Sunday, February 19, 2012

Renewing Old Rivalries

So here we are again at the business end of the season. The time of year that gets the juices flowing and the nerves tingling.
And let’s face it, this has been no ordinary season. Already it will go down as one of the most bizarre PL season in its 20 year history, and indeed on its 20th anniversary. Only this season could throw out such oddities as an 8-2 home win followed so closely by a 1-6 home reverse. Tight, tactically fraught contests in the pasts have been played out in defensive calamity and attacking gusto simply never encountered. It’s been so unpredictable, the bookies must have made a mint.
And so reads the season report. Man City are in dreamland. Even the Sheikh must have expected a further year of stealthy growth as part of his 5 year plan but they sit rather handsomely at the summit. Man U are somehow hanging in there. Only two points separate the Manchester clubs but the much greater authority has been shown by City and the only plaudits you can pay United are that they simply never give up. City really should be much further clear by now and it is still not inconceivable that Man U will win that 20th title and also the Europa League with this team which would be amazing really. Despite my well documented disdain for the current first choice midfield, I do think Fergie only needs 2 midfield players of genuine quality to make United impregnable again. Spurs have all but nailed down 3rd place. This is a great achievement for a club used to scrapping away for a European place and yet they are now easily the best club in London and deservedly so playing arguably the most attractive football in England. Shrewd signings and under-rated man management have seen them reach this pinnacle but it is also partly down to an implosion down the King’s Road and across North London with both Chelsea and Arsenal horribly inconsistent and for different reasons a distinct lack of faith in the managers and their tactics. In reality they have also been badly let down by their players.
And so what of Liverpool? Believe it or not I’m quite pleased to see them progressing so well in the cups. It cannot make up for yet another hopeless attempt at the title which was all but over by mid October – again. Yet it will provide some momentum and feel-good factor to an embattled club whose heritage and fan base should see them performing at the top table on a regular basis.
Let’s move quickly past the Suarez factor. It annoyed me intensely that so much was made of the Liverpool vs. United connection. Frankly it had nothing to do with that. It was actually more black and white. Yet this rivalry was stoked by the media who could not resist stirring up tensions and the undoubted ‘fix’ of the FA Cup draw drew attention away from the seriousness of the allegation and made it personal between the players and clubs.
So there’s no love lost but I am yearning for this rivalry to mean something again. When Fergie came in vowing to ‘knock them off their perch’ even he must have hoped that United would generate their successes at the direct expense of Liverpool. The fact that Liverpool have only really challenged for the title once in the last 20 years will have filled him with no great satisfaction, and that’s the same for me. I want United winning titles in a tough battle against Liverpool. Honestly, I’m not being disingenuous. Of course I want United to prevail but it is getting quite dull to send my customary piss-take to all my Scouser- supporting mates before I’ve even tucked into my Christmas turkey.
So come on Liverpool. Show some fight and go on and win the odd cup. Go ahead and attract some proper players to the club, worthy of wearing the shirt and let’s have a proper battle at the summit. Until you do, the rivalry remains somewhat devalued.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Is it game over for 50 over games?

Thank goodness for England. Without England, this World Cup would be nothing more than a damp squib, devoid of any excitement or any way of getting the juices flowing. After a winter of genuine thrills, this encore has failed to gather any momentum. The Ashes, this is not.

Much has been written and said about this format of the game. Does this tournament signal the death knell of the 50 over one day game? Much will depend on whether it delivers in the knockout stages and also how the IPL, which follows hot on its heels, is received globally.

One thing is for sure, whoever was responsible for deciding on a month long group stage needs a reality check. During the football World Cup, there are often 3 games a day. Set across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, there are plenty of grounds for multiple games to be played daily. Canada vs. Kenya as today’s singular fixture was never going to set pulses racing.

OK so we’ve had a couple of hat tricks, the fastest century at a World Cup and some lusty hitting using T20 tactics but these have been the exception rather than the norm. Far too many teams are simply going through the motions and frankly it’s all a bit underwhelming.

Back to England. What a rollercoaster so far. A hugely unconvincing win over the Dutch was at least still a win. Then a pulsating game against hosts India saw the game swing first one way, then back another and in the end though England escaped with a draw, they really should have won once Strauss and Bell had laid the foundations of a record run chase.

This performance should have given them great heart in a game they were expected to lose but signs of sloppiness evident in the first two games really came to the fore against the plucky Irish who really looked dead and buried at 111-5 chasing 328. The bookies had them at 400-1 to recover and win the game at that stage and no one was going to take that!

After capitulating, the spotlight has firmly been on a couple of players, notably James Anderson who looks a pale shadow of his usual self. The magnificent Ashes effort and the birth of his child appear to have taken their toll.

Hitherto, the batsmen had proved their worth but against arguably the best bowling attack in world cricket, England’s batting line up wilted and they were bowled out for 172, well below par. South Africa started the chase well but seem to find it hard to shake off the long associated tag of ‘chokers’ and following a much more disciplined performance from the England bowlers, succumbed a few runs short.

KP’s exit from the tournament may not be a disaster. His replacement Eoin Morgan is one of the canniest one day players in world cricket and is adept at keeping the scoreboard ticking over. This will undoubtedly be a valuable trait as the tournament progresses when clever nibbling and nurdling in the middle overs will be required.

Elsewhere, well there really is nothing to note so far. You never quite know what you’ll get from Pakistan but they’ve started well. Bangladesh have generally been a huge disappointment on home territory falling to an embarrassing all time low world cup total of 58 against the Windies, of who not much is really expected.

India have been steady. There are harder tests to come but they look a well balanced side and the game against the South Africans this weekend could be a belter. Sehwag’s world cup opening innings will live long in the memory, and both the Little Master and young pretender Kohli have already cashed in. Their batting line up is truly supreme. The Turbanator will have a big role to play as the tournament reaches its key stage. A nation expects and the pressure is on.

Let’s hope for a couple of cracking games this week as I’ve not spoken to anyone yet who is the least bit enthralled with this tournament and it needs a game or two more like the epic England vs. India game from last weekend.

England play Bangladesh next. Should be an easy victory given the hosts’ wretched form but you never quite know what to expect from England and at the moment that uncertainty is the only thing keeping this tournament alive. Just.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Most pivotal game of Fergie's reign?

Remember the date – March 6th 2011. This is the date that Sir Alex Ferguson has been awaiting for nearly 25 years. He swept into Old Trafford with a hard-nosed reputation and promised to do two things. Firstly to sort out the mess he found at once great club Manchester United that had failed to win a title in the top flight for nearly 2 decades (then) but more famously his personal remit was clear – he wanted to knock Liverpool off their effing perch. It was a tall ask and a bold claim. Liverpool’s title count was double that of United. There was no expectation that United would close that gap for at least another half century. That they are on the verge of their 19th title within a quarter of a century is an achievement that will surely be unrivalled.

Liverpool vs. United is the first date I look for when the fixture list is announced. Two clubs steeped in history but enjoying contrasting fortunes in the last 20 years come head to head once more and there is much, much more to this game then mere bragging rights.

Here’s the equation. If United win, they edge ever closer to a record 19th title at the expense of their most hated rivals and Fergie’s prophecy comes true, his legendary status complete. If Liverpool win, the knock on effect could demoralise United and give rivals fresh impetus to get over the finishing line first, notably Arsenal. A draw is probably no good to either side but would probably just favour United.

I’m not expecting a good game. The result is far too important. Liverpool come into the game on the back of yet another wretched defeat. A club used to success must wonder how it could have got this bad. United, too, come off the back of a defeat though their performance was by no means poor and indeed during the first half played Chelsea off the park in their own backyard. That they succumbed to defeat from a winning position is clear proof that this is not quite the United of the last decade. It was an undeserved defeat with United on the end of some poor decisions but even the most one-eyed Red must admit that United have been the beneficiaries of a few dodgy decisions across the season so these cannot be used as an excuse. Moreover, it confirms gathering opinion that this is a very average team with a deeply average midfield. Once Scholes ran out of puff, momentum was lost and Chelsea were able to dictate the pace of the game. United teams of old would never have let this happen.

Liverpool’s defeat at West Ham was most notable for how the home side, desperately fighting relegation, simply wanted it more. There should be no danger of Liverpool failing to be ‘up for it’ against United. This is one thing that is a given. There may be a stark lack of quality in the squad but each player will know they have to give absolutely everything tomorrow. The question is will this be enough? On paper United have the better players. Liverpool are in the process of rebuilding and need to simply write this season off but man for man, United are currently better. History proves that this means nothing. In many of United’s title winning seasons, they have succumbed in this fixture, lost the battle but won the war.

The most concerning element of the defeat to Chelsea was not the result, certainly not the performance. It was Vidic’s sending off which could prove pivotal. If it’s true that Andy Carroll is ready to make his debut tomorrow, United have reason to be concerned defensively, shorn of their best player this season by a distance. Poor Vidic. He must have been looking forward to facing Liverpool without Torres, the one player who has genuinely managed to get the better of him over the years.
United will miss Vidic’s authority and the defence will be tested but they will cope. I am more worried about the midfield. Fergie has made some terrific decisions over the years but it is alarming how much faith he continues to show in the current midfield. More alarming that all said midfielders are signing new contracts speaks volumes of the lack of funds available to United under the ownership of the Glazers. Yet, why complain. This team keep winning.

Liverpool will hope their big players perform. It would probably have been better had United not lost at Chelsea. They may have been more complacent. History has also told us that teams should beware a ‘wounded’ United.

Ferguson may not have told his players that this is the most pivotal game of his entire reign but hopefully they will perform as if they already know.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


What an extraordinary story continued to unfold at Manchester City. Their captain and heartbeat has decided he no longer wants to play for them. The same player who forced through the hugely acrimonious move across Manchester, and who has gone onto score 33 goals in 50 games to become an instant legend in the blue half of the city has decided enough is enough.

If we consider the facts, this is no surprise whatsoever. Tevez is nomadic. He hasn’t remained at any one club for more than 2 years and whilst talented has a very high opinion of his own ability and worth. There is no doubt that he works his socks off every time he steps onto a football field. For this he is rightly cherished by the fans who pay good money to see him. There’s nothing more galling than a player who doesn’t appear to be trying hard enough – a criticism often levelled at Berbatov – ironically the player who remained at Old Trafford at the expense of Tevez. Sir Alex risked the ire of United fans by jettisoning crowd favourite Tevez at the same time as Ronaldo. It looks like he got both decisions right. Ronaldo is a supreme talent but he had long made it clear his desire to play in Madrid and Fergie ensured he received the maximum transfer fee. The decision not to pay over the odds to keep Tevez looked misguided but he always knows best and we are now finding out that he was spot on. No player is bigger than the club. Even the biggest clubs.

City fans will rightly point out that Tevez, almost singlehandedly, has led them to the brink of the Premier League summit. It’s true. Chelsea’s implosion and United’s tendency to surrender leads has helped City to remain in touch and after the arctic conditions practically wiped out this weekend’s entire football calendar, City are being afforded the opportunity to hold top spot at Christmas if they beat Everton tomorrow. I suspect they’d take that.

It’s for this reason that Tevez will play rather than be made an example of. I am intrigued to see what sort of reaction he gets. I expect him to put in a man of the match performance. Without him City are a good team, with him they are potentially great. However it cannot be denied he has become a little too central to their quest for success. And this, I’m afraid, is entirely of their own making. Sheikh Mansour has not disguised that he is prepared to pay to win the league. Such a strategy can work in the short term but is surely doomed to failure in the longer term. It breeds the sort of mercenary greed that could ultimately undo all the good work so far this season. Tevez purports to be homesick but does anyone really expect him to return to his native Argentina. He’ll be playing in Spain or Italy during 2011. Another club will take a risk on him. He will let them down too. However, his disaffection at City comes a little early for them. Without him, even the most ardent City fan doesn’t give their club much hope of holding onto top spot in May.

I am and remain a huge fan of Carlos Tevez the football player but not of Carlos Tevez the man. He has proved himself to be a disgraceful human being and I have to pinch myself not to feel sorry for the club he has wronged.

In the mean time Rooney remains at Old Trafford, Torres at Liverpool and Lampard is due back for Chelsea. Christmas has perhaps come a little too early at Eastlands and there will be little sympathy if it all goes horribly wrong.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Will Torres ever rediscover his mojo?

I’m certainly not a Liverpool fan but I am a fan of Fernando Torres. Surprised? Let me tell you why. The typical modern day footballer is greedy and disloyal. Torres is quite clearly neither. Until recently he would quite easily have walked into any side in the world but that hasn’t stopped him from being fiercely loyal to both his hometown club Atletico Madrid and now Liverpool. Misplaced loyalty, some might say. After all, ultimately he is a winner and he wants to win medals, lots of them. Let’s be honest, most players would have long given up on trying to turn Liverpool back into a major force without the right level of support and few would have blamed him for leaving after last season’s woes. Yet he is still there. Massive coup, right? Well maybe not.

There is something very seriously wrong with Torres. He cuts a very forlorn figure and looks a long, long way from the world beater who ended Spain’s misadventures on the world stage with the winning goal at Euro 2008. At that precise moment in time, he was hugely sought after and expected to deliver big things at club level. There have been some highs most notably the way in which he made Vidic, arguably the best and most consistently strong defender in the Premier League look very ordinary, not just once but 3 games in a row. His performances in helping sweep aside first Real Madrid and then Man U in their own backyard made the world sit up and pay attention. Here was a striker destined for greatness.

However his performances at the World Cup were so woeful he made most of the English team look good. OK so Spain won the tournament to follow up the European crown – a huge achievement – but he contributed nothing to it. In fact, whilst he was on the pitch, he was a liability. Seriously. Spain were better off when he wasn’t playing. That’s a real fall from grace. OK so perhaps I am being a little unfair. He had been injured leading into the tournament. He was bound to be rusty. Sure the first 2 games maybe, but the whole tournament?

So what better than to get yourself fit and then start firing for your club. He owes Liverpool. I applaud his loyalty but he is the talisman and it’s about time he repaid the faith by leading from the front. Liverpool fans should be worried though. He doesn’t look that interested anymore and amazingly he doesn’t look that good anymore.

So, the question is, will he ever rediscover his mojo whilst still at Liverpool? Their fans might believe it blasphemy but if another club is still willing to pay £60m for him, maybe they should be tempted.

Why single out Torres, what about Rooney? Well actually they are both in wretched form. Rooney has been poor for club, though oddly not country so far this season. He is clearly distracted by his off field problems. He too is struggling to shake off injury problems but whilst he is lacking form, he is not lacking desire. However he is in the worst form of his United career and needs to raise himself out of it. A lot is expected of him and he must deliver, else Chelsea will run away with the title this season.

Oh one last thing. Fantasy transfer tip of the week? It’s got to be Peter Odemwingie up front. He looks a class act and is cheap.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Get used to it, money rules

As football finances lurch further out of control, do fans care at all or has winning at all costs taken precedence over common sense and morality?

Sheikh Mansour maybe a grabbing headlines with seemingly endless spending. He may yet buy the premier league title but it is all coming at a terrible cost to football as a whole. Transfer fees are exorbitant because one team are willing to break record after record with weekly wages regularly over £100k a week. And all of this during a recession. We should all be deeply worried but a possible change in the hierarchy of football in this country is compelling enough for now. At the other end of the scale, Liverpool and Man United are carrying huge debts. It is hard to swallow for many fans used to seeing them compete hard in the transfer market but the reality is that money is not available and it sits uncomfortably with most fans that American owners are ruining both clubs. How long, though, before another billionaire decides it’s time to invest in these great clubs. How will the fans feel then? It’s not the solution is it? But maybe that’s what it will take for both clubs to compete at the highest level. Maybe that’s what it comes down to now. This should sit even more uncomfortably with all fans, in my opinion.

City fans won’t care less and perhaps nor should they. Less than 5 years ago they were festering around the nether regions of the lower divisions and a world away from competing for the premier league title so these are truly exciting times. Does it worry them at all that they may be accumulating a squad of mercenaries who will cause untold dressing room unrest or is that part of the overall intrigue. Do they mind that they are fast becoming the most hated club in the UK. Not a bit of it if potential turns into success.

For the rest of us it has become clear that we all singularly want City to fail. In the same way as we all wanted Chelsea to fail when Abramovich arrived on our shores waving wads of cash in our faces. It didn’t take long for cash to turn into prizes but the situation was a little different. Chelsea already had a strong backbone and with clever investment and an outstanding, if arrogant, manager they gelled far quicker than most people expected. City have further to go. There is no spine. Even now they resemble a bunch of individuals all pressed into playing together with little in common except the lure of gold.

So what should we make of City’s rather convincing victory over Liverpool on Monday. On balance I think it says more about the deficiencies at Liverpool than the gathering momentum at City. Liverpool were truly woeful and Hodgson, famed for his tactical acumen in guiding Fulham to last season’s Europa cup final, seemed rather at a loss, a bit out of his depth maybe? Playing two strikers away from home was ill advised against a team set up to build from midfield and utilise their wide players. Liverpool were over-run and out-thought. City didn’t have to try too hard to settle in front of their hugely expectant fans but they will surely face tougher tests this season. The jury is still out.

Elsewhere it was a remarkable weekend for goals. Arsenal played the most attractive football. Drogba was irrepressible. Toon have a new hero at no 9 and United were uncharacteristically sloppy.

In the fantasy stakes, is there any other player in better form than Drogba? Well Gareth Bale, maybe? What is it with the Welsh and left sided wingers? He’s had another stormer in the CL qualifier tonight too. An absolute must.

My other tip is Kevin Nolan. He’s down as a midfielder but is playing as an auxiliary striker. He looks good value on this basis.

There are some tasty looking ‘home bankers’ this weekend for Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and United. We could witness another avalanche of goals. Long may it continue.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gameweek 1 - first impressions

A new season always throws up a few surprising results in the first couple of weeks but what has the first round of games told us?

First things first, Chelsea are going to take some beating. Granted, West Brom offered very little resistance but to score 6 goals in the first game when players are supposed to be easing themselves in sends out a clear message to all their title rivals.

It’s a pity that both they and Man United didn’t get a tougher test in the first game. An easy looking fixture for both against newly promoted teams resulted in very straightforward wins and has told us nothing about their real title credentials.

That said we did witness some impressive performances. Drogba was apparently a doubt before the game but at 32 is in the form of his life and has already hit the ground running. He certainly knows where the goal is.

For United, it was Scholes who stole the show with a masterful performance against an ultimately dispirited Newcastle team who had started reasonably well. I’ve always liked Paul Scholes. He can’t tackle for toffee but just about every other element of his game is first class. His eye for a pass and range of passing is truly world class, even at the grand old age of 35. He has reinvented himself so many times during his career and yet excels in almost every role. A model professional and a one off.

The first game of the weekend paired up the two clubs who raced each other all through last season for the coveted final Champions League spot. Spurs deserved it in the end and had it not been for a stellar performance in goal by Joe Hart, they would have put City to the sword and put down an early season marker. Spurs are a strange club. Hugely exciting at times but ultimately they let themselves down. What, though of City? Well the jury is definitely still out. They played like a team of individuals and whilst it may take a few games to gel into a unit, there were few signs that this team will challenge for the title. I know - it’s really early days - but the massive outlay on multiple players so far does not look as if it has been underpinned by a clear strategy and does look a little kamikaze and haphazard. Their next game is at home to Liverpool. I expect these two to challenge each other closely for a Champions League spot and will watch with interest as they do battle. I genuinely expect Liverpool to come out on top.

Liverpool met Arsenal in another fascinating first weekend match up. A draw may seem a logical result but masks the full story of the game. As the teams emerged for the 2nd half, with the scoreline goalless, Liverpool had been reduced to 10-men with Joe Cole sent off for over-exuberance rather than recklessness. What an anticlimax on his home debut! As is often the case, playing with 10 men galvanised the team and having made a fast start to the half with a classy goal, they settled into a pattern to stifle. Arsenal were hugely disappointing with their response. At half time, they must have felt they could win the game. If any team can suck the life out of the opposition with neat and tidy keep ball, it’s Arsenal. Yet they were utterly toothless and probably didn’t deserve their late equaliser. Cole’s suspension may be a blessing. It takes the pressure off a new system which somewhat nullifies Gerrard’s influence. Whilst Cole sits out 3 games, Gerrard can renew his partnership with Torres. There’s no doubt this suits them both and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Arsenal will be delighted with a point at Anfield. Chamakh did not show a great deal but at least offers them an outlet they have lacked since Adebayor left. With Fabregas and Van Persie both fit they will again mount a decent challenge but they still look a couple of players short of a proper tilt at the title.

Blackpool’s first match in the top flight was wholly unpredictable. Not in their wildest dreams could they have expected to win by 4 goals and be top of the league albeit for a couple of hours before Chelsea stole their thunder. Certainly it wasn’t a result I thought likely or indeed possible. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Blackpool were so ill equipped for this league that they may take a while to win their first game. Shows how much I know. In fairness, no one could have legislated for such a wretched Wigan performance. Next up are Chelsea and I suspect by Monday, Martinez may well be the first manager sacked this season.

And to finish off, a couple of transfer tips for the fantasy football. I might make this a regular feature, despite the relentless mickey taking from some work friends on Goops tips!

This week I’m going for a couple of bargain midfield options – Gary Taylor Fletcher (Blackpool) and Marc Albrighton (Villa) both had very promising debuts at this level and will be new, fresh and cheap.

Til next time.