January 28, 2010

An old-fashioned welcome

Posted by Jon Champion on 28/01/2010

Even as someone lucky enough to visit the great citadels of English football on a regular basis, I am really looking forward to my trip to Turf Moor on Saturday. And not just because of the quality of the fish and chips outside the ground or even the pies within!

Whenever I have been to Burnley over the years, I have always been struck by the authenticity of the experience. The Clarets were founder members of the Football League in 1888. Turf Moor was their home then, just as it is now. As a backdrop, the Pennines take some beating, while the stadium itself, with its steep stands and old wooden seats, radiates history and noise.

The dressing rooms are spartan by today’s standards of luxury. The corridor that runs outside them is dimly lit and heavily populated by people scurrying in and out of a myriad of tiny rooms housing boots, laundry and memories.

Contrast that with the majority of Premier League venues, where the players’ environment is all subdued lighting, plunge pools and brushed steel - there is no comparison. When Chelsea’s multinational squad strut off the bus ahead of Saturday’s teatime’s live game on ESPN, they will be stepping back in time.

Indeed, the last Chelsea team to turn out at Turf Moor - back in 1983 - would have encountered similar conditions. For the record, Burnley won that game 3-0, with a brace of goals from Northern Ireland’s World Cup hero Billy Hamilton. Playing at right-back for the Clarets that day was 21-year-old Brian Laws. Saturday sees him make his home debut as Burnley’s manager.

It’s not the easiest job to have walked into. Owen Coyle is a hard act to follow and money is clearly tight. Three months without a Premier League win has seen much of the early-season optimism drift away. The last four home matches have ended in 1-1 draws and, for the first time, Burnley are in the bottom three, but if they are to save themselves, most of the salvage work will have to be done on their own pitch. They need Turf Moor to be as partisan and unwelcoming as possible.

They will hope to give Chelsea a stiff examination. The leaders have breezed through January and barely noticed the loss of their African players, but Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are now back in the mix. They entertain Arsenal next weekend but can afford no slip-ups at Burnley or Hull before that capital collision.

So Saturday is all about antiquity of surroundings, while ESPN’s Monday Night Football comes from the most modern of settings as Sunderland face Stoke at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland have forgotten how to defend and therefore how to win, but Stoke will arrive still buzzing from their FA Cup win over Arsenal. Only two points separate them in the Premier League table.

It will be a night for reunions. Six current Potters - Sorensen, Higginbotham, Collins, Delap, Whitehead and Lawrence - used to be Black Cats, and Stoke’s assistant manager, Peter Reid, was the man who led Sunderland to consecutive seventh-place finishes in the Premier League.

Steve Bruce’s men haven’t won in the League since beating Arsenal more than two months ago. Victory over the Gunners was a bad omen for them; their aim now is to make Stoke suffer a similar fate.

Time for Ronaldo to face reality

Posted by Dave Roberts on 28/01/2010

So Cristano Ronaldo is not happy at his two match ban, which he sees as ‘excessive’. I’ve only one thing to say: ‘Oh Diddums!’

Peyret: Ronaldo - Angel or Demon?

Each time I replay the weekend’s incident which left Partick Mtiliga with a broken nose I wince more and more. Ronaldo knew perfectly well what he was doing, his glance towards his opponent prior to throwing the forearm smash providing enough evidence to confirm his guilt.

He sized up Mtiliga, waited for the perfect moment and unleashed an intentional strike to the player’s face while doing his very best to make it look so accidental every Ronaldo fan on the planet can critcise my views for life. The fact is however, if he had been still wearing the red of Manchester United, he would have faced an automatic three-match ban for violent conduct.

Yes, I have to admit to taking a little satisfaction from his latest reaction as Karma at last seems to have appeared in the life of the Portuguese star. There is no doubt he is a hugely gifted player, and one I’d have in my team at an instant, but he has finally got his comeuppance.

Ronaldo has constantly flaunted the rules with his pathetic diving. He doesn’t just wait for contact, nor invites it, the former United charge has become the master of going down like a sack of spuds at the mere presence of another human being. His contorted faces of pure petulance when things don’t go his way another talent he could without.

So yes, I take joy in seeing him contort again to the news of punishment and hope it serves to remind him that there is more to the game than just talent. Try self control. However, my personal satisfaction is a little tempered at my disappointment at the Spanish Association’s (RFEF) acceptance that the ‘flailing forearm’ was neither wilful nor reckless. Come on, I ask you? For observations stated previously, I cannot go along with that one.

Therefore it is left to Spain’s Sporting Disciplinary Committee (CEDD) to hear Real’s appeal. Let us hope for the sake of the game they have sufficient backbone to take a leaf out of the English FA book and add to the punishment for a ‘frivolous appeal’.

Something tells me I shouldn’t hold my breath too long as the glitz of the appealer and pedestal height of the appealee, may well result in Senor Ronaldo pulling on the white jersey to face Espanyol next weekend.

Dave Roberts is a host of ESPNsoccernet Press Pass.

January 14, 2010

Bobby Manc: The Man City deity

Posted by Jon Champion on 14/01/2010

Their new-found wealth notwithstanding, there truly is no other club quite like Manchester City. Black and white would be more appropriate colours than the cherished light blue because they only seem to deal in extremes.

There is no middle ground for City’s followers. It’s either desolation or delight. The glass is never half-full or half-empty, only brimming over the edge or totally drained.

A straw poll of fans and officials in the wake of Monday’s impressive display against Blackburn uncovered a general belief that world domination cannot now be far away. After December’s messy divorce from Mark Hughes, January has brought a whirlwind romance with Roberto Mancini.

No other manager in the club’s history has begun with four consecutive victories, and when the urbane Italian strolled along the corridors of power at Eastlands late on Monday evening, still wearing that now familiar scarf, he was greeted like some sort of deity.

So anxious are Manchester City’s followers for sustained success that reason may have temporarily deserted them. Yes, they’ve made a perfect start under their new mentor and things look promising, but when this observer dared suggest a touch of realism and pointed out the accommodating nature of their recent fixtures, he was dismissed as some sort of spoilsport lunatic!

They may well be right, but if Roberto Mancini had been allowed to choose his early games, he might well have picked Wolves, Stoke, Middlesbrough and Blackburn. The Carling Cup semi-final ties against their neighbours and Premier League games in February against Liverpool and Chelsea may be a more accurate indicator. So too will be ESPN's live game this Saturday at Goodison Park.

Cruelly deprived of their best players for much of the past year, Everton are beginning to find their feet. They led twice at the Emirates last weekend and both the Gunners’ goals came courtesy of hefty deflections. The signing of Landon Donovan provides new impetus and genuine quality. They will be no-one’s soft touch from here on in.

Therefore we may start to get a clearer picture of where City stand. What Mancini has unquestionably brought is greater defensive rigour. Extra training sessions at Carrington have centred on establishing two banks of four when defending and the manager’s mantra demands those lines of midfielders and defenders should never be more than ten yards apart.

In Mark Hughes’ last four games, City conceded ten goals; in Mancini’s first four matches, they’ve let in just one – and Morten Gamst Pedersen’s effort for Blackburn on Monday elicited immediate anger from the Italian on the touchline.

There’s also the Tevez factor to consider. A United substitute has rapidly become a City star, relishing the trust placed in him and happy to hog the limelight.

Others displaced under Hughes – and I’m thinking in particular of Martin Petrov – have been given a fresh start. And then there was the left-field selection of Benjani, who promptly set up 3 of the 4 goals against hapless Rovers.

So, all in all, a terrific start for Bobby Manc, as the fans have taken to calling Mancini. But Manchester City wouldn’t be the club it is without a history of false dawns, so a little perspective wouldn’t go amiss. We’ll know more in a week’s time.

January 7, 2010

The 'Big Freeze' is snow joke

Posted by Jon Champion on 07/01/2010

According to our overworked weather forecasters, we are now in the midst of Britain’s coldest spell of weather for nearly 30 years. Another week or so of this and the comparison will be with the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1963 when, so my ageing relatives tell me, the nation had to do without football for a full six weeks.

Inactivity led to innovation. Leicester tried - and failed - to protect Filbert Street with a tent, Chelsea used a tar-burner, whilst Blackpool employed a flame-thrower.

These days, pitches have better heating systems than most houses, and the majority of postponements at our well-appointed stadiums come about because the surrounding roads and pavements have yet to enjoy similar luxurious treatment.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that any blog looking ahead to this weekend’s football may be rendered redundant by an army of Health and Safety officials - and that would be a pity because ESPN’s two live games have plenty to commend them.

Saturday teatime sees Manchester United visiting St Andrew’s to face a Birmingham City team defying expectation. A run of 11 Premier League games without defeat is Blues’ best in the top division since 1908…12 would be a club record - and if Alex McLeish names an unchanged team for a ninth consecutive match, that would be a first in the history of the Barclays Premier League.

By contrast, Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to ignore the attraction of saying “same again” for the 100th time in a row, although given the dreadful nature of their FA Cup exit against Leeds, perhaps that’s not a shock.

What is surprising is the way all the leading teams are passing up the chance to seize the title baton and run with it. Arsene Wenger reckons the Premier League could be won with as few as 78 points this year, and that is unheard of.

Two weeks ago, Birmingham would have beaten Chelsea but for a dubious offside call against Christian Benitez. Manchester United have every reason to feel concerned over what awaits them in Bordesley Green.

Then on Monday it’s off to Eastlands for ESPN’s other live fixture. Manchester City versus Blackburn could be a foretaste of the Carling Cup Final.

Roberto Mancini couldn’t have asked for a more accommodating sequence of games with which to ease himself into the manager’s chair. Blackburn have gone eight matches without a league victory - too long for comfort - but they showed at Old Trafford earlier in the season that they can be obdurate, and Sam Allardyce will have them well prepared.

City’s list of injured and absent will also be a factor, although reinforcements would seem to be on the way, quite possibly led by Patrick Vieira.

The club’s reporting of an annual loss of £92 million passed without rigorous comment this week, but it appears recruitment will continue apace. At this stage of the Abu Dhabi ‘project’, the balance sheet is immaterial. It’s to be hoped the beating heart of a unique club remains strong amidst the cascade of cash.