Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Chumps League?

Around the early 1990s some smartarse an UEFA decided that Europe's premier cup competition was not quite exciting enough. Well, when I say not exciting, I mean that it wasn't generating enough cash. After nearly 40 years, European football’s holy grail wasn't as marketable as the suits would have liked so sponsorship contracts were negotiated, re-negotiated and negotiated again. The entire competition was 're-branded' and in 1993, what spawned forth was the malevolent, all-consuming and vile abomination we today call The Champions League.

"I will kill you and eat your children"

How was this different to the previous format? Well, rather than the straight-forward two legged knockout cup competition featuring just the league winners from each country that everyone was fairly content with, mini-leagues were introduced to give us a greater number games to consume like hungry, salivating dogs. As the competition has grown, more and more teams are ushered in leading to the quite absurd scenario in modern football where, in some cases, finishing as low as FOURTH in your domestic league is enough to qualify and actually considered something of a success. Qualification for the tournament means more than winning actual silverware – a quite tragic indictment of the modern game. So yes, a team can win the 'Champions' League despite having not won their domestic league the previous year. In fact, a team can compete and of course win the competition having NEVER won the title in their home nation - this hasn't happened yet but give it time... Sounds silly doesn't it? But why do UEFA allow this? Well, A) Because more games means more money obviously and B) Fuck you! That's why.

Ironically, by opening up the competition and attempting to be more inclusive, the Champions League actually becomes more exclusive. With rare exceptions, it's generally the same names competing for the top prize year on year. These teams make more money from the competition simply by being there and of course, the financial gap between the haves and the have-nots when they play in their own league becomes a gaping chasm - that is unless you have a multi-billionaire benefactor/sugar daddy to give you a helping hand but the pros and cons of that can be debated on another blog post another day.

The group stage of the modern day Champions League competition is very rarely something one ought to waste time getting excited over. Two teams qualify from each of the eight groups of four and the top dogs almost always find themselves seeded which inevitably sees their path to the knockout stage rarely troubled. Particularly in England, we have become accustomed to 'our' teams navigating their way through to the last 16 with relative ease.

Not this year however. As we enter the final round of group games, a very real scenario presents itself where the knockout stage will feature just one English side with the other three dropping down into the competition's fatter, uglier, younger sibling the Europa League – the consolation prize/punishment for finishing third in abovementioned groups.

Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team have secured first place in Group F with a game to spare allowing them to simply enjoy their trip to Olympiacos. The French manager will send out a team consisting of 2 teenagers on work experience, 5 primary school children, 2 teething babies, a single sperm and Tomas Rosicky to face the Greek side while rumour has it the first team have been sent to the nearby resort of Kavos as a reward where Theo Walcott will throw up after doing one too many fish bowls, Gervinho and Thomas Vermaelen will race quad bikes and Aaron Ramsey will finger a 19 year old on the beach.

Meanwhile, things do not appear to be as rosy for Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs who all have major obstacles standing between them and the Utopia of the knockout stages.

The West Londoners take on Valencia at home first where only a win or a goalless draw will be good enough to see them leapfrog the Spanish side and progress to the latter stages. To say The Blues have had a difficult time of it of late would be understating matters to an almost laughable degree. Initially touted as potential champions this season, their current form has many people asking serious questions as to whether they will even finish in those coveted top four positions. It has been an inauspicious start for new manager Andres Villas-Boas. Indifferent league form spilled over into Europe and a 2-1 setback against Leverkusen two weeks back has led to this do or die scenario.

Opponents Valencia currently sit a comfortable third in La Liga behind the powerhouses of Barcelona and Real Madrid and pushed the latter close in their narrow defeat just a couple of weeks back. They also have the free scoring Roberto Soldado in their ranks who is likely to keep Chelsea's worryingly fragile backline very busy. Soldado has already netted an astonishing 14 times in all competitions this season – a feat Fernando Torres might not accomplish in the next 14 months!

I'm always wary of writing off Chelsea. A 3-0 win over Newcastle at the weekend was a reminder of the quality they possess and more importantly, provided a huge confidence boost ahead of this game. In truth, home advantage should see them safely through but having lost against both Arsenal and Liverpool(twice!) at the Bridge in recent months, you couldn't say for certain that a home win is on the cards.

Unfortunately, home advantage isn't something Manchester United can rely on in their vital Group C game against Basel. A draw will be enough for the Reds to go through but the Swiss side will be going all out for the win and it would be daft to take anything for granted in this game especially given the performance they put in when they went to Salford and came away with a 3-3 draw having fought from two goals down to lead right up until Ashley Young’s late equaliser.

The return to form and fitness of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic has seen the defensive headaches from the early part of the season cured somewhat so if the task is simply to avoid defeat, you'd expect Sir Alex Ferguson's side to have enough quality to get the job done. But as recent games have shown, United are not playing anything close to their own usual high standard and you could easily argue that they've been fortunate to win so many games so far this season. This fortune hasn't transferred to Europe where teams have been able to capitalise on their mistakes. It might sound crazy but anyone who saw that first match will know that Basel pose a very real threat. Namesakes Fabian and Alexander Frei will be looking to pick up where they left off at Old Trafford.

While the destiny of the two English finalists from 2008 lies in their own hands, the same can not be said for Champions League virgins Manchester City whose rampant run at home has not been replicated abroad. The Citizens latest victims in the league were last weekend who were dispatched with the kind of delicious exhibition football that has had many commentators declaring the cash-rich club to be on par with Barcelona and the like. Just one glace at their European form will tell you such comparisons are somewhat premature. Having surrendered four points to Napoli and losing in Munich, City must now beat the four time winners and 2010 runners up Bayern at the Etihad Stadium and hope the group A whipping boys Villarreal can get anything against the Neapolitans.

Beating Bayern may well prove to be the easy part as the Bavarian side have already won the group and, like Arsenal, will not be placing a great deal of importance of the game. Similarly, Villarreal cannot even make third place and will be far more concerned with arresting their abject domestic form than doing Roberto Mancini any favours. Napoli will be expected to win this game and send City into the forgotten land that is the Europa League.

The likelihood of all three sides failing to progress is slim and I would stake a great deal of money on it. City are on the brink but United and Chelsea, although not in an ideal position, are certainly well placed to join Arsenal in next week's draw for the next round of the competition.

On the flipside, if all three were to finish third in their groups, the tantalising scenario of up to seven English clubs (if Stoke, Fulham,Birmingham and Tottenham were to qualify) in the bloated mess that is the Europa League would actually be highly amusing.

Well, I’d laugh anyway.


Friday, 2 December 2011

Goal Trafford

Let's have it right. Gary Neville is an dislikeable turd. I mean, none of us can stand Manchester United*, can we? And if any player has epitomised exactly why we all dislike that club, it's G-Nev. Smug, arrogant and annoyingly, incredibly successful. On top of all that, having hung up his boots and gone into the media, Neville has now become the stand out best pundit on Sky television. Besides the fact he isn't an idiot or a hypocrite, he actually provides some kind of insight. When I find myself nodding along agreeing with most of what he says, it just makes me want to commit the act of Seppuku in front of my own crying Mother.

Maybe it was being sat next the infinitely less informed Dwight Yorke that sapped his common sense but Neville's mask slipped this week as he staked his claim for captain of the Olympic hyperboly squad by making the claim that Darren Ambrose's spectacular goal in Crystal Palace's shock 2-1 victory in the Carling Cup quarters was "the best goal scored by an opposition player at Old Trafford IN THIRTY YEARS!"

A pretty bold statement. Judge for yourself...

Ambrose magic?






Rocastle's chip?

Wanchope's run?


Raul? (Incredible Redondo assist)

Stan Collymore?

Robben Volley?

Tough call.

Obviously, it would have most likely been this...

Poor Pedro!

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*Fret not, one day I will write positive pro-Man Utd piece that will be so gut-wrenching gushing it will make you want to shoot me - and yourself - in the face.

Monday, 28 November 2011

RIP Gary Speed - 8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011

It was understandably difficult to get excited about football after the breaking news on Sunday morning that Wales manager Gary Speed had been found dead after a suspected suicide at his home in Cheshire.

I was numbed. Speed is one those players that has just always seemed to be etched into the memory of my football watching life. His fellow Welshman Ryan Giggs is probably the only other player that springs to mind when I think of a player with such a prolonged career in the English top flight in my lifetime. Speed may not have had a career awash with trophies and honours but was hands down, one of the Premier League's most consistent performers in his midfield role and a key player in any team he played for. Fans of Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton would all attest to this. Such was his importance, Speed currently holds the record for most appearances for an outfield player in the league with some 535 games under his belt. A short spell at Sheffield United as player and manager brought the curtain down on fine club career before he was given the opportunity to manage his country.

Death is always a sad thing but made worse when it happens prematurely. 42 is no age for anyone to die and the whole situation is made more perplexing by to the unsavory manner of Speed's passing. The general reaction has been one of bemusement. One can only speculate as to what drives a man to take his own life. Speed had a wife, two children and his career as manager of Wales seemed to be going from strength to strength. It's only natural that people will be asking "why?".

The general feeling from all the tributes is one of shock. The outpouring of emotion within football for a popular and respected friend/colleague would suggest that this fatal tragic act was out of character. As has been pointed out, Speed seemed 'normal' when he appeared the BBC's Football Focus the very same morning of the day he died. Again it would be wrong to speculate about his health and/or his private life and his family ought to be afforded the respect they deserve at this most awful of times.

All too often in the modern game we rue the disconnect between players and fans. As far as we're concerned, these 'greedy' millionaires no longer understand the 'man in the street'. Is this detachment not a two-way problem? When we go to matches, sit in pubs or take to the Internet to launch tirades of abuse, we almost forget that they are human beings with the same feelings, insecurities and problems as you and I. Granted, Speed wasn't the kind of player that courted controversy or even incurred the wrath of vitriolic fans but his death shows he was just as vulnerable as anybody to the trials and tribulations of life. When we work ourselves up into a frenzy and lose our shit over incorrect offsides and disallowed goals or whatever, we'd do well to remember that the game is simply that, a game. A sentiment not lost on the Swansea and Villa fans who saw their respective teams play on through difficult circumstances.

Whatever the reasons behind this tragedy, it has been a sad, sad weekend in British football.


Friday, 25 November 2011

In Attendance: Serie A - Inter Milan v Cagliari. 19th November 2011

As I have mentioned before, when I were a wee lad growing up, I, like many others of my generation, was a huge fan of Serie A on Channel 4 back in the 1990s. Terrestrial TV coverage of what was perceived to be the best league in the world at the world was the kind of footballing luxury the modern day armchair fan would come to look on with the greatest sense of nostalgia – especially given the small fortune one needs to shell out nowadays for the 'privilege' of watching Stoke City and the like.

During this Serie A golden era, Juventus and AC Milan were the two dominant forces – sharing eight titles between 1992 and 1999. However, this is not to say that every campaign was a predicable two team procession. Both sides needed to be on their toes to fend off the strong challenge coming from the likes of Parma, Udinese, Sampdoria and Fiorentina year on year.

You could almost always rely on the Italian league throwing up something of a competitive title race. The strength of the division wasn't merely restricted to the big two. For example, following their Scudetto success in 1996, AC Milan finished a lowly 11th position 12 months later. Similarly, Juventus ended the 1998/99 campaign in 6th place despite successive championships in 1997 and 1998 and THREE Champions League finals (96, 97, 98). The Roman clubs broke up the cartel at the turn of the century as, firstly, Lazio (2000) and then Roma (2001) were crowned champions of Italy.

The most notable absence on the illustrious list of league winners was AC Milan's city rivals. While the Rossoneri would regularly dine at the top table both domestically and abroad, Internazionale were left raiding the bins behind motorway service stations for whatever scraps that had been thrown away. It is safe to describe the end of the 20th century as a period of underachievement for the Nerazzurri. A title win in 1989 was followed by a lean decade that yielded just three measly Uefa Cup successes in 1991, 1994 and 1998 – also, quite incredibly, losing the 1997 final to Schalke on penalties. For most, that haul wouldn't look bad but for one of Italy's big names, it was a poor return, particularly given the vast spending of chairman Massimo Moratti following his acquisition of the club in 1995. The oil tycoon was certainly not afraid to splash the cash in his attempts to match the successes of City rivals AC. This period saw some stellar names turn out in the famous Black and Blue including Ivan Zamorano, Diego Simeone, Gianluca Pagliuca, Alvaro Recoba, Youri Djourkaeff, our very own Paul Ince. Aron Winter, Paulo Sousa, Roberto Carlos and of course, the jewel in the crown, Ronaldo.

The noughties saw the likes of Christian Vieri, Clarence Seedorf and Fabio Canovarro sign up yet success still very much eluded Inter. Moratti would also go through managers quicker than most men go through underwear with some 12 men burning their arses in the San Siro hotseat between 1995 and 2003. Roberto Mancini was then handed the reigns and it all suddenly went right as he oversaw the clubs most successful period since the 1960s, initially winning back to back Italian Cups in 04 and 05 before setting his sights on the big prize.

However, Inter's subsequent glory, and Italian football as a whole during this period, is punctuated by a huge asterisk. In 2006, the first of what was to be Mancini's three successive Scudetti was only awarded due to the fact the actual champions Juventus were involved in the infamous Calciopoli match fixing scandal which saw them stripped of the title and relegated to Serie B. City rivals Milan were also implicated, so too Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina. Inter themselves, as well as others, were investigated but exonerated.

What followed was a period of dominance for il Nerazzurri as they steamrolled pretty much all before them like some sort of black and blue erm... steamroller. Mancini's hat trick of titles didn't save him from trigger happy Moratti however, as he was dispatched in favour of a certain Jose Mourinho. In just two years, the Special One won consecutive league titles, the second in 2010 coming as part of an unprecedented treble including the Copa Italia and of course, the Champions League – a trophy they hadn't won since 1965.

As the charismatic Portuguese completed his fairytale ending with the club and rode off into the sunset, the mediocrity of the 90s returned with a bang as he was succeeded by long time adversary Rafa Benitez. In what seemed like an Italian revisioning of The Damned United, Benitez proved to be a disaster. The champs were now very much chumps and Rafa was shown the door before the Christmas decorations had even been put up at the team found themselves 13 points off the lead.

In one of the more strange football appointments, AC Milan legend Leonardo was given the job and managed to steer the club to a second place finish behind his former club and another Copa Italia win last season. However, a dismal attempt to defend the European Cup saw the club finish second in their group to Gareth Bale and a take a shoeing from their apparent European nemesis Schalke in the quarter finals. Leonardo thought 'sod this' and headed for Paris.

Former Genoa manager Gian Piero Gasperini was entrusted with the task of bringing back the good times to Inter but his frightfully overambitious 3-4-3 formation lasted a mere 5 games at the start of this season (losing four!) before he was given the boot. Former Chelsea boss Claudio Renieri has since been appointed.


Each year, a group of us celebrate a mate's birthday by traveling to some city in Europe to sample the local cuisine, sample the local beer, sample some more beer and then taking in a local football match. Having previously embarked on trips to the Alianz in Munich to watch Bayern and the Bernabeu to see Real Madrid, we decided this year to head to Milan. This particular weekend saw Inter take on Cagliari so that would be what we would be watching.

I'd previously only been to Italy once before way back at the tender and testosterone filled age of 15. A football tour in Rimini when my team-mates and myself would exaggerate our prowess as players in order to convince women to share intimate times with us. Naturally, this was largely unsuccessful but we did manage to win our matches on the pitch. Albeit friendlies against teams younger than us but a win is a win as they say. I also decided to purchase a football shirt. As weird coincidences would have it, the only one that remained in the shop I went to was that of Inter Milan so I had to have it (notwithstanding my supposed allegiances to Parma). Who would have known that on my very next visit to the country, I would be to watching them in the flesh? Spooky, eh?

We arrived at the very impressive and very imposing 80,000 seater Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (Otherwise known as the San Siro) early enough to buy cheap merchandise and grab a pre-match beer. The San Siro is a large arena and as such, the area surrounding the ground is quite vast allowing for the swathes of fans if ever a match is approaching anything near a sell out. Given that Inter were languishing in 17th place and Cagliari only slightly better in 10th and the start of play, this was hardly like to be the case this time around. Some sources online have the total attendance at 56,000 but from where we were sat, you couldn't convince me that the stadium was even half full.

If the club's poor form was keeping fans away, the match itself did very little to suggest they will be coming back in their droves. Admittedly, missing from the starting line up were big names such as Lucio, Maicon, Diego Forlan and Wesley Sneijder who pulled up with injury in the warm up. Diego Milito was on the bench.

As the home side started sluggishly and failed to impose themselves with any great conviction, it became almost inconceivable to think of them as Champions of Europe a mere 18 months ago. The first half was an uneventful snoozefest with the noticeable exception of Dejan Stankovic living up to his name by having something of a stinker. The Serbian midfielder seemed to be in an amusing competition with himself to see how often he could give the ball away.

Up top, new golden boy Giampaolo Pazzini struggled but this was in part due to inadequate service and the selfishness of Mauro Zarate who may or may not have been fitted with those blinders that racehorses often wear as he seemed totally incapable of ever spotting or trying to pass to better placed team mates. Apparently, Zarate has an assist bonus written into his contract to encourage him to be more selfless. On the evidence of the opening 45 minutes, he may have forgotten about the it.

The evergreen Javier Zanetti, a permanent fixture in the Inter side since those days in the 1990s and a more than loyal servant of well over 500 games and 16 trophies, was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half. The Argentine veteran covered the entire left hand side of the pitch with the kind of ease that shouldn't be afforded to a 38 year old in the twilight of his career.

Pazzini had and long range effort tipped onto the crossbar by Cagliari goalkeeper Michael Agazzi and he repeated the trick from a Zarate free kick. Aside from this, there was very, very little to shout about for either side as they went in goalless at the break.

In typically classy Italian fashion, espressos are sold at half time in the San Siro. I was tempted to buy at least three to try and keep me awake after the dreariness I had been forced to endure.

One of our group remarked at half time how big the pitch looked. This was the illusion because the game was being played and snail's pace and both sides seemed to be reluctant to press the opposition a great deal. As a result, the players often found themselves with a lot of time on the ball but incapable of doing anything useful with it. Inter dominated possession but more often than not this would manifest itself in simply playing passes between the back four and the midfield.

Zarate was thankfully taken off and replaced summer signing Ricky Alverez. 10 minutes into the second half, an Alvarex free kick from the left was scrappily scrambled home by Ita-zilian midfielder Thiago Motta. Even from the other end of the stadium, there was more than a slight suspicion that Motta may have been offside. A scrappy, dubious goal seemed quite fitting for the occasion though.

Six minutes later, it was 2-0 as Alvarez on the right wing got the better of the left back before playing a 1-2 with Cambiasso then switching the ball to Coutinho who cut inside and hit a low right footed drive into the bottom corner beating Agazzi at his near post.

After that little spell of excitement, Inter saw out the rest of the match with little trouble. Cagliari pulled one back in the last minute through sub Larrivey but the damage was done and the game ended 2-1. Much to the relief of everyone unfortunate enough to watch it.

szólj hozzá: INT

Italian Football has always had a reputation for being somewhat slow and over-cautious so the tempo of the game was no surprise to me but what was really unusual was the lack of quality. Alvarez looked fairly lively when introduced but still looks raw. Granted, Inter were missing some key players and probably had one eye on, what looked like at the time, a key Champions League encounter in the week but it was strange that there was nobody in the heart of the team to truly dictate the play for them. The end result being they very much looked like a team floundering around the lower half of the table. The Tinkerman has a lot of work to do. All in all, I will unashamedly declare this to be one of the worst football matches I've ever seen in the flesh.

Once the top league on the continent, now the Italian league sits comfortably behind England, Spain and even Germany. A point highlighted by the fact that the poor performances of Italian sides in Europe in recent years has seen them lose their fourth Champions League spot to the Germans. Serie A has quite clearly suffered in the wake of the Calciopoli mess. The quality of the league has certainly diminished in recent years and unfortunately for Inter, their superiority has been both a symptom and a cause of it. Top players are still joining Italian clubs but they are hardly flocking over in the kind of numbers we used to see in the 1990s. A recent episode of Sky's Sunday Supplement programme saw so-called respected journalists arrogantly dismiss Serie A as something of an irrelevance.

All that said, anyone who has been keeping track with the Italian league this season (ESPN televise two games each weekend as well as highlights during the week) will know that the league is going some way towards regaining it's competitive edge. Inter's struggles appear to be an exception rather than the rule currently. As I write this, just a single point separates a resurgent Juventus, Lazio, champions AC and Udinese at the top of the table. Does this mean the league is improving? Maybe, maybe not, but if we look at the performances of their clubs in the Champions League so far this season, one would be hard pressed to argue against the abilty of their representatives this season. Having beaten Manchester City this week, Napoli look well-placed to advance to the last 16 ahead of the cash-rich citizens. AC Milan were unlucky to lose to Barcelona but still progress from their group. Even lacklustre Inter have qualified in as group winners with a game to spare.

Ultimately, I don't think there are many out there who wouldn't want to see a strong Italian championship once again. One can only hope Serie A can successfully overcome their problems and re-establish itself as league we all look upon in awe once more.

Ugly-ass trophy though

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Arsing about: Gunners Give Chelsea the Blues - Weekend Observations: 29th-30th October 2011

There was a time when the teams at the Premier League summit would go into matches against one another exercising caution and contesting dull, cagey low scoring encounters that did nothing to back up the claim that the English top flight is "The Best League in the World". However, all that seems to have changed this season. Who would have thought at just a quarter of the way through the campaign we would have seen the kind of jaw-dropping, pinch yourself, lay off the LSD type of scorelines from the head-to-heads between the top clubs? Manchester City have demolished crosstown rivals and current champions United. They also went to White Hart Lane and tore Champions League hopefuls Tottenham a new one. Spurs themselves responded to that beating by giving Liverpool something of a pasting.

Then there's Arsenal. A truly disastrous start to the season was compounded with a miserable afternoon at Old Trafford. The astounding 8-2 set back against Manchester United was less a football match but more a kind of snuff film. Going into this weekend's game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, not many people would have given them a prayer. I'm willing to bet that, to a man, every single Arsenal supporter on the planet would have taken a draw if offered on Friday evening. But alas, this unpredictable mistress that we call football pulls another surprise from of her bag of tricks in the form of the Gunners' astonishing 5-3 victory.

One of the many criticisms levelled at Arsenal over the weeks (years?) concerns a supposed lack of leadership. If Robin van Persie's umpteenth barnstorming performance and subsequent hat-trick are not considered a form of leadership then you're going to have to sit me down in a classroom and have a qualified teacher tell me what is. He may not be the 'shouter' that we are told every team worth their salt requires but by God does he lead by example. His latest treble made it 28 goals in 27 league matches this calendar year. If other players in the Arsenal team could find a level of consistency anywhere near that, then the team would be in far better shape that it currently finds itself.

One player in particular whose general performances are about as random as a bag of licorice allsorts is Theo Walcott. Having had something of a hit and miss season (career?), young Theo reserved his best showing for Saturday when he gave Ashley Cole more problems than a hairdresser with a kiss and tell story. His contribution to the scoresheet was something special too.

Having gone behind twice and then allowing Chelsea to equalise at 3-3, It was a surprising turn up for the books to see the Arsenal team stand firm and show rare but tremendous character to win the match so emphatically. Especially given the frequency of humiliating collapses that have occurred far, far too often in recent years. The win puts them just 3 points behind their vanquished opponents and, whisper it, back on course to challenge for a top four finish.

Since that fateful day in Manchester, talk of the club's supposed demise have filled more column inches in the Sports media than anything else. The number of back page leads declaring a crisis at the Emirates would probably exceed the number of journalists employed to write them.

What has gone unnoticed it would seem is the fact that since a befuddling 4-3 setback at Blackburn, the supposedly beleaguered Arsene Wenger has now led his team to 8 wins in 9 games in three competitions. If that's a crisis, 95% of football teams must be in complete meltdown.

More so than most teams, discussion of Arsenal falls foul of that lazy way of observing football whereby if something isn't fantastic then by default it must be complete shit. No other club is spoken of in such black and white terms and we're all guilty of it. The football is always described as 'wonderful' even when it isn't. The youth policy is always described as a success even when things go a bit Jérémie Aliadière. On the flip side, failure to win a trophy for a few years apparently means that the whole club needs rebuilding from the top down. People also draw the conclusion that selling player X automatically means the club is in freefall. Arsene Wenger is either a genius or a clown. They MUST buy or they MUST not. There is very rarely middle ground. Nobody in Islington will pretend that all is rosy in the Arsenal garden but the apocalyptic headlines that have been written about the club this season have bordered on absurd. The team have definitely started to show signs of turning that mythical corner.

Admittedly, the recent good run hadn't exactly seen them take on the cream of world football and they have been blessed with a number of home matches so when people spoke of a trip to Stamford Bridge being a 'true test' of any supposed Arsenal revival, the point was most certainly a valid one especially given that their last league win on the road was waaaaaay back against relegated Blackpool in the spring.

Not only did they pass the test, but they pretty much received top marks. It's not quite time to proclaim the second coming of the Invincibles but it might make one two people think twice before writing eulogies for the North Londoners.

Of course, one thing that still seems inescapable are the prevalent frailties in defence. Arsenal's makeshift backline was typically far from secure. Andre Santos, Per Mertesaker and Johan Djourou had a torrid time of it on Saturday lunchtime and were culpable for at least two of the three goals conceded and made a number of other laughable mistakes throughout.

However, if this is an accusation you can lay at the door of the Arsenal team, what then does one say about Chelsea? The Blues conceded five at home. FIVE! An unthinkable scenario in recent years. Since their Abramovich-funded ascension up the table, one thing you could always say about Chelsea was that they were built on a solid defensive base. All that seems to have gone straight out of the window because right now, they look a complete mess. In Jose Mourinho's first year in charge, they conceded a miserly 15 Premier League goals all season. They've conceded that many in just 10 games this year. Last week, our learned friends in the football media pointed the collective finger at the erratic David Luiz. This week the Brazilian wasn't in the side which would suggest that there is something wrong with new manager Andre Villas-Boas' tactical approach which, while very exciting going forward, evidently leaves them far too vulnerable at the back. The personnel hasn't changed but it's obvious they are playing a far more open game than they are used to.

If they are to make waves domestically and challenge for the ever-elusive Champions League crown in Europe, something needs to be done to shore things up because the ease at which Arsenal were able to slice them open time and time again, is something that will encourage any half decent side Chelsea will face between now and the end of the season.

All that said, I'm sure I speak for most people when I say that John Terry falling on his face for Arsenal's all important fourth goal filled me with great joy and wonderful, wonderful feelings of schadenfreude. Karma is a bitch, isn't it, John?

Away from West London, it was a pretty unremarkable weekend in the Premier League (I write this before the inevitable 6-6 draw between Stoke and Newcastle on Monday night...). Spurs and Liverpool both won as expected against QPR and West Brom respectively. Gareth Bale appeared to have made Sky's Super Sunday panel simultaneously climax as he scored an impressive brace for the former in comfortable 3-1 win that taught us nothing. Meanwhile, my love-hate relationship with the odious and despicable Luis Suarez continued as he put in another scintillating showing in the Scouse side's 2-0 win at the Hawthorns.

Special shouts to Norwich and Swansea who continue to perform above expectations. Blackburn's draw at Carrow Road was the only point picked up by either them, Bolton or Wigan in the bottom three. Things could and should have been better for Rovers who were cruising at 3-1 and were very unfortunate to have a last minute penalty awarded against them as the match ended 3-3. It almost makes you feel sorry for Steve Kean... almost!

People looking for a 'reaction' from Manchester United after their pummelling last weekend may well have been left disappointed after the reds laboured to a Javier Hernandez inspired 1-0 win over Everton. People spoke before the game as though Sir Fergie's team would show up at Goodison Park and tear the Toffees to shreds. Or more fittingly, chew them up and spit them. That was never going to realistically happen but more important than achieving a 'big' win was just getting any sort of win at all. As an added bonus, United kept a clean sheet a huge and significant achievement given the many question marks over their defence.

Keeping pace at the top of the table, City beat Wolves fairly comfortably for the second time in a week without really breaking a sweat and despite being reduced to ten men. If you're wondering whether that is down to how good City are or how much Wolves are struggling at present, I can confidently and lazily state that it's both.


Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal
Everton 0-1 Manchester United
Manchester City 3-1 Wolves
Norwich 3-3 Blackburn
Sunderland 2-2 Aston Villa
Swansea 3-1 Bolton
Wigan 0-2 Fulham
West Brom 0-2 Liverpool

Tottenham 3-1 QPR

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Monday, 24 October 2011

Too Sixy for his shirt - Super Mario's Fire Power downs United: Weekend Observations - 22nd-23rd October 2011

Far be it from me to make almost ludicrous and churlish comparisons between football and genuinely serious world events but isn't it peculiar that for the second time in less than a week a long standing dominant, repressive regime has been toppled and a perceived benevolent dictator toppled and humiliated in his own back yard as a new ruling force comes into power? For Libya, see Manchester. For Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, see Sir Alex Ferguson. For the NTC, see Manchester City. As Libyan rebels took control of pro-Gaddafi stronghold Sirte this past Thursday, the Blues similarly marched into the impregnable fortress that is Old Trafford, where the home side had won 24 of their previous 25 matches, and came away with an emphatic 6-1 victory over the champions that probably had Fergie wishing he was hiding in a drainage pipe on the outskirts of Salford.

The United manager proclaimed afterward that it had been his worst day in football and you would be hard pressed to argue. The result was the reds' biggest defeat on home soil since 1955 and the first time United had conceded six goals at home since before the second world war (1930). More stats you ask? City's biggest away derby win in 85 years, first time City have scored 6 in a derby since 1926 and the scoreline also equals the biggest margin in Manchester derby win. When I was younger I saw a rampant Man Utd side destroy City 5-0 at Old Trafford. Never in a million years did I ever think I would see that reversed.

The massacre began with a goal from headline magnet Super Mario Balotelli who was in the news less than 24 hours earlier thanks to his premature Guy Fawkes celebrations going somewhat awry. After opening the score with a deft finish following great work by James Milner, mad Mario nonchalantly lifted his top to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with the now famous question “WHY ALWAYS ME?”. Whether there is an answer that doesn't require the services of an entire team of mental health professionals, I cannot say for sure but I think I speak for most people when I say, I hope it continues to be 'always you', Mario.

The Italian grabbed a second after the break before Sergio Aguero, David Silva and two from substitute Edin Dzeko all made sure that the trip back to Surrey for the Old Trafford faithful would be a long and painful one. Darren Fletcher arguably scored the goal of the game by way of a response but it proved to be totally inconsequential.

The blues looked magical at times with the unplayable David Silva pulling the kind of tricks that would make Derren Brown look like Tommy Cooper. The little Spaniard put in one of the all time great Premier League performances and for my money, was the indisputable man of the match in team that had so many others playing so fantastically well. Micah Richards played like a man possessed both defending against Ashley Young and getting forward to contribute in attacks. James Milner was dominant in the midfield while Vincent Kompany put in a typically assured performance at the back. Even Joleyon Lescott looked like a competent defender for the most part.

It was always inevitable given their resources, that when this team got it together they would prove the toughest of nuts to crack but few envisioned that they could pull out a performance as jaw-dropping as this this against their nearest and dearest. The win leaves the expensively assembled cash rich Citizens now five points clear at the top of the table. After a result like this, it is difficult to see how anyone else is going to be able to keep pace with a squad so strong in every department as well as in reserve. Just think, the likes of Nigel de Jong and Samir Nasri weren't even needed at Old Trafford. That said, we all know that trophies aren't handed out in October so it would be tantamount to stupidity to declare them as champions elect at this stage.

Similarly, you'd be a fool of gargantuan proportions to write off their vanquished opponents. Anyone with even a passing interest in football knows that you dismiss United at your peril. As supporters of other teams, it is our right, nay, our DUTY to enjoy their humiliation, rub it in their faces as much as is humanly possible, and ridicule them until our throats are hoarse because deep down, we all know that we don't get the opportunity all that often. Let us not forget that off the back of previous thumpings, Sir Alex's teams have rallied and come back strong. 5-0 defeats in 1996 and 1999 by Newcastle and Chelsea respectively were followed by title wins in the same season as was the 4-1 setback against Liverpool in 2009. The Red Devils' powers of recovery would put Wolverine to shame.

However, it is all too simplistic to use these previous examples to suggest that things will be the same this time around. Firstly, as stated, the strength of City team is like no other and would require a Lindsey Lohan style self-destruction to balls things up this season. Secondly, and most importantly, you have to seriously question how good this United side actually is. In the end, six was actually generous on a United defence that continues to look about as secure as James Cordon's belt buckle. The reds have conceded an average of 20 shots to the opposition per game at home in just five outings this season. To put that into perspective, the bottom three Blackburn (15), Wigan (16) and Bolton (17) have all allowed visiting teams less shots per game on average (Stats courtesy of www.whoscored.com). The fact that City enjoyed so much freedom in the attacking third will be no surprise to anyone who saw United get away with it against Cheslea and Norwich where the profligacy of the opposition did as much to contribute to victories as anything the home side did.

Constant changes in personal at the back haven't helped one bit but the questionable form of the players that have been called upon is a massive worry. The less said about Rio Ferdinand's current state, the better. Against City, one could argue that the scoreline may not have been so bad had Johnny Evans not been dismissed at 1-0 but let's be honest, Evans only has himself and his glaring limitations as a defender to blame for his red card.

Evan at that stage, you would expect a team of United's stature to show something in the way of caution and damage limitation against such a potent attack. Mind you, without any protection from an increasingly powerpuff midfield, the defence is always going to be in trouble. The likes of Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Gibson etc are simply not up to the standard of a top class club. Looking at the midfield's of Barca, Madrid, Chelsea and of course City, United falls well, well short and must improve drastically in this area if they want to continue to consider themselves in this upper echelon of football teams.

With great reluctance, I've long since extolled the virtues of Manchester United and unashamedly reeled off clichés about their ability to 'dig deep', having a will to win, not knowing when they are beat and possessing a winning mentality that all of Sheik Mansour's billions wouldn't be able to buy. However, none of this was evident against City as they imploded in such a horrific fashion it could have reduced small children to tears. In a local derby too, that is just not acceptable.

We all expect United to 'bounce back' but let's not take it as given this time around.

Also on Sunday, another derby took place down in my working locale of West London as Chelsea went to QPR for the first time in the Premier League in some 15 years. To the surprise of pretty much everybody, the Superhoops won 1-0 but the scoreline failed to tell the story of another eventful, if poor, match. The only goal was scored when the increasingly erratic David Luiz inexplicably fouled Heidar Helguson in the box before the Icelandic dusted himself down to convert the resulting penalty. The end of the scoring, but far from the end of the incident as Chelsea had Jose Bosingwa and Didier Drogba sent off before half time and had to play the entire second 45 with just nine men. I can't be sure of another occasion when a result has ever reflected so badly on the winning team. QPR, despite a two man advantage were abject and created very little. Neil Warnock's team seemed to want to play on the counter attack but a general lack of quality throughout the team meant every attack broke down. To their credit, Chelsea were by far the better side for the remainder of the match. They dominated possession, carved out a number of chances and most certainly deserved something for their troubles including a nailed on penalty that ought to have been awarded when Frank Lampard was fouled by Fitz Hall.

After the game, Andres Villas-Boas had a massive whinge about the referee Chris Foy who for once, actually had a decent game bar the Lampard penalty appeal. There can be no complaints about either dismissal. Bosingwa prevented a clear goal scoring opportunity and Drogba's tackle was two-footed and dangerous. End of. However, it does say a great deal about the standard of Foy's usual refereeing that only getting ONE decision wrong is reason for praise.
Ultimately, the result is a huge upset but one that almost goes under the radar thanks to the events in Manchester.

Another talking point from the match was England Captain John Terry apparently being caught on camera racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. The England Captain supposedly shouted that Ferdinand is a “fucking black cunt”. If the England Captain did say this, then I'm sure I'm not the wouldn't be surprised. We all know exactly what kind of person the England Captain is. Some typically blinkered Chelsea fans who fail to realise they worship a complete scumbag, have tried to suggest the England Captain was in fact 'only' calling the referee a “fucking BLIND cunt” as if that is acceptable. Even if this was the case, it's good to see the Captain of England in full support of the FA's RESPECT campaign.

However, having seen the video myself, I have to say that nothing is conclusive although my actual first thought was that he was in fact saying “fucking PIKEY cunt” to Paddy Kenny after a clash between the two. Still pretty offensive.

Terry himself has said it was a misunderstanding but he's hardly likely to say anything else, is he?

I would provide a link to draw your own conclusions but it of course the damning evidence can no longer be found. Presumably after the Premier League Stasi had it removed.

Elsewhere in London, Arsenal started to look something like their old selves beating Stoke 3-1 and playing with a kind of swagger that hasn't been seen at the Emirates for quite some time. That said, it was against a team that seems allergic to keeping possession. The frightfully prolific Robin van Persie, who was rested from the starting line up, came off the bench and scored the two decisive goals. Gervinho, who had his best game since signing in the summer, set up both the Dutchman's strikes after himself scoring the first. Peter Crouch had scrambled in an equaliser but it proved irrelevant. Whether the gunners are 'back' remains to be seen but they seem to be turning something of a corner following an absolutely wretched start to the campaign. The big test comes next weekend at Stamford Bridge but 5 wins in their last 6 should put them in good stead going into that encounter.

North London rivals Tottenham predictably beat Blackburn at Ewood Park (amid more protests against the hapless Steve Kean) with their own Dutch hero Rafael van Der Vaart grabbing a brace and keeping Spurs well on course to grab that much sought after last Champions League place. That said, it would be thoroughly disrespectful to a still-unbeaten Newcastle who beat Wigan to consolidate fourth spot on Saturday.

Other fourth place hopefuls Liverpool huffed and puffed but could not get the better of the Canaries of Norwich in Saturday evening's 1-1 draw at Anfield. Having dominated the game pretty much from start to finish, the final result was a travesty but quite simply, if you don't put away presentable chances then you don't win football matches. Grant Holt's equaliser in front of the Kop may not have been deserved but it was suitable punishment for the home side's comical wastefulness. I'm sure I'm not the only person in the country who laughed heartily as £35m uber-donkey Andy Carroll sent his stoppage time header to win the game wide of the target. Luis Suarez, for all his quality, must be disappointed with his conversion rate as he certainly doesn't score as many goals as his ability deserves. 'King' Kenny, without irony it would seem, made a point of discussing the need for protection for his diving cheat of a striker but would be better served getting the Uruguayan to spend a few more hours at Melwood practising his finishing.

Merseyside rivals Everton finally had something to smile about after beating Fulham 3-1 in a match that will be remembered a great Fulham goal and a great Fulham miss. Bryan Ruiz opened his his account for the Whites with a delicious chip that will go some way to be bettered this season and left the home fans in raptures. Their joy sadly turned to despair as Bobby Zamora missed a last minute chance to win the game by smashing the ball into the Thames when it would have been easier to score. Everton immediately went up the other end to score not one, but two goals to rub salt into the Fulham wounds. The worst thing about this is the fact that people STILL believe that Zamora should play for England.

Finally, the furious West Midlands derby between Aston Villa and West Brom was not going to pass without incident. For the record, Chris Herd's sending off was a joke. The fact that Chris Brunt took one of the worst penalties ever seen was a measure of justice. That said, Alan Hutton should have walked for a scandalous tackle on Shane Long that could have easily crippled the Albion man. It baffles me how stupid football people are when they think they can justify dangerous play by saying things like 'he played the ball'. Hutton's disgusting tackle is proof as if any is needed that winning the ball does not mean that a tackle isn't reckless. A foul isn't negated by winning the ball and I wish people like Alex McLiseh among others, could actually understand that.



Aston Villa 1-2 West Brom
Bolton 0-2 Sunderland
Liverpool 1-1 Norwich
Newcastle 1-0 Wigan
Wolves 2-2 Swansea

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke
Blackburn 1-2 Tottenham
Fulham 1-3 Everton
Man Utd 1-6 (six) Man City
QPR 1-0 Chelsea

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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Derby Daze - Weekend Observations 1st-2nd October 2011

The major talking point of the Premier League this weekend came in the early kick off on Saturday and the so-called 'Friendly' Merseyside derby between the Blues of Everton and the reds of Liverpool at Goodison Park. These games are often quite close but on the occasion the game was over as context when referee Martin Atkinson chose to dismiss Everton's Jack Rodwell for having the temerity to execute the perfect slide tackle during the first half. Of course the pathetic reaction of Luis Suarez didn't help the Everton player but you didn't even need two working eyes to see that his ball winning slide was clean. Atkinson was right on top of it too so you wonder how he came to the baffling conclusion that Rodwell had to walk. Refereeing incompetence at it's finest. After his whinging about officials in weeks gone by, 'King' Kenny's silence after this terrible decision spoke volumes.

A word on Suarez. I feel so conflicted when I watch him. On one hand, A glorious footballer that we are privileged to have gracing our league - and so he proved with yet another well taken goal in this game - but on the other, a filthy, disgusting cheat. The whole world saw the diving and feigning injury for both Rodwell's red card and a missed Dirk Kuyt penalty later in the half. The fact we all saw it (aside from a minority of idiotic Liverpool fans inexplicably defending their man) and generally agree that his behaviour was not acceptable should be all the evidence needed for the authorities to start handing out retrospective punishments for this type of thing.

As I said, with a beleaguered Everton a man down, Liverpool went on to win 2-0. Most humiliating for the Toffees was the fact they allowed even Andy Carroll to score despite playing like a lame horse for the most part. The reds were able to secure their second away win of the season. Curiously enough, the victory was only attained after the opposition had been reduced to 10 men – exactly the same circumstances as their only other win on the road at Arsenal. The win keeps them 5th in the table.

The only other talking point in the game was the moronic Everton fans who felt throwing objects at Liverpool was acceptable. If this had taken place in Europe, we'd all be screaming blue murder (no pun intended). The club has since said they would take 'firm action' against any guilty party and so they should. If you can't enjoy football without being able to control your emotions then you certainly shouldn't be able to allowed to watch the sport around other people.

More fan shame in the other big derby of the weekend at White Hart Lane where fan chants have seemingly taken up more column inches than the football. Some Arsenal fans were quite vocal in their feelings towards their former striker Emmaual Adebayor who now wears the white of arch rivals Tottenham. I'm all for a bit of 'banter' at football but I think singing about how you wish somebody was shot and killed in a tragic incident that actually saw innocent people lose their lives, then, regardless of who you support, you are a fucking idiot. Although, the condemnation from 'Arry was a bit precious given the fact Spurs fans were themselves guilty of giving the Togo international years of abuse before he became one of their own. I guess selective hearing meant that he didn't hear the home fans calling the Arsenal manager a 'pedophile' (and not for the first time either). Let's also not forget the fact that the wheeler dealer himself previously condemned the Tottenham faithful for their very own 'filthy' abuse aimed at a certain Sol Campbell some years back.

Both clubs have made a joint statement promising to root out any culprits and ban them for life. A noble sentiment but I seriously doubt it can be enforced with such large numbers involved. Games behind closed doors is the only solution in my most humble of opinions. Not ideal I admit but having the same tedious conversations whenever people chant about Hilsborough, Munich and the like is beginning to grate. The idiots only ever learn if you take away their ability to go to games. Of course, it is a completely unworkable idea. You would have to be very naive to believe that any club will ever accept this a solution due to the masses of revenue they will lose. Given that we are all aware that football as a whole cares more about making money than stamping out these problems then you have to wonder why any of us waste our breath even talking about it.

Anyway... the match itself saw Tottenham secure only a second home league win against Arsenal since 1999. The score that day was 2-1, as it was in 2010 and Spurs won by the same scoreline yet again on this occasion as goals from Rafael van der Vaart and Kyle Walker gave Spurs a fourth successive league win and condemned Arsenal to fourth defeat in just seven games this season.

The result came a day after the Arsene Wenger celebrated the 15th years in charge of the gunners. At no point during that decade and half could one ever really doubt the at times embarrassing superiority Arsenal had over Spurs. Wenger has faced no less that eight different Tottenham managers since arriving from Japan in 1996 and only once during that long period was he side ever at risk of finishing below the team from Haringey. It seems a bizarre coincidence that this anniversary signalled something of a dynamic shift. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gooner with his head buried so deep in the sand that would argue against the fact Spurs look the better of the two teams right now and even at this early stage, are well placed to end the season well ahead of their arch rivals. Of course, the comical injury situation at the Emirates has played it's part but it has merely served to show how weak they are beyond their first XI. Man for man, you'd be looking to Tottenham High Road rather than Finsbury Park for the better all-round squad.

Arsenal didn't actually start that badly and on another day van der Vaart's goal could and should have been ruled out for handball. However, Wenger's better teams of years gone by would only considered this a minor inconvenience before re-establishing their dominance. As we have seen time and time again in recent years, the current side are totally incapable of responding to set backs. A fact punctuated by the total lack of attacking endeavour in the time remaining following Walker's stunning winner. There is a lazy regurgitated assumption that they 'lack leaders' but when you watch them surrender games so meekly, there is little else to say.

I don't care enough about the Clive Allen-Wenger spat to comment on it by the way.

Another team who suffered a derby day defeat were QPR who were on the wrong end of a 6-0 lashing by a Fulham side that looked like world beaters in spells. Yes, Neil Warnock's team were pretty shocking but some of the Fulham football was outstanding. Had Barcelona played like the West London Whites, you wouldn't be able to walk for all the sticky stuff in your underpants.

The link up play between hat trick hero Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora was at times quite delicious with the former looking to re-establish himself as something of a ruthless goal-getter after some years in the wilderness thanks to injury and the like. Goals from Clint Dempsey, Danny Murphy and Zamora himself completed the rout. After an indifferent start to the season, this sort of win is exactly what was needed at the Cottage. I've never had any doubts that Martin Jol is going to do a decent job down by the Thames.

The other team from that part of the world had an equally comprehensive victory. Chelsea went to the Reebok and tore Bolton Wanderers a new one in a 5-1 hammering that actually flattered the awful home side who prop up the table with 6 defeats from 7 and a goal difference of minus 12. Despite this, people still talk favourably of Owen Coyle like he's the sliced bread of management or something. His record with the Trotters has been nothing short of appalling and had he been anyone other than the likeable media-friendly Scot who is actually well-intentioned in his belief in how to play the game, you imagine he would have been handed his P45 already. People will point to their tough start and the fact that the fixture computer wasn't exactly kind to them having had to face Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea in the opening weeks and to an extent I would agree. However, the manner of some of these defeats has been unacceptable.

We all know Bolton are a tiny football club in terms of resources, stature, location and support but cruicially, since returning to the Premier League over a decade ago, they had always been notoriously hard to beat. A trip to the Reebok has always been a potential banana skin and even when welcoming them to your place, you know you are in for a frustrating time. This was the way under Sam Allardyce for years and dare I say it, even Gary Megson's teams provided a sterner test to opposition teams. Under Coyle however, their all too open and inviting approach exposes their obvious limitations and allows any half decent side to pick them off at will. The sheer quantity of goals they concede is astonishing.

In the Chelsea game, many will focus on the terrible performance of Adam Bogdan in goal but let's be fair, his defence offered him no protection whatsoever – even “past it” Frank Lampard managed a hat-trick! The real test for Owen Coyle comes in the next few weeks when the fixtures are slightly kinder but if they are still floating in around the wrong end of the table come Christmas then serious questions will need to be asked of the manager. The first being why he is so highly thought of if he cannot rouse his team from their current state of malaise which, let's be brutally honest, is a continuation of a poor end to last season too.

There is a similar narrative at Lancashire neighbours Blackburn where a once hardened outfit are no more than a sad, unfunny joke. This weekend, the hapless Steve Kean sent out a team to bend over for Manchester City. A team whose continued improvement was further emphasised by the fact they were able to do the very un-City-like thing of sweeping aside the controversies of last week and responding with an emphatic 4-0 victory. Adam Johnson, Samir Nasri and Stefan Savic all scored their first goals of the season but yet again the main talking point centred around a hot-headed, controversial striker. Of course, this time it was all positive as Super Mario Balotelli scored his third goal in a fortnight for the Blues. Since his arrival last summer, very little talk of Balotelli has centred around his football. Such is the frequency of some crazy off-field antic he is involved in that many would have been forgiven for thinking he was only signed to provide entertainment as some sort of comic sideshow to the football. People are actually scratching their heads in bewilderment as they realise he is actually a half decent player and yet another vital cog in this seemingly unstoppable Manchester City machine powering it's way through the Premier League.

The timing of this apparent blossoming from Balotelli could not be better given the Carlos Tevez affair and the fact Sergio Aguero may be waylaid with injury over the coming weeks. Now that the Italian is getting game time, one would expect he won't be so 'bored' and might actually go on to be the quality player that so many have touted him to be.

Neighbours Manchester United won 2-0 against a Norwich City team that were unfortunate not to actually beat their more illustrious opponents. The Canaries were almost given the freedom of Old Trafford, creating chance after chance but fluffing their lines at the crucial moment, time and time again. Anderson and Danny Welbeck sealed win but the goals did not tell the full story. The United defence hasn't looked convincing at any point this season and how they kept a clean sheet this past weekend is a mystery to one and all. A more clinical Chelsea team would have put them to the sword a few weeks back, Stoke caused all kinds of problems last week while Basel's draw in midweek owed much to the these obvious weaknesses in the United back line. Johnny Evans looks so far out of depth he might have to start playing with an inflatable rubber ring around his waist while Rio Ferdinand could easily be mistaken for his inept brother Anton these days. Summer signing Phil Jones' tenacity and attacking intent masks some very big defensive flaws to his game. It's difficult to criticise a team that is still top of the league and flying but I think it would be crazy to ignore the problems at the back. If things do not improve, it's only a matter of time before they are caught out.

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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Charlie Big Potatoes - The Tevez Story

The fuse on the powder keg relationship between Manchester City and Carlos Tevez was lit and went up with a furious bang in Munich this week as the cash rich Citizens slumped to a 2-0 defeat against a rampant Bayern side in their Champions League group match. The football itself ended up taking a back seat as a more dramatic story was taking place on the touchline. For those that don't know, in the 55th minute of the match at the Allianz Arena, Roberto Mancini, desperately trying to claw his side back into the game, decided to withdraw the ineffective Edin Dzeko and replace him with one Mr Tevez. Astonishingly, the temperamental Argentinean forward apparently refused to go on and kept his posterior planted on the bench.

Very comfortable seats in that Allianz dugout, I'm told...

You don't need me to tell you that this was one of the most outrageous things a player could do. For all the other many misdemeanors footballers are (rightly) criticised for, refusal to actually play and do the job you are paid to do is up there with the worst. An act of disrespect aimed at the club, the fans, management and without exaggeration, is an affront to the game itself.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that Tevez behaved like a first class, certified Grade-A twat with this act of childishness. Whatever your feelings, you are obliged to be professional – a word seemingly missing from Charlie T's limited vocabulary.

Understandably, a seething Mancini felt that this act of insubordination should not go unpunished and soon declared that Tevez' career at Eastlands was finito with some sort of transfer, almost certainly abroad, expected to take place sooner rather than later....

Tevez’ expected departure from these here shores draws a close to a highly controversial chapter in English Premier League football. His distinctive facial scar from a burn suffered in his childhood could well be symbolic representation for the impact he has left on the game. From the moment he touched down in London back in 2006 to his imminent exit shortly, the tenacious little Argentine has never been far from the headlines, proving to be one of the most curious characters to kick a ball on this wee island of ours.

Tevez was first brought to my attention when I was as a layabout student back in 2004. Rather then taking advantage of my fine academic institution by doing something worthwhile such as joining sports clubs or meeting girls, I wasted many an hour playing Championship Manager 03/04 with my flatmate Matt. Said flatmate had previously done a gap year travelling South America where the only useful thing he came back with was the knowledge that Boca Juniors had a highly rated youngster on their books who was set to become most exciting Argentine striker for many a year.

Matt used this knowledge to sign the ‘hot prospect’ for his Roma side and caused constant frustration for me and my Internazionale team as he and I battled for the Serie A title year after fictional year.

“F****** Carlos Tevez” was a phrase I uttered on almost a daily basis during my first year.

Naturally, like most highly rated players on Champo, I expected never to hear of him again. I like to call it Cherno Samba syndrome. However, Tevez again came into my consciousness a year later when he made his initial move (in real life now obviously) to Corinthians from Boca following an explosive start to a career that included a Copa Libertadores win and two Argentinean Player of the Year awards. The transfer probably wouldn’t have even made a ripple in Europe had it not been for the unique circumstances in which it was concluded.

Fresh off the takeover at Chelsea two years prior, football was entering a new era; that of multi-billionaire ownerships. Of course, rich owners were around before 2003 but the kind of vast sums Abramovich et al have been throwing around in recent years were previously inconceivable. What does this have to do with Tevez? Well, the supposed £13m forked out by Cornithians smashed the record of any transfer fee in South America up until that point. The Brazilians had been recently bought by the highly mysterious Media Sports Investments (MSI) headed by the Iranian born businessman Kia Joorabchian who could easily be a James Bond baddie in the right light. MSI bankrolled the transfer and, as it emerged later, ‘owned the economic rights’ to Tevez as well. This was clearly not a typical player-agent relationship. Basically, despite being under contract to the club, the player was actually the property of a ‘third party’ – a phrase that would be become so prominent and repeated in English football a couple of years later that I was often tempted to drive a rusty screwdriver into my eardrum to avoid having to hear it again.

Now, I am not going to pretend I pay close enough attention to transfer market in South America to have been particularly concerned by the move itself. However, my interest was piqued by the fact that this whole convoluted situation was covered in an article in The Times where the implication was that third party ownership may well be the future of football transfers.

However, this apparent revolutionary idea not so much hit a buffer, but rather slammed head first into a brick wall when it crossed the Atlantic and hit these shores.

As I have suggested time and time again, things tend to go a little bit insane on transfer deadline day. Desperate attempts to do business before the window shuts often leads to the most unexpected of deals taking place. In August 2006, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had the BBC deadline day live updates on my browser while frantically bashing away at the F5 key curious to know who was going where.

Every year, some cad sends in rumour about having spotted some high profile international at some obscure location. When it was suggested that Tevez, along with the equally highly rated Javier Mascherano were seen in London, everybody scoffed. Even if this were true, you would automatically assume they would be at the Kings Road, Finsbury Park or even Tottenham High Road. I doubt there was a single football supporter who would have expected or believed believe that two players that had participated in the World Cup and reached the quarter finals just two months prior would be strutting around the East End about to sign for West Ham United!

But alas, this is exactly what happened. Amidst talk of an MSI takeover of the club, Joorabchian had engineered a move for two world renowned superstars to Upton Park. The world had officially gone mad. We all stood open mouthed as then-manager Alan Pardew – smugness personified – appeared on TV looking very much like the cat that got the cream – if the cream in question was being accompanied by Champagne and lobster and being served by Jessica Alba wearing nothing but a smile.

With two new stars and an impending takeover, what could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s not forget this is West Ham we are talking about. Pardew somehow couldn’t fit the two new acquisitions into his side and the Hammers found themselves, typically, flirting with relegation. The MSI takeover fell through and the club were instead bought by an Icelandic consortium that turned out to be even more of a disaster than the country’s volcanoes and ash clouds of a year or so back. I’m not sure what else they expected from a group apparently run by Humpty Dumpty’s clumsier twin brother.

Tevez and Mascherano struggled to settle with the latter hot-footing it to Anfield within a couple of months. Pardew blamed the team’s poor form on the two suggesting that their initial signing was ‘disruptive’. I’m less inclined to take Pards seriously given that he often reckoned a generally hapless Bobby Zamora, a geriatric Teddy Sheringham and something called Marlon Harewood were all better options up front than the three-time South American player of the year.

Pardew was ultimately shown the door and replaced by Alan Curbishley in a move one can only describe as the equivalent of taking an old Skoda with a blown-out engine and replacing it with an old Skoda with a blown-out engine.

There were just 10 games left of the season when Tottenham travelled to the Boylen in March 2007. A thrilling and dramatic game ended 4-3 to the away side handing West Ham a 5th consecutive league defeat. The result aside, the game however featured a pivotal moment that may well have been the catalyst for the club’s survival. Carlos Tevez opened his West Ham account with a brilliant free kick and celebrated by whipping off his shirt and diving head first into ecstatic Irons fans. There’s nothing new about this sort of celebration but on this particular occasion it sparked what was to be the start of a beautiful, if short lived, relationship. The ecstasy and euphoria in the celebration showed that this was a player that truly gave a shit about the club he was playing for. The many fans that questioned him up until this point had no doubts about his commitment to the cause. The battle was lost on the day but the war was far from over. West Ham won 7 of the remaining 9 games with an instrumental Tevez scoring 6 times including the only goal in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford – interestingly, not to be his last goal on this ground – on the final day that kept his side in the top flight.

The Hammers have always been a club that have prided themselves on their “Englishness”. If you’ve ever met one of their fans you’ll know full well that it was West Ham who actually won the 1966 World Cup. Now, I’m not trying to imply they are all card carrying skinheads in East London but it was quite strange and also warming to see them embrace a foreigner – an Argentinean no less – as one of their own. Such was his impact in those months, Tevez was voted Hammer of the Year and is almost spoken of on equal terms as the club’s other great overseas hero, one Paulo Di Canio.

Unfortunately, this apparent fairytale didn’t result in anyone living happily ever after. While third party ownership is an accepted practice elsewhere, here in good ol’ Blighty we forbid such things. Listening to some people, you would think that illegal immigration is preferable.

After they were found to have hidden the details of Tevez’ (and Mascherano’s) ownership from the authorities, West Ham received a record fine but survived a points deduction and even more significantly, were allowed to keep fielding Tevez for those crucial end of season matches that he had such a major influence on.

Given that Tevez was technically ‘illegible’ you can imagine the team(s) that went down might feel somewhat aggrieved. Cue threats of legal action and a messy, messy two year legal battle by relegated Sheffield United which finally resulted in an out of court settlement that has been rumoured to have cost The Hammers nearly as much as dropping down a division would have.

Furthermore, Tevez’ rich vein of form during the run-in merely proved what many believed from the moment he arrived in Newham; That he was quite simply far too good for a team at the wrong end of the table. A mooted move to Manchester United encountered all kinds of complications due to the fact he was still ‘owned’ by MSI while West Ham owned his registration. Knowing they essentially wouldn’t receive a transfer fee, it was the East London club’s turn to threaten a trip to court. After much too-ing and fro-ing, an agreement was reached to compensate West Ham and Tevez would be ‘loaned’ to the Reds by Joorabchian for two years with the option of a permanent deal afterwards. After two seasons, 34 goals, two league titles, a Champions League trophy and a winning goal in front of the Kop at Anfield (one way to endear yourself to United fans forever) later, yet more contract controversy was to follow.

United had delayed talks and as the 2008/9 season was drawing to a close, there was still no offer on the table. At the start of May, United took on crosstown rivals City at Old Trafford where Tevez hammered in a fantastic long range strike to give the Reds a 2-0 lead they would hold on to until the final whistle. The fans inside Old Trafford celebrated the goal by demanding the Argentine be offered a new contract. Fully aware of this, Tevez sprinted to the bench with his hands cupping his ears in a gesture that seemed to be instructing Fergie and the United board to “listen to the people!”. Whether the United hierarchy saw this as an act of insolence or not will never be known but as it turned out, they weren’t prepared to listen. SurAlex famously claimed that the striker wasn’t worth the reported £25m transfer fee it would have cost to purchase him for MSI.

Of course, as well know and many of my ex-girlfriends will testify, the natural reaction to rejection is revenge and Tevez got his by joining a side that did think he was worth the money - not even needing to move house to do so. In the summer of 2009, Carlos Tevez did the unthinkable and left Manchester United to become a Manchester City player. More than just talking advantage of the situation, the signing was a chance for City to truly flex their financial muscle in the faces of their rivals in an “anything we want, we can have” move. The infamous ‘Welcome to Manchester’ poster was like a visual metaphor of a burglar shitting on the carpet after robbing a house.

One-upsmanship aside, Tevez’ first two years at Eastlands – on the pitch at least – were a revelation and left football fans up and down the country with very little to debate with regards to not only his ability, but his determination each and every time he stepped out onto the pitch. A stark contrast to his actions this week. One of his finest performances in City colours came at Stamford Bridge in February 2010. Amidst a massive furore about players shagging former teammate’s girlfriends and such, Tevez rose above the nonsense to score twice – continuing to expose the John Terry myth in the process – and inspire his side to an emphatic 4-2 victory.

This wasn’t the first high profile game Tevez took centre stage, just a month earlier in the Carling Cup semi final first leg, the two Manchester clubs were drawn against one another and naturally all eyes were on the former United man. He didn’t disappoint as he bagged a brace in a 2-1 win and repeated his cup-eared celebration in front of Reds fans who had gone from cheering his name just a few months earlier to jeering his every touch. The Argentine claimed afterwards that the celebration was aimed solely at ‘sock-sucker’ Gary Neville who he felt needlessly disrespected him before the match. To be honest, anyone who has beef with Gary Neville gets my approval.

United did go on to win the return leg 3-1 to progress to the final but alas, it was Tevez once more who scored City’s goal on the night. I’m not sure of the stats but I can’t imagine there are many other players who have scored at Old Trafford for 3 different teams. An incredible achievement however you look at it.

And it wasn’t all animosity aimed at former clubs, though. When facing West Ham, Tevez has made a very blatant point of saluting their fans as well as refusing to celebrate after scoring for both United and City.

But as we all know, disharmony and Charlie T go hand in hand like the Greek goverment and a gross financial mismanagement. In fairness, the star has had to tend to family issues. In early 2010, he was granted compassionate leave to fly back to Argentina following the premature birth of his second daughter, later that year, it was rumoured that he and his partner had split and she had taken the children back to South America permanently. City allegedly agreed to allow him to fly back to see his family but reneged on this deal causing Carlitos to start talking about leaving City and retiring from football altogether.

Now, I don't have children (thankfully!) and won't try to claim to understand parenthood but for me, if a father or mother is forcibly denied from seeing their child, particularly ones so young, then you can totally understand why they would be unhappy. How many parents would be pleased to accept any amount of money if it meant they had to live on the other side of the world from their children? Not many I imagine.

It was obvious that Tevez' wasn't right in the head and there was even a public spat with manager Roberto Mancini after his substitution against Bolton last December. But despite all the constant whining and complaining, he never shirked his responsibilities. On the pitch he remained as committed as ever. Ending the season on 23 goals and finishing joint Premier League top scorer, Tevez captained City to their most successful season in recent memory as they qualified for the Champions League and won the FA Cup.

Yet glory and money didn’t seem to satisfy him. Tevez criticised Manchester on Argentinean TV, claiming he would never return before releasing a statement declaring once more that he wanted to leave. Despite his influence, City were prepared to show him that, like any footballer, he was replaceable. Before a protracted summer move back to Corinthians collapsed, Tevez' fellow countryman Sergio Aguero was brought in as a potential replacement. The new signing's brilliant form had many of the City faithful asking 'Carlos who?' with very few prepared to shed a tear if their top scorer of recent years was to depart. After the his shameful behaviour in Munich, these same fans have actively started calling for his departure.

Mancini has drawn the battle lines by declaring Tevez persona non grata at Eastlands. The Argentine has half-heartedly tried to defend himself citing a 'misunderstanding' to very little sympathy and many praising Mancini for his hardline approach with an apparent troublemaker. The incumbent City manager has often had it hard since he arrived on these shores. Often undermined by all and sundry for for tactics last season, as well as having to deal with constant speculation about his job, the Italian was effectively swimming against the tide by still managed to come up smelling of roses. However, it would be remiss not to ask the question of the manager given his relationships with other players in the City squad.

Lost in the Tevez kerfuffle was the fact that the substituted player Dzeko also had some public angry words with his manager. This comes off the back of Super Mario Balotelli doing the same in a pre-season friendly over the summer.

Does Mancini have a problem wish discipline? Much of the evidence would suggest so. The argument that he has to contend with big egos is a valid one but he must stamp his authority or risk more confrontations. Critics and naysayers of City's big spending have been waiting for this moment just so they could say 'I told you so' and it is up to a forceful manager to prevent situations like this from happening - especially in public. With Manicini finally taking some strong action, some say the this latest Tevez scandal is the straw to break the camel's back but if we are to use any animal based idiom, the 'punishment' probably more a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

So what do we make of Tevez? Mercenary, mug or misunderstood? In five short years, for better or for worse, he has made more headlines than most players in the league. Although at times he seems to be no more than a puppet, Carlitos’ continued association with Kia Joorabchian and the acrimony that has followed whenever he has left a club will always have people view him as a disloyal money grabber. His off-field attitude is hardly endearing either. Given the fact he is on fantastic money, earning success and playing for a team undoubtedly on the up, people are entitled to ask why he continues to complain about everything under the sun. He is in a highly privileged position – something he ought to appreciate given the plight of many in his homeland.

But then, even if you don’t sympathise, you must surely understand that his complicated family situation will have an impact on his psyche and general hapiness. Unfortunately for City this has manifested itself in the worst way. His undoubted talismanic quality makes you sit up and take notice no matter who you support and he is in a distinct minority of current players that most teams in Europe would welcome with open arms. That is, if he didn’t come with more baggage than Stansted airport.

There are very few players one can say they genuinely enjoy watching. Tevez is not only a proven Premier League goalscorer – a feat in itself – but manages to combine his South American flair and style with just the right amount of grit and determination that we love oh so much in this country. When you seeing him charging around the pitch like a rabid pitbull from kick off right to the final whistle, you can't help but be impressed by his work rate, something that previously hadn't dropped even during his periods of melancholy.

With his refusal to come as a sub as requested against Bayern, Tevez lost any sympathy that may have remained both from his own fans and the 'neutrals' who just loved him - football wise - for the sheer hell of it. If and when he does leave, City, English football, and fans will be losing a great player but a very unlikable man. Sadly, this outcome will probably be the best for all concerned.

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