Tuesday, July 01, 2008

So, here we are, then. After two years and one month of writing this page, it's time to leave a note out for the milkman and put the cat out for the final time. Very quickly, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone that has stopped by here over the course of the last couple of years or so - your interest has been very much appreciated. Writing here has been a pleasure, every single step of the way, and I look forward to seeing you on the new site.

The new blog will get its first
new post tomorrow at some point - feel free to try out the brand spanking new message board if you find any terrible gremlins that make the new blog not work properly (and, yes, I know that it gives a strange "pre-dns" name when you go to it, but it doesn't seem to make any difference so, well, you know). If you run a blog or site that links to this site, I'd be terribly grateful if you could update your links accordingly, though I will try to get around to everyone over the next few days. As I said before, this site will stay up for a while as an archive, but I am planning to take it down in over the next few weeks or so.

The addresses that you need are here.

Arrivederci Motson

The journalist and broadcaster Danny Baker once noted that the primary role of a football commentator is to make the exasperated television viewer shout "WE KNOW!" at the television screen during matches, to the extent that it famously used to drive his father to his distraction. Sadly, Mr Baker Senior passed away earlier this year - not quite long enough to be able to raise a toast to the retirement of John Motson, the veteran BBC commentator, who has announced his retirement from live commentary from the BBC following their failure to secure major television rights ahead of the new season. He will continue to turn up on "Match Of The Day", but it is the beginning of the end of an era for someone that has (rather too much, some might add) become an iconic figure within the modern game. For those of us that are British and are in our mid-30s, the majority of the faces and voices that we grew up with have either died or retired. The likes of Jimmy Hill, Ian St John, Barry Davies and Brian Moore will (for better or for worse) not be heard in our living rooms again, but Motson's departure from the scene is arguably the highest profile retirement from football broadcasting since Barry Davies retired in 2004.

John Motson's reputation was built in the space of one match - the FA Cup Third Round Replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United in 1972. The match had been postponed three times because of the weather, and its eventual Saturday afternoon scheduling meant that Motson was packed off to Hereford to cover what had been scheduled as a filler match between more important business from the Football League. As it turned out, however, Hereford (then of the Southern League) came from a goal behind to beat First Division Newcastle by two goals to one, and the match, complete with Motson's breathless commentary, was propelled up the food chain to be that evening's featured match. The BBC had taken drastic action to overhaul the image of its football coverage in the early 1970s, replacing Kenneth Wolstenholme with David Coleman in 1971, and Motson was the final piece in their new, revamped jigsaw, alongside Barry Davies, who had joined the corporation in 1969. Coleman would remain the BBC comentator for FA Cup finals until 1976, however, and Motson didn't cover a World Cup final for them until 1982. By then, however, Coleman had been shunted sideways wo concentrate on athletics, and Motson and Davies would go on to rule the roost for over twenty years.

Motson's reputation was built upon the near obsessive manner of his pre-match preparation. In an era in which a wealth of information was not at the fingertips of the watching audience, this was a critical part of his appeal. In recent years, however, this has become less important and, of anything, we have begun to notice his mistakes more and more, especially since the rise to prominence of the internet, which gives the viewer fingertip access to a range of information that Motson would have found bewildering when he was in his statistical prime. In terms of his actual commentary style, he has become a parody of himself in some respects. During the 2002 World Cup he became strangely obsessed with the fact that many of the matches were kicking off at very early times at home, and took to throwing in many references to breakfast into his commentaries. To say that it was a stylistic disaster would be something of an understatement. Matches were peppered with references to sausages and tea, culminating in him imploring the watching television audience to start smashing cups when David Beckham's penalty beat Argentina in England's second group match.

It's true to say that the current generation of football commentators that are coming through are much of a muchness and that a commentator with such personality will be missed, but it is difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that John Motson had gone past his sell-by date to the point of being something of an anachronism. It says something that, in some respects, he is still the best of the lot, and the BBC have a responsibility to ensure that they do what they can in order to maintain the tradition of high quality journalism and idiosyncratic commentary styles that used to make watching the football there such a pleasure. With the likes of Jonathan Pearce now being likely to be the corporation's voice of live football, the long term prognosis isn't good, and you might just be pining for the likes of John Motson sooner than you might have expected.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Spain - European Champions

Spain, then, are the European champions and, with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult to argue a case against them winning it. Euro 2008, however, was just like that in many respects. How many times did you sit down in front of the television and think, "Well, they're definitely going to win it"? At least three or four, I'd bet. Before we get going with what actually happened in Vienna last night, it's time to dispel a quick myth about Spain's Euro 2008 win before it starts to get out of hand. Euro 2008 was not, by extension, a victory of Liverpool Football Club. The Spain team that started last night contained one Liverpool player - Fernando Torres - and a further one - Alonso - who got on the pitch as a substitute. This has been the pattern throughout the tournament, but Liverpool supporters are suffering from some extreme delusions of grandeur if they think that last night was about them. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Villareal all fielded more players in the Spanish team that kicked off last night than Liverpool did.

The match itself was intriguing rather than exciting - a chess match, rather than a 100m sprint. Indeed, the best chance of the opening twenty minutes came with Andres Iniesta's low cross that was deflected goalwards by Christoph Metzelder, forcing an outstanding save from the suddenly vastly improved Jens Lehmann. Midway through the first half, Spain came even closer, with Torres inexplicably out-jumping the massive German defender Per Mertesacker and and heading the ball past Lehmann and against the base of the post. Spain were getting closer and closer, and one began the suspect that a goal for Spain had a veneer of inevitability about it. When it came, it was a goal that was worthy of such an occasion. Xavi's deep pass caused a moment of uncertainty for Germany's left back, Phillip Lahm, allowing Fernando Torres to come in from a seemingly impossible and flick the ball past Lehmann and into the empty net. Torres' persistance was such that one couldn't even really fault Lahm for taking his eye of the ball for the one-hundredth of a second that he did. It was a tough break for the German left-back, who had been one of their best players of the tournament up until that point - he was substituted at half-time, a decision which seemed to rob Germany of one of their more effective attacking options.

Into the second half, and with Michael Ballack looking like a bad drag act Amy Winehouse impersonator after requiring medical attention to a head injury that could quite easily have seen him replaced, and Spain continued to dominate, with Xavi shooting narrowly wide from the end of the penalty area and Sergio Ramos trying to flick Silva's driven cross in with his heel. It continued to look more likely that Spain would score a second goal than that Germany would pull the scores level, although Michael Ballack did at least show some sighs of resistance in shooting a foot wide of the penalty area. In the closing stages, Spain again started look like extending their lead. The best chance fell to Sergio Ramos, who sprang a feeble German offside trap but found his header well saved by Lehmann, but the follow-up was just as close, with the resulting corner ending with Torsten Frings clearing Iniesta's driven shot off the line. With all the cliches that follow them around, the watching audience could have been forgiving for expecting the inevitable German equaliser, but the goal didn't come. Indeed, with ten minutes to play, Guiza heaed across the face of goal and Senna slid in but was unable to apply a finishing touch and the ball drifted harmlessly away.

Spain, then, are worthy champions. The defensive concerns that might have blighted their chances never materialised, with Carlos Puyol and goalkeeper Iker Casillas playing outstandingly well. Spain conceded just two goals in their five matches. At the other end, their attacking play was frequently as breathtaking as anyone else in the tournament's, with Torres and David Villa, whose unfortunate injury robbed him of a place in the final, showing time and time again that they are truly world class players. Also, one can't help but admire Luis Aragones, no matter what one's opinion of him might be otherwise. Last night, against Germany of all people, he replaced Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas of all people, yet his team never seriously looked like conceding a goal. In the end, the difference last night might just have been the attacking players. Whereas Spain had brilliance up front, which was best demonstrated by the speed with which they moved the ball from deep midfield players and into attacking positions. Whilst the likes of Miroslaw Klose are good players, but Torres, Fabregas and Villa are, on the sort of form demonstrated over the last three weeks or so, outstanding players, and that, on the night, was enough.

Germany, who had not played especially well throughout the rest of the tournament (remember that 2-1 defeat by Croatia in the group stages?), were undone by Spain. They will be back, though it is heartening to see that the best team in the tournament was the eventual winner. Where Spain go from here is considerably more intriguing. They have managed to fall short of expectations for much of the last four and a half decades, but with the albatross like psychological baggage that comes with the nickname of "under-achievers" now lifted from around their necks, what are they capable of? Spain has never failed to produce excellent players, though they have consistently managed to find even more strange and interesting ways to lose than even England have. Now, however, England are alone amongst the countries that they would like to consider their peers in having won nothing whatsoever in the last four decades, and they don't look like changing that record any time soon. Spain, however, deserve our congratulations - they're worthy champions of Europe. Don't start getting them confused with Liverpool, though.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Brushed Aside

We had very high hopes for this match, didn't we? When pressed, this was going to be the classic of the two matches. The match that would repeated in slow motion with a light opera and indie rock soundtrack. As it turned out, though, Russia vs Spain was a comparatively one-sided match, won convincingly by Spain against a Russian team that really failed to turn up at all. Andrei Arshavin, who had given indications that he was starting to believe the hype with his somewhat ridiculous claims that he had always been a Barcelona fan, was the most notable absence on the night, with this performance (or lack thereof) raising questions about his ability when under the spotlight, regardless of how sensationally he transformed the Russia team when he returned from suspension. Meanwhile, in a display of an ill wind blowing someone quite a lot of good, it was the enforced replacement of David Villa with Cesc Fabregas that really transformed Spain. Fabregas has looked very impressive every time he has made one of his cameo appearances for Spain, and the likelihood now has to be that he will start the final.

Things might, however, have been different. After a cagey start that saw a couple of comfortable saves from Akinfeev and a couple of long shots from Russia, Pavlyuchenko fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area which whistled just wide of the post. It took a couple of viewings of the replay to establish that, in fact, Iker Casillas had made a magnificent save with his fingertips, a save so deft that only the slowest of slow motion replays could pick it up. The breakthrough, when it came, had an element of fortune about it. Iniesta's cross-cum-shot from the edge of the penalty area was diverted in by Xavi but, while Iniesta would doubtlessly now protest otherwise, I am still less than convinced that his involvement in the move was a cleverly played pass to an unmarked striker. I suspect that it was actually a very tame shot that Xavi cleverly managed to anticipate and intercept. The replacement of Fernando Torres with Guiza proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back for Russia, for whom this was really a match too far. Four minutes after Guiza's introduction, he scored the second goal to put the match beyond them once and for all - a neat passing move that cut through the Russian defence like a hot knife through butter and finished with him lifting the ball over Akinfeev to kill the game as a competition.

At 2-0, the game slowed to a jog as Spain eased up, but they still had time to add a third goal with eight minutes to play. Cesc Fabregas, whose introduction to the team had completely opened up the Russian defence slid the ball across for Marios Silva to drive the ball in for a third goal. Quite what happened to Russia is a mystery. Maybe the exertions of extra time against the Netherlands last weekend had got to them. Maybe, for the first time, they had started to believe the hype about themselves and had managed to persuade themselves that all they need to do was turn up in order to win against Spain. They had a shock in store. Luis Aragones had clearly watch the video of the Russia vs Netherlands match over and over again, and was determined not to make the same mistakes that the Dutch had. They didn't cede any ground in the middle of the pitch, didn't give away possession easily and kept up a high tempo, pressurising Russia into making quite a few quite basic mistakes. Spain, however, should try and keep their focus. One of the more striking things about this tournament is that teams have often followed magnificent performances with very bad ones. It happened to Portugal, it happened to the Netherlands and it has now happened to Russia. If there's one thing that has been regularly punished at Euro 2008, it has been complacency.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

No Stopping Them

In the end, then, Turkey didn't have quite enough about them to be able to keep Germany at bay but, lord, they have given us some fabulous memories in this tournament and will be sadly missed in the final on Sunday evening. Germany, by contrast, are in the final of another major tournament without having played particularly well last night, and will face the winners of tonight's match between Spain and Russia. It promises to be an absolute thriller. In all honesty, last night's match was played very much in the shadow of this evening's match. Most of the press attention here over the last couple of days has been drooling over the clash between Arshavin & Pavlyuchenko and Villa & Torres, and the column inches dedicated precious little to the internecine battle between Germany and Turkey, but this match far outshone the low expectations that accompanied it.

Much had been made before the match of the selection problems facing Fatih Terim, with Nihat joining the heaving treatment table with a knee injury that ruled him out for the rest of the competition. The Turkish side had an element of a patchwork look about it, and it was this that informed the belief that Germany would stroll to a comfortable win. Turkey, however, started far the stronger of the two teams against a German team that looked simultaneously sluggish and complacent, and hit the crossbar early on with a crashing shot from ten yards by Kazim Kazim - Semih then shot narrowly wide from a tight angle after Germany failed to successfully clear the ball. The breakthrough came midway through the first half, and had more than an element of luck about it. Kazim looped a shot over Lehmann which came down off the crossbar, and squad player Ugur put the rebound past the German goalkeeper, who curiously tried to stop the relatively tame shot with his feet rather than with his hands. The lead lasted just five minutes for Turkey, and was cancelled out with Germany's first serious attack of the match. It was a sweeping move from midfield that caught Turkey out, with Hitzlsperger finding Lucas Podolski in space on the left, with his low cross being delightfully turned in by the unfairly derided Bastian Schweinsteiger. It was tough on Turkey, who had dominated the early stages of the match, and one might have expected Germany to go on and win the match comfortably from this position, but there were still plenty more twists and turns to come.

Germany started to assert their authority more effectively in the second half, and Lahm was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty after he was chopped down on the edge of the penalty area, although it took a replay to confirm that Sabri's foot had been inside the penalty area when it took him out. Hitzlsperger then shot narrowly over and narrowly wide, before Germany took the lead. Prior to this, though technical difficulties meant that we lost all pictures from Basel. The sound of panicking across Europe was almost audible as the technicians at the stadium struggled to find which particular lead had become disconnected (it turns out, in fact, that it was a storm near the stadium that was the cause), but there were no pictures for a few, agonising minutes before they returned, without commentary. All of this led to Alan Green's biggest ever audience, as people hit the red button on their remote controls and switched to the unharmed BBC radio commentary, but the quality of pictures coming from the stadium was still flaky and cut out again just before Germany snatched the lead. Some of you may remember what I said about Recber Rustu at the weekend and, yes, he did it again, coming unconvincingly for a long, deep cross and leaving the goal empty for Miroslaw Klose to head the favourites into the lead.

Of course, you write Turkey off at your peril, and with five minutes left to play of another breathless match, they levelled things up again. This time, the spotlight was back on Jens Lehmann. Sabri wriggled his way clear of Lahm and crossed low into the six yard box, allowing Semih to turn the ball past Lehmann and in, but the replay again showed that the Stuttgart goalkeeper had left his near post hopelessly exposed, and the crouching movement that he made in expectation of getting the ball was reminiscent of a wicketkeeper than of an international goalkeeper. It was another lapse in concentration from Lehmann, and not his first of the tournament - the sort of thing that will fill the winners of tonight's match with confidence. It looked as if yet another late comeback had forced the match into extra-time, but Germany finally broke Turkish hearts as the clock ticked over ninety minutes. It was, I have to say, a goal worthy of winning such a match. You think that Total Football began and ended with the Dutch side of the 1970s? You might want to tell that to Phillip Lahm, who began and ended another thrusting German pass and move attack by sweeping the ball past Rustu and in, to take Germany into the final.

So, another extraordinary match, that ended in Germany somehow ending up on top. One can't help but think of the phrase, ""Football is a game of eleven against eleven, and in the end, it’s the Germans who win". Turkey, with their squad ripped to pieces by injury and suspension, gave it everything they could but didn't quite have enough in the tank to be able to earn a result. Their performance in this competition has, however, been absolutely thrilling to watch, and they deserve our thanks for having played every single game to the death. For them to lose in the same way that they had beaten Croatia and the Czech Republic only adds to the irony of a competition that is sticking to the script by the very skin of its teeth. Germany, meanwhile, rumble ominously on to Sunday's final. Unless Jens Lehmann starts tidying up his play, though, Guus Hiddinck and Luis Aragones will be looking forward to Sunday with the knowledge that there is nothing inevitable about this Germany team winning Euro 2008.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Paul Ince, John Barnes & Managerial Vacancies

So, Paul Ince has been appointed as the manager of Blackburn Rovers, and I guess it's progress of sorts that the majority of debate concerning his appointment has been on the subject of his relative lack of experience and his decision to take the Franchise shilling, rather than the colour of his skin. It is refreshing to see a Premier League club take on a manager from the lower divisions. You might not like Paul Ince (and how successful he has actually been is open to question - he was given massive amounts of money by Milton Keynes and anything other than winning last year's League Two title would have been a pretty abject failure), but if he turns out to be a success in the Premier League, it doesn't take an enormous leap of imagination to see him being linked with the England job after Fabio Capello fails to take England to the 2010 World Cup. I don't, you'll be unsurprised to hear, think that there is anything wrong with taking managers from the lower divisions. It's easy to forget how much support modern Premier League managers get these days - a full raft of full-time professionals, trained and qualified to ensure that the players are fine-tuned to the same degree that modern racing cars are. The idea that, somehow, managing in the Premier League is more "difficult" than managing further down the ladder strikes me as being a somewhat curious one, even taking into account the enormous pressure that they are under.

Elsewhere, concerns have been raised about Ince's lack of a UEFA Pro coaching badge, which is now a requirement for any manager in the Premier League. Blackburn have stated that they hope to get special dispensation for Ince while he qualifies, but the question of why an ambitious young manager who has been in management for two or three years would not get themselves the qualification remains a valid one. After all, it only requires 240 hours of study over the course of a year, followed by a week at Warwick University to get a UEFA Pro Licence. The FA and the League Managers Association are in favour of all managers being qualified, but resistance to this rumbles on from the Premier League clubs themselves, who feel that these qualifications restrict them from being able to hire and fire as they wish. Putting to one side the fact that hiring and firing managers is a foolish policy to pursue if you seek to bring long-term stability to your club, it is still astonishingly wrong-headed of Premier League clubs to try and bypass UEFA rules over coaching qualifications. The circumstances surrounding Glen Roeder being exempted from it are well documented, but the situation regarding Gareth Southgate has shown the contempt with which the UEFA Pro Licence is held in Premier League circles. Southgate was appointed as Middlesbrough's manager in November 2006 with the club arguing that because he had been an international player, he hadn't had the time to take the qualification. Over eighteen months on, he is still studying for it.

These debates are important ones, but they do overlook the most significant factor in Ince's appointment - the colour of his skin. Ince becomes the first black, British manager in the Premier League (though not, of course, the first black Premier League manager - Ruud Gullitt and Jean Tigana have already been there and done that). It's difficult to argue that there isn't an element of institutionalised racism in this figure. After all, getting on for a third of all players are black, so why are they not given opportunities at a managerial level? It's not, after all, as if they're not applying for the jobs. John Barnes has gone public with his belief, citing the lack of response to his own applications for jobs at League One clubs and the experience of his former Watford team-mate Luther Blissett as examples of how difficult it is for black former players to get their foot in the managerial door. Barnes himself may not necessarily be the best example that one could give - after all, he was given a high profile coaching position at Celtic in 1999 and made an absolute pig's ear of it, and his complaint about not receiving replies to his applications could just as easily be explained by chairmen with long memories that don't wish to gamble on someone that has already failed as spectacularly as he did at Celtic as it could be by racism - but the questions that he raises are important ones.

If one considers the players of the same generation as Barnes that went on to become managers, many have been given repeat chances, often flying in the face of anything resembling logic. The likes of Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher have failed, failed and failed again, but have all been given far more than one opportunity to make their mark as managers, but this is not a courtesy that has been extended to Barnes, who is currently working in a coaching capacity for Sunderland. Whilst it is true that a shade over half of all managers only ever get one managerial position, it would also seem to be true that candidates that have had higher profile playing careers will be cut a little more slack than others. As players' profiles go, they don't get higher than John Barnes, but the suspicion remains that managerial appointments remain an Old Boys Club to which the likes of Peter Reid and Bryan Robson are members, but Barnes isn't. On balance, it is probably fair to draw the assumption that the cultural divide between Barnes, the softly spoken middle-class son of a Jamaican military man, and the white, working class upbringing of so many people working within the game had a racial element to it, even if it was not explicit.

The question of why there are not more managers and coaches from the ethnic minorities in England is a complex one, and one which probably isn't best served by saying "racism" and ending the debate there and then. There almost certainly is a degree of racism to it, and the question of whether it is conscious racism or not is a red herring. It is irrelevant whether club owners think "I'm not hiring a black", say "I'm not hiring a black", or simply disregard applications that they receive from black managers. The end result is the same. When reading the comments of John Barnes, it is important to remember that he is not even getting to the stage of having an interview for the League One positions that he is applying for. He is simply sending in his CV and not receiving a response. For all he knows, his CV is not even being looked at. It's difficult to see what other conclusion he could come to other than to start to believe that there is an element of racism in the constant rejection that he faces. Meanwhile, the rest of the game needs to stop thinking of hiring a black manager as "taking a chance on a black manager". Equal opportunities means exactly what it says, and my over-riding suspicion is that nothing will change much until there is a wholesale reappraisal of the culture within which managers are appointed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Football Supporters Are Inherently Conservative

That break that last for a couple of days towards the end of a major football tournament can do strange things to you. I considered at great length whether I should go into enormous detail about the European Championship semi-finals (which, lest we forget, are being played tomorrow night and the night after), but I thought that a break would probably be good for all of us, and that it would have the advantage of allowing me to pontificate briefly on a subject that I've been playing about with in my mind quite a lot over the last few weeks. Over the last twenty-five years or so, football has become political.

Whether it was the National Front selling their repulsive magazine "Bulldog" outside grounds in the early 1980s, the fanzine movement or the growing movement against the creeping commercialisation of the modern game, being a football supporter has become more than just turning up to the matches, singing yourself hoarse and going home again. It has become more of a 24/7 lifestyle. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to talk about football I would have needed to go to the pub, but now we have any number of message boards that we can discuss it upon, and with this vast expansion of the role of the game into the periphery of our lives has come a new role for it. The very act of being a football supporter has become, albeit in an indirect way, a political act, and most football supporters are conservative.

It's important, at this point, to differentiate between conservative and Conservative. Very few of the people that I know will be voting for David Cameron's mob at the next general election. If one stops capitalising the "C" in it, however, the definition shifts slightly, and many more of us fit the definition. Chambers English Dictionary has the following to say:

"conservative - adj: 1. Favouring that which is established or traditional, with an opposition to change. 2. Said of an estimate or calculation: deliberately low, for the sake of caution".

How many us does that not fit? In some respects, there's nothing wrong with it. We have managed to maintain and expand our system of professional football in England for a hundred and twenty years on the basis of this, and a healthy scepticism of change was behind the massive opposition to the Premier League's insane Game 39 plan (although you haven't heard the last of that yet). One could also add that anything "deliberately low, for the sake of caution" would be most welcome in the modern climate, in which continuing spiralling wage costs, price increases and transfer fees threaten the financial stability of the game in ways that we have never seen before. The flip side to it, however, is a fear of change, even if the change itself may be to the benefit of all of us.

This conservatism manifests itself within the game in many different ways. Take, for example, one of the most-stated "facts" of football in the 1990s - "Blackburn Rovers bought the 1995 Premier League championship". Jack Walker, who funded Blackburn's rise from Division Two to the top of the Premier League, is nearest thing that there has ever been to a genuine football philanthropist, and it's true that he put a lot of money into Blackburn Rovers. However, by the standards of the football club owner, he was about as good as it gets, and his name is still the one produced in bar room debates when talk turns to how good it might be to have a sugar daddy owner. Blackburn did spend money that was over and above what their means might otherwise have paid for, but Walker also rebuilt Ewood Park into a stadium that would cope with the club's needs for the forseeable future and created an infrastructure that sees them retain their Premier League place to this day, whilst other, bigger clubs have floundered their way down into the Football League, never to return.

Blackburn Rovers winning the 1995 Premier League championship pleased a lot of people, but it angered a lot of people, too. Who were these upstarts and how dare they compete with Manchester United and Liverpool as equals? The accusation of "buying the title" isn't one that one sees being thrown at Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool very often (certainly never in the case of Liverpool - not in the last eighteen years, anyway), even when those clubs have spent very heavily indeed in the pursuit of honours, but it was thrown at Chelsea when Roman Abramovich took over. One doesn't have to be a fan of Abramovich (or, indeed, of Chelsea) to appreciate that, had he brought Liverpool or Manchester United, the same arguments would not have been put forward. Chelsea were, in a diluted form, the new Blackburn. Now perceived as being little more than a plutocrat's toy, their supporters have had "You've got no history" sung at them for the last five years or so by other Premier League clubs. Of course, their supporters don't really care that much, especially while they're still winning trophies, and the stark fact of the matter is that their place in the top four means only that the Premier League has a top four rather than a top three.

This conservatism also there in our dislike of the Premier League's arrivistes - the likes of Reading and Wigan Athletic, who have supplanted clubs like Coventry City and Southampton as the make-weights of the division. The amount of bile cast forth in the direction of the JJB Stadium over the last two or three years has been out of all proportion of anything that they have done wrong, whilst even Fulham, who were once one of the neutral's favourite clubs, have seen their popularity wane since the Al-Fayed money took them up from the Third Division to the Premier League and kept them there, even though they still have, in Craven Cottage, one of the most attractive grounds in the country at which one can watch football. The truth of the matter is that, were the story of Cinderella to be repeated today, the majority of people at the ball would be standing around whispering to each other, "Well, who the hell does she think that she is?".

Most of the time, this is all so much harmless talk. After all, who amongst us wouldn't have enjoyed Blackburn's rise to the top of the Premier League had we been supporters of theirs, especially considering that they have maintained their place at the top table for almost all of the thirteen years since? Every once in a while, though, fear of the new seeps over into real life decisions and suddenly things become much more muddy. Take, for example, the ongoing crisis at Halifax Town. Halifax have been facing extinction for quite a while, now. They avoided relegation on the last day of last season, only for the drop to come when they were expelled from the league and relegated two divisions to Division One North of the Unibond League. In the middle of all this, the club's Supporters Trust members were asked whether they would support a new club formed by consortium that has been paying the bills for the last few months or a club run by the fans themselves. They voted for the consortium.

Evidently, the challenge of running it for themselves is to much for a majority of HTST members, which does rather beg the question of why they were members of it in the first place. Never mind the stark fact that the "business" model of running a football club has failed them in the most devastating way that it possibly could or the success of ST owned clubs playing at exactly the same level that they will be playing (assuming that they will actually start next season) last season, they have decided to entrust the fate of their club to a group of people that now have to try and dig them out of the hole that they are in. With July just a week away it is still more likely than not that the club will be wound up, and there are no guarantees that any new club for Halifax will be starting next season.

Of course, no small part of the problem facing people that are opposed to Trust-run clubs is the perception of them somehow being politically left wing, and I guess that they are, in more than one sense. However, the ridiculous situation at Halifax is proof as if it were needed that our inner conservatism (with a small "c") can do us at least as much damage as it does us good. It is too late now to make the argument for a Trust-run club to Halifax supporters - they have made their bed and they will have to lie in it - but I would suggest this much to them. Have a look at the message boards for FC United, AFC Wimbledon, AFC Telford United, Scarborough Athletic and all the rest of them and take a look at how harmonious they are. Now look at the Halifax message board, and look at the arguments, mud-flinging and recriminations taking place on there. The old way might yet work for Halifax Town in the short term. A new, debt-free club will very likely be a powerhouse if it starts below the Unibond League Premier Division. It strikes me, however, that this would have been just as likely had the Trust taken over running of the club, and that this would at least have secured the long term future in the club in a way that no business consortium can. If they end up back in this mess again in five years' time, the supporters that voted "no" to a Supporters Trust owned club will only have themselves to blame.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Breaking The Jinx

Everybody has their bogey team, and so it has been for Spain against Italy for almost ninety years. No competitive wins against them since 1920, and the massive feeling of injustice brought about by the 1994 World Cup. Of all the teams that they could possibly have been drawn against in the quarter-finals, Italy was the only one that could have given this resurgent Spanish team cause for serious psychological concern. There is an element of self-determination in the Spanish perception of Italian football. The Italians always cheat, always go for the gamesmanship, get away with the refereeing decisions and ride their luck. Spain, by contrast, always play football, never have any luck and always end up losing - usually against Italy. It is a chip on the national shoulder, an itch which they have not been able to scratch in living memory. Until now, that is. Last night's victory on penalties against Italy was more than just a win for Spain. It was a psychological exorcism.

The Spanish media is second only to the British in terms of its hyperbole and hubris, and the build up to this match was an exemplary display on their part of getting the excuses in early. At the top of the list of Spanish grievances is the 1994 World Cup quarter-final against Italy. "If there is an image that sums up Italy v Spain meetings it's the bloody face of a crying Luis Enrique after getting an elbow that referee Sándor Puhl didn't see - or didn't want to see", says La Marca, Spain's biggest selling newspaper, all of which chooses to overlook Spanish substitute Julio Salinas missing a fairly straightforward one on one against Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca with five minutes left to play which would have almost certinly sent Spain through to the semi-finals. It's far easier to blame your shortcomings on others than it is to look questioningly at your own performances. The Spanish media had the excuses lined up in swathes should their team have failed to perform against Italy last night. In fairness, though, the Italians did make this somewhat easier for them by reacting to the absence of Andrea Pirlo by opting to retreat back into a defensive formation, one which gave the impression that they were playing for penalties from the very start of the match.

So it was that we were treated to one of the more forgettable one hundred and twenty minutes of football of the tournament so far. There was really only one significant moment of excitement for either team. Just after the hour, Spain failed to clear an Italian attack successfully, only for Maur Camoranesi's shot to be brilliantly blocked by the foot of Iker Casillas, and with ten minutes to play, Buffon fumbled a long range shot from the impressive Marcos Senna which dribbled agonisingly against the post and back into the grateful goalkeeper's arms. Other than that, it was a largly sterile match, with Italy frequently keeping seven or eight men behind the ball. Such a tactic might not have been to the taste of the watching neutral, but it did at least have effect of rendering the much vaunted Spanish attacking pairing of David Villa and Fernando Torres ineffective, to the extent that Torres withdrawn for Daniel Guiza with five minutes left to play.

Although the match opened up a little in extra-time, there was still something crushingly inevitable about the goal-less final scoreline and the penalty shoot-out that would come as a result of it. Finally, Spain had a big enough character to win the match for them, in the form of the Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who saved from De Rossi and Guiza to give them a decisive advantage, before Cesc Fabregas, showing the cool detachment which goes some of the way towards explaining his success at club level, sent Buffon the wrong way to send Italy out and Spain into the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1984 European Championships. Italy's negativity, ultimately, received what it deserved. Donadoni had retreated into a cautiously defensive shell when faced with attacking flair and one cannot help but feel that the moral satisfaction felt at the Spanish victory goes some way towards negating the frustration felt at seeing two such talented sides play out a largely lifeless match. We might not again see such drama as we saw in the earlier rounds of the competition, but with Italy out, and Spain, Russia, Germany and Turkey playing out the semi-finals later in the week, we have at least a fighting chance of more football in keeping with what has preceded it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Not Enough Dutch Courage

For the second major tournament in a row, the team that came out of the starting blocks the quickest have fallen at the quarter-final stage. It is a measure of the quality of last night's Russian performance that the Netherlands were dependent on an exceptional performance from their goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Saar to even get to extra time in the first place, but ultimately the advantage of not having come into the competition at the end of a long, hard season seemed to tell for Russia. For the Dutch, the mood was sombre. The black armbands were a signifier of the sad personal events surrounding Khalid Bhoularouz, and they started in a sluggish manner, which was in sharp contrast to their performances in the group stage.

From the very start, the Russians were too quick and too slick for the Dutch. Andrei Arshavin's introduction into this Euro 2008 team has been the final piece in a jigsaw constructed by Guus Hiddinck, and this particular missing piece has transformed his team into a fluid, attacking unit and, as their confidence has grown since their opening defeat by Spain, they have started to flourish, firstly with an outstanding performance against Sweden and again last night against a Dutch team that had deservedly jumped to become the tournament favourites off the back three marvellous performances against France, Italy and Romania. Pavlyuchenko headed over when he possibly should have done better, Van Der Saar had to dive acrobatically to his left to tip away a shot from Arshavin and Denis Kolodin had two shots from distance, the first of which forced another save from Van Der Saar whilst the second of which dropped just over the crossbar. In retailiation, the Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a low cross that he probably should have made for the Netherlands, but the surprise when half-time came was that Russia hadn't managed to take the lead.

The breakthrough came eleven minutes into the second half, when Russia deservedly took the lead. Arshavin played Sergei Semak, and his low cross was touched over the line at the far post by Pavlyuchenko. After the goal, it looked more likely that Russia would double their lead than that the Netherlands would find a way back into the game. Anyukov's shot had to be pushed away by Van Der Saar, whilst a low cross from Arshavin could have been touched in by Saenko. As time wore on, the Dutch did begin to have more and more possession, but they were unable to convert possession into clear goalscoring chances until, with five minutes to play, Wesley Sneijder's free-kick was headed in by Ruud Van Nistelrooy to take the match into extra time, although there was still time for a little controversy in the dying seconds, when Kolodin initially picked up a second yellow card for a foul on Wesley Sniejder, but was reprieved after the referee spoke to one of his assistants.

One might have thought that the psychological boost of the late goal might have buoyed Dutch spirits going into extra time, but Russia continued to control the majority of play as the match went into it's additional thirty minutes. Pavlyuchenko hit the cross bar and Arshavin had another shot well saved by Ven Der Saar, but the Dutch defence couldn't hold out like this indefinitely, and Arshavin crossed again for Dmitri Torbinski to fire past Van Der Saar to give Russia the lead again with three minutes to play in the first half of extra time. A minute into the second half, the result was put beyond any doubt as Arshavin scored a third Russian goal. The Dutch game was up. They had been outplayed by a better, faster, fitter and more fluid team. Having shown up both of the last World Cup's finallists in the group stages, they were undone by a Russian team that rode its luck to get to the finals in the first place. Roberto Donadoni and Luis Aragones will have been watching with interest and, I would rather suspect, not a little trepidation.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bosphorous 1-0 Balkans

It's almost as if Michel Platini was sitting in the stand with a remote control. "Honestly", he thought to himself as he recalled the one hundred and eighteen minutes of dirge that he had found himself sitting through, "if you leave them to do it for themselves, you'll always end up with one really duff match in the end". He reached into his pocket and brought out his gold and black Sony Euro-Joystick and switched it on. Within twenty seconds, Rustu Recber had run fifteen yards from his goal after a ball that he would have needed Inspector Gadget's arms to get to, gifting Klasnic and Croatia what looked for all the world like the winning goal, from Luka Modric's cross. "Hmm", thought Platini, "if this ever becomes public knowledge, they'll make mincemeat of me. I need to do something to level things up. That way, if anyone ever finds out about this, I can always say, 'Well, at least I was even-handed about it all'. That should cover me". Barely two minutes later, in the injury time of the second period of extra time, Rustu launched a long, aimless ball into the Croatian penalty area. With military precision, Platini sent a hundred volts through the testicles of the two Croatian central defenders -the distraction providing just enough space for Semih to drive the laser-guided ball past Pletikosa and in off the underside of the crossbar. "Well, that livened things up a bit", thought Platini to himself whilst putting Euro-Joystick away, "but if Turkey win the penalty shootout, I'll probably be needing this baby again".

Thirty minutes or so into this game last, I had a very sentient thought. Rustu is a strange, strange goalkeeper, I thought to myself. He is a good enough goalkeeper to be able to win a match for you against anyone, and is capable of amazingly acrobatic saves. On the other hand, though, you just know that, somewhere along the line, he is going to make a horrendous mistake that is going to cost his team dear. Turkey have to win matches with the full knowledge that this may well be in spite of something that your goalkeeper may well have done. Some goalkeepers have just got that look about them, like Gabor Kiraly, that Crystal Palace goalkeeper who wore those ridiculous grey tracksuit trousers. Ray Clemence had that look. Roy Carroll's got it, too. They just look as if they are going to make some terrible, horrible, basic error. You can almost visualise their faces as they stand up half covered in mud and start shouting and gesticulating ineffectually at their defenders before putting their hands on their hips and kicking an invisible ball because that, ultimately, the only people to blame for the ball dribbling slowly through their legs or whatever was themselves, and no-one else. That's the look that Rustu has got about himself, and that's why there was no great surprise about Klasnic's goal.

It's not all about "that look", though, and Rustu's dignity was partially restored a minute into the stoppage time allowed by the referee. As Slaven Bilic protested over not being allowed to bring on a substitute (and it was difficult to have much sympathy, considering that he was, ultimately, trying to do nothing more than time-waste), Rustu launched the long, ambitious ball that led to Semih's equaliser. In the penalty shoot-out, he proved his value still further. Even from the normal camera angle (which normally make the job of scoring a penalty look much easier than it actually is under such fraught circumstances), he seemed to fill the goal, his very stature being enough to intimidate Modric and Rakitic into shooting wide of the post before he saved Petric's kick to send his country through to a semi-final against Germany that they had scarcely deserved. Turkey had seldom seriously threatened the Croatian goal over the one hundred and twenty minutes of normal time, with Croatia having had the majority of possession and the best chances, particularly in the first half, when Luka Modric's run to the touchline set up Ivica Olic, who hit the crossbar when it seemed easier to score. The rebound fell for Niko Krancjar, but the ball fell at an awkward angle for him and his header sailed harmlessly over the empty goal.

The match was commentated upon by the BBC by the ever-improving Steve Wilson. Whilst Jonathan Pearce has been earning some critical commendation for his performances at Euro 2008 so far, his voice still sounds to me like the sound of fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. Wilson, however, is starting to sound more and more like the finished article and would be my preferred option as the BBC's main man for when John Motson finally decides hang up his microphone. He did, however, sail close to the wind in almost being prodded into making a pretty fundamental mistake at the end of extra-time, when Lawrenson almost had him persuaded that they were already out of time when Turkey scored because the clock had ticked over the one minute of injury time that had been signalled by the fourth official. You'd almost think that Lawrenson never went to any football matches. Hasn't he ever heard the tannoy man announce that "the fourth official has indicated that there will be a minimum of one minute of stoppage time at the end of this match"? Considering that the fourth official had indicated a minimum of one minute of injury time at the end of the match (as per the laws of the game), the disallowing of a goal after thirty-one minutes and four seconds of extra time would have been very harsh indeed.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Panic On The Streets Of Chelsea?

I have been trying not to mention the Premier League in conjunction with Euro 2008 but, my word, Portugal made it difficult for me last night. While ITV was, predictably enough, focussing on every single move made by Cristiano Ronaldo, a far more interesting situation was developing at the other end of the pitch, where a team coached by Felipe Scolari was defending like they had only just been introduced to each other. As if the defensive failures of Scolari the new Chelsea coach weren't bad enough for Chelsea supporters, there was also the small matter that the Portugal defence contained three Chelsea players, with new £13m signing Jose Boswinga lined up alongside Ricardo Carvalho and Paolo Ferreira at the back. The truth of the matter is that Scolari was let down by three appalling lapses by the Portuguese defence. I had idly speculated that they might struggle against teams that them under pressure, and the truth of the matter is that, after a first round in which they had been treated relatively gently, even the German attack, which isn't the best in the tournament by a long chalk, was too much for them to be able to cope with.

The first goal came as a result of yet more of the slick inter-play that has, thus far, been a feature of the tournament, with Lucas Podolski managing two one-twos before sprinting down the left hand side and crossing low for Bastian Schweinsteiger to slide the ball past the prone Ricardo. Atrocious marking from Portugal and Boswinga was left for dead by Podolski, but there was worse to follow. Just a couple of minutes had elapsed when Germany doubled their lead. Schweinsteiger's free-kick should have been easy for the Portguese defence, but they hopelessly mis-timed what looked like a half-hearted to play an offside trap. The result was a completely static defence, and Miroslav Klose surely couldn't believe his luck as he stooped to nod the ball in to double their lead.
Of course, for most teams, going two goals down inside the first half an hour against the Germans would signal defeat, but Portugal have such an array of attacking options that pulling the deficit back was never completely beyond them, and they hauled themselves back into the game when Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been largely a spectator worked himself a little space and had a shot that Jens Lehmann could only block, allowing Nuno Gomes to twist and put the ball in.

The game was back on, and the neutral sat through half-time wondering if the Portuguese could manage a comeback as extraordinary as Turkey managed against the Czech Republic earlier in the week. The answer was, this time, a resounding "no", and the result was really put beyind any doubt sixteen minutes into the second half, with a goal that featured more set piece defending from the Keystone Cops School Of Football Coaching. Bastian Schweinsteiger threw over another free kick from the left, and this time the Portuguese defence didn't pick up Michael Ballack, who headed past Ricardo, who had decided to come for the cross himself, albeit unfortunately about six seconds too late.
From here on, Germany were just playing out time. The surprise replacement of Gomes with twenty minutes to go allowed Ronaldo (possibly unilaterally) push into the middle of the pitch, but by this time Germany were coasting. The temperature didn't even rise by that much when Helder Postiga rose unmarked to pull a second goal back for Portugal with three minutes plus stoppage time to play.

I am still less than convinced by Germany's credentials to win this competition. Portugal had a terrible bad day at the office last night, and Germany were fortunate enough to recognise this and take advantage of it three times, but it's difficult to imagine anyone else being this generous. Scolari had worried publicly about the height of the German midfield and attack, but one suspects that he would have been better served worrying about his own defenders' marking. For Chelsea supporters, next season may well be high in entertainment, but whether he will be successful there is certainly open to question. They might be wishing for the return of Avram Grant by the time that the nights start to draw in again.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Navel-Gazing On The Internet

The quarter-finals of the European Championships start this evening with an intriguing match between Portugal and Germany, but I wanted to move away from Euro 2008 and discuss something else this evening. As some (or maybe more) of you may have noticed, this blog hasn't been doing itself too many favours during Euro 2008. The reports have been skimpy and have contained more errors than I would have liked. There is a reason for this - I am in the middle of building the new site that will replace this one as soon as Euro 2008 finishes. It's great timing, I'm sure you'll agree, but I want it bedded in before the start of the new domestic season, and have figured that it will take a while to iron out all the bugs in it.

It is with mixed emotions that I am going through all of this. One the one hand, there is no question that the new site will be better than this one in most respects. I've been on Blogger for over two years now, and I feel as if this site, in this format, has been taken about as far as it can go. No matter how long I spend poring over the stylesheet, I ultimately can't get away from the fact that it looks like just another Blogger template. The new site will look better, be more functional and easier to navigate. We're still looking into the possibility of recording an occasional podcast, and the intention is to expand the content of the site so that it becomes (without trying to sound too pretentious and clearly failing) a bit more than just another football blog.

On the other hand, I feel a certain amount of trepidation about the move, and there is an element of risk surrounding it. All of the links currently pointing here will become redundant, since I plan to take this site down completely in a month or two - the best of this one is already sitting on the new server, and a new RSS feed will replace the existing one. Chances are, some (or maybe even most) of you will not follow me over to the new site. Worrying times, in some ways. Still, I'm taking all of the precautions that I can, and when this site closes, you'll be given plenty of warning. It's a bit like moving house, really. You just want to be able to sit down in the new place and have it feel like home.

Anyway, in the interests of interactivity (and, yes, laziness), I would welcome any positive comments on the new site. What would you like to see on it? What would you like to see change, and what would you like to remain the same?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Russia Hour

After a certain, indefinable point, failure becomes a default option. Like the South Korean team who, for so long seemed capable of doing everything but winning a match in the World Cup finals, so it was with Russia. Would they ever get past the group stages of a major tournament again? The answer to that, finally, is yes, and they managed it some style this evening with a win against Sweden that was the best performance that I can remember having seen from either a Russian or Soviet team. The first half of the match was almost embarrassingly one-sided. Having brought in Andrei Arshavin into the team after he missed the first two matches due to suspension, they looked a transformed team and, whilst it's probably fair to say that Sweden took about fifteen or twenty minutes to even turn up, this was a performance that will at least give the Netherlands pause for thought before their meeting with them in the quarter-finals on Saturday.

Where, then, has it gone wrong for Sweden? Most people blelieved that they would get through this group with Spain, but it turns out to have been a tournament too far for many of their older players. Henrik Larsson may have shown profound irritation when he was reminded of this in a post-match interview by ITV last night, but the fact of the matter is that, at 36 six years old, he (and the majority of his team mates) didn't have the legs to keep up with the Russians. This combined age, coupled with the fact that the Russian league season is only a few weeks old, was enough to knock them out. When Russia went a goal up last night through Roman Pavlyuchenko after a wonderful, sweeping move that carried the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, it looked as if the sky might fall in on Sweden completely and, although Russia failed to capitalise on the chances that they created, it was still difficult to see a way back into the game for Sweden.

The second goal, coming as it did five minutes into the second half, effectively killed the game as a contest and simultaneously emphasised what a difference Andrei Arshavin makes to their team. The Zenit St Petersburg midfielder rolled the ball in after another excellent run down the left hand side by Zhirkov. Freshness, here, was the key. Sweden looked tired and all out of ideas, like England at the last World Cup, but without the well-organised defence to give them a chance of sneaking them the clean sheet that would give them a chance of qualification. Even at 2-0, Russia had the majority of the possession, with Sweden only occasionally testing the Russian defence. In the end, it was a comfortable victory for them.

In the other match in Group D, Spain beat Greece 2-1 after the Greeks had taken a surprise first half need - or was it, considering the number of changes that Aragones made to the Spanish team? The Greeks, then, return home with one goal and no points to show for their defence of the tournament. Not many people will miss them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Au Revoir

Farewell then, France. Last night had been an evening that promised to hit a crescendo of tension, excitement and drama, but in the event the evening in Zurich all went off like a firework display in a monsoon, with a French selection and performance that gave Italy a relatively comfortable ride through to the quarter-finals, whilst in Berne the Dutch comfortably found a way past a Romania side which, three games in, finally showed up the shortcomings that many had suspected would lead to them being one of the tournament's lame ducks before so much as a ball was kicked.

France's failure against Italy can be best summed up by twenty-five minutes of misfortune, tempestuousness and incompetence. They lost Franck Ribery, the creative spark that has lit up their midfield at this tournament and frequently looked like the only player capable of carrying them through the group stages to injury after just seven minutes. His replacement, Sami Nasri, would last just nineteen minutes before suffering the ultimate indignity of the substitute - being substituted himself, to be replaced by Jean-Alain Boumsong. The reason for the subsitution was plain enough - a couple of minutes beforehand, Abidal had managed to get himself in a pickle over the sight of Luca Toni bearing down on Gregory Coupet's goal. His foul was a clear red card and penalty, which Andrea Pirlo dispatched with ease, and what had started out as a difficult evening for France suddenly became an insurmountable challenge.

Italy played better than they had in their previous game against Romania, not that this was saying much. With France having had their formation put through the mincer by the events of the first thirty minutes, it never looked as if they needed to do any more than enough. The second goal came just after the hour mark, and was further proof that the footballing gods were looking down on the Azzurri with considerable benevolence. Daniele De Rossi's free kick was from such a distance that it really had no right to be going anywhere near the goal, but the ball clipped off the foot of Thierry Henry, on the end of the French wall, and spun agonisingly away from Coupet and into the back of the net for the second goal. France may yet have found a way back into the game into the closing stages, but the dying embers of their tournament challenge were extinguished once and for all when Buffon dived across goal to flick away Karim Benzema's shot. At that moment, France were out and Italy could only rely on the news from Berne.

They needn't have worried. Some pre-emptive gamesmanship from the Italian press seemed to have worked like a charm for Italy, with unfounded allegations that the Netherlands would throw the game agaist Romania proving to be all the encouragement that the Dutch would need to see off the surprise package of the group. True enough, they made numerous changes from the side that had beaten France on Friday night, but this was a team of reserves eager to prove themselves to Marco Van Basten with their last opportunity to before the knock-out stages of the competition. One young man that seized the opportunity was Ajax's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who had previously scored seven times in twelve matches for the Dutch, but had been unable to impress himself upon the first team ahead of last night's match. He scored the first goal last night - proof, as if it was needed, of the glorious attacking options that Van Basten has at his disposal - and looked like a menace all evening before being taken offwith seven minutes to play. In the closing stages, Robin Van Persie added a second goal to remove any doubt that it would be the Netherlands and Italy qualifying from the group.

In the end, the football gods presumably decided that we had all had too much excitement already. The Dutch were workmanlike, France were poor and Italy did just about enough, and one suspects that Spain, Italy's quarter-final opponents, will have too much in the tank for the world champions unless they raise their game. It would be foolish to suggest that the Italians aren't plenty capable of doing this, though. The Netherlands, meanwhile, will go on to play the winners of tonight's match between Sweden and Russia. On form, it looks like they should be a shoo-in for a place in the semi-finals, but Euro 2008 hasn't normally being much attention to the form book so far. A repeat of the group match between the Netherlands and Italy at the semi-final stage remains a distinct possibility.

Auf Wiedershen, Mein Host

Last night, Austria followed Switzerland out of Euro 2008 with a performance which, whilst not lacking in heart and courage, ultimately showed up the gap in quality between themselves and the tournament favourites. Germany eventually eased their way into the quarter-finals with a win from a match in which they didn't play particularly well and will now play Portugal in the quarter-finals, whilst Croatia finished as the group winners with three wins out of three, and will take on Turkey.

It was asking too much to expect another pair of classic matches, but Austria's naivete going forward was almost breathtaking. They continually managed, without too much opposition, to get the ball into the final third of the pitch but failed completely to get the ball into dangerous areas or work themselves into positions that they could worry the Germans from. On several occasions, the surprisingly benevolent German defence allowed them plenty of space on the edge of the penalty area but their shots were always charged down. Austria, ultimately weren't good enough.

The match was decided as a contest early in the second half, with one of the rare moments of quality in an otherwise tepid match, when Michael Ballack drove an absolutely unstoppable free kick into the top corner of the Austrian goal. It was the first goal of the tournament to come directly from a free kick. Proceedings might have been even more straightforward had Mario Gomez put away a simple chance from a couple of yards out early on in the game, but he spooned the ball straight up in the air and then appeared to be curiously disinterested in trying to touch the ball over the line, instead allowing an Austrian defender to clear the ball off the line.

One cannot help but wonder how this German team is going to cope with Portugal in the next round. Whilst Austria's downfall was a lack of ability going forward (and the best that can be said of their record in the competition is that they achieved their absolute minimum aim - they were humiliated at no point in any of their three matches), Portugal have an embarrassment of attacking riches, both up front and in midfield. Germany won't have it this easy again. Certainly their performance over the last two matches makes something of a mockery of their position as pre-tournament favourites. They will have to play much better than they have over the last two matches if they are to progress to the semi-finals or the final.

For Croatia, meanwhile, a lone goal from Ivan Klasnic was enough for the group winners to see off a lacklustre Poland side. The gulf between these two teams was perhaps demonstrated by the fact that Croatia coasted to a relatively comfortable win in spite of making nine changes for this match. Poland had a couple of decent chances with the score still tied at 0-0, but Klasnic's goal early in the second half ended the one man resistance of Celtic's Artur Boruc, one of the few Poland players to deserve better than to finish bottom of the group with just one point from three matches. Croatia will, of course, bring back all of their first choice players for the quarter-final against Turkey, and we can anticipate a better performance from them later in the week. It's hardly beyond the realms of possibility that they will be facing Germany again in the semi-finals.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Czechs Bounced Etc

Slowly but surely, the records are being broken. It feels as if, one by one, new legends are being created on an almost daily basis at Euro 2008, and last night we had a new one to add to the list: the greatest comeback by an international team in the finals of a competition. To be honest about it all, the first seventy-five minutes of last night's match between Turkey and the Czech Republic were fairly ordinary. The Czechs had gone two goals up through a factory-fit header from Jan Koller in the first half and an acrobatic slide-cum-stab from Plasil just after the hour mark. So far, so good. Apart from that, it was so-so, with both teams limited to a couple of long range efforts and almost accidental looking shots at goal each. With fifteen minutes to play, though, Turkey ripped the script up and threw it away, replacing it with one that the writers of "Escape To Victory" would have replaced for being too far fetched.

First up, Turan popped up with a shot from the edge of the area that beat Petr Cech at his near post. It's possible to absolve Cech of any blame for this goal, a well-hit low shot from the edge of the penalty area that skidded on very wet grass. There were less forgiving circumstances seven minutes later, though. Hamit's cross was inexplicably dropped by Cech, allowing a dumfounded Nihat to roll the ball into the empty goal. I've watched this goal about fifty times over now, and I still can't see how this happened. The ball wasn't spinning, and there was no great pace on the cross. The ball just seemed to bounce up and out of his hands. The debates have been raging over whether this means that Cech can be described as the Emporer's New Clothes - not the fantastic goalkeeper that we all thought that he was. I'm inclined to think that we'll find out whether he's a great goalkeeper over the next few months. It's the reaction to the mistake rather than the mistake itself that will determine whether he retains his reputation or not. He didn't have much time to dwell upon it. Two minutes later, Nihat was put through and he drove the ball in off the underside of the crossbar to win the match for Turkey. Even then, the tension rose still higher, as the Turkish goalkeeper Volkan was sent off for shoving Jan Koller to the ground. No mean feat in itself, if you stop and think about it for a second. With all three of their substitutes already used, Tuncay went in goal for the last couple of minutes, but he wasn't tested and Turkey hung on to win 3-2 and book their extraordinary passage into the last eight of the competition. Full marks also, by the way, to Steve Wilson of the BBC, whose commentary on the match added to the breathless, disbelieving air of it all. He would be a much more suitable replacement for John Motson as the BBC's main man than Jonathan Pearce.

The other match between Switzerland and Portugal in Basel was, ultimately, a meaningless match for both teams, and acted as a send off for Kobi Kuhn, who has now quit the Swiss coaching job. His wife's serious illness throughout the competition and the quiet dignity with which he coped with the twin pressures that faced him provided an important reality check for those in the media who talk about the all-importance of winning football matches. The Portuguese dropped eight players from their previous match, and Chelsea supporters may have been looking nervously at the effect of such widespread squad rotation. Switzerland won 2-0 thanks to two goals from Hakan Yakin and thoroughly deserved their win. They played reasonably well in all three of their group matches, and deserved better than to be knocked out of the tournament with a match still to play. Regarding Portugal, I would question again the wisdom of any coach that ends a winning run in order to rest players. I could be wrong on this, but it strikes me that a winning streak is an exceptionally difficult thing to build up - will Portugal simply be able to able to pick the baton that they have dropped and start running with it again? We shall see.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Saved By The Bell

Out go the holders, then, and one suspects that few people are going to miss them that much. Greece's defeat by Russia yesterday evening was one of the more mediocre matches of the tournament so far, enlivened only by a horrific mistake by the Greek goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis allowed Konstantin Zyryanov to prod the ball over the line for the only goal of the match. The result was just as good for Russia. They haven't got through the group stages of a major tournament since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years ago, but they have a chance to, now. A win against Sweden in their final group match will be enough to put them through to the next round. Sweden, meanwhile, pushed Spain all the way before falling to a late, late goal by David Villa yesterday evening.

The Spain vs Sweden was the better of last night's two matches. Spain started the stronger of the two sides and took the lead after fifteen minutes when Fernando Torres scored from close range, but things took a turn for the worse for them ten minutes later, when they lost defender Carlos Puyol to injury. Without Puyol's influence at the back, Spain's defence began to look more more and more strained, and Sweden started to get back into the game. They brought things level ten minutes from half time, when Zlatan Ibrahimovich put the ball past Iker Casillas from close range. There was some criticism of Casillas on the television last night for failing to stop the shot, but it looked more from my angle as if the blame laid more with the defender that allowed him to get a shot in when he started with his back to goal. The second half was a slightly more disappointing affair, but right at the death David Villa latched on to Joan Capdevila's long pass and, in spite of being surrounded by Swedish defenders managed to squeeze through and win it for Spain.

Next week, then, Russia will need to beat Sweden because Sweden have the better goal difference of the two teams. If Russia do manage to get through, it will be for the first time in twenty years, and the last time they did it they got to the finals of the European Championships. This might be a stretch too far for them this year, but it's as good a chance as they've had since 1988.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

From Genesis To Revelation

While an international football tournament that is shaping up to be the best in a generation is taking place in Austria and Switzerland, the silly season is in full flow back home in England. Whether it's the press speculating over how Ronaldinho's move to Manchester City will be funded (Nike paying a proportion of his wages, apparently) and the acres of speculation of Luis Felipe Scolari's appointment at Chelsea at the weekend (as I mentioned before, The Independent managed five pages on the subject yesterday, without once mentioning that Scolari hasn't managed a club side in Europe since 2001 and has never managed a European club side), possibly the most ridiculous story of the summer is taking place in the north-west, where former Conference also-rans Leigh RMI have decided on a little re-branding, following their move to a new stadium.

Leigh RMI (RMI stands for "Railway Mechanics Institute") were initially founded in 1896, seven miles away from Leigh in the Bolton suburb of Horwich. Horwich RMI were a pretty run of the mill non-league club for the majority of their existence, moving slowly up the non-league rankings whilst playing their home matches at the sloping Grundy Hill. By 1995, though, they had decided that they had out-grown their ground, and took up the offer to move seven miles away to Leigh, change their name from Horwich RMI to Leigh RMI, and groundshare at Hilton Park, the home of the Leigh Centurions Rugby League club. They did have brief periods of success as Leigh RMI. They were promoted into the Conference in 2000, and stayed there until 2005, when they were relegated back from whence they came with a grand points total of eighteen for the season. Over the last two or three seasons, they've become one of non-league football's basket cases. In 2005, within days of FC United of Manchester forming, Leigh were on the phone to them, offering to merge clubs. The offer was not taken up. Last season, they were said to be days from signing an agreement with MyFootballClub (I didn't mention them by name at the time, but Leigh were the Conference North club that were almost the team chosen by MyFC last year).

There is a case for saying, then, that Leigh RMI are hardly a club that should be near the top of anybody's Christmas card list (and I'm not even taking into account their original move from Horwich to Leigh, out of which some people might have made quite a pretty penny). So, the club has decided on a new name, LeighGenesis (or perhaps it's Leigh Genesis - it's difficult to say), a new badge and new club colours. Let's detach ourselves from the moral arguments for a moment and take a quick look at the marketing speak that accompanies their change of image:

"The club had adopted the generic Leigh town crest which did not give it any real identity; I believe the Club needed to develop it’s own personality and as part of this there needed to be a strong, individual emblem of association. Ideas of colour were professionally developed into a striking, versatile and contemporary logo which formed the core of the new brand." - Yeah. Stupid football clubs, with their traditions and their coats of arms. What they need is something that the Xbox 360 generation can identify with, like this. That'll get the crowds in. Actually, I could swear that I've seen that badge before somewhere. Ah yes. Here it is. You want to watch out for that Bill Gates. I hear that he can be quite litigious.

"I began with the name; ‘Leigh RMI’ (Railway Mechanics Institute) had followed the Club from its roots in Horwich where there actually was a R.M.I., Leigh on the other hand could not even boast a railway station! Research confirmed that there was little loyalty or attachment to the old name which would make the decision more welcoming than controversial." - So, you decided on LeighGenesis instead, then. "Leigh Town", "Leigh Borough" or "Leigh FC" not quite "with it" enough for you, were they? You do know that everybody is going to rip it out of your name, don't you? It's like changing your name from Jim Smith to Astro Forcefield because it sounds more "marketable". Everyone will still laugh at you. And Genesis? Genesis? A band fronted by one of the most-hated musicians of the last twenty-five years? Christ.

"The Club is surrounded by ‘reds’ from both football and rugby; our red and white stripes simply merged with the crowd so a radical makeover was essential if we wanted to distinguish ourselves in the area. The alignment of football to fashion is pretty well recognised now, and in order to give the new Leigh Genesis FC an appealing, attractive image, the kit had to become less fussy and more modern. The result was a fresh, white shirt with black shorts and socks supplied by established sports brand Nike whose image complimented perfectly the effect we wanted to achieve." - So, to clarify, you had a good, long, hard think about it, having decided that red and white weren't original enough for you. You needed something that would grab the imagination. So, you thought about it, and thought about it, and... white shirts and black shorts. It's not that original, is it? And it's doesn't even incorporate any of the colours on the badge. If you'd picked luminous green and silver shirts, I might have been slightly more impressed.

In this day and age, I am less than surprised that a non-league club has chosen to re-brand itself in such a way. I am also less than surprised that they have done it in such a half-arsed way. You have to do more than change a club's badge, name and colours to make it successful, and I fear that LeighGenesis are doomed to fail in exactly the same way that Leigh RMI were. The new stadium is a definite advantage for them, but in a town which is defiantly a rugby league town, how many of the Centurions die-hards are going to start going to see "the Genesis" every week because they've got a fancy new badge and are now wearing white and black shirts? They may attract more interest if they are successful on the pitch, but this is a club that left its home behind twelve years ago, and this re-branding looks to this particular observer like little more than an attempt to air-brush out over one hundred years of history in the pursuit of what they seem to think will be fame and fortune. If the club proves itself to be well managed and acts in a manner that always puts the interests of it supporters first, it might just succeed, but any success that they have will be in spite of this dismal exercise in marketing, rather than because of it.

Meanwhile, back in Bolton, the Horwich RMI side that formed when the club decided to move away has been playing on park pitches since forming in 1996 may finally be coming home.

Netherlands 4-1 France

Still the goals keep going, still teams refuse to sit back and merely defend, and still the Dutch look like the best football team at Euro 2008. It's almost as if the players and the coaches of all the nations have got together and decided to play with the care-free air of an end of year party. At the end of a year which has seen my spine start to curl with cynicism over the state of the modern game, it's like a breath of fresh air, as, for about the sixth match in a row, two of Europe's best played out an absolutely magnificent match which could have gone in either direction but ended in another resounding win for a Dutch team that is rapidly starting to look as good as the team that won the competition twenty years ago, or even (whisper it) the great team of the 1970s. They booked their place in the quarter-finals last night, and they did it eventually with room to spare, but to say that this was the full story of last night's match would be doing a great disservice to France, who played a full contribution to proceedings and were harshly served by the eventual 4-1 scoreline.

The opening goal was a conventional enough affair. A corner from the right, headed in by Dirk Kuyt, who has produced more football of any value in his last 180 minutes for the Netherlands than he did all season Liverpool. France had the better play for much of the rest of the first half, but the score stayed at 1-0 thanks in no small part to some excellent goalkeeping from Edwin Van Der Saar, who blocked a low shot from Willy Sagnol outstandingly and had to stretch to save a low shot from Franck Ribery. There were period, early in the second half, when it looked as if a French equaliser was inevitable. Ribery shot wide from close range when he probably should have scored, Henry had a shot blocked by Andre Ooijer on the line that looked as if it bounced off his arm (though it would probably have been a harsh decision had it been awarded). The key moment came on fifty-three minutes, when Malouda's over-head kick put Thierry Henry through on goal. Usually, one would have bet their life savings on Henry scoring from the position that he was in but, with Van der Saar coming out towards him, he showed an uncharacteristic heaviness of touch and lifted the ball over both Van Der Saar and the crossbar.

The game opened up upon the introduction of Robin Van Persie, who was brought on to replace Dirk Kuyt shortly afterwards. A fantastic turn and pass by Ruud Van Nistelrooy put Arjen Robben away on the left hand side, and his low cross was touch in with virtually Van Persie's first touch. It was virtually Van Persie's first touch, and the French goalkeeper Gregory Coupet almost kept it out, but the ball dribbled agonizingly over the line to double their lead. Two goals down and with thirty minutes to play, France could have given up or the Netherlands could have put eleven men behind the ball to try and protect their lead, but neither of these outcomes would have been particularly characteristic of Euro 2008 so far. Twelve minutes after the Netherlands doubled their lead, France found what they thought was a route back into the game, when Willy Sagnol's cross from the right-hand side was touched in by Henry. It looked as if a barn-storming last twenty minutes was on the cards, but any hopes that the French may have had of a revival lasted barely thirty seconds, as Arjen Robben got away down the left and scored with a shot into the roof of the net from an absolutely impossible angle. The third goal was probably the fatal blow, and there was no route back for the French, although one suspected every time that they got forward that they might score and bring themselves back into the game. The icing on the cake, however, came in the last couple of minutes, as Wesley Snijder lifted the ball over Coupet and into the top corner to make the final score 4-1.

Where next, then, for the Netherlands? Moreover, where next for Group C? The Dutch are home and dry - expect to see Robben and Van Persie starting the final match against Romania. If Romania win that match (and they took four points from six in their qualifying group), they will be through and both France and Italy will be out. Otherwise, the winners of the France vs Italy match will join them. If France and Italy draw and the Netherlands draw against or beat Romania, then Romania will still be through unless Romania lose by three goals, in which case UEFA will invoke the little-known triangular pitch with three goals, and make them all play-off against each other*. It will be a tense evening.

*Not strictly true - if someone wants to clarify all the permutations for me, feel free to do so in the comments section

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