Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New year's resolutions

Right, it's fair to say I've let the blog slide over the last few months, due to a combination of being busy and being lazy. It's a shame, as I do enjoy spouting off on here, and I know there are one or two folk out there who enjoy reading my rants, at least so they can respond in kind. So my first new year's resolution is this - an attempt to manage a post a week.

Predictions for 2009 in football...

Celtic will win the SPL.
Walter Smith will leave Rangers at the end of the season and hand over to Coisty.
Inverness CT's board will finally grow a pair of testicles and chuck lame duck Craig Brewster, but too late to avert relegation (it's okay, you get a better class of fan in div 1)
St. Johnstone will win div 1 and get promoted.
Celtic's Scott Brown wins player of the year, just ahead of Rangers' Pedro Mendes.
Man Utd will nick the EPL...again.
Aston Villa won't have enough in the tank to break the top four.
The whole Man City thing goes down the tubes - Hughes will be sacked, Robinho will leave at the end of the season and they find it impossible to lure top players.
West Brom, Stoke and Hull (who are going into freefall) will be relegated.
Stephen Ireland to be schock player of the year (he's the leader right now, honestly).

So, as I said, this blog will once more get the care and attention it deserves. If not, then let me be killed horribly from above some how.

Happy New Year and all that.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Critics not so Keane anymore

The surprise, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's only been in the last six weeks that the pressure had been growing on Roy Keane, prior to his departure from Sunderland today. For pretty much the whole of 2008 (I'd be tempted to say since they were promoted a year and a bit ago) they have been, to say the least poor. Few Premier League sides are as dull, as drab, and now they can't grind out wins at home any more, the chickens at last came home to roost. Sunderland have won only 12 out of 37 games in this calendar year, and only one of their five victories this season wass by a goal or more - 2-0 vs Boro in September (the second goal with the last kick of the game). They now lie eighteenth in the Premier League.

Fans of the Irishman keep harping on and on about the fact he got them promoted at the first try, after coming in with the team bottom of the Championship. But that's a long way in the past, and what concerned me, and presumably Niall Quinn, was the way Keane has managed Sunderland in the Premier League. Look at the player turnover, for crying out loud. Only four senior squad members have been at the club longer than the Royster. He has signed 33 players, for an estimated 82.6 million squids. Apart from anything else, that's a heck of an outlay for a squad which contains no current England internationals, and whose only current international players are either from the other home nations (hardly a mark of quality these days!) or Trinidad & Tobago.

Not only that, but Keane's side are ridiculously unbalanced, with a purchasing policy so ridiculous that you would have thought Damien Comolli had been involved. Check out his strikers. Stokes, Chopra and O'Donovan (combined 7.5mil) are all shipped out on loan. You have Cisse (on loan) and Jones as the recognised front two, it's fair to say. Healy and Prica (3.5mil total) have made a grand total of 1 start between them, and that was in the Carling Cup. Connolly has barely played since promotion. And, surprise surprise, Diouf fell out with the coach. Who saw that coming, eh, the likes of Chimbonda and Diouf turning out to have personality clashes with Mr. Keane?

Meanwhile, apart from Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque, the midfield is filled with Championship clog-hoppers - Whitehead, Edwards, Leadbitter, Miller, Reid. And Dwight Yorke, for Christ's sake, who is so past it that he probably has embalming fluid in his veins.

So will they go down? Probably not, providing Quinn gets a manager who can tighten up the defence and get them a point here, a point there, a la Megson and Hodgson last season for Bolton and Fulham respectively. Sam Allardyce seems the obvious candidate, with his ability to manage inflated egos (at least from his Bolton days) a bonus. But while, simply by being in the EPL, Roy Keane has left Sunderland in a better state than that in which they arrived, it is not terribly harsh to suggest that you and I could have done just about as good a job.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Criminal tackles deserve bigger punishments

Here's a question: is there a point where a bad tackle in football can be categorized as assault?

The situation that's brought this particular quandary to mind is that of the news today that Hull City winger Craig Fagan had his leg broken by Newcastle's Danny Guthrie at the end of Saturday's match. For those who haven't seen it, Fagan takes the ball to the corner flag to waste time, and Guthrie sprints in and takes a swing at him, getting him just below knee height. All the time the ball is on the deck. TV replays show, a few seconds before that, Guthrie try to run his studs down Fagan's achilles. The red card that followed was a no-brainer; bizarrely (though it is possible), Fagan actually walked away from the incident.

A couple of hours later, John Terry got what can be diplomatically described as a soft red card against Man City for an innocuous foul 45 yards from goal, where he was deemed to be preventing a goalscoring opportunity.

Both players face three match bans. Fagan will be out for at least three months.

I don't have an answer to the above poser - however whereas you could reasonably describe Martin Taylor's infamous hack on Eduardo as reckless, I guess the issue with Guthrie is that there would not be a lot of difficulty in proving it to be a premeditated attempt to injure another player. That, for me, would be enough to lead to a rather long ban.

Not only that, but at least Martin Taylor grovelled in apology for days afterwards. I'm looking forward to hearing a peep of some sort from St. James' Park at some point?

Edit - all right, Guthrie has apologised. So I'll let him off just a little bit for being a total hacking b******...


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Ice cool, but Broad-ly speaking, it'll do

Thank the lord almighty for Kirk Broadfoot.

I have to admit, I didn't expect to write the above sentence anytime soon. But a typical performance from the Hun right back, all energy and enthusiasm, was exactly what that Scotland side needed. I have a suspicion that the goal went in off his nose, but big deal. Burley was right - he does have "limited ability" but as Broadfoot constantly shows, physique and fitness can make up a lot for that in the 21st century. Good man.

Certainly a lot of positives can be taken from Reykjavik. If Skopje on Saturday left us with a nausea and horror akin to walking in on your parents making out (I'm not talking from experience, honest), then last night's win led to a nice warm glow such as that produced by eating a piece of caramel shortbread. Of course, we had to make it hard for ourselves, thanks to Stephen McManus' impression of a basketball player. But the attitude was good, we kept the ball well, and looked dangerous up front. It's also the best I've seen Scott Brown play in ages. Mind you, Kris Commons looks like he could become the next Paul Devlin (can you believe that Vogts gave him 10 caps?!).

Come to think of it, if we had picked up 2 draws, there would be a feeling of satisfaction about our start; in fact we have 3 pts instead of 2, and Norway's failure to beat Iceland at home means that I reckon 10 more points would do us for second. Of course, with the daft playoff rules, the more the better.

I can't let this blog post go by without mentioning the England game. It's not fair - not only were England scintillating to watch and good value for the result (A Walcott hat trick? Are you having a laugh) but Croatia were awful and descended into thuggery in the second half. After Robert Kovac decided to try to decapitate Joe Cole with his forearm, England even got the moral high ground as well. Just as well Scotland won, since an England win that we can't find a legitimate reason to slag off would be a bit depressing.

Oh, and by the way, spare a thought for Switzerland, who lost at home to Luxembourg. I can't help feeling that this is the equivalent of Goliath losing to David after David's eyes had been gouged out and his throwing arm cut off, while Goliath was armed with an AK47.

Back to SPL duty on Saturday. Caley v St. Mirren. I love the big occasions.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Scotland succumb to Macedonian malaise

On a sticky afternoon in Skopje, all the left-over optimism of the Smith/McLeish era evaporated along with the sweat on the fans' foreheads. Scotland put in a performance as bland and uninspiring as a press conference with manager George Burley and paid for it with a defeat which now surely means that anything but victory in Reykjavik on Wednesday finishes off any chance of World Cup participation almost before qualifying has started.

Where to point the finger? Crumbs, where do you begin? I'm going to start with having a go at the gaffer. While I recognise that he can only do so much when the players are out on the field, everything about Scotland in the first half seemed to point to errors on his part. Firstly, the decision not to bring the players out to acclimatise a few days in advance, not because they were knackered by the end but because they looked terrified to play at anything other than a tempo resembling a slow motion replay. Secondly, the tactics, for Macedonia have played 3-4-3 for years, yet it seemed not to have occurred to the Scots coaching staff that our defenders (not exactly twinkletoes with the ball at their feet) would be pressed and that midfield would be cramped. Yet with our little-and-littler front pairing the long ball wasn't an option and, quite frankly, we couldn't pass our way out of a paper bag in the opening 45. Only in the second half did the message go out to stretch the play, to create space, and by then the damage was done.

Finally, and most damning of Burley, though, was the lack of motivation apparent in so many of the players. Gordon, McManus and Robson got pass marks for me. The rest, frankly had schockers. For example, the best you can say about Kenny Miller's performance is that nobody died as a result. Considering that he is a player whose defining characteristic is his workrate, he never showed for the ball, never ran into the channels and looked about as likely to score as Quasimodo at a Miss World contest. I look forward to hearing the explanation for delaying Kris Boyd's introduction for so long - even if he wasn't winning headers, the fact he was challenging defenders meant our midfield could pick up the scraps and led to our better moments in the last few minutes. The logic, as I have said a million times before, beggars belief; if you are desperate for a goal, why on earth leave your most prolific striker sitting on the bench for so long?

I know it's only one game. I know that the Macedonian goal came from a free kick that was never a foul. I know we had two stonewall penalties turned down. I know Ferguson and Hutton were injured. But today's performance and result were nothing less than a catastrophe and I defy anyone to find any sort of positives to take to Iceland for the next game, which I fear could be the next nail in what already appears to be George Burley's coffin.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robinho - ridiculous!

The whole Abu Dhabi Manchester City thing will end in tears. Sorry to burst your bubble, chaps, but it's true. What is the likelihood that other world-class players - if Robinho is world-class, which I would strongly argue against - will make their way to City in January, when there is little likelihood of them qualifying for the Champs League, or next summer, when they are a year away from making the following season's Champs League?

There are two ways this will go - one way is like Carlos Tevez at West Ham, where he will play well (eventually), score a few goals, generally impress, then hot tail it to another side next summer, probably Chelsea.

The other way is like West Ham's other on-loan Argentine of a few years back, Javier Mascherano, where they couldn't fit him in a system to get the best out of him, he sat on the bench (if he was lucky enough to make the bench) and eventually he was sold to another team who did get the best out of him.

The third possibility is that he lights up the Premier League, scores and creates barrowloads, convinces Europe's best that Eastlands is the future, and leads City to league and European trophies for years to come, all the while realising his potential as "new Pele". This outcome is about as likely as a handshake between Barack Obama and the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Anyway, it should be entertaining


Sunday, August 31, 2008

So the first marker has been thrown down in the SPL title race - a big win for the Huns and now Celtic, with back to back away games to follow, are already playing catch up while trying to juggle European commitments as well, It's far too early to make judgments, but I wonder whether, come next Spring, the Ibrox hordes see the Kaunas fiasco as a blessing in disguise.

To be honest, though, I'm rather more interested in the rest of the league, where the form book and all the preseason predictions have gone out of the window quick style.

Take the relegation favourites at the start of the campaign. St. Mirren are, as expected, down at the bottom, not least because their strikers couldn't score in a brothel. While wearing a gallon of synthetic testosterone. When the whores are all uglier than Margaret Thatcher without her makeup on and haven't had it in ages.

That's how bad their strikers are!

But the other two teams tipped by everyone for the drop were Hamilton (reasonable because they'd only just been promoted) and Inverness (reasonable because their transfer activity was uninspiring but not for the main reasons given - namely, they've been in the league a few seasons and are due a struggle). The Accies, though, are no mugs and have made a pretty useful start. They have enough quality in the midfield and enough goals in Offiong to stay in the division, and their failure to repeat Gretna's sorry show from last year has plenty of managers biting their fingernails already. Caley, meanwhile, apart from a defeat to Hamilton, have also been pretty useful. I thought I'd see hell freeze over before we beat Aberdeen, but we managed it on opening day. And I tell you, it was sweet. And now yesterday's win puts us seven points above Falkirk. Who are bottom. With zero points.

Falkirk have been utterly screwed by the fixture computer - two out of their first three games were against the Old Firm, with Hibs away in between. But once you start losing then it can become a habit, and for all their good (on paper, anyway) signings in the summer, their start is a nightmare. Next they have a resurgent Hearts at home, followed by games against the Saints and the Accies. Anything less than about 4 points from those three games and they are in the cack.

In contrast, you would expect Well and Dundee United to get out of their early hole. United, for all the hyperbole about them being favourites to come third, have put in about one good performance - a home draw with Celtic. Losing to Killie at home is not the sort of result Craig Levein is looking for. Killie, on the other hand, are absolutely flying, helped by the fact that Alan Combe's goal seems to have a forcefield around it at the moment and that David Fernandez appears to have been hypnotised into thinking he's playing for Livingston again.

Who have I forgotten? Oh yeah, Aberdeen, who by all accounts have been the inferior team in every game they've played this season, yet come away with 7 points. Either they will get better (most likely) and the results will keep coming, or (less likely but with more scope for amusement) they will start getting the results they deserve for the performances they put in.

And last, but not least, Hibs, for whom the word "crisis" appears to be pretty appropriate right now, I can't help feeling that, by the time the transfer window closes tomorrow night, Steven Fletcher might be gone, and I'd like to see big Mixu revitalise things after that. Even with a half-fit confidence-less Derek Riordan back. Could they be dragged into it at the bottom?

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, it's all very juicy indeed. And it will remain so, especially if Caley keep well adrift from it all. But we shall see...


Friday, August 1, 2008

Prediction time!

So the SFL season kicks off tomorrow and I hope to mark it with a trip to Victoria Park to see Ross County-Dundee, if I can take some time off from moving into my new house. So, therefore, this is a prime opportunity to look into my crystal ball and see how Scotland's lower divisions will look in May 2009...

Only brave, foolhardy people will have bet on who will get all the division 1 glory. St. J look strong, Dundee look strong, Dunfermline look strong. But they all looked strong last year at the beginning and instead the less fancied Accies nicked the spoils while they weren't looking. What Hamilton particularly proved is the importance of a good start - neither the Saints or the Pars got one and were adrift well before even one fan said "what, we're playing this bunch again already?"

It's a bit easier to say who should be at the wrong end of the table - Airdrie United only came up cos Gretna went bust, Clyde still have no dosh, and Morton have Davie Irons in charge, so the three of them are good candidates for a relegation dogfight. County have a decent squad and should be comfortably mid-table; both they and QOS (if they don't get distracted by Europe - I suppose they won't be there for very long, mind) could get themselves in the mix at the top if they avoid injuries. Ditto Partick, while how Livi and their new Italian bloke will fare is anyone's guess. If they turn out like Claude Anelka's Raith Rovers, though, I shall laugh till my belly is sore.

Div 2 should go Raith's way, since they're the only totally full time team. Expect Peterhead and Brechin to be in the playoffs, while Stirling and ambitious East Fife will compete too. In contrast, Arbroath, Stranraer and Queen's Park will be more worried about steering clear of the bottom.

And I'd love to predict Montrose for Div 3, to keep my Mo-supporting mate off my back. But apparently they've sucked in pre-season and so the smart money is on either Forfar (led by Dick "Uncle Fester" Campbell) or Dumbarton to go up as Champions. Dare I say it, apparently East Stirling could have a chance of a play off place. To quote General Melchett in Blackadder, "Bugger me with a fish fork"


Friday, July 25, 2008

Going for broke, or just going broke?

Is it the so-called credit crunch? Is it an absence of ambition? Or is it a chronic lack of cash?

Whatever it is, it’s caused both Caley and Dundee United to sell undoubtedly their best strikers, and possibly their best players, Marius Niculae and Noel Hunt respectively, within 24 hours of each other. And their glamorous destinations? Dinamo Bucharest, and Reading. One is a city that is, in appearance, a soulless, concrete-covered Cold War relic, and the other is the capital of Romania. (Cue the sound of ba-doom-tch from my house drummer)

It’s very worrying up in the Highlands, quite apart from the fact that our strike force now consists of Andy Barrowman (who is a proven goalscorer only at div 2 level), Garry Wood (a youngster who has never played in the SPL) and Rory McAllister (a youngster who has played in the SPL, and looks more out of place than a Morris Minor on a formula one circuit). The sale of Niculae had a certain inevitablility about it – his wages are high, he’s a Romanian international, he played at the Euros, we’re hardly in a position to turn half a mil down – but what’s more worrying is the suggestion from the club that we’re badly in need of the moolah and that very little of it is going to be spent in the transfer market. There’s a suggestion that the Arabs are in the same boat.

Certainly, up the A9 we’ve been paying diddy wages for years – we must have the lowest wage budget in the SPL bar perhaps the Accies. Granted, our attendances aren’t great, but we’re an SPL club, we haven’t spent outwith our means, so why are we and other teams beginning to look down the back of the Players’ Lounge sofas for loose change now?

It’s not good.

It doesn’t help that the gruesome twosome have tried to grab more cash off everyone else by claiming they require a 5% admin charge on every ticket they sell for their away games – cheeky soap dodgers that they are. So promptly Falkirk have said that they’ll sell the away tickets themselves! This also means that local old firm fans are less likely to nick seats in the home ends, and means they can sell the tickets to whoever they like, rather than the usual trash that scatter buckfast bottles all over the place and sing their usual sectarian hate-filled guff. I’m desperately hoping they do the same at the Caledonian Stadium this season coming – the smell and sound from the away end when we play Rangers and Celtic is simply nauseating.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Prudence in paradise?

Having made the knockout stages of the Champs League the last couple of years, shouldn’t Celtic be out spending huge wads of cash?

I’m impressed by the reports linking them to the Romanian centre-half Tamas, who spent the Euros doing a very good impression of a brick wall. The fact that it takes more than a gust of wind to outmuscle him automatically makes him superior to the boy Caldwell. But the idea that they’re loath to pay £3.5 mil for him makes you wonder where all the lolly has disappeared to.

Thus, Celtic’s summer outlay consists of a random Irish winger called McCourt, and a permanent deal for Samaras. The Greek is definitely good enough to score bags of SPL goals, but at a European level? Naw. He’s too worried about messing his lovely sleek hair (it’s because he’s worth it.)

And to cap it all, Gravesen, Donati and Balde are still on the wage bill. Mind you, it looks like a summer might yet pass without Gordon Strachan purchasing a dodgy central midfielder from abroad. There’s a few weeks left for that to change though…


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Talk, talk, talk, but no transfers

With about three weeks till the start of the new SPL season, I think it’s about time to finish my “blog holiday” – that is, the period of time taken for the shining glow of Euro Two Thousand And Great (yes, I’ve nicked that from the BBC, so sue me – actually, please don’t) to wear off. In short, I feel like moaning again.

Besides, at club level, there’s not been much to talk about. Nothing concrete, anyway. There’s been more speculation about Cristiano Ronaldo, Lampard etc than there is in an issue of OK magazine. All quiet north of the border, though. A complete lack of excitement, at least for now.

So what has happened?

Let’s start with the Old Firm. Rangers seem to be buying rather a lot of forwards for a club that spent most of last season playing one up top. Walter Smith has correctly summized that most of the supporters don’t know jack about players, and so has concluded that if they hate Kenny Miller, then he must logically be a decent player. Miller may need the occasional reminder that, when signing autographs, he needs to go back to adding “f*** the pope” as the postscript, rather than nasty comments about King Billy.

On the other hand, the biggest outlay so far has been on Burnley striker Kyle Lafferty. Not a name to set pulses racing. This may be because he previously played for Burnley. It may also be because his goalscoring record is not exactly sensational. Still, he has that mysterious thing called “potential”. Something which a certain young K. Miller had when he first signed for Rangers, I recall.

The best value for money they’ve got this summer is probably ex-Hearts striker Andrius Velicka, a guy who is strong, good in the air, holds up the ball well and scores goals. A good candidate as a lone striker and, for me a better player than Lafferty. However, the way Rangers are going, each of these guys is gonna get about ten minutes playing time this season. Look at who else wants a game up front: Boyd, Cousin, Darcheville, Naismith (admittedly out injured for aeons), plus Novo and McCulloch who will probably be utilised out wide, and Fleck who may well make a breakthrough this year.

The trouble is that Wattie wants to offload Darcheville and Cousin, but nobody seems keen on taking them off his hands; the former because he’s 33 next week, he’s only going to get slower, and because his hamstrings are more easily snapped than breadsticks, and the latter because his undeniable ability is coupled with the workrate of a sloth which has been smoking a joint and which has chronic fatigue syndrome. That’s only some of the dead wood that hasn’t been chucked yet - though you don’t get much deader than Sebo, Buffel and Faye who at least have bogged off.

So, at this moment in time Rangers seem to have failed to reduce the oversized playing squad (I’m talking about numbers, not Cousin’s belly) and, for me, haven’t improved the quality, just the quantity. They need a right-back and a centre-back, for a start, unless Weir and Dailly suddenly discover the Fountain of Youth, Webster and Smith manage to learn how to play again and Broadfoot, er, learns how to play. I can’t help feeling that you need to be looking at better players than Cardiff’s Loovens and Watford’s Shittu if you’re looking to compete in the Champions League.

Though if Shittu had signed, it would have finally given Celtic fans a riposte for all those years of taunts about a certain Brazilian defender…


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Austria 1 Poland 1

Verdict: Whatever the ridiculous comments made by Leo Beenhakker, the President of Poland and thousands of plumbers in the UK, that was definitely a pen - you could see most of the forward's vest, the shirt tug was that obvious. Considering the gazillion chances wasted by Austria - not least due to the efforts of the Holy Goalie - it's a fair result in the end.

Entertainment value: The second half didn't match the first, which had chances galore and Poland's mugging of a first goal (against the run of play, and miles offside), but full of energy. Good on Austria, as well, who make up for their lack of quality with the enthusiasm of an excited puppy dog.

Heroes: Boruc is staking his claim to be the competition's outstanding keeper. He has to be good, considering what's in front of him. Tricky wide man Korkmaz was the only real Austrian standout.

Villains: The Polish defence are a disaster, still. Unfortunately, so are Austria's forwards.

The job ahead: A win might have given the Poles a chance of going through, but barring an unusual pair of final day results they are out. Austria now have the tall order of needing to beat Germany to qualify.

Croatia 2 Germany 1

Verdict: A bit of a surprise, going by the opening day performances from these two sides. Croatia, turgid and slow-witted against Austria, came out of the blocks sprinting and their high pace game caught the Germans off guard. No doubt the second goal was half-fluke, half-copyrighted Jens Lehmann howler (I think he also got his trademark yellow card too), but the Croats deserved their result and Slaven Bilic showed he has the tactical nous to go with his motivational skills and his acumen on the guitar.

Entertainment value: Another great game, helped by the fact that Germany had to chase it.

Heroes: Another incredible shift from Ivica Olic for Croatia, while Ivan Rakitic justified his inclusion with a great performance from midfield. Darijo Srna, scorer of the first goal, was probably pick of the bunch.

Villains: Marcell Jansen was hooked at half-time, having been run utterly ragged, culminating in an impersonation of a statue at the first goal. And yet again, Michael Ballack was overwhelmingly, erm, underwhelmingly.

The job ahead: Croatia through, then, but they still don't quite look convincing enough to win the tournament. Not yet, anyway. Germany, however, just need a point off Austria to go through in second, with a potentially mouthwatering tie with Portugal awaiting.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Czech Republic 1 Portugal 3

Verdict: Portugal did just about enough, and it will do wonders for their confidence that they were able to manoeuvre through a strong, physical Czech side, the sort of opponent that has done for them in the past. Their big name players are beginning to hit their stride too. The Czechs look a better team than I thought though, and no one would have begrudged them a draw.

Entertainment value: This tourney does seem to be getting better with age, just like women (or so I'm told). Plenty of chances with both teams willing to throw players forward.

Heroes: That can't possibly be the Libor Sionko who played for Pepe Le Pew's Rangers team. His header was brilliant, when you take into account that there are taller hobbits out there. He could have had another too, and showed glaringly that Paulo Ferreira is not a left back. On the other hand, Deco was magic for Portugal, and MOTM probably goes to Ronaldo who is beginning to find ways to shake off the posse of defenders that follow him around the pitch in these games.

Villains: Ferreira, as mentioned above, is clearly Portugal's weak link. And have the Czechs forgotten what Rozehnal was like at Newcastle? He's an accident waiting to happen.

The job ahead: Portugal's last game is now a dead rubber, so Scolari can rest players and think about the last eight. I reckon that they've not got enough credit for having ground out decent results against two teams (Turkey and the Czechs) who are actually rather good. Apparently a Turkey-Czech Republic draw would then require a penalty shoot out, and I don't fancy calling that match. But so far Bruckner's team have 3 points when they probably deserved 2 draws, so he'll be satisfied with where his side are, and the experience he can call on may be crucial.


Greece 0 Sweden 2

Verdict: I think it's fair to say that every neutral was cheering like a madman at Ibrahimovic's screamer. Greece did not win very many friends with that display, the footballing equivalent of an Iain Duncan Smith speech - slow, meandering, constantly defensive, pointless and completely lacking in quality. Sweden, meanwhile, played like, well, Sweden - solid and dependable, and always capable of nicking a goal.

Entertainment value: Not as bad as Romania-France, but pretty damned godawful all the same. I told friends at half time that "I'd give my right testicle for a Sweden goal"; thankfully for all you young ladies out there, that sacrifice was not required.

Heroes: Zlatan was the best player on the field and it showed with that absolutely stonking strike. To be honest, he was also the only player to stand out on the field.

Villains: Otto Rehhagel has blamed his players, rather than his tactics, but you can't excuse setting out with 5 at the back. How many defenders does he expect to play against Spain? Pretty much every Greek player except Seitaridis and Charisteas was guff, with Gekas (hooked at half time) looking incapable of holding onto a baby, let alone a football.

The job ahead: Sweden will now fancy themselves to get through, especially if they nick something off Spain. The loss of Wilhelmsson will hurt though - their bench is a bit lacking in quality right now. Greece, on the other hand, can and must play better against Russia. I tell you, they're not a bad team and I reckon they could beat the Russkis if they dare to show a bit of enterprise and flair. Honest!


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spain 4 Russia 1

Verdict: Much too easy for Spain, who were able to dispose of Russia with minimum fuss. Valencia will have added another million euros onto David Villa's price tag after a hat trick. Unusually for a team under Guus Hiddink, the Russians were a defensive shambles, with Torres and Villa getting in behind all day long.

Entertainment value: The whole "tiki-taka" thing the Spanish have is very pleasing on the eye indeed, and they beautifully carved out opportunities again and again. On the other hand, the second half was almost at training pace. Yet a game with 5 goals in it is not to be sneezed at.

Heroes: Well, Villa, obviously, was the star of the show, but also outstanding were Marcos Senna and Xavi in the midfield who might as well have been conducting an orchestra. The only Russians to get any credit were the full backs, Anyukov and Zhirkov, who did a good job of covering for their joke of a central defence.

Villains: The Russian centre-backs had absolute shockers - Kolodin will have regretted his decision not to stick the ball in row Z at the first goal, while someone needs to teach Shrokov the offside rule.

The job ahead: As is traditional, Spain have started quickly; I'm looking forward to seeing if they can sustain it. Guus Hiddink, meanwhile, has to pick up his team for two games which they probably have to win.


Netherlands 3 Italy 0

Verdict: No one expected that much of the Dutch, and it seems to have worked in their favour. Marco Van Basten, have a pint on me! Holland's tactics were utterly perfect, and for all the controversy of their opening goal, the other two were magnificent. Italy's defending was woeful, and they miss Cannavaro terribly. Mind you, they didn't play all that badly, and had plenty of chances themselves. I expect to see Grosso, Del Piero and Cassano playing against Romania.

Entertainment value: The game of the tournament so far - both teams set out to play high tempo, attacking football and it showed. No wonder Italy play catenaccio so often if this is the consequence of being flamboyant! Anyway, on the back of this the Netherlands are now every neutral's favourite team.

Heroes: The Dutch midfield were utterly, utterly wonderful. I've been talking up Sneijder all season and I thought he was the best of a great bunch. Van Der Vaart's passing was laser-guided in its precision, and the young defensive midfielder Engelaar put his more illustrious opponents in the shade. The most striking thing, though, was the willingness of all five of the Oranje midfielders to work their asses off, a work rate sorely lacking from the Italians. By the way, let's not forget Gio Van Bronckhorst's impact on the game - he looked like a Brazilian full-back going forward and an Italian full-back when defending. I don't think you can praise him any higher than that.

Villains: Donadoni should be hung up by his figgin for not playing De Rossi from the start. Gattuso and Ambrosini simply aren't mobile enough and with no defensive assistance from Di Natale and Camoranesi (unfortunately the latter didn't offer anything going forward either), Holland won the midfield battle and simply passed around and through the leaden footed Azzurri midfield.

The job ahead: Van Basten now knows that a win over France not only pretty much puts them through, but also practically knocks France out. Considering their high energy game, he must be tempted to put everything into that match to win it and make the Romania one a chance to rest players. And if the French weren't vulnerable enough, remember Van Persie wasn't fully fit, and that Robben was missing. As for Italy, they now must beat Romania, no question about it. And I hope they won't be dumb enough to pick Camoranesi.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Romania 0 France 0

Verdict: Romania set out in the true Rangers anti-football style, and got what they set out for. France, meanwhile, pretty much never looked like breaking them down, which is worrying for a side containing the attacking qualities they have. But their passing was so slow it was never going to carve holes in a defence as good as Romania's

Heroes: Well, you can;t fault France's centre-backs, Gallas and Thuram, who dealt with the little that was thrown at them. But the best players on the pitch were the Romanian defenders Rat and Goian, and most importantly the defensive midfielder Mirel Radoi; he covered every blade of grass and just kept getting his foot in.

Villains: Where do you start for France? The full backs never got forward and their distribution was woeful. Toulalan can be described similarly. Malouda continues to look as menacing as a bunch of flowers, while Anelka looks more bored than a goth at Disneyland. Most of all, though, why is Domenech playing two defensive midfielders in a game like that?

The job ahead: France now have to find a result against a Dutch side with their tails up; best of luck there, even with Henry back. Romania can reflect on a job well done and I bet they'll face Italy with exactly the same mentality.


Germany 2 Poland 0

Verdict: Poland were more adventurous than I expected, and will be disappointed not to have at least got a goal. On the other hand, their defence had more holes in it than a Doctor Who plot and Germany had the calibre to take full advantage; Joachim Low's side thoroughly deserved their victory.

Entertainment value: Immensely enjoyable, with both sides flooding players forward and a midfield you could drive a bus through. Plenty of chances for both teams in a match played a high tempo from start to finish.

Heroes: Lukas Podolski, obviously, after a two goal haul; the second was an absolutely stonking volley. Low's decision to play him on the left wing was a masterstroke. The best player on the pitch was Torsten Frings, however, who quite frankly owned the midfield. Poland will be grateful to Artur Boruc for some good stops (particularly a spectacular one from Ballack) while Lobodzinski had caused trouble on the right before he was hooked. Expect to see energetic substitute Roger Guerreiro on from the start in the next game.

Villains: Michael Ballack didn't have much impact on the game, while Mario Gomez offered very little threat for Germany. For Poland, just look at their back four, who were crucified time and again.

The job ahead: Germany will clinch qualification if they beat Croatia, and they will know that they still have another gear or two to shift into if they need it. Poland, in contrast, face co-hosts Austria knowing that they need four points from the last two games to stand a chance.


Austria 0 Croatia 1

Verdict: So much for Austria being pushovers - they looked like they were in for a battering after Modric's early pen but came back to give Croatia a heck of a test. Certainly, the home side created enough chances in the second half to warrant a draw.

Entertainment value: Slaven Bilic's side came out of the blocks quickly, but lost their way after about half an hour. Things livened up again in the closing stages, though, as Austria pushed for the elusive equalizer.

Heroes: Modric looked a class act in the midfield, though his influence waned as the match progressed. Austria defender Prodl looked dangerous at both ends, while Ivanschitz didn't do much in open play but delivered some marvellous set-pieces. My man of the match, however, was Josip Simunic - the Croat defender made some great tackles and interceptions.

Villains: Pretty much all the forwards on the pitch. For Croatia, Petric looked like he was just out to sunbathe, while Olic ran a lot without delivering an end product. You could also apply the same descriptions to Austrians Linz (who also appears to fall down under the slightest breeze) and Harnik respectively.

The job ahead: Bilic knows that Croatia must play better to get a result against Germany, but also that two draws is all they need to go through. Austria, meanwhile, simply must beat Poland now to leave themselves a realistic chance of progression - but they will be encouraged by their performance.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Portugal 2 Turkey 0

Verdict: Job done for Portugal, who always looked like they were going to win without ever really clicking into top gear - they hit the woodwork three times and had another goal chalked up for offside. The Turks look no mugs, though.

Entertainment value: It started like grease lightning before settling into a routine of Portuguese possession against Turkish counter attack. However, there were plenty of chances and both the Portuguese goals were as pleasing as discovering Scarlett Johansson using your shower

Heroes: You can tell Pepe was born in Brazil - only their centre-halves rampage forward and score in open play. Add to that a clean sheet and I think you have the man of the match.

Villains: Kazim Kazim, or Kazim-Richards, or whatever his name is - there's almost as much confusion about his name as there is about his inclusion.

The job ahead: Turkey's match with Switzerland is freaking huge now. Portugal, meanwhile, will fancy their chances of unlocking the Czech defence, knowing a win will all but clinch qualification and that they can still play better than they did in the opening game.


Switzerland 0 Czech Republic 1

Verdict: Switzerland will feel aggrieved, having had the best chances, but were denied by good goalkeeping and the crossbar. The Czechs were difficult to break down but created very little before substitute Sverkos popped up to nick the winner.

Entertainment value: Started at a quick pace but once the Czech midfield got on top of things the match became much tighter. Plenty of chances, though, and in the end it was perfectly watchable.

Heroes: Gokhan Inler showed himself to be a useful midfield anchor and was Switzerland's best player, but the class act was Petr Cech, who made two excellent saves and dealt well with most of what was thrown at him.

Villains: Swiss striker Marco Streller looked about as dangerous as a kitten that had been given sedative drugs. The plan to get the ball to his feet clearly didn't take into account that he isn't actually able to use his feet to control the ball.

Looking ahead: The Czechs take on Portugal next knowing that two more draws would be enough to qualify. Switzerland, meanwhile, have to beat Turkey, but now that Alex Frei is out for the tournament their task is harder than having a conversation about space-time with Stephen Hawking without his speech computer.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008


So, Euro 2008 is upon us, and it is completely devoid of any home nation going, which means it should be a gloriously stressless affair for us Scots - no more tears (yes, I cried when Gazza scored against us at Euro 96, but I was only twelve, and, jings, the unjustice of it all!) and no more worries that England will go all the way before their inevitable elimination in the quarters either by penalties or a goalkeeping blunder.

Here's to hoping that it's more like Euro 2000, where only Norway were dull and the goals came faster than Wayne Rooney when the pies are ready, than like Euro 2004, where only England were entertaining and Greece won the dullest, most annoying sporting event since the world paint-drying championships were presented by James Blunt.

Therefore, let the goals and the excitement flow, and please, please, please let this be a tournament where 4-5-1 is a sequence of numbers treated with the same horror and overblown fear that 6-6-6 is given by inhabitants of the Western Isles.

So, ladies and gentlemen, pick your team (mine's Romania) and sit back and enjoy; if the football is rubbish, we can always have a laugh at Clive Tyldsley's desperate attempts to reference England at every opportunity.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

SPL end of season report card


Verdict: Success - just, thanks to seven straight wins at the end of the season. Performed just about to expectations, with another sojourn into the last sixteen of the Champions' League.

Star player: Aiden McGeady was at the center of most good things that Celtic did in an attacking sense.

Waste of space: Massimo Donati sauntered through matches like he didn't give a flying f****, possibly because he didn't.

Best moment of the season: Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink's late winner in the third Old Firm game of the season kept the title race alive.

Worst moment of the season: Losing at home to Motherwell was probably the nadir.

Next season: Will Gordon Strachan stay? If he does, his priorities must be a centre-half to partner McManus and another centre midfielder. Life could be difficult if Boruc, McGeady or Nakamura skedaddle.


Verdict: A resounding success until 10 days ago, but something of an anticlimax in the end. Still, any Hun will tell you that they've come on leaps and bounds since Paul Le Guen.

Star player: It can only be the indomitable Carlos Cuellar. The only way Rangers could have been more solid is if they built a brick wall round their 18 yard box.

Waste of space: Andy Webster seems to be almost permanently injured, and on the occasions he's actually been available he still can't displace David Weir, who is so old he's starting to fossilize.

Best moment of the season: Beating Fiorentina on penalties to make the final of the UEFA Cup gave Rangers fans the belief that they could win an unprecedented quadruple.

Worst moment of the season: Missing out on the last 16 of the Champions League after crashing 0-3 at home to Lyon

Next season: Plenty of dead wood for Walter Smith to shift off the wage bill, and he needs to decide whether to make the various loan signings permanent. Also, in order to placate the Rangers support, he probably needs to work out how to get Rangers winning while also making them enjoyable to watch.


Verdict: Success beyond the dreams of most of their fans, as anyone who saw them last season would agree. Mark McGhee has transformed them from relegation battlers to qualifiers for Europe.

Star player: Former Ger Stephen Hughes has blossomed on his return north of the border, with his slick passing key to the side's success.

Waste of space: The Fir Park pitch is a candidate for this, having probably impeded Motherwell as much as their opponents in the second half of the season. Playing staff-wise, Bob Malcolm has plumbed his usual depths since arriving in January, with his sole contribution being a straight red at Celtic Park.

Best moment of the season: Either the win at Celtic Park or beating Aberdeen to secure European football next season.

Worst moment of the season: The death of Phil O'Donnell

Next season: Sounds like McGhee might be on his way to Tynecastle, in which case Well will do, erm, well to find an adequate replacement. If Ross McCormack legs it as well, it might be back to mid-table mediocrity and an early UEFA Cup exit.


Verdict: Very nearly equal to last season in the end - a late run into fourth place in the league, that wonderful run in the UEFA Cup. However, Dons fans will remember 07/08 for the fact that they blew the chance of reaching the Scottish Cup Final and almost missing top six, and for the loss of Michael Hart, Chris Clark and Barry Nicholson to bigger wage packets down south.

Star player: Zander Diamond has come on leaps and bounds this season to compensate for Russell Anderson's departure. Now, if only he could pass the ball...

Waste of space: Veteran Jackie McNamara was the high-profile arrival last summer, but he's already legged it to Falkirk after a nightmare year pockmarked with injuries and poor form.

Best moment of the season: The fantastic home draw with Bayern Munich.

Worst moment of the season: Blowing the cup semi against Queen of the South

Next season: Priority one, holding on to Lee Miller, has been achieved already. The departure lounge at Pittodrie is already full to the brim though, with the number of players exiting at double figures. The tango man will need to wheel and deal to come up with a side capable of competing for the UEFA Cup place again. Hopefully he;s learned not to sign players from the Dutch League.


Verdict: Probably a bit of a disappointment, but things are looking up under big Mixu. His next generation of youngsters look a raw but promising bunch, and after a ropey start to the year under John Collins the Hibees ended up making top six with a bit to spare.

Star player: Steven Fletcher is the current starlet, and his pace and technique are almost unheard of for a young Scottish striker. Could do with scoring a few more, mind.

Waste of space: Rumour is that Hibs spent a six figure sum to sign winger Alan O'Brien from Newcastle last summer, but he made only six league starts and scored zero goals with his raw pace and complete lack of any composure giving you the impression of a poor man's Ivan Sproule. Bear in mind that Sproule wasn't actually that good...

Best moment of the season: Winning at Ibrox at the end of September, which left Hibs unbeaten after 10 league games.

Worst moment of the season: The acromonious departure of John Collins in a row over transfer funds - though his side had won only one of ten league games before then.

Next season: If they can hold onto Fletcher, his partnership with Nish could be more bountiful than giving a rich man a peerage. Next year will be the acid test for McNeil, McCann, Stevenson, Chisholm etc. - can they emulate Tony Mowbray's Hibs youth stars? If they can, there could be some good times at Easter Road.


Verdict: John Hughes continues to accomplish miracles on a minimal budget, but he will be aggrieved that he missed top six again. As enjoyable to watch as any team in this league, with a slick passing game.

Star player: Young centre back Darren Barr was a rock at the back and popped up with a few goals as well, so he edges out fellow Academy graduates Tam Scobbie and Scott Arfield.

Waste of space: Former Barcelona youth player Arnau Riera showed he could pass it around when he could be bothered, but that wasn't too often. I don't expect his loan move from Sunderland to be made permanent.

Best moment of the season: A sensational 5-1 crushing of St. Mirren at Love St. just before new year.

Worst moment of the season: The knee injury to Michael Higdon, which precipitated the loss of form that cost them a top six place.

Next season: Hughes has already signed the experienced McNamara and Neil McCann, who may fit well into his system. What he really needs is a young Russell Latapy to pull the strings and creaste chances, because he has procured forwards who can take them. His astute use of the loan market may come in handy there.

Verdict: An unmitigated disaster. Do you think Vladimir Bugger-ov has the message yet?

Star player: When he's fit, Andrew Driver is an outstanding left winger and a threat to any defence. Shame he doesn't qualify to play for Scotland.

Waste of space: Where do you start? Calamity keeper Kurskis, Michael "I played for Man Utd once" Stewart and Calum Elliot are just some of the utter guff that has wore the Maroon at times this season.

Best moment of the season: beating Rangers 4-2 at Tynecastle in September

Worst moment of the season: Finishing with 8 men in a 4-1 defeat to Dundee United in January.

Next season: If they get McGhee and he gets a clause in his contract preventing Vlad from intervening, we might be back to 2006 Hearts again. I wouldn't bank on it though, and the likes of Christophe Berra may yet cut theit losses and escape this summer. Still, it's entertaining, isn't it?


Verdict: Could have been worse after a nightmare start to the season, but a dodgy defence and inconsistency meant they came up short on top six again.

Star player: Don Cowie made the step up from div 1 no bother and, I kid you not, scored more leagie goals than any other midfield player in the SPL.

Waste of space: Phil McGuire was the knight in shining armour for our duff defence when he signed- but his form after Xmas gave the impression that he was wearing a suit of armour on the pitch, such is his lack of mobility and aerial prowess.

Best moment of the season: Coming from two down to beat Celtic.

Worst moment of the season: A 3-0 hammering at home to Hearts in March.

Next season: Craig Brewster has a lot of work to do, especially if Marius Niculae leaves. A big transfer fee from that, though, may give Caley the clout to bring in the forwards and defenders they so badly need. However, expect ICT to be in their first proper relegation battle next season.


Verdict: Haven't really gone forwards since last season, but obviously relegation wasn't a worry.

Star player: David Van Zanten's solid performances at right back have earned him a move to Hibs.

Waste of space: Craig Dargo is thought to be the highest paid player at the club, but one goal in twenty one games is not much of a return.

Best moment of the season: Beating Motherwell 3-1 in January - the only time they scored three in an SPL game all season.

Worst moment of the season: Either cup exit - out of the league cup to East Fife or of the Scottish Cup quarter finals to St. Johnstone.

Next season: Gus McPherson needs firepower badly - can Tom Brighton and Dennis Wyness provide it? - and defenders too. One of the teams likely to be battling to avoid the drop.


Verdict - really poor season, which can only be partly put down to the sale of Naismith and Nish and injury problems. Not much to shout about for the Rugby Park fans.

Star player: Mehdi Taouil was the one shining light in the Killie midfield.

Waste of space: David Fernandez, who continues to live on one good season for Livingston nearly a decade ago, now has a total of 3 goals in 42 appearances for the club.

Best moment of the season: Gubbing Inverness 4-1 at home to end an appalling run of form

Worst moment of the season: Losing at Gretna seemed to put Killie in a relegation dogfight - until Gretna's administration was announced a few days later.

Next season: This summer is crucial to Jim Jefferies, who probably needs five or six good players to get this side back to where they were 12 months ago. An unsuccessful foray into the transfer market and Killie will be in this area of the table again next year.


Verdict: The biggest embarassment since Abel Xavier's haircut.

Star player: Goalie Greg Fleming has earned himself a move down south - though to be honest I thought he was a bit rubbish!

Waste of space: Davie Irons was not only a crap manager, but he then legged it as soon as the problems became apparent. Smooth.

Best moment of the season: Beating Dundee United twice is some effort, while a win at home to Killie briefly gave the fans hope of avoiding the drop.

Worst moment of the season: After administration of course, crashing 6-1 in Inverness added insult to injury.

Next season: Just existing will be an achievement.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Half time in Moscow

Typical freaking Chelsea. They've been guff, they've shown about as much willingness to attack as a Quaker smoking a spliff and they have been utterly creamed by Man U - yet they're level at the break thanks to a combination of Petr Cech and a spot of pinball around the Man U box.

So one team at the Luzhniki stadium has shown a keenness to get forward, to play attractive football and hope the best. The other has punted aimless balls up the pitch, kicked United's skill players and has Florent Malouda on the pitch - not signs suggestive of entertaining football.

All this equates to is Rangers' anti-football but with better players.

Let's hope, like in the UEFA Cup final, the better team ends up winning. Otherwise this is not a good advert for the best teams to throw any caution to the wind in big games.

In conclusion, if Chelsea win, I will be in a huff for at least three days, I think.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rangers on the ropes

Apologies for the lack of devotion over the last week and a half, peeps. I was, er, well, a bit lazy actually. But plenty to talk about in the last couple of weeks - Big Eck relegated with Birmingham (I told you so at New Year), Man U win the title (ditto), Fulham survive (which two months ago looked about as likely as Mike McCurry giving the away team a penalty at Ibrox - more later), Motherwell clinch a UEFA Cup spot (having them and QOS in Europe will do wonders for our coefficient, but not in a good way), but, unsurprisingly, it's the Great Unwashed that have been the focus of attention for Scottish football fans.

Oh, it all seemd so sweet and rosy for them after the Fiorentina game. An almost unheard of quadruple was still on the cards, there was still a bit of a cushion in the league thanks to games in hand, and the likes of Cuellar and Weir were showing reserves of stamina normally shown only by camels in the Sahara.

A few weeks on, and, quite frankly, it has all gone t*** up.

Unfortunately, for all the heroics of the UEFA cup run (if winning matches by virtue of boring the other team to suicide is heroism) all that will be remembered of it by all but the most devoted Gers out there are the scenes afterwards. In the space of one evening in Manchester, the wonderful reputation of Scottish football fans has been badly, maybe even fatally tarnished. Yes, it may have been a minority, but from the pictures on TV you can see that many hundreds were involved. It tells you something about the mindset of these people that they attacked the engineers who had come to fix the giant screen that had broken and sparked the trouble.

Were these people proper Rangers fans? I don't know. I don't care. All I know is that when Celtic reached the UEFA Cup final, they were a delight in Seville. And on that run they also managed to play big away games in Blackburn and Liverpool without a hint of trouble. And to cap it all, in front of the UEFA president himself, Rangers fans hauled out the good old sectarian songbook during the game itself.

Perhaps this is part of David Murray's plan to get Rangers into the Premier League - by making fans of Scottish football hate them so much they get chucked out. Mind you, the English are hardly likely to welcome them with open arms now, eh?

Anyway, enough of the anti-Rangers fan ranting, though it is fun. Let's focus at the pitch, where the helping hand that Mike McCurry gave them against Dundee United seems more distant after the draw at Fir Park yesterday (everything Craig Levein said is an echo of pretty much every Scottish football fan who has no Old Firm ties, and he's rapidly becoming a bit of a hero amongst them). How on Earth did Rangers blow this advantage? I think it was probably because their last five away games have produced three points (two of them were at Celtic Park, mind). But in each of those games, Rangers have played 4-5-1 and, consequently are struggling to score goals in them. If you're the home team against them, you're hardly going to adopt an offensive strategy! And so, with Rangers refusing to turn to Kris Boyd until the number of minutes left reaches single figures, the lack of offensive threat on the pitch is hurting them. It's a good idea against Werder Bremen, Fiorentina, Sporting Lisbon, but maybe not the way to go tomorrow night against St. Mirren, Wattie...

That said, there's still a fair bit of footie to play. Who would bet against Celtic blowing it at Tannadice on Thursday night?

And don't forget that Rangers have the opportunity to make up signficant grounds in goal difference at Love Street. I know it's a seven goal difference at the moment, but it wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility for them to win by four goals or more at Love Street, which could give the Tims just a little bit of a shake.

Anyway, we'll see.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Team of the year: strikers

honourable mentions: Ross McCormack (Motherwell), Noel Hunt (Dundee United), Lee Miller (Aberdeen)

Even the most diehard Hun would find difficulty in denying McDonald a place in the team (though some would still try) - he's the top scorer in the SPL and proved that he can score in the Champions League as well. Fletcher has continued to progress nicely, though opponents correctly earmark him as about the only attacking threat Hibs have, and as a consequence he now has vey little space to operate in. I expect him to become the next to exit from Easter Road this summer.

honourable mentions: Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn Rovers), Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham Hotspur), Benjani (Manchester City)

I never rated Torres when he played in La Liga; therefore I have been horrified (in a good way, though) by his efforts this season. I remember how he gave Chelsea the run around back in only the second game of the season, and when I saw him in the flesh he was like greased lightning. Adebayor, in contrast, is a player I have admired for a while, as few play the lone striker role as well as he does. He has flourished since Henry left.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Team of the year: left midfield

honourable mentions: Lee McCulloch (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts)

Yes, I know he's more overrated than viagra (not that I'm talking from experience, honest) but, until from February every team started doubling up on him, McGeady had finally found a bit of consistent. If Cuellar is Scotland's outstanding defender this season - actually there is no "if" about it - then McGeady is the outstanding attacker. He's been a joy to watch, at least for those of us who are neutral with regards to the Old Firm, and I wouldn't be surprised if he deserts Paradise for down South sooner or later.

honourable mentions: Martin Petrov (Manchester City), Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

Young gets the nod for his stonking form in the last couple of months, though admittedly he has been playing in more of a free role. He's quick, direct and his set piece delivery is sensational time after time. So he gets in ahead of Petrov, who is greased lightning but lost form like the rest of the City team after New Year, and Downing who I suspect looks better than he really is because of the paucity of quality surrounding him at Boro.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Team of the year: centre midfield

honourable mentions: Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United), Scott Arfield (Falkirk), Scott Brown (Celtic)

It's hard to argue with these two; Ferguson's form has waned in the last month or so as his ankle injury caught up for him, but his performances for both club and country earlier this season were reminiscent of the Scotland captain at his very best. Hughes, meanwhile, has revitalised his career after a nightmare period down south, and has been at the centre of Motherwell's best stuff this season.

honourable mentions: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Elano (Manchester City)

Fabregas is a shoo-in. This has been the young Spaniard's breakthrough season, though tiredness has caught up with him (and his teammates) more recently. However, his range of passing and composure on the ball, plus the fact he has added goals to his game, make him the best central midfielder in British football. But Mascherano?! Well, if you take away his daft antics at Old Trafford, he is surely a candidate for the best midfield anchor in the world, not just the Premier League. He has a great engine, can win the ball and distribute it, and has fantastic positional sense. If you want a balanced midfield, he is the man.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Team of the year: right midfield

SPL: BARRY ROBSON (Dundee United/Celtic)
honourable mentions: Willo Flood (Dundee United), Don Cowie (Inverness Caledonian Thistle)

I remember the olden days when the ginger whinger played for ICT - on the left wing. However, both at Utd and Celtic, Robson has become more versatile, now starting on the right more often so he can cut inside and deliver with his sweet left foot. To be honest, I doubt whether he will get any better than this, but the fact he can play in the centre as well gives Gordon Strachan (the other ginger whinger) extra options from his midfield, especially considering that Massimo Donati can't play any position.

EPL: CRISTIANO RONALDO (Manchester United)
honourable mentions: Joe Cole (Chelsea), David Bentley (Blackburn Rovers)

Easy as pie. I've already waxed lyrical about the Portuguese winger on multiple occasions, and, put simply, he is the most outstanding footballer on the planet right now, bar none. And he's only, what, 22? Jeez...


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Team of the year: left-back

honourable mentions: Sasa Papac (Rangers), David Murphy (Hibernian)

While Papac did a darn good job for Wattie Smith this season, doing a pretty good impression of a full back when you consider that he normally can't impersonate a centre half, Naylor remains the best left sided defender in the SPL. He has remained solid even when his fellow defenders didn't, and remains as useful going forward as when defending.

EPL: PATRICE EVRA (Manchester United)
honourable mentions: Gael Clichy (Arsenal), Stephen Warnock (Blackburn Rovers)

It's a tough choice between the Frenchmen, who can both lay claim to be the footballing equivalent of the Duracell bunny (I mean in terms of stamina, not that they are pink, have tails or carry a drum). Evra just shades it for me - as Ryan Giggs fades, Alex Ferguson is hugely dependent on Evra to provide width on the left for United, and he does so superbly. Clichy, you feel, is still a year or two away from reaching his peak, but at the moment Evra is one of Europe's finest full-backs.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Team of the year: centre-backs

SPL: Carlos Cuellar (Rangers), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Zander Diamond (Aberdeen), Stephen McManus (Celtic), Darren Barr (Falkirk)

It was no surprise to anyone except the most blind, deluded Celtic fan (or all 2 million of them) that Cuellar would win the player of the year reward. He has been a class act all season, with the composure and skill of a continental defender, but also the strength, power and ruggedness of a British centre-back. If he doesn't move to the Premiership in the summer, I will be an eensy bit shocked. Wilkie, meanwhile, finally looks capable of fulfilling the potential he showed in his youth; if not for the absence of a cruciate ligament, he too might be playing at a bigger place than Tannadump - sorry, Tannadice - every second week.

EPL: Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Everton)
Honourable mentions: Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea), Micah Richards (Manchester City), Martin Laursen (Aston Villa)

Last year Vidic was Man U's outstanding defender; this year, though, Rio has been impervious. Gone are the lapses in concentration that have dogged him for years. He has now matured into a prime candidate for the title of the world's best central defender. Lescott has spent a lot of this season at left back, but is at his best in the centre. He has the pace to match most top strikers and with his efforts at both ends of the pitch (10 goals in all competitions at the time of writing), he has contributed more than most to Everton's success this season.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Team of the year: right-back

Honourable mentions: Christian Kalvenes (Dundee United), David Van Zanten (St. Mirren)

I don't think any of the sides in the top six other than Dundee Utd had a settled right-back this season. Regardless, Hutton did play more than half of Rangers' league games this season before his move to Spurs, so I think he qualifies, okay? Certainly, it's difficult to argue with the quality he has showed in the past twelve months, displaying the athleticism, ball skills and defensive nous required of one of Europe's top full-backs.

Honourable mentions: Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa)

In his first season in England, Sagna settled in remarkably well and has been a constant in Arsene Wenger's defence. His crossing still leaves a lot to be desired; however his raids on the overlap have given Arsenal a remarkable amount of width this season, considering their lack of an out-and-out winger. Next year, I expect him to be even better.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Team of the year: goalkeeper

honourable mentions: Artur Boruc (Celtic), Graeme Smith (Motherwell)

The first position, and it's possibly the toughest. McGregor or Boruc? So little to choose between them - both have been outstanding this year, but neither have been flawless. However, McGregor has conceded fewer goals per game and kept more clean sheets, though he did have a much better defence in front of him. And he has come on leaps and bounds over the last twelve months. If nothing else, that performance against Werder Bremen will be remembered for many moons. So, therefore Allan McGregor gets the nod.

EPL: DAVID JAMES (Portsmouth)
honourable mentions: Tim Howard (Everton), Chris Kirkland (Wigan)

It's rather easier choice when you look down south! In his twilight years, James is a better goalkeeper than ever, mainly because he has stopped making so many blunders. The number of times this season that Pompey have held on to narrow leads because of his saves is staggering. In a year where the big four have all played keepers who either have had lots of injury problems (Cech), are past their best (Van Der Sar) or are simply rubbish (Almunia, plus Jose Reina whenever it's a big game), James is the obvious winner.


Monday, April 7, 2008

The first annual Narey's Toepoker Team of the Season

In the coming days, (when I have time!), I'll be going through the players who make up my team of the season, both for the SPL and the English Premier League, position by position. Some players are shoo-ins - Cuellar, Ferguson and McGeady in Scotland, Ronaldo and Fabregas in England - but other positions are trickier; for some, I'm going to have to sit down and have a right good ponder. Feel free to comment with your suggestions. All I know is that Gretna and Derby players will be conspicuous by their absence!


Saturday, April 5, 2008

"The results business"

Last weekend, I basked in the glorious seven goal thriller that Aberdeen nicked from Caley up in Inverness. Caley's previous four home games had produced only a total of six goals, and the only way those games could have been less exciting would be if the half-time entertainment consisted of watching some paint dry.

Yes, I know, we lost again. However, Caley have been so guff recently that I'm largely sensitized to that now. I'd proudly claimed, before the match, that I'd rather we lost 4-3 than draw 0-0, and to be frank, I stand by that claim. I don't care if we grind out a point; if I'm driving all the way along the A96 (which has been a rather more exciting experience than the recent matches) and back, then I want to be entertained.

And so, following the customary waffling, I move on to my main point; viz a viz (always wanted to use that in a blog post), dull football. A game like Caley-Aberdeen ought to have been exciting - Caley have no reason to be cagey or defensive, while Aberdeen needed the win for their top six aspirations. But, before kickoff, I expected to see two 4-5-1 teams, with the attacking instincts of a koala bear. Because, throughout football, this happens too often now.

Too often, we hear managers talk about "the results business" to justify parking the bus in front of the goal and nicking a goalless draw. The potential financial castastrophe of being relegated, or missing out on a Champions' League place, or whatever, drives manager's tactics. They are afraid to lose. And the rules of the game (or at least, their interpretation) only benefit this philosophy - look at the penalty box during a corner and try to count how many defensive fouls are being committed at the same time. And count how many are penalized. Meanwhile, for all the "benefit of the doubt" chat, you rarely see a goal wrongly given when a player was offside, but lose count of the number of forwards wrongly flagged.

Now, maybe I'm in the minority here, but I watch football to be entertained. I want to see skill, I want to see chances, I want to see goals. Exciting nil-nil draws are like hen's teeth. Boring 4-3 games are as rare as seeing a teenage girl in Dundee without a pram. Remember the last world cup, and the last Euros? Too many teams afraid of losing. Germany bucked the trend; they played open, attacking football and were hailed for it, as well as forcing their way to the semi finals. I remember well that Greece won Euro 2004, but for all my usual hailing of the underdog, their style of football was so repugnant that it made me want to vomit copiously into a bucket. If that's what is required to win a football match, I'll read a book, thanks.

To cap it all, I hope David Pizarro of Roma feels like a bit of an idiot about slagging off Ronaldo in the press, for doing all those step overs and winding him up a bit. Please keep doing it, Cristiano, I thought it was fantastic and so did most of the world.

Why do attacking players win nearly all the big football awards? Because they are why the punters watch football. Who ever decided to go see Real Madrid because they have Casillas or Cannavaro? So for all you managers out there who decide boredom is the way to go, remember that if your team is fun to watch, fans will forgive you rather more when results don't go your way. I'm thinking of you, Avram Grant.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mouth off and be sent off - and about time too

The official laws of football define dissent as "protesting (verbally or non-verbally) against a referee's decision". No mention of the language involved - technically just arguing with the ref counts as dissent.

So I think I can remember at least three previous occasions where Javier Mascherano's harassment of the referee at Old Trafford would have constituted a second booking - before he lost the plot and finally got it.

The protests against the decision seem to consist largely of "well, everyone else does it and gets away with it". Quite a few players, not least John Terry, appear to be taking that line with the current fad for straight reds for nasty tackles. Well, chaps, isn't it tough when refs follow the rules? If you look at them, any tackle deemed to put another player at risk of injury is a straight red. Any insulting or offensive comments or gestures towards a ref (it doesn't even have to involve foul language) equal a sending off as well. It's slightly disturbing that the best and most prominent players in the country don't seem to be aware of this...or choose not to be aware of this.

Admittedly, this shows up blatantly the main problem with referees - inconsistency. It boggles the mind when you see players mouthing expletives at the referees who then ignore it. But if this is the start of a clampdown (I don't think it is - if it was he'd have been off twenty minutes sooner) then about flipping time.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Retrospective refereeing

A journalist once said of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, "He has fifty new ideas every day, and fifty-one of them are bad". I do intend to have a great big rant about his irrational decision not to proceed with goal-line technology. Don't worry, it'll happen (the rant, not the goalline technology). I bet you can't wait.

But I'm just been watching the highlights of Spurs-Chelsea. 4-4. Some game, I tell you. Why Sky chose Man U-Bolton is a mystery. But the moment I want to focus on happened just moments before half-time.

A bouncing ball ricochets pretty harmlessly towards Alan Hutton (note I've suddenly become more protective of him as he's no longer a hun) at the halfway line, right in front of the dugouts. Cue the arrival of Ashley Cole who with the Scottish full-back having flicked the ball away, absolutely pole-axes him. I'm talking studs up, straight leg, catching Hutton's shin halfway down. This is with Hutton's leg already off the ground to deal with the bouncing ball, so in reality it's about knee height. God bless shin pads and the man who invented them. As you would expect, the Spurs bench goes apes**t.

The Chelsea response to the situation? Ashley Cole, flanked by the usual mottley crew of Terry, Carvalho, Lampard etc. storms up to the ref, Mike Riley, giving him proper abuse (only the very basic lip reading skills can tell you that) and claims wildly that he got the ball (he wouldn't have got the ball even if it was in the vicinity, replays show that quite clearly) and then, while Riley grins inanely at him, just turns his back, walks away and refuses to come back. For the grand total of Serious Foul Play, Foul And Abusive Language and Dissent, Ashley Cole (and his minions) get a grand total of one yellow card. This is in the same week as the FA launched their "respect" agenda, in an attempt to significantly reduce the mouthing off.

Any person who has ever been with one thousand miles could tell you that the tackle deserved a straight red and abusing the ref probably warrants some punishment too. Okay, to call Mike Riley "weak" is like calling Katie Melua "not unattractive", but that's ok, isn't it,because bad tackles and violent conduct offences get cited and punished all the time, don't they.

Unfortunately, on Mr. Blatter's say-so, if the ref sees what has happened and punishes it competely inappropriately (or fails to punish it at all), the decision doesn't get changed. If the ref sees a foul when two players go up for a high ball, yet fails to send one off for a deliberate elbow in the face, then as long as he's given a free kick then no further action can be taken, even if the victim's nose is disintegrated in the process. Apparently dishing out worse punishment after a match "undermines the referee's authority".

On the other hand, we also know perfectly well that there is no apparent problem with retrospectively rescinding red cards, or changing them to yellows afterwards. Now, can someone please tell me where the logic is in that?

It's all very perplexing.

So, anyway, what it means is that that little thug of a Chelsea full-back ultimately gets off scot-free, in the same week as that twit Blatter talks about trying to extend Martin Taylor's ban.

One of these days, Sepp Blatter will do something, as FIFA president, that will actually benefit the world game. However, you have to say, on previous experience, that there is a distinct possibility that this will consist of either his resignation or death.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Caley in crisis

At the moment, Caley Thistle (the club, not the fans) are probably rather relieved that the Gretna fiasco, the problems at Fir Park, and Rangers' European run rumble on with no signs of stopping for a few weeks yet. It means that the press have completely failed to pick up on the fact that ICT are currently in freefall.

It's difficult to know exactly why this is the case. However, it is clear to those of us that sit in the stands that all is not well on the pitch. Since New Year we have won just one out of eleven matches, and that was against Gretna, so it may even be expunged from the records! The last four home games have produced one goal. And the team are currently playing with all the courage of an Italian soldier in the second world war. People are walking off the pitch in a sulk when subbed, slagging off each other during matches, and look so disorganised that you would have thought Berti Vogts was in charge.

Meanwhile, our esteemed manager stands on the touchline, hands in pockets, occasionally shouting "Come on". Now, my experience of football management stretches about as far as taken Montrose to the first division on FM2007, but even I can see that he looks as helpless as a new born baby. Every week it's the same 4-2-3-1 tactic, where our midfield actually sits in a line of five only 35 yards from goal, allowing the opposition licence to get that close before being pressed. Our lone striker is so isolated he needs a mobile phone to communicate with his teammates. At Inverness, we are used to seeing a side which lacks the quality and technical ability of most other SPL teams, but which makes up for it with a high energy, pressing game and, as Gordon Strachan once pointed out, "five minutes into injury time, they're still running". Now it appears that we don't even start. I'd swear that none of our players had even broken sweat by the final whistle of Saturday's turgid defeat by Falkirk.

And that's just the problems on the pitch. But form comes and goes, I hear you say. Remember you had an amazing run through November and December, I hear you say. That's true. But now it sounds like we're being crippled on and off the pitch.

Quietly, yesterday evening, the club released to the press the news that Dennis Wyness' new contract offer has been withdrawn. Now, it has been known for weeks that Denzil was on the brink of a new deal. A Caley legend, the clu's all time top scorer, Wyness has been a feature at Caley for a decade, apart for a two year spell at Hearts. He blows hot and cold, and he's had problems with injuries over the last year, but he's a darn good striker to have. Wyness would have signed the contract on Friday, but a club official failed to get the paperwork there on time.

Wyness was subbed five minutes into the second half on Saturday. It was his first appearance for a good few weeks and he didn't look all that sharp. However, the service he got was pretty much nil. But, on the outside, this one mediocre performance seems to be the one change in circumstance from last week. On the inside, though, there may be more than meets the eye. Rumour and innuendo is rife at the moment, but everyone knows that his family are settled in the North, his oldest kid is about to start primary school, and he has been happy to tell people how pleased he was to be staying.

The story that is currently doing the rounds is that Wyness, who normally looks about as likely to get angry as a sheep, let rip at other underperforming players in the dressing room, players that are Brewster's favourites. You can guess who they are - Duncan, McGuire and Hastings spring to mind. These are players who have consistently been poor for this whole run, and before it, but who remain in the team every week when everyone else has been dropped for a time (save goalkeeper Fraser and captain Munro). The plot thickens - it has also been suggested that Graham Bayne, our beanpole forward who lacks quality but certainly doesn't lack heart, supported Wyness' comments about the efforts of other players. Bayne is still under contract for next year, but will he survive these events?

This is not the first time this year it has become clear that a player has fallen out with Brewster. Veteran Barry Wilson, in a testimonial year, made a number of useful impacts off the bench and promptly disappeared from the radar around Christmas time; he is now on loan at St. Johnstone. How we have cried out for his skill and flair recently. Brew also attempted to freeze John Rankin out, then, having recalled him and been rewarded with a string of excellent performances, Brew made it quite clear he was keen to sell. Rankin is now a fixture in big Mixu's Hibs midfield. We have not won a game since Rankin left.

And to cap it all, there are one or two goings on that suggest that Niculae (who has worked harder than most, to be fair) might not be a one-off. The company that subsidise his wages are increasingly influential in the club, and there are fears (not entirely unfounded) that Caley could just become a Romanian version of Hearts.

As I said before, a lot of this is rumour. We might never know what is actually happening in the bowels of the club (to extend the metaphor, though, they are quite clearly full of crap!). But one thing is for sure at the moment. The team itself are playing poor, boring football, and they are losing game after game with an attitude that suggests they couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. This is the first time in my life that going to a Caley game has felt like a chore, and if that's still the case at the end of the season then I'm going to have to question just why I should spend 320 quid to do it again.


Monday, March 17, 2008

United they stand, thanks to Eddie Thompson

If the CIS cup final is anything to go by, there's just no justice in football. Surely, the romantics among you (or at least the ones who aren't huns) were longing for Dundee United to win it for Eddie Thompson. He's had his fair share of critics in the past, not least over the way he has gone through managers - mind you, the more I watch Caley, the more I can see why he had not confidence in the increasingly naive and clueless Brewster - but by all accounts the guy has pumped ridiculous amounts of money into the club. Imagine what Aberdeen might have achieved had Stewart Milne been similarly obsessed.

And to cap it all it sounds like Thompson is living on borrowed time, as his prostate cancer worsens. He's put his affairs in order with plenty of time to spare (take note, Brooks Mileson) and so it looks United will be on a stable footing when his association with the club comes to an end. He's even found a good manager, Craig Levein, and has attempted to tie him to the club long term by sticking him on the board.

So when, at 2-1 United in extra time, the TV camera cut to Thompson, and huge cheers came up from the orange end of the ground (which I assume was the United support, though you can never quite be certain when Rangers are playing), there will not have been a neutral on the planet who was not willing them to hold on.

Unfortunately, Kris Boyd is not a romantic. Why couldn't he have just sulked and pouted, like he usually does when he's a late substitute?

But what that final has done is to emphasise the long term benefits that Thompson's association with Dundee United will bring. He made plenty of mistakes along the way - and freely admits that - but they are now a well run club on and off the field, and there does not appear to be any reason why this should not remain the case for years to come.

The story might not make such good reading without a league cup trophy to go with it, but any guy who makes Morning, Noon and Night a success and chairs Dundee United to a cup final is, quite frankly some sort of freaking genius!


Monday, March 10, 2008

Why bother?

I think you'll all be pleased to hear that I just can't muster the energy to rant about this again. It's all been said by me before, and now echoed all over the country.

Gretna Football Club have achieved two things this season:

1. To embarass Scottish football.
2. To ruin Motherwell's pitch and put the SPL miles behind in terms of postponements.

Congratulations, chaps. Give yourselves a pat on the back for me, eh?


Friday, March 7, 2008

It doesn't get weirder than Werder

Blimey, who'd have thunk it? Werder Bremen, second in the Bundesliga, well known now throughout European football for playing outstanding, open attacking stuff, turn up at Ibrox and look about as dangerous as the MMR vaccine. (For all you non-medical folk out there, trust me, the MMR vaccine is NOT dangerous)

One shot on target in 90 minutes for the visitors, then. Rangers were hardly all-action and free-flowing, but they deserved the luck they got. Note to Tim Wiese - spreading Lurpak on your gloves before a game is not a very good idea. If McCulloch had scored at the end, I'd have said the tie was over already. As it is, Watty's boys go over there next week with a good head start and a single away goal probably kills it. Freaking sweet.

So, in honour of this excellent result, I'm going to eat some humble pie. I unreservedly support all Scottish teams playing in Europe, as because of UEFA co-efficients it's to everybody's benefit that they do well, but being highly complimentary of an Old Firm team does comes about as easily to me as good pop songs come to Scouting For Girls. I feel so dirty about this. Okay, deep breath, here goes.

Firstly, the tactics were outstanding. That was the narrowest five man midfield I have ever seen, but the whole point to it was to complete remove Diego's influence from the game. The guy was crowded faster than the Beatles at an airport. It meant that Cousin was pretty isolated, but he put in a shift and worked hard, and more importantly had support from the excellent Charlie Adam on one side and, incredibly, Kirk Broadfoot on the other.

And seamlessly we move onto our second point. The phrases "Kirk Broadfoot" and "Man of the match" will not be heard often in European circles, but last night the boy was outstanding. He is as graceful as a lemming and has the subtlety of a brick, but he put in an absolutely herculean effort to get up and down the right flank that should be enough to keep Whittaker on the bench for a wee bit longer. Good for him. Alan who?

Thanks to Rangers' efforts last night, currently Scotland's clubs are joint sixth on co-efficients this season, ahead of the likes of France, Ukraine, Holland and Portugal. Not freaking bad. For the UEFA Cup expands in two years and as it stands Scotland gets one more extra team, but if Rangers push on it could be two!

So if Rangers do well, you could see Caley Thistle in Europe! That's right, I'll just keep thinking that, and singing the praises of the Great Unwashed causes slightly less nausea for me...

By the way, how long do you think I'll last before ranting about Gretna-gate? Yeah, I give it till about Sunday...


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Premiership's fourth dimension

So, after the cup nightmare with Barnsley, Liverpool look like they've turned the corner - an impressive Champions' League win against Inter, followed by a convincing defeat of Bolton in the league at a ground where they traditionally struggle. Tonight's game against West Ham is going to be another test, but it's an opportunity for the Reds to show that they have the quality to take control of that golden fourth place.

This concerns me somewhat, as last Friday, under the influence of a few cans of Guinness, I bet a Koppite friend of mine forty quid that Liverpool wouldn't finish in the top four. In the sober daylight, this maybe wasn't the brightest thing I've ever done.

It wasn't a completely off-the-cuff decision, honest. My murky brain did put some thought into it, mostly based on how much Everton and Aston Villa have impressed me recently. Villa continued their solid form by nicking a point at the Emirates in a game which they maybe should have won. They have been boosted by the emergence this season of Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor as dual attacking threats, the maturity of Curtis Davies (who won an England call-up before his achilles went snap on Saturday - ouch, by the way) and the fact that Martin Laursen, almost certainly the best header of a ball in the EPL, has finally managed to stay fit for longer than Jade Goody can stay slim. Villa, with their 4-3-3 tactics, are in a lot of ways the antithesis of Martin O'Neill's direct style at Celtic (though he does still employ a big target man), and have been a joy to watch this season. I'm pleased to see they are in the race.

Meanwhile, later on Sunday avro, after the Pool won at the Reebok, I was pretty impressed as Everton saw off Portsmouth, even with the likes of Arteta absent. This followed a smashing win at Man City last Monday, and Everton's only two defeats in their last eighteen in the league were against Man Utd and Arsenal. I'm not kidding - that is bleeding good form, I tell you.

But both team's challenges depend on different things. Aston Villa's massive achilles heel (incidentally, Davies probably also has a massive achilles heel right now) is their lack of squad depth. Their worst run of form this season coincided with the absence of John Carew. If he breaks down again, Marlon Harewood is the only alternative, and while he is possibly the world's greatest trier on a football pitch (apart from me, obviously), he is not in that class. You lose Young or Agbonlahor, and you hit similar problems, and at the back, the cupboard is threadbare now Davies is out and the sole reserve, Zat Knight, earns a return to the team. If Villa can play their best eleven in every single game left this season, they have a chance. So, in reality, their hopes are similar to those of Caley making the SPL's top six - not on your nelly.

Everton, though, do have a bit of depth, as shown by their ability to cope with the absence of Arteta and Manuel Fernandes. The development of Phil Jagielka into a top centre-back has helped no end, and with Joleon Lescott now capable of playing left-back for England (albeit not that brilliantly on that occasion), Everton have the likes of Anthony Gardner and Leighton Baines on the bench, joined by another international, Andy Johnson. But Sunday's game emphasised that Everton, for all the options they have in other parts of the pitch, are hugely dependant on two players: Tim Cahill, who when not carrying out moronic celebrations remains one of the best goalscoring midfielders around, and Yakubu. I was fed up of the number of times Andy Gray referred to him as "The Yak" - Shaun Goater is the only player ever allowed to be constantly referred to in that sort of way" but it was because he is at the centre of everything good that Everton have been doing right now. He's a manager's dream right now - a striker who can't stop scoring. But it has to happen sooner or later, and if or when the goals dry up, so might Everton's season.

Anyway, I feel both sides deserve a lot of credit - they have each shown you can be defensively organised and still play attractive, open football. Kudos to both. But my common sense tells me that there's one overpowering reason why neither will reach the promised land next season. It's Fernando Torres.


PS As an aside, I'll be doing my own team-by-team previews for Euro 2008 from late May, which will probably appear, in abbreviated form (minus the huge volume of statistics with which I have an unnatural obsession) on this page. Anyone who wants the full wahoonie of info, so that you too can comment eloquently on Greek tactics or Austrian forwards or whatever, just let me know or leave a comment

Friday, February 29, 2008

Respect for refs? How about they earn it?

So Gordon Smith caused a bit of a broo-ha-ha this week by claiming that referees are being unfairly treated. His defence of the men in black (if they wore black suits and sunglasses and shot aliens then I suspect they would just defend themselves!) came on the back of Craig Thomson's decision on Saturday to play on while Motherwell's David Clarkson was down with a head knock, leading to a Hearts goal. Clarkson later got subbed because of the injury. This is the latest in a succession of moans about referees, from St. Mirren's long running feud with Alan Freeland, to Gordon Strachan's touchline ban, to Craig Levein's general moaning about every ref in sight (but especially Dougie MacDonald). Of course, don't forget that there is barely an SPL game that doesn't finish with the referee being booed off the park, nor one in which the number of players mouthing off constantly at decisions is below double figures.

The trouble, I'm afraid, is that in Scotland right now the standard of refereeing is shocking.

There are a handful of them whose names, when read out on the tannoy at Caley Stadium, do not fill me with a sense of dread akin to that produced by the phrase "President George Bush". These include Kenny Clark, Stuart Dougal, and in fact, Thomson. But the others are so bad that you can actually tell how they will referee the game in advance. Calum Murray, for example, won't take out a card for anything in the first 20 minutes, and so you end up with Martin Taylor-esque tackles flying all over the place and a total loss of control. Eddie Smith, meanwhile, is whistle-happy (hence the soft free kick that Celtic got for the winner at Love Street last Saturday), will level up the penalties if he gives a soft one, and will bottle any major penalty or red card decision late in the game. Alan Freeland is the exception to the rule. Goodness knows what match he's watching, but it's never the one he's refereeing. It's like he's on a different universe, or that his brain is actually displaying pictures picked up from that Polish satellite broadcasting EPL games on Saturdays that can't legally be shown here.

Honestly, I'm not claiming they're crooked (not like the guy who sits beside me at Caley, who yells "Central belt bias" at every game, even after our slightly fortunate win over Celtic in December). Over the course of the season, I do believe that mistakes tend to mostly even out. But even if that is the case, it's not good enough; it's like saying "We accidentally charged you too much tax last month and too little this month, but you've ended up with the same anyway". But on the pitch, one dodgy penalty can turn 1pt into 3, while on another day it can turn 0pts into 1, and vice versa.

Am I being too harsh? Probably. I suppose the dozens of TV cameras at football matches (well, two - this is Setanta, after all) glaringly highlight all refereeing mistakes. But there are two things that are quite reasonably demanded by footballers, managers and fans - consistency and control. And how often do we get them? It's about as common as seeing Halley's Comet, or so it feels.

The answer? Well, they're only human, and all that. But there are refs out there like Pierluigi Collina, and now, in England, Howard Webb, who do make mistakes (and occasionally high-profile ones), yet escape almost any criticism. Why? Because they were always consistent with decisions, and they always had control of the games they were in charge of. So boys, how about giving all two footed challenges either a straight red or just a ticking off, rather than mixing and matching? And for the love of goodness, if a player appeals for a penalty and you think he hasn't been fouled, and the defender hasn't touched the ball, then it's b***** simulation and book him, for the love of criminy...