Barca v United – lambs to the slaughter ?

Possibly the greatest club side of all-time versus probably Fergie’s weakest United.

Even if Nani and Chico play the games of their lives and Rooney remembers he is the best footballer qualified to play for England since Ryan Giggs, there is simply no way the current United team should win this game.

The thought of Vidic and Ferdinand conspiring to stop Messi is either far-fetched or unpleasant and only invites premonitions of Villa, Iniesta and Xavi rampaging through in the spaces left everywhere else.

In fact, if Barca don’t win – and by a hatful – questions  – the sort that weren’t asked when England lost to Ireland in the cricket world cup – should, perhaps, be asked.

Yes I’m a Leeds fan (sort of) and yes, Leeds fans have a history of glorying in the Red’s failures but I’ve rarely laughed as long as when Solskjaer potted the 1999 winner against Bayern or had my jaw drop as far as it did when Hughes drilled that 1991 “up-yours” against his then-unappreciative former employer, Barca, so when I say this United do not have a chance, I’m pretty sure it’s not because of Champions league envy!

In my humble opinion, the only hope Manchester has of lifting the cup is if the Barcelona machine can be defeated from within by the same sort of off-field tactics Lord Triesman is accusing certain FIFA officials of having succumbed to in the recent world cup elections!

Unfortunately for United, despite Barca’s willingness to embellish fouls to the point of gamesmanship, if not actual simulation, I believe the thought of throwing a game is as far beneath Barcelona as it is beneath United even if the same has not always been true of every side in Europe.

United finds itself in the final thanks in part to almost unbelievable fluctuations in Schalke’s performances, a side which was capable of defeating Inter in both legs of the quarters (including scoring an amazing “5” at the San Siro) yet which rolled over in both legs of the semi against United (apparently forgetting, for most of the first leg in Schalke, that attack was even an option).

The result of those Jekyl and Hyde-esque performances is a showcase champions league final between the recently crowned champions of the English Premier League, supposedly, the most prestigious league in the game and the champion’s of Spain’s competing La Liga, a clash which will draw a massive global audience.

On paper it really is a genuine Champions’ final but in practice we are more likely to witness a lambs to the slaughter bloodbath with United playing the following day’s Sunday roast.

As downhearted as United and their fans are almost certain to be after their wake-up call, I predict the real losers will be the English premier league and all those who have come to rely on its worldwide tv revenues (ironically, something which I believe would only benefit English football!) whilst the winners will be the La Liga shareholders who will be hoisting Messi et al all the way to the bank.

United’s (and the premiership’s) one on-field hope?

That Barca will engage in the sort of conduct that had UEFA mount an investigation in the wake of their Real semi-final.  Should Barca try anything like a repeat performance of that on Saturday, the Wembely crowd, many of whom will be there for the chance to celebrate Messi, as the best player of his generation, will turn against the Catalan giants like pee on an electric fence and if that happens its an entirely different ball game.

In short.  If Barca play football as they can, they will win and win comfortably.  If Barca start play-acting, even if in response to physical intimidation, we might see a match, albeit an ugly one.   Given what’s at stake, both for Barca and La Liga, I would be very surprised (not to mention disappointed) if Barca are not on their very best behaviour Saturday night.

Football, though, is a funny game and so, as an incorrigible optimist, it will be the memory of goals like Solskjaer’s and Hughes’ which will ensure I’m glued to the tv Saturday, hoping for goals of the quality of Messi’s magic second against Real or as unrealistic as it is, a repeat of Rooney’s incredible Manchester-derby deciding overhead!

Here’s hoping!  After all miracles do happen, even if not often at Wembley.

The Cricket World Cup

With all the allegations of Pakistani match fixing in Cricket in the press over the past year, it would be interesting to know what the odds on Nederlands scoring over 290 in their World Cup match opener against England was, despite England’s scrambled 49th over win.

Nederlands, the lowest-but-one ranked team in the tournament, managed to set England, a team whose Swann, Broad and Anderson all feature in the top 12 of the current Reliance ICC One Day International bowlers rankings, “the third highest run chase in World Cup history”, according to the BBC website.

Of course, we are talking about England, so nothing of eyebrow-raising worthiness there at all.

England’s Disgrace – What the FA were they thinking?

England went out to Germany, again.

We’re now so used to that outcome that most football pundits will have been preparing their explanation for England’s failure as soon as Germany was confirmed as our knock out round opponents.  That said, England’s failure this time was more comprehensive than most would have predicted (excepting Fabio himself perhaps!) with the side doing little more than going through the motions from the moment the Germans fourth went in, not that they did much more at any stage before that.

Of course the pundits have been quick to point the finger of blame but as usual they are failing to point to the one influence which more than any other is responsible for the lamentable state of English football -that being the media itself (excepting, of course, me).

Not only does the media ignore the extent to which its role in generating a frenzy of unrealistic hope amongst the England supporting public puts impossible expectations on the backs of every England player (only to denounce the team as rubbish when performances fall below those unrealistic expectations), even more crucially, the media has failed to address, at least so far, the extent to which the premier league and the media’s unrelenting support of it has all but destroyed any hope an aspiring English footballer might have of a regular first team place in the top flight division and with it the hope of the English national team for the foreseeable future.

Case in point; Theo Walcott who just 4 years ago was England’s golden boy etc

Sure the premier league generates a huge amount of revenue but the majority of that money goes to support the foreign talent which now accounts for a massive percentage of first team premiership players and coaching staff.  Sure the premier league is home to some of the finest talent in the game but it is increasingly a global league and not a league that supports English football as it was intended to do.  Even more embarrassingly, with Spain’s success in South Africa and Inter’s success in the European Champions League, even with its huge proportion of imported talent, the English Premier league may no longer be football’s premier league.

How can the England national team possibly hope to compete on a world stage when effectively it no longer has a top class domestic league from which to draw it’s talent.  Of course that might seem an unfair dismissal of the English “Championship” as it calls itself, but given the amount of money going to the premiership as against that to the  Championship, much of which comes from the media companies currently laying blame for England’s dismal performance, the evidence is there for all, who want to see it, to see.

So what can be done to change matters?

Grass roots change is required.  Whilst extreme measures could involve turning off the tv, to discourage our tv companies funding our competitors through the premier league and a boycott of products from companies sponsoring the premier league, the easiest most enjoyable way we can really get behind England would be to get out on a weekend and actually kick a ball around; whether that’s with a local team or with family and friends is not important just as long as the English public starts playing the game again.

If that sounds too much like hard work, go watch your local team  (whether it be a championship team, a kids team or (even) a woman’s team) and spend the money you save, not subsidising millionaire footballers, in the pub afterwards, discussing the state of the game with people who are at least as expert on the game as the premier league supporting media who are prepared to blame anyone but themselves.

No one can expect to excel at anything they no longer participate in – and that applies as much to manufacturing, agriculture and enjoying a pint in a decent pub as much as it does to producing a decent football team.

As for Fabio, he must be extremely grateful that whoever it was that chose to review his contract just prior to the start of tournament removed the performance clause from his contract which would have seen him somewhat less well provided for had he been sacked by the FA, as I believe he should have been, immediately after England’s ignominious exit.

Just why the FA thought removing that particular clause, just when England most needed to be certain Fabio was doing his utmost to get his team to perform, was a good idea, is anyone’s guess.  But, having done it, with the FA being obliged to pay Fabio a further £12 million over the next two years, regardless of whether or not Fabio remains in the job, it’s easy to see why the FA are so keen to keep on the manager who oversaw England’s worst performance in a World Cup in years, if not ever.

So as badly as the England team played on the pitch, my blame for England’s abysmal performance goes not to Fabio or the team players but to whichever idiot it was at the FA (assuming they work for the FA) who made the decision to remove that performance clause from Fabio’s contract.

Unfortunately, unlike the England players whose failures on the pitch are permanently recorded for pundits to salivate over, whenever the opportunity is presented and whose shortcomings off it are the subject of doorstep journalism and often truly offensive conjecture, sadly most of us will never even know the name of that idiot, let alone get to ask them what the FA were they thinking?!

Shame, as I think the idiot’s explanation could be very interesting.  Then again, for the money it cost (not to mention the national humiliation) it really should be.

Kaka sending off bites Coast!

Strange as it may seem, the refs appalling decision to penalise Kaka for the temerity to defend himself against the Ivorian Coast player who, apparently, deliberately ran into him, may well end up punishing the Ivorians more than Brazil.  With Portugals 7-0 thrashing of North Korea, the Ivory Coast (on 1 pt) need to beat North Korea and for Brazil (on 6 pts) to beat Portugal by a combined total of nine goals to put Ivory Coast through at Portugals expense in order to progress from the group stages.

Trouble is Portugal are on form right now and Brazil will need to be at their very best to beat them, let alone by the sort of margin that is going to be necessary.  Doing that with Kaka would have been a hard-enough task, but without him, Brazil /Portugal progressing looks like a banker.

Bet that Ivorian will be kicking himself or at least faking he did.

South Africa’s French miracle?

Down and almost certainly out after last weeks 3-0 defeat at the hands of Uruguay, suddenly things are looking a lot rosier for a South African team preparing to face a French side at a historic low, assuming the French actually turn up for the game, which given yesterday’s strike abandoned practice session, cannot now simply be taken for granted.

The plot thickens.

Roo’d boys

Okay so Wayne had a go at the crowd at the end of the Algeria game.  So what?

Quite honestly, after the appalling display the England team put up against Algeria I would have been more worried had he not been in a foul mood coming off that field.   And as pi&&ed off as he might have been I’m pretty sure the people I shared the bar with last Friday night were at least as pi&&ed off as Wayne given the nature of the comments being directed at the England team, most of which were far from constructive or helpful; although the actualisation of some of the wilder suggestions would have made for interesting tv, if any of it could have been broadcast.

However, before we start slagging off the England team/squad lets remember those players are if not the very best 23 players we have, certainly very close to it.  Our certainty of that is due to the fact that the Premier league is dominated to such a degree by foreign players that England has difficulty putting together a 23 man England squad comprising only premiership players.

Sure it’s great to be able to watch the United Nations of football such are the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City etc but the price for such a wealth of international talent is the reduced playing time available to even the most promising British youngsters – just 4 years ago Walcott was being hailed as the Golden Child of English football but thanks largely, one assumes, to the limited playing time he has received since then, he didn’t even make the squad this time – despite his game changing 20 minutes in Arsenal’s first leg against Barca.

To make matters worse, whilst Germany and Spain boast multiple players who play together week in and out for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, the English squad has been drawn from no less than eight sides, several of the squad are not guaranteed first team places and of the four who play for league and cup double winners, Chelsea, Joe Cole was identified as being surplus to requirements for next season, prior to the start of the tournament.

But before we slag off the clubs for actions which increasingly are threatening the hopes of the England team, lets remember, it’s the fans paying week in/ week out to gobble up Premier league fare who are rewarding and reinforcing the actions of those clubs.

And along with the guys complaining loudest and lewdest after Friday’s game, including our national media (which we also support), we are those “fans”.

Ball fix

Bit of a co-incidence that the two best performing teams so far – Argentina and Germany (yes I know Germany lost to Serbia but even with just 10 men they were by far the better side – how Podborski didn’t get a hat-trick is anyone’s guess) – just happen to be representing two of the leagues who used the Jabulani ball for the entire season just finished.

Whilst the rest of the world is having real problems controlling and hitting the ball desired distances, particularly with crosses and free kicks, the Argentines and Germans are making it look easy.

Sure it might just be co-incidence (those two teams do have some of the tournaments best players) but then again knowing how radically different this ball would be, wouldn’t it have been prudent for FIFA to introduce the new ball for the World Cup qualifiers two years ago and add a jolly “South Africa” paint job for the finals so every team had the same chance to get used to it’s unsual flight and avoid the suggestion that certain teams have an unfair advantage?

As for the defence that certain unexpected behaviours are as a result of the altitude, were the ball’s developers not aware that the tournament was to be held in South Africa where the altitude, although obviously a factor, hasn’t changed since South Africa was announced as hosts 6 (?) years ago or were the ball’s developers just having way too much fun in the wind tunnel to think about anything else?

Not, of course, that Adidas will be complaining if Argentina and Germany continue to shine.