Thursday, 26 April 2012

Chelsea 2012 vs Liverpool 2005

So, the stage is set. On Saturday the 19th of May, two of the biggest clubs in the world will go head-to-head for the honour, for the glory, for the ecstasy of being crowned champions of Europe. Words will be said and swords will be sharpened as twenty-two of the finest players in the world do battle. One game to rule them all. That's right, in just over three weeks time, Barcelona* will play against Real Madrid* in the Champions League final.


*Bayern Munich

What the fuck.

Yes, I may have written this article a little bit in advance, but, like the BBC Formula One editing team, I think I salvaged the situation and ensured a sense of continuity and cohesion. No?

So, what this means is that instead of fawning over two teams I actually see only once a year, relying on the words of that one friend who watches La Liga religiously, or the guy who checks out BBC stats to see who is doing well, I am forced to write about something else. Luckily, I think it is far funnier to slate Liverpool and Chelsea anyway.

Against all odds, in May, bald, tattooed men will parade around Munich, all dressed in the same uniform, spouting nonsense about the ideals of their heroes, discussing generally right-wing views, whilst chanting the name of a leader many believe to be racist. If you get that joke, you're very clever, and I'm very sorry.

Sorry for using this picture twice, it just
summed up my point well is all!
For Chelsea, in spite of a crowded fixture list, a relative novice as manager and suffering one of their worst seasons in recent memory, they will be in the final in Munich. How on earth did that happen? As I have said, all due respect to Chelsea for holding out against Barcelona; a team with twice the talent but crucially, half the body weight. However, this Chelsea side are a team who have come through time and time again against teams who should have given them a pasting. They drew with Genk for goodness sake. Even Manchester United could beat Genk and they have as much knowledge of how to succeed in Europe as a blind, fat Texan with a world map of Texas...or David Cameron.

Liverpool in 2005 hadn't fared much better. Like Chelsea, they were locked in a cross-city battle for fourth place. This was the year when fourth place became sexy, when fourth-place really started meaning something, which is why for Arsene Wenger, it means more than a trophy. Despite boasting world-class players Josemi, Steve Finnan, Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan, Liverpool stuggled throughout the year, even getting beaten twice against Manchester United, a team they (and Everton) insist on doubling their efforts for year after year. This was the year when Rafael "fact" Benitez took over the job and, looking at Youtube videos of that season, looks remarkably young...but still fat.

"Sinama-Pongolle IS a good player you prick"

In their final group match, they faced a must-win game, for them against Olympiakos, but having to succeed by two goals. Outplayed for most of the match, Liverpool found a way back into the game due to those superstars of attacking football: Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, before Steven Gerrard scored that goal which that fat, sexist bloke yelled about for a while.

Back to the present, Chelsea just about survived their group themselves, courtesy of a last-game win over Valencia to somehow top their group. As a result, they were drawn against Napoli, a team who have enjoyed a reasonable degree of success in Italy in the past few seasons. "Chelsea will get battered" said those aforementioned people who pretend to know everything about European football, much like those who watched the KONY 2012 video pretend to know everything about African politics. "They'll sneak through somehow" I said. This is because Chelsea have always had a knack for beating teams they have no right to beat. This is why they have been England's second (wink) most successful club in the last ten years, because they can play like shit and still win.

Yep. Andre Villas Boas taking a shit on
Chelsea before they shat on him.
The game against Napoli was a shambles. The first leg was a microcosm for Andre Villas-Boas' reign as Chelsea boss. Attacking threat yes, but as much chance of keeping a clean sheet as a fourteen year-old boy with a lads mag and a locked door. Somehow, Chelsea escaped with just a 3-1 deficit as Villas-Boas escaped with a job deficit and a few million quid.

Replacing the Portuguese manager was former player and former crap manager Roberto Di Matteo. Di Matteo has been praised for his performances as Chelsea boss since taking over and, although impressive, they should be taken with not so much a pinch, but an ocean of salt. Remember Di Matteo can't lose here; he has no expectations and can afford to exclusively play the older players, in other words, sacrificing a long-term plan for a short-term goal in order to add to his C.V. Nevertheless, after taking over, he "inspired" Chelsea to a 4-1 win in the second-leg. Of course, this victory was more to do with Chelsea's senior players turning up for once after their anonymous displays under the previous manager, reminiscent of a spoilt kid trying to get rid of their Maths tutor (which explains Villas-Boas' nonsensical tactical ramblings).

In the last sixteen in 2005, Liverpool played Bayer Leverkusen. I think. I'm not very good at this...

In their quarter-final, Chelsea played Benfica, where an impressive defensive display saw them leave Lisbon with a 1-0 lead. However, in the second leg they were awful. Despite playing against ten men for an hour, Chelsea laboured to a victory which was so nearly snatched from them on a number of occasions. Again, you have to be in it to win it and I'm a United fan. And we're not in it. Innit.

Flying back to the past with as much accuracy as an Anthony Le Tallec shot (remember him as well?!), Liverpool played a quarter-final which served as a poignant reminder of the Heysel disaster in the 1980's. Remember, in 2005, Italian teams were actually good, not like their crap teams of today. In those days, I often wondered how Juventus kept winning Serie A year after year despite a not so great team, I guess we now know don't we...

Liverpool cheering on David Brent

Anyway, nobody gave Liverpool a chance against Juve but down to a combination of dogged defence and a great goal by Luis Garcia (what the hell happened to him?), Liverpool took a 2-1 lead to Turin. What happened next was like a match between Tuesday night's Chelsea and Tuesday night's Chelsea.

Despite needing a goal, Juventus couldn't shake their Italian-ness as their eagerness to keep a clean sheet prevented them from playing with the sort of adventure required to break down such a terrible, terrible team. Liverpool had somehow reached the semi-final.

Back to the present, next for Chelsea came the tie against Barcelona, a game I don't really want to talk about, because you've probably read more than enough about that game. Chelsea's effort, although commendable, owed as much to good fortune as it did to skill. That said, how crap were Barcelona? Playing the same way over and over again, they were met with an almost "computer says no" sense of apathy and as much stubborness as a Catholic donkey from a Chelsea team who had to survive for an hour without their captain John Terry, who had been sent off for...well, I don't know what he was trying to do.

Talking of donkey's, Rafael Benitez was now (not now as in now, but now as it was then) seen as a God. His tactics of "play five defensive midfielders and knick a goal" was taking Europe by storm. In a neat twist which I probably didn't intend, Liverpool played Chelsea in the semi-final that year. In another neat twist, back in 2005, Chelsea were pretty frigging awesome, far removed from their team of today. That team won the league with 95 points, coupling an almost invincible defence with a genuinely potent attack, back when Damien Duff was good and Petr Cech wasn't a scrum half.

There seemed no way that Liverpool could break Chelsea down and, in many ways, they didn't. After somehow surviving the first leg through a combination of luck and lots of defending, Liverpool took the tie back to Anfield locked at 0-0. Due to a goal that didn't go in, Liverpool won a game which was so dull, I still have nightmares about it. You know that fourteen year old boy I referred to earlier? Well, that was my age at the time and, such was the lack of excitement in that game, I definitely kept a clean sheet that night.

But what I want to know is this. Which team was worse? Of course, comments are more than welcome. There is no doubt how big an achievement it is and was for both sides, but I'm not after that, that would be too sensible to talk about. In all honesty, being as neutral as you can, which team was worse, Liverpool of 2005 or Chelsea of today? Bear in mind, Chelsea of today has Kalou and Mikel.

While you furiously battle with your own thoughts about that one, here is something to consider: England have had a team in the final for seven of the last eight Champions League seasons. I still don't know how, but they do. For all those* who say the Premier League is not the best league in the world, you must feel pretty crap!

* - umm, I do and it still isn't the best league in the world.

Chelsea will start the final as underdogs but seven years ago, no-one gave Liverpool a chance against AC Milan, especially after they went three-nil down at half-time to a far superior side. Liverpool somehow came back to win that game to become champions of Europe on the edge of Asia. What price on Chelsea emerging from the ashes in the Bavarian capital?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Defence vs Attack

A few weeks ago, I did an incredibly boring article about the evolution of football formations. Yes, I am capable of producing samey, over-technical, incredibly dull football pieces without making jokes about Gareth Barry or bumming. I should have provided some kind of link so you can witness my supreme tediousness.
A bit of this could come in handy.

So why did I start talking about formations and shit? It's because tonight, Chelsea travel to the Nou Camp to play Barcelona and "a clash of styles" doesn't quite cover it. Pro-Chelsea people will say "winning is all that matters" while football purists, annoying as they are, will insist that playing football the right way should be the primary goal of any decent team. After defeating Barca at home last week, Chelsea's performance has divided more opinion than Mario Balotelli eating marmite in the middle of a euthanasia case. 

Any excuse to put this picture in really.
Some say that Chelsea were the perfect foil for a hitherto supposedly invincible Barcelona team. Others claim that if Jose Mourinho was still Chelsea manager, his teams performance would have been lauded to have high heaven, but that is thanks in part to the fact that, like Balotelli, the media eat out of Mourinho's perfectly moisturised hands. Yes, Chelsea rode their luck, but they played to their strengths: tiny pitch, massive Afrian bloke up front, players who aren't afraid to beat the crap out of more skillful players. You know what I think? Fair play to Chelsea.

Did they deserve to beat Barcelona? Not a chance, they should have been beaten heavily, but they rode their luck and they played the only way that could have given them a shock victory.

Others say that Chelsea are at best one-dimensional and at worst a disgrace to the English game. And they're not even talking about John Terry and Ashley Cole. Those in this bitter camp would probably rather have had Chelsea try and play Barcelona at their own game. Even at their peak in 2005 and 2006, Chelsea would not have played like this, they have always been a side built on efficiency rather than effervescence. Is it "pretty" to watch? No, but are Bernie Ecclestone or Angela Merkel  "pretty?". They are ugly as sin but my God they get (very controversial) results.

Of course Chelsea should have been battered, their fans acknowledge that as quickly as they acknowledge their technical inferiority. The arrogance and confidence amongst their fans and staff of five years ago has given way to a more lucid and realistic approach, which is serving them well. I'll be honest, I don't like Chelsea much and no amount of persuading (even the below picture) can help me change that, but football is at it's most interesting when there is a clash of styles and although I'll stop short of being partisan in wanting them to win tonight, I will be congratulatory rather than bitter should they succeed. Which I don't think they will.
Needed more of an excuse to put this picture in.
But how could they win?

As I said, rigid and turgid analysis is not my thing, whereas puns and putting little jokes in brackets is. However, putting my boring hat on, I would have to say that to go through tonight, Chelsea have to do more of what they did last week. The Nou Camp is about three times the size of Stamford Bridge and with almost one hundred thousand fans cheering on Barcelona (none of them with mass-produced plastic flags), the task will be difficult. Last week, Ashley Cole was amazing in defence, as were all his team-mates in playing a compact system that made life difficult for Barca. Chelsea have to accept they will see very little of the ball and will have to survive more than a few scares. In fact, Chelsea have to accept that they will concede at some point.

With that in mind, despite having to display the same rigidity and teamwork of last week, there needs to be more of a threat from Chelsea tonight. They have more chance of achieving a 0-0 draw by attacking. That makes more sense than it seems. But trust me, I'm a journalist...kinda. Chelsea have to play on the counter-attack and play with more energy than Park Ji Sung on speed. And speed will be key tonight. As in foot speed. Not drugs. Don't do drugs.

When Barcelona take the lead in games, teams have to attack them, which plays into their hands. By keeping possession of the ball, oppositions teams have to win it back as fast as they can and often commit too many numbers to stopping them, while Barca do the traditional "hold the midget at arms length" trick/ "pass it to Messi and let him destroy people" tactic as Barca hit teams on the break. Trust me, I'm a United fan, I've seen this all before.

A whack to this guy's face may change
my mind about Chelsea.
But Chelsea have a lead to take with them, so Chelsea can be patient. As well as this, a Chelsea away goal would make life very difficult for the Catalans, and thus the home side can't play with their usual abandon from the start. As we saw in the Europa League - Europe's best club competition - despite being totally superior, Man City were knocked out by a decent but average Sporting Lisbon side. How? Lisbon took a 1-0 lead to the Etihad stadium and scored twice on the break, leaving City needing four goals...of which they scored three.

Something similar has to be the goal for Chelsea tonight. Whether their players - tired after a hectic few weeks - can raise their game sufficiently will be tough. This match situation showcases why I feel it is an advantage to play at home first in Europe. If you win and don't concede, or even draw 0-0 at home, you have a great chance of going through, regardless of the opposition. In the first leg, you can almost kill the tie off while, such is the tension involved in first-leg knockout games, a 0-0 draw suits the home team far more than the away my opinion.

This could come in handy as well.
In other words, if Chelsea want to win, they need to do it in a way which will piss off the most people the next day:
Play as ugly as you want, defend with your lives, kick it long (but accurately...somehow) if you can, and hope Drogba has a great game. Play with width, win corners, win throw-ins. Do that, and Chelsea have a chance. Not that I can see it, but good luck to them.

As for ugly success? How can success be ugly? What is beautiful about defeat? Most of the people slating Chelsea are England fans, who play awful, awful football with some (ish) success. Remember the 1-0 friendly win over Spain? Yeah, there we go. I don't like Chelsea, but a win over Barcelona would be a hell of an achievement, one we should all respect. The purists, like Cesc bloody Fabregas, will moan about it, because they feel they have the God given right to play football the "right" way, and all other teams should subscribe to this "right" way, whatever that is.

So, you want an opinion? Here is my recommended Chelsea XI:

Ivanovic    Terry     Cahill    Cole


Lampard Ramires

Mata                                                                                   (anyone but) Kalou


I know, no surprises there, except maybe Essien over Mikel, but I think Mikel is useless. As usual, I have added no new information in an attempt at being analytical. I just can't do it. As he was last week, Ramires will need to be excellent. Yes, those wingers are wide, but they have to be, set-pieces will be crucial.

Crap, I forgot to take change the alignment of my text.

Umm, OK.

Anyway, I can't believe I am saying this. But good luck Chelsea.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The race, the whole race and nothing but the race.

It's Monday morning, but thank God the week is over.

After a long, tense and unpredictable few days, we finally got a race yesterday at the Bahrain Grand Prix. For four hours, I avoided as much Formula One information as I could as I (im)patiently waited for the highlights show to start on the BBC. As things turned out, I should have avoided all sports for the day, due to my football team (Manchester United)'s inability to beat bloody Everton. But this is a Formula One piece, so I will try to keep my grieving on the low. Anyway, after a successful wait, the highlights began and I was hoping a great race with a British winner would lift my spirits.

Felipe Massa had another successful race
I'm still trying to work out just how good yesterday's race was. While not as good as the preceding Malaysian and Chinese Grand Prix, it was better than the opening race in Australia and certainly better than the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix, a race so bad I want to find and burn every copy of it, a race so bad it would turn Medusa to stone.

Was the race worth all the hoo-ha that had gone on in the week leading up to it? Of course not. Should the race have gone on at all? I still think the race should have been postponed, not just because Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button picked up just four points between them, but because of politics and shit.

In a country where so much pain and suffering is going on as the fight to secure democracy continues, a sport as elitist and powerful as Formula One was probably as welcome a house guest as Mel Gibson in a synagogue. As I said in my last piece, I don't like making serious points, so I'll stop. As the title says, let's just cover the race, the whole race and nothing but the race.

Which is more than can be said for the BBC.

Screw you Bernie Ecclestone.
I know that there's contract stuff to sort out, but was I the only one who found the highlights very short?

Maybe the race was worse than we were made to believe, but every now and then, five or so laps would just be cut from the race and I found it extremely frustrating. Was I the also one who didn't see Grosjean pass Webber for third place early in the race? In mitigation, I may have missed that due to a combination of an inability to pay attention and my own myopia.

I don't want to always moan at the BBC. Their coverage is pretty good and is apparently better than Sky's, according to Lao from China (Youtube it). By the way, Lao has now been given an executive position in the BBC's marketing team. The BBC didn't have much choice in jettisoning much of the live races; when Rupert Murdoch comes knocking, there isn't much you can do except turn your phone off and pray. After all, the BBC also needs to satisfy their partisan Songs of Praise fanatics, and the Formula One was getting in the way. Oh well, at least the beeb have the rights to show the whole European Grand Prix from Valencia live. Oh goody.

Anyway, the race!

Vettel once again had a race of his own.
Apparently anyway.
I wasn't able to see it all

The race was like a throwback to last year as Sebastian Vettel led almost the entire Grand Prix. It was just like 2011 and merely served to confirm the worst of my most paranoid of fears: That Sebastian Vettel is faster than time.

Despite a rally (no pun intended...OK, it was intended) from Kimi Raikkonen midway through the race, Das Finger looked comfortable throughout and he took the win to give himself the chance to showcase the second worst hand gesture to come out of Germany.

And just like that, he leads the championship. How on earth did that happen?! This is precisely what wasn't meant to happen! Although only ten points separate the top five drivers, the sight of Vettel at the top of the championship makes me shiver just a little bit. As I may have said before, despite everything, I really like Vettel, which is a real shame.

As for the aforementioned Raikkonen, his Lotus team had a very good weekend, with Raikkonen second and team-mate Grosjean third. Both drivers had pretty quiet races in the end, which will be a relief to Lotus after Raikkonen's finish to the Chinese Grand Prix. Kimi has settled right back into Formula One, which is great because I really like him too...I think I just like everyone...except Maldonado, due to his freakishly small head. I don't know why I like Kimi because he is incredibly bland, but also a bit extrovert at the same time, two things that I am not...

Vettel's famous "finger" celebration

How it should be done

Further back, Mark Webber finished fourth. Again.

Right behind Webber was last week's race winner Nico Rosberg. Webber must have been breathing a sigh of relief as he finished ahead of Rosberg. This is because after getting his first taste of victory champagne the week before, Rosberg must have convinced himself he was his compatriot Michael Schumacher. Now only ninety race wins behind Michael, Nico took it upon himself to drive like him. First Hamilton and then Fernando Alonso were forced off the track to try and overtake him. The race stewards saw nothing untoward with Rosberg's racing, which leads me to believe that I must have been stewarding the race, due to their blindness. How on earth you can simply shove a car off the track and then complain they went off the track when overtaking is almost admirable. It isn't, but at least Rosberg has finally grown a pair, what do you think Nico?

Next was Paul Di Resta. That's right. Paul Di Resta. Paul drove a great race on a two-stop strategy he somehow made work. While the tyres of his rivals fell apart, he kept his together to secure a well-deserved sixth place. He fended off Rosberg for a few laps before, in true Scottish style, he was heroically defeated.
Later, still in true Scottish style, when Englishman Jenson Button was closing in, Di Resta held position long enough to force Button to have a problem. My theory is that Di Resta employed Dick Dastardly tactics and launched something sharp from the back of his car or just some good old-fashioned anti-Anglo feeling. On the day before St Georges day too. Brilliant!

Speaking of Button and the McLarens, they had a terrible race. Starting their cars second and fourth, there were high hopes for strong finishes, owing to an apparent focus on race-pace over qualifying performance. As it turned out, the McLarens burned out their rear tyres so quickly, any chance of a victory had long gone, even before the man operating the left rear tyre twice forced Hamilton into slow stops. It was also the left rear tyre man who scuppered Button's chances of victory last week. So who is left rear gun-man? Three options:

Any option from the right

Martin Whitmarsh: Seems determined to ruin McLaren after taking over from Ron Dennis
Fernando Alonso: Because it would be kind of funny
Paul Di Resta: The Scottish thing

McLaren, for the first time in years, have started the season with a car quick enough to challenge for race victories, yet find themselves behind the Red Bull - whose car is at it's most uncompetitive since 2008 - when David Coulthard drove it - in the constructors championship. One win from four races with arguably the fastest car is not the start the Woking team had in mind, but luckily, there are still 67 or so races to turn it around.

So, Formula One approaches another boredom-inducing break of three weeks. What are we going to do with our Sundays?! As Formula One fans, we are often a bit of a lonely bunch, and I don't want to have to follow Manchester United for the next few weeks due to the reasons mentioned in this - and other - pieces.

The next race is in Spain in Barcelona. Usually, this is a really, really boring race as no-one can overtake, but I have high hopes for it next time, mainly because I always have high hopes for races, hopes that are rarely justified. In the meantime, we face a wait more awkward than Coulthard and Jake Humphrey running into Martin Brundle on the F1 Forum...a meeting made more awkward by Humphrey's clear depression at not being invited to dinner with the big boys. Yeah, sorry Jake.

Anyway, the race that maybe shouldn't have gone ahead is finished, and I barely spoke about the bad stuff, I'd rather leave that to the people who pretend they know what is going on in Bahrain and the middle-east. As usual, I have done the bare minimum in terms of research and don't intend to change now.

With fifteen races to go, it's all to play for still.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Citius, Altius, Fortius

^That's the Olympic motto by the way^

...not sure if "fastest, highest, strongest" applies to the archery or gymnastics teams, but it did give me a chance to write in Latin.

Proof that I'm not talking
out of my Altius.
Yes, that time is getting nearer isn't it. Am I the only one who does just a little pee when the Olympics get nearer? The fact that this year's Olympics are in London makes my bladder feel that much weaker.

How many Olympic blogs will have urine references? Only a wee number.

I wouldn't be much of a sports geek if I didn't hold a great affection for the Olympics, after all, when else would you get people from all over the world coming to London, taking a chance to see all this city has to offer, while testing the limits of our nation's finest? If you're xenophobic, don't answer that question.

I remember the announcement that London would be hosting the Olympics like it was yesterday. That is a lie because I don't remember it well. I was in France on a school trip at the time and the words "we beat those smug Parisians" didn't exactly go down well with the locals, or with me, as I thought "Parisian" was a type of smelly cheese. Again, if you're xenophobic, don't comment. Of course, the very next day, euphoria was replaced with agony as Britain was hit by the worst terrorist attacks in its history. That two day period served as a reminder that although sport is paramount to so many of us, it is simply a small part of life, life which can be snatched away at any point.

Many saw the disastrous events of 7/7 as an omen that our Olympics would be a poor one, even a dangerous one. However, as time has gone on, as a nation, our natural sense of pessimism has slowly faded and general feelings of hope and anticipation have come to the fore. As a city, as a country, we have the opportunity to showcase what we have to the world. Of course, as there will be British athletes in front of a home crowd, we should expect a hell of a lot of fourth places if Euro 1996 and every Wimbledon since 1997 are anything to go by.

Will Murray perform better than in Beijing?
Can he do any worse?
The state of anticipation hasn't been present throughout this Olympiad though. Being a London-organised event, something was always going to go wrong. Anyone's experiences of The Emirates and Wembley stadiums, as well as The Wimbledon Championships - where people are known to visibly age whilst in "the queue" - mean we should have expected some kind of ticket trouble.

Even prestigious sports journalists like myself have struggled to get decent tickets, I will only be able to see the women's beach volleyball. What a shame.

You've probably read more than enough about the ticket "farce", "fiasco" or another phrase beginning with "f" and ending in "uck up", so I will not comment too much more. However, when one considers how few of the Olympic stadium's 90,000 seats are taken by actual spectators, it makes you wonder why so many average Londoners - many of whom have essentially paid for the event, often against their wishes - have been priced out. It also makes you (me) wonder why so many seats are afforded to the "Olympic family". Mr and Mrs Olympic clearly didn't use contraception did they?

The last Olympics made me feel a couple of things. The first feeling was, oh my God the Olympics is amazing, Beijing did such a good job. The second was, oh crap, how the hell are we going to follow that? Then I took a deep breath and thought "as long as it's better than Atlanta and Athens, it'll be OK". But that got me thinking about the last few Olympic games, and the pattern does not look good:

Seoul 1988: Pretty rubbish. Can't remember much. Probably because I hadn't been born.
Barcelona 1992: Great games, said by many to be the benchmark for most modern Olympics.
Atlanta 1996: Pretty rubbish, WWF wrestling was a sport.
Sydney 2000: Arguably the best games of all time. Enough said.
Athens 2004: Stadiums half-built, faces of the games go missing on the eve of the competition and Great Britain won a sprint gold medal. Tells you everything you need to know.
Beijing 2008: Very good games, records, stories, very little controversy. Better mascots than our ones.
London 2012: ?

Olympic WWF, and reeeeally camp Olympic kit

The 2004 Olympic stadium at time of completion

I'm sure Beijingers or Beijingites, or whatever the collective name for a group of people from Beijing is, had the same worries I do. However, despite feeling a certain apathy towards the games around a week before it started, out of nowhere I got hit. In the country where the SARS virus affected so many, I had caught Olympic fever. For two weeks, I sat glued to a TV set while the world outside did outside world stuff.

Waking up at 3 a.m and sleeping at 9 p.m felt like a great decision at the time, and although I felt an almost hangover-sense of fatigue, lost in the middle of Cornwall, I'd do it all again. The Olympic-induced insomnia that is, not going to Cornwall. If you live in Cornwall, good for you, you don't have to drive seven hours to get to Cornwall, unlike the rest of civilisation.

But what an Olympics! The highlights remain Usain Bolt's incredible 100 and 200 metre wins, the first of which still lives in the memory. The games also represented unprecedented success for Team GB. 19 golds helped us to fourth in medal table, ahead of Australia. Now, I know a country with a quarter of our population, a country which used to be in our empire should not be the subject of our gloating or be seen as our benchmark but it is. Although most of our gold medals were won in "sit-down" sports, they all count.

Who came second in the end?!
My moment of the games came in the 100 metre butterfly final. Michael Phelps, in his quest for eight gold medals, had won six, all in world record times.

So, at around 5 o'clock local time, I woke up in a Devon hotel to watch him try to equal Mark Spitz's seven golds, won in Munich in 1972. In his way was Milorad Cavic. After staring down the American at the start, Serbian swimmer Cavic was meters ahead at the turn, with Phelps out of contention. However, Phelps suddenly started catching Cavic with such menace and speed that I nearly hummed the Jaws theme tune. Despite Phelps turning into a shark, he seemed destined to fall just short, but in the last centimetre, he pipped his rival to beat the Serbian and beat Spitz. Of course, Spitz won his golds with a massive moustache, so that aerodynamic disadvantage must be held as a credit to his legacy.

"You look sexy"
"I know"
So what will 2012 hold? Feared by many to mean the end of the world, it may yet bring a new birth to many, including British sprinter Dwain Chambers. Much to the dismay of the British Olympic Association, there is every chance Chambers will be allowed to run at the Olympics, despite being banned from the games for life after failing a drugs test in 2003. I would be apoplectic about this usually, as drug cheats should be punished in the strongest way, in order to deter potential abusers. However, such is Chambers' and British mediocrity at sprinting, it doesn't really matter. No-one can replace Chambers and even he won't reach the final. So no harm done.

Mmmm, anabolic goodness
With under one hundred days to go, the excitement is building. But this week's awful weather does have me suddenly fearing a grey, dreary games. It is pissing down as I write this, so I hope it does not represent some crazy form of pathetic fallacy. If you're reading this from overseas, thanks for reading and well done for not having our climate. That said, I do think there would be something terribly British about having the beach volleyball played in constant drizzle, and it would also give me an added incentive to watch the event I have tickets for. I hope the girls playing in white win.

But despite the signs and despite the omens, wind, rain or shine, I think we are going to have a great games. It may not have the high-tech wizardry of Beijing, but it will have cleaner air. It may not have the history of Athens, but it will have stadiums with seats. It will be better than Atlanta. And in true British style, just not being the worst would be a decent result.

Citius, Altius, Fortius? We may not be the fastest, highest or strongest, but we're gonna give it a ruddy good go.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Close finishes, awful fielding and some Gayle force winds. And the IPL is still dull

It would say little for my sporting analysis if I essentially wrote off two colossal sporting events in a month and had to backtrack on both of them. After reading the last rites for Formula One - and in particular, the BBC's coverage (or lack thereof) of it - in March, I called the Indian Premier League just a little dull. I'm still working out whether I need to back-track or not.

Of course, my most ardent followers (thanks Mum, dinner was delicious on Monday) will know that I may have been a little hasty in writing off Formula One and those titans of epic broadcasting: Jake Humphrey (not totally sarcastic), Eddie Jordan (not totally sarcastic) and Gary Anderson. After a Chinese Grand Prix, which, aside from some weird man who kept shouting throughout the race, was brilliant, I admitted my mistake.

A few weeks ago, I decided to test the waters of the most volatile ocean of them all - how much can you annoy a cricket-mad Indian. I don't know why I tried it, because Indian fans have suffered enough and their support for their teams is very impressive. But after criticising Sachin Tendulkar about a month previously, I had gotten away with it to the extent that I wanted to try my luck against India's next best sporting institution. No, not Wasim Jaffer or Amit Mishra, but the IPL. Neither of those posts got much criticism, mainly due to the fact only 8 people from India have read this piece of crap so far. But my opinion could be changing. But it isn't.

Boring picture. Boring caption.
Yesterday, I made the brave decision to "treat" myself to two Indian Premier League games. Erm, by the way, I'm referring to twenty20 cricket here, so if you thought I'd gone utterly insane and, in my desperation for approval and a niche market, had taken to analysing obscure football leagues like India's premier football competition (or the I-league, thanks Wikipedia), think again. That was a long sentence. Anyway, before the Royal Challengers of Bangalore took on the Pune Warriors, the Deccan Chargers visited the Rajasthan Royals. Try saying that sentence five times in a row!

Since winning the IPL in 2009 and reaching the semi-final the year after, the Deccan Chargers have been pretty hopeless. This year looks to be no exception as, prior to yesterday's game; the Chargers had two losses from two games. Well what did they expect?! They have no decent Indian players and have acquired some pretty poor overseas players too, with the exception of Kumar Sangakarra and Dale Steyn. Other than that, it's essentially JP Duminy and some unknown Indian blokes. Despite this, they managed to score 197 runs from their twenty overs, helped mainly by Duminy, Sangakarra and some awful fielding.

Who wants it?!

Seriously, the fielding was so laughably poor. With the exception of Virat Kohli and in particular Suresh Raina, Indian players and teams are often criticised for being poor in the field and I'm afraid that trend continued, with dropped catches and misfields occurring regularly.

The Rajasthan Royals set about their chase well, with Rahul Dravid (yes, Rahul Dravid) scoring quickly, aided by Ajinkya Rahane, the man who had scored more runs than anyone so far in this year's tournament.

However, after losing wickets at regular intervals, the chase looked impossible as the match approached the end. With Dale Steyn yet to bowl two overs and the required run-rate around fourteen an over, it seemed the Royals impressive start to the campaign was about to falter. And somehow, Deccan contrived to cock it up, showing almost South African levels of choking. Steyn got smashed around the park as Brad Hodge - the all-time leading run-scorer in twenty20 cricket - took control to see his team home.

The fielding by Deccan was even worse than it was by Rajasthan. It was like eleven Douglas Elder's in the field, which I and my grotesquely shaped fingers can tell you is not a very good proposition. The game summed up what many see is wrong with the IPL and indeed modern cricket. Too many games, too much money, jaded players and poor quality. Tight finishes and lots of TV money yes, but an overall decline in the standards the viewer should expect.

Deccan celebrating. God knows why.
Next up was the Royal Challengers of Bangalore (hereafter, RCB, because I can't be bothered to write that all again) against the Pune Warriors. If I cared enough to follow a team, RCB would be my favourite team. But I don't really care, I just like sixes and wickets because I want bish-bash cricket because I'm a bloody moron. RCB had lost three of their opening four games of the tournament, including a brilliant game against Chennai Super Kings. Do IPL teams not think of aspiring journalists when coming up with team names?! I actually intended to write about that game but I couldn't be bothered and the thought of writing the Royal Challengers of Bangalore versus the Chennai Super Kings was very scary.

By contrast, Pune had shocked a number of teams so far, winning three of their opening four games. With Robin Uthappa, Jesse Ryder and Sourav Ganguly - one of the few genuinely scary Indians when angry - at the top of the order, you can see why they have been successful. And they wasted no time in setting a decent score here, with Uthappa and Ryder scoring at over ten-an-over before they were dismissed. For all his critics and his general uselessness at cricket, Steve Smith is one of the highest run-scorers in this year's IPL. I know. However, despite Smith coming in at number four, Pune could not take advantage of their strong start and, despite boasting big-hitters Angelo Matthews and Marlon Samuels, they only made 182 from their twenty overs.

Want to know how Pune have so many good batsmen? No? Well, I'll tell you anyway. Because they forgot about bowlers, that's why. After making a reasonable start with the new ball, Pune were well on top of the game, but still had work to do. RCB's batting line up includes Tillakaratne Dilshan, Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers, so you can see why I like them. However, despite the odd Chris-Gayle-destroying-some-poor-bowler* moment, RCB could not get a rhythm going and when Kohli fell, RCB needed 111 runs from 49 balls. Which is a lot.

*no hashtag, realise how hashtag rhymes with douchebag?

Don't know why I picked this picture.
Not for Chris f*cking Gayle it isn't! "Where's the next bowler, I'm going to destroy him and make him cry tears of blood" he (certainly never) said. It was almost like he started trying and when Rahul Sharma came on to bowl, Gayle's eyes would have lit up if he could be arsed to show any emotion. Six, six, six, six, six went Sharma's over, and the tide had turned. Despite getting bowled (how rude) a few overs later, Gayle had given RCB hope, hope (and more dreadful fielding) which De Villiers capitalised upon to see the home side through.

So, Bangalore snuck (that's not a word) home and may be ready to...sigh...challenge again. But one thing that struck me - except for my fist as I wondered why I wasn't doing proper work - about yesterday's games was the ever-decreasing turn out for these games.

It is no surprise that crowds are getting smaller and, at the risk of sounding like Jonathan Agnew (much as I love him), there is too much cricket being played. Look at this year's County Championship, seriously, f*cking look at it. It is only the somethingth of April, and we are already into the third round of fixtures and we won't finish until late September. Bigger is not better, the more cricket that gets played, the less the fans will afford, the lower the quality will be, despite the odd "Citi moment of success".

Apart from providing lowlifes like me with the opportunity to ramble about silly team-names or get a little too excited about Chris Gayle's biceps, modern cricket, and by association, the IPL, is taking our game on a slow - albeit fun - downward spiral. At first glance it is fun when Chris Gayle is in full-flow or Dale Steyn is knocking over some slogging batsmen, but, scratch beneath the surface and the standard is declining. This is to the detriment of the players, while the super-rich line their pockets.

Low crowds, this ground was actually full five
minutes before, but then Tendulkar got out
and everyone disappeared.
In a moment of painful symbolism, during Gayle's onslaught on Sharma, we got a glimpse of what the IPL is all about. This huge batsman, who has turned his back on Test Cricket and, to a lesser extent his country, was in the middle of a passage of play that will be remembered for years to come. Yet, it was not the sixes he was hitting that may come to represent this tournament. After Gayle hit Sharma high over long-off, one of the fans, a young girl, was struck in the face by the ball. That's right, it is the fans being bitten on the nose. As Gayle gets richer, it is the fans who are getting hurt.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Goal-line technology: Mind over Mata?

Chelsea fans, I know your pain.

Is it just me...or is that actually in?
A gutsy performance, attacking quality, dogged defending and calm heads when the opposition lose theirs. In spite of having a relatively limited team, superior tactical nous and a greater ability to hold their nerve under pressure meant Chelsea were able to thump Tottenham 5-1 in today's second semi-final. 5-1, that's like a Manchester derby score. Yes, Chelsea rode their luck at many times during an absorbing tie, particularly moments into the second half, but they won the game and have an FA Cup final to look forward to. And yet...

All the talk will be about Juan Mata's "goal" after 49 minutes. First things first, what an absolutely terrible decision by referee Martin Atkinson. I usually stick up for referees when all around them are dishing out the criticism, like the Daily Mail on one of their "football is dying" crusades, but this was a terrible decision. Mata's shot from inside the area was blocked just in front of the line by a combination of Carlo Cudicini, Ledley King and John Terry. If ever proof was needed that Terry is not a racist, his touchy-feely grappling on the floor with King should prove the doubters wrong. The ball did not cross the line and yet Atkinson gave a goal. Why? Either he was incredibly bored or the sight of 25,000 bald Chelsea fans swayed him slightly. Of course, Atkinson's gaffe means two things:

Don't make me racist.
You wouldn't like me when I'm racist.

The debate about goal-line technology will rumble on and on. I love football and I love controversy. In fact, when pundits say "let's just hope for a nice clean game", I am tempted to ask about the location of their testicles and why they have misplaced them. However, this debate has gone on so long I find it so tedious. I don't give a crap whether goal-line technology is implemented or not, yes it should be, but there's not much we can do about it, other than say "England would have beaten Germany with goal-line technology. FACT.*"

* - not an actual fact.

Tottenham fans will moan for AGES about this. For God's sake, they still go on about that "goal" they were incorrectly not given at Old Trafford SEVEN YEARS AGO. They still go on about the dubious (but not ridiculous) decision to give Man United a penalty at Old Trafford, a penalty which saw United still 2-1 behind THREE YEARS AGO. They love a bloody good moan, and of course, so do I, but leave it out will you? Spurs, your self-imposed moniker of "unlucky club" is only because you have a tendency to bottle it on the biggest occasion.Take this season, despite Arsenal's worst start in over 1,000 years, they still look likely to finish behind the team they are the perennial bridesmaids to.

Is it just me or...nah it went in.
The game itself was terrible for thirty minutes. Then it suddenly burst into life with Tottenham twice going close before half-time, with Rafael Van der Vaart's cross hitting a post moments after John Terry blocked the Dutchman's header off the line. I don't know what it is about John Terry but he blocks a lot of shots on the line...for both teams in this game. Nevertheless, the game looked destined to be 0-0 at the break until a moment of magic from Didier Drogba. Under the cosh, Chelsea's tried and tested tactic of "whack it to Drogba" paid dividends as the Ivorian out-muscled Ledley King before flicking the ball round the defender with one foot and smashing it in from twenty yards from the other. It's the kind of goal that would make you say "say what?!" if someone had said something particularly interesting, bizarre or unfounded, and if you weren't (in all likelihood) middle-class. It didn't stop me saying it of course, but then I'm very different.

After Mata's incident, which I am trying to talk about as little as possible, Tottenham were incensed, so much so that their anger led to a goal back on the hour when Gareth Bale scored and all of a sudden, Chelsea looked vulnerable. Spurs pressed for an equaliser which, on balance, their play had merited. However, after replacing Van der Vaart with Jermaine Defoe, Tottenham's midfield was left more exposed than Rupert Murdoch, and Chelsea took advantage in psycho-killer, axe-murderer fashion.

Frank Lampard
Chelsea, second-best for much of the game, sensed their opportunity to strike. And strike they did through the impressive Ramires, before Frank Lampard added a fourth with a FIFA free kick (whack it as hard as you can and hope it dips. Other football games are available, but don't buy them, they're crap). Tottenham were left deflated, their injustice and frustration at their own profligacy leaving them flatter than Kate Moss in a sports bra. Florent Malouda, a player who I forgot was still alive, then added a fifth to compound Tottenham's misery. 5-1 was an entirely unjustified scoreline, but Chelsea are to be praised (yes, I'm praising Chelsea, God knows why) for their tenacity and ruthlessness when presented with an opportunity, helped by some outrageous luck.

Next up for the men in blue is a simpler task: Barcelona. For sixty minutes, a Tottenham side low on confidence and form made Chelsea look utterly ordinary. As a result, I dread to think what Lionel Messi will do to Gary Cahill or what Andres Iniesta will do to John Obi Mikel. But, as I've found to my cost this season, with European competition, you've got to be in it to win it. Of course, Chelsea won't win it, but they are in it, so they could. But they won't. However, with Drogba in such fine form and John Terry looking as impressive as ever, there is every chance they could sneak a positive result on Wednesday and take the tie to the Nou Camp. Where they will probably get hammered.

Can Drogba do it again?
As for Spurs, their sense of injustice and the public's sense of incredulity was summed up by some pretty loaded post-match questions, all centered around Mata's "goal". Where Spurs go from here is a mystery, but their own victim complex may just kick in to their detriment now and ruin a season which should have provided so much. They will feel hard-done by, and rightly so, but if they are looking at Mr Atkinson as the sole reason for their downfall, they are wrong.

Bring on the final between Chelsea and Liverpool, a match where I hope history will be made.

As the first match in football history where both teams lose.

Ok, I like Formula One again

This is a bit embarrassing.

A few weeks ago, I launched into a full-scale tirade at how the start to the 2012 Formula One season hadn't left me yearning for more. The BBC's decision to jettison the rights to all live races to Sky left me a little pissed off. Despite multiple promises to boycott viewing the highlights (like those people who constantly moan about paying licence fees), I persevered after an Australian Grand Prix which I found very tedious. Of course, Jake Humphrey and Eddie Jordan tried to sex it up a little (not that Eddie needs help sexing anything up, grrrrowl) by saying it was a great race with lots of action...for 7th place. But then again, the BBC tried to whet our appetites for this season by saying that last year was one of the best ever. No it wasn't. It was more boring than a rap-off between Kimi Raikkonen and Paul Di Resta.

Even Obama - who doesn't watch F1 - found
last year boring.
But, I made a mistake. Go on, mock me, I got it wrong. Are you reading Jenson (please)? I got it wrong. Not anyone else. Not the pit-crew, not my cold tyres or any other excuses: "yeah I got a bit of over steer at turn 7 because my usually perfect stubble (any tips? I only get random spurts of bum-fluff) was a bit out of place, so I lost grip and that's why I qualified 6th." My fault. But what a race!

I woke up at 7:55 for the race today. Trust me, that is super early for a guy like me. After a qualifying session which sprung further surprises after the shocks of previous Saturdays from this year, the race was beautifully set up. Carefully shifting my weight, I put in my earphones and watched the action on a laptop, laying in the exact same position for the duration of the race. It was that good, I couldn't move, which is a shame, because my left arm was dead until the evening.

Nico Rosberg started on pole from team-mate Michael Schumacher, with Button and Lewis Hamilton (the only drivers I really care about, except Charles Pic, because his name is awesome) in 5th and 7th place respectively. Rosberg got a great start and everyone else didn't, and that was almost a microcosm for the entire race. Rosberg dominated a race of his own while the others squabbled over the scraps, a bit like Stalin in 1930's Russia, but without the genocide. It's not often that great races involve no major battle for victory, but it was the case today. Yes, without a pit-stop error, Button could have got close. He was instead placed in heavy traffic, which ultimately cost him any sniff of victory. That said, such was Rosberg's metronomic, precise consistency (in short, German-ness), he always looked comfortable, claiming his first win at the 111th attempt, which equates to a strike-rate which makes Fernando Torres look prolific.

Charles Pic! He looks like he sounds!
I'm now going to say something I may later regret. I felt sorry for Michael Schumacher. Is that wrong? Should I feel a little bit dirty? Well, I still feel bad for the old fella. Three races gone, three incidents which were not his fault. All three moments of misfortune have compromised races which held more misplaced promise than a Lib Dem manifesto. Poor Michael has just one point from three races, which is worse than Nico Hulkenberg, who has enjoyed around 8 seconds of TV coverage this year, such has been his anonymity.

The race was a bit of a slow-burner, in that you knew something was going to happen. It all built up to a crazy climax, where about ten cars were lined up in an orderly queue, providing a little taste of Britain in the middle of Shanghai. McLaren's three-stop strategy meant the British drivers were forced to overtake the gain track position, and overtake they did, with Button finishing second with Hamilton fifth. The Red Bull's of  Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel finished fourth and fifth respectively, despite the pair of them not overtaking many cars. For Webber, his tried and tested tactic of "get close to them, wait till they pit/wait for someone to force them wide with their own overtaking manouvre" moved the Aussie up the field, culminating in a penultimate lap move on his team-mate for fourth place. As for Vettel, he had to settle for ten points when, with five or so laps to go, he looked likely to secure eighteen. However, decreasing grip left the German vulnerable to a dramatic (and pretty funny, sorry Seb) late raid.

I'm handsome but BOY AM I ANGRY.
Anyway, Lewis Hamilton now leads the championship. He has been very clinical this season, picking up three podiums, driving almost within himself to secure consistent points. Yes, this week, Andy Carroll scored twice, Rosberg won and Hamilton hasn't made a mistake; sport is broken. Close behind Hamilton is Button, who had a very good race today and he continues to look like a top driver, despite having limited driving skill in the eyes of many. If Jenson Button's driving is limited, I'm never going to pass my theory test. And third is - sigh - Fernando Alonso. I don't really like Alonso, that's about it.

OK, dim the lights. Serious point coming up. Next weekend, Formula One rolls on to Bahrain...maybe. Much controversy has surrounded the staging of the race, given the civil unrest in the country. The situation surprises me, not just because previous grid-walks with Martin Brundle (come back, you've made your money now!) had led me to believe that the Crown Prince of Bahrain was a jolly good bloke, a man so nice, I thought he was a Disney character. Again, I was wrong. It also surprises me because any suspicion of danger to the participants should lead to a postponement, as was the case last year. To be honest, the last race in Bahrain - in 2010 - was so bad, any postponement wouldn't be such a blow to my weekend viewing.

Sorry for nicking your poster ahead of time Mr Benson

Should a sport as elitist as Formula One be allowed to be staged in a country still going through so much strife? My view is no. Although it is nice having a good race to look forward to, a two hour gap in the endless monotony that is Sunday, I feel uneasy at the prospect of the world going on as normal in a region where so much has gone wrong in the past few months. I don't like making serious points, they give me a headache and make me look a bit serious when I'm not, I'm actually a decent bloke once you get past the constant stream of puns, sarcasm and yearning for laughter. I'm also pretty laid-back (like this morning...joke...please laugh), I had too much ice in my Orange Juice this morning, and I barely complained, but I felt the need to say something on this.

The powers that be have a decision to make about next weekend. The indications are that the race will go ahead, and my thought-about boycott - for moral reasons - will be boycotted - for entertainment reasons. Nonetheless, Bernie Eccelestone has to make the right choice. The political situation of Bahrain is not my strongest point unfortunately, so I am not best qualified to discuss the matter. But it didn't stop me trying.

In Bernie we trust. Lol.
As far as today was concerned though, I am happy to be proved wrong if it means I can watch another race like today. The boost to my Sundays will compensate for the blow to my pride. The coverage still needs tweaking, and my serious gripe from my last post remains strong, but as the football season reaches its climax, I am falling in love with this ridiculous, divisive sport again.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Thou must not choke

Imagine the scene:

Sweaty hands, dry throat, shaking knees, body trembling, eyes dilated.
"Don't choke, don't choke, don't choke" you tell yourself. But it's too late, the world is watching and it's too late. You sink to your knees, with a lump in your throat.

No, not just Tulisa, but all of us, in a situation we have all been in at some point before. (Easy sex joke number one).


So, other than the opportunity to make a long-winded sex joke, I felt it would be good to discuss what "choking" is. I'm not going to quote psychologists or come up with my own theories. In fact, I haven't done any work at all, so if you didn't like that opening gambit, you'll hate this piece.

If you're reading this, you probably follow a sport or two and occasionally play. If you're reading this, you're probably useless at these sports as well. It's OK, between you and me, I'm not so good at sports myself, so you're amongst friends now, don't worry. However, every now and then, you'll be in a position where you aren't doing half-bad. You're actually winning at something. Yes, someone who knows Douglas Elder is winning at something. You continue to play, and you continue to excel, and you feel about as free as Marlon King, you know, without the rape thing. Anyway, you approach the winning line, you are destined for perpetual glory/gloating, after a performance you won't so much tell your grand kids about, but at least a few mates down the pub.

However, you suddenly tighten up. Something is wrong, and you're not the player you were. You're instantly as stiff as a priest at a One Direction gig (easy sex joke number two). While writing this, looking for the opportunity to empathise with you weak-minded chokers, I am taken back to a few dark moments from my otherwise illustrious sporting career.

Grainy, black and white, thunder and lightning memory one:
I was about eleven years old. Playing at that cathedral of sporting greatness (some park in Cheam), our intermediate (those not good enough to play in the "premier" division, even though I worked really hard that year) team had reached the semi-final of our cup competition. After a battling, gruelling, exhausting display, after a mammoth 50 minutes, our game reached the word that puts fear into the hearts of men all around the globe*. Penalties.

*Except Germans

Despite playing in regular sized goals, and my team-mates being about three feet tall, the quality of penalty-taking was pretty poor. Nevertheless, after four penalties each, the scores were tied. Me, being that bastion of mental strength, the "chosen one" at mind games, my soul and mind a giant, unbreachable fortress, volunteered to take the fifth penalty. I approached the penalty spot with a jaunty, pretty camp jog. My childhood didn't so much flash before my eyes, as I hadn't really achieved anything. Being one of the few Catholic schoolboys who hadn't been mercilessly, mentally scarred (easy sex joke number three) in the local area, I was free from the baggage of many of my colleagues. I stepped up confidently.

The ball didn't reach the goal, but at least it was technically on target. At least I didn't miss, therefore any fault aimed at me couldn't be directed towards my state-of-mind, more my underdeveloped legs, due to a combination of me not having reached puberty yet and the Achilles heel that holds me back to this day; my lack of lower body strength. Don't worry ladies, the rest of me is good.

Grainy, black and white, thunder and lightning memory two:
Fast forward seven years. I am now the spotty, nervous, gangly young man you know today. It is my back garden and I was on top of the world. In a competition I had excelled at frequently over the past few months, I was dominant once again. Ahhh yes, the Elder Cup, awarded to the best table-tennis players from all over my house, was in my grasp. I had made mincemeat of my brother over the previous twenty or so points and had deservedly given myself the chance to claim the greatest glory of my career. With seven match points, an inevitable victory was fast approaching. The only uncertainty was what my champions dinner would be; Chicken Kiev or Sausage and Mash. However, those memories from all those years ago came flooding back. I was choking. Point after point passed me by and suddenly the match was level. Moaning to my support team (my cat), I had to find a way back. But it was too late. From nowhere, I had been defeated and an eternity of mocking awaited me...until the next match in half an hour. Which I probably won.

So you see, it happens to the best of us. But I am just a normal man, having not had the jedi-esque mental training that today's top sportsmen go through. How do those at the very top so often fall apart?

If, unlike me, you really care about the answer to that question, go read a book or something. But it is strange how some of us are more susceptible to a "dose of the chokes" (copyright, Elder 2012) than others.

Example one:
Andy Murray.
Might be a bit harsh for one of the finest sporting exports our country has produced in years. A man of immense talent to go with his effervescent personality, he is liked all over the country (Scotland) he represents. He actually represents Great Britain, but it's not that kind of article, and I have no time for people who make crass generalisations about an entire country. Like the English. Murray has reached the semi-finals at each of the last five grand slams and at six of the last seven. Despite this, he has just one final and no victories do his name. Why is this? Well, people like to attribute this to a fragile mental state, but when you're the fourth best player in the world, maybe you'll finish fourth every now and again. Choking only really affects those who are superior enough to hold an advantage. As of yet, Murray does not have this luxury. But maybe one day he could become a bona-fide choker. (It is spelt "bona", so not sex joke number four).

Example two:
The South African Cricket team.
With cricket being quite a divisive sport, not all of you will appreciate this reference. But in cricket, when the going gets tough, the Saffers get going. Why? My assumption is that, the more you choke, the harder it is to stay calm. As you carry more and more baggage and more battle scars, it can become more and more difficult to set the record straight. Either that or "the crunch" makes a South African's stomach more upset than Luis Suarez on Martin Luther King day... allegedly. In the 1999 World Cup, they choked...twice. In 2003, they choked. And in 2011 they got beaten by a sub-standard New Zealand team. Talking of whom...

Example three:
The New Zealand Rugby Union team.
Erm, until last year. The Kiwi's more often than not approached World Cup's not just as favourites, but certainties. And yet, time and time again, they would find a way to throw away matches with more precision (and more legality) than Salman Butt. My limited knowledge of the sport that used to be football until they started using their hands and showering together means that I won't go on much further. Besides, I wouldn't want to elaborate on fifteen men showering together, but, in your private moments, feel free to do what you want.

Example four:
Arsenal 2004-2011.
I couldn't do a blog without having a pop at Arsenal, although their worrying (and hilarious) penchant for cocking up may well have run its course now (cue enough wood touching to rival a Rihanna joke number four). After their astonishing 2003-4 season where they went unbeaten (you may have heard about it), Arsenal have failed to win the league, despite many agonising, yet funny near-misses. In fact, they haven't won a trophy since that 2005 FA Cup Final, the result of which I STILL can't figure out. In 2008, 2010 and 2011, they fell apart. This year, that trend may be turning around, as Arsenal emerge from despair into the blissful daylight of averageness (by the way, thanks for Sunday). As it happens, the choking virus may well have spread to a nearby London borough, a bit like last year's riots. Tottenham, who have had very little success in besting Arsenal over the last few years, are now trying to out-Arsenal Arsenal and finish sixth, when third was a certainty.

So, there is the proof that we all suffer a choking from time time. Whether you're a finely tuned, perfectly honed individual like me, or run-of-the-mill journeymen like the New Zealand Rugby team, we are all fallible.  

And, like me, we should all smile and move on when it happens. I know I do. Bloody penalties.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The IPL is so dull...and yet...

I finally have something to do during these boring Easter holiday weekdays.

Being at university has it's perks: getting to avoid the 'real' world for a few years, getting exceedingly drunk from time to time and meeting new people, some good, some not so good. However, despite being ridiculously work-shy (hence this blog), a four week break is not one of them.

What the hell did I do to deserve a four week break?! I do the square-root of sod all for two months and get rewarded with a month off? I never thought I'd complain, but then I never thought I'd complain about being a Manchester United fan, and look how that turned out. Unfortunately for you guys, this extended rest will probably mean a hell of a lot of pieces about nothing. And here is the first of many.

Thank goodness for the Indian Premier League. A few years ago, a number of Indian businessmen with more money than sense decided to set up the greatest cricket tournament on earth, with teams from all over India competing for the "honour" of being the best twenty-over side in the land and - by association, thanks to the ridiculous Champions League - the planet. What does this mean then? As well as meaning average cricketers can earn ridiculous sums of money, as well as lining the pockets of the super-rich, as well as finding a use for Keiron Pollard, it allows me a wonderful excuse (as if it was needed) to lie on a couch all day in my "pyjamas", watching some poor medium-pace bowler get smashed by some unknown Indian batsman or some massive South African bloke. Brilliant.

Now, I must confess that the headline (and point) of this article was to somehow lure in a few incredulous Indian supporters to boost my popularity but, at least according to Ravi Shastri, isn't that what everyone in the English media does, for example, Michael Vaughan? Last summer, Shastri accused the English of being jealous of Indian cricket, the power of the BCCI, and the IPL. After watching their farcical winter tours in 2012, I agree that being an England fan doesn't fill me with the same smugness it did six months ago, but jealous of a power-hungry, deluded, self-obsessed figure (not Samantha Brick)? Not a chance. Jealous of the IPL? I'm not quite sure yet, but this years edition hasn't exactly got off to a flier.

Yesterday, two of the most successful teams in the "franchise", the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings, went toe-to-toe in the first game of IPL 2012. Now, twenty20 cricket is often criticised for favouring batsmen, with no incentive for the bowlers as both teams rack up over 200 runs each. But at least in that instance, something happens. Yesterday was so rubbish. The Super Kings (got to love that name) were put into bat and were immediately put under pressure. Despite the efforts of Suresh Raina - more on him later - Chennai stuttered after a promising start and, after failing to score a boundary in the final eleven overs, were bowled out within their twenty overs for just 112...or something. The pitch was uneven, the outfield was slow and it resulted in an incredibly tedious match, which almost forced me to do some proper work. But, this being me, I persisted with the boredom.

In reply, the Mumbai Indians (again, gotta love that name) started well, with the aforementioned big South African bloke - in this case, Richard Levi - bludgeoning his way to fifty, which meant that the result was a formality about a quarter of the way into the second innings of the match. Despite this, there was some drama, Sachin Tendulkar had to leave the field with a cut finger (awww), an injury which may have caused half of India to panic. Anyway, Mumbai were still victorious by eight wickets with four overs to spare. Nothing exciting, nothing tense about that. All in all, a crap game.

But I'm not done there!

A few rants before I let you go:

I know MS Dhoni is the captain of Chennai and thus must do everything at around 3 miles per hour, but why did the match finish at quarter past eleven? The game finished four overs early and was essentially a dead rubber for half the game, why did I have to sit and do nothing until nearly seven o clock my time? Valuable work was missed as a result. The whole point of twenty20 is to be a fun, quick smash-and-grab format, yet it lingered on and on. I propose 3 overs a side. Twenty20 is too long, how can you play a game for three hours and still not always have a winner? (I'm joking, relax).

ITV4's coverage
Is so, so, so bad. Why is Matt Smith - a man who takes half a minute to complete a sentence - the "frontman"? Simon Hughes must be wondering why he took the job, having to hang...on...Matt's...every...word. Then they have some other pretty, boring girl, whose name escapes me, not because I'm sexist, but because she's pretty boring. I actually think it's a little sexist of ITV4 to just assume that a pretty, boring girl will get me to watch the cricket. The fact that that assumption is true shouldn't matter.

Then there's the commentators? What the hell?! Who are these guys? Some of them are OK, but Harsha Bhogle is useless. AND THEEEN, THERE'S DAAANNY...MORRISON! That's actually how he talks, and apparently I do a decent impression of him, not that it's difficult. Then there's the fact that all the commentators are just puppets, having to spurn out useless catchphrases to appease the sponsors. What the hell is a "Citi moment of success?!" How is "karbonn kamaal" an adjective when describing a catch?! What's the other one? Oh yeah!  A DLF maximum! And then there's me repeating (and researching the spelling of) these useless catchphrases, it's a canny marketing ploy, and I don't like it.

Why on earth did ITV4 pay God knows what for the rights to this (in mitigation, kind of addictive) competition. It's absurd, almost like spending $2million on Ravindra Jadeja, but then, surely no-one would be that stupid...

I said I would get back to Suresh Raina, so here I am. Raina is, without doubt, a very talented man. But not at cricket, more like baseball. This is a man who was utterly destroyed by decent bowling when part of India's touring team to England last summer. Time and time again in overseas conditions, the man has been shown to be little more than a slogger with some style. I appreciate the irony of an Englishman saying that a player can't perform in foreign conditions, but when Suresh Raina is the most successful batsman in IPL history, it tells it's own story.

I may have not made it clear, but I do actually like the Indian Premier League, I watch most of the games after all. However, this is often against my will, much like the way Nick Clegg votes for government stuff. It is often tedious, and always a bit circusy (is that a word?) The competition provides a platform for average players to be the best and play against the best. I'm fine with that to an extent, but it does remind me that the "true format", as we are so often made to hear by people like Geoffrey Boycott, is still Test Cricket. Yesterday proved to me that this will - and should - remain the case for a long, long time, until such a point when reality TV, global warming and the Tories turn our brains to mush. Then Twenty20 can succeed.

As always, this rant is just my opinion, and my apathy towards the tournament won't stop me tuning into today's cracker - The Kolkata Knight Riders vs The Delhi Daredevils. Wow. But that's just my life at the moment, waiting for people to talk to me - that means you Barclays - leaves me in this predicament. Until then, I'll get myself a drink and, like a lot of Britain - lazy, cricket-mad and unemployed - watch some sub-standard sport.