Monday, 28 February 2011

On Your Arse! - Carling Cup Final 2011

The first winner of domestic silverware this season was decided on Sunday as a Birmingham City side consisting of Stephen Carr and Liam Ridgewell somehow managed to overcome second in the Premier League and recent victors against the best club side in world football Arsenal in a 2-1 win at Wembley Stadium.

Goals from Nicola Zigic and Obafemi Martins secured the Blues' first trophy of significance since the free love and copious drug-taking days of the swinging sixties. No stranger to winning paper cups or whatever it is they award for success north of the border, Alex McLeish won the biggest prize of his career on Sunday – disrespect very much intended to the SPL.

The ginger Scot's is first bit of bling in England came in unexpected circumstances and he deserves full credit for motivating his team of relegation battling underdogs to the point where for much of the game they matched their more illustrious opponents. Europe beckons.

The Blues started on the front foot and could have had an early penalty had Lee Bowyer not been wrongly flagged for offside before being upended by Wojciech Szczesny. Had the decision been given and the red card brandished, this should have been the young pole's last involvement in the game. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't...

Nicola Zigic gave Brum the lead with a header from a corner. The most likely goal his team were going to score and the most likely that Arsenal would concede. Robin van Persie restored parity before the break but unsurprisingly tore all his ligaments and broke every bone in his body while doing so. He was substituted in the second half and probably won't play again this decade.

The second half saw Arsenal attempt to take control and forced Ben Foster into a number of decent saves – well, saves you would expect any keeper that doesn't play for The Gunners to make. Birmingham's winner came courtesy of a comical mix-up in the Arsenal defence between Laurent Koscielny and Szczesny who mis-kicked and fumbled their way to presenting the "26" year old Martins with the easiest goal a player could ask for.

To cap it off, this moment of self destruction from the oft unreliable Arsenal backline came in the 89th minute. Being Oscar weekend and all, if you were to write a script it would rank up there as one of the most dramatic ends to a cup final in many a year. For Arsenal fans the situation played out like a horror movie.

For the neutrals however, it was more like a Leslie Nelson (RIP) Naked Gun style comedy as Arsenal continued to perform more like a 'spoof' of a good football team. For all their talent, Arsenal are something of a joke. You can almost always count on them to look good for long periods but with all the predictability of the Sun rising in the morning, never quite having the stones to finish the job. When things do go wrong, more often than not it is self-inflicted; the Szczesny–Koscielny cock-up being a prime example. You wonder why so many opposition fans hate Arsenal given the team's unrivalled tendency to provide such great moments of joy.

Of the 90 thousand odd people packed into Wembley, I very much doubt there was one single person who genuinely believed that the result was going any way other than in favour of The Gunners baring a major calamity. Like I say however, at Arsenal, these calamities are the norm and if trophies were awarded for the ability to snatch unlikely defeat from the jaws of victory then the North Londoners would be the most decorated club in the country by a good distance.

Forgetting the mistake at the end that ultimately cost them the match, the team Arsene Wenger put should have the beating of Birmingham 99% of the time despite missing injured captain Cesc Fabregas. Fortunately for the Blues, Arsenal were never really at the races and didn't perform anywhere near what would have expected for a side so desperate to win a trophy. The likes of Nasri, Arshavin and even goal scorer van Persie didn't justify the plaudits they generally receive and ought to take a good long hard look at themselves having been bested by footballing nonentities like Lee Bowyer.

The Arsenal have failed to fulfil their much [over]hyped "potential" for far too long now and in some ways, this result wasn't actually a surprise at all. It's not a question of ability but rather a glaring mental weakness that you would be pretty daft to try and deny no matter how much of a die-hard goon you happen to be.

The reason Birmingham players were doing a merry jig with that odd three-handled trophy was because they quite simple showed up and wanted it more than the Gunners. This kind of failure in big, important games has happened far too often in recent years and shows little sign of abating. If you can't get up for beating Birmingham in a cup final, what chance would you have against better sides? This is exactly the reason so much attention is drawn to their trophy drought. People make a big deal of 4... 5... 6 years without a trophy because Wenger's team clearly are good enough but always bottle it when the time comes to deliver. Over the last 11 seasons Arsenal have actually lost in finals of the FA, UEFA, Champions League and Carling (2) cups. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another team of such prolific failures. If the club was a woman, you'd have her uterus examined after so many miscarriages...

Despite still competing on three fronts, this uncanny ability to buckle at the crucial moment could see the famous drought continue not just this season but for a number of years to come. Just ask Birmingham City fans who will tell you about their 48 year wait which has only just come to an end.

Man of the Match: Ben Foster

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Fernando Torreble - Weekend Observations 12th-14th Feb 2011: Part Two

Part One here

Off the back of last week's Newcastle-Arsenal fiasco, Premier League fans were treated to another dramatic comeback at the Hawthorns as the game of the weekend saw West Ham come back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with fellow strugglers West Brom. Good old football! Another game of two halves as the Hammers were fairly abject for the 45 minutes and the Baggies decided to match that ineptitude in the second half. The managerless home side raced ahead and could have had more to show for their efforts before Hammers new boy Demba Ba intervened with a two goals on his full debut either side of a Carlton Cole header.

However, for all the excitement and drama, this was far from being a 'great advert for the English game', this match was a prime example of why both teams find themselves battling relegation. One or both will definitely be playing Championship football next season and deservedly so. The incoming Roy Hodgson will have a massive job on his hands if some of the "defending" by the home side is anything to go by.

On that note, West Brom might have the excuse that they didn't actually have a proper manager in charge for the game. But then again, West Ham could say the same thing. Apparently Scott Parker was the one responsible for the Straford bound club's Lazarus like resurrection after delivering a rousing dictum to the hapless hammers at half time.

Where was Avram at this stage? Presumably more concerned with trying to catch Dangermouse.

"That one-eyed rodent will probably still be better than Matthew Upson"

You've got to love a local derby. The passion, the excitement, the overwhelming and obsessive desire to get one over on your rivals. Sadly very little of any of the above was present in the St. Valentine's Day 0-0 stalemate between Fulham and Chelsea at Craven Cottage. Sky were keen to point out how many 'couples' were present at the game but given how bad it turned out to be, you have to wonder how many blokes have been dumped today following what had to be the worst Valentine's Day present ever.

The match mainly consisted of Chelsea dominating possession but very rarely actually taking the opportunity to test Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal. The home side were clearly only intent on trying to hit the Champions on the break. In the very last minute when you imagine many women were turning to their partners and asking disdainfully "THIS is what you do every other Saturday???", one of the Fulham breaks paid off as Clint Dempsey won a penalty that would have surely won the game for the Whites had he not decided to go all Gareth Southgate as Petr Cech saved it.

Aside from that solitary moment of late drama, the only other talking points were the contrasting performances of the Blues' two big January signings. Brazilian centre half David Luiz slotted into the Chelsea team with all the ease of plug into a socket and was the stand out man of the match by a country mile. Yes, even despite giving away the late penalty that almost cost his team the match. Luiz defended like his life depended on it and literally contributed to every decent move Chelsea had going forward.

"My hair's not so funny now, IS IT???"

Luiz emerging from the game as man of the match is both a reflection of how well he played overall and how poor every other player on the pitch was. Few performed poorer however than £50m man Fernando Torres who stunk the place up so bad they were handing out gas masks by the time the misfiring Spaniard was withdrawn on 70 minutes. Torres had a couple of decent chances in the first half that a player of his ability should ordinarily be burying. He must have left Merseyside in such a hurry that it seems as though he has forgotten his shooting boots, confidence and first touch. It's difficult to know if the chants of "What a waste of money" were only coming from the home fans...

In the midst of all the fuss over the Torres transfer, very few people seemed to notice that promising young striker Daniel Sturridge was bound, gagged and shoved in massive crate with 'Reebok Stadium, The North' written on the side. Chelsea may now be wondering why they bothered. Following two goals in his first two games for Bolton, Strurridge made it 3 from 3 after netting the decisive second goal in Wanderers 2-0 win over Everton.

It's going to be interesting to see what path Sturridge's career ultimately takes. A product of the Manchester City youth academy, Sturridge seems to have no trouble scoring at any level he's played at in his short career but has clearly suffered from a lack of opportunities to play first team football. This is surely not through any fault of his own it would seem but rather due to fact he has played for two clubs in the division who are bankrolled by billionaires and would rather spunk oodles of cash on big name strikers rather than allowing a hot prospect time to develop.

With Chelsea's current glut of forwards you struggle to see Sturridge ever making a breakthrough there and, far be it from me to ever start handing out advice to a Premier League footballer but he will probably have to move on to somewhere like Bolton for a few years to establish himself before returning to one the top sides in the league.

Everton's season continues to show all the consistency of a Biploar Disorder sufferer on a cocktail of ecstasy and LSD trying to work out if Come Fly With Me is funny or not. This latest defeat for the Toffees keeps them in the bottom half of the table and looking at a possible relegation battle. Looking at the squad David Moyes has and given everything they have managed to accomplish in years gone by, this campaign looks to be one of incredible underachievement after far, far too many poor performances.

As predicted here last week, Louis Saha was once again missing with some kind of injury but even still, Everton looked disinterested throughout and you have to wonder whether this is a reflection of their manager right now.

For a long time now, Moyes has been talked up as supposedly one of the great British managers with some even going so far as to hint at him as a likely replacement for Suralex when he finally (if ever!) leaves Old Trafford - including Fergie himself.

With ultimately untrue rumours circulating a few weeks back that he had parted company with the Blues, perhaps Everton's slump down to the fact that Moyes has realised that he has taken the club as far as he can and has his eye on a new challenge. Maybe not quite the United job but something that will allow him to test himself in a different environment to that at Goodison Park.

Finally, having been involved in matches that produced a grand total of 15 goals in last weekend's net-busting orgy of scoring, wasn't it just inevitable that Blackburn and Newcastle would play out a dull 0-0 snoozefest?

Match of the Weekend: West Brom 3-3 West Ham

Goal of the weekend: Duh!?!

Whinge of the weekend: Mike Summerbee

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Roo Beauty! Weekend Observations 12th-14th Feb 2011: Part One

There are times when you sit down to watch this absurd sport we call football where you forget your allegiances, ignore your prejudices and can do nothing other than applaud certain moments of greatness. There are those instances of individual brilliance that one can only look upon in awe.

Of course, one of these rare moments of magic took place in Saturday's Manchester derby and I think it is fair to say that every fan of the beautiful game was thinking the same thing:

Just how did David Silva manage to direct that ball into the top corner off his back?

I kid. Of course I refer to Wayne Rooney's overhead wunderstrike to win the match for United against crosstown cash-rich rivals City 2-1.

In this country we have become accustomed to everything that revolves around Old Trafford, and Rooney in particular, being spoken of with the kind of over exaggeration that would even look out of place in a Jim Carey movie. Manchester United Football Club has almost become a synonym for hyperbole. On this occasion however, when people immediately speak of this as Goal of the season with still a third of the campaign left to play, it's actually quite difficult to argue.

Aside from being just a technically brilliant strike that you imagine 90% of professional footballers would be unable to execute so effectively, the quality of the goal becomes amplified thanks to the situation in which it was scored. If Rooney scored that goal against someone crap like, say, West Ham, while United were cruising at 3-0, we would still praise the quality but we are no longer speaking about it in such glowing terms.

This goal is instantly 'better' because of the added significance: The winner, in a Manchester derby, with both teams going for the title, and Rooney himself having an otherwise poor game. There are few bigger stages on which to score the best goal of your career. After his disrespect towards the club last autumn, the few United fans with any common sense would have been right to be suspicious about where 'Wazza's' loyalty truly lay. Saturday might have just done enough to finally earn their forgiveness though.

After the dross the two teams served up at Eastlands in November, it was refreshing to see two of the best sides in the country put on a far more entertaining spectacle. City and Roberto Mancini get a lot of grief for their style of play and are often lazily labelled as dull or negative. After Saturday, anyone who held this view ought to change their opinion given the fact that it was indeed the Citizens who came out of traps the faster and for my money, were the better team over the 90 minutes. David Silva and Yaya Toure were the best players on the pitch in the first half and had the former put away his early chance, who knows how the game might have turned out? Vincent Kompany put in one of the defensive performances of the season. The eventual matchwinner never had a sniff and it was always going take something sensational for United to emerge victorious.

It is this very trait of The Reds however that has and will continue to lead them to victory after irritating victory this season. Excuse me for indulging in sycophantic cliché but sometimes it is necessary. For all the money spent by their neighbours, there is something present at Old Trafford that all the oil money in the world cannot buy: Team spirit and a winning mentality. This exactly why United will more than likely be celebrating their record-breaking 19th league title come May.

Ferguson's team are now eight points ahead of City while sandwiched between them remaining four points off the lead are Arsenal who showed no ill-effects of last weekend's dramatic capitulation with another comfortable home win. The 2-0 win over Wolves was mainly down to Robin van Persie who grabbed his 9th and 10th goals in 7 league games since the turn of the year. Blackpool are now the only current Premier League team he is yet to score against. Once more, you can only imagine what might have been over the last 5 trophyless years if the Dutchman had stayed fit. If Rooney gets the plaudits for a great individual goal, Arsenal's second gets the team award after a fantastic flowing move.

Mick McCarthy's frank admission that his team were spanked was about an honest an assessment you could get from an opposition manager. 2-0 flattered the away side as the gunners insisted on missing chance after glorious chance to make the final scoreline far, far more emphatic. The overall performance was encouraging given their date with their superior selves on Wednesday. However, if they manage to create even half the number of opportunities they did Saturday, Arsenal must stick them away because there isn't a snowman's chance in Hades they will get away with such profligacy against Barcelona.

Climbing into the top four were Spurs who went up to Sunderland without many of the players who have helped elevate them to such dizzy heights and came away from Wearside with a valuable 2-1 win. No Bale, Van der Vaart, Modric, King or Crouch. All signs pointed to a home win; particularly after the ever-impressive Asamoah Gyan gave the Black Cats a deserved first half lead.

But once again this season, Spurs showed impressive resilience and belief as they fought back from a losing position to take the points - despite the best efforts of William Gallas whose need to change his footwear more often than Carrie Bradshaw led to the concession of the opening goal. The winner was a fine volley scored, once again, by Nico Kranjcar whose recent contributions should force 'arry into a rethink before offloading him in the summer.

Sunderland will ultimately achieve nothing until they learn how to defend – a surprising fact given that they are managed by one of the best Premier League defenders of the early 1990s but less so when one realises that Titus Bramble is tasked with marshalling the backline. Going forward, they are an exciting and quite dangerous proposition but this open nature to their play will always give their opponents hope. January additions Sully Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon will hardly help combat this problem. Michael Dawson wouldn't have found it any easier to score the equaliser if he was playing against nobody.

Liverpool's recent return to form stuttered this week after a 1-1 draw at home to Wigan. Every week there seems to be some debate about active/inactive and first phase/second phases of offside. None of that should have been relevant at Anfield as defender Steve Gohouri scored the most offsidest of offside goals you are likely to see.

For the home side, Raul Meireles was once again the man of the moment after his volley gave them the lead - his 5th goal in six games. After an indifferent start to the season, all of a sudden, the Portuguese has become something of a player. It would be easy to put this down to the 'Dalglish effect' and to a point it's probably true that he has been liberated under the new manager. However, it would be folly to ignore the fact that, like most players from Foreignland, he, unfortunately for Roy Hodgson, needed time to settle in.

Some players however just come over and give the idea of an 'adaptation period' a swift kick in the balls and can become something of an instant hit. Luis Suarez looked dangerous yet again and was unfortunate not to add to his tally of one in one at Anfield after hitting the post and crossbar. When he gets a run of games, the Uruguayan is going to be a frightening prospect for defenders up and down the country for more reasons than his cannibalistic tendencies.

Part Two to follow

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Weekend Observations 5th-6th February 2011: Part Two

Part One here

Sandwiched between the resurgent scousers and Chelsea are Tottenham. They always say the repeating success is harder than achieving it and looking at the way things are panning out this season, it will be a tougher task for Spurs if they are to emulate last season's top four finish.

However, they did such ambitions no harm with a 2-1 win over Bolton thanks to a late Nico Kranjcer screamer. It's one of this season's great injustices that Kranjcer doesn't see much in the way of game time for 'arry's side given how influential he was last season in making sure Spurs actually qualified for the Champions League. Much has been said about how this goal 'proved a point' to 'onest 'arry but in reality, we know this is not the case. For everything he has achieved, Redknapp could find himself undoing his good work if he doesn't fight his worrying addiction to always trying to buy players. With what is already a very good squad at his disposal, you have to wonder why he enters the transfer market with a ridiculous scattergun approach looking to literally sign anybody rather than someone he actually needs. Last week's farce was a prime example. What would Charlie Adam add to the Spurs team the Kranjcar cannot provide already? Perhaps more importantly, why was he looking to sign half the strikers in Spain when his defence is in so much trouble?

Again, refereeing controversy took centre stage in this match as Mark Clattenburg continued to make a fool out of himself with some baffling penalty decisions. Having already inexplicably forced a retake by Spurs' Rafael van der Vaart for encroachment (something you will see on every penalty from now until the end of time), the second half saw the dullard ref fail to award Gary Cahill one of the most nailed on spot-kicks you are ever likely to see and instead decided to book the Bolton man for diving.

Owen Coyle is apparently going to compile a second DVD of all the decisions that have gone against his team this season. At this rate we could be looking at a full box set before the season is out.

Contributing to the weekend goal-fest was Carlos Tevez who bagged a hat-trick in Man City's comprehensive 3-0 win over West Brom at Eastlands. City's title challenge has stuttered in recent weeks with some indifferent league form over January but having seen Chelsea, Arsenal and crosstown rivals United all drop points this week, Roberto Mancini's team are right back in the race.

This match may have turned out to be the last one in the Baggies dugout for Roberto Di Matteo who was sent out back to go and sort out his bergonias as he was later placed on gardening leave by the club. It's funny that this is the term they use when people are put into this state of purgatory. Who's to say that Di Matteo doesn't already have a gardener? Or what if he lives in a penthouse apartment?

But I digress. It's a bit of a head-scratcher this one. Admittedly, West Brom's recent form hasn't exactly been promising but back in September, following that famous win at Arsenal, people were talking about the possibility of the Baggies pushing for European spots. Yes, it has been something of a rapid decline since then but some of the team's home performances would have suggested that they would have had enough to just stay up this season allowing Di Matteo the opportunity to push on next year.

Given that this is Di Matteo's first attempt at Premier League management and taken into account the fact that last year he successfully led West Brom to promotion from the Championship in his first season at the Hawthorns, you have to think that this reaction by the board is both hasty and unfair. Even if he did get them relegated, his employers ought to be far more grateful for the job he's done so far.

"We'll be needing the scarf back too, Roberto"

Tony Pulis is a prime example of what can be achieved by having patience with a manager. All of a sudden, people talk about Stoke City as an established Premier League side and not have to worry that they have lost their marbles.

No matter what your opinion of the City, team or style of football, Pulis deserves credit for what he has achieved. That said, they still remain a horrible, horrible team to watch. Yes, they contributed to this weekend's goalfest with an apparently emphatic 3-2 win over Sunderland but Christ almighty, you couldn't possibly imagine three uglier goals than those that ultimetly won them the game. If football was a fairly tale, the 'beautiful game' would be in direct contrast with Stoke City who would be playing the part of 'Beast'.

The fact all three came from set pieces launched into the box tells you everything you need to know. Their first two goals, both highly contentious and might have been disallowed on another day, featured the kind of goal mouth scrambles that wouldn't look out of place in a game of 60 seconds in any primary school playground. Still, 3 points is 3 points as they say and a perfect counter argument to any football 'purist' who will try and tell you that football has to be 'pretty'.

Everton has been the epitome of inconsistency so far this season and their 5-3 win over Blackpool was a microcosm of their whole campaign. Had it not been for the drama at St. James' Park, people would be hailing this relentlessly back-and-fourth match as the standout game of the weekend.

There's a lot of talk on merseyside at present about the 'Return of the King' but if you cross Stanley park to get away from all the Dalglish hysteria, Everton fans will be talking about their own regal monarch in the shape of King Louis Saha. Having seemingly gotten over the injuries that have caused havoc with his career so far, the Frenchman had been steadily returning to form netting 4 goals in his previous 6 matches before single handedly matching that total on Saturday to make it 8 in 7. The new hairstyle has him looking like a Duracell Battery and guess what? He's playing like one too...

If he continues like this then you imagine that Everton won't remain in what many would say is a false position down in the the lower reaches of the Premier League but then again, if history has taught us nothing else it's that there are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and a Louis Saha injury. While not wanting to jinx him, is it likely that he will be able to go on a run of games without his muscles turning to play-dough once again?

Despite contributing to such an exciting match – it's not often a team will score three goals and end up on the losing side – Blackpool's poor run of form continues and relegation becomes more and more of a realistic possibility with each passing game. Coinciding with the Tangerine's free-fall is the fact that teams around them are picking up whatever few points they can like some ruthless scavengers in a some kind of dystopain wasteland while Ian Holloway's side go hungry. Wins for Wolves, Birmingham and bizarrely enough, Wigan, see The Seasiders sit just two points off the drop zone.

I don't see them getting much change out of their next four games against Villa, Spurs, Wolves and Chelsea so it's with a heavy heart I feel I must pre-emptively mourn the loss of Ian Holloway and his regular bouts of insanity from our screens.

Match of the Weekend: Newcastle 4-4 Arsenal

Goal of the Weekend: Kranjcar v Bolton

Worst Refereeing decision: Stoke's second v Sunderland (Two offsides AND a handball!)

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Goal-uttony: Weekend Observations 5th-6th February 2011: Part One

If we are to believe that gluttony is indeed one of the Seven Deadly Sins then this weekend saw Premier League fans purchase a one-way ticket straight to the deepest, darkest depths of hell after feasting on goal after net-busting goal. The 41 scored on Saturday alone set a new league record.

"Mmmm... delicious goals!"

The ONLY place to start is at St. James Park which saw what was undoubtedly the game of this or any season in recent memory between Newcastle United and Arsenal. Unless you've been living under rock, in a cave somewhere in Watford with your eyes stapled shut, your eardrums perforated and and your iPhone battery uncharged, you would know that Arsenal somehow contrived to throw away a 4-0 lead in the last 26 minutes of the match allowing a side managed by Alan Pardew and Leon Best up front to come back and draw 4-4.

Themselves no strangers to dramatic collapses and regular humiliations both on and off the pitch, it must have been a refreshing change for Geodies the world over to finally see their team come away from such as encounter with their heads held high. It's far too easy to regurgitate cliches about having a 'never say die' spirit but on this occasion, there is little else one can actually say.

This most improbable of outcomes was partly a result of yet more inexplicable refereeing as the performance of Phil Dowd almost took the shine off of Newcastle's remarkable comeback. Put Kafka, Wittgenstein and Carol Vorderman in a room and they still wouldn't come up with any reason as to how the portly official awarded Newcastle their second penalty. Arsenal will also rightly argue that if Abou Diaby deserved his red card (which he certainly did) at the point in which the momentum begun to swing toward the home side, why wasn't Kevin Nolan also dismissed for a near identical offence after Joey Barton's first converted spot kick to make it 4-1?

In any instance, the farcical refereeing should never have been a factor. Unless Dowd and his assistants were actually tackling Arsenal players and scoring the goals themselves, a side with the undoubted quality possessed by Arsene Wenger's team should, without debate, be able to hold on to a lead against a team as mediocre as Newcastle. If at the start of the game, someone offered any gooner a 4-0 lead but being down to 10 men with half an hour left to play, they would have bitten your hands off.

What it basically boils down to is the fact the once again, Arsenal showed about as much resistance and mental fortitude as James Cordon walking past a cake shop and trying to stop himself going in. For most teams in football, you would be able to write off Saturday's result as a freak occurrence. Not Arsenal. We've seen this kind of capitulation from them a number of times before. Hell, this isn't even the first time they've pissed away a commanding lead this season. You can bet your life that this won't even be last time we'll be discussing this.

Their manager refused to address the obvious problems with his team's comical defence in the transfer window and with Johan Djourou's injury leaving them with just two fit centre backs for a while, Arsene Wenger appears to have compromised his team's chances of success with his stubbornness yet again. The time must surely come when you have to wonder if a man who continues to make the same mistakes over and over again is still fit to lead this team.

Bizarrely enough, the gunners actually ended the weekend a point closer to table toppers Manchester United who finally lost 2-1 at Wolves following yet another poor performance away from Old Trafford. For Wolves, Elokobi and Doyle's goals on Saturday evening now mean they have taken 12 points from United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City so far this season – yet somehow they are still currently joint bottom of the league.

Credit to McCarthy's side but if you can't raise your game against the other teams in the league, all your big 'scalps' will ultimately count for nothing when you are back playing against Derby and Doncaster next year. As an aside, isn't it funny that Big Mick was sent to sit on the naughty step last season after fielding a weakened side and essentially throwing a match against United? Putting out his strongest XI might not have been such a bad idea in hindsight.

It's unlikely that this defeat will signal some kind of dramatic United free-fall but it cannot be denied that it has been on the cards for a while. Having got out of jail at Villa, West Brom and Blackpool to name but a few jammy recent examples, this defeat might signify that they have run out of free passes. You imagine it might have to serve as something of a wake up call for Fergie who will realise that If he wants to win yet another league title this season, performances on the road will have to be much better.

The loss for the Reds now means that they won't get to stick it to their rivals from North London by equaling the latter's achievement of going a whole league campaign unbeaten. For everyone concerned with United, this will ultimately prove irrelevant if they claim the more important accolade of a 19th title, bettering that of their enemies from Merseyside.

Speaking of whom, I may need to set aside this blog while I go and cut myself an uber slice of humble pie following the mini-revolution at Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. I, like many others, thought 'The King' would be out of his depth having been out of the game for so long, coming back in a vastly different era to what he is used to and most importantly, having to manage with a fairly uninspiring squad of players.

Instead of being a resounding failure, Dalglish has seemingly transformed to fortunes of the club and after their 1-0 win over Chelsea – their fourth in a row – fans can start to dream once again. To play devil's advocate however, how much of this good run down to the influence of the man behind the man, former Chelsea assistant manager Steve Clark? Also, wasn't matchwinner and in-form Raul Meireles a Roy Hodgson signing?

Now just six points behind the blues with Wigan and West Ham to come in their next two games, some crazy fools might even start to speculate about a top four finish. Improbable? Maybe. Impossible? Not this season.

Of course, the sub plot to the match at Stamford Bridge was of course the debut of Anakin Skywalker after his £50m move to the dark side. Would he score? Would he celebrate??? Well, as it turned out that Fernando Torres had his best game for Liverpool in months after a performance that can politely be described as 'subdued' but was in fact probably closer to a big steaming pile of another word beginning with 'S'. Chelsea fans the world over will be hoping they don't have another Shevchenko (or worse, Sutton!) on their hands. Whatever he goes on to achieve during his spell with The Blues, Liverpool fans will certainly be feeling somewhat smug about what transpired on Sunday. The scousers have the last laugh ...for now.

Chelsea's recent renaissance came to a grinding halt in a game where they were lucky to come away with 'nil' such was the lack of any attacking invention in their play. It would be an act of gross stupidity to imagine that things won't fall into place sooner rather than later but on this occasion, for a side with a front line consisting of Drogba, Torres, Anelka and Frank Lampard supporting to not even muster a shot on target between them is nothing short of embarrassing. Equally embarrassing is the fact that after some obscene spending of some £70m, Chelsea actually managed to put in one of, if not THE worst performance of any of the 20 teams in the league this weekend. Isn't it funny that it was Liverpool's finest who once sang that "Money can't buy me love"?

Part Two to follow

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

How much??? Deadline Day Observations - 31st Jan 2011

And so another Transfer window draws to a dramatic close. January 31st has come and gone, clubs have concluded their transfer business for the season (emergency loan nonsense aside) and will have to make do with their lot from now until the end of the campaign.

Is Deadline day is fast becoming one of the most significant dates of the entire year? Ask a lot of football fans and you'll probably find it means more to them than Shrove Tuesday or Boxing Day or Valentines.

This particular day in the footballing calender tends to stir up a mix of emotions as supporters feel everything from excitement, to anger, to fear and even confusion as teams desperately and recklessly throw around their cash trying to strengthen their squads in a manner not dissimilar to shopaholics on the last day of some department store sale. Like these shoppers, football clubs often find that they have not invested wisely and end up going home with ill-fitting and unwanted items they cannot return.

Cynicism toward the whole idea of a transfer window is widespread and totally understandable given the limits, restrcitions and pressure it places on clubs, managers and players. However, I've decided that it is time to embrace the madness. I love days like this because of the unpredictability and insanity - even if they do serve as a reminder of how much of a ridiculous circus the 'sport' of football has become.

A whole day spent sat glued to Sky Sports News with my MacBook by my side as I constantly refreshed the BBC website and obsessively trawled through Twitter for any nugget of vaguely relevant transfer gossip was probably not the most productive use of my time. Some might even say it was a complete waste of a day off. A day that could have been spent doing something far more fulfilling. Tragically, there are actually very few things in the world not involving Megan Fox and a Jacuzzi that I would have rather been doing...

Why does the deadline time change every window? In the past it has been 5pm, Midnight and on this occasion, 11pm. There's probably a simple explanation that I am unaware of so if anyone can enlighten me, I'd be rather grateful.

People talk about inflated transfer fees and and paying over the odds for individuals but in truth, who are any of us to judge how much someone is worth? Footballers are worth exactly what a team/Chairman/Cash-rich Arab can (hopefully) afford and is prepared to pay. There is no official valuation criteria for players to meet so not one of us can justifiably say that "x is a waste of money" or "y is a bargain".

Having said that, for the sake of argument, I'm going to ignore this completely...

Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest story of the day was dedicated, badge-kissing Liverpool diehard Fernando Torres swapping his red armband for a blue one as he joined rivals Chelsea for something like 50 million quid of Roman Abramovich's fortune, breaking the British transfer record in the process! The blues also spunked £22m on David Luiz from Benfica but I literally know nothing about the Brazilian defender to say whether this transfer is worthwhile or not so I'll move on.

Amidst all the hype and hysteria surrounding the Torres deal, people seem to have ignored the fact that 'Nando' has actually been quite rubbish this season. Imagine how much he would have cost in he hadn't been playing like some kind of Spanish Chris Armstrong for the past 5 months. He also spent so much time on the treatment table that Liverpool physios were actually charging him rent.

Of course, when fit, firing and on form he is arguably the best striker in Europe and if Carlo Ancelloti can get him to form a half decent partnership with Didier Drogba then quite frankly, the rest of us are doomed! To completely bastardise the famous Mark Twain quote, rumours of Chelsea's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Naturally, the move has led to widespread calls of disloyalty and betrayal from dismayed Liverpool fans, some of whom even took to making the extreme gesture of burning replica shirts as a means of expressing their displeasure. Talk about taking things too seriously.

It was not all bad news for the scousers though, especially given the fact that someone, somewhere in Liverpool decided that Andy Carroll was worth 35,000,000 pounds Stirling and paid Newcastle this very amount to bring take him to Anfield. Seriously, £35million? Did they forget to add a decimal point in there somewhere? Who sanctioned this transfer? Fred Goodwin???

If a player with half a season's top flight experience and less than a hundred professional appearances to his name is valued at that price then we may as well all just pack up and go home. Forget women linesmen, THIS is the sign that the game has gone mad. If we were to say that Mr. Carroll is 100 times a better footballer than me then the would still place me at about £350,000! If anyone is looking for a clumsy, bumbling Saturday league centre back, I'm your man! Darren Bent all of a sudden looks a snip.

The most curious thing about this was that Newcastle had apparently initially turned down £30million. Why? Fair play to them for holding out for more but anything above £10m is surely too much for Carroll who has now become the 8th most expensive player in world football despite not even being one of the top 20 best players in the Premier League.

The 'experts' on Sky tried to justify the transfer, by suggesting that 'King' Kenny was trying to sign players that fans could identify with. It would be too easy to make a joke about Carroll's criminal record so I'll leave it well alone.

Signing overrated jailbird Geordies wasn't the only business Liverpool did on deadline day. The NESV owned club also completed the deal to bring in another striker in Uruguayan Luis Suarez – yes, he of notorious World Cup handball fame – for a cool £23m.

Suarez has one of those frightening goal-scoring records in the Dutch league but as we've seen in the past an Eredivisie golden boot can prove to be about as valuable as shares in BP this morning. For every Ruud van Nistelrooy, there's a Mateja Kezman, or even worse, an Alfonso Alves!

Liverpool fans will be hoping their new man will be more like the former (as well as letting his feet rather than hands do the talking). Taking Suarez' international record (16 in 38 to date) into account as well, it would suggest he won't turn out to be as much of a footballing misfit as the latter two. If he can adapt, he will be just as deadly in front of goal as the departing Torres.

With two high priced new strikers making up what would be one of the most expensive forward lines in the league, the burning question on everyone's lips is what will become of Nabil El Zhar?

The fact that the new owners have not been shy in allowing 'King' Kenny to splash the cash so frivolously would suggest that they are looking to keep him for the long haul. No temporary manager would ever be handed such a warchest with which to rebuild and remould the team if he was expected to sling his hook in the not too distant future.

For me, the big winners on deadline day were Blackpool. Aside from singing two fairly useful players (and James Beattie) Ian Holloway managed to prevent Liverpool from increasing their spending even further after he dug his heels in and refused to sell the club's best player Charlie Adam to the reds.

The continued interest in Adam is a curious one. I make it no secret I'm a massive fan of his. He's a very good player and is playing to his potential at the minute but I can't see him improving much beyond his current level. Admittedly, he is still better than what Liverpool have already.

How will he react to not getting his dream move? By all accounts, he's going to still put in the effort but he might have trouble displacing new signing Andy Reid... in every sense of the word!

Spurs also came in with a late bid for Adam that was either turned down or too late depending on whether you trust the word of 'onest 'arry or not. There seemed to be something of a desperate panic at Spurs Lodge in the hours after their 4-0 humping at the hands of Fulham in the cup as bids went in for what seems like every striker in La Liga with little success before time ran out. Tottenham were unable to repeat their magic of the last window when they bought Rafael van der Vaart for just £8m (Again, Andy Carroll = £35m!!!).

Mrs. Sylvie van der Vaart - anytime he gets a mention, she gets a picture!

White Hart Lane wasn't the only place that saw a lack of last day transfer activity. It was all quiet at the top as Manchesters United and City and Arsenal chose to keep their wallets in their pockets. City had already completed a big money deal for Edin Dzeko weeks ago and shipped out their dead wood in Wayne Bridge and Emmanuel Adebayor – albeit on loan – to do some much needed trimming to their squad. United seem to be operating on the "if it aint broke, don't fix it" principle and why not seeing as they are top of the league and still unbeaten etc.

To the surprise of no-one, Arsene Wenger chose not to enter the transfer market despite the glaring deficiencies in his team's defence. Once again, you expect gooners to look back in May after another season of disappoint in the league and wondering what might have been if only they made that one signing that everyone with even a passing interest in the game could see that they needed.

Elsewhere, loan deals were the order of the day. Obafemi Martins returned to the Premier League to Birmingham from Rubin Kazan in Russia where he seems to have found the secret of eternal youth after being listed as a 26-year old despite having been born in 1942.

Eidur Gudjohnson has returned to West London to Fulham on loan after a pointless few months at Stoke. Having spent the most recent years of his career living in Barcelona and Monaco, is it any wonder he couldn't settle in Staffordshire?

Among other late loan deals, Stephen Ireland can now be totally useless for Newcastle after joining them from Villa for the next few months. Paul Konchesky will be relieved not to have to shank clearances in front of Liverpool fans baying for his blood for a while after dropping down a division to shank clearances for promotion chasing Nottingham Forest. The nicest man in football El Hadji Diouf will be renewing acquaintances with the good people of Glasgow after signing for Rangers. Robbie Keane left Spurs for West Ham and may or may not have declared that he has always dreamed of playing for the Hammers having supported them all his life.

Finally, the best named player that moved on Monday was Maximilian Hass who signed for Middlesbrough and will presumably divide his time playing for the Teesiders with his day job of being a Marvel comics supervillian.

Who says the transfer window was no fun?

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