Dec 052011
 

I’m going to take a small break from writing about Arsenal today to vent on a subject that has infuriated me since listening to the European Championship draw on Friday evening, and that is the supreme arrogance of English pundits with regard to the national team. We all know that England are forever overhyped before major tournaments, but it is the dismissive contempt for many of the other countries (those not called Spain, Germany or Italy) that winds me up the most.

England got a relatively kind draw (at least compared to other groups), with Ukraine, Sweden and France their three opponents. But by the same token, those three countries probably feel they got a kind draw with England – after all, Germany and Italy were also in pot 2, and would be expected to go further. Despite this, Radio 5 had Paul Ince and Darren Anderton (I know) talking about the draw, and both concluded that England would be favourites for all three games, and should progress with ease.

Really?

Let’s start with France, the opening game. They’re terrible, right? Laughable in the World Cup, an imploding disaster of egos? Well, no, at least not anymore. Since Domenech’s hopeless reign ended, they’ve enjoyed something of a renaissance, qualifying top of their group, and embarking on an unbroken 18 match unbeaten streak, stretching back fifteen months, and including a comfortable win over England, something they have managed on each of the last three meetings between the countries. Even with Rooney, England would not be favourites for that one.

Next up, Sweden. England’s recent friendly win over the Swedes was their first triumph over them in 43 years. In between, the two countries had met twelve times, with Sweden winning four, and the other eight clashes ending in draws. Hardly a record that backs up the ‘overwhelming favourites’ label. The Swedes may not be as strong as they have been in previous years, but it takes remarkable arrogance not to notice that the same could be said of England. A draw, as ever between these two nations, is the likely result.

And then, finally, England face Ukraine in Donetsk. Hosts are always terrible in international tournaments, right? And as we know from club football, Ukraine is such an easy place to go and get results, isn’t it? Oh.

The fact is – all four teams in the group will be pleased with the draw, and confident of progression. But to hear pundits dismissively talk down the other three countries is exactly why so many nations are willing us to fail. Time and time again we convince ourselves that we’re amongst the contenders, but a quick look at the statistics reveals a telling tale.

Of the 16 countries competing, nine (Germany, Russia, Holland, Italy, Spain, Czech Rep, Denmark, France and Greece) have lifted the trophy. One more (Portugal) has competed in the final. You can also add Ukraine (four finals, and one triumph, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union) and Croatia (two finals when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia) to that list, which leaves just four of the sixteen countries as nations yet to appear in the final.

Those four countries are England, Ireland, Sweden and Poland.

Given that, it is remarkable that there is any optimism around the national side, particularly when you consider that the ‘golden generation’ (which was hardly golden, at all) has passed, and the only striking threat is suspended for the entire group stage. It says everything about England’s lack of forward options that he will still be taken.

But I have nothing against optimism – having unrealistic hopes is part of being a football fan. But listening to Ince and Anderton dismiss our opponents as trivialities en route to the knockout stages was cringeworthy in the extreme.

England are often criticised for being a quarter final team. To be so again could be argued an overachievement.

Jul 122010
 

An underwhelming final completed a largely disappointing World Cup last night, with Spain edging out Holland to lift the trophy for the first time. And just as in the European Championship final two years ago, it was Cesc providing the assist for the only goal, this time setting up Iniesta to crash in the winner just minutes from a penalty shoot out.

A clash between Spain and Holland was a mouth watering prospect – not only are they usually two of the most aesthetically pleasing teams (along with the current crop of Germans), but there was an added mystique lent by the extraordinary statistic that they had never met in the World Cup or European Championships before. But the Dutch decided to ruin the game by employing strongarm Stoke-esque tactics, and were lucky not to be men down much earlier than extra time – Van Bommel and de Jong getting away with two of the worst challenges of the tournament.

At half time, Alan Hansen laid into the Dutch tactics, calling them ‘a step too far’, eerily reminiscent of the same words used by both Cesc and Wenger after Ryan Shawcross had destroyed Aaron Ramsey’s leg. But on that day, Hansen lambasted Wenger, essentially telling Arsenal to grow up and legitimising the tactic due to it being the ‘only way to cope with Arsenal’s superior technique’.

Well, if that statement doesn’t sum up everything that is wrong the British attitude to football, I don’t know what does. Last night was no different to what we’ve seen for years – teams that know they cannot outpass their opposition so resort to thuggery. It is not a valid tactic in any way, it should not be praised and lauded as such, yet Hansen, Lawrenson and co do exactly that week in, week out. To then do a complete 180 and lay into the Dutch was hypocrisy at its rawest. Those following me on Twitter will have seen me spitting fire on the subject at the time.

Don’t get me wrong – the criticism Holland received was entirely justified. Sure, Spain were no angels, but they were the victims of some frankly shocking challenges, the type of which should grace no game. That Van Bommel was guilty of one came as a surprise to no-one.

But once the first day of the Premiership arrives, the viewpoint will revert. As soon as a Wigan, Stoke, Bolton or Blackburn player scythes into a technically superior opponent, he will be praised for ‘letting his opponent know he is there’ and ‘getting stuck in’. And if those are the traits we value above all, is it any surprise England crashed out so early, struggling even to control the football at times?

Imagine being Wenger today – he will be well aware of Hansen’s contrasting views of Holland and Stoke, and if I were in his shoes, I’d be raising that very point early in the season. But Wenger has more class than that, and understands that such a reaction will give the pundits the satisfaction of getting under his skin. He will instead listen patiently as they slate the lack of an end product to all the Arsenal passes, compare the number of goals Arsenal and Spain score, and shrug with an ironic smile.

Spain did not win the World Cup because of their stellar attacking, no matter what the press are telling you. They scored eight goals in seven games, looking toothless much of the time. No, they won it because they did not concede in the knockout rounds. The difference between Spain and Arsenal is not end product, it is that Spain do not give the opposition an idiotic headstart.

But don’t expect to hear those kind of sensibilities on the BBC anytime soon.

I had high hopes for the coverage of the final – having ditched some of the less useful pundits (as soon as African interest ended, so did Adebayor’s television time), the BBC could have given the tournament a great send off. But each of the panel quickly made their desire for Spain to win abundantly clear, which made for a painful listen, especially given their remit of neutrality.

By the end, I couldn’t stomach any more of Hansen celebrating the ‘victory for football’, or using Wenger’s own ‘anti-football’ phrase to describe the Dutch, so I switched off, although not before witnessing the farcical trophy presentation, where the entire Spanish squad was crammed into a tiny holding area. Ridiculous.

All in all, it has been a disappointing summer. I love the World Cup, I really do, but this one hasn’t sparked me in any way. There were few thrillers, no minnows going the distance, no stunning comebacks. Even the best goals were largely down to goalkeeping errors.

But on a positive note, the end of the tournament signals the beginning of the build up to another season. Due to players being away from their clubs, the transfer window has essentially been compressed, and the next few weeks should be very interesting. Hold on to your hats.

Jun 182010
 

After a 2-0 defeat to Mexico tonight, France have become the first big team to come within touching distance of elimination. A Uruguay-Mexico carve-up in the final group games would see both through – a draw sees Uruguay top the group with Mexico second, no matter what France do to South Africa.

It was dramatic, it was exciting and frankly, it was deserved – Mexico were excellent, France poor. Given how much we love to see the big nations brought down a peg, it should have been highly enjoyable.

But it wasn’t, thanks to the commentators and the reactive media (particularly a few sanctimonious ones on Twitter) taking the opportunity to mention that handball in that playoff match every minute of the game, as if France’s loss was more of a victory for Ireland than it was for Mexico.

I don’t pretend to know the entire Irish population. But while those I do were pretty irritated by Henry’s handball at the time, they soon got over it. They certainly put it behind them quicker than the English media, led by a few individuals calling for Henry to be banned for the tournament, France to be thrown out, and other ludicrous and overblown suggestions.

Tonight was a huge win for Mexico. A draw would have left them needing to beat a flying Uruguay, but instead they proved the talent they have in the squad and are on the brink of qualification for the knockout stages. They should have been the stars, yet inexplicably, too many chose to focus on the ‘karma’ of the situation and how delighted Ireland would be, despite a) as far as I can see, the Irish don’t care anymore and b) Henry didn’t even feature in the game.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt for Ireland at the time, and if some still harbour ill feeling towards Henry, and France in general, then maybe they will have enjoyed tonight a little more than most. But the impression I get is that the majority hold no such grudge, so this continued campaign of vitriol is not representative of their feelings in any way.

The more the written press continue this faux holier than thou attitude on behalf of a nation that do not desire or require their ‘support’, the more they irritate me. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

For the record, I have a sneaky suspicion France will still go through. Mexico will fancy their chances of beating Uruguay to top the group, therefore avoiding Argentina in the second round, and that would open the door to France, provided they can hammer a demoralised South Africa. Don’t write them off just yet.

As for the Arsenal representatives, no-one covered themselves in glory. The entire French team was unimpressive, while at the other end Vela missed a great chance before going off with a hamstring injury. In earlier matches, Cesc inexplicably remained on the bench while his teammates lost to Switzerland, and Eboue was part of an Ivory Coast defence untroubled by Portugal.

On the plus side, the entertainment level of the tournament has picked up after a slow and cagey start – Argentina demolished South Korea today, and teams are certainly playing with a freedom missing in the early days.

Betting Update

After a bad day yesterday – three out of three bets failed to come in – Argentina’s big win over South Korea and Greece’s victory over Nigeria boosted the profits once more. Part of me wishes I was staking more than a pound on each bet…

I will continue to place a bet on each match in the tournament, adding some random ones here and there, so keep checking the tracker to the right to see how it is going.

Other Arsenal news

The fixture list is out for the 2010/11 season and we start with a belter – a trip to Anfield to face a Liverpool side hoping to feel the effect of a new manager. Our next crunch game is also away – Chelsea on October 2.

November, often a bad month, will again be tricky – Everton (away), Villa (away) and Spurs (home) provide plenty of challenges, especially surrounded by Champions League fixtures. We complete the trio of away games against the Big Four before Christmas.

If we are in contention at Christmas, having played Liverpool, United, Chelsea, Everton, City and Villa away, we are in with a real shout.

But that is for another time – I have to be honest and say that I struggle to get excited about the season when it is so far away. When the players start training again, and we play our first pre-season match, everything will change.

Before then, we have the rest of the World Cup. And I love it, at least when the TV is muted.

Jun 142010
 

Van Persie crossing for a Dane to power home is a vision we’d like to see a lot more of, but we got a sneak preview in the World Cup today as Poulson headed his cross against Agger’s back and in, to give Holland a lead they never looked like giving away. The 2-0 scoreline gave the Arsenal contingent their first victory of the competition, and Van Persie looked sharp throughout before getting a rest for the final fifteen minutes.

At the other end, Bendtner was decent for Denmark, one glorious turn in midfield bamboozling two opponents, but he shanked his only real chance wide. Despite impressing, Adrian Chiles mocked him relentlessly at half time, presumably based on some preconceived bias – his showing certainly didn’t warrant that level of criticism.

Bendtner (and Denmark) were made to feel better by the game that followed between the two other teams in the group, Japan and Cameroon. The Africans looked lethargic throughout, stuck Eto’o on the right and left Alex Song on the bench, a pair of bizarre decisions that Le Guen stuck by all game. Japan were well organised, played for a draw and got a bonus when they pinched a goal. On that display, Denmark have every chance to come back and qualify.

It hasn’t been the best World Cup for Arsenal players yet, but then it hasn’t been a great World Cup for anyone up to now. Too many teams are living by the mantra that an early loss is a disaster, and the resultant negativity is producing a dearth of goals. Only Germany have sparkled, but even they were up against a hapless Australian side and aided by a referee who showed a red card to Cahill for absolutely nothing.

Tomorrow holds more promise – ignoring the early New Zealand-Slovakia game (placed at lunchtime for a reason), there is further Arsenal interest as the Ivory Coast kick off their campaign with a tasty looking game against Portugal in the afternoon. And then we get our first glimpse of Brazil in the evening, before Cesc’s long wait for a runout ends against Switzerland on Wednesday.

The World Cup can only get better, and it will.

Betting Update

After the double success of the opening day, Argentina’s narrow win and England’s draw with the USA provided a pair of winners, making day two another success despite Greece’s failure to live up to my expectations.

Day three was the first hiccup – Algeria, Serbia and Australia all comprehensively failing to achieve the results I tipped, but after correctly predicting Holland’s two goal victory, combined with Japan’s defeat of Cameroon, form was today restored. Had Italy snuck a late winner, it would have been a ridiculously successful day.

All in all, it is going well so far, with eleven £1 bets returning a healthy £24 – £13 profit. I will continue to make a tip for every match shortly before kickoff on Twitter, so you can either keep a track there or watch the panel to the right. If you fancy joining in, feel free to add your own tips to the comments, or on Twitter using the hashtag #groanswcbets – I’ll take on any good ones.

And that is that. See you tomorrow to watch Eboue make Ronaldo cry. Again.

Jun 122010
 

The World Cup is finally underway, and all the evidence of the opening day suggests that we are yet to see the team that will lift the trophy. South Africa and Mexico served up a cracking 1-1 draw to kick off the tournament, before France and Uruguay played out an utterly uninspiring stalemate. There were impressive moments (none more so that the terrific strike from the brilliantly named South African Tshabalala) but nothing that will scare the rest of the competition.

It was also a day featuring many of Arsenal’s representatives. Carlos Vela nearly scored the tournament’s first goal, only to be (correctly) denied by an attentive assistant referee, but he otherwise disappointed in a Mexico side that could find themselves struggling to qualify after failing to punish South Africa’s tentative first half.

The French trio of Sagna, Gallas and Diaby will be disappointed with their opening result, especially as Uruguay went down to ten men late in the game, but on an individual level they should be happier. Gallas was solid at the back, Sagna was more of a wing back threat than Evra (and will be grateful not to have been injured by Lodeiro’s X-rated challenge), but the real star was Abou Diaby, who was a constant threat in an advanced midfield role, and was the sole player who appeared capable of terrorising Uruguay’s somewhat suspect defence.

Diaby has always been a divisive player, but his performance tonight was reminiscent of the run of form he enjoyed early in 2010, before he tailed off again towards the end of the season. Running with the ball, he is a mesmerising sight, and could enjoy a prosperous World Cup if those surrounding him showed more intent. France looked rudderless and impotent up front, and provide so little goal threat that their stay in the competition may be shortlived.

The next time we see an Arsenal player in action will be Monday, when Van Persie, Bendtner and Song kick off their campaigns, but there are plenty of matches to get your teeth into over the weekend, so enjoy. They can’t be any worse than tonight’s snoozefest.

Betting update

A great start for the betting tips, tracked to your right – having tipped 1-1 for the opening match, I predicted a card-fest in the second game, and both bets came off. I’m not getting too smug though – it may all go horribly wrong tomorrow.

As ever, you can follow the bets as they are placed on Twitter, or just keep an eye on the tracker to the right. No doubt some red lines will be appearing soon.

And that is it for today. I will be missing much of Saturday’s football due to a wedding, but they have kindly incorporated the England game into proceedings. Good thing too – we were planning on watching it either way. See you on the other side.