Remember, remember the 1st of November

Photo by: Maria Reyes-McDavis www.flickr.com

Photo by: Maria Reyes-McDavis
http://www.flickr.com

November 1st, it seems like a long time ago. That was when I embarked upon this blogvember challenge and I’m pleased to say that with this post I’ve completed it: 30 posts in 30 days.

At the end of October there were 10 posts on this blog and now there are 40 (there’s no doubting my mathematical ability). Over the course of the last 30 days I’ve written 18,571 words including the ones in this post. The shortest post I wrote during this exercise was a pithy 382 words (about Platini and the Qatar World Cup) and the longest was 1,006 (debating the question: which is the best league in the world? Answer: the English Premier League, just).

It’s actually been quite exhausting and there were definitely a few evenings when I came very close to going to bed without a post written. I’m glad I stuck with it though as I feel I’ve learned a few things.

Most importantly I’ve learned that it is possible for me to find the time to blog regularly. I have a full time job which involves quite long hours, two young children and in the last few weeks I’ve also been training for two 10k races (the second of which is next Sunday). I’m not asking for a medal – I get one every time I finish a race – but it’s been good to prove to myself that I can write on a regular basis.

I have quite a few writing projects that I want to undertake and this month has shown that I can churn out a reasonable amount of words reasonably quickly. I think the overall quality has been reasonable too although I am conscious of a few places where tiredness is evident and inspiration a bit lacking.

That was actually one of the most difficult aspects of the challenge, finding something new to write about every day even with a subject as fast-moving and talked about as football. The posts in the last month tended to be topical but there were still quite a few that weren’t.

The topics covered have been quite diverse – everything from my love of Italian football to the prospect of the Football Manager computer game being added to the physical education curriculum in some Scottish schools (a terrible idea in my view). I’ve covered Moyes’ move to Spain, Messi becoming the top scorer in La Liga, the absurdity that was the Argentina v Portugal friendly, Rooney and the England captaincy, and much more besides.

I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of it. By far the most popular post (most popular of all time so far on the blog and not just the last month) was the one I wrote about my audition for the role of a footballer in a movie. I’m still awaiting the casting decision and will keep you posted. Other popular entries include the one that announced the blogvember challenge on the 1st of November, the one about which league is best, and Rooney.

It will probably be a few days until the next post arrives on this blog. I’ll be taking a short break but I aim to settle into a schedule of two posts per week. That should seem quite easy (I hope) after the last month. Thanks for reading and if you like it, please feel free to tell your friends.

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The mystery of the vanishing Van Persie

Van Persie. Photo by: JJ Hall www.flickr.com

Van Persie. Photo by: JJ Hall
http://www.flickr.com

There’s a lot of speculation that Robin van Persie may be dropped for Manchester United’s game against Hull today. The flying Dutchman – scorer of that sensational header at the World Cup – has returned to earth with a bit of a bump this season.

His form has been indifferent at best and he has just three goals to his name in this campaign. It’s all a bit surprising given that it looked as though he would be one of the obvious beneficiaries of Van Gaal’s arrival and he now has players such as Di Maria creating chances.

In the game against his old club Arsenal last weekend, Van Persie only touched the ball 13 times and two of those touches were corners (I’m always suspicious of centre-forwards who take corners, it just doesn’t seem right to me somehow). His performance was described by his manager as “very bad” and my Manchester United supporting brother has been using similar but stronger terms to describe his performances all season.

I’ve never entirely bought into the hype surrounding Van Persie. He’s a very good footballer and a fine finisher on his day but he’s always had a tendency to fade out of games and I’ve never felt as though he’s had the overall influence on his sides that you would expect from a player of his quality. He often seems isolated on the pitch.

Both his parents are artists but he conceded in an interview with the Daily Mail a few years ago that he doesn’t see things the way they do. “They can look at a tree and see something amazing, whereas I just see a tree,” said Van Persie. Indeed, we’ve all had that issue from time to time Robin.

Later in the same interview he said: “When I look at a football pitch I suppose, yes, I see it as my canvas. I see solutions, possibilities, the space to express myself.” It would appear that those solutions and possibilities are becoming harder to see, the blank canvas a more intimidating prospect these days for the Dutch master.

Van Gaal suggests that “for Robin, it is a question of confidence” and that’s likely to be the case for any striker who’s not scoring many goals, especially one playing in a team with so much attacking potential.

It would be folly to write Van Perise off but I suspect that we’ve already seen the best of him. At Arsenal he was a big fish in what was an increasingly shrinking pond and while his first season at Old Trafford was excellent, the rest of the league performed exceptionally poorly for that Manchester United squad to win the title so comfortably.

If Manchester United put him up for sale, I wonder how much anyone would pay for him now?

Celtic progress without making much progress in Europe

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon www.flickr.com

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon
http://www.flickr.com

Congratulations to Celtic for qualifying from the group stage of the Europa League and ensuring that there will be European football in Scotland after Christmas this season. The Scottish champions went through despite a 3-1 loss to Salzburg last night with Astra beating Dinamo Zagreb in the other game in the group.

Pleased though they will be to go through, the defeat to Salzburg seems to me like a pretty accurate reflection of where Celtic are right now in European terms. I didn’t see the game but assuming the Austrian’s victory was as comfortable as the score line suggests then I wouldn’t expect Celtic’s current European adventure to last very much longer.

Looking at the starting line up from last night there’s definitely a lack of quality in the team and in the squad. Craig Gordon remains an outstanding goalkeeper on his day and still belongs on the European stage; Van Dijk is a very accomplished central defender and has a long list of suitors; Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew have both starred of late for Scotland; but overall there is a lack of the sort of player who can really make the difference at the highest level (or indeed the level of the Europa League).

In contrast to some clubs (naming no names), Celtic have been very prudently run over quite a considerable period of time. The board have made sound financial decisions but there’s no doubt that there’s been slow and steady erosion in the quality of player at Celtic. Neil Lennon’s departure as manager was a sure sign that he didn’t feel the club could continue to compete at the same level that they had in recent years.

Lennon and his side probably slightly overachieved in the Champions League when they qualified for the knock out stages and the squad at Parkhead now resembles an ok but not great Europa League one. Exactly the sort of squad that might lose comfortably to Salzburg and the Austrians are far from the strongest side left in the tournament.

Transfer windows have brought little cheer to Celtic fans of late and they must anticipate January with some trepidation again. When was the last time that Celtic’s squad was stronger at the end of a transfer window than at the beginning? I doubt it will be strengthened this January but it may again be weakened.

While we’re on the subject of the Europa League, let me pay tribute to the heroic exploits of my Croatian team Rijeka. Rijeka is my wife’s home city and I’m a regular visitor. I always try to go to Rijeka games if they’re playing while I’m there. Their stadium, Kantrida, cut into a rock and perched on the edge of the Adriatic Sea is simply one of the most beautiful places to watch the beautiful game that I’ve ever seen.

Last night Rijeka beat Standard Liege 2-0 to keep their qualifications hopes alive in a tough group that includes Sevilla and Feyenoord. Star striker Kramaric is attracting a lot of attention and so sadly I fear that if they do qualify their squad may be weaker by the time the knock out stages start. But anyway, Forza Fiume.

Champions League intrigue

Photo by: El Ronzo www.flickr.com

Photo by: El Ronzo
http://www.flickr.com

As usual, the group stage of the Champions League has been little more than a procession for most of the contenders for the trophy. The tournament is a cash cow and a very well milked one. Nonetheless, as the group stage approaches its conclusion with one round of fixtures remaining, there is much to ponder in the performances of the English sides.

Chelsea have shown themselves to be the best side in the English Premier League by some distance so far this season and they are replicating their domestic form on the European stage. A 5-0 away win in Germany sends out quite a statement. Mourinho described the performance as “perfect” and spoke of his team’s “big self-belief.”

Self-belief doesn’t come any bigger than Mourinho’s own but he’s almost never failed to walk the strutting walk to accompany his generally self-congratulatory talk. I think he’s the best manager in the world and has been for some time.

I expect Chelsea to end the season as league champions but winning the Champions League will be much tougher. Real Madrid are the best team in Europe – for me the recent El Classico proved that beyond doubt – but Barcelona and Bayern Munich both have enough quality, experience and fire power to be very confident themselves. Madrid, Barca and Bayern are the big three in Europe right now in my assessment with Chelsea probably leading the chasing pack.

Two other English sides also had an excellent week in the tournament. Arsenal recorded a comfortable win over Dortmund (admittedly a side that looks a shadow of its recent self) while Manchester City produced a remarkable late comeback to claim a 3-2 win over Bayern. Aguero scored a hat-trick and vividly demonstrated the sort of quality that sides need to succeed at that level.

Sadly such quality is not much in evidence at Liverpool at the moment. The team at least avoided defeat for the first time in November with a 2-2 draw at Ludogorets. Remarkably, Rodgers referred to the result as “a real confidence boost” which only serves to highlight the depths to which confidence has sunk at Anfield.

The confidence boosting performance included another howler from goalkeeper Mignolet and the concession of a late equaliser at the cost of two points. If that’s his side playing with confidence then we Liverpool fans have a lot to be nervous about.

Liverpool can still qualify with victory over Basel next month but on current form I don’t feel too confident about that. As he goes about the task of repairing his team’s dented morale, I hope that Rodgers gets some advice from his old mentor Mourinho. After all, the Portuguese always looks as though he has a little confidence to spare.

Physical education on the couch

Photo by: Dekuwa www.flickr.com

Photo by: Dekuwa
http://www.flickr.com

In further proof that the world has gone mad (or at least is hurtling in that direction at an alarming rate) it’s been reported that a meeting of the Scottish Association of Teachers of Physical Education (SATPE) has just discussed the idea of video games, such as Football Manager, being introduced to PE classes in North-east schools (see the original story here: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/local/football-manager-could-become-part-of-pe-homework-at-schools-1.701679).

The proposal was put forward by Len Almond, former foundation director of the British Heart Foundation National Centre, who was quoted saying: “Games such as Football Manager are a very good way to get people to understand football and the role it has in our society.”

That may or may not be true Len, but why should physical education classes be concerned with children understanding football’s role in society? I would have thought that maybe playing some football might be an endeavour a little closer to the core purpose of PE.

In praise of using Football Manager in lessons, Mr Almond says: “You’re planning, directing and making decisions and if that helps a young person understand the game, that is very good.” Very good except for the fact that it’s not really helping them understand how to actually play football, on a pitch rather than a screen.

The important thing, Len assures us, is that “we have got to attract young people to sport and physical education.” On this point he and I are in complete agreement but I’m still struggling to understand how playing Football Manager at PE does that. Of course, it might make attending PE class more attractive to some kids but then presumably so would offering free doughnuts. As far as I’m aware, the free doughnuts idea is not official policy of SATPE.

There’s no doubt that for many children (and indeed a lot of adults) playing computer games is a far more pleasurable experience than playing sports. I played a fair amount of Football Manager when I was young and so I appreciate how compelling and addictive it can be but I spent a lot more time outside playing football and other sports.

Most children are naturally inclined to run around. Give them some half-decent facilities (and I know that’s a challenge in many areas but it doesn’t need to be the latest generation artificial pitch), an enthusiastic, and preferably knowledgeable, teacher, a ball/racquet/hockey stick and away you go.

We all know the huge problems of childhood obesity in the UK and many other countries. The causes are many and complex and there’s no single or simple solution. Physical education should be taken seriously as part of the school curriculum and sadly that doesn’t always appear to be the case. Introducing Football Manager or other computer games to PE classes would only serve to make them a joke and not a very funny one.

The makers of the game were laughing though. Last night they tweeted: ‘Football Manager as #homework? Children all over the world currently asking their parents to move to Aberdeen.’ Except perhaps those children who would still prefer their physical education to involve playing some sport.

Football, skeleton and the sports personality of the year

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan
http://www.flickr.com

The shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has just been announced (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/sports-personality/30158881) and I hardly recognise anyone on it. I must admit that listening to the radio provides a similar experience for me these days. It seems I’m not quite as up on my gymnastics, swimming and skeleton as I might be (skeleton is one of the many strange events in the Winter Olympics – it’s the one where they hurtle down the slope of ice head-first on what looks like an elevated tea tray).

There’s only one footballer on the list: Gareth Bale. I was very surprised to learn that Bale is the first footballer to be shortlisted since 2009 when Ryan Giggs was not only nominated but won. I’m not sure if other countries have a similar event but I can’t imagine many places in which the national sport would be so significantly under represented. Indeed, Giggs is the only footballer to claim the award in the past decade.

I do not expect Bale to add to football’s tally. I think Rory McIlroy may be the early favourite while Lewis Hamilton’s world title triumph at the weekend may make him a contender. I’m not sure how big a following skeleton has in the UK so I probably wouldn’t put too much money on Lizzy Yarnold.

Last year’s winner of the Sports Personality award was Andy Murray (and a very worthy winner he was after his Wimbledon triumph) but he is not shortlisted this year so the trophy will pass to another sport.

Bale has certainly had a magnificent year. He’s settled incredibly well in Spain and looks every inch a star at Real Madrid, a club where Galacticos are expected to shine very brightly. For a sense of how good a player Bale is, just look at what’s happened to Spurs since he left.

He’s produced excellent performances for Wales too of late and I hope he gets the opportunity to display his talent at a World Cup or European Championship.

There’s been some speculation that Bale may return to England in the summer, possibly to Manchester United. He would be a great signing for Van Gaal but I can’t see him wanting to leave Madrid so soon and it would seem strange to me if Real were tempted to part with him at this stage.

The sale of Bale would surprise me but even more surprising was the discovery that tickets for the Sports Personality event, being hosted in Scotland this year, are priced at £45, £55 and £60 plus a 10% service charge. Who on earth is paying that much to go and watch Gary Lineker play some video highlights and hand over a few awards?

It would cost less to watch Bale play at the Bernabeu.

The Monday Post – 24/11/14

Jurgen Klopp. Photo by: Asia Joanna www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp. Photo by: Asia Joanna
http://www.flickr.com

After the international break, attention returned to the domestic scene and I’m going to focus on three very high profile managers who find themselves under pressure following disappointing results at the weekend: Brendan Rodgers, Arsene Wenger, and Ally McCoist.

Liverpool lost 3-1 at Crystal Palace and after the game Rodgers admitted “I’m not arrogant enough to think that I will be in a job through anything, any manager will tell you that you have to win games and you have to get results.” The results that he’s been getting this season have been very poor ones.

One unusual aspect of yesterday’s debacle was that a Liverpool striker actually scored. Lambert, long overdue a run in the side, put Liverpool ahead very early on but they then got “bullied” out of the game as Jamie Carragher put it. The former Liverpool player blasted his old club for being “mentally and physically weak.” It’s a charge that they don’t have much defence against at the moment.

There’s no doubt that Liverpool are currently suffering a critical deficit in confidence. Rodgers said: “You could see our passing was a wee bit tentative, and then we make mistakes. Mistakes you wouldn’t expect to see from a team that’s supposed to be challenging. We failed to manage the game.”

That seems a fair summation of Liverpool’s season to date: a bit tentative, far too many unforced errors, and too many games that they seem to have let drift by rather than imposing themselves on.

I’ve written before that Liverpool massively overachieved last season (and many of their rivals considerably underachieved) and this season was always going to prove a stern test of character. How many of Liverpool’s squad really thought the team would challenge for the title this season? I suspect not many.

Rodgers knows he now finds himself under pressure and that’s clear from the comments he made in the post-match interview. His team faces a huge Champions League game in midweek and anything less than a win will see the pressure intensify.

In my view the manager deserves more time, his achievements last season have earned him that along with the general improvement that has taken place in his time at the club. The injuries to Sturridge have been a huge blow but Rodgers could have compensated better by playing Balotelli and Lambert together more often.

His dealings in the transfer market have been disappointing so far and it’s unlikely that he’ll get many more transfer windows to get it right and sign the quality of player needed to make the starting 11 stronger. For now though his job should be safe and I think it will be.

Another man feeling the heat at the beginning of what looks like another winter of discontent is Arsene Wenger. There are actually quite a few similarities between the Frenchman and Rodgers: both have very clearly defined footballing philosophies, both pride themselves on the aesthetics of how their teams play, and both have struggled in the transfer market.

Arsenal’s home loss to Manchester United on Saturday saw Wenger’s detractors back out in vocal force. Piers Morgan called 606 and suggested “it’s a heartbreaking divorce, but divorce it has to be.” I don’t think anyone takes Morgan very seriously in any sphere these days, if they ever did, so I doubt Wenger will lose very much sleep over his comments.

His sleep cannot be entirely undisturbed however by the way his team is playing. The problems confronting Liverpool are equally applicable to Arsenal. The spine of Wenger’s team is soft and until he strengthens it little is likely to change at the Emirates except eventually the manager.

Wenger will always be an Arsenal legend and rightly so but I think Arsenal do now need a new boss in order to make serious progress. Dortmund’s Klopp is being heavily linked with Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Liverpool, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was managing somewhere in England by the start of next season if not sooner.

Apparently stewards removed a ‘Wenger Out’ sign during the game as they feared it would spark tensions among the crowd. That’s just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Speaking of ridiculous, one Arsenal fan found the tension so much that they threw some red wine at the Manchester United bench. Those sat there must have been glad it wasn’t a prawn sandwich projectile aimed in their direction.

Arsenal are already out of contention for the league and are very unlikely to win the Champions League. I think this will be Wenger’s last season in charge.

Another man who could use a glass of red to calm the tensions today is Ally McCoist. Rangers lost 2-0 to Hearts and are now nine points behind the Tynecastle outfit. I saw an online poll run by one Scottish newspaper which showed a clear majority suggesting that McCoist should go.

There’s not the time or space here to go into the calamity of Rangers in recent years. The club has been an omnishambles and the manager has been one of very few to emerge from the period with any credit whatsoever. He has been dragging Rangers back from the depths of Scottish football and while it has not always been pretty, so far he has got the job done.

He more than deserves the chance to try and finish the job of getting his club back into the top flight. One thing’s for sure, Jurgen Klopp will not be managing at Ibrox next season.