Monday, 28 April 2014

Bitten by the Blue Meanies

I dunno Brendan, you wait all season for a bus to come and then two come along at once.

As Sunday approached the feeling grew that this was going to be another of those Mourinho moments.

Liverpool were riding the crest of a wave of goodwill and genuine empathy and not even the most consummate practitioners of the cynical game plan could halt the juggernaut. Chelsea had barely anyone decent to pick from, they were tired, they couldn't win the League anyway, and Mourinho felt as sick as a dog. A perfect storm for crushing disappointment.

Of course this is half the story. The Blue Meanies simply do not have poor squad players. Mourinho may have overlooked the simpler fixtures his team has failed to win but put him up against the best and he zones in like a footballing Field Marshall Montgomery.

And if the game-plan involves being mean, immovable and more than a tad annoying well then that's just how Jose likes it. As I've said before his personal charisma is in inverse proportion to that of his teams.

It helped that Liverpool weren't very good on the day, but it was a little sad to see first Stevie Gerrard and then the team as a whole fall flat on their faces.

Chelsea's time-wasting was a miserable recourse but naturally it did the job. Liverpool's anticipated head of steam couldn't have loosened a stamp off an envelope. Chelsea took all the air out of the opposition and in the second half they deflated like a punctured paddling pool. The goals were very much a product of the home side's errors too.

It was the footy equivalent of the Rumble in the Jungle. The Blue Meanies just lay against the ropes and slowly but surely Liverpool punched themselves out before Willian delivered a sucker punch of his own. (Although clearly Ali was the good guy, whereas Chelsea have the Evil Genius on their side).

All of which left Brendan Rodgers unable to resist the odd side-swipe at his former boss. Stuff about 'trying to be offensive' (which always makes me smirk - Patrice Evra could probably tell you how successful Suarez has been at that in recent times), playing the game in a 'sporting' manner, and insisting that his team were the team that was 'playing to win', all left him looking like a decent gentleman who can't understand why someone's just mugged him.

Because it works, Brendan. That's why. It worked against Citeh - although they were much more attack-minded at the Etihad - and it worked against Atletico Madrid. I wouldn't want to play like that either. Or watch anyone else play like that. All the money that Chelsea throw at their squad and it could've been Tony Pulis in charge of that side. Which is actually a tad unfair on Tony.

But Mourinho is nothing if not realistic. And he's right. Chelsea won't win the title. He's gone and helped Citeh get it. Liverpool have to rely and that most unlikely source of support, Everton. After their comical defeat to Southampton all of Merseyside will be hoping that Martinez gets at least one of his central defenders back for next weekend or there'll be no escape from Alcaraz.

The fact that Yaya Toure is back makes me doubt Everton's chances. The man once again proved why he's the best all-round midfield player in the world at Palace. That second goal was typical of him, a one-man Gulliver trouncing across the park while the Lilliputians falling off him left right and centre. 

Of course Toure made it into the PFA Team of the Season, along with Adam Lallana which tells me that England team-mates will be delighted to have him there in Brazil. And of course Suarez, booed when his name was called out at last year's ceremony because he was still picking bits of Branislav Ivanovic out of his teeth, completed a remarkable path to redemption.

Players always insist that this award means the most, more than the Football Writers Award (which he'll also win). Suarez has been utterly peerless this season and what's more he doesn't without nibbling or needling the opposition and he's even cut down on the falling over a little bit. Like Didier Drogba before him, he's discovered how much better a player he can be when he's in a vertical position.

But little Luis shan't be getting the League title after all. When I read that the Liverpool fans were lining the road to the ground singing 'We're Going to Win The League' or 'We Are The Champions' or whatever you sing on these occasions - I'm a Boro fan how the hell would I know? - it all felt very premature indeed. And so it proved.

When Mourinho's around it doesn't do to get ahead of yourself. It's ironic that a man for whom many women (and a lot of men too, not just John Terry) swoon is the one bloke who constanly proves that when it comes to Premier League football, Romance Is Dead.

Not a happy ending.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Let It Be Liverpool

It seems, then, that there are greater forces at work in this Premier League season than the mere to-ings and fro-ings of your average football match.

The stars have aligned. The 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, so eloquently and humbly marked on Tuesday of last week, has coincided with a Liverpool team on a relentless run of victories. Brendan Rodgers, who becomes less a manager and more a statesman with every passing week, has urged his players to embrace the sentiment and grief and use it to embolden them further.

I like this. Too often football is pilloried as being a marginal pursuit, one that exists in a realm outside the more productive worlds of work and community. Certainly it is a rich man's plaything these days, but the core of any football club is and always will be its fans, and when those fans have suffered such an egregious loss it seems only fair that in some small way the club finds a way to reward the fans with, for a change, a wonderful celebration.

A football club is - or at least still can be - its community. It has to be Liverpool's year, doesn't it? Set aside Hillsborough and you've got Chelsea's demise to a goal scored by Liverpool loanee Borini (and another in vertical red and white stripes, Stoke's Oussama Assaidi, grabbing a winner against the Blue Meanies in December) and you can see a pattern emerging.

Indeed, Sunderland's extraordinary revival after Poyet acknowledged that a miracle was required, could be almost as astonishing. As ever Chelsea's defeat was done to forces outside of Mourinho's control. This time he went to the scoundrel manager's first excuse. It was The Ref Wot Won It.

Really? Mike Dean got just about every decision right as far as I could tell... the main ones I'd argue with was Matic's nudge on a defender before Terry tucked the ball home - there didn't seem much in that but the linesman flagged for it anyway; and Ramires should have walked. (Jose didn't mention that... strange.)

The other decisions were entirely understandable and Chelsea only have themselves to blame for not having a decent fucking goalscorer when the means to acquire one are utterly limitless.

But for all this critical mass of fact and coincidence, emboldened by the sort of freakish deflections that saw Sterling's second dolly cruelly over Ruddy's head at Carrow Road yesterday, there is still a cloud on Liverpool's horizon. And it is Mourinho.

I seriously don't want the tediously charming old bastard to win the Premier League, even though my money's on them. For a while this season he seemed to have rewritten himself as a charismatic and philosophical been-there, done-that kind of chap. But no. He's still a snide and churlish little bleeder underneath it all.

But he's smart too, and even devoid of strikers worth the name and an overreliance on Brazilian midfielders who want to walk the ball into the net, there would be nothing more satisfying to old Maureen than turning over the Anfield Apple-Cart.

Hopefully, Chelsea will be too fatigued by European endeavours to put up much of a fight at the weekend. But Rodgers' resources are looking thin, despite valuable contributions by Allen and Lucas. One more rousing first 30 minutes and you feel that will do it for the Scousers.

As a neutral I'm not sure I've ever been quite so behind another club as they enter the last three games of the season. As a fan of a relentlessly unrewarded club, I have grown tired of hearing the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs fans suggesting that the winning of trophies is somehow an entitlement.

The griping Chelsea fans who bemoan the lack of success but can't acknowledge Mourinho's contribution to that failure. Perhaps most piteous of all are the wittering United supporters who can't quite believe that the new man hasn't delivered Fergie-style superiority on a plate for them, with a squad of squabbling chunterers and ditherers for Moyes to select from.

It's understandable, I suppose. Moyes have proved disastrously staid and indecisive about style and personnel. If, for example, Januzaj, was at Anfield, Rodgers would have him starting most games. But, really.. one bad season... GET OVER YOURSELVES...

So here I am, another anonymous Boro season almost concluded, left to cross fingers and pull on the lucky pants in support of another team in red. And it's not just sentimental. They have played the best footie. They are chockfull of exciting young Englishmen who have been encouraged by an excellent manager to be expressive, versatile and fearless.

And more than that, intelligent. Yes, it is possible to get talented young lads of local origin to imagine more than one way of playing and what's more to carry those plans out. Remarkable. Soon they'll be learning how to speak funny foreign languages and then where will we be? In some Faragean nightmare, that's where.

And then of course there's Steven Gerrard. Occasionally maligned, or played out of position; often tempted by the lure of more certain success at the Big Money Clubs (and we shouldn't forget that Liverpool are hardly short of a few bob); but ultimately, a one-club man who might even yet be rewarded with that most elusive of titles, the First Division Champions - at least that's what it was called the last time they won it.

I can't wish 'em more luck. I like a happy ending.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Jowsy Jose

Jose Mourinho has received hundreds of plaudits over the years. He's the man whose Inter stifled Barca, whose Porto won the biggest prize in club football from nowhere; a man whose tactical acumen is beyond compare; a man who takes all the flak and charisma for himself, allowing his teams to be really dull and really effective.

This season he has been his usual charming self. On occasions one is almost fooled into believing that he is being alarmingly frank. But this is the man who Barca fans still call The Translator - and you need to have just such skills available for every sentence that leaves his pursed little Thunderbird lips.

Jose: We have no strikers.
Translation: It's not my fault we can't score goals.
Truth: It is. He could've kept Lukaku and/or bought someone.

Jose: Et'oo is a pensioner.
Translation: He's not the young and ruthless player he once was, but that's not my fault.
Truth: It is; you brought the bloke in.

Jose: The team is too young to be successful just yet.
Translation: it's not my fault if they don't win anything, but if we do, well Jeez, we'll just have to accept that I'm a genius.
Truth: Chelsea still have oodles of money and talent, both of which should be sufficient to win something every year, regardless of who's in charge. (cf Di Matteo, Avram Grant, Rafa Benitez)

Jose: Wenger is a specialist in failure.
Translation: Wenger is a specialist in failure.
Truth: Wenger is a specialist in failure.

Whatever Jose says, its meaning always comes back down a mixture of extraordinary self-regard and a desire to spare his players the flak. To be fair Ferguson was exactly the same (only with all the suavity of house-brick).

And while no one can deny that he's good value as a gobshite, it helps to detach his eminent charm from the teams he puts out on the pitch. His most successful campaigns are invariably typified by a pragmatic hard-nosed approach to winning football games and last night's triumph against PSG was a case in point.

While it's lovely to have these twinkle-toed midfielders knocking it this way n that, PSG (which sounds to me like something bad you get in Chinese food) weren't really struggling to hold them out. Indeed for the last 25 minutes they looked far more likely to score and, with a bit more composure, would have done.

I just hope Cavanni displays the same finishing prowess against England in the summer. You'd think with a name like Edison he'd be a little more inventive.

Jose, desperate for that winning goal, ditched any pretence at elegance and threw on the Three Amigos - Scuffy, Puffy and Huffy - to somehow wrestle a goal from its least likely source. We were then treated to a display of footballing effluence from the Happy Special One as he resorted to Allardycean Prehistory for a way to unlock the French defence.

And as so often with a Big Sam or a Pulis, the plan only went and worked. Football from another century it surely was, but then sometimes we can learn from the past. I'm not sure there's a chalkboard at Stamford Bridge on which the gaffer puts three centre-forwards in the box and says "Roll it back to JT and let him hump it so hard it could be a team-mates's missus."

I've seen more creative ploys in a pre-pub Sunday league fixture. But given its success, why criticise? The manager left it to Lady Luck and the Blessed Woman came up trumps. In the myriad methods of Mourinho, the one constant seems to be Good Fortune.

Those people (myself included) who argue that Andy Carroll might just be a good option on the bench for Hodgson over the summer have been vindicated by this sophisticate's latest move. Your average central defender these days doesn't like it up 'em and Carroll isn't capable of much else.

Demba Ba claims in this morning's papers that Chelsea do have three good strikers. What apart from the one at Everton, you mean? I don't think so. Torres is like this ghost-like parody of his Liverpool self. Et'oo creaks along without truly threatening and Ba himself needs a team that plays to his strengths and this one ain't it. Route One isn't Option One, even if it worked last night.

None of which should detract from Chelsea's achievement, or Mourinho's wonderful touchline sprint. Another example of ego - 'ooh look at me!' - combined with cold-eyed ruthlessness - 'Nando get your backside into defensive mode, you goal-shy Jessie, we've got five minutes to hold out'.

In the meantime, the shakedown at the foot of the Premier League is suddenly becoming clear. Sunderland, woefully, have ground to a halt. Cardiff, 'lucky' red shirts looking ludicrous when watched by miserable blue-shirted fans, never were good enough, but Mackay would surely have had them a little higher.

The last spot seems like a straight fight between Fulham and Norwich. I was all for Norwich hanging on if only because they still had the same manager they started the season with. Until Sunday. A win at Craven Cottage would make them safe. If they fail, they're getting nowt from their last four games and Fulham will catch 'em.

In other words, it's utterly pointless changing the manager now. Every one of the bottom seven has changed their boss this season. Only in the case of Pulis has it made any bleeding difference. I tell you what even bleeding Merlin wouldn't last more than half a season in this country.

In other news the FA make a good decision. Hull City FC stays intact. It won't stop me pushing through with my plans at the Riverside, mind you. Middlesbrough Muggers, anyone?