A Tactical Manoeuvre…

Delving into Croatia’s tactics, strengths and weaknesses ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018

Tactics are a football nerd’s wet dream, now I’m not here to go all Football Manager fanboy on you, but similarly, I won’t be leaving you thinking I’m some kind of pre-historic Mike Bassett-type either; nevertheless, I have been watching Croatia closely recently (God bless YouTube) and here is what I found.

Overview

Croatia qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018 via the Play Offs under the guidance of Zlatko Dalic and playing a very familiar 4-2-3-1. They secured 7 wins in 12 games using this formation and even when his predecessor, Ante Čačić, was in charge at the beginning of qualifying they rarely deviated from this. Clearly, Croatia use personnel to fit the tactic, rather than the other way round.

Their formation uses two central defenders and two wing backs who support the inside forwards when in attack. The holding midfield duo, usually Luka Modrić and Milan Badelj, stay in position when the team is attacking, although one of the two occasionally moves forward to support the attack. The formation can also become a 4-1-4-1 with Modrić playing the lone holding midfield role, on these occasions Badelj moves forward into the central midfield, this in turn allows Ivan Rakitić  more space in attack. The inside forwards, with Rakitić or Modrić as the central player of the three, support the lone striker and also look to move into the outer channels to provide crosses into the opponent’s area. Depending on the situation the tactic can be easily be changed to a 4-3-2-1 by substituting an attacking midfielder for a defensive midfielder.

Defence

Croatia’s defensive durability was demonstrated by conceding just 5 goals during their whole qualifying campaign. Their central defensive partnership of Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinić, is an intelligent one and they are rarely pulled out of position. Although it cannot be denied Strinić and Vida provide a physical aerial presence they do concede goals in the air; three of their five goals conceded in qualification came from either a left wing cross or a high ball into the area. This is a concerning trait and also points to a weakness with their full backs. These problems persisted during their recent friendly games as the defence again struggled against these deliveries.

Their goalkeeper, Danijel Subašić, is a fine shot stopper, but his command of the area and his communication with his defence is questionable. This lead Croatia to concede a number of chances (not to mention a couple of goals) because of defensive lapses of concentration. These defensive problems will need to be rectified quickly.

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Midfield

This is where Croatia’s greatest strength lies. They have a plenitude of midfield talent in the shape of Rakitić, Badelj, Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić.

In most situations Croatia use Modrić as the defensive midfielder and Rakitić as the classic attacking midfielder, but either can revert these roles and this has been shown a number of times in qualifying. Croatia, while attacking, have also pushed Modrić forward from defensive midfield to support the attack, this can be especially effective when the opposition defence is pressed back on to their own 18-yard line. In this situation it isn’t uncommon to see Modrić’s very good long range shot which can be used to dazzling effect on occasions.

Rakitić is usually the conduit between midfield and attack; an immensely energetic and talented playmaker, he often holds his position when Ivan Perišić and Marko Pjaca or Nikola Kalinić are pressing from the left and right hand sides of attack. When Croatia switch to the 4-1-4-1, Rakitić and Modrić assume opposite points of a midfield diamond and this can be fruitful against a similarly strong attacking midfielder like Modrić’s Real Madrid teammate, Isco.

One notable line of attack is, unsurprising given their wealth of technical ability, the through ball and shot from the edge of the area, with six of the 18 qualifying goals coming this way. Another is their great proficiency in being able to work the ball in to the area with simple, short passes coupled with great awareness. This route was responsible for a significant number of goals from just inches out during qualifying. Again their technical ability in midfield is a huge part of their success and this works well with the predatory instincts of Mandžukić and company up front.

Simply put, you cannot give this midfield time to think and pick out a pass or shot on goal. This is one of the keys to their attacking prowess.

On the flip side, Croatia lacks a physical midfield presence. Even though Modrić is adept at holding the midfield he lacks the physicality to consistently control the middle and protect the defence. They have on occasions played Badelj in this position but if they were to move to a 4-3-2-1 it would give the defence, and Modrić, more support, while still maintaining their attacking midfield shape.

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Attack

Croatia’s attack has a physical bluster about it. Juventus forward, Mario Mandžukić and Inter striker, Ivan Perišić have primarily played as the lone striker but have also provided support from the left attacking midfield position. Both provide the opposition defence with different problems; Mandžukić provides the height and power, while Perišić is more of a technical forward with a great left foot. They can also be supported in a three-man attack by inside forwards such as Marko Pjaca and Nikola Kalinić when they need to score goals.

A impressive ten of their 18 goals in qualifying came from crosses or corners and it is obvious the sound service to the attack is vital in Russia. Despite this success, Croatia do not play with any real out and out wingers so the high percentage of goals from corners and crosses suggests a reliance on their full backs to get forward. They also rely on the left and right attacking midfielders moving outside to hold up play and provide crosses and this poses its own problems, as a lack of bodies in the middle will hurt their goal scoring chances. They may face a battle to provide consistent service if they are stifled and pinned back by the better teams in Russia.

Despite a wealth of attacking talent Croatia only scored 15 goals in ten games before the 4-1 aggregate victory over Greece in the Play Offs. Mandžukić scored five (although three of those were against Kosovo), Perišić scored one goal and Kalinić three goals. This against teams of the calibre of Finland and the aforementioned, Kosovo. This is slightly worrying and the strikers will need goal-scoring assistance from the midfield in Russia.

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Verdict

Croatia will almost certainly line up with the flexible 4-2-3-1 in Russia and the keys to their progress will be the stability of their defence, the creativity in midfield and providing the striker with the best quality service. If any of these were to stall, particularly the persistent problems the defence faces against crosses, then Croatia will be in for a short stay at this year’s tournament. If all click into gear they could be well on their way to emulating their 1998 counterparts.

 

Rebel With a Cause…

Zvonimir Boban kick starts Croatian independence

Athens, 18 May 1994, AC Milan, led by Fabio Capello, had just completed a 4-0 rout of favourites Barcelona in the Champions League Final. Zvonimir Boban was at the heart of the victory. A gifted, dogged, playmaker, he had completed a journey of absolution since an incident which became known as ‘the kick that started a war’ in 1990.

Zagreb Riot

A fervent supporter of Croatian independence, Boban had joined the pro-Croatian team, Dinamo Zagreb as a part of their youth academy in 1983. He went on to be a prominent member of the Yugoslavian side which won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 and captained the Dinamo side at just 19 years old. In 1990 however he would be part of an event which many believe was the catalyst for the Yugoslav war which followed.

The war itself began in June 1991, however ask any Dinamo Zagreb fan or supporter of Croatia and they’ll tell you it started during a riot at the Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade game in May 1990. A dangerous time politically; the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb had recently held its first multi-political party rallies for over 50 years and there had been a lot of pro-Croatian independence support in the following weeks.

The game itself saw two vitriolic rivals square off, not only rivals on the pitch but also politically. Red Star fans were (and still are) notoriously pro-Serbian and had Serbian crime boss and later paramilitary leader, Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan), in among their hardcore fans. He became part of the Serbian army during the war and would later be charged by the International Tribunal for War Crimes.

The resulting riot was no real surprise. Reports of violent clashes outside the stadium already had the police on high-alert before the game, however, the Pro-Serbian police, stood back and watched the Red Star fans tear up seats, sing pro-Serbian/anti-Croatian chants and throw missiles into the surrounding Dinamo fans. The enraged Dinamo ultras saw this as a clear message that the police were supporting the actions of the Red Star contingent and attempted to climb and pull down the perimeter fence which held them back. The fence eventually gave way and the ultras poured on to the pitch, many police officers were assaulted and both sets of fans clashed for over 70 minutes, fires were lit and the toxic smoke of fire and tear gas filled the air before police water cannons arrived at the stadium to disperse the warring fans.

During the riot many of the Dinamo players stayed on the pitch and Boban witnessed a defenceless Dinamo fan being beaten on the ground by a police officer, incensed at one of his people being brutally treated, ran over and, Eric Cantona-style, kicked the officer before being helped to escape by an assortment of Dinamo fans and players. It isn’t surprising the police didn’t try to arrest him given the level of violence already happening around them.

Boban immediately became a Croatian hero, however the Yugoslavian FA (heavily pro-Serbian) wanted him brought to trial to face prosecution, but instead they banned him for six months. This resulted in him missing the 1990 FIFA World Cup, at which a proficient side containing many of the victorious 1987 World Youth Championship team, reached the Quarter Finals.

It is believed the incidents of that day signalled an almost rebellious inspiration among the Croatian people and they saw the riot and the assault by Boban as a movement against the Pro-Serbian Yugoslavian government.

Many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian army in 1991, while their Red Star rivals joined the Serbian army, as Dubrovnik among other cities became the focus of the world at the start of the Yugoslav war. Many years later, 2006 to be precise, I was in Zagreb for the Croatia versus England game (the one where the ball skipped over Paul Robinson’s foot). I was chatting with a group of drunken and loud, although perfectly decent and welcoming, Croatian fans in a bar. They recounted, via one of their group who spoke perfect English, their recollections of the war. Needless to say their accounts were mostly abhorrent and it was clear the mental wounds of the war were still very raw.

Success in Milan

Boban, made his move to Italy in 1991, with Milan paying £8m for him. Milan had already become a dominant force of world football in the late 1980s under Arrigo Sacchi, their back to back European Cup wins in 1988 and 1989 were the stuff of legends and lead by the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.

Current Milan manager, Fabio Capello, had noted Boban’s attacking midfield prowess and felt his creative, determined style would suit his already celebrated team. Boban began a period of acclimatisation on loan at Serie A relegation-fodder, Bari, and played 17 times during the 1991/92 season. Milan won the league that season and would retain it during Boban’s first season with the Rossoneri the following year, this despite Milan winning only one of the final 11 games.

Boban certainly had some illustrious company in the Milanese midfield, the aforementioned Gullit and Rijkaard were joined by Boban’s former Yugoslav team mate, Dejan Savićević , Roberto Donadoni and Demetrio Albertini. But Boban wasn’t at all out of place and made 22 starts during their victorious 1992/93 season.

Milan and Boban made it a hatrick of league titles under Capello as they secured the 1993/94 scudetto. Their European dominance, while not winning the Champions League every season, was stunning. Milan made the Final five times in a seven-year stretch and won three. Their famous pummelling of Johan Cruyff’s Barca was sandwiched in between 1-0 defeats to Marseille and Ajax, in 1993 and 1995. Boban started in the latter two finals and his performance in the defeat of Barca is one to behold; an intelligence and tenacity, he won the midfield battle against José Mari Bakero and Guillermo Amor of Barca.

Croatia’s Golden Generation

In 1996 Boban represented his newly-independent Croatia as they made the Quarter Finals at UEFA Euro 96, he played in all four games and scored Croatia’s second goal in a 3-0 trouncing of Denmark at Hillsborough. He also famously captained the Croatian team at the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France, his fiery nature and strong character made him the perfect choice to captain a nation only independent a few years previous. Boban played all but one game as they impressively reached the Semi Final by defeating Germany and Romania along the way. Croatia eventually finished third, after securing a 2-1 win against Holland in the Third Place Play Off. Boban assisted two of Davor Šuker’s six goals in the tournament; Croatia’s opener against France in the Semi Final and the winner versus Holland.

Boban’s Milan career peaked as the 1990s drew to a close and he became the very definition of a trequartista. His incredible vision and playmaking abilities were his most recognisable attributes, there were many occasions where he played defence splitting through ball or performed a back heel or dummy to open up the defence and shift the play in another direction. A very unselfish player, he was often the unsung hero of countless Milan wins.

Croatia failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and after 51 appearances he retired from international duty in 1999. Boban left Milan in 2001 and joined La Liga team, Celta Vigo, but after an unhappy few months in Spain he announced his retirement in 2002.

Life After Football

Since retirement he has never shied away from voicing his opinions on the fortunes of his former Milan side, but despite his continued involvement and opinions on the game he has publicly stated he will never become a coach.

Even during his younger days Boban was known as a literary man, and during retirement he gained a masters degree in History from the University of Zagreb in 2004. He also became a successful television pundit in Italy and back home in Croatia.

Always an outspoken and vociferous character, Boban was a good choice to join a newly reformed FIFA in 2016. As a result of the FIFA corruption scandal he was appointed their Deputy Secretary General in 2016, it was hoped Boban would bring some transparency and accountability to a badly rotten organisation. (Ironically, in a tremendously vague statement from his employers they stated his role was assisting with “developing the game and organising competitions”).

The fall out of his actions at the Dinamo and Red Star game may have been the spark which started the Yugoslav war but Boban has no regrets, he later said;

“Here I was, a public face, prepared to risk his life, career and everything fame could’ve brought, all because of one ideal, one cause, the Croatian cause”

Willing to give up everything for something you believe heavily in is an admirable trait and no matter your opinion on his actions you cannot deny Boban has unbelievable resolve and spirit, whether defending his people or playing the game we love.

 

 

 

 

 

Flair, Composure, Petulance, Cigarettes and Alcohol…

The life and times of Robert Prosinečki 

Robert Prosinečki a dynamic, intelligent and technically gifted midfielder. A footballing journeyman who made over 400 league appearances across five countries. He won a European Cup, World Youth Championship, played 49 times for Croatia, 15 times for Yugoslavia and played at two FIFA World Cups. Partial to a drink and a cigarette during his playing days, he played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and had a one season stint at Portsmouth later in his career.

Prosinečki is probably best remembered for his performances at the UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup 1998 in France, and in particular the goal versus Jamaica in their opening game. The goal is one of genius; an intelligent, audacious chip over the goalkeeper from an impossible angle. He helped lead his side to the Semi Finals on their World Cup debut and the team won many fans across the world. He also played and scored for Yugoslavia at Italia 90, thus making him the only player to have scored for two nations at a World Cup Finals.

German-born Prosinečki started his career at Dinamo Zagreb but only made a handful of appearances as a teenager. His father pressured for a professional contract with Dinamo but their well-respected and fearsome manager, Miroslav Blažević, famously shunned the request and was reported to have said he would “eat his coaching diploma” if Prosinečki ever became a real footballer.

Something had to give and eventually his father orchestrated a move away from Zagreb. He approached then European powerhouse, Red Star Belgrade, met with Director of Football, Dragan Džajić, and arranged a trial for 18-year-old, Prosinečki. They were extremely impressed with what they saw and started contract negotiations immediately. This obviously ruffled some feathers back home in Zagreb and the way in which Prosinečki left was a grudge Blažević would hold against him (he left Prosinečki on the bench for Croatia’s World Cup Semi Final against France in 1998). Blažević later blamed Prosinečki’s father for his unceremonious exit from Dinamo, stating he refused a four-year contract on Robert’s behalf and already had contact with Red Star before the negotiations with Dinamo began.

Nevertheless, Prosinečki immediately became a first team player at Red Star and won the Yugoslav First League in his debut season, no doubt to the annoyance of Miroslav Blažević. His skill, vision and shooting ability would help drive Red Star to the pinnacle of European football a few years later. Domestically, he won three league titles with Red Star and made over 100 appearances in four years.

Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslavia side at the FIFA World Youth Championships 1987 in Chile. They won five of six games and defeated West Germany on penalties in the Final. Prosinečki’s composure and energy won him the tournament’s Golden Ball. It is little surprise Yugoslavia won the tournament as one only has to look at their squad to see why; Davor Šuker, Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović, were just a few of the players who would become household names across Europe over the next decade.

He was very much in the right place at the right time as the late 1980s and early 1990s were a golden period for Yugoslav football, much like Romanian football around the same time, they too produced an unlikely European Cup winner. Their European expedition began with a 5-2 aggregate win over Grasshoppers of Switzerland, Prosinečki scored two penalties in a 4-1 Second Leg victory.

Prosinečki was on the score sheet again as Red Star defeated Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the Second Round. He scored his fourth of the competition in a 6-0 aggregate win over Dynamo Dresden in the Quarter Final. It’s worth noting Red Star were leading 3-0 from the First Leg and 2-1 in the Second Leg in Germany, when the game was abandoned due to rioting by Dresden fans; Red Star were awarded a 3-0 win.

The Semi Final was a tense affair with Red Star shading a 4-3 aggregate win over Bayern Munich, a last minute own goal from Bayern’s Klaus Augenthaler gave Red Star their place in the Final.

Red Star defeated Marseille in the Final in Bari, Italy. A penalty shootout was required to separate the teams as they played out 120 goalless minutes. Red Star inscribed their name into European folklore and with that win they remain the last eastern European side to win the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. The squad from the 1990/91 season was a who’s who of young Yugoslavian players who went on to become international stars; alongside Prosinečki were Vladimir Jugović  who played for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, Lazio and Atletico Madrid, Siniša Mihajlović (Inter, Lazio, Roma and Sampdoria), Darko Pančev (Inter, VfB Leipzig and Fortuna Dusseldorf) and also Dejan Savićević (Milan).

Predictably, Prosinečki’s own move abroad wasn’t too far away and he joined Real Madrid in 1991, a step up in quality and one which should have suited his playing style, however he didn’t settle as he would’ve hoped and endured an injury-plagued three seasons at the Bernabeu, making just 55 league appearances.

Prosinečki was loaned out to Real Oviedo in 1994 and he had arguably his best spell outside of his homeland. His improved fitness, dynamism and flair really came to the fore and in just 30 league appearances his performances caught the eye of both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Prosinečki became a free agent at the end of the season and chose to join Barca, signing a three-year contract in July 1995. However once again injuries damned his time at a new club and he was sold by Bobby Robson to Sevilla in 1996. He unfortunately endured a miserable time in southern Spain and the club were relegated from La Liga at the end of the 1996/97 season. It was time to head home.

Having made 124 starts in six years in Spain he returned to Dinamo Zagreb, now renamed Croatia Zagreb, in 1997. Prosinečki slotted right into the team and guided them to two league titles and thus two Champions League appearances. His influential role as captain in Zagreb’s midfield was the catalyst for their success and he helped to guide and advise some of Croatia’s future stars; just as he was involved in the last great golden generation ten years previously. The Croatia Zagreb team of that era sent six players to the 1998 World Cup in France, an impressive number considering the quality of their team at the tournament.

Prosinečki’s injury-hit career drew to a close with stints in Belgium, England and Slovenia, before returning home again in 2005. He is much relished from his time at Portsmouth as his performances helped save the club from relegation during his season there and this lead to him being elected into their all-time best XI in 2008.

Prosinečki’s lifestyle vices certainly didn’t affect his performances, although he later acknowledged their effects on his body during his retirement from playing. His energy, determination and work rate remained second to none throughout his career. It is a shame however that his career with European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona were so badly affected by injury, it is obvious a player of his immense talent deserved to be able show what he was capable of for many years at one of Europe’s colossal clubs. Revered for his performances on the international stage for Yugoslavia and later Croatia, Prosinečki remains one of the country’s most successful players. Croatia teams since his retirement have had an abundance of midfield talent and there has been more than a little ‘Prosinečki’ about them; masses of desire and technical ability all mixed together with a little egotism.

From the Rubble to the Ritz…

How independence catapulted Croatia to the top of world

The Croatian national team’s rise from the shadow of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and independence in 1991 to become one of the world’s top teams before the end of the decade is one of defiance, hope and solidarity. Lead by the lethal instinct of Davor Šuker, the rebellious swagger of Milan number ten, Zvonimir Boban, the industrious work ethic of midfield general, Robert Prosinečki and the defensive wall of Slaven Bilić and Igor Tudor they stunned the world in France 1998 and were minutes away from the Final.

They made their tournament debut in England in 1996 and straight away they gained the unshakeable dark horse tag. A team peppered with fine technical ability, they beat Denmark 3-0, with Šuker scoring a delightful chip over Peter Schmeichel for their third cherry-on-top-of-the-cake goal. They finished second in their group after they recorded another win over Turkey. Despite being knocked out by eventual winners Germany in the Quarter Final, it had been a very respectable start to their international adventures and they would have an opportunity to take revenge on Germany just two years later on the biggest stage of all.

Qualifying for the 1998 World Cup pitted them against rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina; two politically charged games saw Croatia triumph, 4-1 in Bologna and 3-2 at home.

Denmark gained some revenge for the Euro 96 defeat as the Laudrup brothers both scored in a 3-1 win in Copenhagen. With just two games remaining the win helped he Danes top the group, two points ahead of Croatia, they in turn finished a point ahead of Greece in third.

Croatia were left to slug it out in the Play Offs as one of the best runners up. The first leg of their tie against Ukraine saw them take an invaluable 2-0 lead, courtesy of Bilić and Valencia’s, Goran Vlaović. An early Andriy Shevchenko goal in the return leg made the remaining 80 minutes very anxious indeed, but they held their nerve in front of 77,000 to record a 1-1 draw and thus a 3-1 aggregate win. Croatia were going to their first World Cup; a huge achievement given the infancy of the country itself, but not entirely unexpected given the level of talent in the squad. The question was could they do themselves justice and show the world what they were capable of?

The draw saw them up against one of the tournament favourites; Argentina, and fellow tournament debutantes, Japan and Jamaica. Maybe the scheduling was a little kind to Croatia as they would play Argentina in the final game and the feeling was they would both have already qualified and thus the teams could play out a competitive, but predictable, draw. Croatia would be without powerful target man, Alen Bokšić, through injury, but they were fancied to at least progress to the Knockout Rounds.

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Their first game against Jamaica in Lens saw Boban become the first Croatian to captain his country at a World Cup and they were given a fine start as Mario Stanić fired them in to the lead just before the half hour. But the much loved Jamaicans equalised through Wimbledon player, Robbie Earle; a fine header from a left wing cross just minutes after the restart. Not to be denied, Croatia took control in the second half and cruised to a maiden victory with two goals in a 15 minute spell from Prosinečki and Šuker. Prosinečki’s goal was sheer class, bordering on arrogance, he shaped to cross a free kick on the right hand side of the area, he dummied instead; completely fooling the wall and chipped a beautiful shot over the stranded goalkeeper and into the far corner. A single goal from Gabriel Batistuta was enough for Argentina to see off Japan earlier that day in Toulouse.

The second round of games saw Argentina destroy Jamaica, 5-0, with Batistuta netting a stunning 10 minute, second half hatrick. Jamaica’s cause certainly wasn’t helped by the sending off of Darryl Powell in first half injury time. Argentina were through and Croatia joined them as a late Šuker goal was enough to give them a slender 1-0 win over Japan. So as predicted both Croatia and Argentina had qualified with a game to spare and their game in Bordeaux saw Argentina claim top spot in the group with a 1-0 win, their first place finish set up a Knockout Round game against England in Saint-Étienne (we all know what happened there), while Romania awaited Croatia on 30 June.

The winners of the Romania and Croatia tie would face Germany in the Quarter Final after they were victorious the previous day against Mexico. Croatia eased past a similarly talented Romania side, 1-0. Davor Šuker despatched a 45th minute penalty at the second attempt as the referee had ordered it to be retaken. Croatia were well worth their win as they dominated the game and the score line flattered Gheorghe Hagi’s Romainia somewhat.

The Croatian adventure continued with a Quarter Final game on 4 July against a Germany side who had not been at their best during the tournament. They had requiring a last minute winner against Mexico in the Knockout Round and had to overturn a two-goal deficit in their group game against Yugoslavia. However, their squad had plenty of match winners, they had won Euro 96 two years previously and not to mention the fact they were playing a team which hadn’t even existed the last time they won the World Cup.

Croatia took no notice of their respective records and during a very physical game Germany were made to look prehistoric by the fresh, exciting Croatians as they inflicted Germany’s heaviest tournament defeat for 40 years. The Germans’ nadir would soon arrive after their catastrophic Euro 2000 campaign and it would lead to their eventual revolution and redemption.

Croatia were clinical and confident though, attacking full back, Robert Jarni opened the scoring just after half time with an arrow of a shot into the bottom corner. The tide turned even further towards Croatia when Christian Wörns was harshly sent off just before half time. Vlaović doubled the lead on 80 minutes with a goal in technique and style which was similar to Jarni’s opener. The third came about from a wonderful display of determination, balance and skill from Šuker as he wrapped up the rout a few minutes from time. Revenge for the Euro 96 defeat was exacted in style.

Although most would consider the win an upset it actually wasn’t so far away from an expected win. Manager, Miroslav Blažević, a huge supporter of Croatia’s independence, had moulded an extremely well drilled team, with no shortage of flair and technical ability. Their eventual elimination was against the hosts in the Semi Final, four days later in Paris. It looked like the impossible may happen when Šuker gave them the lead just after half time as burst through the French defence to fire home past Fabien Barthez. However barely a minute later the hosts equalised through Lillian Thuram and he doubled his tally with 20 minutes remaining to put France through to the Final. Ironically, those two goals were Thuram’s only goals for the national team in 142 appearances.

Croatia dusted themselves down and faced off against Holland in the third place play off. Golden Boot winner and star striker, Šuker, scored the winner in a 2-1 victory as they finished the tournament in third place.

Croatia had been within a whisker of the world’s biggest cup final, a simply magnificent achievement for a country only recently recovering from a civil war. Long considered to be Yugoslavian, the players had their own identity, their own country to play for and this manifested itself into their exhilarating and joyful performances on the pitch. It’s been 20 years since their World Cup debut and they have yet to match that performance at France 98, with the likes of Modrić, Mandžukić, Perišić and Rakitić in the 2018 squad they have the quality to succeed again.

 

Croatia looking to make the leap from perennial dark horses to champion thoroughbreds

Assessing the Vatreni ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Despite only being a recognised nation since 1993, Croatia have been to five of the last six FIFA World Cups. The famous team of the mid to late 1990s were previously unknown to many but their now distinctive red and white checked shirts, mixed with a little eastern European enigma, put Croatia firmly among the world’s best and shot them to fame as they achieved third place in France 98. That squad with players such as Golden Boot winner, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Igor Štimac and Zvonimir Boban, were the toast of France with their stylish attacking play.

They have struggled to reach those heights since, but they’re constantly predicted to be in with an outside chance of at least the Semi Finals at every tournament they enter. With many of their players turning out for Europe’s top teams such as Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić and Luka Modrić, they will surely be rubbing shoulders with the elite in the latter stages in Russia.

As far as qualification was concerned they were drawn alongside UEFA Euro 2016 Quarter Finalists, Iceland, as well as Finland, Ukraine, Turkey and qualification debutantes, Kosovo. The questionable ability of their opponents will have filled Croatia with a ton of confidence, however with just one automatic place for the group winners, they would have to be consistent for the whole campaign.

The road to Russia began at the Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb, in September 2016, however the hostile crowd wasn’t present after UEFA had ruled the team must play two games without fans present after they were found guilty of discriminatory chanting during two games against Israel and Hungary in March 2016.

Their first game against Turkey ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a decent start against a team who like their hosts had suffered a few down years after their 2002 World Cup Semi Final appearance. However, the match was dominated by Croatia and Rakitic’s penalty on the stroke of half time should’ve been the catalyst for them to win, but Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s equaliser just a minute later meant the points were shared.

All of the first round of games were 1-1 draws with Kosovo securing their first ever point in their very first competitive game, away to Finland. Kosovo’s draw was all the more remarkable as they had only been accepted as members of UEFA a few months prior to qualification commencing.

They were the next opponents for Croatia as they travelled to Albania for the game on 6 October, Croatia were a much more severe test than Finland as a hatrick from Juventus hitman, Mandžukić, helped the Croatians to an easy 6-0 win. England’s Euro 2016 subjugators, Iceland, jointly held the group lead with Croatia after two games after they defeated Finland, 3-2. Two Icelandic goals in injury time helped them snatch the win from the jaws of defeat.

Croatia took charge of the group three days later against luckless Finland. Mandzukic was the Croatian match winner once again as they won by a single goal. For Finland, their qualification campaign was all but over already and they failed to register a shot on target to further compound their grief. Iceland, however, continued to match the Croatians point for point in an early skirmish for group superiority as they eased past Turkey, 2-0 in Reykjavik.

The next international break saw the two group leaders clash in Zagreb, the second of Croatia’s games behind closed doors, the home team secured a vital 2-0 victory courtesy of a brace by Inter Milan midfielder, Marcelo Brozović. The hosts had Ivan Perišić sent off in injury time but it mattered little as they were now two points clear of nearest rivals Ukraine; they continued their decent start by seeing off Finland (poor, Finland!), 1-0 in Odessa.

A Nikola Kalinić goal was enough to secure a win over qualification rivals, Ukraine, at home in March 2017, while Iceland kept the pace with a 2-1 away in against Kosovo.

The top two met in Reykjavik for their return fixture on 11 June; a win would put Croatia within touching distance of the Finals, however an injury time winner from Hördur Magnússon gave the hosts a priceless win and put them joint top on 13 points. Turkey and Ukraine also recorded wins, versus Kosovo and Finland, to move them to within two points of the leaders.

The tense final rounds in September saw both joint group leaders lose, first Iceland suffered a shock 1-0 loss in Finland, this while Croatia were easing to a 1-0 home victory over Kosovo. Three days later it was the turn of Croatia to lose, this time a trip to Turkey saw them lose only their second game of the campaign and the group leaders were tied again.

Croatia were set up nicely to visit Ukraine in their last game and secure qualification, however the penultimate game away to Finland saw the host’s Pyry Soiri score a last minute equaliser to cancel out Mandžukić’s fifth goal of qualifying in Rijeka. This gave Iceland the chance to overtake them and they did just that with a tremendous 3-0 win in Turkey. They now lead by two points with just one game remaining. Croatia had seemingly been cruising through qualification but now relied on Kosovo taking a point or more from their group rivals in the last round of games on 9 October. Croatia played their part as they won 2-0 in Kiev, however, as expected Iceland held their nerve and comfortably won, also 2-0.

That meant Croatia were sent into the lottery of the Play Offs, they were comfortably one of the best eight runners up after amassing 20 points. Due to their impressive qualifying record they were seeded and could’ve face either Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden or Greece; none of them particularly easy.

They were drawn against Greece, with the first leg to be played in Zagreb. The game started in a whirlwind of action as five goals were scored before the hour, four to Croatia. Modrić, Kalinić, Perišić and Andrej Kramarić fired them into a very strong position going into the return leg three days later. The tie was all but over before a ball was kicked in Piraeus and the teams played out a 0-0 draw.

Despite their brief lapse in concentration in qualifying Croatia have made another Finals and will fancy their chances against Argentina, Nigeria and, in a delightful twist of irony; qualification rivals, Iceland. However, they will need to be more robust in attack after scoring just 15 goals in ten games (England and France scored 18, Spain, 36 and Germany, 43). Conceding a mere four goals in qualifying shows they’re durable at the back, and with the return of veteran, Vedran Ćorluka, they could be a match for Lionel Messi and company in the Group Stage.

Much is expected of qualification top scorer, Mandžukić, Barcelona star, Rakitić and Real Madrid veteran, Modrić, especially as they could all be playing in their last Finals. The Croatia squad has a profusion of talent but simply playing in the Group Stage isn’t enough and they will be disappointed if they don’t better their previous two World Cup performances.

The Beautiful Game Versus The Black Dog

A very personal subject and a huge issue for modern sport.

The life of a footballer, or indeed any professional athlete, is one fans envy; the glory, the money, the fact they’re being paid to do a job an ordinary fan would probably do for free. It makes them seem superhuman to us mortals. But what about the person behind the fame and Luis Vuitton washbag? What about when the dream turns into a nightmare and we see the real human behind the veneer?

As males we’re told from an early age to “man up”, were told that “boys shouldn’t cry” and all the usual “stiff upper lip” macho nonsense. Depression is an unseen illness, there are no outward physical symptoms, and even in 2018 people who claim to be living with the symptoms of depression are sometimes thought of as weak minded or are merely making it up. The real shame in all of this is that some young boys and adolescents actually believe this and by the time they move into adulthood they’re a lot less likely to discuss their feelings (something which is seen as a feminine trait) especially with their peers. Now imagine you’re a footballer, from the time you’re barely into your teens you’re taught to be strong, both mentally and physically, to be better than everyone else. This elitist attitude is certainly a good trait when we’re moulding our next generation of footballers, however it magnifies those fears of weakness and isolation when mental health problems arise.

There have been many well publicised cases of players receiving help for mental health conditions; Chris Kirkland, George Green, Stan Collymore, Darren Eadie, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Adrian Mutu, Fernando Ricksen, Andrew Cole and Paul Merson, to name a handful. Some of those players are a big presence on the pitch, a captain, the face of their club. Even Juventus legend, Gianluigi Buffon, sought treatment for depression in 2003. During an interview later on he recalled the “dark periods” he had experienced. It is safe to assume if a hugely successful and iconic player such as Buffon can experience depression then absolutely anyone can. One may ask the question “what does he have to be depressed about?” But when you’re in that zone nothing else matters; the money, the big house, the adulation of the fans. Nothing. One would easily give it all up in a heartbeat just to feel better again.

If there is anything good to come from their struggles it is that their public recognition of the illness has given the courage to a number of fans and players to admit they need help. Former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, who was jailed in December 1990 for drink driving as a result of years of alcoholism, set up the Sporting Chance foundation in 2000. It provides a quiet, safe environment for male and female athletes to receive counselling and treatment for all types of mental health problems. They have also branched out into training and education and regularly attend organisations across the UK to spread the word of addiction and mental health treatment.

In Germany, Teresa Enke, widow of Robert Enke, formed a foundation in his name after he committed suicide on 2009. The aim of the foundation is to help educate people about depression and heart conditions in children (those familiar with Enke’s story will know his daughter died from a heart condition, aged just 2 years old). In October 2016 they developed the EnkeApp, which not only provides information on mental health treatment but also acts as an emergency help button for people contemplating suicide. By using the app an alert is sent to the emergency services and users can be located via GPS.

There are, unfortunately, more players like Robert Enke, who have attempted to take it a step further than most and tried to end their lives. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998 after experiencing problems after publicly admitting he was gay in 1990. Former Leeds United and Newcastle United player, Gary Speed, also committed suicide in 2011. Although no history of mental illness had been reported by Speed or his family, it is believed the pressures of managing his professional and personal life contributed to his decision to end his life. Speed’s death evoked action by the FA as they sent out a booklet on mental health to all their members and over 50,000 former players. It may only be a booklet but at the very least the problem is being recognised by the FA and the best case scenario is with a greater awareness of the matter tragedies like this will be prevented.

If society is to rid itself of years of ridicule and ignorance around mental health, then it needs to get away from sensationalism of the issue. It is an illness, not an affair with a porn star. By the same token when a celebrity tells the public they’re gay, why does everyone go into a frenzied meltdown? The issues of mental health and sexuality, while important to people’s lives, are no more sensational than boiling an egg. Admittedly the more exposure these issues have, the less likely they are to appear shocking. However, it is a very fine line which the media treads, in the case of The Sun, they’re about 40 miles past the line. In 2003, boxer, Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The Sun ran a front page headline stating “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. This was hardly a surprise from such a less than reputable newspaper and it certainly didn’t help people accept the seriousness of the situation, instead it made a joke out of it when it was anything but.

In the 15 years since then there have been huge strides made to raise awareness of the issue, charities like Mind and CALM have helped people to better identify the symptoms and get the help they need. As a result, society is more educated and a little more compassionate towards those in the same situation, but the stigma of weakness still exists. That stigma is made up of two parts, the first being a general ignorance around mental health itself, the second is the perception towards players of the wider public. These are going to be the hardest issues to tackle and changing people’s attitudes in an increasingly opinionated world is going to be hugely difficult.

Footballers suffer from the problem that their profession is right in the middle of the media spotlight, we all know this goes with the territory and most people believe the players themselves court this hype. However, when things go wrong the feelings of guilt when they’re being expected to perform without question and be a role model, week after week, are significantly increased. Last year 160 Professional Footballer’s Association members sought advice and help for mental health problems through the association; 62 of which were current players and managers. The question is how many more out there need their help but feel too ashamed because of the stigma, to speak up?

It is churlish to place footballers above everyday people simply because of their profession. Nearly 20% of the population in the UK are affected by anxiety and depression, however in most cases because the average fan cannot relate to the life of a modern footballer they often take their admittance less seriously than people of their own peer group, as a result footballers are seen to be attention seeking or exaggerating to gain the public’s sympathy. The footballer’s feelings of how they will be perceived is part two of the stigma and places most of them in an impossible situation.

The negative perception isn’t just restricted to opposition fans and the media. In February 2018, Cowdenbeath player, David Cox, described how he was not only the target of fans but also opposition players for merely speaking publicly about his own mental health problems. No doubt it took Cox great courage and determination to not only face the fact he needed help but to also speak up and acknowledge it for everyone to hear and judge. The positive work by charities, the NHS and the football authorities has increased awareness but the David Cox case highlights the point that most footballers aren’t afforded the luxury that you or I have; namely keeping these issues within a close network of family and friends. It is little wonder footballers suffer in silence or speak up when the situation is much worse than it needs to be.

The focus for awareness amongst footballers tends to be on those who are in their 20s and 30s and are at the peak of their careers, however there also needs to be significant attention afforded to what players do with their lives after retirement. Their career is very short when compared to the majority of professions and they can be out of the game by their mid-30s, some retire earlier, whether through injury or just a simple lack of ability. Long gone are the days where a footballer retired to run a country pub or a post office, and even with vast sums of cash in reserve, not properly occupying your time can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. Without sensible investment, education and preparation for retirement during their careers a former player can easily spiral out of control and struggle with loneliness, boredom and debt and turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling, amongst others, as coping mechanisms. Many players have ended up penniless within years of retirement; Geoff Hurst had to claim unemployment benefit in the early 1980s after leaving football for a short while (it is a scandal the FA didn’t offer him a job for life, but I digress). Former Aston Villa player, Lee Hendrie, was almost another tragic case; he tried to commit suicide twice before being declared bankrupt in 2012. Former England goalkeeper, David James, is another example. Despite playing at the highest level for a number of years (and thus being expected to have accumulated a significant retirement fund) was declared bankrupt in 2014.

It is a fair argument that these players, who have had everything done for them from their youth days in the academies, aren’t used to fending for themselves, especially where financial matters are concerned. The responsibility is not only with the individual and their club but also with their agent. A good agent will obviously guide and advise the player, however in a world of ‘super agents’ who very often appear to be acting in their own interests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn this doesn’t happen very often. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players of today manage when they retire over the next decade.

There is also a need, one which is probably more important than focusing on adult professionals, and that is to ensure tomorrow’s adults are well cared for. The necessity for clubs to be an extension of social services is more vital than ever with hundreds of young men and women being released by English academies every year. They have been fed a dream of money, fame and glory from an early age and to have it taken away and be pushed out into the big, wide world can often be too much for some. In March 2013 a young man who was released from a Premier League academy at 16 committed suicide after suffering with mental health problems following his release. Currently English academies provide education and training for players between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as teaching life skills and emotional wellbeing courses. Significantly both the Football League and Premier League manage their players’ expectations throughout their time in the academies and keep in touch with the boys and girls they release for up to four years after. It is hoped by demonstrating a dedication to the duty of care beyond the football pitch they can help prevent the tragic suicide of 2013.

Depression and other mental health conditions are extremely complex and while patients can be medicated and treated one can simply not explain the power of the mind, the power that it holds over us, every day. Depression is an abhorrent illness and one which makes the sufferer disengage from society. This is its most debilitating symptom; it makes you do exactly the opposite of what you should do in order to receive help; it prevents you from speaking up.

This article has been troubling to research and write, not least because of my own personal experiences with depression, but I am glad I did. I usually sum up my articles with a question or give the reader something to think about, this time I’ll change it slightly and bring myself into it. I too have met with my fair share of negativity on the subject of my own mental health, but I believe the world is much more educated and sympathetic than it used to be. While writing this has brought back a lot of old memories it is nothing compared to that of the tragedies face by the Enke, Speed and Fashanu families. I survived, I received help. Over the years I have managed to more or less deal with this horrific illness and I urge anyone reading this who is struggling to cope to seek help, see your doctor or speak to one of the many mental health charities out there. Former Wigan Athletic and Liverpool goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, said in an interview, “I just want people to know that you’ve got to talk. I never saw a way out until I started talking” I agree with him; it worked for me.

www.mind.org.uk

www.thecalmzone.net

The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

desciglio-juve-concentrato-2017-2018-750x450

Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

sport-lichtsteiner1

De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

Fiorentina vs Juventus

Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.