Pre-season: the newbies, the nerves, and the nausea

Pre=season training. Photo by: Picture Esk

Pre-season training. Photo by: Picture Esk

It’s that time of year, the sun is out (even occasionally in Scotland), the grass is freshly cut, and all across the land players are reporting back for pre-season training. They’ve had their summer holidays involving yachts, five star resorts, maybe turned up for an afternoon at Wimbledon, and now it’s back to work.

I wonder if the first day back at work after the summer holidays is the same for footballers as the rest of us: sharing awkward holiday pictures, delivering tacky souvenirs, and comparing tans. At least they probably don’t have around 2,000 emails to deal with unless they have a very active agent.

Of course almost straight away they then jet off to long haul destinations (increasingly turning up in this part of the world to meet and greet the global fan base). It’s surprising that travel supplements haven’t appeared yet on ‘this season’s top pre-season destinations: the ideal mix of climate, cuisine and local fans willing to pay inflated ticket prices while you go through the motions in a meaningless game.’

Indeed, the first match I saw here in Malaysia was a Malaysia Select XI v Barcelona. It wasn’t much of a game and Barca ended up winning 3-1. To their credit, Barca fielded a mostly full strength team but with one exception, yes, Messi was left kicking his heels and nursing a tight hamstring on the touchline. A week later, the Catalans kicked-off their La Liga campaign with a 7-0 victory over Levante in which Messi scored twice so the injury clearly wasn’t too debilitating.

I felt great sympathy for those in the crowd in Kuala Lumpur who chanted their hero’s name throughout the second half in the hope that the manager might be persuaded to send him on even for a brief cameo. Alas it was not to be and a lot of kids, plus a few big kids, with ‘Messi 10’ on the back of their strips went home at least a little disappointed.

It seemed a bit off to me to plaster Messi’s face all over town in the month before the game as part of the marketing effort and then not play him because he had a very slight injury. These games represent one of the enduring dilemmas of the modern game – sporting interests versus commercial interests. I doubt many managers of the big clubs would consider playing in the tropical heat of KL against vastly inferior opposition to be the ideal preparation for their forthcoming league campaigns.

Tomorrow night it’s Liverpool’s turn to experience the tropical conditions. They too will face a Malaysia Select XI (meaning that foreign players playing in Malaysia can be selected) rather than the Malaysian national team. In terms of the competitiveness of the contest, that’s probably a good thing since the national side’s last match was a 6-0 home defeat to Palestine.

I was at that game but I’m not going tomorrow night despite being a Liverpool fan. To be honest, I’ve lost virtually all interest in friendly matches. I can understand local fans wanting to see the teams they support live (and people here are huge supporters of the English Premier League as is the case throughout the region) but when you’ve seen Liverpool play at Anfield in a Premier League game, a game such as this holds a lot less appeal.

One interesting thing about this time of year of course is the transfer merry-go-round. It’s been spinning pretty furiously at Anfield but it remains to be seen to what effect. I think Milner is an absolutely terrific free transfer signing and I’m confident that Benteke will prove a decent if perhaps slightly overpriced buy. Firmino looks exciting but Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been far from convincing so far and thus I will reserve judgment for a couple of months.

There’s a lot of pressure on new signings, especially the big money ones. If the recently arrived star striker doesn’t score in a friendly away at Yeovil or somewhere then you can be sure that he will have experienced his first crisis at his new club.

Most clubs appear to still insist on some sort of initiation ceremony for newcomers and this often seems to take the form of karaoke. I imagine Raheem Sterling may have done Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ when he arrived at Manchester City. It’s a rich man’s world indeed Raheem but it can’t buy class.

As the Sterling saga demonstrated, patience is a rare commodity in football these days and the stakes are often very high, very quickly. Already a lot of clubs are battling for qualification in the Champions League and Europa League. My Croatian team, Rijeka (who have qualified consistently for the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons), lost 3-0 at home last week to Aberdeen. At least they had the decency to lose to a Scottish team.

I had expected Aberdeen to struggle in that fixture, not least because the Croatian league season has already started while in Scotland the opening fixtures are still over a week away. I’ve recently become a convert to the idea of summer football in Scotland and one of the reasons is to improve the prospects for Scottish sides in European qualifying games.

My own memories of pre-seasons in Scotland are mostly of the harrowing variety. I remember the long runs along Carnoustie beach which lasted until at least half the squad had vomited or looked on the brink of doing so. Afterwards we would get an equally harrowing massage from the physio – it was agony but it did seem to help. Our physio wore a permanent neck brace and walked with the aid of a stick, an unlikely candidate to be a physiotherapist but he was a good one.

For all the nerves and nausea (whether as player or supporter) the build up to the first day of the season is always exciting, you’re still filled with hope irrespective of the pre-season it’s been. Football fans tend toward the optimistic at this time of year unless your team has sold all its best players (as my club have, and all of them to Celtic).

Still, a big win on the opening day and you could be top of the league. Not long to go now, I’m almost nauseous with excitement.

No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.