Monday, April 23, 2012

Giggs vs Maldini - football's greatest ever one-club stars

Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs are arguably the first two names you think of when someone refers to a 'one-club man', with both players spending their entire careers at AC Milan and Manchester United respectively.

On Monday night, Giggs broke Maldini’s record for appearances at a top European club, playing his 903rd official match for United 21 years after his first and he doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon, with his 1000th appearance surely somewhere on the horizon.

With players moving between clubs almost as often as they change boots, the cliche that 'one-club players are a dying breed' has become commonplace. Yet like most cliches, it does have an aura of realism to it, with both Maldini and Giggs likely to retain their respective club records until way beyond their eventual passing due to the interchanging nature of modern day football.

 Years active: 1991-present

Goals scored: 163

PFA Players' Player of the Year 2008-09
BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2009
OBE for services to football - 2007

Fact: Remains the only player to have played and scored in every Premier League season.

Fact: Premier League record appearance holder.

Few clubs have seen the same amount of domestic and European success as Manchester United over the past 20 years or so, winning 12 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, a host of FA and League Cups, but people forget there was a significantly drier spell beforehand.

It took Sir Alex Ferguson a few years to turn United into title contenders and Giggs has been around since the very beginning of this successful period, making his debut as a 17-year-old in March 1991 before the Red Devils picked up their first Premier League triumph in 1993.

A stat that really shows the Welshman’s longevity is that he is the only player to have appeared and scored in every Premier League season and it is his career that seems to sum up post-1990 Manchester United.

In terms of defining moments, his first goal for the club couldn’t have come in a bigger fixture, as the then 17-year-old scored the winner against Manchester City in May 1991, while his 1999 FA Cup semi-final goal against Arsenal will be remembered as arguably his greatest, as he singlehandedly weaved through the Gunners’ defence before scoring and revealing his impossibly hairy chest as he celebrated.

The former Wales captain picked up his first Champions League winners medal the same year as he was a key part of United’s treble winning side, despite a comparatively injury-stricken season.

Although he did have his fair share of injuries when younger, his avoidance of serious long-term absences have meant he has managed to make at least 32 appearances every season since his debut season, but he doesn’t seem to be getting affected too much by fatigue, playing 27 times already this season.

After being a part of various historic events in United’s history, it was only fitting for the midfielder to be a key component of the side that would overtake Liverpool as the most successful in the English top-flight, as first they equalled the Reds’ 18 league titles, and then last year they broke the record, picking up their 19th.

Years active: 1985-2009

Goals scored: 33

Champions League Best Defender 2007
Uefa Team of the Year 2003 & 2005
Ballon d'Or Bronze Award 1994 & 2003

Fact: Champions League record appearance holder with 168.

Fact: Played 23 World Cup matches with Italy, losing only three times.

The name 'Maldini' was hardly an unknown one when 16-year-old Paolo made his debut for Milan back in 1985. The youngster was the son of Cesare Maldini, a Milan player in the 1950s and 60s, before coaching the side in the 70s, so the Italian already had an insight to a life focussed on football.

Similarly to Giggs, it didn’t take an awful long time before Maldini was a valued member of the first-team squad, making 27 Serie A appearances in his first full year, plus another 13 in other competitions. 

Over the course of his 25-year long career, Maldini won seven league titles, with his first coming in the 1987-88 season, but it was the 1991-92 Scudetto-winning campaign that was perhaps the most emphatic, as Milan went the entire league season unbeaten, while the defensive quartet of Maldini, Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Alessandro Costacurta was becoming more imperious by the year.

Seven titles in 25 years is perhaps a little underwhelming, but few can equal the Italy legend when it comes to Champions League titles. He won two European Cups, one in 1988-89, and the other a year later, but he later added three Champions League trophies, with those coming in '94, 2003 and 2007.

Former Real Madrid wideman Francisco Gento won six European titles with the Spanish giants in the 50s and 60s, the only player to better Maldini, while both featured in eight finals, more than anyone else.

The former defender is often referred to by pundits, and fans, as the greatest player to never win the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, with his style of defending being quite remarkable. It has been suggested that he only averaged one tackle every two matches, allowing his fantastic positioning to dictate his game, effectively forcing people to rethink what they defined as a good defender.

Although his farewell at the San Siro back in 2009 was a little overshadowed by the chants and a banner in a section of the Curva Sud, he will undoubtedly be regarded an all-time great, with almost unrivalled success. But you just get a feeling that despite his achievements, Maldini will still feel bitter about losing the 2005 Champions League final to Liverpool in such dramatic fashion.

Friday, April 20, 2012

How Brad Jones has gone from loan ranger to Liverpool's man with the gloves at Wembley

Having conceded three cheap goals, David James once claimed that he was not ready after coming on as a sub for England in a friendly against Denmark.

The former Liverpool goalkeeper had no excuse considering he was playing under Sven Goran Eriksson, who was infamous for his obsession with substitutes in friendlies.

For Brad Jones, a little rustiness can be forgiven considering the extraordinary couple of weeks Liverpool’s third-choice goalkeeper has had.

Before the Reds’ game against Newcastle at the start of the month he wasn’t even on the bench, now Jones will be keeping sticks for Liverpool in their first FA Cup date at Wembley for 15 years.

After spending much of his 10-year career playing back-up in the Premier League and spending time on loan elsewhere, it is a prime example of expecting the unexpected.

Brad Jones was born in Perth, Western Australia, on March 19, 1982 and learned his keeping trade at local side Bayswater City. After turning 17, the 6ft 3in stopper joined Middlesbrough in 1999.

Following a short stint at Irish side Shelbourne, the Antipodean made his football league debut during a loan spell at League One side Stockport in December 2002. It was one to forget however, as County lost 4-1 at home to Bristol City and he never played for the club again.

Two more loan spells away from the Riverside Stadium followed in the 2003/04 campaign. First a two-month deal at Rotherham at the start of the season where he didn’t play a game, then at Blackpool.

At Bloomfield Road, Jones began to show potential. In the seven games he played, Blackpool won five of them 1-0, while the other two were 1-0 defeats.

Middlesbrough recalled him and on January 3, 2004, Jones finally made his Boro debut in a 2-0 FA Cup win at home to Notts County. Four days later he made his Premier League debut in a 2-1 win against Fulham.

But the return of Mark Schwarzer soon relegated Jones to understudy once again although despite not playing a single minute in the competition, Jones picked up a winners’ medal in Boro’s 2004 Carling Cup success.

The following season Jones returned to Blackpool on loan before featuring in five league games for Middlesbrough at the back end of the term.

The 2005/06 campaign suggested Jones was going to make his breakthrough at Middlesbrough after featuring 16 times, but the following season once again had him going on loan, this time to Sheffield Wednesday.

During his 15-game run at the Championship side a series of below-par performances saw him targeted by the home fans and in a 3-2 win against QPR at Hillsborough the keeper was even pelted with coins.

But good news followed the end of the season as in June 2007 the Australian was called up to earn the first of, so far, two international caps in a friendly against Uruguay.

However, just like at Stockport five years earlier, it was a disaster. The Socceroos lost 2-1 after Jones spilled a cross late on in the game that allowed Alvaro Recoba to head home.

Domestically he was on the rise though. Nearly 10 years after joining the club, Jones finally became first-choice for Middlesbrough after Schwarzer departed for Fulham in 2008, but injury meant he didn’t become a regular until mid-season.

The campaign ended in disaster for Boro though, with the club relegated from the Premier League after an 11-year stay. Jones featured 22 times throughout the year and maintained his place for the following campaign in the Championship.

His resulting form in England’s second tier warranted international recognition once more and he was called up to Australia’s squad for the 2010 World Cup – but tragedy would strike.

The keeper pulled out of the squad after it was revealed his four-year-old son, Luca, had been diagnosed with leaukaemia. The youngster sadly passed away in November last year following an 18-month battle against the illness.

On the pitch, Jones returned to the Premier League in August 2010 after new Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson snapped him up as understudy to Pepe Reina for £2.3million – but his unfortunate debuts continued to plague him.

The stopper’s first night in a Reds shirt came during Liverpool’s shock third round Carling Cup exit to Northampton on penalties at Anfield. Although he was largely blameless for the defeat, any positives gained from the game were muted by the hysteria over Liverpool’s poor start under Hodgson.

Jones featured once more that season in a 0-0 Europa League draw against Utrecht before going on loan to Championship side Derby for the rest of the 2010/11 campaign. It was a largely unsuccessful spell as the keeper again conceded four on his debut at Cardiff, but worse was to come.

On April 30, 2011 during a 2-0 defeat against Bristol City (a bogey team it seems), the keeper allowed an effort to squirm under his body after just six minutes, with manager Nigel Clough claiming the error had demoralised the team – it proved to be his seventh and final game for the Rams.

New Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish also lost faith in the keeper by signing Brazilian international Doni to act as back-up for Reina last summer. For Jones, his Anfield career looked over before it had even really started.

The poor showing against Bristol City at Pride Park was his last competitive appearance before his re-emergence at Blackburn on Tuesday night.

While his penalty save was admirable in the way he outfoxed former Middlesbrough team-mate Yakubu, Jones looked every inch a goalkeeper who hadn’t played in a year.

Some shaky catches and untidy stops went unpunished, but his howler to push Yakubu over and concede another penalty showed his lack of playing time. Andy Carroll’s late winner for Liverpool will ensure his rusty gloves will be overlooked though.

It’s been an incredible fortnight for Jones which has seen him return to the squad and then make his Liverpool league debut. But the best news the 30-year-old has received is his partner, Dani Lawrence, giving birth to another son, Nico Luca Jones.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Revealed: Bundesliga is more competitive than La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 & Premier League

Based on results, the German Bundesliga is currently the most competitive among Europe’s top leagues this season.

A study evaluated La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Premier League, and the Bundesliga, assessing the points gap in each competition. The figure computed was the standard deviation of points earned, the square root of the average of summed squared differences between each team’s points and the league average.

In simpler terms, each value is computed by finding the difference between a certain team’s points earned and the average points for all teams in the league. These differences are found for all teams within a league, and averaged. 

A high standard deviation value means a broader points gap, and thus a less competitive league: for example, one in which one or two teams are running away with the title, and a few teams are hopelessly caught in the relegation battle.

By contrast, a low standard deviation means a tighter table, suggesting less of a gap between the elite and lower teams, and tighter competition.

In the Premier League, there now are only two teams realistically in contention for the title: leaders Manchester City and runners-up United. There is a narrow points range between eighth-placed Stoke and the 15th-placed West Brom, but on either end, the next few teams are significantly separated from the pack. And the gap between first and last is a whopping 39 points, with the average higher than all but seven of the league's 20 teams. By standard deviation, the Premier League is the least competitive in Europe.

The standard deviation of points in La Liga is significantly smaller than that in the Premier League, but still greater than that of any of Europe’s other top leagues. The mid-table range is quite tight: a gap of just 10 points separates Espanyol (5th) from Sporting Gijon (19th). In Spain, the race for a fourth Champions League spot is still far from decided, and the Europa League berths are completely up for grabs: the average is right in the middle, between ninth-placed Sevilla and 10th-positioned Malaga. But the league’s extremes are so far from the mean that, even with an otherwise tight pack, the standard deviation is still higher than most. Real Madrid and Barcelona are a whopping 14 and nine points clear respectively of third-placed Valencia, who are a further four ahead of Levante. At the bottom, Zaragoza are six points behind Gijon, making the difference between first and last nearly as great as that in England: 37 points.

Serie A has seen a contraction at the top in recent weeks, as Inter have stormed up the table to a position where they can once more be considered title contenders. And as in England and Spain, there is a tight pack in the centre of the table, with just five points separating Palermo (eighth) from Siena (17th). Novara and Lecce appear almost without a hope in the relegation zone, however, with Cesena dangerously close to a similar position. This, coupled with the five-point drop from Napoli (eighth) to Palermo (ninth) augments the data, splitting the league table effectively into three tiers that are separately competitive, if hard to break away from.

In France, the difference between first and last is lesser still than any of the aforementioned. From ninth place down, starting just below the mean, just eight points separate the remaining 12 teams, which offsets what is a considerably higher gap of 16.10 points to leaders PSG. In all of France, only two teams are more than nine points from the rounded mean.

In Germany, the title race is more open than in any other league: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke are all tied on points for first place, while dark horses Borussia Monchengladbach are just a point off the pace. Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen round off the top six, with 30 and 29 points apiece, beyond which there is a big drop to Hannover, and a steady decrease in points down the table. Rounding the mean, the leaders are just 12 points above, while basement side Augsburg are 10 below, making a first-to-last gap smaller than that of any other league.

It is important to note that the standard deviation is to some degree influenced by number of games played: with more matchdays having passed, there is a slightly greater likelihood of a gap - and deviation - growing. And surely enough, the league with the most games played (the Premier League) has the greatest standard deviation, while that of the which has completed the fewest (the Bundesliga) has the smallest.

Many fans have often asserted that when the lower half of one league is stronger than that of another, that one league is tougher to win than the rest. And without the chance for real, objective comparison, the debate can rage endlessly with no conclusion. There is no objective way to definitively compare competition between leagues, especially those at different stages in the season that are comprised of an unequal number of teams. 

However, standard deviation is the best way to measure how tight a table is, and accordingly, how strong the lower teams are relative to the higher. And in the case of the German Bundesliga, based on results, the gap in quality between the higher and lower teams is significantly less than that in any of Europe's other top leagues.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pepe's five fiercest flashpoints at Real Madrid

Wayne Rooney called him an idiot; Bernd Schuster claimed his personality changes when he pulls on a Real Madrid shirt. But almost all are in agreement: Pepe has a problem.

The Brazilian-born defender made the headlines again on Thursday for all the wrong reasons, deflecting the attention away from what was actually a very good game of football.

Real Madrid and Barcelona met in the season's fifth Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu, with the Catalans coming out on top, 2-1, in the first leg of the sides' Copa del Rey quarter-final clash.

Pepe, as last season against Barca, was deployed as a destroyer in midfield, and the Portugal defender lived up to that name with a fierce challenge on Sergio Busquets which earned him a booking early on, before a vicious stamp on Lionel Messi which wasn't spotted by the referee.

If it had been, the official would have been left no other option but to produce the red card. As it was, coach Jose Mourinho spared his player the possibility of that humiliation with a substitution in the closing stages.

Most of Barcelona's players would not be drawn on the incidents, but Xavi called the actions 'shameful' and others such as coach Pep Guardiola and Andres Iniesta simply said that the images 'speak for themselves'.

They certainly do. And it isn't the first time, either. Pepe's career at Real Madrid has been plagued with polemic and here, let's look at the defender's most famous flashpoints.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The one who got away: Mats Hummels' difficult history with Bayern Munich

By Claas Philipp & Clark Whitney

"He and Holger Badstuber will soon play together in the national team," Bayern Munich assistant coach and former amateur trainer Hermann Gerland once said of Mats Hummels. At the time, the young defender was playing for the Bavarians' reserves. But Gerland was later proven right: both Hummels and Badstuber have since matured into regular call-ups in Joachim Low's Germany squad.

Even at 17 years of age, Gerland knew Hummels was destined to be a star. The player's father and future agent, Hermann, was junior co-ordinator for the club, and young Mats had worn the Bayern shirt since the age of six.

At Gerland's advisory, senior coach Felix Magath promoted Hummels to the first team in 2007, and the Bergisch Gladbach native signed his first professional contract. Magath was sacked soon thereafter, and his successor Ottmar Hitzfeld sent Hummels back to the reserves. In the spring of 2008, the defender was shipped off to Dortmund on loan.

Six months later, BVB hired Jurgen Klopp, and thus began a prosperous relationship. The new coach put his faith in the then-19-year-old Hummels, and was so impressed with the rising talent that he convinced the Dortmund board to offer €4.2 million to sign him on a full transfer. Jurgen Klinsmann, who had succeeded Hitzfeld at the Allianz Arena the previous summer, was uninterested in the player, and allowed him to leave. It was a decision Bayern would later regret.
Gerland was unimpressed: "We never should have let him go," he later said. And he was not alone in his opinion. Only after the youngster left did Bayern truly realise the gem they had produced.

Last spring, Uli Hoeness & Co. tried to lure the prodigal son back to Munich. Hummels had a buy-out clause in the region of €8m, and BVB would have been powerless to block a move. But the player himself declined, and instead penned a new deal with Dortmund - this time with no exit clause - until 2016.

Hummels appreciates the trust Klopp has shown him, something that he did not receive in Munich, and has repaid it in turn as he has developed into the best defender in Germany. He hoisted the Bundesliga trophy for the first time last season, and now at 23 years of age, is aiming to repeat the previous year's success. It just happens to be that on Wednesday, he takes on his former employers - against whom he has scored twice - in a match that could decide the title early.

As it stands there is no love lost between Bayern and Hummels, whose father was sacked last week after 17 years at the club. The only time fans will see him play alongside Holger Badstuber will be during internationals. For Bayern, he will remain the one that got away.

Scout Report: Youngsters rule Dutch football

The Dutch Eredivisie has gone into Christmas break, with all 17 rounds of the first half of the season already played. We now have a great chance to take a look at Holland's top performing offensive players.

IMScouting's efficiency report generator calculates the number of goals plus assists, divided by the number of minutes that the player has played, in league matches only. In order to get into this list, a player must have reached at least 700 minutes on the field.

Leading the list is Feyenoord Rotterdam's 19 year old striker John Guidetti . The Rotterdam giants are in the midst of a severe economic crisis and have had to base their squad on home-grown talents and players in on loan. The Swedish U21 international, who has been considered a huge talent since childhood, was signed by Manchester City when only 15 years old, but could never make it into their first squad. This season, on loan to Feyenoord , Guidetti is finally making his breakthrough in top division football: With 11 goals and 3 assists in just 10 games in the starting lineup, he has led Feyenoord 's offensive line in their unexpectedly successful first half of the season.

But with all due respect to Guidetti's long awaited explosion, the best offensive player in Dutch football at the moment is the list's no. 2, PSV Eindhoven's mercurial left winger Dries Mertens . After a great 2010/11 season with FC Utrecht (13 goals, 17 assists), the 24 year-old Belgian international was bought by PSV for 7m Euros and has since then proved more than worthy of his price tag: with 13 goals and 11 assists to his name, Mertens is directly responsible for half of PSV 's league goals, and taking into account the Dutch cup and the Europa League he has 16 goals plus 16 assists in 26 games this season! 

PSV Eindhoven, the league's best offensive team so far with 48 goals, are also the most represented team on the list, with 21 year-old Dutch international Georginio Wijnaldum (16th place, 7 goals, 5 assists), Swedish powerhouse midfielder Ola Toivonen (18th place, 10 goals, 2 assists) and 18 year-old Dutch-Moroccan prodigy Zakaria Labyad (9th place, 3 goals, 6 assists) joining Mertens to complete an extremely offensive midfield unit.

League leaders AZ Alkmaar's only representative is Swedish international midfielder Rasmus Elm (14th place, 8 goals, 5 assists). Last season's runner-ups FC Twente Enschede have their striking duo of Austrian international bomber Marc Janko (3rd place, 10 goals, 3 assists) and the towering 21 year-old Dutch forward Luuk de Jong (7th place, 10 goals, 6 assists) backed by the magnificent wing-man Ola John (11th place, 5 goals, 7 assists), the 19 year-old Liberian born Dutch U19 international on his breakthrough season.  

SC Heerenveen have the league's 4th best scoring ratio, led by the league's top-scorer Bas Dost (4th place, 14 goals, 4 assists). The 22 year-old towering Dutch striker (192cm) has reached double figures in the last two seasons, and is enjoying the best form of his short career, including scoring all 5 goals in his team's victory over excelsior earlier this month.  Dost is backed up by a pair of incredibly talented wing players: the Eredivisie's top assist-maker, Dutch U21 right-winger Luciano Narsingh (5th place, 5 goals, 12 assists) and the gifted 23 year-old Moroccan international left-winger Oussama Assaidi (15th place, 7 goals, 3 assists). 

Reigning Champions Ajax Amsterdam are missing their top forward Mounir El Hamdaoui, who has fallen out of favor with head coach Frank De Boer, but keep a safe 5 point distance from leaders AZ , led by the Serbian creative forward Miralem Sulejmani (8th place, 11 goals, 2 assists), the playmaking genius of 19 year-old Danish international Christian Eriksen (10th place, 4 goals, 10 assists) and last season's second division sensation Derk Boerrigter (19th place, 4 goals, 4 assists), who's surprising performances have even earned him his first international call up last November.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The equivalents of Lionel Messi in other sports : G.O.A.T

After watching Lionel Messi become Barcelona’s all-time record goalscorer in suitably scintillating fashion on Tuesday night, Pep Guardiola was asked if the Argentine had become football’s equivalent of basketball legend Michael Jordan.

“Maybe, yes,” the Blaugrana boss tentatively replied, before then warming to the comparison. “There have been very few like them in history who have dominated their sport in such a way."

It was a fair point. What Messi is doing at the moment is truly astounding. The Argentine became the first player to score five goals in a single Champions League game just under a fortnight ago, against Bayer Leverkusen, and his treble against Granada saw him take his goals tally for Barca to 234, moving him two clear of Cesar Rodriguez in the club’s all-time goalscoring list in competitive games; that he is just 24 makes this feat all the more remarkable.

Of course, the debate is still raging over whether the diminutive No.10 is the greatest of all time but what is beyond dispute is that we are, as team-mate Victor Valdes alluded to after the Granada game, living in the era of Messi.

And that got us thinking: What other sportsmen have enjoyed comparable spells of dominance over their respective disciplines? Below, we have compiled an admittedly subjective top 10 list of the most dominant figures in the history of sport. 

There is a difference between talking the talk, and walking the walk. Muhammad Ali did both – and like no other sporting superstar before him. The first man to become heavyweight champion of the world three times, the ‘Louisville Lip’ was involved in the most famous fights in boxing history. More than that, though, he transcended his sport like no other man on this list, playing a key role in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. The Greatest. End of.

The fastest man in history, Bolt currently holds the world records for both the 100 and 200 metres; records he did not just break, but absolutely obliterated ... on a cakewalk. Indeed, the reigning World and Olympic champion has recorded times that few thought humanly possible. What's even more frightening is that there still seems to be even more to come from the 25-year-old Jamaican. Just like Messi, really!

Widely regarded as the greatest tennis player of all time, the Swiss has amassed a record 16 Grand Slams over the course of his incredible career. His sustained level of excellence during his peak years was truly incredible, with Federer having appeared in 18 of 19 Grand Slam finals between Wimbledon 2005 and the Australian Open of 2010. Comfortable on all three surfaces, the 'Fed Express' in his pomp was genuinely a joy to behold and made the game just look so effortlessly easy.

Nicknamed ‘The Great One’, the Canadian is universally accepted as the most gifted player ice hockey has seen – and is ever likely to see. The Canadian’s career spanned two decades, during which time he broke every record in the book – he held a total of 61 landmarks upon his retirement from the sport in 1999 – and he remains the leading scorer in NHL history. That he did all this whilst maintaining his reputation as a gentleman is perhaps even more admirable.

The greatest basketball player of all time and also one of the most well-marketed sportsmen in history, ‘His Airness’ became arguably the most recognisable athlete on the planet because of his phenomenal exploits with the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s. Jordan won six NBA championships in total and was named NBA MVP on five separate occasions – and all of this in spite of the most ill-advised mid-career retirement in order to try his hand at baseball.

Rugby’s first global superstar, Jonah Lomu made the entire sporting world sit up and take notice with his stunning performances for New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup. Standing 1.96 metres tall and weighing roughly 125 kilograms, Lomu was the most devastating mix of pace and power the game had ever seen, and was memorably described as “a freak” by Will Carling after the All Blacks winger had walked all over (literally!) his England side in the semi-finals. The top tryscorer in World Cup history, his career was sadly interrupted by a rare kidney disorder.

Arguably the greatest Olympian in history, the American swimmer holds more gold medals than any other person - 14. Phelps won six of those in Athens in 2004 - a stunning achievement in itself - but it was in collecting eight in Beijing four years later that he earned global acclaim for breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds in a single Games, in Munich in 1972. With London 2012 looming, the 26-year-old Baltimore native is now poised to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, as he is just two shy of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s tally of 18 medals.

Whether Michael Schumacher is the finest Formula One driver of all time is open to debate, but the German certainly dominated the sport like nobody else before him during a remarkable spell with Ferrari at the turn of the millennium, in which he won five successive World Drivers' Championships. Of course, that took his overall tally to seven, having claimed two with Benetton at the start of his career. Like Gretzky, the German holds almost all of his sport’s major records.

The leading run-scorer and century maker in Test and international one-day cricket, the Indian is, with all due respect to Donald Bradman, now rated by many as the finest batsman in history. ‘The Little Master’ made his Test debut, against Pakistan, at just 16 and has been breaking records ever since. Indeed, Tendulkar, now just a month shy of his 39th birthday, only last week became the first man to rack up 100 ODI centuries.

Is Tiger Woods the greatest golfer of all time? Debatable, given he no longer looks destined to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ tally of Major wins. However, Woods took the game of golf by storm and dominated the sport for just under a decade in awe-inspiring fashion. So easy did he make it all look that tournament organisers had to begin "Tiger-proofing" their courses!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

'The new Carlos Tevez' & other potential breakthrough stars from the 2012 Copa Sao Paulo

The Copa Sao Paulo de Futebol Junior, to give it its full name, is Brazil's premier youth competition and this year is the competition's 43rd edition. A staggering 96 teams from across the nation took part, ensuring a wealth of talent was on show in a month of concentrated and raw youth football. It has played host to some of the most iconic names in Brazilian football and when looking back in a few years time, this tournament could well be no different. Brazil's biggest and best clubs all took part, though it was Corinthians who emerged victorious with a 2-1 win over Fluminense in the final.

A breeding ground for some of the world's greatest talents, the competition is well followed in the South American nation as fans await the country's next wonderkid and national talisman. Take a look at some of the best and brightest from the competition who could well emerge on the national stage in the coming years.

Following a series of impressive displays in the 2011 FIFA Under 17 World Cup, in which he scored five goals, there was much expectation on the Sao Paulo striker. He began superbly with a hat-trick in a 10-0 demolition of Palmas. He owed much to the creativity of Joao Felipe in midfield but his terrific pace and finishing instinct showed how deadly he could be. His pace is well utilised as close control and quick passing are other impressive features to his game.

Unfortunately his team failed to win again and suffered an embarrassing elimination in the group stages. He may feature for Sao Paulo in this year's Paulistao but may find it hard to make an impact if there are more new arrivals at the Tricolor.

The main man up front for Coritiba in what was an impressive run to the semi-finals where they were eliminated by Fluminense. Alex often plays on the shoulder of the last defender and looks to break the line and drop in behind. Similarly to the Milan striker he looks to get into the channels in order to find space for a shot. 

Though his scoring record is impressive, he struggled to find the net in the latter stages of the tournament against the bigger sides. He will need to become more clinical as he ages if he wishes to be successful at the highest level.

Fans at the Vila Belmiro have been long awaiting the young Santos prodigy. Having only recently turned 16, the youngster has been tied down to a lengthy contract at the club. Capable of taking on and beating a number of players, he showed great anticipation and a striking instinct when he featured. 

All the hype surrounding the youngster has no doubt added some unneeded pressure. Hopefully this will not affect his development. Clearly not yet at a physical standing to challenge for a first team position, he will no doubt emerge from the youth ranks in the coming years.

Another one of the big sides to suffer a somewhat premature exit was Vasco da Gama. They began the tournament well with Jhon Cley scoring in the opening minute of their first match. The midfielder showed excellent vision and ability to execute a variety of passes. He is also extremely adept at striking a dead ball which helps provide a source of goals for his team.

Similarly to Hernanes, he looks capable of playing in a deep role or higher up supporting the strikers. This versatility should hold his progression in good stead over the coming years.

Denner is very much your typical Brazilian full-back and was, for this writer, the outstanding player of the tournament. He marauded up and down the left side of the pitch relentlessly throughout the competition and was always one of the best players on the field in every game. His great pace and energy often opened up new attacking opportunities for his side. 

His defensive capabilities are also commendable, making him an extremely well-rounded player. To boot, he is a set-piece specialist and will add tremendous value to the Timao first team in the coming years.

The midfielder burst on to the scene with a brace in his sides opening 5-0 win over Ji-Parana and has since guided his side to the tournament's final. He provided two deadly finishes with a lethal left foot in that game but failed to find the back of the net again. Alongside his partner in attacking midfield, Higor, Fluminense did not lack support for their strikers. Extremely comfortable on the ball he showed great ability to thread an accurate pass whilst under pressure.

Chances in the first team will again be limited in the immediate future due to the quality that the Carioca club possess. It would be unsurprising to see Eduardo, and many of these youngsters, move out on loan to gain first team experience in the coming years.

Rafinha scored his only goal of the tournament in his side's opening game, and what a goal it was. He unleashed a deadly strike from the edge of the area to announce himself to the nation. There is an aura of confidence as he glides across the pitch keeping the ball under close control as he awaits the chance to supply the killer ball. 

With the depth of quality that Inter possess in their first squad, he is unlikely to feature any time soon but nonetheless, he looks like a potentially exciting talent.

The midfield general in this Cruzeiro side showcased a terrific array of attributes throughout the tournament. Despite playing deep in midfield Lucas Silva also demonstrated great determination to get forward and contribute to the attack. His short, precise passes provided the building blocks for many of Raposa's forward movements. This encouraged his side to play attractive football and he would often surge from deep with pace, providing attacking impetus to help scythe through defences.

He has showed much promise and could well be a part of the Belo Horizonte club's first team plans in the course of the next few years.

Operating somewhere between an attacking midfielder and a striker, he showed terrific invention and creativity throughout the tournament. His stocky physique and direct running style makes him a very bullish striker. These abilities shone through immediately in the very first game when the Palmeiras man beat four players before shooting from 25 metres to score his first of the tournament. 

He would add a new dimension to the current Palmeiras roster and he should certainly be on Luiz Felipe Scolari's radar. An accomplished finisher as well as a team player with terrific finishing, Diego de Souza Xavier has a very bright future ahead of him.

Flamengo were tipped as one of the favourites before the tournament but failed to win a single group game. In what was a disappointing campaign, fans got the chance to witness Thomas in action. Nimble and agile, he is best deployed just behind the strikers but failed to make a real impact. 

However, having made his first team debut last season, and with his club Flamengo failing to sign Thiago Neves on a permanent deal, he may well find he has the chance to make the step up this year.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Why Super Mario Gomez is the world's best No. 9

Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer of his generation, and, when all is said and done, might be remembered as the best of all time. His individual achievements have been praised to the heavens, and for good reason: these days, he shatters a record nearly every week.

In the era of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it is easy not to look past the La Liga stars. But in recent years, Mario Gomez has also achieved historic goal-scoring feats. This season, the Bayern Munich man has scored 37 goals in 41 matches in all competitions: more than Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, and any of Europe’s top No. 9s to have competed in the Champions League.

And Gomez’s strikes have not just come against lesser opponents: to the contrary, the Germany international has been eager to show himself on the big stage. This season he has netted 11 goals in the Champions League, plus another in a qualifier. Among all the great No. 9s of the last decade - Ronaldo, Henry, Shevchenko, Eto’o, Villa, Drogba, Raul, Ibrahimovic - the single-season tally Gomez has achieved has only been exceeded by Ruud van Nistelrooy, who managed 12. Gomez, who might play as many as four more games in this season’s Champions League campaign, is already in very good company indeed.

In the past, the beanpole striker has been doubted: his technique is merely average, he sometimes misses the simplest of goal-scoring opportunities, and his utter failure at Euro 2008 was suggestive of a player who could not cope with pressure.

He is a curious-type of striker: one who has an abnormal dependence on rhythm, and who is not the kind to win over legions of fans. When Gomez fails to score for three or more games, he looks second-rate: a player hardly worthy of football at a Bundesliga club, let alone the Champions League. And if he is relegated to the bench, it can take months for him to regain his confidence. But when in form, his prolificacy can be described at least as world class, if not legendary.

There was a time when Gomez was considered a ticking time-bomb, and that sooner or later, he would experience a slump and lose his form for two or three months. But by now, he has surely out-lived that reputation. The statistics alone are staggering: the ex-Stuttgart man was runner-up last season in the Champions League scoring charts with eight goals in as many appearances, and this season has followed up that sparkling record with an even better return

Over the last five years, only Ronaldo and Messi - who cannot be described as pure No.9s - have scored more goals in all competitions: Gomez, who has found the net 153 times in this period, is head and shoulders above every natural centre-forward. Forget the others - he has set the benchmark for consistency.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

How Newcastle cashed in on Carroll £35million fund

Look at what Newcastle did with the £35million Liverpool generously gave them for striker Andy Carroll in January 2011.

Extending key deals
New long-term contracts for key players. In February last year Cheick Tiote signed a deal which runs until 2017, while Ryan Taylor (two-year), Fabricio Coloccini (four-year) and Tim Krul (five-year) all penned extensions in March.

An injection of pace
Gabriel Obertan, 23. The former Bordeaux and French Under 21 winger never settled at Manchester United and made only 14 appearances, but manager Alan Pardew likes his pace. Signed last August for £3million but has blown a bit hot and cold.

The tricky winger
Hatem Ben Arfa, 25. He cost £5m from Marseille in January 2011, having arrived on loan five months earlier. Broke a leg in October 2010. Alan Shearer famously admitted he did not know much about him on Match of the Day.

The double winner
Yohan Cabaye, 26. The French international midfielder was part of the Lille team which won the league and cup double a year ago and has brought those qualities to Tyneside. Cost £4.8m in June 2011 and has chipped in with three goals.

Quick off the mark
Papiss Cisse, 26. Two-goal star yesterday and has hit it off instantly following his £9m move from Freiburg. Plays with Demba Ba for his country, Senegal. Has scored seven goals in seven games. Supposedly bought as a long-term replacement for Ba.

The versatile Italian
Davide Santon, 21. The highly rated young Italian signed a five-year deal last August. The winger-turned-defender made his Inter debut as a 17-year-old and is a full international. He has made 16 appearances since his £5million move.

Free-scoring striker
Demba Ba, 26. Potentially the bargain of the season. Escape clause made him available on a free following West Ham’s relegation and the Senegalese striker has scored 17 goals this season. He has a £7m release on his Newcastle deal too.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Jose Mourinho's red mist at Real Madrid - 22 players sent off in 103 games

Jose Mourinho doesn't want to talk about it. The Real Madrid coach refused to speak to the media after his side's 1-1 draw at Villarreal on Wednesday, in protest at a series of refereeing decisions that he believes went against his team at El Madrigal. And the capital club, at Mourinho's request, then took the unusual step of cancelling their pre-match press conference altogether ahead of Saturday's match against Real Sociedad.

Behind the scenes, however, the Portuguese will not stay silent.

Mourinho himself was dismissed on Wednesday night, along with Sergio Ramos, Mesut Ozil and fitness coach Rui Faria. Pepe, despite reports to the contrary, was not shown a red card in the tunnel after the game, but added another blemish to his growing list of misdemeanours as he reportedly told the referee: "What a robbery, you son of a b***h."

Madrid were angry after match official Jose Luis Paradas Romero appeared to book Villarreal striker Marco Ruben twice, but failed to send off the Argentine, although the referee's report later revealed that the first card had been for Marcos Senna, who went on to smash home a free-kick to claim a point for the hosts and subject the visitors to their second draw in the space of four days. But while Mourinho moaned on the sidelines and Madrid were unlucky with the dismissal of Ozil, who was shown a straight red card for applauding the referee, there could be few complaints overall - indiscipline had cost them once more.

The Portuguese appeared most unhappy with the foul committed by Hamit Altintop just outside the area with eight minutes left. It was an identical position to where Esteban Granero had conceded a free kick on Sunday against Malaga. And the result was the same, too, as Senna emulated his former Villarreal team-mate Santi Cazorla and beat Iker Casillas with a stunning shot to seal a 1-1 draw. La Liga, all of a sudden, looked back on, as Barca are now just six points adrift of Madrid with 10 games left and a Clasico clash still to come at Camp Nou next month.

Since arriving at Madrid in the summer of 2010, Mourinho has now seen 22 players sent off in 103 games - and seven in 11 matches against Barcelona. The biggest offenders are Pepe and Ramos, with four red cards apiece (although the latter's last dismissal has since been converted to a single booking), followed by Alvaro Arbeloa with three. Marcelo, Angel Di Maria, Ozil and Ricardo Carvalho have all seen red twice under the Portuguese, while Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas complete the list with one dismissal each.

Wednesday's game was the third time Mourinho's Madrid have ended a game with nine men. The first of those, however, was a carefully planned exercise as Ramos and Alonso - on learning their coach's instructions via a message passed from Jerzy Dudek to Casillas and then to the Seville-born centre-back - both forced a second booking in the Champions League win at home to Ajax in order to serve suspension in Los Blancos' final group game in last season's Champions League.

The second time Madrid finished with nine players was against Barcelona in the Spanish Supercopa at Camp Nou earlier this season, when Marcelo and Ozil saw red at the end of an unsavoury encounter which will forever be remembered for Mourinho's eye-poking incident with Barca's assistant coach Tito Vilanova.

With Ramos' red card now reduced to a yellow by the RFEF, he can now play against Real Sociedad on Saturday, which represents a real relief for Mourinho as central-defensive partner Pepe has been banned for two games and cannot feature. The Portuguese will also be without Ozil, while he himself will be watching from the stands as Madrid look to return to winning ways on Saturday.

And with Barca closing in, they simply cannot afford to let any more points slip. Nor can they afford any more red cards.



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