Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wolves back in Premier Pack

Being the arrogant supporter of one of the "big four" from the elite Premier League (clue: we are the only one of the big four that have never actually won the "premier" league), I must admit that the only time I really give the lower leagues, such as the Coca Cola Championship, any significant attention is usually when the season is coming to a conclusion. I would never be able to give any good betting tips on who will most likely be promoted/relegated. Although, to the Championships credit, you never really know how the season will pan out, as it doesn't suffer from the predictability that the Premier League does. I am still amazed that Stoke and Hull are in the Premier League, how and when did that happen?

Such is my lack of knowledge beyond the Premier League, that it was only last week that I, first realised that Wolverhampton Wanderers would more than likely gain automatic promotion, and secondly that life long Liverpool supporter Steve Morgan, whom had been thwarted countless times in his attempts to buy Liverpool, was now the owner of Wolves for a paltry tenner! Was the reason he was shunned repeatedly from the Liverpool oak wood negotiation table, due to the dog eared ten pound note he kept slapping on it?

Morgan's sound investment, looks to be paying early dividends as Wolves secured Premier League status with their 1-0 win at home to QPR during the week, signaled by a good old pitch invasion at the final whistle. A vision which had me wondering if an old Uni friend of mine was ignoring the stewards futile attempts to suppress euphoria, and had joined the many thousands celebrating with players on the Molineux pitch. Scenes which will probably be repeated in their last home game of the season this Sunday, after they wrapped up the Championship title following the 1-1 draw with Barnsley.

I can not imagine what it must be like for your club to gain promotion, but Morgan gave some perspective after claiming the sensation beat that of the 2005 Liverpool Champions League triumph over AC Milan. I think his judgment might have been clouded by his disbelief that the tenner has matured in to a Premier League pass, but his switched legions can be overlooked for now.

While Wolves will want to bask in the glory of being back in the Premier League pack, attention, at least for the team, will turn to planning survival for next season. They need only to look over at neighbouring rivals West Bromwich Albion to see how Premier League football can see you rooted to the bottom of the table, a stark contrast from winning regularly in the Championship the season before.

McCarthy will want to improve on his Premier League record, after his woeful performance of just 15 points with Sunderland in the 2005/06 season. Wolves chances of survival will depend heavily on the amount of money they can invest on new players, and more importantly how they invest that money. I always had my reservations that had Steve Morgan completed his acquisition of Liverpool, would he have had the financial clout to invest in the playing staff and the ambitious stadium plans? While the sums of money Morgan will be expected to hand McCarthy, will vary greatly from that of Liverpool, Morgan is no longer playing around in the Championship and it will be time to put the tenners away, and bring out the fat check book.

To McCarthy's credit he has over seen much of the overhaul at Wolves so far, on a very modest budget. Two players that have made it on to my very limited radar, the Guy with the double barrel name Ebanks-Blake, bought for just over a million and former under 21 Michael Kightley snapped up from some obscure team for $25,000 which is probably what the average salary demand will now be next season. Come the re-opening of the transfer window, McCarthy will need to intensify his bargain hunting again as he scours for more diamonds in the rough. He will also need to keep the admiring eyes away from the two diamonds he already possesses.

In the mean time we wait and see if Sheffield United can pip Birmingham, and join Wolves in automatic promotion. If they are successful, it will give them an opportunity to re-open hostilities with West Ham, whom they still hold grievances over the Carlos Tevez saga.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Who Invited Barca to the Brit Party?

Well it couldn't have been a complete English clean sweep in the Champions League semi final - the now annual Liverpool v Chelsea champions league quarter final, ensured Barcelona had a back door entrance to gatecrash the last four, at Munich's expense. This Barcelona victory, despite Munich's 12-1 cricket score against Sporting Lisbon in the previous round. In truth, Barca were at the party unfashionably early, given the 4 nil win they took from Camp Nou in the first leg.

With the dominant presence of 3 English clubs making it to the last four - a repeat of last year - the probability of an English European champion obviously increases considerably, and so to the chances of an all English Final.

Last year, AC Milan were the remaining hope that could break up the English supremacy, but their unconvincing form never really threatened Manchester United. However, this years favourites, Barcelona have the form and I believe, will not be fazed by the entitled English, authoritatively picking over the sausage rolls, and pineapple 'n' cheese on a cocktail stick, finger food, UEFA have so kindly provided. The latter, being a culinary delicacy, that has not made the transition to Europe's main land in quite the same fashion as English football. In fact, where else but England, is the combination of cubed pineapple and cheese impaled by a cocktail stick acceptable??

Barcelona must feel like the kid no one wanted to invite to the party, but turned up anyway. Despite this social faux pas and the numerical improbability, I am convinced Barcelona will reign Champions of Europe come May.

If Barcelona do prove to be successful in Rome, it will detract from the unwarranted attention the English Premier league's dominance in Europe now receives. Michel Platini or Sepp Blatter usually have some form of criticism which draws negative attention to English football, usually backed up by an out of touch solution. What the pair seem to fail to realise is, these concentrated moments of success have a tendency to be cyclical. Spain had their moment in the sun in the early 2000's with Real Madrid winning twice and making up an all Spanish encounter with Valencia. Before that, Italy were ruling with AC Milan appearing in 3 consecutive finals, which is just greedy!

Often I here the argument that the Champions League should only consist of the Champions of each domestic league, and not the swollen runners up, third and fourth competition it has now become. A return to a previous format which would give "smaller" clubs a better chance of European glory. At the very least, I can concede that having teams in a champions league that are not actually champions is some what of a grammatical contradiction, but if it were not for the expansions to include more teams, it would have been to the detriment of smaller clubs, and fans who wouldn't have witnessed what I biassedly perceive as the greatest final ever, when Liverpool and AC Milan met at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in 2005.

Expanding the competition has helped grow its popularity, and has given more supporters the chance to see Europe's best talent showcased on their own doorstep. More clubs have also benefited from the cash windfall the Champions League brings, instead of being concentrated on a few of Europe's elite who are already minted.

My only criticism, would be that the current format does not include enough teams, especially from weaker division, a situation that is perpetuated by UEFA's own ranking coefficient that ensures Europe's strongest divisions are allocated more qualification places than others. I would like to see an expansion that would correct this imbalance by including runners up, third and fourth places from divisions that currently only have one or two qualifications, depending on the the amount of teams in that division.

This might be a solution that does not resonate with the competitions purest, and maybe it will take some credibility away from the Champions League, but it would benefit more clubs. Put it this way, I have heard of crazier ideas banded about by the likes of Platini and Blatter, whom have recently been joined by Bolton's chairman Phil Gartside in his quest, which is doomed to fail, that would see a two tier Premier League setup. An idea that is already dead before it has been disgust, at least for now. I will save the logistics of that debate for another day, for now here is the link to the ridiculous two tier setup-

Monday, 13 April 2009

Shearer's Poison Chalice

Making bold predictions always seems to leave you prone to the pundits curse, case in point, see my glowing review of Aston Villa "Breaking the Mold", which coincided with a dismal run of 6 games without a win for Martin O'neill's team.

So, despite the curse crippling my literary confidence, I think Alan Shearer's return to Newcastle as manger was not only prematurely timed, but will leave the Toon army scrapping in the Championship next season. However, this is one prediction that I will be happy to see proved wrong, come the end of May when the Premier League issues next season passes.

At some point, it was inevitable that Alan Shearer would return to St James's Park as Manager much to the delight of his adoring fans. Every time Newcastle dispose of a Manger, which if we are honest happens on a regular basis, Shearer's name crops up almost as frequently as the famous one handed goal salute we were all so a custom to seeing.

In the past when ever these rumours of a return of the Newcastle legend began to circulate, they were usually met with denial from Shearer, stating a lack of experience and it not being the right time. Maybe Shearer just wanted to wait until the most difficult challenge came up, before he started swigging from the poison chalice. Should his interim appointment prove successful, it will have to rank with the greatest personal achievements Shearer has to date.

Prior to Newcastle's crunch game with Stoke, significant interest was given to Michael Owen starting the match. Shearer revealed that Newcastle's strikers could not feed on scraps, an eating disorder he was all to eager to avoid in his playing days. However, it is the defensive fragility's that have left Newcastle hungry and in the drop zone, which need the most of his attention. Concentrating on the inclusion of a nearly fit Owen, I assume was a topic he naturally found familiarity in.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, it took only 30 minutes at the noisy Britannia Stadium, for their defense to be exposed once again, after a corner left former Newcastle player Abdoulaye Faye, wide open to head home for the potters. The man assigned to mark Faye? Newcastle striker, Shola Ameobi. Even if you are a striker by nature, anyone can see the criminal amount of space Faye was left to stroll in to and nod home, would have the defensive coaching staff exchanging guilty looks, and no feasible explanation.

Shearers coaching staff, which consists of Colin Calderwood, Iain Dowie and former caretaker manager Chris Hughton all adorned with an ear piece and microphone headset, closely resembled a make shift Take That tribute band, that have all the gear and no idea. Shearer will obviously need all the experience and support he can get, but his backroom staff will need to be whispering defensive solutions, and tactics which are not as one dimensional as long ball, hit and hopes to 5ft 8in Michael Owen- not "Relight my Fire" lyrics.

To give credit to Shearer, he did drop defender Coloccini, in favour of Canadian David Edgar, and in the second half, Newcastle slowly began to chip away at the vulnerable 1-nil lead, Stoke were protecting. And, Shearer later demonstrated signs of tactical astuteness when he brought on substitute Andy Carroll. A powerful centre forward in a similar mold as Shearer himself, repaid his managers faith with a superb looping header, to salvage a crucial point for the traveling Geordies . Shearer wanted 3 points, a tall order given that Stoke have won 8 of their home games, a feat only bettered by the big four, but a single point is a welcome consolation, give the devastating consequences a defeat would have brought.

Shearer's appointment has been a great PR exercise, and has no doubt given a much needed moral boast to fans and players alike. His managerial skills will be put to the test over the next few weeks, and maybe he will use the time to prove the errors in my judgment, and justify that this was the best time to jump in to the hot seat. If he manages to keep Newcastle in the Premier League, he will once again been hailed as the home town hero, and if he fails who would hold a grudge against him, as much of the damaged was done long before his arrival. Either way his legendary status will be left untainted, and Joe Kinnear's hospital discharge, left pending.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Who is Federico Macheda?

"Macheda sinks Brave Villa". That was all the Headline news I needed to read in my news feed, for me to quickly come to the realization, that Aston Villa had lost to United after apparently putting in a "brave" performance. Brave as it may have been, it was little consolation, falling woefully short of the motivation needed to open the article and delve for more information. The name Macheda, though it was not familiar to me, also didn't pique my interest, and I promptly started wasting time, aimlessly "checking" facebook.

At this point, with my mind preoccupied with Ferguson's mechanical ability to ensure the wheels have not fallen off the United wagon, I am greeted with instant messages from Jamie, enthusiastically demanding "did you see the game?"And irrationally stating, "this is game of the season and a 17 year old won it for united, the stuff dreams are made of!" I managed to resist reminding him that the game of the season had already occurred, happening just before the inconvenient International break when Liverpool thrashed United 4-1 at Old Trafford. The fact that I had not seen the United v Villa game, was a minor detail I was willing to overlook in my blissfully unbiased belief that the Liverpool game could not be bettered.

With my stubborn denial barely intact, after Jamie's barrage of instant messages, I received a phone call from another footballing Colleague in Jude, asking whether I had seen the game and the great goal that won it. Now, this may have just been a welcome distraction from the real purpose of the call which was arranging the collection of football kit left in my car over the weekend after consuming many victory beers on Friday evening, but two people singing the praises of this game, and in particular a talented teenager now had my full attention.

This led to the inevitable. "March Madness" was the marketing stroke of genius conceived by Setanta, offering free access to the Premier League for the month of March, knowing full well that it would take a strong will to resist signing up for the channel after the free access was cut, given that potentially one of the most exciting climax's of the Premier League was just around the corner.

I am that weak willed person unable to resist the mere $14 a month fee required to have channel 429 bare its presence on my screen again. And, after a short phone call to the man who has the power to feed my unhealthy addiction to Football, I was soon scrambling through the channels schedule, eagerly looking for when the game would be repeated.

Unfortunately the schedule did not show any sign of the game being repeated, so I was left to watch highlights online (see below). Highlights never really give a true feeling as to how good or bad a game was, which was the case with this game. All I will say is, the turn by Macheda, was gravity defying. Poor Curtis Davies, is left facing the opposite direction as Macheda swivels and curls in a fantastic strike. I'm left wondering what was better, the turn or the strike? Curtis Davies is left, still inside out.

Who is Federico Macheda? I have no idea. Its too early to answer that question, maybe he is a flash in the pan, maybe he is the next star to grace the Premier League. Time will tell, but what is certain is the international break has not halted the momentum of excitement the Premier League conclusion has fast become.

Manchester United v Aston Villa
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