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Friday, 28 May 2010

Another 'Alternative' World Cup For Scotland

PARTISAN ALERT: This article is quite partisan.

"You might have beaten us lads, but that Ronaldo won't amount to much"

Unfortunately Scotland aren't going to the World Cup this year. Despite qualifying for six of the seven tournaments from 1974 to 1998, a tartan presence has been noticeably absent ever since. Doing what we have come to do best - that is, ignominious defeat against average European sides away from Hampden - has left the Tartan Army dining out on the meagre crumbs of comfort that we dredge up every four years: Archie Gemmill's goal in '78 and the fact that we were unofficially the best team in the world for a few glorious months in 1967. We laugh (eventually), because if we didn't, we'd probably end up invading Norway.

Our last major tournament was France ’98. Imagine how it felt to find out that we were opening against Brazil (a combination of elation, disbelief and the usual ironic despondency, if you’re interested). Imagine the jaws that dropped as John Collins equalised from the spot, then the colour of the air (fairly blue) when Tommy Boyd scored FOR them with his knackers. Imagine the reverberating echo of a million tins of Irn Bru being flung at some 100,000 cats. Then of course, we came home too soon, having been implored by Del Amitri (DEL AMITRI) not to, after a 3-0 embarrassment at the hands of African footballing powerhouse Morocco.

A close brush with European Championship qualification in 2008 quenched the thirst for big results and actually had us believing that come the World Cup qualifiers for 2010, we would have a decent crack at getting into at least a playoff. That was reinforced by the fact that we found ourselves in the continent’s smallest group, with the likelihood that FIFA’s mystifying rule on stripping other teams’ results against their group’s respective whipping boys would play into our favour. How reassuring then, as I alluded to above, that we could go and taste defeat in Macedonia and Norway, before failing to score (from two yards, in one case) against the latter at home and upsetting the country’s most clinical finisher to the point of retirement in the process.

Had it not come with the caveat of unexpected success in the Euro qualifiers, this would have been treated as a fairly routine failure. But Alex McLeish, having assuaged the nerves when Walter Smith left the manager’s job, had brought further progress in 2007/08 and we expected that to continue when he handed the reins to George Burley. Give the Tartan Army an inch of hope and the passion for the team means that it will take miles (no, I will not say how many). We still came quite close – down to the final game against the Dutch – but it wasn’t enough. The momentum gained under Smith and McLeish ground to a halt under Burley, who was mysteriously kept on for one game after the qualifiers, in which the Welsh thumped us 3-0 in a meaningless friendly. The nadir had been reached.

What’s happening at the SFA now is a similar period of introspection to that of England’s following their failure to qualify for the Euros in 2006. Craig Levein is in charge. Gordon Smith has (unfortunately) resigned. Most importantly of all, however, we beat the Czech Republic in a rehearsal qualifier for our Euro 2012 group. After the game, the mood in Scotland was odd. It didn’t really matter about the performance, because we won. But then, it didn’t really matter that we won, because it was a friendly. Pragmatism and perspective from the Tartan Army? Possibly.

Still, the 2010 World Cup is round the corner and we’ve had plenty of time to lick our wounds and critique our own. Now it’s time to relentlessly slate the English.

That’s a joke, of course. As a Scot in London, you have to expect plenty of Anglophilia. While I’ve got nothing against the team or the people, the country will be unbearable throughout the tournament. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Saturation coverage pervades every major tournament England are involved in and it always has. Personally, as an alternative I’m looking forward to the Group of Death. And the ‘new’ Brazil. The classy Spanish. The battle between exceptional Argentinean footballers and their manager.The Mexico squad with only five midfielders. The France squad with no strikers. I am of course extremely interested in how England get on, given their flimsy squad, but I also want to see the US do well in case anyone missed their Confederations Cup exploits last year.

Yes, I’m gutted Scotland aren’t there. It means that I won’t get to scream and drink myself stupid for three matches and then feel crap that we’re out. But the World Cup is the World Cup. It’s going to be incredible and besides, the qualifiers were ages ago (but I still remember, Chris Iwelumo). What’s not to look forward to? Rob MacDonald

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Forgotten Man

Joe Cole must be sweating ahead of the culling of seven from Fabio Capello’s party of 30. It has been a season to forget for the Chelsea playmaker. The most mercurial English talent in a generation has struggled with injuries and form and for all his side’s domestic domination, Cole has been afforded but a bit part, offering only rare glimpses of his undoubted flair.

The word ‘shackled’ springs to mind when Cole’s name is mentioned. Imagine the player we might have witnessed over the past 10 years had he gone to ply his trade at Old Trafford or the Emirates. He became a very well-rounded midfielder under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, but the price paid was a blunting of his natural expansive game. Too much ‘off the cuff’ and Cole would be off the pitch. Mourinho himself conjured up the image that Cole had a duplicitous playing character, where his beautiful side was tempered by an ugly propensity to neglect the defensive aspects of the game. Had Cole been born Brazilian or Portuguese, surely such a lop-sided nature would have been nurtured; ‘Sod defending when he is this good going forward.’ But with prodigious skill seems to come the inevitable suspicion in the Premier League. He may be able to do a Maradona turn in a packed box, but he can’t put his foot in when it matters.

It is a curious position the 29-year-old finds himself with regards the national team. Cole was, in this observer’s eyes, the best English player in the last World Cup. Few of his peers could score a goal this good, for example. He now seems to have fallen behind Adam Johnson in the pecking order, with Capello waxing lyrical about the young Manchester City winger and probably wooed by the fact that some English midfielders do have a left foot and are actually quite good (not you Stewart Downing). But given the choice between an untested rookie who was plying his trade in the Championship at the turn of the year, and a reliable veteran on the international scene with 10 goals in 53 caps over nine years, the solution should be glaringly obvious.

Cole’s dip in form can perhaps be explained by the trouble encountered when he tried on and off to fit into a team that was already performing well without him. Offering something different to most of the Chelsea squad, Cole never managed to click. Moments of magic were fleeting, such as the innovative back heel at Old Trafford in April which reminded everyone that lest they forget, Joe Cole is actually a great player. On either flank or at the tip of a diamond, Cole’s flexibility would offer England that certain je ne c’est quoi they are going to need to forge openings against the Spains and the Brazils of this world. He has all the quality needed to have a successful tournament, and given Capello’s apparent reneging on his promise to pick on form (see Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Emile Heskey), hopefully his heart will rule his head and the little maestro will be boarding the plane to South Africa. Adam Bushby

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Land of Hype and Glory

If this was supposed to be the warm up game in which England proved they were ready to surpass expectations this summer, it disappointed. It is, however, unlikely that ‘surpass’ and ‘expectations’ were the words featuring on Fabio Capello’s list of things to achieve at Wembley last night, though ‘warm’ and ‘up’ were probably high on the agenda.

In light of the FA Cup and Championship Playoff finals’ ‘pitchgate’ issues, Capello may well have been happiest to escape the obligatory Wembley farewell with no significant new injuries. A slight neck strain for Wayne Rooney appears to be the only blemish. Ledley King’s knees and Rio Ferdinand’s back, the two biggest anatomical concerns on display, appeared to survive their respective excursions, even if it was with a relative paucity of mobility.

Most reactions to the game are suggesting that Capello has work to do, while seemingly forgetting that the game itself was part of the work. While the pre-match suggestion of a trial 3-5-2 system remained just that, the match was always going to comprise both England and Mexico XIs being tweaked and adjusted throughout.
In the first place, this was an England purposefully shorn of its double-winning Chelsea contingent. A starting eleven missing three of its most consistent (Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry) and traditionally, one of its most inventive (Joe Cole) performers was always going to look disjointed. Lampard’s absence became all the more evident with Steven Gerrard also moved from the centre to roam from the left, but consequently provided little to no cover for a nervy Leighton Baines. In Gerrard’s absence, James Milner and Michael Carrick were handed the reins in midfield.

While form may be temporary, some losses are for a longer temporary period than others. Carrick seems to be suffering a lengthy dip and his at-times sloppy distribution contributed to England making a characteristically sluggish start. Milner, despite being full of industry, struggled to match the verve of the Mexican attacks and Walcott’s service to an increasingly aggravated Rooney was non-existent – a fact made all the more obvious by Aaron Lennon’s cameo.

A cameo was all that was reserved for Adam Johnson in the end too, while the other much-discussed potential debutant Michael Dawson did not feature at all. Both should play against Japan in Graz, but it seems an odd decision not to allow their first significant exposure to international football to be at Wembley. The pressure on both to perform in the final outing before the squad is announced will be higher than last night’s send-off at the national stadium.

Nevertheless, criticism of the England side seems unfounded. It would be a hard-hearted fan who could not forgive those being mindful of the Wembley pitch, but moreover, judgement on a mix-and-match England has been swift and harsh. Mexico may have looked the better side for most of the game, but an England side with notable absentees saw off its World Cup peer comfortably in the end – precisely the thing that those criticising Capello’s dearth of options below his starting XI would have you believe was England’s weakness. Capello is assessing his squad continuously and the warm up games are part of it. Those wishing to see the real World Cup-ready England will have to wait until Rustenburg on June 12th. Rob MacDonald

Friday, 21 May 2010

Van Gaal Or Nothing

At risk of overkill, this blog is turning its Sauron-like gaze away from Jose Mourinho to Louis van Gaal, the man who gave the Portuguese motormouth his big break at Barcelona.

Van Gaal found himself on the ropes earlier in the season. In early October, Bayern were struggling in fifth place in the Bundesliga, eight points off the top. In the Champions League, home and away defeats to Bordeaux ensured qualification for the knockout stages rested on a final round victory away at Juventus. The Munich mafia, led by Beckenbauer, Rummenigge and Hoeness, scented blood. Theirs is a results business, after all. And with Bayern on the verge of history, the turnaround at the Allianz Arena has been pretty remarkable.

Mourinho is not the only one who currently has treble vision. Van Gaal is bidding to become the first manager in Bundesliga history to secure the European Cup in the same season as winning both domestic honours. While the Inter manager’s penchant for narcissism consistently makes it hard not to talk about him, the Bayern boss approaches the game in a markedly different way. For both men, it is the philosophy rather than the system that is key; but the Dutchman’s methodology is more offensive in nature. You cannot manage Ajax and Barcelona without such a mindset. "We play very attractively at Bayern," Van Gaal has asserted. "We are always looking to attack and put opponents under incredible pressure." Expect more of the same in the Bernabeu. With Bayern facing a side perhaps less inclined to camp on the edge of the box due to the game being a one-legged affair, it could be a more open final than many predict.

Van Gaal has achieved this season’s success with what looks, on paper, to be a fairly pedestrian starting XI. It is how he has moulded his charges into a force on the European scene that has impressed most. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel have provided a solid platform from which Bayern’s wingers can be unleashed. And unleashed them they have, with Arjen Robben experiencing such resurgence in form, particularly in Europe, that he is being mentioned as one of the world’s greatest attacking threats once again. Another two homegrown talents, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber, have found their feet under the stewardship of the Dutchman and both have made the step up to the first team look easy. And it is perhaps the discipline that Van Gaal instills that provides the best grounding for a career in the game. Preventing young rebels without causes to go off the rails with their newfound riches, Van Gaal has been known to pull players up for slouching in the canteen.

With this no-nonsense approach, the remarkably named Aloysius Paulus Maria "Louis" van Gaal has won out. He has no need to kowtow to the Munich mafia now after turning the corner so spectacularly since the darkest of autumn days. The death knell looked to have sounded for van Gaal’s Bayern career after he employed a mystifying 3-4-3 formation in defeat at Hamburg. Six months later, he is 90 minutes away from a glorious first season, having even reversed his decision to quit at the campaign’s end should Bayern secure the treble.

Survive though he certainly has this season, Van Gaal will need all his wiles to come through the inevitable onslaught from Inter in the final. With Ribery suspended, expect Turkish midfielder Hamit Altintop to step in. Having replaced Robben for the first leg against United, and been further to the fore as Bayern beat Lyon 3-0 in France, he may be crucial to Bayern’s chances again as Inter zero in on Robben and Philip Lahm on the right wing. Van Gaal must also hope that Bayern can keep hold of the ball, as although Badstuber is a promising defender in good form, Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis are less consistent. For all the players involved though, meeting Mourinho’s irresistible force head on is potentially van Gaal’s biggest challenge.

It is the Bayern manager himself who perhaps sums up the clash of philosophies best: "He trains to win. I train to play beautiful football and win. My way is more difficult." That the obstacle to Bayern’s treble is his former apprentice – intent on winning at all costs – will make success for Van Gaal all the sweeter.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Hand of God, Random Squad

In a week that contained plenty of ‘surprises’ masquerading as surprises (Chelsea miss a penalty in a major final, a senior FA employee is the victim of a pretty lady and a national tabloid), the announcement of the provisional World Cup squads at least brought some genuine incredulity to proceedings. I’m not talking about England, either, for whom any lingering notion that Capello would pick players purely on form was quashed with few surprises. You can probably pick his starting XI against the USA right now, injuries permitting (go on then: James, Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Barry, Lampard, Gerrard, Walcott, Heskey, Rooney). Elsewhere around the world, the outrage expressed on behalf of Bobby Zamora in England was perhaps more suitably outpoured for the Argentineans not fortunate enough to make Diego Maradona’s squad.

Given that Maradona has called up around 100 players in the year and a half he has been in charge of the national team, perhaps predicting his squad was always going to be totally impossible. However, given what we know of the Champions League and Serie ‘A’ this year, for him not to find room for Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti – who has 136 caps – is particularly surprising.

The case for the defence rests even less easy when it transpires that Maradona has also omitted Barcelona centre back Gabriel Milito and included Fabricio Coloccini. Who plays for Newcastle (and since this article was written, has been dropped as the squad was trimmed from 30 to 23).

Actually, the situation is more than surprising. It is borderline unbelievable. The tributes that have flowed out of the San Siro for Zanetti following Inter’s fifth successive title – Moratti reckons it’s been his best season ever – are for a man who has played every minute of all but one match, for which he was suspended. He may be 36, but he can play all over the pitch and he is an experienced international defender. A falling-out has been speculated over since the final World Cup qualifier, in which Zanetti apparently gathered the team around him on the pitch and re-calibrated the side, dismissing Maradona’s earlier team talk. More reason than ever to include him, you might argue.

Inter’s Argentine defenders are represented solely by Walter Samuel, who hadn’t had a look in under Maradona until the March friendly against Germany, but has presumably been included only on that basis – one would think his outstanding form domestically has helped. By that line of thinking it is even more bewildering that in midfield, Esteban Cambiasso should miss out, given that he spent a season imperiously nullifying Italy and Europe’s best – Argentina’s great hope Messi included. Considering the form and domestic woes of Cambiasso’s direct peer, Javier Mascherano, this season, his omission is all the more surprising. However, the continued presence of Seba Veron at the expense of Juan Roman Riquelme should leave no-one in any doubt that Maradona, when faced with two choices, will invariably pick the wrong Juan. Links between defence and attack, should Veron’s legs go, are scarce.

Maradona’s career has become feted and questioned in equal measure over his preference for including Argentine-based players ahead of more illustrious European counterparts. Of the 96 players used by Maradona in the last 12 months, 52 are based in Argentina. All well and good, but amazingly, only five of the 52 (Juan Sebastian Veron, Ariel Ortega, Federico Insua, Martin Palermo and Clemente Rodriguez) have more than six caps and most, therefore, are new under Maradona. Of those five, Veron (age 35, 69 caps), Palermo (36, 13 caps) and Rodriguez (28, 11 caps) are in the provisional squad. The other seven Argentine-based players in the squad have a total of 19 caps between them and all appear to have sprung to prominence in recent friendlies against Spain, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Germany and Haiti. A rigorous selection process it is not.

Maradona is, however, blessed with a strike force the envy of the world. Argentina’s embarrassment of riches in the forward areas is the sole remaining reason, despite Maradona’s best efforts, that some believe they can still be tipped for the World Cup. Messi. Tevez. Higuain. Di Maria. Milito. Aguero. Awesome. Are they unstoppable? Potentially. Any lingering doubts about the frailties at the back could be vanquished if the ball can be kept at the other end of the field.

FIFA’s much maligned and probably useless rankings reckon Argentina are the seventh-best team in the world. However, they have not been beyond the quarters of the World Cup since 1990. That said, offsetting Maradona, football’s crackpot, are stellar striking options, fresh new caps who have been playing in their homeland in the build-up to an international tournament and capable, if unspectacular veterans. Once Maradona has been forced to settle on just 23, and maybe even despite his tactics, it would be a brave, but not necessarily foolish man who backed Argentina this summer. Focusing on the inclusions rather than the omissions may lead you to do just that. Rob MacDonald

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Jose To Fill In The Blancos?

“Poverty wants much, but avarice, everything.” So said the Roman author Publilius Syrus. Fast-forward more than two millennia and the wise scribe may well have been talking about Real Madrid and their all-encompassing obsession with being the world’s most successful club. And so it has come to pass that for seven of the past 15 years, the Ballon d’Or winner has made his way to the Bernabeu, unable to move for all the bells and whistles. It is as if, season on season, the Real Madrid president, whoever he may be, takes his summer shopping list from France Football, buying into a marketing opportunity first and the concept of a player actually fitting into a system merely an afterthought.

This summer, were he a player, Jose Mourinho would almost certainly be first in line to get his hands on the golden ball. Having just tied up another Serie A title with Inter Milan, a week after winning the Coppa Italia, the Portuguese has his sights set firmly on the Bernabeu this weekend as he seeks to lift his first Champions League trophy since his days at Porto. Mourinho is already revered by Real fans for his bus parking job in the previous round, thus saving them from the frankly unthinkable travesty of having Barcelona trot out in the Champions League final (and worse still, win it) at the Bernabeu. Win or lose come Saturday, the assumption is that Mourinho is more than likely going to make the Bernabeu a home from home from the summer onwards as the Real board line him up as Manuel Pellegrini’s replacement.

At first glance, given the Madrid public’s voracious appetite for attractive football, Mourinho seems an unlikely choice to take the helm. But then again, the one trophy desperately sought by the fans is also the one you sense is also first on the list of Mourinho’s priorities each season. Compromise, therefore, seems to be the order of the day. The expansive football demanded by Real fans will certainly be evidenced next season, should Mourinho be in charge or not. With creativity the likes of that possessed by Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid are never going to do a Blackburn. Also, people are too quick to forget the early days of Mourinho’s tenure at Stamford Bridge, when Damien Duff and Arjen Robben ran defences rugged and were, by all accounts, pretty easy on the eye.

The insatiability of the handkerchief wavers at Real is two-fold; success, but by playing Barcelonaesque football. Under Mourinho, this rapacious mindset will need to be tempered as success at all costs becomes the new mantra. There will be glimpses of the sort of computer game ‘ole’ football so lauded at the Nou Camp but there will also be a greater discipline under Mourinho, of that there is no doubt. Given the choice between watching a Ronaldo flick or a Walter Samuel reducer, one gets the impression Mourinho would probably favour the latter. That isn’t to say he is a killjoy, however. Far from it. He just appreciates that to win, more is needed than sticking a team full of Galacticos onto the pitch and saying “get on with it”.

The size of the task at hand should not be sniffed at. In many ways, it is the most thankless task in world football. Mourinho will ostensibly be given no more than two seasons to bring the Champions League to the Bernabeu for the first time since the class of 2001/2. In the interim, an astonishing nine managers have come and gone (presuming Pellegrini goes as seems a dead cert). Indeed, Real have not got past the quarter final stage for four seasons. Quite why they have this preordained sense of entitlement to Europe’s biggest prize is strange to comprehend for most fans. But it is simply a fact of life Mourinho will have to embrace if he is to succeed. As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, it has traditionally been the president who cherry picks the new transfers. Cast your minds back and it wasn’t so long ago that Mourinho was locked in another power struggle with a hands-on owner.

Bearing all this in mind, should the Special One take over next season, the grit that has been noticeably absent from Real in recent seasons may well be thrown into the mix. Bells and whistles coated in grit; now that might just be the golden formula. Adam Bushby

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Songs for Unsung Heroes

As Wayne Rooney walks off with a hat-trick of domestic awards and Didier Drogba tries to squeeze his foot into his golden boot a la Cinderella’s ugly sisters, there were a couple of managerial awards as well. Obviously, not everyone can win ‘manager of the year’ and while there’s no doubt that ‘Arry and Woy were thoroughly deserving, there are a few more who deserve a share of the plaudits.

At the top end of the table, Carlo Ancelotti unearthed a ruthlessness in Chelsea that may overflow on Saturday against Portsmouth. Credit to the Italian for a title (and potentially a double) in his first season in charge and for finally appearing to deliver what Abramovich lusts after, in the form of performances if not the ultimate European prize.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Chelsea were helped by United’s relative weakness compared with previous seasons, although I’ve also explained why Sir Alex Ferguson deserves a lot of credit – not many managers could shear two prongs off his striking fork and somehow pick up more peas – just ask Rafa Benitez, who had to watch his replacements scrabble for goals in light of injuries to Fernando Torres.

But to the unsung heroes. If the season had started at Christmas, Everton would be third. But if spurious statistics like that were relevant, the Lib Dems would have a quarter of all the seats in Parliament and we wouldn’t have a man [PARTISAN ALERT] with no relevant experience in charge of one of the most fragile economies in history.

However, David Moyes deserves some recognition, as he does each year, for his Everton side, particularly since those dark days at the start of the season. They began with a 6-1 pummelling at Arsenal and had won only five league matches coming into 2010. Unbeaten in the league in January, Moyes – assisted by a slight, but not total alleviation of the injury crisis surrounding the club which had left him with no strikers and perhaps more importantly, no Mikel Arteta – then oversaw victories over Man City, Chelsea and United in February. Following defeat away at Spurs on February 28, Everton went unbeaten for the rest of the season, clocking up six wins in the process. Should a fully-fit squad report for pre-season training, Everton should be relishing 2010/11.

Everton top a group of three who all deserve plaudits for their seasons. Ninth in the league , Birmingham fans are still pinching themselves while also daring to believe that further improvement is possible should Carson Yeung’s war chest be opened. The Blues are currently believed to be monitoring Bobby Zamora, who won’t be cheap.

Interest in Zamora and Kris Boyd, strikers both, isn’t a surprise given the manner of the performances which elevated Birmingham to their nose-bleedy heights for most of the season. Success has been built on a particularly obdurate defence. The now famous 12-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, spanning October to January, included six clean sheets with only eight conceded overall. It also included seven wins, five of them back-to-back in December/January. For all the praise lavished on him as Scotland manager, Alex McLeish could well cite his work at St Andrews for the last two years as the finest of his career so far.

If any criticism can be levelled at Birmingham this year, it’s that they weren’t necessarily easy on the eye each week. If you need any further proof that sometimes, the desire for results outweighs the pleasure of the aesthetic, just look at Jose Mourinho. And Sam Allardyce.

Allardyce was brought in to save Blackburn from relegation last season and did just that. When Mark Hughes finally got his wealthy hands on Roque Santa Cruz, Stephen Warnock went to Villa, Matt Derbyshire to Olympiakos and stalwarts Ooijer and Tugay were lost to Eindhoven and retirement respectively. A top-ten finish (albeit in tenth) with that considerable exodus and the arrival of a £6mn centre forward who has scored two league goals all season, deserves massive respect.

If strident defence, long-ball tactics, having Kevin Davies elbow centre backs in the face for 90 minutes and keeping 10 men behind the ball all game can be considered successful measures this season, so too can be exchanging all of them for a completely new team if you think you’re going to be on the receiving end of a shoeing at Old Trafford. Step forward Mick McCarthy.

Ask any promoted team what they want to achieve at the advent of a new season and the reply will be ‘survival’. Criticism of McCarthy, unfounded in the first place – it is the manager’s prerogative to rest his players ahead of big fixtures – ended up being especially sweet for Wolves as they beat the drop with something to spare. An away victory against Burnley in March heralded a ten-game run in during which Wolves also won away at West Ham and only lost twice. Wolves look more likely than Birmingham to suffer second-season syndrome, but McCarthy has proved as astute a manager as the one who drove Wolves to the Championship title in 2009.

Admittedly, the plaudits in this reflection are rewarded for those who have favoured substance over style (with the possible exception of Moyes). On a sanguine note, this approach appears to favour mid-table teams for whom the focus inherently remains below their feet rather than above their heads (honourable mention here for Stoke and Tony Pulis). ‘Footballing sides’ are yet to make waves in the Premier League unless, at the start of the ‘Champions League revenue/Big Four era’ they were already blessed with resources and talent to indulge such fancies. For those allowed to talk about football in terms of Europe, titles and trophies, it remains a world of hyperbole and cliché. Though it may be about as enjoyable to watch as shutting your fingers in a car door, for those always aware of resources and finance it is about finding ways to get the result you need in the game you need it in. It’s more business-like than ever in this part of the league and messrs Moyes, McLeish, Allardyce and McCarthy certainly earned their corn this year. Hats off. Rob MacDonald

Friday, 14 May 2010

Redemption In The Lowlands

As the heavens opened and the rains came, one man stood out amid the tens of thousands. One man, with a look of incredulity etched on his face, shielded behind an umbrella, cup of tea in hand. After 90 minutes and 3-2 reversal against Croatia, a forlorn Steve McClaren had nowhere to hide, umbrella aside. And so the Wally with the Brolly got the boot, unsympathetic fans and journalists said ‘good riddance’ and the visionary Brian Barwick went off looking for roots and branches, perhaps to flagellate himself with for appointing McClaren in the first place.

McClaren’s next move, however, was cannier than he was given credit for. Instead of seeking employment where it would be expected, say at the DW or the KC, McClaren packed his brolly and headed to the DGV – the De Grolsch Veste, to be precise. By moving to Holland in the guise of FC Twente manager, McClaren has enabled himself to avoid the British media’s gaze for the past two seasons and quietly restore the pre-England reputation he had built as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson and then manager at Middlesbrough. Earlier this month, McClaren bettered by one place his runners up spot of 2008-09 and became the first manager in Twente’s history to propel them to the lofty heights of league champions. Quite the feat when your top scorer is the Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz and your best player is a loanee from Chelsea (20-year-old Miroslav Stoch, if you were wondering). The Dutch league title will surely be a sweet tonic for McClaren, whose only coverage in the media back home during his reinvention was the relentless piss-taking that accompanied his bizarre faux-Dutch accent in his first press conference in Holland.

After becoming the first Englishman to win the Eredivisie since Bobby Robson at PSV in 1992, the ambitious McClaren is on the move again, this time to German outfit Wolfsburg, a move which makes him the first Englishman ever to manage in the Bundesliga. He has secured a lucrative contract making him millions a year and is also set to get his hands on a sizeable transfer kitty should Edin Dzeko make the seemingly inevitable move to one of European football’s more glamorous clubs. Again, McClaren’s destination marks another shrewd decision. Wolfsburg finished 8th in the Bundesliga last season and therefore the pressure will most likely be turned down a notch with the lack of European football. And lest we forget, for all the fanfare that has surrounded the achievements of fellow Englishmen Harry Redknapp and Roy Hodgson this season, McClaren is the only one to have actually won a trophy at its conclusion.

With McClaren’s rehabilitation seemingly complete, this has been a good season to be an English-born manager. Hell, even Fat Sam has had a very good season, 10th in the Premier League representing a very decent return for a Blackburn side shorn of its best player when Roque Santa Cruz headed off to the comfortable benches at Eastlands last summer. And while McClaren, Hodgson, Redknapp and Allardyce should all be applauded, the smart money could yet be lumped on another Englishman to follow McClaren’s lead and restore his reputation away from Blighty. How Phil Brown, for instance, would love a twofold opportunity to top up his tan on the continent, while at the same time proving that on-pitch team talks and headsets aside, he is actually a talented young manager. McClaren may just have kick-started a welcome trend. Adam Bushby

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Travel Sickness Afflicts York

When York City fans take their seats at Wembley on Sunday for the Conference play off final they will be outnumbered roughly four-to-one by their counterparts from Oxford. Now, the former Milk Cup winners were always going to sell more tickets than the Minstermen but Sky’s hijacking of the kick off time has resulted in a completely unnecessary 5pm commencement. Had the game been on Saturday, this wouldn’t have proved an obstacle but of course it is the FA Cup final and by shunting it backwards 24 hours, this later kick off has led to swathes of York fans shunning the club’s biggest game since 1993’s old Third Division playoff against Crewe. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that, to many fans, £100+ is simply too high a price to pay (roughly £60 for a return train fare, £35 plus booking fee for the cheapest Wembley seat, not to mention the famously expensive burgers), regardless of the prize at stake. At the time of writing the respective ticket sales were roughly Oxford – 29,000, York – 8,000.

There are other options that make far more sense. Firstly, make the game an earlier kick off so that the York fans are not heading back up north late on a school night – families are turning their back on the showpiece in their droves as a result. York’s official coach firm York Pullman is sending its fleet out at 8am on the Sunday, with fans not expected to arrive back in the motherland until just before midnight. One can only suppose that the Blue Square Premier powers that be fully expected an Oxford/Luton pairing to justify the 5pm kick off as both their sets of supporters wouldn’t have far to travel.

Also, considering that Wembley is going to be less than half full, would a venue half way between the two cities not be a better option? Villa Park leaps out as a suitable compromise. Old Trafford or Eastlands would both have been attractive propositions too. These grounds would have been fuller as a result of their location and pose a more democratic venue to host a clash between a northern side and a southern one.

Finally, no-one I have spoken to seems to see the logic in buying tickets to the final from a third party firm. See Tickets is the firm vested with the power of ticket distribution for the final and has duly helped itself to just under a 10% booking fee and a couple of quid postage and packaging, angering many fans of both clubs. Where was the problem with the clubs selling the tickets themselves through their ticket office? That York took 13,000 to Wembley for the FA Trophy final last year against Stevenage, but will take almost 5,000 fewer to this vastly more important game, highlights the unfairness of the system. Although it seems a sea of yellow will vastly outnumber that of red in the stands come Sunday, this need not overly concern City’s supporters. Adversity and York City go hand in hand – just ask Luton Town’s lovely fans. On second thoughts… Adam Bushby

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Capello Seeks The Right Blend

Full-time England fan Will Hodges explains that experience is the order of the day for Fabio Capello's provisional World Cup squad

If Sven Goran Eriksson was an icy Swede with a fiery interior then Capello is the opposite: a fiery Italian with an inner core that for the most part appears calm and reliable. True to his nature, the Italian’s picks for his 30-man South Africa party threw up few surprises, a far cry from Sven’s 2006 selection which famously included 17-year-old Theo Walcott, whose limited experience had peaked with the odd run-around for Arsenal’s reserves. On the contrary, Capello’s choices were by and large practical and well-merited.

The biggest ‘shocks’ were undoubtedly the recalls for former Sven stalwarts Jamie Carragher and Joe Cole who, for a variety of reasons ranging from retirement to injury and loss of form have been more or less absent from the Italian’s plans to date. Their inclusion, however, further highlights Capello’s level-headedness when it comes to team selection. For all the talk of impact players and ‘secret weapons’, when it comes to international tournaments, top level experience is one commodity that can never be overlooked.

The England manager has never been one to discriminate on the basis of age, particularly when older players are concerned. His trust in David Beckham, though gently probed by the press, was testament to his belief in his own tactical nous rather than the kind of blind faith in the midfielder held by his predecessor. That Beckham was touching 35 held no worry for Capello, who, through the benefit of his illustrious career on the continent, has come to appreciate the need for reliable figures both on the pitch and in the dressing room. The Italian is no mug; take a glance at team-list of any world class international team and you find a healthy smattering of mid-30s stalwarts still plying their trade at the highest level. Likely to play a pivotal role in their country’s fortunes this summer are Gilberto of Brazil, Italy’s Cannavaro and Henry of France, to name but three.

As much as it goes against the instinct of the supporter back home, at international tournaments inexperience just doesn’t cut it. For all the good Theo Walcott’s summer of bench warming did him in 2006, Sven’s refusal to play him even when faced with little or no alternative spoke volumes. Likewise, take Steven Gerard and Rio Ferdinand’s respective inclusion as teenagers in Euro 2000 and France 98; promising glimpses of potential over the course of a Premier League season doth not a reliable back-up plan make. The exceptions to this line of thinking, of course, are Messrs Rooney and Owen, but by the time of their inclusion both had established themselves as exceptional talents more than capable of playing at the highest level. Rooney already had a credible number of international caps to his name.

That is why Carragher, for all his faults and much chronicled loss of pace over the past season, more than justifies his selection. My only grievance would be if Capello had the necessary sagacity to bring Carragher back into the fold then why not Sol Campbell? Although admittedly no longer the defensive rock of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Sol has made a remarkable, if not unexpected return to Arsenal’s first team, putting in a series of strong, dependable performances for the Gunners during the tail-end of their campaign. Though far behind John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King in the pecking order, Campbell would have presented a far more reliable back-up option than Matthew Upson, who for the most part is untested on the European or international stage, plying his largely unremarkable trade at the likes of Birmingham City and West Ham. His presence in Capello’s squads has been largely due to the self-imposed exile of Carragher coupled with the much-chronicled injury problems suffered by King since his last cap in 2007. Now both these issues appear to have been resolved, it begs the question ‘what is he doing there?’.

For Carragher, read also Joe Cole, returning to international set-up after a long lay-off though injury. Arguably England’s best player in Germany four years ago and still only 28, Cole has more than 50 caps to his name, not to mention extensive Champions League experience and this, in my view, more than justifies his selection. For all the championing of Adam Johnson’s form at Manchester City over the past few months, who would you rather have lining up on the left of midfield in the event of an injury to Steven Gerrard? Johnson may be flavour of the month but while Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and countless other bright young things have tried and failed to clinch the left wing position in recent years, Cole has rarely disappointed during his service in the white jersey.

Of course, neither Cole nor Carragher are dead certs to make it onto the plane and both will need to prove themselves in the warm-up games. With both men old hands when it comes to these kinds of proceedings, however, neither are likely to be quaking in their boots.Experience breeds level-headedness – a trait Capello has in spades. In the wake of the minor ‘Capello Index’ blip, the press pack are likely to take it upon themselves to attempt to find fault with the Italian’s final squad election come May 30, but while the hapless Eriksson only invited trouble in this regard, one would assume Capello’s composure will win out.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

United Suffer In Second

In the end, the Premier League season signed off with a whimper, not a bang. As if the BBC deigning it appropriate not to show highlights from the two title contenders at the same time on Match of the Day was not enough to serve notice of who had won, Chelsea taking the lead inside six minutes duly was. The unconscious recognition of the title heading to Stamford Bridge was iron-cast even before results transpired to make Chelsea the Premier League’s highest-ever scorers (103 goals – the first in 47 years to score over 100 in a season) and Wigan’s its leakiest-ever defence to avoid relegation (79). The air of inexorability was familiar.

Thumping victories for the top two yesterday reiterated the gap between the haves and have-nots and while there were upsets aplenty in 2009-10, it feels a laboured season at the top. Manchester United have strained most, to the extent that runner-up is a remarkable finish for a team who have delivered so few remarkable performances. “Own Goals" was United's joint-second top scorer with Dimitar Berbatov and given the stick the Bulgarian received sometimes, it was as if United fans would have preferred the former up front.

United had more than enough to dismantle Stoke 4-0 on the last day, but what they must have hoped was registering their defiance actually highlighted the gap in firepower as Chelsea ruthlessly smashed twice as many past Wigan. United have simply not been as direct this season as last, missing not only the goals of Ronaldo (who has scored 33 in 34 matches for Madrid) and potentially those of Tevez (29 in 40 for City), but the strength in depth and options up front they offered. They also suffered from the regression of Carrick and Anderson (pre-injury) in midfield and Owen Hargreaves’ comeback was maybe three months too late. Most significantly, their defence has been ever-changing.

If you need a statistic to sum up United’s defensive personnel issues, here’s one: Rio Ferdinand made just two fouls in the Premier League all season. He played for 1,083 mins (12 games, give or take). This wasn't the only stumbling block. United were forced to field Darren Fletcher at right back and centre back, most keenly felt when they did so alongside Carrick at Fulham and lost 3-0. Van der Sar was missing for the first 12 matches and then again from November to January. His steadying influence was obvious on his return.

Contrast with Chelsea – with the consistency of Lampard and Drogba, the season-long rejuvenation of Malouda (rather than a three-month renaissance for Nani), the mean defence and the delight in uncovering a clinical streak in their final matches. Goals came from everywhere. United ground their way to victories, maintained by the lingering legacy of winning – and what it did to their opponents (see Spurs’ changing tactics) – rather than any ongoing dynamism. Goals came almost solely from Rooney. Old Trafford’s reputation continued to cause visiting teams to either park the bus or leave their entire first XI on it and be resolutely broken down. It should be noted that those who dared (particularly Sunderland), won (or drew).

Chelsea were strong this season, but United were relatively weak. There is no doubt we saw Ferguson’s qualities as a manager this year – retaining the title with this team – considering its departures and injuries – would have been one of his most impressive achievements. Taking them to within a point of it is commendable. But Ancelotti’s team beat United, Arsenal and Liverpool home and away, scoring 12 goals in the process and conceding just once (dubiously at that), as well as scoring 17 times in their final three games. United could only beat Arsenal home and away and Liverpool at home. While beating top four teams has never been a marker of United’s title-winning seasons, it could increasingly become the deciding factor as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. Ferguson knows this. There could well be plenty of big bangs at Old Trafford next season. Rob MacDonald

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Writing's On The Wall

As the sun sets on a woeful season at Anfield, many Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wanting to see the back of a manager whose sole CV highlight for the past five years is one implausible achievement in Istanbul, capitalised, underlined and printed in size 72 font. But on Merseyside, they don't and it's perplexing. That Rafael Benitez also got Liverpool to another Champions League final two years’ later, won an FA Cup or finished second last season within this timeframe does not and should not cloud the matter that the Spaniard has had ample time and funds to forge a regular, title-challenging squad. Seventh, if that be where Liverpool ultimately finish this season, is just not good enough for a side that contains the talents of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano, Glen Johnson and Jamie Carragher.

We’ve heard it all before: “We cannot compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in terms of spending power,” Benitez says. Just recently he has backed the claims of Reina and Torres that Liverpool need to acquire ‘four or five’ top class players in order to mount the sort of challenge we saw last season on a regular basis. The concerns therein, however, are plentiful: Hicks and Gillett have put a premium price on the club’s head, making the prospect of a white knight arriving through the Shankley Gates an unlikely outcome any time in the near future. On top of this, Liverpool are not in the Champions League. It is safe to assume that Gerrard and Torres would through gritted teeth assert they are happy settling for a season in Europe’s poor relation cup competition. Problems arise too over the future of these two; should they stick or twist, especially if, say, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter or Barca come a knocking? And then there is the not-so-small matter of whether Benitez is the best man to distribute the war chest should he get his wish. Which four or five top class players would want to go to a club that is devoid of Champions League football and possibly shorn of its marquee talents? On the one hand, he has brought in undeniably good signings in the shape of Reina, Agger, Mascherano, Torres, Alonso. But for each of these there is a Ryan Babel, an Andrea Dossena, a Lucas, a David Ngog, a… ok, you know the rest.

Fundamentally, the matter boils down to this final point. Benitez will argue until he is blue in the face that he has done his best with limited resources. This is simply a preposterous statement. Barring Carragher and Gerrard, every member of his squad is there at his behest. And so when Benitez calls attention to the fact that he had to bring on the likes of Phillipe Degen and Nabil El Zhar off the bench in the Europa League semi final against Atletico Madrid, he merely calls attention to his own shortcomings in the transfer market.

The Premier League is genuinely on the cusp of a sea change right now. Spurs have been very good value for their fourth place and Harry Redknapp has a very able squad at his disposal, a squad expected to be enhanced by the likes of Joe Cole and Stephen Pienaar in the summer. Add to that the rebuilding jobs that will take place at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates, not to mention the silly money that Man City will throw around, and there is a very real chance that Liverpool could slip into a coma of mediocrity.

The fall this season has been nothing short of spectacular for Liverpool. And it was chiefly as a result of Benitez’s profligacy in the transfer market. If the club is to quickly drag itself back into the top four then it needs to dispense with Benitez, a man who appears to have lost the dressing room and cannot admit his failings. Clubs on the continent will be queuing up for Benitez in the summer months. For a fallen giant such as Juventus, the aforementioned CV highlight seems to have proven too irresistible to ignore. This should be a blessing for Liverpool. No need therefore to fork out £20m on tearing up Benitez’s contract when he can do that himself for nothing.

The candidates for the Anfield vacancy don’t exactly stand out right now. There has been talk of Kenny Dalglish but he’s not had a managerial role since his ill fated stint at Celtic, 10 years ago. Jose Mourinho surely would only offer the position a cursory glance before turning his back and swanning off to Real Madrid. There is Guus Hiddink, linked heavily in January, but now installed at Turkey boss and therefore out of bounds until at least July. So where does this leave Liverpool? Appoint someone with Premier League experience such as Martin O’Neill or Roy Hodgson who could bring back much-needed stability to the club and who understand the rigours of the English top flight? Decisions, decisions.

Of course, Liverpool do not have an inherent right to be in the Champions League year-on-year. Certainly not when this season’s mostly abysmal form is considered. Surely now Benitez’s time has come. He is too stubborn to admit his mistakes (why spend £20m on an injured Alberto Aquilani when Wesley Sneijder was available for the same price, for instance? Prior to that, why sell Robbie Keane in January when you are top of the league, leaving you with no back up for Torres?). His man management skills, as witnessed by his treatment of Xabi Alonso and reinforced by Albert Riera’s comments earlier in the year, leave a lot to be desired. Some of his substitutions this season have been perplexing, Torres off at Birmingham anyone? And the wilting, pathetic performance against Chelsea was surely the final nail in the coffin: No heart. No creativity. No back-up plan. Symptomatic of so many limp performances during a season to forget.

For the amazing night at Instanbul, Liverpool fans are eternally grateful. But Benitez needs to leave now with his dignity intact rather than risk staying and overseeing a calamitous fall from grace that could set the club back decades. Adam Bushby

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Perennial Bottlers Play For Right To Bottle It

"Yay! An election!"

Breathe easily friends, as we are finally approaching the end of ‘ungainly election metaphor season’, a ghastly trend which everyone (me included) found hard to resist. How perfect then, just before I put my crowbar away, that City play Spurs tonight. We can acknowledge the desperation of the ‘blues’. We can comment on their desire to become a force once again after years in the wilderness. We can enviously dislike them because they’ve got loads of money. However, the metaphor is best ended here, ahead of involving Spurs, given that everyone knows it’s frowned upon to give the all-white party any recognition at all.

Regardless, it’s been apparent for some time that change is on the agenda (IN FOOTBALL). It could be a very different type of change depending on who wins at Eastland tonight. If City secure Champions League football, they will possess the ultimate bargaining chip. Not only will they be able to outbid this season’s main losers, Liverpool, but also compete on an even footing (if not overshadowing them) with everything Chelsea and Manchester United can offer the world’s top players. If Spurs win – and lest we forget, they are similarly ill-inclined to be thrifty – the transfer market will open up to them.

If they don’t get a seat at Europe’s top table, City, despite attracting some quality players since Mansour took over a season and a half ago, will be the season’s underachievers. That might seem harsh, especially considering they are already guaranteed to finish at least four places higher in the league than last season. However, if they do finish sixth, as is their worst-case scenario, the pressure on rebuilding (again) will be intense. Mentally, this is a difficult mindset to overcome, particularly when you’re returning to it for the second time. Every big-name signing is a little bit more of a gamble. Every big fixture becomes more nervy, instead of the excitement and optimism that drives new adventures on the continent (see: Fulham). Wealthy owners are not given to promoting stability when a top four finish is the minimum return acceptable from their investment. Instability, in turn, does not build a successful club. This is City’s best chance: this first full-season attempt. Fail, and it’s back to flailing around with all the money in the world, but nothing to spend it on that would constitute an improvement from the pool of players available or willing to move.

What makes tonight so interesting is that this may be the closest Spurs come for some considerable time as well. Should City prevail, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything other than spending their socks off all summer and leaving Spurs, Villa, Liverpool et al all eating Arabian dust. Should Spurs win it’s not inconceivable that they’ll carry on spending as they have in the past, though they can’t match City. Perhaps it’s in this situation we’ll find out what the all-important offer of Champions League football is really worth. Miss out, and Spurs will have to decide whether to stick or twist. Consolidate, or spend millions more?

So who’s going to win it? Is the league going to welcome a big-spending behemoth to the top four if City prevail? Can Spurs win and compete with Europe’s elite? Or will they ‘do an Everton’ and be ushered onto the red carpet before falling over their dress, going arse over tit and never getting remotely near ever again?
In the past few weeks, particularly against Chelsea and Arsenal, Spurs have looked the sleeker, more dynamic side, though they lost their way against United as Redknapp tried his hands at those ‘tactic’ things and were profligate against Bolton. City have laboured, but imperiously saw off Villa at Eastlands on Saturday. At home, they are always a fairly formidable prospect. Ironically, Spurs are suffering a goalkeeping crisis just as City imported Marton Fulop to solve theirs. A lot, as ever, depends on Ledley King. It’s going to be a week of fine margins both on and off the pitch. Nowhere will they be finer than in Manchester tonight. Rob MacDonald