Friday, 8 April 2011

PFA Player of (some of) the year 2010/2011 nominees

Spring time. The sun is out, the birds are singing, flowers are in bloom, the days are longer and otherwise unattractive members of the human race all of sudden become far more appealing for whatever it is consenting adults choose to do behind closed doors. Spring also brings with it the conclusion of the football season and with it the depressing realisation that the months on end you've spent watching your team in the vain hope that they won't disappoint you yet again have been wasted as, predictably, they disappoint you yet again.

In time honoured tradition, the end of the football season sees various trophies, medals and other such shiny trinkets being lavished onto both teams and individuals for their various achievements over the winter months. Of course, with enough of the campaign remaining between now and May for major changes to still take place, one would think it would make sense to wait until then before the customary back-slapping and brown-nosing over which player was supposed to have been the 'best' in the league since August.

Not the PFA however. No, the player's player of the year award is based on what an individual has managed to achieve in only three quarters of season making it, in some people's eyes (mine), somewhat flawed. Given that the eventual winner could go on to have a stinker in his remaining games or have another player perform better than him over the next few weeks, I'm sure I'm not alone in suggesting that maybe they should wait before the customary arse-kissing that takes place?

The PFA award is voted for by fellow players. Coupled with the dodgy timing of the award, you may also wonder whether the pros are best placed or indeed have the nous to make an informed and more importantly, objective decision as to who is most deserving of the prize. But alas, things are as they are and ultimately, who are we to question it?

The shortlist of nominees was announced on Friday:

Gareth Bale

Pros: Once upon a time, the White Hart Lane faithful would shudder when the name Gareth Bale was read out pre-match thanks to his reputation as something of a jinx. It's not that he was a 'bad' footballer but there was certainly a feeling that the young Welshman was about at home in a Tottenham shirt as a Katie Price in a convent. This all changed last season as 'Arry realised that Bale was a left winger and subsequently played him there rather than in the left back position where he had previously struggled so badly. After playing a major role in getting Spurs into the Champions League, Bale started this season with a bang keeping his side within touching distance of the top of the table with a number of man of the match displays. His goal at Stoke in the autumn is up there with one of the strikes of the season and will hopefully not be forgotten in the glut of great goals over the campaign.

Bale however, saved his best for Europe as he blasted himself into the consciousness of the of the entire continent following two masterful displays against the European Champions Internazionale including a jaw-dropping hat-trick at the San Siro in a 4-3 defeat. These performances alone led to many over-excitable 'experts' declaring that Bale was as good, if not better, than the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi!

Cons: This kind of over excessive praise and the fact that, in truth, Bale has come nowhere near living up to it. To equate him to Messi and Ronaldo is an insult to both those players as well as the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Sneijder, Robben, Villa and any other player that has been good for more than five minutes. Yes, an 'exciting' player but then again, so was Jose Dominguez. To suggest that Bale is one of the best players in the world is mind-boggling simply by virtue of the fact his productivity is below par for someone of his talent. Despite being a nightmare to defend against, his 7 league goals and ONE paltry assist in 25 games suggest his overall output this season has not nearly lived up to the hype he generates. Against Real Madrid last Tuesday, the so-called best player in the world only completed 5 of his pitiful 8 passes in Spurs' 4-0 pasting. Ok, injury has blighted his progress but it seems when people go mad over the Welshman their opinion is clouded by those matches against Inter which, let's face it, get further away with each passing day.

Samir Nasri

Pros: Once heralded as a the 'new Zidane' and while not quite as good as the best European footballer of all time, Samir Nasri has shown this season that such comparisons are not as outrageous as they may initially seem. Up until his injury in January, Nasri was far and away the stand out performer in an Arsenal team that looked to be on the verge of greatness this season. His form was so good and so inspiring for the gunners that injury to Cesc Fabregas in the Autumn was not as damaging as first feared with some even suggesting Nasri could even seamlessly take over from his captain should the latter run off to Barcelona.

Nasri's main attribute is the kind of close control you only see in computer games. Add some pace, balance and trickery and in Nasri you have one of the finest creative players in the league this season. Having netted 9 times in the league, it's not been the quantity but rather the quality of his goals that have people in awe of his ability. In a team choked with talented players, it says a lot about Nasri that he has been the best.

Cons: Nasri is like a microcosm of Arsenal football club in recent years. Adventurous, skilful and very easy on the eye but a tendency to fall short before the final hurdle. Like Bale, injury may have played its part but Nasri has gone off the boil on in the new year. Of course, it's unfair to place all Arsenal's failings at his feet but a greater contribution would have been expected from him in recent weeks and had he produced anything close to what he has shown he can, it's unlikely that his side’s season would have gone into such dramatic freefall.

Carlos Tevez

Pros: Following his controversial pan-Manchester transfer a couple of years back after Sir Alex Ferguson declared that he 'wasn't worth the money', Tevez has arguably become the best striker in the league. Where the Argentine differs from his peers is a unique level of tenacity. Not only is he there to stick the ball in the back of the net but his work rate is second to none. Barely a City game passes where you don't sit there thinking "By 'eck! That Tevez doesn't half work hard".

Despite the embarrassment of talent squeezed into their squad and given their indifferent performances over the year, you do wonder if City would still be in with any sort of shout for any honours without him. So many times he has been the sole factor between a draw (or perhaps even a defeat) and three precious points.

Cons: Not so much anything he has or hasn't done on the field but his behaviour but his general attitude and demeanour over the course of the season. The whole saga over his transfer request and alleged fallings out with the manager has undermined City’s challenge this year. Ok, he still puts in a shift on the pitch but as captain and leader of an increasingly volatile collection of individuals, he surely could and should have been setting a better example.

Scott Parker

Pros: It's certainly fair to say that West Ham would most likely already be down if it wasn’t for Parker and his all too regular inspirational acts of leadership both on and off the pitch. Lord knows Avram needs all the help he can get and since sneaking cyanide into the opposition's Lucozade bottles might not go down so well with the authorities, the next best thing is having a player like Parker who not only contributes to attacks but also does that thing we English love oh so much: grafting. Box-to-box midfielders in this mould are all too rare in the modern game. With an abundance of deep-lying forwards, playmakers and anchormen all forming sub-categories of the traditional central midfielder, what Parker does seems to stand out all the more. Dynamic is an all too simplistic description of him and he has fully earned his place in the England set-up recently.

Cons: He plays for West Ham. No disrespect to the Hammers but they have been pretty abject over the past two years. Ok, this may sound like big club snobbery but if a good player stands out in a poor team, does that not distort our perception of him? Is being 'good' at West Ham the same as being average at say.... Chelsea? Something Parker himself can answer from experience. Like any half decent player at a 'better' team, it shouldn't be a surprise to see him thrive in such an environment. Should he really be a rewarded for being a big fish in a small pond?

Rafael van der Vaart


Pros: Ok, it's lazy and often redundant to quote transfer fees given that one player's value is almost never determined in relation to the value of another but in a world where a team can spend 35 million English pounds on a lump of a striker with half a season's Premier League experience, it seems crazy that Tottenham were able to snap up a regular Dutch international from Real Madrid for a mere £8million. In real terms this was the equivalent of going into Currys and finding a 50 inch plasma screen TV with a £100 price tag on it. This transfer wasn't just value for money, it was value AGAINST money (does that make sense? Probably not) and made a mockery of most transfers in football history. Van der Vaart didn't even require anything of a settling in period and took to the Premier League with ease. Playing as a second striker, he provided the perfect link between the creativity of Modric in midfield and the goals of, in particular, Crouch as a front man who he seems to work best with. His own haul of 10 league goals is not too shabby either.

Blessed with creativity and vision, the Dutchman added a new type of directness to the Tottenham team and certainly improved what was already a high-quality style of play under 'Arry. Alongside the abovementioned Bale, people were impressed enough at one stage to even speak of Spurs as potential champions this season. Signing of the season? Probably. Bargain of the season? No question.

Cons: On a continuing theme that surely justifies my argument that these awards are handed out far too early, his form has tailed off in recent months as has his attitude. Injuries haven't helped but perhaps more applicably, the Dutch have earned a reputation, in football at least, as being temperamental, argumentative and downright stroppy. On more than occasion following substitution, van der Vaart has irritated his manager by storming off down the tunnel in a huff. Unlike Tevez, the Tottenham man very much strikes me as the kind of player who will allow his unhappiness to creep into his game and ultimately, his performances will suffer.

Charlie Adam

Pros: The gaping chasm between the Premier League and football league is generally always going to see teams and players from The Championship come up and struggle. Therefore, I am always encouraged to see a player able to make the transition without much trouble. Aside from just making the transition, Blackpool's Charlie Adam has slotted himself and looks right at home. Adam's ability will certainly have proved to be a pleasant surprise to anyone who didn't follow Blackpool promotion-winning run last season but even for Championship fans and even those who saw his fantastic free kick in the Play off final (a trick he has had no trouble repeating), no-one would have expected him to be as good as he has been. This a reject from the SPL for Christ sake!

Adam's physical stature obviously doesn't invoke images of a flair player but don't let his frame fool you. Yes, he is a 'hard worker' but Adam shines through his flair, creativity and keen eye for goal. Like Scott Parker, Adam inspires the lesser players around him to play better. Transfer shenanigans in the winter almost saw him depart Bloomfield Road and you can easily see him staying in the Premier League next season even if Blackpool do not.

Cons: How many times have you heard pundits, journalists, bloggers etc refer to Blackpool as a breath of fresh air? It has been accepted practice to patronise Ian Holloway's team as they have performed beyond all expectations this season. Hang about, these are not park footballers. They are still professionals and it grates even at this stage of the season to still be surprised at the fact some players you never heard of before this campaign can actually get the ball down and play. In that respect, Charlie Adam is almost a poster boy for this 'plucky little team' of apparent nobodies and you can't help but feel that his nomination is an example of tokenism. I like Adam but he certainly isn't the best player in the league and giving it to him would come across like nothing more than overblown sentiment not far off the ludicrous decision to award it to Ryan Giggs a couple of years back.

Nemanja Vidic

Pros: Hoo-effing-ray!!! People actually realise that you don't need to be some poncey, fancy dan, orange-boot wearing attacker to be a good player. Some recognition for the guys at the other end at last. In The Republic, Plato talked about the rulers, or Philosopher Kings. Below them would be the Auxillaries, guardians or soldiers. Applying this hierarchy to football, the perception would surely be that the attackers are the rulers while the defenders would be the auxillaries. Without doubt the leader of these Soldiers would Vidic. The Serb is unquestionably the number one centre back in the division and this season more than any previous has he had to show it. Vidic has also been without his fellow defensive chum Rio Ferdinand for much of the season which just shows that they don't necessarily need to play as a partnership in order to thrive. With or without Rio, Vidic has been rock solid for much of the season. The general consensus is that this United team is one of the poorest for years yet unbelievably the team are still looking at a potential if not unlikely treble. Whether this happens or not, Sir Alex Ferguson will surely be looking at the general sturdiness of his Vidic in his back line to prevent defeats in many games when their performances deserved it.

Cons: On the rare occasion Vidic performs badly, he doesn't so much self destruct rather he sets himself on fire before diving head first into a barrel of gunpowder! The most recent example was in last week's controversial game at West Ham where he was an accident waiting to happen and extremely fortunate not to receive his marching orders. In years gone by, his struggles against Fernando Torres were well documented. In this year's game at Stamford Bridge, the misfiring Spaniard's mere presence in the stadium was still enough to unsettle Vidic into getting sent off... probabaly.

Does the fact that the list features two players involved in the relegation battle reflect the quality of the league? And if so, in a positive or a negative way? Nasri, Bale and van der Vaart have all missed a fair part of the season through injury and all three have suffered for form recently yet still make the list. Make of that what you will.

I maintain that there still too large a portion of the campaign to make a decision. Why not wait? What is the big rush? There is still time for players not on the shortlist who have had an impressive year (Nani? Kompany? Ashley Cole? Chris Brunt???) and can still have a major impact between now and May.

But I guess that would make too much sense.

Personally, I think Parker deserves it.

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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Porto, Mourinho and Serie A: Weekened Observations 2nd-3rd April 2011: Part Two

Part One here

The formality that is the remainder of the Premier League would usually allow one to cast their eye further afield towards our more exotic neighbours from across Europe but alas, it seems that many of the other top leagues are striding toward equally uneventful climaxes.

This past weekend, the Portuguese Primiera Liga was settled with 5 weeks to spare after Porto stretched their lead at the top to an unassailable 16 points. To make matters worse, they were crowned having beaten arch rivals and deposed champions Benfica 2-1 at their own ground, the Estadio da Luz, in what can only be described as the football equivalent of walking into someone's house, using their toilet without flushing, fornicating with their wife while they watch before rubbing salt in the wound by... um... throwing salt in their eyes.

Having seen the old enemy win the league on their own soil, Benfica showed all the grace of a three year old as they turned off the lights and turned ON the sprinklers as Porto celebrated their triumph. Yeah, that ought to show ‘em!

The man who led Porto to their 25th league title was the little known Andre Villas-Boas who may or may not be familiar to Chelsea fans due to fact he was a key member of Jose Mourinho’s coaching staff during his time in West London. Having had no playing career of his own to speak of and less than two full years in management on his lonesome (this being his first season in charge of the former European champions) it would something of an understatement to say that Boas has certainly learnt well.
Naturally, this solo success has led to people speaking favourably of the man and already comparing him to his mentor. Liverpool were even reportedly sniffing around him as a potential replacement for Roy Hodgson over the winter.

Whether he continues to live up to such high praise is something only the psychic amongst us can answer and, Ok, winning the Portuguese title with Porto is hardly the toughest challenge for a manager but if his career accelerates along this trajectory then the self-proclaimed Special One will soon have some competition for that title.

Remember the name... Andre Villas-Boas.

Speaking of whom, Jose Mourinho had held the unique record of having not lost a home league game he had taken charge of since 2002. A remarkable feat spanning time at four clubs that came to a surprising end as the only chaser in Spain’s two horse race fell giving the Champion Catalonian thoroughbred a clear run toward the finish line. Yes, Real Madrid were defeated 1-0 at home by Sporting Gijon halting Mourinho's incredible run.

To be fair, Madrid were missing a number of key players including Cronaldo, Xabi Alonso and the world’s most offside full back (allegedly), Marcello. You have to think that both Jose and Real hierarchy who currently don't really see eye to eye were almost certainly prioritising the Champions League and their first leg match against Tottenham on Tuesday. You have to say it worked out quite well for them.

The weekend was expected to take a vastly different turn as Barcelona faced a trip to Villarreal who were expected to be something of banana skin and not simply because of their all-yellow kit. Instead, Barca came away from El Madrigal with a vital 1-0 win to go 8 points clear at the top of La Liga with just 8 to play - including a trip to the Bernabeu that you might even say that can actually afford to lose.

The winning goal was scored by Gerrard Pique who is to Central defenders what the Bugatti Veyron is to showroom full of Vauxhall Corsas. Good in the air, strong in the tackle, positionally impeccable as well as being good on the ball and offers a goal threat when he gets forward. His beautiful little chest down and volley would have had many a striker looking on in envy. Can I coin the term ‘complete defender’ here? I think I will.

Oh, and if there was ever any doubt about how the universe favours certain people over others, the World Cup winner is currently also banging Shakira.

Both know the importance of being solid at the back...

In Germany, despite not winning the league for almost a decade, Borussia Dortmund's dominance in the Bundesliga this season has meant for something of a non-existent title race. Having led the table since well before Christmas, Die Schwarzgelben are currently 7 points clear with some 6 games to go.

Meanwhile, over in Italy, it has been difficult to deny that the once formidable Serie A is now a mere shadow of its former self, thanks mostly to the Calciopoli scandal and the unchallenged dominance of Internazionale in recent years.

This season however there seems to something resembling an actual title race going on and of all the leagues mentioned about, the only one that looks even remotely like it could go down to the wire.

Saturday night saw the most meaningful Milan derby for many years as Inter, two points behind their arch rivals at the start of play, took on table topping AC. Of the many sub-plots that often surround this game, the most significant on this occasion of course had to be the fact that the Nerazzurri are now managed by former Rossoneri hero Leonardo. Having worn the red and black for four years from 1997 to 2001, the Brazilian also managed AC as recently as last season before being cast aside by the club's owner and 'Bunga Bunga' patron Silvio Berlusconi despite a credible 3rd place finish.

Surprisingly, Leo then showed up at Inter last December and has since done a half decent job of repairing the damage that Rafa Benitez managed to do to the abovementioned Jose Mourinho's treble winning side of last season.

The was to be no dramatic homecoming for Leonardo as Milan ran out 3-0 winners with a brace from Alexandre Pato and an Antonio Cassano penalty to ice the cake. The win opened up a 5 point gap between the sides. However, their overall lead was cut down to three by the time the weekend was out after a swashbuckling Napoli side climbed up into second place following their epic 4-3 win over early season pacesetters Lazio in what was one of the games of the season in ANY league.

Uruguayan Striker Edison Cavani's hat-trick will have Neapolitans reminiscing about a previous South American import in the form of one Diego Armando Maradona.

Ok, he might not be the next drug-fueled lunatic with the gift of being one of the greatest players of all time but if they end up lifting their first Serie A title since those crazy days of the late 1980s then Cavani could well be held in similar high regard to El Diego given his contribution to their lofty position. His 25 league goals so far this campaign is already a record haul for any striker over a season in the history of the club.

With just eight games left, many will be hoping that Napoli can continue to push for top spot and that Inter can bounce back (although their Champions League humiliation would suggest that their powers of recovery are about as swift as a leprosy sufferer...) to make at least one championship race across Europe vaguely worth paying attention to in these closing weeks of the season...

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Wayne 'Rude boy' Rooney: Weekend Obvservations 2nd-3rd April 2011: Part One

Last time around I sat here and briefly bemoaned the fact that the Premier League title race had become about as exciting as a three hour lecture by Alan Shearer on twigs! A cocktail of sedatives and a box set of Gardener’s World couldn't induce sleep any more effectively that watching Manchester United saunter there way to their 12th League title in 19 seasons while their supposed challengers display all the consistency of prison porridge.

This past weekend saw the reds show their supposed title-winning credentials with a remarkable 4-2 win at West Ham despite being 2-0 down at half time. A feat that would otherwise have looked quite impressive had United not already made similar comebacks time and time again.

The main talking point from the match however came when human Rottweiler and future sociopath case study Wayne Rooney celebrated his highly impressive hat trick by trying to pick a fight with a TV camera and launching into a needlessly aggressive, sweary tirade seen by millions of people the world over. The fallout has seen the scouser censured by the authorities and facing a short term ban.

Much has been made of the incident with some choosing to condemn and others, quite unbelievably, defending Rooney. It boggles the mind how some people choose to reason. As it was 'emotional' and in the 'heat of the moment' that apparently makes it OK? Really? I wonder how many murderers can get away with the same defence....

Of course, Rooney isn't the first, last or only player to swear on the pitch. Yes, players are often caught on camera blurting out all kinds of obscenities - Let's face it, the United striker is no stranger to this - but how often do they actively go over and seek out the camera and start going all Malcolm Tucker in the way Rooney did? This unique situation differs greatly to those other examples and given his previous penchant 'giving it' to officials, this punishment has been a long time coming.

Rooney is actually quite calm in his celebration before actively shoving his horrible snarling mug into the camera lens. Having scored a hat trick and seemingly propelled his team to a record breaking 19th title, was there any need for him to fly off the handle? The rage and anger in his face would lead the amateur psychologist to suggest that maybe young Wayne actually has something of a screw loose. His demeanour was no different to that of the rowdy street thugs that rampage around city centres up and down the country every Friday and Saturday night after getting kicked out of Weatherspoons. Stick a Ben Sherman shirt on him and WKD Blue in his hand and he matches the photofit for at least half a dozen patrons of the Ice Wharf on Camden Lock. The only difference is that at least they have the excuse of sweet, sweet alcohol for their behaviour.

It’s a weak argument to try and excuse Rooney. Of course, given he was at Upton Park, I very much doubt he was the only person in the ground to utter the 'F' word that afternoon. People mouth off all the time at football. I’m not adverse to a good swear while watching a match as my poor mother would testify but does that make it right? What about racism and hooliganism? Just because they "happen all the time", doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Apparently, some racist abuse was said to take place during the same game and should the culprits be found and punished (as they should) then so should Rooney 100%.

Forget the role model argument. I wholeheartedly agree that footballers aren't there to be role models. If you look to the likes of Rooney as an example of how live your life then something is seriously wrong with you. But how about a simple case of taste and decency? We all know that swearing causes offence to certain people so there is no way his actions can be justified. If he dropped his kegs and started playing with himself, would his same defenders say it was acceptable because it was in the 'heat of the moment'?

Imagine if this was Joey Barton? They would probably have brought back hanging by now. For too long people just shrugged off Rooney's actions chalking it up to the enthusiasm of youth. But he is no longer an excitable young boy. Just a few weeks ago he got away with a deliberate elbow in a game at Wigan so last Saturday can hardly be labeled an isolated incident. His failure to 'grow up' has seen him suffer his worst season as a professional and for my money, he's only going to get worse from this point onwards. The fact he clearly isn't learning from his mistakes and is only going to be a detriment to his career.

Rooney's potty mouth aside, draws for Arsenal and Chelsea mean that, even with 8 games left, United are effectively champions in all but name. Despite the reds still having to play both their main rivals, it's unlikely that either the Gunners or the Blues will be able to go the rest of the campaign without dropping further points.

City's emphatic victory over Sunderland have the blue half of Manchester still thinking "maybe" but in truth, any earlier suggestions that this season's title race could actually be something of a competition with as many as 5 teams 'in with a shout' have gone up in smoke faster than a Japanese nuclear power plant.

Despite being far from their best for much of the campaign, despite ongoing problems with injuries and despite even on a few occasions being unable to field anyone better than John O'Shea, Sir Alex Ferguson's men have mastered the art of still being able to win matches even when things aren't going their way and at the risk of labouring a point that everyone in the country has already made time and time again; that is the hallmark of champions. A point I'll no doubt be repeating over the coming weeks if I can at all be bothered.

Part Two to follow