Thursday, 30 September 2010

Bursa Fail To Breakdown Gers Wall

After a terrible start to the European campaign for Scottish clubs, some more pride and credibility was restored as Turkish champions Bursaspor left Glasgow with nothing after Steven Naismith's 18th minute goal at Ibrox.

Naismith, who put in a tireless shift and thoroughly deserved his MOTM award, latched on to a lovely cushioned header from Kirk Broadfoot to flick the ball past Dimitar Ivankov. The Rangers faithful have waited a while for a Champions League victory and the SPL champions put in an excellent performance to snatch the three points on matchday two to put Smith's men joint-top of the group.

In all honesty, we did not know much about our Turkish opponents after their tremendous achievement of sneaking in-front of Fenerbahce on the final day of the season to win the Turkish SuperLig, the first-side outside Istanbul since Trabzonspor won the title in 1984. The Green Crocodiles followed up the example of Sivasspor from the previous season in making a strong title challenge - if only we could have this in the SPL.

We have heard alot of figures from the last week, Sir Alex claimed Bursa had spent £100m and we heard in rags this week that they'd spent £70m. To be honest, I am not sure how accurate either figure is because it was fact that Bursaspor had a budget quite minuscule to the 'big three' from Istanbul only a year ago.

Argentinian playmaker Federico Insua was the stand-out performer for Bursaspor last night I felt and it was frustrating to see our midfield give him the freedom of G51. Insua had a spell last year on loan at Boca Juniors, but did not look anywhere near the same player as he was shifted to the left-wing in a 4-3-3 under Carlos Bianchi at La Bombonera. Perhaps, it is part of the Champions League experience seeing players like Insua so comfortable in possession of the ball. Pre-match, we knew the main threat would come from Volkan Sen on the right-side of their attack and Kirk Broadfoot did a damn good job in blocking the little 'No.10'.

The solid 'blue-wall' which was commanded by Davie Weir, Madjid Bougherra and Sasa Papac kept a second clean-sheet in successive games after their exploits at Old Trafford but matchday three will bring a new challenge when La Liga league-leaders Valencia make the trip to Glasgow looking for the three points after failing to hold out against Manchester United last night.

The bus will need to be firmly parked on the 20th of October when Juan Mata and co try to find a way through the resilient Rangers defence. It will be a long night and hopefully we can make use of set-pieces which were below-par from Steven Davis. Just a thought, that players such as James Beattie could be a massive asset if he manages to be passed fit for that much if we can deliver some good balls into the box. I see it as our only way of really testing Valencia and I am not sure they will fancy constant cross-balls with Big Lee, Beattie, Broadders and Boogey all battling to get on the end of them.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Walter's Masterclass in Defending Nicks Point At Old Trafford

As I watched Sky Sports' coverage last night pre-match, I was interested to hear that the Soccer Special panel had predictions of 3-0, 3-0, 2-0 and 4-0 to Manchester United. That to me summed up the total lack of respect for Rangers which came back to bite English Football on the backside.

I must admit, Walter's team selection had me a little bit frustrated before kick-off with Sky reporting that Steven Whittaker was playing left-midfield and Kirk Broadfoot on at right-back. However, when the game kicked-off it was clear that Walter Smith had pulled out a marvellous trick on the big occasion. It looked something along the lines of a 5-4-1 or 3-6-1 at times and the players carried out their instructions impeccably.

The English giants only tickled the Rangers goal on a few rare occasions with Javier Hernandez heading wide and Darren Gibson firing in a few long-range drives but when you have a keeper as reliable and talented as Allan McGregor it breeds a confidence amongst the players infront of him.

Steven Whittaker came in for a rough ride in last year's competition but he dealt with the threat of Ji-Sung Park and the several occasions where United tried to exploit his defensive weaknesses with a long-diagonal pass to Giggs in the second-half. Kirk Broadfoot played on the left-side of the defence and was one of Rangers' best attacking outlets throughout the game with the defender making a strong claim for a penalty on the hour mark. The main job of the full-backs was to nullify the attacking threats of the Manchester United wide-players and avoid diving into needless challenges, which Whittaker was culpable of last term.

In the centre of defence, Walter went for Madjid Bougherra, David Weir and Sasa Papac which worked perfectly with three of them striking up a perfect understanding in the Gers rearguard. Papac was absolutely immense last night and showed exactly what he can do after a few sticky patches in the Scottish Premier League. The Bosnian left-back was fierce in the tackle and gave a real sense of composure whenever he passed the ball to a team-mate. The 40-year-old David Weir had most eyes on him last night and the way Rangers played suited him to a tee. The deep defensive line from Rangers was ideal for Weir due to his lack of pace and if anyone did get in behind, McGregor, Bougherra or Papac would have comfortably dealt with it. Bougherra impressed yet again for Rangers and thwarted the threat of Wayne Rooney not for the first time. His charging defensive runs can be so deadly as the opposition are caught cold when they see a rampaging centre-half up the other end of the park when Rangers have been playing so deep for the rest of the game. What impressed me most about the three centre-backs was their quick ability to cover for each other if anyone was dragged out or went forward.

The defence was strongly assisted by a superb performance from Lee McCulloch who, at times, played like a fourth central defender. McCulloch had an all-round superb performance and was key to Rangers' result last night. His passing was immaculate and did not rush into any stupid decisions with the pressure being applied by United's high pressing game. Maurice Edu showed his real potential last night with an excellent display. The US international has had a poor run of form in the SPL, mainly due to his role in the 4-4-2 Rangers usually deploy. But last night, his inclusion in the team was another crucial brick to the defensive wall and he made some vital interceptions and blocks in the second-half. Steven Davis was not at his best last night but the flashes of ability were easy to notice as he drifted into some excellent positions to recieve the pass in crowded areas. Rangers three central midfielders were too over-powering for Gibson and Fletcher.

Steven Naismith had a difficult job of trying to link midfield to attack. Naismith has been impressive on the right of midfield this season but Smith decided to slot him on the left side with the ability to tuck in a help make Rangers compact in the centre. Having a good-worker like Naismith created numerous opportunities for Broadfoot to steam well-ahead of Naismith on the left-side of the pitch. Going forward though, I felt Naismith was a little bit restricted in the options he had on the ball and perhaps a Vladimir Weiss or John Fleck will be more needed at home to provide that little bit of magic or sparkle to create a chance for Kenny Miller.

Miller had the incredibly lonely and tough job of playing upfront on his own for Rangers. In the UEFA Cup run in 2007/2008, Rangers were extremely lucky to have two excellent strikers in Daniel Cousin and Jean-Claude Darcheville who were both adept at playing that role really effectively. Miller, to be fair, is not the same striker he was two or three years ago and has turned into a 'predatory' striker rather than an extreme worker. He always looked a threat when Rangers went forward but I felt Miller could have contributed more when the ball was coming away from the Rangers box and it was crying out for someone just to get into the right area and hold the ball up.

It could be classed as Walter's best tactical performance as a Rangers manager and easily outwitted his good friend Sir Alex Ferguson. Two more away matches at Bursaspor and Valencia still to come and I speak for all fans when I say that another Rangers performance like last night in those games would be very satisfying. The jury will be out on how Walter deals with the expectation of being more expansive at home and that was his major downfall last season as Rangers were crushed by Unirea and Sevilla.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Saving Scottish Football - Part Three: 'The Bundesliga Model'

Since the 2000 Bundesliga report, the German league has thrived in the last decade and arguably has become the number one football league in the world.

The German Bundesliga has a fascinating structure which, for me, is ideal for Scottish Football.

I was encouraged by Neil Doncaster's comments this week that said terracing might be re-instated at Scottish stadiums. The safe-standing sections in the Bundesliga have revamped the atmosphere's and have also increased the capacities at some grounds in Germany. Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion holds just over 61,000 in UEFA competitions but in the Bundesliga the stadium can hold well over 80,000 and has given Dortmund one of the highest average attendances in the world. The club also sells over 50,000 season-tickets. Can you imagine an Ibrox, Celtic Park, Tynecastle or Tannadice with an extra 10,000 capacity due to safe-standing sections?

Bundesliga ticket prices average at around 15 Euros which is a ridiculously good price when you consider paying £22 to watch SPL matches. The "Yellow Wall" at the Westfalenstadion has an average ticket price of under £10, combine that with being able to stand with your mates and make use of the excellent catering facilities then you have yourself a stunning deal. These match tickets also have an increased value when you consider that fans can travel on public transport for free on a matchday. The overall matchday revenue for the Bundesliga clubs last season was 424 Million Euros. Quite astonishing when you think about it.

Combine that with 573 Million Euros in Sponsorship and 594 Million Euros in broadcasting revenue then you have a financially secure league. The Bundesliga clubs paid around 50% of this income on player wages which, again, shows how superbly managed the Bundesliga and it's club actually are. According to the Bundesliga report, the league brings nearly 3 Billion Euros to the German economy. Only 11 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs are in debt.

On a positive note, Scottish football has one of the best attendances per population. We do have to remember we are a country of just 5m so we won't be having 30,000 attendances at every game. There is absolutely no doubt our Old Firm, with safe-standing, cheap ticket prices and a good matchday experience, could easily be filling 60,000-70,000 every week and possibly on an Old Firm derby be pushing over that amount. Even for your Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen, I think they could be pushing over 20,000 with a competitive league and these aspects from the Bundesliga model.

Despite the poor product, implementing the 'Bundesliga model' might just be the saviour of our domestic game. The product can be poor but if the football is entertaining, competitive and offers a quality matchday experience then fans will seriously buy into that.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Saving Scottish Football - Part Two: Youth Development

This article probably comes at a time when Scottish Football received arguably it's biggest wake up call after the stuttering 2-1 win over the minnows of Leichenstein.

Immediately, let's scrap the "we've found our level" nonsense and really dig beneath the major problems on the surface of our national game. What embarrassed me the most was the ability for the Leichenstein players to play a very simple pass and move game, where as, we launch the ball up the park in desperation.

Henry McLeish told us in his report that he felt we needed to invest £500m in facilities. I'm not sure I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I do believe Scotland has enough good facilities, especially with schools. 99% of primary and secondary schools have indoor and outdoor facilities and I would say the money would be better invested maintaining and developing these facilities - especially replacing the blaze surfaces with a proper flat surface. One of the startling things I regularly see is the goalposts being removed from school pitches and the gates being chained up during the summer holidays. Totally sums up this countries attitude towards youth football.

We don't use our school facilities enough in my opinion. Physical Education, from my recent experiences, is something that pupils can actually withdraw from if they do not want to participate. In all honesty, I do not see why this country persists with having Basketball, Badminton and Volleyball as key parts of the PE curriculum. Football is our national sport and, again from my recent experience, the only thing that boys are actually keen on doing. For me, the basic requirement should be that school kids participate in 4 hours of physical activity throughout the school week. Our education system is too concerned with pushing students into the door of university rather than actually bothering about their health and well-being.

School Football was previously seen as something that produced the stars of tomorrow, but sadly, with poor coaching knowledge and poor facilities we have seen the competitive edge of School Football removed. I have seen very good footballers removed from School Football teams due to poor behaviour - something I do not agree with at all. For me, the Scottish FA should be offering free coaching courses for these volunteers who put their time and effort in to running school football teams. If they had any basic knowledge of drills and how to run a team then we might see this begin to thrive again.

Coach Education is clearly a major problem within Scottish Football. I have heard many coaches complain at the poor standard of the coaching courses that are run by the SFA. Again, instead of investing £500m in new facilities which end up charging £100 to rent a pitch, why not invest money in totally revamping our coaching ladder with courses that educate coaches on touch, technique and control. In my opinion, we should be employing full-time SFA coaches that are UEFA qualified to work with kids in primary and secondary schools across Scotland. These people should be out in schools all day and helping coaching teams maybe once or twice at night a week. Even during the holidays, these coaches should be offering 3 and 4 coaching sessions a day rather than just the 1 session that usually the Council offer as part of their summer programme. During the winter, Futsal is something which could be used in the indoor school facilities that we know most schools have.

Until we get rid of the "kick and rush" attitude amongst Scottish coaches we will never see the elite talent coming through. Sadly, players are judged on their physical ability rather than technical ability and that is probably quite evident in the current Scottish national team. We MUST emphasize small-sided games and we MUST emphasize that the ball is infact your friend and you should treat it the best you can rather than kicking lumps out of it. Touch, technique and control are the three basic elements that should be used throughout our coaching system.

Saving Scottish Football - Part One: Domestic Reconstruction

The domestic game in Scotland has struggled in the last decade. The Scottish Premier League has suffered as a consequence of Old Firm domination and no team outside has won the Premier Division in over 20 years.

It's a telling statistics that pretty much sums up the demise of the Scottish game. The days of four teams chasing a league title are long gone and already this season after 3 matches the Old Firm have a lead on the rest of the clubs.

The lack of competition has a huge effect on other aspects of Scottish Football. Fans aren't interested in paying money to watch a product which is highly predictable. It didn't surprise me to see Aberdeen fans fill their full allocation at McDiarmid Park on the second weekend of the season after their side romped to a 4-0 victory on the opening day. Granted, it was against Hamilton but the signing of Paul Hartley, a well-known face in Scottish Football, was enough to get bums on seats. Even in 2005/2006, Hearts split the Old Firm and qualified for the Champions League and were regularly playing infront of sell-out crowds at Tynecastle.

The 12-team SPL does offer some excitement if your an Old Firm fan, but generally speaking for the other clubs it is a real pain in the neck. Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen have no chance of sustaining a proper title challenge when they are playing the Old Firm 8 times a season - some losing 24 points in the process. For me, an 18-team Premier League is the way to go with a European play-off and a relegation play-off, aswell as another automatic relegation position. With 34 games, these potential challengers could afford to lose out on the 4 times they play against the Old Firm which would only be 12 points and does not make a significant dent in a title challenge. I think this structure for the SPL would also restore major interest in the crunch matches like Rangers v Celtic, Aberdeen v Rangers, Hearts v Hibs and perhaps offer some other local derbies like Dundee v Dundee United.

One of the key things that can be accommodated with an extended SPL is the introduction of a winter break. Scotland regularly find itself in a position during December/January when alot of games are being postponed due to the harsh winter weather. Having a 3 or 4 week winter shutdown would be excellent for the clubs because they wouldn't need to pay needless money on calling off games. It is no surprise that during these winter months, fans aren't attracted to watching football. Combined with an early start, possibly mid-July, a winter break would fit perfectly into the Scottish calender.

The pathetic state of our lower divisions causes major debate amongst fans, even fans from the Premier League. I think one of the main things that people do not understand is the lack of competition due to no relegation in the Third Division. It does not make sense. There are many junior and amateur clubs pulling in decent crowds and playing in decent facilities with a really ambitious backing, for example, Spartans. Without doubt, some of these clubs could probably hold their own in the division and the clubs who have contributed next-to-nothing to Scottish Football will find their level. I would also look at lowering the amount of clubs but not forcing teams to merge and perhaps keeping people away from games. I would go for two lower divisions, both with 10 teams, with the '2 up, 2 down' model.

In addition to reconstruction of our leagues, the domestic cups have become boring and poorly treated by the clubs. I would not go down the road of scrapping the League Cup because financially it is more lucrative than the Scottish Cup. For the League Cup, I would rationalise the competition and bring the Old Firm into the earlier rounds but have them playing away from home. The regional structure would encourage early local derbies and give more revenue to the clubs rather than having half-filled stadiums for the early rounds. It would also help, in my view, if the League Cup was finished for the end of the first-half of the year. The Scottish Cup, for all it's history, is poorly marketed by the Scottish FA compared to the FA Cup down south. Again, bringing the Old Firm in early on would bring in more revenue for smaller clubs if they visit smaller teams. I think we will all agree that replays should 100% be scrapped.

Those are my general ideas for SPL reconstruction. I think we do agree that the SPL lacks a competitive edge and really the only way to do that is making changes to the domestic scene.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Rangers Will Need To Save Scottish Football's Credibility

Rangers will return for another season with Europe's elite when the Champions League kicks off on Tuesday and Wednesday. The SPL Champions will lock horns with Manchester United in the match which will always be built-up as the "battle of britain". Rangers are now the only Scottish representatives in European competition after Motherwell, Dundee United, Celtic and Hibernian were knocked out in the early rounds.

Scottish Football has taken some major blows over the last few years with clubs facing early eliminations at the hands of some of Europe's minnows. Even this level of mediocrity has reached the Old Firm and both clubs have experienced some horrific European nights in recent years. Rangers have had the financially-catastrophic defeat to FBK Kaunas in 2008 and the 4-1 Champions League defeat to Unirea Urziceni, while Celtic had a horror 5-0 defeat to Artmedia and a 4-0 thumping from FC Twente this season in the Europa League.

Last season was a painful experience for Rangers in European football after the major highs of 2007/2008. Matchday one gave Rangers a fantastic base to build on after snatching a 1-1 draw in Stuttgart, but two 4-1 home defeats to Sevilla and Unirea respectively put Rangers bottom of the group. There was a glimmer of hope that Rangers could sneak into the Europa League but a 1-1 draw in Romania and 2-0 defeat to Stuttgart ruled that out. On the final matchday, Sevilla ran out 1-0 winners in Spain as that put an end to the European dream for another year.

On paper, Rangers look much stronger than last year I think. The loss of Madjid Bougherra was a cruel blow for Rangers as Smith fiddled with McCulloch and Wilson as a replacement. The security of Bougherra and Weir at the back for Rangers will undoubtedly make them much stronger in the centre of defence. In midfield, there is a much more balanced look about the team with McCulloch, Edu and Davis likely to start in the middle with Naismith and Weiss on the flanks. Last season, Smith went for Thomson, Mendes, McCulloch, Rothen and Davis which had hardly any balance to it at all. Upfront would likely to be Kenny Miller and he's looking in fine form this season with 5 goals in 3 SPL games.

Looking at the bigger picture with Rangers being the only Scottish survivor, they will need to have a huge amount of luck and good performances in order to save the league some credibility. Next season, the Scottish champions will have to qualify for the Group Stages of the tournament after the Belgians leaped over the Scots in the UEFA rankings and unless the Gers qualify for the Last 16 or get a good run in the Europa League then it could be a similar outcome for years to come.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Slow Demise Of Argentina's Domestic King

With the appointment of Claudio Borghi from Argentinos Juniors after his outstanding triumph in the Clausura 2010, the coloured streets around La Bombonera were beaming with optimism that one of the most successful and famous clubs in World football could become Argentinian Champions after being starved of domestic success for nearly 3 years.

The 2008 Apertura ended up in a three-way battle for the championship with Boca Juniors, Tigre and San Lorenzo progressing to the Championship Play-off. Even the play-off could hardly separate the sides with each side winning one of their games and losing the other. All that separated Boca and their opponents was a single goal with perhaps the most important goal scored by Cristian Chavez in the 90th minute against San Lorenzo. The goal would ultimately win Boca the Apertura championship and send Boca into the Copa Libertadores, the South American Champions League.

Since then, Boca have finished 14th, 11th, 16th and are currently 16th after 5 games in the league. Boca have a famous history of producing quality young talent like Carlos Tevez and Fernando Gago, but this conveyor belt of talent has slowly came to a halt in recent times. Los Xeneizes even struggled to secure the services of talisman Juan Roman Riquelme during the summer but after a long, protracted contract dispute, the midfielder signed a 4-year-old to the relief of the Bosteros. In the five league games this season, Boca have only won 1 match under Claudio Borghi and have lost 3 including two home defeats to Racing and San Lorenzo.

Maybe the problem is more than just a lack of talent but more at the heart of Boca Juniors. Their famous rivals River Plate seem to have turned a corner under Angel Cappa and, most importantly, the president Daniel Passarella who was elected in December 2009. Passarella wanted to invite the "17 million River fans" to help "clean up" the club. River currently sit in 5th and a respectable 2 points behind the league leaders which is a vast improvement on their poor finishes in recent campaigns.

It has been a slow and painful demise of Argentina's domestic king and maybe it's time for Jorge Amor Ameal to get the brush and mop and start 'cleaning up' at La Bombonera.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Have Seedings Killed The Champions League?

The Champions League is frequently claimed to be the 'premier club competition in world football' and some even rank the tournament ahead of the FIFA World Cup. But has the seedings and co-efficients which are bent towards the 'big-five' killed the famous competition?

The Group Stages have brought hardly any excitement and tension due to the comfortable passages for the top clubs. Again, for probably the second or third consecutive year, I have cringed at the group Arsenal have been drawn in. Typical for a side bummed up by Sky and the English media but whenever they face a tough or challenging tie they will never deliver. Why should clubs like Arsenal be given the 'group-stage protection' while other clubs in Pot 2,3 and 4 need to genuinely roll their sleeves up to qualify?

Since the formation of the Europa League, I'll stick my neck out and say I've found this competition more refreshing and entertaining. I sense the purpose of the Europa League is really to stall the claims for a European Super League with numerous 'big fish in small ponds' being demoted to this competition due to the difficulty of reaching the lucrative pot of the Champions League. For Rangers and Celtic, the big bucks of the Champions League might be a step too far when both sides will need numerous qualifiers next season and they could join former big-boys such as Galatasaray, AEK Athens and PSV in the UEFA Europa League.

The strengthening of the Europa League and possible weakening of the Champions League leads me on to ask whether co-efficients have caused this?

To be honest, I've hardly a clue how the co-efficient system actually works but the demise of Scottish clubs in European competition has made me partly understand and appreciate every draw and every win we get in Europe. The freshness and sparkle of the Champions League has diminished due to the predictability of the latter stages in the competition. You could sit and probably name the 16 clubs that will qualify from the group stages; it has become boring and totally ridiculous.

Based on the allocation of places in 2012-2013, you can probably bet your cash that the four from England, four from Spain, four from Germany and 2 from France and Italy plus the maverick club outside the 'big-five' will likely make up the Last 16 of the competition. In 2009-2010, only three of the clubs in the Last 16 were outside the 'big-five' and the year before it was only three aswell, but bearing in mind FC Porto were previous champions and qualified in these two respective years.

Out of this years potential mavericks, there aren't many who really stand out as being teams that will qualify convincingly from their groups. Benfica, Shakhtar Donestk, Ajax and Panathinaikos could sneak into the Last 16 but are at an overwhelming disadvantage with the TV money being fed through to the 'big-five'.

The only way, for me, to see the Champions League flourish like it used to is to scrap the qualifying pots and totally revamp the competition. For goodness sake, it's the "champions" league not the "finish 4th place" league. Each UEFA member should have one automatic place in the tournament which would add up to 52 or 53 club sides and then have another 10 or 11 second-place qualifiers like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Celtic and Manchester United from this season. It would mean 64 clubs but a more fresh and unpredictable competition with the small chance that you could have a few early exits for the 'big-boys' if they come up against each other.

Until UEFA, FIFA and the respective governing bodies in Europe see that there are more than just five proper domestic leagues and that fans of clubs in Scotland, Holland, Turkey, Greece and Portugal are more fanatical and deserve better than the crap they get just now as their leagues capitulate infront of their eyes. These countries can't compete with their wealthy neighbours and none will produce a proper challenge to the European competitions unless things change.