Friday, 28 January 2011

Murray Into Aussie Final

Andy Murray is into the final of the Australian Open, after beating Spaniard David Ferrer 4-6, 7-6, 6-1, 7-6. As expected, the match was a tough one, but there was enough to suggest the British number one can go into Sunday morning's final with Novak Djokovic full of confidence. Equally, there was enough to suggest that Murray has plenty to work on, whether or not he finally wins that first Grand Slam.

In the first two sets, Murray was a shadow of the player who powered his way to the semi-final stage. His mindset was still to attack, but the unforced error count was higher than he could afford - hence being a point from going two sets down. However, despite the error-strewn second set, he somehow managed to wrestle back the momentum at the crucial points in the tie-break. The main criticism from last year's big semi-finals and finals was that while Murray often played very impressive matches, he lost the big points. He would make more winners than his opponents, and have better stats, but at key moments he would falter.

This year, perhaps that might be different? Admittedly, Ferrer may be no Nadal, but he is still a fantastic athlete - one who's fighting skills pushed Murray to the very limit at times. An equally accomplished returner, Ferrer would break serve at the same regularity as his own was broken. Momentum would swing back and forth. Only in the 3rd set did Murray really show his true class. When he turned it on, he was devastating, showing the class that got him this far in the first place. In the two crucial tie-breaks, the Scot stepped up to the plate.

However, Djokovic will be an entirely different proposition. A match-up between what many see as the future best 2 players in the world will have people setting their alarm clocks on Sunday night for sure! Murray will need to rid himself of the massive dips in concentration that marred his victory over Ferrer. He got away with it then, but that was against the 7th seed who has never won a Grand Slam. Against Djokovic, a player who won this tournament 3 years ago, we will see a true test of Murray's mettle. Having not played each other in 2 years, this will be a mystery to many, to see how it will turn out. Two great players, battling it out on their favourite surfaces - this will be a warning shot to Federer and Nadal. Whoever comes out on top will fancy themselves as the best bet to finally break their stranglehold on the number one slot.

If Murray plays near his aggressive best, he has an excellent chance. But if he allows himself to slip into a set and a half of casual passive tennis, Djokovic will punish him. He punished Federer in straight sets, and many will consider the Serb favourite, myself included.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

What next for Avram Grant?

There's something oddly loveable about Avram Grant. While he seems as inspirational as a toilet brush, he no doubt cares deeply about the game of football, and each club he has managed, he manages to attract some degree of sympathy.

At Chelsea he without doubt did quite a good job, coming so close to winning the one trophy that eluded Mourinho, and Abramovich's treatment of him was not something to be proud of.. At Portsmouth he inherited a club that was falling apart on and off the pitch. It would be inaccurate to say that the 9 point deduction relegated them, as they were still 7 points short of safety, but he at least got the team playing well, albeit not getting the results they deserved. There aren't many Portsmouth fans who will have bad words to say about Grant, who has always carried himself with more dignity than some of his bosses over the years..

At West Ham, there is no doubt that he has made mistakes. An overly conservative style of play in the early weeks of the season, while still somehow leaking goals, put him on the back foot straight away. Some may say he has been a dead man walking ever since the first home game of the season, when Bolton inflicted a 3-1 defeat on his new side.

Still, the actions of Gold, Sullivan and the chairman Karen Brady, have left Grant in a surprisingly strong position with the fans. The co-owners promised stability when they took over the club a year ago, and vowed to run the club in a financially responsible way - while still seeming determined to spend big-money wages on whoever the latest available aging striker was.. remember Van Nistelrooy? Failing that, they have managed to stump up the extortionate sum of Wayne Bridge's wages till the end of the season, while managing to fall out with Grant over the botched signing of Steven Sidwell. In Bridge's debut earlier this evening, he was at fault for all 3 Arsenal goals. I would be very surprised if Avram Grant has any say in that deal.

Speaking of surprise, I'm sure Grant was feeling that emotion very strongly this morning, when reading that he was about to be replaced by Martin O'Neill. Someone is massively at fault here, whether that is the West Ham board for letting private negotiations become public, or the BBC for publishing a false story. Either way, the deafening silence at board level is unforgivable. With no one knowing where Grant stood, that cannot have had a great effect on West Ham's performance during the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal, and the team certainly looked drained.

Bar their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Newcastle, West Ham have picked up their form drastically over the last month, ever since that first disgraceful three-game ultimatum was allegedly issued. I watched their 2-1 victory over Birmingham in the Carling Cup, and the players gave a solid display, clearly behind their embattled manager. There were certainly no chants of 'Grant Out', even when the team was behind.

The bottom line is, there is no one team being cast adrift this season. Only five points separate West Ham at the bottom from Everton in 12th. They have momentum, or at least they did, before the board decided to play their mind games. Three wins in a row, and West Ham would be in relative mid-table comfort. While there are no arguments that Martin O'Neill is a better manager than Avram Grant, right now West Ham's owners do not deserve a manager of any calibre. If this season is destined for relegation, then they certainly take the greatest share of the blame.

As for Grant, well does anyone really know what quality of a manager he is? If, as expected, he is relieved of his duties, I would like to see a Championship side take a chance on him, to see if he has what it takes to get a team promoted. If anyone deserves something on his CV, through pure persistence against the odds, it is Avram.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Can Spurs Really Sustain a Title Bid?

With this season's title race already one of the most open years, the Sky Big Four has been blown wide open, with Liverpool all the way down in 13th! Man City are obviously here to stay, with their billions seemingly able to attract almost anyone, but when Spurs come into the equation there must always be some doubt.

The name Tottenham Hotspurs has become synonymous with flattering to deceive in recent seasons, with Martin Jol's brave new word having been undermined by Ramos' ill-fated reign. Well, that and an undercooked lasagne! However, as we have seen in the last 18 months, there is no fear at White Hart Lane these days. To go to the San Siro as they did, and turn a 4-0 deficit into a brave 4-3 defeat where your left-winger makes the jump from potential to fulfillment - that takes some guts. And this current Spurs side has that in abundance.

This may all be true, but does this really add up to a title challenge? Harry Redknapp may have built a side that rivals Arsenal in terms of entertainment, but they also rival Arsenal in terms of dropping points against weaker opposition. Swashbuckling wins over Liverpool and Arsenal, plus some slick European displays in topping their group are one thing, but do they have the necessary steel to consistently dispose of lower-order physical sides? Such a quality is imperative if any club wishes to finish top of the pile. The recent 2-1 defeat to Everton would suggest they have some work to do.

In my opinion, Spurs still lack a reliable midfield presence. Modric, Bale, and Van Der Vaart are all great players, and their bullets are perfect for the likes of Defoe and Crouch to finish off, but are Palacios and Huddlestone really the foundations on which to build a solid base? Not to mention the injury-prone King and Woodgate. A top-class centre-half is a must, because for all the entertainment in the world, the history books only measure success in trophies won. I'm sure many neutrals would love to see Spurs win the title this season, but for all Redknapp's public statements of optimism, and all Fergie's polite mind games, they remain 8 points behind. Having played a game more. Remember, Man United are yet to hit top form, and if/when they do, their rivals will be left for dust - Spurs included. The top four again would represent quite an achievement this season.

Monday, 10 January 2011

It's Ok Ryan, we've all been there....

Ryan Babel has made some headlines over the past few days after his Twittering antics. His depiction of Howard Webb in a Man United shirt has no doubt raised several chuckles around the country - probably also in the FA offices, as much as they will refuse to admit it! Once the laughter died down, and brows were wiped, they probably realised something should be done, to at least look like they are doing something productive!

Seemingly every week we have a contentious decision being debated by fans up and down the country, and this week is no different. However, I think Liverpool fans need to calm down and realise that Kenny isn't going to be parting the waves and brainwashing referees into giving them decisions any time soon. The penalty was a 50/50 call, and personally when I saw the challenge I thought a penalty would be given. Very few of us could have been 100% sure that contact was made, but the referee has to make a call one way or the other.

As for the sending off, well Gerrard's tackle was reckless, and if you leave the ground in the modern game, no matter of your intentions, you're asking for trouble. A yellow card would have been an extremely fortunate outcome, and instead of moaning about Howard Webb perhaps we should be questioning the Liverpool captain's judgement. He is banned for three games, when the club and manager need him most. Frustration got the better of him, but he should have known better.

Still, it gave us all a chance to laugh at Ryan Babel again... as if his erratic performances weren't enough. Surely the number one rule of Twitter, Facebook, or whatever social networking site happens to be the flavour of the month, is do whatever it takes to keep parents/bosses/governing bodies from seeing what you post. I think Ryan Babel should also have known better! But maybe a small fine is the price you pay for becoming a legend overnight...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Players to watch in 2011

This blog will attempt to predict who the big stars of the Premier League in 2011 will be. They will range from the blatantly obvious to hopefully a couple of selections that make you think, "what? He can't say that. He's crazy!"

Edin Dzeko - It's probably fair to say that if Man City's Bosnian £27m signing doesn't score a hat-trick in every game this season he will be made a scapegoat for the Eastlands club's "ruining" of the game with their high transfer fees. However, in the case of Dzeko, I don't think we have anything to worry about. An impressive strike rate coupled with strength and aerial ability, he has Football Manager fanatics rubbing their hands in glee. One risk City run is something they are used to with the likes of Balotelli in their ranks - a potential attitude problem. An ignorance of Steve McClaren's outstretched hand on being substituted in a recent Wolfsburg should by no means be a dealbreaker (many England fans would probably react in a similar fashion), but is perhaps something to bear in mind..

Matt Phillips - Blackpool have caught everybody by surprise this season, and this 19 year-old right winger has been a big part of this. A deadline day £350k signing from Wycombe, he has already attracted the attention of a few other Premier League clubs with some eye-catching cameo performances. With Ian Holloway preparing to give him more game time as the season reaches it's business end, expect his value to shoot up by the summer!

Haris Vuckic - The 18 year-old attacking midfielder yesterday signed a new 5 and a half year deal (as seems to be the default contract length at the Toon) with Newcastle. He has only made 2 appearances, both in the Carling Cup, but the Slovenian rising star is already established in the under-21 side at international level. As Newcastle's lack of roubles, and thin squad combine, he will surely soon be letting the rest of the country in on the secret that virtually only the Newcastle coaching staff are in on...

Jack Rodwell - He may already be a regular at Everton, but he is yet to really make his mark, having been shoved all around the Toffees line-up, due to his unfortunate adaptabiity. However, once Moyes finally signs a reliable injury-free striker, and Rodwell can finally settle into his midfield position once and for all, Rodwell will be a cert to make his England debut in 2011.

Marc Albrieghton - Similarly to Rodwell, this young Aston Villa midfielder has been a victim of circumstance. Unfortunately his rise to the Villa first-team has coincided with a lack of experience around him, meaning his has been somewhat of a baptism of fire. At 21, if he stays free of injury, Albreighton will be knocking on the England door before too long, as his performances earlier in the season gave notice of.

Seems like a good time to start this up again...

So this is the first post on here for awhile... a combination of laziness and wishy-washy studenty pressures has kept me busy! Which I should be right now, but I take a break from my essay woes to bring you my thoughts on the latest sports goings on..

I suppose the first thing to talk about has to be Kenny Dalglish's astonishing return to Liverpool, which probably ranks on a par with King Kevin's return to Newcastle 3 years ago...why must our managerial heroes always be Kings, just because their names begin with a K? Benitez won the Champions League for the Reds...I'm sure Righteous Rafa would have been a suitable nickname for him at the time!

In all seriousness, the appointment, at least in the short-term, makes perfect sense. The owners need time to ponder what on earth to do next, and while the next appointment is no doubt crucial, it doesn't have to be made just yet. Dalglish will ensure that the club's fans remain united, and for whoever eventually takes over, it will hopefully be a happy dressing room.

The possibility of Dalglish staying in charge beyond the summer can also not be ruled out. If, for example, they were in the top 6 at the end of the season, would the fans accept whoever replaced Kenny? Perversely, it may be better for Liverpool if Dalglish were to fail miserably; and therefore at least the spectre that haunted Roy Hodgson for most of his reign would be gone from Anfield. To draw a comparison to Newcastle United, Keegan and Shearer were the alleged dream ticket three years ago. Within 18 months, both had come and gone, experiencing varying degrees of failure. Since then, Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew have generally proven that the idea of a club Messiah means very little, beyond a short-term wave of optimism.

Newcastle are above Liverpool in the table currently, with an inferior squad, but a far superior team spirit. Surely the key to success is simply a squad that is willing to work for each other, to merge their own individual talents into a solid whole, and a manager that can bring out those qualities. For a club to become all about the manager is a dangerous area. The manager is not out on the pitch. The manager is not the one winning matches - it is all about psychology. Owen Coyle is not a Messiah. Ian Holloway is not a Messiah. They simply know their players, and know how to get the best out of them.

Does Kenny Dalglish know how to get the best out of the current Liverpool squad? Because in the end, the current wave of optimism will probably already be broken by their 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford. What he must focus on is how to get the best out of key players such as Torres and Gerrard, because no matter how much Liverpool fans protest, until the squad is strengthened, they have 2 players able to turn a game, and they need to be nursed back to form. Over to you Kenny..