Horses for courses

The amount of time Messrs Hansen, Shearer et al bang on about “course and distance” in regards to this years title race, one would be inclined to believe that the participants were actually horses. But since Ruud van Nistelrooy left Old Trafford, that hasn’t been the case at all. Perhaps it’s Lord Ferg’s fondness for the sport of kings that keeps the pundits riffing on their little bon mot; Giggs and Scholes, for all their experience in title winning sides, are no longer such a central part of the team that their experience will prove vital in every game. The “course and distance” analogy simply doesn’t apply since there are too many inexperienced “horses” in the squad; in this case it only applies to the “jockey” (manager) and that means it doesn’t apply at all.

Enough labouring over an already too-laboured analogy; Man Utd really only have one more tough game to go in their run in, and with City’s poor away form costing them dearly, the meeting between the two may not prove to be such a pivotal match after all. Utd will almost certainly come looking for the draw, whilst looking to pinch a goal on the counter; barring a spectacular loss of Utd form, City will have to win to stand a chance at becoming champions. Pools panel result: No score draw (inevitably).

The wildcard in all of this is the one-man Argentinian rebel whirlwind, Carlos Tevez. With most people already bored to tears by the whole sorry shenanigans, I shan’t go into too much detail about his departure and recent return. However I’d like to find a job where I can refuse to come in for 5 months, stay at home on full pay and then return like the prodigal son when I felt a bit better – nice work if you can get it.

What Tevez does offer is the polar opposite of Madcap Mario and his nonchalant languidity. While Balotelli strolls around, missing chance after chance and taking time out to castigate unworthy team mates who have the temerity to not get everything 100% right 100% of the time, Tevez will bring a fire and a zest to proceedings that could just give City a vital lift as the season enters the final furlong. (!)

The football fates love nothing more than the old boy returning to score against his former club – without a modicum of research, I’d say it happens more often than not when player comes up against a former employer. It’s how Leo Fortune-West was able to keep such a good goalscoring record well into his 40’s; he’d already played for every club there was to play for. What odds Tevez to score the winner at Eastlands on the 30th of April? Pretty short I’d say. (Betting not yet available, sorry). The situation with Denis Law in 1973-74 was different of course, but I’d say there are enough similarities between the two to argue that something of a historical precedent is already set.

Today, City face Sunderland, against whom they have won their last 7 consecutive  home league games. Martin O’Neill’s rejuvenated Sunderland side will have to bounce back from their midweek FA cup defeat at Everton, as well as overcoming recent historical precedent. A win for City will take them top, at least until Monday night when United travel to Ewood Park. Rovers’ victory at Old Trafford on New Years eve may have just saved Steve Kean’s job, and their recent home record against United isn’t too shoddy; they last beat them at home in 2005/06, a David Bentley hat-trick ensuring they did the double over them that season. A similar result on Monday night will make things very interesting indeed.


Passing of the chalice

With the FA (apparently) no closer to appointing a successor to Fabio Capello as England manager, now seems like as good a time as any to look back at the circumstances that led to his eventual departure, and also what sort of legacy he leaves behind after his four years in charge.

The source of the whole discordant debacle emanates from John Terry’s alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand back in October. Now, I am not advocating that we should stray from the long held virtue of justice, “innocent until proven guilty”. Terry has protested his innocence from the very start, as is his wont. However, when people in high profile positions from all walks of life face serious allegations of any sort about their conduct, it is not unusual for them to be moved on, or to step down, even temporarily. Terry may not believe he has done anything wrong, but he could have stepped down as England captain without any admission of guilt; simply, in the interests of maintaining harmony in the England camp, he could have stepped down until he had cleared his name, after which he would once again be considered for the captaincy.

But apparently such a conciliatory move was either unthought of by his PR men, or was regarded as an unpalatable show of weakness from England’s fearsome leader. It would have required a level of self-awareness that few people earning £150,000 a week probably have. Terry has every right to maintain his innoncence, but had he given an inch, there would have been no need for any of the concerned parties to take a mile. Instead, we were left with the farcical situation of Chelsea fans booing Rio Ferdinand because of who he was related to.

When the Crown Prosecution Service decided to press charges against Terry at the end of the December, both Terry and the FA missed the perfect window of opportunity to act in a timely manner. As Jez MacBlain said in this week’s podcast, if the FA wanted to remove Terry as captain, this was the time to do it. That the case was later adjourned until July is a moot point; it was scandalous indecision, a “wait and see” attitude that was never going to be to the benefit of anyone.

And when the July adjournment was announced, aside from continuing to look like rudderless oafs, the FA were presented with an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. They would have been well aware of (if not slightly allied to) the howling media campaign to remove Capello that had been rumbling since the World Cup in 2010. The situation had reached something of a crossroads. The FA couldn’t risk having their captain play at a major international tournament, then hot-footing it over to a magistrate’s court to face a charge of racial abuse. If found guilty, not only would the FA look even more like a bunch of chumps, but they would have had some serious explaining to do to their “advertising partners” as to why their man was allowed to lead the team at an international tournament in the knowledge of what could follow.

It does not seem beyond the realms of plausibility that the FA could have brought Capello into the discussion, and outlined their motives for removing Terry as captain. He may not have agreed with it or been happy about it, but one feels his position would have remained more tenable if they had not gone behind his back. Capello heard the news when he was on holiday. His departure was an inevitability. Capello would not have tolerated interference in his team at the best of times, let alone decisions made without his knowledge or consent.

The FA must have known this, which is why it is not hard to suspect an ulterior motive in the timing of their decision and the method by which they went about implementing it. Someone or some people in the FA wanted Capello out, and they got their way.

Despite everything, it is unlikely that his departure will make a huge difference at the upcoming European Championships. His record as England’s best ever manager can now no longer be tarnished by the inevitable tournament failure of England’s technically inferior players. Whoever takes the reins will have to cope with indousable fires of expectation stoked by a rabidly jingiostic tabloid press, and a squad of over-hyped players well accustomed to freezing in the international spotlight.

Hate crimes

We often hear about how Premier League footballers are “role models” of one form or another; can we trace the haemorrhaging of grass roots level referees back to the constant berating and almost physical intimidation of top flight refs by top flight players? Quite possibly. How about the sneering, overly-physical, borderline psychotic behaviour of many players down the local Goals 5-a-side league? Almost certainly.

This season, the bar has been set lower than before. First of all, Luis Suárez racially abused Patrice Evra on the 15th of October. What followed was one of the most undignified, obstinate, and petulant attempts at face-saving by Liverpool FC, who throughout the whole sorry affair, have behaved like a smacked toddler caught raiding the biscuit tin, endlessly crying and wailing to the point where they’re not even sure why they were doing it in the first place.

I would not begrudge any employer sticking up for their charge during a particularly difficult time. However all sense of reason seems to have left Kenny Dalglish when it comes to Suárez-gate, who has (publicly, at least) refused to entertain any notion that his man may have done wrong. After Liverpool’s 0-0 stalemate with Tottenham last night, Dalglish said “He should never have been banned in the first place.” At this point he is veering away from Siege-Mentality and heading straight for Plain Ridiculous.

Ragardless of Dalglish’s personal feelings on the matter, it is unfathomable that he is unable to see the negative effect his attitude is having on some sections of the Liverpool support. The situation of a player being booed by fans because he has been the victim of proven racial abuse by a player on their team is beyond the pale, beyond pathetic. It really makes you question just how far we have evolved as a species that the attitude of a few men can lead to such tribal pertinaciousness among the rank and file. Evra was booed by a significant amount of Liverpool fans during their FA cup tie with Man Utd because he refused to meekly accept the abuse dished out by Suárez. If Dalglish and Liverpool had behaved with any sort of decorum, common sense or attitude towards conciliation, this situation would never have arisen.

In a similar vein, Rio Ferdinand was roundly booed by a good number of the Stamford Bridge faithful on Sunday during Man Utd’s 3-3 draw with Chelsea. The unflappable logic behind it, of course, was down to him being the brother of man allegedly called a “fucking black c**t” by the Chelsea captain John Terry. Take that, common sense! What is most staggering is that these people are able to dress themselves in the morning.

It is a truly depressing state of affairs that racism and racist abuse of players has not merely crept back in to the game, but has walked into its front room and sat in the armchair without anyone batting an eyelid. Liverpool wearing Suarez T-shirts is tantamount to an admission that Suárez making racist comments is ok and that he could it again for all they care. Dalglish continuing to maintain the innocence of a man found guilty is only making matters worse.

Instead of fostering such a truculent attitude, Liverpool could have sent a clear message against racism by doubling Suárez’s fine, accepting the punishment and keeping schtum. Instead they continue stoke the fires of hatred by backing to the hilt and extolling the virtues of one the most odious characters in recent memory. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and it won’t get better until clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea start acknowledging that some of their players aren’t reincarnations of Mother Teresa.

Arsenal 1-2 Man Utd: Reaction

Whilst their league form has been a little patchy this season, Barcelona remain the greatest club side in Europe at this moment, as they have been for the last 4 or 5 years. Few can keep pace with their relentless pressing of the ball high up the pitch and tiki-taka passing; on the occasions they have been defeated, it has usually been due to the metaphorical parking of the bus, and no small amount of good fortune. In these last few years, the only team that has “out-Barcelona’d” Barcelona (or at least gone toe-to-toe with them) over 90 minutes is Arsenal, in the first leg of the Champions League first knockout round in February last year.

Almost 12 months later, Arsenal have been left reeling after 3 straight defeats, the most recent being a 2-1 home reverse against Man Utd. Now, losing at home to the champions, even for a so-called “big” team like Arsenal should not be a cause for great concern, but they have been the masters of their own downfall in many respects.

They have shown they have the capability to beat the best team in Europe (a year ago, admittedly), and yet in the first half of Sunday’s game, played with a truly baffling lack of urgency. The passing was woeful, pressure on the ball non-existent, and they gave the United wingers players such a wide berth, it was a miracle there was only a one goal difference at the break. Valencia’s well taken goal was a blessing in disguise for Wenger, whose team did not deserve parity after such a dismal first-half performance.

One of the few decisions Wenger got right today was the substitution of Djorou at half time, who was playing out of position at right-back and was all at sea.His replacement, the youngster Yennaris, may not be a world-beater, but was a good deal steadier. Arsenal were a lot more fluent in the second half. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the key man, his driving runs down the left started to create opportunities, none more clear cut than van Persie’s horrendous miss from 8 yards. It was the same two who combined for Arsenal’s equaliser, which they just about deserved after being on top for most of the second half up to that point.

Then came Wenger’s incredible decision to substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andrei Arshavin, which effectively cost them the match. Arsenal were in the ascendency, had clawed their way back into the match, and subsequently removed their most dangerous player. And replaced him with someone who, at the moment, is a complete non-threat and shouldn’t be anywhere near the team.

Despite not being a left sided player, O-C was crucial to Arsenal getting back in the match, as he was willing to take on the defender, to go round the outside and get in behind the United back four, which created the space for van Persie to shoot. He was able to expose the slightly narrow banks of four that United had set out; in contrast, Arshavin would only dribble infield, was unable to have any positive influence on the game, and played right into the hands of the Man Utd game plan. Against the gunners, Ferguson always makes the centre of the pitch very compact and over populated as he knows Arsenal will forever try and play through the middle.

Theo Walcott looks less and less like a footballer with every game. It has been said that he lacks the final ball, but it’s difficult to quantify exactly what he was lacking today as he was so poor in all departments. His passing was terrible, crossing was bad, shooting was wayward, decision-making poor; the chorus of boos that rang out as Wenger chose to replace O-C instead of Walcott was fully deserved. It was an abysmal decision, completely lacking in courage, and in the end, produced a result deserving of such a gutless choice. Walcott should have been taken off after half an hour; instead he played 90 minutes. Mystifying, and maddening for Arsenal fans, I’m sure.

Wenger can have no complaints about the result, although he usually comes up with an excuse. But today he was the architect of his own demise, shooting himself in the foot with negative tactics and negative substitutions. If Arsenal are to once again finish in the top 4, he needs to swallow his pride, learn from his mistakes, and learn to be braver and more ruthless with under-performing players. How long would Fergie have persisted with such an ineffective spare part like Walcott in his team? He would have been sold to Sunderland years ago.

Le Prof obviously feels loyal to his players but there comes a time when you have to admit that certain things, certain players, just aren’t performing as they should and need to be shipped out so that the team can start growing again. At the moment, Arsenal are stagnating and Wenger needs to make some tough choices. Or wait until Mikel Arteta is fit and they start winning again…

Sniper’s Midwinter Musings

The festive fixture list may take its toll on players and managers, but for the rest of us looking on, it’s something of a Christmas bonus. As well as all the eating and drinking, there was almost a continuous flow of matches to take our minds off all the extra turkey and stuffing sandwiches we’d eaten.

The biggest losers over the festive period were the champions, Man Utd. Defeat at home to largely disinterested and defensive Blackburn was a huge blow that will take some coming back from, but the causes are easily traceable to Lord Ferg’s absolute unwillingness to select players in their natural positions – i.e. not playing relatively untested youngsters vs. experienced players in alien roles – and this finally caught up with them. Michael Carrick will never be a worthy centre-half, and Rafael will never be steely enough for central midfield. The line up certainly improved against Newcastle, but the Geordies were well organised, played with a great energy that Man Utd couldn’t match, and thoroughly deserved their 3-0 win. Rooney’s lethargy, back from his Fergie-imposed ban for missing curfew, summed up Man Utd’s performance to a T.

Chelsea and Arsenal both underlined their inability to put a consistent run of results together. 3 wins for either in what were very winnable games would have kept them within touching distance of the title race; 4 points from a possible 9 has left the door open for a dour Liverpool side to somehow make it a 3 horse race for the final champions league spot.

Newcastle, with players returning from injury, would be hoping they could muscle in on the hunt for that champions league place, and they are well placed to make run. However, it’s hardly a controversial statement to say that they may struggle for form while their two of their best players, Chiek Tiote and 15-goal Demba Ba are away on African Nations duty. With Alan Pardew no longer in the market for a striker, they will have to find goals from outside the attack, with the less-than-prolific Shola Ameobi and Leon Best leading the line.

Blackburn remain bottom, despite an unlikely return of 4 points from games at Anfield and Old Trafford. One is left questioning their resilience after their subsequent failure at home to Stoke, but their two previous performances must give some hope to the eternal optimist Steve Kean. They are only 3 points from safety, but must pick up points in their next 2 games, at home to a Fulham side who have won once on the road this season, and away to a goal shy Everton, if they are to maintain any realistic hopes of survival.

Wigan may have improved of late, but a 4-1 home belting at the hands of a rejuvenated Sunderland must have knocked the stuffing out of them once more. If this is the year they finally succumb to relegation, may I just say that Moses, Watson and Boyce are all very welcome to head back to Selhurst Park where they can re-ignite their careers under hot-stuff rookie manager Dougie Freedman.

Making up the bottom 3, Bolton, soon to be shorn of captain Gary Cahill, will continue to struggle. Owen Coyle talks a good game, and while they were deserved winners against Everton in midweek, only a vast improvement in their home form (4 points from a possible 30) will lift them to safety. I think the final relegation place will be a shootout between them and Wolves, heavily reliant on Steven Fletcher’s goals, seem to have been cursed with Roger Johnson’s “luck of the brum” from last season. Buying centre-halves from dire teams that were deservedly relegated in the previous season never seemed like such a great idea to me – take note Villas-Boas. And Mick McCarthy, I hope you’ve learned your lesson.

QPR have been on a very poor run, but with chairman Tony Fernandes eager to spend some cash, they will probably edge their way to safety. Above them, West Brom and Fulham should have enough in their respective lockers to maintain a relatively safe distance from the drop zone, though a mere 3 points separate 15th placed West Brom and 9th placed Norwich – any one of those teams will be feeling they can make a charge for a European spot, or less hopefully, collapse into relegation hell.

Official Purpose

In terms of footballing excitement, this season’s boxing day set of fixtures in the Premier League didn’t really deliver a great deal. Not that there should be any extra pressure on teams or managers to come out all guns blazing on St. Stephen’s day, but none of the games really did much to add to the festive cheer of the neutral.

Man City wobbled again, this time against a very resilient and organised West Brom side; Chelsea were unable to overcome Fulham in the West London derby, the 5th draw against Fulham in the last 11 home league meetings between them; Liverpool were unable to bash the Blackburn door down, due to some inspired goalkeeping and poor finishing; and anyone suffering from a post-Christmas lull would have been put to sleep by the utterly soporific Stoke-Villa clash.

So it’s understandable, then, for attention to be focussed elsewhere, namely the refereeing standards in a couple of the games. Firstly at Old Trafford, Connor Salmon received a red card for tickling Michael Carrick’s nose as they were about to challenge for a header, effectively ending the game as a contest and gifting Man Utd a 5-0 win. Secondly, we witnessed a truly shambolic refereeing performance at the Emirates Stadium, Stuart Attwell sending off Nenad Milijaš for a strong challenge on Mikel Arteta that was certainly worthy of a yellow card, but that didn’t look particularly vicious; it looked at worst only equally as dangerous as Alex Song’s wild swipe at Steven Fletcher’s shin that only warranted a caution.

The Arsenal-Wolves game was played at a very high tempo, and certainly leant towards the spicy side of competitive as the game drew on, but almost all the potential flashpoints were handled so poorly that the tensions between the teams rose a lot higher than they necessarily should have. Mr. Attwell’s performance lacked any sort of consistency or authority, and Mick McCarthy would have had an easy scapegoat had Wolves conceded at the end; credit where it’s due for hanging on in there; defending the 6 yard line is a difficult task but they somehow pulled it off.

Tying the two poor refereeing displays was Attwell’s yellow card given to Adlène Guedioura for flailing his arms at Per Mertesacker. The incident was almost a carbon copy of Sammon’s infringement against Carrick the previous day (slightly worse, if anything), and yet the punishments were very different. There is just no consistency. Referees have a hard enough job without deciding to interpret the rules in a laissez-faire eisegesical nightmare.

At the heart of the problem is the decision to fast track younger referees. This is not to say that a 29 year-old man is incapable of making the correct decisions. But it’s not too much of a leap of logic to posit that an older, more experienced referee would be better at diffusing inflammatory situations that they have encountered many times previously, and at keeping their head while 22 grown men revert to their inner toddler and have enormous tantrums whilst waving imaginary yellow cards in their faces.

Years of experience in the lower leagues, where the crowds are at least less populated and the tempo of the matches a little slower must surely be a rite of passage for all referees. Attwell spent just a solitary season in the Football League before being promoted to the top flight. His career, already littered with controversies (most notably, the ghost goal for Reading against Watford) should be caution enough to the relevant authorities that their “initiative” should be permanently shelved and only brought up as a reminder next time anyone has an equally stupid idea.

Unfortunately, there is little hope for improvements in refereeing while current referees’ chief Mike Riley is overseeing the development of officialdom. Riley, whose name became synonymous with controversy during his long career as a Premier League ref, is unlikely to drive any common-sense into the way matches are refereed. Accused on the record by David Moyes of being biased towards Manchester United, of being “disgraceful” by Phil Brown, and who once openly celebrated a goal in a Premier League match; this man is in charge of the nations referees. What could possibly go right?

Leaning Towers

For a almost a decade after the ban on English clubs competing in Europe post-Hesyel ended, the English champions (mostly Manchester Utd, but also Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn) struggled to make an impact at Europe’s top table. The powerhouse of continental football was Italy, being represented in 7 consecutive European Cup/Champions League finals between 1992-1998.

These were testing times for English teams in Europe’s elite competition. Whilst the Cup Winners Cup was kind, (Man Utd winners in 1991, Arsenal in 1994, Chelsea in 1998), the gulf in class between in the English champions and their continental counterparts was highly visible. The aura of English clubs, created by the European glories of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa – winners of 7 out of 8 finals between 1977 and 1984 – was long forgotten. The English stranglehold on the European Cup was lost on that tragic night at Heysel when 39 Juventus fans were killed. In the ensuing 5 years, the English club game would be left behind.

Without wanting to rely too much on a held opinion, however true it may be – that English players are not as technically gifted as their comrades from mainland Europe – English clubs and players in the early 90’s had lost whatever edge they had over European teams that allowed them to dominate the 70’s and 80’s. The enforced 5 year sabbatical created a power vaccum that needed to be filled, and as the English clubs returned, that power had very much shifted to Italy.

In a self-perpetuating cycle of success begetting success that we would witness first hand in the Premier League at the turn of the century, the lustre of Serie A would attract top talent from around the world: Van Basten, Batistuta, Rui Costa, Bergkamp, Sensini, Boksic, Deschamps to name but a few, joining the plethora of home grown talent which would make it the benchmark by which other European leagues would measure themselves.

But, as with all occurrences and all situations, this too would pass. Arguably, the biggest turning point, the pivotal moment which saw the power slip away from Serie A would again involve Juventus, this time as they were pegged back from 2-0 ahead in their Champions League Semi-Final second leg against Manchester Utd, losing 3-2 on the night of April 21, 1999 and going out 4-3 on aggregate.

Whilst the two Milanese clubs would enjoy further Champions League success in the next decade, the end of collective bargaining for TV rights in Italy and the all-consuming sprawl in popularity of the Premier League as it began to dig its claws into every corner of the planet signalled a fading in the Serie A star. As the money gushed into the coffers of the Premier League clubs, and with Sterling trading very strongly, so did the talent turn its head. Just as Britain quietly assimilates the parts of other cultures who have immigrated here into its own, so would the Premier League become technically more pleasing whilst keeping the high-tempo and intensity more associated with the kick and rush heyday of times past.

Of course, it would be highly remiss of me not to mention that the current dominant forces of Europe lie in La Liga’s two horse race. Barcelona have set the bar; only Mourinho’s doggedly defensive Inter Milan team stopped them winning 3 consecutive Champions League finals. The rest of Europe, Real Madrid included, have been left playing catch up, trying to find a way of dealing with the relentless pressing and passing, without being Tiki-taka‘d into submission.

But, this too shall pass. Barcelona trailing by Real Madrid by 3 points after 16 games may not be a sign of their imminent demise, but it at least gives hope to others that they may not be as invincible as was once thought. And if the torch of continental domination is to be passed once again, the two Anglo-Italian ties in the 2nd round of the Champions League could act as a power broker.

Arsenal, having seemingly put their early season woes to bed, face a Milan side level on points with Juventus at the top of Serie A. January may provide the Gunners with the chance to bring in defensive reinforcements, but their somewhat creaky back line could struggle to deal with the attacking prowess of Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic. Chelsea and their under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas must take on Napoli, conquerors of Man City. A swift counter-attacking side, their front of three of Lavezzi, Hamsik and the lethal Edinson Cavani will surely trouble Chelsea’s weakening defence and out-of-sorts goalkeeper.

The last time there was no English representative in the last 8 of the Champions League was in the 1995-96 season, when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty’s comical in-fighting saw Blackburn finish rock bottom of their group. If the same outcome were to be repeated this season, it would be a far less ignominious situation for the clubs, and the league as a whole. The longer-term significance, though, would be far greater.

Diminishing returns

Perhaps the greatest strength of Sir Alex Ferguson is his Man-Management abilities.  Rarely does a Manchester Utd side take to the field not 100% certain that they will win the game, whilst being terrifically motivated and focussed on their task. This is his psychological trump card, for where many great collections of players have failed to deliver the goods, throughout his managerial career, Fergie’s teams have been utterly relentless in their drive for silverware and success. His ability to mould the collective persona of his teams around his vision of success is what sets him apart.

Another of his vital skills is the ability to know when the team needs to be rebuilt. It’s happened countless times; first of all, imposing his will on the dressing room, and ending the drinking culture at the club with McGrath, Robson et al. Then in the early 90’s, having to rebuild the team as the likes of Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Hughes were phased out. He’s been able to cover superstar-sized holes in the team after a player’s departure: Ince, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, and still he keeps on building successful teams.

Three things have happened that threaten the Ferguson dynasty, of which only two are rectifiable by him. Firstly, Roy Keane has not been properly replaced as the enforcer in their midfield. Secondly, Paul Scholes, despite being a shadow of his former self in the last 4 or 5 years of his career, finally disappeared from view, and despite having years of warning, the goalscoring, creative thrust from midfield also hasn’t been replaced. The players brought in to try and plug the gaps have varied; there’s the energy of Park and Anderson, but no guile; there’s Michael Carrick, who has a very high pass completion ratio (file under “does nothing”). Darren Fletcher is aggressive and bullies referees, but his overall fitness is lacking and in all honesty, is nowhere near as good a footballer as Keane was. Ryan Giggs is a 38 year-old left winger who has been shunted into the middle due to a dearth of viable alternatives. The centre of their midfield has gradually drifted away, and doesn’t look like coming back anytime soon.

And finally, The Glazers. Before they arrived, you could have bet your bottom dollar that something would have been done before there was a bona fide crisis. Despite continuing to fund large outlays on some players, this midfield problem, which started as a crack but has since been eroded into a gaping hole, doesn’t look like it will be solved soon. It is almost a certainty that he will buy in January, and buy big. But in the back of his mind, he will be thinking Juan Veron, Juan Veron. And worrying about making the same mistake, and history repeating itself; in the 2005-06, they failed to qualify from their Champions League group (which had Benfica in it), and finished a distant 2nd to Chelsea in the Premier League.

Man Utd strike such fear into the hearts of their opponents that even with a 2nd rate central midfield, they have been able to win games and league titles (see last season). However, their main weakness has now been exposed. They will still win many games, but teams will go to Old Trafford with less fear now. They will know they can be beaten. All the man-management in the world cannot hide that the heartbeat of the Man Utd side is weaker now than it has been in the last 20 years. And with the added blow of Nemanja Vidic being out for the season, the crisis doesn’t look like resolving itself anytime soon.


Rite of Summer

Watching the draw for the group stages of an international tournament has always been something of a mystical experience. For one thing, they are almost always presented in English, despite it not being the mother tongue of the people running the show. Further, we come face to face with the “Question in English | Answer in Russian/French/Ukrainian” interview technique, though what illusions of spontaneous human multi-lingualism one may have held are shattered when the hostess reads her reactions to the interviewees answers off a pre-prepared card.

The show begins. Having never witnessed Cossack dancing in the past, I find the opening section of the show to be quite fascinating. Finally, I had discovered the inspiration for MC Hammer’s famous trousers. Our genial hosts are an extremely pretty Ukrainian lady and a Polish man, whose authentic English accent with a hint of Estuary is slightly unnerving. Has he been in Eastenders? After a short video montage, we stare down the barrel of truly unlistenable football-themed Europop, along with some rather creepily enthusiastic backing dancers.

Following this, one member of each of the previous 13 winning teams is wheeled out, holding an authentic signed football from that tournament. After the introduction member of Italy’s 1968 winning team, the camera cuts to a chirpy-looking Fabio Capello, sporting easily the biggest smile he’s managed during his tenure as England boss. Then follows one of those socially awkward moments where no-one’s really sure of the proper etiquette: the formal introduction of a football. The official match ball of Euro 2012 is dangled from a cable and receives a fairly generous, if slightly uneasy round of applause.

After what feels like days of foreplay, we are then forced to watch an instructional video for the machinations of the draw. It’s like sitting in the staff room at Woolworths and watching a 10 minute video of a man lifting a box “correctly”, leaving you with the same feeling of your life ebbing away before your eyes.

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino then takes over, hosting with all the flair of a strict headmaster handing out end of term awards to over-excited children. Zinedine Zidane is chided in French for being too enthusiastic with his handling of the first ball. Peter Schmiechel’s bolshy attempt at ad-libbing after Denmark are again drawn with Portugal leads to a few moments of decidedly awkward silence as Infantino desperately tries to get back on script. Any tension there may have been prior to the show has long been replaced by an overwhelming desire to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible so everyone can get down the pub.

The dignitaries in attendance who had long ago slipped into a coma are about to be startled by another bout of feisty Europop, but apart from that, the whole thing is over. Ireland are drawn with Croatia, Italy and Spain (gulp), while England face Sweden, France and co-hosts Ukraine. Back in the BBC studio, Mark Lawrenson is visibly aggrieved at Ireland being drawn in the toughest group, while Martin Keown raises his eyebrows bullishly and thinks England “will be fine.” Without Rooney, Martin? We’ll see.

Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Russia;
Group B: Holland, Denmark, Portugal and Germany;
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia and Italy;
Group D: Ukraine, France, Sweden and England.

Act in haste…

The standard end to that saying is “repent at leisure”, however after Alan Hutton’s two-footed horror tackle on Shane Long last Saturday, no such repentance has been forthcoming from various sources at Aston Villa.

Peter Grant, assistant manager at Villa, yesterday wandered into cliché corner in saying Hutton “is not that sort of player.” Of course, there is no surer condemnation of someone as “that sort of player” if someone is forced to go on the record, after seeing the potentially career-ending actions of a player, and say that’s not something that they do. (Go figure).

McLeish’s staunch refusal to denounce Hutton’s tackle is not only symptomatic of Modern Manager Myopia (MMM), but also hypocritical and evidence of his lack of being able to coach a team to success without fouling the opposition. In the build up to the West Brom game, he had told his charges to “get in the faces” of the opposition. Would it be rude of me to suggest “play better football” is a better tactic for winning matches? It may be obvious, but if Gabby Agbonlahor or Darren Bent had been the recipient of a similar challenge, McLeish would have been screaming blue murder, not saying that tackles like that happen in every game (they don’t), and that people don’t say anything when the player doesn’t get injured (they do). It’s an insult to every team Villa will come up against to be so wilfully ignorant of the actions of one of his players.

Villa are slowly morphing into the turgid anti-football team he nurtured across the city. Randy Lerner may not be committing the same amount of his resources to the club as he did under Martin O’Neill, but has certainly backed his man well enough; £9.5m for Charles N’Zogbia, £3.5m for Shay Given, £1m for Jermain Jenas (loan), and also Hutton will be on a fair chunk of wages as well. N’Zogbia has failed miserably. Jenas is yet to play, but will do nothing at all if his career so far is anything to go by. Hutton has never looked capable in the Premier League. Given appears to be the only decent signing, though his refusal to come off his line at set pieces has been and always will be his achilles heel.

McLeish’s teams have nothing that marks them out football-wise, other than they are usually 4-5-1, inflexible, and dull. Villa fans don’t tend to speak too highly of the reign of Gerard Houllier, but there were certainly some signs toward the end of last season that his philosophy was becoming ingrained in the team. But Houllier has gone, and gone with him the more cultured, continental approach to the game. In comes the “get in their faces” approach. And two-footed, mid-air studs up tackles.

McLeish assertion that “in ten years’ time you won’t see any contact at all in football” is not only pathetic scaremongering, but also an indication that he has no idea how to cope when being “physically assertive” towards the opposition is no longer allowed. Ostensibly non-contact football already exists; it’s called Futsal. Instead of whingeing about the demise of being able to clobber opponents, he should be trying to find a way to make his teams cope without it. And Hutton should be banned for 5 games – maybe then he’d think twice about nearly wrecking someone’s career. If McLeish needs to ask the question “how can you stop in mid-air?” then I’d suggest he asks his players to try those tackles again – using him as a guinea pig.