Graham Hunter: What Arsenal fans should know about Alexis Sánchez and what Luis Suarez brings to Barca

It all comes down to choices in the end.

Alexis Sánchez admitted to me the last time I interviewed him that his decision making when on the ball was still the part of his game which he most needed to improve.

Luis Suárez needs to choose to stop biting people. Or abusing them racially.

If each can fine-tune the synapses which have led them down the wrong road in the past then spectacular new chapters await them.

Liverpool's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez (L) shoots to score his second goal during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane in London, England, on December 15, 2013. Liverpool won 5-0. AFP PHOTO/IAN KINGTON - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO USE WITH UNAUTHORIZED AUDIO, VIDEO, DATA, FIXTURE LISTS, CLUB/LEAGUE LOGOS OR LIVE SERVICES. ONLINE IN-MATCH USE LIMITED TO 45 IMAGES, NO VIDEO EMULATION. NO USE IN BETTING, GAMES OR SINGLE CLUB/LEAGUE/PLAYER PUBLICATIONS. (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve nailed my colours to the mast about each man in the past but, for those who have renewed interest because Alexis is now a Gooner and Suárez (above) with Barça.

Here goes…

There has been a tidal wave of appreciation for the Chilean since he scored that howitzer of a goal on the last day of the Spanish season – one which both looked improbable and, briefly, like it would Barcelona the title.

Alexis had a powerful World Cup, one which has naturally raised appreciation and expectation, but via performances which aren’t archetypical of his time at Barcelona.

What links him and Suárez, one of few things I think, is his infernal work attitude.

Playing against him can be a nightmare. In terms of his determination to press and win back possession you could compare him to an energetic puppy chasing a tennis ball. Non-stop, determined, agile, rapid – often successful in his task.

AS

Even though he’s wealthy now (he funnels a lot of money back into helping the Tocopilla community in which he grew up) Sanchez (above) admitted to me there were times when the family had to choose between buying food or either boots or a football for him.

Times were hard and he’s never lost that drive to succeed. He’d tell his mum that he was going to be a world-famous footballer and that he’d earn enough money for her to never have to work again and she’d laugh. And indulge him. And now look at him.

That same abundance of pace and energy lets him ‘show’ for run after run which will allow the passers in Arsenal’s midfield, Ramsey, Wilshire and Özil in particular, many more options about what to dow the ball in the two or three seconds after they receive it.

Some of his goals, notably that one against Atlético Madrid or the winner in last season’s Camp Nou Clásico, when he chipped Diego López after running from midfield, indicate that he’s got some truly spectacular finishes in his locker.

Yet while I’ve no wish to pour cold water on the bubbling excitement of Arsenal fans who presumably feel that Alexis could be a key element in finally winning the Premier League again, this is an incomplete player.

The Alexis who scored at Wembley to defeat England, who led Chile’s fightback against Brazil at the World Cup – this is not the identical forward who’s been at the Camp Nou for the last three years.

For Chile he was a leader…

When he arrived he was daunted by the big club atmosphere, by playing with Messi, by the insane media attention which Barcelona generates.

His play showed it. He’d score unfeasibly difficult goals and miss unfeasible numbers of run-of-the-mill chances.

He’d have a game where his understanding with Cesc would look like some form of footballing E.S.P and many more when he’d make wrong choices, go down blind alleys – allow energy to get the better of intelligence.

For Chile he’s a leader up front – his decisions take precedence over those around him, his runs are fed with passes, he’s the lone wolf. That suits him.

For Barcelona, less so…

At Barcelona Alexis constantly wrestled with the concept of whether he was supposed to be a lead actor pushing for the Oscar or simply the ‘best supporting’ guy. In each of his seasons he could, and should, have had nine or ten more goals and I have always believed that with the rise in importance of Alexis at Barcelona their absolute cutting edge in the biggest of games (Stamford Bridge in 2012 would be an example) has decreased.

My hope is that this World Cup, increasing personal and football maturity, plus the range of terrific passers around him paves the way for Arsenal fans to enjoy Alexis more than I’ve enjoyed him while playing in La Liga.

Suarez v Italy

Suarez is a different beast…

Suárez is obviously different. His ruthlessness is patently a stand-out characteristic – constantly battling with his technique and football intelligence for pre-eminence in that strangely-wired brain of his.

His footballing fit at Barcelona is, you’d say, still clearer than that of Alexis at Arsenal.

Suárez brings precisely the intensity, the will-to-win which Pep Guardiola saw waning as far back as spring 2012 when he chose to leave.

The Uruguayan’s goal record doesn’t stand comparison with that of Messi, he’s no more skilled than Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Neymar for example – but he brings a ferocity, an all-out dedication to winning every ball, ever match, every trophy which seems unabated.

Carlo Ancelotti840

Carlo deals with talent ‘overload’

Over the last three years he’s won two trophies, the League Cup and the Copa America, and this isn’t commensurate either with his ability or with the lava-hot moment of form which he’s in.

This is, principally, what Barcelona have bought. Right now the Catalan media is toeing the party lines.

They are whipping up support for the idea that Suárez’s ban is unfair, they are playing on the fact that Barcelona fans love to see players who will sweat blood for the jersey – there’s next to no questioning about whether this man’s behaviour over the last few years merits this club investing so much money in him.

Coincidentally, it’s probably Real Madrid who have done most to show that the problem of fitting an ‘overload’ of talent into an already star-laden team can be dealt with.

Carlo Ancelotti didn’t have a voice in the signing of Gareth Bale and tinkered with formations for weeks and weeks before finally moving Ángel Di Maria back to midfield and using Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in a front three for much of the rest of the season while Madrid won the Copa Del Rey and Champions League.

It won’t necessarily be simple to fit Leo Messi, Neymar and Suárez together – but there are ways. Messi, for example, could easily play at no10 in a 4-2-3-1 which, hypothetically, could look like Bravo: Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Mascherano, Busquets; Iniesta, Messi, Neymar; Suárez.

blog_messi-clasico

How will Barcelona play with Suarez?

Perhaps Luis Enrique will simply ask Messi and Neymar to play wide right and left with Suárez down the middle – he’s got the cojones to front up to his super-star players and tell them the ‘way it’s going to be’.

But enforcing it and making it succeed are two different things.

Quite how Barcelona have gone from a club trying to breath real life into its motto ‘Més que un Club’ and fielding teams which were largely home grown, unified in ethos and exemplified by the behaviour of Carles Puyol when he insisted that his cancer-surviving team mate Eric Abidal raise the Champions League trophy in his place to hiring a serial biter is a little depressing.

But once Suárez serves his ban it’s time for a new leaf and a new start.

Then, in light of the decisions Alexis and Suárez begin to make on and off the pitch, it’ll be clearer where the winners and losers in these deals, from Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal, La Liga and the Premier League may be.

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Graham Hunter: David Villa is a man from La Roja’s past – he may need to also be their man of destiny

Between the media and La Roja’s world champion players there has been much invoking of ‘four years ago’ over the last four days.

Back in South Africa, of course, Spain became the first team in history to win this trophy having lost the opening game.

En route to escaping the group the coincidence is that La Roja also needed to beat Chile back then, and did so.

David Villa (R) celebrates scoring first goal with Xabi Alonso (L) and Xavi 25/6/2010 00439885

COMETH THE HOUR: David Villa wheels away after scoring against Chile in 2010

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Thus it’s only natural, journalistically at least, for some to reach for comparisons and draw positive conclusions.

But there’s a snag.

  • Four years ago Spain lost 1-0 to Switzerland having totally dominated the game, shot at goal 24 times, put eight efforts on target, won 12 corners and suffered defeat only because it was one of those days when, as they say in La Liga, ‘the ball didn’t want to go in’.

Last Friday they were thrashed.

Four years ago Vicente Del Bosque’s men had Honduras, frankly a soft touch, as their second group rivals, and Chile third.

Chile also decided to abandon competitive football for the last 15 minutes of that game in Pretoria because they were sure that their progression was safe given the scoreline between Switzerland and Honduras and, at all costs, they didn’t want to surrender more goals to Spain. Del Bosque later called it the most placid 15 minutes of his tournament.

But let me remind anyone who’s forgotten the other parts of that game were anything but. Chile pressed and harassed like attack-dogs for the first chunk of the match, making their opponents feel like Marcelo Bielsa had somehow deployed 15 men on the pitch.

I fear it will be similar at the Maracana.

So, back to invoking the spirit of South Africa. I think it’s natural, but flawed.

Jean Beausejour (L) and Xabi Alonso in action 25/6/2010 00439884

SEEING RED: I’d expect this to be an aggressive game, in tackling and attacking

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There are very few similarities and, already, del Bosque needs to be looking for men who are not stuck in the past – men of destiny.

The last two results in Brazil, defeated 3-0 by Brazil in the Confeds Cup a year ago and humiliated 5-1 in Salvador last week, have left La Roja looking like victims.

The air of invincibility has been stripped and, suddenly, those who cowered back will be queuing up to show that they are now the ‘fastest gun’.

It was ever thus. However ‘great’ you are/were, once the young bucks are after you the past counts for nothing.

As far as the world and European champions’ prospects go, Chile have one central tenet which is both welcome and threatening: they like to attack.

Spain have for the longest time been sick of teams who ‘park the bus’.

Those who attack La Roja reap benefits

The paradox is that the last two sides who have really ‘got after’ La Roja – Brazil and Holland – have reaped major benefits.

Xabi Alonso, Pedro, Juan Mata – each of them over the last 24 hours has spoken about the fact that Chile are a brave, daring and attacking side.

The word ‘aggressive’ has been used repeatedly too – all of which leads you to suppose that this might be yet another toe-to-toe match in this slugfest of a World Cup.

Good value for the fans.

They mean ‘aggressive’ in both senses of the word. In football terms every ball is a prisoner, energy is spent trying to overrun opponents and the team likes to buzz towards the opponent’s goal.

But they play by street rules.

Eduardo Vargas celebrates with Arturo Vidal after scoring 5/6/2014 00817155

DANGER MEN: Chile’s Eduardo Vargas celebrates with Arturo Vidal

In the last three games against Spain, Chile have seen three red cards, two of which came in a relatively unimportant friendly which really boiled over.

Perhaps that was because having never beaten La Roja and having been 2-0 up in St Gallen, Switzerland, Chile were horrified at being hauled back and overtaken 3-2 in Autumn 2011.

It was one of those games which proved to Vicente del Bosque that the effects of the ‘Clásico war’ were dying down and the feeling of ‘all for one’ had been re-established between his players. They went on to prove him right by winning Euro 2012.

There was a moment in that game when Iniesta was being bullied at the edge of the pitch by Arturo Vidal. Instantly two pretty entrenched rivals, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sergio Busquets, joined forces to rush across and ‘dive in’ on Iniesta’s behalf.

Danger men

There may be traces of that on Wednesday night. Players to watch for would include Iniesta who’s scored twice against Chile in the last three meetings and Eduardo Vargas. Vargas scored twice to rescue Chile in a pre-tournament friendly against Egypt which they threatened to lose and has also scored three times against Spain in the last three meetings.

By the day, training has gone from ghostly silent to boisterous and intense. The impact of the defeat against Holland was there, plain to see, but it has dissipated.

The words from del Bosque’s men have been bellicose. They want their pride restored, they want to get out of this group and, frankly, they think they will beat Chile.

I suspect they will. But this is one of those matches when if things go wrong, if nerves (of which there will be plenty) gnaw away at precision and confidence then the playing field will be pretty even.

David Villa

  • Betting: David Villa 9/5 to score anytime against Chile >

If David Villa doesn’t start then I’ll be confused. In training he’s looked sharper and sharper, he’s been scoring goals and right now he looks to be not only Spain’s all-time leading scorer but their most in-form striker.

This is a tournament for athletes. The weather, the tiredness of long flights – these are elements which give a premium to those who are strong, fast and quick to recover. As such there has to be a place, soon, for Javi Martínez in Spain’s attempts to retain their trophy.

This is a battle for survival. Expect the niceties to be abandoned. David Villa is a man from La Roja’s past – he may need to also be their man of destiny.

Graham Hunter is the author of ‘Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble’ and ‘Barca’. You can follow him on Twitter here

 

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Graham Hunter: Why the Dutch may try to settle old scores – but Spain will prove too strong

It adds deliciously to this game that the two sides haven’t met since that infamous World Cup final four years ago.

Holland were brutal, incurring the wrath of legends of their game like Johan Cruyff and Clarence Seedorf, and lost the match, effectively, because Johnny Heitinga was sent off.

He hauled Andrés Iniesta back once too often, saw a second yellow and when the cross from Fernando Torres came in, late in extra time, Rafa Van der Vaart fell over while trying to deputise for the absent Heitinga and the rest …. is history.

Cesc Fabregas to Iniesta and …. Gol! Gol! Gol! You probably remember it.

Grudge game

All of that is relevant to this game in the clammy heat of Salvador because of discipline.

Even though it’s likely there will be only four Dutch and perhaps seven Spaniards starting this Group B match having lined up for the World Cup final in Soccer City, there is certainly room for grudges.

For De Jong to tangle with Xabi Alonso once more, for Robben to race with Ramos, for Sneijder (who was boiling with rage after the 2010 final when I saw him outside the Dutch dressing room) to tangle with Sergio Busquets.

Losing that final, their second defeat in the world’s ultimate football match, was a bitter blow for the Oranje football nation – those playing and those watching.

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The desire to erase the blemish will be great – maybe overwhelming for some.

More, De Jong’s Bruce Lee chest-high studding of Xabi Alonso’s chest is now so iconic of that final, so famous, that any referee, presented with a De Jong foul on a Spaniard may subconsciously be quicker to ensure he doesn’t join the officiating infamy and thus quicker to show a yellow card.

Refs ARE human after all.

De-Jong-tackle-840

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But, as I say, discipline will give a significant advantage to the team mature enough to display it.

Spain are often thwarted or at least frustrated by packed defences and Louis Van Gaal hasn’t been experimenting with five at the back, ripping up the tactical book of his football life, in order to make Holland more open, more attacking.

So, if you look at Van Gaal’s logic, the last thing he wants is an 11 v 10 situation at any stage in the match.

Strength in numbers

He’ll din it in to his players that they compete, that they make it uncomfortable for Spain – but that they present totally different stats to the last time these sides played when Holland racked up 29 fouls, nine yellow cards and a red.

Give Spain a numerical advantage in an important match and there’s a very high chance you’ll regret it.

From the age of 15 it’s repeated endlessly to Spain’s young talents that it’s a sin to be sent off. To leave your team mates in the lurch. That your place will be hard to win back.

Spain’s last tournament match was blighted by the red card for Gerard Piqué, let’s not forget that, and Del Bosque too will be emphasizing to his men that he’ll be unforgiving of anyone who hands the already threatening Holland XI an added advantage.

Watching the world champion’s training this week I can’t help but suspect that it’s more than just the fact that Spain have only scored 14 of the 25 penalties they’ve been awarded in the Del Bosque reign which has seen them practice so many spot kicks.

Fabregas-and-Silva-Spain

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Cesc Fabregas’ miss against El Salvador last weekend may have reminded the manager that it’s time for Spain to brush up skills which have seen them win shoot outs against Italy (x 2) and Portugal in three of their last five tournaments.

Fine. But there have been so many different players hitting penalties that you’d deduce Vicente Del Bosque’s scouts reckon on Holland’s inexperienced back five giving away a spot kick on Friday evening (8pm).

For those interested the order of priority which Del Bosque has set for penalty takers is: David Villa, Cesc, Alonso and then …. perhaps Ramos? We shall see.

How Spain start looks to be down to a very small refinement in midfield and attack.

Training Day

Anyone who’s seen training would be surprised if the 4-3-3 formation doesn’t line up: Casillas; Azpilicueta, Piqué, Ramos, Alba: Xavi/Koke, Busquets, Alonso; Silva, Costa/Fabregas, Iniesta.

As terrific as Koke has looked in all the work-outs this week, all nimble feet and clever options taken when the ball comes to him plus a robust, shrewd presence in midfield defensive work, Del Bosque thinks so highly of Xavi that it’d be a surprise to see him benched at the start of the tournament.

Rotated as the World Cup evolves? Okay. Regularly playing only 55-65 minutes? Fine. But left out for the first game with all the attendant media coverage. I struggle to imagine it.

Diego-Costa-slider

The ‘centre forward’ position is at least as intriguing. The last major game when Del Bosque was faced with an opponent using five at the back was the opener of Euro 2012 against Italy and he chose to unpick Cesare Prandelli’s side with Cesc Fabregas at ‘false 9′.

It’s clearly an option again and the (soon to be former?) Barcelona man not only scored that day but, with Villa, Iniesta, Silva and Torres, has scored this week in training matches.

The counter to that is that Del Bosque left out a real favourite in Jesús Navas because of fears that he might ‘re-injure’ himself.

Yet Diego Costa was not only included in the 23 man travelling party he started against El Salvador and played the large majority of the match despite having limped off in the Champions League final with the recurrence of a hamstring problem.

Costa’s in the frame

All of that indicates that the Spain manager really wants to use Costa and that the Brazilian-born centre forward presents the type of threat which Spain have shown less regularly in recent years.

Those who played with Costa last Saturday in Washington told me that the ball was played ‘earlier’ to him and from longer distance because he is so good at losing his marker.

Perhaps he starts as a slight favourite to face Holland – but I don’t think the decision will be taken until match-day.

In the Confederations Cup a year ago, Spain began their match with Uruguay with the power and direction of a runaway train.

For 75 minutes it was best to just get out of their way. But they tired and Uruguay defended for their lives to the extend that the match only finished 2-1 with Spain unable to convert footballing dominance into a firm, nerveless, energy-saving win.

I’d see something similar occurring here in Salvador on Friday evening. Those tempted to look down the list of odds for less quoted scorers might be tempted by Pedro.

Pedro-&-Mark-Van-Bommel

Not guarantee of any game time, he’s nevertheless someone who not only MIGHT start – he’s likely to be asked to supply the missing Navas magic by coming on for the last 25 minutes to test Holland with his blistering pace.

He’s also Spain’s top scorer over the last 18 months – burying chances which might have slid past for Barcelona.

A game the holders could lose? Yes, there’s definitely banana-skin potential.

A game they will lose? I’m not too sure about that. Goals from Ramos, Pedro and Robben and Spain off to a better start than four years ago.

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Graham Hunter: The Dutch may try to settle old scores – but Spain will prove too strong

It adds deliciously to this game that the two sides haven’t met since that infamous World Cup final four years ago.

Holland were brutal, incurring the wrath of legends of their game like Johan Cruyff and Clarence Seedorf, and lost the match, effectively, because Johnny Heitinga was sent off.

He hauled Andrés Iniesta back once too often, saw a second yellow and when the cross from Fernando Torres came in, late in extra time, Rafa Van der Vaart fell over while trying to deputise for the absent Heitinga and the rest …. is history.

Cesc Fabregas to Iniesta and …. Gol! Gol! Gol! You probably remember it.

Grudge game

All of that is relevant to this game in the clammy heat of Salvador because of discipline.

Even though it’s likely there will be only four Dutch and perhaps seven Spaniards starting this Group B match having lined up for the World Cup final in Soccer City, there is certainly room for grudges.

For De Jong to tangle with Xabi Alonso once more, for Robben to race with Ramos, for Sneijder (who was boiling with rage after the 2010 final when I saw him outside the Dutch dressing room) to tangle with Sergio Busquets.

Losing that final, their second defeat in the world’s ultimate football match, was a bitter blow for the Oranje football nation – those playing and those watching.

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The desire to erase the blemish will be great – maybe overwhelming for some.

More, De Jong’s Bruce Lee chest-high studding of Xabi Alonso’s chest is now so iconic of that final, so famous, that any referee, presented with a De Jong foul on a Spaniard may subconsciously be quicker to ensure he doesn’t join the officiating infamy and thus quicker to show a yellow card.

Refs ARE human after all.

De-Jong-tackle-840

  • Will it all kick off on DESKTOP | MOBILE 

But, as I say, discipline will give a significant advantage to the team mature enough to display it.

Spain are often thwarted or at least frustrated by packed defences and Louis Van Gaal hasn’t been experimenting with five at the back, ripping up the tactical book of his football life, in order to make Holland more open, more attacking.

So, if you look at Van Gaal’s logic, the last thing he wants is an 11 v 10 situation at any stage in the match.

Strength in numbers

He’ll din it in to his players that they compete, that they make it uncomfortable for Spain – but that they present totally different stats to the last time these sides played when Holland racked up 29 fouls, nine yellow cards and a red.

Give Spain a numerical advantage in an important match and there’s a very high chance you’ll regret it.

From the age of 15 it’s repeated endlessly to Spain’s young talents that it’s a sin to be sent off. To leave your team mates in the lurch. That your place will be hard to win back.

Spain’s last tournament match was blighted by the red card for Gerard Piqué, let’s not forget that, and Del Bosque too will be emphasizing to his men that he’ll be unforgiving of anyone who hands the already threatening Holland XI an added advantage.

Watching the world champion’s training this week I can’t help but suspect that it’s more than just the fact that Spain have only scored 14 of the 25 penalties they’ve been awarded in the Del Bosque reign which has seen them practice so many spot kicks.

Fabregas-and-Silva-Spain

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Cesc Fabregas’ miss against El Salvador last weekend may have reminded the manager that it’s time for Spain to brush up skills which have seen them win shoot outs against Italy (x 2) and Portugal in three of their last five tournaments.

Fine. But there have been so many different players hitting penalties that you’d deduce Vicente Del Bosque’s scouts reckon on Holland’s inexperienced back five giving away a spot kick on Friday evening (8pm).

For those interested the order of priority which Del Bosque has set for penalty takers is: David Villa, Cesc, Alonso and then …. perhaps Ramos? We shall see.

How Spain start looks to be down to a very small refinement in midfield and attack.

Training Day

Anyone who’s seen training would be surprised if the 4-3-3 formation doesn’t line up: Casillas; Azpilicueta, Piqué, Ramos, Alba: Xavi/Koke, Busquets, Alonso; Silva, Costa/Fabregas, Iniesta.

As terrific as Koke has looked in all the work-outs this week, all nimble feet and clever options taken when the ball comes to him plus a robust, shrewd presence in midfield defensive work, Del Bosque thinks so highly of Xavi that it’d be a surprise to see him benched at the start of the tournament.

Rotated as the World Cup evolves? Okay. Regularly playing only 55-65 minutes? Fine. But left out for the first game with all the attendant media coverage. I struggle to imagine it.

Diego-Costa-slider

The ‘centre forward’ position is at least as intriguing. The last major game when Del Bosque was faced with an opponent using five at the back was the opener of Euro 2012 against Italy and he chose to unpick Cesare Prandelli’s side with Cesc Fabregas at ‘false 9′.

It’s clearly an option again and the (soon to be former?) Barcelona man not only scored that day but, with Villa, Iniesta, Silva and Torres, has scored this week in training matches.

The counter to that is that Del Bosque left out a real favourite in Jesús Navas because of fears that he might ‘re-injure’ himself.

Yet Diego Costa was not only included in the 23 man travelling party he started against El Salvador and played the large majority of the match despite having limped off in the Champions League final with the recurrence of a hamstring problem.

Costa’s in the frame

All of that indicates that the Spain manager really wants to use Costa and that the Brazilian-born centre forward presents the type of threat which Spain have shown less regularly in recent years.

Those who played with Costa last Saturday in Washington told me that the ball was played ‘earlier’ to him and from longer distance because he is so good at losing his marker.

Perhaps he starts as a slight favourite to face Holland – but I don’t think the decision will be taken until match-day.

In the Confederations Cup a year ago, Spain began their match with Uruguay with the power and direction of a runaway train.

For 75 minutes it was best to just get out of their way. But they tired and Uruguay defended for their lives to the extend that the match only finished 2-1 with Spain unable to convert footballing dominance into a firm, nerveless, energy-saving win.

I’d see something similar occurring here in Salvador on Friday evening. Those tempted to look down the list of odds for less quoted scorers might be tempted by Pedro.

Pedro-&-Mark-Van-Bommel

Not guarantee of any game time, he’s nevertheless someone who not only MIGHT start – he’s likely to be asked to supply the missing Navas magic by coming on for the last 25 minutes to test Holland with his blistering pace.

He’s also Spain’s top scorer over the last 18 months – burying chances which might have slid past for Barcelona.

A game the holders could lose? Yes, there’s definitely banana-skin potential.

A game they will lose? I’m not too sure about that. Goals from Ramos, Pedro and Robben and Spain off to a better start than four years ago.

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Spain retaining their World Cup is a Hollywood fairytale, and there’s a good chance of a happy ending

I guess that if a script-writer proposed a film treatment of how Spain retained the World Cup to a Beverly Hills mogul right now he’d get dog’s abuse for lacking any grip on reality and be blacklisted for taking hallucinogenic substances.

A fantasy too improbable even for Hollywood. Unless the creative kid knocked on the door of Casa Bumper Graham up on Laurel Drive.

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// ]]>I think it’s quite understandable if people reckon the Jacksonville Cougars or Crew Alexandra have a better chance of winning the Brazil world cup than La Roja do. Understandable if some critics think that at the World Cup the Spanish federation is sending a gentle golden labrador out to do the job of a fit young German Shepherd.

It’s all understandable – just wrong.

First, the hurdles. Unless you see them and plan for them  you can’t jump them.

Spain, and all the European countries, have their major rival as Brazil. Not the team, the country. Only if you’ve researched well, planned well and probably employed a few Brazilian movers and shakers to make things  move and shake for you will any side from this continent stand a chance.

Brazil-fans-celebrate

The country is vast, diverse, challenging, hot, humid, rainy and a kind of Club 18-30 for mosquitos. This is where the crazy, 24-hour, tequila-fuelled mossies go to party. And I mean Paaaartaaaayy!

But, here, Spain have a tiny advantage. The Confeds Cup wasn’t a thing of beauty and joy for ever as far as Spain was concerned. Hotel problems, travel problems, humidity problems, social disorder and a spanking from Brazil in the final. But La Roja, these days, are astute learners. They’ve honed down the take-home messages, planned for them and having a ‘set’ base in Curitiba is like catnip to them. European autumnal weather, privacy. It’s the laboratory from which the tournament win will be planned. Last summer they were constantly on the road from game to game. Not this time.

The fact that there are young, hungry, athletic squads in the way of the reigning champions is another jab to the Spanish solar plexus. Holland is one, awaiting in the banana-skin first group game – Brazil another.

However this is where the Spanish talent factory has functioned. Yes, the vets will be vital. Del Bosque needs big tournaments from Iniesta (30) Alonso (32) and Casillas (33) – Xavi we will come back to. Nevertheless the ‘relevo’ is in place.

Iniesta-Celebrates-Spain

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The relief watch. In England and in Spain you’d find few, only the lame of brain, who denied that two of the players of the season were Cesar Azpilicueta and ‘Koke’. Add Jordi Alba, Diego Costa and Javi Martínez and you get a clutch of 22-25 year old talents, three of whom making their debut in a major tournament, whose talent, energy and ‘major’ experience at club level can make an enormous difference to whether or not Spain retain this trophy.

Which is where the Xavi factor comes in. It’s not a sin that, aged 34, his athleticism has changed. What Del Bosque must manage, brilliantly, is how and when to use him. Go back over the last three tournament wins and the assessment of how brilliant Xavi has been changes with retrospect compared to some of the stuff I heard spouted in real time.

But teams target him, try to pressurise him in possession and count on him NOT tracking back thus leaving opposition teams with 3 v 2 or 4 v 3 situations. Believe me, he will not be alone in putting in a few 55-65 minute matches this tournament. The concept of all the major players in any team, with the possible exception of Brazil, winning a tournament while consistently playing 90 minutes is, I think, anathema to this country’s size, geography and climate.

The key creative men will rack up several ‘impact’ performances – either the first hour or the last thirty minutes. Which is where Spain will miss Jesús Navas more than most people have appreciated. He was Del Bosque’s ‘go-to’ man. On the hour, almost every hour, he’d come on and wreak ‘Road-Runner’ havoc. For the manager this little fella is a gigantic loss. More emphasis, now, on the pace of Pedro and the potential ‘impact’ of players like Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla.

Fabregas-and-Silva-Spain

Then there is Spain’s often ineptly described playing style.

Asking La Roja to play with fizzing, daring brilliance is like letting a mugger put his hands round Adele’s larynx then asking her voice to soar and inspire. Teams routinely try to asphyxiate them, bank after bank of defense and fouls. But IF La Roja keep the ball well and make other teams work/chase in this humidity then the last 15-20 minutes of matches will yield even more Spain goals than normal.

Champions routinely go out in the group stage of the next edition of their tournament – check France in 2002, Greece in 2008, Italy in 2010. Spain have a nasty wee group but if they navigate those choppy waters then they possess a ruthless knockout mentality and …. reach the final.

Someone call Hollywood.

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Graham Hunter: Iker Casillas could be the Kryptonite to Atletico’s super season

In September 1999 a young buck by the name of Iker Casillas made his debut for Real Madrid.

From that auspicious day until this he has never lost to Atlético Madrid in a game when he’s been in the starting XI.

The anomaly is that Saint Iker’s debut in a derby came when Andoni Bizarri was sent off and the young Madrileño came on, in Autumn 1999, with the score already 3-1 to Aleti.

A defeat – but his only one against Los Rojiblancos in this brilliant, trophy-laden career of his.

Now clearly there were other factors. Raúl at his peak – ditto Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zidane, Luis Figo, Guti, Roberto Carlos, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The list of thorns in Atleti’s side is long.

But Casillas gradually became kryptonite to his neighbours. The fact that he has a record of 26 straight city derbies without defeat is pretty remarkable.

What I think is still more tantalizing, in light of the Champions League final in Lisbon, is that Atlético have rid themselves of their ‘Madriditis’, not having won a derby from 1999-2013, with consecutive victories – last season’s Copa final and the first league meeting of this season.

But both those wins were registered when Casillas was on the bench and Diego Lopez the first choice keeper.

Back on the Cas’

As soon as Casillas returned against Los Colchoneros, in the Copa semi final this season, not only did Madrid re-establish their stranglehold by knocking their neighbours out they did so by scoring five times … and not conceding once.

Sometimes a player can have an influence which is exponentially greater than his role should allow.

Casillas is a fine keeper (he’s won the World Cup and the European Championship, this will be his 142nd Champions League match, he’s won this competition twice and he has the best win ratio in the history of international football – 112 wins in 153 matches)

But he’s also made of the winning stuff. He’s not utterly nerveless but he does undergo a kind of transformation in match-defining moments – when his blood turns to ice.

Perhaps he earns some of his ‘luck’ via hard work but what’s undeniable is that beyond the saves he makes thanks to athleticism, hard practice, experience, lightning reactions he does appear to produce moments which underline his ‘San’ Iker (Saint Iker) nickname here in Spain.

We are fortunate to be watching a game in which the guy who I think is going to be the world’s dominant keeper for years to come is defending the other end.

simeone_840

Triple A – Above Average Atletico

Diego Simeone’s impact on Atlético has been almost immeasurable.
The players feel taller, more handsome, smarter and wittier. That’s the Simeone effect. Average players become good, good become great … one day he may even have the chance to show that he can make a great player the very best.

For all the importance of Diego Costa, Gabi, Koke and Diego Godín, Simeone has been the most important factor in Atlético’s arrival as a genuine player on the European scene.

No Court’ Jester

However in terms of having the beating of Real Madrid there’s a right good case to argue that Courtois is the only player at the Calderón who has had the same value.

Football moves so fast that, to some, the Copa Del Rey final last May might have edged out of the memory slightly. However despite Atleti winning, despite the glorious goal which Radamel Falcao set up for Costa to break through and score …. Madrid absolutely battered their neighbours that night.

courtois_840
Courtois was superhuman. No. Way. Should. He. Have. Kept. Madrid. Out.

Once Ronaldo headed Los Blancos in front (how often to Atleti lose headed goals now?) Madrid made massively more and better chances than the ultimate winners – but the Belgian, effectively, did an Iker.

I hope we get a clear winner, and given the way that players have been dropping like flies in recent weeks, just ahead of the World Cup, I really hope it’s without extra time.

However nobody would be shocked if this ended up 2-2 and a penalty shoot-out. How epic that would be – Casillas’s skills and nerve v Courtois’ ‘thou-shalt-not-pass’ attitude.

On the subject of physical resources this is one area where Atletico SHOULD have an edge.

Ok, great deal of physical and emotional energy will have been expended around last weekend’s Liga-winning match at the Camp Nou. The party started immediately and wound down in the early (early!) hours of Monday morning.

Fit For Purpose

However, thanks to the fitness guru in whom Diego Simeone puts absolute trust Atlético have spent most of this season with a bigger engine than the majority of their opponents.

The second half surge at Stamford Bridge in the semi final was simply another example – as was the all-out assault on Barcelona in the ten minutes before and after half time last weekend. A league winning blitzkreig.

More, Madrid have some issues. The last few matches have suffered from a vague ‘last week at school’ feeling.

Not fully focussed, not giving everything and not expecting to have that demanded of them either.

When we talk about the delicate nuances which influence how a very big match will go, arriving in fully battle-hardened mode – not trying to gee yourself back up after a ‘foot off the pedal’ fortnight – can make a winning difference.

Madrid needed a last-minute equaliser for a point at home to Valencia, conceded the title by conceding an 87th minute equaliser at subsequently-relegated Valladolid, were trampled on in Vigo, never competing properly with Celta (2-0) and conceded an 89th minute goal last week at home to Espanyol.

Now throw in the ‘missing’ and ‘might be missing’ list and it’s troublesome for the club seeking ‘La Decima’

xabialonso

Rather Xab’ Than Xab’ Not

That Alonso is out is pretty nearly as important as the fact that Iker is in.

While the dog-end of the season made him look as if he required a little rest to seek mental and physical freshness it’s still the case that Madrid are less organized, less co-ordinated and less intelligent without him.

Importantly, I believe, of the two defeats Madrid to Atleti have suffered in the last year the only one which was ragged, pallid and pretty much dominated by Los Rojiblancos was the one where Alonso was absent. Just as he will be on Saturday night.

It’s also the case that while this final has been analyzed it seems to me that the Copa ties this season have been ‘handily’ forgotten.

Madrid not only won they got all the luck going, they got tucked into Atleti physically, they were far more intense athletically and they looked as if they had mental dominance too.

They were evidence, I thought, that while Atlético’s work under Simeone has been so intense (Gabi is top equal and Raúl Garcia is second in the list of the top three players who’ve committed the most fouls in this Champions League) that they often make other teams seem like eight stone weaklings, Madrid were still able to bully Atleti in those two matches. Significantly so.

Can The Ref Kuip’ Things Calm?

Thus to the referee. Bjorn Kuipers. His record in the Champions League looks as if it might suggest a minor edge for Atleti. He’s pretty liberal, likes to let play flow, tries very hard not to book. Overall he averages just barely over three bookings per match in this competition. Yet if he feels a line has been crossed he’s unafraid of the red.

When Bayern Munich played Napoli in 2011 and when Porto tried to kick Barcelona out of the European Supercup that same year he sent two players off in each match.

Simeone makes no bones about being willing to put opposition off their game with street-smart tactics and Gabi, in particular, revels in that. Kuipers will give them some leeway … but judging the line in the sand will be important for Atletico.

Worth a thought:

#Madrid still haven’t dealt with their deficiencies, aerially, and Simeone’s side do like a headed goal/set piece.

#The teams’ last three results leave the aggregate score 7-2 in Madrid’s favour

#IF Ancelotti trusts Illarramendi to take over from Alonso the midfielder will need to improve his speed of thought, distribution and his confidence from the player we’ve seen in the last few weeks.

#Gareth Bale might be coping with niggling pain and hasn’t trained full out this week but whenever Cristiano Ronaldo has been out Bale has come to the fore. In Munich he created a wonderful assist for CR7 and his was the Copa Del Rey final winning goal. A man for the moment.

#Just as Alonso’s absence appeared to influence the first league game of the season which Atletico coasted, Pepe was missing for last season’s Copa Final defeat and was influential in Madrid winning the two Copa games this season. He is not fully fit and, I think, is very unlikely to start. A brute, but a brute that Madrid will miss.

Until Madrid started feeling the aches and pains of the season and gifted away points in three of the last four matches I was convinced, wholly that they’d win this final. Principally because of Casillas, Bale and Ronaldo I still slightly favour them. But better get extra beer and pizza in. It might be a long night .. and then spot kicks.

Whatever happens, Europe belongs to Madrid on Saturday night.

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Graham Hunter: Here’s how Diego Simeone has transformed Atletico Madrid from whipping boys to sadists

There was a time when this would have been a Fifty Shades Of Grey fixture.

Barça v Atlético, home or away, began to get a bit sado-masochistic.

The Catalans, generally, imposing the pain, the Madrileños accepting the humilation. Both kept turning up for more.

While Barça didn’t ALWAYS win, Atlético’s ten matches with the Blaugrana prior to Diego Simeone taking over saw them concede 36 times.

An appalling figure, more pertinent to primary school football.

Then, get this, when the now guru-figure of Simeone did take over the first three results were all defeats and cost another eight goals.

Thirteen games, three wins, 44 conceded.

Since Barcelona last won this fixture there have been five meetings between the sides and Los Colchoneros have conceded just twice in that time.

From allowing nearly 3.4 goals per game to 0.4 a match. That ain’t bad.

Filter out the games at the Calderón and it was much, much more embarrassing. Prior to this season, Atlético lost 26 goals in six visits to the Camp Nou, the very stadium in which the league leaders require either a draw or a win to give them their first Spanish championship for 18 years.

They were shipping in four a game. Crazy

Eto for Barca v Atletico

The thing which helps establish beyond any doubt who is the most important man at Atletico, is the lineup from Los Colchoneros’ last defeat at the Camp Nou. In December 2012 Atleti took the lead against Barcelona. The XI which needed to defend that 0-1 lead for 59 minutes was: Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe Lluis: Turan, Mario Súarez, Gabi, Koke: Falcao, Diego Costa.

It’s perfectly feasible that ten of those men take the pitch in Simeone’s starting XI on Saturday evening … and, dammit, you’d say that the presence of goal-matchine Falcao probably makes that a stronger side than the coach has at this disposal this weekend.

Fifty nine minutes later, however, they’d been trounced 4-1.

The previous Barça v Atleti result was 5-0. On that night the visitors fielded Courtois, Godín, Miranda, Mario Súarez, Tiago, Gabi and Diego – on the bench were Filipe Luis, Juanfran, Adrián and Arda.

Again, eleven players who might all be under the microscope as Spain’s Liga has it’s most high profile, most tense finale in history.

Simeone has taken all the same guys, added very little in terms of new talent, and completely transformed them from masochists to sadists.

Obviously, all this partly indicates how much Barcelona’s intensity, cutting edge, speed of play and individual brilliance has declined over the last ten months.

Leo Messi used to find scoring goals against Atlético, even when they had a knockout keeper like Courtois, easier than shooting goldfish in a barrel.

He’s now six meetings, and counting, without a goal or an assist against Los Rojiblancos.

Lionel Messi training Argentina

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Above all, those previous stats tell most about Simeone.

Yes, he’s working the team harder week in week out in training. Those who aren’t inspired by him are intimidated by him.

He demands that everyone train with at least as much, if not more, passion and appetite than they actually play with.

In that sense, if not in the philosophy of how games should be play, he’s Pep Guardiola’s brother from another mother.

But to take a group of men who were habitually used to being thrashed within an inch of their life (none of whom were ex public schoolboys) and to turn them into a stubborn, feisty, streetwise Dirty Dozen, as used to thwarting Barcelona as they were once beaten before the first whistle, is one hell of an achievement.

He’s succeeded in that most difficult of tasks – changing the psychology of an entire group. Unifying levels of hunger and confidence. Improving them

The ‘Cup Final’ mentality…

Twice in the last two seasons Simeone, evidently a terrific svengali figure for whom players will give ‘extra’ when they think they are empty and ready to punch the clock, has brought a winning ‘cup final’ end of term performance out of his troops.

Let’s call the Uefa Europa league final of 2012 and the Copa del Rey final of 2013 the direct equivalent of this ‘Cup Final’ which awaits Atleti on Saturday in Barcelona.

In 2012 Atleti weren’t quite supposed to be meat and drink for Athletic Club but the Basques’ performances that season, particularly in hammering Manchester United, indicated that they should have been properly threatening in the all-Spanish final.

Instead, Simeone’s Atleti were better from start to finish and in every possible department. They were fitter, they enjoyed the occasion more, they worked harder, they were cleverer and more effective – they completely bossed it.

A year later, again in a last-game-of-the-season-showdown, Atleti showed an utterly different characteristic. They fought and clawed to stay level with Real Madrid in the Copa Final and were grateful to Courtois for quite heroically keeping them in the contest.

They spent most of the night on the ropes but, via Miranda, they were still gutsy enough to produce the KO punch the instant that the opportunity presented itself.

Diego Simeone wiki edit

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Simeone has taught them many things, he’s added some tactical finesse – but his greatest achievement has been psychological.

From a squad happy enough to coast along in third or fourth position and happy enough not to wave a guillotine blade at Spain’s ancien regime of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Argentine has turned them into a bunch of bloodthirsty Robespierres.

Nerves at the finish line?

So, from my perspective, the big question to be asked before Saturday evening’s kick off is how much psychological damage has been done by Atleti losing five of the last six points at what should have been a ‘Vive La Revolution!’ moment of the season?

The loss at Levante was understandable enough. Having won at Chelsea and suffered the emotional tsunami of that experience the City of Valencia stadium was a horrible place to have to go and carve out a result.

But there was a general expectation that the champions-elect would swamp Málaga and there was a backwash of disappointment and deflation to discover, post that 1-1 draw last weekend that a single goal would have won them the title given Barcelona’s stalemate at Elche.

I watched the sagging shoulders, the dull, ‘dammit!!’ faces, and the suddenly weary bodies at the end of that Málaga draw, players, Simeone, technical staff and fans – and I thought that there’d been a major over-reaction

For a club so in charge of its emotions and psychology all season I thought that there was a glimpse of self doubt and a lack of ‘know-now’ in terms of that last push to get over the line.

From a bunch of guys who reckoned that a) the title would be won before going to the Camp Nou or b) that if they had to go and win they would and could, it felt as if Atleti had allowed self-doubt to corrode their previously robust confidence.

This should be treatable. A good, thorough working week on the Majadahonda training ground, individual tuition, perhaps a wee night out – there has been sufficient time since the Málaga draw to iron out and psychological kinks. You’d think, at least.

A further question is whether, improbable though it seems, Simeone has having a few flutters. Warrior, yes. Successful, yes. Invincible – no.

It’s vital that, should Atleti go one nil down (Barcelona haven’t taken the lead against these rivals for seven matches, since February 2012) they don’t suddenly get those ‘novice’ nerves which so often prevent ‘underdogs’ from fulfilling their vaunted potential.

Advantage Atletico?

Other than the body language last week, the omens are red and white. Not only do two of the three possible results win Atleti the title they’ve had significantly the better of things this season.

Atleti have the only win of the five games between the sides this term, Atleti have produced three different scorers and two different assist-givers against Barcelona since August.

Barcelona’s only scorer v Simeone’s mob this season, Neymar, won’t start and, realistically, shouldn’t even play at this stage of his injury rehab.

Atleti, at a time when Barcelona continue to look awfully ragged at the back without Piqué, Puyol or Valdés, keep on producing some lovely set plays – and scoring from them. Simeone’s guys at the masters of transferring hard work and planning from the training ground to the battlefield.

Then there’s the final point in terms of psychology. You’d have to forgive the boys in red and white IF they, consciously or otherwise, felt that their final against Real Madrid a week on Saturday is more important.

You’d forgive them if they decided to play speculatively (for a draw) at the Camp Nou and then, having reserved something, go ‘all-out’ in Lisbon against Real Madrid.

You wold forgive them, but would Barça? Tata Martino’s side has been patchy and unreliable due to oscillating form this season – but they’ve shown, to the cost of Madrid, Man City, Ajax, Milan and Villarreal, that when they really want to .. they can.

Mateu Lahoz, easily Spain’s best and most diligent ref, will be in charge. He MAY have a style which allows a Simeone-esque side more liberty with physical play but that’s because he likes the game to flow, not because he promotes brutality.

Barcelona used to be the perfect side to profit from Lahoz – quicker and brighter in how they reacted when an incident looked like a foul but the ref waved play-on.

He gives a premium to those who are quick, talented, who concentrate and love the ‘advantage’ rule.

Even though they’ve been too sluggish in every respect, recently, to draw benefit from his style, Barcelona have nonetheless never lost with Lahoz in charge

One more thought about Barça. They have the psychological impact of all these ‘farewells’ at the Camp Nou. From Tito’s unfair, untimely death through to Victor Valdés slinking away after a private goodbye to this team mates and Carles Puyol retreating with all guns blazing.

Full military honours there.

Valdes and Puyol with European Cup

Do intangibles exist? Can Barcelona, slightly patched together where players’ form, fitness and energy levels are concerned, draw some sort of invincible emotional energy from the facts that Puyol and Valdés are going and Tito has gone forever?

More questions than answers. But a clear cut promise. IF Simeone has done his restorative psychology well, (as well as he’s managed with his squad all season) then Atleti will get their draw and their title.

If he hasn’t, then I suspect that this might prove to be a more vulnerable Atlético than Barcelona have faced in the previous handful of matches this season.

Game on.

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Graham Hunter: What Manchester United fans should know about Louis van Gaal, the potential fireworks with Wayne Rooney and the class of 2014

The first time I prepared to interview Louis van Gaal he looked like a Hollywood villain.

It was Glasgow, 1996, and the Ajax manager was flanked by 6’3″ Winston Bogarde. Both men were wearing full-length leather coats which went from their necks practically to their ankles.

Big, haughty, they exuded: “We are Ajax. Who the **** are you” to everyone clamouring around them on their arrival at the airport.

Louis Van Gaal 1995

It seems that from that day to this van Gaal (above, lifting the European Cup with Ajax in 1995) possesses the capacity to intimidate and to misdirect people’s impressions.

Having interviewed him many times since and watched his work closely I know him to have mellowed, enormously, and that underneath the bark and the not inconsiderable bite there is a good-humoured, passionate, interesting and multi-faceted man.

Nevertheless, before it has even been announced that he’s the next Manchester United manager, it’s being written very strongly that Wayne Rooney is already on a collision course with the 62 year old Dutchman.

Van Gaal’s ticket in, is Rooney’s ticket out.

Patrick Kluivert

Patrick Kluivert celebrates after a World Cop qualifier with Holland in 2001 – he could be phenomenal with Rooney

United would be daft to ‘reject’ Kluivert

I beg to differ. Firstly, it strongly appears that van Gaal will succeed David Moyes as long as a couple of things don’t get in the way.

a)      IF he’s decided that he doesn’t want Ryan Giggs on his first team staff (and I emphasize the word IF) and United tell him that it’s either take Giggs or don’t take the job then van Gaal is more than capable of saying: “Give the job to someone else then.” In fact in that scenario that’s what I’d back him to say. But if Giggs plays his hand shrewdly he should stay. Van Gaal makes a habit of keeping a link-man from the club he’s inheriting – Jose Mourinho at Barcelona and Hermann Gerland at Bayern Munich are examples. It’s the conduit he uses to get to know the youth set up quickly.

b)      IF United deny him the chance to take Patrick Kluivert with him (which they’d be daft to do) it’s also perfectly within van Gaal’s compass to turn the job down.

c)      IF Bayern Munich are stupid enough to allow teething trouble to make them think that they need root canal surgery and IF Pep Guardiola departs but wants to coach again immediately then perhaps United may be tempted to stage a beauty parade between the 44 year old Catalan and his former Barcelona coach.

Otherwise United have got the perfect, and I mean close to lottery winning perfect, coach for the job in Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal, aka ‘Louis’.

But, back to the widely circulated idea that because Robin van Persie and van Gaal ‘fit’ well on the training ground and for the national team, and because Rooney is known to have the occasional ‘off-pitch moment’ upon which disciplinarians might frown, it’s curtains for United’s best player.

Instead, I think that how van Gaal and Rooney ‘fit’ might be quite interesting.

Jari Litmanen

Rooney’s Finnish inspiration…

For example: recently when I was interviewing the United No10 and asked him who he’d modelled himself on when he was younger, from whom he’d tried to learn it was a thrill to hear him say: Jari Litmanen (above, with Liverpool).

The Finn did have one particularly noble season at Liverpool and a shot at glory with Barcelona but his great days were with Louis van Gaal’s Ajax.

Rooney used to ask himself:

“How did Litmanen make that space for himself?”

“How did he compensate for not being particularly quick.”

The young Scouser used to feed off the Finn’s intelligence.

And it’s football intelligence and vision, even above obedience, that van Gaal rates most highly in one of his footballers. Technique and pace are right in the mix, naturally. But brains top his list.

Litmanen played in the No10 position for van Gaal – almost always with a striker (hypothetically van Persie) and two wingers ahead of him. Van Gaal would protect that ‘creative’ ’10′ position with two hard working, very clever ‘organising’ midfielders alongside it: Davids and Seedorf or Ronald De Boer for example

IF in Rooney van Gaal can find his new ‘Jari’ then the two men may well ‘click’.

Louis Van Gaal

Kluivert could show Rooney a thing or too…

As for Rooney’s infamous ‘personality’ he’s a winner who trains as he plays: all in, nothing left behind.

Van Gaal likes that. The root of his infamous spat with Luca Toni at Bayern Munich stemmed from the Italian training apathetically. Van Gaal wouldn’t have it. Not from anyone.

But if you want to, why not take a look at Patrick Kluivert?

If you blindfolded him and dumped him in Kazakstan he could find you a night club within about quarter of an hour.

All in all he could show any United player a thing or two about ‘off-pitch moments’ – but van Gaal likes and trusts the man and so he was given the chance to train and develop as a coach while van Gaal was winning the 2008/2009 Eredivisie with AZ Almaar and now Kluivert’s an assistant coach with the Dutch national team.

If you believed all the hype about the 62-year-old there would have been no way back into his life for Kluivert. The facts prove otherwise.

Van Gaal’s ferocity is a fact though. In the old training ground days at FC Barcelona, when we were allowed within about five metres of the training pitch, I’ve often seen the Dutch growler letting loose a stream of expletives while roaring at Rivaldo – at that time the FIFA world player of the year.

“RIVAALDOOOOOO, NOOOO! NO! ASI NO!”

“Rivaldo, no, no not like that.”

That’s how he’d break up a training drill and dress the Brazilian down, as if he were a trainee. He thought the Brazilian played too much for himself, not for the team. An unforgivable sin in van Gaal’s book.

Riquelme

‘You are not my player’

So TV reporter the Holland manager had fun with the other day when asked what he ‘knew about United’ only to be told that was a “stupid question” can be reassured that what he got was van Gaal-lite.

Previously he might have had a verbal dressing down, a kick up the backside and an order never to return until he got his act together.

It was also van Gaal, beginning his second and unsuccessful time at the helm of FC Barcelona who showed the ‘exit’ door to the same Juan Roman Riquelme who went on to thrill for Villarreal en route to the Champions League semi-final.

But to his credit van Gaal took Riquelme (pictured above), who’d been signed by Barça without the Dutchman’s involvement, and told him straight: ‘You aren’t my player, I don’t need you here – find yourself a team to go to on loan’.

Riquelme told me later:

“I was perfectly happy to be told, straight, rather than kept on and made to suffer on the bench until I got the message. Van Gaal treated me with respect by telling me to my face.”

I also recall the pain it caused van Gaal when midway through that season, he was sacked by Barça and he allowed tears of fury and frustration to escape his eyes as he insisted, to the last seconds of his ‘farewell’ press conference: “I AM the right man for this job!”

In those tears I don’t see weakness.

When he talked to TV reporters from the Dutch training camp this week, amongst whom was Sky Sports News’ admirable Gary Cotterill, he used the expression of ‘giving four years’ to Holland so that he could finally live his dream of coaching at a World Cup.

The expression was used advisedly.

Manchester United 1999

What LVG could do at Manchester United

If United get him he’ll ‘give’ everything. He’ll be obsessive, he’ll be driven, he’ll expect a drive for perfection from everyone around him and he’ll be savage with anyone who doesn’t think or act the same way.

It’s what he thought he was giving to Barcelona back then, hence the hot tears of frustration more than shame at failure.

His drive for perfection even extends to holiday homes. He kept his villa near Sitges for years after leaving Barcelona but then sold it and bought in Portugal (where he was hunted down by reporters seeking United comments from him) because: “I don’t think that we get as many sunny days in Barcelona now as when I first moved here. There are more cloudy days and so I’m going somewhere else.” Meteorological inadequacy wasn’t for Louis.

Finally, there is his merited fame for total belief in promoting from within the ranks as soon as he feels there is raw talent sufficiently technically able and sufficiently well-tutored in his philosophy of football.

Remember, in the United treble season of 1999 (pictured above) it was van Gaal who gave Xavi his Champions League debut, aged 18, for Barcelona at Old Trafford (how ironic) in the first of two 3-3 draws between the sides in that Group stage.

(Maybe the two men could re-unite there… who knows, stranger things have happened).

“I pick whoever is the right guy to fit in my 4-3-3 formation, because I always play that way. If he is a young player and he can do it then I select him – if he is old then no problem for me. Age is not an important factor for me”. Gospel of van Gaal.

Adnan Januzai

So what for the class of 2014

Andrés Iniesta (18) and Victor Valdés (20) followed as van Gaal debutants. It’s a strain which runs firmly through his career from 18 year old Kluivert coming on to win Ajax their first Champions League final in 1995 to full Bundesliga debuts for Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber at Bayern aged 19, 17 and 20 respectively.

James Wilson, Tom Lawrence, Adnan Januzaj, Michael Keane and co couldn’t wish to be at a better place for their football development if van Gaal takes charge.

All in all I must say that I hope United get their man and their man gets United. Probably it was van Gaal who wrote the words to the Sham 69 hit ‘.. if the kids are United, then we’ll never .. be divided’.

Just as the ‘Class of 92′ hits the DVD shelves, the class of 2014 can hit the pitch.

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Graham Hunter: ‘Simeone is special enough to lead Atletico past Chelsea’

Recently I was talking to a Chelsea player about the quarter final second leg against Paris St Germain.

The Blues won 2-0, in extremis, to overturn the 3-1 first leg deficit. Laurent Blanc, as is often the case in big games, didn’t know whether to stick or twist. His team turned out a ‘nothing’ performance – neither defending staunchly enough nor posing meaningful threat and putting Chelsea on the back foot.

I offered up the idea that I’d admired Jose Mourinho’s idea of not replacing Samuel Etoo (Oscar went instead) when both Schürrle and Demba Ba were already on and he was introducing Fernando Torres.

Etoo played a small part in the goal which Ba scored and Mourinho, not exactly a guy known for commitment to all-out attack ended up with four strikers in play – just at the moment when risk was needed in order to win the premium of yet another place in the Champions League semi final.

I was put right. I was informed that every single eventuality had been planned for. If Chelsea were 1-0 up at half time such and such was to happen and the players knew it. If they were losing ‘x’ would happen, if they were 3-0 up and coasting ‘y’ would happen. If they were down to ten men then ‘z’ tactics would be employed and everyone would be clear on specifically what would be required of them, individually, in that instance.

Setting that information and that victory aside for a moment what Mourinho and most of his players can draw on, aside from the best up-to-date scouting and analysis, is vast data banks of experience.

For the Portuguese and the bulk of his players the stress, adrenalin, intensity, mood and so on, which are particular to being in the dream situation of needing a win or score draw in 90 minutes at home to reach the final of the greatest-ever football competition, are nothing new.

That’s not the case for Atlético.

Still, I think it’s easy to make a case for Los Colchoneros to go through this tie.

Simeone, his squad, the club execs, the media and the fans are all completely in sync.

They think the same, expect the same things, work/sing/plan with absolute intensity, they show the same levels of naked desire, they all make sacrifices and they are completely unified in the idea that it’s the end, not the means to the end, which matter.

Win pretty, win ugly. But win.

Recognise that theme anyone in SW6? I still think that Atlético are SO reminiscent of Chelsea around 2004/5/6

Full of talent, smart, athletic, brilliantly coached and also brimful of desire.

They’ve got a horse-shoe in their boxing gloves

Just as it was when the young ‘One’ really was ‘special’ it’s great to observe and report on.

Not necessarily aesthetically lovely, not always.

But compelling because we are into basic, eternal human instincts about competing, surviving, winning and evolving.

So, for those reasons, it’s easy to fancy Atlético. An away goal would be an immense boon. Two would put them through. Guaranteed.

They are on an immense unbeaten streak and everyone ‘believes’. The manager is a messianic figure and his word is law.

So many of these things which Mourinho once achieved automatically and Simeone is now proving he has in spades are absolutely NOT the norm in football.

Teams look harmonious, players tell us, tell the media, the manager, tell each other that they are ‘up for it’ that they are ‘ready’ that they ‘understand’ the tactics and the gameplan – but surprsingly often none of it will actually be true.

Men like Mourinho, Ferguson, Ancelotti, Guardiola partly get paid such exorbitant salaries because not only can they come up with the right game plans they can enforce them and get the key players to unify and to believe in what’s required of them. Not just to do it like automatons but to understand and believe.

That genuinely is quite unusual.

More, Simeone has a team which defends all over the pitch. Not only do they press quite well they are rigorously disciplined positionally, they work not in little individual units but in twos and threes. They work for each other.

Atleti also use the ball with cleverness and efficacy. Koke, Arda, Gabi, Sosa, Diego and Filipe Luis all deliver the ball very, very well indeed. Moreover there have been nine different goal-assist givers in the last 13 Atlético matches.

All for one and one for all, no?

But, in my opinion, here’s the rub. Having set them up as a proper ‘team’ it’d be fatuous to suggest that they utterly depend on one man.

The Gift Of No Gabi

However the importance of Gabi’s absence through suspension cannot, I reckon, be overplayed.

He’s Simeone on the pitch. Same brain, same rigour, same win at any cost, same respect from those around him, same ability to produce match winning goals or assists not in mediocre games but big, big moments.

His assist record in the last few weeks has been fabulous, always producing something when Atlético are just, slightly, beginning to look as though mental and physical freshness is at a premium.

He has able deputies in Mario Suarez and Tiago – but Gabi is a horrible loss.

Perhaps this is where Atlético’s greatest test comes. Gabi may not be an experienced Champions League semi final warrior but he might as well be.

He’d have led the troops around him, calmed them down when needed, speeded them up when required – he’d have led by example.

Back to experience. Back to accumulated knowledge. I’m sure the fact that Mourinho admires and wants Diego Costa for next season made Chelsea fans watch the ‘new’ Spain striker closely.

If they don’t watch La Liga regularly perhaps they were underwhelmed. Costa makes and takes chances of his own but he is also, heavily, the product of superb service from Arda, Koke, Gabi, Villa and Filipe.

Close Down Providers and Conquer

Last week Chelsea snuffed out the providers and so the finisher had scraps to feed off.

Ahead of this game Costa said, authoritatively, that Chelsea ‘would be forced to come out and play a bit more because they were at home this time’.

Perhaps. Was that the voice of experience or supposition?

How well briefed are all Simeone’s players about what to expect?

What do do in certain situations. How to react. When to push the pedal to the floor, when to… well, Kenny Rogers covered it best in ‘The Gambler’. Hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away .. run.

Are Atlético going to be as well briefed and prepared as Chelsea?

For these reasons I suspect it’ll need Atleti’s best performance of the season in order to go through. They’ve been remarkable these last few years, regular trophy winners and the Europa league has taught them, above all, how to peak in midweek and regularly produce wins, any old how, at the weekend.

Hence their heady Champions League/Liga positions.

But I reckon they’ll be tested to their very limits by an experienced, savvy, hungry and unified Mourinho side.

I think there’s a little bit of value in looking at Atleti set plays. They spend an inordinate amount of time practicing them. They are Spain’s most regular scorers from the dead ball and without Gabi, Koke remains an absolutely wonderful delivery boy when he’s crossing or passing off his right foot.

Raúl Garcia, Godín, Miranda, Costa are all well above average in the air and I’d expect Mark Schwarzer to be properly tested in his timing at coming for crosses.

At a guess I’d have thought that there’s no more than three goals in the match, much more likely two and that for all I’ve bemoaned the absence of Gabi Chelsea may need to score twice in order to meet Real Madrid in Lisbon next month.

Comedy value? The novelty bet? Simeone’s number two, Germán ‘Mono’ Burgos once threatened to re-arrange Mourinho’s features during a particularly heated Clásico.

Burgos is, without too much exaggeration, a character who makes Mourinho appear like Ghandi. If you can get decent odds on Burgos being sent off. Take them. All day long.

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 You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter on @BumperGraham

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Graham Hunter: Why Real Madrid may lose the battle but win the war with Bayern Munich

Real Madrid’s record in Germany is just so atrocious that you’d forgive the hoteliers, bar owners and resterauteurs in Lisbon for getting ahead of the game and laying in stocks of Deutsche phrase-books, lagoons of lager and a herd of sausage meat.

Big spending, bouncy, brash, hungry and thirsty Bavarians are coming to town. Right?

But dispensing with the lies and damn lies and heading straight for statistics there’s at least some data to suggest that the reigning European champions have a chunky task on their hands tonight (7.45pm).

While Los Blancos have lost five and drawn only one of their last six visits to Munich every single one of those last six results (a quintet of 2-1′s and a 1-1 draw) would serve to qualify Madrid for the final if it were reproduced this evening.

The last time Madrid failed to score in Bavaria one of the main protagonists of the war of words around last week’s tie, Franz Beckenbauer, was wearing short trousers and boots and Los Blancos’ midfield play was being run by a certain tall, skinny Vicente Del Bosque. (April, 1976, if you feel the need to know).

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Franz Beckenbaeur 840

More heat than light

The heat generated over the first leg had a lot to do with tactics, philosophy, internal warring, possession and ‘sterility’.

Within Spain, certainly within the Santiago Bernabéu there was no frothing at the mouth about the fact that the nine time European champions decided, in advance, not to compete for possession and chose a strategy of counter-attack football.

Some of the Bayern players, Thomas Müller in particular, scoffed a little at the tactic – amazed that it flew so brazenly in the face of Madrid’s history, and in the knowledge that it would be unforgiveable at Bayern.

The ‘row’ factor centred on just that Bavarian philosophy. They are, by nature, a ‘sturm und drang‘ club – conflict, desire, antagonism, stress, hunger, pressure.

They play intelligent football, talented football – but not percentage football.

If they were a driver they’d be Ayrton Senna, if they were a flavour they’d be tabasco. If they were music they’d be AC/DC.

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Pep Guardiola840

On the (counter) attack

Guardiola was criticised (again) by Beckenbauer. L’Equipe splashed it’s next edition with the headline ‘Real Politik’ stating that Bayern had been taught a lesson in ‘real’ life and efficacy.

Guardiola’s possession football was mocked.

I thought that there was a dreadful, ill informed reaction to how Bayern played to the exclusion of proper analysis of what actually happened in the first leg – ie how close the German champions were to doing something special.

However, I think there has also been some confusion emanating from the first leg about Real Madrid and what brand of football they espouse.

Three of the Champions League semi-final teams last week played on the counter attack. But I’d argue that there was a clear difference between what Real Madrid chose to do and Chelsea’s (understandable) parking of the bus at the Calderon.

Madrid don’t revoke possession – it’s just that they are extremely effective with what they have.

ronaldo_freekick

You’re very Possessive

Take their Champions League record this season as proof.

Away to Copenhagen they won 2-0 (with 59% possession). A home to Galatasaray they won 4-1 (50%). A way to Juve they drew 2-2 (52%). At home to Juve they won 2-1 (52%). At home to Copenhagen they won 4-0 (58%). Away to Galatasaray they won 6-1 (50%).

In the first knock-out round they beat Schalke 6-1 away (57%) and at home 3-1 (55%). Then they beat Dortmund in the first quarter final 3-0 (58%) and lost to them away 2-0 (49%).

They compete for the ball, they don’t sit and speculate, waiting on the Mourinho doctrine that the more the other side has possession the more likely it is they’ll make a mistake.

But Madrid are quite confident that if they have somewhere near a fair share of the ball then they’ll outscore the opposition – sometimes heavily.

They are startlingly effective as evidenced by their 12 goals away to Galatasaray and Schalke on an average 53.5% possession shows.

It’s part of the reason that Guardiola, in the build up to this second leg, has been emphasising that he expects to require three goals from his men in order to go through.

The case for the defence

Instinct tells me that it’s worth looking at Madrid’s two central defenders.

During the three previous semi finals which Los Blancos have reached consecutively Pepe, for all his football ability, has been a ‘sleeper’.

Sent off in the first (home) leg against Barcelona – Leo Messi’s two goals followed instantly.

Two years ago against Bayern he foolishly and needlessly gave away the penalty from which Arjen Robben squared the tie at 3-3 in the second leg.

Last season he was, utterly ruthlessly, exposed by Marko Reus and Robert Lewandowski. The striker gave Pepe a lesson in clinical penalty box football and should have sent him a bouquet of flowers and an apology for humiliation when the dust settled.

Can he amend that besmirched record tonight?

Then there’s Ramos.

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Ramos 840

Wounded pride

Two seasons ago he was mocked, mercilessly, for his crucial penalty miss, skied over the bar, at the decisive moment in the shoot-out to reach the final at the Allianz Arena.

He was so furious, this Errol Flynn footballer, at the cruelty of the reception to that moment (people portrayed his shot hitting Felix Baumgartner’s head as he was preparing to jump out of Red Bull Stratos and the video went viral) that he decided to even the score by ‘Panenka-chipping’ the Portugal keeper in the European Championship semi final during 2012.

On Saturday, he was rampaging forward and tried to get on the end of two Ronaldo crosses against Osasuna before finally heading home on the hour.

He’s on the verge of missing the final, should they qualify, given that he’s on a booking. But his attitude and actions were those of a man (in my knowledge of him) who’s still got a thorn in his side.

Weakness or strength – the rampaging, Boys-Own, ‘I can do anything if I try’ attitude which makes Ramos such an attractive footballer to watch? (Albeit with Real Madrid’s record red card total)

You decide. All I know is that I’ll be riveted to the game.

Off the fence

The odds and the sane, calm part of my brain says: Bayern, at home, only one goal to overcome – they HAVE to do it.

The Sergio Ramos, hot-blooded, Celtic part of my brain (the 95% part) says … it’s Madrid to go through on a 2-2 aggregate scoreline.

La Decima beckons?

  • For Madrid to go through on aggregate 2-2 means they get beaten 2-1 tonight by Munich @ 7/1.
  • Ramos is 25/1 to score the first goal or 8/1 to score at anytime over the 90 minutes tonight.

 You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter on @BumperGraham

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