Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tales of the unexpected - Weekend observations 25th - 26th September 2010

At Eastlands this weekend, cash rich Manchester City kept up any potential title challenge from themselves by beating current champions Chelsea thanks to a second half Carlos Tevez goal. Like many had called beforehand - possibly rather more in hope than expectation - this was going to be a tricky fixture for the West Londoners having had a rather easy time of it in the league up until this point, barely breaking a sweat as they swept aside the likes of West Brom, Blackpool and Stoke finding each game about as difficult as trying to convince Hollywood starlets to join you at a party where smack is served on arrival. I can't tell you if such parties actually exist of course but you get the point; Chelsea had not been tested.

And so, in what was billed as their first 'real test' against fellow lottery winners City, they came unstuck and suffered their first defeat of the season. What did this game and result tell us? Not a great deal we didn't know already to be honest. City have the potential to achieve great things this season and Roberto Mancini appears to be making sure his side don't suffer from the same defensive failings that ultimately cost Mark Hughes his job last season. They may not be football's great entertainers just yet - in fact, watching their games right now is about as exciting as sitting through a 90 minute lectures on kettles drying and paint boiling - but far less adventurous sides have had all kinds of success down the years and it would be unwise to write off The Citizens completely this season. I mean, he was hardly going to go out and try and outplay the blues, was he?

That said, Chelsea losing the odd game won't immediately make them a bad side. A close defeat by a single goal against a very good team who they also happened to lose to twice last season is no shock. You have to believe that from their rip-roaring performances thus far it's unlikely they will drop many points between now and May. There's every chance they will probably still walk the league thanks in part to the failings of their supposed rivals.

Speaking of whom, 24 hours after their noisy neighbours did them a favour of sorts by beating Chelsea, United once again struggled on the road after making the short trip to Bolton. More on this in a moment as a far bigger shock took place at the Emirates where The Arsenal lost 3-2 to a West Brom side who had probably forgotten what an away win in the Premier League even felt like. I doubt you would have found anyone on the planet crazy enough to have backed the Baggies to take even a point from a team considered in some quarters to be genuine title challengers let alone all three. And in such spectacular circumstances too.

By all accounts, the midlanders attacked from the very start and fully deserved the win with the final scoreline actually flattering The Gunners. Kudos to Mr Di Matteo for actually going out and taking a chance. Of course, on another day it could have backfired horribly but on this occasion it paid off.

What of Arsenal? Despite poor performances throughout the team, the big collective finger of blame has been pointed at Goalie Manuel Almunia after his clangers lead to both second and third goals for the away team. Those, in addition to the concession of a first half penalty that he redeemed himself from by saving. For me, it's completely misguided to simply lay blame at the feet of Almunia. He has never been a good keeper. Ever! But the fact he has the responsibility of being Arsenal number one is solely down to the manager who continues to select him. None of us could ever claim to be smarter than Arsene Wenger in a football sense but his continued blind spot to the obvious problems his team has "in nets" undermines and somewhat makes a fool out of him. You don't need to have managed, hell, you don't even need to have anything beyond a basic knowledge of the game to see that Almunia is a liability. For all his (Wenger's) achievements, failure to address the keeper problem that every single person bar him can see leaves him in danger of tarnishing his own reputation as a manager.

For all the criticisms leveled at his 'kids' for being inexperienced and supposedly lacking a winning mentality, Arsenal would certainly not have dropped as many points and lost as many important games in the last couple of seasons if Wenger had gone out and spent money on a decent goalkeeper rather than putting his trust in Almunia and his current understudy Lukasz Fabianski - between them, arguably the two worst keepers in the league. Even Scott Carson fills me with more confidence. Until a better goalie is brought in, the Arsenal trophy cabinet will remain as bare as the morally corrupting cleavage of a pop starlet on a children's TV programme.

The other 'challengers' Manchester United seem to be going through something of a malaise despite finding themselves in second place. The rate at which they've been leaking goals away from home so far this campaign has been nothing short of hilarious/shocking depending on your persuasion. The draws at Fulham, Everton and this week Bolton as well as the near collapse against Liverpool read for a very unstable backline right now. Johnny Evans and Nemanja Vidic, as good as they are individually, are as compatible as Joseph Goebbels and Nina Simone (can't imagine who would be who in that situation...) and appear to have no understanding whatsoever. Rio Ferdinand is still AWOL with no-one really knowing if he will ever effectively come back from his various ailments. Patrice Evra seems to be suffering a hangover from the French World Cup farce while John O'Shea is John O'Shea.

At the other end of the pitch, Wayne Rooney is playing more like Micky Rooney at the minute. His freakish form from last season feels like a lifetime away as he struggles to even trap a ball or make a simple pass let alone show anything by way of productivity in front of goal. This is where I would display an example of my mediocre attempts to be funny by inserting tediously repeated joke about scoring off the pitch but maybe his time with that brass is actually relevant to the present discussion. I've always been of the opinion that footballers should, without judgement, be able to do whatever and whoever they like as long as a) it doesn't break the law and b) it has no on-pitch implications. Far be it from me to assess mental states and body language from atop my ivory tower like some kind of snooty amateur psychologist but I don't feel it's unfair to speculate and come to the conclusion that Wazza's extracurricular activities and the subsequent revelations about his private life are directly linked to his stuttering start to the season. His team are also suffering from his as a result. Hell, when even professional nonsense speaker Kevin Keegan has a point then you know you’ve got problems.

Another striker not quite reaching the heights of bygone years is Liverpool's Fernando Torres. That said, the effeminate looking Spaniard has been involved in all of his side's last four league goals despite not scoring any. But alas, not all of these assists have passed without controversy. We all had to put up with Sir Alex Ferguson's overblown accusations of cheating last week. This week, it was a former United player and Sunderland manager Steve Bruce who was spitting and snarling about a perceived injustice when Torres set up Dirk Kuyt for one of the most bizarre goals you are ever likely to see (although perhaps not the weirdest in a Sunderland/Liverpool match).

I'm not really sure how people are saying the goal should have stood. Attwell prevented Michael Turner from taking the kick early as if to say "play my whistle". When Turner backheeled it to Mignolet, Attwell wasn't even looking so surely could not have sanctioned the kick. Is it me of is this guy deliberately making inexplicable errors just to get himself some limelight? The fact he failed to punish Steven Gerrard for his WWE style elbow smash on Danny Wellbeck was a scandalous. I guess making mistakes puts you on the map as an official. Who knows? Enough mistakes might see you rewarded with the biggest game in football despite your ineptitude.

If Spurs weren't playing Champions League football, this season would be in danger of tailing off before it's even got going properly. Consistently inconsistent would be the best way of describing 'arry's team at present given the erratic results in recent weeks. This is a symptomatic condition of European novices. Unable and unsure how to balance this new competition alongside domestic commitments, Tottenham have already sacrificed one chance at silverware following their pummelling at the hands of Arsenal last week and with defeats against Wigan and this week, West Ham already, they look unlikely to hit last season's dizzy heights once more. Of course, simply by virtue of being in the Champions League, the club have improved vastly on years gone by but if they are to better last season’s achievements, 'arry will have to get them to win the damn thing. However, with a backline more decimated than that of a 'specialist' adult film star, I'd be prepared to say right now that their chances lie somewhere between highly unlikely and damn near impossible. I doubt Andreas Iniesta is quaking in his Nikes at the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Jermaine Jenas somewhere down the line.

Speaking of mediocre former Nottingham Forest players in the top flight, it didn't take very long for my prophecy last week to come true that James Perch would be responsible for costing Newcastle precious league points, did it? At least he didn't get booked this week.

Last week's blog also boldly predicted the meteoric rise (literally) of Kenwyne Jones and how he was an absolute must for any Fantasy Football team while playing for Stoke. I'd love to be sat here with a look of extreme smugness 'pon my boat race but sadly I didn't take my own advice. Went for Chamakh instead. Pissed!

Finally, Emile Heskey grabbed his second goal in a week scoring in consecutive games for the first time since Jesus was in Huggies. In other news, Satan was spotted buying Ice Skates after it was reported that Hell had frozen over. It's obviously far too early to say whether Ged Houllier has revitalised Heskey's career but how weird would it be if he actually realised at this late stage of his career that he's supposed to be a goalscorer? Forget Chelsea losing, Arsenal getting humped by the Baggies and Kuyt's goal. Of all the unexpected things to happen this weekend, the idea of Heskey using his winner against Wolves as a springboard to becoming a prolific striker would be the weirdest by far.

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Monday, 20 September 2010

Weekend Observations 18th - 19th September: Part Two

Part Two... Part One here

On Friday, Sam Allardyce had us all in stitches when he jokingly suggested he would win every trophy in sight, every season for ever and ever if he got the chance to manage a top football club. The laughter stopped when we realised he was deadly serious. I think he made his point though as his Blackburn side barely scraped a draw against Fulham scoring a goal that seemed to epitomise exactly what he offers as a master football tactician and one of football's unsung heroes: a long ball into the box, a deliberate but unseen foul on the opposition goalkeeper by Pele incarnate El Hadji Diouf and an easy finish for Chris Samba. In all seriousness, his backlash against Wenger's complaints make more sense now. If more action was to be taken against these perceived roughhouse tactics, Allardici's glaring limitations as a manager would be ruthlessly exposed as the only 'tactic' he seems to know how to employ would be rendered utterly redundant.

Who knows? If Big Sam was at Chelsea maybe the title would be wrapped up by Christmas! Either way, I think they might just about get by without his style of 'football'. In that instance, if the title race is set to be a boring predictable procession, I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we are all hoping to see more 'competitiveness' throughout the rest of the division. Putting aside their two humpings in London so far, Blackpool are playing their part as are they team they managed to beat in their last match, Newcastle. It's bloody difficult to know what to make of the Magpies at the minute. Gone are the days of Kevin Keegan's swashbuckling league title bottlers. Now we have Chris Hughton's less exciting side that are just happy to go about their business and I doubt would be too disappointed with mid-table obscurity.

Looking at their current squad, they're hardly packed with superstars but with the likes of Nolan, Barton, Carroll and loan signing Ben Arfa should have the quality to see them keep the wolves of any potential relegation battle at the door. Their defence however, while not as bad Geordie back lines of years gone by, is not one that would fill many with a great deal of confidence. Just as easily as they put 6 past Villa a while back, you can easily see them conceding as many as the likes of James Perch is regularly being put on his backside having been given the runaround by any half decent Premier League winger you could care to mention.

The inconsistency that has plagued them for years still seems to be there. At the start of the season, not many teams, let alone the promoted ones, would have been expected to take 6 points from two games against Villa and Everton respectively but then again not many teams will expect to only salvage a solitary point from matches against Wolves and Blackpool.

But you've got to give them credit for their win this past weekend and spoiling many betting slips that would have had that match down as a cast iron home win (Bastards!).

Speaking of whom, you have to wander what is in the water on Merseyside that has made all the football so-substandard in that part of the world. Liverpool's problems are well documented but it's not gone unnoticed that the blue half of the city have started the season just as ineptly as their red-clad brothers. Just when they thought they'd cracked it with that dramatic draw against Manchester United, they have been brought back down to earth with a bump. Everton have often been slow starters(08/09 - 2 wins in opening 9 games, last season 1 win in first four) citing injuries to key players and whatnot but this season there seems no legitimate excuse for being second bottom after 5 games. I don't doubt The Toffees will get it together at some stage but once again, it looks like Moyes and co will be blaming a poor start for their inevitable failure to achieve anything worthwhile.

The only team preventing Everton from being Rock bottom are West Ham who battled to a draw against Stoke in what I'm told was far from a classic game of football. Not that I'm claiming there is a connection but isn’t it curious that The Hammers' first point of the season came when Avram Grant wasn't there? A sign perhaps?

Finally, having seen Kenwyne Jones'* goal in that game, the most important football question of the week is surely thus: Is he now a must for the old Fantasy Football team given Stoke's rather direct approach? How many goals is he going to get this season???

*Rubbish knowledge: Kenwyne Jones has played for Stoke, Sunderland and Southampton. All teams that wear red and white stripes and begin with the letter 'S'. You can have that one on me...

Weekend Observations 18th - 19th September: Part One

Part One...

At the risk of sounding like a cheerleading, lobotomised Sky Super-duper Sunday fanboy, English football's very own Superclásico between the country's two biggest and most successful clubs took place at Old Trafford on Sunday. That's right, Manchester United versus Liverpool. Despite the relative lack of success of the latter in the last couple of decades, you can generally always count on the two sides producing an entertaining, or at the very least, eventful game and this latest encounter proved no exception.

The performance of Dimitar Berbatov and his subsequent hat-trick, including a jaw-dropping early contender for goal of the season, has seemed to have gotten everyone in bit of a tizzy (Incidentally, I missed the winning goal because for some reason I was showing people this on YouTube at the time. Why? A story for another day!). Funny, given the universal condemnation the Bulgarian has generally received since his big money move from Spurs two years ago. While not wanting to take anything away from what was obviously a fantastic performance, some of the praise has been just as OTT as the criticism which preceded it. This one game does not make him the new Cantona in the same way some indifferent performances over the last couple of seasons didn't make him the footballing equivalent of Public sector pay (expensive and unpopular - that's right. I keeps it topical...).

But alas, the fickle nature of many football observers means that while one day you can be God's gift to the sport, the very next could see you as the proverbial steaming pile of horse manure. Case in point; on the flipside of the beaming Berbatov coin is the brooding, sulk of Fernando Torres, who, despite being one of the league's most deadly strikers in recent years, is this year seemingly reduced being about as effective on the pitch as a door stop. This criticism for a player that has suffered with injuries for years is somewhat harsh and given the glaring deficiencies of the team - Glen Johnson's terrible crossing included - surrounding him, I'm not sure he should be expected to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Besides, for someone who is supposed to be out of form, he was still instrumental in both his side's goals as Liverpool attempted to stage something of a comeback at 2-0 down.

That said, getting back on level terms was less a reflection of Torres' or Liverpool's ability than it was of United's continued fragility. Following the draws at Fulham and Everton, the home side were on the verge of spunking away yet more points from a commanding position thanks to very questionable defending. They will certainly be thankful for Berbatov's apparently divine intervention (Maybe he had been blessed by the visiting Pope before the match this weekend).

One of United's other star performers on the day was Nani but rather than praising him for his football, most people will remember the laughable diving, play-acting and rolling around like he’d been shot every time there was a strong breeze in his general direction. What was just as amusing was the selective memory of his manager who conveniently overlooked this when criticising the above-mentioned Torres. As much as people respect Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements, it's this kind of one-eyed, sanctimonious bias that makes him one of the most unpopular characters in football.

Speaking of managers making unpopular comments, once again, Arsene Wenger has managed to piss off all and sundry with his views on so-called tough tackling and how his squad of children and midgets need more protection against the big bad bully boys of English football. Naturally, this has brought scorn from the likes of Sam Allardyce, Owen Coyle and what seems like the entire population of Stoke. While Wenger may well have a point given the number of Arsenal players that seem to pick up career-threatening injuries as a result of English football's more 'robust' approach to tackling, he clearly doesn't have much support and his 'moaning' has led him once again becoming public enemy number one. You almost think that most of the country celebrated Darren Bent's late, late equaliser as a kind of "in your faaaace! AHHH" moment on Saturday evening.

Wenger was also apparently displeased that goal came in the 95th minute after only four minutes had been signalled by the fourth official. As we tread tedious old ground yet again, it baffles me how people within the game don’t seem to get that added time is always the minimum to play beyond the 90 and not the maximum.

Of greater concern to Arsenal should be another injury to Cesc Fabregas who, after his two performances last week, was looking somewhere close to his best and will be sorely missed.

Even at this very early stage of the season, the two points dropped by Arsenal could well prove crucial as could those pissed away by Manchester United last week. The reason for this is because of the devastating ease Chelsea are ripping their way through anyone who dares to get in their way. On Sunday, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching Hurricane Igor pummeling Bermuda such was their ruthlessness in the first half against Blackpool. How they only ended the game with four is a mystery.

As predictable as the game and scoreline were, the second half was still quite an intriguing affair. The away team seemed to prevent total humiliation by actually trying to have a go at The Blues rather than parking the bus and actually came close to scoring on a couple of occasions. That said, the patronising tone in which messes Gray and Tyler on Sky were talking about 'plucky little Blackpool' and what a 'nice club they are' was nauseating.

As good as Chelsea have been, they are yet to face any of the supposed 'Big Boys'. That all changes next week when they face their fellow beneficiaries of what Arsene Wenger would complain... sorry, describe as financial doping. In the battle of the banknotes, Manchester City will welcome the Champions to Eastlands next Saturday lunchtime hoping to make a statement about their own title credentials after an indifferent start to the campaign so far.

As many will no doubt point out in the coming days, this will be Ancelotti's teams' first big test despite their blinged up rivals still finding their considerably expensive feet. But having done the double over Chelsea last season – including a cracker at Stamford Bridge - City, as well as everyone else who wants something close to a competitive title race this season, will be hoping for more of the same this Saturday.

Part Two to follow...