Sunday, June 28, 2009

Brazilian blowback ends American dream

FIFA Confederations Cup Final, Johannesburg

USA - Dempsey 10'
USA - Donovan 27'
BRA- Luis Fabiano 46'
BRA- Luis Fabiano 74'
BRA- Lucio 84'

Brazil retained the Confederations Cup after a real game of two halves at Ellis Park saw the United States take a shock 2-0 lead before succumbing to a Brazilian tempest in the second half to lose 3-2.

FIFA Confederations Cup Final, Johannesburg


Friday, June 26, 2009

The strange case of Psycho & Theo

The strange case of Psycho & Theo.
Theo Walcott

Any coach who can afford to leave Theo Walcott out of his team is a lucky one.

But when that team is the England U21s and Walcott has started the last two games for the National Team, the manager opens himself up to scrutiny. Is the team really that good? Or is there another reason?

Predictably, journalists have latched onto Pearce's sporadic use of his best player as a story to run with and them to interrogate him on at every opportunity. Pearce denies any exceptionalism at every turn, but the hacks are still baffled.

Is the FA trying to keep the big clubs on board by tacitly acquiescing to Arsene Wenger’s request that Walcott should not travel to Sweden? Is Pearce trying to prove to others, or even to himself, that star names cannot be allowed to outshine the team’s identity? Or is he secretly playing games with his opponents by naming unexpected lineups only to unleash his talisman as an impact substitute?


In the Driver's seat

Soccerphile Exclusive: England u21 revelation Andrew Driver

Andrew Driver.
Andrew Driver

Andrew Driver is not exactly a name on many fans' lips, but after a stellar debut for the England u21 side against Germany on Monday, expect to hear more of this young talent soon.

The 21 year-old from Lancashire, who plays his football north of the border with Heart of Midlothian, was a sensation on the right-wing, storming up the flanks and leading the Germans a merry dance with his penetrative runs, until coach Stuart Pearce decided to rest his ace after 71 minutes' of a more than satisfactory debut.

"Obviously it was a dream to get my first cap," Driver told Soccerphile. "It was the first massive game for me, and one of the biggest of my career. I really enjoyed it," he went on, "and am really pleased with how it went. I wanted to get the ball at every opportunity and it is good when you are in that mood."

Watching Driver lead the line against Germany so confidently, it was eye-opening to think it really was his first game for his country at any level.

Of course, England had taken notice already, as had Burnley and Coventry, who had both been rebuffed in efforts to sign the precocious midfielder, the Sky Blues offering one million pounds back in January's transfer window.

Driver in action
Edinburgh might not be the most usual port of call for English u21s, but Driver has lived in the Scottish capital since nine years ago when his father took the family north of the border for work.

Joining the Tynecastle youth system, the young Englishman worked his way through the ranks until he made his first-team debut for the Jambos in a pre-season tour of Austria in 2006.

Driver speaks with Lancastrian vowels and a hint of that county's unmistakable burr, but confesses it is all a bit of a ruse to hide his subsequently-acquired Scottish accent.

"I just sound English because I have been with English people here for a while!," he joked. "When I arrived all the boys said I sounded Scottish. I have been taking quite a bit of stick as you can imagine. I just say a few words and get slagged!"

And joining a team including some household names with World Cup and Champions League experience was not easy.

"It was really nerve-racking the first time I entered the England dressing-room not knowing everyone," he admitted, "because these guys are at the top of their game. I have never played against them and have never been near them so they would not know who I am. But the boys have made it really easy and I feel like I have settled in quite well. Football is football when you are out on the pitch and everyone is the same."

Overlooked for the first two games in Sweden, Driver is pressing for inclusion against the hosts in the semi-final, but his lack of caps will count against him making the starting eleven.

"There are boys in the squad who are very experienced," he said.

"In my position you have Milner and Walcott in my position and Johnno (Adam Johnson) on the left so obviously I am just happy I went out and showed everything I could and put myself in the mix. It is a team game so if I am not selected I will just be happy to support the team. It is a massive tournament for us and however the manager decides to win it I will be very happy to go along with him. Stuart has been very supportive of me and the training has been brilliant. He is brilliant with the players."

Win or lose in Gothenburg tonight, Driver will not forget the first time he played for his country, and this is surely not the last time we will have heard of him either.

"For me the experience is something I have never done before. This is my first international squad outing. I have not always been the best traveler in the past but I have really enjoyed this trip. I just hope to take as much from it as possible and I am enjoying doing that."

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Semi-final day in Sweden

Semi-final day in Sweden

Semi-final day in Sweden.
It's do or die now as the UEFA U21 enters its semi-final stage.

Germany tackle the Italians in Helsingborg while a tasty clash is on the menu in Gothenburg, where a sell-out crowd is expected for Sweden v England.

A united Germany has yet to reach the finals while Italy have featured in five of the last nine u21 finals, winning four of them.

Sweden will be hoping to maintain the momentum which saw them win a bruising battle (the referee flashed two red and ten yellow cards) against the highly-rated Serbs 3-1 in their final group game. The crowd in Malmo was almost 20,000, raising hopes that the New Gamla Ullevi in Gothenburg, with its 18,800 seats, will be the first venue in the competition to witness a sell -out.

England must beware the telepathic Dutch-based striking duo of Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, who have bagged seven goals in three games, but England's aces look more than capable of eliminating the hosts.

u21 tournament
Stuart Pearce witnessed his B-team, with ten changes from the eleven who had beaten Spain, outplay Germany's first team in Halmstad and fight to a 1-1 finish to qualify as group winners.

"Other than they goal they snatched we had the game in control and were comfortable that whole match," England right-winger Andrew Driver told Soccerphile.

"We came to this tournament with a strong 23 and I think we showed tonight that no-one will disappoint. The boys are very confident. You have to take every game as it comes obviously and take that momentum into the next game but we are brimming with confidence."

"The team has done really well and we have shown that there is a lot of depth in the squad." Chelsea's England centre-back Michael Mancienne told Soccerphile.

Mancienne was sent off in England's opener against Finland but after serving his one-game suspension and playing 90 minutes against Germany, he is now relishing the showdown with the Swedes.

"The momentum is good and we are looking forward to the game," he said. "It has been a really good camp for us. All the boys are really close. Having been a great defender, Stuart Pearce gives me a lot of good advice so he has been really great to work under too.

Obviously Sweden are the home nation but they are all tough teams from now on."

The final is in Malmo on Monday.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sir Alex turns to Latin America for the next Ronaldo

Sir Alex turns to Latin America

With Cristiano Ronaldo off to join the new galáctico era at Real Madrid leaving Sir Alex Ferguson with £80 million burning a hole in his pocket here is a selection of South American starlets who could fill the vacant number seven shirt at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex turns to Latin America

Despite assuring Nani that he has a future at the club, having Serbian Zoran Tosic in the wings as well as pursuing Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema do not be surprised if one or more of the names below show up in a Manchester United shirt sooner rather than later.

In fact with the money raised by the sale of Ronaldo alone Fergie could bring all four of the Latin wing wizards he is linked with and still have enough left over for a sizable punt on the nags.
So let's have a look over the runners and riders…

Name: Alexis Sanchez
Age: 20
Nationality: Chilean
Current Club: Udinese
International Record: 22 caps, 7 goals
Possible Cost: £30 million

Both Udinese and Chile have benefitted this season as Alexis Sanchez continues to polish up his act and produce the goods on the pitch.

El Niño Maravilla has grabbed his chance in Italy by making 32 appearances for Udinese this term and his performances for Chile, including a brace last time out against Bolivia, have fired his nation to within touching distance of the World Cup.

Despite Udinese’s president Sergio Gasparin issuing a hands off warning to Manchester United speculation is still rife that Alexis Sanchez will be swapping Stadio Friuli for Old Trafford in time for next season.

Gasparin is obviously keen to be seen as protecting his prize asset and has turned to the press to voice his concerns about Sanchez even though the player himself has stated he would love to play for Manchester United one day.

“Alexis Sanchez is not for sale,” Gasparin told the Italian press. “From a technical standpoint, this player means a lot to us.”
“He has a four-year contract with Udinese and there is no contact with Manchester United,” bluntly added the club’s president. “We do not have any intention of selling Alexis.”
Gasparin has already turned down a €25 million bid from Bayern Munich who appear to view Sanchez as a perfect replacement for want away Franck Ribéry.

However the player’s agent appears not to be heeding Gasparin’s warning and continues to put his player in the shop window. Fernando Felicevich went as far to reveal that meetings were taking place with Old Trafford officials to get a deal off the ground.

My partner is currently in England working on the transfer of Alexis," Felicevich told

“Yes, we have spoken to Manchester United, but not just to United. We have also held talks with other English teams. We are trying to do the transfer this summer.”

Sanchez first appeared in the Chilean league with Cobreloa and was snapped up shortly after by Udinese for around £2 million. Sanchez was then loaned to Colo-Colo and then River Plate where he picked up an Argentine league winners medal.

After a successful debut season in Serie A Alexis Sanchez has proven his ability in one of Europe’s top leagues and the high asking price represents the relatively low risk factor of this transfer with the player primed to make an instant impact in the Premier League.

Name: Antonio Valencia
Age: 23
Nationality: Ecuadoran
Current club: Wigan Athletic (ENG)
International record: 34 caps, 4 goals
Probable cost: £17 million

Sir Alex doesn’t have to look to far for one Latin America option with Ecuadoran Antonio Valencia plying his trade just up the road at Wigan Athletic.
Valencia has just completed his third Premier League term and did his chances of a move to Old Trafford no harm with a man of the match performance there this season as Wigan lost by a single goal.

Steve Bruce knows what it takes to succeed at Manchester United and he gave a frank assessment of the player when he eventually signed Valencia on a permanent bias from Villarreal last year.
“He has pace, trickery, he is as strong as an ox and has a great work ethic,” said the former United captain. “I want him to focus completely on his football and keep improving because I believe he has the potential to be a top, top player.”

Valencia certainly stepped up to Bruce’s challenge as he helped in his manager’s transformation of Wigan from basement battlers to Europa League contenders.
However as Wigan’s chairman Dave Whelan freely admits just like Wilson Palacios, Emile Heskey and Leighton Baines before him, Valencia has his price.

That price is believed to be in the region of £17 million but could be pushed up as joint interest from Real Madrid sparks a bidding war for the Ecuadoran. Another factor which could add a few quid on to Valencia’s transfer is a 20% sell-on fee owed to Villarreal.
Whelan explains the latest state of play concerning Manchester United’s approaches.

“They have been in touch with us and we will be starting negotiations very shortly, I would imagine,” the Wigan chairman said. “United have been in touch with us over Antonio over the last two or three months, expressing an interest and putting cash offers on the table.”

Manchester United were forced to act on Valencia after they learnt of Real Madrid putting in an £18 million bid back in January despite seemingly to have already secured the services of Ronaldo.
While Whelan would like to strengthen his ties with the current Premier League champions he concedes that the eventual decision will be in the player’s hands.
“We have had offers that are acceptable to Wigan Athletic, around the £14-£18m mark, said Whelan. “One club could offer £2m more than the other, but if Antonio says he doesn't want to go there then there is no point.”

Name: Douglas Costa
Age: 18
Nationality: Brazilian
Current club: Grêmio (BRA)
International record: Under-20 11 caps, 3 goals
Probable cost: £21 million

After getting his fingers burnt with Brazilian talent in the past Sir Alex looks now to have found a way to harness players from the most successful footballing nation in the world.
Fergie plucked Kleberson straight from the Brasileirão after his performances in the 2002 World Cup singled him out as star performer in the middle of the park. However, an injury in only his second appearance for Manchester United set the tone for two disappointing seasons with the club.

A look through the Manchester United squad now though reveals a healthy Brazilian contingent including first team regular Anderson as well as Rodrigo Possebon and the Da Silva twins on the fringes.

No surprise therefore that Fergie has used his considerable scouting network in Brazil to identify a possible successor to Ronaldo. It appears all his sources have come back with the same name, Douglas Costa of Grêmio.

Now after a year of monitoring the player’s progress which has seen Douglas establish himself in the Grêmio side and guide Brazil to success at the South American under-20 championships the time has come to act.

Inter Milan and Real Madrid are reported to be interested but Manchester United hope that Douglas will be swayed by the prospect of joining up with Fergie’s current boys from Brazil.
The left-footed Douglas is rumoured to have a £21 million release trigger in his contract with Grêmio plus United would have to jump through a few hoops on the work permit front in order to secure his signature.

These hurdles however have not prevented officials from Old Trafford starting a dialogue with Douglas’ agent Cesar Bottega.
“There have been informal conversations and I believe United would match [the release price],” Bottega said. “At the end of the Brasileirão in December, Douglas will be worth at least twice that.”
Bottega also added that the reported £6.7 million that Manchester United have already tabled for 

Douglas was laughed off by Grêmio president Duda Kroeff.
One person who is not happy with United’s interest in Brazilian youngsters is the 1970 World Cup winning captain and scorer of that goal, Carlos Alberto. After seeing so many talented youths tempted away from his homeland Carlos Alberto has accused Manchester United in particular of “raping Brazilian football”.

As well as employing two full-time scouts in Brazil Manchester United also have a deal with Desportivo Brasil, a youth club owned by Traffic Football Management. A move which be seen as at odds with some of the club’s comments concerning third party ownership which arose as Carlos Tevez left the club.

Name: Javier Pastore
Age: 20
Nationality: Argentine
Current club: Huracán (ARG)
International record: Unreleased by Huracán for under-20 duty
Probable cost: £11 million
Last weekend I went along to watch Huracán go top of the Argentine league with a 3-0 win over Arsenal. The star of the show without doubt was Javier Pastore, a midfielder equally adept in creating as well as taking goalscoring chances.

It was looking likely that Pastore would be available in the coming months as his complicated contract with Huracán drew to a close but before last week’s match it was announced to the great delight of the crowd that Pastore has signed up for another six months on loan.

However, if a big bid was to come in who is say that Pastore would be sticking around in Buenos Aires for another season. Any deal would have to suit the investment group would paid £200,000 for 55% of his registration and Talleres, the Argentine lower league club who own the remaining 45%.

It has been quite the coup by Huracán chairman Carlos Babington, nicknamed El
Ingles for his English sounding name, to secure Pastore’s services as the cash strapped club stand one game away from an historic league title.

Pastore has benefitted from working under Huracán's manager Angel Cappa, a staunch football purist whose style of play demands the ball is played to feet. Cappa has urged Pastore to explore his talents on the pitch as he gives his players free range to express themselves in pursuit of goals.

This freedom has seen Pastore head and shoulders above his fellow tricksters in Argentina’s weekly showboating feature on a television program and what makes him such an attractive proposal is the final product he has delivered time and time again.

Braces in recent wins against River Plate and Rosario Central have kept his team in a title race as well as cementing the interest of Manchester United.

I'm very proud that a club like United are interested in me,” Pastore said. “The thing is that at clubs like Manchester United there are a lot of great players, and they are all internationals. I know that if I moved to a club like that, I'd have to wait to get my chance to play.”
In the meantime, a little wrinkle for Pastore to iron out is his apparent snub of international duty which has recently seen him frozen out of Diego Maradona’s plans with the national team.

Pastore was selected to represent Argentina at the South American under-20 championships but Huracán refused to release him and this has led to a feeling that he let his country down.
When reacting to his exclusion from Argentina’s recent B international against Panama the talented youth took the opportunity once again to remind people that it was not him who made the decision to withdraw.

I didn't refuse to travel with the national team,” Pastore said, before adding. “The players who are in the national team are there because they deserve to be.”

Copyright © Tim Sturtridge and

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tosic - I want to fill Ronaldo's boots

Zoran Tosic

Zoran Tosic
Zoran Tosic
Soccerphile Exclusive:
Manchester United & Serbia's Zoran Tosic

Manchester United's Serbian u21 star Zoran Tosic has said he will leap at the chance of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford next season if given the opportunity.

The skilful winger, signed by Manchester United from FK Partizan in January's transfer window, has been wowing the crowds in this summer's UEFA u21 tournament in Sweden, leading to talk that he might be about to step into Ronaldo's shoes now the Portuguese star has left for Real Madrid. "I have read that," Tosic told Soccerphile.

"I came to Manchester United to get better and get stronger in every way and it will be six months in July since I came. In the next six months I hope I am going to get a chance and I have to use that chance."

Zoran Tosic
Zoran Tosic
22-year-old Tosic debuted for the Red Devils as a substitute for Ronaldo in an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Tottenham on the 24th of January, then made his league bow three days later, replacing Dimitar Berbatov against West Brom, but saw no more first team action in 2008-'09.

Like another flying winger in the U21 tournament, Theo Walcott, Tosic has experience with the National Team, for whom he has clocked up 13 appearances since 2007.

Standing only 5'7" (1.71 m), his low centre of gravity makes him a natural dribbler. Add to that his quick feet, rapid acceleration and ability to play on both wings and he seems a potentially tailor-made replacement for Ronaldo, albeit with less prowess in the air.

Zoran Tosic
Zoran Tosic
He is also a free-kick specialist, but was devastated after failing to find the target with his set-piece against Belarus, the last kick of the game. Tosic collapsed crestfallen at the final whistle and did not get up from the ground for a long time.
"I was disappointed because I did not score at the end from a free kick and I am practising them every day, every day!" he explained.

"And the only reason I practise is so I can get a chance like that in the 95th minute. In that moment you show the entire world you are a player that can score from just one chance and unfortunately I did not score."
Serbia exited the competition after losing 3-1 to the hosts in Malmo on Tuesday, after registering successive 0-0s from their first two games against Italy and Belarus.

But Tosic's impressive showings in Sweden have not gone unnoticed and will mean more eyes than before will be focused on the young Serb when United kick off their Premier League defence in August.

"Of course it has been a great experience so far," he said about playing in England. "It is the strongest league in the world and every player who can play in England can play in every country.

All I know is if I get the chance I am going to use it and do my best - Who knows, maybe some day I am going to pick up Ronaldo's place!

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

UEFA u21: Sweden & Italy in the semi-finals

UEFA u21 Championship, Sweden 2009

UEFA u21: Sweden & Italy in the semi-finals.

Sweden 3-1 Serbia, Malmo, 19,820
Italy 2-1 Belarus, Helsingborg, 3,014

Sweden and Italy advanced to the semi-finals tonight leaving Belarus and Serbia to pack their bags.

The hosts downed Serbia 3-1 in front of almost 20,000 fans in Malmo, the championship's biggest crowd yet, with tournament top gunner Marcus Berg scoring twice in the first quarter of an hour to lift his goal tally to five. Serbian skipper Gojko Kacar pulled one back after 26 minutes before Ola Toivonen scored Sweden's third just short of the half hour. A fiery evening saw the referee brandish ten yellow cards and send off two Serbs, Nikola Petkovic and Nenad Tomovic.

In Helsingborg, Italy and Belarus fought a ding-dong battle for the last semi-final spot, with the Azzurrini triumphing 2-1 in the end. Sergei Kislyak fired Belarus into a 45th minute lead only for Robert Acquafresca to equalise for the Italians from the spot in added-on time.

Both sides had chances to score before Acquafresca gave Italy the lead in the 75th minute with his second goal of the evening, a lead PierLuigi Casiraghi's team held until the final whistle.

Sweden play England in Gothenburg on Friday for a place in the final, while Italy tackle Germany in Helsingborg.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iranian Stars Banned For Green Protest

Iranian Stars Banned For Green Protest

Four of the six Iranian footballers who wore green armbands in Iran's 1-1 draw with South Korea in a recent World Cup qualifier have been handed life bans from the national team.

Ali Karimi, 31, team captain Mehdi Mahdavikia, 32, Hosein Ka'abi, 24 and Vahid Hashemian, 32 have been "retired" from national team duty and are reported to have had their passports confiscated.

Karimi, Mahdavikia and Hashemian have all played with top clubs in Germany. Karimi with Bayern and Mahdavikia and Hashemian with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bochum.

Iranian Stars Banned For Green Protest


Confederations Cup In Full Swing

Confederations Cup In Full Swing.
Confederations Cup In Full Swing

With South Korea safely qualified for the 2010 World Cup, it was time to head to South Africa and the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. This competition is a rehearsal for the massive festival of football that comes next summer. It features the champion of each of the six continental confederations as well as the World Cup host, South Africa obviously, and the world champions, Italy.

The eight-nation quadrennial tournament is one of the better ideas that the world governing body has had over the years. It gives everyone a chance for a dry run and to iron out any rough spots.

The teams that make it get a great opportunity to check out training facilities in South Africa but even the pioneers often have to fight for their favored spots. The United States and Italy have fallen in love with one pristine training park in Centurion just outside Johannesburg. The Europeans used it for this competition but have been shocked as the Americans slipped in behind their backs to do a deal with the authorities. Italy are not happy - in fact, the Azzurri have not had the best of times this summer/winter.

The organizers get a dress rehearsal in logistics and in making sure that the whole thing, and even the Confederations Cup is no small affair, works for most. There have been a number of complaints about Johannesburg’s Park and Ride system that buses fans in from designated car parks around the city but plans are in place to improve this system as well as public transport for next year. For the media too, it is a great chance to become familiar with the country, the football scene, make contacts as well as more prosaic parts like accommodation and transport.

South Korea will be here in 2010 but have to wait until the draw is made in Cape Town in December to find out locations and opponents. The coastal city is one of nine World Cup hosts but not one of the four Confederations Cup sites.

The current quartet comprises of Johannesburg, neighboring Pretoria, Rustenburg to the north-west and Bloemfontein to the south.

Johannesburg - call it Joburg or Jozi as the locals do - is a sprawling metropolis of leafy avenues and shopping malls with little in the way of public transport. The first thing that every single business traveler does upon arriving at OR Tamba International Airport is first rent a car and secondly, rent a navigational system because with the former you can’t go anywhere and without the latter, you can’t find anywhere.

Outside the big cities of Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, accommodation could be hard to come by. Even in the lower profile Confederations Cup, hotels in the Free State city of Bloemfontein were fully-booked. So organization is also key.

Crime is never far from a conversation when you talk about South Africa and especially in a city like Johannesburg, it is something to be considered. Locals warn of going to the downtown area, most businesses upped and moved to the suburbs over a decade ago. There are other parts that are deemed unsafe, and unnecessary, to visit.

Caution is advised but on the whole, the locals are friendly and while any World Cup will struggle to match the smooth convenience of Germany 2006, one part in which South Africa can stand out is in the warmth of its people and the delight they feel at the prospect of being hosts to the world in the summer of 2010.

Ke Nako is the slogan which means ‘The Time Is Now’. It isn’t time yet but the countdown has now broken the one-year barrier. When the clock stops in the summer of 2010, South Korea, as well as 30 other visitors are going to have a great time in the Rainbow Nation.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

Britain’s best, but best for Liverpool?

Britain’s best, but best for Liverpool?

Liverpool have wrapped up their signing of Glen Johnson from Portsmouth. The lingering doubt, though, is how much of a role can arguably Britain’s finest full-back play in transforming Liverpool into Premiership champions.

On last season’s form, Johnson is certainly England’s best full-back. His attacking raids invariably result in finer distribution than, say, Ashley Cole, he’s more trustworthy than Micah Richards and probably now edges a fully fit Gary Neville for his country’s No.2 shirt.

Britain’s best, but best for Liverpool?

Whether he is the best full-back in England, however, is a far more complex debate.

Chelsea must believe so or why would they risk losing Portuguese Jose Bosingwa (who cost £16m from Porto last summer). Meanwhile, it is Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna who this month took steps to deny publicly reported interest from Real.

What’s certain is Johnson appears a more supreme Premier League athlete than Liverpool’s current first choice right back Spaniard Alvaro Arbeloa, who now looks destined to return to Spain as a makeweight in the Johnson deal.

But, £18.5m remains an incredible transaction for Liverpool’s first piece of transfer business of the summer. Of deals involving right-backs, only Barcelona's purchase of Dani Alves from Sevilla for £24m and Lilian Thuram’s move to Juventus for £23m have come at a greater cost.

(Intriguingly, Sevilla agreed to sell Alves to Liverpool three years ago, but Benitez refused to stump up the £10m asking price.)

When it’s remembered that Liverpool refused to meet Aston Villa’s £18m asking price for national team midfielder Gareth Barry a year ago – a player that has since moved for two-thirds of that amount – spending more than £18m on Johnson seems generous.

The Indepedent's Ian Herbert branded the amount "extraordinary", although like others did concede that the financial blow is softened by the remaining debt, thought to be £7m, for Peter Crouch’s move in the opposite direction last summer.

In a transfer market within a constant state of flux, and one so currently dependent on the financial clout of clubs’ foreign owners, recent deals perhaps provide the only prudent comparison.

In pre-season to date, Johnson’s sum mirrors the price Manchester City splashed out on Roque Santa Cruz while Arsenal are thought to have spent £11m on Ajax defender Thomas Vermaelen.

It’s been said that Liverpool’s bold move for Johnson shows a statement of intent.

They haven’t been prepared to wait and miss out such as in the Barry saga. They’ve moved swiftly in the wake of champions Manchester United losing first Cristiano Ronaldo and then Carlos Tevez.

The Reds have also purchased a player at the top of his game, but still with plenty of scope for improvement.

The 24-year-old was man-of-the-match in England’s 6-0 hammering of Andorra earlier his month, setting up goals-a-plenty against the amateurs.

But following the national side’s win in Kazakhstan, his defensive acumen had been questioned and his place on the right debated.

Benitez has placed an enormous amount of faith in Johnson. With the club under some financial uncertainty, the manager was only expected to enter the transfer market for two major acquisitions, and a second striker appears top of the Spaniard’s shopping list.

But the outlay on Johnson doesn’t stop with his purchase. He is reportedly commanding a £80,000 per week wage at Anfield, an amount only eclipsed by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The Sun said Johnson's weekly earnings would be closer to £100,000.

That’s left some Liverpool fans wondering whether his expensive signature adds any great dynamic to the squad pipped to the post last season.

"Sometimes you have to spend a little more," Benitez argued. "You can't compete in the top four of the Premier League unless you spend some money.

"We were looking for a player of quality and also somebody who is British because of the new Champions League rules.

"Glen Johnson fits both categories."

Chelsea decided that such an outlay for a player they sold to Portsmouth for £4m two years ago was too high. Manchester City were never interested.

So, Johnson’s arrival at that price is a calculated gamble. As a teenager, he failed to secure a regular first team place during Jose Mourinho’s reign at Chelsea after being signed for £6m by Claudio Ranieri.

He made only 41 appearances in his Chelsea career and was loaned to Portsmouth before making the move permanent in 2007.

Copyright © Marc Fox and

Monday, June 22, 2009

FIFA Confederations Cup: USA are shock semi-finalists

FIFA Confederations Cup: USA are shock semi-finalists.
FIFA Confederations Cup 2009

In an extraordinary reversal of fortune the USA made it through to the Confederations Cup semi-finals after defeating Egypt 3-0 in Rustenberg.

Italy's 0-3 reverse to Brazil in the coinciding match meant the Americans advanced on goals scored with three teams left on three points at the end of the group stage. Strikes from Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey sent the US through to the knock-out stages of the Confederations Cup for the first time.

But after losing 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil, only the brave expect the Yanks to top the Spanish in the semi-finals


Weds 24th June SPAIN v USA in Bloemfontein
Thu 25th June BRAZIL v SOUTH AFRICA in Johannesburg

Third-Place Play-off

Sun 28th June Rustenburg


Sun 28th June in Johannesburg

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

World Soccer News

Friday, June 19, 2009

UEFA u21: Serbia and Belarus share spoils

UEFA u21 Championship

u21 Sweden 2009.
UEFA Under21 Championship
UEFA u21 Championship: Serbia 0:0 Belarus

Malmo - The two East European nations in the finals battled to a scoreless draw in Malmo, leaving all four teams in Group A with a chance of making the semi-finals in the final round of first-games on Tuesday.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Huracán provide a breath of fresh air in Argentine league


There's a fierce wind blowing through the top order of Argentine club football as the Clausura championship draws to yet another exciting finale.

Last season’s bottom placed club River Plate are now mathematically out of the title race and the other traditional superpower Boca Juniors are a further eight points down the league.

Huracán provide a breath of fresh air in Argentine league

With three teams left in the title race the swell of support in Argentina now stands behind Angel Cappa’s second place Huracán who have brushed aside rivals this season with a style of football which is very easy on the eye.

While many Argentine teams in recent years have resorted to a more direct, physical and wholly European approach to the game Cappa’s side have entertained crowds with their tradition Argentine toque-toque style of play.
Toque-toque translates as touch-touch and for an example on the global stage think of Esteban Cambiasso latching on to Hernan Crespo’s backheel after a move involving 24 passes to put Argentina 2-0 up against Serbia & Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup.

Eight players touched the ball in the move that led up to the goal before slicing open the opposition defence and it is in this image that the purist Cappa has moulded his Huracán side.

Many tipped Huracán’s title challenge to run of fizz sooner or later but deep into the business end of the season Cappa’s side are primed to bring the league title home to Parque Patricios.

Last weekend’s clasico against San Lorenzo was moved to Boca Juniors’s La Bombonera stadium for security reasons after a Huracán fan was killed after the corresponding fixture last season. Rodrigo Silvera, 27, was shot dead waiting for a takeaway pizza in November by San Lorenzo’s barra brava and the game’s toxic reputation continues to grow in Buenos Aires.

On the pitch this season the encounter turned out to be a rather drab affair as Huracán’s long-serving centre-back Pablo Goltz nodded home the game’s only goal from a corner.
With the spotlight shining on his team Cappa was clearly disappointed with his side’s showing.

“It was one of the worst games we've played,” said Cappa. “If we'd played at 30 or 40 percent of our capabilities, it would have been a simple second half.”

Vélez Sársfield are currently sitting on top of the Clausura with one point more than Huracán who are a further point ahead of Lanús. Third place Lanús were first before the latest round of games but fell two places after they were stuffed 4-1 by lowly Arsenal away while Vélez Sársfield matched Huracán’s win by dismissing Newell’s Old Boys 2-0 at home.

This weekend Cappa’s men entertain Arsenal at home and a win will put them top for at least two hours as Vélez Sársfield against Lanús kicks off after the Huracán game.

As long as Huracán pick up three points this weekend they will take their title challenge to the last day and a possible winner takes all game away to Vélez Sársfield.

Even if the overall quality on the Argentine domestic scene has been poor in recent years tight finishes to the season are becoming the norm.
In the Apertura six months ago you couldn’t squeeze a blue Rizla paper between Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Tigres going into the final game.

The three teams were locked on 36 points with Lanus only a further two behind meaning anyone of four teams could take the title on the last day of the season.
As it turned out Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Tigres all picked up a win to take their final tallies to 39 points.

With goal difference discounted as a method to separate the teams the authorities took the unprecedented step of holding a end of season three-way playoff.
Ironically enough Boca Juniors won the playoff on goal difference after all three teams won one and lost one of their round robin games.

Cappa will hope that there is no playoff required this season as two wins will secure the clubs second ever league title, their first coming in 1973. If they do bring home the title it will be a victory for aesthetically pleasing football and hopefully will go someway to bucking the trend of negativity which is now rife in domestic Argentine football.

The fluidity of Cappa’s team is borne out in the fact that despite Huracán being the league’s top scorers the club do not have a single player in double figures for the season. Instead they have four players who have five or more and a further 13 players who have chipped in with goals during the course of the season.

In discovering what makes Angel Cappa such a breath of fresh air it is important to take a look at his schooling. Huracán’s head honcho served two important apprenticeships under César Menotti and Jorge Valdano.

The chain-smoking Menotti led Argentina to World Cup triumph on home soil in 1978 and Cappa took up the assistant post with him at Boca Juniors before following him to Atletico Madrid as well as working as a trainer with the national team.

Menotti’s attacking style first bore fruit at Huracán and after wowing crowds for three years and scooping the Metropolitano in 1973 he served as national coach for nine years, grooming Diego Maradona along the way.

After working with El Flaco Cappa joined up with Jorge Valdano first at Tenerife and then at Real Madrid where they won the 1994/95 La Liga and put the wheels in motion for a period of success which the club are still trying to recreate now.

Valdano, a goalscorer in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup win, is known as El Filósofo and El Poeta for his purist views on how the game should be played. Recognized as a true philosopher of the game he has penned the influential books Sueños de fútbol and Cuentos de fútbol.

The former Real Madrid manager and latterly sporting director is known for his outspoken views such as likening a stifling Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool to watching ‘shit hanging from a stick.’
It seems Cappa shares his former bosses’ views of the turgid fare so often offered up when teams packed with skilful players decide to shut up shop.

After an undistinguished playing career Cappa himself has already enjoyed a colourful management career in his own right. He has taken charge of teams with varied success in Peru, Mexico, Spain, South Africa as well as his native Argentina.

With a patchy CV there were some grumblings from the Huracán faithful when their president Carlos Babington hired the coach last year.
Many wondered if Cappa, already into his 60s and known for his hardcore old school values, could coax a team with an average age of 23 to any degree of success.

What followed has exceed even the most romantic visions of those who hold Huracán or even the tradition values of Argentine football in high esteem.
Although everyone in Cappa’s side have played their part two names have stood out above the rest, striker Matías De Federico and midfielder Javier Pastore.

De Federico rewarded national coach Diego Maradona for his call up to for the B international against Panama by bagging a goal. The 20-year-old forward has drawn comparisons with Lionel Messi with his squat stature, ability with ball at his feet and precise left peg.

Javier Pastore is Huracán’s leading marksman with nine goals from midfield and dazzling performances against River Plate and Rosario Central last month which saw him grab a brace in both games have driven the European transfer mill into overdrive.

What makes the player such an attractive proposal is that he will be a free agent when his contract runs out at the end of the season. The 19-year-old is believed to have turned down £8.8m to join Manchester United and is waiting to hear from AC Milan, Barcelona as well as host of other interested teams.

Incidentally the last player to transfer straight from Huracán to the English top flight was Ossie Ardiles.

The interest in Pastore has come as no surprise to his coach who again gives away his mystic view of football as he refuses to take full credit for the player’s development.

“He has a lot of talent, he does things that can't be taught," said Cappa. “He is still developing, so he needs to harness that ability and adjust it to work as part of a team. He is a player who invents things, he is tremendously creative.”
Pastore leads an Argentine newspaper’s showboating league and has all the tricks plus the final product to match. If Sir Alex does get his man it would not be unreasonable to view him as a long term successor for a talented winger and prolific whiner who has recently departed Old Trafford.

Copyright © Tim Sturtridge &

England sink Spain to reach semis

UEFA u21 Championship: England 2:0 Spain

Spain v England.
England v Spain
New Ullevi Stadium, Gothenburg

England eased into the semi-finals of the European U21 championship after comfortably disposing of a disappointing Spain in Gothenburg.

On a blustery and chilly evening by the Baltic, two second half goals from Fraizer Campbell and James Milner gave Stuart Pearce's team its second straight win and passage along with Germany into the last four. The catalyst for victory was Arsenal's Theo Walcott. The hyped wunderkind of the tournament had surprisingly been substituted at half time against Finland and benched for tonight's encounter. For over an hour, Pearce resisted the pressure to unleash the young Gunner before his exhausted game strategies left him no option but to throw him in to try to break the stalemate. When Walcott crossed the white line, the stadium issued its loudest roar and his high-speed soccer had immediate impact.

Spain's U21s were never as dazzling as their senior European champions, though cut from the same cloth, playing balls low to feet at varying tempos. Like England's proteges, their young guns were no novices, packed with La Liga experience from clubs like Barcelona and Villareal.

Spain v England in Sweden
Spain v England in Sweden
England were closely-stacked in comparison, solid, muscular and almost German in their regimentation. The body language of the coaches told a tale of two cultures as well. Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, a one-time caretaker at the Bernabeu, was a flailing mass of Latin gesticulations, like a carrier bag blown around by the stiff winds tormenting Gothenburg all day.

Pearce was less mobile as he strutted, brooding and intense.

The first half hour was shadow-boxing, only enlivened when England centre-back Nedum Onuoha beat his goalkeeper with a back pass; Joe Hart scrambled back in time to spare his colleague's blushes.

Then Real Madrid's Javi Garcia let England in after losing the ball to the eager James Milner twenty yards out and tripping the Aston Villa man as he muscled towards goal. Milner aimed his spot-kick at the bottom corner but Sergio Asenjo darted like a swift to tip it away.

Pearce looked puzzled, his game-plan unravelling. Bojan Krkic briefly drew wows from the crowd when he dragged back and curled wide of the upright, before Gabriel Agbonlahor hobbled off six minutes before the break. Another reshuffle for England's attack, with Campbell deputising.

Spain v England in Sweden
Spain v England in Sweden
Honours even at the interval, the Spanish had yet to catch fire, only offering hints of danger with the lanky right midfielder Javi Martinez a possible outlet.

Martinez beat Hart to a punt in the 55th minute and the England goalie, suddenly in no-man's-land, was rescued by Martin Cranie's goal-line clearance. Another close shave.

With Krkic off to the displeasure of the neutrals, enter England's rising star, a 62nd minute replacement for Middlesbrough's Adam Johnson. The Three Lions were at once galvanised, Gibbs penetrated and Milner charged while Walcott raced. They did not wait long for a reward.

In the 67th minute, Milner gleefully stole a thoughtless back pass and fed Campbell, who sidestepped Garcia before firing past Asenjo.

Five minutes later England had clear water between them and the Spanish. Walcott flicked his afterburners on and left Javi Garcia trailing in his wake. Haring to the byline in classic winger fashion, he drew the ball back smartly for the incoming Milner to sidefoot home and make it 2-0.

Two cannonades had winded the Armada and Spain looked shorn of invention, though Hart did well to stop Raul Garcia's drilled free kick low to his right.

U21 Championship in Sweden
U21 Championship in Sweden
When Jose Manuel Jurado fired into the upper tier with two minutes remaining, they were spent, outgunned by the more clinical team. Caro's eleven had promised much but failed to deliver at the whistle, a familiar narrative from Spain's archive of disappointment before Euro 2008. They had outpassed and outshot their opponents in Gothenburg, but it is goals that win games.

And England, however slow they are starting their games, appear to have mastered the art of winning while playing badly; a sure sign they will go far in this competition. Spain, eliminated, play Finland on Monday for the wooden spoon, while England face Germany in Halmstad for the bragging rights from Group B.


ENG - Campbell 67'
ENG - Milner 73'
Lineups -

ENG - Joe Hart, Martin Cranie, Kieran Gibbs, Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Lee Cattermole, Fabrice Muamba, James Milner (Craig Gardner 84'), Mark Noble, Adam Johnson (Theo Walcott 62'), Gabriel Agbonlahor (Frazier Campbell 39')

SPA- Sergio Asenjo, Nacho Monreal, Javi Garcia, Marc Torrejon, Cesar Azpilicueta, Raul Garcia, Mario Suarez (Pedro Leon 80'), Javi Martinez (Xisco 69'), Jose Manuel Jurado, Bojan Krkic (Diego Capel 58'), Adrian Lopez.

Att: 16,123

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Pearce's England face Spanish succession

England to face Spain.
UEFA u21 Championship: England v Spain

Gothenburg- An intriguing clash of styles in Gothenburg tonight between England, 2-1 conquerors of Finland, and Spain, who need to get points on the board after tying Germany 0-0 in their first game.

The Germans lead the group by a point after downing the Finns 2-0 earlier today, but England can overtake them with a win tonight.

After substituting him at half time against Finland, Stuart Pearce has left Theo Walcott on the bench for the game at the new Ullevi Stadium. Adam Johnson deputises. Chelsea's Michael Mancienne, sent off in Halmstad, is suspended.

If there is a shooting star starting therefore, eyes will be fixed on Spain's Bojan Krkic, fresh from Champions League success with Barcelona.

A sunny evening in Sweden's second city but the quickly-dropping temperature and very strong gusts of wind could lead to some less than accurate passing.

ENG - Joe Hart, Martin Cranie, Lee Cattermole, Nedum Onuoha, James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Mark Noble, Adam Johnson, Fabrice Muamba, Micah Richards, Kieran Gibbs

SPA- Sergio Asenjo, Nacho Monreal, Javi Garcia, Marc Torrejon, Javi Martinez, Raul Garcia, Bojan Krkic, Jose Manuel Jurado, Cesar Azpilicueta, Mario Suarez, Adrian Lopez

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Australia beat Japan in final World Cup qualifier

Australia beat Japan in final World Cup qualifier.
Australia v Japan

Australia finished top of Group A in Asian World Cup qualifying after beating Japan 2-1 in front of 69,238 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Tim Cahill was the hero for the Socceroos, scoring twice in the second half after Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka had given his side a half-time lead.

Cahill's strained relations with the Australian media were apparent in a post-match TV interview that saw him offer a series of vague responses to questioning from host broadcaster Fox Sports.

Yet the Everton man remains a hero to Australian fans for his performances on the pitch, and just as in Kaiserslautern three years ago, it was the explosive midfielder who dug the Socceroos out of a hole on a chilly night in Melbourne.

On the back foot early on, it was Japan who gradually began to control proceedings, with full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida charging forward at every opportunity.

The visitors had enjoyed plenty of first half possession before an in-swinging corner from Kengo Nakamura was headed home by the imposing Marcus Tulio Tanaka five minutes before the interval, as Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer conceded for the first time in the final round of qualifiers.

The half-time break appeared to favour the Australians, and they redoubled their efforts to haul themselves level in the second half.

They eventually did so when midfielder Vince Grella chipped a free-kick forward for Tim Cahill to rise and head home in trademark fashion.

That set the stage for a stirring fightback from the Socceroos, and when enigmatic midfielder Nick Carle swung over a swirling corner, Japan keeper Seigo Narazaki appeared to clatter into his own defence, leaving Cahill unmarked the bundle the ball home at the far post.

Melbourne-born striker Scott McDonald was introduced to a raptuous applause late on, but the Celtic front man was unable to break his duck in a national team jersey.

Nevertheless the win was a particularly pleasing one for Australia coach Pim Verbeek, whose team finished five points ahead of the Japanese in the final round of qualifying.

A satisified Verbeek spoke of the pride he felt for his players, following an arduous qualifying campaign that saw detractors label the Socceroos "boring" after a series of workmen-like performances.

Australia next face off against Ireland in a friendly to be staged in Limerick, while a series of high-profile home friendlies will also be arranged, with the MCG once again set to host Australia's final match before the Socceroos depart for South Africa.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman &

J.League News

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran Protest in Seoul

S. Korea v Iran.
Iran Protest in Seoul

During the first half of the Group 2 Asian World Cup qualifier in Seoul between South Korea and Iran six of the Iranian team including the captain wore green wristbands in a show of support for the ongoing protests over the disputed elections in Iran.

The players removed their wristbands for the second half after officials of the Iranian team asked them to do so.

The match ended 1-1 leaving Iran's chances of reaching the finals in South Africa in the balance. Iran went ahead through an own goal, but Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung equalized for the hosts.

In Group 1 a Tim Cahill brace saw the Socceroos come from behind to beat Japan 2-1 after Urawa Reds' defender Tulio Tanaka had given the Japanese a deserved first half lead.


Still plenty at stake between Australia and Japan

Australia v Japan Preview

Looking more like a ward of hospital patients than a squad of professional footballers, Japan arrived in Melbourne with seemingly one goal in mind. Forget the three qualifying points on offer from their World Cup qualifier against the Socceroos, Takeshi Okada’s men appeared more determined to avoid contracting swine flu as they disembarked in the sporting capital of Australia.

It was surgical masks all around at Tullamarine Airport, with the Japanese leaving nothing to chance in a city that has been beset by an outbreak of the highly contagious H1N1 virus. The disease is not Takeshi Okada’s only concern, with Japan forced to leave Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura at home due to a groin strain.

His absence is exacerbated by the fact that Gamba Osaka playmaker Yasuhito Endo tore a hamstring in training several days ago, ensuring that Japan travelled Down Under without two of their key players. Wolfsburg duo Makoto Hasebe and Yoshito Okubo were also left out, while VVV Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda was yet another casualty as Japan showed up with a squad labelled “second-string” by the local Australian press.

Never shy of offering an opinion, the domestic press has also been fiercely critical of Australia coach Pim Verbeek in the build up to this high-profile clash. It’s a measure of how far football has come since a second round exit at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, with Verbeek currently under siege for what the tabloid press are claiming is a boring and unnecessarily conservative approach.

Scratch the surface and it’s apparent that the explosion in popularity of football has threatened the interests of mainstream media in Australia, as both newspaper and television outlets wrestle with a once maligned game that is now knocking traditional sports off the back pages and out of prime time news bulletins.

So competitive is the tight-knit Australia sports market that media outlets with financial interests in the dominant National Rugby League have stopped just short of labelling Verbeek a total disaster.

That is despite the fact that the laconic Dutch coach is at the helm of a team yet to taste defeat in the final round of qualifiers, with goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer keeping seven consecutive clean sheets so far.

The constant criticism of Verbeek hasn’t impacted on ticket sales, with more than 75,000 fans expected to pile into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for what is essentially a dead rubber. In a city more renowned for its love of Aussie Rules, the citizens of Melbourne look set to once again turn the fabled MCG into a white-hot sporting arena.

That has prompted Bruno Metsu to throw his two cents in, with the coach of group rivals Qatar telling reporters that Japan struggle to deal with pressure, after Qatar held Okada’s side to a 1-1 draw in Yokohama in their most recent qualifier.

“When Japan come under pressure, when opponents take the game to them, they have a habit of losing direction, not knowing what to do,” Metsu told The Daily Yomiuri following Japan’s disappointing home draw.

Okada brushed off the criticism, but he remains under pressure to guide his side to the top of the group at the expense of the unbeaten Socceroos. He will hope that young Shimizu S-Pulse striker Shinji Okazaki continues his recent hot streak, with Japanese fans desperate to uncover a reliable goalscorer at international level.

Several strikers have come and gone in recent campaigns, with the likes of Hisato Sato, Kazuki Ganaha and Seiichiro Maki all unable to nail down a regular starting place. Injury-riddled former Bundesliga star Naohiro Takahara is no longer a regular starter at club side Urawa Reds, and he was dropped from the national team more than a year ago.

While Okazaki is the latest to be burdened with goal scoring expectations, the ace up Okada's sleeve could be teenage midfielder Naoki Yamada. The 18-year-old has burst onto the scene with a series of stellar displays for Urawa Reds that have drawn comparisons with former Japan great Shinji Ono.

Whether Okada throws Yamada into the cauldron-like atmosphere of the MCG remains to be seen. However one thing is certain, both Australia and Japan are itching to finish the group in first place and thereby hand themselves a confidence boost going into the finals in South Africa.

They may have already qualified, but there’s still plenty at stake when Australia host Japan in their final World Cup qualifier. The two sides played out a scoreless draw in Yokohama in February, but nothing less than a win here will silence the critics of both coaches, as two of Asia’s premier sides go head to head in Melbourne.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman &

J.League News

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sweden begin with a bang

UEFA u21 Championship
FT Sweden 5:1 Belarus

Sweden v Belarus.
Sweden v Belarus
Malmo - The hosts announced themselves in style with a 5-1 mauling of Belarus in Malmo. In a tournament of mostly up and coming footballers, Sweden boast some heavy armoury in the form of their forward pair of Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, two aces honed in Holland's Eredivisie.

Berg, who plies his trade at FC Groningen, bagged a hat-trick and caused havoc for the Belarus back line all afternoon with his intelligent off the ball running. Some debut. Whenever the yellow jerseys poured forward in attack, there was Berg, clear of his marker, waiting for a killer pass. His telepathic understanding with Toivonen, of PSV, must be cut off by Sweden's forthcoming opponents if they want to derail the hosts' path to the trophy.

The fireworks in Malmo took a long time arriving however. For the first half hour, the host nation appeared much like the venue, Malmo New Stadium, a giant Ikea-like essay in dark minimalism, functional and well-designed, but lacking zest in the final product.

The Swedes kept their classic 4-4-2 shape well and pressed in numbers when Belarus had the ball, but had forgotten how to forge openings. The East Europeans by contrast played 4-2-3-1 and attacked more directly, but their lack of patience led to a plethora of mis-telegraphed final balls.

Finally an attack of note arrived after 30 minutes of torpor. The Swedish front pair played wall passes into the box before the raiding left winger Emir Barjami toe-poked his finish just wide of the post.

Add caption
Barjami's near miss should have inspired the Swedes but instead it was Belarus who snatched the lead three minutes later when Sergei Kislyak let rip from 25 yards, bulging the hosts' net. Now Sweden woke up and Toivonen tapped over an inviting net from a whipped-in cross from Berg. Their wait for parity was not long. Three minutes after the opener, Rasmus Elm took his cue from Kislyak and beat the despairing Pavel Chesnovski with a copycat long-range missile, the ball taking a deflection off Aleksandr Martynovich.

Less than two minutes later, the game was turned on its head. Berg took a return pass from Barjami and waltzed past three white shirts to beat Chesnovski again. 2-1 to Sweden.

Berg then grabbed his second and Sweden's third two minutes before the break, easily losing his marker Dmitri Verkhovtsov to latch onto Toivonen's through ball and sidefoot past the luckless Chesnovski.

An opening stanza which began with a whimper and ended with four bangs. 3-1 to Sweden at half time.

The second half had fewer pleasantries than the first, both teams wasting no time in getting stuck in. Beyond the scrapping, Sweden carved out the better chances. Toivonen, benefiting again from his understanding with Berg, came close a couple of times while Elm chipped Chesnovzki in the 66th but just wide of the upright.

Nine minutes before the end it was all over as Berg raced on to a through-ball from Gustav Svensson and collided with Chesnovski, the Groningen marksman getting the better of the Belarus goalie for the third time as the ball rolled into an unguarded net.

UEFA u21 Championship
UEFA u21 Championship

Berg should have scored his fourth in the 88th but Chesnovski got his hands to his diving header. Then Svensson hit the top corner from 25 yards to make it 5-1, a thrashing. Belarus won 56% of possession but were well-beaten in the end, a fact midfielder Leonid Kovel acknowledged when he slammed the ball angrily into the crowd with three minutes to go.

That the hosts are a contender is good for the tournament as a whole, but England and the others must keep a close eye on Berg & Toivonen when they play them. Belarus were no great shakes all things considered, but Sweden have begun with a bang.

"We expected a bit more from Belarus," Berg said afterwards, "but we stayed good in our positions. It's really fun to play here in Sweden and the crowd supported us from the beginning."

UEFA u21 Championship
UEFA u21 Championship
"For the first 35 mins the teams were playing equally," Belarus coach Yuri Kurnenin explained, "but then something happened I cannot even explain – three goals. We left spaces when we attacked which the Swedes exploited when they counter attacked. The Swedes were more organized and more willing to win the game which was reflected in the result."

Swedish assistant coach Jorgen Lennartsson cited his team's equaliser as the game's fulcrum:
"It was a mentally important situation," he told reporters. "We were not 100% confident but we got the energy from the 1-1 goal and controlled the rest of the match. I think this victory should be for the coaches of the Allsvenskan for their work with these playrs. They have developed the players on the training fields every day so I’d like to dedicate this victory to them."

Sweden tackle Italy on Friday while Belarus play Serbia.

BEL- Kislyak 33'
SWE-Martynovich o.g. 34'
SWE- Berg 38'
SWE- Berg 44'
SWE- Berg 81'
SWE- Svensson 89'

SWE: Johan Dahlin, Mikael Lustig, Mattias Bjarsmyr, Rasmus Bengtsson, Emil Johansson, Ola Tovoinen (Labinot Harbuzi 84'), Marcus Berg, Gustav Svensson (Andreas Landgren 90'), Rasmus Elm, Pontus Wernbloom, Emir Bajrami (Guillermo Molins 71')

BEL: Pavel Chesnovski, Nicolai Osipovich, Aleksandr Martynovich, Igor Shitov, Sergei Krivets (Vladimir Yurchenko 78'), Aleksandr Volodko, Leonid Kovel, Dmitri Komarovski (Anton Putilo 53'), Mikhail Afanasiev (Andrei Chukhlei 53'), Sergei Kislyak, Dmitri Verkhovtsov.
Att: 14,623

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

World Soccer News