Manchester Utd. vs. Barcelona

Well, this is the big one. Another semi-final of the Champions League for United and another 0-0 draw in the away first leg. If this is not to be as disappointing as the previous occasions when they held a 0-0 scoreline going into a home second leg, then they really need to improve over their recent performances. Psychologically, they’ve been holding back. Against Chelsea, it was apparent that Fergie blundered horribly by leaving out 5 or 6 established stars. He sent out the wrong message: this was a game we could afford to lose, he was saying, effectively. But he also sent out another message, which could be as troubling to his team: they are tired and they need all the rest they can get.

Now is not the time for tiredness. With 3 or 4 games left (depending on tonight’s result) they stand on the threshold of winning the Premier and Champions League. It should be all-out, total football, attacking with style. There is no more need for tentativeness or a half-hearted approach. He needs to start his best 11 in each game and just go for it.

My selection would be, assuming that Rooney and Vidic are fully fit:

Van der Sar
Brown        Ferdinand          Vidic            Evra
Ronaldo       Scholes           Anderson       Giggs
Rooney         Tevez
Subs: Hargreaves, Carrick, O’Shea, Pique, Kuszczak, Nani, Fletcher

If Rooney and Vidic are not fit enough, I would play the following line-up:
Van der Sar
Hargreaves   Brown        Ferdinand          Evra
Ronaldo       Scholes      Carrick       Anderson       Giggs
Tevez
Subs: O’Shea, Pique, Kuszczak, Nani, Fletcher, Park, Silvestre

I know it would be a risk, of sorts, to play Tevez up on his own, but I am assuming that Giggs and Ronaldo would press forward on the wings to support him, and that Scholes would be running through the middle.  

Ireland vs. Cyprus

My brother managed to get two free tickets for the Ireland vs. Cyprus game at Croke Park tonight, so we went along in hope to see some positive soccer. It was a rare opportunity to see the boys in green and you know what they say about looking gift horses in the mouth…

But, oh God.

Oh God.

I thought a 5-2 hammering away was enough embarrassment. But to watch, live, in the stadium, a 1-1 draw, and only because we squeezed out a totally jammy goal in injury time…simply terrible.

Cyprus deserved to be 2-0 up by early in the second half. They looked composed and controlled on the ball. They made the best chances and prevented us from testing their goalkeeper for most of the game. We looked good for the first 20 to 25 minutes of the second half, but after that…nothing. They took their goal really well and should have won. How we managed to score at all is a mystery. The 1-1 score is a travesty.

But I’m not one of those people who booed Staunton at the end. It is miserable enough for this proud man – with his fantastic service in an Ireland shirt over the years – to watch his team humbled again. But to have little shitheads and gurriers shouting abuse at him, that is too much. What have these 12 and 13 year old little morons ever done in their lives, aside from stealing bags of crisps at their local Aldi? It is disgraceful and unhealthy when they think they have the right to ask for the sacking of a hardworking and decent man like Steve Staunton. Most of them would be too stupid and lazy to clean that man’s boots.

Having said that…I do think the time has come for him to resign. He is in way above his head and has lost the plot. The young players in the team need to feel part of something worthwhile. We need to start afresh. He needs this job like a hole in the head. He is better off out of it and hopefully he can redeem some of his reputation somewhere else. But it is painful to watch him and his team now.

John Terry is a cyborg

Chelsea: first the premiership, then the Universe. We all know about Peter Kenyon’s ambitions to make Chelsea a dominant force in World soccer, and Abramovich’s desperation to have them win the Champions League. So, where would they stop? Would they feed drugs to their players? Would they try to bribe match officials? Would they…turn their players into cyborgs? This suggestion is not as crazy as it seems. Look at this picture of John Terry below:
john-terry.jpg

I reckon this is what they’re trying to evolve him into. A 100% powerful, strong, quick, all-seeing soccer-playing cyborg:
john-terry-ultimate.jpg

You have been warned.

Can Ireland still qualify for Euro 2008?

I made some predictions back in June. Still on course! But, honestly, it looks like a big ask now, so I am not holding my breath. But, so far, I have predicted the main results bang on. Except for Wales beating Slovakia. I have got the two Irish results right. No consolation in saying that! We’d have to improve enormously between now and October to beat Germany and I just do not see it happening.

 

Table After Sept 12th

                                P    W    D    L    F    A    GD    PTS
1    Germany             8    7     1     0     31   4    27      22
2    Czech Republic   9    6     2     1     19   4    15      20
3    Rep of Ireland     9    4     2     3     14   11    3      14
4    Slovakia              9    3     1     5     20   20   0       10
5    Wales                 8    3     1     4      13    13   0      10
6    Cyprus                8    3     1     4      13    16   -3    10
7    San Marino         9    0     0     9      1    43   -42     0

 

12/09/07 Czech Republic  1 v 0  Republic of Ireland, Slovakia  2 v 1  Wales, Cyprus  2 v 0  San Marino: The Czechs score a valuable win against a poor Irish team, Slovakia get back in the hunt with a win over Wales at home, while San Marino lose again to Cyprus. (UPDATE: Czechs do beat Ireland 1-0, but Wales thrash Slovakia 5-2 away, and Cyprus beat San Marino 3-0. Ireland looked very poor and are hardly in any shape to win their remaining three games. But…who knows? I predicted this loss slightly with my eye on the Czechs losing momentum late in their campaign, so I still think there is an outside chance of Ireland qualifying.)

PREDICTIONS:

13/10/07 Republic of Ireland  1 v  0  Germany, Cyprus  2 v 0  Wales, Slovakia  4 v 0  San Marino: On a day when the Czechs don’t play, Ireland stun the group with a tremendous win over Germany. The Germans are suitably unruffled, having done enough to secure qualification already. Cyprus continue a good campaign with a win over a faltering Wales.

17/10/07 Germany  2 v 1  Czech Republic, Republic of Ireland  2 v 1  Cyprus, San Marino  1 v 3  Wales: Germany are back to their confident best at home by defeating an ageing Czech team. The Irish gain revenge for earlier humiliations against Cyprus, but it is a close thing.

17/11/07 Czech Republic  2 v 2  Slovakia, Germany  3 v 1  Cyprus, Wales  1 v 2  Republic of Ireland: Close rivals Slovakia and Czech Republic battle to an exciting draw while Ireland continue to climb with an impressive and solid display against a dispirited Wales team in Cardiff.

21/11/07 Cyprus  1 v 1  Czech Republic, Germany  2 v 0  Wales, San Marino  1 v 4  Slovakia: The Czechs need three points for qualification but Cyprus at home are a tough nut to crack. Slovakia leave it too late to qualify with their late win against San Marino.

FINAL TABLE?
21 Nov 2007
                                P    W    D    L    F     A    GD    PTS
1    Germany            12   10   1    1    37     7    30    31
3    Rep of Ireland    12   7    2    3    18    12     6     23
2    Czech Republic  12   6    4    2    24     9     15    22
4    Slovakia             12   6    2    4    29    18    11    20
6    Cyprus               12   4    2    6    19    23    -4    14
5    Wales                12   3    1    8    13    19    -6    10
7    San Marino        12   0    0    12    4    56    -52    0

FA Cup Qualifiers

It’s that time of year again. Men with dogs, freshly-cut grass, middle-aged men in tight-fitting jerseys, car boot changing rooms, the giddy excitement, the echo of whistles and shouts across the village greens…It is FA Cup qualifying time!

Ah, the romance and the dreams. The splendid, evocative names of old England, redolent of warm beer and the spirit of 1940. It is all there in the list of names of the teams playing. What an institution it is. It would be a minor miracle if any of these teams make it to the FA Cup third round (when the big teams enter) but there is always the hope and the dreams. Perhaps Brimsdown Rovers can overcome the Burnham Ramblers and win a game against Ramsbottom Utd? Or maybe Lordswood will meet Shortwood?

The names of the clubs are fantastic. They are uniquely English. I stopped looking at the fixtures after the H’s, but here are some of my favourites up to that point! You can get the full list here.

Bacup Borough
Ramsbottom Utd
Barking
Oxhey Jets
Bemerton Heath
Biggleswade Utd
Borrowash Vics v Biddulph Victoria
Brimsdown Rovers v Burnham Ramblers
Brierley Hill & Withymoor
Cockfosters
Cradley Town v Gedling Town
Crook Town
Daisy Hill
Flackwell Heath v Moneyfields
Flixton v Bootle
Frimley Green v Colliers Wood Utd
Glapwell v Dudley Town
Glasshoughton Welfare v Liversedge
Glossop North End
Gornal Athletic v Meir Ka
Norton & Stockton Ancients

Red card suspensions unfair?

There have been a flurry of red cards at the start of the Premiership season. One in particular caught my eye: Dave Kitson of Reading was sent off after just 37 seconds as a substitute, against Manchester United. By all accounts he deserved the red card and hasn’t decided to appeal. He gets an automatic three game suspension, which means he gets banned for 270 minutes for his 37 seconds of infamy. (“Infamy! Infamy! They all have it in for me!!” Caesar in Carry on Cleo).

Suspension is a disproportionate punishment for such offenses. Suspensions punish entire football clubs, robbing managers of essential players at critical times and depriving supporters of their favourite players.

Red cards can change games, depending on when they occur. A red card in the first five minutes is clearly different to one given in injury time at the end of a game. Some may be ‘awarded’ (what a strange term!) for a mistimed tackle or a rush of blood to the head, or maybe for two minor yellow cards. Yet the punishment is rigid: a three game suspension.

And red cards range from the absolutely deserved to the highly dubious. It seems too crude a mechanism to distinguish between merely incompetent players and the deliberately dangerous ones.

Players do need to be protected from rash or dangerous play, so red cards are an essential part of the game. But referees should only have to decide on the instant an incident happens whether to enforce the rules and send a player off or not. To have that instant decision turn automatically into a three game suspension is asking too much of them.

I’d prefer to see a system where referees send players off, but only a panel of judges, armed with the referee’s report, eye-witness accounts, player’s explanations, and video evidence, should decide on the suspension. That might lessen the foolishness and unfairness.  

Five stages of a transfer saga

All football transfers happen in stages and I have been struck repeatedly at how monotonous and regular this procession of media reports, rumours, and denials can be. They are so predictable and regular as to almost form a law of nature. It reminded me of those famous five stages of grief and bereavement of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Denial
The first sign that a player is being sold is always the “official denial” by the selling club that they are prepared to sell, or even contemplate selling. Like Middlesbrough saying, adamantly, that Yukubu has not requested a transfer. Other famous denials include Manchester United denying that David Beckham was going to Real Madrid, or Southampton saying Gareth Bale was not for sale (he was).
A club saying a player is “not for sale” is the biggest lie of them all. All players are for sale, at the right price and at the right time.

Anger
Managers typically get very angry in the second stage of a transfer. This is usually when they get pestered by reporters endlessly needling them about it. Or it might be that they want to turn up the heat on the negotiating team.

Fans turn their anger towards the chairman for trying to sell their prize-possession. All around, rumours fly and heated debates rage. Rarely, a player himself gets angry, such as Gabriel Heinze getting angry because he cannot join Liverpool.

Bargaining
Behind the scenes, despite the public anger, the hard bargaining has normally started long before anyone else knows about it. The golden rule is: money talks, bullshit walks. Agents, like “super-agent” Pini Zahavi get involved and want their slice of the action, including up to €4.5m for selling Aiyegbeni Yukubu to Middlesbrough, reputedly. Other clubs get dragged into the sale, trying to drive up the price. It is all unseemly and chaotic, but with only one ultimate aim: maximum price for the seller, minimum price for the buyer.

Depression
This is the stage when the deal gets done, is made public, and reality begins to sink in for the fans and clubs alike. The reaction of fans of the sellers on hearing the news resembles the full five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. But depression is the predominant feeling.

Acceptance
There comes a time when everyone gets over it. The deal has been done, the player has moved on, and other distractions fill the airwaves. Healing begins.

Ode to Teddy

teddy-sheringham.jpgTeddy Sheringham, 41, the ageless footballer, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! You see, Teddy, you are two months older than I am, and still playing soccer, having just signed for Colchester United. You are still scoring goals, still competing with those younger lads out where it matters: on the soccer pitch. As long as you keep playing, I feel young. When you stop playing, I have to put aside my boyhood dreams of ever playing soccer at the highest levels, finally. I will then have to admit that Sir Alex will not ring looking for a replacement for Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, when they retire. In  fact, by then, every single footballer in the league will be younger than I, and that will depress me. Right now though, you are a star in my eyes!

Other reasons why you’re such a star:
Your son plays soccer too, and he’s nowhere near as good as you are! Fantastic.
You scored the goal that tied the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999, and then set up the winner 2 minutes later. Talk about timing!
You started playing as long ago as 1982, when you were just sixteen. That means you were a child prodigy and now also an old veteran. That’s twenty five years ago. The mind boggles. Before mobile phones were invented. Before Tony Blair, George Bush, and Bertie Ahern. Before plasma TVs, satellite tv, the Internet. Reagan was president of the US. Incredible.

My only sadness is that you dated that dim-wit off celebrity Big Brother, Miss Great Britain, Danielle Llyod. But as George Best said, when asked what he spent all his money on, he said he spent it on booze and women, the rest he wasted. 

Can Ireland qualify for Euro 2008?

The Republic of Ireland football team have been struggling of late. We got off to a shocking start to our European qualifiers with a 5-2 trashing at the hands of Cyprus and a loss to Germany. We have stabilised things somewhat recently, with four straight wins. However, impressive as that sounds, three of those games were at home and two were against San Marino. We still have a mountain to climb in order to qualify. I am sticking my neck out to try and predict what will happen next. What follows is an exercise in wishful thinking! 

(I wrote the above back in June…this is the updated table, after Saturday 8th Sept.)

Table Now                P    W    D    L    F    A    GD    PTS
1    Germany             8    6     1     0     31   4    27      22
2    Czech Republic   8    4     2     1     18   4    14      17
3    Rep of Ireland     8    4     1     2     14   10    4        14
4    Slovakia              8    3     0     4     18   15   3       10
5    Wales                 7   2     1     3      8    11    -3        7
6    Cyprus                7    1     1     4      10    16   -6       7
7    San Marino         8    0     0     6      1    40   -35     0

 

22/08/07  San Marino  1 v 3  Cyprus: Plucky San Marino hold Cyprus for much of the game even grabbing a shock equaliser before half-time, but Cypriot fitness tells in the final 20 minutes. (UPDATE: Cyprus managed a 1-0 win in the end)

08/09/07: San Marino  0 v 4  Czech Republic, Wales  0 v 1  Germany, Slovakia  1 v 1  Republic of Ireland:  Ireland survive a late onslaught to grab a valuable away point. Wales are just too weak to hold off a confident Germany. (UPDATE 9th Sept.: San Marino lost 3-0, Wales lost 2-0, and Ireland drew 2-2 with Slovakia, so my predictions remain the same – Ireland to qualify by a hair’s breath.)

12/09/07 Czech Republic  1 v 0  Republic of Ireland, Slovakia  2 v 1  Wales, Cyprus  2 v 0  San Marino: The Czechs score a valuable win against a poor Irish team, Slovakia get back in the hunt with a win over Wales at home, while San Marino lose again to Cyprus.

13/10/07 Republic of Ireland  1 v  0  Germany, Cyprus  2 v 0  Wales, Slovakia  4 v 0  San Marino: On a day when the Czechs don’t play, Ireland stun the group with a tremendous win over Germany. The Germans are suitably unruffled, having done enough to secure qualification already. Cyprus continue a good campaign with a win over a faltering Wales.

17/10/07 Germany  2 v 1  Czech Republic, Republic of Ireland  2 v 1  Cyprus, San Marino  1 v 3  Wales: Germany are back to their confident best at home by defeating an ageing Czech team. The Irish gain revenge for earlier humiliations against Cyprus, but it is a close thing.

17/11/07 Czech Republic  2 v 2  Slovakia, Germany  3 v 1  Cyprus, Wales  1 v 2  Republic of Ireland: Close rivals Slovakia and Czech Republic battle to an exciting draw while Ireland continue to climb with an impressive and solid display against a dispirited Wales team in Cardiff.

21/11/07 Cyprus  1 v 1  Czech Republic, Germany  2 v 0  Wales, San Marino  1 v 4  Slovakia: The Czechs need three points for qualification but Cyprus at home are a tough nut to crack. Slovakia leave it too late to qualify with their late win against San Marino.

FINAL TABLE?
21 Nov 2007
                                P    W    D    L    F     A    GD    PTS
1    Germany            12   10   1    1    37     7    30    31
3    Rep of Ireland    12   7    2    3    18    12     6     23
2    Czech Republic  12   6    4    2    24     9     15    22
4    Slovakia             12   6    2    4    29    18    11    20
6    Cyprus               12   4    2    6    19    23    -4    14
5    Wales                12   3    1    8    13    19    -6    10
7    San Marino        12   0    0    12    4    56    -52    0