Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Cricket World Cup, or is it?

The Cricket World Cup got underway last weekend and aside from an awful England performance leading to a near scare against the Dutch it's hardly been an exciting first week and no one will be surprised at that fact.

Cricket suffers in the same way that rugby does to a lesser degree in that there are simply not enough nations playing at a competitive level to make it a 'true' World Cup. Cricket remains a sport that divides people like almost no other, loved feverishly by some whilst met with bemusement by much of the rest of the World that you can play a game of sport for five days and not have a positive result. These subtleties and nuances are what makes cricket such a fabulous spectacle to those that love it but at the same time make it so utterly inaccessible to those who do not. The World Cup is for the 'one day' version of the sport which is also unfortunately the most flawed of the three current formats, too short and with a meaningless middle section in each innings for the purists and still too long for the rest of the world.

The lack of competitiveness and length of the tournament are the two most biting issues that prevent this event from being a more compelling spectacle.

It takes one month before we get to end of the group games and then a little over another week to get to the final, meaning nearly six weeks will elapse from the time of the opening ceremony. This is for a tournament compromising of 14 teams. The football world cup manages to fit 32 teams into a schedule of approximately a month and herein lies the first part of the problem.

There are simply too many dead rubbers in the cricket World Cup due to the lack of depth of competitive nations in the sport. This is something that cannot be remedied overnight but it can be addressed and action can be taken. Rugby has suffered in this manner for many years but it is slowly changing. The emergence of Argentina and to a lesser degree Italy and the likes of Western Samoa have meant that shocks can lie in wait for the middle tier of teams at least if not for the very best.

Using Scotland as an example, we can illustrate this point clearly. In soccer, Spain are ranked No1 whilst Scotland rank a lowly 53rd. In rugby, New Zealand are ranked No1 whilst Scotland are ranked a more credible 9th. With cricket, Australia are ranked No1 in OD internationals and whilst Scotland are not amongst the fourteen competing nations at the World Cup it is safe to place them in the top twenty. Yet despite the disparity of these rankings, football remains far and away the sport where Scotland would have the biggest chance of an upset against the very best. Hence, it is the sport with the widest following because nearly every fan can watch any time with some hope of a result, be it a scraped one nil win or even a famous draw against a mightier team. Scotland in the top ten in the rugby world cup rankings have never beaten New Zealand for instance.

The nature of the sports and the scoring systems certainly add to the chances of upsets in football as it is such a low scoring game in comparison to rugby and one day cricket where draws are rare, in the extreme in the case of cricket. Having said that, the depth of nations playing the game is the overriding factor.

The second problem that the ICC World Cup has is the length of the tournament. One day cricket it seems suffers from a perennial problem. The ICC and the individual nations require funds. The lack of credible opposition or meaningful events means the top teams continually play each other in pointlessly long series -England played Australia SEVEN times at the end of a long Ashes tour and with the World Cup just weeks away. Whilst this serves in some way to remedy the financial issue for the nations, it simply serves to kill interest further in OD Internationals with saturation coverage of the same product and with huge over exposure of the top nations to each other. Rugby must be careful in the same way. The Northern Hemisphere 'Autumn Internationals' serve little purpose other than to feed the financial requirements of the nations involved, nothing meaningful other than pride is being played for.

Whilst pockets of huge interest such as the latter stages of the World Cup, the Ashes, India versus Pakistan or the Kiwis versus Australia remain, global interest in cricket looks to be dwindling. The West Indies, oft the most romanticised of teams looks to have had a dramatic fall away in interest as the globalisation of sport in the media gives viewers so many other more accessible options. Other than the money generated in spades by India and the enduring interest surrounding the England team, all nations and the ICC need to be highly aware of the problems facing the game in the medium term.

Indian cricket is currently in rude health with a team still including Sachin Tendulkar and the hugely successful IPL franchise. India must however wake up to the fact that without opposition, there will be no interest in the sport. It is the same problem Rangers and Celtic face in Scottish football where this lack of credible opposition has killed interest in the league curtailing their further interests. It is also no coincidence that the shorter and more advertisement friendly format of 20/20 has rejuvenated cricket in a way no one thought possible in the short term. They are dangerous laurels to rest on however as there is huge global competition for the viewers' attention - and money.

It was a sad sight in Chennai last Sunday when New Zealand took on Kenya. Everybody knew the result was a foregone conclusion so naturally few people paid to watch the game in person. That however is no excuse for an empty stadium. Why on earth are the ICC not ensuring that for games with no commerical interest that the tickets find their way to the local school children? It is they who will provide the future generation of cricket fans and the lifeblood for the sport, not the privileged few that have access to corporate hospitality or can afford to pay for tickets which are almost always now beyond the financial reach of the common fan.

The current format of the Cricket World Cup will not endure beyond another one or two tournaments unless radical action is taken. India will feel quite rightly that they deserve the lions' share of the financial rewards as they provide the vast majority of the paying TV audience and the sponsorship revenue. There will however be little to sponsor unless money is diverted and pumped into improving cricketing standards in countries such as Bangladesh, Holland and maybe even a rehabilitated Zimbabwe. Bringing cricket to the global masses may well be a bridge too far but improving the second tier of nations and providing some real competition would give cricket some long term hope. That and a shorter format could provide a much more meaningful competition with far greater interest - no nonsense.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chelsea, the crisis lurches on.

It is not a 'difficult moment' and it has not been for some time now. Chelsea by their own Abramovich era standards are a team in free fall with a coach who as likeable as he is seems to have little idea how to arrest the seemingly irreversible slide.

Things went from bad to worse yesterday when Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup on penalties by a mediocre Everton team who have been scrabbling around all season in the Premiership for results. This was a team that Chelsea would have dispatched without a second thought even nine months ago.

It is hard to pinpoint what the problem truly is and it may simply be confidence but for such an experienced squad, it is hard to believe that confidence could be such a factor for so long.

What looks to be the problem is that since the Mourinho era squad was trimmed to a more slimlined version, Chelsea have been overly reliant on a few key players. Ashley Cole remains the best leftback in the world but Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien have all been miles below their best this season for a variey of reasons from illness to injury to simply being over the hill. The need for squad replenishment has already been well documented on this blog.

Abramovich has now put himself in a real quandary with his previous firings and injudicious choices in the first place. It is simple to see that Chelsea have suffered from a lack of continuity whilst ManYoo have continued to flourish. Firing another manager now would just compound the view of the appointments being poor ones in the first place. Ancelotti is also a popular figure and most people would wish to give him time to pull the club out of the current mess.

The flip side however is that Chelsea simply cannot risk finishing fifth or worse. If there is squad building to be done this Summer then Champions League football is a pre-requisite. Chelsea realistically look capable of no more than fourth place now - even that requires a Champions League qualifying round - and the Roublemaster must decide quite simply whether Chelsea are definitely capable of finishing above Spurs or not. If not, then he may well act.

Hiring and firing managers has never been the right way and the current Chelsea predicament is really down to poor planning and inexperience at board level at the highest echelon of the game. Maybe it is no coincidence that Kenyon and Arnesen have left or are leaving, seemingly unable to deal with the man at the very top, or maybe it the reality that no decisions are made other than by Roman himself.

Chelsea looks right now like the rich man's play thing that fans always dreaded it becoming with managers coming and going and the owner's favourite player, be it Shevchenko or Torres coming in on a whim. Chelsea may well ride out this period and finish in the top four but the omens going forward are far from good - no nonsense.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Farewell to the Real Ronaldo

Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, or simply known as Ronaldo, the buck toothed version, the fat version, the one who seemingly slept through the 1998 World Cup Final, call him what you like, he's one of the finest and most gifted players this blog has ever seen. Reports today state that he has announced his retirement from professional football.

Ronaldo, The Phenomenon is quite simply one of the most potent attacking talents that the world has ever seen and where one can only start to realise just how great that talent was is to look at his statistics and the trophies he won whilst realising how many years and how much of his ability was taken away by a series of cruel and serious injuries that possibly deprived the world of potentially the greatest player that had ever lived.

Ronaldo followed the route of so many Brazilian greats, born into a poor family and neighbourhood in Rio only for his talent to propel him onto the world stage and global mega stardom. This route, whilst well trodden is riddled with pitfalls, and like Ronaldinho, for a variety of reasons those that walk that path often have careers that blossom quickly but fade just as fast.

We on this blog first became aware of the young but absurdly talented seventeen year old whist he was playing for PSV of Eindhoven. He had been an unused but much talked about substitute during the 1994 World Cup and on the advice of the former PSV icon Romario he duly joined the Dutch club. Despite the first of a series of knee injuries he would endure during his career, a plethora of goals followed with a total of 42 in only 46 games.

Bobby Robson, no stranger to PSV paid a handsome fee in 1996 to take him to Barcelona and how in one amazing season - maybe his best - he repaid them. Only 37 appearances yielded 34 goals including the one we all remember against Compostela where he fought off assorted challenges and fouls to score one of the greatest goals ever seen.

Spanish football would superficially have seemed the most natural habitat for such a free attacking spirit yet a breakdown in his relationship with Barca brought a transfer to Internazionale of Milan and regrettably the beginning of the chronic injury problems that would ultimately destroy his career. That being said, Ronaldo proved himself to be of the highest possible calibre by succeeding in adapting to Italian football  where so many other greats have failed.

Having already been voted the World's best player before the start of the 1998 World Cup in France, the stage was set for his further endorsement during the tournament itself. Part of a potent team - alongside Rivaldo, a slightly ageing Bebeto and a highly talented Denilson - Ronaldo shone through the rounds of the tournament without necessarily hitting the absolute heights. France with home advantage and also a hugely talented team with the ever blossoming talents of Zinedine Zidane lay in wait in the final. It should have been a classic but Brazil were rocked by stories of a fit that Ronaldo suffered prior to the final. Whatever the truth, Brazil were shaken to their core and the man himself remained an utter passenger throughout the match as France ran out easy 3-0 victors in a huge anti climax. For Ronaldo, it was the beginning of the end of his career at its' absolute peak.

In the following seasons at Inter, Ronaldo suffered two horrendous knee injuries and he contributed only sporadically and whilst stories prevailed of his love for the high life, one could not feel anything but sympathy for a player that always played with a smile upon his face. I remember hearing his knee snap during a comeback game and hearing him howl whilst lying on the turf, it was enough to make you cry at home, no one deserved that.

The 2002 World Cup began the Renaissance period in the career of Ronaldo. In an almost Darren Anderton-esque twist, he followed up nearly four years of constant injury with near perfect fitness for the four weeks of the tournament in Japan and Korea.

Despite the ridiculous wedge on the front of his head, Ronaldo remained streamlined enough to provide the goals to fire Brazil to glory in which was a decidedly average World Cup. Despite his goals haul, the global adulation that followed and the acrimonious transfer to Real Madrid, one couldn't shy away from the suspicion that as great as he still was, it was like watching a post injury Paul Gascgoine, robbed of the absolute peak of his talents whilst still easily good enough to make a mockery of those around him.

Real Madrid, committed to their Galactico policy could simply not resist. His transfer fee, less than either Zidane or Figo who had gone before was a reflection of the reality of the fragility of his fitness. Ronaldo's contribution to the Madrid cause was probably the most consistent period of his career. Despite that the Madristas never really took to their number nine, his work rate and perceived girth - this blog always felt he simply was built like a middleweight boxer - earned him the nickname of 'Fatron' or 'Bigron', neither were particularly fair and his strike rate for Real cannot be argued with. His hat trick against ManYoo at Old Trafford in the Champions League was applauded even by the home side.

It is no surprise that after Real his career began to fall away. Age and injuries were rapidly catching up and AC Milan received a player that was already in steep decline, his inevitable further injuries and transfer back to Brazil were not a surprise and it was sad to see such a once incredible player looking so decidedly average.

It is hard to know the absolute truth regarding the Real Ronaldo. Were his knee injuries a result of steroid injections given to an underdeveloped teenager that resulted in the bulging thigh muscles that his knee tendons could ultimately not support? Who will ever know the whole truth surrounding the Final at Le Stade De France and whether painkillers were to blame. Did Nike really force Brazil to put his name on that teamsheet? Did his love of the high life contribute to his injuries and his longer periods of recuperation and premature fall from grace?

Personally, I would prefer to remember the young and untroubled Ronaldo who made defenders look like traffic cones with his combination of explosive acceleration and unrivaled ball control. The new Ronaldo may well end up surpassing him in terms of statistics but I for one would much rather watch the original who made football a joy to watch. Maybe the tainted geniuses and injury victims with their shorter careers are really the best or maybe it is simply more romantic to think so, Gascgoine, Maradona, Best, Cantona and Van Basten all spring to mind. Whatever the truth is, the man retiring today is the original and the best Ronaldo as far as this blog is concerned - no nonsense.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Manchester City - still not ready

It's typically always been tough being a 'Citeh' fan. For all their claims to being the true Manchester club and the club who real Mancunians follow, the years of looking up the table at their more illustrious and famous neighbours but surely rankle and fester. City have also been caught in a situation where they have had periods where the gap between the clubs has closed to a level which has given genuine cause for hope only to see themselves slip away time after time, ultimately doomed to failure. Only supporters from clubs such as Spurs or Atletico Madrid can truly understand how this must feel. A couple of seasons ago however things changed at Manchester City when they signed Robinho, except they are still the same.

With the access to unlimited funds from the Middle East, Manchester City was suddenly propelled into another stratosphere of expectations, aspirations and dreams. In fairness to those who belt out Blue Moon at the City of Manchester stadium, very few seem to have turned into spoilt brats, they on the whole seem to remain pragmatic about their team and its' fortunes, but that may be simply because they still haven't won anything.

Many informed observers find City's new found wealth and spending highly distasteful - we'll discount Monsieur Wenger's however as he simply finds everything distasteful - but the reality is that the vast majority of people would welcome that kind of investment for their team. Growing up in Scotland I was always a Rangers fan and on moving to London I also began supporting Chelsea (pre Abramovich!). Looking at the clubs now, I'm delighted that Chelsea are able to go and buy Fernando Torres whereas Rangers have been staring down the barrel of bankruptcy for nearly two years now. Let me tell you there is no romance in Rangers' situation whatsoever, it is dreadful to see your club in that state. Ask Leeds United fans whether they'd have liked a rich benefactor post Risdale instead of a trip to the old Third Division.

Having watched the Manchester derby yesterday, it is clear that there is no quick fix in the quest for success. Those neutrals cheering on the other side in some attempt to support the nobility of football against the evils of money should remember an all conquering United side adding Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud Van Nistelrooy after yet another trophy laden season. Liverpool of old spent big money on Barnes, Bearsdsley, Dean Saunders, if you've got it spend it. The problem Chelsea and Manchester City have is quite simply they are not 'establishment'. New money is always looked down upon, phrases like noisy neighbours are used, how dare anyone challenge us or wish to better themselves, know your place.

Manchester City, for all the investment are however not ready to win trophies yet. They have a fantastic squad, already one of the best in Europe with strength in depth and no lack of quality - except possibly at centre back - in all areas. Yesterday however showed that Ferguson and ManYoo remain the yardstick, been there seen it done it a thousand times. It was no surprise that Scholes and Giggs were picked yesterday, they are both winners and United through and through. Rooney, whilst being an Evertonian still understands the mentality of the North West and after nearly twelve months of mediocrity provided a piece of (slightly shinned) pure inspiration and quality when the situation and occasion needed it.

It also is not just down to the players but the managers. This is a decidely average ManYoo team compared with others I have seen yet Ferguson constantly coaxes performances out of them that cannot fail to impress. The likes of John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher I suspect would only be see as average players were they plying their trade somewhere else. It is hard to currently gauge just how able or not Roberto Mancini really is. His success with Internazionale came at a time of massive upheaval in Serie A with one of the Scudettos handed to them by default and the following year they simply had to push against an open door with AC being docked points and Juventus being expelled from the top division, his record in Europe was also pretty average. This blog however has a growing suspicion that if given time he will do a very good job at City and one would hope he will be given that time, he does however have a plethora of tools at his disposal so results are and should be demanded. You cannot however expect him to start knocking over Ferguson on his own patch instantly, he is up against one of the all time greats, maybe even the greatest.

What City need more than a bunch of new players is time. Mancini firstly needs to repair the damage done by the scatter gun transfer approach and that means weeding out the rotten eggs. That process has been started with the jettisoning of Robinho and Adebayor, mercenaries with little love for living in the North West of England other than the fabulous wages. City are well shot of both of them, fine players that they both undoubtedly are.

It will be next year before City will see anything like the best of Edin Dzeko and finding out which system to use him in. Steve McLaren was unable - doesn't sound surprising really does it - to do so earlier this season and he has just been shown the door at Wolfsburg. If Tevez's personal situation can be stabilised (probably with yet higher wages), those two could form a possibly lethal partnership and with the quality of David Silva - for my money the most watchable player in the Premiership along with Luca Modric - pulling the strings behind them and Mario Balotelli also thrown into the mix, they could have a settled strike force to destroy anyone anywhere.

It is City's own fault that they are behind schedule. Their minimum target last year was fourth place and the Champions League gravy train that was to follow. Liverpool's Benitez inspired implosion meant it was on a platter for them only for them to fluff their lines against Spurs and allow Peter Crouch to demote them to the Europa League. This season Chelsea's sudden realisation their squad is too small and old (you read it here first) has given them third place as a very attainable goal.

City have little or no European presence or pedigree and with no Champions League football they stand little or no chance of hiring the very best players. That and the ineptitude of their CEO Garry Cook who seems wholly out of his depth was the reason for the laughable failure of their ludicrous attempt to sign Kaka. His reasons for refusing to sign for them for the same reasons that Robinho did also tells you everything about Brazil's thumb sucking number eleven. Gone and best forgotten.

City need very little to seriously challenge for the title. A new centre back certainly would not hurt if they were able to get the very best but other than that what they really need is almost impossible to get. They need one of the absolute best midfielders in the world to add the top class quality in the middle of the park they still seem to lack. The players however that they would need to get them to that next percentage level, a Cesc Fabregas or an Andres Iniesta are almost certainly unobtainable. Wesley Sjneider or Steven Gerrard would be older but possibly more realistic alternatives and the best option might be to make a big money offer for Bastian Schweinsteiger. Luca Modric is another potentially as they could supply him with able minders in Yaya Toure and Nigel De Jong. The key is to add absolute quality however and far less quantity. Shedding more unwanted squad players should improve the harmony in the squad also, the squad needs be brought together and united (pun intended).

Manchester United and to a lesser degree Arsenal have benefited greatly from continuity. It does not always work as in the case of Benitez - mitigating factors granted - but Chelsea have certainly suffered greatly from several seasons of upheaval with a huge loss of focus and one hopes they will stick with the great eyebrow from Italy. City need to stick with Mancini, reign in the pointless spending on players in the 10-20 million pounds region and concentrate on landing one or at the most two very big fish. Silverware might just follow then - no nonsense.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Shame of International Sport

So what we all already knew has been confirmed in this past week with the three Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir being found guilty of spot fixing. All three have leave to appeal to the International Court of Arbitration of Sport but one suspects they might be better employing their lawyers time to fight the upcoming criminal charges they are set to face at Westminster Magistrates' Court on 17th March.

Having seen the footage of both the video secretly recorded by the newspapers and the actual no balls bowled during the match there was always sadly little doubt that the players were indeed guilty. For such a high profile case, prosecutors would not be charging the three criminally unless they were one hundred percent sure that they were guilty. What saddens me however is not the corruption - we have sadly become used to endemic cheating in sport with everyone from Alex Rodriguez to Marion Jones and a cast of thousands in Le Tour De Cheats - but the reaction of the Pakistani players to their sentencing. The reaction is quite remarkable and shows you what the world is up against in trying to remedy these ills. Mohammad Amir is acting and talking like he is the victim, Salman Butt has also spoken of his 'disappointment' at his sentencing. Not one of the players has admitted or even taken any responsibility for their actions merely claiming that their sentences are unduly harsh. What utter nonsense, they should feel lucky if the penalties stop there.

Cricket is a fully professional sport for which spectators and sponsors pay huge sums of money every year to bankroll. The rewards for the very best players are not insignificant. Once you are paid money to do something it becomes a job and not a pastime, therefore it should be subject to the same sanctions that are applied in any other walk of life.

If you steal the stationary from your employer you could be charged with theft, if you fiddle your expenses you can be charged with fraud, if you drive a motor vehicle for a living and you show up drunk you will lose your license at the very least. If you are a sportsman who takes direct action that influences the result unduly which affects hundreds of thousands of people, many of which may have money staked at the bookies or have spent money to attend the match or at the least paid for a television subscription then you should answer in the same way.

Cheating in sport is universal, that is not to say it should be condoned or even accepted. Those that are caught should be served with the harshest sentences. Sport in most cases and certainly in the case of cricket affects a huge amount of lives both emotionally and financially. What these cricketers have committed is fraud and nothing less and they should be treated as common criminals. Insider traders go to jail and so should they. Naivety or stupidity is not an excuse for what is a crime driven by greed. Send a message and send them to jail - no nonsense.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Same Old Wenga Boys...........

A quite remarkable result at St James' Park yesterday. Arsenal, 4-0 up after 26 minutes and still holding the same lead after 68 minutes, somehow contrived to draw the match 4-4 in a quite shocking collapse. Now all Gooners - in particular Jack Wilshire of recent twitter fame - will point to dodgy refereeeing and in particular the penalty decisions but the stark reality is they have no one to blame but themselves, and therein lies the problem with the Wenga Boys, they and in particular he are unable to do just that.

All managers put a positive spin on matters surrounding their team, media management is one of the most important jobs that the modern day manager has to undertake. The difference however between Wenger and masters of the art such as Mourinho or Ferguson is knowing how to manipulate the media and be objective and calculating when doing so.

Whenever results go against Arsenal, everyone's favourite Frenchman wheels out the excuses and the complaints and the hard luck stories. For all the good Wenger has brought to the English game (and there is a huge amount of that we would add) in terms of methods, player development, craft of his profession and aesthetically pleasing football, he has also managed to engineer a position for himself where he is the most unpopular of managers amongst his peers. Mourinho and Ferguson had well documented and long running spats with him although that can probably be put down to the level of direct competition. He has however an amazing capacity to enrage almost all around him with his constant whingeing and 'j'accuse'. David Moyes, Martin Jol, Sam Allardyce, Alex McLeish, Tony Pulis amongst others have all had cause to take particular issue with him over the years, in fact he was very lucky Jol didn't flatten him during one match.

Wenger is the epitome of the poor loser (admittedly most successful sportsman are all the same) wherein it is always somebody else's fault. The real reasons however that Arsenal have not won anything for several seasons (one Carling Cup in the post granted) is because his team are not good enough and more importantly tough enough character wise, and it is this lack of character that is a direct result of his actions. Wenger fosters a victim mentality as opposed to a siege one. The successful bad losers are people like Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Alex Ferguson, they hate losing but they don't blame others, they look inwardly and strive to do better the next time.

Both Ferguson and Mourinho are masters of the carrot and stick. They praise their players to the hilt and defend them at all costs when they feel they may be under attack from the press but when the time is right they are not scared either to criticise them either. I remember well Mourinho giving a man of the match winning Joe Cole a barrage of criticism to the press and the result of this hard line was the best period of form in his career. Ferguson I am sure also is an incredibly tough disciplinarian behind the scenes and is never scared to tell the press after a game if his side was poor. It is a combination of fierce loyalty and harsh realism.

Monsieur Wenger again yesterday whether by direct speech or by implication laid the blame for yesterday's capitulation directly at the feet of the referee, blaming him for the two penalty kicks and for the circumstances regarding Abou Diaby's sending off. His reaction to the sending off was not to castigate his player for a silly act of petulance - he is a professional footballer paid to play and to deal with being fouled - which undoubtedly contributed to the final result but to claim that Barton should have seen red for the original tackle. It may well be that Barton should have walked but that is not the point, Wenger chose to whinge and blame others instead of saying 'Diaby should not have reacted and he needs to learn from it'. The message to his player is that it was ok to be sent off as the fault lay with the opposition player which is just a nonsense. From schoolboy level you are taught to never retaliate. Barton won yesterday by getting Diaby sent off, plain and simple and that is part of the modern game.

The decisions probably did not go Arsenal's way yesterday but the reality is it is the lack of mental toughness in the team that is the issue and not the blowing of the whistle in the opposition's favour. Grounds such as St James' are tough places when the home side has its' tail up and it calls for leadership and grit, Sunderland found the same thing out at the Brittania yesterday under a sustained and direct aerial and physical assault on Craig Gordon, and they also capitulated. Gordon looked like a startled rabbit come the end of proceedings.

Even under Wenger, Arsenal used to have lots of big characters come the physical confrontation, Keown, Adams, Vieira, Petit, Ian Wright, even Dennis Bergkamp had a nasty side, the current team of fancy micro munchkins doesn't want to know when it gets tough out there. Wenger's post match comments after recent Chelsea games have been almost comical, basically amounting to 'it wasn't fair because they were bigger than us'. Professional football is an incredibly physical game and that physicality being used as an intimidatory factor is part and parcel of professional sport and is used in every other game from rugby to cricket.

The sooner Wenger realises that the physical aspect of the game is just as import as the pretty football the sooner Arsenal might challenge for some meaningful honours. I don't remember ever seeing Barcelona outmuscled by anyone and they play infinitely better football than Arsenal or anybody else for that matter, that is the finished article and Arsenal are many moons away from being that, no nonsense.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Transfer Window - what recession?

After much 'January is not the time to buy players', many teams did just that with a couple of the bigger boys slapping down the wedge, the big money business was transacted mainly in the striking department. Manchester City surprised no one by signing Edin Dzeko after a long but otherwise uncontested pursuit. Aston Villa then surprised everyone by shelling out around 24 million for the much maligned but ever goal hungry Darren Bent.

The rest of the interesting business thereafter surrounded Liverpool and Chelsea. First Liverpool shelled out a little over 23 million for the Mike Tyson impersonating Luis Suarez from Ajax. The initial thought was to give Fernando Torres a world class strike partner but this plan went astray when Chelsea turned Torres' head with a written bid for the out of sorts hit man. Liverpool rejected the offer but the damage was done, Fernando had heard the drums and he duly submitted a transfer request. Liverpool accused Chelsea of tapping up Torres despite doing the exact same thing with Suarez, Charlie Adam and then later on Andy Carroll. Regardless, Chelsea continued their pursuit and late on Monday a deal was done for a reported fifty big ones.

Liverpool, keen not to leave themselves goal shy in the face of losing their most potent forward instantly turned to the aspiring Geordie Jailbird Andy Carroll. The Toon, knowing Liverpool were soon to be flush with cash slapped a thirty five million price tag on their raw centre forward and Liverpool duly paid up. Chelsea then finished up the big name transfers with the capture of David Luiz, probably the best and highest quality piece of business of the lot. No one however bought poor Charlie Adam despite Harry 'you can never have enough attacking midfielders' Redknapp's best efforts to make a last minute attempt. I read with interest that Adam feels upset that he was not allowed to move despite submitting a written request, presumably that was his signature on the contract he signed with Blackpool also.

So where does all this and other activity lead us and did any clubs significantly change their position for the second half of the season?

Chelsea look outwardly like big winners. Their ageing and threadbare squad had just endured a hellish run of results that have effectively finished their title challenge with the thought of knocking over Barcelona in the Champions League also provoking giggles from all considered. Adding a 23 year old quality defender and one of the most prized strikers in World football at just 26 years of age is surely sound business. With Torres however their is a suspicion that we may have have already seen the best of him. Those tight hamstrings and a dodgy knee possibly sending him the same way of Michael Owen. Whether Ancelotti can find an effective combination with the ageing and sulking Drogba an Anelka will be a challenge too. After the Summer they may both be gone however.

So sound business from Liverpool selling Torres for a huge sum? Well not necessarily as they have turned around and written cheques for that and more for two centre forwards unproven in the Premiership. Suarez had a great World Cup but everyone knows it is folly to buy players on that basis (Ilie Dumitrescu and El Hadj Diouf both spring to mind). Scoring goals in the Eredvise is all well and good but his biggest contribution to Ajax's season so far was a multiple game ban for sinking his gnashers into an opponents shoulder, no doubt Dalglish will just say he is 'competitive'. Carroll is the most intriguing transfer of the lot as Liverpool are spending a lot of money on potential. No one knows yet whether he is going to turn into a combination of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (on a good day) and Didier Drogba or Zlatan Ibrahimovic (on a bad day) and Jason Lee (he of pineapple dodgy barnet fame and lets face it Carroll is sporting a very dodgy barnet). His Premiership performances have been good so far and he looks the part but the number 9 shirt at Liverpool is a hell of a sight more daunting than the same one at St James, we will watch with interest. The other interesting point at Liverpool is who is driving the player purchases. Comolli is notionally tasked with buying young talent but that is probably more along the lines of cheaper younger players. If Dalglish has been heavily involved then this could be the precursor to a longer stay which he undoubtedly wants. Dalglish always enjoyed spending big money on attacking players in his previous guises, Barnes, Beardsley, Shearer, Sutton so again, we will watch as this develops.

Villa look on the right path and whilst Bent probably isn't good enough for the highest echelon, he's certainly good enough to improve them upfront. Sunderland have taken the cash and made a couple of potentially shrewd midfield signings, their season should continue in a positive manner.

Manchester City have attempted to stop buying quantity and are now attempting quality. Dzeko comes with a bulging reputation and his ability to forge a partnership with the gargoyle like Carlos Tevez may well decide their final placing in the table. They still look good for the top three.

West Ham have brought in badly needed reinforcements and Robbie Keane and Wayne Bridge will add much needed know how and quality. Their Premiership ambitions remain uncertain however.

The rest of the league is a mixture of free or cheap transfers and loan signings. Fulham look like they have done some good business and Mark Hughes may finally be on the road to redemption if he can build on some seeds of better times at Craven Cottage.

Birmingham look a better team for Martins, Bentley and Davies, Stoke have also brought in reinforcements along with Blackburn Rovers and one can only hope that Blackpools' new purchases along with the retaining of Charlie Adam will be enough to keep the season's one true highlight in the division.

It would seem that most of the purchasing was done out of measures of desperation rather than anything else. Chelsea, so frugal for so long have reacted to the possibility of dropping out of the top four by spending big. Villa and Liverpool had a quick glimpse of the abyss and acted swiftly. ManYoo, Arsenal and Spurs, content with their seasons in the main watched and waited.

It is however a slight myth to suggest that this was one of the most extravagant transfer windows ever. Much of the money was simply recycled within the English game with Liverpool's lavish outlay financed mainly by Chelsea. Only the David Luiz and the Edin Dzeko deals sent significant money outside of the English borders.

One other interesting point is the complete absence of the other European powers at the table. Both Luiz and Torres in particular as well as Dzeko are all players that would have usually been coveted on the Iberian Peninsula. Other than Barcelona or Real, it doesn't appear there is much money in the Spanish game and both those two have spent serious money in the past few years. Mourinho's protestations that Madrid don't have a decent striker available beggars belief given their recent outlays and it is interesting that a loan for Adebayor rather than a big money move for Dzeko provided the solution. We are discounting the possibility of a Real move for Torres ever due to his loyalty to Atletico - Liverpool fans will testify to his great character and principles on these matters.

How all of these further outlays and financial commitments will impact on the clubs in light of the impending financial fair play regulations remains to be seen. It also is unknown how successful the majority of these transfers will be, some look sound business whereas some look overpriced and ill judged. All in all a very interesting and ultimately dramatic transfer window with a certain Mr Harry Redknapp's nose no doubt severely out of joint.

As a footnote, a huge thanks and lots of love to my lovely lady wife for providing me with a lovely son yesterday, now that is definitely no nonsense.