August 28, 2009
Arsene Wenger cut an unusually angry figure in his weekly press conference on Friday as he described Uefa’s decision to charge Eduardo with 'intent to deceive the referee' as "a complete disgrace". For a man more prone to the diplomatic approach it was a very forceful reaction and, it must be said, a wholly understandable one.
His complaint that Eduardo has been made a scapegoat and that the focus on the Croatia striker has reached the levels of a witch-hunt is not hyperbole. When was the last time that a simple dive provoked such a hysterical reaction?
Uefa's decision to single out Eduardo is a strange one indeed. This was a moment that, in the context of the tie and with Arsenal leading 2-0 from the first leg, was fairly incidental. But the media reaction and focus has elevated this event, the kind of which occurs in any number of games on a given weekend, almost to the level of a diplomatic incident.
SFA chief executive Gordon Smith led the calls for retrospective punishment and, indeed, he has form in this regard having also lambasted Lithuania’s Salius Mikoliunas for a blatant dive against Scotland in a Euro 2008 qualifier at Hampden, with the player subsequently receiving a ban.
Such is his apparent distaste for divers it is tempting to speculate that Tom Daley must have grievously wronged him in some way in the past. Playing his iPod too loudly on the bus perhaps?
This is not to say that leading a campaign to eradicate simulation is not a worthy cause, of course it is. But Wenger will be acutely aware that without the furore generated from North of the Border, and had Eduardo taken a tumble against Fiorentina or Lyon, then there would have been nothing like the public outcry we have seen.
Players dive. Didier Drogba has admitted as much, Cristiano Ronaldo has a taste of the theatrical about him, Steven Gerrard has been known to throw himself to the ground and Arsenal fans should know better than most that had Robert Pires not dropped to the turf against Portsmouth in 2003-2004 then they may not have gone the season unbeaten.
None of these are excusable, but why single out Eduardo for special treatment? He doesn't even have a notable track record of simulation.
Wenger is right when he says that Uefa have opened a door that they now may struggle to close. If Eduardo is punished for 'intent to deceive the referee' then are we to demand retrospective bans for players who claim a corner when they know full well that the ball came off their opponent?
What about players who feign injury only to enjoy a miraculous recovery, or those who keep quiet when such offences occur? After all, Uefa’s law states that: "Players may be suspended for two competition matches, or for a specified period, for acting with the obvious intent to cause any match official to make an incorrect decision or supporting his error of judgement and thereby causing him to make an incorrect decision."
Presumably, Uefa are currently on the phone to Bristol City to ensure that the entire team that witnessed Freddie Sears' 'goal' for Crystal Palace are on the receiving end of a two-game ban.
Their law, which they so infrequently choose to invoke, demands a level of honesty and fair play that, sadly, just does not exist in the modern game and probably never will.
Back to the Eduardo case and, furthermore, why is the spectre of a suspension hanging over the striker when, if spotted by the referee at the time, this is an offence that commands a yellow card at the very most? The possible punishment does not fit the crime, and Eduardo is not deserving of the public lynching he is receiving at the moment.
This should not be construed as a defence of simulation, more a recognition that one player has been singled out for extreme and unusual punishment for an offence that occurs on a weekly basis. It shouldn’t, but it does.
If the laws of the game are changed and a blatant dive incurs a red card then so be it. That may be the way forward. All players will be similarly affected and, presumably, similarly dissuaded from indulging in a dramatic flourish.
But Uefa have undermined the authority of their referee and called on video replays when usually they shun them. Will every diver in the Champions League this season be banned for two games? As Wenger says, the lack of consistency and logic is bemusing.
Eduardo is far from being an angel in this whole controversy, and it is stretching credulity to suggest that there was decisive contact from Artur Boruc, but that does not mean that he should be treated like he has committed a cardinal sin.
The judgement cast down from the media and Uefa has been out of all proportion in this case.
How fitting UEFA's president chose to deliver another sermon on the excesses of football as he and his colleagues soaked up the sun in that enclave of wealth and luxury, Monaco.
If Michel Platini's outburst on the outlandish spending in the game gave off a faint whiff of double standards, given that it was delivered in the principality, the fact Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has lined up behind the Frenchman to stop Manchester City in their tracks, purely wreaked of hypocrisy.
The Russian has spent £700m since taking control at Stamford Bridge in 2003 but now, along with AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi and Inter Milan chief Massimo Moratti, he's decided to try and lock the door behind him.
As Platini put it, Abramovich and his pals don't want to "fork out any more." Well, forgive us if we fail to weep at their plight, Michel.
The UEFA chief made specific mention of City, who have spent £120m this summer in a bid to gatecrash the monopoly at the top of English football's pyramid, but not of Real Madrid, who splashed £16m more than that on just two players.
Platini's comments will do little to quell the accusation that, once again, his sights are firmly trained on ending the Premier League's dominance in the world's biggest club competition. He clearly feels City's outlay means they will be there soon.
Manchester United and Liverpool will have noted Platini's comments with interest, given that both clubs are heavily in debt. Will Platini really tell Sir Alex Ferguson he can't compete in the Champions League because the club's owners owe the bank millions of pounds?
Arsenal are in arrears too, but the fact that their deficit stems from the building of the Emirates Stadium will apparently grant them exemption under the current proposals.
Whichever way you look at the plan it seems designed to ensure the rich clubs get richer and the poor clubs get poorer. If clubs can only spend what they earn how are Portsmouth ever going to get into Europe?
Platini claims the new system will encourage more investors because "they will be able to make money. At the moment you don't get these businessmen because clubs are losing money".
When did anybody ever get involved in football to make money? Are Manchester City's new owners expecting a return on their mammoth outlay in a few years time or are they there purely for the prestige of owning a big-hitting football club? And do they care about an outlay of £120m when they are worth 20 times that?
Surely the move will put off cash-rich investors if their transformation of a club via significant funding means they forfeit the right to compete in Europe.
The global financial crisis has injected urgency into Platini's 'financial fair play' model and he insists UEFA must act when the credit crunch is affecting all 53 member states.
And while no one could argue the sums of money exchanging hands this summer demonstrates football is now operating on a different level of reality to the rest of the financial world, how you police it is another matter.
A salary cap has long been mooted but always accompanied by suggestions that such a plan would be unworkable, with clubs offering incentives to players in bonuses and signing on fees instead,
With ten months still to go before UEFA unleash the full details of their scheme on the football world there are still many issues to be ironed out.
Their attempt to put more flesh on the bones has only served to provoke more questions than ever about how it will work.
August 27, 2009
We knew it was going to happen in one group, but many had predicted that the gods of fate would decree that Cristiano Ronaldo should return to Manchester United.
Not so. While Ronaldo avoided the potential aggravation of playing against his old side, some of the summer's other biggest transfers were not so lucky.
Ronaldo's new Real team-mate Kaka will return to the San Siro to face an AC Milan still suffering after losing their gem. The Italian side are back in the competition after a year's absence, but their pre-season form suggests that they have not yet come to terms with the gaping hole left by the brilliant Brazilian.
The summer's other big story - the swap deal between Inter Milan and reigning champions Barcelona involving Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - has also caused a stir in Group F. While Kaka is likely to be given a hero’s welcome at Milan (despite this being the same group of fans that booed Paolo Maldini at the end of his career), Eto'o and Ibra will not get such a warm reception.
Both have spoken out over various issues during their final days at their former clubs and the swap deal of the decade seemed suited to both parties. Ibrahimovic has been criticised for his role in big matches - most notably the Champions League - and Eto'o has been brought in to help Inter Milan win a competition in which they have failed to make much of an impression in the past. One of the two will surely surpass the other.
For the English sides, Manchester United look to have the worst draw. While their squad depth and experience in the competition suggests that they should progress, an away trip to the cauldron of Besiktas and the frozen pitch of CSKA Moscow won't be welcomed. They have also managed to pick up the hardest team from Pot 4 - Wolfsburg.
The German side, with Edin Dzeko and Grafite up front, will provide United with a stiff test; but not one that they can't overcome.
Liverpool, too, are in a difficult position as an impressive new-look Lyon and Fiorentina stand in their way. The French side smashed eight goals past Anderlecht in the qualifiers, with Lisandro Lopez looking an incredible signing, and Fiorentina (although not so impressive) will also provide stubborn opposition. Hungarian side Debreceni may not push them too hard, but if Romanian minnows FC Cluj were anything to go by last year then Liverpool may have to tread carefully.
The other two English teams, Chelsea and Arsenal, will be laughing. Chelsea's toughest test is FC Porto - a side shorn of Lisandro and the talent of Lucho Gonzalez - while Arsenal picked up probably the easiest draw in the competition with only AZ Alkmaar and Olympiakos standing between them and the knockout stages.
There may have been no reunion for Ronaldo but, as the Champions League always does, it reunited some old friends, and enemies.
August 24, 2009
Everton manager David Moyes may have fought bravely against it, but Joleon Lescott's transfer to Manchester City is on the brink of completion and once again money has proved the ultimate power in football.
Everton would have preferred to keep hold of their best defender, but after his "bad attitude" contributed to the club's pointless start to the season and City's bids increased in value there was only ever going to be one outcome in this battle.
Lescott: Man City paid over the odds
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Moyes' stubborn stance may have forced City to hand over a hefty £24m transfer fee, but what use is a big pile of cash if Everton can't replace their star centre-back?
With want-away Lescott benched at Burnley on Sunday, the versatile Phil Neville was forced play in central defence as the Toffees were downed 1-0 against the Premier League new boys. His lack of experience in the position was exposed for the Clarets' winning goal.
And with only seven days before the transfer window slams shut, Moyes has a very limited time in which to find a replacement for Lescott. Arsenal flop Philippe Senderos, relegated Newcastle defender Steven Taylor and Stoke City's young centre-back Ryan Shawcross have all been linked with Everton but none are of the calibre of Lescott.
When the transfer window closes Moyes could be left staring at a healthy bank balance but a frightening 'Goals Against' column in the Premier League.
As for City, they may have got their man, but they have paid well over the odds for a defender that can't even get into the England team when Fabio Capello's squad are fully fit.
To put it into context, England regular Gareth Barry only cost £12m and will exert far more influence on the Citizens' assault on the top four this season. Argentina striker Carlos Tevez cost City £25m, just £1m more than Lescott, and that was a fee his previous club Manchester United deemed to be too much for his limited talent.
City boss Mark Hughes may have finally signed the long-term target he required to sure up his defence, but the real winner from this costly deal is Lescott. A nice new lucrative contract will ease any feeling of betrayal he may have after quitting the club who plucked him from Championship football and gave him a chance in the Premier League.
The 27-year-old proved himself at Goodison Park and will undoubtedly prove to a be a good, maybe even great, player for City, but the courting of Lescott via the press (and the inflated price paid) has left a sour taste in the mouth of many of their league rivals.
Not least Moyes, who said right from the start: "The way it has been handled is disgusting and all it has done is disrupt our club and made it very difficult for us." Maybe that's what the overall plan was.