Thursday, January 31, 2008

Catch Ronaldo if you can

So, did you see that Cristiano Ronaldo free kick against Portsmouth last night? You know, the one which he absolutely wellied with the outside of his right foot? The one that flew like a Patriot missile into the top left hand corner of the net, while David James barely had time to turn his head, let alone try and save it? If he had started 2 or 3 metres further across goal, James still wouldn't have stopped that. My reaction was something along the lines of a wide grin, a shake of the head, and a shout of "f*** off" at the TV. I bet I wasn't the only one.

This is the same Cristiano Ronaldo who has now scored, I believe, 19 goals in 20 games in the Premiership, plus a glut in other competitions. This boy is the top scorer in the Premier League, with a strike rate that the world's best strikers would dream of, yet he's playing on the wing.

It seems that, since missing out to Kaka' for all the major world player of the year accolades, Ronaldo has somehow found another gear, a way to push on from his performances last year, which were already pretty scintillating. At the moment he's playing the best football of his career so far, football that any player would dream of.

And he's only 22. He's younger than I am now. Jeez...

It has to be said that, in late 2005, I had similar feelings about Ronaldinho, who had playing blinders week after week after week. At that time I couldn't remember anyone else I had seen who I took as much joy from watching. I still watch Barca play now, in futile hope that he's lost the weight and that he can destroy defenders again. But now Ronaldo fills that hole, and long may it continue. Fate may yet claim him in the same way as the buck-toothed Brazilian, whether it be through ego or injury or whatever, but imagine, whatever your feelings for Manchester United, that the Portuguese maestro continued to play at this level for, what, six or seven years more?

Previous generations had Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Di Stefano. Some would put Zidane in that bracket, I guess, but not me. Ronaldo, however, has everything - pace, skill, trickery, aerial power, two good feet and ice in his veins. Who here would really begrudge him a place in the upper echelons, if he continued to give such wonderful entertainment for years to come?

Long may it continue, that's what I say, if he's gonna keep scoring goals like that.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

The SPL - the Stingy, Poorer League

This week, for my sins, I've seen three games and five SPL teams in action - the aforementioned Caley - Rangers, then Aberdeen's home win over Falkirk in the cup and defeat to Hearts in the league. The signs from these games are generally good - over the last season or two, the Old Firm, despite their increasing success on the European stage, find almost all their away games to be a bit of a test, and are even finding it hard to break down teams at home (notwithstanding Rangers gubbing St. Midden - sorry, freudian slip there - today). The 'tic have dropped points at home to Killie, the Saints and Hibs this year, and lost at Easter Road and in the Highlands. Of their league games this season, only half have seen them win by more than the odd goal. It's about the same proportion for Rangers as well.

Now compare that to the late nineties and early noughties. It's not hard to remember Celtic doing Aberdeen 7-0 at Parkhead (and wasn't that with John Barnes in charge as well?), or that legendary French striker Stephane Guivarc'h firing Rangers to an 8-0 t***ting of St. Johnstone in Perth (he was possibly the worst ever player to start in a World Cup Final, and his team still won). The days where the SPL's top two could reach goal differences of +80 are thankfully behind us, at least for the time being. Some might argue that the others are "parking the team bus in front of the goal" (thanks to Mr. Jose Mourinho for that one), but events at Caley last Sunday, when instead the Great Unwashed (if you'd walked past the away supporters at the game, you'd realise that this is probably true) played 4-5-1 and stuck 10 behind the ball as well in the first half, suggest that it's because there is less to choose between the sides in this league, at least when the big guns are on their travels.

This season has also seen a bit of a power shift between the rest of the sides. While nobody quite has the consistency or the resources to split Rangers and Celtic, instead we've seen a rather more competitive challenge for the top six, partly because of Hibs' inconsistency and Kilmarnock's injury problems, but mostly because Hearts have displayed a bizarre intent to self-destruct at every conceivable opportunity. Add to that the fact that Dundee Utd have showed their chairman what can happen if you give a manager a bit of time, and Motherwell have showed everyone else what can happen if you manage to get hold of a decent manager, while Falkirk and ICT continue to insist on punching above their weight. So the middle of the table is like a traffic jam, with about seven teams close to each other, and each of these sides has the potential to ram a nail in the coffin for somebody's title chances (probably Celtic's, going by recent form). It's all good, I think.

The trouble is, this situation may not last much longer, going by this transfer window. Those with nothing better to do will have noted that Aberdeen have sold Chris Clark, the midfielder, to Plymouth for 200 grand. What with Clark being a fairly mediocre midfield player who also had only a few months left on his contract, it sounds like Argyle really got screwed there! But with another Don, Michael Hart, about to move to Preston, and with increasing speculation that Barry Robson will sign for Burnley, this is a worrying precedent. There is a lot more cash to be had playing for an English Championship side, taking on the likes of West Brom and Scunthorpe Utd, than playing in Scotland's top division, even if your team are playing in Europe. I expect that, come the summer, there may be a lot of decent SPL players who take the opportunity to make much, much more cash in exchange for a move South. It's sad but even the generous TV deal from Setanta (obviously it comes out of the budget for their coverage) isn't going to reverse this.

Is it fair for me to use the word "stingy"? Probably not, but the Aberdeen situation is a curious one. This is a side who have made well over a million from their astounding UEFA Cup run. They didn't fork out big cash in the summer for anyone either, and there are no longer big stars milking off the cash, and that big fat Russell Anderson transfer fee must be lying in the bank getting interest. So what's the deal? Players like Clark are ten a penny, but Hart is one of the league's better right backs, and will be hard to replace. So next season the race for top six may be close, but the Old Firm's dominance could head back towards where it was seven or eight years back.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rangers pass Inverness test - but only just

Absolutely gutted from a Caley point of view, as we succumbed to Darcheville's late winner for a distinctly underwhelming Rangers side. However, as pointed out to me by a close friend (also a total Bluenose), these are the sort of performances that win titles. Inverness is generally a flipping difficult place to come, and another day the frustration could have got to the megastars n the away team, but they kept their heads and managed to grind out the three points, so credit to them, I suppose.

Over the last couple of seasons, it's been games like this that, under McLeish and Le Guen, were Rangers' undoing. Celtic, in contrast, are well-versed in nicking wins where they don't deserve it (Kilmarnock yesterday is a case in point). So does this mean the Gers are going to win the title?


There's still a very long way to go, and Walter Smith still faces a potential fixture crisis. I still maintain that Celtic will improve as well, though over the last two months I have extremely little evidence to support this view! But today was impressive, if not from a performance point of view then for attitude, and for solidity. These are the attributes that get you those breaks that you need in a close title race. Thus for the first time I now think Rangers are in pole position to win the league.

Besides, as I found out to my disappointment today, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good...


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blast from the past for the Looney Toons

Kevin Keegan is the new manager of Newcastle United, replacing Sam Allardyce.

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha!

Sorry, I'm going to make a serious comment about this. In a minute.

Ha ha ha ha ha!

(Wipes a tear of joy from his eye)

Oh, this must be the worst idea since Rudy Giuliani's "multi-state" strategy for the Republican primaries. I know we all remember that wonderful season where Newcastle played 4-2-4, with Shearer, Ferdinand, Ginola and Gillespie, played reckless attacking football and then blew the title by signing Tino Asprilla. Therefore, basically Keegan is the reason for all the problems that his successors have had - Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, and of course Allardyce himself. Well, apart from the fact that the others, Robson apart, were pretty inept, of course.

And, of course, it all went pear for Newcastle that season. And then the pressure got to big Kev and he quit. And that was when Newcastle were still doing pretty well. Then he managed to take Fulham up the divisions, which my grandmother would have managed with the resources thrown out him by Mr. Fayed. And then onto England. Oh dear.

I believe that it was David Mellor who said of Keegan as England manager - "He thinks tactics are a sort of mint" (or something to that effect). Stats show him to have had a lower percentage of victories than any other England boss. And, lets face it, that is no surprise if you recall the performances. Who north of the border can forget the second leg of the Euro 2000 playoff, where Kev did his best to blow a 2-0 advantage at Wembley by playing Gareth Southgate in midfield and Sol Campbell at right back, where the latter was utterly destroyed by that well known wing wizard Neil McCann, and where England were dragged through by David Seaman and Paul Scholes?

Oh, and of course, when the pressure became a bit much, he left. Recurring theme?

And then, most recently, Manchester City. When Stuart Pearce replaces you and improves things, it's a sad reflection on you, mate. Given more cash than any other City boss, he splashed 13mil on Nicolas Anelka when a time when the Frenchman was more surley than Alex Ferguson in a BBC interview. Oops. Then another 6mil on Robbie Fowler. And 5mil on that outstanding Premiership class striker Jonathan Macken. And 3.5mil on the Argentinian striker Matias Vuoso. It has to be said that he also brought in mainstays like Sylvain Distin and David James, but I honestly can't find anyone else among the gazillion signings he made who wasn't rather a waste of money. Still, this is something that Newcastle fans are used to.

So congratulations, Mike Ashley. At a time when your squad consists of a bunch of egos who haven't put in a proper 90 minutes work in months, you have decided that what they need, rather than discipline and a kick up the ass, is a ra-ra man whose most intelligent words to the press ever remain "I'd love it if we beat them, love it!"

And Kev, you thought you were under pressure the last time you managed at St. James' Park? Just give it a couple of months...


Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh, Fernando!

600 miles of driving in one day (all right, I only drove half of them), and forty-eight hours later I'm still knackered. And I'm writing a second article in a row about Liverpool. Admittedly, this is because my Saturday adventure was to the Riverside Stadium (where the hell is the river, by the way?) where the Reds played - er - the other Reds. Only the away Reds were wearing white, and for the first hour the Reds played like the other Reds.

Keeping up?

My views on the boy Rafa were given a huge jolt of support by the fact that, for the first hour, he was out-thought by that well-known tactical genius, (and the only vaguely prominent sportsman who still has a mullet) Gareth Southgate. Basically, the constant absence of Jonathan Woodgate, who's probably getting pressure sores from the amount of time he spends on the treatment table, means that Boro have to play two huge centre-backs, Huth (cue the home fans' wonderful barotone chant of HUUUUUUUUUTTTTTTTTTHHHHHHHHH! every time he wellied the ball up the pitch, which was often) and Wheater. Both, unfortunately have the turning circles of a bus. But Boro's forwards stopped Liverpool playing out of defence, so the ball got punted up the pitch, and guess what? The giant defenders won it, and Boro had the ball.

Rafa didn't help himself by a) playing a full back, Riise, on the left wing; b) playing a central midfielder, Benayoun, on the right wing against a rookie full-back, and not getting him to take him on once; and c) playing Voronin, who, in addition, to wearing the least suitable ponytail since the guy out of Status Quo, was pretty hopeless. Everything wrong about Liverpool's rotation policy was made plain by my Liverpool-supporting mate, who when asked who he thought would play, confidently announced, "Voronin, because he hasn't played for a few games". Then Gerrard came deeper in a desperate attempt to get a reminder of what the ball looked like, and, Hey Presto, Liverpool were pushed back in midfield as well.

After an hour of being outclassed (if Downing's shot had gone in off the post, instead of out, game over), Liverpool finally chucked Alonso on in midfield for Benayoun. Having already brought Babel into action, Liverpool finally had some width, and with some midfield protection Stevie G had licence to roam. Then Fernando Torres got the ball into feet for about the first time all day, turned and WHAM! Being in the home end, me and my mates had to mutter through clenched teeth: "that was a b***** good goal, wasn't it?" After that, it was a siege,but Boro held on for a point.

You see, I was not Mr. Torres' biggest fan a few months ago. His goalscoring record for Atletico Madrid was mediocre (possibly because they were gash) and twenty million quid seemed quite a lot of money compared to Thierry Henry's fee (but maybe not Darren Bent's!)

But I am wholly convinced now; the boy is quality with a capital Q. Maybe a capital U as well. He has got the Pool out of a hole time and time again this season with his clinical finishing, and throughout the Premier League this year centre-halves have been messing the inside of their shorts when he gets the ball at his feet and runs at them at a very fast speed. His touch and movement are sublime as well. If only he'd get rid of that daft hairband. It wasn't cool when my sister wore one at age seven and it isn't cool now, Fernando.

So anyway, if or when his fellow countryman runs out of form, Rafa is going to be in a lot of trouble. Meanwhile, Boro are too good to go down - any side who can get a result with Aliadiere in their team will do okay. I still say Fulham, and Birmingham City, to join Derby County, who are, to quote Baldrick, "as dead as some doo-doos".

Anyway, it was well worth the journey, and it's the first time I've ever found myself swallowed up underneath a giant flag before kickoff. Sweet.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Better boot Benitez, boys...

Apparently Rafa Benitez thinks he's going to get sacked by Liverpool's American owners. Funny, that. Last year, Liverpool finished third in the Premiership. So in the summer, the billionaires gave him more money to fork out on new signings than any other manager in, well, the world in fact. 49 million quid later, they are fifth. They scraped through to the last 16 of the Champions League, and then somehow managed to struggle to a 1-1 draw with the mighty denizens of League One, the practically destitute Luton Town.

Now, Rafa, why on earth do you think they might want to replace you with, say, someone who won't blow their money and who might actually achieve something? Yes, I know you won a Champions' League final (when Milan somehow blew a 3-0 lead, of course) and reached another (where Milan managed to not blow a lead this time), and even won an FA Cup, but at domestic level, Rafa's record is 5th, 3rd, 3rd. Not only that, but all Liverpool's achievements under Benitez, I think, can be summed up pretty fairly in two words: Steven Gerrard.

So look at the decent signings Benitez has made as Liverpool manager, the really good ones that have consistently played well when required - Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano (on loan), Yossi Benayoun.

And the dodgy ones? Well, let's start with Mark Gonzalez, Mohamed Sissoko, Craig Bellamy, Gabriel Paletta, Josemi, Jan Kromkamp, Mauricio Pellegrino, Fabio Aurelio and Fernando Morientes. These guys were/are more disappointing than the feeling you get when you discover your wife's not only cheating on you, but she's cheating on you with a female hippopotamus. Then you have the ones who have coped, but have barely lived up to the price tag - Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger (mainly as he's constantly injured), Jermaine Pennant. And, of course, while you're chucking the money away, how about blowing some on a centre-half who can cover 100m in less than half an hour, and therefore is less exposed than Sami Hyppia? No, Rafa replies, Liverpool would be much better off buying yet another attacking midfield player to then sit on the bench for two-thirds of the season.

Ultimately, though, there is an indefensible reason for chucking Rafa - results. Liverpool simply haven't performed in the big domestic games. Or, quite often, the small games. And in a few of the middle games as well. This may or may not be because, while in the Champs' League Benitez appears to have the footballing equivalent of Einstein's brain, in the Premiership this is suddenly replaced by tactical nous usually associated with things that live in the deepest, darkest oceans. You know, the sort of things that glow in the dark. See the idea of playing one up front against a Wigan side that are about as effective defensively as the Maginot Line? What the...?! And isn't it weird how, as soon as a player seems to play well, he gets "rested"? Peter Crouch must be the only player ever to score a hat trick, then get dropped.

Let's face it, if Gerrard had skedaddled to Chelsea, as he would have if the Istanbul miracle hadn't occurred, Liverpool would have struggled dramatically and Rafa would have been back in La Liga long ago. The idea that he claims he isn't backed enough by his boardroom is laughable. Stand up, Liverpool, and get back on the road to success by chucking this has-bean.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Will the fixture pile-up decide title?

If footballers thought the Christmas period was hectic, just look at what the Old Firm have in store for them for the rest of the season!

Celtic may yet see their league cup defeat by Hearts as a blessing; they are now competing on three fronts (compared to four for Rangers) and have no realistic hope of getting past Barcelona in the Champs' League last sixteen. Before the split in early April, the Ibrox side have 14 league games, at least 2 Scottish Cup matches (let's face it, East Stirling at home might be the biggest gimme in the footballing world), at least 2 UEFA Cup matches and a League Cup semi-final - that's a minimum of 19 games in 88 days, starting with St. Mirren away on Tuesday night. In short, Rangers will have at most 3 midweeks free between now and 5th April. If they advance further in the UEFA Cup, and/or reach the League Cup final, that's a heck of a lot of matches over a not terribly long period of time. isn't it?

But it won't be easy for Celtic either; they still have to rearrange a fixture with Motherwell, along with the new year Old Firm game, and a Scottish Cup run will need games rearranged, too. And they all need to be played before the split - just another in a catalogue of reasons why it is a stupid idea.

One interesting note this season, though, has been how both the big two have struggled at times against some of the less, shall we say, cultured sides in the league when they've tried to rest players. It's a long, long, long shot, but a draw in the Old Firm game, a couple of defeats each brought on by tiredness and a Motherwell side inspired by the late Phil O'Donnell? Chaps, it's by no means a two horse race yet. Not for another couple of weeks, anyway...