Monday, 31 March 2014

Still Citeh's to Lose

Brendan Rodgers. There he is, on the touchline, a massive bonce on a stocky little body, like an adult Charlie Brown, only with a lot more hair and self-confidence. Beaming away, he is. A man with a plan, and the plan is working. The polar opposite of David Moyes, in fact.

But things didn't start this brightly for Bren. Phone-ins were full of mournful Scouse voices this time last year, as Rodgers attempted to reorder the way his team plays. All right, there weren't exactly small planes flying over the ground (numpties!) but there was discontent. They didn't make the Europa League. Luis Suarez auditioned for the lead in the next Hannibal film and the rest of the team spent the season hitting post and bar more often that an inebriate Royal Mail employee.

So what's changed? Well, a hell of a lot. Not least the fact that not making the Europa League was a huge plus! (Man U and Everton take note! Maybe Sherwood has been drafted in at Spurs to avoid such inconveniences.).

More than anything, though, Rodgers has developed a squad which can alter its formation and still perform at a high level - and that includes several English players, too. That's right. Brainless automatons that have spent their lives simply adhering to a positional discipline and learning how to keep going at 90 mph for 90 minutes have been entrusted with taking on board more than one idea. Sturridge, Sterling, Henderson... all seem to be able to cope with the expectation of not having to play exactly the same way each week.

Roy Hodgson won't know what to make of this when the lot of them show up at training and asks him what the point of 4-4-2 is again.

Equally radical is the fact that Rodgers plays to his players strengths. Sterling roaming in the hole, or chopping and changing position with Sturridge and Suarez has worked beautifully, not least because the lad is more slippery than a greased eel in a bubble bath.

If you take his opposite number, the temporary boss of Tottenham Hotspur, Tim Sherwood, or indeed Moyes, you'll see how this apparently obvious policy is not always adhered to by Rodgers' contemporaries. Christian Eriksson on the left wing, anyone? Juan Mata wide right? Kyle Naughton anywhere near a first-team squad?

As someone who wasn't a rocket scientist once said 'It's not rocket science'. Plaudits have rained down on the eminently placid but lethal Suarez. That old crate of horseshit about nasty players needed to keep a healthy dose of malice or they'll lose something from their game doesn't seem to be true in his case, does it? I've never quite understood why utterly losing it once every five games is good for anyone.

But most of the superlatives are being reserved for the skipper Steven Gerrard with many old Anfielders unable to contain the warmth of their ejaculations. There's a certain late middle-age whimsy at work here. Gerrard represents that bit of we ageing souls that can do a good 40-odd keepy-uppies in the backyard and tell ourselves that we've still got it.

Gerrard is being touted as an English Pirlo now. Sitting in the pocket, a football-playing Joe Montana, a brandy in one hand and a fag in the other, absent-mindedly delivering forty-yard laser-guided missiles to the pacey front four to feed off.

Well he's not quite Pirlo, but he can still trot up to blast a free-kick in, roll in more than the odd penalty and you have to say he fits this new armchair as snugly as any man that ever sat anywhere. Liverpool are closer to the title now than ever they were under the stuffed-shirted dweeb that was Benitez - but then Rafa liked to use Gerrard as a right-winger whenever he could. The dolt.

But can this team hold it together til the season's end? And more than that, are they capable of turning over Citeh and/or Chelsea at home? Wonderfully, Rodgers managed to insist his team was taking the run-in one game at a time, adding that the next one was Manchester City when it is in fact West Ham away - all of which rather suggest the manager is getting ahead of himself a little.

As Palace proved on Saturday there are no gimmes in this league this season. (And there's four letters that make a fan happy - JT OG). Indeed you can't even take victory for granted if you've just taken the lead with 30 seconds to go, can you Baggies?

Spurs and Newcastle are losing the plot in rather similar ways to their gaffing gaffers. Sunderland's games in hand look meaningless, the way they're playing. Norwich and Hull are doing the two-forward three back relegation hustle and frankly it's like trying to predict how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man.

There are many reasons why it would be good for Liverpool to win the trophy this year: They're very entertaining; they don't quite have the financial clout of their two biggest rivals; and it's 25 years since Hillsborough - and a title would seem very appropriate this year.

Such sentiments would not deter Mourinho, whose trips to Anfield are still haunted by the Ghost Goal. Nor will Man City need to worry about working their way past the porous 'Pool back four. Then again Rodgers's S & S will be more than happy to be up against one of Lescott or Demichelis. I predict a 3-3. But I also can't help thinking Citeh will nick it in the end.

Monday, 24 March 2014

No More Encores, Arsene

When they finally write the obituaries for Arsene Wenger's career - and that 'finally' seems closer every day - what will they say?

It's a tricky one. For currently he bucks the trend of virtually every other club in Europe and retains his job despite really achieving very little. There are those who protest that getting into Europe season after season when the club is not spending dosh cos of paying off stadium bills is one hell of an achievement. Maybe so.

But it follows a period of success so impressive and indeed uplifting to the neutral footy-lover that simply finishing in the top four is little short of mundane. It's like Nigella Lawson suddenly presenting a show on the finer arts of arranging salad leaves. It still looks nice but it could barely sustain a rodent worth its salt.

Wenger continues to plough a particular furrow - every goal the team scores seems to be based on a Pythagorean principle. They can often seem like a session of keepy-uppy raised to the level of high art.

But football, as Barca's boys will testify, is not simply of matter of tippy-tapping around while the opposition stand off a fretful yard and wait. No, half of it (or a third of it in Barca's case) is about getting the ball back, and Wenger seems entirely to have forgotten this fact.

It should not be so easy for an astute manager to simply arrange for his players to chase the opposition around a bit til they cough up the ball like smaller, harried sea-gulls cough up stolen chips at the seaside. Mourinho's genius game-plan was simply to copy Brendan Rodgers's.

The truth is that Wenger's teams 'don't like it up 'em' and that has been the case for years. Stoke City have known this for years. Allardyce's Bolton were the same. Neither of those teams had the wit to exploit it with quite the incisiveness of Man City, Liverpool or Chelsea but nevertheless it still holds true.

It wasn't the same in the old days mind you when Wenger had the foresight to arm his central midfield with some firm-thighed no-nonsense Frenchmen. Vieira has never been replaced. Nowadays the quintessential Wenger boy has become a nimble-toed little lambkin that couldn't take the leg off a house spider, let alone the ball off a fellow professional footballer.

Wenger seems oblivious to this, somehow. This year, defensive solidity has improved for the most part with the re-signing of Flamini. His absence on Saturday was criminal. Arteta, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain - these are talented lads who meet a tackle like a bag of crisps meets a tractor tyre.

Look at rival midfields and you'll see what he's neglecting. Gerrard sits deep for Liverpool, sometimes with Allen for company. Matic and Luiz - or a similar combination - anchor Maureen's dogged Chelsea. Pellgrini has Fernandinho (and Yaya when he feels like a tackle) to give a bit of ballast. These are important players and to think you can do without them in a match of this significance is, well, a bit barmy.

It all points to the fact that top-flight football in this country - for all that Arsene contributed to it in the best of ways - is leaving Wenger behind. Or he is stubbornly refusing to go with it.

So you start to think - and surely the Arsenal board must be considering something similar - that 1000 games in charge is good going but he's won fuck-all for yonks and it might be time to send the old prof upstairs to a titular post as head of the Gunner Folklore Museum or some such.

Better that than allow him to sit in the stands and intimidate his successor. Moyes may insist he gets loads of advice and support from Fergie but I tell you no one wants to go to work every day with an angry Dad looking over your shoulder.

Mind you, I've been saying Wenger's days are numbered for about five years now - based entirely on such fripperies as the team's results and the players he's bought - and he's still there like some slender old owl, murmuring about the squad's technicality, physicality, mentality but never quite changing its personality into one that can put a trophy in a cabinet.

Yes, of course there's the FA Cup. That's in the bag, innit? Except... every time Arsenal have been asked a question in the last nine years they've come up with a surprisingly wrong answer. I still think Hull will do 'em. And if that happens it'll be time to thank Arsene for a truly wonderful decade and a less than impressive eight years and wheel him out to pasture.

Actually even if they do win the Cup, surely, Monsieur it's time for you to go. Hop Off. Klopp In. Job Done.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Too Close To Call

Well this is really turning into one brilliant Premier League season. To think at the start of it, I'd all but given up on footy. It was too cynical, too centred on money and monstrous ego, and not played all that well either. Some of that is still true. But having four teams with a genuine chance of winning the whole thing is simply very exciting.

Even within the hyperbolics (hyper-bollocks?) of football punditry, it is hard not to be intrigued by the upcoming battles: Chelsea-Arsenal; Arsenal-Man City; Liverpool-Man City; Liverpool-Chelsea - they're all to come.

And this weekend has shown all of us that the tension is ratcheting up a few notches, which is how we like it. Wall-kicking, head-pressing, finger-wagging, ball-throwing, tantrum-tossing. It's grand.

And while we're on the subject, are there really going to be fines lobbed out for folk, like Kompany, who kick a wall cos he's furious (with himself probably) for getting a red. Or Sherwood for throwing a ball a bit crossly? This is the stuff we want from our footy!

I'm all for Ramires getting the rest of the spring off for jumping onto a fellow pro's shin-bone like a poor man's Roy Keane, but bits of passion and frustration? Nah!

I'm guessing Joe Hart might be in trouble for pressing heads with spitty George Boyd but hellfire his team were hanging on comfortably and a man down and the cheating little headbanded tit had just tried to cheat his way back into the game.

Ditto Daniel Sturridge who succeeded in fooling Clattenburg and got his opponent sent off for not touching him. Be ashamed, son. The only difference is that United didn't have a fish in the sky's chance of surviving that game, so poor were they. Oh, and Rafael shouldn't have been on the park anyway. And Sturridge had a stonewall pen denied later. So, whatever.

Except that if the FA introduced this retrospective ban on diving little bastards we'd seen a marked improvement on behaviour all round. Five games without Sturridge would really test Liverpool on their run-in. And presumably Vidic's second yellow will be rescinded as he never touched the lad, so how does that leave the Liverpool striker in the clear?

Incidentally, both managers - Bruce and Rodgers - were eager to point out that Boyd and Sturridge aren't 'that sort of player' when, quite obviously, they are. Stop being so facile, gentlemen. If it was against your team you'd be spitting feathers. Rodgers also said that it's not a coincidence that Liverpool get so many penalties and looking at the front two - their pace, power and propensity for falling over - I'd agree with you, Bren.

Oh and note: there are fixtures involving Man United and Spurs and the top four coming up, but no one seriously thinks they'll affect the title race much. Some, including Steven Gerrard, have said that winning at Old Trafford is 'a statement'. Well, yes. And that statement is: 'Manchester United are shite.' Citeh have to go there and they'll be barely a goose-bump on their flesh as they stroll to victory. 4-0, I reckon, if Aguero is back.

So who do we neutrals want to lift the big bucket of glory by the season's end? And speaking of a Middlesbrough fan, I can't feel more neutral if I tried. Someone score a fucking goal, man, please. To be fair, relying on Danny Graham in such matters is like asking Alan Pardew to oversee diplomatic negotiations in Crimea.

So... Chelsea? I don't think anyone wants them to win anything do they? Even the romantic rescue act of Didier Drogba in the Champs League left most of us cold. And Maureen doesn't help, with his strange musings. True, it would be a first to win the League without ever using a centre-forward worth the name but... no. Not you. (Although if it happens I'll take my chit down the bookies and cash it in of course).

Man City? Still the most likely but there is one area of hope for their rivals. Like tame pit-bulls, all of their centre-backs have a horrible moment in them. Even Kompany. So maybe not. I'd certainly prefer not.

Liverpool? You'd think the last time they won it, dinosaurs walked the earth. You've bagged a couple of cups along the way for Chrissakes. But I wouldn't begrudge 'em it now. Particularly, dives aside, with the way the team plays the game.

And Arsenal? Well it's not going to happen is it? They won't get enough from the Chelsea and Citeh games and (despite Koscielny and Mertesacker's really wonderful form this season), like the first digestive biccie in the packet, they still look a bit crumbly around the edges. I'd be pleased for Wenger but it won't happen. Make do with the Cup instead, eh?

So what I'd prefer: 1/2 Arsenal/Liverpool; 3. Citeh; 4. Chelsea.
What's more likely: 1. Citeh; 2. Chelsea; 3. Liverpool; 4. Arsenal.

But it's all genuinely hard to predict - and that makes it brilliant. I haven't even mentioned the nether regions of the division where all the clubs are jostling like ferrets in a fat man's trousers, with no telling who might nudge out above the waistband by the end.

I say Fulham and the Baggies've had it and they promptly win. Best say nowt. (But I look forward to welcoming the Cottagers and Vincent Tan's Redbirds to our charming Riverside apartment in the next fourteen months or so. We might have scored again by then.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Arsene All The Way?

The one thing Arsene Wenger must've been hoping for following his team's defeat of Everton on Saturday was that his team didn't draw Man City until the final. Well he's got his wish.

It'll be hard for the average Gooner to keep his mind from drifting back to 2011 and the League Cup catastrophe against Birmingham City - the last time the drought looked like ending. That was three years ago so it was probably more of a shortage than a drought. Since then there's been a proper hosepipe ban in place.

That was the occasion when Koscielny and Szczesny flopped around like tired pensioners after a day playing Twister and Obafemi Martins got the chance to do his floor gymnastics in celebration. This year all Arsenal have got to stumble past is Wigan and, probably, Hull. It has to be, M. Wenger...

Not that Wigan won't be a handful. They're on a great run of form in the Championship and if Arsenal can find a Martin Demichelis in their ranks, the Latics should have a great chance.

This was a Pellegrini purchase, remember, part of his old guard at Malaga. It must be blind loyalty that prevents the manager from seeing what the rest of the world can see - that this is a second-rate Steven Seagal impersonator masquerading as a professional footballer. He has the turning circle of a jumbo jet and the lumbering speed of a giraffe in splints. Lescott, who never does much wrong really, must be spitting feathers that the Argie lad partners Kompany on a regular basis.

Pellegrini says it would not damage his team's search for trophies this year, but given he's just lost one that's oxymoronic. He admits his players were complacent, and to tell you the truth I've not seen overconfidence like that since my Mrs insisted that she could handle a White Russian. (She can't by the way. Which makes you wonder why she had the second, doesn't it? NB I'm talking drinks here, not people.)

Given the 2-0 deficit against the Catalan Tax-Dodgers, you can't see the Champs League bringing any further joy this year either, so Citeh are left with the prospect of reeling in Chelsea. Not that Citeh fans forget their own. Rosler was given a truly wonderful reception and in turn Uwe refrained from whirling around like a dervish when the shock win was achieved. Sometimes football makes you very proud.

But can Chelsea be caught? Mourinho mustered yet another win from his fitfully useful side. One more bad decision at the Bridge - and some horrific defending at the end - gave Chelsea a laughably large 4-0 victory. It's ominous. United won the title last year playing a lot of scruffy nonsense, and Chelsea - Hazard aside - aren't much better this season. But both clubs are/were managed by blokes who know how to get the job done.

In the meantime, Citeh have lost their swagger, Arsenal are fraying at the edges, and Liverpool have a defence as porous as pumice. Even without a decent centre-forward - and Eto'o's celebration was a joy to behold on Saturday - Chelsea look very likely now.

Mourinho will keep insisting the Blues lead is a false one. I expect when he lifts the trophy at the end of the season he'll be shaking his head and telling the world that Citeh are still favourites. It's at times like these that the theatrical old stager resembles a cat on top of a wall, looking disdainfully down at all the yapping terriers who he knows will never quite reach him.

Ed Miliband recently spoke of a 'race to the bottom' in this country. (And when the head of an 'alternative' bank to the main players has a hissy fit cos the world's learnt that he gets rewarded for abject failure like every other fucker in that sector, you sort of understand what he means). In footy terms, it means panicky owners behaving like picky teenage girls in Top Shop, and constantly wishing they had a different top to choose from.

Jeremy Peace must be hoping he stuck with temporary manager Keith Downing - and there's every chance he'll resort back to him for the run-in, given Pepe Mel seems to be forcing a leaden-footed side to play a fleet-footed game.

The only contribution of note that Felix Magath has made is the adoption of black and white glasses. What he sees through them must be similarly monochrome. Doom. Fulham are down.
Cardiff, despite a frenetic victory over their nearest strugglers, will join them. No one will miss the Vincent Tan (that's when you bask in your own glory and everything turns a funny colour - frequently from blue to red).

Norwich have so may six-pointers coming up they could claim the league if they win them all. Their last four games look horrendous however. Palace are not so much goal-shy as goal-averse. Sunderland should rise from the mire but those Cup defeats will be tough to take. Be nice to have a North-East derby to look forward to again in the Championship. But nah. West Brom to join 'em is my best guess. Boing-boing.

As for Arsenal... well I can't help feeling the final will be a living Hull.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Yes Butt No Butt

It's amazing what passes for a head butt these days. Time was a man would have to sway his head back like a malicious woodpecker before splaying a rival's nose across the middle of his face in an instant homage to Steve Bruce.

What Alan Pardew mustered was nothing more than the playful nudge of a hungry moggy on a trouser leg. And yet everywhere I read about a head butt. Ludicrously the Hull sub Meyler has been praised for 'not going down', as if the brush of a 52-year-old geezer's brow constitutes actual bodily harm. To be fair had the victim been called Luis he'd still be on the ground today, writhing back and forth like a child being tossed around in a hammock.

None of which is to excuse Pardew for his behaviour. It was pretty pathetic and petulant stuff and he does have previous. Calling Pellegrini a 'fucking old cunt' isn't exactly the work of a high-minded football philosopher. He's pushed linesmen about and riled Monsieur Wenger too. Slapping a fine on him is justified.

What's harder to get your head around is the moral outrage expressed by the likes of Robbie Savage, a man so steeped in cynicism it's like hearing Rebekah Wade moaning that she had her phone tapped. I hate to point to the bigger picture but can we not save a bit of our indignation for ooh I dunno the occupation of a European state by its neighbours. Hang on though, you can say what you like about Vladimir Putin but at least he doesn't go around caressing people with his forelocks.

Pardew is a knob, yes, but this is the worst case of hype since Eden Hazard 'kicked' a ball boy - and the only problem there was that he didn't kick the little twot harder.

I guess the geezer of Gateshead will be given a touchline ban too, if not a stadium ban, so we can be spared the sight of the feckless twerp grabbing a spectator by the lapels or God forbid shaking hands too vigorously with the opposition manager. He won't be missed.

Meanwhile we've had more opprobrium from Sol Campbell who is in danger of turning into the Ali G of English football. Let's not pretend that there isn't racism in footy - that would be stupid - but it is also a little sad that one of the best English centre-halves of the last 20 years has been left feeling victimised after his 70-odd caps.

To say he would have been England skipper for 10 years if he wasn't black is a bit dull, I reckon. Race could hardly be said to hinder the career of the modern English footballer and if there is any truth in Campbell's claim he could acknowledge that by and large English football is over that problem when it comes to players. Not when it comes to coaches, which is much more pressing a problem right now.

In the Capital One Cup Sunderland were undone by utter brilliance and even I felt a little sad for Poyet and his men. Both holding midfielders had very good games but if you had to guess which one would turn the game on its head you wouldn't plump for Lee Cattermole. Mind you he did well, did Lee. He stayed on the pitch and everything.

But at the end of the day it's a plucky defeat for the Black Cats. And sometimes, against a team so well endowed it is the Sofia Vergara of British football, that's the best you can hope for.

Meanwhile the Premier League is taking shape at both ends of the table. Arsenal had their usual away day at Stoke, rolling over and hoping not to be hurt. Cardiff and Fulham are looking increasingly doomed. But no one is safe. Norwich and Hull followed up good wins with heavy defeats, like men jumping out of the way of an oncoming train and find themselves falling down an embankment.

All issues will go down to the wire. And that's how we like it.