Monday, January 31, 2011

Inevitability = Mid-Season Transfer Deadline

It's the proliferation of owners crying poor that make this year's transfer deadline yet another sign, in the immortal and notorious words of disgraced presenter Richard Keys, that the football "world's gone mad". According to ESPN Soccernet, English clubs spent a combined 214 million pounds this January, more than seven times what was expended at the same time last year. Chelsea sunk a reported £45 million into Liverpool striker Fernando Torres; which the Merseysiders then re-invested into a pair of front-men: 22 year-old Newcastle leviathan Andy Carroll, who's presently injured, and Ajax Amsterdam's Uruguayan World Cup supervillain Luis Suarez. Abramovich's deep pockets also reportedly funded the transfer of Benfica's ball-playing centre back David Luiz for 21 million.

The greatest feeling on transfer deadline day wasn't a sense of opportunity, though Chelsea and Liverpool fans probably disagree there. The sense was probably more one of resignation for clubs losing impact players. With the obscene amounts of money bandied about there was little to no question that any of those ballpark bids would be rejected out of hand - the risk in selling is much less than the risk of keeping. Unless the player is one fo the top five in the world (ie. Messi, C. Ronaldo, Iniesta, Xavi etc), when initial gambits are north of £20 million mark, any refusal to sell isn't met with an outright "No" but a valuation of their player based on everything working in their favour: "We know he's worth 35 million at least", conveniently forgetting that player is any/all of inconsistent, injured, demotivated, undergoing criminal proceedings or a bad influence in the locker room. This allows a manager to transmit that they aren't really interested in selling, but also also provides the bidding club with more information. If they then choose to return with a figure approaching that speculation, then perhaps business can be done. Every player has his price.

Also adding to the sense of inevitability was that so many of the stars rumoured to be market items handed in transfer requests. With the sums of money suggested for all of the deals above - including Blackpool captain and virtuoso puppeteer Charlie Adam - once a bidding team's interst has been registered both with the club and player, they then begin agitating - publicly or privately - for a move whether for the increased club stature, better competition, a hefty chunk of extra cash in their pay packet or perhaps finally for a possible/probable 10% cut of a multi-million pound/euro transfer fee. That desire to leave is reflected in the number of transfer requests we've seen this period: of all the big-name players rumoured to change teams during January, all handed in official requests to be transferred except Luiz. This can work both for and against a selling club as it can partially mollify any fan anger at management sabotaging their ambition by selling their most important players. With Andy Carroll's 35 million pound move from Newcastle United to Liverpool, popular opinion has the Tyneside club's ownership saying there was such a request simply to pacify a vocal and thoroughly irked supporter group, rather than because Carroll actually wanted to leave.

Selling clubs can both appreciate and fear this time as needy teams pay vastly overinflated prices. However by selling late - and not having control over when unknockbackable bids are registered - they find themselves in a dichotomy that by selling those players so late it robs them of the chance to replace them with more reasonably priced alternatives. Cue more fan anger and a rapidly worsening vicious circle.

Another inevitability was the involvement of Liverpool in three of the largest deals of the period. Unsurprising as they've been horrible this year and their marquee guy, Fernando Torres, has looked more and more disheartened. Like a snakeskin, Torres has only resembled the killer he was in prior Premiership seasons as his last eighteen months has been destroyed by injury and poor form. When healthy he gives the league's best Centre-Half (Vidic) fits the like of no other, but has been neither healthy or invested and looked as if he felt it was time do like the Beatles and leave Merseyside before the stank becomes difficult to remove. Once his head was turned by Chelsea last week, a deal was indomitable. Luis Suarez joining the Reds was always likely but became nailed-on when Torres started flashing his big blues at London's Russian quarter, but the Carroll bid came from left field and may well be the single biggest splash for the month.

Carroll, a Northeast local, is emblematic of the tariff placed on all English players. While the fees this window have been striking, the money that's been demanded for British talent, proven or unproven has exceeded all previous precedents. If, as most right-thinkers believe, Fernando Torres is one of the League's top three forwards - and probably the best - based on results, then Villa and Liverpool are suggesting that their new purchases: Bent, Suarez and Carroll are worth respectively 55%, 50% and 78% of Torres's value. And Bent's record in consistently banging in eighteen-goals-per-year justifies this; Carroll's worth comes down to his undisputed potential. A young man whose raw physique and rare combination of abilities (imposing aerial abilities, gut-running and instinctive ball-skills) have helped him score eleven times in his nineteen Premiership starts this year. His value to the Reds is in being able to recreate some of the successful lineups that the Anfield club ran with during the 1980s - a little and large show, with Suarez playing off the gargantuan ex-Magpie's grunt-work. If he only has to be three-quarters of Torres as a player, Liverpool have made the correct investment.

Money talks much louder than a manager's press conference, perhaps even more so than a manager on the sidelines. When he agreed to join Liverpool, Carroll became the seventh most expensive signing of all time (which was then surpassed by Torres) and the two joined the 35 million club alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Zidane, Crespo, Figo and Ibrahimovic; each a great of the game. The fee - a record for an Englishman - was sure to get Kenny Dalglish's objectives accomplished.

Again, once the sums of money became too great to ignore, Newcastle's hand was forced in Carroll's record move, the sums too much for owner Mike Ashley to resist. With only last year's powerful Championship season and an excellent August-November period to back up that huge wodge of cash, it was inevitable (I said: inevitable) that the Tyneside Hulk would leave. The World's Most Unpopular Football Manager - and he has some pretty stiff competition - Mike Ashley is looking for any returns on his initial investment and as such felt the need to pocket the 35 million and risk another spell in English football's second tier. As soon as fees over 20 million were mooted, it was certain in the minds of Toon supporters that their man would be leaving the club whether he wanted to or not. It's assumed he will free up only a little of the monies received to buy new talent, especially replacements as the Magpies are now left to hunt for goals with the uninspiring trio of Ameobi, Best and Lovenkrands, almost exactly the lineup which saw them relegated two years ago.

Carroll's preference is unknown at this time and most assume he wasn't angling for the move, but with the Reds dangling a 167% wage increase in front of him and the chance to join the an elite list of 35 million-plus players (and the percentage of that fee he may have received as part of the deal). As certain as it was that Ashley would sell, also sure was how the Toon Army would react - calling for Ashley's head on a platter. Their anger is directed at ownership with reason - selling one of their own perhaps without reinvestment - but surely they must understand the principles of buy low, sell high and that these prices may never be repeated? There is every chance that Carroll could flop and to be known as the guys who turned down 35 million only to then sell for 4 million (link to Sunderland/Bent story) would be undesired in the extreme. The fans have every right to be disappointed - especially in the timing and paucity of Carroll replacements - but should forget they managed to secure one of the bargains of the transfer window, picking up Stephen Ireland from Villa on loan for a song. Not a like-for-like replacement, the bald one may well provide a creativity that those noted creation-shy types like Lovenkrands and Ameobi need to flourish.

It was inevitable given UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules that this could be the last big splurge of some serial offenders like Chelsea. But perhaps the best way to sum up the craziness of the mid-season transfer window goes to Darren who posted on Soccernet: "Mesut Ozil + Sami Khedira + Rafael Van der Vaart + Javier Hernandez = Andy Carroll".

Quarterback: NFL's most divisive position

Last weekend when a group of us gathered around the TVs at our favourite bar to watch the NFL Playoffs, someone asked who we would cheer for - New England or New York. There were a few seconds of debate before someone stopped all conversation and made the decision for us: New York. His reasoning? "The thing is about Tom Brady" he said about the New England quarterback "The thing is about Tom Brady is that he's a c**k". Decision made - we would be supporting the New York Jets because one guy didn't like Tom Brady. It seemed to work too, as Brady then had a stinker and the wildcard Jets defeated the no. 1 seeded Pats.

There's no other position in sport which generates the same levels of intense scrutiny as an NFL quarterback. Neither is there another position in any sport which polarises popular opinion so much. Were you ask your Average Joe's opinion of any QB and Joe will say he really likes a guy, or really dislikes him. There's very little middle ground: when constantly in the public eye, the path to popularity is thin and takes sudden twists.

It's probably this visibility which inspires us to make judgements about these Offense directors. These value judgements can be based on anything and can be conscious or unwitting. With the level of interest surrounding NFL in America and the amount of exposure we have as a public to the most sacrosanct position in football, it's nearly impossible not to osmose a certain level of familiarity with these most worshipped - or criticised - athletes. And to follow the cliche, familiarity breeds things other than shared bathroom habits.

The parallel is easily drawn with Reality Television stars - we know about them because they are there. If you have an interest in any sport, it's hard to miss news about an ailing quarterback. We know more about Kim Kardashian than anyone would ever want to and likely as not this inspires people, consciously or subconsciously, to form an opinion on her. It's the same with quarterbacks, much more than for Linemen or Safeties: Quarterbacks are the celebrities of the sporting world. They are the talismans for their respective teams, to borrow a soccer term, and emblematic of all things good or bad about their franchise.

The best example of this visibility is to think who's interviewed after every match: the Quarterback. Every single NFL quarterback has been "The Man" in High School, the Big Man on Campus at College and is paid in the millions of dollars per year to throw a ball. With football teams from High School up carrying rosters numbering above a hundred and the quarterback is almost always the key player, any normal person would find it hard for this attention not to reflect in their own personality.

Good QBs by nature are confident to a fault. It's part of their job description as they are appointed to be on-field leaders for dozens of men - it hardly does for a leader to be either pessimistic or sullen. These guys are for the most part so competitive it dominates their entire lives, another factor which divides opinion: you either respect this single-mindedness or value a more well-rounded character. Every quarterback past Primary School age has to lead his team and with that responsibility comes and inflated sense of importance. This pride - on display or not - yet another source of Average Joe liking or disliking a QB: where Average Joe may dislike the perceived arrogance of a Jay Cutler, his best mate Average Pete dislikes what he sees as Aaron Rodgers' false humility. The line between self-belief and arrogance is hard to see without the benefit of objectivity.

Personal preference of course plays an enormous role in this Like/Dislike dichotomy, where one person may value confidence and straight-talking, humility and actions resonate more with another. It may come down to whose face is more agreeable: Tom Brady's supermodel-slaying good looks, or Jay Cutler's perpetual impression of a redneck Droopy, flannelette shirt and all. It could be their streak of killing your team from the other side of the field. Or their habit of killing your team from within. But like it or not, quarterbacks inspire black and white, like-or-dislike reactions more than any other athletes in the world.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A glimpse of the future, courtesy of Kevin Muscat's horror tackle

In the initial rehearsals for the A-League Melbourne derby at the Docklands Stadium six days ago, everything was thrown akimbo by an ad-libbing Victory captain Kevin Muscat. The script read "Muscat tackles Zahra in his usual fashion", leaving all else to interpretation. On the night, Kevin Muscat read it in his own GBH-inducing style, while Melbourne Heart youngster Adrian Zahra played fall guy. Referee Chris Beath refrained from any further riffing and went by what was down on the page and finally yesterday the A-League went in a completely different but predictable direction.

The possible end of Kevin Muscat's playing career has been predictably overshadowed by the predictability of his manner of departure - a temper tantrum and a new career-best "Worst Ever Tackle". His 80th-minute challenge on Zahra, who has had season-ending knee surgery as a result, made Nigel de Jong's World Cup Final flykick of Xabi Alonso look like a walk-on massage offered by the most petite of Asian women. Regrettably for the A-League's most eloquent and approachable front-man it's not the only time he's lost control of his emotions; Kevin Muscat sports a file the size of the fight in the dog. He returned to Australia allegedly "The Most Hated man in Britain" after swinging his battleaxe pins into the likes of Craig Bellamy, Christophe Dugarry and Charlton Athletic player Matty Holmes. The last case resulted in a leg broken in four places from 1998 incident and Holmes successfully suing Muscat for damages.

Though he's had a solid career at home, in the UK and representing Australia, any sentence used to describe him must include the words "temperamental", "destructive" and "reckless". The largest consequence for Muscat now, aged 37 could be for his future in the sport. Since his return to the toddler A-League in 2005 he has often acted as a type of de facto league spokesman, a respected angry-grandfather figure and leader for the youth that the A-League was set up to develop. He could also distribute to that youth all he'd learned during a twenty-year pro career encompassing the old, strife-strewn, partisan NSL, England's Championship and Premiership and the SPL. When in 2006 Graeme Arnold was forced to choose a squad for an Asian Cup Qualifier solely comprised of A-League talent, there was no question who was to captain the side: Muscat, who led the team to a 2-0 victory away in Kuwait in the last of his fifty-one Socceroo caps. The public loved Muscy, especially in Melbourne and he parlayed this newfound acceptance into positions in punditry and journalism. It even seemed to mellow - slightly - the firebrand as, when he found himself in confrontation with Adelaide United gaffer John Kosmina it was the older Kosmina who was the aggressor and suspendee while the Victory skipper did nothing but smile at his rival's loss of control. Kevin Muscat, it was traditionally accepted, would succeed Ernie Merrick as the next manager of the Victory, providing just the right mix of insight, passion and tactical skills to interest new fans and sate the established masses.

As time wore on the Muscat public image, so flawed but polished, began to burnish as the form that made him famous in England became an issue for A-League supporters. The guy who disputed every anti-Melbourne or anti-Muscat refereeing decision with overwhelming disbelief that they could deign to make such calls against him; the man who instigated and began to brandish his battleaxe boots with more relish than in the league's earliest days. Perhaps as his waning legspeed vanished he was forced into inappropriate positions from which tackle but still felt he had to; maybe the Victory midfield wasn't providing the same cover for the centre-halves. Whatever the reasons though, over his six A-League years Muscat has retreated from the controlled challenges of his early return and again taken up hands with his demons - or more correctly demon, singular, which is overintensity. Not only was this most recent incident reprehensible, but his reaction more telling: a risible, laughable tirade at the referee for daring to show him a straight red. It was Muscat's second red card in succession.

Though deservedly and obviously penitent in public it's now time where Kevin Muscat must ask if he is really suited to a career in football after his playing days end. The talk of him being Crown Prince to the Victory's management has receded into white noise and given his inability or unwillingness to control a temper as short as the supporting cast of "Snow White" he should begin to query if he has the ability to do as all good managers and set a balanced tone for his team. It's the company head who defines a that's organisation's strategies and market tactics as well as, most importantly, its culture. In football management, the same principles apply and the manager dictates a playing group's mentality. The best example of this may be Jose Mourinho, who at all of his four managerial stops has convinced his players that they are a small group up against all the world can hurl at them. The question for Muscat is whether a man with obvious on-field self-control issues really enforce ideals in others that require even a modicum of discipline? If he remains ignorant of this quandary, perhaps we need look no further for an answer to Muscat's managerial suitability. And if he isn't asking himself these questions he can rest safely knowing both the Victory's owners, the A-League, the FFA and television executives all over Australia are.

Roy Keane, though patently much more talented, was a similar style of player. A "hard man" who seemed to love the title and sharing with Muscat both the ability to lead those around him, the knack of teaching and the same penchant for both on-field self-destruction twinn'd with career-ruining tackles. But his career in management has been spotty - early success with Sunderland, followed by a quick exit and a recent unfulfilling spell at Championship Ipswich. A notorious one for confrontation there were times during his Wearside reign where players admitted they were afraid of him and his fuse of questionable length. It's quite possible that if he remains unable to rein in his explosiveness, then Muscat may suffer the same fallibilities, no matter how talented a teacher and leader he is. The future of Kevin Muscat in the A-League both as a player and as a coach or commentator remains murky and very much under his control. It's not too late for Muscy to repair some of the damage done to his credentials but soon it will be.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Edwin van der Sar retiring: The King is Dead

Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will retire at season's end after six years with the Red Devils and fifteen more tending nets at the top level. He'll leave after capturing three Premiership titles, a League Cup and, vitally, the 2008 Champions' League with United - plus whatever Ferguson's mob achieve this year. In 2008-09 he went a remarkable 1311 League minutes without conceding, beating the previous world record.

Throughout a career spanning Ajax, Juventus, Fulham and United, he won trophies in the Netherlands, Italy and England. Alongside a UEFA Cup win and numerous domestic titles in his glory box sit two UEFA Champions' League trophies. The Dutchman can take pride in his role in the last UCL victory, saving the shootout's final penalty, stopping football's arch-villain Nicolas Anelka of Chelsea from equalizing. Internationally, he was the mainstay of the Netherlands national team for what seemed like aeons, retiring with an unsurpassed 130 caps for his homeland.

United have searched both actively and passively for the past four years for a suitable replacement; a familiar tune for United. After Danish icon Peter Schmeichel ended his United tenure, Sir Alex Ferguson went thoguh six first-team goalkeepers before setting on the Dutchman and it may be the same when replacing the replacement. Ben Foster was tried and sold to Birmingham while current backup Thomas Kuszczak has failed to really impress judges as being a capable first choice. Although the Red Devils recently signed Dane Anders Lindegaard from Aalesunds to serve as backup, pundits don't think he has what it takes to really be a first-class custodian. Most regularly linked with the job are Schalke 04's Manuel Neuer and David De Gea of Atletico Madrid while Lindegaard and Kuszczak are both eyeing the slot too.

Edwin van der Sar should now be regarded as a United great - an imposing, noble, leonine figure leading the Red Devil's miserly defence. The only debate now is where he ranks when compared with Schmeichel. Though very different 'keepers, both anchored United teams winning several titles and the highest honours of Europe. There's no reason to think van der Sar inferior but it may Schmeichel is remembered more fondly due to his longevity in the no.1 jersey; it's hardly van der Sar's fault he arrived at Old Trafford in his mid thirties. Fond memories will always accompany both players, but to choose between the two as United's Greatest would be a futile exercise: it should be 1 and 1A until hopefully Neuer or De Gea joins them on that same pedestal.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Asian Cup Semi Final Diary: Australia vs. Uzbekistan

The Asian Cup nears it's culmination this week as the Semi-Finals and Finals are played. Traditional powers contested one semi, Japan and South Korea; while two of the region's newer tyros are to fight out the second - still new-to-region Australia and the wealthy Uzbekistan, their FFA's pockets filled by natural resource money. This morning's first semi-final had the Blue Samurai progressing on penalties after a goal each in extra time - South Korea levelled right on 120 minutes. The shootout a bit anticlimactic as none of the first three South Koreans converted their spot-kicks.

The Uzbeks got here by defeating Jordan in the Quarter-Finals while Australia have been troubled only rarely in the tournament so far but needed extra time to beat Iraq in the round previous. While we talk about this year's Asian Cup, I'll intersperse it with what's happening in Qatar.

Kick off. No surprises in the Australia lineup. Honestly don't know enough about the Uzbeks to say if their team has any major changes.

There's no coincidence that it's these four in the Semi-Finals. The leagues in Japan, Korea and Australia, while unable to compete for cash with the excessively wealthy Arabic and Emirati leagues, so don't have necessarily the most high-end talent but rather deepest leagues from top team to bottom.

GOOAALLL! Harry Kewell, you little beauty! After only five minutes, what a way to start! Played in beautifully by David Carney, he slots it low to the left of the Uzbek goalie Juraev. Silky smooth, just as you'd expect of a player with his talents. He scored the winner in the quarter-final too - repaying the Australian nation's public with his performances.

The South Koreans have been led by the usual suspects - Park Ji-Sung and striker Koo Ja-Cheol who scored in all their group games. For Japan it's been Dortmund's Shiniji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda fronting their attack. For the Uzbeks, well, who knows? Almost their entire squad plays at home in the petro-funded Uzbek league.

Like against Iraq in the 2007 Asian Cup Finals, Australia are bossing any physical encounters only to be outmanoeuvred by their lighter-footed opponents. Younis Mahmoud was just outstanding that day, today it seems to be the stupendously named Ulugbek Bakaev.

Australia have been led by another old stager - Harry Kewell. A figure who prompts both derision and admiration back home, the average Aussie is certain Kewell's our most gifted footballer ever. Sadly though, Harry's struggled to repay his country on the largest stages as injury robbed him of his physical gifts and a possible lack of desire means he's turned out for the 'Roos less than we'd like.

Unusually Wilkshire's been beaten for pace a few times on the right and has fouled his man in dangerous positions. It's Uzbek captain Server Djeparov and defender Viktor Kaprenko causing the problems.

Kewell's only turned it on for the Green and Gold army early on where he scored home and away against Iran in the World Cup Playoffs 1997. Then and his memorable goal in the 2006 World Cup. Aside from that, his time in the national setup has been largely disappointing and for the most part nonexistent. Since he joined Galatasary he's been somewhat revitalised . Perhaps Australia's most famous footballing export and his Golden Generation comrades may yet win a trophy to back up all the hype over the years.


Ognenovski, too. What a player, it's probably Pim Verbeek's largest legacy that he decided time and again against picking this guy. From a set piece, headed by Cahill (who else?) into the path of the big man who calmly finished it off. Kisses all round - teammates, wedding band alike. 35min in.

Uzbekistan's more famous footballing moments of late have been high-profile mistakes, really. Aside from the goal that wasn't at the Asian Games in November - their keeper was almost as palpably culpable as the immortal Khalfan Fahad - Uzbekistan football last hit the headlines when their largest club Bunyudkor, one of the Asian Champions' League's usual suspects employed Big Phil, Luis Felipe Scolari ...

Geez, that was close. Carney chests down to Schwarzer in the box with an Uzbek striker not far away. Carney going forward is a great threat for Australia. Carney defending is also a great threat for Australia, and not in a good way.

... As I was saying, Bunyudkor must've paid through the nose for Big Phil, who then promptly brought Rivaldo to the club. They played one Champions' League game in Adelaide and lost, Rivaldo was still there but Big Phil had gone back to Brazil by then. Rivaldo's back there now, too.

One minute of extra time in the first half. Uzbekistan creates down the left again - Wilkshire's man, strange, he's usually the best of our defenders - and the cross finds an open man at the top of the box. His drive goes well wide though.

Half Time.

Ready to go in the second half.

Oooh, that was a real cahnce for Harry. Long through ball from Matt McKay, right on the money and Kewell didn't control it to his satisfaction, cleared for a coner, which Australia wins the header and it goes wide. They've really got the best of the air.

Taking a glance through the stats at half time and you've got to feel for Walid Abbas of the UAE. He managed to score two own goals in one tournament which could be some sort of record. The UAE only managed three games too. The goalscorers are interesting, South Korea's Koo Ja-Cheol and Bahrain's Ismael Abdullatif have four, and Our Harry has three, crucial ones too.

Looks like a sub's going to come on for Australia, 22yo Robbie Kruse of the Melbourne Victory seems to be warming up. Maybe coach Holger Osieck wants to keep Cahill or Kewell fresh for the final if we make it. Neither have a card so it's not to ensure discipline. Turns out Harry Kewell's coming off for the in-form Victory striker.

The Asian Champions League and Asian Cup really seems to have benefited from Australia's involvement. I don't think the smaller nations are necessarily going to lose out by having anthoer top-30 ranked team ....

Really nice move by Kruse - wrong-foots a defender from the left and challenges the goalkeeper with a fizzing shot. Uzbekistan have made a substitution, with Hasanov coming off for Bikmaev.

Anyway, I think Australia involved in Asia adds to the lustre and considering this tournament was won by war-torn Iraq last time and Uzbekistan have made it to the semis this time around there shouldn't be too much of a debate about the detrimental effects to smaller nations. Both countries have good footballing traditions but lesser repute.

Holger Osieck is up off the bench now, chatting to the referee. There really have been some dubious calls go against Australia. A little bit too much razzle-dazzle attempted by the Uzbeks as their buildup work is shorted out by Australian defenders.

Another Uzbek substitution now as Tursinov is sent on by coach Vadim Abramov.

Abramov, who sports the archetypal Eastern European mullet and simply enormous 'tache which makes him look the spitting image of the Paddle Pop Lion.

Australia are doing better now, controlling possession well as Kruse and Cahill hold the ball up well. Emerton on now for Holman as Bikmaev's free kick deflects off the wall for a corner. The Uzbeks really are going down very easily - they're aware the Aussies have a reputation for physical play and as such may be trying to exploit any preconceived ideas the referees may have.

What is a strength for Australia in Asia can also be a weakness. Typically our defenders are big strong strapping types - Craig Moore and Ognenovski are perfect examples - who are able to mix it up in the box and also...

Good looking movement ... Carney SCORES!!!! 3-0 Australia, we're going to the Asian Cup Final!! Carney received it from Matt McKay - an A-League guy who's played extremely well today - down the left as he nutmegs the goalkeeper. Tim Cahill signalling to the bench, he may be done for the day. Great play by no. 9, going around four Australian defenders only to shoot straight at Schwarzer. Ognenovski and Bakaev get into it -

And Bakaev picks up his second yellow! He's off! Clattered Luke Wilkshire - horrible tackle. Coach Abramov looks distinctly unimpressed.

Yeah, Aussie defenders - and midfielders too, to be honest - tend to physically dominate Asian midfields because Indonesian and (great chance goes begging as Cahill beats three, crosses to a beautifully-positioned Kruse who takes one touch too many and scuffs his shot into the keeper) Thai squads don't have the muscle to compete in the contest. It also, however, means that when exposed to the low-centre-of-gravity dribblers of which Asian has a multitude, they can be wound in circles.

Karpamov off for Ibragimamov; Leeds United's Neil Kilkenny - the perpetual Next Big Thing of Australian football - on for Tim Cahill. Another forward thrust by the Socceroos, they're really starting to put the foot on the throat. Emerton gets the ball from Kruse and the Uzbek keeper saves.

Still on the size differential, that inability to deal with the tricksters could be the reason that a right-back, Lucas Neill, has been our most effective centre-half for half a decade. It's probably also that the former Soviet Republics are a much easier proposition for Australia because their lienups have a little more si ... -

GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLL! Robbie Kruse finds Brett Emerton and surely Australia can't be stopped. Long ball from Wilkshire to Kruse who beat the last defender for pace, got inside the area and squared it for Emerton who finished under pressure. Kruse has looked really good)

... size. The Uzbeks are big, physically impressive players up front and down back, who, though while creative aren't of the same agility as a Honda or Kagawa of Japan.

Australia are starting to exploit a tired Uzbek side. Golden Chance as it's a 4 on 2 fast break and Kruse, searching for his first international goal, has his shot saved by the keeper. With quite a bit of time to go, this could get ugly for the Uzbeks. They're not at the races so far this half and have been sliced open time and again by Kruse, Kewell, Cahill and the like.

Australia's chief concern now has to be preserving discipline and ensuring they don't lose any players for a Japan side against whom the Socceroos have only a middling record. Since the 2006 World Cup match where we came back to win 3-1 in the last fifteen minutes, I've been hooked on football, so this game will have some special significance. We lost (on penalties I think) against them in the 2007 Asian Cup so there's a little bit of major tournament rivalry going on between the two. Add to that a few of Australia's best play in the J-League and we could have a real hum-dinger of a final on Sunday.

GOOOOAAAALL!! Valeri this time, after great build up and hustle from the Australians. Abramov has resigned himself to taking this pantsing as the Uzbeks couldn't clear the ball, Kruse flicks it on with delicious skills to Matt McKay, who crosses for Valeri in the centre of the penalty box who slams it home. Emphatic performance by the Socceroos.

ANOTHER ONE!!!!!! GOOOOALLL! Kruse this time, as he takes the ball from the kick off, skirts four defenders, proceeds to the edge of the area and fires it past the hapless Uzbek keeper Juraev. 6-0!!! He deserves that, he's been brilliant since coming on and his teammates tell him so. Mark Schwarzer has even come up from goal to congratulate him. Perhaps one of the most celebrated sixth goals ever, they're happy for the lad.

Abramov looks like he's been told he has only days to live. He's already at stage 5 of the seven stages of grief by now.

Uzbekistan muster one final attack and Tursunov's attempt is deflected over by Schwarzer. The corner and it's re-take is cleared. Uzbekistan has barely approached their penalty area this half, it's been a dominant Socceroo performance. Three minutes of added time and it can't go quickly enough for the luckless Uzbeks, who talk in defence about as often as Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie do now.

As good as this performance has been by the Aussies, the Uzbeks really have dropped their heads here in the second half.

WHISTLE! Aurelio Vidmar congratulates Holger Osieck as the German makes the rounds of his players. Uzbekistan will have to regroup in the most startling way and cope without their best striker Bakaev on Saturday when they take on South Korea for third place. I'd back them to play much better than they did here today - after half time they were insipid.

Australia v. Japan? Well, a different story. Japan may have "played their final already" with today's penalty victory against their arch-rival, where Australia may have wanted a more thorough hit out before such a big match which easily rates as one of the largest in our history. No injuries, no suspensions it seems and only a fool would underestimate the Japanese on Sunday.

It was good to see that it was younger guys like Matt McKay and Robbie Kruse who led the team with Kewell rather than the guys we've relied on in the past like Luke Wilkshire, Lucas Neill and Tim Cahill. Bring on Sunday's final!

It's done: Sky Sports drops Andy Gray for dark-age comments

After his chauvinistic comments about women in football, pundit Andy Gray of Sky Sports has been sacked. Sky confirmed his termination today as it enters damage control to avoid backlash from all sides as Politicians, footballers and administrators, Support Groups, the Football League's Officials' Association among many have condemned the past-age comments of Gray and his Sky associate Richard Keys.

Gray, who has had a good reputation as a commentator for nearly two decades, was fired with Sky Sports stating "New evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour" had come to light, referring to footage of him suggesting Sky Sports Presenter Charlotte Jackson should help him tuck in his shirt. Keys has apparently apologised to lineswoman about whom the comments were made, Sian Massey, but Gray has not as the pair didn't want to duplicate their efforts to calm the storm they've created. Sky yesterday stood down the pair from telecasts as well as reporter Andy Burton who described Massey as "a bit of a looker".

No matter how the recordings were obtained, Sky has acted appropriately by dismissing Gray. Reporters, public servants, politicians, presenters and coaches - anyone who's likely to be exposed to the media - are all taught very early on that all microphones should be treated as if they are "on" at all times. By commenting within the reach of a mic, both Keys and Gray have ignored this first rule of being in the public eye. Rather than being "sold out" by someone with a grudge, through their own stupidity have they condemned themselves.

Gray, Keys and Burton probably meant no offense but, as always, that doesn't hold water as a defence. It was offensive to Massey and to the multitude of women keeping football clubs ticking over all around the world; after a quick straw poll, I've yet to find a woman not offended by these Old Boy comments. With such a large portion of their enormous market offended, it meant even in the unlikely event Sky wanted to keep Gray, it would have been extremely difficult.

Football has long been a domain ruled by "men's men" and has been afraid or unwilling to face issues that society in general is trying to tackle: FIFA head Sepp Blatter's comments about homosexual men abstaining from sex during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was yet another in a long line of thoughtless backhanders dealt to minority groups. As has been the casual racism that persists in some leagues around the world, or the horrible tale of Justin Fashanu. But to suggest football maintain a set of it's own rules by which those involved are judged is ludicrous and must change. Those in football need to be held accountable to the standards by which the rest of us in normal society are judged.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The New Game in the North: NEAFL 2011

While doing a vague internet search today about the AFL's newest member club, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, I found something which surprised me - there's a new league in Australia this year. Surprised, I decided to look closer at the format for the nascent North East Australian Football League.

The local competitions in the northern states have been a shemozzle for some (all?) time and it's about time that the AFL had interceded and decided to put them right. In the early days of the national competition, the Swans and Bears would send their reservists to Melbourne for the VFL/AFL reserves competition - Brisbane even won the Premiership in 1991. Since the AFL correctly deduced an official Reserves' League was financially unviable for non-Victorian teams, Brisbane and Sydney have been forced to play their second-stringers in local, substandard leagues.

The new NEAFL will have Eastern and the Northern Divisions, with the Eastern comprised of the largest five teams from AFL Canberra - Ainslie, Belconnen, Eastlake, Queanbeyan, Tuggeranong, as well as Sydney Swans Reserves and Greater Western Sydney developmental squads. The Northern conference will start with eight QAFL teams (Aspley, Broadbeach, Labrador, Morningside, Mt. Gravatt, Northern Territory, Redland and Southport) plus the Lions and Suns Reserves.

Although hampered by the fact it isn't the dominant sport in these states, Australian Rules hasn't developed in the North to the AFL's liking and as such they have apparently decided to take control of these leagues to engender stability, player pathways and adequate competition for developing, out-of-form and second-string Suns, Lions, Swans and Giants players. The clubs involved are impressive enough - most, if not all the big names north of the Murray will take part - meaning the competition should also have some local appeal and repute. A downside is the lack of top tier Sydney clubs, with Pennant Hills the most conspicuously absent team, but there are strong arguments that even the strongest local Sydney teams would struggle to compete against full-time professionals. However, with only seven teams in the Eastern Conference, there is room for growth as the AFL attempts to capture the imagination of those in that great unknown, Western Sydney.

With no crossover between states until finals time the fiscal cost for these old clubs will remain at near enough 2010 levels. This also means that for all the novelty, there won't be too much difference between the competitions now and past, but the AFL can monitor and guide the sport's progress in the undiscovered country. With the new AFL franchises now blooded, the League is more invested than ever before in a local competition which allows youngsters inspired by the AFL to develop and start "giving back" to Australian Rules. The NEAFL isn't just about making sure that Western Sydney and the Gold Coast are successful - and on that the AFL has staked a lot - but on backing up their big money expeditions into new territories with grass-roots development.

With a litany of failed and bankrupt clubs in both the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland, the AFL is readying itself for the two-fronted fight to develop the sport in the north. There have been plenty of "knockers" of the Great West Sydney Experiment with valid queries about Sydney's readiness to accept a second AFL team. With the NEAFL's genesis, however, the AFL is suggesting that it's more prepared for a drive into Rugby heartland than we had previously suspected.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott and Bale: All just a little bit of history repeating

Manchester United want Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. So do Chelsea. And Arsenal. And City.

Southampton boss Nigel Adkins is a very shrewd operator on the transfer market after his time in the Championship with terminally-short-of-cash Scunthorpe. Three times he turned small money forwards into big dollars: he made a 2000% profit on both Billy Sharpe's move to Sheffield United and Gary Hooper's transfer to Celtic and trebled his money in Martin Paterson's Big Burnley Adventure. To mix Adkins' transfer smarts with the chunky bankroll sported by Southampton ownership makes for a formidable operation.

But should Arsenal, Chelsea, United or City wave a briefcase at the Saints containing a rumoured 10 Million, no club in League One could resist, no matter how much cash the owners have. In the furore surrounding Southampton teen Oxlade-Chamberlain, it's interesting to go back to the last great Southampton youngsters to move to the EPL. It was back in 2006-07 when North London duo Arsenal and Tottenham smashed-and-grabbed their way to Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale.

These two are both, like Typographical Tyro Oxlade-Chamberlainare both wingers, though Bale started out as a full-back. Southampton were treading water in the rising floodwaters of debt pocketed sums of ₤9.1 million for Walcott and ₤5 million rising to ₤10 million for Bale.

They started their big league careers in opposite directions. Walcott was Sven-Goran Eriksson's 2006 World Cup squad dark horse and played with an Arsenal team who led the league as late as February. Bale struggled to adjust to a struggling Tottenham's style and with the rigidity required to play fullback. It's easy to forget now after his outstanding 2010 that for the longest time - 24 games, a record - he didn't play in a winning Premiership match.

Bale is now worth perhaps ten times that initial ₤5 million investment and at 21 is liable only to improve. He is comfortable in his position, has a manager who trusts him and forwards to aim at. Some say his combination of pace, crossing and finishing skills make him the best left-sided player in the world, with plenty of time and appetite to improve.

Walcott has also increased in "value" but his is a different story. Rather than improving and diversifying as a footballer, he's been mired in injury, inconsistency and accusations of being a one-trick pony. Endowed - or perhaps cursed - with Thierry Henry's iconic number 14, the these factors haven't allowed him to become the potential world-beater Arsene Wenger saw in the Saints forward. He's got talent and has produced the occasional unplayable game - his treble against Croatia for England a notable one - but if two years ago you asked a football pundit who would be the better player every one would have plumped for Walcott over Bale. The development has apparently stalled.

With Darren Bent recently being sold for upwards of ₤20 million it's likely Theo's blend of pace and youth would command a hefty transfer fee, but have his fifteen Arsenal goals (from 100 appearances) justified Wenger's initial investment. All that glitters in League One is not, apparently, gold.

The recipe to create a successful footballer needs plenty of ingredients: talent, physical gifts, the right headspace and a lot of luck. Walcott has been unlucky with injuries, just as Bale was early in his Spurs career. But Bale has already repaid the money Tottenham invested for his services while with Walcott, it's debatable. He may very well turn into England's Centre Forward of the Future but so much time has passed now that rather than being expected of him, it is now just a fond hope.

Like trading futures on the stock exchange, throwing money at youth doesn't guarantee instant rewards. It may not guarantee rewards at all. Sometimes, like with Jermaine Jenas, it isn't even the buying club who gets the benefit. Not by a long chalk has time run out for Theo Walcott but his development is now a matter of "if" and not "when".

Prokhorov's Carmelo policy a lesson to egotists everywhere

After seemingly aeons of banter between the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons and Carmelo Anthony, the Nets Russian owner Mikael Prokhorov has told Nets officialdom to break off negotiations with all parties. The Nets, apparently, are no longer interested in the 6'8 Baltimore-by-way-of-Syracuse product.

The Nuggets' wantaway forward has made no secret of his desire to depart Denver when his contract ends on June 30th and has been equally vociferous about his desire to return to his birthplace of New York and his "dream" of playing for the Knicks. The New Jersey Nets - in two years to be the Brooklyn Nets when the franchise moves - were the frontrunners acquire Melo before he becomes a free agent at season's end due to their ability to send Denver the most desirable trade package in return: point guard Devin Harris, rookie Derrick Favors, shooter Anthony Morrow and two high draft picks, one probably in the draft's top seven picks.

After weeks of being the top story every basketball site, Prokhorov walked away from any deal yesterday citing his frustration at the lack of progress and the public nature of the talks. Of course there are major mitigating factors - Anthony's preference to wear the Knicks' Blue and Orange, having to give away last year's AND this year's lottery pick - and last and most, Anthony's apparent disinclination to sign a contract extension in Jersey. It may be another gambit in the ongoing deal and talks may re-open but the inclination is to trust Prokhorov on this. All indications are he simply tired of Denver's mind games and Anthony's failure to "piss or get off the pot". As Brian Windhorst of ESPN's put it, The Russian simply followed the first rule of negotiation - not being afraid to walk away.

And it feels really good to see it. Franchises and their fans have been held hostage to the whims of players and their agents for too long, so for "Mutant Russian Mark Cuban" to refuse any further entreaties from Colorado is a potential home-run for owners, one that'll be followed by another body blow to agents/players with the impending lockout. The lockout, which will follow the failure of Players and Owners to agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, looks likely to cost Melo serious coin NBA salaries are sure to decrease.

Hopefully, but unrealistically, Prokhorov's posture will encourage other owners to demand professionalism from other alleged professional. In a game where awfully shrewd businessmen lose their business sense after purchasing a team, it seems he has kept his.

The second result of this stand is the Nets could improve markedly without Anthony. The promising Favors, who's played his entire pro career under trade clouds, is maturing and the team has salary cap flexibility to further add to their roster and Small Forward, Anthony's position, is where they're most interested in an upgrade.

It's debatable how much success Anthony would have brought to Jersey/Brooklyn because as a player, he is hard to mark. He's almost unequalled as a scorer and would turn a Nets weak spot into a strength. Since Julius Erving was sold to Philly in 1976 - yes, that long - the best Net SFs have been Albert King and Kendall Gill, a fact that as a casual fan (who loves Kendall Gill) makes me dry-retch. But Anthony's habitual defensive laxity and his problematic scoring efficiency - he makes a lot of shots by taking and missing a lot - makes his status top player in the league debatable and depending on the judge, he could rank as the 10th-best player to to the 40th-best.

Hopefully there will be no repeat of Cleveland and Toronto's 2010 offseason where LeBron James and Chris Bosh flaunted their free-agency like painted jezebels. They undoubtedly enjoyed the power they'd earned, but in doing so slapped their devoted organisations and fans in the face. Hard. By doing likewise in a situation where those paying him have learned from others' misfortunes, Anthony may have robbed himself of an estimated $20 -40 million dollars over the life of his new deal. If that's a sacrifice he's prepared to make, then bully for him. If not - as most think - then all his self-aggrandising posturing has been a publicity exercise that he oughtta hope is worth an extra $20 million. For so long hoping to both have and eat baked sweet goods, Carmelo Anthony may now be forced to choose. And Joe Public should feel wonderful.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers is so important

When he comes to Portland, go and see him. Atlanta, too. Hell, if he comes to Tootgarook, he’ll pack the house.

I’m waxing lyrical about Blake Griffin, the NBA’s standout rookie of 2010-2011. Astonishingly, he plays for the Los Angeles Clippers whose name has been the shorthand for crap in American sports for the entire length of their existence.

After spending all of his first year in the league injured, Griffin is making up for those lost minutes this season. He’s currently averaging 22.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest, about on par with the all-time greatest modern-era rookie seasons (by Michael Jordan and David Robinson). The last twenty-seven straight games he`s tallied double figures in both points and rebounds, while his 47 points against Indiana on Martin Luther King Day were the most by any player this year.

Not only do his skills get results, but those results come in the most incredible manner. Griffin’s game is predicated on his nonpareil athleticism and his first thoughts are to dunk on his opponent, whoever it is, time and again. Even the increasing numbers of hoop-o-philes who think the dunk is overrated love seeing Griffin cram it down on yet another big fella. This has led him to be the most searched basketballer on YouTube and his three dunks on the New York Knicks in December have become the stuff of legend. He’s got “Dunk of the Year” all sewn up, and probably the minor placings as well. Blake Griffin would throw it down on a T-Rex.

(Hint: watch the clip, it’s going to be important later on)

And he’s the most important player in the NBA right now.

This young man, who displays all the likeable aspects of Shawn Kemp’s early years (before the before the sulking-about-Jim-McIlvaine’s-contract era, well in advance of the dozen-ish paternity suit era and definitely pre the “Why is he wearing a fat suit”? years) and none of the sass that has come to characterise today’s NBA players could represent the most marketable force that David Stern has at his command for the next decade.

The NBA is in a tough place right now. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement finishes at the end of this season and Players Union and the Owners Collective seem too far apart in negotiations as to the division of the $4 billion revenues of the NBA is shared between players and owners. If they can’t agree on a new pay scale, it will result in a “lockout” where owners shut down the league until a compromise is reached. The players aren’t paid, the owners don’t get the crowd/concession dollars and it’s eminently possible the 2011-2012 NBA season just won’t happen.

When the NBA resumes –before or after the new season is called a wash – it’s going to need to market itself as new, exciting and most importantly of all, able to keep its own house in order. It’s only now the NHL has recovered from their 2004-05 lockout behind concepts like the Winter Classic, a new All-Star Game format and most importantly, marketable stars who can be divided along comic book lines into heroes and villains. For the heroes, Canada’s Own Sidney Crosby is the man every mother wants their daughter to marry; while the villains sport the Washington Capitals Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin, who looks like a Bond villain and loves to be the enemy. Younger guys like Steven Stamkos, Milan Lucic and John Tavares are the next generation in hockey’s goodies-versus-baddies evolution.

The NBA are going to promote heavily to reattract attention to a league, which while still in good health, hasn’t been able to cope with Michael Jordan’s 1998 departure from Chicago. Major market teams – with the exception of the Los Angeles Lakers – have slumped over the past decade: New York’s revitalisation this year is their first whimper of competitiveness in ten years, Chicago have had a few good teams but many years of heartache. Despite a recent revival, the same could be said for the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. The LA-based Clippers have been a laughing stock their entire existence.

One potential league-defining player after another has come into the game – first Shaq, then Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and now Blake Griffin – and none of them have managed to excite and capture the imagination of fans and mug punters alike like MJ. Several have had major and public flaws which decrease their market potential: Kobe his much-publicised run in with the law in Colorado; Allen Iverson was perhaps too “ghetto” for White America; Vince Carter’s career highlight was this dunk in the 2000 Sydney Olympics – and hasn't been the same since, quitting on every pro team he's ever been on. LeBron James’ 2010 was the greatest heel turn in Pro Sports history as he ditched hometown Cleveland for the sun, women and decreased responsibility of Miami. Durant – still plies his trade in Oklahoma City, perhaps the league’s smallest market and is, like Griffin, a low-key guy so execs are faced with the unenviable task of selling a small-town, low-key Midwest guy to New Yorkers or Southern Californians.

With LeBron now joining the “baddies” of Miami, the NBA needs a star in a big market who the crowds can get behind and support; the type of guy where people tune into SportsCenter just to see what amazing stuff he’s done. LeBron was the league’s best hope to be that amazing, likeable fella but when he “took my talents to South Beach”, his heel turn was rivalled only by American Hero Hulk Hogan joining the nWo. Griffin is David Stern’s best hope to be the frontman for The Rebel Alliance against the dark tyranny of a LeBron/Wade/Bosh led Empire.

Why can he do such things? Going back to the video clip, did you see how he reacted after posterizing the Knicks’ Center Mozgov? He was fully aware of how incredible he’d just been, but celebrated only mildly with his teammates, then went and sank the free-throw he’d earned by giving Mozgov a groin to the face. No crazy spinning in circles, no screams. Contrastingly, Carter’s dunk over Weis led “Half Man, Half Amazing” to scream like a monkey on heat. There’s no comparison. People get behind Blake Griffin because he doesn’t strut – “strutting” and “Oklahoma” seem mutually exclusive, don’t they? He just wants to play basketball. And if he plays basketball, he gets to dunk on chumps.

Much like the guy whose aggressiveness he resembles (Kemp), he’s also a Hall-of-Fame type talent, only Griffin seems grounded enough to not let the fame, floozies and transfats go to his head – or arse, delete as appropriate. He could average 24/14 for twelve years and with his talents combined with those of SG Eric Gordon, there’s the chance he could win one of the toughest battles in sport and lead the Clippers – the Clippers! – into respectability. Should he stay healthy – touch wood – Blake Griffin, his dunks and his simple ordinariness is what the NBA can build around when the coming lockout ends. Not quite 22 years old, he can be the face of the league as the NBA battles to regain popularity in the crowded US sports market.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bent's goals will save (or cost) Aston Villa

Darren Bent looks likely to seal a £20+ million transfer from Sunderland to Aston Villa within the next forty-eight hours. From the outside, it’s when and not if the ex-Tottenham and Charlton forward departs the Northeast after he handed in his second written transfer request of the term - this request follows a rejected plea in August. Gaffer Steve Bruce sounds resigned to losing him and England’s The Guardian reports the Mackem manager stunned both by Bent’s desire to leave, and the amount at which Villa value the hitman.

It’s rumoured that an initial £18 million bid was rejected by the Mackems as they held out for a bid over milestone figure 20 millio. Add-ons have been suggested raising the deal to around £24M but the final shape of the transaction is still murky. Given Sunderland’s history in the transfer market – they rejected a £16 million bid for striker Kevin Phillips in the early years of this century only to sell him for £3 million two years later – it’s likely they can’t resist the lure of Gerard Houllier’s lucre and Bent’s future lies at the Birmingham club.

Usually unshy of expressing his admiration for the people and fans of the Northeast, Bent’s season so far has been a pale imitation of his outstanding first year on Wearside. His relationship with the region may have soured for good when his car was vandalised by Newcastle fans while shopping and whispers suggest the striker’s reputed fragile headspace has become an issue again after being overlooked for England’s World Cup campaign after his 2009-10 tour de force. He started brightly this season, scoring seven times by September’s end but since then has only tinkled the twine four times amidst a flurry of speculation regarding his happiness in the region. His starting position has been shared/usurped by offseason signing Asamoah Gyan and loanee Danny Welbeck, so it’s hardly a shock Bent’s head has been turned by a club closer to his Cambridgeshire roots.

In all probability Bent has played his last game in Sunderland’s red and white stripes and will leave the club he’s helped build from relegation fodder into challenging for European honours. He will re-inject himself into a situation with which he is very familiar - the relegation battle – having waged similar wars with Charlton, Tottenham and Sunderland. Aston Villa sit outside the drop zone only on goals scored, their goal difference mirroring that of 18th-placed Wigan at -15. Under Martin O`Neill the Clarets challenged regularly for a top four berth but since the Northern Irishman`s departure, front men Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew have been perpetually injured while reserve Emile Heskey scores goals with the same frequency as sightings of Halley’s Comet. Given the mixed returns of his youth policy, Houllier has identified a need for goals – quickly – and is gambling much of the dosh the club received from selling James Milner on a Bent revival and him leading the club to survival in an incredibly even Premiership season.

It’s an enormous gamble by the Frenchman – betting Bent’s recent goal drought comes from a lack of supply from midfield – and the manager is riding the hope that his wide men (Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton) can provide the ammunition the twenty-six year old needs to fire Villa to safety. With only sixteen EPL clashes remaining, DB “The Truth” will probably need to score somewhere around 7-10 goals or more to ensure safe haven for the Midlands club, at a composite cost of about £3 million per goal. When considering the money in top level football – and how much Villa would lose if relegated – that rate is unquestionably a bargain.

Should they survive.

If, however, the young Clarets can`t arrest their slide into the Championship, they will be forced to sell this new star at cut-price rates. The gamble is on display for all to see: how Bent settles into his new footballing home could cost Villa 18, 20, 24 or even 60 million pounds. Darren Bent will leave Sunderland to become Aston Villa`s talisman, for better or for worse.

The Art of Footwork

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts

The poor performance of the Australian batsmen during the Ashes series hopefully will be discussed and debated at len
gth by coaches and players. Let me take an opportunity to put forward an opinion on where I believe the primary issue lies, poor footwork. Phillip Hughes and to a lesser extent Steve Smith have borne the brunt of criticism on this topic, but save for Michael Hussey, all of the Australians showed clear weakness in this area. Contrasting this with the English batsmen who dominated the summer should indicate the extent of the concern. Why is it that the English were so more accomplished than the Australians?

Let me begin by looking at the two main reasons for needing footwork while batting. Firstly, it assists the batsman’s balance and places their head into the optimal position to play the ball. To a delivery pitched up, coming forward brings the batsmen’s head into line as best is possible to watch the ball; by being nearer to the pitch of the ball the batsmen is in a better position to cover any movement, swing or seam. To shorter pitched delivery’s, where you cannot get to the pitch, footwork backward again steady’s the head for watching the ball and by moving right back the batsman has given themselves more time to adjust their shot as necessary.

Secondly, footwork carries the batsman’s body and develops power in the shots. Batting is a full body task, not just one for the arms. This is consistent with other sports where an instrument must be swung. Both Golf and Tennis coaching recognises that the power in shots does not come solely from the arms and shoulders, but via the transferral of weight. Transferral of weight requires good footwork for it to be done efficiently.

Armed with this brief knowledge of footwork let me attempt to assess the causes for Australia’s recent poor display of it.

Without wanting to claim anything but fortune in the occurrences, my recent ‘Pitching It Up’ series was timed very well. For the first time in at least 10 years the Australian pitches had character and gave movement off the seam. In addition Australia has also had thus far its most unique summer weather in a long time. This has created humid atmospheric conditions far more conducive to moving the ball through the air than the dry searing heat that modern Australia is more accustomed to.

Australia has a generation of batsmen who have grown up in benign batting conditions. In some respects ground staff have been at the mercy of the weather, but I have no doubt that the desire for matches to last longer has led administrators to request more batsman friendly conditions. Batsmen have developed great faith in the ball not moving and can swing through the line (driving ‘on the up’) with little risk. Back foot play has almost become a forgotten art, as average cricketers at most stay on the crease, if not pull and cut from the front foot. 20 years ago such flamboyant batting was the sole domain of the batsmen who was well established at the crease, and arguably the second greatest ever Viv Richards.

By contrast English conditions are extremely different to Australia. While an English pitch may be prepared flat, there is no ability to control the atmosphere and prevent swing. Therefore the English batsmen had a good grounding in difficult conditions, and were more conservative and respectful in their stroke play. Do note that conservative and respectful clearly doesn’t mean slow, as 3.5 to 4 runs an over attests.

I was fortunate to arrive home from work the other day early enough to watch the final over’s of the England women’s team chasing Australia’s total at Adelaide in a T20 match. Firstly can I applaud the administrators/broadcasters responsible for making this happen as the cricket played was high class and worthy of broadcast, may it be a more regular feature on television. While watching the English bat, I very much enjoyed noting the great techniques, and of course footwork, of the players, (I will happily admit that the enjoyment of footwork makes me an abject cricket nerd!).

The second purpose of footwork that I noted above is the development of power in stroke play. Physiologically, it is not an unreasonable generalisation to say that male cricketers, for the most part, will be stronger than their female counterparts. Given lesser physical strength, footwork for the women is paramount for striking the ball with power. Contrast this with some of the Australian men, who through physical conditioning work have developed upper body strength that means they escape the need for footwork to develop power.

While you cannot complain about players making sacrifices to be in peak physical condition, the need for ultra-strength isn’t there and potentially has harmed some techniques. Bradman, Harvey, Border, and Ponting are listed in the greats of Australian batsman but did not develop power through being larger men, all were below 5’8” and slender in build. Even Greg Chappell, another great, was tall but still a thinner build. Compare this to Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and a number of recent Australian cricketers who have physique’s closer to Rugby players than traditional cricketers.

The answer as to why Australian batsmen have completely lost the art of footwork is probably to be discussed individually with each batsman. My general feeling is that the recent benign conditions have played more of a role than too much focus on physical development, but it has played its part also. Short of locating the local Arthur Murray dance studio for each of the contracted cricketers, footwork must become a priority for Australian first-class cricketers.

An increase in the number of Australian players turning out for seasons in English cricket is needed, and not just for highly remunerated T20 stints. This is even just playing for League sides in the absence of a county contract. Give our batsmen an experience of playing in unfavourable conditions. The coaching and training staff have to also look at the purpose and amount of physical conditioning work, and recognise that cricketing skill is the priority over fitness in training.

Friday, January 14, 2011

NHL All-Star Game shakeup a great idea

Part 2 of our continuing series; An Australian on Ice Hockey

Part 1: You make excuses for the Habs

Part 3: Chara's Pacioretty hit means a lot for NHL - and pro sport

Part 4: Canadiens vs. Boston the Austin Powers NHL Playoff matchup

Part 5: The Psychology of Choking

The NHL All-Star Game is scheduled for Sunday 29th of January in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has changed format this year. Rather than the traditional fan-selected East vs. West match typifying All-Star games across the major sports, this year the league asked fans to select six players only. Those players, four from Pittsburgh and two Chicago Blackhawks, will be joined by players that the NHL's Hockey Operations department has selected to bring the number of players up to the Adamsian forty-two.

Here's where it gets interesting. Two captains will be selected from that shortlist of forty-two and each captain will then choose his own squad as if they are playing hockey out back on the pond. Rumour has it the NHL's most marketable players - forwards Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin from the Penguins and Capitals - are likely to be given the honour of selecting their own teammates.

Click here to see the full roster as selected by the fans and NHL.

While Gary Bettman has had a controversial and chequered career as the NHL's commissioner, this is a win. The NHL is a clear and distant fourth in America's sporting hierarchy and this change of direction for the league showpiece, while revolutionary, allows its millions of followers not just to see the best hockey has to offer, but also makes the game more approachable for the everyman. Every single hockey player in Canada has played pond hockey - perhaps even every single person. Pickup hockey is one of the nation's great pastimes and for a league facing as many struggles as the NHL does - chiefly issues of legitimacy outside Canada and the North East US - it stands to gain both notoriety and new fans by adopting such a novel approach. While playing in the NHL - or any pro sport - is out of reach for most of us, this concept of bringing the apogee of the game back to the grass roots allows Joe Public to identify more with the creme de la creme of Ice Hockey.

It's concepts like this match and the Winter Classic, where a match is played outside during the depths of winter - this year Crosby's Pens hosting Ovechkin's Caps at Pittsburgh Football stadium - which could bring a whole new relevancy to the national game of Canada. Hockey is facing a tough battle to remain in the US national consciousness as expansion waters down the talent pool and US cities find themselves unprepared for athletes speaking little English. (A quarter of the NHL's player pool comes from outside North America and many newcomers don't have a great command of the language). Soccer and Mixed Martial Arts (!) are rapidly gaining ground in the chase for the NHL's title of "fourth most identifiable sport in the continent" so it's encouraging from a position north of the border to see measures being taken to support the visibility of the league in the southern United States, no matter how few people play - or even care about- hockey there. Bettman's infinitely debatable strategy of relocating small-market Canadian teams and expanding south of the border - sometimes waaaaaay south - was aimed at growing the game in warmer climes and has achieved only mild-to-moderate success. To encourage that growth, there has to be exposure as to why and how the game is so loved in northern regions.

Where perhaps the NHL has dropped the ball - sorry, puck - with this new All-Star concept is the logical extension of this "pond hockey" idea: while the captains are obviously important, maybe there's too much emphasis placed on the skipper's role. To really capture the spirit of pond hockey, the essence of the grass-roots, perhaps it'd be preferable to suit the players up on All-Star Saturday and get them to throw their sticks in a pile to be picked at random onto one of two teams just like when playing pickup. It could be done according to position as well to ensure parity and so rather than relying on a captain's personal preference, another level of mystery to the game is added - no matter how they feel about each other, how would Malkin play with Ovechkin? Or Carey Price with Zdeno Chara?

Television cameras north and south of the 49th would love to see Bettman out on the ice, picking up a stick and throwing it into one team or the other's pile at random. It would just be magic publicity for the league - a draft of the best 42 players in the world and an All-Star game in the one weekend. I can't imagine this being anything other than a major boost for the event, and for the league as a whole. Perhaps that's the future direction of the All-Star game.

Perhaps the next generation All-Star game could follow the same lines that Australia has used recently for the AFL's one-off revival of it's State of Origin concept. In that 2008 match, the state with the largest number of clubs - and thus grass-roots players - competed against a team made up of players who played junior footy outside Victoria. The same could be done with the NHL, with a US/Canada combination being pitted against an International All-Star squad coming from Finland, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. To make the numbers even more square, it could be players who played their juniors in Canada (Out of the 962 NHL players in 2009-10, 520 were Canadians) against The Rest. I'd pay money to see either match and, along with the Pond Hockey idea, it's perhaps more sustainable and easily regulated than two captains picking their own teams, probably rife with friends and brown-noses. This option may be unlikely as it divides players along national lines and could tread on the toes of the IIHF, but is at least worth considering.

There are a few other wrinkles to this game make it even more interesting. Identical twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, of the league-topping Vancouver Canucks, have never played against each other during their NHL careers and could wind up on different teams. Brothers Marc and Eric Staal may find themselves playing alongside or against one another. In a game where knowledge of one's comrades is vital to good team play, it would be great to see Crosby not selecting m/any of his Pens/Team Canada alumni so as to increase the levels of uncertainty and make the event even more of a spectacle: let the public see how he would go against Marc-Andre Fleury. It's crucial the teams are really shaken up and the NHL should encourage the star-cross'd captains just to have fun and pick guys they'd like to play with, rather than know intimately. As usual there are questionable selections and "milk cartons" - players missing from the game for unknown reasons - which adds another level of intrigue to what is already shaping as one of the most interesting hockey games of the year.