Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Changing face of the Champions League.

On some levels it maybe what Monsieur Wenger refers to as 'financial doping', on another it may be the new found bite of FFP. Either way, football in Europe is changing at the top level. Or is it?

Since the inception of the group format in the CL in '91/'92, teams from 7 countries have won the Champions League.

Spain, 7 times
Italy, 5
England, 4
Germany, 3
Portugal, 1
France, 1
Holland, 1

Those stats in themselves are not remarkable possibly. The bigger and more successful teams have typically come from the bigger leagues with exceptions such as Ajax Amsterdam and wonderful one off teams such as Red Star Belgrade in the early 90s.

What is interesting however is how those wins are distributed amongst those countries and when they last won it.

Spain lead the way with 7 wins since '91-92 but it is little surprise they are shared entirely between Barca and Real, (4-3 to Barca).

Italy have had 3 separate winners, the two Milan clubs and Juve. England also have 3, United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Germany have 2 with Dortmund and Bayern. Porto, Ajax and Marseille represent Portugal, Holland and France respectively.

Should a club outside of the German, Italian, Spanish or English leagues not win the tournament this year, it will be 10 years since one did (Porto). After that you have to go back another 9 years to find another in the shape of Ajax.

So twice in the last 19 years a winner has come from outside the 'big four'. The previous 10 years saw winners from 7 different nations before we run into periods of English, German and Dutch dominance as the competition evolved.

The issues are on many levels. The first observation is that winners from outside the top leagues are going to become fewer and fewer.

The simple fact that the bigger leagues have so many entrants makes that an inevitable outcome. Indeed several recent CL winners did not win their domestic league the previous season. The new format makes things much more of a closed shop and an ever increasingly so one.

The Eastern European teams used to enjoy a huge level of protection and favouritism from the old Iron Curtain that no longer remains.

Their players are long gone now before they mature rendering them uncompetitive unless there are fresh cash injections from Russia.

Even wonderful Ajax - the original model for Barcelona let's not forget - have little chance of keeping a group together long enough to win the tournament with a team such as their '94-95 vintage - one of my favourite teams of all time.

Porto likewise are continually raided for their best players.

Italy even appears to be struggling to compete right now with only Juve having the requisite quality currently. But even they were trounced by eventual winners Bayern last season.

France offers a genuine contender in the shape of PSG backed so handsomely by Middle Eastern money. Whether that level of financial support can remain viable for a club with French TV revenues in the age of FFP remains to be seen. Monaco are also eyeing future improvements however.

The second point is that of the distribution of wealth amongst the clubs in the big leagues and how that is effecting the various runners and riders.

Whilst Spain has the most wins in recent times and arguably the best players, the reality is that other than isolated pockets of success from other clubs, it is all about Barca and Real.

Yes Atletico are doing well this season but they are probably a distance from winning the CL. The very best players in Spain (with exceptions granted) are concentrated at those two teams.

Valencia had a wonderful team around the turn of the century led by their captain Gaizka Mendieta but despite a later La Liga win last decade they could not maintain things and for one simple reason.

The big two in Spain prosper so greatly because of the highly skewed distribution of television money. The outcome is two hugely dominant teams in a very lop sided league with the likes of Valencia and Atletico struggling to keep up.

The flip side is it allows Real and Barca to hoard the best players (for all Barca's Masia academy they also spend a lot on transfers and benefit hugely in the wages they are able to pay) making them prime contenders for the CL each season.

Germany offers a hint possibly of the realities of FFP to come. The Bundesliga has taken a far different - and more sensible - approach to the game and as a result have a wonderful league with full stadiums, happy fans and a quality product.

There is one glitch however.

With clubs all attempting and managing to break even however, this living within your means approach means that the bigger clubs will always prosper and in this case Bayern are becoming increasingly dominant - if that were indeed possible.

Yes, Dortmund won back to back titles in '11 and '12 but given the size and population of the country and the strength in depth, Bayern have a staggering dominance with nearly three times the number of titles as the next best club.

Dortmund of course played wonderful football last season and reached the final of the CL also. Whilst they were beaten by Bayern, that is not the issue with regard to their prospects going forwards.

The fact that Bayern have been able to prise both Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski so simply from Dortmund (Germany's current No2 power) points to continued Bayern dominance. It is hard to imagine those transfers happening so easily in England.

And so to the Premiership. In many ways it is the poster child yet in so many other ways it is the most dysfunctional. The revenues are staggering and are distributed in a highly equitable manner yet most clubs still live outside their means. Relegation often spells doom.

Where it is most interesting however is that distribution of wealth appears to even out the competition - this season offering both a wonderful title race and a relegation dogfight involving half the league - whilst not necessarily improving the overall product.

Both Manchester City and Arsenal are challenging for the title yet both were defeated 0-2 at home this week by Barca and Bayern. United and Chelsea will not be amongst the favourites to lift the CL either this season.

It is an interesting but separate point that Manchester City have been beaten soundly at home three times this season - by the last three teams to win the Champions League.

Another interesting point is that although the Spanish and German models are very different, they have both produced one in Germany's and two in Spain's case very dominant teams.

One could also question whether the competitiveness in England is real or manufactured. Until Chelsea and City had vast cash injections from rich benefactors, it was a monopoly between United and Arsenal with Liverpool limping along behind.

Arsenal's stadium plans may have dictated that United could have become as dominant as Bayern are in Germany had Russian and Middle Eastern money not come along.

It seems however the cat is skinned, the same result occurs. The rich are getting richer mirroring what is happening the world over in all walks of life.

Taking England as the most competitive league, their clubs have of course prospered in the CL but their wins in the tournament have been different from those of say Barca or Real or Bayern.

United's team of '99 was wonderful but you could play the injury time in the Nou Camp 100 times again and not have them come out as the eventual winner.

Liverpool's win in '05 was heroic but ultimately unlikely as it was not a wonderful Liverpool team and they had an equally incredible comeback from 3-0 down at half time in the final.

Chelsea's win in '12 saw them ride their luck (much to my delight) to an enormous degree and the stars were clearly aligned.

The point that I am trying to make is that with the exception of United's win against Chelsea (not to my delight) in '08, an English club has possibly not been the outstanding team even if they have won the competition (I might be being a little harsh on United of '99 possibly).

That pattern seems to be reflected this season where the three outstanding candidates appear to be Barca, Real and Bayern with the upstart PSG tucked in behind.

Hardly news I hear you say but let's not forget that until 1992, Barcelona had NEVER won the European Cup and until Real won it in 1998, they had gone 32 years without winning it.

This potted history of the Champions League since the inception of the group format superficially mirrors the wider trend but the reality is that whilst there will always be anomalies, the tournament looks increasingly in the hands of the few mirroring the domestic league situation in most countries.

Such are the riches of the CL, teams more and more will be happy to simply compete in the main stages, safe in the knowledge the money keeps rolling in.

It is much the same in the Premiership with most teams happy with a mid table finish which takes priority over the FA Cup for instance.

The gravy train continues the following season regardless of the midtable position within the competition.

Premiership and Champions League mediocrity is an extremetly wealthy form of being mediocre, it's all relative.

The CL of course remains a wonderful product but the list of potential winners appears to be shrinking, not just in terms of which country the winner will come from but of the clubs within those countries.

The group stage runners up this week lost at home to the group winners in every game with an aggregate score of 0-9. Merely coincidence or is the gap widening even at this elevated level?

Football in Europe has always been cyclical of course.

There was probably a time in the mid to late 80s (the period beginning with the English ban in Europe) and early 90s for instance when it would have been hard to imagine Serie A not being the premier league in Europe and Liverpool not dominating domestically in England.

Things always change of course and we are possibly seeing a changing of the guard in England as an example right now.

There does appear however to be a very distinct trend in European football of the major trophies residing now in the hands of the few.

All sport thrives off competition and it may be that the CL has peaked as a product. It could be a signal of a precursor to a European League (still unlikely and some way off I would venture).

As the Champions League matures and ages however, the clubs will look for fresh ways (either with or without UEFA) to increase revenues and we will all await the next step  - No Nonsense.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Should United really pay Wayne Rooney 300K a week?

I am not a Man United supporter. I am however scratching my head trying to understand just why they are so determined to pay so hugely to hang on to a player of questionable loyalty and professionalism who will be 29 later this year.

It was entirely understandable in many respects that United did not want to sell Rooney to Chelsea in the Summer.

Selling one of your best players to a rival when they've just reinstalled Jose Mourinho and you have just lost Sir Alex Ferguson probably didn't smack as the best of ideas. I can go with that decision.

What one would have expected though would be that Rooney would have had a price. A put up or shut up for Chelsea that given the amount of squad re-building that United would require would have allowed for investment in younger players to rejuvenate the squad.

United of course would have been weaker this season without Rooney, he is after all a fine player.

But for a player who is possibly already past his best and is known to not look after himself, blowing 300K a week - let's remember the reality of FFP - looks like one almighty leap of faith. Politicians might call the decision 'brave'.

Given that United turned down the option to sell Rooney last Summer, his dwindling transfer value dictates that they have backed themselves into a corner over offering him a new deal.

A new contract rumoured to be running to 2018 will net him somewhere in the region of 60M in wages. Add in that Chelsea would have probably paid 30M and around 10M in wages this season also so far, that's pretty much a 100M bet that they are better off with him than without him.

Whether Rooney is already in decline or not is debatable - clearly Mourinho didn't think so and neither do United it would seem - but I would wager a lot of money that he will be in decline by the time he turns 30 in eighteen months time.

Few players who do not look after themselves prosper from that age onwards.

Much of Rooney's plaudits come from his exceptional work rate. Whilst that does imply a lot of natural strength and fitness, there is no doubt that players whose games are based more on physicality can decline more sharply when the slowing down process inevitibly begins.

It is not to say that Rooney cannot adapt, he is of course a player of the highest calibre and many such as Alan Shearer went onwards into their mid thirties by adapting their games.

The problem for United is in investing in this experiment with Rooney's advancing years, they are paying wages which only the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic enjoy.

It is a stratospheric sum of money for a player who has not spent his entire career at the top of his game and has not looked after himself.

Now all of this might sound like I don't rate Rooney but that would not be true, I'm merely questioning the wisdom of giving a wage increase to a player who if not already in decline, is certainly on the brink of it.

During his time at United, Rooney has certainly been a very good player. He was however to a large extent in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo formally and last season that of Robin Van Persie.

Assuming this contract is duly signed, United will be committing completely to him seeing out the duration of that deal as there will be no other club - Chelsea were the only realistic suitor last Summer - that will match his wages. Much like Nani now, he will be 'un-transferable'.

It may well be that United's revenues and finances are far far better than I or anyone else realises, that not qualifying for the Champions League matters not a jot.

It does seem however to be an awfully big financial commitment when you consider how that money could be spent rebuilding a team that badly needs it - No Nonsense.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Whisper it - the Aussies are back.

As an England fan who was present in Perth and Sydney, watching Australia's performance against South Africa in the opening test has been therapeutic, healing almost.

Whilst England were undoubtedly abysmal Down Under, I was still of the belief this was a fairly ordinary Australian team,

Yes, David Warner is not Matthew Hayden, they don't have a No3 close to Ricky Ponting, there is no Steve Waugh, Haddin will never be Gilchrist and no one will ever be Shane Warne.

These comparisons however do nothing to give credit to the current crop of Australian players who have turned things around so incredibly in the past twelve months.

Whilst in my opinion, the overall skill set of global test cricket has declined - mainly the ability of many players to play studied long innings - and as mentioned this is not a team of the equal of their previous greats, there is no doubt that they are playing a fabulous brand of cricket.

The Australian team - on British shores - has always been respected (hugely so) but not often liked, the level of aggression and domination have been the chief culprits.

Here though, I have to say that whilst there may not be a maverick Warne or a swashbuckling Gilchrist, I honestly and genuinely love watching this Australian team.

Seeing a group of players perform to the utmost of their abilities is a wonderful thing.

Darren Lehmann was hugely criticised - including by myself - for some of his more boorish methods and comments at the start.

Whilst he may or not be the most scientific of coaches - I'm sure he knows far more about the game than he lets on - what he has done is given this group of players the platform to perform to the absolute peak of their abilities and play such an amazing brand of cricket.

England simply couldn't cope with Australia's intensity - aggression is too simplistic a term - and it seems that South Africa are having exactly the same problem.

Yes the Australian top order struggled with Dale Steyn but most teams are going to have problems against him on his home patch.

Until Mitchell Johnson's re-birth he has been head and shoulders the best strike bowler in the world for the past few years.

Australia now however have the capacity to dig in and find someone who will find a performance, something that Marsh and Smith did so wonderfully on the first day to put Australia on top.

It's hard to know what to say about Mitchell Johnson.

I'm sure at some point his wayward ways will return, but for now, every Australian should just sit back and admire a tearaway quick at the absolute peak of his powers, Lillee and Thompson would be proud.

The delivery that removed Graeme Smith was an example of just how unplayable he is right now. It had everything, pace, accuracy and steep bounce, Smith simply couldn't cope and few could.

Once Australia have any team seven down now and one end of the tail exposed, Clarke should simply toss the ball to Johnson.

Tail enders simply cannot deal with Johnson right now, the first ball he gave to Mornie Morkel in he first innings was a perfect example, any batsmen would have struggled with it never mind an opposition fast bowler.

Again, much of the credit must go to Lehmann, the fragile nature of Johnson's performances in the past have been there for all to see but Lehmann has managed to give him a level of confidence he probably didn't know he even had.

To my mind, Michael Clarke is a fine captain on the pitch with thoughtful field placements and wonderful rotation of his bowlers.

Again Lehmann has given him this platform. Clarke it would seem struggled in the dressing room but Lehmann has taken that problem away from him, galvanising a fine team spirit and allowing Clarke to get on with doing the things he does well.

Yes this is not a complete Australian team but right now for me if they push ahead and win this series then they can quite rightly claim to be the No1 team in the world again, and I shall enjoy watching them do so - No Nonsense.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Year of the (small) Horse?

Jose Mourinho's 'small horse' comment was met with much mirth in the media in the past week as he played down Chelsea's title hopes in classic Mourinho style with an unabashed glint in his eye.

Last week saw Chelsea enjoy a five point swing over Manchester City whilst Arsenal imploded - as only they can - away to Liverpool.

Points wise it is a very close race and with fixtures again this coming Tuesday and Wednesday things can change quickly. What is clear however is that Chelsea are beginning to click and are becoming more and more of a Mourinho team.

Eden Hazard has had many plaudits and rightly so. Whilst much of Hazard's improvement is down to his increasing maturity and experience, he is also becoming a different player under Mourinho's guidance.

It was tough to see Juan Mata leave for nearly every Chelsea fan but there seems little doubt that despite his many wonderful qualities, he would have struggled to match the physical intensity levels that Oscar, Willian and Hazard have shown in the past two matches.

In the past couple of months, Mourinho has taken a firm grip on the team marshaling the back four into a far more effective unit. He has addressed the issue of the deep lying holding midfielders and has even gone some way to remedying the much discussed problem at centre forward.

Samuel Eto'o left to a standing ovation on Saturday despite not getting on the scoresheet, why? Becuase Mourinho has pushed Eto'o's case to lead the line because of his work rate.

Eto'o may not be quite the predator of old but he is a wonderful foil for the potent attacking threat that lies just behind him. Mourinho also knows he is a wily old fox who has shown his worth also with a wonderfully poached recent hat trick. He remains a class act.

Chelsea fans should of not get carried away of course, City in particular remain a highly potent threat and their form will of course recover from this dreadful past week.

How the top teams handle the restart of the Champions League will also be crucial with important fixtures looming for everyone. How the managers rotate their players will be crucial as we approach the sharp end of the season.

Arsenal's result and performance against Liverpool was hopeless and was indicative of a team that lacks the leadership and mental strength to win a title.

Wenger again failed to strengthen his squad when they have their best chance of the title in years, it was shortsighted yet again and Arsenal may well now suffer the consequences.

For City, the challenge is to regroup and find their form again. City have been wonderful this season in games when they have clicked from the outset simply steamrollering opposition.

Performing in tight matches at this time of the season is a different skill and one they must grasp quickly, they need to learn to win 1-0 when things are not going all their way.

1991 saw a very small horse called Seagram win the world's most famous steeplechase - the Grand National. Could 2014 see another small horse win a big title? No Nonsense.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Chelsea must back up their Etihad triumph

Newcastle's visit to Stamford Bridge on Saturday should be a routine win for the Blues. This is after all the team that so efficiently stopped the league's most potent attack in their 0-1 win at the Etihad whilst hitting the woodwork another three times.

Whilst Mourinho is publicly playing down Chelsea's title chances, that is of course a nonsense that everyone - including he - understands. Chelsea's squad is not exactly where he wants it to be but with his hand at the tiller it has enough quality to lift the title.

Chelsea are beginning to look more and more like a Mourinho team with Nemanda Matic finally giving Chelsea the physical presence in midfield that the Portuguese so always craves.

John Terry is rejuvenated and with Gary Cahill in the form of his life and David Luiz again showing up in midfield, Chelsea finally look to have the steel in central areas that usually defines his teams.

It is not quite Carvalho with Terry (at his peak) and Ballack or Makelele with Essien but it nevertheless very solid.

Collectively the team looks exactly that also with the players all working hard for each other. The sight of Willian and Hazard chasing back will be as pleasing to Mourinho as their lightning breaks and dribbles.

So as mentioned, Chelsea should beat Newcastle comfortably on Saturday and in that respect it should not represent a particularly important game, but it is.

Newcastle have in the past couple of seasons become a bit of bogey team for Chelsea winning three of their past four league meetings. The timing is also highly interesting.

Chelsea are flying after their result in Manchester and Newcastle are apparently on their knees after a humiliating Tyne Wear derby defeat compounded the loss of Johan Cabaye to PSG.

Chelsea struggled in their last home game against West Ham and it is imperative that Chelsea build momentum given the tight nature of the table.

Chelsea need to win to do just that and one would expect Mourinho to send out a strong and mainly unchanged team to face the Toon. The only exception probably being Oscar being brought back in to replace one of either Ramires, Luiz or Matic to give a more attacking balance again.

If Mourinho can continue to coax such performances from his players and find a way to get some goals from his strikers - an improving Samuel Eto'o looks the best bet right now - then Chelsea can go very close to the title this year.

Three points against Newcastle is a must - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We need to stop talking about Kevin.

Firstly let me say that I simply cannot comprehend how England have got to the point where a place for one of greatest talents they have ever had cannot be found, even at the age of 33.

It may be that Pietersen is just such a disruptive influence that it outweighs the runs but to me it just seems beyond reason. I like everyone will have to take their decision under advice.

There will however be many that will agree with the decision, especially those in and around the ECB. It also sounds like it was a fairly unanimous decision which does lend weight to it maybe being the right call - even if I don't understand it.

The Ashes debacle has clearly called for a scapegoat and KP in that respect was the obvious choice. The batting was clearly the issue, but let's not forget he made the most runs down under.

People will point to the ways that he got out, but in that respect surely Ian Bell (who plays less extravagant shots and should be less prone to senseless dismissals and scored less runs) should have been told to go also.

Bell however does not rock the boat. So I guess he can stay then.

The body language between Cook and KP has been telling all the while and with the ECB rightly or wrongly backing Cook as captain, his has made KP's place in the team untenable it would appear.

Where however England have got things horribly wrong - at least outwardly - is that they seem to have made little attempt to integrate Pietersen.

Yes he is an egotistical character but many geniuses are.

Team sport has been full of maverick characters and if they feel cherished and wanted they can flourish.

Take football for instance. Argentina built a whole team around Diego Maradona and won the 1986 World Cup. Real Madrid have embraced Cristiano Ronaldo's talent and ego and the numbers speak for themselves.

Even within cricket, Brian Lara has been a prime example of a player who not just indulged himself but demanded that his teammates and country indulged him to the point where personal records were more important than the result of a test match. 400 and a drawn test case in point.

Whilst he may have not asked for it necessarily, much of Indian cricket has revolved around Sachin Tendulkar  - I'm not suggesting he is anything other than a very humble guy however.

I don't think England needed to indulge Pietersen to any remote degree like this but simply involve him. The sight of him continually fielding (he's too good a fielder to be out there) on the boundary spoke volumes.

Whatever the rights and wrongs and who is to blame, English cricket has lost a wonderful player and all those who have paid up handsomely for the home test series this Summer will already be feeling shortchanged.

It can of course be that a player does stop being worth it. Andrew Symonds was an example of a great talent that simply couldn't tow the line and at some point you have to say enough.

KP's issues however have not been off the pitch and whilst his professionalism has not been called into question, the debacle regarding the text messages to the South African dressing room was unprofessional in the extreme in a very different sense.

There was however a certain SK Warne who needed a bit of a prod from time to time also. Persevering with him seemed to be the right answer for Australia.

England have decided to move on and that being the case it will be time to stop talking about Kevin.

That is probably the reason they have decided to go this route rather than simply dropping him, to avoid all the constant talk of recalls that would inevitably come every time England posted a low score.

They also clearly wish to bring several new players in to the fold so having a character they deem divisive in the dressing room is not how they want to kick off and I can understand that to a degree.

I honestly think that KP will be sad that he is no longer involved in England cricket. He will probably become far richer as a T20 hired gun but I genuinely believe he enjoyed the challenge of test cricket and will miss it.

And I will miss him - No Nonsense.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

No New Order after City's Blue Monday

OK, so it's a bad pun which is only relevant if you are familiar with 80s and 90s Manchester music but Manchester City fluffed their lines badly at the Etihad where they had a real chance to lay a marker as the new dominant force in English football.

City will remain favourites to win the title with the bookies but there is an ominous look about Mourinho's Chelsea now.

They are far from a complete side but they are steadily starting to look more 'his' with an uber professional and efficient 0-1 win in Manchester.

After ropey results against Stoke and Sunderland, Mourinho spoke of a necessary change in philosophy and since then Chelsea have simply stopped conceding goals.

Yes they are lacking a top class finisher as the West Ham game showed but they already look far more like the Chelsea of his previous vintage. Mourinho did not show up with negative tactics, he showed up with the right tactics.

As one journalist so succinctly put it (I'd love to take the credit), you don't need to park the bus if you have 'the coach'.

City will be wondering what on earth happened and will point to the absences of Nasri and most pertinently Sergio Aguero who along with Aaron Ramsey and Luis Suarez have been the best three players of the first half of the season.

City have been steam rollering teams with almost willful abandon yet they came up short against a tactically superb Chelsea.

Pellegrini will face questions about his team selection with Demechellis dreadful again - this time in midfield.

Both he and Moyes who perseveres with Phil Jones in midfield must realise that these are out and out centre backs, not a Marcel Desailly of the AC Milan vintage nor a Franck Sauzee who used to move so elegantly in and out of defence for Marseille.

Arsenal may feel they are the big winners here but the reality is they now have two teams to compete with, City missed a chance to deliver a telling blow to Chelsea last night, six points would have been a tough gap to bridge.

For City the job is now to pick themselves up and move on, big games loom against Chelsea again in the Cup and also Barcelona in the Champions League (I actually think City will roll them) as well as the league campaign.

Chelsea have to find a way to add more goals to their defensive frugality, slip ups such as those against West Ham are costly if they are to push for the title.

Eden Hazard again proved his worth last night but it was the centre back pairing of Terry and Cahill that was the bedrock of the win with Ivanovic yet again popping up with a crucial goal as he has done so many times.

The top three appear to be breaking away from the rest. Arsenal will need to prove that they can last the pace especially when the Champions League re-starts and their next few weeks will surely define whether they are pretenders or contenders.

Wenger will be content today but the biggest smile will be on the face of the Portuguezer - No Nonsense.