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Sabella excels as coach of Estudiantes

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Tim Vickery | 11:14 UK time, Monday, 21 December 2009

Pep Guardiola is piling up the titles with Barcelona, and doing it in style - but he must surely face some competition for any coach of the year award from the man whose team gave him a scare on Saturday - Alejandro Sabella of Argentine side Estudiantes.

Like Guardiola, Sabella is a first-time coach - though the Argentine does have many years experience as assistant to Daniel Passarella before being tempted to fly solo with Estudiantes, who are one of the clubs he played for, along with Leeds and Sheffield United.

Given the imbalance of forces, coming within two minutes of beating Barcelona and claiming the world crown is a remarkable achievement. And it is all the more extraordinary when placed in full context.

Barcelona were pushed all the way by underdogs EstudiantesBarcelona were pushed all the way by underdogs Estudiantes in Saturday's final

For a club from Brazil to push Barcelona so close would not, in the current circumstances, be as surprising.

The Brazilian currency is very strong at the moment, making it easier to lure players back from Europe with relatively high salaries.

Brazilian football is even attracting high profile Argentines - the likes of D'Alessandro, Maxi Lopez and Guinazu play there, and recent revelation De Federico has been sold across the border. There is no significant trade in the other direction.

The comparative weakness of the Argentine currency gives an extra incentive to sell players abroad - the selling club gets more bang for its buck, or more likely its Euro, and the Argentine championship is left looking threadbare as a result.

There is evidence in its inconsistency. Little teams keep coming through strongly.

Banfield have just won their first title in over 100 years of existence and the previous championship (two are staged per year) was just a refereeing error away from going to Huracan, while Tigre were just a goal away from winning the one before that.

And who were the bottom two teams of this championship? Tigre and Huracan.

In Argentina, as in other countries, this rollercoaster parade of comparatively little teams is not a healthy sign.

It hints broadly at generalised mediocrity, when the big clubs are unable to transform the size of their fanbase into quality on the field.

River Plate have been mired in institutional crisis, and Boca Juniors have run into problems of the very successful model they pioneered - that of producing potential stars, selling them to Europe and financing a competitive squad with the proceeds.

Firstly, the policy comes with built-in instability - there comes a time when you are unable to replace the players you sell.
Secondly, it is hard to maintain such a logical strategy in an environment driven by passion.

When Boca bought back playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme on a definitive basis they were contravening their own model - which argues that to have a man in the dressing-room earning many times more than the others is not a recipe for good team spirit.

So the little clubs come through - but lack the quality to sustain their success (though it will be interesting to follow the long term futures of Lanus and Velez Sarsfield, who seem well run and proficient in producing their own players.)

Evidence of the low level of the current Argentine domestic game was clearly supplied in this year's Copa Libertadores.

River Plate, Lanus and San Lorenzo were knocked out in the group stage, and Boca went straight afterwards - leaving Estudiantes to carry the challenge.

And before Sabella took over from Leo Astrada, they too looked to be heading for an early exit.

Only goal difference saw them past Peru's Sporting Cristal in the qualifying round.

Then in their group they lost 3-0 to Cruzeiro of Brazil and needed a scandalously offside goal to beat Bolivia's Universitario, before going down to Deportivo Quito of Ecuador.

It strains belief to think that, just eight months later, this side would come within minutes of the World Club title.

But it shows the difference a coach can make in his two main spheres of influence - personal relations and team strategy.

Sabella got everyone pulling in the same direction and made the team more compact. It favoured their passing game and tightened up the defence - after he took over the team won the Libertadores by conceding just two goals in 11 games.

And even with keeper Andujar sold to Italy and not adequately replaced they kept Barcelona at bay for 88 minutes.

In his low-key, 'all credit to the players' style, Sabella marshalled his heavily outgunned resources impressively on Saturday.

He packed the midfield to interrupt the flow of Barcelona's passing, had clearly put in the hours studying the trajectory of their set-pieces - Veron headed away corner after corner - and it was a shame that his team were not blessed with attacking pace.

With someone to latch on to Veron's diagonal passes the second half need not have turned into attack against defence, and Barcelona's high defensive line could have been exposed.

Even here, Sabella tried his best, freeing his quickest player, right-back Clemente Rodriguez, to burst forward.

Sabella (left) talks to Barca boss Pep Guardiola before the World Club finalSabella, here on the left talking to Barca boss Guardiola, made his team a tight unit

On the rare occasions when the team looked threatening after the interval Rodriguez had got himself into promising positions.

Even the last ditch tactic nearly worked - that of throwing big defender Desabato up as an emergency striker.

Right at the end of the game his glance was just a few inches away from forcing penalties.

At the final whistle Sabella was noble enough to compliment his team on being good losers - adding that it is not always a characteristic of Argentine football. But there should be no nonsense about a good loser being the same thing as a loser.

When, especially against such odds, the team has given it their best shot, then win or lose the dominant emotion after the game should be pride - and that is an emotion that Alejandro Sabella is well entitled to feel looking back on his first year as a coach.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:

This season Ever Banega has been putting in some very good performances for Valencia, could he not be the answer to partner Mascherano for Argentina in South Africa ahead of Fernando Gago? Gago seems to have declined in the past two years.
Omar Gregory

Argentina play Catalonia this week. Banega was named in the end - as a replacement for Mascherano, who Liverpool refused to release - but I'm astonished that he wasn't in from the start - especially, as you mentioned, with Gago not getting a game with Real Madrid at the moment.

Banega has played his way through the problems of a premature move to Europe, joining a club in chaos, and so on. He looks in terrific form, justifying the hopes built up around him when he emerged nearly three years ago - available to receive, strong on the ball, wonderful range of passing. He can defend as well, though it's not his strongest suit - at Boca he was used in the holding role. He's a class act and it's great to see him come through.

What are your views on Lucas Levia's development under Rafa Benitez.
He was Brazilian Player of the Year before his transfer, but tell any Liverpool fan this and they would wonder how? Despite his opportunities, he just has not won over the fans with any of his performances - and yet Dunga has picked him recently for the Brazil squad. Are we Liverpool fans missing something?
Sanjiv Karnik

Fair to say that so far he's been a disappointment - though there aren't too many who could fill Xabi Alonso's shoes.

A bit of context. Brazilian football produces so many great players in so any positions, but these days, much to my regret, it's not strong on central midfielders. In the last World Cup the central midfield duo were Gilberto Silva, a converted centre back, and Ze Roberto, a converted left-back.

The season has just ended here, and on Sunday one of the Rio papers printed a team of the championship picked by former greats. Of the midfield quartet, three were foreigners (Guinazu and Conca from Argentina, Petkovic from Serbia, leaving Hernanes as the only Brazilian).

So I think the reason that people went overboard on Lucas when he came through - and I include myself in this - includes an aspect of wishful thinking. A strong central midfielder capable of making an attacking contribution, happy to burst beyond the strikers and get shots in - we wanted him to be good, and perhaps built him up into something better than he is.

Or perhaps we were right first time, and he's just finding it tough to make the step up from a Brazilian club to a big four Premiership outfit. Time for truth is approaching - I'd love to hear the opinions of Liverpool fans who are watching him every week.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think people are too harsh on Lucas...he isn't meant to be a replacement for Xabi Alonso. He's much more attacking but Benitez restricts his play by having him alongside Mascherano when he should be further forward. If he was English people would praise his work-rate etc. like Cattermole or another mediocre English midfielder.

  • Comment number 2.

    Is the World Club Championship a bigger deal on the continent? There is not much fuss made of it over here which is strange.

  • Comment number 3.

    zell182 hits it right on the head

    this season in particular lucas has been decent in most games, for a relatively young player in a foreign country he has overall done well for the money paid for him and will improve some more.

    as is often widely quoted he is regarded as the best player in training by more than one source.

    it is eating away at me that this season in particular gerard has been average at best for us but still the media are loathe to show him any criticism whatsover. Yes he has saved us many times in the past but he shouldnt be above criticism, infact when rafa made him play right wing he arguably displayed his best ever form for liverpool and still the media told rafa he didnt no what he was doing.

  • Comment number 4.

    What do you think of the treatment Messi is getting from the Estudiantes supporters? he hit back at his critics today.

    "It really gets me when they say I do not feel the Albiceleste. Nothing hurts me more than when they say I am not Argentine," he said in an interview with daily El Pais, using the Spanish name for the Argentine national team.

    "It does not bother me when they call me 'the Catalan' but it really bugs me that they think I am not Argentine," the 22-year-old added.

    Minutes after he hit the winner for Barcelona, fans took to the streets in the Argentine province of La Plata where Estudiantes is based to protest against the player, Argentine daily newspaper Clarin reported.

    The fans left insulting graffiti against Messi on walls throughout the province and chanted "Messi is no Argentine", it said.

    He will be under immense pressure at the World Cup to perform for them, do you think he can cope? especially with the inept Maradona in charge

  • Comment number 5.

    #Mickey, yes the WCC is a huge deal in South America and is very keenly followed by all who like football. It is only in europe where the tournament is seen to be a pointless series of friendlies played mid-season (note the BBC lack of coverage and I am not sure it was even shown on Sky). The same can be said of the continent. The competition believe it or not was not much followed outside of Catalonia

  • Comment number 6.

    Tim, great blog as always. I'm particularly interested in the trials in tribulations of the argentine league but have struggled to find a site that keeps me regularly updated in any detail. Can you recommend any?


  • Comment number 7.

    Sanjiv Karnik doesn't speak for all liverpool fans, Lucas in fact has divided opinions, I think most would agree though that he is a fighter and battler, and proving to be a decent midfield destroyer, against united he was probably our best player. he keeps the ball well, in an ideal world he is good enough to be a very useful squad player for liverpool, as he can cover for Mascherano and Aquilani
    His finishing is awful though, needs to improve on that, he is a better player than Anderson (who cost 3 times as much him.

  • Comment number 8.

    I have seen Lucas a few times this season and he was played well each time, he uses the ball intelligently and seems comfortable in possession under pressure. He may have struggled last season and been tarred with that stigma, but the same thing happened to Ronaldo at Man Utd and he persevered and turned the fans. Hopefully Lucas can do the same.

    I saw Palermo play the other week and was thoroughly impressed by a tall elegant Argentinian midfielder they have called Javier Pastore. Does anybody know how well he is regarded in Argentina? He looks a fantastically talented player to me, great passing and an upright style, similar to a young Hoddle I would say, though he does seem to carry the ball better than Hoddle did.

  • Comment number 9.

    8 - the up and down year of huracan has a lot to do with the presence and then absence of pastore and de federico.
    under excellent coach angel cappa they played some great stuff in the first half of the year - then the two move on and the wheels fell off.
    i think there's a bit of socrates in pastore - elegant,languid, likes to use the backheel.

    some great stuff from liverpool fans on lucas - keep it coming please!

  • Comment number 10.

    Hey Tim,
    interesting article, I find the Argentine championship with its seemingly in-built instability absolutely fascinating. Just a quick point I'm sure other people will notice- that the caption for the picture of the two managers in question is labelled the wrong way around. Something to blame on the subs, no doubt :)

  • Comment number 11.

    and @4, great question, I hope it gets an answer.

  • Comment number 12.

    10 - perhaps their agents were arguing about the billing - 'if guardiola is shown on the left then sabella's name has to be on the left' - it happens in hollywood film posters!

  • Comment number 13.

    Lucas' hard work is what has kept him at the club beyond his initial indifferent performances. As a young player I think he feeds off the confidence of the rest of the team more than most and when things aren't going well or we have been a bit nervous his performance suffers (although notably less-so in recent weeks when he has been more reliable than Mascha at times). But when confident his effort and commitment has impressed me, it was great to see his runs at corners and free kicks scaring the brown stuff out of Almunia in the first half against Arsenal, but in the second half we seemed to neglect the option to get him to attack that space as freely.

    He runs the channels well (although, as mentioned, needs to work on his finishing), but is maybe weighed down and deterred from doing that when the team appears vulnerable, which is a shame as it's his natural game.

    At this stage he's better than - say - Darren Fletcher was at the same point, so it's far too early to pass definitive judgement on him, but I think it may also be too early to pile such responsibility on him. Which is another reason why we need to start Aquilani more and bring Lucas on when needed, he'll still get plenty of play when Aquilani's fitness wavers or when Mascha is gunning for an early bath.

  • Comment number 14.

    4 - it's clearly a hangover from the disappointment at his performances for the national team, and gives us yet more evidence for the following formula;

    if football can turn a brain to mush, and nationalism can do the same, then football plus nationalism can work like a lobotomy.

  • Comment number 15.

    Tim, what about our other Brazilian (Aurelio), do you see his chances of making the world cup diminish with every game left out or played out of position? Or do you think his impressive performances when actually played in his natural position will keep him in contention (providing he can reach full fitness soon).

  • Comment number 16.

    I accept that winning is the most important thing and Tim, and if you dont care about watching good attacking football, ignore the rest of my comment, but I cannot understand anyone singing the praises of Estudiantes and their boss, in this game. I havent seen any of their other matches, but in this one they didnt want to play football. I hardly think Sabella's tactics of putting 11 players behind the ball, time wasting at every throw-in, free kick and goal kick and then hoping for a Barca mistake, were the work of a great manager.
    "Even the last ditch tactic nearly worked - that of throwing big defender Desabato up as an emergency striker.
    Right at the end of the game his glance was just a few inches away from forcing penalties."
    Absolute genius! - No manager loosing a knockout fixture, with seconds to go, has ever thought to send up a player into the box for that last corner or free kick.
    It was good for football that the team that tried to play, attack and entertain the crowd won the game.

  • Comment number 17.

    I can only judge Lucas on his performances on the pitch, how good he is in training or on is irrelevant.

    He looks a very poor player to me, and a terrible signing at £6 Million. Some fellow Liverpool fans claim that he is unfairly vilified and point to some strong performances this season (against Man Utd and against Lyon at the Stade Gerland for example), but in these games he has been efficient and tidy but made little in the way of a positive impact on the game. It seems that simply not making blatant errors is considered a strong performance by some!

    His positional sense is poor, long-range passing poor and short-range passing good if a touch inconsistent. His aerial ability is non-existant, his shooting/finishing is abysmal, his touch is mediocre, his vision is nothing special and then we come to the worst thing about him considering he is being used as a central midfielder: his weakness! Mascherano is not physically imposing but he isn't bypassed by every opponent the way Lucas is, he's incredibly weak in the tackle and regularly dominated in central midfield, the strength of the Alonso & Mascherano partnership amplifies this failing.

    He's also very error prone - clumsily giving away a penalty against Wigan last season, inexplicably failing to track back properly and pick up Stephen Ireland this season who was standing 5/10 yards away from Lucas for what felt like an eternity before the ball was played to him. Lucas' terrible marking and awareness was at fault for that goal.

    The final thing he doesn't have is difficult to quantify, and difficult to prove, but to me he just doesn't seem like a 'winner'. He doesn't have that combination of talent and determination that makes a good player.

  • Comment number 18.

    All this talk of Lucas and is he isn't he any good - what about Anderson at Old Trafford. He seems to divide opinion in a similar way, United fans rating him, everyone else not. It surprises me that Lucas features in the Brazil squad ahead of him.

    Tim, what how is Anderson seen in Brazil - is he rated or what?

  • Comment number 19.

    How about against Chelsea in the 4-4 last season? He was our outstanding performer and his movement in the channels resulted in a goal for us. Also, while I can't vouch for everyone I only cite his training performances as an indicator of how he is determined to improve. As for his positional sense being poor, was it against Wigan? when he was all but abandoned in the middle of the park and broke up several counter attacks while spreading the ball well, no one is saying he is a world beater, but he is improving and could become a very useful player for us.

  • Comment number 20.

    16 - don't know if you read last week's blog - which was all about the huge imbalance in forces between the champions of the two continents nowadays.
    i'm all for seeing barcelona win - i love their style, i was a guardiola nit as a player and am delighted to see him take his convictions to the pitch and produce such a good team.
    but from the estudiantes point of view, what were the options? in an open fight they would be taken apart, so sabella adjusted his strategy accordingly. and, as i said in the piece i think that if they'd had a bit more pace up front (if they hadn't sold piatti last year, for example) then they may well have won.

  • Comment number 21.

    21 - that was supposed to read 'guardiola nut' - not nit - freudian!

  • Comment number 22.

    re: #4 - Tim, I like the comment. Football + nationalism = irrational, moronic behaviour.

    Feel a little sorry for Messi when it comes to the national team. For Barca, he has Alves on the overlap, a willing runner causing havoc for the opposition's left-sided pairing. This allows Messi to go on those devastating bursts infield, culminating in an attempt on goal, or threading a pass through for a midfielder/striker.

    He doesn't seem to have this option for Argentina, (I'm sure most nations would like to have Alves in their side) allowing teams to "double-up" on him, somewhat nullifying his effectiveness.

    Top-notch article on the Argentine league. Very informative. Always found it strange how they play an opening and closing season!

    Merry Christmas, look forward to reading more in the new yr!

  • Comment number 23.

    Surely Sabella on the RIGHT of the picture.

  • Comment number 24.

    Lucas has been disappointing given his hype but in recent games, he's been continuously improving. At United and Arsenal, he had a barnstorming first half but the problem was he couldn't maintain it and stamp his authority.

    As an Arsenal fan, he reminds me of Denilson and indeed if he was at the club, you could almost switch the two in defensive midfield or as the auxiliary midfielder in the 4-3-3. He can keep it simple, got a great engine and can header. He seems stuck in a Liverpool system not quite suiting him. I would play him deeper, and Mascherano a bit higher up, quite like how Alonso and Mascherano operated but the Argentine, the hassler and harrier, Lucas doing the linking up. But of course there's now Aquilani coming through.....

  • Comment number 25.

    As a Gremio (both were Gremio youth than senior) supported and one who has been following both Anderson and Lucas, I feel entitled to share some of my thoughts here:

    Lucas - He was never the brilliant creative player of the midfield. Never a good tackler or even an amazing passer! So, what has made him the best player in the Brazilian league? his box-to-box work! He'd take the football and carry it all the way, through passing or single-handled, for a goal. He doesn't do that any more. Actually, he doesn't even try. In my book, he's been poor at pool, and he lacks confidence big time as the football usually burns at his feet.

    Anderson - He was the brilliant creative type of player who could in a moment of magic go past a couple of defenders and score a beautiful goal. The Anderson I see now is still a very good player (especially at 20), probably going to become a World Class player eventually (regardless of position), but nowhere near the type of player I was expecting him to become. Personally, I think SAF is wrong! He cannot do what he asks him to do on the pitch and his lack of concentration hurts United at crucial moments. Anderson is, a creative player who needs to play just behind the strikers, or perhaps on the side of the field, but never sit back and defend. He doesn't possess the concentration and drive for a central position, it may look that way cause he's strong and can out-muscle players there, but only when he finds them.

    BTW, most if not all Brazilian sides (1st division) play in the 4-2-2-2 formation and only a few play in the 4-1-2-1-2 (Chelsea). So, Brazil traditionally lack in what Tim describes as the central midfielder role. Players are usually DM (defence minded) or AM (attacking mided). Well, it's not that static of course, but that explains a bit why we don't traditionally develop centre mid-fielders.

  • Comment number 26.

    25 - thanks a lot for your insight, rob - the only word i would disagree with is in the last line - 'traditionally.'

    i think brazil has a magnificent tradition of producing central midfielders - when brazil pioneered the old 4-2-4 system, the two in the middle had to be able to do it all - and this had an influence long after the formation was replaced by more compact systems.

    take clodoaldo and gerson in 70 - the former more defensive, the latter more attacking - but they could swap round with no problem - and did to great effect in the semi final against uruguay.

    falcao and cerezo from 82, alemao later - even dunga by sheer force of will power turned himself into a good passer of the ball.

    it's in recent years that this tradition has died out - and it's at the heart of why, even when they win, brazil don't delight the purists as they used to.

    i see 2 main explanations for the decline of the brazilian all round central midfielder.
    1 - need to cover the advances of attacking full backs.
    2 - no job security for the coaches

    result - pack central midfield with defensively minded players.

    anderson is an intersting example - no brazilian coach would have considered using him in this position. he was, as rob says, an attacking midfielder, usually wide to take advantage of his powerful running at pace with the ball. brazilian coaches were astonished that united converted him.

    there may be other issues here - perhaps the injury he suffered at porto has robbed him of that electrifying accleration he used to have. im my mind i'm still not 100% sure about the switch - he's gained some new things, more defensive awareness and first time passing - but has it come at the expense of the attacking threat he used to carry? what do united fans think?

  • Comment number 27.

    and while we're here - any sheffield united or leeds fans with memories of sabella?

  • Comment number 28.

    i actually am almost sick of defending him to be honest, why is this so much publicity around a 6 million purchase? weres the constant analysis of tosic a fergie signing who as a full international has barely featured in 18 months and not a word is mentioned.

    to the fellow fan above, why shouldnt training ground performances be put forward as evidence there is a classier player in there somewere that we havent seen in long bursts yet?

    in conclusion having a much better season this year but you wouldnt believe it from the press

    great column as ever tim

  • Comment number 29.

    I've always thought Ferguson has been wasting Anderson's talent at United. Before he joined (for a ridiculously inflated price, but that's beside the point) he was clearly an attacking midfielder in that slot behind the strikers, pulling out wide and bombing towards the goal. It seems Ferguson saw his strength and pace and decided that he would make him a box-to-box player but it's pretty much failed. When he plays now I just have absolutely no clue what he's supposed to be doing. He offers very little in attack because it seems he now lacks the confidence to go forwards and also offers little in defense. Ferguson just has him sat, stagnating in the midfield, trying in vain to break up play, which isn't what he's about.

    He's definitely got the potential to be a world class player but I'm not convinced that will happen if he's at United. Ferguson has never been great with South American players and he's trying to mold Anderson into something he's not and it's largely wasting his undoubted talent.

  • Comment number 30.

    Nice column, Tim, Estudiantes and Sabella do deserve praise for what they've accomplished.

    Concerning Lucas, as someone who saw him play in Brazil before he headed to Liverpool, I'd say that Lucas is finally having a decent season, after such a long time, and is gradually recovering his confidence. He no longer commits simple errors, his defensive game has improved significantly (even if he's still having trouble going forward).

    I'd say that he's finally starting to prove his worth and that now, what he really needs is time. He's still far from the brilliant player he was at Gremio, but give him a year or two and and then we can see if he really can make it at the Premier (i.e., it's not clear if he can really make it).

    And considering that the main reason he struggled for so long is the fact he was being put prematurely into first team, without enough time to adapt himself to his new conditions, means that Liverpool 'owns' him the opportunity to finally prove himself.

    I'd also like to add that throughout this whole season so far, we've seen most of our key players, such as the 'backbone' of Liverpool, Kuyt, Carragher and Maschereno, and, to a lesser extent, Gerrard and Torres, suffer a massive drop in form, so it's a small solace to see Lucas stepping up his game, 'cause we need it.

    This is the key reason why we're struggling so much.

  • Comment number 31.

    Thanks Tim! I agree with you on those players you've listed, however, even Falcao was more of the defensive type when at Internacional (I was too young then though). Perhaps the problem with 82' was in fact the lack of defensive minded players, especially against Italy (Batista the only pure DM we had was out against Italy); especially considering GK and defense were not that great.

    BTW, I think the best DMs are the ones who can pass well and would not necessarily say that the typical DM is a Gilberto Silva type. Sandro from International (moving to Tottenham) is a very good example of it (good defensive DM).


  • Comment number 32.

    It just seems that Lucas is not developing into the player many Liverpool fans thought Rafa had bought. Rob (post 25) summarises the player that the fans thought would develop as did you in your blog a couple of years ago - a box to box player, who has 'a blistering shot', will score goals and should form a good partnership with Mascherano.

    Based on these descriptions, this player has not yet emerged at LFC. I believe that he has only scored one goal in the two and a half years he has been there and his confidence, via the look of his body language, has pretty low throughout. Whilst I agree with the Liverpool fans above who state that his workrate and general performances have been better this season, he still looks average and was not bought only to be a work-horse. He needs to start to take more responsibility with the ball, which he is just not doing. I really do hope that he can firstly build on his confidence and then let's see what he can do. He has been given a torrid time by the press and by many supporters, of which some is unfair. But as you say Tim, his time for truth is approaching - I for one really do hope that he can turn his performances and opinions into something more than justifies 'good workrate'.

  • Comment number 33.

    good blog Tim, I'm a regular reader but a rare poster.

    a couple of points from me.

    firstly, on the lucas leiva subject. He's still young enough to improve hugely but the argument of "best in training" counts for nothing from my position as a geordie. shola ameobi has regularly been touted as the best in training but has never cut it higher than championship level.

    secondly, regarding the instability of argentine teams, i feel that the english game would be more exciting if the premier league wasn't a monopoly of the "big four". i realise that mediocrity is a problem but that way surely all fans can believe that they can win trophies...

    last of all, more directed at the poster who said "its good for football that the team that tried to attack won". I personally think that if any tactic is good enough to win a game, it should be used. for me this is how football evolves from generation to generation.

    before my time, there was positions im struggling to remember the names of, in my youth wing backs became very popular, and more recently every team wanted a makelele to compliment a lampard. now the theme seems to be to have attacking players that can switch roles, from right to left, or the centre. oh, and sweepers are extinct too.

    if anyone more knowledgeable than me can correct / improve the above paragraph that would be cool, but my current feelings are that the reason certain positions die out or become popular is for tactical gains.

  • Comment number 34.

    Tim: Superb blog. While I'm at it, I would like to congratulate you on your outstanding analysis of southamerican football (and elsewhere). Having been born on the banks of the river Plate and at 68 years of age (yes, I've seen a lot of football all over the world), I enjoy intelligent discussion of my favorite sport and I would not miss your column for anything (actually, together with AS editorial, it's the only football analysis I read --the junk that is written elsewhere boggles the mind). Praise must also be given to your readers. Whether you agree with their opinions or not, they are always interesting and insightful.

  • Comment number 35.

    firstly, on the lucas leiva subject. He's still young enough to improve hugely but the argument of "best in training" counts for nothing from my position as a geordie. shola ameobi has regularly been touted as the best in training but has never cut it higher than championship level.

    slightly different as ameobi has been in and around the first team a hell of a lot longer and is now a proven championship level player.

  • Comment number 36.


    thats the point im trying to make. being best in training means nothing (ameobi i believe was first described as this many moons ago), because over the years every manager we've had at newcastle has believed ameobi to be the real deal, yet he's never proved it to the masses.

  • Comment number 37.

    Hi Tim,

    Liverpool season ticket holder and long-time fan of your work here!

    I have a great deal of sympathy for Lucas. As you regularly say, South Americans often come over to Europe a little too soon, and it is hard for any young player to start in a new league and learn a new language.

    But when that new league is a competition as full blooded as the Premiership and your new team is as huge as Liverpool where there is no hiding place, it's all the more difficult.

    He always wants the ball, rarely gives it away and at no point deserved the boos he received at home to Sunderland last season. But with all of that said, I find it staggering that he could ever have won Brazil's player of the year, and almost as staggering to learn that he was seen over there as something of a playmaker!

    This season his luck has been out again. Obviously with Alonso gone he has been a regular; some people see the decline in results and lay the blame at Lucas' door for a lot of Liverpool's problems. But personally I see our problems in the midfield area more to do with the loss of Alonso's brilliance and the only recent return to form of Mascherano.

    In summary - I don't have a problem with Lucas, but I don't think he's lived up to the lofty reputation he had at the time of his signing.

    On another issue Tim, I noticed that Fabio Aurelio was in the Brazil squad to face England a while back - do you think his chance has now gone? I'm a big fan of his when he's fit and he would seem to be a better option than Bastos who did play in that game.

    And also, our reserve keeper Diego Cavalieri cost a lot of money but looks absolutely hapless - could people in Brazil believe it when Benitez spent so much, or was he highly rated over there.

    Thanks mate and all the best to you and everyone else here for Christmas.


  • Comment number 38.

    a very balanced post dave

    well summed up

  • Comment number 39.

    There’s a huge myth surrounding Anderson’s status at United. From reading press reports or pieces from journalists who cover United, you would have thought he was in a similar situation to that of Lucas at Liverpool. This really isn’t the case. He’s very popular among the United support (the Anderson-son-son chant is one of the most common sung by the fans) and Fergie rates him extremely highly. In fact, there was a very interesting and scarcely reported quote from a press conference last year. Ferguson was talking about how lucky he had been in terms of finding the right man to replace influential players down the years. He talked about Robson leaving and Keane taking over his mantle. Then, when talking about Keane retiring, he said “then someone like Anderson comes along.” It was a very revealing insight into how highly he rates him, especially as this came during a time when Anderson wasn’t in particularly good form. Ferguson does not say this type of thing frequently.

    That said, as a United fan I agree with those disappointed that we haven’t seen much of the Anderson of Porto since he arrived at Old Trafford. However, the current United is all about players being adaptable and fitting into various systems. I think it may benefit Anderson in the long run that he can change positions, learn to play for the team and be so versatile. He’s got a fantastic appreciation for working for the team. Maybe he always had it, but the education he’s getting at the moment may well make him a better all-round player in the long-term. If he can combine that level of talent, speed and enthusiasm with a good tactical understanding and work-rate, he’ll be one hell of a player. At 21, I’m still confident he will make it.

  • Comment number 40.

    Performances in training do not matter, it's on the pitch where it counts - this is obvious.

    Fellow Liverpool fans defending Lucas have to ask themselves one question, do they honestly believe that he is a title winning player?

    Do not hide behind 'he's supposed to be a squad player'.

  • Comment number 41.

    dear tim if you ever meet alex sabella tell him he is fondly remembered as the best blade ever to wear the shirt[apart from currie ] including better than woodward edwards etc,he was a star.Our chief honcho at the time was given the choice to buy him or a young kid called maradona and thought the latter wasn't good enough can you believe that ? i still have my ten year olds shirt with his name and number stored away somewhere ,he was a genius ,but then went the same way as king currie and hamson,there are fond memoreies of the time apart from the boxing day massacre but watching him n terry curran was amazing ,i wish him the greatwest of bestest of luck i didn't know what happened to him or where he was .cheers .

  • Comment number 42.

    p.s if thats sabella on the left hes found the formulae of life he looks bloody good to say he was dazzling opponents back in 78 79 after the world cup he looks good for 50+ lol have a good chrissy

  • Comment number 43.

    To Mulletinho no. 22

    The reason Argentina has two short 19 game championships is because of AFA's decision to align the South American schedule with the European, northern hemisphere September to May 38 game leagues. This helps with transfer window deadlines, FIFA dates for international friendlies or WC qualifying games during the three years leading up to a WC.

    In Argentina, the Apertura championship is actually played on the second semester of the year (August to December) and the Clausura is played on the first semester of the following year, making the two run almost exactly as a long single European league.

    The disadvantages are many: short championships mean defensive football by most teams who do not want to be relegated (everyone panics if you do not win points fast), coaches lose their jobs one month into either schedule, you get two champions which are usually forgotten within 12 months (as they rarely repeat) and also no home and away fixtures since you only play one team in each championship.

    All of this because it is summer down here when it is winter up there...

    For Liverpool fans 'up there', I don't think that Benitez will lead you anywhere unfortunately... I find his choice of roster borderline and his football too generic: Babel and Kuyt would maybe excel at second string UEFA cup contenders, the Brazilians, (Lucas included) in the team are second rate as well and Gerard has been gone for months as somehow Benitez' tactics have managed to dilute the role he used to play, virtually unstoppable a few years back.

  • Comment number 44.

    The CWC is a tricky fixture for European teams. They have to win period. But if they do, it's a case of Goliath beating David so there's a so- what element to the victory. If they lose they can always say it's a lesser tournament that interferes with the domestic schedule. Having said that the embarrassment doesn't linger because it's back to league play almost immediately. Tricky indeed.

    For South Americans, however, this is it. League play is over and the next tournament is probably a ways away. If they win they become instant heroes for having beaten the rich Europeans. If they lose, they're heroes anyway for having played valiantly against the rich Europeans. It's a win-win proposition for them.

    Estudiantes did very well against Barcelona. The Argies made the Catalans look silly at times during the fist half, something no European team was able to do. Not even Chelsea's shameful disply of defensive football in Samford Bridge can compare. The second half was a different story, one we all know well.

  • Comment number 45.

    41 - steve - i spoke to sabella a few years back when he was assistant at corinthians and i told him how fondly he was remembered in yorkshire - which i was aware of because of the number of people calling our weekly world football phone in on up all night (radio 5) and asking what had become of him.
    he was very pleased to be remembered with such affection.

  • Comment number 46.

    lucas reminds me of liam miller,eric djemba, bruno cheyrou, salif diao, igor biscan, kleberson or juan sebastian veron- a midfielder that arrives with alot of promise and hype but is actually crap. the only difference is the manager realised they were not up to the premiership after a season and restricted them to substitute appearances. lucas is rafas little project, meant to be amazing in training but on the pitch he is a boy amongst men. he is a championship player at best

  • Comment number 47.

    I absolutely agree with Tim's assertion that Alejandro Sabella has done a wonderful job with Estudiantes, and not just in this World Club Cup. He had his club well prepared throughout the Libertadores and they went to Belo Horizonte for the 2nd leg of the final against Cruzeiro as underdogs but emerged victorious thanks to the team's tenacity and tactics.

    On Saturday against Barcelona, Sabella's club had a wonderful game plan and played superbly in the 1st half. Unfortunately they ran out of gas in the 2nd half and especially the extra time. I also think German Re's injury for Estudiantes was key, he was playing great but went off and was replaced by an inexperienced teenager, Faustino Rojo, and that, combined with the team's tiring legs, is when gaps started appearing in Estudiantes' defense. Barcelona's style of play does wear it's opponents down as they make you chase the ball but Estudiantes gave Barcelona quite a battle. Hopefully they can use some of their prize money from this competition to further strengthen their team and make it possible to see a return to this tournament for Estudiantes as the 2010 Copa Libertadores champions. That is not a far fetched idea.

    Good to read that Sabella is well remembered from his playing days in England. He was a skilled midfielder and played on an excellent Estudiantes team in 1982 and 83 which had a fantastic midfield with Sabella, Marcelo Trobbiani, Jose Daniel Ponce and Miguel Angel Russo. Sabella's national team appearances were limited by the extent of excellent attacking midfielders in Argentina at that time, Norberto Alonso, Jose Daniel Valencia, Ricardo Bochini and some young guy coming up named Maradona!

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  • Comment number 48.

    34 - many thanks sir river plate (i think at your age you've earned the right to such a distinction). that comment made my week.

  • Comment number 49.

    Seasons greetings Tim,
    As a long time listener to the world football phone in, I cant tell you how delighted I was when it was announced Liverpool had signed Lucas.
    ...I was even more pleased when I was at Anfield to see his debut vs Toulouse in the CL Qualifiers.
    It amused me to no end to see the Mancs fork out millions for Anderson, while we paid peanuts for Lucas (It still makes me smile, actually).
    As you have pointed out in the past, unlike quite a few South Americans who head for the EPL, the lad got a full season of first team football behind him. Still, expectations were unrealistically high.

    Lucas has been one of our most consistent performers this season, which might not be saying much, but he goes about his business and gets the job done. Its true he hasnt lived up to the hype - he's certainly no Alonso or Gerrard - but its foolish to expect as much.
    On the one hand its disappointing to not see those "Gremio style" lung bursting runs forward, on the other, when you consider his finishing (probably his poorest asset), its probably for the best.
    The way he gets singled out by a certain section of Liverpool fans is a disgrace - but make no mistake about it - the lad has character.
    Call him a squad player or whatever, he has a role and he performs it. As long as he keeps fighting for the shit (something some of our senior players can take note of, by the way), I at least will support him.
    All the best for 2010 and keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 50.


    I do agree that Sabella has done a wonderful job in avoiding a trouncing by Barcelona. But I have a huge problem with the biggest single factor that cost them the win and for that I blame the coach: Estudiantes fill-the-holes and press hard upfield strategy was undone by poor match fitness. They had plenty of time to prepare, were out of contention in the Apertura, had their schedule fixed to allow them to leave early and somehow managed to be a one half wonder.

    That was the biggest difference between the two teams, not so much technical ability...

  • Comment number 51.

    Great blog Tim.
    As regard to the main topic here,i think there was a flaw on estudiantes formation. The goal they got was a classic,not on movement but the assist and header were absolutely superb. The flaw as i mentioned was that they didn't have an answer to the surging dani alves. Getting the ball into dani's feet means messi will be involved either on the cross or in the middle while he'll pull two players towards him and let dani run forward. I don't think most of the teams had seen this as the most fatal move.Once messi brings the defender away and iniesta or xabi get involved,its almost game over.We have seen that with each match barca play.....
    As for lucas,i can only imagine how tremendous it'd be once he develops as well you have explained.I have seen him play much improved play these days. but i feel he is uncomfortable with his positioning. He is confined to make passes only between masch and gerard.I have barely seen him strike a fatal pass to torres and benhyoun..And i think its rafas mistake rather than his own. Playing under gerard is hard for any midfielder as everyone seems to think that only he should make those fatal passes.
    Third thing i'd like to discuss tactically is the use of 'behind the striker'-striker/midfielder. The formation becomes as like 4-1-3/2-1-1/2. Isn't it a ridiculous formation? Liverpool and argentina play this formation,if i'm not that naive. Gerard has lost his flair on going what they call 'in between the hole'. As for argentina as no1 knows messi is actually flanker or a mid-play,there is always a confusion when he comes inside. Thats when they lose the plot.They have no1 to attack from flanks when messi moves inside.The 1 between the hole is messi himself and that brings a central midfielder to the wide.Then there is too much space for masch to cover. And with the defence so confused on themselves,goals are easy for opposition to come. What do you think tim?

  • Comment number 52.

    Tim, very good blog, interesting views.
    As a belgian football fan i follow the premier league very closely. I too have been complaining about lucas leiva's performances in the past, and i'm not a particularly big fan of his. But that being said, i think his performances of recent weeks have been very decent.
    I do think though that there are two elements in a player's game that you must judge:
    it's fairly easy to judge the performance of a player in what he does, e.g. when he has the ball, when he makes a running move without the ball, etc. and i have to say that i don't see too much wrong there with lucas leiva, when he has the ball he generally tends to do something useful with it, and he wins back some balls as well
    but you also have to regard (and this is much more difficult to judge) what a player doesn't do.
    one player would close a crucial gap in midfield or give the deciding pass when having the ball, whereas another would be someplace else on the pitch (not able to close the gap)in the first example and would give a decent lateral pass in the second one...
    --> as such the second player didn't do anything wrong, but he wasn't present when his team needed a crucial contribution
    i think this is a difference between top-class midfielders like vieira, alonso, keane, etc and mediocre ones
    i think this has to do with his lack of physical presence , which is especially acute in the premier league... i don't think he'll be a future star in the premier league, but he whill have all possibilities to prove me wrong

  • Comment number 53.

    See my previous post on here regarding Sabella - we now have a baby boy also indirectly due to Sabella playing for Sheff Utd when I was a kid!

    "Nice one Mr Vickery - my wife is Argentine (we got married in May) and I met her when I travelled for a year through the whole of South America in 2005-6 (a well earned sabbatical from the NHS). I think I was probably out there due to admiring Ardiles, Villa and most importantly Alex Sabella for Sheff Utd as a kid (I remember Sabella used to always play with no shin pads and his socks rolled down so we all used to copy him and get in trouble).

    We are due a late honeymoon out with her family in Cordoba at Christmas and hope to catch a game, I've been to the Bombonera when Boca won the league at the end of 2005 but I have had to switch allegiances due to her Dad been River through and through. Fortunately, he is now an ardent Blade follower....

    Always love the articles keep up the good work!"

  • Comment number 54.

    @Argentina Blade

    I wonder if Sabella and Veron wax lyrical about the many delights of Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane?

    For those that don't know - we bought Seba's uncle Pedro Verde at the same time as Sabella:

  • Comment number 55.

    Happy Christmas Tim.

    I see Anderson as a fantastic footballer, just played in the wrong role a lot of the time. He almost looks as if he is restricted by something. He did say in an interview that since he broke his leg, he has focused on the defensive part of his game. I feel the reason that people may be 'disappointed' by Anderson, is that he doesn't constantly do the blistering runs and fabulous skills that we were warned of. BUT he is consistently good and just gets on with playing football well without making a big thing about it.
    Anderson has a bright future ahead of him, and his present football isn't bad at all really.

    Lucas? I don't see it at all. Maybe I'm a little biased as a Manchester United supporter.

    good blog once again,
    Anderson a hopeful for the World Cup?
    If he does make the plane, I think he could be a massive hit and play some of his best football.

  • Comment number 56.

    The Brazilian currency being strong should not make it easier to lure football players back from Europe with higher salaries as the currency could quickly reverse.

  • Comment number 57.

    I feel the reason that people may be 'disappointed' by Anderson, is that he doesn't constantly do the blistering runs and fabulous skills that we were warned of.
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  • Comment number 62.

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