Friday, 24 December 2010

Even Pitch

Game on!

One of the main attributes of Australian sport in general is their never say die attitude, an attitude we do not have here.  That's not to say that Australia are going to now run away with this series, but they have put themselves back into the game.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Australia had to win in Perth, and given the unique set-up at the WACA, this was their best opportunity.  They took it.  The WACA pitch is currently still the quickest bounciest pitch on the Test circuit, Australia had the players capable of utilising it and of playing it.  The person who benefited the most was Mitchell Johnson (above).  Johnson made his debut against Sri Lanka 3 years ago, but to date his performance in South Africa – where he took 16 wickets and emerged with the Man of the Series gong, but apart from a spell against England at the Headingly test has not really reached that standard again.  Until Perth when he took 6/38 and 3/44 (to go with his first innings 62 with the bat).

Australia might have won convincingly in Perth, however the problems besetting the team are still there in victory.  The win was held together by Johnson’s 62, had he gone early Australia would not have made 200, and in the second innings by Mike Hussey’s 116.  Hussey now leads the series averages with an aggregate of 517 runs at an average of 103.40, with Shane Watson & Brad Haddin the only other Australians to have made over 200 runs during this series so far.  At least the bowlers now have a bit of form and wickets behind them.

Having lead, England are now facing questions about their team, with calls being made to push Bell up the order to bat at No# 5, and for an extra bowler to be included.  I think the only change that should be made is that Bell is switched with Collingwood, with Collingwood coming in at 6.  I am also surprised that Collingwood has not had more of a bowl as well, considering how much work that Finn/Anderson/Swan and Broad/Tremlett have done.

While Perth has always produced hard, fast and bouncy wickets, the pitch at Melbourne (right) is expected to be a slow one.  Being a drop in pitch it may well suit the seam bowlers, and be a little bowler friendly.  Unlike Perth, England have a good record at Melbourne, winning memorable tests at the MCG in 1982, 1986 and 1998.  If last year is anything to go by Australia racked up 454 on first use of the pitch.
For England, a win will see them retain the Ashes, Australia need to win to take the series to the last test.  The question will be who’s nerves will hold out?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

SOPTY Time is Apon Us Again…

Sunday sees the BBC’s once good now rather excruciatingly smug roundup of the sporting year. The glitzy glamour and razzmatazz rather masks the poor year that BBC sport has had, with the corporation receiving all manner of brickbats in relation to its lazy coverage of the World Cup, not to forget the games played in relation to their failed attempt to pick up the free-to-air Ashes highlights contract (which eventually went to…  um…  ITV4).

The centrepiece of the old Sports Review of The Year programme used to be the Sports Personality of the Year award (pictured, right), which like some sort of lethal virus has grown and taken over the programme.  So much so that the programme has now taken on the name Sport’s Personality of the Year, as the awards aspect has side-lined the sports review aspect (with the addition of "Team of the Year", "Coach of the Year",  Overseas awards and Outstanding Contribution awards).  One look at the nominees underlines why the review section might have gone on the slide.

The favourite should be the Northern Irish golfer Graeme McDowell, who won the US Open, 40 years on from the last British triumph in that tournament.  There is also the small matter of his contribution to Europe’s Ryder Cup win in Wales in October.  His Ryder Cup team-mate Lee Westwood is also nominated.  Though he did not win a major, his nomination is down to his unseating of Tiger Wood’s as Golf’s number one player.

The Heptathlete Jessica Ennis is nominated for the second year in a row, she added a European Championship to the World Championship she will defend next year, she should be close as well.  I would also like to see Mark Cavendish do well too.  In 3 Tours, Cavendish has won 15 stages and holds a reputation as a deadly finisher on the flat stages.

Of the others, Haye’s anti-climatic defeat of Audley Harrison might count against him, people are split on Horse racing, so AP McCoy is an outsider, as is the teenage diver Tom Daley.  Graeme Swann might make the top three, depending on his performances during the ongoing test in Perth.  Amy Williams is another outsider, even though she is the first Brit to win an individual winter Olympics gold medal in 30 years.  The Dart’s lobby might also push Pill Taylor into the top three.

I think that McDowell will win, ahead of Ennis and I think that either JP McCoy or Phil Taylor will sneak into third, depending on who get’s their vote out.  After last year’s shock win for Ryan Giggs, its not a confident prediction.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Doctor Will See You Now…

Intriguingly, while we are in the middle of an interesting Ashes series, South Africa and India begin their series tomorrow. The winners will be crowned the best test side at the conclusion of this series.  I wish that I had the time to properly do a preview (Steyn V Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar etc.) – but with Christmas around the corner and having just returned from Holiday, this is a subject i should return to.

This Ashes series is perfectly poised though.  After Australia dominating for 3 days in Brisbane, England found their form to dominate the last two days and then to crush Australia in Adelaide.  Next up is Perth, which really represents Australia’s last chance to get back into this series.  England’s only win at the WACA was during the 1978/9 Ashes tour, when the Australia side was severely depleted by the rival Packer series.  Generally the WACA pitch is a pitch for the quick bowlers to enjoy as the leading wicket takers comprise a who’s who of Australian strike bowling – noticeably as well the West Indies first loss at the WACA came during the 2000/1 whitewash, winning all of the 5 tests they played up to that point.

Australia have brought back Mitchell Johnson (as well as Ben Hilfenhaus), and have brought in Beer & Smith as options in the spin bowling department.  All of the changes smack of desperation for a side who do not repeat the trough’s of the mid 1980’s.  England, who are one up, have a selection headache of their own.  Stuart Broad is injured, with Chris Tremlett tipped to take his place.  I think that Bresnan might be a better bet.

A win for England will se them retain the Ashes for the first time since 1986/7.  However Australia are notorious for their fighting spirit.  Now would be a good time to see that.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Size Of England’s Task…

In the previous post, it was mentioned that England have only won 3 Ashes tests on Australian soil since winning the Boxing Day test of 1986, which sealed the series for England.  Here is a reminder of those tests…

26-30 January 1995: 4th Test, Adelaide – England (353 & 328) beat Australia (419 & 156) by 106 runs.
Having lost the first two tests by 185 and 295 runs respectively, England responded by putting themselves into a good position to win at Sydney. May & Warne’s rear-guard action saved the draw, and ensured Australia retained the Ashes.

For the fourth test, England batted first & posted a par score of 353, Gatting making his last test century in this test with 117.  Australia then went on to take a 66 run first innings lead, debutant Greg Blewitt made 102*.  England then set Australia 263 runs to win with their second innings score, with an 81 run 7th wicket partnership between Crawley (71) and DeFretas (top score of 88) helping England to that position.  Mark Waugh spun his way to 5 for 40.  Australia then collapsed, with Devon Malcolm (4/39) and Chris Lewis (4/24) doing the damage.

26-29 December 1998: 4th Test, Melbourne – England(270 & 244) beat Australia (340 & 162) by 12 runs
Another win for England in a dead rubber, England managed to draw in Brisbane, with the rain coming to their rescue, before losing in Perth (7 wickets) and in Adelaide (by 205 runs).
Play on Boxing Day was washed out.  This meant that play in the remaining days were elongated to compensate for the loss in play.  This resulted in play on the 29th December lasting for nearly 8 hours, as the test came to an exciting conclusion. 

Alec Stewart smashed his first Ashes century on Australian soil as he made 107 in England's 270.  In reply Steve Waugh rescued Australia, taking them from the parlous 98/3 to a first innings lead of 70 with his 122*.  Darren Gough nabbed the bowling honours with 5/96.  Stewart, Hussain & Hick all made 50’s as England could not get going, and set Australia a gettable 175.  Australia were on their way, but collapsed from 140/5 to 162 all out.  Dean Headley got 6/60, including the wicket of Darren Lehmann which started the rout.
Vaughan with his man of the match & man of the series gong's

2-6 January 2003: 5th Test, Sydney – England (362 & 452) beat Australia (363 & 226)
Yet another win for England in a dead rubber, this one meant that they avoided a 5-0 series whitewash as Australia had won the previous four.  Butcher scored his second century on Australian soil with his 124, while Hussain & Stewart made half centuries in their last test appearances on Australian soil.  In reply Australia were struggling on 56/3, when that man Steve Waugh entered the stage once again.  Cue an emotional century, which included Waugh passing 10,000 test runs when he reached 69*.  Waugh was rumoured to be retiring (or to be retired by the selectors), before that hundred.  Gilchrist top scored with 133 as Australia only scraped past England’s score.

In England’s second innings, it was once again the Michael Vaughan show (left), as made his highest Ashes score of 183.  In doing so, Vaughn equalled the feat of Chris Broad in making three centuries on Australian soil (having made 177 in Adelaide and 154 in Melbourne).  His century helped England set a target of 452 to win, which proved to be difficult on a wearing pitch.  The night watchman Andy Bichel made 49 as Andy Caddick took 7/94

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ashes 2010/11: Up For Grab’s

They might have gone with trepidation in 1994 & 1998, and they might have gone with hope in 2002 & 2006, but for the first time since 1978 England go to Australia with a real opportunity to retain the Ashes on Australian soil.  The irony is that when they toured in 1986/7, they were touted as the team that couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl, and couldn’t field.  Until they won the first test in Brisbane by 7 wickets.
Austraila Retain the Ashes in 2007

Draws followed in Perth & in Adelaide before England retained the Ashes by winning the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.  Perth & Adelaide may be reversed, but the challenge England will have to negotiate if they are to retain the Ashes this series remains as hard.  England have not won in Brisbane since that test in 1986, and have only won there on one other occasion since the Second World War.  In 1994 & ‘98  England were batted out of a chance of victory by Australia making huge first innings totals.  In 2002, England ceded the advantage before then, by opting to field.  In 2006, nervousness and a lack of match practice cost England dear as Australia racked up 346 runs for the loss of only 3 wickets.  Brisbane is a place where batting first and putting a big score on the board will put you in the pound seat, as bounce allied to a wearing pitch takes it’s toll on the opposition.

Australia though are not the force they were 4 years ago, as England found out by regaining the Ashes 15 months ago, by only really dominating in 5 sessions (The first two days at Lords and the Friday afternoon session at The Oval), the momentum swings provided by these sessions proved insurmountable for an Australian team who put in the runs but only saw their bowlers on top at Headingley.   They have not won a test since beating Pakistan at Lords, having lost the second test of the series at Headingley followed by  both tests in India.  They are also in the middle of a run of defeats in the one day form of the game.  Though the form of the Australian test side is not as bad as the drought experienced in the mid 1980’s (when Australia failed to win a test series between January 1984 and December 1987), there are still worrying signs.
Australia announced a squad of 17, which will be trimmed down, for the first test which starts on 25 November.While Katich is expected to open with Shane Watson, with Ricky Ponting coming in at his customary No. 3 position, the middle order places are less certain.  The men in possession, Hussey & North have not had the best of years,with the selectors bringing in Khawaja and Ferguson as possible replacements.  Interestingly the selectors have kept Phillip Hughes out of the squad for the time being.  Before his dismissal for a brief 30 odds at  the Sophia Gardens Ashes test, Hughes was the latest supposedly great batsman to come off the conveyor belt.  Both Michael Clarke & Brad Haddin should also make the Gabba.
England Leave the field well on their way to regaining the Ashes, August 2009

The Australian attack is similarly unsettled.  Peter Siddle has been injured since January and might miss out this time, especially as Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger are the current men in possession.  Ryan Harris, who played during the test series in New Zealand might be an outsider.  The inclusion of Xavier Doherty has also put pressure on Nathan Hauritz ahead of the First Test.

England also have their selection issues.  With the return of Kevin Pieterson & Ian Bell, it looks as if Eoin Morgan will make way.  I suspect England will go for Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pieterson, Bell, Collingwood, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson & Finn.

History will be against England.  Since their last series win in Australia, England have only won 3 tests in Australia.  Since the end of the second World War, England have only won 4 series in Australia (1954/5, 1970/1, 1978/9 and 1986/7), while Australia were unbeaten at home in a test series between 1992/3 (when the West Indies won a 5 match series) and 2008/9 (when South Africa won a 3 test series).  However, they do have a good chance to win against an opponent still trying to find it’s next generation of greats.  I think that with both sides much of a muchness, that this series will be a draw.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Reffing Hell!

Ah, the latest (in a long line) of refereeing controversies.  Where do I start…

It would be nice to think that Celtic’s motives were honest and all for the good of Scottish Football.  But they are not.  I can think of at least 3 very poor refereeing decisions which went for Celtic and against my own team (St Mirren) in recent years – for the record those decisions are Nakamura falling over to get a free kick at Love Street in the February 2008 fixture, the sending off of Haining and the award of a penalty for his challenge with Venegoor of Hesselink in the opening game of the 2008/09 game, and the non punishment of Artur Boric for flattening Dargo in Celtic’s last visit to Love Street.

Instead, Celtic’s complaints rather smack of petulance.  This is a pity because Celtic’s stance obscure’s the fact that the current crop of referees are not very good.  The criticism of Willie Collum after the last Old Firm game was that he gave a penalty for Rangers, when Broadfoot dived.  It seems to have bypassed these critics that referees are not particularly good at picking up dive’s, not least Collum who failed to curb Hamilton Accies players lack of balance the week before.  They are even less inclined to punish dives, Stephen Naismith being the latest to commit that particular sin…

Not that referees are 100% to blame for their failings.  In most games I see nowadays, the referee makes the majority of decisions unaided by his linesmen.  In no sense of the word do the majority of linesmen deserve the term “Assistant Referees”.  This season seems to be some sort of nadir, with linesmen unable to ascertain who’s throw in it should be, even though I and the people sitting next to me can see precisely who’s throw in it should be from the back of the stand.  Some sort of training or testing initiative should be the SFA’s response.  However I'm not holding my breath, after all the SFA have form in going down the inactivity route.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Tactic’s Shmatic’s…

European Championships, Qualifying Group I, Synot Tip Arena, Prague; Czech Republic 1, Scotland 0

Scotland's Jamie Mackie competes for a header with Marek Suchy.
Not one of Scotland’s finest nights, but Craig Levin’s tactic’s seem to have detracted from how badly Scotland kept possession.  Worryingly this is the second international on the trot where Scotland’s poor technique on the ball has translated into a poor performance.  That the world’s best exponents of possession football are Scotland’s next opponents should be a worry to Levein, on current form, Scotland will struggle to hold on to anymore than 5 minutes possession out of the 90. 
Touted in various quarters as 4-2-2-2 or 4-1-5 or ever 4-6-0, it eventually panned out as 4-2-4 when Scotland were going forward.  There was however on glaring fault with the system, the quality of passing from the back four was utterly dire.  As a result, in the first half McManus & Weir kept on hoofing the ball towards the space vacated by the lack of a centre forward.  Which resulted in possession being given back to the Czech Republic.
It was a tactic which seemed to work well in the first half, as the Czech Republic seemed to be becoming more and more frustrated.  The second half however saw the Czech Republic step up a gear.  Kadlec had a chance saved by McGregor, who also made a great save from a Polak header.  Scotland were looking like a team needing a change personnel as the tactics that had worked to some effect now stopped working, Miller prehaps should have been on for the last 25 minutes of the game (or at least we should have gone to 4-2-3-1 with Mackie in front of Morrison, Naismith and Dorrens with Caldwell & Fletcher acting as midfield anchors).
The goal was a criminal goal to concede.  From a corner, a Rosicky header was flicked on by the former Hearts forward Roman Bednar to the defender Hubnik, who had found some space to head home from metres.  Scotland had deployed a zonal marking system, but still should not have afforded Hubnik the time to get into position to head home.
The game then opened up, with Scotland switching to a straightforward 4-4-2, but crucially still could not put together enough fluid passing moves to trouble the Czech Republic.  The Czech’s on the other hand were able to break at speed and pick out space, looking way more comfortable on the ball than their Scottish opponents.  In the end, with superior technique and a desire to win, the Czech’s deserved their win.
While the result will not be a disaster (the Czech Republic are now on 3 points, one behind Lithuania and Oh ourselves – Spain lead on maximum points), it will be the manner of the defeat, especially the controversy surrounding the formation and the “dropping” of Kenny Miller (BTW, Mackie did ok, even if he was played out of position.  He deserves an opportunity as the forward in Scotland’s regulation 4-5-1 formation) which will ensure a tough couple of days for Craig Levein.  Of more concern should be the lack of basic football technique from some of the Scotland players, who were wasteful in possession, and awful in retaining it.  Perhaps some video’s of Spain’s run in South Africa is in order for the Scotland team to look at and to learn from…  before the real thing visits Hampden on Tuesday.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Repeating Past Glories

So, just how good are the Czech Republic, Scotland’s next opponents in Euro 2012 qualifying?  The easy answer is that we will find out on Friday.  But that won’t do for a preview piece.

The Czech Republic have been, since their split from Slovakia 20 odd years ago, one of those sides that you would file firmly as “Dark Horses”.  In Euro 96, they got to the final after escaping from that tournament’s version of “The Group of Death” – losing to Germany before beating Italy and drawing with Russia.  After condemning Scotland to a Playoff against England, they once again lined up in another group of death in Euro 2000 – this time failing to make it out of a group containing France, The Netherlands and Denmark.  The hat trick of “Group of Death” appearances came in 2004 when they topped a group containing Germany, The Netherland’s and Latvia.  The Czech Republic then slipped into favourites camp, and wilted against Greece.

Since Euro 2004 though the Czech Republic have gone backwards.  The qualified for their first World Cup in 2006, but failed to get out of a group containing Italy & Ghana.  They also got to Euro 2008, but again failed to get out of their group.  Despite beating the hosts Switzerland in their opening game, they fell to defeats against Portugal & Turkey.  In qualifying for the last World Cup, they finished 4 points behind Slovenia and six behind their neighbours Slovakia as both countries went to the World Cup.  On the face of it, the Czech Republic is in transition, and not really of the same vintage as 1996, 2004 or even 2000.  That impression is not hindered by the start the Czech’s have made to this group, losing at home to Lithuania.

Yet, there looks as if there is still the quality there to see off Scotland.  Milan Baros will miss the game through injury, while the injured Roman Bednar has been included in the squad.  Petr Cech and Thomas Rosicky, familiar names to followers of the EPL, should start against Scotland.  Jaroslav Plasil of Bordeaux has also been included in the squad.  Vaclav Kadlec of Sparta Prague has also been included in the squad, if he makes his debut either against Scotland or Liechtenstein (on Tuesday) he will become the second youngest player to be capped for the Czech Republic.

Scotland will be missing Lee McCulloch for the tie against the Czechs through suspension, while Hutton, McGreggor, Whittaker are the obligatory walking wounded, with injury already rulling out Broadfoot, Scott Brown, McFadden & Hartley from the last squad – Brown though may make the Spain tie on Tuesday.  Gary Caldwell is recovering from hip surgery, so may not be match fit yet.  While there are rumours that Kenny Miller may be left out of the starting 11.


While the Czech Republic are unbeaten in European Championship matches against Scotland (2-1 at Parkhead and 3-2 in Prague in March & June 1999 respectively), Scotland have won their last meeting against the old Czechoslovakia.  Though they have not won in Prague since 1937, Scotland have a good chance of a win.  However such is the tight nature of this group (Spain apart), an away draw should also be seen as a good point won, i think that it will finish 1-1 tomorrow.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Third Biggest Sport’s Event In The World?

Yep, that’s the boast I heard tonight about the Ryder Cup.  Not really sure how that conclusion has been reached, especially with the Commonwealth Games and the Athletics World Championships having a better argument to be on the same podium as The Olympics and the football World Cup.


What the Ryder Cup does bring is an almost certain guarantee that there will be some sort of drama right at the climax, either with a missed put, or with some unsporting behaviour, as occurred in 1991 and 1999.  Both Kiawah Island & Brookline have entered the annuls of the sports books under the heading as notorious. Whatever happens, we can hope for some nerve shredding drama at Celtic Manor this weekend.


The action starts tomorrow morning with the Fourballs.  First up will be Lee Westwood & the USPGA winner Martin Kaymer up against the US Masters winner Phil Mickelson & Dustin Johnson, this will be at 7:45am tomorrow.  At 8, it will be the all Northern Irish pairing of US Open winner Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy up against last years Open champion Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar.  English pair Iain Poulter and Ross Fisher will be up against the Tiger and Steve Stricker from quarter past 8, while last to tee off will be the pairing of Luke Donald & Paidraig Harrington up against Bubba Watson & Jeff Overton.


Europe will be hoping to put the nightmare of Valhalla behind them, while the Americans will be hoping to retain the cup and win on European soil for the first time since 1993.  I thought at the time the teams were announced & the wildcards picked that Europe would lose.  Now I'm not so sure.  I think Europe will cling on by a point.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Disaster Averted… But…

European Championships, Qualifying Group I, Hampden; Scotland 2 Liechtenstein 1

McManus Scores against Liechtenstein
During the victory which heralded Scottish Football’s anus mirabilis, Dennis Law and Jim Baxter were supposedly engaged in some sort of debate about how exactly to beat England.  Law, having played during the 9-3 drubbing in 1961, wanted to exact revenge by piling on the goals.  Baxter just wanted to extract the urine.  It seems at times as if the need to extract the urine has overtaken the need for results in Scottish football, and this was the case on Tuesday night when, no matter what the management and the players say, eleven players trooped on to the pitch at Hampden expecting to roll over a side 100 places below them in FIFA’s rankings system.

Scotland, were awful and at times bordered on the unprofessional.  They could not string passes together and gave the ball away far too many times.  Better sides than Liechtenstein would have taken Scotland on that performance, but then again Scotland would not have dropped their performance levels so alarmingly against better sides.  For such a poor side, Liechtenstein produced 2 of the best moves of the whole game either side of half time.

Weisser shot straight at McGregor before half time, but Mario Frick scored with a fantastic drive just after half time, topping off a good move which exploited Scottish players being out of position.  Frick’s goal woke Scotland up, as they belatedly began to go through the gears, with the equaliser coming about 15 minutes later through a Kenny Miller strike.

Scotland’s winner came deep in injury time, and evoked memories of their famous win in Limmasol during the qualification process for Italia 90. But still, we cannot escape the fact that Scotland were seconds away from drawing with Liechtenstein, and the can must be carried by the poor fortitude displayed by the players.  It is a mantra of mine, but it is one which bears repeating.  It’s not about how good you are, but how good you are upstairs.  Unfortunately the players did not display the correct mental attitude on Tuesday, which is a shame as they did so many things right on Friday in Lithuania.  We hope they can gather themselves together, as the Spain game is now approaching quickly.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

If It’s Lithuania, It Must Be The Euro’s Again

Dailly's score's V Lithuania, September 2006
12 years ago Scotland started a Euro 2000 campaign that would end in heartbreak at Wembley with a 0-0 draw in Villnius, a game that saw Neil McCann & Barry Ferguson make their debuts, 4 and a half years later, a 1-0 loss in Lithuania nearly derailed Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Portugal (losing 6-0 in Amsterdam eventually did that), while four years ago Scotland’s 2-1 win made it two wins out of two going into their crunch clash with World Cup finalists France (before losing out, by that most Scottish of means, with a loss away in Georgia).  On Friday, Scotland are again in Lithuania, this time in Kaunas, for European Championship qualification duty.  All that will be missing will be the rendition of “I’ve Got You Babe”.

The background for this game couldn’t be more difficult for Scottish football.  Last week saw a series of results which together were a disaster.  Celtic were particularly culpable in surrendering a two goal lead by crashing to a 4-2 aggregate loss to Utrecht.  That is the equivalent of going to somewhere like Paisley and losing…  no wait they did that last season.  Celtic are now clearly a side in transition, Lennon will need to be afforded time to see if he can get things pulling in the right direction.  Motherwell’s fate was also frustrating, and alongside Dundee United’s fate, symptomatic of the general lack of exposure to the higher levels of the game.  Both sides lacked experience (Motherwell have got thus far with experience in the dug-out, they could have done with some experience on the pitch on Thursday).  All of which leaves Rangers alone in Europe struggling to keep the Scottish co-efficient afloat, a task not really helped by their European Cup draw.

For Scottish football, it will be key that the national team get off to a good start, starting with Lithuania.  For the double header (Scotland play Liechtenstein four days later at Hampden), Craig Levin has re-called David Weir, Lee McCulloch & Paul Hartley.  Should Weir play, he will be the oldest outfield player ever to have been capped by Scotland.  Making up a triumvirate of returning defenders for Scotland will be Andy Webster.  With Gordon still missing with injury, and a shaky defensive display against Sweden last month, the return of Weir, McCulloch & Webster will provide needed stability at the back.  I would also like to see Scotland start with a 3 man centre midfield (either playing 3-5-2 or 4-5-1, maybe evolving to a 4-3-2-1 as the game goes on).

Lithuania will be familiar bedfellows in more ways than one, no fewer than 9 of the Lithuania squad have plied their trade in Scottish football at one time or another. Zaliukas is still with Hearts, Velicka has joined Aberdeen on loan from Rangers this week, while Saulius Mikoliunas (he of the subtle dive during the last meeting, at Hampden in September 2007) is also in the squad.  His motivation will clearly be that the dive made him the most hated player in Scottish Football for a short period, with the media fallout forcing him from Hearts.

A win on Friday really is vital for Scotland to have a chance of qualification for Euro 2010.  After Liechtenstein on Tuesday, Scotland will be away to the Czech Republic before the arrival of the Defending champions, and new World Cup winners Spain.  Maximum points from the first quarter of the qualifying programme would provide Scottish Football with a much needed shot in the arm.

Friday, 13 August 2010

SPL 2010/11: The Season Starts Here!

Rangers get ready to recieve the championship trophy for season 2009/10
Barring Celtic’s abortive European Cup campaign, Hibernian’s abortive UEFA Cup campaign, Motherwell’s run in the same competition and Wednesday’s defeat in Sweden, the 2010/11 football season begins in earnest on Saturday with the start of the Scottish Premier League (with apologies to the Scottish Football League who started last week).  With all of the action which has occurred already, this must be the smallest close season in living memory.

Aiming for a hat trick of championships are Rangers, who like last year have not added to their squad.  However they have lost seven of their squad, with Thompson and Boyd making the move to Middlesbrough, and Danny Wilson making the switch to Liverpool. However the transfer of Kevin Thompson is arguably the only transfer involving a key player.  Weir will be around for another year, and will be supplemented by the returning Andy Webster, and Boyd was firmly second pick for the key games Rangers played.  In Walter Smith’s last season, Rangers have the necessary experience to win the Championship.

At the other side of Glasgow, Celtic have been busy in the transfer market.  After finally confirming the appointment of Neil Lennon as Manager after his caretaker stint.  Celtic have brought in Joe Ledley from Cardiff, and Charlie Mulgrew from Aberdeen.  However they have lost the “Holy Goalie” Artur Boric.  The questions posed for Celtic are the same ones from 12 months ago; can they pull a new side together under a new coach and overhaul Rangers.  The Omens are not good for Celtic, who have sacked their previous “inexperienced” coaches (Liam Brady after 2 years, John Barnes within 6 months).  I take Rangers to win by between 4-7 points.
Elsewhere, Dundee United have pretty much kept their Scottish Cup winning team intact (save for the aforementioned Andy Webster), Hearts have rather shockingly bought in Scottish players in the shape of the former Falkirk captain Darren Barr and Kilmarnock’s Kevin Kyle, while Aberdeen have brought Paul Hartley back from exile in Bristol.  Those three teams, as well as Hibernian, should be in the running for third.

The tightest battle over recent years has been the battle to avoid the drop, with Inverness Caley dropping down on goal difference in 2009 and Falkirk loosing out by a point in May.  Inverness are back in the top flight, the first team to bounce straight back up since Hib’s flew through the First Division in 1998/99.  They might find themselves at the bottom end once again, but should see themselves safe come the end of the season.

Calderwood celebrate's Kilmarnock's survival against Falkirk
The weakest squad on paper is St Mirren’s.  Their dismissal of Gus MacPherson, is one that gathered criticism among the media, but among the supporters, the opinion was that Gus’s teams looked more and more stale as the weeks went on. In his place, St Mirren have brought in the highly rated Danny Lennon from Cowdenbeath.  The problem for many journalists is that Danny has also brought 4 players from Cowdenbeath, as well as bringing back Marc McAusland from Queen Of The South and David Van Zanten from Hamilton.  St Mirren’s survival depends on the ability of the lower league players to step up to Premier League level, which to be honest is not as big a step up as most sports writers seem to think.

Hamilton have lost the talented James McArthur, their survival depends on their much vaunted conveyor belt of talent continuing.  I suspect that this will be a difficult season for Hamilton, and for Kilmarnock, who brought in Mixu Paatelainen to replace Jimmy Calderwood as Manager.  I think that the team to go down will come from those four, and I think that once again it will be too close to call.

More than most, Scottish football needs to come out and provide a season to remember, it needs to show that it was watching the events in South Africa, and that notes were being taken about technique and attacking football.  Above all Scottish football needs to realise that for the third season on the spin, the Old Firm are vulnerable.  The Old Firm will finish in the top two positions, but a winning mentality and a bit of ruthlesness needs to be shown from the other sides before they can be taken seriously.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Shape Of Scotland

I must admit that I should be thinking about the preview pieces for the start of the SPL and the EPL.  Instead Scotland are playing an International friendly tomorrow in Stockholm.  The thing that had got my ire up though was Chick Young’s piece in the BBC website, in particular his favoured Scotland team of “Allan McGregor in goal. A back four of Steven Whittaker, Garry Kenneth, Christophe Berra and Lee Wallace. A four in the middle of Barry Robson, Darren Fletcher, Kevin Thomson and Charlie Adam. And, up front, the great James McFadden playing off Kenny Miller.
England V Scotland in the Euro 2000 playoff, second leg
Does that not light your candle? "

The question that should be asked is, did Chick actually see any of the World Cup, you know the tournament that saw Spain, the Netherlands and Germany reach the last four with split mid-fields, and Uruguay playing with a diamond four in midfield at times.  One of the tactical developments coming from the World cup was that 4-4-2 just doesn’t work anymore, that 4-1 game should have told you that.

The interesting thing about Scotland is that their best results over the past 16 years have come from deploying a 3 man central midfield.  Craig Brown played with a 3-5-2, while both Walter Smith and Alex McLeish played with a 4-5-1.  I think Voghts went with 4-4-2 for most of his games (i could be wrong here, i stand corrected if I am), which was ironic as many people thought Voghts would be the natural upgrade from Craig Brown, while George Burley varied between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3.

Three in the middle of the park puts a premium on space, and also enables Scotland to split the midfield, playing McFadden & A N Other (possibly Steven Fletcher) between the midfield and the lone forward (maybe Kenny Miller?).  It’s a tactical trick we have deployed with some success for the past 16 years.  I hope that the 4-3-2-1 formation is one we stick with into the double header with Lithuania and Liechtenstein at the start of next month.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Art Of Intimidation

We shouldn’t be surprised that the new Celtic' managers attempts to whip up an intimidating atmosphere has failed.  Celtic’s loss on aggrigate has shown that Neil Lennon is a work in progress.  It does raise the interesting question of what makes an intimidating atmosphere?

Celtic fans on their last visit to Love Street in 2008
For me part of the equation is the crowd itself. The most intimidating atmosphere’s I have been part of have been when the Old Firm visit, this is partly down to our hostility to the particular Old Firm teams supporters choice of song’s.  That atmosphere is warm compared to the atmospheres waiting for teams who visit Turkey & Greece.  Manchester United were famously greeted with a banner saying “Welcome to hell” when they played Galatasaray in a European Cup tie in 1993, and that was as welcoming as it got for them.  Rangers had two scary visits to Greece in the 1990’s.  In a preliminary tie for the European Cup in 1994, they fell to a 2-0 defeat against AEK Athens, while four years later the visited the stadium dubbed “The Tomb” to play PAOK Salonika to defend a 2-0 lead.  It’s no coincidence that both Italy and Spain tend to play their trickiest qualifying games at the most intimidating stadiums (Naples and Seville respectively), while Wellington is seen as New Zealand’s most intimidating venue for a Rugby Union test.

The other part of the equation though has to be the strength of the opposition.  Parkhead probably won’t have scared Braga so much at the moment, as Celtic are currently a team still being put together.  Had they played Celtic during the O’Neill years, things would have been different.  Barcelona I'm sure is a daunting place mostly because of the quality of the teams over the years (though this probably doesn’t apply to Dundee United who are still the only undefeated British team to have played there) though even more so now that half their side have just won the World Cup.  And also there’s a very good reason why the Netherlands lost two World Cup finals in the 1970’s, they came up against very good sides buoyed by home advantage, and in Argentina their fans played their part - “They who are not jumping are Dutchmen!”

The truth is that a good atmosphere feeds off of a good team, which is more likely to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.  It is a good team which Neil Lennon needs to work on first, the atmosphere will come later.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Some Summer Games…

The World Cup has been and gone, Wimbledon went like a flash and the 150th Anniversary Open Championship went past with no last day pyrotechnics.  All of which leaves us with two sporting events (bearing in mind the Commonwealth Games will be held in October) left before we can contemplate the beginning of the domestic Football season (and after that winter).  Firstly, there’s Athletics version of the European Championship’s, which is held this year in Barcelona and started yesterday.  After that though will be the four test series between England & Pakistan, which begins tomorrow.

Normally I'd be excited about the prospect of another test series coming around.  However an element of excitement has been sucked out by the Test’s only appearing on terrestrial television via highlights on Channel 5.  The majority of the laziz faire attitude to this series though comes from the fact that, like the West Indies, the current Pakistan team is not really the same as the great  Pakistan side’s of yesteryear.  The all conquering side of 1992, who arrived as World Cup winners the previous winter, who contained the twin spearheads of Waquar Younis and Wasim Akram, coupled to the leg-spin of Mushtaq Ahmed. In 1996 this was supplemented by the stellar batting talents of Aamer Sohail, Saeed Anwar, Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam Ul-Haq, as Pakistan won convincingly 2-0.

Four years ago, Pakistan subsided to a crushing 3-0 series loss (could have been 4-0 but for their no-show on the fourth afternoon).  Since then they have lost Inzamam and Afridi to retirement and Youssuf to fights with the Pakistani Cricket board.  Pakistan could easily resemble a car crash waiting to happen.  Except they inexplicably won the second test last week at Headingly against Australia, in Salman Butt’s first match as Pakistan captain.  Alongside Butt, the players to watch are Kamran Akmal, their explosive batsman/wicketkeeper and paceman Umar Gul (above, celebrating scoring the winning runs at Headingley against Australia on Saturday).  Their new ball pairing of Asif & Aamer have been much hyped, especially after their display’s against Australia.  Pakistan still posess the guile and spin of Danish Kaneria, who still resides in the second division of test spinners, behind contemporaries Warne, Muralitharan & Kumble.  Despite this, Kaneria is this squad’s leading wicket taker, and most prolific wicket taker among Pakistan’s spinners.

England though will start as favourites.  They have home advantage, and have had two notable test results in the past year, they regained the Ashes a year ago and also drew the away series in South Africa.  However they were so so against Bangladesh with two series wins which have been comfortable rather than crushing.  There is a vacancy in the England middle order, with Bell being injured.  Pieterson is still to find his form, while England are still auditioning for pacemen to supplement James Anderson.  With Pakistan having drawn a test series against Australia, and England due to tour Australia just before the World Cup, this will be an intriguing series.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

World Cup 2010: Winners & Losers

Anyone who followed the last Westminster Election will know that alongside the election itself, there were dominant trends that emerged and winners and losers outwith the eye of the storm. This is even more true at this World Cup where there are victors outside the sporting paddock, and trends appearing…

Winner: The Broken Midfield: This World Cup was the tournament where 4-2-3-1 became the formation of choice for many of the leading teams, indeed the author of “Inverting the Pyramid”, Jonathan Wilson, claimed in his article for the Sunday Herald at the weekend that the World Cup saw the “death of 4-4-2 as the universal default”. Perhaps of more significance is that this has had the effect of breaking up the midfield into attacking and defensive components, the defensive component has been as importaint to Spain’s win as has the attacking component’s ability to hold onto the ball until the opportunity arises. As a result, we may have seen the genesis of the next tactical shift. Germany were officially credited with playing the 4-2-3-1, but on the attack it looked more like a 4-2-1-3 with the attacking midfielder Ozil playing more like a withdrawn striker of old, playing behind Muller, Klose & Podolski.

Looser: 4-4-2: Solid, dependable with little room for flair, the “two banks of 4” had a tournament to forget as all of the main contenders operated with broken midfields and players operating between the lines. The one high profile team to operate 4-4-2 (lest we forget, England) flopped dismally.

Winner: Chris Waddle: The most interesting and thought provoking of the analysts on the broadcast media. It’s no coincidence that Waddle was the only one of the English born pundits who has actually played overseas (and for Falkirk – Boom Boom). His experience of how football is played on the continent shone through, especially during the commentary for the Germany V England game. Honourable mention should go to Clarence Seedorf for asking Alan Hansen & Lee Dixon how they defended at set pieces.

Looser: ITV Sport: It’s an obvious target, but even this World Cup, they surpassed themselves for jingoistic stupid o’clock coverage. Both Left Back & Two Hundred Percent have posted blogs lamenting ITV’s tabloid (and quite frankly, tabloid doesn’t quite describe how lowest common denominator ITV’s coverage was) coverage. Rumours that they had signed Alan Partridge were sadly unfounded.

Winner: Radio 5 Live: Despite being burdened by the British Media’s version of Statler & Waldorf, and a crop of steady but not stellar commentators (no Champion, Hawthorne or Drury yet, and they should have drafted in Radio Scotland’s David Begge, how come Pat Nevin gets to be the “token Scot”?) 5 Live made the World Cup a much more interesting experience than it could have turned out. Having to listen to games during my lunch hour at work probably helped.

Looser: BBC Sport (Television): Despite trouncing ITV in the ratings, and there being a couple of features which worked very well, the BBC’s coverage has not been exactly the quality informed broadsheet to ITV’s tabloid coverage as has been the case in previous tournaments, this time it was more Daily Sexpress. Partly down to an element of resting on their laurels, partly down to some weird choices as pundits (Mick McCarthy?), and partly down to the BBC’s inability to identify a worthy (and lets be honest, a one nation) candidate to replace John Motson. But lets be honest here, the BBC are still to get round to replacing Barry Davies in their football coverage so maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Winner: Possession Football: When I was growing up, the difference between football played on the continent and football played here was that the teams that tended to come and play here on European and International duty were more adept and more comfortable with keeping the ball. This seemed to have died out in the mid 1990’s as the pressing game took hold of European football. Since 2008 though we have seen the evolution of the first post-pressing teams schooled in the art of keeping possession of the ball. Barcelona’s European Cup triumph was a throwback to old school European football, but Spain’s twin triumph’s in the European Championship’s and here in the World Cup has seen a revival in possession football.

Loser: Seire A and the English Premiership: Twenty years ago Serie A was at the zenith of it’s powers, its stadiums were hosting the 16th World Cup finals, while all three European trophies were held by Italian clubs. Crucially all of Italy’s squad which reached the semi final were playing in Italy, and for the big teams. “Foreign” players were there, but were not the roadblock to the progress of young Italian players – of course at that time there was the 4 Foreigner rule. Now, there are hardly any indigenous players playing for the top Italian clubs.

At least Italy has experience of recent International success. The English Premier League was set up with the aim of assisting the England national team. In nearly 18 years of its existence, it has had the opposite effect, acting as a roadblock to the evolution of the English national team, this became evident at this World Cup. Most of the England players looked lethargic, and tactically looked lost. Yes, Manchester United, Chelsea & Liverpool play 4-2-3-1, but the default formation for EPL sides is still 4-4-2, where the pace is frenetic, the play is very direct and no emphasis is placed on possession of the ball. Not conducive to World Cup winning football. The EPL didn’t do any favours for the foreigners plying their trade in England either, Van Persie was a virtual passenger for most of the Netherland’s games, Torres was injured and Fabregas only got on from the bench a couple of times (even though one of those times was to provide the assist for the goal that won the World Cup). The rest, forget it. The English failure is a subject we will come back to.

The biggest winner though was South Africa, who put on their smiley face and were excellent hosts for this tournament. You certainly can’t blame South Africa for the failings of this tournament. FIFA on the other hand certainly come out as one of the biggest losers. The first World Cup not to properly sell out since 1978 (attributable to the commercial deals FIFA did with travel agents, which led to extortionate prices for travel & lodgings), the failure to take seriously & clamp down on cheating footballers, their handling of the twin refereeing blunders in the Germany v England and Argentina v Mexico second round ties and their luke warm support for the World Cup final referee(who lost control of the game very early on and failed to take control as a result – Super nanny would have been better suited). Overall, the best phrase I can think of is must do better for Brazil 2014.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Is That What You Do In The Face Of Skill?

19th World Cup Final, Soccer City – Johannesburg; Netherlands 0 Spain 1 (After Extra Time)

Sometimes the final of a tournament put’s the cap on a wonderful tournament, sometimes the final is a damp squib after a good tournament and sometimes like in 1990 and here, the final was as poor as the rest of the tournament.  Spain deserved to win the game and the tournament because they were the most skilful side, the best side defensively, and when it mattered the most incisive side.  My only criticism is that at times they pass the ball just for the sake of passing the ball even after the chance has appeared.

The game started with Spain keeping possession early on.  Ramos had a header early on which he should have scored with.  As the first half wore on though the Netherlands got back into the match, with less than fair means.  Van Persie picked up the first yellow after 14 minutes for going in late on Captevillia, Puyol then picked up a yellow a couple of minutes later for a foul on Van Persie.  Van Bommel picked up a yellow for a tackle from behind on Iniesta, while his midfield partner De Jong picked up a yellow 5 minutes later for a foul straight out of the Graeme Souness book of X-rated fouls (pictured left).  One of my childhood friends who i still see regularly,  had a phrase which perfectly describe’s the Netherlands tactics “Is that what you do in the face of skill?” .

The second half was not a great improvement.  Robben had a great chance to open the scoring, but his shot was diverted by Castillias foot, while with 9 minutes left Iniesta is thwarted by a Sneijder stop.  Robben had a golden opportunity minutes later when he was through and shrugged off a challenge from Pujol, but couldn’t recover from that challenge.  In extra time, the game opened up, but still failed to hit the heights.  Substitute Fabregas was put through on goal but saw his shot saved by Stelelenburg.  Minutes later Iniesta was put through but indecision cost him his moment, Navas saw a shot deflected by Van Bronkhorst, while just before half time in extra time Fabregas shot just wide of the goal.

Advantage Spain arrived with 10 minutes to go in Extra time, when the Dutch defender Heitiga brought down Iniesta going for a 1-2 from his Barca team mate Xavi.  The English referee Webb sent the Dutch defender off.  Webb it has to be said did not have the best of matches, but was not aided by the behaviour of the players.  With 4 minutes to go, Spain produced a passing movement which brought about relief more than excitement.  Substitute Torresput a cross into the box which found its way to Fabregas, who passed to his right to an advancing Iniesta who volleyed past Stekelenburg (picture right).  Four minutes later and the ordeal was over.

Iniesta’s goal, the two Robben chances and a couple of Spain chances are the moments which have saved this game from being one of the worst games I have seen.  South Africa 2010 has not been a successful World Cup, with a very poor standard of football played with a joke of a ball, and many games played in front of stadiums which were not full.  Everyone concerned with football needs to take a long, hard look at themselves starting with FIFA.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Best Team In the World?

Rather fittingly, the two sides that qualified for this World Cup with 100% records now face off for the title itself. While the Dutch have only suffered one defeat since the start of Euro 2008 (the quarter final loss to Russia), the European Champions Spain have suffered two, both in South Africa.

While they lost to the USA in last years Confederations Cup, the loss to Switzerland in Spain’s opening match of this tournament has revealed a vulnerable side to this much lauded side. Spain at times give off the air of a side more content to keep the ball rather than a side keen to force the decisive move, which is strange considering they have two of the deadliest fowards in the game playing for them. Indeed David Villa is the tournament’s leading scorer with 5 goals, and will be looking to add to that total in the Final.

Spain have taken their time in getting going. After the loss to Switzerland, they registered wins against Honduras & Chile to ensure that they avoided Brazil in the knock out phase. They did have to face Portugal and got through thanks to a 1-0 win against a side that might have won had they a decent forward in their side. In the quarter final’s Spain faced a Paraguay side that finished ahead of the defending Champions Italy in their group, and again struggled to a 1-0 win.

It’s only when the big games came along that Spain showed signs, showing some form to see off Portugal. Spain though hit form when they faced Germany in the semi final. They had to as Germany had been destroying sides en-route to the semi scoring four past Australia, England & Argentina. Spain kept hold of the ball and gradually wore Germany down. Germany though had their chances just before half time, and could have had a penalty. In the second half though Spain stepped up to 3rd gear, and the chances came. In the 5 minutes before the goal, Spain had about 4 or 5 chances to score, and eventually scored from the corner conceded after one of those chances. Puyol’s header from the corner was unstoppable. Germany then came to the party and managed to get themselves forward, creating space for Spain to counter attack.

Spain will be the number one ranked side in the world come Monday, they are favourites to emulate the West German side of 1974 in being European Champions who lifted the World Cup (The France side of 2000/02 were also European Champions & World Cup winners but won the European Championships as World Cup winners) . They know what to do to win, however i think that Spain at times are not direct enough. I think that Spain will win, but I'm not 100% certain that they will win, I certainly don’t think that its as inconceivable that The Netherlands can win as most observers are making out, if they score early i can see Spain having problems. Much depends on who score’s first, but i take Spain to win after extra time & confirm their place as football's dominant team.

Is The Future Here?

In all the obsessing about the World Cup & England’s performance, spare a thought for Scotland. In qualifying for the Last World Cup, they had to get past Italy for the automatic place. At the qualification process for Euro 2008, Scotland faced three of the teams who reached the Quarter finals of the World Cup, Italy (again) and France contested the final of that contest, while Ukraine were the fallers at the Quarter Final stage. For the qualifiers for this tournament Scotland had to get past the Dutch for the automatic place, but fell behind Norway. It doesn’t get any easier for Scotland for the qualifiers for Euro 2010, in their way are the other World Cup finalists (and current European Champions) Spain.

The seeds of this current Dutch side were sown, ironically enough, in a previous encounter with Scotland. 1-0 down after the first leg of the Euro 2004 play-off. The Dutch turned to the likes of Wesley Schneider, Arjen Robben and Van Persie (they also discarded Patrick Kluivert in favour of Ruud Van Nistelrooy for the second leg), and reaped the rewards as they blew away Scotland 6-0. The tone being set with Schneider’s turning of Cauldwell before shooting from distance. It would be the following European Championships under Marco Van Basten where the Dutch would adopt their current formation of 4-2-3-1, again the rewards were instant, they blew away both Italy & France to qualify for the quarter finals, but looked sluggish against an equally talented Dutch coached Russia. It should be pointed out that this was the Netherland’s last defeat in competitive football.

For this World Cup though, the Netherlands have been content to grind out the results. Uninspiring wins against Denmark, Japan & Cameroon saw them into the knockout phase and a half with only one of the heavyweights of football. After a last 16 win over Slovakia, the Dutch had a quarter final with Brazil to contend with. Not unlike the Dutch themselves, Brazil had adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation. Unlike the Dutch, Brazil had been heavily criticised back home for not being expansive enough. Despite the fact that they had been convincing winners in each of their games up to that point, I though that Brazil were maybe vulnerable. The Brazil game-plan was based around Kaka, but there did not appear to be any plan B/C… for if Kaka did not perform, or was nullified.

When Brazil scored (traditional manner for them, ball through the middle of the Dutch defence to the borderline offside forward – compare & contrast this goal to the Romario & Bebeto goals in the ‘94 Quarter Final or the Ronaldo Goal from the ‘98 semi or even Lopez equaliser in the Quarter final against Argentina in ‘98) it looked like a question of how many. The Netherlands buckled down, and in the second half equalised and then took the lead. The goals both came from fantastic, accurate, crosses from the Brazil left, Brazil were now under pressure and crumbled as a result.

Facing the Dutch in the semi final were a revitalised Uruguay, who unfortunately for them were shorn of the talents of their defender Lugano and the forward Suarez. The Dutch did not get going until they switched to a 4-1-4-1 by bringing on Van Der Vaart for the second half. It was only then they were able to step up the tempo and put Uruguay out of the match, despite a late goal to take the match to 3-2.

The Future’s bright… the future’s Orange” was the old Orange mobile phone network’s slogan. For this type of orange to bring the future forward by winning, they have to make the most of any possession that they have, and also minimise any opportunities for Spain.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

World Cup 2010: The Last 8

56 games gone, 8 to go.  We are down to the last 8 of this World Cup, which lets be honest has not been a vintage World Cup.  Let’s hope the final 8 games provide enough drama and jaw dropping action to compensate for the dull, sterile, over tactical matches that have gone previously.

Brazil V Netherlands; Port Elizabeth: Friday 4pm (3pm BST)

First up is the fourth World Cup meeting between these two sides, the Dutch winning the first meeting in 1974, Brazil won the next 20 years later while both sides played out a 1-1 draw in the Marseilles semi final of 1998, with Brazil going into the final on penalties.

Brazil have been solid during this tournament, but they have shown very little flair.  North Korea were successful in keeping Brazil at bay for 52 minutes of their tie, Portugal managed to keep them out for the full game.  They have scored 3 goals twice, against below par Cote d’Ivoire and a very open Chile.  The Dutch will be a tougher test.  Like Brazil, the Netherlands have been solid but unspectacular this tournament.  However with Van Persie and Robben just back from injury, there are causes for this solid start.  Both teams play a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the key being how the creative midfielders play/handle the attention, especially as Kaka replaced Schneider at Real Madrid.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the Netherlands will get through this one.

Uruguay V Ghana; Soccer City, Johannesburg: Friday 8:30pm (7:30pm BST)

Waiting for the winner of the first quarter final will be one of these two sides, meeting for the first time in World Cup finals.  Uruguay have been something of a revelation this tournament, with Forlan and Suarez floating up front, both were joined by Caviani for the 2nd round win over South Korea.  Uruguay will be hoping that they keep their form for their first Quarter final in 40 years.  Remarkably Ghana will be only the third African side to reach a World Cup quarter final (after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002), and the first African semi finalist should they make it.  I think that Uruguay’s diamond midfield might be too strong for Ghana and their flat midfield.

Argentina V Germany; Cape Town: Saturday 4pm (3pm BST)

Arguably the tie of the round.  These two have contested 2 World Cup finals between them, with Argentina’s coach Maradona taking part in both contests.  Their last meeting, at this stage 4 years ago, ended in a penalty shoot-out after Argentina inexplicably surrendered the initiative.  The loss, according to the book “Inverting the Pyramid” even sparked a nationwide debate in Argentina over the enganche (or playmaker position) in the Argentinean team.  In particular the debate was over Juan Roman Riquelme, who’s substitution after 72 minutes was seen as something of a turning point.

Both sides play variations of 4-3-3, with Argentina adopting a classical 4-3-1-2 formation with everyone’s favourite footballer Lionel Messi occupying the floating forward/trequartista position.  Germany have fallen into a 4-2-1-3 formation with Ozil exploiting the space behind a front 3 of Muller, Podolski and Klose.  I think Argentina’s experience will tell and see them through.  Hopefuly this one will be a classic.
See no mention of England…  Doooh!

Paraguay V Spain: Ellis Park, Johannesburg: Saturday 8:30pm (7:30pm BST)

The winners of the Argentina/Germany clash will play the winners of this match on Wednesday in Durban.  These two have met twice in the World Cup, in the group stages on both occasions (0-0 in 1998, 3-1 to Spain in 2002).  On paper the European Champions should go through.  Spain found some form and some momentum during their win against Portugal.  However Paraguay have been excellent this tournament, with Cardozo spearheading the attack.  If Paraguay neutralise Spain’s tiki-taki style of football, and score early, we will see how good Spain really is.  I think Spain will get through in extra time.

As I said at the top of this piece, lets hope the tournament really starts here…

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The second of our look at the conclusion of the group stage of the World Cup looks at Group’s E to H.

Group E

Netherlands      +3      6
Japan                 =      3
Denmark           -1      3
Cameroon         -2      0

The Dutch will win group E with a draw against Cameroon in Cape Town. All eyes will be on the other match in Rustenburg, with a draw enough for Japan to qualify for the knockout stages for the second time. Due to their inferior goal difference, Denmark need a win to keep up their record of qualifying for the knock-out phase of each World Cup finals they have qualified for. Both matches take place tonight at 8:30pm (local time, 7:30pm BST)

Group F
Paraguay          +2      4
Italy                 =         2
New Zealand   =         2
Slovakia          -2        1

A win for Paraguay against New Zealand in Polokwane will see them qualify as Group F winners. New Zealand have to do better than Italy to qualify. Italy have to beat Slovakia in their match at Soccer City to ensure qualification, and avoid the fate of Brazil in 1966 and France in 2002 by avoiding elimination as defending champions at the group stages. Slovakia need win and hope that Paraguay win to see them into one of the qualification spots. Both matches here take place this afternoon at 4pm (local time, 3pm BST).

Group G

Brazil                +3      6
Portugal            +7      4
Cote d’Ivoire    -2       1
North Korea     -8       0

Portugal only need a draw against Brazil to ensure qualification as Group runners up. A Brazil win in Durban would let in Cote d’Ivoire, who would need a heavy win against North Korea in Nelspruit to snatch an unlikely qualification spot. Truith be told though Brazil and Portugal are playing for winning Group G in Durban. Both matches here take place on Friday at 4pm (local time, 3pm BST).
Group H

Chile               +2      6
Spain              +1      3
Switzerland     =        3
Honduras       -3        0

Chile need a point from their match against the European Champions in Pretoria to ensure qualification to the knockout stages. Spain need a win to qualify and to overtake Chile as group H winners, possibly avoiding Brazil in the process. Switzerland needs to beat Honduras by a larger margin than Spain manages against Chile, to overtake Chile in qualifying for the knock out stages.  Both matches take place on Friday at 8:30pm (local time, 7:30pm BST)

After that, it’s proper knock out football. Sudden death. Oh and I’m sure we’ll see penalties.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The World Cup So Far (Part 1)

This week sees the World Cup effectively enter the sudden death phase, as teams race for their positions in the knock out phase.  So now would be a good time to look at the state of play in the groups, starting tonight with Group’s A-D.


Group A

Uruguay +3 4
Mexico +2 4
France -2 1
South Africa -3 1

Uruguay and Mexico require a draw to qualify for the Last 16.  Handily enough, they play each other in Rustenburg so you might think that a cosy 0-0 draw will be on the cards.


Err…  not quite.  On the horizon will be a possible Second round clash with Argentina, which both sides might be anxious to avoid.  Heavy defeat for one side might let France or South Africa (both playing in Bloemfontein) in for an unlikely knockout berth. Both Mexico & Uruguay have been the class sides in this group, and will be dangerous floaters in this draw. Both games are 4pm (local time, 3pm BST) kickoffs tomorrow.


Group B

Argentina +4 6
South Korea -1 3
Greece -1 3
Nigeria -2 0


Argentina require a draw against Greece in Polokwane to qualify as Group B winners, and you would imagine they would get it with their 4-3-1-2 formation firing along quite nicely.  South Korea need to beat Nigeria in Durban and hope that Greece don’t win to take the second qualifying place.  Nigeria’s cause is not entirely hopeless, a win against South Korea coupled with an Argentinean win might see them leapfrog both South Korea and Greece on goal difference.


Both of these games kick off tomorrow night at 8:30pm (local time, 7:30pm BST)


Group C

Slovenia +1 4
USA = 2
England = 2
Algeria -1 1

A win for Slovenia will see them win Group C, and possibly avoid Germany, their opponents England must win, and hope they do better than the USA in order to win this group.  England, as you might have gathered, have not started brilliantly, but are past masters at getting out of groups while not playing well.  Slovenia V England will take place at sea level in Port Elizabeth.


The USA must beat Algeria in Pretoria to seal qualification.  To win the group, the USA will hope that England beat Slovenia and that their margin of victory is as good as England’s (the USA are ahead of England on goals scored).  Algeria must win by at least 2 goals to at least put themselves in the mix.  These games take place at 4pm (local time, 3pm BST) on Wednesday


Group D

Ghana +1 4
Germany +3 3
Serbia = 3
Australia -4 1

A win for Ghana will see them equal Nigeria’s record of reaching the knockout stages of two World Cup’s in a row.  They only have to beat Germany at Soccer City to do that.  Germany themselves have to win to avoid elimination from the group stages of a World Cup for the first time since…  since…  well ever (they were knocked out on the first round in 1938 by Switzerland, when the whole tournament was played as a straight knock out.  That was in a replay).  A draw would leave both sides looking at the result from Nelspruit.


Serbia need to win to ensure a place in the last 16, simple as.  In their way is an Australian side missing Kewell which showed considerable fighting spirit in getting a 1-1 draw against Ghana, after their 4-0 loss to Germany.  To qualify, Australia need to win and hope that Germany loose.  This group concludes on Wednesday with a 8:30pm (local time, 7:30pm BST) kick off.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Fabio’s Jump The Shark Moment

FIFA World Cup, 1st Round Group C: Green Point, Cape Town: England 0 Algeria 0

While the media are beginning to turn on Fabio, tonight’s game was uncomfortable viewing for many England fans.  To put it bluntly, England were outplayed and made to look like novices against a compact and very technically proficient Algeria side.

All credit should go to Algeria.  If they had a good playmaker and a striker, Algeria would have beaten England, comfortably.  They were comfortable on the ball (as predicted here), they pressed the England players and shock horror!!! they played 3-5-2.  This meant that for the second match in a row, England’s midfield was out-numbered, which again was a contributing factor to England’s lacklustre display.   This was a richly deserved point for Algeria, their first World Cup point since their 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland in 1986.  But they should have had so much more.

For England there are now concerns that they might exit the tournament at the group stages, for the first time since 1958.  For the first time, there is now criticism over Capello’s management style, with his insistence that the team is picked a short period before the game coming in for some attention.  However there are other aspects at play here.  While England has a couple of very good players, they do look too rigid tactically.  They look most comfortable playing a 4-4-2, yet both of England’s opponents have employed tactics which have constricted England.  A change to 4-2-3-1, with Carrick & Barry anchoring a mid-field with Joe Cole, Gerard & Lampard (or A N Other) in more advanced positions, might well be in order.  a change to 3 at the back is unthinkable, entirely because Terry, Carragher et all have never played in a back 3 (Ferdinand of course played in a back 3 at West Ham).

The other thing which did not help England is the league that many of these players play in.  The English Premier League might be the richest, most heavily marketed league in the world.  It is a fact though that is is also a harem scarem league, where good passing technique is often bought in rather than raised.  Arsenal apart, there are no teams who play possession football in the EPL, and most teams play a 4-4-2 (only Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Bolton have moved towards variations of 4-5-1).  It is this lack of variation and lack of technical competence which proved to be a hindrance to England.

There are also rumours that all is not well behind the scenes.  The former England manager Graham Taylor, working for BBC Radio 5 Live noticed that “There’s something not right behind the scenes. I don't know what it is. I have an idea: I don't believe the proper preparatory work is being done. Look at the body language: something is wrong."  This was followed shortly afterwards by David James reply to Capello’s view on why England are playing badly (Capello: “England are playing badly because of the pressure”, James: “Really”).

England have until Wednesday to try and find solutions to their problems.  Next up are Slovenia, who are a technically good, tight passing side who England should…   oh we’ve just seen one of those teams haven’t we?  The worry for England is that they are desperately out of form, need a win, and with Germany’s defeat to Serbia today might still face Germany in the Last 16 whether they finish top or second.  The one crumb of comfort is that England have been in bigger holes and recovered, in 1986 and in 1990.  After tonight’s performance though, the word’s “Straw’s” and “clutching at” comes to mind.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Penny For Jimmy Greaves' Thoughts

FIFA World Cup, 1st Round, Group C: Rustenburg; England 1, USA 1

People of a certain vintage will remember ITV’s Saturday afternoon football preview show “The Saint & Greavsie”.  One of the on running narratives on the show was Greavsie’s stream of gags about the standard of Scottish goalkeeping, which with the emergence of Alan Rough, Jim Leighton and Andy Goram  had grown more and more tiresome.  Up to around about 1996, conventional wisdom was that England had the best goalkeepers in the world.  I'm not really sure when that started to become less a fact but more a myth, but Robert Green’s moment tonight (above, left) is the latest in a growing list of howlers for English goalkeepers.

Truth be told England did not deserve to win, and the howler gave the USA a parity they deserved.  Capello decided to start with Green in goal, and decided to go with a midfield 4 of Milner, Gerrard, Lampard and Lennon.  It is this decision to pair Gerrard & Lampard which contributed to the USA’s dominance as much as Milner’s lack of fitness and Lennon and Wright-Phillips inability to tuck in.  The USA played with a tight 4 man midfield, which lacked width but provided the USA with an advantage in the middle of the park.  Capello would have been better off playing Carrick (as Barry is possibly still unfit) as he would have been a more natural anchor for the midfield.

When England did manage to get forward, they found a soft defence, However, England did not put sustained pressure on USA, and seemed incapable of putting several passes together.  It is ironic that in earlier coverage of Argentina’s match with Nigeria, the summariser Mick McCarthy kept mentioning that Veron was a failure in the English Premier League, despite the fabulous passing range he has.  England were crying out for the kind of player to pass the ball.  Certainly England’s forwards suffered from the lack of retained possession.  Rooney was hardly in the game.  Heskey fared a little better, he set up Gerard’s goal after 4 minutes.  His pass finding Gerard in space.  Heskey also had the opportunity to win the game, but shot tamely at Howard.

It is to the credit of the USA that England became bogged down in mid-field, which again comes back to Capello’s decision not to play with a midfield anchor.  Unexpectedly, the USA may also have found out that the England defence are a tad suspect at crosses.  The USA had a couple of chances in the second half, which England (having replaced King with Carragher) were unconvincing in clearing.

The consolation for England is that the USA are the toughest opponents in this group.  Next up for England will be Algeria next Friday.   For Capello, all that he has are questions about his squad, and whether to re-shape his team.