Lazio opt for experience as Inter extend lead

Before I start with the main topics of this blog, as an addition to the previously mentioned trouble at Lazio, an update is in order. Sky Sport Italia reported on Tuesday that manager Davide Ballardini had been sacked by sporting director Igli Tare, following the orders of president Claudio Lotito. This is little surprise as the side, as mentioned last time, has been suffering both on and off the pitch. Taking his place in the hotseat is Italian Edy Reja, who was with Croatian outfit Hadjuk Split. 64 year-old Reja has been in Croatia less than a year after taking charge in the summer. Prior to this, he had a four year spell at Napoli, leading the Partenopei back to the top flight from Serie C1. However, he was replaced in March by Roberto Donadoni. Staying in Italy, Inter’s previously cancelled away trip to Parma was played on Wednesday night, ending in a 1-1 draw, with the Gialloblu’s midfielder Francesco Valiani being sent off mid-way through the second half for two bookable offences. Substitute Mario Ballotelli equalised for the leaders after the Gialloblu took the lead through Valeri Bojinov. The game also featured a cameo performance from ex-Parma midfielder McDonald Mariga, whose new side are now nine points clear of second-placed Roma.

In Spain, Getafe beat Sevilla 1-0 in their home leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, but the victory was not enough, with the Andalucians progressing to the final with a 2-1 aggregate victory. In reality, they should meet Atletico Madrid, who go into their second-leg tie against Racing Santander with a 4-0 advantage from the home clash.

The main topic of this blog is the Euro 2012 qualifying draw, which took place on Sunday. The tournament, to be held in Poland and Ukraine, will be the last European Championship tournament to include 16 teams. From Euro 2016 and beyond, there will be 24 teams. From the nine groups drawn, there are seven groups with six teams and two groups with five. The top team from each of the nine groups will qualify automatically, along with the best runner-up across the nine groups (classified by the total points scored by all teams finishing second against the teams ranked first, third, fourth and fifth in their respective groups). The remaining eight runners-up will be drawn in two-legged playoff matches to finalise the final four qualifiers.

I think the first point to make is that very little can be decided from the qualification draw. No matter how impressive a team is in qualification, it will not equate to lifting the trophy on July 1st 2012. Out of all the top ranked sides, Portugal probably has the toughest group, being drawn alongside the Scandinavian trio of Denmark, Norway and Iceland, along with the Cypriots. However, I think it is expected that all nine of the top teams will qualify. To be fair, England seems to have a pretty tough group, despite the capabilities Switzerland, Bulgaria, Wales and Montengro being dismissed very swiftly by the British press. Fabio Capello’s charges cannot afford to fail as they did so spectacularly in the autumn of 2007, missing out on proceedings in Austria and Switzerland. An argument could even be made that defending World Champions Italy will have to be exceptional at home after being drawn with Serbia, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia and Faroe Islands. The latter two will not pose a threat, but Serbia is a strong side, Slovenia has qualified for the upcoming World Cup and Northern Ireland, in recent years, has shocked many big nations at home (remember 3-2 win against Spain).

France should cruise through their group. This is on the assumption that after a dismal failing in the World Cup, the French Football Federation will finally do something that they should have done long ago, which is sack Raymond Domenech. A new coach will hopefully bring through some of the younger players that les Bleus has in its talent pool. That said, Bosnia, not Romania, will provide the French the biggest test. Bosnia is a growing power in European football. With players such as Zvjezdan Misimovic, Edin Dzeko and French-based Miralem Pjanic, the Bosnians will be dangerous underdogs and teams will want to avoid the side should it qualify for the play-offs.

As defending champions and arguably the best side in world football, it is hard to look past Spain dominating its group with the faltering Czech Republic, Scotland, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. It is also hard to bet against the Spanish being in the final and retaining its trophy in 2012. Such is the quality of the side that, along with Brazil, the betting odds are very short on them. The scary thing for the other top European nations is that Spain’s squad has plenty of outstanding players the right side of 30 and that there are many more to come. Their squad is littered with guys who have won major titles – Fernando Torres, Iker Casillas, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique – the list could go on and on. Some have written that the Czech Republic will pose problems for the Spanish, but I find this difficult to believe. Tomas Necid is a solid striker and Petr Cech is usually an excellent keeper, despite many suggestions that his powers have never been the same since his head injury a few years ago. However, this is an ageing squad, who will soon have to wave goodbye to veterans like Martin Jiranek, Libor Sionko and Tomas Rosicky, who, to be fair, cannot be relied upon given his awful injury record that have taken their toll on the players ability and physical attributes.

One player who should be in the Spanish squad for the qualifying campaign, with some suggestions that he might even make the World Cup squad, is Racing Santander’s wonderkid Sergio Canales. The giants of European football have been linked with the prodigiously gifted playmaker after he exploded onto the scene with some wonderful performances. Indeed, it has been the magnitude of these showings and his maturity that has led to Real Madrid to stealing a march on the potential suitors. It is widely expected that Canales will join Los Merengues this summer.

For those who do not know too much about Canales, go to youtube and run a few searches and watch some clips of him in action. Having played for Spain at every youth level up to U19, this is just Canales’ second professional year in the game. Last season under then-coach Juan Ramon Lopez Munis, Canales made six substitute appearances. At the start of this season, he found himself still warming the bench under new boss Juan Carlos Mandia, with the highlight of his cameo showings being his 20 minute spell that helped Racing secure a 2-2 draw after being 2-0 down. His star began to shine after a string of poor results saw Mandia replaced with former Real Madrid youth coach and technical director Miguel Angel Portugal. Portugal’s first game in charge was against Real Madrid and Canales was hugely impressive with half-hour substitute appearance. The whole of Spain sat up and began to watch out for this kid.

In his first start just two games later, Canales led Racing to a 4-0 win over Espanyol, grabbing two goals in the process. Despite not being a regular starter, probably to protect him as he is still only 18, teammates have lauded him as “incredible”. His playing style has been likened to that of Guti, minus his innate ability to self-destruct. Given his coach’s history with Madrid, along with the previous deal struck between the two sides for Ezequiel Garay, which allowed the defender to stay at Racing for a couple of seasons, it is widely expected that Canales will be wearing the white of Madrid.

Would a move to Madrid be good for the youngster? Many in Spain are divided on this. Unsurprisingly, Barcelona legend Johann Cruyff believes that Canales should stay at Racing. Sergio Ramos has agreed, though believes it should be on a loan deal, with the player being on the books of Los Blancos, mainly because the midfield area of Real is so competitive. Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Guti, Esteban Granero, Rafael van der Vaart, Mahamadou Diarra, Fernando Gago and Royston Drenthe – a pretty stacked midfield squad. Added to this, the previous cases of Antonio Cassano and Wesley Sneijder should be looked at. Both were heralded as fantastic creative players but never lived up to their potential at the Bernabeu. Fortunately, they both moved on and have found success elsewhere, but they both serve as a warning to Canales. However, given that Madrid is expected to loan Canales back to Racing, there is a greater track record of success when doing this at the club. Ruben de la Red (before the heart problems), Ezequiel Garay and Esteban Granero have all experienced similar treatment and went on to do well for Madrid and even Alvaro Negredo (loaned to Almeria, came back to Madird and sold to Sevilla) has succeeded.

The move to Madrid, via a season or so at Racing, in my opinion, seems to make sense for the player, both clubs and Spain’s national team. With Guti and Raul ageing, Los Merengues will be looking for a new Spanish talisman to lead the side. Spain boss Vicente del Bosque has recently suggested that he is taking a close look at Canales and, provided he continues his development and avoids injuries, a role in the national team either behind a lone striker of Torres or Villa, or even coming in off the flank is a tantalising prospect for the player who many are touting as the next golden boy of Spanish football.


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