Pundits on the couch

sky-sports

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.

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.

Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Forza Beijing!

IMG_3605It was a hot Sunday evening, softened slightly by a hint of breeze, when I arrived at the Olympic Sports Centre Stadium in Beijing. That’s not the famous ‘bird nest’ one that was the centre piece of the Olympics, but a smaller one just across the road.

The purpose of my visit was to sample some local Chinese football, in this case Beijing BG (or Beijing Enterprises Group to give them their full name) versus Wuhan Zall in the second tier of China’s football pyramid.

I purchased a ticket for 30 yuan (about £3.50) a transaction made much easier by the fact that one of the people working in the ticket office spoke reasonable English, a rare occurrence over the course of my 10 day stay in China.

What happened next was also a rare occurrence, at least for me. A long straight walkway led from the ticket office to the stadium. About halfway down it I encountered a gentleman (who I guessed to be in his early 60s) going through an elaborate workout routine with a massive whip. As he lashed it left and right, the ground cracked explosively. It was a fairly terrifying sound.

This performance was being enjoyed, as far as I could tell, by two more elderly gentlemen sat on a bench opposite. I made my way gingerly round the back of the bench before hurrying onward to the stadium.

“Sit anywhere” I was told at the ticket office. Before finding my seat I stopped for refreshment at the kiosk outside. I was quite confident of being able to quench my thirst with an early evening beer but all that was on offer was Coke and popcorn. Thus I entered the ground with a 15 yuan Coke. The appearance of a foreigner seemed to provoke much hilarity at the kiosk (perhaps at my paying 15 yuan?) and a group of curious young boys stood looking at me in some amazement.

I took my seat two minutes before kick-off and I was able to select among many options. The stadium’s capacity is over 36,000 but I doubt if the attendance exceeded 5,000 by very much. Here in the crowd was the least crowded place I’d been all day in Beijing.

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There were police officers sat on small plastic chairs watching the crowd. They were spaced evenly around the perimeter of the pitch, which meant that many of them were watching entirely empty parts of the stadium.

The grass was very long and the early touches of the players reminded me of golfers playing out of the rough. Their short game was good though and overall I was impressed by the level of technical ability.

The Beijing ultras, a rather small group admittedly, were congregated behind the far goal bearing a banner that read: the eagles soaring on the north stand. They were enthusiastic but not especially loud.

There was a group of children in the back row of the ultras section, not quite in their teens yet. Ultras in training, presumably.

After 10 minutes Wuhan took the lead – a well-directed header following a short corner. This turn of events was something of a surprise because even after 10 minutes it was obvious that Beijing were much the better side.

The travelling Wuhan support behind the opposite goal, were understandably ecstatic. Their banner read simply: Forza Wuhan. When I noted that fact on my phone, autocorrect tried to change Wuhan to Wigan. Forza was considered correct.

Ultraism truly is a global Italian brand, embraced as willingly by the Chinese (and others) as they’ve embraced brands such as Prada. The major differences are that Italian ultras are louder, more violent, and more likely to actually be wearing Prada.

The distance between Wuhan and Beijing is 1,200 km. Being an away supporter in China, ultra or otherwise, takes commitment.

The standard of the game was decent, the standard of the ball boys rather less so. These were pretty young kids to be fair, probably 8-10 years old, but the simple task of retrieving the ball and returning it to the pitch consistently proved a struggle. Usually they would work in pairs or trios, resulting in several balls being sent onto the pitch at once.

Right on the stroke of half-time, Wuhan increased their lead. The goal was all the more surprising for being a Beckham-esque effort from the vicinity of the halfway line. The goal-scorer earns plaudits for his audacity; the goalkeeper deserves pelters for his comically flailing attempt at a save.

I described the goal as coming ‘right on the stroke of half-time’ but remarkably there remained sufficient time within that stroke for Beijing to pull a goal back. After which, the half-time whistle was immediately blown.

The police maintained their position during the interval but were permitted to stand, thus giving some of them a more elevated view of empty parts of the stadium. Meanwhile adverts were broadcast very loudly on the big screen, including for beer, which didn’t improve the taste of my flat 15 yuan Coke.

I was left to wonder what supporters in China do at half-time without Facebook; the China chapter of that particular book remains closed.

Not long into the second half and Wuhan had a player sent off. From here on in, there’s would be a largely rear-guard action. Beijing resumed the dominance that they had displayed for most of the game but struggled to make good use of the extra space that had opened up with their man advantage.

Time ticked on and all of Beijing’s huffing and puffing was not shaking the foundations of the Wuhan house. Still, unusually, I had a very confident feeling that ‘my team’ would not only equalise but go on to win. Anything else would’ve been an injustice and football of course never permits an injustice.

Parity was finally restored with 15 minutes of the game remaining. My confidence increased.

In the 85th minute: 3-2 to Beijing as predicted. The match had become a minor classic and I was considerably more satisfied with the value for money being provided by the ticket price than that of the Coke.

That feeling only strengthened a few minutes later when Beijing scored again to make it 4-2.

I stayed to the end to celebrate victory as did almost the entire crowd. One exception was an incredibly glamorously dressed woman who had arrived late. She sat alone and spent most of the match taking selfies. Occasionally she would glance in the direction of the action. She left with about twenty minutes remaining and Beijing still trailing 2-1.

I’ve no idea where she went afterwards. I went back to my hotel with a scarf that I’d bought for my son. Forza Beijing, as the Chinese would say.