Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome to the new season, same as the old season

Why on earth did I look forward to the start of the new season with mouth-watering anticipation? Jeez, I'm an educated man, I really should know better by now. It's not even the end of July, and the optimism has been swept away by the endless tides of complete drivel that have carried over from early in the year. Same old, same old.

The quality of lower league domestic football hasn't changed, as demonstrated by the opening ICT game of the season, the home Alba Cup tie with Montrose. The third division seems about at the standard I last recall from a couple of years ago, if it's anything to judge by the visitors' style of play; this can be summed up by one word, "hoof!". Unfortunately Mo showed how much organized, fit teams can achieve in the modern game, as Caley appeared to have 110% possession, yet managed only a handful of clear cut chances and just a single goal (an own goal, just to add to the embarassment), and looked as dangerous in attack as an empty apple juice carton. And to cap it all, Mo grabbed a goal out of nothing late on, when our centre halves suddenly avoided the ball like it was infected with swine flu, and we had to sit through another half hour of mindless tedium. And penalties, which we at least won. It was, in conclusion, and utterly hopeless and entirely accurate advert for the Scottish lower leagues.

Caley have Annan Athletic at home in the league cup on Saturday. I miss it because of work. I can't say with total honesty that I'm devastated about it.

And of course, don't forget the annual Scottish European farce, which was for some reason postponed two seasons back, allowing the Old Firm and Aberdeen long European runs. Don't worry, boys and girls. we look certain to revert to type once more this season. Congratulations to Falkirk, whose loss to a Liechtenstein team surely, once and for all, counts as the most humiliating European exit ever by a Scottish team. Joy. At least being knocked out (probably) by Dinamo Moscow is a step up in class from previous vanquishers of the Old Firm in the Champions' League, such as the footballing powerhouses of Kaunas and Artmedia Bratislava. But if anyone at Celtic really thought that Marc-Antoine Fortune was a Champions' League type striker, those thoughts have been well and truly euthanased.

The optimists amongst you will say "things can only get better". But what, dear readers, if the English Premier League becomes dull. Then what will we do? What will be the point of going on?


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: discuss

Does anybody in the world actually know, with certainty, how good or bad Zlatan Ibrahimovic, set to become the fulcrum of the mighty Barcelona attack, actually is? He polarises opinion more than a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Certainly there will have been a few million eyebrows raised by the news that Barca have decided to trade in the tried and tested, but increasingly tetchy and disruptive, Samuel Eto'o for big Ibra. And have thrown a cool 35 million euros into the bargain. When you consider that Man City were willing to pay 25mil for the Cameroon striker, who came second in the European Golden Boot standings last season, and whose goals per game ratio is staggering for a striker in Europe's top leagues, that is a lot of lolly to throw at the Swede with a not-very-Swedish name.

In Italy, and particularly at Internazionale, they seemed to think Zlatan was a bit of a god. Certainly, in style, he appears to be the dream centre forward; 6ft 3in, built like a tank and powerful in the air, yet with outstanding feet, blistering pace, and an ability to glide past defences. 52 league goals in 3 seasons at the San Siro is pretty solid considering Serie A appears to have an allergy to attacking play these days.

But mention his name in a conversation about the world's top players, and you get met with more contempt than if you had been caught in bed with Susan Boyle.

Admittedly, we don't see him week in, week out, since Gazzetta Football Italia is long dead, but when recalling his appearances in the Champions' League and in a Sweden shirt, good performances seem thin on the ground indeed. I can't remember which World Cup it was (maybe 2006?) but Martin O'Neill, punditing for the BBC, slaughtered him for being lazy, and called him "the most over-rated player in the world". Not that many would disagree, I think. Just like Dimitar Berbatov, the words "languid" and "lackadaisical" quickly attach to Ibra like a limpet.

It's not exactly easy to see exactly how he will fit into a Blaugrana attack based on pace and speed either; while he definitely has these qualities, we too often see him getting the ball with his back to goal, slowing down the play. Can we really expect to see him drifting wide a la his predecessor, leaving space for Henry and Messi to drive inside?

I'm a big fan of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and I think Josep Guardiola should have been as well. For all his faults, Eto'o is pretty damn lethal, and if you think, at 28, he might be past his best, Ibra is a grand total of 7 months younger.

Hmm. We shall see.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Galacticos, same old story

Hmm, it turns out that Manchester City really could sign Adebayor and Terry after all. And it's not in Football Manager 2009 when both players are 40, much crapper and "want a new challenge". It's right here, right now.

Okay, it would take a brave person to rank those two, plus Tevez, Santa Cruz and Robinho, with the proper galacticos at Real Madrid. But after the farce of Man City's January move for Kaka', it is a pleasant surprise to know that, unlike the Weapons of Mass Destruction dossier, this wasn't just taking the piss.

And, of course, we all know how well the original Galactico Project went. Florentino Perez often repeats his claims about the merchandising income and so on. But on the pitch it was about as successful as my attempts to chat up a (very drunk) French teacher the other week. Casanova I was not. And glorious Real Madrid were not. From Zidane's heaven-blessed volley in the 2002 Champions' League final to his departure in 2006, Real won the grand total of one La Liga title - in 2003 - and f. all else. And it did not require a masters degree in rocket science to see why.

Anyone who saw the Zidane-Beckham-etc Real Madrid at their best would testament to their brilliance; I recall one 4-1 win over Valencia in about 2003 which could have been set to music, where Zizou scored two and Real were so dominant that they were showboating when it was only 2-1. But two elements contrived to stop them sweeping all before them. One was a defence which was utterly, utterly crap, not least because of the lack of any defensive midfielders to protect them. It's now well documented that the decline of that team began when Claude Makelele left for Chelsea. So when you have a centre back pairing of Ivan Helguera (who was world class in 2001 and suddenly not world class at all after that) and some random guy from the youth set up - except on the rare occasions when Jonathan Woodgate was fit - which is protected by a centre midfield duo of David Beckham and Guti, you are more vulnerable than a 5ft 4in man weighing 7 stone who has just dropped the soap in a prison shower block.

The other one was the complete lack of grit when the going got tough. The infamous 2005 clasico comes to mind here, where Ronaldinho reached his peak with two glorious goals at the Bernabeu in a 3-0 win, and where the Madridistas gave him an ovation after the second, and there was stunned silence in the Butchers Arms pub in Aberdeen before everyone looked at each other and muttered "he can't have just done that again, can he?!" But Barca destroyed Madrid that day because the stars (with the exception of Beckham, a man who can never be faulted for his work rate) simply wouldn't get stuck in. The stars just didn't have the motivation to do the dirty work in the difficult times. Yet we can recall the heroics of Zidane and Ronaldo at consecutive world cups, previous seasons when Roberto Carlos was inexorable, when Figo tied Europe's greatest full backs in knots, Raul when he was probably the best striker in the world. But in that Real Madrid team, these players never even got close to these heights.

And don't forget just how good Iker Casillas is. It's not unreasonable to think that his brilliance in goal has hidden just how dodgy that Real Madrid team was.

So, anyway, Real are at it again - stockpiling world class attackers with Kaka', Ronaldo and Benzema joining the likes of Robben, Van Nistelrooy and Huntelaar. And Man City are doing the same; how do you fit Santa Cruz, Adebayor, Tevez, Robinho and Bellamy all into your team? And while Real have bought a solid centre back in Raul Albiol, and City want John Terry, well, that Real team had Helguera, whom many ranked up with the best, and in reality he was just rank.

As I have said repeatedly, the 2009 Barcelona Dream Team had a bunch of hungry young players who hadn't achieved anything much, plus a good solid defence. That is the model to follow. The Mark I Galacticos failed miserably on the pitch. Expect the Mark II Galacticos, and their Eastlands equivalent, to follow suit.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Youth failings costing Old Firm

So the biggest transfer dealings of the summer in Scotland appear to involve Hearts and Hibs – Steven Fletcher’s £3m move to Burnley from Easter Road and the potential £4m move in the same direction for Hearts winger Andrew Driver. Considering that, between them, the two Edinburgh clubs appear to carry more debt than most third world countries, the income, added to that received in recent seasons by Hearts for Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra and by Hibs for Tony Mowbray’s “golden generation” – O’Connor, Riordan, Thomson, Brown, Whittaker et al – is pretty crucial. And all these players were academy products, so no transfer fee was ever spent on them. Lots and lots of profit then, enough to make Alastair Darling raise his silly eyebrows with glee.

Now, there’s Alan Hutton, who was crap for years and years, then for six months magically transformed into a world class right back so Spurs paid Rangers £9m for him, and since then has been injured more often than Jonny Wilkinson. Apart from him, who have either Rangers or Celtic managed to develop and sell for decent money?

It’s increasingly clear that there are only a few ways to raise a quality team if you do not play in one of the big leagues – sign lots of young foreign players on the cheap and sell them later (difficult in Scotland because of the work permit system) and develop your own players and sell some of them for good money later. Considering how much cash the Old Firm have supposedly spent on facilities for youth and training – did Murray Park not cost £10m? – the lack of output is staggering. Fine, in the 90s, a lot of damage was done with the buying of foreign players, but these were top guys, internationals. No wonder no-one except Barry Ferguson broke through (no, Charlie Miller and his pot belly doesn’t count). Now Rangers have Allan McGregor and Celtic have Aiden McGeady and Stephen McManus. But, realistically, they now need to be selling a top young guy for £5-10m every summer, or at least every second summer, in order to compete.

Now, I know they say that Edinburgh is distinctly classier than Glasgow, but how come Hibs and Hearts could pick up and develop the players listed above, while to the West the best they can come up with are the likes of Mark Burchill and Chris Burke?

Now the hopes of Rangers fans are all pinned on John Fleck as the next big thing. Will he go the way of Hutton, or of Burke, Bob Malcolm, Barry Nicholson and others? From past experience I know who I would put my money on.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Owen deal sign of lack of transfer excitement

My best mate must have been delighted yesterday when I arrived from the bar (having had only one lager, honest) for the lineup at his wedding and greeted him with the immortal words "Congratulations on your special day, but a few of us were chatting and decided that this is only the third most important thing happening today, after Andy Murray's match and Michael Owen signing for Man Utd".

I like to think he understood. Only time and the number of dinner invites I get from the happily wedded couple will tell.

It's a sign of just how little transfer activity is happening that the Michael Owen deal is such a big story. There's too little going on to call it a transfer market. It's more like a stall on its own, one of those cappuccino ones in town squares that sells a few coffees now and then, but isn't making much money because everyone goes to the Starbucks beside it.

La Liga is Starbucks. They're getting all the fun. Kaka', Ronaldo, Benzema, Raul Albiol - all right, the last one isn't glamorous, but he cost Real Madrid 10mil and is a flipping good centre back, by the way. Meanwhile, David Villa looks likely to end up at Real or Barca, and the last good player who appears to be available just now, Franck Ribery, looks about as enthralled by the idea of England as Barack Obama is by the idea of the Ku Klux Klan.

So in England we've seen the HUMONGOUS deals for WORLD CLASS players, such as Glen Johnson, Gareth Barry and Luis Antonio Valencia. Does the sarcasm come across well enough in writing? That said, in Scotland we have had...drum roll please...Dundee spending 150k and 125k on Gary Harkins and Leigh Griffiths. As far as I can tell, these are the biggest transfer fees North of the border so far this summer. Talk about a credit crunch.

The more worrying trend in the SPL has been the further haemorrhaging of players to clubs in the Championship - cheerio to Scott Severin, Paul Hartley, and, um, pretty much all the Motherwell squad. Okay, I exaggerate a touch - David Clarkson, Paul Quinn, Graeme Smith and Maros Klimpl appear to be legging it south, but no wonder they lost to Llanelli, they had to go down to the local boozer (sorry, boozers plural, after all it's Motherwell) and dragged the least obese blokes they could find away from the bar and told them to form a solid midfield quartet. I bet the set pieces were a bit hopeless.

Anyway, the trend in Scotland so far seems to be that the Old Firm are no stronger, but everyone else is weaker. Great. No wonder we can't get a decent TV deal. Still, a few weeks to go, we'll see.