Unwind: India’s basketball sensation Amjyot Singh has his eyes set on becoming an NBA regular

“It is great that the NBA is here. It is important that we train kids when they are young. They can learn and adjust their bodies than what I can do. It is very difficult for me the change my stance or the form,” explains India’s latest star to reach the NBA, Amjyot Singh Gill.

amjyot thumb for FP

He speaks like a seasoned professional. In some ways he is. His basketball career was moulded at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy under the watchful eyes of late Dr S Subramanian. He has played regularly for the Indian national team, flourishing as an all-around forward under the likes of coaches Scott Fleming and Kenny Natt, and then moved to Japan for a season, where he won the title with Tokyo Excellence.

But for the 26-year-old Chandigarh-born hoopster, currently plying his trade with NBA G-League team OKC Blue, the journey has just begun.

“The day I put on the OKC Blue jersey I felt I had come close to my mother’s dream. My mother always wanted me to be the best in any sport I take up,” he says.

To be the best in the sport he will need to cement a place with the OKC Blue and then impress an NBA Franchise enough to swoop him up.

The latest episode of Unwind features Amjyot Singh, who talks about his career so far and his dream of playing in the NBA.

You can watch the video by clicking here

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Sluggish Germany Needs to Prioritize Form Over Pedigree

Much of the commentary surrounding Germany, the defending champion, ahead of the World Cup was whether this team in transition, devoid of pillars such as ex-captains Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, could carry the mantle forward. Parallels had already been drawn before the team arrived in Russia. In Joshua Kimmich, the Die Mannschaft was sure it had found the next Lahm. Timo Werner’s Confederations Cup heroics in 2017 meant he was deemed the ideal successor to Miroslav Klose. But after the team’s first game, where it was comprehensively beaten by Mexico, the comparisons have taken a back seat as the central question became, “Is this German side good enough?”

To put things into perspective, the last time a German side lost its first match in a World Cup, the Berlin wall was still a daunting structure while other World Cup competitors Serbia and Croatia weren’t even formed. Germany in the past 30-odd years has established itself as a powerhouse, the team to beat, in international football.

“Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” – Gary Lineker ( Former England striker)

The most surprising part of the earthquake-causing victory was how Mexico beat Germany to its own game. Counter-attacking, gegen-pressing and direct football, all trademarks of the multiple Joachim Low sides, were used by the Mexicans, as the Germans stood still and allowed the men-in-green to dictate play.

Redundant formation and tactical naivety

Low opted to start the German team with a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system the Germans have been using since the 2010 World Cup, with Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller forming the trio behind Werner in an attack-minded set-up. The problem with this double-pivot formation, anchored by Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, is the space it leaves in the midfield. The 4-2-3-1 requires two players capable of handling the defensive responsibilities while also having the vision to distribute the ball across the field. The formation, which was prominent till around four years back, is no longer used by big clubs because they have struggled to find the perfect two for the job, especially when opposition teams stack up the midfield. The Kroos-Khedira (Schweinsteiger) combination was perfect till 2014, when opposition teams were also playing the same formation, but against Mexico the midfield looked thin and it might get exposed against a stronger team.

Even when the game looked like it was slipping off its hands, Low failed to make substitutions that the situation demanded, instead opting for stars. Hirving Lozano was a constant threat in the left-wing for Mexico, and Kimmich had to shoulder a mammoth amount of work with Mueller taking up a very central attacking role. Bringing young Julian Brandt or Marco Reus, both natural wide players, for Muller would have brought stability to the formation, but Low used up all his substitutions on attackers by sacrificing his midfield and defence. The formation left gaping holes in the midfield and a more clinical team would have been able to score more than the solitary goal Mexico managed.

Time for a fresh approach

While the result was catastrophic, Germany is still a favourite to progress from the group. But coach Low will have tough decisions to make for the desired result. The centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng looked solid but the central midfield will need tweaking. Ilkay Gundogan offers creativity, Niklas Sule has raw strength, and Sebastian Rudy has experience as a box-to-box player. Adding any of the three into the midfield will add steel to the midfield and free Khedira of his running duties.

Similarly, with Timo Werner in form, Low might have to sacrifice the experienced Mueller for a player who can play in the flanks and offer width to the German side. Leroy Sane was surprisingly omitted from the squad because Low believed he had enough players for the position. One among Reus, Draxler and Brandt should feature in the playing XI, especially if Germany fails to break down the opposition in the first half against Sweden.

The team against Mexico also lacked the desire you often associate with a German team in an international tournament. It was Dutch legend Johan Cryuff who said you aren’t 100% once you’ve won something — like a “bottle of carbonated water where the cap is removed for a short while.” Germany lacked that fizz on the pitch and the only way it can prevent the ‘curse of defending champion getting knocked out in the first round’ (both Italy and Spain were knocked out in tournaments that followed their World Cup victories) is to up the tempo and deploy players in form.

The young German team that won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia had that desire in them and Low will be required to use some of these players to reinvent a squad that does not look motivated for the task. The tournament is a make-or-break event for many in the German squad including Low. If the squad fails, expect a complete overhaul and another rebuilding campaign, similar to what followed the Euro 2000 campaign. That said, the task is too hard for Low who has a side filled with world-class stars, provided he is willing to take a gamble or two. Even the odds aren’t against the Germans — the last time they lost an opening match in the World Cup, they went on to reach the finals.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Time ripe for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to make history in Russia

“The time isn’t in one, two or four years. I think now is the moment to be together and do something great,” stressed Eden Hazard, Belgium football team captain, to the press who had gathered, ahead of his team’s friendly against Costa Rica. The purpose was clear – a rallying call for his troops to embrace themselves for what is undoubtedly a make-or-break tournament for the much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of Belgium footballers.

This article first appeared on Firstpost

Hazard, a symbol part of this ball-playing, intelligent football generation, probably understands the importance of the event as much as anyone else. A team, however good it might be, will only be remembered for the trophies it wins. History is full of examples. Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands 1974 World Cup team or Roberto Baggio’s 1994 Italian team were arguably better than the Dutch or the Italian team that tasted international success. Yet it is the latter people remember.

The ‘this is Belgium’s tournament’ rhetoric has been floating around for over four years now. The Belgium Red Devils was an outside favourite to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were knocked out in the quarters by a Messi-inspired Argentina. At the 2016 Euro, a more experienced side, was expected to do better. But things didn’t improve, as a directionless Belgium were knocked out by a far inferior, yet highly motivated Wales.

So the time is clearly now for the Red Devils. The core of the team have already played in two major international tournaments are arguably in the peak of their career. According to research, the best age to play in a World Cup is 27.5; the average age of the Belgium team for the World Cup is 27.6, and is one of the most experienced side at the World Cup.

 

Belgium had a flawless qualification campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H with the likes of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar offering very little threat. The team scored 43 goals in the campaign with Lukaku leading the way with 11.

The relative easiness of the campaign meant coach Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots, and his coaching staff had ample time to test out a three-man defence formation. The Red Devils have stuck with the formation till date but questions still persist on its effectiveness against a strong side.

The rationale behind the switch from a four-man defence would be Belgium’s lack of a genuine left-back – Jordan Lukaku is still developing and not seen as an option by the manager. The formation allows Martinez to field the trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany, along with wing-backs, thereby ensuring defensive stability.

The formation unfortunately puts a lot of pressure on the central midfielders, especially in terms of helping out in defence, so whoever might partner de Bruyne in the centre will have a large role to play.

Part of Wilmots’ fault was his inability to out-think his opposition managers even with a better set of players in his ranks. Martinez’s Belgium have not been tested against major opponents yet and his decision to stick to a three-man defence might come into question if they struggle.

With Kompany still nursing an injury it won’t be a surprise if Belgium switches to a 4-3-3 for the World Cup though. While the team might not have played it under Martinez, it is a system that is widely popular amongst youth teams in Belgium. Academies and junior teams were asked to adopt the system as a part of a football revolution under Michel Sablon which is often credited as the reason behind Belgium’s phenomenal growth as a footballing powerhouse.

Cohesion the key

Having a set of good quality players is one thing, winning a title is a totally another. Ask England side who had like the likes David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen playing for it. Team unity and cohesion will be the key for Belgium if they are to challenge for a title come mid-July. If the superstars in the team can click, then Belgium would be a force to reckon with.

But in a squad with so many big names and egos, finding the right balance is hard task. Martinez claimed the ommission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad was purely tactical but it is widely accepted that decision was taken with team unity in mind. The Roma midfielder is a great asset for any team but Martinez believed keeping him in the substitute bench could back fire.

Premier League stars v England football team

Belgium are a part of Group G which also features England, Tunisia and Panama. England are likely to be Red Devils’ major challengers but working to Belgium’s advantage will be their players’ familiarity playing with/against the English opposition.

11 players of the 23-man Belgium squad ply their trade in the English Premier League which would make the match against England interesting in multiple levels. England have a very young, attacking side, spearheaded by Harry Kane, and will pose a threat to the ageing Red Devil backline. But Belgium have enough star power to top their group and proceed to the knockout stages.

But a mere entry to the knockout phases will not quench the thirst of the multitudes of fans waiting for the Red Devils’ entrance into the history books. Nothing short of silverware will suffice for Belgium’s golden generation.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).

Why Belgium will miss Radja Nainggolan’s versatility in Russia

Radja Nainggolan is the stereotypical modern-day football player. He speaks his mind, is covered in tattoos, flaunts a ‘mohawk’, and has been involved in a controversy or two. A player who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in, be it regarding his position in the Belgium national team or turning down lucrative offers from the English Premier League for the lovely ‘sunny weather in Rome.’

This piece was first published in Firstpost

On the pitch he is equally animated; a beast who roams from box to box waiting to pounce on any opportunity the opposition team offers him – a quality that has seen him become a indispensable member of a Roma squad that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League this year. Yet, of all the above mentioned details, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez chose to see one – his affinity for controversies – when he omitted the midfielder from the Belgium squad for Russia 2018.

“I don’t think Radja is a player to be used in a small role in any group,” said Martinez. “We all know he has a very important role at club level and I don’t feel that we can give him that.” A clear indication that Martinez didn’t see Nainggolan starting for the Red Devils in the World Cup.

File image of Radja Nainggolan. Reuters

The World Cup Qualifications had seen Nainggolan’s role in the team diminishing. He made just two appearances in qualifying and has never been truly accepted in the international fold since Martinez’s appointment as manager in 2016. The final nail in the coffin came when the Roma midfielder posted a video of him drinking and smoking during a New Year’s party, which caused a public outrage.

The manager is right to omit a player who could disrupt the team spirit as it comes with a risk of losing squad depth in what is arguably the most important tournament for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’.

In the provisional 28-member squad selected, Martinez has named five central midfielders: Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Maroune Fellaini, Monaco’s Youri Tielemans, former Zenit Petersburg star Alex Witsel and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele.

While all are capable midfield marshalls, capable of thwarting attacks that come their way, it is clear that the creative duties will largely be headed by De Bruyne, who has had a stellar league campaign. But the City midfielder has already made 54 appearances for his club and country this season, making him prone to injuries.

Young Tielemans, who struggled to establish himself in his first season at Monaco, is the only player who can deputise for De Bruyne in the team. Which is where the decision to leave out Nainggolan becomes a little difficult to comprehend because, unlike a France team that can cope with with absence of Karim Benzema due to the abundance of quality striking options available, Belgium is short of quality central midfielders in the mould of the Roma midfielder.

Nainggolan was a star for Roma this season. He played a more advanced role for the Italian club, taking up the role of a No 10. While he might not have impressed as much as De Bruyne did as central midfield playmaker, he offered a different set of skills, cutting out the influence of deep-lying midfielders by pressing them incessantly. Not to forget his ability to strike goals from distance.

A midfielder for all formations

Belgium are likely to play either the 3-4-3 formation, which they relied on during the qualification stages, or a more defensively resolute 3-5-2. Both rely heavily on de Bruyne pulling the strings from the midfield and therefore raises questions on the lack of a proper deputy.

The 3-4-3 is Martinez’s favoured structure with two among Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Nicer Chadli donning the roles of wing-backs. KDB takes up one of the central midfield roles while the other vacant spot in the midfield is usually assigned to one among Witsel, Fellaini and Dembele.

Barring de Bruyne, there is a shortage of creativity in the midfield options available for Martinez, especially considering the below-average season Tielemans has had. Nainggolan offers a balance which no other midfielder in the squad offers.

The 3-4-3 worked to great effect in the record-setting qualification campaign but Belgium hardly had quality opposition in the group, with the likes of Greece, Gibraltar, Estonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina offering very little in attack. The formation though can be exploited by top sides, especially if one of the central midfielder is an advanced playmaker. Chelsea, who play 3-4-3 in the Premier League, struggled this season against high-pressing teams with the central-midfield pairing of Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante for this very reason, and Belgium will be vary of exposing their central midfielders to direct pressure.

They played a 3-5-2 against Mexico in a recent friendly, perhaps a sign of things to come in the World Cup. In both formations, a more defensively sound Nainggolan offers a good alternative to de Bruyne in central midfield, especially if the latter is having a bad day or being used in a more advanced role. In a 3-5-2, both the players could have started behind an attacking pair of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. That would have provided plenty of balance to the Red Devils’ midfield.

Antonio Conte, who brought back the three-man defence back in fashion with his success at Chelsea, pursued Nainggolan’s signature in both his seasons at Chelsea – a testimony to the Belgian’s suitability to the role.

But say what we may, Nainggolan will not be travelling with the Red Devils to Russia, and announced his retirement from the national team through an emotional post on Instagram. For a 30-year-old footballer who wears his heart on his sleeves, a rejection from football’s grandest stage was just too hard to deal with.

As for Martinez, the test begins now, having made a call that could come back to haunt him if the Belgium team fails to deliver in the World Cup.