Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don't look back in anger

"The English just don't work on developing players like Alonso - a 'pivote' in Spanish terms."
– Phil Ball, April 18, 2005

My denial ended this morning when I saw that Xabi Alonso handed in a formal transfer request at Liverpool. He's set, certainly now, to move to Real Madrid for somewhere in the area of £30 million or a bit less. It's an excellent profit on the £10.5 million Rafa spent in 2004 for him, but it's only money. Liverpool is clearly the loser in this transaction.

The above excerpt from Phil Ball is from what has always been my favorite take on Alonso. Nothing I've ever read elsewhere about Xabi's unique skills and ability to play the game ever matched up so closely with how I felt about what I was seeing from him. I strongly encourage you to read the entire piece, Ball's take on Liverpool's place in the European game after the 0-0 draw in Turin that paved the way for the miracle of Istanbul. Oddly enough, Ball's 2005 Champions League analysis also holds the answer to how we've arrived at today, with Liverpool set to lose its absolutely priceless "pivote."

"I remember late last summer when Alonso's transfer to Liverpool was confirmed. He'd been in Real Madrid's orbit for several months, and there had been rumours here in San Sebastián that he'd signed some kind of pre-contract agreement with them - something Xabi always denied.

He has a flat just around the corner from me (well - it belongs to his folks) and almost every morning before he packed his bags to try his luck abroad he would have his café con leche (in a glass) and croissant in my local bar. One morning, as he sat quietly on his own on a barstool reading Marca, some wag standing at the bar quipped 'Xabi! Don't go to bloody Madrid, please!' Alonso looked up from the tabloid and smiled. 'I'm not going there. Don't worry', whereupon the local star went calmly back to his coffee and paper.

What neither I nor the wag knew at that precise moment was that José Antonio Camacho, newly returned to Madrileño fields to sort out the galácticos, had told Florentino Pérez that he didn't fancy Alonso - that he wasn't his type of player. Pérez, who had been previously advised by the Director of Football Jorge Valdano to buy Alonso at all costs, was keen on placating Camacho at that delicate point in proceedings, and wanted him to feel that he he could get his own way, particularly in matters of signings. This had been Camacho's big whinge the previous time he'd walked out on the club. So Alonso was dropped from the shopping list, Benitez replaced Houllier at Anfield, and wasted no time in bringing him over to the Mersey."

In 2009, there is no more Camacho that needs to be placated. There is only Valdano who tells Perez how to spend the money – wherever it's coming from. And with Xabi making his intentions unmistakable, here we are then.

It is impossible – and, I would maintain, improper and impolite, too – for Liverpool supporters to look angrily toward Alonso for choosing this move. He is owed every gratitude for his part in the two most thrilling Liverpool stretches of this decade: the miracle of Istanbul (only possible because of his brilliance in Turin in that 0-0 with Juventus when Gerrard didn't play) and his consistent brilliance last season, when the team made its most serious, sustained run at the title.

But from a personal standpoint, I owe Alonso for the lifelong gift he gave me during his time with Liverpool. He showed me how to understand – really understand – the game: how it works, how attacks form, how its most thrilling aspect – the pass – can reveal the joys and exhilirations that come with watching it. I am one of those ignorant Americans the popular press enjoys mocking. I've never played the game at any serious level, didn't grow up watching it, had no mentor to show me the ropes at any point. In 2004, I was blindly watching Liverpool, having only grown attached to the team in about 2000 when I first seriously started watching football. In the five years Alonso spent at Liverpool, that all changed. Alonso's approach to "executing football" unlocked all the doors for me, and I came to treasure the sport beyond those who just thrill at the sight of a grease-topped fancy lad spreading his legs over a free kick, his ass perched daintily in the air, and blasting the ball over a wall. Brilliant free kickers and penalty takers come and go. But Alonso, this was someone whose calm, reasoned approach to distributing the football explained to me in easy-to-understand terms how 11 players work together.

I'll watch the game for the rest of my life through Alonso-colored glasses. I couldn't be more grateful.

Good luck, Xabi – to an extent, of course. As a Liverpool supporter, I so desperately want the team to meet Madrid in the knockout stages of the Champions League that it will likely border on a type of mania as that stage of the competition approaches. It is not hatred for you or what you want to accomplish. I hope Liverpool gets a chance to face you at your best. You felt insulted by the Gareth Barry madness of summer 2008, responded with your finest-ever season and then chose to move on. I can accept that. Rather, it is the colorful trinkets that have been assembled to surround you at Madrid that I want Liverpool to conquer – again, I should remind.

Here's hoping that meeting is coming up soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Emiliano ‘the balls’ Insua about to get the shot he needs to blast the Premier League into a concussed state

Match Pricks has no choice but to interrupt its summer-long smacking of Jintao in the face to actually get back to business and post something today. Yes, you've forgotten about us, but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, those of you who could be bothered to remember we exist during the Summer of '09 are back here reading this today. And there's a good chance you're as jacked into the stratosphere as I am because you heard Fabio Aurelio hurt his knee pretty seriously while playing with his children back home in Brazil.

Why is a serious injury to Aurelio being greeted so warmly? Why am I positively giddy about a loyal, effective servant looking at a long stretch out of action? It's all about the balls, baby.

Type in the term "Insua" on our handy-dandy Match Pricks search engine here, and you're going to to find buckets of high praise for Emiliano Inusa, who is by any definitiion, the balls when it comes to exciting possibilities for Liverpool out of the left back position. Insua blew doors off the League at times and offered thrilling attacking possibilities when pressed into duty last season in December while Aurelio was hurt and Dossena was playing like he was wearing the opposition's shirt.

In short, I'm hopeful Aurelio loses his spot in the first team. Yeah, that sounds awful, but I have seen the way and the light, and its name is Insua. He was unfairly ripped from the team in January to go play in some U-20 hooey-phooey tournament for Argentina. He never got all the way back into the lineup – mostly because Aurelio in the second half of last season was so amazing. Still, Blackburn at Anfield as spring was sprung featured Insua and Riera performing an Astaire-like showstopper of movement and one-touch passing up and down the Liverpool left flank that looked like professionals giving some good-natured business to a group of giggling schoolchildren.

Fabio, you're amazing. We love you. We really do love you. The free kick at Old Trafford last year is seared into my memory. Your second-half play was a jolt of energy to a nervous bunch of fans clinging to a title chase that didn't pan out. I hope your health returns and you live a happy life that includes much more football.

I just want to see Insua charge out this season and blow the dicks off the Premier League. The kid is incredible. And I'm certain given an extended run with the first team, we're going to see even more great stuff. With Johnson and Insua out there, well, whaddya know, Liverpool will feature a pair of attacking fullbacks. Who knew?