Chinese Super League: Trouble for football’s big boys or added insurance?

Oscar’s double thumbs-up in Shanghai SIPG jersey is not going to go down in the history books as one of ‘those’ sensational transfers. It certainly did not have a manager kicking a boot on to the player’s face nor did it involve an astronomical sum at the end of a bidding war.

 

Yet, the Brazilian playmaker’s 60 million move to China could be the beginning of the end of Europe’s tag as footballer’s dream destination. With Chinese Super League announcing its intention to become one of world’s best leagues by signing some of World’s coveted talents, Europe now faces stiff competition for football stars — especially from continents such as South America and Asia.

The signs were already there. Last season, the Asian football markets saw records being shattered with the arrivals of Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Alex Teixeira (Jiangsu Suning). These were players who were in the peak of their career unlike a Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka who took the Asian route for one last fat pay cheque before they hang their boots up. Europe didn’t mind the Drogbas and Anelkas moving because it was helping them clear out players on the decline without upsetting the fans who don’t like it when their heroes aren’t offered contract extensions. But Jaingsu secured services of 25-year-old Teixeria by outbidding Liverpool — a team with a rich pedigree in Europe. Oscar was, until very recently, a primary target for Serie A champion Juventus. Suddenly, to people’s dismay, the Chinese were taking away Europe’s primary targets.

Shattering the football cycle

China’s financial power, aided by President Xi Jingping’s 50-point plan for football domination, in due course, will bring to end the traditional cycle of football economy. To understand how this works, lets break down the cycle into four parts. Of course, no club is completely reliant on one particular system and having a youth team is mandatory for long-term success, but we will stick to this simplistic structure to get an idea of what China can do to football.

There are 4 types of clubs:

1. The Home-grown: Clubs such as Spain’s Athletic Bilbao and England’s Southampton have always relied on identifying talent at a very young age and nurturing them to become top-class footballers. Their success lies two in factors – 1) continuous supply of young, quality footballers and 2) big clubs buying their stars for a high sum.

2. The scouts: Some clubs may not have a bright academy but they make up for it by scouting talent from across the world. They take the gamble with young players from their own league or other countries by giving them regular playing time. For the players, the clubs are guaranteed spotlights. If they perform well, the big guns will come looking. For the clubs, if the gamble pays of its a lot of profit.

3. Title chasers: The demands of a cup every single seasons means most of these clubs like to buy proven talent. They tend to buy from clubs in established leagues rather than taking a risk by signing them young.

4. The final-bow: The Major League Soccer (MLS) or the Indian Super League (ISL) are primary example of leagues where the players go to after their peaks for one last pay cheque. There is money and the football isn’t too demanding. The clubs in turn make the most out the players’ marketability through jersey and ticket sales.

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What Chinese clubs have done, much to the unhappiness of Europe, is that they have entered in the ‘title-chasers’ category and not ‘final bow’. Suddenly, the home grown clubs and the scouts have alternative option to sell, which in turn will give them leverage during a negotiation. Liverpool desperately wanted Teixeira, but Shakhtar Donetsk, would not fudge until the Reds matched the Chinese bid. Moreover, the money going into these relatively smaller clubs, will allow them to fend off approaches from top clubs.

The EPL, buoyed by a new TV rights deal, is an example of how money can level the playing field. A traditional buyer such as Chelsea or Manchester City will struggle to sign a player from Southampton today because the money the Saints are getting from the deal (which is close to what top clubs from other European clubs make). This in turn prevents the top clubs’ ability to buy off competition.

If Chinese Super League continues its trend, and one would assume that will be the case, then the likes Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and Borussia Dortmund will have the financial security to say no to approaches from teams in the same league.

That said, the Chinese market also acts as an added insurance for the big clubs who are bound by the financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Take the case of Oscar. Chelsea bought the Brazilian from Internacional for his potential. Though he didn’t exactly flop, he never rose to the Neymar levels that were expected and was only a bench-warmer in Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea. In short, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off for Chelsea. That is, until CSL took him in and handed Chelsea a whopping 40 million profit.

The big clubs now have the safety of not losing money on risky moves which will push them to scout talents rather than rely on other scouting clubs. If Gabriel Jesus turns out to be a flop at Manchester City, it won’t worry the City owners too much. There is the CSL who would love to get a young player of his quality. Acquiring players from big clubs is good for China too. Oscar still has the best part of his career ahead of him and is more marketable than a player bought from Shakhtar because of Chelsea’s fan base.

This will disrupt the functioning of traditional scouting clubs who will have the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea breathing down their necks.

China is using the same method that saw its rapid rise in industrial sectors — acquiring foreign companies (clubs) and talent (in this case footballers) to improve its own. Atletico Madrid is partly owned by Chinese Billionare Wang Jianlin while Manchester City in 2015 announced a 265 million pounds deal with Chinese investors. With President Xi’s dream of turning China into a ‘soccer powerhouse’ very much a priority, rich offers from the oriental east will not be on a shortage (at least for the immediate future).

Chinese Football League promises to shake up the existing the financial system in football and throw open a plethora of opportunities (and difficulties) to clubs in Europe. Only one thing is missing in China’s top league today — the presence of a European football star.

But with the summer of 2017, this could change, with both Wayne Rooney and John Terry being eyed up. Will they open the flood-gates (and thereby change the power structure in football forever) by moving to China? Only time will tell.

ISL Final: Five takeaways 

Here’s my pick of the stories that outlined the Hero ISL season three final:

1)      Squad Depth the key to ISL success

We saw it with Chennaiyin FC last season and we witnessed it again on Sunday with Atletico de Kolkata. When you are playing 16-odd matches in a span of 12 weeks, you need to have a good set of 15-16 players in your team. Kerala looked jaded – the side was playing its third game in seven days – and did remarkably well to even make a competition out of the encounter. But ultimately ATK had far too much fire-power in its ranks. Coach Jose Molina could afford to make as many as nine changes to his squad for the second semi-final and the freshness in the players was all too evident in the final.

2) Where are Kerala’s young guns?

That said, questions should be asked on why Steve Coppell insisted on playing with the same set of players throughout the season. One might argue it’s the case of team lacking enough quality, but by not giving the likes of Vinit Rai and Thongkosiem Hoakip enough opportunities to play, the team served against one of the biggest motives behind ISL – to improve Indian football.

Coach Molina on the other hand, while having a plethora of foreign talent to choose from, improved the Indian players under his wings. Jewel Raja looks a transformed player and along with Rowllin Borges can form a great defensive midfield duo to future Indian teams. The likes of Pritam Kotal, Prabhir Das and Didika have all looked completely transformed players in the recent weeks.

 3) 4-4-2 past its best

Again, in defence of Steve Coppell, he had the team given to him. But against ATK’s 4-2-3-1, Kerala’s 4-4-2 looked flat. With the Vineeth and Belfort (wingers) also tucking in to aid the defence, there was connection between the midfielders and the strikers. Nazon and Rafi were completely isolated and the extra line in ATK’ formation allowed Borja Fernandes and Jewel Raja enough freedom to start counter attacks. Coppell, at least after the 60th minute, should have been risky, and tried to mirror Kolkata’s formation. And its’ not like he didn’t have the right player to do it – a combination of Belfort, German, Vineeth and Nazon have the required trickery and pace to succeed in the formation.

4)  Iain Hume’s Kerala duck

Yes, his team finally won. But the Canadian striker still could not find a way to score against his former team, even missing a crucial penalty in the shoot-outs. ISL’s all-time scorer, according to coach Molina, volunteered to take the first penalty kick, but had his shot stopped by goalkeeper Graham Stack.  Hume’s versatility was something Molina used to good effect throughout the season though. In ATK’s previous match in Kochi, Molina pushed Hume to the left-wing and made Javi Lara play in the centre, which disrupted Kerala’s defensive balance and finally saw the Spaniard scoring the winner. The striker’s tireless running throughout the game was a pleasure to watch and it’s only a matter of time he gets one past his old team.

5)  Camus’ Hengbart

This was Cedric Hengbart’s third final in a long and winding career. In his first final (2005 Coupe de la Ligue final with SM Caen), his coach opted not to play him and his team lost. In ISL season one, he was injured and couldn’t play. Kerala Blasters lost that. And on Sunday, the Frenchman’s penalty miss proved costly as Jewel Raja went on to score his, and win the title for ATK. Even Albert Camus couldn’t have scripted anything more tragic. The Frenchman, along with CK Vineeth, were the best players for a Kerala team, that on roster, had one of the poorest squads in ISL. One can only hope, for football sake, that the defender will return next season, his drive to win the title still very much intact.

ISL final another Nehru Cup?

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There is an air of discomfort as one makes his way into Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the venue for the Indian Super League season three final between Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata. While on the exterior everything looks happy — barring the huge billboard in front of the stadium in which both C. K. Vineeth and Iain Hume are sporting frowns — the organisation of the mega-event has raised many eyebrows.

Thousands of Blasters faithful, people from across the world who haven’t missed a single home-game yet, are still queued up in front of the ticket-counter, even though there are signs stuck everywhere informing them that tickets have been sold-out.

“We heard that around 5000 tickets are yet to be sold. We don’t want to miss such a big football event,” said Nisar, who came to the city on Saturday from his native town in North Kerala. The optimism, though, is running thin and there is feeling that it might lead to an angry mob, as the match moves closer to the kick-off.

“Why were tickets given in 50s and 100s? Now we true fans, who didn’t back away even when the team was struggling last season, don’t have tickets while some rich VIP will flaunt a fake Blasters jersey for a selfie inside the stadium,” said an angry young man, who intruded the conversation with a security guard placed next to the VIP entrance.

While it is understandable that tickets cannot be sold beyond the stadium capacity of 60,000, one can only wonder why large screens haven’t been installed outside the stadium or across the city, to cater to the demand.

The atmosphere resembles that of the 1997 Nehru Cup semifinal played between India and Iraq. The security and organisers had failed to contain the crowd that night, in which it is believed, over a lakh people gushed in to see India’s penalty shoot-out loss against the eventual winner.

The frustration in not being able to procure tickets has hit everyone. Local newspaper Mathrubhumi reported that former Indian striker and Kerala’s pride I. M. Vijayan was offered only a general ticket for the event.

Amidst all this, reports have also emerged that two black-ticket sellers have been caught by police. Rs. 300 tickets are selling like hot cakes for Rs. 3000.

The entry into the stadium was opened at 3:30 p.m. and one can already see thousands of fans inside the stadium. Blasters’ fan group, the Manjappada (Yellow Army) has already taken up the East Stand. The infectious energy of the fans is keeping everyone optimistic for a really entertaining final.

ISL: ATK wins as Kerala stumbles in final yet again

It happened in that cold night in Munich in 2012, when Chelsea crawled back to win the Champions League against home-side Bayern Munich. It happened in Goa last ISL season when Chennaiyin FC ran away with the title. It happened again in Paris this year when host France lost to Portugal at EURO 2016. Now it has happened again in Kochi. Home team Kerala Blasters squandered a one-goal lead to lose to Atletico de Kolkata in penalties in the Hero Indian Super League season three final.

Kerala took the lead in the 38th minute when Kerala-born striker Mohammed Rafi nodded in a corner past the outstretched arms of ATK ‘keeper Debjit Majumder. But the lead only lasted seven minutes as ATK pulled one back through a thumping header by centre-back Henrique Sereno.

The match saw no more goals in regulation time or added time and was eventually decided on penalties. ATK keeper Majummder saved Kerala defender Hengbart’s penalty, the fifth one with scores level 3-3, with his feet, and in the subsequent penalty, Jewel Raja scored, to seal the title for ATK. This is the second time Saurav Ganguly-owned ATK has defeated Sachin Tendulkar’s Kerala Blasters.

Formations

Kerala manager opted to retain the core of the team that defeated Delhi Dynamos over two-legs. But semifinal hero Sandip Nandy was replaced by ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Graham stack – Coppell opting for the Englishman’s big match experience for the final. That meant Blasters would have one less foreigner in the team. Suspended left-back Josu was replaced, albeit quite strangely, by central midfielder Ishfaq Ahmed, who is also the team’s assistant coach. Duckens Nazon and Mohmmed Rafi headed the front line, while Kervens Belfort and C.K. Vineeth took-up position in the wings, in Coppell’s much preferred 4-4-1-1 formation.

Jewel Raja’s outstanding performance in the semifinal second leg against Mumbai City FC earned him a place along with Borja Fernandes in ATK’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Indian national team defender Arnab Mondal missed the match due to an injury with Tiri and Henrique Sereno forming the centre-back pairing. Canadian Hume partnered Postiga in the front for ATK with Sameehg Doutie and Lalrindika Ralte in the wings.

Summary

The Home-team started brightly, with Vineeth finding space in the right-wing after being played-in by Hengbart in the second minute of the match. But the winger’s cross fell in no-man’s land. Blasters had another crack at goal when Raja fouled Nazon near the box. But Mehtab’s distribution failed to meet any heads in the box.

Blasters created another great opportunity in the 10th minute when Belfort found space in the left-flank after a quick step-over. Rafi, who picked the pass from Belfort, delayed his shot slightly, which allowed Tiri to block the shot.

At the other end, ATK was begging to find its stride. In the 14th minute, Hume and Postiga exchanged passes, but the Portguese forward shot wide. The striker had another two shots at the goal, in the 21st and 22nd minutes, but failed to work ‘keeper Stack.

Kerala, playing without a proper left-back, was always going to find tough against the pace of Doutie and the South African almost created the first goal of the match, when his cross from right-wing narrowly missed Hume, who was rushing into the box.

Vineeth, who looked weighed down by the pressure of the match with some uncharacteristically poor touches, finally got into the act, when he cut-in from the right-flank to hit a curler with his left foot. Luckily, for ATK, it went straight to ‘keeper Majumder.

Blasters lost its captain Hughes to a groin-injury in the 35th minute.

The game’s opener came in the 38th minute, when Rafi climbed the highest to head to ball in from a Mehtab corner and make the crowd go berserk.

But the excitement was short-lived and ATK found an equalizer in the 44th minute. Like the host, ATK broke the defense through a corner – Portgueuse defender Sereno breaking free of his marker, Jhingan, to thump in a header. The first half ended in parity.

Both teams started the second-half cautiously, happy to sit back and wait for the opposition to make the mistake. Nazon had a shot saved in the 64th minute while Postiga drew an acrobatic save out of Stack in the 66th minute. Coach Molina withdrew the Portuguese striker in the 67th minute to bring-in creative midfielder Javi Lara, who scored the winner against Kerala when the teams last met in Kochi.

Kerala brought in semi-final hero Mohammed Rafique and Antonio German to spice up the attack. Vineeth moved to his favoured secondary striker role while Rafique took up the right wing.

The substitutions did not yield any results for both the sides though as the match moved into the extra-time.

With the teams looking jaded, this was afterall their third match in a week’s time, the extra-time played with extra-caution. Touches were going wrong, tackles were coming in late and set-pieces were missing their targets as the wear and tear of the grueling season suddenly started showing on the players. Kerala’s Ishfaq Ahmed and Jhingan received yellow cards in an otherwise un-eventful first period of added time.

The second session offered much the same – a 110th minute effort from Ralte forcing some desperate defending from the Kerala back-line. Kerala had its chance when Belfort broke free in the left. But his shot was blocked by the rushing ATK defenders.

Kerala started the penalty shoot-out with German and the Englishman send the ATK keeper the wrong way to give Blasters the lead. Iain Hume missed ATK’s penalty to give Kerala the advantage. Belfort and Doutie converted their kicks before Blasters’ N’Doye struck one over the post. Borja equalized the scores with his penalty after which Rafique and Lara converted theirs. In the last kick, Mazumdar saved Hengbart and Raja converted his, to clinch ATK the title.

Rohit Ramesh: Chennai City will open up chances for local talent

Rohit Ramesh, owner of I-League new-entrant Chennai City FC, on Sunday confirmed that his team will be looking to open up opportunities to budding footballers in the state.

“If you look at players such as Dhanpal Ganesh or Dharmaraj Raavanan, they had to move out of the state to get opportunities to play in top-tier football. We hope to change that pattern and offer budding footballers a chance to grow-up within the state,” said Ramesh to Sportstar.

Read: Chennai City, Minerva Punjab get AIFF nod

With I-League only a month away, the team will have its work cut out, as it looks to form a balanced side capable of fighting it out in the national-level tournament. “Yes, we will have to work hard. We are already in talks with a few players. You can expect announcements in the coming week. We will be striving to form a well-balanced team with footballers from Tamil Nadu and abroad,” said Ramesh.

ALSO READ: Tamil Nadu football legends welcome new I-League club

The owners took over the Chennai club three years ago and the team has had a steady presence in the Chennai senior division league, winning it in the 2015-16 season. “There is not much gap in terms of quality,” said Ramesh, when quizzed about the difference in Chennai senior division and the I-League. “We have a good side already and we will be looking to improve it. We want to co-exist. We will be investing and fielding teams in football tournaments within the state, while also playing in the I-League.”

The AIFF has a proposed a new league merger, with the I-League to play second fiddle to Indian Super League, but Chennai City owner rejected ideas of any possible partnership with the ISL team from the city. “We are not looking to have a tie-up with Chennaiyin FC as of now. We would like function independently to promote the game in the region,” said Ramesh.

Bengaluru FC has set the bench-mark with club management ever since its inception in 2013, going on two win two I-League titles and reaching the AFC Cup finals. But, Ramesh confirmed that his club will approach the league in a different way. “We look at Bengaluru FC with great respect, but we will have our own model of operation,” said Ramesh.

Though not yet been given a confirmation, Chennai City FC is expected to be free from relegation in the first three seasons in the top-division. The club, which already has academies in Thoothoor (Kanyakumari) and Meenambakkam (Chennai), plans to start another in Madras Christian College, Chennai. The owner also confirmed that the team has culled its partnership with Premier Futsal club Chennai 5s.

Tamil Nadu football legends welcome new I-League club

Former Indian football stars from Tamil Nadu, Raman Vijayan and Syed Sabir Pasha, said Chennai City FC’s entry into the I-League will be a big boost for upcoming footballers from the state.

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“In the past, only players from Kolkata or Goa used to be recognised and it was difficult for others. Now the young players have clubs from within the state. Already, Chennaiyin FC has made a big impact in bringing together the fans. Now both the clubs can play a key role in bringing up players from the state. It is a big task for Chennai City now to conduct the club in a good way and sustain this momentum because entire Tamil Nadu will be watching them,” said former Indian national team striker Raman Vijayan.

Syed Sabir Pasha, who is currently the assistant coach of ISL club Chennaiyin FC, and who, like Vijayan, came into the limelight through his performances for Indian Bank, the last team from Tamil Nadu to play in the National Football League, echoed the same views.

“More the clubs, more the opportunities for the players from the state,” he said. “This is exactly what happened when Indian Bank had a team in top division. It gave local players a good opportunity. Hopefully Chennai City FC can do the same.

Bengaluru FC (BFC), a corporate funded team founded in 2013, has become the benchmark when it comes to professionalism in football in the country after winning two I-League titles, and Vijayan, wants Chennai City FC to replicate something similar in Chennai.

“The team needs to be result oriented but at the same time build the club with a strong foundation, like BFC. Chennai fans are already there but you need to attract them to your matches through performances. It is important to have a strong core team who can survive for another 10-15 years. Like how BFC came up with this entire club structure, Chennai City should also have a long-term vision and bring professionalism into the game,” said Vijayan.

“A professional set-up is very important because now the players have already experienced that in the ISL. So clubs should ensure that players maintain that high standards when it comes to training, diet etc,” added Vijayan, who is the assistant manager for ISL club Delhi Dynamos.

Vijayan also said that finding the right balance of youth and experience will be the key for Chennai City FC’s success in the long run.

“It is important to have the right balance in the team — some local talent and some foreign players. The club should have a proper scouting program and ensure that it matches up to the big clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The balance will come automatically in one or two years if you have a proper youth set-up with a pool of players.”

Sabir Pasha, who also heads Chennaiyin FC’s grassroots programs in the state, stressed that on-field success should be the priority for the I-League’s new entrant.

“It’s not going to be easy to go into a big league where all the teams are established. Their first priority should be on making the team competitive. Once they get into the I-League, they will have to field teams in Under-15, U-19 and all the other youth leagues. It is about establishing in the top level. Everything else will follow,” said Pasha.

Pasha believes that promising footballers are scattered across Tamil Nadu but the presence of CFA football league, Chennai City FC ( in the I-League) and Chennaiyin FC ( in ISL) will bring them to the capital city. With team owner Rohit Ramesh confirming that Chennai City FC will continue to play in tournaments within the state, the city now has a set-up where the youngsters can first sharpen their skills in the CFA, before moving to top leagues such as I-League and ISL.

Vijayan, the only other Indian apart from Baichung Bhutia to be the top scorer in National Football League (1997-98 season with FC Kochin), said such a structure, would play a key role in bringing local talent into the limelight.

“When Chennaiyin FC started, there were no players from the state and it faced a lot of criticism for it. But if we don’t have I-League clubs, from where will they find quality players? Now there is a big platform for players from the region and I’m sure you will start seeing more local talent play in the ISL,” he said.

David Luiz’s ‘coming of age’ as Conte’s perfect Sweeper

David Luiz featured in two of the most controversial incidents in Chelsea’s visit to Manchester City’s Eithad stadium last gameweek. First, a characteristic rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment, when he shoved off (not according to the referee though) a goal-bound Sergio Aguero. Second, when he drew an ugly tackle from Aguero, which resulted in a straight red for the Argentine, while also initiating a brawl which saw Fernandinho sent-off.
The charismatic player’s return to the Stamford bridge was supposed to be filled with these incidents –occasional brilliance (ask Chelsea fans about that night in Munich) and a lot of mediocrity. The potential was always there — brilliant control, combative in the air and a never-give-up attitude summing up the Brazilian on a good day.
But those good days were rare and his 50 millions transfer to PSG was seen as a big joke by the football fraternity. What a way to off-load a player who was seen a liability!
Yet, the ‘Geezer’ has been Chelsea defensive lynch-pin this season and barring the nudge on Aguero, is yet to do anything characteristically naive. It almost seems, after futile efforts from multiple managers, which includes Jose Mourinho’s attempt to play him as central defensive midfielder, the defender has found a new life, under the wings of Chelsea’s new coach Antonio Conte. Ever since Chelsea switched to the 3-4-3 formation after conceding three against Arsenal, David Luiz has played remarkably well, donning the role of a ‘sweeper’ in the three-man defensive-line.
So what are the reasons behind Luiz’s ‘coming of age’ in his second stint with the Blues?
Extra Protection
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation allows David Luiz the freedom he craves for, with Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta behind him for cover his lapses.  Luiz plays as the sweeper or ‘the libero’, tracking down forwards who move towards the midfield to receive the ball. He does not need the zonal awareness required while playing in a four-man defence. His ball-playing abilities, come into good use too, with Conte using a deep-lying playmaker, much like Leonardo Bonucci’s role for Italy in the 2016 EUROs.
With Andrea Pirlo omitted from the squad and both Marco Veratti and Claudio Marchisio missing out due to injuries, the Italian side was short of creativity in the midfield. But instead of accommodating Thiago Motta in the starting line-up, Conte handed over the play-making duties to Bonucci and played gritty box-to-box midfielders  Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo alongside Daniel de Rossi. The non-fancied team went on to be the tournament’s dark horses and was eventually beaten by Germany in penalties.
In Chelsea, the Bonucci role has been handed over to David Luiz with creative midfielder Cesc Fabregas only finding a place in the bench. And the ‘Sideshow Bob’ has excelled. With wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso falling back while not in possession, making a  five-man defence, Luiz has the freedom to chase down loose balls or man-mark his assigned targets. The floating role also covers his biggest weakness — positional awareness.
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Luiz has also formed a great relationship with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic –both defensive-minded midfielders — which allows him to carry the ball into the opposition half. Either of the two midfielders fall in to occupy the area left vacant by Luiz thereby  reducing chances of a quick counter-attack.
Pep’s Stones vs Conte’s Luiz
For a generation used to seeing dominant teams playing four in the back, Manchester City’s match against Chelsea was brilliant exhibition of how sweepers can be employed in football formations. John Stones was playing the traditional sweeper in the City’s back-three alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksander Kolarov. This role, perhaps brought into limelight by German Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s and the 1990 World Cup winning West Germany  team he coached, requires the sweeper to be the last line of defence before the ‘keeper. Primarily his job is to close down the space left by his teammates. The sweeper should have a great awareness of the game and must anticipate the forward’s moves. While in possession he must also have the ability to pick the right pass and initiate the counter-attack. You could see Stones sitting back while Kolarov and Otamendi challenged Diego Costa. Whenever Costa won the duel, Stones would immediately rush to stop the Spaniard.
Pep Guardiola is a coach who relies on his defenders’ ball-playing ability. He made Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder, into a central defender at Barcelona while at Bayern his often used Javi Martinez in the role of a sweeper. In Stones, another defender who is good with the ball at his feet, Guardiola probably sees someone who can take-over the role at Manchester City.
Conte’s Luiz takes up a slightly more advanced role though. He is not the last line of defence like the traditional sweeper, with Cahill and Azpi playing further back. This allows Luiz more freedom. And Chelsea has a specific plan for him ever match. Against Middlesbrough, his duty was to stick with Alvaro Negredo who is intimidating in the air while his defensive-mates thwarted the threats of Gaston Ramirez and Adama Traore. In the City match, Luiz double-teamed with his partners, acting as an extra shield incase the attackers find their way past Chelsea’s relatively slow defenders. As mentioned earlier, the slightly more advanced position also allows him to make forays into the midfield and link up with Matic and Kante.
Manager’s Faith
For all the criticism he received during his first spell, with former Manchester United defender Gary Neville even calling him a ’10-year-old on a PlayStation’, he was also seen by many at Chelsea, including owner Roman Abramovic, as the rightful heir to John Terry’s throne in the defence. But Mourinho did not find the Brazilian’s flamboyance to his liking and packed him off to PSG.
Now back at Chelsea, he finally seems to have the faith of the manager, who has also designed a tactic that best suits the defender’s skill-set.  Luiz also brings a certain charisma into the team and is the perfect embodiment of the common saying – “playing football with your leg is one thing, playing with your heart is another.”
The Blues will face sterner tests in the League but after an eight-match winning run, in which it has conceded only two goals, the confidence must be high in the camp, as it prepares to host Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. Luiz, though, could miss out on the match, with the defender struggling to recover from Aguero’s horror tackle.

Many clubs will have to sacrifice, concedes AIFF’s Subrata Dutta

With the All India Football Federation coming under a lot of criticism after yet another club pulled out of the I-League — Dempo FC announcing on Thursday its decision to join Salgaocar FC and Sporting Club de Goa’s boycott — I caught up with AIFF Vice-President Subrata Dutta for a quick chat on the proposed league merger and the club pull-outs.

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Edited excerpts:

Question: You had an emergency meeting yesterday. Can you share with us the gist of what happened in the meeting?

Answer: We have included Churchill Brothers in the I-League as per the High Court’s directive. The club will give an undertaking to us saying it will abide by the AFC licensing criteria.

Does the timing of the decision have anything to do with other Goan clubs pulling out?

Not really. The court said to us that we should also consider Churchill’s contribution to Indian and Goan football. Also their impressive past track-record. We considered all that, and you know that other Goan clubs have pulled out and so we decided there should be some representation from the State.

Has any decision been taken on the fate of Barthez Goa which has bid for a place in upcoming season?

A decision on new teams will be taken during a meeting on December 11.

What do you think has gone wrong for Goan football? In an interview, I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar said the stadium turn-outs have reduced drastically…

It is true that that there is a huge depletion in the popularity of football in Goa. One of the reason could be that there were too many clubs in the I-League from Goa. So the fan base got divided. Also, these Goan clubs belong to individual promoters or families. Nowadays the money required to compete in a professional league is too high.

READ: “Goan clubs need introspection” – I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar

Earlier, what used to be below Rs. 10 crore is now well above Rs. 16 crore. No football clubs, either in the Indian Super League or I-League, have a revenue model to recoup this money. How long, for how many years, can they (Goan football club owners) go on spending crores and crores of rupees without knowing that you are not going to get any money out if it? There is no such road-map for the future. So the clubs are leaving due to financial reasons as well.

Why are the clubs struggling financially?

That is because commercialisation of football has not happened in India. From the club level to the federation level. And that will take some time because we need better quality games, better quality stadiums, better match experience… Which depends on better grassroots football development. So all these will take some time. We should not forget that Indian football, as we now know it, is just about 10 years old. Prior to 2006, AIFF didn’t even have its own office. The office moved with the secretary. And it was there in the bed-side cupboard of the secretary. Now we have a proper football house. We have professionals working there. So we are heading in the right path but it will definitely take some time.

One of the problems raised by the Goan clubs is that there is no promotion for I-League teams to ISL in the proposed league…

We haven’t given a guarantee to any team. We haven’t take any decision on the new league also. We are taking suggestions from everybody. It’s not at all an easy task. It’s very easy to say restructuring of the league but very difficult to actually do it. The decision is going to take some time but the sooner it happens the better it is for Indian football.

We know the problem. We know what we should arrive at. But how to go about it? How to implement it? That we are still figuring out. Everybody is saying demonetisation is good. But the way it is being implemented is being criticised.

Have you spoken to these Goan clubs?

We have had a lot of conversations with them. Why have East Bengal and Mohun Bagan stayed back? They have also not been promised a place in the restructured league. None of the clubs have been promised anything. But they know that they have been contributing to Indian football since a very long time. They are being patient and are waiting for a solution. And that solution has to come from everybody. We cannot leave a part of football fraternity out of this decision. Every stakeholder in Indian football should be consulted.

Did the Goan clubs say anything about coming back?

The can always come back. We invite bids every year and they can, maybe, play the second division and be the champion there. Dempo won it last year.

Do you think it is fair that ISL teams have no relegation?

That is because they invested so much of money with a plan. And the plan is long-term. If they get relegated and go out of the League, then how can they fulfill the plan?

So if a Bengaluru FC is willing to put in the same money can it also be relegation free?

The top-league will have no relegation because there is an agreement with the teams and IMG-Reliance.

But then teams in 2nd division will struggle to raise the revenues required…

Why are you assuming this? We have not made a plan. That (the proposed league) was one of the suggestions. But nobody has approved this.

I’ll tell you an important point. See, for a league to be successful it should have teams named after cities or States. Especially if they are not based out traditional football loving regions like Kolkata. Also, if there are too many teams from the same region, the fan base gets divided. That is also not ideal in the present scenario.

Too many teams will increase the number of matches and the expenses, which again means less revenue for the clubs. That would delay the break-even further as the central revenue would be split. The ideal number would be around 10 teams. Now the question is, how can we accommodate so many teams? ISL has eight and I-League has 9-10. Hence, the new league has to be an ideal league. And for that many clubs will have to sacrifice. You just can’t help it.

So what will happen to a city like Kolkata? There is Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) which will stay. Then there is Mohun Bagan and East Bengal…

The fan-base that ATK has is mostly East Bengal, Mohammaden Sporting and Mohun Bagan fans. So if these clubs play then ATK will not have any fans. For ATK to build fans, it will take time. It will have to keep winning and then people might slowly support. That’s why you must have heard rumours about one of these clubs getting merged with ATK. Which again is very easy to say but very difficult to implement. Why should ATK accept either of these two clubs? Why would these clubs want to lose their independence and control? So to make a marriage happen will be quite difficult.

In that sense, will you be looking to encourage clubs from States that are not represented? Like Chennai?

Yeah, that’s why in the new I-League, we have applications from places like Chennai (Chennai City FC), Punjab (Minerva FC), Delhi (Sudeva FC) and Imphal (Neroca FC). These regions are not represented in the League.

“Goan clubs need introspection” – I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar

I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar expressed his disappointment in Dempo FC pulling out of the competition, and said the Goan clubs needed to do some introspection before pointing fingers at others. Dempo’s decision comes a few days after other Goan clubs —Sporting Club De Goa and Salgaocar FC — moved away from top-tier football owing to concerns with the new road-map for the game in India.

THE ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED ON SPORTSTARLIVE

“It is unfortunate that the Goan clubs are pulling out. They have contributed a lot, not just for Goan football, but for Indian football. While they are pointing fingers at others, Goan clubs also need to do some introspection on why the fans stopped coming for their matches,” said Dhar.

“Five-six years back there were a lot of fans in Goan football. Why did only 500 people turn up for Sporting’s home semi-final match against Bengaluru FC in the Federation Cup? And it’s not like Goans have stopped loving football because we have seen a huge turnout for FC Goa’s matches. You cannot say it is the impact of ISL because then it should have affected Kolkata and other parts of the country too. Yet we saw a 35% increase in stadium turn-out and a 13% increase in TV viewership for the I-League. Do you think the fans would have allowed Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or Bengaluru FC to pull-out? Maybe the Goan clubs have lost the connection with the fans. Maybe they haven’t done enough for them,” added the I-League CEO.

READ: Restructuring necessary to make clubs commercially viable – AIFF

The AIFF had met in May to decide the future of Indian football and came out with a proposal to have a three-tier League with the ISL as the premier domestic competition, while the current I-League became second division. The top-division would be relegation-free due to contractual obligations, while the other two divisions would function like a normal league with relegation and promotion.

The proposal had caused a huge uproar among the traditional Indian clubs which did not understand as to why they had to play second fiddle to ISL, especially with no promise of a promotion into the top-tier league.

“If the ISL does not get relegated and Second division gets promoted, then why not let I-League teams get promoted? Why let the teams in I-League stagnate?” said Dempo FC general secretary Wilfred D’Souza.

“We had expressed our concerns on the new roadmap of Indian football and the merger of the Leagues (Indian Super League, I-League and I-League second division) proposed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). They had promised to come out with a solution, but they still haven’t addressed the grievances of all the three clubs from Goa,” he added.

Dhar confirmed that the AIFF had not set any rules for the ‘proposed League’. “Nothing has been decided. The plans are something which we have been discussing. It’s just a proposal. We haven’t set any criteria. We wanted 12 teams to play in the top league, but we never said we are going to reject X team and accept Y team. We have always insisted that we want one league and that league should have all the top teams. So do they not consider themselves as top teams?”

Dempo’s pull-out puts the future of I-League in further doubt though with only seven clubs — East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC, DSK Shivajians, Mumbai FC, Shillong Lajong and Aizawl FC — remaining. The AIFF has invited bids for places in the League with Chennai City FC, Minerva FC and Barthez Goa interested.

The AIFF president, Praful Patel, general secretary, Kushal Das and the five vice-presidents will meet tomorrow in New Delhi to take stock of the situation.

Manchester City v Chelsea tactical preview: Wide-men hold the key

Chelsea went into the match against Tottenham having won its previous six matches in the Premier League. The Blues were undoubtedly the side in form, even though Spurs had not lost a match in the season, but the first-half of the encounter saw Mauricio Pochettino’s men command the game — a stark contrast to Chelsea’s dominating displays where it has overpowered its opponents in the first 45 minutes.

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How Manchester City might line up to counter Chelsea’s wide threat

The reason for Spurs’ successful first half was Pochettino’s brave decision to play a 4-1-4-1 formation. With Victor Wanyama sitting back and protecting the defence, midfielders Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele (playing higher up the field) bossed the central midfield, pressing the Chelsea players in their own half. Son Heung-min and Dele Alli took up wider positions and were successful in keeping Chelsea’s marauding wing-backs – Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso – largely at bay.

Read: Sterling: ‘I have more freedom under Guardiola’

For the first time since Antonio Conte had to switched to a three-in-the-back, Chelsea’s defence looked unsettled and conceded a goal — its first in 600-odd minutes. But having played in the midweek (Champions League), Tottenham ran out of the stamina required to play a high-pressing game and eventually let Chelsea claw its way back and win the match.

Importantly though, Spurs had revealed a way to dismantle the resolute Chelsea defence and through it, stifle its attack — something that would have made the tactician inside Pep Guardiola lick his lips. Even more so because it is a formation that he has already tried and tested to good effect at Manchester City.

Read: Guardiola: ‘Conte maybe the best in the world’

The Sky Blues host Chelsea at the Etihad on Saturday and coach Guardiola will be eyeing to go one over Conte — a manager who has stolen the plaudits in the first-half of the Premier League season for re-shaping a side that failed miserably in its title defencelast season. Conte reveals admiration for Guardiola philosophy

Conte’s Chelsea plays a 3-4-3 formation that uses wide men to great effect. Moses and Alonso, make up the two extra men when Chelsea attack, taking up wide positions, allowing Eden Hazard and Pedro to cut-inside and go one-on-one with the central defenders. While defending, the two players occupy a traditional full-back position, making it a five-man back-line.

Such has been the efficacy of Conte’s system that he has played the same team and won the last seven matches. Ronald Koeman and Everton tried to counter the formation by playing a 5-man defense but the London team ran riot and scored a staggering five goals in the match.

Stability leads to predictability?

But there is a chink in the Chelsea’s apparently flawless defensive armour.

While Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill are incredibly gifted defenders, they lack the ball-playing skills and composure required to pave their way through a high-pressing attack. This was perhaps best highlighted in Chelsea’s matches against Liverpool and Arsenal — two teams who pressed early and had natural pace.

Chelsea likes to build play from the back but if the defenders are pressed early, they are prone to errors. This was highlighted by the many instances Azpilicueta was robbed off the ball by Tottenham. With Son and Alli marking the wing-backs tightly, the two defenders were denied the easy way out with the pressure the defenders to play aimless balls into the midfield or conceding throws.

City has natural width and pace in Raheem Sterling, Nolito, Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas. If the wide-men can keep Moses and Alonso busy, City’s central midfielders can then have a crack at Azpilicueta and Cahill, who also lack in pace. Sergio Aguero chases down everything in and around the penalty box and the Chelsea defenders will have a handful to deal with.

The problem for Chelsea is the lack of an alternative plan. The ‘keeper can’t clear the ball because winning high-ball is solely Diego Costa’s duty, considering how weak Hazard and Pedro are in that department. If John Stones or another central defender sticks to the Spaniard, Conte’s men might struggle to initiate an attack.

Considering how low young Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek — both considerably good in the air — are in the pecking order, the easiest option for Conte would be to push Nemanja Matic slightly higher up in midfield and mirror the 4-1-4-1 formation, with N’Golo Kante playing pivot.

Read: Guardiola wary of Costa and Pedro

While the tall Serb can be an outlet for the ‘keeper, it will leave a massive hole in the midfield which the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne will exploit.

That said, the 4-1-4-1 will leave Fernandinho as the only line of protection ahead of the defenders, something the in-form trio of Hazard, Pedro and Costa will enjoy. Guardiola has used the 4-2-3-1 formation recently and has the option of playing a double-pivot of Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan. The tactics will allow more freedom to the Chelsea wingers though. But considering the Guardiola’s philosophy, he is more likely to take the attack to the opposition than try to counter.

An interesting proposition, albeit quite unheard of in football, would be for the ever-tinkering Guardiola to play a 3-2-4-1 formation.

The double pivot of Fernandinho and Gundogan will provide protection to defence and also aid in making play from the back. A three-man defence (John Stones, Alexander Kolarov and Nicholas Otamendi) will also be aided by the wide men in defence. The formation also follows Johan Cruyff’s idea of total football where the team has, while attacking or defending, at least one player more than the opponent. The tactics will also allow City’s best players to be on the field at the same time.

On paper, the flexible City side certainly has an advantage over Chelsea, which will in all-likeliness use the same set of players and the same formation it used against Tottenham last weekend . That said, when has football ever been about what’s on the paper.