the creator of many of Brazil’s best moves cried out for the ball but his teammates instead chose to pass the ball to the heavily marked Neymar. The once unpredictable Brazil had become routine and beating them became obvious – nullify the threat of Neymar and the game is there for the taking. Brazil had little else in the locker – no Kaka to turn to for inspiration, no Robinho to add some flair or Ronaldinho for that matter to provide some brilliance. They may have breezed through the group stage but in the knock out rounds, Brazil dangled too close to the edge for comfort. Both Chile and Colombia tried to shut down Neymar and managed fairly successfully though tight marking although the latter took that too literally. A late and high challenge by Juan Zuniga ended Neymar’s World Cup and with it Brazil’s Plan A. Unfortunately a Plan B was not in the bank for them to turn to meaning defeat against Germany was inevitable.

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly  (Image from Getty)

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly
(Image from Getty)

The £50million mistake?

As a centre back, David Luiz is vulnerable. Against Germany his defending was laughable, his positioning more so. Against the Dutch his attitude to amend for previous mistakes was commendable but again his positioning let him down. Why a centre back was on the left wing with his team trailing by two goals was anyone’s guess. Too often Luiz was anywhere but at centre back leaving Thiago Silva stranded. Its easy to blame Luiz for all seven goals against Germany and that would be unfair as the entire team minus Oscar were culpable but against Holland the argument is vindicated. For the first goal, Luiz was found wandering at the half way line when the ball was played to Robben who was then dragged back by Thiago Silva for a penalty which Van Persie duly converted. Holland’s second came directly from Luiz who chose to clear the ball with his head into the middle of the pitch and onto Daley Blind’s left toe rather than head it out of towards the side line. And to cap off his bumbling display, he was again found out of position for Holland’s third stranded at left back which forced Fernandinho into defending against Janmaat’s cross. Unfortunately Scolari’s decision to place his faith in David Luiz as a centre back failed miserably and the player looked out of his depth and badly out of position. Luiz secured his dream transfer to Paris Saint-Germain for a record fee of £50 million just days before the tournament began with the view to him partnering Thiago Silva at the back next season but surely now even they must be having second thoughts?

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position  (Image from PA)

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position
(Image from PA)

Lack of options upfront

When naming his squad, Scolari chose to name only two out and out strikers – Fred and Jo out of a possible five. The other three positions went to winger Bernard, the all-rounder Neymar and forward turn winger Hulk. Playing with one upfront and Neymar in a floating role, Brazil and Scolari put a lot of faith in one striker in particular, Fred. The 30 year old Fluminense front man was rightly picked as his starting number nine after an impressive season with his club and an even more impressive Confederations Cup which helped to silence many of his critics. But unfortunately for Brazil and Scolari, on the world’s biggest stage Fred was posted missing. Ineffective in the group stages, misfiring in the knockout rounds Fred at times looked more like a liability than a goal threat. Foolishly Scolari kept faith but to no avail as Fred finished the tournament with only a single goal to his name. Why Scolari stuck through him is up for debate but looking at the other options available to him may give the answer. Substitute Jo may be effective in the National Championship but against tough tackling defenders, he became the player who badly failed at Manchester City all those years ago. Bernard, for all his tricks on the ball, is not an out and out striker but yet was thrown into the mix against a rampant Germany with the hopes of scoring a goals or two. As for Hulk, the player who gained his name from his formidable physique and love of the green skinned monster, was more timid than ferocious during the World Cup leading to many questioning if his nickname was indeed appropriate.

Fred's ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Fred’s ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Failed to learn lessons of the past

Brazil’s rich history in the World Cup is nothing to scoff at with a record five World Cups already in their locker. Learning how to win from them is one thing but learning from the mistakes of past failed Brazil teams is another. Scolari knew how to win the World Cup having won it before in 2006 but the fear of losing it never crossed his mind. He should have looked at past teams like that of the 1982 Brazil World Cup squad that went to Spain and learned from their mistakes. After all the similarities are painfully obvious. Clear favourites leading up to the tournament, they feared no one and rightly so as they were arguably one of the best Brazil sides never to win the World Cup. With a squad that included the ever talented Zico alongside the likes of Socrates, Eder, Serginho and Junior, Brazil ran through their group stage with ease which excited the Brazilian people into believing that this would be their year. But like the 2014 squad, Brazil crumbled in the knock out rounds with some startling similarities. Like Neymar, Zico was Brazils star player and the one who they looked to when they needed inspiration. He too was targeted by opposition numbers for rough treatment and almost missed the crucial tie against Italy after a horrendous challenge against Argentina threated to end his World Cup. But Zico managed to play against Italy but could do little to prevent Brazil from crashing out. Upfront Serginho, who had been in superb form for Sao Paulo in the Brazilian Championship in the run up to the tournament was misfiring and with no real option on the bench, Brazil were struggling in front of goal. Added into that Italy exposed Brazil’s defensive frailties on a too frequent basis for the game to end in their favour. Paolo Rossi ran riot with Italy eventually winning 3-2 and knocking Brazil out of the World Cup.  The harsh lessons that head coach Tele Santana learned from this experience should have been glaring warning signs for Scolari but for whatever reason he chose to ignore them.

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy  (Image from Getty)

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy
(Image from Getty)

Why he picked a squad with so few options upfront and little to no support characters like Kaka or Ronaldinho that could shoulder some of the burden from Neymar is unknown. Or why indeed he placed so much faith in David Luiz at centre back despite having a more than reliable alternative in Dante is even more baffling. Ultimately it was Scolari’s decision and one that has cost him his job with the CBF terminating his employment last week along with his coaching staff. Former Brazil manager Dunga and Corinthians manager Tite are rumoured to be the favourites to take over and regardless of which coach gets the job, both will look towards younger players like Oscar as they rebuild the Brazil squad. One man he wont be able to call upon is Fred who decided to retire from international football after being made into a proverbial scapegoat by many in the Brazilian media.  After the collapse in 1982, Brazilian football took a long time to recover focusing more on getting a result rather than playing attractive flowing football, the Brazilian way. For the sake of the world game and for the watching public, many will hope that history does not repeat itself and that Brazil can bounce back from this and show the world once more that they are a team to be feared in international football.

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German Blitz Brings Brazil Crashing Back To Reality

Blitz complete - A shell-shocked Brazil survey the damage (Image from FIFA via Getty)No one could have predicted it and few could believe what they were watching. In the crowds, Neymar sat dejected, his dream diminishing before his eyes. Brazilian supporters fought to hold back their tears as they watched Germany rip apart Brazil in a rampant opening 30 minutes of their World Cup Semi Finals match. During spells Germany looked like they had double the players on the pitch than their stunned opponents as they raced into a five nil lead. Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari sat emotionless on the sidelines, his tactical plans lying in tatters by his feet as a hush rolled over the Brazilian fans in the stands. How could his team possibly come back from this?

Brazil fans couldn't believe what they were seeing (Image from AFP)

Brazil fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing
(Image from AFP)

To be fair in the second half Brazil looked margainly better with the no show Hulk replaced at haf time by Ramires. But Germany still dominated and won the half 2-1 ending the game as a record 7-1 winner. Humiliation complete, Germany advance to Sundays final to face either Argentina or Holland and probably for the first time ever Brazil want Argentina in the final. Not because they would rather see them win than Germany but fear further humilation in the pointless 3rd/4th place play off match with they are now forced to play. But like that game, it’s irrelevant with the main prize snatched away as Brazil crashed out of their own World Cup in stunning fashion.

Should Kaka been part of the squad?  (Image from Getty)

Should Kaka been part of the squad?
(Image from Getty)

Germany were quite simply superb, with a passing and finishing game that many would be proud of. In the ranks, World Cup stars featured prominently. Thomas Muller added to his impressive goal tally so far with one whilst Toni Kroos showed his growing value with a thunderous brace. But the applause must go to 36 year old Miroslav Klose who scored the goal that puts his name permanently into the World Cup record books as the all time leading goalscorer with 16. He overtakes former Brazilian striker Ronaldo who finished his career on 15 World Cup goals. Ironically be overtaken by countryman Thomas Muller who at 24 already has 10 goals to his name. Having scored 5 goals in his first World Cup in 2010 and 5 so far in this World Cup its not hard to see why Klose is looking nervously over his shoulder.

Klose scores his record breaking 16th goal  (image from Getty)

Klose scores his record breaking 16th goal
(image from Getty)

Neither Holland or Argentina will realish their chances against a Germany in this kind of form. Brazil on the other hand look ripe for the picking, battered black and blue by Germany, their pride in the gutter. As the squad sulked off the pitch at the end of a tiring 90 minutes that never looked like ending with tears pouring down their faces, Brazil look like a shell of their former selfs. Yes they missed Neymar and probably more importantly Thiago Silva but this mauling was coming. Over reliance on the boy genius from Barca hurt them badly when injury occured. No plan b hurt more. A lack of a Kaka, Robinho or even Ronaldinho option was clear as Scolari puzzled over what to do to repair the damage. Oscar was the only shining light in what was a dismal performance from the entire team in particular captain for the day David Luiz who made several key errors during the 90 minutes. Few in Brazil will watch Sundays final and fewer Saturdays playoff. Boos and jeers helped the players from the pitch yesterday and nobody can blame them. Brazil failed to show up, and pay the penalty for it. Germany move on to the final and are 90 mins away from destiny of their own making. For Brazil, it’s back to the drawing board once again and reflection time for what went wrong during the tournament everyone thought they would win.

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Make Or Break For Clubs During January Transfer Window.

Transfer Window now open (Image from DailyMail.co.uk)The fans love it. The media loves it even more. So why does the January transfer window scare so many clubs including its managers and chairman? Well quite simply, the next 32 days can make or break your season.  Less than 7 days into the window, the early signs are indicating that it will be a busy one, with several clubs already dipping into the market to strengthen their squads. History has taught us that the January transfer window, whilst generally not as busy as in the summer, can be more important to the success or failure of a club. In the summer, players have time to bed in to life in the Premiership and with their new team, managers can play around with formations and players. But come January, the gloves are off. There is no grace period, each signing needs to make an impact immediately or risk being labelled a poor capture. Managers are frantically watching at the over priced market, looking for ways to save their season. So what clubs need to act during this window and who should they chase?

Newcastle

With the Ba saga finally concluded, Newcastle can focus on getting back on track in the league. Moving Papa Cisse into main central striker role once again from his wide right position, should lead to more goals but its the lack of depth across the squad that has been Newcastle’s undoing this year so far. With the loss of key players like Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Steven Taylor, their replacements have been unconvincing, lacking both in the talent and experience needed to play competitive Premiership football. Alan Pardew appears to be still nursing the hangover from celebrating his new eight year contract that keeps him at the club until 2020, but now faces the real possibility of relegation as Newcastle slip further down the league. With only three clean sheets this campaign and having won 2 of their last 11 games in all competitions, strengthening across all areas is a necessity for survival. French right back Mathieu Debuchy has arrived to help the defence but another one or two are needed. West Ham’s James Tomkins and Southampton’s Luke Shaw could offer options at the back and fit with Pardew’s mandate of investing in young talented players. On a similar note, midfielders Ross Barkley from Everton and Southampton’s Adam Lallana or James Ward Prowse could bolster a weak midfield. Upfront, the Ameobi brothers provide cover but lack goals so Loic Remy of Marseille or Genk’s Jelle Vossen would make strong partners for Cisse.

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from Football365.com)

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from Football365.com)

QPR

Harry Redknapp has a job on his hands. His toughest challenge yet sees him inherit a good squad that lacks in confidence and results. He needs to hold on to Ryan Nelson, subject to a coaching offer by his former club, DC United or if he lets him go sign a replacement quickly like Michael Dawson from Spurs. But midfield is the area Harry needs to work on the most. QPR haven’t looked the same since Mark Hughes broke up the trio of Barton, Derry and Taarbat and results have gone against them ever since. Barton, now on loan with Marseille and partner Shaun Derry weren’t the silkest of players, but as two tough tackling, no-nonsense central midfielders, they broke up opposition teams attacks like a hot knife through butter. Without the duo, teams pass their way through the QPR team until they get to a weak back four and eventually punish the team. An enforcer like France’s Yann M’Vila would be an ideal fit if they can secure him, but a player of his calibre should be pulling on a shirt from one of England’s top four, not its relegation favourite. Harry also needs to find a player in the style of Scott Parker or  former Newcastle captian Rob Lee who can not only protect the back four but drive the ball up field and create openings. They are few and far between and come at a price so Harry may struggle to get a player of this nature. A loan deal for Yossi Benayoun may be ideal as QPR look for inspiration. Whilst not defensive, Yossi can create from very little and would add a new dimension to the team.

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun (Image from Soccertransfers.net)

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun
(Image from Soccertransfers.net)

Southampton

To be fair to Nigel Adkins, Southampton haven’t played that poorly this season but still find themselves in  a relegation dog fight. Sitting in 17th place, above Wigan on goal difference only, Adkins needs to strengthen to survive. Based on form and looking at attacking statistics, Southampton have played well and would be sitting comfortably in mid table but in reality, having drawn six games and lost ten (five of which were by only one goal), they find themselves in a mess. Adkins biggest problem is his defense and in particular his first choice goalkeeper. During the first half of the campaign, the Southampton boss used three different goalkeepers – Kelvin Davis, Artur Boruc and youngster Paulo Gazzaniga with little success. None of the three have stepped up to make the slot their own and all are  guilt of making mistakes. Granted Gazzaniga, at 21 years old is still learning so can not be too harshly criticized, but both Davis and Boruc a have had long careers so should  not be making the schoolboy type mistakes that they have been guilty of. It appears as though Adkins has no choice but to buy another safe pair of hands and stop the rot. Former England and Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson would fit the bill, or Birmingham’s Jack Butland, who is attracting a lot of interest due to his recent form.. If money is tight, then a 6 month loan deal for QPR’s Rob Green or the free signing of Scotland stopper Crag Gordon may also be options available.

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)

Liverpool

Liverpool need a striker and it’s not Daniel Sturridge. The recently £12 million acquisition from Chelsea is not the answer to Brendan Rodgers problems, even if the Northern Irishman thinks he is. Despite scoring on his debut in the cup against Mansfield, the England striker has never been an out-and-out goalscorer. With 40 career goals from 140 appearances, the pacey forward has never really demonstrated his ability to be a 15-20 goals a season striker. His best ever tally was 12 goals in all competitions for Chelsea last season but that was from 44 appearances so 1 in 4 on average. With 17 games left in the domestic season, and based on the same goal scoring ratio that would mean Strurridge would chip in an extra 4 goals between now and the end of the season. That’s £3 million a goal, which to Liverpool fans may be a difficult pill to swallow. Strurridge is a useful player, a squad player, but he is not the next Fernando Torres. For that Liverpool will need to look elsewhere. The likes of Charlie Austen of Burnley, Nicolas Helenius of AaB and Loic Remy of Marseille may be a better option for Rodgers to look at. With Liverpool almost coming out publicly and admitting they got the last transfer window wrong and were left short of numbers up front, Rodgers won’t make that mistake again. Well hopefully not for his sake.

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge (Image from Dailymail.co.uk)

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge
(Image from Dailymail.co.uk)

Swansea

The Welsh side have yet again performed above expectations but not unexpectedly. The foundations laid down by Roberto Martinez, followed by Rodgers and current boss Michael Laudrup have led to stable base to build upon and success on the pitch. Laurdrup, who faced criticism when he took over the post in the summer, has won over the players and the fans with his strong work ethics and approachable manner. Added into this, his ability to locate and purchase a bargain such as Michu has helped to bolster the teams chances of survival. Sitting 9th in the league with 29 points to their name so far, it would appear as though Swansea are safe. But as history shows, the magic mark for survival in the Premiership is around 42 points which leaves them needing 13 points from their last 17 games. To give them a chance of getting the points needed, they need to retain the services of their influential spanish midfielder, Michu. A sensation since arriving in the summer, he has helped lift Swansea to the position they are in with some incredible performances and 13 goals along the way. His form has started to attract interest both domestically and back home in Spain, with several clubs rumoured to be willing to pay over the odds to sign him during this window. Laudrup could cash in on his £2 million signing and likely make considerably more. But he also knows that it could cost his team dearly as they push to secure Premiership football for yet another year.

Swansea must hold onto Michu (Image from The Sun.co.uk)

Swansea must hold onto Michu
(Image from The Sun.co.uk)

Manchester City

The defending champions find themselves trailing in the race for the title, some 7 points behind local rivals, United. It’s not been a smooth first half to the campaign with Mancini’s men being knocked out of Europe at the Champions League group stages by three teams they should have been winning if not competing against. Added into this, the constant drama surrounding Mario Balotelli has led to more than one sleepless night for Mancini. The latest event, a training group bust up with the manager himself, will surely signal the end for the talented yet troublesome Italian striker. Mancini has tried to father him over the past few years but has not managed to curb Balotelli’s enthusiasm for destructiveness. With suitors watching with interest, Mancini must sell him now to give his team the relief it needs for a final push towards retaining the title. With the money he gets from selling Balotelli, Mancini can pursue another striker who will add goals rather than headaches to the mix. Falcao is on every clubs radar so may be too difficult to secure in this window without a fight so it may be worth Mancini switching his attention to Russia and the problems that Hulk is having in settling there. A powerful striker, with goals galore across his career, he may give City the edge against United in the race for the trophy.

City Option? Hulk (Image from Wikipedia.org)

City Option? Hulk (Image from Wikipedia.org)

With 24 days left in the transfer window, there is still plenty of time for clubs to make the necessary changes to their squads before attacking the second half of the campaign. At the end of the season, we will be able to look back and see who has bought wisely, who made rash purchases and who failed to make the grade which ultimately lead to their club being relegated. Come May three teams will face this fate, but for the managers involved in that struggle at the moment, and the ones balanced just above them, now is the time to act to save your clubs season.

What a Month! What a Year!

The Ndlovu brothers - Adam, Madinda and PeterWell it’s officially 2013 so Happy New Year everyone! Hope you had an enjoyable, if somewhat over indulging festive period. It was quite the end to the year so as tradition, we look back on some of the stories we covered on the blog last month. Crowd troubles featured heavily as problems in Turkey and Russia both affected games. Remarkably in the latter, condoms were used to smuggle firecrackers into the stadium with one being thrown onto the pitch and blinding the goalkeeper. FIFA must surely act before more of these types of incidents occur. In other new, Football mourned the death of Adam Ndlovu who was tragically killed in a car accident this month. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in December as we looked at the players, old and new making the news that month. There were features on up and coming stars like Will Hughes, Hachim Mastour and Zymer Bytyqi as well as a look at former star Ronaldo and his battle against the bulge.

Will Hughes

Managers featured too, with the returns of Antonio Conte and Harry Redknapp marked out for special note and a sideways glance at Arsene Wenger as he contemplates his Arsenal future. Barcelona’s Tito Vilanova was in the news again as he unfortunately had to step down from his role temporarily in order to continue his battle against cancer. The Barca faithful will be praying for Tito’s speedy return in the early part of this year. Global football politics and issues were talked about in pieces around Gibraltar‘s inclusion finally into UEFA competitions as well as inventor Tim Jahnigen’s remarkable story of how he created an indestructible ball to help kids in poverty across the globe continue to play the beautiful game.

Home made football's are normal across poorer countries

Home made football’s are normal across poorer countries

January brings a lot of excitement with it as well with the opening of the transfer window. The key questions of who will Liverpool sign as their new number 9 and the tale of two south american strikers, Hulk and Falcao were answered in last months posts. January also sees the naming of this years Ballon d’Or winners with Alex Morgan looking favourite to steal the crown. It’s also the start of the second half of the season for clubs across the globe with Belgian team SV Zulte-Waregem hoping to continue their form from the first half of the season up until the end of the league campaign. Newcastle on the other hand will be looking to forget the first half of the season and are hoping they can strengthen accordingly so they can avoid yet another relegation battle. Palace fans are hoping they have more than just their cheerleaders to cheer about in the second half of the campaign as well.

US star Alex Morgan

2013 is going to be a great year, with lots of exciting stories coming out of the world of football and we will be there to cover them all (well most of them). You can now follow us as well now in the Back Of The Net Blog on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/#!/BackOfTheNetBlog) so please like it now! Additionally if there are stories you would like us to cover and haven’t yet, please let us know using the comments field and we will try to tackle them over the course of the year. With that, enjoy 2013, enjoy the football and enjoy the blog!

Former Porto Duo Top January’s Transfer Most Wanted List

Falcao - Top Transfer target?This January’s transfer window is likely to be an active one for clubs across Europe. The first half of the new season has highlighted weaknesses in squads that need to be corrected soon to prevent the proverbial wheels from coming off. In the EPL, Newcastle’s lack of depth is a worry for boss Alan Pardew as he competes in competitions domestically and in Europe. Liverpool’s lack of striking options have been a source of discussion, with Rodgers likely to buy a new player despite the option to recall Andy Carroll. And Chelsea may finally call time on the Torres project and splash out on a new striker, despite the Spaniard starting to show his former self in the past few games.

End of the line for Torres project?

End of the line for Torres project?

Chelsea have been linked heavily with goal sensation Falcao, who continues to strike fear into defenders across the world. The prolific Colombian striker, who single handily destroyed Chelsea in the Super Cup Final, will demand a high transfer fee but this is unlikely to put off owner Roman Abramovich. Falcao can operate as a solo front man or as part of a strike partnership so current blues boss Rafa Benetiz may be looking towards Falcao as a partner for Torres, rather than a direct replacement. For 26-year-old Falcao, (full name Radamel Falcao García) goals seem to come naturally for him, no matter where he plays. At River Plate, where he got his break into professional football, he scored 34 times in 90 appearances which attracted the attention of clubs across Europe. FC Porto secured his signature in July 2009 for a meagre fee of only €3.93 million and instantly started to repay them. Falcao scored in his first 4 games for Porto and continued to do so, racking up 41 goals in 51 appearances over two years for the Portuguese club, helping them to the league title, 2 Portuguese cups and most importantly Europa League triumph. Porto struggled to hold on to their dynamo striker and eventually gave in selling him to Aletico Madrid for €40 million in 2011. His form has continued in Madrid, where the colombian has hit 40 goals in 48 games , winning the Europa League again for the second year running and bagging the Super Cup as well following that thrilling performance against Chelsea. He has gradually become the most feared striker in Europe and sits top of most clubs wish lists this Christmas.

Falcao scored a stunning hat trick against Chelsea in teh Super Cup final

Falcao scored a stunning hat trick against Chelsea in teh Super Cup final

Falcao will rightly be the source of a lot of speculation in January but it could be the man brought in to replace him at Porto that grabs the headlines. Brazilian Givanildo Vieira de Souza or better known as Hulk is another player who made his name in Europe with the portuguese giants. Hulk, like his namesake, is a powerful striker who picked up where Falcao had left off and scored over 54 goals in 99 games before a €60 million move this summer to Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg. His transfer, along with Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel, caused uproar at Zenit when his new teammates learned how much the duo would be paid. Captain Igor Denisov, flanked by striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov spoke up about the gap in wages between Hulk and Witsel and the rest of the squad, reportedly three times as much, deciding to go not only to the club’s manager and owners but to the press as well. This act led to Denisov and Kerzhakov being fined and dropped into the club’s youth team as punishment. The duo sat in the youth team for nearly two months as manager Luciano Spalletti refused to give in to their demands.

Denisov was relegated to the youth team following a bust up at Zenit

Denisov was relegated to the youth team following a bust up at Zenit

But not all was right with Hulk. Having started well for his new club, Hulk began to disagree with Spalletti as well and in particular his tactics and team selection policies. Hulk declared that he was seeking to leave the club in January which has put a lot of clubs on alert as they see Hulk as the perfect answer to their striking problems. However FIFA regulations bar players from playing for more than two clubs in a season, which means that Hulk may not be able to play for another club (having played for Porto and Zenit so far this season) and forcing the Brazilian to stay in Russia at least until June 2013. Clubs may still invest in Hulk in January and have him spend the next 5 months in the reserves, in an attempt to avoid a battle for his signature in the summer.

Hulk and Spalletti haven't seen eye to eye for a while

Hulk and Spalletti haven’t seen eye to eye for a while

As the race hots up for Falcao, clubs across Europe may start to pull out and divert their attention to the troubled Brazilian instead. Likely to be sold at asking price, Hulk will be too expensive for the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool but Europe’s high rollers like Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSG may just find the cash to end the Brazilians short stay in Russia.

Spanish Fire Sale Puts Clubs Across The Globe On Alert

Swansea’s summer capture of Michu hardly caught the imagination but its one that should have rung alarm bells across the world of football. Not one of Spain’s better known players, Michu was signed for only £2 million by new Swans boss, Michael Laudrup. The Danish legend couldn’t believe his luck in getting the player for so cheap and with little fight from his club, Rayo Vallecano or other clubs in La Liga. Whilst Michu is not a glamour player, he is the type of squad player that most Spanish clubs desire – regular performer, strong technical ability and the scoring touch (15 goals from midfield last season). But the sad truth is that, no one bidded for his services simply because no club, outside of the big two in Spain, could afford to.

The economic crisis that has gripped Spain over the past two years has not left the countries football clubs unaffected. Besides the big two – Barcelona and Real Madrid, the vast majority of clubs are suffering due to the down turn. With 40% unemployment in the country, money is tight for its people so spending on non essentials has been hit hard. Ticket sales are down, expensive TV packages are being given up, merchandise sales are at an all time low as fans use their hard-earned cash for other means. With the exception of Madrid and Barcelona who pull a large chunk of their revenue from abroad, the Spanish clubs are struggling to balance their books, with a majority now posting losses. This has led to assets being sold, players released and a trimming of the wage budgets.

Whilst their city rivals Real spent close to € 30million this summer on signings like Luka Modric and Michael Essien from Tottenham and Chelsea respectively, UEFA cup winners Atletico Madrid could only manage to spend € 1m, relying on loan deals and free transfers to bolster their squad. Deigo Simone, Atletico’s spirited manager, resisted the temptation to sell his talisman Radamel Falcao for a huge sum to one of Europe’s high spenders – Zenit, Manchester City, PSG or Anzhi, instead working with a smaller transfer budget in this window. But as Falcao’s contract runs down and his form continues, Simeone will come under more pressure to cash in on his star player whilst he can, rather than risk losing him for free.

UEFA Cup runners up Athlecio Bilbao are in the same position, spending low this summer (€ 2.5m) whilst desperately fighting off potentail suitors from abroad for their striker, Fernando Llorente. The strikers contract is running out soon and the risk of Bilbao losing him for free may force their hand in the next window. Similarily, unless the economic situation improves and further cash is injected into the club, they may be forced to sell star players like Iker Muniain, Fernando Amorebieta and captain Carlos Perpegui, in order to balance the books.

But it’s not just star players that are leaving for pastures new. Core squad players, like Michu, are being snapped up for bargain prices by clubs in England, Germany and Russia as they take advantage of the growing financial problems the clubs are faced with. Unable to offer the same wages as their foreign counterparts, spanish clubs are losing players for generally less than their true market value. This summer, Wigan snapped up Iván Ramis and Arouna Koné, Swansea picked up Michu as well as Pablo Hernández for cheap and Celtic grabbed Miku as Gefate looked to lower its wage bill. All five were core players for their respective clubs but reluctantly left to ease their burden and allow the club to continue.

It’s a similar story across the border in Portugal, but not yet at the same level. Portuguese clubs are looking towards Russia, England and Germany for rich clubs to purchase the best of their talent, with Hulk and Axel Witsel already leaving champions Porto for Russia and massive transfer fees. As their economic crisis deepens, further players will have to leave to keep clubs afloat but as with Spain they know that they have a silver lining. In times of trouble, when money is tight for clubs and they are unable to purchase their talent, they turn to their established youth teams for the next crop of young stars who will take the step up to the first team. Realistically its the only thing that is keeping some clubs alive but it will also be only a matter of time before these assets are being stripped as well by Europe’s elite if the crisis continues.

Time for a wage cap?

Igor Denisov, the Russian captain is training with the youth team at Zenit St. Petersburg after a fall out with the club. His crime was to challenge the wages given to new signings, Hulk and Axel Witsel. His argument is not around the quality of the players (both are internationalists for Brazil and Belgium respectively, and have been tracked over the past few years by a variety of europe’s top clubs) but the difference in wages given to these two versus their new colleagues (reportedly 3 times the top players wages or $100k per week). Denisov, one of Russia’s star players and reportedly on $35k per week, may have a point in regards to Witsel. The former Standard Leige and Benfica player, famously banned for 8 matches for shattering the leg of Anderlect’s Polish defender Marcin Wasilewski in a league match in 2009, had only been at Benfica less than a year before his $40m transfer to Zenit. It’s unknown exactly how much he was paid at the Portuguese club, but it will not have been close to the money he is now making in Russia.

Inflated wages are not new in football, with several clubs having to fork out bigger salaries to land the world’s best players – Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroon striker signed on Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian league for a reported $350k per week, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid – $230k per week, Sergio Aguero of Man City – $250k, with more players negotiating wage increases on a daily basis. But where does it stop? $400k? $750k? $1m? UEFA has recently introduced Financial Fair Play rules, limiting clubs from spending beyond their means with punishments handed down if these rules are broken, but there has been no talk of setting a wage cap. Individual leagues have tried this with some success – the MLS operates on a team salary cap with the limit set at $2,810,000 per team, not counting the extra salary of designated players (better known as the Beckham rule after David Beckham signed his agreement with LA Galaxy back in 2007). England had a cap until 1961 when it was abolished after Jimmy Hill, chairman of the PFA threatened strike action. With the top 5 clubs in England now paying north of $177m per year in player wages, fans being unable to pay inflated ticket prices and television subscription costs rising, perhaps now is the time to revisit a wage cap and end the madness?