Things I’ve learned from the 2013 Confederations Cup – so far

Confederations Cup stadium

The Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, one of the venues for this year’s Confederations Cup, and next year’s World Cup (Luan S.R)

This year’s Confederations Cup has been fantastic from a football point of view thus far, and extremely interesting from a political point of view given all that has gone on in Brazil in the last week or so. Two great semi finals await – one a replay of the 1950 World Cup final match between Brazil and Uruguay (sadly not at the Maracana but at the stadium above), the other a replay of last year’s European Championship final, where a Balotelli-less Italy must try to stop Spain putting four past them again.

As well as letting me know that a Confederations Cup doesn’t have to be dull and pointless, this year’s tournament has also thrown up a few other talking points.

1. Neymar is actually really, really good

If Neymar can take the form he’s shown in this tournament so far into even half a season with Barcelona, the Catalan club will have made some return on their investment. The key unanswered question is “can he play in the same side as Messi” – if the answer is “yes”, then I expect the mohawked-Brazilian to create something of an impression in his first season in Spain. Yes, he will throw himself about a bit, and yes he may not be able to do it on a wet Tuesday night (it’s always a Tuesday) in Bilbao and/or Stoke-on-Trent quite yet, but that looks like it will come in time. If he scores 10 or 15 goals next season of similar quality to those he’s scored for Brazil in the last week and a bit, he’ll do just fine.

2. Tahiti are really, really bad

This, of course, we already knew prior to the tournament. Despite Tahiti’s general incompetence, it was great seeing Jonathan Tehau score against Nigeria and he and his team-mates pull out their paddle celebration; one also had to admire their sportsmanship and willingness to score, particularly against the Spanish. In the end, however, with a record of Played 3, Lost 3, F1, A24, Tahiti just weren’t very good. At all. Steevy Chong Hue for me was their one decent-ish player, a particular highlight being when he skinned Efe Ambrose down the Nigerian right in the first few minutes of Tahiti’s first match. Whether or not he can play to any decent level away from French Polynesia remains to be seen.

3. Spain’s second string is scary

Reina, Ramos, Monreal, Albiol, Azpilicueta, Martinez, Cazorla, Silva, Villa, Torres, Mata. Not the shopping list of the Monaco owner (as far as I know) but the reserve side which Spain put out for their 10-0 victory over Tahiti in the second set of group matches. Oh and Jesus Navas came on for Ramos at half-time. Players who would walk into most other international sides in the world and they can’t get a starting berth for Spain. Ridiculous, and with Spain’s U-21s triumphing in their European Championship final (against Italy) there’s only more Spanish dominance and strength in depth to come.

4. If Japan had a half-decent striker they’d be potential 2014 semi-finalists

Although I did sing Kensuke Nagai’s praises this time last year, I’m not sure he’s the answer to this particular question. As has been seen through their three group matches, Japan have technical quality in abundance. Keisuke Honda is verging on being world-class; Shinji Kagawa has looked excellent and will no doubt improve on his slightly tentative first season in Manchester in the coming months; while Eiji Kawashima is a reliable custodian between the sticks. What Japan particularly lack (let’s skirt over their patchy defending) is a clinical international striker. Change Torres, Villa or even Soldado’s shirt colour from red and yellow to blue, and suddenly Japan might not lose by so much to Brazil, might even beat Italy and probably give Mexico a bit of a hiding. Up to the edge of the penalty area, Japan were one of the best sides in this tournament. Inside it, they were somewhat lacking in bite.

5. The Brazilian public are not happy

The average Brazilian is clearly not particularly pleased about vast sums of public money being spent on football stadia, rather than on more meaningful and sustainable infrastructure. Brazilian taxpayers were told in 2007 that private money would largely pay for the stadiums and any associated improvements to airports, roads, etc for the World Cup; in the end, the public purse has covered around 90% of this expenditure. Understandably, and given their country’s increasing riches, the people of Brazil would rather have seen that money spent on  education or healthcare. Unfortunately they are now a bit late in the day – the stadiums are built and the World Cup will, bar a major incident of some description, go ahead next year. Dilma Rousseff has pledged a number of measures to alleviate some of the protestors’ concerns; it will certainly be interesting to see how the rest of this tournament unfolds on the streets of Rio, Fortaleza and elsewhere in response to those.

The major test of course, comes next year. Given that in August 2011 we Brits all had riots on the brain and that by August 2012 we were singing the praises of modern pentathletes and waxing lyrical about dressage round the water cooler, one could be accused of scaremongering by way of associating these protests with any kind of campaign of unrest in Brazil leading up to next year’s tournament. We shall have to wait and see – however I would imagine the World Cup will go ahead as planned, and peacefully.

 

Confederations Cup 2013 Preview

Estadio Nacional de Brasilia Mane Garrincha

The fully refurbished Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, one of the six stadia being used in the 2013 Confederations Cup (courtesy of Elza Fiuza/ABr via Wikipedia)

In the last year or so, I have devoted quite a number of posts to the exploits of the Tahitian national team and their qualification for this year’s Confederations Cup. Now the mini-World Cup tournament is almost upon us, with the opening match between Brazil and Japan taking place on Saturday. The World Cup host for next year, which of course is Brazil, is (as has been the case since 2005) hosting the tournament, with some new or fully refurbished stadia getting tested out. Of particular interest will be the newly renovated Maracana, which, having hosted the 2-2 draw between Brazil and England last week, will be hosting the match between Italy and Mexico on Sunday.

The format for the tournament is reasonably well set now: the winners of the World Cup, plus each continental championship winner (and in the case of Europe, the Euro 2012 runner-up) and the host country are split into two groups of four countries. The top two then play straight knockouts in the semi-finals with the winner progressing to the final, with a third-place play-off for the semi-losers to waste some more time. Here’s how I see things unfolding.

Group A

Brazil are under enormous pressure from their fellow countrymen to perform. Recent friendly results (including a draw and a defeat against England) have not been overly inspiring and the focus will very much be on Big Phil Scolari to deliver a trophy prior to the main event in 12 months time. Although the group they’ve been placed in is not an easy one, I think they should finish top of the group, particularly given the two easiest games (against Japan and Mexico) come first.

In second place, I see Italy coming through, though with quite a struggle. Their strange result against Haiti (a 2-2 draw) on Tuesday evening does not bode entirely well; however with their young, exciting forward line (Balotelli and El Shaarawy) and fairly resolute defence, they should have just about enough to make the semi-finals.

The two giants of the game will leave Japan and Mexico behind them, although it should be noted that neither of these sides are mugs in any way. The Japanese should be fairly comfortable in their performances having already qualified for next year’s big tournament, while the Mexicans have had a strange qualification tournament thus far with one win and five draws. I look forward particularly to seeing Keisuke Honda again strutting his stuff for Japan.

Group B

Obvious choice for group winners here too. Spain didn’t do overly well in the 2009 Confederations Cup (losing in the semi-finals to the United States) but given their utterly imperious form in the Euros last summer, they should come through their group with ease. It should be interesting to see if, given his classy play this season for Bayern Munich, Javi Martinez gets a run in a defensive midfield position.

I’m going to stick my neck out a tad here and say that Nigeria will join the Spaniards in the semi-finals. The Nigerians should still be riding high after that Cup of Nations success earlier this year, and will again be looking to John Obi Mikel to provide some non-Chelsea-standard performances for his country to see them through. Having said that, they have just had a bit of a shoddy 1-1 draw away to Namibia in their latest World Cup qualifier.

A clear third place (with a shout at second) in the group will go to Uruguay. Patently, they have some quality players with likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan; what is clear from last year’s Olympic tournament is that Oscar Washington Tabarez has been unable to put in much of a succession plan for his side going forward. Their squad has a few 22-year-olds in there but they are mostly relying on the same slowly deteriorating bodies as they did in 2010.

If Tahiti don’t finish bottom of the group, I will be utterly, utterly amazed. The French Polynesian side have played two competitive matches this year; a 2-0 win at home to the Solomon Islands and a 1-0 defeat away to fellow French colonial underlings New Caledonia. At most, they will look for a goal and/or a point in the competition, with their only foreign based player Marama Vahirua the most likely source of that elusive goal. I fancy Spain in particular could reach double figures against the lads from the Pacific.

As for a winner of the tournament, I do fancy Brazil; as Tim Vickery often says, given the number of domestic-based players in the Brazil squad these chaps should now be reaching the peak of their form. Compare this with Spain where their players have all had a long, hard slog of a season and that difference in form could make a telling contribution to a short 8-team tournament. This is of course a dress rehearsal for next year; one hopes that as well as providing entertaining football, that Brazil’s infrastructure and stadia stand up to the test that the World Cup’s younger, less important sibling provides.

Premier League 2012-13 Preview Review

St James Park, a ground at which Premier League football is played sometimes.

St James Park, a ground at which Premier League football is sometimes played.

Another Premier League season has come to an end. Monumental events have occurred, such as the resignation and retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson; his subsequent replacement with David Moyes, and Michael Owen’s ridiculous moustache during Movember.

At the start of every season on my blog (since the start of the 2011-12 season, indeed), I’ve tried to predict what will happen in a season in the greatest league in the world. Last season I didn’t do particularly well; this season I have fared slightly better, with the emphasis very much on “slightly.”

As with last year’s Preview Review, the final position of each team is in bold, with my prediction in italics.

 

1st – Manchester United – Manchester United

This was perhaps a fairly obvious choice, but it in May last year it had looked like Manchester City could have kicked on to defend their title. As it was, Manchester United won the league, along with the one transfer battle that really mattered – the capture of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. At the time, spending £24m on a 29-year-old did seem a slightly un-Fergie-like transfer; by the end of the season it made perfect sense. United sauntered to the title without particularly trying; they were clinical and didn’t stop even when behind – qualities that David Moyes will want to take into next season.

 

2nd – Manchester City Manchester City

City had a funny old season. They turned in exceptional performances from time to time but in the main seemed to completely lack the cohesion and attacking flair of last season. Sergio Aguero provided nothing like as much as he did in 11-12, Joe Hart was culpable of odd errors from time to time and even David Silva looked a little lacklustre at points. Mancini’s forays into the transfer market didn’t hugely assist – Javi Garcia is a solid squad player, as is Matija Nastasic. There was, however, nothing in their transfer dealings to capture the imagination and as such, it was a bit of a dampener of a season on all fronts, domestic and European.

 

3rd – Chelsea – Chelsea

Another season down, another three Chelsea managers recycled. Where Roberto Di Matteo started, Rafa Benitez continued, with Rafa being usurped by his managerial “nemesis” Jose Mourinho. Benitez’s tenure in particular was bizarre – the Chelsea fans’ nonsensical chanting of “we want our Chelsea back” being particularly baffling. Benitez did well after some initial sluggish performances, taking Chelsea to qualification for the Champions League group stages and a Europa League win. Whether Mourinho can take them on and fill in the gaps that exist in central defence and up front remains to be seen.

 

4th – Arsenal – Arsenal

Arsenal performed this past season largely as predicted. Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud and Walcott managed to share the goals and assists that Robin Van Persie would otherwise have provided; while the Gunners managed to put together a decent run of results towards the end of the season to clinch fourth spot on the campaign’s last day. Wenger will be looking to spend some of that much-talked-about cash in the close season; supporters will hope he doesn’t buy up a lot of unproven French youngsters and finally invest in some proven world-class talent.

 

5th – Tottenham Hotspur – Tottenham Hotspur

Once again, Spurs have fallen just short of Champions League qualification despite amassing their highest Premier League points tally. I had a feeling Andre Villas-Boas would get the opportunity to better impose his style on Spurs than he did at Chelsea, and by and large he has with Spurs at times playing some attractive counter-attacking stuff. The chaps from North London have of course been heavily reliant on the talents of Gareth Bale; had they had an additional striker and got the Joao Moutinho transfer through on last summer’s deadline day, things may have turned out differently.

 

6th – Everton Liverpool

David Moyes’ side, in what turned out to be his last season with the club, brought home another creditable Premier League finish. In particular, they once again won their local battle with Liverpool, finishing two points ahead of the Reds. Marouane Fellaini started the season like a man possessed before tailing off, while Leighton Baines was one of the most consistent performers in the division all season. Roberto Martinez has a rather good platform from which to build for next season – the Toffees’ supporters will hope the departure of the man whom in they trusted won’t impact too much.

 

7th – Liverpool Newcastle United

The Anfield side once again deceived us all. A good looking pre-season with some sensible signings, and Luis Suarez likely to be firing again promised much for Liverpool but ultimately failed to deliver. There were occasional highlights: when Suarez wasn’t suspended he was one of the league’s best players, while Daniel Sturridge looks like an astute signing. One imagines Andy Carroll will be moved on for a not-so-vast sum in the summer – what Liverpool do with that money and anything else Fenway Sports might have lying around will be vitally important with Reina seemingly on his way, Carragher gone and Gerrard slowly fading.

 

8th – West Bromwich Albion Everton

Last season was a great one for Steve Clarke and his West Brom side. Nobody this time last year was convinced of Clarke’s ability to take control of his own side, nor of his ability to take on the solid progress of Roy Hodgson – I had WBA down to come 18th. How wrong I was. The Baggies leapt into the season with great gusto and though their form dipped in the second 19 games, they still finished well inside the top 10. Clarke’s challenge for next season will be filling the rather large void left by Romelu Lukaku, who is likely to feature rather more heavily for Chelsea in the coming year.

 

9th – Swansea City Sunderland

Another side which many people, myself included, had on their lists to struggle, Swansea made a mockery of those suggestions and won a trophy into the bargain. Michael Laudrup proved himself to be an astute manager, both tactically and on the transfer market. With the former, he mixed the short passing game developed under Brendan Rogers with a “Plan B” using a more direct (but no less attractive) style, while the signing of Michu for £2m was a stroke of genius. Holding onto Laudrup and Michu will be key for the Swans next season.

 

10th – West Ham United – Aston Villa

West Ham’s return to the Premier League epitomised the style and attitude of their manager; utterly no-nonsense, and reliably unremarkable. The loan signing of Andy Carroll proved useful, particularly in the latter months of the season, while Allardyce stalwarts Jussi Jaaskelainen and Kevin Nolan proved as reliable as always. At times the football was not pretty; but everyone knows that’s not what Big Sam does. Expect more of the same next season.

11th – Norwich City – Fulham

Norwich were caught up in that strange end-of-season relegation scrap where it seemed at various points that no team wanted to pull away from the bottom three. As it was, a good last few games took them to the top of the bottom half of the table, and a creditable first season in charge for everyone’s favourite manager, Chris Hughton. Wins at home to Manchester United and Arsenal were tempered somewhat by a few abysmal performances, particularly against Liverpool; however Hughton already seems to be planning well for next season with the acquisition of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel.

 

12th – Fulham – Stoke City

Martin Jol’s side had a bit of a strange old season. One wonders how they would have performed had Dimitar Berbatov not moved to the banks of the Thames; as it was the Whites did just enough to stay put in the Premier League. One other bright spot might perhaps be the performances of Alexander Kacaniklic, who looks a fine prospect.

 

13th – Stoke City – Wigan Athletic

Tony Pulis has of course departed, and perhaps for good reason. Stoke have in recent seasons spent rather a lot of money for a side in the lower half of the table; for that they have seen not much return other than the same insipid football played game after game. Like Norwich, the Potters were also in the relegation mire before pulling it together in the last couple of matches of the season. Next term will be interesting in terms of Pulis’s replacement and the style he attempts to impose on the side.

 

14th Southampton – Queens Park Rangers

I had Southampton down for a 19th-place finish this season just passed – my take was that they wouldn’t have the quality to cope with a season in the top flight. As with the side I thought would finish in this position, I was dead wrong. Where Nigel Adkins set a decent precedent, Mauricio Pochettino seemed to take their technical prowess that little bit further, particularly getting the best out of £7m man Jay Rodriguez. It will be interesting to see where the Argentinian can take the Saints next season.

 

15th – Aston Villa – Norwich City

Having assumed the “Lambert factor” would have a similar effect on Villa in 2012-13 to that it had on Norwich in 2011-12, I fancied Villa to at least pester the top half of the table. As it was, their Premier League status was again called into question until the last few games of the season. Some great results (a 3-1 win at Anfield) were tempered with some awful results (0-8 away to Chelsea, 1-3 away to Bradford in the Capital One Cup); Belgian striker Christian Benteke was eventually instrumental in dragging the Birmingham side to safety. Lambert will have to spend his money carefully in the coming summer to avoid another tricky season at Villa Park.

 

16th – Newcastle United – Reading

This I did not expect. After the Magpies’ excellent showing in 2011-12, I expected them to suffer a little from “second-season syndrome” but eventually finish in a decent placing. As it was, their survival in the Premier League was not confirmed until Wigan’s defeat at Arsenal three days after the FA Cup final. The main point of the Toon’s woe seemed to be the complete loss of form of Papiss Demba Cisse; this, coupled with injuries to Yohan Cabaye and the enormous influx of French players in January made it a season to forget for those residing on or near the Tyne.

 

17th – Sunderland Swansea City

After coming in halfway through last season, stabilising things and getting good performances out of previously anonymous players (I’m looking at you James McClean), I expected Martin O’Neill to take Sunderland up the league and perhaps be outside challengers for a Europa League place. As it was, O’Neill’s side went from abject to downright tear-inducing, and it was no surprise when he was out of a job a few games shy of the end of the season. What was surprising was the name, but if Paolo Di Canio can translate his passion and his capacity for knee-sliding on the turf into performances by his side, Sunderland could be spring a surprise in 2013-14.

 

18th – Wigan Athletic – West Bromwich Albion

It finally happened. Wigan Athletic got relegated. After years of flirting with the bottom three and remembering after 19 matches in each season that sometimes winning games is a good idea, Wigan will be playing at Huish Park in 2013-14. This was again despite some creditable performances, including that historic FA Cup win, and some standout players, particularly James McMcCarthy and Shaun Maloney. Sadly, Roger Espinoza will be playing Championship football come August.

 

19th – Reading – Southampton

At the end of the season, one thing was clear about Reading – they simply weren’t good enough to survive in the Premier League. A side which had raced through the last 10 games or so in 2011-12 simply couldn’t keep that form going; when your top goalscorer gives his best performances coming off the bench (Le Fondre), you know there’s an issue. Reading simply didn’t invest in enough Premier League talent; what they will have for the next few years is a parachute payment with which to build a side for the future and possible survival in the top division.

 

20th – Queens Park Rangers – West Ham United

I’ve got QPR very wrong twice in the last year. Firstly, I thought they’d stay in the Premier League in August; I then repeated that claim in January after Harry Redknapp replaced Mark Hughes and briefly improved Rangers’ results. As it was, QPR were just utterly, utterly abject; their approach, having signed too many sub-standard players, was to sign more sub-standard players. Only Loic Remy and Julio Cesar looked truly Premier League-class in a collection of overpaid misfits. The club’s financial survival over the next few years should now be the priority – one imagines this will not befit Mr Redknapp’s wheeler-dealer outlook on life.

So in the end, I did a rather good job with the top five; the less said about the other fifteen sides, particularly the bottom three, the better. Roll on the 2013-14 preview in a couple of months; posts to come include some more post-Fergie analysis, and maybe some thoughts on the brave new world at Bayview Stadium.