Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The latest building block in Pochettino's Tottenham empire

Character. That was the buzz word when Tottenham's season fell apart at the end of last season. Well, now it's back at the forefront of the Spurs vocabulary but for entirely different reasons. 

In May, we were questioned for failing to end our 26-year Stamford Bridge hoodoo and for letting Arsenal nip ahead of us once again on the final day.

This season the big fear was that, despite Spurs' new-found reputation as the stylish troubadours of English football, those nagging old habits might continue to die hard. 

But with Saturday's thrashing of West Brom - a team we had not beaten at home since 2012 - it seems this squad are facing up to the shortfalls of the previous campaign and hitting them head on. 

Not just hitting them, but bludgeoning them. 

Southampton, Chelsea, West Brom. Each week seems like a new opportunity to right the wrongs of last spring and each week these guys are coming up trumps.

Records are mounting, hoodoos are lifting and, truth be told, I really don't know what to do with myself.

That's six wins on the bounce in the league that have seen 19 goals scored, just three conceded.

Of course, as we all know, these runs do not last forever and don't necessarily tell us much. Looking back to October 2011, Shola Ameobi's last-gasp equaliser for Newcastle slaps an ugly D (for draw) right in the middle of what would have been a massive ten-game winning run. Still, by the end of that season we were only fourth.

You just get the feeling these players are learning from mistakes and developing that "character" needed to really challenge.

Dele Alli missed last season's run-in after lashing out at Claudio Yacob, you could have forgiven him for wanting revenge when we faced the Baggies this time round. Instead he got his own back with a stand-out performance and a terrific assist to lay on Harry Kane's hat-trick finish.

Mousa Dembele lost his head against Chelsea in the Battle of the Bridge, gouging Diego Costa's eye (who wouldn't?), but this time round he kept his thumbnails to himself and even stayed out of the ref's book.

Heung-Min Son came close to leaving over summer after struggling to settle during his first year - but having got his head down he has now already matched last season's tally of eight goals.

Throughout the squad individuals are winning personal battles and showing progress in matters that maybe let them down last season. And you have to give the manager credit for that. 

Mauricio Pochettino showed his own character in encouraging a squad to bounce back from May's capitulation in the run-in.

Although he hardly nursed his players through the tough times. He did quite the opposite, in fact, laying the players wide open to criticism and challenging them to prove their worth.

In August he revealed he was "ready to kill" them for losing 5-1 to Newcastle on the final day. Poch has never been scared to reignite the title talk and in September he even compared 18-year-old (then 17) Marcus Edwards to Lionel Messi.

Pochettino is only too happy to apply the pressure to these players because he needs to know they can take it. He is building a squad that has to win home games regularly at Wembley next season, and must hit the ground running in a brand new 60,000 seater stadium. 

The gaffer is eyeing the top and he is not messing about. You only have to look at Ryan Mason and more latterly Tom Carroll to see that, while Pochettino is determined to show faith in young homegrown players, but he will also admit when it isn't working and move forward.

His patience clearly does have limits. Hopefully his character does not.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Spurs' biggest attendance proves their biggest problem at Wembley

Walking away from Wembley Stadium on Wednesday night, I felt I was beginning to understand the challenges Tottenham face in making the national stadium feel like home.

Controlling the game on a bigger pitch, keeping 85,000 home fans on side, not letting Arsenal's experience play on our minds etc.

But it turns out I was yet to encounter the biggest obstacle of all. Getting home. 

On the way down the ramp towards Olympic Way, big steps turned to little steps, then to pigeon steps, until finally we ground to a halt.

I looked up from texting my missus - finally enjoying some signal - to see I was near the back of a 40,000-plus queue for Wembley Park tube.

Suddenly I was not going to be home in the hour and a half I thought. And I began to sympathise with those supporters flocking towards the exits before full-time.

Initially, when fans started filing out on 85 minutes, after Harry Kane missed a gilt-edged chance to level the score, I was fuming. How can the players be expected to fight tooth and nail for one vital goal while the place is emptying out? Not real fans, I thought.

Now, faced with a sea of stationary heads, I understood. Wembley is a totally different beast. I had stayed to applaud the players because I had paid for a ticket and I think it's the right think to do win, lose or draw. Or I do usually. 

But it took me an hour and 40 minutes between full-time and getting on a tube at 11.10pm. I was going to South London, others I spoke to were going to Brighton, Coventry and Ipswich. I have no idea if they got home. 

Still, I have since read untold numbers of comments on Twitter where people have hammered those who left early… “pathethic", “disloyal”, “plastic fans”. Hurtful comments have progressed to arguments, others have waded in, and gradually you see chasms emerge between the differing factions in a crowd of 85,000. 

This is not the way to settle in at Wembley. Yes, if you have no care other than the club you support, it is right to stay until the end and stick by the team regardless - but accept other people’s situations.

When you have other priorities waiting, relying, on you - kids, pets, sick relatives, an early start for work or even a car parked somewhere you don't entirely trust - then waiting an extra 90 minutes paints the situation in a new light. 

Especially when the spectacle you came for was only 90 minutes anyway. 

From what I gather there were a few casualties in the queue but on the whole the authorities did a great job moving fans safely towards the tube station, it just takes a long time to clear that many people, so the situation is not going to change dramatically in the coming weeks.

And that means fans, real fans, who have their own priorities in life and have probably thought long and hard about making a difficult decision, will still be leaving before the final whistle. Next time round, with people knowing the travel situation, you may find that thousands more even look to make a sharp getaway.

But faced with the choice of people leaving early, or not being there at all, I would far prefer they came to support Tottenham Hotspur for 85 minutes, making sure this incredible arena is full at the start and the atmosphere electric for as long as possible.

Wembley might not have brought the right result but the experience as a whole was unforgettable. Walking up the gangway steps into a packed house of 85,000 roaring on your club is a privilege that very few get to enjoy - but petty squabbles, backbiting and turning on each other is a surefire way to spoil it. 

Of course, if there is a lesson the players themselves can take from this, it’s to take their chances and make sure the game is won long before people’s minds turn to getting home.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Euro 2016 final is clash of the sub-plots

The final of Euro 2016 will be a clash of the sub-plots - one a personal quest for ultimate glory, the other a seemingly unstoppable tide of public emotion.

France has been through a hell of a lot these past 18 months as terrorist atrocities have plunged the nation into doubt and insecurity. 

Just the fact the finals even went ahead, in the wake of November's horrific attacks, is a victory for human spirit over evil and fear.

You wondered at one stage how on earth the authorities could possibly ensure the safety of the millions of fans, players, tourists arriving for the tournament. 

Now France's story takes them back to the Stade de France on Sunday - where eight months ago the sound of two blasts sent football to the bottom of the priority list and chilled everyone inside to the core.

It is not right to go into the details - too many have lost those close to them to even do them justice.

Winning the European Championships will not make up for anything, it will not heal anything and it will not change anything. 

But it will put a smile back on the faces of a people who need it, and a people who have been so inspirational in the face of adversity that, frankly, they deserve it.

Standing between France and their third major title in 18 years are latter-stage regulars Portugal and one-man hall of fame Cristiano Ronaldo.

The skipper is the very embodiment of the notion of "self". Ronaldo courts the limelight, driven by glory, fuelled by records and guzzling up individual honours like a blue whale on plankton.

Yet there is still a hole in Ronaldo's trophy cabinet for international silverware.

His tears as hosts Portugal lost to Greece in their 2004 final left us thinking, "Well, his time will come." 

But after coming third in 2012 - losing a semi-final to eventual champions Spain - and reaching the semis in the 2006 World Cup - it was starting to look like Ronaldo's time on the international stage would never come.

Especially when his missed penalty against Austria left Portugal staring at a first-round Euro 2016 exit last month, only to eventually sneak through as a best third-place team.

It was plain and simple for all of us to see, Portugal were not good enough.

The steely determination of their usually ice-cool captain looked like it was beginning to give way to personal desperation but vitally they kept plugging away. 

Ronaldo has featured in Portugal's run to the final but has not been key. Unlike the opening games, they are no longer looking for him as their only outlet, with new starlet Renato Sanches coming to the fore.

Still, his desire is there for all to see. In the battle of the Galacticos against Gareth Bale's Wales in the semi-final, he just had to come out on top - he never would have forgiven himself.

And his header, which floored the gallant Dragons just after the break - a majestic leap and bullet connection high into the net - was proof that when Ronaldo wants something enough he can pretty much summon superhuman powers to do it.

After all, you don't score 260 goals for Real Madrid without having a ruthless streak and without being somewhat selfish.

But is Ronaldo's icy exterior beginning to thaw? After the semi-final, he described himself as "humble".

Not many would agree but you do get the feeling that he wants to be liked as well as looked at. 

And if the cold-blooded goal-scoring machine does stop to think about the backdrop against which France have arrived at the final, then it will certainly test his resolve. 

Overcoming the hearts and minds of a nation, even a continent, is surely Ronaldo's biggest challenge yet. 

Although failing might just prove that he is human once and for all.

Follow @Taxi_For_Maicon on Twitter

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Bale and Wales give Euro 2016 some much-needed sparkle

Each night the Eiffel Tower wows fans with spectacular light shows to round off the evening - now Wales have illuminated Euro 2016 all on their own. 

The famous landmark has been beaming out the colours of the day's big winners but, on the pitch at least, the latter stages of the tournament were in desperate need of some magic. 

That is until Chris Coleman's Dragons delivered not just an upset but an earthquake of continental proportions.

It is impressive enough a feat that this competition even went ahead, given the security fears and the likelihood of terrorism. 

The protection of the public - bar a few unsavoury hooligan incidents in the opening week - had been the overriding success story in France.

But Wales have changed all that and brought the spotlight firmly back to footballing matters. 

Against a backdrop of Iceland's win over England and Northern Ireland's shock progression to the knockouts, The little home nation have now ensured Euro 2016 will be remembered as the year of the underdog. 

Everyone howled and derided the decision to expand the tournament to 24 teams for this summer.

Critics claimed that it diluted the quality of a competition already dragged down by its qualifying process, which at times feels like wading through treacle.  But the success of a host of minnows has proved that you do not need a team full of superstars to succeed at international level.

Team? Yes. Superstars? No. 

Wales may have Gareth Bale but that was heavily outweighed against a Belgium squad chock full of world-class talent and ranked No 2 in the world.

Still, they stood toe to toe and came out on top. Well on top. 

Swansea's Ashley Williams dragged them level before Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes won it. 

Both of them plied their trade in the Championship last season but you never would have guessed it given the quality of their goals. 

Wales' motto for the whole tournament has been "Together, stronger" and the manner of the 3-1 victory over Belgium not only proved they are far more than a one-man team, but that Coleman's side are real contenders for this tournament.

They are upwardly mobile and by the time the festivities in France are over they may have shed their underdog tag altogether.

Wednesday's semi-final against Portugal now has a glamorous sub-plot: Gareth Bale v Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the battle of the Galacticos the two protagonists could not be more different.

Laid-back, light-hearted Bale, a unifying force in a team now oozing with confidence and scared of nobody.

Versus the intense and brooding Ronaldo: looking evermore gaunt and desperate, driven to distraction knowing this tournament might be his last-chance saloon for international silverware. 

Regardless of the ins and outs, it shows how far Wales have come in a few weeks. From Battle of Britain to world-renowned glamour tie, second only in stature to Ronaldo v Messi.

Wales fans will argue that matchup would pale into insignificance put next to their boys reaching the Paris final on July 10.

Few would now bet against their colours lighting up the Eiffel Tower again next Sunday.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

All aboard the England merry-go-round

And so, yet another England inquest begins. 

Same old media circus, same old grand gestures and, no doubt, the same old empty promises. 

We'll be told that the Premier League is to blame for shrinking the talent pool, that we need a winter break and we need to invest at grassroots level.

It's all excuses. 

The grassroots excuse is just to buy time, so that the incompetent buffoons at the FA are well out of it by the time the shit hits the fan - again. 

The problems are much more immediate than that.

There's nothing wrong with the talent available and this England team should be capable of reaching the latter stages. End of.

Confidence, attitude and complete mismanagement are the issues and all the way through Hodgson created more problems than he solved.

Why take a host of injured, unfit or out-of-form players to France in the first place?

Why move Rooney into midfield when he has never played there?

Why rest six players for the Slovakia game? That hardly paid off against Iceland did it.

Hodgson took it upon himself to do the FA's dirty work by quitting after England's toothless 2-1 defeat to Iceland. 

And it's true to type because he's been hammering nails into his own coffin since day one. 

Remember 2012 when he told a train carriage of fans that Rio Ferdinand's international career was over - without first discussing it with the defender?

Remember 2013 when he made an ill-advised team talk about feeding the monkey in reference to Andros Townsend?

Remember two weeks ago when his late defensive substitution cost us a win over Russia?

It's a shame because he's an honest guy and a nice guy but he was just never cut out for the England job.

His turgid, possession-based, stats-obsessed football showed no potency, no cutting edge and always struggled to break teams down.

His decision-making left us all scratching our heads as he persisted with injured, out-of-form players and never knew his best team.

In the build up to euro 2016, Hodgson's England camp were terrified of spies watching their training sessions.

They felt that when they had played their World Cup opener in Brazil 2014, that Italy already knew all their set-piece routines.

Was it not possible that there was just no creativity in England's tactics - and that any training-ground moves were so dull, so obvious, that Italy just dealt with them?

Let's face it, our only set-piece this tournament was for Harry Kane to smash them into the crowd.

But Roy is not solely to blame for the depths  the England national team has plumbed. 

The sooner the FA realise that they are responsible for a succession of poor decisions over managers, the better.

Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson all arrived for different reasons - "we need an Englishman/we need the best around/we need international experience" but none of them had an ounce of charisma between them. 

Even Sven Goran Eriksson failed to get our golden generation past the last eight - but at least his three quarter-finals were against big teams (Brazil and Portugal) and we gave them a good game. 

Now we can't even give Iceland a good game.  

Credit where it's due, the Nordic side were terrific. Tight, organised, efficient and fully deserving of their quarter-final spot.

But this England side are much better than what we saw on Monday night. This Three Lions squad are, player for player, one of the most talented in decades.

And it should not take extra investment or more patience until Russia 2018 or Euro 2020 to see it come together because, under the right manager, it will click pretty quickly.

Under the right manager, these players can compete - and maybe even win something.

Yet the chances of the FA picking the right man for the job are almost non-existent. 

And if that's the case, then we'll have to stomach this nonsensical merry-go-round for generations to come.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Ultimate glory slipping away from Ronaldo

Has Cristiano Ronaldo's insatiable ego blown his chance of tournament glory?

It is impossible to deny he is one of the best players in the world right now, if not ever.

And he has certainly come close - runner-up at Euro 2004 and semi-finals at 2012 - not to mention the last four of the 2006 World Cup.

But as his late penalty against Austria - to seal three points and a knockout slot - whacked the post and bounced away, you could not help feel it is all slipping away from him. 

And you would have struggled to find anyone to sympathise.

It says everything that a man who holds scoring records by the bucketload planted his head in his hands and looked totally, totally alone.

Built like a brick outhouse, with slick hair and a bronze perma-tan, the man with the impenetrable ego suddenly looked at breaking point. 

His cocksure arrogance and bravado may have given him the platform to steamroller scoring charts all over Europe and rewrite the record books.

But his "me, me, me" attitude is not a recipe for success in international football.

Look at some of the sides to win the Euros down the years... Holland 1988, Denmark 1992, Greece 2004, Spain 2008 & 2012. 

Some have had big individual stars, some have not - but the thing they all have in common is a solid team ethic that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. 

England's golden generation had a team full of stars: Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry etc

But they always lacked an overall identity and never came close to international glory.

The same is happening now with Belgium's current crop of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Alex Witsel. 

Lots of great individuals that seem destined never to realise their potential as a unit. 

When you have an all-time great in your team, it is expected that the team is built around them. 

Argentina with Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, Brazil with Pele and Holland with Johan Cruyff.

But the Portuguese tactics are not so much built around Ronaldo, as reliant on him. 

They push the ball to him and see what he can do. If he loses it, he blames someone else, if someone else loses it, he erupts. 

For a national captain, the 31-year-old does not so much inspire his team-mates as scare the living daylights out of them.

If a team can stop Ronaldo, they can stop Portugal.

And when it goes wrong, once again he's the centre of attention.

In their opening 1-1 draw with Iceland, the Real Madrid ace had to have a whinge that the Scandinavians celebrated a draw. 

They had every right to celebrate - nobody gave them any hope. 

But to Ronaldo, winning is everything. 

This is a man who is so determined to take the glory that he always wants last penalty - that backfired in 2012, as Portugal lost their semi-final shootout to Spain before their best penalty taker even stepped up.

This is a man who stands on tip toes in team photos just to appear taller than the others.

Portugal are not without their quality... Joao Moutinho, William Carvalho, Fabio Coentrao, Nani.

But in Ronaldo they have someone who saps the team of enthusiasm and creativity, such is his own desire to be the hero. 

Messi, his rival at the top of world football, happily shares the ball, the plaudits and the glory with team-mates.

Ronaldo's desperate quest for personal glory gives him no inclination to share anything and is one reason Portugal are on the brink of crashing out of Euro 2016.

It is also the reason Ronaldo’s international trophy cabinet looks set to remain empty.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Hodgson's tactical mystery tour

What a difference an attacking substitution makes, eh Roy?

England survived a bump in the road to see off Wales and Hodgson learned a precious lesson in positivity.

When Daniel Sturridge poked home the 93nd-minute winner, it took the Three Lions boss as much by surprise as the rest of us.

He leapt out of the dugout, wide-eyed and arms aloft, realising seconds later he did not have a clue how to celebrate it.

The puzzled look on his face said: "Can it really be? This attacking lark really works."

Yes Roy, it does. And what’s more players, fans, media and, well, everyone enjoys it a lot more.

With the Three Lions 1-0 down at half-time to Gareth Bale's tame long-range free-kick the fans could not help but fear the worst.

As the England players trudged in at the break, pundits and commentators called for a "big team talk" from Roy.

Nobody really believed he had it in him.

This was, after all, the man who brought three of his "old faves" to France who have barely played all season due to injury.

This was the man who replaced Raheem Sterling with James Milner at 1-0 up against a dreadful Russia side - when it was crying out for Jamie Vardy – only to see us concede at the death.

Never in their history had England overturned a half-time deficit to win a major tournament match. That's a ridiculous stat.

None of us were sure Roy was really the man to break that incredible run.

With the nation crying out for him to send on a striker, we all debated “Will he do it? And should it be Sturridge? Should it be Vardy? 

The players emerged for the second half and there was Sturridge - followed by Vardy.

Harry Kane and Sterling off. Finally some ruthlessness.

To England fans, this was not just a substitution, it was an unprecedented statement of intent: “This game is not done yet."

And he did not stop there – fearless 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford followed later as Hodgson really tore up his textbook.

Roy’s attacking changes may have raised the tempo but they also raised the spirit of England the fans and the hopes of the nation. 

Suddenly Wales were on the back foot, defending in their own box rather than the half way line and starting to make mistakes as the Three Lions prowled the final third.

As soon as Vardy grabbed his opportunistic leveller on 56 minutes, the psychological battle - started by Bale earlier in the week - was won. 

Chris Coleman’s Dragons no longer felt like plucky underdogs landing blows on a fancied opponent. Now they were the hunted, sitting deeper and deeper as they desperately looked to hold on for a point.

In truth, they showed England far too much respect. Attacking substitutions had not turned Wayne Rooney and Co into a footballing force in the space of half-time.

England still struggled to carve out clear chances, were still wasting final ball after final ball and still have a suspect defence.

This 24-team tournament has been swelled by second-rate European sides, whose only option to survive is to defend like their lives depend on it.

Wales need not stoop to that level. They can mix it as an attacking force too. But, what the game in Lens proved was that without the belief they come unstuck.

Fingers crossed they find it again and they can test themselves in the knockout stage. The more home nations who progress, the better.

Careful, considered Hodgson has never had a reputation for rolling the dice. But, to all our shock and surprise, roll them he did.

And he didn't just roll them, he launched them bouncing and tumbling across the table, smashing glasses along the way.

Let’s hope he does the same against Slovakia on Monday and into the latter stages. 

But let’s hope, if it works out, then next time he knows how to celebrate.