Sunday, 21 August 2011

Liv-ing Dangerously - Weekend Observations 20th-23rd August: Part One

The big game on Saturday saw Liverpool travel down to London and come away from an away game with Arsenal taking 3 points for the first time since Methuselah had acne and starting noticing girls. Given the shape of the two sides going into the match at the Emirates, the reds' 2-0 victory was in actual fact one of the least surprising results of the weekend.

The Gunners were once again ravaged with injury and matters were made worse in the first 15 minutes when Laurent Koscielny limped off and confirmed my suspicions that during the week, Arsenal players don't actually do any training. The Frenchman looked to have sustained a back injury. Add that to the hamstring afflictions that sidelined both Keiran Gibbs and Johan Djourou as well as Tomas Rosicky's 'knock' following the narrow 1-0 win over Udinese in midweek and you have a club that can no longer blame 'bad luck' for their problems. Such persistent problems point to fundamental flaws at the club. Arsene Wenger has whinged about injuries undermining Arsenal for a number of years now but from the outside looking in, it would appear that lessons still haven't been learned. It's as though the medical team is run by Harold Shipman.

Koscielny's withdrawal meant a debut for 18 year old Ignasi Miquel. The Arse had already been forced to hand first starts to Emmanuel Frimpong and Carl Jenkinson, both 19, which makes you wonder if we will eventually see an unborn foetus lining up on the left wing before the season is out (Let's face it, an embryo would actually be better than Andrei Arshavin right now...).

Quite simply, it should NEVER get to such a state at any top club with aspirations of success where they are forced to play so many rookies in only their second league game of the season. Rumours that next season's kit suppliers will be Pampers have been dismissed as gross exaggeration. This team is was so young that the wet surface at the weekend was said to be 30% rain and 70% afterbirth. Naturally, this inexperience was to be their undoing as Frimpong picked up the three thousand four hundred and seventy-sixth Arsenal red card under Wenger's management [citation needed], while Miquel and Aaron Ramsey, 20, conspired to score one the most comical own goals this side of Frank Sinclair. Substitute Luis Suarez soon made it two to send the scousers home happy.

This game taught us nothing about Arsenal. The team is in undoubtedly in a state of freefall and need to address their problems sharpish or else, like Tara Reid, the damage may well prove irreparable.

Liverpool may well be encouraged by the scoreline but in truth, it flattered them. Nothing in their performance suggested they will be anywhere near a title challenge this season. This simple fact of the matter is that any team worth their salt should be beating the depleted imitation of a football team that Arsenal put out. The reds needed the helping hand in the form of a red card and an own goal to send them on their way. Suarez was clearly offside in the build up to the second as well. Eleven v eleven they offered nothing and were it not for these mitigating factors, they wouldn't have won the game. This gifted win doesn't disguise the fact that they looked second rate against a crap side.

So much hype has surrounded the players brought in by Kenny Dalglish but it would be disingenuous to even feign satisfaction with their performances. Stuart Downing got very little joy against the rookie Jenkinson while you would forgiven for thinking Charlie Adam had been huffing paint in the changing rooms pre-match such was the wayward inaccuracy of his “passing” (inverted commas mandatory). Jordan Henderson's impression of a professional footballer was so bad it was almost funny. The youngster must have had it in his head he was actually playing for Arsenal given his ineffectiveness for the Reds and seeming generosity towards anyone in a red shirt.

This was about the easiest match Liverpool could have asked for and they still laboured to victory. I imagine that anyone who thought this was anything near a decent performance still probably believes in the tooth fairy too. But then again, never underestimate the power of a Liverpool fan's delusion.

Equally unimpressive, and providing no evidence to suggest this will be nothing other than a two horse race for title between the Manchester clubs, were Chelsea who scraped a 2-1 win at home to West Brom. The Baggies have acquitted themselves well in their opening two games and were unfortunate, like last week against Man United, to come away from West London with nothing. Wearing a red change kit that resembled that of the British and Irish Lions, Woy's team played with a similar amount of heart as their egg-chasing doppelgängers. Shane Long gave them an early lead after a mistake by Alex and such was their control, Andre Villas Boas was forced into a early change as Florent Malouda replaced Solomon Kalou after just 34 minutes. Given that the Frenchman went on to score the winning goal, you have to say the new Chelsea gaffer actually earned his corn with that decision. Before that however, the Blues were extremely fortunate to draw level. There was little wrong with Nicolas Anelka's narrow-angled finish but there is certainly an argument that the ref ought to have stopped play to book Frank Lampard for a dive in the build up that would have made Tom Daley proud. Given that he was guilty of something similar against Stoke last week, one would hope people will start Lamp-basting 'Fwank' in the same way as foreign culprits. Somehow I doubt it.

In the Northeast, Sunderland and Newcastle were doing their very best to replicate a typical night out in the region in a game that featured the most needlessly aggressive, ill-tempered, borderline criminal acts of violence you are likely to see outside of the recent rioting across the country. The game itself was settled by a Ryan Taylor free kick as Newcastle beat their rivals 1-0 but the result doesn't even begin to tell the story of the game.

Of course, we all get the fact that local derbies are supposed to be highly charged affairs but that doesn't excuse some of the behaviour at the stadium of light.

Not for the first time, a game officiated by Howard Webb was allowed to get out of hand because he 'allows the game to flow'. As I'm sure I've said here before, there's a fine line between not being a card happy militant and bottling big decisions. Webb, in my eyes, is afraid to court controversy and would rather let misdemeanours go unpunished than make a decision that would change the complexion of the game. Yes, he did eventually send off Phil Bardsley for one of the worst tackles you ever see anywhere but not before allowing Yohan Cabaye and the mind-bogglingly awful Lee Catermole to get away with similarly bad challenges. If he laid down the law early on then maybe the encounter wouldn't have descended into the farce that it did.

Webb also missed one of the most blatant acts of cheating by Seb Larsson who handled a goal bound Joey Barton effort off the line and the proceeded to try and tell the officials that the ball hit his face. Some would call it Karmic retribution after Barton's own cheating last week. How do you like them apples?

The Roberto Martinez derby between former club Swansea and current club Wigan finished goalless but based on the highlights looked a far more entertaining match than either of the televised games on the day. I won't waste any time patronising the Swans with the kind of regurgitated clichés about how they like to “get the ball down and play” (copyright Mark Lawrenson) as I'm sure you can find such laboured reportage elsewhere. Wigan could have taken the spoils when Ben Watson was given a chance from the spot in the second half but the Welsh side's new keeper Michel Vorm was equal to it. The big Dutchman has had an impressive start to his Premier League career - Certainly more so than a certain Spanish stopper over in Salford. A strange conclusion to draw given he was on the receiving end of a 4 goal hammering on his debut last Monday. Anyone who saw the game however would know that Vorm performed some minor heroics to keep the scoreline in single figures. There is no doubt whatsoever that Swansea will be involved in a relegation battle but if the form of their new man between the sticks can continue, then, like this week, more precious points could be preserved as the season goes on.

Comedy club Blackburn were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa. It says a lot about the dire straits Rovers find themselves in that an Alex McLeish team was able to score three goals in match and that the usually conservative Scotsman was bold enough to deploy three strikers – all of whom scored. That's two defeats out of two for Steve Kean. It's almost enough to drive one to drink....

Shock result of the weekend came at Goodison Park as penny-pinching paupers Everton were beaten 1-0 by newly promoted, but not very good Queen's Park Rangers. The goal was scored by Tommy Smith following an error by Phil Jagielka that should make him a shoe-in for the Arsenal defence he was rumoured to be joining. While the outcome was unexpected, it just seems to follow the same narrative we've been used to from The Toffees for many a year now. A poor start usually followed by a good run midseason and a fairly strong latter half of the campaign rightfully finishing in the top seven. Considering they have kept the core of their squad this summer, there is little to suggest that this same scenario will not pan out in exactly the same way.

As for Rangers, there was always the fear after the opening day massacre at Loftus Road last week that they could struggle badly in the top flight and run the risk of sinking without trace. You could imagine Neil Warnock crying himself to sleep every night at the prospect of having to go to Anfield, Stamford Bridge etc having to rely on the likes of Fitz Hall and Bradley Orr. Since that day however, things have gone horribly right as Malaysian bigwig Tony Fernandes bought 66% of the club made all kinds of noises about investment and the like. In the week or so remaining before the transfer window shuts, you imagine Big Tone will open his wallet and bring in some useful reinforcements. A good week for the hoops was capped off with Smith's winner on Merseyside meaning they are currently not the worst London team in the League.

That 'honour' belongs to the abovementioned Arsenal at present.

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Monday, 15 August 2011

Serg-ing Forward - Weekened Observations 14th-15th August 2011

A tale of three former Atletico Madrid players...

Well, I hate to say I told you so, didn't I? I'm pretty sure Sergio Aguero hasn't even unpacked his bags yet but in just a brief second half cameo at Eastlands on Monday, the little Argentine was already looking more at home in Manchester than half the cast of Coronation Street. 'Kun' was instrumental in Manchester City's comprehensive 4-0 win over Swansea helping himself to 2 goals and an assist as his 'welcome' to the Premier League proved to be far more fruitful than that of the Welsh side - his second goal in particular a thing of sheer erection-inspiring beauty.

Aguero not only made a mockery of the fabled 'settling in period' often said to be required by overseas players. He pretty much took the notion, doused it in petrol, attached a stick of dynamite & half-volleyed it straight into Mount Vesuvius. Very few debuts - as a substitute no less - have been more impressive. All of a sudden 38 million quid doesn't look so expensive.

Even people who had seen how good he was in Spain would be surprised at this instantaneous impact on English football. Needless to say he has not set the bar at near stratospheric levels. The expectation for repeat performances will be sky high. The sound of thousands of rattling keyboards up and down the country of people adding Aguero to the their fantasy football teams was probably about as loud as the cheers that greeted his stupendous long range strike.

It would be wise to stay grounded however. In the same way everyone is creaming over this performance, the criticisms will come in just as fast if he fails to repeat the heroics.

With all due respect to Swansea, this is a team many will be expecting to get relegated and we clearly tiring when Aguero was introduced. There's no sense in going too overboard here as many tougher tests will undoubtedly present themselves over the coming weeks/months. That said, there is little suggest that the little Argentine isn't up to the task.

Aguero aside, the multi-millionaires looked a great deal more like a team that has their eye on big prizes this season. Roberto Mancini certainly seems to have adopted a far more expansive approach than that which saw him labeled as 'negative' for much of last year. David Silva seemed to be at the heart of everything good City could conjure in an attacking sense while Yaya Toure's domination of the midfield actually looked quite frightening at times. Even Edin Dzeko looked lively and was duly rewarded with a goal for his efforts.

Again, it's hard to draw massive conclusions given they were playing a team with about as much Premier League experience as The Renford Rejects but there is no question that City have the best squad in the league. I see no reason at all why they shouldn't push United all the way in this season's title race.

Speaking of whom, the reds started their march towards a 20th Premier League crown on Sunday albeit with an unconvincing 2-1 away win at West Brom. I'm not sure how many times you can sit there and say "they weren't at their best, but they got the result". Remarkably, the champions scored twice despite only mustering one shot on goal. When a team underperforms you anticipate that one day they will eventually come unstuck. Not United. It almost seems as though winning without playing well is actually a deliberate tactic. I won't reel out the cliches about having a winning mentality because you can read about that elsewhere but it's difficult to deny the accuracy of this assessment. The worry again is how good will they be once again when they start playing well.

The match at the Hawthorns was a tale of two new signings. Ashley Young has slotted right into the United team. The former Villa man first assisted Wayne Rooney before forcing Steven Reid into conceding a crucial own goal that proved to be the winner. At the other end, David de Gea was busy doing his best Massimo Taibi impression as he allowed Baggies debutant Shane Long to score after allowing a shot to squirm under his body. Naturally this, along with his hairy moments in the Community Shield last week, has led to many, many criticisms of the former Atletico keeper with many writing him off already.

An overreaction perhaps? At 20 years old, to have even shown the ability to be considered good enough to start for the top team in the country suggests that he isn't quite the calamity many are already saying he is. Goalkeepers will always make mistakes. Young goalkeepers in particular. There isn't a keeper throughout history that has never dropped a major clanger. Watching the Spaniard last season, there was no doubt in my mind United had signed a great prospect. However, as I say, part of the learning process for young keepers will involve making mistakes and subsequently learning from them. Sir Alex only needs to cast his eye over to his old chum Arsene and the goalie problems at the Emirates to see that.

As such a fragile position, I've always questioned whether big sides with ambitions of winning trophies can ever really afford to take the risk of starting young keepers. Their errors will only serve to undermine any potential challenge. Between the sticks is the one area on the pitch where buying experienced, ready made players is an absolute necessity. If you are intent on nurturing a young keeper, loan moves away are surely the best option. That way he gets game time and crucially, is making the mistakes for someone else. If/when he's ready, then bring him back.

De Gea is clearly a very good goalkeeper but you have to wonder if he will sink or swim at Old Trafford. Between Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar, United have had two of the finest keepers since the inception of the Premier League. The young Spaniard will certainly have to some way before he is considered on equal footing with those two. Let's not forget the long list of failures that came between the Dane and the Dutchman who failed to make the grade. Someone ought to put a photo of Roy Carroll above De Gea's bed as a daily warning.

Also opening their campaign on Sunday were Chelsea whose 0-0 draw with Stoke was about as enjoyable as varicose veins. The game provided almost no noteworthy talking points. The home side provided the typical and expected physical menace that will make the Britannia a tough place to go to for number of away teams. Stoke's home ground is the equivalent of that dodgy pub you always fear going into because there's no guarantee you wont leave without a few shards of glass in your eye. That said, given their own physical prowess, Chelsea were able to stand up to any threat posed. Seeing John Terry and Ryan Shawcross 'marking' each other at set pieces was like watching two Silverback gorillas fighting over a banana.

All the talk beforehand was about new Chelsea manager Andre Villas Boas and what he will bring to this team. On evidence of Sunday, the answer would be very little. The blues were pretty much as they were under Carlo Ancelloti. There was no real difference in their approach. They still went about controlling the game in the same way but lacked anything productive in the final third. Anything they did manage to create, Asmir Begovic in the Stoke goal was equal to.

The much maligned Fernando Torres started ahead of Didier Drogba and actually looked like far more of a player than when he was lumbering around Stamford Bridge at the tail end of last season. The touch that deserted him seems to have returned. His off the ball movement and willingness to actually get involved in the game were all very encouraging but for all his endevour, he still couldn't score and if you spunk £50m on a striker, the least you should expect is for him to stick the ball in the back of the net.

Maybe he ought to watch Sergio Aguero to see how it's done.

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Sunday, 14 August 2011

Weekend Observations - Day One. 13th August 2011

New season, same old stories.

Not for the first time, Joey Barton is the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. If Barton exhales in an open space his CO2 would have enough concentrated rage to start a small fire. When Barton goes for a piss, his urine gets charged with GHB against the sewage systems throughout Britain. His inability to stay out of trouble has become so ridiculous that most people are just fed up with him.

After last season's extraordinary 4-4 draw, how predictable was it that was going to be a tediously dull 0-0 draw? As the snoozefest between Arsenal and Newcastle was drawing to a close, the Gunners' Ivorian summer signing Gervinho made a break into the penalty area and went down. At first look I said 'dive' but consequently replays have been inconclusive. I'm going to plonk my arse firmly on the fence and say that you could make an argument either way. Many people have decided that the apparent trip by Tiote was indeed enough to warrant a spot kick but our very own Shakespearean tragic hero didn't quite see it that way...

Filled with the kind of indignation and rage that would probably cause one to stick a cigar in someones eye or assault someone in McDonalds, Barton raced over to the floored Arsenal man and dragged him to his feet prompting 'handbags' the end result seeing Gervinho sent off after slapping the psychotic scouser. A 'slap' that Barton reacted to be claiming he had been punched and throwing himself to the ground so hard he briefly popped up in Australia. Yes, his reaction to a ‘dive’ was to dive himself and get someone sent off. Irony at it's absolute best/worst.

Earlier in the game, Barton was involved in another moment of controversy when Arsenal's Alex Song appeared to, quite deliberately, tread on the back of the Newcastle man's calf. I'd like to think Song said “tweet this, you mug” or “Song 3:16 says I just kicked your ass!” or something similar. Now, even sat in a Holloway road flat, kissing a signed Ian Selley photo, clutching a Gunnersaurus stuffed toy while watching through the most rose tinted of glasses, there isn't a gooner on the planet who can deny Song was lucky not to be sent off. There is no question about that. I expect retrospective action and a three game ban is not far off. As what was actually the worst offence of the day, this would have been the main talking point and made for a rare occasion where one would actually sympathise with Barton. Sadly, as is his wont, he insisted on being an idiot once more. It's impossible to have any sympathy when the sinned in turn becomes the sinner.

Don't get me wrong, Gervinho deserved to see red. As the laws of the game dictate: “A player is guilty of violent conduct if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball.”

Sadly, in football, what the Arsenal man did somehow constitutes “violent conduct”. I personally don’t think a feeble slap counts as “excessive force or brutality” but then again, I would also like not to think of myself as a total pussy. Rules is rules though and at the end of the day, who am I to argue? But this does not excuse Barton's behaviour. His initial show of aggression was at least as bad as Gervinho's and therefore the punishment should have been the same. The pictures clearly show him almost ripping the shirt off the Ivorian’s back. If the Arsenal man is guilty of “excessive force” then so is Barton. 100%. How he only got away with a yellow is simply scandalous.

What right does he have to think he can take the law into his own hands? He couldn't have inflamed the situation anymore if he doused the entire stadium in kerosene and lit one of his infamous cigars. His shameful play-acting afterwards was an affront to any contact sport you could care to mention let alone football. To then claim a punch was laughable. Especially given his own expertise on what actually constitutes punching.

His teammate Steven Taylor was seen to suggest to the referee that it was an elbow that floored Barton. Yes, THIS Steven Taylor. Not exactly the most credible of witnesses.

Almost as disappointing as the dishonesty and behaviour of the players was the immediate aftermath on ESPN. Rebbecca Lowe had a great opportunity to ask Taylor why he blatantly lied but allowed him to squirm his way out of explaining his act of cheating. How can she expect to be respected as a journalist if she is afraid to ask tough questions? Then there was the post-match analysis. Ray Stubbs was once considered one of the finest broadcasters out there but seems to have reduced himself to nothing more than an antagonistic foghorn by trying to justify Barton's actions because of Song's stamp. Didn't his mother ever tell him that Robbie Savage was predictably tiresome in his own criticisms of Barton when he claimed himself to be “one of the dirtiest players in the history of the Premier League” as if that is something to be proud of or it is some sort of competition.

All in all, not one person involved came out with any credit. I won’t even go into what both managers said. The controversies also deflect talk away from how awful the rest of the match was. After the summer-long wait for the start of the Premier League, this first televised match was about as redundant an 'advert for the game' as inviting David Starkey to the Notting Hill carnival in a couple of weeks. If I was watching this in mortuary, I would expect one of the corpses to punch my in the face for subjecting them to this abuse. Arsenal showed very little to convince those that think this will be the first time under Monsieur Wenger that they wont finish in the coverted Champions League spots that they are wrong.

Before his sending off, Gervinho was the most lively player for the away team who dominated from start to finish. But for all their possession both player and team alike failed to produce anything vaguely resembling end product. Same old Arsenal and all that. The Ivorian now faces a three game ban and with both Nasri and Fabregas standing at the door of the Emirates with their bags packed and waiting for the cab to arrive, Wenger might have to take the advice of travelling gooners who spent much of the second half demanding that their manager “spend some fucking money”. With games against Man Utd and Liverpool to come as well as the crucial two legged Champions League qualifier against Udinese all in the next fortnight, Arsenal's season could be in grave danger of ending before it has even begun.

A final word on the gunners. At the end of the game, the players seemed happy enough to shake hands with Barton. Compare this to the reaction to Ruud van Nistelrooy back in 2003. Not that you can condone what Martin Keown et al did at Old Trafford that day but the contrasting attitudes are telling. That was a strong, determined team who were quite literally prepared to show some fight. It's no surprise that team went on to win the title without losing a game while this side of softies is more than likely going to finish the season empty handed for the seventh successive year.

Newcastle too were poor. Chasing shadows from first minute to last and very much second best on home turf. There were little to no encouraging signs for a team that looks destined to fade into midtable/lower half obscurity. Maybe it was just the sound on my TV but even the so-called best fans in the world seem numbed by the dross Pardew is serving them these days. I'd even go as far as to say another relegation is not unthinkable. You heard it here first!

Elsewhere on the opening day, a number of unremarkable results made us wonder why we've been looking forward to this day for so long. Liverpool, who will be hoping to usurp the likes of Arsenal in the top four didn’t really show a great deal to suggest they will following a 1-1 home draw with Sunderland in a game where both sides featured more new faces than a budget cosmetic surgery (unfortunately none of these new faces belonged to Dirk Kuyt).

The main talking point from the game was whether Kieran Richardson should have stayed on the pitch after fouling the fantastic Luis Suarez early on and conceding a penalty. Again, going back to the old FIFA laws, “denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” is offence punishable by s sending off. However, referees must consider certain circumstances such as “direction of play” and this is where Richardson gets his reprieve. That said, even though Suarez was going “away” from the goal, the fact he was on his way around the keeper and opening up the goal for himself, it was probably still enough of a goal-scoring opportunity for the Sunderland man to see red without much complaint. The law is an ass!

This game also saw the goal of the weekend scored by Sunderland’s new man Seb Larsson. A superb right footed scissor kick volley from inside the area from a Ahmed Elmohamady cross on the right. For all the daft money spent on players these days, it’s remarkable that a free transfer like Larsson can slip under the radar. Very surprised more clubs didn’t look at him.

Alex McLiesh took his Aston Villa side to Fulham and successfully led them to the first of many 0-0 draws in his inevitably unspectacular tenure there. There was more action at White Hart Lane where Spurs v Everton had actually been postponed due to the riots in the area that you may have heard of presuming you don't live on Neptune. Speaking of which, there's been a lot of talk this week about how best to deal with the looters and rioters up and down the country. I reckon a mandatory season ticket at Villa Park this season would be a fitting punishment. I'd rather be waterboarded. Seriously.

To think that almost two years to day, Norwich City were starting their season in League One with a 7-1 home defeat to Colchester. Rather than try and get the U’s manager that day convicted of some form of brutal sexual assault, the Canaries did the next best thing and hired Paul Lambert instead. Two years and two successive promotions later, Norwich kicked off their Premier League campaign with a 1-1 draw at Wigan. Both teams are expected to be in the proverbial relegation dogfight this season so, as absurd as it sounds, this match was still essentially a big six pointer and a chance to lay down something of a marker at that bottom end of the table. A point was probably better for Norwich given they were the away side. Wigan now face other expected strugglers Swansea and QPR in the next couple of weeks. Failure to get results in those games will see them playing catch up very, very early on in the season.

Similarly, Wolves picked up a vital 2-1 win over poultry enthusiasts Blackburn Rovers. McCarthy’s problem last year was the fact that his side could beat the big boys then struggle against the teams around them. This time around I’m sure they would prefer to reverse this pattern and not have to got through another nervy end to the season where they survive by the skin of their teeth. As for Blackburn, if Steve Kean isn’t given a one way ticket out of Lancashire anytime soon, the Venky’s will find themselves in a right clucking state as they plummet straight down to the Championship. Sorry.

Rooted to the bottom after the first day’s play are newly promoted QPR who were thumped 4-0 at home by Bolton. A defence made up of Fitz Hall, Clint Hill, Danny Gabbidon and Bradley Orr might serve you well in the Championship but the top flight is a whole different ball game. Investment is needed at the club, particularly in defence or else Loftus Road’s experience of hosting Premier League football will be a fleeting one. In the least predictable occurrence of the day, Rangers’ new signing Kieron Dyer was stretchered off injured after just 8 minutes. Hard not to feel sorry for him. It must be difficult trying to play sport when your bones are made of polystyrene and your tendons of wet tissue.

More to follow. In the meantime, hit me up on Twitter

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The BIG Questions (or The Laziest Premier League Season Preview Ever - 2011/12l)


Have defensive issues been addressed?

What is up with the badge on the new kits?

How many bottles will Wenger kick this season?

Aston Villa

Is flogging Downing and bringing in N'Zogbia the best bit of business this summer?

Is McLiesh a good appointment?

Will he realise that the Dunne/Collins partnership is awful?


Who is Steve Kean?


How soon before he's sacked?


What will it take to sell out the Reebok?

Could they potentially struggle with no real signings?

Is Owen Coyle going to wear kit shorts and socks on the touchline again this season?


Is he the new Jose?

What if he isn't?

How long will he last?


How much longer will Moyes continue to overachieve without any decent investment in the team?

How important will a fully fit Arteta be?

Will Jermaine Beckford become a 20 goal a season striker this year?


Will Martin Jol finish his unfinished business in London?

With Europe to contend with, can he replicate 'Woy's' 2008/09 campaign?

Will he ever tell us what happened in that last episode of the Sopranos?


Is it their year?

Or will the 'Kenny effect' wear off?

Will they buy me for £20m?

Man City

Can Mancini beat Fergie?

Can this squad stay harmonious enough for a whole season?

What will Super Mario do next?

Man Utd

Can anyone stop them?

How do they still get away with playing Michael Carrick?

Can Fergie beat Pep?


What happened to that 35 million quid, then?

Why is Mike Ashley still there?

What are the odds on another relegation?


Will all the new signings be able to gel quick enough in the Premier League?

How long before Lambert is casting his beady eye at a more high profile job?

Can we expect Delia to serenade us once more?


Will Taraabt be as effective in the top flight?

How long before Warnock using his postmatch presser to moan about literally everything from gridlock on the M25 to the Cher Lloyd?

How can they try and justify charging fans 50 quid a pop to watch a relegation battle in arguably the worst stadium in the division?


How will Europe impact their attempts to build on a great season last time around?

How many matches at the Britania will actually be played on a cold, wet Tuesday night?

At what point will Pulis actually put out an entire team of centre backs?


Is Steve Bruce just stockpiling players?

Does he have a clue about how he will deploy them?

Can he motivate this team to achieve anything beyond midtable obscurity?


Will they be Blackpool or Derby?

Will their bold, attacking philosophy be their downfall?

How many times will they be referred to as 'the first Welsh club' etc. until it becomes so unbearable that I will be tempted to cut my ears off with a bread knife?


Better than Bale?

Will 'arry be able to flog his strikers some "shooting boots"?

How has he literally stayed alive this long without making a signing?


Will 'Woy' have a better start to the season than last time around?

Will Chris Brunt finally get some recognition for being one of the most talented midfielders in the division?

With the (loan) signing of Ben Foster, will the terrible Scott Carson be retired, stuffed into a box and sent to Mars?


How do they keep staying up despite losing key players?

Who will fill the void left by N'Zogbia?

Does Martinez still have his lucky coat?


Seeing as he played for a team that actually went down, will Roger Johnson actually improve the Wolves defence?

Do they still have the capacity to upset the big boys?

How many legs will Karl Henry break this season?


I'll revisit this in May. Possibly.

Final table prediction:

1. Man City
2. Man Utd
3. Liverpool
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham
7. Everton
8. Fulham
9. Sunderland
10. West Brom
11. Stoke
12. Aston Villa
13. Bolton
14. QPR
15. Norwich
16. Newcastle
17. Wolves
18. Wigan
19. Blackburn
20. Swansea


Monday, 1 August 2011

Aguero's Argy Bargy

Just a few short days after it looked very much as though they were about to lose one Argentine striker, Manchester City have actually managed to double their quota of forwards from the South American nation (for now at least...) following last week's big-money transfer of Sergio Aguero from Atletico Madrid.

Unless you have been living under a rock with your eyes tightly shut and your fingers in your ears for the last three years, you would not have failed to notice The Blues’ ascension to the top of the metaphorical spending mountain. This frivolous flashing of cash was a result of the club’s purchase by the Abu Dhabi Group in the summer of 2008. The likes of Robinho, James Milner, Edin Dzeko (but also rather unfortunately Joleyon Lescott) among others have all come in for massive fees. Putting all those in the shade however is the 38 million English pounds spent on Aguero – a new club record.

But what are City actually getting for their money? Well, a tricky little player with great close control, a frightfully quick change of pace/direction and a decent finish to boot – a description not unlike many players from his country and no bad thing at all. A glance over ‘Kun’ Aguero’s career to date makes for impressive reading. At just 9 years old, an age where most of us where still playing with Tonka Trucks and picking our noses for leisure, Aguero was being signed by his boyhood club Independiente before going on to become the youngest player to play in the Argentine Primera Division when he made his debut at the tender age of 15. It took a couple of years for him to establish himself in the first team but once he did, there was no looking back. Two fruitful years with El Rojo generated enough interest from big European clubs to result in a €23m move to the Spanish capital in 2006.

Aguero truly established himself as a top class footballer during his 5 years at Vicente Calderon and was an integral part of the successful 2010 team that won the Europa League as he assisted both Diego Forlan goals in the final against Fulham. Atletico also reached the final of the Copa Del Rey that year where they were defeated by Sevilla and Kun was on the scoresheet as Los Rojiblancos beat Inter Milan in the European Super Cup at the start of the following season.

During this time, Aguero also established himself in the Argentine national side but not before securing the golden boot and winning player of the tournament in the 2007 under-20 World Cup. The accolades kept coming as he was voted 2007 FIFA young player of the year before and an Olympic gold medal followed in Beijing the next summer.

Typically, his ability has seen him, like many Argentinean players before him, compared to the great Diego Maradona who, unsurprisingly, is the benchmark for any talented young striker who dons the famous sky blue and white stripped shirt. Aguero is hardly alone in this regard and is seemingly another to roll down an endless conveyor belt of brilliant attacking players from the country.

It barely needs explaining why the abovementioned Maradona almost stands alone unchallenged at the top of this list. A marvellous month in Mexico (one dodgy handball aside) winning the World Cup in 1986 is almost eclipsed by Ed Diego's incredible impact in Naples shortly afterwards as he inspired little Napoli into their Golden era of the late 80s. Two league titles, an Italian Cup and a UEFA Cup were the sum total of 6 glorious years in Southern Italy.

Never has a number 10 shirt carried so much weight and I don't mean due to his stratospheric waistline after retiring. The controversies involving drug use in the twilight of his playing days may have tarnished him personally but there very little that could take the gloss off of a fine footballing career that still has much of the sporting world thinking of him as the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of boots to chase the leather sphere around a patch of grass.

Maradona was once considered peerless until a young upstart built like an anaemic stick insect burst onto the scene in the form of one Lionel Messi – a player who possesses the kind of skill and trickery only previously considered possible in computer games. Little Leo has nearly done enough already in his short career to establish himself alongside his famed predecessor. Messi has been the fulcrum of the current Barcelona team that has swept the board domestically and in Europe over the last few years breaking all kinds of records both individually and collectively along the way.

Naturally, the inevitable but ultimately futile ‘who’s better?’ question is already the staple of pub conversations, internet forums and radio phone ins. Maradona sympathisers will argue that was able to achieve “more with less” in terms of what he had to work with. It's all well and good shining in a team of stars but perhaps a truer measure of individual talent is when your ability is able to lift lesser players to dizzy heights mentioned above.

However, in Messi's favour is the fact that he is still, with frightening regularity, able to look head and shoulders above everyone else despite being surrounded by some of the finest players in the game right now. Any player that can make all of Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and David Villa ever look like somewhat lesser players deserves all the praise he gets.

Beyond the endless/pointless and debate as to who was/is the better player, Argentina has produced a number of strikers who would fall into that oft undefined category we all love to use as football fans; “World Class”.

Few of us of the Channel 4 Football Italia generation of the 1990s could ever forget the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta who made scoring goals in Serie A, firstly for Fiorentina then Roma, look like the easiest thing in the world. 'Batigol' seemed to find the perfect state of equilibrium in his shooting as power and accuracy worked together in perfect sync. Also a fine header of the ball, he was easily one of the most complete finishers of all time. Batistuta has more goal scoring awards and records than one has space to mention here including, quite ludicrously, the rare achievement of scoring more goals than games played while in Qutar at the end of his career. Currently the national team's all-time top scorer with 56, it looks unlikely anyone is likely to take that crown from atop his flowing mane in the foreseeable future.

The closest player to Batistuta on that list with 35 is Hernan Crespo whose ability to find the net at Parma caused Lazio to fork a then world record £35 million for him. A career blighted by injuries didn't prevent him from being regarded as one of the most prolific strikers of a generation. It's fair to say that Chelsea fans never saw the best of him but his 25 goals for The Blues in two seasons was hardly a shabby return considering how much the likes of Andrei Shevchenko and more recently, Fernando Torres have struggled at the Bridge.

An Argentine who hasn't struggled in England is Carlos Tevez. Like Maradona before him, Carlitos seems to make as many headlines off the pitch as he does on it – although it much be pointed that the respective controversies of two players differ vastly. Stroppiness and questionable third party involvement aside, Tevez has managed to establish himself as one of the finest strikers to grace the Premier League in recent years. A rare beast who has found a way to balance flair and creativity with something we here in Britain seem to love; tenacity and hard work. As West Ham, Manchester United and City can attest, he is an integral part of any team he represents.

Further afield, the frightfully consistent Gonzalo Higuian has been gobbling up goals like Pac Man for Real Madrid over the last three years meanwhile over in Italy, Diego Milito's goalscoring feats made him a hero at Genoa over two spells at the club. Having been rewarded with a move to Inter Milan, Milito blitzed through his first season culminating with both goals in a 2-0 win for the Nerrezurri in the 2010 Champions League final.

Producing great front men is hardly a new trend either. The highly rated national team of the 1960s considered themselves as good as any in the world. However, their shock failure to qualify for the for Mexico 1970 meant that the legendary Luis Artime was never really able to showcase his talent on the world stage while at his peak and build on his three goals during the 1996 tournament. Nicknamed “La Fiera” (the beast), Artime did finish top scorer in the 1967 South American championship and ended his international career with an incredible 24 goals from a mere 25 games. At club level, he won a number of titles and was seemingly hell bent on collecting top scorer awards – 4 in Argentina, 3 in Uruguay, 1 in the Copa Liberatadores – like they were Pokemon cards.

Fewer things endear a player to an entire nation more than scoring in a World Cup final on home soil – apparently having a stadium named after you is a pretty big deal – but even by the time Mario Kempes scored a brace to win Argentina the trophy for the first time in 1978, he was already revered in Spain having won consecutive golden boot awards in La Liga for Valencia.

The South Americans have also had a great tradition of producing fantastic playmaker forwards particularly over the last two decades. The likes of Claudio Lopez, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme and Ariel Ortega to name a few have all achieved some measure of success in Europe.

With such an an embarrassment of riches, I struggle to think of another nation that has produced so many quality forward players down the years with perhaps the exception of their neighbours Brazil and maybe the Dutch.

However, this constant stream of attacking talent cannot seem to arrest the constant and often inexplicable failure at major tournaments. Despite being in good shape on both occasions, Argentina have fallen to Germany in quarter finals of the last two World Cups including last year’s humiliating 4-0 thumping in Cape Town.

The last time they won the Copa America was in 1993. At the time it was a record breaking 14th title but Uruguay’s comprehensive victory over Paraguay in Argentina last week secured them a 15th crown thus surpassing their rivals.

Given the fact this most recent tournament was on home soil, expectation would obviously have been through the roof so failure against the eventual winners on penalties in the quarter final was nothing short of an embarrassment. City's new man was a part of this shambles but was one of the few to come out with any credit as he was the team's top scorer with three goals.

However, at the risk of resorting to cliché, the Premier League is an entirely different ball game. Our friends from South America haven't always had the best of times here in Blighty. An Argentine omitted from the above list is Juan Sebastian Veron. Once considered one of the most intelligent footballers in the world, 'Seba' was known for his sublime touch, fantastic range of passing and vision that would put Specsavers out of business. Yet, having failed to find a suitable role in a Manchester United midfield that already featured Paul Scholes and Roy Keane coupled with numerous injury problems after moving to Chelsea, Veron is sadly labelled as a flop whenever someone over here mentions his name - despite his achievements elsewhere.

Even for all he has done on the pitch, Carlos Tevez' is unlikely to get the job as minister for tourism in Manchester when retires from the game. His desire to leave is due to the fact he has never really settled in the city or to the English lifestyle. An affliction that also saw Javier Mascherano high tail it to Barcelona from Liverpool at the first given opportunity. Don't even get me started on Wigan's uberflop Mauro Boselli...

At 23, Aguero is still in the relative infancy of his career. Of course, there is no way of predicting whether the stocky little lad from Quilmes will sink or swim in England but City fans will be praying that he can settle and continue to develop at the same rate he has over the last decade or so. The expectation will be that Aguero could and should be a key component for any imminent Blues success. Given his talent and all he has achieved to date, there is little reason to doubt that this will be the case. If he does indeed help the club usurp their crosstown rivals not just for the Premier League but for all other top honours as well, then you imagine that he will be justifiably spoken of in the same breath as the greats of Argentine football.

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