Sunday, December 30, 2007

The year that will be

Here are my predictions for 2008

The SPL title race will go down to the wire. It's too close to call between the Old Firm, at least till after the game on Wednesday

Aberdeen and Motherwell will get the UEFA Cup spots

Gretna will mount a recovery of sorts, but it'll be too little, too late and they'll go down. They will struggle at the start of the new div 1 season a la Dunfermline

Inverness will yet again miss out on top six by the slightest margin - for the fourth year in a row

By the end of the year, the following managers will no longer be at their clubs:
Gordon Strachan - will quit Celtic due to his frustrations with the fans and media, even if they win the league
Mark McGhee - if he doesn't get the Scotland job, he'll get a better job in England - or the Celtic one
John Hughes - will have moved on to better things, possibly starting with Hibs
Jim Jefferies - unable to reverse Killie's sudden decline this season
Stephen Frail - duh! I also think Romanov will sell Hearts in 2008

Walter Smith ends up under pressure as Rangers manager, even if they win the league

Whoever becomes Scotland coach will be slaughtered on this blog for either having no top level experience, for being too young, or for being Graeme Souness, then will go on to prove me dramatically wrong (except if it's Graeme Souness)

Man Utd will hold off Arsenal to win the title

Derby County will be relegated (and in other news, the sky is blue and grass is green)

So will Fulham and Birmingham City

Newcastle will make a recovery which saves Big Sam his job

Liverpool will finish fourth - again

By the end of the year, the following managers will no longer be at their clubs:
Rafa Benitez - fails to sort out his disagreement with the owners, while Liverpool fail to get near to the title or the Champions League
Avram Grant - honeymoon period runs out, then Lampard and Drogba demand a transfer, and Chelsea turn to a more experienced coach
Alex McLeish - does a "Lawrie Sanchez" and fills St. Andrews with a bunch of players he knows from international duty - and Birmingham crash and burn.
Gareth Southgate - as Middlesbrough battle relegation again

Euro 2008 will start well, but the knockout stages will be cagey. Germany beat Italy in the final. Croatia make the semis. France go out in the first round.

Real Madrid win La Liga and maybe win the Champions League as well

Kaka' leaves Milan for Spain

Ronaldinho leaves Barcelona for Italy

Cristiano Ronaldo finally gets World Player of the Year

Maybe I'm right, probably I'm wrong; only time will tell.


Phil O'Donnell 1972-2007

Jings, what can you say? From my own experience, any death is a tragedy, but that of a young athlete, as he was, is an absolute catastrophe. Let's not even think of looking at it from a football perspective. More important is the fact that Phil O'Donnell was a husband, and a father of four. That's what is most terrible.

For what it's worth, I think there will have been very few football fans in Scotland who gave a damn about their team's result last night, having instead been reminded just how utterly pointless the game is in reality. And I hope that, on Wednesday, there will be opportunities for "a minute's applause" so we can at least pay tribute in the best way we can to him.


Friday, December 28, 2007

The year that was

So 2007 comes to an end, lasting about as long as the average Hearts coach does, I guess. This year in football has seen...

Walter Smith rebuild Rangers after the shambles left by le saviour, Paul Le Guen

Celtic dodge their way to their second successive SPL title, mostly thanks to a combination of Rangers' ineptness and an incredible habit of nicking one goal wins

Celtic give Milan a run for their money in the Champs League last 16, then beat them at home on the way to the knockout stages for the second successive year

Rangers (disappointingly, in the end) and Aberdeen (miraculously) making the next stage of the UEFA Cup - the first time Scotland has had three sides in Europe after xmas since 1970

Dunfermline's reliance on loan signings, other people's cast offs and Jim Leishman in order to stay up finally let them down - they're relegated from the SPL and the chances of them coming back up are about the same as that of Sven becoming England manager again

Hearts find that a coaching triumvirate of a Russian, a Bulgarian and an Englishman is not the best way forward, especially when their owner forces them to play a Lithuanian goalkeeper who not so much has butterfingers as vaseline hands

Gretna discover the top division a bit of a step up for their Dad's Army-esque players, though somehow Brooks Mileson's heart is still going at it despite the stress that watching their defence causes

The national team get arguably the best result in their history by beating the French in Paris, then beat Ukraine as well - but still fail to make it to Euro 2008, and then manage to end the year without a coach

Chelsea chuck Mourinho, and replace with an unknown Israeli, who doesn't do too badly, to be fair

Manchester United win the title with beautiful, beautiful football - and so Arsenal respond by trying to win the title with even more beautiful, beautiful football, and do it without Thierry Henry

Liverpool fork out squillions for a decent striker - but Rafa Benitez still insists on rotating him

Newcastle have another manager...again...and he's soon under pressure due to his failure to win the Premiership in a Kevin Keegan-like manner...again

Spurs spend squillions on a crap striker (Darren Bent) and finally sack Martin Jol after it was clear for months they were drawing his P45 up

Sunderland win promotion, then Roy Keane's bubble bursts when he wastes millions on Kieran Richardson and Michael Chopra and they concede seven at Everton

Sven is pilloried on his return to England with Man City - until they win nine home games in a row and it turns out Elano and Petrov are f****** amazing

Leeds United get relegated to League One and start with a fifteen point deduction to boot. Obviously the rest of the football world is sympathetic towards their plight...

The national team somehow fail to make Euro 2008, and Steve McClaren is forever remembered as "the wally with a brolly" after a nightmare defeat at home to Croatia

Real Madrid win La Liga by being the least bad team, then look to win it again by actually being good

Ronaldinho develops a body habitus more suited to the sport of Darts

Lionel Messi becomes amazing

Kaka' becomes even more amazing, though

Milan win the Champions' League and the World Club Championship, but are guff when they actually play an Italian opponent

Argentina play scintillating Copa America football...and then get twatted by a more defensive minded Brazil in the final

Just about all the big European teams qualify for Euro 2008...except Scotland, of course. Oh, and some other team that has escaped my mind...

As for what will happen in 2008 - if I can fit in another blog entry before the bells then maybe we can discuss that.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Awaiting el clasico

I've been looking forward to 6pm this Sunday for weeks. For it is the kickoff time of, for me, the biggest football match of the season. Not Arsenal - Chelsea (I missed Wooden Spoon Super Sunday because of work, and it sounds like I missed b***** all), not the Old Firm, not even the increasingly rare encounters between my beloved ICT and Ross County, the best thing Dingwall has to offer (which is not hard when the only other competitors for that crown are a roundabout and a post office).

No, it's time for the twice a year showdown that is el clasico, Barcelona v Real Madrid. Catalonia versus royal Spain. A clash, which almost inevitably involves two of the very best teams in the world in action. It means so much more to Real than playing neighbours Atletico, and more to Barca than taking on the second team in their city, Espanyol. And in my experience, at least one of the two games each year is an absolute gem. Last year at Camp Nou, Barca came from behind three times in a 3-3 draw, with Leo Messi's hat-trick including a last minute equalizer, after the home side played the whole second half a man down. The year before saw the Ronaldinho show at the Bernabeu; the Brazilian has never since looked like reaching the standards he set with two of the greatest solo goals you'll ever see, within 20 minutes of each other, in a 3-0 which saw the home support applauding the buck-toothed schemer (an honour only given previously to a certain Argentinian you may have heard of called Maradona, who also had a similar waistline). Go back another year and you have a 4-2 Real victory, with a performance from David Beckham so sweet that you could have got diabetes from watching it.

Even the less impressive games have their moments; who remembers the pig's head that got thrown from the crowd at Figo when he took a corner?!

What makes this one particularly juicy is that this is not a Real side crippled by the egos of aging Galacticos, or stifled by the stuffy tactics of Capello; no, this Real Madrid side, coached by Bernd Schuster (who played for both sides and was a Barcelona legend), are four points clear at the top of the league and are firing on all cylinders. Real finally spent cash on the defence in the summer, though Pepe of Porto is maybe not worth €20 million, and Cannavaro has finally got to grips with La Liga after a dodgy first season. The strings in midfield are pulled by Robinho, finally fulfilling his potential, and by Dutch acquisition Wesley Sneijder. And not only is Ruud Van Nistelrooy continuing to feed his goalscoring addiction, but to the shock of all, Raul has rediscovered his mojo and is playing his best stuff for about 5 years. Real are top dogs, and have been utterly sumptuous to watch.

Barca? They have finally clicked into gear in the last few weeks, after being largely carried on the shoulders of Messi in the early months of the season. That's just as well, as the little Argentine is out injured, but Thierry Henry may be back off the treatment table just in time. But Barca still have a solid back line, a midfield improved by Patrick Vieira-clone Yaya Toure, and oodles of quality.

They also still have the enigma that Ronaldinho has become. He really does look a bit podgy these days, and appears to have lost that burst of acceleration that beats players. He was left on the bench last week, though Frank Rijkaard insists that this is because of long standing injury niggles; it may well be that he's been saved so he can unleash his best on Sunday night,

If only.

Anyway, it usually thrills, it rarely disappoints. On Sunday night, for me, El Clasico and El Mundo are one and the same. You would be a bit of a twit to miss it.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The elephant's graveyard

Gretna, despite a point on Saturday away to a Kilmarnock side with the largest casualty list since World War One, continue to look just as condemned to relegation as they did when I slagged them off - sorry, I meant "impartially discussed their plight" - a few weeks back.

If I was a Gretna fan, I would not be the happiest of campers. Because if you go down a tier from the SPL, you find an awful lot of examples of what happens to a club after relegation. For the first division still contains the last five sides to be relegated from the SPL - St. Johnstone, Partick Thistle, Dundee, Livingston and, most recently, Dunfermline Athletic. That's right; no side relegated has got back to the pinnacle of Scottish football since St. Mirren, and even their fans had to endure some pretty horrific stuff (and some pretty horrific management - anyone remember John Coughlin?) While Dundee are now firm contenders in an increasingly two-horse race for promotion, the other side are none other than Hamilton Academical, last in the top division in 1989. Of the others, St. Johnstone and Partick are now on a reasonably firm footing; after dropping down in 2002, it was only last year that the Saints put up a reasonable challenge to promotion, while Partick had to endure a year in division two (and Dick Campbell's bunnet) before getting back to where they are now - a decent mid-table side still someway off being title challengers.

Meanwhile, Livingston are perhaps the ghost of Christmas Past for Gretna - the perfect example of a club that overspent its resources and went too far, too quickly. Having stayed full-time despite attendances being about as high as they would be for a Margaret Thatcher striptease, they finished a glorious seventh last year. Their Chief Executive then said in August that they would have to go part-time if they don't go up this year; they now lie a thrilling fifth, seventeen points off the lead. Not a very good omen for the future, you feel. There is currently only one part-time in the division, and Stirling Albion are rock bottom.

And, finally, inevitably, we come to Dunfermline. Cup finalists last year, and indeed in 2004, when I believe they also finished 4th in the SPL. How times have changed; out went Jimmy Calderwood to Aberdeen at the end of that campaign, and even the savings made on tanning salon appointments couldn't pay the overinflated wage bill he left behind him. The last three seasons were a perennial struggle against the drop, a fight which they lost in May. Despite this, experienced, seasoned Premier League players like Scott Wilson, Greg Shields, Darren Young, Stephen Glass, Steve Crawford, Tam McManus, Jim Hamilton and Mark Burchill remained, presumably still drawing decent wage packets. And where are they in the table?


So how many of these guys are likely to stay on next season. And how likely are the Pars, not the most financially solvent club in existence, to be able to attract and pay the players required to get them back up?

So the message for Gretna is this. If you somehow still have your books in order on relegation, chuck the playing staff you have now (no problem there - a good few of them are heading for the footie equivalent of the pension queue), and prepare to wait a few years, a la Dundee, until you have a bunch of good, hungry, young players ready to challenge. Don't keep your biggest names, and don't spend on bringing in more, otherwise it'll be wet Tuesday night trips to Albion Rovers in the blink of an eye.

Well, maybe not, but you get my drift.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

The ginger whinger

Following Celtic's defeat by Caley today, Gordon Strachan's response was: "we had all the possession, we had all the chances and all the decisions went against us". This as his side went down 3-2 against opposition who did get a penalty, but who also had a player sent off.

I think I speak for everyone, except maybe the occasional Hoops fan, when I say "boo-frickety-hoo!"

Perhaps Gordon was pissed off because...
a) The entire weekly wage bill of Caley's starting lineup amounts to a couple of days of pay for Scott Brown
b) His defence conceded goals away from home again
c) His all-stars couldn't break Caley down in the last 20 minutes despite being a man up
d) There's an unwritten agreement that referees don't give penalties against the Old Firm (also broken at Hearts' victory over Rangers this season)
d) Because it's his natural reaction to any defeat

A bit of credit to a side who battled back from two goals down and gave their heart and soul for 90 minutes might have been nice? And perhaps a teensy bit justified?

I'm sorry, Gordon, I know it sucks to be you with your own personal wealth, your place in the Champions' League last sixteen, your ability to waste a few million pounds every so often on a bald Danish midfielder a few years past his best. But maybe when the little guys catches you on an off day, as is bound to happen at least once a season, perhaps try a compliment or two, instead of talking complete and utter horse droppings.

And no, before you complain, I am NOT slagging you off just because you have ginger hair, though it makes for a good title.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

By this time last year, Rangers had crashed to league defeats against Celtic, Hibernian, Falkirk, Dundee United, and, of course, the mighty ICT. Paul Le Guen was in the last weeks of a reign that was the biggest disappointment since the first Star Wars prequel. Rangers, in short, were in an itsy bitty of a crisis.

As the end of 2007 approaches, Walter Smith's rebuilt side lie just behind Celtic in the league (and will overtake them by winning games in hand), and have come just one disappointing performance - correction, abysmal, appalling, shocking, abject performance - short of the last 16 in the Champions League.

Yet it would take a brave man to bet on them coming up with the goods and taking the title. Or at least, a braver man, than me. Why is that?

Wednesday night, I think, was the blatant exposure of the limitations that Rangers have. At the back, where David Weir's thirty-seven year old legs were left trailing in the dust of Karim Benzema, where Sasa Papac showed that he is a decent centre-half playing out of position, where Allan McGregor was outed once more as a goalkeeper about good enough for the top six of the SPL, but playing for a team who aspire rather higher than that. At the front, where Daniel Cousin showed he had the mobility of a wheelchair athlete without the wheelchair, where Jean-Claude Darcheville showed that having said mobility is worth nothing if you can't deflect the ball under the crossbar with your shin from three yards, nor if you're dumb enough to get a pointless red card with the game lost, where Steven Whittaker and Lee McCulloch gave Rangers about as much width as Victoria Beckham.

I could go on about the failure to introduce Kris Boyd for more than seven minutes, but you haven't got all day.

Admittedly, some of these problems will be solved once the Ibrox injury list finally begins to ease - Steven Smith and Andy Webster at the back, perhaps DaMarcus Beasley wide (though I still debate his usefulness). But I think Walter would rather have liked one of the five centre-halfs with European experience that Celtic have available, a wide man with the flair and tricks of McGeady, strikers who can actually score goals regularly.

Goodness knows Celtic were really rather fortunate to succeed where Rangers failed. But everyone needs a bit of luck - the trick is to get into the position where a bit of luck is all you need. Therefore, Celtic, for all their limitations, still managed to get to a point where a bit of luck - well, a lot of luck - nicked late winners against Milan and Shakhtar - they kept going, and going, and going, kept the ball at the right end of the pitch, and had the guys who could make something special happen. Rangers, though, never looked like they would get a result off Lyon (it would have been the biggest injustice since the Florida chads), and they simply did not have the options to turn to when it all went up the swanny.

That is why, unless David Murray opens up his bank account again, Rangers simply do not have what it takes to see off Celtic in the title race. Especially once a mister Nakamura-san is back...


Monday, December 10, 2007

Half Term Report Card

We're now sixteen games into the SPL season, just about halfway to the split. So, here's marks out of five for every team so far, taking into account how they've done and comparing it against pre-season expectations...

Slow start but have pulled themselves into the top six with back-to-back wins. The fact they have a chance of making the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup is a magnificent achievement. The rest of the season? Could yet haul themselves into the race for third place.

Has a team ever scraped so many narrow wins as Gordon Strachan's? Getting out of their Champions' League group is fantastic but you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times they have won matches this season by a comfortable margin. On the other hand, some might say that you make your own luck. The rest of the season? If Celtic find their form at last, I still can't see past them for the title.

What a difference to the Arab teams of previous seasons. Craig Levein has restored his reputation this season, helped by some astute business in the transfer market. However, recent results have shown the lack of depth in his squad. The rest of the season? Should be good enough for top six, and a few more buys in January could enable an aspiration towards greater heights.

Finally playing like last season with wins in their last two matches, but lost a lot of players in the summer who have not been adequately replaced, especially at the back, while Latapy is finally running out of legs. That said, Michael Higdon has been a great buy up front. The rest of the season? A top six challenge is going to need John Hughes' best efforts in coaxing Premiership youngsters up North on loan.

So much for the dream - one win and five points so far. Even Yantorno, after a bright start, has faded dramatically and not a single player looks good enough for this level right now. Mileson's cheque book remains closed when his side need it the most. The rest of the season? Even if they fork out the massive amounts required for survival they still don't have an SPL stadium. To call the future bleak would be an understatement. Relegation, surely.

About as consistent as a Lotto number. Romanov's rotation appears to have messed up team spirit, and the constant substitutions of players who are putting in good performances beggars belief. Yet there's no talk of whichever puppet is currently in charge losing his job. And 500 grand for Christian Nade?! Graham Rix couldn't be worse than this. The rest of the season? Already losing ground on the teams above them, and bar a change in the management of the team that doesn't look likely to change, even with the next motley crew of Lithuanians that come in.

A nightmare end to 2007 has taken the shine of a fantastic start that had John Collins' side briefly leading the league after beating both Celtic and Rangers. However they have a defence that looks desperate when Rob Jones is out and there's still a huge Scott Brown-shaped hole in midfield. Give it another year, though, and Steven Fletcher could be the best of all the youngsters they've nurtured recently. The rest of the season? A return to form could yet see them as the best candidates for third, but they need to find some backbone.

A horrific start to the season with six defeats in a row but now back in their usual lower-mid table spot with three straight wins, thanks mainly to some long-needed solidity at the back. The rest of the season? Still lack some quality and Craig Brewster would need to get the best from his players to aspire to a top six place. Relegation, though, doesn't look an issue.

Crippled by an casualty list more suited to a World War I regiment, aided by the loss of Steven Naismith, all the good work done by Jim Jefferies has gone out the window as they slide down the table, with only one win in ten. The rest of the season? Surely when players come back, form will return with them, but it may be too late to repeat last year's sixth place.

Team of the season so far, without a doubt; they've come a long way since Muppet Malpas left. Who foresaw that they would lie third? Perhaps the sign of what a good manager can do for a club, methinks. The rest of the season? Depends partly on injuries affecting key players and whether they can hold onto Mark McGhee, but why shouldn't they stay third?

Much closer to Celtic this season, but still prone to silly defeats, having lost to Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United. Also still lacking consistency, especially away from home, and are still a player or two short of having the depth available to their rivals. Have also had a smashing European campaign. The rest of the season? They look more than equal to Celtic just know, but can they play better than this if they have to? Only time will tell.

Spent a fair bit on luring in players over the summer, but have keenly felt the loss of Kirk Broadfoot. The fact that they've scored only ten league goals so far tells you everything about why they are second from bottom. The rest of the season? If Gretna have a Lazarus moment, St. Mirren look the most likely to have brown trousers, but eleventh place will not appease the increasing numbers who expect better at Love Street.

And the team of the season right now -

Szamotulski (Dundee Utd)

Hutton (Rangers)
Cuellar (Rangers)
McManus (Celtic)
Murphy (Hibernian)

Brown (Celtic)
Kingston (Hearts)
Ferguson (Rangers)
McCulloch (Rangers)

McDonald (Celtic)
Fletcher (Hibernian)

Why do I feel that this may provoke an argument or two?


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Newcastle are out of Toon with reality

Yes, yes, I know, Newcastle United crashed to another defeat yesterday, 3-1 at Blackburn Rovers, despite leading and despite having as many chances to nick the three points. So United have only 1 point out of the last 15, and are now in real danger, lying in...eleventh place in the table.

Isn't this Newcastle's best start to a season since Bobby Robson managed them?

This time last season I watched on telly as Newcastle were humiliated by a 1-0 defeat at home to Watford and lay 19th. They were certainly more hopeless back then, yet Glenn Roeder was given to almost the end of last season. His predecessor, Graeme Souness, was given even more time to display his complete ineptitude and incompetence (can you tell I don't want him as Scotland coach?). And in both cases, while the fans turned on both eventually, they gave the benefit of the doubt for longer than most sets of supporters would.

So what's changed? Why is there a lynch mob baying for the blood of Sam Allardyce? Newcastle are going through a sticky patch, sure, and are struggling to hang onto the coat tails of the likes of Portsmouth and Everton, but there's still a cushion between them and the relegation fodder below. Is it simply because of this almost mythical belief that Big Sam's teams play long ball, dull footie, and the equally mythical belief that Newcastle fans deserve better?

Sorry, chaps, Bolton were never that boring, and just because Kevin Keegan played 4-2-4 and bought Tino Asprilla doesn't mean the rest have to follow his example. Do you think booing the players even before they touch the ball will improve their performance? Newcastle should be a top 6 team, I know, but the guy's only been there six months!

According to some papers, Mike Ashley, the new owner of Newcastle, may look to appease his disgruntled customers by chucking Allardyce his P45 this week. Note this though - only 2 of the teams ahead of them have changed manager in the last 12 months, and one of them is a Chelsea team that would be above Newcastle if I managed them. Stability is the watch word, for Pete's sake...


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Panic on the streets of Glasgow...

Crap! Just woken up to find Scotland are searching for a new boss again!

Are we really going to be able to find another decent coach - we've lost two great coaches after an incredibly successful period that unfortunately also lasted about 10 minutes.


We're probably due another Berti Vogts in charge.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

South Africa or bust

So we've been stuck in the sole 5 team group this time, which means only four home matches in the group stage - gutted. In terms of the draw itself, it would have been nice if we got Andorra or someone else that we could get a cricket score against. Skopje and Reykjavik will not be the absolute easiest places to win away either, though Iceland are going through a real bad patch in terms of their team. Remember only the winner automatically qualifies, and to be honest I think both the Dutch and Norway will be looking at this group and thinking "bugger". The Norwegians are an ageing side who came only third in a Euro 2008 group with Greece and Turkey, while as usual the Netherlands are a law unto themselves, and always perfectly capable of dropping points in qualifying while their players fight and argue with each other. Whatever happens, surely we won't get beat 6-0 this time?

In fact if you look at the other groups, I think we got as good a draw as anyone. Consider the worst case scenario, which would have been Italy, us, Denmark, Slovakia and Austria. I'll take this, thank you very much.

And to be honest, I'd rather have Amsterdam and Oslo right now than Zagreb and Kiev, which is what our beloved neighbours are looking at...


Friday, November 23, 2007

And the next holder of the poisoned chalice will be...

I'm sorry, did I say "poisoned chalice"? I meant "England manager's job".

Following the events of Wednesday night, which of course I predicted with about as much accuracy as an Alistair Darling economic forecast, Steve McClaren was inevitably removed from his post - though it's amazing how 2 million pounds can stop you from doing the honourable thing and resigning. The enthusiasm for replacing him has, of course, been overwhelming, about as popular as being offered the job as official Texas electric chair tester. It's quite like when Scotland tried to find a replacement for Craig Brown - it just happens to be a time where there are not many suitable candidates who happen to be unemployed, or who are looking for a way out of their current job (give Sam Allardyce a couple of months and he might fit the bill, mind).

So at the time of writing, out are Mark Hughes, Martin O'Neill, Jose Mourinho, Allardyce and Marcello Lippi. Alan Curbishley, a candidate previously, has been at West Ham less than a year. Fabio Capello is the only obvious big name who has put himself forward. He has no international management experience, but then neither did Sven, or Steve McC, or, well, pretty much anyone else who has had the England job. So big deal. Goodness knows he has a good CV, too, having won titles with Milan, Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid. And he might offer exactly what England need - a bit of solidity and tactical nuance. He's also used to setting out his side with only one striker, which is just as well when England don't really have many to pick from. But will the public be able to cope with a side that win 1-0 all the time? Good question, that.

Oh, and he's foreign. Might be a wee bit of a sticking point. But who's the outstanding English candidate? Harry Redknapp? There you go. So even though Sven is still fresh in the memory, it looks like it's going to have to be someone from outside these fair isles who takes the post. So Capello is the favourite, and unless the FA can wait till Big Phil Scolari becomes available in July, or tempt Guus Hiddink to abandon Russia a month after signing a new contract, it seems he's in a league of his own.

At least they haven't looked North yet, though. But surely Alex McLeish would never be considered, nor would he be tempted. I hope...


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review of comments below

Shall we just ignore absolutely everything I wrote earlier this evening. Thank you.

Even for the neutral, the most exciting game of the season, I think. Still, if we're not there, I don't think anyone can suggest England should be?


Could a McClaren get in pole position?

Who's going to win Euro 2008 then?


Well, maybe.

Apart from gubbing Russia at home, they've been mediocre at best throughout qualifying, and, assuming they do the business tonight (if they don't then this post will be edited pretty damn sharpish), they will have qualified mainly through Russia and Israel blowing each other's chances.

Since when has qualifying form mattered, though?

Germany made the 2002 World Cup Final despite a pretty naff qualifying campaign. Brazil won it after one of their worst campaigns ever. Holland were Euro 2004 semi finalists despite being so poor beforehand that they had to beat us to get there. Meanwhile, France messed up at Euro 2004 and Portugal at the 2002 World Cup after being among the favourites after waltzing through qualifying.

So England have sucked so far. But they have 7 months to get to a point where they no longer suck. 7 months for their best players to find form, and for McClaren to finally find a system that works. The press appears to have an obsession with England's reliance on 4-4-2, but I challenge you to come up with a formation that would suit them better. 3-5-2 keeps being mentioned, but out of all the semi-decent international sides only Russia seem to use it, and to be honest they're not all that good at it, despite having a couple of natural wing-backs and beating England. Everyone else plays four at the back, and I suspect that this may be because it is the best option. Meanwhile, the lack of a target man of quality (Peter Crouch does not come under this heading) eliminates 4-3-3, I think. And what about 4-2-3-1? Well, with Rooney playing just off Owen, England practically play this already. Instead he needs a bit of luck with injuries at the back, and a bit of balance in midfield.

In short, this means he needs Owen Hargreaves back. The former Bayern Munich midfielder has been badly missed as England discovered that Lampard and Gerrard really can't play together and that just because Lampard makes Gareth Barry look good doesn't mean that Barry actually is good. With Joe Cole and Wright-Phillips increasingly making the wide midfield areas their own (surely David Beckham will never be an England regular again now that he plays in Mickey Mouse League Soccer) and a defence that remains on paper the best in the world after maybe Italy's, McClaren would then find himself one piece short of a complete Euro 2008-winning jigsaw. A fit, on-form Michael Owen.

If that turns out to be the case, McClaren could be caviar on the back of The Sun, instead of the root vegetable the world seems to think he is inexorably headed for.


Monday, November 19, 2007

The future's bright, the future's tartan

Saturday was typical in the life of a Scotland football fan. As soon as you even start to get optimistic or hopeful about anything, the football world turns round and bites you quite hard on the rear end. However, there are two differences, I think, between this campaign and previous ones; firstly, Scots managed to put off even thinking we could make it until the very last moment - even after beating France twice feet remained as close to the ground as those of an elephant on Jupiter.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, we actually appear to have a young team which is still a few years from it's best.

Euro 2008 was the last chance, surely, for David Weir and Christian Dailly to play in a second major finals for Scotland, and for Graham Alexander to play in his first. But the rest of the squad seems some distance yet from retirement age. Only Paul Hartley is beyond 31, and he is now competing in an area where Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown look like first choice picks, and where captain Barry Ferguson has shocked us all by actually playing well in the dark blue for more than one match every three years.

In attack, the campaign saw James McFadden emerge with talismanic status. He could yet be our David Healy, twice the player when representing his country, and his ability to score and create goals, and his refusal to be overawed by playing against even the best is simply inspiring. Kenny Miller is still a man for the big occasion, and in Kris Boyd we finally have a striker who looks like he can put diddy teams (if there is still such a thing at international level) to the sword with his predatory instincts.

But note the one thing our squad's three veterans have in common; they're all defenders. And that's where Scotland are still a distance behind most of the sides that did qualify. The exceptions are, of course, Craig Gordon, now the best British goalkeeper without a doubt, and - a year ago I would never believe for a second that I would say this - Alan Hutton, who is has simply come forward leaps and bounds. He has everything you want from a full-back - he's strong, fast, good in the tackle, good in the air, yet also comfortable with the ball at his feet and running at players. If only we had another Hutton on the opposite flank, but Gary Naysmith is some way away from his best form, and Jay McEveley, though young, is not quite up to the standard yet. And centre-half is the biggest conundrum of the lot. David Weir's long term replacement needs to be much more mobile, for, while Stephen McManus is as strong as a lion, he has the turning circle of a panda. And pacy forwards remain our achilles heel. Who's the answer? Gary Caldwell has been tried and found wanting, while club mate John Kennedy is simply a clone of McManus. The big hope has to be that Andy Webster finally overcomes his injury woes.

Whoever heard of a Scotland fan being optimistic after a defeat? Stranger things have happened, I suppose.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Glorious failure - again

A rare experience for me today - being disappointed that I wasn't wrong about something.

Still, what a lot of great memories to take from this campaign; it's just a pity that it'll be almost a year before another meaningful Scotland game. And it was absolutely fantastic that so many fans stayed to wait for a lap of honour after yesterday's match, despite the result. So the Tartan Army do have a sense of reality, after all. The players deserved it, too.

So it'll be at least another two years before a Scotland side is at a major tournament. We've waited 10 years already, though, and it'll make the 2010 world cup all the sweeter. Particularly when we win it.

I can dream, can't I?


Friday, November 16, 2007

One foot is still in the real world...

Sorry, chaps, but I'd like to inject the entire country with a stat dose of a drug that nobody wants to think or talk about at the moment - realism. (how many of you thought I was going to say marijuana?)

Tomorrow we are playing the World Champions. We have to beat them to qualify. A draw, while a pretty darn decent result, is almost certainly going to lead to our absence from another major tournament. And yet the press and punters seem to think that it is somehow our destiny.

The reasons? Our phenomenal record at home in these qualifiers seems to be the main one. Granted, we have won 5 out of 5, but those included a pub team from the Faroe Islands (it can't have been the same side that gave us a tricky game in June), wins over Georgia and Lithuania which required late goals to get us out of jail, a win over the French which, glorious as it was, is one of the most unfair results in history, and one rather good performance against Ukraine. In a parallel universe, a Scotland side ended up with 2 wins, 2 draws and a defeat instead, and are playing a dead rubber against a side who have already qualified.

Besides, are we not asking a bit much of these guys? The achievement of getting so close to qualifying in this group is more than enough. We will now, at least, be in the second seeding pot for the World Cup qualifiers - note that if we win and England lose to Croatia we might even be seeded above them. That's how far we've come. So if (or when) Saturday comes and goes as a big anticlimax, I at least am going to look back and think of how much excitement and fun I;ve had during these qualifiers as a Scotland fan, and try not to malign the fact that another example of "glorious failure" seems upon us.

Besides, can you imagine a major finals without Italy? I'm not 100% certain I want to, either.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kris Boyd: is there a place for a predator on the pitch anymore?

According to, Rangers and Scotland striker Kris Boyd is 24 years old. He has made 63 starts and 15 substitute appearances for the Gers, scoring 53 goals in total, at a rate of 0.68 goals a game. So in every 3 games he has played, he has scored 2 goals. However, he has not made a single appearance in any of Rangers' four Champions' League group games.

In a Scotland shirt, Boyd scored twice on his debut against Bulgaria. He currently has twelve caps, eight of those as a starter. He has scored 7 goals. However, he did not play in either match against France or the home game with Ukraine, and only came off the bench late on in Tblisi, Bari and Kiev. I would bet my shirt that he will only be a sub in Saturday's crunch game with Italy.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't a game of football won by the team that scores the most goals? And so why, in the big, difficult games where goals will be hardest to come by, is Boyd persona non grata?

Walter Smith, in the lead up to the clash with Barcelona at Ibrox, explained his view - Boyd can't play effectively without a partner, and in these sort of matches Rangers want to flood the midfield and play with only one forward - so far, it has been Daniel Cousin. Presumably Alex McLeish takes the same viewpoint, having gone with Kenny Miller in the last two games, and James McFadden playing in the hole.

Are they right?

There is certainly a widely held theory that Kris Boyd can't play up front on his own. It's said he doesn't press defenders enough, that he doesn't hold up the ball effectively, even that he isn't necessarily quick enough. In the case of the latter argument, Boyd may not be able to match Obafemi Martins over 100 metres, but his acceleration over the first 10m makes that pretty irrelevant - it's all he needs to get the jump on a centre-back. He certainly doesn't press defenders enough, but if you're a lone striker, how effective is doing that? If you're up top on your own against a flat back four who are even just a bit comfortable on the ball (as in the Champions' League, not the SPL!) they just pass it round you anyway. Running around for 75 minutes in the headless chicken, Kenny Miller style looks good and pleases the fans, but you end up having to substitute them because they're too knackered, and the likes of Cannavaro are hardly going to let the ball be nicked from them easily.

So, as far as I can see it, the problem is holding up the ball. And there I can see why Wallie and Eck don't have faith in Kris. It's because he's about as good at keeping the ball at his feet as Pakistan is at inroducing democracy.

In terms of stats, Boyd is the same height as Cousin. He also weighs the same. My personal opinion is that he's also as good in the air as the former Lens forward. But you can see that Cousin just has that little more guile about him, the ability to keep a cool head when there's a huge centre-half right up his a***, that one or two clever little shimmies and touches that enable possession to be kept until the midfield chug their way up the pitch to support him (and with Ferguson, Adam and McCulloch there, "chug" is the right word). Boyd just doesn't have that composure. That means he keeps trying to get rid of it quickly, meaning it either ends up going back to the other team or, even worse, to DaMarcus Beasley. (I'm going to get such a slagging for that bit, but he had an absolute 'mare at Camp Nou)

Then, after a couple of things don't go his way, Boyd sulks like an eight year old school girl. The pouting lip comes out and he doesn't even go looking for the ball anymore. I keep expecting to see him chewing his pigtails out of the corner of my eye. And that means that there's nobody to boot the ball up towards to relieve the pressure.

Of course, plenty of teams out there get away with having a striker who does nothing unless the ball is in the box. David Trezeguet. Pauleta. Hernan Crespo. Heck, the best example is probably Italy's very own Luca Toni. But there's an important difference between these guys and Boyd. They all play for top class sides who have a top class midfield, who can pass the ball out of defence and get players forward quickly. Therefore there's no need for the ball to be held up by a target man. Boyd doesn't quite have that luxury. But his deficiencies seem to be less to do with his ability and more to do with his attitude. He can, and must, improve this aspect of things to be an automatic pick, and to make himself the player he can be.

But the Kris Boyd of November 2007 will, at least initially, sit in the dugout on Saturday at Hampden. And Alex McLeish is probably correct in doing that. But when we get that one glorious opportunity on Saturday, the one the underdog always gets, when the ball flashes across the penalty area, about ten yards from goal with only the goalie to beat, which of Scotland's centre forwards would you rather have on the end of it?


Monday, November 5, 2007

Anti-football: will "killing the game" kill the game?

Due to the wonderful world of night shift, I missed Rangers' backs-to-the-wall effort that earned them a valuable point at Ibrox against Barcelona in the Champions' League. In the aftermath of another smashing result for a Scottish team on the European stage, it also earned them the wrath of little Leo Messi (which is probably akin to being savaged by a pigeon), who, after finding a swarm of blue shirts surrounding him from the first second, branded Walter Smith's tactics as "anti-football", effectively accusing them of playing pretty much for a goalless draw, interested in nothing but stopping the other team from scoring. Any football fan can think of many a game such as this. Inevitably, if this gameplan succeeds, it tends to make for a rather drab spectacle - who can ever remember a 0-0 draw described as a classic?

To see the threat posed by "anti-football", one needs only look back to the 2004 European Championships. Four years earlier saw undeniably the best international football tournament of our generation - Spain's incredible 4-3 win over Yugoslavia, the attacking abandon of Portugal, and, almost unheard of, a magnificent final, where a Zidane-inspired France came from behind to defeat Italy in extra time. Four years later? One word. Greece. Only once in the tournament did they score more than one goal in a game. Six matches, seven goals scored, four conceded. They packed the midfield and kept nicking goals on set plays, defeating the far more entertaining and offensive French, Portuguese (twice) and Czechs in the process. If it were ever possible to win a football match by boring your opponent to death, this was it.

Guiltily, however, I in turn recall a certain event in Paris about two months ago, where a team went away from home, shut up shop, and nicked an incredible upset win through a stunning goal from distance. I jumped up and down in absolute ecstasy, and on this blog itself I hailed the game-winning tactics of Alex McLeish as Scotland stifled the French at almost every turn.

As the saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it.

But is there another way for the underdog to win? Back at the World Cups of 1990 and 1994 respectively, the unheralded, unfancied Cameroon and Bulgaria waltzed deep into the knockout stages while playing open, attacking football. But that was then, and this is now. Every weekend at domestic level, teams travel to Ibrox, Celtic Park, the Emirates, Old Trafford, the Bernabeu, Camp Nou etc. and, to quote Jose Mourinho "park the team bus in front of the goal." Mostly, thankfully, it doesn't work; the top teams fashion a goal somewhere, and often get more when the visitors are forced to chase the game and allow it to open up. But occasionally it does work, and the minnows nick a point or even a McFadden-esque 1-0 win.

Once in a blue moon, though, a side plays away against one of the big guns, plays two strikers and goes for it. Do they ever get a result? I can't remember any obvious ones, and certainly in my experience that tactic will ultimately be less successful than just packing the defence and midfield and trying to hold on for grim death. So we get more and more games with fewer chances and fewer goals.

Inevitably, at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night, Rangers will once again deploy a defensive midfielder, play with a lone striker, and try deperately to hold out against Barcelona. If they somehow manage it again, then I'll be the first to say "well done, that's a tremendous result." But there's a rather large part of me which would rather see Rangers go 4-4-2, try and play a bit, and ultimately lose 4-1 or something, because then we would see some of the world's best doing what they do best; entertaining.

And in the long-term, we must never lose sight of the fact that football is ultimately about entertainment, not results.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gret a grip! Caley stuff Gretna 4-0

For every goal Caley scored yesterday, I drove eighty miles. Trust me, it was worth it, particularly as our fans goaded the home crowd with "you're just a pub team from England". I have never seen a worse side in the SPL than Gretna are right now. Having gifted us an early penalty, they were a shambles at the back, allowing us to push the ball about the park with no apparent sense of urgency. Whenever we looked like we could be bothered, we created a goalscoring opportunity. It wasn't so much like a knife cutting through butter as a lightsaber through thin air. The "home side" (bearing in mind it was in Motherwell) took 55 minutes to create an opportunity, by which time we had scored twice and missed three chances that could be politely described as "sitters" and less politely as "f****** awful", a description that neatly sums up Marius Niculae in front of goal. The side propping up the SPL resemble a grass snake - no backbone, no lethality, and it seems to the observer no purpose in life either.

In contrast, I was absolutely bricking it when they won promotion. The money constantly donated by their philanthropist, the ponytailed, chain smoking Brooks Mileson was always going to run out sooner later, as are his heart and lungs, but if they strengthened enough over the summer, I saw them doing what Livingston did initially in the top division, and knew that would put Caley at massive risk of being relegated this year.

Of course, the main reason that Gretna waltzed through the divisions was that they lured veteran pros full-time contracts and wages when they weren't forthcoming from top clubs. Think David Bingham, Steve Tosh, Derek Townsley, James Grady. To this they added the best players the part-time clubs in the bottom couple of divisions could offer. The trouble was that the team that won division one, by and large, was the team that won division 3, but the veterans were two years older, and the rest were good lower league players untested at the top level or former Carlisle United reserves.

So this summer, Gretna went out and made up for their deficiencies by signing, um, a bunch of English non-league players, English Championship youth players on loan, a couple of foreign players whose previous clubs were the Spanish and French third divisions, and a solitary "big" name (at least in terms of length), the Uruguayan schemer Fabian Yantorno, who has been their sole shining light in an utterly miserable season. What about all the cash Brooks invested in previous years just so they could stuff Montrose 7-0? I recall reading on the club's forum before the start of the year that fans thought Mileson was unwilling to splash out on the new stadium required for the SPL, an outlay too far at the moment and one that would only be made if they stayed up. Catch 22 - they can't afford the stadium unless the players manage to stay up, but if they buy the players they need to stay up then that uses up the cash for the new ground.

Add to this the fiasco over former manager Rowan Alexander, and it's no wonder things are a mess. Alexander, of course, "temporarily" stepped down for health reasons towards the end of last season, then was told on his return that there was no job for him. In his place is Davie Irons, his erstwhile assistant whose managerial experience consists of, well, the last couple of months of last season, where his side almost blew an astronomical lead over St. Johnstone in the promotion race. Word is that the real power lies with the Director Of Football (a phrase that to a football fan causes the same pallor and feeling of dread as the phrase "Richard Dawkins" does to creationists), Mick Wadsworth. Wadsworth appears to be the poor man's David Pleat, a journeyman manager from the lower English leagues who commands great respect and reputation despite having never actually seeming to achieve anything other than enough P45s to fill a moderately sized cupboard.

So, with the money seemingly having dried up, a coaching team with a lot left to be desired (not least ability) and a team that are more easy to beat than your average leather-clad masochist, where will salvation come from? As far as I can see it, the plan must be to somehow grasp to the coat-tails of the teams just above - Inverness, St. Mirren and Falkirk - and still be just about in touch by the January transfer window. Then, if Brooks relents and finds his wallet to bring in some quality, then survival might just be possible. But with one win from their opening eleven games, a complete lack of team spirit and no obvious reason why either of these scenarios should change soon, it's very difficult to see a Lazarus-type comeback.

And from my point of view, it's just as well.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

No more Jol-lity at Spurs

So Martin Jol's reign at Spurs has ended at last - after a two month spell where he was effectively a dead man walking. The poor bloke - well, fairly rich actually after a pay-off rumoured at 4 million squids, - put on a terribly brave face during the whole thing, and every week on Match Of The Day, after Spurs had picked up yet another naff result, he still did a manful job of trying to convince the public that he still had a future, when in reality his job prospects were about as good as those of an Al Qaeda member trained as a nuclear technician.

His desperate cheeriness and wit endeared him to the public - Tottenham fans chanted his name to the very last during Thursday night's defeat by Getafe - and to the press, who have to a man criticized the Spurs board for their management of this. That is perhaps fair, but on the other hand Spurs have won only one of their first ten league games, and have been turgid at best, though injuries to key men, especially Ledley King and Aaron Lennon, have hardly helped.

Too often in his time at White Hart Lane, Jol also did his best to impersonate Rafa Benitez, spending extortionate sums on players who appeared all of ten times a season - last year there was Danny Murphy, Mido, Wayne Routledge and Ricardo Rocha. Ever heard of Kevin-Prince Boateng? Neither had I, but Spurs spent 5million on him this summer, and he's got about as close to the first team as I have. Moreover, big bucks have also been spent on men who simply didn't warrant that sort of cash - Darren Bent, Didier Zokora, Jermaine Jenas, Pascal Chimbonda. Is this Jol's fault? We don't know, but these are players with potential who Jol certainly hasn't been able to coax the best from them. His failure to convince the board to buy another wide player to supplant Aaron Lennon (in his absence, width has been provided by Jenas and Steed Malbranque - enough said) while stacking up on strikers, central midfielders and full-backs, seems just downright daft.

So, having already lost one fantastic character this season in Jose Mourinho, the Premier League bids farewell to another, though in this case, with Spurs 18th in the table, you can safely say that Martin Jol was, at least, sacked because of results. His successor-to-be, Juande Ramos, has a fantastic continental record and is known for attacking football, but I believe that the same was said about another Spurs manager of the mid-nineties. Surely, though Ramos can hardly do worse than Christian Gross...


Monday, October 22, 2007

A week is a long time in politics, and in sport

This week, one of England's national sports teams were lauded as, if not heroes (you can't be a hero if you're a sportsman right now unless you score a goal against France in Parisand your name is James McFadden), then at least as a moderate success. Another sports team, meanwhile, were a national joke, an embarrassment.

Remember two or three weeks ago, when England's football team had come off their fourth successive 3-0 qualifying win, comfortably beating Russia. And remember that England's rugby team had scraped to an unimpressive win over the USA, then been absolutely humped by the Springboks.

Isn't it amusing how things change?

The immediate lesson to learn is that the British sports media are more volatile than a kilogram of plutonium in the middle of a forest fire. One relatively disappointing performance, and Steve McClaren is on the brink of having his head displayed on the back pages as whatever vegetable The Sun hasn't yet used for a failing England coach.

Is that fair?

The first thing that struck me from watching England lose in Moscow was a comparison with Euro 2004, where England led matches against France and Portugal, but couldn't turn them into wins. Why? Well, when their opponents brought on more attacking players, Sven Goran Eriksson continued to stick with the same tactics and saw his team get pushed back further and further. Oh, and a bit of class from Zidane helped France too, but that's beside the point.

Last Wednesday, Russia made a couple of substitutions early in the second half and went for it. England had coasted through the first half but in the 10 minutes before the equaliser Guus Hiddink's side were already threatening. What did Steve McClaren do? Zilch. So England got forced back further and further, resulting in a situation where Russia had all the momentum and you end up having Rooney tracking back to help and giving away a penalty. Now, rather a lot of good teams, when defending narrow leads, would bring on, say another defender or a defensive midfielder, kill the game, and play on the break.

Why don't England do this? Is there a pride that prevents England playing defensively, the feeling that the press and the country would come down on them like a ton of large brick-like things?

I don't know. But I think that if England had maybe subbed one of Rooney and Owen and brought on a defensive midfielder, or even, heaven forbid, a centre-back, they might have held on for the point that they ultimately needed. It tends to work a lot for the likes of Italy.

All is not lost though. If Russia mess up in Tel Aviv, then England could be off the hook. Once you get to the finals themselves, anything can happen. So who would rule out Steve McClaren still joining the rugby team as figure of honour next Summer?

Nah, he still needs to find a half-decent keeper. Till then, he's screwed.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Walter wellies Celtic's wallies

I'm going to really regret my lack of sleep, but I got up early enough today so I could watch a DVD recording of the Old Firm game, before Villa - Man Utd.

Firstly, may I say it is a real pleasure to see the return of the good old-fashioned pushing and shoving, and with it a gazillion yellow cards. Too often in recent years, Old Firm matches have been increasingly gentile, on some occasions going entire halves without a booking. However, today we had a return to the proper sniping that is often part of the Rangers-Celtic entertainment. McGregor deliberately standing on McDonald's foot (twice), then McDonald taking a kick at McGregor, Naylor and Hutton having a good set-to, and at all times Scott Brown and Barry Ferguson being complete jerks, trying to wind up opponents at every opportunity. Brilliant.

On the other hand, it was the poorest Celtic have been in an Old Firm match since the days of John Barnes (every Caley fan's favourite Celtic manager). Hurt by having no natural right-back, only one recognised striker on the pitch, and for inexplicable reasons, playing Jiri Jarosik, who, as far as I can tell, has not accomplished anything at Celtic Park other than polish the bench with his ass most weeks, the visitors were on the back foot all the way through, and to cap it all gave away three really soft goals - it's a pity that my rants about Gary Caldwell are becoming so cliched. And as for Nakamura, calling him ineffective would be unreasonably positive. He looked so disinterested that I wondered whether his short pockets contained a pencil and a Su Doku magazine, to be quickly taken out when the cameras weren't looking.

Rangers were better everywhere on the pitch, simple as that. I note Celtic are still top of the league though.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Sucks to be me...

...restart night shift tonight, just before a weekend with the Old Firm, Everton v Liverpool and Caley's home "derby" (hey, it's not our fault the rest of Scottish football's 100 miles plus down the road) against Aberdeen. Forgive me for saying that part of me would almost rather be married to Cherie Blair (shivers) than miss this bunch of matches. Throw in Rangers v Barcelona and the various other Champs League games and I am not a Happy Chappie. At least, a couple of months before starting a psychiatry post, I am now better able to empathise with those who suffer from depression...

So keeping me going is the prospect of, next Saturday, driving to watch Caley in Gretna - thankfully the game is of course in Motherwell, which takes an hour off the driving time. Anyway, this week the blog will be updated only sparsely, as it was a few weeks ago when I completely failed to acknowledge the success in the last round of European games. Get used to it, I'm afraid, as occasionally I have to contribute to the real world.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The bubble bursts?

After we succumbed to defeat in Tbilisi, I felt a strange, unfamiliar, bitter taste in my mouth. It was defeat. It's such a long time since the Tartan Army have had to a cope with a defeat, particularly one as disappointing as tonight's.

We were due a properly guff performance I suppose. As I said in one of my earlier posts, McLeish was also due a selection blunder. Here it was. He should have learned from Oleh Blokhin's huge mistake on Saturday - if you're away from home, do not play an attacking lineup. Blokhin played three forwards from the beginning - while that does not explain set-piece marking reminiscent of "partially-sighted" paralympic football - the game was too open from the beginning, And it was so with Scotland. With Shaun Baloney (Freudian slip) in the team, we were overrun completely in midfield. Instead, we really should have chucked in Christian Dailly, played McFadden wide left and waited for the Georgians, particularly the inexperienced ones, to get frustrated. Graeme Murty also had a shocker - with the benefit of the Hindsightoscope (the best friend of any football fan who thinks he actually knows something about the game) McEveley might have been a better option, with Alexander on the right. Admittedly, none of these changes would improve the bad luck at the first goal, as TV cameras show Weir's defensive header hit the forward full in the face and went in. Also, I'm not sure anyone execpt Craig Gordon had a decent game to be honest. It was an off day, and it's a relief that it took 11 matches to happen.

So, then. Beat the World Champions at home. Do we have one more miracle in us? On 17th November, we'll find out.

Results tonight have also thrown in the interesting possibility of none of the nations of the British Isles qualifying. Ireland join Wales on the scrap heap after a draw with Cyprus. I know it was a bad result, but surely 3rd place behind Germany and the Czechs is a reasonable spot to finish in? Yet Steve Staunton, with a squad nowhere near the quality that Charlton or McCarthy had, is expected to achieve qualification. It's almost as ridiculous as the idea of us qualifying from a group with 2 world cup finalist and a quarter-finalist.

Northern Ireland must be sick at the thought of what might have been. A wonderful point in Sweden which will still probably be worth nothing, because of two defeats by Iceland (beaten 3-0 by the mighty Liechtenstein tonight, incidentally. Eidur Gudjohnsen must be one depressed man) and one by Latvia. And England! If Israel don't do them a favour against Russia, the unthinkable happens. At least Sven's England qualified for the tournaments.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Georgia's always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind

Am I going to be sued by Paul McCartney (and/or Yoko Ono) for the title of this post?

I feel slightly calmer - but only slightly - for seeing Georgia's squad for Wednesday's game. No Shota Arveladze, who has retired from international football. No Kakha Kaladze, who is injured. Also missing through injury (or "trauma", as the Georgian Football Federation translates it, to my amusement) is Kobiashvili, their playmaking midfielder who is a regular in the Bundesliga. Interestingly, the first choice keeper, Lomaia, has left the squad after having a bit of a mare in the defeat by Italy; it has been implied that this is because his confidence is shot. So Georgia's starting keeper against us will apparently be a 17 year old called Makaridze, who I don't think has ever been capped. My spider-sense tells me we might stick a lot of crosses in the six yard box.

So the only Georgia player known to even the most well-informed Scottish fans who will be out on the park is Khizanishvili - lets hope he plays like he did under McLeish at Rangers, and we'll be all right.

I'm delighted to see that Wednesday's TV schedules allow me to watch the most exciting match-up of the evening - Russia v England - before the Scotland game. With England in form, it's hard to see Steve McClaren's side not picking up the point that all but puts them through, but Russia will be at home and should prove a pretty stern test. I'm sure the effect of the plastic pitch on the match will be purely psychological, but if it upsets the mindsets of a few English players, then it could be pretty interesting stuff.

As for the other Home Nations, surely even Wales in their current state can't mess up in San Marino, can they? Out of curiosity, has John Toshack actually ever achieved anything as a manager, apart from a Permatan and morbid obesity from lying in the Sociedad sun? He's had two, yes, two spells as Real Madrid manager, but how? Northern Ireland's defeats in Latvia and Iceland blew the best chance of qualifying for a tournament that they'll get in the whole 21st century, so now they need to beat Sweden, in Sweden, to keep even the slimmest hopes alive. The words "when hell freezes over" come to mind, as after this they finish with Denmark (H) and Spain (A).

It's the last chance saloon for Ireland, who are probably screwed anyway even if they beat Cyprus in Dublin - the Czechs need only one more point from their remaining games.

To be honest, I don't really give a monkeys about these other games though. The only two sides I want to see do well are us and Lithuania. Nothing else matters. Period.


Monday, October 15, 2007

No pain, no gain

So after the euphoria on Saturday, Alex McLeish now discovers he has rather more empty seats on the plane to Tblisi than first thought. As of writing, Scotland will miss the following players who would almost certainly have been in the matchday 18:
1) Allan McGregor - sub keeper missed the Ukraine game as well due to a shoulder strain
2) Alan Hutton - magnificent on Saturday at right back, but has a calf injury
3) Gary Caldwell - knee injury ruled the Celtic centre-back out of this round of internationals
4) Paul Hartley - hamstring pull deprives us of arguably our best holding midfielder
5) Lee McCulloch - suspended after booking on Saturday; did his ankle during the second half anyway
6) Scott Brown - hamstring pull on Saturday
7) Garry O'Connor - stupid injury-time booking brings up a suspension

Great. It's not as if an away game in Georgia was going to be easy even with a first choice team. Certainly at least three changes will be needed to the side that beat Ukraine, in the absence of McCulloch, Brown and Hutton. Alexander is the obvious replacement right-back - Mr. Reliable seems to excel in our away games. Midfield is just a teensy bit more problematic. Thank goodness Fletcher is back - sounds like he'll play even if he only has one leg, which is a relief considering Stephen Pearson's tepid performance at Hampden. Sheer lack of options should mean another opportunity for him - perhaps on the left of midfield this time, as our only other options are the lightweight Shaun Maloney and the rather out of his depth Barry Robson.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Christian Dailly's 20 minute shift harassing Andriy Voronin might have done enough to earn him a place at the base of midfield. Could this herald a return to 4-5-1 away from home, with Fadders on the left flank? Maybe. In that case, Pearson could make way for Fletcher in centre mid, and a more attacking minded player on the right (heaven forbid, that probably means Gary Teale). Poor Kenny Miller, who is probably doomed to run like hell for 90 minutes feeding on scraps yet again. So my prediction for the Scotland team: Gordon, Alexander, Weir, McManus, Naysmith, Teale, Fletcher, Dailly, Ferguson, McFadden, Miller.

McLeish is overdue a selection blunder, I think. Please, please, please, let it not be Wednesday night.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Still dreaming...

When I saw the fixtures for this group, I'd have grasped with both hands a situation where we could qualify by beating Italy at home in our final match.

After we won in the Faroe Islands in June, I was sure that 25 points would be enough for us to qualify.

After we beat Lithuania at home. It looked like 2 wins and a draw from our last 4 matches would be enough.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. How times change.

First up, fantastic result. Decent performance too, though we rode our luck at times. Two goals in the first 10 minutes tend to help. I can neither confirm nor deny allegations that I thought Lee McCulloch was only in the team to win headers at set pieces. What an absolutely stunning strike. And when we were under a bit of pressure at 2-1, who pops up for his third goal in three internationals? Fadders is rapidly assuming talismanic status, and at exactly the time we need him to, he is playing the football of his life. He's not the only one, either. Alan Hutton was our best player yesterday - solid defensively, loping forward at every opportunity, and setting up the third goal with a glorious floated pass. Barry Ferguson has never looked this good in a Scotland shirt, while Scott Brown showed his full repertoire of skills with none of the petulance he used to display so often. McCulloch's absence for Wednesday is a blow, as he's in fine form as well.

That's Ukraine out of it then, so it's two from three, as France and Italy picked up expected victories. The situation then - beat Georgia and we only need a draw with Italy; draw or lose in Tblisi and a win over the world champions is "all" we need. That's assuming that France don't slip up either against Lithuania on Wednesday or away to Ukraine in their final game. Only one thing is certain - finger nails are going to be at a premium.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The permutations are endless

Well, not quite. But almost endless. It would take a very brave man (perhaps a combination of Rocky and Rambo, with a little bit of the Terminator's ice-coolness? and perhaps Jeff Stelling from Sky Sports' know-how might help, what with it being a football situation and not an 80s B-movie) to predict the outcome of Scotland's group.

What you can say with a lot of confidence is that France should get 6 points from Faroe Islands (A) and Lithuania (H), while Italy should beat Georgia at home as well. Thus by Thursday morning, the French should have 25 points, with Ukraine (A) to follow. Italy will have 23, and it would be reasonable to assume that they will do for the Faroes in the last game, meaning they should score at least 26 points plus whatever they get at Hampden. We currently have 21, so we need six out of six this week to make sure we only need a draw against the Azzurri to guarantee our qualification, not withstanding the Ukraine-France result. Four out of six would mean we would still qualify regardless of the Italy result if France lost in Kyiv (note my pedantic spelling), while three out of six would mean...

Oh, I give up, it's all about as clear as the air in Beijing at rush hour time. I'm reasonably certain that at least part of what I wrote above is complete rubbish. Let's just score as many points as we possibly can against Ukraine, Georgia and then Italy next month, and we'll be sorted. Easy.

Elsewhere, its all over bar the shouting for Wales, who have a glimmer of hope only if they beat Cyprus and San Marino away and the Czech Republic don't win in Germany. Not entirely unfeasible, I suppose, but then Wales would need to probably beat both Ireland (H) and Germany (A) to finish second. Probably not all that likely.

Talking of Ireland, it's much more clear cut for them - lose at home to Germany and they're out. Even if they pull off a result, though, they still lie behind the Czechs who will have a game in hand.

Northern Ireland were always going to struggle to repeat their earlier feats in qualifying, but they've committed their own hara-kiri by losing in Latvia and Iceland. Anything they can get from Sweden away is a bonus, with the main hope being that Spain don't win in Denmark.

And finally, England, who got their mojo back so impressively last time out. Estonia at home should be a gimme, and a draw in Moscow on the plastic pitch - don't knock it, it's the same one as at Montrose, I'm told - would put them in the driving seat for second behind Croatia.

With only a handful of games left, the state of play should be much more obvious than this. But no-one apart from the hosts has yet guaranteed qualification, while mathematically 32 teams can still fill 14 places. I think that number might have dropped quite dramatically by next Wednesday night...


Monday, October 8, 2007

Ukraine at home - how will big Eck line us up?

The most important match in the recent history of Scottish football since, well, the last one, approaches with breakneck speed, almost as quickly as the Ibrox faithful turn against their team when things aren't going their way. There isn't any real precedent for how we'll line up - under McLeish, our home qualifiers have been against relative "minnows" (they must be minnows because we actually managed to score more than one goal against them). On our own hallowed Hampden turf, I suspect we would be unlikely to go with the 4-1-4-1 which we used in Paris. Which is probably just as well in the absence of Paul Hartley, who became the latest player to come under the apparent curse of playing right back for Celtic - the position should come with some sort of health warning.

After his impact in the previous two matches (understatement of the century) it would take a brave man to not play Fadders. But as a lone striker again? Probably not. But as Saturday once more demonstrated, Kris Boyd is less effective as a lone striker than coitus interruptus is as a contraceptive. But it would be rather risky to start with two out and out forwards against a team of Ukraine's calibre, especially if you wanted to fit McFadden in. Please, for the love of goodness, let's not play Garry O'Connor, who has all the physical attributes required for a useful target man but unfortunately has about as many brain cells as a Tesco Value beefburger (admittedly, that might be quite a few brain cells). Against France, I lost my voice through screaming at him as he decided, time after time, that running at three French defenders while on his own would be a fantastic way for Scotland to keep the ball and wind down the clock, rahter than, here's a thought, passing to a teammate, or, here's a crazy, way-out-there idea, Garry, heading to the corner flag! No, come to think of it, I definitely see the logic of taking on Thuram and Escude, on your own, with no support within 20 yards of you.

So the logical solution may well be to turn to the man who always seems to punch above his weight when in a Scotland shirt, Kenny Miller, with the bonus that he actually seems to be on form for Derby. Miller up front, with McFadden playing in the hole, seems a combination that will work hard, and that might also produce a goal.

Midfield? Assuming we play four across the middle, you would think that, fitness permitting, Ferguson, Brown and McCulloch probably pick themselves. As readers of my post prior to the France game will know, I'm not a fully-paid member of the Gary Teale fan club. So with Hartley and Darren Fletcher on the treatment table, perhaps Stephen Pearson, his teammate? We could easily accomodate him on the left with McCulloch on the right. The downside is that we would then lack a natural winger, but if Miller and Fads are up top then we're hardly going to be looking to get crosses into the box, are we? I'm disappointed that Sunderland's Ross Wallace isn't in the squad yet, he was great in their game against Arsenal on Saturday and is a rather superior left-sided midfielder than Barry "ginger whinger" Robson.

And finally, at the back. Gordon and McManus obviously play. As we're playing a fairly decent team it can probably be taken for granted that Hutton will have a blinder - he suddenly becomes half the player he is when it's Motherwell away, but as long as it's the Champions' League he's an international class defender. Walter Smith's ignorance of the fact that Andy Webster is probably Scotland's best centre-back means that David Weir will get the nod on sheer match fitness (and the fact that the best alternative is Gary Crapwell - sorry - Caldwell - Freudian slip there). I still have reservations about McEveley as left back against top sides, and Alexander rolled back the years (that's a lot of years to roll back) against Frank Ribery and so definitely deserves to retain his place, even he does play for Burnley. Gary Naysmith is the alternative, I suppose.

So there you are - probably Hartley and Fletcher out from the Paris Legends XI, and I reckon Pearson and Miller in. It's a Scotland game though, so if at least 4 players don't pull up lame by Friday, look out of your windows for some riders of the apocalypse.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

The dizzy heights of tenth

A welcome away point at Kilmarnock , and Caley continue to slowly haul their way back up the SPL table. While some elements of our support might have higher expectations, I'm still a firm believer that any away point in this league is not to be sneezed at - apart from the fact that I have a very bad cold and have been sneezing quite a lot.

Our result also means I can feel a touch of sympathy for Gretna, after they blew possibly the greatest result in their history in the last 5 minutes against Celtic. You have to feel for the poor bloke who played Scott McDonald onside for the winner - TV replays show he had already collapsed on the ground with his head in the hands before McDonald's strike actually hit the net. I won't lie, though. I was much relieved that the Hoops got out of jail. If Gretna actually have a snowball's chance in hell of staying up in January, Brooks Mileson might actually fund a decent player or two. And I can't be assed with watching Caley playing dross like Clyde, Queen of the South and Dunfermline Athletic every week anymore.

For a short period this afternoon, though, it looked like Hibs might end up being top of the table, as they kept up their recent record of being Rangers' bogey team. Can John Collins' side keep their fantastic run going and maybe split the Old Firm, just like Hearts did two seasons ago?

Of course not, don't be ridiculous.

International weekend coming next, does anyone else think our marvellous Paris bubble is going to be dramatically and cruelly burst by Ukraine and/or Georgia? I note that the bookies still have us at less than 50-50 to qualify, by the way, considering half the Tartan Army seem to think beating the World Cup Finalists home and away constitutes an automatic ticket. (It probably should, though)

Oh well, at least I have Montrose v Elgin City on Friday night to look forward to. Goodie.


Friday, October 5, 2007

...three Euro shocks, two Champs League wins and a twit for a Milan goalie

What a really unfortunate time to be on night shift. I've effectively missed the greatest week for Scottish football in Europe since...well...a few weeks ago in Paris, I guess. But what a week!

My confident quips on the day of the Champions' League draw that Rangers were already out have been shoved right up where the sun doesn't shine. It could be pointed out that Lyon hit the woodwork three times, mind. But what odds would you have got on maximum points from the first two games? Before Castle Greyskull's inmates get too excited though, they might want to look back to about 2000, when Dick Advocaat's Gers beat Sturm Graz and Monaco in their opening two games and still managed to miss out on the knockout stages. With a double header against Barcelona and the "Messi-ah" (journalists started it, not me) to come, there's a long, long way to go.

They're probably in a better position to qualify than Celtic, however, despite the Hoops' win over AC Milan. Enough has been said already about that prat on the pitch (make up your own mind whether I mean the idiot fan or Milan's goalkeeper Dida), but Celtic's big problem is that Shakhtar are flying high and must be a decent bet to get through. At least as good a bet as Rangers, anyway.

And hooray for Aberdeen! A Darren Mackie goal is a rare enough occurrence to be a collector's item anyway, but this one was truly crucial. Note that among the teams who failed to get to the group stage were Sampdoria, Ajax, Blackburn Rovers, Real Zaragoza and Palermo, sides who are pretty darn good. Now I bet every red in the City would kill for a group with home games against the likes of Spurs, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Galatasaray, Atletico Madrid...not quite as exciting as what Celtic and Rangers have, but a damn site better than playing Gretna!


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

There's hope for us - Gretna are in the SPL too

Made the pilgrimage along the A96 (very slowly - I've never seen so many roadworks on one road, but that's another, less interesting story) to see us absolutely stuff Gretna 3-0 in the league cup last night. It was the ideal scenario - we were great, while, apart from the first 10 minutes of the second half, Gretna absolutely sucked. I know they had rested a few players, but so had we. Great result, great job. Surely we can't finish below this lot in the league?

Unfortunately night shift rules me out of Saturday's home clash with Falkirk and our next home game in mid October with Aberdire - sorry, Aberdeen (Freudian slip). In fact, the next Caley home league game I can make is on December 11, which makes my season ticket about as valuable and useful as a vote for the Scottish Christian Party. So all the more reason to hope for a home tie on the Tuesday night (or, failing that, Aberdeen at Pittodrie) in the next round, so I can sing "Doo-doo-doo-doo, Dennis Wyness" with the rest of them.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Special Brew!

The good news: we finally won a game, with a last minute goal from the gaffer himself. Brewster brought himself off the bench with 10 minutes ago and according to my esteemed source at the match (my mum), he belted in a stonking volley right at the death for a 2-1 win.

The bad news: b***** Gretna and Falkirk won as well. So we're still bottom, 1 point behind Gretna, and, somewhat bizarrely, only two behind Aberdeen after they were gubbed at Castle Greyskull.

Rangers go back top after Artur Boruc decided to try and play more like a traditional Celtic goalie - by that, I mean that he played like Rab Douglas, making two errors against Hibs for which the adjective "glaring" would be an understatement. Back in the day a Hoops keeper blunder wasn't enough to raise an eyebrow, and so the reaction to Boruc having an off day is really a marker of how magnificent he's been.

Missed most of the weekend footie because of work, but at least caught the highlights from Old Trafford. I'm going to place myself firmly in the minority and claim the ref was right to send off Mikel - the offence is called "serious foul play" - and that foul was pretty damn serious - studs up, late, late, late, and a lunge which is nothing like a normal tackle - if you go in like that you know perfectly well you could badly injure the player on the end of it. The only things in his defence is that it wasn't two footed (as his trailing leg didn't quite catch up in time, but almost managed it) and that refs in Britain never seem to show reds for those challenges.

Anyway, it brought a wry grin to my face as utd coasted to victory, though it would be nice if someone censured the huge Louis Saha for somehow collapsing under contact no stronger than the breeze at Aberdeen Beach Boulevard to win the penalty.

So the neutral's team is now very much Arsenal. Fantastic again against Derby (who, admittedly, are making everyone look good right now) and now unbeaten, top of the league, and with Fabregas on fire. Can it last? I hope so - it would be a shot in the arm for attacking football.

Off work till Friday so making the pilgrimage along the A96 today for Caley v Gretna in the league cup. I can feel the goosebumps already...


Thursday, September 20, 2007

No way, Jose!

I'll come to the story behind the title soon enough, but firstly it was an up and down European week for Scottish clubs. I thought Celtic were the most likely candidates for a good campaign, but clearly gubbing Caley 5-0 is no longer necessarily an indicator of good form as they were destroyed by an apparently rather good Shakhtar Donetsk. I didn't see the game, but am convinced that this is further evidence of my belief that Gary Caldwell is utterly hopeless against strikers of international quality; of course, he doesn't play many of these in the SPL. Much better at Castle Greyskull, where Rangers came from behind to beat Stuttgart, the Bundesliga champions no less. Alan Hutton had a hand in both goals, with fantastic forward bursts leading to an assist for Chic Adam and a penalty which Jean-Claude Darcheville (who seems to be modelling his facial hair on Socrates - take your pick over whether I mean the Greek philosopher or the Brazilian footballer). However, my best mate's claim that Hutton is the "Scottish Cafu" seems to be accurate only in that Hutton can't defend very well either. Finally, Aberdeen got a creditable goalless draw with Dnipro, though I was feeling too lazy to walk the whole 7 minute to Pittodrie and watched it on the box instead.

Of course, though, British football fans have been rather more interested in the end of "the special one" at Chelsea. Love him or loathe him (to be honest, I thought he was fantastic), Jose Mourinho was always a source of good entertainment, and the Premier League will be a duller place for his departure.

Of course, the decision made perfect sense as:
1) It's not as if Chelsea had any success during his tenure, what with 5 trophies, including 2 league titles, plus 2 Champions League semis

2) They had gone three whole matches without a win, and the absence of your best defender (Carvalho), your two best goalscoring midfielders (Lampard and Ballack) and your best striker (Drogba) could hardly be called a handicap

3) Abramovich blatantly has a real eye for top signings, having been proved so right by insisting on forking out the GDP of a sub-Saharan African country on Andriy Shevchenko

4) A quality replacement was available immediately, not just some bloke who has achieved nothing outside Israeli football (and not even that much in it), who has never managed a club in a top league and who just happens to be Abramovich's mate

5) It's not as if the pressure will be on immediately, with only an away game at Old Traffordon the immediate horizon

I'm so cynical sometimes that I even disgust myself.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

We lose 5-0 but apparently it was an "encouraging" performance

Lots of journalists today, plus Craig Brewster, plus my mum (who listened to it on t'wireless) are claiming that Caley actually played well at Celtic Park. I am a firm believer that this is an oxymoron (and that anyone who disagrees is also an oxymoron). We're still bottom and grateful that Gretna lost as well.

Just to improve matters, we now have to cope with a resurgent Jambos side next week. My moans about the Lithuanian influence were well and truly given come-uppance by Ivaskevicius, who grabbed the fourth in the 4-2 win against the Gers, though Allan McGregor will have been regretting his decision to give his gloves an extra scrub with soap just before the fairly tame shot. So Celtic go top, and the first old firm game becomes increasingly tasty by the week.

Elsewhere, it's good to see my mate JD's Montrose team managed a win against top of div 3 East Fife. I keep an eye on Super Mo's performances as I try to get down occasionally to remind myself of the good old days of lower division football. Montrose's new plastic pitch is gorgeous. Everyone should have one.

And in the big league Arsenal firmly announced themselves as title contenders with a win at Spurs, while Liverpool and Chelsea got held to draws.

Meanwhile, Sky yet again failed to show Barcelona or Real Madrid. I actually had to read a book tonight due to the lack of La Liga. Shock horror!

Anyway, Champions' League this week, though I finish at 8 on both Tues and Wed and so will miss at least the first half of games. Aberdeen v Dnipro on Thursday though; it doesn't get any bigger, does it?


Friday, September 14, 2007

No points, bottom of the league, who else would you rather have than Celtic away?

From the incredible highs of midweek to the rather more standard league action. Caley, as the title of this entry suggests, travel to Celtic Park twelfth out of twelve, with zero points out of fifteen. I think Wednesday used up my fair share of miracles for the season, let alone this week. I hope Celtic might rest a few boys for Champions League duty, but hopes are not high.

My SPL attentions therefore have drifted more to Hearts - Rangers. Would you believe that, 2 years ago, Hearts won this fixture 1-0 to cement a 100% record and a clear lead in the title race under George Burley? How times change - Hearts have one league win so far this year. Gone are Burley, Gordon, Pressley, Webster, Fyssas, Brellier, Hartley, Skacel, Jankauskas and Bednar. In are Korobochkaochkavilniusivicius (or something.) and a bunch of random Lithuanians; I have a theory that there are only three Lithuanians at Hearts, but they change their shirt names and numbers continuously to make it look like there are more of them. Why? Well, nothing about Romanov's Hearts makes sense anymore, so this would hardly raise eyebrows...

As I aluded to earlier this week, the reception Mikoliunas gets will be very interesting indeed. If he actually plays (at least with the Mikoliunas shirt, rather than Cesnauskis, Ksanavicius or Ivaskevicius). Anyway, Rangers should win, and so should Celtic. It would be nice if Hibs could keep in touch by winning at Falkirk, not least as it would keep the Bairns down our end of the table. Should I go to Aberdeen v Motherwell? Or shall I stay in and watch Wales v Australia in the rugby? Decisions, decisions.

Down South, Liverpool and Man U face tough away games at Portsmouth and Everton respectively, Chelsea have Blackburn at home, and Arsenal are at Spurs. Does anyone know why the North London derby is a 1:30 kickoff on Saturday, even though its not on Sky or Setanta? It's blatantly the match of the weekend. Instead we get Man City v Villa on Sunday afternoon. You can almost hear me wetting myself with excitement, eh?

Actually, for all my sarcasm there, I'm still blatantly going to watch it. And I'll almost certainly glued to the screen. Even if its a nil-nil draw.

I need a life...


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sacre Bleu!

Either this is the longest and most wonderful dream ever (and I'm in no mood to wake up, thank you) or, 24 hours on, we really did beat France. In France. Oh yes.

Who gets the plaudits? Everyone, really. James McFadden, for, after an hour of desperately chasing scraps, deciding to take his frustration out on the ball by hitting it as sweetly as it could possibly be struck; I'm well aware the keeper should have saved it but do you think I care even the slightest bit?

Stephen McManus, who played like he was two men, half human, half brick wall, or so it seemed, as time after time the French could not get past him.

Scott Brown and Paul Hartley, for their tireless running and harrying, for giving every ounce of their being just to make it difficult for France to play football.

But ultimately they should be for the boss. Big Eck made the big decision by playing McFadden as a lone forward ("he's not a lone striker!" we all cried), and almost as big a decision by playing Hartley in midfield. And don't forget the decision to replace the injured Fletcher with the unheralded Pearson, who joined the ranks of those who motored round the pitch like giant human Duracell bunnies.

Let's face it, we are still nowhere near qualifying for this group. It's perfectly possible that we might fail to win another match in this group. But let us savour, for the month until the next game, the fact that eleven Scotsmen went out against the odds and gave all they had, just so that an entire nation could, for just a little while, feel like our chests could burst with our pride for them.

Doo doo doo doo, James McFadden, doo doo doo doo, James McFadden...


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Gary Teale's out! Disaster!

O.K., there's an eency weency bit of tongue in cheek with that. Gary Teale, Derby County and Scotland winger, will miss tomorrow's game with France with a "sickness bug". I'm afraid that as far as I'm concerned Teale is all speed and little else, and bar an assist for Boyd's goal against Georgia in March, has hardly sent Tartan Army pulses racing. It sounds like McLeish was going to play him though, so his absence forces a bit of a rethink.

There are already, surely, ten names already on the Scotland teamsheet (I'm making a rod for my own back with this) - Gordon, Hutton, Weir, McManus, McEveley, Fletcher, Brown, Ferguson (back from suspension), McCulloch and O'Connor - blatantly Boyd will be dropped as despite his goal threat he can't hold the ball up well enough or press defenders enough to play as a lone striker, and two strikers in this game would be more suicidal than bathing in sulphuric acid while drinking lighter fluid (I haven't seen that one on bunny suicides yet but it's only a matter of time). So who will be the eleventh man? Please not Gary Caldwell deployed in a "holding midfield" role, as the only thing he'll be holding is Ribery's shirt while he chases the Frenchman's shadow. I could cope with Paul Hartley, though his form has been mediocre throughout 2007, but he's an all-action midfielder who could put himself about. However, I'd love us to play Fadders, either wide or in a free role, as he's proven he'll work hard and he gives this wonderful je ne sais quoi that could, in our wildest dreams, maybe actually result in a goal for us.

Not a lot has been made yet of the fact that this is not a France team comparable to that of 1998 and 2000, let alone the one that got to the last World Cup Final. Henry is suspended, of course, while they're down to their 3rd choice goalie (Barthez has retired and Coupet of Lyon is injured), while right-back Sagnol is out and Arsenal's centre-back Gallas probably will be as well. Meanwhile Zidane is long gone, Makelele and Thuram are 2 or 3 years past their best and Vieira's only half fit. It's just unfortunate that Anelka's on form and Ribery is playing the football of his life.

Anything's an improvement on the last time we played here, when in a certain unmentionable German's first game in charge, we sent 3 strikers out (including Dougie Freedman!) and got gubbed 5-0. A lot has changed since then - we're much stronger and they are weaker. So maybe this time we'll only lose 2-0 or 3-0. Or maybe, God forbid, we remember what it took in Glasgow last year and lightning might strike twice?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

We did it - three more goals and three more points...

Missed the game on Saturday - instead I got the fun of a twelve hour shift in Accident & Emergency. Thankfully Iwas covering the side ward and eavesdropped when I could on radio Scotland. Just like against Georgia, we made a bit of a hash of the whole shebang, and just like against Georgia, our subs got us out of jail. Don't care. Three more points, which is two more than Italy, France and Ukraine got on Saturday. And hooray, France have no Henry for Wednesday, as he's suspended. I mean, it's not as if they have an attacking threat with only the likes of Anelka, Trezeguet, Ribery, Malouda etc. available, is it?

I am aware that sarcasm maybe does not come across that well in typed form.

I'm looking forward to seeing Hearts playing the rest of the season, if they ever give another game to that little cheat Mikoliunas. Most fans in this country have seen him collapse as if he's been shot three, four, five times a match on many an occasion, and his "simulation" on Saturday was taking the biscuit. If he gets crucified by supporters for the rest of the season (literally or metaphorically - whatever you prefer), I'm not terribly likely to show much pity for him.

So on to Paris for Wednesday, can't wait.