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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A draw is a draw

At Old Trafford, a 1-1 draw felt like an Arsenal win, and yesterday at Higbury, a 1-1 draw felt like a United win. In the cold, harsh, objective daylight of today, the reality is that a draw is not a bad result for those who were miserable yesterday afternoon, and not a good result for those who were celebrating. I caught the train coming from St Pancras to Manchester yesterday, and there was a gaggle of teenage United fans parading up and down the train singing about the ‘Busby Babes’, I didn’t have the heart to remind them they were still 12 points behind the league leaders and two further points behind second place, with one less game to go.

The details of the match are purely incidental, but I’ll go over a few things anyway. Firstly, Giggs must be having a laugh if he thinks that Sol Campbell caressing his shorts as he tripped over his own feet is going to get a penalty. The only contact between the two happened out side the penalty area for a start, but I think if Ryan looks at the replay and looks at his feet, he’ll see him kick his own ankle. A more mischevious author may suggest that this was a dirty trick to try and win a penalty when he knew he was going nowhere, but not I.

You always expect to see the home team dominate posession, but only in their game against Fulham earlier in the season (when Chris Coleman’s side also came away with a 1-1 draw) have I seen Arsenal completely overrun a team for such a large proportion of the game. Up until the 70th minute, the posession stats were something like 64%/36% in favour of Arsenal, and most of United’s 36% was running off the pitch to pick up the ball for throw ins. The final 20 minutes saw United gain some composure and put together a few nice moves, one of which resulted in Louis Saha’s equalising goal. It’s difficult not to look at the otherwise excellent Arsenal defence for Saha’s goal, and it’s difficult not to lay the blame at the feet of Arsène Wenger.

For the whole game, Arsenal’s attacking threat and neat passing kept United at bay, and sacrificing two of the neatest and most threatening players on the pitch for Pascal Cygan and Gilberto was a really foolish thing to do. If it wasn’t for the fact that Wenger has done this before—conceding a late goal on that occasion too—it wouldn’t be so bad, but you’d have though such an astute manager and keen observer of the game would have realised that switching from a back four to a back five for the last ten minutes would only cause trouble. Pascal Cygan will get the blame for not tracking back on the left flank and stopping Sølskjær getting his cross in, but the real problem is that he and Gael Clichy didn’t know what jobs they were supposed to be doing.

It’s more difficult than all of that however, to criticise the man that’s just taken a team to a 30 game unbeaten start to the season. Records just crumble like stale bread around this Arsenal team.

The highlight of the match for me—ignoring Henry’s blistering, swerving, dipping, screaming goal—was Henry doing his caveman impression after Lauren failed to sqaure it to him in the last minute; something that would almost certainly have guaranteed a 2-1 victory for the home side. I’ve never seen Henry look so wound up, and there has been talk about a punch up in the tunnel with Lauren. Talk that sounds like a load of rubbish to me, as Henry did actually give Sky an interview in the tunnel, and he wasn’t attached to Lauren at the time.

Anyway, no more to say than that, United at Highbury? It’s just another game now.

I managed to watch the second half of Chelsea v Wolves on Saturday thanks to the absolutely fantastic (and I cannot emphasise the fantastic bit enough) Soccer Streams, for most of the time I watched, Wolves looked the better team. Lampard was sloppy, the defence a shambles and the forward line looking about as effective as a papier maché umbrella; that was, until Jimmy came on. On his birthday, the forgotten man of Stamford bridge put two fingers up to £40m worth of teammates, and received his deserved praise from the fans that never stopped supporting him. He’s probably not the kind of person you’d enjoy a quiet relaxing drink with, or you’d take home to meet your mother (were you that way inclined), but he isn’t half a good footballer.

With a whole host of guaranteed starters left out of the England squad, it’s an interesting—and experimental—line up for the friendly with Sweden this Wednesday. I could bawl on about how ridiculous it is to have an International friendly the week before Champions League Quarter-Finals, FA Cup Semi Finals, and towards the end of most European league seasons; but you all know that already don’t you? I’m happy for J’Lloyd Samuel and Shaun-Wright Phillips, who I think are really good players, and despite Samuel’s occupation of Aston Villa’s left-flank I’d like to see him on the right for England. It’s too early for either of them to be going to Euro 2004, but it’s good to see the ‘next generation’ getting a bit of recognition. I don’t know much about the Green fella from Norwich (and neither does Sven, who’s never seen him play) but I’m told he’s very good, but I doubt we’ll see anything from him seeing as he’s fourth choice.

Jermaine Defoe deserves a call up too, he’s been scoring freely in a poor side, and I don’t think there’s ever been any question over his ability. He’s another that’s probably a bit too young for Euro 2004, but it’s worth getting him involved early and may be useful as the contingency striker in the squad.

Six days until proper football starts again; and counting…

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Thursday, March 25, 2004

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What a week of European football, for the first time in a while, the match-ups and matches really did the competition justice. Both the current champions AC Milan, and many people’s favourites for the trophy, Real Madrid, came back from a goal down to score four at home, announcing their intentions to the other semi-finalists. Milan’s Kaká was simply sublime against Deportivo, working, crafting, scoring, assisting, entertaining. The boy is going to be very big, as anyone in Milan will tell you; he reminds me of Rivaldo, but far more dynamic and a better all-round player—more of a contributer. A regista with more attacking flair than most—a bit like Falcao. Great footballer.

Arsenal v Chelsea was just as I expected it to be, Arsenal dominated the first and last 20/25 minutes, in which Chelsea spent most of their time kicking Vieira, Pires, Edu, Henry, Ljungberg and Bergkamp as hard as they could. In the the 20/25 minutes before and after half time, Chelsea took the reins and through Bridge, Duff and Lampard, created a number of decent chances. Both defences were fabulous, Campbell and Terry, Cole and Bridge, Gallas and Lauren, but a special mention for Vieira, and my man of the match Kolo Touré, who on top of all the solid defensive work he did, made at least three spectacular goal saving tackles or blocks. Sometimes, I wonder what Ars&egave;ne Wenger did with Touré’s raw enthusiasm and athleticism to turn him into the best centre half in the country. And that’s no exaggeration, it’s approaching the end of the season now, and no-one can touch his performances this year, he’s been absolutely brilliant.

Eidur Gudjonsen, who had a poor night I thought, poached a goal when Jens Lehmann hesitated for just half a second coming out to clear a long ball. Arsenal defend high up the pitch, they ask their keeper to do these things, and sometimes this will happen; if the system gives away four goals a season, it still results in the meanest defence in the league, so it can’t be all bad. Everyone knows what happens when Chelsea score first against Arsenal though, and within ten minutes, Robert Pires latched on to a marvellous Ashley Cole cross (don’t get to say that very often) and put a perfectly directed header into the bottom corner (don’t get to say that very often either). I suppose you have to ask why John Terry, William Gallas or Marcel Desailly weren’t able to beat Pires in the air, but you have to credit Pires’ salmon-like leap and a header straight out of the top drawer.

The late ‘talking-point’ (don’t we just love ‘talking-points’) was captain Marcel Desailly’s sending off for a second bookable offence. I don’t see how anyone can have any complaints, his first booking was at best simply stupid (or Rio-esque you might say) or at worst a professional foul, his second was a poorly timed lunge at a player who’d skinned him with a great knock-on. Chelsea will not miss him that much though; Gallas and Terry will handle the central defensive positions comfortably, and Glenn Johnson will surely fill in the right back position. Perhaps Ranieri is worried about picking a young attacking full back to face Robert Pires and Ashley Cole, but he shouldn’t be—attacking them is the best way to keep them quiet.

I thought the result was fair enough, both teams played very well in patches, and matched each other almost everywhere on the pitch (though I couldn’t help but feel like Arsenal were trying to contain more than trying to destroy Chelsea). I think we’ll see a more imperious Arsenal in the return leg at Highbury, with Chelsea’s ‘physical’ tactics not working on an away crown, and I fully expect Arsenal to win.

Chelsea and Manchester United have one big thing in common this season; both have tried to stop Arsenal by playing dirty, and I don’t expect this weekend’s league match between Arsenal and Man Utd to be any different, nor the Semi-Final tie the week after. Wenger knows that United—Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane—will be swinging at shins and knees all afternoon, and while I think we’ll see a full strength Arsenal this weekend, I expect him to rest the precious three for the Cup game, Henry and Bergkamp will switch for Kanu and Reyes, and Pires will make way for Ray Parlour’s comeback. I would be very surprised if an entirely full-strength Arsenal meets Manchester United this weekend, Bergkamp can’t play three games in seven days can he? Regardless, I expect Arsenal to win this weekend, and to get revenge for the 1999 semi-final next; with perhaps Reyes continuing his FA Cup purple patch.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Firstly, for all things footie readers who like to syndicate, an Atom formatted XML news feed is now available towards the bottom of the right side bar. If you don't know what a newsfeed is, then either ignore it (it won't hurt you) or go to Atom Enabled to read a bit about the idea of news feeds and syndication. Right, now on to football.

I swear that, barring any bizzarre turns of events, this is the last thing I will say about that no-mark Rio Ferdinand. The whinging git really doesn’t know how lucky he is to get away with an eight month ban. In any other sport he’d be (rightfully) banned for two years. ‘I forgot’. Some people ‘forget’ to get their car tax, some people ‘forget’ to turn up for meetings with their bail officers, some people ‘forget’ they’ve got a girlfriend; you don’t see any of them getting let off because of their absent mindedness. We don’t want your hair Rio, it’s immaterial, the wonky-mouthed, overrated, whiney, lame-brained idiot should just shut up and take his punishment like a man. In The Sun on Saturday, he said ‘I don’t know why I’m being punished like this … no one will ever miss one of these tests again’—he’s answering his own questions now. I’ll say it again: idiot.

Robbie Earle: ‘The thing about City, that must be slightly worrying for Kevin, is that they’re always creating chances, but not scoring goals’. Yeah, that’s right, they had real trouble last week. Short sighted? Reactionary? Never. An awful penalty decision from Alan Wiley at Elland Road last night, he even had the bare faced cheek to come out afterwards (after he’d seen it on TV) and say that he was happy with his decision and he thought he’d gotten it right. Which proves one thing: it’s not positioning, it’s not that the game’s too fast, it’s not that the linesmen are poor, it’s very simple; as many a player has often inferred, referees really are blind.

I’m happy Portsmouth won the South-Coast derby, I’ve a new found affection for Portsmouth fans after their now-famous standing ovation for the opposition after getting beaten 5-1, and I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Arry.

Was Duncan Ferguson ever anything more than an average, boozy Scottish layabout? Didn’t think so. Scored a cracking volley for Newcastle a couple of years ago against Manchester United. That’s about it. Beating up a burgler, it’s all you’ll be remembered for ‘Dunc’. Tit.

Lets state the obvious, Chelsea are twice the team with Damien Duff in the side; none of the other £115m worth of buys can match Duff for his work-rate, talent and ability to threaten the goal. His potency, and eye for getting a shot away in the 18 yard box, make him Chelsea’s most dangerous player, no matter how a game is going.

As against Charlton last week, Arsenal played glorious, absolutely without compare football for 30 minutes, followed by 60 minutes to remind themselves and the Arsenal fans that this artistry is fallible. Perhaps just the kind of reminder that they need every now and then to keep their feet on the ground; particularly ahead of their Champions League Quarter Final 1st Leg against Chelsea on Wednesday. What a game that’s going to be, I’m tingling already. I don’t think any Arsenal fan, or player, is even remotely confident because of the ‘hoodoo’ over Chelsea; which is why that very jinx doesn’t matter one iota; it’s all about two teams desperate to make the semi-finals. The only thing that could tip it is that one team is perhaps a little more desperate than the other. Arsenal know this is their big chance, the team may not click like this again—with Bergkamp almost over the hill, Pires in his 30s, and Henry playing the football of his life. May 26th 2004 is what Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal have been building up to for seven years, and I honestly can’t see them letting Chelsea get in the way.

Lucky, lucky, Liverpool. They really are a very average side, by anyone’s standards, not just their own unrealistically high ones. To say fourth place flatters Gerrard Houllier’s Liverpool would be the understatement of the decade. I actually think the ref got ‘the’ penalty decision right; I think that although the defender didn’t get much of the ball, Heskey slowed himself momentarily and allowed the Wolves player to get in front of him without too much physical contact. I actually think that four yards out from goal, with the ball on his right foot, Heskey looked to get a penalty.

After singing Charlton’s praises, it was almost inevitable that they’d go and get beaten over the weekend. It was a fine performance from Newcastle though, Shearer still scoring goals and looking worth three Michael Owen’s—because pace and a handful of decent goals does not a World-Class-Striker make.

United got a good win against the team that rolls over and has their bellies tickled by them everytime they play each other. When was the last time Spurs beat United in the league?

Matthew Upson is looking every bit the defender that Arsène Wenger ‘let go’. A fine defender in many departments, but he’s always been too hesitant for a sharp back-line. No doubt there’ll be a gag in the comments about Upson learning ‘that one’ from Sol Campbell, so there you are; spoilt it for you. For all those that mocked Wenger selling Upson earlier in the year, who looks better now? Gary Neville’s defender of the season Kolo Touré? or Matthew Upson? Lesson to learn? Trust Arsène.

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Friday, March 19, 2004

The third biggest club in London

While Arsenal and Chelsea bask in the sunshine of success and riches (respectively), it would be easy to forget about the achievements of the third biggest club in the capital; make no mistake, Charlton Athletic are on the verge of doing the impossible. Or a ‘Brian Clough’, as it’s otherwise known. I’m not suggesting they can win the league in the next couple of years, nor am I predicting success in Europe, but achieveing a regular place among the top four—top six even—for a club like Charlton in the game as it is today, would almost be an acheivement to rival Cloughie’s mould-breaking work with Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Forget Steve McLaren, Chris Coleman and Sam Allardyce; the British managerial success story this season is Alan Curbishley. Curbishley’s achievements building a side on a budget, and moulding eleven players into a real team that work for each other, are reminicent of Arsène Wenger’s at Arsenal. Charlton haven’t signed superstars, they’ve made them; they haven’t pegged their hopes on a one or two members of the squad, responsibility is shared between a group of equals (with the possible exception of Paolo Di Canio’s ego) and they haven’t signed mercenary loanees on sky-high wages. Their most important loan signing, Chelsea’s Carlton Cole, is there for the long term (at least another year)—a condition of the brilliantly negotiated Scott Parker deal. Everything about Charlton as a club and a business is to be admired.

As a football team, Curbishley’s maturity and sophistication shines through more than anything else. While every other club in the land seems to think that you solve problems by spending £8m+ on a striker bought off the back of a few good performances—from Massimo Maccarone to Helder Postiga to Louis Saha—Curbishley understands that this is a fools pursuit. Every position is as important as every other, and spending all your money on an above average player for one position is simply silly. Watching Charlton play is evidence enough that the manager understands all of the transfer market’s subtleties; buying a player should only be done once you know their game inside out. Asked on Saturday morning why he hadn’t spent any of the money from the Scott Parker deal, he simply replied that he hadn’t had enough time to size up potential recruits to his satisfaction. He knows how to buy objectively.

There is a planned expansion of The Valley, increasing the capacity to 35,000, and if Charlton were to manage a fourth place finish and then qualify for the first group stage of the Champions League, the income potential would be phenomenal. On top of improved gate receipts, Chelsea’s £10m for Parker, the money from finishing fourth in the Premiership (£5m+) and income from the Champions League (£5-20 million) gives Charlton a real financial advantage in the current market, and you can trust Curbishley to spend it wisely. Well managed, sensibly financed and playing good football, it’s not impossible that Charlton could take advantage of this position like those before them have not—Leeds and Newcastle prime examples. This is not a fluke season for Charlton Athletic, they’ve been building up to it for almost all of Curbishley’s thirteen years in charge, and the pivotal moment is now. Charlton could well establish themselves as a top six side, and in doing so eclipse Chris Coleman’s Fulham, ENIC’s Spurs and West Ham to become the third biggest club in the capital.

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Monday, March 15, 2004

Time up

I know how United fans feel this morning (well, it’s been a long time since we lost 4-1 to Spurs, so only sort-of), and I know that no amount of ribbing from me could make it any worse. Not far off this time last season, Arsenal drew 2-2 at the Reebok Stadium—I was there, and I’ve never left a match feeling more dejected (even the 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford the previous year)—I knew the dream of back-to-back titles was over. I’d be interested to know if there was a moment like that for United fans this year, because it surely must have come before yesterday. For some reason, I was convinced United would stroll the match at the City of Manchester Stadium, after all, the only team that defends worse than United is Kevin Keegan’s city, so it would be a battle of attacking prowess; which United should easily have won. There was something big missing from United’s game though, something, ironically, that Kevin Keegan’s teams over the years have been renowned for—passion. If this United team had finished the 1995/96 season, Alex Ferguson would have one less Premiership Trophy to hisname.

The old Roy Keane is gone, the second heartbeat David Beckham is gone, Rio Ferdinand is off to Chelsea (mark my words), Ruud Van Nistelroy has had a barney with the manager, and the best part of £30m has been spent on players not nearly good enough for title challengers. United are in trouble, how (if?) they get out of it will be very interesting to observe. I’ve thought all along that United were Arsenal’s only real challengers, I thought that their experience and that of the mamneger would, like last season, be enough to see off Chelsea’s money. The poor form of United this year has surprised me as much as anyone else.

Arsenal won again, not playing quite as fluently as they are able to, but a win is a win. Graeme SOURness had a moan for a change, claiming Arsenal’s free kick that Henry won was ‘poxy’ (it actually being nothing of the sort, and an offence that was punished at least five times in other areas of the pitch) and presumably perfectly happy with the decision to disallow Henry’s other perfectly legitimate goal. As Ally McCoist pointed out on Saturday night’s Premiership, an indirect free kick should be awarded if:

  1. The goalkeeper is prevented from releasing the ball.
  2. The attacking player acts in a dangerous manner towards the goalkeeper.

After admitting that henry wan’t behaving dangerously (his studs down, his foot below knee hight and making absolutely no contact with the goalkeeper), the ‘star’ of a Question of Sport told us that—despite the ball being well and truly out of Brad Friedel’s hands—he prevented the goalkeeper from releasing the ball, and as such, the ref was right. The man, ladies and gentlemen, is an idiot.

Silly decisions like that don’t really matter of course, just as they didn’t matter to the great George Best when he did the same thing against England legend Gordon Banks many moons ago. Great players try these cheeky things because they’re great, and because if it doesn’t work, there’s a thousand more things to try.

Watching the Sky Sports Centre on Saturday afternoon, it was nice to hear a few people saying something I’ve been saying for years. ‘Michael Owen can no longer be considered a World Class striker’ said Frank McLintock, ‘every time I see him nowadays he’s running back at his midfield trying to get the ball under control’. Compare Owen with Henry, Van Nistelrooy, Shevchenko, Vieri, Raul, Totti, Trezeguet; and you’ll see no comparison. Blame the team if you will, this is one of the poorest Liverpool sides of the last 20 years, but don’t tell me Owen doesn’t get opportunities. He has chance after chance every game, and he’s not a player like Henry or Totti for instance, that still looks good when he’s not scoring—he looks like a waste of a squad position, and he saps stirking partners of chances. Micheal Owen should not automatically be considered England’s number one striker; Alan Smith shows heart, guts, talent, and an eye for goal; Wayne Rooney offers everything Owen offered at 18, and much more; both could make a huge splash at Euro 2004, but they won’t. The won’t because Sven-Boring Eriksson will play Owen and Rooney, with Heskey coming off in the 60th minute for Owen.

England’s best chance at Euro 2004 is Michael Owen breaking his leg in April, allowing a fit, in form and eager young strike force to take on Europe’s defences. Maybe it’s naïve to think that two such inexperienced (at International level) forwards could lead the line for a country hoping to win the tournament, but maybe it’s our best—read, only—chance.

I have a lot to say about Alan Curbishley’s achievements at Charlton, but I shall leave that until tomorrow.

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Friday, March 12, 2004

Drawn together

Well, if Arsenal are going to win the Champions League, it’s not going to be done the easy way. After meeting them three times already this season, the Gunners must first see off Chelsea; then (most likely) Real Madrid, and finally the most difficult of all, AC Milan. Sure the Galacticos are a collection of wonderful players, but they concede goals, and Arsenal score them. AC Milan arguably have the best defence in Europe, and they score goals too. Of all of Europes strikers, Andri Shevchenko and Raul are perhaps the ones I admire most (with the exception of St. Thierry), and of all the World’s players, Zinedine Zidane and Paolo Maldini are up there with anyone in my eyes. This is what football’s all about, seeing your team take on the very best, test themselves against the real masters of Europe. Arsenal have been building up to these games for six years, Real Madrid, AC Milan, knockout matches. I’m excited at the prospect, but the first task is to beat Chelsea, something Arsenal should do without too much trouble—an early goal from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in the first leg should be enough the rile the Gunners into action. 2-1 to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, 1-0 at Highbury.

To celebrate FIFA’s centenery year, Pelé has picked his 100 greatest living players (why they didn’t ask Maradona for his I don’t know); and with no disrespect meant to the likes of South Korea’s Hong Myung Bo, Ghana's Abedi Pele and Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf, it’s a load of cack. Every man loves making lists, and picking all time XIs has to be even better than ‘top ten war films’ or ‘top ten albums of the 90s’. Selecting from living players only, here’s my effots:

  B’bauer Adams (C) Baresi  
    Platini   Zico    
Best   Van Basten   Cruyff
    Pele   Maradona    

Feel free to leave your own XIs in the comments below.

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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Cream of the crop

The Arsenal love-in that’s going on at the moment is making me uncomfortable. Last night, in an Altrincham pub, I watched Dennis Bergkamp play in Thierry Henry with a marvellous reverse pass—that prompted Ray Wilkins to comment that the Dutchman has ‘eyes in his backside’—who went on to score with a wonderfully crisp finish. The whole pub applauded, the patrons of a mancunian pub gasped at the talent and technique, then applauded the two Arsenal players. It’s a measure of the quality of football being played by Arsenal at the moment that it’s impossible not to be impressed, whether you’ve just been on the wrong end of a 5-1 hiding from them or whether you’re a supporter of their main footballing rivals.

I could eulogise all day about the talent, the team spirit, the effortless way in which this phenomenal footballing side do real justice to the beautiful game; but I’ll save most of it for the end of the season. For a team with such a contrast of individuals and personalities—from the underwear advertising Freddie Ljungberg to devout Muslim Kolo Toure—it’s amazing that the real strength of Arsenal football club is the togetherness of these players on and off the pitch. Every player fights for every other player: Robert Pires has a great chance to shoot at goal, instead he squares to his pal Henry because he’s on a hat-trick; after a goal is scored the whole team joins a ‘huddle’ chanting ‘together, together, together’ (Sol Campbells idea apparently).

As a fan of football in this country, I’m deighted that Arsenal took a punt on a virtually unknown (certainly in this country) but promising French football coach seven years ago. Without Arsène Wenger we wouldn’t be home to the best attacking player in the World, two of the best midfielders, and a side that’s playing football Serie A can only dream of. Even the mighty Real Madrid can’t match Arsenal at the moment, no side can, because there’s only one Arsène Wenger, and it’s all about that man.

Manchester United were unlucky not to have scored a second goal on Tuesday, when the excellent Paul Scholes had his second goal of the night ruled offside, but they were not unlucky to go out of the Champions League at the second stage for the first time in eight years. They were well beaten in Porto, outplayed at Old Trafford, and you can’t expect to keep out a side with last ditch sliding shot-blocks for ninety minutes. Ferguson was right to say that they barely had a shot on target, but that was only because United had been flinging bodies in front of shots all night. Wes Brown and Gary Neville made United’s defence look more solid than it has done for a long while, Brown in particular, but it still looked as though it could crumble at any moment.

I think a bit too much criticism has been levelled at Tim Howard—it was a better free-kick than it looked—though he should have palmed it over rather than pushed it out. The player who was at most fault for the goal was John O’Shea, caught ball watching while Costinha pounced on the parried shot; he could have at least made it difficult for the Portuguese international. I don’t know what’s happened to O’Shea. Last year, in his first full season, he looked like a marvellous promotion to the side; solid, economical, commanding and lively when played out wide. Impressive enought to earn him the all things footie young player of the year anyway. This year he looks nervous, edgy, and worst of all, he looks to have lost all the confidence he gained in 2002/03.

Of the eight teams through to the Quarter Final draw, the leaders of Europe’s top leagues all all represented: AC Milan lead Serie A, Real Madrid top La Liga, Arsenal are running away with the Premiership, Monaco sit atop Le Championnat and FC Porto lead the Portuguese I Divisão. The current Bundesliga Champions were kocked out last night, and the three remaining sides—Lyon, Deportivo La Coruña and Chelsea—are all in the top three of their respective leagues. By these criteria, it’s one of the most difficult club line-ups I’ve seen at this stage, and Friday’s draw should result in some really tantalising match-ups.

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Monday, March 08, 2004

It’s all about the fans

I couldn’t be more knackered. I’ve spent the whole weekend packing boxes, unpacking boxes, heaving things around, cleaning—generally doing far too much work for a weekend. Then last night I had to sleep in the living room as the boiler’s broken and the only room in the house with any heat in it at all was the gas-fire roasted lounge. Had to wash in the sink with water heated by the kettle, and due to sleeping in a ridiculously dry, hot room, my skin feels like the bottom of Death Valley. But am I miserable? After watching Arsenal demolish Portsmouth 5-1 on Saturday night, how could I be?

Apart from it being thoroughly enjoyable for the five wonderful goals, the breathtaking performance and the progression to the FA Cup Semi Final for (what I make out to be) the 6th year in a row; like Thierry Henry, Arsène Wenger, and I’m sure everyone else at the game (or watching on TV) noticed, the real star of the show were the Portsmouth fans. ‘Arsenal, Arsenal, give us the ball’ and ‘Can we play you every week?’ sung by a full house at 5-0 down. Given the rough reception the team received in the opening 15 minutes—owing to some bad feeling following Robert Pires’ conroversial penalty that rescued a point for Arsenal against Pompey earlier in the season—you might have been forgvien for thinking that a five goal thrashing might stir up the fans and provoke a few unsavory scenes. Not so.

Like the fans, both sides were were magnanimous, gracious and complimentary in victory and defeat. Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger—despite being part of, and witnessing, one of their best performances of the season—could only talk about the fans afterwards. Henry gushed ‘Their fans were fantastic, even at 5-0 down, and with fans like that Portsmouth don’t deserve to go down’ and Wenger said he’d ‘never seen anything like it’. Harry Redknapp also praised the Pompey support, and described his opponents as ‘the best team in Europe, possibly the world,’. This is what football is about, real fans cheering on their team no matter what befalls the men on the pitch, players and managers behaving like adults, and some breathtaking football being played by the best club in the land.

There wasn’t just one Quarter-Final over the weekend though; with United beating Fulham, and Wes Brown somehow avoiding a red card for one of the worst (not necessary malicious, but just plain terrible) attempted tackles I’ve seen all season, the two big boys are in the draw for the Semi-Finals. Add to that the superb Tommy Smith strike that’s put Sunderland through, and the certainty that either Milwall or Tranmere will be through by Thursday morning, and we have a very interesting situation indeed. Either Man Utd will play Arsenal in the semi-final or a first division club will make the Final of the the greatest cup competition in the World for the first time in donkey’s years.

An Arsenal vs United semi-final offers the tantalising prospect of a repeat of that semi in 1999, with United on the way to the treble. I speculated earlier in the season how ironic it would be if Arsenal—more specifically Dennis Bergkamp—avenged that defeat on the way to a treble of their own. As any football fan knows, talk of trebles in March is a silly and dangerous thing, but there’s no harm in dreaming.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The ballad of Sir Alex

Watching the post match reaction to Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Fulham on Saturday, you’d have thought they just got beaten at home by the bottom of the league. “He was a great manager, but he’s lost it, he has to go”. An over-reaction? Of course, but is Sir Alex without fault here? Of course he is, just as Roy Keane didn’t mean to stamp on Victor Baia, just as Beckham is a load of rubbish and United are better off without him, and just as Rio Ferdinand is innocent. While the chopping board should be kept in the cupboard, there are some harsh questions that Ferguson leaves unanswered.

Selling David Beckham was a mistake, I dare anyone to argue on that one. Whether it was a business decision by the club, or because of personal problems between him and Ferguson, it was certainly not a footballing decision. Roy Keane has been on the turn for a couple of seasons now; last year during their incredible run-in, it was David Beckham who kept the side’s heart beating, who covered every blade of grass, who gave everything he had for the shirt he wore. A lifelong United fan and a fantastic footballer maturing into an even better and more versatile one, he’d have played for United the rest of his career and loved every minute. Ferguson pushed him out of the club because he didn’t like his wife, and with no idea how to replace him.

When Rio Ferdinand missed his drugs test, phoned a Urulogist, went shopping, then claimed he was moving house, had his mobile phone turned off and forgot about it, Ferguson defended him. Instead of concentrating on football, he and the club focused on gettig Ferdinand off a charge he was so blatently guilty of it’s hilarious in hindsight. His delaying tactics and proclamations of innocence and ignorance (reminding me of a legal defence Arnold Rimmer once tried in an Episode of Red Dwarf) has cost England Ferdinand’s services at Euro 2004. With Ferdinand about to ‘go down’, Ferguson strengthened the defence by spending £12m on a striker, even though he only had one dodgy centre half and three full-backs in reserve.

Then he starts a public row, claiming stud rights to a horse he co-owned with some extremely rich and powerful Irish millionaires who also happen to own nearly 30% of the ocmpany he works for. Apart from being plain stupid to think he could win, this distracted his focus from football and hurt his and United’s reputation terribly.

In numerous games this season, Ferguson has ‘rested’ important players and it’s cost them. Manchester United simply don’t have a good enough squad to be able to leave out Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs or Roy Keane, and teams aren’t afraid of them anymore in the way they used to be. I hear people talk of him saving up for Europe and not caring about the Premiership anymore this season—anyone who thinks that clearly doesn’t know much about Alex Ferguson—there were only seven points between them and Arsenal at the start of play on Saturday.

To make it all worse, Ferguson’s unsportsmanlike behaviour towards the Porto coach last wednesday (with whom he wouldn’t shake hands at the end of the game, despite losing fair and square) and his refusal to accept any responsibility for his teams results and performances by blaming officials (who have hardly been disproportionately cruel to United this year) smacks of being a very bad loser.

If I were a United fan, I would have to seriously question whether Sir Alex Ferguson has the best interests of my club at heart anymore. The summer will tell, I can’t see Ferguson quitting football on a league defeat—it’s the reason he recinded his planned resignation in 2002—and I would have thought it was in John Magnier’s interest to keep Ferguson busy, so I fully expect Ferguson to be at United next season. The question is whether this is a temporary loss of mind from the manager, or if it’s a symptom of something much more: the end of Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Champions.

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