Rolling footballers gather penalties from Moss

King Power Stadium

King Power Stadium. Photo by Ungry Young Man http://www.flickr.com

Imagine you had never seen a game of football before, and then you tuned in to Leicester v West Ham yesterday. You would be left feeling a little confused about the rules. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life and I was left utterly baffled by the performance of referee Jon Moss.

The job of refereeing is a hugely difficult one but Mr Moss gathered no credit as he attempted to assess the bodies rolling around him. Firstly, the Vardy red card: did he dive? He certainly took steps to ensure that the defender couldn’t avoid making contact with him and he knew that contact would knock him from his feet (more tax avoidance than tax evasion on the moral continuum).

I wouldn’t call it a dive and the sending off was very harsh.

Next, the penalty awarded to West Ham; Reid falls following a gentle tug from Leicester’s Morgan. A foul? Probably yes on the strictest interpretation of the law but how can Moss penalise that incident when every single corner in the game had produced at least as much if not worse.

The pushing and pulling and general nonsense that accompanies every corner these days should be stamped out but it has to be done by all referees awarding around four penalties per game in the first few weeks of the season. Choosing one incident at random as Moss did is a recipe for chaos and sure enough, he brought about a chaotic climax to the game.

A few minutes later at the other end, Huth goes sprawling in the box after very clearly having his jump impeded. Moss has a look and decides there’s nothing to see here. The rest of us can see a referee that has considerably less grip on the game than Ogbonna had on Huth.

Leicester continue a frenetic scramble for an equaliser and in the very last minute of added time, Schlupp runs into Andy Carroll and, as virtually any man would after running into Andy Carroll, falls over. Moss points to the spot. I’d call it soft but that doesn’t really describe just how lacking in firmness the decision was: it was softer than a blancmange left in front of the fire for ninety minutes.

Moss had clearly reassessed some of his earlier decisions and reached the conclusion that he’d been unduly harsh on Leicester. Here he was restoring justice (and parity) with another incredible decision. Leicester fans left ecstatic and relieved. Bilic left with a rueful smile and a scratch of his head.

A defeat for Leicester could have been a hugely significant moment in the title race but a draw means that not too much momentum is lost. Tonight we’ll find out a lot about Spurs and how they’re dealing with the pressure. If they don’t win at Stoke, they are unlikely to be wearing Premier League winner’s medals next month.

Liverpool’s players still have the chance to claim a medal this season after their remarkable comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League. Yesterday’s 2-1 win away at Bournemouth was even more significant however.

Klopp fielded a young, inexperienced, and experimental team and yet they managed a more comfortable and convincing victory than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool’s first eleven is strong (albeit still in need of strengthening) but there’s doubt as to the depth of the squad. Perhaps some of that doubt is exaggerated.

Money needs to be spent to turn Liverpool into title contenders and Klopp is the right man to spend it. This Premier League season has been thrillingly unpredictable; just imagine what next season might be like with Liverpool resurgent under Klopp, Guardiola arriving at City, and the prospect of Mourinho at Man United.

Talking of resurgence, Rangers made a statement yesterday by beating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden. The fallen Glasgow giants have completed their rise through the leagues and will return to the top division in Scotland next season after easily winning the Championship.

The hotly debated topic in Scottish football right now is how strong a force Rangers will be upon their return to the SPFL. Hearts have shown that the transition between the two leagues is not particularly onerous for a club with some resources. Celtic will start next season as title favourites but they can expect their old rivals to be genuine challengers.

Will Ronny Deila still be in charge of Celtic when the next Old Firm match is played? I doubt it. The Norwegian’s reign has been distinctly underwhelming and while he’s won the expected league titles (and is likely to do so again this year) his side’s failings in cups and in Europe have put him under severe pressure.

Celtic are on a decline brought about by consistently selling their best players and replacing them with lesser quality. It’s arguable the extent to which that is by necessity but the effect is dispiriting for supporters. It also means that any decent player at the club only expects to be there for a year or two before seeking greater riches and profile elsewhere.

It’s been a similar scenario of late at my dearly beloved Dundee United (with most of our better players ending up at Celtic). We lost the other cup semi final to Hibs and all we have to contemplate now is our impending relegation.

My first blog post of this year heralded forthcoming doom at Tannadice and so it’s coming to pass. I was a teenager at Tannadice the last time we were relegated, in 1995, and it was a sad, sad day. I took my son to his first ever football match there earlier this season and that too was a rather sad day – a dire 1-0 loss to Hearts.

But we football fans never lose heart for long and we’ll be back next season. Supporting a football club is like a marriage, it has to be for better or worse. Surely for we suffering Dundee United fans, things can only get better.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?

Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.