Friday, 27 March 2009

International Heart Break

Could the International break have come at a worse time? Just when the Premier League was finally coming to an exciting climax, with Manchester United at last proving they are human after all, we have to reassure our national legion's, and begin mumbling God save the Queen.

At least, this international break does have some significance for some nations, with a World Cup Qualifier being thrown in with a friendly. Did they think we wouldn't notice the friendly, or perhaps mistake it for another qualifier??

International friendlies are important, its just hard for the average fan to get excited about a game, whom's only reward is another cap for players, and on the rare occasion for managers to try out new players/tactics. If anything, I would advocate more friendlies, as in theory this would give players more International experience, and would provide the internationals managers a welcome break, from whatever it is they do for the rest of the year.

In reality, what little friendlies are played, end up being a very small window for experiment, meaning that we end up with what was so expertly demonstrated by then England Manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, making 11 changes plus at half time. Even the kit man got subbed, nobody was guaranteed a full 90 minutes!

The result of all this cramming, is the devaluing of the international friendly. You can hardly blame fans, who have in the past spent time and money on tickets, get disgruntled at the sight of their favourite players gingerly tip toeing around in fear that they might get a bollocking from their respective club manager if they fail to come back in one piece.

Ironically, I have to admit that while the distinct lack of enthusiasm shown by players can be an embarrassment to my nationality at times, I also find myself crossing my fingers, that upon their return, the club squad is left intact, especially at this time of the season.

In truth, over the startling and some what scary 20 years I have been a fan of the beautiful game (Italia 90' being where it all began), I have seen the slow shift in legions from country to beloved club, for both player and fan. As the old First Division was re-branded in to the Premier League shortly after Italia 90, the game has become far more professional, standards have been raised and with it, the amount of money sloshing around the footballing Industries coffers.

So, as we wait a whole 7 days for our next premier league fix, building enough paranoia to suggest the timing of the international break was a masterful plot by the Premier League to have us gasping for more, we are left to get a poor substitute in 'Arry and Fabs bickering over the fitness of Ledley King who must have been learning far too much from Darren "sicknote" Anderton in his academy days.

One person who will welcome the international distraction though, will be Sir Alex Ferguson. We all assumed that his refusal to speak to the press after the Liverpool game would have been a big enough signal to his team to refocus by the time they faced Fulham. Paul Scholes moment of madness amidst the complacency in which United started their game at Craven Cottage, being a stark reminder of assumptions being the mother of all F*@k ups, has shown even with the wealth of experience united possess, Ferguson actually has a challenge on his hands. A challenge he will be looking to reassert himself on during the shelter of the international break.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Sheffield United's Hypothetical Compensation

After two years of legal rambling, finally, at long last and when I had almost forgotten about the whole event, a line can be drawn under the Sheffield United-Tevez saga. Both West Ham and Sheffield United have settled on terms, that will see £15m heading north to the Blades, in separate payments over the next five years.

I do not blame Sheffield United for feeling cheated, and their pursuit of financial compensation for being relegated is understandable, given how much money is virtually guaranteed from either being promoted or simply staying in the Premiership today. Clubs plan their finances based on the on the lush land that the premiership will yield, and more often than not, clubs gamble too much on the fact that they will be in the top flight the following season. In what used to be a well run Premier League Club, Charlton Athletic, is now propping up the foot of the Championship table.

Sheffield United's grievances stem from the third party ownership of Argentine pair Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Still to this day, I am in a state of disbelief that West Ham even managed to sign the two of them. Given the relatively small amount of time the pair spent at Upton Park, and especially in the case of Mascherano, maybe the audacious transfer coup was a figment of my imagination, justifying my disbelief. Could my imagination be the same reason why Robinho is now trotting around The City of Manchester Stadium?

For a moment I will accept that Tevez and Mascherano did sign for West Ham. The Tevez goal against United at Old Trafford, providing adequate evidence to quash any grounds of reasonable doubt. At the time of their transfers, West Ham were gearing up for their second season back in the top flight and were looking to build on a solid previous campaign. Both of the players had been out of action for a long period of time and were going through the easy transition of life in Brazil to life in East London. In short, swapping Caipirinha's for mugs of tea.

Due to the enormous amount of talent the pair both possessed, and despite the obvious lack of fitness, they were thrown in to a team and expected to work their magic instantly. Unfortunately for West Ham, this was not to be the case, the team didn't gel, and they found themselves battling it out at the wrong of the table before the season had barely got under way.

The grounds of which the whole epic Sheffield United-Tevez saga is based on is a hypothetical scenario. The argument being, had Tevez not been allowed to play for the Hammers, which legally should have been the case, he would not have been on the pitch, playing such an instrumental part of West Ham's Premiership survival.

However, you can also argue, hypothetically, had the pair not been allowed to play at the start of the season, West Ham's form may have been vastly different. The disruption to the team could have been avoided, and West Ham might not have even been involved in a relegation battle in the first place.

Sheffield United's relegation at the end of the 2006-07 season, and subsequent legal battle with West Ham detract from the obvious fact that each team is responsible for its own performance. Liverpool, who make a habit of under performing against newly promoted sides each season, (Bradford away springs to mind) drew with Sheffield United on the opening day. Liverpool were 1-nil down, until they were granted a penalty, which if my memory serves me correctly, was taken and converted by Robbie Fowler. Those 2 points dropped by Sheffield United would have been enough to clinch the elusive 40 point standard target for premiership survival, come the end of the season. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Despite the financial troubles already looming over West Ham and their Icelandic Chairman, settling on the £15m compensation will now allow them to bring an end to off field distractions, and will refocus their attention to matters on field.

Sheffield United, who will never know the true cost of relegation that season, will at least get a timely cash injection as they push for promotion back to the Premier League.

Whether you agree with the compensation package or not, what can not be argued is that the whole saga will have done little to build relations between the two clubs. And, with the possibility of the two clubs meeting next season, should Sheffield United gain promotion, as a neutral I am genuinely excited about a fixture, I would once have paid little attention to. Bring on the happy reunion.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool

As we have seen so often before, pre-match rants have a tendency to bite back you back. Rafael Benitez' random press conference, in which he proceeded to reel off a list of un-pleasantries aimed at counter part Alex Ferguson in January, coincided with Liverpool's dip in form, and United's healthy gap at the top of the Premier league table.

Today at Old Trafford, Rooney's (deleted) pre-match comments about his unsurprising hate for Liverpool, came back to haunt him in the most unpredictable fashion.

Even after going down 1-nil to a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, Liverpool didn't look like buckling, and were playing with the confidence installed since the 4-nil demolition of Real Madrid.

So, it was no surprise that Liverpool levelled 6 minutes after Ronaldo's spot kick, with Steven Gerrard being awarded a penalty, which is as rare as rocking horse shit at Old Trafford. Patrice Evra, making the mistake, tripping Gerrard in the box.

Liverpool continued to play the better football, and the tireless Torres got the second before half time after a rare mistake by Vidic allowed him a one on one with Edwin Vad der Sar.

Man United started the second half with a real urgency, pinning Liverpool back deeper and deeper. Torres and Gerrard were looking very isolated and it was beginning to look like it was only a matter of time before Man United got back in the game. Which, after 60 minutes, left me surprised when Alex Ferguson made a triple substitution. I have never really been a fan of triple substitutions, unless your team is playing dreadfully then its worth a gamble, but in this instance Man United were in good shape and dominating proceedings.

The gamble to use the triple substitution, back fired only moments later when, Vidic brought down Gerrard who was clean through on goal. United will argue that Vidic was not the last man, but there was no way Ferdinand was going to catch Gerrard. Referee Rob Styles, held his bottle like he did when he awarded the Liverpool penalty, and gave Vidic his marching orders.

From the resulting freekick, Fabio Aurelio managed to do what Ronaldo had failed to do on numerous occasions, finding the net with a superb finish, that left keeper, Edwin Van der Sar rooted to the spot to the deafening silence of the Old Trafford crowd.

That effectively ended the tie, as United, even with a fair amount of possession and being awarded freekick after freekick, never really looked like scoring, and individual errors became the theme of the day For Ferguson's troops.

To put the icing on the cake, Dossena finished off the rout, after a great lob over Van der Sar making it 4-1 to Liverpool, leaving Old Trafford half empty, and turning it in to the theater of nightmares for United.

Man Utd v Liverpool

Thursday, 12 March 2009

European Bliss Domestic Miss

"Miss" might be a bit of harsh word to described Liverpool's domestic performance this season, given that they are currently placed 3rd in the Premier League, but why is it in such contrast to the European performances we now come to expect from Liverpool year in year out?

Real Madrid, who had less Spanish players in their starting 11 than Liverpool, were hammered 4-0, on another famous night at Anfield on Tuesday. And, it could have been far worse for Madrid, if it were not for their man of the match, but now dejected Goalkeeper, Iker Casillas.

I was some what nervous before the game, even though Liverpool were carrying the away goal and victory from the Bernabeu a week earlier, as I was expecting Real to come out all gun blazing. However, what ever tactical plan Juande Ramos had envisaged prior to kick off, was immediately devoured by Liverpool from the off. First Fernando Torres with an immense turn leaving World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro flat footed and embarrassed before Casillas came to his aid.

Gerrard then tested Casillas again, just before the keeper tipped a rare 25 yard volley from Javier Mascherano, on to the bar. And all this before Liverpool eventually made the possession pay through Torres, who had a relatively simple finish after Kuyt squared. Pepe complained about a suspicion of offside or maybe it was being man handled, either of which hold little weight.

Liverpool's second came courtesy of a penalty, due to one time Liverpool target (and ex manc), Gabriel Heinze, who will have felt hard done by the handball given against him. He should take up the complaint with Liverpool's 12th man. Gerrard slotted the pen making it 3-nil on aggregate at half time.

If there were to be any sort of come back by Real Madrid, the idea was quickly diminished by another Gerrard goal at the start of the second half. A great half volley after being picked out by good work from Ryan Babel.

Unlikely goal scorer Dossena then capped off the outstanding Liverpool performance with his first goal for the club, completing the demolition.

Its hard to believe that this is the same Liverpool that were beat by Middlesbrough 2-nil last week in what I can only describe as one of the worst Liverpool performance I have witnessed, in recent memory. That defeat put a major dent in Liverpool's already dwindling Premier League title aspirations, which now makes the next encounter at Old Trafford this weekend, all or nothing.

Benitez proved he can beat Real Madrid, one of Europe's all time greats, away from home, but he now needs to transfer that European formula on to the domestic scene.

Until the weekend here are the highlights of the Liverpool's emphatic win over Real Madrid....

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mourinho Knock Out

Internazionale may have been knocked out by Manchester United in the last 16 round of the Champions League, but Jose Mourinho still managed a different kind of knock out of his own before departing Old Trafford.

A complaint was made by a supporter, alleging that the 'special one' had punched him on his way out of the stadium.

What ever the outcome of the allegation, the wounds will be felt most by Mourinho. Inter may be consistent season after season in Serie A, but the Italian media will be all over Jose after they failed to get pass the last 16. Maybe they should conduct the press conference in a ring?? Ding Ding.

Facing the current European and world champions, in this kind of form was always going to be a big ask, but Inter simply failed to capitalize on the chances they did create. After Vidic opened the scoring with what has become a trade mark header from a corner, Inter missed several chances, most notably through Zlatan Ibrahimovic's header hitting the bar and Dejan Stankovic' 25 yard effort curling just wide.

Inter were made to pay, as the sucker punch came right after half time with Ronaldo on the end of chipped cross by Rooney. Few teams come back at Old Trafford, after being 2 nil down and Adriano volley that hit the inside of the post late on proved to be the case once again.

Until the next Fergie-Mourinho sparring session, enjoy the highlights below....

Man Utd v Inter Milan

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Great Britain 1-0 England

Its very easy to get swept away with the political nonsense that is swarming around the Great Britain football team for the Olympics. In perspective every football fan, whether English, Irish, Scottish or Walsh knows that the Olympics football tournament is of far less importance than the World cup or the Euro. I might even go as far to say that the League Cup has more prestige and significance.

The point is, the Olympics will clash with Euro 2012 with its unfortunate timing, so being drawn in to the debate of who manages, the nationality of who plays, which nations participate and so on, will be unrewarding as the focus will be on "which hotel should we book in Poland/Ukraine" and "why wasn't Beckham selected, hes only 37!!

How ever unrewarding the debate might or might not be, what I don't understand in my political naivety, is why, given the albeit flimsy promise from FIFA not to jeopardise the individuality of each nation in the future, are nations worried about loosing their teams? How could a "meaningless" tournament as described by the SNP's Pete Wishart, have the power to wipe out the individual nations in future tournaments?

The rest of the Great Britain team, from what I understand is made of people from Great Britain. And when they return from the Olympics they are not held up at customs because they now have no recognised nationality and have become an illegal alien.

Also, and this is not the first time we hear of special cases, purely as this is football we are talking about, but why is it that the British Lions are capable of uniting and competing in tournaments, without the threat of dismantling their respective nations upon return?

The chances, I believe, of their being no Scotland or Wales or Ireland or even England for that matter, in future football tournaments, just because of a gold medal enticing Olympic kick around are slim at best. Can you even begin to imagine the up raw. The logistics alone would cause Great Britain to implode.

Pete Wishart also described the reason Gordon Brown is calling for a united team, is a political move, demonstrating his "British Agenda". Well, given that this will be the first Olympics held in the United Kingdom since 1948, its hardly surprising that there is some excitement and call for "British" unity. Ironic that if the situation is not resolved, there is a possibility that the Great Britain team that enters the Olympics might be all English, as confirmed by Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, which even as an England fan I find disappointing.

Anyway, I went against my own word and got swept away with the political storm that will always be brewing around the whole Great Britain football team debate, right next to the when will the Scottish Premier amalgamate with the Premier League cloud. What I will end with is that given that all the home nations failed to qualify for the last major tournament, Euro 2008, may be the Olympics doesn't seem so meaningless after all....hmmm.
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