Archive | April, 2013

A Ryder Cup for football?

29 Apr

As popular boy band JLS found to their cost, power shifts can be fast and brutal.  One minute you are kings of the kennel, the next you’re whimpering in the corner as One Direction become the new daddies of the dogs’ home.  We might be on the cusp of a similar changing of the guard in European football.

The football teams of Spain have been the undisputed alpha-dogs for some time now.  Yet Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund tore into the Spanish top two like they were week-old puppies.  Did the manner in which both Barcelona and Madrid were brought to heel by German foes, with such unquestioning obeyance, represent a wider shift in supremacy?  The new breed of Bavarian thoroughbreds certainly had tongues wagging.

National pride is at stake when arguments turn to who has the best league.  Even in countries with little home-grown talent, football fans delight in asserting that their teams are the strongest.  Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife, as Arsene Wenger once put it.  In the first flourishes of the 21st Century, the English Premiership had good claim to being the pack leader.  This is palpably no longer the case.  The spin-doctors at Sky Sports tacitly acknowledged as much by revising their claim of the Premiership being “the best league in the world” to now calling it “the most exciting league in the world”.  A subtle tweak in vernacular that New Labour would be proud of.

From my perspective, the last 20 years has seen the crown perched a-top four different heads:

1993 -> 1999 Italy

2000 -> 2004 Spain

2004 -> 2009 England

2009 -> 2012 Spain

2013 – Germany…?

If I were to relent to the demands of argumentative geriatric, Ray Winston, and have a bet, I would wager that 2013 will be seen as a blip in the continuing Spanish reign.  The Cromwellian Bundesliga will push La Liga close but, ultimately, not relieve Spain of its hegemony.  This is only my opinion, of course.  And opinions, as they say, are like arseholes (everybody’s got one).  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way we could empirically assess which league was the strongest?  Well it just so happens I have a suggestion…

Introducing the Platini Plate: “the Ryder Cup of Football”.  Europe’s top leagues compete against each other – 1st plays 1st, 2nd plays 2nd, right down to 20th plays 20th.  A win scores one point and a draw gets you a half.  Football schedules are already more cramped than Ricki Lake in a 2-door Jag, so let’s keep it biannual, taking place during the pre-season of every odd year.  Rather than the frankly unwatchable friendlies currently in situ, you would have Bayern Munich versus Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund versus Manchester City, right down to the grudge match of Reading versus Greuther Freuth.  It could work on either an invitational basis (the Premiership could challenge a different league every two years), or the country of the previous year’s Champions League winners could play the defending champions of the Platini Plate.  The title of “Europe’s Strongest League” would pass back-and-forth like a boxing belt.

The beauty of the Platini Plate (I’m working on a better name.  Suggestions welcome…) is it’s no use having one or two powerhouses in a league otherwise full of carthorses.  The criticism, unfairly in my view, that La Liga comprises of Real Madrid, Barcelona and 18 whipping boys could be put to the test.  Would Norwich beat Athletic Bilbao in the battle of 14th place?  Are Valencia really going to struggle against their 6th place counterparts, Everton?  Champions League teams are, in reality, outliers, rather than indicative of a league’s strength in depth.  This tournament is more interested in the mean average than the cream of the crop.

Would the viewing public be interested in such a contest?  I think they would lap it up.  The match-ups could be staggered over 4 days, building up to a crescendo as the last two teams do battle in a potentially thrilling finale.  Since games would overlap with each other, the red button would be your friend.  Think of the excitement as Martin Tyler announces “there’s been a goal at the Britannia…”.  Cue cheers across the nation as the screen-within-screen shows John Walters firing Stoke into a 2-0 lead against Real Vallodolid.  A point safely in the bag there by the Potters.

As for the players, I can’t help but feel that they would be stirred by a mixture of patriotism (for some, at least) and a desire to demonstrate that they play in the best league in the world.  Everyone likes to think that they work in the most demanding environment.  Here is a chance for players to prove their league is pre-eminent.  You would think Rickie Lambert would jump at the opportunity to show he can score goals against defences across Europe.  And, with Liverpool looking like an absentee from Europe next year, Luis Suarez would presumably be dying to sink his teeth into, well, you get the picture.

So what do you think, Mr Platini?  I’ll not charge a penny for the idea.  It’s yours to do with as you wish.  In lieu of payment, I ask only that you take a flexible attitude to Manchester City when the Financial Fair Play Rules come into force next year.  Do we have ourselves a deal?


You’re so manly, Ray.  I wish my Granddad was as cool as you.

After much brow-furrowing and some careful use of the Too Good abacus, it became apparent that there are only 18 teams in the Bundesliga.  In the spirit of the Ryder Cup, Germany are therefore allowed two wild card picks.  Welcome to the party Eintracht Braunschweiger and Hertha Berlin.  The Spanish, Italian, French and English teams all have 20 teams in their top-flight at the time of writing.

Spurs 3 v Man City 1 (21 April, 2013)

21 Apr

George Graham was always keen to tell us that the league season is a marathon not a sprint.  Surely though, as the sprightly of limb geared up for a 26 mile race across the nation’s capital, what the Hotspurs of North London now needed was a sprint finish.  Last weekend saw a man from Tyneside pick a fight with a horse.  Had Spurs similarly bitten off more than they could chew in thinking they could secure a Champions League berth?  A loss today would confirm Tottenham’s place as perennially adorned in a bridesmaid’s dress at the wedding ceremony of the Top 4.

For Manchester City, their grasp on the Premiership crown is now weaker than Charlie Sheen’s grip on reality.  Today was a day for some big reputations to prove they still wanted to lace up their sneakers for next year’s foot-race to the title.

In a week where the BBC’s Panorama programme achieved the impossible and actually found a use for students, Roberto Mancini also pulled off an unlikely success.  Rather than using undergraduates as a human shield to enter North Korea, Mancini did something equally impressive and got a performance out of Samir Nasri.  Nasri was my vote for the 2010/11 Premiership season’s best player (along with Luis Nani, as incredible as this all now sounds).  To say that he has some way to go to rediscover that kind of form would rival Alan Shearer’s ability for stating the bleeding obvious.

Nasri was out of the starting blocks on the “B” of “Bang” today, though.  Five minutes in, some sharp team-work down the right flank by Tevez and Milner allowed Slammin’ Sammi to direct his volley into an unguarded corner of the net.

The enthral of the opening goal was all in the build up.  Such was the cuteness of the angle with which Carlos Tevez’s pass circumnavigated Scott Parker, one couldn’t help but be filled with both admiration for Tevez and pity for Parker.  The English terrier was made to look like he had five seconds to find his car keys before an explosive device would detonate, but was only allowed to turn clockwise in order to find them.  The former McDonalds brand evangelist could only look on in a daze as City went a goal to the good.

There’s something bordering on the sexual in having Gareth Barry in your team.  Sure, on the one hand, he’d lose a footrace against continental drift.  But his metronomic ability to keep the ball moving back and forth to the creative hub of the City side makes him indispensable.  I remain convinced that allowing Nigel De Jong to leave in the summer was a big error, but it shows the faith placed in Barry that this was allowed to happen.

A messy incident occurred a few years back when the Queen wrung the neck of a pheasant while out on a hunt.  Such behaviour brought hoots of derision from conscientious animal-lovers, while Buckingham Palace defended the actions by stating that it was “clearly the most effective and humane way of despatching the injured bird”.  Watching Manchester City today, part of me longed for Her Majesty’s cold-blooded decisiveness when confronted with a wounded animal.  City had injured Spurs, but not fatally.  By not twisting the knife, a backlash was always a possibility.  And what a backlash it proved to be.

The pick-pocketing couldn’t have been more apparent if AVB had wondered over to the City technical area and pinched a trail of handkerchiefs from Roberto Mancini’s jacket pocket.  City lurched from a slender one-goal lead to an insurmountable 3-1 down in seven hurricane minutes.  First, Clint Dempsey profited from a quick-thinking prod across the box by the Welsh Ronaldo.  Second, Jermaine Defoe (on for Emmanuel Adebayor, who had shown about as little endeavour as I had during my Grade 1 violin lessons) rifled in a bullet from a wide angle to put the Lilywhites into the lead.

Tottenham’s third was finished by Bale himself.  A cool chip from just inside the penalty area left Joe Hart and his charmingly outdated haircut completely stranded.  The come-back was complete.  A revival which, on 70 minutes, wouldn’t have been more startling if Maggie herself had emerged from her recently constructed coffin door.

An occasional criticism of Mancini is that he lacks a certain lightness of spirit and a sense of humour.  Our wily coach disproved both of these accusations in an instance by introducing Scott Sinclair with ten minutes to go.  During this process, Sergio Aguerro remained tracksuited and at ease.  It’s at times like this that the mind boggles as much as the heart despairs.

AVB’s post-match interview voice continues to sound like a lump of pavement being dragged over a cattle grid.  It was difficult to ascertain much from his grumblings other than that the man was badly in need of a lozenge.  Surely though, the Argos Mourinho was deep in contemplation of the need to avoid another run of Thursday night UEFA cup games.  One suspects the pull of ITV4 won’t prove enough of an appeal to Gareth Bale’s sense of loyalty for him to stick around for another year.  And it’s hard to imagine a Bale-less Spurs getting into the Champions League in the seasons to come.  It is therefore hard to overestimate the importance of their next 5 games.  Twelve points at the very minimum are a must.  Failing that, the auction for Tottenham’s golden goose commences on May 19th.



The City team lacked a dispassionate killer in their ranks to protect against a Tottenham charge.

Gary Lineker ruined Match of the Day for me.

21 Apr

There’s something about diminishing returns that contrive to make an activity less than the sum of its parts.  Slush Puppies ultimately failed to satisfy because the first mouthful was always the best.  After that, it was a downhill slope as the flavoured slush got progressively less and less tasty until you were just left with crushed ice.  If there’s a reason why sex is so good (and I hear it is), it’s because it gets better and better as you go along.  Something would be lost if you hit the ground orgasming and things slowly petered out from there.  That wouldn’t be sex, that would be a Spurs season.

And so it goes that Gary Linker has ruined Match of the Day for me.  I don’t mind that the producers purposefully set the running order so that the games run from best to worst.  Actually, that’s wrong, I do mind.  I’m pretty sure that if the people behind the cameras decided to mix it up a bit, no-one would really care and the viewing figures would still be pretty much the same.  It might even convince a few more people to stick around until the end if there was an outside chance that, actually, believe it or not, the Fulham v Wigan game is a zinger and that Dimitar Berbatov puts on a bit of a show.  But I don’t really mind that they don’t do this.

What I do mind, however, is how Gary fucking Linker makes it abundantly clear every interminable week that, yes, we put this one on last because it has no goals in it.  Because it’s a boring game and fuck all happens in it.  Thanks for hanging around to watch it.

Why Gary?  Why make the point so vividly?  Why make the point at all?  Until you started it, I wasn’t hawkishly rating each and every game for its entertainment value.  I was happy to let the schedule gently wash over me and enjoy the footballing high notes as and when they chose to sporadically arrive.  I didn’t, as it happens, need reminding that the objective enjoyment value was tending towards zero as the show went on.  Thanks for reminding me.

In no other medium do you have the master of ceremonies carefully warning the consumer that it’s going to start getting a bit shit from here on in.  Even at a Justin Bieber concert.  And it’s getting worse.  He did it with two games to go last week.  I had to sit through both remaining games safe in the knowledge that someone who has already been informed of the goings-on is of the view that not a great deal happens.

Well you know what, Gary?  Life is like that too.  The best bits have already happened for you.  There are no more world cups to play in.  No golden boots left to claim.  No more long coach journeys with Venables and no fumblings with Rory McGrath playing Guess the Sportsmen.  Soon the crisp adverts will dry up and a reformed Joey Barton will take your chair presenting MotD.  You’ll just be sat there, with the rest of us, watching Comrade Joseph gurn his way through the Saturday night ritual.  There’ll be a few Nietzsche quotes here, some crap puns there (and we know who to blame for starting those) and, of course, Joey will be on hand to point out that, yes, there was a reason why they put this game on last.  You get the programming you deserve, Gary Winston Lineker, you get the programming you deserve.


“Next up is Stoke versus Wigan.”

Manchester City v Chelsea, F.A. Cup Semi-Final (14 April, 2013)

21 Apr

The first warm day of the year was also one of the windiest.  A gale-force Manchester City whistled through Chelsea’s bones from the first blow of Chris Foy’s whistle.  Fired up for their only potential trophy of the year, City came out the blocks with the eagerness of an Anti-Thatcher mob poised to dance on the former premier’s grave.  With the Baroness due to be laid to rest later in the week, the other Chelsea pensioners, Lampard, Terry and Cole, were also rested in what history will remember as the Second Biggest Occasion of the Week.

Watching today’s game reminded me how much Andy Townsend sounds like the bald fella from Masterchef.  He’s all heavy vowels and misplaced self-confidence.  And although very little of human endeavour impresses the former Maidstone-borne Irish international, the directness of Ya Ya Toure’s burst towards the Chelsea goal had the colour commentator purring.  Aided by a fortunate deflection, Nasri was able to convert past Cech with all the casual ease of a Justin Bieber entry in the Anne Frank guestbook.

City could have been 2 or 3 goals up by the half were it not for Jamie Milner’s lack of tactility in the final third.  With the goal gaping for City strikers in the box, Milner managed to over hit two consecutive crosses.  His heavy-handed implementation reminiscent of the Poll Tax.  There was also an open goal that the hapless Milner cannoned into King Sergio’s thigh.  A poor day for the Yorkshire water carrier.

The half-time segments of orange provided little respite for the men from West London.  No sooner were they back on the pitch than Aguerro doubled City’s lead.  The lady might not have been for turning, but the Branislav certainly was as Sergio peeled off his man and dispatched the ball into the far corner.  Aguerro’s looping header all but sunk Chelsea’s hopes like a homing torpedo on a fleeing vessel.  A week of double celebration for him and Zabaleta, one suspects.

The hackneyed pre-game narrative was of City’s supposed Achilles’ heel being reserve goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (who, before today, had conceded precisely zero goals as the Cup keeper).  Even at half-time, ITV persisted with the script that Costel was the weak link that could assist in Chelsea finding a way back in.  Yet despite the best effort of the Chelsea attacks, the beanpole Romanian stood strong.  The bearded chess piece that is Juan Mata continued to pull the strings and create chances, but Pantilimon was the white wizard and nought would pass.

Despite a long period of dominance, the Conservative leaderships of Thatcher and Major eventually yielded to a fresh-faced Tony Blair in ’97.  Benitez, similarly sensing the winds of change, sent on another striker and went for an attack-minded 4-4-2.  The masked Fernando Torres (so attired because of a loose Steaua Bucharest boot breaking his nose in the UEFA Cup) entered the fray on the hour mark.  Of course, the reality for poor Nando is he’s been conceptually wearing a mask ever since his arrival at Stamford Bridge.  However, the effect of his introduction today was immediate.  His diverting run on arrival to the pitch allowed for the Premiership’s best volleyer of a ball, Demba Ba, to crash home a smart finish which hinted at a royal blue revival.  Torres was a menace until the final whistle and, if Chelsea had been the victors, the credit for the revival would have been his.

Football, like politics, has its tense moments, and the climactic 20 minutes made for uncomfortable viewing for City fans.  On form, Chelsea have the best attacking pivot in English football.  So, by sitting back, City proffered a very dangerous invitation to Messrs Oscar, Hazard and Mr Tumnus.  In an effort to shore up victory, Mancini brought on City’s very own anti-Moneyball, the beautiful-yet-useless Javi Garcia.  The man to make way was Carlos Tevez.  Granted, Tevez was not having a vintage game, but breaking up the dream strike pairing of him and Aguerro seemed an odd way to see out a game which had potentially another 50 minutes to play (plus penalties, in which Carlitos would certainly have had a part to play).  City lost their calm retention of the football.  Thankfully, however, one man didn’t yield to the mayhem surrounding him.  Pablo Zabaleta proving once again that, deep down, he’s more British than the rest of us with perfectly timed interception after perfectly timed interception.  At one point even implementing a slide tackle with his head.

Chelsea eventually relented.  With United tramping the dirt down on any challengers to the Premiership title, a cup final against Wigan on May the 11th provides City’s last opportunity for any season-salvaging silverware.


Juan Mata was a continual thorn in City’s side.


Thanks for visiting.

21 Apr