Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Premier League 2013/14: Liverpool title win is written in the stars (it’ll make sense at the end, just read)

So, after a weekend which was meant to decide the destination of the Premier League title, we still have no real idea who’s going to win the biggest prize in English football. Shows what we know!

For all the talk of Super Sundays, title-deciders and must-win games, there remains an intriguing air of uncertainty about how this season is going to pan out at the top and the bottom of the Premier League. With all due respect to the relegation dogfight though, I really don’t care enough about it to write about it. So there.

Besides, when the three teams I hate the most are competing for a prize I care about more than any, it makes for an interesting situation and, hopefully, interesting reading. Three parties vying for power and glory over our great nation, all of whom I despise…it’s a bit like a General Election.

Today’s first match was like none other I have seen this season. Liverpool against City was, quite rightly, billed as a huge match and, unlike so many other matches between top teams, it actually delivered on quality and drama.

Five goals, a late red card and penalty appeals all over the place, the whole match was a beautiful shambles, a tribute to the frenetic, chaotic nature of English football. Luis Suarez, the man with the uncanny ability to annoy me anytime, anywhere, was once again on top form, but arguably should have been sent off three times, all for what I would call ‘bitch offences’: diving, kicking the ball away, and just generally being Luis Suarez.

The match was an exhilarating oasis in a desert of serenity and sombre reflection. This Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy and both sides were commendable in their respect to the victims. The game almost felt like a distraction at times, given the enormity of the occasion, the sombre nature of the match’s context and the Sky-inspired hyperbole in the build-up.

However, it must be said that this was a match of real quality and entertainment between the two best sides in the country, not just in an attacking sense, but in terms of how they played throughout the season.

And yet, there is one more protagonist in this season which continues to twist and meander like a rapid, turning river. Chelsea have almost gone under the radar in recent weeks, due to a combination of indifferent league form and their Champions League exploits.

Today, like a gifted child doing a piece of boring homework, they once again did the bare minimum required, scraping over the line against a Swansea side who had been – quite rightly – reduced to ten men fifteen minutes in.

To quote the banal nonsense of pundits up and down the country, winning games in second gear a few times a season is a commendable quality, after all, ‘it’s what champions do’. However, doing it week after week is just really boring. Credit must be given to Jose Mourinho for his outstanding record at delivering success wherever he goes, but the debate as to whether it is all really worth it continues to rumble on. Well, it doesn’t. It’s worth it. Unfortunately.

Chelsea cannot be discounted. Their football may make self-castration a viable alternative to watching their games, but they continue to accumulate points. A win at Anfield in two weeks may ultimately see them crowned champions. Before this turns into a full-blown rant at the Blues, let me acknowledge that, as a Man United supporter, most of this is borne out of jealousy and with the acceptance that, if United played the same football, but had the same results, I may not be complaining.

But they don’t, and they haven’t, so I am.

With four week of this season remaining, I am loathe to predict the winner of this incredible title race. I am also loathe to watch any of these teams take the biggest prize. As a London-based United fan, I have reason to despise City the least, so they reluctantly get my vote, but it is a decision similar to choosing to be beheaded rather than burnt or drowned.

Many neutrals should be supporting Liverpool, however. My position as a United fan means I cannot support them. It’s not biologically possible. Honestly, I tried once and I started going purple and my skin fell off. Despite that, one must accept that they play the best football, deserve another shot at domestic success and conduct themselves in the right way.

Like the theme music for Super Sunday, some things in football are simply ‘written in the stars’. 25 years on from Hillsborough, it would feel oddly fitting if Liverpool were on their way to a piece of history.

Friday, 14 March 2014

We need to talk about Robin

First, an admission. This is ANOTHER Man United blog. Necessary evils and all that.

So, Robin van Persie has announced he has no problems with Manchester United manager David Moyes. Which raises one important question: How on earth did someone get a gun into an interview with Robin and use it to force him to say such ridiculous things?

Van Persie has gone through this season with all the enthusiasm of a stoned man running a marathon. Is he trying? Of course. Does he rate David Moyes? I don’t think so. How can he? Moyes is good manager and one who is worth persevering with, but will a world-class player like van Persie appreciate being told what to do by a man who has won diddly-squat?

United’s whole season has been a bit like the Russian Police Choir, who memorably covered ‘Get Lucky’ at the Winter Olympics. In other words, it’s been entertaining, well-rehearsed and you can see what they’re trying to do. Unfortunately, like with that example of musical excellence, only a few of the protagonists look interested, and the quality is actually rather poor. Therefore, you get a collection of men trying to re-create a classic; searching for a much better version of what they’re able to achieve. However, like that choir, I can’t stop watching them.

Van Persie has even scored 14 goals this season, a great return for a man who has been injured for vast chunks of the campaign, and for one playing in a struggling team. However, it’s his attitude which has concerned many, as well as a slight decline in his overall play. Of course, these are small details, but in a time where the team has as much consistency as lumpy custard, it is far more recognisable.

In many ways, as a United fan, I wouldn’t be too upset to see him go. He left Arsenal in acrimonious circumstances and left to join a United team with a lot of potential and a manager in Alex Ferguson who looked set to be around for years to come. Ferguson did not mean it of course, but Robin would later be duped by Fergie's retirement. The Dutchman did more than most in securing a record 20th English league title for United, so us fans owe him a lot of gratitude.

In addition, there have been times this season when United have looked better without their talisman. Danny Welbeck may have all the composure of a virgin during his ‘first time’ and probably struggles to finish his dinner, let alone a football move, but he does help the team. His pace and work-rate allows him to stretch defences and helps the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata find space. How do I know this? It happened against mighty West Brom, that’s how. We beat West Brom, so we’re on the way up.

It may well be that van Persie is telling the truth and wants to see out his career with United. It was the ‘little boy’ inside him that made him join in the first place. However, little boys often beg their parents for something they are convinced they need, but soon get bored and dispose of the item all the same. If United are fearing a life after van Persie, they need not. United have suffered greater problems in the last few months, this would be merely another blow to recover from. Out of crisis often comes opportunity.

In the meantime, van Persie can back up his words with performances on the pitch. This week, he is likely to be called upon to help United come back against Olympiakos in the Champions League and hopefully inspire a surprise win at home to Liverpool in the Premier League. After significant, late misses in the away games against those teams, this week would be a good time to make amends.

Van Persie has already given United a lot. If he wants to give us more, he has to start now. No one is questioning his talent or goal-scoring, but at United, you are measured by more than just that.

Formula One's step into the unknown

F1 Malaysian GP
It seems like only yesterday that Sebastian Vettel was crossing the line at the Brazilian Grand Prix to take his ninth straight victory and put the final seal on a season which, let’s face it, was pretty fucking dull. Well it’s back!

And like The Beatles song of the same name, ‘yesterday’ was when Vettel’s problems were so far away. Indeed, for the time being at least, it looks as though they’re here to stay.

Why? Well, the reasons are boring and technical and, more importantly, I don’t understand half of them myself. Therefore, it would be a bit embarrassing for a Formula One ‘expert’ to not know shit about the biggest changes seen in the sport in a generation. But it should make for an exciting year, and that’s just on the track.

Off the track, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone remains dogged by bribery charges and other business naughties. Yes, naughties. Basically, he undervalued the price of Formula One in a sale to a broadcaster in order to maintain control of the sport. Or something, I don’t really care. What I do know is that Ecclestone DOES know how to run the sport, but does NOT know how to work a revolving door. (Look it up, you won't be sorry.)

Fittingly, a revolving door would probably best describe the driver changes that have gone on during the off-season, with drivers flocking from one team to the next with less commitment than Kim Kardashian at a speed-dating event. Kimi Raikkonen returns to Ferrari, Felipe Massa has joined Williams, and a young Dane called Kevin Magnussen has joined Jenson Button at McLaren.

As for Red Bull, they have seen Mark Webber replaced by friendly Australian Daniel Ricciardo. The theory clearly being that Vettel works best with Aussie drivers who are good, but not great.

As it happens, Ricciardo has some differences to Webber, including a kind of permanent, happy-go-lucky smile. Not in a creepy way, more in a ‘I can’t believe I lucked into the best car in the world, only for it to turn crap’ kind of way …a bit like winning the lottery with a ticket made of melting chocolate. Either way, it's in stark contrast to Webber's 'everyone around me is a total wanker, but I'll humour them for a while' persona.

Red Bull have struggled to get to grips with the major regulation changes which have been put in place over the winter and, in spite of being four-time World champions, they look set to begin the season at the back of the grid. This has apparently made Vettel a little grumpy. This is understandable, but at the same, it’s highly amusing and refreshing.

At the front are likely to be Mercedes, including earring-wearing, worldy-dating, cliché-spouting Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who has great hair. The German team excelled during testing in terms of both speed and reliability. Expect them to be on the front row in Australia, or at least close to it. Of course, I say that, but expect nothing, I have no idea what is going to happen. It could be like Whacky Races, with Fernando Alonso taking the place of Dick Dastardly.

Heading back to off-track matters, seven-time World champion Michael Schumacher remains, at time of writing, in a medically-induced coma but is apparently showing signs of recovery. Whatever you thought of him as a driver, we should all be united in our hope that he recovers as soon as possible.

Schumacher was at the forefront of Formula One’s most boring era, when he would only have to look at his Ferrari and it would win him races. Hopefully, he wakes up in time to witness the start of what could be the most unpredictable Formula One season ever.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

ANOTHER Super Bowl blog: The Greatest Show on Turf vs Douglas Elder

If you're reading this because I've forced you to via my Facebook and Twitter profiles, thank you.
If you've accidentally stumbled across this due to the incredible amount of Super Bowl internet traffic, KEEP READING, I MIGHT MAKE YOU LAUGH.

When I set up this blog exactly two years ago, I did so with the intention of discussing the biggest sports and finding a way to make them trivial, light-hearted and insignificant. Sometimes, with varying success, I have even tried to be funny.

Tonight, as I sit at my family computer with a half-eaten banana for company, I face my biggest test: making The Super Bowl funny. I must point out a couple of things at this point: One, that I know less about American Football than Jamie Redknapp knows about regular football. Two, I may offend a few of my Gridiron-loving friends and, worse still, the 80% of tonight's audience who know less about the sport than I do. Gridiron is American Football by the way, guys. And yes, in all probability, this won't be a funny article.

My earliest exposure to American Football was in an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer - who had earlier expressed a wish to own the Dallas Cowboys - ends up being given the Denver Broncos. Homer's anguished cry of "oohhh the Denver Broncos!" led me to an assumption which I still carry to this day: that the Broncos are shit. However, with Denver contesting tonight's match, it has caused me to doubt everything I thought I knew - nothing - about this sport.

Facing up to the Broncos are the Seattle Seahawks (I think, I've done no research). What do I think about the match-up? Well, I will say that everything looks set up for a game of American Football which, at the end of the day, is what the fans want to see. The game will either be really close, or one of the Seahawks or Broncos will win comfortably. It is that hard to call for me, so don't expect a prediction.

If nothing else, Super Bowl XLVIII should be a good exercise for all of us, as it has taught us the importance of clever marketing, sleep patterns and Roman numerals. The last week has been filled with predictions, exaggerations and expectations. In fact, if The Super Bowl was called The Hyperbole, it wouldn't make too much difference to the meaning of the event.

I know what you're thinking. "Doug, if you're going to be really sarcastic and keep naysaying, why are you even writing about this?" That's a valid point as, in all honesty, I do quite like The Super Bowl. I like the razzmatazz of the event and the whole - for want of a better word - 'Americaness' of everything. I don't know much about American Football, but I know just about enough to enjoy the games if there is nothing else on. In this country, many of us treat this sport with a lot of cynicism, especially given the predominance of Rugby Union. I think this is a shame as, just like with any sport, there is the potential for great drama and controversy. To dismiss this sport is tempting, but ultimately ignorant.

How British Rugby fans - usually called Brian - view American Football
"Why do those big girls wear so much padding?" Rugby Union fans ask. "Why is the game so stop-start?" they (ironically) cry. "Why are the referees so camp?" I wonder. Whether you like the nuances of the game or not, there is much to admire about this sport, even if it isn't exactly my cup of tea. There is a lot of tactical acumen required, not to mention incredible athletic prowess.

By the by, the reason the players require padding where Rugby players do not is because, in American Football, you can be hit regardless of whether you have the ball or not, and you can be hit from any direction. Being clothes-lined in mid-air doesn't sound like my idea of fun, and neither does landing neck-first after a seven foot drop, so I think we can let this stupid point slide.

Besides, whether we like it or not, American Football is growing in popularity on this side of the Atlantic. More and more of my friends are picking a favourite team who they know nothing about, and I even know two people who ACTUALLY like the sport, naming players and everything. Indeed, talk of a London-based franchise is not as far-fetched as it once was. After all, this country often hosts regular-season NFL games now, and the crowds are always excellent, which is more than can be said for attendances at more 'English' sporting matches. I'm looking at you, Wigan Athletic fans.

To be honest, as a wannabe sports writer, I really should be getting to know this game a lot more. The opportunity to brush up on one of the few sports I don't have a geeky, 40-year-old-virgin-like obsession with should be too good to miss. But for whatever reason, it isn't really for me. Maybe it's the showboating celebrations over insignificant passages of play, the constant build-up or the need for a concert. A CONCERT! HALFWAY THROUGH THE EVENT! ON THE ACTUAL PITCH!

Even the prospect of accidental boobage hasn't tempted me this year.
The Super Bowl is often described as 'The Greatest Show on Turf' which I think does a huge disservice to other sporting events, and Ground Force. However, I'll leave people to their appreciation of this huge event and the chance to pay homage to one of America's greatest pastimes. Although there is much to deride about this sport, there is a lot more to appreciate.

As for me, I now have a banana to finish and a bed to go to. I won't be making the admirable journey through the night, following the game to the bitter end, but I hope y'all enjoy the match.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Juan small step for Man...United

First of all, an apology.

I'm sorry that I have marketed* my collection of incoherent nonsense as an all-sport blog, when my last few entries have focused almost entirely on Manchester United. Therefore, I'm going to the dignified thing and...continue to talk about United tonight.

* - I say marketed, this blog hasn't made me a penny, and it probably never will. Strip away the analogies and it's pretty crap.

I'm aware that as an editorial 'all-rounder', I am as successful as I was an all-rounder for my school cricket team (my batting average was below two and I had an illegal bowling action). I'm also aware that my last three pieces have been less an objective view of United's current plight and more an impassioned plea for support for David Moyes. But it's my blog, I can do whatever I like with it. Until you beg me to stop.

Let's begin.

The recent signing of Juan Mata has brought a lot of optimism to Manchester United, and there is hope that things might, MIGHT start to turn around. Yes, Mata cost over £37 million and yes, no one is quite sure where Mata will fit in the United team, but we bought someone! An actual player! A player renowned for talent! Not his hair!

But let's not kid ourselves, the signing of the former Chelsea player remains the embodiment of the phrase 'polishing a turd', even if he is dam good polish. In spite of Mata's arrival, United look as fragile in defence as an ice condom and as ineffective in midfield as condom. For all our optimism and proclamations of a return to the glory days, Juan is not a better defender than Chris Smalling and he is not a better holding midfielder than Darren Fletcher. He is merely the first step of a long journey. The tip of the iceberg. The foothills of a mountain (the Mata-horn?).

At the time of writing, there are five days until the transfer window shuts, and United probably need at least one more signing to justify the new-found good feeling around the club. There have been whispers of a bid for Southampton's Luke Shaw in a bid to shore up (pun intended) the left-back position, which looks set to be vacated by Patrice Evra in the summer. Even if Evra seems to be the only person not to know this. In fact, Evra looks more and more like a naive husband blind to his partner's rather obvious infidelity.

Of course, most United fans would welcome this news. Shaw looks as good a future left-back prospect as Gareth Bale once was. Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid right winger. But even so, although left-back is in need of a revamp, there is another area in more urgent need of an overhaul. I'll give you a clue: Cleverley, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs.
Can you tell what it is yet?
Bingo! Central midfield indeed! Over the last four weeks, as I have anxiously checked every available gossip column for news of a new midfield powerhouse, I have experienced giddy excitement before inevitable, crushing disappointment. Stellar names are mentioned and then consigned to the scrap heap as players sign new contracts out of pure fear of having to play for us, or as clubs apply for restraining orders to keep David Moyes and Phil Neville away from their stadiums. And to stop going through their bins.

I've become so desperate that I've even stopped believing in my own mantra: if CaughtOffside say it will happen, it will not happen.

Yohan Cabaye is the latest player United won't buy. Although he would be a vast improvement on our current stock of midfielders, he would not make us good enough to compete in the years to come and certainly won't justify the huge transfer fee Newcastle are likely to demand. Besides, we'd find a way to make him one-paced and totally average. We'd find a way to make a French player predictable.

Another far more exciting prospect is Arturo Vidal. Ahhh Vidal, you tease! Will he join us? Won't he? No, he won't. Or will he?! No, he won't. Why would Juventus sell him? Why would Vidal leave a team which is top of Serie A for United? What can we offer him, other than a bit more money? A Twix? Michael Carrick's parking space?
If not Vidal, we only said Juve could BORROW Pogba, right?
However, I can still dream. Vidal is so good, I would put my hand in a blender and listen to Justin Bieber albums for three weeks just for the chance to see him come to Old Trafford, nutmeg Tom Cleverley, give him a wedgie and leave, never to return. He is that good. But we won't buy him, we'll probably spend £50 million on Leon Osman instead.

This week, I found myself walking to work with a spring in my step at the mere thought of United buying Mata, a player we don't really need. Imagine what buying a central midfielder of real class would do to me. I'd probably explode.

That said, I don't expect United to make any more major moves this month, with the signing of Mata likely to be an exception rather than the rule. Then again, nobody expected that Spanish acquisition, so anything is possible.  

I knew I'd shoe horn that Monty Python reference in.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Things can only get better...right?

Hi everyone, thanks for coming out. Please stop laughing.

It is often said that today, the third Monday in January, is the most depressing day of the year. Which means that, as far as my mood is concerned, things CAN get worse.
Could be worse, you could have David Moyes' 'sex face'.

I am of course speaking in the aftermath of Manchester United's chastening defeat at Chelsea yesterday. Emotions remain a little raw, being as I am a drowning United fan in a frigging ocean of Chelsea supporters. Seriously, I am friends with so many of them, it's like escaping a horde of blue-shirted zombies.

But (I may have said this before) do you know what the most upsetting thing is? I'm not even that upset. Desperation has long since turned to despair and even that is now hurtling towards apathy faster than a Chelsea counter-attack on a beleaguered United defence.

Like those tasked with identifying loved ones after a brutal battle in years gone by, I find myself picking up the pieces and searching for consolation among the wreckage of a broken dream and, in many ways, a broken team. If a title challenge was teetering on the edge of impossibility before yesterday's game, it has now been savagely kicked off the cliff, with a long, uncertain fall to come. That's right, United are Mufasa from the Lion King.
Because apparently you need an image to go with that analogy

In fairness, United didn't play too badly. I can't accuse the players of a lack of effort or determination throughout the game, lining up as they did against a well drilled and well skilled Chelsea team. The fact is, ladies and gentleman, that we are not that good. With the exception of David De Gea and Adnan Januzaj, is there anyone in that team who you could describe as currently or potentially world-class? Not at all. We did not play badly and yet we were still comfortably beaten by a Chelsea team which, I hate to say, didn't even play that well.

And so, with the bleakest day of the year, or Blue Monday, now upon us, it is important to keep spirits up. Things can certainly get better, but things could definitely be worse. A win over Sunderland in midweek would see United into a cup final, which is worth celebrating, no matter how inevitable the impending defeat against Manchester City in the final would be. Should we get there. If you are hoping that this paragraph signals the beginning of hopeful, overpowering optimism, think again. This is as good as it gets.

Twelve days remain in this month's transfer window and at the risk of sounding like a spoilt child, United fans need things bought for us. The list of players who we haven't bought reads like a who's who of world football, and many more will be added before the month is out. In fact, I even took the time to build an entire team of players United have been linked with, but haven't bought this month.
Yes, apparently even Vito Mannone won't join us.

Poor old David Moyes, he has spent the best part of the last week scouring southern Europe for the finest available talent, only to return empty-handed. Moyes must feel like one of the contestants on the TV show Coach Trip, travelling to the most exotic locations in Europe with people he barely likes, only to return with nothing to show for his efforts except for obscurity at best and humiliation at worst. That said, it is difficult to go on a scouting mission WHEN EVERYBODY KNOWS YOU'RE THERE. Imagine if Moyes was a spy during the Cold War, he would've sent the world crashing into nuclear destruction within minutes.

It's not that I don't think he's trying. In fact, Moyes must often look at his players and think "what do I have to do to make you less shit?". Under Sir Alex Ferguson, performances were often this bad, but the results masked poor performances and limited players. Yesterday, United were shorn of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, who together form the world's most expensive wallpaper. In their absence, the huge cracks are starting to show.
How Moyes must be feeling right about now

Not that this is altogether a bad thing. If players want to go, let them go. If players aren't good enough, we shouldn't be afraid to start again without them. In spite of what seems like a comprehensive defeat, United showed enough to suggest that things can improve with the right players. Danny Welbeck in particular is finally starting to do a little more than run around a bit, while Januzaj continues to leave me swooning and making excited gasps that a 23-year-old man really shouldn't make.

However, for United, a flock of chickens big enough to rival Venky's farms are coming home to roost and, like the Venky's were, United find themselves the laughing stock of football. Look at social media; if I had a pound for every David Moyes meme I saw, I would have enough money to bail out Greece, secure a Formula One drive AND buy United a midfielder or two.

In fact, the satire is probably the worst part of this sharp decline. The world is laughing at us, and our riposte is a comeback as futile as the one United tried to stage against Chelsea. For the next few months, it might be a good idea to board up the windows, turn off the lights and ride out this banter storm.

There is still time to turn this around. United's success was never going to last forever, but neither should this malaise. Although United are currently displaying all the urgency and direction of a back-tracking Ashley Young, action must be taken. If not, 'Blue Monday' may be just one of many depressing days in 2014: a year which is fast becoming United's Annus Horribilis.