Tag Archives: Premier League

It’s Chelsea

2 Jan

A belated Merry Christmas to you all.  I trust Santa was suitably generous and got you that Starbucks gift card you’ve always wanted.  And a happy New Year too.  Warmest wishes for 2014 from The English Game.

The first day of the New Year is perhaps the most optimistic of them all.  A day when our outlook for the coming 12 months remains as yet unspoiled.  Daring to dream is still an option.  It was therefore chastening for my New Year optimism to be completely dashed by the stark realisation that Chelsea are going to win the league.

I’ve seen enough.  It’s happening.  Sorry to be the one to tread on your strawberries.  The West Londoners remain priced at a generous 7/2, so you can at least still more than triple your money on this now crushing inevitability.

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It wasn’t three wise men but two sets of festive league fixtures that crystallised what had been a nagging fear for some time.  The first of which was Liverpool’s consecutive games against Manchester City and then Chelsea.  Both scorelines finished identically (Liverpool lost both 2-1) but the manner of the two games was telling…

I spent Christmas at a Premier Inn near Luton.  This isn’t some sort of perverse festive tradition.  Rather, it was necessary for reasons of an expanding wider family and the usual constraints of space and beds that arise as a result.  They say that everything is premier except the price.  And they were right, too.  The room was lovely.  In fact, everything would have been completely fine were it not for the fact that, on arrival, my sister and her husband kindly passed on to me a weapons-grade stomach bug that they had been discretely harbouring.

As a result, I spent Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day in a purple-tinted hotel room with my head nestled deep into a toilet bowl.  I’m as weak as a baby now and still have haunting images of the picture of Lenny Henry on my dressing table guaranteeing me a good night’s sleep.  Believe you me, minor tea-making facilities and a shortbread biscuit provide little by way of comfort in the face of persistent and prompt bodily evacuations. 

In my feverish state, I just about managed to watch the Boxing Day clash of City versus Liverpool, although Lord knows it didn’t help matters.  The second half was almost as perilous for City as my own predicament.  Liverpool were moving through City’s defensive line quicker than the pigs in blankets were moving through me.  In noro virus terms, City’s careless defending was the equivalent of placing the vomit bucket in the diagonally opposite corner of the room to where I lay.  Foolhardy and likely to result in disaster.

This contrasted neatly with the manner in which Chelsea undertook the same task three days later.  The game couldn’t have started any worse for Chelsea, with Martin Skrtel firing Liverpool ahead from close range in under three minutes.  However, Chelsea’s response was urgent and professional.  Mourinho’s men were aggressive without being reckless and immediately asserted a businesslike control of the game.  Within 30 minutes of the initial hoo-ha, Chelsea had established a 2-1 lead and there was a certain accomplished inevitability of the result from that point on.

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The New Year’s Day fixtures provided further evidence to bulwark my sense of premier league foreboding.  Against Swansea, City again proved that if they want to win the league, they’re going to have to blast their way to the title.  At times, there are shades of Newcastle in 1996 about City’s on-pitch demeanour.  In a game they could and should have won easily, the scoreline finished 3-2.  There were full-backs regularly in the opposition penalty area.  Wide midfielders who didn’t provide any cover.  In the middle of the park, only Fernandinho seemed desperately keen to win the ball back when possession was lost.  It was unnecessarily risky stuff and the self-control seemed lacking. 

Chelsea, by comparison, put on another disciplined display against Southampton.  The lead took a while to establish but there was a care to their performance.  If the result was to go against them, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be because Mourinho’s well-drilled team were not following orders.

In short, Chelsea are starting to look rather like winners.  They are developing the aura of a team who not only know that they should win, but that they ought not to give even the impression that some other result is a possibility.  With Manchester City, there is always a feeling that the opposition has a puncher’s chance.  Just enough hubris is exhibited to leave the chin exposed to a lucky right-hander.  City will blow more teams off the park than Chelsea, certainly.  But they will also walk into a few more bear-traps along the way.  Especially when things get tight down the stretch and jangling nerves start to override raw talent.

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It’s turning into goals versus grit for the title this season and usually the latter triumphs.  There seems to be more fight about the Chelsea players.  A little extra in the way of pluck.  I love Ya Ya Toure more than life itself.  And, sure, it’s difficult to stop a man the size of a holiday home travelling at 25 miles an hour.  But he’s not a warrior.  Nor is David Silva. 

I’m also delighted to see Samir Nasri having a great season.  But we saw all we need to know about his resolve when he ducked in the wall against a Robin van Persie free-kick last year.  When you’re looking into a player’s eyes to see who has the fire within them to get the job done, it’s hard to eradicate the pitiful image of Nasri on the end of that wall, cowering like Dennis Bergkamp in a first class lounge. 

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In a close title race, having the best manager in the league is also going to be a huge help.  Mourinho is a winner, plain and simple.  A more irritating winner than he was in his first spell at Chelsea, admittedly.  But a winner nonetheless. Contrast this with the Manchester City helmsman.  In nine long years managing in La Liga, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t win a single thing.  Not a Spanish sausage.  For a manager who can include Real Madrid on his CV, that doesn’t make for good reading.  I’m not saying he’s a bad coach; he isn’t.  However, there is a critical, if subtle, distinction between being a good coach and being a winner; in much the same manner as how playing well and winning are not the same thing either.

I thought Mourinho had made a fatal mistake with the paucity of his strikers this year.  I struggled to see where the goals would come from.  It is quite something that no recognised Chelsea striker scored an away goal in the premier league for the entirety of 2013.  Crucially, though, they do have goals in the team.  Hazard, Oscar, Lampard, Ramires and Schürrle have all played their part in making sure the net ripples on a regular basis.  Chelsea may win the premier league with the least effective strike-force ever to do so but, ultimately, the back of net makes no enquiry as to the identity of the scorer.  If you have three or four midfielders all capable of getting well into double figures, the need for the Number 9 to do likewise diminishes.

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So, there you have it.  Chelsea – premier league winners 2013/14.  Sorry for ruining the ending.  About three minutes in to watching the film Titanic at the cinema, I distinctly remember someone very loudly shouting in from the vestibule “it sinks, he dies”.  I fear I may have just done something similar.  Like a botched surprise party, you’re just going to have to fake your reaction when the time comes.  No spoiling it for Juan Mata if you see him though, please.  It looks like he’s going to be forced to sit through it all as well.   

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

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The art of lion taming

30 Sep

The great Hungarian coach, Bela Guttman, once likened the job of football manager to that of a lion tamer.  “He dominates the animals, in whose cage he performs his show, as long as he deals with them with self-confidence and without fear.  But the moment he becomes unsure of his hypnotic energy, and the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.”

Having taken ketchup and mayonnaise off the dining table at the Sunderland training ground, Paolo Di Canio did not reckon on the lions going straight to the CEO to bare their teeth.  All of a sudden, Di Canio found himself on the menu.

When they write the book on Di Canio’s 13-game Sunderland career, the rather short tome might well be entitled “Be careful what you wish for”.  I’m not sure if Sunderland gave any thought to what they were getting when they appointed the colourful Roman. 

Building on Guttman’s theme, I would argue that successful managers broadly come in two styles.  Either you want a lion tamer (Mourinho) or you want a surgeon (Wenger).  Now Di Canio might not be most people’s first choice for operating on a loved one’s vital organs, but you’d give him good odds on bringing lions under control.  The mad bugger would probably bite them back.

Sunderland must have known they were hiring an emotional chap.  This was a man who once sat down on the pitch and demanded for himself to be substituted after a succession of (legitimate) penalties appeals were turned down.  A guy who spontaneously decided to join in a half marathon when he saw one go by.

Di Canio did a great job at Swindon and he initially looked like he might do the trick at Sunderland too when he arrived, demolishing Newcastle 3-0 in his second game.  Few could stifle a smile when, adorned in an expensive Italian suit, he went sliding on his knees to celebrate the second goal that sunk the Toon.  There’s been little to celebrate since.  Did the Sunderland board think all this emotion would simply disappear during the bad times?

Watching Di Canio address the away fans last Saturday reminded me that managers used to enter into a much greater level of dialogue with fans. When Andrew (nee Andy) Cole was sold to rivals Manchester United for a British record £7million, Kevin Keegan personally addressed an angry mob of Newcastle fans remonstrating outside the stadium.  That takes a lot of courage.  At a fan’s forum in 1996, Harry Redknapp stared down a West Ham fan who opined that an 18 year old Frank Lampard (who was also present in the room at the time) wasn’t good enough to wear their claret and blue.  ‘Arry told the fan in no uncertain terms that young Frank will go “right to the very top”.  A bold statement to make of a chubby teenager still on the fringe of the first team.  It didn’t look quite so foolhardy last month in Ukraine when Lampard picked up his one hundredth England cap.

Now standing 20 yards away from your fans while muttering to yourself and pointing at your chin might sound like an odd way to communicate.  But Di Canio saw the need to have some sort of dialogue with the supporters who, in his mind, he was employed of serve.  They were angry and they deserved their moment to seek direct redress from the man in charge.  In his words, a chance for him to “absorb their insults”.

It didn’t matter to him that it looked strange.  It mattered that he believed it to be the decent thing to do.  I think the approach is an admirable one.  You want to flagellate me?  Fine, here’s a stick.

People have a tendency to put too much emphasis on things being weird. They’re frightened by oddities.  In the ensuing years, talking heads will remember Di Canio’s gesture as another golden moment of Football Madness.  Third rate comedians with regional accents will pretend to remember the incident and describe it with lurid glee.  People laughed at Phil Brown for conducting a half-time team talk on the pitch, forgetting that it had the desired effect.  Having shipped four goals in the first period against Manchester City, Hull kept the score even for the remainder of the game.  The facts didn’t stop Brown from being painted as the jester.  They won’t save Di Canio either.

Di Canio’s thought processes are not of the rational and calculated variety. He acts on feel and emotion.  To my mind, it is incredibly obvious that he was a creative player rather than a defensive player purely by the way he acts off the pitch.  His job as a footballer was to think when there was no time to think.  Just to use creativity and instinct to survive.  And he did it brilliantly.  

He did the same after the whistle last Saturday at the Hawthorns and was vilified.  Whether or not you think this type of behaviour is appropriate as a manager, rather than a player, is a perfectly reasonable question.  But if there is a single member of Sunderland’s board who did not expect something like this to happen with Paolo Di Canio in charge, then they ought to be fired for gross incompetence.  This was exactly the sort of thing that Di Canio does.  He knew the fans were angry and he saw two choices.  He saw sloping off to the changing room and ignoring them.  The cowardly option. Or he could address their anger.  The gutsy and, in his mind, correct option.  

Famously, Di Canio has a sense of fair play.  In the current instance, he was allowing the Sunderland faithful their right to fair comment.  Unfortunately, Ellis Short just thought “Christ, what’s Paolo doing now?” and promptly fired him.

Five games is not enough time for any manager.  Di Canio had achieved his initial brief which was to keep Sunderland in the premier league.  Having accomplished this, he ought to have then been given the time to mould the squad as he saw fit.  Not suffer the indignity of a sacking even before the dying embers of the summer sunshine have been snuffed out. 

One point from a possible fifteen doesn’t make for nice reading.  Although I suspect even the most optimistic Sunderland fan would struggle not to have foreseen at least one dismal patch this season.  After all, they sold their only two good players during the summer; one of them going on to score for West Brom in the fateful game that was to be Di Canio’s last.  An irony that ought not to be lost on the Sunderland board.

Di Canio or not, Sunderland are going to get gored this season.  He was right about the players – they’re not good enough.  Getting rid of the conductor won’t make the orchestra play any better.  Manish Bhasin is probably already reading up on the Black Cats for next year’s Championship highlights.  Sunderland are going down.  

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https://i1.wp.com/i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/05/20/article-1388957-0012022000000258-420_306x423.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/multimedia/archive/00400/125075412__400410c.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/s3.thejournal.ie/media/2013/04/soccer-npower-football-league-one-swindon-town-v-coventry-city-county-ground-630x332.jpg

Sunderland executives were baffled as to where Di Canio’s spontaneous outbursts were coming from.

New Season

16 Aug

The premier league is back and I, for one, am more excited than a badger at the start of mating season.  Summer distractions are just that.  Wimbledon, the Ashes, royal babies.  Great, but where is Luis Suarez going?  This is what the Great British public really wants to know.  Some things matter.

I’m like a coiled spring at this time of year.  All torque and potential energy; waiting for those sun-kissed opening games.  Soon the clouds will roll in but, for now, glistening green pitches will play host to new names, new kits and fresh hopes.  Bid your loved ones farewell until next May and settle in.

Football fans display an uncanny ability to overlook the obvious at this time of year in favour of a distinctly autumnal optimism.  Too Good has had its dreams of a brighter future dashed too many times before to be drawn in by this false hope.  Some things remain ever present and the sooner into the 2013-2014 season we recognise that Manchester United will win the bloody league again, the sooner we can make peace with our lot.

I’ve canvassed the opinion of several friends who are knowledgeable about football, as well as one or two Liverpool fans, on who they think will take home the spoils this year.  Everyone seems to think it will be either Chelsea or Manchester City.  The experts conclude similarly – not a single member of the Sky Sports panel plumped for the team from Old Trafford on their Season’s Preview show.  Manchester United seem to carry something of a “Germany in major tournaments” feel to them.  We turn up every single time doing our absolute best to rationalise why they won’t win the thing, which of course they then go on and do.  Sometimes the collective footballing consciousness needs to be shaken by the lapels.

Why it won’t be City…

Appropriately for a team hoping for a Second Coming of the premiership title, Manchester City have signed a player called Jesus.  Navas has almost as many tricks up his sleeve as his Nazareth counterpart. But, like Christ himself, Navas also has an Achilles’ Heel.  Christ’s shortcoming was an inability to fend off betrayal within the ranks of his disciples.  Navas’ is his inability to fend off a wobbly lip when he leaves his hometown of Los Palacios.  One hopes that grizzled premiership defenders don’t decide the best way to test the homesick Sevillan’s resolve is a succession of “welcome to the Premiership” tackles.

Pellegrini did his business early in the summer.  Once Navas was prised from his mother’s apron strings, Fernandinho, Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo quickly followed to the Etihad.  A lot of talent has arrived along with the new manager.  Winning teams typically grow organically, though, rather than be thrown together.  And it’s uncertain what sort of formation will accommodate these players as well as the pre-existing high flyers.  With the exception of Navas, each, it could be argued, has a comparative or better player already in situ at the club (Fernandinho < Toure, Jovetic < Tevez (who will be a massive loss for City on the pitch), Negredo < Aguerro).  It’s not therefore especially clear how City have improved (other than in depth), despite having quality come through the door.  In any case, City fans better hope it gels quickly.  Title races can’t be won before Christmas, but they can certainly be lost.

Why it won’t be Chelsea…

Chelsea have strengthened primarily in the dugout.  The Mourinho Effect is certainly not a chimera, but nor does it tend to work without a hefty war-chest being put to good use.  As Jose himself once opined, in order to buy the best eggs, you need to shop in Waitrose.  While Abramovic’s munificence has surely been guaranteed to Mourinho, so far the cash register has barely rung.  £18m on Andre Schurrle may prove to be a good spend but it wasn’t the focal striker that Chelsea need.  Schurrle operates mainly from the wing or behind another striker.  What Chelsea require is a number 9 that will lead the attack.  Any of Falcao, Cavani, Lewandowski or Higuaín (or even Roberto Soldado, had an astute Daniel Levy not been on hand to whisk him off to the Lane) would have fitted the bill.   As it is, all of the above have signed elsewhere or re-committed to their current paymasters.  If Mourinho honestly thinks Fernando Torres can do the job after three years now in the wilderness, then he’s exhibiting a blind faith that would make Eileen Drewery blush.

Of course, this position all changes if a certain box-shaped Scouser heads down to London.  Wayne Rooney is no stranger to a transplant and, if he were to bed down quickly and effectively at Stamford Bridge, the complexion of Chelsea’s title challenge would change completely.

Which leaves us with…

Al Pacino’s character in Scarface was keen to point out the necessity of a villain of the piece (‘You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy”.’).  The redemptive quality of the film arrives when seeing the cocaine-fuelled Montana shot to pieces by a team of assassins.  Unfortunately, football isn’t a motion picture and the bad guys rarely get their comeuppance.  The premier league’s Tony Montana, Manchester United, seem to go home with the spoils year after year.  Yet, mysteriously, pundits and fans alike go into overdrive each pre-season trying to contrive reasons as to why it won’t be Manchester United’s year.

To recall, Manchester United won the league by eleven points last season.  By the end of March, they didn’t even need their foot on the pedal.  Putting this into perspective, no team has ever won the premier league by a wider margin and not retained it the following year[1].  In any case, United nab the title pretty much every year.  The red devils have won the premiership on 13 out of 21 occasions, comfortably the highest win percentage (62%) in any of the big European leagues over the same period[2].  You would be hard-pressed to find a dispassionate statistician conclude anything other than a Manchester United success being the most likely outcome.

United have the best striker in the Premiership who is in the form of his life.  They have a supply line to him that is never choked and, at the time of writing, they still have by far the best current English footballer.

Although United haven’t had a decent central midfield for over half a decade now, it doesn’t seem to bother them.  There’s no reason to assume it will suddenly now start to.  Their backline is looking a bit creaky, but then it did last year and United are unlikely to suffer as badly with injuries again.  Vidic has returned and will likely manage more than 19 games this season.  While Rio Ferdinand’s back is more and more resembling a game of Russian Roulette with intervertebral discs these days, there is the blossoming Phil Jones and the reliable Jonny Evans both very capable of picking up the slack.  Rafael is also a fantastic (and wildly underrated) player.

People want to exclaim Alex Ferguson’s retirement as the death knell to United’s dominance.  This may prove to be the case but I can’t see the players forgetting what he taught them overnight.  There might be a certain atrophy over time but I don’t think Ferguson re-invented the wheel each time he went into the dressing room.  He was responsible for putting together great teams at Old Trafford and he’s left one there now.

Things change, sure.  But less so than is often realised.  You’ll get taxed this year.  Christmas will be a bit underwhelming. People will cry on reality television and it’s going to rain on the bank holiday.  Manchester United, I’m afraid, will most likely win the league.


[1] Chelsea won the 2004-2005 title by 12 points and won again the following year with 8 points to spare.  United won the league in 1999-2000 by a colossal 18 points and won the next year by a comparatively modest 10 points.  In short, not only did both teams defend their league titles, they did so handsomely.

[2] Over the same period of time (21 seasons), Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 11 times, Barcelona have won La Liga 10 times,  Juventus have won Serie A seven times and Lyon have won Ligue 1 seven times.

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One more sleep, fellas.

Principles or pragmatism? The Lady Macbeth guide to sacking Mancini

16 May

I’m beginning to think this blog is cursed.  In a week when Wigan exposed Manchester City’s fleshy behind at Wembley, one would have assumed that this was embarrassment enough for the chaps from East Manchester.  Not so.  The footballing gods demanded further sacrifice. 

Despite guiding Manchester City to their first league title since before Sheikh Mansour was born, Roberto Mancini was invited in for a “meeting without coffee” with the City top brass and politely asked to pack his things.  Three trophies in three years.  Two cup finals.  Champions League football secured every single season.  It wasn’t good enough.  The mind boggles as much as the heart despairs.

People forget, but bookmakers had Manchester City at a mere 5 to 1 (17%) to win the 2011/12 premier league.  The year before that we scraped 3rd place thanks to a final day Chelsea capitulation, in a season spent mostly battling it out with Spurs for 4thThe scarf-toting Italian won the league ahead of schedule and is now being punished for it.

My official Too Good-branded cotton pyjamas have been wringing with nervous sweat following three sleepless post-Mancini nights.  The Premiership top-table feels like it is at a critical juncture.   With United and Chelsea both chopping and changing their managers, this was a rare opportunity for City to capitalise on comparative stability.  Instead, we have sportingly levelled the playing field by giving Bob the boot, too.  Our owners displaying a hitherto unseen sense of fair play.  We’ve joined the uncertainty and it doesn’t feel very nice.

There are two ways of looking at the Mancini sacking.  There is the “principled approach” and then there’s the “pragmatic approach”.  The “principled approach” says we should have stuck with him.  There is simply no way he deserved to be sacked.  Without any hint of exaggeration, he gave Manchester City fans what, for many of them, will be the greatest singular moment of their lives.  No team wins the Premiership every year, and City had every reason to expect to be right up there again next May.  Especially so, given the recent departure down the road.

Then there is the “pragmatic approach”.  Principle’s uglier sister.  Brace yourself readers; the pragmatic approach is a far more sinister affair.  However, there is a time for the blunt edge of pragmatism.  For in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences.

The “pragmatic approach” says that if Mourinho agrees to come, then it’s worth getting rid of Mancini.  Not a nice thing to do, granted, but sometimes you’ve got to make a pact with the devil.  Nobody wanted to get rid of Lee Sharpe.  But if you’ve got a Ryan Giggs waiting in (/on) the wing, then it doesn’t matter.  Pontius Pilate knew better than most that, while there was a time to keep your hands clean in the first place, there was also a time to give them a good post-backstabbing scrub.

Here’s the thing, though.  The pragmatic approach has to be worth it.  Pragmatism is an ugly bedfellow and one ought not to take it home from the night-club all too often.  As the saying goes, you can shear a sheep many times; you can skin it only once.  If City were going to skin Mancini, there had to be a damn good reason.

Mourinho provides reason enough for the moral compromise.  He is the outstanding manager of his generation.  I was flabbergasted when it became clear he was not Manchester United’s first choice to replace Ferguson.  Mourinho to United was the Doomsday scenario for me.  Another 26 trophy-laden years of misery.  Thankfully, the power men at Old Trafford came to the conclusion that the defining factor in Ferguson’s success was his Scottishness rather than his managerial brilliance. 

Those who tar Mourinho with the trouble-maker brush miss the bigger picture.  Jose might be fond of a little “creative tension” but his record is exceptional.  Two European Cups in his first decade of management.  League titles wherever he has gone.  Remember the nine year unbeaten home league record?  The time for compromising your principles is when you think a Mourinho-sized fish might fancy a nibble.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t look like the new City manager will be Mourinho.  It looks like it’s going to be Manuel Pellegrini.  Pellegrini is a fine manager and may, if hired, prove to be a success at City.  But then so was Mancini.  Why take the risk?  Why go through the upheaval?  Simply put, Pellegrini is not worth wielding the pragmatic sword for. 

The other great fear now is a backlash against the new manager.  The analogy is clear between City and Chelsea.  Chelsea fans cannot bring themselves to complain about Roman Abramovic, even though the mad oligarch goes through managers like I do portions of potato dauphinoise.  So Chelsea fans direct their ire towards the new coach instead.  Let’s hope Mancini’s successor is not subject to any similar misplaced anger.  

One thing you can be quite sure of – you won’t see any mass demonstrations outside the Etihad calling for the billionaire oil men to take their money elsewhere, whoever they choose.  We know which side our bread’s buttered on.  And there’s an awful lot of butter on that bread.  Like a good trophy wife, we’ll keep our mouths shut.  After all, rich husbands are in short supply.

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“A pleasure to have you on board, Mr Mourinho.”

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?

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

CORRECTION:
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.