Monday, June 28, 2010

Few Scottish tears will be shed over England exit

At 5pm on Sunday afternoon, I think the overwhelming feeling amongst Scots was one of relief.

There has been a lot in the news since the start of the World Cup about this tournament being the first time that Scottish fans could bring themselves to at least remain neutral when England were playing. After all, the majority of us probably focus more on club football down south than in our own country, which means we spend a lot of time cheering and admiring the players who make up the England team. As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy to go and watch Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard etc in the flesh, I'm no exception.

Besides, it becomes a lot harder to hate a football team when they look as poor as England did at times during the World Cup - the Algeria game in particular, where they couldn't have looked less up for it if they had sent out eleven wheelie bins instead of players (or ten wheelie bins plus Emile Heskey - that's roughly the same). Yes, I laughed like a drain during Rob Green's little "moment" - but I think half the world was as well.

But then they had to go and draw Germany in the last sixteen. Even up here, all the Three Lions crap reached fever pitch, with even the Scottish edition of the Sun running a front page story about Germany players being scared by three lions at a Safari Park. Pre-kickoff, the BBC rolled out an "England expects" montage more cheesy and tacky than a Rocky film. I started having flashbacks to Euro 96, and the similar dross before the semi-final; I suspect my father and his generation were having similar thoughts about 1966 itself. The fact is, had England won yesterday, it would have been absolutely unbearable until someone finally beat them, or, worse, they won the damn thing.

I'm not saying every English fan would be unbearable. Most have been depressingly realistic about their side's performances, and are not going to get swept along in an orgy of St. George's crosses, Knights Templar outfits and crass war references. But ultimately I wanted England to lose so that it would shut up the damn papers, the damn TV, and that minority of idiots who support England by booing national anthems - no anthem had been booed at this World Cup before the German anthem was played yesterday - and wear Prussian World War I helmets. They may be a minority, but they are a loud minority, and we simply couldn't risk them getting louder.

Of course, apart from the ten minute periods either side of half time, Germany were always going to win - though goodness knows what might have transpired had Frank Lampard's "goal" been given (not an argument for video technology - it was so far in that it shouldn't have been needed). Karmic retribution for 1966, huh? But England were annihilated, in the same way Germany ripped Australia to shreds. To stop the wonderful Mesut Ozil (the player of the tournament so far, for me), you need someone sitting in front of the back line in the space he occupies. Gareth Barry doesn't do that. So Ozil kept getting the ball in shedloads of space, drawing the defenders miles out of position and leaving acres for the likes of Thomas Muller to exploit. German teams are supposed to grind out wins with ruthless efficiency, not with exquisite one-touch attacking play. Just as English sides are supposed to exhibit a Roy Of The Rovers, never-say-die attitude, rather than wilting as soon as the going gets tough.

But anyway, this World Cup was always going to be a chance to see if I (and the rest of my nation) had grown up, if I had moved on from the tears I shed at Gary McAllister's missed penalty at Euro 96 (come on, I was only 12 and it seemed like the most unfair thing in the world), from the cries of joy I shouted at Ronaldinho's free kick beating Seaman in 2002, or Rooney seeing red against Portugal in 2006. Seems the chip on the shoulder is still there, huh?

Well, maybe in four years time I could cope with an England World Cup win. But not yet. Not yet. Sorry.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Argentina are the new France

Before the World Cup started, I had a quiet suspicion (and a loud hope) that Argentina were going to crash and burn. The idea of Diego Maradona in such a prominent job offended me. I'm barely old enough to remember his playing days, but there is no doubt he is one of the very greatest players of the game. In the space of five minutes in the same match, he produced possibly the two most famous moments in World Cup history - and the fact that one was a piece of blatant cheating (The Hand of God, of course) and the other was possibly the greatest individual goal ever (my dance around three players to score during Monday night five-a-side notwithstanding) sums up the two sides of El Diego beautifully.

But he is not a coach. His brief attempts at club management had been dismal failures. He suffered from cocaine and alcohol addiction and had to have a stomach stapling operation to curb his obesity. His appointment as Argentina coach in October 2008 just seemed bizarre, and it showed; the side lost four of its last eight qualifiers and scraped into the World Cup. Then he announced his tactical plan of four centre-backs in a 4-4-1-1 system which, it appeared, could only stifle the creativity of Lionel Messi, and which included the ancient Juan Sebastian Veron. Finally, he left Internazionale's outstanding midfielder Esteban Cambiasso at home, and only seemed to pick his teammate, Champions League final hero Diego Milito, as an afterthought.

And yet, and yet, Argentina have been a fantastic spectacle at this World Cup. Whether Diego had an epiphany (or more likely, his former mentor Carlos Bilardo had a word in his ear) or not, Argentina ended up in a 4-3-3 where Tevez and Messi appear to work well together, with a winger (Di Maria) in midfield and another (Gutierrez) at right back, and where their reckless attacking style, coupled with a car crash defence, increasingly makes them a neutral's favourite. And all the while Maradona, sporting a bizarre black moustache and white beard combo, stands on the touchline kicking every ball, making every tackle. One moment he's hugging and high-fiving (and kissing) the players, the next he is brandishing invisible cards after Messi has been fouled. It's actually endearing.

Of course, it helps when you have up front Gonzalo Higuain, a striker who has quietly moved into the group of elite forwards in world football. At Real Madrid, every galactico signing is supposed to push Higuain out of the team, but he just keeps quietly scoring goals. While Messi got all the attention, Higuain notched a hat trick against South Korea. My erstwhile co-author has a bet on him to win the Golden Boot. It looks like a decent call.

Go back two World Cups, and I used to feel this positive about the French. If their win in 1998 might have been put down partly to home advantage, Euro 2000 was different; as I have stated in this blog before, that French team was the greatest international side, I would say, in the last thirty years; a solid defence with Barthez, Blanc and Desailly; a midfield with Vieira and Petit; a forward line boasting Henry and Trezeguet. And, of course, a bald Algerian playmaker called Zidane who was really quite good. That France team attacked and scored goals. France '98 saw them score nine goals in the group stage, then a superb semi against Croatia, and finally a gubbing of Brazil in the final. Every one of their knockout games at Euro 2000 was just epic, more so than the 2-1 scoreline in each would suggest.

But Zidane's injury ruined 2002 for them, and with every tournament since then they have regressed, not helped by the sheer weirdness of Raymond Domenech, their hapless coach (another example of how a man with eyebrows a different colour from his hair simply cannot be trusted). It was not so much a run as a crawl to the 2006 final, with only one memorable performance (the defeat of Spain in the last 16) and a team dragged by the sheer force of will displayed by Zidane (too much force in the end, mind you!) and Henry.

Their humiliating first round exit at Euro 2008 hasn't changed anything. France's opening two games at this World Cup have been catastrophic, a tactical shambles. There is no fight, no spirit. In the last ten minutes of the Mexico game all the French subs warmed up fifty yards away from the dugout, conveniently out of hearing range in case Domenech wanted to make a sub. And who did he turn to on his bench? Pierre-Alain Gignac. a striker who couldn't score in a brothel - and that is a pretty damning assessment for a Frenchman - and unknown Marseille midfielder Mathieu Valbuena. Goodness knows what Thierry Henry, sitting in the dugout with a woolly hat and blanket in true Last Of The Summer Wine style, thought of it. A penny for the thoughts of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, excluded from the squad altogether.

So Argentina are on the brink of progress to the latter stages of the tournament. And they have been absolutely beautiful on the eye, so we salute them. The French are probably booking their plane tickets home. And it's not only the Irish who won't miss them one bit.



Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Power rankings - mid-June

I'm already bored of the World Cup.

It's one thing for sides like Honduras, New Zealand and North Korea (until they actually start acting as a Democratic Peoples Republic then we should keep calling them that, however much they moan) to park not only the bus, but the train and the aeroplane, in front of goal. Its another to see a match such as France-Uruguay, or Portugal-Ivory Coast, where both sides look positively allergic to attacking.

So my mind is already wandering to the upcoming SPL season - it is purely coincidental, of course, that Inverness were promoted at the exact moment of the sudden return of my interest in Scotland's top division.

So who is looking good at the moment, and who is looking not so good? Well, I'm going to nick something from American sports - no, not timeouts, cheerleaders or the concept of "assists" - but a nice concept they use called Power Rankings. It is entirely opinion-based, but is basically a way of ranking teams when everyone is separated into different conferences and divisions.

So, at the moment, this is how I see the SPL. My hope would be to do another set prior to the start of the season, when a bit more transfer business has been done.

Ups - Kept Walter Smith. Return of Andy Webster
Downs - no sale of the club. No new players. Kris Boyd gone.
Overall - Stay top because of similar uncertainty of Celtic, but a few signings are needed.

Ups - Managerial situation is sorted.
Downs - question marks over Lennon's experience. No new signings. No sign of Robbie Keane returning. Lots of dead wood in the squad which will be difficult to move on.
Overall - Little progress at Celtic Park so far. No suggestion of improvement so far.

Ups - Good signings in Darren Barr and Kevin Kyle
Downs - Likely to lose Andy Driver soon
Overall - Unusually sensible signings for Hearts. They've shifted some folk off the wage bill as well, but need a creative force in midfield.

Ups - No concrete offers yet for the better young players.
Downs - Andy Webster is gone. Lee Wilkie has retired. The defence looks threadbare.
Overall - With other clubs sniffing around Conway and Goodwillie, Peter Houston may have to make some shrewd transfer moves.

Ups - Have held on to their best players. Have got shot of the petulant Benjelloun.
Downs - Little in the way of signings to freshen up the side.
Overall - Little action so far at Easter Road

Ups - Have grabbed a useful veteran forward in Scott Dobie. Convinced Michael Duberry to stay
Downs - Cillian Sheridan's return to Celtic, and possible return to part-time play of Kenny Deuchar leave the attack lightweight.
Overall - Derek McInnes' side do not look any weaker than at the end of last season.

Ups - Convinced midfielders Tom Hateley and Stephen Jennings to sign for another year.
Downs - Loss of their Everton duo (Ruddy and Jutkiewicz) at the end of their loan spells. Loss of Jim O'Brien.
Overall - lots of holes which Craig Brown needs to fill in his squad for the new campaign.

Ups - James McArthur is still here (for now). Convinced Jim McAlister to turn down other sides to join them from Morton.
Downs - No cash to sign James Wesolowski, Mickael Antoine-Curier or Brian Easton permanently.
Overall - Expect McArthur to leave, but for decent cash which Hamilton will invest wisely.

Ups - Everyone offered a new contract at the end of May has signed one
Downs - Lack of cover in goal and defence.
Overall - ICT look to emulate St. Johnstone and prove again that the gap between SPL and division one is small.

Ups - Signed Northern Irish defender Rory McArdle
Downs - loss of several first teamers (Mulgrew, Kerr, McDonald) plus no funds to make Jim Paterson's or Steven MacLean's loans permanent.
Overall - Mark McGhee has nothing to work with so far, unless he knows something about his youth players which we don't...

Ups - Finally appointed a manager.
Downs - Loss of Billy Mehmet and Andy Dorman. Several experienced players not offered new deals
Overall - I'd like to see Danny Lennon succeed, but his minimalist budget will make it awfully hard.

Ups - errr......
Downs - So much procrastination about replacing Tangoman. The loss of Kyle, Severin and Maguire.
Overall - If Thomas Hassler does get the manager's job, I'll be amazed if he can keep this bunch up.

As I said, this is just the way things look now. Obviously teams who have done a lot of business already - Hearts, St Johnstone, Inverness - have leapfrogged the likes of Motherwell and Aberdeen for now. I'll take a look at it again once the World Cup is over.



Sunday, June 13, 2010

A goal, a goal, my kingdom for a goal...

Worst. World Cup. Ever.

Ok, so six matches in is maybe too early to make a damning judgement on the tournament so far. But the first two and a bit days have produced tactics more depressing than a conversation with Marvin The Paranoid Android, about as much adventure as a trip to Tesco, and about as much quality as my five-a-sides on a Monday night (and a damn sight less energy).

The only really good game so far was the England-USA game, and even that needed an Englabd goalkeeping blunder to light it up - an occurrence which is now increasingly cliched.

But for the best players on the planet, the football has been absolutely bloody awful, really gouge-your-eyes-out type awful. It's not just the negative tactics, though they obviously don't help. It's the crap first touch to the short pass, the massively overhit long pass, the shot from distance that sails so far over the bar that it ends up in orbit alongside Rupert Murdoch's SKY satellites.

So much for the ball that was supposed to humiliate goalkeepers - nobody manages to get the shots on target in the first place. It's as if there s a forcefield around the six yard box, repelling the ball away. Maybe, if it is really as light as they say, the ball is responsible - certainly the long ball over the top has been removed as a threat, as it just sails straight through to the keeper every time. The ball seems to skim off the grass as if it has landed on a trampoline rather than on turf.

Anyway, so far it has been hopeless. And as I write, Slovenia - Algeria is coming to a close, with the score goalless and Algeria down to ten men. And are Slovenia going hell for leather for what would be a critical win, considering they are in England's group?

Not. A. Chance.


PS - And as soon as I write the above, Robert Koren scores. Thank the lord.