Nigel Adkins bringing Southampton back into national consciousness

Southampton boss Nigel Adkins - Has lead his side to five points clear at the top of the Championship

“It’s about people. Life is about people. It’s about trying to get the best out of everybody. I’m very demanding but very supportive of people. You want players to go out and feel 10 feet tall.

“It’s about hard work, it’s about character, it’s about having determination and also having a smile on your face. That’s very important too.” – Nigel Adkins

Smiles on faces havent been seen too regularly around St Mary’s Stadium since Southampton’s departure from the Premier League in 2005. The arrival of Harry Redknapp to the South Coast, during an ill-fated stay in between two successful spells at Portsmouth, wasn’t enough to stop a team, who had been a fixture in English football’s top division for 27 years, from dropping out of the top-flight.

From there things continued to get worse as the Saints, forced into selling a number of highly-talented youngsters – the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Andrew Surman and numerous others were plundered by bigger clubs, fully aware of the financial constraints within which Southampton were entwined – plummeted into League One.

However, some 30 months after their relegation into the third-tier and the club lead by Nigel Adkins are seemingly taking the express-route as they look to return to the top tier of the English game. Adkins arrived at the club last September, the club having parted company with the now-Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew, having made the transition from physio to manager at Scunthorpe United, whom he had twice lead to promotion from League One to the Championship. His successes at the modest club had lead supporters to sing “who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio.”

Before the season was out, the Saints had secured promotion, Adkins side taking second place behind Gus Poyet’s Brighton. This past weekend, the two promoted sides met at St.Mary’s Stadium, with the home side routing their opponents, a Rickie Lambert hat-trick securing a 3-0 victory and the club’s 20th successive home league win, leaving them just five wins behind the all-time league record, set by Bradford Park Avenue in the old Third Division North in 1927.

So what’s the secret to the South Coast renaissance?

Well in essence, it’s Adkins, the man who has lead the side to 45 wins from 65 matches since his arrival since he made his arrival at the club. He’s created a side that looks to entertain it’s supporters, who want to play good football and who are taking joy in their work. He’s coaxing the maximum from players, some of who had definitive question marks about whether they could perfom at the Championship level at the beginning of the season.

The clubs main striker Lambert has been a scorer of all kinds of goals in the lower leagues, but a scorer of them by the bucketload. With a good touch, excellent in the air, and a terrific striker of the ball with either foot, he’s always had the air of someone too good for the lower leagues.

However, the former Bristol Rovers man, who strikes a dead-ball as good as anyone outside the top-flight, isn’t the quickest – more Sheringham than Anelka in the speed stakes – and that may have counted against him when scouts have flocked to see him in recent seasons. Nonetheless, in an attacking side fuelled by creative intent and the confidence to express themselves, given to them from their manager, Lambert has thrived with 12 goals already this season.

But he isn’t the only one. Richard Chaplow was banished by Darren Ferguson at Preston North End last season. Club captain Dean Hammond has had a solid if unspectacular career at Brighton and Colchester. Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld ,on-loan from Celtic, has made only seven ill-fated appearances for the Hoops since his arrival in 2010, whilst talented youngster Jack Cork couldn’t make the breakthrough at Chelsea that it was hoped he would a few years back.

Throw into the mix the unpredictable yet devastatingly skillful, powerful forward Guly Do Prado, and the creative playmaker Adam Lallana, who starts on the left of Adkins preferred 4-4-2 formation but is given license to roam as he looks to stamp his mark on matches, and Southampton look a side capable of scoring goals, something they’ve proved during their recent dismissals of Coventry, Brighton and Middlesbrough.

Southampton right now look a talented side, yet pluck one of their number out of their line-up and drop him into another Championship side, taking away Adkins constant cajoling, and you question whether they’d be able perform week-in, week-out, to quite the same standard.

The unquestionable star of the show, in his own understated way – he is not a manager looking for the limelight, he is always quick to point to the work done by others at the club, from the Chairman, to his players, to the ground staff – is certainly Adkins.

The former psychology student will not be allowing complacency to creep into his side’s or, for that matter his own, psyche. He will remain as encouraging and as calculated as he has been all season when preparing for matches and whilst standing in his technical area. And that is just as threatening to any Championship side as what they’ll face on the pitch against the Saints this season.

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Euro 2012 Seedings: England in Pot 2, Republic of Ireland amongst fourth seeds

England players will avoid Germany and Italy during the group stage of Euro 2012, but Spain or Holland may need to be overcome

Uefa have confirmed that England will be amongst the second seeds for next year’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, meaning that Fabio Capello’s men will avoid Euro 2008 runners-up Germany – fresh from a perfect qualifying campaign and a scintillating 3-0 win over Holland yesterday evening – 2006 World Cup winners Italy and Russia in the group stages.

The draw for the finals will be made in Kiev at 5pm on December 2nd, and sees Poland and Ukraine joined by reigning World and European champions Spain and Bert van Marwijk’s 2010 World Cup finalists Holland amongst the top seeds, with the two hosts having been allocated to Groups A and D respectively.

Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland – following their 5-1 play-off success against Estonia – are amongst the fourth seeds, alongside Denmark, the Czech Republic and Laurent Blanc’s France, who despite coming under vast media scrutiny in recent times over supposed poor performances, are unbeaten in their last 17 internationals.

Pot three contains Sweden, Euro 2004 winners Greece, and the dangerous duo of Croatia and Portugal.

The ideal scenario for England would see the Three Lions avoid both Spain and Holland – and also the Ukrainians, who beat England during World Cup qualifying in Ukraine – and be paired in Group A with Poland (the FA has already confirmed England’s base for the tournament will be in Krakow), Greece, who appear the least threatening of the third seeds, and the Czech Republic, who have diminished as a force in international circles in recent years.

However, alternatively, the worst case scenario would see England placed in either Group B or C alongside Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain – who despite their 1-0 friendly defeat at Wembley on Saturday, have won their last 14 competitive internationals – a France side who bewitched England at Wembley 12 months ago (Les Bleus running out comfortable 2-1 winners), and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

For Ireland, the best available grouping would likewise pair them with Poland and Greece and also Italy from pot two, the Italians holding no fears for Trapattoni and his players, having recently held the Azzurri to two draws. On the other hand, a group containing Spain, Germany and Portugal would give the Republic virtually no chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

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Wayne Rooney and Manchester United’s central midfield conundrum

Wayne Rooney - Being utilised in a deeper role by Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps an indicator to the long-term.

So here’s the question. You’ve got England’s most talented, most creative and best goalscorer. He’s your best player. He’s started the season in imperious form, scoring and creating goals for the champions. You have a wealth of striking options whilst your midfield is perhaps not the force it once was. So where do you play England’s best player?

For now, Wayne Rooney finds himself playing in the centre of Manchester United’s midfield.

There has for quite some time been a vocal few who have voiced their opinions that as Rooney matures, he will drop back into the central creative role for United (and maybe even England) the heir apparent to Paul Scholes, perhaps the best string-puller the Premier League has seen. However, following his deployment in the cental midfield role by Sir Alex Ferguson in both of Manchester United’s last two matches – the Champions League clash with Otelul Galati at Old Trafford and the not-wholly-convincing Premier League win over Sunderland at the same venue – Rooney’s time to go from goal-getter to playmaker may have come sooner than expected.

However, if it’s to prove a success for either the team or the individual, then a change in style and/or tactics may be necessary.

In the 1-0 win over Sunderland, Rooney’s presence alongside Darren Fletcher quite simply unbalanced United. Rooney is not the answer to the latter-day Scholes, who sat and used his range of passing to dictate matches from a pocket of space in front of the back-four. Whereas Scholes was always reverred abroad for his sublime technical ability and vision, Rooney has always been admired for his spirit, never-say-die attitude, touch and movement – many an Italian manager, not least Giovanni Trappatoni, saying that he is the purest all-round number nine playing today. Placing Rooney in such a deep central position, which necessitates he take on defensive roles also, will restrict his ability to float around the pitch looking for space from which to devastate opposing defences, and threatens to subdue his irrepressible talent.

On Saturday, on more occasions than one would care to count, Rooney could be seen occupying postions – both in and out of possession – not befitting a central midfielder. His enthusiasm, his want to get involved in all aspects of the action, took him into areas that would have been better left for the use of his team-mates, particularly Nani and Welbeck, two of United’s more clever one-on-one dribblers.

WIth two such powerful runners playing in the central area, neither of whom are at their best when wanted to stick to one area (Fletcher a far more effective box-to-box player than holder), United lacked any semblance of tempo and threat, and they struggled to test the Sunderland backline for any kind of sustained period.

The creation and interplay that Sir Alex Ferguson must have hoped Rooney’s deeper positioning would enforce on his team simply didn’t happen – you wonder if Ferguson wants Rooney to take on a role fulfilled by one or two of Manchester City players in Roberto Mancini’s set-up, the Yaya Toure Gladiatorial role, or the David Silva trequarista position, or even an amalgamation of the two – as there were few clever one-twos and fewer driving runs through the heart of the Black Cats.

Laboured is perhaps the best term you can use to describe United’s performance. But it isn’t merely the fault of Rooney, nor is it because he can’t be effective in that area.

Rooney's midfield role model - Xavi Hernandez

Rooney has made no secret of his admiration of Barcelona’s Xavi, the Spanish international purveyor of tiki-taka, who is the premier playmaker in world football over the last decade. It is the Barcelona number six who Rooney has been studying as he looks to broaden his own horizons as he looks to become accustomed to what could be a new permanent role.

Yet, the contrasting styles of Los Cules and the Red Devils mean that Rooney’s deployment in the central area compared with Xavi, is almost as different as comparing the Barcelona conductor to Jon Obi Mikel, the Chelsea defensive anchor.

When Rooney picks up the ball centrally, playing in United’s 4-4-2 formation, the pattern of play is pretty much set for him. Square passes either side to full-backs, a simple five-yarder to his midfield partner, raking diagonals out to either Nani or Ashley Young on the wings, a vertical pass to the second striker or an attempt at a cutting through ball for Javier Hernandez in behind. For a side that attacks down the flanks as much as United do, they’re options that opposing sides can look to combat, as the attack only really begins to pick up pace (counter-attacks excluded) when the ball is switched out to the wings. If they widemen are not at their best (Kieran Richardson nullified the threat of Nani excellently for the large part on Saturday) then the work of the central midfielders is much less noticeable and appears uneffective, as play breaks down, and the central pairing have to move across to do defensive work. Therefore, against Sunderland, it can be said that Rooney was uneffective.

Xavi on the other hand, orchestrates Barcelona attacks with simple passes, biding his time, whilst his team-mates make runs and move around him. He, and Sergio Busquets the midfield anchor, are the only players in the side who aren’t in perpetual motion. Wingers don’t stick to touchlines, Messi drops into whatever space he feels is best, whilst Dani Alves makes lung-bursting runs as soon as Xavi dictates for him to run beyond the opposition defence.Whereas Rooney may only have four players in front of him making forward options from United’s central area, Xavi sometimes has as many as eight options ahead of him.

The movement of the reigning European champions is more free-flowing, always revolving, always adapting. Xavi the brains. United’s play-pattern is more structured, less off the cuff, looking to isolate full-backs in one-on-one situations and to get crosses/ cut-backs into the box for oncoming forwards.

What Rooney needs to do is not try to become a Xavi clone. He needs to stand alone as his own man, using his own traits to become the central midfielder that he is unquestionably capable of being. He is very different to Xavi, and whilst Xavi has been doing it for more than a decade, Rooney has had a mere two matches. He has the talent. When he proves that he can make the role his own, then the question will be asked of Sir Alex Ferguson to adapt the team around his talents.

At the moment, it appears that what the player feels is right, clashes with how the team plays best. And that is something that will need to be addressed, sooner rather than later, especially with Manchester City assault on United’s Premier League crown. Rooney as a central midfielder is very much in it’s infancy. But it needs to flourish a lot sooner than it can have ever been expected – if it is to become a permanent move – unless United may fall behind.

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Wolverhampton Wanderers and its Supporters

A simple memo to all those having their say on the current negativity and goings-on at Molineux.

Mick McCarthy and his Wolverhampton Wanderers side have come in for dogs abuse recently, some of it maybe justified, the majority perhaps not. The atmosphere during the match against Swansea was certainly Molineux at it’s hostile worst, no question.

After a run of successive defeats, and successive poor performances (it is here where the manager and supporters differ, McCarthy believing some defeats to have been unfortunate – Newcastle at home) whilst supporters have seen disappointing performances from key, albeit out-of-form, individuals – Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Matt Jarvis stand up – play a big part in the sides recent poor run.

Combined this has played a big part in creating a negative atmosphere around the place so far this season, after a summer where the talk emanating from the club was of a top-10 finish, a decent cup run, and an ever-improving stadium rather than a relegation dogfight.

But now, the signs are of struggle and a section – for it remains only a section, even though it has become increasingly more vocal – of fans are venting their frustrations. The way they are going about doing so is seen as idiotic in some quarters. It certainly won’t prove helpful to the team, of that I am in agreement.

But then again, neither will the manager’s two big summer purchases, Johnson and O’Hara, both having played nowhere near their best of late, laying into supporters through the media either. Nor will McCarthy’s attitude of being up for a fight with just about anyone – his press conference post Swansea had a touch of Kevin Keegan’s infamous “Love it” rant back in 1996. Players are sniping at fans, fans are verbally abusing players. It’s all very tit-for-tat, and its just adding to the unseemly atmosphere about the club, which were they around today would have club legends Stan Cullis and Billy Wright left utterly bewildered.

There are many questions about why Molineux has become such a cauldron of negativity, a place where the home side fears making a mistake, a vitriol of abuse should something go wrong, all of a sudden?

However, these questions are not new.

For it has always, as far as I can remember – the last 18 years then – been like this.

Wolves fans can get upset all they want at the following statement, but they are amongst the most fickle supporters in the country. Exceptionally quick to turn as soon as something goes wrong, whether it be in one match or in a succession of matches, always ready to summon some kind of quick fix.

I must say the only time it hasn’t been this way was during McCarthy’s early tenure at the club, when Wolves supporters were just happy to have a team on the pitch putting in the necessary effort after the disaster that was the Glenn Hoddle era. They were very vocal in their backing of a side put together for peanuts, after years of throwing Sir Jack Hayward’s chequebook at just about anything it could be thrown at, and for McCarthy, a manager given a new lease of life after things had gone wrong at Sunderland.

The vicious abuse when things go wrong from a vocal minority of supporters at Molineux isn’t new. It’s always been there. Graham Taylor experienced it as Wolves were beaten in the play-offs by Bolton Wanderers – despite finishing in second place that season. He was soon hounded out the following year (before taking Watford, into the top-flight). Mark McGhee, though hardly helped by his own demeanour, was on a hiding to nothing straight away as his face simply didn’t fit. Dave Jones was on death’s row with the club in mid-table obscurity before an FA Cup third round match against Premier League Newcastle in 2003. Wolves won 3-2, went on a tremendous run of form and were promoted through the play-offs come May. Hoddle, well don’t get me started on just how wrong that went.

The point is it isn’t new. And it isn’t all supporters. There are many that will defend their team to the hilt, will get behind them and be supportive no matter the struggles. They’d be called naive, blinded by their own sides failings. There are those that will always moan, no matter how good things are, supporters who will always see the glass as half empty and think that the grass is always greener somewhere else.

Whether change at Molineux would be for the better is completely irrelevant at the moment as it has not happened. To speculate would be to undermine, if supporters and club staff aren’t already undermining one another enough at the moment anyway.

“You don’t know what you’re doing” was the cry from the South Bank on Saturday. Where this constant stream of distain going back and forth is concerned, I’m not sure anyone does anymore.

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David Silva – Manchester’s Most Majestic

David Silva celebrates scoring City's fifth goal at Old Trafford in their 6-1 hammering of United

“For David Silva it is easy to play football. Everything is easy for him”Roberto Mancini.

“The best signing we’ve made”Carlos Tevez.

On reflection, in the 86th minute when Sky Sports commentator Alan Smith awarded the Man of the Match award in the Manchester derby to City right-back Micah Richards – who had played extremely well as an overlapping attacking threat, after the initial twenty minutes when Ashley Young had very much given him the run around – you could almost imagine David Silva hearing that decision, with the score at 3-1, looking up at the commentary box and thinking ‘right, I’ll show you who the best player on this pitch has been.’

Seven minutes later, following the final four minutes of normal time, three minutes of injury time and a further three goals from Roberto Mancini’s side, the Spanish playmaker had made Smith’s earlier decision appear laughable, and utterly irresponsible. Do not denigrate the grandiose nature of the former Valencia man, for he can make you look foolish whether there are seven minutes, or seven seconds left on the clock.

United had started the game well, but as soon as City found their poise, Silva came to the fore. The headlines following the 6-1 demolition of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side (champions we must not forget) have been about Balotelli, his two goals and his latest display – firework puns aplenty amongst the red tops – but it was Silva, the metronome around whom the other City players work, the sublime conductor in Mancini’s meticulous machine, who was the undoubted star of the show.

It was as if the player with number 21 on his back – but who is the most imperious of number 10’s currently plying their trade in the Barclays Premier League – was playing his own game. Lending the ball to team mates before getting it back, teasing opponents who just didn’t know what he had seen that they hadn’t, all the while making sure he never squandered possession.

Throughout the match he was enterprising, both in terms of his movement in-between the lines – he often begins matches playing from the right, before abandoning that position to pick holes in opposing defences as soon as he has determined just where they are weakest – and with his passing, whether it be a simple five yard pass to create a better angle, or a cleverly inventive 30-yarder to change the angle of an attack. His team give him the ball as soon as he asks for it, no matter the situation. He asks, they give, and then they move. They move, safe in the knowledge that he’ll not lose possession, no matter the pressure he’s under, and that if they make the correct move, he’ll find them.

The most brilliant portrayal of just such a moment came in the build up for Balotelli’s second goal. Neat interplay in a tight area between Silva, Richards and James Milner saw the trio work Silva into the United penalty area in the inside right position, faced by United midfielder Anderson. Many a lesser player may have become flustered, not knowing what their best option was and would have just clipped the ball across, looking hopefully for a striker to get on the end of it and to force some kind of effort on goal.

Not Silva.

Instead the most trusted of trequarista’s waited, weighed up the situation and performed the most delicious pirouette and reverse pass – having turned a full 360 degrees to bamboozle his Brazilian shadow –  to find the marauding Milner, whose drilled, precise cross, was tapped home from Balotelli.

No one else on the pitch would have tried it. Heck, no one else on the pitch would have had the foresight to even see it. It was so delightfully decadent, yet so simplistic. And it was so devastating, the goal that killed the game as a contest.

Nonetheless, there was to be one more piece de resistance from Silva, with his assist for Edin Dzeko’s second goal and City’s sixth. Plucking the ball out of the sky with ease, his first touch flicked the ball up, before his second, an expertly executed volley, cut apart the United defence with inch-perfect precision, allowing Dzeko a free run at David De Gea, the Bosnian finishing with aplomb, giving the exquisite pass the finish it deserved.

In these modern days of football where there is so much focus on frustrating the opposition, on formations and keeping defensive shape, never allowing yourself to become exposed, it is game-changing players – number 10’s, trequarista’s, playmakers, those who set the tempo, who have that bit of creation, courage and genius inside them – that are so important in the subtle destruction of defences.

The truly exceptional ones are few and far between and can be counted in no more than single figures – Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Ozil, Sneijder, Pastore (more?) – but they have the magical ability to cut apart even the sternest of opposition defences with apparent ease, whilst they make those around them, supposed lesser players blessed to be performing alongside such prodigiously talented individuals, perform to a higher standard.

In David Silva, Manchester City have just such a magician. And anyone who doubts that, would do well to re-evaluate their opinions, before they are made a fool of by Manchester’s most majestic.

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Arsenal must resolve Robin van Persie contract situation

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has said that he is not worried that club captain Robin van Persie is in no rush to sign a new contract at the Emirates Stadium.

However, quite simply, anyone connected to Arsenal should be.

Following the 2-1 win over Sunderland, where Dutch forward van Persie scored both Arsenal’s goals, Wenger, said: “If you give 100% until the last day of your contract, that is what I call commitment.

“For me it is not commitment to have a long contract. He knows that we are ready to talk about it [a new deal].”

He continued, speaking to BBC Sport: “The ideal situation is that he extends his contract and if he doesn’t you have to respect that. What is important is he plays how he plays.”

Arsenal supporters can have no qualms about van Persie on that front. Currently, it is no over-exaggeration to say that the Holland international is single-handedly dragging the Gunners from the foot of the Premier League table after their dismal start to the campaign.

Once more in yesterday’s win, a side shorn of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas since their summer departures, looked lacking in ideas and creation – two hallmarks of Wenger’s Arsenal ever since his arrival in 1996 – from all except van Persie. Take the former Feyenoord man out of the side at the moment, and the Gunners look severely lacking.

The weight of Arsenal’s attack is well and truly on the shoulders of van Persie since the aforementioned duo’s moves to Manchester City and Barcelona respectively. And fortunately for Wenger, the Dutchman has stepped up to the plate, and is virtually doing the job of two men.

Not only is RVP playing as a number nine, proving clinical as a lone striker and leading the line, showing exemplary class, but he is also performing as a number 10 (in my opinion his more natural position – van Persie is more Dennis Bergkamp than Ian Wright), dropping deep to create chances for teammates.Unfortunately, he no longer has a Fabregas – someone running beyond him – to get onto the end of his through passes. He’s having to create and score goals, sometimes out of nothing, for himself, whilst the jury remains well and truly out on his support cast – Gervinho, Walcott, Chamakh, Arteta, Rosicky – none of whom have excelled this season, whilst Jack Wilshere remains sidelined through injury.

Now the Dutchman has reached the age of 28. He’s hitting his peak. He’s always been an intelligent, clever player, but now he has added experience and cunning and is a truly masterful forward.

His contract at the Emirates expires in the summer of 2013, meaning that if he doesnt pen a new deal, then a move could be on the cards next summer (as it will be the last when Arsenal can command a fee for him) and a number of sides will have more than a passing interest in him – Bayern Munich and Manchester City having already been mooted as potential destinations.

Publicly, van Persie is saying all the right things. He’s happy at the club, has no intention of leaving. However, he must be asking serious questions as to what direction the club are heading in. The two Manchester clubs and Chelsea would appear to have moved even further away from them, whilst Liverpool and bitter rivals Spurs would appear better bets for top four finishes, and Champions League football next season, something that van Persie must surely feel he cannot do without.

There are alot of problems at Arsenal, it would seem. Many of those problems are on-field, with the side looking a shadow of the one that collapsed towards the end of last season, having lead the Premier League table in February. But there can be no problem that needs resolving more urgently than that of tying down the captain, the club’s genuine only remaining world-class talent and seemingly the sides only on-field leader, to a new contract.

As much as Arsene Wenger – infamous for not seeing things – may not want to admit it, he needs to open his eyes to this latest contract situation that could once more de-stabilise his club. And he needs to do it sooner rather than later.

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Andrea Pirlo – Back from the dead

Andrea Pirlo - Finished at Milan, a new lease of life in Turin

As a footballer, when you’re told that you are too old to play for AC Milan, then it really is time to hang up your boots. After all, the great Milan laboratory is the place that kept Alessandro Costacurta playing into his 40’s, the legend Paolo Maldini  for almost a quarter century, and sees that most indisputable of goal-poachers, Pippo Inzaghi, still trying to break that offside trap past his 38th birthday, despite knee ligament injuries. Throw into the mix the likes of Gianluca Zambrotta – perhaps the best wing-back around 6/7 years ago – Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso (who if he were a cat would almost certainly be on his ninth and final life) and the sports science department at Milanello has been keeping some of Italy’s best players of the last 15 years going well beyond their sell-by dates.

However, this summer the Rossoneri allowed it’s playmaker, the man Carlo Ancelotti built his team around, who made the 2003 and 2007 European Cup winners tick, not to mention his outstanding performances at the 2006 World Cup for Italy – he was named man of the match in both the semi-final against Germany and the final against France, as they lifted the trophy on a fourth occasion – to depart, casting him aside on a free transfer. There was no glitzy send-off, just an emotional embrace with some long-standing friends and teammates, and a statement of thanks, before sliding the player out through the back door. After 10 years making pass after pass, creating chance after chance at the San Siro – for the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Kaka, Inzaghi and latterly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Andrea Pirlo was released, a relative baby (in Milan terms) aged 32.

Whether it was the decision of the ultimate powers at Milan, the owner Silvio Berlusconi and Chief Executive Adriano Galliani, or the manager Massimiliano Allegri, not to renew the contract of Pirlo we cannot be sure. For many at the time, it appeared the right decision, to get his vast salary off the books, especially as the players style – his one-paced, slow, methodical approach play – didn’t fit in with the quicker style of play that Allegri incorporated at Milan in his debut season as manager. During the clubs Scudetto win last season, Pirlo made only 17 league appearances, injuries having appeared to take their toll, and he was often seen as more a hindrance than a help, nowhere near his best – A best which in the last 10 years would have he and Xavi Hernandez, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, as the definitive playmakers in world football.

Andrea Pirlo - Back in the groove with Juventus this season

Nonetheless the player dubbed ‘l’architetto’ [the architect] by international colleagues has this season appeared reinvigorated by his move to Juventus, given the reigns to dictate play for the Old Lady by new manager Antonio Conte. Turin is no retirement home for Pirlo. He is clearly still keen to showcase his ability (after all, he has taken a pay cut of almost half to secure regular first-team football). With a spring in his step, and with the workaholic Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal alongside him in the Bianconeri midfield – note that as Gennaro Gattuso’s legs began to betray him in the past few years, Pirlo’s influence in the Milan midfield did likewise – the cultured midfielder has looked classy once more.

On the opening day he put in a mesmerising display against Parma, creating two goals in a 4-1 win from which point he has continued to impress for the Italian league leaders. Unquestionably his standout performance came prior to the international break in the 2-0 defeat of his former employers at the Juventus Arena. Pirlo was the standout player on the pitch, picking passes like Tiger Woods used to pick waitresses. Even Mark van Bommel couldn’t get close enough to kick him.

“I believe that signing a player of his level and worth for free has been the deal of the century,” declared Juventus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. “When I watched him play, I thought: ‘There is a God,’ because his class as a footballer is embarrassingly good.”

Pirlo’s tremendous form continued in Friday evening’s 1-1 draw against Serbia, a result which booked Italy their place at Euro 2012, with the Gazzetta Dello Sport labelling Pirlo as “impeccable” as he gave another passing masterclass. Long or short. In the air or on the ground, it didn’t matter as he made 72/81 passes, his calm, composed demeanour playing a key role as Italy did the job they needed to do, Pirlo at the heart of all that was good about the Azzurri.”Entrusting him with the ball is like investing in German federal bonds” wrote La Gazzetta.

On May 18, the day his release was made public, this most technical and cerebral of footballers appeared finished. Five months later, and buoyed by a new challenge, new surroundings and new teammates, Andrea Pirlo is proving that he is very much still alive and kicking.

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Anzhi claim interest in Robin van Persie & Nicolas Anelka

Robin van Persie - An interesting project for Anzhi

Anzhi Makhachkala, the big-spending Russian club, have claimed an interest in Arsenal and Holland forward Robin van Persie, with the club’s current caretaker manager Roberto Carlos saying that they are keeping tabs on the Gunners skipper.

The Russian club, backed by billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov, signed striker Samuel Eto’o in August from Internazionale on wages estimated at around £8.7m per year. The club from Dagestan, but whose players train  and live in Moscow, only travelling to Dagestan for home matches, have also purchased former Chelsea wing-back Yuri Zhirkov and the talented Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzak from PSV Eindhoven as they look to make their mark on football in Russia.

Carlos, the former Brazilian international, now 38, was the club’s first big-name arrival in February, and he has revealed that the club are also tracking Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka and are keeping tabs on another couple of talented stars of world football, as a club that has been seen as nothing more than their owners vanity project look to make waves throughout European football – despite the fact that they currently lie just 8th in the Russian Premier League.

Speaking to French TV show Canal Football Club, Carlos revealed: “We want to make a club the calibre of Real Madrid or Barcelona.”

When asked about potential moves for players, World Cup winner Carlos said: “Anelka is not the only player.

Nene from PSG and Van Persie from Arsenal are players we are following. And Neymar? I talked to him.

“If Real, Barca or Manchester United cannot pay the transfer fee, we will pay it. Suleyman Kerimov can offer what he wants.”

Arsenal captain van Persie sees his contract at the Emirates Stadium run out in the summer of 2013, and the club will be wary of allowing him to head into the final year of his deal like they did with Samir Nasri. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has already intimated his interest in the Dutchman as a replacement for wantaway Carlos Tevez.

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Why Fabio Capello should give Phil Jones his England head, not centrally, but at right-back

After an exceptional start to the season, Phil Jones is in line to make his senior England bow

England manager Fabio Capello has revealed that he is willing to give Manchester United’s youngster Phil Jones his senior England bow in tomorrow evening’s match against Montenegro.

Nevertheless, my feelings – for what they’re worth – are ones of joy at his inclusion, but also caution.

Not caution for having Jones – described by Sam Allardyce, his former Blackburn Rovers manager as a “Rolls-Royce” – start in Podgorica. Not at all – His tenacity, forward-thinking and excellent reading of the game having helped to show his vast potential in the start to his Manchester United career. But instead caution to the position that the England manager chooses Jones to start tomorrow night, and who plays alongside him.

Last month in Bulgaria, England went with Gary Cahill alongside John Terry at centre-back, with Chris Smalling – like Jones, exemplary in United’s excellent start to the season – at full-back. They defended very well, looking a smart unit, completed by Ashley Cole at left-back and goalkeeper Joe Hart, with Gareth Barry and Scott Parker patrolling in front.

However, Smalling is unfortunately absent for the latest Euro 2012 qualifier through injury. Cahill is in the midst of a professional crisis, with his club side Bolton Wanderers having lost six straight Premier League matches, conceding goals galore along the way. Therefore, a defence that kept two clean sheets will be changed, albeit two changes are expected rather than just the one forced through necessity

The talk has been that Phil Jagielka, the Everton central defender, will be pushed into international duty at right-back, where he has not looked comfortable and has been exposed previously. It is felt that the players experience and greater defensive diligence – in contrast with Jones, Spurs, uncapped Dani-Alves-like flyer, Kyle Walker and Manchester City’s Micah Richards, who all offer more attacking thrust but less defensive security – will be needed against Montenegro’s most threatening forward, the Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, who tends to drift to the left-hand side to do his most incisive work.

Nonetheless, a starting place at centre-back is likely for Jones, Capello’s feelings that the United defender will be granted greater protection playing in a central pocket with Jagielka to his right, the Chelsea duo of Terry and Cole to his left, and Spurs midfielder Parker sweeping up in front of him.

However, once again this falls down to Capello and his own personal failings, of being too defensively-minded for his own good. We saw it in the World Cup, selecting David James and Robert Green ahead of Hart in goal, and have seen it in his previous inclinations to not select youth over experience.

Phil Jagielka - Could be onto a hiding to nothing playing out-of-position at full-back

And what of Jagielka? If he plays full-back, doesn’t have the greatest game and gets slated for looking out of his depth in what isn’t his favoured, nor best, position, then what does that say to his standing within the England set-up?

Offering Jones the added protection in a central area would mean the elder statesmen alongside him can guide him throughout the match. No question.

But to do so would be to reign in his attacking capabilities, in what is likely to be a hostile environment, when perhaps to play him at right-back with Jagielka (or Cahill) inside, would be to indulge those qualities and to show more attacking intent. It would allow Jones to play his part some 10-15 yards further forward, whilst still allowing for defensive security.

I’m not saying for a second that right-back is Jones best position. In fact, I believe he could be the kind of oustanding central defender that England haven’t had since the legendary Bobby Moore, one who can be as effective coming out of defence and starting attacks as he is stopping them. But on this particular occasion, both from a positive and negative point of view, it makes the most sense.

Jones at right-back would be able to pose Montenegro questions and make them think about defending against him. He is unquestionably better in possession than Jagielka. And at this time, Jagielka is the safer defender. In the end, it could be that reversing the roles in which they appear to be about to be employed, would have more benefits for both players, their manager and their country.

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Samir Nasri hits back at French press

Samir Nasri - Under pressure from French football writers with regards to his performances with the national side

France midfielder Samir Nasri today hit back at those French football journalists who have been highly critical of the Manchester City midfielder’s contribution to the national side in recent times .

The attacking midfielder was slammed by the French press following the 2-1 win against Albania in September’s round of Euro2012 qualifiers, when it was suggested France boss Laurent Blanc was deploying the player too deep, that Nasri was taking too long in possession and that there was discontent between player and coach. Nasri was told by Blanc that he could “do more” to help Les Bleus, to which the player responded that he would prefer to hear from the World Cup winner “face-to-face.”

In the wake of stern criticism, particularly by L’Equipe, who posed the question: “Why did Nasri keep stepping on [Alou] Diarra and [Yann] M’Vila’s toes, rather than getting closer to [Karim] Benzema?” and gave the player a match rating of only 3/10, Blanc defended the player publicly, telling TF1 programme Telefoot: “Samir has the talent. He is a quality player, he possesses great potential.

“He is an intelligent player, he has extraordinary qualities, notably in a one-against-one situation.” Nevertheless, Nasri was dropped for the draw with Romania four days later.

Sochaux playmaker Marvin Martin

Today, the player went on the offensive, hitting back at his detractors, many of whom have been imploring Blanc to start Sochaux midfielder Marvin Martin, who had 17 assists in Ligue 1 last season – a divisional best – insisting that they are too critical and are trying to create conflict within the French ranks.

“That talk about a pseudo-conflict with the coach [Laurent Blanc] weighed me down -You [the newspapers] killed me” said Nasri ahead of the matches with Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Paris over the next six days.

“When i drop deep, you say: ‘You’re too deep’. When I stay high you say ‘You’re not making an effort’. You criticise everything.”

Nasri, 24, also explained what he believes to be his best position – Another question that has been persistenly asked of him and his international manager in recent times – as it is questioned exactly how to get the best out of the playmaker.

Opinions are mixed as to whether he should he start for Les Bleus as a number 10, or playing from a withdrawn role on one of the flanks, where it’s widely felt he carries a greater goal threat, something with which Nasri himself agrees.

“At City I play on the left, or in the centre” continued Nasri. “The only person who says I’m better on the right is Arsene Wenger”

“I might score more goals (from the wing) than in the centre. [But it’s] because i dont want to touch the ball or organise the play as much.”

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