x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Michel Bastos – A lethal weapon with a dead ball

Al Ain’s former Brazil international is something of a free-kick specialist and measures a cross with pinpoint accuracy, writes Ian Hawkey.

Michel Bastos, right, is being utilised in his favoured attacking role on the left-hand side for new club Al Ain. Satish Kumar / The National
Michel Bastos, right, is being utilised in his favoured attacking role on the left-hand side for new club Al Ain. Satish Kumar / The National

When Michel Bastos was a boy, aiming for the stars as a footballer and asserting his right to take direct free kicks, those who did not know him well smirked.

They would wonder out loud how such a thin, frail-looking kid thought he had the power to thump a ball hard enough at goal from more than 20 metres away.

Then, as Bastos recalls when telling the story of his development, they would be surprised at how much dynamite could be concealed in his left foot.

At Al Ain, there have already been some glimpses of that power, and last weekend provided real evidence that the Bastos cross, a key weapon throughout his career, is something Asamoah Gyan, in particular, will come to appreciate, as the centre-forward will be on the receiving end of them.

The Bastos left foot is a superb tool for any coach – and Al Ain may now have finally settled on who they want to be giving instructions to a squad that includes, in Bastos and Gyan, a pair of quarter-finalists from the last World Cup – and was once highly coveted across the upper echelons of European club football.

Not so long ago, Bastos was identified by Juventus as potentially the key to their wing-back strategy.

Three summers ago, he was a fixture in Brazil’s squad at South Africa 2010.

Manchester United scouted Bastos for a sustained period. He has a Uefa Champions League semi-final, with Lyon, on his resume.

He had the option of participating in Europe’s ultimate club competition this season, too, because a six-month loan spell at Schalke earlier this year included enough good displays that the Germans wanted to keep him on.

In joining Al Ain, Bastos instead found himself at a third employer in the space of nine months. He played his last match for Lyon, where he spent three and a half years, in mid-January, was straight into Schalke’s team in February and stayed in it until May.

If moving so often suggests a restlessness, that would probably not be fair.

But what Bastos has encountered regularly in his career is different, sometimes confusing interpretations of where he is best used on the pitch.

Versatility can sometimes be a burden, when you are asked to flit between left wing, left full-back and the right of midfield.

His preference is for an advanced role on the left flank, free enough to attack the penalty area and shoot, but with responsibilities attached that acknowledge he was once identified as the heir to a position which has a special resonance for Brazil, the left-back.

When Bastos, with only a few caps under his belt, was selected by Brazil’s 2010 coach, Dunga, to be the left-back at the World Cup, it raised some eyebrows mainly because he had such a small bank of international experience and was ascending to a position staffed by only two players in the six previous World Cup tournaments.

The legendary Branco and the phenomenon Robert Carlos were hard acts to follow for a demanding Brazilian public.

Branco’s left foot had been so forceful a cannon he was said to sometimes deliberately aim his first free kick of a match at the body of an opponent in order that they were so hurt they and teammates would turn the backs or duck their heads when forming the wall for any later Branco set pieces; Roberto Carlos’s speed and immunity to fatigue meant Brazil came to expect their left-back to be two roles: defender and winger, as well as an expert with a dead ball.

Bastos still talks about the 2010 World Cup as the peak of his career, but the outcome, elimination by the Netherlands at the quarter-final stage, was not a happy one.

Brazil adopted a game-plan veered to the right flank, and the runs of Maicon. Bastos had low visibility. Dunga lost his job after it. Bastos was not selected by his country again.

His club coaches, notably Claude Puel, who worked with the player at Lille and at Lyon, would argue his national team had not appreciated his best strengths, which are as an attacking midfielder.

At his best, Bastos is a brilliant crosser, effective on the counterattack because of his ability to pick out his target early and from deep, but also skilful and swift enough to beat a marker in one-on-ones, get closer to the goal-line and pitch in a measured centre.

Some of his most effective periods with Lyon were when he serviced an in-form Bafetimbi Gomis, the club’s athletic striker.

France’s Ligue 1 had been Bastos’s second attempt at cracking European football, after a lonely spell in the Netherlands as a teenager.

He had a tough childhood, marked by tragedy, the death of his twin brother, Daniel, hit by a car while crossing the road.

Michel and Daniel were six years old at the time. Michel’s sporting ability would eventually uplift the whole family’s economic circumstances, and Bastos tells interviewers that, without it, he may have fallen into a life on the margins of society, as some of his childhood friends did.

Colleagues from his time in France report he has a love of music, a talent at playing the pandero, a Brazilian instrument similar to a tambourine.

And teammates express wonder at the power he can unleash, approaching a dead ball without a long run-up, and without exaggerated backlift.

“It’s something amazing, the way he can strike a dead ball,” Robinho, with whom he played alongside in the Brazil national team, once said.

Al Ain’s new man in charge should expect to see Bastos regularly at work on his special gift with free kicks when official training is over.

sports@thenational.ae

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Player of the week: Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain)

Asamoah Gyan, the league’s top scorer for the past two seasons, had a rather subdued start to the campaign for Al Ain as the two-time defending champions crashed to a 3-1 defeat at Al Shabab.

The Ghana captain, returning from international duty, had perhaps not recovered fully from the injury scare that had threatened to rule him out of the 2014 World Cup qualifier against Zambia on September 6.

Against Ajman, though, he was back in full flow, scoring both the goals for his team as they scraped to a 2-1 win.

Playing without Omar Abdulrahman, Al Ain needed Gyan to make a difference, and he did.