Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's not going according to plan for Celtic

Apparently it was Confucius who once said “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The picture adorning every Scottish back page of Neil Lennon sitting on a coolbox, shoulders slumped, head in hands, was certainly worth plenty of words, to the point that reading the match report of Celtic’s thumping by Braga was almost unnecessary. The Northern Irishman at least managed to avoid a defeat as heavy and humiliating as Gordon Strachan’s managerial debut against Artmedia Bratislava in 2005, but an overturning of the first leg deficit appears more about as likely as Stephen Hawking beating Usain Bolt over 100 metres – unless, of course, you strapped an afterburner to his chair, which is an intriguing thought. Anyway, I digress…

Strachan, of course, managed to bounce back from his opening match catastrophe to win the title that season. However, he had inherited the remnants of Martin O’Neill’s outstanding side, with John Hartson and Stiliyan Petrov giving him extremely good mileage. Astute signings such as Artur Boruc and Shunsuke Nakamura didn’t exactly do any harm, either. Lennon, in contrast, is stuck with the leftovers from the dog’s dinner which Tony Mowbray left behind. Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney aside (and even then the jury is out on whether they can return to their excellent form from a couple of seasons back), it appears to be a motley crew consisting of those who have failed to show any consistency – step forward Georgios Samaras, Glenn Loovens and Marc Crosas – and the numerous Mowbray purchases who have, technically, been consistent – as they have been consistently mediocre (Marc-Antoine Fortune, Ki Sung-Yong, Morten Rasmussen). Will Joe Ledley and Efrain Juarez be as good for Lennon as Nakamura and Boruc were for Strachan? Lennon badly needs them to be, especially since Aiden McGeady appears destined for the exit (surely not for Russian football though, as he would pick up too many injuries from diving on the plastic pitches), and so does the rather underrated Andreas Hinkel.

Considering Rangers have haemorrhaged players without, so far, having brought in a single new face, Celtic should surely be in a position where they are considered at least the equals of their rivals coming into the new campaign. The fact that there is still severe doubt whether the Hoops are any better than they were three months ago is a pretty damning indictment of the state of affairs at Celtic Park. And if things don’t go as they are meant to, it will be interesting to see how long folk-hero status keeps the Celtic support from criticizing him.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fire sale at Rangers! Everything must go!

I’m expecting a phone call from Walter Smith in the next few days, which will go along the lines of, “Hi there, I’m a wee bit short of players for the game on Saturday. How would you fancy a game at centre-half?” Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a touch (I’d probably only manage to make the bench), but you get my drift.
After all, do Rangers actually have any players left?

It seems slightly curious that, having seemingly got their affairs in order, sorted things out with the bank, and insisted that their financial footing is a gazillion times better than it was last year, Ibrox has seen a sale so substantial that you’d think the club had been taken over by DFS.

While their Old Firm rivals have been desperately (and, largely, unsuccessfully) trying to flog their deadwood this summer, Rangers seem intent on letting most of their first team squad head for pastures new. It wasn’t that surprising that there was no money to coax the out-of-contract players into staying, so cheerio Kris Boyd, Nacho Novo, DaMarcus Beasley and Steven Smith. Boyd’s departure leaves an enormous hole – and I don’t mean the size of his backside – as, even
as the quality of the SPL diminishes, finding a player with a comparable strike-rate costs an awful lot of lolly. But as for the others…well, Novo turns up for the big games but is increasingly just a sub, Beasley is more fragile than a Ming Vase and it seems a long time since Smith seemed set to become Scotland’s left back for a decade (in my eyes at least).

What was not so predictable was that some of the guys with contracts would depart. It is interesting that David Murray apparently had to give Kevin Thomson a pay-off when he left for Middlesbrough – if Thomson was keen to head for the most minging city in the UK (it is minging, trust me – I’ve been there. Cumbernauld runs it a close second, mind you) I’m surprised he demanded extra cash. Strikes me that Rangers were keen to get that £2m into the coffers, or at
least into the bank’s vaults. The Danny Wilson deal seems a bit iffy as well – it has been painted to the press as a move orchestrated by the player himself, but surely Wilson knows his development is better served by another year alongside the evergreen David Weir and another shot at the Champions League, rather than a season in the Anfield stands punctuated only by the odd Carling Cup appearance? Either that, or he is worse advised than Chamberlain before the
Munich agreement.

Rangers are so stretched that they felt compelled to offer Jordan McMillan a new deal. McMillan, who has spent most of the last 18 months on loan at Hamilton and Queen of the South and did not overly impress at left back even in the first division. But he’s cheap, I guess. And there is not much sign of funds for Walter Smith to spend – though a little cash was raised for the failed bid for Chris Eagles of Burnley. But there’s a bunch of guys whose contracts are up
next summer – Alexander, Weir, Papac, McCulloch, Miller, Velicka, Webster – who are up for grabs for relatively modest fees. And all the while, the studs of the stable (Allan McGregor, Madjid Bougherra and Steven Davis) must be wondering if it is worth hanging around, when all three must fancy that they get a game in the lower end of the English Premier League.

Of course, Walter Smith retires at the end of the season, so it must be tempting to just think “to hell with it”. But there’s no doubt that Rangers need some signings before the seasons starts, signings that are better than the waste of space that was last year’s vintage, Jerome Rothen. (Rothen by name…)

Otherwise, as I said, you might yet see me on the bench, just to make up the numbers…


Monday, July 19, 2010

Big task in Paisley for Danny Lennon

On the balance of things, I think I would quite like to see Danny Lennon do well at St. Mirren. Not at the expense of Caley obviously; if it is a choice between the Buddies being dragged into the division one abyss or us, I really don’t give a flying monkey’s about Lennon’s fortunes. But it feels like it’s been a while since young, successful lower division managers, both in Scotland and down south, have been given the chance to punch at a higher level – unless, like Billy Reid and Derek McInnes, they have got their sides promoted. If Lennon succeeds, it opens the doors for other managers to get their chance in the future.

Because, in the last decade, only Steve Paterson (Aberdeen) and Ian McCall (Dundee United) have been extracted from the lower tiers to ply their trade in the SPL. Neither exactly set the heather alight. Paterson lasted less than two seasons at Pittodrie, and was replaced by Tangoman Calderwood after an 11th placed finish. McCall stayed at Tannadice for only 26 months; whilst United had one top six finish under his charge, they were fighting relegation when he departed. Not a good omen for Lennon, actually. Neither is the dependence of Paterson, in particular, on signing players from the lower leagues – he didn’t have much money (certainly not the £500,000 fee that Calderwood paid, in total, for Barry Nicholson and Steve Lovell), but he forked what he had out on the likes of Falkirk’s Jamie McQuilken, Clyde’s Leigh Hinds, and Ayr’s Paul Sheerin. Not exactly Aberdeen legends, those boys; neither, of course, were the likes of Laurent D’Jaffo and David Zdrilic…though
he did have a rare success in Markus Heikkinen, the Finnish midfielder. McCall had a better time plucking players from division one – Mark Kerr did well for United and, later for Aberdeen, while Barry Robson was the big success story – making it to Celtic Park and a series of Scotland caps after leaving Inverness for £100,000. I wouldn’t say that Alan Archibald, Scott Paterson or Collin Samuel made terribly much impact, though.

I’d love to think that Danny Lennon has been made St. Mirren manager because he has done a sensational job at Cowdenbeath, with two consecutive promotions (though one of those came following Livingston’s demotion), and because he deserves his chance to make it at the top, rather than just being remembered for scoring for Raith Rovers at Bayern Munich (he really did, you know, in the UEFA Cup). But I think he has been appointed because he is the cheap option – a view supported by the fact that the Paisley side have lost the likes of Billy Mehmet and Andy Dorman this summer, got rid of many squad players, and replaced them with, well, Cowdenbeath players. Take Gareth Wardlaw, for example. He scored 19 goals in the second division last season, not even close to the likes of former Caley misfit Rory McAllister (who scored 27 for Brechin). It’d be one thing if he had potential, but he’s 31 and has just quit his job as a postie for his first shot at full-time football. Either Lennon is saving money for marquee signings, or he’s just saving money. And, as the quality of the SPL has dropped over the last seven or eight years, there has been a knock-on drop in the fare demonstrated at lower level. Div 1 and Div 2 will not produce another Barry Robson in a hurry.

Good luck, Danny Lennon – you may need it.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Iniesta strikes a blow for...well, everyone except the Dutch

I love Andres Iniesta, and I want to have his babies.

Seriously, though, was there anyone out there who doesn't pronounce his "s" as "sh" (as in "yesh, they are shexy ladiesh") who didn't, by the end of the World Cup Final, want the Spanish to win? The Dutch gameplan (known, presumably, as Operation Van Bommel, since it was in his image), was little short of scandalous - based on gambling, correctly, that Howard Webb would not want to be the man to send off a player in the first half of the biggest match on the planet. In any country, even in the UK in recent times, Mark Van Bommel's scything tackle from behind on Iniesta might have warranted red, and certainly his chop on Xavi a few minutes later was worth a yellow card to anyone with a few brain cells. Meanwhile, Nigel De Jong did his level best to decapitate Xabi Alonso with a challenge that was too x-rated for The Karate Kid movie. I felt sorry for Webb, who had a thankless task out there...if he had flashed an early red card it would have potentially ruined the match, but instead the Dutch ruined it. Total football? It was total something, anyway.

But Iniesta kept going; it was hard to believe his fitness has limited him so much this season when, deep in extra time, he was still buzzing round like a bluebottle with his eye on jam. And he got the jam too, in the end. It is easy for everyone else to empathise with him in that moment when he was clean through - each and every one of us would have done what he did, which was basically to close his eyes and welly it as hard as he could.

Of course, the rest of us would have skied it, but Iniesta's normally delicate feet fizzed a shot which, had it hit the keeper, might have carried him into the net as well. It might have been a match more violent than your average boxing contest but justice, ultimately, was done. And my man-crush on Andres Iniesta grew just a little bit stronger.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

The credit crunch is even consuming the Catalans

At international level, it is a rather good time for Espana. Having recovered from the beating and bullying suffered at the hands of Switzerland’s Bigger Boys in their opening game, and helped by the goal machine that is David Villa (but not by Fernando Torres, for whom the word’s “cow”, “backside” and “banjo” come to mind), and, for me, the best centre-back partnership around in Pique and Puyol, Spain have ground their way to the World Cup Final. They have perhaps displayed only a little of the style and panache with which they graced Euro 2008, winning each of their last four matches by a single goal, but their knockout round opponents – Portugal, Paraguay and, in truth, Germany – have all been more concerned with stopping Spain rather than taking the initiative themselves. Even though the Netherlands have now won 14 consecutive qualifying and finals matches (they had the cushtiest qualifying group – I can say that because Scotland were part of it), and have in Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder two players at the top of their game, Spain should be marginal favourites in Jo’burg on Sunday. It helps when your team has seven players from the same club in it, as Spain’s side boasted against the Germans.

That side, of course, is the mighty Barcelona. Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro and Villa all sport (or in Villa’s case, will sport), the colours of the Catalan club. Five of them, along with Spain’s third choice keeper Valdes, came out of the youth system. Barcelona have a wonderful members system, a brilliant academy which also produced the likes of Leo Messi and Bojan for the current first team, worldwide admiration, more trophies than you can shake a stick at, and are supposed to be in such good shape that they can forego a multimillion pound sponsorship deal in favour of donations to UNICEF. That Barcelona admitted this week that they need a bank loan to pay their players. A few weeks after forking out £30 million on David Villa, and whilst talking up their prospects of bringing Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas back to his homeland.

What the hell’s been going on?

Barcelona were supposed to be morally superior to the other super-clubs of the game. In England, Chelsea are bankrolled by a Russian Oligarch, while Manchester United’s American owners are apparently interested less in improving the squad and more in using the club as a place to put a debt roughly equal to a developing world country’s GDP (you could say the same about Liverpool). In Italy, Milan are the personal fiefdom of Italy’s president, Internazionale are funded by an oil billionaire and Juventus have support from the owners of Fiat – and all these sides appear, in some way or other, to be implicated in refereeing scandals. In Spain itself, Real Madrid spend obscene amounts of cash on players (who never seem to be half as good after they arrive in Madrid), having eliminated their crushing debts with a controversial sale of their training ground to Madrid council, whilst Valencia are on the verge of going bust.

But Barca were supposed to be different. It was supposed to be impossible to dislike them, or at least impossible not to admire them. They were the shining beacon of Michel Platini’s debt-free football future – if Barca can win everything with their (mostly) home-grown players, while playing gorgeous football and keeping their accountants happy, they set a wonderful example.
So, if even they have debts, surely this proves, once and for all, that football is on the road to ruin. It’s happening in every country, at every level of the professional game. Sooner or later, the cash will dry up, or the interest payments will accumulate. Sooner or later, a big team is suddenly, dramatically, going to find the plug has been pulled on their life support machine.

Because if Barcelona are on a financial ventilator, then so, ultimately, is everyone else.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Vorsprung durch technik for Germany, but no Spanish fiesta yet

I thought that it was one of the laws of the universe that the German National Team huffed and puffed through games, wore down their opponents and nicked one goal wins.

I thought it was another law of the universe that the current Spanish team played glorious one touch football, scoring loads of goals and winning games with more style than Clint Eastwood in a Western movie.

Turns out it's the other way round. Blimey.

So how often in the past have you watched a Germany side and gone PHWOOOAAAARRRR!!! loudly? (except when the camera points at the inevitable gorgeous blonde German women in the crowd - how come these beautiful nubile young ladies never come to Caley games?) Thought not.

It will be interesting to see how Germany react if they fall behind in their semi and they have to chase the game. But if they go in front, well, they have shown that they can demolish quality sides on the break - and yes, Argentina and England are quality sides. Really. The big question is how much Thomas Muller's absence will affect things - he has been absolutely awesome, up with teammate Ozil and David Villa (more about him later) for player of the tournasment so far, and I'm not convinced anyone on their bench will manage to take his place.

But there has been a quality and adventure about Germany, helped by a tactical genius in Joachim Low. How galling must it have been for Fabio Capello to have to listen to Low's press conference explaining the masterplan that blew England apart? It was more simple against Argentina, as Maradona was always going to run into trouble by playing only one central midfielder in Mascherano; Bastian Schweinsteiger waltzed about like he owned the place. Mesut Ozil had a quieter game than last week, but still set up the fourth goal, whilst Miroslav Klose is like James McFadden playing for a decent country - a mediocre club player who seems to become superhuman in his national team's shirt.

In contrast, Spain have really struggled during these championships; they don't quite seem to have recovered from the trauma of defeat to Switzerland in their opening game - it has been a long and bitter therapy so far, with no end in sight. David Villa is carrying them, frankly. It's difficult to know if Fernando Torres is unfit or just disinterested, but he has been a passenger. Meanwhile, tiki-taka is what Spain are good at, but Vicente Del Bosque seems to have decided to have as many ballplayers as possible - Xavi and Iniesta obviously, but Xabi Alonso as well, with Busquets as a holding man? Talk about too many cooks. There's almost no width at all - Villa has to drift left, while Sergio Ramos is required to rampage up the wing...which looks great until he tries to produce a final ball. Why Del Bosque doesn't just go for the Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets Barcelona midfield, and play a front three with Villa coming from the left, and A.N. Other on the right? It would seem sensible, would it not?

Anyway, Spain v Germany in midweek will be very interesting indeed - either Spain will finally find their mojo, or Germany will avenge their Euro 2008 defeat and put themselves on the brink of being one of the most fondly remembered World Cup winners. Either or, miss it at your peril.