City hit sorry United for 6, As the big-boys continue the goal-glut

Once upon a time there were four managers and their names were Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger and Benitez. These four super-powers of the game were in charge of the top four sides from England’s premiere football division and they were the envy of most managers in the world. There stay of success in English football meant that year on year they were qualifying for the Champion’s League and winning domestic trophies accumulating precious money along the way. Whilst many clubs in England and around the world were struggling financially, these four clubs were thriving and as a result they were empowered with the ability to buy the best talent from around the world in the quest to assemble the strongest squad’s in world football.

Aside from the domestic and European domination that these clubs enjoyed the other enduring memory for me from this era of the Premier League is that of the four club’s head-to-head fixtures. The excitement and tension surrounding the build-up to these fixtures were tangible. The fans knew full well that the sides were all well matched and immensely competitive and with this came the knowledge that their sides were just as likely (if not more) to lose or draw the match as they were to win.

With their respective club’s being so well matched the manager’s developed fierce rivalries. Their underlying mutual respect for one another fired their ambitions and hopes of getting one over on each other and not one of them shirked the challenge. Not one of them were short on confidence. Each of them were immensely confident in their team’s and their own ability and it made for a brilliant side show to the main attraction of the matches themselves.

This burning desire not to be embarrassed by their challengers was perhaps what led to the matches being so tight and generally low-scoring. It seemed that the managers’ intense rivalries rubbed off on their players and as such the matches bristled with tension, mind-games and a fierce undertone. Where the players could get away with small niggling indisciplines they did and more often than not the games were fractious affairs. Perhaps it is arguable that the nature of these games detracted not from the defensive qualities of the club’s but their attacking brilliance, which was such a factor in their overwhelming of lesser sides.

I don’t mean to dumb down the magic in these fixtures with stories of negativity, but in these years the big games were captivating rather than thrilling. They were based far more on ebbs and flows than they were upon roller coaster rides, but they were brilliant nonetheless. Maybe not beautiful, but brillant, and more often than not decided by moments of inspiration. Sure it would have been nice to get the odd 4-3 thriller and maybe there were a few too many 0-0 and 1-1 draws but that just served to demonstrate the equality of effort and strain being put into these games by all the sides.

The reason for such nostalgia is this current season’s own take on the big matches and the stark contrast to the aforementioned era of Premier League football. This season’s head-to-heads between the so called ‘title contenders’ have been a world away from the older days with goals galore caused by an amalgomation of brilliant, fluid attacking play and some quite frankly rotten defending.

The latest example in the series of open games between the Premier League’s finest was that of Manchester City’s romping 6-1 victory over Champions Manchester United in their own backyard. Though full credit must go to City for their attitude towards at first eleven United players and then later the ten remaining opponents following Jonny Evans’ dismissal. Mario Ballotelli, as frustrating as he can sometimes be, was terrific. His combination of strength, pace and self-belief scared United into submission at times and for me he was the focal point of City’s glorious day, the sort of day that may well have made Sir Alex question why he is still managing a football team.

This isn’t to say that Sir Alex should have packed it in, he is still a marvellous manager, but it really was a horror show and one which would have made any self-respecting Manager question them self. United’s early territory threatened to overwhelm City and Ashley Young looked set to further endear himself to the Old Trafford faithful with a buccaneering wing display but as soon as Ballotelli bagged the opener with great craft United’s challenge fizzled out. Scoring so simply against the run of play inspired City to drive on knowing that they had safely navigated their way through the early torment and come out on top. From this point on City were unrelenting and United pathetic. Few occasions in Sir Alex’s epically long tenure have been so hideous. A few games come to mind though namely the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle (which is celebrating it’s anniversary in Geordie-land this week), the 5-0 loss to Chelsea about a decade ago, and the humiliating 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough that sparked Roy Keane’s acrimonious departure from the club. It is a staggering scoreline reflective of United’s suicidal attitude throughout the match, and was just the latest feather in the Premier League’s goal-rush cap when it comes to the top of the table clashes.

Accompanying this unthinkable result have been United’s comical 8-2 win over Arsenal, United’s 3-1 win over Chelsea (which Ferguson said could honestly have finished “13-12”), United’s 4-0 thrashing of Spurs and City’s own thrashing of Spurs by 5 goals to 1. It is incredible to think that this Premier League season still hasn’t even seen November and that it has already produced so many title-contending clashes played out like basketball matches.

Maybe it is just the new breed of manager’s at the top clubs that are responsible for such results, after all the likes of Harry Redknapp in charge of Spurs are famed for playing football in the spirit of “avin’ a go”. I believe thought that there are two equally if not more significant factors. The first of these maybe that the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have had the honour of facing up to the current Barcelona side and have realised that their only chance of unsettling them is to attack them and put them out of their comfort zone. Last season alone both Arsenal and Manchester United were denied the opportunity of European glory by Barca, and the pick of the confrontations was Arsenal’s gutsy fightback to beat Barca 2-1 at the Emirates.

Having begun the game on the back foot and trying to soak up the Catalan pressure they found themselves trailing by a goal to nil and being run ragged. However, the second half saw Wenger’s men take Barcelona on at their own game and they managed to reap huge rewards for their courageousness. Though they failed to back the win up with progression to the next round, they provided the greatest indication yet that the way to stop the seemingly irrepressible Catalan’s is to play on the front foot and take the game to them. Perhaps then this is the motivation for the top English clubs’ seeming desire to express themselves in big matches, perhaps they are honing in on tactics that they believe could return them to the peak of the European game.

The second, and arguably most logical reason is that the goal-glut has been caused by the increased competition for places at the top of the Premier League. With 6 teams realistically vying for Champions League qualification there are now fewer ‘easy’ games. As a result the big teams are no longer able to store up their fitness, composure and defensive strength for stand-out ties whilst cutting loose in the less demanding fixtures. More games are tough games now, and more games are able to have a genuine say in the title shake up and as such the teams are encouraged to play with similar freedom regardless of the opposition.

Whatever the reason, I certainly hope that the gluttony for goalscoring is a recurring theme in the Premier League’s glamour ties (though as a United fan I’d probably rather avoid 6-1 home defeats to our fiercest rivals). The old days of the Premier League were just as great, but not quite as hair-raising and exciting. The new breed of title-chasing sides are geared to continue in the same vein as they have done thus far this season, and if they do then we could be in for a hell of a ride!

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Well Done NZ, but wasn’t it an underwhelming tournament?

Maybe I am struggling to detach myself from my rather futile support of England’s dismal campaign but am I the only one who has been left feeling a little underwhelmed by Rugby’s showpiece event?

As a result of our football’s sides apparent desire to ruin every second summer of mine, the Rugby World Cup has throughout my life as a sporting fanatic become my most eagerly anticipated sporting date on the calendar. As per, I went into the tournament with great optimism about what was in store, not necessarily from the perspective of being an English fan, but more about the competition as a whole.

Would New Zealand put pay to their seeming run of 24 cursed years on home turf? Would reigning champions South Africa find something from deep within to mount a challenge with their much criticised ageing squad? Would the exciting young Australian squad show why they managed to overcome an admittedly understrength New Zealand side in the Tri-Nations? Could the Pacific Islanders mount their first serious challenge for a place in the latter stages of the competition?

These were the main questions to be answered with regards the Southern Hemisphere, as for the Northern Hemisphere… Could England take their 6 nations form into the World Cup? Could the ever-mercurial French find their elusive best? Could Ireland find the form that saw them ruin England’s 6 nations Grandslam? Would Wales’ late 6 nations promise and exciting young back line take them towards bigger and better things?

All of the above questions were there to be answered and in the most part the honest answers would either have to be no’s and unconvincing yes’.

Reigning champions South Africa flattered to deceive with their unbeaten run through the group (not that it went without a hitch), only to lose out to an unconvincing Australia side in the last 8. The Wallabies who had promised so much in the lead up to the tournament surprisingly lacked a spark which many thought would place them in pole position if the All Blacks were to partake in their seemingly ritual choking act. As well as the Southern Hemisphere’s headline acts struggle to find their form, their Pacific Island representatives also struggled to impress themselves upon the tournament. Fiji barely showed up. Samoa performed better than their results might suggest but ultimately didn’t deliver, and Tonga shocked the world with a great win against France but sadly barring a miracle of epic proportions they were already consigned to the fate of a first round exit.

In addition to the disappointing displays of the majority of the Southern Hemisphere outfits, there have also been let downs a plenty for the Northern hemisphere. With regards England’s campaign I’ll keep it short and sweet. It were rubbish. Like South Africa they flattered to deceive with a 100% record in the group only to follow it up with a capitulation against the French.. ‘Nuff said really…

Having been drawn in a tough group alongside England and Argentina, Scotland failed to maintain their run of making it to the last 8 of every World Cup competition. Their performances were as ever committed, which is more than could be said of some of England’s, but their continuing lack of conviction and try-scoring potential came to the fore once again as they struggled their way to a first round exit.

In contrast, Ireland undoubtedly produced the best we’ve seen from them in a while but again failed to make it beyond the last 8. They progressed strongly through the group stage including a shock victory over Australia in one of the best matches of the tournament, but they fell at the next hurdle. They might count themselves a little unlucky to have come up against the form team of the tournament, Wales, but they again failed to push on into the business end of the tournament in what was quite possibly the last chance for many of their old-timers.

Ireland’s conquerors Wales were arguably the side that came out of the tournament with the most admirers. Their performance’s throughout were full of adventure, heart and incredible team cohesion and spirit. Their young back line fired on a consistent basis whilst their forwards, led by their brilliant Captain Sam Warburton, were also outstanding. Coach Warren Gatland had gone into the tournament with several critics for his failure to push Wales on from their Grandslam glory of a few years ago, but he has left as a national hero once more. His inspiration along with that of Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards encouraged the Welsh side to play with more courage, fitness and desire than any other side in the competition. Had they not been on the wrong end of a controversial red card in the Semi-Final then they would probably have been rewarded for their immense efforts with a place in the final against the All Blacks.

As it turned out though France were the Northern Hemisphere’s representative in the final, and in spite of their at times comical stumble through the competition they pushed the victorious All Blacks all the way, and on the day at least, they looked like worthy finalists.

In a fashion now rather typical of French rugby sides, they managed to overcome on and off-field disputes within their camp and a couple of humbling group stage wins to extend their stay all the way up until the final in Auckland and saved the best for last. A committed if not irresistible performance saw them battle back from the early setback of conceding a try, to a final result which saw them deservedly only losing out by a point. Captain Thierry Dussatoir must be praised for his man of the match performance in the final which inspired the rest of his charges to put their differences with eccentric coach Mark Lievremont behind them and concentrate on running the All Blacks as close as they possibly could. Though they just missed out on their first World Cup victory they once again put the frighteners on New Zealand who very much consider the French to be their greatest threat in World Cup rugby. For this they deserve enormous credit, but if their overall campaign is anything to go by then new head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has an enormous amount on his plate.

In spite of the many tales of under-performing and under-achieving at the World Cup there were another side than Wales that managed to do themselves justice. Any guesses who? That’s right.. New Zealand. FINALLY, the Kiwi’s managed to return (officially) to the top of the International game after a 24 year World Cup winning drought. It is unbelievable that they have managed to go quite such a long time without winning the World’s premiere competition given their domination outside of the competition, but this time around they have won it again and not many could question whether they deserve it. Years of attacking brilliance and defensive strength have continually come undone as a result of one seriously slack performance every four years but this year’s crop of players have dug deep in mental and physical reserves to come up trumps on home turf. Without a doubt home advantage has played a huge part in their success over the past six weeks, but few would begrudge their triumph at home in the wake of last year’s tragic earthquake in Christchurch. Led superbly once again by captain Richie McCaw, the All Blacks performed with supreme confidence and solidity throughout the tournament and overcame the seismic loss of star man Dan Carter (excuse the pun). Of course the major sadness of their victory was that Carter had cruelly been denied his defining moment by an injury sustained in innocuous fashion during kicking practice.

Carter’s absence was one of several disappointments for me over the past six weeks matched only really by Wales’ unjust semi-final exit. Maybe I am just being a sinic, but the competition has this time seemed to drag on a bit. New Zealand and Wales produced some exciting rugby, but the majority of other sides in the tournament were well below their best. Maybe it was the greasy and windy conditions that caused most sides to play within themselves, but even the better matches in the tournament were tight, tense, low scoring and captivating rather than exhibitions of fine attacking rugby. Anyway, enough of my pessimism… Though I felt they weren’t quite at their majestic best, New Zealand more than deserve to have their mits back on the Webb Ellis Trophy so congratulations and good luck with your quest to stay at the pinnacle of the game over the next four years!

My team of the Tournament:

Tony Woodcock, Kevin Meleamu, Adam Jones, Lionel Nallet, Brad Thorne, Sam Warburton, Jerome Kaino, Imanol Harinordoquy, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland/Dan Carter, Jamie Roberts, Aurelien Rougerie, Cory Jane, George North, Israel Dagg

My Player of the Tournament:

Israel Dagg

 

Pardew’s Lesson In Anger Management

Who would have bet on Newcastle battling out in the top four come late October? Not many people I can assure you, but alas it is the predicament they find themselves in at the moment and as a result of their rather surprise return to prominence Tyneside is buzzing with enthusiasm.

It is probably far too early to suggest that they can maintain such a strong challenge all season, but hopes are high that the Toon can force themselves into contention for a Europa league place with their early charge. To bring the glory days of European football back to St.James’ park must be the ultimate aim of their much maligned owner Mike Ashley and the man he placed in charge of the club almost a year ago.

Under Ashley’s ownership Alan Pardew endured a rather hostile beginning to his reign as Manager. Having been named the man to replace the very popular Chris Hughton he was immediately met with uncertainty and an air of disillusionment from the fans.

Hughton before him had successfully guided the side back to the Premier League and had safely seen them to a mid-season position of mid-table solidity. Sitting comfortably in the middle of the league table may not exactly be awe-inspiring, but the security that comes with it was exactly what the football club and it’s fans had been craving. Sadly for Hughton, Mike Ashley was one of the only people associated with the club that weren’t contented by this and saw fit to relieve him of his duties.

This unsurprisingly called Ashley’s loyalty and decision making into question. He was once again lambasted by the press and the club’s fans for his actions. Rather unfairly his new man at the helm, Alan Pardew, then had to assume the unenviable position of being one of the faces of what was at the time seen as negative change.

Not only had Pardew been asked to take on the role of living up to Hughton’s great record at the club, but he was soon fighting fires on the media frontline amidst the Andy Carroll transfer saga on January ‘Deadline Day’. If he was unsure before he took the role just how passionate the club’s fans were, then he was left in little doubt after this tough early period. The fans were angry and disillusioned with events that were unfolding before their eyes and Pardew was one of a few major channels for their understandable angst.

In spite of the sale of their talismanic striker, Newcastle continued to impress in the second half of the season and ultimately Pardew had maintained their mid-table position right up to the season’s finish. Having managed to pick up some admirers along the way, the first few months of his reign had gone just about as well as could be hoped.

However, Pardew’s role as a figure head for the club led to further personal strife as the powers that be decided to part company with three other key members of his first XI. Skipper Kevin Nolan, the perpetually controversial Joey Barton and classy left back Jose Enrique were all allowed to leave either on free transfers or for relatively small fees, which again calling into question the ambition of the club.

Fans were once again left fraught with nerves going into this season having sold big and seemingly failed to bring in proven quality. As it turns out though, such caution and worry was rather unnecessary. Pardew has thus far led the club with admirable dignity and at present has them in the mix fighting for genuine success. How he has managed to lead this current squad to where they currently reside is unclear really, but he is worthy of high praise for his achievements to date.

Amidst the worries about a lack of depth and real star quality, the likes of the previously rather unknown Yohan Cabaye have stood tall since joining the club in a low-profile summer deal. Cabaye has looked every bit a top class Premier League performer since his move, demonstrating great fight and tenacity coupled with a decent passing range. Fellow summer signing Demba Ba has also played his way to the forefront of Newcastle’s early assault on the top of the table with a surprisingly decent goal tally.

While the low-key signings have exceeded the expectations of many, so too have the players who were already on the books. In midifeld Cheik Tiote has continued to build upon an encouraging first season in the Premier League and has been supported by the efforts of ‘local lad done good’ Steven Taylor and new Skipper Fabricio Coloccini at the back. With their less celebrated players too coming out of the shadows it is little surprise that optimism appears to be creeping back into the stands at St.James’.

On Thursday evening BBC Newcastle’s radio show ‘Total Sport’ featured an hour long phone-in with Alan Pardew and his time in the studio provided interesting insight into his rather surprising success so far. Pardew insisted that his strength as a manager is “getting the best out of players” citing the likes of Marlon Harewood and Anton Ferdinand as past successes under his tutelage.

Another moment of intrigue in the phone-in came when the presenters asked Pardew “how [he had] convince[d] Ashley to give [him] the job”. Pardew answered “I convinced him that I could bring success”. Exactly what success is to Ashley is a little unclear given his decision to release Chris Hughton when the overwhelming majority of the footballing world struggled to see why, but this answer from Pardew tells you a lot about the man.

He is humble and was willing to offer sympathy to Hughton who he said had done a “top job” for Newcastle, but he is also immensely optimistic and confident in his ability as a manager. Many have expressed an opinion that Pardew has had some hard luck in management, but he himself seems far more interested on his future endeavours and how he can continue to take the club forward.

I must admit that I was expecting Newcastle to struggle this season, as were many I might add. Pardew though has always impressed me. I agree with the many people who think he has at times been dealt a rough hand, particularly given his role in returning West Ham to the league and then to a showpiece game against Liverpool in the FA Cup final, which by the way, they were very unlucky to lose.

Maybe, just maybe, Newcastle have managed to offload the likes of Barton and Nolan at the right time and if Tiote and Cabaye can continue to inspire the side all the way to European contention come May then Pardew will have worked a minor miracle. If this is to happen then they will need to continue to make hay in the ‘easier’ games and strengthen their attacking and defensive options in January, but if they do this there is no reason why they and their Manager can’t continue to surprise a few people.

City’s aspirations must be in tune with the past successes of United

This weekend plays host to one of the most awaited Manchester derby matches ever to have graced the Premier League. With City well and truly on the rise in domestic football, hopes will be as high as ever this Sunday amongst their fans regarding their chances of turning over their more illustrious neighbours.

So far this season City have been the focus of much positive and negative attention. Whilst their on-field stylings have been praised for their increased panache and adventure in league football, their European exploits on and off the field have brought yet more unwanted attention to the football club.

When considering the ‘shocking’ moments on and off the field in recent Premier League history it must be said that Manchester City have been at the centre of events all too often. Think Joey Barton and his multiple headline grabbing off-field acts such as violently attacking team-mate Ousmane Dabo. Think Emannuel Adebayor’s day of shame against old club Arsenal where he celebrated a goal with a full length of the field sprint to taunt the Arsenal fans, as well as viciously stamping on Robin Van Persie’s face. Think Carlos Tevez’s childish refusal to come on from the bench against Bayern. Think Mario Balotelli in general. Think of Gary Cooke’s departure from the club amidst stories of entirely inappropriate emails sent mistakenly to the subject of his insensitivity. It has been a tough time for the club and the men in suits constantly being thrust in front of the press to talk about the ‘regretful’ circumstances have certainly been earning their presumably rather decent salaries.

The club should be on the crest of a wave. They are now the holders of a major trophy, they are playing Champions League football and sit atop the table, but for now as long as the perpetual episodes of nonsense continue the club can’t help but be affected.

It must be conceded that United too have had their fair share of controversy in recent times. Ryan Giggs’ all too public failed cover-up of his alleged affairs and Wayne Rooney’s seeming gluttony for headline acts of stupidity act as evidence of this. However, these moments of questionable behaviour have rarely undermined the club or manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the same way that some of City’s moments of ill-discipline have. Rooney verged on doing so with his criticism of the club’s transfer policy last year amidst fears that he wanted to leave the club, but that aside, at United there seems to be a greater sense of cohesion and respect than at City. This is the sort of respect and attitude that develops as a result of year’s of success and dominance which of course City are yet to have enjoyed.

With the way City are performing at present it seems very likely that they could add to their trophy cabinet again this season, and indeed for the next few seasons. With this will come the by-product of respect and authority which they currently lack. For this reason I think that regardless of this Sunday’s result, that Manchester United will win the league again this season. This isn’t to say City couldn’t again have some domestic success in the Cup competitions, as this is where I believe their best chances of success still reside. They are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and this Sunday’s game is, as a result, draped with intrigue and excitement.

In recent weeks City have pushed themselves into a position where they have a points advantage over their neighbours in the early stages of the title race. While United have looked more fragile in their last couple of Premier League and European outings, City have arguably had the edge over them with big results against the likes of Everton, Blackburn, Aston Villa and most recently Villareal. Tuesday night’s win over the Spaniards looked rather eerily like the sort of win which United have become famed for. To play well below your best but still come up with the goods in a big European tie, even if it does take the very last kick of the game to do so, is an art form in the world of football. All the best side’s are capable of doing this at least five or six times a season and it is what marks them clearly above and beyond the rest of their competitors.

In spite of their slightly more favourable recent results I am backing City to lose 2-1 this weekend. It will take time before City can go into such matches as favourites and it is a title they will have to work awfully hard to earn. They are on the up, of that there is no doubt, but in this match and this Premier League season I think United will just about come out on top of them. Give City a couple of years and a couple more trophy successes and they could be ready to topple United. In the meantime they must focus on maturing as a club and as individual’s rather than letting their fame and fortune get the better of them. United are far from perfect on and off the field, but City are even further away and for that reason the the City of Manchester could again be painted red this Sunday.

Can the stuttering French once again shock the All Blacks?

If France can only edge past a 14 man strong Welsh side by a point, can they really expect to beat New Zealand in ‘their’ World Cup on their patch? Honestly, it seems like a seriously long shot after their comparative performances in the semi-finals this weekend, but when the heat is on New Zealand have been known to choke.

History would suggest that France have been a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s World Cup chances, but this weekend has highlighted a greater mental strength about this All Black’s side. Their performance against Australia on Sunday was based upon mental toughness and a defensive quality greater than we have seen in a long time from a New Zealand side on the World’s biggest stage.

Usually the All Black’s are praised for their forward thinking rugby full to capacity with free flowing back’s moves and invention. Sunday though was all about the forwards’ ferocious appetite at the break down and the composure demonstrated by the backs to control the tempo of the play. The strength and consistency of the platform provided by the forwards allowed the backs to play simple efficient territorial rugby, pinning back the Australian’s and ruffling the feathers of their mercurial fly half Quade Cooper.

Nonu goes over for the game's only try

Richie McCaw in spite of his fitness worries led by example and was visibly proud in his post-match interviews. He knew more than anyone that his side had shown a lesser known side of themselves, a side which will have struck more fear into any side than that caused by their more renowned attacking genius. Not often have the All Black’s played with such nerve and cohesion in a World Cup match and Graham Henry too will be thoroughly proud of his charges.

In comparison to New Zealand’s clinical dismissal of the Wallabies, France’s lack of conviction against Wales’ fourteen men was alarming. Though they managed to initially assert their numerical advantage, the lack of spark, control and attacking threat from the French in the second half was far from worthy of a place in the final. However, by hook or by crook they are there and they will seek to upset the form book by once again inflicting a defeat upon the overwhelming favourites. If their big players such as Imanol Harinordoquy get their firm grasps upon the game as they did in the first hour against England then they do indeed have a slim chance of winning the competition for the first time and could prevent New Zealand’s official return to the peak of World rugby.

On paper there seems to be little contest though. Not only are New Zealand on home turf, not only did they beat the French with ease in the group stage, but they are almost without question the stronger side both player for player and as a cohesive unit. To put it in perspective, I would find it hard to name a handful of players in the French side worthy of a place in New Zealand’s line-up. The likes of Harinordoquy and Lionel Nallet would have a chance of a place in the All Black’s pack, and maybe you could argue that Dimitri Yaschvili and Morgan Parra (both as 9’s) would push Piri Weepu for his place along with Vincent Clerc or Maxime Medard on a wing but that’s about it.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the lingering doubt over New Zealand’s history of fragility under World Cup pressure remains like the unreachable itch on the spine and will do unless they are standing tall as champions of the World this time next week. The question on everyone’s lips is ‘Can the All Blacks bring to an end 24 years of hurt?’ And the answer is ‘Probably’, but maybe, just maybe, the French spark can bring the Kiwi’s to their knees yet again.

Rooney’s Triple Torment

 

With the news that Wayne Rooney’s moment of madness has cost him and his country dear in the form of a three-match ban, Fabio Capello is left with a major dilemma. He must now make some huge and brave decisions otherwise England’s progress in next summer’s tournament could already be in serious jeopardy.

 

 

Having embarrassingly failed to even make it to 2008’s European Championships, England have this time done enough to be there but have already suffered a huge blow. The absence of the most gifted player of the current generation is terrible news and now it could even be argued that he isn’t worth a place in Capello’s squad.

 

As far as I am concerned, England must take Rooney even if it means they are left slightly short of options in attack throughout the group stage. At his very best he is the one man in the England squad that could near single-handedly carry our team to success. If we are thinking even vaguely optimistically, as we should be, then we must hope and expect to reach the knock-out stages by which time Rooney would again be available for selection. If we do reach this point then it is crucial that Rooney is a part of our plans no matter how well thinks may have functioned in his absence. He is that good.

 

Sadly though the personal torment that should be going through Rooney’s mind at present is entirely self-inflicted. No matter what the motivation was for his act of immense stupidity he simply cannot expect to act the idiot and get away lightly. I personally think a three-match ban is harsh when considering Uefa’s guidelines on red card suspensions for Violent Conduct.

 

In the aftermath of the event England’s playing and coaching staff including Rooney have accepted that his actions were entirely inappropriate and unacceptable, perhaps in the hope that a mature approach would warrant a more lenient punishment. I think that two-matches would be the fair outcome, but Rooney himself can have little complaint and is deserving of very little sympathy. As gifted as he is, he must learn to tame the wild streak that appears all too often in his game.

 

I am not for a second suggesting that Rooney needs to rid his game of aggression as it is what gives him his ‘X-Factor’ that allows him to be spoken of in the same breath as the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s of this world, but the immaturity needs to stop. Every player loses their cool at times, and though I often think Rooney is subject to a little too much negativity regarding his on-field behaviour, it is hard to defend him when moments like this do occur.

 

Fabio Capello is now having his hand forced by the fact that he will be without his pried asset for the group stages next year. Though he still has plenty of time before the Championships kick off he must soon decide upon the ideal set-up of his team for the group stages and also he has to decide whether to pick on form if they make it through to the Quarters of whether he is going to bring Rooney back into the fold regardless. Such is the quality of Rooney that it is almost impossible that Rooney won’t make the squad. If he is there and England fail to make it through the group whilst Rooney rots in the stands then so be it. It could be argued that his foolishness warrants such pain.

 

In Rooney’s absence it is likely that Capello will go with one out and out striker flanked with two attacking wingers playing high up the field in support. This likely decision will spark a real battle for places up-front and should make the rest of the Premier League season a fantastic spectacle of classic front-man performances. There are plenty of youngsters on the periphery of the England squad at present and this should mean that Capello has more than just the Rooney dilemma to deal with between now and the start of the Championships next summer.

 

 

 

My squad and First XI for the Group stages are as follows (injury permitting):

 

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Rob Green, David Stockdale

 

Defenders: Phil Jones, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Leighton, Baines, Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill

 

Midfielders: Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Ashley Young, Frank Lampard, Adam Johnson, Stewart Downing

 

Strikers: Darren Bent, Wayne Rooney, Andy Carroll, Danny Wellbeck, Daniel Sturridge

 

– I have sacrificed the likes of Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson as defensive cover in favour of providing greater striking options in Rooney’s absence. The versatility of Manchester United’s young defenders Jones and Smalling means that seven defenders should suffice.

 

 

 

First XI:

 

Hart, Jones, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Parker, Gerrard, Wilshere, Walcott, Young, Wellbeck/Bent

 

– My gut tells me that Wellbeck has the touch of class that is needed at the peak of International football so I think I would go with him to lead the line in Rooney’s absence but Bent provides the more experienced option and as such I fancy Capello to go with him instead.


 

‘If I had a boat’… James Vincent McMorrow Live @ The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh

This is admittedly a rather significant break-out from my usual sporting theme but having been privileged enough to have attended Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh last night I felt compelled to share my views…

James Vincent-McMorrow (if you haven’t heard of him) is an Irish folk singer with one album to his name. This album ‘Early in the morning’ is a fantastic blend of soulful acoustic spine-tinglers and soaring guitar led folk songs, if you haven’t heard the album then I strongly recommend it! Though he has made appearances on Radio 2’s live lounge and Later with Jools Holland he is yet to have made a huge impression on Britain’s mainstream music scene, but hopefully his talent will soon reach the ears of many more people.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon him through coincidentally synchronised recommendations from my father and a friend. When they suggested that I looked him up I was vaguely interested, but within thirty seconds of ‘If I had a Boat’ I knew they had pushed me closer to my personal musical ecstasy. I was hooked from the word go.

Having since tried my utmost to spread the word about him to like-minded lovers of modern folk and acoustic music I am proud to say that his first album has firmly cemented it’s place in the album’s I have loved most in my life. His voice, to me, is close to perfection. He has a stunning vocal range spanning from the depths of moodiness and melancholy to the high-pitched and heart-breaking peak of his falcetto. I can happily accept that he may not be to the taste of all-comers but I would find it hard to accept criticism of his voice in isolation.

All of the praise I have lavished upon him above is merely off the back of listening to his record, but now (courtesy of a birthday treat) I have seen him first hand. In the charming Queen’s Hall of Edinburgh (complete with candle-lit tables for the audience) I finally got to see James live as I had longed to do ever since my first listen of his album. I think I can say without hesitation that his concert was above and beyond anything I have had the pleasure of seeing before.

From start to finish his vocal performance was flawless and the instrumental performance of him and his brilliant band reeked of a wealth of gigging experience. He opened with the upbeat ‘Sparrow and Wolf’ and immediately had the audience well on side. The vocal harmony between him and his equally gifted band/backing singers was so tight, so clean, so polished and utterly beautiful.

Other haunting renditions of album tracks such as ‘Old Dark Machine’ (my personal favourite from the album), and ‘Follow you down to the red oak tree’ came in hot pursuit of the vibrant start to the set and begun to lull the audience into something of a trance.

Following the opening stint of him and his band in tandem came a fifteen minute interlude where James went solo. It was in this fifteen minutes that he came completely into his own. This solo part of his set was magical. Aside from his voice and his instruments there was not even the slightest hint of a noise in the room. It was like nothing I have ever experienced at a gig. The haunting ‘We Are Ghosts’ and ‘Higher Love’ were received with awe by the audience as they were suckered into his own little world.

When his band returned to his side they played ‘From the Woods” which begins as another haunting folk track before soaring to it’s climax with a cacophony of harmonious vocals accompanied by rousing play from the band. ‘If I had a boat’ was next on the setlist and it feels every bit an anthem when performed live as it builds slowly through the gears delivering it’s sweet sentiment along the way.

When the set reached the traditional ‘encore’ moment, described by Vincent McMorrow himself as being “part of the pageantry”, he was met with a wall of appreciation. Having returned to the stage on his own he told the audience that he would perform a final song and that it would be a cover. He also said that when the audience realised what the song was that they would laugh. I can’t say I heard any laughter…

The song he performed was Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, widely regarded as one of if not the greatest ‘one-hit wonder’ of all time. The ghostly ballad in it’s original form is a heart-wrenching tale of the the power of love and the things it can drive us to do. I can honestly say that it was the most outstanding moment of any gig that I have ever been privy to. His pained performance of the song was delivered with such emotion and handled so delicately that by the end of it no one wanted him to stop.

If you are aware of his music and have had the privilege of seeing him live then I’m sure you’ll agree that you want to see him again. If you are aware of his music but haven’t seen him live then I implore you to go and see him. If you haven’t listened to his music and haven’t seen him live then get involved, you won’t regret it.

End of the Road for Martin Johnson?

And so the post mortem begins… Saturday’s poor performance against the French was just one in a succession of lacklustre showings and it begs the question; Has Martin Johnson taken this England team as far as he can?

It certainly isn’t the first time that Johnson has faced major scrutiny for his coaching ability since taking over the National side but this time it could prove fatal to his hopes of taking this current crop any further. At the start of his reign he was criticised for leading the side with a lack of invention, but in truth he was hampered by a lack of emerging exciting talent.

When he took up the post Danny Cipriani was the emerging talent of British rugby and Johnson gave him every chance to prove his worth both on and off the field but sadly Cipriani’s rather apparent shortcomings as a character and injury problems cut short any plans Johnson may have had to build an energetic and exciting side around him. Johnson initially received criticism for exiling Cipriani from his plans, but in time this has decision has become increasingly justified by a string of indisciplines from the former London Wasps man.

Since Cipriani’s rather fractious character blew Johnson’s first shot at bringing invention and creativity into the back line he has worked hard on enhancing England’s attacking threat and has made several very positive introductions. Under his tenure players such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi have come to the fore as International players, which is testament at least to Johnson’s desire to make some attacking team selections.

Such introductions have over the past eighteen months begun to reap rewards and the victory over Australia in last year’s autumn internationals stands out as the prime example. This attacking intent seemed to carry on in to the 6 nations campaign at the start of the year, with the likes of Ashton, Foden and Youngs continuing to develop nicely as International players. Though this campaign ended on a sour note with a disappointingly tame defeat against Ireland, Johnson it seemed was beginning to win over his critics.

How sad it is then that England have carried the form demonstrated in the Ireland match on into their World Cup warm-ups and then the tournament itself. Finally it appeared that Johnson had overcome many of his doubters, finally it appeared that an England side under his tutelage had become capable of balancing attacking intent with defensive stability and a winning mentality but after a poor World Cup  the public have again been left to feel underwhelmed by his ability to take this team forward and utilise the potential at his disposal. England now appear to have regressed by a year to the period before the incredibly exciting victory over the Aussies at Twickenham, and sadly the World Cup has left a feeling that they are back to square one again in their preparations to challenge strongly once again on the World’s biggest stage.

It is in fact arguable that England have regressed further than just back to the pre-autumn international era in 2010. This is because of the worrying off-field actions of the players throughout the tournament which continued recently with Manu Tuilagi’s moment of madness jumping off of a ferry. He was rightly questioned by the authorities for his incredibly stupid actions and sadly it was just one of a long line of on and off-field misdemeanours.

How England go forward from here is very much down to the RFU and the post-World Cup review that will be headed by Rob Andrew. Andrew himself knows full-well that Martin Johnson can be a fantastic leader having played alongside him at International level and then having worked with him throughout his few years as Coach, but the question he must answer is whether Johnson is the right man to take England’s current squad where they need to go. It is not unreasonable to set a target of winning the next World Cup for the current pool of English players but if this is to be the ultimate aim for the next few years then Andrew must come to a decision as to who is best equipped to lead England to this goal.

Martin Johnson has spent his entire period of charge defending his strategy and selection. If this is to be the end for him as England Coach then his time leading the side in this capacity won’t be remembered as fondly as his years of captaincy. He has been fighting a losing battle in trying to emulate his playing achievements and sadly to this point he has come up short. Another consideration for the RFU may well involve releasing Johnson now with a view to reinstalling him further down the line when he may have learnt from his shortcomings and may have achieved highly in charge of a domestic club side such as his beloved Leicester Tigers. The future is very uncertain for Johnson and English rugby, but the RFU can be sure that they have an exciting squad in the making if only they are given the best guidance on offer.

 

 

RWC 2011: Saturday’s Quarter Final Predictions

England Vs. France

With an under-performing England side coming up against a French camp that is reportedly in ruins it is almost impossible to call, but I am going to back England to prosper.

In what is likely to be an error-strewn contest it is essential that both sides convert their chances with the boot. Failure to convert penalties into 3 points could be the difference between two nations which have hardly inspired confidence thus far at the World Cup. I think Johnson has picked wisely by replacing Mike Tindall with Toby Flood at inside centre as it provides flexibility for their back line. With Flood and Wilkinson equally as comfortable in the 10 shirt it could prove a very useful option to have interchanging playmakers. Wilkinson is praised for his outstanding defensive qualities at fly half and Flood is arguably more of an adventurous and threatening 10 on the break, thus they will have the luxury of switching between the pair in accordance with the course of the match.

The other major benefit of the Wilko-Flood combination is that they can share the kicking duties if needs be. Wilkinson has history with France in the World Cup and as such I expect him to shoulder the goal-kicking burden from the start. If he slots his first couple of kicks then I suspect he might well be back to his metronomic best and he could kick the French to death.

Though I do expect England to do enough to achieve victory it is utterly essential that they don’t get complacent. The French are arguably the most dangerous team in world rugby and at times they can be utterly devastating. If (and it is a big ‘if’) they manage to keep their discipline and get their set-piece working well then they could well cut England to shreds with their talented back line. They have mercurial talent in abundance in addition to some of the world’s finest finishers. If the likes of Vincent Clerc get the service they thrive upon then it could be a long hard evening for England’s usually strong defence.

Score: England 24 – 21 France (2 Tries apiece and England edging it on kicks at goal)

Ireland Vs. Wales

Two of the most convincing performers of the tournament will face-off in the early hours of Saturday morning. Ireland and Wales have both impressed throughout the group stages and have had notable performances against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Though Ireland actually achieved their prized scalp and Wales fell agonisingly short of their own crowning moment, I believe that Wales will come out on top tomorrow morning.

Wales have been outstanding in the group stages and perhaps deserve to have achieved a 100% record like tomorrow’s opponents. Their campaign started strongly with a painful defeat at the hands of reigning champions South Africa and has gone from strength to strength since. In world rugby a moment of great poignancy isn’t often as significant as the final whistle in Wales’ match against South Africa and the message that was immediately voiced by the Wales camp was that they would learn from this defeat and be stronger for it. It truly was a ‘make or break’ moment for them and it was yet to be seen whether they would live up to their admirable reaction to events that night. As it turns out they have indeed kept their word and have played tremendously well for the remainder of the group stage, with a fantastic win over the dangerous Samoans and then a crushing 66-0 humbling of Fiji. Inspired by their young but utterly outstanding captain Sam Warburton they have exceeded expectations and are looking like they could even make the final of the World Cup.

Ireland too have exceeded expectations. Their perfect record (including their outstanding win over the Aussies) proves just how good a side they can be at times and it will no doubt slightly frustrate their fans that haven’t come to the fore like this in recent major tournaments. However, it isn’t exactly the worst time to find your best form is it? They are potentially two victories away from the ultimate date with rugby destiny and who’s to say they can’t come good and mount a serious challenge? To this point their outstanding back-row have played out of their skin and they will have to again if they are to negate the threat that Wales pose and mount dangerous attacks themselves.

With both sides on the crest of a wave and really firing this could be a great match of rugby. I have Wales to win but it really could go either way.

Score: Ireland 23 – 28 (Both sides score 2-3 tries, but Wales hold on to win)

The Art of Tackling: Rodwell’s derby challenge fair or foul?

Yesterday’s Merseyside derby highlighted a major issue in the modern game when Everton’s Jack Rodwell went in to challenge Liverpool’s Luis Suarez in the first half.

It was a classic footballing scenario that saw the ball running loose and into a position which presented the famed ’50-50 challenge’ situation. Rodwell who had a slim head-start on Suarez to win the challenge slid in strongly and robustly, cleanly taking the ball and avoiding major contact with Suarez. It was a fair challenge and one that hardly deserved punishment, why then was Rodwell sent off?

Looks like a safe challenge for my money

Well, with the modern game being played at such a high velocity and on such pristine pitches the chance of major injury is heightened. In-keeping with this players are rightly protected by the laws of the game with some of the slightly more tasty challenges of yesteryear now outlawed from the rule-book. Referees are encouraged to act strongly in response to any challenge that is deemed to potentially endanger the safety of opposition players. Therefore two-footed challenges, tackles from behind, high tackles and tackles that lead with the studs are treated more severely.

In the case of Rodwell’s slide tackle there is a justified concern about the presentation of the studs if you are to follow by the laws of the modern game. However, the fact that his boot wasn’t raised from the floor and that he made little to no contact with the opposition player whilst taking all of the ball before Suarez even got there should have saved him from anything more severe than the concession of a free-kick. Another major talking point was the outrageous reaction of Luis Suarez to the tackle which was almost certainly a contributing factor in the referees decision, as it suggested that he had been caught by Rodwell’s studs, when actually he wasn’t. Sadly overreaction is a staple of the game now and such acts of simulation are often regarded as simply taking evasive action.

Going exactly by the letter of the law there is fuel in the argument that Rodwell did indeed break the rules by showing his studs in the challenge, but circumstantial evidence suggests that referee Martin Atkinson was way over-board in dismissing the young Scouser. There is of course a circumstantial grey area that comes with instances such as this and as such an outrightly correct decision is hard to muster. The only clear thing with Rodwell’s challenge is that it wasn’t worthy of receiving a red card.

It is easy to blame Atkinson for what seemed a rash and irrational decision but under the pressure of a huge derby match and the unclear guidelines for such challenges it is hard to place all the blame upon his shoulders. Everyone who has seen the tackle will tell you that it wasn’t worth a card let alone a red, but the initiative to try and stamp tackles using the studs out of the game is much to blame for this match-spoiling decision. If you compare Rodwell’s stud-first challenge with the quite rightly praised finish of Mario Balotelli for City yesterday then it is clear to see that they are both challenging for a ball by leading with the studs and in my eyes both challenges were a huge success. Problem is though that due to circumstance Balotelli’s challenge made him one of City’s success-stories whilst on the other hand Rodwell’s challenge made him Everton’s sob-story.

At times the world of football can be incredibly cruel. Jack Rodwell is one of the finest young talents in the English game and it was distressing to see one of the most formative days of his budding career tainted by an entirely undeserved sending off. He and his manager must have wondered what on earth they had done to deserve being dealt such a rotten hand yesterday at Goodison, and now Everton’s brilliant manager must once again dig deep and try to raise the glum spirits in the blue half of Merseyside.

Final Verdict: Maybe a foul for leading with the studs, but certainly no more than that. Poor decision from the referee and who knows what might have happened had the impressive young Rodwell been treated more fairly.