Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Charlie Big Potatoes - The Tevez Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Mor joy for Norwich - Weekend Observations 24th-26th Sept 2011: Part Two

Part One here

Monday night saw Norwich welcome a Sunderland team managed by one of their former legends in Steve Bruce. Apparently, many moons ago, Bruce scored an own goal 30 seconds into his Norwich career. Despite some 140 odd appearances, a league cup, promotion and club captaincy, Bruce probably still feels he needs to make amends to the club for his horror debut. I mean, how else could you explain him starting with a defence consisting of Titus Bramble, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Keiran Richardson? That backline should be mightily relieved this game only finished 2-1 to the home side.

The last time the Norfolk side were in the top flight I was sharing a house with two of their fans so naturally I was quite clued about the goings on at Carrow Road and fairly familiar with their team. Less so these days. Particularly after manager Paul Lambert's transfer tourettes this summer.

I can't imagine there are many people who could tell you much about new striker Steve Morison who scored what turned out to be the winner. Morison is one of those true rags to riches stories we all like. Having spent a great chunk of the noughties in non-league football, he finally got a big move to Millwall in 2009 before a £2m transfer to East Anglia this summer. Now scoring goals at Premier League level, such a feat would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Judging him solely on this game, it must be said that he didn't look half bad, constantly terrorising the abovementioned Bramble on a number of occasions. Morison also scored a first international goal for Wales a few weeks back. Not bad for a player who was actually playing part time little over 5 years ago.

The last time Norwich were in the top flight we were also subjected to this...

...thankfully, there was no need this time around.

Despite the win, I still expect the Canaries to struggle. However, this match may have told us that Sunderland are likely to join them in the proverbial dogfight. Having been given the backing to recruit a number of new players in the summer, one would think the Sunderland board musy be putting pressure on Bruce to deliver. Something he is quite clearly failing to do. Rumours about his potential sacking might not be as far fetched as we might have thought a few weeks back.

On the theme of supposedly under fire managers, a peculiar thing happened this weekend. Arsenal played a football match that didn't result in cries of “crisis”, questioning of Arsene Wenger and broken crest images in every tabloid sports publication. If for only a few days, the football media will not be dominated by the gooners and their apparent demise following a pretty easy looking 3-0 win over Bolton. Key man Robin van Persie's brace meant he joined the Arsenal centurions club with his 99th and hundredth goals. While 2011 has been something of a shambles for the club, the Dutchman has excelled and alerted anybody that may have doubted him after his numerous injury troubles.

That said, there have been mutterings about his future at the club. With less than two years left on his current contract Arsenal fans the world over will be hoping the board start waving a juicy new deal under his nose to stop him looking elsewhere. The player himself hasn't exactly been forthright in his enthusiasm to stay and parallels with the Samir Nasri situation are unavoidable. Given the frequency with which Arsenal haemorrhage top class players, it is not difficult to conceive that the Europe's top clubs will be sniffing around N5 like vultures to pluck van Persie from his Emirates nest - especially with the highly possible scenario of the gunners missing out on Champions League qualification next season.

Van Persie opened the scoring with a neat near post finish before drifting in the box to convert Theo Walcott's centre. Alex Song wrapped up the points with a well struck third that would put certain other players in his team to shame.

It has gone somewhat unnoticed that Bolton are currently in a state of freefall. After their emphatic opening day victory at QPR, the Trotters seem to have tied lead weights to their ankles and jumped straight into the Irish Sea having lost every league game since. Owen Coyle is constantly praised as a good manager – some people have even, quite bizarrely, suggested him as the man to take over at the Emirates if Wenger is to leave his post – but for my money needs to prove himself by getting this 'not awful' Bolton side out of their current funk. Don't worry though. Only Chelsea next week...

The fact Arsenal didn't concede any goals that would win academy awards for comedy, talks of defensive coaches and 'proper' signings can be filed away. For this week at least. Next Sunday they go to White Hart Lane for the Siete Hermanas Classico in the rare position as underdogs. As much as people speak of Arsenal's slump in recent years, the most galling thing for Islington residents would be the fact that the previously hapless neighbours have been steadily moving in the opposite direction.

There's no greater sign of this upward mobility than the fact that two of the last four league meetings have gone the way of the Lilliwhites following a run of ten years without a single win in this fixture. Just a few years ago, when Arsenal where breaking records like plates at a Greek wedding, the idea of Tottenham in the Champions League would have been unthinkable. Not only did Spurs get further than their rivals in the competition last season, but right now I would doubt there is a single person either side of the North London divide that would even be remotely surprised to see 'Arry Redknapp's team muscle Wenger's team out of those coveted top four places.

After a shaky start to the season, Tottenham are looking ominously menacing as they ascend the league table. This weekend, they faced a potential banana skin at Wigan where previous incarnations of Spurs would not be have come away with the three points. Things have changed. Two of the team's star performers last season, Rafael Van der Vaart and Garath Bale got the goals in a valuable 2-1 win.

Luka Modric continued his faux 'redemption' or whatever with an assist for Bale's header while Emmanuel Adebayor further endeared himself to the Spurs faithful with an assist for the Dutch forward's opener. Is there a more certain outcome in football than the Togolese striker piling the misery on his former club by scoring next Sunday? Bet literally everything you have on it. Everything!

It was a tale of three penalties at Loftus Road as Neil Warnock was left fuming as pubescent referee Michael Oliver not only awarded a soft penalty to Aston Villa but failed to spot not one, but TWO handballs by Alan Hutton as the Villians rode their luck in the second half of a 1-1 draw on Sunday.

The spot kick that was awarded came as Armand Traore was deemed to have tugged the shirt of Gabriel Agbonlahor. In fairness, the benefit of replays showed that Oliver was right but he would have to have had supersonic vision (is that a thing? I'm saying it's a thing) to see it. The Sky commentators, as well as Warnock himself, made the point that when the supposed infringement took place, neither the Villa fans behind the goal, nor the Villa players appealed for a foul. That said, however 'soft' it may have been, if you tug someone's shirt, it's a foul and if you do it in the area, it is therefore a penalty. Don't really see why there was so much debate.

At the other end, Hutton, someone many are yet to be convinced is a competent outfield player, proved himself to be almost a better goalkeeper than Shay Given as he escaped two appeals for handball – the first potentially preventing a QPR goal. Typically, Neil Warnock showed his class by bleating away in TWO post match interviews on Sky. Have to say, listening to him go on and on makes it difficult to have a great deal of sympathy.

Justice was achieved in stoppage time however as a Richard Dunne own goal meant the points were shared. Amusingly, Gary Neville had just named Dunne, a defender I've never understood the hype around, as Man of the Match. That should teach broadcasters about making such premature announcements before the final whistle. This was also Richard Dunne's 314th career own goal or something, putting him ahead at the top of this unwanted scoring chart.

A draw was probably a fair result. QPR huffed and puffed but lacked any sort of cutting edge. Jay Bothroyd is unfortunately not a Premier League striker and the longer they rely on him as the spearhead of their attack, goals are going to continue to be hard to come by.

Alex McLiesh's team took 45 minutes to come alive and eventually made something of a game of it having been completely anonymous before half time. In similar vein to Pardew as I mentioned in part one, it's a minor miracle the former Birmingham manager has been able to keep Villa unbeaten after the loss of key players in the summer. That said, their approach isn't pretty and but on the whole they are horrible to watch. But for the controversy, this game would have yielded no talking points at all. Not sure how many people, Villa fans included, will be tuning in when they are on TV again.

Interestingly, no QPR player has scored a goal at their home ground this season. Superhoops fans will thanking their lucky stars that Tony Fernandes came in and torpedoed the outrageous ticket price rises put in by the previous owners because charing upwards of 70 quid a game to watch Rangers at present would probably see the club guilty of the kind of daylight robbery not unfamiliar to the local residents in the Shepherd's Bush area.

Finally, West Brom, with former Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, took on a Fulham side managed by former West Brom player Martin Jol in a game between two adventurous sides with suspect defences. The kind of game that would promise goals, right? Right??? Wrong.

Get your Tweets out for the lads!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Fernan-D'OH! Weekend Observations 24th-26th September 2011: Part One

That Fernando Torres loves being centre of attention, doesn't he? Clint Eastwood may well sue the Spaniard for copyright infringement after the edited highlights of his past two games could well be compiled into a feature film that we could call The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. After all that happened at Old Trafford last weekend, one would think the former Liverpool man would endure a less eventful match in the more tranquil setting of Stamford Bridge and a home game against relegation fodder Swansea City. Despite the horrific finishing, the signs were evident against Manchester United that Nando was getting his proverbial mojo back. So it proved early on against the Swans as the £50million man received a delightful dinked pass from Juan Mata, brought the ball down, twisted like a he was dancing the Fandango and slotted it beyond his marker and Michel Vorm in goal.

If that was the good, and last week's sitter was the bad then the ugly was soon to follow. Two goals in two games should indicate something of a return to form. Unfortunately, he won't be able to continue this as later on in the half, Torres needlessly went flying into a two-footed tackle on Mark Gower earning himself a red card and a three game ban. Oops!

Brazilian Ramires, another Chelsea player guilty of unforgivable profligacy at Old Trafford, redeemed himself somewhat with a brace in the 4-1 win including a special double nutmeg with the shot for his first. One man who might not be too upset by Torres' imminent absence will be the returning Didier Drogba who iced the Chelsea cake with the fourth in the last minute.

A subplot in this narrative was the exclusion of Frank Lampard who was an unused substitute. After his non-existent performance against United last week (Old? Slow???) and Mr Villas-Boas clearly looking to build his own team, it wouldn't be outrageous to suggest, much to the happiness of the canteen staff, that Lumpy's days at Stamford Bridge could well be numbered. You heard it here first.

Chelsea are now 3 points behind the two Manchester Clubs at the top of the table. City ascended to the summit momentarily after a fairly straightforward 2-0 win over Everton where Tim Cahill was unable to continue his good form against the Eastlands club after being nobbled by Vincent Kompany in the second half. To be fair, you could quite easily argue that the Aussie was the aggressor with a pretty reckless tackle and that Kompany was simply trying to shield the ball. Had Cahill not gone to ground needlessly, he certainly wouldn't have been on the receiving end of any perceived stamp, intentional or otherwise, by the big Belgian.

Super Mario Balotelli scored his second goal in a week by way of a deflection off Phil Jagielka which makes me wonder yet again if he would have really been much of an improvement to the Arsenal defence he was rumoured to be joining over the summer. City's second via James Milner owed much to beauty of the assist by David Silva who must be cursing his luck that he was born in an era where he has to compete with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas for a place in the Spanish starting line up.

Crosstown rivals United regained first place despite dropping their first points of the season in a 1-1 draw at the Octagon... sorry, Britannia Stadium against Stoke City (U)FC. Peter Crouch cancelled out Luis Nani's brilliant opening goal in a game where United may have considered themselves victims of Stoke's typically heavy-handed approach (Chicharito and Patrice Evra will certainly be sporting a few more bruises after their trip to Staffordshire).

Stoke have been known to push the boundaries of what is acceptable on a football pitch but it would be lazy and unfair to ignore the fact that they gave a fairly decent account from themselves football-wise and responded well from the pasting they got against Sunderland last week. The abovementioned Crouch was a handful for both Phil Jones and, more worryingly for the Reds, Rio Ferdinand whose powers very much appear to be on the wane with each passing absence through injury. Thankfully for SurAlex, David De Gea once again showed his critics how premature they were to write him off so early in his United career with a few decent stops to preserve the point for the champions.

Completing the current top four are Newcastle. A Demba Ba hat trick in the 3-1 win over Blackburn left most of us scratching our heads as to how a team consisting of Leon Best, Peter Lovenkrands, Shola Ameobi, Ryan and Steven Taylor is still unbeaten so far this season. Dare I say, for what he has achieved thus far and considering the players that high-tailed it out of St. James' over the summer, Alan Pardew has probably been manager of the season so far. Now, excuse me while I go and watch my mouth out with soap.

Someone who probably doesn't even qualify as a manager at all was Pardew's opposite number at the weekend Steve Kean. The Blackburn boss can count his lucky stars to have faced a self-destructive Arsenal team that seemed insistent on beating themselves last week or else his side would be rooted to the foot of the table and he would more than likely be collecting his dole money this week.

are back up to fifth after arresting their recent mini-slide with a 2-1 home win over Wolves in a game of contrasting fortunes for their two big January signings. The irrepressible Luis Suarez made a mockery of the Wolves defence scoring what proved to be the winner while the world's most expensive lamppost Andy Carroll continued to struggle. It's not his fault he cost so much money and he may yet come good eventually, but right now, the big Geordie just looks like an inconvenience on the pitch who is getting in the way of his more talented teammates. Kenny Dalglish was once again forced to come out and defend his record signing but you have to ask yourself if it's a case of the 'laddie' doth protest too much?


Part Two to follow

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Monday, 19 September 2011

Torr-id Times: Man Utd v Chelsea Observations - 18th September 2011

Rarely am I left speechless by something I see on the football pitch but it is actually difficult to put into words what we saw at Old Trafford on Sunday. Of course, I'm referring to that astonishing miss by a certain £50 million striker. For the only person on planet earth who hasn't seen it yet, during the second half of Manchester United's unconvincing 3-1 win over Chelsea, Fernando Torres, who had actually already grabbed the consolation and with a chance to reduce the arrears further, sprung the United offside trap, produced a beautiful step-over to fool fellow former Atletico player David De Gea in the reds goal, but with the empty net gaping wider than a lady adult film star at the end of a long and, ahem, fulfilling career, managed to slice the ball wide leaving literally everyone who saw it open-mouthed with astonishment. It was one of those moments that almost redefined the idea of going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Majestic skill followed by a "what the hell was that?" finish. It was basically the Godfather 3 of football.

Regardless of your feelings toward Chelsea, Torres or the colour blue, it was hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy for hapless striker. The Spaniard was having a fairly decent game and was actually doing a fairly decent impression of a footballer - Not just him but the rest of his teammates too.

All season long, and with good reason, every man, woman, child and dog with even a passing interest in English football has been heaping praise on the Salford based reds for what has been a pretty impressive looking start to the season. You could argue (and I will because it's MY blog!) that they hadn't really been tested in any of their opening four games. The meek surrender by the two North London clubs and Bolton last week were more a reflection of the failings of those three sides than any sort of superhuman ability of Sir Alex Ferguson's team. In fact, their toughest game was their opening fixture at the Hawthorns when, in truth, they were very fortunate to come away with three points.

Chelsea would be the first real stern test for United and so it proved in everything other than the final 3-1 scoreline. Chelsea passed the ball better and created more chances. But for some truly woeful finishing (see above) would have won this match comfortably.

Chris Smalling gave United the lead with a header that was so far offside that he may as well have been in another post code. Forget daylight, you could have fit the entire sun, moon and stars between the former Fulham man and the Chelsea back line. Jamie Redknapp spouted some nonsense on Sky about how the defenders are still obliged to follow the man in that situation. I personally don't see how it is possible to apportion any blame to the Blues who were trying to hold a defensive line. Something they did successfully and were robbed by the ref's assistant who may as well have been wearing a stripped shirt and carrying a bag with SWAG written on it...

But alas, if Karma does exist some cad might point out that Chelsea themselves were once the beneficiaries of refereeing incompetence at Old Trafford when Didier Drogba slammed home what turned out to be a title-deciding winning goal back in 2009.

Nani aka Michael Jackson circa Thriller days, launched a surface to air missile to make it 2-0 and Rooney grabbed his NINTH goal already this season after tapping in a third before half time after great work from the increasingly impressive Phil Jones. United's summer signing from Blackburn may or may not have then stood over John Terry and laughed maniacally as he pretty much confirmed his status as the new and improved version of the Chelsea man. The writing is on the wall. Jones could be replacing Terry in the England team in the not too distant future.

United went in at the half with a thoroughly undeserved 3-0 lead. I doubt you can find another example of a team with such a commanding lead having been second best for so long in the game. Chelsea could not have asked for a better start to the second half as sub Nicolas Anelka - who replaced the ineffective Frank Lampard - threaded a delightful pass to the abovementioned Torres who managed to net what some would argue was his first 'proper' goal in Chelsea colours. Yes, he scored against West Ham last season but Avram Grant's team was so bad I doubt that netting against them could be considered a real achievement.

The Spaniard's delightful, well taken, outside foot finish was the end of the scoring but far from the end of the incident. Time and time again we are told that the Premier League is the "best in the world" but you could have easily mistaken a lot of what took place in this game for a Sunday league match. And that's being unkind to anyone who has ever played Sunday league football! Chelsea and United players become involved in a battle of who could embarrass themselves more. After United were awarded a penalty for 'foul' on Nani, Wayne Rooney, who for my money had a very poor game given his recent great form, 'John Terry-d' it by falling over and slicing it so far wide it nearly ended up in the dugouts. 'Wazza' then somehow hit the post from three yards with what many may be described as the miss off the season surpassing Ramires' terrible first half effort when the Brazilian somehow manage to play his shot straight at De Gea when it would have actually been easier to score.

Then there was Fernando Torres (of course). While many will (rightly) talk about the open goal. The former Liverpool striker guilty of another glorious (?) miss not long before as he embarked on a stunning slaloming run leaving United defenders in his wake like some sort of effeminate, Spanish road-runner before unleashing a shot at De Gea but unfortunately sending the rebound somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Completing the programme of profligacy was substitute Dimitar Berbatov who was lucky to get anything at all on Wayne Rooney's terrible square ball but only succeeded in making it easy enough for Ashley Cole to clear off the line. Cashley himself shouldn't have even been on the pitch after a filthy, reckless, x-rated lunge on Javier Hernandez that could and should have resulted in a penalty and sending off. You could argue all you want about the technicality of the ball being out of play so no spot kick is awarded but there's no defending Cole's potential leg breaker. More daft technicalities mean no retrospective action can be taken. I've said it before and I'll say it again; The law is an ass!

What did this game ultimately teach us? Nothing we didn't know already, really. United are pretty deadly going forward and there are very few, if any defences in the division that will keep them at bay. The reds are far from limited in their approach either. All three goals against Chelsea were different. Set-piece, screamer, tap-in. You name it, United can score it. However, for all the praise heaped on them, they may well end up taking a sawn-off, pointing it right at their pinky toe and pulling the trigger. On another day facing a less broken striker, they may be punished for their lapses at the back. It says a great deal about their approach that they have conceded the most shots of any team in the league so far (Chelsea managed 22 alone). Surely logic would dictate that if they continue to be so inviting, a team will eventually start converting these chances and beat them.

Of course, not enough times to prevent them winning the league. But a couple of losses might make it vaguely interesting for the rest of us this time.

As for the Blues, I've given up making the mistake of writing them off and taking great joy out of any fleeting failing. Too many times I'm made to look foolish. Defeat at Old Trafford was far from a disaster and if they continue to play as well as they did and are a bit more clinical, then talk of a two-horse title race might be a tad premature. Talk of an aging side is hollow. On Sunday, only Frank Lampard and to some degree, John Terry looked like they were struggling to keep up with the game. The former in particular, I expect to be jettisoned from the starting XI before long. The talents of new boy Juan Mata and, believe me, Daniel Sturridge among others will not be supressed for long though. For all the furore surrounding Torres, it would be remiss of me to ignore the fact this was a much improved performance from him. Drogba is still waiting in the wings and you have to think that Michael Essien has a point to prove after a poor campaign last time around. Yes, Villas-Boas' team still looks like a work in progress but ominously, positive signs are there.

Be warned!

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Thursday, 1 September 2011

August Deadline Day 2011 - A Diary

Don't know how to 'Live blog' so just kept regular updates of the day. I make no apologies for inaccurate reporting or factual errors.

August 30th
23:52 - Just got in from work

23:54 - Check Facebook. Nothing of note

23:58 - Check Twitter. Nothing football related grabs me. Am momentarily sidetracked by a well known DJ doing a Q&A with his followers. It's not particularly interesting...

August 31st

00:06 - The @BBCNews account tweets the headline "Land Rover confirms new defender" with link. I become slightly confused as I wonder if Land Rover have signed Gary Cahill.

After clicking on said link, I discover the car manufacturer is actually releasing a new version of it's Defender model. The news doesn't have much impact on me. One of my great insecurities as a man is the fact I cannot drive nor do I have any great knowledge of cars. It's quite emasculating when pub conversations turn to engine sizes and "horsepower" and other such things I ought to know about. Instead, I gaze quietly into my pint. Feeling inferior...

00:09 - Check Newsnow - Only eye-catching but totally unsurprising news is that Tony Pulis might try and buy Hugo Rodellega from Wigan. If, 24 hours from now, Stoke haven't signed a big lumbering striker, I'll eat my hat.

00:12 - I become distracted. I'm now watching a video of two women doing very unhygienic things with apples. All of a sudden it's quarter to 2 in the morning. Better get to bed.

03:37 - I am awoken by a drunk crying woman outside my window. She is on the phone, clearly distressed. I wonder if she's an Everton fan.

08:00 approx - I toss and turn and find myself awake. Naturally, I check early transfer news. On Twitter someone says Mario Balotelli's page has been removed from the Man City website and Rio Ferdinand informs us that he has a toothache.

09:00 - I'm still struggling to get back to sleep. The news now is that Luka Modric will remain a Tottenham player bringing joy to the White half of North London but also an anti-climax to one of the most tedious transfer saga this summer.

Rumours suggest Japanese star Keisuke Honda is on his way to Arsenal prompting a number of car puns and gags that once again mock my lack of knowledge in this field.

11:20 - Managed to get back to sleep. Wake up, Check Facebook. Someone posts about spotting Alan Hutton somewhere or another. Someone else posts the joke that "Arsenal interested in Belgian defender Mark de Man. Apparently, they are also interested in his compatriots, striker Skor de Gaulle and goalkeeper Bloek de Schott." - I giggle.

- The hilarious @AnnieEaves on Twitter posts this hilarious tweet highlighting how crazy people get on days like this. I can't tell if this was made up, lost in translation or the after continuing effects of a Bank Holiday magic muchrooms session.

12:00 - In the absense of a big name move thus far, the Wesley Sneijder rumours begin to gather pace. "Spotted boarding a private jet", "Spotted in Manchester" "His dog's hairdresser has relocated to Stockport" etc.

12:15 - Honda not going to Arsenal. I breathe a sign of relief. Joe Cole apparently in talks with Aston Villa? Earlier rumours were that he was gong to France to play for Lille. Be a real shame if he bottles the chance to go abroad. I must sound like a stuck record given the number of times I've said English players need to broaden their football knowledge by playing in other countries.

12:20 - I post one of my best ever jokes on Twitter: "TRANSFER NEWS: In a last minute U-turn, I've opted for a Chicken and Bacon Sarnie for lunch instead of Fish. The fish said to be gutted." - No-one reads it.

12:23 - Apparently Carlos Tevez is staying at City. Another saga that concludes with an unsatisfactory dribble...

12:28 - There we go! Stoke look to increase Big lumbering striker quota by two as Cameron Jerome and Nik Bendtner are supposedly set to sign.

12:35 - The real beauty of Transfer Deadline day! Sky Sports' BREAKING NEWS ticker announces that Joe Cole is having a medical at Aston Villa. Just at the very moment everyone else discovers (via Lille + Liverpool's offical websites) that Cole has actually signed on Loan at Lille. Oops!

This is getting fun. I'm tempted to call in sick. Will they really need me at work?

12:40 - I finally see the Paulo Di Canio video where he goes at it with one of his players - I'm now wondering what possessed me to believe he was going to be a great manager who would take The Robbins up at the first attempt. What a wasted bet. May as well have just set fire to my money instead.

- Looks like Anton Ferdinand is off to QPR. The most tragic thing about this is that if/when they get relegated, he will probably leave and join another Premier League team. I actually mildly respect him for being able to blag a career in the top flight for so long.

- I arrive at the gym before work. Wearing an Ajax shirt was an error. 712 journalists stop me on my journey from Tufnell Park to White City to ask me if I'm joining the Amsterdam club. I'm forced to make a statement reaffirming my commitment to my Saturday team and explain my choice of shirt is strictly down to the fact I've done no laundry this week.

15:20 - A couple of actual confirmations from North London. Scott Parker signs for Spurs and Andre Santos joins Arsenal. I like Parker but as I've questioned before, do his good performances only ever come at poorer clubs? Can he hack the step up? Time will tell.

I know next to nothing about Santos so I asked a Brazilian friend if he will be any good for Arsenal. this was the text response I received:

"Worse than Clichy even Traore better. Only God knows how he is Brazil first choice..."

Let the good times roll

- More craziness. The BBC's always reliable Dan Roan starts commenting on fruitless speculation regarding Kaka and Sneijder.

16:30 - Apparently Arsenal and Everton are in talks over Mikael Arteta. Interesting move for Arsenal. He's hardly Fabregas but they need something. Craig Bellamy is set to rejoin Liverpool. I could insert some generic joke about a golf club here but I won't.

16:40 - West Ham are apparently taking David Bentley on loan from Spurs. Also Henri Lansbury from Arsenal. Pretty much the same player though, right?

17:15 - More Big lumbering striker news from the Potteries. Bendtner deal fallen through. Pulis turns attention to Peter Crouch instead.

17:42 - Jermaine Jenas looks like he's joining Aston Villa on loan. Deadline day insanity looks to have plagued even the best of us as arguably the country's most respected football writer Henry Winter tweets the following:

"Jenas for #avfc. Could be one of the best deals. If he plays week in/out, & McLeish makes him believe, Jenas could be a cm star again"

I'm sorry, AGAIN????

18:00 - The transfer window shuts in Italy. My dream move to Parma is scuppered. I fire my agent.

18:30 - While discussing Henry Winter's insane tweet, a friend points out the rumour that former Spanish international and two time La Liga winner Vicente could be on his way to Brighton adding "I still assume he's awesome because of Champ days."

- Curiously, I discover that another Champ favourite of mine Zdenek Grygera has signed for Fulham.

- The BBC as doing a Football Focus deadline day special. My favourite part is when Dan Walker throws to Mark Bright at Loftus Road who informs us that Shaun Wright Philips is sat in a nearby hotel waiting for the go ahead to sign for QPR. I imagine poor Shauny bored out of his skull sat on his own playing Angry Birds and watching Hollyoaks.

18:56 - Martin Keown makes the bold statement that Everton won't miss Arteta because they have young Ross Blakley who will go on to be one of the best players in English football. No pressure then, Ross.

19:15 - Back to Sky Sports.

19:16 - Arteta deal off! It seems as though thrifty Arsenal aren't prepared to stump up the cash. Can't say I'm shocked.

19:18 - Anton Ferdinand still not a QPR player. The Superhoops are also in for Sebastian Bassong as they attempt to fill their defence with the most mediocre players imaginable.

- Twente attacking midfielder Bryan Ruiz is supposedly having a medical at Fulham although Mike Ashley is said to be sending down a helicopter to literally hijack the deal. When did football become an episode of 24?

19:44 - Big talk that Yossi Benayoun is joining Arsenal on loan from Chelsea. Reaction of Arsenal fans isn't exactly one of excitement. Looks like Yossi is going to have to score a hat trick on his debut in order to get gooners onside. Hardly a marquee purchase.

20:30 - I see Jeremy Paxman walking the corridors at work. I don't ask him who he is signing for.

- Bolton sign David N'Gog from Liverpool. Bolton fans weep. After a year playing out of his depth for Everton, Jermaine Beckford signs for Leicester in the Championship returning to a level where he is more comfortable.

20:53 - Rio Ferdinand tweets to inform us he has had two teeth removed.

20:54 - Sky Sports News' Jim White almost explodes as he brings us news the Spurs are linked with a move for Kaka.

Wait, WHAT???????

21:02 - The excitement doesn't last long as Harry Redknapp is stopped leaving the Spurs training ground to deny the Kaka story. Well, that was an excitable few minutes, wasn't it?

Redknapp says Spurs failed in a bid for Gary Cahill which leads me to wonder, given Arsenal's failure to sign him and little interest from elsewhere, what sort of crazy money Bolton were demanding for a player they are likely to lose for nothing in 9 months?

'Arry also says Spurs turned down a £40m bid from Chelsea for Luka Modric. I know it's very easy to over-simplify these things but surely £40 would have more than enough to reinvest and sign the striker and centre back the team are desperately crying out for?

@Ghostgoal quickly tweeted: "Ironic that the one manager who speaks to Sky Sports News is also the one guy I wouldn't believe a single word from. Straight-talking 'Arry."

21:12 - Heading out of Tottenham is Wilson Palacios who joins Stoke along with Cameron Jerome. Peter Crouch still in talks. Pulis seems to be building a pretty formidable side at the Britannia and could lead them comfortably to a top half finish this year. Who would have thunk it?

Unfortunately, an improving team will never change the nightmare-inducing ugliness of the Stoke fans behind the Sky Sports reporter tonight as the deals are announced.

21:20 - Arteta to Arsenal back on! The player himself seems hellbent on joining the Gunners and asked to leave Everton. - The Blues themselves look to have landed Real Madrid's forgotten man Royston Drenthe.

21:23 - The Sky Sports reporter at Sunderland makes a joke about chamomile tea. I die a little inside as the absurdity of this day reaches a nadir.

21:51 - It looks like Yakubu is joining Blackburn. I still haven't forgiven the fat oaf for his miss against South Korea at the World Cup last year. I expect the bloater has got an unlimited supply of Venky's chicken written into his contract.

- Vicente is not going to Brighton unfortunately but Shefki Kuqi is going to Oldham.

- Wow! Raul Meireles has handed in a transfer request half an hour before the window shuts! Has he been asleep all day?

- Another BBC Football Focus special. A comedy moment as DAN Walker in the studio throws to DAN Roan at the Emirates.

"Over to you Dan"
"Thanks Dan"

The farce is complete as the next story is about the signing of Scott Dann from Birmingham to Blackburn.

- Over at QPR there are more surreal moments as both Anton Ferdinand and Jason Puncheon and filmed sprinting into the club attempting to seal their respective moves. This is followed by Shaun Wright Philips giving the most unenthusiastic interview by any player joining a new club after his move to the hoops is confirmed.

- Home from work as the window shuts to the news that Peter Crouch is probably going to be a Stoke player, Mikael Arteta will be wearing Arsenal colours from now on and Raul Meireles has swapped Liverpool red for Chelsea blue. Nik Bendtner goes to Sunderland on loan.

For the next hour I sit and listen to Dave Bassett and Iain Dowie talk nonsense. My housemate points out the irony that for all their extensive coverage, Sky have made the two worse signings by getting Bassett and Dowie in. Listening to them rabbit on makes me consider how much more fun it would be if Morbo from Futurama was presenting on Deadline Day.

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