October 31, 2009
Sir Alex Ferguson's recent sideswipe at international friendlies, especially those staged in the Middle East, has met with a wealth of different reactions. Some have pointed out that the Scot took his own team to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2008 but Paddy Barclay, himself from north of the border points out further points of well, hypocrisy.
Barclay, writing in The Times, does qualify that position:
Just suppose that Manchester United, in the midst of a losing battle to remain champions, faced an April programme of six matches in 22 days, including an FA Cup semi-final. Would Sir Alex Ferguson be happy with such congestion?
Suppose that, in addition, England crammed two friendly matches into that month, both away from home, and insisted that United players take part, in each case for the full 90 minutes. Would Ferguson think it “a coach’s nightmare” — to borrow the phrase the United manager used this week about international friendlies — or utter stronger language? He would certainly consider the additional burden unacceptable.
Yet substitute “Aberdeen” for “Manchester United”, “Scottish FA” for “FA” and “Scotland” for “England” — and delete the “Sir” — and you have exactly the position in April 1986. Ferguson was Scotland manager, preparing, like Fabio Capello now, for a World Cup. He was also in charge of Aberdeen and yet that did not deter him from using Alex McLeish and Willie Miller against England at Wembley and Holland in Eindhoven, plus Jim Bett in the latter “intrusion of a friendly game”.
But Barclay shares the distaste for the idea of "friendly" matches:
For what it is worth, I heartily agree with him that international friendlies should be all but abolished. I have long felt that they should be replaced by competitive matches in a new kind of calendar that caters for a World Cup or continental tournament every summer. In other words, the competitions should be every two years instead of four.
This would give Fifa, Uefa and the national associations enough money to be able to pay players in their own right and thus have at least equal clout with the clubs when it comes to playing and training time.
October 30, 2009
There's plenty of talk about the future of Hull City boss Phil Brown on Friday morning, with a bit of a difference of opinion between a couple of the Fleet Street hacks.
For baby-faced Sam Wallace in the Independent, Brown is the victim of his own self-image, Whereby Phil Brown has made Phil Brown into a figure of fun. It's all down to Phil Brown, you see.
While Sam thinks Phil Brown can still rescue a long-term future in the Premier League with another club, at the same time he recognises that it cannot happen if the Tigers boss continues to act as the all-conquering hero of the hour.
First he had been regarded as the likeable down-to-earth English manager taking on the big boys of the Premier League. Then the worm turned. Suddenly Brown became English football's David Brent.
Few managerial reigns have combined such spectacular achievement with such disaster in such a short space of time.
Brown has not made it hard for his critics, and this newspaper has been among them, to take pot-shots. There was his ill-advised rant against Cesc Fabregas and Arsène Wenger last season and the allegations of spitting that were never likely to be substantiated. In the end not a single Hull player gave evidence. There was his bizarrely vague claim that he had talked a woman out of taking her own life while walking with his squad across the Humber Bridge.
In true Brentian style, Brown is the man who always believes he has just thought up the best gag for the situation and, with a captive audience, he is damn well going to tell you it. After Hull's home draw with Manchester City last November he noted the accent of a reporter in the post-match press conference and said, with cheery confidence, "You're Brazilian, I bet you're going to ask me about Geovanni". The reporter in question was Greek.
Yes, it is easy to have a dig at Brown. But when he does go the Premier League will have lost a character who clearly had a real talent for management if only he could have cleared away the rest of the rubbish surrounding the game. And as for the criticisms that Brown was too ready to be quoted or interviewed – that confidence he showed was a strength. It is a pity more managers do not do it.
The root of it was that as soon as Brown stopped taking himself seriously it was hard for the rest of us not to do the same. No doubt he will be back at some point if it does all end with Hull next week. Hopefully minus the earpiece.
George Caulkin, in The Times, is more appreciative of Phil Brown and the impending doom which hangs over his managerial career.
There are a myriad of factors behind Hull City’s difference, their rise and decline, but Brown has been at the fulcrum of all of it. Just as his appointment as caretaker manager on December 4, 2006 was the catalyst for the team to clamber out of the relegation zone of the Coca-Cola Championship, so the 50-year-old became the personality that subsequently propelled their promotion to the Barclays Premier League.
The increasingly melodramatic managerial tics, the stroll with his squad to the site of Boothferry Park, the “rescue” of a suicidal woman on the Humber Bridge, the confiscation of the players’ dartboard and removing the plug from their coffee machine, had any positive effect? Does [Adam] Pearson’s finger hover over the trigger?
Hull play away to Burnley tomorrow. Brown must be yearning for one of those rare Saturdays when his players do the talking. There were few quips at his press conference yesterday. Is his difference no longer the story and simply the problem?
And finally, a quick look at Steven Howard's column in The Sun as he hits out at Arsene Wenger for his inability to solve Arsenal's goalkeeper situation throughout the whole of his tenure.
They have four goalkeepers on the books - Vito Mannone, Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski and teen Wojciech Szczesny - and none, for one reason or other, look up to the job.
It's a strange situation for a club that down the years had huge characters like Jack Kelsey, Bob Wilson, Pat Jennings, David Seaman and Jens Lehmann between the posts.
Even Jimmy Rimmer and John Lukic were a rung above anything they have now.
Keepers remain Arsene Wenger's blind spot - remember Richard Wright and Rami Shaaban? A situation even more worrying for Arsenal fans than his failure to replace Sol Campbell.
Look at their rivals and there's no comparison - Petr Cech (Chelsea), Edwin van der Sar (Man Utd), Pepe Reina (Liverpool) and Shay Given (Man City).
In fact, you would be hard pushed to find a Premier League club WITHOUT a better keeper than the four at Arsenal.
October 29, 2009
The days of hooliganism are not gone yet. With the fury over the warmth of the pies at Oakwell on Tuesday night, Oliver Kay has taken a strong line in the Times and believes it is down to cup competitions.
''There is still the odd occasion when you can roll up at a football ground and are left to wonder if you have been transported back to the dark days of the 1970s or early 1980s, when hooliganism was rife.
''The Carling Cup fourth-round tie between Barnsley and Manchester United at Oakwell on Tuesday evening, was, with the benefit of hindsight, just the sort of occasion when fear and antagonism fill the air. It had many of the ingredients: a heavy police presence, a 6,000-strong away following in a crowd of just under 23,000 and, according to one United supporter, the presence of “50 or so idiots”, who view such matches as a rare opportunity to get tickets and to recreate at least a semblance of the hooliganism that they missed out on in previous decades.''
It wasn't like that in Fergie's day... oh wait, it was. But Jeff Powell in the Daily Mail has decided to write a tribute to the Scot for his piece on Thursday. And he's still the greatest...
''This 2009-10 campaign has turned into open season on the laird of Old Trafford. The rest of our national game is waiting for the mightiest of them all to fall. Not only that, but gagging to put the boot in should he do so. And Fergie is the mightiest manager, no matter how bitterly the world outside Manchester United begrudges the dominance exerted by this craggy old Scot over the game England invented.
''Sir Alex is the man no matter how curmudgeonly some of his outbursts - most recently at referees - nor how bullying some of his postures. The ruffling of authority's feathers and the intimidating of opponents are part and parcel of what it takes to be The Greatest. Ask Muhammad Ali.''
Meanwhile, the Guardian's David Hytner was watching Arsenal's kids, but had his eyes fixed on the goalkeeper, Lukasz Fabianski.
''Arsène Wenger has heard the accusation on more than one occasion. His good fortune in inheriting David Seaman when he took over at Arsenal in September 1996 camouflaged the blind-spot for only so long. The manager cannot pick a goalkeeper.
''Jens Lehmann might argue to the contrary – it is one of the maverick German's specialities – but since Seaman departed in 2003, the goalkeeper position has been Wenger's biggest headache. It vexes him more than everat present.''
With competition for places, Hyter believes the Pole can make the position his own:
''It was a big moment for Fabianski as the feeling persists that not only is he Wenger's favourite senior goalkeeper just now – the 19-year-old Wojciech Szczesny could yet be the best of the lot but he remains raw – but that he has the chance to make the position his own and convince Wenger that he has no need to sign a replacement in the January transfer window.''
October 28, 2009
The storm clouds have been gathering over the Kingston Communications Stadium for some time. And now Chris Donkin in When Saturday Comes sticks the boot in himself, more at Hull City as a club than the team on the pitch.
Chris has already received something of a rebuke for his views. And those of us in the know at Soccernet Towers are also aware of devoted Hull fans who think Phil Brown should be shown the door. And the fans are sure to appreciate Chris' accusation that they are all really Man United fans.
Seeing your club's popularity grow should be a good thing. The problem is that the new fans have hopelessly unrealistic expectations. For most, City only entered their consciousness when Dean Windass powered home the winner in the play-off final against Bristol City, after a season where the team won far more games than they lost. As a result they expect the side to win every week and if they don't the manager gets the blame and has to go.
Longer-term fans have better memories and you will hear few true supporters calling for Phil Brown's head. Were it not for Brown the club would have certainly been relegated from the Championship in 2007. Then by the end of his first full season he'd rebuilt the team and achieved promotion to the top tier for the first time in the club's history. Of course, when the inevitable happens and City's tenure among the elite expires, these new fans are the ones most likely to not renew their tickets and go back to their armchairs to watch Man Utd rather than trek to watch a rainy Tuesday evening match against Blackpool.
Sadly, the club doesn't share this concern... By prior standards Hull fans are now supporting a "big club", which many didn't choose to. Hull people who wanted to support a top-tier club in the 1980s or 1990s mostly went off and supported Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Man Utd or Liverpool. Now those who didn't really want to support a Premier League team suddenly do. In the big league everyone knows your team and unfortunately that also means everyone knows when they lose 5-0 too.
After seeing Rio Ferdinand's form questioned, Sir Alex Ferguson hauled up in front of the FA and a number of fans arrested following Tuesday's Carling Cup tie against Barnsley, the last thing that Manchester United needed on Wednesday morning was more adverse publicity.
But that is exactly what confronts us in the Mirror this morning, with Oliver Holt spreading fear amongst the United support. In 'Beware Manchester United fans, the Glazers are happy to pass the buck', Holt highlights a potential problem with the club's American ownership.
If I was a Manchester United fan, the alarm bells ringing in my head would be keeping me awake at night. Not because of what happened at Anfield at the weekend. Although the defeat to Liverpool is part of the bigger picture. Not because Dimitar Berbatov is still not the force United need him to be. Or because Rio Ferdinand is still clearly struggling with injury and lack of confidence. Or because United's midfield misses Darren Fletcher more than it should do when he is not available.
No, I'd be more worried about what happened at Wembley on Sunday evening than I would be about what happened at Anfield on Sunday afternoon. I'd be looking at what United's owners, the Glazer family, have done to their other sporting property, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and thinking that what happens in America usually happens in England soon afterwards.
On Sunday evening at Wembley, the Glazers' Buccaneers were hammered 35-7 by the New England Patriots in the NFL's annual excursion to these shores. Tampa Bay hardly provide a ringing endorsement of the Glazers' ownership qualities or their ability to provide the team with enough money to compete with the rest of the league.
The defeat to the Patriots means they have now lost all seven of their matches this season, a distinction they share only with the St Louis Rams among the 32 NFL teams.
A big reason for that is that the Glazers have spent less on players than any other owners in the NFL this season. They are a whopping £19million under the league's salary cap, a record low for the NFL, and £14million less than the average spend.
Holt's contention is that the Glazers' debt repayments have caught up with United and that could be behind their reluctance to make a superstar signing in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo's £80 million move to Real Madrid. But could a personal vendetta be behind the article? Holt freely admits he is not exactly a fan of the Glazer family.
My solitary collision with the people skills of the Glazer boys was less than heart-warming.
I caught up with Bryan Glazer in Tampa earlier this year before the Super Bowl but when I got close enough to ask him a tame question, a neanderthal in sunglasses and a suit strong-armed me out of the way while Glazer fled on a golf cart.
I wouldn't have minded but it wasn't as if he was being pursued by a mob of angry United supporters. He had just spoken at an NFL Kids Day.
He'd been trying to come over all folksy for the children but the jokes were lame and it was obvious we were deep in charisma-bypass territory.
October 27, 2009
According to reports in the UK press on Tuesday morning Manchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand is facing the axe from Sir Alex Ferguson following a series of below par performances.
The England defender's performances for both club and country have been littered with costly errors and although these have been put down to simple lapses of concentration or a shift in focus to off-pitch activites Matt Dickinson, chief sports correspondent for The Times, is concerned that the explanation is much more sinister.
"I wish I did buy the argument, expressed by some disillusioned Manchester United fans, that Rio Ferdinand’s horrible season stems from a lack of focus.
It would make life a lot simpler if we could attribute his mistakes to being too tied up with off-field activities; if we could brush off his helplessness when confronted by an 80 per cent Fernando Torres on Sunday as fatigue from parading up and down a Leicester Square red carpet. Because then we could do something about it.
...His absence from regular training is frequent enough to have set off alarms at Old Trafford about the longevity of a player who is 31 next week. The stiffness, the slowness, the general lack of mobility are bigger worries than any lapses in concentration."
Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph, Jeremy Wilson has reacted to the unusual failings of the league's big boys by asking whether this is the most open Premier League title race to date.
Wenger has ... suggested that around 80 points - the lowest winning total for almost 10 years - is the target for victory.
With Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham all challenging the established hegemony of recent seasons, others have even predicted that the Big Four will be superseded by a 'magnificent seven’.
Yet it is questionable whether such a change to the established order would be explained by greater strength in depth or simply a weakened and, in some cases, ageing elite.
After all, the so-called 'magnificent seven’ have already suffered 16 league defeats this season and, as Fulham, Stoke, Wolves and West Ham proved only last weekend, the fear factor is now strictly limited.
Arguing along similar lines, Kevin McCarra in the Guardian suggests the vulnerability of the elite, and the rise in big spending in Spain, is making for engrossing entertainment.
A Premier League in decline is heading in the right direction. This season's competition should remain engrossingly entertaining now that the leading teams are no longer good enough to feel safe.
...This shift in the general character of the Premier League has some connection to economics. The pound has slumped against the euro and Spain's tax regime is more lenient to the foreign stars, but such factors can be overstated. Complex means do ultimately send funds gushing into the accounts of footballers here.
Sheer impulse has mattered more in Spain than the niceties of financial planning. There is a self-satisfaction at, so far as they are concerned, outdoing the Premier League.
October 26, 2009
Obviously many of today's column inches were taken up by post-match analysis of Liverpool's 2-0 victory over Manchester United, with most papers seeing the result as providing Benitez with a stay of execution. Particularly keen to examine the theme of execution was Steve Howard in the Sun.
"We were gathered together for a very public execution. A bit like the toothless crones of Paris who broke off from their knitting only when the guillotine blade came crashing down on the unfortunate aristocrat below it. Except this time no blood was spilled and there was no nasty thump in the basket.
Up in the directors' box, Tom Hicks and George Gillett stood side by side, expecting the worst and with a decision on Benitez's future looming nearer by the day. Then they looked over at the Kop and got their answer as, once again, a huge explosion of "You'll Never Walk Alone" rocked the ground. The capacity of the Kop may now be half the 26,000 of old. But the stalwarts who stand there walking on through the wind and rain make as much noise as ever.
And there was no escaping their continuing loyalty to their Spanish manager. And vice versa.
While Hicks joined in half-heartedly towards the end of the Liverpool anthem, Benitez sang along with his stormtroopers on the terraces. These are men who unashamedly let their hearts rule their heads."
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel was very much convinced that the Liverpool win was a 'papering over the cracks' job and that Benitez and fans alike should not be dwelling on the victory.
"The point would have been lost on those who left Anfield glorying in a third consecutive win over the great enemy but Liverpool are not moving forward. They are still as likely to find their way blocked by an inconsistent Tottenham Hotspur team as they are to humble the champions. They may be among the most feared opponents in Europe but they can be among the most docile here on the afternoons when inspiration deserts them.
It did not yesterday, and this was an impressive, bitterly fought victory at a stage in the season when Benitez and his players had everything to lose. And yet which Liverpool will pitch up at Fulham next Saturday — the one who got the better of Manchester United and were not flattered by a two-goal victory or the one who came within one game of equalling their worst form for over half a century leading up to this match? Maybe even Benitez does not know, which is why he paces the touchline, sweating the small stuff, rarely satisfied that his players have done enough to win."
Elsewhere, Patrick Barclay at the Times chose to focus on the ineptitude of United's performance and was one of plenty of journalists starting to question just how adversely the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo has effected Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
"Only Valencia sparkled, and he fitfully. On an occasion such as this, the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo is noticeable. Hard though the strikers worked, promisingly though they combined at times, there was a void behind them, an area that Javier Mascherano was only too plainly anxious to control.
It remains to be seen if the departure of Ronaldo will close the gap between United, who are seeking an unprecedented fourth English championship in succession, and a group of aspirants led by Chelsea. On Sunday week Ferguson takes his team to Stamford Bridge and that should give us a better idea, for Chelsea appear capable of staying on top, at least until they lose men to the African Cup of Nations in the new year."
October 25, 2009
No prizes for guessing what occupies the nation's scribes on Sunday morning. There is only one story dominating the agenda and that, of course, is the titanic battle between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield.
For a rousing preview of the game that encapsulates perfectly the pressure on Liverpool following a run of four consecutive defeats, look no further than the Observer's Paul Hayward. Excellent as always, in 'Liverpool and Rafa Benítez arrive at the tipping point of their ambitions', Hayward leaves Reds fans in no doubt as to the importance of Sunday's game.
"Back in his days as Aberdeen manager, Alex Ferguson motored south to Anfield to spy on Bob Paisley's Liverpool. There, he ran into the retired Bill Shankly, who growled: 'So you're down to have a look at our great team?'
"Aberdeen lost 1-0 and 4-0 to Paisley's reds in the ensuing European Cup tie and Ferguson learned a lesson in power. Almost two decades later, the Manchester United ruler speeds west knowing that a victory today could erase Liverpool's hopes of staying level with United on 18 league titles. Chelsea, Arsenal and perhaps Manchester City would still stand between Ferguson's men and win number 19, but a fifth Premier League defeat for Liverpool would complete a quintet of consecutive losses for Rafa Benítez and light a fire under his five-year reign.
"For once hyperbole is absent from the declaration that today's derby could be an epochal contest. It could sour the love between Benítez and the Kop, hasten the team's descent towards the Europa League and spark a full rebellion against the Stadler and Waldorf pair who borrowed to buy a community treasure without understanding its role as extended family. Xabi Alonso, sold to Real Madrid, said this month of his time on Merseyside: 'They are a special institution. I jumped into the pool of their history and philosophy.'"
After consecutive defeats to Fiorentina, Chelsea, Sunderland and Lyon, Benitez has blamed injury problems and has also sought to defend his record in the transfer market as Liverpool manager, with a number of sources producing lengthy lists of the 'flops' during his reign. But Benitez's pleas of poverty hold little water with Jonathan Northcroft and Ian Hawkey in the Sunday Times.
In 'It's time to get real, Rafael Benitez', the pair examine in more detail Benitez's claims that he has had his hands tied by a lack of finance during his time at Anfield.
"Playing guests come and go. Defeat by Manchester United today would extinguish, in record time, another title challenge and ensure Liverpool’s worst run of results in 56 years. Their manager gives a practised defence. Benitez, citing injuries, blames manpower issues for the crisis. For a sixth season at Anfield he suggests he is underfunded and thwarted by superiors from concluding the transfers he needs. United, Chelsea — and Arsenal, because of Arsène Wenger’s “hidden” spending on youth recruits and player wages — have always been more privileged; so, now, are Manchester City.
"Yet, for a man whose hands are tied, Benitez has a remarkable knack of getting his fingers on the chequebook. Since joining Liverpool in June 2004, he has spent an estimated £256m on players and recouped £134m through sales. His £122m net outlay is outstripped by Chelsea’s over the same period but otherwise Benitez’s poverty pleas seem emptier than Nick Griffin’s skull. United are down just £27m on player trading and Arsenal are in profit by the same amount. And look at Benitez’s volume of activity: 79 permanent signings, 63 sales and 82 loans in and out. That all means Liverpool have completed a transfer transaction for every eight days and 18 hours of their manager’s reign. Players booking into Casa Rafa should request an hourly room rate.
"Liverpool’s current plight seems opposite to what their most recent meeting with United foretold. The 4-1 win at Old Trafford in March, while too late to swing the 2008-09 title their way, set up Liverpool as prime contenders for the 2009-10 Premier League. But Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa went and Glen Johnson, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Alberto Aquilani arrived. Kyrgiakos is a reserve. Aquilani, costing £20m, is yet to play in the first team because of injury and Johnson struggles to justify the £18m price for a right-back. Meanwhile, Alonso has been princely for Real Madrid, Arbeloa is playing for Spain and Hyypia, top of the Bundesliga with Bayern Leverkusen, has been voted the best defender in Germany.
"Benitez has traded and spent significantly, seemingly without advancing his club. None of the left-backs (Emiliano Insua, Fabio Aurelio, Andrea Dossena) he bought for a combined £8m appears superior to the one (Stephen Warnock) he jettisoned for £1.5m. Getting Fernando Torres, even for £26.5m, was genius but how many of the other 33 strikers and wingers he has signed were good deals?"
October 24, 2009
Carlo Ancelotti has only been in the job five minutes but already Martin Samuel is ready to throw him out of the door, as he writes in the Daily Mail.
Basically, Martin thinks that Carlo's future could largely be in the hands of Slovenia - because if they beat Russia in the World Cup play-offs a certain Guus Hiddink could become available.
This game will decide whether Guus Hiddink is to be a free agent or not. And that is very important for Chelsea indeed, because Hiddink’s employment status may well influence how patient Roman Abramovich, the owner, chooses to be with his coach Carlo Ancelotti, and whether he is given time to fix the little flaws that are beginning to appear in his plan of action for Chelsea this season.
Hiddink unattached is a dangerous guy. He is a threat to Ancelotti, although he probably does not mean to be. It is fair to assume that, right now, he is focused solely on steering Russia to the World Cup in South Africa and fulfilling his obligations there until his contract ends in 2010.
No doubt he felt the same way last season, too, until a familiar voice explained that Luiz Felipe Scolari, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, was not coming up to scratch in his first club job in Europe. Shortly after, Abramovich paid a visit to the Cobham training ground, Scolari was gone and Hiddink installed as Chelsea’s manager on a temporary basis until the end of the season.
It was a swift and ruthless coup, which is how Abramovich likes them, and there is no
indication he is plotting one around Ancelotti just now because the drama of consecutive away defeats has yet to become a crisis. So far, the worst that has happened is Ancelotti has lost two league games at Wigan and Aston Villa, and attracted doubts over the success of his diamond system, particularly the role played by the influential Frank Lampard.
This is nothing compared to the succession of mishaps that befell Scolari: a thumping defeat at Manchester United, beaten at home by Liverpool and Arsenal, knocked out of the League Cup by Burnley, a draw in the FA Cup against Southend United. Scolari was sacked because Abramovich lost faith to the extent he feared his team would lose to Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League and had the portent of a 3-1 defeat by Roma in the group stage to back him up.
There are few such blemishes on Ancelotti’s record so far. Results have generally been good, although it is widely acknowledged that his Chelsea team is yet to scale the heights with its level of performance.
Scolari’s Chelsea, by contrast, showed early signs of brilliance, not least in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa on October 5, 2008, that was as good as anything seen at Stamford Bridge in several years. At that moment, they were talked of as champions with some certainty.
So the mood can change very quickly.
October 23, 2009
This week’s newspapers have been full of 'Liverpool in crisis' articles. Tuesday's loss to Lyon in the Champions League was the Red's fourth defeat in a row - their worst run of form in 22 years - and the doomsayers have been out in force.
The owners, the manager and the players have been slammed relentlessly but on Sunday there will be at least one person at Anfield more unpopular than the lot of them. Former Liverpool darling Michael Owen returns with arch-rivals Manchester United and can expect a hot reception.
Tony Barrett explains the situation in his column in The Times.
"Given his current allegiances, Michael Owen will have few friends in the Anfield crowd on Sunday. Selling your soul to the Red Devils is an unforgivable act as far as the Liverpool fans are concerned and there is more chance of Sir Alex Ferguson being guest of honour at the next meeting of the referees association as there is of Owen being given a warm welcome by the Kop.
Owen will inevitably be baited mercilessly with fans planning to make their feelings towards him known whether he starts the game or not. Should he be named as a substitute and asked to warm up in front of the Kop then the probability is that he will be confronted with the kind of venom that no other former Liverpool player has had to endure on a visit to his old club."
October 22, 2009
It seems the Fleet Street hacks cannot get enough of Rafael Benitez on Thursday as they continue to scavange on the Liverpool boss' carcass.
No paper leaves the story alone, with everyone eager to throw a punch or two.
In The Sun, Phil Thomas thinks he's worked out what will eventually cost Rafa his job.
At approximately 9.30pm on Tuesday, Rafa Benitez entered a dead-end street.
When the fourth official held up the No 15, signalling the end of Yossi Benayoun's evening against Lyon, a chorus of boos boomed around Anfield which could well prove the most crucial turning-point of all.
Since arriving at Liverpool in 2004, Benitez has got out of jail so many times it has become something of an art form.
Backed into a corner in Europe, the Premier League or the boardroom, the single-minded Spaniard has constantly come out fighting - and won.
This time, though, the battle is a lot more serious. The battle to convince a steadily growing number of Koppites he is indeed the Messiah, as they so want to believe.
That single act of hauling off Benayoun in the dying minutes of their side's 2-1 defeat, saw the crowd, almost to a man, round on the leader they have backed so ferociously.
Meanwhile over at the Daily Mail, Matt Lawton believes there is nowhere for Rafa to turn after he took full control of all matters at Anfield, followed the battle for power with Rick Parry.
With power comes responsibility and few managers in Europe have the power Rafa Benitez enjoys at Liverpool.
He played hardball and won when it came to the renegotiation of his contract
back in March, gaining control of all transfer business in what proved a particularly bloody power struggle.
When Benitez is blamed for a lack of depth in his squad, he could point to Parry’s failure to close the transfer deals that would have secured the quality players who the club so clearly need.
But it is no good blaming Parry when he is no longer there and the former chief executive of the Premier League could just as easily point to the 76 players Benitez has managed to sign since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2004. He could also argue that if the absence of Fernando Torres means David Ngog has to lead the attack against Lyon, it is down to a Spaniard who has spent more than £220million in the transfer market.
But results need to improve and they need to improve fast, otherwise Benitez will have to pay the price for failure and his failure to strengthen a side that pushed United so close in last season’s title race. He accepted that responsibility when he seized total control.
Who are those 76 players? The Daily Mail reveals all.
The Daily Telegraph picks out several mishaps by Rafa, including Robbie Keane, Alberto Aquilani and Xabi Alonso.
In the Independent, James Lawton agrees that a failure to appreciate Alonso will cost Rafa.
Xabi Alonso plays for Real Madrid now of course, and it is impossible to detach this bleak development for Liverpool with what is becoming increasingly evident as one of the two great flaws in Benitez's competitive persona. One is that he too rarely – and at Anfield now there is the cumulative evidence presented by 68 signings – recognises the quality of a player who can give so much more to the team than the sum of his individual talent. The other is that when he gets one, supremely in the case of the gifted Alonso, he signally fails to cherish him.
On to The Times and Tony Cascarino cannot see any way out of this mess for Rafa - because the squad isn't good enough.
And to bring the curtain down on this extra-special paper review, we head to The Guardian where David Conn claims Rafa's failure will create long-term problems.
It is ... impossible to put a figure on what Liverpool might lose out on if they fail to qualify from their group, but last season, when they reached the quarter-final while Arsenal and Chelsea reached the semi-final and United the final, the knockout stage was worth around €8m (£7.2m) to Liverpool. This season, the cost would be greater, because Uefa has provisionally announced an increase in Champions League TV and sponsorship deals, from €820m to €1.05bn (£950m). It is safe to say that if Liverpool were to be knocked out, they would fall markedly behind financially, especially if the other three clubs go through.
Failing to qualify at all for next season's competition, a prospect nobody at Anfield is prepared to contemplate with barely two months of the season gone, would involve missing out on a very important slice of Liverpool's income. Last season's earnings were €23.2m from Uefa directly, plus unspecified income earned at Anfield from the Champions League matches themselves, and the money available next season, which four English clubs will certainly be earning, will be almost 25% higher.
October 21, 2009
Apologies for focusing on Liverpool for a fourth day in a row but they, with apologies to some seismic results in the Champions League and the rather shocking departure of Gareth Southgate, really are the biggest show in town.
Guardian and Observer writer Paul Hayward is the latest and by no means last to expose the shortcomings of Rafael Benitez's team after their defeat to Lyon in the Champions League, their fourth defeat in a row.
Hayward's opening gambit has is not advised reading matter over the Benitez breakfast table. There could be stray grapefruit juice on many a surface if the embattled Spaniard reads this:
By rights a manager should not feel the breath of the mob on his neck five months after his team finished second in the Premier League with 86 points and two defeats but there was a sense at Anfield last night that Rafa Benítez's reign is unravelling – not fast enough for him to go the way of Gérard Houllier yet but with sufficient speed to strain his bond with The Kop and encourage Manchester City, Spurs and Aston Villa that the Big Four are finally cracking up.
Hayward soon offers hope only to take it away soon after.
The Liverpool script discourages apocalyptic readings of a run of bad results. The club's intimate acquaintance with melodrama suggests United might be impaled at the weekend and Benítez will wear his smuggest mask. But consecutive losses to Fiorentina, Chelsea, Sunderland and now Lyon speak of a deepening vulnerability. There are plenty of bit-part players in this Liverpool squad. If a rump decide that Benítez's power base is dissolving, then the small core of genuine match-winners and diehards will end up isolated. They cannot save Liverpool's campaign without help from the army of also-rans Benítez has imported to play alongside Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who are both struggling to be fit for the United game.
And the problem is pinpointed, a lack of striking power:
The forward shortage is explained by the club's failure to replace Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane, the two big sales in that department post-Owen and Fowler. Behind Torres, who has scored eight times this season but is hindered by abdominal trouble, a merry cast of hopefuls have laboured to fill the menace-void. Those four consecutive defeats have cast an unforgiving light on the sharp end of Benítez's squad.
Beyond Ngog the options are Andriy Voronin (six goals in 35 appearances and a loanee to Hertha Berlin last season), Nabil El Zhar (one in 25), who is really an impact winger, Kuyt and Ryan Babel, who can play through the centre but is lost in the tundra of Benítez's displeasure. Frost forms on those Benítez considers to be inconsistent or unreliable.
Ugly reading for fans of Liverpool but recommended nonetheless.
October 20, 2009
The focus of Tuesday's newspapers remains firmly on Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, with the Champions League clash against Lyon taking on paramount importance following a fourth Premier League defeat of the season against Sunderland at the weekend.
Various sources describe how the pressure is steadily building on Benitez after a poor start to the season and a fourth defeat in a row in all competitions would certainly be a huge setback. But Henry Winter, writing in the Telegraph, leads the Anfield rallying cry by appealing to the club's glorious European heritage. In 'Rafael Benítez must summon some Liverpool passion', Fleet Street's most dapper correspondent sets the scene perfectly.
"It is an occasion for emotion, not logic, for the passion of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, not the cold tactical precision of Rafael Benítez. The players must look to the Anfield stands, spotting old faithfuls such as David Fairclough. They must listen to the Kop in full, beseeching voice and find inspiration to beat dangerous foe from France and jump-start their season.
"Liverpool have been down this boulevard before, overcoming adversity and St-Etienne on a cacophonous night in 1977, the roof almost lifting off when Fairclough, weaving past opponents, sent Bob Paisley's men into the European Cup semi-finals as the Kop chanted "Allez les Rouges''.
"They had a strong team out against St-Etienne, Keegan, Toshack and Heighway all leading the charge before Fairclough's astonishing late contribution, intensifying his "super-sub'' reputation. Sometimes, the game plan goes out of the window and a team survive on raw emotion. Since St-Etienne, Anfield has witnessed events when the sheer guts of adrenalin-filled players such as Gerrard and Carragher accounted for Olympiakos and Chelsea.
"Lyon's visit is only a group-stage encounter yet it feels a make-or-break game for Benítez's side. Winded by an inflatable pitch invader at Sunderland in the Premier League, defeated last time out at Fiorentina in the Champions League, Liverpool know they cannot falter tonight. The Premier League title already looks beyond them. Only Europe offers salvation."
Sticking with Liverpool, the Guardian alerts us to a potential prank brewing in Manchester. Apparently a certain item of Liverpool merchandise has sold out at the club's shop following the infamous intervention of a beach ball on Saturday and it is believed that United fans have been enthusiastically buying them up ahead of the meeting between the two great rivals at the weekend.
Andy Hunter explains how Anfield stewards will be on the lookout for any inflatables, fearing an ironic tribute from the travelling supporters on Sunday.
"Liverpool have sold out of the £10 "Beach Set" that diverted the team's title prospects at Sunderland and will search Manchester United supporters for any offending items, including beach balls, before Sunday's Premier League clash at Anfield.
"The club's online store has experienced a rush on the 'Beach Set' package following Darren Bent's winning goal at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, when his shot struck a Liverpool-crested beach ball and ricocheted beyond goalkeeper José Reina. United supporters are suspected of being behind the increased demand for Liverpool beach products, with a 'tribute' to Bent's goal planned but risk having them confiscated at the turnstiles on Sunday. 'It will be the normal search policy,' said a Liverpool spokesperson."
October 19, 2009
With Liverpool losing almost half their matches with just under a quarter of the season gone it's no surprise that Rafael Benitez is coming under scrutiny.
And it's Benitez who comes under fire from former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore in his Daily Mirror column.
Stan thinks that Liverpool need reshaping from the top down, and that includes getting rid of Rafa. Clearly, no case of "In Rafa We Trust" here. He certainly doesn't pull any punches.
Liverpool have no chance of winning the title this season and I fear the club are going backwards unless drastic changes are made.
I was at Sunderland to see Rafa Benitez’s side slump to their fourth defeat in the Premier League already this term.
And at the risk of upsetting Liverpool fans again, I think there must be huge changes at the top of the club immediately to salvage anything from the season.
Liverpool supporters have been outspoken in their criticism of me after I declared they had only three title-winning players in their side in the shape of Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
But without the latter pair at the weekend, Benitez’s side were appallingly bad at the Stadium of Light.
I don’t ever remember playing as poorly for Liverpool during my time at the club as their front men did on Saturday at Sunderland.
And I take no pleasure writing this as I genuinely would like to see Liverpool win the title this season.
You can forgive players who are out of form but I can barely recall a strike on target or an opportunity created by Liverpool.
The side appeared physically lightweight to me and compared to the likes of Chelsea recently, Liverpool look like skinny boys versus men.
He goes on...
I genuinely believe the only way the club can move forward is by getting rid of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
I am so incensed by the behaviour of the hapless American pair - they must sell up now.
After trying to flog the club on the quiet following their ill-fated takeover, they should have the guts to come out and say they are too small for the job and without any class.
Crucially they don’t have the money for the job either.
And while we are changing the guard at Anfield, boss Benitez should go too.
As excellent as Rafa was when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, he should make way for a winner.
And that winner is former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who is now doing a fine job at Inter Milan.
Liverpool fans are notoriously loyal and believe Benitez is the heir apparent to Kenny Dalglish, Joe Fagan, Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.
But Rafa is not fit to lace their boots in terms of management ability.
Liverpool played three centre-halves at Sunderland and teams haven’t been doing that for years.
I thought overall Liverpool’s display was the first performance where I can hand on heart see they are going backwards.
Our other pick of the day comes from the Daily Mail, and Martin Samuel's words of wisdom.
He thinks Manchester City should grant Robinho's PlayStation wish and pack him off to Barcelona in January.... and replace him with a 24-year-old Brazilian who has twice failed in Europe and plays for Brazil's answer to Blackburn Rovers.
Atletico [Mineiro] have a star, though, in striker Diego Tardelli. His winning goal against Sao Paulo, a simple prod at the back post, was his 15th of the season and made him the league’s joint top goalscorer alongside Adriano. Tardelli is, as you would expect, lightning fast with great feet and an eye for goal.
Once the star of Brazil’s Under 20 team, he was considered a certainty to progress to the Selecao but lost his way amid failed loan moves to PSV Eindhoven and Real Betis. Tardelli tumbled through the ranks of the major clubs, leaving Sao Paulo for Flamengo and finally Atletico. Now 24, he is said to have matured and has recently won two caps with the national team. There is talk of a move to St Etienne in France but, recently, Manchester City have been linked with him.
City are said to be in for everybody these days, but the association with Tardelli is worth examining. It comes at a time when a more famous Brazilian already at the club - Robinho - is playing up and exploiting a rumour connecting him with Barcelona for all it is worth. Robinho, who has never looked comfortable as part of City’s project, clearly sees a way out and if Mark Hughes, his manager, is sensible, he will, too.
That does not mean, though, that City cannot be home to a Brazilian. They just need to pick the right Brazilian.
October 18, 2009
As if Liverpool needed more of reason to be upset, the beach ball incident at Sunderland has ruined their Premier League season. The Telegraph's Duncan White says Rafael Benítez sees opportunity in the midst of disaster:
''Having lost five games already this season with Saturday’s insipid surrender to Sunderland, the Liverpool manager knows he needs to put his side back on to the front foot, to regain the momentum they built up in the second half of last season.
''Beating Lyon and Manchester United at Anfield is their opportunity to do that, to make Liverpool a side to be feared again and dissipate the sense of impending crisis. This is not a club that accepts losing three games on the spin.''
Meanwhile, The Times' Ian Hawkey says they have something else to worry about on the horizon. Lyon's Bosnian star Miralem Pjanic.
''Two and a half weeks ago, just as Liverpool’s autumn in the Champions League was being made uncomfortable by a teenager from Montenegro in Florence, a warning was being prepared in Hungary that their difficulties may not end there. While Stevan Jovetic delights Tuscans and many others across Serie A, Miralem Pjanic is developing a similar reputation in France.
''Fiorentina, buoyed by the defeat of Liverpool, meet bottom-of- the-table Debrecen twice at the same time. What looked a tame grouping for the English team when the draw was made now has a menace about it.''
And the same paper also has a squad for Fabio Capello to pick if he's a little tired himself. Oh, but it doesn't include a certain Mr Beckham. Jonathan Northcroft tells us:
''The best managers often see football simply and Capello has an uncluttered view of what makes a winning team. You seldom hear him float grand technical concepts or airy theories. Success comes from nothing more complicated than having a “good group”, “spirit”, “luck”, knowing the coach’s tactical plans and being in the right physical shape.''
So where is this leading? Fitness is the key thing? Well, actually he reckons that Premier League players have more to do than anyone, so despite having the Best League in the World TM, we're actually at a disadvantage.
''Sports science data proves what the naked eye leads you to expect: that the Premier League - where all but one of Capello’s men perform - is the world’s most physically demanding domestic competition... If you want to give yourself the best chance of being tired or injured by May, play in the Premier League.''
October 17, 2009
The debate over foreign ownership has been reignited in recent times, so the Times' chief commentator Patrick Barclay has his say on Birmingham and Carseon Yeung.
''There are clearly limits to what the market should decide,'' he begins. ''While we are happy that pulp publishing, circuses, rock’n’roll radio and hot-dog stands, say, should be in private hands - anything else would seem ludicrous to all but the most hardcore socialist - a line would be drawn at the operational levels of our police or Armed Forces. Especially, I suppose, if they were sold to Americans, Russians, Chinese or Arabs. So where does football figure in the scale? Is it just a hot-dog stand?''
The Birmingham ''hot-dog stand'' has a new owner and Barclay is not convinced.
''Like Messrs Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool or the Glazers at Manchester United, whose debt-laden form of ownership is frowned upon in the United States, he could not have fulfilled his ambition at home,'' he says.
'Although Yeung and his fellow directors such as Peter Pannu, who was acquitted of taking a bribe, have passed the Premier League’s “fit and proper persons” test, there is a degree of embarrassment about this takeover equalling any of the recent past (except possibly over Thaksin Shinawatra’s purchase of Manchester City).''
Meanwhile, it's not just the owners who are foreign. It's players and managers too. But the Independent's Glenn Moore says that English coaching is way behind Europe's elite.
''With Fabio Capello having concluded a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, and the Premier League's big four looking to achieve qualification en masse for the Champions League knockout stages for the fourth successive year, much may seem rosy with the English game. However, behind these successes is a worrying situation. Only 10 of the 352 players who started the last round of group-stage matches were English. This weekend around a third of the Premier League's starters will be English. No wonder Capello's squad lacks depth.''
He highlights the differences between the English and abroad, claiming that the coaching structure is proving limiting.
''At a club like Ajax the pre-teen coach would be one of the better-paid. But coaching is more widely respected on the Continent. There are no dispensations for those who, like Paul Ince and Alan Shearer last season, are not fully qualified to coach in the top flight. Academy level coaches must have a B licence, not merely "be working towards it" as in England.''
October 16, 2009
David Beckham has been stealing some column space with people still lauding his performance in England's 3-0 victory over Belarus. Paul Hayward of the Guardian writes that Beckham has found himself the perfect role to suit his vast experience: super-sub.
"Sporting a commemorative facial shag- pile that could wreck sales for the razor firm he has endorsed, Beckham spent Wednesday night at Wembley easing further into the role of world's most famous substitute.
We enter a new phase in which anonymous is the new ubiquitous. To expect Beckham to become a backbencher in England's celebrity parliament was, of course, a daft idea. The only way he could become a support act was by lending that role a freshly manufactured grandeur. And he has succeeded, if the reception he received against Belarus is a guide. A master of reinvention, he is no longer hailed as the wizard, but as a monument to patriotism and perseverance.
This harmless sideshow will not consume England's efforts to reach the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966, because Capello will not allow it to, and because the match-winning impetus has shifted to Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. To the England coach – a product of Serie A, where top footballers play on into their dotage – a veteran Beckham brings an indispensable virtue to the last third of high-pressure games: control, tactical cunning and the capacity to plant doubt in the minds of tired opponents with his crossing and dead-ball prowess."
And Matt Dickinson, chief sports correspondent at the Times, adds his voice to those demanding that Capello gives Beckham a ticket on the plane to South Africa, so that we can all enjoy a good old Becks love-in at next year's World Cup finals.
"So what if David Beckham’s international career has become a series of cameo roles — great, if they are superbly executed.
His place on the plane would owe nothing to his status (which is diminished in any case to foot soldier under Fabio Capello), or to him having something to prove (although his motivation will be huge).
The common mistake is to rank his chances against Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon. Two of those three flyers will travel — and Beckham has no more chance of usurping the chosen pair (most likely Walcott plus one) than he does of beating them over a 30-yard sprint.
The argument needs to be broader, more intelligent on the ball, like Beckham himself."
Elsewhere, there's an interesting look at the qualification of North Korea in the Daily Telegraph, with Ian Chadband examining how the country could fare at their first World Cup finals since Pak Doo-Ik's famous winner against Italy in 1966.
"Kim Jong-Hun demanded no questions about politics, only sport. What a shame then that we didn't at that point know about the Sven-Goran Eriksson rumours because at least we could have asked the North Korean coach what he thought about his job being half-inched by the playboy of the western world?
After watching his side's goalless draw [against the Republic of Congo] during which they were lucky to get nil, Hun declared his callow crew planned to "surprise the world" in South Africa next year just like their fabled 1966 predecessors.
Not on this evidence, they won't; the "surprising the world" bit would have been emblazoning Democratic People's Republic of Korea on the back of a Western coach at a time when the world is increasingly fuelled with suspicion about Kim Jong-il's closed, totalitarian regime with its rocket-launching and testing of nuclear bombs.
The players trooped off the team bus without a smile on sight and you just wondered how much pressure these young pioneers must be enduring, considering that when they were kids their country refused to play in both the World Cup and matches abroad because Pyongyang was so shamed by the propaganda own goal of losing to Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup. The scrutiny will only be a thousand times more glaring in South Africa."
October 15, 2009
It's not very exciting in the press on Thursday morning which everything concentrated on England. Let's be honest, the game against Belarus felt more like an international friendly than a competitive qualifier.
It was the turn of the stand-ins to put their case forward for a place on the plane to South Africa. The fact that only Peter Crouch, seemingly the perfect weapon against the lesser sides, did anything to really push his case left the hacks looking for an axe to grind.
Patrick Barclay, never one to point out shortcomings and areas for improvement, states the bleeding obvious by revealing that, get this, Wayne Rooney is vital to England. He points out, in his column in The Times, that the performance against Belarus showed the flaws in Don Fabio's Plan B.
if England are ever to have an equivalent of Maradona, a creative and dynamic force capable of turning a team into world champions, Rooney is the man.
Paul Gascoigne was too brittle mentally and, in consequence, physically. Bryan Robson did not quite have Gazza’s talent. Glenn Hoddle was too slow. David Beckham’s virtues lay — or lie — mainly in serving others. Michael Owen had — or has — to be served. Rooney, like Maradona, can make or take. He is quick enough and very strong and becomes more of a leader with every international. Last night we had a distressing glimpse of Fabio Capello’s England without him.
The system used against Belarus offered no semblance of the poise, rhythm, variety and penetrative quality Rooney supplies. At least until Beckham arrived, an aimless performance proved, using Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips as uncomfortable examples, that speed alone achieves nothing. Rooney has an instinct for a team’s requirements; it has led some critics to accuse him of being too unselfish when the truth is that, in football beyond a certain level, there is no such thing. If you doubt it, look at England without Emile Heskey, let alone Rooney. Look at the efficacy of the 4-2-3-1 system Capello has devised to get the best out of Rooney, with Heskey in front and Steven Gerrard just to the left.
Last night they lacked Rooney — and Heskey, and Gerrard — and we were delivered the nightmare scenario, the Plan B of which Capello had spoken on Tuesday, a sort of 4-4-2 with Peter Crouch and Gabriel Agbonlahor at the front, the kind of thing we used to have except when Hoddle or Terry Venables was trying to teach English footballers to play between well-worn lines.
This was not supposed to be an occasion for defenders. Yet there was no England attack to discuss — just a void where Rooney used to be. The tactics were pre-Zagreb Capello. There was too much pointless width and a gulf between midfield and the front.
Spain or Brazil would have been a couple of goals to the good by half-time. If this was Plan B, spare us Plan Z.
Over at the Telegraph, Jason Burt picks up the Wright-Phillips baton.
Before the hour mark, Lennon had departed. Wright-Phillips needed to heed this as a sign that he had to do more. Thankfully he did. Within seconds he had drilled a low shot which, in truth, Zhevnov should have palmed away, but instead it beat him and rolled into the net. It was his fifth goal for his country but they have been spread over five years.
At 27, Wright-Phillips is hardly a youngster. He scored on his England debut, at St James’ Park, in 2004; a memorable, confident-laced goal against Ukraine that had appeared to mark his explosion onto the scene. But it did not.
Wright-Phillips has gained 27 more caps but he simply does not appear comfortable in an England shirt. Before the goal there were two or three showy runs which, too often, ended with him surrendering possession.
With Steven Gerrard a shoo-in on the left under Capello’s preferred formation, Joe Cole hoping to force his way into the reckoning, James Milner impressing and Theo Walcott also to return, there are plenty of alternatives for the manager.
It meant that Wright-Phillips, in particular, had to do something. This may have been an artificial contest, given that England had qualified and Belarus had nothing to play for, but for the Manchester City winger there was plenty at stake.
A little cameo in the first half appeared to sum it up. He beat two men by superbly slaloming across the pitch and then needlessly overhit his pass to Lennon. It was not the only moment. He then wonderfully turned inside his marker, Igor Shitov, only to overrun the ball. Maybe he was trying too hard.
October 14, 2009
It is the day of reckoning in World Cup qualifying. In almost every confederation some of the biggest names in the global game teeter precariously on knife edge, only a kick away from success or failure, and none more so than Diego Maradona's Argentina.
Despite having the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero in their ranks the Albicelestes face the ignominy of having to go through the play-offs if they lose to Uruguay in Montevideo, which seems quite likely, or worse, miss out altogether, if other results go against them.
It is topic picked up with gusto by the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel, who lays the blame for Argentina's humiliating predicament at the feet of the their aforementioned manager: Diego Armando Maradona.
"How they [Argentina] came to stand on this knife edge is a mystery to anyone who looks at a squad made up of outstanding players, with Lionel Messi top of the bill, but not to those who consider the man in charge. The management of an international football team requires a strategist, a clear thinker, a cool head, a man who will use the restless space between games to resolve problems clearly and rationally.
Argentina instead went for a crackerjack, a maverick, a phenomenon who refers to himself in the third person and once claimed to have been the victim of 'a total lack of respect' from the Pope. 'Poor old Diego,' wrote Jorge Valdano, Maradona's team-mate in the 1986 World Cup triumph and now general manager at Real Madrid. 'For so many years we have told him repeatedly, 'You're a God', 'You're a star', 'You're our salvation'', that we forgot to tell him the most important thing: 'You're a man'."
October 13, 2009
Diego Maradona's time as Argentina boss cannot exactly be called successful. Yet. The Guardian's Richard Williams has his take on the Argentine legend, as the country gears up for one of its most important games in recent memory - against Uruguay for the final automatic qualification spot for the World Cup.
''It was a travesty of football management, but one of the greatest pieces of sporting theatre imaginable,'' he begins. ''Maradona had done just about everything wrong. In fact he has been doing almost everything wrong since he was appointed head coach 11 months ago. The chances must be that he still has a few more wrong moves up his sleeve, perhaps tomorrow, when he sends his side out in Montevideo to get the result against Uruguay that will secure their place in South Africa.''
The boss famously said he wishes he was young enough to play. But Williams claims that is part of the problem:
''So fixated is Maradona on history that you almost expect him to call up Antonio Rattín or Alfredo Di Stéfano, or even to raid the cemetery of La Chacarita in his home town to exhume Angel Labruna and Adolfo Pedernera, members of the River Plate and Argentina forward line of the 1940s known as La Máquina - the machine.''
Meanwhile, the Independent's Chris McGrath says it's time for African stars to rid the globe of its ignorance.
''Perhaps the first World Cup on African soil will help us to see the continent through African eyes. To see, that is, African footballers finding the same pride and dignity in representing their respective homelands as Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres or Gianluigi Buffon. African teams will not be there to share a brief, pathetic kinship with privileged Europeans; nor as some gesture of defiance, against famine or dictatorship or corruption or witchcraft. They will be there to win football matches for the people back home in Accra or Abidjan.''
October 12, 2009
Despite England's game against Ukraine being relatively meaningless, Monday's papers are still packed with analysis following the defeat. Rio Ferdinand is under the microscope, fears are cast over the country's defensive problems, but Matt Hughes, writing in the Times chooses instead to focus on the figure of Wayne Rooney.
In 'Why Wayne Rooney has quickly become Fabio Capello’s England pet', Hughes waxes lyrical over the Manchester United and explains how he is central to England's hopes of enjoying a successful summer in South Africa.
"On the occasions when he was able to attend De La Salle Comprehensive in Croxteth, Liverpool, it is unlikely that Wayne Rooney was the teacher’s pet, but that is the status he enjoys with Fabio Capello.
"The Manchester United forward is not indulged; rather he is the one that Capello always turns to when the really difficult questions are asked, unforeseen problems arise or an example needs to be set. In cricketing parlance, Rooney is his go-to man.
"Capello is not usually the type to have favourites, but even his flinty stare softens when the subject turns to Rooney, whom he increasingly sees as his personification on the pitch. In addition to his ability, it is his attitude that Capello values so highly, an utter refusal to accept defeat and a willingness to fight until the bitter end. With better fortune, such determination would have secured an unlikely draw for England at the Dnipro Arena, in Dnipropetrovsk, when his angled shot narrowly missed the far post in the final minute.
"Capello views Rooney as a special case, which is remarkable given his austere philosophy of one-size-fits-all management. The Italian let the forward go back to Manchester yesterday with a calf injury, but if Wednesday’s match against Belarus had any meaning, the likelihood is that Rooney would still be with the squad."
October 11, 2009
In Saturday’s Paper Round the Guardian's Kevin McCarra warned that although England had qualified for the 2010 World Cup manager Fabio Capello still had serious concerns in defence and in goal.
During England's 1-0 defeat to Ukraine both of those issues were highlighted in Dnipropetrovsk and McCarra uses his Sunday column in The Observer, not to say I told you so, but to further probe the problem areas.
"The red card for Robert Green was as much a refresher course as a hard lesson. He will be completely certain now that he must be at his most alert when Rio Ferdinand, on current international form, is the key defender. The Manchester United centre-back had passed the ball straight to Dirk Kuyt when presenting Holland with a goal in the draw two months ago. Ferdinand varied the repertoire here by avoiding a through-ball.
Green then conceded the penalty. There were happy consequences for a team-mate, although David James should keep a diplomatic silence. Having been brought on here, the wait for his 50th cap has been shortened. It will come at Wembley against Belarus on Wednesday. His international career has had its miseries and the landmark is a fine reward for his perseverance and, indeed, improvement.
He is aided, too, by the fact that challengers are now rare. James is pursuing a profession in which his countrymen have largely been floundering. A tradition has gone into hiding. The former England manager Graham Taylor was mentioning yesterday the great luck the country had enjoyed to be served over a span of two generations by a quartet of renowned goalkeepers."
On a domestic level English football isn't looking too healthy either. The News of the World have revealed that the Premier League is now £2.8 billion in debt. It might not be the most flowery prose available to read in the Sunday newspapers but Neil Ashton's 'exclusive' tells the tale in dramatic style.
"Billed by money-men as the Greatest Show on Earth, it was the chance to jump on English football's lucrative gravy train. Now it's Buyer Beware in the Barclay's Premier League. This is the story of top-flight football in 2009, the glory game based on boardroom power battles and murky transfer business.
It's balance sheets and wage bills, with AVERAGE top-flight salaries now £1million a year. Total player wages are on the verge of hitting £1BILLION a season.
Arsenal are one of a select group of clubs who tried to resist change, relying on the traditions of a family-run business to compete at the highest level. But they could become the seventh billionaire plaything if American Stan Kroenke ups his stake again and underwrites the club's £332m debt.
Liverpool are also vulnerable, lurching from crisis to crisis after the breakdown in the relationship between Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Building work on their new super-stadium in Stanley Park came to a halt and they are creaking under nearly £300m of debt. One potential investor - Saudi prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulla - is refusing to buy the club until they reduce their commitments.
Even Chelsea's future is no longer guaranteed, with chairman Bruce Buck admitting earlier this week that Abramovich could abandon the project."
October 10, 2009
As we all know, England have already qualified for the World Cup finals in 2010 and victory over Ukraine, on Saturday, and Belarus, on Wednesday, will see Fabio Capello's side head to South Africa with a 100% record.
But it is not all positive news according to The Guardian's Kevin McCarra, who points out that the Italian must still address significant weakness in defence and in goal.
"It has been unsettling that Rio Ferdinand and John Terry have been the centre-back pairing in only six of the Italian's 18 international matches to date. Ferdinand, in particular, has been vulnerable. The Manchester United defender is reported to receive regular treatment from an osteopath for a back problem and Capello's main hope may be that he can be eased through the programme next summer.
Durability is the key since many ultimately respected sides at finals have been scorned before finding better form. England need a back four that can be counted on.
Capello must wish that there were genuine options in goal. Robert Green has played for his country without committing any howlers, but has not seemed commanding either. The 39-year-old David James, fit again, continues to have a claim to the England spot. Paul Robinson was also in this squad, although he has a hip problem and was replaced by Joe Hart.
It is comforting to point out that Dino Zoff took the World Cup with Italy at the age of 40. All the same, that is a well-known fact exactly because he was such a rarity. Capello would, at a minimum, like a persuasive candidate to view with James or Green, but Ben Foster's standing has declined steeply at United."
Over at The Times chief football commentator Patrick Barclay turns his attention to the Republic of Ireland's clash with Italy and expects Giovanni Trapattoni's side to have to qualify via the play-offs. FIFA's decision to seed the play-offs has been much derided but Barclay defends the notion:
“The trouble is that FIFA is to seed the draw for the two-legged matches to decide the last four European qualifiers. Because football is the way it is, and because no one ever supports anything announced by Sepp Blatter - if the FIFA president defended the traditional oblong pitch, everyone would say it should be round or oval - people have moaned, even though seeding is eminently sensible, as is the idea of giving home advantage in the second leg to the notionally stronger country.
I suppose there is a germ of an argument against using the Fifa rankings, but the countries they tend to overrate are outside Europe. By and large, they tell the truth.”
October 9, 2009
There's been plenty of discussion over the much-derided "fit and proper person test" which aims to keep bad men out of the beautiful game. Does it mean anything? Would Adolf Hitler have been approved? We do wonder.
Not to tar any current owner with the Hitler brush, of course, but with murky questions hovering over Notts County and Munto Finance, as well as Ken Bates' "ownership" of Leeds United, it's time the Football League got themselves a backbone. Which brings us to Flavio Briatore, the disgraced F1 boss who is part owner of Championship outfit Queens Park Rangers.
Now, Briatore is, in a way, banned from F1 after fixing a race by telling one of his drivers to crash, thus forcing out the safety car to hand the race leader guaranteed victory. Football League clubs cannot be owned by anyone who is banned by the governing body of another sport.
Simple? It seems not. Technically, it is the F1 teams who are banned from engaging in work with Briatore, and not Briatore who is banned by F1. Get it? So does that mean Briatore can stay at Loftus Road?
It should not, or so says respected journo Patrick Barclay in his column in The Times,
I know we live in a litigious age, but I cannot see the point of tiptoeing around this fellow. If Formula One can ditch him, so can football. The only “response” sought from Briatore should be how long it will take to clear his desk. The FIA has told him that he can no longer be even a spectator and football should follow suit.
Instead, “due process” is observed. The very phrase reeks of fear, of authority in retreat, the posture of most governing bodies over recent years. Even the new FA, under Lord Triesman, has started bending over backwards to please agents, allowing them to perform “dual representation” of club and player in transfers when every independent inquiry has deemed it unethical.
The Football League, under Lord Mawhinney, has made progress on this front, insisting that clubs report all commissions paid to agents and publishing totals annually, and we had high hopes on the fit and proper persons front when Mawhinney proclaimed the “ground-breaking” innovation of a test for directors in 2004.
Without mentioning the Premier League, he talked of “new standards of corporate governance in football” and praised chairmen for a “brave decision” that would prevent “the good work of the vast majority of club directors from being tarnished by a handful of rogue individuals”.
Basically it banned those convicted of fraud or dishonesty, or rejects from other sports (in other words, people like Briatore), and a year later it was extended to people who had been sent to prison for 12 months or more, or placed on the sex offenders’ register.
What it did not say is how the League would know. And thus we come to the situation at Notts County, where a bizarre and opaque takeover leaves the game looking helpless and incapable of policing itself.
Surely the time to clear up “outstanding issues” is before a club are taken over, not after, when dark hints in the press appear to have jolted the League into action.
It is amazing that League rules have never been changed to this effect. Poor Notts County; we must fear for them, for there are signs that the supply of sheikhs is running out and the quality of sub-prime Arabs deteriorating.
Over at the tabloids, and Steve Howard is a very perplexed man in The Sun, and rightly so.
Kasabian may currently be singing Where did all the love go, but for Howard he's a bit miffed that quality keepers, once a job an Englishman could be proud of, have diappeared.
A quick glance at the World Cup squad of 1990 that brought home just how far England have now slipped in what many claim to be the most important position in international football.
And just how serious a problem Fabio Capello faces in the build-up to South Africa next year.
In the back row were four outstanding keepers - Shilton, David Seaman, Chris Woods and Dave Beasant.
Beasant, the former Wimbledon, Newcastle and Chelsea stalwart, would stand a good chance of walking straight into the England team that faces Ukraine here in Dnipropetrovsk tomorrow were he still playing.
Two decades ago, he was fourth choice. Around the same time there were other top-class performers like Nigel Martyn and Tim Flowers.
Every one was cool and calm in the line of fire. If only we could say the same about the current crop, a small band of goalkeeping brothers known more for their nervous flapping and floundering.
Incredibly, last weekend just SIX Premier League clubs had Englishmen in goal.
David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham), Paul Robinson (Blackburn), Ben Foster (Man United), Chris Kirkland (Wigan) and Joe Hart (Birmingham).
Of those six clubs, five are in the bottom nine. The sixth - United - can hardly wait to welcome back Edwin van der Sar after a string of poor displays by Foster.
October 8, 2009
Premier League football is on the backburner as we head into a weekend of internationals and those fans who want to see England take on the Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier on Saturday will have to break new ground as the match will be the first to be screened exclusively via the internet.
While some members of the 'new media' set may find this an exciting step forward the average fan is not thrilled by the prospect of sitting in front of their home PC. But there is an alternative, The Guardian's Marina Hyde is off to watch the match at the Odeon cinema in London's Leicester Square.
"Where better to indulge oneself in the increasingly soulless, commercially packaged experience that is following England than in one of the capital's least appealing, most overpriced cinemas, on a velour-upholstered theatre seat?
Yet if you doubt England's ability to make it on the notoriously competitive romantic comedy circuit, then take a look at the official listing, which Odeon have amusingly shoehorned into the exact same template they use for all movies. 'Genre: sports,' this precis opens. 'Film running time: 105 minutes. UK release date: 10/10. Language: English.' Tantalisingly the box next to the question 'Who's in it?' remains empty, allowing moviegoers to hold out for a scene-stealing Anthony Hopkins cameo. Next comes the question 'What's the plot?' which Odeon have summarised as 'Celebrate England's World Cup qualifying victory'."
Meanwhile, former Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp has bought into the official club line that Avram Grants' arrival as Director of Sport at Pompey does not mean that manager Paul Hart will soon be given the boot. Redknapp, now at Tottenham Hotspur, worked under Grant at Fratton Park before they both moved on.
Grant moved to Stamford Bridge and seven months later succeeded Jose Mourinho as manager of Chelsea. But in his column in The Sun Redknapp reassured Hart that it won't happen to him.
"I see the pair of them getting on well and it will only help Paul and Portsmouth. Avram has a lot of connections in the game, he is still good friends with Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich and his contacts will be useful to the club, particularly with the January transfer window inching closer all the time.
I've always thought Pompey would get their act together and now it seems things may be settling down. There is a new owner, a new man to help Paul and a win under their belts. They will not get relegated this season. If I were a betting man I'd even put 25 pence each-way on that!
Grant is just the right sort of person you can bounce ideas off and that is just what Paul needs right now. The last thing he needs is to feel isolated. The other bonus for the fans is that Avram knows the set up of the club."
October 7, 2009
In a big week of World Cup qualifiers, England are one team who need not worry having secured their place in next years finals in South Africa. But what has been holding England back? Kevin McCarra of the Guardian examines why the Three Lions have only won the World Cup on home soil and how their chances in 2010 stand up, with the effects of playing at altitude expected to be significant.
"The national team have only ever been in one final at the major tournaments and the World Cup of 1966 was, of course, grasped at Wembley. Fabio Capello has already achieved a great deal, but there is work ahead to cure the travel sickness that can steal over the squad at competitions when boots are planted on foreign soil.
A radical transition is often gruelling. In the heat and altitude of Guadalajara in 1970, for instance, Alan Mullery was reported to have lost almost a stone in weight while trying to nullify Pelé in the 1-0 defeat by Brazil at the World Cup. England have another great transition to plan when the competition is held in South Africa next year.
Places such as Johannesburg will present difficulties. It has two grounds. Ellis Park will be in use and eight games are to be staged at the Soccer City stadium, including the opening match and the final. At 1,750 metres, conditions will be gruelling for many sides. To a slightly lesser effect, similar factors will be at work in Pretoria, Rustenburg and Bloemfontein. England's headquarters may be in the last of those cities, at an altitude of 1,395 metres."
Elsewhere in the Guardian, it is revealed that their could be a "Live 8-style" event on the eve of the 2010 World Cup - a music spectacular that would surely trump any previous opening ceremonies. The event would help reach out to youngsters (apparently football is not enough!) and also raise money for FIFA's "20 centres for 2010" campaign, writes Owen Gibson.
"As part of an attempt to banish memories of Diana Ross fluffing a penalty and flag- waving parades, Fifa has contracted Kevin Wall, the man behind live music spectaculars for Madonna, Jay-Z and Michael Jackson, to produce a Live 8-style event on the eve of the next World Cup.
It will be the first time that a Fifa-sanctioned event has taken place on the eve of the World Cup finals and is being seen as part of a bid to stir up excitement among fans, sponsors and broadcasters in the countdown to the opening game.
Governing bodies and sports rights agencies are increasingly looking to plough the fertile common ground between celebrities from the worlds of music and sport. An F1 Rocks event, featuring Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams, at the recent Singapore grand prix is expected to be the first of several such events designed to widen the sport's appeal and offer new opportunities for sponsors. Although the line-up of artists has yet to be finalised and will not be revealed until tickets go on sale, record labels are likely to want their biggest names involved given the likely global television audience."
October 6, 2009
The Portsmouth saga is over...or is it? Are they the new Manchester City? Will there be swathes of oil riches heading into Fratton Park? Perhaps. Though nobody knows if you ask The Independent's Nick Harris who has gone on the trail of Ali al-Faraj, the new owner, who has been variously described as a "Saudi property tycoon".
But Harris has not found out a great deal about the new owner, who bought Pompey for, well, nothing.
Yet during a day-long search yesterday from Hampshire to Riyadh via Redditch and many points in between, The Independent found it impossible to substantiate very much about him at all.
To say he likes to keep a low profile is the understatement of the season so far. His middle name could be Macavity.
The patrol of the internet and cuttings files continues to draw a blank.
The name "Ali al-Faraj" had never been mentioned in any English language publication in the world before being mentioned in association with Portsmouth in August this year. The Premier League has already cleared him as a fit and proper person to own a British club but declined yesterday to elaborate on what it knows about his business interests.
Faraj may well indeed be one of the most wealthy and influential business people in Saudi Arabia, but he is not on the Forbes Magazine list of Saudi billionaires. He would have been omitted if he were a Saudi royal, which remains a possibility, but none of the reports of his wealth or background have yet suggested he is.
The fall-out continues from Sir Alex Ferguson's tirade against Alan Wiley after the Manchester United manager claimed the referee was unfit following a 2-2 draw for his side against Sunderland at the weekend.
The Daily Mail claims that Wiley considered quitting football after the public attack from the United boss, a situation that has echoes of Anders Frisk's decision to retire following accusations made by Jose Mourinho during his time as Chelsea manager.
In 'Referee Alan Wiley in quit threat over Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson's rant', Alan Biggs details how criticism of Wiley is unjustified and how the official's colleagues helped convince him against an early retirement.
"An exclusive Sportsmail analysis of Wiley's performance shows Ferguson's criticism was unjustified and the official is understood to have had second thoughts about quitting after receiving strong support from colleagues.
"Ferguson said about Wiley: 'It took him at least 30 seconds every time he booked a player and I think that was because he wanted to take a rest.' In fact, the analysis shows Wiley covered more ground than most players, and his performance has been praised by the Professional Game Match Officials.
"As revealed in Sportsmail on Monday, the Barclays Premier League see Ferguson's comments as a slur on the refereeing community and would like to see him charged. But there is a fear among referees that Ferguson will not be hit with a sufficient deterrent to discourage such attacks in the future."
In the Guardian, former Premier League referee Jeff Winter, now the owner of a hilarious website in which he gives both barrels to his critics, also strongly condemns Ferguson for his comments. It is strong stuff from the man who once claimed to get a standing ovation from the Kop during his final game as a referee.
"It was a cowardly attack – Sir Alex wouldn't have said it to Alan Wiley's face. Every game Alan Wiley takes charge of now where he makes a decision which upsets some fans is going to result in chants of 'You're not fit to referee', he's going to be known as the 'unfit ref'. Sir Alex won't care though. He's a knight of the realm and he thinks he's untouchable, bullet proof.
"But he's also a bully. He spoke at Sir Bobby Robson's memorial service a couple of weeks ago and said he'd learnt a lot from Sir Bobby. But he hadn't, they were totally different, Sir Bobby was a gentleman. He was humble and had respect for people."
October 5, 2009
Dennis Wise might be all over the media at the moment defending his position in the Kevin Keegan debate, but Sam Wallace in the Independent has his views and, while he doesn't back the Mike Ashley regime, he also finds fault with Mr Keegan.
''When it came to picking sides, Mike Ashley v Kevin Keegan was a no-brainer,'' he begins. ''You would no sooner choose Ashley over Keegan than you would pick Bush over Obama; Mick Hucknall over Morrissey or Phil Brown's best suit over Jose Mourinho's best suit.''
Fair enough, you would think, given the way Ashley has run the club into the ground, but what of the £16.5 million Keegan says he is owed for ''stigma damages'' and the "income which he would otherwise reasonably have expected to receive up to his 65th birthday."?
''That was an astonishing amount of money based on a claim so flimsy that it was thrown out without hesitation by the tribunal. It smacked of a man who was out to get whatever he could. It was just plain greedy,'' says Wallace
''Apart from the money, what really jumped out from the page was the word "reasonably". Who other than Keegan thought it would be reasonable that he had that kind of earning potential left in him – regardless of whether he had spent those nine months at Newcastle or not?''
Meanwhile, in the Times, Patrick Barclay deals with greed of a different kind as England's World up game this weekend can be seen live only on pay-per-view on the internet.
''If I were to claim that a chance to see Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard attacking in tandem is worth £4.99 of almost any England supporter’s money, you might suspect me of advertising at the expense of principle,'' he says.
''It is certainly an argument that every minute played by the England team should always be freely available to anyone with a television set in England; the Germans, after all, have that privilege and it contributes to a rare sense of community when the mannschaft are on duty.''
He concludes, however, that it's worth a try. As long as it doesn't happen when the real action gets underway:
''I cannot see what is wrong with it as an experiment. Just as long as, when the real action starts, the old rules apply. There is a difference between preparatory matches, when the nuances of form are studied by aficionados, and the great international occasions, including tournaments, when the country is united and people gather in homes and pubs for the footballing equivalent of a street party.''
October 4, 2009
Rod Liddle always pulls no punches when it comes to dishing out a verbal assault, and it's certainly no different this Sunday as he passes comment on the hilarious goings on at Newcastle United.
The subject of his ire, and a certain ESPN Soccernet columnist will sit there nodding with hand on chin, is Dennis Wise. Yes, the little man brought in to oversee the Magpies' empire just when things looked to be going belly-up at Leeds United.
I don’t think Jesus Christ tried to claim £10m compensation when it all went tits up in the Garden of Gethsemane. But then, unlike Kevin Keegan, Jesus only had the malefactions of Judas Iscariot and the Roman occupying force with which to contend; he was not bedevilled by Dennis Wise. I like the notion of Wise being one of the disciples, though; St Dennis, the Fisher of Men (via YouTube) who betrayed his boss to curry favour with two South American agents. It seems scarcely possible that Newcastle United could be the source of even more humour this season, after they gave of themselves so selflessly last year. But then you read of what went on once Keegan was appointed, detailed with frank incredulity by the panel which adjudicated in the Keegan v Newcastle case, which ended with the Messiah being awarded £2m plus interest.
The panel effectively confirmed that the club lied through its teeth, concurring with Keegan’s claim that it “repeatedly and intentionally misled the press, the public and the fans”.
Quite strong there from Mr Liddle in The Times. But he goes on.
Having appointed Keegan, to the delight of Newcastle’s fervent-but-often-deluded following, the board clearly sat down and thought: “Now, what can we do that will really screw him up?” And as one, they arrived at the only answer possible: appoint Dennis Wise to squat on his shoulders, causing trouble. Wise’s qualifications for whatever title he acquired at St James’ Park rested on his managerial performance at Millwall, where he took Mark McGhee’s decent Championship side to the brink of relegation through the signing of some truly shocking players, and a period of copious under-achievement at Leeds United, where most people believe the clever work was done by Gus Poyet.
What possessed Newcastle to believe it needed Wise? Why would anyone believe he could make things better? And remarkably, just when things seemed to be looking more optimistic, they whipped the carpet from beneath Keegan’s feet, humiliated the man and, pretty much, ensured relegation.
It is perhaps the case that Keegan might not have been the most judicious appointment. It was, instead, a form of playing to the Gallowgate gallery, at the expense of competence and realism. But having appointed Keegan, they might at least have let the poor chap get on with doing the job. There was more playing to the gallery later when, distraught at the prospect of having to play the children of a lesser God in the Championship, they appointed the untried Alan Shearer to dig them out of a hole. The hole, as you might have guessed, remained undug.
Also in the press on Sunday there's an interview with the once-forgotten Arsenal man Tomas Rosicky. He's speaking to Steve Tongue of the Independent about his injury hell.
"I think it's getting better and better," he said after playing for almost 70 minutes of Tuesday's Champions' League win over Olympiacos. "I need more games but it looks good and I'm happy I'm back in the team. Of course you miss these nights, and you miss the Premier League as well. I missed everything so it is good to be back."
October 3, 2009
The papers continue to pour over Portsmouth's possible financial demise on Saturday morning but we instead turn our attentions to a little piece in the Daily Mirror where Brian Reade takes a pop at Michael Owen.
The title of his piece, 'Michael Owen needs to shut up about his England hopes and do his talking on the pitch', gives an inkling as to the line of his argument as he gives the Manchester United striker both barrels.
It's been a bad week for men trying to win back the trust of their country. One-time geniuses who worked wonders a few years ago, but who are now chasing miracles to win back public approval ahead of a major decision next summer.
At least, if the Eton Rifles shoot each other in the feet, Gordon Brown is still in with a chance. But what of Michael Owen? Is he doomed to never again star in a pre-World Cup advert with a box of soap powder under his arm thanking his mum for buying Persil?
On Wednesday morning, Owen used broadsheet interviews (set-up by the sponsors whose watches he promotes) to let Fabio Capello know he's in as good a shape as when he scored his Munich hat-trick, and was practising penalties for next year's World Cup.
By lunch-time a Manchester United fan e-mailed me this: "Why's he talking up his England chances when he can't hold down a United shirt? Now I know how the Geordies felt. What happened to learning to walk before you run?"
Has there ever been a player (with the exception of Brand Beckham) more desperate to play for his country for non-patriotic reasons? Does he struggle to sleep worrying about the demise of his global profile, only reaching the Land of Nod by counting Bobby Charlton's England goals?
Meanwhile, the Guardian secure an interview with Hull City manager Phil Brown and the perma-tanned one does not disappoint. In Daniel Taylor's 'Believe it or not, I'm still enjoying the job, says Hull's manager Phil Brown', it takes just two paragraphs for the Tigers boss to refer to himself in the third person. Brilliant.
The mood is surprisingly jovial given that Phil Brown must be acutely aware his scent has reached the pack of bloodhounds otherwise known as Fleet Street. Brown has always been good company, full of banter and levity. But there are definite glimpses of hurt, too – understandable considering the way his stock has fallen since those heady days when Hull City were threatening to become the story of the 2008–09 season and their manager was being talked about as one of the smarter guys in the business.
The change has been swift and brutal and when Hull had their weekly press conference on Thursday it was revealing that, after all the little one-liners and bonhomie, their manager ended it by asking whether he was going to be "stitched up". He was smiling at the time, but there was still the sense of a man under pressure. He did not recognise the Daily Telegraph correspondent and, at one point, peered at him inquisitively. "I bet you're not a big fan of Phil Brown, are you?" he asked.
Brown also tells an intriguing story about how he and his squad prevented a woman from committing suicide on the Humber Bridge on Wednesday:
"She was considering her future, shall we say," Brown says. "But we saved this girl. Sweet talk, you can say. In the end she tootled off back to wherever she had come from. I think she saw us and realised, 'OK, at least it's not that bad.'"
October 2, 2009
Many of the papers have chosen to lead with ESPN Soccernet's exclusive quotes from Portsmouth chief executive Peter Storrie claiming "there is no money left" at Fratton Park. Former Chelsea and Republic of Ireland striker Tony Cascarino tries to look at the Pompey affair from a player's perspective for the Times.
"Portsmouth’s chimes sound ominously like a funeral march. The intimidating atmosphere created by the fans at Fratton Park has been replaced by uncertainty, fear, doubt, mistrust and paralysis, and, before long, we could have a situation that eclipses the meltdown at Leeds United several years ago.
Marseilles faced huge financial problems during my time at the club, a topic of daily conversation among the players. Would the bonuses be paid, when, or why not? Any information was hazy and invited misgivings that led to concern. Oddly, it galvanised the players into playing for their careers and a possible next move, should the club have gone under.
For Portsmouth to do similarly, much relies on their experienced players to pull the squad together, or they could rapidly disintegrate into cliques and escape hatches."
Meanwhile, Mark Fleming examines "Big Phil" Scolari's Uzbekistani adventure with Bunyodkar, which seemes to be unravelling after elimination from the Asian Cup quarter-finals at the hands of South Korea's Pohang Steelers. Scolari could be set to lose his £12 million-a-year job, Fleming writes for the Independent
"The defeat to the Pohang Steelers marks a new low for the 60-year-old Scolari, who lasted just six months at Chelsea despite getting off to a flying start this time last year. The result also takes the wind out of Bunyodkor's outrageous attempts to become a major force in the game. Scolari is not the only big name seduced by the millions on offer – in a country so poor that 45 per cent of the population live off just £1 a day.
The former Brazilian star Rivaldo is being paid £9.1m a year, even though he's now 37, but he only got the job after Samuel Eto'o turned down their offer of £15.6m for three months' work.
Football fans inside the repressive former Soviet republic say the club is being funded by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the country's brutal leader President Karimov. Officially the club is owned by Miradil Djalalov, the head of Zeromax which is the largest private company in Uzbekistan. But it is widely believed that Karimova controls Zeromax, and has bankrolled the ambitious project at Bunyodkor to give her country a sense of pride in the outside world. All of which makes Scolari's failure the more embarrassing."
October 1, 2009
Celtic take on Rapid Vienna in the Europa League tonight but it is not just a routine European contest. 25 years ago the two sides did battle in a bad tempered two-legged affair in the Cup Winners' Cup. After winning on aggregate Celtic were forced to replay the tie at a neutral ground because of missiles being thrown from the crowd. Rapid won the replay and ugly scenes followed as their goalkeeper and goalscorer were attacked by Hoops fans. The Rapid scorer Peter Pacult is now the club's manager, and emotions are still running high at Celtic Park, according to Ewen Murray from the Guardian:
"Celtic have seemingly backed down on their marketing stance in recent days. They had billed Rapid's visit, unapologetically, as "25 Years On" in an obvious attempt to sell tickets. Yet the club are perfectly aware that disorder, triggered by fans who still harbour a wild grudge, would be seriously bad for their reputation.
Former players, it must be recognised, have played a big part in stirring up matters. Frank McGarvey has been the most vocal, a string of explosions regarding his hatred - no, really - for Rapid emerging recently. Public relations companies have been queueing up to get McGarvey anywhere near the Rapid party in Scotland over the past 24 hours. Pacult was prompted into admitting he had never heard of McGarvey until recently, but that will not stop the Rapid coach pinning some of his words on a dressing-room wall."
Some of the talk from yesterday was that a fit Michael Owen would be starting against Wolfsburg, and possibly making his claim for a place on the plane to 2010. Just 20 minutes after the whistle had blown, that dream appeared to die and Patrick Barclay from the Times has his say:
''There are several good reasons why Fabio Capello is reluctant to restore Michael Owen to the England squad - and at Old Trafford last night, with the England manager watching, we were shown one of the best. The striker’s fitness simply cannot be relied upon. That he should have lasted a mere 20 minutes was depressingly predictable.
''As long as he remains agonisingly liable to have to leave the pitch early, eating into a team’s quota of substitutes, he will be no more worthy of an England recall than Jimmy Greaves.''
Meanwhile, something else in decline is the SPL, according to Lawrence Donegan of the Guardian. He reckons that Scottish clubs have been embarrassed in recent European games and, because of the impact of the Premier League, no-one cares about Scotland:
''Why did the Old Firm look so out-classed on both occasions? Simple. Because the managers are forced to rely on mediocre players, or in the case of Walter Smith, who fielded a 39-year-old centre-half against Fredi Kanouté, on players well past their sell-by date.
''And why would that be so? Because the market place has been so distorted by the Premier League that Celtic and Rangers can no longer compete with the likes of Burnley and Wigan when it comes to signing players or, as was the case with Roberto Martínez, promising young managers.''