Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Premiership wishlist for Santa

So the season is nearly half over and Liverpool for the first time in an age on top at Christmas. So what do all the teams want in their Christmas stockings?

About 400 tons of cotton wool to wrap Luis Suarez in. The Uruguayan has been nothing short of sensational since returning from his ban. RVP dragged an otherwise mediocre ManU side to the title last season. Could Suarez return the favour this year?

About the same tonnage as above in steel and grit. Flamini has given the side some backbone but more is required for the big games they will surely need to win their first title in a decade. Superstar January signings are not required, just a couple of prudent ones, preferably with beards and tattoos and muscles.

Manchester City
Travel sickness pills. If City can sort out their away form (Fulham was a start) then the title looks theirs to lose. A wonderful squad with attacking options, pace and power to burn. Another central defender might not hurt either.

One of Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Wayne Rooney, Radoman Falcao, Gonzalo Higuain and did anyone mention Romelu Lukaku? Chelsea need a first class centre forward who can do it week in week out. A top class holding midfielder wouldn't go amiss either.

A bigger squad. Roberto Martinez has confounded many critics (including myself) by doing an excellent job at Everton so far. Injuries and suspensions will bite and a couple more players could seriously help Everton's push for Europe.

Newcastle United
A period of serenity and calm. The Toon remain a comedy of errors perennially yet they have done superbly well after last season's and this Summer's travails. Pardew is talking of adding a couple of players to an already capable squad. Could be a good season for the Geordies.

A tactics for beginners manual. Under AVB, Spurs looked incapable of scoring goals. Under Sherwood it is simple 'up and at 'em'. That served with some adrenalin and Emmanuel Adebayor will work for a couple of games but will not seem them in the top four.

A left back, a central defender, two central midfielders and an attacking midfielder as well as a time machine to transport back Giggs, Vidic, Ferdinand, RVP and probably Paul Scholes and hey let's throw in Gary Neville too. The Reds are in poor shape but all is not lost. Quality additions to the squad required however.

Massage beds and more fitness coaches. The Saints have excelled but their high tempo pressing game means that when the players fall off a fraction from 100% the results can go horribly wrong. They need to address the slide quickly before it becomes a problem.

Stoke City
Patience. Stoke should be the perfect job for Hughes. A limited transfer budget and a small club means he can do little harm in the transfer market like at QPR. A repeat of his work at Fulham and Blackburn would do nicely.

Swansea City
To be knocked out of the Europa League. Swansea's league form is suffering the seemingly obligatory drop off associated with being in this tournament. May need to start looking over their shoulders soon.

Hull City
More of the same pills. City have done very well when they were expected to be wholly out of their depth. A few more wins and they can start dreaming of a mid table finish. There are certainly worse teams than them.

Aston Villa
A new Cristian Benteke as their old one seems to have malfunctioned and is out of warranty. Villa are on the slide after a promising start. Benteke has gone to sleep, they need to wake him up and quickly.

Norwich City
Team bonding gel. The Canaries may well survive again this season. They bought several players this summer and there have been sporadic signs of life. They should get better although the pressure will start to increase.

Cardiff City
A life coach for Vincent Tan. Cardiff have one of the most talented up and coming managers yet the owner seems hell bent on destroying the club he owns from within. It is hard enough in the Premiership without sabotaging yourselves. Unbelievable.

Romelu Lukaku. Everton's gain has been WBA's loss. The Baggies need to get some points on the board quickly.

West Ham United
A fit Andy Carroll. Big Sam's football has never been about aesthetics and without his spearhead there is no end product to go with the rest of the play. The Hammers are in serious trouble right now.

Crystal Palace
A season that started two months ago. Tony Pulis is slowly pulling the Eagles around but they are deeply in the mire and they only have questionable quality to get out of it.

Defenders. Fulham have conceded more goals than anyone and whilst the work rate of their forwards may be contributing they badly need some quality at the back.

A miracle. Di Canio has gone but Poyet looks to be slowly morphing into him. Their squad looks entirely unlike one that is geared to battle relegation. The Sunderland board has to decide whether to stick or twist in the transfer market.

Have a No Nonsense Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

England fans left short changed and up the swanny

Ex players are closing ranks behind Graeme Swann and supporting his no doubt 'brave' decision to call time on his England career. For England's supporters however it is the thin end of the wedge yet again.

The Barmy Army no less have also tweeted their support for him this morning and they are right that he has in the past been a marvellous servant to English cricket and they support their team no matter what, hats off to them. It should be pointed out of course he has been rewarded handsomely for this service.

Last time out down under, Swann milked the adulation to the utmost at the MCG with his trademark 'water sprinkler' celebration, there was even a 'how to do the sprinkler' on the internet such was the level of his fame and celebrity. Three years on and not part of a winning team and it's a bit tougher it seems.

Bearing in mind everything that the England fans have given back to Swann and the riches of a central contract from the ECB, would it be too much to suggest that performing 12th man duties at Melbourne and Sydney at the least would go some way to repaying the people that have made him so celebrated?

Many people will of course have sympathy for Graeme Swann, such is the wonderful position of a sporting celebrity. Not a single thought does he have to give to the numerous England fans who have not yet even got on the plane to Australia, I'm alright Jack.

He will be called 'brave' as I said for facing his 'inner demons', his 'personal torment' I'm sure. No one will consider that he's just been on the end of a hammering from Australia and doesn't fancy playing two dead rubbers in Melbourne and Sydney. It's all a bit too difficult really.

Throughout this entire series, England have been outfought. Australia remains the toughest place for a touring team to go now that the West Indies have long since diminished. Swann and many of his colleagues have been found out during this series.

Winning and bullying teams when you are on top is one thing, digging in when it is tough is another matter entirely and they simply don't fancy it. It is weak.

Serious questions must also be asked about the ECB management. There are performance directors, sports psychologists all employed at a huge cost yet both Swann and Trott are back home before Santa Claus gets to town.

How on earth can a team that was supposedly the favourites to win the Ashes be in such disarray with their senior players so completely unprepared for the fight, not one of these highly paid 'experts' saw this coming?

I cannot recall for instance how many articles I have read waxing lyrical about Graeme Gooch's credentials as a batting coach yet England's batting has been nothing short of a disgrace and has been poor since they were cruelly exposed by South Africa at home eighteen months ago.

It is clear that Swann's head and heart are no longer in it and so yes he should go home but I can guarantee that had he been playing poorly but England had been 3-0 up, he would have been off to the MCG to do the sprinkler again.

Instead it will be home to write a book with a newspaper exclusive already secured and an upcoming slot on Strictly Come Dancing. It's all about 'me' after all.

It is of course easy to pick the bones out of this England team but this is now becoming rats deserting the sinking ship. The England fans will still come and yet Swann cannot even repay them with 12th man duties. He accepted a central contract and to tour Australia, he should fulfil his obligations.

I am sure many people will disagree with me and they are more than entitled to, it is clearly a matter with many shades of grey but the simple fact is that the England players would not be going home if they were winning.

Swann has been trumpeted to the maximum about his effect on team spirit, well here are his true colours coming through now it seems. The fans are staying and so should the players - No Nonsense.

Monday, December 16, 2013


I'm a little bit of a rare species. I'm a Chelsea fan and I like AVB. I'm not entirely sure why but I felt he was harshly treated at Chelsea.

Yes he tried to do too much too soon and managed to alienate a dressing room that was as powerful as those at Bayern and Real, it was folly.

The players felt that being paid six figures sums was not enough reason to give their all and duly downed tools before the most famous of stories with the caretaking of Roberto Di Matteo leading to an improbable Champions League win.

The British (London based) press got their teeth stuck into AVB again when Daniel Levy had the temerity to call out Harry Redknapp for the managerial charlatan that he was and is. Even after today's events I still believe it was a sound appointment.

Despite all of that, AVB has duly been relieved of his duties today and his resurrection last season seems to have been a short lived one. Again, stories of disgruntled players have risen to the surface.

Much has been made of the huge sums of money that Spurs spent during the Summer but what people are not necessarily appreciating is the effect of the 'net' transfer spend.

There is no doubt that several of AVB's purchases this Summer have been poor such as Lamela who has barely played. Soldado has done little other than score penalties also. The fact that Luis Suarez has given Spurs a six game head start and still scored more goals than them is an amusing statistic but it's also very telling.

Last year, Spurs had say 15 very good players and then they had a match winner in Gareth Bale. This season they have maybe 20 or so very good players but they have lost their match winner.

This was part of my reasoning for my calling their finishing 6th this season in an earlier article. You can only put 11 of those players on the pitch at once and therefore their first eleven was weaker than last season, in other words by losing Bale they went backwards and lost the capacity to win games they would not have otherwise.

It's not clear where AVB goes from here nor who will replace him. There are early calls for Glenn Hoddle to return to the game, that would either be inspired or a disaster.

I wish AVB well. He clearly is lacking (for the moment) something to allow him to operate at the highest level, maybe he just needs the right no 2. He also needs to learn that picking fights with the British media hounds is not the best idea. Even if he is right they are not, they simply wield to much unchecked power and answer to almost no one.

Good luck AVB, it might be a long(ish) road back to the top but I hope you get there - No Nonsense.

Scribblings from the WACA

Firstly, I'm back in Singapore today so this article will reference mainly events on the first two days. These however set the tone for what was to come regardless.

Now as I mentioned, I live in Singapore, this brings me to my first point, the heat.... Everyday here is 25-35C with about four thousand percent humidity, it's hot, but not like at the WACA.

Now ok, I'm from Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland and most of us don't run too well in the sun but that Western Australian Summer sun is like nothing else.

Even at nine in the morning you can feel the sun attempting to set fire to your skin. Playing any kind of sport in that and for six hours must be brutal, and more so for those less acclimatised, i.e. the Brits.

I was wearing factor 40 but I actually needed some kind of wetsuit and it's no coincidence that England got steadily worse as both days progressed. They were quite literally cooked.

Having watched the game solidly for two days, a couple of things occurred to me. The first is that man for man there's not a lot in it for me if everyone is playing to form.

Cook and Carberry stacks up against Rodgers and Warner. Root probably a bit behind Watson I guess, KP at his best can match Clarke, Bell a better batsman possibly than Smith. Bailey and Stokes I don't really think is a big deal. Many would argue Prior is better than Haddin and that Swann is better than Lyon. Then a three of Bresnan, Broad and Anderson should be a match for Siddle, Johnson and Harris.

However, Australia are playing a brand of cricket with an intensity and drive that England simply can't or don't want to try to match.

I watched six sessions and to be honest on that basis I had it even. I gave both (this is Fri and Sat) morning sessions to England, after lunch I had it even-ish and then Australia took the final session. But the way that Australia won the final sessions simply took the game away from England.

Much with England seems to revolve around Cook. He scored huge runs down here last time around and England thumped Australia. The one test he failed to get big runs last time - the WACA - they lost.

For a while on Saturday, England dared to dream. They'd bowled out the tail without two much further damage and whilst Cook was surviving on a combination of luck and wits and Carberry never quite convinces, it was a solid start. And then the house of cards came.

It's easy to be too critical of batsmen getting out and Root can feel very aggrieved even though it was the correct decision within the (flawed) world of DRS. I can never have too much sympathy however for a batsman shouldering arms to a straight one (used to drive me potty when Alec Stewart did it) Michael Carberry. Cook got out slashing hard at a ball with some extra bounce and then we come to KP.

What shall we do with Kevin Pietersen? The great enigma maybe not just of England but of the modern game. The problem he now has is that he has stopped converting his starts into big scores meaning his failures such as on Saturday are magnified even more greatly.

He should be in his absolute prime but the problem with a pure hitter such as Gilchrist, KP or a Sehwag say is that once the eye and the reflexes go even a fraction, the downhill trajectory can be quite severe.

It's far too early to say that KP is already in decline but the guy out there scrabbling around at the WACA on Saturday was not the KP I know.

Given that Matt Prior has abandoned his post and Swann and co have turned in to a group of number elevens, that left Ian Bell as England's last real hope, alas not to be.

I was criticised last week for being overly negative about England's prospects but the simple fact is that as I write this on day 4, they are being annihilated again. The sad thing is I don't think they're being outclassed, they're being out fought and that's the point that I was making last week as being the most galling for the fans.

Coming down here without your injured captain in 2006, having also lost Trescothick and Simon Jones and playing one the great test teams of all time, 5-0 was still embarrassing but had some mitigating circumstances. This hammering is however is more about desire and heart.

On a brighter note, I mentioned about catching up with my mate Paul and having a good day out and a great steak with great red in the evening and I'm pleased to say we showed plenty of heart and came up with the goods for the duration both days.

England will go to the MCG battered and bruised, shorn of the Ashes and wanting to be anywhere but Melbourne on Christmas Day. There is still a lot of touring to do and I don't see a single sign anywhere that they can salvage anything from this series - No Nonsense.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chelsea's mid season report card

Jose Mourinho is not a happy man.

There was a point in time I think during the second season of Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea that I honestly started to believe that he was more than just a manager, that he actually had some formula that basically made his teams unbeatable.

Yes he had spent lots of money but his moulding of those players and the fluid nature of his tactical changes during the course of a match - and how it changed that match - left me utterly gobsmacked, he was indeed the oft mocked 'Special one' with a swagger and charisma to match his incredible coaching ability.

His teams won their matches 2-0 and that was the end of it. They certainly didn't win 4-3 and then follow it up by losing 3-2 in the next game. We cried bad luck against the likes of Liverpool and UEFA conspiracies as the reasons for the Champions League eluding us. Chelsea were indeed one of the elite European teams.

This team however is not at that level and it is not yet Mourinho's team. He has had almost no say in the players that are currently in his squad (other than ones he bought the first time around) and that is reflected in a balance of personnel that does not gel with how he likes to play.

Mourinho's previous Chelsea were unfairly maligned as dull - ask any Chelsea fan whether they thought they were dull and the answer would be a resounding no - but what they actually were were brutally tough. They had a level of physicality that other teams simply couldn't counter.

Power and/or pace or both abounded through the team, Drogba, Essien, Carvalho, Terry, Lampard, Ballack, Cech, Makelele, they simply battered teams into submission with a sprinkling of gold dust from the likes of Robben and Joe Cole.

Much has been made of the problems at striker for Chelsea and it is a real issue no doubt. The real problem however is the team has an abundance of attacking midfielders dictating the team plays 4-2-3-1. The problem for Mourinho is that he does not have the players for the '2'.

Mourinho played a similar system (not exact) at Real where he had Sami Khedira and Xavi Alonso. At Chelsea, he has only one genuine holding player in Jon Obi Mikel as Oriel Romeu is on loan at Valencia.

The problem with Mikel is that he isn't very good. His positional play isn't the best and he gives away too many fouls in dangerous positions, to the naked eye he also looks very slow.

With Marco Van Ginkel suffering a serious injury and Michael Essien sadly no longer able to play physically at the highest level, that leaves Mourinho with Ramires and Lampard as his best bets. The problem is both are dynamic box to box midfielders far better suited to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. Lampard is also getting on a bit and the fact that he has been Chelsea's best midfielder this season says a lot.

At the back, it is also a long way from the halcyon days of Terry in his pomp alongside the peerless Ricardo Carvalho. Terry is now 33, Gary Cahill is solid but not a world beater and Mourinho it is safe to assume does not trust David Luiz.

Mourinho also seems to have developed an issue with Ashley Cole and against Stoke at the weekend, the strong journeyman Jonathan Walters was able to bully Azpilicueta fairly easily which led to Stoke's second goal.

At right back, Branislav Ivanovic remains a fine player but his performances have brought on a touch of inconsistency versus his very best of a couple of seasons ago.

Whilst Peter Cech has regained some of his confidence prior to his awful head injury he appears to be slowly fading also. One of the biggest decisions Chelsea will have to make is whether to move on the legend to make way for the excellent young Thibaut Courtois. They risk staying with Cech in to decline and losing a player who looks capable of becoming the best goalkeeper in the world in the process.

Up front, Chelsea decided to stick with Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and bring in an ageing Sameul Eto'o rather than give Romelu Lukaku a crack. Everyone has an opinion on this decision (my own was that it was a mistake) but given that it has been made, Chelsea need to make the best of it.

Before his recent injury, Torres was showing renewed signs of life but against Stoke on Saturday it was like the bad all days where he looked like he could play all week and not get a shot on goal.

Ba remains a level below what is required to challenge for league titles and Eto'o whilst still a wonderful player is a fading force.

It is of course far from terrible for Chelsea, a win in Europe will see them top their CL group and they are second in the Premiership, hardly dreadful. One suspects however that it is the defincies of other teams that is allowing Chelsea to occupy such a lofty position right now.

Even in Europe, they have bizarrely lost home and away to FC Basel necessitating they win their last home game to qualify top of the group.

The question for Chelsea is whether this time around Abramovich is inclined to indulge Mourinho to buy the players he will want to play his brand of football. There is a different feel to Mourinho's regime this time and one senses he does not feel as all powerful as he did the last time.

The upcoming January window promises to be a fascinating one with so many teams desperate to strengthen for differing reasons. Chelsea's moves in that period will give us telling insight as to who is dictating transfer policy at the club.

2nd place in the Premiership and a likely winning of their CL group means Chelsea fans should be smiling but there are many cracks that are currently being papered over. Just a C+ for me at this stage - No Nonsense.

This Ashes series is over

I am flying to Perth on Thursday night from Singapore. I'm going to see an old friend, have a few (ok a lot of) beers and have dinner at a cracking restaurant on Friday night. He happens to be a member at the WACA and at some point on both Friday and Saturday (all day both days basically......) I'll be there. I'm looking forward to seeing me old mucker and having a good steak but absolutely nothing about the cricket I"ll be seeing. It is going to be torturous.

England have given up. I don't know why, maybe they just weren't that good in the first place, for me your greatness in sport is measured when there is competition and it's tough, not when you are bullying teams and winning easily. If it was on the basis of  the 'ticker' that they've shown as Warney puts it I simply wouldn't go. They don't deserve the support the Barmy Army is giving them right now.

I shall of course get on the plane and I'll have a great time regardless. I love the WACA, it's a wonderful ground and I've been through horrendous times watching England down under before. I was there when Brett Lee took Alex Tudor's head off, at the WACA again when Gilchrist smashed the second fastest test century. I was at the MCG when Warney got his 700th wicket (a genuine pleasure that last one I have to say). I've seen it all and I keep coming back.

It is of course easy to kick someone when they are down but what I think is irking people so much is the manner of the capitulation. Listening to Alastair Cook being interviewed afterwards, he was almost laissez faire about the whole thing.

When questioned about the amount of wickets falling to legside catches he almost just gave an apologetic shrug as if if to say 'it happens'. Ian Bell for instance has had innumerate plaudits in the past couple of years yet with England on the ropes he got out trying to haul a part time leg spinner's full toss to mid wicket, it's all a bit ridiculous for me.

I think there is an inherent problem with British sport, winning is not a habit and when success comes along, it usually comes with a massive drop off in performance shortly thereafter. The fact that Monty Panesar (a marginally better batsman than me) showed the most heart with a bat during the first innings says it all. England are right now, a disgrace.

There is of course a queue of pundits and ex players (all more qualified than me) lining up to slaughter this team, it's not difficult. I however am the voice of the paying fan and so in many ways I feel that voice has more resonance.

England haven't become a bad team overnight and Australia haven't suddenly become world beaters again and that is even more galling. By Australian standards, this is a pretty ordinary team yet they are playing as a team and competing far far harder than England are.

Mitchell Johnson is taking much of the plaudits right now and rightly so, he's been magnificent especially given how much he was maligned in the run up to this series by many within Australia.

The England batsman however are making it far easier for him by simply not doing the basics properly. He is bowling with almost no pressure on him and in those circumstances his suspect action and fragile psyche remain intact.

Johnson when he's on fire like this and Ryan Harris are world class. Siddle is a good solid seamer and Nathan Lyon is capable of holding down an end. It is however a long way from the halcyon days of McGrath and Warne. England should be doing far better than they are.

The England team certainly appears to have peaked with Cook, KP, Prior, Swann and Anderson all performing levels below their previous bests. Jonathan Trott is sat at home and they have yet to find a stable opening partner for Cook now that Strauss is gone.

For Australia it is time to make hay. As with any concentrated period of competition between two teams, much bad blood has emerged and there is little doubt now that Australia will turn the screw.

England were a far better team than Australia last time down under and even then they were blown away at the WACA, such are the demons that Perth holds for England. It seems unlikely that anything else than another heavy defeat lies in wait for the dishevelled tourists.

England at least need to start playing for pride. They have shown in small patches that they can actually bat if they put their minds to it. Whilst Australia have played far the better cricket, much of this is mental for England as the ridiculous statistic about the number of them getting out to leg side catches would indicate.

Test cricket has always been about preparation, hard work and concentration, nothing has changed in that respect. The discipline to play a long innings however seems to have entirely deserted the England players, the first innings totals they have been posting have been poor for some time now and I have written several times, things during the English Summer could have been very different very easily.

I truly hope that England 'buck up' and compete at the WACA but I seriously doubt their ability or desire to do so, there is nothing in their body language to suggest they are anything else than already beaten.

I'm taking my entire family for two days in Sydney also, by that stage we will simply be enjoying the beer and the pleasures of watching a nice relaxed dead rubber, it is already all over.

Incidentally, I wrote a piece about the 20/1 I got for 5-0 after the Gabba, that has now shortened to 5/1 - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ballon D'Or - time for a new winner?

Come January, two things are certain. You will have a large credit card bill to pay for Christmas gifts and Lionel Messi will be crowned the World's best player. Whilst the credit card bill will almost certainly drop through the door, there is a real chance that Messi could be usurped as the best player on the planet this coming year.

That is not of course to suggest that anyone is actually better than him given that Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Zidane have all retired but the vote takes many things in to account, most importantly your achievements in that year.

Messi of course has still been wonderfully productive with 35 goals in 31 games this year meaning there should be little doubt as to the supremacy of his reign. There is however a feeling that the crown may have slipped slightly this season and certainly whilst Barcelona are still the champions of Spain, they were rendered obsolete in the Champions League by Bayern Munchen.

Whilst Messi's play still astounds, he looks a more tired and altogether human player than the one that has destroyed teams at will for the past five seasons. Injuries have started to niggle and many are now looking at this World Cup as his defining moment if he wishes to replace Maradona and Pele as the greatest player of all time.

It is of course all relative and his numbers still astound. This year however it does look a more open contest with other candidates coming in to the frame.

To be awarded the prize, a couple of criteria usually need to be met, you should be an attacking player - since 1996 only won defender has won, Fabio Cannavaro - therefore ruling Thiago Silva and the imperious Philip Lahm out of the running.

You should also generally play for a team that has won something, since Ronaldinho in 2004, no player has won the award when his team has failed to win silverware. This presumably should then should rule out Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

However, Ronaldo has scored 46 goals in 42 games so far this calendar year meaning his own absurd statistics carry on unchecked. Whilst less aesthetically pleasing - Sepp Blatter does prefer his hair however - than Messi he is no less effective and will surely be remembered as one of the greats of the game.

Whilst Bale was tremendous for Spurs last season, the fact that his performances were not for an elite team and that the beginning to his Madrid career has been iffy will preclude his being genuinely in the running this time.

Whilst there are superb players such as Iniesta and Pirlo who could have been worthy winners previously in a 'non Messi era', the competition would appear to be coming from two other fine attacking midfielders from Bayern, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Of the two, Ribery appears to have the most momentum and support.

Bayern's all conquering season was the defining moment of these two players who's individual brilliance has often been intertwined with both personal and footballing disappointment. Both have been sublime this year for Bayern and either is good enough to receive the award even if they remain a step down from Messi or Ronaldo in terms of pure ability.

There are of course other worthy mentions such as Ibrahimovic and Robin Van Persie although both would find it hard to argue a case of matching these other names for sheer excellence and achievements this year.

Personally I would like to see either Philip Lahm or Ronaldo receive the award as both would be worthy recipients and it would at least break from the Sebastien Vettel like monotony of Messi winning. It may however be that it is Franck Ribery who could break the Messi stranglehold, either that or the diminutive Argentine could coast to an unprecedented fifth consecutive award - No Nonsense.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fernando Torres reborn?

Fernando Torres' malaise at Chelsea following his 50M move from Liverpool has attracted as many column inches as nearly any other issue in football in the past few seasons.

Such has been the level of his misery that opposition fans - including even some Liverpool ones - had stopped making fun of him and had started feeling sorry for him, it was horrible to watch, everyone just wanted him to be put out of his misery.

Torres admitted that at the height of his problems he simply didn't want to play and when he did, he didn't want to even receive the ball so bereft of confidence was he.

Nearly every critic and pundit in football had written Torres off, his pace had gone and he would never ever be the player he once was at Liverpool. The unplayable El Nino who tore Nemadja Vidic to pieces, those days were over.

Torres did actually score a good few goals for Chelsea last season but there was always a feeling that he was not showing up against the big teams. There were two many solitary goals in matches like the 8-0 hammering of Villa.

Now one swallow does not make a Summer but Torres' performance against City was magnificent. It also epitomised Torres' stay at Chelsea moving from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Back in September 2011 Torres played extremely well at Old Trafford in Chelsea's 3-1 defeat. Torres scored right after half time with a deft chip to haul Chelsea back into the match. Late on in the game he broke forwards and sublimely dummied David De Gea before missing an open goal. It was typical of Torres.

Against City it looked a case of deja vu with a shocking miss in the first half. This however appears a far mentally tougher Torres who responded by burning off Gael Clichy and supply a wonderfully clever pass for Andre Schurrle to score before marauding down the left and crashing an unstoppable shot against the junction of bar and post.

Torres' never give up attitude paid off in the final moments when he chased down a hopeful punt and took advantage of the ensuing chaos in the City defence to score the winner.

Now all this of course sounds like a bit of  a Torres love in and given his travails he probably does deserve one, but the question we have to honestly ask is he truly back?

There have been suggestions that the problems are all in his head and certainly anyone that saw him roast Gael Clichy yesterday would bare testament to the fact that he does not look short of pace or power. His shooting boots also looked in good working order with his second effort if not the first.

One interesting point was Mourinho's reaction to his hitting the woodwork. Mourinho almost looked a broken man at that stage possibly laying bare just how much he is investing personally in the rejuvenation of his Spanish No9.

Much of the scrutiny regarding Torres has surrounded his performances in the big games but even then that record can be misleading. He did so famously score the goal that sealed the win over Barca two season ago. Last year he scored in the UEFA Cup Final and he scored in this year's Super Cup as well as scoring twice last week in Germany in a must win game for Chelsea.

It is still unlikely that Torres' spell at Chelsea will ever be remembered as anything except a failure but his stats do deserve more consideration than people may realise. Should Torres continue this type of form under Mourinho then there may be a case for true optimism for the former Spain centre forward who of course will have a World Cup that he will want to go to - No Nonsense.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Does Gareth need baled out?

Whilst it would be completely premature to suggest that Gareth Bale has flopped at Real Madrid, what is entirely apparent however is that he is struggling so far and struggling badly.

One could argue none of this is Bale's fault. He did not after all decide the transfer fee, he is not choosing to be unfit or for his body to be letting him down and he is probably not asking to play whilst he is in that condition. He also has presumably not asked to be played out of position as he was in his first 'El Classico'.

One could also argue that (so far) much of this is Bale's fault. After all, when he effectively held Daniel Levy's feet to the fire by refusing to train at Spurs, knowing Levy's reputation and track record, what other outcome than a world record transfer fee did he think would occur?

One could also argue that a player who relies on pace and power and has a patchy fitness record should probably have felt that turning up for training early in the season might be a good idea knowing that the expectation at Madrid would be enormous and hitting the ground running was important.

Again, one could argue that going to arguably the biggest club in the world with one of the finest players ever (with an ego to match) already playing in your position might mean that you may have to be ready to be shoe horned in to the team wherever you can get a game.

Bale remains an extremely good player and he will get better - he is too good not to - for sure but for 100M Euros, far better performances are expected especially when you are playing Barcelona.

Whilst it wasn't a particularly outstanding game, the big players all showed up. For Real, Ronaldo was full of purpose if left very frustrated. For Barca, Messi eventually drifted out of the game but his presence on the pitch was still felt and Neymar who cost half what Bale did scored the opening goal and looked lively all night.

Bale looked hopelessly unfit and whilst it is Ancelotti (or Perez?) that chose to play an unfit player out of position at centre forward, Bale was a passenger until the oft maligned Karim Benzema replaced him and made a far greater impact immediately crashing a shot against the bar.

Of course it is unlikely that Ancelotti asked for Bale, it was a typical Perez move with little thought for the balance of the team and given the fee there was certainly huge pressure to play him last night.

Arsenal are revelling in the performances of Ozil who cost less than half his fee. Ozil provided the finesse to compliment Ronaldo's pace and power, without his assists Ronaldo is also finding things tougher.

Forwards in particular thrive from confidence and Bale's may start to wane especially with Madrid now off the pace in a league where any lost points can mean the end of your campaign prematurely. The white handkerchiefs can come out very quickly at the Bernabeau especially if they are lagging Barcelona which again they now are.

Ancelotti and Madrid need to quickly get Bale fit and find a system that gives him a platform to show off his immense talents. Bale of course did score in his first game and managed to win an iffy penalty at least the previous week. He needs to do far far more however if this is not to be a season to forget at Real.

Regardless it may be that it will be next season before Madrid really see the best of Bale as there are other issues such as language and a new country to settle into. It may take even longer if it proves he cannot play with Ronaldo, there should be no reason why it can't work but one would suspect that Ronaldo does not with to share the stage with anyone.

No one should blame Bale for chasing his dream and the ambition he has shown to prove himself abroad for arguably the world's biggest club is admirable. For that reason alone we wish him well - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard - is Fergie right?

Much of Ferguson's book will have led to wailing and a gnashing of teeth, that is of course the whole point. Why else would you buy it if it was all nice and fuzzy.

What will have people on the Kings Road and at the Kop particularly agitated however is the assertion that Frank Lampard is 'not an elite International player' and Steven Gerrard is 'not a top top player'. This despite Ferguson expressing remorse at not signing either previously. So is he right or is he just selling books?

Firstly, for the purposes of this debate let me say I'm a Chelsea supporter and a huge Frank Lampard fan. Lampard is a Chelsea legend, many would argue their greatest ever player. But does that make him truly world class?

In a debate about Chelsea's greatest ever player for instance, a recent name that would pop up is Dennis Wise. A great servant and fan favourite yes but hardly world class.Wise of course played at a time when Chelsea moved from mid table to a top six team whereas Lampard has won leagues and European titles with Chelsea.

Being a fan favourite or even being voted your club's greatest ever player doesn't necessarily put you in the category of being world class either. We can take Ferguson's own ManU as an example. Ryan Giggs was recently voted ManU's greatest ever player and Cantona has won many polls also.

Was Giggs as talented as Ronaldo or Best? Was he as influential as Keane or Robson, did he score as many goals as Bobby Charlton? Yes he has won lots of medals but so has Gary Neville and he doesn't figure in the debate too widely.

For those who put Cantona at the top, was he remotely as good as Dennis Bergkamp? Did he ever do it in Europe on in a World Cup? What he did have were a couple of mercurial domestic seasons and was a swaggering maverick who stuck two fingers up to everyone, he was a cult (that's an 'l') footballer who the fans adored but again it doesn't make you world class.

Whilst this reasoning may seem to have little so far to do with the debate about Gerrard and Lampard, the point is to aim to remove the emotion from the debate and look at the players on their merits. We'll start with Lampard.

Lampard has been an incredible servant to Chelsea. He is possibly the most consistent Premiership player of his generation scoring bags of goals every season. He has a good range of passing, has missed few matches ever through injury and is rarely guilty of having a bad game.

On the flip side his play has been described as one dimensional (not by me I would add), he lacks pace, has not always excelled at International level and many of his goals are scuffed or are deflections and he takes the penalties and a few people used to call him fat - I wish I was that fat I can tell you.

Gerrard likewise has served Liverpool incredibly in which one CL win aside has been a pretty miserable period for the Reds. He has scored plenty of goals, has had some incredible inspirational performances in big matches and finals, has been hugely loyal and is an incredible dynamic presence within the team as well as being a natural leader.

Against this probably counts being injury prone, until recently having been inconsistent for his country and a lack of being able to do anything on the pitch other than at one hundred miles an hour.

As we have said, both will go down as legends and quite rightly so, their achievements are immense. The question is would you call them 'world class'?

As an example, Lampard has been more consistent than Gerrard and has won far more. Few (including me) would argue however against Gerrard at his peak being superior to Lampard. The extra pace and dynamism alone that he had made that difference.

Both however at their peaks - to me at least - would suffer by comparison to say Zinedine Zidane or even (and I hate to say it) Roy Keane at the peak of their own powers. Both those players were respectively the very best at what they did.

Does either player have the ability and skill that say Edgar Davids or a Clarence Seedorf did? Again probably not. Many would argue that Paul Scholes was vastly superior to either although that's a debate I personally think is a far closer one.

I was thinking of a greatest Chelsea eleven as an example and if you played 4-2-3-1 as is currently en vogue and you had Lampard as part of the '2', could you honestly say he was better than either Makelele or Ballack? At their respective peaks both were incredible players and gave wonderful balance to a team.

If by definition of being elite or world class, you give weight to consistency then both players deserve to be counted so, if however it is about pure ability then the argument becomes tougher.

Ryan Giggs for instance has achieved everything there is to achieve yet Marc Overmars at his peak was a far better player for me and Giggs never got close ever to having an entire season like Gareth Bale had last year. Would however either as of now be remembered favourably to Giggs? Bale of course has time on his side.

As I mentioned earlier, Michael Ballack for me had more ability than Lampard, possibly by a distance but who would Chelsea fans vote for, Lampard of course and probably so would I.

I would agree with Ferguson about Souness being better than Gerrard because Gerrard cannot dictate the pace and rhythm of a game in the way that a Souness could. Many or even most Liverpool fans would disagree however.

If the debate is were they as brilliant at the peak of their games as the Zidanes and Keanes then the answer is probably no.

If that means that they are not world class then I'm sure however a lot of Chelsea and Liverpool fans will settle for not having world class players - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

World Cup Preview - Belgium, The Real Deal?

Belgium right now are the flavour of the moment. Their players are peppering the top leagues in Europe - mainly the Premiership - and they have qualified for the World Cup at a canter in a group where they were actually seeded second behind Croatia. Many are tipping them for big things in Brazil next year but we ask, are they really as good as the hype suggests?

Belgium it should be remembered has a proud footballing history despite a poor recent history. I grew up knowing players such as Jan Ceulemans, Frankie Van Der Elst, Eric Gerets, Preudhomme and then later the wonderfully talented Enzo Scifo, Phillipe Albert and  Luc Nilis.

Belgium pushed England all the way during their '90 semi final run and the likes of Anderlecht have a proud European club history.

After a lengthy hiatus, Belgium are back and with a team that looks hugely exciting and full of talent. We have of course been here with other nations and talks of a 'golden generation' can often be hugely overdone - especially if you follow England (which I don't).

Recent golden generations that have however succeeded are France (WC '98 and EC '00) and Spain (EC '08, WC '10, EC '12). They are big shoes for the Belgians to fill, especially as they seem to be coming from much further back than either of those nations.

Whilst many of the players look to be of genuine quality, they do of course lack any tournament experience and like all the European teams (more daunting one would guess for the Northern ones) they face the prospect of competing in South America where the Europeanas have never won.

Marc Wilmots gives experience and know how as coach but the question is, just how good are their players?

The goalkeeping position is currently held by Thiabaut Courtois, yet another Chelsea player out on loan and excelling at Atletico Madrid. Courtois was easily the best goalkeeper in Spain last season and offers security in that position.

As an aside, Chelsea will face a tough decision sooner rather than later whether to persevere with Petr Cech and risk losing Courtois or whether to possibly move the Chelsea legend on and make way for the hugely impressive youngster.

Simon Mignolet provides back up and good competition for a position where Belgium look well equipped.

The defence is possibly the area where there may be a weakness for the Belgians. Van Buyten is now 35 years old and Vermaelen has struggled at times for Arsenal after what looked a promising start to his career there.

Vertonghen has been solid for Spurs but he is far from the quickest and as yet, Toby Alderweireld is yet to play a game for his new club Atletico Madrid.

Vincent Kompany remains a rock at the heart of their defence however and his fitness will be a key factor for them at next year's WC. As with many uncompromising defenders, injuries are starting to take their toll and he has already missed a lot of football for his club this season.

Further forward however and you begin to realise what all the hype is about. Axel Witsel was hugely coveted by many clubs before ultimately plumping for the money on offer at Zenit. That choice however should not detract from his obvious quality.

Much has been written about Marouane Fellaini after his high profile move to ManU and whilst he has enjoyed an indifferent start, playing in the CL for the Reds will undoubtedly help him develop further. He remains a physically imposing presence in midfield if lacking a little mobility.

Both Steven Defour and Mousa Dembele serve up further cultured offerings in the centre of the park meaning that Belgium have a plethora of midfield options. It is further forwards yet however where people are starting to get really excited.

Eden Hazard's protracted courtship by several clubs the previous Summer ended when he finally plumped for Chelsea. Whilst not yet the finished article, Hazard is clearly a huge talent who looks to be capable of playing and influencing games in much the same way that Luis Figo once did. Belgium will be looking for big things for him in Brazil.

His Chelsea team mate Kevin De Bruyne is far rawer than Hazard despite being the same age. De Bruyne now needs to translate that potential into a more finished article.

Aston Villa's Christian Benteke offers a potent striking option for Belgium alongside Chelsea's on loan striker Romelu Lukaku. Both strikers are quick, strong and have a good eye for goal and will be a handful for any defenders this Summer.

The likes of Everton's Kevin Mirallas and Spurs Nacer Chadli again show the depth of talent that Belgium currently have, it is an impressive squad.

There seems little doubt that this is a Belgium team bulging with talent and potential. It does however look to be a team short of experience at the very sharpest end especially in the forward positions.

They will of course benefit from not carrying anything like the baggage that an England, an Italy or even the hosts Brazil this time will carry into the tournament and will not suffer the same fear factor.

Belgium currently occupy a top 8 World ranking position meaning that they could receive a favourable draw at the upcoming tournament. They should be well placed to qualify from their group and as everyone knows anything can happen in the knockout stages.

The very best, the likes of Germany, Spain, Brazil should however be too strong for the Belgians but a quarter or even a semi final showing could well be on the cards for a team that is going to continue to improve.

Whilst the World Cup could be a step too far for this fabulous generation of players, the Euros in France in 2016 could be a serious prospect for such a highly talented team.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Poyet the right man for the Stadium of Light?

Jobs in English football don't come much tougher than in the North East. A combination of a hugely loyal mainly working class (apologies for any stereotyping) fan base, excellent and often full stadiums and an insane amount of over expectation mean that the natives are regularly restless and more often than not are left hugely disappointed.

Middlesborough and Newcastle in particular have also been on huge roller coasters and images such as Juninho sat crying on the pitch after a Boro team containing he, Ravanelli and Emerson were relegated stick hugely in the mind, they also lost two cup finals that season.

Alan Shearer rejected ManU, joining Newcastle instead as they broke the transfer world record. He never won another trophy in his otherwise glittering career to add to the solitary one he won at Blackburn, but such is the loyalty these clubs garner. That Newcastle side of Lee, Ginola, Albert, Asprilla et all was a joy to behold but it was a fleeting passing.

Sunderland themselves are no strangers to disappointment. Eras such as that of Quinn and Phillips were failed to be built upon. Roy Keane looked to be the new Messaih on Wearside only for everyone to realise the only similarity was a big beard before he disappeared off to walk his dogs again.

Martin O'Neil looked a sound enough appointment for the Black Cats but again it didn't quite work out. Sunderland like their NE rivals suffer from a perennial identity crisis and lack of cohesive direction.

Newcastle and Sunderland in particular are huge institutions with huge crowds to match but everytime they place the bar higher they stumble and fall and invariably get relegated at some stage. It should not be the case.

O'Neil's reign came to an abrupt halt last season when the Sunderland management deemed theirs to be an irreversible slide and the shock therapy of the highly combustible Paolo Di Canio was seen as the required antidote.

Di Canio proved quickly what many believed him to be, a good coach but terrible man manager horribly out of his depth. Pampered superstars do not take well to being slapped around the head constantly and hauled in at 7am on Sunday mornings. It was never going to last.

Which leads us finally to the title of this piece, that of the appointment of Gustavo Poyet. Poyet of course was a hugely successful and popular player at Chelsea before going on to become a favourite at Spurs afterwards.

Poyet's coaching career kicked off alongside his ex Chelsea teammate Dennis Wise before a truncated spell back at Spurs alongside the ill fated Juande Ramos. It was at Brighton however where Poyet as a manager made his name.

Poyet's spell at Brighton was an excellent one before ending in acrimony after falling out with the chairman. In his time there he won promotion to the Championship at the first time of asking and pushed hard towards the Premiership, all the time playing good football.

For many Sunderland fans given the failed Di Canio experiment, the similarities may look too much to contemplate. Both were excellent Premiership players, both did well at a lower level in management and neither had or have Premiership experience.

The comparisons however should possibly stop there. Poyet after all whilst no shrinking violet is not as volatile as Di Canio and looks far more capable of compromise when required. He has received many awards from his piers, a sign that his methods are far more sustainable.

Many in the North East will be crying out for some good old fashioned British management, some grit and steel to sort out an under performing squad. That would possibly be all well and good were it an entire squad of Lee Cattermoles - but it is not.

The Sunderland board sanctioned a huge Di Canio and Roberto Di Fanti led Summer shopping spree meaning that the Black Cats' squad is one of the most cosmopolitan one in the league.

One must imagine that most of those players were signed with their technical ability in mind and therefore a coach with sound tactics and methods is the most pertinent appointment rather than an 'up and at 'em' approach.

It is hard to truly gauge the quality of the Sunderland squad given that so many of the new arrivals are an unknown quantity in terms of the Premiership.

Genuine quality did however leave in the shape of Mignolet and Sessegnon, the latter of which could prove an aberration by Di Canio and hugely representative of his ability to only deal in absolutes.

Poyet's job is of course a simple one, keep Sunderland up. Poyet it seems from his comments at Brighton is ambitious and should Sunderland be relegated even, his prospects there are far better in the Championship than they were with Brighton. Should he keep them up then the LMA awards may come calling again and his CV will have another gold star.

Given Sunderland's predicament it seems a choice that offers little to lose. If they go down they have a manager well versed in Championship football and with the promise of huge potential if they have got it right and they stay up.

Sunderland's folly was appointing Di Canio in the first place. He did keep them up but his record last season was also poor, he merely did less badly than a Wigan Athletic team hugely distracted by the FA Cup.

Sunderland however compounded this error by then re-assembling their squad presumably to his liking and then jettisoning him when that squad rebelled. Given that the stories coming out of Sunderland were of no surprise and sounded exactly the same as at Swindon, why appoint him in the first place? What they got is what they appointed.

Most or all of Sunderland's problems are of their own doing. Whilst Gustavo Poyet may seem like yet another high risk appointment, the reality is they are rock bottom of the Premiership with morale at an all time low. Hiring one of the brightest young coaches in football right now might not be the worst idea after all - No Nonsense.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Chelsea's first away win in the league

Chelsea fans won't be getting too excited by what should have been and ultimately was a fairly routine victory at Carrow Road against a very workmanlike Norwich City.

It was a performance with several short comings but it is the three points that matters and that is what the pragmatist Mourinho will ultimately care about.

Chelsea had taken an early lead through an excellent first time finish from Oscar after a lay off from Ba who had started brightly. After that the game settled into a fairly predictable pattern with only Oscar and Schurrle looking threatening occasionally for the Blues.

Yet again, Chelsea's centre forward - Demba Ba today - failed to find the net or look particularly like doing so, it is of course a problem that everyone is aware of and no one will have failed to notice that Romelu Lukaku notched again for Everton yesterday, this time against Manchester City.

Chelsea sloppily conceded a Norwich equaliser in the 2nd half although the Canaries' hard work and endeavour had possibly deserved something by that stage.

What is of concern for Chelsea fans is that the Chelsea central defence was again 'out muscled' for the goal. Chelsea's core strength was always the heart of their defence but Christian Benteke was also able to bully the defence physically early in the season.

David Luiz - the writer is a huge fan I would add - again showed some excellent anticipation and touches mixed with some typical over zealousness. He remains a rough diamond that Mourinho must surely polish. His talent is without question.

It is interesting that Luiz and Mata have attracted much of the criticism and doubt during Mourinho's early return but both have started the last two matches and it would be a surprise were they not to form part of his inner sanctum. Mourinho's psychology is already at work.

One of Mourinho's previous traits was his excellent use of substitutes and Mourinho duly utilised his strong looking bench supremely with two of his three substitutes scoring the goals that ultimately took the three points back to Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho's ability to alter the team's tactics and shape not relying on substituting like for like - Hazard replacing Cole and going to a three at the back system - was also reminiscent of his previous stint at the Bridge.

Chelsea broke quickly from a Norwich corner with Willian heading on to Oscar who's sublime first touch took him clear of the Norwich defender. His through ball to the on rushing Hazard was mis controlled by Norwich's last man allowing Hazard to fire in under John Ruddy who possibly should have done better.

Chelsea have always had a strong character under Mourinho and rather than sensing relief from the goal, Chelsea pushed on and via a slightly lucky break of the ball involving Samuel Eto'o, Willian curled in a sublime third to end the match as a contest.

The scoreline was possibly a little tough on Norwich although Chelsea had demonstrated a huge technical superiority over their hosts throughout the ninety minutes.

The Blues still have work to do and whilst it was not a hugely impressive performance, there were the first signs that Mourinho's will is starting to imprint itself on the team - No Nonsense.

Man of the Match - Oscar.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The title race looks wide open

Fans of ManU, Chelsea and Man City are having their predictions of a three horse race proven correct yet again, the only slight issue being the three horses involved right now don't belong to them.

Funnies aside, this promises to be the most open Premiership in years with the lack of a clearly dominant team.Whilst it's unlikely that the current table will reflect the finishing positions, there has clearly been a shift in balance in the league starting with a dreadful start from the champions, United.

There was always going to be a 'blip' but it beginning to look like much more than that. Many people stated last year that it was far from a vintage Reds team despite the runaway league win and it is now looking to be a correct call.

People will point to Moyes as being the biggest factor and it is true that his tactics and outlook have appeared as if he is still at Goodison. Everton however were usually hard to beat whereas City could have run up a cricket score against United last week if they had really wanted to.

Of their core players, only Rooney and Van Persie are in their prime.Vidic, Ferdinand and Giggs are all past their best with Giggs already looking his full 40 years and entirely ineffective at the top level. Carrick and Fellaini are not hugely mobile either and with Evra also on the wane, the Reds look very susceptible against pace and movement.

This coupled with Moyes' conservative tactics and United have begun to look like a very ordinary team with only a smattering of top quality. Other players such as Nani and Young continue to flatter to deceive and are obviously inferior to the comparable players at the other top clubs.

Following on in last year's finishing order. City probably look to have the best team and the best squad in depth but they appear to be suffering from slight schizophrenia in away matches right now. Pellegrini should however steadily put things right and they will be dominant at home.

Should their CL excursions go better this season, they will have to contend with juggling European football and the league, it is not the easiest thing to master and may prove a distraction for them.

They do however have a wonderful squad with firepower to spare and should they get some momentum, then a more harmonious dressing room should see them go very close this season.

Jose Mourinho is not having things all his own way since his return with a squad big on quality and numbers but hopelessly unbalanced, lacking both holding midfielders and with a misfiring strike force.

Chelsea have endured a nightmare start to their CL campaign with a home loss to Basel. Another drop into the Europa league and the Thurs/Sun issue would be hugely disruptive again. Their form needs to pick up quickly in both competitions.

The biggest issue right now however is that the squad doesn't seem to fit with Mourinho's tactics. His most successful sides had his identity stamped all over them and this one looks far from a 'Mourinho team' right now. Many (including me) had them as favourites from the outset but they face a hard season if they wish to truly challenge for the title. Like City however, they will improve.

One must assume that Arsene Wenger is in full 'I told you so' mode right now and sitting top of the table he may have the right to do so. The fact remains however that Arsenal have not challenged for the title in an age and have done little or nothing to address the fact their squad is the most threadbare of the anticipated top six.

Mesut Ozil was a wonderful buy but possibly a player they needed the least given the urgent need in other areas. Ozil has typically struggled to finish matches for Real and with Wilshire and Walcott both horribly fragile, keeping this level of performance up for an entire season may be tough. Ramsey will not continue scoring a goal a game either.

What must however gall Gunners fans the most is the 'what if' Wenger had actually strengthened the team as required in addition to buying Ozil? With the league so open this season and new managers in place in last year's top 3, the addition of 2-3 quality players could have seen Arsenal as strong title contenders.

Top 4 finishes are all well and good but Arsenal fans are crying out for a trophy and the Premiership is the one they want.Wenger again didn't address the main squad deficiencies and may yet again be the one receiving the 'I told you so' come season end. There was and is a huge opportunity this season.

Spurs fans will be on cloud nine. Having endured the disappointment of missing out on the CL yet again last season and then the departure of Gareth Bale, an excellent start to the season and a strong squad has them all dreamy eyed.

Spurs have certainly progressed under AVB and the team appears to be gelling after their poor display against Arsenal. Against Chelsea on Saturday they were certainly more than capable of competing physically, something they have struggled with in the past.

Whilst Spurs have added numbers however and developed a great squad, their first eleven now lacks Bales' match winning quality. Whilst they have bought in numbers, possibly buying the very best rather than sheer quantity (buying Ozil instead of Eriksen and Lamela together as an entirely hypothetical example) could have seen them really challenge at the top. Defensively they appear to lack a little against the very best also.

Whilst a title tilt is probably a step too far for a club that finished 5th last season (Thurs/Sun football will prove a hindrance again) CL football at the least could be a reality for them next season. The White Hart Lane faithful will however dare to dream.

Like Spurs, Liverpool appear to be heading in the right direction and have had an excellent start to the season with only a home aberration against Southampton to spoil things. Rogers' tactics and philosophy are slowly being indoctrinated into the team and Luis Suarez looks go be back with a bang.

Liverpool have genuine hope of making progress this season although the competition is fierce. Again like Spurs, Liverpool must be wondering what might have transpired had they aimed a little higher in the transfer market. It is of course difficult if you cannot offer CL football and they both probably bought as well as they could have.

Liverpool have no European distractions this season and already being out of the League Cup, they have the opportunity to keep their squad fresh and rested.

Nearly all managers rubbish the January transfer window but if United's form doesn't pick up, Chelsea's strikers don't improve and Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal all still hold any kind of title hope come the new year, then we could see a January window like no other.

On balance, we'd still lean towards a title race between the twin blues of City and Chelsea. Arsenal will harbour true title aspirations (as may Spurs) also after their excellent start. It will almost certainly require a lower points total this season with the victor possibly losing as many as 7 or 8 games - United have already lost 3 times and City twice.

Liverpool and Spurs however can have realistic hopes of breaking down the door of the top 4, the most pertinent point being though that it is the champions who look the most vulnerable right now. There's a long way to go however - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Does Test Cricket have a long term future?

First of all, I'd like to say I certainly hope so. It may also feel a little odd to consider such a debate half way through sold out back to back Ashes series but there is a far far larger problem at hand.

The vast majority of test cricket played is not the Ashes and is played out with dwindling interest across the world for many of the fixtures.

Test cricket suffers in the modern day on two levels. The first is that in this age of fast food entertainment, a sport that can take 5 days in theory to produce a result that is a draw - that the vast majority of the world cannot understand - is always going to have reduced appeal given the vast array of instant result options on the average satellite dish.

The second is that cricket suffers in an even worse way from the same problem that rugby has in that it is a vastly closed shop with few established nations. There are of course, sports such as AFL that thrive because of their uniqueness and singularity. The AFL does not purport itself as a global game however.

This is of course fine up to a point as long as the established nations maintain their standards and interest but as has been obvious with the West Indies, the access to other sports on television and the money involved has had a negative influence and has diluted interest.

Whilst I don't live in Australia and merely as a foreigners' observation, it is interesting to see a decline in cricket and union (possibly, I'm far from an expert) standards at the same time as soccer has surged in popularity within the country.

I'm an unashamed purist and even a snob when it comes to test cricket, I love it above all else and have little time for ODIs, I find them formulaic, dull, predictable and often one sided.

I do however enjoy T20 for it's unabashed fun and freshness and watch it regularly. I love both good wine and cold beer in the same way, they're completely different but hit the same spot for me.

What is clear however is that the short formats of the game are funding the long format. Whilst England and Australia can boast regular large test crowds, no other nation including India can on a regular basis say this for all opposition.

There is clearly a huge appetite for the shorter formats and it would be mad not to embrace, much of the blame must reside with the adminstrators of the test game.

Whilst we all love the Ashes and also look forward to SA and India touring I would assume, the problem is that the level of interest outside the core nations is waning and so it seems is the talent pool.

Whilst T20 has born out a variety of new shots and increased bowling variations and possibly sharpened fielding, for me the general quality of test match cricket has vastly reduced at the same time.

In the past few years alone we have lost from test cricket (in no particular order and by no means complete) Gayle, Hayden, Ponting, Langer, Martin, Hussey, Gilchrist, Lee, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie, Dravid, Tendulkar (soon to be), Sehwag, Kumble, Murali, Jayasuriya, Ambrose, Walsh, Lara, Flintoff, Kallis (soon to be), Donald, Pollock, Inzaman, Akhtar, Laxmann.

Whilst some fantastic genuine test players such as Clarke, J Anderson, Amla, G Smith, Kohli, Pietersen, Cook, Sangakkara, Morkel, Zaheer and Steyn have certainly emerged, the skill set required for test cricket looks to be on the slide.

Only the South African and England attacks right now could argue to have bowlers of any real compare to what was around a few years ago.

Far fewer batsmen appear to have the ability now also to bat through an entire day despite the attacks being as mentioned generally weaker and with pitches with often less demons than yesteryear. Most test teams appear to be heading the wrong way in both disciplines.

It is hard to imagine more and more batsmen doing what Tendulkar did in quitting limited overs cricket to prolong their test careers. The pattern will be to follow the Chris Gayle model and become a T20 gun for hire instead. There are rumours that Kevin Pietersen could do just that after this next Ashes series.

It could of course simply be part of a cycle in the sport but there does appear to be a link between the growth of the short format and the wane of test quality. The problem is we now need the short formats to subsidise the long format as mentioned.

It could also simply be that the numbers of youngsters sticking with cricket globally is falling. It is far far easier to earn a living at a plethora of other sports than reaching the pinnacle of cricket which you have to if you want to be well rewarded financially. Money talks these days as in all walks of life.

Longer term however those implications are a worry for the standard of all forms of cricket. Deficiencies in a players' game show up far more obviously in test cricket. T20 has not even been around long enough to be able to remotely compare standards.

Like it or not, much of the power in the game resides with India, they have the biggest TV numbers, the IPL and the biggest say. One does not however get the impression that the BCCI is in any way prioritising test cricket.They may ask however why they should they?

If India chooses to move its' focus further away from test cricket then the Ashes in time could be seen by the rest of the world as a quaint little custom between the two protagonists. Whilst we may say we care not, it is impossible to suggest that standards could be maintained in such a scenario.

Much of the problem with the depth in test cricket resides with the smaller test nations who have fallen away badly. Standards have dropped in New Zealand, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, the latter two as part of bigger social and political problems granted.

Bangladesh for similar reasons have simply not been able to move forwards and Sri Lanka has a huge focus on the shorter formats in which they excel. But for all the reasoning and rationale, in simple terms it remains about money and it is not cost effective for these nations for pour money that they don't have in to test cricket. There is simply not enough depth of competition in the test arena.

Test cricket could of course remain as almost a closed shop between SA, Australia, India and England where the 4 big nations simply play each other at tedium but anyone who can remember Wasim and Waqar, Ambrose, Walsh and Lara will hark for an era were there was strength in depth around the world.

I unfortunately am not really offering much in the way of an answer, merely expressing concern at the demise of my most beloved of sports. Whilst the spectre of no test cricket may seem a far off notion, one really must wonder where it will be in ten or even twenty years time.

Some sports do drop away, boxing as an example has been supplanted largely by MMA. The heavyweight championship of the world used to be almost the pinnacle of sport, now most would struggle to name another heavyweight outside of the Klitchko brothers, it can happen.

For Australia and England, there seems little to worry about right now as their grounds are regularly full but if there is little variety and quality of opposition to play against then the interest will surely dwindle also in the long term. Sports thrive on competition.

What test cricket can do is to modernise and help itself. One other Roar writer discussed the prospect of flood lit tests recently and it is a suggestion with huge merit.

The ending of the the 5th test at the Oval was a prime example of how out of step with modern times test cricket is. Everyone wanted to see the climax of a thrilling (albeit dead rubber) end to a game only to be thwarted by the umpires taking the players off. It should be added that the umpires were not at fault, it was the antiquated rules that they were obliged to follow.

In its' purest form, playing for a draw amongst bad light as the 5th day draws to a close is the essence of test cricket but the test arena needs to adapt if it is to survive.

A simple way to generate interest is for more of the sessions to be available to people when they are not at work, television audiences would benefit greatly also and that is where the gravy train mainly passes through.

Of the 15 sessions of a test match, only 6 are offered during a period that the people in that country are not at work (the weekend) unless there is a public holiday. How can that compete against finishing work and heading down to the ground or switching on the TV in the evening for the 2nd innings of an OD or an entire T20 match in this day and age?

The simple fact is that purists such as myself are crying out for the restoration of something to its' former glory that simply isn't feasible in this day and age in its' current state. ODs and T20s are subsidising the vast majority of cricket, it is not for them to take a lesser role, it is for the associations to find a way to haul test cricket back up by its' boot straps - if they of course wish to.

I used a comparison to boxing earlier. When the heavyweight division fell away, everyone said it didn't matter, the middleweight division was strong and there were great welter and lightweights. Now, once Mayweather and Pacquiao have retired, there doesn't really look anything left to the wider world audience whatsoever.

Using that analogy, should the 'first class' form of cricket fall by the wayside entirely then the prospects for the shorter game may well find themselves next, it could be a freight train that proves very hard to stop.

Possibly it is a poor comparison and analogy but the competition between sports these days for viewers' attention has never been fiercer and it is not going to get any less so.

It is probably a little premature to suggest 'armageddon' for the test arena but the cricket boards and most pertinently the most powerful ones need to act soon for the good of the long format, that is of course if they do indeed still care....... No Nonsense

Monday, September 16, 2013

Much work ahead for Mourinho.

Whilst the loss at Everton was far from a disaster as Chelsea didn't play particularly badly - they were just extremely profligate in front of goal - Mourinho's comments after the game sought to put some perspective on the expectation surrounding the club. This is not yet a team in his image.

There is much about this Chelsea squad to admire given the size and depth and the more youthful appearance that it now has. It is however at odds with Mourinho's style to a large degree.

Whilst at Chelsea the first time, Mourinho played a 4-3-3 compromising of a solid midfield 3 of the likes of Makelele, Lampard and Ballack, speedy wingers and a powerful centre forward.

In Madrid where he had far more attacking expectations, Mourinho's tactics morphed more in to a 4-2-3-1 given that he had too exceptional deep lying midfielders in Khedira and Xavi Alonso which afforded the likes of Ronaldo and Ozil the freedom they craved. He could also play Pepe in a destructive deep lying midfield role.

Mourinho has adopted a similar style at Chelsea but the problem is he does not really possess the players required in the deeper roles. Mikel is lacking at the very top and whilst an ageing Lampard and the tireless Ramires are both excellent players, neither is a natural holding player and their talents are stifled in such a system. Both are far more suited to playing in a 4-3-3.

To switch to a 4-3-3 however would be to give less credence to Chelsea's obvious strength of the '3' in the 4-2-3-1. Of the players that operate in those positions, only Oscar could reasonably be expected to play in a deeper role given his largely unnoticed tackling and tracking back.

Leaving the likes of Hazard and Mata purely on the wing again seems a waste, the interchanging in the current system suits them wonderfully. He also has to find game time for Schurrle, De Bruyne and Willian.

Time and time again in his previous Chelsea guise, Mourinho waxed lyrical of the benefits of having an extra man in midfield, namely Claude Makelele. To facilitate that you need to play 4-3-3.

The 4-2-3-1 feels in a way like a compromise that Mourinho has made to satisfy the attacking cravings of his paymasters at Madrid and Chelsea. Neither also are necessarily teams where he had complete charge of the transfer policy. Adding Schurrle, De Bruyne and Willian this Summer gives him little option in terms of the system he can employ.

Given this array of attacking options, Mourinho will be forced to be bold but he clearly needs to marry this to the pragmatism he always feels is required and which has made his teams so successful.

Whilst Madrid performed on the whole very well under him, it never really appeared as if it was his team in the same way it did at Chelsea first time around or at Internazionale where his identity, tactics and character were stamped all over the park.

If Mourinho is to repeat his previous glories at Chelsea and turn them into Champions League contenders again then the balance of the squad needs to be addressed and Abramovich must indulge some of Mourinho's caution to proceedings.

It may well be that it is next season before we see a Chelsea team truly again in Mourinho's image, if indeed that is what the owner is prepared to sanction - No Nonsense.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Premiership Predictions

The transfer window is now closed so we can finally assess the runners and riders properly in projected finishing order. The placings will obviously prove to be ultimately incorrect in many instances and many people will disagree - often wildy - with some of the opinions.

The middle of the table in particular is incredibly difficult to differentiate as the squads are often of very comparable quality. Injuries, management and even just a good start could make performances fluctuate hugely. Regardless we have attempted to make a decent fist of it.

1st, Chelsea
Mourinho is back and Chelsea fans expect the Blue Machine to tick back in to gear. It is not quite the well oiled engine it was first time around however with issues in the striking position and in holding midfield.

The opposition however this time around is also not quite what it was and Mourinho should be just enough to tip the balance.

Chelsea had the same amount of points against the top half last season as ManU but 14 fewer against the bottom half. We can expect that ratio to swing.

2nd, Man City
City have jettisoned 3 hugely disruptive influences in Tevez, Balotelli and Mancini. Pellegrini appears to be exerting calm and their squad looks the most balanced and complete in the league with 4 quality new arrivals in the Summer.

Home form should be dominant so how City shape up away from home will dictate the strength of their title challenge, Cardiff did not auger well but it is early days and Pellegrini looks the part.

City are also going to have to come to terms with challenging on two fronts and the CL may prove a distraction if they can go further this time.

3rd, ManU
Many are predicting 'armageddon' for the Reds but we think that Moyes will steady the ship and they have a wealth of experience with big players with a winning mentality. The squad is inferior to the 2 teams above we have mentioned however and Ferguson is a huge loss.

Whoever took over from Ferguson was going to suffer a blip but we still think the Reds have enough big game players to see themselves through the season before the further rebuilding to come. The bookies are still tipping them firmly to finish in the top 3 and we think they are right.

Moyes' tactics will come under scrutiny away from home so it will be essential that the Reds maintain their imperious form at Old Trafford.

4th, Arsenal
It feels a little counter-intuitive but Arsenal simply keep qualifying for the Champions League. We feel there's nothing this time around to suggest it will be any different for reasons that will be explained with reference to the other teams.

Ozil is a fantastic player but not the top quality striker, holding midfielder and centre half that they needed to challenge for higher up. Their squad looks thin but they can still put out a very good first eleven.

Flamini was not the most spectacular of signings but he may be an adequate minder for Jack Wilshire if he can keep himself fit. They will be too good for most teams.

5th, Liverpool
Brendan Rodgers we feel is taking Liverpool in the right direction and is slowly but surely exerting his style and influence on the team and their play.

Luis Suarez will return and will want to be on top of his game with a South American world cup to follow. They already look a far better unit already than last season.

The team looks to have goals in it with Sturridge also in good early season form and with reinforcements at the back, they look a good unit. Keeping Steven Gerrard fit for the season will be important but we think they will continue to improve.

6th, Spurs
This one will be contentious we know. Spurs have added several good players to their squad. Soldado, Paulinho (we expect) and Lamela look top quality. However whilst Spurs have improved the depth of their squad dramatically, they have lost the player that could have been the difference in the big games, Bale.

The loss of Bale we feel means that even with a bulging squad, the best first eleven they can put out may not be stronger necessarily than last season so that glass ceiling above them may still remain.

They will however improve as the squad gels and many will feel that they are top 4 material, we remain to be convinced however.
7th, Swansea
After the supposed top 6, things get far more tricky as many of the teams are much of a muchness.
Michael Laudrup remains and so does Michu. They have also added a couple of good players in Bony and Shelvey who ensure Swansea will be competitive as well as pretty.

Good home form will be a must but unless there is another Cup final hangover we think they should maintain their form better this year and surprise many people.

8th, West Ham
Allardyce remains as canny a mid table manager as there is and everyone knows that West Ham will be tough to beat. The Hammers finished 10th last season with their form patchy at times. Downing is no Bale but he is a quality player at this level and will also add experience.

They have kept Carroll but he will need to stay fit if West Ham are to achieve such a finish, he will want to impress in a World Cup year for sure. Allardyce is slowly building a solid squad and we tip them to finish well this season.

9th, Everton
For the record, we don't rate Martinez here. Everyone continually talked of his wonders at Wigan whilst failing to address why their form in the first half of the season was so turgid.

Fellaini has gone and has not been replaced adequately and we would have actually marked them for a lower finishing place had it not been for the three players that arrived, Barry, McCarthy and Lukaku.

McCarthy looks expensive and seems to be the time honoured mistake that managers making returning to their older and smaller clubs. The other two however will add greatly to Everton's cause. Players such as Jagielka and Mirrallas are quality and Baines remains also.

There is not a huge amount of quality around them and if we are proven wrong about Martinez then they may finish higher.

10th, Aston Villa
Top half looks a big call given their relegation travails last season but they will be far stronger for it. They have also kept their prize asset Benteke and that means goals.

Villa have added a couple of summer signings to their young and bright squad and we predict better times for the Villians this season under the quietly impressive Paul Lambert.

11th, Fulham
Fulham will entertain and score goals this season, that is almost for certain given they have added Bent and Taarabat to a side already boasting Berbatov and Ruiz.

Scott Parker will add bite and know how in midfield and whilst they are certainly going to lose a few games, they will also win their fare share. The Cottagers may even finish higher if the front players really click.

12th, Stoke City
Mark Hughes is tough to like sometimes and QPR left his reputation in tatters. A slightly more humble Hughes may do well at Stoke and indeed, his problems seem to appear when he has a large transfer budget to spend as in at City and QPR and handling those players that come along as a result.

He will have no such issues at Stoke with a team much reflecting the locale of the city. If Hughes can mould Stoke in his own image - much as he did at Blackburn - then their usual home form can ensure a comfortable mid table finish.

13th, Southampton
There was much gnashing of teeth when Nigel Adkins was fired last season but the reality is that Mauricio Pochettino has done a good job since his arrival and he was not the one to blame.

The Saints have invested heavily in the summer but we remain to be convinced about the quality of Wanyama. Osvaldo is not the most mobile so possibly not the foil that Ricky Lambert required, he definitely has quality however when he's in the mood.

Like Fulham, if all their players click they may well finish higher but a comfortable season away from the relegation places is probably a good result for them.

14th, West Bromwich
The Baggies enjoyed a fabulous 8th place finish last season but it is hard to see them repeating their heroics this time around. Lukaku's goals have departed unfortunately but Sessegnong, Scott Sinclair and Anichebe all promise attacking intent.

Their squad remains small and they will need luck with injuries again. Steve Clarke remains a good and solid manager and we expect them to finish in the lower end of mid table.

15th, Newcastle Utd
The Geordies remain the biggest soap opera in town - which is saying something - with a disastrous summer thanks in no short measure to the bizarre appointment of Joe Kinnear as director of football.

Pardew will have to reintegrate Johan Cabaye as quickly as possible as he offers quality in midfield. Newcastle's squad is threadbare and they will need Loic Remy to stay fit. They flirted with relegation briefly last season but should be too good to go down.

16th, Norwich City
Chris Hughton has attempted to add goals to the team in the shape of Hooper and and Van Wolfswinkel. Norwich however retain a soft centre.

Home form will be important for the Canaries if they are not to get sucked into the relegation battle. It is time for Chris Hughton to show whether he too is capable of stepping up another level. Should stay up.

17th, Cardiff City
One of the three promoted teams usually does ok and we are picking Cardiff to be the one. Cardiff have invested relatively heavily during the summer and in Malky Mackay they have yet another bright young Glaswegian manager poised to take the next step.

Cardiff have started brightly with a famous victory against Man City but it is their form against the teams around them that will decide whether they can stay up. They should have enough.

18th, Sunderland
Di Canio was a fabulous player but appears not quite such as a person. As with so many top class players with the highest of standards he struggles to relate to players who cannot perform to the level he did ala Souness and Roy Keane. Glenn Hoddle was another example but his tactical acumen papered over many of those cracks.

Di Canio has brought in far too many players with no Premiership experience and jettisoned some strong characters. He quickly needs to realise that players at this level do not respond to be slapped around the head and grabbed by the neck every time he substitutes them, nor being criticised so often and so publicly.

Sunderland's only hope may be an awful start and his early firing, he is the favourite with the bookies after all. It could however all click and Sunderland will win the league, there is little but extremities with the volatile Roman.

19th, Hull City
Few managers are as overrated in England as Steve Bruce who simply fawns to more celebrated managers whilst keeping a look out for his next pay day.

Huddlestone and Livermore will add some much needed know how but it looks to be a long season for a team that probably were lucky to be promoted.

20th, Crystal Palace
Ian Holloway's last day super market trolley dash appears to have caused huge discombobulation amongst the incumbent Palace players.

It is questionable how much quality Holloway has genuinely added and despite his attempt to become more serious, it is debatable whether he is truly a capable manager at this level or merely a figure of mirth.

Palace are possibly not a shoe in for rock bottom but staying up should be beyond them for sure.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gareth Bale

It's not every day that the transfer record is broken so it's worth a little time to reflect on Real Madrid's latest piece of shopping.

We'll start by pushing the moral issue aside of a country with unemployment in the under 25s over 50pct seeing the team which is the very embodiment of the Madrid establishment spending 100M Euros on one player. What we want to know is in footballing (and commercial) terms, is he worth it?

The answer is that Madrid clearly think so and so therefore he is, the market is after all the market.  The question is also clouded slightly by the relative marketability of the player and Real obviously think Bale is very marketable indeed.

Asking the question about Bale's worth in pure footballing terms and there would seem little question that Real have overpaid and done so possibly dramatically.

If you pushed age to one side for a moment and considered who are the best players currently on the planet, I would list the following ahead of him in terms of ability and influence on matches, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gianlugi Buffon.

At least of comparable ability I would place Frank Ribery, Mesut Ozil, Luis Suarez, Radaman Falcao, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Aguero, Thiago Silva, Arjen Robben, Philip Lahm, Robin Van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The list above is incomplete and will no doubt provide much argument but it is merely aiming to illustrate a point. Of those players, only Lionel Messi would be transferred for more money than Bale has just gone for. None of the others would get even close apart from possibly Ronaldo although his age now counts against him.

Admittedly attacking players go for a premium but is Bale really worth more than double that of Mesut Ozil? He is for me is one of the best 'No10s' in the world and has proven himself already for Real and at the World Cup for Germany and is the same age. It strikes me that his sudden availability caught a LOT of managers off guard.

The other issue for Bale is that British players generally don't travel well. Real is one of the harshest of environments and whilst one must admire his ambition to prove himself at the very top of the game, he faces a very hard task to live up to his billing, especially given he will be asking Ronaldo to share that top billing with him.

Players always state that they have no control over the fee and that it does not matter to them but that is codswallop, the fee ALWAYS matters. It can either destroy a player as we've seen with the likes of Fernando Torres or it can embolden a player like it did with Ronaldo but be sure, they are always aware of it.

No less than Zinedine Zidane arrived in Madrid with a world record transfer fee hung around his neck and badly suffered for several months. Zidane of course finally settled and became a Madrid great but there is no one who can convince me right now that Bale will ever be in the same class as Zidane.

For 100M Euros you should be expecting the absolute finished article and Bale is not yet that. Although he looks far stronger physically now he has a shaky injury record, it is a big gamble for Madrid.

Merchandising will play a big part in Madrid's thinking also. They clearly feel from the way they have introduced him that he is far more marketable than Ozil (unless you suffer from a peculiar owl fetish) and that they can recoup a large amount of the deal commercially. Beckham after all famously paid his own way within a couple of seasons.

This may all sound unduly negative about Bale's prospects on the pitch at Real and it is very easy to snipe before seeing how he actually performs. Bale seems a decent enough down to earth bloke and no one other than maybe a few grouchy Spurs fans and the Nou Camp faithful will wish to see him fall flat.

Madrid however is THE footballing goldfish bowl and with language problems to conquer, a young family and that transfer fee, it is going to be a tough settling process. A hat trick in his first match might settle all that but we somehow think that Cristiano Ronaldo might have something to say about that - No Nonsense.