Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Special Ones, Arsenal on the charge, and more

As with my last post, it's more about wee thoughts at the moment than big ones. So here we go...

Which Special One do Manchester United go for?

Any doubts over who should replace Sir Alex Ferguson when the old bugger finally fossilizes should have been dispelled at last at Stamford Bridge last week - for Jose Mourinho once more proved that he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. He may talk a lot of rubbish...entertaining rubbish, mind you...but Mr. Special One is also, along with Guus Hiddink, one of the most astute tactical managers out there. Who else would play three strikers, plus Wesley Sneijder, in an away game against Chelsea? But Jose gambled it would stop Chelsea's full-backs getting forward, and left them more narrow than the gap between my buttocks. He might just have shown the world how to defeat the diamond midfield. If Manchester United are to continue their incredible era of success, he is the man.

Or so it seemed till 48 hours later, when Fulham gubbed Juventus. Yes, I know Juve are hardly the team of the old days, when Zidane was playing for them, but you expected the football universe to implode with shock.

That's harsh though, particularly because Fulham have come on leaps and bounds in the last 2 years. Thanks to Roy Hodgson. The Cottagers were destined for relegation when he arrived; now they are Europa League quarter-finalists. Another man who knows that tactics are not a sort of mint, Hodgson has managed to get consistency and quality from guys like Danny Murphy, Paul Konchesky and Damien Duff, who seemed washed-up and past their best when they arrived. He has made some great signings, like Brede Hangeland and Mark Schwarzer, without breaking the bank. And, most incredibly, he has made Bobby Zamora good. Jesus might have been able to turn water into wine, but do you really think He could have turned Zamora into a goalscorer?

Hodgson might not be a candidate for Old Trafford, possibly because he is not a fashionable name, but also possibly because he could be Capello's successor in the England hotseat. If Mourinho is The Special One, then Hodgson is the special one, understated, quiet, but increasingly appreciated.

How on earth do you lose to nine men?

The League Cup Final certainly didn't go to script. St. Mirren were supposed to be the plucky underdogs who would put up a determined fight, only to crumble to a second half goal, inevitably scored by Kris Boyd. Isn't that how it always happened?

Ironically, the Buddies were a better team when it was eleven v eleven, and didn't seem to know what to do against nine. It was as if their Christmas had come early, but they had forgotten the presents, and were so embarrassed they went to pieces.

I'm sorry, but it's not hard. You keep your two wide midfielders on the touchline and stretch it as much as possible. Then you stick it in the box as much as possible. Instead of telling his players to do this, Gus McPherson's tactical instructions seemed to be "you are two men up, so now piddle yourselves with fear". I don't care if it's Rangers, St. Mirren have blown the most golden opportunity and their players will regret it for ever and ever. With the club's league form already halfway down the toilet, this sort of bodyblow might send them over the edge; eleventh at the time of writing, I will not be overly surprised if St. Mirren and their anti-football (not as anti- as Hamilton's, but pretty anti-) end up relegated, and Gus ends up in the job centre.

Talking of job centres...

Jocky Scott will be heading for one on Monday morning. As soon as I heard of Dundee's hammering to Airdrie United, I thought it was likely that the trigger might be pulled on him. On the outside, sacking him whilst top of the league seems bizarre, but Dundee have completely cracked and have a tough run-in, plus there is no team spirit left at Dens Park. If he had stayed, one of the other teams would have been promoted.

That said, his replacement seems set to be Ian McCall, who has not eactly achieved wonders at Partick this season. So Inverness, Ross County and Dunfermline (who have slipped, almost unnoticed, into this title race) will still be licking their chops at the prospect of a very close finish.

Arsenal grinding their way towards the title

Arsenal aren't supposed to have backbone.

If one of their players gets badly injured, everyone's supposed to lose their heads, and a couple of points with it. They aren't supposed to come up with two late goals and the win.

If it's 1-1 at Hull City in injury time during a must-win match at the end of the season, they are supposed to run out of imagination and toil to a draw. They aren't supposed to find a late winner.

And when they have a man sent off at half-time at home whilst one up, they are supposed to end up drawing or losing. They aren't supposed to keep out the resulting penalty, or go on to win with ease.

There's still plenty of time left in the title race in England, but Arsenal have the easier run in, and seem to be weathering their injury problems. Man Utd and Chelsea still have to play each other, and I think Chelsea still have away games at Liverpool and Tottenham too. Could this be the year they finally manage it?

Nah. I've probably just jinxed them by suggesting it.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Some musings - though not many

My dear reader (is "readers" me being optimistic?), my sincere apologies for my absence over the last fortnight. Work has been flipping mental, basically. Besides, it's not really as if much has happened to talk about.

For one thing, the SPL title race is absolutely, completely, utterly, totally over. Actually, it was probably done and dusted before the last Old Firm game, which summed up both sides of the Old Firm this season; Celtic unable to get decent performances out of their big name players when it matters, and unable to avoid conceding crucial late goals, whilst Rangers lack the creativity to break down good teams (see their Champions League campaign for example), but their stout defence, though not good enough for the big stage (again, think Champs League) can keep out other Scottish sides until the Huns nick a goal from somewhere. Why do you think Kyle Crapperty - sorry, Lafferty - is in the team so often? Because he offers a physical presence at set plays, both offensively and defensively. And so, with very little ceremony and panache (but easily enough quality), Walter Smith not only has one hand on the title, but four fingers of the other hand too.

What else is new? Well, Craig Brown has managed to make Motherwell harder to crack than bullet-proof glass covered in six inches of concrete. Not surprising, to be honest. Brown is the man who turned a back three of Colin Hendry, Colin Calderwood and Tom Boyd into one of the best international defences in Europe in the 1990s. Brown's Scotland side were never great on the eye, but you just knew that in games against the likes of Finland, we would be pretty mediocre, huff and puff a bit, but we'd still win, usually with a goal from Scott Booth (or so it seems).

Oh, and the SPL Expansion debate has reared it's head again. I think I blogged on this at least a year ago, drawing considerable ire from a Montrose-supporting friend for suggesting that having four senior teams in Angus was about as clever as sticking a hamster in the microwave. Back then, though, the other SPL teams were still selling out for visits of the Gruesome Twosome. Not any more - Pittodrie, for example, seems to see only 14000 for a Celtic game these days. So the extra match against the Old Firm is no longer the money spinner it was.

Besides, I remember an Aberdeen-Livingston game in 2002 when the two sides were battling for third in the league (I'm not kidding...they really were. How things change) and there were 19000 in the ground. Just look at the attendances Hearts and Hibs can manage when they are winning games. You might say an Aberdeen-Ross County league game wouldn't draw much interest, but I think fans are quite up for seeing their side win 3-0 or 4-0 - generally that constitutes a good day out!

As Graham Spiers pointed out in The Times last week, though, 18 teams is too much. 16 seems about right - play each other twice, then have a split with seven more games for each side. Yes, I know a split is bloody annoying, but 18 teams has the potential for, a season or two down the line, Celtic playing Alloa Athletic. And even I think that is daft. But regionalizing the league cup, as I have suggested before, is a great answer - having group stages with local derbies. Mix up the central belt sides paired with the Old Firm each year so the wealth gets spread too. The only downside would be persuading some unlucky beggars to come North to join a group with Inverness, Ross County and Elgin. But it is do-able, especially if it gets done at the start of the season.

And that's about it, really. Some of us are still keeping an eye on the first division table, as Dundee continue to make heavy weather of a league which they should be walking over, but since no-one seems capable of putting a run together to challenge them, they should still be in the SPL next season. Lets hope a reconstruction means ICT aren't far behind them...