Saturday, 13 December 2014

Gerry The Octopus

Time for some predictions!

Burnley v Southampton
This is probably going to be tighter than it looks. Southampton rolled in to town at Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago and were expected to blow their at-the-time beleaguered hosts away. Since then, Burnley have shown signs of life to claw themselves into contention for survival. Southampton, by contrast, are battling for survival in the big battles at the top of the league. Champions League football seemed on the horizon not so long ago and even after one point from four games, the Saints remain handily placed in fifth.
Graziano Pelle broke his barren streak against Man United and while Southampton can have few complaints at defeat, given their profligacy in front of goal, they may find opportunities harder to come by against a well-drilled outfit here at Turf Moor. However, their own defence has remained relatively tight, with only Manchester City really blowing them away.

Chelsea v Hull
This one will not be tighter than it looks! Hull are in the form of relegation candidates. The signings which were supposed to add a bit of flair to last season’s relegation-dodging, cup final-reaching Tigers have instead coincided with a huge slump in form, which in truth stretches back to the end of last campaign. Hatem Ben Arfa is out in the cold, yet will be relatively warm in the stands while he contemplates another missed opportunity, but it is those out on the pitch who must arrest the slump of no wins in eight and no more than two shots on target in the last six league games. Gaston Ramirez will at least give a bit more class to the midfield on his return from suspension.
There’s not much you can say about Chelsea. Despite their invincibility being breached by Newcastle’s cow last weekend, they reminded everyone of their quality by dispatching Sporting Lisbon 3-1 midweek. Diego Costa will be in the mood to silence critics of his recent form, while Peter Cech will be looking to keep a clean sheet on a rare appearance in goal. No Cesc Fabregas would be disastrous for most teams, but Eden Hazard will sense easy pickings as Chelsea aim to cement their place at the top.

Crystal Palace v Stoke
Not the most attractive looking of fixtures on the card, Crystal Palace would bite your hand off for a scrappy 1-0 win as they look to edge further away from danger. Neil Warnock has reprised the sort of spirit that Tony Pulis instilled last year to drag the Eagles from trouble and there has been some wonderful counter-attacking football at Selhurst Park, not least to pile on the misery for Liverpool in the 3-1 win.
However, Stoke have caught the eye themselves, with Bojan really starting to turn on the style. Victory against Arsenal has almost come to be expected over the years, but if Stoke want to progress into a European-challenging team they must learn to win these sorts of games. Mid-table seems inevitable for this year, but Mark Hughes will want more, starting with three points this afternoon. That may be beyond them, but it may be a surprisingly entertaining encounter.

Leicester v Man City
Could this be the game where Leicester upset the odds all over again? Their thrilling 5-3 victory over the other Manchester team was supposed to be the catalyst for Premier League domination, but instead only two points from 30 have seen the Foxes plummet to rock bottom. Along the way, boss Nigel Pearson has found himself on the wrong side of fans as it all threatens to go horribly wrong.
They will not be expecting much against a Man City side with the best away record in the division. Victories against Southampton, and more recently, Roma, to book their place in the Champions League last 16, will ensure confidence is sky high. Last week’s results will remind them that the title is still possible if they can keep up their own form. Sergio Aguero has not been missed as much as you would think and even if fit, you suspect he may have been rested for this one anyway.

Sunderland v West Ham
Here we have another litmus test for West Ham’s European ambitions. Sunderland are a side who have frustrated many superior opponents in the past 12 months, but their game plan will be interesting against a Hammers side who rarely come out all guns blazing away from home. Andy Carroll has re-discovered his golden touch lately and Diafra Sakho is in contention for a return to the side.
Sunderland will be expected to get at the opposition and give the crowd something to get excited about. Five goalless draws already this season is not something to get bums on seats. The danger for the Black Cats is that a more attacking game plan could play into Sam Allardyce’s hands. Counter-attacking is his new forte, and you’d fancy his side to outscore their hosts, with Steven Fletcher not in the most ruthless of form this season.

West Brom v Aston Villa
Alan Irvine and Paul Lambert may exchange wry smiles this afternoon. Both have felt the pressure in recent weeks and while Lambert appears out of the woods for now, Irvine is in desperate need of a win. The Baggies are sliding and Saidio Berahino needs to re-discover his form. Aston Villa are not the worst of opponents to try and arrest a slump against, but Villa are often better away from home.
Lambert will be delighted with their recent revival and they lie only four points off the top six, which seems astounding given their start to the season. Christian Benteke was the scourge of Albion last season, and he may push yet another West Brom manager ever closer to the trap door.

Arsenal v Newcastle
This is a battle between two teams with horrible injury lists and another two managers who’ve experienced the ups and downs of security in their job. Arsene Wenger seemed secure as ever after his FA Cup win, while Alan Pardew looked certain to be fired over the summer after a woeful first half of 2014. Now, roles are reversed. It would take a brave man to predict Wenger’s departure any time soon, but an equally brave man to put money on him remaining for next season.
He is perhaps fortunate to be facing a Newcastle side who will be shorn of their midfield talisman Moussa Sissoko. He is the centre of their counter-attacking style and goals have not been easy to come by for the Toon, aside from the return to form of super-sub Cisse. It will be a tight game, but Arsenal should edge this one.

Man United v Liverpool
This will be quite the full-blooded encounter and with Steven Gerrard approaching the twilight of his career, he will relish the opportunity to get at what remains a shaky United defence. Raheem Sterling will also be licking his lips. The trouble is, there remains little other threat in the Liverpool arsenal.
In further troubling times, Liverpool’s defence is just as leaky. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will fancy their chances against a defence manned by the unconvincing Simon Mignolet. Mario Balotelli is fit for the visitors, but you could argue what difference that even makes, given the Italian’s lacklustre start to the season.

Swansea v Spurs
To round off what will be an entertaining Sunday is two teams who will be aiming for Europe next season. You could argue that Spurs fans are sick of the Europa League and want more glitzy encounters, while Swansea would happily take their place in the much-maligned second European tier. One point separates the two going into the weekend.
Swansea will see this as a test of their own ambition. With Spurs coming off the back of another un-welcomely interrupted midweek tie, this should be the perfect time to strike. Wilfried Bony is having another strong season and Spurs will have to wait another week to haul themselves out of their mid-table rut.

Everton v QPR
Given the fact that Everton rested most of their first-team in the mid-week Europa League defeat, fatigue should be no excuse here, even for an ageing team such as theirs. QPR’s away record is what will keep them endlessly fighting against the drop, and away to Everton is a time to dig in.
Ross Barkley should be fresh and ready to take on Harry Redknapp’s men and Everton need points badly. Sitting in 12th, if they do not put a run of form together soon they will need to win the Europa League to get back into Europe next year. This should be a good place to start however, but a scrappy game could be on the cards.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Calm Before The Storm

As we trundle towards Christmas, there is no manager whom you could safely predict is one game away from the sack. In an age where trigger-happy chairmen have been vilified by sections of the media as impatient and clueless, and the awful ‘look how much time Fergie was given’ cliché is wheeled out every few weeks, the only managerial departure so far is Tony Pulis and that was very much of his own volition.

Alan Pardew, dead man walking eight weeks ago, is now man of the hour, if not quite manager of any months. Big Sam Allardyce rides high in third place after showing a previously unfathomable ability to play something other than hoof-ball. It is great to see, managers adapting even in their later years. Not every personality is as fixed as some people like to paint. It’s easy for anyone writing about a football manager to revert to a character, as if sport is a sitcom with a satisfying narrative where no one ever changes. I can imagine Pardew and Allardyce had a chuckle over the very same points last week after the match. Well, maybe Allardyce was a bit more in the mood for a joke having stolen the points.

Football being an extremely political game, any manager with half a chance of surviving longer than two minutes must surely develop the thickest of skins. If you make the wrong subs, you’re clueless. If a sub works wonders, why didn’t he start the game? Win all your games and it’s all down to the players. Lose all your games and you’re the worst person ever, let alone manager. Brendan Rodgers is being hounded closer to the exit door after the Luis Suarez departure, yet wasn’t there a stat floating around last season which showed Liverpool had a higher points average without the hungry Uruguayan? Perhaps Daniel Sturridge was equally as essential to the Anfield attack? The 3-0 drubbing of Tottenham with Sturridge in the team and playing with ten men (well, Balotelli WAS playing) is Liverpool’s sole bright spot this season. Yes, the Suarez money could have been spent better, but that’s just it. It’s not the lack of Suarez, it’s the poor transfer window and inability to get the best out of what players are there which is costing Rodgers. He may get the time to turn it around and he probably will eventually, even if this season ends up a write-off.

Unfortunately, some managers don’t seem to help themselves. Arsene Wenger thought he had ridden out the storm after fending off Hull in May’s FA Cup final but he merely raised expectations one last and possibly fatal time. January will be Wenger’s last throw of the dice for some Arsenal fans. As a Newcastle supporter, I hate to say this but Moussa Sissoko is a must-buy for the ailing Londoners. You can buy all the forward flair in the world but if you’ve lost the battle in the centre then what’s the point? On second thoughts, Yohan Cabaye please. He’s already ex-Newcastle and he can put a foot in rightly!

As for Paul Lambert, Alan Irvine, Harry Redknapp, and all the other bottom-half dwellers, they will bounce from crisis to crisis, hopefully learn a thing or two along the way, and reach that point where the pressure becomes second-nature. This season is becoming one of managerial resilience. Cue the inevitable mass-sacking which renders this article as useful  as a chocolate teapot.

Monday, 3 November 2014

A Couple Of Manchester Derby Thoughts

From the moment Chris Smalling opened his mouth to say that the Manchester derby would be 100 miles an hour, it should have set alarm bells ringing. For his idea of a quick-tempo encounter was apparently more of a drag race than that of a smartly-navigated autobahn - which is something boss Louis Van Gaal will know all about from his time in Munich. The Dutchman will be forgiven for imagining in horror the carnage on British roads if speed limits were ever relaxed in such a way, after the predicament his passionate-yet-clueless defender had put him in became all too clear.

Manchester United were already up against it, given the recent history of this derby - four league defeats in succession becomes five as Manchester City swatted aside suggestions that United were ready to prematurely snatch back their local dominance. Instead, the red half of Manchester must ponder their worst league since 1986 and the dark days of Ron Atkinson. Is it too late to prize David Moyes away from the heady heights of the Real Sociedad job?

In the sensible realms of reality, the Van Gaal project, while not exactly purring along, is showing signs of long-term fruition. The Moyes-manned eleven men of United were dismantled 4-1 last season, and whilst this is not the same swaggering City of twelve months ago, progress can surely be noted. If even Alan Pardew can haul Newcastle out of their slump (for this week) on his peanuts of a transfer budget, Van Gaal will sense a return to Europe on United's horizon.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Welbeck Answers The Critics

Arsene Wenger would have been rubbing his hands with glee tonight, as Danny Welbeck slipped nicely into his new role as an actual goal-scorer. Often pushed onto the flanks, and eventually out the door, at Old Trafford, the 23-year-old has a knack of producing when it really counts (ignoring his encounter with Neuer last season). Sweden and Italy have both felt his wrath at major tournaments, and he has ensured England go forward with one foot already in France and Euro 2016.

Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling dove-tailed beautifully at times with the new Arsenal man, and the duo of finishes he provided were clinical. No longer can it be claimed that he is no finisher. Welbeck perhaps struggled with his fringe role alongside Wayne Rooney for Man United, and the crumbling of United's general dominance alongside the remaining high expectations. England as a national side have probably never been lower in terms of expectation, despite a potentially fearsome attack. The defence creaked, but Welbeck was razor sharp on the counter.

Ten goals in 28 games is no shame at international level, and there is no reason why the Englishman should not perhaps even double that total for Arsenal this season, given the embarrassment of riches in that particular midfield. Man United have chosen to go down the foreign route at a high cost to their own coffers, yet Welbeck will be hungry to prove they had a good thing under their nose the whole time. It is not inconceivable that his goals could secure a Champions League spot for Arsenal at his former club's expense, and Wenger will know he has got a bargain, if you can call a £16m purchase that.

Roy Hodgson will also be thrilled at Welbeck's upturn in fortunes. With Theo Walcott's eventual return to fitness, a big portion of England's attack will be able to strike up a new understanding, and with Welbeck's past alongside Rooney in addition to the Sterling/Sturridge/Lambert trio at Liverpool, the scope for huge fluidity in the England attack is arguably greater than ever.

As far as the English defence goes, Gary Cahill gave the kind of all-action performance that used to be John Terry's staple, particularly for one heroic clearance that stopped a certain goal. However, Phil Jones must do more to nail down what could be his place for the next ten years and beyond. The dearth of options must be used to his own advantage, and his undoubted potential needs to be tapped into over the next year or two. He could even be a captain for both club and country, such are the good traits he possesses. Inspiration can be taken from his ex-club-mate at the other end of the pitch.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Man United's 'Identity' Is Already Long Gone

The sale of Danny Welbeck to Arsenal is being held up as an example of Manchester United's distinctive identity being lost, as claimed by ex-assistant manager Mike Phelan.

Is it not the case however, that this started a long time ago? For a long time now, Welbeck has seemed at odds with the galactico-style recruitment favoured by the club. Even Fergie, in his latter days, plumped for a 29-year-old Robin Van Persie to play down the middle ahead of Welbeck.

If we really want to nit-pick, surely the club's identity was sold down the river to the Glazers, as part of their supposed milking of club funds for their own agenda, and holding the club from reaching its potential. Whether that is all accurate or not (the summer's spending spree would suggest this is exaggerated), it is a long time since the Class off '92. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, and David Beckham, to name a few home-grown stars over the years are all of a similar retired age. Recent headline-makers include Wayne Rooney (a big-money signing from Everton), Cristiano Ronaldo (a Portugese wonder-kid turned global by Fergie), and the aformentioned Van Persie.

It is what all clubs have done. The idea of a club having an instinctive identity that breeds all the best-loved players from a 500-yard radius of the stadium is romantic, and part of the magic that connects a club to its fans. In the lower league it still exists to a large extent. But the big leagues are now about the biggest wallets, and have been for some time. Any club that splashes out in an attempt to reach footballing greatness is guilty of losing big chunks of their identity in return. Arsenal are held up as a shining example of all that is well and good about English football, in terms of sustainability, and style of play. Yet even they for nearly two decades have been managed by a Frenchman, and their largest shareholder, Stan Kroenke, is an American, just like the Glazers and John W. Henry at Liverpool. Chelsea are run by a Russian/Portugese combo.

In such a globalised world, this is all inevitable, particularly at the game's top table. Yet the dynasty of Sir Alex Ferguson lulled United fans into a sense of false pride at how their club was run. "Give a manager time, like Fergie was given", has been the standard cry from fans/pundits in defense of whoever's head was on the Premier League chopping block. Even when Moyes was appointed, Fergie himself perpetuated the myth that Old Trafford was somehow a special land of infinite patience. Nine months later, they became just like any other club, panicked into action by poor short-term results. Fergie would never have got the same time in this day and age, and neither will Van Gaal. Welbeck may have come from the United academy, but just like the overlooking of Giggs for the managerial post, a Dutchman, a Scouser, and a Colombian will all battle it out for striking supremacy ahead of the young Englishman.

In many ways, this dilution of local identity has led to more exciting football from a neutral's perspective. Football is as tribal as ever, but in a more fluid manner. Luis Suarez was no less thrilling to watch at Anfield for his foreign status, but even he now makes way for the cementing of local favourite Raheem Sterling (well, and Balotelli.) The time is now perfect for Man United to gracefully accept their status as just another mish-mash of world-renowned footballers from all the realms of the galaxy. As anyone who witnesses Angel Di Maria blowing his first Premier League defence away will testify, there are worse fates than your club losing its true historical identity.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ben Arfa's Newcastle Hell Ended by Geordie Bruce.

Many (too many) words have been written about Hatem Ben Arfa in the past year or so. Here are some more to round off the latest perplexing saga in the North-East. Newcastle fans have tended to use his potentially world-beating talent as a vehicle from which to take aim at manager Alan Pardew. Every poor performance in the Frenchman's absence would be accompanied by pro-Ben Arfa chants, designed to undermine the manager and paint the Gallic maestro as some kind of wronged political prisoner under the Ashley/Pardew regime. Che Guevara banners have become common-place in recent months. He was even forced to cancel a 'meet and greet' with fans in local venue 'The Back Page', amid club fears of whipping up some kind of anti-establishment frenzy.

There is another school of thought, one that suggests Ben Arfa's inability to track back or work as part of a tight unit was detrimental to the team spirit of Newcastle United. This has consistently been the official line coming from Pardew, and it has been suggested that the rest of the squad share this point of view, ever since last autumn's 3-2 defeat to Everton, where Ben Arfa was replaced at half-time with the score at 3-0. Ever since, he struggled to get games.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. Ben Arfa is a talent that no amount of fancy-dan recruitment can hope to replace. Remy Cabella, although excellent for Montpellier last season, does not yet fully convince as a focal creative point for an aspiring Premier League attack. More should have been done by Pardew to integrate Ben Arfa into a unit that has all too often appeared negative and anything but tight. This calendar year has seen Newcastle display relegation form, and while the Frenchman has been packed off to Hull for the remainder of his contract, Pardew must do a hell of a lot more to prove he has learnt his lessons. A talent such as Ben Arfa's should have been given more trust and room to breathe.

Yet, as Pardew will undoubtedly argue, Ben Arfa did not do quite enough on the pitch, on a sufficiently frequent basis, to earn the manager's trust. A total of 14 goals and 18 assists in 86 appearances is hardly Messi-esque, even though when he did turn it on, the fireworks were glorious. Breaking it down to cold efficient logic, even the best goals only count for one, yet the inspiration of Ben Arfa at his best lit up St James' Park, and that golden spring of 2012 will always be remembered as the time when even Pardew's handbrake was not enough to hold back a Ba/Cisse/Ben Arfa trio.

Here lies the crux. Like many on Newcastle's books (the equally banished Marveaux for one), Ben Arfa did not fit into a management style that favours hard work and industry more than anything else. Not that everyone should Berbatov their way around the pitch, but there has to be room for that lazy kind of unpredictability, the sort that gives defenders cold sweats. Siem de Jong and Cabella may yet provide the antidote to this, but surely it would have been easier to just bury the hatchet with a man who has proved he can rip the Premier League to shreds on his day.

Steve Bruce, a through-and-through Geordie (who managed Sunderland no less) will know what he is getting, and if he can coax the goods out of Ben Arfa, Pardew will look even more foolish. The best goals may only count for one, but arrogance and gross mismanagement like we have seen at Newcastle lately counts for no goals, no points, and no support.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Deadline Day Fun!

By far and away the biggest transfer deadline day story; Harry Redknapp, in navigating his way through a path of journalists, did not wind his window down. On the subject of his own wheeler-dealing (hopefully he's not reading this), Fabio Borini is rumoured to be on his way to Loftus Road for a reported £10m from Liverpool. Injury prone? Check. High wages? Check. Over 30? Not by a long shot. The 23-year-old is a good prospect who could yet make it in England, judging by his part in another Houdini act last season at Sunderland. However, with QPR's general dealing remaining exclusively to big names, it remains to be seen whether they will be suited to a relegation battle. Big-money additions, Leroy Fer and Jordan Mutch, are both highly regarded, but both suffered the drop last season. Fer in particular received mixed reviews from Norwich fans on his ability to track back and work hard.

One player who is more than willing to put in the donkey work for the greater good is Danny Welbeck. News of an imminent loan move to Arsenal is being greeted with some howls of derision by some Arsenal fans, who after seeing their club spend an unheard of £40m on Alexis Sanchez, are frustrated at an apparent signing that they feel to be beneath them. How dare they resort to signing a fourth-choice Man United reserve? In reality, it should not be that simple. Welbeck has always had the utmost potential, and has been unfairly regarded as an unsexy English clogger. He has an excellent burst of pace, and possesses the kind of explosive attributes that the always silky-smooth Arsenal attack misses in the absence of Theo Walcott (not that Welbeck would ever catch Walcott in a 100m race). Adding that to Sanchez, Sanogo, and Podolski (with Giroud and Walcott still to return), Arsene Wenger would be happy with his options, given the formidable array of attacking midfielders they possess. Big names and big money do not always equal success.

Having said that, Man United's summer spending is beginning to resemble a child blindly (no pun intended) swinging at a bountiful pinata. Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, and now Falcao, must be leaving David Moyes seething with jealousy, despite the glee he must at least somewhat be feeling at Louis Van Gaal's underwhelming results to date. The Dutchman's selection headaches will be reaching migraine proportions when he jots the names down on paper, but at least Tom Cleverley looks to be one name he can rub off the list of mediocrity, as he seems to be close to a move to Aston Villa.

As a Newcastle fan, what began as an exciting summer sprinkled with actual signings rather than know-nothing directors of football, has fizzled out into one that still requires further reinforcements, particularly at the back. Mike Williamson has performed admirably at times, but should not be a first-choice any higher than the relegation battlers. Steven Taylor's career at the top level has passed him by, and captain Coloccini is beginning to show his lack of pace as he approaches his mid-30s. Alan Pardew is past his sell-by-date and working for an owner who doesn't care about the club beyond its useful function as a cash cow. The only progress from last season will be in a downward direction unless serious changes happen at both board and dug-out level.

With three hours to go at the time of writing, there is still the chance of Wenger ensnaring Messi, as the Barca galactico is taking part in a charity match that the Frenchman is attending. In Wenger We Trust. Until he doesn't spend a trillion billion pounds on a striker that is. Happy deadline day!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

England Fall Short With A Match To Spare

 As it turns out, Greg Dyke's cut-throat gesture was accurate all along. The England chairman's worst fears in terms if results were realised, as successive 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay put paid to hopes of his troops finally punching above their weight. Here is Queen's University Belfast Student's Union's reaction. Not everyone was supporting England, I can tell you that!

Let's be honest, I don't think anyone really expected anything different. Putting money on victories in either match would have been throwing your money away, but England in major competitions always elicit the most irrational of feelings and predictions. Draws to Ecuador and Honduras (who themselves both put on quite a decent show last night) should have raised alarms that this was a team on a hiding to nothing.

Pride can still be salvaged. Victory against Costa Rica would be welcome, in a 'doing what Italy and Uruguay failed to do' sort of way. It will also give Roy Hodgson an excuse to drop the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, to truly throw off the shackles of an expectant nation, and experiment ahead of the qualification process for Euro 2016. Treating it as an extra friendly would be a bonus, seeing as England managers never have a great deal of time with their players. Wallowing in self-pity should be kept to a minimum - the work starts here for two years down the line.

As it happens, there is really no need for the usual cat-calls and 'root-and-branch reviews' that have dogged previous England sides in the past decade. Aside from the occasional ropey sub, I think it is fair to say Hodgson did all he could. It isn't his fault John Terry's antics have rendered him un-selectable and in early retirement. Michael Carrick and Ashley Cole however, are possibly players he might have used, and would not have taken the place of any up-and-coming youngsters. In hindsight, Gerrard and Baines would have been the ones to make way. We may yet see the retirement of Gerrard in the coming days.

Rooney came in for more than his fair share of criticism over these opening two games, yet he provided the assist for one goal, and scored the other. He was arguably the best player against Uruguay - deployed in a more central role. His vast experience is vital to England's attack, amidst all the furore over Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. A fluid interchangable forward line is emerging, and even Ricky Lambert may have a role to play in the coming years - his intelligence and thunderous finishing ability was criminally under-used.

The most pressing concern remains the defence. Hodgson, and whoever succeeds him, will be praying that Phil Jones starts to emerge as the power-house defender everyone prematurely wet themselves over in excitment on joining Manchester United. Jack Rodwell also needs to re-discover his mojo, and a place in someone's starting eleven. Both those players could yet be a key part of England's future, along with Luke Shaw, and whoever eventually takes the place of Glen Johnson.

The effort was there, but like most England appearances at major tournaments, the organisation was not. Hodgson will probably be given a stay of execution, but a victory against Costa Rica is a must if he wants to inspire hope that there are better days ahead.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

An Incomplete Day 3 Round-Up

Saturday brought the end of this writer's unbroken streak of viewing. Bills to pay etc. Colombia v Greece I kept interesting from afar by attempting to take advantage of my free bet - 5-1 for Colombia to win and both teams to score.

Greece, true to form, screwed me over, and themselves it has to be said. Based on the three minutes of highlights I saw, they had their chances, but Colombia on South American soil will be a tough ask for anyone.

As it turned out, Uruguay succumbed to the first total shock of the tournament, in a match I followed first on radio, then on my computer screen. 1-0 seemed a fair score at the break and in all honesty as I unpacked my laptop I expected a sleepy second-half with little action other than perhaps a Luis Suarez run-out and a second goal.

As the screen flickered on, I noticed it was 1-1 - before I could even come to terms with this the second goal went in. The game then took on a Spain v Holland feel, albeit with less goals and drama, but still an unbelievable night for the Costa Ricans.

I will skip right ahead and say that I am yet to see Ivory Coast v Japan. I write this from my bed, with the aformentioned game waiting on the BT Vision, having conceded defeat in my all-nighter attempt. Hoping for both Toures to score and their infectious street chant to take over Brazil for a few days.

Anyway, to England v Italy. The match played out as nearly everybody sensible must surely have expected. Raheem Stirling was England's best player, Andrea Pirlo passed the ball a lot, and lots of long shots were skied.

With a little more patience, and faith in their own abilities, England would have won the game. Daniel Sturridge's goal came from the rare instance where they actually found the killer pass instead of attempting to re-create Michael Owen's France '98 wonder-goal.

The performance was by no means bad, just not quite good enough. Leighton Baines will be looking over his shoulder at Luke Shaw after a poor display, but the real congratulations must go to Italy. At 2-1 they always looked in control, even when under the cosh, as if they knew England would burn themselves out.

A well-worked corner routine brought their opening goal, and Mario Balotelli capped a quietly-threatening display with the winner. I fancy Italy to go a long way, but can England recover in time to qualify out of the group? They better hope Suarez is unfit, or they'll be praying for a miracle.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A Day Of De-Throning?

After the previous night's incompetence, the day's opening salvo of action was something of an encore for the officials. This time it was the linesman (not Russian, Colombian) who did his best to spoil the party. This time however he was merely delaying the inevitable, as his two incorrect offside calls were insufficent to stop Mexico brushing Cameroon aside. Both defences were somewhat shoddy, but it will take a more on-form striker than Samuel Eto'o to breach the Mexican rearguard. Neymar will be licking his lips.

As far as Mexican's own goal threat goes, well boss Miguel Herrera felt confident enough to leave poacher-supreme Javier Hernandez out, although the shanked effort that would have made it 2-0 after his introduction as substitute would suggest the right call was made. Oribe Peralta scored the decisive goal, in a pleasingly predatory fashion, although Giovanni dos Santos will feel mighty aggrieved should he finish two goals shy of the golden boot award at the tournament's end. His first disallowed goal was a combination of perfectly-timed run and perfectly-timed volley.

Cameroon showed little to suggest they can trouble either Croatia or Brazil, and will be preparing for a fruitless exit, much to my distaste, as I was landed with them in my work sweepstake!

Next, as Thierry Henry claimed in the aftermath, 'The Dutch got their style back'. Man United fans will be salivating at the sight of their star striker and new coach dismantling the holders. A 5-1 victory over Spain will go down as one of the most stunning results in World Cup history, yet Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben are already world-renowned. Should we really be that shocked? Well yes. Spain were yet to even concede one goal in this calendar year, and to leak five in one game was shocking.

Yet the first half had provided little to suggest the mayhem ahead. Van Persie's fabulous header was already the best goal so far in the tournament, but Robben's second and Holland's fifth was a magnificent solo effort, making household names such as Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas look silly before composing himself and finding the corner.

The second half will surely go down as the defining image of the tournament - the moment where football took a final definitive turn away from the Barcelona/Spain monopoly - and it looks like Spain's crown has been snatched away. They may yet make it out of their group, but are looking long shots to defend their title. In boxing, this would make Holland world champions, and you would have to say, if this was a final, they would be worthy of that title. Cue two defeats, and an early exit. In all seriousness, this was a warning shot to the rest of the world. Anyone to beat the Dutch will go far.

Chile looked set to fire a warning shot of their own, racing into a two-goal lead with less than 20 minutes gone, but Tim Cahill and Australia made them sweat it out, pulling a goal back and doggedly staying in the game before Jean Beausejour's resounding finish finally put the game beyond doubt.

If you switched off after the 2nd goal, you'd have missed a surprising Aussie revival, and better teams than them will take advantage of Chile's soft centre. All hope is not lost for Spain in this group.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Brazil 3-1 Croatia - Hosts Lucky To Escape With Victory

The 2014 World Cup got off to a somewhat predictable start, with the plucky underdogs of Croatia being cast aside by the right-at-home juggernaut that is Brazil. Well, sort of. The first half was an even affair, with Brazil enjoying the greater possession, but Croatia providing a considerable threat on the counter attack.

The opening goal for Croatia wasn't a total shock, based on the opening proceedings. The eventually tireless Oscar was proving wasteful early on, leading to the chequered stripes finding joy down Brazil's right flank. Ivica Olic, the work-horse recently linked with Stoke, broke free down the left and sent a teasing cross where a mishit shot from Nikica Jelavic found its way to goal via a key deflection off Marcelo. David Luiz was also at fault for allowing Jelavic to even make contact, but Marcelo will go down in history as the first Brazilian ever to score an own-goal in a World Cup.

Thankfully for him, the luck evened itself out, as every Brazil goal had an element of good fortune about it, depending on which side you were rooting for. Neymar was arguably lucky to remain on the pitch after losing control of his arm, allowing it to slam into Luka Modric's face in the midst of a jostle for a header. Minutes later, he had found himself space for a shot, which he very slightly mishit yet still gave it the accuracy to beat the Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa, who could perhaps have done better.

The remainder of the first half played out with Brazil enjoying possession, and Croatia happy to hang on for the break. The second half continued in this vein, although as the action wore on, the Europeans were growing more and more assured. Cue of course an unexpected and undeserved penalty. Fred went down under the slightest touch from Croat defender Dejan Lovren and gave Neymar the opportunity to score his 33rd Brazil goal, still at the tender age of 22. And score he did, despite Pletikosa getting more than a decent hand to it after a stuttered run-up. Two arguably fortunate goals and Brazil were on the way to victory.

Olic's arguably soft challenge on Julio Cesar was what stopped what looked like a perfectly good equaliser, as Croatia began to up the ante. Croatia had shown flashes of potential throughout the game, with Modric and Ivan Rakitic, the new Barcelona recruit, causing the Brazil defence a number of problems. David Luiz made a number of key interceptions and tackles, and Luis Gustavo put in a warrior-like shift in front of the back four, but Ivan Perisic was a brilliant Julio Cesar save away from rescuing a deserved point for Croatia.

Instead, as stoppage time began, Brazil went straight up the other end, with Oscar making another one of his lung-bursting runs before toe-poking a hopeful yet well-placed effort inexplicably beyond Pletikosa, who should have dealt with it.

So 3-1 it ended, and with Neymar lucky to remain on the pitch, Brazil can see themselves lucky to have chalked up their first win. Other than lively substitute Bernard, an admittedly hard-working side was somewhat blunt in attack. Croatia, were it not for some strange referee decisions and some slow goalkeeping reactions, could have earnt at least a point. On this evidence they will surely progress, with Mexico and Cameroon still to play, but there is now little room for error.

Brazil on the other hand can already consider themselves with one foot in the last 16, as Neymar staked an early claim for both the player of the tournament and the golden boot.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Wenger Could Be Gone Whatever The Outcome Today.

The last great dynasty in the Premier League era is that of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. The nine years since a trophy is immaterial - the Frenchman has kept the Gunners part of the Champions League furniture, while recent winners such as Liverpool and Man United have tumbled from their top four perches. Arsenal have kept solid and stable, and let's not forget that one great 'Invincibles' season.

Wenger will go down as one of the all-time greats when he retires, so why the criticism? Those nine barren years have been marked by seemingly constant rumours of him resigning/being sacked/retiring completely, and Arsenal fans are missing that feeling of seeing their captains lifting a trophy in triumph. They look down the road and see Chelsea's revolving door policy of hiring and firing the world's best coaches. The Blues may be lacking in patience, but they are not lacking in trophies. Who could blame Arsenal fans for wanting to see if the grass is greener?

Should Arsenal see Hull off in this evening's FA Cup final, it may yet be the perfect time for Wenger to step down. His mainly happy time in London could end on a high note, and his legacy could be framed in the best possible way. Sir Alex Ferguson knew the value of bowing out a the top, and while Mesut Ozil hasn't had the 'Van Persie effect' they had hoped, the £40m spent was evidence of Wenger himself getting frustrated with the lack of quantifiable success.

Wenger will also be wary of the future. Even in the glow of victory, the pressure would be on Arsenal to kick on next season. To prove that the cup win wasn't a fluke. To prove that they can properly challenge for the Premier League, in a way that Liverpool did this season. He may yet put his feet up and reflect on a job at least partially well done.

Should the Tigers spring the season's latest shock and snatch the trophy themselves, it is difficult to see Wenger staying on. He is right to delay the signing of a proposed new deal. Options will be kept open on both sides.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Tim Sherwood Is The Main Winner Of Spurs' Season.

As Tim Sherwood gave his thoughts over ITV's coverage of last night's Europa League final, you heard the satisfied tone of someone who wouldn't change a thing about the last six months. A man who knew what he was getting himself into, knew he would be sacked before the year was out, and knew he would actually be more employable at the end of the line.

How many managers at Championship level, which is where Sherwood will inevitably end up, can say they have managed in European competition? Very few. He is already right at the top of many wish-lists I'm sure. Before Spurs handed him a permanent contract, many chairmen would be a bit wary of the unknown if considering Sherwood for their club. Whether this is accurate or not, he now gives the impression of carefree attacking throwback football, which always attempts to outscore the opposition. Remember that opening bout against Southampton where he selected four attacking midfielders, two strikers, and came back with three points? That's what most top brass will think of when Tim's CV drops onto their desk.

Spurs fans will tell you that Sherwood lacked a real style of play, that he basically put his best players on the field and prayed for a bit of inspiration or magic. Fortunately for him, Emmanuel Adebayor and Christian Eriksen provided that magic. But even that supposed reliance on Adebayor makes Sherwood look good, as he was the one who brought the Togo man out from the cold, after Andre Villas-Boas' ill-fated tenure. AVB also got much less out of Eriksen than Sherwood did. There is a place for Sherwood in the managerial jungle, and his time as 'supply teacher' at White Hart Lane has done more for him than six months at a lower league side.

Sherwood is a man who thrives on attention, and in Spurs' car-crash of a season, he walks away unscathed, with an un-bettered win percentage, and a lot of sympathy. He was never going to get them into the top four, and to be honest, given time, Villas-Boas would have proved a better long-term bet. Both are now history though, and arguably better off.

Giggs Will Learn From The Best In Van Gaal

It is perhaps fortunate for Manchester United as a club that Ryan Giggs did not sweep all before him in his four games in charge. Three home games against relegation strugglers, in addition to an away trip to an admittedly fine Southampton side with nothing to play for, are not the criteria by which to judge a potential United boss, in the same way that David Moyes' winless away record against the top four should have been used to judge his own suitability.

After the 4-0 win against Norwich in his debut game, the calls for Giggs to be given the top job were growing. The big bad Scotch grump had been chased out of town and now was the time for a real (Welsh) Manc to show the true spirit and winning mentality of Old Trafford's Theatre Of Dreams. The subsequent home slip-up to Sunderland was as close to a blessing in disguise as a defeat can possibly be. It confirmed, to those who needed reminding, that Man United remained a football club, like any other, who simply needed a proven manager with a track record of winning that the supporters could get behind; not the flimsy fairytale of an unproven legend.

The aformentioned proven manager looks like being Louis van Gaal. Unlike David Moyes, a man who threw a fit of insecurity in completely re-shaping the club's backroom staff (as if he needed to prove to everyone that the Everton 'way' could really be replicated at the very top level), the Dutchman is attempting to harness what remains of the Fergie legacy by holding discussions with Giggs regarding the assistant manager's job. It is Darwin's Theory Of Evolution, not Revolution, and van Gaal will treat what Sir Alex left behind with care.

His appointment of Giggs will also be a shrewd political manouvere, as it will neutralise any threat (small as it is) that the Welshman will pose for the managerial position in the future. Not only that, but to be assistant manager at a club like Man United is a more prestigous position than most top jobs elsewhere. Just ask Carlos Queiroz, who walked straight into the Real Madrid job via Sir Alex's right hand. Giggs' time spent learning from such a decorated man as the former Barcelona coach van Gaal, will prove vital to his future managerial career, wherever that may be.

We can only breathe a sigh of relief that United didn't go down the Sherwood route, as no matter how amusing last season's fall from grace was, it is a shame to see a good legacy be ripped up. Careful rebuilding is required, and after Holland's Euro campaign, van Gaal will get to work on his toughest job yet.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Local Author Remembers Racing Legend Senna.

Belfast-born writer Richard Craig, author of ‘Ayrton Senna – The Messiah Of Motor Racing’, has offered his tributes to the late Brazilian Formula One driver. This month marks twenty years since Senna and Roland Ratzenberger lost their lives at Imola in separate tragic accidents.

While Craig acknowledged Senna is always going to be talked about more than Ratzenberger, he called the equal respect shown to both drivers “heart-warming.”

Craig said, “At the end of the day, status should not come into it. They were both men of the same age killed doing the same job.”

Craig, 30, attended Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, before studying Law at Queens University Belfast and then a Creative Writing Masters in London. Here he began work on his Senna book.

“I was very lucky in that I didn’t decide to do it, as such. What happened was that I went to see the ‘Senna’ film with my girlfriend but, instead of being enraptured by it, found myself being slightly irked at the way Senna was portrayed.

“I decided, like all good keyboard warriors, to let the world know of my opinions via my blog. Incredibly, Darton Longman and Todd (the publisher) found what I’d written and offered me a book deal. I didn’t need asked twice!”

Craig’s impressive amount of research – he was only 11 at the time of Senna’s death – allowed him to shed light on the racer’s off-track character. Senna’s ruthless pursuit of championship points was balanced by the spiritual and loving persona that his family knew:

“He loved his family. He was a loyal friend to the few that were allowed into his circle of trust. He gave a lot to charity and he actually had a pretty keen sense of humour under all those layers of self-imposed reserve.”

Craig’s most memorable Senna moment actually came in August 1983, a couple of months after his own birth, from Senna’s days in Formula Three, at Oulton Park.

“He was in second place right behind Martin Brundle when he decided to try and overtake, from miles back, when there was simply no room. His car ended up on top of Brundle’s - but the first thing Senna did was to peer over the side of his car to see if his rival was still in one piece!”

Sadly for Senna, his sudden demise will always be remembered most, and Imola 1994 will always lead to solemn reflection, both for his own friends and family, and those of Ratsenberger.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Moyes Departure Leaves United At A Crossroads.

The David Moyes era (does ten months count as an era?) came to a sticky end at the hands of his former Toffees. In the most cruel of ways, the return to his old comfort zone coincided with the arrival at boiling point of the pressures he had been under since taking on the formidable task of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United boss.

The display he presided over was all the more hard to swallow, given that he was just beginning to show signs of adapting to the Man United way (at least in his team selection, maybe not in tactics). Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa were starting to strike up an understanding, and the recent 4-0 romp over Newcastle also saw Adnan Januzaj deployed to complete an exciting attacking midfield trio.

Yet at Goodison Park, United were lethargic, lacking in movement, and worst of all, utterly beaten once going a goal down. Moyes' side had a good record after taking the lead, but have been hopeless at rescuing lost causes, Olympiakos over two legs aside.

Most significantly of all, the Everton defeat left Champions League football out of reach, and even a Europa League slot looking unlikely. The final confirmation of United's downfall proved to be the same for Moyes, as he paid the price for a slump of alarming speed. Truthfully, the damage was done in the most harrowing of winters. Cup defeats to Swansea, Sunderland, both at home, plus the Stamford Bridge hammering, were signs that Moyes was losing support fast.

With Moyes now consigned to history, perhaps this is now the time to finally move on from the past. In the cack-handed way that United handled his departure, they suddenly resembled almost every other Premier League club in recent memory. Chelsea, Spurs, and Man City all have managerial fiascos to be ashamed of, yet the 26-year reign of Fergie was held up almost as a beacon to be learnt from. The moral high-ground lay resolutely at Old Trafford, but it is easy to act high and mighty when you have someone like Fergie in charge. Had he retired in 2002, as he threatened to, United may yet have turned out as unstable and as volatile a proposition as Chelsea and City have proved to be.

Now the soon-to-be-deposed champions must adapt to life in the wilderness. They must no longer crave stability for the sake of it. They must find a manager worthy of sticking with. Admirable as Moyes' achievements at Everton were, they were in a completely different environment, and he quickly proved unable to match the expectations of the board and fans. He may have been working with a weaker squad than last season suggested, but there are many managers out there who would have made a better fist of it. It is hard to imagine Mourinho, Guardiola, or Klopp, spending £70m on a Chelsea misfit and Fellani.

Moyes may have got it right, given time. Yet the same could be said of any failed manager at any level. Roy Hodgson may yet have turned around his fortunes at Liverpool, but what further damage could have been done before then? In today's short-term and media-driven football world, a point of no return is sadly reached much quicker than it used to be. The only thing to save a manager is results, and as long as there are league tables, we will continue to see half the managers get sacked each season. Eventually, only the table-topping coaches will survive, and even then there will be discontent if they don't score 100 goals in the process.

Who would be a football manager? The pay-offs may be lucrative, but is it worth the endless bashing? One thing is for sure, only Van Gaal, Guardiola, Mourinho, or Klopp will satisfy an Old Trafford crowd crying out for some strong leadership. The ship is off course, but as Liverpool have demonstrated this year, any drifting vessel can be turned around through one inspirational captain. One can only hope Moyes finds one small enough for him to handle. There are a number of bottom-half clubs who are probably rubbing their hands in glee at the Scot's availability.

It was an opportunity he couldn't turn down, but the past must be laid to rest. So too must Fergie's involvement in club affairs at Old Trafford. There is a place for him in an ambassadorial level, for sure, but any new manager can have nothing to do with the old legend. Moyes is no shrinking violet, but as the image of Giggs, Scholes, Butt, and Phil Neville taking today's training session shows, there is just too much baggage as it is.

The next move remains fascinating. Who will United turn to next?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Manchester United 1-1 Bayern Munich

Manchester United's European hopes remain alive going into the away leg against Bayern Munich after a gutsy 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

 Nemanja Vidic raised hopes of an unlikely victory with a 58th minute header, but that lead only lasted nine minutes, with Bastian Schweinsteiger sweeping home on the half-volley.The German then harshly saw red in the final minute of normal time, receiving a second yellow for a challenge that Wayne Rooney made more than a meal of. He will join Javi Martinez on the sidelines for the return leg, after the makeshift defender saw a yellow card that triggers suspension.

The first half played out how many predicted it would, minus the expected boat-load of Bayern Munich goals. The away side, like many at the home of the soon-to-be-unseated Premier League champions, enjoyed the bulk of possession, with their share reaching an eye-watering 79% for the first half. Despite that, David De Gea only had one strenuous save to make, with a fine diving stop from an Arjen Robben effort keeping the score at 0-0.

As the half wore on, while Bayern remained camped in the United half, the home side were occasionally dangerous on the counter attack. Danny Welbeck had already seen a third-minute goal disallowed, somewhat harshly for a high foot, but he had another chance to open the scoring. Clean through on goal, he tried an optimistic chip over Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer when he should have merely slotted it past the on-rushing keeper.

In reality, the away side never got out of second gear, happy to patiently probe at a timid United side, but beleagured boss David Moyes smelt blood, sending Shinji Kagawa on for the aged Ryan Giggs. While Kagawa had little influence on the game as a whole, there was a greater intensity about the home side, and Vidic's guided header from a Rooney corner was on balance deserved.

Any side that is already Bundesliga champions for the season, not to mention the Champions League holders, always has something in their locker however, and Schweinsteiger's equaliser from Mario Mandzukic's knock-down should not be begrudged. Man United would have been lucky to see out the game without conceding, but Moyes will be thrilled to have avoided defeat in this toughest of European tests.

For United to operate on the counter was entirely understandable, and some would argue that this was Moyes in his comfort zone, as the home side were expected to play in their shell, but there can be few complaints with the overall display.

Bayern Munich undoubtedly had complaints about the refereeing display, as they felt Antonio Valencia should have been sent off for an admittedly dicey challenge. The referee Carlos Velasco Carballo saw it as a 50/50 coming-together, but for Schweinsteiger to then be sent off for a challenge that had the strong whiff of a Rooney dive would have stuck in the German craws a bit.

Man United must play with more adventure in Munich, as the away goal they conceded will prove their un-doing if things remain the same, but the more resigned and pessimistic among the Old Trafford support will be grateful to still be competitive. This Man United season isn't over just yet.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Can Liverpool Hold Their Nerve?

With the season coming into its final straight, the race for the Premier League title is excitingly poised. The top four are separated by six points, as Liverpool lead the way. For large parts of the campaign it had looked like Arsenal were going to end their run of nine years without a trophy, but now it is looking more and more likely that Liverpool could steal their first title since 1990.

It has been a campaign reminiscent of Newcastle's Keegan years, but Brendan Rodgers and co. will be hoping there are much less tears at the season's end. Eric Cantona's dagger blow finish at St James' Park was widely thought of as the moment that the Toon upstarts were put in their place by Manchester United. The blue half of Manchester may yet be the one's that slap Liverpool down this time around, as they travel to Anfield on April 13th.

Still, the attacking verve and style that Liverpool have played with this season has been a joy to behold at times. The partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has admittedly been the glue holding it all together, but we are talking about industrial strength glue here. An able supporting cast of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson ensures their place as an England-squad goldmine for Hodgson to pilfer from, alongside Southampton. Should Liverpool hold their nerve, it will only do those players good, and start to breed a winning mentality that has been sorely lacking in the England national team of late.

Even Brendan Rodgers has against the odds become one of the most likeable managers in the league. After Kenny Dalglish's gross mis-handling of the Luis Suarez racism affair, Liverpool needed a man of fortitude - one that would not make an already toxic situation worse. He got an early chance to prove that, with Suarez's biting incident giving him one of many headaches during a difficult first season. While he was staunch in his critcism of the length of Suarez's ban, he did not condone what the Uruguayan had done to get that ban. Suarez was left in doubt that he had let the club down, but when you have such a world-class talent in the side, you must build around him.

Last season, Liverpool were undoubtedly a one-man team. This time around, others have stepped up, proving that Suarez is not out of place, but merely the catalyst for the most surprising of title challenges. Rodgers has evolved tactically this season, proving that his teams do more than pass teams into tedious submission. He has utilised the explosive talents in his side perfectly, and played to their strengths, rather than relying on an often suspect backline. That opening half against Arsenal earlier this year will go down as one of the Premier League's greatest ever performances, as Anfield was thrilled by a pacy, hard-working and ruthless attacking display. If they repeat that level of performance against their other two title rivals, they will lift a well-deserved first Premier League title.

As Liverpool's 4-0 demolition of Tottenham proved, they are still very much in the zone, and as the stakes are raised higher and higher, Rodgers and his young side can end up alongside the likes of Keegan as Liverpool legends.