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.

Jul 072010

It has been quite some time since I last wrote about Arsenal, and without wishing to sound ungrateful to the club it has been a welcome break. Summers are always trying – there is inevitably a dull transfer saga that lasts for three or four months – and after the flat end to last season I needed to recharge to get my enthusiasm back.

The first part of that particular plan was to occupy myself watching a thrilling World Cup, but unfortunately it has been a tepid affair, devoid of star talent, stunning goals (barring tonight’s semi) and miraculous against-all-odds comebacks. Defences have won out, and even the eyebrow-raising results (Germany walloping Argentina, for example) can be easily explained by analysing the men at the back of the beaten team. As for England, it was woeful on and off the field.

There is still time, of course – Germany and Spain clash tomorrow night in what promises to be a cracker, but already my mind is switching back into domestic football mode, to the tweaks that would make Arsenal challenge next season, and yes, to the Cesc story that refuses to go away. And whisper it quietly, but the season is fast approaching – the players returned to training today and the first friendly is only eleven days away.

So where are we? In central defence, we’re officially four down – Gallas, Campbell, Silvestre and Senderos – although the latter hasn’t really been an Arsenal player in years. With Koscielny training with the youth teamalready, it is clear that the French defender is the first replacement – the official announcement is likely once Wenger returns to the country. That leaves us with Vermaelen, Djourou, Koscielny and kids. With Djourou penned to be a first team contender last season, and Koscielny costing so much (a reported £9m), you would expect both to feature heavily, so another signing in this area is only likely as a backup option. I have a feeling that’ll be it for the back four.

Up front, we’re stacked with options – Van Persie, Bendtner and Chamakh can all lead the line (although the latter may be relied on initially thanks to continued Dutch involvement in the World Cup and Bendtner’s groin injury), while Arshavin, Eduardo, Vela, Walcott, Rosicky and Nasri are all options in a withdrawn or wide role. We are top heavy in attacking midfielder and strikers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two leave before September – the prime candidate is clearly, and unfortunately, Eduardo. Time will tell.

Last, but not least, we come to Cesc. The facts we know – Cesc has mooted the possibility of moving to Barcelona (how strongly, we do not know), and Barca have very publicly courted him, in an exceptionally annoying way. And had a bid strongly rejected.

We have all speculated on how Cesc feels about the very public comments made by everyone connected to Barcelona – the president, the players, the tea lady – but realistically, if he was frustrated by it being played out in public (as an Arsenal player, with Arsenal ethics, he might) he wouldn’t say so until after the World Cup. Right now his priority is Spain, and if he is irritated by his teammates talking about his future he will resist saying so until Spain are on the way home.

I will be very interested in Cesc’s first few days back in England. They will be telling.

New Barcelona president, Sandro Roselli, meanwhile, is continuing to talk nonsense:

“The signing of Cesc has become difficult, because the expectation levels have been driven up the seller. We will never pay 50 or 60 million (euros) for Cesc.”

“It’s a topic that has become so public and that’s the worst thing you can do with a transfer, because it makes the selling club raise their expectations and you end up paying over the odds.”

The laughable thing is that he talks as if it is not Barcelona’s fault the transfer has become public, despite their own players mouthing off on a daily basis. It is remarkable arrogance to suggest that just because they want Cesc, they can get him without paying the asking price.

Make no mistake, the standoff will continue – Barcelona are banking on Cesc getting frustrated and handing in a transfer request. If he is to do that, he’d do it soon after coming home. I doubt it’ll happen.

So, that’s it for the first Arsenal post I’ve done in a couple of weeks. In retrospect, not a lot has changed, has it?

Jun 252010

You analyse the fixtures, pick a match you’re desperate to watch, and get into work early to ensure you’re home in time. Minutes before kick off, you grab a beer from the fridge and perch yourself on the sofa, no intention of moving for a couple of hours. On goes the television, and then comes the big moment – is it on BBC, or ITV? Flick on to BBC1 – The Weakest Link. Crap, it’s on ITV.

Cue painful commentary from Clive ‘Pointless reference to the past’ Tyldesley, analysis from Andy Townsend and Robbie Earle (at least, until he was sacked), and general annoyance from Craig Burley. Adverts that take up more of half time than the programme, endless slow motion replays, and a complete lack of intelligence all round. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even mind Adrian Chiles.

But what really takes the biscuit is ITV Live, supposedly the way to track the games while at work. It seemed such a great idea – streaming the matches online, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the ITV stream is usually around three minutes behind, although on one hand I don’t mind that so much – I can hear someone in the office exclaiming at the goal, and then flick up the images and watch it ‘live’. Or at least I would, if the online coverage hadn’t already dropped out.

You see, the stream cuts out approximately every two minutes. Sometimes it comes back thirty seconds later (and now thirty seconds further behind reality than before), and sometimes it just dies entirely. No matter, you might say, just refresh the page, and since the online coverage is a couple of minutes delayed, you’ll probably get the pictures back before the goal goes in.

Well, that’s true – you get pictures back. Unfortunately they aren’t pictures of the match – they are adverts. ITV have come up with the genius idea that instead of attaching you direct to their main coverage (and therefore getting adverts at half time with everyone else), they will force you to sit through three adverts every time you load the service. Even if a penalty shoot out is at a critical juncture. Or if you have the restart the ‘service’ every few minutes.

What this means is whenever you hear a yelp to indicate there’s been a goal, you flick to the stream, only to find it has inevitably fallen over. You desperately fumble around to kick it back into life, get the ‘loading’ screen, and sit back relieved. Three infuriating adverts follow, by which time the goal (and all the incessant replays) have been shown. Oh joy.

They have been shambolic from start to finish. Their presenting team is painful, I’ve watched more matches on mute than ever in my life, their online service is crap, and the debacle of missing England’s goal against USA would have sounded ludicrous had they not done the exact same thing in the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Everton last season.

Not that the BBC get off scot free. While their coverage certainly seems more professional, they still have the infuriating contrast of the monotone Mick McCarthy and the squeaky over-excited Mark Bright. Both come out with complete nonsense – Bright is a master of idiocy, regularly watching a slow motion replay and describing the events wholly wrongly.

McCarthy, meanwhile, was asked why Argentina were so impressive against South Korea, and replied ‘It’s because they play 4-4-2‘. There was a pause, as clarification was awaited, but none came. That was the full analysis, as if the formation was the sole reason for success. Can’t argue with it, after all Messi has been spectacular for Barcelona this season in a 4-….oh.

But with the BBC, there seems to be higher level of professionalism. With Lineker, Hansen, Hodgson, Dixon and Seedorf providing the intelligent points, their analysis is far more insightful, especially for the bigger games, when the hysterical are ditched and the experienced brought in.

The BBC have their flaws. But ITV have an astonishing knack for removing my pre-match excitement just by knowing it is them covering the game. Some feat.

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.