Friday, 27 January 2012

Liverpool v Manchester United - A Secret Shame.

Due to the absurd amount of football we have access to, I think I can safely say that if you are a follower of the beautiful game (and if you are reading this I assume you would be otherwise what the hell are you doing here? ...Go on, shoo!) then you have certainly been spoiled this week. On Sunday, we saw Manchester City host Tottenham and Arsenal take on Manchester United. In midweek, Liverpool hosted Manchester City in the Carling Cup semi final second leg. Further afield, the glutton for big games was satiated even more as Barcelona and Real Madrid renewed pleasantries yet again in the Copa Del Rey quarter final second leg – The highlight of which was this:

....Not the goal, but Carlos Puyol’s faceplant. Classic Fail.

And as all that wasn’t enough, this weekend sees the country’s two biggest clubs square off in England’s very own Classico as Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield in the FA Cup fourth round.

A wee history lesson: Merseyside versus Manchester is actually a feud that transcends football and dates back to the late 1800s when the two cities competed as two of Britain's industrial powerhouses. Liverpool was famed for its Port until the Mancs went and built their own rival Ship Canal. This led to a drop in trade for Liverpool and many job loses giving rise to the resentment between the two cities.

It would be a number of years before that resentment manifested itself on the pitch. In the late 1960s Liverpool, under the guidance of the legendary Bill Shankly began to build an empire that would dominate English football for the next two decades. As we entered the 1990s, they were most decorated club in the land with a record 18 domestic league titles, numerous cup wins and the honour of being crowned champions of Europe on no less than four occasions. A fifth European title was added in 2005.

As Liverpool were running things, Manchester United sat firmly in the shade of their North West rivals until the late 1980s when one Alex Ferguson rode into town, famously vowed to ‘knock Liverpool of their fucking perch’ and duly did so. When United won the inaugural Premier League title in 1993, that took their total number of league wins to 8. A banner was unfurled at Anfield a year later declaring that United should come back when they’ve won 18. Little did they know that baiting would come back to bite them in the arse.

United racked up championship after championship during the 90s and noughties while Liverpool floundered. In 2009, the two clubs went head-to-head in the league but United piped it at the post to make it 18-18. Last season, Ferguson won his 12th league title as a manager and United’s 19th in total. They don’t even make plates big enough for the slices of humble pie being served up. The since honoured ‘Sir’ Alex also won two European cups taking United up to three in total. This isn’t a Liverpool fan on the planet who isn’t crapping themselves at the prospect of United catching them up in this department too.

Needless to say, the rivalry has intensified during this period of United dominance. Hooliganism between the two clubs was rife during the 70s and 80s and even today sections of both set of fans can be found making obscene chants and gestures about the respective tragedies that have befallen the two sides. The number of on-pitch clashes and talking points have been plentiful. The most recent being the racism controversy between United’s Patrice Evra and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez following the two clubs’ last meeting in October. The latter received an 8 game ban after being found guilty of abusing the former and the whole sorry saga has not only dragged the game through the mud but also spat in its face, kicked it in the crotch and dragged it through the mud one more time for good measure - A truly embarrassing situation particularly for Liverpool Football Club and their shocking handling of the whole affair.

Anyway, if you want to read more on that subject then I’ll point you in the direction of EVERYWHERE ON THE INTERNET!!!

Of course, this wasn’t the first major controversy to take place between the two clubs.

A Good Friday clash on April 2nd 1915 saw the two sides square off at Old Trafford in the final game of the season. In a scenario that is almost unthinkable today, United were battling to avoid relegation from the First Division while Liverpool were nothing more than an average mid-table outfit. The home side ran out 2-0 winners to avoid falling through the dreaded trap door at the expense of Tottenham, who ended the season bottom of the table, and Chelsea who finished second bottom.

A team scrapping for their lives beating a team meandering towards an unremarkable final league position of 13th was hardly surprising. However, suspicion arose when Liverpool firstly missed a penalty that would have halved the deficit and then publicly having a go at their own player Fred Pagnam when hit a shot against the United crossbar late on.

When the bookies noticed that they would have to pay out on an unusually large number of bets laid on that exact 2-0 scoreline which was priced at 7/1, they figured something was amiss. Suspicion was aroused further upon the discovery of leaflets circulating with details of the bet. They refused to pay out and contacted the FA who launched an investigation.

As you have probably guessed by now, the game was fixed and the suspicions of skulduggery were proven to be correct as seven players, three from United and four from Liverpool, were found guilty of conspiring to rig the outcome of the match. The legend has it that the players met up in a pub beforehand to come up with the scheme. Just try and imagine such a scene taking place today… Rio Ferdinand would just end up giving the game away by Tweeting it.

Liverpool’s Jackie Sheldon, curiously, a former United player, was said to be the instigator of the fix, drafting in Tom Miller, Bob Pursell and Thomas Fairfoul from his own team and Sandy Turnbull, Arthur Whalley and Enoch West from the opposition to plot his fiendish scheme. Curiously, the man who scored United’s two goals on the day George Anderson refused to take part as did the abovementioned Pagnam who, as you can see, did his best to foil the plot during the game.

In fact, it was Pagnam’s testimony to the FA that helped bring the others to justice. Noble behaviour by a Liverpool player? Who would have thought? Luis Suarez would do well to take note.

All seven men involved were punished with a lifetime ban from the game – there is no evidence to suggest that Liverpool FC wore T-Shirts in support of their cheating players.

Those of you who are clued up with your history will know that 1915 was also the year of the great war. While the idea of fixing football matches is something that would cause us to spew up our Shreddies if it happened today, football understandably wasn’t exactly the most important thing on people’s minds at the time. The league was suspended and the players involved, amoung others, ended up going into battle to fight for our freedom. As a result, in recognition of their service, the bans were overturned - posthumously in the case of Sandy Turnbull – whence they returned. All except United’s Enoch West, who didn’t take his medicine like a man and tried to sue the FA. His case failed and his ban wasn’t overturned until 1945. I’d like to think the authorities cited “for being a whiny bitch” in their decision-making process. It certainly wasn’t to be the last time someone associated with United would be accused of whinging and failing to take responsibility for their actions.

Football, in the modern era at least, with so much money swirling around and so much at stake, has become such a huge all-consuming game that one cannot help to look upon it with a great sense of cynicism. We’ve already seen the Calciopoli scandal in Italy, as well as reports of improper practices in Germany and Turkey in recent years. Only the most naïve fan will truly believe that the English game is whiter than white and that everything is above board. I am in no way speculating that anything dodgy is going on over here, but I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I wouldn’t be the slightest bit shocked if there was.

The incident described above was one of the earliest instances of match-fixing in the game anywhere and it took place in our own back yard between two teams that would go on to be the biggest and most successful. Not just in the country, but the entire world. Both teams love to remind everybody about their glorious trophy-laden history but remain noticeably quiet about this skeleton making itself at home in their cupboards.

Interestingly, the FA at the time decided that the players were solely responsible for the fix so bizarrely no punishment, relegation, fine or points deduction went the way of the clubs themselves. So, owing to a number of factors and the circumstances at the time, both clubs emerged relatively unscathed from what was otherwise a huge and potentially very damaging scandal.

Chelsea, the club who were relegated as a result of the cheating, were elected back into the restructured top flight after the war along with Arsenal who hadn’t even finished in a Division Two promotion position in the final pre-war campaign. Big four favouritism BEFORE they were even the big four?! Spooky....

Go on, show me your Tweets

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

North and South - Super Sunday Observations: 22nd January 2012

So 'Super Sunday' presented us with a repeat of the Manchester v North London double header. It was promoted in such a way that suggested the sides from the capital would be seeking 'payback' having been humiliated in the respective reverse fixtures back at the tail end of the summer. Alas, both Arsenal and Spurs failed in their revenge missions as both Manchesters United and City smote their opponents yet again to re-establish Northern dominance over the south.

In the early kick off, table-topping, cash-splashing Manchester City beat upwardly mobile Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 in one of the most rip-roaring matches of the season. Well, second half at least. The Lancet actually recommends that patients who are about to undergo major surgery should watch the first 45 minutes repeatedly as it is officially now the world's most effective anaesthetic.

The game sparked into life when Samir Nasri, a man who was already public enemy number one at both ends of the Seven Sisters Road, riffled home after latching on to a typically delicious David Silva through ball. It just had to be the former Arsenal man, didn't it? Nasri already has four goals to his name in North London derbies but has been nothing short of a disappointment since his controversial move to Eastlands last summer. It was just obvious he would find his 'spark' again against Spurs. I've often, half-joking mused whether this ridiculous sport we all love is actually the world's biggest scam. Is the game fixed or scripted not unlike professional wrestling? This Nasri goal, considering the circumstances, goes some way to reinforcing this admittedly deluded conspiracy theory of mine. The truth is out there...

Joleon Lescott doubled City's lead almost immediately after bundling in from a corner but before the City fans had even finished their daft, vomit-inducing 'Poznan' celebration, their advantage had been sliced in half. Jermaine Defoe made it 2-1 as he capitalised on some woeful defending by the clueless Stefan Savić. The gormless look on the poor Montenegrin's face as the goal went in served as a pertinent reminder that if the City juggernaut is to rumble on, suspended captain Vincent Kompany cannot come back into the side soon enough.

Gareth Bale then evened the the score with a sensational strike that looks more impressive on every viewing. Four goals in under 10 minutes made me wonder if I had stumbled across some sort of televised 5 aside football match such was the rapid frequency of the scoring.

The rise of Tottenham under Harry Redknapp's stewardship has been one of the stories of the season. After decades of near misses, underachievement and general periods of laughable embarrassment, Spurs have finally gone some way to justifying their famed 'Glory, Glory' tag by muscling their way in among the big boys and making themselves right at home. Sir Alex Ferguson recently said that they are playing the best football in the league at present. While this was clearly just a ploy aimed at winding up City, Tottenham's spirited fightback suggested that there was actually very little between Redknapp and Mancini's teams on the day – absences not withstanding, obviously.

In fact, the away side almost deservedly snatched the points. If Jermaine Defore hadn't been born part hobbit and managed to get any decent contact on a 92nd minute Bale cross, Spurs would be waking up today with the unfamiliar but enjoyable feeling of being within touching distance of the Premier League summit. But he didn't and in the cruelest twist of fate, it was City who got the win after Super Mario Balotelli converted a last gasp penalty having been felled by Ledley King with the game in it's dying embers.

Of course, it was extremely premature of the 'experts' to indulge in the absurd hyperbole of a week or so back when all and sundry starting to declare them champions elect and other such over-exaggerated nonsense. Such proclamations with such a long way to go in the season only serve to make people look stupid in the long run. One step at a time and all that. Given the glaring inadequacies of the so-called challengers for those much sought after Champions League spots, third place this season should be the absolute minimum they achieve, the fourth place they were aiming for in August would actually be a disappointment given how impressive they've been thus far this campaign. Beyond that, who knows?

But the biggest talking point of the match at the Etihad was not Defoe's miss, Nasri's goal, nor the Spurs fightback. Yes, not for the first time, Super Mario Balotelli decided to hog all the headlines to himself. Selfish.

Despite only being on the pitch for 25 minutes, the eccentric Italian stamped his authority on the match in more ways than one. While he may have successfully won and converted the decisive last minute penalty that secured his side the points, there are few people outside the blue half of Manchester that believe Balotelli should have even been on the pitch. On any other day, or with any other referee (Oh, Howard Webb...), Mad Mario's attempt to decapitate Scott Parker with the sole of his size 12s would have been greeted with the red card it deserved. It has since been announced that retrospective punishment is to be heading his way but what consolation is that to Spurs? Any ban will not get back the point (possibly more?) they were set to take back down the M1 on Sunday evening.

That said, I risk using that most despised and ignorant of football-isms about things evening themselves out. Many City fans will tell you that Balotelli's escape (in the game at least) is some sort of retribution for the scandalous decision to send off Vincent Kompany for executing the perfect tackle in the FA Cup 3rd round Manchester derby two short weeks ago that resulted in an absurd and unjust four game ban – a tackle not entirely dissimilar to one made by Parker himself in the first half of this match on England colleague Micah Richards. Not that it deserved a red either, mind.

The inconsistencies, contradictions and hypocrisy did not end there. Joleon Lescott was also inexplicably spared a dismissal after a UFC style forearm smash to to the face of Yonues Kaboul. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was then quick to condemn the Balotelli footsie-stampy shenanigans post-match. Yes, the same Harry Redknapp who swiftly turned a blind eye when his own player was accused of a similar offence in the past. It was also interesting to see the lack of criticism aimed at Redknapp for publicly calling for a player to be dismissed given all the unnecessary hoo-ha over Roberto Mancini's imaginary card-waving antics in recent weeks. I'm struggling to get my head round how the gesture in the heat of the moment is deemed a 'disgrace' while a calculated and considered press conference is acceptable. The former is trying to influence a referee while the latter completely undermines their authority. Both are as bad as each other.

The biggest head-scratcher over the whole incident of course comes by way of the FA who will rightly throw the book at Balotelli yet completely make fools of themselves in doing so having very recently campaigned fiercely to have Wayne Rooney's violent conduct ban by UEFA for next summer's Euros reduced. Do as I say, not as I do etc.


If the first game was the starter, Arsenal v Manchester United was a disappointing main course as both teams were simply resigned to going through the motions in an attempt to keep up with their respective now superior local rivals.

A wretched football match saw United just about eke out a marginally deserved 2-1 victory over their one time most-hated foes. Sir Alex's team took the lead on the stroke of half time through an Antonio Valencia header. Robin van Persie (who else?) equalised for the gunners finishing a flowing move that was a throwback to the long forgotten Arsenal of a decade ago. Contract rebel Danny Wellbeck snatched all three points late on.

The major talking point at the Emirates was what seemed to be what I'm calling a Wenger watershed moment. After a diabolical first half in which Arsenal were devoid of passion pride and anything even resembling the kind of fighting spirit they would do well to learn from their North London rivals earlier in the day, the one time 'invincibles' stepped up a gear and actually took the game to an abject United side following the break. The equaliser came amidst a flurry of missed chances and such was the momentum with the home side, there only looked to be one side capable of winning the game at 1-1 and it wasn't Uinted. That was until the beleaguered manager decided to withdraw his side's best attacking threat in the game, the 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who was putting his more experienced colleagues – hang your head Theo Walcott – to shame. The youngster was replaced by Andrei Arshavin – a player who hasn't had a good game since the days of disco. The often quiet Emirates crowd then found their voice, not to support their team, mind, but to viciously direct a barrage of abuse at Mr. Wenger in the dugout. “You don't know what you're doing” is the last chant one would ever expect to hear from the gooner faithful who are better known for blindly following their manager no matter what he does.

A lifetime ago...

It's no secret that after years of failure, this season has been Arsene Wenger's toughest test for the most successful boss of London's most successful club. For the first time in his tenure, Arsenal look like slipping outside the top four and equally, for the very first time, he is losing the support of the fans who previously wouldn't dare question him. Whereas the grumbles were once consigned to a small minority, it would appear the number of the dissenters is growing at a rapid rate. More worrying, the public disapproval of his captain to the substitution speaks volumes. It's one thing to lose the fans but when results stop going your way and you start to lose the players, things are only going to get worse. Of course, van Persie has moved to reassure fans that he was not challenging his manager but the simple fact is, his unhappiness was clear for all to see.

Time has a funny way of catching up with us. Muhammed Ali, the greatest boxer of all time has Parkinson's. Terry Pratchett, one of the best authors of a generation has Alzheimers. I'm not saying Arsene Wenger has a debilitating disease but I do feel it necessary to use such extreme examples to hammer home my point that nothing lasts for ever. Not even perceived genius. The mask is undoubtedly slipping. The Arsene Wenger of today is not the Arsene Wenger of a decade ago. As he himself was quoted last week, failure to secure a top four finish could well prove to be a disaster. The exact kind of disaster he does not currently appear able to recover from.

Naturally, the substitution itself didn't lose Arsenal the game but as sod's law would dictate, Arshavin was at fault for United's winner meaning Wenger's gamble backfired spectacularly and in some sense justified the criticisms of the fans - telling him he doesn't know what he's doing is perhaps a bit strong though. Someone with Arsene Wenger's record deserves a tad more respect than that. Booing, and vocal criticism, although completely within the rights of those who pay their money and are therefore entitled to express their displeasure, is simply divisive and counterproductive.

As usual, Arsenal fans were quick to wheel out the old injury excuse and lack of recognised full-backs for their defensive problems. However, on this occasion the argument was rendered redundant due to the fact their of their opponents' back five on the day, only Patrice Evra could be considered one of Manchester United's 'first choice' defenders. Add to that the the fact that Phil Jones was stretchered off in the opening exchanges and you would say that the flaws at Arsenal are surely more to do with tactics rather than personnel.

As Arsenal and their troubles were the main focus after the match, United's own problems went unnoticed. The fact they picked up the three points here didn't tell the whole story of their own shortcomings. While they may have been in control during the first half, they were far from convincing. They saw a lot of the ball, yes, but it certainly wasn't a case of them carving the gunners open at will despite the generosity of Johan Djourou who personally allowed Nani the freedom of Islington. A 'better' side would have been home and dry by half time.

In second half, they simply retreated and almost threw the game away. I know it seems fashionable to have a go at Michael Carrick but I genuinely don't see what he does. I would welcome any explanation. Wayne Rooney may as well have stayed on the team bus such as his anonymity while the 'rabbit in the headlights' look has become so synonymous with Johnny Evans that he Northern Ireland international should just patent it and be done with it. Again, a 'better' side than Arsenal would have been able to capitalise on United's dismal second half showing. They will however, be encouraged by the sensible person's choice (bore off, Sky) as Man of the Match Antonio Valencia who scored one and made the other of the two match-winning goals. He and the abovementioned Chamberlain were the only two shining lights in what was, in truth, a poor game.

I seem to find myself saying this year after year but the deficiencies of Sir Alex's team make them look anything but champions yet they still find themselves within spitting distance of their city rivals at the top of the table. Despite the current side's glaring limitations, only a crazy person would dare write them off.

So what conclusions can we draw? Power shifts? It would be difficult to argue against it in North London but perhaps not quite yet in Manchester. However, the results suggested that if fans of THE BESTEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD (!!!!!!!) were hoping for anything other than a two horse race (yet again), it is looking like they will be sorely disappointed.

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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Assualt and Pepe

Last Night Real Madrid hosted Barcelona in El Claszzzzzzzzzz... for the umpteenth time in recent memory. The two stand-out best club sides in world football were going head-to-head for the eighth time since just last spring. Most people are actually of the opinion that these are the only two teams in Spanish football. Their dominance and the regularity of their meetings would make it difficult for even the most staunch La Liga fan to argue. What was once the most anticipated game in the Spanish football calendar has become something of a tiresome chore due the the fact the same old narrative seems to repeat itself over and over again. Real Madrid start brightly, Barca take control, Barca show superiority, Barca win. Wash, rinse, repeat. Of these previous 8 encounters this has been the case on 4 occasions. Three of these matches ended in draws that inevitably suited the Catalans better and just one (admittedly a quite important one) resulted in a Madrid victory. This season, it was all supposed to change. Barca are not quite at the brilliant best while Jose Mourinho's boys from the Bernabau have been on fire and currently find themselves sat on top of La Liga 5 points clear of their great rivals. Yet somehow they are still somehow second best when the two sides come to blows. A maddening situation that has seen the Catalans stroll into Real's back yard and come away with a victory now TWICE already this campaign.

The latest match was the first leg of the Copa Del Rey quarter final. Real Madrid started the brighter and oft criticised Big Game Bottler Cristiano Ronaldo fired them into the lead. At half time Ray Winstone's giant, frightening, disembodied head popped up on my TV and pretty much demanded that I bet on Barca to come back and win the game at an outrageously generous 5/1. I stuck a fiver on it and was duly rewarded when Carlos Puyol and Eric Abidal (Defenders!!!!) turned the tie in the favour of Pep Guardiola's men.

One thing then that always seems to occur in these supposed showpiece games are the acts of gamesmanship and petulance that wouldn't be out of place in primary school playground. The diving, cheating, play-acting, fouling and general cuntitude of pretty much every player on the park lets both sides down. Real and Barca possess the personnel to put on real classic matches actually befitting the moniker attached to their meetings but all too often disgrace themselves by acting like idiots. The typical protagonists in this theatre are Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Ricardo Carvalho to name a few. However, on this occasion there was one man decided that the floor was his and his alone as he decided he wanted the title of world's biggest scumbag.

Step forward Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira otherwise more affectionately referred to as Pepe.

The Portugese defender is no stranger to controversy having already once been on the receiving end of a 10 match match ban following what can only be described as an unprovoked assualt on Getafe CF's Javier Casquero.

Good old Pepe has also been red-carded in a previous classio and it would seem that he is incapable of learning his lesson and realise that quite a lot of the time, he isn't being 'hard', he's just behaving like a dick! His latest indiscretion centres around his deliberate stamp on the hand of one Lionel Messi while the majestic Argentine was on the floor following a foul by one of Pepe's other cohorts in the Madrid side.

This followed some of the worst acting you are likely to see this side of a Vin Diesel movie.

All of which makes you wonder whether it is safe to actually allow this man out into society. Pepe strikes me as the wired guy at the supermarket who shouts at the vegetables or the kind of fella who who walks the street naked with his hands covered in his own feces. Not all seems right upstairs.

Football is no stranger to 'hard men' and loveable rouges who, rightly or wrongly, push the boundaries of what one can get away with on the pitch to their very limit. Pepe seems to either ignorant or indifferent to the very concept of boundaries and clearly feels he can get away with murder (Not to give the lunatic any more ideas...) when he goes out there to 'play'. When he behaves like an idiot, he doesn't even consider the idea that there may be consequences nor the fact that at times, he is a danger to his fellow professionals. Act first, think later. It's like when you play with matches as a kid and the idea that you might burn the house down doesn't even enter your head. Then all of a sudden you're standing on the charred remains of what used to be your bedroom...

At the risk of saddling up atop my high horse (I call her Sanctimony...), Pepe acting like this might be understandable if it actually provided any benefit to his team. Conversely, he is nothing more than a detriment to them and the even those who are supposed to be supporting him have started to realise this. One would hope he would take heed but given the fact it keeps on happening, there's no way of ever being sure what is going on within that polished dome.

But then it dawned on me. The bald head, the snarl, the random acts of violence. This is surely a case of like imitating art...

Compare Real Madrid 'star' Pepe...

...with Mortal Kombat character Baraka


Honestly, tell me if you can really spot the difference...

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