Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup: It's Brazil's To Lose

The winner of Spain-Portugal tonight rounds off the quarter-final line-up.

Spain's trademark flair hasn't really reached full flow, and their defence is highly suspect, so Brazil are strong favourites.

Despite accusations that they are a dour outfit by previous standards, Brazil have an ominous momentum. They've swept aside Ivory Coast and Chile, always giving the impression that if and when necessary, they can shift into a higher gear.

Their final group game, the dead rubber against Portugal, was interesting in hinting at the problems Brazil may have breaking down a well-organised team with little attacking ambition. Then again, key forwards were rested, and you would back the men in yellow if they could call on the full compliment.

Could Portugal themselves have slipped under the radar as possible winners? They have an amazing defensive record in recent times. A team with a great defence and a decent attack is more likely to triumph in a World Cup than a team with a poor defence and a great attack. That is why I do not see Spain as likely winners. Tonight's outcome will tell us more.

Germany's destruction of England has been greeted with a little too much fanfare. Lampard's "goal that wasn't" would have had a huge impact on the game if allowed, to suggest otherwise is moronic. A team levelling a game from 2-0 down- in the space of a minute- is going to have serious momentum for the remainder. Instead, Germany collected themselves, sat back, soaked up and killed the game when the opportunity arose. England would obviously not have left those yawning gaps at the back had the scores been level.

The Germans were delightful in England's final third, and their continued presence in the tournament is reason to be pleased. But the latent flakiness of their young team- apparent in the concession of Lampard's goal and a shakey start to the second half- suggests that they would be no match for Brazil if there is to be a repeat of the 2002 final.

Before speculating about the identity of the finalists, there is the small matter of a mouth-watering quarter-final between Germany and Argentina. To me, Argentina look untested. Messi has been explosive at times, but looks obsessed with scoring, at times to the detriment of better-placed team mates. After a handy group, they enjoyed a lot of luck in negotiating what should have been a tight game against Mexico. Their midfield and defence are nowhere near as impressive as their attack. If they manage to reach the final, again I would see them as fodder for the Brazilians.

Assuming that Brazil will be in the final. This may seem an insult to a Dutch side that have been efficient if unspectacular so far. Unfortunately for Holland, Sneijder and Van Persie have a strained relationship, which is not to mention the fact that they do not dovetail naturally as players. If Arjen Robben plays a blinder, they could spring a shock, but it is more likely that Brazil will expose a defence that looked shakey at times against Slovakia.

Uruguay- Ghana will be the battle of the dark horses. Uruguay in particular could cause Brazil a problem in the semi-finals by refusing to become open to their counter-attacking threat. A cagey affair in prospect.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup: Same Old England, and Au Revoir France

With all the long balls sailing over Emile Heskey's head, perhaps it is the jabulani that is sabotaging England's lofty World Cup hopes.

When Fabio Capello took charge, he voiced the intention to make England a passing side. The continued presence of Heskey testifies to the failure of that project. The sight of a big, physical centre forward triggers something primal in the underdeveloped mind of the English footballer. The ball grows a mouth and screams "HOOF ME!!!". It is primitive and self-defeating.

But what else can they do? The deficiencies of the likes of Gerrard are well-documented and are typical of English midfielders. To be fair, performances in qualifying suggest that a fit Gareth Barry would improve the situation somewhat. Owen Hargreaves' perennial injury nightmare is unfortunate. But England are completely lacking in creative players. John Giles says those instincts have been "coached out" of English football. He is surely right. Even if England were to rip up and bin the undeserved 'Golden Generation' tag, drop Lampard and/or Gerrard, who would take up the reins? These must be worrying times for English supporters.

Mangled leg notwithstanding, they must surely wish Aaron Ramsey was born in their patch of Britain. They must wish Jack Wilshere was a little older and wiser. They must wish Paul Scholes had been approached sooner to play in this World Cup, because old legs and all, he's forgotten more than Frank Lampard will ever know about being a proper midfield player.



Let's try not to gloat too much though, it just makes us look a petty little nation.

After all, we were not robbed of a place at the World Cup, but of a chunk of extra time and possibly a penalty shoot-out that we may well have lost anyway.

Overall, the underachievement of teams like England and France, coupled with the frailties of all the other fancied nations, suggests the likelihood of a strange World Cup. One that could feature a few more surprises, and even a victory for quite a mediocre, but well-organised team...

Seeing the French give up in the second half against Mexico, it was hard to escape the feeling that Ireland had qualified, they would be doing quite well...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Do You Console A Man Who's Just Injured Himself By Tackling His Own Team Mate?

It's one of the great philosophical questions.

I don't mean to stick the knife in, but I'm glad Big Philly is gone. Sometimes, watching him, I felt I was witnessing the sporting equivalent of all the embarrassing and awkward moments of my own life. Perhaps I should feel an affinity with the guy.

But I can't. It's hard enough to watch Arsenal these days without being reminded of my status as a social retard by their lumbering, error-prone centre backs.

World Cup: The Team That Could Win It For England

In what is vaguely a 4-2-3-1.....

Hart; Johnson, King, Terry, A. Cole; Lampard, Barry; Lennon, Gerrard, J. Cole; Rooney.

This is reliant on a few things. Firstly, Ledley King will need to make it back for the vital closing stages. None of Carragher, Upson or Dawson are ideal partners for the sometimes ponderous but still capable John Terry. This would also free up Carragher to, if necessary, play right-back against more proficient opposition who could expose the vulnerable Johnson.

Gareth Barry needs to come back, and fit. While not the most pyrotechnic of players, he is clearly a vital cog in the England machine, one for whom Capello sees no viable alternative. With Barry in the team, it will be more difficult to get at England's potentially shaky back four. He'll also bring the ability to build moves from the middle, rather than hoofing it to Heskey all the time.

Speaking of which, my team will only come into being if Capello drops Heskey, which does seem unlikely. There is a school of thought, and it is one to which I partly belong, that Heskey rightly commands a place because he allows Rooney to play his best. Rooney's goal tally with Heskey compared to without suggests that there is some validity to this. But Rooney has just had his best season for United playing as a lone striker, and if Capello really wants England to adopt a passing game, he should strengthen his midfield and remove the temptation, in the shape of Heskey, for England's defence and midfield to launch high, long, and largely ineffective passes into the opposition's third, thus ceding possession too often.

Joe Cole is at the centre of this matter. The fact that he was included in the squad suggests that Capello believes he is ready and is willing to use him. But there still seems a hesitation. When Barry returns, the likelihood is that Gerrard will be shunted out to the nominally left-wing position in which he spent the qualifying campaign. Gerrard's most effective position is as a midfielder without defensive duties- with Lampard and Barry doing the donkey work, a 4-2-3-1 would free the Liverpool man up to link with Rooney, Cole and Lennon and try to rediscover his old dynamic self. His time on the left for England and, a few seasons ago, on the right for Liverpool, would also facilitate a level of interchange between Gerrard, Cole and Lennon. Cole could move centrally to try to weave some magic; Lennon could move left to test out the other full-back. If the intention is to play some passing, attacking football, surely this trio supporting Rooney is the most potentially devastating option. And this line-up is adaptable, with the possibility of Gerrard withdrawing further back into midfield when the extra man is needed. Perhaps the issue for Capello is that Lennon and Cole do not have the work rate to help their full-backs as much as he would like.

I know I derided England for their performance against the USA, but this World Cup has been so poor so far that a mediocre winner is perfectly plausible. Don't forget, Greece won Euro 2004, and the European Championships are arguably harder to win, what with less teams and tougher groups. Fabio Capello is probably the best manager, in terms of pedigree, at the World Cup, although pretty inexperienced in international tournaments. The team that everyone would expect to make the most of England's weaknesses have lost their first game. Now, if Spain do qualify for the second round, they are quite likely to be playing Brazil. In that scenario, the quarter-finals would include only one team that England should truly fear. I fancy that it will be Brazil.

Other than those two, there are teams with more attacking talent than England, but I would back Capello's ability to set England out to stifle, then sucker-punch, either Germany or Holland. Argentina, with a coach who ought to swap his tracksuit for a strait jacket, are bound to self-destruct at some point, even if Leo Messi reaches the heady heights of his best form. In fact, their defence and midfield are so ordinary that even a good manager might have struggled. As for France, it seems there is a latent ability in their players, but as I've said before they lack character- this was the case when they fell to pieces against Ireland in the play-off second leg, and it remains so. Raymond Domenech, inept as he is, is hardly the man to guide them far, and their petty in-fighting will prove a hindrance to a team that needs to be harmonious.

In conclusion, it really really really could happen. England could win the World Cup. What it would say about the state of international football does not bear thinking about, nor does the jingoistic bleating that would waft over here from across the Irish Sea for the next fifty years.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The World Cup: 32 Teams is Far Too Many

Seven games in, the quality has been generally poor, with goals hard to come by.

The high-profile sides that have played so far- France, Argentina and England- all look flawed. France were toothless against Uruguay. If Gourcuff really is Wenger's preferred replacement for Fabregas, as has been suggested in places, Arsenal are in big, big trouble. For a supposed creative player, he does not seem hungry to get on the ball.

For Argentina, Messi provided a lot of the spark that many suggest he has lacked for his country, but his finishing failed him, and thus his side could not build on Heinze's early header. Nigeria were not much better than awful, but still troubled an Argentine rearguard that will surely be shown up later by a better team.

England's familiar flaws show no sign of disappearing. The return of the Lampard-Gerrard axis was predictably also the return of route one. The team lacks any kind of ethos of how to play the game constructively. John Giles reprised his on-the-money critique of both central midfielders- who are not really central midfielders. That England are relying on the return of Gareth Barry to provide some balance, after his underwhelming-at-best season for Man City, speaks of their problems. All that being said, they may well have emerged triumphant if not for Robert Green's hilariously bad mistake in fumbling Clint Dempsey's speculative effort.

That should not deflect attention from just how bad England are. The astounding thing about Gerrard and Lampard is that Giles' criticism of them is so simple, so plainly, undeniably true, and yet it is never mentioned on BBC, ITV, Sky Sports, or anywhere else. Gerrard was lauded in some places for his performance, which did include a well-taken goal and some MOMENTS of diligence, tracking back, tackling; but the glaring void in his game as a "central midfielder" is consistently ignored by English pundits and fans.

With the football so far uninspiring, one can rely on RTE's coverage for a bit of entertainment. The highlight so far, Graeme Souness today: "Vidic was raped... (awkward moment as he realises he shouldn't have said it) sorry, he was taken apart by Torres..."


Monday, June 7, 2010

Moral High Ground Masks General Decline

"Wonder what it feels like to work in a real fuckin' police department"
- Jimmy McNulty

A lot of the Arsenal blog community greeted Arsenal's rebuke to Barcelona last week with an air of misplaced triumphalism. "Look at us standing up against the playground bullies", they effectively said. The implicit acknowledgement is that Arsenal's place in the big boys' playground is as a weedy, bespectacled loser. Consecutive summers have seen the sales of players of varying importance, suggesting that Arsenal are, for the time being at least, a selling club. This idea has crystallised with the likely departure of our wantaway captain. This time, when the player leaves, only a fool would suggest Arsenal will be better, in the short-term, for the change.

All of the ire of fans has been directed at Barcelona, who have acted with a complete lack of class. That is, of course, what big teams do, particularly in Spain. But it has to be acknowledged, painful as it may be, that there would be nothing to get annoyed about if Cesc Fabregas did not want to leave Arsenal. So how should we feel towards him? Personally, I'd prefer it if he just came out himself and unequivocally stated his desire to leave, rather than hiding behind the comments of others. I appreciate however his unwillingness to hurt the Arsenal fans, who he clearly has a genuine affinity with.

But is he ungrateful to want out of the project? Arsenal and Wenger made him, some suggest. It's true only to an extent. I have never seen a better footballer at the age of 17, as Fabregas was when he started the Community Shield against United in 2004. This was evidently a talent that did not need much guidance, it only needed unleashing. Arsenal freed him to play regular football, so he has them to thank for his extensive experience at a still-tender age. However, he has mostly experienced being a nearly man, with only one trophy to show for his time at the club, and that five long years ago.

I think me and him think the same- that if Arsenal commited, or were in a position to commit, to strengthening the playing staff, then trophies would follow. We don't see that happening any time soon. The imminent departure of Gallas, whatever its causes, is further proof that any progress Arsenal have made recently is piecemeal, that for every step forward there seems to be two backwards. Fans are negative in order to be positive, a perverse optimism- they never took to Gallas, he's never really been an Arsenal player. These comments, and his status as a divisive figure, hold some relevance, but of all the players that have been linked as a replacement, none come close to having his ability or experience, and that for me is the fundamental issue. It boils down to the simplest of logic- a team will not improve if it is constantly replacing good players with worse ones.

Fabregas is a great player. He wants to leave because he is ambitious in a way that his club cannot currently match. In different circumstances, maybe he could have grown into Arsenal's greatest ever. How Arsenal replace him may now become the final great challenge of Arsene Wenger's reign. One suspects that the only viable option is a slight alternation to the team's style, a reversion to the counter-attacking of yore, although it is highly questionable whether Wenger now has the players to affect such a change.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Benitez Demise Testifies to Wenger's Admirable Achievement

Liverpool lost arguably their most important player, in Xabi Alonso, last summer. Now they have lost their manager. Everything in between was a farce.

Benitez is a cheque book manager who doesn't spend well, doesn't improve players.

He has his strengths- he is clearly a good man measured next to the likes of Ferguson and Mourinho- but while he does excell in tactical battles at times, his time at Liverpool has seen as much mediocrity and confusion as it has glory. Remember that the season of their surreal Champions League victory, Liverpool finished behind Everton in 5th. Then, Benitez was forced to work with sub-par players that Gerard Houllier had signed, but he has since presided over the purchases and sales of countless players in an effort to stamp his signature on the club, and in the season past they finished 7th.

I often bemoan the lack of obvious progress for Arsenal, but at least there is stability. Liverpool have always been erratic under Benitez.

He will gain sympathy from the unfortunate situation he found himself in under the American owners, but ultimately the friction there was allowed to become an excuse for the travails onfield. Benitez constantly bemoaned the lack of available funds, but when one considers that he spent 20 million or so on Alberto Aquilani, a man whose injury record always suggested that he could never be worth the fee, it is no surprise that the Americans were reluctant to allow him to stay on and spend more.

All of which puts Wenger's recent conduct in a rather more positive light, especially if he is actually working under similar constraints to those that Benitez could not handle.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Walcott Myth Exposed, but Some People Just Won't See Sense

Finally, Fabio Capello has seemingly recognised Theo Walcott's inherent rubbishness, and left him out of his final 23 for the World Cup. Aaron Lennon had an outstanding season up to his injury, and certainly deserves a place. His career trajectory offers hope for Walcott. Shaun Wright-Phillips is far from excellent, but still a far better player right now than Walcott is. This is where he stands. He and Arsene Wenger have to take stock. Should he be converted, now, into a striker? Maybe, and maybe I should stop listening to TALKSPORT. On every occasion I tune in (and it's rare), the proliferation of poorly -formed opinions makes my blood boil. And not just from the neanderthal callers, but also from the presenters.

ADRIAN DURHAM: take a bow. You sir, are a moron. Arsene Wenger has, according to shithead, "ruined Theo Walcott" by playing him on the wing. Apparently, this sparkling "English talent" has been denied his rightful place at the game's top table by an evil French overlord whose aim in football, rather than doing what's best for Arsenal, is to hold back British players. I'm telling you, that's the point he was trying to put across. It's amazing the lengths these people go to, in their desperation, to find excuses for England's perceived underachievement. This man, as with many English pundits, is so insecure about his team's chances in the World Cup that he's already getting his excuses in, and what strange excuses he conjures. Lashing out at Wenger over the supposed mismanagement of British talent... What talent? He's lightning quick- ok, there's other sports for that. He scored a few goals in the Championship. And since his move to Arsenal and his graduation for England, he's had short flashes of brilliance, usually MONTHS of MEDIOCRITY apart. The kid is not particularly talented. As a winger, he's mostly looked inept. So, of course, they decide that, "oh, wait, he should have been playing upfront all along. It's his preferred position after all"-because he's small and quick and English and wants to play upfront, he's the next Michael Owen? Give Michael Owen some credit! He had a first touch, he had a brain, he had exceptional finishing ability. Theo Walcott has none of those things, though he SOMETIMES finishes well, and it is plainly ridiculous to assume that if played in a different position he would suddenly become clever and classy. Usually when you have a brainless boy with bags of pace you put him on the wing. Unfortunately, Walcott doesn't have a trick, can't take people on, so that has not worked out. I'm sorry, England. I'm sorry, Adrian Durham, and all the xenophobes who want to blame Arsene Wenger for the fact that England can't produce players. THEO WALCOTT IS SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT.

Maybe he'll be better up front. Maybe not. Since Adrian Durham is suggesting that Theo leave Arsenal and resurrect his career elsewhere, I hope that I get to find out while watching another team. Who'd fucking want him though?