Sunday, 30 August 2009

Diving In

Five days after the event, the Eduardo dive is still something of a talking point. Depending on which side of the border you sit on, there is a slightly different angle to this story.

In England the story is being perpetuated as “evil foreigners bringing their cheating ways to our precious game” or something like that, with the book being urged to be thrown at Eduardo. I happen to think that the book should be thrown at Eduardo and anyone else who cheats, however this attitude is at least 10 years too late. The clampdown really should have started in 1990 when Argentina cheated their way to a World Cup final and were stopped by West Germany, no strangers to the dark arts themselves.

Not that it’s only foreigners who cheat. Here in Scotland, some of the coverage has been a tad unsympathetic towards Celtic as fans of other teams remember Celtic players (and Old Firm players generally)who dived. Older fans will remember John McDonald of Rangers who was rather quick to go down. More recently Nakamura fell over and got a free kick at Love Street. So with Wednesday still fresh in the memory, was today really a good day then for McGeady to dive against Hibernian? Over to you Gorden Smith...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Season Does Start Here!

After one of the most traumatic and dispiriting close seasons in Scottish football history, the Scottish Championship starts today in a climate of economic collapse. It is a symbol if this that the Champions Rangers have so far not added to their squad, despite the “Champions League” millions coming their way. On the plus side for Rangers they retain Walter Smith as manager, who has won 8 championships in total for his team. Rangers though have seen 5 players leave the club.

On the other hand Celtic had their most turbulent close season since Martin O’Neil’s appointment, when they lost Gordon Strachan within 24 hours of losing the Championship. Strachan’s successor was identified as Tony Mowbray. However a protracted period of negotiations ensued, which eat into valuable preparation time. Celtic have actually managed to bring some players in, Landry N'Guemo, Marc-Antoine Fortune and Danny Fox being the summer signings while Lukasz Zaluska signed on freedom of contract in January. Celtic though have lost Nakamura from last year. Celtic’s chances of overtaking Rangers depend on how quickly they can pull together as a team, and whether they are mentally tough enough. In this respect, I would make Rangers slight favourites to retain the league championship, very possibly on the last afternoon of the season again.

Elsewhere it’s a case of the more things change, the more things stay the same. Aberdeen replaced Calderwood with Motherwell’s Mark McGee, who’s attempts at teambuilding have so far proved less successful than his work at Fir Park, the 8-1 European aggregate defeat at the hands of Sigma Olomic at the will have been a hige psychological blow. Motherwell appointed former Stockport manager Jim Gannon, and suffered their own European humiliation at the hands of Steua Bucharest. HIbs saw Pattelinen leave and replaced him with Falkirk’s John Hughes, who took a couple of his Cup finalists with him. Falkirk brought in rookie manager, and former player Eddie May. Their European nightmare came at the hands of Luxembourg’s very own FC Vaduz. The combination of rookie manager and former player is not a good combination for a new manager. This probably makes Falkirk favourites for the drop, but in truth they will probably fight it out with Hamilton and Kilmarnock, with promoted St Johnstone, St Mirren and Motherwell just being too good to go down, but not by much.

Not that very much of this will be seen by the general public. The demise of Setanta has seen the rights for the SPL split between BSkyB and newcomers ESPN. BSkyB appear to have already decided to show Scottish football in the graveyard slot of Saturday lunchtime. Highlights will be shown on the BBC on Monday nights, 50 hours after the action has taken place. One of the stated aims of the SPL was to “improve the product”. Can someone tell me how a product is being improved by being priced out of reach of most people, and being shown at insane hours?

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Norway 4, Scotland 0

"Scotland's World Cup dream was left on a knife edge after they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a desperate, Egil Olsen-inspired Norway. Gary Caldwell was sent off after 33 minutes and John Arne Riise scored with the resulting sublime free-kick. Morten Gamst Pedersen drove in the second on the stroke of half-time. Erik Huseklepp turned in the third and Pedersen added a fourth as coach Olsen's Norway revived their chances of reaching the play-offs from Group Nine.

Defeat means Scotland will probably now need to win their two remaining matches, at home to Macedonia and group winners Netherlands, to make those matches as one of the best-placed runners-up

It has to be said that this was a very bad night, and it all turned on Caldwell’s sending off on 33 minutes. Referee Hamar had made a couple of dodgy decisions before the incident, but the sending off was simply the wrong decision. Caldwell and Carew were involved in a tusstle for the ball, and Carew lost out. Caldwell wasn’t involved in any shenanigans that Carew didn’t do. Nope it was a bad mistake and it cost Scotland dear.

That’s not to blame the referee for everything that went wrong. It did however expose the bad decision making in the Scotland camp. Rather than re-arrange things for 5 minutes to figure out who to take off to plug the hole in the defence, Burley swapped Berra for Ross McCormack, who looked more effective than Commons. That’s not to mention Graham Alexander. Scotland’s defence couldn’t handle the physical nature of Carew, strange considering the physical nature of Scottish Football, and just looked more and more fragile as the game went on. The second goal saw no real challenges on any of the Norway players, while the Scotland players failed to pick up Huseklepp for the third. It doesn’t help that Scotland looked undercooked, which goes back to the concerns about the timing of the game, coming before the start of the domestic season in Scotland, but half way through the Norwegen season.

What this result does do is bring forward the autopsy on Scotland’s World Cup campaign, with the first 5 or 6 callers to BBC Scotland’s “Your Call” programme calling for Burley to go. Sunny Jim Traynor has just said that he thinks Burley is in denial. Read into that what you will. The 5 or 6 callers did rather spoil their argument by calling for Souness to be installed as Scotland Manager, not because of some sort of tactical nous, but because he has balls. It appears that Scotland fans are already looking beyond Burley

Scotland were hard done by with the sending off of Caldwell. But they failed to make the necessary adjustments, both tactically and mentally, and paid a heavy price for it. Scotland are not out of the World Cup, but progressing out of the group is now a very very difficult task. I think that Burley has to beat Macedonia and The Netherlands next month to give Scotland that slim chance of reaching the play-offs, or his time as Scotland coach will come to an end.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Fourth Test, Headingley: Australia 445 beat England 102 & 263 by an innings and 80 runs

As momentum shifts go, this was as unexpected and unforeseen as is possible as Australia’s pace attack found form… and then some. By exposing the technical deficiancies in the England middle order, the Australian bowlers made it doubtful that Ian Bell or Ravi Bhopara would be picked for the 5th Test a week on Thursday.

The technical deficiencies also extended to the England pace bowlers, who bowled too short and gave too many easy shots to the Australian batsmen. England were in a hole very quickly on day one, finding at 71 for 5 at Lunch. Very quickly they were bowled out for 102. Having only seen the highlights, I suspect that technical deficiencies played a part in the batting collapse, with Bell and Bhopara the main culprits. But I suspect that there is a lack of patience here as well. Its no error that Cook prospered, abet briefly, on the first morning. Strauss looked, well, distracted. Hardly surprising as he had lost Flintoff to injury, and had looked like loosing Prior to injury during the warm-up.

Despite only getting 3 wickets in the match, the inclusion on Stuart Clark in the Australian test team seems to have invigorated the other bowlers. Peter Siddle took five wickets in the first innings, however the real bonus was the return to form of Mitchell Johnson. Johnson had so far wilted under the pressure of being the next great Australian spearhead bowler. His 5 for 69 included 3 wickets on Saturday evening (above, getting the wicket of Alistair Cook late on Day 2) which blew away the England middle order. In sharp contrast, England bowled too short. Broad and (to a certain extent) Onions seemed to be the only bowlers who were prepared to bowl line and length balls, and let the ball swing.

Going into the last test, the series is tied at 1-1. Previous results at the Oval are irrelevant, but for the record Australia have only won there 3 times since the Second World War (1948, 1972 and 2001). England seem to have all the selection problems. It is likely that Anderson will be fit, and will be joined by Flintoff, for his last Test. This however leaves the question of what to do with the middle order. The saving grace for Bell and Bhopara is that there really isn’t an obvious replacement for either of them. Personally, I would maybe look to swap Bhopara and Bell, Bhopara is not a Test Number 3, while maybe a change in position would do Bell some good. Australia hold most of the aces, and a momentum they had before, and lost. England must hope that they lose it again.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Season Kinda Starts Here

It has been a very strange and somewhat staggered start to the season. Motherwell, Aberdeen and Falkirk have been eliminated from Europe already, while Celtic have got through a tough European qualifier. We have also seen the start of the League Cup with two SPL sides taking part in the first round last weekend, and on Wednesday we will see Scotland play in a key World Cup qualifier. All of this before the start of the domestic Season (the lower leagues kicked off yesterday).

We will look at the club game in more detail before Saturday. However Wednesday sees Scotland’s earliest international ever when they take on Norway in Oslo. Its not that Scotland have never played internationals in August before, they even played a key European Championships qualifier against Greece in August (in 1995, bizarrely the first game in Athens took place the weekend before Christmas 1994). However I can’t remember a Scotland International taking place before the start of the domestic season. For this reason, this game will be a difficult match.

P GD Pts
Netherlands 7 +14 21
Scotland 5 -2 7
Macedonia 6 -3 7
Iceland 7 -6 4
Norway 5 -3 3

Scotland do have a good record in Oslo. They are unbeaten there in World Cup qualifying, having won there in September 1988 and September 2005, both times by 2-1, their last defeat in Norway was a 4-3 loss in 1964. This does not disguise the fact that this is a crucial match for both teams, as you can see from the group table above. A loss for Norway will effectively eliminate them from the race for second. A win for Scotland will put points between themselves and Macedonia. Bearing in mind that their last two games are home ties next month against Macedonia and Netherlands. 9 points in the last 3 games is a must, even to get into the minefield of the playoffs.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

What If...

Third Test, Edgbaston: Australia 263 & 375-5 drew with England 376

The biggest question to be posed at the end of this test was what if the rain hadn’t come, how would have panned out. Of course its all ifs and buts, which ignore the interesting shift which occurred in this match.

Before the match, England were on top, and Australia were in apparent disarray. However Australia look to be now working their way back into this series. Their bowling this test is an improvement on Lords, though Johnson is still perhaps leaking too many runs for Australia’s liking. HIlfenhaus though has been excellent, extracting swing. The session either side of lunch on the fourth day put a check on England’s scoring, at one point it was doubtful that England would overhaul the 263 Australia posted.

What is clear is that this is now an incredibly close contest, inconceivable 3 months ago when Australia demolished South Africa. Tomorrow the series moves on to the 4th Test, which will be held in Leeds. Headingley of course has a strong place in Ashes history, from Bradman’s 334 in 1930, 1981 and all that through to Mark Butchers match winning 173 not out in the last Ashes test played at Headingley, in 2001. Weather permitting, another chapter waits.