Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Best team in a lifetime

The Catalan love-in was in full flow long before the Arsene Wenger inspired 'sting in the tail' hit reigning Spanish champions, Barcelona tonight.

Their performance over the first hour of their Champions League 2nd round tie at the Emirates Stadium was oozing class, confidence and compusure.... But lacked the clinical finish that would surely have had the game out of The Gunners' reach. Guilt edged chances went begging before Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin earned Arsenal an undeserved victory.

Their brilliance though, had Facebook and Twitter accounts around the world buzzing with praise and adulations for the 'best team in Europe'. An unbelievable amount of social networkers were (in agreement with Australian TV commentator Robbie Mustoe) convinced that this Barcelona side is the BEST club side that the world has ever seen.

I beg to differ.

I was fortunate to be learning the art of football when BBC's Sportsnight was a regular fixture on a Wednesday night and Steve Ryder brought us the wonderful 2D images of the best team that I've ever seen.

AC Milan had everything. They were tactically drilled by the best in the game. A youthful Fabio Capello followed on from the good work of compatriot Arrigo Sacchi and Milan were ALWAYS exponents of a 4-4-2 system. They were as lock-tight in defence as they were prolific going forward.

Sebastiano Rossi was a solid if unspectacular custodian that was fortunate enough to play behind a defence consisting of two of the all time great defenders. Paulo Maldini was actually young during Milan's first era of modern day dominance and he was a full back partner of Mauro Tassotti and latterly Cristian Panucci, both of whom were very accomplished. Il Capitano, Franco Baresi was peerless in the centre of defence alongside the ever reliable Alessandro Costacurta.

The midfield engine room was dominated by Frank Rijkaard, one of only three permitted foreign stars at that particular time in Italy and whilst he dominated things, the dictation was directed by Dimitrio Albertini, a superb one touch holding midfielder that allowed his partner to link up with the more attacking elements of the side.

The wide positions were filled by the workmanlike, but highly effective Roberto Donadoni on the right hand side and either Alberigo Evani or the more forward thinking Marco Simone on the left.

The Milan side were solid and almost impossible to break down. But to be a great side, you need something special at the business end of the pitch. Milan had Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. The Dutch superstars had a telepathic understanding and whilst Gullit was as good as any second striker that the last thirty years has seen, his partner was even better as an out and out goalscorer and leader of a line. Quite simply, the best centre forward I've seen and only injury forced his career to fall short of what could have been the most outstanding European record in the history of the game.

It is my belief that Barcelona will probably go on to win this year's Champions League.....but in comparison to the Milan side of the late 1980's and early 1990's....they still fall a touch short.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can Spurs win the Champions League?

Now before you quickly shoot me down here..... I'm not for one second suggesting that Spurs are the best team in Europe. What I am intimating however, is that the style that they are playing in the Champions League this season is refreshingly positive and confronts all sides, no matter the reputation or pedigree in Europe's premier competition, head on.

Both Milan clubs have now been defeated dare I say, with relative comfort. And whilst I'm fully aware of the impending second leg at White Hart Lane that is yet to be played, you would have to fancy Harry Redknapp's team to once again take the game to their more illustrius opponents.

Bare in mind that Tottenham's win in the San Siro was without Gareth Bale, who has been hailed as the great dangerman in this flamboyant but energetic line up. Jermaine Defoe, Tom Huddlestone and Luca Modric were also missing from the starting line up for one reason or another. This is a squad full of confidence and capable on 'any given day' of slicing any team in Europe apart.

Also consider, if you will, their record this season where they have conceded the first goal of the game. It is superb. No other team in England can boast a better percentage of points from a goal deficit head start. This shows they are not affected by a set-back and will continue to play their swashbuckling and flamboyant way until they reap the rewards.

The likes of Barcelona, Madrid, Bayern Munich etc will no doubt prove a different proposition to the ageing and quite frankly, disappointing Milan side of today.... But Redknapp's boys are looking as good a bet for further progress that a certain Jose Mourinho's Porto did a few years back. And we all know how that story goes...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Origin....Does it matter to you?

For many years, the great North v South rivalry has been ongoing. Stereo types like ‘Southern softies’ and ‘shandy drinkers’ have been the comeback to endless amounts of abuse aimed at the ‘rough arse’ northerners who don’t wash and still wear flat caps and walk whippits.

Of course, most of it is said in jest and is a way of entering into friendly banter with people from differing regions of England. I used to think that things were no different in Australia. That is until I started to learn more about the rugby league tradition that is ‘State of Origin’. It is quite simply awesome.

Rugby league in itself, has grown on me. It’s a working class game with real men trading hit after hit, but never getting out of control. The players show absolute respect for the game and the officials (similar to pretty much every sport barring football) and it’s a great spectator experience. The NRL(National Rugby League) is a brilliant product, and is only surpassed by the Barclays Premier League for it’s excitement.

State of Origin is more than that though. It involves the best players that were born in New South Wales state taking on their Queensland counterparts in a three match series over nine weeks. Game one is usually in Sydney (NSW), then it’s up to Brisbane (QLD) for the Game two and back down to Sydney for the third (although it has in the past been taken to a neutral venue and the NRL are trying to do this on a regular basis.). NSW is the real heart of NRL as out of the sixteen teams in the league, ten are from that area.

So you can imagine the humiliation that residents of NSW are experiencing at the moment, having just lost a record fifth series in a row. The Telegraph newspaper declared ‘This is what it feels like to be dead’. They are devastated by the state of affairs.

The games themselves, are quicker and more intense than anything that you see week in week out in the NRL. Far more passion too it seems. It’s defending the honour of your state. Fighting for your people. And it usually boils over into brawls and scrapes. Brilliant to watch. And the best thing is that the fighting is completely confined to the pitch. Fans of both sides can sit side by side and take the piss out of each other without any aggro. It really is quite refreshing.

It got me to thinking of whether it could work in England. The North of England v South of England based on where the players were born or raised. Obviously the fact that players are on such high salaries that clubs would refuse to allow the players to play. So it’s all hypothetical. The fact is that within two minutes of me bringing the topic up with a couple of fellow ‘poms’ we were at war as to who would win.

Where is the line that divides us? Birmingham? Where would it be played? Who would pick the teams? Would anybody care?

All these questions were raised when ‘Origin’ was first talked about over thirty years ago. And now it’s THE event of the Rugby League calendar. Ahead of international tournaments and domestic honours. I’d love to see it introduced back home and whilst I can’t argue that the South would have the better team on paper…… I just think that ‘good old northern grit’ might prevail.

What do you think?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Salary cap, anyone?

With the current situation in English football being that the Premier League seems to split into a top tier and the also-rans, I would like to raise a notion that I have become all too familiar with during my time in Australia. A salary cap.

Now I’m not saying for one second that I believe it will or should happen. All I intend to do is to put forward a case so that people can see both sides of the argument.

The salary cap, in effect, is the best way to get everybody playing on a level playing field. It will benefit the league as a competition and also reward shrewd management and superior coaching.

In Australia, the best example of the cap is in the NRL (National Rugby League). Each club has got a budget of $4.2m per season to spend on it’s squad. If you averaged it out over a 25 man squad, it equates to around $160,000 per man.

Of course, that is never going to happen. Most of the NRL clubs will target two or three of the top players as ‘marquee’ players and bolster the rest of the squad with solid, if unspectacular squad players. Brisbane Broncos for example, boast Darren Lockyer and Israel Folau in their ranks and both command well over $350,000 per year each. The rest of their squad are paid accordingly.

The cap, in my opinion, benefits the NRL in three ways.

Firstly, that every club at the start of the season genuinely believes that they have a chance to win the league. Obviously it doesn’t often happen, but they are not facing financial barriers like the lesser clubs in England do every August when the Premier League kicks off. There is no target of simply surviving. Everybody sets off with a fairly realistic aim of competing for the main prize.

More importantly, the fans have these expectations too. Can you imagine a Blackpool fan this year thinking that a top four finish is not out of the question? No……That’s because it is so far out of the question, that I’m sorry I brought it up! Not in NRL. In fact, last year’s ‘Wooden spoon’ side (Sydney Roosters) enjoyed a superb start to the season, and are genuine contenders for a finals place.

The second benefit to the NRL is almost a contradiction to the first point. In as much as that, by taking my first point literally, you would think that the league table completely changes from year to year. It doesn’t. And this is one of the reasons that I believe a salary cap ‘could’ work in the Premier League.

The same teams are usually at the top of the table come the end of the season every year. Not because of the financial power, but because the best coaches (managers if you like) usually get the best results. It’s no surprise that St. George Illawara are currently the top dogs in NRL. Their head coach, Wayne Bennett won 6 Premierships with Brisbane Broncos, before moving on to start another dynasty in Sydney. Another top coach is Craig Bellamy (not the hideous Welshman, this one is a hideous Australian) and his Melbourne storm side have won three out of the last five Premierships.

Top coaches win things. The world over. That’s why they get the best jobs. That won’t change. Nor will the fact that the top players will also want to play for the top clubs. Clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal will still attract the better players. Only this way, the ‘smaller’ clubs will have a chance to outbid them and create their own squad to challenge the elite.

Finally, the financial management of clubs will almost become as important as the coaching. Never before will ‘balancing the books’ have been more important. Decisions are often made in the NRL where top players are forced to move on due to the cap. Imagine the scenario…..Chelsea need to bring in a couple of players but in order to do so, must let Didier Drogba go to free up the cash to do it. Decisions must be made on what best suits the club, the coach and the squad.

To be honest, when I first came out here, I wasn’t a fan of the system. But having seen the amount of top players playing for the less fashionable clubs, I think it’s an idea that is certainly worth looking at.

Obviously the size of the cap would be far, far higher than that of the NRL. And another major stumbling block would be the fact that unless the Italian and Spanish leagues followed suit, that the best players would move on to foreign clubs and that the likes of United, Chelsea and now City would move to speeden up the inevitable European League.

Like I said at the start, it’s not what I believe to be ‘the answer’. But I genuinely think that if the rules were ironed out properly, it can work in some small way to stop the likes of Manchester City throwing their considerable financial weight about to buy the League and Europe. United and Chelsea have done it down the years and now City look like taking the next step.

One such rule could involve any home-grown players being exempt from the cap. Meaning that if Wayne Rooney had come through the junior ranks at Everton, they would not be restricted in terms of what they could offer him. Therefore, he may have never left the club he supported as a boy. One can only imagine the side that West Ham could have today had such a ruling been in place years ago.

So another benefit is producing your own talent. Put the work in with a kid when he is learning the game and you will reap the rewards years down the line.

Anyway, I hope you have found these points interesting…….if not perhaps a tad unrealistic.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Real-life Losers Make Worthy Winners

Chelsea completed an historic victory on Saturday to land the first League and FA Cup double in the club’s history. And only the most biased supporters of other clubs could argue that they fully merit the label ‘Champions of England’.

Their efficiency, power and strength throughout the entire squad must surely be viewed enviously from the north of London, where Monsieur Wenger’s brittle yet skilful adolescents once again lick their wounds after yet another trophy-less season. I see Wenger as a wily old lion who is no longer the top cat, and all he can do is watch from afar, waiting to see if any scraps are left by the more dominant cats after a kill.

This year’s scraps went to Manchester United, but the League cup is not enough to satisfy the belly of a club the size of United. Their fans, deep down, realise that, had the unthinkable happened on the last day of the season and Wigan had managed to secure a fourth successive title for the Old Trafford club, it would have been the most unwarranted of all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s league titles.

Quite simply put, Chelsea are the best team in England.

On the pitch.

Off it, they have to be the most disliked champions on record. From the very top to the very bottom. Their owner, Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich is about as likeable as a bout of swine flu. Who can honestly say that they don’t love watching the now annual ‘Chelsea out of europe’ party and seeing Abramovich looking like a young child who didn’t get what he asked Santa for? Priceless.

They have even managed to turn Ray Wilkins from a ‘thoroughly nice chap’ that used to accompany messrs Souness, Gullitt, Redknapp Jnr and Keys on a Wednesday night in the Sky studios, to star as the modern day version of Phil Neal’s perfect portrayal of ‘Yes man’ (it should be said that Neal’s performance was far more compelling however).

Next on the list is none other than Captain Bullshit himself….John Terry. Or JT as he prefers to be known. Just Terrible……as a human being, a husband and a friend.

Fortunately for Terry, he is a very good footballer as he has nothing else going for him. From his ‘bastard’ haircut to his notion that pulling socks above your knees as a central defender is a good thing, the guy has got no class.

The whole Wayne Bridge saga is even more alarming when you consider two things. Firstly, that Bridge was his best friend (and the two couples used to holiday together) and secondly that Terry is alleged to have told close pals just hours before his meeting with Fabio Capello regarding the captaincy that ‘it’ll be a slap on the wrist and I’ll still be captain tonight’. No John, you won’t be. You are a twat.

Which brings us swiftly on to his partner in cwime…..Fwank Lampard. Do we really need to see the pair of them hugging each other without their shirts on any more? Now that Lampard’s wife has left him, I suppose the feeling of a large mammary rubbing up against his chest is a comfort thing. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t have cheated on his wife and child. Of course, that doesn’t concern Fwank…. As long as he can shoot from 40 yards and then catch a glimpse of himself on the big screen at Stamford Bridge to see the replay, he is fine.

Ashley Cole…… What were you thinking? Not once, but five times (that we know about). You had one of Britain’s most attractive girls as your wife (albeit with the most annoying accent on record), yet chose to jump onto the nearest mobile phone – literally (allegedly) and cavort with a hairdresser from the local shops, a female bus driver and three other wannabe WAG’s. Never the most likeable to start with, Ashley was given the chance to redeem his public image with an interview before the FA Cup final last week. When asked what would mean more to him ‘World cup with England or Double with Chelsea?’, he claimed that domestic honours mean more to him than winning the biggest prize in football. Just another reason why nobody likes you mate.

Didier Drogba is a fabulous footballer. One of the best all round centre forwards I’ve seen in real life. But he feels the need to throw himself to the floor at the slightest hint that somebody is going to touch him. And always rolls about. His disgraceful on-screen rant last year after the unjust but hugely enjoyable Champions League semi final just about summed him up. A total berk.

I’ll finish off with Joe Cole. I don’t think Cole is as disliked as the others mentioned, but he should be. The horrible little pikey shit is a scumbag just like JT. Brought up in the east end, he should be thankful to football for robbing him the chance to walk the streets of Peckham all day with a suitcase full of hookie gear and an almost certain ‘scruffy tash’. Every time I look at the lad, I just want somebody to give him a bloody good wash. He is disgusting.

That being said, Chelsea are a great football team and I take my hat off to them for this season’s achievements. I’m hoping that the English contingent take their form into the World cup with them…….but I highly doubt it.