Category Archives: Football

Greatest Sporting Moments of 2012: Longlist

Football: 

Chelsea vs. Barcelona in the Nou Camp; Man City winning the league in the last minute of the season; Spain perfecting football in the Euro 2012 final…

Tennis:

Murray vs. Djokovic (Australian Open s/f); Djokovic vs. Nadal (Australian Open final); Nadal vs. Rosol (Wimbledon 2nd Round); Murray vs. Tsonga (Wimbledon s/f); Federer vs. Del Potro (Olympic s/f); Murray vs. Djokovic (US Open final); Federer vs. Djokovic (WTF @ O2 final)…

Golf: 

Bubba Watson’s shot on the 1st playoff hole at the Masters; Tiger Woods’ chip-in on the 16th at the Memorial; Ernie Els coming from nowhere to win the Open; Europe’s remarkable finalday comeback at the Ryder Cup…

Athletics: 

Mo Farah winning the 10,000 metres; Jessica Ennis’ dominating the Olympic heptathlon; the US women and Jamaican men breaking the 4x100m world records; Farah winning the 5,000 metres; David Rudisha obliterating the 800m world record; Usain Bolt answering his doubters in the 100m final…

Cycling: 

Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France; Wiggins winning the Olympic Time Trial; Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes smash the world record in the Men’s Team Sprint final…

Swimming:

France hunting down the USA in the men’s 4x100m freestyle; Chad Le Clos beating Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly; Ye Shiwen destroying the world record in the 400m IM…

Cricket: 

Kevin Pietersen’s breathtaking 149 against South Africa at Headingley…

NFL: 

Tim Tebow beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on an 85 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas in OT; Giants shocking the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI…

Darts: 

Adrian Lewis coming from 5-1 down to beat James Wade 6-5 in the World Championship semi-final…

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Offside with Ali Walker (November 1st)

Mark Clattenburg

Whether the allegation concerning referee Mark Clattenburg racially abusing Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel last Sunday is true, or not – it is certainly additional evidence of a sport about to implode. Football has become an activity where the actual competition is now a sideshow to conspiracy theorizing, vile chanting, handshakes, t-shirts and various other irrelevancies.

Chelsea’s accusation is undoubtedly serious. If Clattenburg did say what he is accused of, then his career will surely be terminated and the game dragged further into a mire of racism, recently regarded as a problem of the past. If Clattenburg is innocent then Chelsea’s actions should be severely dealt with. Clattenburg’s two linesmen and 4th official are all connected during the game via microphone so, in theory, should be able to corroborate the story, either way.

Incidentally, we shouldn’t forget that this is a club who prematurely ended the career of the respected European official Anders Frisk in 2005, following a campaign of abuse instigated by their former manager, Jose Mourinho after a Champions League match against Barcelona.

Unfortunately, this latest controversy has completely detracted from what was a wonderful game between Chelsea and Manchester United; a match that contained great goals, sublime skill and terrific individual performances from star players like Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. With Van Persie very much to the fore, United moved to within one point of Chelsea at the top of the league following their 3-2 win.

How Chelsea must wish they had the clever and clinical Dutchman at the focal point of their attack rather than the lumbering, erratic Fernando Torres. Similarly, Sir Alex Ferguson must be envious of the fluidity and intensity that Chelsea’s midfield played with for most of the match – reaching a level of excellence that United can only dream of in their current guise.

Sadly, in the wake of the Clattenburg issue, these interesting football issues will become secondary to yet another tiresome saga of claim and counter-claim, played out in all its gory detail by the 24-hour media cycle. It is the frequency of these incidents that is the most distressing aspect. Barely a week goes by in British football without the news agenda being dominated by another off-field distraction.

It seems that football – if it hasn’t already – is on the verge of completely losing the plot. Can we not just enjoy the sport anymore, without having to worry about the reality TV nonsense that has become a permanent accompaniment to the beautiful game?

Craig Levein

After Scotland’s listless defeat in Brussels it is surely time for Craig Levein to depart from his role as national team manager. Despite Levein’s repeated assertions that Scotland have been making progress under his management, the results don’t bear this theory out. Scotland have only won three competitive matches under Levein – two of which were against European minnows Liechtenstein – and the performances are getting noticeably worse, not better. To paint the scenario in its starkest light, Levein now has a worse record than two of his more maligned predecessors, George Burley and Berti Vogts.

That Levein’s time is up is almost beyond question now; who his replacement should be is more debateable. The best candidates – David Moyes and Steve Clarke – are hardly likely to leave their jobs in the top half of the English Premier League to take on a fairly thankless task. Gordon Strachan appears the choice of the Tartan Army but is hardly an inspiring selection; likewise Alex McLeish or Walter Smith – with their guaranteed brand of turgid, negative football. And presumably, the unemployed Pep Guardiola will not be interested in attempting to teach Alan Hutton the basics of tiki-taka. 

That the SFA must act quickly on Levein is a necessity to give the new manager, whoever he may be, a chance to use the dregs of this qualifying campaign to implement his style and a cohesive tactical system in preparation for the France 2016 qualification process.

Rangers

Rangers finally recorded their first away league win of the season at Clyde on Sunday, stretching their lead at the top of third division. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rangers’ season thus far has been the remarkable home crowds that they have attracted – breaking the European record attendance for 4th tier matches on two occasions this season. The Ibrox attendance has even, on occasion, eclipsed all the gates in Scottish football put together.

However, the road back to the summit of Scottish football appears long and arduous; littered with tedious encounters against Annan Athletic, Dumbarton and Greenock Morton, so whether this impressive display of loyalty continues throughout remains to be seen. And – despite the contrary bluster from the fans – there must surely have been an element of jealousy in watching Celtic take on Barcelona in the Nou Camp last week.

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Why Iniesta is the Greatest Attacking Midfielder of Our Time

Guardian football writer Jacob Steinberg posed a fascinating question on Twitter recently: “After Zinedine Zidane, has there been a better attacking midfielder than Andres Iniesta in recent times?” An intriguing debate and one to which I’d unequivocally state that Iniesta, at 27, has already eclipsed Zidane. I’d argue that no-one, certainly no-one that I’ve ever seen, has ever been quite so comfortable on the ball or in possession of such magnificent footballing vision as the diminutive Spaniard. Equally beautiful to watch; both players shared that gloriously intangible yet blindingly obvious quality of being completely in control of a game.

There is very little to differentiate the footballing achievements of Zidane and Iniesta. Both players have won every major trophy there is to win and both have scored the winning goal in a World Cup final. Zidane’s ludicrous volley to win the Champions league final in 2002 perhaps the only significant difference; even then, Iniesta’s laser against Chelsea helped rescue Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League campaign from oblivion and could be regarded as the catalyst that heralded an era of European domination.

The debate is not one of statistics; the inherent ability to dictate the tempo of a football match is an attacking midfielder’s most important characteristic in teams blessed with the offensive potency of Real Madrid and Barcelona; France and Spain. Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that Zidane “didn’t hurt teams enough”, but the innate ability of Iniesta and Zidane to swagger through games while continuously propelling their teams forward has choked the life from countless opponents.

Iniesta controls football matches with a simple economy of effort, letting the ball work for him and always in close attendance to aid his teammates. The Barcelona number 8 is an incredible hybrid of two of his more feted club colleagues; a player who can pass the ball as well as Xavi and dribble it as well as Messi. His ability to find space is remarkable and his knowledge of what to do with the space utterly exquisite. No-one has ever been more immaculate in their timing of a final ball; Iniesta always plays the right pass at the right time. His peripheral vision is surely unparalleled in the modern game, and maybe the whole history of the game.

The prime example of Iniesta’s shimmering quality his assist for Eto’o’s opening goal in the 2009 Champions League final. As Iniesta danced forward, United’s defence appeared transfixed by his balletic dribbling; the Stadio Olimpico held captive by his grace of movement. This, and this, do Iniesta far greater justice than words ever could.

Zidane was a more imposing, powerful presence; yet similarly blessed with feet of feathers.  His magisterial performance against Brazil in the 2006 World Cup a career-defining display from a player who simply played at a different speed to his opponents. Zidane’s unique ability to play as if in slow motion was never more evident than that evening in Frankfurt. His full repertoire of feints and pirouettes confused and confounded the Brazilians, while the strength of his footballing personality seized the night, and eventually the game. On extraordinary occasions like this, Zidane totally imposed the force of his will on football matches; a supernatural ability afforded to very few. The greatest individual performance I can ever remember, bar none.

Equally, Zidane proved his importance to the French team in absentia at the 2002 World Cup. France could, and probably should, have won a tournament of poor quality; yet without their stricken talisman they imploded hideously in the group stages. Zidane’s reputation grew immeasurably with each increasingly diabolical French performance.

Unfortunately, Iniesta will remain perennially underrated as long as he plays in the same team as Messi – maybe the greatest player of all time. Zidane did excel in both the Spanish and Italian leagues and while Iniesta need not prove himself any more, watching the little illusionist illuminate Serie A or the Premier League would be a delight.

The argument here may be slightly biased towards Iniesta as I’ve seen him play live four times, and on each occasion he was the outstanding performer despite sharing the stage with performers like Messi, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, David Villa and Wayne Rooney. Iniesta’s thorough understanding of his role in the framework of a team, in addition to his complete appreciation and trust of those around him was always a joy to witness in the flesh. The live stadium experience, much more so than on television, showed a player in occupation of a footballing brain unlike any other.

Elegant movement and dazzlingly quick feet, allied to a wonderful contempt for misplaced passes and wasted possession, total harmony with his teammates and capable of calling truly momentous, game changing moments to order; Zidane’s possession of these staggering qualities is inarguable. Yet Iniesta has combined the best of these attributes for a prolonged period of time and surpassed the great Frenchman; performing consistently with his wonderfully angelic quality that makes him, in this humble observer’s opinion, the greatest attacking midfield player of our time.

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We Do Want to See That Sort of Thing

Jamie Redknapp’s sanctimonious bleating that “no-one wants to see that sort of thing on a football pitch” as Manchester United and Liverpool indulged in a half-time fracas missed the point of Manchester United versus Liverpool spectacularly. The hostility and hatred on display yesterday from Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez is exactly what the fans, media and Premier League want to see from their product.

Many fans hate their most despised rivals with more fervency than with which they love their own team. Manchester United against Liverpool should be a bearpit; a frothing cauldron of malevolence. While certain things cannot be condoned, specifically the vile chanting about Hillsborough/Munich and obscene racist abuse; passions running high on the pitch should be celebrated, not condemned. The fans do want to see aggression, intensity and tribalism from their heroes.

From a United perspective, Patrice Evra’s total understanding of the importance of playing for, and captaining, Manchester United is a pleasure to see in this era of ego, disloyalty and rampant commercialisation. His obvious, unrestrained delight at full-time further evidence of a love for the club all too rarely witnessed from our foreign players.

In the days’ other fixtures, Spurs beat Newcastle 5-0 and Chelsea lost at Everton; keeping Spurs in the white heat of the title race and leaving Andre Villas-Boas with a rather tenuous grip on his job. Yet what was the major talking point of the day? The only talking point? The circus at Old Trafford.

Without such controversy and drama, yesterday’s rather tedious encounter would have been instantly forgettable. However, Suarez refusing to shake Evra’s hand, added to the half-time scuffle in the tunnel and a shenanigans at full-time provided enough talking points to satisfy those fans of United, Liverpool and a neutral persuasion for the next week.

Before the game, there were surely few spectators who did not wish to see frayed tempers and acrimony. That the bitterness started before the match had even commenced was assuredly a bonus to the ravenous 75,000 in the ground and the enthralled watching world on television. One Manchester United move ending in a Paul Scholes header aside, the first half was a diabolical advert for English football. Yet everyone was hooked by the riotous, toxic frenzy that often threatened to spill over into open warfare.

The lack of contrition continued after the game during the unusually frank post-match interviews. Sir Alex Ferguson railed against the disgraceful Suarez, while an irate Kenny Dalglish bizarrely blamed 24-Hour media culture for victimising the Uruguayan and stoking the furnace of animosity. But this passion is why we watch the game; I defy anyone – ahem, Jamie Redknapp – to deny that the entire spectacle was spell-binding entertainment.

Dalglish had a slight point, even as he verged on going the full-Keegan with Sky’s Geoff Shreeves; the media will be loving it. Providing miles of column inches and hours of news coverage this is a story that just continues to perpetuate itself.

The Premier League enjoying it though, you ask? Really? Yes, really. Any publicity is good publicity. And think of the enormous interest there will be in the next Liverpool United game. The money men will be salivating at the prospect.

While yesterday’s aggravation was a stain on the wider game of football and Luis Suarez’ reprehensible behaviour strayed far beyond the boundaries of basic human decency – although with his track record (cheating, biting and racially abusing), we should hardly have been surprised – the poisonous atmosphere between the players and fans elevated an essentially drab game into a realm of brutally unforgettable footballing moments. A sign perhaps, Mr. Redknapp, that people actually do want to see “that sort of thing.”

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Native International Managers: A Compelling Trend

Last night, Fabio Capello made the eminently sensible decision to take leave of one of the world’s best paid but least satisfying jobs: England football manager. One knows the England football team, and particularly the manager’s job, has gone beyond parody when the events of Mike Bassett: England Manager seem a perfectly plausible version of reality. While thousands of words of analysis and conjecture will be poured forth on Capello’s departure, a much more interesting study is into where England will look next, and why they will look there.

Immediate media speculation has centred on the possibility of Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp succeeding the beleaguered and ultimately defeated Capello. A quite remarkable turnaround for Redknapp, who began the day in the dock at Southwark Crown Court, and ended it odds on favourite for the England job.

English managerial, erm, personalities like Neil Warnock and Barry Fry held court on the BBC and Sky proclaiming that an Englishman must get the national team job and extolling the yeoman virtues of “passion”, “pride” and “commitment”, while indignantly expounding on the unscientific theory that “foreigners just don’t get it and are only in it for the money.” In fact, the latest managerial farce has prompted the unprecedented scene of England’s national media in unanimous agreement on an issue. Harry Redknapp is the man for the job. Unequivocally.

The benefits of installing Redknapp are easily identifiable. While his personal trophy cabinet remains somewhat bare – one FA Cup aside – his sides have always been renowned for their team spirit and attractive football. While he won’t be able to dabble in the transfer market – unless Mikel Arteta fancies a game for England – ‘Arry will certainly lift the mood of the English support and that might currently be the most important consideration for the FA.

Redknapp’s England team would play fast, attacking football and while they still wouldn’t quite challenge for Euro 2012, any improvement on the turgid, functional dross served up by the national team in every single tournament match they’ve played since Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal snapped against Portugal in Lisbon, would be welcomed.

There is certainly an argument for suggesting that a native manager will best understand the footballing culture of his country. This theory regarding certain countries containing specific footballing ideals was supremely evidenced by David Winner in Brilliant Orange, a magnificent analysis of the Dutch psychological makeup and resultant footballing culture. It probably helps that Holland has produced managers of the calibre of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Louis Van Gaal, Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink but the ability to tap into a footballers’ inherent psyche must surely be a key consideration for a national manager.

While both Warnock and Fry tended toward the Two World Wars, One World Cup footballing xenophobia that can blight English soccer on occasion; strangely, they both had a point. An Englishman should have the England national job. Just the same as a Scot should have the Scotland job, a Welshman the Wales job, and a Zambian the Zambia job.

A quick analysis of World Cup and European Championship statistics uncovered a quite compelling statistic. Of the thirty one European and World tournaments that have been played since 1930, precisely one was won by a non-native manager. One. One. An incredible stat, and barely skewed by the recent proliferation of non-native managers in the international game.

Otto Rehhagel leading Greece to an astonishing triumph at Euro 2004 was the only anomaly. Every World Cup winner was managed by a native. Examples include: Vicente Del Bosque with Spain in 2010; Marcelo Lippi with Italy in 2006; Carlos Bilardo with Argentina in 1986; Alf Ramsey with England in 1966. And all the way back to Alberto Suppici, the Uruguayan coach of Uruguay in 1930. Indeed, Rehhagel’s success with Greece was built on a concerted effort to change the footballing culture of a nation – verve and free spiritedness making way for compact defense and rigid discipline.

With England’s utter unwillingness to countenance a change in its footballing culture Harry Redkanpp is certainly the ideal choice for manager. Redknapp will take the best of the English footballing stereotypes and turn passion, pride and commitment into positives; while nullifying the worst: kicking and rushing, shooting at the moon and running into each other. While the xenophobia on show in the media can be tiresome, the root of Fry and Warnock’s argument is sound, merely distorted by a genuine, overwhelming desire for English success. And who knows, both recent and ancient history shows that it may just work.

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Europe’s Last Great Footballing Sides: The Common Denominator

I’m unsure what exactly brought this thought to my attention – perhaps the turgid, ‘functional’ dross served up by Manchester United in the last two months – but I became intrigued by the change of footballing philosophy and the way that teams play in the Champions League generation. There have been great football teams in this era like the criminally underrated Milan side of 2003-2007 under Carlo Ancelotti and Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich at the turn of the century; but certainly a paucity of great footballing teams, of which there have only been three true immortals.

In slightly different ways, the youthful Ajax team of 1994/1995, Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998/1999 and the epochal, football-defining Barcelona of 2010-2011 all transcended the trophies they won by winning them with football as it was created to be.

Why were these sides able to break the monotonous predictability of the last fifteen years at the pinnacle of the game? Possibly because of each team’s reliance on a nucleus of home-grown talent who religiously followed a footballing ideology of passing, movement and high-tempo pressure.

Other teams occasionally came close to attaining this exalted status. Real Madrid’s Galacticos were probably able to reach even greater heights on their day, an utter evisceration of United in the first hour of the Champions League quarter-final in 2003 a particular highlight. That day; Figo, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo ran riot, but a combination of maddening inconsistency and gargantuan ego slowly killed that team from within.

For those who might suggest one of Arsene Wenger’s incarnations of Arsenal; The Invincibles were still a fundamentally functional side usually reliant on magic from Henry, Bergkamp or Pires to win matches. For a single season they delivered these moments consistently, before they were extinguished permanently as a force at Old Trafford in 2004.

Teams who have succeeded in the Champions League in the last fifteen years have regularly relied on a combination of pragmatism, solid defence and reliance on a special player to bend matches to the force of his will. Examples of this include: Juventus 1996 (Peruzzi, Ferrara & Del Piero), Borussia Dortmund 1997 (Kohler, Sammer & Moller), Milan 2003 (Nesta, Maldini & Shevchenko), Porto 2004 (Carvalho & Deco), Liverpool 2005 (Carragher, Hyypia & Gerrard), United 2008 (Ferdinand, Vidic & Ronaldo) and Internazionale 2010 (Lucio, Samuel & Sneijder). Ultimately, I suppose the formula doesn’t matter as all these teams actually lifted the trophy, a staggering achievement in itself; but in order to be truly timeless, there must be something more.

All Champions League winning teams are equal, but some are more equal than others. Occasionally the afore-mentioned sides rose above this monotonous template for winning the tournament, but they are certainly a level below these particular merchants of buckle and swash: Ajax, Man United and Barcelona.

Man United 1998/1999

Manchester United 98/99, controversially, might be the least of these three teams; with the most imports (Schmeichel, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin, Keane & Cole) and playing a slightly different style of football to the totalvoetballing Ajax and Barcelona. Their home-grown stars: Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville Brothers, may have bestridden the peak of the game for nearly a decade but this was undoubtedly their Everest. While they may have been inferior to the other two sides in some regards, United regularly had to go to the very limits of endurance and human desire – a place where Ajax and Barcelona never had to venture.

Always true to United’s attacking heritage, the 1999 team might be the greatest British style team of all time. Fast, strong, powerful, quick in possession, devastating on the counter attack and from set-pieces, blessed with the most indefatigable self-belief and determination any side has ever had, and with the best balanced midfield in history (crosser, destroyer, passer, dribbler – work it out) they defined a generation of English football with their careering, cavalier, score-one-more-than-the-opposition philosophy. A reincarnation of Brazil in 1982, but with better results.

Ajax 1994/1995

Ajax of 94/95 were slightly different again. Their team was made up of Dutch disciples (and Jari Litmanen) of the Church of Cruyff at differing stages of their footballing maturity, who combined to produce one of the greatest seasons in football history. The youthful exuberance of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars; the footballing intelligence of the De Boer brothers and Edgar Davids; was all supplemented by a totemic goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar, and the immense experience of Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.

Undefeated league champions and undefeated European champions in the same season; neither United nor Barcelona can match this. A late Kluivert goal helped beat an AC Milan who were probably improved on paper from the side who throttled the Dream Team 4-0 in the previous years’ final.

However, the piece-de-resistance for Ajax was an annihilation of Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. According to The Independent’s match report Ajax were an ‘inexorable tide’ who ‘recalled the pomp of their 1970’s prime’ with a rampant display of attacking potency. A double from Litmanen and goals from Finidi George, Ronald de Boer and Marc Overmars in a 5-2 victory laid the foundations for their eventual success in Vienna against Milan.

Barcelona 2010/2011

Barcelona under the management of Pep Guardiola have taken the ideal of pass and move to another level. Their patented tiki-taka is Johan Cruyff’s footballing vision on speed. While I have previously suggested that their 08/09 version may have actually been slightly more effective, the Barcelona of 2010/2011 is received wisdom’s greatest Guardiola side – and at its absolute strongest, filled with eight academy products. An astonishing statistic.

The club academy La Masia produced the utterly supreme midfield comprising Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets; a talismanic captain in Carles Puyol; the best footballing centre-half in the world – Gerard Pique; ‘keeper Victor Valdes, a stopper and starter of attacks; and the hugely underrated Pedro – one of the best exponents of off the ball running and finishing in the world.

However, Barcelona have also been graciously blessed with that truly special player that neither United nor Ajax actually possessed. As one of the all-time greats – possibly just behind Maradona and Pele; possibly beside them already – the majestic Lionel Messi transforms Barcelona from a great club side into the greatest club side.

Conclusion

The argument is not that these teams produced their transcendent football on the biggest stage – Ajax needed a late winner to beat Milan in 1995 and United floundered for 89 minutes against Bayern in the Camp Nou – but that they sustained this elevated level of performance for a sufficient period of time for it to become trademark.

So why the lack of spectacular footballing teams in this Champions League generation? Is it the inclination towards pragmatism and the birth of the Dunga/Deschamps/Makelele position? Or possibly the exorbitant sums of money that clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Internazionale, latter-day United – spend striving to achieve the ultimate goals instead of promoting from within; something that Ajax, Manchester United and Barcelona all did with the reward of sporting immortality.

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The Other Side of Football: Partick Thistle v Culter

After attending various Champions League, Premier League and European Championship matches in recent months at some of Europe’s finest stadia, Saturday was a strangely welcome return to grassroots football with the Scottish Cup 4th round replay between first division Partick Thistle and non-league Culter FC.

At the rather ramshackle Firhill stadium with its three sides and a grass bank, a complete contrast to the towering Veltins Arena and Estadio da Luz; and thanks to Maryhill’s diametrically opposite climate system to Alicante, this was undoubtedly The Other Side of Football.

Partick’s students-for-a-fiver ticket policy seemed generous; as did the steward’s reluctance to look at the matriculation cards placed before him. No allocated seats here, or even a match ticket for the collection – we selected a spot in the away end that appeared dry and readied ourselves for an afternoon squinting into a driving Scottish rainstorm.

Unfortunately, the upset scenario was utterly smothered after only eleven seconds. Partick centre. Big no-nonsense punt up the park early doors. Flicked on by target man. Rammed home by nippy striker. Get in there. Scottish fitba at its cliched finest.

Culter had held Partick to a draw on the previous Saturday but that result looked more ludicrous by the second as the non-leaguers presented Thistle with about five hundred clear goalscoring opportunities in the first three minutes.

Despite the extinguishment of hope, the Culter fans remained in fine, if unoriginal, voice throughout. Serenading the Partick Thistle players, supporters and the referee with derogatory chants for the duration they contributed to a surprisingly, and pleasingly, rowdy atmosphere in the ground. Even if: “Division one ; you’re having a laugh,” did seem slightly optimistic when Culter managed a frantic spell of possession in the Partick half at one nil.

The game itself proceeded exactly according to Partick’s plan – 3-0 up at half time, 4-0 at full-time and showcasing a thoroughly professional attitude the Jags completed a comfortable afternoon for Thistle manager and sitcom-writer Jackie McNamara; squandered chances and poor finishing the only sour note.

Players who caught the eye included Thistle’s Number 4 – a tall central midfielder who combined strength in the tackle with effortless recycling of possession. Chris Erskine, the Partick winger also impressed with some direct running although his lack of a footballing brain was evident even to this rookie Thistle observer; an impression later confirmed by my season-ticket holding friend.

For Culter, the standout was their No. 8 – not for any particular footballing reasons – purely for the fact that he clearly regarded himself as a cut-price Charlie Adam. However, the only Adam-esque attributes the self-appointed maestro displayed were some errant Hollywood passes and the trademark lethargic running style of Liverpool’s lynchpin. He even Adamed Culter’s lone first-half shot high into the stand.

Seasoned Partick supporters I spoke to after the match remained steadfastly – and slightly unfairly in my opinion – unimpressed by their side. But, while the football team might languish in the wilderness of Division One for the foreseeable future, at least the casual element of the club’s support appears to be in good hands. We were subjected to a litany of hand-signals, favourite among them the Reverse Churchill, from a gang of eight year olds who missed most of the match in pursuit of directing maximum abuse at the travelling fans. In these days of dedicated Football Intelligence Units and passport confiscation, it was reassuring to see the North Glasgow Express displaying such great potential for the future.

Although the weather conditions were grim and the quality of football erratic, this was undoubtedly an enjoyable Saturday afternoon out. Despite being somewhat quenched after 10 seconds here, the romance of the cup clearly remains in bloom and the Culter supporters, however hypothermic they ended up, obviously enjoyed their big day and provided the day’s highlight with their sustained boisterousness.

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Juan Roman Riquelme: Unfulfilled Genius

If Claude Makelele was one of the greatest over-achievers in the history of football; then Juan Roman Riquelme must unfortunately be regarded as a considerable under-achiever. Makelele made more of limited ability than any other player; Riquelme relatively little of instinctive footballing giftedness. During one match, against Serbia & Montenegro in the World Cup in Germany, Riquelme showcased more verve and inspiration than Makelele managed in his whole career. Unfortunately, what should have been a career-defining performance instead became a sad portent of what might have been for this somewhat wasted talent.

Blessed with the most natural appreciation of space and collective team movement I can recall before Barcelona redefined the art of possession football through Xavi and Iniesta, Riquelme dominated games with swagger and style at his peak despite his lack of physical gifts. Relying purely on his technical ability and football intelligence Riquelme was indisputably an artist at work in the beautiful game. Owning technique, balance, passing ability, imagination and a magisterial first touch – the Argentinian had it almost all.

A goal against Brazil in a World Cup qualifier encapsulated Riquelme’s imperious footballing ability. Prompting the move by controlling a Roberto Carlos clearance with an outrageous  back-heeled volley out to the right flank, Riquelme received the ball a couple of passes later, waltzed around one challenge and absolutely caned the ball into the top corner with his allegedly weaker foot. Similarly, while Cambiasso may have scored that famous goal against Serbia in Germany, it was completely owned by Riquelme’s passing, movement and opening of space.

Two truly glorious goals; but ones which possibly revealed more questions than answers about the delightful Riquelme. Why, with this immense natural talent, was Riquelme not able to harness it more consistently? Why were there only flashes throughout his career of the greatness that should have been automatic for such a footballing visionary?

Each of Riquelme’s major club honours were won on the continent of his birth for Boca Juniors. 3 Copa Libertadores trophies and 4 Argentinian League titles is a considerable weight of silver for an heir to Maradona’s revered Number 10 shirt at Boca. However, and this is a great shame, South American club football has been a veritable sporting backwater since the conception of the gargantuan, consuming Champions League. Institutions of the game like Boca and River Plate in Argentina; Sao Paulo and Santos in Brazil, lie crumbling due to this evil empire of greed and selfishness. It is against this backdrop of sporting imbalance that Riquelme has prospered; not exactly the top of the game – even for the most vehement defenders of Riquelme.

However, for one glorious half-season in 2006 Riquelme reached the heights that his natural talent demanded but even that career zenith was marred by two unfortunate moments. After single-handedly dragging his mediocre Villarreal team to the Champions League semi-finals Riquelme then missed a penalty in the closing moments of the second leg against Arsenal that would have taken the tie to extra-time.

The second moment was less Riquelme’s fault but tragically extinguished what was still threatening to be a great career. After effortlessly controlling the Argentinian team for the first four and a half matches of the World Cup, including his afore-mentioned masterpiece against Serbia, Riquelme was substituted with ten minutes left in the quarter-final against Germany. Leading 1-0 at the time, Argentina initially surrendered the initiative in the absence of Riquelme, and then the lead – Germany eventually going on to win on penalties. Despite his later resurrection back in Argentina with Boca Juniors, this act of ludicrous stupidity by Jose Pekerman was the death knell for any aspirations to immortality for Riquelme.

Riquelme could be viewed as a throwback player; had his career occurred in the ‘80s, or even the ‘90s, he might be regarded with the same appreciation as Roberto Mancini – a similarly languid maestro in possession. Unfortunately, the modern game with its emphasis on high tempo pressing and speed of movement contributed to Riquelme’s continued struggle to impose himself on European football during an unhappy spell at Barcelona and through five inconsistent years at Villarreal. While undoubtedly a gifted footballer, and his pinnacle in 2006 will live long in the memory, he should be regarded as the anti-Makelele – a genius whose potential remained unfulfilled.

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An Ungifted Great: Claude Makelele

Yesterday evening, Paolo Bandini posed an interesting question on Twitter. In the context of Tim Tebow’s remarkable 4-1 record as starter for the Denver Broncos despite being patently unsuited for the role of NFL quarterback, Paolo asked for the best examples of similarly ungifted sportsmen achieving great things. My contribution to the debate, which seemed more considered than nominating David May and Djimi Traore for winning the Champions League, put forward Lleyton Hewitt and Claude Makelele.

In my ever so humble one, Hewitt and Makelele reached the pinnacle of their respective sports despite a glaring lack of talent. Hewitt through sheer heart and desire; Makelele by cementing the importance of a relatively new position to the game of football. The hapless David May was an unused substitute for Man United in 1999; and the ludicrous Traore’s anonymous ninety minutes on the pitch in Istanbul might have been a great moment but hardly constituted ‘great things’.

My argument for Lleyton Hewitt’s lack of innate expertise at tennis did not cause much controversy. However, the assertion that Makelele might not have been a gifted footballer caused contention and consternation in some quarters.  After some intelligent comment in favour of Makelele’s giftedness, I thought it appropriate to use more than 140 characters to better describe my position.

Makelele anchored some of the great midfields on the continent during the 2000s: Real Madrid from 2000 until 2003; Chelsea from 2003 until 2008; and France throughout. He won 4 league titles in Spain and Italy, won a Champions League and played in a World Cup final. To pilfer a line from the eloquent Rob Smyth, Makelele carried the water so that the Galacticos could walk on it. The Frenchman was such an integral part of the Real Madrid team in the early part of the last decade that when he was sold they won nothing for the next four years.  Integral? Definitely. Crucial? Yes. A pioneer, even? Possibly. But a gifted footballer? No.

While Makelele’s positioning was always peerless, his reading of the game unparalleled at the base of midfield and his appetite for the gritty side of the game unmatched – he was severely limited in many other critical aspects of midfield play, attributes usually associated with the genuinely gifted central midfielders of the last 15 years: Xavi, Scholes, Ballack, Pirlo et al.

Unwilling, nay unable, to play a telling forward pass; in possession of a mediocre first touch and completely devoid of the intangible ability to take a game by the throat and bend it to the power of his will – all true footballing gifts possessed by each of the afore-mentioned central midfielders, Makelele might have been a uniquely important player but one suffering from a drought of talent with a football at his feet. He achieved great things in the game despite being supremely ungifted; a living exponent of the potential of nurtured robotics instead of natural sporting ability.

The most vivid example that I can recall of Makelele’s limitations took place in France’s opening game of Euro 2008 against Romania. Patrolling the midfield with the similarly crab-like Jeremy Toulalan, Makelele was the most generous contributor to the stodgiest international performance in living memory. With Makelele hopelessly unable to prompt the French in the direction of the opposition goal, the dynamic attacking quartet of Ribery, Malouda, Anelka and Benzema were utterly starved of possession, and the spectators of the will to live.

In a similar vein and despite his undoubted defensive attributes, Makelele often struggled to turn the tide when his team were not on top in the game. Obviously, for the Galactico-era Real Madrid and Abramovich’s Chelsea these were rare occurrences. The European Cup final of 2008 was one such notable occasion, Makelele toiling woefully to exert any influence of proceedings in the first half and get to grips with his direct opponent: Paul Scholes.

Another example of this was during the France England match in Euro 2004 when that most derided of central midfield partnerships – Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – totally swamped Makelele and Patrick Vieira for 85 minutes with only Gerrard’s penchant for suicidal backpasses denying England a draw on the night and victory in the group.

Makelele’s contribution to modern football has been fundamental – if perhaps the reason that so much of the game in this era is stifled by negativity. It may be telling, that in a generation when every single elite team plays with a man, or even two, in the Makelele position that it is Barcelona who currently produce unquestionably the most beautiful football with a player in the shape of Sergio Busquets who reads the game as well as Makelele ever did, and combines that with a sublime array of passing, movement and strategic thrust in that most pivotal position of the 21st century.

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Scotland v Czech Republic: Match Analysis

N.B This piece is written purely from the view of a fan in the stadium – I haven’t had the opportunity to see the highlights after the match (not sure I can bring myself to watch anyway) so this is coming just as I saw it at Hampden this afternoon. Hopefully it won’t appear too biased an analysis.

Tonight I’m writing from a perspective of sorrow after Scotland once again failed to fulfil all the pre-match optimism, hype and expectation invested in the team. While the referee had a large part to play in our downfall, more of the blame should rest with Craig Levein and the management staff due to an unnecessarily negative tactical set-up and some confusing substitutions during the second half.

While the Czechs were a feared international force during the last decade they have declined to the point where the respect that Scotland showed them today was completely unnecessary. Five years ago, when they regularly selected the likes of Pavel Nedved, Marek Jankulovski and Jan Koller and reached number two in the FIFA rankings, the caution displayed in front of a raucous home crowd might have been appropriate. But sitting off the play and letting Jaroslav Plasil and Tomas Rosicky dominate possession deservedly resulted in a catastrophic conclusion.

Scotland were poor in the first half with a late goal from Kenny Miller unjust reward for their lack of attacking endeavour. Charlie Adam struggled to get into the game in the centre and the lack of forward impetus was perhaps summed up by the standout performers: centre-half Berra and left-back Bardsley. Miller’s goal was the result of possibly the first incisive pass that Scotland completed; Fletcher sent Miller through in the left channel and the latest Tartan Army Talisman finished somewhat fortunately under the Czech goalkeeper.

With the long-awaited lead finally taken, the mood at half-time touched new heights, even by the stratospheric standards of the Scotland support. Spain in Alicante? No problem. Euro 2012? We’ll probably win the whole thing. This enhanced spirit of optimism was lifted further by an encouraging start to the second half – for fifteen minutes Scotland pressed the opposition high up the pitch, forced them to clear aimlessly and then kept possession composedly upon securing it. For this short spell, and only this short spell, Scotland made the Czech Republic look the poor side that they undoubtedly were.

But gradually Scotland slackened off again, returning to their earlier defensive depth and letting the Czechs control possession and providing them with acres of space in which to prod and probe at the Scotland rearguard, Plasil finally breaking the door down with thirteen minutes left. At this point, Adam (admittedly quiet on the afternoon) was substituted to a chorus of groans – Levein sacrificing the one player capable of producing something from nothing for the honest toiler Don Cowie.

However, the shock of being pegged back eventually spurred Scotland into action with Miller and Fletcher again combining, this time to restore the lead. Hampden was a wall of noise; total bedlam ensuing as Fletcher passed the ball into the Czech net from Miller’s weighted ball. With less than ten minutes to battle through, the Hampden crowd were certain that the Euro 2012 dream was resurrected.

The mood changed instantly from delirium to despondency following the contentious award of a penalty to the Czech Republic with two minutes to go. It seemed from one angle to be a stonewaller but the East Stand were adamant that the Czech forward had taken a dive and were universal in their condemnation for the striker and the hapless Dutch referee. Michal Kadlec converted casually and then the referee compounded his error by denying Berra and Scotland a more obvious spot kick in stoppage time. Surging into the box and bearing down on goal, why would Berra have gone down had he not been fouled? Mr. Blom’s decision defied belief.

Scotland were definitely unfortunate to be on the receiving end of two poor refereeing decisions but equally were culpable for their virtual elimaination from Euro 2012 thanks to a negative, defensive and sometimes cowardly performance. There were too many players today with big reputations who didn’t display the ability in possession so crucial at international level.

Similarly, the inexplicable Scottish reluctance to press the Czech Republic as they swaggered forward from defence resulted in mediocre midfield players like Rosicky and Plasil being allowed to recycle the ball at will on the Hampden turf. While the referee will assume the position of tabloid scapegoat, the harsh spotlight of criticism should also fall upon Craig Levein for the overly conservative style of play that he ordered.