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Monday, December 22, 2003

Swings and Rio-undabouts

What goes around, they say, comes around. It would be a breath of fresh air if, at the finalé of the FA and Manchester United’s waltz around Rio Ferdinand, the arrognace, petulence and inflated self-importance of England’s most successful football club was rubber stamped with a more ‘savage’ punishment than they have already.

If Rio Ferdinand, guilty as charged of missing a drugs test (for that is all he is ‘accused’ of), had been allowed to admit his guilt, apologise, take part in an anti-drugs campaign and show that he was sorry for a simple mistake, he would have gotten a three month ban—tops. The, at times breathtaking, arrogance of his employers, manager and team-mates in thinking they can prove that black is white, has dug a very deep hole for him to wallow in. If Maurice Watkins, Alex Ferguson and worst of all that Oxygen-theif Gordon Taylor, continue to entertain the ridiculous notion that missing a drugs test should carry no punishment, then I for one hope that the proverbial ton-of-bricks come falling down on all of them.

How can anyone with half-a-brain (which is why Rio Ferdinand is the one man excused from this) argue that the punishment for missing a drugs test should be exponentially more lenient than for failing one? It is a landmark hearing for football, and if Ferdinand was given a two month ban (for instance) what message would that send? Put yourself in the position of another Mark Bosnich, and imagine you’ve had a cheeky snort on Saturday night, celebrating after a game. Now imagine the UK Sport drug testers come to the training ground on Monday morning and you have the dilemma of whether to take the test and run a very real risk of a two-year ban, or ‘forget’ the test, clear your system, and take it two days later. Two-months versus two-years is no contest.

And for those of you shaking your head at that last sentance, just think about it. Get real. Ferdinand has recieved a ban, no doubt influenced by Bosnich’s nine-month ban for cocaine abuse. Had Bosnich been found guilty of taking a performance enhancing drug, then it’s likely it would have been closer to two-years, but ‘recreational’ drugs are (understandably) punished in sporting circles less severely. So Rio Ferdinand has receieved a punishment slightly less than he would have recieved for a minor drug offence—which sounds very fair to me. A deterrant, without being quite as severe as actually failing a test.

How Manchester United have avoided punishment for bringing the game into disrepute I don’t know, and if they insist on taking the matter to the high court, I hope the FA makes an example of them. Points have been docked for much less, and £100,000+ fines handed out for errors of judgement having far narrower implications than this. I say to Mark Palios—who I don’t like one bit by the way—threaten United with six points, £200,000 and the full mandatory two-year ban for Ferdinand, and see if they’re willing to risk that.

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Monday, December 15, 2003

See saw

How odd the Premiership is getting, it’s almost like one team from the top three lets in the other two every week. Last week, Arsenal’s draw with Leicester allowed Chelsea to take top spot while United made up some ground, the week before Arsenal and United dropped points allowing Chelsea to creep up the table, this weekend it was Chelsea’s turn to lose a game and let Arsenal reclaim top spot. Bizarre. Like United a few weeks ago, Chelsea got beaten at home for the first time since the last ice-age, leaving Arsenal as the only Premiership team with an unbeaten home record as well as being the only legaue team yet to taste the bitter pill of defeat (in the league anyway) this season. It’s mightly impressive for a team given ‘third place at best’ by many pre-season pundits.

An interesting statistic was brought to my attention yesterday, more points separate third and fourth place in the Premiership (Chelsea and Fulham) than separates fourth and nineteenth. I wonder if the added pressure of Chelsea’s ascendance has helped both Arsenal and United focus more on their league games. Last season, they only had to keep up with each other, which even for the most mathematically challenged made for easy sums to work out what was needed to remain top/take the lead. Now with a third team seriously involved (I’m not just talking about a post Christmas Liverpool purple patch), the permutations become more difficult, and winning every week is even more important.

I have a strong suspicion that the pulling away of the top three has got more to do with the homogeny of the seventeen sides below them than their superiority. The bookies must be hating it. With the exception of the ‘big three’, any of the other sides could demolish each other, or be demolished, almost at random. There’s still great variety: well organised teams, flair sides, fast sides, experienced sides, and none seem to have any real advantage over one another. The one pattern seems to be that it’s a bad idea to wear Old Gold. I did wonder how Newcastle had made it as high up the table as they have, but one look at Laurent Robert’s magnificent brace (damn I hate that word) over the weekend and Alan Shearer’s poacher’s instinct answers any question about class in Geordieland.

A good win too for Southampton, although three points at Anfield doesn’t mean what it used to. I’ve never been Gerrard Houllier’s biggest fan, and I’m not about to change now—any manager that insists on playing someone as lifeless and useless as Emile Heskey (not to mention Igor Biscan) needs a damn good talking to, not three years of indulgence. He’s bought useless player after useless player, and he may have ‘unearthed’ another one in Sinima Pongolle, unless the young forward learns how to stand up. Injuries! Injuries! I hear him bleat. Big clubs can cope with injuries, they have reserve players who are so close to being good enough for the first team that they relish the opportunity to play.

A final word about the finest player I’ve ever seen kick a football. Thierry Henry may or may not win the FIFA World Player of the Year; but if he does, it will be a wonderful thing for football. Aside from the fact that Henry is the most exciting, terrifying and entertaining player in the world of professional football, he’s a truly great guy, and a perfect role model for kids. Compare him to the likes of Rio Ferdinand, and you’ll see what I mean about the last statement. Ask anyone in the press about Henry and they’ll tell you how affable, friendly, approachable and humble Henry is. There could be no one more deserving. Good luck Thierry.

UPDATE · Congratulations to Zinedine Zidane, a fine footballer, another good role model for young players, and if you’ve got to come second to anyone (as Henry did, Ronaldo third), it may as well be Zizou. I can’t say he would have been my choice, but he wouldn’t be would he?

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Saturday, December 13, 2003

Counting chickens

I’ve read a lot of comments by Chelsea fans over the last few weeks that have really gotten under my skin. I know they’re all excited about their new billionaire Russian criminal cough sorry, businessman, owner—and who wouldn’t be? He’s given an excellent and shrewd manager a limitless pot of cash to go and buy whoever he sees fit, and he’s bought well. On top of that, the club are doing well both domestically and in Europe. So I fully expect Chelsea fans to be optimistic. What I don’t expect though, is the naivety and sheer arrognace I’m hearing piped from all blue corners.

I read an article on Blog FC yesterday, suggesting (quite rightly in this writers opinion) that Chelsea had the trickiest of the English clubs’ Champions League draws, and it was met with a barrage of comments, mostly from Chelsea fans telling the author he didn’t know what he’s talking about. One guy even said:

“Chelsea are here to stay, here to win, and here to dominate world football.”

Heard it all before, mate. Blackburn, Leeds, Barcelona, Lazio, with big financial backing, at some point they’ve all been going to dominate (be it domestically or in Europe) for a long time. Never quite happened though has it? The false dawn is a recurring theme in the history of all football clubs. Abramovich’s investment is in another league to all of those mentioned, but the game of football now is very different.

Could Chelsea easily sign Van Nistelrooy? Del Piero? Raul? Ronaldo? Henry? Owen? No. How about Zidane? Vieira? Nedved? Scholes? Chelsea have got many fine players, but most of the World’s best elude them, and are unlikely to be going anywhere soon. Big clubs are hanging on to big players now more than ever before, and I like to think that we’re finally approaching a situation where money is not the be all and end all. It’s still the controlling influence of course, but clubs are beginning to see that as soon as they lose their integrity, trying to cash in on some success at the expense of results, it rarely works out.

I’m not counting Chelsea out of anything, but I do think that fans who say that they are ‘up there’ with Manchester United and Arsenal—after fifteen games—run a very big risk of being bitten on the arse in the same way Arsenal fans have been nearly every season for the last four years. Having the best team does not mean you’ll win anything. United have been the second best footballing side in at least three of their Championship winning years, they have prevailed in those tough times because of the collective experience and professionalism of the team (as well as the considerable talent of course).

Some things simply cannot be bought.

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Friday, December 12, 2003

Credit where it’s due

For all those that said Arsenal were finished in Europe—would you like salt and pepper on your words?

Is the Champions League devalued by the group stage? Or to put it another way; Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Denis Law?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the draw for the second round of the European Champions Cup:

VfB Stuttgart vs. Chelsea
Porto vs. Manchester United
Real Sociedad vs. Lyon
Celta Vigo vs. Arsenal
Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
Sparta Prague vs. AC Milan
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Juventus
Lokomotiv Moscow vs. Monaco

It’s plainly obvious what the tie of the round is going to be. So long as Madrid don’t pull off something spectacular in Munich, it’s going to be one hell of a game at the Bernebau. Deportivo against Juventus is another tasty looking fixture. As for the English teams, I really don’t think we can complain: Chelsea will handle Stuttgart easily enough and United should demolish Porto. Arsenal have a slightly more difficult task against a spirited Celta Vigo side, but they will only have themselves to blame if the fail to make it to this year’s quarter finals.

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Monday, December 08, 2003

Very ready salted

I’d not been to the Walkers Stadium before. Odd ground. I knew Filbert Street well, and despite the fact that it was a smelly, ugly dump, it had character, it had charm. You really felt like an away fan crammed in the 20-odd rows under the tin roof. The new place is pretty shiny and clean, it’s got nice efficient turnstiles and clearly labelled sections, but it feels a litte sterile, the way many new stadia do (the Reebok and City of Manchester stadiums being typical examples). It’s a really squat ground too, like someone’s left a paticularly large and heavy book resting on top of it for too long. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a ground holding more than 30,000 people that only has a single tier all the way round; it all felt a little homogenous. I was promised by a Leicester fan on Friday night that despite it’s appearance, it was easy to raise the proverbial roof in there, and I can’t say I can disagree. There was some great banter with some rather feisty foxes who all congregated next to the away end, but no real trouble that I saw. The place was full of Police and stewards with Handicams, filming fans inside and outside the ground. Strange.

I thought the game was pretty uninspiring to be honest; Gilberto’s magnificent header looked to have settled it for Arsenal, until some unecessary and ill-advised defensive changes unsettled Arsenal’s until-then solid back line and let in Leicester for a scrappy last second equaliser. Gutting for Gooners, fabulous for Foxes. The way everyone else at the top seems to be dropping the odd point here and there has meant that it’s not a disaster for Arsène Wenger though. Arsenal are still the only undefeated side in the league.

Chelsea gained a point against Leeds after Jermaine Pennant’s allegedly wonderful opener (I say allegedly as it will take until I see the Premiership on Monday tonight until I have seen it for my own eyes). United rolled Villa over and tickled their bellies like the complicit animals they are, Wolves must have been absolutely awful to get thrashed by Spurs and Newcastle and Liverpool drew in a battle of the nearly-teams. There were some other games, but none caught my attention (not even Blackburn’s thrashing of Birmingham).

Whilst there are clearly three clubs head and shoulders above the rest, the jockeying for position is at least adding a bit of interesting into the title race. Every weekend, one team seems to do one thing while the others do the opposite, though with Arsenal dropping points two weeks in a row, they really need to get a result next weekend to stop the others pulling away. On the other hand, seeing how Chelsea cope with the pressure of being the leaders will be interesting, and a good test of their true credentials as challengers.

The FA Cup draw was interesting, I missed the balls coming out of the hat, but someone told me that Arsenal had gotten a big club. Then I found out it was only Leeds—talk about misrepresentation. There was a distinct lack of ‘classic’ matchups I thought, all the small teams drew other small teams, and all the big clubs drew other big clubs. The only vaguely interesting one (for me anyway) is the sort-of local-ish derby Kidderminster vs. Wolves tie.

The same can’t be said for the World Cup qualifying draw. England’s seeding has stood them in good stead, and for all the bad luck getting France at Euro 2004; Wales, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Poland and Austria should all mean a fairly trouble free group stage. That’s trouble in the footballing sense of course, I can’t imagine the the match in Belfast is going to be a barrel of laughs.

It's been brought to my attention that the Kleberson story I posted several days ago has spread as far as ESPN Soccernet. You read it here first kids.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

One rule for them

Ashley Cole Charge: Improper conduct for a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo. Punishment: £10,000 fine and official warning.
Cristiano Ronaldo Charge: Improper conduct for a confrontation with Ashley Cole. Punishment: £4,000 fine.

Patrick Vieira Charge: Improper conduct for failing to leave the field of play immediately after being sent off. Punishment: 1 game ban and £20,000 fine.
Ray Parlour Charge: Improper conduct for a clash with Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Gary Neville. Punishment: 1 game ban and £10,000 fine.
Ryan Giggs Charge: Improper conduct. Punishment: £7,500.

It all smacks of painfully transparent double standards. It’s long gone of course and it’s helped Arsenal more than anything else, but it just winds me up that a so called impartial governing body can get away with being so obvious.

My favourite story of the day is FIFA arranging an exhibition match between France and Brazil to celebrate the association’s centenery. The match, billed as ‘the highlight of FIFA’s centennial year’ is arranged a day after the UEFA Cup Final, two days before the FA Cup Final and less than a week before the Champions League Final. The French and Spanish Leagues will still be in progress.

How stupid are these people? Honestly? Did Sepp Blatter have to stand in the corner as a child and repeat to himself ‘I am an idiot, I am an idiot, I am an idiot’. A performing monkey could have worked out that this particular date might be a wee bit delicate if a team containing French or Brazillian internationals reaches a cup final in England or Europe, or is contending for the Spanish or French league. And they wonder why relations are bad between the governing body and numerous country’s Football Associations! They’re like some kind of horrible cross between a petulent child who thinks the whole of football belongs to them, and an overbearing mother who constantly uses the excuse ‘becasue I say so’.

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Monday, December 01, 2003

All change at the top

I do hope everyone has remembered to open the first door on their advent calendar.

Well, on the back of a tight (but deserved) one-nil home win over Manchester United, Chelsea have been installed favourites for the Premiership title. A little knee-jerk I think. Mr Ferguson can have no complaints about the penalty—Joe Cole may have tumbled a little, but Keane was no where near the ball and he definitely caught Cole, it was an easy call for the referee. Ferguson’s comments about Joe Cole going ‘away from goal’ are a bit odd, seeing as is doesn’t really matter if you’re going round in circles, a foul in the box is a penalty. The comment is even more baffling seeing as though Keane escaped even a booking for the offence.

Talking of escaping from offences, I wonder if Keane and the ugly sisters will escape a roasting from the FA for surrounding the Ref and screaming obsceneties in his face after he dared to award a penalty against United? They always have done in the past, so why should now be any different? If that had been Marcel Desailly, John Terry, Patrick Vieira or Martin Keown surrounding the ref, cheers of derision would be heard from all quarters. It’s different when it’s the ‘committed’ lot at United though. ‘It’s just passion’.

I wanted United to win yesterday, for the first time in years. I can’t stand this (new?) breed of Chelsea fan that refuses to accept they might not win the league, like it’s some kind of birth right for ‘the team what Ranieri built’. I can’t help but think that if Chelsea were to win the league this year it would only prove that trophies can be bought, that money is the only important thing in football and that running a football club irresponsibly is not punished at all. It’s such a shame that Mr Ranieri manages Chelsea, because I really like him, as a person and a manager. A few Chelsea fans could take a lesson from the humble view he has of his team’s fortunes.

For all their money, players and silly spending, neither Chelsea or Manchester United are capable of playing the kind of football Arsenal displayed at Highbury earlier in the day. The Gunners demolished Fulham nil-nil, and how another fourteen goals didn’t go in I don’t know. Well, I do, his name’s Edwin Van Der Saar. The giant Dutchman was in breathtaking form, saving a total of twelve Arsenal attempts on target—most of them decent strikes too. There’s no doubt it was entertaining, there was an Arsenal chance (on average) every 3.75 minutes thoroughout the game, it really is some kind of miracle that they didn’t score; I’ve never a seen a more one sided football match.

It would be easy to slag off Fulham’s defensive mindset, but in all honesty they had a plan and it worked. I’ve got a lot of respect for Chris Coleman, and it’s not been diminished one iota by Sunday’s display. I tipped Fulham for big things pre-season, and I’m glad they’re proving me right (at least one of my predictions is doing well).

The other big news over the weekend is the draw for the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. England have drawn France, and a couple of other teams, so it should be an interesting opening game as the holders take on Sven Goran Eriksson’s men. I fear England’s confused midfield may feel the sting of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Zinedine Zidane far earlier in the tournament than expected; and while it is better to meet them now than in the semi-final, the best way to start a major championships is not with a four-nil humiliation.

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