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Interview with Andy Brassell

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Andy Brassell, or ‘the Top Brass’ to regular World Football Phone In listeners, is a freelance football journalist, with a knowledge of European football that matches Tim ‘Vickapedia’ Vickery’s knowledge of all things South American.

Not only is he an expert on France, Portugal, Germany, England and Spain, but he also knows his stuff on the Russian league. And to cap it off, he has even written All Or Nothing:A year in the life of the Champions League and launched a web-based video show on football.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Brassell some questions on all things European football, including Barca v Real, Grenoble vs Xerez, Man City’s title aspirations, and a Valencian bat named Joaquin, a bat with a “cheeky grin and electric turn of pace”. So without further ado, the interview:

Firstly, how did you get into sports journalism?
I just drifted into it really. I wrote on Wimbledon for a local newspaper when I was a teenager, then much later went for a job at a European football magazine. I didn’t get it, but was invited to pitch freelance stuff and it snowballed from there.

What has been your favourite interview?
Perhaps one of my first, with Paul Lambert, then of Celtic. His story is an interesting one, and he thinks more broadly about the game than a lot of UK footballers and managers, I’d say – probably because he was quite shaped by his time at Borussia Dortmund.

Realistically, can Manchester City win the title this year?
Not likely but possible. I wondered pre-season if they really had the quality the money spent would suggest, but at least the players they’ve bought have proven Premier League experience (eg Adebayor, Barry). There’s less between the top four this season and I think it’s very possible that City will at least crack the top four at the expense of one of the others. The great unknown is how they will recover after a few poor results. The dressing room has its share of volatile characters and it will be fascinating to see how successful Mark Hughes will be at keeping a lid on that.

Who does Manchester United need to buy in January to win the title this year?
Not sure they need to sign anyone. It’s impossible to replace Cristiano Ronaldo with just one player because he could fulfil so many different functions for the team – goalscorer, set-piece taker, winger, target man. But the players they have facilitate switches between different systems; 4-4-2, with wide players or a midfield diamond with Anderson at the tip and the full-backs providing width, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3. Valencia is already bringing his influence to bear, Anderson is beginning to have more attacking influence, Berbatov is improving and I’m sure Owen will weigh in with important goals.

Who does Liverpool need to buy?
Where to start? People were surprised when I said 18 months or so ago when I said Liverpool needed to buy five or six to be serious about the title, but if you look at how beholden they are to Torres and Gerrard, I think that was justified. They need a) a midfielder who can sit in front of the defence and pass to replace Alonso. They should have asked Real Madrid to include Esteban Granero in the deal, I think. b) A creative midfielder. Relying on Aquilani is dangerous in light of his injury record and how long he may take to adapt to the English game. Benayoun is a fine player but not really of the level that he should be propping up a team with Liverpool’s ambitions. c) Better quality reserve strikers. They may well regret letting Keane and Crouch go.

Can Portsmouth stay up?
Yes. There’s a lot of rubbish in the bottom half of the league, Portsmouth are not yet stranded and they do have some decent players (Yebda, Boateng), though it’s difficult to build a team from scratch. If they have money to spend in January a good striker is a must though.

Lyon has started the season well, but given Montpellier is equal with them, and Bordeaux are only a win away, do you think Lyon can maintain their strong start and win the title?
Montpellier are over-performing at the moment, but deserve a lot of credit. They have a steady coach (Girard), and a good mix of talented young ones (Alberto Costa, Montano) and experienced Ligue 1 players (Dernis, Pitau, Compan etc), so their success isn’t a total mystery, but ultimately they’ll do well to finish in the top eight. Bordeaux and Lyon have both had a little wobble of late but there’s little wrong with either squad. I had these two down as competing closely for the title pre-season and see no reason to change my mind – Marseille are a tad behind them both. They both look strong physically and mentally, and Lyon have a lot more stickablility and guts than last season, as well as the players to open up tight games. I think Lyon will just edge it on the basis they have slightly more quality on the back of the summer signings.

Bordeaux and Lyon have both started the Champions League group stage well, do you think any of the French teams can go far this season?
Bordeaux have looked excellent so far, and they’ve clearly leant a lot from last season’s participation. This shows what a good coach Laurent Blanc is. If, as seems likely, they get to the last 16, I do wonder how they will balance this with domestic demands. Recently they rested a few for a league game with St Etienne (after the Maccabi Haifa game) and were consequently roasted. Lyon’s first choice XI will give anyone a game. I still think they could do with greater squad depth, but they will really hope to get a favourable draw for the last 16 this team – they’ve pulled the eventual winners in the last two seasons.

Grenoble or Xerez, who would win?
Simply on the basis that Grenoble are still pointless you would have say Xerez! Grenoble have been a touch unlucky but their success last season was based on a good start, a surprise factor and a solid defence, none of which they’ve had this season. Their failure is just the logic of gravity really – they are of modest means, as shown by their signings, like Daniel Ljuboja, a decent player but one who has barely played for three years. Likewise with Xerez. They are certainties to go down, but hopefully for them they can take experience (and some money) with them so they can come back stronger.

Being a Valencia fan I’ve been followed S.C Braga pretty closely this season because our loanee Hugo Viana is playing pretty well there. Do you think Braga and Viana can maintain their current form and keep Porto from yet another title?
It’s a great story and coach Domingos Paciencia has done a good job, but their squad isn’t deep enough to maintain. Viana’s form however is very encouraging and if he should keep it going there’s definitely room for a playmaker of his talent in the Portugal squad.

Sporting Lisbon hasn’t had the greatest start and they find themselves sitting in 4th. Do you think they’ll push up and make it to next years Champions League? And if not, will some of their stars (João Moutinho or Miguel Veloso) move on?
Paulo Bento is on thin ice. They’ve not really progressed and the new signings (Caicedo, M Fernandez, Angulo) have yet to prove themselves. They’re finding it hard to strike the right balance and I think they will miss out on the Champions League. Moutinho and Veloso will certainly move on but if I were in the shoes of either of those two, I would look at myself and ask why it hasn’t happened already, especially in the case of Veloso. They have the talent to become mainstays for Portugal and strong European club sides but are no longer just promising youngsters and need to start properly fulfilling their potential.

As I said before, I’m a Los Che fan, so do you think that Valencia can avoid multiple disasters this season and make their way to a Champions League spot?
You always have the feeling there’s another disaster around the corner, don’t you? The squad is very good quality, and they definitely have a chance. The fact that they can’t really spend could work for them – take Banega, who has had a chance to play himself back into an important role in the team. Also, Emery is able to create a camaraderie in the squad, aided especially by Villa and Silva, great players who have shown real commitment to the cause as well.

Simple question now, Barca or Madrid?
Barca by a whisker, simply because they already had a good team structure in place. Real Madrid will be interesting to watch but it’s open to question how long they will take to come up with a tactical system that everyone’s happy with. Also important is how long Pellegrini will have to get it right, and will he be able to cope with pressure from upstairs to play the stars in every match?

Just a quick question on the Russian League, do you think that Russia will soon be one of Europe’s leading leagues?
It has made big strides already, as CSKA (2005) and Zenit’s (2008) UEFA Cup wins prove. But the geography and climate is a problem, and of course not one that can be changed. Russia has been able to attract young South Americans in particular with large wages, but they and other leading players still aspire to England, Spain and Italy. Big players are reluctant to go and if the investment tails off at any point, how will Russia maintain the status quo, let alone develop and expand?

Now while I was researching for this, I found out that you have a stuffed Valencian bat called Joaquin. How did that come about and do you have a soft spot for Los Che?
I picked him up whilst working in Valencia some years ago. His cheeky grin and electric turn of pace were just irresistible! Valencia’s a great city, vibrant and with a great football tradition, even if it’s less celebrated than Madrid or Barcelona. Definitely recommended for a long weekend and the Mestalla is very atmospheric.

And finally, are you going to make the journey out to Australia anytime soon and admire the next world footballing superpower?
If you lot get the World Cup, then maybe! I’ve already been to Australia a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. Australia is such a terrific sporting nation I’m sure a World Cup there would be fantastic (and it will, without doubt, happen at some point). I went to a day of an Ashes Test at the MCG in December 2006 and it’s such a great arena that the inevitable three-day pasting from the Aussies was surprisingly bearable!

Thank you to Andy for agreeing to answer my questions, and providing such great, detailed answers.

Andy Brassell now hosts the Soccerlens Show, a weekly video review of the weekend footballing action around Europe. Follow the show here.

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