Pundits on the couch

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Sky Sports studio. Photo by: Ross G. Strachan, http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp is not a man lacking in opinions. He would no doubt make rather a good pundit – he’s knowledgeable about the game, has a good sense of humour, and appears to enjoy robust debate.

His latest sparring partners are the Neville brothers, both of whom have recently been critical (with good reason) of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Klopp was particularly disdainful of Gary Neville, saying: “he showed he struggled with the job to judge players so why do we let him talk about players on TV?”

Well, for a start, ‘we’ don’t. Sky do, and they seem happy with Neville as a pundit and welcomed him back with open arms after his short and unsuccessful sabbatical in Spain. Klopp’s was a bit of a low blow in this case, lower even than the league position occupied by Valencia when Neville was shown the door.

Klopp went on to suggest that Neville is “not interested in helping a Liverpool player I can imagine, but that makes things he says not make more sense.” The German’s English is still a work in (impressive) progress in terms of fully making sense. But again here, the complaint is a strange one.

Why should Gary Neville in his role as a pundit be interested in either helping, or indeed hindering, Liverpool? I’ve not seen all that much of his punditry but by all accounts he does a good job of it and takes a fair, balanced view of things. He’s certainly not been afraid to criticise Manchester United, albeit not quite as harshly as Scholes specialises in.

As a player, Neville gave the impression that he hated Liverpool and the feeling was pretty mutual. One thing that has defined his career however – as player, pundit, and coach – is professionalism. He’s performed each role to the best of his ability, never lacked for effort, and taken it all very, very seriously.

Klopp’s touchiness on the subject of his goalkeeper is indicative of the pressure that affects even the most experienced and accomplished of managers. His decision to drop Karius for the game against Middlesbrough is the clearest evidence that Neville had a point. When Mignolet is deemed the safe choice, then something has gone awry.

Liverpool got back to winning ways on Teesside after recent stutters and even managed to keep a clean sheet. Klopp can feel his decision vindicated, as can Neville his criticism.

Klopp v Neville was not the only manager – pundit square up this week. Mourinho and Owen also clashed over the latter’s comments about Ibrahimovic. Owen said that the Swede was not a long-term solution for Manchester United and commented that at some point the club would have to either find or buy a young player in the mould of Rooney.

Mourinho, who has yet to prove himself a manager for the long-term at any particular club, responded that “Zlatan will score more goals in one season than Michael Owen in three seasons at Man United.”

It is true that Owen wasn’t exactly prolific at United and in many ways he was a stop-gap solution of the kind that he now perceives Ibrahimovic to be. Of course Mourinho’s retort didn’t challenge Owen’s thesis, a sure sign of an argument in the process of being lost.

Owen went on to suggest that “managers are getting awfully touchy.” I don’t think it’s accurate to say getting, it’s always been the case. These two incidents of managers taking exception to the analysis of pundits do highlight a peculiar touchiness on their part. And let’s not forget that these are two of the best and most successful managers in the world.

I’ve made the observation previously this season that Mourinho has been more sullen than swaggering at Old Trafford since he arrived. Perhaps like President-elect Trump, the scale of the task has come as something of a surprise to him.

Klopp meanwhile, is doing his best to downplay rising expectations at Anfield. Liverpool look just about enough like title contenders to experience the pressure that comes with such a label. A few more weeks without Coutinho should answer some questions about how that pressure is being handled by players who are not especially used to it.

Neville and Owen face scrutiny of their performance but not a great deal of pressure. Their seats are comfy ones. Those of Klopp and Mourinho are considerably hotter. Klopp rarely sits in his; such is the manic energy that he exudes on the touchline.

Neville knows the feeling of being in the manager’s seat, and just how uncomfortable it can be. If he ever returns to management, he probably won’t spend much time criticising pundits for doing the job that’s expected of them.

In this instance, Klopp and Mourinho would be better off sitting down, and being quiet.

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15 minutes is a long time

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Jurgen Klopp. Picture by Dave Wood, http://www.flickr.com

I have tonsillitis. I’m not one to complain (much) but it feels rather like man flu squared. Thus I felt pretty miserable when I slumped on to the sofa on Sunday evening (Malaysia time) to watch Bournemouth v Liverpool. 90 minutes later, my misery had deepened.

It all started so well. Liverpool began the match purposefully, pressing high in the style that Klopp has drilled into them and immediately put the home team under pressure.

Liverpool were playing in their ghastly luminous lime 3rd kit, which at least made it easy for them to find each other with passes – unlike that time when Fergie blamed Manchester United’s defeat at Southampton on their grey strip. Luminous lime in HD was not the sort of tonic I was looking for.

Cheer arrived after 20 minutes though when Mane gave Liverpool the lead, aided by some uncharacteristically hesitant goalkeeping from Boruc.

Just two minutes later, Origi doubled the lead. Boruc, perhaps overcompensating for his hesitancy just moments earlier, dashed recklessly from his penalty area and gave the Belgian a simple decision to make in rounding him. The finish, from an acute angle, was far from simple but was accomplished with aplomb.

At this point, I sensed some slight recovery in my condition. There seemed very little prospect of a Bournemouth recovery.

The previous day had seen big wins in different ways for Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – all potential title rivals. The first half at Dean Court was a dominant declaration by Liverpool, playing like a team entirely comfortable with the tag ‘title contenders.’

Apparently, there had been 1,061 occasions in the Premier League of a team leading 2-0 at half time. The team ahead at the interval had gone on to lose the match only 22 times. The 23rd such occurrence would’ve got long odds at half time on Sunday.

As I popped a few more painkillers, Jurgen Klopp must have been anticipating a painless conclusion to his day on the south coast.

Bournemouth started the second half brighter – not as bright as Liverpool’s kit, but brighter nevertheless. Then, after 55 minutes, Ryan Fraser came on.

The Scottish winger (were you watching Gordon Strachan?) upended the entire plot of this game, starting with being upended himself and winning a penalty for his side just a few minutes after coming on. Wilson converted. 2-1.

The penalty was conceded by Milner. In my opinion, he has been Liverpool’s best player this season. Yes, Coutinho has been brilliant but Milner has done an incredible job playing out of position and done it with immense professionalism.

The fact remains though; he is not a left back. Klopp clearly doesn’t fully trust Moreno and so he should buy a left back and let Milner fight for a place in the side for which he is more naturally suited, on the right side of either the midfield or front three.

Milner’s mistake was a rare one but it exposed his defensive limitations. Bigger problems lurk elsewhere in Liverpool’s defence however, especially when relying on Lucas as a stopgap centre half.

Just as things were starting to get a bit worrisome, Can curled home a very elegant third to all but put the game to bed. That is certainly the point at which I should have gone to bed for the rest of what I endured was a freakish, nightmarish horror show.

Fraser’s effervescence was causing Liverpool’s creaking rearguard more and more problems and the young Scot got his name on the scoresheet after 76 minutes. Apparently, he didn’t make it onto a single manager’s teamsheet in the official Premier League fantasy football game last weekend but I suspect that will not be the case for the next round of fixtures.

So, with just 15 minutes of the game remaining, Liverpool had led 3-1. Fraser’s goal brought renewed heart to Bournemouth’s cavalier charge but a cannier opposition (dare I say Conte’s Chelsea) would probably still have seen the game out comfortably from there.

Instead, Liverpool panicked. And boy did they panic.

Fraser scampered down the right again, exposing Milner again, and crossed for Cook to equalise. Klopp was starting to look as ill as me. Eddie Howe looked ecstatically bemused, like a drunk man who unexpectedly won some money at the casino on the way home.

But the big payout was still to come.

In the 4th minute of stoppage time, Karius played Santa and gifted all three points to the Cherries. He spilled Cook’s shot before haphazardly trying to regain the ball. His failure in that task handed Ake the early Christmas present of tapping into an empty net for a last gasp winner.

Fortunately my painkillers had kicked in by now but no pharmaceutical firm has yet developed a cure for being a football supporter.

This was one of the worst capitulations I’d ever witnessed.

The job of finding a remedy is Klopp’s and I was impressed by his post-match reaction. He took it on the chin, he didn’t try to make excuses (not even the kit), and he credited Bournemouth where they were rightly due. He also asserted, correctly, that his side had played very well for much of the game.

Most importantly, he resolved that Liverpool would learn from this. I think it will be a busy week for the video analysis team at Anfield.

Coutinho was missed but not in the ways that might have been expected. Liverpool still scored three in his absence and created three or four more good chances. What was missed most was his composure on the ball when the game got frantic, his ability to vary the pace of a game and slow it down when necessary.

Frantic suited Bournemouth’s scramble for an equaliser and then winner. On the touchline, Klopp is a frantic presence and he must be careful how he transmits that energy to his players. In his interview afterwards though, he was sober, serious, and restrained.

“You cannot be champions in December” Klopp correctly pointed out. It is also still too early to say if Liverpool can sustain a title challenge but to do so they will have to recover quickly from setbacks such as this one.

I’m sure many Liverpool fans made the long journey home feeling quite sick. Probably not quite as sick as me though as I made the short journey to bed.

A tale of two matches (part II)

roma-v-interAnd so to the Eternal City. Rome is a city of grandeur past. A similar claim can be made of Roma, currently making stuttering progress under Luciano Spalletti. The Juventus monopoly over Serie A will not be an eternal one, but their empire is utterly dominant for the moment.

Last month, as part of my Italian grand tour, I went to see Roma – Inter. Setting out from the apartment, I crossed Piazza del Popolo on my way to get a tram to the Olympico stadium. As I approached the tram, a young Chinese guy approached me. “Excuse me mate, is this the tram to get to the football stadium? Where do I buy a ticket?” he asked. In a thick cockney accent.

I was as impressed by his English as I was disoriented by it. I was able to confirm that this was indeed the tram but unable to enlighten him on buying a ticket as I had purchased one at a kiosk earlier. I advised him just to get on and see if he could get a ticket aboard.

Of course, as expected, the tram was so packed that any ticketing procedures were rendered redundant.

For the second week in a row the game I was going to kicked off at 8:45 pm on a Sunday evening and thus I was alone and not with my young son as I had hoped to be. Security at Italian games has been increased significantly and I would feel entirely comfortable taking a 6 year old to a Serie A game.

Having made it to the stadium and through the myriad security, I took my seat behind the goal in the Curva Nord. Having paid a premium the previous week for a covered seat at Fiorentina, this time I had one of the cheapest tickets available for the game.

And it was a better seat than the one I had occupied in Florence.

Opposite me, behind the far goal, was the Curva Sud, home to Roma’s (in)famous ultras. Or at least some of them. One of the new security measures at the stadium is a barrier splitting the Curva in half and its installation has prompted mass protests and boycotts among the ultras. They had turned out in reasonable force for the visit of Inter but there were enough gaps to indicate that some ultra-boycotters are yet to be placated.

It was the week of Francesco Totti’s 40th birthday and the great and the good of the footballing world, and beyond, had been paying tribute to Il Capitano in the build-up to the game. Messi spoke of having “always admired” him while former teammate Cassano described him as “Italy’s greatest.”

Usain Bolt, with characteristic modesty, offered birthday wishes “from one legend to another.” Bolt is reportedly going to be training with Borussia Dortmund (most likely a sponsorship stunt since both he and the German club are sponsored by Puma) and has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United.

Mourinho’s side do currently lack pace at the moment.

Speed of foot has never been one of Totti’s greatest attributes, but his remains one of the quickest minds on the pitch. Sadly on this occasion, the Italian master only took to the pitch for the warm-up before remaining an unused substitute.

The crowd paid their own tribute with a prolonged chant of “uno capitano,” one of the few that I was able to follow and participate in with my limited grasp of Italian.

Five minutes in and it was uno – nil to Roma; Dzeko providing the fitting conclusion to a fast break down the right with a crisply clipped finish into the far corner.

The fact that this was a big game was reinforced by the sight of Spalletti in a suit. The Roma boss is more commonly attired more comfortably in a tracksuit but clearly felt that this was an occasion that warranted his Sunday best.

Also interestingly attired were the Argentinian couple sat next to me. One wore a Boca Juniors shirt while the other sported a River Plate top. This display of unity was in keeping with the overall atmosphere in the ground, which was passionate but mercifully lacking in much of the vitriolic excess I’ve witnessed at Serie A games in the past.

One observation that I noted down during the game was that Inter looked a lot better than their Milanese neighbours had the previous week in Florence. Milan were dull and utterly lacking in inspiration against Fiorentina. Inter were behind against Roma but playing with patient fluidity.

Subsequent results – and the sacking of Inter coach Frank de Boer – indicate the challenge of making judgements based on a single performance. Inter were impressive that night though and contributed significantly to a very fine game of football.

Roma were content to concede possession and ground to the visitors while focusing on breaking at great pace when they won the ball back. Salah was central to this tactic and several times found himself in excellent positions to increase his side’s lead but succeeded only in producing a series of erratic finishes.

With half time approaching it struck me that I hadn’t heard a single flare be let off. The last time I visited the Olympico (for Roma – Juventus in 2010) a flare exploded roughly every ten minutes, provoking a half jumping, half cowering motion from me on each occasion. Those around me at that game, much more used to the pyrotechnics than I, watched with some amusement.

Always worth watching is Daniele De Rossi, and once again he did not disappoint. He finds pockets of space and is able to play passes at the subtlest of angles, both in ways reminiscent of the great Xavi. He makes Roma tick and was the one who provided the platform for the majority of their most enterprising moves.

One slightly unusual feature of the game was Inter’s insistence on taking every corner as a short corner. I’ve never been much convinced by the short corner except on those rare occasions when it’s taken very quickly before the defending team has had a chance to organise itself.

When that’s not the case, the short corner is designed to create a better angle for crossing the ball but how often does it result in possession being squandered or in a sequence of passes that mark a retreat back as far as the halfway line?

Inter’s succession of short corners didn’t produce a single noteworthy chance. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, this was a mad way to proceed.

At half time the score, incredibly given the opportunities created at either end, remained 1-0.

Both teams were acquitting themselves well, with clearly defined patterns of play, yet it was obvious that neither side had the confidence to go on the sort of run that would cause genuine alarm in Turin.

These were two sides in transition; works in progress. Whether either turns out to be a masterpiece remains to be seen.

Serie A as a whole is not in rude health but on the evidence that I saw in two games, it is still much better than its detractors would have you believe. The essence of the Italian game – technical ability, tactical sophistication, and a sense of theatre – remains intact.

The biggest global stars mostly play elsewhere these days: in Spain, England and Germany. But like empires, footballing powers rise, wane and fall. Italy’s time will come again.

Football culture varies from country to country (and that’s one of the reasons I love going to games when I travel) but some aspects of the beautiful game are universal. It’s remarkable the extent to which crowds applaud the same things everywhere – a committed tackle, an earnest attempt on goal however wayward, a defender obstructing a forward in letting the ball run out for a goal kick.

After 71 minutes, the Inter supporters were applauding an equaliser; Banega cutting through the Roma defence to drill a low shot in at the near post.

It was a fine and deserved leveller and it would have been easy for panic to set in among Roma’s players. But instead they found fortitude and resolve.

And just four minutes later they found themselves back ahead; Manolas stooping to steer home a header from a free kick. It was the cue for bedlam in both Curvas.

The rest of the story, as told from the Curva Nord, can only be described as tense. Both teams created further chances but the scoreboard was not further altered.

I spent the last minutes stood at the top of the stairs as Inter forced several late corners. Many Roman prayers were offered in search of the final whistle. The ref kept the whistle in his mouth but silent. Time ticked on at the cruel, excruciatingly slow pace that it reserves for such moments.

We waited. And waited.

And panicked a little. Breaths started to be held for periods that were damaging to health. “Kick it anywhere son.” I think that’s what they were saying. They spoke to me in Italian and I did not understand the words but I understood. Men gripped each other’s shoulders.

Then it was done; and the sweet, sublime relief. The puffing out of cheeks. Hands raised. Faces of joy, slightly dazed. Victory is appreciated when it’s hard earned.

I ran with the crowds for the tram. After a reasonable wait, one arrived. The scramble aboard began, the scary surge of a mass of bodies entering a confined space.

The surge continued after I made it through the door. You cannot plant your feet in such circumstances, only wait for the wave to subside. But on it went, relentless and dangerous. Breath was no longer held but it was restricted. Limbs contorted into shrinking spaces.

It felt like the world’s worst game of Twister; played upright.

We were packed like that for twenty minutes, all the way back to Piazza del Popolo where we emerged into the late night: relieved and victorious, taking deep breaths.

A tale of two matches (part I)

fiorentina-fansThis is the first part of a tale of two matches. I was recently in Italy on holiday taking in the delights of Florence, Norcia, and Rome. The original intention had been to visit those places in reverse order but that was before the Serie A fixture list was published.

Had the original plan been adhered to then I would have been able to see Lazio v Empoli in Rome. Changing the plan (with the kind agreement of my ever wonderful wife) meant that I could see Fiorentina v AC Milan in Florence, followed a week later by Roma v Inter Milan in the capital.

I may have mentioned before that I have something of a soft spot for Italian football.

Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi offers covered seats along only one side of the ground. Thus a dilemma: pay more for a covered seat in the event of it raining or take my chances with a cheaper one that would leave me exposed to the elements?

Conditioned by living in the Tropics, I opted to guard against the elements and thus forked out €65 for a seat beneath the roof. Or at least I tried to.

My command of Italian is limited and yet it wasn’t this that prevented me from concluding an online purchase. The website wanted Italian ID details which, not being Italian, I didn’t have.

No problemo (as the Italians say), I sent an email to the ticket office. Impressively swiftly they responded with a form for me to fill out. I completed the form and returned it. About five times. Each time they sent it back with some new stipulation or request for information that was apparently vital to my obtaining a ticket.

After about 36 hours of back and forth, I had a ticket in my inbox. By contrast the purchase of a Roma ticket online was entirely straightforward.

Security appears to have been tightened at Italian football matches since I last attended one back in 2010. My ticket and ID were scanned and checked several times prior to actually going through the turnstile and entering the stadium.

It was an hour before kick-off. I generally like to get to games early and savour the build-up.

A few days earlier I’d read an article by Paul Scholes in which he said that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned by ‘big football’ (by which he was primarily referencing the English Premier League) and preferred watching Salford games, the semi-professional club that he part owns.

Italian football is no longer quite the glorious spectacle that I first fell in love with in the ‘90s but Fiorentina v AC Milan still qualifies as a pretty ‘big’ game. I support neither side but was still excited to be at a big game, more excitement than I would have felt at Lazio v Empoli for instance.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling of going to a big game, especially one under the lights. Floodlights do remarkable things to football grounds, they charge the whole atmosphere.

I know what Scholes means though, and a ‘big game’ can be defined as any game that really means something to those watching, and hopefully to those taking part. Thus there are big games at all levels of the footballing pyramid and I think the point that the ex-Manchester United star was making is that the experience should be an authentic one.

Before the big game kicked off I noticed several small boys playing with a ball at the edge of the vast stand behind the goal to my left. Theirs was the sheer exuberant joy of kicking a ball around, as multi-millionaire superstars warmed up on the pitch just a few metres away.

A few seats along from me were a couple of students (somehow, wherever you are in the world, it’s always easy to spot students) with ‘Forza Viola’ painted on their arms. It seemed a strange way to display your colours but perhaps purple isn’t the easiest for some to work with.

I had paid to be dry so of course it was a warm cloudless night with not so much as a hint of rain. I could’ve had a much better and cheaper seat on the opposite side of the ground but insurance comes at a price.

So does refreshment at football stadiums these days, but I was pleased to be able to refresh myself with some Peroni, served in a plastic cup at a cost of €4.50. It remains a great pity that the sale of alcohol continues to be banned in British football and I’m not convinced the restriction contributes much to orderliness since many people just increase their consumption prior to the game.

The guy sat in front of me appeared to be whiling away the time before kick-off on Tinder. At least I assume it was Tinder; as a happily married man I have never visited this online revolution in dating (if that’s not rather a quaint term for the object of Tinder) but from the procession of young ladies across the screen, this is what I took it to be.

He swiped in a rather disinterested fashion, in a similar way that people often peruse the matchday programme and its list of official sponsors.

Behind the goal, where the ultras were situated, more passion was being displayed alongside a flag that read: ‘Panico Totale.’ It wasn’t clear if this was an invitation to the away fans or an admission of suffering on the part of the home ones.

The game began with Fiorentina thoroughly dominant but unable to create anything that could be described as a clear-cut opportunity. Until the 22nd minute, when they were awarded a penalty.

There was a lengthy delay between the award of the spot-kick and Ilicic striking the ball. In the meantime, an older gentleman in the row in front of me held his head in his hands while repeatedly exclaiming “mama mia.”

Ilicic’s penalty struck the post. “Mama mia” indeed.

A despondent lull settled on the game for a while after that. Milan continued to offer next to nothing and Fiorentina probed rather half-heartedly save for the occasional incisive break.

Fiorentina v AC Milan.JPG

The fans did their best to rally greater industry but they too seemed to tire of the effort rather easily.

What you cannot fault Italian fans for is their sense of style. There are not so many replica tops on display in the crowds at Italian games. Supporters (both men and women) know how to dress and see no reason why fashion should be jettisoned at the football.

It helps of course that Italians are instinctively stylish people. For some British supporters, putting on the team strip is probably the closest they’ll come to making a fashion statement in any given week.

It was proving a relatively straightforward game for the officials; all five of them.

I simply do not understand the role or point of the fourth and fifth officials. They are clearly an invention of the referees’ union and serve no discernible purpose nor make any meaningful contribution to the game. They always seem slightly embarrassed of their position.

Imagine an employee in Starbucks whose only job is to write the names on the cups: that’s the fourth and fifth officials.

The second half had a higher tempo and Milan even ventured into the occasional attacking position. As the game progressed it opened up and was actually becoming a pretty decent 0-0. Both goalkeepers were called upon to exert themselves at regular intervals.

Into the final stages and Milan had clearly settled for what they had and they sought to disrupt the flow of the game as much as possible, including with substitutions. Each one brought about the always absurd spectacle of the ‘jog walk off’ whereby a player attempts to leave the pitch as slowly as possible whilst trying to convey a slight impression of running.

The effect is something like a reverse moonwalk, but lacking all grace and poise. I think all those who do the ‘jog walk off’ should be felled by the referee and placed on a stretcher. Maybe that’s a job for the helpful fourth and fifth assistants behind the goal.

Milan held on and the game finished 0-0, the only scoreless fixture in Serie A that weekend.

I wonder if the guy on Tinder’s night remained scoreless thereafter.

 

UPDATE

I mentioned in the above post that my trip to Italy included a visit to the beautiful town of Norcia in the Umbrian hills. Yesterday, Norcia was again devastated by a severe earthquake, the second in a matter of months in that part of Italy. Mercifully on this occasion it appears there were no fatalities. The historic Basilica of St. Benedict was flattened in the quake. To contribute to the rebuilding (in every sense of that term) consider a donation to these remarkable men who have made their home in Norcia: http://en.nursia.org/donations/

Pink with embarrassment

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World Cup Russia 2018, photo by Nazionale Calcio http://www.flickr.com

It was, I suppose, inevitable. Ever since the day that Scotland’s shocking pink away strip was unveiled, it was only a matter of time before they put in a performance wearing it that would leave their faces the same colour.

That performance came last night in Slovakia, which came on the back of a similarly dismal showing against Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday.

I didn’t see either game; I was flying during the first one and the second was (mercifully perhaps) not shown here in Malaysia. But the results tell their own story and unfortunately it’s a familiar horror story for we Scotland fans.

The World Cup in Russia looks a long way away from here.

It’s never ever a pleasure to call for a manager’s sacking and on this occasion it is made all the harder by the fact that I am a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Upon taking the job he made some real progress of the sort that we have not seen with the national side since Craig Brown’s time in charge.

The problem now is that the progress has not simply stalled, it is being slowly but surely reversed.

Strachan’s decision making has become increasingly bizarre. Chris Martin, good honest pro that he is, cannot be considered an international class central forward. Leigh Griffiths almost certainly is yet the Scotland boss has shown an almost comic reluctance to play him.

As ever, we lack creativity. Young Burke looks like he possesses some but he was omitted from last night’s debacle altogether. Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

In the post-match press conference, Strachan looked crestfallen and lost. His renowned wit was almost entirely absent. Reporters were still probably thinking “whit?” rather than wit following the analysis the manager produced in the aftermath of the Lithuania game.

He suggested his side had been “unlucky”, that the draw may come to be seen as “a good point in the end” and that “Chris Martin was outstanding upfront.” So outstanding that he was promptly dropped for the next game.

It’s understandable that managers defend and protect their players in public. But it’s insulting to supporters to do so in a way that completely mischaracterises the game that they have just watched. Most supporters are nowhere near as knowledgeable about the game as their confidently expressed opinions would suggest, but neither are they fools.

A manager that starts to treat them as such – however inadvertently or noble the intent – will soon lose their confidence. Strachan has now lost that confidence among large sections of the Scottish support and, more worryingly, perhaps also among sections of the squad.

There was the usual rousing talk from the players pre-match, followed by the customary damp squib during it. They have let down another manager and can probably already start making summer holiday plans for the summer of 2018.

I hope some of them choose Russia. They should go to watch, to learn, and to think what might have been.

Of course that assumes that we don’t qualify and the crazy thing is, despite all the doom and gloom of today, the campaign is not beyond salvaging. The only correct observation that Strachan made after the Lithuania game was that it’s a ‘strange group.’

England, lamentable again last night, remain every bit as much strangers to their potential as we are to major international tournaments. Next month at Wembley should be interesting.

Will Strachan still be in charge for that game? I suspect he probably will. Even though I think his time should be up, there’s not exactly a plethora of excellent candidates waiting in the wings.

Strachan has recovered from Slovakian humiliation before but Wembley, for all of England’s glaring deficiencies, is still not the ideal place to check in for rehab.

The clash of the auld enemies will no doubt reproduce all the old blood and thunder but both nations are in desperate search of new answers. After Big Sam’s little mishap and short reign, Gareth has stepped in and been unable to halt England’s southerly slide. He will likely welcome the visit of the northerly neighbours.

The Tartan Army will travel brave of heart and full of bladder. The pink strip can be left behind in Slovakia, but the fear is that those supporters will only leave Wembley feeling even more blue.

The Pep Supremacy

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Pep Guardiola. Photo by: Felipe Quintanilha, http://www.flickr.com

The build-up was more like that of a fight in boxing: two individuals, two heavyweights, the next contest in a bitter rivalry. Mourinho v Guardiola.

Oh, and Manchester united and Manchester City were also playing a football match.

Bragging rights go to the Spaniard but this was a much bigger win than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. City were miles ahead of their neighbours; 4 or 5-1 would not have flattered them.

This game was proof that United have flattered to deceive so far this season. The extent to which their early season ‘form’ has been heralded, only serves to highlight how dire they were in the last campaign.

Mourinho has brought a bit of grit and made the side more physically imposing, but the swagger that was once the hallmark of Manchester United is yet to return. Even the swaggering Special One has been a little muted and subdued since arriving in the Old Trafford dugout.

One man who presumably swaggered out of the womb is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede continued the excellent start that he’s made to life in the Premier League with another superbly taken goal. At the start of the season, I suggested that Zlatan’s Cantona-esque aura could even make United slight title favourites. I’m glad I haven’t risked any money on that prediction.

They will be a stronger force this time round, more feared and more ruthless, but already I see too many problems to be fixed before they become genuine title contenders again.

Chief among them is what to do with Rooney. If ever a man was living off his reputation then it’s Wayne. When was the last time Rooney dominated a game for club or country? I ask because I honestly can’t remember.

His commitment cannot be faulted but the spark is missing. Rooney is a number 10 and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to positional experimentation, he’s not really a Kama Sutra sort of a guy. He’s willing, but increasingly he’s not able.

Mourinho has a big decision to make: play Rooney at 10 behind Zlatan (and see if they can develop an understanding) or drop him. The captain is rightly a club legend but sometimes even club legends don’t get to choose when their time is up. That clock is ticking for Rooney and I think Manchester Untied would now be a more threatening and more balanced side without him.

The same is true of England incidentally.

Guardiola has already taken the bold step of axing club Legend Joe Hart, who is now off in search of love and redemption in Italy at Torino.

In his place, Guardiola has signed Claudio Bravo, who, unusually for a goalkeeper, is better with his feet than his hands. At least most of the time he is. On quite a few occasions on Saturday he played himself into trouble by taking an extra touch and unnecessary risks in his penalty area. He also managed to drop a cross under minimal pressure, allowing Ibrahimovic to score.

But he also showed just enough to demonstrate why his boss wanted him in his team again. City are already playing the ‘Guardiola way’ and it’s only mid-September. Be warned the rest of the league.

That ‘way’ requires everyone to be comfortable on the ball, including the goalkeeper. Bravo is. He helps to give City a platform to play out from the back and that platform will get more secure as he develops a better understanding with the defenders in front of him.

The evidence of training ground drilling was abundant in the angles that City’s players found, the subtlety of their movement, and the speed at which they broke. De Bruyne was the epitome of that style. He was man of the match and his opponents didn’t come close to figuring out how to stop him.

That too should worry Mourinho.

Guardiola has a footballing philosophy and his City players are showing themselves to be committed scholars. They will only improve further under the master’s guidance. If Pep’s style of play proves to be successful in England, it may be the most revolutionary development in the Premier League since Wenger’s arrival two decades ago.

Patience and quality of movement are not attributes typically associated with even the best Premier League teams. City fans may not now require much patience before they once again find themselves celebrating a league title.

Mourinho won’t give up without a fight and it is of course early days, but the early warning signs are there. City are going to take some stopping.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreline; this was a demolition derby.

Welcome to the European Super League

Champions League Ball

Champions League ball. Photo by Prakash, http://www.flickr.com

The new European Super League will kick-off in the 2018-19 season. It won’t be called the European Super League of course but that’s essentially what it will be. Yes, the latest Champions League revamp takes us even closer to the long-cherished dream of many of the Continent’s biggest teams and their sponsors.

The so-called ‘Big Four’ leagues (Spain, England, Germany, and Italy) will each get four guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage. The big winner in this set-up (stitch-up) is Italy’s Serie A, which currently struggles to get a third side in via the play-offs. No such problems shortly.

The big losers? Well, just about everybody else; the smaller nations and those teams that can actually call themselves champions in their domestic leagues, their path to the group stage just became a little more arduous again.

UEFA’s website lists the 11 values that the organisation ‘works and acts in accordance with.’ The first of these is referred to as ‘Football First’ and states: ‘in everything that we do, football must always be the first and most important element that we take into consideration. Football is a game before being a product, a sport before being a market, a show before being a business.’

Excellent, very worthy stuff. So presumably, this latest decision was made entirely in accordance with the football first value that UEFA holds so dear. It was a decision made in order to promote football as a game, sport and show rather than as a product, market and business.

It’s probably just a by-product of the decision that the product will be more valuable, the market will be expanded, and the business deals will be bigger. That will make for happy chairman at big clubs and happy executives at sponsors and broadcasters paying the big money to keep the whole bloated circus on the road.

In a previous post on the Champions League I said the tournament was reaching a cross-road whereby it would have to decide if it was going to be a competition or a cartel. The Cambridge English dictionary defines a cartel as ‘a group of similar independent companies who join together to control prices and limit competition.’

Football first in the sense of big guys first (as well as second, third and fourth). Some of the big clubs had made even loftier demands: that access be given to historically successful clubs for instance. The Milan teams were particularly keen on that idea. Mind you, as a Liverpool fan …

While the big cheese’s carve up the pie in ever-more self-serving ways, the small fries are left to scoop up whatever crumbs fall from the top table.

But unity at least is preserved among the footballing family, and talk of the big clubs breaking away on their own dies down for a year or two until the next round of negotiations begin. UEFA itself clings on to its seat at the table. But for how long?

It’s interesting that all of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit. The wider European integration project has never looked less certain but football, as always, is different. Ever closer union, at least among those already united, is the UEFA mantra.

Domestic football must seem so parochial to some of these clubs, a rather unfortunate distraction, much like international football. Nationalism was not left behind somewhere towards the end of the last century though; in Britain, its component parts, and throughout Europe as a whole, it is once again on the march.

Understandably, that causes a degree of alarm but it is a perfectly natural response to an alienating globalisation and an elite, particularly in Europe, who have been blindly dismissive of common concerns. Those who walk the corridors of power find themselves confused.

UEFA thinks football is different. Fans must want the big teams playing each other all the time. Manchester United fans want to face Barcelona, not Bournemouth. Maybe, maybe not.

Right now Old Trafford sells out for both so it’s hard to say. Local rivalries remain fiercest though as we’ll no doubt see this weekend in Manchester – even if Jose and Pep provide a sprinkling of continental intrigue.

I was interested to read a piece by Paul Scholes today in which he says: ‘I don’t find elite football as interesting to watch any more, especially in England.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘it’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.’(https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/05/paul-scholes-non-league-football-premier-league)

He prefers watching Salford, the non-league club he part-owns, to Manchester United. He wasn’t alone last season; Salford probably gained a few more fans during the Van Gaal era at Old Trafford.

Those fans have a choice as to how they want their football, just as the citizens of democracies retain some say over the type of communities they want to be a part of.

Brexit was the bursting of the European political bubble. The European football bubble continues to inflate but one day, it too will experience a sharp and spectacular puncture.