November 30, 2009
Chelsea's surprisingly comfortable 3-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium over the weekend left Monday morning's media heaping praise on Carlo Ancelotti's victorious side and pouring scorn on Arsene Wenger's young pretenders.
Two-goal hero Didier Drogba takes most of the plaudits for the Blues and The Times' Matt Hughes claims that the peerless Ivory Coast international is such a threat that Arsenal's defence took leave of their senses.
"The impact of Drogba's professionalism on Arsenal has been devastating. His thirteenth and fourteenth goals of the season effectively ended their title challenge because they trail Chelsea by 11 points, and in previous meetings between the clubs he has terminated careers.
Philippe Senderos has never really recovered from the hounding he received from Drogba in the Community Shield four years ago, which he repeated in the 2007 League Cup final, and rarely makes the Arsenal bench these days. The ordeal experienced by William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen yesterday will have been familiar to the Switzerland defender."
In The Sun Steven Howard uses his column to say 'I told you so' as he explains why he thinks Wenger's flops are all out of excuses.
"It does not get much worse than this for Arsenal...
I said on Friday morning this was the same old Arsenal - flakey, inconsistent, lightweight up front without Robin van Persie and, as ever, an accident waiting to happen at the back against Didier Drogba. And so it proved.
Yes, the Gunners had vast amounts of possession and were typically neat in their build-up. But once they got anywhere near the Chelsea area, their confidence evaporated. The ball was either lost in possession or lumped aimlessly into the box."
November 29, 2009
We head over to the Sunday Mirror for the day's pick of the sports reads.
We've selected a column by Michael Calvin ahead of the Merseyside derby. And he's none too impressed with Everton and Liverpool.
Today’s 212th Liverpool derby is bottom of the bill, behind Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates and El Gran Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
It won’t feel like it, of course. Defiance is a local speciality and Goodison, like Anfield, is a wonderfully evocative arena.
The anthems will soar, the tackles will fly and a city will be united across a fabled sporting divide.
But then reality will take hold.
Everton, like Spandau Ballet, are an Eighties tribute act. Like Liverpool, they are potential victims of the Woolworths effect. The clubs have enviable customer bases but are trapped by tradition. Lack of foresight means they’ve failed to move with the times
Loyalty has its limitations, and they cannot continue to rely on prisoners of conscience.
No one could deny David Moyes the right to stop banging his head against the glass ceiling of Everton’s financial limitations.
He needs to move soon to the big job which will define his managerial career. Otherwise he will be tainted as the nearly man of his trade.
Similarly, Steve Gerrard must fear he is slowly morphing into a modern version of Matthew Le Tissier.
Gerrard is the ultimate local hero, who defines his home city and the club to which he has given his professional life.
Lesser characters would have cashed in, walked away after that legendary Champions League Final in Istanbul.
They would have trotted out the usual excuses about the need for new challenges.
It’s difficult to envisage Gerrard joining another English club, but I can see him resuming his partnership with Xabi Alonso in the virgin white of Real Madrid.
November 28, 2009
Rarely does a weekend boast so many standout games of football, On Sunday alone, the Merseyside derby precedes Arsenal v Chelsea and el clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
One man in particularly exciteable mood is the Independent's James Lawton, who is rooting for Arsenal and Barcelona. For what reason? Purely artisitic, as he explains in 'Why I'll be cheering for Wenger and Guardiola this weekend'.
“In a perfect world this would be the weekend we celebrate a stunning win double - a twin triumph for the forces of light and beauty that from time to time rise up and make us feel good about the game that nowadays is so frequently obliged to fight its way out of the gutter.
“Arsenal would turn back the Chelsea juggernaut with an explosion of creativity and finishing artistry from Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin and Arsène Wenger would immediately end his rather disconcerting flirtation with the F word, thus reassuring us that the world is not about to fall off its axis.
“Hugely relieved and exhilarated, we would then watch his fierce admirer Pep Guardiola guide Barcelona, so thrillingly restored in the obliteration of Jose Mourinho's Internazionale in mid-week, back to the top of La Liga with a clinical destruction of the team only Real Madrid's money could buy. Such triumphs would hardly be definitive at this early stage of the season but they would surely make the blood run a little stronger.
“Wenger and Guardiola are certainly the pick of the managerial bunch these days when we come to assess the quality of a club's football and the purity of its ambition. Nor is it surprising to learn that when Guardiola's days as a midfield defensive bulwark of Barcelona were drawing to a close he expressed a desire to finish his playing days under the tutelage of Wenger. At Highbury, he reckoned he could refine his ambition to be a manager who could both win and shape the values of the game to which he had so fiercely devoted his life.
“Wenger admired Guardiola but decided he was a little too old for his purposes. It meant that the player had to rely more heavily on some of the philosophy of his first great mentor, Johan Cruyff, and his own instincts.”
The Guardian's Richard Williams is less captivated by Arsene Wenger's side though and warns that a fraility in defence is likely to prevent them from challenging for the title. In 'Thrills have a price for Arsène Wenger' Williams sounds a note of caution.
"Arsène Wenger was in a cheerful mood yesterday, seemingly recovered from the irritable outburst of last Saturday night, in the aftermath of a damaging defeat at Sunderland, and the four-letter explosion of Monday morning, when someone asked him about Theo Walcott's World Cup prospects. In the preparation for tomorrow's home match against Chelsea the restoration of his equilibrium was probably vital.
"But if William Gallas cannot manage to squeeze a contact lens into his painfully swollen right eye, Wenger's Arsenal will have only half of their first-choice back four available for the contest with Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and their colleagues. That will hardly put them in the best position to improve a defensive record that, in terms of statistics and recent history, appears to disqualify them from winning the Premier League this season.
"The manager disagrees. It is possible, he claimed yesterday, for his team to go on and recapture the title they last won six seasons ago while continuing to leak goals at their present rate. That would make them the first club since Manchester United in 1999-2000 to take the title while conceding at the rate of a goal a match, and would represent a remarkable victory for an evolving philosophy in which Wenger seems far more interested in scoring goals than preventing them.
"Arsenal have given away 15 goals in 12 league matches this season, their most profligate start since José Mourinho's Chelsea established new standards of parsimony five years ago, when the west London team let in only 15 goals in an entire campaign. Under Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea travel to the Emirates Stadium tomorrow leading the league by five points, having conceded only eight goals in 13 matches."
November 27, 2009
Professional Manchester United fan and rather good writer Jim White is always keen to cast a wry eye on the goings-on at Old Trafford and consider their implications.
Jim writes for the Daily Telegraph and says Fergie's best-laid plans have taken a jolt this week.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a planner. He likes it when things go according to schedule.
Sir Alex Ferguson's scheming reckoned without super-agent Pini Zahavi
This week, then, will not have been one he relished. First Nemanja Vidic, the player around whom he proposed to structure Manchester United’s defence for the next five years, made public an itch to move to warmer climes. Then Ferguson’s young second string lost to Besiktas, thus imperilling United’s seeding for the last 16 of the Champions League. And to cap it all, Darren Ferguson was overlooked for the Portsmouth job.
It has long been a theory of this column that Ferguson’s preferred candidate as his successor at Old Trafford is his son. What better way to seal his legacy than to install a dynasty. Plus, with his own boy in charge, he could move away from the dugout but still maintain involvement. The arrangement seemed to be running perfectly to time. Darren had got a couple of years of experience under his belt at Peterborough. The time was now right for a move to a Premier League club to complete his apprenticeship before heading to Manchester when the old man retires. The timeline will now have to be extended after Fergie jnr was pipped to the Pompey job following the intervention of someone who, as a backroom schemer, makes Fergie snr look less Lord Mandelson and more Lord Triesman.
But who's behind the failure of the last of these? How did Avram Grant get the job meant for Fergie's annointed son? It's the chap behind many a megadeal of recent years.
But then Grant does have one big advantage. His best friend is Pini Zahavi, the so-called super agent, the man behind many of modern football’s more intriguing mysteries, such as the career of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Zahavi. In fact, if Zahavi can manoeuvre his chum Avram into a manager’s job in the league that likes to pride itself as the world’s most competitive, Lord Triesman really should get in touch pronto. Never mind Gary Lineker, his lordship should put Zahavi in charge of England’s World Cup 2018 bid tomorrow. Clearly, this is a man who could sell anything to anyone.
November 26, 2009
Poor old Rafa Benitez. Having escaped scrutiny in most of Wednesday's papers following Liverpool's Champions League exit, he's now getting the painful benefit of the analysis of some of England's best-known writers.
Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph, for one, has been putting Rafa under the microscope and thinks the Liverpool boss has been enjoying too much 'me' time.
Back in Rafael Benítez’s native Spain they have a proverb that goes: “The man who does not mix with the crowds knows nothing’’. Good advice.
The best leaders have the courage of their convictions but they also listen to those around them, a quality that Liverpool’s stubborn manager needs to learn quickly.
If he had been at Budapest airport on Wednesday morning, mixing with the crowds of Liverpool faithful, Benítez would have been made aware of the myriad concerns held by some of the sport’s most knowledgeable and passionate supporters.
Benítez cannot hide from the fact that he has a growing amount of questions to answer.
One of the questions Winter thinks he should answer concerns the strange lack of playing time for Alberto Aquilani, who has still to play a significant part in a match for the club. And Tony Barrett in the Times suggests that the club's big-money summer signing could make or break Benitez.
Only a fool would argue that Aquilani’s prolonged absence is the only reason for Liverpool’s struggles. There are, of course, plenty more contributory factors to be taken into account before the acquisition of a player who knows more about the meaning of the word “limp” than Pele without his Viagra can be cited as the biggest cause of their ongoing problems.
But it is Aquilani whose absence has come to symbolise Liverpool’s travails simply because of the sheer scale of the gamble that Benitez took by bringing him to the club. The usually cautious Spaniard speculated like never before and as yet there is precious little sign of him accumulating.
What he has done by signing Aquilani, having to do without him for such a long time and seeing his team’s form desert them almost totally, is to stake his own future on a player whose initials appear totally befitting given the considerable number of breakdowns he has already suffered in his career.
Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail, meanwhile, doesn't think all that much to Fiorentina and pretty much sticks the boot in after Liverpool's unexpected failure.
The celebrations at the end told the story. Fiorentina could not believe they had made it out of Liverpool’s group.
And, in those moments, we saw the simple passage Liverpool had surrendered in Europe this season. For Fiorentina were terrified at the thought of going to Anfield next month. Hell, they were scared rigid by the sight of Lyon with their tails up.
Fiorentina are fragile, edgy, given to self doubt. Yet they did something Liverpool could not in the Champions League this year. They held on: and that is why they are in the last 16, and why they deserve to be there.
November 25, 2009
The two massive stories from yesterday were Liverpool's exit from the Champions League and Portsmouth sacking boss Paul Hart - so it's surprising that plenty of the writers out there have decided to tackle other issues this morning. Martin Samuel in the Mail has chosen to examine the issue of video technology in football and seems to come up with the answer that it's in principle a good idea, but might not work. Conclusive, I hear you cry.
"The Greeks had a word for it: panakeia, meaning cure all. By 1548, the name for a healing herb was panacea, which has survived with a wider meaning to this day. In modern life, we think of many things as panaceas: a new government, a congestion charge scheme, chicken noodle soup, fish-oil tablets, Joanna Lumley. ‘Ah, beer,’ says Homer Simpson. ‘The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.’
For football, the panacea is video technology. Everything would be made right if only we could play it again. Players would not cheat, officials would be all-knowing, fairness would abound and the Republic of Ireland would go to the World Cup. It seems so simple; or so simplistic.
As the video official must deal only in truth this is a relatively lengthy process. He stops the video, hits rewind, gets to the right spot, watches it again, thinks it looks like a penalty. After that he probably plays it again just to be completely sure, and then alerts the referee. In all this time - which could amount to as much as 30 seconds or one minute - the game continues.
There could be other incidents, equally controversial, that the video referee has now missed: a goal might have been scored at the other end. Now, he must find a way of informing the match official that the game is to be stopped for something that happened previously. Does he sound a siren, does he scream through the earpiece and hope he is heard, does he run to the centre circle waving a big flag?"
Elsewhere, Patrick Barclay at the Times heaps praise on Arsenal youngster Kieran Gibbs, who broke his dreaded metatarsal after being scythed down by Standard Liege's Eliaquim Mangala late in their Champions league clash. Gibbs has all the qualities of a future England star according to this particular journalist.
"Given the four-letter scorn heaped on a reporter for asking about Theo Walcott’s World Cup prospects on Monday, it is to be hoped that Eliaquim Mangala did not cross Arsène Wenger’s path late last night.
The match had entered stoppage time when the Standard Liège player, challenging Kieran Gibbs a cynical-looking split-second after he had shot, caused the foot injury that rules Gibbs out of not only Sunday’s match at home to Chelsea but the next two to three months of the Barclays Premier League campaign.
The tall left back (he can also play left or central midfield) is one of the most potent players to come through the England Under-21 ranks in recent years. Quick and alert, with a long, smooth stride and an instinct for attack so powerful that Wenger has done well to keep it within reasonable bounds, he was the ideal replacement for Clichy. Another youngster, Armand Traoré, may be called upon for Sunday.
Although Traoré once burst spectacularly on the scene, Gibbs had overtaken him, a factor appearing to be that he is as well equipped mentally as physically. He seemed unaffected, for instance, by the slip that gave Manchester United an early lead in the second leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final."
November 24, 2009
The papers are still salivating at the performance of Spurs in their 9-1 thrashing of Wigan with discussions aplenty about the title credentials of Harry Redknapp's side. But as per usual, there's always one eye on South Africa 2010, with Henry Winter at the Telegraph choosing to talk up the World Cup chances of fleet-footed winger Aaron Lennon ahead of his team-mate and five-goal hero Jermain Defoe.
"If Erik Edman ever appears on Mastermind, his specialist subject will be "Aaron Lennon's heels''. The Spurs winger's high-speed obliteration of Wigan's defence was fabulously well timed in a World Cup season.
He knows all about them. He kept seeing them at White Hart Lane on Sunday, briefly close up but then disappearing towards the touchline. The Wigan Athletic left-back is a decent defender, talented enough to compete internationally 51 times, but the fleeting image of Lennon's flying heels will stalk the Swede's sleep.
Goals pay the rent, as David Coleman famously exclaimed about Kevin Keegan, and Jermain Defoe could lease the Lane for a year such was the rich quality of his spree against Wigan.
Defoe's five-goal haul was undoubtedly special, guaranteeing his place on the England bench in South Africa, but of more significance in this World Cup 2010 season was Lennon's contribution. Sorry, Jermain. The bigger story revolves around your rather quick mate 'Azza'."
Elsewhere, Matt Dickinson at the Times, chooses to tackle a different World Cup issue, namely the possibility that we may have an extra two assistants behind the goals in South Africa. FIFA's announcement of an extraordinary general meeting apparently indicates Michel Platini's extra official's plan could soon become more than just a Europa League reality.
On the pinboard in my office I still have the grotty piece of paper on which Platini sketched out his plan for extra officials behind each goal. That was 2001 and it was the first anyone had heard of such a plan.
Fully eight years later, it grew to become a Europa League experiment — and now the Uefa president will hope to make it a daily reality. Platini’s plan to roll out extra officials may prove the big winner of last week.
You can hear the argument already. Had those extra eyes been there in the Stade de France when Henry handled, they could hardly have failed to spot it.
As an influential member of Fifa’s executive committee Platini will now believe that his scheme can be rolled out, perhaps even in time for the World Cup finals, although it would still have to be approved by the International Football Association Board, which meets in March in Zurich.
November 23, 2009
While the Thierry Henry row continues to rumble on - with a number of columnists now coming out in support Ireland's nemesis - we turn our attentions away from the most talked about incident in football this year to focus on a story from the Premier League this weekend.
Like a shark sensing a drop of blood a kilometre away, the tabloids are always alert to the possibility of a 'crisis' at one club or another and now the country's pre-eminent red tops have trained their sights on Mark Hughes after Manchester City recorded a sixth consecutive league draw at Liverpool on Saturday.
In 'Sparky has to stop the rot now', the Sun's chief sports writer, Steven Howard, makes an unflattering comparison with Sven Goran Eriksson as he explains how pressure is mounting on Hughes.
"Almost £200 million spent in the transfer market and just six points from a possible 18. Not quite the 'outstanding' job the Mark Hughes media fan club had been claiming only a fortnight or so ago. More the sort of throw-it-all-away form that earns managers the sack. Especially one who chose to spend almost £40m on central defenders with built-in flaws like Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure.
"Incredibly, Manchester City are four points worse off from their opening 12 games than they were under Sven Goran Eriksson two seasons ago. And look what happened to him. Indeed, their record over the last 22 Premier League matches reads an exceedingly mediocre W10, D6, L6.
"The old adage in life is you should never get what you dream for. And Hughes has all the money any manager could want. Six successive draws, though, have left City loitering on the Champions League doorstep rather than inside the house with their feet up. And a dozen points behind leaders Chelsea. Not exactly what the men back in Abu Dhabi bank-rolling the whole operation had planned."
In a swift one-two, former pro Stan Collymore also weights in with a jab at Hughes. In 'Why Rafa Benitez and Mark Hughes should beware the shadow of Guus Hiddink', Collymore suggests that with Russia failing to qualify for the World Cup finals, Hiddink could well be tempted to move to Eastlands.
"Guus Hiddink is set to cast a long shadow over the Premier League in the next few weeks - and if I was Rafa Benitez or Mark Hughes I would be looking over my shoulder for him. Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City on Saturday showed both Benitez and Hughes are still a long way off Hiddink in terms of their tactical ability.
"Benitez’s tactics have often baffled me and his decision to sub Yossi Benayoun for Fabio Aurelio when Liverpool needed a winner was astonishing. And all the while Alberto Aquilani, the club’s £20million summer signing from Roma, was left on the bench.
"But while the doubters grow at Anfield, Hughes’ position at Eastlands must also be coming under scrutiny after six successive draws in the Premier League. Lots of people say Man City are in a transitional period but I think that is baloney. If a team spends £200million on new players of international quality, then City’s owners from Abu Dhabi must be expecting results.
But perhaps rival teams have figured them out after City’s blistering start to the season. And I think now you have to fundamentally ask questions - with Hiddink an ideal successor to Hughes."
November 22, 2009
Piers Morgan may be best known to those in the USA as a host of "America's Got Talent". He fulfils a similar role in Britain despite never quite convincing many that he possesses any talent himself. Lampooned in Private Eye as "Piers Moron", the former Fleet Street editor is now a shock jock of the journalistic world, a wind-up merchant of the highest order.
Piers is a fan of Arsenal FC, even changing the London edition of the Daily Mirror's lead story to "Arsenal win the World Cup" when France lifted the title in 1998. He does not like Manchester United or anyone associated with them. Writing on the week's hot topic - Simon Cowell does not require his services on X-Factor - he seeks to defend Thierry Henry and destroy Roy Keane for his outspoken Friday comments on the matter. Prepare for some invective from the Mail on Sunday.
I was going to write a fairly critical column about Thierry Henry. As an Arsenal fan, I was stunned that one of my all-time heroes could commit that double handball horror and, more importantly, allow the crucial ensuing goal to stand.
And as an Irishman, I simply wanted his devious little Gallic torso dismembered over the Champs-Elysees at first light.
But then, just as my pencil was being sharpened to commit heresy, Roy Keane entered the debate, like the snarling, vile, putrid pitdog that he is.
And as I watched this gruesome excuse for a human being spewing his bile about the supposed failures of the valiant Irish team and contemptuously dismissing cheating as just part of the game, something inside me snapped.
Having said he was going to attack Henry this "Irishman" then defends the Frenchman to the hilt.
Was I really going to lambast someone like Henry for the first really dodgy thing he’s ever done while Keane’s still alive and, literally, kicking?
One is a polite, modest, teetotal, disciplined, generous-hearted, loyal, thoroughly decent man who has been not just a fantastic player but also a fantastic role model and ambassador for his sport.
The other is a humourless, nasty, violent, foul-mouthed, selfish, disloyal thug who injures opponents, walks away from his country in the middle of a World Cup, abuses all and sundry, and resides on a Citizen Kane-style pedestal of egotistical, lonely, unjustified self-adoration.
A born thespian, Henry would seek out opportunities to show what a good guy he was,
shaking hands with opponents who’d scythed him down, and beseeching referees to show mercy on them.
He didn’t dive, curse or trip people up. He campaigned against racism, did loads of unsung work for charity and spoke often about his love for the spirit, history and ethos of football.
He was so image-conscious that when the Daily Mirror, under my editorship, ran a
story about him partying in Spain, he subjected me to a half-hour emotional rant
about how he was ‘not, and never ’ave been a boozer’ and how damaging such incorrect stories were to the opinion of young people who looked up to him as a role model.
November 21, 2009
When a matter dominates the news agenda, then often the man to provide some levity and sense of a furore is Guardian veteran David Lacey.
Even he shares little sympathy for Henry and is happy to compare him unfavourably to Diego Maradona:
Few if any could ever have expected the words "Henry" and "cheat" to appear in the same sentence but after Wednesday night they became inseparable. The French have a better word for a cheat – un tricheur – which has a satisfying Machiavellian ring about it. For England fans Maradona will always be a cheating Argie. For the Irish the hand of Henry will forever remain the ultimate tool in the plot hatched by Fifa to frustrate Giovanni Trapattoni's players through its late decision to seed the play-offs.
At least Maradona had the decency to score one of the World Cup's greatest goals once he had fisted Argentina into the lead against Bobby Robson's England in the 1986 quarter-finals, dribbling half the length of the pitch, past player after player, to find the net then repeating the feat in miniature against Belgium in the semi-finals. Paradoxically the worst and best of Maradona roused England to produce what almost became one of their greatest recoveries, for at 2-0 down Robson brought on John Barnes to create one and very nearly two goals for Gary Lineker.
However, Lacey feels Henry chose to try and get away with what he could when he could but will not match Maradona's foibles:
It is to be hoped that for Henry this is a one-off. Maradona was a compulsive handler, as he demonstrated against the Soviet Union in the 1990 tournament when he stuck up a paw to block a corner from Oleg Kuznetsov, an offence oddly unseen by the referee. Maradona left the 1994 World Cup after failing a drug test and now, as Argentina's coach, has been banned for two months by Fifa for obscene language in the aftermath of his side's qualification for South Africa.
Somehow it is hard to see Henry's career keeping Maradona company for long. Not that this will be of much consolation to the Irish who on Wednesday were cheated of a penalty shoot-out at the very least. But that, unfortunately, is the game. As one old pro, Ronnie Whelan, said of Henry's legerdemain: "If you're a professional footballer and you're in the same position you'd do the same thing and hope to get away with it." Henry did and Ireland were left demanding a replay. In their dreams.
November 20, 2009
There are no prizes for guessing what continues to occupy the columnists on Friday morning as the fall-out from Thierry Henry's handball continues. Those of you who have already seen said incident replayed over 100 times on Sky Sports News will have to bear with us...
The Football Association of Ireland have demanded that FIFA order a replay but Martin Samuel, writing in the Mail, presents the practical opposition to such a scenario. In 'It's so simple, let's force some honesty back into the game', Samuel argues that ceding to Ireland's request would open a real can of worms, not least for the poor journalists who will cruelly be sent to South Africa to cover the greatest competition on earth.
"Replay the game every year for the next century and each time it will need special circumstances for Ireland to win. In 15 matches, they have beaten France twice and the last occasion was 28 years ago. So there can be no consolation for Ireland this time.
"The demand that the match should be replayed is forlorn, too. How would that work anyway? Do we stick to the same teams to perfectly recreate the game of that night. If so, how long do we wait for Julien Escude, the French centre half injured in a collision with Patrice Evra? Without the same starting 22 it is not the same game. Yes, FIFA could grant dispensation, make this a special circumstance, but then on what grounds would they reject Russia’s request for a similar revisiting of the match in Slovenia, because the dismissal of striker Alexander Kerzhakov, just 21 minutes after coming on as a substitute, looked harsh?
"Indeed, on what grounds would they ignore the two dozen demands for replays in every round of World Cup matches? Some of us would like to get home from South Africa next summer. No, the solution is not to rewrite the rulebook midway through the competition, but to work to minimise the chance of this happening again.A predictable call for the use of video technology has resulted, but that is not the answer, either. The conundrum with video interruptions is how to restart fairly from open play."
The spotlight continues to shine on the villain of the piece, Henry, and James Lawton, writing in the Independent, presents a savage indictment of the three-time Footballer of the Year. In 'Henry has never been an angel. Now he is beyond redemption', Lawton examines how Henry's actions were not exactly a one-off.
"Irish football is entitled to believe it has never seen anything so cynical, so far removed from the spirit of sport, as the devilish hand played by Thierry Henry to deny Giovanni Trapattoni's team a place in the World Cup finals that would have been so thoroughly deserved. But then how do you draw up a ranking table of deceit when you know how far, how sickeningly, the list of precedents for Henry's action stretches back – and how feeble has been the reaction of the authorities?
"England will never forget Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" in Mexico in 1986 and Spain, who would be crowned as brilliant European Champions two years later, also have reason to reflect on a level of deceit that even now, three years after it happened in the last World Cup, makes the blood run cold and the senses revolt.
"This was also authored by the supremely elegant Henry, the player who for so many and for so long had been among the football angels for his exquisite talent and his philosophical panache.
Remember how it led to France's all-important second goal in the second-round match against Spain in Hanover, when Henry fell to the ground faking a head injury after a brush with defender Carlos Puyol? Henry won a decisive free-kick – and the less enviable reward of announcing himself a specialist cheat."
November 19, 2009
Well there is only one hot topic in Thursday morning's newspapers. 'Hand Gaul!', 'The Hand of Frog', 'Le Hand of God' and other such puns scream out from the back pages after Thierry Henry used his hand to set up the goal that sent France to the World Cup finals at Ireland's expense.
In a country where Diego Maradona's similar antics in the 1986 World Cup has left a deep mental scar, the English media have shown no mercy to "cheating" Les Bleus hero Henry. Writing in The Telegraph Henry Winter does a great job of demolishing the former Arsenal star's reputation.
"Jour de gloire? Day of infamy more like. France cheated their way on to the last flight to South Africa. Thierry Henry handled not once, but twice in setting up William Gallas's goal that broke Irish hearts and all rules of sporting justice at the Stade de Fraud on Wednesday night.
Henry is one of the game's most graceful performers and characters, an elegant attacker who has enchanted audiences across Europe but his name will now be associated with conning opponents and officials.
This was Diego Maradona territory, subterfuge writ large, a defence beaten by the dark arts. Unlike England's Argentine nemesis in 1986, Henry has a conscience. How easily he will sleep after this remains to be seen."
Meanwhile, former Premier League and international referee Graham Poll uses his 'Official Line' column in the Daily Mail to absolve the match referee from any blame in the handball debacle.
"I felt for the Irish, who gave their all, and I also felt for Swedish referee Martin Hansson.
So often the 'big' team seem to get decisions but up until the French goal Hansson had been superb. When Anelka went down late in the game a penalty looked possible but Hansson was not fooled by the Chelsea striker's dive.
No blame could be apportioned to the referee, who had no chance of seeing Thierry Henry's disgraceful handball which set up his former team-mate William Gallas for the goal which takes France to the World Cup finals.
Ironically, UEFA president Michel Platini's brainchild of two extra assistants would surely have detected the handball and may have prevented the French progressing - but they, along with video technology, were missing."
November 18, 2009
With a couple of the papers suggesting Mark Hughes is lining up yet another solid midfielder with a January bid for Milan star Rino Gattuso, you might think a team on a run of five draws would be looking forward to the return of Robinho to spice things up again.
But, with Barcelona still persistently linked with a move, the Daily Mirror's Oliver Holt says Manchester City are too good for restless Robinho. And, at the risk of becoming overly philosophical for his audience, he takes a stab at deconstructing the problem.
"He lets things drift. He exists in a vortex of uncertainty and rumour, of claim and counter-claim and senseless distortion. He’s a study in the Kafkaesque intrigue that surrounds so many modern footballers, a world of petty and impenetrable complexities.
No one being able to pin anything down. No one knowing what’s happening. Everyone assuming he wants to leave but not knowing for sure [...] This is a man who is wasting his talent, who is letting it dissolve in this web of lies and double-speak.
The irony is, I’m not even sure he’ll get back into the City team when he’s fit again. He’s getting awfully close to being surplus to requirements. He’s got to the stage at City already where he’d be a good player to have coming off the bench when you’re chasing a game."
Martin Samuel at the Daily Mail, meanwhile, heads across to the red side of Manchester to continue the debate over Sir Alex Ferguson's touchline ban, which you can read about here. Samuel neglects to go down the Kafka route and instead quotes another great thinker, Arsene Wenger, in arguing that banning Ferguson and Diego Maradona is pointless as they have, in effect, punished themselves with their rants.
"There is almost no need for sentence at all when a manager switches to rant mode because the loss of temper and dignity is penalty enough. ‘The politician who loses the debate is the one who gets nervous,’ said Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, earlier this season. ‘As soon as you become aggressive on television you have lost. It is a basic rule.’
He is right. Had Maradona been calm and considered after the victory over Uruguay, his critics would have had little choice but to report that he had conjured a very useful away win to take his country to the World Cup. Instead, he was again depicted as a human train wreck and a liability to Argentina’s hopes of success. Maradona was the biggest loser here, in line with Wenger’s observation.
So, too, Ferguson who, having attacked Wiley’s condition, was quickly discredited when it transpired the official had run a greater distance than all but four Manchester United players during the match with Sunderland. The more a manager rails at referees, the less he is heard."
November 17, 2009
With internationals still sitting firmly at the front of the football agenda, most papers are (perhaps a tad prematurely) beginning to predict how next year's World Cup finals will unfold.
Kevin McCarra at the Guardian focuses on the fact that among the so-called World Cup"contenders", only England will not play a midweek friendly, despite having only one more match scheduled before the end of the Premier League season. Could this be restricting Capello's ability to assemble his side for the finals?
"The kindest comment to be made about England's loss to Brazil on Saturday was that the squad could use some practice. They will not be getting it. A friendly in March is the only preparation the players will have before the close of the Premier League programme. The expected couple of games prior to the start of the World Cup will simply bring such occasions into even deeper disrepute.
Other nations have constructed more extensive programmes that will be to their advantage. Nearly all the sides above England in the Fifa rankings have a match arranged for this week as well. Germany are the exception and play only one friendly in this window, as they cancelled last Saturday's game with Chile following the death of the goalkeeper Robert Enke, but the team will return to the field against Ivory Coast tomorrow.
Were the players still together, they would now be busy trying to correct their work in the areas where they faltered. It is unimaginable that Fabio Capello would not be emphasising once more the absolute necessity of keeping possession. His exasperation was vivid when Wayne Rooney, with the match scarcely under way, attempted difficult passes that presented the ball to the planet's best side."
Elsewhere, one nation that won't be at the finals in South Africa is shambolic Scotland. George Burley was given his marching orders yesterday and Graham Spiers at the Times wasted little time in pointing out a list of problems with the Scottish game.
"George Burley has gone - done in by the Scottish Football Association after one setback too many. If, like me, you have a perverse love of Scottish football, then you'll know this Burley palaver is just the latest in a long line of afflictions. The name of Scottish football should be Job.
Below, set out in no particular order, is my top ten of things that are wrong with Scottish football. If anyone actually knows of a cure, simply drop me a line at The Times and I'll kindly pass it on to Gordon "Smudger" Smith at the SFA.
1. Rangers and Celtic - culpable!
Sometime around 2001 Sir David Murray, the Rangers chairman, said to me: "Barry Ferguson, our one real player of quality produced by this club in ten years - not good enough." Rangers and Celtic have not done their bit for the Scottish game by requiring "ready-made imports" to come in and appease their fans, rather than take the time and patience to rear their own. Good on Hibernian, a club with an excellent record of nurturing Scottish talent, but the Old Firm? Guilty."
November 16, 2009
The fallout from the reserves' defeat to Brazil continues and it's the Times' Patrick Barclay who claims that Fabio Capello's job has just been made a whole lot easier as he looks to bring down his squad to the magic 23.
To the margins, on the stark evidence of his reserves’ merciful defeat by a Brazil near full strength, had been consigned Darren Bent, Joleon Lescott, Jermaine Jenas and Shaun Wright-Phillips; they ought to make contingency plans for holidays next June. As for the families and close friends of Matthew Upson and James Milner, the best advice would be to book something in South Africa, but avoid game-drives on match days.
So does Fabio know his squad already? Barclay thinks that he does.
The manager knows his team and the nine who did not appear alongside Wayne Rooney and Gareth Barry against Brazil were David James, Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, David Beckham or Theo Walcott, Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey.
The shadow team now appear to be along these lines: Robert Green or Ben Foster, with the loser also to travel as third goalkeeper; Owen Hargreaves (if fully restored after tendinitis), Wes Brown, Upson and Wayne Bridge; Michael Carrick, Beckham or Walcott, Joe Cole and Milner in midfield; and, up front, Peter Crouch. Finished counting yet? Yes, the single place this leaves would be for Jermain Defoe, back to his least impressive in Doha, to defend against such a challenge as Michael Owen might muster or the prospect of Aaron Lennon’s pace being used with, rather than as an alternative to, that of Walcott.
Meanwhile, over at The Independent, Sam Wallace is conducting his own public information campaign to keep young stars on the straight and narrow.
The new young must-have English footballer is Jack Rodwell at Everton. He is 18, an England Under-21 midfielder for whom Chelsea have offered £14m already. But don't worry: Manchester United and Manchester City are making their own discreet enquiries and before long the price and the add-ons and the wages will rise. So, will it be a big house in Surrey or a big house in Cheshire? Will it be nights out with Lampsy and JT or nights out with Wazza and Rio? Here's a radical suggestion for young Master Rodwell: stay at Everton.
Wallace wants young Jack to ignore the usual trend of the big-money move before he is ready and hopes that the fact he is playing regularly for Everton will be enough to keep his feet on the ground.
Rodwell is already at Everton. He has time and he does not need his career to be shaped by the psychotic impulse in clubs such as Chelsea to harvest the best young players and stockpile them on the off chance that they might turn into superstars. If his career continues on its present trajectory he has to trust that the financial rewards will come.
As Wenger famously said to Nicolas Anelka before he left Arsenal in 1999, for all the riches available to young footballers they can only sleep in one bed at a time and drive one car at a time. In a sport awash with money for the talented few, the really important thing is knowing what is truly valuable. Rodwell should be playing at Old Trafford on Saturday. No price can be put on that.
November 15, 2009
So it was another night of drama and high jinx as three more teams qualified for the World Cup, the play-offs gave us a look at who might join them and some of those already qualified battled it out against each other.
The pick of the friendlies was England v Brazil (only just edging out Spain v Argentina of course) and Kevin McCarra of the Guardian watched the contest in Doha, choosing to focus on the efforts of captain-for-the-day Wayne Rooney.
"Wayne Rooney seldom suffers from apathy on a football pitch. The opportunity to be captain in Doha seemed to make him particularly animated, although frustration then gripped him even more quickly than usual. He had a craving to leave his mark on a game where the play was sometimes perfunctory, but this was one of his weaker outings for England.
The responsibilities that accompany the armband looked excessive for someone who expects so much of himself even when he is not an office-bearer. It was, after all, frustration that caused a sending-off at the 2006 World Cup when, as a lone forward, Rooney stamped on Ricardo Carvalho while the Portuguese was marking him claustrophobically."
Elsewhere, former England striker and 1986 World Cup golden boot winner Gary Lineker examined the missed chances of Capello's second string for the Mail.
"The real winners for England were the players who didn't face Brazil last night. Men like David Beckham and Joe Cole must surely have increased their chances of being on the plane to South Africa.
James Milner was the best of the wannabes, reasonable but not much more than that. Ben Foster, Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson did okay but they made mistakes. Poor Darren Bent didn't have the service but sometimes a striker has to make things happen. Things didn't happen for the Sunderland man and as he walked off when substituted by Jermain Defoe, I fear his one big chance to grasp the nettle had gone.
Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch didn't do much more than Bent when they came on in the second half but the pressure wasn't on them in the same way.They have already scored goals for this season and their places in the squad are virtually assured. They will not have minded Bent failing to score. It is a terrible human trait to want rival players to fail when they are chasing your place in the team – I know, I have been there."
November 14, 2009
It is crunch time in the European section of World Cup qualifying as the play-offs get underway on Saturday, with Ireland's attempt to overturn the odds against France taking pride of place.
In the build-up to the tie, Richard Dunne took the risky decision of publicly pointing the finger at Raymond Domenech, accusing the manager of being France's weak link and highlighting an incident when Domenech was booed by the crowd at the Paris Masters tennis event.
Writing in the Guardian, Irish comic Dara O'Briain revels in his compatriot's brave, if perhaps foolhardy, attempt at mind games. In 'It's in the stars: Raymond Domenech is Ireland's best chance', O'Briain picks up on the French coach's fondness for astrology and also finds sustained comic potential in Dunne's attack.
"That's right, Richard, divide and conquer. Let the French team, indeed the French nation, know that this man is what's dragging them back.
"And what's the best way to get him sacked? That's right, mes amis, by not qualifying for the next World Cup. Wow, when did Dunne become Machiavelli? When did the Aston Villa stopper start scheming like Iago? Or to put it in terms the French would understand best, at what point did the rock at the centre of our defence begin to resemble the Marquise de Merteuil, the conniving villainess Glenn Close played in Dangerous Liaisons, who once said: 'Never open your mouth without first calculating how much damage you can do.'
"Dunne, you may take your place at the court of the Dauphin. You may flutter your fan at the French nobles and sow doubt and discord. Previously I would have mainly trumpeted Dunne for his tackling and heading; now I see him in a powdered wig, dropping arch bon mots and undermining the aristocrats."
The Independent's Paul Newman also casts his eye over the problems affecting the France squad under Domenech. In 'Domenech fears player revolution', he highlights how the squad have underachieved in recent years.
"While today's Irish squad includes players from Scunthorpe, Preston, Reading and Bohemians (and none from Continental Europe), every one of Domenech's party plays in the top division of one of the big leagues. Twenty of them have been playing in the Champions League this season and the loss through injury of Franck Ribéry and Gaël Clichy has not significantly weakened the squad.
"There is a feeling among the French public that such a group should not be in this position and that the players, through a lack of respect for Domenech, are not living up to their potential. Karim Benzema, one of the most gifted of the younger players, admitted recently that he did not always try his hardest when playing for France.
"In public at least, the squad are standing behind Domenech. On a day when the main headline in L'Equipe, the sports daily, said that the Irish saw the French coach as their best chance of victory, Sidney Govou, the experienced Lyons striker, rejected any such idea.
'He won't be on the pitch,' Govou said during a break from training at Clairefontaine. 'The Irish are trying to turn on the pressure, but there's no debate. We're united as a group and in attacking him they are attacking us. It's not a question of supporting him. The only support we can give him is by performing on the pitch.'"
November 13, 2009
The World Cup play-offs take centre stage this weekend and with number of former greats on the brink of failure thoughts have naturally turned to what has gone wrong for some of international football's established countries.
France won the World Cup in 1998, and the European Championships in 2000, but now find themselves with a tough Ireland side standing between them and a place at South Africa 2010. Just what has gone wrong for Les Blues?
The Guardian's Amy Lawrence claims their current plight stems from a lack of young stars coming off their once famed conveyor belt of talent.
"Aimé Jacquet, the coach who guided France to World Cup triumph in 1998 and later went on to oversee the national technical department, which was for a while the envy of football, had a nice turn of phrase about player development. "Tomorrow's football" he called it.
A decade on and the conveyor belt of talent looks a little rusty. Who was the last outstanding graduate from the French system? Probably Franck Ribéry. But he is 26 years old. Below him the system is not functioning quite as effortlessly as it once did. In the aftermath of the 1998-2000 generation, France were highly successful in junior football. In 2001 they won the Under-17 World Cup and scouts from the world's top clubs scrambled for the signatures of la crème de la crème. Florent Sinama-Pongolle was player of the tournament. Anthony Le Tallec was runner-up for the award.
Liverpool – through the French connections of Gérard Houllier – won the race and bought two teenagers who looked certainties to become established players at Anfield. Today both are 25. Sinama-Pongolle is a peripheral player at struggling Atlético Madrid, Le Tallec is at Le Mans."
November 12, 2009
With news of Robert Enke's death coming late on Tuesday night, Thusday morning is the first chance that the national papers have had the chance to delve deeper into the tragedy that has struck German football.
The decision of the international goalkeeper to take his own life is examined sensitively by German football writer, Rafhael Honigstein, in the Guardian. In 'Robert Enke's death has cast a long shadow over German football', Honigstein examines the impact the sad event may have on Enke's team-mates.
"Enke apologised to his wife for taking his own life in a farewell note. Perhaps she can take a modicum of comfort from the fact that his suffering is finally at an end. For the unsuspecting team-mates and the coaching staff, however, the numbness must be tinged with incredibly dark thoughts of regret. Football encourages a sense of responsibility for your colleagues; some players might feel that Enke's desperate plunge in front of a train on Tuesday amounts to a failure in this regard. There is no easy way to negotiate these awful questions, no right or wrong, only shades of black.
"This is why suicide must be so much harder to take than accidental or natural death: it has loved ones, work-mates and friends wracking their brains, wondering whether they could have somehow prevented the tragedy. I know that one prominent German player always suspected that Enke, a highly intelligent, sensitive man, wasn't quite up to the national job, not ready for the enormous pressure that comes with it. Will he feel guilty for harbouring those innocent thoughts now? Should he?
"'Sometimes, it is just not possible to go back to business as usual,' said [DFB president, Theo] Zwanziger at the Kameha Grand press conference in Bonn. 'Sometimes you need to stop in your tracks and take stock.' The players and coaching staff, he added, had unanimously decided that they couldn't play football on Saturday. 'The friendly against Chile has been cancelled. We all need time to grieve and there's no fixed time-line for such a thing.'
"'Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel' – after the game is before the game. Sepp Herberger's famous quip epitomises post-war Germany's determination to get on with it, its reluctance to dwell on the past. But for once, the show cannot go on."
As a former sportsman himself, Matthew Syed of the Times always offers an interesting perspective on major talking points in sport and, in light of Enke's death, he addresses depression on Thursday morning.
In 'Success and despair often walk hand in hand', Syed explains how a life of sporting excellence does not guard against the mental tribulations that effect a great many people outside of the athletic sphere.
"Why? That is the question that arises whenever we are confronted with the reality of a human being encompassing their own annihilation. From what impulse, what state of despair, could any healthy person wish to extinguish the flame of his own existence?
"It is a question that, for many, is imbued with added urgency when the deceased seemed to have it all: wealth, a loving family, success, the acclaim of his peers and the public. How could any professional sportsman, living a life straight from the pages of Boy’s Own, wish to end it all in a moment of chilling and fearful pain? But this sentiment, while seemingly reasonable, is derived from one of the more pernicious, as well as the more stubborn, contemporary myths.
"It is the idea that sporting success (or any other type) leads inexorably to emotional nirvana. It is the notion that we can avoid the more perilous neuroses of the mind with comic-book prescriptions about what makes us happy or, indeed, sad.
"The reality is that depression is as prevalent among top sportsmen as it is among any other diverse group of people, as is a sense of worthlessness, fear, anxiety and low self-esteem. Professional sport, in many ways, demands neurosis. It makes a virtue of the obsessional pursuit of perfection: just ask Jonny Wilkinson who, even now, after months as a Buddhist, finds it difficult to free his mind from the tiny errors he made in his last practice session."
November 11, 2009
Tony Cascarino, The Times' one-time Irishman, is a former professional who likes to give the players' perspective. He can be hit and miss but this time, perhaps as a result of a lack of his usual self-indulgence, he scores with a decent take on the diving debate that has followed the David Ngog debate.
Players cheat because they can get away with it, pure and simple. It’s a tactic that works and can be decisive in finely balanced matches that may turn on the decision of a referee who must make split-second judgments and is ready to give fouls for minimal physical contact.
he authorities must change this culture of cheating by making it in players’ interests to stay honest. The time to act is now because the next generation of footballers has grown up in the climate of dishonesty that has developed in recent seasons.
They are going to be fabulous divers, even better than the present lot. I watch kids’ football sometimes and I’m amazed by their antics.
Here's Cas's solution to this sickness in football.
The only way to eradicate cheating is to punish it. The odd yellow card for simulation is not enough of a deterrent. The FA should treat diving like violent conduct and hand out three-match bans for offenders. If a referee misses a dive during a game, a video panel should review contentious incidents.
Then managers may tell their players: “Don’t go over, I can’t afford to lose you for three games.” And the players may cut out this cheating that’s poisoning the game.
That 2010 World Cup may be just around the corner, but it's the bid for 2018 that is taking a lot of the attention at the moment. The Times' Oliver Kay wants the bid team to ''get real'' and win over the people that matter.
''On the day that England officially opened its bid to host the 2018 World Cup finals last May, in the appropriate surroundings of the Bobby Moore Suite at Wembley Stadium, it was hard to resist the heady feeling that football was finally coming home, even if, in a nod to the acute sensitivities of the vote-winning campaign ahead, that particular phrase had been declared off-limits.
''The preferred slogan - less imperial, more inclusive - was “England United, The World Invited”, but, as the months have passed, the prospect has arisen, not for the first time, of a party falling flat.''
Time to get serious about winning over the votes that England needs, says Kay. Although the signs are not good.
''It comes back to that word: Realpolitik, politics based on self-interest or power rather than moral or idealistic concerns. When the executive committee members go to ballot in December next year, many will do so thinking less about what is best for the World Cup than about what is best for them and for their national interests. Trade-offs and flattery will get you everywhere.
''There is a duty to get behind the bid, to show the world how much England, as a nation, wants to host the World Cup. But right now there is a worrying feeling, emanating from inside the bid team, that football is not coming home, that a great opportunity is slipping away. Early days these may be, but it is time to step up the bid - before it is too late.''
The Independent's Ian Herbet, meanwhile, has his views of Man City - from a nice Abu Dhabi hotel no doubt. But has his reservations about the size of the project facing them.
''City have failed to capture the imagination of the locals - most people here don’t know who they are - but their manager is fully aware of the ambitions of the club’s Emirati owners,'' he begins.
''The place is still so barely populated that its many wide walkways are empty but when they decide they want Formula One racing, they build the most extraordinary piece of architecture in the sport at Yas Marina, inside two years. They believe they will have created the footballing equivalent one day, too.''
November 10, 2009
It's a slow day today, what with the international break on, so why not have a bit more Benitez baiting?
We head off to the Times, where Oliver Kay uses his match report of the 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham City to underline a few problems for Rafa.
A sequence of one victory in the past nine matches in all competitions is simply not good enough for a club of Liverpool’s size and ambition and, no matter how much sympathy Benítez and his players might attract during an unforgiving crisis of confidence and personnel, they were grateful beneficiaries, as the manager admirably admitted afterwards, of a highly contentious penalty award midway through the second half when David Ngog went to ground without being touched by Lee Carsley.
A half-fit Steven Gerrard, who had come off the bench as a substitute for the hamstrung Albert Riera, converted the penalty, but, no matter what he and the enterprising Glen Johnson tried as they went in search of the winning goal in the final quarter of the game, Birmingham stood firm.
It was a strange game, with Liverpool starting like a house on fire, taking an early lead through Ngog’s acrobatic volley and yet somehow they were 2-1 down by half-time. Rafael Benítez was right to take some comfort from the way his team had performed, but, even when their football was at their most incisive when they led, there was a haphazard, reckless feel to their play that was contrary to everything that their manager has spent the past five years trying to instil in them.
It is nothing that an upturn in confidence should not be able to rectify, but what will come first: the confidence that yields a result or the result that yields the upturn? The momentum gained from one supposed turning point, the victory over Manchester United last month, soon dissipated and their first game after the international break, at home to Manchester City on November 21, has now assumed huge importance for both clubs.
And a quick visit to the Daily Telegraph before we depart. Rory Smith reckons most people have not yet realised just how much trouble Liverpool are in. And the fact he had to rely on an unfit Steven Gerrard to rescue them against Birmingham shows this.
Gerrard is seen, with good reason, as a panacea to all of Liverpool’s ills.
His class, his quality, his endless power and boundless reserves of quality see to that. When he is absent, as he was for 44 minutes here, Liverpool lack urgency, that cutting edge of quality.
November 9, 2009
Looking around the papers today, most journalists are (somewhat prematurely you feel) writing-off Manchester United's Premier League title chances and preparing for Chelsea to regain the championship crown despite it only being November.
It's much of the same post-match analysis from most quarters, discussing United's bad luck and Sir Alex's criticism of the ref, but Mark Ogden at the Daily Telegraph chooses to examine the United boss' reluctance to hand Michael Owen a regular starting berth.
"United’s defeat at Chelsea was undoubtedly a blow to their title hopes, but their performance was impressive and only wasteful finishing, and the absence of a strike-partner for Wayne Rooney, denied them a point or even three.
So what about Owen? Has the time now come for him to be given the Premier League opportunity that his patience and track record arguably deserve? One certainty is that he won’t score goals while sat on the bench. He has shown glimpses of his predatory instinct, so perhaps he should now be unleashed from the start of games.
After all, isn’t that what Manchester United are supposed to be about? Beating teams on the front foot and making opponents worry about their firepower? True, they do not, and cannot, carry the same threat without the unique talents of Cristiano Ronaldo.
But those pointing to the loss of Carlos Tevez as another factor behind United’s blunted edge miss the point that Owen’s record this season is better than the Argentine’s. Tevez has scored four goals in 13 appearances for Manchester City, but while Owen has started six games for United, Tevez has been a substitute just once."
Elsewhere, Martin Samuel at the Daily Mail is full of praise for Chelsea captain and yesterday's matchwinner John Terry, citing him as the key that could unlock the door to a third Premier League title come May.
"Every fibre in Terry’s body must have ached for the revenge of a winning goal against Manchester United, particularly this day, when he would have known the ground was alive with mockery and whispers, yet he let the moment pass.
This is captaincy of the highest order, Terry putting his mind on the line, as much as his body. He sacrifices, the way Tony Adams once did for Arsenal and Roy Keane for Manchester United, and that level of commitment takes its toll in the end.
John Terry celebrates after beating Manchester United
All things considered, it is a wonder Terry remains relatively untroubled by demons. His record is not entirely unblemished but the majority of indiscretions took place early in his career and there seems to be evidence of maturity arriving with age.
...Ancelotti increasingly resembles the last coach to fashion a great Chelsea team, Jose Mourinho. He created a title-winning Chelsea side on a home fortress — he never lost here, and neither has Ancelotti so far — and on a team built from the back on the reliability of his captain, Terry. "
November 8, 2009
We've heard from Rafael Benitez recently that football is about the project and not about winning trophies (surely the comment of a loser?), and now Paul Hayward in The Observer says Arsene Wenger must win trophies at Arsenal to rubber stamp his project. See the difference?
Arsenal force us to confront a philosophical tangle. Do a club need to win things to bring meaning to their endeavours or is the pursuit of creativity sufficient to justify the effort? This is where Wenger's problem starts, because he cannot cultivate artistic football without promising something at the end of it. Hence the constant depiction of this new Arsenal as a train you can hear coming in the night but not quite see.
This was vintage Wenger, in midweek, after the 4-1 Champions League win over AZ Alkmaar: "We grow from game to game. We get stronger from game to game and it's important to keep that attitude to progress and improve, play for each other and improve even more. We have to believe in our future."
There is a whiff of the hustings about this. If Barack Obama is accused of governing America by speeches, Wenger might be charged with chasing trophies by eloquence. Except that he has held plenty of English metal: three Premier League titles, with two League and FA Cup Doubles. The question is not whether he can convert romanticism into silver but whether he can do so now on the furthest borders of his own aesthetic principles.
November 7, 2009
Not a day goes by without one of Fleet Street's finest passing comment on things down at Liverpool, and this time it's Des Kelly in the Daily Mail.
It's got to be said that he has a point, after Rafa - manager of Liverpool let's not forget - claimed that winning trophies isn't everything. Isn't that exactly what Liverpool are about?
Liverpool supporters keep saying it, Rafa Benitez can’t help but plead for it, and practically everyone seems to agree that this football lark shouldn’t be judged in the simple black and white of winning and losing.
But here are the statistics that matter: one win in eight games, currently placed sixth in the table and with distant hopes of avoiding Champions League ignominy reliant on the results of others.
It could explain why Benitez says: ‘I don’t agree with people when they say you have to win trophies.’
How things have changed. There was a time when success at Liverpool was about nothing else but winning trophies; it was ingrained in their culture.
November 6, 2009
Would you like your club to change the name of your stadium? Well, certainly not if Mike Ashley is involved in the process but, now that Chelsea have got involved too, everyone is suddenly thinking about cashing in. The Times' Matt Hughes has his views and thinks that the financial reality of football is driving the decision of the Blues.
''Imagining a world in which Chelsea are no longer brash and flash takes a considerable leap, like picturing estate agents without shiny suits or MPs deprived of their expense accounts. Yet that is the vision of Ron Gourlay.
''The new chief executive is determined to make his mark by smoothing the club’s rough edges and re-engaging with supporters, although many of them will not be too enamoured with the first decision taken on his watch, to sell the naming rights to Stamford Bridge.
''Many fans will be up in arms, particularly given the wealth of Roman Abramovich, the owner, but they cannot have it both ways. Chelsea can aspire to develop into a mature, self-sufficient club or remain as a wealthy Russian’s plaything, and if it is to be the former, tough decisions will have to be made.''
The Independent, meanwhile, have a brief comment on the naming rights situation. David Fleming reckons it makes sense, despite some opposition:
''Ron Gourlay's idea of selling the name of their Stamford Bridge ground to the highest bidder is a brave plan. It risks alienating supporters who fear it will provide ammunition to rival fans, who say Chelsea have no history. However, it is a proposal that does make commercial sense.
''Given that the club have given up plans either to redevelop the Bridge or move to another site, it is pretty much the only option open to Gourlay to raise the revenues generated by the stadium. If he can attract £15m a year for naming rights, Chelsea will take a substantial step towards their ultimate goal of breaking even.''
It's been a while since we discussed the idea of a two-tier Premier League, but you'll be glad to know that the subject is back on the agenda this week and the Guardian's David Conn has had his say on the matter.
''The proposal by Bolton Wanderers' chairman, Phil Gartside, for an expanded two-division Premier League which would include Celtic and Rangers has been revived,'' he begins. ''His idea is prompted by what Gartside has described as a "fear factor" among the smaller clubs, who are desperately worried about the financial cost of relegation to the Championship and are overspending to avoid it.
''The idea was dismissed by many last time because Gartside appeared to be proposing a self-interested "closed circle", with no relegation out of the Premier League's second division. This time, Gartside is understood to be more flexible, arguing that relegation could be retained but that clubs should meet standards of size and finance, similar to Uefa's licensing system, if they are to be promoted into the Premier League.
''Both Celtic and Rangers, who have long looked to escape from the Scottish Premier League in which they are by far the biggest clubs, would welcome an invitation from the elite English league. However, any Premier League rule change requires 14 clubs to vote in favour. Gartside has a great deal of lobbying to do before his plan has any chance of succeeding.''
November 5, 2009
Yes, if you are still playing the BBC's crazy Sportdaq game based upon sports stars' column inches then you'd be a fool not to have Rafael Benitez.
There's not a great deal of opinion out there on Thursday, but what there is centres on the beleaguered Liverpool manager following that draw with Lyon.
Richard Williams sticks the boot in, writing in The Guardian, believing that the last-gasp rescue acts which have been a trademark of Benitez's tenure at Anfield are now a thing of the past.
The boot was on the other foot against Lyon as Lisandro's late, late leveller has put the 2005 Champions League winners on the brink of a costly exit before Santa has been down the chimney. Apparently, he's heading towards oblivion.
The disaster that Liverpool find themselves facing this morning is not the fault of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Four matches, four points and a negative goal difference – those figures are the responsibility of Benítez and no one else. The manager may moan about his lack of resources compared to those of his rivals, but when you have been able to bring so many players into a club, among them the world's best centre forward, you cannot expect your complaints to be taken seriously.
We agree here at Soccernet Towers. In Rafa we do not trust.
Fernando Torres again came off before the end, and anyone who has suffered an inguinal hernia, or even the full set of two, like some of us, will have been dismayed by Benítez's decision to allow his young compatriot to play on once the injury had been diagnosed. A hernia is not necessarily painful but it causes discomfort and restricts the range of movement. It also gets worse. Whatever the player's own view, the manager should have sent him straight off for the requisite minor surgery, accepting his short-term absence and demonstrating confidence in his back-up players.
Babel, for instance – a player "whose pace and ability can change a game", according to Benítez last night. Then he added a half-veiled criticism: "We want to see the best of him in some more games". But getting the best out of players is Benítez's job. Babel's muted celebration of his marvellous goal may have been the expression of a naturally reticent temperament, or it may have been a comment on his manager's lack of faith.
Liverpool are not yet quite out of it. But with six defeats, one draw and a single victory in their last eight matches, even the most ardent of Benítez's admirers on the Kop must now be wondering what can be salvaged from a season barely three months old but already marked by failure on all sides.
Over at the Independent, Tony Barrett too is counting the cost of Rafa's Champions League failure.
It is not as if Liverpool could expect to make up the shortfall domestically. Not when their annual income — last year £159 million, £100 million below Manchester United’s — makes them the poor relations of the “big four”, largely because of a stadium that does not produce as much revenue as those of their rivals.
Other clubs, those who are not as financially fragile as Liverpool, would be able to absorb the monetary setback of failing to reach the Champions League first knockout round comfortably.
But this is the Liverpool of Hicks and Gillett, a club so brittle they fracture at regular intervals, and the only certainty is that their immediate future will continue to be plagued by yet more uncertainty.
Failure may not have been an option for Liverpool, but it has become a very real and stark possibility.
November 4, 2009
So, another night of Champions League fun and frolics saw Bordeaux, Manchester United, Chelsea and Porto book their places in the last-16 with two games to spare. The two English sides go head-to-head on Sunday in a mouthwatering Premier League clash and Patrick Barclay at the Times reckons the Stamford Bridge encounter could signal the passing of the torch from Sir Alex's side to Carlo Ancelotti's charges.
"Back last night came Darren Fletcher and the Scot does make a difference with his power, mobility and variety of passes. But who else from United would get in Chelsea’s team this season? After Edwin van der Sar and Wayne Rooney, you begin to struggle.
Certainly Chelsea have several players — Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Deco, Michael Ballack — who would walk into United’s midfield, while John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho would edge out Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Ferguson would surely take Didier Drogba to partner Rooney up front.
It may require an organisational masterpiece from the United manager to avert a result more wounding than the 2-0 defeat by Liverpool."
Speaking of defenders, Matt Lawton at the Daily Mail has been urging Liverpool fans not to get too excited by well-coiffed striker Fernando Torres' inclusion in the squad to face Lyon, insisting that Koppites should be more concerned with their shaky defence
"The wealthy punters who pay to travel with Liverpool rejoiced at the sight of their superb Spanish striker boarding their plane at Liverpool’s John Lennon airport yesterday morning. Imminent hernia operation or not, Torres was there and determined, seemingly, to play through the pain for his beleaguered manager.
But then came the head count. Then came the realisation that Glen Johnson had not made it and, that although Daniel Agger had, he appeared to be in no fit state to play a game of such vast importance. Agger sat down only for take-off and landing, his sore back forcing him to stay on his feet for the rest of the 80-minute flight. The Danish defender almost came a cropper between the plane and passport control, slipping on a wet surface and only just remaining upright.
Benitez really is in an awful mess. A fifth Barclays Premier League defeat of the season at Fulham, Liverpool’s sixth in seven games in all competitions, owed as much to an injury list now running into double figures as it did the two red cards. But the back four that the Spaniard deployed at Craven Cottage were acquired for just £2.5million and will not look much better this evening."
November 3, 2009
Well-spoken and privately educated Daily Telegraph reporter Henry Winter has managed to bag an exclusive interview with UEFA president Michel Platini. Henners' Twitter page has been trailing this since Monday when he said
Just returned from Geneva, interviewing Platini in Nyon. As he was as a player, Uefa pres full of ideas and venture. Surprisingly pro-English.
Now for the article proper, it's an epic.
He sets out his stall on the English game:
Often painted as an anti-English ogre by Fleet Street, Platini is no admirer of the Fourth Estate but he wants to transmit a message to the English. He wants to protect English football from debt and destruction.
"Football belongs to the fans and you have great fans in England. They love football. They respect the decisions.
"England is the only country where they get angry about diving. They are great football people. They don't disturb the life of the players. It's wonderful. But I am not so open to the business side.
"I am not popular in England because of the journalists. But I see many fans on the plane and they seem to like me, we speak about my passion for English clubs.''
The hot topic of debt in the English game is addressed.
Worried about the huge debt, a Uefa committee begins meeting from next Monday to formulate new rules. "We have three years to regulate the situation," he said. "The idea is not to kill the clubs but to help them have better balance. As David Gill says: 'the devil is in the details'.''
Yet United's highly-respected chief executive oversees a club dragged into debt by the Glazers. "Gill is a very good guy and perhaps United will resolve the debts in the future. If you put the same [strict] regulations for all the clubs in Europe, they will accept.'' Clubs risk expulsion from Europe otherwise.
"The philosophy to participate in our competitions is you must not spend more money than you receive. If United have €300 million and they spend €400 million – no! If Liverpool pay €60 million (interest) every year to the banks, it's a lot of money.
"Every owner has asked me for a better philosophy, for better transparency. In Germany, debts are not accepted. In England they are.
"Some of the chief executives are not OK with the chance of new regulations [on debt] because they don't want to change their business. The owners are OK with it. Abramovich hardly bought one player this year.
"By putting in new rules we will protect the business of Abramovich, Massimo Moratti [at Inter Milan] or Glazer. I am sure they want to sell but who will buy clubs with so many debts? Who would be that stupid?
"If you regulate the system, many people will be interested in buying. I am not a big economist but I am logical.''
Plenty else discussed, including Arsenal's youth policy, foreign ownership, Capello coaching England, the World Cup, use of TV replays, the Heysel Stadium disaster.
It ends on an odd note, considering talk of debts among English clubs.
We quickly move on to Cristiano Ronaldo's £80 million transfer to Real Madrid. "I said to Mr Perez: 'Florentino, I don't understand it, but if you have the money, I have no problem'.
"It's not Ronaldo's responsibility, but for me it is amazing, it's a lot of money and there is an inflationary effect for other clubs. It takes away the popularity of the football; 99 per cent of people don't understand €94 million for a player – and my job is to protect football.''
We thought that Real went into debt to buy Ronaldo. They don't have the money.
November 2, 2009
There were no shortage of talking points after a weekend of football that witnessed nine red cards in the Premier League, but it is to Craven Cottage we turn on Monday morning and yet another defeat for Liverpool.
The focus on Rafa Benitez has intensified following a fifth defeat in 11 league games which means Liverpool's hopes of winning the title are hanging by a thread. Writing in the Independent, Sam Wallace has identified a stubborn streak in the Spaniard in the wake of his decision to substitute Fernando Torres against Fulham. In 'Benitez the forward-thinker must stop overlooking clear and present dangers', Wallace accuses Liverpool's manager of lacking flexibility and failing to respond to developing situations.
Outside Anfield on match days they sell T-shirts adorned with Rafael Benitez's face and the catchphrase "Rafa is boss. This is a fact, no?" It is a take on his unique brand of English but also it references Rafa's peculiar brand of logic, especially the forward-planning to which he so stubbornly adheres.
Benitez is the man who prides himself on being one step ahead: while his players are celebrating a goal; he is using the break in play to reorganise his defence. While everyone else is thinking about Saturday's game; he is thinking about next Wednesday's match. If the world was to witness the Second Coming, Rafa would shrug and clear a space in his diary for the Third.
The trouble with Benitez's forward-planning is that sometimes he is too clever for his own good. Never more so than when, with the score at 1-1 and 27 minutes remaining, he substituted Fernando Torres against Fulham on Saturday afternoon. He did so with a team already missing Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson. Not to mention a squad that was without Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Fabio Aurelio, Albert Riera and Alberto Aquilani.
If ever there was a time to gamble on Torres, then this was that moment. But Benitez is wedded to his system, to his unshakeable belief in the plan he has already decided. And so, regardless of the game, Benitez thinks thus: Torres is not completely fit, we must protect him, therefore he must come off. This is a fact, no?
November 1, 2009
Wigan striker Marlon King's jailing for an attack on a woman in a nightclub continues to hit the headlines on this damp Sunday morning.
The girl subjected to a sexual assault and actual bodily harm by King has managed to sell her story to the News of the World, who have little compunction in leading off with the whole story. It doesn't make pretty reading.
Rod Liddle, outspoken commentator that he is, gives his view in the Sunday Times. He points out that many a club has retained the services of players with criminal records so it is likely that King will be re-employed as a footballer.
WONDER who Marlon King will be playing for, a year or so from now, when he gets out of prison for having groped and then twatted that young woman in a nightclub? The obvious answer is Oldham Athletic, who were waiting by the cell doors with a lucrative contract in their paws when Lee Hughes was released from jail for having killed someone in his expensive Mercedes car and then running away afterwards. But there’s always Newcastle Utd, I suppose, who were perfectly happy to take on Joey Barton. I assume that even people as divorced from reality as the Newcastle board were aware Barton was a violent thug with a string of previous when they took him on. The lure was he was comparatively cheap and might do a job in midfield — morality did not come into it. Their only worry was the possibility that Barton’s future behaviour may cost them money. It was to Alan Shearer’s enormous credit that he took one look at Barton and told him to get lost. But it was Shearer who left, in the end.
He points out that Wigan chairman Dave Whelan's righteous indignation at his erstwhile striker's action seem somewhat disingenuous. King had form that was seemingly ignored.
Why does this latest crime differ from the previous ones, Dave? There were, after all, 13 of them.
Not every club behaved quite so shamelessly. Fulham very nearly signed Marlon King a while back, but the deal was scuppered when the club’s chairman, Mohammed al-Fayed caught sight of King’s string of convictions and decided he was not the right man. The last-minute hitch was passed off as a problem with the player’s medical, which was kind, if deceitful, of them. And you have to say, when Mohammed al-Fayed is worrying about a person’s moral state then you know you ain’t dealing with Mother Teresa, no offence, Mo.