Time for renewal

As fixtures pile up,club coaches face task of keeping players sharp ahead of key ties

Written by New York Times | Cornwall | Published: September 18, 2012 3:25 am

ROB HUGHES

It is too early to talk of crises or winning the prizes. But as fate would have it,Real Madrid and Manchester City,the richest clubs on earth,are set up for a crunch meeting in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Neither team has yet hit its stride. They are trying to blend in new stars purchased in August,and trying to get time with those stars who spent last week on World Cup duties.

That is soccer’s conundrum. Players in top clubs like Madrid and City have barely established friendships with the arriving stars,but journeyed far and wide last week to play for their countries. Then they returned for domestic league contests on Saturday,and by Tuesday will be engaged in a Champions League encounter.

Three different competitions,countless air miles,different routines,climates and time zones in between. Professionals at the top of their game,they are expected to win whatever the circumstances. It doesn’t work that way. On Saturday,Manchester City thrust three of its recently signed players — Javi García,Scott Sinclair and the Brazilian right back Maicon — in at the deep end,struggling to draw,1-1 at Stoke City.

Real Madrid fared even less well. It trailed after less than two minutes to Sevilla,getting nothing in a 1-0 defeat that leaves it already eight points behind Barcelona a month into the new season. Barcelona,under new coach Tito Villanova registered their fourth successive win,starting even more impressively than they did under Pep Guardiola,their trophy magnet. It helps,of course,that so many of Barça’s players grew up together in the academy. And it helps,mightily,when Lionel Messi is on your side.

It matters intrinsically that Messi’s ego is as small as his talent is huge. Just returning from leading Argentina to two impressive performances in South America,and the new coach greets him: “Welcome home,Leo,you are on the bench today.”

There was no ego tantrum. When he got to play the final quarter,Messi still had time to bag a brace of goals. By contrast,no one quite knows what is wrong with Cristiano Ronaldo. He isn’t injured,and isn’t playing that badly. But by his own admission,he has been sad “for professional reasons that the club knows.”

“It’s got nothing to do with the rumour of the last two weeks,” coach José Mourinho said.

Big ask

Mourinho’s methods demand an intensity from players that is hard,perhaps impossible to sustain year after year “There are very few heads in the team who are committed and concentrated,and who have football as the priority in their lives,” he added. “When you don’t have people who are committed,it’s tough.”

Coaches,especially this one,take the plaudits and the rap. And Mourinho did not shirk that obligation: “I am the coach,and if there are people who aren’t committed it is my fault,” he said. “The image of my team at this moment is a team without concentration,without the willingness to compete.”

“For Sevilla,every ball was the last one in their life. They played with perfect aggression in everything.”

Factoring changes

He has the numbers to make changes,but very little time. Luka Modric,Madrid’s latest new playmaker,may in time help create a rhythm laced with the kind of desire the coach demands. But Tuesday could come too quickly,especially as it pits Mourinho against City coach Roberto Mancini. Their paths have crossed before in Italy,where Mourinho replaced Mancini as head coach at Inter,and imposed his ultrademanding,organized method,doing what Mancini’s Inter couldn’t — it conquered Europe.

The task of managing players,and of constantly renewing the formula to keep players motivated,is unforgiving. Yet Arsène Wenger has refreshed Arsenal for 16 seasons,and Alex Ferguson has been doing that with Manchester United for over a quarter century.

On Saturday,Arsenal’s new midfield maestro,Santi Cazorla,and striker Lukas Podolski guided the team to a 6-1 win against Southampton. Manchester United beat Wigan,4-1,with Paul Scholes scoring in his 700th match for United and Alexander Buttner and Nick Powell,making their debuts,also scored. “Managing change,” Ferguson once said,“is the hardest job in the world.” He manages it better than most.

Champions league

Tuesday’s fixtures

Real Madrid vs Manchester City LIVE on Ten Action 12.15 am

Montpellier vs Arsenal

AC Milan vs Anderlecht

Dinamo Zagreb vs FC Porto

PSG vs Dynamo Kiev

Olympiakos vs Schalke

Malaga vs Zenit St Petersburg

Borussia Dortmund v Ajax

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