Saturday, 18 August 2012

Bundesliga Countdown: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund emerge as title contenders

Being a short assessment of the prospect for the two Bundesliga title favourites.

As the German top flight prepares for its fiftieth season, the stars seem to be aligning nicely for German football. Despite the disappointment and downright devastation of the Germany national team and Bayern Munich in Euro 2012 and the Champions League, respectively, domestic football in German finds itself in rude health with big crowds and a long conveyor belt of emerging talent.

In addition, the usually dominant Bayern Munich face, in Borussia Dortmund, serious contenders to their status as top dogs, over the next few seasons.

Dortmund, under the charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, fashioned a team on a relatively modest budget that took advantage of an under strength and distracted Bayern to produce back to back title winning teams, capped off by completing the league and cup double, last season with an emphatic 5-2 win over Bayern in the German Cup Final.

With Klopp at the helm, Dortmund have boasted an array of fine attacking players over the last two seasons in Lucas Barrios, Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaczcykowski , Mario Goetze, Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa. Sahin left in the Summer of 2011 and Kagawa followed suit in 2012. However, much more is expected in the young tyro Goetze and Marco Reus who joined from last season’s surprise package, Borussia Monchengladbach who will occupy the space left by Kagawa, if not completely replace him.

The key to success for Dortmund, however will be at the back in the centre half pairing of Mats Hummels and Nevan Subotic. The German and Croatian have played together for three seasons and form a formidable pairing that will only strengthen given that both players are still under 25.

However, despite Dortmund’s achievements it is worth considering that their success is owed, somewhat to the slight deficiencies of Bayern Munich who have had to manage the dual concerns of the Bundesliga and the Champions League, particularly last season in which reaching the final in their own stadium was a priority. Having said that, Dortmund have beaten  Bayern in both League and Cup for five straight games up to the Super Cup on 12th August and few are arguing that the Yellow and Blacks don’t deserve every ounce of credit for their victory.

The new season however, brings new challenges and Bayern have strengthened in the transfer market. At the back, the Brazilian centre half should provide an excellent partner for Holger Badstuber after joining from Borussia Monchengladbach. While Mario Gomez is prolific he is given to waywardness and can miss crucial chances. Bayern’s sporting director Matthias Sammer has brought in some options, up front in the shape of Werder Bremen’s Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro and the Croatian, Mario Manzucic from Wolfsburg. The former is getting on in years but that has only served to sharpen his instincts. The latter is reputed to be somewhat precious but if properly handled by coach Jupp Heynkes, has the versatility to change the course of a game. Swiss international, Xherdan Shaqiri joins from FC Basel but it is likely that he will be utilised sparingly. There is also the small matter of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger, arguably among the best in the world at what they do. And should Spanish international Javi Martinez join from Athletic Bilbao the the odds will further be tipped in Bayern's favour.

Last season could have been one for the history books, for Bayern. The Bundesliga title, German Cup and Champions League were all in their grasp but all slipped through their fingers. This this reason alone, Bayern will be determined to make amends. Considering this and the additions they have made to their squad, it would be a good bet to see them claim their first title in three seasons. Consider also the extra pressure on Dortmund to succeed in the Champions League. So far, Jurgen Klopp’s record in Europe has been poor, preferring instead to focus on matters domestic. This season may be different as Dortmund’s fans look to broader horizons. Expectations may not be that high in Europe but another dismal performance may affect morale both on and off the pitch.

You may not be surprised to learn that there are other teams in Germany and the Bundesliga Lounge as put together a free e-magazine previewing the season ahead. You can download the Bundesliga Preview magazine here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Comparisons between Olympic Medalists and Premier League Players are unfair

Probably for the first time since its early years, the Premier League enters a new season with a somewhat muted fanfare. For one, the London Olympics have just finished and the UK is still flushed with the success of its medalists. For two, the English game is undergoing a modest period of revisionism after the conduct of Team GB's Olympians throws the behaviour of the Premier League all-stars into sharp focus, both on and off the pitch.

Compare, if you will, the foul mouthed glory hunting antics of Chelsea's John Terry against the shining bright eyes and wholesome image of Jessica Ennis, who didn't need to gate crash her medal celebrations as Terry did at the end of the Champions League Final, a match for which he was suspended. In fact the recent court case in which Terry was forced to defend the charge of racially aggravated assault, successfully, only served to underline the culture of abuse that exists in the game, even at the highest level.

Yes it's fair to say that English football is in the dock with the great and the good crawling out of the floor space calling upon the players to evoke the Olympic spirit, mind their manners, wash their mouths out with soap and generally behave to the standard set by the athletes of Team GB. And while I am sure that professional footballers can learn a lot from the British Olympians, much of the criticism, implied or otherwise smacks of sanctimony and middle class condescension.

Most Olympians, spend four years quietly building up to their big moment and for the most part they are left undisturbed by the media and public at large. They will pop up from time to time to compete in their European and World Championship but will then return to the relative peace of preparation before the eyes of the world turn on them for a couple of days. If they win, they become instantly famous and loved. They get to appear on cereal packets, lucrative sponsorship deals but ultimately, they get to got back to the business of preparing for the next event in six months, a year or even two years hence. Professional footballers have no such luxury.

Your average Premier League footballer enjoys a few weeks of respite during the Summer if he is lucky. Apart from that he must perform to his absolute maximum once or twice a week. Imagine Mo Farah having to race against a field of top class athletes week in week out in front of huge crowds and a global audience of millions. I'm not suggesting that he couldn't if he had to but over a ten month period it's fair to say that the pressure would take its toll, especially as his performance would be under constant scrutiny. It is possible that our perception of him may change over time and who knows, perhaps we will see a side of him that is at odds with the Olympic Spirit.

This is not to excuse the behaviour of Premier League players but it is unfair to compare their actions unfavourably with Olympians. While much is made of the money footballers are paid, it should be remembered that with huge wages comes massive expectation. Wayne Rooney, Theo Wallcott, Robin Van Persie, Carlos Tevez, Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll, Mario Ballotelli and the multitude of others are under intense pressure to deliver performances and results, not once every four years but every week. I think of myself at 23 and can't imagine myself being able to manage that sort of pressure. Small wonder then that some of them tend to present the appearance of beings from another planet and that some will go off the rails.

So yes, you can expect to see play acting, imaginary cards, referee baiting, dissent, bad tackles, feuds, mind games, aggressive behaviour and the occasional off the pitch scandal. You will also hear tens of thousands of spectators baying for nothing less that 100% total commitment from these players and nine times out of ten that is what they'll get. Every week these guys walk off the pitch with nothing left but skin and bones. That's why people watch top class professional football and thats why it's brilliant. Perhaps if they only had to play once every four years, they might be able to show us their better sides.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

New series of the Sound Of Football

I'm feverishly working on a project for the Bundesliga Lounge, at present which is why I've not posted here for a few weeks. However, the Sound Of Football podcast has returned for its fourth series today.

For the uninitiated the Sound Of Football is a weekly soccer show featuring me, Graham Sibley and Chris Oakley. The half hour format usually involves a single topic to discuss and this week we look back on the Summer and look ahead to the forthcoming season.

The Sound Of Football has a small but vociferous band of listener of which you are cordially invited to join.

Go here to go to the latest podcast page and you can subscribe via iTunes here. Follow the Sound Of Football on Twitter here, the Facebook page is here and the Google Plus page is here.